Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year Traditions

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and days of auld lang syne?

The oldest known New Year’s Celebration was 4000 years ago when Babylon partied for eleven days every year at the start of spring. In 153 BC the Roman senate established January 1 as the official start of the New Year. BTW, January is named after the two-faced Roman god Janus who looks forward and back and presides over beginnings and endings, rather appropriate for New Year. The early Christian church from 567 AD through the Middle Ages condemned the celebration of New Year as pagan. Modern celebration resumed about 400 years ago.

The Babylonians also began the tradition of making New Year’s Resolutions. A common resolution 4000 years ago was to return borrowed items. The Greeks first associated a Baby with the New Year as part of the death and rebirth cycle of the god of fertility (and wine), Dionysus. In the fourteenth century the Germans added a sash to the baby with the year on it.

In many cultures the goal of the New Year’s Eve is to ensure LUCK throughout the New Year with the first day setting a pattern for those that follow. As the year starts, so may the year continue with friends, family and cheer amidst plenty of food.

In Great Britain the custom of first footing is practiced. The first visitor to the house after midnight represents the luck you will have. The dark haired man bringing a gift like money, bread, or coal will ensure the family has have plenty of these in the year to come. The first person must not be blond, red-haired, or a woman, as these are considered bad luck.

In Germany a bit of food eaten on New Year's Eve is left on their plate until after Midnight, as a way on ensuring a well stocked larder in the coming year.

Oftentimes the party food consists of symbols for luck. The Dutch believe rings are lucky (=wealth or completion) so they consume donuts. In the southern US black-eyed peas and ham (hog) are both considered lucky and consumed together. Cabbage is lucky because the leaves look like paper currency. Italians eat long spaghetti to symbolize long life. The Portuguese and Spanish eat twelve grapes as the clock strikes twelve on New Year’s Eve. The grapes ensure twelve happy months.

Bottom Line

The list here barely scratches the surface of New Year traditions. For instance, one of the most popular traditions in Ecuador is to wear yellow underwear to attract positive romantic energies for the New Year. Check out parentdish or worldbook or wikipedia for more traditions.


A New Year’s tradition with the media is making predictions for what’s ahead. I like this site of 15 Failed Predictions. For example:

"It will be years --not in my time-- before a woman will become Prime Minister."--Margaret Thatcher in 1969, became Prime Minister in 1979

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”--Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943 (of course is was thinking of the room sized computers back then)

"Reagan doesn’t have that presidential look." --United Artists Executive rejecting Ronald Reagan as the lead in 1964 film, The Best Man

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

World Maps

“A road map always tells you everything except how to refold it”- anon

What’s the “best” way to flatten a globe into a map? This question has haunted Cartographers (map makers) for centuries. The worldview most of us have grown up with is called the Mercator projection from 1569. It has conformal properties that make it perfect for sea voyages by preserving scale and angles for small regions. However there are large distortions near the poles. Greenland and Antarctica are inflated. So are Canada and Russia, making the northern hemisphere continents appear much bigger than the southern.

A different map, the Gall-Peters projection is popular with scholars but not a big seller with the public. James Gall proposed the idea in 1855 of a map which preserves the true size of continents at the expense of their shape. In 1973 Arno Peters created a new version of this projection and popularized the idea that this map corrected for northern bias and displayed the true size of Africa and South America. North America and Europe look so tiny on this map (and rightly so).

The "Dymaxion Map" was created by architect Buckminster Fuller over the years 1927-1954. This map preserves the shape AND size of the continents by cleverly cutting across the oceans. The image shown here uses hundreds of images acquired from the NOAA weather satellites to fill in the continents. Notice how small Greenland is here. (Don't confuse it with the much bigger Arctic ice sheet right next to it!)

Bottom Line

Why bring this up now? Because there is a series of new world maps that look great. See the video Clever folds in a globe give new perspectives on Earth. The "Myriahedral projection" was developed by Jack van Wijk, a computer scientist at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. His algorithm divides the globe's surface into small polygons that are unfolded into a flat map, just as a cube can be unfolded into six squares. Earlier map makers have used this technique with a few dozen polygons (like the "Dymaxion” map above.) van Wijk uses thousands of polygons and a computer to calculate thousands of cut lines based upon parameters like “preserve the continents” or “separate the continents from the ocean as far as possible”. The image shown here was weighted for “preserve the oceans”.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas Fires

"Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall."-Larry Wilde

Here is an interesting story of holiday events gone wrong at

My assistant Una had an Uncle Bob, a manly man who felt throwing the Christmas tree away was a waste of good firewood. So he tossed it in the fireplace — gave him a nice warm glow.
Unfortunately what was glowing was the roof, presumably ignited by embers.
Fortunately the fire was small and anybody with a hose could have put it out. Unfortunately the hose was frozen solid and the fire department had trouble getting the nearest hydrant to work.
Fortunately the firefighters were able to throw a ladder up against the house and put out the fire with a chemical extinguisher. They then hacked off a small hunk of charred roof with axes, peered into the crawl space, and declared the fire out.
Unfortunately, having by now found an operational hydrant, the firemen declared they needed to hose down the roof "as policy," sending a torrent of water through the hole and collapsing the living room ceiling.
Really unfortunately, the house that all this happened in belonged not to Uncle Bob but his in-laws. Bob bought them an RV and matters were pronounced square, but it was a lesson he won't soon forget, and neither should you.

Bottom Line

I recommend reading the entire StraightDope story at Why is it dangerous to burn wrapping paper? And check out this classic of how quickly a dry christmas tree can go up in flame -

Safely dispose of the tree when it begins dropping needles. Dried-out trees are highly flammable and should not be left in a house or garage, or placed against the house.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Animal Response Teams

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Dwight D. Eisenhower

Over the past many years my wife and I have joined several volunteer disaster response organizations. Our first was WEVR, Westchester Emergency Volunteer Responders. This was a county version of CERT, Citizen Emergency Response Team. We received lots of excellent training and a backpack of supplies but the program was utilized just once that I’m aware of. CERT works much better on the city or neighbor scale. Our county has switched its focus to MRC, Medical Reserve Corps, made up of volunteer doctors and other medical professionals.

Our next organization was the Red Cross Disaster Action Team. We responded to late night calls for help for families with house fires who needed a place to stay and supplies. We learned this is difficult to do with a full time job and our now on weekend call only.

While at a Red Cross volunteer event, we met the organizers of the Westchester Country Animal Response Team (WesCART). After Hurricane Katrina, FEMA realized that many families refused to evacuate their house if it meant abandoning their pets – Red Cross Shelters do not allow pets! In 2006 the Federal Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (P.E.T.S) Act was passed which requires state and local emergency preparedness plans to include the needs of individuals with pets or service animals during all phases of emergencies. To address this law most states have organized State Animal Response Team (SART) programs. WesCart is a component of the NY statewide EmpireSART.

So far we’ve been given an ID badge, taken online training courses and represented the organization at a Cat show. I’ve just completed the online course for Emergency Animal Sheltering and am overwhelmed by the complexities of a shelter. Topics include:

  • Paper work
  • Animal check-in and tracking (whose dog is this?)
  • Security (is that cat really yours?)
  • Decontamination (clean up the animals, vet care, cage cleaning, dealing with animal diseases)
  • Safe animal handling (don’t get bit!)
  • Animal separation (don’t mix un-fixed girls and boys! Don’t place dogs next to cats, cats next to birds, etc)
  • Morgue (sorry your pet died)
  • Staffing and supplies
  • More paper work
  • Food Prep
  • Animal walking and waste disposal
  • Etc.

I think managing a Red Cross Shelter for people is easier! Hopefully the residents won’t bite, won’t become misplaced, and you won’t be blamed if any babies are made.

Bottom Line

Volunteer! You’ll meet new people and learn new skills. You’ll discover that planning for any emergency is a four-step cycle:

  1. Preparation – organizing supplies, attending training classes
  2. Response – putting your skills and equipment to work during an emergency
  3. Recovery – the cleanup afterwards and adjusting to the psychological impact
  4. Mitigation – making new plans, what could be done better next time?

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Look, up in the sky, it's???

"When it is darkest, men see the stars."-Ralph Waldo Emerson

On December 9, the spiral show at right was seen floating in the sky of northern Norway for 15 minutes. Was this an alien invasion? The time vortex of Dr. Who? The return of the Christmas Star?

No, Russia admitted this was a failed missile test of a submarine-launched Bulava ballistic missile.

"It consisted initially of a green beam of light similar in colour to the aurora with a mysterious rotating spiral at one end," eye witness Nick Banbury of Harstad said, according to "This spiral then got bigger and bigger until it turned into a huge halo in the sky with the green beam extending down to Earth."

Bottom Line

Truth is often stranger than fiction. Once as a young teen I got lost returning from a campground bathroom at night and wished that I had a light. Suddenly a meteor streaked across the sky and exploded - making the night as bright as day for a second or two. Just long enough for me to spot the path I needed to get back to the family tent. I've never experienced anything like that again.


On the topic of odd but true, Cassini Sends First Full Images of Saturn's Mysterious Giant Hexagon

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Aftershock

"I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph."-Shirley Temple

I'm always amazed that radio stations can play a month of solid Christmas songs and then go cold turkey and stop on Dec 26. There are many songs like Winter Wonderland that could still be played but everything gets tossed out and back to regular programming.

For anyone wishing to enjoy the spirit of the season for an extra day, try celebrating Boxing Day on Dec 26.

Bottom Line

Now that the holiday is over it's time to put away the decorations like the Christmas Truck.

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Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

A Merry Christmas to loyal readers!

As I teenager I lived in Naples, Italy while my father was an Air Force media specialist working with NATO. What I remember most about Christmas in Italy is the nativity scenes, called 'presepio' in Naples.

The Nativity Scene was invented by Saint Francis of Assisi as he stuggled to find a way to deliver the message of the Christmas Story to the poor and uneducated. He used real animals and people and the story was a hit! So it is no surprise that all of Italy takes pride in local church and town crèches. But it is in Naples that nativity scenes reached their most elaborate display. I saw presepios with incredible detail and hundreds of figures - entire towns depicted with butchers, bakers, candlestick makers and more, with Jesus and Mary at the center.

Bottom Line

While Santa is fun, let's not forget the real reason for Christmas.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Traditions

Groucho: "That's in every contract, that's what you call a sanity clause."
Chico: "You can't a fool a me, there ain't no sanity clause"
- A Night at the Opera (the Marx brothers)

Merry Christmas Eve!
What are the Christmas traditions in your family? In our house we open the gifts on Christmas day and enjoy two holiday foods. First – Christmas Lasagna. My wife makes a great lasagna and loves spinach so we decided spinach lasagna is green, red and white – just the right colors for Christmas! Second - each year we try a different game meat – past holiday meals have included rabbit, boar, buffalo, emu, duck, quail, and venison.
In this blog I’d like to look at the American tradition of Santa Claus.

In many countries the time of giving was Saint Nicholas day (Dec 6) with a tall, skinny St. Nick dressed in the robes of a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Bishop. The Dutch named him Sinterklaas, which was Americanized to “Santa Claus” by Washington Irving. Irving lampooned the Dutch culture of New Amsterdam and in his book, History of New York (1809), St. Nick lost his bishop’s apparel and was pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green winter coat. This influenced Clement Moore in 1822 when he wrote the "Night before Christmas", originally titled “A visit from St. Nicholas”. Moore described St. Nick this way,

“He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!”

The poem was quite popular and 59 years later, on January 1, 1881, it inspired Thomas Nast to draw the jolly “elf” for Harper's Weekly magazine (shown above). It was Nast who gave Santa his North Pole home, originated the elves and workshop making toys, letter writing to Santa and he also conceived the idea of "bad" children not getting gifts! [Nast also created the image of Uncle Sam and first used the Donkey and Elephant for the American political parties.]

If you look at Nast’s Santa pictures you’ll see that his St. Nick has a mischievous air, perhaps a little dangerous. It was Norman Rockwell in the 1920s who softened the image of Santa Claus into the friendly and lovable figure we know today.

Bottom Line

Traditions can be fun for adults as well as children. What I’ve written here just scratches the surface of the tradition of “Santa Claus”. Check out Wikipedia and other sources for different Santa traditions around the world:

Papa Noel in Latin America, France and Spain,
Babbo Natale in Italy,
Father Christmas in England with Charles Dickens overtones,
Kris Kringle in America
Sinterklaas in Scandinavia with a Yule Goat

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Historical Perspective

... he slept with his fathers [ancestors], and Nadab his son reigned in his stead. Bible, 1 Kings 14:20

Yesterday I talked about how a little knowledge can change one’s perception; in particular an old and “worthless” violin becomes valuable when you learn Stradivarius made it. During the past month I’ve been doing a lot of Genealogy and have experienced similar paradigm shifts and “aha” moments.

One of the Holy Grails of genealogy is linking to a noble lineage. There is the prestige of course but also a sense of hitting the jackpot. Most noble lines are well documented so you get easy access to centuries of family history. Some noble lines even include genealogies back to Adam and Eve.

In my family tree I’ve rejected several popular and questionable links to nobility but still one or two remain. It’s been fun learning that I may to related to Robin Hood (Robert Earl of Huntington), Godiva and her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and other notables. I take all this with a grain of salt and pinch of doubt. The historical reality of connecting to Adam and Eve is just as reliable as my Viking ancestors with a genealogy linking them to the Norse God Freyr. One Viking claimed descent from a polar bear, another from the Norse God Odin.

Anyhow, back to the theme, historical perspective. Where did the British nobility come from? The oldest lines date back to the Norman Conquest of 1066. This means that the noblest of the English are Frenchmen. How ironic given the centuries of French/English rivalry. And where did the French Normans come from – Frankish invaders and Vikings. Again ironic. The barbarians that defeated the Empire of Rome would build empires of their own that would someday become the height of culture and sophistication.

My current commuting CD is Late Antiquity: Crisis and Transformation whereby the instructor makes the case that the Dark Ages were not as dark as we think but merely a long transition from pagan Rome to Christian Europe. I looked up “Dark Ages” on Wikipedia and learned that modern scholars avoid the term. Some call it Late Antiquity, others The Age of Migration. Huh? What migration? So more research and this map from Wikipedia.

In the 300s and 400s AD, hostile climate in the north encouraged the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to invade England (displacing the Celts and fighting the Romans) – a few centuries later the pattern repeated with Vikings trying to displace the Saxons in Northumbria. To the far East, the army of Attilla the Hun (about 434-453) was destroying everything in its path. The Vandals, Ostrogoths, and Visigoths fled west and bumped into Rome. Rome fell and the “barbarians” then had free reign to migrate and settle across southern Europe.

In 767 the barbarians would create the “Holy Roman Empire” under Charlemagne, King of the Franks, which included most of Europe. Charlemagne claimed that he was the renewer of the Roman Empire, which had fallen into degradation under the Byzantines. From 801 AD onwards, Charlemagne used the title, "Charles, most serene Augustus crowned by God, the great, peaceful emperor ruling the Roman empire".

Bottom Line

To say I’m American describes my culture but not my family history given that America is merely two centuries old. Am I British (1700s-1066) or French Norman/Frank (1066-600) or Norse barbarian (600-?) or Roman (400 AD-100 BC) or …? It’s all a matter of perspective. Everything changes given enough time.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009


“Love is not blind; it simply enables one to see things others fail to see.”

I have long believed that Happiness is something internal, not external. A poor person with a loving family can be very happy while a rich person in a greedy family can be miserable. We make the decision regarding “do we have enough” or “is it good enough”. It’s a matter of perception.

For example, when traffic backs up during my commute I could decide to get frustrated and angry. Instead I enjoy the extra time this gives me with the lectures on CD I listen to.

Another example comes from Gary Smalley’s seminar, “Love is a Decision”. When I was googling Dr. Smalley a few days ago for an earlier blog, I was surprised to see how many sites cited this story. Clearly it made an impression on a lot of people.

Dr. Mark Smith tells it this way…

Dr. Gary Smalley […] was addressing a crowd on the theme of love and marriage, and he began his talk by walking over to a table and picking up an old, beaten up violin. The instrument’s bridge was broken and dangling by its strings. Holding up the violin for all to see, he asked the audience what he thought the instrument was worth. Everyone laughed, and most thought no more than ten or twenty bucks.

Then Smalley looked inside the body of the violin and read an inscription inside: “1723 Antonin Stradivarius.” There was an audible gasp, as the crowd recognized just how valuable it was. ($100,000 at the time).

Smalley passed it around to the people in the front row and they handled it very gently, with great respect. The amazing thing is that moments before, people thought it was just a piece of junk. Nothing changed – it was the same violin, the same wood, and the same broken strings. But people chose to honor it as the rare treasure it was. [One of 600 in the world.]

Enter “gary smalley Stradivarius” into Google for more references to this story.

Bottom Line

Choose to look the positive side of things. See the value in others and in the world around you.

Choose to see your spouse as a "Stradivarius" and sigh "awwwe" every now and then in their presence.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Divorce and Social Security

“I'm an excellent housekeeper. Every time I get a divorce, I keep the house.”-Zsa Zsa Gabor

The Wall Street Journal has a detailed article regarding Social Security Benefits for divorced spouses.

Here are the general requirements for collecting retirement benefits based on an ex-spouse's earnings: Your marriage had to have lasted at least 10 years; you can't be remarried; you have to be at least 62; and your ex-spouse has to be entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits. If you haven't yet reached your full retirement age, you would receive a percentage of the benefit you would be entitled to get at that date.

[…] If your ex-spouse receives a benefit based on your earnings, your own Social Security benefit wouldn't be affected whatsoever. [If the ex-spouse remarries, both you and the new spouse can collect full amounts against the ex-spouse's earnings.]

[... There is a difference between] collecting spousal (or ex-spousal) benefits and survivor benefits. If your ex-spouse dies, you can receive survivor benefits starting at age 60 (or age 50 if you are disabled) if your marriage lasted at least 10 years and you aren't entitled to a higher benefit based on your work record. You may be eligible if you still have a child at home as well.

Bottom Line

It’s worth reading the entire article to see the many special cases that may arise like remarrying after age 60. For the official policy see Social Security publication No. 05-10127, "What Every Woman Should Know". Another good resource about eligibility requirements for a spouse's benefit is:

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Time Off

"And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made." - Genesis 2:2, KJV

Just a reminder to any new readers. I too like to take a rest on weekends. This blog strives to have new content daily Monday to Friday.

Occasionally I'll publish on weekends when there's just too many great ideas and new stories to fit within M-F.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

New Rice Price Spike

“Without rice, even the cleverest housewife cannot cook” - Chinese Proverb

In March to May 2008, there was a “super-spike” in the global price of rice. Droughts in major producing countries like Australia created a shortfall of rice that resulted in panic buying and stockpiling. The price of rice returned to normal once everyone realized that there was still enough rice to meet global demand, i.e. no storage.

Fast forward to this year and the return of the spike. The weather this year was terrible for rice. India had its driest monsoon season in four decades and has halted all rice exports except for high quality basmati. India will eat all the rice it produces. A series of typhoons destroyed crops in the Philippines so that country is going on a buying spree. Other rice countries experienced droughts because of El Niño. Global rice stockpiles are at their lowest since 1976. “It feels a little like early 2008,” said Frederic Neumann, an economist at HSBC in Hong Kong. “Prices can quickly escalate if jittery consumers and public officials see supply risks looming, even if these are more perceived than real.”

Rice traders are divided on what to do. The world’s largest rice buyer, the Philippines, is buying now for 2010 but others are waiting for the spike of 2009 to fall like it did last year. However 2009-2010 might be worse than last year. According to the US Department of Agriculture, global rice output will fall to 432 metric tons in 2009-10 while demand is estimated at 437 metric tons. A small gap but a true shortage.

Bottom Line

If you can buy rice cheaply for food storage, do so. Otherwise wait until 2010-2011 for this new “spike” to hopefully fall.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Gender Differences

“Why can’t a woman be more like a man? ...
Why do they do everything their mothers do?
Why don't they grow up, well, like their father instead?”
– lyrics from My Fair Lady

On Dec 3, an article about shopping malls reminded me of a marriage counseling video that I saw fifteen years ago. The article is entitled “Male and Female Shopping Strategies Show Evolution at Work in the Mall” and addresses questions such as:

- Why can’t men distinguish a sage sock from a beige sock?
- Why can’t women tell if the shoe department is due north or west from the escalator?

The answers the authors say, can be traced back to ancient times when women gathered plant food and the men hunted for meat. The women needed a keen eye for detail while looking for the right plants; they had to be choosy and selective and patient while gathering. They had to pay attention to the growing season and know just the right time to pick a plant. The men on the other hand had to locate a herd animal, kill it, and get it back before it spoiled. They specialized in quick action and a good sense of direction.

“In modern terms, women are much more likely than men to know when a specific type of item will go on sale. Women also spend much more time choosing the perfect fabric, color and texture. Men, on the other hand, often have a specific item in mind and want to get in, get it and get out.”

This reminded me of the video “Love is a Decision” by marriage counselor, Dr. Gary Smalley. My wife and I enjoyed many of the talks in this series not long after we were married. Unfortunately, today I cannot find the video/DVD for sale on Smalley’s web site. Instead I found a paperback book written about the series and new lectures and seminars that I’ve not seen.

In the video, Dr. Smalley talked about the psychological differences between men and women. A successful couple accepts these differences and adjusts as opposed to Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady who sings, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” I recall two of Smalley’s examples:

1. (On average) Women are nest builders and hate the thought of a dirty home. Before going on vacation (or even leaving the house) many women will wash dishes, vacuum, and do other house chores to avoid returning home to a dirty nest. Now that I’m aware of this I bite my tongue when my wife starts washing dishes when we’re late for a meeting like cub scouts.

2. (On average) Men are hunters and find mall browsing boring. The solution is to give the husband a goal, “Find me a red dress in my size for church/party/work”. Now the husband is motivated and will search the racks and stores for the prize sought. You may have to add some additional qualifiers so he doesn’t buy the first red dress found. I know for my wife that the dress must be washable (no rayon or silk), have short sleeves, modest neckline, no gathering bands, little to no sewn on jewelry/sequins, etc.

Bottom Line
Please keep in mind that the characteristics above are for men and women in general and that there are many who are exceptions. Regardless, a goal in any partnership should be to recognize and respect differences instead of fighting over them. To see the differences as strengths, not weaknesses.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mandelbrot Set

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”- Hamlet

I’ve been a math geek most of my life; for example reading math books for fun in High School. During my college years, the Mandelbrot set was hot (see picture at right). Beautiful images of the set combined Art, Math, and Computer Science. Michigan State held talks on fractals and opened a gallery of images in the Computer department. I attended a Fractal Conference in Providence, Rhode Island. I tweaked computer programs trying to get images to display faster on my Macintosh.

What are fractals? Take a look at the Dow Jones average graph in a newspaper or online. It is a jagged line regardless of the time scacle. The average over decades – jagged; over years – jagged; over days - jagged; over hours – jagged. Time does not smooth it out and it is impossible to guess the time scale by looking at the graphed line. We call this behavior – fractal. Another example is coast lines. The edge of any continent has inlets and protrusions. If you zoom in on the coast you’ll find the pattern repeats with large bays, small bays, local beaches, etc.

Fractals are quite common in nature. In the early days of computer animation, it was easy to create a nature scene – to make a mountain start with a pyramid. Add medium size pyramids at random points, then add smaller pyramids on top of those and so on. After serveral iterations of this the result is quite realistic looking. Trees and rivers and clouds are also fractal. People are NOT fractal – it is very difficult to model humans and get the skin tones right. The movie Toy Story worked so well because the toys did not have to look “alive”.

So what is the Mandelbrot set and why is it such a big deal? After Newton published his laws on Gravity, scientists viewed the Universe as a giant mechanism that could be completely predicted given enough accurate measurements. This view was challenged in the early 20th century. Heisenberg’s Uncertainly Principle said that some measurements are mutually incompatible like speed and position. You can know one accurately but not both. Many scientists refused to accept this and continued to work on creating perfect mathematical models to predict the stock market and weather conditions.

As computers increased in power, researchers noticed two things:

1. There is a lot of positive feedback in the models. A small breeze can start a major storm with the right conditions. This became known as the Butterfly effect. A butterfly flaps its wings and changes the weather across the world.

2. Because of positive feedback, a small measuring error can grow into serious wrong results over time. This is called Sensitivity to Initial Conditions.

Benoît Mandelbrot decided to step away from the complex stock market models he was studying and examine a simple postive feedback loop. His formula was F(n+1) = F(n) ^2 + c which means the new function value F(n+1) is equal to the previous value F(n) squared plus a fixed constant. The first value F(0) is always zero.

Let’s look at some different values for c:
C=0. F(1) = 0^2 + 0 = 0 = F(0) so the values stay at zero forever.
C=1. F(1) = 0^2 + 1 = 1, F(2) = 1^2 + 1 = 2, F(3) = 2^2 + 1 = 5. This sequence grows to infinity.
C= -1. F(1) = 0^2 + -1 = -1, F(2) = (-1)^2 + -1 = 0 = F(0). This series jumps forever between 0 and -1.

Not very exciting so far. What Mandelbrot did next is move the function to two dimensions by using imaginary numbers on the x and y axis of a graph. Each point on the graph represents a value of c = x + i*y. Imaginary numbers are multplied like this (a +bi)^2 = (a^2 – b^2 +2abi). A point c is “in” the Mandelbrot set if the F(n) series does not go to infinity like (1+0i) does. When creating an image of the set on a computer, we can not wait for F(n) to grow to infinity so we pick a cut off point and say if F(n) gets this big then it will go all the way so we can stop computing. A good cutoff point is [a+bi] = sqrt(a^2+b^2) > 1. That means the size of the imaginary number result is greater than one. We also pick a cutoff point for n. Let’s say if F(n) is smaller than one after n=1000 calculations then we assume the number series will stay small forever and c is in our set.

Now we do something clever and artistic. We apply different colors to how fast the sequence built on c grows bigger than one. For example:

F(n) <= 1 after n=1000, color the point c black and consider it in the set F(n) >1 before n=100, color it dark blue
F(n) >1 before n=500, color it lighter blue
F(n) >1 before n=1000, color it white

Wow! A lot of background to describe the picture at the top. Now I’ll explain why this matters. Take a close look at the white fringe on the set. It represents numbers that almost made it in but grew too big just before our cutoff at n=1000. When the border fringe is magnified a thousand times or a billion times, it stays just as lacy or becomes an even more complicated fringe. The border of this set is a fractal that never becomes smooth. The smallest imaginable difference (in say the trillionth decimal place) can change if the series built on C will go to infinity or stay small.

In practicable terms, this means we can never hope for 100% accuracy in our weather and stock models. There will always be “fringe” events where errors smaller than our ability to measure will have huge impact on the results.

Bottom Line

Why bring this up now? One key idea that made the Mandelbrot set possible was placing the constant c in two dimensions as x + yi. For 20 years, scientists have been trying to find a way to extend the set to three dimensions but nothing worked – until this year. Here is a picture of a 3D fractal set. Details can be found at The Mandelbulb: first 'true' 3D image of famous fractal.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Psychology of Fraud

“The natural assumption was that old people and kids get taken advantage of by scam artists. But it's really the people who like to shop online a great deal. They should proceed with more caution.”-Rob Janes sites an article by “Schneier on Security” which summarizes a paper about the Psychology of Being Scammed by the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory.

The distraction principle. While you are distracted by what retains your interest, hustlers can do anything to you and you won't notice.

- Scammers often work in pairs. One may "accidentally" bump you while another picks your pocket or spill something on you and apologizing while your pocket is picked.

The social compliance principle. Society trains people not to question authority. Hustlers exploit this "suspension of suspiciousness" to make you do what they want.

- One trait of a good con artist is confidence; they radiate trustfulness. I had a brother-in-law who was a pro at this and gained the sympathy of people and organizations. Do not trust anyone who knocks on your door without an ID badge. If in doubt call the police or company they represent to verify the employee.

The herd principle. Even suspicious marks will let their guard down when everyone next to them appears to share the same risks. Safety in numbers? Not if they're all conspiring against you.

- This is a common trick with shell game operators and crooked poker games. You see someone else winning and they share their secret – watch for the tick in his eye when he bluffs. But it’s all a lie and the winner is part of the scam too.
- This is also a common problem on chat rooms and online comments. The person spinning a tale of good or bad may be working for the product’s company or against it. Many Amazon reviews are tainted this way.

The dishonesty principle. Anything illegal you do will be used against you by the fraudster, making it harder for you to seek help once you realize you've been had.

- A favorite trick of the KGB. They catch a US diplomat or serviceman in an affair (the woman is working for the KGB too) or drugs or discover his “Gay” secret, etc and then use this information as blackmail. Or you accept a small “innocent” bribe but they then leverage it to bigger things under the threat of exposure.

The deception principle. Things and people are not what they seem. Hustlers know how to manipulate you to make you believe that they are.

- Watch the classic movie “The Sting” for how elaborate this can get with fake businesses and fake police. Most of the Nigerian email scams rely on making you think there is a large sum of money that you can help someone acquire for a modest reward. People of all ages have been fooled and some continue to insist that the scammer really is an innocent person in need even after they've been defrauded.

The need and greed principle. Your needs and desires make you vulnerable. Once hustlers know what you really want, they can easily manipulate you.

- Drug dealers and websites exploit this – especially pornography. They offer multiple teasers and then require money (or more money) to go beyond to the next level. There are online games which are free to play but the “best” armor, potions, faster experience gaining, fastest movement or teleporting are only available for modest fees.

Bottom Line
The paper also discusses a dozen con scenarios, which are both informative (and entertaining).

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Salty Foods

“Let yourself be open and life will be easier. A spoon of salt in a glass of water makes the water undrinkable. A spoon of salt in a lake is almost unnoticed.”- Buddha

Salt is essential for life but like most things, salt in excess is unhealthy. It can raise blood pressure, which is bad for the heart, and causes you to retain fluids, edema, which is also bad for the heart. has published a list of 10 Sinister Sources of Salt:

10. Parmesan Cheese – the wheel of cheese is aged in a brine bath to absorb salt for 20–25 days. Then aged in air for a year or more.

9. Smoked Salmon – three thin slices contain 1000 mg sodium (half the daily recommended limit)

8. Ramen Noodles – I love Thai and Oriental foods but they frequently have high sodium content. If you eat an entire package of Ramen noodle soup, you’ve just consumed your daily limit of salt in one dish. Consider making the noodles without the seasoning packet.

7. Pork Bacon – 4 slices is 1000 mg sodium. And how about Virginia ham? One of the saltiest foods I’ve even eaten.

6. Salami – think about it, nearly every deli-meat is smoked and/or salted to preserve the meat without refrigeration. Five thin slices of salami is about 1000 mg sodium.

5. Turkey Bacon –bacon is salty regardless of what animal it comes from. Just three slices of turkey bacon contain over 1000 mg sodium.

4. Capers – these little guys are stored in salt brine. Four tablespoons equals about 1000 mg sodium.

3. Canned Anchovies – not to my liking but 7 of these little fish will put you over 1000 mg sodium.

2. Teriyaki Sauce – One and a half tablespoons = 1000 mg sodium

1. Soy Sauce – One tablespoon is nearly 1000 mg sodium

Bottom Line

Watch out for Asian seasoning and sauces in restaurants. I also find that most of the soups I order for lunch – be it Chinese Wonton or Deli Chicken Noodle – have way too much salt in them.

For alternatives to the salty foods and seasonings above, check out the full article at 10 Sinister Sources of Salt.

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Monday, December 14, 2009


"Bank failures are caused by depositors who don't deposit enough money to cover losses due to mismanagement"- VP Dan Quayle

How secure is your bank? So far in 2009 the FDIC has rescued 188 failed banks such as Bank of Honolulu, First Bank of Idaho, and California National Bank. If your bank fails, what happens to you?

If your bank is NOT insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) then you are out of luck. You will most likely lose all money and get nothing.

What is the FDIC? has the answer. The FDIC is an organization run by the government of the United States to sell insurance policies to banks. Most banks in the US buy the insurance and pay a fee to the FDIC for coverage. FDIC insurance covers checking accounts, savings accounts, certificates of deposit, most money market accounts, and cashier’s checks. It does not cover stocks, bonds, mutual funds, US treasuries, or safe deposit box contents.

Under current law FDIC insures investors up to $250,000 per depositor per account type. I always thought the limit was per bank but a report by the Congressional Budge Office (CBO) says that separate coverage applies to an individual account, a joint account and an IRA account at the same bank.

What Happens When an FDIC Insured Bank Fails?

The FDIC takes over that bank and all of the accounts held there. Under the “purchase and assumption” method, the FDIC sells the failed bank to another bank who takes over the accounts and some (or all) of the loans. This is often done over a weekend. You'll wake up Monday morning and discover your money is with a new bank. This happened when Wachovia failed and was taken over by Wells Fargo.

When there is no buyer, the FDIC liquidates everything in the bank and then issues payouts for depositors up to the $250,000 limit. The process is straightforward, usually involving minimal hassle from the customer, and frequently paid within a week.

Bottom Line

Before 2008 the FDIC limit was $100,000 per depositor. Congress raised this to $250,000 as a temporary measure during the banking and Wall Street crisis. It will return to $100,000 on Jan. 1, 2014 unless Congress extends the law.

When the FDIC was created in response to the Great Depression, The Banking Act of 1933 set the recovery cap at $2500 (about $40K today if adjusted for inflation). The limit was quickly rasied to $5000 in 1934 (=$80K today) and to $10,000 in 1950 (=$85K today). In 1966 the FDIC limit became $15,000 (=$95K today), and rose again three years later to $20,000 (=$112K today). It became $40,000 in 1974 (=$166K today) and $100,000 in 1980 (=$250K today).

I find it interesting that each time the limit is adjusted "for inflation" the amount of coverage (in today's dollars) keeps going up. From $40K equivalent in 1933 to $250K today. If you think about, who is the government protecting here - the average citizen or wealthy backers? How many Americans have more than $40K saved in a bank? According to a study by the Congression Budget Office (CBO), only 1 percent of all accounts exceed $100K. Even families at the highest income level in 1998 had an average checking account balance of only $19,000. I love this quote from the CBO report, "The one certain result of raising deposit insurance coverage is increasing the costs of insurance [for banks and the government]."


The CBO study on FDIC limit and inflation,
More facts on the FDIC at
Inflation Calculator

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Sunday, December 13, 2009


This photo is perfect for a Sunday.

Scanned from an unknown source, this mural at the elevator of a plastic surgeon's office casts the would be rider in the role of Adam on the Sistine Chapel.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

It Pays to Be True to Your School

"The university's characteristic state may be summarized by the words of the lady who said, "I have enough money to last me the rest of my life, unless I buy something."-Hanna Holborn Gray has an excellent article entitled, It Pays to Be True to Your School: 5 Ways Your Alma Mater Can Save You Money

  1. Insurance Discounts
    Many universities have worked out deals with auto, home, life, medical and even pet insurance companies to help their alumni get a discount. When I was unemployed I looked into this. Unfortunately the university insurer did not cover NY state. But if you live near your school and need insurance, check it out.

  2. Gym Membership
    If you live near your school you may be able to use the university pool and gym. Some universities have worked out deals with popular national fitness centers for discounted rates.

  3. Career Counseling
    Most schools will have a job board and job fairs. Some will also offer counseling to alumni. Earlier this year a student sued her college for being unable to find a job. She claimed the college had not prepared her adequately to be employed.

  4. Travel Discounts
    In addition to alumni trip packages, some schools have partnered with travel agencies, airlines, and/or cruise lines to get discounts for their alum.

  5. Local and National Coupons
    Most universities have worked out deals for discounts at locally run businesses from restaurants to dry cleaners to pet stores and more. Many schools also have deals with national companies; Costco is popular.

Bottom Line

You paid a lot for college - get some of that money back.

Also, don't lose touch with college friends and college connections. Use facebook, linkedin and other social networks to find lost friends.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Winterize Your Car 2

“Did you ever notice when you blow in a dog's face he gets mad at you? But when you take him in a car he sticks his head out the window”- Steve Bluestone

In the first year of this blog I wrote extensively about preparedness. I recommend starting at the very beginning with the Rule of Threes if you're looking for the fundamentals of preparedness.

I've also written on many specific topics and recommend the topical key words on the right side of the blog to find posts on go-kits, car safety, winter driving and so on.

Today I'll encourage you check out two of my earlier posts that are important as Winter approaches.

Winterize Your Car

Stocking your car for Winter

Bottom Line

My brother-in-law in Winnipeg was amazed that he did not yet have snow on the ground for Thanksgiving. Winter comes early for some people.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Universe is Big!

“Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the drug store, but that's just peanuts to space.”-Douglas Adams

In the book Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe by Douglas Adams, the ultimate punishment is the Total Perspective Vortex. A person is shown a view of the entire universe and themself in relation to it. Only one person survives the experience.

If you'd like to experience this on a lesser scale, see the recent deep field Hubble Telescope picture at Astronomy Picture of the Day and understand the scale...

1. Galaxies are big with 100 billion stars on average. (see photo above) At the speed of light our closest star is 4 light years away. Our Milky Way is 100,000 light-years from edge to edge. The light we are now seeing from the center of our galaxy (50,000 LY) was emitted when homo sapiens left Africa to spread across the world.

2. The deep space image at shows hundreds, if not thousands, of galaxies. The oldest pictured are over 12 billion years old. Three times older than our Solar System.

3. Now for the kicker. The new picture by Hubble covers an amount of sky equal to a grain of sand held at arm's length. Imagine the photo repeated for every dot in the sky!

Bottom Line

It's not easy for the mind to grasp big numbers and large scales. I've read that there are an estimated 100 billion galaxies. So if the photo and grain of sand give you an idea of the vast number of galaxies, remember that I said above that our Milky Way has 100 billion stars. The same number as the number of galaxies. And many of those stars have planets. So what are the odds that in all the vastness of our galaxy, we are unique in having life?

Some scientists call this the Fermi Paradox - why haven't we found other life yet? Statistically it should exist in abundance.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Old Tunes

“Music is what feelings sound like.”

Music has been around for thousands of years and some of the tunes we sing are much older than we realize.

While listening to a lecture series on Beethoven, the instructor played the opening of Wellington's Victory, an orchestral work to commemorate the Duke of Wellington's victory over Joseph Bonaparte's forces at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. And just like the famous 1812 Overture, the work features live cannon blasts.

The Battle Symphony begins with theme songs for each army as they approach for battle. To my surprise the theme for the French Army was a song we sing in Cub Scouts, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.” Back then the song was known as Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre (Marlborough Has Left for the War), one of the most popular folk songs in the French language. This tune would inspire two songs in English, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” and “For He’s a Jolly Old Fellow”. Here’s highlights of the translated lyrics about a battle in 1709:

Marlborough the Prince of Commanders
Is gone to war in Flanders,
His fame is like Alexander's,
But when will he ever come home?
Mironton, mironton, mirontaine.

Milady in her watch-tower
Spends many a pensive hour,
Not knowing why or how her
Dear lord from England stays.
Mironton, etc

While sitting quite forlorn in
That tower, she spies returning
A page clad in deep mourning,
With fainting steps and slow.
He's dead! He's dead as a herring!
For I beheld his bearing,
And four officers transferring
His corpse away from the field.

According to Wikipedia, in 1785 a peasant nicknamed Madame Poitrine sang this song to an infant Louis XVII of France as she nursed him. The Queen was captivated by the tune and soon everyone in Versailles was singing it. It spread to Paris and became the rage of the town with the name of the song applied to fashions, carriages and soups. The battle scene was painted on fans, fire-screens, toys, and porcelains; woven into tapestries.

Bottom Line

Many popular songs have a forgotten history.

“The Star Spangled Banner” uses the tune of a popular British drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven".

“America the Beautiful” uses the tune of “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem” from 1882.

"My Country, 'Tis of Thee" is sung to the tune “God Save the Queen/King”. This tune has been used in the national anthems of Norway, Sweden, and Liechtenstein and is the official fanfare for British Royalty.

The Christmas song, “What Child Is This?” (1865), was reset to the tune of Greensleeves from 1580.

What is The Oldest Song in the World? From the lost city of Ugarit in Syria, linguists have discovered a song and tune 3200 years old on old clay tablets. (Picture at top)

The oldest recording of songs? Arias by tenor Enrico Caruso recorded in 1902 and available on iTunes 107 years later.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Cheese Making

“Age is something that doesn't matter, unless you are a cheese” - Billie Burke

Several years ago, my wife and I attended a cheese making class and had a great time. For a simple cheese like mozzarella, the technique is quite simple and the cheese can be eaten immediately. Firmer cheeses like cheddar require a long drying time and more experience. Cheese making is not a difficult hobby and can become a business. When traveling we love to visit independent cheese makers and sample their wares. They are everywhere!

For equipment, supplies, techniques and recipes, check out BEGINNING CHEESE MAKING © by Professor Fankhauser, Ph.D., at the University of Cincinnati Clermont College. The professor recommends starting with his yogurt recipe and working your way up to soft cheese (Neufchatel) and mozzarella.

Bottom Line

Freshly made cheese is so amazingly tasty. Try some fresh ricotta on bread as a spread. It is literally milk turned solid with a clean and simple taste different than the more processed cheeses that take on a flavor of their own from the maturing molds and bacterias. You'll also be surprised at how wonderful fresh yogurt can be - just like Greek yogurt but cheaper.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Listening to Great Music

“Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man” - E. M. Forster

My latest commuting CD lecture series has been, How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, by Robert Greenberg and the Teaching Company. In the span of 48 CDs the instructor explains Western Music from Ancient Greece to the 1920’s. It was fun listening to Gregorian Chants and Madrigals – these forms are rarely performed today. Then Baroque (Bach), Classical (Mozart), Romantics (Beethoven), and Modern (Debussy, Mahler). While enjoyable, I wish there was more music and less of the instructor’s opinions – his comments, while amusing, were all too frequent. I also suspect that the Teaching Company had to pay a licensing fee for each musical piece used. So the same song snippets (like the opening of Beethoven’s 5th) were used over and over again to reduce the total number of licenses paid.

One of the instructor’s best lessons was comparing symphony music to baseball. There’s a lot we take for granted when we watch baseball. There will be 9 innings (usually), each inning has both teams at bat, they stay at bat until three outs, and an out can be 3 strikes, tagged at base or a caught ball.

Likewise true Classical music (from the Classic era, 1750 to 1825) has a structure, as do the pieces from the older Baroque period. The Romantic composers like Beethoven expressed their individuality by modifying and playing games with the “official” structure. Modern composers go even further and compose anything they want with little regard to "rules".

For example, the Symphony began as the Overture to Italian Operas. The Germans/Austrians standardized it in the 18th and 19th centuries as a performance in four parts:

1. An opening fast piece (Allegro), usually in sonata form.
2. A slow movement (Andante or Largo)
3. A dance movement like a slow 3-beat Minuet and trio; later changed to a fast 3-beat (Scherzo) by Beethoven
4. A faster finale in sonata–rondo form

A sonata form is like a mini-opera: there is an optional introduction (Overture), then two themes are introduced in the Exposition (Act 1), the themes battle and change in the Development section (Act 2), and there is a final resolution of the themes in the Recapitulation (Act 3). There is also typically a finale called the Coda.

Likewise there are rules for Minuet and trio, Rondo and everything else.

Bottom Line

If you find Classical Music confusing, then I highly recommend this lecture series. It will teach you what to listen for and what to expect in symphony music. The cost is $95 to download the audio or $180 for DVDs you can watch on TV. My cost was zero as I borrowed these from our local library system.

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Straight Lines

“History moves in contradictory waves, not in straight lines”

As a contrast to the hyper-lacy borders of yesterday’s Mandelbrot set, today I’d like to look at a question posted on called How did the states establish long straight borders before GPS? Having western US roots I’m used to seeing long straight roads and neat lines for county and state borders. But as the article points out: 1. Straight lines are not always best and 2. The lines are not always as straight as they should be.

Point 1. A straight line is an easy border to write into law and land deeds; for example the 42nd parallel. But consider what happens when a winding river repeatedly crosses the straight border. The land “enclosed” by a river loop might be mostly NY but with one foot of PA on the inside edge. Imagine the complications in land registration and taxation. But defining a river as a border has drawbacks also; i.e. rivers move over time. Take a close look at the border of North Dakota and Minnesota - the Red River is incredibly loopy - on my GPS it's a fuzzy smudge - not a line.

Point 2. There are many reasons that straight borders are sometimes crooked.

A. Surveyors connect points with straight lines but the globe is curved. Find a globe and place a string on two points along the 45th parallel. Pull the string taunt. Notice how the string does NOT follow the 45th parallel.

B. Some surveyors forgot to correct for magnetic north because a compass does not point exactly true North. When surveyors defining the Virginia-North Carolina-Kentucky-Tennessee border working from the West and the East finally met, there was a 12 mile N/S error in their lines. Look at a map of Kentucky and look for the jag on the southern border about 70 miles from the western edge.

C. Sometimes the correct starting point of the border is poorly defined. The Missouri-Iowa border is defined by "the rapids of the River Des Moines." The Supreme Court later had to decide: which rapids?

D. Occasionally the surveying team is drunk. When drawing a 22-mile border between Quebec and Vermont, a fifth of the expenses went for booze. An international commission later acknowledged, that the border was "very far from a straight line."

Bottom Line

It’s funny how difficult some simple ideas can be. A straight line has a very simple definition – the shortest distance between two points. But straight lines on a globe and in gravity curved outer space are arcs. Another simple idea is “North” but finding true North – not so easy.
Keep this in mind next time you get angry when someone fails at a “simple” task. Perhaps the reality of executing the task is not as simple as you thought.

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Back from RSNA

“Don't misinform your Doctor nor your Lawyer”- Benjamin Franklin

I’m back from the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) Conference in Chicago. There were over 600 vendors with thousands of products on three giant sized convention floors. There were also over 2000 educational exhibits on a fourth floor. Plus lecture rooms, classrooms, and online-computer training.

Though targeted to Radiologists there was also in attendance technicians and physicians from other disciplines. For me, a computer programmer, the most interesting parts of the show were the medical machines and the amazing medical images. I quickly had to master an alphabet soup of machine types (or Modalities as they are called in the industry).

The oldest medical imaging, from 1895, is the is X-ray film machine. It is still used today. For example my dentist uses X-ray film although I’ve noticed over the years that the film has become much more sensitive allowing for shorter doses of x-ray radiation to look for cavities.

Computed Radiography (CR) is a X-ray machine with a removable sensor plate and was invented by Fuji in the 1960s. The imaging plate is put into the film slot, X-ray taken, then the plate removed, scanned, digitized, wiped clean and reused. The plate scanners resemble big paper shredders. FujiFilm Medical Systems now has a FCR machine where the imaging plate comes with a cable and the X-ray image can be downloaded directly into a computer; no plate scan required.

Competing with CR is Digital Radiography (DR) where the imaging plate is built into the machine and images go directly to a computer for storage. CR is popular with hospitals upgrading film X-ray machines to digital at minimal cost. DR is popular if you have the money to buy a brand new machine and you have computer cables connected to the X-ray room. Since CR does not require a computer connection, the CR machine can be more easily moved to from room to room to patients or used outside the hospital at accident sites.

Mammography (MG) is an X-ray machine specialized for Breast exams. It can be film, CR or DR. FujiMed demonstrated a 3D Mammogram using two X-ray images and 3D viewing glasses.

The ultimate in X-ray technology is computed tomography (CT, previously CAT). These machines look like a giant vertical doughnut. As the body on a table moves slowly through the doughnut hole, X-ray images are recorded. The result is dozens or hundreds of 2D body slices (called Tomograms, hence Tomography). The cutting edge today is using compture software to convert CT slices into 3D colorized images.

A variation on X-ray single exposure imaging is Fluoroscopy. These machines produce real-time images on a TV monitor using continuous low-dosage X-rays. Doctors use the monitor to help guide needles and during some surgery. Flouroscopy is also great for observing a contrast agent (like a barium drink) move through the body. Sonograms (which use sound instead of radiation) can also used for continuous imaging. I saw a sonogram demo where the monitor predicts the projected path of the needle so you can see if you’ll hit the tumor or biopsy site you’re aiming for.

MR or (MRI) MRI provides greater contrast between different soft tissues than X-ray and is useful for imaging the brain, muscles, heart, and tumors. No radiation is used. Instead powerful magnets are used to align all the water molecules in a section of your body. Then radio waves are used to knock the water molecules off balance causing them to emit a pulse that is recorded. Water rich tissue will appear brighter than drier tissue. MRI was invented in 1973 and older machines have a deep and confining tunnel for the body to fit into. Newer machines provide more space inside the tunnel. With Open or Coreless MRI the machine looks like a hamburger with the magnets as the bun and the person placed in the center as the meat. I also saw pediatric mini-MRI’s used to teach children not to be afraid of the machine.

With Positron emission tomography (PET) a short-lived radioactive tracer isotope is injected (usually into the blood). A radiation scanner then detects where the tracer moves to and where it concentrates at. PET can be combined with CT machines so both images are recorded at the same time – a dynamic & fluid image via PET with the static underlying structrues via CT.

Bottom Line
Radiology has greatly changed in the past 40 years. Science has digitized the old workhorse, X-rays, and added some new techniques:

MRI – molecular spin alignment via radio waves
PET – radioactive isotopes
Sonogram – sound
3D images – computer enhancement of CT slices
(pictured at right)

I expect we’ll see more advances in the 21st century.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Recession and Unemployment

“A man willing to work, and unable to find work, is perhaps the saddest sight that fortune's inequality exhibits under this sun.”~Thomas Carlyle

Officially the US Recession is over. A recession is defined as negative Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and since the US economy managed to show a positive return for the third quarter of 2009, voila, the recession is over. But as Paul Harvey used to say, now you'll hear "the Rest of the Story”.

1. The 3rd quarter may be an artificial blip resulting from the stimulus money and Clunkers for Cash.

2. It is entirely possible for the recession to resume. The Great Depression followed a recession and “recovery”.

3. We could be in for a “jobless” recovery. Companies return to profitability with fewer workers and no plans to rehire.

4. Even if companies do rehire, there is a lag period. You don’t hire during a sales slump. Only when the economy really picks up and people start spending again, will there be a new for companies to grow their work force.

Bottom Line

If you’re one of the 10+% Americans looking for work, is publishing Bargaineering Career Week 2009 with lots of job-hunting advice.

Here is their list of the top job search sites:

SimplyHired – great for local job listings

Yahoo! HotJobs - one of the most popular employment websites. It will tell you how many people have looked at your resume. – one of the largest sites with 5000 new jobs posted daily – claims to have over 1 million jobs listed - great for part time work and consulting

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Private Property

“We're all pilgrims on the same journey-but some pilgrims have better road maps.”- Nelson DeMille

When the stock market fell last year there were many who blamed the evils of capitalism. Somehow people keep falling into the trap of thinking that socialism is "good" for people and private property capitalism is "bad". Yet history shows repeatedly that the reverse is true. For example, The Volokh Conspiracy has a Thanksgiving article entitled How Private Property Saved the Pilgrims.

"The Pilgrims nearly starved to death because of collectivism and eventually saved themselves by adopting a system of private property. Economist Benjamin Powell tells the story here:"

In 1620 the Plymouth Plantation was founded with a system of communal property rights. Food and supplies were held in common and then distributed based on equality and need as determined by Plantation officials. People received the same rations whether or not they contributed to producing the food, and residents were forbidden from producing their own food. Governor William Bradford, in his 1647 history, Of Plymouth Plantation, wrote that this system was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. The problem was that young men, that were most able and fit for labour,did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced.

Faced with potential starvation in the spring of 1623, the colony decided to implement a new economic system. Every family was assigned a private parcel of land. They could then keep all they grew for themselves, but now they alone were responsible for feeding themselves. While not a complete private property system, the move away from communal ownership had dramatic results.

This change, Bradford wrote, had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. Giving people economic incentives changed their behavior. Once the new system of property rights was in place, the women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability.

Once the Pilgrims in the Plymouth Plantation abandoned their communal economic system and adopted one with greater individual property rights, they never again faced the starvation and food shortages of the first three years. It was only after allowing greater property rights that they could feast without worrying that famine was just around the corner.

For a more detailed account, see this 1999 article by Tom Bethell.

Bottom Line

Russia experience a similar problem under the rule of Stalin. The collective farm fields were not producing enough food to feed the country. So families were given a small plot of land for their own use and these small plots kept the citizens alive.

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