Monday, September 8, 2008

Awesome infographic on consumer spending. A little bit embarrassing how much the US spends on everything.
Looking forward to Avatar. I will be upset if it sucks.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

More and more people in academia and silicone valley are taking Provigil, a prescription drug that allows for extended wakefulness without side effects associated with other stimulants. Is this ok?

It seems to me like this kind of use (or abuse depending on how you see it) is inevitable as long as people prioritize work the way they do. Unfortunately, even if only a few truly want to take the drug, anyone who wants to keep up with them will have to take the drug to not be at a disadvantage.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Animals and death. How different are we? From the NYT

I found the discussion of elephants at the end to be particularly touching.
Take day dreaming more seriously. It's good for you! An article from the Boston Globe
An interesting article on how Starbucks could (and does) use random acts of kindness to make the world a better place AND improve business at the same time!

I love hearing about cases where business and being decent go together.

Severe Mercury Poisoning from Local Industry Kills Hundreds in 1950s Japan

Talk about a tragedy! Imagine this. You're growing up in 1950s Japan. The war which completely obliterated your country is finally fading into distant memory as the economy recovers and all of a sudden, you kid sister is suddenly unable to walk properly or button her buttons, or even speak. She sometimes even suffers from convulsions. Soon, all of the kids in the neighborhood are suffering from similar diseases. Then birds start falling out of the sky and fish start floating the the surface. To top it all off, your sister, and a bunch of your neighbors slip into comas and promptly die. That, in a nutshell, is what happened in Minamata, Japan in the 1950s. I would have been scared out of my wits. Lucky for the world, it wasn't some new and deadly plague. Unlucky for the poor people of Minamata, it seems that the local acetaldehyde factory was dumping tons and tons of mercury into the nearby ocean. This event became one of the great man-made environmental disasters of the 20th century (and gave severe mercury poisoning a more exotic name - Minamata Disease)

Areas Affected by Minamata Disease

The terrible symptoms of Minamata Disease include numbness, muscle weakness, imparement of vision, hearing and speech, and in the more severe cases coma and death. Among the first batch of people diagnosed with the disease in 1956, over 30% died. As researchers initially thought the disease was caused by a pathogen due to its localized nature (it seemed to occur in clusters of families and neighborhoods) people were terrified. A contagious disease with a 30% mortality rate could cause some serious problems. This led to the initial patients being quarantined and as a result ostrasized by their communities. Unsurprisingly, the spreading reach of the disease brough panic to the local community. It took three years for the full scale of mercury pollution and poisoning to be revealed to the public.

In fact, as researchers sampled the water, they were astounded by the amount of mercury they found in the water there. It turned out that there was about 2kg of mercury per ton of sediment. Just to give you an indication, this mercury level was so high that the company later went back to mine the mercury from the sediment! Unbelievable. After testing the hair of local people, it was conclusively determined that they had been exposed to massive doses of mercury through the fish and shellfish that they consumed from the local water. While people living outside of Minamata registered a mercury level of just 4 parts per million (PPM) asymptomatic residents of Minamata often had levels of about 190PPM and levels as high as 705PPM were recorded in some of the sick. That's almost 200 times the normal level!

In a response worthy of a stereotypical evil corporation (as depicted by Hollywood), as evidence mounted against it Chisso (the company dumping the mercury) stopped dumping its pollutants directly into the ocean. Instead they decided to be good neighbors and started dumping it into the nearby Minamoto river, causing a whole new set of people to suffer. Good move guys. Way to be responsible.

Unfortunately, in this case knowledge was not power for many many years. It took 12 years before any serious action was taken by anyone to halt this disease. While there was no way to repay the people for their suffering, at least they got a little bit of monetary compensation. Not ideal but better than nothing. In the end 2265 have been offically recognized as suffering from Minamata disease and over 10000 people have not been offically recognized but have recieved compensation for their suffering. Depressingly, though, the only reason that the pollution stopped was that the production process which caused the production of waste mercury became outdate and was replaced.

This is a true tragedy that hopefully prevented many environmental disasters in the future (although a second outbreak of the disease in the mid 1960s in a separate part of Japan proved that not everyone had learned a lesson). Lawsuits from surviving sufferers and their families are still ongoing today.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Would you party all night on a train? I know I wouldn't but I'm not a party person. Well either way, the SNCF in France is having its first two day party train complete with DJ (of course).

Footnotes, Endnotes, and Parentheticals That Cost Me Marks on My Thesis. Hilarious List from McSweeney's. (Via Kottke)

Monday, September 1, 2008

Fail Dogs.

The next LOL Cats? Probably not but pretty darn funny... and sad at the same time. (Except for the first post... don't bother with that video, it's just disturbing) Don't know how I missed it on Digg. (via The Pet Blog)
Ok, well I don't generally go for the cute stuff but the title of this site just drew me in. Don't worry, no kitten killing. Just some very relaxed kittens at Kittens I've Killed

(Via The Evening Telegram)

Sunday, August 31, 2008

A comparison of presidential candidate science policy platforms.

In general they look fairly sensible to me. Besides, who knows how much any of their promises really matter once they get into office. (via slashdot)
Solar panels placed as sound barriers on Australian road expected to make back investment in 15 years.

Even if that's an optimistic estimate, this could be a really good idea. You could install solar panels on roads and use that money to maintain the infrastructure once its built. Of course that would mean that we would have to keep politicians' hands off of it.
100 flavor soda fountains!? Looking forward to the sodas but, as engadget points out, not so much to the indecisive people in front of me in line.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Passion of Joan of Arc - A Historic Movie With a Fascinating History

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a movie that many may not have heard of, but it's a movie that you should definitely watch! This silent movie truly moved me when it was first shown to me in college in a dark and moody chapel. As the title suggests, this movie is about Joan of Arc, and specifically covers her last days. It's so much more than that though. It's also a landmark in cinema and and has an absolutely fascinating history.

Why this movie is a must see:
I have rarely been more moved by a movie. The use of very tight shots at jarring angles creates both a sense of disorientation and heightened empathy with Renee Jeanne Falconetti, who portrays Joan of Arc with an absolutely amazing performance. You feel Joan of Arc's suffering, fear, doubt, and faith as your own as you watch her. Supposedly, legendary director Carl Dreyer made her kneel on stones and repeat take after take to get her to exhibit the appropriate emotions. He also made her shave off all of her own hair in one of the final takes during filming. Supposedly, Falconetti, so traumatized by the filming of this movie, never acted in a movie again. The result is a performance that some consider to be the best in film history.

A fascinating history:

Almost as interesting as the movie itself is its past. The movie that has reached us today was largely unavailable for a rather large portion of its history. After its initial release in 1928 (met by rave reviews and dismal viewership) the original negative of the film was lost in a studio fire. Dreyer, determined to preserve his film, stitched together a new negative from alternative takes that were not consumed by fire. Unfortunately, soon after he reconstructed the negative, the reconstruction was also destroyed in a separate fire.

Between its initial release and today, various re-releases were issued. One release in 1933 was truncated and included a voice over by a radio announcer. Another, released in 1951 included a series of shots of stained glass windows which clearly go against that aesthetics of the film. At the same time, poor quality reels of the original film traveled among film clubs and hospitals, but many received the movie poorly as a result of its often extremely poor film quality.

Miraculously, in 1981, an intact and well preserved reel of the original cut of the movie was found in the closet of a Norwegian mental hospital. While this print (Now called the Oslo print) was not in perfect condition, it was carefully restored and the version we can see today is this one. Today you can purchase it on DVD as part of the criterion collection.

Truly an amazing movie with an amazing history.

For some reason this update from UPS fascinates me.

I don't really think about optimizing our ground transportation network but it's pretty interesting. This short snippet really got me thinking about what must be going on at UPS. They must have a bunch of guys on supercomputers back there trying to optimize routes. It's also interesting how UPS thinks of their traffic. They seem to call each major city pair that they service a Lane, much like a shipping lane. I would really love to get my hands on some of their maps!
Hard Boiled Eggs the scientific way. I'm going to have to try some of these out!


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mozilla's Ubiquity looks awesome! Scroll down a bit for a nifty video.

Clearly it has a long way to go, but allowing people to quickly make mash-ups on the fly sounds like a good idea. Now all they have to do is make it simple and intuitive enough to be useful to the masses!

Thanks to Marc Pous (via Twine)
A fantastic op-ed in the Boston Globe on evolved words. (Via Oblamovka)

Not only is this article extremely fun to read, it also poses an interesting question: what makes a word? In short, if it seems wordy and can be understood, you should just use it. In the words of the author of this piece Eric McKean, Chillax!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Bowie Bonds - David Bowie Issued Bonds of Himself, Made a Cool $55 Million.

Yes that David Bowie of Ziggy Stardust fame issued what are now widely known as Bowie Bonds. He didn't actually sell off bits of himself, but instead created bonds based on ten years of revenues on his work up until 1997. In essence, he traded ten years of revenues on his songs for $55 million up front. Why might someone do this, you might ask (or you might not - $55 million is a pretty awesome sum of money)? In fact, he took that $55 million and bought up the rights to all of his songs. Clever guy.

Bowie, feeling all clever

So, how did Bowie Bonds perform? Not bad if you don't mind the risk. Throughout the ten years of their existence they guaranteed a 7.9% yield. Not too shabby for a bit of Bowie. Of course, this return was not without its risks. Bowie Bonds were eventually downgraded to just above junk status due to poor record sales. Not that David Bowie cares. He walked away with $55 million, after all, right before file sharing mania hit. Still want a Bowie Bond just to say that you own one? Unfortunately, they aren't for sale to individual investors.

Although David Bowie was one of the first people to do this kind of thing with intellectual property, he was certainly not the last. These bonds, also called Pullman Bonds, have been created for other artists as well. Famous artists with Bowie Bonds include James Brown and Iron Maiden (The first metal band to issue Bowie Bonds). There have also been rumors of Michael Jackson and Bob Marley Bonds.

Still curious? This site offers more details on this fascinating phenomenon. Who knows, maybe soon you'll be able to buy a piece of your favorite musician('s earnings).
$111 Billion in plastic in British landfills alone!

I can just imagine mining operations in the future taking place in landfills. There's probably a sci-fi story about this already.
Going with the earlier article in the NYT about US infrastructure: The cost of alternative energy production is coming down, but the cost of transmission isn't.

High transmission price could seriously hamper alternative energy efforts which often require the transportation of large amounts of energy over long distances.
Old But Classic. Optimus Prime's car insurance problem.
Interesting article by Thomas Friedman (The World is Flat) on an increased need in the US for concentration in infrastructure. In particular he focuses on how China built up massive infrastructural improvements while US infrasture falls behind.

I don't know which presidential candidate would do a better job, but his point is certainly well taken! One thing I have to wonder though is how much cheaper and easier it is to build infrastructure from scratch rather than fixing or vastly improving infrastructure that is already in place. For example, if you already have a six lane highway that is well used, it's costly to improve it in that you have to divert a massive amount of traffic to do so. On the other hand, if the highway isn't there yet, you don't have to worry about as many indirect costs of construction.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

I wouldn't mind a breakfast like this every once in a while. I love Raisin Brahms! An Excellent PSA.

Thanks to BoingBoing!

Zelda Needs a Little Help

A man and his butterfly. A truly touching story.
Gym in Portland, OR hooks up its equipment to generators in hopes of generating 100% of the energy it uses.

I wonder if there will ever be a time when energy prices are high enough and generators on exercise equipment efficient enough that gyms can replace membership fees with the money they make from energy generation.

Thanks to JDP on Twine

Monday, August 25, 2008

Oliver Cromwell's Head - The Most Talked About Head in History?

I was listening to a set of lecture on British history and came across the most fascinating little nugget on Oliver Cromwell's head. Cromwell, who presided over the temporary transformation of England from a monarchy into a republic in the 17th century, seems to have somehow had his head misplaced. It wandered for almost 300 years before finding a permanent home.

What's really fascinating about all this is how a head could go around for so long and not be replaced by a plethora of fakes. I mean really, how hard would it be to fake a Cromwell head after three hundred years? Also, how did the value of Cromwell's head almost double in 12 years? I bet there are some investment bankers out there who wouldn't mind investing in Cromwell heads for that kind of return. Too bad there's only one.

The Aral Sea - The Amazing Shrinking Lake

Imagine if over the course of eighty years you saw lake superior become a tenth its original size. All of the wildlife in it would die and the land left by the receding water would become vast salt deposits. Shockingly enough, that's exactly what is happening to the once vast Aral Sea between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

What could cause this kind of shocking change in such a short period of time? The Soviet Union. Up to 1960, the Aral Sea was the fourth largest body of water on Earth. It supported a rich eco-system and a prosperous fishing industry. Of course all of this changed in 1918 when the Soviet Government decided to divert two rivers feeding the inland sea into deserts to support agriculture. (Kind of reminds me of the American Southwest) Apparently the Soviets were well aware of the effects of the river diversion, and they even wrote it into some of their five year plans.

Gradually the Aral Sea just evaporated away leaving vast salt flats. Today the Aral Sea has split into three separate lakes, two of which are too salty to sustain any kind of fish. Sadly, it has a surface area barely 10% of its original size. Still there is some hope for this body of water. The government of Kazakhstan has built dams in order to help increase the water levels in the North Aral Sea (One of the lakes that was created by the receding waterline) and in recent years water levels have actually increased while salinity has fallen.

What is truly stunning about this story is how human actions can have such a profound and rapid impact on the environment. We see all sorts of environmental changes taking place all the time but rarely do we see such a stark example of what humans are truly capable of doing to the world in just a few decades.

Still interested? Watch this fantastic segment about the Aral Sea from Australian TV. A lot of haunting scenery here.
With the possibility of permanently high gas prices, is the end of large-scale aviation upon us? A great article from the New Republic.

Thanks to Don Dea for submitting to Twine.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A fascinating article on using Muon detectors to reveal the secrets of buried Mayan temples.

Enhancement Drugs Ok For Healthy People (As long as they don't change who you are)

A short article on people's perceptions of Self-Enhancing Drugs for Healthy People

It's fascinating that people are willing to take self-enhancing drugs as long as they don't change what they might consider to be core human traits. Of course this means that cultural factors could have a significant impact on how willing a society as a whole to tolerate or support this kind of behavior. Furthermore, it would be interesting to see how malleable the notion of core human traits is.

Political scientist Francis Fukuyama, in his book Our Posthuman Future, has an extended discussion on just this sort of phenomenon. While the book centers on genetic engineering, he does point out that neuropharmacology is already being used to alter some things that are core and fundamental to an individual.

If you think about it, this is a pretty interesting point. Anti-depressants have real value, but by labeling yourself as sick, you can get around your own moral qualms with altering a core human trait like personality.