31 March 2011


GOOD & EVIL Experimental psychologist Andrea Kuszewski, guest blogging for Scientific American, posits that the line between good and evil is gray and fuzzy, rather than clear. In an entertaining and thought-provoking essay, she suggests that "the world's greatest heroes are also some of the most hard-headed, rebellious, not-necessarily law-abiding rule-breakers .... Not only that, there may be a genetic link between these extreme heroes and those least expected to act heroically -- the Sociopath. This person [the hero] is called the Extreme Altruist, or X-Altruist." The sub-headers in her essay hint at what lies beneath the surface of our assumptions, and how those assumptions may be midguided --

  • Heroism to the Extreme

  • X-Altruists and Sociopaths -- A Genetic Link?

  • The Traits of the Sociopath vs. the X-Altruist

  • Ego, Empathy, Emotion -- Why Do They Matter?

  • The X-Altruist -- a Personality Disorder or Optimal Gene Expression?

  • Why Is the Intensity Necessary?

  • Ego Resilience and Flexible Detachment -- the Superpowers of the X-Altruist

  • Could an X-Altruist "turn evil"?

  • The Sociopath -- a Less Hardy X-Altruist?

  • How Can We Prevent X-Altruists From Becoming Sociopaths?

  • How Do We Encourage X-Altruism?
It may surprise you (as it did me) to learn that in psychological terms, X-Altruists and Sociopaths SHARE seven of nine defining traits. They differ in only two. To learn more, I invite you to read Kuszewski's remarkable essay, at the link above.

WEST COAST TSUNAMI. Could the horrific events which befell Japan following a near-offshore earthquake and tsunami, happen in the U.S.? Absolutely, according to an 8-minute PBS Newshour segment, viewable here. Both countries lie on the Pacific Ring of Fire, and both countries have a major tectonic plate subduction zone lying just off their respective coasts.

The last such catastrophic earthquake off the Pacific Northwest occurred in 1700, and another is due anytime. Should the next quake strike anywhere near shore, as did the quake in Japan, the resulting tsunami, once ashore, could reach up to 130 feet above sea level .... as did the tsunami in Japan. Think of it -- all coastal areas below 130 feet in elevation, inundated. Considering that the Japan quake's tsunami caused considerable damage in Santa Cruz, California, 6000 miles from the quake epicenter, it is not hard to imagine a natural disaster that could dwarf the effects of Hurricane Katrina, since a much longer stretch of coastline (and many more people) would be at risk. Please view the PBS Newshour segment for more graphic information.

Finally, to lighten things up while still learning cool stuff, check out the video How A Differential Gear Works. It looks like it might have been filmed in the 1950s, but the step-by-step presentation is clear and fun to watch. See if a little light bulb doesn't go off over your head.


MARCH MADNE$$. Each year during the month of March, the NCAA national collegiate basketall championship tournament is televised across the U.S. -- second only to football's Super Bowl in viewership and revenue generated. A Frontline segment, Money and March Madness (view here) did some investigative reporting, and revealed a sordid tale of greed and injustice. The Washington Post summarizes nicely --

"Generations of college athletes have generated revenue for their schools, for the NCAA, and for television networks, while pocketing only a chance at a four-year education .... The NCAA clings to the romantic image of students wearing letterman jackets and smiles without acknowledging that the entire landscape has changed. In the past three decades especially, college sports has become big business and its profit margins remain remarkable because it features an unpaid labor force .... The NCAA is in the midst of a $10.8 billion TV contract. Most head coaches pull in seven-figure salaries .... And the NCAA executives are resting their heads on pillows of cash every night .... Essentially, everyone is getting paid handsomely except the ones doing the heavy lifting. And therein lies the crux of the NCAA's position. The student-athletes are compensated with an education, the value of which pales in comparison with the dollars they bring to their universities."

There's more to the story. At the start of each school year, college athletes are required to sign an NCAA agreement which stipulates that the athletes will not accept payment of any kind for their athletic performance, for rebroadcasts of games in which they participate, even for the use of their images in video games. This, because the students are regarded as "amateurs", thus forbidden from recompense.

Further, each athletic scholarship is valid for one year only, as opposed to the standard four-year academic scholarship. Should the student athlete fail in any way to come through for the team, he or she faces the prospect of no scholarship the following year. The alleged reward for all that pressure and hard work is the possibility of signing with a professional ball team upon (or even before) graduation. But there are only so many openings each year among professional teams, so the percentage of college players who make the cut is small.

The icing on the cake is that most schools do not impose academic standards upon their players. The Frontline segment reveals that of the teams participating in this year's March Madness, most include players with failing grades. Am I missing something, or isn't the purpose of a university education precisely that -- education? Small wonder that anywhere between 20 and 60 percent of college athletes fail to graduate.

Returning to the Washington Post -- "The NCAA is a non-profit organization and enjoys tax-exempt status. It could hand its hat in good conscience on the notion of amateurism 50 years ago, when the cost of an education might have matched the revenue generated by its student athletes. But it's now in the business of signing billion-dollar contracts and paying everyone except the stars of the show, a point Frontline raises and [the NCAA] willingly ignores."

The whole thing stinks. I'm not suggesting that college players necessarily should start pulling in stellar salaries -- that would only play into the already lopsidedly-outlandish recompense awarded to professional players. I am suggesting that athletic scholarships should be good for all four years of school, and that the NCAA as a non-profit organization should undergo a Congressional investigation for fraud and abuse of its tax-exempt status. Further, coaches and NCAA officials should not be making more money than any tenured university professor. There are too many truckloads of cash floating around, with no oversight. I highly recommend that you view the Frontline segment at the link above.

NUCLEAR D. "D" as in disarmament. There may be many among you who remember the name Valerie Plame. In 2003 a news reporter outed Ms. Plame as a CIA agent.

The incident is portrayed in a 2010 film called Fair Game. The movie is "an action-thriller based on the autobiography of real-life CIA undercover operative Valerie Plame Wilson, whose career was destroyed and marriage strained to its limits when her covert identity was exposed by a politically motivated press leak --

"As a covert officer in the CIA's Counter-Proliferation Division, Valerie's work involved identifying the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the United States declared war. Her husband, diplomat ambassador Joe Wilson was hired by the CIA for a fact-finding mission as part of the investigation. When the Bush Administration ignored his findings and used them to support the call to war, Joe contradicted the White House in the New York Times, igniting a firestorm of controversy."

Valerie Plame has not gone away. In an introduction to the DVD release of the film, she appears with an appeal for all viewers to become involved in pushing our government to follow through with the START treaty, and become informed on the broad issue of nuclear disarmament. You can start by checking out the website Take Part. The threat of global nuclear annihilation is a terror my generation grew up with. There is no rational reason for either the U.S. or Russia to continue to stockpile enough nuclear weapons to destroy all life on earth many times over.

MILEPOST. This blog was initiated in February 2008. Records of visitation began in March 2009. Naturally, at first the numbers were miniscule. During the past year, however, the number of readers has increased exponentially (see first graph below, showing the past thirteen months' readership -- click to enlarge). I attribute the increase in part to word of mouth, in part to readers' finding the blog through web search engines such as Google, and in part to my posting each day's entry on my Facebook news feed, starting a few months ago. In all, I've written 897 daily entries, including this one.

As of this writing, I've had 40,005 visitors from 173 nations since records commenced. In March of 2010, I had slightly over 500 visitors the entire month. A year later, I had just shy of that number (499) in a single day -- on 24 March 2011. March was also the first month in which the number of visitors topped 12,000.

Within the geometric increase over time, there is a clear pattern of more visitors during the week, and fewer on weekends (see second graph below, showing the past thirty days' readership).

I want to take this moment to thank every reader who has graced this page with your interest and attention, whether or not you agree with my sometimes-outspoken opinions. Please return, and please continue to spread the word. I encourage all readers to become public followers, by signing on at the "Followers" widget in the right-side column. Peace.

30 March 2011


FIRE FIGHTING WAND. Imagine a flame-quenching method that relies on an electric field-generating wand. The technology now exists, and could add to the arsenal of static systems (e.g. water sprinklers) and portable systems (fire hoses and extinguishers). Here's how it works: An electrode powered from a backpack creates an electrical field. "The electrical field interacts with the charged particles in the flame -- the electrons, ions, and soot particles -- and this collective motion of the charges in the electric field can lead to movement of the gas within the flame .... the flame gets detached from the fuel source, so it gets pushed away." Voila, that portion of the fire is extinguished.

Arthur C. Clarke famously observed that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The beauty of the flame-quenching wand is that it does not need to be in contact with the flames themselves. In an enclosed space such as a burning building, this tool could be used to create a safe escape route for those trapped by a fire. Here is the complete article for your reference.

SCHOOL INNOVATION. Thanks to Andrea Kuszewski for the link to this -- the Chicago Tribune reports an experimental approach to learning which is elegant in its simplicity -- incorporate the technology with which students are already familiar into the curriculum, in ways which reinforce and enhance traditional learning. In this case, "The complete reinvention of the typical urban middle school downplays rote memorization in favor of collaborative learning, critical thinking, and imaginative exploration in an effort to change how today's students learn .... Students will learn from video game designers and computer experts how to design and build their own video games, produce custom websites, podcast, blog, record and edit short films, and connect with technology in meaningful and productive ways .... 'It's a different type of learning because of how they teach it, not what they're teaching,' said sixth-grader Connor Fitzgerald. 'They give you the facts, but more importantly they tell you about the relationships between those facts.'"

As with the fire-fighting wand described above, this actively creative approach to learning is one more tool in a teacher's bag of resources, and it sounds like an excellent one. In the early 1990s I spent five years teaching math and science to teenagers at a private school, where the budget meant we operated on a shoestring. Blackboards, the occasional field trip, and our imaginations were the essential tools we teachers had for engaging our students' interest and imparting what knowledge we could. The teachers who could think creatively were the most successful. To have had the resources described in this article would have been a dream come true. The closest we could come was interdisciplinary teaching. The teaching methods described above represent a quantum leap forward.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA. For more decades than I care to count, I have advocated treating marijuana in the same manner we treat alcohol -- it should be legal to obtain so long as you have reached a prescribed age, and it should be commercially available through licensed vendors. The sale of marijuana would provide a source of tax revenue to each state, just as alcohol does now, and the quality of the product sold could be carefully monitorred.

The closest we've come to such a vision is in those 15 states (see map below, click to enlarge) which have made legal the possession of small amounts of marijuana for those with qualifying medical conditions. Medical marijuana, sold from licensed caregivers, is available in the form of herb, tinctures, and baked goods. According to an MSNBC news report, in a few short years medical marijuana is now a $1.7 billion market, rivaling the $1.9 annual revenue generated by Viagra. Given that only 1 in 30 potential patients is currently registered and purchasing medical marijuana, the potential for growth in the budding (as it were) marijuana cultivation and sales industry is fairly staggering. If another 20 states pass medical marijuana laws, as an independent financial analysis firm's study suggests is possible, the market could grow to $8.9 in 2016.

A few other highlights of the study --

  • California and Colorado account for 92 percent of wholesale and retail sales nationally.

  • Arizona, Michigan and Washington are considered well-positioned for significant growth.

  • There are 24.8 potential consumers for medical marijuana in the United States today. This number reflects the number of Americans with qualifying ailments who live in a current "legal state". Currently, there are fewer than 800,000 patients in these states.

  • Business owners say the largest hurdle to success is not financing, but regulatory uncertainty. [This is due in part to the fact that marijuana remains illegal under Federal law, and due in part to the reluctance of state legislators and local communities to embrace medical marijuana as a legitimate treatment -- even though countless studies have demonstrated its effectiveness.]

  • Nearly two-thirds of medical marijuana caregivers surveyed -- 63 percent -- have been in business less than one year.

In the spirit of innovation and embracing the future which is the common theme of this post, I hope that the public in general, and legislators and law enforcement in particular, will take the time to educate themselves on the realities of marijuana usage, both medically and recreationally. It is long past time to emerge from the Dark Ages.

29 March 2011


ANTI-MUSLIM BIGOTRY. In well-documented testimony, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports "an increase in hate crimes and other bias incidents directed at Muslims in America .... Of the 156 hate crimes and bias incidents collected by the SPLC from news reports since 9/11, about one-third occurred within a year of those attacks. But nearly one-fifth have occurred since May 2010, when controversy over the Islamic center in New York City erupted .... In 2010, Muslims have been harrassed, threatened, attacked, and stabbed .... The toxic atmosphere has also entered our schools, manifesting itself in the harrassment of Muslim students and teachers, as well as attempts to limit how the history and culture of Islam is taught.

"The SPLC has documented a number of anti-Muslim hate groups operating in the United States. They portray Muslims as fundamentally alien and attribute to its followers an inherent set of negative traits .... They also defame Islam, which they tend to treat as a monolithic and evil religion. These groups generally hold that Islam has no values in common with other cultures, is inferior to the West, and is a violent political ideology rather than a religion.

" .... Political leadership and education are key to tamping down this anti-Muslim xenophobia. Following 9/11, President George W. Bush delivered a series of speeches in which he said Muslims and Arabs were not our enemies .... Teachers can also play a key role. They must be allowed to offer the facts about Islam, and dispel the fear and myths about the Muslim community which allow this current hostility to grow."

I couldn't agree more. Simplistic, xenophobic rhetoric is never a reliable guide to a rational, humane world view. Rather, it is typical of the destructive, black-and-white thinking which has been used to justify every act of group barbarism from the lynching of blacks in the American South to the Holocaust of World War II. The rhetoric usually includes derogatory terms intended to dehumanize the objects of scorn -- think camel jockey, gook, nigger, spick, Polack, bitch, fag, the list goes on and on. This bigotry has no place in a democratic republic whose citizens come from every land, every culture, every religion. Whenever you hear a sweeping generalization like "All Muslims are ... ", or "All women are ... ", or "All Mexicans are ... ", or "All blacks are ... ", a red flag should go up in your mind. The speaker is indulging in visceral hate.

TEXTBOOKS. What a wonderful idea -- the content of school textbooks being freely available to all, on Internet websites. One wouldn't have to be a registered class member to learn about the subject. One could be simply an interested lay person, or a student who would like to prepare ahead of time for the class. Education should be public and free, including no cost for textbooks. Learn more at the website Open Access Textbooks.

NESTING. The ever-ingenious webcomic xkcd presents a rather mind-blowing rule for model train layouts (one of my passions as a child). Click here to view the full-scale comic.

28 March 2011


PRISON SCANDAL. I've been a critic of private, for-profit prisons for a long time. Privatizing government services is a profligate waste of taxpayer money, and provides services that are questionable at best, corrupt at worst, and whose core function is to line the pockets of corporate officers and stockholders, with little or no oversight. Outsourcing is a perfect example of the horrific results of conservative ideology take to its logical conclusion.

NPR recently aired a two-part series on private prisons. The first part examines a youth correctional facility in Mississippi -- a place where conditions are so violent and out of control that "the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU have file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 13 inmates against the prison operator, GEO Group .... [alleging] rampant contraband brought in by guards, sex between female guards and male inmates, inadequate medical care, prisoners held inhumanely in isolation, guards brutalizing inmates, and inmate-on-inmate violence that was so brutal it led to brain damage."

The guards themselves are a big part of the problem. Beyond inadequate numbers, training and oversight, many corrections officers are themselves members of gangs. Governmental correctional facilities have their problems, and are in dire need of reform. But private, for-profit facilities are not in the business of rehabilitation or even humane punishment -- they are in the business of making money. Period. So while guard-to-inmate ratios of 1 officer to 10 juvenile prisoners are common in state facilities, in private facilities the ratios can dip to 1 officer in 60 prisoners ... all in the interest of shaving costs, but at the expense of safety and humane treatment.

The second part of the NPR series focuses on the impact on communities in Texas, where the private prison industry is a $3 billion enterprise. After a 20 year boom cycle, the industry in parts of the country has begun to shrink, leaving entire communities with increased unemployment and no good options. "According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total correctional population in the United States is declining for the first time in three decades. Among the reasons -- the crime rate is falling, sentencing alternatives mean fewer felons doing hard time, and states everywhere are slashing budgets."

Here is how the cycle plays out. For any town contemplating hosting a private prison, "The packages look sweet. A town gets a new detention center without costing the [local] taxpayers anything. The private operator finances, constructs, and operates an oversized facility. The contract inmates pay off the debt and generate extra revenue. The economic model works fine until they can't find inmates."

I had the opportunity to work in the Tennessee juvenile corrections system for five years. Training was thorough and professional, with annual retraining. I worked in a Department of Childrens Services boys group home -- something like a halfway house for juvenile felons who had served their time, and were being prepared for reentry into society and their families. Part of our function was security, and part was counseling. My fellow officers and my superiors were all qualified, dedicated individuals who worked as a team to help our boys follow a more positive path in life. This is an example of government fulfilling its rightful role responsibly. There is no justification for avoiding that responsibility by relegating juvenile or adult offenders to a for-profit prison.

ESCAPED COBRA. Ha. Imagine being a visitor to the Bronx Zoo and coming across the following sign: "The World of Reptiles is closed today. Staff observed an adolescent Egyptian cobra missing from an 0ff-exhibit enclosure on Friday." Oops. Cobra on the loose. Keep an eye out for your ankles, indeed.

27 March 2011


U.S. POPULATION SHIFT. According to a PBS Newshour report, " Racial and ethnic minorites accounted for 90 percent of the growth in the U.S. over the past decade, and Hispanics were by far the largest part of that increase. That's one of the headlines from new census data on race and migration.

"Latinos made up more than half of the growth, most rapidly in the South. Today, one of every six Americans, about 50 million people, is Hispanic. The data also found that more than 50 percent of children in at least 10 states are minorities." You can read an in-depth conversation among a panel of population and social trend observers here, as well as see and hear the interviews, here.

According to the Census Bureau, "the final count was 196.8 million whites, 37.7 million blacks, 50.5 million Hispanics, and 14.5 million Asians. Hispanics and Asians were the two fastest growing demographic groups, increasing about 42 percent from 2000. You can access several interactive maps showing population change, population density, and political apportionment here. Using your cursor, you can access information on each state, as well as information on each decade's census since 1910. You will also find a revealing analysis of the Census Bureau report.

Bottom line, America is becoming more and more ethnically and culturally diverse, in spite of the effort by some white Americans to slow or halt the flow of immigrants into the country. I welcome the change. Of all the places I've lived, the most interesting and horizon-broadening were those with a diverse population. The world is a rich place, why not enjoy all its fruits? Peace.

SEXY COMICS. On a lighter note, here is your chance to compare the Sexiest Female Comic Book Characters of all time, as ranked by readers. The voters weren't all male teenagers -- I know a few adult women with decided opinions about their favorites. Myself, I think I missed out. When I was reading comics back in the Dark Ages, most of the characters were well-muscled men in tight-fitting costumes. Timing is everything.

26 March 2011


Thanks to Andrea Kuszewski for the following: From Science Thrives In Virtual Worlds by Alan Boyle -- "Does the virtual reality world known as Second Life (see image above, click on any image to enlarge) have anything to offer real-world scientists? Absolutely -- and a trailblazing researcher says the payoffs are sure to increase when the Internet goes 3-D .... Virtual world have been around for decades, if you count immersive game environments such as World of Warcraft. But jacking into virtual reality still isn't a mainstream phenomenon. Some might be scared off by the fact that online worlds can offer havens for cyber-sex and other virtual vices. Others might see Second Life as downright clunky, compared with the photorealistic, hyper-responsive graphics of present-day video games or the all-consuming interaction available through Facebook or Twitter.

"But when it comes to scientific collaboration and outreach, CalTech physicist George Djorgovski thinks Second Life is a thick slice of awesome.

" .... Why is that? Djorgovski points to a couple of analyses suggesting that immersive telepresence is more engaging than phone or videoconferencing -- partly because multiple senses (hearing, sight, kinesthetics) are in play, and partly because there's more of a sense of inhabiting 3-D space. But those advantages apply to any type of virtual reality interaction. Djorgovski goes on to say that scientific applications in particular can be more fruitful because you can immerse yourself in your own data."

From virtual observatories and science centers to immersive teleconferencing and research sharing, venues like Second Life will only become more sophisticated, versatile, and accessible to both scientists and the interested lay public. Here is a present-day example, a video demonstrating San Francisco's Exploratorium currently available in Second Life.

Speaking of virtual reality and gaming, here are three innovative tools with which just about anyone can create educational or entertainment games. The world is changing quickly, in ways which our imaginations cannot begin to predict. Think of how relatively simplistic computers and the Internet were, a mere twenty years ago. The potential fairly takes one's breath away.

25 March 2011


Pi. The conservative fundamentalist religious right has always been pretty far out on the fringes of social, scientific, and moral reality. Witness the consequences suffered by Chad Holtz, a Methodist minister in rural North Carolina. Holtz posted on his Facebook page "a defense of a forthcoming book by megachurch pastor Rob Bell, in which Bell challenges millions of Christians' understanding of the afterlife." In short, Holtz expressed his doubt in the existence of hell. For his affrontery, Holtz was fired. So much for intellectual inquiry and freedom of speech within the church.

(An aside -- I've been in Holtz's shoes, in a small way. As a teenager, I attended a Presbyterian church youth group every Tuesday evening. I was coming to terms with my own disenchantment with humans' need for a supernatural deity, and with the internal contradictions contained in Christian dogma. At the time, each week a different group member was asked to make a presentation on a relevant topic. When my turn came, I read aloud Franz Kafka's short story The Hunter Gracchus, a man "destined to wander aimlessly and eternally over the seas". Since Protestant churches generally do not accept the doctrine of Purgatory, I felt that this tale offered the opportunity to open up a discussion of those teachings we accept without question. I was right. Reaction ranged from confusion to outright panic. Thankfully I had no pastoral job from which to be fired.)

Witness also "The Bizarre Religious Myths Mormon Right-Wingers Are Pushing on Tea Partiers" seeking to rewrite American history into a "religious and apolcalyptic interpretation that has roots in the racist right of the last century", holding that "governmental powers should be used sparingly, limited largely to the common defense and the elimination of 'debauchery and vice'." Horrors. Debauchery and vice? I must have missed my invitation in the mail. The farther out on the fringe the religious right ventures, the more they lose credibility -- and the more saner Americans look like fools in the eyes of the rest of the world. [Note: if you're interested in a much more rational re-examination of U.S. history, I dare you to read James Loewen's seminal book Lies My Teacher Told Me. This is not revisionist history, but rather an illumination of the actual history we all were denied in school.]

So given these and many other developments in the o'erweening influence of religion on politics over the past thirty years, most especially over the past three years, it is small wonder that for a moment I believed the following headline -- "Conservative Pie: Republicans Introduce Legislation Redefining Pi as Exactly 3". Far stranger things have happened in our culture, whose members are abyssmally ignorant of science and math. It turns out that the well-crafted article is only the most recent iteration of similar satires involving the redefinition of pi (the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter). The earliest, as reported by Snopes, was set in Alabama in 1998. It's pretty scary that in our current climate, such behavior would actually be consistent with events in real life. Welcome to Wonderland -- curiouser and curiouser.

U.S. NUCLEAR SAFETY. Speaking of scary, check this out -- At California Nuclear Plant, Emergency Response Plan Not Required. Really? I mean, f***ing REALLY? "The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which sits less than a mile from an offshore fault line, was not required to include earthquakes in its emergency response plan as a condition of being granted its license more than a quarter century ago."

Let's see. The Three Mile Island partial core meltdown happened in the U.S. in 1979. The Chernobyl disaster happened in the former USSR in 1986. So we knew these nasty things could happen, right? The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, with upgrades, is designed to withstand an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 on the Richter scale. The ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan was caused by an earthquake of magnitude 9.0.

"Emergency response plan not required." Does anyone besides me see the potential for another homegrown nuclear disaster here? I'm just asking.

24 March 2011


SELF-PUBLISHING. The headline "Best Selling Author Turns Down Half A Million Dollar Publishing Contract To Self-Publish" caught my attention. We know that the world of all things written is undergoing a shift from the tradition of landing a contract for one's book through an established publishing house (usually through the auspices of an agent, and with certain strings attached); to simply uploading one's book to an online service such as Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble, which then makes the book available for minimal cost to anyone with a portable reading device like an iPad, Nook, or Kindle reader.

Each has advantages and disadvantages, and writers Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler illuminate both in a revealing discussion (click on the headline link). Bottom line, a publisher provides services like editing and marketing, then charges a larger asking price per copy from the reader, with the writer receiving an up-front advance payment plus (on average) 15 percent royalties on subsequent sales, after the publisher's expenses have been met. In contrast, self-publishing involves no editing or marketing services, a substantially reduced cost to the reader per copy sold, no advance payment to the writer, but a hefty average 70 percent royalties on all book sales. Forever.

The discussion is instructive to any reader or writer, and I highly recommend it. One aspect that intrigues me is the analysis of the industry itself. Konrath and Eisler compare the paradigm shift occurring within publishing to a much earlier shift -- "There's a saying about the railroads: they thought they were in the railroad business, when in fact they were in the transportation business. So when the interstate highway system was built and trucking became an alternative, they were hit hard. Likewise, publishers have naturally conflated the specifics of their business model with the generalities of the business they're in. They're not in the business of delivering books by paper -- they're in the business of delivering books. And if someone can do the latter faster and cheaper than they can, they're in trouble.

" .... there may be many individuals within the various publishing companies who get this. But institutionally, they seem to be reacting to trying to hold back the tide. This is a pretty standard reaction, and we've seen it in other industries before. One typical response that we hear when pointing this out is that these publishers don't want to make that "leap" to really embrace the new until they know that it's sustainable and that it can work. But the key lesson that we've learned over and over and over in other industries is that if you wait for such things, it's too late. In ceding that leadership position, you give up on being the enabler, and what's left for you is often ... not much."

Very, very interesting, especially to someone like me who is on the verge of publishing a novel. Self-publishing is looking increasingly attractive. Which isn't to say that I turn my back on good old-fashioned hard-copy books. I love the feel, the weight, even the smell of ink and paper. I love the fact that curling up with a book feels like an act of intimacy, as opposed to being tied to the glare of a computer or electronic reader screen. Still, the reality is that both media have their advantages -- to the writer and to the reader. And as devices like the iPad begin to include more functions and accessories, they may well find a place in my library, as another means of reading what I want to read.

BETTER SLEEP. 15 to 30 percent of older adults experience some degree of insomnia. Imagine "a quick, effective solution without drugs, without even needing to consult a physician." Paula Span reports just such an alternative, based on research at the University of Pittsburgh. The solution is a brief behavioral treatment intervention, consisting of two explanatory sessions and two follow-up phone calls, over the course of a month. I refer you to the article for a fuller explanation, but the core elements are four simple rules --

  • Reduce the time spent in bed.

  • Get up at the same time every day.

  • Don't go to bed until you feel sleepy.

  • Don't stay in bed if you're not sleeping.
I confess that I have a few doubts. I'm looking forward to subsequent trials which will confirm or deny the efficacy of the initial research. But in principle I understand and respect the value of behavioral modification, as in cognitive behavioral therapy. Stay tuned.

FOOTNOTE -- Happy 137th Birthday, Harry Houdini !!

23 March 2011


COSMOLOGY. "The study of the universe, and humanity's place in it." Speaking from Columbia University, theoretical physicist Brian Green (author of The Elegant Universe) talks about his latest book, The Hidden Reality, in which he explores whether there are other universes beyond ours. This is heady stuff, but Green has a talent for making science accessible to the general public. The article includes an embedded video interview with Green, in which he addresses compelling questions such as --
  • What is a multiverse?

  • What other kinds of worlds might there be?

  • How does string theory research tie in with Einstein's search for a unified theory?

  • What is the biggest misconception people have about physics?

  • Are these theories applicable in the real world?

In a related article, Hank Campbell speculates on the possible existence of a super-planet which may be binary to our sun, orbiting far beyond the eight planets with which we are familiar in a region known as the Oort Cloud (see image below), which resides some 50,000 AU from the sun and is the hypothetical source of our solar system's comets . Campbell's article includes graphics and a down-to-earth explanation of the research.

Finally, an homage to Carl Sagan, the poet, philosopher, astronomer, cosmologist, and populizer of science who passed prematurely from our midst in 1996. His 5-minute video The Pale Blue Dot is a moving meditation on humanity's physical and spiritual place in the vastness of our universe. Deep sigh.

MAP GAMES. Here are two links to games which will test your knowledge of geography. You can click-and-drag to place U.S. states in their proper position, or you can click-and-drag to correctly match the names of countries in the Middle East with their actual locations. Each may take some practice. I've managed to score 100 percent several times on the U.S. states game, but am embarrassingly still guessing at some Middle East match-ups. Have fun !!

22 March 2011


On this day in 1947, a wee small Rys entered the world. I was born in a small hospital in northern Montana, and was raised at the verge between the prairie and the Rocky Mountains, beneath the sweep of Big Sky. I grew up on intimate terms with nature, and have never lost my feeling of oneness with wilderness and wildlife. At the same time, I have a boundless curiosity about other lands, other cultures. Growing up, the town library and the movie theater were my favorite windows onto the world.

Restless by nature, I've called nearly 40 places home, in nine states and three foreign countries, with many more visited, and still more on my wish list. My roots are in the northern Great Plains, the Pacific Northwest, and the desert Southwest -- with branches spreading across North America. The entire planet is my home.

Being born on 22 March has always felt special -- the second full day of Spring carries with it the promise of new growth, new life, possibility. Then there are those twos, two of them. A lovely symmetry. 22 March is the 81st day of the year -- 81 being 3 cubed (3 times 3 times 3). The confluences multiply. There are 284 days remaining in the year -- 2 times 4 yields 8. Okay, a bit of a stretch, but it's my birthday, I'm allowed.

Here's a list of interesting (and not-so-interesting) facts about 22 March -- historic events, people born, people died. Today also happens to be World Water Day, a significant celebration on a planet whose surface is 70 percent water. If you're curious to learn more about where your water comes from, check it out here.

Further, today marks the day of my son's birth -- born on my 30th birthday, and a finer gift cannot be imagined. I cherish every moment of his life. There is no prouder father.

So here I am, newly 64 years old (8 squared, or 4 cubed, or [remember those lovely 2s?] 2 times 2 times 2 times 2 times 2 times 2, also known as 2 to the 6th power). My body has accumulated the aches and injuries that come from a lifetime of adventure, and my mind is as curious as ever, tempered with some small measure of wisdom borne of learning things the hard way, as well as learning from the kind spirits who have been my tutors and friends. Through it all, the heartache and splendor, mistakes and achievements, uncertainties and revelations, I've been blessed with friends from around the country, and around the world. My resume is long and colorful, my life story even more so. Life is good.

Time is a funny thing. When you're young, your life seems to stretch out before you with no limit. When you're in your prime as an adult, all the moments and days and years have clearer meaning, but old age still seems vague, distant. Now I'm beginning to understand the bounds of our lifespan, and wish fervently for more time, more time. There's so much remaining to explore, to learn, so many new friends to meet, places to see, wonders to experience. The more I learn, the more I understand how much there is yet to discover. Which is pretty cool when you think about it.

So in celebration of the passages of life, I'll end with a song written for my new age. Cheers.

21 March 2011


QUINOA. According to the NYTimes article, "When NASA scientists were searching decades ago for an ideal food for long-term human space missions, they came across an Andean plant called quinoa. With an exceptional balance of amino acids, quinoa, they declared, is virtually unrivaled in the plant or animal kingdom for its life-sustaining nutrients.

"But while Bolivians have lived off it for centuries, quinoa remained little more than a curiosity outside the Andes for years, found in health food shops and studied by researchers -- until recently.

"Now demand for quinoa (pronounced KEE-no-ah) is soaring in rich countries, as American and European consumers discover the 'lost crop' of the Incas. The surge has helped raise farmers' incomes here in one of the hemisphere's poorest countries. But there has been a notable trade-off: fewer Bolivians can now afford it, raising their embrace of cheaper, processed foods and raising fears of malnutrition in a country that has long struggled with it.

"The shift offers a glimpse into the consequences of rising global food prices and changing eating habits in both prosperous and developing countries. While quinoa prices have almost tripled over the past five years, Bolivia's consumption of the staple fell 34 percent over the same period, according to the country's agricultural ministry."

This is only the most recent iteration of an older story -- residents of richer nations can afford to shop for the most nutritious foods on the planet (though not all do), and at the same time the same richer nations market crap food to developing countries. I recall the boycott against Nestle in the late 1970s and early 80s, over their selling powdered milk to poor people in African nations -- prompting malnutrition and disease when infants were deprived of their mothers' own breast milk. Take a tour of world cities, and you'll be hard put to miss the flagship of junk food, McDonald's. One third of the U.S. population is clinically obese, another third is substantially overweight, and yet we insist on screwing up the rest of the planet because, well, we're America, we must be right. Right?

Given the nutritional value of quinoa, it would be interesting to know more about whether it could be raised successfully in other parts of the world, including the U.S. If so, would it be worthwhile to cultivate it on a massive scale, to improve America's diet, remove the strain on Bolivians, and ease famine conditions in poorer parts of the world?

INTIMATE SMUGGLING. You'll have to read this article to believe it -- "Woman's Remarkable Vagina Hid 54 Bags of Heroin" -- oh, and some cash too. The lethal risk of any of those bags bursting fairly takes one's breath away. Save me from idiots.

20 March 2011


2011 VERNAL EQUINOX. Today at 2321 hours UTC (once known as Greenwich Mean Time) marks the time of the Spring equinox. We experience seasons not because the Earth orbits appreciably nearer or farther from the sun during each year's circuit, but rather because the Earth's rotational axis is tilted 23.4 degrees from vertical, with respect to the plane of Earth's orbit (also known as the plane of the ecliptic -- see images above and below, click to enlarge). When the north pole is tilted away from the sun, the northern hemisphere experiences winter, when days are shorter and nights are longer. When the north pole is tilted toward the sun, summer visits the northern hemisphere, with longer days and shorter nights. But when the tilt is neither away from or toward the sun, each hemisphere experiences an equal period of daylight and darkness. As you might intuit, this happens twice a year, the Vernal and Autumnal equinoxes.

Among Earth's cultures, the equinoxes and the winter and summer solstices have been celebrated for millenia. The respective equinoxes are often marked by planting and harvest festivals. Interestingly, these observances have been co-opted by religions, notably Christianity, with their celestial, seasonal and pagan significance transferred to ecclesiastical events.

To discover the exact time when the equinox occurs in your time zone, here is a handy time zone chart, with explanations beneath. Locate your time zone, then simply add or subtract the appropriate number of time zones from UTC (depending on whether you are east or west of the prime meridian), and there you have it. As an examply, Mountain Daylight Time is six hours earlier than UTC, so this year's equinox occurs at 1721 hours (5:21 PM) where I live.

RADIATION CHART. This is the real deal -- and it's a stunner. Below you will find a chart which shows the relative doses of radiation one absorbs when exposed to an array of activities and circumstances, ranging from living near Chernobyl to eating a banana, from receiving an X-ray to spending time at higher elevations (with less atmospheric protection from the sun). Given the current nuclear crisis in Japan -- and here is what you need to know at present -- this radiation dose chart puts things in perspective. You will definitely need to click on the image (once for preliminary enlargement, then again to magnify a portion of the chart) for best legibility.

19 March 2011


IMMIGRATION. It is rare that I find myself on the same side of an issue with the business community, since capitalism as it is practiced in America too often equates with corporate greed, and with the consumer receiving the least value for the most money. Once in a while, however, the stars align and the business world comes to grips with social/economic reality.

Such was the case in the Arizona legislature this week, as reported by Richard A. Oppel, Jr. According to Oppel, "Arizona established itself over the past year as the most aggressive state in cracking down on illegal immigrants, gaining so much momentum with its efforts that several other states vowed to follow suit. But the harsh realities of economics appear to have intruded, and Arizona may be looking to shed the image of hard-line anti-immigration pioneer.

"In an abrupt change of course, Arizona legislators rejected new anti-immigration measures on Thursday, in what is widely seen as capitulation from business executives and an admission that the state's tough stance has resulted in a chilling of the normally robust tourism and convention industry .... Opponents of the five bills said that the state's image had been hit hard, and that it did not make sense to pass new measures while the state had already put itself so far out in front of other states and the federal government on the issue -- at a cost to tourism and other industries."

Gee, ya think? Anyone with the slightest understanding of local, national and international commerce realizes that in the U.S., migrant workers from Latin American countries (documented or not) play a vital role in manufacturing, agriculture, service industries within our borders, as well as financially shoring up their families at home. Immigrant workers are overwhelmingly traditional in their family values and work ethic, and to this observer are a welcome component in American society, whether as temporary workers or as permanent citizens.

Arizona's rabidly xenophobic anti-immigration laws have been a black eye not only on the state's image, but on the nation's image at well. The most recent legislative developments demonstrate a fundamental truth in effecting social change -- if you want to get someone's attention, hit them in the wallet. I'm pleased that at least a few people within the Arizona political establishment have seen the light of pragmatism, even if their social conscience may remain less than fully functioning.

BELL 407AH. Bell Helicopter has announced the first qualified, armed/weaponized commercial helicopter, the Bell 407AH (also available in fully military configuration). I'm thinking yeah, this is just what the world needs, more individuals and corporations running around with high-tech weaponry. We've had too many instances of private mercenary companies running amok in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Is it really a good idea to have private corporations flying choppers with features which include "multiple weapons and surveillance packages including Mini-guns, rocket pods, FLIR and NVG capabilities"?

The reported missions for which this model is intended include Corporate, HEMS, Oil & Gas, and Parapublic (whatever that means) applications.

The world is dangerous enough with heavily armed military, police, and criminal weaponry. Is there a truly valid justification for private enterprise to be flying around armed with Mini-guns and rocket pods in what can only be called attack helicopters? I'm just sayin'.

18 March 2011


We are only two generations removed from the conflagration of World War II. In 1939 Hitler's Nazi troops invaded Poland, beginning a campaign of brutal conquest with global intent. German visions of racial superiority and militarism, had they been realized, would have produced a vastly different cultural and moral landscape from the one we know today. It took six long years of bloodshed, courage and misery to prevent that hegemony from becoming permanent.

I just finished watching two superb series about that era. The first, Band of Brothers, re-enacts the actual exploits of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), 101st Airborne Division, from jump training through Germany's capitulation. This remarkable group of men endured fighting in France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany, and were the Allied troops who captured Hitler's Eagle's Nest retreat in the Bavarian Alps -- under conditions which were at times ghastly. Their participation in D-Day, Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge and the siege at Bastogne, in particular, was pivotal in turning the tide of the war.

Each episode begins with brief interviews with actual Easy Company veterans. These quiet, direct men (typical of World War II vets) lay no claim to heroism. They had a job to do, and they did it. Yet heroes they all were -- rising to the occasion in spite of overwhelming odds, confusion, fear, or the loss of friends. I do not use the word "hero" lightly -- it is much-abused these days.

Band of Brothers shows us the war from the microcosmic view of one group of men on the ground. The ensemble cast is excellent, and faithful to the actual soldiers they portray. It is an experience not to be missed.

In contrast, the Ken Burns documentary series The War, provides a more comprehensive overview, interlacing historical footage with interviews with those who lived through the war, both in the military and at home. The general focus is on the residents of four American towns -- Luverne, Minnesota; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Waterbury, Connecticut. Burns' finely-crafted documentary style provides a different sort of drama from the more immediate, more personal Band of Brothers, yet it succeeds in involving the viewer deeply. Because The War proceeds chronologically, we get a sense of what events were happening simultaneously in different parts of the struggle -- in north Africa, in Europe, in the Pacific, and in the U.S. We learn of the irony imparted when our war against Nazi racism was waged at the same time that we ourselves indulged in racist behavior -- sending over 100,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry from their West Coast homes to internment camps for the duration of the war -- segregating black soldiers, sailors, and airmen from their white counterparts -- all the time viewing ourselves as occupying the moral high ground. In many ways, we did. In others, not so much.

In addition to the history of those times, for me the most compelling aspect of The War was the interviews with present-day survivors, both those who went into battle and those who stayed at home. This is the generation of my parents, and I grew up steeped in the events and the lore of World War II. I see their faces, hear their voices, and discover a new window into their lives.

Both films deal powerfully with the fundamental result of Hitler's racist agenda -- the Holocaust. On yesterday's date in 1942, the first of a score of extermination camps began operation. Nazi genocide ultimately snuffing out the lives of 6 million Jews, 4 million Polish and Soviet prisoners, and 2 million gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other political and religious opponents of the Nazi regime -- this, not even including the tens of millions of military and civilian casualties which resulted from the fighting itself. The death camp scenes from Band of Brothers in particular are harrowing, because you aren't viewing still photos. Rather, right along with the first U.S. soldiers on the scene, you are discovering the shocking, surreal, unimaginable horror of tens of thousands of living human beings reduced to skin and bone, and many more already dead and stacked like cordwood. It is impossible to experience this passage in our collective reality without crying deeply, deeply.

We are only two generations removed from the most barbarous act of genocide in human history. On a smaller scale, our wars and genocides, our sacrifices and degradations, our transcendance and redemption continue. Lest we forget.

17 March 2011


BILINGUALS. I've long thought that travel to other lands, exposure to other cultures within our own country, and learning new languages enhance one's understanding of the world and oneself -- and the earlier in life, the better. A new study confirms my perspective -- "Learning a foreign language literally changes the way we see the world .... bilingual speakers think differently from those who only speak one language. And you don't need to be fluent in the language to feel the effects. It is language usage, not proficiency, which makes the difference."

The study's jumping-off point was color perception, and sure enough, bilingual people perceive more subtle gradations in color than others. "As well as learning vocabulary and grammar, you're also unconsciously learning a whole new way of seeing the world. There's an inextricable link between language, culture and cognition. If you're learning language in a classroom you are trying to achieve something specific, but when you're immersed in the culture and speaking it, you're thinking in a completely different way .... The benefits you gain are not just in being able to converse in their language -- It also gives you a valuable insight into their culture and how they think .... It can also enable you to understand your own language better and gives you the opportunity to reflect on your own culture."

In high school I spent two years in Latin class, an extremely valuable experience. In college I took a year of Spanish and a year of French, and in hindsight I wish I had stuck with Spanish. In the U.S., it is the more useful second language to learn, since Spanish-speakers comprise a significant portion of the population. (Note: the map above reflects concentrations of Spanish speakers in the year 2000 -- the proportions have grown in the eleven years since then.) I've also long yearned to spend a year abroad doing immersion learning -- Costa Rica, or Guatamala, or Spain. Viva la raza !

MUSIC. Here are a few links to bring a little fun to your day. The first is a cat duet, sung by a boys choir. The second is Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, played on one of my favorite instruments, the glass harp. Finally, in honor of my (and my son's) birthday next week, the Beatles classic When I'm 64, exerpted from their 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine.

PLAYTIME. Laura Seargeant Richardson has published a marvelous, provocative essay titled The Four Secrets of Playtime that Foster Creative Kids. In order to experience play that allows children to become active creators rather than simply passive consumers, Richardson suggests the following criteria (I encourage you to read the entire essay for a richer explanation) --
  • Open environments -- those in which the child gets to be the author, and the medium is open to interpretation.

  • Flexible tools -- the key to innovation and exploration.

  • Modifiable rules -- flexible parameters which can be altered to fit changing needs.

  • Superpowers -- both real and perceived physical and mental skills which maximize the other three criteria.

The article is informative and yes, playful. Much of my own early childhood was spent in a realm of imagination, and my world is the richer for it.

16 March 2011


JAPAN'S TRAGEDY. Like most of us, I've been following developments in Japan since the March 11 9.0 earthquake and tsunami just offshore. The toll in human lives, misery and destruction of property is beyond comprehension.

In recent days that toll has been overshadowed in the media by the damage to four nuclear reactors, with the increasing potential for a core meltdown, the release of radioactivity into the atmosphere, or both. The irony is not lost on the Japanese people, who alone among all the nations on Earth, were the targets of the only two atomic bombs used in wartime in the history of humankind (to date).

The news changes hourly. Here is a partial listing of links to explanations for what has happened thus far. Pick and choose among those you find most relevant or informative.

Australian Radiation Services disclaimer concerning a worst-cast-scenario map attributed to them (see my entry for 13 March)

The devastation to so many Japanese lives cannot be overstated. Radiation exposure, displacement, loss of power and water, loss of homes, loss of life. If you would like to help with the humanitarian effort, please consider an immediate donation to one of the following aid groups:

LAW OF GRAVITY. Finally, to add to the atmosphere of surreality, a brief report on the ignorant, anti-science members of our own dear Congress, whose members deny the existence of climate change, and conceivably could undertake to repeal the law of gravity. Hey, stranger things have happened.