NASA’s version of Black Friday

Via CNN: ‘Black Friday bargain hunters, do you ever get the feeling that you’re being sucked in somewhere against your control, rapidly descending to a dark, cold place?

It could be that feeling after you snatch the last Xbox away from a 9-year-old. Or it could be a black hole.

Shoppers may have Black Friday, but NASA scientists have something that’s arguably better: Black Hole Friday.’

The one word that got Darren Wilson out of jail free

Via Think Progress: ‘Darren Wilson did not escape accountability for shooting Michael Brown dead because of the law. He escaped accountability because, as a society, a majority of us are OK with that outcome.

There are many conflicting accounts of what happened the night Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. Wilson was able to present his account, with little scrutiny, to the grand jury.

But even if you accept Wilson’s account word-for-word, he only gets off because enough people found his actions “reasonable” under the circumstances. Since Wilson used lethal force, he acted “reasonably” if he “reasonably” believed his life was in danger.’

Polar Bears Face Starvation And Cub Loss Due To Sea Ice Loss

Via IFLScience:  ‘The future is not looking bright for polar bears living in Canada’s Arctic islands. If the current climate trend continues to the end of the century, sea ice decline will mean that many areas are no longer able to support polar bears, a depressing new study has found. With an absence of ice for several months a year, polar bears may face losing their cubs and starvation, leaving a rather bleak outlook for this population.’


Ancient Computer Even More Ancient Than We Thought

Via IFLScience:  ‘The astonishing Antikythera mechanism is even older than previously suspected, new research suggests. Instead of being “1500 years ahead of its time,” it may have been closer to 1800.

The mechanism was found in 1901 in the wreck of a ship that sank in the Aegean Sea around 60 BC. Though its origins are unknown, it could be used to calculate astronomical motion, making it a sort of forerunner to computers.

The sheer sophistication of the device makes it mysterious, being more advanced than any known instrument of its day – or for centuries thereafter. Even with parts missing after spending such a long time in the briny deep, it was examined to have at least 30 gears. This is perhaps why for many, it represents the pinnacle of technology of the ancient world and what was lost during the Dark Ages.

If devices such as this had survived, Kepler might have found the task of explaining the orbits of the planets far easier to achieve. Although the makers likely would not have understood why the moon slowed down and sped up in its orbit, they were sufficiently aware of the phenomenon. In fact, the mechanism mimics it precisely.

One of the mechanism’s functions was to predict eclipses, and a study of these dials indicates it was operating on a calender starting from 205 BC.

Estimates of the mechanism’s date of manufacture have gradually been pushed back, starting with the year in which it sank. The device was housed in a box, which has engravings dated to 80 to 90BC, but the lettering appears consistent with a date of 100 to 150BC.

However, in The Archive of History of Exact Sciences, Dr. Christian Carman of Argentina’s National University of Quilmes and Dr. James Evans of the University of Puget Sound believe they have identified the solar eclipse that occurs in the 13th month of the mechanism’s calender. If so, this would make its start date, when the dials are set to zero, May 205BC.’


‘Off switch’ for pain discovered

Via ScienceDailyActivating the adenosine A3 receptor subtype is key to powerful pain relief:

 ‘In research published in the medical journal Brain, Saint Louis University researcher Daniela Salvemini, Ph.D. and colleagues within SLU, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other academic institutions have discovered a way to block a pain pathway in animal models of chronic neuropathic pain including pain caused by chemotherapeutic agents and bone cancer pain suggesting a promising new approach to pain relief.

The scientific efforts led by Salvemini, who is professor of pharmacological and physiological sciences at SLU, demonstrated that turning on a receptor in the brain and spinal cord counteracts chronic nerve pain in male and female rodents. Activating the A3 receptor — either by its native chemical stimulator, the small molecule adenosine, or by powerful synthetic small molecule drugs invented at the NIH — prevents or reverses pain that develops slowly from nerve damage without causing analgesic tolerance or intrinsic reward (unlike opioids).’


The World’s Iconic National Dishes

The World's Iconic National Dishes - The Atlantic

Via The Atlantic: ‘While it is an iconic food, no one would argue that a roast turkey is the American national dish—turkey on multigrain for lunch aside. Plopping a turkey on an overladen table is reserved almost solely for this day.

So, we wondered, what other food traditions around the world are universal, sometimes begrudgingly consumed, national, cultural symbols?’


Glacier National Park Is On Track To Be Glacier-Free By 2030

Via Gizmodo: ‘When Glacier National Park was dedicated in 1910, this stunning span of the Rocky Mountains on the Montana-Canadian border counted over 150 thick, morphing ice sheets that gave the park its name. One very warm century later, there are only 26 glaciers here. And by 2030, scientists warn, that number could be zero.’


The Taliban’s psychiatrist

Via BBC News: ‘In the late 1990s the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, but the fighting that brought them to power left many militants struggling with the psychological effects of war. One doctor recognised the problem and, although he disagreed with the Taliban’s ideology, agreed to treat them.

“I remember the first group of Taliban who came to see me,” says Afghan psychiatrist Nader Alemi. “They used to come in groups, not as individuals. When I treated one, he would spread the word.

“Fighters would turn up with my name on a piece of paper. They would say that I’d cured their friend, and now they wanted to be cured too. Most of them had never been to a doctor before.”

He was the only psychiatrist in northern Afghanistan to speak Pashto, the language of most Taliban.

“Language was very important – because I spoke their language, they felt comfortable opening up,” he says.’


14 greedy companies making their employees work on Thanksgiving

Via ‘Now known as “Black Thursday,” numerous large retailers are opening around 6pm on Thanksgiving Day.Kmart takes the cake this year by announcing it will open at 6am and remain open for 42 hours. ThinkProgressreported that when one Kmart employee requested to work a split-shift on Thanksgiving, she was denied and told if she didn’t come to work, she would be fired.

As a form of protest, nearly 100,000 people have liked the Boycott Black Thursday Facebook page, which states:

“Employees will be forced to work the majority of the day and evening in preparation for the huge sale. We believe this is an unethical decision that does not consider the families of the men and women who work at these stores, so we’re boycotting Black Thursday.”

It’s not just Big Box stores keeping their doors open on the holiday. Many workers in the service industry, such as those working at grocery stores, airports, restaurants and movie theaters, are forced to work as well. Many of these workers don’t get paid holidays. The United States is the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid holidays.

The following stores will require their employees to work Thanksgiving Day:

  • Kmart
  • Walmart
  • Macy’s
  • Target
  • RadioShack
  • Starbucks
  • Kohl’s
  • JCPenney
  • Sears
  • Toys”R”Us
  • Best Buy
  • Staples
  • Sports Authority
  • Gap/Old Navy/Banana Republic Company

Whether it’s a marketing move or actual sanity, these stores are keeping their doors closed:

  • Costco
  • Barnes & Noble
  • Sam’s Club
  • BJs
  • Home Depot
  • Lowe’s
  • Nordstrom
  • TJ Maxx
  • Marshall’s
  • GameStop
  • Bed Bath & Beyond
  • Burlington Coat Factory
  • Crate and Barrel
  • Petco
  • Neiman Marcus
  • REI
  • Pier 1 Imports

Would you rather shop at a store that puts people first or its profits?’


12 things white people can do now because Ferguson

Via Quartz: ‘Black people are dying and it’s not your personal fault that black people are dying because you’re white but if you don’t make a purposeful choice to become a white ally and actively work to dismantle the racist system running America for the benefit of white people then it becomes your shame because you are white and black lives matter. And if you live your whole life and then die without making a purposeful choice to become a white ally then American racism becomes your legacy.’


How Many Michael Browns? 7 Other Lives Cut Short By Police Since Ferguson

Via ThinkProgress: ‘A tragic death at police hands, fed-up African American residents, and a militarized police force converged to draw national outrage fixed on Ferguson, Missouri. Coming weeks after New York Police Department officers killed Eric Garner using an illegal chokehold, national attention turned to the cases involving these two men. But as protests roar over the grand jury’s decision not to press any charges, the community isn’t just angered about Brown and Garner, or even all those who came before them.In just in the few months since Brown’s death, police in other jurisdictions took the lives of countless others, many with allegations just as outrageous as those in Brown’s case, and with no greater police accountability thus far. In the movement fighting police brutality, each of their names has become hashtags. But much of the public hasn’t heard nearly as much about them…’


Why It’s Impossible to Indict a Cop

Via 3quarksdaily: ‘How to police the police is a question as old as civilization, now given special urgency by a St. Louis County grand jury’s return of a “no bill” of indictment for Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in his fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown. The result is shocking to many, depressingly predictable to more than a few…

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about these police killings, many of them of unarmed victims, is that our courts find them perfectly legal…’


Art in a Whisky Glass, Neatly Explained

Via ‘Ernie Button, a photographer in Phoenix, found art at the bottom of a whisky glass. Howard A. Stone, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor at Princeton, found the science in the art.Eight years ago, Mr. Button was about to wash the glass when he noticed that leftover drops of Scotch had dried into a chalky but unexpectedly beautiful film. “When I lifted it up to the light, I noticed these really delicate, fine lines on the bottom,” he recalled, “and being a photographer for a number of years before this, I’m like, ‘Hmm, there’s something to this.’ ”

He and his wife began experimenting. The Scotches with smoky, peaty flavors, like those from the islands of Islay and Skye in western Scotland, were inconsistent, needing more trial and error to produce the picturesque ring patterns. By contrast, those from the valley around the River Spey in northeastern Scotland “seem like they’ll work every time,” Mr. Button said.

“It takes just a drop or two to create a really nice image,” he said. He started photographing the residues, using colored lights “to give it that otherworldly effect,” he said.’


Will Texas Kill an Insane Man?

Via ‘By any reasonable standard — not to mention the findings of multiple mental-health experts over the years — Mr. Panetti is mentally incompetent. But Texas, along with several other stubborn states, has a long history of finding the loopholes in Supreme Court rulings restricting the death penalty. The state has continued to argue that Mr. Panetti is exaggerating the extent of his illness, and that he understands enough to be put to death — a position a federal appeals court accepted last year, even though it agreed that he was “seriously mentally ill.”

Mr. Panetti has not had a mental-health evaluation since 2007. In a motion hastily filed this month, his volunteer lawyers requested that his execution be stayed, that a lawyer be appointed for him, and that he receive funding for a new mental-health assessment, saying his functioning has only gotten worse. For instance, he now claims that a prison dentist implanted a transmitter in his tooth.

The lawyers would have made this motion weeks earlier, immediately after a Texas judge set Mr. Panetti’s execution date. But since no one — not the judge, not the district attorney, not the attorney general — notified them (or even Mr. Panetti himself), they had no idea their client was scheduled to be killed until they read about it in a newspaper. State officials explained that the law did not require them to provide notification.
On Nov. 19, a Texas court denied the lawyers’ motion. A civilized society should not be in the business of executing anybody. But it certainly cannot pretend to be adhering to any morally acceptable standard of culpability if it kills someone like Scott Panetti.’



He lives, who last night flopped from a log
Into the creek, and all night by an ankle
Lay pinned to the flood, dead as a nail
But for the skin of the teeth of his dog.

I brought him boiled eggs and broth.
He coughed and waved his spoon
And sat up saying he would dine alone,
Being fatigue itself after that bath.

I sat without in the sun with the dog.
Wearing a stocking on the ailing foot,
In monster crutches, he hobbled out,
And addressed the dog in bitter rage.

He told the yellow hound, his rescuer,
Its heart was bad, and it ought
Not wander by the creek at night;
If all his dogs got drowned he would be poor.

He stroked its head and disappeared in the shed
And came out with a stone mallet in his hands
And lifted that rocky weight of many pounds
And let it lapse on top of the dog’s head.

I carted off the carcass, dug it deep.
Then he came too with what a thing to lug,
Or pour on a dog’s grave, his thundermug,
And poured it out and went indoors to sleep.

I saw him sleepless in the pane of glass
Looking wild-eyed at sunset, then the glare
Blinded the glass—only a red square
Burning a house burning in the wilderness.

— Galway Kinnell (1927-2014).

How Could You Not?

— for Jane kenyon

It is a day after many days of storms.
Having been washed and washed, the air glitters;
small heaped cumuli blow across the sky; a shower
visible against the firs douses the crocuses.
We knew it would happen one day this week.
Now, when I learn you have died, I go
to the open door and look across at New Hampshire
and see that there, too, the sun is bright
and clouds are making their shadowy ways along the horizon;
and I think: How could it not have been today?
In another room, Keri Te Kanawa is singing
the Laudate Dominum of Mozart, very faintly,
as if in the past, to those who once sat
in the steel seat of the old mowing machine,
cheerful descendent of the scythe of the grim reaper,
and drew the cutter bars little
reciprocating triangles through the grass
to make the stalks lie down in sunshine.
Could you have walked in the dark early this morning
and found yourself grown completely tired
of the successes and failures of medicine,
of your year of pain and despair remitted briefly
now and then by hope that had that leaden taste?
Did you glimpse in first light the world as you loved it
and see that, now, it was not wrong to die
and that, on dying, you would leave
your beloved in a day like paradise?
Near sunrise did you loosen your hold a little?
How could you not already have felt blessed for good,
having these last days spoken your whole heart to him,
who spoke his whole heart to you, so that in the silence
he would not feel a single word was missing?
How could you not have slipped into a spell,
in full daylight, as he lay next to you,
with his arms around you, as they have been,
it must have seemed, all your life?
How could your cheek not press a moment to his cheek,
which presses itself to yours from now on?
How could you not rise and go, with all that light
at the window, those arms around you, and the sound,
coming or going, hard to say, of a single-engine
plane in the distance that no one else hears?

 — Galway Kinnell (1927-2014)

The Shrinking World of Ideas

Arthur Krystal notes in  The Chronicle of Higher Education that the postmodern ethos has

made a mess of the humanities. That may be why “neurohumanities” are making such headway in academics. But, “…by placing too much faith in the human brain, we may be relinquishing the idea that the mind might one day fathom the human condition.”

How should secular people approach sacred art?

Pelagia Horgan’s meditation on Fra Angelico in Aeon: “For a long time, I loved Angelico as the Mulleavy sisters did – for his use of colour, the way he played with pattern and proportion. He’s always been a favourite; years ago I spent two days in the Louvre in Paris, but all I remember seeing is his Coronation of the Virgin. Yet I hardly thought about the content of his paintings. I loved him for the reasons I loved abstract painters, and grouped him with Josef Albers, Ellsworth Kelly and Rothko in my mind. Whatever his appeal for me, I imagined it could be explained through some combination of colour theory, cognitive science, aesthetic philosophy and mathematics.

But something happened to me in Florence that which changed the way I see him. Before, I’d never encountered more than a couple of Angelico’s paintings at a time. At San Marco, I was surrounded by them. Half an hour into my visit, as I stood in the gallery downstairs, a funny feeling came over me, an extraordinary calm. I felt unusually centred, alert, open to the world, the way I’ve always imagined those Buddhist monks who change their brain waves through a lifetime of meditation must feel.

I noticed something about Angelico’s paintings that I hadn’t before. It had to do with the way his figures used their hands. His is a vision of the world as it might appear through the eyes of a compassionate God: a world in which everything has existential value and nothing is without meaning. What makes his paintings so moving is that the people in them share that vision. You see this in the way they reach out for one other, and touch everything gently, with infinite care, as though it were priceless. With every touch they seem to affirm the sacredness of the world. James had understood this from the start: ‘No later painter,’ he wrote in Italian Hours, ‘learned to render with deeper force than Fra Angelico the one state of the spirit he could conceive – a passionate pious tenderness … his conception of human life was a perpetual sense of sacredly loving and being loved.’

As I looked at the paintings, I realised I was mirroring, slightly, the way the figures carried themselves – the light but steady way they held their bodies, the graceful way they held their hands. This mirroring was the mechanism, I think, behind the sense of deep calm I experienced, a sense of having entered a new atmosphere. I felt I’d encountered an almost physical medium – something I could walk in, be immersed in, something that could change the climate in a room, and make everything feel sweeter, cooler, calmer, brighter than before…


How CGI changed reality on screen

Jonathan Romeny writes (via Aeon),

CGI has become wearingly dull and cliched. Can its deep weirdness be recovered and filmgoers’ minds stretched again?

 “…One tradition in writing about cinema, represented notably by the mid-20th-century French critic André Bazin, asserts the primacy of the photographic capture of the real – the recording on film of objects that have actually existed, events that have actually happened.

Digital cinema rewrites that conception, because we can no longer assume that a screen image represents anything that has ever been real. A landscape might be a composite of several actual landscapes, or wholly or partly fabricated from pixels. Film theory has been forced to confront a radical change in its object of study.

Stephen Prince, professor of cinema studies at Virginia Tech, noted in his essay ‘True Lies’ 1996 that CGI severs the ‘indexical’ or causal connection between an image and the object it represents, which might have no original in the real world; instead, we are presented with imaginary objects that can nonetheless be considered ‘perceptually realistic’.

Another theorist, Lev Manovich, at the City University of New York, has argued that CGI reveals that the conception of photographic recording as essential to cinema was a historic accident, and that the new digital regime returns cinema to its place in an earlier conception of visual representation as involving the manual construction of images. ‘Cinema becomes a particular branch of painting – painting in time,’ he writes in ‘What Is Digital Cinema?’ 1996.

For Bazin, however, the recording of real presences, of people’s real engagement in the material world, comprised a crucial ethical dimension of cinema. And this dimension cannot disappear without making a difference…”


Sham Journal Accepts Totally Absurd But Completely Appropriate Paper

Via io9: ‘The International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology, a predatory open-access journal, has accepted for publication the marvelously titled paper “Get me off Your Fucking Mailing List.”

According to Scholarly Open Access, researchers David Mazières and Eddie Kohler first prepared the manuscript in 2005, to protest spam conference invitations. The paper – which can be read in its entirety here – is superbly summarized by its title, although its two figures do help reify some of its more abstract points:

After receiving a spam email from the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology, Dr. Peter Vamplew of Federation University Australias School of Engineering and Information Technology sent the anti-spam article as a reply to the spam email without any other message, expecting that they might open it and read it, but not that it would be considered for publication.


Astronomers Find Quasars Are “Aligned” Across Billions Of Light-Years

Via IFLScience: ‘Quasars are some of the brightest things known, and at the center of these super luminous nuclei of galaxies are very active supermassive black holes. The black hole is surrounded by a spinning disc of extremely hot material, which gets spewed out in long jets all along the quasar’s axis of rotation.

Quasars separated by billions of light-years are lined up in a mysterious way. Astronomers looking at nearly 100 quasars have discovered that the central black holes of these ultra-bright, faraway galaxies have rotational axes that are aligned with each other. These alignments are the largest known in the universe.’


Reza Aslan: Sam Harris and “New Atheists” aren’t new, aren’t even atheists

Via ‘The appeal of New Atheism is that it offered non-believers a muscular and dogmatic form of atheism specifically designed to push back against muscular and dogmatic religious belief. Yet that is also, in my opinion, the main problem with New Atheism. In seeking to replace religion with secularism and faith with science, the New Atheists have, perhaps inadvertently, launched a movement with far too many similarities to the ones they so radically oppose. Indeed, while we typically associate fundamentalism with religiously zealotry, in so far as the term connotes an attempt to “impose a single truth on the plural world” – to use the definition of noted philosopher Jonathan Sacks – then there is little doubt that a similar fundamentalist mind-set has overcome many adherents of this latest iteration of anti-theism.

Like religious fundamentalism, New Atheism is primarily a reactionary phenomenon, one that responds to religion with the same venomous ire with which religious fundamentalists respond to atheism. What one finds in the writings of anti-theist ideologues like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens is the same sense of utter certainty, the same claim to a monopoly on truth, the same close-mindedness that views one’s own position as unequivocally good and one’s opponent’s views as not just wrong but irrational and even stupid, the same intolerance for alternative explanations, the same rabid adherents as anyone who has dared criticize Dawkins or Harris on social media can attest, and, most shockingly, the same proselytizing fervor that one sees in any fundamentalist community.’




Georgia to execute man whose actively alcoholic lawyer botched his case

Via Boing BoingMike Mechanic from Mother Jones says,


Georgia just set a date Dec. 9 to execute a prisoner named Robert Wayne Holsey, whom Philly death penalty lawyer and essayist Marc Bookman describes as “a low-functioning man with a tortured past.” Yeah, weve heard that before, but heres the thing: Andy Prince, the lawyer the court appointed to represent Holsey was a fucking unbelievable mess–a chronic, severe alcoholic who was stealing from his clients and had been arrested for threatening a black neighbor with a gun, saying, “Nigger, get the fuck out of my yard or Ill shoot your black ass.” Prince was white, and Holsey is black.It gets worse. Prince hired an incompetent co-counsel and gave her no direction whatsoever. He failed to hire a mitigation specialist for the sentencing. Thats the person who digs up evidence to support the argument that the client, although guilty, deserves to live. The court provided money for this, but Prince was unable to account for where it went. He failed to do even the most basic gumshoe work. And then, during the trial, he knocked back a quart—a QUART—of vodka every night. He botched it badly.

In this meticulously written essay, Bookman holds our hand through Prince’s downward spiral and demonstrates just how hard it is for a person to win a resentencing—even under jaw-dropping circumstances such as this.”



Mysterious huge flash illuminates Russian skies

Via Gizmodo: ‘Multiple sightings and dashcam videos of a gigantic yellow flash that covered the skies of the Sverdlovsk region, in Russia, have been reported on the night of November 14. Scientists and local authorities still dont know what it is or where did it come from.’


Great reason not to rake your leaves this weekend

Via USA Today: ‘The National Wildlife Federation is encouraging people to leave the leaves.On its website, the NWF says dry, dead leaves are important habitats for all kinds of critters…

Butterflies, salamanders, chipmunks, box turtles, toads, shrews, earthworms, and other creatures live, lay eggs in or eat from leaves, according to NWFs plea with the public to let the leaves stay where gravity left them. “I care about the lifer cycle of all the insects that live in my yard,” said Sarah Moore of the Pacific Science Centers indoor butterfly garden. “I want to be a habitat.” ‘


“A Fine Doctor He Was, and a Fine Man”

peterHis sister Yvonne writes about my friend Peter Baginsky, 1950-2014:

‘As many of you will know,  there have been so many ‘miracles’ on this journey:  Peter’s successful  8-hour ‘brain-mapping’ operation at UCSF one week after diagnosis in January 2009; his brave and often excruciating,  but again successful, experience with radiotherapy and three chemotherapy drugs for the year following surgery.  Then four years in which, with powerful patience, focus and determination – and joy –  he managed to pick up his work as a diabetes specialist in N. California, his teaching as a much-loved Professor at Touro Medical School in San Francisco, and his research devoted to developing a new fast-food test to identify pre-diabetes.

But glioblastomas are fiercely aggressive tumours, and, allegedly,  always recur.   Peter’s recurred with such force in January that it threw him off his chair onto the floor in the middle of a residents’ teaching session, completely smashing his upper thigh and hip.  An immediate emergency hip replacement operation followed, then four more as the new hip kept dislocating, and suddenly he was in a wheel chair, trying to learn how to walk again.

In March, by now very seriously ill, Peter bravely flew to Zurich, Switzerland, where, on a clinical trial, he became the first person in the world to be successfully treated by a revolutionary new treatment called MRI-guided Focused Ultrasound: “ein Wunder!” – a miracle! – the specially assembled team of neurosurgeons, physicists, and engineers called it.

For six months the normally rapidly-growing tumour was, amazingly, completely static and even seemed to be shrinking slightly.  But then in September, so sadly and disappointingly, things started to get difficult.  Patient, hopeful, strong and determined as ever, Peter decided to go back on one of the chemo drugs he’d responded well to in 2009.  But he gradually lost his voice, and then couldn’t open his eyes, and one whole side became weaker and weaker.

Last Thursday suddenly things seemed to take a turn for the worse. Despite his strength, determination, and seemingly never-flagging hope and  good  cheer, my brother Peter died on Friday, 14 November , at 1:20pm at his home in California, with his wife, son and daughter by his side.

In all this time, through all these rollercoaster years, none of us –  his family, friends, students, patients, doctors, nurses – ever heard even the tiniest word of complaint or hint of irritability. In the most undignified and painful situations, he remained a person of great dignity, considerate and gentle.   As one of his family’s friends just wrote:  “a fine doctor he was, and a fine man”. ‘

White House reviewing policy toward U.S. hostages held by militants

White House reviewing policy toward U.S. hostages held by militants | Reuters

Via Reuters:  ‘ABC News reported that a Pentagon official wrote last week to U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter that the review would include an emphasis “on examining family engagement, intelligence collection, and diplomatic engagement policies.”It added that a Nov. 11 letter to Hunter from Christine Wormuth, undersecretary of defense for policy, did not explicitly address the issue of ransom payments, which it is U.S. policy not to pay.’


Fifteen Years of Fun


Follow Me Here began on November 19, 1999, a long time ago and far away. Happy to continue to send the occasional missive your way, but be mindful:


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The Worlds Tiniest Countries and the Eccentrics Who Rule Them

Via WIRED: ‘Never heard of the Imperial Kingdom of Calsahara? The Conch Republic? The Principality of Sealand? You’re not alone.​ Léo Delafontaine hadn’t either until 2012, when he visited the Republic of Saugeais, a self-proclaimed micronation in eastern France. He’s since become fascinated with “countries” unrecognized by world governments and organizations. His book Micronations​ documents independent states that are just as varied and interesting as their official counterparts….

French writer and historian Bruno Fuligni, who wrote the introduction to Micronations, estimates there are more than 400 of these self-proclaimed entities.

Delfontaine visited 12 locations throughout the US, Europe, and Australia. They included monarchies, republics, “funny dictatorships,” and some with no government at all. He earned citizenship in three—the Principality of Sealand, the Principality of Seborga, and the Conch Republic….’


Where Are the Hardest Places to Live in the U.S.?

Via ‘…[We looked] at six data points for each county in the United States: education percentage of residents with at least a bachelor’s degree, median household income, unemployment rate, disability rate, life expectancy and obesity. We then averaged each county’s relative rank in these categories to create an overall ranking.We tried to include other factors, including income mobility and measures of environmental quality, but we were not able to find data sets covering all counties in the United States.

The 10 lowest counties in the country, by this ranking, include a cluster of six in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky Breathitt, Clay, Jackson, Lee, Leslie and Magoffin, along with four others in various parts of the rural South: Humphreys County, Miss.; East Carroll Parish, La.; Jefferson County, Ga.; and Lee County, Ark.’


Let’s Just Say It: Women Matter More Than Fetuses Do

Rebecca Traister: ‘During both of my pregnancies, I have monitored the weeks available for legal abortion with the same precision that I used to keep track of when to get the nuchal screening, the amnio, the gestational diabetes test. To me, abortion belongs to the same category as the early Cesarean I will need to undergo because of previous surgeries. That is to say, it is a crucial medical option, a cornerstone in women’s reproductive health care. And during pregnancy, should some medical, economic, or emotional circumstance have caused my fate to be weighed against that of my baby, I believe that my rights, my health, my consciousness, and my obligations to others—including to my toddler daughter—outweigh the rights of the unborn human inside me.’ (via New Republic)

Set Up a Financial Trust For Your Pet If You Die… No, Seriously

Via Lifehacker: ‘Sure, we can chuckle when someone leaves money for a pet. What will your pet do with the money? Nothing, but you want to make sure someone takes care of your pet. While you cant directly leave money for them, you might set up a trust.Forbes covers the serious issue of how youll make sure that someone takes care of your pet after you die. They cover two types of pet trusts…’


Where Hell Is Other Patients

Via ‘In the public imagination, forensic mental hospitals — where states place the criminally insane — are hellish scenes of cages and restraints, the better to keep us safe from the Hannibal Lecters of the world.

And it’s true that these hospitals, including the one where I work, are hellish. But not because the patients are restrained. In fact, it’s the opposite. Patients, even violent ones, are often given a shocking amount of freedom. As a consequence, every day, across the country, these hospitals record dozens of assaults by patients against staff members and other patients — a situation that, thanks to expanded patients’ rights laws and state health bureaucracies, we can do almost nothing about…

To be clear, not all, or even a majority, of patients are actively violent. Just 15 percent of patients at most hospitals are responsible for 90 percent of the assaults. And yet at almost every state forensic facility I have encountered, there is an epidemic of assaults by violent patients.How have things come to this? After the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s and the introduction of effective antipsychotic medications, most hospitals were emptied of “regular” — largely nonviolent — mentally ill patients; those vacancies were filled by the growing number of people who were successfully pleading not guilty for reason of insanity.

But state hospitals are ill-prepared to deal with these often dangerous and violent persons. A large part of the problem stems from our legal system, where the notion of patients’ rights has triumphed over common sense and safety. For example, despite criminally insane patients being remanded by the courts for psychiatric treatment, many states allow them to refuse both therapy and medication.

A second difficulty is bad hospital policy: At many state forensic facilities, there are no guards, and untreated psychotic patients are allowed to mix freely with the staff. Perhaps because the extent of violence in forensic hospitals is difficult to imagine, it’s easier for hospital administrations, elected state officials and governors to ignore.

Still harder to explain is the silence of mental health activist and regulatory groups — the American Civil Liberties Union, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Generally at the forefront of worker and patient safety issues, these organizations have inexplicably done very little…’


Gut–brain link grabs neuroscientists

3quarksdaily: Gut–brain link grabs neuroscientists

Via 3quarksdaily: “Companies selling ‘probiotic’ foods have long claimed that cultivating the right gut bacteria can benefit mental well-being, but neuroscientists have generally been sceptical. Now there is hard evidence linking conditions such as autism and depression to the gut’s microbial residents, known as the microbiome. And neuroscientists are taking notice — not just of the clinical implications but also of what the link could mean for experimental design… This year, the US National Institute of Mental Health spent more than US$1 million on a new research programme aimed at the microbiome–brain connection. And on 19 November, neuroscientists will present evidence for the link in a symposium at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington DC called ‘Gut Microbes and the Brain: Paradigm Shift in Neuroscience’. “

Killer whales can learn to “speak dolphin”

Via  ‘[T]his study suggests that, given a chance, different species of cetaceans may be able to learn to communicate with each other. Scientists noticed that killer whales who had spent time with bottlenose dolphins incorporated more clicking and whistles in their vocalizations than other whales, making their “language” a mashup of the two. In fact, one whale was able to learn the sounds taught to a dolphin trained by people! Although we don’t know what these different languages mean, or how much information is being transmitted between the species, it’s clear that these animals are motivated to learn to make each other’s sounds.’


Study: What Your Brain Is Doing When You Really, Really Hate Someone

Via io9:  ‘[Subjects stared] first at the picture of a person the subjects had neutral feelings toward, and then at the picture of someone they hated. The subjects did this while hooked up to an MRI, allowing the researchers to see which parts of the brain were activated and deactivated…

The parts of the brain activated, the medial frontal gyrus, the right putamen, the medial insula, and the premotor cortex, have come to be known as the “hate circuit.” The premotor cortex is one part of the brain that springs into action when people have feelings of aggression. When we hate, at least part of us is preparing for a physical attack. The frontal gyrus deals with self-awareness, and is involved in go/no go decisions. This part of the brain seems to be in league, however tentatively with the premotor cortex. Haters using the “hate circuit,” then, seem to always be wondering if its the right time to move against the object of their hatred.’


Common Pesticides May Be Causing Clinical Depression

Via io9: ‘A landmark 20-year study indicates that 7 pesticides, some widely used, may be causing clinical depression in farmers. The precise reason remains unknown, but researchers suspect its related to the fact that the chemicals—designed to disrupt the nervous systems of insects—are also affecting human neurologic functions.’

And exactly why should anyone be surprised by this news?


Scientists Discover ‘Stupidity Virus’

Via io9:  ‘U.S. scientists studying throat microbes have inadvertently stumbled upon an algae virus that appears to have a slight but measurable detrimental affect on cognitive functioning in humans, including visual processing and spatial orientation. Disturbingly, millions of us could already be infected.’


The Four Types of Sleep Schedules

The Four Types of Sleep Schedules - The Atlantic

Via The Atlantic:  ‘“[O]wls”—people who prefer to wake up late and are more alert in the evenings [are] one of two basic chronotypes, or preferred sleep schedules. The other is “larks,” or crazy people those who prefer early mornings.But now, scientists in Russia are proposing that there are actually four chronotypes: In addition to early and late risers, they say, there are also people who feel energetic in both the mornings and evenings, as well as people who feel lethargic all day.’

I’ve been one of the lucky ones. However, I think one’s sleep type can change with age, and I am clearly losing my ability to burn the candle at both ends.


What Will Be the Coldest Day in Your City This Year?

Via CityLab:  ‘Attention, employees who wish to time their “sick days” with the most frigid, butt-chapping weather: Want to know what portion of your calendar to mark off with a big, red X?Its impossible to identify the exact dates for the coldest time of year, as weather changes constantly, but we can make an educated guess looking back over decades of temperature records. And thats what the folks at NOAAs National Climatic Data Center have done with this illuminating map of bottom-barrel temps throughout the U.S:’


How Your Brain Gaslights You—for Your Own Good

Via Nautilus:  ‘When we look at the world, it certainly feels like we’re seeing things as they really are, our senses measuring reality in an objective way. But numerous experiments have shown that the way we see the world is influenced by what we can do with it.

This way of thinking was pioneered by psychologist James Gibson, who came up with the idea of “affordances”: A ball affords picking up, and a hallway affords walking along it. When we look at a button, we perceive the affordance of pressing it. These are not optical illusions, as such, but changes in how we see the world according to what we want and can do. Here are some fascinating examples.
The perceived height of a balcony is increased if you are afraid of falling. Hills look steeper if you’re elderly, tired, or wearing a heavy backpack; they look less steep after you consume a high-calorie drink. Because descending a hill is more dangerous than going up it, hills look steeper from the top than from the bottom. That’s also why kids on the ground might think a tree is not too high, but after they climb it, they’re not so sure.

Hungry men prefer the looks of women with more weight on them, while men who are full prefer thinner women. We can speculate on the reasons for this. It might be that hunger is associated with lean eating times, and during those times, someone with enough resources to put on weight might be at an advantage to someone who’s thinner. This is supported by the finding that in poor areas, cultural ideals of feminine beauty are heavier than those in more affluent cultures, where the ideal woman is relatively thinner.Food and drinks also look different according to our internal states. Thirsty people see bottles of water as being closer than people who aren’t thirsty. Your need for water makes the bottle look closer to encourage you to reach for it.

In general, we see desirable objects as closer. Dieters see muffins as being bigger than non-dieters do. This raises an interesting question: If people want to diet, then shouldn’t the food look smaller, and less appealing? The answer could be that the changes in perception work according to our subconscious drives, and less by our explicit goals. When you are dieting, you are often at war with yourself. Part of you wants the muffin, and part of you doesn’t. Looks like the part that wants the muffin has more control over your perception.

Threatening things, such as spiders, are also perceived to be closer, and also larger. At first glance, these two findings may seem mysterious, even contradictory: Why would frightening things and desirable things look closer? Certainly your mind isn’t encouraging you to reach out and touch the spider like it is in the muffin case. A desirable thing appearing closer encourages you to try to get it. A frightening thing appearing closer makes an already dangerous situation appear more urgent, encouraging you to get away. Hope and fear are compelling. It’s the middle ground that’s boring. So even though both good and bad things look closer, it makes sense because closeness encourages different behaviors in these cases.

Physiological states, such as low blood glucose, and social states, such as what kinds of friends are nearby, affect our perceptions of the world. We have evolved to manage the resources we have, and our perceptual system helps us do that by changing our perceptions depending on the available resources.’

Learning How Little We Know About the Brain

via ‘So many large and small questions remain unanswered. How is information encoded and transferred from cell to cell or from network to network of cells? Science found a genetic code but there is no brain-wide neural code; no electrical or chemical alphabet exists that can be recombined to say “red” or “fear” or “wink” or “run.” And no one knows whether information is encoded differently in various parts of the brain.’

The Brain Makes Its Own Ghosts

A Robot That Makes You Feel Like a Ghost Is Behind You - The Atlantic

Via The Atlantic: ‘In a new study, researchers were able to induce people to feel a presence behind them using a robot, which has implications for understanding schizophrenia and consciousness itself.

The sense of someone near you when no one is actually there is called “feeling of presence” or FOP, apparently, according to a new study in Current Biology that identified the regions of the brain associated with this sensation and, wildly, recreated it in a lab setting.’


‘Nuff said

Via Boing Boing: ‘A woman was arrested in Ocala, Florida, on Saturday after police say they found marijuana and prescription drugs in her car. ‘


How to Check if Your Universe Should Exist

Via WIRED: ‘Many physicists loathe the multiverse hypothesis, deeming it a cop-out of infinite proportions. But as attempts to paint our universe as an inevitable, self-contained structure falter, the multiverse camp is growing.The problem remains how to test the hypothesis. Proponents of the multiverse idea must show that, among the rare universes that support life, ours is statistically typical. The exact dose of vacuum energy, the precise mass of our underweight Higgs boson, and other anomalies must have high odds within the subset of habitable universes. If the properties of this universe still seem atypical even in the habitable subset, then the multiverse explanation fails.’


R.I.P. Tom Magliozzi

One Half of the Jovial Brothers on ‘Car Talk’ Dies at 77: ‘Tom Magliozzi, who with his younger brother, Ray, hosted “Car Talk,” for years the most popular entertainment show on NPR, died on Monday at his home outside Boston. He was 77.The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, NPR said.The weekly hourlong “Car Talk,” which was broadcast for more than 30 years, was ostensibly about mechanical problems with cars, but the format was mainly an excuse for the brothers, known as Click and Clack, to banter with callers about the mysteries of life, as viewed through an automotive prism: Why does a car suddenly stop working? Should I give this clunker one more chance? Why won’t my husband pay for a mechanic to fix our car? (via

Why Innocent People Plead Guilty

Via The New York Review of Books: ‘The criminal justice system in the United States today bears little relationship to what the Founding Fathers contemplated, what the movies and television portray, or what the average American believes.

To the Founding Fathers, the critical element in the system was the jury trial, which served not only as a truth-seeking mechanism and a means of achieving fairness, but also as a shield against tyranny. As Thomas Jefferson famously said, “I consider [trial by jury] as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”

The Sixth Amendment guarantees that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.” The Constitution further guarantees that at the trial, the accused will have the assistance of counsel, who can confront and cross-examine his accusers and present evidence on the accused’s behalf. He may be convicted only if an impartial jury of his peers is unanimously of the view that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and so states, publicly, in its verdict.

The drama inherent in these guarantees is regularly portrayed in movies and television programs as an open battle played out in public before a judge and jury. But this is all a mirage. In actuality, our criminal justice system is almost exclusively a system of plea bargaining, negotiated behind closed doors and with no judicial oversight. The outcome is very largely determined by the prosecutor alone.

In 2013, while 8 percent of all federal criminal charges were dismissed either because of a mistake in fact or law or because the defendant had decided to cooperate, more than 97 percent of the remainder were resolved through plea bargains, and fewer than 3 percent went to trial. The plea bargains largely determined the sentences imposed.’


The planet’s deadliest infectious diseases, by country

Via ‘The worst Ebola outbreak in history has killed nearly 5,000 people and infected more than 10,000 in West Africa. In places like Monrovia, Liberia, people are living a nightmare, but if you live anywhere else in the world outside of West Africa — literally, anywhere — your odds of contracting Ebola are somewhere between “very unlikely” and “zero,” even if you went bowling in Brooklyn last week.

Your chance of contracting and dying from a different infectious disease, on the other hand, can be quite high. “Tuberculosis” and “AIDS” aren’t trending on Twitter, but they probably should be.That’s the big lesson of these maps, which use data from the World Health Organization to show you the deadliest infectious diseases around the world.’


Reboot Your iPhone Before Being Detained by Police to Disable Touch ID

Via Lifehacker: ‘The Virginia Circuit Court ruled this week that you dont have to give up your passcode to police if youre detained. Thats great news, but apparently fingerprints are a different story, so if you have Touch ID enabled, you could still be forced to unlock your phone.

Basically, fingerprints don’t fall under the 5th Amendment like a passcode does, so a police officer who cant force you to unlock your iOS device with your passcode could make you do it with your fingerprint. The solution? If you’re detained, reset your iOS device hold the Home and Power button for a few seconds before you have to hand it over. Touch ID doesn’t work on the first boot.’