21 September 2014

Childhood friends



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White House Security Boosted After 2 Incidents in 24 Hours | TIME


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Mark Seymour

Watch How Apple’s iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus Fare In a Drop Test | TIME


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Mark Seymour

History for the day

On 21 September 1938, a hurricane struck parts of New York and New England, causing widespread damage and claiming more than six hundred lives.

Pirates return to raise money in Marcus Hook



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Drone captures progress of Apple's 'spaceship' campus project | ZDNet



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Meet Zuta, the tiny printer that drives itself to make documents on the go | ZDNet



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The Apple phish are flying | ZDNet



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Still with us

Rico's friend Kelley forwards this photo of Sophia Loren, (then and now) still among us:

20 September 2014

NASA for the day

Paca Thomas and Jeffrey Bloomer have a Slate article about a problematic photo:
This summer an odd shape in one photo of the Moon led some to conclude a man, or perhaps an alien, had posed for an orbiting camera. The shadowy man joined several other objects recently “discovered” from photos of Mars, including a thigh bone, an iguana, a cat, two dinosaurs, and jelly doughnuts.
Every photo in question was quickly explained but, for NASA, armchair conspiracies never really die. In 1976, a photograph of the Cydonia region of Mars showed something so powerful it inspired movies and television shows decades after it was debunked. The video (above) considers the strange, enduring legacy of the “Mars face”.
Rico says people will believe almost anything...

Russia for the day

Slate has an article by Ben Mathis-Lilley entitled A Very Matter-of-Fact Interview About the Russian Tradition of Arresting Billionaires and Taking Their Stuff:
Vladimir Yevtushenkov (photo) is a hugely wealthy Russian business figure whose Sistema group controls the oil company Bashneft and the mobile phone company MTS. He was put under house arrest this week on charges of money laundering, though there has been some public pushback to his detention, and he may or may not have been freed with a promise not to leave the country. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has an explanatory interview about the arrest with another wealthy Russian, the exiled Yevgeny Chichvarkin. Chichvarkin's straightforward take on the situation: "The Crimea was up for grabs; they took it. Bashneft is up for grabs; they will take it, too", would be funny if it weren't for the fact that the lawlessly plutocratic leader being described (Vladimir Putin) controls one of the most powerful armies in the world.
Radio Free Europe: What's going to happen to Yevtushenkov now? What are his options?
Chichvarkin: He will give up Bashneft, he will spend two or three years being questioned, and give tons of money to the chekists [the officials close to Russia's state-security organs] to obtain the closure of his criminal case. That's the best-case scenario. In the worst-case scenario, they will also seize his telecom assets and create a Russian united telecommunication corporation or something in that vein.
Rico says we have a few billionaires worth arresting...

Pirates for the day

Slate has an article, Why Do Pirates Talk Like That?, by Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist and the contributing editor of Slate's Lexicon Valley blog:
Break out the Arrrrr, me hearties, because today is International Talk Like A Pirate Day! But where does our idea of pirate speech come from?
Although popular pirate literature dates from the 1700s, starting with A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates in 1724 and reaching its heyday around the publication of Treasure Island (1883), pirate speech didn't always sound like it does now.  In The Pirates of Penzance (1879), for example, there is nary an "avast" nor "matey" in earshot. But then, Gilbert and Sullivan's pirates are atypical for other reasons: the opening song, for example, has them drinking sherry, not the now-traditional rum.
The linguist Molly Babel points out that our current associations of pirate speech came about largely through film, and that one of the primary influences was the native West Country dialect of Robert Newton, who played the main characters in several early pirate movies: Treasure Island in 1950, Blackbeard the Pirate in 1952, and Long John Silver in 1954. In a selection of some of Newton's finest piratical moments, you can already hear some of the phrases that would become standard pirate fare, such as "flay your shriveled tongue" and "scurvy dog".
So influential was Newton and his interpretation that a variation of West Country English became standard for subsequent portrayals of pirates on stage and screen. In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, Babel elaborated on the similarities between the two:
Speakers of the West Country regional dialect tend to emphasize their r's, unlike other British regions, said Babel. They tend to replace the verbs 'is' and 'are' with 'be,' and indeed, use the word 'arrr' in place of 'yes.' "If you go to really rural places you'd probably still find people say, 'I'm sitting in me chair', " Babel said, cautioning that, despite the continued usage of these terms, locals probably wouldn't sound all that much like pirates anymore.
Other features, like the use of do to express a repeated or habitual action, are found among older speakers of West Country English but are perhaps too subtle for most imitators of pirate speech.
It's not entirely arbitrary that Newton should have used an exaggeration of his own dialect to play Long John Silver. The West Country (the southwest corner of England, including Cornwall, Somerset, Devon, Dorset, and Bristol) has a long seafaring tradition, and so many historical pirates would likely have spoken in a similar way. Both Blackbeard and Sir Francis Drake were from that area, although Drake was technically a privateer.
Interestingly, the West Country's influence on popular culture isn't just pirate speech. Newfoundland English is ultimately related to that of the founding settlers from the West Country, and it's also the dialect of the incredibly catchy 1976 hit song Combine Harvester. But perhaps the most famous inhabitant of the West Country is Hagrid from the Harry Potter series. Can't you just imagine Hagrid saying: "Yer a pirate, Harry"?
Rico says he almost missed Talk Like A Pirate Day but, arrgh, fortunately didn't...

Scotland the not-so-brave

Slate has an article by Boer Deng about the recent Scottish referendum:
After a “no” result in Scotland’s independence referendum, the leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond (photo), has announced that he will resign. During his decades-long career, Salmond turned the SNP from a messy political organ into the most popular party in Scotland by membership. He will also be resigning his position as First Minister, the head of Scotland’s "devolved" parliament in Edinburgh, a post he has held since May of 2007. From the BBC:
Salmond said: "For me as leader my time is nearly over but, for Scotland, the campaign continues and the dream shall never die." Speaking from Bute House in Edinburgh, the first minister's official residence, he told journalists: "I am immensely proud of the campaign that Yes Scotland fought and particularly of the 1.6 million voters who rallied to that cause."
Salmond, 59, who has led his party for a total of twenty years, also said there were a "number of eminently qualified and very suitable candidates for leader", although the current deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon, also deputy SNP leader, would be seen as a clear frontrunner. Salmond’s brand of Scottish nationalism galvanized the Yes campaign, but ultimately came up short, following a late surge in efforts from the unionist side, including recent, passionate appeals from Gordon Brown, the former Labour prime minister of the UK and a Scot. More than 1.6 million Scots voted for independence in the referendum.
Rico says they wouldn't have liked independence, and the Brits would've missed them...

More Apple for the day

Will Oremus has a Slate article about the new iPhones:
As I stood in line at my local AT&T store, preparing to plunk down four hundred bucks for Apple’s next big thing, a fear crept into my thoughts: what if the iPhone 6 Plus is too big to fit into my pants pocket? Am I going to have to start carrying a purse?
This, of course, is not a novel problem. Half the smartphone-buying population has been grappling with it stoically for years, because the pockets on women’s clothing tend to be Lilliputian. Only with the growing popularity of “phablets” like the 6 Plus and the Samsung Galaxy Note, however, has the pocket-or-purse dilemma begun to affect men. Predictably, we’re freaking out.
As it turned out, however, I had no problem sliding the iPhone 6 Plus into the pockets of my Uniqlo chinos. One of my colleagues, whose sartorial taste skews toward elfin hipster jeans, had somewhat more difficulty when he tried my new phone on for size. I'm guessing he'll opt for a smaller version.
Yet, just as I began to rejoice that I hadn’t wasted my money on a phone I couldn’t carry, a different drawback became apparent: there’s no easy way to use the device with just one hand. Over the years, I’ve grown blithely accustomed to the notion that operating a smartphone is a single-handed endeavor. Not only can I comfortably cradle the iPhone 5 in my palm, but the tips of my fingers have no trouble reaching the farthest corners of the screen. I’ve even mastered the art of swatting home runs one-handed on my favorite little time-wasting mobile game, 9 Innings Pro Baseball.
No more. Just typing in your passcode to unlock the 6 Plus requires either a second hand or a feat of manual acrobatics. Reaching the top buttons on the home screen— you know, trivial things like “messages”, “photos”, and “camera”— is out of the question, unless you’re Kawhi Leonard.
When Apple announced the 6 Plus, I noted that it had included a feature that allows you to pull the top buttons halfway down the screen by double-tapping the home button. I did not anticipate that I would quickly come to rely on this feature for almost everything I need to do on the phone.
Opening my Gmail app and composing a message used to require just three actions:
Tap to open the app
Tap the “compose” button
Start typing
Now it requires the following finger dance:
Double-tap the home button to bring the Gmail app within reach
Tap to open the app
Double-tap the home button to bring the compose button within reach
Tap the “compose” button
Start typing
That might sound like a small difference. If you use your phone a lot, it isn’t. It nearly doubles the amount of time it takes to complete certain tasks. And while the double-tap feature makes it relatively easy to reach the top of the screen, it remains a struggle to reach the sides without dropping the device altogether. Two of the people I to whom I briefly loaned the phone managed to fumble it within the first thirty seconds.
The obvious solution is simply to use two hands at all times. I get that. The 6 Plus works beautifully in landscape mode, and its spacious screen shines when it comes to reading articles, watching videos, or playing games. Its battery life, reputed to be significantly longer than that of the iPhone 6, was a major selling point for me. Like the Galaxy Note, this is a phone that some people will love even as others mock and eschew it. I have a feeling that my father, who happily sported a bulky Handspring Treo at a time when everyone else was buying Motorola Razrs, will be a fan.
Unlike the Galaxy Note, however (or the Treo, for that matter), the 6 Plus doesn’t come with a stylus, and it wasn’t explicitly marketed as a compromise between a phone and a tablet. No Galaxy Note buyer should be surprised to find that her device is ungainly. Apple addicts, on the other hand, may have been lulled by the company’s marketing to believe that it would never sell them a phone that didn’t feel Mama Bear’s–chair perfect in their palms.
A device that requires two hands is a device that demands your full attention. It’s not a device you can whip out of your pocket and glance at quickly in between other tasks. It’s not a device you can use to quickly scan your email while carrying a grocery bag or hanging onto a subway pole. And perhaps that was Apple’s intention all along: an awkwardly sized phone might be just the incentive some people need to buy a $350 smartwatch.
I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll eventually grow dexterous enough with the 6 Plus that its virtues begin to overshadow its limitations. But, at this point, I’m also not ruling out the possibility that I’ll be back in line at that same AT&T store within two weeks to exchange it for something more manageable.
Rico says there's already an article by Chris Wade about the solution: Apple Pants:
People are lining up all over the world to get their hands on the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. But once they have these large new devices, where will they put them? Apple has the answer in a new product that’s nothing short of revolutionary:

And another article, by Will Oremus, invoking the ghost of Steve Jobs:
At a launch event in Cupertino, California, Apple revealed its two newest pocket computers. The iPhone 6 has a 4.7-inch screen that is significantly larger than the four-inch display on the iPhone 5 and 5S. And, as its name implies, the iPhone 6 Plus is bigger still, with a 5.5-inch screen that approaches the size of so-called "phablets" like Samsung's Galaxy Note.
To take advantage of their larger screens, Apple's new phones are designed to be held horizontally in many cases. Some apps will reveal a second display panel when you turn the phone on its side. And for the first time, the phone's home screen will rotate to accommodate a horizontal posture.
Apple CEO Tim Cook called the new phones "the biggest advancement in the history of the iPhone," which sounds like quite a claim until you realize that (a) it's partly just a reference to their size, and (b) Apple executives always heap superlatives on their new devices, even when they aren't particularly revolutionary.
Screen size aside, the new devices look like about as much of an advancement over last year's models as you'd expect. Both are not only larger than their predecessors but pack in more pixels, resulting in what Apple calls a Retina HD display, with resolutions of 1334 x 750 pixels for the 6 and a legitimately impressive 1920 x 1080 for the larger 6 Plus. Both have the capability to record high-resolution, 1080p video at either thirty or sixty frames per second via a front-facing eight-megapixel camera. On the 6 Plus, that camera comes with optical image stabilization to better compensate for your shaky hands. Both phones are also somewhat thinner than the 5S, at 6.8 and 7.1 mm, respectively, versus 7.6 for the previous model. Their glass screens go all the way from one side of the phone to the other, creating almost an infinity-pool kind of effect, with the glass curving at the edges. They're good-looking phones.
Other incremental improvements include:
Support for Voice Over LTE
Wi-Fi calling
An A8 processor that is both faster and smaller than the A7
A barometer that can track your elevation, so that you can see not only how many steps you've taken, but how high you've climbed
Apple claims the new phones' battery life will match or exceed that of the 5S, which would be impressive, if true, given their size.
The new releases are in keeping with Apple's recent history of releasing new hardware whose greatest improvements lie in their technical specifications, rather than entirely fresh features. The strategy has been working so far, with global iPhone sales reaching new heights in the past year, although it has led to some grumbling from those who expect magic and miracles every time out.
The new iPhones will be available starting on 19 September 2014. If you're buying them on contract, prices will range from $199 to $399 for the 6 and $299 to $499 for the 6 Plus, depending on the amount of storage you desire. Without a contract, they'll be exorbitant, as always.
Details and technical specs aside, the success of the 6 and 6 Plus will hinge on consumers' response to their larger screens. "No one's going to buy that," Steve Jobs once sniped about phones whose screens were larger than the original iPhone's 3.5 inches. "You can't get your hand around it."
It's true that phablets aren't for everyone. Still, Apple's rivals have since proven that larger screens hold plenty of appeal in an age where people do more and more reading, typing, and movie-watching on their phones. You can work all the technological wonders you want but, when it comes to screen size, bigger is simply better. The only question is whether it's worth the tradeoff in terms of portability.
Back when people used phones mainly to make calls, Jobs was probably right to go small. It's hard to say whether he would have changed his mind if he were still alive. But Apple clearly has, and that's not a bad thing. With the 6 Plus, Apple has at least tried to help out the small-handed with a new feature that brings the top buttons partway down the screen when you double-tap the home button.
I expect the larger phones will be a hit, just as all of Apple's previous phones have been (with the possible exception of the desultory 5C.) But it will not escape the notice of the gadget-savvy that, after years of accusing Samsung of copying its phones, Apple's newest offerings are following a path that Samsung helped to blaze.
The phones, by the way, were not the only thing Apple introduced, and the other is far more ambitious. It's called the Apple Watch, and I'll have a separate post on it shortly. Until then, you can find the basics here.
One amusing side note for those who were closely following today's proceedings: Apple hilariously botched the live stream of its own event, with the feed repeatedly cutting out and occasionally throwing up unsightly error messages. When it did work, the Apple executives' voices were at times competing with a muddled voiceover from a Chinese translator. In a terse non-apology, the company blamed "exceptionally high demand".
Rico says if you want perfection, you'll have to wait... 

Japan, ignoring the law, yet again

Slate has an article by Filipa Ioannou about illegal whaling:
Continuing a pattern of controversial activity that has earned it international criticism for years, Japan has decided to ignore the International Whaling Commission by continuing whaling in 2015. According to an account of the situation in The Guardian, a new Commission resolution outlines criteria by which whaling can be considered permissible research; Japan says its whaling does constitute research (though any resulting meat is sold commercially), but would need to stop whaling activity until 2016 and submit a plan to the IWC next year in order to meet the new guidelines.
As National Geographic explains, whaling for scientific research has been an exception to the IWC moratorium on whaling since 1986. While Iceland and Norway, both Commission members, engage in commercial whaling despite IWC bans, Japan is the only country currently whaling in international waters. One of the most vocal critics of Japan's whaling activity has been Australia, which accuses Japan of using science as a front for commercial activity. The Australian government says Japan has killed ten thousand whales since the 1986 ban went into effect.
Whale meat gained popularity in Japan during post-World War Two food shortages. Some have suggested the Japanese government's continued whaling, despite years of international criticism is driven by the meat's historical relationship with national food security. Others theorize that Japan may fear backing down on whaling will make its lucrative bluefin tuna trade subject to more international pressure. In any case, whaling is hardly the Japanese dietary staple it once was; a 2012 poll by the Nippon Research Center found almost ninety percent of people surveyed hadn't bought whale meat in the last year.
Rico says he hasn't bought whale meat, ever, and doesn't intend to. (But Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd need to step up their anti-whaling activities, obviously...)

Apple for the day

Brian Chen has an article in The New York Times about the new iPhone:
For Apple, the unveiling of new iPhones is like the debut of a blockbuster movie. Eager fans lined up to be the first (photo) to experience the new gadgets. And investors will closely watch first-weekend sales, in much the same way movie producers track box office numbers.
Expectations for this year’s batch of iPhones are generally high. The two new models— the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus— are significant upgrades, with much larger screens than past models. They cater to growing consumer demand for bigger screens on smartphones.
Most of the people lining up for new iPhones this weekend will probably be Apple customers most enthusiastic about having the next shiny new iThing. But if history is a measure, first-weekend sales are a strong indicator of overall demand for Apple’s phones.
In 2012, Apple sold five million iPhone 5 smartphones in the first three days they were on sale. Then, during the holiday quarter, the most lucrative period for Apple and tech companies in general, Apple sold about fifty million iPhones, compared with forty million in the same period a year earlier.
Last year, Apple sold nine million of its iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C devices in the first three days they were on sale. Then, over the holiday quarter, Apple sold fifty million of them. So, if the new iPhones with larger screens bring in big first-weekend numbers, that could indicate another immensely profitable holiday quarter for Apple. Analysts’ predictions, however, are mixed.
Maynard Um, a financial analyst for Wells Fargo, expects this weekend’s iPhone sales to be high. He said that, based partly on the four million early online orders for the new iPhones, Apple should sell them in the “low teens” of millions, which would be much higher than first-weekend sales for past models.
Toni Sacconaghi, an analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein, has lower expectations, because the sales number will depend largely on how many iPhones that Apple can make. He believes that Apple will sell from seven to eight million new iPhones this weekend. Many people who ordered the devices online have reported estimated delivery times of up to a month. That suggests Apple may be facing tighter supply constraints for the new iPhones compared with past models, Sacconaghi said. He also noted that, unlike last year’s iPhones, the latest ones will not initially go on sale in China, the largest smartphone market in the world.
Gene Munster, an analyst for Piper Jaffray, offered an even lower estimate of just over six million units. Like Sacconaghi, Munster said the number of iPhones that Apple can sell this weekend will depend on the number it can provide to retailers. And multiple signs point to a tight supply.
That, Munster said, is why first-weekend numbers may no longer be a reliable indicator of overall demand for iPhones. “The trouble is, they’ve gotten so big, in so many retail points, that the speed of which they fill up those retail points adds a lot of confusion to the opening number,” he said.
A clearer indicator of consumer demand at this point may be the four million early online orders for new iPhones. That number signals strong interest without ties to issues like limitations in supply, Munster said.
Rico says there was enough of a line at the local Apple Store to warrant a security guard, but he's still saving up...

NBC offers bad advice

The NRA has issues with NBC about appeasing home invaders:
Americans have a constitutional right to armed self-defense, but they have other choices as well.  The University of Colorado, for example, last year offered the students it sought to disarm with statewide legislation other “crime prevention tactics”.  Options for female students facing rapists included passive resistance, biting, and self-degradation. According to one proponent of the bill to ban the lawful carrying of firearms on campuses, such threats are “why we have the whistles”.
Along similar lines, NBC’s Today Show recently offered suggestions on how to deal with violent home invaders.  Their basic advice:  politely defer to the intruder, but if things really get out of hand, reach for the insect repellent.
For the tips, the Today Show interviewed former NYPD detective Wallace Zeins, whose New York City pedigree was evident in his recommendations.  First, Zeins instructed viewers to use their vehicles’ key fobs as a makeshift alarm.  Following that, the former detective told the audience to keep a can of wasp spray in the bedroom to use as an improvised chemical weapon against a violent intruder.  Further, the report suggested abandoning one’s home to the intruder as soon as possible.  If captured by a violent home invader, Zeins’ advice was to comply with the attacker’s every wish, and to never lie to them.
At no time did the report suggest that firearms were a viable option.  Also unclear was whether Zeins has abandoned the firearms he carried as a police officer in favor of bug spray to protect his own home and family.
The Today Show’s omission of firearms as a legitimate means of self-defense isn’t especially surprising, given NBC’s lengthy history of anti-gun bias.  Nevertheless, while the defensive capabilities of firearms for home defense may continue to escape the attention of NBC’s producers, the legitimacy of this option has been recognized by far weightier institutions.
The Supreme Court’s Heller decision noted one of the reasons DC’s handgun ban was unconstitutional was that “the prohibition extendded… to the home, where the need for defense of self, family, and property is most acute.”  The Supreme Court’s opinion in McDonald reiterated this point.  State legislatures have increasingly passed Castle Doctrine legislation to protect residents who employ armed self-defense from unjust prosecution and civil liability, amplifying a doctrine well-established in Anglo-American case law.
Further, there is strong evidence that gun use is the most effective means to defend oneself from criminal attack. A 1988 study by Florida State Professor of Criminology Gary Kleck, entitled Crime Control Through the Private Use of Armed Force, determined that: “Victim resistance with guns is associated with lower rates of both victim injury and crime completion for robberies and assaults than any other victim action, including nonresistance.”
Despite their best efforts, Today and Zein inadvertently gave one sound piece of advice, when the former detective told viewers to treat home invaders “like royalty”.  While he apparently meant that a victim should be as obsequious as possible to an assailant, liberty-loving Americans have a strong tradition of treating interloping monarchs to the business end of their rifles.
Rico says that any 'appeasement' should come out the muzzle of a twelve-gauge...

History for the day

On 20 September 1973, Billie Jean King (photo, top) defeated Bobby Riggs (photo, bottom) in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, in a $100,000 winner-take-all tennis match.

Rico says that Riggs was a big mouth who got what he deserved...

Forgot the 'thief' part

The New York Times has an article entitled A Soaring Debut for Alibaba by Michael De La Merced:
The Chinese Internet giant, which raised $21.8 billion in its stock sale, instantly became one of the biggest publicly traded technology companies in the world.
Rico says that everyone (except Rico, of course, and Susanna Kim at World News) seems to have forgotten the rest of the story title: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves:

Alibaba, expected to go public in the biggest initial public offering ever, is a giant tech firm that remains a giant mystery to many Americans. The e-commerce company has a number of businesses all under the name Alibaba Group. Why did founder and executive chairman Jack Ma choose to call his company Alibaba?
Though the origin has a colorful story, the company offers the short version on its website, explaining it's a "well-known" name, and one easily pronounced. In the story Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, from the collection One Thousand and One Nights, a chamber of treasures is opened with the words, Open sesame.
"E-commerce is global, so we needed a name that was globally recognized," the website states. "Alibaba brings to mind 'open sesame', representing that our platforms open a doorway to fortune for small businesses."
But, back in 2006, the former English teacher explained in detail how he chose the name in a San Francisco coffee shop. "And then a waitress came, and I said, do you know about Alibaba? And she said yes," Ma told CNN's Talk Asia show in 2006. "I said what do you know about Alibaba, and she said 'Open Sesame.' And I said yes, this is the name! Then I went onto the street and found thirty people and asked them: 'Do you know Alibaba'? People from India, people from Germany, people from Tokyo and China... They all knew about Alibaba."
"Alibaba— open sesame. Alibaba— forty thieves," Ma said. "Alibaba is not a thief. Alibaba is a kind, smart business person, and he helped the village. So, easy to spell, and globally known. Alibaba opens sesame for small- to medium-sized companies. We also registered the name AliMama, in case someone wants to marry us!"

19 September 2014

Can't see it, can't shoot it down

Rico's friend Dave sends a non-perv video about a new drone:

Rico says that warfare in the next century will be expensive, and nasty...

Boneyard secrets


Sent from my iPhone

Mark Seymour

GSK for the day

The BBC has an article about GSK getting dinged by China, again:
China has fined UK pharmaceuticals firm GlaxoSmithKline nearly half-a-billion dollars after a court found it guilty of bribery. The record penalty follows allegations the drug giant paid out bribes to doctors and hospitals in order to have their products promoted.
The court gave GSK's former head of Chinese operations, Mark Reilly, a suspended three-year prison sentence and he is set to be deported. Other GSK executives have also been given suspended jail sentences.
The guilty verdict was delivered after a one-day trial at a court in Changsha, according to the Xinhua news agency.
Chinese authorities first announced they were investigating GSK in July of last year, in what has become the biggest corruption scandal to hit a foreign firm in years. The company was accused of having made an estimated hundred and fifty million dollars in illegal profits
GSK said it had "published a statement of apology to the Chinese government and its people. Reaching a conclusion in the investigation of our Chinese business is important, but this has been a deeply disappointing matter for GSK," said CEO Sir Andrew Witty in a statement. "We have and will continue to learn from this. GSK has been in China for close to a hundred years, and we remain fully committed to the country and its people," he said. "We will also continue to invest directly in the country to support the government's health care reform agenda and long-term plans for economic growth."
Mick Cooper, analyst at Edison Investment Research in London, England said: "GlaxoSmithKline will hope that this will draw a line under events in China, but it will take time for its Chinese commercial operations to recover."
Analysis by Carrie Gracie, BBC China editor:
This is a humiliating outcome for one of Britain's biggest companies: pleading guilty to systematic bribery, facing the biggest fine in Chinese history, and making an abject apology to the Chinese government and people.
But after a case lasting more than a year, there was no easy way out for GSK, and at least now it can start to rebuild its battered brand in China.
Today GSK said it had learned its lessons, and one of those is clearly that foreign companies need to keep a close eye on China's fast changing political and regulatory weather if they are to prosper, or even survive, in this promising but perilous market.
Rico says if anyone believes in GSK's contrition, he's got a bridge to sell you...

History for the day

On 19 Septembet 1881, the twentieth president of the United States, James A. Garfield, died of wounds inflicted by an assassin.

Scotland rejects independence

Steven Erlanger and Alan Cowell have an article in The New York Times about the referendum:
Voters in Scotland rejected independence from Britain in a referendum that had threatened to break up the 307-year union between them, according to projections by the BBC and Sky News. Before dawn after a night of counting that showed a steady trend in favor of maintaining the union, Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy head of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, effectively conceded defeat for the “yes” campaign that had pressed for secession. “Like thousands of others across the country I’ve put my heart and soul into this campaign and there is a real sense of disappointment that we’ve fallen narrowly short of securing a yes vote,” Sturgeon told BBC television.
With 26 of 32 voting districts reporting, there were 1,397,077 votes, or 54.2 percent, against independence, and 1,176,952, or 45.7 percent, in favor. At that point the tally seemed wider than opinion surveys had suggested, but it gave pro-independence campaigners a strong platform to press for greater powers and autonomy for Scotland promised by British political leaders during the campaign.
The outcome was a deep disappointment to the vocal, enthusiastic pro-independence movement led by the Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond, who had seen an opportunity to turn a centuries-old nationalist dream into reality, and forced the three main British parties into panicked promises to grant substantial new power to the Scottish Parliament.
The decision spared Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain a shattering defeat that would have raised questions about his ability to continue in office and diminished his nation’s standing in the world.
But while the result preserved a union molded in 1707, it left Cameron facing a backlash among some of his Conservative Party lawmakers. They were angered by the promises of greater Scottish autonomy that he and other party leaders made just days before the vote, when it appeared that the independence campaign might win. Some lawmakers called for similar autonomy for England itself, and even the creation of a separate English Parliament.
The outcome headed off the huge economic, political and military imponderables that would have flowed from a vote for independence. But it also presaged a looser, more federal United Kingdom. And it was unlikely to deter Scottish nationalists from trying again.
The passion of the campaign also left Scots divided, and Salmond was expected to call for reconciliation after a vibrant exercise in democracy that had episodes of harshness and even intimidation.
President Obama had made little secret of his desire that the United Kingdom remain intact. Indeed, Britain had long prided itself on a so-called special relationship with the United States, and Britain’s allies had been concerned by, among other things, Salmond’s vow to evict Britain’s nuclear submarine bases from Scotland, threatening London’s role in Western defenses.
As the vote approached, the margin between the two camps narrowed to a few percentage points, and at one point, the “yes” campaign seemed to have the momentum.
That was enough to alarm Britain’s political leaders from the three main parties in the Westminster Parliament in London. In a rare show of unity, they promised to extend significant new powers of taxation to Scotland, while maintaining a formula for public spending that many English voters saw as favoring Scots with a higher per-capita contribution. Voters remained divided to the very end.
Rico says it was a near-run thing, as the Brits would say...

A philosopher of the absurd

Delanceyplace.com has a selection from A Life Worth Living by Robert Camus:
Albert Camus (1913 to 1960), best known for literary works such as The Stranger and The Plague, was a philosopher of the absurd who was often closely linked to Jean-Paul Sartre and his philosophy of existentialism, winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957. It is small wonder that Camus came to view life as absurd. He was born in Algiers, then under the oppressive colonial rule of France. While still a child, his father died in battle in World War One, and as a teenager, he contracted tuberculosis. He suffered the global economic depression of the 1930s and then witnessed the unprecedented carnage and casualties of World War Two:
For Camus, our astonishment at life results from our confrontation with a world that refuses to surrender meaning. It occurs when our need for meaning shatters against the indifference, immovable and absolute, of the world. As a result, absurdity is not an autonomous state; it does not exist in the world, but is instead exhaled from the abyss that divides us from a mute world. 'This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together.'
As a literary and philosophical quarry, the absurd first appears in Camus' journal in May of 1936, the same month he defended his dissertation on the subject of neo-Platonism at the University of Algiers. 'Philosophical work: Absurdity,' he assigned himself as part of his study and writing plan. Two years later, in June of 1938, the absurd again appears on his to-do list, then a third time at the end of the same year. Though he is mostly at the stage of research and reflection, Camus had already decided to approach the subject more or less simultaneously through three different genres: as a novelist, playwright, and essayist. He had begun work on his play Caligula in 1938, though it was first performed only in 1945. As for The Stranger; Camus completed a draft just days before the Germans smashed through the Ardennes in May of 1940. And it was at that same moment, when France still appeared, if not eternal, at least solid and secure, that Camus yoked himself to what he described to his former teacher Jean Grenier as his 'essay on the Absurd'.
Though young, Camus was a veteran of the absurd. When still an infant, he lost his father in the purposeless mayhem of the Battle of the Marne; as an athletic teenager, he coughed blood one day and discovered he had tuberculosis; as a reporter of Alger r├ępublicain, he discovered, behind the universal values of liberty and equality of the French Republic, the grim reality for the Arabs and Berbers living under the colonial administration; as the paper's editor, he inveighed against the absurdity of a world war that, as a committed pacifist, he unrealistically insisted could have been avoided; and as a pacifist exempted from the draft because of his tuberculosis, Camus nevertheless tried to enlist: 'This war has not stopped being absurd, but one cannot retire from the game because the game may cost your life.' He was, in a word, already fastened on the lessons to be drawn from an absurd world.
In November of 1940, Camus confided to his journal: 'Understand this: we can despair of the meaning of life in general, but not of the particular forms that it takes; we can despair of existence, for we have no power over it, but not of history, where the individual can do everything. It is individuals who are killing us today. Why should not individuals manage to give the world peace? We must simply begin without thinking of such grandiose aims'.

18 September 2014

BOTR for the day

In his hand, Goodgulf carried an ancient and trusty weapon, called by the Elves a Browning semi-automatic.

Apple for the day

The BBC has an article about frustration with iOS8:
Apple iPhone and iPad users have taken to social media to express their frustration over installing the company's latest software update. Many have resorted to deleting photos, videos, and other files in order to free up space for the new version of Apple's mobile operating system, iOS8, which requires up to six gigabytes of storage.
Apple has also removed apps for its new health software because of a bug.
One expert said Apple's updates were often prone to "teething problems".
Some vexed Apple users took to Twitter to express their annoyance, at one point causing the subject to be trending above the Scottish referendum.
David Roberts tweeted: "This update would be great... If you didn't have to delete half of the stuff on your phone just to install it."
Daniel Zennon took a more humorous approach, tweeting: "So Apple put the U2 album on everybody's phone and then tell them they don't have enough space for the iOS8 upgrade".
This is not the first time Apple users have had trouble with iOS updates. In 2012, the iOS6 update caused some users to lose their apps, and others lost photos and messages when updating to iOS7 last year.
As well as requiring a lot of storage, the latest version, iOS8, does not include apps that run with Apple's new HealthKit service, which is designed to work with third-party wearable health devices. The software was originally scheduled for release in iOS8, but has been pulled while Apple works on fixing a bug.
David Price, online editor at Macworld UK, told the BBC the issues were not "really a surprise. There's always a rush on the servers on launch day, some delays, and usually some teething problems," he said. "That's why we always recommend that people wait a day or two before updating."
Apple users can avoid the need to free up storage space for the latest update by upgrading their software via iTunes on a Mac or PC, instead of through the phone or tablet itself. Additionally, much of the free space required by the update is made available again once the installation process has completed.
Rico says he'll wait, thank you...

History for the day

On 18 September 1947, the National Security Act, which unified the Army, Navy, and the newly-formed Air Force, went into effect.

Finally, dammit

Maya Rhodan has a Time article about religion, or the lack thereof:
The Air Force said recently that enlisted members and officers are permitted to omit the phrase “so help me God” from their oaths if they so chose. In a statement, the Air Force said it arrived at the decision after consulting with the Department of Defense General Counsel; last week an airman who was prohibited from re-enlisting until he uttered the phrase threatened to sue if the Air Force did not change its policy.
“We take any instance in which Airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in a statement. “We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our Airmen’s rights are protected.”
The change will go into effect immediately and enlistment instructions will be adjusted within the coming weeks.
Rico says this is long overdue; it'll be another century before they fix the phrase on the money, of course...

BOTR for the day

Rico says it's even a local reference, too:
As Goodgulf stepped onto the bridge, the passage echoed with an ominous dribble, dribble, and a great crowd of narcs burst forth. In their midst was a towering dark shadow too terrible to describe. In its hand it held a huge black globe and on its chest was written in cruel runes: Villanova.
"Aiyee," shouted Legolam. "A ballhog! A ballhog is come!"

Rico says he won't watch the movie, but you might...


Delanceyplace.com has a selection from A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition by Bill Bryson, with tidbits for your next Yellowstone National Park vacation: 
In the 1960s, while studying the volcanic history of Yellowstone National Park, Bob Christiansen of the United States Geological Survey became puzzled about something: he couldn't find the park's volcano.By coincidence, just at this time, NASA decided to test some new high-altitude cameras by taking photographs of Yellowstone, copies of which some thoughtful official passed on to the park authorities on the assumption that they might make a nice blow-up for one of the visitors' centers. As soon as Christiansen saw the photos, he realized why he had failed to spot the volcano: virtually the whole park, over two million acres, was a volcano. The explosion had left a crater more than forty miles across, much too huge to be perceived from anywhere at ground level. At some time in the past Yellowstone must have blown up with a violence far beyond the scale of anything known to humans.
Yellowstone, it turns out, is a supervolcano. It sits on top of an enormous hot spot, a reservoir of molten rock that rises from at least a hundred miles down in the Earth. The heat from the hot spot is what powers all of Yellowstone's vents, geysers, hot springs, and popping mud pots. Imagine a pile of TNT about the size of Rhode Island and reaching eight miles into the sky to about the height of the highest cirrus clouds, and you have some idea of what visitors to Yellowstone are shuffling around on top of.Since its first known eruption sixteen million years ago, the Yellowstone volcano has blown up about a hundred times, but the most recent three eruptions are the ones that get written about. The last eruption was a thousand times greater than that of Mount St. Helens; the one before that was nearly three hundred times bigger and the one before that was at least twenty-five hundred times greater than St. Helens.The Yellowstone eruption of two million years ago put out enough ash to bury New York State to a depth of sixty-seven feet, or California to a depth of twenty. All of this was hypothetically interesting until 1973, when geologists did a survey and discovered that a large area of the park had developed an ominous bulge. The geologists realized that only one thing could cause this: a restless magma chamber. Yellowstone wasn't the site of an ancient supervolcano; it was the site of an active one. It was also at about this time that they were able to work out that the cycle of Yellowstone's eruptions averaged one massive blow every six hundred thousand years. The last one interestingly enough was just over six hundred thousand years ago. Yellowstone, it appears, is due.
Rico says that, when it goes, we're all screwed... (Remember the dinosaurs? Yeah, like that.)

17 September 2014

New iPhones

Molly Wood has an article in The New York Times about the new iPhones:
Bigger. Bigger. Bigger.
The new Apple iPhones going on sale this week, the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus, have crisper screens, faster processors, and sharper cameras. And, as you might have heard, they are also bigger than previous iPhones— the 6 Plus by a long shot— joining the stampede toward bigger handsets.
But, after almost a week of trying the phones, it became clear that the hardware was not the best part of the package. In its quest to deliver bigger phones to a market clamoring for them, Apple has made one phone that is actually a little too small and one that’s a little too big. (Apple lent The New York Times an iPhone 6 and an iPhone 6 Plus under the condition that a review would be not be published before Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.)
The best part of the new phones is actually the new software inside, which is available for some older models, too. The software, iOS 8, combines some of the advanced features of Android with Apple’s ease of use and reliability.
Because of the software, it’s hard to see many iPhone fans straying from Apple, even if they don’t buy new iPhones immediately.
The iPhone 6 is a 4.7-inch device, up from four inches on the iPhone 5 and 5S. It’s a little wider than those phones, too. Those dimensions make it slightly smaller than the top Android and Windows devices on the market, helping it fit easily in jeans pockets. Compared with a Samsung Galaxy S5 or the HTC One (M8), though, the iPhone 6 screen feels constrained. The iPhone 6 starts at $200 with a new contract.
The iPhone 6 Plus is a behemoth. It has the same size display as the LG G3, at 5.5 inches, but is significantly taller. It’s longer even than the Galaxy Note 3, which has a 5.7-inch display. It starts at $300 with a new contract.
Both the 6 and 6 Plus get thinner, flatter, and more rounded shapes than their predecessors, losing the squared-off sides on the more recent models. The effect looks sleek, but feels slippery. Dropping seems imminent as you stretch your thumb across the larger screens.
Apple takes some small steps to mitigate the finger stretch with a feature called Reachability, which lets you touch (not press) the home button twice to shift the screen down to the bottom half of the display. The feature works nicely for one-handed scrolling and finding app icons, but it doesn’t do much else. If you’re in an email, for example, you can’t get access to any actions like Reply or Archive.
Apple could have taken a cue from other makers of so-called phablets (a blend of the words “phone” and “tablet”) and come up with powerful ways to take advantage of those bigger screens. For example, the forthcoming Samsung Galaxy Note 4 will let users resize app windows using a finger or stylus, and view multiple windows simultaneously on its 5.7-inch display, as on a desktop computer. The 5.5-inch LG G3 lets you open two apps at once and resize them as you like.
The iPhones do include some tricks created for bigger phones, like a zoom feature that lets you subtly increase the size of app icons and text in native apps. And, when you turn the phones sideways, into landscape mode, the keyboard in the built-in apps like Mail and Messages has more options: a microphone, undo key, period and comma and others on the iPhone 6, and even more on the iPhone 6 Plus, like dedicated copy and paste keys. Those extra iPhone 6 Plus keys disappear if you choose the zoomed display, however. And the iPhone 6 Plus is so big that, in landscape mode, I had a hard time reaching the keys to type.
Even the built-in Apple keyboard doesn’t get any extra keys when holding the phone upright, the way the Samsung and LG keyboards include number keys above the letters, and period and comma keys.
As for the features that people love about their iPhones, they only get better. The iPhone 6 cameras, for example, are outstanding. Both rear-facing cameras have new sensors that deliver faster autofocus, better face detection and the ability to capture high-resolution panoramas. The faster focus is immediately obvious, even in casual use. The iPhone 6 Plus in particular uses optical image stabilization to deliver better photos in low light and reduce overall shake and blur. Sadly, that nice feature is not on the iPhone 6.
And filmmakers are swooning over the iPhones’ high-definition video, faster frame rates (which lead to smoother video), and higher-quality slow-motion capture. Cinematic video stabilization helps smooth out video taken, while moving and a time-lapse mode snaps a shot every second or so and stitches them together.
Of course, all the videos and photos look great on the bigger screens, especially the iPhone 6 Plus. For camera buffs, that bigger phone is likely to be a must-have.
Call quality on the new phones is excellent and I found battery life on the smaller iPhone 6 to be impressive. I went almost two full days without a charge. Battery life on the iPhone 6 Plus is more like a day of constant use and not much more, but that’s not terrible on a phone that size.
The real magic, though, happens because of Apple’s new operating system. The iOS 8 software doesn’t look greatly different, but many refinements make it more powerful and flexible. Some of the features catch up to competitors and some are totally new.
The upgrade adds iCloud Drive, for example, which lets you more easily share documents across devices, as you can with Dropbox or Google Drive. A Family Sharing feature will let you share your purchased books, movies, music, and some apps with up to six family members, so they don’t have to log in to your account to watch a movie or use an app you have purchased.
After OS X Yosemite, the new operating system for Macs, is released in October of 2014, Apple’s Continuity feature will let you view incoming text messages across all devices, hand off documents between a phone and computer and send a text or make a call from your Macintosh.
Smaller improvements— expiring messages and voice memos, Spotlight searches that include web results, and recently used contacts that show up when you double-press the home button to switch between or close apps— add up to a refined mobile OS.
Some of the features aren’t perfect, and many of the sexier features are still down the road. Right now, for example, the Health app simply doesn’t do much. It depends on integration with third-party apps (scheduled for release with the phones) and the coming Apple Watch.
The new operating system comes on the new phones and can be installed this week on the iPhone 5S, 5, and 4S. People who have those phones and whose two-year cellphone contracts have not yet expired can rest easy. They will get many of the best features of this year’s upgrade cycle.
The slim new iPhones aren’t a big-screen slam-dunk, but they work well, as we have come to expect from Apple. Ultimately, it’s what’s on the inside that keeps them just in front of their competitors.
Rico says okay, okay, he's saving up...

Netflix for the day

Victor Luckerson has a Time article about Netflix entitled Netflix Has a Plan to Take Over the World:
The streaming service is rolling out in six new European countries this week, including France and Germany, two of the region’s largest markets. The expansion, Netflix’ biggest ever, will expose the company to hundreds of millions of potential new customers who have high-speed Internet access. But the challenges and costs of adapting a US-based service for six different cultures won’t be easy— or profitable— for quite a while.
At home, Netflix is still growing at a healthy clip. The company added 2.82 million streaming subscribers in the first half of 2014, up from 2.66 million additions during the same period last year. But the growth rate abroad is even faster as Netflix continues to come online in more regions. The company added 2.87 million international customers in the first half of the year, compared to 1.63 million last year. It’s projecting that it will add 2.36 million international subscribers in the third quarter alone thanks to the new markets where the service is launching.
While opening in new markets will certainly boost Netflix’ subscriber base, there’s no guarantee the service will perform as well as it has in the United States or the United Kingdom. In Germany, television is less popular than in other Western nations. Germans watch 230 minutes of television and video content per person per day, compared to 286 minutes per person in the US, according to research firm IHS. And the television they do watch isn’t necessarily the same as what succeeds elsewhere. Seinfeld was famously a bust in Germany because it was “too American”. More worryingly for Netflix, its own high-budget original show House of Cards failed to net even a million viewers when it debuted on the German network Sat One, according to Bloomberg. Episodes from season two averaged less than a hundred thousand viewers.
“The Germans notoriously have different tastes from the rest of the West,” says Michael Pachter, an equity analyst for Wedbush Secutiries. “All of us make the mistake of thinking that ‘international’ is a place. International is a hundred and eighty independent, different nations.”
While there are similar cultural concerns in France, there Netflix must also deal with entrenched competitors who want to squash the streaming service before it can gain traction. Canal Plus, France’s largest pay-television provider, actually owns the broadcast rights to House of Cards, and recently announced a deal to stream HBO shows through its own Netflix-like service, Canalplay. Another provider, Numbericable, launched an online service with access to three thousand episodes of television shows on the same day Netflix launched in France. Meanwhile, content creators and regulators worry Netflix will try to further Americanize French culture while avoiding paying large taxes because it’s headquartered outside the country.
“People are concerned the emergence of Netflix will damage the local content industry,” says Richard Broughton, an IHS analyst. “They really have to make some partnerships in order to make better headway into the French market.”
Netflix has plans to address these issues. A new House of Cards-like drama called Marseille is set in the south of France, and will be helmed by French directors. It should help cast Netflix as a collaborator in the country rather than an invader. The company will also try to buy up streaming rights to locally produced shows in the new countries where it launches, Broughton says. The strategy has been effective in the United Kingdom, where Netflix has the rights for many BBC shows. The company has three million customers there, according to one estimate.
But building a curated library for each individual market is expensive, and Netflix often has to negotiate individual rights agreements for each different country where it operates. “They have to replicate the wheel every place they go,” Pachter says.
That’s why Netflix’ international business has been unprofitable since it began. The division lost $15 million in the most recent quarter, and Netflix projects that loss will balloon to $42 million in the third quarter due to marketing and licensing costs in new territories. The price to compete will only grow, especially when other US competitors show up in Europe (Amazon Prime Instant Video is already available in Germany).
Early impressions indicate that Netflix’ library of titles in France is not as robust as in the US. But analysts expect the company will eventually work out the kinks. IHS projects that Netflix will have eighteen million subscribers across Europe by 2018, up from just under six million today. That would be a boon for the world’s most popular streaming service, but it’s hardly guaranteed.
“You’ve got to spend an awful lot up front,” Broughton says. “You’re gambling on, over the next few years, being able to accrue sufficient subscribers to offset those costs.”
Rico says he's glad it's not his money...

Idiot for the day

Per Liljas has a Time article about a real moron:
South Korean soldiers have arrested a US citizen attempting to swim across the Han River into North Korea. A Defense Ministry spokesperson told Agence France-Presse the man, in his thirties, was detained and handed over to the relevant authorities.
“I was trying to go to North Korea in order to meet with Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un,” the American told investigators, according to an unnamed government source cited by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
Crossing the heavily militarized border between the two countries, which are officially still at war, is tremendously dangerous. In September of 2014, South Korean troops shot dead a compatriot trying to swim to the North. In 1996, a naked and apparently drunk American crossed a river into North Korea from neighboring China on a dare. He was detained for three months on espionage charges before then-New Mexico Congressman Bill Richardson secured his release during a visit to Pyongyang, North Korea.
Three US citizens— Kenneth Bae, Matthew Miller, and Jeffrey Fowle— are currently in North Korean detention. Miller was sentenced to six years’ hard labor recently for “hostile” acts against the regime, after allegedly tearing up his tourist visa at immigration in May.
Time could not immediately reach the US embassy in Seoul, South Korea for comment.
Rico says some people shouldn't be allowed out without a minder...

Up close with whales

The BBC has an article by James Nestor, author of Deep, about free-diving with whales:
Whales are extremely shy animals, making it hard to study them in their natural habitat. But a group of marine scientists has managed to record their behavior up-close by free-diving with humpbacks and sperm whales:
I'm floating in the Indian Ocean, six miles off the north-east coast of Sri Lanka. A sperm whale and her calf are facing me, a hundred and fifty feet away. I can see them swimming towards me, hissing, blowing steam and clicking loudly like a pneumatic drill. "Don't swim, don't move. They're watching us," whispers my guide, Hanli Prinsloo. She grabs my hand and pulls me beneath the surface where we watch a hazy black mass materialize. Details gradually emerge: a fin, a gaping mouth, a patch of white. An eye, sunk low on a knotted head, peers in our direction.
The mother is the size of a school bus; together, they look like submerged islands.
I never wanted to swim with sperm whales. I'm not an adrenaline junkie with a death wish and yet, against my better judgement, and my mother's protestations, I found myself floating in the open sea with a group of marine mammal scientists from Dare Win (Database Regional Whales and Dolphins), an independent non-profit research program started by Fabrice Schnoller, a former lumber store owner from Reunion, a French island territory in the Indian Ocean.
The gurgle of scuba equipment, submarines, and robots that are normally used to study marine life tend to spook whales. To avoid scaring them, the Dare Win team have abandoned much of this technology and use free-diving techniques instead, using only a mask, flippers, and a single breath of air to dive dozens of feet deep into the ocean.
With just one breath, it's possible for experienced free-divers to stay underwater for more than four minutes. Sperm whales (bottom photo) and humpback whales (top photo) are often attracted to the free-divers who look like no other marine mammal and, sometimes, with a little luck, welcome the divers into their pods for hours at a time.
Other people have dived with sperm whales, but usually only for a few minutes, and often for recreation. Dare Win is the first group to free-dive with them with the sole intention of collecting data.
Schnoller's methods are considered reckless by many marine mammal researchers. Sperm whales can be dangerous; they are the largest toothed predators on earth. They can weigh up to a hundred thousand pounds and grow up to sixty feet in length. They have a row of eight-inch-long teeth which they use to hunt giant squid at depths of nine thousand feet.
A sperm whale could swallow a human— a few humans— within a matter of seconds, without ever pausing to chew. According to historical records, they did that often. Whaling ship logs from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are filled with accounts of vicious attacks on sailing boats, rowing boats, and swimmers.
Paintings from that era (middle photo) depict scenes of enormous sperm whales causing mass destruction if anyone was foolish enough to hunt them.
Herman Melville's classic novel Moby-Dick was based on a real sperm whale attack that destroyed a whaling ship in 1820. Of the twenty-one crew members aboard the Essex, just eight survived and were rescued after more than eighty days at sea.
But the Dare Win team convinced me that many of the old logs and paintings were most likely exaggerations or in some cases outright fabrications.
Sperm whales, they said, don't want to eat humans; they only attack when they are attacked, and then only rarely. The old myths have been perpetuated because so few people have studied the animals.
Nonetheless, while swimming side-by-side with them, sperm whales can accidentally smother you, decapitate you with their tails, and many researchers believe they can also vibrate your body to death with their most intense vocalizations if they choose; they are the loudest animals on the planet. These vocalizations form part of their echolocation system; they send out a click from the front of their noses, then listen for the echoes that resonate in a fatty sac beneath their mouths.
It's the most precise and powerful form of biosonar ever discovered. They can detect a ten-inch-long squid from a thousand feet away and a human from more than a mile away. The clicks are so powerful they can penetrate flesh and allow whales to see not only where objects are, but what they look like from the inside out. In essence, sperm whales have X-ray vision.
Getting "scanned" in this way is not only incredibly loud, it can also be incredibly painful. One Dare Win researcher told me how he was diving with sperm whales a year ago ,and attempted to push a calf away from his camera. The calf's nose was vibrating so violently from the clicks that it paralysed the researcher's hand for four hours.
A different type of vocalization, using what are known as coda clicks, is also used to communicate with other sperm whales, and can be heard hundreds of miles away.
Dare Win researchers have recorded dozens of hours of these noises which they and a team of researchers from the University of Paris are now studying. They believe the coda clicks form a sophisticated language. Sperm whales have the largest brain ever identified, about five times larger than the human brain.
Rico says he's been free-diving in the Pacific (years ago), but never with whales...



Sent from my iPhone

Mark Seymour

BOTR for the day

The inscription on the One Ring:
Grundig blaupunkt luger frug
Watusi snarf wazoo!
Nixon dirksen nasahist
Rebozo boogaloo.

Secret Soviet towns

The BBC has an article entitled Nadav Kander: Radioactive ruins of secret Soviet towns by Fiona Macdonald:
In the silent landscape, a low crackle accompanied the shutter clicks of Nadav Kander’s camera. It was an urgent sound, one he couldn’t ignore: it signalled the ghostly presence of radiation. For his latest project, Dust, now on display at the Flowers Gallery in London, England, the photographer travelled to an area on the border between Russia and Kazakhstan. Until 2006, it was off the map. “Google Earth discovered these secret cities that the maps had never shown,” says Kander. “They had been closed for many years.”
“I made one of what I thought would be four or five trips there,” says Kander. “It turned out to only be two, because I was arrested each time; once you’ve been arrested in Russia twice, you don’t want to push it by going back again.” The top image shows a telephone exchange in Kurchatov, one of the Soviet Union’s ‘closed cities’, built using gulag labor, it was the spot chosen by the head of Stalin’s secret police as a base for scientists in the state nuclear testing program. In 1949, the USSR tested its first nuclear bomb sixty kilometers away. While the area had been described as uninhabited, there was a large civilian town within two hundred kilometers of the site.
At the Semipalatinsk Test Site, or the Polygon (middle photo), hundreds of atomic bombs were detonated in secret until the program ended in 1989. Scientists honed the weapons and monitored their effect on the local population. “You shouldn’t be there when it’s windy because you can ingest the dust: the half-life of radiation is at least ten thousand years,” says Kander. “I wore white overalls so that no dust from the earth touched my skin.” There are few marks on the landscape to reveal what happened there. “You can catch a train for ten hours in that area and nothing changes,” he says. “It’s very flat; the only thing that reminds you of what this place is, in the beauty of the quietness, is this ticking of the Geiger counter on your belt, a memory of what went on there. Several hundred bombs blowing up, and now all you can hear is the wind and the grass and the clicking.”
Dust includes images of Priozersk, where long-distance missiles were tested in secrecy: it is now leased by Kazakhstan to the Russian military and used as a base for the development of anti-ballistic missile systems. “Priozersk is still a closed town. How I found access I’m not even sure myself; it was a person we found on the Internet who met us and took us in.” He was not interested in the restricted parts of the town, however. “The parts that I was interested in were the parts that were destroyed, that were to do with the Cold War.” For Kander, the ruins took on greater meaning. “The Cold War and the relentless quest for nuclear armaments created many of the ruins that we see here,” he writes in the exhibition monograph. “They now stand as monuments to the near ruin of mankind.”
“It’s a way of looking to our past,” says Kander. “While we often think of a ruin as something beautiful and romantic, something that conjures melancholy; these are ruins to a very dark past, and not that way at all.” Yet he wasn’t there to record history: “I’m not a documentarian, this is a human condition, for all humans,” he says. “We have savagery, we have envy, we have shadow. There are parts of ourselves that we don’t like. I’m not pointing my finger at anybody and saying this has happened to only these people.”
The heart of the project, for Kander, is “about vulnerability and shadow”. In a video interview recorded for the Flowers Gallery, he describes the moment he first saw the statue overlooking the lake. “We suddenly saw this statue, fully bathed in light, and by the time I’d set up the light was diminishing and travelling up her body. I photographed these pictures… This was a children’s campground, and I was told that the statue once held an oar.”
Kander won the prestigious Prix Pictet award in 2009 for his project following the Yangtze river in China from booming Shanghai to the rural Qinghai province, past the millions displaced by development. As part of Dust, he visited a dried-up section of the Aral Sea (bottom photo), where the missiles tracked in Priozersk were launched. In his interview for Flowers, he says: “I think if one was fitting my work into a genre, it would be the man-altered landscape; the portrait of man, and the palm print of man. How we exist on our planet, how we exist with our surroundings, how we deal with our surroundings.”
Kander has picked the top image as his favorite, telling The Guardian: “The front is almost perfect, but the side is crumbled away. It is that yin and yang that points to truth. There is never beauty without imperfection.” Yet he refuses to romanticise the crumbling buildings. “You can look at these things intellectually and think about ‘the ruin’, how throughout art history the ruin has been painted to be a window to the past, but when you sink down and think more how these things in front of you feel, they echo vulnerability, loneliness, and melancholy,” says Kander. “These are broken structures sitting there all alone: they don’t get heated, they’re out in the elements without a roof.”
Rico says you can find the same stuff here in the US, and Australia...

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