Sent from my iPhone
23 July 2014
Buzzfeed has an article by Luke Lewis about one pissed-off astronaut:
Back in 2002, Buzz Aldrin, then 72 years old, was accosted by conspiracy theorist Bart Sibrel outside a hotel in Los Angeles, California. The “lunar truther” called Aldrin a “coward” and a “liar” and asked him to “swear on the Bible that he walked on the moon”.
Posted by Rico at 12:34
Last week the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reported that it had found rockets in a (currently unused) UNRWA school in Gaza. The possibility that this was a propaganda move by jihadists— to use the school as a shield and/or bait Israelis into attacking it— seems to have gotten stronger, as UNRWA found rockets in a school again. From the group's statement:Rico says the photo is of an Israeli Iron Dome missile taking out one of Hamas' rockets...As soon as the rockets were discovered, UNRWA staff were withdrawn from the premises, and so we are unable to confirm the precise number of rockets. The school is situated between two other UNRWA schools that currently each accommodate fifteen hundred internally displaced persons.UNRWA says it gave the first group of rockets it discovered to representatives of Palestine's unity government, of which it says Hamas— which has been launching rockets toward Israel for weeks— is no longer a member. (It's not entirely clear that this is the case.) What will be done with the rockets discovered is unknown.
UNRWA strongly and unequivocally condemns the group or groups responsible for this flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law.
Posted by Rico at 12:32
I don’t usually write about newly discovered record-breaking objects found by astronomers, because in general it’s not long before that record falls. But in this case, I’ll make an exception for Kepler-421b. It has the longest year— that is, it has the longest orbital period around its star— for any exoplanet yet seen crossing in front of its star.Rico says he loves learning stuff, too, but this is still a weird one...
That by itself is enough to make this an interesting object, but even cooler (literally) is where that puts this planet: far enough from its star that it may have formed in a different way from the other planets we’ve detected around other stars. It may very well be an ice giant, like Uranus or Neptune, and not a gas giant or rocky planet.
First, let’s go through the basics: The host star is Kepler-421, a star much like our Sun, but a bit smaller and cooler. It’s located about a thousand light years away, which is a fair ways (the Milky Way galaxy is a hundred thousand light years across). From Earth, that makes the star pretty faint.
The planet, Kepler-421b, was discovered by the Kepler observatory, a space-based telescope that has found so many of the recently-discovered exoplanets. It uses the transit method to find planets; if we see the planet’s orbit around its star edge-on, then every time the planet passes between us and the star it blocks a bit of the star’s light. It’s tricky; for example Kepler-421b only blocks about 0.3 percent of the star’s light. But with modern detectors, that sort of dip in light is detectable.
Generally speaking, you need three transits to be sure you’ve got something. If you see just one, it could be a starspot, or some other non-planetary object interfering with your observations. A second transit tells you the orbital period (the year) of the planet, but it could still be a coincidental starspot. If you get a third transit at the right time interval after the second, then you can be more confident.
For Kepler-421b, the astronomers only saw two transits, which made me suspicious, but after reading their paper I’m more inclined to think they got it. The shape of the “light curve” and the incredible match between the two transits make it very likely they did find a planet. For the rest of this article I’ll just assume it exists, but remember that it has yet to be confirmed independently.
Kepler-421b is about four times the diameter of Earth (judging from how much of the starlight it blocked), and has a year that’s 704 Earth days long. That’s amazing; most exoplanets found have much shorter periods, like days or weeks. That orbit puts it about 110 million miles out from the star. Since the star is cooler than the Sun, the planet actually receives about one-fourth the light from its star as Earth does from the Sun. That’s even less than Mars gets, so the planet is pretty chilly.
And that brings us to the second cool thing about this planet. Planets form from broad disks of material orbiting the star when it’s young. Close in it's hot (duh) so you don’t get much gas or ice. The material in the disk is mostly metal and rock. Farther out there’s still metal and rock, but water is in the form of ice (this distance is called the “snow line”, a term I like), and there’s lots of it. Giant planets that form at least that far out have a lot more ice than ones farther in, and we call them ice giants. To be clear, these aren’t giant ice balls; they look a lot like gas giants but have more ice in them as opposed to rock and denser stuff.
In our solar system, Uranus and Neptune are ice giants. Given Kepler-421b’s location, it should be one as well. If we assume it’s about as dense as Uranus, it has sixteen times the mass of the Earth. That will likely give it a thick atmosphere (and it’s very cold, remember), so it’s not Earth-like at all.
But it’s the first ice giant seen orbiting another star. We’ve seen other planets with similar masses and sizes, but they orbit closer in, and are likely gas giants. Ice giants may very well be pretty common among exoplanets, but they’re pretty hard to detect. For one, the long period means you have to wait a long time to confirm them. Also, the bigger the orbit is, the less likely it is we’ll get a transit— a planet close in to its star can be seen to transit from a wide range of viewing angles, but a more distant planet needs a more tightly constrained viewing geometry (the orbit has to be more precisely edge-on) for us to spot it.
Finding Kepler-421b means that astronomers may be able to start finding more. Seeing one planet might be an anomaly, but if you find twenty more like it you can start categorizing them. This means they can use physics and models to understand better how planets form, especially that far from their parent star. We’re still figuring that out for our own solar system, so having other examples with which to compare and contrast is very helpful.
And so that’s why I’m willing to write about a record-breaker, even if that record is soon broken. As usual in astronomy, I hope it is! That turns this planet from a weirdo into the first member of its class, and that means we get to learn stuff. And astronomers love learning stuff.
Posted by Rico at 12:24
Instances of gruesome whale collisions have prompted a conversation about whether to impose speed limits for ships along Australia's coast. Right now, some twenty thousand humpback whales are enjoying the warm waters of Australia’s East Coast, where they migrate every year during Antarctica’s winter to feed, breed, and calve. They are the product of a wildly successful conservation program launched in 1979 that brought the humpback from the brink of extinction following decades of industrial slaughter.Rico says that surely some smart scientist can come up with a recording, to be played underwater by coastal vessels, that says to whales: Bad human things here! Run away!
The species’ recovery has also given birth to a thriving whale-watching industry that generates some three hundred million dollars and attracts one and a half million people per year. From the beaches of Sydney, where surfers rub shoulders with the thirty-ton mammals, to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, where a rare albino humpback called Migaloo was last seen, the whales are a symbol of Australia’s love for the ocean and how far it has come from the cruel, unsustainable ways of its past.
But the humpback’s stellar comeback has also led to increasingly frequent “whale strikes”: collisions with ships that cause gruesome propeller lacerations and even sever their spines. It is part of a global phenomenon seen from such places as Sri Lanka, the Mediterranean, and the US Atlantic coast, where overlap between busy shipping lanes and whale habitats has left trails of mutilation.
In early May, a Norwegian cruise liner unknowingly dragged a dead sei whale, which had become caught on its bulbous bow, into the Hudson River. Three days later, another sei was found attached to a container ship docking near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In June of 2014, a humpback known as Max that had been visiting Alaska’s Glacier Bay for forty years was found floating dead in the ocean with its jawbone nearly cut off. The discovery became the subject of a investigation by Alaskan wildlife officials to identify the ship that killed Max, a nearly impossible task, given that most whale strikes by large ships go unreported or unnoticed. Cambridge, Massachusetts-based International Whaling Commission, the world authority on the subject, has struggled to quantify the problem. It can’t provide any kind of accurate numbers, but nevertheless holds that for some whale species and populations, strikes “may make the difference between extinction and survival”.
Whale strikes don’t currently pose a tangible risk to humpback populations in Australia. But a controversial government decision to expand a series of coal ports along the coast of the Great Barrier Reef— the humpback’s most important East Coast calving ground— is projected to massively increase sea traffic over the reef. And that will spell carnage for humpbacks, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which is calling for the introduction of ten-knot speed limits for large ships in two key humpback habitats near two of the largest ports.
“From our organization’s point of view, the killing of even one whale is an issue,” says IFAW campaign manager Sharon Livermore. “But from the evidence we do have of whales that have been found dead or stranded, we know the number of reported strikes represents a small number of the actual number being injured or killed.”
“Calls for speed limits are very much warranted,” adds Joshua Smith of the Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit. “We know humpbacks are already in conflict with shipping, and if you do the maths with these new mega-ports, you can see the problem is going to get much worse. A national whale-strike strategy is a sound precautionary principle.”
IFAW points to a similar initiative off the coast of the Georgia-Florida border, where ten-knot speed limits on large ships were introduced in 2008 to prevent collisions with critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Thirteen rights were killed as a result of strikes in the eighteen-month period before the speed limit went into effect, compared to zero fatalities reported in the six years that have passed since. And, in New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf, the port of Auckland has introduced voluntary speed restrictions to protect critically endangered Bryde’s whales after scientists estimated a ten-knot speed limit would reduce strike fatalities by 75%.
But Sheila Peake, a lecturer in ecotourism and environmental science at the University of the Sunshine Coast, says not enough is known about the humpback’s migratory routes in Australia to make speed restrictions effective. “You can’t just say, if we introduce speed limits for ships in one or two areas, we will reduce whale strikes,” Peake says. “Not enough is known about the areas whales pass through to get there from Antarctica. And if you lay speed limits across the whole East Coast, it will have quite an impact on other industries and recreational fishing.”
Simon Meyjes, CEO of Australian Reef Pilot, a company that’s been guiding large ships through the Great Barrier Reef for more than a century, says ten-knot speed limits in front of coal ports will have next to no impact on reducing whale strikes, because coal carriers steam at maximum speeds of ten to twelve knots now. “I would say these slow ships account for two-thirds of the traffic on the Great Barrier Reef. The other third are faster container ships, livestock carriers, and passenger ships that steam at seventeen to nineteen knots. They can’t be operated for long periods of time at ten knots, as the speed falls within the ship’s critical vibration range. It would risk major damage to their equipment and make it difficult to keep our supermarket shelves stocked.” Meyjes also questions IFAW estimates that the number of ships passing through the Great Barrier Reef will almost double by 2020. “Shipping increases only as fast as the overall economy grows, so all these stories about huge increases are simply misguided,” he says. “In the last ten years, traffic on the reef has increased less than four percent a year.”
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority tells Time it is liaising with IFAW and the shipping industry on the viability of speed limits, but that “given shipping is an internationally regulated industry… measures need to be linked to the strategic direction of the International Maritime Organization and supported by strong documentation.” In other words: Australia is unlikely to introduce speed limits until the movement to prevent whale strikes gains global traction.
In the sun-kissed Whitsunday archipelago, a thousand kilometers north of Brisbane, Bill Hutchinson weaves and bobs his high-speed catamaran through waters literally heaving with humpbacks, carefully abiding to a local law that requires him to remain at least three hundred meters away from whales. In 44 years on the job, he’s never hit one. “How do you avoid them? You can’t,” he says. “When the mothers are feeding their calves on the surface, they’re really docile. So we keep as far away as possible. But if it gets cloudy or the water gets choppy, visibility suffers. You can’t be watching out for whales all the time.”
Posted by Rico at 10:46
Rico says he has a list of men (sorry, ladies, no slight intended) whom he had looked forward to enjoying his later years with, but can't, because they're dead (and Rico, in spite of his angioma, isn't):
Both Rico's grandfathers, Leroy D. Seymour and George H. WilsonThere will undoubtedly be more, as Rico has no intention of dying anytime soon...
Charles O. Hegarty
Posted by Rico at 08:54
The edge of a forest cloaked in clouds, thick with the scent of pine and garlanded with peach blossoms, a sign reads ‘Please do not tease the animals’. Here live the takins of Thimpu.Rico says it's not gonna stay so quaint, alas...
A local legend tells how the Bhutanese national animal was created from the remains of a lunch eaten by Lama Drukpa Kunley, a fifteenth-century Buddhist saint also known as ‘the Divine Madman’. He demonstrated the outlandish power of his magic by taking the skeleton of a cow and the skull of a goat, theatrically combining the two before bringing them back to life with a loud belch.
And so one of nature’s more awkward creatures was born. Today, a herd of takins lives within a refuge at the edge of Thimpu, the sleepy capital of a country the size of Switzerland with a total population of just seven hundred thousand. In the 1990s, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, then king of Bhutan, granted the takins freedom from the captivity of a zoo. This gesture represented an early ripple before a wave of modernity was allowed to sweep through his secretive mountain kingdom, a world all of its own between China and the northeastern tip of India. The first tourists were only permitted to come here in 1974, democracy wasn’t introduced until 2008, and there is now a television channel (just the one), showing a mixture of Hollywood, Bollywood, and spectacularly melodramatic local movies.
The takins were poorly equipped to make the most of their release, swaggering through town, lazily searching for food, and generally troubling the populace. There seemed little choice but to corral them into Thimpu’s Motithang Takin Preserve, which offered a little more of the space that their wild relatives enjoy at the opposite end of the country, in the remote east.
The job of guarding these hapless beasts now falls to Kuenzang Gyeltshen, who lives with his young family in a hut inside the boundaries of the preserve, weaving shawls and tending his garden of herbs, garlic and chile peppers. ‘I rise early to feed the takins, around 6am’, he says. Kuenzang does all he can to prevent visitors from offering the national animal a taste of the national dish, ema datshi– a heart-quaking mix of potent chillies and melted cheese that can wreak equal havoc on the digestive systems of takins as those of unacclimatized foreigners. ‘People would be best to stick to giving them the occasional apple,’ he suggests.
A menagerie of even-more peculiar animals is to be found in Thimpu’s National Institute for Zorig Chusum, also known as The Painting School. Here the traditional crafts of Bhutan are taught to a fresh generation. In the wood-carving classroom, the heads of a tiger, leopard, boar, owl, snake, deer, dog, ox, rabbit, dragon, and a mythical bird called a garuda all snarl down at onlookers. Each has a fearsome set of fangs exposed, even the owl and the rabbit. The students are creating masks that will be gaudily painted in the style of those worn by performers at the tsechus– religious festivals– held across the country as the grip of the long Himalayan winter releases each spring.
In the classroom next door, 21-year-old Dechen Dema gulps hard as her tutor, Dawa Tshering, presents the artwork she must attempt to replicate. This is a fiendishly complex sculpture of Avalokites´vara, a Buddhist god of compassion with multiple heads and spindly limbs that today need to be worked from soft clay. Dechen’s shyness belies her great dexterity as she sets about her task. ‘My family are very proud of my progress,’ she says. ‘None of them would know how to make something like this.’ Dechen considers herself fortunate to be a pupil; prior to 1998, tradition prevented girls from being admitted to the school.
The end of the day’s studies are signaled by the echoing clang of a brass bell being struck outside. A portrait of Bhutan’s youthful current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, looks down handsomely and sternly as pupils file past a locker with ‘I feel better when I’m drunk’ scratched in graffiti on its door.
Posted by Rico at 08:19
Police are investigating an attempted sexual assault reported at a Cape May County, New Jersey beach. Officers from the Middle Township Police Department responded around 11 pm to the Hideaway Beach Condominium campground in Goshen, New Jersey, police said.Rico says it's just another case for women carrying firearms (okay, perhaps something more concealable than the rifles those Israeli ladies in the photo took to the beach); two rounds of .45 in the chest, most rapists will give it up...
They were met by a 49-year-old woman, who told investigators an unknown man grabbed her on the beach at the end of Cooks Beach Road, ripping her shirt. Police said the suspect tried to remove the victim's shorts, but she was able to break free and run to her car.
The suspect is described as a 5-foot-10-inch-tall slender white male with shoulder-length curly or wavy hair.
Police are also looking for three possible witnesses, described white males in their early twenties, who were working on a small boat that was on a trailer attached to a pickup truck or SUV. Investigators said the men might have been in the area that night and might have seen or heard the attack.
Anyone with information is asked to call the Middle Township Police Department at 609-465-8700, or to contact Cape May County Crime Stoppers at 609-465-2800.
Posted by Rico at 08:18
A racehorse owned by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II (photo, left) that won the prestigious Gold Cup at Royal Ascot last year has tested positive for a banned painkiller, morphine.Rico says that heads will roll for this... (And comments like "geez, can't tell the three of them apart" are unwelcome, if true.) And, of course, no one is suggesting that anyone deliberately gave the horse the morphine...
The British Horseracing Authority announced last week that tests on five horses under the care of various trainers showed the presence of morphine in their ‘A’ samples.
The queen’s bloodstock and racing adviser, John Warren, said that the monarch’s five-year-old filly Estimate (photo, right) was one of the five.
Buckingham Palace said that early indications suggest that Estimate consumed the substance as a result of contaminated feed. Warren said in a statement that Estimate’s trainer Michael Stoute “is working closely with the feed company involved to discover how the product may have become contaminated prior to delivery to his stables”.
Estimate finished second in this year’s Gold Cup behind Leading Light.
Warren added: “Her Majesty has been informed of the situation.”
Previously, Britain’s most publicized case of a horse testing positive for morphine was Be My Royal after he had won the 2002 Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury. The horse was subsequently disqualified.
Posted by Rico at 08:15
For Apple, the iPhone continues to be the device that makes the company tick.Rico says his replacement cycle is driven by a lack of cash, not a lack of interest. (Though he hasn't seen much change in the iPads...)
While top rivals like Samsung are starting to show weakness in phone sales, Apple sold 35.2 million iPhones in the third fiscal quarter, up thirteen percent from the period a year ago. The total was slightly below the estimates of analysts, who had expected thirty-six million iPhones to be sold.
But, for Apple, slightly disappointing analysts on iPhone sales does not appear to be cause for alarm. The company, based in Cupertino, California, reported profits of $7.75 billion in the quarter that ended on 28 June 2014, up from $6.9 billion in the quarter a year earlier.
Revenue was $37.43 billion, up from $35.32 billion in the quarter a year ago. Wall Street analysts had expected revenue of $37.93 billion, according to a survey of analysts by Thomson Reuters.
The strong iPhone sales, thanks in part to a recent distribution deal with China Mobile, offset other, more disappointing results from Apple’s other signature product, the iPad. The company sold 13.3 million iPads, down nine percent from the year-ago quarter. Analysts had predicted it would sell an average of 14.4 million.
But a small dip in iPad sales is not so bad if iPhone sales are up. Apple’s gross profit margin was 39.4 percent, up 2.5 percentage points from the quarter a year ago. Apple makes more money on each iPhone than it does on each iPad so, when sales momentum shifts away from the iPad toward the iPhone, profit margins are better.
Unlike Samsung, which is having a difficult time fending off low-cost competition from companies like Xiaomi and Huawei, sales in China gave Apple a big boost over the quarter. Apple’s revenue in China grew 28 percent from a year ago.
China is an increasingly vital market for the company, especially now that the smartphone markets in the United States and parts of Europe have become saturated.
In fact, the importance of China would be an impetus for Apple to develop a lower-cost, big-screen iPhone to target the Asian region, said Ben Bajarin, a consumer technology analyst for Creative Strategies.
IDC, the research firm, estimates that at least twenty percent of all smartphones shipped last year in China were five inches or larger. It predicts that number will balloon to fifty percent by 2017. “Positioning a lower-cost iPhone in a larger screen size would fit Asia’s trend perfectly,” Bajarin said.
That is what Apple intends to do in the fall, according to a person briefed on Apple’s product plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plans were private. Analysts expect Apple to release two sizes; one model with a screen that measures 4.7 inches diagonally and the other at 5.5 inches.
Still, the excitement over the iPhone was tempered somewhat by iPad results.“iPad sales met our expectations, but we realize they didn’t meet many of yours,” Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, told analysts on the company’s financial earnings call. Shares of Apple were down about half a percentage point in after-hour trading.
In an interview, Luca Maestri, Apple’s chief financial officer, said iPad sales brought in mixed results in different regions. In China and India, tablet sales grew substantially. In more mature markets, like the United States, however, iPad sales were softer.
Apple cited data from IDC, the research firm, indicating that tablet sales in the United States and Western Europe would decline five percent last quarter.
Traditionally, the quarter ending in June is a slow time of year for smartphone sales industrywide because many consumers are holding out until fall or the holiday shopping season to buy new smartphones.
Samsung Electronics, the number one handset maker in the world and Apple’s top rival in the mobile handset industry, is no exception to this trend. This month, Samsung said it estimated its quarterly profit would fall 24 percent compared with the period a year ago. In part, the company blamed the time period— a slow season for smartphone sales in China, the largest smartphone market in the world— for the shortfall. The company also blamed intense competition from its low-cost rivals.
Tablet sales shrank for Samsung, too, last quarter. The company said that generally, consumers upgrade tablets less often than they do smartphones. That might be the same reason iPad sales slowed this quarter as well.
“It’s part of a pattern; lots of new people are buying iPads, but people who already have them haven’t been replacing them very quickly,” said Jan Dawson, an independent telecom analyst for Jackdaw Research.
Maestri of Apple added that he believed Apple’s new partnership with IBM would only help lift iPad sales among businesses using tablets. Earlier this month, the companies said they would work together on a hundred business programs exclusively for iPhones and iPads.
Maestri said he felt it was too early to draw conclusions about how often people replace iPads, because the first iPad came out only four years ago. “We still don’t know exactly what the replacement cycles are,” he said.
Posted by Rico at 04:41
Rico says we all know how well that turned out... (Almost unknown now, the guy was the Lee Harvey Oswald of his time.)
Posted by Rico at 04:26
DelanceyPlace.com has a selection from Avoiding the Fall by Michael Pettis:
China's success in exports is well known and is often a political lightning rod; witness the complaints of U.S. politicians regarding China's "undervalued currency". What is less well known is that China's dependence on exports has left it with a highly unbalanced economy, with its business or production sector much larger than the household sector when compared to more developed countries. Further, this export competitiveness has disadvantaged China's households as compared to its businesses. This leaves China in a trap of sorts; any move to try and rebalance its economy or alleviate this disadvantage to its households will leave it less competitive in the export markets:Rico says this shit makes his head hurt...
There are, in fact, three main mechanisms that explain the relatively low price of Chinese exports abroad, all of which transfer income from Chinese households to subsidize Chinese producers, albeit in very different ways.
The currency regime is certainly one of them, and the mechanism is fairly easy to understand. An undervalued currency spurs export competitiveness by subsidizing the local cost component for manufacturers. These implicit subsidies are effectively paid for by Chinese households in the form of artificially high prices for imported goods. Because all households, except perhaps subsistence farmers, are effectively net importers, an undervalued currency is a kind of consumption tax that effectively reduces the real value of their income. The second mechanism, the difference between wage and productivity growth, does the same thing, but with a different set of winners and losers. Chinese workers' wages have grown more slowly than productivity for all but the last two years of the past three decades, which means that until two years ago workers have received a steadily declining share of what they produce. Manufacturers and other employers benefit from this process because their wage payments are effectively subsidized, so the more labor-intensive production is, the greater the subsidy they implicitly receive. The third mechanism, the most important, is artificially low interest rates. These reduce household income by reducing the return households receive on bank deposits; because of legal constraints on investment alternatives, the bulk of savings in China is in the form of bank deposits. Artificially lowered interest rates, however, increase manufacturing competitiveness by lowering the cost of capital. Of course, the more capital-intensive a manufacturer is, the more it benefits. The mechanisms also distribute the costs in different ways. An undervalued currency hurts households in proportion to the value of imports in their total consumption basket. Low wages hurt workers and farmers. Low interest rates hurt households in proportion to the amount of their savings as a share of income. Because they boost economic growth at the expense of households, these three mechanisms cause the economy to grow much faster than household income. This is the root of China's unbalanced economy: household income has grown so much more slowly than the economy that household consumption over the past three decades has collapsed as a share of GDP. Rebalancing in China means by definition, however, that the household consumption share of GDP must rise, and the only effective way to do this is by raising the household income share of GDP. Revaluing the currency is one way of doing so. It increases the real income of households by reducing the cost of imports, and it raises local production costs for manufacturers. But revaluing the currency is not the only way. Raising Chinese wages increases household income, too, while increasing labor costs for manufacturers. Finally, allowing interest rates to rise benefits households by increasing the return on savings, and it raises costs for capital-intensive manufacturers. As China rebalances, by definition Chinese household income must rise as a share of total GDP. This is the important point that is often forgotten in the debate about Chinese competitiveness. In the aggregate, as China rebalances, the net impact of changes in all three mechanisms must result in reduced subsidies to Chinese manufacturers and so, at least initially, in reduced Chinese competitiveness abroad.
Posted by Rico at 04:13
22 July 2014
Two white flags appeared atop the Brooklyn Bridge this morning, and no one knows why. From The New York Times:Vivian Yee has an article in The New York Times with more detail:
Online speculation aside, there were few indications of why or how the flags had come to wave atop one of New York City’s most storied landmarks. Photos seemed to show that at least one bore stripes under its coat of white, suggesting it was an American flag that had been whitewashed.If this turns out to be viral marketing, I am going to dump garbage on someone's head.
The regular American flags are now back up.
The flags looked innocent enough, billowing merrily in the breeze, pure white against a clear summer sky. Then came the double-take, for thousands of New Yorkers, camera-toting tourists, maintenance workers and residents gazing out the window as they sipped their morning coffee: The flags above the Brooklyn Bridge are not white. At least, not usually.Rico says he's glad they mentioned the bleached-flag thing; he'd noticed it in the television coverage...
The bridge, a landmark so iconic it is frequently one of the first structures to be smashed to pieces in apocalyptic movies, always flies enormous American flags above its two towers. Not so on Tuesday morning.
“I’m not particularly happy about the event,” said Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, whose officers evidently missed something overnight.
Surveillance footage shows a group crossing the bridge around 3:10 am, shortly before the lights illuminating the flags on both towers went out, said John Miller, the NYPD's deputy commissioner of intelligence. What appeared to be large aluminum pans, like those to cook lasagna for a crowd, had apparently been used to cover the lights.
Those responsible probably had some climbing experience, perhaps even on bridges, Miller said. “At this time, no particular nexus to terrorism or politics,” he said. “This could be someone’s art project or someone’s statement. We’re just not clear what that statement is.” They were not alone.
Robert Langdon, the fictional Harvard symbologist of The Da Vinci Code, would have had a field day with the stunt. The white flag of surrender seemed the obvious allusion, until it emerged that the flags were actually bleached Old Glories, raising confused questions of patriotism and politics.
Then there was the choice of the Brooklyn Bridge. “I suspect a protest,” as Mike Hout, 64, a resident of the Dumbo neighborhood, put it, “but of what?”
An officer on the bridge told Carolyn Peterson that the police initially thought a film shoot in Dumbo might be responsible, but the film crew had denied involvement, Peterson said.
“Aliens,” declared someone named Alex on Twitter.
“Manhattan surrendering to Brooklyn,” suggested Rebecca Mead, a writer for The New Yorker.
Others proposed a connection to politics— a show of strength from Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, perhaps— or a power grab by Letitia James, the public advocate, who has not so subtly explored the possibility of assuming some of the mayor’s powers while he vacations in Italy. (James said that she was “deeply concerned” about the security breach.)
But no conspiracy theory was given more credence— at least initially— than the announcement, by the Twitter account @BicycleLobby, that it had hoisted white flags “to signal our complete surrender of the Brooklyn Bridge bicycle path to pedestrians.” The post was a joke, news organizations that had taken it at face value discovered to their chagrin.
The authorities were at a loss to explain the situation, and a spokesman for the Police Department, Detective Martin Speechley, reported this: “There’s a white flag on the Brooklyn Bridge.”
The bridge has suffered more than its share of indignities over the years, including, most recently, the “locks of love”— affixed by couples— that the Transportation Department has deemed a safety hazard. But it has also been a al-Qaeda target: the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, once told an operative to destroy the bridge by cutting its suspension cables.
Now cameras and marked police cars guard the entrances. A police boat lurks nearby in the East River. Round-the-clock security cameras watch the point on shore where the suspension cables are anchored.
Eric Adams, Brooklyn borough president, offered a five thousand dollar reward for information about the perpetrators out of his own pocket, saying that, if it was a prank, “I’m not laughing.”
On the bridge, New Yorkers and tourists veered between fear, puzzlement and absurdist humor. “The first thing I told myself is, ‘That’s a warning sign,’ ” said Jeffrey Brown, 37, who sells water and Gatorade on the bridge. “Where’s your security at?”
Nearby, Nick Krevatas, one of the workers who were to hoist the new twelve-by-eighteen-foot red, white and blue flags that arrived in a Transportation Department truck by early afternoon, pulled on an elaborate harness. “I feel we’ve been tampered with on our soil,” he said, a fat cigar clamped in the corner of his mouth. (He was still smoking it as he walked up the suspension cable to the towers.)
His theory? “Something political, I guess,” he mused. “It’s got to mean something.”
Posted by Rico at 20:27
Apple's earnings, as expected, were a bit boring today. The company isn't debuting any major new products until later in 2014, so investors had to make do with news that the company hauled in a slightly larger boatload of cash than it did this time last year, mostly thanks to growing iPhone sales. Total revenue rose six percent to a gaudy $37.43 billion.Rico says that the analysts won't be pointing all this out...
Some argue that, without a big new hit, Apple risks turning into just another tech dinosaur. But, lumbering or not, sometimes it's worth reflecting on what an enormous beast the company Steve Jobs built truly is. Last year, Eric Chemi of Bloomberg Businessweek pointed out the amazing fact that Apple's iPhone sales alone were larger than the revenues at 474 of the companies in the S&P 500 stock index. So I thought I'd ask: if Apple's product lines were their own companies now, which corporations would they stack up against?
First, about the iPhone. Apple moved 35.2 million of the devices this quarter, generating $19.75 billion in sales, a sum larger than Amazon's last reported quarterly revenue. It's also (as Derek Thompson has noted) more than the revenues at Coca-Cola and McDonald's combined. Stack Google and eBay on top of one another, and they barely beat out the little hand-computer. (To be clear, since not every company has reported earnings from Apirl through June yet, so I'm using their most recent public results.)
iPad sales might be declining slightly, but, at almost $5.9 billion, they're still a massive business in their own right, generating more revenue than Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Groupon, and Tesla combined. That said, those five companies would slightly outweigh Mac computers, which garnered a mere $5.5 billion in sales.
Other fun comparisons: Apple's hardware accessories business (think headphones), generated $1.3 billion, larger than Chipotle's $1.05 billion top line. Weighing in a $4.5 billion, Apple's iTunes, software, and services businesses are a little larger than eBay. And while sales of the dowdy old iPod line may be dwindling, the $442 million Apple made off it this quarter is still 77 percent larger than Twitter's $250 million quarterly revenue.
Posted by Rico at 20:13
Reports have indicated that 282 bodies were aboard the refrigerated train carrying the remains of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 victims from the crash site into territory controlled by the Ukrainian government. (There were 298 people thought to have died in the crash.) But Dutch official Jan Tuinder (photo), who is in charge of preparing the bodies for transport from the city of Kharkiv to the Netherlands, now says that only two hundred bodies arrived in Kharkiv. From The Washington Post:Rico says this ain't over yet. (And the Dutch are pissed...)The number of bodies that arrived in the train’s refrigerated rail cars was significantly lower than the 282 bodies, plus 87 body parts believed to belong to the remaining sixteen victims, that Ukrainian officials have said were recovered. The train, which left the rebel-held mining town of Torez took more than seventeen hours to travel a route that normally takes five hours or less.
Ukrainian officials previously accused rebels of moving thirty-eight bodies from the crash site to the city of Donetsk, presumably in an effort to hide evidence that the plane was shot down.
Posted by Rico at 20:06
Face it, nothing says 'Old West' quite like a good, old-fashioned, American train robbery.
The image is burned in our brains: a gang of masked men stops the locomotive, holds passengers and crew at bay with gleaming .45s, blows the express safe with some well-placed explosives, then rides hell-for-leather to safety astride the best horses money can buy (or that they could steal).
That’s not just a stereotype, sold by television and movie Westerns and ink-stained wretches over the past hundred and forty years. It really happened that way, more or less.
Take the first train stick-up in US history, nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, which did not happen in the West.
It was just after 8 pm on 5 May 1865, and the Ohio & Mississippi train was a few minutes out of Cincinnati, Ohio, headed for St. Louis, Missouri. At a remote location near North Bend, Ohio— within sight of the Ohio River and almost to the Indiana line— the train went off the tracks; somebody had pulled one of the rails.
The engine, express and baggage cars tipped over. The passenger cars stayed upright, but several of the riders were injured. An estimated fifteen to twenty desperados jumped aboard, firing their pistols and ordering everyone to shell out. Five of the outlaws went to the express car and used gunpowder to blow open the safes.
After about an hour, the robbers left, taking skiffs to cross the Ohio River into Kentucky, where they mounted horses and rode away. Nobody knows the exact take, although some reports said they got up to thirty thousand dollars in government bonds and bank notes, and several thousand dollars in cash and valuables from the passengers.
Federal troops pursued the thieves (technically, the Civil War was still on and civilian authorities lacked the power to cross state lines, especially into a border territory like Kentucky). For some reason, though, they didn’t head out for eight hours; some stories say the Union officer in charge had to be sobered up before they could start the chase.
When the posse got to Verona, Kentucky, they found that the robbers had celebrated with wine, women and song, and there were even some stolen bank notes dropped in the streets. But the gang was never caught; the crime remains unsolved.
The North Bend train robbery set the standard for the countless railroad stick-ups that took place over the next sixty years.
Some of those historic train lines are still in operation (as well as several that never suffered the indignity of a hold-up). They keep the Old West alive in interesting, informative, and fun fashion.
Seeing as we’re talking about some of those railroads, it seemed appropriate to tie those in with some of the more interesting train robberies in Old West history.
So climb aboard, and hide your valuables!
Robbing the Rails from the Mountains to the PlainsThe first train robbery by the James-Younger Gang had some success and some failure— and showed just how little the outlaws knew about gold and silver bars.
It happened on 21 July 1873, and involved the Chicago, Rock Island, & Pacific Railway, about three miles east of Adair, Iowa. As the train went around a bend, an unseen hand pulled one of the rails. The engine, tender, baggage, and express cars went off the track and rolled down an embankment, killing the engineer and injuring several passengers.
Three masked outlaws jumped into the express car, while two others held guns on the passengers and crew. The leader (who yanked off his mask) got into the safe and removed its contents, but kept asking: “Where’s the bullion?” The postal clerk pointed to more than a ton of gold and silver bars underneath, but it didn’t compute with the bandit chief, who apparently thought bullion was coinage. It wouldn’t have done much good if he had understood what the term meant; the gang hadn’t brought a wagon to haul the bars away.
So the outlaws got about $2,300, not millions. They didn’t rob the passengers (which they would do in a couple of later train jobs). As they left, the leader expressed regret over the death of the engineer. The gang mounted horses and headed for Missouri. There were no arrests, although the St. Louis police identified the robbers as Frank and Jessie James, Cole Younger, George Sheppard, and Arthur McCoy. Descriptions of the outlaw chief matched Jessie James perfectly.
The 3 November 1887, robbery of a Denver & Rio Grande train near Grand Junction, Colorado is the stuff of legend, in that it was the first big criminal act by Butch Cassidy (along with pals Tom McCarty and Matt Warner).
Nice story. But here’s what actually happened:
The train was about five miles east of Grand Junction when it ran into a pile of rocks blocking the tracks. When the locomotive stopped, three masked men entered the express car, while another held a gun on the engineer.
Express messenger Dick Williams had guts. The robbers gained easy entry to a small safe (with almost nothing in it). But when they ordered him to open the larger safe, Williams told them he couldn’t, that it could only be unlocked at the destination. They threatened to kill him; he continued his bluff. The outlaws finally accepted his ruse and left, getting only about $150 in change and jewelry.
The railroad put up a three thousand dollar reward for capturing the outlaws, and the US government tossed in another thousand— a very big total for the time. It had the desired effect, pushing several lawmen to go after the robbers. Gunnison County Sheriff Doc Shores, who had a reputation as a dogged pursuer, was among them.
Eventually, Shores and his deputies caught up with the four men in Utah; they confessed and did prison time for the job.
But Bob Smith, Bob Boyd, Ed Rhodes, and Jack Smith were definitely not Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch. The Hole-in-the-Wall guys were still a few years away from troubling the trains.
You’ve seen the movie: Butch and Sundance rob the Union Pacific Flyer near Wilcox, Wyoming but, in trying to open the safe, they blow the express car to smithereens.Rico says that he's joining up with Six-Gun Justice to do just that (using a red lantern, too)...
It’s a great scene, but it didn’t exactly happen that way.
Sure, members of the Wild Bunch did stick up that train on 2 June 1899. And a bit of mayhem ensued. But Butch wasn’t there; Harvey Logan (Kid Curry) led the Sundance Kid and George “Flatnose” Currie in the heist.
It started at 2:18 am, when two masked men, using red lanterns, flagged down the train. They forced the engineer to take the locomotive, tender, and express and mail cars down the track while they dynamited a trestle behind them. They then blew open the door of the express car, knocking the messenger unconscious (a third outlaw had joined them at this point). That was when they tried to open the safes. And they used too much explosive, and the express car was blown to pieces. The robbers then grabbed an estimated fifty thousand dollars in bank notes and currency, all of which were damaged in the blast, making them easy to identify.
What followed was one of the largest manhunts in the history of Wyoming, with dozens of lawmen in various posses going after the robbers (attracted by rewards totaling more than eighteen thousand dollars). During the pursuit, the outlaws shot and killed Converse County Sheriff Josiah Hazen. But they eluded capture; justice would have to wait for the three bad men.
Posted by Rico at 12:35
Slate has a Bad Astronomy post by Phil Plait of some amazing photos:
Roughly fifty million light years from Earth is the most spectacular example of galactic collision in the sky: the famed Antenna Galaxies, two huge spiral galaxies in the middle of a cosmic train wreck. Playing out over hundreds of millions of years, the gravity of the two galaxies has distorted their shapes, flung out streamers of stars a million light years long, and triggered a burst of star formation so intense that billions of new stars are being born in the galaxy’s hearts.
As mighty as this event is, fifty million light years is a long, long way. The details of this collision used to be discernible only using giant observatories like the Very Large Telescope or Hubble. But not anymore! Behold Rolf Wahl Olsen’s newly released picture of the Antennae:
That magnificent shot was taken with a 32 cm telescope that Olsen built himself. It took him 38 nights of observing, from January to June of 2014, to get to a total of an amazing 75 hours of observing time for this gorgeous image. He says the faintest stars visible are around 24th to 25th magnitude; the faintest star you can see with your naked eye is 25 million times brighter than that.
So yeah, this picture is deep.
The detail really is stunning. Olsen compared his image to those taken with Hubble and the VLT, and while, of course, his resolution isn’t as good (there’s no way a small telescope can discern details as well as much larger telescopes), it’s amazing what features you can identify in his shot compared with the professional observatories:
What you’re seeing in this image are two massive galaxies undergoing a physical collision. Over the lifetime of the Universe, galaxies collide fairly often; our own Milky Way has collided with and consumed quite a few smaller galaxies to grow to its current size. But collisions between two large galaxies is more rare, and we’re fortunate to have such a fantastic example like the Antennae so close to us.Rico says he won't be around in four billion years, but hopefully someone will...
The collision started more than six hundred million years ago. As they approached each other, their mutual gravitational attraction drew out long streamers of stars (called tidal tails) from the other. The galaxies aren’t colliding perfectly head on, but instead first missed each other by a bit. Their gravity swung the two galaxies around, giving them a bit of rotation; that’s why the tidal tails form long, graceful arcs.
After they swung around, the galaxies headed for each other again, colliding for a second time and starting the long, long process of merging into a single, larger galaxy. Amazingly, it’s unlikely there will be a single collision between two stars; stars are very small compared with the space between them. But gas clouds are huge, light years across, and collisions between them are common in these events. When clouds slam into each other they collapse and form stars. These collisions can spur huge amounts of such activity, creating what we poetically call a starburst. In Olsen’s image, the clouds are pink and red due to glowing hydrogen gas, excited by the vast numbers of massive stars forming within them.
Star birth also creates huge amounts of dust— long, complex molecules based on carbon— which is opaque, so the dust clouds block the light from stars behind them. You can see the ribbons and filigrees of dust in Olsen’s image, and, of course, even better in the VLT and Hubble pictures.
If you still need one more thing to send chills down your back, then think on this: In four billion years, the Milky Way will collide with the massive Andromeda Galaxy, and if there are any spectators a few dozen million light years away, what they will see all those eons hence will look very much like what Olsen has shown us here.
It’s simply mind-blowing to see what can be done with so-called amateur equipment these days. What was once the sole purview of professional observatories (before the invention of the digital camera) can now be reproduced with far less, if someone is willing to be so devoted to it. I’m glad Olsen is.
And if you need more of his work, then you should see his images of the active galaxy Centaurus A, his glimpse of a forming alien solar system, and what he did with Voyager images of Neptune. It takes him a long time to put together each of these shots, and so we don’t hear as much from him as other folks putting their eyepieces to the sky. But if he continues to create such astonishing works like these, I can be patient. It’s worth it.
Posted by Rico at 12:03
Steven Novella has a blog post about stopping stupidity in Australia:
The group previously known as the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) has been getting a lot of heat recently, in large part thanks to the Australian Skeptics who have been exposing their dangerous misinformation. The AVN is an anti-vaccination group that actively campaigns against vaccination. They are (or, at least, were until recently) also a registered charity, which means they can take tax-deductible donations.Rico says it's nice to see idiots getting screwed, for once...
The Australian Skeptics pointed out that the name of the AVN is misleading, as it might make the public think they are giving fair and balanced information about vaccines. In reality the information they dispense amounts to anti-vaccine propaganda.
Recently the New South Wales Department of Fair Trading ruled that the AVN is a misleading name, and ordered the group to change their name. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they decided to change their name to the Australian Vaccination Skeptics Network.
While this may have satisfied the letter of the order, I have to wonder if this was a deliberate dig at the Australian Skeptics. It is very unfortunate when denialist groups co-opt the name “skeptic”. It just further confuses the skeptic brand, as denialism is as far away from scientific skepticism as is gullible belief.
Of course deniers always think they are the true skeptics, just as true-believers think that skeptics are deniers. People tend to calibrate their denier>skeptic>believer scales to themselves. Therefore anyone more accepting of a particular claim than you is a believer, and less accepting is a denier.
In reality, scientific skepticism is a process that involves critical thinking skills and knowledge of philosophy and scientific methodology.It’s just a matter of accepting or rejecting a specific claim, it’s about the process.
The AVSN, formerly the AVN, are not skeptics. They have an anti-vaccine ideological agenda and promote pseudoscience and misinformation. They are as far away from true skeptics as you can get.
One potentially good bit of follow up news is that the AVSN has now been ordered to surrender its charitable fundraising:
New South Wales Fair Trading Minister Stuart Ayres has taken further action: “We have requested that it surrender its authority to fundraise, which it has done, under the Charitable Fundraising Act,” he said.
I can see that some may find it troubling that the government can decide what information is acceptable, and remove charity status (what would be called non-profit status in the US) for speech it deems unacceptable. However, in this situation we are dealing with medical information (not political advocacy).
No group has a right to charitable status. It makes sense that such a privilege should come with a responsibility to demonstrate a public good. In this case, it can be clearly shown that the AVSN is a public menace, threatening public health with dangerous misinformation. It would be perverse, in fact, for such a group to benefit from any government subsidy or support.
I don’t know what the future holds for the AVSN, but I am glad that regulators are taking complaints about such groups seriously. I am a strong supporter of free speech, and would tread very cautiously on any government regulation of speech. The AVSN, in fact, is free to spread their misinformation and propaganda. But they should not carry the slightest imprimatur of government legitimacy. I also think its reasonable to criticize them for what is essentially false advertising, potentially misleading the public about their true cause.
Politicians are experts in such things. Just look at the titles of proposed bills compared to what they actually contain.
Posted by Rico at 10:49
Scientists say they have made an "exciting" step towards curing HIV by forcing the virus out of hiding. HIV can become part of someone's DNA and lie dormant for decades, making a cure impossible. Early stage research in six people, reported at the Aids 2014 conference, shows that low-dose chemotherapy can awaken the virus.Rico says let's hope it works; it'd be nice to finally kill off HIV...
Experts said it was a promising start, but it was unlikely the drug would work on its own to cure HIV.
Anti-viral drugs can drive HIV down to undetectable levels in the bloodstream, meaning people who are HIV-positive can have a near-normal life expectancy. But there is problem. HIV can incorporate its DNA into our own, where it lies beyond the reach of drugs and the immune system; it is known as the HIV reservoir. When drug treatment stops, the virus can leap out of the reservoir and renew its assault. International research is aimed at flushing the virus out of its reservoirs.
A team at Aarhaus University in Denmark tried using a chemotherapy drug, romidepsin, which is used in lymphoma.
Six HIV patients with undetectable levels of the virus were enrolled in the trial. They each received a reduced dose of romidepsin once a week for three weeks. There was a noticeable jump in viral levels in the blood in five of the patients.
One of the scientists involved, Dr. Ole Sogaard, told the BBC: "Every step forward is always exciting, and I think this is quite important." He said there had been skepticism about the drug being potent enough. "We've shown it is possible to kick the virus out of the cells, the next step is to actually kill the cells. "The trial now moves into a new phase which combines the romidepsin with something to enhance the immune system and in our case this is an HIV vaccine."
Side-effects were those normally associated with chemotherapy, including fatigue.
There are still many challenges ahead. The team cannot say what proportion of cells hiding HIV are being activated by romidepsin. Another looming question is which reservoirs are being successfully targeted. HIV can hide in immune cells in the blood, but there are bigger reservoirs in the gut and central nervous systems, and it is not clear whether they are activated by the blood-based chemotherapy.
"We know it's a step forwards, but we don't know how big, it might just be a single step or it could be a great leap forward," Dr. Sogaard added.
Romidepsin works by "relaxing" tight coiled up bundles of DNA. This exposes the hidden HIV genetic code, and leads to the production of new viruses.
Dr. Andrew Freedman, a reader in infectious diseases at Cardiff University in Wales, told the BBC: "As a proof of concept it does look promising. The search for a cure is very much on, it's not going to be easy and it's unlikely a single drug like this would be sufficient. There's a lot of doubt it would be enough to deplete the reservoir completely. Most people think a single approach will not be enough, a drug like this perhaps needs to be combined with vaccines or even gene-therapy."
Posted by Rico at 10:43
“Clergue’s photographs are from God’s own sketchbooks,” Pablo Picasso (photos) once said of the French photographer, who will turn eighty in August of 2014. Lucien Clergue co-founded the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival in 1970 (it is now celebrating its forty-fourth year) and has produced a body of work over nearly sixty years that was acknowledged with a Legion d’Honneur in 2003. Yet he is perhaps best known for his relationship with the Spanish artist.Rico says that Picasso was an exasperating genius; it's good that we have these images of him and his work.
The pair met at a bullfight (photo, middle) in 1953, and remained friends until Picasso’s death two decades later. The work that brought Clergue early recognition in 1955, Les Saltimbanques, was an attempt to impress Picasso: a series of photos in which children strike world-weary poses in the costumes of traveling circus performers, it referenced the painter’s Harlequin and Pierrot motifs.
“My mother died when I was eighteen and a half. The next year, though, I had the good fortune to meet Pablo Picasso at a bullring,” Clergue told L’Oeil de la Photographie. “Picasso signed one of my prints, not my best, but now it is the most expensive. When I reached the age of twenty, I was still working in a factory, but I was taking photographs of five children dressed in clothes designed by me. I was trying to make Picasso happy: he had said at the bullring ‘I want to see more prints’.”
Clergue photographed other writers and artists in Picasso’s circle of friends, including the poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau; the two collaborated on a volume of poetry and Cocteau’s 1959 film Le Testament d'Orphée. His images of Picasso reflect the level of intimacy they shared, and which he captured in his 1993 book Picasso My Friend, as well as in the 1970 film Picasso: War, Peace, Love.
“I had the opportunity to film Pablo Picasso in his home in Mougins, France. A few years later, Picasso died and left me an artistic orphan,” he says. Informal and revealing, Clergue’s portraits show the artist posing next to works in his studio, with friends at a bullfight, and reclining on the beach (photo, bottom), often with a cigarette in hand.
Posted by Rico at 10:36
Imagine paying 52% taxes, and still loving where you live. Sound impossible?
Talk to expatriates who have settled in Amsterdam in Holland. “I’m in the 52% bracket and I don’t have a problem with it because the services are so generous,” said American art designer Rachel Ericson. “I live in a beautiful city, my kid goes to a good school, and health insurance is so much less than in the US.” Ericson is just one of many expatriates who now call Amsterdam their home.
They were lured by the thousands of jobs available in technology, oil, and other industries. They have stayed for the great benefits, despite the fact that Amsterdam has one of the highest tax rates in Europe. “I know that, if something happened to me tomorrow, the system is in place to take care of me and my family, so I’m not worried,” said Ericson, who works for the Dutch media consulting firm Van Gaal & Company.
The Netherlands consistently ranks in the top ten of the world’s happiest nations, according to research by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Those benefits seem to filter down to foreigners who have come to the region for work. A recent HSBC survey ranked the Netherlands as the sixth-best place in the world to be an expat, citing the duration respondents stay in the country and their ability to earn and save.
Considering a move to Amsterdam? Here’s how to get hired and settled in one of the continent’s most livable capitals:
The job hunt
The best place to begin a job search is within your own network, online or through executive searches, said Laura Quick, web manager of Adams' Multilingual Recruitment in Amsterdam. With 2,500 foreign companies in Amsterdam, 27 global headquarters and another 269 European headquarters, the opportunities are ample, especially in the fields of oil and gas (think Shell), retail and fashion, advertising, and information technology.
Demand is strong for “non-Dutch speaking, skilled candidates in international companies,” said Quick. “We ‘felt’ the 2008 economic crisis. Business slowed, but it certainly didn’t collapse. Now it is picking up quite well and there is a reasonable level of activity.”
The first stop for those relocating is the Expatcenter Amsterdam, a government-supported service whose sole purpose is to help highly-skilled migrants settle into Amsterdam and its environs. They help you take care of the all-important Dutch troika: getting your residence permit, registering at city hall, and obtaining a BSN (or social security) number.
If you have a job, or are from an EU country, all of those things should run smoothly. “But non-EU, highly-skilled migrants need employment before coming, and their time of stay is as long as their contract,” said Sietske van Tuin, operations manager of Expatcenter Amsterdam. “After that, they have to find either a new job or an EU partner.”
Freelancers, especially non-EU members, face more of an uphill battle, as they have to prove they generate enough income to secure a residence permit. “We are trying to make it easier for them,” said van Tuin. “Amsterdam is a creative city. People are coming here with great ideas and start-ups, and we see they have as much value as highly-skilled migrants.”
Just ask 31-year-old Australian Fraser Robertson, who is opening a “concept beer store” in Amsterdam this summer. “The city does help you, even with raising capital,” he said. “They accept new ideas and are loose with regulations. There’s always a loophole, and as long as you are not flaunting it, you’re okay. If you’re adding to the country, they’re very responsive.”
Wages and taxes
Salaries are competitive, compared to other European countries, Quick said.
In addition, expats can benefit from a special tax rule that exempts them from paying taxes on thirty percent of their salary. However, they must be employed and fall into the highly-skilled migrant classification, which requires a monthly minimum gross salary of about four thousand euros, to qualify.
This helps offset the fact that the Netherlands has one of the highest tax rates in Europe. The average tax rate is forty-two percent for those making 33,000 euros to 54,000 euros. It caps at fifty-two percent for incomes of 54,000 euros or above.
Most US expats, including art designer Ericson, must file US taxes as well as Dutch. If you are an American relocating to Amsterdam, getting a good accountant to help you sort through the red tape is a must. Fortunately for non-Americans, many other countries tax based on residency.
Going DutchA 2012 study on expat life commissioned by Expatcenter Amsterdam found that one of the biggest complaints is the lack of integration, with more than half of the respondents saying they don’t feel part of the local community. “It took me two years to have my first Dutch friends,” said Mark Austen, who moved from the UK three years ago and is opening a 3D printing shop. “It is hard to penetrate.”
You usually don’t need to speak Dutch to land a job or open a business. Indeed, the Netherlands has one of the highest English proficiency rates in Europe. Robertson has lived in Amsterdam for ten years and still can’t speak the language. “A Dutch partner helps, especially with taxes, because you can’t speak to the authorities in any other language than Dutch,” said Robertson, who is going into business with a Dutch national. “But, for small businesses, you don’t have to have a Dutch person on board.”
While there are clear benefits to relocating to an almost universally English-speaking nation, it can also hinder integration. “It’s hard for an English-speaker to learn Dutch because everyone speaks English to you and it’s so convenient, but I didn’t like feeling so isolated,” said Ericson of her first years here.
Housing and family life
Taxes may but stifling, but housing is relatively affordable. “All the European capitals and similarly sized cities, such as Frankfurt, Madrid, Copenhagen, and Stockholm, are more expensive than Amsterdam at this moment,” said estate agent Tale van Zandwijk of WedemaVanVeenJansen VOF.
A two-bedroom apartment in the most desirable parts of the city center (such as the canal belt) could set you back 2,000 to 2,500 euros per month. Outside the center, expect to pay 1,300 1,500 euros for a two-bedroom flat. Two months rent as a security deposit is usually required. The websites funda.nl and pararius.nl are good places to start your search and both provide listings in English.
Private schools are expensive. The British School of Amsterdam, located in Amsterdam South, costs 15,156 euros per year. Lower-tuition options include partly private, government-funded schools or Dutch public schools, which are known for their quality education.
Of all the things the Netherlands excels in, it’s the work-life balance that garners the most praise. It is common for professionals, especially those with family, to work only four-day weeks. “The Dutch expect their employees to have a life outside work, even during the week,” said Quick. “No one expects you to be at the office at 0700 and sit there until 2000; in fact, in many companies this behavior would not be appreciated and, in some, it would definitely be frowned upon.”
Be aware that non-Dutch companies may expect you to work long, non-Dutch hours, American companies in particular. “Some have adapted their way of working to the Dutch norms, and others stick pretty rigidly to the American way” said Quick.
Amsterdam has all the cultural benefits of a capital city, including world-class museums, concert halls and restaurants and several leafy parks. But it is still small enough that many expats consider the Dutch capital more of a village. “It’s the only place I want to live in Europe,” added Austen, sipping a latte at one of the city’s many independent, trendy but cozy coffee houses. “It’s wicked.”
Rico says that he and the ladyfriend were last there in 2013, having a lovely dinner with Rico's old Apple buddy, Rob, and his ladyfriend.Work-life balanceOf all the things the Netherlands excels in, it’s the work-life balance that garners the most praise. It is common for professionals, especially those with family, to work only four-day weeks.
“The Dutch expect their employees to have a life outside work, even during the week,” said Quick. “No one expects you to be at the office at 0700 and sit there until 2000; in fact, in many companies this behavior would not be appreciated and, in some, it would definitely be frowned upon.”
Be aware that non-Dutch companies may expect you to work long, non-Dutch hours, American companies in particular. “Some have adapted their way of working to the Dutch norms, and others stick pretty rigidly to the American way” said Quick.
Amsterdam has all the cultural benefits of a capital city, including world-class museums, concert halls and restaurants and several leafy parks. But it is still small enough that many expats consider the Dutch capital more of a village.
“It’s the only place I want to live in Europe,” added Austen, sipping a latte at one of the city’s many independent, trendy but cozy coffee houses. “It’s wicked.”
Posted by Rico at 10:22
Marooned on an island, if you threw a message-in-a-bottle into the ocean, would you be saved? The answer, according to researchers, depends on where you are.Rico says he forwarded the article to his father, the noted oceanographer, for possible comment...
This interactive map shows how floating objects dropped into the ocean travel over the years. So drop a bottle off the east coast of the US, for example, and if you’re lucky, it may have reached France, Spain, or North Africa after a couple of years but, equally, it could have turned around and been trapped in an oceanic gyre circling around the center of the Atlantic Ocean.
Objects can flow around the ocean for years or even decades before they reach shore. In April of 2014, a message-in-a-bottle turned up off the coast of Norway after a staggering hundred years at sea. Decade-plus journeys aren’t unusual. On New York City beaches, for instance, passers-by have reported finding treasure that appears to have been away from land for years, including unusual animal bones, dentures and even a robot hand. And this week BBC Magazine reported on how tiny pieces of Lego have been continually washing up on the shores of Cornwall in the UK since 1997.
These strange objects enter the sea via beach litter, rivers, and shipping containers lost overboard. Not only do they provide a curious and occasionally disturbing record of humanity’s effects in this era, they can also provide researchers with surprising insights into the vast ocean currents that sweep the globe. A 2014 survey by the World Shipping Council suggests around 2,683 containers were lost at sea per year between 2011 and 2013. The real figure could well be more, as many go unreported and no single database keeps track.
Perhaps the most famous case of drifting ephemera was a fleet of more than twenty-eight thousand rubber ducks and other bath toys, known as the Friendly Floatees. The ducks accidentally fell into the Pacific from a container ship en route from China to Seattle, Washington in 1992, and were tracked by the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmayer, who called on beachcombers to report sightings. The Floatees spent over a decade circling on the sea. What was perhaps most striking was just how far the ducks travelled, with some ending up in Europe and Hawai'i, and confirmed sightings continued until at least the mid-2000s. This hinted that floating objects take a much longer journey between oceans than previously realized.
In 2012, Erik van Sebille of the University of New South Wales in Australia and colleagues confirmed this suspicion by using a network of around twenty thousand satellite-tracked ‘drifter’ buoys. They found that there are six major patches of plastic garbage in the oceans: five in the subtropical seas, and one more high up in the Arctic in the Barents Sea that was previously unknown. And, crucially, this work revealed how the plastic migrates between the patches over long timescales. “They are much more connected than ever envisioned,” he says. “They leak.” This research inspired them to create their interactive map.
According to van Sebille, in some regions of the North Pacific there's potentially more weight in plastic than there is in life. A lot is too buoyant to sink. “It’s almost like the turd that won’t flush,” he laughs. Contrary to popular belief, however, the stuff does not exist as giant islands. It is dispersed and much of it is ‘microplastic’– tiny, eroded fragments– and so it’d be near-impossible to go out there and sweep it up. The danger to wildlife is clear.
Since most of this circulating material does not decompose easily, eventually it may even wind up in the rock record, deposited on beaches or in the deep ocean inside fish poo after they have digested it. Indeed, US researchers recently described a new type of rock found in Hawai'i containing plastic bags, rope, and bottle tops. They call it “plastiglomerate”.
In the far future, then, geologists curious about twenty-first century human beings will likely wander up to an outcrop, and discover colored chunks of plastic embedded within. Peer closer, and they might even get lucky and find whole objects, such a Barbie arm, a pair of dentures, or even a message-in-a-bottle.
Posted by Rico at 10:03
An 89-year-old Northeast Philadelphia man facing extradition to Germany to face Nazi war-crimes charges was hospitalized over the weekend, throwing into doubt the future of US efforts to quickly remove him.Rico says someday we'll be able to report that the last one has died, but we better never forget why they were a bad thing...
Johann Breyer (photo, left), a retired tool and die maker, who immigrated to Philadelphia in 1952, has been in Federal custody since last month, when the Department of Justice initiated extradition proceedings against him.
The department's efforts are based on a German warrant charging Breyer with aiding and abetting the murder of 158 trainloads of European Jews, and comes amid a renewed push in that country to hold to account surviving SS soldiers who played even ancillary roles in the Holocaust.
Since his arrest in June of 2014, Breyer has been ill, and his health has continued to decline, his lawyer, Dennis Boyle, said. In recent years, he has suffered a series of ministrokes, and is being treated for a heart condition and dementia. Boyle said he had not yet learned what specifically prompted Breyer's weekend hospitalization. "His health took a significant turn for the worse," he said. "All I know is what the US Marshals told me."
In light of Breyer's hospitalization, US Magistrate Judge Timothy Rice canceled an extradition hearing scheduled for this week and said he would decide the case based upon written arguments. The judge also reversed a decision denying Breyer bail, citing health concerns.
Prosecutors in Weiden, Germany, obtained a warrant for Breyer in 2013, alleging that as a perimeter guard between 1942 and 1945 at Auschwitz (photo, right) in Nazi-occupied Poland, he provided vital support to a death camp responsible for the slaughter of nearly a million Jews.
His lawyers have portrayed the Breyer of 1942 as a scared seventeen-year-old taken from his family farm in what was then Slovakia and pressed into Nazi service. Breyer maintains that, as a guard outside the camp, he had almost no contact with prisoners, and has said he had no idea of the atrocities taking place inside.
Boyle reiterated those arguments in a court filing last week, hoping to sway Rice into denying the extradition request. "Johann Breyer was born in the wrong place at the wrong time," the lawyer wrote. "The persecution of one ninety-year-old man who merely wore the uniform of an enlisted member of the SS and went where he was ordered to go cannot atone for the German government's decades-long failure to prosecute those truly responsible."
Posted by Rico at 09:52