28 February 2011

Congratulations to Anthony Watts: Best Science Blog 2100 WUWT!

WUWT Best Science Blog

Watts Up With That has won the 2011 best blog award in the category of "Science." The award is called the "Bloggie", perhaps in imitation of the Emmy or the Grammy. Regardless, it is a distinct honour, and one that is well-deserved by Anthony Watts and his team.

Anthony Watts first became well-known in the blogosphere with his vitally important "Surface Stations" project, to determine the quality and validity of the important climate data being collected by the large network of USHCN surface stations. This data becomes the raw material for climate models -- which could easily determine the fate of $trillions of government spending and redistribution in the not-so-distant future.

From there, Watts founded the "Watts Up With That?!" blog, which has rapidly grown to the most popular source for high quality dispassionate and sceptical information regarding the global warming political and quasi-religious movement.
I’ll simply say “thank you dear readers”, and leave it at that. I also owe thanks to the many moderators and guest bloggers that make WUWT what it is. You are winners too.

I have a temporary badge up, a permanent one follows when they have it all completed. The main page here http://2011.bloggi.es should have the announcement soon – Anthony _WUWT
The award is well deserved. Here's hoping for many more of the same in the future.

The result of the conscientious efforts of bloggers such as Anthony Watts, Roger Pielke Sr., and Steve McIntyre is a turning away from a politicised carbon hysteria, back toward a more honest science of climate -- at least in some circles.

The jury is still out on other attempts at increased transparency in climate studies.

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What Destiny Does Demographic Change Hold for World Hegemony?

It is fashionable to assume that the 21st century will belong to China, as Europe and North America lose the memes and genes which drove scientific, commercial, military, and technological progress in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. But what does demography have to say about the fashionable viewpoint?
Americans prosper with a fertility rate of 2.1, high enough to shield them from the sort of demographic collapse closing in on Asia and Europe. Beijing and Shanghai are 1.0, Korea is 1.1, Singapore 1.2, Germany 1.3, Poland 1.3, Italy 1.4 and Russia 1.4.

...Zhuoyan Mao from Beijing’s Institute for Family Planning said China’s fertility rate had been below replacement level for almost twenty years. “Population momentum” turned negative over a decade ago in Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Liaoning, but the countryside is catching up. “The decline speed in rural areas is faster,” he says. _Evans-Pritchard Telegraph
The decline of rural populations can lead to fewer farmers, less agricultural production, and a growing need to import food for hungry cities.
China’s fertility rate is collapsing anyway for the same reasons as it has collapsed in Japan and Korea – affluence, women’s education, later pregnancies that stretch generations, in-law duties, and costly housing. You cannot reverse this with a wave of the wand. The lag times can be half a century.

George Magnus, UBS’s global guru, writes in his book “Uprising” that China faces a “triple whammy of ageing”. The number of children under 14 will fall by 53m by 2050; the work force will contract by 100m; and the over-60s will rise by 234m, from 12pc to 31pc of the total.

...Cheng Siwei, the head of China’s green energy drive, told me a few months ago that eco-damage of 13.5pc of GDP each year outstrips China’s growth rate of 10pc. "We have an intangible environmental debt that we are leaving to our children," he said. That debt is already due. _Telegraph

Much of Eastern Siberia will belong to China before the mid-point of the 21st century. Russia's demographic collapse is coming on too quickly for it to be able to hold on to its vast underpopulated East -- new nukes or no new nukes.

But will China belong to China? China's history is replete with short lived empires interrupted by chaotic schisms of scattered warlord rule. We can see such nascent cracking chasms beginning to work their way through modern China even now -- some of them along ancient fault lines.

And while the quoted Evans-Pritchard article above referred to the possible rise of something called "ChIndia," how much more likely -- should the US collapse under massive debt, over-sized government, dys-regulation, and loss of human capital -- that the wave of anarchy and neo-tribalist schism should wash over China, India, and all other multi-ethnic, multi-cultural quasi-empires?


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On Taking a More Nitty-Gritty Approach to Seasteading

More Designs Here

Up to this point, seasteading seems to be more about superficial design and "gee-whiz! futurism" than about actually building a seastead as an ongoing concern -- as a self-sustaining alternative to government monopoly. The Seasteading Institute has promoted a number of conferences and has achieved a good deal of media coverage. That is always helpful for raising interest in the general ideas, but when it comes to the nitty-gritty of making a life on the ocean, most of the ideas one finds on the site lack heft. In the end, a seastead will have to pay for itself.

It appears that aesthetics may be playing too great a role -- and economics too small a role -- in many of the themes and schemes thrown around in popular seasteading circles.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel in terms of basic marine structure. Actual commercial enterprises such as the oil & gas industry and marine mining concerns, have made significant engineering advances and continue to do so, in terms of habitable ocean-going vessels which are also working commercial platforms. It is possible that the movement could use the input of more no-nonsense marine architects and engineers, as well as that of more persons familiar with the ins and outs of making a living from the sea.

The early seasteads need to be tough, strong, and relatively inexpensive. There is no need to win a beauty contest. One relatively inexpensive building material which could be used to construct working seasteads is pre-stressed concrete:
Through innovation with precast and prestressed concrete, some latest trends are now focused toward the development and construction of floating ocean platforms used to extract minerals, energy, and other natural resources.

Precast and prestressed concrete platforms have been constructed to support phosphate processing plants, floating liquefied propane gas (LPG) processing and storage facilities, and oil exploration platforms that are transported afloat and grounded for drilling.

For ocean platforms, the size and weight of prestressed and precast concrete construction will provide the greatest dynamic stability due to its large inertial advantage. Long-term durability of concrete construction in an ocean environment has been proven by actual service of existing prestressed precast concrete platforms over the last several decades. _civil-online
If the trend toward more and more offshore drilling and mining enterprises continues, it is likely that a great deal of the preliminary testing of possible designs and materials will be done by industrial concerns.

By taking advantage of the lessons already learned and earned by offshore industries, seasteaders who are serious about pulling their own weight can find starting opportunities and niches. Focusing on "pay as you go" approaches is not nearly as glamorous as a lot of the ideas being thrown around at some popular seasteading sites and forums, but it is an approach that is more likely to work in the long run.

From an earlier article at Al Fin Potpourri

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27 February 2011

Parasitic Housing Built Upon the Old Order

All images via Inhabitat
This return to cave-like cliff dwellings is inspired by Brazil's teeming populations of shanty towns, or favelas. As the current wave of tall and ultra-tall buildings rises and subsides, humans in depressed economies will find it too expensive to afford the maintenance required to keep the buildings functioning. But they may have a use -- providing neo-cavemen rooms with a view.
Inspired by favelas or Brazilian shanty towns, the structures are box-like homes that can be attached onto the facades of other buildings. Reyes’ concept is unique in that it actually enlists able-bodied survivors to assist with the implementation of the shelters – a cool idea, since it empowers them to take action instead of simply sitting around, waiting for help. Reyes envisions that the pre-constructed structures could be airlifted by helicopter to sites where they are needed and then guided into place with the help of survivors. They “clip” onto building facades using leverage.

Each shelter would contain beds, lighting, storage and a skylight and be made of recycled materials from local construction sites. There would also be attachments for solar energy, water purification and organic farming. Finding muse in the famous favela paintings of Rio de Janeiro, Reyes also hopes that survivors will be able to use the walls of their shelters as canvases once they are settled in, using painting as a creative outlet as they begin the process of healing. _Inhabitat

Like cliffside cavemen in the past, the neo-cavemen may find living high above the teeming masses and ground-level predators, to be safer.

Nations with average population IQs below 90 -- and without a market dominant high-IQ minority to run things -- will lose the ability to sustain advanced technologies with the coming anarchy. The high tech infrastructure still remaining after such societies collapse will be scavenged and parasitised as needed, as pockets of humanity across the third world revert to the caves.

Images via Inhabitat

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26 February 2011

US Public Sector Unions' Descent Into Chaos

Nationwide, state and local government pension plans are suffering a $1 to $3 trillion dollar underfunding. State governments are sinking, in large part due to impossible commitments to public sector unions.

Until now, no one has been courageous enough to point out the impossibility of meeting the exponentially rising taxpayer commitments to public sector union warchests. Until now. Both taxpayers and a few governors and legislators are waking up to this harsh reality.

But unions and their minions are not waking up. Quite the opposite. They are descending into incomprehensible chaos. As if the threat of violence could possibly change the fiscal facts. Only criminals and fools take that tack in the face of the dark budgetary winds that are blowing.


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The Best Defense Against Propaganda Like "Gasland" is to Learn How Things Are Actually Done

26Feb2011 MORE:New Scientist looks at the questionable tactics and claims of Gasland. The New York Times -- lately more of a tabloid rag than a purveyor of accurate news -- makes some new claims about threats of radioactivity released by wastewater from fracking. Time will tell. Certainly the developed world needs the energy and fuel from unconventional hydrocarbons to allow it to bridge into the era of advanced fission, advanced biofuels, enhanced geothermal, fusion, and other advanced nuclear and exotic particle reactions.

This video provides a brief summary of the oil and gas drilling process. If you pay attention over its few minutes, you will know far more about oil & gas production than most of the faux environmentalists who write propaganda pieces and make propumentary films on the topic, meant to sway public opinion.

The Oscar-nominated film Gasland is a fine example of the genre known as "propumentaries", or propaganda as documentary. Michael Moore is a master of the genre, but Josh Fox is certainly up and coming in the field with this entry.

Here is a website devoted to debunking Gasland

Here is a PDF from Gasland's maker meant to debunk the debunking of Gasland, called Affirming Gasland

A further debunking of Gasland can be found here and here and here

It should be said that for most thinking persons, Gasland debunks itself. But the film is not aimed at thinking persons, it is aimed at members of the Idiocracy, programmed by a failed educational system not to think at all. With that audience, the film has apparently succeeded -- since it is nominated for an Oscar.

President Obama's EPA and Interior Department have succeeded in proclaiming CO2 as a "dangerous pollutant" and in stonewalling offshore oil drilling at all costs. Obama's minions have shut down several coal mines and coal power plants. Obama's NRC is dragging its feet on newer, safer, nuclear plants. All forms of reliable energy have been targeted by Obama's regime. If the regime were able to find any significant pretense to pull the plug on shale gas, they would have done so by now. As it is, they are still looking for anything at all substantial they can use to shut down yet another form of energy. Gasland is certainly not that thing, but is rather in the category of a joke. But they are still looking -- hard.

You can bet a large number of overseas gas producers from Russia to MENA are very interested in seeing Obama take action against shale gas producers. Needless to say, lefty-Luddite greens of the dioff.orgy persuasion are likewise eager to intensify the Obama program of energy starvation in the US.

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25 February 2011

US Government Desperately Needs a Maintenance Shutdown

Machinery of all types experience wear and tear over time. Routine scheduled shutdowns for vital maintenance are part of any industrial plant's life cycle in the developed world. Such routine and profound plant overhauls prevent disastrous failures at future times. The machinery of large governments is no different -- it needs to be shut down periodically for crucial maintenance, replacement, and refurbishing.

The US government is in current desperate need of overhaul, requiring deep surgical cuts to prevent a far worse catastrophic failure in the future. Despite rampant quasi-superstitious fears over the thought of a government shut-down, the alternative of "business as usual" is the genuine cataclysmic alternative.

The government in Belgium has been shut down for 257 days, and the people there seem happy with the result. In the US, as long as the social security checks and other important entitlement disbursements continue during the shutdown, the people of America should be likewise content. Particularly if they were made aware that crucial maintenance was being done to the government, to allow it to avoid a massive breakdown within the next decade or two.

Fiscal policies of government are in particular need of overhaul, with no end in sight for a growing massive debt. Educational, immigration, and cultural policies are leading to a dumbed down Idiocracy which cannot support a high tech society for long. Current energy policies are leading to a terminal energy starvation whose fatal repercussions will rebound through the US economy and society in devastatingly short order.

The US elections of 2010 revealed a deep-seated dissatisfaction among the American electorate, with the direction of the Obama - Pelosi - Reid regressive government. Most Americans believed the nation was being badly mis-directed by its leadership. The election of 2010 re-arranged the US Congress as well as state-level legislatures and governorships. It was not a merely cosmetic overhaul.

There is an awakening at the American grassroots -- particularly among persons who must produce the wealth which the rest of the country lives on -- that the American government has grown a huge crop of freeloaders both within and around Washington DC and state capitals. It is an unsustainable crop which is choking off any chance of economic prosperity for the nation at large.

A few modest attempts to right some of these wrongs in the state of Wisconsin has led to a massive reactionary and potentially violent government-sector union response. President Obama himself has denounced the Wisconsin governor's attempts to balance the Wisconsin state budget -- using his campaign apparatus to bus in hundreds or thousands of outside agitators-for-hire in an attempt to intimidate the government and people of Wisconson into acquiescing to their own death-by-parasites.

What is happening in Wisconsin is bound to happen in many or most other US states, and eventually in the US government. No one knows how violent and bloody these standoffs can become, if the freeloaders of the public sector decide to go all out in demanding their special privileges and benefits. Mr. Obama has so far done everything he can to fuel public union intransigence, anger, and potential violence.

If something cannot go on forever, it will eventually stop. It is in the interest of government and public sector unions to accept the reality that a perpetual wild and exponential growth in their ranks and benefits is unsustainable. An orderly shutdown and overhaul -- similar to a deep maintenance shutdown in an industrial plant or a "controlled burn" in the wild -- is mandatory to prevent a cataclysmic collapse eventually.

Scheduled, elective surgery is always in the best interest of the patient, the surgeon, and the medical centre. It is time to schedule a deep surgical procedure on the US government.

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24 February 2011

Shale Gas Promise is Real, "Gasland" Is A Fraud

In the US, unconventional gas is providing a much needed energy boost. Over the next 20 years, shale gas is destined to grow from 15% of US gas production to roughly 50% of production.

Contrary to the blatant falsehoods (PDF) displayed in the Oscar-nominated "documentary" Gasland, production of shale gas is as clean or cleaner than production of any other type of non-nuclear energy or fuel.
Extent of Marcellus Shale Resource

Several nations in Europe are growing more interested in their own shale oil resource, and are beginning to drill test wells.
In countries like Britain, Germany and Poland, exploratory drilling is under way, or about to begin, as engineers try to determine how much shale gas is present and how easy it will be to retrieve. New technologies for extracting natural gas from stone have raised worries about contamination of drinking water while also driving a huge drilling expansion in the United States, helping push prices down by two thirds since 2008 and reducing dependence on imports.

Shale gas production accounted for 14 percent of U.S. natural gas production in 2009 and is expected to reach 45 percent by 2035, the U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates.

“It was an amazing story in the U.S., this very rapid increase in the availability of shale gas,” said Paul Stevens, senior research fellow for energy at Chatham House, a London research institute. European exploration has big potential too, he added... _NYT

More on Marcellus Shale -- just one of several huge US gas deposits, now available for production thanks to improved drilling technologies.

Faux environmentalists inside and outside of the Obama regime have sworn to shut down US energy production -- including shale gas -- no matter what it takes. The Obama agenda of "energy starvation" shines through in the regime's offshore oil de facto drilling moratorium, in the shutting down of coal mines and coal power plants, in the attempts to shut down Canadian oil sands imports, in behind-the-scenes moves to shut down US shale gas, and in the Obama Nuclear Regulatory Commission's blatant dragging of its feet on new nuclear designs and plants. The EPA's decision to regulate CO2 -- a keystone to the chain of life on Earth -- as a "dangerous pollutant" is a clear indication that Obama's interests are not dictated by the welfare of humans in the US or anywhere on Earth.

More: From Master Resource, here are some maps for the three main types of unconventional gas resource for the US.

More from Master Resource here and here.  Methane is a compound found on other planets and moons in significant quantities in the outer solar system.  It has also been found to be generated in Earth's mantle abiotically.  Vast quantities of methane clathrates exist beneath seafloors and in arctic regions.  It is unlikely that humans will ever come close to running out of methane -- particularly when it is so easily produced via anaerobic digestion of waste biomass.

We must have fossil fuel resources such as oil, gas, coal, oil sands, etc. in order to give us time to move to more sustainable energy sources such as advanced fission, fusion, enhanced geothermal, advanced biofuels and bioenergy, orbital solar, and perhaps low energy nuclear reaction reactors.

More on energy topics at Al Fin Energy

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23 February 2011

China: The World's "Rich Pauper"

Let’s face it – most Chinese growth is the result of overheated investment, and removing the sources of overheating without eliminating growth is going to prove impossible. I have been making the same argument for at least two or three years, and so far we have seen how Beijing veers between stomping on the gas when the economy slows precipitously and stomping on the brakes when it then grows too quickly. I don’t believe anything has changed. _Mish
While broadly seen as the heir apparent to the US' global hegemony, China has some deep problems which are rarely considered by more mainstream journalists and analysts.
Only a decade ago, China's GDP of US$1.1 trillion was only one quarter of Japan's US$4.2 trillion. And, as late as 2005, China's GDP, at US$2.2 trillion, was half Japan's US$4.5 trillion. Some analysts predict that if China's economy continues to surge at its current pace, it could surpass the United States as the world 's top economy in 2020.

Such sanguine prospects, however, do not obscure the fact that China is still a developing country, with a per capita GDP of US$4,500, which about one tenth of Japan's and one quarter of Taiwan's. China's new ranking as No. 2 contrasts starkly with the per capita ranking of No. 95 among the 182 countries ranked by the International Monetary Fund.

The plain fact is that the Chinese people are still poor, with 100 million people living below the U.N. poverty line of US$1 a day. The number of poor is nearly equal to the entire population of Japan. That's probably why we have not seen an official expression of elation over the historic event. _ChinaPost
In fact, the number of poor in China is far larger than the population of Japan. Clearly, even the "realists" are unable to face the stark reality of China today.

Here is more from Mish's Global Economic Analysis:
China has spent $750 billion on rail lines, much of it wasted.

The culprit is not design, but rather shoddy construction accompanied by fraud, greed, and unrealistic growth targets. If that sounds familiar, it's because it was one of the factors in the US housing bust, and indeed every huge bust in general.

...China's problems go far beyond high-speed rail, to construction and malinvestment in general.

I have talked about China's Vacant cities before but here is a quick recap from Chinese Bank Lending Spree Continues; $75 Billion New Loans First Week in January Alone; Inflation Gone Amuck

...Not only do I believe that the combination of very low cost of capital, socialized credit risks, and strong short-term political incentives to fund massive projects always leads to capital misallocation, but I also believe that the explosion in NPLs [Non-Performing Loans] a decade ago, and the fact that total SOE [State Owned Enterprise] profits are just a fraction of the interest rate subsidy they receive, is strong evidence that misallocated capital has long been a serious problem in China.

... _Mish

China's increasing reliance on overbuilding and speculation is causing several old China hands to look for ways to short the communist government's economy.

China's government is getting worried over the spreading contagion of unrest across MENA (middle east and north africa).
China’s rulers are caught between fear of a Soviet Union-style collapse if they begin political reform, and an Egypt-style overthrow if they do not, the political analyst said.

“Some say, if you don’t engage in political reform, there will be disaster ahead,” he said. “Others say, if you do, there will be disaster ahead.”

The government has not responded to the Arab uprisings with a political reform program. But an emergency meeting of the Communist Party leadership last Saturday — played up the next day on the front page of People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece — suggested it was badly spooked. _NYT

Even in Africa -- a continent thought to be in Beijing's pocket -- there is a spreading restlessness regarding China's willingness to bribe African leaders in order to carry out projects that are not in the best interests of the African people. Other nations -- particularly Brazil -- are moving into African economic territory.

Since the collapse of its export market in 2008-2009, China has implemented a policy of fevered construction to boost its economy. Unfortunately, a large proportion of this construction is of a shoddy nature, which will lead to a premature collapse of a wide variety of structures -- including China's vaunted high speed rail and wind power infrastructure.

If you are invested in China, you may need to take a closer look at the underlying realities on the ground there. China's continued use of US treasury instruments as repositories of wealth should tell you what shaky ground China's economy rests upon.


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Dying US Counties: A "Baby-Bust" Phenomenon

Across the developed world, the "baby bust" is leaving its mark in ghost towns, ghost counties, de-populating cities and states, and an emerging displacement of older populations by newer populations of outside origin.
Dying counties in the U.S. were rare until the 1960s, when the baby boom ended. By 1973, as farming communities declined, roughly 515 counties — mostly in the Great Plains — reported natural decrease. The phenomenon then began to show up in industrial regions, such as upstate New York and California. Natural decrease peaked in 2002 at a record 985, or 1 in 3 counties, before increasing births and an influx of Hispanic immigration helped add to county populations during the housing boom.

Following the recent recession, birth rates have dropped to the lowest in a century. Preliminary census numbers for 2007-09 now show that the number of dying counties is back on the upswing. Recent additions include Pittsburgh and its surrounding counties.

James Follain, senior fellow and economist at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at the University of Albany, said a new kind of declining city may be emerging in the wake of the housing bust — metropolitan areas that rapidly overbuilt earlier in the decade and then suffered massive foreclosures.

He cited as examples Las Vegas, Miami, parts of Arizona, and Stockton, Modesto, Fresno and Riverside in California. Like traditional ghost towns, Follain says, portions of these areas could spiral down from persistent loss of jobs and population and lose their reason for being.

Follain also pointed to a tighter fiscal environment in Washington that will limit help to troubled areas. The Obama administration announced this month it would shrink the government's role in the mortgage system to reduce taxpayer exposure to risk. House Republicans also are pushing federal spending cuts of more than $61 billion, even if it means reducing jobs.

"It's going to be a very slow recovery," Follain said. _AP-Yahoo
You may think that the population bust is mainly affecting Japan and Russia, but this deflationary trend affects virtually all European and Northeast Asian populations. While third world populations continue to expand, more developed nations -- with populations possessing higher average IQs -- are shrinking. The end result of these differential birthrates is a steady decline in the average global population IQ -- despite the so-called "Flynn effect."

It is clear that the higher-IQ populations of the world -- the people who drove the technological revolutions in medicine, agriculture, science, technology etc -- are fading, while the lower-IQ populations are on the ascendancy, numbers-wise. This is an ominous trend for the planet overall, since poverty, corruption, and eco-devastation are greater overall in low-IQ, third world regions.

It is time to face the facts about global population trends and what they mean for the intermediate term of the human world. The coming reality -- or should I say the "coming anarchy" -- will not be pretty. Those who are prepared will be better suited to reach the other side.

Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.

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21 February 2011

Night Dragon Hack-Attacks Connected to Industrial Accidents?

We hear about industrial accidents and explosions all the time. Here is a recent example from Turkey:
At least seven people were killed and 34 injured Thursday in an apparent accidental explosion at a factory in Turkey's capital Ankara, media reports said.

The death toll was likely to rise because several people were still believed to be buried under the rubble left by the explosion....The powerful explosion is believed to have been caused by a worker's mishandling of oxygen tanks at the factory, which employed at least 80 people in manufacturing hydraulic machinery. _MAC
But such accidents begin to take on new possible meanings as knowledge about the Chinese "Night Dragon" intrusions and the Stuxnet worm become more widely known. The Stuxnet worm took control of target machines in Iranian uranium enrichment facilities, causing them to behave erratically and destroy themselves. The Chinese Night Dragon attacks and intrusions are likewise capable of taking control of target machines:
...a [Chinese] company that, according to the company’s advertisements, provides “Hosted Servers in the U.S. with no records kept” for as little as 68 RMB (US$10) per year for 100 MB of space. The company’s U.S.-based leased servers have been used to host the zwShell C&C application that controlled machines across the victim companies.

...McAfee has determined that all of the identified data exfiltration activity occurred from Beijing-based IP addresses and operated inside the victim companies weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Beijing time, which also suggests that the involved individuals were “company men” working on a regular job, rather than freelance or unprofessional hackers. In addition, the attackers employed hacking tools of Chinese origin and that are prevalent on Chinese underground hacking forums. These included Hookmsgina and WinlogonHack, tools that intercept Windows logon requests and hijack usernames and passwords. _Forbes
The targets of Night Dragon included oil & gas companies which operate refineries -- refineries that are subject to exploding if their controls malfunction. The same is true for many chemical plants, and other types of industrial plants. Machinery at most modern factories is networked, to allow for highly automated operation. Anyone who can hack into the network and take control of the machines can also take control of the destiny of that plant.

Industrial work is already extremely hazardous, as jobs go. But in the highly-networked age, where sensitive machinery is controlled remotely via the net, there is one more hazard to worry about.

As Obama and his allies press for a highly networked "smart grid" which is meant to grow more reliant on inherently unreliable wind power, the hazards for society at large only grow larger.

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One Man, One House, 39 Wives, 94 Children, 33 Grandchildren

All Images from DailyMail
This is Ziona Chana and his family -- the world's largest family. They live comfortably and happily in a multi-story home with 100 rooms. It is said by his sons that Chana marries the poorest women of the village, in order to provide them with a better life.
These are Chana's 39 wives. His youngest wives occupy the rooms closest to his own. His wives provide companionship one by one, according to an orderly scheduled rotation.
The 100 room household is a busy place, with constant cooking, cleaning, childcare, and other typical concerns. Chana is pleased to be the husband of the world's largest family.

Cross-posted to Al Fin Potpourri

More at DailyMail


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20 February 2011

The Natural Chaos of Climate

Earth's climate is driven by ongoing cycles on many levels. When natural resonant cycles overlap -- at whatever level -- they can contribute to a chaotic pattern.
When the overlap starts, many higher-order resonances are also involved so fairly large areas of phase space have their tori destroyed and the ensuing chaos is "widespread" since trajectories are now free to wander between regions that previously were separated by nonresonant tori. _Wolfram
We begin with a pictorial overview of the natural components of climate -- sun, ocean, land, atmosphere, volcanoes, ice & snow, living organisms -- all of which appear to be subject to periodic cycling of various types, with potentially chaotic overlap.
Volcanoes can exert very strong influences on climate. It appears as if volcanic activity can occur at widely separated locations almost simultaneously, due to underlying geologic activity. Whether or not such tectonic movements occur "cyclically," the impact of such large scale volcanic activity can easily contribute to a naturally chaotic climate.
Natural ocean oscillations are thought to be driven by periodic solar variation, pictured below. These ocean oscillations such as El Nino (PDF) drive cycles of atmospheric heating and cooling, cycles of ice & snow, and strongly influence populations of living organisms worldwide.
Solar variation influences the size of the heliosphere, and determine the extent of galactic cosmic ray infiltration into the solar system and Earth's climatic system. This cyclic variation of cosmic ray bombardment on Earth's atsmosphere is thought to influence the amount of cloud formation in the atmosphere, which influences planetary ensolation and radiative heat balance.
The Milankovich orbital cycles occur with different periodicity in the tens of thousands of years, creating overlapping resonances with potential chaotic results on climate.
Another multi-thousand year orbital cycle which could easily influence global climate, is the slightly varying angle of Earth's solar orbit to the ecliptic. As the planet falls slightly below the plane and risis slightly above the plane of the ecliptic -- over tens of thousands of years -- the thickness of intervening dust between Earth and Sun varies. This periodically alters the ensolation of the Earth's system. Such cycles may have subtle effects, but in combination with other overlapping resonances, these overlapping effects may push the system into a chaotic result.
The image above illustrates the heliosphere, which can expand and contract according to the Sun's periodic activity. The fluctuating heliosphere is an important line of defense against galactic cosmic rays -- which are very likely to influence Earth's climate.
The Solar system is passing through an enormous interstellar cloud, which may or may not have an influence on climate. But it is a rather fascinating topic all the same.

Understanding natural chaos in climate is a crucial matter for policy-makers, who must determine the fate of US$trillions of future spending of tax dollars.

For science to provide the greatest benefit to those who fund it, it must focus upon genuine problems which need to be solved. As long as scientists have open, sceptical minds, they are more able to look at problems from varying perspectives -- from the close-in small picture, to the far-out big picture.

The last thing that tax-paying humans need is for their tax-paid scientists to fly off on a narrow tangent which ignores the larger picture. That would be a very wasteful tragedy.

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19 February 2011

Americans Not Drinking Enough Alcohol


According to maps released by the World Health Organisation, Americans are not doing their part to support the world alcohol industry. Clearly Russians are holding up their end much better than North Americans or Brazilians, on average.

Meanwhile the small Russian child is becoming something of an endangered species, with ethnic Russian birthrates at very low levels, while Russian death rates -- particularly among men -- are quite high due to a combination of factors.
The population will probably shrink to 116 million by 2050 from 140 million last year, forcing the government's age-related expenditures to rise to 25.5 percent of GDP from 13 percent in 2010 in the rating agency's "base-case scenario," S&P credit analysts led by Frank Gill in London said in a research note last week.

..."Russia's aging population will likely place substantial pressure on economic growth performance and public finances," the analysts wrote. "By 2035, we expect that Russia's fiscal indicators will have weakened such that they would be more in line with sovereigns currently rated in the speculative-grade category, because, in our view, the projected improvement in GDP per capita would not be able to offset the potential fiscal deterioration." _MoscowTimes_via_LaRussophobe

The Russian retirement age is 60 for men and 55 for women, whereas life expectancy for Russian men is 59 and for Russian women is 72. This gives Russian women a much longer time span to drink after retirement, than men -- who typically will never reach retirement age. [Al Fin comment: Russian men are forced to drink much more than Russian women to compensate for their much shorter lifespans.]

Out in the wild Russian East of Siberia, ethnic Russians are losing the majority to illegal immigrants from China. Freed from the one-child policy, Siberian Chinese are likely to propagate at a higher rate than the more vodka-oriented Russians, which makes it likely that the Chinese will eventually inherit the natural wealth of East Siberia by demographic default.

The bursting of the Chinese economic bubble may provide an impetus for even faster Chinese out-migration to areas such as Siberia and overseas locations.

Al Fin futurists do not claim that demography alone is destiny. But when you combine debt, demography, and drinking, you come much closer to the mark.

Bad weather, both hot and cold, in Russia is contributing to lower crop harvests, which only adds to the immediate economic woes of the nation. When you combine the lack of any rule of law with a dictatorial mafiacracy of a government, and a generalised societal malaise and sense of futility, Russia does not seem a good place to raise a family or plan for the future. That widespread feeling keeps birthrates depressed, and drinking rates high.

Russia needs a change, but with its current government, it can only look forward to more of the same -- only worse. At least Russians understand the need to support the global alcohol industry, in these times of prolonged global recession.

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Guest Article: 10 Celebrities Who Were Once Nurses

10 Celebrities Who Were Once Nurses

from NursingSchools.net

Nursing isn't a logical first step towards a career in music, TV or or politics, but it's helped these famous faces achieve great success. And why shouldn't it? Having a background in caregiving, research, advocacy and medicine broadens your understanding of how other people live and what they need. Here are 10 celebrities who who once worked as or studied to become nurses.

Naomi Judd: Celebrated country star and the mother of Wynona and Ashley, Naomi Judd started her career as a registered nurse. As a single mother, Naomi went to nursing school and then worked as an RN, but contracted hepatitis C from a needle stick. She had to retire from music in 1991 but is now a health advocate for the disease.

Robin Quivers: Howard Stern sidekick now has her own show, but before she got into entertainment, Quivers was a U.S. Air Force nurse serving in Korea. She received an honorable discharge and began experimenting with radio jobs.

Kate Gosselin: Former reality TV sensation and controversial mother figure Kate Gosselin had a real job before she made big bucks showing off her family on television. She worked as a labor and delivery room nurse in Pennsylvania, and in 2009, renewed her nursing license with the promised intent to complete 30 hours of continuing education requirements.

Bonnie Hunt: Actress and comedienne Bonnie Hunt might be the funniest thing to come out of Middle America, next to David Letterman. The perky blonde studied nursing in Chicago, and even told NurseZone.com that she "was a nurse in my heart from the time I was a little girl." She worked in emergency medicine and oncology at Northwestern University Hospital and did improv comedy at night until she got her break.

Darva Conger: While she's not as big of a celebrity as some of the other names on this list, Darva Conger did get her 15 minutes of fame. The former Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire contestant — and ultimate winner — worked as an ER nurse before flirting with a silhouetted millionaire on national TV.

Julie Walters: Lovable and upbeat actress Julie Walters has been in everything from Mama Mia! to the Harry Potter movies in recent years to a slew of TV movies and series in the 70s, 80s and 90s. She first worked as a nurse for 18 months in England as a very young woman but always had a desire to act. She followed her boyfriend to Manchester and started working in theatre by the 1970s.

Congresswoman Lois Capps: California Congresswoman Lois Capps succeeded her late husband in political office, but worked for 20 years as a nurse for the Santa Barbara School District. She at one point served as director of Santa Barbara County's Teenage Pregnancy and Parenting Project and the Parent and Child Enrichment Center is currently serves as co-chair of the House Nursing Caucus, as well as supporting many other health advocacy groups.

Kathryn Joosten: Memorable actress Kathryn Joosten has starred on some of the most popular TV shows in American entertainment history, ranging from The West Wing to Desperate Housewives to Ally McBeal, and many, many others. She entered the workforce, however, as a psychiatric nurse at Chicago's Michael Reese Hospital. She married, had children, and then divorced, and turned to acting to support her two sons.

Paul Brandt: Canadian country singer and songwriter Paul Brandt worked as a pediatric nurse at the Alberta Children;s Hospital before leaving to pursue his developing music career. In addition to his nursing degree, Brandt now has an honorary doctorate degree in Fine Arts from the University of Lethbridge.

Derek Longmuir: Derek Longmuir actually turned to nursing after a successful tenure in the music business, with the Bay City Rollers. But then, trouble struck. Longmuir was found to possess child pornography and was fired from his job at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, although his foster son believes he was framed by a crazed fan.

__a NursingSchools.net article
Al Fin Comment: We earlier looked at a significant number of high school and college dropouts who achieved great success, wealth, power, and influence. In a free society, persons are able to move between professions and occupations. There is great social and career mobility in a free society. The opportunities in such societies draw many talented people from far and wide, and inspire "ordinary" persons to achieve great things.

Under a more stifling statist society, mobility is limited, and persons cling to whatever level of security they can get. That is what one sees in the actions of public sector unions which are willing to bankrupt the private sector so as to cling to every scrap of privilege which the unions can extract from the pet toady politicians they manage to get elected.

The US is heading in the direction of more stifling state controls, and less freedoms. Perhaps it is time to put the brakes on the Alinsky protocol for achieving total statism, and reverse course toward a more open society again.


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Like Nothing Else We Know

The conventional view of neurons is that synaptic inputs are integrated on a timescale of milliseconds to seconds in the dendrites, with action potential initiation occurring in the axon initial segment. We found a much slower form of integration that leads to action potential initiation in the distal axon, well beyond the initial segment. In a subset of rodent hippocampal and neocortical interneurons, hundreds of spikes, evoked over minutes, resulted in persistent firing that lasted for a similar duration. Although axonal action potential firing was required to trigger persistent firing, somatic depolarization was not. In paired recordings, persistent firing was not restricted to the stimulated neuron; it could also be produced in the unstimulated cell. Thus, these interneurons can slowly integrate spiking, share the output across a coupled network of axons and respond with persistent firing even in the absence of input to the soma or dendrites.
_Abstract NatureNeuroSci
Cortical Network Image Source

Our brains contain about 100 billion neurons, with about 10 billion of those in the neocortex. There are perhaps 40 million neurons in the hippocampus, naturally decreasing with age. Each neuron in the brain is a computer in itself. Connected together in cortical columns and short, medium, and long-range networks, the collection of neurons in a human brain possesses complexity of behaviour beyond comprehension. Science is still learning new things about how neurons function individually and in small groups.
Spruston and his team stimulated a neuron for one to two minutes, providing a stimulus every 10 seconds. The neuron fired during this time but, when the stimulation was stopped, the neuron continued to fire for a minute.

"It's very unusual to think that a neuron could fire continually without stimuli," Spruston said. "This is something new -- that a neuron can integrate information over a long time period, longer than the typical operational speed of neurons, which is milliseconds to a second."

This unique neuronal function might be relevant to normal process, such as memory, but it also could be relevant to disease. The persistent firing of these inhibitory neurons might counteract hyperactive states in the brain, such as preventing the runaway excitation that happens during epileptic seizures.

Spruston credits the discovery of the persistent firing in normal individual neurons to the astute observation of Mark Sheffield, a graduate student in his lab. Sheffield is first author of the paper.

The researchers think that others have seen this persistent firing behavior in neurons but dismissed it as something wrong with the signal recording. When Sheffield saw the firing in the neurons he was studying, he waited until it stopped. Then he stimulated the neuron over a period of time, stopped the stimulation and then watched as the neuron fired later.

"This cellular memory is a novelty," Spruston said. "The neuron is responding to the history of what happened to it in the minute or so before."

Spruston and Sheffield found that the cellular memory is stored in the axon and the action potential is generated farther down the axon than they would have expected. Instead of being near the cell body it occurs toward the end of the axon. _PO

The real complexity does not even arise until you go up at least a couple of logical levels of brain function from the neuron. So if science is still learning basic facts about neuronal function, it is likely that there is quite a bit left to learn at multiple levels.

Mammalian brains -- particularly primate and cetacean brains -- are amazing universes where spontaneous order is created out of chaos. The most adventurous of these brains wants to not only understand itself and its world: it wants to know what else is out there.

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18 February 2011

An Overpriced Educational Establishment Becomes Public Enemy 1

More: If you want to know how the educational establishment could drift so far out of touch with reality, the words of Alexis de Toqueville may provide a clue:
"Should members of the lettered class," wrote the Frenchman, "fall into the habit of frequenting only themselves and writing only for one another, they may lose sight of the rest of the world entirely and thereby lapse into affectation and falsity, gradually alienating themselves from common sense...." _DeToqueville_quoted by Fred Siegel
Educational expenses in the US have been rising exponentially, while educational attainment has not even pretended to keep pace. Public sector educators are on the verge of rioting in US state capitols, and universities are cutting vital departments to balance budgets -- while continuing a costly and counter-productive administrative bloat.
In a budgetary situation being played out in other cash-strapped states and municipalities, the legislation requires workers to cover more of their health care premiums and pension contributions, although supporters say local governments will ultimately decide on health care contributions for their employees.

The Wisconsin legislation also requires collective bargaining units to conduct annual votes to maintain certification. Unions would lose the right to have dues deducted from worker paychecks and collective bargaining can only cover wages. _CNN
This type of reform is under-stated in the extreme, and long past due. If public sector unions are prepared to riot in the face of such desperately needed budgetary and policy reforms, imagine what they will do in the face of a genuine collapse -- which they seem to be working so hard to bring about?

At the higher education level, many forces are working together to bring about significant -- perhaps revolutionary change.
Nationally the price of college tuition increased more than 274 percent from 1990 to 2009 -- roughly four times the rate of inflation. That's even more than the brutal rise in health costs that has touched off a near-crisis in that field.

...Technology will change, perhaps cataclysmically, almost all colleges. That's according to Clayton Christensen, a BYU grad turned Harvard professor who is now an acclaimed expert on innovation. He is the lead author of a new paper, "Disrupting College," on what lies ahead, and soon, for higher education.

He has studied how new technologies have disrupted and transformed industry after industry. And often established companies were upended or destroyed in the process.

The same fate could happen to established universities, as technology brings the biggest changes in information dispersal since the invention of the printing press.

Christensen and his co-authors write: "Roughly 10 percent of students in 2003 took at least one online course. That fraction grew to 25 percent in 2008, was nearly 30 percent in the fall of 2009, and we project it will be 50 percent in 2014."

The shocks don't end with technology. "Disrupting College" suggests that "the business model of many traditional colleges and universities is broken." Moreover, this model's collapse is "so fundamental that it cannot be stanched by improving the financial performance of endowment investments, tapping wealthy alumni donors more effectively, or collecting more tax dollars from the public. There needs to be a new model." _DailyHerald
From "Disrupting College:"
America is in crisis. Employers say paradoxically they cannot find the right people to fill jobs even though the country is facing its highest unemployment rates in a generation. Competition with a rising China and India and their vast populations lend urgency to the need for the country as a whole to do a better job of educating its citizens. _DisruptingCollege
As science better understands how students learn, and as educational technologies offer revolutionary possibilities for new teaching paradigns, the mass production assembly line factory-style methods of education will find themselves squeezed from all directions. Those which are unable to change due to fossilised unions or other forms of paralysing groupthinks of entitlement, will ultimately be crushed.

Educators and establishment insiders from K-12 to University are demanding that a recession-plagued US society mortgage its future, in order to provide them tenure and generous benefits. The halo over the head of the educational establishment is slipping badly, as teachers and professors are starting to be seen more as extorting thugs than as wise, honest, and impartial learning coaches and advisors. At the state and local levels, the problem is clearly the public sector unions and a climate of entitlement among public educational workers. At the higher education levels, it is more a problem of administrative bloat and an insane groupthink crisis of a badly decayed leftism which dominates the humanities and administration on most campuses.

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17 February 2011

Stuxnet Heralds a Brave New World of Sophisticated Weaponry

Natanz Nuclear Enrichment Defense Iran
Stuxnet appears to have been developed in the US and refined in Israel, before being introduced into Iranian computers by shadowy import-export companies. More from Wired:
Suddenly, over a six-month period beginning late 2009, U.N. officials monitoring the surveillance images “watched in amazement” as Iranian workers “dismantled more than 10 percent of the plant’s 9,000 centrifuge machines used to enrich uranium,” according to the Washington Post. “Then, just as remarkably, hundreds of new machines arrived at the plant to replace the ones that were lost.”

Investigators described the effort as a feverish attempt to contain damage and replace broken parts, suggesting the centrifuges had indeed been operational when they broke....One other piece of information suggests Iran’s nuclear program was the target of Natanz. Last week security firm Symantec released a report revealing that the Stuxnet attack targeted five organizations in Iran that were infected first in an effort to spread the malware to Natanz.

Because Natanz’s PLCs are not connected to the internet, the best hope of attacking them – short of planting a mole inside Natanz – was infecting other computers that could serve as a gateway to the Natanz PLC. For example, infecting computers belonging to a contractor in charge of installing software at Natanz could help get the malware onto the Natanz system.

Symantec said the companies were hit in attacks in June and July 2009 and in March, April and May 2010. Symantec didn’t name the five organizations but said that they all “have a presence in Iran” and are involved in industrial processes._Wired
No one will shed tears for the Iranian nuclear weapons program, nor for the international companies which are illegally aiding the Iranians. But this attack is just the tip of the iceberg, and a mere suggestion of the wave of more sophisticated forms of sabotage, espionage, and covert warfare which is on the way.
Targeted acts of sabotage disrupt, but the real pay-off comes from identifying the human and technical links in the chain of command. Observing who responds – and when – to worm-driven destruction helps illuminate who really runs Iran’s nuclear infrastructures. Real-world Iranian responses offer critical clues as to which scientists, administrators and engineers are trusted and who is suspect. The chance to monitor Iran’s response would be of great interest to Mossad, the International Atomic Energy Agency, America’s CIA and/or Britain’s GCHQ.

Crafting a worm that generates potential insight into all those issues represents an intelligence coup. It is as potentially revelatory as a WikiLeaks data dump. That is why interpreting Stuxnet as desperate stop-gap or one-off intervention almost certainly misunderstands its purpose. Sabotage here is a means to an end; it is a gambit to make Iran’s nuclear processes more transparent.

Iran’s nuclear elite and Ministry of Intelligence know this. It is no secret now to the mullahs that their responses to the Stuxnet breach were closely monitored by external intelligence agencies. Their internal security is furiously trying to assess what information might have inadvertently been revealed. _FT

Stuxnet's sophistication is considered to be unprecedented. But from now on, Stuxnet will be the benchmark against which future spyware and malware will be gauged.
Mr Salem [of Symantec] said new technology and new approaches are needed.

"I run the largest security company in the world. I get up and people say I have a vested interest (in pushing this line). But my job is to protect and provide security and when we say critical infrastructure is under attack, it is real."

Mr Salem mapped out a number of strategic steps that need to be taken to guard against the next major cyber attack. They include an early warning system, better intelligence on what attacks could happen, better protection, the ability to anticipate what any threat could look like and the ability to clean up after an attack.

He also pointed to a role for government that might involve a counter attack or strike.

The idea of a kill switch to allow the government to switch off the internet if it is under attack is one he did not seem overly enthusiastic about.

"The ability for us to turn something off like that and not cause other massive disruption would be very hard. We are becoming more and more dependent on the internet. There are better approaches than trying to shut off the internet.
This growing dependency on the internet can be seen at all levels of every society in the advanced world. It represents a growing vulnerability -- given the revelation of what malware like Stuxnet can do -- and needs to be addressed now, before societies move to depend upon an even more vulnerable "smart grid" power system. We should not make it easy for malicious outsiders to turn out our lights.

The threat is real, and the threat is now. The US government is one salient target, with large corporations and city/state governments also being notable targets.
More than 100 foreign intelligence agencies have tried to breach United States defence networks, largely to steal military plans and weapons systems designs, a top Pentagon official said. _NZHerald
Consequently, the US Pentagon is seeking half a billion US dollars to develop new cyber technologies -- including powerful new defenses to guard agains the powerful new cyber-attack threats.
The $500 million is part of the Pentagon’s 2012 budget request of $2.3 billion to improve the Defense Department’s cyber capabilities. At a Pentagon news conference yesterday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the research money, to be spent through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, “big investment dollars, looking to the future.”

The military is reaching out to commercial companies for the latest technologies and technical experts to safeguard the Pentagon’s computer networks from attacks and espionage, Lynn said. The effort is part of a “comprehensive cyber strategy called Cyber 3.0,” he said. _Bloomberg

The djinn is long out of the bottle, wreaking havoc on uranium enrichment centrifuge cyber systems. Similar djinns will soon fly out, based upon similar advanced cyber technology, with wider mission profiles and less selective targeting.

But regular readers of Al Fin blogs will understand that this cyber threat -- for all its potential for disruption and destruction -- is only the visible and more imaginable problem. More creative and malicious destructors are on the way, as advanced sciences and technology merge with unimaginably sophisticated hardware and software.

This is the start of the long war, which may either result in humans sinking to a pre-technological level for hundreds or thousands of years, or in humans transcending their monkey natures on the way to the wide-open next level. Watch and see.

Excerpted from an article at abu al-fin

Stay up to date on the hidden war of cyber attack at Infowar.com

For the military side of things, stay current with StrategyPage.com

One of the deepest threats will come from "nano guns, nano germs, and nano steel".

It is not unreasonable to assume that a computer virus sent from across the world could program the assembly of a deadly human virus inside an unsecured university research lab located inside a friendly country. Tight connections to the internet by conventional research DNA and RNA (and protein) assembling equipment, will allow such stealth long-range hybrid cyber/bio warfare.

The same approach could lead to the programming of deadly stealth nanoweapons, and even macro-weapons, utilising 3-D printing devices connected to the net.

If you can imagine it, so can someone else with more malignant intent. Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.

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Portrait of Competence: Heimo and Edna Korth

Heimo Korth is "The Final Frontiersman." He and his wife Edna are the last legal full time residents of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, living far away from outside assistance and companionship. They move between three widely placed cabins every year, so as not to deplete the game as they trap and hunt for a living.

Living in the Arctic is not for the weak of heart, the government-dependent, or for faux environmentalists such as those who occupy highly-paid lobbying positions for Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and the rest of the dieoff.orgy gang. The Korths must be competent, or they will die.

Living in such a rugged environment is proof of a residual toughness living in at least a portion of western men. In case of catastrophe, most westerners could not cope without their supermarkets, convenience stores, and ATMs.

Taken from an earlier article at Al Fin The Next Level

The book, The Final Frontiersman, is quite good, written by a cousin of Heimo's who lived with the family for several months and dug deeply into the couple's lives, and those of their daughters. Most readers will be deeply moved by the well-told story of the tragedies and triumphs of the Korth family, deep in the Alaska wilderness.

Some of Heimo's story may remind you of Richard Proenneke, the first recipient of the "Portraits of Competence Award" from Al Fin. Significantly, Heimo Korth found a woman capable of sharing his life in the wilderness, and together they made a life and family in a place where most affluent westerners could not survive a week on their own without significant outside assistance. Even after the Korths are gone, their story will continue through their daughters and their families.

Of course, Richard Proenneke's story goes on in the lives of everyone who was inspired by his life. Even so, very few who read or view the story of Proenneke's (or Korth's) life will ever be able to follow in his footsteps. Competence is becoming a fleetingly rare characteristic among modern humans living in a dumbed-down Idiocracy.

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16 February 2011

Human vs. Computer: How About a Real Challenge?

Update 18Feb2011: AI researcher Ben Goertzel presents some thoughts on Watsons ascendancy at H+Magazine online. H/T Brian Wang

Much has been made about the recently televised Jeopardy victory by IBM Watson, and earlier victories and impressive performances by specialised chess computers such as Blue Gene etc. Even in poker, computers are increasingly seen as threats to human dominance, thanks to clever human programmers. In the game world, Go is most often seen as a game where computers have not come close to experts.

What do these massive, power gobbling, ultra-pampered, spoon-fed, one-trick-pony game-playing super computers tell us about the human vs computer rivalry? Realistically, the rivalry is still human vs. human, with one team of humans utilising ultra-fast electronics devices to store, "analyse", and retrieve massive quantities of data, to gang up on a single human opponent.

Watson is certainly faster to the button than its human opponents, but we already knew that electrons were faster than nerves. Once the "natural language processing" trick was mastered, Watson could more readily lock out his opponents from responding -- even when they both clearly knew the answer.

But Watson could not drive itself home after the game, could not flush away its excretions (heat) by itself, could not feed itself, etc. In the end, Watson is a very expensive gimmick which served as a showcase for various specialised programming problems.

Perhaps if Watson could master all the games mentioned above, at once, and defeat experts in all of the games, it would be impressive as a game-player. But not really. Look at all the money, mass, and energy tied up in the junkpile called Watson. How would IBM make it more capable of playing multiple games? By throwing more mass, money, and energy into the already-huge junkpile. Not very clever, really, compared with the three pound human brain and all the things it can do -- including designing, building, repairing, and programming "smart" computers.

It all points out the fact that the state of artificial intelligence is pretty pathetic, all in all. Despite over 60 years of promises to create human-level intelligence "within 10 years", AI still stinks badly, and promises more of the same into the forseeable future.

The Jeopardy challenge -- like all similar challenges -- was a huge and expensive publicity hullabaloo. It is quite likely to damage the Jeopardy brand in the long run. It certainly puts forth an entirely false idea about the modern capability of computers, vis-a-vis humans, to reason and make decisions.

What would be a real challenge for Watson? How about a spontaneous, unplanned race over an extensive, lengthy, novel, 3-D obstacle course with ladders, walls, tunnels, slides, sand, and foot-deep water traps -- against a 5 year old human child?

Let's face it: Modern life requires humans to overtly or covertly (via proxies) partner with computers to achieve optimum performance in large areas of our lives. But what will it take to get computers to the point where they are consciously setting the agenda for humans, rather than the other way around?

It will take an entirely new "substrate of thought" than the high speed digital architectures currently used to such great -- if ultra-specialised -- effect. Worse, modern AI researchers for the most part have no idea what form such a new substrate would take. Certainly they do not understand the substrate for the only proof of concept of conscious intelligence which currently exists -- the human brain.

Too much like robots themselves, too many AI researchers unwittingly plod along artificial pathways leading to nowhere but diminutive local optima. Watson is only one illustration of the kludgy phenomenon.

What will it take, and how long will it take to discover it? There are limits to pure reason and speculation. Experimentation is necessary. Hands must be dirtied and hypotheses must be generated and tested. For the luggiest of lugheads out there, we need much better challenges than chess, Jeopardy -- or even Go -- to spur the effort required.

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15 February 2011

Computer Assisted Tutoring Especially Helpful for Maths?

A new Carnegie Mellon University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute study indicates that grammar school students who receive mathematics tutoring assistance from computer programs score higher in year-to-year achievement, than their untutored cohorts.
Year-end test scores of Massachusetts middle school students whose teachers used a Web-based tutoring platform called ASSISTments as a central part of their mathematics instruction were significantly better than those of students whose teachers did not use the platform, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Educational Computing Research. Conducted by Neil T. Heffernan, PhD, of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), and Kenneth R. Koedinger, PhD, and Elizabeth A. McLaughlin, both of Carnegie Mellon University, the study examined data collected from 1,240 seventh grade students in four schools in an urban Massachusetts school district.

The study (http://tinyurl.com/34j4ylj) compared students’ seventh-grade year-end test scores to their comparable scores at the end of sixth grade. Students at three schools where ASSISTments was used were shown to significantly outperform their peers at the fourth school, where it was not used. The improvement in test scores was pronounced for all students in the schools where ASSISTments was used... _ScienceBlog
One up and coming online approach to math tutoring for children is "Mathletics."
Mathletics portends of the education system that is to come. Beyond its strong approach to pushing students to love math, it is also digitally equipped in ways that give it a clear edge over previous programs. Students can login anytime 24/7, from any internet-capable computer, and continue their lessons. Not quite as good as having a teacher available at all hours of the day, but still pretty good. The reward system takes a note from many popular video games on the market, allowing students to build virtual avatars they can customize by earning more points. There’s also intelligent response from the system – Mathletics adapts to students during exercises, adjusting difficulty to match progress so far. Students can track their personal progress and, when ready, compete against their peers on a global scale. That gives each mathlete the feeling that they are part of something bigger, a sense of belonging that could transform math from a fun challenge to a purposeful part of their lives. _SingularityInstitute
One of the reasons why web-based programs may be particularly suitable for mathematics tutoring, is the personalised nature of mathematical "understanding." The Eureka! or Aha! moment of comprehending a mathematical concept is less social and more personal. It is nice when such personal moments can be shared, but that is not necessarily how it happnes. Due to the uniqueness of each individual brain -- and the brain's historical experiences -- the moment of cohesive comprehension for one brain is not likely to occur at the same time as for another brain. Mathematics is both more logical and more emotional than many human endeavours. This makes it a more delicate subject to teach.

Personal tutoring almost always involves some level of interpersonal tension or pressure to perform. Sometimes a student says he understands a point, just to keep things moving. When it subsequently becomes clear that the student does not understand, interpersonal tensions can ratchet upwards. With computers, such tension is typically absent.

Most learning software is still abysmally primitive and uninformed -- in terms of how children and adolescents learn. As more people with a deep insight into learning psychology come together to create improved approaches to computer tutoring, better learning should take place in several new areas besides just maths.


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Making Your Own Survival Rations 1: Puffed Grain Cakes

Video courtesy of Popular Science
If you buy a machine to make your own puffed-grain cakes, you can pay hundreds of thousands of dollars and more. But you can make a machine to do the job with spare junk around the shop. In these days of tighter budgets, it helps to know smart ways to trim the fat.
The science behind puffing is simple. Heating the moisture inside of a grain creates pressure and builds up steam, which is trapped by the grain’s hull or shell. When that hull suddenly fails, everything inside it expands in a blast, transforming the grains into a crispy, porous mass; the best example of this is popcorn. Some grains can fuse together, making a cake.

... We built a metal shell using a pipe, a rod and a plate to mount the pipe on, forming a bottom to clamp against, like a piston in a cylinder. Using vise grips, we put the shell over a butane burner, clamped it tightly, and then unclamped it to make it puff. At high temperatures, you have 10 to 20 seconds when the grains puff before they start to burn. We puffed millet, wild rice, sorghum, barley, and white and brown rice. We called the results “vise cakes.”

Our equation for the process looks roughly like this: 150 psi (pressure) and 480ºF (heat) x 12 seconds (time) + sudden release back to atmosphere = 1 vise cake.
Last year we built a rig to make mini vise cakes, which worked well, but it took a long time to produce a large quantity. So this time we increased the scale, creating a design that could make the cakes with a 2.5-inch diameter. All told, it cost us only $57. Our design requires at least four hands to operate, though why puff solo when you can puff in a group? Besides, you‘re saving a good million bucks or so off the price of a commercial machine. _PopSci

Al Fin survival nutritionists are working on something far more sophisticated which they are not allowed to talk about right now, but you can get the germ of an idea about the project here. No more about that, for now.

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U Cinci Don't Do No Computer Science, Man!

But U Cinci does do Africana, Queers y Women, Political Correctness, and all the really cool stuff!

U. Cincinnati Ohio

As university budgets grow ever tighter, institutions of higher learning must make very difficult choices about what to cut, and what to keep. It is unthinkable for a university to cut its administrative staff -- no matter how bloated and unsightly. But academics is another matter, since teaching has always been secondary for politically correct universities. So, what is the University of Cincinnati in Ohio cutting out? Computer Science, man!
The University of Cincinnati will stop accepting undergraduate majors in computer science starting in fall 2012.

About 125 current students in the program will be able to complete their programs.

The move by the College of Engineering and Applied Science is one step toward reducing the college's academic programs to 11 from the current 17, Dean Carlo Montemagno said.

It's driven by impending budget cuts that could slice $4.9 million off this year's $24 million budget, he said. _news.cincinnati.com
Dwindling resources must be focused upon what is central to the currents' flow. Science and engineering are not nearly so important in the age of Obama as are queer ethnic women's studies, and the crucial indoctrination of students by administrative staffing. Consequently, the money must be spent on administration and departments which provide the type of student considered desirable in this age.

H/T Instapundit.com

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