Thursday, April 27, 2006

April Glaspie

[An ever-controversial subject...]
April Catherine Glaspie (born April 26, 1942), American diplomat, is best-known for her role in the events leading up to the Gulf War of 1991. Glaspie was born in Vancouver, Canada, and graduated from Mills College in Oakland, California in 1963 and from Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in 1965. In 1966 she entered the United States diplomatic service, where she became an expert on the Middle East....

...Glaspie had her first meeting with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz on July 25, 1990. What was said at that meeting has been the subject of much speculation. At least two transcripts of the meeting have been published. The State Department has not confirmed the accuracy of these transcripts.

One version of the transcript has Glaspie saying: "We can see that you have deployed massive numbers of troops in the south. Normally that would be none of our business, but when this happens in the context of your threats against Kuwait, then it would be reasonable for us to be concerned. For this reason, I have received an instruction to ask you, in the spirit of friendship - not confrontation - regarding your intentions: Why are your troops massed so very close to Kuwait's borders?"

Later the transcript has Glaspie saying: "We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America."

Another version of the transcript (the one published in the New York Times on 23 September 1990) has Glaspie saying: "But we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. I was in the American Embassy in Kuwait during the late '60s. The instruction we had during this period was that we should express no opinion on this issue and that the issue is not associated with America. James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction. We hope you can solve this problem using any suitable methods via Klibi [Chadli Klibi, Secretary General of the Arab League ] or via President Mubarak. All that we hope is that these issues are solved quickly."

When these purported transcripts were made public, Glaspie was accused of having given approval for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which took place on August 2, 1990. The transcript, however, does not show any explicit statement of approval of, acceptance of, or foreknowledge of the invasion. Indeed Glaspie's opening question ("Why are your troops massed so very close to Kuwait's borders?") would suggest that Glaspie (and presumably therefore also the State Department) were unsure of the purpose of the troop concentrations and was concerned about them.

The transcript also shows clearly that when Glaspie expressed the hope that the Iraq-Kuwait dispute would be "solved quickly," she meant "solved by diplomatic means." The references to solving this problem "using any suitable methods via Klibi or via Mubarak" make this clear.

Many have argued that Glaspie's statements that "We have no opinion on your Arab - Arab conflicts" and that "the Kuwait issue is not associated with America" were interpreted by Saddam as giving tacit acquiescence to his annexation of Kuwait, while others say that nothing Glaspie says in the published versions of the transcript can be fairly interpreted as implying U.S. approval of an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Given that the Iraqi regime sought to arouse international sympathy in order to weaken support for the economic sanctions that had been imposed by the United Nations after the invasion of Kuwait, it is somewhat surprising that Iraqi spokespersons did not attempt to exploit the controversy further, other than by releasing the transcripts. Indeed Tariq Aziz in a 2000 interview for PBS claimed that "There were no mixed signals. We should not forget that the whole period before August 2 witnessed a negative American policy towards Iraq. So it would be quite foolish to think that, if we go to Kuwait, then America would like that." He characterized the meeting with Glaspie as "nothing extraordinary" and said that Saddam "wanted her to carry a message to George Bush--not to receive a message through her from Washington."

Some have argued that Saddam would not likely have invaded Kuwait had he been given an explicit warning that such an invasion would be met with force by the United States. Some argue that Glaspie could only be criticised for not giving such a warning if it can be established that she knew that Saddam was planning an invasion. Glaspie later testified that she had given Saddam such a warning, but no mention of this appears in the published transcripts. This is hardly surprising since these transcripts were released to further Iraq's ends. However, neither has the State Department offered a credible, comprehensive differing account that could convincingly refute Iraq's claims.

Edward Mortimer wrote in the New York Review of Books in November 1990: "It seems far more likely that Saddam Hussein went ahead with the invasion because he believed the US would not react with anything more than verbal condemnation. That was an inference he could well have drawn from his meeting with US Ambassador April Glaspie on July 25, and from statements by State Department officials in Washington at the same time publicly disavowing any US security commitments to Kuwait, but also from the success of both the Reagan and the Bush administrations in heading off attempts by the US Senate to impose sanctions on Iraq for previous breaches of international law."

Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, writing in the New York Times on September 21, 2003, disagrees with this analysis: "In fact, all the evidence indicates the opposite: Saddam Hussein believed it was highly likely that the United States would try to liberate Kuwait, but convinced himself that we would send only lightly armed, rapidly deployable forces that would be quickly destroyed by his 120,000-man Republican Guard. After this, he assumed, Washington would acquiesce to his conquest." Consistent with this line of thought, Tariq Aziz claimed in a 1996 PBS interview that Iraq "had no illusions" prior to the invasion of Kuwait about the likelihood of U.S. military intervention.

James Akins, the American Saudi Ambassador at the time, offered a slightly different perspective, in a 2000 PBS interview: "[Glaspie] took the straight American line, which is we do not take positions on border disputes between friendly countries. That's standard. That's what you always say. You would not have said, "Mr. President, if you really are considering invading Kuwait, by God, we'll bring down the wrath of God on your palaces, and on your country, and you'll all be destroyed." She wouldn't say that, nor would I. Neither would any diplomat."

In April 1991 Glaspie testified before the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate. She said that at the July 25 meeting she had "repeatedly warned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein against using force to settle his dispute with Kuwait." She also said that Saddam had lied to her by denying he would invade Kuwait. Asked to explain how Saddam could have interpreted her comments as implying U.S. approval for the invasion of Kuwait, she replied: "We foolishly did not realize he [Saddam] was stupid."

In July 1991 the State Department's spokesperson Rick Boucher said at a press briefing: "We have faith in Ambassador Glaspie's reporting. She sent us cables on her meetings based on notes that were made after the meeting. She also provided five hours or more of testimony in front of the Committee about the series of meetings that she had, including this meeting with Saddam Hussein." The cables that Glaspie sent from Iraq about her meeting with Saddam are apparently still classified.

Subsequently Glaspie was posted to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York. She was later posted to South Africa as Consul-General in Cape Town - a perfectly respectable posting but one that must be seen as a "sidelining" for a diplomat who had made her career in the Middle East. She held this post until her retirement in 2002.

Glaspie has remained silent on the subject of her actions in Iraq, apparently allowing herself to be made a scapegoat for the supposed failure of the Bush administration to forsee or prevent the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

In August 2002 the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs published a new account of the Glaspie-Saddam meeting. The author, Andrew I. Kilgore (a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar), summarised the meeting as follows:

"At their meeting, the American ambassador explained to Saddam that the United States did not take a stand on Arab-Arab conflicts such as Iraq’s border disagreement with Kuwait. She made clear, however, that differences should be settled by peaceful means.
"Glaspie’s concerns were greatly eased when Saddam told her that the forthcoming Iraq-Kuwait meeting in Jeddah was for protocol purposes, to be followed by substantive discussions to be held in Baghdad.
"In response to the ambassador’s question, Saddam named a date when Kuwaiti Crown Prince Shaikh Sa’ad Abdallah would be arriving in Baghdad for those substantive discussions. (This appears in retrospect to have been Saddam’s real deception.)"

The points contained in the second and third paragraphs do not appear in the purported transcripts of the Glaspie-Saddam meeting, which were released by Iraq, and on which most of the subsequent criticism of Glaspie is based. If there is a full transcript of the meeting in existence, or if the State Department declassified Glaspie's cables about the meeting, history might reach a different verdict on her performance.

Kilgore concluded his account: "April [Glaspie] has recently retired from the State Department. She does not know these words are being written. But she needs someone to speak out for her. Her loyalty to the system is notable. She has never spoken a word against the Department of State or against Secretary of States James Baker, who might have said — but did not — "We all misjudged Saddam Hussein, and ‘we’ includes me."

Joseph C. Wilson, Glaspie's successor as ambassador to Iraq, referred to her meeting with Saddam Hussein in a Democracy Now interview on May 14, 2004: an "Iraqi participant in the meeting [...] said to me very clearly that Saddam did not misunderstand, did not think he was getting a green or yellow light." However, he does cite a letter signed by President George H. W. Bush that was sent to Iraq a couple of days afterwards, that he describes as having a conciliatory tone.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Neutron bomb

[Like unicorns, I've always wondered if these things were real or just fantasy. Turns out, yes.]
A neutron bomb is a type of nuclear weapon invented by Samuel Cohen specifically designed to release a relatively large portion of its energy as energetic neutron radiation....

Neutron bombs, also called enhanced radiation bombs (ER weapons), are small thermonuclear weapons in which the burst of neutrons generated by the fusion reaction is intentionally not absorbed inside the weapon, but allowed to escape. The X-ray mirrors and shell of the weapon are made of chromium or nickel so that the neutrons are permitted to escape. Contrast this with cobalt bombs, also known as salted bombs.

This intense burst of high-energy neutrons is the principal destructive mechanism.

The term "enhanced radiation" refers only to the burst of ionizing radiation released at the moment of detonation, not to any enhancement of residual radiation in fallout.

A neutron bomb requires considerable amounts of tritium, which has a relatively short half-life. The neutron bombs that existed in the United States arsenal in the past were variants of the W70 and the W79 designs....

Neutron bombs could be used as strategic anti-missile weapons or as tactical weapons intended for use against armored forces.

As an anti-missile weapon, ER weapons were developed to protect United States missile silos from incoming Soviet warheads by damaging their electronic components with the intense neutron flux.

Tactical neutron bombs are primarily intended to kill soldiers who are protected by armor. Armored vehicles are extremely resistant to blast and heat produced by nuclear weapons, so the effective range of a nuclear weapon against tanks is determined by the lethal range of the radiation, although this is also reduced by the armor. By emitting large amounts of lethal radiation of the most penetrating kind, ER warheads maximize the lethal range of a given yield of nuclear warhead against armored targets.

One problem with using radiation as a tactical anti-personnel weapon is that to bring about rapid incapacitation of the target, a radiation dose that is many times the lethal level must be administered. A radiation dose of 6 Gy is normally considered lethal. It will kill at least half of those who are exposed to it, but no effect is noticeable for several hours. Neutron bombs were intended to deliver a dose of 80 Gy to produce immediate and permanent incapacitation. A 1 kt ER warhead can do this to a T-72 tank crew at a range of 690 m, compared to 360 m for a pure fission bomb. For a "mere" 6 Gy dose, the distances are 1100 m and 700 m respectively, and for unprotected soldiers 6 Gy exposures occur at 1350 m and 900 m. The lethal range for tactical neutron bombs exceeds the lethal range for blast and heat even for unprotected troops.

The neutron flux can induce significant amounts of short-lived secondary radioactivity in the environment in the high flux region near the burst point. The alloys used in steel armor can develop radioactivity that is dangerous for 24-48 hours. If a tank exposed to a 1 kt neutron bomb at 690 m (the effective range for immediate crew incapacitation) is immediately occupied by a new crew, they will receive a lethal dose of radiation within 24 hours.

Some authorities say that due to the rapid attenuation of neutron energy by the atmosphere (these authorities claim that it drops by a factor of 10 every 500 m in addition to the effects of spreading) ER weapons are only effective at short ranges, and thus are practical only in relatively low yields. These ER warheads are said to be designed to minimize the amount of fission energy and blast effect produced relative to the neutron yield. The principal reason is said to be to allow their use close to friendly forces.

These same authorities say that the common perception of the neutron bomb as a "landlord bomb" that would kill people but leave buildings undamaged is greatly overstated. At the conventional effective combat range (690 m), the blast from a 1 kt neutron bomb will ruin almost any civilian building. Thus the use of neutron bombs to stop an enemy attack, which requires exploding large numbers of them to blanket the enemy forces, would also destroy all buildings in the area.

Another view of the neutron bomb and its tactics exists. The inventor of the neutron bomb, Samuel Cohen, wrote a book in which he stated that the effective range of a pure neutron bomb exceeded 10 km of altitude. Cohen stated explicitly that "enhanced radiation" weapons deployed in Germany during the cold war were political compromises designed to have substantial blast, with radiation effects deliberately reduced to eliminate any possibility of surviving structures. He also quoted radiation releases of 1 kGy at the ground from pure neutron weapons exploded at 10 km.

The neutron absorption spectrum of air is disputed, and may depend in part on absorption by hydrogen from water vapor. It therefore might vary exponentially with humidity, making high-altitude neutron bombs immensely more deadly in desert climates than in humid ones. This effect also varies with altitude.

According to Cohen, one possible tactic of using such "true" neutron bombs is therefore to launch them as defensive weapons against armored attacks. Civilians enter fallout shelters, and the bomb is exploded 10 km over the armored attack. Portable armor is said to be unable to shield tank and aircraft crews. In such an event, a city's trees and grass would have been killed by radiation, but buildings would remain undamaged for the emerging civilians (who would however have to wait several days for certain short-lived isotopes to decay). Such neutron bombs would be very potent anti-ship weapons. A major supporter of Cohen's research was the U.S. Navy....

The neutron bomb is generally credited to Samuel Cohen at the Lawrence Livermore national laboratory. He developed the concept in 1958, [1] although it was opposed by President John F. Kennedy. Development was cancelled by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, but restarted by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. The bombs were only deployed in a limited manner and are no longer extant. Enhanced radiation weapons were also produced by France in the early 1980s. In 1999 reports indicated that China had gained the ability to produce neutron bombs. [2]


Monday, April 24, 2006


[I think this bit about their relationship to Peet's is interesting....]

Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX, SEHK: 4337) is a large multinational chain of coffee shops with corporate headquarters in Seattle, Washington. Its coffee shops in the U.S. are especially popular among students and young urban professionals. The company was in part named after Starbuck, a character in Moby Dick, and its insignia is a stylized cartoon siren....

The first Starbucks was opened in Seattle in 1971 by three partners—English teacher Jerry Baldwin, history teacher Zev Siegel, and writer Gordon Bowker. The three were inspired by Alfred Peet, who they knew personally, to open their first store in Pike Place Market to sell high-quality coffee beans and equipment. (This location is still open today, though it is not in the same exact location it was when it opened.) During their first year of operation, they purchased green coffee beans from Peet's, then began buying directly from growers.

Entrepreneur Howard Schultz joined the company in 1982, and, after a trip to Milan, suggested that the company sell coffee, espresso, and cappuccino drinks as well as beans. The owners rejected this idea, believing that getting into the beverage business would distract the company from its focus. To them, coffee was something to be prepared in the home. Certain there was much money to be made selling drinks to on-the-go Americans, Schultz started the Il Giornale coffee bar chain in 1985.

In 1984, the original owners, led by Baldwin, took the opportunity to purchase Peet's. (Baldwin still works there today.) In 1987 they sold the Starbucks chain to Schultz, who rebranded his Il Giornale outlets and quickly began to expand. Starbucks opened its first locations outside Seattle in Vancouver, British Columbia (at Waterfront Station) and Chicago, Illinois that same year. The first Starbucks location outside of North America opened in Tokyo in 1996, and Starbucks now has outlets in 30 additional countries. Starbucks entered the U.K. market in 1998 with the acquisition of the then 60-outlet Seattle Coffee Company, re-branding all its stores as Starbucks.

By the time of its initial public offering on the stock market in 1992, Starbucks had grown to 165 outlets. In April 2003, Starbucks added nearly that many new outlets in a single day by completing the purchase of Seattle's Best Coffee and Torrefazione Italia from AFC Enterprises, bringing the total number of Starbucks-operated locations worldwide to more than 6,400. Counting stores not owned by the company, there are currently more than 10,800 Starbucks locations worldwide, although none, as yet, in Italy, Schultz's original inspiration.

Starbucks' success in the U.S. market has often, though not always, been replicated around the world; it has faced competition in markets which are already saturated with coffee products, though Starbucks consistently distinguishes itself with its quality of service and of product. A number of retailers have emulated Starbucks' business model, many owned by former Starbucks employees who founded their own businesses upon their knowledge of Starbucks' operations.

Name and logo

According to Howard Schultz's book Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, the name of the company was derived from Moby Dick, although not in as direct a fashion as many assume. One of the company's founders, a Moby Dick fan, had suggested the name "Pequod" after the ship in the novel. Thinking it sounded a little too much like a slang term for urine, the other founders voted it down. Another suggestion was "Starbo," the name of a mining camp on Mount Rainier. The Moby Dick idea and "Starbo" came together and the company ended up named for the Pequod's first mate, Starbuck.

The company logo is a siren (sometimes referred to as a mermaid, but it is more likely a melusine since it has two tails). The logo has changed over the years to avoid offense. In the first version, the Starbucks siren had bare breasts and a fully visible, double fish tail. In the second, streamlined version, her breasts were covered by hair, but her navel was still visible, and the fish tail was cropped slightly. In the current version, her navel and breasts are not visible at all, and only vestiges remain of the fish tails. The original logo can still be seen on the Starbucks store in Seattle's Pike Place Market.


Friday, April 21, 2006

Straight edge

[I was reading about this Muslim punk group when I came across this word....]
Straight edge (sometimes abbreviated to sXe or SxE) is a lifestyle and (counter cultural) subculture, closely associated with punk, hardcore punk, emo and more recently heavy metal music. It advocates total, life long abstinence from tobacco, alcohol, and recreational drug use — especially psychoactive and stimulant drug use. Some straight edgers also abstain from promiscuous sexual behavior.

Originally inspired by the hardcore band Minor Threat, it has spread around the world, but is most popular in industrialized Western countries with a large middle-class, such as United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and much of Western Europe. Although straight edgers or "edge kids" do not necessarily identify with a particular worldview on social or political issues, many do subscribe to precepts associated with anarchism, vegetarianismveganism, socialism, environmentalism, and the deep ecology movement. Some straight edgers are Christians or Hare Krishnas, as well as other religions, and there are even some straight edgers who hold extreme right wing views....

There are various reasons why people may choose to be straight edge, and there are various interpretations of the practive, and various applications of the precepts noted below.

Straight edge can generally be viewed as a counter culture, lifestyle, or simply as a long-term commitment to abstinence from recreational drug use.

Some use the lifestyle as a 'stepping stone' because they believe it will allow them to be more involved with their own mental and physical health. For some, straight edge involves refraining from casual sex. Rather than promoting strict abstinence, many straight edge persons believe in sex within caring relationships rather than one-night stands.

Many straight edgers are vegetarian or vegan; the two movements should not necessarily be linked to straight edge though.

The appeal of straight edge has broadened beyond the initial scope of punk culture and has appeal to youth of many cultures who eschew recreational drug use. Many people who are straight edge became attracted to it as a counter culture option to what they see as a widespread drug culture....

The 'X'

At punk rock shows, it became common practice to mark an X on the hands of under-aged concert goers to ensure that the bouncers would recognize a minor attempting to drink alcohol. Some people interpret this as a symbol of Ian MacKaye's "don't smoke, don't drink, don't fuck" ethos. Some interpret the three Xs as representing "Body", "Mind", and "Soul" — although three Xs have also been used as an abbreviation for hardcore punk in general.

Many adopters of the "straight edge" lifestyle voluntarily marked their hands in the same way to show their commitment to refusing alcohol. Also widespread is the tattooing of the X symbol on other parts of the body, or wearing it on clothing, pins, et cetera. Three Xs (XXX) have their origin in artwork created by Minor Threat's drummer Jeff Nelson in which he replaced the three stars in the band's hometown Washington D.C. flag with Xs.

The X is considered both a mark of negation and a mark of identity. Attaching the X to one's name or band name is common practice for straight edgers. For example, 'John Smith' would become 'XjohnXsmithX', or 'xxxjohnxxx'. "Straight edge" is sometimes abbreviated sXe (S.E. plus an X) following much the same logic. Note that sXe is pronounced 'straight edge' or 'es-ex-ee....'

A subset of straight edge, often called hard-line, has been involved in physical assaults in the U.S. Police in some communities, such as Salt Lake City, Utah and Reno, Nevada have classified straight edge as a gang due to violence associated with hardliners, and due to links some straight edgers have with the Animal Liberation Front.


Thursday, April 20, 2006

MUMPS (not that one)

[Only computer scientists would name a language to be used in hospital computers after a disease....]
(Massachusetts General Hospital Utility Multi-Programming System), or alternatively M, is a programming language created in the late 1960s for use in the healthcare industry. It was designed to make writing database-driven applications easy while simultaneously making as efficient use of computing resources as possible. Although it never gained widespread popularity, it was adopted as the language-of-choice for many healthcare and financial information systems/databases (especially ones developed in the 1970s and early 1980s) and continues to be used by many of the same clients today.

Because it predates C, BASIC and most other popular languages in current usage, it has very different syntax and terminology. It offers a number of features unavailable in other languages and showcases some rarely used programming and database concepts....

MUMPS is a language designed for building database applications. Secondary language features are designed to help programmers make applications that use as few computing resources as possible. Original implementations were interpreted, though modern implementations may be either fully or partially compiled.

The core feature of MUMPS is that database interaction is transparently built into the language. Simply by using variables prefixed with a caret '^' character, you are referencing a database node. Assignment and retrieval uses the same commands as for interacting with standard RAM-based variables. Additionally, all variables (both RAM and database-based) can be treated as a multidimensional hash/array. Child nodes of a variable (called subscripts in M) can have numeric or string keys (the keys themselves are also called subscripts, such that with the variable name ^A("B",2,6), "B", 2 and 6 are the first, second and third subscripts of ^A). String keys are automatically stored in alphabetical order following all numeric keys. Numeric keys can have negative and/or floating-point values, all of which will be stored in order from lowest to highest. The MUMPS terminology for database-linked variables is a global, not to be confused with the C term for unscoped variables (see Variable scoping).

As a secondary language feature, you can abbreviate nearly all commands and native functions down to a single character to save space. Additionally, special operators exist to let you treat a delimited string (like Comma-separated values) as an array. To reduce the number of hard-disk reads, early MUMPS programmers would store a structure of related information as a delimited string, parsing it out after it was read.

MUMPS has no data types. Numbers can be treated as strings of digits, strings can be cast (coerced, in MUMPS terminology) into numbers by numeric operators. When a string is coerced, the parser turns as much of the string (starting from the left) into a number as it can, then discards the rest. Thus the statement 'IF 20<"30 DUCKS"' is evaluated as TRUE in MUMPS.

Other features of the language standard are designed to help applications interact with each other in a multi-user environment. Database locks, process identifiers and Atomicity of database update transactions are all required of MUMPS implementations that follow the standard.

In contrast to languages based on C, whitespace is signifant. A single space separates a command from its argument, and a space or newline separates the argument from the next command. Commands that take no arguments (like ELSE) require two following spaces; one to separate it from its (nonexistent) argument, then another to separate the "argument" from the next command. Newlines are also significant; an IF, ELSE or FOR command processes/skips everything else on the line. To make them affect multiple lines, you must use the DO command to create a block.



[From the NYT:
Texans argue that Hurricane Rita, which took an unexpected turn away from Houston shortly after Hurricane Katrina last fall to wreak havoc from Jasper to the northeast to Sabine Pass near the Louisiana border, has been forgotten in the swirl of attention given to the devastation in New Orleans.

In fact, they say, the nation never really took notice of the 77,000 homes made uninhabitable by Hurricane Rita's force, 40,000 of which were not insured, or the piles of debris and garbage that still fester along the roads. "Personally I am sick of hearing about Katrina," said Ronda Authement, standing outside her trailer in Sabine Pass, where she will live until she can get the money and the workers to put her three-bedroom house back on its foundation. "I would like to throw up, frankly, hearing about Katrina."


Wednesday, April 19, 2006


[You've heard of one of these. Now here's the another...]
Suri is the name of a sedentary pastoral Nubian tribe and its Nilo-Saharan language in southwest Ethiopia, near the Sudan border.

Their location is remote, in desolate mountains, and traditional rivalries with their tribal neighbors have become quite bloody as automatic firearms have become available from the parties in the Sudanese Civil War. The police allow foreigners to travel there only with a hired armed guard.

They have a macho culture, with an obsession for stick fighting called donga bringing great prestige to men - especially important when seeking a bride- and their competitive, cheering villages that can spill over into group amuck, at the risk of serious injury and occasional death. The males are often shaved bald, and frequently wear little or no clothes (to western eyes the exposure of the privates seems particularly unashamed, but unlike nudism it is not a minority choice in several regions cultures), even during stick fights.

At a young age, most women have their bottom teeth removed and their bottom lips pierced, then stretched, so as to allow insertion of a clay lip plate. The bigger the plate a woman can hold in her lip, the more cattle she will be worth in trade when married. No one is quite sure how the tradition was started, but it is believed that it could have been to discourage slavers from abducting the women. There is, however, a small but growing consciousness among women now refusing to wear the lip plates.

Life is largely communal, sharing the produce of the cattle (milked and bled, as the Maasai do) which is the measure of wealth in which brides are priced according to the size of the ornamental clay plate women wear in their lower lip.

Though their chief (styled komaro) wears the fur crown of a pagan priest-king, he is merely the most respected elder and can be removed.


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Earthquake liquefaction

[One hundred years ago today...]
Earthquake liquefaction, often referred to simply as liquefaction, is the process by which saturated, unconsolidated soil or sand is converted into a suspension during an earthquake. The effect on structures and buildings can be devastating, and is a major contributor to urban seismic risk. Ancient earthquakes have caused liquefaction, leaving a record in the sediments (paleoseismology).

Sand Compaction

Liquefaction essentially means that the soil is turned into a liquid. The key ingredient is a formation of loose, saturated sand. As seen in the figure, uniform sand grains can be packed either in a loose or a compact (dense) formation. Loose sand has usually been deposited gently underwater, either naturally, or sluiced into what is called hydraulic fill. The loose grains can support considerable weight, with the help of the water, which forms a good portion of the mass.

Once strong earthquake shaking begins, the grains are sheared into the more compact arrangement. The water, however, interferes, and the grains float in a liquid slurry. The excess water is squeezed out which causes the quicksand condition at the surface. If there is a soil crust or impermeable cap, then the sand boils out in the form of sand volcanoes (commonly called sandblows).

Soil liquefaction can be dangerous if it leads to landslides or building foundation failures. Mapping the location of old liquefaction zones, called paleoliquefaction allows scientists to determine the strength and location of ancient earthquakes.

In certain areas of the world there is something called quick clay, which is just as dangerous as liquefaction sands. Either should be avoided or stabilized, which typically involves the field of geotechnical engineering.


Monday, April 17, 2006

Fred Phelps

[Many states are passing laws preventing this guy from protesting at soldiers' funderals...]

Fred Waldron Phelps, Sr. (born November 13, 1929) is the highly controversial leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, based out of his home in Topeka, Kansas. Phelps is best known for preaching that God hates homosexuals and will punish both them and "fag enablers" (which his church defines as anyone whom they find to be insufficiently anti-gay). He claims events such as the September 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina are caused by God because of this hatred. He and his followers frequently picket various events, especially gay pride gatherings and funerals of gay men, feeling it is their sacred duty to share their views with others.

Phelps is a self-described "fire and brimstone" preacher who believes that homosexuality and its acceptance have doomed most of the world to eternal damnation. His group is estimated to number between 100-200 members (90 of whom are related to Phelps through blood or marriage). The group is built around an anti-homosexual core theology, with many of their activities stemming from the mantra "God hates fags," which is also the name of the group's webpage. Gay rights activists, as well as Christians of virtually every denomination, have denounced him as a producer of anti-gay propaganda and violence-inspiring hate speech.

Phelps rose to national prominence in 1998 when he and congregants from Westboro picketed the funeral of gay murder victim Matthew Shepard, delivering an obscenity-laden sermon (with focus given to graphic descriptions of homosexual sex acts) informing the mourners that Shepard had gone to hell and that everyone in attendance would join him there. Ever since, Phelps and Westboro have remained in the national limelight for their regular pickets of events ranging from gay pride parades to the funerals of soldiers killed in the Iraq War to grand openings of Starbucks....

During 1993–94 interviews with the Topeka Capital-Journal, four of Phelps' children asserted that their father's religious beliefs were either nonexistent to begin with or have dwindled down to nearly nothing since his conversion to the Baptists; they claim that Westboro serves to enable a paraphilia of Phelps, wherein he is literally addicted to hatred (this statement would serve as the inspiration for the title of the book about Phelps' life). Two of his sons, Mark and Nate, claim that the church is actually a carefully planned cult that allows Phelps to see himself as a demigod, wielding absolute control over the lives of his family and congregants, essentially turning them into slaves that he can use for the sole purpose of gratifying his every whim and acting as the structure for his delusion that he is the only righteous man on Earth. [63] In 1995, Mark Phelps wrote a letter to the people of Topeka to this effect; it was run in the Topeka Capital-Journal. [64] The children's claim is partially backed up by B.H. McAllister, the Baptist minister who ordained Phelps. McAllister said in a 1993 interview that Phelps developed a delusion wherein he was one of the only people on Earth worthy of God's grace and that everyone else in the world was going to Hell, and that salvation or damnation could be directly obtained by either aligning with or opposing Phelps. Phelps maintains this belief to this day. [65]


Friday, April 14, 2006

The Nag Hammadi library

[Linked in Mark Morford's column today, and also mentioned in Joan Acocella's nice essay on the Mary Magdalene....]

The Nag Hammadi library is a collection of early Christian Gnostic texts discovered in the town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. That year, thirteen leather-bound papyrus codices buried in a sealed jar were found by local peasants. The writings in these codices comprised fifty-two mostly Gnostic tractates (treatises), but they also include three works belonging to the Corpus Hermeticum and a partial translation / alteration of Plato's Republic. The codices are believed to be a library hidden by monks from the nearby monastery of St Pachomius when the possession of such banned writings denounced as heresy was made an offense. The zeal of Athanasius in extirpating non-canonical writings and the Theodosian decrees of the 390s may have motivated the hiding of such dangerous literature.

The contents of the codices were written in Coptic, though the works were probably all translations from Greek. Arguably the most well-known of these works is probably the Gospel of Thomas, of which the Nag Hammadi codices contain the only complete text. After the discovery it was recognized that fragments of these sayings of Jesus appeared in manuscripts discovered at Oxyrhynchus in 1898, and quotations were recognized in other early Christian sources. A 1st or 2nd century date of composition for the lost Greek originals has been proposed, though this is disputed. The manuscripts themselves date from the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The Nag Hammadi codices are housed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt. To read about their significance to modern scholarship into early Christianity, see the Gnosticism article....

The story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945 has been described as 'exciting as the contents of the find itself' (Markschies, Gnosis: An Introduction, 48). In December of that year, two Egyptian brothers found several papyri in a large earthernware vessel while digging for fertilizer around limestone caves near present-day Habra Dom in Upper Egypt. The find was not initially reported by either of the brothers, who sought to make money from the manuscripts by selling them individually at intervals. It is also reported that the brothers' mother burned several of the manuscripts, worried, apparently, that the papers might have 'dangerous effects' (Markschies, Gnosis, 48). As a result, what came to be known as the Nag Hammadi library (owing to the proximity of the find to Nag Hammadi, the nearest major settlement) appeared only gradually, and its significance went unacknowledged until some time after its initial uncovering.

In 1946, the brothers became involved in a feud, and left the manuscripts with a Coptic priest, whose brother-in-law in October that year sold a codex to the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo (this tract is today numbered Codex III in the collection). The resident Coptologist and religious historian Jean Dorese, realising the significance of the artifact, published the first reference to it in 1948. Over the years, most of the tracts were passed by the priest to a Cypriot antiques dealer in Cairo, thereafter being retained by the Department of Antiquities, for fear that they would be sold out of the country. After the revolution in 1956, these texts were handed to the Coptic Musuem in Cairo, and declared national property.

Meanwhile, a single codex had been sold in Cairo to a Belgian antique dealer. After an attempt was made to sell the codex in both New York and Paris, it was acquired by the Carl Gustav Jung Institute in Zurich in 1951, through the mediation of Gilles Quispel. There it was intended as a birthday present to the famous psychologist; for this reason, this codex is typically known as the Jung Codex, being Codex I in the collection.

Jung's death in 1961 caused a quarrel over the ownership of the Jung Codex, with the result that the pages were not given to the Coptic Musuem in Cairo until 1975, after a first edition of the text had been published. Thus the papyri were finally brought together in Cairo: of the 1945 find, eleven complete books and fragments of two others, 'amounting to well over 1000 written pages' (Markschies, Gnosis: An Introduction, 49) are preserved there.


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Condoleezza, Gallagher, a watermelon, and racism

[A question on a math test at a community college in Washington began this way: "Condoleezza holds a watermelon just over the edge of the roof of the 300-foot Federal Building, and tosses it up with a velocity of 20 feet per second." It went on to ask how long it would take for the watermelon to hit the ground. The question was initially posed using the name Gallagher, after the ridiculous comedian famous for smashing watermelons in his act; a teacher -- whom the college will not identify -- later changed the name to Condoleezza. Students complained that the question was racist, and the college president apologized and outlined steps the college plans to take to increase cultural and racial sensitivity on campus. The unnamed teacher will take a sensitivity-training class.

I can't be the only one who thinks that this is likely not racist and probably, instead, a simple misunderstanding, right? True, there's something clearly ugly about the question's tying together of the name of a famous African-American woman with an object, the watermelon, that has often been used in derogatory caricatures of blacks. But the context here -- particularly the Gallagher bit -- leads me to suspect the whole thing was probably a misunderstanding.

I wonder: Isn't it possible that this was the product not of a racist stereotype but the opposite -- the ignorance of a stereotype? I mean, what if the teacher in question didn't know that watermelons have been used in racist depictions of blacks, and had picked the name Condoleezza because she (or he) wanted to honor, rather than denigrate, the secretary of state (or in order to just use a cool-sounding name:
The name "Condoleezza" is derived from the Italian music-related expression, "Con dolcezza", meaning "with sweetness.") ? Couldn't the situation indicate that the college is actually very good at sensitivity, so good that a teacher there wasn't aware of a major caricature? What will be the result of all the sensitivity training -- to teach teachers all manner of cultural stereotypes (Asian drivers, black basketball players, etc.) that they may avoid them?]


[Because it's always been a mystery to me how this happens...]

or popping corn is a type of maize which puffs up when it is heated in oil or by dry heat. Special varieties of corn are grown to give improved popping yield. Some wild types will pop, but the cultivated strain is Zea mays L. subsp. mays (Everta Group), which is a special kind of flint corn. Popcorn was first developed by pre-Columbian Native Americans thousands of years ago. In 1948, popcorn ears dating back 5,600-years were discovered in bat caves in New Mexico....

How popcorn pops

As with all cereal grains, each kernel of popcorn contains a certain amount of moisture in its starchy endosperm. Unlike most other grains, the outer hull, or pericarp, of the popcorn kernel is thick and impervious to moisture.

As the kernel is heated past the boiling point, water in the kernel begins to turn to steam, generating an internal pressure of about 9 ATM. In kernels of other grains (and in damaged kernels of popcorn), this steam escapes as fast as it forms, but in the tightly sealed popcorn kernel, the steam is held tight by the pericarp and the pressure starts to build until the pericarp suddenly ruptures, causing a small explosion. The force of the explosion turns the kernel inside out. More importantly, because the moisture is evenly distributed throughout the starchy endosperm, the sudden expansion turns the endosperm into an airy foam which gives popcorn its unique texture.

Two explanations exist for kernels which do not pop, known in the popcorn industry as "old maids," after being exposed to high temperatures. The first is that unpopped kernels do not have enough moisture to create enough steam for an explosion. The second explanation, according to research led by Dr. Bruce Hamaker of Purdue University, is that the unpopped kernel may have a leaky hull.


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Benny Hinn

[Ever seen this guy on TV?]
Tofik Benedictus "Benny" Hinn (born 1953, Jaffa, Israel) is a controversial Christian pastor, faith healing minister, and televangelist. His ethnicity is Armenian-Greek and he was raised within the Greek Orthodox Church, but currently he is involved in the Word Faith movement within the Charismatic/Pentecostal arm of Christianity. He attended Georges Vanier High School in Laval, Quebec until he dropped out. Currently, he is married to Suzanne Harthern and his ministry is estimated to earn up to $120,000,000 a year.... [1]

Hinn has written that as a 20 year old in December 1973 he traveled by charter bus from Toronto to Pittsburgh to attend a "miracle service" being conducted by evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman. While he never personally met Kuhlman, he often attended her "healing" services and cited Kuhlman as an influence in many interviews.

Ten years later, Hinn founded the Orlando Christian Center. During its heyday the church averaged over 10,000 in attendance. In 1999, Hinn sold the church (by the time renamed World Outreach Center) to Clint Brown and moved to Grapevine, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. However, he maintained the legal entity "World Outreach Center Church Benny Hinn Ministries" which has been the subject of recent controversy. (see below)

He is currently the host of This Is Your Day, a 30-minute TV show that runs on various religious networks, including Trinity Broadcasting Network and Daystar Television Network.

Hinn hosts regular "Miracle Crusades" that are usually held in large stadiums in major cities. At these services, Hinn carries out the supposed "miracles" on whoever comes up on stage with an allegedly healed medical condition, whether it be Lou Gehrig's disease, or AIDS, or arthritis, or cancer. Usually, he shouts "Touch!" at them and they fall to the floor, "slain in the Spirit." Hinn also "kills" entire stands and the volunteer choir, too. Highlights from these highly theatrical events are taped and then broadcast on Hinn's TV show....

Claim of prophetic ability

Benny Hinn claims to be a prophet of God and regularly issues specific prophecies regarding events that he claims will occur within specific periods of time. However, he has a documented history of making prophecies that have not come true (see below for a partial list). Since, according to the definition specified by the Bible that true prophets inspired by God can never be incorrect in their prophecies, many Christian apologetics ministries, primarily those who oppose the Word Faith movement in general, consider Benny Hinn to be a false prophet.

Examples of false prophecies

  • "The Spirit tells me Fidel Castro will die in the 90's. Oh my! Some will try to kill him and they will not succeed. But there will come a change in his physical health, and he will not stay in power, and Cuba will be visited of God."
    Orlando Christian Center, Dec. 31, 1989. (audio)
  • ""The Lord also tells me to tell you in the mid 90’s, about ’94-’95, no later than that, God will destroy the homosexual community of America. [audience applauds] But He will not destroy it – with what many minds have thought Him to be, He will destroy it with fire. And many will turn and be saved, and many will rebel and be destroyed."
    Orlando Christian Center, Dec. 31, 1989. (audio)
  • "A world dictator is coming on the scene. My! He's a short man. He's a short man. I see a short man who's a perfect incarnation of Satan. [speaks in tongues] Never in my life have I had anything happen like what's happening to me now! 'This man will rule the world. In the next few years you will see him. But not long after that you will see Me.'"
    Orlando Christian Center, Dec. 31, 1989
  • "The Spirit of God tells me an earthquake will hit the East Coast of America and destroy much in the '90s. Not one place will be safe from earthquakes in the '90s. These who have not known earthquakes will know it. People, I feel the Spirit all over me!"
    Orlando Christian Center, Dec. 31, 1989
  • "We may have two years before the rapture. Can I be blunt with you? I don't know if we have two years left. I'm going to prove to you from the Word tonight, that we have less than two years."
    November 9, 1990 Praise-a-Thon
  • "But here's first what I see for TBN. You're going to have people raised from the dead watching this network. You're going to have people raised from the dead watching TBN. Programs -- just plain programs -- programs that haven't done much when it comes to supernatural manifestations -- teaching programs!"
    October 19, 1999 Praise The Lord, Trinity Broadcasting Network
  • "Jesus is coming again within the next two years."
    July 1997, fund-raising telethon on TBN
  • "The hour is urgent. Many of you have known me for many years. But I am telling you right now, things I haven't said years 'n years 'n years ago. I believe - here this, hear this! I believe, that Jesus, God's Son, is about to appear physically, in meetings and to believers around the world, to wake us up! I am prophesying this! Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is about to appear physically in some churches, and some meetings, and to many of His people, for one reason - to tell you He is about to show up!"
    April 2nd, 2000, TBN Praise-a-thon

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

High fructose corn syrup

[Michael Pollan's new book, on "Fresh Air"...]
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a newer and sweeter form of corn syrup. Like ordinary corn syrup, it is made from corn starch using enzymes. The process of developing HFCS was discovered by Japanese researchers in the 1970s.

By increasing the proportion of fructose, a syrup is produced which is more comparable to an ordinary sugar (sucrose) syrup in its ratio of fructose to glucose and in its sweetness. This makes it useful to manufacturers as a possible substitute for ordinary sugar (sucrose) in soft drinks and other consumer goods.

Through processing, the fructose content can be increased to 55%, yielding a product that has the same sweetness as sucrose, or higher. Common commercial grades of high fructose corn syrup include fructose contents of 42%, 55% (used in soft drinks and equivalent to caster sugar), or 90%.

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is produced by processing corn starch to yield glucose, and then processing the glucose to produce a high percentage of fructose.

First, cornstarch is treated with alpha-amylase to produce shorter chains of sugars called polysaccharides.

Next, an enzyme called glucoamylase breaks the sugar chains down even further to yield the simple sugar glucose.

The third enzyme, glucose-isomerase, converts glucose to a mixture of about 42 percent fructose and 50-52 percent glucose with some other sugars mixed in. While alpha-amylase and glucoamylase are added directly to the slurry, glucose-isomerase is packed into columns and the sugar mixture is then passed over it. This 42-43% fructose glucose mixture is then subjected to a liquid chromatography step where the fructose is enriched to approximately 90%. The 90% fructose is then back-blended with 42% fructose to achieve a 55% fructose final product. Numerous ion-exchange and evaporation steps are also part of the overall process....

Fructose produces lower levels of the hormones leptin and insulin than glucose. Raising leptin and insulin levels trigger the feeling of "fullness" while eating. The level of the hormone ghrelin remains higher with consumption of fructose than it does with glucose. Ghrelin appears to control the feeling of "hunger". This double change in normal production of these hormones results in a slower decrease in appetite and a tendency to consume more than if glucose were to be used. Thus more is consumed to get the same "full" and "satiated" feeling and the total caloric intake is greater. Additionally, the level of blood triglycerides shows a rapid and prolonged elevation after consuming fructose as opposed to glucose. JCEM 2/24/2004

The delayed decrease of the hormone ghrelin has been shown in obese subjects but not in normal weight subjects. This means that chronic consumption of fructose may actually be preconditioning the metabolism of a normal weight individual to behave like an obese individual's metabolism. JCEM 11/2/2004

High triglyceride levels are believed to be linked to clogging of the arteries and may increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. They may even be more important for determining the risk of heart disease than cholesterol.


Monday, April 10, 2006


[Cynthia McKinney's hair got me looking into...]
are a traditional style of hair grooming of African origin where the hair is tightly braided very close to the scalp, using an underhand, upward motion to produce a continuous, raised row. This technique is somewhat similar to that used to produce a French braid, which is braided using an overhand, or inward, motion, resulting in a flat braid. Cornrows can be formed, as the name implies, in simple, straight lines; or, in complicated geometric or curvilinear designs. Often favored for their easy maintenance, cornrows can be left in for weeks at a time simply by carefully washing the hair using a stocking cap or hair net and then regularly oiling the scalp and hair. Cornrowed hairstyles are often adorned with beads or cowrie shells, in the African tradition. Depending on the region of the world, cornrows can be worn by either men or women.

A common way of styling hair in populations from sub-Saharan Africa, as well as North Africa, dynastic Egypt and the Horn, cornrows survived for centuries in the United States as a style of hair preparation among African slaves and their progeny. In 1963, when most African American women were loath to be seen in public with unstraightened hair, actor Cicely Tyson drew immediate notice when she sported cornrows on the popular network television series "East Side/West Side." The style gained wide popularity in the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s as part of the Black Pride Movement, when the trend was to reject straightening one's hair in favor of naptural hairstyles. Afros, strands of hair twisted into tight coils or wound with twine, and the wearing of geles (colorful, often elaborately wrapped head cloths) became other commonplace, African styles adopted by African American women.

In the wake of the Black Pride Movement, hundreds of beauty shops and salons sprang up across the United States delivering services exclusively, or as part of a range of options, to blacks who prefer natural (unstraightened) hairstyles. Many salons specialize in hair wrapping and braiding techniques, executing styles which can be exceedingly time-consuming and expensive. A single, braided style can take seven hours or more to complete, sometimes necessitating two or more salon visits. The tradeoff in the cost in time and money expended is that a well-executed, braided style can last a month or more without restyling, if properly groomed and cared for—and if executed on the naturally coarse, tightly coiled hair typically possessed by people of indigenous African descent. Such hair holds cornrows better, especially over time and, compared to the hair of other ethnic groups, generally has more tensile strength and tends to be less oily, which means it requires less frequent washing.

Cornrows also enjoyed some popularity among Caucasians after blonde actor Bo Derek wore beaded cornrows in the popular Blake Edwards movie 10, and became widely popular once again with the spread of hip-hop culture in the 1990s.

Cornrows are used by people of African ancestery in many different regions of the world. However, some controversy over their use has emerged in Nigeria, where hair braiding among men is considered a sign of femininity or homosexuality. [1]

Over the years, cornrows (along with dreadlocks) have been the subject of several disputes in the American workplace. Some employers have deemed them unsuitable for the office and have banned them - especially at-will firings and/or termination. African American employees and civil rights groups have countered that such attitudes evidence racial and cultural bias. Cornrows are perfectly appropriate in professional settings, they contend, citing their acceptability in venues such as the United Nations. Some such disputes have resulted in litigation.


Thursday, April 06, 2006


[Today's big discovery...]
Tiktaalik (IPA pronunciation: [tikta:lik]) is a genus of extinct sarcopterygian (lobe-finned) fishes from the late Devonian with many tetrapod-like features.[1]

"Tiktaalik", said Dr. Neil Shubin, is "both fish and tetrapod, which we sometimes call a fishapod."[2]

Fossil range: Devonian

Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Osteichthyes
Subclass: Sarcopterygii
(unranked) Tetrapodomorpha
Genus: Tiktaalik
Species: T. roseae

Tiktaalik roseae
Daeschler, Shubin & Jenkins, 2006

It crossed the threshold from fish to land animals in the late Devonian period (approximately 375 million years ago). Its name comes from a suggestion of Inuit elders of Canada's Nunavut Territory, where the fossil was discovered:[3] it is an Inuktitut word meaning burbot[4], a shallow water fish. It has been suggested that it was an intermediate form between fishes like Panderichthys, which lived about 385 million years ago, and early tetrapods such as Acanthostega and Ichthyostega that lived about 365 million years ago.

The three fossilized Tiktaalik skeletons were discovered in frozen river sediments in Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, in northern Canada[5]. During the species's heyday, Ellesmere Island was part of the Laurentia continent[3], which, at the time, was centered on the equator and had a warm climate. Neil Shubin and Ted Daeschler, the leaders of the team, had been searching Ellesmere Island for fossils since 1999[6].

The remarkable find was made by a paleontologist who noticed the skull sticking out of a cliff wall. On further inspection the ancient animal was found to be in fantastic shape for a 383 million year old specimen[6].

The discovery was published in the April 6, 2006 issue of Nature.[1]

Tiktaalik generally had the features of a fish, but with front fins featuring arm-like skeletal structures more akin to a crocodile, including a shoulder, elbow, and wrist. It had the sharp teeth of a predator, and its neck was able to move independently of its body, which is not possible in other fish. The animal also had a flat skull resembling a crocodile's; eyes on top of its head, suggesting it spent a lot of time looking up; a neck and ribs similar to those of tetrapods, which were used to support its body and aid in breathing via lungs; a long snout suitable for catching prey on land; and a small gill slit that, in more derived animals, became an ear.[7] The discoverers said that in all likelihood, Tiktaalik flexed its proto-limbs primarily on the floors of streams and may have pulled itself on to the shore for brief stretches.[8] Specimens found thus far range from 4 to 9 feet (1.2 to 2.75 meters) in length.