Friday, November 30, 2012

Hand-written letters

"Hand Written Letters in the Digital Age"


Jonathan Lin

November 22nd, 2012

Institute for Emerging Ethics & Technologies

Hannah Brencher is a letter-enthusiast. She runs The World Needs More Love Letters, a letter exchange dedicated to connecting strangers across the globe through the art of letter writing. I discovered Brencher by browsing through online TED talks for November 2012, and noted her popular talk in the “less than 6 minutes” category. In her presentation she traced her own love of pen and paper as a means of personal expression and salvation, where letter writing guaranteed constant communication with her mother and helped Brencher fight chronic depression.

Experiencing first-hand the power of the written-word, and growing up in a family that emphasized hand-written exchanges, Brencher in October 2010 began writing love letters intended for strangers and leaving them in places around New York City. Libraries and cafes, in between books or seat cushions. She firmly believed in their capacity to uplift and connect, and their ability to look up once in a while from those small rectangular devices in our pockets.

"We're too busy expressing ourselves in 140-character bursts," she described in her presentation. To her, these snippets that represented our thoughts and updates became the new norm, which greatly affected the time and energy we devoted to ourselves on a daily basis. We're busy measuring our online accomplishments in the number of photos we share, the comments we make, the profiles we browse, or the videos we upload.

When one logs onto their social network and starts engaging in such activity, pretty soon we feel as though we've achieved a lot even though we've only spent the last three minutes tagging all our friends in posts. These activities are short and don't require a lot of energy, which then makes them appealing because they also don't demand a lot of time. Consequently, activities that are only marginally longer are shunned as we press on with our demanding daily schedules. To Brencher, these activities are essential and pull us back

"To sit down, pull out a piece of paper and think about someone the whole way an art form that does not fall down to the 'Goliath' of 'get faster.'" This sums up a lot: a reminder that messages are in fact to human recipients rather than just pixilated profiles, that real and honest thinking should inform what and how we communicate, and that speed and efficiency has conditioned us to neglect this. I certainly don't think Brencher is advocating that we toss away our smartphones and disable our online personalities. But in leaving individually-addressed letters around a huge city and eventually forming The World Needs More Love Letters, she points to the honest connection that pen and paper can establish between two human beings.

There is plenty of discussion these days about the thoughtfulness and authenticity in a hand-written letter that is lost when reproduced electronically. At times content does not even seem to matter, for words and sentences become impersonal the moment they appear on screen in a specific font. You won't ever get "Grandma's Cursive" in Microsoft Word or Gmail, or "Cousin Ben When He's Celebrating". We've got emoticons and caps lock and font sizes to help us convey ourselves digitally, but all of us know just how easy it can be to misconstrue electronic text. Letter-writing to a large extent gets around this hurdle - one only came into play when email and instant messaging became the norm.

Brencher shared the motivation and reaction for her letter-exchanging organization. Fueled by the positive responses she received from those who picked up the messages she left for strangers, she created a free service that allowed those on the web to ask for a hand-written letter, "no questions asked." The online community leapt at the opportunity, and soon The World Needs More Love Letters expanded to include a team of coordinators, social media analysts, campus liaisons, and letter writers. The 'About' page has a telling line on the importance of Love (with a capital "L"): "Ridiculous, oozing, cannot pack this thang into 140-characters kind of love." People who want to can of course still leave their email addresses and find love letters in their inboxes, showing how Brencher is not calling for complete separation from technology and the digital.

The organization is about responding to those who know others that need love, and those who don't but happen to receive one and be pleasantly surprised. Brencher and her team works with elementary and middle-school students to write and create love letter bundles, teaching the younger generations the importance of personal connection and attention.

Such motives make sense, considering how quickly children are getting used to smartphones and tablets, which are soon probably going to become staples at their schools and in the household. I get the feeling we may not be far off from seeing a majority of these younger students at developed educational institutes never seeing a teacher lecture before a chalkboard. Soon it may become a norm to take notes electronically in the classroom. Brencher is right in assigning key importance to the craft of the pen and paper, and being able to thoroughly think through content and the delivery of the message.

Some could be critical, pointing out that email and electronic communication can easily be personalized depending on more important criteria such as content, rather than glittery ink and stamps and colored envelopes. Yes to all of the above, but I think Brencher is out to highlight something else: in taking for granted the swathes of digital text that dictate our schedules and holidays, our exchanges with employers and friends and relatives, we are forgetting the impact that effort and patience can have.

Hand-written letters are authentic because your wrist did all the work without cutting corners, whereas e-cards for particular holidays and online invitations come at the press of the button. You also can't afford to be sloppy when composing by hand, as there is no backspace key or restart option. This is a major difference that may play a larger role in the future; as we become so accustomed to a history of earlier online drafts and versions of documents, taking away the ability to reedit and retouch may be debilitating. In addition to learning the art of authentic human connection via letter-writing, we are also reintroduced to a key aspect of saying what you mean when you write it.

At the beginning of her talk Brencher admitted that she was one of the only kids at her college who had a reason to go to the P.O. box. While everyone else was busy BBM-ing (BlackBerry messaging) one another, her mother would send her weekly letters. It turns out that these trips to the mailbox prompted an important consideration of human connection via the written word. Ink and paper were here before digital telecommunications and online networks became our primary means of communication.

It seems that letters are greatly personal, and represent the valuable time, energy, and thought that went into composing it. In today's fast-paced world, these traits are precious and heart-warming, and this Brencher has recognized as she continues to tap into what personal connection really means in this age of constant connectivity. In realizing what letters have done for her, she enthusiastically wishes to offer the same to complete strangers who need it. This sharing is much more powerful than any button you can click on Facebook.

What an absurd debate...elimination of cursive writing

Walter William of handwriting

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Humphrey Bogart...the best cinematic shamus?

Philip Marlowe, "Dog House" Riley, Sam Spade. What do you think...was Humphrey Bogart the best shamus in the cinema?

The Maltese Falcon [Wikipedia] and  The Big Sleep [Wikipedia] sometime.

Philip Marlowe and Carmen Sternwood from The Big Sleep

Humphrey Bogart [Wikipedia]
Maybe you prefer William Powell and Myrna Loy in the popular Thin Man series.

The Thin Man



The Thin Man [Wikipedia]

Cyrus cylinder..."first declaration of human rights"

The Cyrus cylinder, made of clay and inscribed with cuneiform, was found on a dig in Babylon in 1879 before being acquired by the British Museum.

"Babylonian relic to visit US with historic message of tolerance"

The 539BC Cyrus cylinder, owned by the British Museum, is seen by some as the first declaration of human rights.


Charlotte Higgins

November 27th, 2012

The Guardian

It is a deeply unimpressive looking object – about the size and shape of a rugby ball, made from hardened clay and incised all over with the stick-like characters of Babylonian cuneiform. And yet despite an unpromising appearance, it is hard to think of an artefact freighted with such significance for so many different peoples. Made shortly after Cyrus of Persia captured Babylon in 539BC, the Cyrus cylinder records how the ruler allowed deported peoples to return to their homelands and ushered in an era of religious tolerance in his new, multiethnic empire.

For Jews and Christians, it is the object that – along with passages of Isaiah – records the end of Jewish exile in Babylon. In Iran, it has by turns been used as a symbol of the shah's power and, most recently, when the cylinder toured to Tehran in 2010, was adopted as a rallying cry for Palestinian freedom by the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For others, it is the first declaration of human rights, and an international symbol of religious tolerance. For Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, to which it belongs, it is the "first press release".

Next year, it will become clear how the Cyrus cylinder will be read in the US, when, for the first time, it is to be lent to museums across the Atlantic. The tour will begin in Washington in March, before the relic travels to museums including the Metropolitan in New York and the J Paul Getty in Los Angeles.

When relations between the US and Iran are at best fragile, the interpretation of this evidence of Persia's historic tolerance is an intriguing prospect. For MacGregor the point is about the "reasserting of the importance of the historical perspective. It is a reminder that the problems in the Middle East can be understood only in the context of the long historical framework."

According to John Curtis, keeper of special Middle East projects at the museum, "the Cyrus cylinder is important for the expatriate Iranian community in America, and it is important for the Jewish community". In its role as early human-rights declaration, a replica of the Cyrus cylinder is displayed in the UN headquarters, he pointed out.

But the importance of Cyrus as a figure in the US, he said, goes right back to the founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson, for examples, owned two copies of the Cyropaedia, the Greek author Xenophon's text on the ideal education of a ruler. MacGregor added: "What appealed to the founding fathers about Cyrus was the notion of a secular state that was not on the French model. In other words, a model of a state that was equidistant from all religions, rather than either adopting a state religion, or else being anticlerical. The relic asks the question: can a state be equidistant from all religion?"

The cylinder is also, said MacGregor, a "reminder of the intricacy of Middle-Eastern politics". The object is far from straightforward: it is not itself Persian, but Babylonian: it was found in a dig in the city, in modern Iraq, in 1879 by British Museum archaeologists, who legally acquired it from the Ottomans. There are no Persian inscriptions relating to the event at all; this is a description of events as seen from a Babylonian perspective, and describes Cyrus as having been guided by the Babylonian deity Marduk. The biblical account, meanwhile, which has strikingly similar wording, gives the credit for guiding Cyrus to Jehovah.

"Our role is to represent this as an object in the history of culture," said MacGregor, "but what is fascinating is the reading of the objects by others". Curtis added: "In a way, it doesn't matter so much what the document actually says, so much as what people think it says."

The tour – on which the cylinder will be accompanied by other treasures from the ancient near east – is part of the British Museum's policy of making the collection available as widely as possible "either online or on loan", said MacGregor. An exhibition of Egyptian artefacts recently opened in Mumbai; the museum is also working with institutions in China, Hong Kong and Australia. After its tour to the US, the Cyrus cylinder will itself head to Mumbai where it has significance for the city's community of Zoroastrians. The origins of this religion, whose adherents now number about a quarter of a million, go back to the Persian empire and, if not to Cyrus himself, then certainly to his immediate successors.

The museum also supports permanent displays and touring exhibitions in regional institutions in Britain. MacGregor spoke of his fears for Britain's museums in a time of public spending cuts, saying that it was a "very worrying" situation and emphasising the importance of museums up and down Britain as "keepers of civic space and the public realm, and of huge importance in the economic life of their towns and cities".

Cyrus Cylinder [Wikipedia]

Sex and science...Erwin Schrödinger

Einstein, Curie, and Erwin Schrö issues.

Alistair Briggs wrote...

Albert Einstein is not the only famous scientist to be somewhat of a womaniser. Austrian physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Erwin Schrodinger, may be the man behind the equation at the heart of quantum theory but his other interest was sex. Biographer Walter Moore stated that Schrodinger was “devoted to it as the principal non-scientific occupation of his life.”

Schrodinger had embarked on many affairs by the time he had to escape the Nazis in 1933. He arrived in Dublin at the Institute for Advanced Studies with his wife, his mistress and one of his many illegitimate children in tow. Once he had his office sorted out, Schrodinger set about getting more mistresses. It is claimed that some of Schrodinger’s greatest discoveries came in between intensive sex sessions with one of his mistresses – a claim that is often repeated in his diaries.

Should have stayed with cats.

Erwin Schrödinger [Wikipedia]

Erwin Schrödinger 


Walter J. Moore

ISBN-10: 3863123018
ISBN-13: 978-3863123017

Einstein: Chauvinist?

"Curiosity" teases...that's not quite scientific

I suppose it is a way of attracting the public interest, but it is not good science.

"Undisclosed Finding by Mars Rover Fuels Intrigue"


Kenneth Chang

November 27th, 2012

The New York Times

The Mars rover Curiosity has found something — something noteworthy, in a pinch of Martian sand. But what is it?

The scientists working on the mission who know are not saying. Outside of that team, lots of people are guessing.

The intrigue started last week when John P. Grotzinger, the Mars mission’s project scientist, told National Public Radio: “This data is going to be one for the history books. It’s looking really good.”

And then he declined to say anything more.

Fossils? Living microbial Martians? Maybe the carbon-based molecules known as organics, which are the building blocks of life? That so much excitement could be set off by a passing hint reflects the enduring fascination of both scientists and nonscientists with Mars.

“It could be all kinds of things,” said Peter H. Smith, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona who was the principal investigator for NASA’s earlier Phoenix Mars mission but is not involved with Curiosity. “If it’s historic, I think it’s organics. That would be historic in my book.”

Dr. Grotzinger and other Curiosity scientists will announce their latest findings on Monday in San Francisco at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Do not expect pictures of Martians, though.

Guy Webster, a spokesman for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which operates Curiosity, said the findings would be “interesting” rather than “earthshaking.”

Mr. Webster noted that “a really big announcement,” if one should occur, would most likely be made at NASA headquarters in Washington and not at an academic conference.

Whatever is revealed will be linked to the work of Curiosity’s sophisticated chemistry laboratory instrument, Sample Analysis at Mars — SAM, for short. The rover’s robotic arm dropped the first bit of sand and dust into the instrument on Nov. 9, and the scientists have been analyzing and contemplating ever since.

One of the main goals of SAM is to identify organic molecules, but it would be a big surprise for organics to show up in a first look at a sand sample selected more as a test exercise than with the expectation of a breakthrough discovery.

Curiosity will be headed toward layers of clays, which could be rich in organics and are believed to have formed during a warm and wet era early in the planet’s history. But Curiosity has months to drive before arriving at those locations.

And the Curiosity scientists have learned through experience that it pays to double-check their results before trumpeting them. An initial test of the Martian atmosphere by the same instrument showed the presence of methane, which would have been a major discovery, possibly indicating the presence of methane-generating microbes living on Mars today. But when the scientists ran the experiment again, the signs of methane disappeared, leading them to conclude that the methane found in the first test had come from air that the spacecraft had carried to Mars from its launching spot in Florida.

Mr. Webster, who was present during the interview with NPR, said Dr. Grotzinger had been talking more generally about the quality of data coming back from Curiosity and was not suggesting that the data contained a breakthrough surprise. “I don’t think he had in mind, ‘Here’s some particular chemical that’s been found,’ ” Mr. Webster said. “That’s not my impression of the conversation.”
On Twitter, Curiosity chimed in: “What did I discover on Mars? That rumors spread fast online. My team considers this whole mission ‘one for the history books.’ ” (The public information staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory writes the posts for the rover.)

This would not be the first time that rumors eclipsed the actual findings from Mars.

In 2002, the Mars Odyssey orbiter found evidence of frozen reservoirs of water beneath the surface of Mars, leading to breathless rumors in the British press that the Bush administration was about to announce a commitment to send astronauts there within 20 years. The White House remained quiet.

Dr. Smith, the Phoenix Mars scientist, had a similar experience in 2008 when Aviation Week reported, “The White House has been alerted by NASA about plans to make an announcement soon on major new Phoenix lander discoveries concerning the ‘potential for life’ on Mars.”

“The blogosphere lit up,” Dr. Smith said.

At a hastily arranged news conference, Dr. Smith revealed the actual news: chemicals known as perchlorates had been found in the soil. “The public was not interested in that,” he said.

If Curiosity’s pinch of sand indeed contained organics, it would again revive the possibilities of life on Mars. For now, Curiosity scientists are still analyzing the data.

“I do want to temper expectations,” said Mr. Webster, the spokesman. “But then again, I don’t know exactly what they’re going to say they’ve found.”

Mesmerized with new fashion?--nothing new

I knew it, I knew it,,,what goes around comes around...part of the 60s are least in the fashion realm.

It does appear that there were similar items in those days...hounds tooth, paisley.

And now...?

the guardian...

Optical prints – patterns that make your eyes go funny – are best worn simple, says Jess Cartner-Morley. Whether they remind you of a maths puzzle or 1970s tiles, optical prints are having a fashion moment this season. Jess picks out a few examples from the catwalk to the high street.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

New book by David A. Weintraub..."How Old Is the Universe?"

How Old Is the Universe?


David A. Weintraub

[David A. Weintraub is professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Is Pluto a Planet?: A Historical Journey through the Solar System.]

ISBN-10: 0691147310
ISBN-13: 978-0691147314


Gerald Petrey

When we look at something, it is only natural for us to wonder how old it is and where did it come from. This book answers those questions about the universe. Professor Weintraub does a fantastic job of showing the scientific evidence that has been accumulated over man's history that leads to a very accurate answer to this question today. Since something has to be at least as old as the things within it, he starts by discussing how we have determined the age of our Earth and Solar System, then the stars and our galaxy and finally other galaxies and the entire universe. Along the way there is a lot of interesting science covered and stories of many of the pioneers in science and how they made their contributions. Many interesting personal stories about these people are uncovered in this journey. One I found particularly interesting was the story of Henrietta Leavitt, who was one of a group of human computers hired to do mathematical calculations by hand for astronomers in the early 1900's. She was paid 30 cents per hour (5 cent more than most because her boss new she did exceptional work). They were all women since they could be paid much less. In 1908 she made one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century in her analysis of Cepheid variable stars even though she was not an astronomer nor expected to do any analysis, just arithmetic.

This book covers a lot of science to come to the answer of the age of the universe and is a beautiful coverage of the scientific method. It is a true masterpiece!

Publishers Weekly

It's all very well for astronomers to say that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, but you have to wonder just how they figured that out. Vanderbilt University astronomer Weintraub (Is Pluto a Planet?) explains it all for astronomy buffs in an enthusiastic way. He starts with how scientists first determined the age of the solar system--about 4.5 billion years --by isotope dating the oldest known rocks: lunar rocks brought back by astronauts, and meteorites that have collided with Earth. He then shows how stellar life cycles indicate an age of about 13 billion years. Astronomer Edwin Hubble's discoveries--that fuzzy spiral nebulae were really distinct and very distant galaxies, and that those galaxies are moving away from us--offered a new measure and new result: 13.5 billion years. Refining that number requires measuring things we can't even see: dark energy and dark matter, including exotics like wimps (weakly interacting massive particles) and machos (massive compact halo objects). Weintraub guides readers on a winding journey through history, explaining various dating approaches and illustrating the determination of astronomers to find the answer to one of the most basic questions about our universe.

Is Pluto a Planet?: A Historical Journey through the Solar System

ISBN: 9780691138466
ISBN: 9780691123486

Jimi Hendrix turns 70 and is a member of the "27 Club"

Makes one wonder what Hendrix would be doing now...selling property in Florida, selling prostate medicine, or begging for money for children in Guatemala? Not withstanding, Hendrix is a part of a coincidence--he died when he was 27 like Alan Wilson, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain. A curious disease from the music industry. Nothing to it...just coincidence.

Jimi Hendrix [Wikipedia]

27 Club [Wikipedia]

Deceased--Earl Carroll

Earl Carroll
November 2nd, 1937 to November 25th, 201

Earl Carroll...second from right.



The Cadillacs

"Earl Carroll Dead: Singer for the Cadillacs and Coasters Dies at 75"

Brittany Galla

November 26th 2012


Earl Carroll, a lead singer of the Cadillacs and later a member of rival singing group the Coasters, died Sunday, Nov. 25, at the age of 75. He had been staying at a nursing home in New York City, and was suffering from a stroke and diabetes.

Carroll is best known for his part in the doo-wop 1950s group the Cadillacs, which he co-founded. Their hits included "Gloria," "You Are," "Wishing Well," "My Girlfriend," "Peek-a-Boo," a jive version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Speedo," which was titled after his nickname.

In a 1994 interview via The Daily News, Carroll explained how he got his nickname. "I always liked to take my time, do things at my own pace," he said. "Since I was a kid, the other guys would be telling me, 'C'mon, hurry up, Speedy.'"
In 1961, Carroll joined rival the Coasters and performed with them for 20 years before reuniting with the Cadillacs for a car commercial. He also worked as a janitor at Public School 87 in N.Y.C., where students loved referring to their local celebrity as "Speedo." A book, That's Our Custodian, was even written about Carroll.

The Cadillacs appeared in the movie "Go Johnny Go," where they lip-synched to "Please Mr. Johnson" and "Jay Walker." They're also credited with being one of the first groups to wear colorful performance outfits and a choreographed dance routine while singing.

Carroll reportedly retired from his janitor post in 2005 and continued to sing with the Cadillacs until his health forced him to quit.

"Earl Carroll, Lead Singer of the Cadillacs, Dies at 75"


Margalit Fox

November 26th, 2012

The New York Times

Earl (Speedo) Carroll, the lead singer of the 1950s doo-wop group the Cadillacs, who later found contentment, plus a measure of abiding renown, as a New York City school custodian, died on Sunday in Manhattan. He was 75.

The cause was complications of diabetes and a recent stroke, said Vito Picone, the lead singer of the doo-wop group the Elegants and a longtime friend.

One of a cornucopia of street-corner tight-harmony groups formed by young black men in midcentury Harlem, the Cadillacs were among the first to incorporate rigorously choreographed dance moves into their performances.

The group, which flourished for about a decade starting in the early ’50s, had hits with “Gloria” and “Speedoo,” whose title is a variant spelling of Mr. Carroll’s nickname.

Mr. Carroll later spent two decades with the Coasters before rejoining a new incarnation of the Cadillacs about 30 years ago. Buoyed by the tide of R&B nostalgia, the new group toured throughout the United States and abroad, performing mostly on weekends to accommodate Mr. Carroll’s day job at P.S. 87 in Manhattan.

Earl Carroll was born in Harlem in 1937. After his mother died when he was a small child, he was reared by the family of a young friend, Bobby Phillips. It was a propitious friendship: Mr. Phillips would also grow up to sing with the Cadillacs.

In 1953, the two young men formed a vocal group called the Carnations, whose other members were Lavern Drake and Gus Willingham. Their manager suggested they take a less florid name.

“In those days, there were a lot of groups with bird names,” Mr. Carroll told The Star-Ledger in 2010. “There was the Flamingos, the Cardinals and the ‘Earth Angel’ guys, the Penguins. Most of the bird names were gone. So then we went to cars. Somebody said, ‘What’s the finest car there is?’ and the light bulb went off: the Cadillac. You can’t get much classier than that.”

Signed to Josie Records, the Cadillacs had their first hit with “Gloria” in 1954. In live performance, they became known for their dazzling outfits, and for the dance routines choreographed by the renowned vaudevillians Cholly Atkins and Honi Coles.

Mr. Carroll’s nickname and the song it engendered were born in the same breath. One day in 1955, he later recounted, the Cadillacs were performing at an armory in Massachusetts. As they were leaving, Mr. Phillips caught sight of a torpedo on display there.

“Hey, Speedo, there’s your torpedo!”
he told Mr. Carroll, who had a somewhat pointy head.

“My name is Earl,” Mr. Carroll responded tersely.

During the ride home, the nickname, and Mr. Carroll’s testy rejoinder, flew around the car. By the time the group reached New York, some evocative lines and a jaunty tune had emerged:

“Well, now, they often call me Speedo/But my real name is Mr. Earl. ...”

The Cadillacs recorded the song the next day, and it became their best-known number.

Information on Mr. Carroll’s survivors was not available. Mr. Phillips, who with Mr. Carroll was a mainstay of the reconvened Cadillacs, died last year.

Mr. Carroll is survived, at the very least, by generations of children, now grown, who passed through P.S. 87, a public elementary school on West 78th Street, during the years he worked there.

He had come to the school in the early 1980s to take adult-education classes in literacy. (As a result of the program, Mr. Carroll, who had a reading disability, went from a second-grade to a 10th-grade reading level, he told New York Newsday in 1991.)

Learning of an opening for a janitor there, he took the job in 1982. He remained until his retirement in 2005, sometimes singing as he worked, and regaling the students — “the teeny-weenies,” he called them — with tales of his musical life.

“You really felt good about keeping the school clean, and then the teeny-weenies, they love you so much,” Mr. Carroll told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 1988. “When they found out I was a rock ’n’ roller — I was on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo with Bill Cosby — the kids couldn’t believe it.”

He added: “Now they call me the star of the school.”

Earl Carroll [Wikipedia]

Speedoo, Gloria, Peek A Boo, The Girl I Love

The Cadillacs

Monday, November 26, 2012

12 Days of Christmas gifts exceed $100k

"Gifts in ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ Cost $107,000 This Year, Thanks to Rising Feed Prices"


Nick Carbone

November 26th, 2012


Who gives turtle doves anymore? If the holiday classic “12 Days of Christmas” were updated to fit a modern gift-giving routine, we’d probably be singing about three Taylor Swift CDs, two Wii Us, and an iPad in a J.Crew case.

The gifts given in the “12 Days of Christmas” have long had an air of antiquity about them — the song itself dates back at least to the 18th century — but they’ve stood the test of time, becoming a classic expression of holiday extravagance and admiration. Ladies dancing, swans a-swimming and a fistful of golden rings are enough to throw quite a party. But all those gifts just for one person? That’ll require quite a budget – and the cost of the “12 Days of Christmas” continues to rise.

Each year, PNC Wealth Management crunches the number on the total value of all the gifts given over the course of the song.  Last year the price of that package, called “The True Cost of Christmas,” jumped into six figures for the first time. And this year, the price has risen another 6.1 percent, ringing in at a total of $107,300.24.

To be sure, this isn’t a gift set that will fit under the Christmas tree – or even in an entire house. There are a total of 364 gifts given over the course of the song, includuing 12 partridges in pear trees and 40 golden rings. (Shoppers can also opt for a single set of just 78 items, though, totaling $25,431.18 — an increase of more than $1,000 over last year.)

According to PNC, the past year’s underlying inflation of about two percent was only part of the price hike. The largest increase among the “12 Days” gifts was for the six geese a-laying, the price of which shot up 29.6% over the past year due to high feed costs prompted by this summer’s Midwest drought. The price of gold also rose, making those golden rings pricier; meanwhile the market for those seven swans a-swimming is considered by PNC to be “most volatile.”

The company has compiled the list every year since 1984, when the 78-piece set of gifts cost less than half of what it does now: $12,673.56. The financial firm totals the gifts based on real-world costs: PNC investment strategist Rebekah McCahan got help from the modern dance studio Phildanco to estimate the price of ladies dancing, while the National Aviary in Pittsburgh provided the costs of various fowl mentioned in the song.

And don’t think that Cyber Monday will help keep your costs down. PNC notes that the cost of shopping online actually boosts the cost of the whole set, mainly due to exorbitant prices for shipping live birds. Shoppers who prefer their items delivered will pay $15,000 more for the 78-piece set — a total of $40,439.53. That’s sure to leave room for little else under the Christmas tree.

Associated Press...

— Partridge, $15; last year: same

— Pear tree, $189.99; last year: 169.99

— Two turtle doves, $125; last year: same

— Three French hens, $165; last year: $150

— Four calling birds (canaries), $519.96; last year: same

— Five gold rings, $750; last year: $645

— Six geese a-laying, $210; last year: $162

— Seven swans a-swimming, $7,000; last year: $6,300

— Eight maids a-milking, $58; last year: same

— Nine ladies dancing (per performance), $6,294; last year: same

— 10 lords a-leaping (per performance), $4,767; last year: same

— 11 pipers piping (per performance), $2,562; last year: $2,428

— 12 drummers drumming (per performance), $2,776; last year: $2,630

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Deceased--Robert Lin

Robert Lin
January 24th, 1942 to November 17th, 2012

"Robert Lin, UC Berkeley pioneer in experimental space physics, dies at 70"


Robert Sanders

November 21st, 2012

UC Berkeley

Physicist Robert Peichung Lin, a former director of the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, who designed and built dozens of instruments to study solar flares, the magnetic fields on the surface of the moon and Mars and the plasma environment of Earth, died suddenly of a stroke on Saturday, Nov. 17.

Lin, 70, professor emeritus of physics, was working on at least four upcoming satellite and balloon experiments at the time of his death. He passed away at Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley.

According to Stuart Bale, UC Berkeley professor of physics and current director of the Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL), Lin essentially invented the field of high energy space physics after he and the late UC Berkeley physicist Kinsey Anderson accidentally discovered that solar flares emit high-velocity charged particles that can be observed from Earth.

“Much of what we know about astrophysical particle acceleration comes from X-ray and gamma-ray measurements that are based on underlying physics discovered by studying solar flares, much of it Bob’s work,” Bale said.

Bale said that it is hard to pigeonhole Lin’s field of study, since he excelled in many. Lin built satellite instruments to detect the energy of electrons and then put these electron reflectometers/magnetometers aboard the NASA missions Mars Global Surveyor in 1997 and Lunar Prospector in 1998.

These instruments enabled scientists to remotely measure the surface magnetic fields and reconstruct the geologic history of Mars and the moon. That technique contributed to the development of a full instrument suite being readied for launch next year aboard NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) mission.

RHESSI satellite Lin’s greatest achievement

Lin was the principal investigator for the 11-year-old Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI), which is still using X-ray and gamma-ray detectors to explore the basic physics of particle acceleration and explosive energy release in solar flares.

“Bob Lin’s greatest achievement was RHESSI,” said astrophysicist Brian Dennis of the Solar Physics Laboratory at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “It most probably would not have happened at all without his energetic support and leadership; it certainly would not have been nearly so successful.”

Lin’s team also built instruments for the Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) and, most recently, the innovative modular minisatellite called CubeSat for Ions, Neutrals, Electrons, & MAgnetic fields (CINEMA), as well as European spacecraft such as Giotto, a 1986 mission to Halley’s Comet. That experiment led to the first report of a large molecule — a polymer of formaldehyde — on a comet, probably dating back to the origin of the solar system more than 4 billion years ago.

Most recently, he was working with graduate and undergraduate students on two other CubeSats and conducting balloon tests of a new Focusing Optics X-ray Solar Imager (FOXSI), which successfully observed the sun for six minutes on Nov. 2 during a flight in the New Mexico desert.

When SSL celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009, Lin remarked that “It’s fortunate that, once our missions are up there, they work great and last forever,” a point of pride many colleagues largely credit to Lin.

“His late advisor, Kinsey Anderson, described him once as a juggler who could keep many items in the air at one time and who would sometimes just voluntarily add another one,” recalled astrophysicist Hugh S. Hudson of SSL and the University of Glasgow in Scotland. “In all of his fields, he was fully supportive of the students and postdocs involved, and all of them will miss his invariably helpful and intelligent inputs keenly now.”

From China to Berkeley

Lin was born in Kwangsi, China, on Jan. 24, 1942, but moved with his parents to London at a young age, and thence to Michigan. He obtained his B.S. from Caltech in 1962 and his Ph.D. in physics in 1967 from UC Berkeley. He continued his research at SSL, and in 1980 he was appointed a senior fellow at the laboratory. In 1988 he became an adjunct professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley, and in 1991 he was named a professor of physics. He served as SSL director from 1998 until 2008.

Hudson noted that one of Lin’s balloon experiments in 1984 discovered solar microflares, which inaugurated a large literature of research that quickly led to theoretical proposals that solar flares are made up of many micro- and nanoflares that heat up the sun’s atmosphere to several million degrees.

During Lin’s 40-year tenure at SSL, he was a member of the lab teams involved in many satellite missions , including IMP 4, 5 & 6; Explorer 33 & 35; Apollo 15 & 16 Subsatellites; ISEE 1, 2 and 3; Wind; Cluster CODIF and THEMIS.

“He really defined what SSL was,” Bale said. “People around the country called it Bob’s lab.”

Bale also noted that more than 40 years ago, Lin began hosting his research group for lunch on Mondays at a local Chinese restaurant, a tradition that spawned similar Chinese lunch outings at places like the University of Minnesota.

Lin was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Geophysical Union, and a recipient of the George Ellery Hale Prize from the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society. He also received a Docteur Honoris Causa de l’Universite de Toulouse in France.

In 2001, in recognition of his work with young science and engineering students, UC Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science gave Lin its Distinguished Research Mentoring of Undergraduates award.

RHESSI [Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager] [Wikipedia]

Thanksgiving 2012


I don't know of any traditional Thanksgiving music, so I have chosen an animated jazz piece from the Walt Disney studios.

All the Cats Join In


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Deceased--Stuart Freedman

Stuart Freedman
January 13th, 1944 to November 9th, 2012

"Stuart Freedman - renowned physicist - dies"


David Perlman

November 21st, 2012

San Francisco Chronicle

Stuart Jay Freedman, a Berkeley nuclear physicist renowned for his pathbreaking investigations into the physics of the universe, died unexpectedly on Nov. 9 in Santa Fe, N.M., where he was attending a science conference. He was 68.

Dr. Freedman's inquiries into theory took him from exploring the nature of particles like quarks and axions to the nature of quantum mechanics, but he was also noted as an experimentalist for his work resolving the nature and mass of the fundamental particles called neutrinos.

"We have lost a great physicist," said James Symons, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's nuclear science division. "Stuart was a truly remarkable scientist, with extraordinarily diverse interests, and he was still very much at the height of his powers."

Dr. Freedman joined the laboratory and the UC Berkeley faculty in 1991, following an early career that began at Princeton University in 1972 immediately after he had earned his doctorate in physics at UC Berkeley.

He joined the physics faculty at Stanford in 1976, and then moved to the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago as a staff physicist in 1982. While at Argonne he was also a professor in the University of Chicago's Enrico Fermi Institute.

Dr. Freedman retained his connections to Argonne and the Fermi Institute after joining the Berkeley lab.

"Stuart was not only a brilliant experimentalist but a wise person who gave sage advice gently, often using his wonderfully wry sense of humor," said Michael Turner, a noted cosmologist at the Fermi institute. "We will sorely miss Stuart's scientific contributions, his friendship and wise counsel."
Dr. Freedman once recalled that in his early days as a graduate student in theoretical physics he had looked at the Berkeley lab as "big science," and said he wanted nothing to do with it.

"I believed that scientists should work alone in their laboratories," he said.

But he later changed his mind. From the Lawrence Berkeley lab, he led a team of physicists at 10 American universities in a historic "big science" Japanese project called KamLAND. It involved burying a huge nuclear detector deep in a zinc mine inside a mountain. Like a telescope, the nuclear detector successfully captured neutrinos zipping through Earth and down from the sun. It was a first for science.

For his work with that project, Dr. Freedman was named a senior scientist at the Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe in Tokyo, a post he held until his death even while he remained at his Berkeley posts.

Dr. Freedman was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and in his service to America's science community he chaired the National Research Council's 10-year survey of the state of nuclear physics in 2010. He also was a member of the academy's board on physics and astronomy.

In 1999, UC Berkeley honored him with the Luis W. Alvarez Memorial Chair in Experimental Physics.

Leptospirosis yield dead Pilgrims

"The Pilgrims Should Have Been Thankful for a Spirochete"

A gruesome disease granted them uninhabited, cleared land and a sweet brook.


Madeleine Johnson

November 20th, 2012


Rat urine. As we feast on succulent turkey, moist stuffing, and glistening cranberry sauce this Thanksgiving, the furthest thing from our minds is probably rat urine.

Yet it’s quite possible that America as we know it would not exist without rat urine and leptospirosis, the disease it spreads. The disease conveniently cleared coastal New England of Native Americans just prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival and later killed the helpful Squanto. It still lurks among us, underdiagnosed, an emerging menace.

In the winter of 1620, the Mayflower happened to dock at an abandoned village. It had been known in the local Wampanoag language as Patuxet. Pilgrims rejoiced; the land “hath been planted with corn three or four years ago, and there is a very sweet brook runs under the hillside.” In fact, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain had observed what would become Plymouth harbor 15 years earlier and drew a map of native homes surrounded by fields of corn.

Where had all the people gone? As the Pilgrims thanked God for their luck, they were unaware that the previous tenants had died of a gruesome infectious disease.

In the spring of 1621, the Pilgrims finally met their surviving neighbors. If the colonists thought God was good for guiding them to pretilled land and a sweet brook, they were even more thankful when the first Native American strolled into their midst, smiling and saying in English, “Welcome!” According to Pilgrim-era writings, he told them straight away that the previous villagers “died of an extraordinary plague.” A few days later, Tisquantum arrived. Called Squanto by Pilgrims, he was born in Patuxet, abducted by Englishman Thomas Hunt in 1614, and missed out on the epidemic that killed his entire village. During his years in captivity, he’d learned English, and he was now attached to a nearby branch of the Wampanoag.

The Pilgrim leader William Bradford was already aware of the death toll from “Indean fever.” His scouts had ventured inland and noted “sculs and bones were found in many places lying still above ground, where their houses and dwellings had been; a very sad spectackle to behould.” It’s estimated as many as nine out of 10 coastal Indians were killed in the epidemic between 1616 and 1619.

What killed so many people so quickly? The symptoms were a yellowing of the skin, pain and cramping, and profuse bleeding, especially from the nose. A recent analysis concludes the culprit was a disease called leptospirosis, caused by leptospira bacteria. Spread by rat urine.

Leptospirosis is what’s known as a zoonotic disease. The bacterium lives in animal hosts and is transmitted between animals and to people via urine in fresh water. Its favorite host is the black rat, Rattus rattus (the rat so nice they named it twice), a nonnative species that was inadvertently transported to North America on explorers’ ships. For unknown reasons, it’s the only animal whose kidney can sustain continuous leptospira infections. The tubules of an infected rat’s kidney are lousy with bacteria and excrete hundreds of thousands in every drop of urine (10 million leptospira per milliliter, according to one study). Meanwhile, just 10 bacteria, injected into the abdomen, will send a laboratory hamster to violently hemorrhagic death within days. Leptospira is in a family of spiral-shaped bacteria called spirochetes, along with the bugs that cause syphilis and Lyme disease.

Leptospira is shaped like a thin corkscrew, but at corkscrew width it’d be more than 4 feet long. Under the microscope, the bacteria look like delicate ramen or living handlebar mustaches. Holding one end rigid like a rudder, they spin the other like a motor to move. They are single cells with no brain, per se, but they quest about sniffing out food, such as blood. The more virulent the strain, the more the bacteria are drawn to blood cells. They metabolize iron to survive and secrete an enzyme enabling them to smash open a red blood cell and slurp up the sweet, sweet iron within.

Leptospira swim faster in higher viscosity; they are built to tunnel through organs and cell membranes in order to evade the immune system. With their unique shape and motility, they can pass straight through a cell, like a corkscrew through a candied sweet potato. If immune cells are able to catch and smash one, that is when the trouble starts. A robust immune response can actually be detrimental because the more leptospira get blown to smithereens, the more bacteria bits are floating about to activate the immune system. This may be one reason why leptospirosis is most fatal to otherwise healthy men.

Like Pilgrims in the New World, leptospira must first penetrate the host. Invisible in water, the bacterium enters the eyes, the nose, or scrapes in the skin. Then it disseminates, looking to colonize the kidney. Humans are a dead end; our kidneys aren’t the right environment for them to set up and multiply. Like colonies at Jamestown, Roanoke, and Popham, the bacteria get ambushed or die of starvation, and the infection is usually cleared within a month if it isn’t fatal.

According to the hypothesis, infected ship rats landed in the New World and excreted leptospira, infecting raccoons, mink, and muskrats whose urine further contaminated any standing fresh water. It is unclear why this particular infectious disease should afflict Native Americans and not subsequent European colonists. Prior exposure does not necessarily result in immunity because there are a number of different infectious strains.

A clue might lie in the way these different cultures interacted with natural environments. The Wampanoag gathered sharp-edged clams, skinned pelts from beaver and deer, canoed through streams, and were much fonder of bathing than were Europeans of that era. And they likely spent time hand-picking wild cranberries from bogs on Cape Cod. Wampanoag have long had seasonal feasts of thanksgiving, one of which celebrates the cranberry harvest. There is some evidence that cranberries were also used medicinally—raw, ground into a poultice, and applied to open wounds. Although modern research suggests that cranberries can be a potent antimicrobial, that might not have been enough to slay the spirochete. The more leptospira that initially invade the bloodstream (possibly via direct contact with berries), the more likely the disease is to be fatal.

Leptospirosis' nonspecific presentation (fever, aches, “flu-like symptoms”) makes it challenging to diagnose. Outbreaks are possible any time water treatment is compromised or there is increased exposure to rat urine—such as during flooding. It made the short list of diseases we might expect if subway rats surfaced post-Sandy. Thankfully, they did not. Although there are fewer than five reported cases of leptospirosis annually in New York City, last year a 49-year-old construction worker came into Staten Island University Hospital with full-blown leptospirosis. His doctor recalls the man was in very bad shape: his calves cramping, his fever soaring, his eyes red with blood, and his organs rapidly failing. The patient survived and later recollected that he had come in contact with rat urine on a job site.

Travelers can bring leptospirosis home from tropical countries, and it may become more common as climate change brings warmer weather and more dramatic flooding. Leptospirosis cuts down healthy men in urban slums of Brazil and Thailand, where open sewers attract rats and flooding brings contaminated water up to people’s doorsteps. It affects affluent nature-lovers as well. In September, a group of Belgian boy scouts came down with it after messing with a muskrat on the banks of the Semois River. When not infecting rats or humans, the disease cycles through wild and domestic animals, causing spontaneous abortion in pigs and horses and recently killing off sea lions in Oregon.

While leptospirosis is referred to as a “neglected tropical disease,” Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says it is really a disease of poverty. It is neglected because the people who catch it are marginalized and ignored. In the United States, notable cases have occurred in the inner city in Detroit and Baltimore. Tokyo researchers recently captured rats and compared the leptospira strains they carried to those infecting 16 city residents over five years. Seventeen percent of the rats had lepto, and the people who had lepto worked or lived in conditions that exposed them to rat urine.

Symptoms of leptospirosis have changed over time. While nosebleed was originally a hallmark, extremely bloodshot eyes is now considered the disease’s signature. Severe hemorrhaging in the lungs is also seen more frequently, such as in a 1995 outbreak in Nicaragua in which 15 patients died after coughing up copious amounts of blood. In rare cases, leptospira can enter the brain and cause aseptic meningitis. The bacteria are too busy burrowing into tissue to be present in cerebrospinal fluid.

Squanto learned English in London in the early 1600s yet, remarkably, did not contract any deadly disease there. He didn't become ill until a few years after he returned to his devastated, Pilgrim-occupied homeland on a Pilgrim-led trip to trade with a tribe on Cape Cod. He died “bleeding much at the nose,” according to Bradford.

So, did lepto kill Squanto? Did he wade through the wrong slimy puddle on Cape Cod and die as his village had a few years before?

There are other theories about this epidemic, and experts in modern leptospirosis think the death rate at Patuxet is a tad too high to jibe with the disease they see. It would have to have been an extremely virulent strain, or an extremely high exposure rate, to add up to 90 percent fatality. Although free-living, nonpathogenic bacteria from the same family as leptospira survive in Cape Cod and likely can outlast a New England winter, it’s not the ideal condition for the deadly forms of lepto. And while there were certainly black rats at Jamestown and other pre-Colonial sites, it is unknown if there were any in Patuxet.

Native Americans told the Pilgrims there was an epidemic, but some prominent archaeologists and historians aren’t sure such a mass death occurred. With the soil acidity of the Cape Cod region, skeletal remains dissolve quickly, so finding the truth may be impossible. Lepto leaves no marks on bone. Dental pulp would be needed to get lepto DNA, requiring breaking open teeth from ancestral remains. Paleomicrobiologists are at the ready, but there are no samples.

While experts have an academic discussion, many modern Wampanoag have no doubt that the 1616-1619 epidemic was real. Robert Charlebois, a Canadian Abenaki Indian who works at Plimoth Plantation 2 miles down the road from Plymouth Rock, is well aware of the leptospirosis hypothesis. He is certain it is true. Moccasins are water permeable, he says, and being in touch with the land and nature exposed the Wampanoag in ways that Pilgrims, with their thick-soled boots, would not have encountered.

There are 5.1 million American Indians today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. They have almost double the poverty rate of the rest of the nation; sewers and solid waste removal are still lacking on some American Indian reservations, and thousands of families do not have safe drinking water. Nobody knows the rate of leptospirosis on reservations today.

Or the rate in the United States overall, for that matter. The illness has not been “reportable” since 1994, meaning doctors aren’t required to notify the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when they have a lepto-positive patient. In 1994, there were 38 confirmed cases nationwide, and in the preceding years it afflicted only 0.02 percent of the population, so it was deleted from the list of notifiable diseases. Some states continue to require reporting to their health departments; there were 74 cases in Michigan in 2011, for example.

However, experts believe low rates are due to underdiagnosis. With a mild case, a patient might not go to the doctor. Scientists are developing better tests, but those currently available are clunky and take weeks. Unless patients are very sick and have the telltale sign of bloodshot eyes, they might not be tested or get lifesaving treatment in time. The CDC is one of many public health agencies that suspect lepto rates will be going up in the future. At the request of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (PDF), in 2013 the CDC will again require doctors to report every case they see.

Last Saturday, in the Wampanoag tent at the Plymouth Thanksgiving festivities, some tribe members were dressed in historically accurate clothing. They weren’t “in costume” in the same way as the Pilgrim recreationists who were playing at their roles. The sweet brook still flowed nearby; the smell of wood fire and sound of muskets filled the air.

Outside the tent, Darius Coombs, in traditional dress, greeted festivalgoers. With a smile, a man asked him, “So what are you supposed to be?” In some ways the Wampanoag are recreating themselves from records (including reclaiming their language) and struggling to preserve and maintain their culture, but they’re also growing, changing, and ready to share. “I am Wampanoag,” Darius asserted. Awareness of the epidemic that killed his ancestors is important to him.

Previous Thanksgiving posts...

Thanksgiving lithograph postcards from the past

Thanksgiving films

Thanksgiving has sparse reference in literature

First Thanksgiving food...sparse but filling