what i learned last week

1. although the usa contains only 5% of the world’s population, it has 25% of the world’s prisoners. this means that 7.5% of the united states is in jail – and this is 5 times the world average for incarceration. more statistics on american prisons: 20% of prisoners have been sexually assaulted by a guard or another prisoner; an african-american man has a 1 in 3 chance of going to jail some time in his life; there are 1,700,000 “prison orphans” in the usa and they are six times more likely to wind up in jail than everyone else; 16% of prisoners suffer from a mental illness; there are more people with mental illnesses in prisons than in mental hospitals. (note that all of this information comes from this source)

2. according to one podcast i heard from npr this week, although short sellers have been villified as the seed of our current “economic crisis” they may actually be the heros that protect us from it ever happening again. according to the broadcast the problem we are currently in is the result of people obfuscating the risk of derivatives, and selling them to people who really don’t understand what they’re buying. the buyers never did figure out what they owned until the entire system went under. since derivatives are not regulated in the states, they didn’t show up on the books of any of the companies that owned them, so the people that invested in those companies didn’t know that there was a massive amount of risk accumulated in the holdings of the companies they were investing in. however, although the people buying the derivates didn’t bother to find out what they were buying, the people who sell derivatives aren’t the only ones who know what’s going on. in order to be a successful short seller, you need to be able to predict which companies currently look successful, but are about to go under. consequently, the short sellers knew who was going under two years before it happened – they’re like forensic accounts who give everyone else a heads-up years in advance of anyone else knowing what’s happening.

3. benjamin franklin lived in france for 9 years in a small town just outside of paris as the united states’s first ambassador. he was also there to build an alliance with the french in the hopes of amassing more military power against the british. read more here.

4. michaëlle jean is one of my heros. in your face, ifaw!

5. having a blog like this means getting spam comments – almost all of them linking to mp3 download sites in russia. this is more annoying than getting spam on my email. in fact, it’s annoying enough that i just might shut down the whole blog.

what i learned last week

1. a fool and his money are indeed, soon parted

2. the legend of the lost city of atlantis originated with a small mention in some writings by plato, some 3000 years or so after it was supposed to have disappeared into the ocean. (this obviously makes it highly probable that plato was just making it up – a theory put forth, possibly initially, by aristotle, and he knew a thing or two…)

3. there is a group of people who believe that a library containing the knowledge from the lost city of atlantis is hidden under the sphynx in egypt, and that the pyramids are actually thousands of years older than is currently believed by academics and archeologists. there is a larger group of people who believe that this first group of people are a bunch of loonies.

4. two disturbing things this week… (a) sometimes, people who think that they’re upholding the law, are simply distorting it for their own purposes. in this particular case, it seems odd that a law that was designed to protect children is being used to destroy them for no particularly good reason (based on my belief that prudish, puritanical beliefs do not constitute anything close to a “good reason”). (b) note, in the same article, that bullying can lead to suicide…

5. it is illegal to import turtles into canada. however, it is not illegal to import turtle eggs for the purpose of incubating them, hatching them, and producing… wait for it… turtles! i guess that canadian politicians have not figured out which comes first, the turtle or the egg.

6. those that remember the past (or at the very least their history lessons…), but think that the rest of us don’t, are idiots.

7. when dropping things off at the dump, i should never look to see what other people think is garbage – i’ll just get depressed.

Antique piano in a dumpster
The remains of an antique piano in a dumpster... Sigh...

8. if i have to explain why i find this funny, you probably won’t agree that it is. (okay… okay… i didn’t learn anything by seeing this advertisement, but i still think that it’s funny…)

Morten Messerschmidt says "Give us Denmark back"
Herr Messerschmidt says "Give us Denmark back"

what i learned last week

1. although about 50% of americans believe that god created humans in their present form, and therefore do not believe in evolution, the united states ranks #1 in nobel prizes (including, but not exclusively prizes in the sciences).

2. if you put someone in an fMRI and ask them to imagine playing tennis, a different area of the brain will light up than if you had asked them to imagine walking around their house. further to this: a researcher has put a number of patients who are in a long-term (or maybe permanent) vegatative state (and are therefore completely uncommunicative in any way) in an fMRI and asked them to imagine these two scenarios. at least two of these patients have exhibited exactly the same brain activity as the typical subjects, meaning that it is likely that these people are awake and aware, but trapped inside an immovable body.

3. the book of revelation in the christian bible mentions a star or angel called “wormwood” in the following verse: “and the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; and the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.” (revelation 8:10, 11 – KJB). interestingly,  “wormwood” in ukrainian is “chornobyl”.

4. i was surprised to find that i was in good company in my opinion that the european union’s decision this week to ban canadian seal products is annoying stupid.

5. if you go to kenya and travel to the equator, you can find a person who will demonstrate the coriolis effect. he will walk a couple of steps north of the equator and show that water draining out of bowl with a hole in the bottom swirls counter-clockwise. he will then walk a couple of steps south of the equator and show that water draining out of the same bowl swirls clockwise. finally, placing the bowl directly on the equator, he will show that it doesn’t swirl when draining.

6. the television program that showed the fellow discussed in #5 was taken in by a charlatan. the coriolis effect cannot be seen to be that dramatic when you are mere steps from the equator.

what i learned last week

1. wikipedia is less reliable than even i give it credit for. for example, see here, here or here, just as a start…

2. the onion is even funnier than i gave it credit for.

3. the ancient jordanian city of petra is astonishing for a multitude of reasons, including al khazne, the tunnel dug to re-route floodwaters from the siq, and the hydraulic engineering required to maintain water into the city.

4. we are more fortunate than we know. i heard an interview with one of sudan’s lost boys who lives in halifax, nova scotia. he talked about how he wakes up every morning, and feels astonished that he has the luxury of running water, having come from a life where this was indeed a luxury…

5. monsters are real (but skeletons are not)

what i learned last week

1. children who have autism get temporarily relieved of their symptoms when they have a fever, becoming more social and talkative.

2. the last time we had a swine flu outbreak (in 1976) the vaccine that was used to protect people from it caused more deaths than the flu itself.

3. in 1918 the spanish flu pandemic resulted in 40% of the world’s population infected, and more than 50,000,000 people died.

4. normal, yearly seasonal flu results in 250,000 – 500,000 deaths worldwide each year.

5. five ants is more than four elephants.

alternative theories

while i am not averse to dismissing things as complete lunacy, i am a firm believer in collecting a modicum of information on a given topic before doing so, just to make sure that i’m right and everyone else is wrong. lately, i saw a really good documentary on the early history of the intelligent design movement in the states and its ties to creationism via an evolutionary missing link with the odd name of “cdesign proponentsists“. as a result, i’ve been looking at alternative and possibly competing theories. a small collection is listed below…

it is left to the reader to decide on the relative significance of each of these…

what i learned last week

1. hitler thought that berlin would become the world capital re-named germania. he planned a massive architectural project for this transformation that included a triumphal arch based on (but much bigger than) the one in paris, and a volkshalle (or “people’s hall”) that was a dome based on (but much, much bigger than) the pantheon in rome. hitler’s architect, albert speer, wasn’t convinced that the swampland that berlin was built on could withstand the weight of the triumphal arch, so he devised an experiment to find out. this consisted of a large block of concrete (called the schwerbelastungskörper) that was constructed on the proposed site of the arch to measure how much, and how quickly, it would sink. turned out that it sank too fast, so the conclusion was that the arch wouldn’t work – it was just too heavy. interestingly, the block is still sitting there, and is now a historic site.

2. there was a little ice age that consisted of three dips in temperature world-wide between the 16th and the 19th centuries.

3. global warming might result in global cooling. if we have enough global warning, then the polar ice caps melt. this causes an increase in fresh water in the north atlantic ocean, which could result in a re-routing of ocean currents, potentially resulting in a repeat of the little ice age (see above…).

4. people who are raised from birth in bilingual environments are better able to shift attention, organise, prioritise and avoid falling into habitual responses. see here.

5. maurice jarre died.