Franken. J. Archive 008 (to 15 JUL 03)

an irregular pseudoblog for both cultures by chris lawson

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  Of famines and farmers
  Dear Cthulhu...
  Big News
  The Infinite Precautionary Principle (1)
  Atwood's three-book sale
  Hidden message in Red Jacket
  Different complexions, different customs
  Review: Dreamcatcher
  Placebo myths
  The Standard Book of Alchymical Elementals
  Death and taxes
  A tax on reality
  Creative sparks and starving artists
  Courage over fire

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Continuum report

15 JUL 2003 | source Frankenblog

I will get to this entry in the next couple of days. The executive summary: it was a lot of fun; I am exhausted; the book launch went well; I met some friends that I'm really pleased to have caught up with in physical space; I owe Andrew Macrae a carton of beer. Now I need to clear out my insurance and my tax returns so I can get back to the novel.


Sculptors, horseheads, and cat's eyes

15 JUL 2003 | source Publisher Bleatings

Author Rick Hoaxland promises that his new book The Sculptors of the Universe is is even more explosive than his bestselling The Sculptors of Mars. Hoaxland is known around the world for his investigative work unveiling the famous "Face on Mars" and the conspiracy of scientists to keep it from the public. Hoaxland is no crank: he has spoken at NASA scientific meetings, he has appeared on For The People, and his work has been adapted into a television documentary for PBS. It was his suggestion that the Pioneer 10 space probe carry a message with it out of the solar system.

In his previous book, Sculptors of Mars, Hoaxland revealed the face and the surrounding pyramids and structures in the region known as Cydonia. In Sculptors of the Universe, Hoaxland reveals that the intelligent beings responsible for the Cydonia artifacts have left even more impressive marks on the Universe. The Sculptors, as he calls them, have engineered vast constructions, some of which can be seen by the naked eye from light-years away.

"I was looking through some astronomy magazines when I realised how many artifacts the Sculptors had created for us," said Hoaxland in a recent interview. "I mean there are star clusters that look perfectly spherical. There's a nebula that looks just like a cat's eye. There's a galaxy that has been molded into the shape of a sombrero. And in the constellation Orion, which was sacred to ancient Egyptians, there is a molecular cloud that has been sculpted into a perfect figure of a horse's head. This cannot be coincidence."

When questioned about the possibility that these objects might be natural, Hoaxland replied, "One or two could be natural. But there are literally hundreds of these objects scattered thoughout the visible universe. The clincher is a collection of stars, positioned just perfectly, that has been identified as a constellation called the Sculptor. What more proof do you need?"


Of famines and farmers

08 JUL 2003 | source Oliver Morton

Oliver Morton has corrected a rather significant error in my story on the Zambian GM food riots. He has kindly allowed me to reproduce his comments.

Of my comment "Having no food in regional markets is roughly what 'famine' means"...

Oliver replies,...but this isn't really the case. In the words of Armatya Sen, "Famine is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there not being enough food to eat" -- and without getting credentialist about it, he did get the Nobel for his work in this area. In most famines there is some food available in the region, but the starving do not have access to it, for economic or political reasons. There has long been a preference in most development circles for buying food in these regional markets as much as possible during famine relief activities, both because it minimises transport and, more importantly, because it supports agriculture in the region. The American approach of tied aid in kind is widely discouraged because it's a way of supporting American farmers as much as anything else. If helping American farmers did no harm to anyone else in the equation that would be fine -- but it removes a market from the people in the famine region and its environs who have managed to grow crops, and that's bad. That's why there was significant opposition to such approaches long before the GM issue turned up. (That supporting home country producers is the main aim of foreign aid is not new and not unique to America, but it's something a lot of development workers try to get away from, and it's rarely owned up to as explicitly as it is on USAID's website: "The principal beneficiary of America's foreign assistance programs has always been the United States.")

I'm not siding with Action Aid, etc, here. I think the Zambians were poorly advised. But I don't think it's true that Americans could not have bought their food aid in the region, and if they had, as I believe the Europeans did, then the issue would not have arisen.

all best (loved the Atwood entry)



Dear Cthulhu...

27 JUN 2003 | source Kabalarian Philosophy

The Kabalarian Philosophy website has a number of pages devoted to "Baby Name Analysis." You can ask for a "Name Report" which offers "an in-depth description of the influences affecting your personality, potential, and compatibility in personal and business relationships."

They have an extensive list of names, including some very rare ones. It is quite impressive, really. For instance, if your name is Cthulhu, then you are "a responsible, expressive, inspirational, and friendly personality. Expression comes naturally to you and you are rarely at a loss for words; in fact, you have to put forth effort at times to curb an over-active tongue. Self-confidence has made it easy for you to meet people and you are well-liked for your spontaneous, happy ways."

They hit that nail on the head.


Big News

17 JUN 2003 | source Frankenblog

Sorry about the slow blog rate recently. I've been extremely busy with two projects.

I am one of the Guests of Honour at the Continuum convention in Melbourne, July 11-13. I've been working on two presentations. The first is a multimedia-backed reading of "No Man's Land", the story I wrote with Simon Brown that has just been published in Gathering The Bones. The second is a non-linear talk about evolutionary theory and the way it has become mythologised. There is a great line-up of other guests as well, with Kate Forsyth, Nick Stathopoulos, Lewis Morley and Marilyn Pride. This is an extensive cross-section of sf, fantasy, literary and media interests. If you follow the genre and can make it to Melbourne, you really should think about coming along.

The other big news is that Bill Congreve of MirrorDanse Books is publishing a collection of my short fiction and related material called Written in Blood. We already have an ISBN number. We'll be launching it at Continuum. This isn't a standard reprint anthology. Bill has gone through the stories and edited them to within an inch of their lives. The stories are much better for his work and should be considered the definitive versions. Even if you can't make it to Melbourne, please consider buying a copy from MirrorDanse Books, PO Box 3542, Parramatta NSW 2124, Australia. You can place orders via the instructions here. MirrorDanse publishes several other books you should seriously think of buying as well, especially Terry Dowling's Rynosseros and The Man Who Lost Red, Peter McNamara's Wonder Years anthology, and the out of print collection Our Lady of Chernobyl by Greg Egan.


The Infinite Precautionary Principle (Part 1)

09 JUN 2003 | source Frankenblog

You are dirt poor. You live in a tiny village. You live with fifteen other family members. Your family works a small plot of land that is capable of growing enough starchy tubers to keep the family going, with a bit of extra cash every now and then from the local market.

That's most years, but this year there has been no rain and the crops have failed. You would normally turn to your neighbours but they have been equally affected by the drought. The famine affects millions of your countrymen.

You walk ten miles into town where international aid agencies have been distributing food. When you arrive there is a great commotion. The food distribution point is closed. The barbed-wire gates have been locked and signs posted around the compound. You cannot read. You ask a man with glasses what the signs say and he tells you that the food distribution centre is not allowed to distribute the maize stored inside.

You ask why. The man shrugs. "They say the maize might be bad for us."

"But my family is starving. They need food."

It is the same for everyone, but the people have been told that the food could be poison from America. This surprises you. You know that the food has been given out many times over many weeks. "Has anyone fallen ill?" you ask, but nobody can report any sickness due to eating the supposed poison. "What about Americans? Do they eat this food?" Yes, they do.

"So why is it poison?" you ask.

The educated man says, "They say it might have long-term health effects. There is no proof that it is safe over twenty years."

"Twenty years? We're starving now!"

Your words coincide with a movement in the crowd. Angry cries rise and the men begin to stomp and clap. You had no intention of sparking a riot, but now that it the riot is here, you join the crowd. The wire fence is pushed over and the masses pour into the compound. A man smashes the lock on the storage depot and starts throwing bags of maize out into the crowd. Other men join him. Soon the air is filled with flying food parcels.

A parcel lands in your arms. You hold it tight to your body as you work your way out of the milling crowd. You break free of the huddle and run for home, but before you reach the edge of the town square you see policemen swarming towards you.

The square is alive with movement as the rioters throw bags of maize into a crowd that is being manhandled by the police. A policeman sees you and demands you hand back the bag of food. When you refuse, he wrestles it from you. He hits you with a baton, not viciously, but just enough to knock your hands free.

You fall to the ground, not because the policeman has hurt you badly, but because you are inconsolable at the thought of going home with nothing to feed the family...


This scene is fictionalised, but it is not invented. The details may be wrong, as it was impossible to find quality, unbiased reporting on the event, but the food riot took place in Zambia in October 2002. In the midst of a calamitous drought, the Zambian government took advisement from green-left NGOs and decided to ban 12,000 tonnes of GM maize. In the small town of Mumbwa, this sparked an uprising and villagers looted 500 bags of GM maize from the storage depot of a charity called the Co-operative League of the USA.

The police were called in, and at the end of their investigation nine people were arrested and nearly half of the food had been forcibly recovered from starving villagers and put back in the storage depot.

UK-based NGO Action Aid did not find fault with the Zambian government, of course. It blamed the US for the problem. It issued a formal statement saying the US had ignored its obligations as "a signatory of the 1999 Food Aid Convention, which recognises that food aid should be bought from the most cost effective source, be culturally acceptable and if possible purchased locally so that regional markets do not suffer."

There were, of course, no regional markets capable of providing food during the famine. The entire region had been hit by drought. Having no food in regional markets is roughly what "famine" means. [Igor says, this is wrong. See Oliver Morton's response for an explanation.]

As for the local villagers, they didn't find the food culturally unacceptable. They stormed the depot in order to get to the food. It wasn't the regional African culture that objected to the GM maize, as the supposedly unwanted food was happily snaffled by Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Mozambique. Instead, the objections came from the culture of green-left NGOs such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and Action Aid. The green-left NGOs gave the Zambian government the idea of the Infinite Precautionary Principle, and as we shall see, the Zambian government seized on the concept as a rationale for implementing corrupt, anti-humanitarian policies while claiming the moral high ground.

Can we lay part of the blame for the Zambian fiasco on the green-left NGOs? Hell, yes. This was no misinterpretation by Zambian officials. The green-left NGOs worked extremely hard to get access to Zambian government officials, and used that access to spruik the standard green-left anti-GM lies*. They recommended that Zambia refuse the food shipments, and Zambia, for reasons of its own, found it a palatable idea. The conclusive evidence is the post-riot press releases from Greenpeace, Action Aid, and Friends of the Earth, all of whom used the occasion to attack the US for providing charitable supplies and defended the Zambian government for withholding the food from starving people.

The Precautionary Principle was supposed to save lives and protect environments. How did it ever come to this?

To be continued in irregular instalments...

*Am I being excessive in calling the NGO anti-GM arguments "lies"? Judge for yourself. As recently as two weeks ago, Action Aid issued a press release stating that "corporations extend their markets by linking herbicides and pesticides to the GM seeds they sell. But yields are no greater and in some cases more chemicals are needed." In fact, the available scientific research indicates that GM crops have greater yields and lower chemical usage than standard crops in almost all cases. This has been found in study after study, by industry and by independent researchers, as summarised by the WHO. And it makes sense. Who would buy crops that cost more for lower yields and higher chemical needs? Why would any company spend millions of dollars on R&D for a product that has no advantages over existing crops? Rest assured, though, this series will not focus on the specific untruths circulating in the GM food debate. There are plenty of places to go for that information. This series will deal with the abuse and misuse of the Precautionary Principle, an important social concept, for short-term PR purposes.


Atwood's three-book sale

22 MAY 2003 | source Publisher Bleatings

Canadian author Margaret Atwood has announced the sale of her next three books to Singlenight Modern Fiction for a six-figure sum.

"I really wanted to stretch my wings and experiment, and given the success of Oryx and Crake, the publishers were willing to go along with me," said Atwood today. She has already drawn up strong outlines which were very persuasive to her editor at Singlenight.

The first book is set in 1860s Texas. A young woman is stolen by Native Americans and raised as one of their own. The girl's uncle, a hardened Civil War veteran, undertakes a quest to recover her. The quest becomes an obsession that threatens to destroy them both. "This is not a Western," Atwood explained. "Westerns have sherriffs and quick-draw gunfights. I am more interested in racial hatred and the way obsession can take hold in an unforgiving landscape."

The second book follows the moving relationship between a bitter older man and a young woman whom he employs to tutor his illegitimate daughter. The story takes place in a remote manor. Said Atwood, "This is not a romance novel. The key issues in this novel are attitudes to women and the treatment of the mentally ill. Romance novels are about sloppy kisses, formulaic hurdles for the lovers to leap, and coy sex scenes. This book will be far too Gothic for that."

In the third book, an American couple visiting India face their worst fears when their baby is stolen from them. According to Attwood, the ending is the most emotionally confronting scene she has ever written. In reply to a question about whether she was branching into horror, Atwood replied, "This is not horror. Horror is about zombies and werewolves and is written by Stephen King. I'm not Stephen King, ergo the book is not horror."


Hidden message in Red Jacket

21 MAY 2003 | source Frankenblog

Keeping my readers in suspense for a month is either a sign of (i) wilful neglect, or (ii) deviant sexual fantasy. But I digress. I promised an interpretation of the Red Jacket speech.

Red Jacket would have been unaware of modern academic fads. He would not know that some loopy Westerners would take seriously the idea that pre-Columbian Blackfoots understood the principles behind modern physics, or that verses of ancient Hindu poems would be interpreted as meaningful analyses of quantum theory. This is one strange side to the Culture Culture that thrives in modern Western academia. But there is a flip side to the Culture Culture that is equally absurd. There is the belief that all human stories are narratives. That no way of thinking is superior to another. That modern science is nothing more than a form of Western imperialism. And that logic and reductionism are code words for narrow-minded intellectual exploitation.

It should be apparent that one cannot argue both that all knowledge is of equal cultural value and that ancient cultures understood the correct principles behind modern science. If there is such a thing as correct physical principles, then it cannot be true that all belief systems are of equal value.

What relevance has this to Red Jacket's speech 200 years ago? Well, look at what he said again. Buried in his plea are several very modern ideas: multiculturalism, freedom of religion, Native American rights, and the concept of indigenous ownership of land. But even more importantly, Red Jacket expresses several thoughts that can only be described as logical critical analysis. When he suggests that he will observe the effect of Christianity on the behaviour of his neighbours, he is even suggesting a form of rational analysis that modern epidemiologists would call "a natural experiment". This is reductionist and logical. This is the sort of thinking that is supposed to be the domain of imperialist Western scientists, and yet here is a Native American leader using the sort of thinking that founded the scientific revolution.

Is it exactly the same? No, it is not. Red Jacket was not applying these techniques with the rigour of modern science. His thoughts were more like Aristotle than Crick and Watson. But it does show that modern scientific technique is not an alien Western thought-control process. Modern science is nothing more than a systematic and rigorous approach to very ancient ways of thinking. It is the system and the rigour that is modern, not the logic and reductionism.


Different complexions, different customs

27 APR 2003 | source Penguin Book of Historic Speeches

This will be my last blog for two weeks. Holidays beckon, as do short stories, a potential collection, a very potential interview with Infinity Plus, and of course my nascent and increasingly un-sfnal Proof of Concept novel. Here is something to chew over. It is a speech made in 1805 by Red Jacket, a Native American. I have edited it down, but not by much. It is powerful, moving stuff. But there is another message to it, one that was not intended by Red Jacket. When I get back, I will post my thoughts about Red Jacket's words. In the meantime, there is more than enough to think about in Red Jacket's speech alone. It is my belief that Red Jacket and Chief Seattle and Tecumseh could well have been the Nelson Mandelas of the their time, if only the world had a place for Nelson Mandelas back then.

Red Jacket, 1805

Brother, listen to what we say. There was a time when our forefathers owned this great island. Their seats extended from the rising to the setting sun. The Great Spirit had made it for the use of Indians. He had made the bear and the beaver. Their skins served us for clothing. He had caused the earth to produce corn for bread.

But an evil day came upon us. Your forefathers crossed the great water and landed on this island. Their numbers were small. They found friends and not enemies. The told us they fled from their own country for fear of wicked men and had come here to enjoy their own religion. They asked for a small seat. We took pity on them, granted their request, and they sat down among us. We gave them corn and meat; they gave us poison in return.

The white people, brother, had now found our country. They wanted more land; they wanted our country. Our eyes opened and our minds became uneasy. Wars took place. Indians were hired to fight against Indians. They brought strong liquor among us. It was strong and powerful, and has slain thousands.

Brother, our seats were once large and yours were small. You have now become a great people, and we have scarcely a place to spread our blankets. You have our country, but are not satisfied; you want to force your religion on us.

Brother, continue to listen. You say that you are sent to instruct us how to worship the Great Spirit agreeably to His mind; and, if we do not take hold of the religion which you white people teach we shall be unhappy hereafter. You say that you are right and that we are lost. How do we know this to be true? We understand that your religion is written in a Book. If it was intended for us, as well as you, why has not the Great Spirit given to our forefathers the knowledge of the Book, with the means of understanding it rightly? We know only what you tell us about it. How shall we know when to believe, being so often deceived by the white people?

Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agreed, as you can all read the Book?

Brother, we do not understand these things. We are told that your religion was given to you by your forefathers and has been handed down from father to son. We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers and has been handed down to us, their children. We worship in that way. It teaches us to be thankful for all the favours we receive, to love each other, and to be united. We never quarrel about religion.

Brother, the Great Spirit made us all, but He has made a great difference between His white and His red children. He has given us different complexions and different customs. To you He has given the arts. To these He has not opened our eyes. We know these things to be true. Since He has made so great a difference between us in other things, why may we not conclude that that He has given us a different religion according to our understanding? The Great Spirit does right. He knows what is best for His children; we are satisfied.

Brother, we do not wish to destroy your religion or take it from you. We only want to enjoy our own.

Brother, we are told that you have been preaching to the white people in this place. These people are our neighbours. We are acquainted with them. We will wait a little while and see what effect your preaching has upon them. If we find it does them good, makes them honest, and less disposed to cheat Indians, we will consider again of what you have said.

Brother, you have now heard our answer to your talk, and this is all we have to say at present.


Review: Dreamcatcher

21 APR 2003 | source Frankenblog

It is accepted internet custom to place a spoiler warning about here, but frankly, nothing could act as a bigger spoiler for this movie than paying hard cash to see it. This is a Lawrence Kasdan film of a Stephen King novel. I have not read the novel. I have, unfortunately, seen the film. On a simplistic level, it has all the technical qualities expected of a high-budget film by an experienced director with a decent cast. But the problem is in the story. Now I don't want to seem too picky - I do have a touch of the Analog fanboy in me (i.e., a tendency to dismiss an otherwise good film because it makes a fundamental mistake in physics). But this film beggars belief. It seems to have no sense of basic biology or physics. I can cope with a ridiculously foreshortened parasitic lifecycle, but the sight of creatures swelling from miniscule to twice the size of a human shows that the creators of this film have no idea of conservation of mass.

But even this could be forgiveable if it wasn't for two fundamental stupidities and two outrageously bad cliches. The first stupidity: that aliens with interstellar technology can't manage to transport themselves a few hundred miles; and to make it even more stupid, these aliens have apparently tried many times before without success. The second stupidity: that an alien who takes over the body of an American professor would miraculously imbue him with an aristocratic English accent complete with foppish inflections; I realise that Americans have had it in for the Brits ever since the Revolution, even going so far as to invent redcoat atrocities in The Patriot, but this is ridiculous.

The first cliche: the apparently retarded boy who is actually a genius with psychic powers; he can find people and things and communicate telepathically, but somehow he can't get across a key plot point to the other characters because of his inability to articulate. The second cliche: the military man driven insane by the pressure of his work, even becoming a mass murderer in the process (at one stage he is accused of killing people affected by the aliens when up to half of them will survive; his response, "Yeah, but which ones?" Well, Mr Insane General, how about you isolate them for a while and see which ones pull through?).

I could continue listing the idiocies, but you get the point. A few abstruse technical errors are forgiveable, but these cut to the core of the story. It is an insult that Kasdan believes the audience won't notice or won't care how stupid it all is. OK, one last example because it is both a stupidity and a cliche: when Mr Insane General is relieved of command, he steals one of the army helicopters -- apparently the US Army is in the habit of leaving its combat choppers warmed up and unguarded -- and nobody is sent after him.



Placebo myths

18 APR 2003 | source Frankenblog

This last fortnight, the Australian science program Catalyst has broadcast an interesting Horizon story about homeopathy. This program, and subsequent discussions on the ABC Science Matters list make it clear that there are a number of terribly wrong understandings of the placebo effect out there.

Myth 1: That scientists and doctors wish to eliminate the placebo effect.

This error comes about by not finishing the sentence. Scientists wish to eliminate the placebo the sole cause of a treatment's effectiveness. If you can't show that your treatment works better than placebo, then you can't justify people using it, and you certainly can't justify government subsidies. But this doesn't mean that scientists and doctors believe in eliminating the placebo effect from clinical practice. It is well known that people starting anti-depressant medication often feel better in the first week, even though we know that the medications take 4 weeks or more to really kick in. But nobody wants to strip patients of that early lift in mood just because it is a placebo effect. The placebo effect is powerful, subtle, and very useful. But it is not enough by itself to justify extracting cash from the pockets of sick people.

Myth 2: That the placebo effect does not occur in children or animals.

The common assumption is that the placebo effect works because people taking treatment think it's going to work so it does. But the placebo effect doesn't just work through the consciousness of the patient; it also works through the consciousness of the patient's carers, friends, family, doctors, and researchers. This is why researchers do double-blind control studies. I was astonished that a veterinarian interviewed by Horizon presented his unblinded experience in treating animals as proof that homeopathy did not work via placebo effect.

Myth 3: That the placebo effect always improves healing.

By making people feel better, the placebo effect can influence patients (and doctors) to stick with medication that is not beneficial, or is even harmful. One day soon, I shall blog the story of streptokinase vs. flecainide. The placebo effect can make people postpone or avoid vital treatment. For instance, homeopathic vaccines are used by some parents instead of the recommended medical vaccines despite the fact that homeopathic vaccines have never been shown to reduce the risk of serious childhood illnesses, have never been shown to be safe, and fly in the face of all known science.

Myth 4: That the placebo effect always has a positive effect.

Placebos can make people feel better and they can make people feel sicker. People taking medication often experience headaches or other symptoms because they are taking a medication with known side-effects. This can lead to them stopping life-saving medication.


The Standard Book of Alchymical Elementals

07 APR 2003 | source Otherwere

Dear Colleagues,

It is with great pleasure that I speak today. This is a truly historic meeting of the Royal Alkahest Society. You have just heard our esteemed friend, Dr Sakharov, explain how he finally achieved the conversion of base metal to gold through radio-transmutation. If our founding President were here today, I am sure Lord Newton would be gratified to see that the Philosopher's Stone does indeed exist, although I also believe he would be astonished at the mechanism by which it works.

Dr Sakharov's work is revolutionary. It is to my regret that I cannot claim such for myself and the team of alchymists who worked with me. And yet I am sure you will not be disappointed. For tonight I have the honour to present the first edition of the Standard Book of Alchymical Elementals.

It has been a long and difficult task, and not without clamour and dissent. The colonial alchymists, ever in favour of simplicity, simplicity, simplicity, have argued long and hard for their favourite terms, such as "chlorine" and "calcium," and there were times when their persuasions nearly held the floor, especially with regards to the elemental they call "phosphorus". However, the consensus has emerged that the archaic terminology for the elements is a tradition that should be respected. It does not behove alchymistry to abandon long-cherished nomenclature for modern simplifications.

And so to the book itself. Where there is an existing archaic name, it is now the formal standard name for the elemental. Where there is no existing name, the formal name has been derived by studying the first alchymical experiment that deduced the existence of the elemental. In a few cases, these rules have been overlooked because a name has a certain romantic charm. This was hotly contested by the colonials, but the prevailing view was that the romance of alchymy should be embraced.

But enough from me. Please peruse the Summary that has been provided to each member of the esteemed Royal Alkahest Society. I am sure you will be as delighted as I. It is only fitting that this book should debut under the stern portrait of the man who first sublimated Light itself. A toast to Lord Newton!

Summary of the Standard Book of Alchymical Elementals: The First 93 Elementals

Note: where an elemental name was derived by this committee, it has been marked by an asterisk; those without asterisks have existing archaic names. Elementals are listed by their Lavoisier Number. Where an elemental is marked "--", it means that elemental has not been named as it has not been detected, but its existence has been surmised according to the Principles of Mendeleev.

01. Inflammable air
02. Solar vapour*
03. Essence of petalite*
04. Glucinum
05. Buraq
06. Black lead
07. Azotic air
08. Vital air
09. Fluor
10. 3rd residue of air*
11. Natrium
12. Magnium
13. Reduced argilla*
14. Aerolite substrate*
15. Sublimated urine*
16. Brimstone
17. Dephlogisticated marine acid
18. 1st residue of air*
19. Kalium
20. Reduced lime*
21. Eka-buraq*
22. Essence of rutile*
23. Erythronium
24. Red lead essence*
25. Reduced black wad*
26. Ferrum
27. Regulus of Mesopotamian blue*
28. Devil's copper
29. Cuprum
30. Reduced pompholix*
31. Eka-aerolites*
32. --
33. Orpiment
34. Moon metal*
35. Essence of Tyrolian purple*
36. 2nd residue of air*
37. Temper of lepidolite*
38. Reduced strontia*
39. Reduced yttria*
40. Jargon
41. Columbium
42. Essence of Benecian graphite*
43. Masurium
44. Insoluble platina
45. --
46. --
47. Lunar crystal
48. --
49. Indigo zink
50. Stannum

51. Reduced bezoar*
52. --
53. Elixir of kelp ash*
54. 4th residue of air*
55. Springwater blue*
56. Barytium
57. --
58. --
59. Didymium
60. Heavy didymium*
61. Illinium
62. Samarskite extract*
63. --
64. Extract of gaudolinite*
65. --
66. 1st impurity of erbia*
67. 2nd impurity of erbia*
68. Essence of erbia*
69. 3rd impurity of erbia*
70. Aldebaranium
71. Cassiopaeium
72. Mimic of jargon*
73. --
74. Wolfram
75. Ess. of columbite*
76. --
77. Asteroides*
78. Platina
79. Aurum
80. Quicksilver
81. --
82. Plumbum
83. Tin-glass
84. Radio-pitchblende*
85. Heavy tin-glass*
86. Emanation
87. Virginium
88. Mesothorium I
89. Mesothorium II
90. Ionium
91. Brevium
92. Reduced pitchblende*
93. 1st cyclotronium*


Death and taxes

06 APR 2003 | source HOTAIR / IgNobel Prizes

Continuing the theme of bizarre tax, we report this classic paper from March 2001, "Dying to Save Taxes: Evidence from Estate Tax Returns on the Death Elasticity" by Kopczuk and Slemrod, in National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. w8158. It won the 2001 IgNobel Prize for Economics for its "conclusion that people find a way to postpone their deaths if that that would qualify them for a lower rate on the inheritance tax."


A tax on reality

05 APR 2003 | source Australian Taxation Office

This legislation is real. Really real. This is not a joke. Subdivision 165-55 of the A New Tax System (Goods and Services Tax) Act 1999. I'm not making it up. You can check it out on the offical ATO website if you don't believe me. Philip K. Dick is alive and well and writing legislation in Canberra.

165-55 For the purposes of making a declaration under this Subdivision, the Commissioner may:

(a) treat a particular event that actually happened as not having happened; and

(b) treat a particular event that did not actually happen as having happened and, if appropriate, treat the event as:
(i) having happened at a particular time; and
(ii) having involved particular action by a particular entity; and

(c) treat a particular event that actually happened as:
(i) having happened at a time different from the time it actually happened; or
(ii) having involved particular action by a particular entity (whether or not the event actually involved any action by that entity).

Thanks to Peter Jenssen for finding this for me.


Creative sparks and starving artists

04 APR 2003 | source Frankenblog

Two days ago, my 4-year old son picked up a stick from the garden, taped it to a teaspoon, and then attached a length of brown pipe-cleaner to the spoon, bent the pipe-cleaner just so and said, "Look, Daddy, it's an ibis!" We had seen a flock of ibises in the park a few days earlier.

The amazing thing was that it did look like an ibis. Not in a realistic representational sense. But in the sense that the spoon head and the bent pipe-cleaner set off an unmistakeable buzz of recognition in my brain. I was taught at university that children do not develop abstract thinking until their teens, and some people never develop abstract thinking at all. Don't believe it. What develops late in life is complex, formal abstract thinking. The ability to derive integral calculus operations from first principles -- that's a complex, formal, abstract technique. Even intelligent and well-educated adults can struggle with this level of abstraction -- and this is nothing to the sort of intellectual effort required to prove Fermat's Last Theorem.

But it is a mistake to limit the definition of abstract thought to this rarefied plane. The fact is that almost every human being is capable of extraordinary feats of abstraction from before their first birthday. When a child starts to speak, he or she is learning that a combination of vocal sounds has a certain meaning. Since the vocal sounds usually have no direct bearing on the thing they refer to, this is by definition an abstraction. Admittedly it's very primitive at one year of age, but even by four, my son's age, children make up words, tell jokes based on word-play, make up stories, play role-games, and know how to write their names. That's a whole heap of abstract thought and it just pours out of children unremittingly.

It is, in my opinion, the critical part of being human. Even Neanderthals, who were manually dextrous and social, didn't have the full human spark. Archeological evidence shows that Neanderthal tool-making techniques went unchanged for thousands of years; in contrast, modern (ie., within the last 50,000 years) human artifacts vary enormously over time. Sometime around the birth of the modern human, something happened to our brains. It wasn't just that we got smarter -- Neanderthals and proto-humans were clever and creative, too. Archeologists have dug up a Neanderthal flute, and some of the bones at Neanderthal dig sites have been decorated. So the big brain change wasn't that we became creative, because we already were. The change was that we became unquenchably creative. We played with our abstractions. I suspect that you could develop great friendships with Neanderthals, but you wouldn't get many witty jokes out of them.

[Some archeologists reject the biological implications above and ascribe the "creative explosion" to the development of the nuclear family or other "behavioural" changes. Currently there is no definitive evidence either way.]

Universal creativity poses a problem for people who want to live off their artistry: people like being creative just for the fun of it. If you become an accountant, you are competing with other people who have a head for figures, a certain degree of reliability and doggedness, and formal training in the field. By becoming an accountant, you have already excluded most of humanity from the competition. But if you want to be creative, then you're competing against the entire human race, many of whom are insanely, unforgiveably artistic without any training. Shakespeare and Jane Austen wrote long before anyone came up with the idea of writing schools. What's more, you're competing against people who will work at their art for years for the joy of it! No wonder there's almost no money in writing, art, or music except for the very, very few.

It's a terrible, demoralising situation...until the realisation dawns that without that common creative spark in humanity, there would be almost no market at all for art. There might be a thin crust of elite humans capable of appreciating art, the Einsteins and Mozarts and Gerald Manly Hopkinses, and these intellectual giants would be more than capable of feeding their own appetites. Not only would there be no market, there would certainly be no government grants for making coloured squiggles on perfectly good canvas.

I'm talking to the artists, musicians, and writers now: Whenever you feel demoralised at the lack of income, consider the alternative: a world where only a handful of people can be moved by Picasso's "Guernica"; a world where art is a recreation for the intellectual elite, like the current fad for casemods among computer geeks; a world where the only person likely to look at your work and get anything out of you.


Courage over fire

30 MAR 2003 | source Science

I haven't been able to see the full paper but by gum the abstract looks mouthwatering. Science's Kevin Krajick reports on vulcanologists working in Cameroon and the Congo, saying that "a dearth of basic equipment means that field expeditions--and putting one's life on the line--are the only way to gather data... [T]he hazards of working on active volcanoes pale next to those of poverty, isolation, and violence." Now that's a story I want to read.