World Press Freedom Index 2015

September 3rd, 2015

Reporters Without Borders said it had found a “worrying decline” in the freedom of the press in 2014 across the world, and that the EU had received its largest ever spread of rankings.

The World Press Freedom Index has been published ever year since 2002 by Reporters Without Borders, an international nonprofit organisation registered in France that defends freedom of information and has consultative status with the United Nations and UNESCO.

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Drone Video of Los Angeles

August 14th, 2015

Los Angeles from Ian Wood on Vimeo.

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Nuclear Detonations From 1945 to 1998

August 7th, 2015

Created by artist Isao Hashimoto.

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“My name is Ernest Miller Hemingway …”

June 30th, 2015

“My name is Ernest Miller Hemingway.

I was born on July 21, 1899  My favorite authors are. Kipling, O. Henry and Steuart Edward Whit.

My favorite flower is Lady Slipper and Tiger Lily. My favorite sports are trout fishing, Hiking, shooting football and boxing.

My favorite studys are English. Zoology and Chemistry. I intend to Travel and write.”

(Ernest Hemingway, Age 9)

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April 30th, 2015

This too, is U.S. air power. The image shows the interior of the first American military cargo plane on a relief mission to Kathmandu, Nepal, following the earthquake.

Interior of C-17 on the way to Nepal

Photographer unknown. Click to enlarge.

Aircraft fact sheet
Type: Boeing C-17 Globemaster III
Crew: 3: 2 pilots, 1 loadmaster
Payload: 170,900 lb (77,519 kg) of cargo
Length: 174 ft (53 m)
Wingspan: 169.8 ft (51.75 m)
Height: 55.1 ft (16.8 m)
Empty weight: 282,500 lb (128,100 kg)
Max. takeoff weight: 585,000 lb (265,350 kg)
Powerplant: 4 × Pratt & Whitney F117-PW-100 turbofans, 40,440 lbf (180 kN) each
Cruise speed: Mach 0.74 (450 knots, 515 mph, 830 km/h)
Range: 2,420 nmi / 2,785 mi (4,482 km) to 5,610 nmi (10,390 km). Unlimited with aerial refueling.
Service ceiling: 45,000 ft (13,716 m)
Takeoff run at MTOW: 7,600 ft (2,316 m)
Landing distance: 3,500 ft (1,060 m)
Final assembly: Long Beach, California

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No More Water In Restaurants! California Outdoes New York City In Feelgood Law Contest

March 18th, 2015

For many years, California and New York City have been competing about who can pass the craziest feelgood nanny-state laws and regulations in America. To qualify, such laws must keep bureaucrats and politicians ostensibly busy, so it appears as though they are actually performing a valuable public service. Bold and fearless, our superhero politicians are fighting to save us from one urgent social ill or another! Bonsus points are awarded for laws that are unenforceable and inconsequential. Double bonus points if the law’s effects cannot be measured, rationally examined or fiscally accounted for in any way.

New York City was clearly in the lead with the NY SAFE Act of 2013, which among other things prohibits the possession of gun magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds. (No official word yet on how many of New York’s criminals have turned in their now illegal gun magazines). The law also required that only 7 rounds could be loaded in each 10-round magazine. (New York gets one point deducted because this provision was struck down by a federal judge in 2013. According to rumors, the court’s concern was that many of New York’s criminals would not be able to count to 7 even if they tried).

This week, I am pleased to report that California is in the lead once again!

We first pulled equal with New York by creating a law requiring porn actors to wear condoms while acting their acts. No word on how this should be enforced, but perhaps “Motion Picture Genital Inspector” will soon be an actual job title. Or maybe law enforcement agencies will need special condom enforcement squads. The future will tell.

But it gets even better! This week, California took the lead by adding a new statewide ban on glasses (or cups) of drinking water being served in restaurants – unless the customer specifically requests it. (You must say: “Waiter, may I please have a glass of tap water?” Waiter: “Certainly Sir, I’ll bring it right away” or “Sorry dude, we’re out of tap water today. How ‘bout some bottled water?”)

Yes, you read that right. Of course, we have a drought here in California. Big draught, big trouble. (But not big enough to induce the state to reexamine its crazy stance on immigration, and its equally crazy industrial agribusiness). You see, California’s industrial, export-oriented agriculture consumes 80% of the state’s water. And, the state has been adding about 1 million new residents per year without actually creating more water resources.

California is North America’s biggest producer of almonds, avocados, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, grapes, lettuce, milk, onions, peppers, spinach, tomatoes, walnuts, and dozens of other commodities. (Source: 2012 Department of Agriculture report (PDF). Only a tiny portion of this stuff could grow naturally in California’s ecosystem – and most of it is exported to other states. This means that drought stricken California is actually exporting huge amounts of water to the rest of North American, and even to Asia.

Someone calculated that for the amount of water used for the irrigation of California’s almond trees alone (they produce a cash crop mostly for export), someone like me could take a 10-minute shower each day. For 86 million years.

Relative to the overall water consumption, water imbibing in restaurants is a microscopically tiny portion. Even if totally prohibited, even if we all stopped drinking water altogether and only drank imported beer – it would make no difference whatsoever.

As a matter of fact, eating out in restaurants is a much bigger culprit, because the restaurant industry is extremely wasteful with water (and food) when compared to home kitchens. And in fact, the law might even have the opposite of the intended effect. If it induces people to order bottled water instead, then there’d be a net increase in drinking water consumption. That’s because filtering and bottling water actually wastes a lot of it. For instance, reverse osmosis, a commonly used process to produce bottled table water, wastes up to 86% of the feed water – only 14% ends up in the bottle.

Well played, California. How can you trump that, New York? Your move!

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R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy (1931- 2015)

February 27th, 2015

I had a dire feeling when Leonard Nimoy was taken to a nearby hospital on February 19, suffering from chest pain. (He had been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease several years earlier, which he attributed to smoking earlier in his life). This morning I woke up to the sad news that Mr. Nimoy had died at his home.

The character Mr. Nimoy played so well that everyone else attempting it seems like a joke to me, “Mr. Spock” was one of the heroes of my teenage years. At the time, I was struggling to find a workable and somewhat sane balance between my interests in science and rational thought on the one hand, and my passions for art and creativity drawing me into the opposite direction at the same time. I didn’t know where to turn or what to do with my life.

As a character, Spock appealed to me not only because he was fighting the same inner conflicts while inhabiting a world he found troublesome to relate to — a world populated by irrational, perplexing, immature, superfluous and barbarian humans, who were both irritating and fascinating at the same time.

Mr. Spock: “May I point out that I had an opportunity to observe your counterparts quite closely. They were brutal, savage, unprincipled, uncivilized, treacherous – in every way, splendid examples of homo sapiens. I found them quite … refreshing.” Captain Kirk (to Dr. McCoy): “I’m not sure, but I think we’ve been insulted.”

Spock also inspired me to reflect deeply about the differences between the emotional and the rational mind, and on the roles both aspects play in human existence. In time, this led me to the study of existentialismbudō, pantheism and pandeism.

Eventually, I arrived at the conclusion that the conflict between reason and emotion is a vital part of human existence. It forms a system of checks and balances. Only the right, harmonious balance between these two aspects of the human mind, heart and soul form a complete and content human being reaching its full potential.

Mr. Spock: “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting. It is not logical … but it is often true.”

Many years later, Mr. Nimoy graciously agreed to meet me in person. I wanted to discuss a project I had come up with for the reopening of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. (The facility was closed for renovations from 2002 to 2006, and Mr. Nimoy was a fervent supporter and donor. Today, the observatory’s Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater is named after him).

Our meeting took place at a synagogue in Hollywood, and I was probably as nervous as a schoolboy meeting his favorite superhero. I know Mr. Nimoy would not have appreciated my sentiments, but to me it seemed like meeting Mr. Spock in person.

Mr. Spock: “In critical moments, men sometimes see exactly what they wish to see.”

As far as I could tell, Mr. Nimoy liked the idea I was pitching, but of course he may just have been polite. In the end, it didn’t go anywhere, as it became clear that coming from an outsider without political connections, the complex hierarchies of Los Angeles city politics and its bureaucracy would have made it all but impossible to execute. (I was clearly too naive about politics back then).

What else remains there to be said? “Warp speed ahead, Mr. Spock?”. No. Rather: “Thank you, Mr. Nimoy. You did so much more than playing a fictional character on TV and in the movies.”

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A New Year’s Toast To Pope Gregory XIII

January 1st, 2015

by Tim Thompson

Today, most of the world celebrates New Year. But that has been the case only since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, which began to replace the older Julian calendar in 1582. The process lasted from 1582 until 1929, when the Soviet Union became the last country to abandon the Julian calendar (Greece switched in 1923). Most of the Catholic countries reformed their calendars quickly, in 1582-1583, while the non-Catholic countries followed rather slowly.

The British Empire and its colonies did not switch until 1752, well after most of the Founding Fathers of the USA were born, so it is necessary to distinguish between “old style” (Julian) and “new style” (Gregorian) dates in American history. For instance, we recognize George Washington’s birthday as 22 February 1732, but he was born on 11 February 1732, when the Julian calendar was in place; 22 February is the translation of the Julian date into the Gregorian date, pretending that the Gregorian calendar had been in force even in 1732.


The Gregorian calendar was adopted on the authority of Pope Gregory XIII [1502-1585], in order to fix the date for Easter, and return it to a date near the spring equinox (northern hemisphere), as it had been set in the First Council of Nicaea (20 May – 19 June, 325). The need to move Easter back to the right place in the calendar meant that when the new Gregorian calendar was adopted, 11 days were dropped, so that the day after Julian Thursday 4 October 1582 was Gregorian 15 october 1582 (5-14 October vanished).

Another big change was that the beginning of the new year moved from 1 March to 1 January. Leap day at the end of February was the last day of the year on the Julian calendar; leap day remained at the end of February, but now it seems incongruous, since there is nothing otherwise special about the end of February in the Gregorian calendar.

First page of the papal bull Inter Gravissimas. Click to enlarge.

First page of the papal bull Inter Gravissimas. Click to enlarge.

The old Julian calendar had been established in 46 BC under the authority of legendary Roman Emperor Julius Caesar [100-44 BC]. It was a modification of the older (and already many times reformed) Roman calendar. In even older, ancient civil calendars, the seasons were not fixed (i.e., the equinox and solstice dates drifted from year to year). The Roman calendar had already fixed that problem, but in a very cumbersome way. The old Roman calendar had 12 months, but only 355 days, so the Romans adopted leap months instead of leap days, and some years were as long as 378 days, just to keep the seasons in line. The Julian calendar fixed that, and fixed the length of the average year at 365.25 days.

But the real year is about 365.2425 days (a fact already known to ancient Greeks, but ignored by Caesar). So the seasons slowly slipped, and by 1582, had drifted about 11 days out of sync. Hence, the adoption of the Gregorian calendar included slipping the calendar back to compensate. Also, the Gregorian calendar changes the rule for leap years, so that century years are leap years only if they are evenly divisible by 400. So, 1700, 1800 and 1900 are not leap years, but 2000 is (and 2100 will not be). This small difference is enough to keep the civil calendar in sync with the seasons for about 10,000 years.

The Julian calendar and the older Roman calendars all started the new year in 1 January beginning about 153 BC. But in post-Roman Europe, the new year was usually moved to a date of Christian importance, such as Easter, the date of Annunciation (25 March) or the Nativity (25 December).

In post-Roman Anglo-Saxon England, the new year commonly began on 25 December, to align with both the pagan Winter Solstice and the Christian Nativity. When the Normans took over, they moved the new year to 1 January (1087-1155), then moved it to 25 March (1155-1751). In 1752, when the British Empire finally adopted the Gregorian calendar, New Year once again moved to 1 January.

So you can thank Pope Gregory XIII (and the British Empire) for today being New Year.

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R.I.P. L. Stephen Coles, M.D., PhD (1941 – 2014)

December 29th, 2014

LSCWhat is the maximum human lifespan? Why do we age? What are the causes and their mechanisms? Why do humans tend to live longer than most other mammals? Do we have a built-in “expiration date” – perhaps for the benefit of the species? Can the aging mechanism be delayed or entirely deactivated leading to eternal life?

These and the related questions were what fascinated Dr. L. Stephen Coles, who in 1990 founded the  Los Angeles Gerontology Research Group, a global network of researchers and parties intrigued by the boundaries of the human life span. Among the group’s primary work is the cataloguing, tracking and studying of so-called “supercentenarians” – people who live past the age of 110. (As of this writing, there are only 76 such humans verified to be living on this planet. 74 of them are women).

I became intrigued with this subject after reading about Dr. Coles’ work in this Los Angeles Times article in 2004. So I got in touch with him and found a fascinating researcher, inspiring person and mentor.


Subsequently, I wrote a long-form magazine article on the subject, which was published in a German science magazine. Dr. Coles was the most important and primary source for it. During the many hours we spent talking, I learned to appreciate not only his professional knowledge, but also his humor, gregarious personality and boundless enthusiasm for the hope that science would, very soon, make it possible for humans to live exceedingly longer than today.

Steve was a passionate proponent of evidence-based science and rational thought, for the prosperity of all mankind. Sadly, he didn’t get to benefit from the future scientific breakthroughs he was hoping for. I was shocked when shortly after Christmas of 2012, there came an e-mail announcing this Steve’s holidays had been rather miserable.

“I am sad to report that on Christmas Eve (two days ago), I received the
horrible diagnosis of ‘adenocarcinoma of the head of the pancreas’,” the message read. “BTW, this is the same form of cancer that Steve Jobs CEO of Apple Computer had before he passed away when money was no object. Although I knew that something was wrong with my body for the last three weeks (acute onset of symptoms with the occult tumor possibly growing subclinically for two years or more with no manifestation of its presence until it grew large enough to screw up my internal plumbing by its  sheer volume [about the size of a plum])”.

Knowing that pancreatic cancer has one of the lowest survival rates of all carcinomas, the first thing that came to my mind was obvious. It was really crushing.

Of course Steve was perfectly aware of his low odds. He went on writing, “Even in the best of all possible worlds, the mortality statistics after five years of chemo therapy are not great (around 50 percent). Of course, in the event of metastases, one’s life post chemotherapy/radiotherapy are significantly shortened proportionally.”

And unfortunately, there was metastasis in the liver.

Various attempts were made – first surgery (the “Whipple Procedure“), then various chemotherapy, as well as some experimental procedures involving the growth of tumor-specific cells in the laboratory.

While the procedures prolonged Steve’s life to the limits of the statistical prognosis range, they failed in in the end.

When this final message on Oct. 9, 2014, we all knew this was it. “Update on Health Status,” it said. “In order to be eligible for more services, last week I was placed on hospice care at home.  Now that I have been taken off taxotere, some measures of health have improved.  However, my eligibility for the ECLIPSE clinical trial has been placed on hold pending a decrease in frailty.”

Steve passed away on December 3, 2014, a few weeks short of living for two years after his diagnosis.

But the story does not end here. A few days before his death, Steve must have gone on his life’s final journey: From Los Angeles to Scottsdale, Arizona. Located there is the Alcor Life Extension Foundation – coincidentally also an organization which intrigues me, and about which I have also reported in detail.

Alcor is the leader in “cryonics”. This is an experimental technology which seeks to preserve human bodies through a procedure resulting in suspension of human tissues in liquid nitrogen, at extremely low temperatures, in perpetuity. The hope is that one day in the future, biotechnology will exist to revive these cryogenically “suspended” human bodies, restore them to life by the use of sophisticated nanotechnology, and also deal with whatever the cause of death was.

Depending on the preferences of the customer, either the entire body, the head or just the brain may be frozen (on the theory that once biotechnology has progressed far enough, it should also be possible to either create a new body, or transfer the brain’s content into a computer system).

I am not at all surprised that Steve was also intrigued by the idea and made arrangements to implement this option as a last resort.

And so, Steve’s brain will come to rest in a dewar of liquid nitrogen. Perhaps, one day, he might live again. And he has reportedly made a reservation to attend his colleague Johnny Adams’ 100th birthday party. In the year of 2049.

I will miss him.


L. Stephen Coles on Wikipedia

Gerontology Research Group

Obituary in the Los Angeles Times


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Merry Christmas From Los Angeles

December 24th, 2014

Downtown Los Angeles, 1930s?


Christmas on Broadway, Downtown Los Angeles, 1940s

Nov. 28, 1952: Police officer watches traffic on Hollywood Blvd. after holiday lights were turned on. Photo looking east from McCadden Place. (Los Angeles Times Archives)

Nov. 28, 1952: Police officer watches traffic on Hollywood Blvd. after holiday lights were turned on. Photo looking east from McCadden Place. (Los Angeles Times Archives)

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