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Reinhard Kargl

 

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FORWARD TO 2009

December 19, 2008

KILLING SALMONELLA WITH BOOZE

I love tiramisu and egg nogg, but the problem is that these calorie bombs don't taste right when pasteurized eggs are used. (I feel that if I'm already eating something that unhealthful, I might as well get the maximum enjoyment out of it). Because of the possibility of salmonella contamination from raw eggs, pasteurized egg products are now required in commercial food preparation, and recommended for use at home.

Personally, I am leaning toward the belief that the salmonella problem is relatively new and the result of our own doings. I think the real reason lies in our abominable way of raising chickens "factory style". This gives hens no opportunity to develop natural immunity to this commonly occuring microbe. Our farming practices have also resulted in new salmonella strains. These have practically been "bred" by the widespread application of antibiotics to farm animals. Like most common bugs, salmonella are very crafty survivalists. Over time, they adapt to each antibiotic we use to destroy them, and they become tougher and harder to combat by our own immune system.

Maybe there is hope: booze. The antimicrobial effect of alcohol has been known (and used) for thousands of years. Before water treatment and the knowledge of germs and hygiene became widespread, alcoholic beverages were the only safe and sanitary drinks. This explains why beer brewing and wine making were seen as very necessary contributions to society. In Europe, these tasks were often performed or supervised by monasteries, and for the common good. This was so vital that the first laws regulating food manufacturing and purity covered brewing, hence the famous German Reinheitsgebot for beer. (It mandates that nothing but water, yeast, malt and hops may be used).

The following video is about a fascinating experiment with egg nogg. For years, this particular recipe has been has been a holiday tradition at Rockefeller University. Although it is made from raw eggs, nobody ever got sick. Amazingly, the concoction is mixed six weeks before Christmas, then simply chilled. No artificial preservaties are used, except one: alcohol. The result is an egg nogg much cleaner than anything you can buy at the store. The alcohol content of 20% (and maybe also the sugar, which is another natural microbe killer if the concentration is high enough) seems to do the trick. Watch this!

Still, some caution is indicated. There are too many unkowns at this time. It could be that chilling the nogg for six weeks is essential, or that slight variations in sugar or alcohol concentration might make it possible for salmonella to survive.

December 8, 2008

TRIBUNE GROUP DECLARES BANKRUPTCY

I have frequently written about Sam Zell and the Tribune Group. What is happening to this media conglomerate is a good example for what is happening in the industry as a whole.

Today came a surprising turn of events: The Tribune Group has declared bankruptcy. It's not because the newspapers, radio and TV stations belonging to the group are unprofitable. On their own, they would be doing just fine. But the consolidation orchestrated by speculator-investor Sam Zell left the company $13 billion in debt. Not even construction magnate Zell has that much money, so he leveraged against all assets of the Tribune Group. The problem now is to make the loan payments, which amount to $1 billion annually. So Zell and his friends have been trying to sell off assets, leveraging against even more assets and of course, they have cut staff dramatically.

Looking at the Tribune Group's L.A. Times these days, it is apparent that the quality and depth has suffered under Zell. It is not possible to provide the same jounalistic content with a creative staff cut from 1200 to less than 700.

What drives me up the wall these days is people who are claiming they are "getting their news on the Internet". No, folks -- you are not. Yahoo (and similar sites) do not employ journalists. They "aggregate" their "news" from sources such as wire services and (maybe you guessed it): newspapers and magazines. These Internet news outlets merely regurgitate what others have written. They do little (if any) original newsgathering and original research.

Yes, there are personal blogs about all sorts of thing. Some are excellent. Many cover their chosen topic to an extent no general, traditional outlet could. However, the guys who write these gems are usually unpaid or underpaid enthusiasts. I'm all for private initiative, but these guys don't have the budget to set up a news bureau in Afghanistan, and they do not have the resources to quickly dispatch someone to Mumbai when the bullets are flying. They do not have a network of experts and an army of researchers, archivists, illustrators, photographers, copyright and free speech lawyers backing them up. Blogs are great for what they are, but they should be viewed as a supplement to traditional publications, and not as a replacement.

The sad truth is that online advertising pays very little. It is not enough funding to maintain the professional power, apparatus and expertise that stands behind a traditional, printed newspaper or magazine. Even if a traditional publication maintains a web site to generate additional revenue, there is by far not enough money. In the case of the L.A. Times for example, only less than 9% of its revenue comes from the web site.

So, if you are interested in free, diverse media and news sources: Buy the newspaper. Buy magazines. They are best bargain in America today.

December 1, 2008

ENDEAVOUR ROCKS L.A.

A loud bang permeated the building while I was at home yesterday afternoon. It sounded as if someone in the house had loudly slammed a door. But it was the sonic boom from Space Shuttle Endeavour as it crossed over Los Angeles.

The shuttle was returning from a mission to the International Space Station.

Space Shuttle landings are normally carried out in Florida, close to the launch center. But when the weather there does not meet specifications, Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert east of here is the preferred alternate landing site. It offers more stable weather and longer runways.

The disadvantage of California landings is that the shuttle needs to be lifted on top of a specially equippped Boeing 747 for its return trip to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. These ferry flights take about a week and are quite costly.

November 17, 2008

THOUGHTS AT THE OBSERVATORIES

Reflecting on the causes of our economical train wreck, it occurred to me that our current economic system has gone mad with wild speculation, self indulgence, and unrestrained personal greed. This is far from a sustainable form of capitalism.

While I was a guest at the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution yesterday, I realized that Andrew Carnegie was perfectly right with his vision of how capitalism should work. Carnegie steadfastly maintained that a businessman had every right to make as much money as possible. During his lifetime, he did not shy away from cutting his workers’ pay while increasing their work hours and breaking up unions and strikes.

But on the other hand, Carnegie built his immense wealth on humble beginnings and on hard work. He expected the same from everyone else. He rejected speculation and wealth accumulated from sources other than personal labor.

Andrew Carnegie, 1835 - 1919

As a staunch Republican, Carnegie believed in a small government and was opposed to income and property taxes. On the other hand, he supported massive inheritance and estate taxes of up to 100% for large estates.

In Carnegie’s model, a man should spend and give away his wealth before his death, thereby returning it to the community from which it came. Those who did not, he wrote in his Gospel of Wealth (1889), would “pass away ‘unwept, unhonored and unsung’ … Of such as these the public verdict will then be: The man who dies thus rich thus dies disgraced”.

Andrew Carnegie -- at the time the world's richest man -- handed out more than $350 million (tens of billions in today’s money) to small colleges, schools and libraries. He provided trusts to pay student’s tuition and pensions for professors, built a library, museum and concert hall complex in Pittsburgh, gave millions of dollars to campaigns for world peace, and establish the Carnegie Corp. for the “advancement and diffusion of knowledge”. He also founded and endowed a scientific research institution in Washington, which to this day maintains its role as a world leader in astronomical and other research.

The machine shop at the Pasadena headquarters of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution.The black box on the left is part of the Carnegie Planet Finder Spectrograph (PFS), a high resolution instrument for the detection of extrasolar planets. The blue tube on the right is part of Four Star, a widefield near-infrared camera. Both are currently under construction. (Photograph: Reinhard Kargl)

November 17, 2008

For days, several brushfires have been buring around Los Angeles. A fine rain of ash is blanketing all of L.A., and the air quality is miserable. Here is what it looks like from space. (My location is where the two diagonals of the image would meet).

High resolution images are available here.

November 4, 2008

October 9, 2008

McCAIN's "OVERHEAD PROJECTOR" REMARK DRAWS FUROR IN SCIENCE COMMUNITY

In the recent debate between presidential candiates John McCain and Barack Obama, McCain declared:

"[Obama] voted for nearly a billion dollars in pork barrel earmark projects, including, by the way, $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?"

Of course, this is no ordinary "overhead projector" but a state-of-the-art planetarium used in public education. Although federal funds were requested in its construction, none were granted.

 

The reaction from science folks has been fast and furious. This is a notoriously tight-knit community, especially when rallying to a cause, and boy, are they are rallying to this one.

 

Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log has a great summary of the uproar.

"For McCain to use this as a political zinger is insulting..." (Bad Astronomy)

"Planetariums are Bridges to the Future, and America would be a much better place if all the congressional earmarks went to projects like them." (The Perfect Silence)

 

"The logo for Senator John McCain's campaign has a star in the middle. I wonder what his guide star is? It can't be the same one that ten million children have seen at the Adler Planetarium. Why should anyone want their star to dim?" (Discovery Space)

 

The Adler Planetarium even issued a statement, noting that the request, ironically, was not even funded: "To clarify, the Adler Planetarium requested federal support -- which was not funded -- to replace the projector in its historic Sky Theater, the first planetarium theater in the Western Hemisphere.... To remain competitive and ensure national security, it is vital that we educate and inspire the next generation of explorers to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math."


The Bush administration has been slashing science funding left and right. If the next president continues on the same course, I see a bleak future ahead for this country. The point is clear: Unless McCain demonstrates a serious commitment to science, public education and research, he shouldn't count on support from the science community.

September 23, 2008

BAILOUT IN PERSPECTIVE: HOW MUCH SCIENCE WOULD IT BUY?

Including the money already spent for bailing out mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and insurance giant AIG, the total cost to us lowly taxpayers could be somewhere between $ I and 2 trillion. In the now predominant short scale usage, one trillion dollars is

$ 1,000,000,000,000

Or maybe it's time we got used to scientific notation?

$ 1012

There, see? So much more palatable!

The figure represents the largest value any entity on this planet has ever thrown at any cause.

I was curious to see how much science could be accomplished for this handsome amount and compiled some figures (below).

When making the comparison, we should keep in mind where the money goes. For instance, the money spent on the Apollo program was not sent to the moon, but it was handed to 400,000 American employees and 20,000 high-tech firms, universities and research institutes. Which in turn was part of the reason why the U.S. became the world's dominant player in the civilian and aerospace business -- a position now being challenged by the European Union.

And the money for the Wall Street rescue program? Where does it go? Rather than creating new jobs, futuristic concepts and entire new industries, It merely plugs the gaping holes left by shameless speculation.

 

EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY (ESA), annual budget:
$ 4 billion
U.S. NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE, annual budget:
$ 4.75 billion
U.S. NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION, annual budget:
$ 6 billion
LARGE HADRON COLLIDER, total cost:
$ 5 to 9 billion
HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE: (contruction, launch and operation, total):
$6 billion
U.S. CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL (CDC) annual budget:
$ 8.8 billion
MOON LANDINGS, annual program cost (calculated in 2005 dollars):
$ 9 billion
NASA, annual budget (2008):
$17 billion
APOLLO MOON LANDINGS, total program cost (calculated in 2005 dollars):
$135 billion

(Figures in U.S. dollars. Euros have been converted at an exchange rate of 1:1.4)

September 16, 2008

LOS ANGLES TIMES EMPLOYEES SUE PARENT COMPANY AND SAM ZELL

And now, the barrel runneth over in the next chapter of the saga around the Los Angeles Times and its heavily indebted parent company, the Tribune Co.

Tomorrow's edition of the Los Angeles Times will announce that a group of former employees and one current journalist have filed a lawsuit against Sam Zell and his Tribune Co., seeking class action status and unspecified damages as a result of Zell's transactions. These included leveraging against everything the company owns, including the employees pension funds, massive layoffs and cutbacks, and selling off assets in an attempt to pay the company's huge debt, which was incurred as a result of the Zell takeover earlier this year. As part of the deal, former Tribune Co. CEO Dennis J. FitzSimmons received nearly $21 million in bonuses, severance and other payouts, according to the lawsuit.

Tomorrow's L.A. Times article is here.

For background information, see my blog posts of July 14, July 2, Feb. 15 and Feb. 14.

September 15, 2008

TECHNOLOGY MAY HAVE PREVENTED DEADLY TRAIN CRASH

Last Friday, a Metrolink commuter train in Los Angeles collided head-on with a freight train moving in the opposite direction. The terrible crash mashed the passenger train locomotive and its first car together. At least 26 people were crushed to death, and many more suffered horrific injuries.

Preliminary information shows that the passenger train engineer, who was also killed in the crash, had overlooked a red light.

The railroad operators will have some explaining to do. Technology to prevent this kind of crash exists, and the National Transportation Safety Board has been recommending it for 30 years. It is standard on European and Japanese railroads. But although Southern California has more freight trains and commuter trains sharing tracks than any other place in the U.S., the railroads have been stalling.

Such “positive train control” systems use GPS data, sensors and transponders to monitor train locations and speeds. The systems can automatically apply brakes when unauthorized movements, speed violations, improperly aligned switches or trains on the wrong track are detected.

It sure would be costly: outfitting 100,000 miles of track nationwide would cost $2.3 billion, according to an estimate by the Federal Railroad Administration. (Currently, only 4,000 miles of track are covered).

Oddly, the Federal Railroad Administration is maintaining a special grant, the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing Program, which could be used to install positive train control. So far, no railroad has even filed an application.

September 15, 2008

LOS ANGELES EMERGENCY RESPONDERS MAKE HEROIC EFFORT

Where the railroads shamefully failed, one must be in awe of the way our firefighters and other emergency responders performed. The first engine company arrived at the scene four minutes after the call. Within short order the site was teeming with 30 fire trucks, heavy lifting equipment, heavily equipped search and rescue crews, dogs and hundreds of personnel.

Even veterans were shocked by what they encountered: scores of injured stumbling from the wreckage, and many others trapped inside, moaning from the pain of severe injuires and crying out for help. It was to be a race against time, and trapped victims were dying as firefigthers worked feverishly to get to them. Despite all efforts, many of the trapped could not be extracted from the wreckage alive. Meanwhile, a fire had started, threatening to blow up two 1,000-gallon fuel tanks on the Union Pacific engine.

Nearby, a school parking lot was turned into an instant airfield with fuel trucks and air traffic control. Helicopters ferried in personnel with search and rescue “go kits”, and dozens of wounded were airlifted to emergency rooms throughout the region.

I am sure there are many who showed the stuff they were made from on that day. One such person is Sheriff’s Deputy John Ebert (54), who was off-duty and on his way home on the crashed train. Despite suffering a broken collarbone, a collapsed lung, broken ribs, a broken hand and a puncture wound in his leg, he managed to pull several people from the wreck before he got medical attention. (He was in stable but critical condition on Saturday).

"Marlboro Man" model Wayne McLaren.

TOBACCO USE DATA

According to the WHO, there are 1.3 billion smokers worldwide. Each year, 5.4 million of them die. While tobacco use is declining among the educated and in high-income countries, there are huge increases in developing countries such as India and China.

Smoking is set to kill 6.5 million people in 2015 and 8.3 million humans in 2030, with the biggest rise in low-and middle-income countries.

More figures can be found here.

Wayne McLaren dying from cancer. McLaren spent the final months of his life speaking out about the dangers of smoking.

August 22, 2008

LEROY SIEVERS, 1955 - 2008

A great American journalist passed away last week. Leroy Sievers was a close associate and friend of Ted Koppel, the creator of ABC’s Nightline.

Sievers was born in Los Angeles in 1955 and attended Princeton and UC Berkeley. He first media jobs were on campus radio, after which he began to work as an assignment editor at a local TV station in Oakland. From 1982, Sievers worked at CBS in Los Angeles, Miami and New York. In 1991 Sievers joined Nightline, where he covered many difficult stories such as the genocide in Ruanda. Sievers and Koppel covered the 2003 invasion of Iraq directly from the front and were among the first American troups to reach Baghdad.

Altogether, Sievers spent 14 years with Nightline and became the show’s executive producer in 2000. One year later, he was successfully treated for colon tumors, but four years later, he was diagnosed with brain and lung cancer.

Sievers decided to share his battle with cancer. His popular blog, My Cancer developed a huge following and received over 30,000 comments.

Sievers was 53 years old.

August 22, 2008

LEAD TIRE WEIGHTS: A DUMB ENGINEERING SOLUTION

Some engineering solutions are so dumb one could scream. Or cry. Or both. Here’s an example:

Problem: Commercially manufactured automotive wheels and tires have slightly uneven weight distribution. At high speeds, they will not rotate evenly around their axis.

Solution: Calibrate and clip small counterbalance weights to the rims. This is usually done when new tires are fitted. (Most drivers are not even aware of these little weights – but check your wheels next time when you are at the gas station and you will find them).

Since the beginning of the automotive age, the material of choice for these balancing weights has been lead. The metal is heavy and easy to shape into small parts. But lead it very toxic. It has a nasty habit of accumulating in the environment, then showing up in food.

"Unforeseen" problem: The weights often fall off while the vehicle is traveling. Many end up on the road, where ongoing traffic eventually grinds them to poison dust. In a lawsuit recently filed by an environmental group, it is estimated that “wheel weights falling off vehicles release 500,000 pounds of lead each year into the environment in California”. (Los Angeles Times, Aug. 21, 2008).

So why use lead? Foremost, because it is heavy, which means that the weights can be made small. Secondly, lead has been widely available; it is cheaper than less toxic heavy materials and it is easy to shape into small bits.

Now that the dangers of lead are well documented, we could easily use other materials instead of lead. For how much, you ask? Using industry figures, I calculated the additional costs to be between 25 cents and 1 dollar per vehicle.

So why don’t we? One word: stupidity. In the California, we are relying on “voluntary” plans for the industry to phase out lead. Chrysler and several wheel manufacturers have agreed to end shipments of lead weights to California by the end of 2009 – but only under threat of a lawsuit. The agreement does not extend to other states and of course it does nothing about the dozens of millions of cars with lead weights already registered in California.

When it comes to poison, “voluntary” measures just don't cut it. Once again, we are limping behind the rest of the world. The European Union has already banned lead tire weights in 2005. And Japanese and South Korean carmakers have been phasing them out as well.

August 22, 2008

E-MAIL: IT'S (ALMOST) ALL JUNK

Barracuda Networks, a California based firm specializing in e-mail technology, claims that 95% of all e-mail circulating on the Internet in 2007 was spam. The firm based this figure on an analysis of over 1 billion messages received daily by its 50,000 customers worldwide.

Anti-spam legislation has shown no effect. Spammers cunningly hide their identities by routing spam through other people's computers, web sites and networks.

Meanwhile, e-mail hosts are spending huge amounts of money on additional data infrastructure and on elaborate security and spam filtering systems. These costs are then passed on to consumers.

July 31, 2008

WATER FOUND ON MARS

This just in! Laboratory tests aboard NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander have, for the first time, identified water in a soil sample. The sample came from a trench approximately 2 inches deep.

Since landing on May 25, Phoenix has been studying soil with a chemistry lab, TEGA, a microscope, a conductivity probe and cameras. Besides confirming the 2002 finding from orbit of water ice near the surface and deciphering the newly observed stickiness, the science team is trying to determine whether the water ice ever thaws enough to be available for biology and if carbon-containing chemicals and other raw materials for life are present.

July 30, 2008

FIRST LAKE ON ANOTHER WORLD FOUND

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has found the first body of liquid outside of Earth. "Ontario Lacus" on Saturn's moon Titan could be one of hundreds or even thousands of smaller lakes. It is about 20,000 square kilometers (7,800 square miles) in diameter. This makes it slightly larger than North America's Lake Ontario. Still, it's not an inviting place for a swim. Titan's surface temperature is a chilly 300 Fahrenheit (minus 184 Centigrade). And the lake is not made from water but from liquid ethan, a hydrocarbon. Titan shows overwhelming evidence of a weather system involving evaporation, rain and even fluid carved channels like on Earth. What a strange world it must be!

***

EARTHQUAKE JAMS PHONE SERVICE

So far so good. Yesterday's earthquake has caused only minor damage here, but there were no injuries and almost everything seems to be up and running. One interesting problem was that for hours after the quake, both landline and cellphone service was intermittent, and many who attempted to make a call received a busy signal or no signal at all. This was not caused by physical destruction, but by too many people making calls to figure out what happened. A spokeswoman for one of the wireless carriers reported an 800% call spike. The call volume soared way past predictions for a disaster of this scale. The should teach us an important lesson: in a really serious quake or catastrophy, we cannot hope for having phone service to communicate with loved ones or with emergency services.

July 29, 2008; 12h55

In the Los Angeles area, there is a 5% chance that an earthquake is precursor for something larger to come within a day. Foreshocks are generally on the same fault system as the main shock. The greatest risk is within two hours, but it drops in a steep curve. After 24 hours, this risk is down to 1% but continues at about that level for a few weeks. Although every earthquake relieves some stress, the drop is miniscule in comparison to what has built up. At the end of its fault line, a quake actually adds stress. (Dr. Kate Hutton, Seismological Laboratory, Caltech).

Caltech has just revised its preliminary data to 5.4 on the Richter scale, at an epicenter about 2.9 miles outside of Chino Hills. (It will take at least a couple of days to get exact measurements). So far, we've had 27 aftershocks -- the largest being about magntitude 3.

Minor damage reports are coming in, but so far no injuries.

July 29, 2008; 12h15

EARTHQUAKE RATTLES SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

At about 11h45 this morning, we were shaken by an earthquake. As of now, most local radio and TV channels have interrupted their programming and have switched to live coverage. Within seconds, Caltech transmitted their first preliminary data: magnitude 5.9, epicenter at Chino Hills, which is about 29 miles south-east of downtown L.A. The shaking was felt as far away as San Diego and Las Vegas. So far, there are no injury or damage reports.

I just called a friend in Chino Hills, who seems to have no apparent damage at his house.

All airports are operating. Power, Internet and phones seem to be working. But Disneyland, Griffith Observatory and other venues are being evacuated as a precautionary measure.

Although it looks like we got away fine, we still have to hold our breath. This area is criss-crossed with hundreds of faults. Every rupture causes shifts that might increase or decrease the pressure in other areas, causing more faults to get moving as well.

Strange: just a few minutes before the quake I was having a discussion about earthquakes. And this morning, my neighbor dreamed about an earthquake.

July 28, 2008

HUGE U.S. BUDGET DEFICIT ENDANGERS SCIENCE FUNDING

No matter who becomes the next U.S. president at the end of this year, the long term economic crisis we face is so serious that it hardly matters what the White House does.

The administration has just announced that next year’s federal budget deficit will be the highest ever: almost half a trillion dollars. This is about as much as the entire economic output of Belgium. The figure does not even include “extras”, such as the cost of the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. To put this in perspective: even if we completely eliminated the entire military (leaving the country without any defense), we still could not balance the budget. To do that, we’d also have to eliminate all federal spending for education, social programs and, regrettably, most science. Or, we could increase taxes by $12,000 per household per year. (Yeah, right. At the same time, we are facing the greatest number of home foreclosures, private bankruptcies and loan defaults since the Great Depression).

This is just the federal deficit. Never mind that most state governments also run deficits. Here in California, we have been adding 500,000 people per year -- the overwhelming majority arrive with few assets and little formal education. Of course, there has not been enough money to add infrastructure for half a million additional people per year. The result? Skyrocketing prices for everything (because of more demand for land, goods and services), a dilapidating infrastructure and the 49th worst credit rating among 50 states in the union.

Are consumers reacting? You bet. For example, picture the distance from the Earth to the Moon. Multiply by 40,000. This is the number of automobile miles American drivers will be cutting back this year. (While this may be great for the environment and good news for our serious trade deficit, it also creates another problem: less gasoline consumption means that the amount of gas tax collected is falling drastically, which creates huge shortfalls for road and bridge maintenance).

Anyone who still believes that this is not a serious crisis might consider becoming a resident of Disneyland.

July 22, 2008

NEW YORK TIMES REJECTS McCAIN ESSAY

Rejections are an unpleasant fact of life every journalist and author has to deal with. So I can't help but feel a tiny bit of schadenfreude over the New York Times' recent rejection of an essay submitted by presidential candidate, Senator John McCain (or should we rather say: his ghostwriter). Saying that the piece didn't offer any real news, New York Times editor David Shipley sent the manuscript back for a rewrite.

July 16, 2008

more

July 14, 2008

CHICAGO TRIBUNE EDITOR, LOS ANGELES TIMES PUBLISHER CALL IT QUITS

The series of high-level resignations in protest of Sam Zell's mandated cuts continues. Today, Chicago Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski and Los Angeles Times publisher David Hiller resigned in the wake of cuts of staff and resources forced by parent company Tribune Co.

These resignations come a week after the 161-year old Chicago Tribune was told to lay off another 80 journalists.Two months ago, George De Lama, the paper's managing editor for news, announced he was leaving the Tribune after 30 years.

Hiller took over as Los Angeles Times publisher after Johnson publicly criticized cost-cutting measures including a reduction of the paper's foreign coverage. Hiller then forced out editor Dean Baquet, who also opposed the cutbacks. In January, Los Angeles Times editor James O'Shea stepped down, also in protest of the cuts orderd by Tribune Co. He was the third editor to leave the paper since 2005. The paper's current editor is Russ Stanton. (Associated Press).

Also owned by the Tribune Co., the Baltimore Sun will stop printing a separate business section, and the Orlando Sentinel has reduced staff and changed its layout to include more graphics and charts but less text.

Sam Zell is a real estate mogul who financed the Tribune Co.'s take-over by putting the company $12 billion into debt which now needs to be serviced at $1 billion a year.

Tribune Co.'s CEO Randy Michaels said Tribune executives were "evaluating the productivity of individual journalists with an eye toward cutbacks."

Nice work environment.

July 2 , 2008

SELLING NEWSPAPERS -- MORE LAYOFFS AT LOS ANGELES TIMES

The deterioration of American newspaper journalism is continuing. After severely cutting its newsroom staff earlier this year (see my entry of February 15), the Los Angeles Times is now being forced to undertake another another round of layoffs. This time, 250 jobs will be eliminated, which includes 150 journalists or 1/6th of the creative staff. The paper will also reduce the number of published pages by 15% and drop the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

The irony is that the L.A. Times is not unprofitable. If the paper was still independently owned, the cuts would not be necessary. But since the L.A. Times is now just a subsidiary of a large media conglomerate which is deeply in debt, it does not make enough money to satisfy the parent company's stock holders. The takeover and consolidation last December was orchestrated by Sam Zell, a businessman with no experience or personal interest in the media. Zell financed the Tribune group consolidation by taking the company 12 billion dollars into debt and leveraging against all assets, including pension funds. According to the U.K.'s Guardian, the Tribune group reported a combined cash flow of 1 billion last year, which is barely enough to cover the annual debt repayments. This is why Zell must now squeeze the last dollar out of every media outlet in the Tribune’s portfolio, even if it means ruining its assets in the long term. This probably does not bother Mr. Zell much, because he will sell each of his media outlets when the timing is right and a good offer materializes.

Clearly, the media outlets in the Tribune portfolio are now being viewed as speculative assets. There is not longer much interest in making money the old fashioned way. When a journalist talks about "selling papers", he means "selling copies". When a speculator like Mr. Zell speaks of "selling papers", he means "selling the publishing operation". Therefore, the main objective is to improve each portfolio asset’s stock value to the point where it can be sold for a profit. Cutting expenses is merely the fastest way to accomplish this, and product quality becomes a mere afterthought. By the time consumers stop buying a product because of perceived quality issues, the speculative investor has already cashed in on the sale and is long gone.

Decades ago, the Los Angeles Times had a newsroom staff of 1,300. After the latest round of cuts, there will only be 720 journalists left. Other creative staff, such as photographers and illustrators, have also been cut. Of course, this has resulted in a dramatic loss of coverage, original research and overall quality.

Los Angeles is unique among western world cities in that is has only one daily newspaper covering the entire region.

June 25 , 2008

LOS PADRES NATIONAL FOREST

Living in the modern world, we hardly reflect on the profound importance and meaning of the two annual solstices. This year I spent summer solstice with friends in the Los Padres National Forest in the California wilderness.

Click here to see an album of pictures I took.

(All pictures: © Reinhard Kargl)

June 18 , 2008

DATE PALM GROWN FROM 2,000-YEAR OLD SEED

Our best food preservation methods pale by comparison to what nature does. Seeds are near perfect containers for all the chemicals necessary to produce life.

The oldest seeds known to successfully germinate and produce life are 2,000 years old. They consist of date palm seeds found in the ruins of Masada in present-day Israel. (The previous record holder was a 1,300 year-old Chinese lotus).

Meanwhile, a lone date seedling grown from the Masada find has grown to be about four feet tall. Named “Methuselah” after the oldest person in the Bible, it is the only known link to the Judean date palm forests that once shaded and nourished the region.

Preliminary comparison with modern date palms shows a 20% to 50% difference from current date palm varieties. The resurrected date palm variety may have lost traits such as special adaptation or resistance to pests and diseases. We won’t know for sure for a while. If all goes well (and if Methuselah turns out to be female), fruit will not appear before 2010 at the earliest.

May 25, 2008

PHOENIX TOUCHES DOWN ON MARS

After a 10-month flight, the NASA-JPL spacecraft Phoenix has arrived on Mars. The lander performed an absolutely flawless descent and a picture perfect touchdown this afternoon local time. I almost could not believe how well things went. Of course, the landing was a big and exciting event in Southern California. The newsroom at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was packed, and local gatherings with newsfeeds were held at the Griffith Observatory, the RTMC Astronomy Expo and at the Planetary Society's Planetfest 2008.

I can't really agree with NASA's idea to schedule the landing for the Memorial Day weekend. These days, people are simply too busy and distracted on a holiday weekend. News coverage of major sporting events such as the Indianapolis 500 and the various celebrations honoring veterans have dominated the news today. I'm sure things will pick up in the coming days.

Meanwhile, the lander seems to be in good health. The first pictures have already been transmitted.

Full NASA coverage of the mission is here.

May 8, 2008

LET'S PUT AN END TO "INBRED RACING"

In 2006, the American thoroughbred Barbaro won the legendary Kentucky Derby -- a race held since 1875. Two weeks later, both his hind legs snapped broken during another race. The owners kept him alive (probably hoping to cash in on stud fees), but in 2007, all medical treatments failed and the celebrated horse had to be put down.

This year’s Kentucky Derby was marred by another tragedy. After finishing second, Eight Belles fell down. Both her ankles had broken during the race. The three-year old female filly was slaughtered right on the track. And at last October’s Breeder’s Cup, the European horse George Washington was killed on the track in front of the grandstands.These horses were not injured in collisions with other horses, in the heat of the race. No, these horses’ bones broke simply because they were too fragile.

There are about 90 race tracks in the U.S. Every year, 700 to 800 horses are killed due to broken legs from racing. For every 1000 horses racing, two “break down” and have to be killed within 24 hours.

Having grown up with horses and riding training, I am utterly appalled and disgusted by what goes on in professional thoroughbred racing these days. This is nothing but animal abuse, and I find it morally decrepit. Today’s racehorses are man-made, genetically engineered creatures.

They are bred for speed, amusement and wagering. To achieve the wanted qualities, they have been inbred to the point where all 20 horses competing at the Kentucky Derby come from the same bloodlines. All according to the principle: Bone is weight. Weight is bad. Muscle is speed. Speed is good. The result are horses with spindly legs and weak tendons ready to snap under muscle power. Not only that! Horses are routinely doped and medicated to improve performance, dull pain, to enhance muscle growth and to conceal injuries. In addition, valuable racehorses are often kept away from pastures, natural environments and other horses, all of which would promote natural and healthy body development, but would also mean the risk of injury and infectious diseases. For social herd animals like horses, this alone is a form of cruelty and neglect.

The strange thing is that depite all the breeding and training efforts, man has not improved upon nature at all. Today’s racehorses are not much faster than 50 years ago. And about 100 years ago, the winners were only a few seconds slower. This year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Big Brown, clocked in at 2:01.81. That’s about the same time as 1931 winner Twenty Grand (2:01.80). And slower than 1941 winner Wirlaway (2:01:40). What makes this irony even more deplorable is that audiences don’t even care about end times, as they do in human sports! Most horse race spectators only care about the order in which horses go through the finish line.

As a horse lover, I’m not against horse racing in general – after all, horses want to run and chase each other. It’s in their nature. But I think the time has come to make immediate changes to the sport of horseracing. First, the insane breeding practices must stop. Secondly, we should mandate that horses must be at least 5 years old to race (not 2 or 3 years, like now). This will give them more time to complete the development of their legs and bone structure. Third, we should mandate that track horses be given adequate time on pastures and grass. Forth, horse and track owners should be forced to establish a medical fund for injured horses. And fifth, we must have a list of banned substances and strict doping control for horses, as we do in human sports.

With Ricardo, one of my family's horses, sometime during my student years. The picture was probably taken by a family member.

 

 

Ricardo, a Trakehner, was mostly used in dressage. He is still alive, but very old now. He currently enjoys his retirement on an Austrian farm and spends most of his time on pastures and in the company of other horses. I applaud my parents for financing his retirement in this manner -- something most horse owners would not do.

April 18, 2008

ORDER FROM CHAOS: FATHER OF CHAOS THEORY PASSES AWAY

Can a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil cause a tornado to bear down on Texas?

That’s possible, as Edward Norton Lorenz showed in his fascinating research. Norton was one of the fathers of chaos theory, which caused a dramatic change in mankind’s view of nature.

The mathematician and meteorologist devised computer models showing that the minutest changes in the initial values of variables could cause the most dramatic effects in the outcome of large and complicated systems such as the weather. This became known as the “butterfly effect”.

Chaos theory has many far ranging effects and uses. It demonstrates that we will never be able to reliably and precisely predict the weather and the other complex systems forming our universe.

This image shows a two-dimensional reduction of the (normally three-dimensional) Lorenz Attractor. It represents the long-term behavior of a chaotic flow in a nonlinear, dynamical and deterministic system, and how it evolves over time. The equations from which this image derived were introduced in E. Lorenz' 1963 paper.

This image of a Lorenz Attractor appeared in the Nature journal 31 August 2000, pp 949 as part of an article titled "The Lorenz Attractor Exists".

In its practical application, chaos theory allows the creation of algorithms that can produce random patterns as we find them in nature. For instance, such algorithms are used by computer software to create natural looking (“chaotic”) surface textures in video games, and more realistic visual effects in movies or artist renderings.

My personal fascination with chaos theory is related to my interest in existentialism as defined by Søren Kierkegaard. Chaos theory not only made me realize that everything in the universe is connected, and that even though the principle of cause and effect remains intact even in supposed "random" events, the real cause at the beginning of a complex cascade of events is often too remote and too obscure to be rationally understood.

Being a rationalist by nature, I once held on to the belief that given sufficient data, understanding of the laws of nature and enough processing power, everything in the universe could eventually be calculated and predicted. I no longer believe this to be the case. Chaos theory helped me to open my mind to the concept of mysticism by introducing me to the notion of infinite complexity, whereby the more complex aspects of the universe defy examination by the light of reason alone.

Lorenz lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was an enthusiastic outdoorsman who continued to enjoy hiking, skiing and climbing until weeks before his death.

Having suffered from cancer, Lorenz died at his home on April 16, 2008 at the age of 90. A week ago, he had finished his last scientific paper.

April 15, 2008

BANK ACCOUNT RAIDED

It’s the kind of thing that “only happens to other people.” Last night when I came home, I found a love letter from my bank, informing me that my personal checking account was overdrawn and that I was being fined $35.

This morning I went online, frothing at the mouth, to check my account. Had I messed up the accounting? What I saw was rather shocking: over the course of several days, my bank account had not only been completely drained, but overdrawn by thousands of dollars. The cash withdrawals were made from an ATM in Hollywood.

To add insult to injury, the bank had also assessed a multitude of rather hefty fees: "overdraft fees", "negative balance fees", "account balance inquiry fees", and yet more fees for making withdrawals from an ATM not owned by the bank. But they had nicely given away my money, even when the account was already overdrawn, because, as a bank representative later told me, of “my great relationship with the bank”. (I guess what she meant was that it was great that they could stick me with all these fees).

Getting someone from the fraud department on the phone took 15 minutes of hold time. I was told that will receive affidavit forms via fax. I am to fill them out, have them notarized and turn them in to the bank. They will then investigate the incident, which, the bank tells me, will take a minimum of 10 days. In addition, I was instructed to file a police report -- and live without a personal checking account.

My account is of course suspended now, and my ATM and debit cards are cancelled. If, at the end of the investigation, the bank finds that I did not make these withdrawals, they will refund the money. Checks I have written will most likely bounce. And of course, I have to spend all this time trying to sort out the mess. Just what I need!

For years I have been reading about the inherent problem with charge cards, and how they are less secure than credit cards. Yet, I had assumed that I would be less likely to be a victim. Since I’m constantly keeping myself up-to-date on technologies, I think I can spot a skimmig device. And I won’t fall for the ubiquitos phishing scams. So how on earth did the thief clone my ATM card and obtain my PIN?

My suspicion is that there is a dirty secret banks don't wish to admit. That is: they have massive internal problems with data theft. Security systems are only as secure as the personnel working with them. A bank employee could siphon off ATM card data by accessing the databases holding this information, or the data traffic between point of sale and bank processing center could be intercepted and the encryption broken. If someone has the decryption keys. (Which could be stolen by insiders).

Well, this should be interesting. I doubt that the police will do anything except take a report. It’s just another day in L.A.

April 10, 2008

THINK SWISS

London charges motorists a hefty fee to drive into the city. A similar effort in New York just failed, but is not quite dead yet.
And now, public officials in Los Angeles are proposing to charge us for driving on roads for which the public has already paid. Not all roads, but just “express lanes” on our “free” ways. Charges would depend on the time of day and could go up to almost $10 during peak rush hour. No doubt they would be raised in subsequent years, to help with L.A. County’s huge budget problem.

The problem with all these ideas is that our public officials (yes, the people who enact the laws) are not really affected by them. Many use city- or county-owned vehicles. The higher-uppers even have chauffeurs. None of them will ever pay toll charges, or even parking charges. Tires and shock absorbers busted by our pockmarked Third World roads? No problem. Just stick the car repair bill to Mr. Taxpayer.

The answer lies in the Swiss way of thinking. Swiss citizens, by benefit of living (and voting) in the most democratic country on Earth, have decided that public officials must partake in eating the soup they cook.

There are almost no “official vehicles” in Switzerland. Instead, lawmakers and public officials get tickets for public transportation. Yes, the bus and the train. Don’t like to meet your constituents on your morning commute? Too bad, Mr. Mayor. You can drive your private car. If you drive by yourself, this means: no car pool lane for you. And pay for parking at City Hall – just like the rest of us. (You make enough money anyway). Perhaps you would consider tandem parking?

If Los Angeles thought like the Swiss, it would not be long before we would begin to see meaningful zoning and community planning. And in short order, we would actually see the beginnings of a county wide public transportation system that is not insane and ludicrous.

It worked in Switzerland for sure. Swiss trains are not only clean, safe and efficient; you can actually set your clock to them. Every city has a conveniently located train station. Buses and trams are efficient, and waiting areas are generally comfortable and clean. Many cities have now equipped public vehicles with GPS receivers and radio transponders. Such systems can be set to give public vehicles preferential treatment at regulated intersections. Computerized systems can even regulate traffic so that public vehicles are kept on a precise schedule. And they can tell waiting passengers when exactly the next bus will arrive -- similar to departure and arrival screens we know from airports. Real time departure- and arrival information can be tracked on the Internet and it can even be sent to passengers' cellphones and PDAs. Imagine --- no more guessing about when the next bus will arrive!

Of course this does not mean that Swiss citizens do not own or need cars. Of course they do (especially in rural areas), but they use them less but more efficiently instead.

April 4, 2008

iTUNES BECOMES AMERICA'S LARGEST MUSIC RETAILER

According to figures released yesterday by NPD Group, a market research firm, Apple's iTunes has now overtaken Walmart to become the largest music retailer in the U.S.

Apple Inc. created iTunes only five years ago. Since then, it has shaken up the industry by becoming a model for successful and profitable online distribution of digital media.

Personally, I am troubled by the inferior sound quality of downloaded files, even though the files on iTunes are technically better than the MP3 standard used by other services. Still, it does not come close to the quality one would get on CD -- a difference audible to someone with sensitive ears, listening on decent equipment.

At the moment, U.S. consumers are still buying more CDs than downloads, but the gap is closing fast. The important question is what will now happen with CD prices. Will the music industry continue to overcharge for their perceived value -- by marketing them as a "premium" product? Or will they finally come to their senses and realize that consumers feel chipped if they are asked to pay 20 times a product's manufacturing costs -- and therefore seek alternatives.

March 28, 2008

"Either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying."

(Sir Arthur Charles Clarke - author, inventor, futurist; born 16 December 1917 in England; died 19 March 2008 on Sri Lanka. For more on Arthur C. Clarke, read Thor Dockweiler's blog post or the biography on Wikipedia.)

March 7, 2008

DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME MAKES NO SENSE

This Sunday we will again do the crazy switch -- to “Daylight Savings Time”. Finally there is good scientific evidence for what I’ve been suspecting (and saying) for years. The notion that Daylight “Saving” Time "saves" energy is bunk. It is a stupid idea, serves no documentable purpose and should be done away with.

In fact, tinkering with the clock may cause more energy use. These are the findings of new study by two University of California, Santa Barbara researchers. "I've never had a paper with such a clear and unambiguous finding as this," said lead researcher Matthew Kotchen. He published the study together with doctoral student Laura Grant.

For years, the idea behind DST was that more daylight in the afternoon reduces the need for artificial lighting, thus cutting down on energy costs. But as it turns out, more light (and heat) in the afternoon also means an increased demand for air conditioning, which results in a net increase in energy usage.

DST is not universally used around the world. Some countries have it, other don’t, and the effective dates vary as well. In the U.S., the situation is rather bizarre: some states switch to DST, others don’t. In the State of Indiana, some counties have DST, and others don’t. This leads to confusion around the world and impacts telecommunications, the travel industry, navigation and international business. It is idiotic, to say the least.

By the way: another false myth about DST is that Benjamin Franklin suggested it. Not true! Franklin merely suggested that getting up earlier (with the sun) and going to bed earlier would be more efficient – considering that most illumination in his days came from (expensive) candles and oil lamps. Franklin is said to have remarked: "Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise". In 1784, he also published an anonymous letter, which satirically suggested taxing shutters, rationing candles, and waking the public by ringing church bells and firing cannons at sunrise. Of course he was not serious. And he never suggested to move the clocks back and forth.

Here is an organization with the goal of abolishing DST for good: http://www.standardtime.com/

February 29, 2008

NEWS COVERAGE COMPROMISED AS A RESULT OF JOB CUTS

The wave of journalist layoffs (see my posts on Feb. 14 and Feb. 15) all over the U.S. continues. The general economic decline and our real estate and lending crisis is causing further stagnation in the already problematic classified advertising market. Predictably, the amount of quality coverage is also falling.

Today's Los Angeles Times has a most interesting article on the subject here.

Will blogs (mostly run by unpaid "citizen journalists") pick up the slack? Research by the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism suggests otherwise. Most blog content consists of commentary and very little original research.

February 27, 2008

WIND TURBINE DESTRUCTS

Several years ago, I wrote a story about wind power. As part of the research I got to climb in and on those huge turbines. As I've learned, they are generally quite safe. Unless something bad happens. Here's a video of a Danish wind turbine self-destructing in a storm. This 10-year old turbine was 80 m (240 feet) high.

February 24, 2008

FORMER COLLEAGUE WINS OSCAR

Watching the Academy Awards show tonight, I kept my fingers crossed for Stefan Ruzowitzky, the director of The Counterfeiters, and my former colleague (and boss) at the Austrian television network ORF. Stefan was nominated for the Academy Award for "Best Foreign Picture" (see my entry on Feb. 5).

Austria is a tiny country, yet many influential film makers were born there, for example Fred Zinnemann (who received 5 Oscars), Billy Wilder (7 Oscars) and Otto Preminger (3 Oscar nominations) -- a fact duly noted in Stefan's acceptance speech a few minutes ago.

So yes, it is true! Stefan won the Oscar tonight!

A bio of Stefan Ruzowitzky is posted here.

Stefan Ruzowitzky and wife Birgit at the Governor's Ball

February 15, 2008

MORE NEWSROOM CUTS

More details of the Tribune Co.'s 2% job cuts, now under new ownership by real estate magnate Sam Zell, are emerging.

The New York Times will lay off 100 newsroom staff, the Los Angeles Times 100 – 150 (40 – 50 in the newsroom). Further layoffs were announced for the Chicago Tribune (100), the San Diego Union-Tribune (83, including 43 newsroom), the Detroit Free Press / Detroit News (110) and the Orange County Register (20 – 35).

The Tribune Co.’s local broadcasting outlets (currently 23 TV-stations around the country, including KTLA-TV Channel in Los Angeles) will be spared (for now).

The L.A. Times has named Russ Stanton its third editor in three years – this time Zell found someone who is willing to work under the imposed staff reductions. Stanton will have to make do with one third fewer staffers than a decade ago, which makes it impossible to maintain the same level of journalistic quality. (The previous editors resigned in protest).

A veteran journalist, Russ Stanton most recently was responsible for the success of the L.A. Times online edition, which has been adding 20% readers annually. Meanwhile, the print circulation has fallen from 1.1 million in the early 1990s to 780,000 today.

The most infuriating thing is that the Tribune Co. is not losing money. I repeat -- it is making a profit! But the consolidation in the industry (in this case the purchase through Zell in a $8.2 billion dollar deal) needs to be financed, and this left the company weighed down with a $13 billion debt. Such debt-financed consolidation never benefit us media professionals, nor do they benefit the reader. In this case, it only benefits Zell and his investors.

I know there are many of you who think that all this is no big deal. According to one line of thought, this trend only means that newspaper and magazine operations have to adjust to the Internet and will in future be financed through their online activities.

But I have to disappoint you. Nobody in journalism is making much money from web sites. In case of the Los Angeles Times, the print edition generates more than 90% of the paper’s revenue. The online edition is not sustainable from its advertising revenue.

So if you are interested in balanced, multifaceted and diverse media with high journalistic standards, subscribe to (or purchase) printed newspapers and magazines. Don’t just read their online editions for free!

February 14, 2008

WRITERS' STRIKE ENDS

After 100 days, the writers' strike has come to an end with yesterday's ballot. Under the agreement negotiated by the WGA, the new contract will be ratified on Feb. 25 and will be good for three years. The most pertinent issue was related to revenue generated by distribution over the Internet and mobile wireless networks, for which writers have seen little compensation so far. Although the new contract still falls short of writers' demands, it is still an improvement over the current situation.

The media and entertainment industry employs about 250,000 people in the Los Angeles region. The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation estimates the strike's damage to the local economy at 3 billion dollars. Of these, $772 came from lost pay for writers and production workers.

MORE MEDIA JOBS TO BE CUT

Meanwhile, the general collapse in the media industry continues. Now under new ownership, the Tribune Co. (which also owns the Los Angeles Times) announced yesterday that it would lay off another 2% of its staff. For the Los Angeles Times, the cuts mean another loss of 100 to 150 jobs, including 40 – 50 in the newsroom. This comes after a previous reduction of newsroom staff from 1,200 to 887. The ongoing cuts and demands for “cheaper” news operations have caused several senior editors of the L.A. Times to resign in short succession.

Obviously, the cuts brings with them another reduction in the level of journalistic standards. They will accelerate the shift to tabloid stories and "cheap" reporting, in which stories are mostly adaptions of wire service feeds, with little original research by the news outlet.

Personally, I think this trend to “cheaper is better” is a fallacy. The verbatim content of wire service feeds is now available on the Internet within minutes. Why should a reader wait until the next day and pay money for something that’s already on the Internet? Newspapers and magazines cannot compete with “free” and “right away” – and should not even try. In my opinion, the only way to halt the slump is to go the exact opposite route and offer more of what is not easily available on the Internet for free: originality, reliability and hiqh journalistic quality.

February 11, 2008

CAMDEN MARKET FIRE

One of my favorite places in the world, the Camden Market in London (51 32' 29" N, 00 08' 47" W) was the site of a huge blaze over the weekend. Contrary to early reports, my most favorite place within the market (Camden Lock and the historic stables) remain unaffected. The cause of the fire is under investigation. Every weekend, London's Camden Market is a huge, cosmopolitan gathering place where people from all imaginable backgrounds mix and mingle.

February 5, 2008

While I was working at the Austrian Broadcasting Corp. (ORF.at) in Vienna, I had a couple of jobs as assistant director for Stefan Ruzowitzky, who was a few years my senior in the same college department. (Stefan remained in Austria and moved from television to feature films, while I went to London and Los Angeles to focus on journalism and writing).

Stefan’s most recent project, Die Fälscher (“The Counterfeiters”) was just nominated for this year’s Academy Award, in the category of “Best Foreign Language Film”. Just getting nominated for the "Oscar" is a great success, and I’m extremely happy for Stefan. I will keep my fingers crossed on February 24th.

Die Fälscher was written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky and is based on true events surrounding Operation Bernhard. During the last years of WW II, the German Reich launched a secret operation to forge their enemies’ currency. They needed a master counterfeiter and found him in a concentration camp, where he had been sent after his previous arrest. There, he was easily persuaded to collaborate. All in all, it is said that over 130 million pound sterling (an extraordinary amount of money at the time) was masterfully forged.

January 27, 2007

NAVY WANTS HILLARY FOR PRESIDENT

Whenever the president feels like taking a trip, he flies Air Force One (courtesy of the taxpayer and the U.S. Air Force).

If he's just traveling a short hop (for example for a quick weekend getaway from Washington), he'll call on Marine One, the special fleet of helicopters provided courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps (i.e. the taxpayer).

If he goes to a really dangerous place, the U.S. Army is happy to provide armored vehicles (at the taxpayer's expense).

It seems that the only branch of the military to be excluded is the U.S. Navy. And for decades, they have been jealous.

Finally, with the prospect of having Hillary Clinton in the White House, Navy brass has high hopes that they might finally get $4.5 billion for their pet project: Navy One, the Nimitz class presidential yacht.

This design study was provided to me by a well connected source in the Pentagon, on the condition of anonymity.

January 26, 2008

MAILA "VAMPIRA" NURMI

(Finnland, Dec. 21, 1921 - Jan. 10, 2008, Los Angeles)

 

January 12, 2007

KANGEIKO 2008 (Jan. 7 to Jan. 12)

A test of body and spirit, the tradition of kangeiko (winter training) is the connecting point between the past of the last year and the future of the coming year.

I really hate getting up before the sun does. But after a week of daily karate-do training before dawn, the mind becomes clear and ready for the challenges ahead. Here we are posing after the completion of the final class, before the obligatory sake toast. (That's me on the right).

January 10, 2008

SIR EDMUND PERCIVAL HILLARY 1919 - 2008

Today the world lost one its greatest heroes and a fine gentleman.

On May 29, 1953, Hillary was the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest, accompanied by his Nepalese sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Eight previous British expeditions had failed.

The world’s tallest mountain has an elevation of over 8,859 meters (29,035 feet). This is the typical cruising altitude of today’s commercial airliners. With the aide of modern equipment and organized and paid expeditions, over 3,000 people have since summitted at Mount Everest – and 207 have died trying.

In 1958, Hillary led a New Zealand team past a British team in a snow tractor race to the South Pole, across 1,200 miles snow fields and glaciers. In 1977, he led a boat expedition on a 1,500 mile journey up the Ganges River, which was followed by 100 miles on foot in search of the river’s source. In 1985, Hillary accompanied Neil Armstrong in a small, twin-engine plane on a journey across the Atlantic. When they landed at the North Pole, Hillary became the only human who had visited both poles and the highest point on planet Earth.

A prolific author, Hillary published several books: High Adventure, The Crossing of Antarctica, No Latitude for Error, From the Ocean to the Sky, View From the Summit and an 1975 autobiography: Nothing Venture, Nothing Win.

According to himself, Hillary's most important achievements were humanitarian efforts, for which he worked tirelessly until he was in his 80s. By 2006, the Himalayan Trust, which Hillary had founded, had built 27 schools, two hospitals and 13 health clinics in remote villages in Nepal. In addition, the trust has rebuilt bridges, established drinking water supplies and provided scholarships. Hillary did much of the work with his own hands.

Hillary was deeply critical of the commercialization of the Himalayas and the callousness and selfishness of many of today’s mountaineers.

The Himalayan Trust (UK)

The Himalayan Trust (New Zealand)

January 5, 2008

GETTING DRENCHED

The usually nice weather in California is not so nice at the moment. All of California is being battered by the strongest rainstorms in many years. Winds in Northern California reached over 80 mph, overturning trucks and crashing trees and debris into houses. Up to 1.5 million households and businesses have temporarily lost power. (Then again, due to our dilapidated and inadequate infrastructure, power outages are not that unusual here). There is a danger of flooding and mudslides, particularly in areas which were depleted of vegetation during the wildfires last November. More rainfall is expected over the weekend.

Lots of snow fell in the Sierra, and I'm hoping for some good snowfalls in the local (San Gabriel and San Bernardino) mountains as well.

January 4, 2008

REIGN OF THE LAPTOP

I have always been a big fan of portable computing. In my ideal world, I'd want to be able to have access to all my data anywhere, anytime. And I'd like to be able to work whenever the need (or inspiration) strikes me.

Portable computers have been around since the early 1980s, but the earliest models were too bulky and impractical for wide acceptance. I bought my first model (an Apple PowerBook 165 - 80 MB hard disk space, floppy drive, 4 MB RAM and a processor speed of 16 Mhz) in the 1990s and never had a desktop as my main computer. Since then, technology has greatly improved.

Laptops are now overtaking the old standard desktop computer in sales. In 2007, U.S. laptop sales increased by 21% to 31.6 million, while desktop sales declined by 4% to 35 million. For the first time American consumers are buying more laptops than desktops. In 2008, laptops are projected to also form the majority of corporate sales. They are expected to account for the majority of global computer sales by 2009.

In combination with wireless Internet access, the shift to mobile computing is causing great changes to the way we work, communicate and play -- a trend that can be expected to accelerate dramatically.

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