Friday, November 30, 2007

Toilet Paper Hostage for Votes in Venezuela

When withholding the toilet paper is a campaign tactic, it is pretty clear the politics is floating around in the cesspool. Venezuela is a hotbed of intrigue as Hugo Chavez tries to garner more power and students are in open opposition marching in the streets. Everybody has to go to the bathroom, so the Venezuelan government holding the TP hostage is backing up everything. It's the new way of winning an election, vote for the Chavez government and then you get toilet paper - in more ways than one.

Venezuelans have been buying large amounts of toilet paper on rumours it could be the next hard-to-find thing amid shortages of products like milk and meat that businesses attribute to price controls but the government blames on high demand and hoarding.

"We know there are sectors that are hiding toilet paper," Finance Minister Rodrigo Cabezas told state television on Friday. "A group of business leaders are playing mean, playing dirty ... of course trying to create the sensation of product shortage during the elections."

Markets have a diminished amount of toilet paper and what's left is being hoarded. Hugo Chavez is not running away with the election and the margin of victory may just be as thin as toilet tissue. His extraconstitutional measures and economic manipulations are showing signs of constipation which relieves his immediate need for the scare toilet paper. Chavez's supporters, in and out of Venezuela's National Assembly, are out in numbers as well praising his reform package.(photo courtesy AP/Howard Yanes)

Mr Chavez proposed 33 changes, and the National Assembly, which is composed of his supporters, put forward a further 36 amendments.

Mr Chavez has said he is prepared to serve for life as long as the people want it. Under the current constitution, he would have to stand down when his term expires at the end of 2012.

Other changes up for approval include giving the president control over the central bank, the creation of new provinces governed by centrally-appointed officials, and a reduction in the voting age from 18 to 16.

There are also proposals to expand presidential powers during natural disasters or political "emergencies".

Hugo Chavez and Pervez Musharraf keep tee peeing the organizing principles and tenants of Democracy. Like Bush, Chavez even says your either with us with a Yes vote or against us with a No vote. Wipe, er vote, carefully in Venezuela.

Eco-friendly architect and author Sim Van Der Ryn describes the trials and travails of bathroom paper products in The Toilet Papers: Recycling Waste and Conserving Water. It is becoming an even more important topic in Venezuela before the 2 December, 2007 vote.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Book Cover Made of Human Skin

Even if its 400 years old, looks parched and feels smooth the very thought of touching a book made from human skin, let alone bidding on it at auction, just creeps me out. The fact that it is the skin of Father Henry Garnet, an imprisoned Jesuit priest, that suffered the punishment of a hangman's noose execution, adds to the macabre mystique for the the serious collector of these things. It's a unique, um pardon the meaty pun, rare artifact for the serious hardcore bibliophile with a cast iron stomach and plenty of cash to cede as the highest bidder.

In the early 1600's england was a hotbed of royal intrigues. Since time immemorial, desperate humans have sought various and sundry ways to kill people who were obstructing their aims for good or ill. Catholic King James I was the target of murder plots and the Jesuit stood accused of being part of the "Gunpowder Plot" to kill the king and blow up parliament. There is controversy amongst scholars as to the validity of the evidence against him. But suffice it to say somebody was still pissed off enough to use a good portion of his skin as the book covering for the long-winded title, A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings Against the Late Most Barbarous Traitors, Garnet, a Jesuit and his Confederates.

It is anyone's guess how much the book, which was made in London in 1606 by Robert Barker, the king's printer, just months after Garnet's execution, will fetch when it goes under the hammer at Wilkinson's Auctioneers in Doncaster, South Yorkshire.

Sid Wilkinson, the auctioneer, said: "Because the subject matter is so strange, we thought putting an estimate on it might be a bit vulgar.

"It could make £1,000, it could make hundreds, we just don't know."

He said the book is so rare Wilkinson's had never auctioned one before, but added that making books out of convicts' skin was not an entirely unusual practice.

There are spooky and eerie claims from an eager auctioneer that the face of the presumably Good father can be seen in the cover of the book. Just the thing one wants staring at them on a dark and stormy night when the lights flicker out and the floorboards creak of their own accord.

Nina G. Jablonski details the pigments and history of human coverings in Skin: A Natural History. It was terribly fitting...

Teacher Arrested Over Teddy Bear in Sudan

A classroom full of whimsical six and seven year olds got together and democratically picked a name for the Teddy bear brought in by the teacher. For the school project, the little tykes picked the name Mohammad and were asked to keep diaries of the teddy's journeys as it ventured home with each kid for an overnight stay. The name chosen is common throughout Islamic culture. After the deed was done, the bear named, the police make a stunning decision, arresting the first graders' British teacher, Gillian Gibbons, for a crime against the Sundanese state, specifically Article 125, which references the law about insulting religion and inciting hatred. Gibbons' teaching colleagues were in a state of shock as they watched her being carted off from Unity High School.

In Khartoum, Sudan it is interpreted as against the law to name (the teddy bear) that in specific. The teacher was in country for less than four months. If convicted, she faces 40 lashes ( a real whip that leaves scars is used, not wet noodles) a year in jail or face a fine of an indeterminable amount.

Although there is no ban in the Koran on images of Allah or the Prophet Mohammed, likenesses are considered highly offensive by Muslims.

Gibbons had been working at the school -- popular with wealthy Sudanese and expatriates -- since August, after leaving her position as deputy head teacher at a primary school in Liverpool this summer, said Boulos.

He said Gibbons had asked the children to pick their favorite name for the new class mascot, which she was using to aid lessons about animals and their habitats.

Classmates took turns taking the teddy bear home with them, accompanied by a diary with the bear's name written in the front of it, said Boulos, who heads the private school, which has been shut down since the controversy came to light.

Not surprisingly the terrible way the adults handled this is jeopardizing foreign relations between Britain and Sudan. A small student, Mohammad, stepped forward to accept responsibility that the name was his idea. Embassies are being flooded with calls and some callers are not showing any restraint or British reserve in expressing their outrage. Sudanese diplomats have reaped a whirlwind that is just ramping up. Sudan already held in the lowest repute from many of the western world, has yet to live down its housing and quartering of the pre-9/11 wanted criminal Osama bin Laden before he fled to lead those other low level small thought police and fashion thugs of the Taliban in Pakistan. The Sudanese Ambassador to London was summoned by Britain's Foreign Secretary. Britain's Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is working all diplomatic channels to try and secure the 54 year old former Liverpool resident's release. Gibbons just finished her second night in the local prison.

Sudan is Africa's largest geographic country and one of the world's poorest economies. Arabic is the language and Islam is the dominant religion. They Poured Fire On Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan is a tale of life in Sudan being the least of these amongst the most terrible circumsatnces. It is an inspirational story outlining what is in the realm of the possible with so very little. It is written by Alphonsion Deng, Benson Deng, Benjamin Ajak in collaboration with Judy A. Bernstein.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Globe's Bottom Has A New Map

No cracks in the new map down under in the nether region, but overall it is highly interactive. British and American researchers worked together to build a map of Antarctica, known as the White Continent. orbiting 400 miles above the Earth is the Landsat 7 satellite under the joystick thumb of NASA image makers, the US Geological Survey team and the British Survey Foundation. The teams then digitally sew or "stitch" thousands of individual shots together to make a holistic map of the polar region. Now Antarctica expedition planners can zoom in to land features the size of a basketball half court to see if ground conditions are right for a camping visit.

"Being able to see where we couldn't see before will lead to new ideas for research. And these new ideas for research will in turn lead to more knowledge about the continent," said Scott Borg, who directs Antarctic science programs for the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.

Scientists also hope the new image will help the public better understand what is at stake in the world's polar regions as temperatures rise due to human-created global warming.

The new map has high resolution which makes the previous resolutions look positively antiquated. It's the difference in going from the 1960's black and white television sets sans remotes to 21st century color high definition plasma screens in a nanosecond.

Sebastian Copeland wrote a wonderful book graced with a foreword from Mikhail Gorbachev and an afterward from Leonardo DiCaprio named Antarctica: The Global Warning.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

One of a Kind Art History Used For Dartboard

Art is in the eye of the beholder. For a particular piece of Flemish Art, its worst days were among young teens with no developed sense of classic renaissance artworks. The art piece withstood destructive teen amusements of slashing, ripping or pin the tail on the donkey by way of many games of darts. Further indignities to the only scene of the House of Rubens painted by a little known artist, Anton Gunther Gheringh. The Rubens house painted in its full regalia and splendorous glory during the 17th century sustained the most damage during its harsh twentieth century indentured servitude in a British youth detention center. There the masterful painting received further slashes, marks and defacing as if it had started its life as a black velvet glow-in-the-dark painting.

Peter Paul Rubens, a master of oils and canvass, has had many biographies and art histories written about him that featured stories about his home. The Rubens house in Antwerp was left to imagination pictorially until the painting's discovery in a small dingy space in an archives. After the massive restoration or tummy tuck surgery for art, the painting was identified and then, there it sat suffering the indignities of a cold storage closet. The National Gallery undertook an extensive history of 8,000 little known works with the discovery emerging as significant as details of the painting and its history became known to the tight knit European art world. That is especially noteworthy as the painting was in desolate shape and real masterful hands had to undertake repairing the extensive damage and abuse the painting had taken. The Ruben House, with its famed prime curb appeal, is a draw as part of a national exhibit entitled, Discoveries: New Research In British Collections.

Rubens, a court painter to Charles I of England, died in 1640. Although Gheringh's picture has been dated to between 1645 and 1675, the three figures by the front door are thought to be Rubens, his wife and daughter. The lavishly painted friezes and pilasters on the house are believed to have been done by Rubens himself, or at least by his pupils on his instructions.

The house, which has been converted into Rubenshuis, one of Antwerp's most prominent art galleries, fell into disrepair early last century. An attempt to restore it to its former glory had to follow two black and white engravings from the 1660s which showed none of the decoration or colouring.

"Discovering this painting is very, very exciting," said Dr Foister.

"It is not a masterpiece and technically the artist's technique isn't of the highest standard, but historically it is of great significance because here we can see Rubens's designs for the first time. They are very excited at Rubenshuis as well."

Such extensive research is significant as an online database is filled with data from small and obscure galleries and art museums throughout Britain. Smaller institutions could not afford to do this type of research and this process uncovered many more of the rich artworks now available for viewing and touring in one place. An 1849 painting is also a beneficiary showcasing, The Barricade at Port St. Dennis, from the Bowes Museum in Durham capturing a portion of the fighting and turmoil in the 1848 French revolution.

Rubens, a Renaissance master, painted poignant oil portraits from sketches with a depth and detail that stays with you regardless of the beauty or despair of the subject. Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens explores 40 oil sketches and his point of view in a wonderfully illustrated art book by Peter C. Sutton, Marjorie E. Weisman and contributor Nico van Hout.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Japan Hunts Humpbacks, Gets Global Jeers

Whale watchers the world over love to watch humpback whales at play; breaching the water with humongous splashes as they migrate. Japan is now hunting those whales in the South Pacific Ocean for the first time in 44 years so they can study them. Of course, studying the humpback whales means they have to die first. And the resulting carnage of fifty dead whales is to be scooped up and hauled back to Japan in a fleet of ships underneath the Land of the Rising Sun's banner.

This quest, kill and return of the whales has a five month project plan schedule. World condemnation of this is bloated hunt is not enough to sway Japan or its scientists attached Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) in Tokyo from its tortured version of animal science or biology. Supposedly baleen whales are redistributing their numbers and killing 50 samples will assist them in figuring out the changes happening near Antarctica. Japan is enacting the part of Captain Ahab with no remorse or regrets, because getting/eating/studying dead captured whales is now a principled action. The question now is what purpose does it serve.

Britain has lodged a formal protest.

"We do not believe that Japan's proposed lethal research that targets vulnerable humpback populations is necessary and we have serious reservations as to its scientific value," the spokeswoman said, speaking anonymously in line with government policy.

"We are committed to maintaining the moratorium on commercial whaling and will oppose all efforts by Japan to undermine this with so-called 'scientific' whaling.

"We will consider high-level diplomatic protest to the Japanese government following consultation with like-minded anti-whaling countries."

Australia has an anti-whaling sentiment directed towards Japan. It is affecting the race for prime minister in the land down under as some scientists believe the Howard government did not do all they could to stop Japan's hunt. Aussie humpback wale experts say there is no prevailing scientific rationale for this hunt.

Leading Queensland humpback scientists, Trish and Wally Franklin, said the Federal Government could have done more to stop the hunt, but chose not to. They called for an incoming government to act immediately.

Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull last night urged the Japanese Government to call off the hunt. "We again appeal to Japan to reconsider its 'scientific' whale slaughter and abandon its Southern Ocean scientific whaling program."

Labor has said that if elected it would use Australian Defence Force assets to gather evidence on Japanese whaling to mount international legal action.

There is only one known white humpback whale in the world named Migaloo. Greenpeace has a ship, Esperanza or Hope in Spanish, that will try to intercept and impeded the whalers. Greenpeace Israel issued condemnations of the scientific hunt as well.

Its Japan's 21st century Moby Dick story. It was not just a story about a whale. The timeless and classic work from Herman Melville resonates in any age. It is a must read story of man's unchained hubris much to his own detriment. The movie version starring Gregory Peck is the one I watched as a kid and remember in detail the beautiful scenery.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Robots Turn Roaches Dumber Lemmings

To go where no robot has gone before was the mission of a tiny robots dipped in the heavenly eau de parfum or essence of cockroach, to gain acceptance as a fellow bug. The robot succeeded so spectacularly the nest of cockroaches changed its behavior for the alpha robot and did things not in the live bugs best interest. All of that instinctive hardwiring and learned behavior went right out the roach motel with the appearance of a star robot, much like what happens when a new tech thing, cough iPhone - PS3, Wii, goes on sale. Scientists used a variety of miniature robotics to document the insect behavioral experiment and survival impact on the group dynamics of sociable roaches. (Photo Roachbot ULB ELFP)

This experiment in bug peer pressure combined entomology, robotics and the study of ways that complex and even intelligent patterns can arise from simple behavior. Animal behavior research shows that swarms working together can prosper where individuals might fail, and robotics researchers have been experimenting with simple robots that, together, act a little like a swarm.

“We decided to join the two approaches,” said José Halloy, a biology researcher at the Free University of Brussels and lead author of a paper describing the research in today’s issue of the journal Science.

Dr. Halloy and his colleagues worked with roaches because their societies are simple, egalitarian and democratic, with none of the social stratification seen in some other insect societies — no queen bees, no worker ants. “Cockroaches are not like that,” Dr. Halloy said. “They live all together.”

They also have weak eyes, which allowed the researchers to create a robotic roach that resembles a miniature golf cart more than an insect. In the roach world, however, looking right is not as important as smelling right, and the scientists doused the machines with eau de cockroach sex hormones.

To freak the roaches totally out, scientists manipulated roach living conditions by messing with their heads and organizing principles in a one square yard of controlled roach imprisonment space with one disk providing a dark shade the other disk a bit lighter upscale circular floorplan. The bots were sent in for serious espionage on roach society. After introductions and living together in a roach reality show, four robots programmed with light sensors resisted going to the dark contemplative reproductive space of the insects. With a touch of a button, the roach bots gravitated to the light. In an astounding 60% of the time the cockroaches dismissed their natural inclinations and followed the devious bots. With the success of this experiment, life scientists are ambitious with a plan to simulate a chicken and other animals in future experiments.

Scientists were adamant that one could not extrapolate the results to people. Nor did they test the extent to which the roaches would stop self-destructive behavior such as going into direct sunlight or rushing to the five items or less express insecticide lane.

Most expensive book on cockroaches I have ever seen, but diligently researched by renowned entomologist William J. Bell. Preeminent co-authors of Cockroaches: Ecology, Behavior and Natural History include Louis M. Roth an Christine A. Nalepa.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Georgia Prays for Rain, Bangladesh Begs Rain to Stop

Some Native Americans, Balkans, ancient Egyptians and modern Ethiopians have a specific dance to call for rain. In dry dire straits, Georgia's politicians and ecumenical ministers of many Faiths, led by Governor Sonny Perdue, stood or sat reverently on the front steps of the capitol and prayed - Hard - for rain. Central Presbyterian Church is right across the street in front of the Georgia capitol, just sayin'.

Atlanta and other cities in the southeast are facing a water crisis of biblical proportions. There was no rain and Lake Lanier, the principal source of millions of Atlanta citizens water has just weeks of water left. The National Weather Service characterizes the area is in 'exceptional' drought conditions, their worst rating. (AP Photo)

No public prayer can go without protest or skepticism. Atlanta Freethought Society stood to decry the mix of church and state, prohibited in the US Constitution. The Governor made an appeal for a federal emergency to President Bush. Some skeptics say the prayer was scheduled right before a forecast of possible rain.

Politicians turned to the Almighty to plead the case and seek drought relief with rain because no other secular remedy had worked. The specific Perdue prayer request was for rain. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Last night, a little over an inch fell in some places in Georgia. Nobody complained.

"Certainly, we're not gloating about it," Perdue said from a trade mission in Canada. "We're thankful for the rain and hopefully it's the beginning of more. ... Frankly, it's great affirmation of what we asked for."

As the drought has worsened, Perdue has ordered water restrictions, launched a legal battle against the release of water from federal reservoirs and appealed to President Bush.

About an inch of rain fell through north Georgia, and Atlanta received about a half an inch. It wasn't enough to ease the ease the drought, forecasters said.

"It puts a little bit of extra water in some of the smaller tributaries and reservoirs, but it doesn't
provide any significant long-term benefit," said Matt Sena, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "We need months of above average rainfall to start putting a dent in this," he added.

Governor Perdue was not the first to invoke prayer as a last resort. Back in July, the Alabama governor, Bob Riley, made a pitch to God, declaring an entire week "Days of Prayer for Rain".

The weather took an opposite approach on the other side of the world. In Bangladesh, a Category 5 Cyclone named Sidr, with winds in excess of 155 mph, roughly pushed the sea into an 18 foot wall of water to crash into the low lying coastal areas. Ten million citizens of Bangladesh live in the most vulnerable areas. In 1970 a half million people died during a Typhoon. The death toll is starting to mount in the aftermath of this monster storm, wave and torrential rains in one weather event.
At least 28 fishermen were believed to have drowned at sea and thousands of homes were destroyed after a super cyclone tore into Bangladesh's southwest coastline yesterday.

The eye of cyclone Sidr, visible in satellite images as a colossal swirling white mass racing north from the Bay of Bengal, hit land in an impoverished coastal area near Bangladesh's border with India.

"The cyclone has battered Bangladeshi coastal areas. The velocity of the wind in that area is 220 to 240 kilometres. (This) is a violent storm," said Samarendra Karmakar, the head of the Bangladeshi meteorological department.

A fictional tale that outlines a true life quest of a water engineer for seeking rainwater in California is in the book, The Man Who Made It Rain by Michael McCarthy.

Hell and High Water: Global Warming The Solution & Politics and What We Should Do by Joseph Romm.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Rough Week for Spain's Royal Family

The subtle ebbs and delicate flow of international diplomacy this week experienced the equivalent of a nuclear meltdown involving the urbane King Juan Carlos and the rough and tumble president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. No idea which kingly etiquette book of protocol its in, but telling another head of state to SHUT UP is not de rigueur. Not satisfied his honor was fully in the mud, Chavez is publicly searching for reason to keep a relationship with Spain. Spanish CEO's are thunderstruck their business interests (cha ching, the banks) may be in jeopardy after the verbal brawl.

King Juan Carlos vs President Hugo Chavez
Once upon a time, on a Saturday in Santiago, two men met as heads of state at an Ibero-American summit. One man was royalty the other received a promotion to president as the singular candidate on the ballot. In Chile, the machismo showdown erupted when Chavez called a George Bush supporter a fascist stretching decorum to the breaking point. The object of Hugo's disaffection was Spain's former Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar. Current PM, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, stood up to protect and defend the honor of his predecessor noting with aspersion that he was democratically elected by the people and it was legitimate. Ouch, score a direct hit for the Spanish team.

Then, Hugo sensing he was not the beau at the ball, started interrupting the rebuttals. The King's outrage could not contain his inner regalness to just his deeply derisive body language, demanded an answer to why Hugo could not shut up. Basta! zip it! The King did not condescend to await a reply, but left the scene in high dungeon to audience cheers for his smackdown of the Venezuelan. Hugo Chavez is not done talking though the King dismissed him, he's holding press conferences now to impugn the king's motives. Irony isn't Chavez's strong suit.

"[The king] disrespected me, and he was laid bare before the world in his arrogance and also his impotence," Mr Chavez told a news conference on Tuesday, before adding: "We don't want this to become a political crisis."

He went on to say that Spanish commercial interests in Venezuela were not indispensable and hinted that they could be affected if the dispute worsened.

"Spain has many investments, private companies here and we don't want to damage that, but if they are damaged, they are damaged... We don't need it," he said.

Hugo Chavez feeling a mite martyrish, likened himself to Jesus Christ in being persecuted by the Spanish King. His knowledge may need some serious buffing up with a good (and patient) Spanish tutor because it was the Roman's with Christ. The Spanish had this inquisition thing he apparently doesn't know about or the dictatorship of General Franco in Spain. A-W-K-W-A-R-D...

Now we come to more troubles for the King as his palace stationary had to share that his and Queen Sofia's eldest daughter's marriage is taking a break, on holiday, the fairytale is kaput. The husband of Princess Elena will fade into the shark infested business world to make money. (Suggestion, maybe he can be the guy to repair things with the other outcast President Chavez.) Meanwhile, comics were fined for making fun of Crown Prince Felipe in a cartoon of him having sex with wife Letizia with a caption saying it was the first work he had done. Oh my! This is in reference to the baby price Spanish citizens get for successful pregnancies outlined by Zapatero.

Things are not tranquil on the Spanish domestic political front as rebellious Catalans demand independence while burning photos of the King. There went some perfectly good glossies. Morocco's head of state used more diplomatic language in referring to the King & Queen's well publicized trip to Ceuta & Melilla, which Morocco believes are theirs. King Mohamed referred to last week's trip as "regrettable". Oh dear.

Seems the Spanish Royal Family is ensuring the English Windsors were not the only royal family to enjoy mud facials.

Spanish history professor Paul Preston wrote the well researched biography, Juan Carlos: Steering Spain from Dictatorship to Democracy. It has the remarkable onliner upon his birth from his mom, " He is as ugly as sin."

Onward to Hugo Chavez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela's Controversial President by Cristina Barrano and Alberto Barrera.