Page last updated on 2015 March 03
This page was created in March 2009 as an outgrowth of the section entitled "Books Read or Heard" in my personal page. The rapid expansion of the list of books warranted devoting a separate page to it. Given that the book introductions and reviews constituted a form of personal blog, I decided to title this page "Blog & Books," to also allow discussion of interesting topics unrelated to books from time to time. Lately, non-book items (such as political news, tech news, puzzles, oddities, trivia, humor, art, and music) have formed the vast majority of the entries.
Entries in each section appear in reverse chronological order.
2015/03/03 (Tuesday): Here are nine items of potential interest.
(1) Quote of the day: "Remember that little talk we had about not believing everything written in the media?" ~ Emma Watson, on rumors that she was dating Prince Harry
(2) University of California tech campus proposed: State legislation has been proposed to set aside $50M for land acquisition and initial building costs to establish a technology campus for UC, similar to the Caltech model.
(3) UC budget decline: University of California budget not only has not kept pace with the rise of personal income in the state but has actually declined.
(4) Scary ride, part II: A few days ago, I posted the video of a scary ride. Here's another one.
(5) The stew is so salty that even the chef himself is complaining: This Persian saying is an apt description of the critical remarks by Rahim Pour Azghadi (retired Revolutionary Guard member and one of the ideologues of the Islamic Republic). On the surface, what he says is quite reasonable, though somewhat oversimplified. One must ask, however, where he has been in the 36 years since the Islamic Regime came to power to speak as if these problems have appeared out of the blue just recently.
(6) Facebook tries to help prevent suicides: Users of the social network will have an option of reporting a post if they believe that a friend is thinking about suicide (the preference is for the person reading the post to reach out himself or herself). A specialist team at Facebook then examines the reported post and reaches out to the distressed person with various kinds of messages to engage him/her or to offer a list of help resources.
(7) Senator uses a snowball to refute global warming: Jim Inhofe, Chairman of the US Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, embarrassed himself, the Republican Party, and the US government by bringing a snowball to the Senate floor as a prop for his speech refuting global warming. Taking the snowball out of a plastic bag, he asked the session chair if he knew what it was. Then, throwing the snowball forward, he proceeded to disclose: "It's a snowball, just from outside here. It's very, very cold out." Here is an apt analogy for these science-challenged politicians: If I contend that the average driving speed in Southern California is going down due to congestion on the roads, you can't refute this hypothesis by showing me video clips of officers issuing speeding tickets to drivers.
(8) Holocaust Survivor Band: This group of old men, in their late 80s, draw inspiration from musical traditions of their childhood home in Poland.
(9) Funky Friday on a Perth train: Young man persuades commuter train passengers to dance to funky music.
2015/03/01 (Sunday): Nafisi, Azar, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, unabridged audiobook on 8 CDs, read by Mozhan Marno (Introduction read by the author), Penguin Audio, 2014.
This is the latest book by the best-selling author of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Whereas in RLT Nafisi focused on the importance of literature, fictional stories in particular, on human development and coping with repression in totalitarian societies, her new TRI is an ode to the role literature can play in democratic societies. In other words, Nafisi warns us that intellectual indifference, and its consequences such as bookstore closings and lack of support for the humanities in college curricula, presents the same danger to human spirit as religious fundamentalism and political repression.
The subtitle "America in Three Books" refers to Nafisi's mixing autobiographical tidbits (including heartbreaking escape and immigration tales of a close friend) with observations about her adopted country, while drawing examples and inspiration from Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis's Babbit, and Carson McCuller's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Nafisi chose these books because they represent the unending "battle between the desire for prosperity, status and success and the urge to walk away from it all." The lonely, restless, and individualistic Huck provides a stark contrast to Lewis's status-obssessed protagonist. In McCuller's work, Nafisi sees a group of misfits, each yearning to escape from the stifling conformity of small-town life.
It was through literature that Nafisi learned about America, many years before she had to flee Iran owing to circumstances that made it impossible for her to teach as a female professor and one who expounded the beauty of Western works of fiction such as Lolita and The Great Gatsby. So, it is fitting that she uses American literary works to vent about sidelining of the humanities and the book culture and her craving for a Republic where an open mind is the only requirement for entry.
The book isn't as appealing as RLT for the broader audeince, but Iranian-Americans will find in it plenty of food for thought in looking at their new homeland and its literary traditions.
2015/02/28 (Saturday): Here are six items of potential interest.
(1) The Not-So-Great Dictator: Newsweek magazine's March 6, 2015, cover feature is about Kim Jong Un, North Korea's Supreme Leader. The cover feature contains the photo of a border crossing between China and North Korea that shows the contrast between the prosperity levels on the two sides.
(2) Quote of the day: "The test of courage comes when we are in the minority. The test of tolerance comes when we are in the majority." ~ Ralph W. Sockman
(3) The first US city to hit 100% renewable energy: In a move that is hoped to serve as a model for other cities, Burlington, Vermont, has achieved complete independence from fossil fuels in its energy production.
(4) Leading Putin critic gunned down: Boris Nemstov, struck by 7 bullets on a sidewalk near Kremlin, was planning to take part in a march against the Russian involvement in Ukraine. Even if Putin isn't directly involved in this blatant assassination, his vilification of the opponents of his increasingly authoritarian rule may have been viewed as a green light by his supporters, much like the way political opponents are eliminated in Iran.
(5) Using ugly pictures: Have you noticed that whenever a post or news story wants to make someone seem incompetent or stupid, it uses the worst possible photograph of that person (women, in particular), even if the photo is from a completely different occasion? This is done by a wide spectrum of activists, from extreme left to extreme right. I usually skip such stories, as the use of such photos is a sign of weakness of the arguments.
(6) Final thought for the day: "Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress." ~ Mahatma Gandhi
2015/02/27 (Friday): Here are nine items of potential interest.
(1) A couple of Rumi verses, with my English translation:
During moments of surrender at the workshop of fate,
I'm calmer than a gazelle and more fearless than a lion.
While moments of attempting to devise a plan,
Bring me suffering after suffering, chain after chain.
(2) Quote of the day: "We grow tired of everything but turning others into ridicule, and congratulating ourselves on their defects." ~ William Hazlitt
(3) Masih Alinejad honored with Geneva Summit's Women's Rights Award: This 27-minute video shows the honoring ceremony, including the background film, citation for the award, and her acceptance speech.
(4) Masih Alinejad's CNN interview: The exiled journalist, who created the now-famous "My Stealthy Freedom" Facebook page, where women opposing mandatory hijab in Iran post their hijabless photos in defiance of the Islamic regime, talks about her efforts against women's oppression and why she took on the hijab problem.
(5) Leonard Nimoy dead at 83: It's a sad day for the fans of "Star Trek" and the very logical Mr. Spock.
(6) US Secretary of State John Kerry reminds the Congress of the 2002 visit of private citizen Benjamin Netanyahu, during which he offered the US Congress testimony in support of the invasion of Iraq.
(7) Mosul museum thrashed by Islamic State thugs: Priceless ancient artifacts, some dating back to 7000 BC, were destroyed by sledgehammers, crowbars, and power tools, prompting UNESCO to call for an emergency session of the UN Security Council. Someone wrote in a Facebook post that if these are 21st-century radical Muslims, imagine what their 7th-century ancestors must have done when they invaded Iran.
(8) Stephen Hawking's Facebook post: "Congratulations to Eddie Redmayne for winning an #Oscar for playing me in The Theory of Everything. Well done Eddie, I'm very proud of you.—SH"
(9) Final thought for the day: "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right." ~ Thomas Paine
2015/02/26 (Thursday): Here are nine items of potential interest.
(1) War movies are back: After the 9/11 attacks, people lost interest in war movies and most of them flopped at the box office, including the critically acclaimed Oscar-winner "The Hurt Locker." After the death of Bin Laden, however, things changed, culminating with this year's "American Sniper," which has already grossed more than $300M. Other war movies about Iraq and Afghanistan are sure to follow. [Info and chart from Entertainment Weekly, March 6, 2015.]
(2) For some unknown reason, UCSB Library continues to attach a blue sheet to every new book it acquires, even though the date stamps that were used to imprint the due date on these sheets are long gone.
(3) Quote of the day: "Genius is the power of carrying the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood." ~ Samuel Taylor [Note: I would have replaced "manhood" with "adulthood," as others have done, but decided to keep Taylor's original wording.]
(4) Tech companies struggle with gender equality: A very interesting segment from last night's PBS Newshour that begins with the story of Ellen Pao, who has brought a discrimination lawsuit against KPCB, and continues with a general discussion of overt and covert discrimination against women in the high-tech industry's hiring and promotion policies. [7-minute video]
(5) Business dress codes and religious freedom: Another thought-provoking segment from last night's PBS Newshour in which the question of whether hijab, beard, and other religious symbols should be accommodated by businesses that are completely free to not hire a person with tattoos, certain kinds of haircut, and the like. In other words, can a business say that its employees should remove their hijabs or shave their beards as part of a dress code? [11-minute video]
(6) Delkash would have been 100 today: In this 10-minute video, the immensely popular Iranian singer Delkash (real name Esmat Bagherpoor), who passesd away 10 years ago, sings some of her well-known songs. And here is a 47-minute collection of her original songs.
(7) On Keystone XL pipeline veto: President Obama has made it clear that he vetoed the bill because of concerns over its unresolved environmental impacts and that he may approve a suitably revised pipeline project.
(8) The 4-year full-time residential college education model may have outlived its usefulness: According to Stanford University's education professor Mitchell Stevens, fewer and fewer students take the traditional route of going to school full-time and living on or close to campus, and prestigious universities have been too slow to adapt to changing times. [LA Times story]
(9) Final thought for the day: "We are what we consistently do. Excellence is defined by our habits." ~ Aristotle
2015/02/25 (Wednesday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) Sunday-size KenKen puzzle: KenKen puzzles are often 4 x 4 (easy) or 6 x 6 (challenging). On this Web site, you can solve KenKen puzzles of up to 9 x 9 of various levels of difficulty and with different arithmetic operations allowed. Here is a difficult 9 x 9 puzzle for your enjoyment. The numbers 1-9 should appear once (no repetition) in each row and in each column (much like Sudoku), and the numbers in each box should satisfy the arithmetical property (18+ means that the numbers in the box should add to 18, not that it is an adult subject, and 8- means that the two numbers in the box differ by 8).]
(2) A leading critic of global warming in hot water: Wei-Hock Soon is the subject of an inquiry, because he did not disclose that his research, attributing climate change to solar fluctuations rather than carbon emissions, is almost entirely funded by fossil-fuel interests.
(3) Quote of the day: "There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew." ~ Marshall McLuhan
(4) Bonus quote of the day: "When men speak ill of thee, live so as nobody may believe them." ~ Plato
(5) Polanyi Paradox: Formulated by philosopher Michael Polanyi in 1966, this famous paradox states that we know much more than we can tell; that is, our knowledge of the world's workings often exceeds our explicit understanding of how or why. One oft-cited example is the fact that the skill of a driver cannot be replaced by a detailed study of how an automobile works. Polanyi's formulation has recently taken on much significance in connection with machine learning and replacement of humans with robots. Those who invoke Polanyi believe that humans and machines will likely remain complementary rather than competing entities. On the other side, researchers are trying to overcome the paradox by building machines that learn from human examples, thus incorporating the rules that we apply tacitly, without explicit understanding. A striking example is that of chess-playing programs that have surpassed the ability of the best human chess players, without a need for complete understanding of how human players analyze chess situations or select a move.
(6) Iran is said to have smuggled more than $1B in cash to skirt sanctions: Because the government of Iran is starved for dollars and euros, which help it purchase needed supplies and equipment, it has resorted to using front companies across the globe, particularly in UAE, Iraq, and Turkey, to purchase hard currencies and to ship or carry the cash to Iran in suitcases. The front companies are then paid in other currencies or in oil.
(7) Be careful when researching disease symptoms on the Web: About a year ago, a University of Pennsylvania researcher designed the webXray program to analyze search results for nearly 2,000 common diseases. He found that 91% of the pages made third-party requests to outside companies. For instance, when you search for "cold sores" and click the highly ranked "Cold Sores Topic Overview WebMD" link, the Web site is passing your request for information about the disease along to several other corporations. According to the research, published in Communications of the ACM, about 70 percent of the time, the data transmitted contained information that is considered private. Many such instances of data sharing are for profit; at other times, the companies involved cite their desire for "an improved user experience." In some cases, the companies involved may not even be aware that they are sharing the data; the sharing occurs because they are using free tools and software provided by data collection (aka data-vacuuming) companies. In January 2014, Canadian authorities accused Google of using private information in an unauthorized manner. They did so based on complaint from a man who searched the Web for sleep apnea and was subsequently targeted with ads for devices from companies that claimed to treat the condition.
(8) Final thought for the day: "Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right." ~ Isaac Asimov
2015/02/24 (Tuesday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) The Children's War Victims Memorial: The memorial, with a heartbreaking story, is located near Prague.
(2) Christina Aguilera does a great job of impersonating Cher, Britney Spears, and Shakira on "The Tonight Show."
(3) Quote of the day: "The only index by which to judge a government or a way of life is by the quality of the people it acts upon. No matter how noble the objectives of a government, if it blurs decency and kindness, cheapens human life, and breeds ill will and suspicion—it is an evil government." ~ Eric Hoffer
(4) Bonus quote of the day: "My voice had a long, nonstop career. It deserves to be put to bed with quiet and dignity, not yanked out every once in a while to see if it can still do what it used to do. It can't." ~ Beverly Sills
(5) And the Oscar goes to ... the robot: Touted as a play for one robot and two humans, "The Uncanny Valley" made its debut in Brooklyn's Br5ck Theater. The robot was seated throughout the play and was rather limited in its body language, but it was far from stiff. This success can be credited to the researchers behind the charming robot, which uses a combination of motion capture, voice recordings, and videos of actors' faces projected on the interior of the robot's translucent white mask. [Info adapted from: IEEE Spectrum magazine, February 2015; The play's trailer on YouTube]
(6) "p-book," a new term for modern times: Format wars for e-books are reminiscent of the Explorer-Netscape wars of two decades ago. Once these wars are over and we settle on a particular standard format, nearly all books will be e-books and we will simply call them "books." To distinguish paper or printed books, assuming they are still around, we may use the term "p-book" for a while. [Info adapted from: IEEE Spectrum magazine, issue of February 2015]
(7) The Accidental Superpower: Peter Zeihan, the author of The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder, was a guest on CNN's Sunday news program "Fareed Zakaria GPS." Let me begin my observations with a startling fact cited by the author: America has more waterways than the rest of the world combined! This fact is extremely important, because throughout history, civilizations have developed around rivers, owing to the fact that shipping is tens of times cheaper on water than on land (for one thing, it doesn't need a lot of infrastructural investment, as roads do). Hence, the book's title, which implies that America's rise to power is in large part due to its geography. After World War II, America became the de facto enforcer of maritime safety around the world, so other countries benefitted from safe sea lanes, essentially getting a free ride. With America's energy independence looming, other countries may have to fend for themselves in ensuring safety on the seas, putting them at a greater disadvantage in competing with the US, which is poised to sidestep an increasingly dangerous energy market.
(8) Final thought for the day: "I will permit no man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him." ~ Booker T. Washington
2015/02/23 (Monday): Here are seven items of potential interest.
(1) Quote of the day: "Most of us don't think, we just occasionally rearrange our prejudices." ~ Frank Knox
(2) We're more than just our dresses: This is the rallying cry of the #AskHerMore campaign by Reese Witherspoon and other actresses to confront sexism on the red carpet. They say that they expect more questions about their bodies of work and causes they support, instead of about their bodies and support garments. Several actresses mentioned women's issues during their red-carpet interviews and acceptance speeches.
(3) Victims of violence against women remembered in Turkey: Facing photos placed on stadium seats, along with a larger photo of a recent victim of violence that particularly shook Turkey, spectators gathered under a large flag of their country to raise cries of apology and shame.
(4) Bonus quote of the day: "How did I get here? I made a film in black and white about the need for silence and withdrawal from the world and contemplation ... and here we are, at this epicenter of noise and world attention ... Life is full of surprises." ~ Director Pawel Pawlikowski, in his best-foreign-language-film-Oscar acceptance speech for "Ida"
(5) Norooz at LACMA: The Iranian cultural event, sponsored by Farhang Foundation on Sunday, March 22, 2015, will be held from 11:30 Am to 7:00 PM and will feature a concert by Zohreh Jooya (1:00 PM) and Kiosk Band (5:00 PM). Jooya's concert, "The Sounds of a Persian Spring," will need a ticket, but all else is free.
(6) Averting a space doom: This is the title of a 2-page article in IEEE Spectrum magazine (issue of February 2015) that discusses the growing problem of space junk. There are currently a bout 21,000 objects larger than 10 cm orbiting the Earth, and these objects are being tracked via ground-based radar. The whereabouts of these dangerous objects, traveling at 10 km/second, are reported to satellite owners, who have the option of carrying out collision-avoidance maneuvers, if the satellite has such a capability. Smaller objects, that can still be dangerous to satellites, number in the millions. A special conference to be held in March will examine the problem and possible countermeasures, which include: better tracking; increased shielding of satellites; using lasers to slow the objects down, causing them to burn upon reentry into the Earth's atmosphere; capturing and then tugging the junk into lower orbit, where they burn, or into higher "graveyard" orbits; better enforcement of the "25-year rule," which compels operators to maintain a capability of intentionally crashing satellites at the end of their useful lives, without creating any more debris.
(7) Final thought for the day: "A fault that humbles a man is of greater value than a virtue that puffs him up." ~ Anonymous
2015/02/22 (Sunday): Here are nine items of potential interest.
(1) The 87th Academy Awards ceremony just ended: Neil Patrick Harris did an admirable job of hosting the Oscars, which was extremely competitive in several catgories this year. Here are the honorees in major categories.
Best motion picture: "Birdman"
Best director: Alejandro G. Inarritu ("Birdman")
Best lead actor: Eddie Redmayne ("The Theory of Everything")
Best lead actress: Julianne Moore ("Still Alice")
Best supporting actor: J. K. Simmons ("Whiplash")
Best supporting actress: Patricia Arquette ("Boyhood")
All of these were predictable, except for "Boyhood" not winning for best picture or best director.
(2) Lady Gaga salutes Julie Andrews at the Oscars: She performs a medley of songs from the Oscar-winning film "The Sound of Music."
(3) The Oscar ceremony's opening act: It was well-designed and superbly performed by Neil Patrick Harris (with Anna Kendrick and Jack Black).
(4) Quote of the day: "'Fifty Shades of Grey' star Dakota Johnson hosts [SNL on Saturday 2/28]. She would've hosted earlier, but she was tied up for a while." ~ Entertainment Weekly, issue of February 27, 2015
(5) Bonus quote of the day: "Love is full of complicated patterns—patterns that mathematics is uniquely capable of discovering." ~ Hannah Fry, The Mathematics of Love [Here is Fry's 17-minute TED talk on the subject.]
(6) US News and World Report ranks UCSB 10th among public colleges: In positions 1, 2, 8, 9, and 11, are UC Berkeley, UCLA, UCSD, UC Davis, and UC Irvine. An impressive showing for University of California!
(7) News story claims that Argentine prosecutor Natalio Alerto Nisman's killer is an Iranian "defector": The Iranian agent "Abbas Haqiqat-Ju" (a pseudonym), who had earned Nisman's trust, killed him hours before he was to present evidence to the parliament about the Argentine president and foreign minister conspiring with Iran to hide Iran's involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish community center, killing 85, two years after another blast that killed 29 at the Israeli embassy. [Disclaimer: I am not certain about the source of this story and I have not seen this claim elsewhere.]
(8) Ring of peace: Over 1000 Muslims formed a human chain around an Oslo synagogue in a symbolic protective gesture.
(9) Final thought for the day: "As the soft yield of water cleaves obstinate stone, so to yield with life solves the insolvable: To yield, I have learned, is to come back again." ~ Lao-Tzu
2015/02/21 (Saturday): Here are seven items of potential interest.
(1) It's an exciting time to be in neuroscience: This sidebar to an IEEE Spectrum magazine article on brain implants used to control pain and neurological disorders is about an epileptic young woman who has been outfitted with a brain stimulator that detects the signature of an approaching seizure and triggers a burst of stimulation to disrupt the abnormal activity. The article indicates that patients experience 38% fewer seizures within the first 5 months of using the implant, with the figure increasing to 50% within a couple of years. Bear in mind that the device is still in its early stages of use. The total number of users so far is about 350, with 256 people receiving implants during clinical trials and about 100 receiving commercial implants since then. The researchers involved believe that 100% prevention is possible with further work.
(2) Quote of the day: "Error is to truth as sleep is to waking. As though refreshed, one returns from erring to the path of truth." ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wisdom and Experience
(3) Acceptable neurodiversity or a disease/disabiity to be cured? This is the question now raging in the autism, Asperger's, and other neuro-challenged communities. Activists at one extreme believe that autistic people should be accepted, with suitable accommodations, in the same way that we have come to accept variations in race and sexual orientation. Members of the neurodiversity movement accept remedies to relieve suffering from autism but are repelled by attempts at curing it, because such attempts imply that certain neurological variations are "bad." Others, including some autism sufferers, are desperately raising funds and looking for a glimmer of hope on the path to finding a cure.
(4) Smartphone app for helping the blind: "Be My Eyes" allows a blind person to point his/her smartphone at something and, through a video call to a volunteer on the other side, seek help. Examples include finding out which train stop they are at, locating a dropped personal item, snack choices in a vending machine that isn't equipped for use by the blind, and learning the expiry date on a food package.
(5) On the desirability of oil pipelines: Every proposed oil pipeline project creates protests, but oil pipelines are more efficient and much safer than transporting oil by tanker trucks and trains. It is perfectly fine to be against a particular oil pipeline, while proposing an alternate path, but dismissing them altogether is illogical. Oil pipelines are much less likely to create health/environmental hazards than tanker trucks/trains that have rightly been described as "moving bombs"; they have caused multiple explosions in the past few months alone, owing to crashes and derailments in the US. Trucks and trains routinely travel through residential neighborhoods and no amount of design tweaks will make them totally safe.
(6) Food for thought: In the 5600 years between the creation of the universe and the last prophet's appearance (7000 – 1400 = 5600), some 124,000 prophets are said to have been sent by God; all of them in the Middle East region, because people in places like Europe, North America, and Australia were apparently so much better that they didn't need any divine guidance. A simple division yields the rate of 22.1 per year, or roughly one prophet every two weeks or so.
(7) Final thought for the day: "We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done." ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
2015/02/20 (Friday): Here are nine items of potential interest.
(1) Flexible electronic circuits have a long history: This full-page ad from the May 1965 issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine is about such circuits, and it makes reference to a telephone set incorporating paper-thin circuitry since 1959 (56 years ago).
(2) Advances in face detection algorithms: A new algorithm can spot faces from any angle as well as when partially occluded. Recent research has led to great improvements over the Viola-James detection algorithm from 2001 that aimed at simple detection of faces from the front. The new Yahoo-Stanford algorithm shows promise for image search applications (finding images of specific people).
(3) God Only Knows: The Brian Wilson song is performed by many famous musicians.
(4) Quote of the day: "Half of the American people never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half." ~ Gore Vidal
(5) Good news about UC: University of California tuition hike put on hold until after summer session 2015, pending the outcome of budget negotiations.
(6) A debate on hijab: This Iranian cleric says that hijab should not be mandatory. A woman arguing against him (with little success, I must add) states that Islam demands hijab. I don't know what to make of this debate, which was broadcast on the government-controlled Iranian TV. Is it just a case of letting people vent, to release some of the stifling social and political pressures, or is it an omen for change?
(7) Modern/Fusion Persian music: Farid Vaghefinazari (half of the Danny & Fraid duo) plays "The Wild Horse" on the guitar.
(8) Denmark puts animal rights before religion: They ban kosher and halal slaughter, maintaining that it is less painful for the animal if, according to normal practice there, it is stunned before slaughtering. Cries of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have already been raised.
(9) Final thought for the day: "A hurtful act is the transference to others of the degradation which we bear in ourselves." ~ Simone Weil
2015/02/19 (Thursday): Here are nine items of potential interest.
(1) Noise pollution in the US: Dark blue areas on the map are quietest and light yellow areas are the noisiest.
(2) Quote of the day: "Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning." ~ Rich Cook
(3) Your body language shapes who you are: This is the title of a 21-minute TED talk by Amy Cuddy, who discusses the topic, with a focus on nonverbal expression of power and dominance. The talk's take-away is: "You can fake it till you become it."
(4) On Saudi Arabia's relation to ISIS: "If we are going to continue to donate American lives to the fight [against Islamic extremism] ... we need to be clear about exactly who the enemy is." ~ Joe Klein, writing in Time magazine, issue of February 23 / March 2, 2015, on the need to bring the Saudi support for Islamic extremism into the open
(5) The Mars One Project: The project for starting a human settlement on Mars by offering free one-way trips has just chosen 100 applicants for training. The eventual 24 travelers will be chosen from among these 100, which include two living in Iran and one other having Iranian roots. Training will start in 2015, with rover and cargo missions launched in 2020 and 2022. The outpost will become operational in 2023 and the first crew will leave in 2024.
(6) Today is the start of the Chinese New Year: Happy year of the goat! In the Chinese tradition, the goat is considered mild-mannered, shy, stable, sympathetic, amicable, and brimming with a strong sense of justice. If you were born in 1919, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, or 2003, you are considered to have the traits above. Predictions that are about as accurate as those of astrology!
(7) A creepy experience: Returning home tonight, I found a Jehovah's Witnesses flyer and calling card. I have received many religious propaganda flyers before, but this is the first time that it's in Persian, indicating that the visitors knew more about me than I like.
(8) Each person lives and dies differently: I am starting to experience the process that Oliver Sacks writes about so eloquently in The New York Times, that is, the pain of seeing your contemporaries perish before your eyes. Sack discovered last month that he will be dying of cancer soon. Here is an excerpt. "I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death."
(9) Final thought for the day: "Don't find fault with what you don't understand." ~ French proverb
2015/02/18 (Wednesday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) Newsweek magazine turned 82 yesterday: This image shows part of the cover and front page of the February 17, 1933, issue. Debt and foreclosure were the main problems then too; plus ca change!
(2) Quote of the day: "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." ~ Antoine de Saint Exupery
(3) Disney characters surprise & entertain mall shoppers.
(4) The million-plus resturant bill for two in Tehran: This will come as a shock to my Iranian friends who left Iran years ago, but the 1,035,000 rials amount-payable shown on a restaurant bill featured on NPR's "On the Road" program is only about $30, at the exchange rate in effect on that particular day. This brings forth the need for changing the monetary unit in Iran to something other than rial. Even toman (10 rials) is too small a unit. Iranians informally use 1000 tomans as a unit now and that should be designated as a new unit, say "new toman," which, after a period of transition, will become known as simply "toman." This restaurant bill would then be around 100 new tomans. The unit "new rial" can similarly be introduced as equivalent to 1000 rials, roughly equivalent to a nickel in the US (a little over 3 cents, actually). Smaller units aren't needed, as the penny will soon be removed in the US and Canada because of being too small in value.
(5) The first victims of the First Crusade were European Jews: "Pope Urban II did not tell crusaders [in 1096] to murder Jews, but that is what happened when at least 100,000 knights, vassals and serfs, unmoored from ordinary social restraints but bearing the standard of the cross, set off to crush what they considered a perfidious Muslim enemy in a faraway land. ... Breaking the bolts and doors, they killed the Jews, about seven hundred in number, who in vain resisted the force and attack of so many thousands. They killed the women, also, and with their swords pierced tender children of whatever age and sex ... Horrible to say, mothers cut the throats of nursing children with knives and stabbed others, preferring them to perish thus by their own hands rather than to be killed by the weapons of the uncircumcised."
(6) Major explosion in southern California refinery: The Exxon-Mobil refinery explosion in Torrance, which shook the area like a magnitude-1.7 earthquake, injured 4 workers. Air quality in the Los Angeles area is apparently not affected, but the impact on already rising gas prices will not be as benign.
(7) Jimmy Kimmel, on the US East Coast's cold spell: It was so cold in Washington, DC, today that all government offices were closed. Members of Congress had to get nothing done from home.
(8) Final thought for the day: "The boiling water that softens potatoes is the same boiling water that hardens eggs. How circumstances affect you is a function of what you are made of inside." ~ Anonymous
2015/02/17 (Tuesday): Here are six items of potential interest.
(1) Importance of parental education: This infographic from Computing Research Association, depicting parental education level for computer science/engineering majors of various ethnicities, tells the story of why Asian-Americans are highly successful in this field.
(2) Quote of the day: "Those parts of the system that you can hit with a hammer (not advised) are called hardware; those program instructions that you can only curse at are called software." ~ Anonymous
(3) Netflix in Cuba: In a largely symbolic move (because only 5% of Cubans have Internet access), Netflix has announced that it will make its service available in the Island nation. Netflix is counting on an expansion of WiFi access when the US embargo is reassessed. Other industries that are poised to benefit are tourism (including medical tourism), energy, and agriculture. [Adapted from: Time magazine, February 23 / March 2, 2015.]
(4) Drone detectors: Widespread fears over privacy violations by peeping toms using GoPro-equipped small drones, as well as more serious security risks, have created an industry of drone detection devices. Many celebrities have already installed such devices around their properties and US government agencies are scrambling to bolster security and update operating regulations and no-drone zones. Enforcement of such regulations and restrictions will not be easy. [Adapted from: Time magazine, February 23 / March 2, 2015.]
(5) Parking innovations: A UCLA study has found that on 15 blocks near the Los Angeles campus, drivers spend an average of 3.3 minutes and drive an average of 0.5 mile to find parking. This translates to nearly 1M miles of travel and about 50K gallons of wasted gas annually. Other studies suggest that up to 30% of downtown drivers may just be looking for a parking space. In San Francisco, this problem has given rise to mobile valets that come to get your car wherever you want and return it to you at the same location for a $15 fee, often cheaper than the cost of parking, assuming you can find a space. There are also emerging smartphone apps that allow homeowners to rent out their private driveways and garages, help drivers find available parking, and let parking garage owners adjust their rates automatically in order to stay as full as possible. [Adapted from: Time magazine, double-issue of February 23 and March 2, 2015.]
(6) The SNL40 special was truly special: The 3.5-hour star-studded 40th anniversary celebration of "Saturday Night Live," that aired on Sunday 2/15, had a great many memorable moments. Newsweek magazine has picked the following five for special mention.
"Celebrity Jeopardy," with the cast impersonating Alex Trebek, Sean Connery, Burt Reynolds, Justin Bieber, etc.
"SNL Auditions," showing cast members pitch their talents and skits, some of which made it into the program.
"Weekend Update," the comedy news program, reunited its past hosts and also featured many celebrities.*
"Musical Comedy," featuring Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, Dana Cervey, Adam Sandler, and other performers.
"Questions from the Audience," which featured cast members, actors, and other celebrities, including Sarah Palin.
*During "Weekend Update," Jane Curtin quipped: "I used to be the only pretty blonde reading the fake news. Now there's a whole network for that."
2015/02/16 (Monday): Here are seven items of potential interest.
(1) Sandbar off the Bermuda Triangle: Sixteen ships met their demise here.
(2) Quote of the day: "Our negotiators are trying to take the weapon of sanctions away from the enemy." ~ Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, giving his strongest endorsement yet of the nuclear negotiations, after months of insisting that the sanctions are a blessing and that negotiating with Iran's sworn enemies is ill-advised
(3) Humor from Entertainment Weekly (issue of February 20, 2015): NBC to test "Chicago Medical" spin-off, with plans to roll out "Chicago DMV," "Chicago Dental," and "Chicago Trader Joe's" through 2018.
(4) Entertainment Weekly's Academy Awards choices: Here are the top and second Oscar choices in the main categories (issue of February 20, 2015). It appears that the best-picture and best-director awards will be split. In the supporting actress/actor, other awards this year were swept by a single candidate, so no second choice is provided.
Best picture: "Birdman"; "Boyhood"
Best director: Alejandro Inarritu; Richard Linklater
Best actress: Julianne Moore; Rosamund Pike
Best actor: Michael Keaton; Eddie Redmayne
Best supporting actress: Patricia Arquette
Best supporting actor: J. K. Simmons
(5) Jafar Panahi wins Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear award for best film: Panahi, a banned Iranian opposition filmmaker, was not allowed to leave Iran to attend, so his tearful young niece, one of the actresses in the honored film "Taxi," accepted the award on his behalf.
(6) Bob Simon to be featured in next week's "60 Minutes": The award-winning journalist, who perished in a New York City car crash on February 11, will be the focus of the entire CBS newsmagazine next Sunday. This week's edition of "60 Minutes" aired a report he had finished on the day he died.
(7) Today is the 23rd anniversary of my father's passing: The family marked the occasion in a gathering yesterday. At the cemetery, those present related their memories of him. A couple of us recalled his dedication and hard work as he put together textbooks and reference works (mostly authored, but also a few translated volumes) in electrical engineering. As I write my own technical books, I often think of him, because in those days, he did not have access to computers or word processors, so he would handwrite the text on special lined sheets provided by the publisher and had to apply corrections through tossing entire sheets of paper or by painstakingly erasing paragraphs of text to write them in different forms. When my dad retired, he spent his days in a workshop he had built next to our home. He would bid for industrial installation/repair/maintenance contracts, with both private and public factories and plants, but he would also accept odd jobs from neighbors who brought to him their radios, TV sets, and other electrical/electronic devices for diagnosis and repair. I vividly recall his observation that in more than 90% of the cases, a device doesn't work because a fuse is blown, a toggle switch has been flipped, or a wire is disconnected. Most repair establishments would simply replace the fuse or flip the switch, thus removing the problem, without telling the client that the problem was a minor one needing only minutes to fix, so that they could charge a hefty fee. My dad always told his clients exactly what was wrong and would charge a fair sum for the amount of effort he put in. From this lesson, I know that before taking a failed device to a repair shop or to disassemble it to see what's wrong, I should check the fuses and connections first. This saves me a lot of time and money. May he rest in peace!
2015/02/15 (Sunday): Slack, Jonathan, Genes: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford Univ. Press, 2014.
This 120-page, pocket-size book is another one in the OUP series that aims to provide stimulating and accessible ways of exploring new subjects (I have previously reviewed the Microeconomics and Geopolitics volumes in the series). The still-expanding list of titles, written by authorities in the respective fields, includes over 400 topics, from Accounting to Writing and Script.
I chose to read this book to gain a better understanding of the field of genetics, after I finished and reviewed The Double Helix, Nobel Laureate James D. Watson's highly personal account of the 1953 discovery of the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material. Watson shared his 1962 Nobel Prize with his collaborator Francis Crick and half of the Wilkins/Franklin team, in equal 1/3 shares (Rosalind Franklin died prematurely in 1958, so she was not named among the awardees).
The book under review consists of the following six chapters, of 15-20 pages each, and a 2-page conclusion: 1. Genes Before 1944; 2. Genes as DNA; 3. Mutations and Gene Variants; 4. Genes as Markers; 5. Genes of Small Effect; 6. Genes in Evolution.
The first two chapters review the history of scientific discoveries in this area and discuss the fundamentals of genes and their role in human evolution. The field of genetics was founded by Mendel's 1866 publication of a paper in what today would be described as a low-impact journal, causing his discoveries to go unnoticed during his lifetime. Rediscovery of Mendel's work in 1900 removed one of the key objections to Darwin's theory of natural selection; namely, that small, random variations are likely to become diluted, because those who carry them are likely to mate with non-carriers.
Chapter 3 contains a description of a series of diseases and genetic mechanisms for their inheritance by offspring. We learn here, for instance, that Gene therapy shows a great deal of potential in treating diseases such as hemophilia (which used to condemn people to death in their childhood). I wonder if those who protest GMO crops today will turn down life-saving genetic treatments in future. In addition to providing a cure, genetics provides an understanding why hemophilia is an almost exclusively male disease. We also learn that some diseases cannot be traced to a particular mutation in a single gene but that certain gene variants and combinations contribute to a predisposition to the disease. Cancer, for example, is a genetic disease in this sense, even though one does not inherit it from parents. Cancer requires a number of mutations, such as those that stimulate cell division, reduce sensitivity to inhibitors of division, supress cell death, and encourage blood vessel growth, to coincide. The probability of all of these happening sharply increases with time, thus making cancer incidence proportional to the 4th or 5th power of age. Some virus infections introduce one of the 6 mutations needed for cancer and can thus be said to be cancer-causing. Roughly 1/3 of us will die of cancer, so even if all the other causes of death, such as heart disease, stroke, or pneumonia were abolished, our gain in lifespan would be modest.
From Chapter 4, we learn two very interesting and important ideas. One is the role played by genetics in forensics and human identification, both within the criminal justice system and in tracing people's ancestry. For example, in the UK, DNA samples are collected routinely from anyone who is arrested for any reason. When crime scene samples are matched against those in this vast database, there is roughly a 50% chance of finding a match. This has made DNA screening a very powerful tool in fighting crime. The second interesting idea is that we humans carry genes from a particular female ancestor and a male ancestor (the so-called mitochondrial "Eve" and "Adam," except that the woman and man did not live in the same place or in the same era (they were likely separated in time by tens of thousands of years). The image above (not from the book) shows how genes from a single female can propagate to an entire population.
In Chapter 5, we learn that genes do not just affect human's reproductive fitness, and thus chances for survival, but also certain non-critical features such as height and intelligence. For such features, a heritability index is often derived from experimental data that reflects the share of genes in a particular feature. For height, the index is estimated to be be between 65% and 90%. It is now widely accepted that certain environmental factors, such as nutrition and healthcare, also play a role in the hights of human populations. Heritability of IQ is estimated in the range 68-78%. These latter findings are highly controversial, particularly in light of the Nazi Germany and several Western democracies embracing eugenics, the practice of selective breeding for positive traits and prevention of negative ones. The Nazi Germany's experiments in this area are well-known, but in the US too about 65,000 people in 33 states were sterilized under these programs.
The most important idea in Chapter 6 is that of genetic drift, a focus of NeoDarwinism (a combination of Darwin's natural selection with Mendel's genetics). This combination explains, for example, why there is an appearance of design in living organisms: such as the fact that an insect's proboscis is just the right length to collect nectar from specific flowers. Genetic drift explains how changes in species occur, even when they do not offer a reproductive advantage. Similarly, explanations for group behavior and altruism can be constructed that are very convincing. Altruism and group loyalty are in fact mechanisms for propagating certain genes, even if it is through other members of the group and not the member that commits the act. One of the founders of NeoDarwinism, J. B. S. Haldane, is quoted as having said: "I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins." Brothers on average share 50% of their gene variants and cousins have 12.5% in common, so Haldane's calculation makes sense in the context of gene propagation. This theory comes into play for social insects, in particular. Some social insects have workers and reproductive individuals, the latter working hard even though such hard work cannot be explained by their own reproductive advantage.
In summary, genes are viewed in different, complementary or even opposing, ways by different scientists. To molecular biologists, the chemical structure of DNA and RNA, as well as cataloging and annotating them, take center stage. Within human population studies, "genes" are DNA markers (some of which are not actual genes, but in DNA outside genes). Likewise, quantitative genetics has still a different view of genes. All of these views are important to society, but they must be treated with care to avoid misunderstandings and abuses.
2015/02/14 (Saturday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) This heart is formed by more people than the number of my real and virtual friends, but I dedicate it to all nonetheless on this Valentine's Day. To my Iranian friends, a happy Esfandgan and Sepandarmazgan as well! Sepandarmazgan is the ancient Iranian day of love during which both romantic love and love of Earth and Mother Nature are celebrated; a sort of combination Valentine's & Earth Day! Its modern revival falls on Bahman 29 (February 18), following a couple of reorganizations of the Persian calendar.
(2) Suicide bombers go on strike: An old humorous piece; politically incorrect, but funny nonetheless. The supposed strike is caused by Al Qaeda announcing that the number of virgins allotted to each suicide bomber has been reduced from 72 to 60.
(3) Lego blocks for the Internet generation: A 6-person London-based start-up will offer products such as buttons, lights, buzzers, and sensors, that connect together wirelessly through a computer and allow anyone to link devices to a network to make them more intelligent and more useful.
(4) Should we have an e-sports Olympics? This is a question posed in the February 2015 issue of E&T magazine. Arguing for the Olympics is Andrea Kates, CEO of the tech company LaunchPad Central, who notes: "When it comes to e-sports, we are not discussing the cultural stereotype of lonely teenagers sitting in darkened rooms. We're talking about people who are as dedicated and put as much preparation into their skills as ... archers and swimmers." Writing against the proposition is Guy Clapperton, author and commentator on social media, who notes: "[C]ulturally, video games are ... in the liberal arts. Bafta now gives an award for the best video game ... that celebrates the creativity behind the product. ... But as for dishing out Olympic gold medals for people who actually play the games, I'm not so sure about that."
(5) The goldfish story: "My goldfish was trying to tell me something, but as soon as it opened its mouth, water went in and he couldn't talk. So, I took him out of the water and put him on a table. He became so excited that he began jumping up and down. Soon he got pretty tired and dozed off. As soon as he was sound asleep, I returned him to the water. He hasn't woken up yet; or maybe he's just pretending to be asleep, because he is upset with me for putting him back in the bowl."
This is the story of some of those around us. They love us and we love them. They are doing their best to help us the way they know how, but they just have no understanding of our lives.
(6) On the religious importance of the cat: Long ago, there was a temple and a cat lived there. When the clerics wanted to pray, the cat got in their way. So, the head cleric ordered someone to take the cat away from the temple and tie him to a tree, until the prayers ended. This practice became a religious ritual and went on for years. One day, the head cleric died. Some time later, the cat also died. The other clerics bought another cat, so that they could tie him to a tree and perform their prayers properly. Many years after these events, a famous scholar of the religion wrote a thesis on the importance of tying a cat to a tree at prayer time.
(7) Excitable songs: According to Entertainment Weekly, issue of February 13, 2015, only 10 songs have ever had an exclamation point as part of their titles. The first one listed is Bruce Channel's 1962 "Hey! Baby"; then come Bobby Vinton's 1963 "There! I've Said It Again," Louis Armstrong's 1964 "Hello, Dolly!" and three songs from 1965, with a total of 5 exclamation points: The Beatles' "Help!"; The Supremes' "Stop! In the Name of Love"; The Byrds" "Turn! Turn! Turn!" Then, you have to wait for about 4 decades to get excited about Outcast's 2003 "Hey Ya!" Usher's 2004 "Yeah!" and Chris Brown's 2005 "Run It!" The last of the 10 is Mark Ronson's 2014 "Uptown Funk!"
(8) Final thought for the day: "Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind." ~ Johannes Brahms
2015/02/13 (Friday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) Mexico City's planned airport: Mexico needs a new international airport and architects have come up with a bold design that benefits from the experience of a competent foreign firm and young Mexican architects who provide "local flavor." The spectacular 6M square feet single terminal will have 1/3 the mass and 3 times the span of a typical airport. [Info from: E&T magazine, issue of February 2015.]
(2) Quote of the day: "Islam values women's rights, especially the rights of those women who give birth to male children." ~ Ayatollah Tanasoli, fictional religious leader who mocks Iranian officials on Facebook and Twitter
(3) President Obama makes a hilarious BuzzFeed video: Things everybody does but doesn't talk about. It's good to see the leader of the Free World have some fun and not take himself too seriously. [Okay, here come the conservatives complaining that ISIS and other dire things were ignored while the President made this promotional video for Obamacare.]
(4) Actors on Actors: This is the title of PBS/Variety's brilliant program. Instead of having a host interview an actor, they pair actors (say, Michael Keaton and Reese Witherspoon) and let them talk about their craft. The conversations are sometimes boring, but occasionally sparks fly and the actors go deep into their motivations, fears, and insecurities.
(5) The high-tech barrier that puts Israel's West-Bank wall to shame: The 900 km barrier separating Saudi Arabia from Iraq consists of twin chainlink fences with razor wire, 100 m apart, separated by a concertina fence and preceded by embankments designed to slow infiltrators. In the area between the fences, underground movement sensors trigger silent alarms. A service road on the Saudi side will be used by 10 radar-equipped surveillance reconnaissance vehicles and hundreds of rapid-response vehicles. The vehicles, as well as 40 watchtowers, 38 communication towers, and 32 military response stations, will be equipped with the latest electronic gadgets, including 3D face recognition systems. [Info from: E&T magazine, issue of
(6) The astrophysicist who is bent on making science a part of pop culture: For Neil deGrasse Tyson, the only living scientist with a cult-like celebrity status, this is a great time to start people thinking daily about science. Movies like "Intergalactic" and "Gravity," and the popular science biopics "The Theory of Everything" and "The Imitation Game" have grabbed people's attention and Tyson's own late-night talk show on National Geographic's TV channel will act as a catalyst. Tyson's "Star Talk" show tries to get a scientist and a comedian as its nightly guests, and it features hearty laughs and selfies in an effort to attract the younger crowd.
(7) The bionic pancreas: Inspired by his son's condition, Ed Damiano, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, has made it his mission to build a wearable bionic pancreas by the time he heads to college in 2017. The device consists of an under-skin glucose monitor and miniature external infusion pumps that deliver insulin and glucagon optimally, based on a mathematical algorithm. [Time magazine, issue of February 9, 2015.]
(8) Final thought for the day: "Man is rich in proportion to the amount of things he can leave alone." ~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden
2015/02/12 (Thursday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) The award-winning Apple Computer campus: In a field where women are still facing the glass ceiling, Cristina Segni has made Architects' Journal's Women Architect of the Year shortlist for her breathtaking design of the new Apple Computer campus in Cupertino, California.
(2) To celebrate Valentine's Day, a San Francisco zoo is letting people "adopt" a cockroach or scorpion in the name of an ex. [From: Time magazine, issue of February 9, 2015.]
(3) Quote of the day: "Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting people have to understand. If only they would realize above all that an artist works of necessity, that he himself is only a trifling bit of the world, and that no more importance should be attached to him than to plenty of other things which please us in the world, though we can't explain them." ~ Pablo Picasso
(4) Nothing's left in Kobani: The Kurds who liberated the strategically important border town have their work cut out for them to make it livable again. A 2-page photo in Time magazine, issue of February 16, 2015, shows Kobani in total ruins.
(5) SNL's 40th Anniversary Special: I am looking forward to NBC's 3-hour "Saturday Night Live" special on Sunday February 15, 2015, in which many of the show's alums will come together to celebrate its best moments.
(6) Tom Petty, on Sam Smith: "Let me say I have never had any hard feeling toward Sam. All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam's people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement." ~ On the story behind Sam Smith's Grammy-winning hit "Stay With Me," on which Tom Petty has been awarded co-writing credits and a 12.5% share of the royalties, in view of the song's strong similarity to Petty's "I Won't Back Down"
(7) The historical city of Hamadan: When one talks about the ancient history of Iran, the western city of Hamadan does not immediately come to mind. It turns out that Hamadan has some of the oldest structures and historical artifacts in Iran, not to mention the burial places of philosopher/scientist/physician Avi Sina, poet Baba Taher, and the biblical Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai, the latter being a Jewish shrine.
(8) How to get to Heaven from Ireland (humor): I was testing children in my Dublin Sunday school class to see if they understood the concept of getting to heaven. I asked them, 'If I sold my house and my car, had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would that get me into heaven?' 'NO!' the children answered.
If I cleaned the church every day, tended the garden, and kept everything tidy, would that get me into heaven?' Again, the answer was 'NO!'
By now I was starting to smile. 'Well, then, if I was kind to animals and gave sweets to all the children, and loved my husband, would that get me into heaven? Again, they all answered 'NO!'
I was just bursting with pride for them. I continued, 'Then how can I get into heaven?'
A six-year-old boy shouted out: "YUV GOTTA BE FOOKN' DEAD ..."
2015/02/11 (Wednesday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) The anthropologist who flew in this plane over some primitive tribes decided that he should not try to contact them.
(2) Quote of the day: "Millennials are bored, unchallenged—to the point of abandoning lucrative slaries to do something interesting in an environment where their work can have impact." ~ Jenna P. Carpenter, Dean for Undergraduate Studies in the College of Engineering and Science, Louisiana Tech University, writing about young graduates' quarterlife crisis in ASEE Prism magazine, issue of January 2015
(3) Memory loss associated with Alzheimer's reversed for the first time: In a small-scale study reported in the on-line journal Aging, UCLA researchers showed the reversal of memory loss in 9 out of 10 patients.
(4) New elavators to make taller, more space-efficient skyscrapers possible: Elavators are still built with 1.5-century-old technology based on steel cables holding up and moving cars. In our tallest buildings, which devote up to 40% of their floor space to elevator shafts, wait times can still be quite long. Many soaring architectural visions are constrained by the current elevator technology. Magnetic levitation, now used for high-speed (bullet) trains, will soon come to the rescue. With maglev, the use of a larger number of smaller cars inside narrower shafts can halve the amount of space needed for elevators, while also improving wait times. [From: ASEE Prism magazine, issue of January 2015]
(5) A vision for smart luggage of the future: Five University of Buffalo students have received $1.66M from a crowdfunding site (they were aiming for $50K) to bring a smart suitcase to market. The Bluesmart suitcase has a built-in digital scale, a location tracker, a smartphone-controlled digital lock, a battery with 3 USB ports, and a data display for travel and weather information. [From: ASEE Prism magazine, issue of January 2015]
(6) Three young, educated Muslims shot to death in North Carolina: So far no official explanation has been provided, but hate crime is a real possibility.
(7) Epic sandstorm suffocates the Middle East: Reports from Iran indicate that cities in the Khuzestan province are in particularly dire state. Iranian clerics are as usual blaming lax morals for the wrath of God.
(8) Exhibition soccer: Sacramento Republic, in town today for a friendly match against UCSB, outsmarted and outhustled the Gauchos to lead 2-0 midway through the first half. I was hoping for better results in this first look at UCSB's 2015 team. UCSB made the score 1-2 before halftime, but lost at the end 1-4. Now it's back to the drawing board to patch all the defensive holes and generate some offensive sparks in the few months left to the start of the 2015 season on August.
2015/02/10 (Tuesday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) A lovely Persian poem by Forough Farrokhzad:
I journey, but no longer ask myself: | Which is the way? Where's home? What's the destination?
Kisses, I dispense, but carry no notion, | About who might be this crazy heart's beloved.
Oh, surely this is me, but what's the point, | The real me is gone; isn't in me any more.
I roar crazily, but all's in my mind, | Asking, who's the real me? ... Who?
(2) Quote of the day: "No, this is your work." ~ Pablo Picasso's reply to a German officer who inquired whether a displayed painting depicting the chaos of World War II was his work
(3) Anticipated comic deficit: Stephen Colbert already terminated his fake news program on Comedy Central and Jon Stewart is reportedly also quitting "The Daily Show." We may have a deficit of humorous analyses and outrageous interviews, until a new equilibrium is established in the comedy world. On second thought, unintentionally funny clips from Fox News may provide the needed comic relief in their absence.
P.S.: Comic news is a fairly recent phenomenon in the US, but it has a long history in Iran.
(4) How to pass time on the train: I personally prefer reading, but, hey, I'm open to new suggestions.
(5) Be brave, be safe: This is the title of an essay by Susanna Schrobsdorff [Time magazine, issue of February 9, 2015] giving advice to her two teenage daughters, as they prepare to head to college. "The irony is that while we've always warned our little girls about strangers, the numbers say that if our college-age daughters are assaulted, it will likely be by someone they know. ... I've spent years telling my girls that they can do anything a boy can, that they can rely on their smarts above all and that they should never be ashamed of their bodies. But that's not exactly true. No, girls can't get drunk like guys can at a party, not without compromising their safety."
(6) Did any women grieve the death of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah? They are nowhere to be found in published photos of the formal state events in the wake of the King's passing.
(7) NASA scientists excited by the proposed Europa Clipper Mission: The US administration's 2016 budget includes funding for a mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's largest of 50 moons and the most promising target to find life outside Earth. Europa is believed to hold twice the amount of ocean water that the Earth has.
(8) Final thought for the day: "Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it." ~ German poet/playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)
2015/02/08 (Sunday): Here are three items of potential interest.
(1) Lecture on Hafez and his 'Shirazi Turk': Today, I attended the lecture "Hafez, Timur and Khosrow of Delhi: A Geo-Historical Investigation about the 'Shirazi Turk'" by Domenico Ingenito, Italian-born Assistant Professor of Classical Persian at UCLA; the thirty-something speaker said that he became interested in, and started learning, Persian some 15 years ago, which made his delivery in Persian quite impressive. Unfortunately, the paper that the speaker said he has in the works isn't yet available on-line, so the following is based on my recollection and sparse notes.
The main focus of the talk was the well-known ghazal by Hafez (shown in the image) that begins with the verse containing the expression 'Shirazi Turk.' Like much of Hafez's poetry (wherein each person sees his/her own worldview and biases, from religious notions to eroticism), the 'Shirazi Turk' in this verse has been interpreted in different ways.
At one extreme is the literal meaning of a beautiful woman (or perhaps a young boy) from Shiraz who had tickled the poet's fancy. At the other extreme lie possible political (Timur, a Turk ruler) or spiritual references. As little is known about Hafez's personal life, it is hard to tell. He does have overtly political poems, including one that he is known to have modified in order to avoid getting in trouble with the authorities.
The great Persian poet Sa'adi used 'Shirazi Turk' before Hafez, so the notion must have been a common one in that era. Sa'adi's verse also references 'Khata'i Turk,' and Hafez elsewhere writes about 'Samarqandi Turk.' These notions are all interrelated and scholars have not come to definite conclusions about their exact meanings. The speaker tied these ideas to those appearing in the works of Amir-Khosro Dehlavi, from Delhi, a city that became an important center of Persian culture in the aftermath of the Mongol invasion of Iran and territories to its north.
(2) The Grammy Awards, 2015: On the way back from Los Angeles tonight, I stopped by at my sister's and we watched the Grammy Awards show together (I missed the first half hour). I found the show a lot more enjoyable than other awards shows, primarily because it was light on speeches and heavy on music. Highlights for me included performances by Beyonce, Tony Benett with Lady Gaga, Madonna, Sam Smith with Mary J. Blige, and Annie Lennox with Hozier, as well as President Obama's well-delivered message against domestic violence; something that many music stars needed to hear. I won't name the bathroom-break-worthy performances.
(3) Joke of the day: A man and a woman, involved in a high-speed car accident, emerge from their cars unhurt. The woman says to the man: "Listen! Neither one of us seems to have been hurt, so the hand of fate must be behind this crash. Even this bottle of wine is unbroken; we have to celebrate our chance meeting." She hands the bottle to the man who drinks half of it, and hands it over to the woman. She puts the bottle away. "Aren't you drinking?" inquires the man. The woman replies: "Later; first we have to wait for the police to establish fault in this accident."
2015/02/07 (Saturday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) Terms of endearment: Comparing pre- and post-Islamic-Revolution terms used in connection with Iran's top leader shows little change in how people convey absolute loyalty to the unelected leader. In Shah's time, everyone could be ridiculed (in cartoons and other published satire) except the Shah himself. Now, lower-level officials are out of bound as well.
(2) 3D printing is key to a successful Mars landing by humans: It would be very difficult to take everything that might come in handy, but with a 3D printer, any needed item can be created from suitable ingredients.
(3) Jordan's air force releases slick PR ad against ISIS. [2-minute video]
(4) Comedy sketch, performed in a tilted room. [3-minute video]
(5) Wonderful Iranian choral music: The Maghami Heray Ensemble (based in Ghoochan, northeastern Iran) performs "Melvary" (translation?).
(6) Variations for piano: Performed by the composer, Ludwig Tuman. [18-minute sound recording]
(7) Shirin and Kerstin perform "Heart of Glass" on piano and percussion. Shirin and her collaborators post their performances on YouTube under the moniker "ahang1001" (there are hundreds of videos, arranged under playlists such as Tango, Ragtime, Jazz and Blues, Spanish Classical, Music for Relaxing, Human Rights, Opera and Operetta Melodies, Love Songs, Piano Bar, Persian Piano, and Persian Dance Music).
(8) All 121 Billy Joel songs ranked, with a link provided for each song: The ultimate resource for people like me who are into the Piano Man's music.
2015/02/06 (Friday): Here are nine items of potential interest.
(1) A poem composed on the spot by the Iranian Azeri Poet Shahriar: Here is the (alleged) story behind this couplet. After an evening of drinking and having a good time, Shahriar supposedly ad libbed the first verse.
A young woman who was present complimented him on the verse but expressed doubts that he composed it right there and then. She asked Shahriar if he was sure he had not preplanned the verse.
Shariar asked the young lady what her name was, and she responded "Ghazaal." After a brief pause, he proceeded to recite the second verse.
Rough English translation (for non-Persian-speakers): As the wine graciously took away my weariness | Enjoyment came about tonight of all nights || Hey Shahriar, a beautiful gazelle has liked your ghazal | How lucky to have attracted a gazelle with a ghazal
(2) Heartbroken mother of Jordanian pilot who was burned alive dies: ISIS cheered the news of her death. I am an optimist by nature, but such news make it difficult to maintain hope in the future of humanity.
(3) ISIS and the Crusaders: President Obama's comparison of the ISIS atrocities with those committed in the name of Christ during the Crusades draws fire from the conservatives. America, it seems, isn't ready for reasoned discourse, but prefers slogans and sugar-coated magic pills. Those of us who have Muslim friends know that peaceful Muslims do exist, but the right cannot grasp this simple notion.
(4) The single mom who went back to school and earned a PhD.
(5) Soprano 10: Yesterday, I posted a performance of Mozart music (with a twist) by a group that I later discovered is Russian and goes by the name "Soprano 10." Here is their 5-minute medley of ABBA hit songs. There are many more wonderful performances by the group on YouTube. Examples include "Billie Jean," "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," "Bamboleo," and "Santa Lucia."
(6) Joke of the day: Father: "When your mom set out to find a husband, she never paid much attention to her clothes or used excessive make-up." Daughter: "And I see the results she got!"
(7) Rumi's famous "Moses and Shepard" story continues: This humorous Persian poem, postulating an encounter between Moses and the same Shepard in the 21st-century Tehran, is due to Hadi Khorsandi. There is an additional continuation, in a footnote due to D. Shaaki (a pen name), who imagines the Shepard now living in Los Angeles.
(8) Gangnam Style investing: Last night's PBS Newshour featured a fascinating story about some seemingly irrational, but ultimately explainable, behavior in the stock market. When Psy's "Gangnam Style" video went viral, the stock price of a tech company chaired by his dad soared to 8 times its previous value, despite the lack of any pertinent change in the company or its technology. When Psy released his second popular song, the stock price soared again. Both times, the price came back down, but it eventually settled at a much higher level than the original price. Before you invoke the Persian saying about the relationship between "g - - z" and "shaghigheh" (for non-Iranian friends, the saying is about things that should bear no relationship to each other, but are somehow related), read the explanation in the news story. Along the same lines, when a company hires a good-looking CEO, its stock price soars. The latter seemingly irrational reaction is predictable (and thus rational in economics terms), in that it reflects our society's irrational trust in, and preference for, good-looking leaders.
(9) Final thought for the day: "We adore chaos because we love to produce order." ~ M. C. Escher
2015/02/05 (Thursday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) The magic of aerial photography: New York City's Central Park from above. The southern end of the park is at the top.
(2) Superlong quote of the day:
"Do not fall in love with a woman who reads,
a woman who feels too much,
a woman who writes ...
Do not fall in love with a
cultured, magical, delusional, crazy woman.
Do not fall in love with a woman who thinks,
who knows what she knows and also knows how to fly;
a woman confident in herself.
Do not fall for a woman who laughs or cries while making love,
who knows how to convert her flesh into spirit;
much less one that loves poetry
(these are the most dangerous),
or who would stay half an hour contemplating a painting
and who doesn't know how to live without music.
Do not fall in love with a woman who is interested in politics
and who is rebellious and feels immense horror at injustice.
One who likes ball games and soccer
and does not like to watch television at all.
Or a woman who is beautiful
no matter the features of her face and her body.
Do not fall for an intense, entertaining, lucid
and irreverent woman.
You don't want to fall in love with a woman like that.
Because when you fall for a woman like that,
whether she stays with you or not,
whether she loves you or not,
she, a woman like that, never returns ..."
~ Dominican poet Martha Rivera Garrido
(3) Mozart, with a twist. [3-minute video]
(4) Les Measlesrables: Comedian Jon Stewart's term for those refusing to vaccinate their kids.
(5) Roasting disbelievers in fire is indeed explicated in Quran: This Web page contains the pertinent verse in Arabic, along with a number of translations, some using the literal "fire" and others alluding to "Hell."
(6) The sharing economy, and computer-managed work in general, is reducing job quality and pay: UC Berkeley Professor and President Clinton's Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, maintains that the sharing economy is really the share-the-scraps economy.
(7) Bond strings quartet concert at London's Royal Albert Hall. [61-minute video]
(8) Plans for Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch: Tuesday night's Santa Barbara local news included an item about a potential buyer wanting to convert the former Santa Barbara County amusement park into a center for housing and treating abused children. What a wonderfully appropriate use for the property! They can even call it an "abusement park."
2015/02/03 (Tuesday): Here are seven items of potential interest.
(1) A wonderful poem by Rumi.
(2) Quote of the day: "It is wonderful how much time good people spend fighting the devil. If they would only expend the same amount of energy loving their fellow men, the devil would die in his own tracks of ennui." ~ Helen Keller, The Story of My Life
(3) Superbowl domestic violence ad: An abuse victim contacts 911 under the guise of ordering pizza for delivery. It takes a while for the dispatcher to figure out what's going on and to send help to the woman's residence. The clever ad is based on a story that has been circulating in cyperspace for some time, but Snopes.com classifies it as urban legend. Still, it's a powerful message and a welcome change for a league that has tended to ignore the issue for years.
(4) Bob Dylan, the crooner: The transformed Dylan tackles songs made famous by Frank Sinatra. Dylan's just-released album, "Shadows in the Night," appeals to old-timers, hence his decision to promote it by giving a sole interview to AARP magazine.
(5) Mother-in-law (Joke of the day): A young man invites the girl he loves, along with two of her friends, to his house to meet his mother, who is instructed to try to guess the girl of his dreams after they leave. When the mother guesses correctly, the young man is surprised and asks her how she could tell. "Easy, my boy," comes the reply, "I just had a feeling that I didn't like her."
(6) Another case of acid spraying: An Iranian woman's father and brother pin her down, spray acid on her face, and strangle her, leaving her for dead (she survived), because she had filed for divorce from her drug-addict husband. Such acts are barbaric and must be condemned unconditionally. Any statement against the act, that is followed by "but," implies tacit approval, essentially saying that under some conditions acid spraying and other acts of violence against women are legitimate. It doesn't even matter what the victim thinks of her father and brother, whether she filed a complaint, or what she had done for them to think she deserved punishment. The act is inhumane and criminal, period! [German TV report]
(7) Three-parent babies: The UK parliament has just approved a procedure by which a healthy egg from another woman has its nucleus removed and replaced by the egg nucleus of a woman who wants to bear a child but has unhealthy mitochondria known to lead to genetic diseases. The modified egg is then fertilized by the husband's sperm and is allowed to grow in the mother's uterus normally. The vote was 382-128. I can't imagine such bold procedures for preventing genetic diseases ever passing the US Congress.
2015/02/02 (Monday): Aslan, Reza, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, unabridged audiobook on 7 CDs read by the author, Random House Audio, 2013.
I learned about this book from a friend's post of a Fox News interview with the author. Instead of talking about the book's contents, the interviewer relentlessly attacked the author for daring to write a book about Jesus, despite being a Muslim (Aslan was actually born Muslim, converted to Christianity when his family became disillusioned with Iran's Islamic Revolution, and later returned to his Muslim faith). The author argued that he has a PhD in history of religions and is teaching in the field for a living, and is thus eminently qualified to write a book about a historical figure in Christianity. Anyway, this exchange prompted me to puruse the book at the first opportunity (in the mid 2014).
In Zealot, Aslan points out that historical facts about Jesus are scarce. Much of what is available in the scripture concerns his teachings and faith, rather than about the man who grew up a poor laborer and roamed the earth 2000 years ago. The one undisputed fact about Jesus, that is, his crucification, provides more than enough evidence that he was viewed by the Romans and their collaborators as a troublemaker, given that crucification was reserved exclusively for seditionists and bandits in those days. The two other men crucified alongside Jesus were also no mere "thieves," as crucification wasn't used to punish ordinary thieves.
Jesus did try to start a rebellion against the Romans and their upper-class Jewish clients, but the specific crime for which has was tried and crucified was claiming to be the promised messianic king of the Jews. Given that Roman rulers reserved for their Senate the right of appointing kings within the empire, the claim was considered treasonous and punishable by a torturous death. Apparently, Aslan's musings on the crucification and its significance, like most other claims in the book, aren't as new or controversial as the publisher's cover blurbs and other promotional material claim.
Using historical sources, Aslan provides an excellent introduction to the economic conditions, political power structure, and heavy-handed enforcement of religion in 1st-century Palestine, including how the Romans and upper-class Jews exploited the poor through the use of religion. Even though Aslan's depiction of the ministry and teachings of Jesus, as well as the course of Christianity after his death, have been questioned by other scholars of religion (including Dale B. Martin of Yale University, who wrote a review of the book for The New York Times), the book is generally deemed historically accurate and well-written.
The audiobook production has a good flow and is easy to listen to; and the author's reading lends some authenticity to the ideas. For people like me, whose knowledge of the history of Christianity is rather limited, this book constitutes a good starting point.
2015/02/01 (Sunday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) Quote of the day: "I have said that behind Sorrow there is always Sorrow. It were still wiser to say that behind sorrow, there is always a soul. And to mock at a soul in pain is a dreadful thing." ~ Oscar Wilde
(2) As we bask in the springlike sun of Southern California, our hearts and minds are with family and friends bracing for continued blizzard conditions in the US Midwest to Northeast.
(3) Little cutie shakes it off: Watch out Katy Perry! [4-minute video]
(4) Iran's state-sponsored Prophet Muhammad biopic: The $30M film is the most expensive ever for Iran. Even though the film follows Islamic norms by not showing the Prophet's face, it has irked of a number of Sunni scholars and clerics in multiple countries, to the extent that Qatar is making a competing film with a $1B budget.
(5) Do you want to see the comments on your college application? Time magazine columnist Joel Stein (February 2 issue) thinks not. He and a group of other Stanford students used the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to gain access to the comments in 1992. It was an ego-deflating experience for him, and many students were rightfully upset with the tone of the comments. After that incident, Stanford decided to shred the applications upon the completion of each admissions cycle. Now that we have fully electronic applications and related files (shredding doesn't work), students are again bent on reading these comments. Joel Stein's advice: "Seriously, you never want to find out what people really think of you."
(6) The race is on for building an Exascale supercomputer: Floating-point operations per second (FLOPS) is the unit often used to measure the computational power of a supercomputer. Gigaflops (10^9 FLOPS) machines built in the mid-1980s were no more powerful than today's laptops and, in some cases, smartphones. The next two milestones of Teraflops (10^12 FLOPS) and Petaflops (10^15 FLOPS) were reached in 1997 and 2008, respectively. Now, computer engineers and manufacturers have their sights set on the next milestone, dubbed Exascale computing, which means achieving Exaflops-level (10^18 FLOPS) performance. One key difficulty to overcome is ensuring the reliable operation of millions of processors needed to synthesize such a behemoth. The Petascale Sequoia machine has a mean time between failures (MTBF) of just under one week. It is anticipated that the MTBF will be reduced to under one hour for a Petascale machine.
(7) Cars weigh too much: A measure of efficiency for various modes of transportation is the ratio of the weight of a vehicle to the weight of the typical number of passengers in it (the number of passengers is unfortunately 1 for most private cars driven in America). Some approximate ratios, assuming 70-kg passengers, follow. As we improve the fuel efficiency of engines, the ratio above must also go down for best results. Ironically, at 6.3, a Boeing 787-9 offers a better ratio than the fairly efficient Citroen 2CV. [Weight data from IEEE Spectrum magazine, issue of January 2015.]
0.1 Lightweight bicycle; 1.6 Italian Vespa scooter; 5.0 Typical modern bus
7.5 French Citroen 2CV or Ford Model T; 12 Smart Car; 17 Mini Cooper or Honda Civic LX
26 Average American light-duty vehicle; 32 Ford F-150 (best-selling American car); 39 Cadillac Escalade EXT
(8) Final thought for the day: "According to a new survey, women say they feel more comfortable undressing in front of men than they do undressing in front of other women. They say that women are too judgmental, where, of course, men are just grateful." ~ Robert De Niro
2015/01/30 (Friday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) A Persian poem by Morteza Keyvan Hashemi: The poem "Tars" ("Fear") is unfortunately being circulated in cyberspace as a composition of Simin Behbahani. However, the moniker "Keyvan" in the last verse betrays this misguided attribution. Here is the piece's theme: The poet states that he doesn't mind certain commonly-feared things, such as ferocious beasts, enemy battlefield, and kings themselves; rather, he is scared of wily coyotes, backstabbing friends, and kings' goons.
(2) Quote of the Day: "Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you." ~ American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), best known for The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables
(3) Beautiful harp music.
(4) Tajik wedding music.
(5) Typo may do some good: A Florida sheriff's office, which received a custom-ordered rug inscribed with "In Dog We Trust," will auction it to benefit an animal rescue group. [From: Time magazine, issue of February 2, 2015]
(6) The electric friendship generator (aka Facebook): Funny 4-minute video containing tips about Facebook relationship etiquette.
(7) Womanhood isn't a crime: An Iranian woman breaks two taboos by posting a video of herself singing without a headscarf in her kitchen, while making a statement about Iranian women having been confined to the kitchen for too long.
(8) Final thought for the day: "Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same." ~ Oscar Wilde
2015/01/29 (Thursday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) Quote of the day: "Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing." ~ Author/poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
(2) The worsening income/wealth gap: By 2016, the richest 1% across the globe will hold 50% of the world's wealth. [Source: Antipoverty charity Oxfam]
(3) Cheap oil and the airline industry: Yes, we are paying less at the pump, but airlines have kept the fuel surcharges, which they added to their airfares at the time of high oil prices, and are pocketing the difference now.
(4) A director of "Lego Movie" built his own Oscar statue from Lego blocks in view of the film being snubbed as a best-animated-feature candidate. [From: Time magazine, issue of February 2, 2015]
(5) Teenager in custody for the shooting death of a Minnesota teacher: The highly respected and beloved David Frigaard, 46, taught art, served as an at-risk program teacher, was an adviser for the gay-straight alliance, and held several athletic coaching positions.
(6) Amal Clooney presents her case in Armenian genocide hearing before Europe's top human rights court. Good to see her professional side, after much coverage of glamour and personal attributes.
(7) On the need for praising positive actions, even if small: Two events in the last couple of days made me write this post. One was the appearance of multiple posts criticizing those who praised Michelle Obama for forgoing a headscarf during her visit to Saudi Arabia, citing the fact that Laura Bush, Condi Rice, and Hillary Clinton had done the same. Kudos to all of them! Why do we have to trivialize the action of Michelle Obama? The second was a post by Bill Gates, saying that digital banking will help the poor transform their lives. I found myself defending Gates against critics deeming him out of touch, by adding a few points to what Gates himself had stated. Again, even if Gates' statement is misguided, why not give him credit for trying and for thinking about social issues, which is much more than one can say about most other rich people?
(8) Final thought for the day: "I don't understand why being concerned with the status of the middle class makes you leftist, liberal, socialist, etc., when clearly you are front and center." ~ From a letter to the editor of Time magazine (issue of February 2, 2015), objecting to the portrayal of Elizabeth Warren
2015/01/28 (Wednesday): Here are seven items of potential interest.
(1) Breaking weather alert: "The National Weather Service is warning these areas to brace for what could be a crippling amount of Instagrammed snow photos." ~ From a cartoon caption
(2) Topaz solar farm: Covering an area 1/3 of Manhattan in California's San Luis Obispo County, the solar farm produces 500 MW of electricity.
(3) Babies in car seats react as the cars go through tunnels. (3-minute video)
(4) Je Suis Avazi: This is a slogan adopted by many individuals of Iranian origins in response to Ayatollah Jannati calling "avazi" (the closest English term that comes to my mind is "jerk") all those who criticized the house arrest, without trials or other due process, of several regime opponents.
(5) A simple Enigma machine: If you were intrigued by Alan Turing's code-breaking activities, featured in the movie "The Imitation Game," and you are into building stuff, a simple working version of the German coding machine Enigma is available as the kit "Enigma Mark 4" from S&T Geotronics that sells for about $200. More complete versions of the kit are also available from the same source for around $300 and $425.
(6) Panoramic photos of Iran: A 5-minute slide show of panoramic photos of Iran's nature and tourist sites by Abbas Arabzadeh, set to Iranian folk music.
(7) A tongue-in-cheek opinion piece against binge-watching TV shows: Kristin van Ogtrop, writing in Time magazine (issue of January 26, 2015), enumerates 4 personal reasons why she does not binge-watch anything. Her mother's advice, taking care of her family, and the way her binge-watching friends have started to look are the first 3 reasons. The last reason is James Taylor, who propounded in a song that the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time. "Still, there is this nagging sense of inadequacy when I don't binge-watch seven episodes in a row like the rest of the world. Maybe I just don't fit in. And so I ask myself—as one must whenever one is feeling like a misfit—is there some way in which my inadequacy actually makes me ... superior?" She believes that anticipation is good for us, citing the results of the well-known marshmallow experiment of many decades ago at Stanford University, in which kids who chose the immediate gratification of eating one marshmallow now, over waiting a bit and then getting 2 marshmallows, did worse in life.
2015/01/27 (Tuesday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) International Holocaust Remembrance Day: January 27 has been designated by the 2005 UN General Assembly Resolution 60/7 as a day to commemorate the genocide that led to the death of 6 million Jews, 1 million Gypsies, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people, and 9,000 homosexual men by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. January 27, 2015, marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
(2) The blizzard of 2015: This is serious folks! Record snowfall is expected in northeastern US. Thousands of flights out of the region's main airports have been cancelled, most schools have been closed, public transit has been shut down, and people have been asked to stay indoors for their own safety and for the sake of emergency crews being able to get to where help is needed unimpeded. Hope family and friends in the region stay safe.
(3) Nordlingen (in Bavaria, southern Germany) is built in a 14M-year-old meteor impact crater. [Image]
(4) The Oscars love biopics: Over the past few years, biopics have done well as best-picture Oscar winners ("The King's Speech," "Argo," "12 Years a Slave") and have also collected a bunch of best-actor/actress statues (Sean Penn, Colin Firth, Daniel Day-Lewis, Matthew McConaughey, Helen Mirren, Marion Cotillard, Sandra Bullock, Meryl Streep). So, it's no surprise that this year's crop is also loaded with biopics: 5 of the 8 best-picture nominees are biopics ("American Sniper," "Boyhood," "The Imitation Game," "Selma," "The Theory of Everything"). Two other biopics ("Unbroken," "Wild") may garner some awards, although they are not best-picture nominees.
(5) Greek singer Demis Roussos dead at 68: Even though I attended a concert of his in Tehran in the late 1970s, I wasn't particularly fond of his style of music. He was immensely popular in Iran at the time, alongside a number of Italian and French singers. I did not realize that he was almost exactly my age; a sobering thought!
(6) Kudos to Michelle Obama: She foregoes wearing a headscarf in Saudi Arabia, where the President and First Lady stopped on the way back from India to pay respects to the deceased King Abdullah.
(7) The largest land transport in the world: Bagger 288, built by Krupp, is a bucket-wheel excavator (a kind of mining machine) that replaced NASA's transporter for the Space Shuttle and Apollo Saturn V launch vehicle as the world's largest land vehicle in 1978.
(8) Monica Lewinsky speaks up: In a public lecture, delivered after many years of silence, Lewinsky makes some valid points about the coarsening of our culture and a deficit in compassion that turned a 22-year-old's indiscretion into a nightmarish experience that literally took her to the brink of death. This 26-minute video is well worth watching.
2015/01/25 (Sunday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) The same situation may seem different from various vantage points: Take extreme care when judging or, better yet, don't judge.
(2) The significance of maps: In my review of the book Geopolitics, posted on January 20, I noted a world map centered at the North Pole that the US promoted during the cold war to emphasize the fact that the Soviet Union was closer to the US than most people thought. Note also the larger sizes of Africa and South America in this map compared with those in commonly used maps. Yes, maps play a big role in how we perceive the world.
(3) Eradicating diseases: In the course of the entire human history, a single disease has been eradicated (smallpox, in 1980). Over the next 15 years, we expect to eradicate 4 other diseases, including polio.
(4) Efforts to preserve a historic gas station: Elwood, a neighborhood in Goleta, just to the north of Santa Barbara, is home to the remains of a historic gas station, completed in 1929, that's slowly falling into disrepair. Efforts to save the landmark are underway.
(5) Jokes about Asian Cup soccer: In Iran, making up jokes is one of the key mechanisms for coping with the difficult sociopolitical situation. Here are a couple of new jokes.
Joke 1: We may have lost in soccer to an Arab country but we prevailed in the thrilling battle between Ayatollah Jannati and King Abdullah. [Jannati's longevity has fueled much humor over the past few years.]
Joke 2: Asian Soccer Federation's voting results [about Iran's allegations that Iraq had fielded an ineleigible player]: Overturning Iraq's win, 54%; banning the Iraqi player for life, 39%; Mohsen Rezaee, 7% [Rezaee is the perpetual last-place finisher in presidential elections in Iran.]
(6) Ten scientists who were killed by their own experiments.
(7) The hypocrisy of Saudi kings: Newsweek on-line reports that Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, who passed away at age 90 a few days ago, was buried in an unmarked grave in accordance with the conservative Wahabbi belief that there should be nothing left of a king that might become a site for veneration. If only the Saudi royals exhibited such modesty during their living years in billion-dollar palaces and in their use of private or chartered 747s to bring their luxury cars and other shopping-spree collections from Europe and USA to their homeland.
(8) Final thought for the day: "Ironically, terrorism is an act against the very religion the perpetrators claim to believe in. It's an acknowledgment that the religion and its teachings aren't enough to persuade people to follow it. Any religion that requires coercion is not about community but leaders who want power." ~ Six-time NBA champ and MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, writing in Time magazine, issue of January 26, 2015
2015/01/24 (Saturday): Watson, James D., The Double Helix, Signet, 1968.
The author is one of the three researchers honored, in equal shares, with the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine for discoving the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material (the double-helix structure of the book's title). The other two co-winners were the author's fellow researcher Francis Crick and a pioneer in the field, Maurice Wilkins. Other key personalities appearing often in the narrative are Lawrence Bragg (who wrote the book's foreword, warning the readers that the frank observations offered by the author should not be taken as offensive), Linus Pauling (a competing Caltech scientist who was also pursuing the problem of DNA structure and was feared by the author as someone who might beat him to the solution), Rosalind (Rosy) Franklin (an X-ray specialist whose work provided clues to the author and others in their scientific pursuits), and Pauling's son, Peter.
This book has been hailed as "lively, wholly brash, full of sharp and sudden opinion, often at the edge of scandal" (Life magazine) and "vividly observant, full of suspense and mounting tension, and so directly candid about the brilliant and abrasive personalities ... of scientists. ... Seldom, if ever, has a scientist written so frankly about his colleagues or about the trade secrets, or silences of, his profession" (The New York Times). In his foreword, Bragg urges the reader not to judge the book as a definitive history of how the double-helix structure was discovered, but as a scientific autobiography which will eventually be used as a key source for writing such a definitive history.
Watson's book was recommended to me by my daughter, and I approached it with enthusiasm, given the monumental importance of the subject matter and reviews such as those cited above. Having lived as a researcher for some 2/3 of my life, I am no stranger to the backroom politics of science, but what goes on in my domains of expertise (mathematics, computer sience, engineering) appears tame compared with what I leanred about the fields of biology and chemistry from this book. It is dismaying to see scientists feel threatened by, and lose sleep over, an imminent discovery by another scientist, rather than be overjoyed by the anticipated advance. One message of the book is that scientific discovery is anything but a clean process and that it is often motivated more by rivalries among scientists than by noble truth-seeking motives.
First, let me devote a part of my review to the book's style, which is highly unusual among autobiographies written by scientists. In justifying his approach of writing about his first impressions of people and events, rather than use the benefits of hindsight to offer a more objective assessment, the author informs us in the book's preface: "[S]cience seldom proceeds in the straightforward logical manner imagined by outsiders. Instead, its steps forward (and sometimes backward) are often very human events in which personalities and cultural traditions play major roles."
The author's description of women borders on misogyny. It is disheartening to read the author ruminate about his luck that a scientist he dreamed of working with became interested in his pretty sister [p. 29]. He seems to devote more attention to people's looks, hair, and glasses, than to the technical aspects of their contributions. In one passage [p. 20], we read this about Rosalind Franklin: "Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. ... There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents." In another passage [p. 51], he describes Ms. Franklin thus: "There was not a trace of warmth or frivolity in her words. And yet I could not regard her as totally uninteresting. Momentarily I wondered how she would look if she took off her glasses and did something with her hair." And here is what the author has to say about his own sister: "Though my sister was upset when she saw me, I knew that months, if not years, might be required to replace her superficial values with those of the English intellectual" [p. 72].
On the subject of scientists envying a colleague who is cheery and animated, and thus well-liked by audiences attending his technical talks, we read (p. 30): "Several fellow professors ... watched this performance with mixed feelings. Seeing Linus [Pauling] jumping up and down on the demonstration table and moving his arms like a magician about to pull a rabbit out of his shoe made them feel inadequate." The author himself apparently had similar misgivings, because he characterizes the methods used by Linus Pauling as "tricks" (p. 32) rather than innovations or insightful attacks on the problems. Other scientists do not escape the barbs either: "[A] goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid" [pp. 18-19].
The study of genetics goes back to the work of Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), who pretty much mapped out how traits are carried from parents to offspring. Mendel's mid-1860s laws, ignored for decades and rediscovered in 1900, became the core of modern genetics upon integration with the chromosome theory of inheritance in 1915. Much was discovered about functional and chemical properties of genes between 1915 and the beginning of the author's interest in them as a postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge some 35 years later. For example, Erwin Schrodinger's What Is Life? (1946) "very elegantly propounded the belief that genes were the key components of living cells and that, to understand what life is, we must know how genes act" [p. 18].
The first half of the book is devoted to the author's introduction to Europe and European ways, and to his attempts to fit in as a researcher and as a member of Cambridge's high-society party scene. The chapters in the second half of the book are devoted mostly to a blow-by-blow account of how the author's team closed in on the double-helix structure of DNA, using information gleaned from X-rays and insight provided by mechanical models of the structures under study, using metal parts built by a campus workshop. When the discovery came, and confirmation was obtained from various co-workers that the findings made sense, they finally wrote and submitted a paper to Nature that began: "We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxy nucleic acid (DNA). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest" [p. 140].
The detailed exposition of the discovery of DNA's double-helix structure is quite exciting and eye-opening. However, the book's uniqueness is in its portrayal of the research scene in biological sciences and the interpersonal relationships, and rivalries, among scientists. For example, it is interesting to learn that in the 1950s, scholarships and fellowships were awarded mostly via referrals by respected scientists and those who knew someone in the funding agency, rather than through open competition. This fascinating book provides a window into how science and scientists operated in the 1950s.
2015/01/23 (Friday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) How to draw a bar graph: Here's a great way to present a bar graph. The heavy dots draw attention to data points and the dashed lines are simpler than boxes, leading to a less cluttered chart. The particular bar graph depicted makes the point that people tend to use tables, instead of the more readily understood graphic forms, way too often. [From an article in American Scientist, entitled "A Window on Data Can Be a Window on Discovery"]
(2) Quote of the day: "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny ...'." ~ Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)
(3) Design concepts for pre-fab homes: These homes can be propped up into place by unfolding parts from a standard-size shipping container.
(4) This will change the way you look at selfies: Hillarious compilation of selfie photos, and what went on immediately before the final pose.
(5) For frequent Amazon.com shoppers, some of these 20 tips are quite useful.
(6) Who wants a computer to be a millionaire? After the success of IBM's Watson in Jeopardy! it was inevitable that people would program a computer to participate in other game shows. The April 2015 issue of Information Processing Letters contains an article, by S. Momtazi and F. Naumann, that reports on average winnings of $250K and becoming a millionaire in 6 out of 50 runs (better than normal winnings among human contestants) achieved by a computer program using a combination of search engine and knowledge base accesses.
(7) Iran outsted from the Asian Cup soccer tournament: After a 1-1 tie at the end of 90 minutes and a 3-3 score through an explosive overtime in this quarterfinals match, Iran lost to Iraq in penalty shootout 6-7. The Australian referee's controversial decision to issue a second yellow card to an Iranian player for diving led to Iran playing with 10 men for much of the match. [Match highlights]
(8) Final thought for the day: It would be great if we could deflate some over-inflated sports figures, from wife-beating football players to coaches who think they should win at any cost, even if it means turning a blind eye on a pedophile among their staff or deflating footballs against league rules.
2015/01/22 (Thursday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) Quote of the day: "Destiny: A tyrant's authority for crime and a fool's excuse for failure." ~ Ambrose Bierce
(2) Small is beautiful: This tiny prefab house looks quite comfortable when you peek inside it (that is, if you don't own a large collection of books, many tools, decades worth of records/notes, etc.).
(3) Palestinian media and cartoonists cheerfully praise the stabbing of 13 Israelis on a bus in Tel Aviv.
(4) Losing weight by controlling when you eat: Although these reported results are restricted to mice at this time, there is reason to believe that the strategy might work for humans just as well. Mice whose diets were restricted to include fasting periods between 9 and 15 hours lost weight and showed improved cholesterol and blood glucose levels, even when they consumed identical foods with the same number of calories.
(5) Cancer is on the verge of overtaking heart disease as the leading killer: Given that cancer is engrained in human evolution, simply throwing money at it may not lead to solutions. Thus, even though cancer mortality has been on the decline when accounting for the rising and graying population, death from heart disease has shrunk at a greater rate.
(6) Put your money where your mouth is: This sage advice is for us mere mortals and does not apply to billionaires. Case in point is Jeff Greene, who made a fortune by betting against subprime mortgage securities, and is now going long on the US, while at the same time opining, "Our economy is in deep trouble. We need to be honest with ourselves. We've had a realistic level of job destruction, and those jobs aren't coming back."
(7) Learn Persian (humor): "Antar khanoom," literally "monkey lady," is an expression used by some women to describe any attractive, well-dressed, and friendly woman as she enters a party.
(8) Today's final thought: "The high destiny of the individual is to serve rather than to rule." ~ Albert Einstein
2015/01/21 (Wednesday): Here are Eight items of potential interest.
(1) Fun on MLK Day: Comedian Jimmy Kimmel asked 14 randomly chosen people on the street whether they had heard Dr. Martin Luther King's speech on Monday morning. Alarmingly, half of them had heard the speech and were able to elaborate on its contents.
(2) President Obama's State of the Union Address: Full text of last night's SOTU address, for those who may have missed it. The President appeared comfortable and confident. If only House Speaker John Boehner didn't look like he was undergoing a colonoscopy (to borrow a phrase from Bill Mahr) throughout the speech.
(3) Honor Diaries: Nine courageous women speak out against societies that practice "honor violence" against women, questioning how a man's honor can manifest itself in a woman's body. [Extended 11-minute preview of the 61-minute documentary film]
(4) New York City at night, from 7500 feet above. [Photo gallery]
(5) Nearly 100M views and counting: Europe performs "The Final Countdown" on stage.
(6) United Breaks Guitars: Dave Carroll, whose Taylor guitar was broken through mishandling by United Airline's baggage personnel, and then got the runaround when seeking damages, posted this retaliatory video on YouTube, garnering more than 14M views so far. After the posting, United offered to reimburse him in exchange for pulling the video, which he declined. Taylor Guitars gave Carroll two new guitars to thank him for the publicity.
(7) Four causes of phantom hunger: Eating the wrong foods (simple carbs, instead of whole grains and protein); emotions (boredom, anxiety, loneliness, or stress); lack of sleep (lowers leptin and raises gherlin levels); being surrounded by food ("out of sight, out of stomach")
(8) Consumer reviewers for hire: A couple of nights ago, PBS Newshour ran a story about a burgeoning business run by people who would post a 5-star review of your restaurant, say, and a 1-star review of a competitor for an agreed sum of money. Yelp and other companies are bent on filtering/flagging dishonest reviews and taking action against perpetrators.
2015/01/20 (Tuesday): Dodds, Klaus, Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford Univ. Press, 2014.
This 157-page, pocket-size book is another one in the OUP series that aims to provide stimulating and accessible ways of exploring new subjects (I have previously reviewed the Microeconomics volume in the series). The still-expanding list of titles, written by authorities in the respective fields, includes over 400 topics, from Accounting to Writing and Script.
Nearly everyone has heard the term "geopolitics," but few (myself included) know its exact meaning. I had not given the word much thought, thinking that it is a straightforward compound word meant to represent the impact of geography on politics and vice versa. It is certainly that, but also much more. I usually provide a list of chapter titles as a way of summarizing such a book, but here, the chapter titles are as enigmatic as the subject matter itself. For example, the title of chapter 3, "Geopolitical Architectures," provides no clue as to what the chapter covers.
One learns early in the book that the term "geopolitics" has gained a highly negative connotation, so much so that many people avoid its use. The roots of the word go back 115 years, but it was the Nazis who latched onto it and used it to advance their goals, and this is certainly one reason why the word is detested. Of course, the study of how geography influences trade and economics goes even further back. In the latter part of the 20th century, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger revived the use of the term to denote his interest in a realistic and hardheaded approach to foreign policy and to the world in general. Kissinger perhaps added to the hatred for the term with famous proclamations such as: "The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves."
Sovereignty is often raised in discussing the geopolitics of international relations. In truth, however, sovereignty is exercised rather flexibly by different countries. Some do not mind, or even encourage, foreign investments, ignoring the threats they pose. Others express outrage at sovereignty violations, such as drone strikes in Pakistan, not based on principles but to quell domestic opposition, while tacitly approving of the actions. The communist threat to Latin American dictatorial regimes was often couched in geopolitical terms.
Al Qaeda and other extremist groups now rampant and spreading in the Middle East and elsewhere were geopolitical creations. The southward expansion of the Soviet Union into Afghanistan was motivated by gaining geographical advantages in trade and military (perhaps eying further expansion to the shores of the Indian Ocean), and the US's use of Islamic proxy fighters to prevent this expansion was also a geopolitical decision. Such groups might have emerged anyway, but they probably would not have been as battle-hardened in the absence of US support and training.
The emphasis of geopolitics and its very definition changed once again when the role of the sovereign state was weekened by the spread of globalization. One school of thought maintains that while states are still relevant and do interact directly among themselves and via the United Nations, domestic economic and political decisions are increasingly influenced by their trade implications and thus by the transnational corporations managing the trade. The increase in the number of states flies in the face of the claim of globalization making them irrelevant, as do anti-WTO protests and Occupy movements.
Whereas identities are often firmly tied to nation-states, they sometimes leak or fuse across territorial boundaries, the prime example being the notion of a unified Europe. Connectivity via social media is thought to dilute national and tribal identities, but may ironically have the opposite effect. For example, when Facebook recognized Kosovo as a country, the action did not sit well with Serbia. Kosovars were, of course, delighted about being recognized by an American business, given that recognition by real countries around the world was not forthcoming.
Group identities are enforced primarily through political clout and military power. However, other tools are in play as well. In a striking example, soccer has been used in Spain to express regional identity and pride, along with any frustrations and ambitions, when rival teams such as Athletic Bilbao (Basque) and Barcelona (Catalan) meet.
Maps have always been tools for expressing regional identities and they are often fuzzy or conflicting when it comes to defining inclusions and exclusions. During the Cold War, a map of the world with the North Pole at its center gained prominence. It was simply a tool for the US government to provide a better view of the world for Americans and to emphasize the relative geographical proximity of the Soviet Union to the US via the Arctic.
Flags constitute another important symbolism, with trumpling on flags, burning them, or distorting their imagery forming common means of expressing outrage at perceived misdeeds. Maps and flags aren't the only objects that inform geopolitical discussions and disputes. The AK-47 machine gun has also presented a powerful symbolism over the years. The ultimate object in this arena is the human body, which is smuggled, sold, and otherwise treated as if it were inanimate.
The importance of films, TV programs, and other media cannot be overemphasized in this regard. We learn from this book that the Bush-43 administration held meetings with Hollywood executives after the 9/11 attacks to explore ways in which the entertainment industry, and popular culture more generally, could play a role in promoting homeland security and the notion of War on Terror.
Like everything else, geopolitics is being reshaped by the new media. "When former [US] Vice President Dick Chenney called for 'total information awareness,' it was perhaps not apparent at the time how this quest would lead to what some have described as a surveillance-internet-industrial complex." Satire, and, in particular, the comic news genre, such as those popularized by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, is another important facet of popular culture that impacts geopolitics. The recent terrorist attack on cartoonists in France serves as a testament to the power of media, old and new.
This book piqued my interest to pursue the topic further, so I examined its list of references and futher readings. It appears that numerous English-language books and periodicals with geopolitical content are available. There are also specialized scholarly publications, such as Geopolitics and Political Geography, dealing with the topic.
All in all, while I learned new facts and concepts from this book, I did not find it as useful as the Microeconomics volume I had read and reviewed previously. Perhaps some fuzziness in discussing a domain within social sciences is unavoidable. Unfortunately, such fuzziness makes it difficult for a reader like me to integrate the notions learned into his understanding (model) of human affairs and societal interations on the world stage.
2015/01/19 (Monday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King's words on his birthday: "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. ... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals."
(2) Traditional Persian music: Vesal Alavi sings "Tanhaa Maandam" ("I Stayed Lonely"), a composition by Homayoun Khorram, with lyrics by Abdollah Olfat; arranged and conducted by Mohammad Ali Fallahi.
(3) This singing male nurse at Valencia hospital soothes the suffering of his patients.
(4) The decline of network TV: "There were no [Golden Globes] given for shows on CBS, NBC, ABC, or Fox, and HBO took home only one staTuesday Signaling a pronounced shift in power, Amazon—which wasn't even part of the awards conversation a year ago—triumphed with two of the night's biggest prizes: A best-comedy trophy for 'Transparent,' and another for its star, Tambor." [From Entertainment Weekly, issue of January 23, 2015.]
(5) Spinning book data into art: A recently published book, Infographic Guide to Literature, presents analytic and comparative data via 100 graphs, Venn diagrams, and charts. Entertainment Weekly has included three of these infographics in its issue of January 23, 2015: Austen vs. Bronte (comparing their obsession with bonnets, balls, dresses, marriage, and matters of the heart; Death by Shakespeare (from stabbings to death by grief); and Wood for Books (fate of trees).
(6) Iran to play the runner-up of Group D (Iraq, most likely) in the Asian Cup quarterfinals: The Iranian national soccer team won its third preliminary-round match against UAE 1-0 on a 90th-minute goal to advance as the top team in its group [6-minute video highlights]. UAE also advances to the quarterfinals as the runner-up team of Group C. Iran's quarterfinals match will be on Thursday 1/22, and, assuming advancement, the next two will be on Monday 1/26 (against winner of South Korea vs. Uzbekistan) and Saturday 1/31 (possible championship opponent: China, Australia, UAE, or Japan).
(7) Spring/Vernal equinox in California: The beginning of the Persian New Year 1394 and the festival of Norooz will be on Friday, March 20, 2015, at 3:45 PM PDT (10:45 PM UTC). Let the countdown begin: 60 days left.
(8) Final thought for the day: "There is no remedy for love but to love more." ~ Henry David Thoreau
2015/01/18 (Sunday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) This is how Photoshop is done: Actor Ellar Coltrane, who portrayed a boy as he (and the actor himself) went from 1st to 12th grade in the movie "Boyhood," at his current age of 20 and at 11 and 12.
(2) The world's most beautiful theaters: Pictorial
(3) Lover, loving, and loved are one: "The meaning of love" is a Rumi poem, whose words (in English) are set to a beautiful video of satellite images of the Earth and traditional Persian music.
(4) Distant planets X and Y may actually exist in the solar system: These planets, thought to be larger than Earth, lurk undiscovered far beyond Pluto, according to two astronomers, who, in early 2014, noticed perturbations in some extreme trans-Neptunian objects that are consistant with the existence of such planets. Other explanations for these perturbations may be found in future, but for now, the existence of planets X and Y can't be ruled out.
(5) A digital mirror that remembers you, and all the outfits you have tried on, for side-by-side comparisons.
(6) John Boehner uses 12 Taylor Swift GIFs to express his opposition to President Obama's plan for free community college education: If someone didn't hack the House Speaker's Web site, then one of his staffers must be pulling a prank on him.
(7) The movie "Selma" corrects a major omission: There have been no full-length films devoted to Martin Luther King, only short cameos in other films. And the new film is coming out at an excellent time, when a renewed conversation about race is much needed. One wonders how it is possible to have had biopics about all sorts of Americans, but not about a significant national figure who merits a federal holiday. The film's director explains: "We were not doing a sainted version of him or an overcorrected, antihero version ... [We set out to portray] a dynamic leader who was at times depressed and let his ego get in control. ... Most Americans don't know Dr. King's conversational voice [having heard only his speeches]. They haven't seen interviews or heard him laugh. They know the 'I Have a Dream' speech and then that he was killed, There's a lot in between." [From: Time magazine, issue of January 19, 2015.]
(8) Final thought for the day: "Some people are like photographs: the more you blow them up the fuzzier they get." ~ Anonymous
2015/01/17 (Saturday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) Cover a middle strip of this GIF image, and you appear to go faster; cover the right and left, and your speed seems to decrease.
(2) Quote of the day: "We still believe in this nation's future ... It's a story ... I didn't read in a book, or learned in a classroom. I saw it and lived it." ~ Former New York governor Mario Cuomo (1932-2015), in his kenote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention
(3) Here is a list of 21 well-known actors/actresses who have never won an Oscar: It seems that the list may shrink by up to 3 names after this year's awards (Julianne Moore, Michael Keaton, and Edward Norton).
(4) These 10 charts tell the story of the US economy over the past few decades: They show, among other things, how income inequality, regressive taxation, soaring CEO-to-worker income ratio, and absurdly low minimum wage are flatlining the middle class and expanding poverty.
(5) Most cancer is beyond our control: About 65% of cancer cases result from random genetic mutations and are thus beyond our control. The faster a cell type divides (notably skin cells), the more likely it is to suffer copying errors. This does not mean, however, that you should stop wearing sunscreen or take up smoking.
(6) Breathtaking aerial photos: A collection of 17 beautiful photos from around the world.
(7) Israel and Arab states are showing a greater willingness to form alliances: This is in large part due to chaos and heightened instability in the Middle East. Is it possible that something positive will come out of the carnage and barbarity of ISIS/Daesh? "[A] conversation that is occurring across the Arab states ... is to bank on the regional forces of stability to create a security alliance against the extremist threat of both Shi'ite and Sunni militias, even if it means partnering with Israel." [From: Time magazine, issue of January 19, 2015.]
(8) The threat of terrorism is overblown: This threat is being pushed on us by the same military-industrial complex that has sold us multiple wars. Here's a good article entitled "We Worry Too Much about Terrorism." And here's a chart of lifetime odds of death for selected causes, United States, 2010 (terrorism isn't on the list at all). So, are those advocating a broader war on terror concerned about the odds of dying from terrorism in the US or other Western countries? If so, then pay attention to statistics on the various causes of death, in which terrorism does not even show up. Yes, terrorism is on the rise in the West, but any changes will make it a tiny dot at the bottom of the chart appearing in the chart cited above, alongside dog bites and lightning strikes. If we are concerned about Africa, odds of dying from hunger, curable diseases, or government-sanctioned violence is much greater there. If, on the other hand, our concern is for the Middle East, war between countries (including the two US occupations) have killed many more civilians there than terrorism.
2015/01/16 (Friday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) Quote of the day: "America's total health care bill for 2014 was $3 trillion. That's more than the next 10 biggest spenders combined: Japan, Germany, France, China, the U.K., Italy, Canada, Brazil, Spain and Australia. All that extra money produces no better, and in many cases worse, results. ... And all those high tech advances—pacemakers, MRIs, 3-D mammograms—have produced an ironically upside-down health care marketplace. It is the only industry in which technological advances have increased costs instead of lowering them." ~ Steven Brill, writing in Time magazine, issue of January 19, 2015
(2) Cybercrime is on the rise: Some 40M Americans have had their personal information stolen by cybercriminals, with financial losses in 2013 estimated to be $100B. [Source: Time magazine, issue of January 19, 2015.]
(3) Iran's national soccer team beats Qatar 1-0 in the Asian cup, to earn its second victory in two games on a beautifully executed attack and an even prettier goal by Sardar Azmoun, ensuring its advancement to the quarterfinals round.
(4) Iranian extremist group cheers the Paris terror attacks: Iran's Ansar-e Hezbollah, the same group thought to be behind incidents of acid-spraying on women with inadequate hijab, has condoned and celebrated the French terror attacks, calling them just punishment. In a different news story, I was disappointed to hear that Pope Francis has opined that "You cannot make fun of the faith of others." Please note his choice of words: "cannot," instead of "better not."
(5) Marine artist: Fish creates an amazingly beautiful pattern on the sea floor to impress a female.
(6) Time magazine's feature on the high cost of healthcare: Steven Brill, who has written a great deal about problems afflicting the US healthcare system, provides insights on how to reduce costs and improve outcomes. The feature's cover headline is: "What I Learned from my $190,000 Open-Heart Surgery." [Subscriber content]
(7) Time magazine's digital archives: Through time.com/vault, you can gain access to a valuable information resource that allows you to browse by year or subject or to seach by keywords within defined time intervals.
(8) Oscar nominations announced: "Birdman" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel," with 10 nominations each, and "The Imitation Game" with 9, lead the way. There are 8 best-picture nominees, including the 3 above, plus "American Sniper," "Boyhood," "Selma" (its director and actor were snubbed), "The Theory of Everything," and "Whiplash." Best-actor nominees are Steve Carell, Bradley Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Keaton, and Eddie Redmayne. Best-actress nominees are Marion Cotillard, Felicity Jones, Julianne Moore, Rosamund Pike, and Reese Witherspoon. The directing honorees are Alejandro G. Inarritu, Richard Linklater, Bennett Miller, Wes Anderson, and Morten Tyldum. [Complete list of nominees]
2015/01/15 (Thursday): Here are six items of potential interest.
(1) The hardest climb in the world: Two free-climbers reached the summit of Yosemite's El Capitan after 19 days of climbing. [Image credit: BBC News]
(2) Quote of the day: "Since Obama has achieved all the Republican goals, does he get any credit?" ~ Bill Mahr, referencing Mitt Romney's campaign promise to raise the GDP growth to 5% by 2016, Paul Ryan's plan to reduce unemployment to under 6% by 2016, and New Gingrich's program to get gas prices below $2.50
(3) The deliberate grounding of car-carrier ship Hoegh Osaka: Occasionally, we read news stories about ships sinking and airplanes crashing due to the inexperience or ineptitude of the captain/pilot. This story and photos are about smart action by the captain that saved a fully loaded cargo ship from capsizing near the Isle of Wight on January 3, 2015.
(4) What is going on with Viagra ads? Previously, the messages were delivered by handsome, graying men. But the latest ads have a sultry woman sing the praises of the medication, while grooming herself, as if getting ready for a date. There is no man in sight.
(5) Google's modular phone, code named "Project Ara": Spiral 2 phone is the improved version or Google's initial idea of building a phone in which modules can be swapped in and out with ease. Some of the existing kinks should be ironed out by the time Spiral 3 rolls around.
(6) Broadband access and ISIS: A video of President Obama talking about his plans for improving Internet access speeds in the US has elicited much negative commentary, the gist of it being that he is wasting his time on trivial things instead of attending to ISIS and other life-threatening problems. I don't see how the two issues are mutually exclusive, so that only one or the other can be handled. First, many of these commentators (the same bunch that criticize President Obama, no matter what he does) equate Internet with entertainment. Yes, we get some entertainment from the Internet, but we also get our news and info about scientific discoveries, self-improvement, travel planning, and healthcare. As I am writing my next graduate-level textbook, I find myself consulting on-line books and technical journals on a regular basis, instead of making daily trips to the campus library, as I did for my first book years ago, only to discover that the library does not hold the book or the particular journal issue that I need. Just as the languishing of our school system in the US has led to erosion of our economic competitiveness, being surpassed by several countries in terms of Internet access ease and speed will dictate our future standing in science and technology. All of these aside, entertainment itself isn't something to ridicule. If someone is struggling financially and taking care of sick relatives, what is wrong with s/he picking a couple of roses and putting them in a vase to enjoy? We won't tell that person that s/he is wasting his or her time on something trivial, would we? Also remember that an open-information society, which is facilitated by better Internet access, is the best long-term antidote to religious extremism that thrives on the ignorance of the masses to recruit its foot soldiers.
2015/01/14 (Wednesday): Here are seven items of potential interest.
(1) A remarkable 17th-century warship: The Swedish warship Vasa set off on its maiden voyage from Stockholm toward Poland in 1628. It sank, killing some 30 people, after sailing for a bit over 1 km. The ship's 64 valuable bronze cannons were salvaged, but the rest of the ship remained pretty much intact at the bottom of the sea and forgotten, until its recovery in 1961. The ship now sits magestically in Stockholm's Vasa Museum, where it is one of Sweden's most popular tourist attractions.
(2) Iran beats Bahrain 2-0 in a preliminary-round soccer match played in the Asian Cup tournament: The first of the two goals is particularly beautiful.
(3) Subzero temperatures turn Michigan's St. Joseph Lighthouse into a giant icicle.
(4) UCSB deemed one of the greenest campuses in the US: Based on data from Sierra Club, EPA, and other groups, UCSB has been ranked 3rd in the US (1st among public universities) with regard to environmental sustainability efforts.
(5) Persian poetry: The poem "Khoda Nashenas" ("Godless"), composed by Ali-Akbar Saidi Sirjani (1931-1994) at age 28, was recited by Hassan Khayatbashi during ceremonies honoring the poet's 80th birthday in 2011. An old poem that has assumed new relevance in today;s religious wars.
(6) The 28 missing pages of the 9/11 report: Former US Senator Bob Graham, the lead author of the report, has called for the release of the redacted pages, said to contain material that are embarrassing to the Saudis.
(7) Political power transitions in Iran resemble coup d'etats more than elections: In most Western countries, former presidents are considered elder statesmen, whose opinions are sought on important matters of national interest and who tend to speak regularly to enthusiastic audiences. Not one former president of Iran enjoys such a stature, as if they were all removed from power forcefully and sent into exile.
2015/01/13 (Tuesday): Here are six items of potential interest.
(1) Quote of the day: "The movie 'The Theory of Everything' was successful because it combined two things that audiences love: a crippling disease and complicated math." ~ From the introduction to Sunday's Golden Globe Awards ceremony by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler
(2) On blasphemy laws and religious reforms: Farid Zakaria has made a valid point that blasphemy isn't punishable by death according to Quran, but is cause for death in the Old Testament. So, according to Zakaria, killing people (lawfully, as in Saudi Arabia and Iran, or by lawless terrorism) constitutes a misunderstanding of Islam. I beg to differ. A religion is defined more by how its followers act than by what the holy book says. Unless religious and political leaders of the Islamic world denounce such (mis)interpretations, what the scriptures say will remain irrelevant, especially in a country such as Iran, where a vast majority of people have no direct understanding of the Arabic Quran. Reforms implemented in Christianity, and still continuing under the leadership of Pope Francis, are overdue in both Islam and Judaism.
(3) Memories may be transmitted genetically: A study on mice suggests that experiences (particularly traumatic or stressful ones) can be transferred from the brain into the genome, thus affecting both the structure and function of the nervous system in the offspring. If confirmed by other independent researchers, this may end up as one of the more significant discoveries of the decade in neuroscience.
(4) If airline food tastes bland, it is likely not their fault: "Get on board a plane and cruise to a level of thousands of feet, and the flavour of everything from a pasta dish to a mouthful of wine becomes manipulated in a whole host of ways that we are only beginning to understand."
(5) Why President Obama's free community college education program makes sense: The plan, dubbed "America's College Promise" pursues the goal of expanding free education from high school to the first two years of college, so as to enhance social mobility by allowing a less expensive path into the middle class. Chicago and Tennessee have similar programs in place, which can serve as models. The Republican-controlled congress has already indicated its distaste for the proposal, citing that the federal government should not meddle in such matters and should leave them to the states. All 50 US states have mandatory school attendance laws and offer free education up to 12th grade. So, stretching the free education by two years makes sense for keeping up with the times (mandatory attendance and free education weren't always the law of the land in the US). A byproduct of such a program is a reduction of the burden of student debt, which is currently stifling our economy.
(6) Body language is more important than facial expression: According to this article in Newsweek magazine, many people focus on eye contact and facial expression, forgetting that positioning of other body parts, such as arms and legs, can also sabotage one's message and ruin the chances for collaboration.
2015/01/12 (Monday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) Why are we told that we can't compare or add apples to oranges? We can surely compare an apple to an orange with regard to weight, price, size, calories, vitamin-C content, color, and many other attributes. I can also look at my fridge's fruit compartment and decide that with a total of 11 pieces of fruit (3 apples, 1 pear, 5 oranges, 2 peaches), I do not need to buy fruit on my next shopping trip.
(2) Quote of the day: "Demanding that women should cover themselves to keep men from sinning is like saying that the sun should stop shining to prevent our ice creams from melting." ~ Simin Daneshvar
(3) Elizabeth Gilbert on women's body image problems: The best-selling author writes a beautiful and heartfelt essay on why women should stop judging other women on decisions they make about their bodies and appearance. She asks how liberal woman can stand up for other women's reproductive rights but then criticize them for decisions pertaining to other body parts or clothing. The essay is long, but definitely worth reading.
(4) Crazy people with guns: The news headline reads, "Indiana couple arrested after video shows handgun in toddler's mouth." In recent days, we have witnessed other headlines about "accidental" shooting of parents by toddlers and mass killings by terrorists. The gun lobby keeps insisting that guns are not at fault and that crazy people intent on killing will kill by other means, citing baseball bats, knives, and the like. There are two responses to this argument. First, what's wrong with removing or regulating one of the methods of killing? Isn't it better to have 80% as many deaths, say, through violence? They surely can't claim that the same number of people would die if obtaining guns weren't this easy! Studies have shown that even without restricting gun ownership, just reducing the maximum size of magazines will lead to a significant reduction in deaths from violence.
(5) Charice, a young girl with a powerful voice, performs on stage alongside Celine Dion.
(6) Name that toon: This is the title of a word puzzle from the January-February 2015 issue of AARP Bulletin, in which you are asked to return stolen consonants to the names of eight cartoon characters.
_ E _ _ Y _ O O _ ; _ U _ _ _ U _ _ Y ; _ O _ A _ _ _ U _ _ ; _ _ E _ _ _ I _ _ _ _ O _ E
_ I _ _ _ Y _ O U _ E ; _ O _ _ Y _ I _ ; _ O _ E _ _ A _ _ I _ ; _ O O _ Y _ O O _ _ E _ _ E _
(7) Mirrors of the Mind: "Monkey see, monkey do. When we observe an action, imitating it almost feels like a no-brainer. Though this proverb is well-rooted in the English language, only in the past two decades have researchers been able to show that there may be a neural basis to this 'monkey business.' In other words, imitation is not quite the no-brainer we thought it was—it actually relies on specific components of the brain called mirror neurons.' ~ Opening paragraph of a cover feature in the latest issue of UCLA's Total Wellness magazine, written by my daughter Sepideh. [The article appears on pages 32-37 of the fall 2014 issue.]
(8) Final thought for the day: "Prejudice can't survive proximity." ~ Anonymous (I heard this quote on an NPR program, but didn't catch the source)
2015/01/11 (Sunday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) Quote of the day: "The imbalance of far more women than men at colleges has been a factor in the various sex scandals that have made news in the last couple of years." ~ Anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly (apparently confusing sexual assaults with scandals and taking the "blame the victim" mentality to the extreme)
(2) Crazy news of the past week: After years of trying to block each and every initiative of the Obama administration, US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell brazenly takes credit for the improving economy based on the coincidence of the improvements with the Republican takeover of the US Senate.
(3) UC Regents' threat of tuition hikes was a strategic mistake: The University of California Regents had decided several weeks ago to provisionally increase tuition by up to 5% per year for 5 years as a way of signaling to the state that underfunding the University might lead to loss of accessibility and added pressure on families, particularly the middle class. Governor Jerry Brown has apparently countered by indicating that any increase in tuition might lead to cuts in state funding, putting the UC Regents in a lose-lose situation: they either have to back away from their plan or else answer to angry parents on the loss of state funding.
(4) A Muslim employee saved lives in the Paris kosher market attack: Lassana Bathily let customers into the store's basement freezer, while he kept lookout.
(5) Indian sitar music, with flamenco vocals: Anoushka Shankar and Raga Flamenco perform fusion music.
(6) Boko Haram kills 2000 in 5 days: That's an average of 400 a day, or 33 times the number of deaths in Paris in one day. Except that few in the West care about the plight of African and other Third-World nations. And there are still people who claim that these killings are the acts of those who have deviated from "true" Islam. I don't always agree with Bill Mahr, but he was dead right when he said, "If there are so many bad apples, then there must be something wrong with the orchard."
(7) Eight books that every intelligent person should read, and why, according to physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
The Bible: Learn that it's easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself.
The System of the World (Isaac Newton): Learn that the universe is a knowable place.
On the Origin of Species (Charles Darwin): Learn of our kinship with all other life on Earth.
Gulliver's Travels (Jonathan Swift): Learn, among other satirical lessons, that humans are mostly Yahoos.
The Age of Reason (Thomas Paine): Learn how rational thought is the primary source of freedom in the world.
The Wealth of Nations (Adam Smith): Learn that capitalism, or economy of greed, is a force of nature unto itself.
The Art of War (Sun Tzu): Learn that the act of killing fellow humans can be raised to an art.
The Prince (Machiavelli): Learn that people (not) in power will do all they can to acquire/keep it.
(8) World leaders express solidarity with the cause of freedom in Paris: Notable among the 1.5M marchers was the absence of a high-level representative from the US. Also notable was the presence of representatives from governments that routinely harass and imprison journalists.
2015/01/10 (Saturday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) Traffic violations on the UCSB campus: Several years ago, I started a Web page in which I documented the abuse of UCSB walkways by vehicles of all kinds. Eventually, I gave up, because while campus officials acknowledged the gravity of the problem and its direct effects on the safety of students and staff, they failed to act to stop the abuse. This vehicle on a UCSB lawn, seemingly affiliated with an exercise group, must have gotten there by driving a long distance on walkways (Wednesday 1/7, shortly before noon). And this is just one example of many that I encounter daily.
(2) This lively music and dance number sounds/looks like Kurdish, but I'm unsure about its country of origin.
(3) Stanley Steamer ad jingle, performed in different musical styles. Quite well done!
(4) The toughest nontechnical interview question: Getting the salary you deserve that also fairly reflects the scope and responsibilities of the position isn't easy. Go in too low, and you'll lose years of potential earnings (the low salary may also affect you in your next job). Demand too much, and you may be passed over quickly. Here are some hints on how to avoid giving a direct answer, without seeming obnoxious.
(5) The biggest statues in the world. [Slide show]
(6) Songs by the Eagles: A collection of 13 MP3 files, playable on-line.
(7) How language affects the way we think: Studies have shown that our language and its rules and structures affect our thinking in many different areas. Examples include our ability to save money, keeping our orientation in space, assigning blame, and recognizing gender.
(8) Final thought for the day: "Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties." ~ Erich Fromm
2015/01/09 (Friday): Here are nine items of potential interest.
(1) How the unsafe skies over Iraq and Syria have altered the paths of international flights.
(2) Je Suis Ahmed: The cop executed by a point-blank shot from one of the terrorists after the massacre in Paris was Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim who was assigned to protect the offices of Charlie Hebdo. He died protecting the free-speech rights of those who poked fun at his religion.
(3) New honors for UCSB: Shuji Nakamura, who (along with two Japanese researchers) won the 2014 Nobel Prize in physics, has added US National Academy of Engineering's Draper Prize to his list of honors. In other news, USA Today has ranked UCSB's Department of Sociology #1 in the country. UC Berkeley and UCLA are also in the top 10 (#2 and #4).
(4) An excellent visualization of how the desktop paradigm has taken over and organized our lives. [34 years of change in 1 minute]
(5) Ground broken on the first US bullet train project: Governor Jerry Brown and other state officials were present for the ceremony held in Fresno, dubbed "the nation's high-speed rail capital."
(6) A possible game-changer in medicine: After nearly 3 decades, during which no new usable antibiotics were discovered, scientists are on the verge of introducing 25 new varieties, one of which may be highly effective, because bacteria are unlikely to develop resistance to it.
(7) A selection of songs about freedom, in memory of the slain journalists in Paris.
(8) This video message raises some interesting points about why boys underachieve in school.
(9) Final thought for the day: "If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities." ~ Voltaire
2015/01/08 (Thursday): Here are seven items of potential interest.
(1) Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani's take on the massacre of cartoonists by Islamic terrorists is depicted in the opposite image.
The attack killed 12 at the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. News of the incident have been widely circulated over the past two days, so I won't add more details here. What I do want to add is that often such attacks are attributed to rogue Islamic elements who have deviated from "true" Islam. This explanation is, in my view, inadequate in this case. As long as it is legitimate in Islam to kill someone for insulting the religion or its prophet and imams, or even for leaving the religion, incidents like this will happen.
We will take a step toward eliminating these kinds of killings only if imams and countries that consider Islam their official religion announce, unequivocally, that Islam does not sanction killing anyone for an insult, no matter the subject of the insult. In the case of Iran, I know that such an announcement will not be forthcoming, because insulting sacred figures (including the Supreme Leader) is one of the charges used to execute members of the opposition; the other commonly used fictitious charge being drug trafficking.
(2) Quote of the day: "[The Paris] attack also demonstrates again that violent Islam isn't a reaction to poverty or Western policies in the Middle East. It is an ideological challenge to Western civilization and principles, including a free press and religious pluralism." ~ From the Wall Street Journal editorial, January 8, 2015
(3) Our shared sense of responsibility: A short video message from former US congresswoman Gabby Gifford and her husband Mark Kelly, advocating responsible solutions to confront gun violence.
(4) It seems that the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival becomes more impressive each year: Here are photos from the 2015 edition.
(5) Chicken at the billiards table: Nice job of editing and CGI in this 12-second video!
(6) Stunning 1.5B-pixel image of the Andromeda Galaxy: On this photo, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, you can zoom in to explore the various parts.
(7) Persons of Iranian origins: I keep reading on Facebook and other on-line sources stories about some "Iranian" having accomplished an important feat or earned a prestigious award. In most cases, these are second-generation Iranian immigrants who were born in the West or were reared and educated here. These are people of Iranian origins, not Iranians. The same goes for those who were driven from Iran by restrictive or intolerant laws and are now successful people in their adopted countries, having to rebuild their careers from scratch in some cases. There is a hidden racism in remarks to the effect that these people are successful because they are Iranian. In fact, the truth is that they are successful, despite having Iranian roots. There is a big difference. A related point is that when we boast that Iranian graduate students do well in prestigious schools such as Stanford and Berkeley (true), we must bear in mind that these are the top students from top Iranian universities who have passed rigorous admissions filters multiple times (in Iran and eventually in a Western university), not typical Iranian students.
2015/01/07 (Wednesday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) School lunches in various countries: If you want to understand causes of the obesity epidemic in the US, look no further than school lunch menus.
(2) Scenes and music from Kurdish villagers in Turkey. [1-minute video]
(3) Songs by the Beach Boys: A collection of 23 MP3 files, playable on-line.
(4) One hundred and one obscure but useful Web sites: Presented in no particular order, the list includes consolidation tools, entertainment guides, collections of templates/icons, productivity tools, security aids, and more.
(5) On dealing with Facebook friends with no photos or other identifying info: In a recent Facebook post, Parvaneh Aref warns her Facebook friends against accepting add requests from people with fake names and generic or stolen profile photos. She suggests that people with legitimate reasons to remain anonymous should, at the very least, disclose their identities to friends via private messages. The warning is particularly important to people of Iranian origins who may inadvertently let in Iranian regime's cyberspies.
(6) The challenges of being a good-looking, female, blonde engineer at MIT: This essay, by Alice Zelinski, is quite touching and well-argued.
(7) Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Persian Food: Orly Minazad's delightful essay on her Persian cooking adventures, in an attempt to declare independence from her mother's food, brought home in tupperware.
(8) Final thought for the day: "There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact." ~ Arthur Conan Doyle
2015/01/06 (Tuesday): Here are eight items of potential interest.
(1) Artist denied permission to leave Iran: Majid Derakhshani, who leads and performs with the "Mah Banoo" women's musical group in Iran found out at the airport, when trying to board a flight to Dubai, that his passport has been revoked.
(2) Quote of the day: "That's an interesting point. If they are both on the same team, is it a penalty?" ~ One referee to another, in the caption of a Los Angeles Times cartoon showing two ice-hockey players throwing punches
(3) One of the oldest time capsules, discovered last December, was opened today: The cigar-box size capsule was buried 220 years ago by the American Revolution hero Paul Revere and the then-governor of Massachusetts, Samuel Adams.
(4) There is no point to this video: Just having some fun with rubber balls on an escalator.
(5) The Known Universe: This video, made by the American Museum of Natural History using visualization software, takes the viewer from the Himalayas, through the atmosphere, and far beyond, all the way to the afterglow of the Big Bang, and then back to Earth.
(6) Family planning in Iran: A comprehensive and insightful article about family planning in Iran and its uphill battle with conservatives who prefer a population boom, interwoven with the story of Hourieh Shamshiri, a gynecologist involved in the fight for many years.
(7) Enchanting Christmas music: Daniela Andrade sings to a puppy.
(8) Final thought for the day: "Everything you can imagine is real." ~ Pablo Picasso
2015/01/05 (Monday): Here are six items of potential interest.
(1) Stonehenge road tunnel: Because vibrations and emissions from vehicles traveling on nearby roads and parking area have been causing damage to Stonehenge, construction of a tunnel under the site was finally given the green light in 2014, after being considered for nearly two decades. One of the roads near the site will be closed and the other one will be put underground for about 1.5 km on each side of the historic site.
(2) Israel's "Photoshop Law" goes into effect: According to the new law, as of Januray 1, 2015, any digitally altered image must be clearly labeled as such. This provision is part of a broader law that also requires medical certificates for a minimum body mass index (BMI) of 18.5 from those who model in print ads or runway shows.
(3) Crowdfunding for Rain on Request: A US start-up has begun raising funds for developing the use of an ionization technology to bring rain to drought-stricken areas.
(4) Don't mind the silly image; this is serious news: A bus that runs on gas generated from human waste and food leftovers will start running for the first time in Bristol, UK.
(5) The highest unclimbed mountain in the world: At 7570 m, Gangkhar Puensum, located on disputed land between Bhutan and Tibet, is still unconquered, whereas most Himalayan peaks were scaled decades ago.
(6) Persian parody song: Featuring conservative and reformist politicians of Iran, the song is titled "Hassan Ey Bi-Vafa" ("Hassan, You Disloyal You").
2015/01/03 (Saturday): Here are seven items of potential interest.
(1) Manifesto for a simple life: "Eat less, move more. Buy less, make more. Stress less, laugh more. Feel blessed, love more. Find a quiet spot every day and ... breathe." ~ Anonymous
(2) Solo piano music: This performance of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (op 27 #2 mov 3) by Valentina Lisitsa has garnered 8.5M views on YouTube. Enjoy!
(3) This mullah offers advice to women on how to dress to sexually excite their husbands.
[Note added on 1/04: When I posted this video clip on Facebook, a friend commented that what the mullah says is actually sane and perhaps helpful to illiterate women with limited knowledge of marital relationships, forcing me to add the following clarification. What is funny about this clip isn't the content but the context. It is one thing for a marriage counselor to give this kind of advice to a woman in private. It is another thing for a cleric affiliated with a regime that demeans women and considers them their husbands' properties (they have to submit to their husbands whenever the husbands feel the urge, according to Islamic law, and it is permissible for husbands to lie to them to keep them in check; see this 2-minute video for the second claim) to make public pronouncements on how women should sexually arouse their husbands.]
(4) Iran's Ebrat Museum: The Islamic Republic has built a memorial wall on which names of victims of Shah's torture cells are engraved. Do the Islamic torturers and rapists of prisoners have no shame? Yes, the intelligence service of Shah did torture prisoners, but his crimes are dwarfed by what has been happening in Iran over the past 35 years.
(5) A Christian and a Muslim debate on whether ISIS is Islamic: Unfortunately for Muslims, the person arguing their side was incompetent, resorting to prophecies and conspiracy theories (including claims that both Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi are Jews), rather than base his arguments on facts. [94-minute video]
(6) A very important JFK speech: If you can spare 20 minutes, watch JFK's "Secret Societies" speech, delivered on April 27, 1961. The video also provides the full text of the speech. Here are five quotes I have selected from this speech.
"We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it."
"[T]here is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it."
"No president should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding; and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary."
"Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed—and no republic can survive."
"[Informing and educating the public by the press] means greater coverage and analysis of international news—for it is no longer far away and foreign but close at hand and local."
(7) Final thought for the day: "Be as you wish to seem." ~ Socrates
2015/01/01 (Thursday): Old blog entries for 2005-2014 have been archived and a new Blog & Books page begins today with seven items of potential interest.
(1) Happy New Year to all readers of this blog! As we wish for a more peaceful and gentler world in 2015, let us remember that the source of our happiness is inside us and that we can make our world brighter by giving more and expecting less. Instead of going for big resolutions that are difficult to keep, I resolve to take small steps to improve myself and my surroundings. May you be empowered to take steps to reach your dreams in 2015!
(2) Quote of the day: "An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it." ~ Orlando Aloysius Battista [This quote is sometimes incorrectly attributed to JFK, who used it in his "Secret Societies" speech.]
(3) Cheek to Cheek: Full album of duets by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. The track list is provided under the YouTube album post. [60-minute audio file]
(4) The world remembers: Holocaust memorials around the globe. [60 slides]
(5) Made in Britain: A beautifully assembled collection of time-lapse videos (mostly of nature) by the British artist Chad Gordon Higgins.
(6) Kurdish music: "Shirin Jan" ("Shirin, My Love"), performed by Shahab Jazayeri. The audio is presented over images of Bisotun, an important archeological site near Kermanshah, and comes with the Kurdish lyrics and their Persian translation.
(7) Piano variations on Carmen: Performed by Shirin (aka ahang1001).