Monday, October 31, 2011

Success of the human species

Jack Dikian
October 2011

Today marks the symbolic date for when Earths population will hit 7-billion. Demographers at the United Nations Population Division set Oct. 31, 2011 this milestone, acknowledging also, that it's impossible to know the specific time or day.

In 1999, Kofi Annan, designated a boy born to refugee parents in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, as Baby 6 Billion. He had been plucked from the hundreds of thousands of babies born that day to put a face on global population growth. That boy is now 12.

The next milestone, when the globe's population hits 8 billion — is estimated to be in around 14 years from now.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The last of the B53

Jack Dikian
October 2011

The last of America's most powerful Cold War-era nuclear bombs has been dismantled in Texas. This monster is 600 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Put into service in 1962, when Cold War tensions peaked during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the B53 weighed 4,500 kg and the size of a minivan.

The B53's disassembly ends the era of big megaton bombs, with the biggest nuclear bomb in the United States’ arsenal now is the 1.2-megaton B83 compared to the B53 which was 9 megatons.

The B53 was designed to hit targets deep underground, such as bunkers in which military and civilian leaders might be sheltering and required five parachutes to land it softly on their targets before detonating an explosion, in effect simulating an earthquake. These have been superseded, now, by bombs that burrow into the ground and then explode.

According to figures released by the US state department in May 2011, the US has 5,113 nuclear warheads in its current stockpile, down from 31,255 in 1967.

Germs - The 7 dirtiest objects

Jack Dikian
October 2011

According to a new study from Kimberly-Clark Professional, the Dallas Health-care products maker, much of the everyday germs we pick up may be less to do with sharing our workplace our sniffily colleagues and more to do with objects we come in contact with on our commute.

The study was designed with help from Environmental Microbiologist Charles Gerba, a professor at the University of Arizona. Measurements of contamination levels were taken with repeated swabs of the everyday items using the same methods as in the food and other industries to monitor sanitary conditions.

These included high-traffic locations petrol pumps, mail box handles, parking meters, traffic light buttons, escalator handles and vending machine buttons in six cities; Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and Philadelphia.

Swabs were taken and measured for levels of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the universal energy molecule found in animal, plant, bacterial, yeast and mould cells. Residues, particularly food or organic residue, contain large amounts of ATP. Microbial contamination contains ATP, but in smaller amounts. So ATP measurements represents dirt that otherwise may be invisible to the human eye. So the amount of ATP serves as a good indicator health risk. The greater the levels of ATP, the greater the health risk.

ATP is easily and accurately measured by treating an ATP-containing sample with a reagent that reacts with ATP and produces light that can be measured in a luminometer. The amount of light produced (relative light units) is proportional to the amount of ATP in the sample. As an aside, this reaction occurs naturally in fireflies to produce their characteristic light. ATP readings of 300 or higher indicated a higher risk for illness transmissions when the items are touched.

The results:

  • Petrol pump handles had the highest levels of contamination with 71% of those tested having ATP levels of 300 or more.

  • Mailbox handles were a close second with 68% having high ATP levels.

  • Escalator rails came in third with 43% of tested showed contamination.

  • ATM buttons tested poorly with 41% of those tested were contaminated.

  • Parking meters (41%) were found to be breeding grounds for germs.

  • Traffic light buttons (35%) and 35% of the snake vending machine buttons tested had higher than accepted ATP levels.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Idiot Box - maybe not so dumb

Jack Dikian
October 2011

Television is often referred to as the Idiot box - and I suppose a lot of television, particularly reality television, caters for and attempts to attracting as many people as possible with the sole purpose of selling ads. Movies on the other hand attract those prepared to pay to see them. You could argue that movies are a form of art, similar to a painting, a play or a concert.

There may be, however, another emerging trend involving television shows. This is the opposite scenario to the idiot box. That is, television becoming more cognitively demanding. Episodes of well-known series such as Dexter, The Sopranos, and The West Wing, for example, require us to integrate far more information than we would have a few decades ago in order to make sense of the plot. As in reading, we invest in attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads.

It seems that in order to follow the story line of these shows we need to do more than just pay attention – we have to also make inferences, track shifting social relationships and debate even when a character behaves in a way inconsistent with the developing personality.

The episode often connects the lives of many distinct characters, each with a defined personality with motivations and obstacles and specific relationships with other characters. Growing complexity involves more than just multi-threading. Often flashing arrows and social networks are incorporated. Let’s look at multithreading.

Earlier television shows typically followed one or two lead characters, adhere to a single dominant plot and reach a decisive conclusion at the end of the episode. This is compared with say The Sopranos where the narrative weaves together numerous distinct strands -- sometimes as many as 12, though some of the threads involve only a few quick scenes scattered through the episode.

The number of primary characters, more than 20 recurring characters -- swells significantly. And the episodes have ambiguous borders: picking up one or two threads from previous episodes at the outset and leaving one or two threads open at the end. Not only that, often a scene in 'The Sopranos will connect to two or three different threads at the same time, layering one plot atop another.