Archive for July, 2009

Trivia day 5: We’re spending more than $1 trillion on our militaries

July 31, 2009 Comments off

Ever wondered how much money the world spends fighting wars? Well, wonder no longer - the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute keeps track of such things. In 2008, according to SIPRI, combined global military spending reached an astonishing $1.4 trillion, or about 2.4% of the world’s total gross domestic product. That amount, up 45% since 1999, was a new record.

For the most part, it’s an American story as nearly two-thirds of the increase came from the United States. U.S. military spending increased 10% in 2008 to $607 billion, or 42% of the global total, while China was second with a relatively paltry $84.9 billion. The United States spends so much on its military that the Pentagon’s secret “black budget” of $50 billion is more than the entire defense budget of most countries, including the United Kingdom, France and Japan, and more than triple Canada’s.

China was actually second in spending for the first time in 2008 - usually it’s the U.K. that follows the U.S. Fear not, though. Defense experts don’t believe China is gearing up for a war, but rather modernizing its military, which still consists largely of 1950s Soviet era weapons.

Some alarmists would have people believe that a war between the United States and China is inevitable but if you ask me, it’s highly unlikely given how interwoven the economies of the two countries are. If war broke out between them, the flow of goods to the United States would completely stop while China would lose its biggest market. That would mean utter and total economic meltdown for both countries and thereby the world. Like it or not, the two countries are inextricably linked and must therefore maintain some level of civility toward the other.

That said, this interwoven-ness is clearly not stopping anyone from spending on weapons. The bright side of that is that a lot of the money is going into researching new technology, which of course ultimately flows to the every-day Joe in the form of cellphones, microwave ovens and GPS devices.

Categories: china, u.s., war

Trivia day 4: Photo booths, a magnet for flesh

July 30, 2009 Comments off

Odds are, at some point in your life you’ve taken a picture in a photo booth. The odds probably increase the older you are - they were, after all, quite the rage back in the fifties and sixties.

If you have taken a picture in a photo booth, odds are also fairly good that you’ve done something naughty for the camera, whether it’s stick your tongue out or flip the bird. Many, many people have gone a step further, either by flashing the camera or performing an illicit act with another person.

Why? Well, there’s something about the photo booth that brings out the inner exhibitionist in all of us. Even in an age where every cellphone has a camera, the photo booth provides a quiet, discreet means to record ourselves doing whatever we want. And because the photos are printed instantly with no copies kept, it’s a very private act.

In fact, director Brett Ratner - of Rush Hour fame, and also of the ruining-the-Xmen-franchise fame with the atrocity that was Xmen 3 - in 2003 published a book of pictures he had taken of his celebrity friends with a photo booth he’d installed in his house. What did all those celebrities do for the camera when left to their own devices? “There were a lot of middle fingers, a lot of people with their tongues out,” Ratner said. “There was also a lot of flashing, although I didn’t publish those.”

These days, photo booths are almost obsolete because you can replicate everything they do with your home computer. But in the days before ubiquitous digital camera technology, they were pretty much the only way to take a photograph without having someone else see it (the Polaroid would have been the other way).

In a less sexually-liberated age, if you took a picture of someone in the nude and tried to have it developed at the local photo mart, you could get arrested. The photo booth provided a means to take such pictures without running the risk of getting charged for obscenity. Booth manufacturers knew this and encouraged it. One American maker, Auto Photo, gave out pamphlets at a fifties imaging convention that showed a women exposing herself, with the caption, “Make sure he remembers you! Send a foto to your boyfriend.”

This actually became an issue for some people. Woolworths started getting complaints that there was too much whoopie going on its photo booths, so the department store decided to remove the curtains from them. I’m sure the booths were used considerably less after that happened.

Categories: photos, sex

Trivia day 3: Super soldier creation headed by McDonald’s executive

July 29, 2009 Comments off

The most shocking bit of trivia I came across in my research involved some of the biological experiments being done by DARPA, the U.S. military’s high-tech lab, in creating super soldiers. Wired has a good story that details some of the stuff DARPA is working on. A few examples include a program that has seen mice continue to live after having 60% of their blood drained (scientists believe the process can be replicated on humans), and a nifty “glove” that simulates the effects of steroids by rapidly supercooling the body’s muscles.

While all that stuff is interesting, what I found most shocking is who Tony Tether, DARPA’s boss during the Bush administration, brought in to head up bio-research: Michael Goldblatt. What kind of experience prepared Goldblatt to lead the agency into its hitherto uncharted territory? Why a career at McDonald’s, of course.

Yes indeed, prior to joining DARPA, Goldblatt spent 12 years at McDonald’s, where he had risen to the post of vice-president of science and technology. The same man who was responsible for developing McD’s low-fat burger was now in charge of creating stronger, faster and better soldiers. How’s that for scary? The good news is, when I eventually get around to writing a science-fiction novel, I’ve got some pretty good inspiration for who the villain will be.

U.S. Congress understandably got a little nervous a few years ago about all the bio-experiments DARPA was doing and ended up canning Goldblatt. The agency was told to dial back some of the experiments. So did DARPA stop experimenting on humans? As a great man once said, “shyeah, and monkeys will fly out of my butt.” The agency simply told scientists to keep quiet and changed the names of some programs to sound less ominous. “Metabolic Dominance” became “Peak Soldier Performance” while “Augmented Cognition” became “Improving Warfighter Information Intake Under Stress.” Let’s face it, McSoldiers are inevitable.

Trivia day 2: Fresh produce = chemical goodness

July 28, 2009 Comments off

You may have heard before that if you want to eat healthy, you shouldn’t buy anything from the middle aisles of the grocery store. That’s where all the heavily processed foods are. The good stuff, the fresh stuff, is on the outsides of the store in the produce and meat sections.

That’s true, but don’t fool yourself for a second into thinking that the good stuff is somehow free of technological processing. No sir. First of all, much of the produce is the result of hybrid breeding; scientists have spent decades mixing and matching different strains of seeds to come up with those that produce the perfect potatoes and green peppers. More and more of what you see today is also genetically modified, where genes from one organism are inserted into another, creating a super-charged version of the plant. Some of the vegetables we’re buying in the store secrete their own pesticides while others are resistant to chemical sprays. Other super powers, such as the ability to withstand drought, are on the way.

Speaking of chemical sprays, the bananas, tomatoes and just about any other fruit that starts out green gets a healthy dose of ethylene gas before it hits the shelves. That’s because such fruit is difficult to transport if it’s left to ripen on the vine or branch naturally; it gets too soft and ends up getting banged around during its long journey to the store. Bananas and tomatoes are therefore picked while still green and firm and shipped to the stores, where they’re sprayed with ethylene, which artificially ripens them. No need for concern, though - these fruits normally produce their own ethylene, which is how they ripen naturally. Still, it’s a nifty technological trick for getting consumers firm, ripe fruit.

Then there’s the wax on the apples. Apples also produce their own natural wax, but it usually wears off when they are picked and cleaned. Apple producers thus apply a new wax coating to make the fruit nice and shiny and which health authorities tell us is safe to eat. Maybe so, but some of that wax comes from the lac bug found in India and Pakistan. Mmm… bugs…

How about the meat aisle? Well, many people don’t know that meat isn’t really red, it’s grey. A thoroughly unappetizing grey. It’s turned red though the application of a chemical known as sodium nitrite which, again, is apparently harmless. Too much of it, though, can be toxic. Mmm… toxic beef…

Categories: chemicals, food

Trivia day 1: Ikea founder was a Nazi

July 27, 2009 Comments off

Just because I’m off on vacation for the next two weeks doesn’t mean this blog is taking a holiday. No sir - thanks to the wonders of Blogger’s scheduled publishing, there’ll be posts up every week day as usual. And, just as was the case while I was in Britain back in June, I’m proud to present two weeks of Cliff-Clavin style trivia. Feel free to crib this stuff and use it to amaze people at cocktails parties! With no further ado, let’s get to it…

If you’re like me and hate overpaying for furniture, you’ve probably got some stuff in your house from Ikea. The cheap and relatively easy-to-assemble goods with the weird Swedish names are often a much better option than the expensive stuff found at smaller independent stores.

Well, it turns out those Billy bookshelves have a dark past… or more correctly, the man responsible for them does. Ingvar Kamprad started Ikea in 1943 when he was just a teenager. He initially sold household goods like matches and nylons out of a shed and delivered them by milk truck and only got into flat-packed furniture in 1956, whereupon his business started to flourish.

But the teenaged Kamprad had some rather extreme right-wing views and was friends with Per Engdahl, a Swedish fascist politician. Kamprad and Engdahl were buddies through World War II and onward, with the Ikea founder attending the politician’s wedding in 1950. The relationship was exposed in 1994 when Swedish journalists found the deceased Engdahl’s correspondences from the era.

Kamprad was mortified when the connection became public and swore up and down that his affiliation with the Nordic Youth, Sweden’s version of the Nazi Youth, was the biggest mistake he ever made. He claimed that he didn’t remember whether he was actually a member, although that sounds pretty fishy - how do you forget whether you were a Nazi or not?

Kamprad was further criticized by Jewish leaders for the fact that despite Ikea’s international expansion, as of the late 90s there were no stores in Israel despite a number of outlets in Arab countries. Coincidence? Company executives tried to say so, but come on…

Swedish journalists never did dig into whether any of Kamprad’s money went into Nazi causes, or whether any Nazi money filtered into Ikea. And even though I don’t believe a person should be held responsible for their entire life for the stupid mistakes they made as a teenager, all of this does make you think twice about getting that cheap dresser, doesn’t it?

Categories: ikea, nazis, war