The Strange Realm of Infra-Red: 1

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

My friend Richard Kadrey introduced me to infra-red photography. Sensors on digital cameras can detect infra-red, but normally are shielded from it by a protective filter that resides as a thin layer over the chip. You can hack a camera by removing the layer, but it is easier to buy a Fuji IS-1, which is infra-red-ready. If you use a lens filter that blocks the visible frequencies, the camera displays an image that consists of infra-red transposed into the visible spectrum.

Vegetation reflects almost all light below red, and thus appears “white.” Conversely, the upper atmosphere does not refract infra-red, and thus a blue sky appears “black.” An unexpected effect is that most fabric dyes reflect infra-red, so that a crowded sidewalk appears to be populated entirely by angelic people dressed in white.

During 2007 I drove across the country and took a bunch of infra-red photographs. The Southern states looked especially good, because they contain so much vegetation. Read the rest

Charts: 4

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

Still on the topic of population and mortality (more or less), here is some light relief. I redraw the chart from a source that I found at www.graphjam.com. Read the rest

Charts: 3

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

To what extent do we feel overcrowded, as a species? I’m not talking about resources; just psychological factors.

To create this chart I turned to the CIA Factbook, where I looked up the populations of various nations and then divided this number into their land area (excluding lakes and rivers) to get the number of square feet available per person. I represented the results in squares that are all drawn to the same scale.

Of course if you are in Australia, where each resident has almost 4 million square feet to play with, you won’t make full use of your land ration, if only because most of it is desert. On the other hand, when I was in Australia I did feel intuitively aware that the country was, so to speak, empty. As soon as I drove out of an urban area, the emptiness was right there. Conversely, in Hong Kong, where citizens have barely more than 1,600 square feet each, everyone is intensely aware of being crammed into a very crowded place.

Personally I enjoy wilderness areas, but I wouldn’t claim that open spaces are essential for my mental health. I do, after all, still have an apartment in New York City containing just 350 square feet. The apartment next to mine, identical in size, used to be a home not only to a married couple, but also their young child.

I suspect that our romantic yearnings for “freedom to roam” may be just that: Romantic yearnings. Read the rest

Charts: 2

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

Here's another histogram which may seem a little grim but, I think, is worth contemplating. Suppose someone was born in the year 2004. If the factors which determined mortality in that year remain the same throughout the rest of that person's life, what percentage of his or her contemporaries will still be alive at various points in the future?

You can see that about half the people born in 2004 are expected to disappear by age 80, and from that point on, the number diminishes very rapidly. If you hope to live beyond 80, and you would like to depend on contemporaries for companionship, this may be a problem.

The good news is that the situation has improved. When a similar projection was made in the 1950s for people born in 1949, only 1 person in 5 was expected to live to be 80. We can feel happy that people today are surviving more tenaciously than anyone expected half a century ago.

How will our current prediction turn out fifty years from now? Presumably the answer depends on our priorities. If lives are worth saving, perhaps it will make sense to fund more research into the aging process. Read the rest

Charts: 1

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

I have always enjoyed drawing charts and graphs as a means to enhance my understanding the world.

The histogram above addresses the most fundamental fact of human life: Sooner or later, it ends. To me, all other issues are trivial by comparison.

I made this chart using data from the National Institutes of Health. You can find your age group on the bottom scale, then check your average remaining life expectancy on the left scale. Naturally this number declines relentlessly as you get older.

The good news is that the longer you live, the longer you are likely to live. Thus, at birth in the United States, under conditions that prevail today, you can expect to live for a little more than 75 years. But at age 75, on average you still have another 10 years left. How can this be? Because some of the people who were born around the same time as yourself have already died by the time you’re 75, leaving only a subset who were less susceptible to disease (or accidents).

The bad news is that despite all our advances in medicine, sanitation, and other relevant factors, the chart still tapers off around age 100. Average lifespan has increased, but maximum lifespan has not changed significantly.

One reason may be that research to prolong maximum lifespan receives minuscule funding, especially compared with popular endeavors such as cancer research. Many people seem to feel that extending maximum lifespan would be “wrong” (even at a time of rapidly declining birth rates in many nations) or “unnatural” (even though our average life expectancy used to be around 40, and has improved through totally unnatural means such as antibiotics). Read the rest

Stimulus Details

Charles Platt is a guest blogger

Earlier today I wondered what the actual text is of H.R.1, the bill to authorize an $819 billion "stimulus package." Newspapers don't generally go into this kind of detail, perhaps fearing that it would bore their readers, so I visited the very usefulOpen Congress site to find out. As I read the bill, two things caught my eye.

The first should have been obvious: The money will be mostly distributed among existing federal agencies. To spend huge sums of money, the government simply has to channel it through the system that already exists to allocate and track it. Unfortunately, some of these agencies are not widely known for timely and efficient behavior.

The second lesson is a corollary of the first and could be described as "no agency left behind." Naturally when you suddenly have more than $800 billion floating around, everyone wants a piece of it. Thus we find that very substantial sums are being allocated for purposes such as assisting local law enforcement (the war on drugs, no doubt), housing soldiers, and (of course) increasing homeland security.

Here are some random items that I copied and pasted. For more details, check the link above.

Law Enforcement $3 billion for state and local law enforcement assistance. $1 billion for community policing services.

Department of Defense $4.5 billion to modernize and repair Army barracks and other defense facilities.

General Services Administration $6 billion for construction and repair of federal buildings. $1 billion for immigration facilities at ports of entry. Read the rest

Homage to Arizona: 5

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

Undeveloped land is still cheaply available in Northern Arizona, for anyone willing to live off the grid. This piece which I own, consisting of nearly 20 acres on top of a knoll, is just 15 minutes from the nearest town yet has unobstructed views extending at least 30 miles in every direction. The picture above was taken looking east; the picture below, slightly later on the same evening, looks west. Northern Arizona often enjoys dramatic sunsets during the monsoon season in late July through early September, when thunderstorms roll in.

Despite the seemingly remote location, I get 4 bars on my cell phone when I'm standing at the top of the knoll, since a cell tower is located within line-of-sight, 10 miles away. I love to visit the undeveloped land but after I finish enjoying the view and the solitude, I find myself faced with a question that is difficult to answer:

“Now what shall I do?”

Maybe I’ll advertise it on eBay. Read the rest

Homage to Arizona: 4

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

This brain cactus is another of the plant species found in the botanical gardens in Phoenix, one of the most peaceful environments that I know. Read the rest

Homage to Arizona: 3

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

I found these looping cacti in the botanical gardens in Phoenix, where exotic species display the most amazing attributes, all of which they developed to survive and compete in a very hostile climate. Arizona vegetation is tough and extremely well defended (as anyone knows who has brushed carelessly against a prickly-pear cactus). I admire those traits. Read the rest

Homage to Arizona: 2

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

A friend of mine built this cabin by hand, using raw wood from a local saw mill and loose stone gathered on the 40 acres where the cabin is located at the end of a 10-mile dirt road. He lived here for a couple of years, mostly on canned food, before selling the place at a good profit during the real-estate bubble.

Since the water table is too deep to enable a well, water is mostly collected from the roof, into several buried barrels. A wood-burning stove is fuelled with juniper logs. The satellite TV is powered from one car battery through a small inverter.

Today my friend is prospecting for mineral deposits in an arid wasteland just south of the Hoover Dam. As an expert on mining and minerals, he likes to remind me that almost every single product around us is derived ultimately from raw materials that were dug out of the ground, or from things that grew in the ground. Our civilization depends entirely on activities such as mining, drilling, and logging, and will continue to do so for the indefinite future. Read the rest

Homage to Arizona: 1

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

Today I’m going to include some photographs of Northern Arizona, the part of the United States which I find most visually, politically, and socially congenial. This view is from the balcony of a house where I once lived in a former mining town, perched on the side of a mountain about 30 miles from Sedona, which is somewhere amid the red rocks near the horizon. Read the rest

Cryonics: 2

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

Alcor Foundation, the larger of two companies that maintain people in cryopreservation, stores cryopreserved bodies, heads, and pets in beautifully made stainless-steel cylinders known as dewars. These are vacuum-insulated (like giant thermos flasks) to minimize the boiloff of liquid nitrogen. Each whole body is packed in a separate aluminum pod, four pods to a dewar. The upper ends of the pods are visible in the picture on the right, which I took looking down into the mouth of a dewar through the liquid nitrogen, which is colorless. A winch and chain are used to lower pods into storage.

For more information check www.alcor.org Read the rest

Cryonics: 1

(Charles Platt is a guest blogger)

This man is Curtis Henderson, one of a handful of people who took the concept of cryonics seriously enough to devote his life to it forty years ago, when it seemed even more frivolous than it does today. Henderson had inherited a modest trust fund, most of which he spent on The Cryonics Society of New York, which he ran from his home in Sayville, Long Island. The rusting cylinder behind him was a very early one-person cryonics capsule. I found it (containing no human remains, I hasten to add) in his back yard when I photographed him around 1990.

Currently Henderson lives in Florida. The Cryonics Society of New York was disbanded long ago. I don’t know what happened to the capsule. Read the rest

Suburban Japan: 4

At an indoor minimall in Aomori I found this skin-tight black-and-gold-printed t-shirt, apparently catering to a Japanese teen subculture that pays lifestyle homage to punk bands of the 1980s, especially the Sex Pistols. I couldn’t resist buying it even though the idea of wandering around my neighborhood in the USA with “LOvE HErOiN” on my chest seems a little unwise. (Of course, confessed cocaine user Barack Obama will be ushering in a new regime of tolerance real soon now.)

Among the various incantations on the shirt, “Have a nice punky day” seems not quite congruent with the message that Sid Vicious delivered—but the Japanese always tend to add a feelgood spin. This is, after all, the nation where even the shrine at Hiroshima sells key chains with a happy Hallmark-style romantic message on the back (see below).

Read the rest

Suburban Japan:3

If I were more of a global traveler, I’d like to compile a book of pictures of table settings in different nations, showing the remarkably different ways in which human beings eat on an everyday basis.

This picture is of a typical evening meal at the house where I stayed in Aomori. For reasons that seem primarily rooted in tradition, economy, and availability, fish is the primary source of protein. Local supermarkets offer at least ten times as much space for fish compared with meat (whereas in the United States, the ratio is reversed).

It’s hard to find anything unhealthy in this setting. The caloric content is minimal. Nothing is fried, and nothing is heavily loaded with fat or sugar. I guess it’s no surprise that the Japanese still show few signs of obesity, unlike the populations of most western nations, and have an astonishing average life expectancy of 79 for men, 85 for women. (In the United States, the average numbers are 4 years lower.) Read the rest

Suburban Japan: 2

This pachinko parlor in Aomori raises typically unanswerable questions about choices of packaging and vocabulary. Why the big "X" at front-center? Why pictures of big cats? And then there's this strange poetic text superimposed on the pictures:

It is new century arrival to an amusement RISING reverses common sense. Please spend the pleasant time of a thrill and excitement.

The first and last lines manage to convey a message, but the middle line remains wonderfully mysterious—to me, at least.

Inside the building, it was a hellish environment of second-hand cigarette smoke, noise from machines, and badly amplified music, loud enough to induce hearing damage. Really the interior looked a bit—tawdry. Read the rest

Suburban Japan: 1

During 2008, I found this pharmacy while visiting the town of Aomori at the northern end of Honshu. In the United States, of course, such a name would be condemned for conveying the “wrong message,” especially to “the nation's youth.” But the Japanese are generally unencumbered with Protestant prohibitions and moral probity, freeing them to display a very practical attitude toward social issues. It seems to me, the name Happy Drug is quite accurate, because that's the whole point of drugs, whether they are pain relievers, blood thinners, or laxatives. Their ultimate purpose is to make our lives less miserable and, therefore, happier. The interesting question is why we in the west find this so difficult to acknowledge. Read the rest

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