What if? XKCD knows.

There’s an extension of the XKCD site that poses the question “What if” on various scenarios. Like:

If you could teleport to a random place of the surface of the Earth, what are the odds that you’ll see signs of intelligent life?

Of course, the first answer is you’ll probably land in water.


But the most interesting answer is this:

Wait for nightfall.

At any given time, there are hundreds of satellites in the sky. Most of them are too faint to see, but if you’re in an area without much light pollution, and you look carefully enough, there’s virtually always a satellite visible. Their rapid motion across the sky and various highly inclined orbits make them unlikely to be anything but artificial.

It’s often said that the Great Wall of China is the only human artifact that can be seen from space. This is wrong.

But in my opinion, the real problem with this factoid isn’t that it’s wrong—it’s that it overlooks a much cooler point. The Great Wall of China may not be the only artifact on Earth that you can see from a satellite … but our satellites are the only human artifacts that you can see from everywhere on Earth.

Want to see signs of intelligent life? Just look up.

When I lived in England, I used to go out at night and watch the satellites in the sky. Since I was living in the countryside, there was no light pollution, and the sky was always loaded with more stars than I had ever seen in my life. And amid all those stars, you could see shiny objects move across the sky, very small, but always there. If you live in the city, you’ll never see that.

A Hogwarts view of the royal baby

Haven’t said anything about Will and Kate’s royal baby in England. But Professor Snape adequately covers it on Twitter:

snape1And if you have low self esteem, this will bring you even lower:



Do you really want to say (sing) that? Ring around the rosie

A simple childhood song:

Then someone tells me it’s about the black plague.


So, it looks like this either goes back to 14th or 17th century England. When the bubonic plague (also known as the black plague) hit, one of the symptoms was a rosy red rash in the shape of a ring on the skin, hence, the “ring around the rosie.”

Since no one knew anything about science, back then, folks thought that because things were smelling really badly with everyone dying and all, the way to avoid catching the plague was to carry around pleasant smelling items. Like posies. So, if you had a pocket full of posies, things were cool.

About a quarter of the population of England died of the plague in the 14th century. When it hit in 1348-1350, the death toll was about 1.5 million out of a population of four million. The later plague, around 1665, it killed 100,000 people, or about 20% of the population in London. In Europe overall, the plague of the 14th century and subsequent plagues through the 18th century killed about up to 60% of the population. Burial really wasn’t an option. So bodies were burned.

Ashes, ashes. We all fall down.

One of the “cures” of the black plague was the 1666 Great Fire of London, which killed most of the rats carrying the disease, but also wiped out the homes of 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants. Seems kind of severe. When I worked in London, I used to pass the monument to the Great Fire daily, since I had to walk from the London Bridge train station to the office near St. Paul’s Cathedral. The monument, pictured above, is at the north end of London Bridge.

The plague has spread around the word, killing about 10 million people in India during the 19th and 20th centuries, and making an appearance in the western U.S. in the early 20th century and as late as 1995.

I’m sure this would make a pleasant bedtime story for all the kindergarteners singing this.

London calling

London is falling apart:

Police struggled to contain a third night of rioting and rampant looting that ricocheted from one neighborhood to another Monday after a community protest over a police shooting here exploded into Britain’s worst outbreak of social unrest in at least a decade.
In the span of 48 hours, the violence spread haphazardly across London, mostly through economically challenged, mixed-race areas that have sometimes been plagued by high unemployment and tensions with police.

Ever since the Cameron government went on its austerity kick, things have gotten worse in England. And the Conservatives actions in England are looked upon with admiration by the political elite in Washington. Why we should want to follow a path that only leads to ruin is beyond my comprehension.

The true stories of two Ruperts

Slightly more than 14 months ago, having taken early retirement, I was spending our last couple of months in England living on an estate.

It was our home for a year, situated on about 75 acres next to an English mansion in Kent, about an hour southeast of London. Our home dated back to the 14th century, and was used when the lord of the manner died.  His widow moved in our place so the new lord could take over the mansion.

A Rupert lookalike

We could just barely afford it, but it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. The house was off to the side of a huge mansion that was used for various functions: weddings, seminars, corporate retreats and the like. Ours was a one family house, with a few bathrooms, a couple of kitchens and an indoor swimming pool.

The grounds were out of a Merchant/Ivory movie. Rolling countryside. Manicured gardens, complete with hedgerows, vast open fields where sheep and cows grazed. A couple of hundred yards in one direction was a fruit orchard, growing raspberries, strawberries and blackberries for the local markets. A couple of hundred yards in the other direction was our own fenced in private lake. Actually it was the lake owned by our landlord, but he didn’t live on the property and had said we were free to roam throughout the 75 acres. From our bedroom window, we could watch horses in the adjacent yard, rolling on their backs when they got bored.

We’d regularly see hot air balloons in formation, drifting across the sky following the clouds. At night, the sky was filled with more stars than you’ll ever see in your life. The sky was so clear, that we could stand outside and actually watch satellites high above, one after another eclipsing the stars.

We once watched a fox hunt, dogs barking, trumpets blaring, riders and horses tracking down the pretend fox, because such hunts are now illegal in England. But there were foxes on the property and all other kinds of country wildlife: hares and rabbits and birds. Plenty of birds.

My wife fed the birds, regularly going into the nearest town, buying huge boxes of bird seed, large plastic containers of freeze dried worms, balls of suet and bags of sunflower seeds. The birds came to expect the daily feast. At the crack of dawn, families of fat pheasants would stand outside, waiting impatiently for her to bring out the buffet and pile it up on the knee high stone wall that surrounded the patio. And when she walked away, they would jump up on the wall, a signal to the other birds on the property that feeding time had begun.

And since I was retired, I fell into the bird feeding routine. I’d bring the food out, pile it up and go inside to watch from the kitchen window, because a lot of the birds were too skittish to land while the human was outside in the middle of their cafeteria.

Small birds, large birds, it seemed every bird in the southeast of England showed up for the morning and evening feedings.

So I’m sitting at the window, watching the live National Geographic special playing out on my back porch.

Then the crows show up. For the most part, they were sharing the food with all the other birds. An occasional peck at another bird that got too close, but as long as they all knew to respect the others’ space, no major incident occurred.

Except for one crow.

He was huge. Noticeably bigger than every other crow in the murder. Not as big as the pheasants, but that didn’t matter. Every bird was afraid of him.

How could I tell?

He stood in the middle of the food, not on the edges like the other birds, but right in the middle of the food. Whenever another bird tried to jump on the stone wall, he would peck at it until it flew away. Didn’t matter what size the bird was, large or small. Didn’t matter if the bird was a different species. Didn’t matter if the other bird was part of the crowd he led. This was alpha crow. One bird would try to sneak a bite of food on the side, and he’d go after him. Sometimes a couple of birds would make an effort to feed, and he’d attack every one of them, and after they all flew away, he would go back to standing in the middle of the food, eating undisturbed at his leisure.

The only bird he would allow on the wall with him was his mate. She was just as mean, but all the other birds knew they could take her. When the big black crow left the food to strut around, the other birds would immediately fly to chow down. The mate was no match for them, so the big black crow would immediately come back, chase all the others away and let the she devil feast at her leisure. If she flew away, he would stand there in the middle of the food, not eating, but not allowing any other bird to eat.

I would sit at the window and think: “Hey guys, there’s only one of him and a dozen of you. If you work together, you could kick his butt. C’mon! Take him out!” But they never figured that out. They would just stand around, hungry but too afraid to fight, while this big, mean, arrogant, greedy alpha crow would take his sweet time rummaging through the seeds and worms and suet. I was watching social Darwinism in action.

But here’s what really pissed me off about this particular crow. When he was done eating, before flying off, he would look around at the other birds and take a huge crap right in the middle of the food. He was saying: “Sure, there’s plenty for everybody. And everyone should be able to enjoy this generous banquet. But you can all eat shit, because I rule here.”

I thought about it briefly, and I named the bird “Rupert.”


There’s a huge press scandal in England. As I’ve noted before, The News of the World, a tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., has been caught hacking the phones of celebrities, royalty and politicians. For a number of years, the tabloid has hired private investigators who knew how to access people’s cell phones. They would get into people’s voicemail, listen to their private conversations and if the material was juicy enough, they would plaster the scandal on their front pages. They caught politicians in affairs, dug up dirt on movie stars and revealed scandals concerning the royal family.

When the hacking scandal broke about five years ago, News Corp. said it was just the action of a few rogue journalists. Top News Corp. officials swore before judicial authorities that the hacking wasn’t company policy and that no senior managers were involved. Then as more information came out, it turned out that practically everyone within the News of the World knew what was going on and that it was common practice.

In the meantime, the people who were hacked started to complain. To shut them up, News Corp. made a bunch of payoffs … at least a million pounds so far. And the scandal wouldn’t go away. As the complaints grew, the authorities came under pressure to investigate the matter further. More payouts were made to keep people quiet.

I posted a while back on Hugh Grant’s takedown of one of the News of the World hackers. That action by Grant emboldened more of the people hacked to demand the authorities do something.

And then all hell broke lose this week:

The voice-mail account of a British schoolgirl who went missing in 2002 and whose murdered body was discovered six months later was repeatedly hacked by the News of the World tabloid at a time when no one knew what had happened to her, a lawyer for her family said Monday.

According to the lawyer, Mark Lewis, the newspaper not only intercepted messages left on the phone of the girl, Milly Dowler, 13, by her increasingly frantic family after her disappearance, but also deleted some of those messages when her voice mailbox became full — thus making room for new ones and listening to those in turn. This confused investigators and gave false hope to Milly’s relatives, who believed it showed she was still alive and deleting the messages herself, Mr. Lewis said.

In a statement, Mr. Lewis called the newspaper’s actions “heinous” and “despicable” and said the Dowler family had suffered “distress heaped upon tragedy” upon learning that News of the World “had no humanity at such a terrible time.”

The Brits are up in arms. There are now reports that the hacking was done on the phone of another British girl who was murdered, impeding the police investigation. And it gets worse. Now there are reports that News of the World hacked the phones of the families of the victims of the July 7, 2005, terrorist bombings in London and the phones of the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

The head of News International, Rebekah Brooks, oversees all the News Corp. papers in Britain. She said yesterday in a memo to the staff:

It is almost too horrific to believe that a professional journalist or even a freelance inquiry agent working on behalf of a member of the News of the World staff could behave in this way.

If the allegations are proved to be true then I can promise the strongest possible action will be taken as this company will not tolerate such disgraceful behaviour.

I hope that you all realise it is inconceivable that I knew or worse, sanctioned these appalling allegations.

Notice, there’s no outright denial of the hacking. And though she says, “it is inconceivable that I knew,” she doesn’t outright say, “I did not do this.” When the alleged hacking took place, Rebekah Brooks went by the name Rebekah Wade. And she was the head of News of the World.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the woman who has accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of rape is suing Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post:

The Midtown hotel maid who accused French bigwig Dominique Strauss-Kahn of a vicious sexual assault sued the New York Post on Tuesday for reporting she was a hooker.

The defamation lawsuit, filed in the Bronx, was the accuser’s angry response to a pair of Post stories calling her a prostitute whose hotel room encounter was Strauss-Kahn was a sex for money deal.

“All of these statements are false, have subjected the plaintiff to humiliation, scorn and ridicule throughout the world by falsely portraying her as a prostitute,” said the suit.

In the U.K. the newspaper the Guardian has been all over the phone hacking story. In the U.S., the New York Times has been following up on everything the Guardian has been writing. The people who have been affected, or humiliated or pissed off by Murdoch’s holdings (his British papers, his U.S. properties) seem to all be ready to trash him and everything he owns or wants to own. I won’t even try to get into the Fox News fight with Jon Stewart.


I wonder if, by now, Rupert the crow in Kent may have crapped in the food one too many times?