The World’s Longest Running Lab Experiment

The longest running lab experiment in the world is over three quarters of a century long…and is still going. From Popular Science:

The pitch-drop experiment-really more of a demonstration-began in 1927 when Thomas Parnell, a physics professor at the University of Queensland in Australia, set out to show his students that tar pitch, a derivative of coal so brittle that it can be smashed to pieces with a hammer, is in fact a highly viscous fluid. It flows at room temperature, albeit extremely slowly. Parnell melted the pitch, poured it into a glass funnel, let it cool (for three years), hung the funnel over a beaker, and waited.

Eight years later, a dollop of the pitch fell from the funnel’s stem. Nine years after that, another long black glob broke into the beaker. Parnell recorded the second drop but did not live to see the third, in 1954. By then, his experiment had been squirreled away in a dusty corner of the physics department.

The pitch-drop experiment might have fallen into obscurity (or a wastebasket) had it not been for John Mainstone, who joined the physics department at UQ in 1961. One day a colleague said, “I’ve got something weird in this cupboard here” and presented Mainstone with the funnel, beaker and pitch, all housed under a bell jar. Mainstone asked the department head to display it for the school’s science and engineering students, but he was told that nobody wanted to see it. Finally, around 1975, Mainstone persuaded the department to take the bell jar out for the world to see.

To this day, no one person has actually witnessed the moment a drop of pitch has detached and fallen. But that may change. Why? The experiment is now broadcast on a live webcam. John Mainstone is betting that the next drop will happen in 2013. Just don’t hold your breath.

Blue Marble: The Most Amazing High Definition Image of Earth

The most amazing high definition image of Earth.

Earlier this week, NASA unveiled an image titled “Blue Marble” and dubbed it the most amazing high definition image of Earth. The image was captured with the Visible/Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument aboard NASA’s most recently launched Earth-observing satellite, Suomi NPP. This composite image uses a number of swaths of the Earth’s surface taken on January 4, 2012.

The full resolution image is a stunning 8,000×8,000 pixels! I have taken NASA’s image and made some minor edits: a global curves adjustment, a saturation boost, and sharpened the image. Click on the image above to download the full resolution image. Makes for a great wallpaper!

The Other Vitruvian Man

The Vitruvian Man is a world-famous drawing that depicts a male figure in two superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart and simultaneously inscribed in a circle and a square. The drawing is attributed as a creation of Leonardo da Vinci. However, a researcher named Claudio Sgarbi, has found some evidence to debate the drawing’s origin. Sgarbi checked out Ten Books on Architecture, and found a figure that’s remarkably similar to da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man. In a volume of academic papers to be published this winter by the Italian publisher Marsilio, he proposes that the author of the drawing was a young architect named Giacomo Andrea da Ferrara:

What little is known about Giacomo Andrea derives primarily from a remark made in On Divine Proportion (1498), by Luca Pacioli, who described him as both a dear friend of Leonardo’s and an expert on Vitruvius. Leonardo himself records in his notes having had dinner with Giacomo Andrea in 1490, the year Leonardo is thought to have drawn Vitruvian Man. And elsewhere Leonardo mentions “Giacomo Andrea’s Vitruvius”—a direct reference, Sgarbi believes, to the Ferrara manuscript.

Sgarbi’s hunch is that Leonardo and Giacomo Andrea collaborated on their drawings, but few traces of Giacomo Andrea survive, and unearthing more, enough to make Sgarbi’s case definitively, may take years. Still, scholars already find it intriguing. The French historian Pierre Gros, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Vitruvius, says he considers the idea “seductive and convincing.”

One of the few other known references to Giacomo Andrea concerns his death. In 1499 the French occupied Milan, where he and Leonardo had lived since the 1480s. Already admired internationally, Leonardo established cordial relations with the French and safely fled the city. But Giacomo Andrea wasn’t so lucky. He apparently stayed on as a kind of resistance fighter, and the French captured, hanged and quartered him the following year. “Because of his loyalty to the Duke of Milan,” Sgarbi says, “Giacomo Andrea was erased from history”—as was his Vitruvian Man.

Read more in Toby Lester’s piece “The Other Vitruvian Man” in Smithsonian Magazine.

Unethical Amazon Reviews

Imagine you bought an item from Amazon.com and upon opening the item, you found a note that said:  “We take pride in our products, and encourage you to write a review on Amazon.com. In return for writing the review, we will refund your order so you will have received the product for free.”

This is exactly what a lot of customers did who purchase a Kindle cover from a merchant called VIP Deals, according to The New York Times.

As someone who spends thousands of dollars on Amazon.com annually, this is unnerving news. I read product reviews carefully before buying a product, but how can I be certain that what I am reading are genuine reviews? As the Times article notes, this is a major issue for Amazon, and there are researchers out there who are trying to devise mathematical models to systematically unmask the bogus endorsements.

So what’s worked for me? I don’t just look at the average reviews for a product, but choose to filter the reviews by star rating. In particular, reading the 3-star and 1-star reviews is often a better indicator for me to NOT buy a product, even if the average review is 4-stars or more. In fact, I’d be wary of purchasing a product if you only see 4 or 5 star reviews (my theory is that by law of large numbers, you’d expect to see at least a small percentage of 1 or 2 star reviews). And you’d be surprised how many compelling and well-reasoned 1-star reviews exist.

Notes from a Bookstore Owner

Ever thought about opening a book store? This lady did, and here’s what she learned over the years:

1.  People are getting rid of bookshelves.  Treat the money you budgeted for shelving as found money.  Go to garage sales and cruise the curbs.

2.  While you’re drafting that business plan, cut your projected profits in half.  People are getting rid of bookshelves.

3.  If someone comes in and asks where to find the historical fiction, they’re not looking for classics, they want the romance section.

4.  If someone comes in and says they read a little of everything, they also want the romance section.

5. If someone comes in and asks for a recommendation and you ask for the name of a book that they liked and they can’t think of one, the person is not really a reader.  Recommend Nicholas Sparks.

6.  Kids will stop by your store on their way home from school if you have a free bucket of kids books.  If you also give out free gum, they’ll come every day and start bringing their friends.

7.  If you put free books outside, cookbooks will be gone in the first hour and other non-fiction books will sit there for weeks.  Except in warm weather when people are having garage sales.  Then someone will back their car up and take everything, including your baskets.

8.  If you put free books outside, someone will walk in every week and ask if they’re really free, no matter how many signs you put out .  Someone else will walk in and ask if everything in the store is free. 

9.  No one buys  self help books in a store where there’s a high likelihood of  personal interaction when paying.  Don’t waste the shelf space, put them in the free baskets.

See the full list here. The author has a great sense of humor!

Is Wearing High Heels Dangerous?

A new paper published in the Journal of Applied Physiology titled “Long-term use of high heeled shoes alters the neuromechanics of human walking” explores whether women who wear high heels have increased risks of injury (outside of the embarrassment of slipping; we’re talking long-term effects here).

The Australian scientists in this study recruited nine young women who had worn high heels for at least 40 hours a week for a minimum of two years. The scientists also recruited 10 young women who rarely, if ever, wore heels to serve as controls. Both groups of women were equipped with electrodes to track leg-muscle activity, as well as motion-capture reflective markers. Ultrasound probes measured the length of muscle fibers in their legs.

The scientists found that heel wearers moved with shorter, more forceful strides than the control group, their feet perpetually in a flexed, toes-pointed position. Most interestingly, this movement pattern continued even when the women took off their high heels and walked barefoot. As a result, the fibers in their calf muscles had shortened and they put much greater mechanical strain on their calf muscles than the control group did. This is the paper’s abstract:

Human movement requires a constant, finely-tuned interaction between muscular and tendinous tissues, so changes in the properties of either tissue could have important functional consequences. One condition that alters the functional demands placed on lower limb muscle-tendon units is the use of high-heeled shoes (HH), which force the foot into a plantarflexed position. Long-term HH use has been found to shorten medial gastrocnemius muscle fascicles and increase Achilles tendon stiffness, but the consequences of these changes for locomotor muscle-tendon function are unknown. This study examined the effects of habitual HH use on the neuromechanical behaviour of triceps surae muscles during walking. The study population consisted of 9 habitual high heel wearers who had worn shoes with a minimum heel height of 5cm at least 40 hours per week for a minimum of 2 years, and 10 control participants who habitually wore heels for less than 10 hours per week. Participants walked at a self-selected speed over level ground while ground reaction forces, ankle and knee joint kinematics, lower limb muscle activity and gastrocnemius fascicle length data were acquired. In long-term HH wearers, walking in HH resulted in substantial increases in muscle fascicle strains and muscle activation during the stance phase compared to barefoot walking. The results suggest that long-term high heel use may compromise muscle efficiency in walking, and are consistent with reports that HH wearers often experience discomfort and muscle fatigue. Long-term HH use may also increase the risk of strain injuries.

In an interview with The New York Times, one of the scientists of the study mentioned that “We think that the large muscle strains that occur when walking in heels may ultimately increase the likelihood of strain injuries.” The suggestion for women who wear high heels throughout the day (or for prolonged periods of time every working day)? First, rely less on high heels, if at all possible. If not, then remove high heels whenever possible, such as when sitting at the desk.

The Case Against Private Equity Firms

James Surowiecki has a brief but illuminating post about private-equity firms. He explains that while some private-equity firms do make the companies that they purchase better off, they do so by gaming the system:

Given the weak job market, it makes sense that the attacks have focussed on layoffs. But the real problem with leveraged-buyout firms isn’t their impact on jobs, which studies suggest isn’t that substantial one way or the other. A 2008 study of companies bought by private-equity firms found that their job growth was only about one per cent slower than at similar, public companies; there was more job destruction but also more job creation. And, while private-equity firms are not great employers in terms of wage growth, there’s not much evidence that they’re significantly worse than the rest of corporate America, which has been treating workers more stingily for about three decades.

The real reason that we should be concerned about private equity’s expanding power lies in the way these firms have become increasingly adept at using financial gimmicks to line their pockets, deriving enormous wealth not from management or investing skills but, rather, from the way the U.S. tax system works. Indeed, for an industry that’s often held up as an exemplar of free-market capitalism, private equity is surprisingly dependent on government subsidies for its profits. Financial engineering has always been central to leveraged buyouts. In a typical deal, a private-equity firm buys a company, using some of its own money and some borrowed money. It then tries to improve the performance of the acquired company, with an eye toward cashing out by selling it or taking it public. The key to this strategy is debt: the model encourages firms to borrow as much as possible, since, just as with a mortgage, the less money you put down, the bigger your potential return on investment. The rewards can be extraordinary: when Romney was at Bain, it supposedly earned eighty-eight per cent a year for its investors. But piles of debt also increase the risk that companies will go bust.

This approach has one obvious virtue: if a private-equity firm wants to make money, it has to improve the value of the companies it buys. Sometimes the improvement may be more cosmetic than real, but historically private-equity firms have in principle had a powerful incentive to make companies perform better. In the past decade, though, that calculus changed. Having already piled companies high with debt in order to buy them, many private-equity funds had their companies borrow even more, and then used that money to pay themselves huge “special dividends.” This allowed them to recoup their initial investment while keeping the same ownership stake. Before 2000, big special dividends were not that common. But between 2003 and 2007 private-equity funds took more than seventy billion dollars out of their companies. These dividends created no economic value—they just redistributed money from the company to the private-equity investors.

As a result, private-equity firms are increasingly able to profit even if the companies they run go under—an outcome made much likelier by all the extra borrowing—and many companies have been getting picked clean.

I also highly recommend reading venture capitalist Fred Wilson’s post “Why Taxing Carried Interest as Ordinary Income Is Good Policy.”

Advice for Buying and Selling Things on Craigslist

Ryan Finlay makes a living buying and selling items on Craigslist. It’s the only business in which he hasn’t failed. He has some good advice for others if they want to get into a similar business:

Buy what you know. Of the 600-plus items I’ve purchased, I’ve lost money twice. Once I called some kid about a pile of old baseball cards. I asked him what year they were and he told me they were 4 years older than they actually were. I looked them up and thought I was going to make some money. When I showed up and looked at the cards, I noticed they were newer than he had told me. I didn’t have my tablet computer at the time and couldn’t look them up, so I drove the price down and took a lesser risk.  Back at home I immediately found out the cards were worthless. I had paid the kid $100 for the cards, and eventually pestered him into taking the cards back and trading for an SD card and iPod nano. I still lost around $30 but learned a valuable lesson: don’t take risks on items you don’t know.

Know how Craigslist works. Whoever emails/calls first wins.  If it’s free, you need to pick up the item almost immediately. Good free items are spoken for within seconds. Depending on the city, there are hundreds of people sitting around trying to snag free items. Same for cars, electronics, computers, and other highly competitive sections. Good pictures are extremely important, as are clear descriptions. General sections are refreshed just under 10 minutes, sub-sections about every 15 minutes.

Value your time. Figure out how much you want to make each day and break your day into sections. Average profit for items I pick up ends up being $60-$70. I aim to pickup 3 items a day. I’m not worried how many I sell each day because everything eventually sells. When I arrive at someone’s house, I’ll ask if they are selling anything else or giving anything else away in case I can boost my profit per trip.

Selling advice. There will always be someone that will buy your item. It might take another hour. It might take another day. It will sell. If you are getting calls on your item then you probably have it priced right. Remember that you don’t need to sell to the first caller. Or the second. What you need is to make the most money possible on your item. 

Buying advice. Ask lots of questions on the phone and be very specific. There’s nothing I hate more than showing up at someone’s place only to find out there is some deal-breaking problem I wasn’t told about. Negotiate over the phone/email or plan on paying full price. When I’m not paying close attention, I make mistakes. Profit is in the details.

The Exact Location Where the World Wide Web Was Invented

David Galbraith wrote to Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, who explained that the Web was was technically invented in France, not Switzerland:

I’ll bet if you asked every French politician where the web was invented not a single one would know this. The Franco-Swiss border runs through the CERN campus and building 31 is literally just a few feet into France. However, there is no explicit border within CERN and the main entrance is in Switzerland, so the situation of which country it was invented in is actually quite a tricky one. The current commemorative plaque, which is outside a row of offices where people other than Tim Berners-Lee worked on the web, is in Switzerland. To add to the confusion, in case Tim thought of the web at home, his home was in France but he temporarily moved to rented accommodation in Switzerland, just around the time the web was developed. So although, strictly speaking, France is the birthplace of the web it would be fair to say that it happened in building 31 at CERN but not in any particular country! How delightfully appropriate for an invention which breaks down physical borders. ]

There is a plaque in a corridor in building 2, but no specific offices are indicated and there is some ambiguity as to what happened where, in building 31. Thomas Madsen-Mygdal has a gallery showing locations in building 31 and 513, but there are very few places on the web documenting these places. I took photos of the plaque, such as the one here, with Creative Commons licenses, so that they could be used elsewhere.

Wikipedia is currently updated on the invention of the World Wide Web:

The first web site built was at CERN within the border of France, and was first put online on 6 August 1991:

“Info.cern.ch was the address of the world’s first-ever web site and web server, running on a NeXT computer at CERN. The first web page address was http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html, which centred on information regarding the WWW project. Visitors could learn more about hypertext, technical details for creating their own webpage, and even an explanation on how to search the Web for information. There are no screenshots of this original page and, in any case, changes were made daily to the information available on the page as the WWW project developed. You may find a later copy (1992) on the World Wide Web Consortium website.” -CERN

 

How a Con Artist Cost Google $500 Million

The Wall Street Journal has a remarkable story on Mr. Whitaker, a federal prisoner and convicted con artist, who was the lead actor in a government sting targeting Google that yielded one of the largest business forfeitures in U.S. history. For four months, Whitaker posed as an agent for online drug dealers in dozens of recorded phone calls and email exchanges with Google sales executives, spending $200,000 in government money for ads selling narcotics, steroids, and other controlled substances. In a stunning turn of events, Google agreed to pay a $500 million fine in 2011 to avoid prosecution. The story is behind a paywall, but you can read the major part below:

Mr. Whitaker’s path to undercover operative began in 2005, when he took millions of dollars in orders for Apple iPods and other electronics at below market prices and skipped town without filling the orders, according to his account and court documents. He hopscotched around the U.S. in a private jet, evading arrest and protected by a private security detail. He briefly rented a Miami mansion for $200,000 a month.

He fled to Mexico in 2006 and started an Internet pharmacy, selling steroids and human growth hormone to U.S. consumers through Google ads, he said. The two substances—sold in the U.S. by prescription only—are sought by body builders to add muscle and by older consumers seeking to slow the signs of aging; they aren’t approved in the U.S. for such uses. Google’s policy prohibited advertising their sale online.

“It was very obvious to Google that my website was not a licensed pharmacy,” Mr. Whitaker wrote to the Journal. “Understanding this, Google provided me with a very generous credit line and allowed me to set my target advertising directly to American consumers.”

Mr. Whitaker was arrested in Mexico in March 2008 for entering that country illegally and returned to the U.S. to face charges of wire fraud, conspiracy and commercial bribery in the iPod case. Mr. Whitaker told U.S. authorities about the alleged role Google played in helping his Mexico-based pharmacy.

Federal prosecutors, seeking to test the allegation, set up a task force in early 2009 with Mr. Whitaker’s help. On weekdays, he was escorted from the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I., to a former school department building in North Providence, R.I. There, under the watch of federal agents, he set a snare for Google.

Posing as the fictitious Jason Corriente, an agent for advertisers with lots of money to spend, Mr. Whitaker bypassed Google’s automated advertising system to reach flesh-and-blood ad executives. Federal agents created http://www.SportsDrugs.net, designed to look “as if a Mexican drug lord had built a website to sell HGH and steroids,” Mr. Whitaker said in his account of the sting.

Google first rejected it, along with an anti-aging website called http://www.NotGrowingOldEasy.com. But the company’s ad executives worked with Mr. Whitaker to find a way around Google rules, according to prosecutors and Mr. Whitaker’s account.

The undercover team removed a link to buy the drugs directly—instead requiring customers to submit an online request form—and Google approved it. “The site generated a flood of email traffic from customers wanting to buy HGH and steroids,” Mr. Whitaker said.

To pay Google’s fees for the growing online traffic, undercover agents made payments every two or three days with a government-backed credit card.

Federal agents grew more brazen. They created a site selling weight-loss medications without a prescription, according to Mr. Whitaker and people familiar with the matter. They also added another site selling the abortion pill RU-486, which in the U.S. can only be taken in a doctor’s office.

Google’s ad team in Mexico approved the site, so U.S. consumers searching for “RU 486” would see an ad for the site. Google ad executives allowed the agents to add the phrase “no prescription needed.”

Days later, federal agents added links to buy the drugs directly. Such sales broke U.S. laws prohibiting the sale of drugs from outside the country and without a prescription. “There were photos of the drugs, descriptions, labels that clearly printed out that we were shipping without a prescription and it was from Mexico,” Mr. Whitaker said.

By the end of the operation in mid-2009, agents were buying Google ads for sites purportedly selling such prescription-only narcotics as oxycodone and hydrocodone. Agents also got Google’s sales office in China to approve a site selling Prozac and Valium to U.S. customers without a prescription.

“Google’s employees were instrumental in bypassing policy regarding pharmacy verification,” Mr. Whitaker told the Journal. “The websites were blatantly illegal.”

At the agents’ direction, Mr. Whitaker said he signaled his illegal intent to Google ad executives, including Google’s top manager in Mexico. As a tape recorder ran, he walked Google executives through the illegal parts of the websites. He said he told ad executives that U.S. Customs had seized shipments, for example, and that one client wanted to be “the biggest steroid dealer in the United States.”

Agents at first ignored the flood of orders. But as the ersatz sites morphed into full-fledged Internet pharmacies, they worried that clients, some sick, would be expecting medication.

So customers were told they had to become members by filling out an online form and to receive a “membership kit.” The kits never arrived, but it stopped users from placing orders, Mr. Whitaker said.

In the summer of 2009, U.S. agents visited Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to tell corporate executives about the evidence they had collected. Prosecutors served grand jury subpoenas and eventually collected four million pages of internal emails and documents, as well as witness testimony.

The federal task force, which also included the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigation, was preparing criminal charges against the company and its executives for aiding and abetting criminal activity online, prosecutors said.

Google hired attorney Jamie Gorelick, the former deputy U.S. Attorney General under President Bill Clinton. Two years later, the company reached a settlement with the government, a decision that stopped the likely introduction of emails to top Google executives had the case gone to trial.

“Suffice to say this was not two or three rogue employees at the customer service level doing this on their own,” said Mr. Neronha, the U.S. attorney. “This was corporate decision to engage in this conduct.”

Six private shareholder lawsuits have so far been filed against Google’s executives and board members, alleging they damaged the company by not taking earlier action against the illegal pharmacy ads.

Google has other potential legal exposure. Record companies and movie studios say Google willfully profits from illegal Internet piracy—an issue raised last week, when Congress dropped antipiracy legislation after opposition from Internet companies, including Google.

A 2011 study commissioned by NBC Universal estimated that nearly a quarter of all Internet traffic relates to pirated movies, TV shows and games. “There’s big business in being agnostic about what sites you place your ads on,” said Jay Roth, national executive director of Directors Guild of America, which backed antipiracy legislation.

Online scams pose another potential legal threat. Searches relating to mortgage refinancing have been among the most popular on Google, Eric Schmidt said in 2009 when he was chief executive. An investigation by Consumer Watchdog, a consumer advocacy group, found that a large number of companies selling “mortgage modification” on Google bore the hallmarks of fraud.

The special inspector general’s office for the Troubled Asset Relief Program in November said it had shut down 85 alleged online loan modification schemes that defrauded homeowners through Google ads.

“Google has a natural long-term financial incentive to make sure that the advertisements we serve are trustworthy so that users continue to use our services, and we aren’t afraid to take aggressive action to achieve that goal,” the company said.

To end the sting, federal agents killed off Mr. Whitaker’s fictional character. They sent the Google employees a final email, allegedly from Jason Corriente’s brother, saying the online entrepreneur died in a car crash.

Mr. Whitaker, who pleaded guilty and faced a maximum 65-year prison term, was sentenced in December to six years, following what federal prosecutors called “rather extraordinary” cooperation. He is due for release in two years.