Sunday, February 21, 2010

US Whaling Connection

Japan and Australia are fighting a diplomatic blame game over Japanese whaling in the Antarctic waters. While Australia views whales as irreplaceable giants of the sea whose vitality reflects the health of the oceans, many Japanese consider the large mammals as simply a source of food and a continuation of tradition. Australia is accusing Japan of carrying out commercial whaling in the guise of scientific research.

While there is evidence of Japan's involvement in whaling since the 12th century, it is only in early 1900s that it became a modern whaling superpower.

Norway, Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany were the largest whaling nations prior to World War II and they pursued the killing without regard to conservation. The 1930's was the greatest decade of whale slaughter in history. In 1931, 37,438 blue whales were massacred in the Southern Oceans. Japan sent its first ships to Antarctica in 1935. The sale of whale oil helped to finance the invasion of Manchuria and China. In 1937 alone, more than 55,000 whales were slaughtered yielding 3 million tons of animals.

Proceeds from the whale oil sale helped Japan to finance the invasion of Manchuria and China in the 1930s. However Japanese whaling operation was almost wiped out during World War II when most of its fleet was destroyed.

And here comes the American connection. In 1946 the American Shogun of Japan, General Douglas MacArthur was responsible for reviving the Japanese whaling industry. He proposed the creation of a Japanese whaling fleet to secure protein for the conquered Japanese people. He did so in order to cut down on the United States' costs of transporting food to post war Japan. The deal was that Japan would get the meat and the oil would be turned over to the United States. The United States provided $800,000 in fuel for the whaling ships and received over 4 million dollars in whale oil in return.

I do not think General MacArthur could foresee the impact of $3.2 million profit.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Was Jane Fonda a reason for Nuclear Scientist's Heart Attack?

President Obama showed his support to nuclear power when he guaranteed government loans for a nuclear project, a first in last 30 years.

Nuclear power became unpopular in the US in 1979 when there was an accident at the nuclear reactor on the Three Mile Island near Harriburg, PA. It is the most significant accident in the history of the American commercial nuclear power generating industry as yet. There was a cessation of new nuclear plant construction in the US after the incident due to a strong public reaction to the event which made nuclear power plants politically unfeasible until now.

Interestingly, the key reason of the strong public reaction was a movie starring Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas. Released 12 days before the Three Mile Island accident and called The China Syndrome, it was about a nuclear accident due to poor safety practices of the power plant. The movie struck a chord with the audience and Jane Fonda became one of the prominent anti-nuclear power spokesperson after the event. The Jane Fonda influence was so significant that government's science advisor, Edward Teller (father of hydorgen bomb) had to counter her and lobbied in favor of nuclear power. Long working hours to neutralize Jane Fonda's advocacy at and old age took its toll and Edward Teller suffered a heart attack. which he blamed on Jane Fonda in a Wall Street advertisement. It said:

"You might say that I was the only one whose health was affected by that reactor near Harrisburg. No, that would be wrong. It was not the reactor. It was Jane Fonda. Reactors are not dangerous."

Photo credit: Marshall Astor

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Daytona 500 and Bootlegging

Jamie McMurray won the Dayton 500 earlier today.

Dayton 500 is a 500 mile long NASCAR race. National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) is unique as it is a family operations sports venture and is the largest sanctioning body of stock car racing in the United States.

Stock car racing has very interesting history in the US much before it became a sport. It has its origins in bootlegging during Prohibition, when drivers ran bootleg whiskey made primarily in the Appalachian region of the United States. Bootleggers needed to distribute their illicit products, and they typically used small, fast vehicles to better evade the police. Many of the drivers would modify their cars for speed and handling, as well as increased cargo capacity, and some of them came to love the fast-paced driving down twisty mountain roads. The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 dried up some of their business, but by then Southerners had developed a taste for moonshine, and a number of the drivers continued "runnin' shine," this time evading the "revenuers" who were attempting to tax their operations. The cars continued to improve, and by the late 1940s, races featuring these cars were being run for pride and profit.


Photo credit: Nick Traveller

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Alabama Shooting and Non-Euclidean Geometry

The unfortunate shooting at the University of Alabama happened because a professor was denied tenure and decided to show her anger by shooting her fellow professors. The accused professor Amy Anderson has been at the University on a tenure track since 2003.

It started with Robert Moore.

Robert Moore, one of the most famous American mathematicians created a splash in early 1900s when he proved that one of that one of Hilbert's axioms was redundant. David Hilbert was one of the most influential mathematicians of the late nineteeth and early twentieth centuries and Moore was a a undergraduate student at the University of Texas. He proved redundancy while answering an assignment problem of another famous mathematician, George Halsted (who introduced Non-Euclidean geometry to the United States). Halsted was impressed by Moore and wanted to have him as an assitant. He recommended to the University to hire Moore as an instructor. However, those days the university board of trustees were powerful and frequently interfered in hiring and firing decisions. The University ended up hiring another well connected local candidate for the post, which infuriated Halsted and he started publishing several articles that criticized the university. In response, the University decided to fire Halsted even though he had been a faculty for 19 years and an expert in his field.

This case became notorious in the academic institutions of the country and accelerated the adoption of the tenure concept, to provide professors right to academic freedom and protect when they dissent from prevailing opinion. Later, the American Association of University Professors formally laid down the principles of academic freedom and tenure which was adopted by most of the universities. One of the recommendations was that the academic tenure probationary period be seven years.

This was Amy Anderson's seventh year at the university.

Why Bill Clinton should thank Marcroni Grill and a British Dentist

 What connects a chain of Italian restaurants and a British dentist with Bill Clinton?

The answer is coronory stents, two of which President Clinton got yesterday.

In the nineteenth century the principal dental impression materials were bees wax and plaster of paris, and neither was easy nor appropriate for the task. Bees wax distorted very quickly and plaster of paris was unwieldy to use. Subsquently gutta percha a form of rubber was used, which was an improvement over the current technology but not perfect, as gutta percha distorted quickly and shrank on cooling. Enter Charles Stent, a London dentist who added several materials to gutta purcha and improved its plasticity and stability. It was a huge success in the dental world and Charles Stent patented his compound and began selling it as 'Stent's impression compound' to other dentists.

Stent's compound stayed in the domain of dentists till the first world war when the trench warfare was introduced. Soldiers in the trenches were fairly well protected so long as they stayed below ground level. In order to fire their rifles, however, they had to raise themselves above the edge of the trench, and thus were very susceptible to facial wounds. The number of these disfiguring wounds was staggering, and surgeons had little experience in handling them. One Dutch physician, J. F. Esser, who was Special Surgeon for Plastic operations figured out that he could use the Stent's compound to fix in place the skin grafts for his surgeries. From there on , stenting became the word of choice for any medical procedure where a man-made object is used in natural passage/conduit in the body to prevent, or counteract, a disease-induced, localized flow constriction.

Some 70 years later at a lecture in New Orleans, Julio Palmaz got the idea of using the similar concept for coronory arteries. His early solution was inspired by a metal lathe with a structure of staggered openings that a mason had left in his garage. He developed the coronaryw stent prototype by cutting holes in metal tubing to create a collapsible structure that would remain rigid once expanded. His prototype was successful with animals and Palmaz shopped the idea around to medical companies without much success. He was finally able to secure funding for the venture from Phil Romano, the founder of restaurant chain Macroni Grill and Fuddruckers. He went against his lawyers and accountants advice to invest $250,000 of his money in the idea. Finally in early nineties, J&J bought the idea from Palmaz and his partners and became a leader in the field.

A million people in the US are implanted with coronary stents each year and President Clinton become one of them last week.

Photo credit: Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Could Charlie have done it?

Charlie Wilson, the flamboyant congressman died yesterday. He is well known for influencing the US support of the Afghan Mujahindeen during the Soviet Afghan war in the 80s. When Pakistan's President Zia was asked by 60 min as how the powerful Soviets had been defeated, his simple answer was "All I can say is, Charlie did it".

The story could have been different.

His ability to get weapons in hands of Afghans would have been jeopardized had he had been convicted in the ethical investigation into his supposed drug use at a Las Vegas hot tub. He was accused of using cocaine at the Caeasars Palace hotel while he was in a hot tub with two strippers in 1980. The investigation was dropped due to lack of evidence and Charlie never confirmed the story either way.

Even more interesting is the justice department attorney who was leading the investigation against Charlie. A young man named Rudy Giuliani.

Why Conan O'Brien does not like Sony and MPEGs

If there is one word to describe why Conan had lower ratings..? Timeshifting

Conan O'Brien's departure from NBC Universal was very widely reported. This might be one of the last TV schedule wars of our times. While low ratings were the chief reason behind the NBC decision to offer Conan a later slot (which was unacceptable to him), there was a bigger dynamic at play. Younger audience who are the core audience of Conan are far more comfortable at time shifting, or put simply, they record the shows in DVR and watch it later. This effect is not captured  effectively in the TV ratings. NBC executives were not expecting this time shifting phenomenon to be significant when they replaced Jay Leno with Conan last year.

Timeshifting is something that folks at Universal understand very well. They had sued Sony in 1970s when it came out with their version of video tape recording format, Betamax, which was arguably the first time-shifting device. After a bitter court fight, the Supreme court ruled 5-4 in the favor of Sony. A landmark decision which gave legality to record a show and watch it later for the consumer.

But apart from legal angle, there was another unintended consequence introduced by Time Warner Cable. TWC was a pioneer in digital interactive televsion.and wanted to integrate something like a DVR with the TV. They experimented and invested millions on their Full Service Network initiative. The FSN initiative was aimed at creating a on demand TV ecosystem and pioneered by TWC in their Florida market in mid 1990s. However, the initiative was stymied as a lot of the underlying technologies to make the vision real had not been standardized. The chief among them was a mechanism to convert analog voice and video signals to digital, which solved during the late 1990s with MPEG2 standard. By that time it was too late for the FSN initiative and it was shut down. They were too early into the market. However, it was just in time for two of the executives Mike Ramsey and Jim Barton who met while working at FSN. Well versed with the technical challenges, they saw the DVR opportunity and started a company which they called TiVO. TiVO was launched in the US in 2000 and now an approximate 30% of US household use the DVRs. It fundamentally changed the  younger audience's interaction with television. The time shifting phenomenon that is taking place,is something Universal foresaw in 1970s when they sued Sony.

Had the Supreme court had ruled in favor of Universal or MPEG2 standardization has been agreed upon a couple of years earlier, Conan might still be hosting the Tonight show.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haiti helped to double the size of United States

The tragic earthquake in Haiti and the suffering it has caused is heart wrenching. Americans are responding to the calls for help. And there is a good reason that they should.

Haiti or more specifically Haitian slaves were the reason that in 1803 the United States was able to double its size through the Louisiana purchase.

Haiti, which was a French colony since early 1700s, was a cash cow of the French new world. The French brought in African slaves into the country for sugar, tobacco and indigo cultivation and amassed large profits. However the slaves which outnumbered their white masters were brutally treated. Haiti was a poster child of a brutal efficient slave colony. All that changed in 1791, when the slaves inspired by the success of French revolution, launched an armed rebellion against their masters which eventually led to Haitian freedom in 1803.

Around the same time Thomas Jefferson had reached out to French to buy New Orleans, to secure and control the Mississippi trade route through its port. With its profitable new world colony gone and wars with the British imminent, Napolean lost interest in pursing the French colonization agenda in the new world. So when Americas went with a proposal to buy New Orleans, the French in turn suggested that they are interested in selling the entire Lousiana, which comprised of all or part of 14 current U.S. states and two Canadian provinces and doubled the size of the country that time.

The United States finally bought the Louisiana territory from the French for $15M or $213M in current day terms.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

License to drink

Fortune magazine recently released the America's most admired list of companies which are recognized by their peers for social responsibility. Starbucks coffee chain made on the list for
 
breaking the mold in the fast-food industry by offering health-care benefits and stock (called "bean stock") even to part-time workers.

Starbucks was founded in 1971 in Seattle and bought by Howard Schultz in 1987 and since then he has expanded the chain to more than 10,000 stores in 30 countries. Starbucks has become an integral part of the American pop culture. So much so, that in the movie Austin Powers: the Spy Who Shagged Me,  Number 2 suggested to Dr. Evil about investing in Starbucks. All this while they were having a meeting in the Space needle.

The Austin Powers movie series is a classic spoof on the 1960s spy movies and in particular James Bond movies.

Mike Myers who conceived the idea of the movie has stated in interviews that the idea for Austin Powers came to him one night as he was driving home from hockey practice. His car radio was on, and as he was listening the song The Look of Love by Burt Bacharch began to play. As he heard the music the question "Where have all the swingers gone?" came to his mind, and he began to conceive the character who would become Austin Powers.

Austin Powers very effectively parodies a lot of James Bond movies which as franchise is currently the second all-time highest grossing film franchise in history, after Star Wars.  To date 5 actors have been cast as James Bond , and a sixth (Daniel Craig) is soon to make his appearance . The last actor to play,  James Bond,  Pierce Brosnon has revived the fortunes of the movie series.  He played James Bond in four movies Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The world is not enough and Die another day. 

Brosnon in his private life is a big supporter of research on endangered whales. He is the honorary spokesman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare's (IFAW) global whale campaign and also served as chairman of the capital fundraising campaign.

One of  the most famous bookings on whaling is Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick.

Moby Dick is a white sperm whale
follows the hardy crew of the Pequod , led by Captain Ahab, on a whaling expedition that takes them around the world. The expedition soon degenerates into a monomaniacal hunt for the legendary "White Whale", as Ahab seeks revenge on the animal that cost him his leg.

The only person among the crew in objecting to Ahab's quest, declaring it madness and blasphemy to desire revenge on an animal that lacks the capacity to understand such human concepts, is the ship's faithful first mate Starbuck. And of course, he is also the character which serves as inspiration for the name Starbucks for the coffee chain

Starbucks - Austin Powers - James Bond - Pierce Brosnon - Whaling - Moby Dick - Starbucks....Everything is connected