Friday, September 26, 2008

How to Replace Expensive Software Packages

If you’ve downloaded and installed all of these, you’ve got access to all the productivity software you’ll likely need, clean and open and best of all free.

1. Firefox
Replaces Internet Explorer
If you haven’t switched to Firefox for your web browsing needs, do it now. It stops annoying popups and it has tons of amazing plugins that can make surfing the web even better.

2. Thunderbird
Replaces Microsoft Outlook or Eudora
Thunderbird is an email client that has five big things going for it: it’s free, it’s full featured, it’s lightweight and runs quick, it has an unparalleled spam filter, and it protects you from those ridiculous phishing attacks by clearly indicating which emails send you to a bogus website. If you’re not already using a web-based email solution, Thunderbird should be your client.

3. Sunbird
Replaces Microsoft Outlook’s calendaring functions
Might as well get the Mozilla trifecta out of the way by mentioning Sunbird, which is the Mozilla Foundation’s calendaring program. It’s extremely easy to use and easy to share your calendar with others.

4. Abiword
Replaces Microsoft Word
Want a good word processor but find Microsoft Word too expensive? AbiWord is excellent replacement for Word. It’s lightweight and includes pretty much every feature that everyone uses regularly in a word processor, plus it can save files in formats that you can exchange with Word and WordPerfect users, plus open any of their files, too.

5. OpenOffice
Replaces Microsoft Excel and Microsoft PowerPoint
If you want to replace the rest of the Office suite, your best bet is OpenOffice. It includes very nice replacements for Excel and PowerPoint (and workable replacements for Access and other Office elements).

6. ClamWin
Replaces Norton AntiVirus or McAfee
ClamWin is a slick anti-virus software that’s quite easy to manage and is unobtrusive while keep your system free of viruses.

7. Gaim
Replaces AIM, Windows Messenger, etc.
This is a very clean instant messaging program that allows you to be on AOL Instant Messenger, Windows (MSN) Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger simultaneously with one program. There are other free packages that do this, but Gaim is stable and clean and simple.

8. GIMPShop
Replaces Adobe Photoshop
This is a version of the GNU Image Manipulation Program that does a pretty solid job of imitating Adobe Photoshop - a regular user of Photoshop can adapt to it quite quickly. It’s very richly featured and runs quite well.

9. VLC Media Player
Replaces Windows Media Player, Quicktime, RealPlayer, etc.
If you get tired of having tons of media players on your computer, get this package that runs pretty much every media type you’ll run across without breaking a sweat.

10. Filezilla
Replaces WinFTP
Many people occasionally have a need to FTP files to other computers; if you ever have the need to transfer files in such a fashion, FileZilla will do the job slickly and quickly.

11. MusikCube
Replaces iTunes
If you’re not already committed to downloaded music from the iTunes Music Store, then MusikCube is the best choice available for a music organizer and player. It organizes your mp3s, makes it really easy and really fast to find them, and allows you to make some incredibly clever smart playlists.

12. X-Chat 2
Replaces mIRC
X-Chat is a free IRC client. For those unfamiliar with IRC, it’s a place for technical people (and, as my wife loves to point out, nerds) to meet and discuss topics in an open environment. I often find it very useful when piecing through difficult technical issues.

13. PDFCreator
Replaces Adobe Acrobat
PDFCreator creates a virtual printer on your computer that, if you print a document to it from any program, creates a PDF of that document that can be read on any computer with Acrobat Reader on it. After installing PDFCreator, all you have to do is print like normal and out comes a PDF!

14. Notepad2
Replaces Notepad
Notepad2 is a replacement for the traditional Windows Notepad that just adds a few sweet little features: multiple documents; line, word, and character counts; and some highlighting of tags.

15. GanttPV
Replaces Microsoft Project
If you do any project management, GanttPV does a brilliant job of managing the task quickly, easily, and freely. If you need to move to MS Project later, you can export from GanttPV to Project, but once you start digging into GanttPV, you’ll likely have no reason to use Project.

16. GnuCash
Replaces Microsoft Money or Quicken
GnuCash is a slimmed-down version of the bloated Microsoft Money and Quicken packages. The interfaces are incredibly simple - it functions much like a checkbook ledger on your computer - but there’s a lot of meat hidden throughout the software.

17. True Combat: Elite
Replaces Quake IV, Halo, etc.
After all this downloading, you’re going to need to blow off a little steam. It’s basically a third person combat game, but the graphics are spectacular and the game is quite engrossing.

Monday, September 22, 2008

9 Mental Math Tricks

Math can be terrifying for many people. This list will hopefully improve your general knowledge of mathematical tricks and your speed when you need to do math in your head.

1. Multiplying by 9, or 99, or 999
Multiplying by 9 is really multiplying by 10-1.

So, 9×9 is just 9x(10-1) which is 9×10-9 which is 90-9 or 81.

Let’s try a harder example: 46×9 = 46×10-46 = 460-46 = 414.

One more example: 68×9 = 680-68 = 612.

To multiply by 99, you multiply by 100-1.

So, 46×99 = 46x(100-1) = 4600-46 = 4554.

Multiplying by 999 is similar to multiplying by 9 and by 99.

38×999 = 38x(1000-1) = 38000-38 = 37962.

2. Multiplying by 11

To multiply a number by 11 you add pairs of numbers next to each other, except for the numbers on the edges.

Let me illustrate:

To multiply 436 by 11 go from right to left.

First write down the 6 then add 6 to its neighbor on the left, 3, to get 9.

Write down 9 to the left of 6.

Then add 4 to 3 to get 7. Write down 7.

Then, write down the leftmost digit, 4.

So, 436×11 = is 4796.

Let’s do another example: 3254×11.

The answer comes from these sums and edge numbers: (3)(3+2)(2+5)(5+4)(4) = 35794.

One more example, this one involving carrying: 4657×11.

Write down the sums and edge numbers: (4)(4+6)(6+5)(5+7)(7).

Going from right to left we write down 7.

Then we notice that 5+7=12.

So we write down 2 and carry the 1.

6+5 = 11, plus the 1 we carried = 12.

So, we write down the 2 and carry the 1.

4+6 = 10, plus the 1 we carried = 11.

So, we write down the 1 and carry the 1.

To the leftmost digit, 4, we add the 1 we carried.

So, 4657×11 = 51227 .

3. Multiplying by 5, 25, or 125

Multiplying by 5 is just multiplying by 10 and then dividing by 2. Note: To multiply by 10 just add a 0 to the end of the number.

12×5 = (12×10)/2 = 120/2 = 60.

Another example: 64×5 = 640/2 = 320.

And, 4286×5 = 42860/2 = 21430.

To multiply by 25 you multiply by 100 (just add two 0’s to the end of the number) then divide by 4, since 100 = 25×4. Note: to divide by 4 your can just divide by 2 twice, since 2×2 = 4.

64×25 = 6400/4 = 3200/2 = 1600.

58×25 = 5800/4 = 2900/2 = 1450.

To multiply by 125, you multipy by 1000 then divide by 8 since 8×125 = 1000. Notice that 8 = 2×2x2. So, to divide by 1000 add three 0’s to the number and divide by 2 three times.

32×125 = 32000/8 = 16000/4 = 8000/2 = 4000.

48×125 = 48000/8 = 24000/4 = 12000/2 = 6000.

4. Multiplying together two numbers that differ by a small even number

This trick only works if you’ve memorized or can quickly calculate the squares of numbers. If you’re able to memorize some squares and use the tricks described later for some kinds of numbers you’ll be able to quickly multiply together many pairs of numbers that differ by 2, or 4, or 6.

Let’s say you want to calculate 12×14.

When two numbers differ by two their product is always the square of the number in between them minus 1.

12×14 = (13×13)-1 = 168.

16×18 = (17×17)-1 = 288.

99×101 = (100×100)-1 = 10000-1 = 9999

If two numbers differ by 4 then their product is the square of the number in the middle (the average of the two numbers) minus 4.

11×15 = (13×13)-4 = 169-4 = 165.

13×17 = (15×15)-4 = 225-4 = 221.

If the two numbers differ by 6 then their product is the square of their average minus 9.

12×18 = (15×15)-9 = 216.

17×23 = (20×20)-9 = 391.

5. Squaring 2-digit numbers that end in 5
If a number ends in 5 then its square always ends in 25. To get the rest of the product take the left digit and multiply it by one more than itself.

35×35 ends in 25. We get the rest of the product by multiplying 3 by one more than 3. So, 3×4 = 12 and that’s the rest of the product. Thus, 35×35 = 1225.

To calculate 65×65, notice that 6×7 = 42 and write down 4225 as the answer.

85×85: Calculate 8×9 = 72 and write down 7225.

6. Multiplying together 2-digit numbers where the first digits are the same and the last digits sum to 10

Let’s say you want to multiply 42 by 48. You notice that the first digit is 4 in both cases. You also notice that the other digits, 2 and 8, sum to 10. You can then use this trick: multiply the first digit by one more than itself to get the first part of the answer and multiply the last digits together to get the second (right) part of the answer.

An illustration is in order:

To calculate 42×48: Multiply 4 by 4+1. So, 4×5 = 20. Write down 20.

Multiply together the last digits: 2×8 = 16. Write down 16.

The product of 42 and 48 is thus 2016.

Notice that for this particular example you could also have noticed that 42 and 48 differ by 6 and have applied technique number 4.

Another example: 64×66. 6×7 = 42. 4×6 = 24. The product is 4224.

A final example: 86×84. 8×9 = 72. 6×4 = 24. The product is 7224

7. Squaring other 2-digit numbers

Let’s say you want to square 58. Square each digit and write a partial answer. 5×5 = 25. 8×8 = 64. Write down 2564 to start. Then, multiply the two digits of the number you’re squaring together, 5×8=40.

Double this product: 40×2=80, then add a 0 to it, getting 800.

Add 800 to 2564 to get 3364.

This is pretty complicated so let’s do more examples.

32×32. The first part of the answer comes from squaring 3 and 2.

3×3=9. 2×2 = 4. Write down 0904. Notice the extra zeros. It’s important that every square in the partial product have two digits.

Multiply the digits, 2 and 3, together and double the whole thing. 2×3x2 = 12.

Add a zero to get 120. Add 120 to the partial product, 0904, and we get 1024.

56×56. The partial product comes from 5×5 and 6×6. Write down 2536.

5×6x2 = 60. Add a zero to get 600.

56×56 = 2536+600 = 3136.

One more example: 67×67. Write down 3649 as the partial product.

6×7x2 = 42×2 = 84. Add a zero to get 840.

67×67=3649+840 = 4489.

8. Multiplying by doubling and halving

There are cases when you’re multiplying two numbers together and one of the numbers is even. In this case you can divide that number by two and multiply the other number by 2. You can do this over and over until you get to multiplication this is easy for you to do.

Let’s say you want to multiply 14 by 16. You can do this:

14×16 = 28×8 = 56×4 = 112×2 = 224.

Another example: 12×15 = 6×30 = 6×3 with a 0 at the end so it’s 180.

48×17 = 24×34 = 12×68 = 6×136 = 3×272 = 816. (Being able to calculate that 3×27 = 81 in your head is very helpful for this problem.)

9. Multiplying by a power of 2

To multiply a number by 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, or some other power of 2 just keep doubling the product as many times as necessary. If you want to multiply by 16 then double the number 4 times since 16 = 2×2x2×2.

15×16: 15×2 = 30. 30×2 = 60. 60×2 = 120. 120×2 = 240.
23×8: 23×2 = 46. 46×2 = 92. 92×2 = 184.
54×8: 54×2 = 108. 108×2 = 216. 216×2 = 432.

I Never Said She Stole My Money: 7 Different Meanings

The Most Beautiful Number

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ten Things You Don’t Know About the Earth

1) The Earth is smoother than a billiard ball.

Maybe you’ve heard this statement: if the Earth were shrunk down to the size of a billiard ball, it would actually be smoother than one. When I was in third grade, my teacher said basketball, but it’s the same concept. But is it true? Let’s see. Strap in, there’s a wee bit of math (like, a really wee bit).

OK, first, how smooth is a billiard ball? According to the World Pool-Billiard Association, a pool ball is 2.25 inches in diameter, and has a tolerance of +/- 0.005 inches. In other words, it must have no pits or bumps more than 0.005 inches in height. That’s pretty smooth. The ratio of the size of an allowable bump to the size of the ball is 0.005/2.25 = about 0.002.

The Earth has a diameter of about 12,735 kilometers (on average, see below for more on this). Using the smoothness ratio from above, the Earth would be an acceptable pool ball if it had no bumps (mountains) or pits (trenches) more than 12,735 km x 0.00222 = about 28 km in size.

The highest point on Earth is the top of Mt. Everest, at 8.85 km. The deepest point on Earth is the Marianas Trench, at about 11 km deep.

Hey, those are within the tolerances! So for once, an urban legend is correct. If you shrank the Earth down to the size of a billiard ball, it would be smoother.

But would it be round enough to qualify?

2) The Earth is an oblate spheroid

The Earth is round! Despite common knowledge, people knew that the Earth was spherical thousands of years ago. Eratosthenes even calculated the circumference to very good accuracy!

But it’s not a perfect sphere. It spins, and because it spins, it bulges due to centrifugal force (yes, dagnappit, I said centrifugal). That is an outwards-directed force, the same thing that makes you lean to the right when turning left in a car. Since the Earth spins, there is a force outward that is a maximum at the Earth’s equator, making our Blue Marble bulge out, like a basketball with a guy sitting on it. This type of shape is called an oblate spheroid.

If you measure between the north and south poles, the Earth’s diameter is 12,713.6 km. If you measure across the Equator it’s 12,756.2 km, a difference of about 42.6 kilometers. Uh-oh! That’s more than our tolerance for a billiard ball. So the Earth is smooth enough, but not round enough, to qualify as a billiard ball.

Bummer. Of course, that’s assuming the tolerance for being out-of-round for a billiard ball is the same as it is for pits and bumps. The WPA site doesn’t say. I guess some things remain a mystery.

3) The Earth isn’t an oblate spheroid.

But we’re not done. The Earth is more complicated than an oblate spheroid. The Moon is out there too, and the Sun. They have gravity, and pull on us. The details are complicated (sate yourself here), but gravity (in the form of tides) raises bulges in the Earth’s surface as well. The tides from the Moon have an amplitude (height) of roughly a meter in the water, and maybe 30 cm in the solid Earth. The Sun is more massive than the Moon, but much farther away, and so its tides are only about half as high.

This is much smaller than the distortion due to the Earth’s spin, but it’s still there.

Other forces are at work as well, including pressure caused by the weight of the continents, upheaval due to tectonic forces, and so on. The Earth is actually a bit of a lumpy mess, but if you were to say it’s a sphere, you’d be pretty close. If you held the billiard-ball-sized Earth in your hand, I doubt you’d notice it isn’t a perfect sphere.

A professional pool player sure would though. I won’t tell Allison Fisher if you won’t.

4) OK, one more surfacey thing: the Earth is not exactly aligned with its geoid

If the Earth were infinitely elastic, then it would respond freely to all these different forces, and take on a weird, distorted shape called a geoid. For example, if the Earth’s surface were completely deluged with water (give it a few decades) then the surface shape would be a geoid. But the continents are not infinitely ductile, so the Earth’s surface is only approximately a geoid. It’s pretty close, though.

Precise measurements of the Earth’s surface are calibrated against this geoid, but the geoid itself is hard to measure. The best we can do right now is to model it using complicated mathematical functions. That’s why ESA is launching a satellite called GOCE (Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer) in the next few months, to directly determine the geoid’s shape.

Who knew just getting the shape of the Earth would be such a pain?

5) Jumping into hole through the Earth is like orbiting it.

I grew up thinking that if you dug a hole through the Earth (for those in the US) you’d wind up in China. Turns out that’s not true; in fact note that the US and China are both entirely in the northern hemisphere which makes it impossible, so as a kid I guess I was pretty stupid.

You can prove it to yourself with this cool but otherwise worthless mapping tool.

But what if you did dig a hole through the Earth and jump in? What would happen?

Where my own hole through the Earth ends up.
Well, you’d die (see below). But if you had some magic material coating the walls of your 13,000 km deep well, you’d have quite a trip. You’d accelerate all the way down to the center, taking about 20 minutes to get there. Then, when you passed the center, you’d start falling up for another 20 minutes, slowing the whole way. You’d just reach the surface, then you’d fall again. Assuming you evacuated the air and compensated for Coriolis forces, you’d repeat the trip over and over again, much to your enjoyment and/or terror. Actually, this would go on forever, with you bouncing up and down. I hope you remember to pack a lunch.

Note that as you fell, you accelerate all the way down, but the acceleration itself would decrease as you fell: there is less mass between you and the center of the Earth as you head down, so the acceleration due to gravity decreases as you approach the center. However, the speed with which you pass the center is considerable: about 7.7 km/sec (5 miles/second).

In fact, the math driving your motion is the same as for an orbiting object. It takes the same amount of time to fall all the way through the Earth and back as it does to orbit it, if your orbit were right at the Earth’s surface (orbits slow down as the orbital radius increases). Even weirder, it doesn’t matter where your hole goes: a straight line through the Earth from any point to any other (shallow chord, through the diameter, or whatever) gives you the same travel time of 42 or so minutes.

Gravity is bizarre. But there you go. And if you do go take the long jump, well, your trip may be a wee bit unpleasant.

6) The Earth’s interior is hot due to impacts, shrinkage, sinkage, and radioactive decay.

A long time ago, you, me, and everything else on Earth was scattered in a disk around the Sun several billion kilometers across. Over time, this aggregated into tiny bodies called planetesimals, like dinky asteroids. These would smack together, and some would stick, forming a larger body. Eventually, this object got massive enough that its gravity actively drew in more bodies. As these impacted, they released their energy of motion (kinetic energy) as heat, and the young Earth became a molten ball. Ding! One source of heat.

As the gravity increased, its force tried to crush the Earth into a more compact ball. When you squeeze an object it heats up. Ding ding! The second heat source.

Since the Earth was mostly liquid, heavy stuff fell to the center and lighter stuff rose to the top. So the core of the Earth has lots of iron, nickel, osmium, and the like. As this stuff falls, heat is generated (ding ding ding!) because the potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, which in turn is converted to thermal energy due to friction.

And hey, some of those heavy elements are radioactive, like uranium. As they decay, they release heat (ding ding ding ding!). This accounts for probably more than half of the heat inside the planet.

So the Earth is hot in the inside due to at least four sources. But it’s still hot after all this time because the crust is a decent insulator. It prevents the heat from escaping efficiently, so even after 4.55 billion years, the Earth’s interior is still an unpleasantly warm place to be.

Incidentally, the amount of heat flowing out from the Earth’s surface due to internal sources is about 45 trillion Watts. That’s about three times the total global human energy consumption. If we could capture all that heat and convert it with 100% efficiency into electricity, it would literally power all of humanity. Too bad that’s an insurmountable if.

7) The Earth has at least five natural moons. But not really.

Most people think the Earth has one natural moon, which is why we call it the Moon. These people are right. But there are four other objects — at least — that stick near the Earth in the solar system. They’re not really moons, but they’re cool.

The biggest is called Cruithne (pronounced MRPH-mmmph-glug, or something similar). It’s about 5 kilometers across, and has an elliptical orbit that takes it inside and outside Earth’s solar orbit. The orbital period of Cruithne is about the same as the Earth’s, and due to the peculiarities of orbits, this means it is always on the same side of the Sun we are. From our perspective, it makes a weird bean-shaped orbit, sometimes closer, sometimes farther from the Earth, but never really far away.

That’s why some people say it’s a moon of the Earth. But it actually orbits the Sun, so it’s not a moon of ours. Same goes for the other three objects discovered, too.

Oh– these guys can’t hit the Earth. Although they stick near us, more or less, their orbits don’t physically cross ours. So we’re safe. From them.

8) The Earth is getting more massive.

Sure, we’re safe from Cruithne. But space is littered with detritus, and the Earth cuts a wide path (125 million square km in area, actually). As we plow through this material, we accumulate on average 20-40 tons of it per day! [Note: your mileage may vary; this number is difficult to determine, but it’s probably good within a factor of 2 or so.] Most of it is in the form of teeny dust particles which burn up in our atmosphere, what we call meteors (or shooting stars, but doesn’t "meteor" sound more sciencey?). These eventually fall to the ground (generally transported by rain drops) and pile up. They probably mostly wash down streams and rivers and then go into the oceans.

40 tons per day may sound like a lot, but it’s only 0.0000000000000000006% the mass of the Earth (in case I miscounted zeroes, that’s 2×10-26 6×10-21 times the Earth’s mass). It would take 140,000 million 450,000 trillion years to double the mass of the Earth this way, so again, you might want to pack a lunch. In a year, it’s enough cosmic junk to fill a six-story office building, if that’s a more palatable analogy.

I’ll note the Earth is losing mass, too: the atmosphere is leaking away due to a number of different processes. But this is far slower than the rate of mass accumulation, so the net affect is a gain of mass.

9) Mt. Everest isn’t the biggest mountain.

The height of a mountain may have an actual definition, but I think it’s fair to say that it should be measured from the base to the apex. Mt. Everest stretches 8850 meters above sea level, but it has a head start due to the general uplift from the Himalayas. The Hawaiian volcano Mauna Kea is 10,314 meters from stem to stern (um, OK, bad word usagement, but you get my point), so even though it only reaches to 4205 meters above sea level, it’s a bigger mountain than Everest.

Plus, Mauna Kea has telescopes on top of it, so that makes it cooler.

10) Destroying the Earth is hard.

Considering I wrote a book about destroying the Earth a dozen different ways (available for pre-order on!), it turns out the phrase "destroying the Earth" is a bit misleading. I actually write about wiping out life, which is easy. Physically destroying the Earth is hard.

What would it take to vaporize the planet? Let’s define vaporization as blowing it up so hard that it disperses and cannot recollect due to gravity. How much energy would that take?

Think of it this way: take a rock. Throw it up so hard it escapes from the Earth. That takes quite a bit of energy! Now do it again. And again. Lather, rinse, repeat… a quadrillion times, until the Earth is gone. That’s a lot of energy! But we have one advantage: every rock we get rid of decreases the gravity of the Earth a little bit (because the mass of the Earth is smaller by the mass of the rock). As gravity decreases, it gets easier to remove rocks.

You can use math to calculate this; how much energy it takes to remove a rock and simultaneously account for the lowering of gravity. If you make some basic assumptions, it takes roughly 2 x 1032 Joules, or 200 million trillion trillion Joules. That’s a lot. For comparison, that’s the total amount of energy the Sun emits in a week. It’s also about a trillion times the destructive energy yield of detonating every nuclear weapon on Earth.

If you want to vaporize the Earth by nuking it, you’d better have quite an arsenal, and time on your hands. If you blew up every nuclear weapon on the planet once every second, it would take 160,000 years to turn the Earth into a cloud of expanding gas.

And this is only if you account for gravity! There are chemical bonds holding the Earth’s matter together as well, so it takes even more energy.

This is why Star Wars is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. The Death Star wouldn’t be able to have a weapon that powerful. The energy storage alone is a bit much, even for the power of the Dark Side.

Even giant collisions can’t vaporize the planet. An object roughly the size of Mars impacted the Earth more than 4.5 billion years ago, and the ejected debris formed the Moon (the rest of the collider merged with the Earth). But the Earth wasn’t vaporized. Even smacking a whole planet into another one doesn’t destroy them!

Of course, the collision melted the Earth all the way down to the core, so the damage is, um, considerable. But the Earth is still around.

The Sun will eventually become a red giant (Chapter 7!), and while it probably won’t consume the Earth, it’ll put the hurt on us for sure. But even then, total vaporization is unlikely (though Mercury is doomed).

Planets tend to be sturdy. Good thing, too. We live on one.

[Via Discover Magazine]

Ten Lies About Microprocessors

Processor selection too often turns into a religious war. Debunking the dominant myths is the first step towards making a rational choice.

Talk about sports teams, politics, religion, or your favorite boy band and most bartenders won't raise an eyebrow. But get a group of engineers and programmers arguing over which microprocessor is best and you're liable to get eighty-sixed for trash-talking x86.

People get passionate about processors in a way they don't over DRAMs or decoders. Everyone has favorites, as well as horror stories about the one they'll never use again. Legend and lore surround microprocessors. Some is useful, but a lot is superstition ingrained by tradition.

Myth #1: Few processor choices
This is the most insidious misconception. If you're designing an embedded system, how many 32-bit processors can you choose from? 10? 20? In reality, there are more than 100 different 32-bit embedded processors for sale right now. (And that's not counting different packaging options or speed grades.) Dozens of companies make 32-bit processors, representing more than 15 different CPU architectures and instruction sets. Add in a few hundred more 16-bit processors and a few hundred 8-bit processors and you've got an embarrassment of riches.

#2: Intel rules the world
If you say "microprocessor," a lot of people think, "Pentium." The mainstream press is partly to blame. Newspapers proclaim that Intel has a 95% share of the microprocessor market. That's off by almost two orders of magnitude.

As we saw in the January issue, only about 2% of all microprocessors made drive PCs ("The Two Percent Solution," p. 29). Intel's Pentium has a dominant share of the PC business (the Federal Trade Commission stopped just short of declaring it a monopoly), but PCs are a tiny slice of the microprocessor pie. The other 98% is embedded CPUs; Intel's not even in the top five of that group.

Even if we weed out the enormous volume of 8-bit and 16-bit chips and focus on 32-bitters, Intel's name still appears well down the list. ARM vendors alone sell about three times more processors than Intel sells Pentiums.

#3: Instruction sets don't matter
Whether you program in C/C++, BASIC, Ada, or Java, your code ultimately boils down into the hardware instruction set of the processor it's running on. You may not need to know all the machine instructions your CPU provides, but the instruction set does affect your code. A few elegant lines of C may produce a hideous tangle of assembly instructions and vice versa.

Performance, predictability, and even power consumption all depend heavily on the underlying instruction set of the processor, and there's nothing a high-level language can do to change that.

Let's take a simple example of multiplying two numbers together. This is trivial in any language and hardly something programmers will worry over. Yet different chips handle multiplication in different ways. For a while, many RISC chips couldn't even do multiplication—it was considered "impure" and not part of the RISC canon. Many viewed multiplication as glorified adding and shifting, so early RISC compilers had to synthesize their own integer multiply functions. It worked, but it wasn't fast.

Now most (but not all) processors have a built-in multiply instruction. But not all multipliers are the same. Some chips can multiply two numbers much faster than other chips, and it has nothing to do with clock frequencies. As the chart in Figure 1 shows, some chips (such as Hitachi's SH7604 and SH7708) can multiply any two 32-bit numbers in four cycles or less. Other chips (notably Motorola's 68020 and '030) take more than 40 cycles to do the same math.

Stranger still, most chips are unpredictable. The minimum time for a multiplication might be less than half of the maximum time. What's the difference? Bigger numbers require longer calculations, and that takes more time.

Finally, the order of the numbers matters. In grade school we were taught that multiplication is commutative, that the order of the two numbers doesn't affect the answer. That's still true, but the order does affect the time required to do the math. On many chips, multiply time is determined by one of the two operands. Swap their order and you may cut your multiply time in half. Good luck guessing which way is better, though.

None of this is visible to high-level source code. Few C compilers are even aware of these differences because most customers—developers of embedded systems—never ask. Many processor users just don't know what's going on under the hood.

#4: RISC is better than CISC
We covered this one in March, so let's just say that RISC is different from CISC ("RISCy Business," p. 37); neither is necessarily better all the time, and both have their strengths. CISC chips provide better code density (smaller memory footprint) and more mature software tools, but RISC chips have higher clock rates and more glamorous marketing. Take your pick, but make it an informed one.

#5: Java chips are coming
So's Christmas. Actually, Christmas is a lot closer because it's going to be here this year. Java chips have more in common with Santa Claus than Christmas: a nice fable for nave young engineers who aren't yet old enough to know better.

Java is remarkable in a number of ways, most of them having to do with marketing. But it's also remarkably resistant to hardware implementation. A number of companies have tried to produce an all-Java microprocessor and every one has failed to some degree. This trend is likely to continue.

Apart from being hilariously ironic—wasn't the whole point of Java to be hardware independent?—Java processors run headfirst into the low doorway of logic. The Java language was never meant to be handled in hardware, and it shows. Garbage collection, threads, stack orientation, and object management take about a megabyte worth of Java virtual machine to translate into something that even today's fastest microprocessors struggle to execute. Decades of computer evolution and research at companies and universities around the world have failed to produce anything that looks like a Java machine. This is not a coincidence.

Today Java "accelerator" chips are available from Nazomi, Zucotto, inSilicon, Octera, and many others. Most execute 30% to 60% of Java's bytecodes in hardware. The rest they punt and handle in software because it's simply too awkward to do otherwise. Following the standard 80/20 rule, these chips accelerate the most used Java instructions to produce a noticeable speedup in overall Java performance. But they're a far cry from a 100% Java implementation.

After a few years of rapid improvement, Java chips seem to have plateaued at that 60% level. Sun itself canceled its Java chip development. We've reached the point of diminishing returns, where implementing the remaining Java instructions in hardware doesn't produce worthwhile benefits. If you're in the market for Java chips, this is about as good as it's going to get.

#6: Dhrystone MIPS is a useful benchmark
The term MIPS is bandied about more than any other in the microprocessor business. It's become utterly hollow, unless you interpret it as Meaningless Indicator of Performance for Salesmen.

As I explained earlier, instructions aren't the same from processor to processor, so counting and comparing them isn't useful. It's like saying the German word for windshield wipers (Windschutzscheibewischerbltter) is longer than the English equivalent. Duh.

MIPS is commonly derived from something called the Dhrystone benchmark, which is more than 30 years old, was written in PL/I, and was meant to compare the VAX 11/780 to other mainframes. It's also only about 4KB of code, fits easily into cache, and doesn't do any useful work. Because of its diminutive size but exaggerated importance, Dhrystone is subject to some, shall we say, creative optimization. There are C compilers with a -dhrystone switch that drastically improves reported results. Today's MIPS ratings are achieved by dividing Dhrystone scores by 1,757 because that's what the first VAX scored back in the 1970s. We're measuring VAX-equivalents using a 4KB snippet of PL/I code that's been translated to C and tweaked who-knows-how-many times to produce a score that Marketing "accidentally" misprints with an extra zero behind it. Now how useful is that?

#7: Price is proportional to performance
Microprocessors are now sold like perfume: the price on the label has no connection to the cost of the ingredients. It's tempting to assume some meaningful relationship between cost and price. Save your time—there isn't one. Cost is what it takes to build a chip; price is whatever the marketing department wants it to be. Happily, we work in an industry where market pressures drive up value and drive down price all the time. As chip consumers, we benefit from the cutthroat cost cutting and market-share horse trading.

The cost to make a silicon chip has little to do with the amount of silicon in it. Cost is mostly determined by overhead amortization and the depreciation of the fab. Price, however, is determined by market forces—good ol' supply and demand. If your chip runs Windows XP, you can charge an arm and a leg for it. If it doesn't, the same amount of silicon will command a much lower price.

Even within the embedded world, there are $15 processors that outperform $150 processors. Price is negotiable, malleable, and wholly unpredictable. Shop around.

#8: ARM is lowest power
There aren't many strong brand reputations in the microprocessor business but ARM enjoys one of the best. According to their reputation, ARM's chips are endowed with an almost magical ability to run on bright sunlight or the energy released by rubbing a cat. An ARM processor, two lemons, and some copper wire are all that's needed to build the latest PDA, it seems.

Like many myths, this one is rooted in reality, but that reality has changed and the myth has expanded. In the early '90s, ARM was one of the first 32-bit processors to be embedded into ASICs, rather than soldered alongside as a separate chip. Compared to the big 68030, 29000, and 486DX chips of the day, the wee ARM6 consumed less total energy than the others gave off as heat. That's because the ARM had no floating-point unit, no cache, no outside bus, no drivers, and not much of an instruction set.

Today there are plenty of 32-bit processors available as ASIC cores. Many are smaller than the ARM7, to say nothing of the newer ARM10 or ARM11. Many use less power, both in standby mode and when they're active. If power consumption is your primary consideration, by all means give ARM a call. But ten years of progress and competition have moved ARM to the middle of the pack when it comes to power efficiency.

#9: Second sourcing micros
Second sourcing used to be the watchword of purchasing departments everywhere. Hardware engineers often aren't allowed to specify any component unless it's available from two or more sources. That's fine for resistors—it reduces risk and dependency on any one supplier—but it's now impossible for microprocessors.

Sure, you can get MIPS chips from a dozen different sources, such as NEC, PMC-Sierra, IDT, and Intrinsity, but they aren't interchangeable each other. They all execute the same instruction set, but their buses, pin-outs, peripherals, speeds, and packages are all different. At best, the programmers can keep most of their code, but the hardware engineers will have to design an all-new system.

There was a time when Motorola and Hitachi provided identical 68k processors, DMA controllers, and other chips. Intel and AMD used to second-source each other's processors as well (remember when AMD and Intel were friends?). Many low-end parts in the 8051 or 6805 family also used to be double- or even triple-sourced. Alas, competition has brought an end to those days. Now every processor chip is unique, even if its instruction set isn't.

#10: The great processor shakeout
With more than 100 different embedded 32-bit processors for sale, there must be too many choices for the market to support, right? Who's going to win and who's going to lose? Come the revolution, who will be first against the wall?

Probably none of them. In fact, the number of embedded processors is likely to grow, not shrink. Those hundred-odd chips are all in volume production with dozens of happy customers who wouldn't use anything else. Those chips are around for a reason, and the number of reasons keeps growing. MP3 players, digital-video cameras, automotive electronics, and other new toys are popping up all the time, and they each need a new and different kind of processor. There's no such thing as a typical embedded system and there's no such thing as a typical embedded processor. As long as embedded developers invent new devices, new embedded processors will be there to make them tick.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Russian Foreign Minister to British Foreign Secretary: Who Are You to Fuck Lecture Me?

Mr Miliband spoke to the Russian foreign minister - a veteran not known for diplomatic niceties - to express British unease at events in Georgia. It seems Mr Lavrov didn't like being lectured by young Miliband.

Such was the repeated use of the "F word" according to one insider who has seen the transcript, it was difficult to draft a readable note of the conversation.

One unconfirmed report suggested that Mr Lavrov said: "Who are you to fuck lecture me?"

He also asked Mr Miliband in equally blunt terms whether he knew anything of Russia's history?
One Whitehall insider told: "It was effing this and effing that. It was not what you would call diplomatic language. It was rather shocking."

The Foreign Secretary had been putting forward Britain and Europe's objections to the actions of Russian which began when their tanks rolled into the breakaway region of South Ossetia last month. Mr Miliband has said that Europe should reassess its ties with Russia after its "aggressive" behaviour.

It is also understood that Mr Miliband was asked about Britain and America's invasion of Iraq, when Russian actions in Georgia were questioned, during the tense conversation that took place recently.

Sources at the Foreign Office confirmed there was swearing "but only from side". A spokesman for the Foreign Secretary said: "We do not discuss diplomatic conversations between foreign ministers."

Mr Lavrov, who was promoted under Vladimir Putin, has developed a reputation as the fearsome face of Russia's new aggressive foreign policy. When he held the position as Russia's man at the United Nations in New York he developed a reputation as fierce critic of other nations.

But Mr Miliband is unlikely to have experienced anything quite so bruising in his year as Foreign Secretary than being told some home truths by a grizzled veteran of the international scene. Even the slap down from MPs supporting Mr Brown after the Foreign Secretary's "leadership bid" article in July when he was accused of treachery, was not as bad.

Mr Lavrov has been highly critical of the way that the Russian move into Georgia has been portrayed by the West. He has criticised what he described as a "truly David and Goliath interpretation" of the conflict in which "the plucky republic of Georgia, with just a few million citizens, was attacked by its giant eastern neighbour".

After that sort of bawling out anything Gordon Brown and his allies can muster in response to Miliband's leadership ambitions is likely to be small beer.

[Via Telegraph]

Ten Things Your Boss Hates About You

Almost half of employees say they hate their boss, and jobseekers say bad management is the number one reason they quit.

But have you ever thought that while you’re complaining about the boss in the break room, she’s probably sick of you too?

Organisational psychologist and partner at Mentors Psychology for Business Dr Susan Nicholson says negativity, making excuses and spreading gossip are the boss's biggest complaints about staff.

Here are ten things your boss hates about you.

You're unreliable

An employee who says one thing and does the other, doesn't complete tasks or meet deadlines and always has excuses causes headaches for bosses - and can make them look bad to the higher ups - a big no-no.

"What really is difficult is the person who doesn't deliver, who makes promises and then the boss ends up taking a lot more work on their behalf, and the boss has to follow up," says Dr Susan Nicholson.

You won't fess up to mistakes

People who try to cover up mistakes instead of owning up infuriate bosses, says Dr Nicholson, who calls it the number one career killer.

"Bosses are far more able to handle people making mistakes than covering things up," she explains.

"If an employee makes excuses, lies or doesn't actually take responsibility for their part in the problem, it infuriates bosses."

But bosses need to create an environment where people feel they won’t get in trouble if they make a mistake, says Dr Nicholson.

You gossip too much

Talking about people behind their back, stirring up trouble and malicious gossip create hassle for the boss who just wants a peaceful, productive team.

Worst of all, bosses feel powerless in the face of office rumours.

YOUR SAY: Does your boss have it in for you? Tell us below

Dr Nicholson says negative office gossip often occurs because workers are reluctant to own up to the fact that they don't like a co-worker.

"But the boss hears and sees that people aren't getting along," she says.

"It's one of those areas where the boss gets quite angry and frustrated about it, but doesn't know how to handle it," says Dr Nicholson.

"The 'just do it' type of boss is going to find it more frustrating than the boss that delights in the fact that people are people and you have to manage people."

Nothing's ever good enough for you

There's one in every team - the employee who constantly gripes, points out that new ideas are destined to fail or sits in meetings scowling and smirking. Cynical workers say they are realistic, but their negativity takes a toll on office morale.

Negativity and complaining are employers' biggest pet peeves, with bosses saying it creates an 'us versus them' attitude, says Dr Nicholson.

"The capability issues, they can be worked on," she says.

"But if someone's attitude, lack of motivation or particularly a negative attitude towards the company - complaining, being cynical. Nothing’s ever good enough."

You hate change

Workers love to grumble, but those that can't adapt to any change annoy their bosses. In larger companies, the change is usually coming from the top and out of your boss's control anyway.

Often, the boss is implementing decisions that have come from above and may not be that enthusiastic about them either. Having to sell someone else's idea to a negative employee is no one's idea of a good day.

You smell

Workers who prefer the scent of their own musk or who forgo toothpaste in favour of a solid diet of garlic are a tricky matter for bosses.

Bosses dread having to talk to a staff member about their dress and appearance. And as an adult in the workplace, your boss probably feels like they shouldn't have to explain the concept of soap.

You're always late

Tardiness, sick days or long lunches add up, and bosses notice - especially if you then lie about it. Don't think your boss doesn't notice if you are constantly cutting corners.

Taking frequent sick days, constantly being late and always being out at lunch when the boss comes looking for you mean you are unreliable, lazy and probably are just creating resentment from your co-workers.

You're over-eager

Just as bad as lazy workers are the overeager ones, say bosses. Your boss doesn't want to have to think up extra projects for you or spend much time listening to your new ideas on how to overhaul the workplace. And they certainly don't want to have to worry that you're after their job.

You run your personal life from your desk

Spend hours browsing eBay, updating your Facebook profile or recounting last night's drunken revelry at the top of your voice over the phone will get you noticed for all the wrong reasons.

Spending too much time on personal matters while on the clock will also annoy your co-workers and cause resentment, something your boss probably doesn’t want to have to deal with.

You're a bully

Bullies who shout, swear and intimidate their peers are a major disruption and can cause productivity to plummet - all when your boss just wants a peaceful, busy team.

More than a quarter of workers saying they have been bullied at work, and more than half say they have witnessed bullying in the workplace, meaning a drop in productivity that will hurt the bottom line - not something your boss wants.


Americans Play Monopoly, Russians Play Chess

On the night of November 22, 2004, then-Russian president - now premier - Vladimir Putin watched the television news in his dacha near Moscow. People who were with Putin that night report his anger and disbelief at the unfolding "Orange" revolution in Ukraine. "They lied to me," Putin said bitterly of the United States. "I'll never trust them again." The Russians still can't fathom why the West threw over a potential strategic alliance for Ukraine. They underestimate the stupidity of the West.

American hardliners are the first to say that they feel stupid next to Putin. Victor Davis Hanson wrote on August 12 of Moscow's "sheer diabolic brilliance" in Georgia, while Colonel Ralph Peters, a columnist and television commentator, marveled on August 14, "The Russians are alcohol-sodden barbarians, but now andthen they vomit up a genius ... the empire of the czars hasn't produced such a frightening genius since [Joseph] Stalin." The superlatives recall an old observation about why the plots of American comic books need clever super-villains and stupid super-heroes to even the playing field. Evidently the same thing applies to superpowers.

The fact is that all Russian politicians are clever. The stupid ones are all dead. By contrast, America in its complacency promotes dullards. A deadly miscommunication arises from this asymmetry. The Russians cannot believe that the Americans are as stupid as they look, and conclude that Washington wants to destroy them. That is what the informed Russian public believes, judging from last week's postings on web forums.

These perceptions are dangerous because they do not stem from propaganda, but from a difference in existential vantage point. Russia is fighting for its survival, against a catastrophic decline in population and the likelihood of a Muslim majority by mid-century. The Russian Federation's scarcest resource is people. It cannot ignore the 22 million Russians stranded outside its borders after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, nor, for that matter, small but loyal ethnicities such as the Ossetians. Strategic encirclement, in Russian eyes, prefigures the ethnic disintegration of Russia, which was a political and cultural entity, not an ethnic state, from its first origins.

The Russians know (as every newspaper reader does) that Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili is not a model democrat, but a nasty piece of work who deployed riot police against protesters and shut down opposition media when it suited him - in short, a politician in Putin's mold. America's interest in Georgia, the Russians believe, has nothing more to do with promoting democracy than its support for the gangsters to whom it handed the Serbian province of Kosovo in February.

Again, the Russians misjudge American stupidity. Former president Ronald Reagan used to say that if there was a pile of manure, it must mean there was a pony around somewhere. His epigones have trouble distinguishing the pony from the manure pile. The ideological reflex for promoting democracy dominates the George W Bush administration to the point that some of its senior people hold their noses and pretend that Kosovo, Ukraine and Georgia are the genuine article.

Think of it this way: Russia is playing chess, while the Americans are playing Monopoly. What Americans understand by "war games" is exactly what occurs on the board of the Parker Brothers' pastime. The board game Monopoly is won by placing as many hotels as possible on squares of the playing board. Substitute military bases, and you have the sum of American strategic thinking.

America's idea of winning a strategic game is to accumulate the most chips on the board: bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, a pipeline in Georgia, a "moderate Muslim" government with a big North Atlantic Treaty Organization base in Kosovo, missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, and so forth. But this is not a strategy; it is only a game score.

Chess players think in terms of interaction of pieces: everything on the periphery combines to control the center of the board and prepare an eventual attack against the opponent's king. The Russians simply cannot absorb the fact that America has no strategic intentions: it simply adds up the value of the individual pieces on the board. It is as stupid as that. But there is another difference: the Americans are playing chess for career and perceived advantage. Russia is playing for its life, like Ingmar Bergman's crusader in The Seventh Seal.

Dull people know that clever people are cleverer than they are, but they do not know why. The nekulturny Colonel Ralph Peters, a former US military intelligence analyst, is impressed by the tactical success of Russian arms in Georgia, but cannot fathom the end-game to which these tactics contribute. He writes, "The new reality is that a nuclear, cash-rich and energy-blessed Russia doesn't really worry too much whether its long-term future is bleak, given problems with Muslim minorities, poor life-expectancy rates, and a declining population. Instead, in the here and now, it has a window of opportunity to reclaim prestige and weaken its adversaries."

Precisely the opposite is true: like a good chess player, Putin has the end-game in mind as he fights for control of the board in the early stages of the game. Demographics stand at the center of Putin's calculation, and Russians are the principal interest that the Russian Federation has in its so-called near abroad. The desire of a few hundred thousand Abkhazians and South Ossetians to remain in the Russian Federation rather than Georgia may seem trivial, but Moscow is setting a precedent that will apply to tens of millions of prospective citizens of the Federation - most controversially in Ukraine.

Before turning to the demographics of the near abroad, a few observations about Russia's demographic predicament are pertinent. The United Nations publishes population projections for Russia up to 2050, and I have extended these to 2100. If the UN demographers are correct, Russia's adult population will fall from about 90 million today to only 20 million by the end of the century. Russia is the only country where abortions are more numerous than live births, a devastating gauge of national despair.

Under Putin, the Russian government introduced an ambitious natalist program to encourage Russian women to have children. As he warned in his 2006 state of the union address, "You know that our country's population is declining by an average of almost 700,000 people a year. We have raised this issue on many occasions but have for the most part done very little to address it ... First, we need to lower the death rate. Second, we need an effective migration policy. And third, we need to increase the birth rate."

Russia's birth rate has risen slightly during the past several years, perhaps in response to Putin's natalism, but demographers observe that the number of Russian women of childbearing age is about to fall off a cliff. No matter how much the birth rate improves, the sharp fall in the number of prospective mothers will depress the number of births. UN forecasts show the number of Russians aged 20-29 falling from 25 million today to only 10 million by 2040.

Russia, in other words, has passed the point of no return in terms of fertility. Although roughly four-fifths of the population of the Russian Federation is considered ethnic Russians, fertility is much higher among the Muslim minorities in Central Asia. Some demographers predict a Muslim majority in Russia by 2040, and by mid-century at the latest.

Part of Russia's response is to encourage migration of Russians left outside the borders of the federation after the collapse of communism in 1991. An estimated 6.5 million Russians from the former Soviet Union now work in Russia as undocumented aliens, and a new law will regularize their status. Only 20,000 Russian "compatriots" living abroad, however, have applied for immigration to the federation under a new law designed to draw Russians back.

That leaves the 9.5 million citizens of Belarus, a relic of the Soviet era that persists in a semi-formal union with the Russian Federation, as well as the Russians of the Western Ukraine and Kazakhstan. More than 15 million ethnic Russians reside in those three countries, and they represent a critical strategic resource. Paul Goble in his Window on Eurasia website reported on August 16:

Moscow retreated after encountering fierce opposition from other countries, but semi-legal practices of obtaining Russian citizenship that began in former Soviet republics in the early 1990s continue unabated. There is plenty of evidence that there are one to two million people living in the territory of the former Soviet Union who have de facto dual citizenship and are reluctant to report it to the authorities. Russia did little to stop the process. Moreover, starting in 1997, it encouraged de facto dual citizenship.

Russia has an existential interest in absorbing Belarus and the Western Ukraine. No one cares about Byelorus. It has never had an independent national existence or a national culture; the first grammar in the Belorussian language was not printed until 1918, and little over a third of the population of Belarus speaks the language at home. Never has a territory with 10 million people had a sillier case for independence. Given that summary, it seems natural to ask why anyone should care about Ukraine. That question is controversial; for the moment, it will offer the assertion that partition is the destiny of Ukraine.

Even with migration and annexation of former Russian territory that was lost in the fracture of the USSR, however, Russia will not win its end-game against demographic decline and the relative growth of Muslim populations. The key to Russian survival is Russification, that is, the imposition of Russian culture and

Russian law on ethnicities at the periphery of the federation. That might sound harsh, but that has been Russian nature from its origins.

Russia is not an ethnicity but an empire, the outcome of hundreds of years of Russification. That Russification has been brutal is an understatement, but it is what created Russia out of the ethnic morass around the Volga river basin. One of the best accounts of Russia's character comes from Eugene Rosenstock-Huessey (Franz Rosenzweig's cousin and sometime collaborator) in his 1938 book Out of Revolution. Russia's territory tripled between the 16th and 18th centuries, he observes, and the agency of its expansion was a unique Russian type. The Russian peasant, Rosenstock-Huessey observed, "was no stable freeholder of the Western type but much more a nomad, a pedlar, a craftsman and a soldier. His capacity for expansion was tremendous."
In 1581 Asiatic Russia was opened. Russian expansion, extending even in the eighteenth century as far as the Russian River in Northern California, was by no means Czaristic only. The "Moujik", the Russian peasant, because he is not a "Bauer" or a "farmer", or a "laborer", but a "Moujik", wanders and stays, ready to migrate again eventually year after year.

Russia was never a multi-ethnic state, but rather what I call a supra-ethnic state, that is, a state whose national principle transcends ethnicity. A reader has called my attention to an account of the most Russian of all writers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, of his own Russo-Lithuanian-Ukrainian background:

I suppose that one of my Lithuanian ancestors, having emigrated to the Ukraine, changed his religion in order to marry an Orthodox Ukrainian, and became a priest. When his wife died he probably entered a monastery, and later, rose to be an archbishop. This would explain how the Archbishop Stepan may have founded our Orthodox family, in spite of his being a monk. It is somewhat surprising to see the Dostoyevsky, who had been warriors in Lithuania, become priests in Ukraine. But this is quite in accordance with Lithuanian custom. I may quote the learned Lithuanian W St Vidunas in this connection: "Formerly many well-to-do Lithuanians had but one desire: to see one or more of their sons enter upon an ecclesiastical career."

Dostoyevsky's mixed background was typically Russian, as was the Georgian origin of Joseph Stalin.

Russia intervened in Georgia to uphold the principle that anyone who holds a Russian passport - Ossetian, Akhbaz, Belorussian or Ukrainian - is a Russian. Russia's survival depends not so much on its birth rate, nor on immigration, nor even on prospective annexation, but on the survival of the principle by which Russia was built in the first place. That is why Putin could not abandon the pockets of Russian passport holders in the Caucusus. That Russia history has been tragic, and its nation-building principle brutal and sometimes inhuman, is a different matter. Russia is sufficiently important that its tragedy will be our tragedy, unless averted.

The place to avert tragedy is in Ukraine. Russia will not permit Ukraine to drift to the West. Whether a country that never had an independent national existence prior to the collapse of communism should become the poster-child for national self-determination is a different question. The West has two choices: draw a line in the sand around Ukraine, or trade it to the Russians for something more important.

Russia's help in containing nuclear proliferation and terrorism in the Middle East is of infinitely greater import to the West than the dubious self-determination of Ukraine. The West should do its best to pretend that the "Orange" revolution of 2004 and 2005 never happened, and secure Russia's assistance in the Iranian nuclear issue as well as energy security in return for an understanding of Russia's existential requirements in the near abroad. Anyone who thinks this sounds cynical should spend a week in Kiev.

Russia has more to fear from a nuclear-armed Iran than the United States, for an aggressive Muslim state on its borders could ruin its attempt to Russify Central Asia. Russia's strategic interests do not conflict with those of the United States, China or India in this matter. There is a certain degree of rivalry over energy resources, but commercial rivalry does not have to turn into strategic enmity.

If Washington chooses to demonize Russia, the likelihood is that Russia will become a spoiler with respect to American strategic interests in general, and use the Iranian problem to twist America's tail. That is a serious risk indeed, for nuclear proliferation is the one means by which outlaw regimes can pose a serious threat to great powers. Russia confronts questions not of expediency, but of existence, and it will do whatever it can to gain maneuvering room should the West seek to "punish" it for its actions in Georgia.

One irony of the present crisis is that Washington's neo-conservatives, by demanding a tough stance against Russia, may have harmed Israel's security interests more profoundly than any of Israel's detractors in American politics. The neo-conservatives are not as a rule Jewish, but many of them are Jews who have a deep concern for Israel's security - as does this writer. If America turns Russia into a strategic adversary, the probability of Israel's survival will drop by a big notch.

[Via Asia Times]

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Airline 'Loses' Corpse

A Brooklyn man who claims he suffered the nightmare of all lost-luggage stories is demanding millions from American Airlines after it allegedly misplaced his deceased wife's body for four days.

According to the lawsuit, filed last week, the body of 57-year-old Teresa Olaya was so badly decomposed when it finally arrived in Guayaquil, Ecuador, that her grieving husband, Miguel, had to forgo a traditional open-casket funeral.

"During those days, a thousand things went through my mind," Olaya, 60, told The Post. "Where is she? Is she dumped somewhere like an animal? And I had no answers for my daughter. She would ask me, 'Where is my mami?' "

The awful saga began on March 28 when Olaya lost his wife of 26 years to pelvic cancer. He made arrangements with a Brooklyn mortuary, DeRiso Funeral Home, to fly her body back to Ecuador.

DeRiso, which is also named as a defendant in the suit, did not respond to a request for comment.

Olaya, who came to the United States in 1994, flew to Guayaquil with his 16-year-old daughter, Laura, ahead of the body to begin making arrangements.

But on April 1, when Teresa was slated to arrive on an American flight, officials at the airport had no answers for Olaya.

So he returned to the airport the following day, only to be given different - and sometimes contradictory - information. One official told him the body was in Miami, another that it was in Guatemala City.

When Teresa's body finally arrived late at night on April 4, Olaya saw that it hadn't been property refrigerated.

"When I opened the casket, it was a terrible shock," said Olaya. "I still can't get it out of my mind"

"They treated the body like a piece of baggage," said lawyer Christopher Robles, who said his client was seeking an unspecified seven-figure sum. "They didn't keep it refrigerated."

A spokeswoman for the airline said the company could not comment on pending litigation.

[Via NY Post]

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Death Row Inmate: I'm Too Fat to Execute

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A death row inmate scheduled for execution says he's too fat to be put to death, claiming executioners would have trouble finding his veins and that his weight could diminish the effectiveness of one of the lethal injection drugs.

Lawyers for Richard Cooey argue in a federal lawsuit that Cooey -- 5-feet-7 and 267 pounds -- had poor veins when he faced execution five years ago and the problem has been worsened by weight gain.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in federal court, also says prison officials have had difficulty drawing blood from Cooey for medical procedures.

Cooey, 41, is sentenced to die for raping and murdering two young women in 1986. His execution is scheduled for October 14.

His attorneys say a drug he is taking for migraine headaches could affect the execution process. The drug Topamax, a type of seizure medication, may have created a resistance to thiopental, the drug used to put inmates to sleep before two other lethal drugs are administered, Dr. Mark Heath, a physician hired by the Ohio Public Defender's Office, said in documents filed with the court.

Heath says Cooey's weight, combined with the potential drug resistance, increases the risk he would not be properly anesthetized.

"All of the experts agree if the first drug doesn't work, the execution is going to be excruciating," Cooey's public defender, Kelly Culshaw Schneider, said Monday.

Prison system spokeswoman Andrea Carson and Jim Gravelle, a spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General's Office, both said Monday they hadn't seen the lawsuit and couldn't comment.

Last year, Carson cited the obesity of condemned inmate Christopher Newton as one of the reasons prison officials had difficulty accessing his veins before his execution. Newton was 6 feet tall and weighed 265 pounds.

Two years ago, convicted killer Jeffrey Lundgren was put to death after a federal appeals court rejected his claim that he was at greater risk of experiencing pain and suffering because he was overweight and diabetic.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Knights Templar to Vatican: Give us back our assets

The Knights Templar are demanding that the Vatican give them back their good name and, possibly, billions in assets into the bargain, 700 years after the order was brutally suppressed by a joint venture between the Pope and the King of France.

If the Holy See doesn’t comply, the warrior knights, renowned for liberating the Holy Land, will deploy that most fearsome of weapons: a laborious court case through the creaking Spanish legal system.

The Daily Telegraph reports that The Association of the Sovereign Order of the Temple of Christ has launched a court case in Spain, demanding Pope Benedict “recognise” the seizure of assets worth €100bn. The Spanish-based group of Templars apparently says in a statement: "We are not trying to cause the economic collapse of the Roman Catholic Church, but to illustrate to the court the magnitude of the plot against our Order." This might come as a surprise to those who believe that the order of warrior monks – also credited with possessing the Holy Grail and laying the foundation of the European banking system - was smashed in 1307 by Pope Clement V and Philip IV of France.

At the time, the order was accused of a multitude of crimes, including two medieval biggies - sodomy and heresy.

However, recently discovered Vatican papers showed that the order had never been declared heretics, burnings at the stake for the leadership not withstanding.

Rather, it appeared that the order’s suppression was more a piece of realpolitik on the pope’s part to pacify Philip, who was somewhat irked by the prospect of the powerful order increasing its continental activities after Jerusalem fell to the Turks.

Despite the order’s brutal apparent suppression, its legacy has been claimed by numerous successor organisations, and besmirched by popular authors ad nauseum.

One of the successors, Ordo Supremus Militaris Templi Hierosolymitani, is apparently recognised by Unesco.

We contacted the UK branch, otherwise known as the The Grand Priory of Knights Templar in England and Wales, to see if they could throw any light on the matter but they have yet to get back to us.

The Grand Priory’s website says the modern organisation is about humanitarian and charity work. There is no mention of the Holy Grail, though it does support the maintenance of the Holy Places.

And if you’re looking for esoteric rites or secret higher knowledge, you’re likely to be disappointed. The website says: “Please don’t expect to be enlightened with some supposed ‘secret’ knowledge, because nothing exists.”

Of course, any conspiracy theorist will tell you that’s exactly what you’d expect them to say.

[Via The Register]

Land of Big Science

The Large Hadron Collider is a symptom of America's decline in particle physics and, some fear, in science overall.

The eyes of the world are on Geneva, where scientists are expected to throw the switch this week on what may be the biggest experiment ever conducted. It's certainly the most expensive. The European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, has spent roughly $8 billion digging a 27-kilometer tunnel on the outskirts of the city and filling it with equipment that pushes the limits of technology—superconducting magnets that operate at close to absolute zero, the temperature at which atoms cease all movement, and can accelerate particles to energies not seen for 14 billion years, and instruments that can detect faint whispers of particles far smaller than atoms.

Probing more deeply than ever before into the stuff of the universe requires some big hardware. It also requires the political will to lavish money on a project that has no predictable practical return, other than prestige and leadership in the branch of science that delivered just about every major technology of the past hundred years.

Those advances came, in large measure, from the United States. The coming decades may be different. The Large Hadron Collider, as the Geneva machine is called, is a symptom of America's decline in particle physics and Europe's rise. Many scientists and educators fear that it also signals a broader decline in scientific leadership on the part of the United States.

The LHC has transformed Geneva into something of a scientific mecca. According to CERN, more than 9,000 scientists have been working on the project, not only from nearby Europe but from countries as diverse as India, Russia, Japan, Israel and Turkey. Over the next few decades, they'll continue to arrive by train and by plane, stay in hotels and eat in restaurants, occasionally dangling their feet in the fountains of Lausanne. Not being a particularly freewheeling bunch, they will spend most of their time in the lab, relishing the data that will soon start pouring out of the instrument like a desert spring. Some will choose to live nearby—in Geneva, or perhaps France and Britain. Although particle physics is hardly a key driver of great economies, it is the most profound of intellectual challenges, embracing the most fundamental contradictions in science and attracting some of the best minds.

Europe's triumph over America isn't one of the talking points at the CERN press office. And for scientists, there's no percentage in offending the people they rely on for grants and for precious time to run their experiments on the collider. The project is represented as one of the greatest examples to date of international cooperation, which it may be. A third of the scientists working at the LHC hail from outside the 20 states that control CERN. America has contributed 1,000 or so researchers, the largest single contingent from any non-CERN nation. "CERN has always been enormously successful as an international collaboration," says Hans Boggild, a member of the CERN Council who plans to perform experiments on the collider. "This is a success both for Europe and the world."

A quick look at the numbers, however, reveals how far the United States stands to fall in leadership once the LHC goes live. The U.S. contribution amounts to $500 million—barely 5 percent of the bill. The big bucks have come from the Europeans. Germany is picking up 20 percent of the tab, the British are contributing 17 percent, and the French are giving 14 percent. Even the Bulgarians have chipped in less than 1 percent. Despite the U.S. dominance of recent decades in physics, most of the brainpower is European as well. "The contribution of the non-Europeans has been essential, but limited," says Els Koffeman, professor of particle physics at the University of Amsterdam.

Not long ago the United States seemed certain to stay on top. In the 1980s and early 1990s, 30 kilometers of tunnel was dug in Waxahachie, Texas, south of Dallas, to house the Superconducting Supercollider—a machine that was to be much like the LHC, but bigger and more expensive. President Ronald Reagan, calling the project a "doorway to a new world," agreed to foot the $8.4 billion price tag without help from international partners. Physicists spent years designing experiments in hopes of grants and big discoveries. In 1993, with $2 billion spent and cost estimates swelling to $11 billion, the project came to an abrupt end. The U.S. Congress, worried about budget deficits, pulled the plug.

In Waxahachie, the partially dug tunnel was plugged and filled with water. The town looked into using the site for a prison, a movie studio and a counterterrorism training facility before selling it to the J.B. Hunt trucking company as a data-storage center. Those plans were put on hold when the owner, Johnnie Bryan Hunt, died. A cavernous, windowless building the size of several Wal-Marts now sits abandoned in a patch of weeds.

The loss of the collider demoralized scientists and probably contributed to the decline in the popularity of physics, which by one study is now as unpopular among university students as it was when the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957. The most worrying prospect is that scientists from other countries, who used to flock to the United States to be where the action is, are now heading to Europe instead. "Fewer students will come to the U.S.," says Peter Limon, a physicist at Fermilab in Illinois who is participating in a major LHC experiment. Fermilab's Tevatron, which until this week was the world's largest particle accelerator, has attracted Italian and Japanese scientists in particular, along with others from countries such as India. "They tend to stay. It is a major source of our intellectual ability in the United States," Limon says. "That will decrease."

Had the Texas project gone forward, says former director Roy Schwitters, who is now a professor of physics at the University of Texas at Austin, "the United States would be the major player in this rather than Europe." Many argue that the harm will extend beyond academia. "The fact that for many years most of this work was done in the U.S. has a lot to do with our position in the world," says physicist Jim Bensinger at Brandeis University in Boston.

In Europe, by contrast, scientists can hardly contain their enthusiasm. "I can't remember a time in recent history when there has been so much coverage" of particle physics, says Ken Peach, director of the John Adams Institute for Accelerator Science at Oxford and London universities. "From the point of view of attracting the brightest and best, these [experiments] are genuine magnets. I talk to graduate students in Oxford and they are tense in a very real way. They want to get their hands on the data."

[Via Newsweek]

Saturday, September 6, 2008

10 Shopping Tricks That Stores Hate

Stores are always trying to get you to do what they want. But what if you refuse? What if you do what benefits you and not the store? Aside from outright fraud, what are the things that you can do to come out ahead? We've put together 10 tips that will help you save money, but probably won't help the store. That's why they hate them. And you.

Buying Loss Leaders and Leaving: Loss leaders are products that a company sells below or at cost to lure customers into the store.

Why They Hate It: They do not want you to waltz in, buy up all the loss leaders and leave. Often there are limits to how many of each you can buy, if you see something in the ad that says "limit 3 per customer" you may have found yourself a loss leader. Buy it and get the hell out.

Using Credit and Paying it Off on Time: Sometimes stores will offer a "6 months, no interest, no payments" offer on big ticket items. Pay it off on time, and you've used their money for free.

Why They Hate It: These offers are not just to help you buy stuff, it's to trick you into paying more for the item than if you had paid cash. Some people take the cash they would have used to buy the item and put it in a high yield savings account. Then they buy the item with credit and wait until 5.9 months later to pay it off. They've just used someone else's money for 6 months for free. Ha, ha, ha. These offers are dangerous, however, because if you miss a payment or don't pay the full balance off on time, you'll get socked with interest since your date of purchase. The rates are often outrageous, so this tip is only for seriously organized Type-A people.

Saying NO to the Extended Warranty: Stores play on the fact that electronics are a big investment, scaring you into buying an Extended Warranty. Don't do it.

Why They Hate It: The Extended Warranty is basically just a trick to get you to pay way more for the item than you need to. It's very, very, very profitable for the retailer. If you don't believe us, believe Consumer Reports. If you're worried about not having an extended warranty, purchase your electronics with a credit card that offers extended warranty protection. Lots of them do. Just paying for your crap with a credit card can double your warranty, so tell that sales clerk to get bent.

Activating Your Own Phone With A Cell Phone Company: You can buy a used phone, or an unlocked phone, for full price and avoid signing a contract.

Why They Hate It: Cell phone companies want you to sign a contract. They need you to sign a contract. They burn with desire for you to be under contract with them. Cell phone stores sell 2 year contracts. That's what they sell. Not phones. So get a phone, then call the cell phone company and activate it. No contract needed. They hate that so much.

Shopping in the Store But Buying Online: Stores are just places where you can look at things you will later purchase for cheaper online. Look at your new laptop. Try it out. Ask questions. Buy online.

Why They Hate It: They've paid for a store, the electric bill for the store, the employees to answer your questions, and those nice little plastic bags that they want to put your purchase in. Whoops.

Buying 1 When its 2 for $5: "2 for" deals are bull. You can buy one. You can buy 3. "2 for 5" or "5 for 10" means, "Please for the love of Jesus buy this and get it out of the store." You can pay the unit price. (Laws may vary nationwide)

Why They Hate It: They want you to buy more stuff than you need!

Opening A Store Credit Card To Get A Discount, Then Cutting It Up: This is one from our dear Mommy. Mommy buys a bunch of stuff at once, opens the store credit card for the 20% discount, pays it off and cuts up the card. She did this every year when buying our school clothes. We're sure they hate her with the force of a 200 mega-ton bomb, but she still saved 20%.

Why They Hate It: Credit card companies make money from interest and fees. No activity on the card, no interest and fees.

Using Websites to Track 30 Day Price Guarantees: Stores have "30 day price guarantees" to make you think they have such low prices that they're not going to get any lower. They may, but they also know you're not going to keep shopping for some crap you already bought. Solution: There are websites that will watch your purchase for you and email if it drops in price during the guarantee period.

Why They Hate It: Because they have to give you money. No store ever likes to give you money.

Buying Seasonal Items at Clearance Prices (For Next Year): Seasonal items are a big deal for retailers and once the holiday is gone they need to make room for the next one. Their haste makes waste and you can take advantage of it. Buy now for next year. Another good idea is to buy "seasonal" candy after the season is over. So what if your M&Ms are brown and orange or red and green. Still tastes like awesome.

Why They Hate It: Stores want you to buy their seasonal crap at full price, when its most profitable, not during clearance when they sell it at cost or below.

Buy "Accessories" on Ebay Rather Than Paying Huge Markups: Retailers will often discount a big ticket item only to charge ridiculous prices for "accessories" that they will harass you to the point of madness to try to get you to buy. Expensive connectors, cables, controllers, leather lotion for your stupid coat you just bought, blank media, storage, etc. Buy this crap on eBay or at least research what it really costs at a retailer that is not trying to screw you. Case in point: Cables. Best Buy sells the Monster Ultra Series 8' HDMI Video Cable for $119.99. On Ebay the most expensive "Buy it Now" price for this cable is $74.95 with $9.95 shipping. For the exact same thing. And that's for a crazy brand name cable. There are 8' HDMI cables on eBay for $8.

Why They Hate It: Accessories are very profitable. If you got a good deal on a TV, you probably believe them when they say you "need" to spend hundreds of dollars on cables.

[Via Consumerist]

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Why Chrome Won't Crash Windows

Some are calling Google's (GOOG) new browser Chrome an "Internet Explorer killer." Others venture further and call it a "Windows killer." Whether Google's newly launched browser has Microsoft (MSFT) quaking is unclear, but there's no doubt that Google is serious about "organizing the world's information"—and is prepared to shake up the status quo in the process.

It should come as little surprise that Google is entering the Web browser market. The search heavyweight already has a substantial stake in our online activities. Search, check! E-mail, check! Office documents, check! The list of Web applications offered by Google is both long and varied. With its goal of providing all of our online needs, it makes perfect sense that Google would step up and provide a Web browser built to accommodate its applications. With Chrome, Google is betting that more of us will move more of our computing from desktops to online, relying on the vast data centers known as "the cloud." But can Google's Web browser singlehandedly entice us to dump a favorite Web browser and our computer's operating system?

Let's start with the operating system. What's your favorite flavor? Windows, OS X, Linux? Whichever your allegiance, for at least the next several years, you'll need an operating system to boot your computer and store the applications that are still too large and unwieldy to run from inside the cloud. Take iTunes, Photoshop, or PowerPoint. While online equivalents exist, they just can't match the processing power and functionality that come from the applications you run from your computer's operating system.

Segmenting Online Activities
And, while Google Chrome's strength comes in its ability to segment online activities—an open tab playing a live video stream won't slow down the remainder of your Web browsing—it still needs an operating system at its foundation. For evidence that Google Chrome is not yet ready to replace an operating system, consider the browser's limitations at launch. Despite two years of hard work, Chrome can't run without Windows and it won't run at all on Apple's OS X or Linux.

Then comes the question of Chrome's potential for wresting market share from Google's rivals. Can Google really launch a new browser and expect to grab some of Internet Explorer's 72% Web browser market share and Firefox's 20%? Chrome certainly started off strong. On its opening days, according to analysts at Lehman Brothers, free downloads reached an astounding 2% of the market. Lehman predicts that the new browser could reach 15%-20% market share in just two years. In other words, it's likely to be big, but not dominant.

What's more, Google Chrome is not yet proven as a revolutionary Web browser. Google technicians emphasize that its architecture is different, and predict that it will handle computing intensive software applications better than its rivals. But most of the Web surfers who downloaded it on its first day came to face to face with a bare-bones browser with few of the add-ons and plug-ins available on the others.

Brand of Gold
What Chrome can boast is the Google brand. While not everything Google touches turns to shareholder gold, its brand works wonders. The company could launch a new brand of laundry detergent, and we'd likely clear grocery store shelves of the stuff. You can bet that Google's fans will jump at the chance to download a Google-branded browser, so they can check their Gmail, look-up their Google Maps, and search for laundry detergent on

It's our infatuation with the Google brand, more than the technology inside, that will boost Chrome's market share and further extend Google in our daily Web activities. As for being a Windows or Internet Explorer killer, don't count on it.

[Via Business Week]

9 Words That Don't Mean What You Think

The English language is under assault by stupid people who use words they don't understand, and is defended by pompous asses who like to correct those people. We're not sure who to side with.

So, here are some words that you'll see used incorrectly on a daily basis, and a helpful guide as to just how big of a dick you'd have to be to correct people on it.

People think it means: Regardless.
Actually means: Not a damned thing.
This is not a word. Now, we have no problem with making up words (if a particular scent can only be described as "fartalicious," we reserve the right to call it so). The problem with this one is "regardless" already means something isn't worth regard (that's why the "less" is there) so adding the "ir" to it means... it's worth regarding again? Who knows.

People think it means: To skim over or browse something.
Actually means: Almost the opposite of that.
Peruse means "to read with thoroughness or care." If you peruse a book, you leave no page unturned. This makes sense when you consider the Middle English per use, meaning "to wear out or use up." Unfortunately, if you "consider the Middle English" very often when speaking, you're probably not exactly the life of the party.

People think it means: Any kind of amusing coincidence.
Actually means: An outcome that is the opposite of what you'd expect.
So, if a porn star moved to Virgin, Utah, that would be ironic. If the same porn star bought a house in Boner Knob, Montana that would not be ironic.

People think it means: "Spotless" or "as good as new."
Actually means: "Ancient, primeval; in a state virtually unchanged from the original."
It's therefore perfectly possible to have a pristine mountain of fossilized brontosaurus shit, but if you were to buff that mountain to a lustrous shine, it would no longer be pristine.

People think it means: Unperturbed, not worried.
Actually means: Utterly perplexed or confused. It comes from the Latin non plus (a state in which nothing more can be done).
The misunderstanding would seem to stem from people making semi-educated guesses as to the word's meaning, which kind of sounds like it means "unruffled" or something like that.

People think it means: Mildly amused.
Actually means: Bewildered or confused.
If you were to say "I was bemused by your dead baby joke," you wouldn't be saying the joke was funny. You'd be saying that you completely failed to understand it. You were following the story up to and including the bit about the trowel, but you'd lost the thread way before the Ku Klux masturbation climax.

People think it means: Enormous.
Actually means: Outrageous or heinous on a grand scale.
War crimes are enormities. Extra-big bouncy castles are not.

People think it means: A lot of something.
Actually means: Too much of something, an over-abundance.
It's the difference between: "Dude, I am jonesing to go snort a plethora of medicinal-grade barbiturates right now." And ... "Dude, I just snorted a plethora of medicinal-grade barbiturates, and now there are hundreds of terrifying arachnids crawling out of my penis. They all have human lips."

People think it means: Nobody is sure.
Actually means: Nobody is sure.
Specifically, we're talking about when the word is used with some other adjective. Like if somebody says, "The turd pool is deceptively shallow," does that mean it's deeper than it appears, or not as deep?
If you're not sure, don't feel bad. The American Heritage Dictionary asked their word experts and they said they had no fucking idea, either. So ... nobody knows.

[Via Cracked]

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Fish Can Count to Four - But No Higher

Fish can count, according to scientists, who have found that North American mosquito fish have the ability to count up to four.

Previously it was known that fish could tell big shoals from small ones, but researchers have now found that they have a limited ability to count how many other fish are nearby.

This means that they have similar counting abilities to those observed in apes, monkeys and dolphins and humans with very limited mathematical ability.

Christian Agrillo, an experimental psychologist at the university of Padua in Italy said: "We have provided the first evidence that fish exhibit rudimentary mathematical abilities."

Last year, he and his colleagues showed that if a female mosquito fish is harassed by a male, she will try to avoid his attentions by seeking solace in the largest nearby shoal; demonstrating that the fish can tell bigger shoals from smaller ones.

The team first conducted a series of experiments to see whether a lone mosquito fish would prefer to join a shoal of between two and four others.

The results, published on the BBC Worldwide's natural history site,, show that females preferred to join shoals that were larger by just one fish significantly more often - consistently preferring shoals of four fish rather than three fish, and consistently preferring shoals of three fish over those containing just two.

A second series of experiments revealed the fish's ability to process larger numbers. The fish were not able to directly count over four, but they were able to distinguish between larger numbers if they differed by a ratio of 2:1.

For example, the fish could distinguish between a shoal of 16, compared to a shoal of eight others. But they could not tell the difference between a shoal of 12 compared to a shoal of eight, a ratio of 3:2. This demonstrates that fish are able to visually estimate larger numbers - but not very accurately.

Prof Angelo Bisazza, who led the latest research, said that fishes' numerical abilities were actually on a par with the numerical abilities of monkeys and human infants between six and 12 months old, who were both able to visually count small numbers and less accurately estimate larger ones.

Adult humans use a third counting mechanism, in which they verbally count much larger numbers.

Dr Agrillo said: "The most interesting thing is that fish performance is very similar to what is observed in adult humans who possess a very limited vocabulary for numbers."

For example, speakers of the Amazonian language Munduruk├║ lack words for numbers beyond five. "Their limits in quantity tasks closely resemble what we found in pre-verbal organisms such as fish!" he added.

A variety of animals, including pigeons, parrots, raccoons, ferrets, rats, monkeys and apes are to varying degrees capable of either counting, adding or subtracting numbers. Most need to be trained to do so.

Without training, adult rhesus monkeys are capable of subtracting small numbers, and are capable of representing the number zero.

Wild lions apparently have a rudimentary ability to count. When a pride of lions hears the roar of an approaching lion then two or three females, rather than a lone greeter will always go out to meet the stranger. But if two approaching lions can be heard, the resident females send out four of their own.

[Via Telegraph]