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the column of lasting insignificance: February 15, 2014
by John Wilcock

“Four of America’s nine richest are members of the family that owns WalMart. Really? Couldn’t they pay their workers a tad more and still be four of the top 30 richest Americans? Two million employees, with last year’s profit at 16 billion dollars. That’s 8K profit off every employee. Imagine how much more stuff WalMart could sell if each employee made $2,000 extra?”
—Will Durst

THE SUPERSONIC PLANE that could cross the Atlantic in four hours is coming back. When the Concorde was retired in 2003 it never had been a commercial success but it was shelved because of that ‘sonic’ part, an ear-splitting, breaking-the-sound-barrier boom which the FAA banned because it disturbed too many communities. The new SPJ (supersonic business jet) is the product of two decades of work by the Reno-based Aerion which has not only slightly reduced the intensity of its boom, but is engineered to fly either just below Mach 1 (at 647mph) over the continental US or above it (at 1,056mph) when over the ocean. “The UN agency responsible for maintaining international aviation standards, ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organization) currently prohibits aircraft from creating sonic booms that can be detected on the ground”, explains Popular Science, “but does not technically outlaw supersonic flight”. Many of the big companies in the aerospace industry have engineers working on similar designs, but Aerion appears to be ahead promising to deliver the first $80m SPJs by 2021. Fifty companies have already signed letters of intent and deposited the $250,000 required to reserve one of the planes.

IT’S TEN YEARS since the death of that intellectual snob Susan Sontag, and Rolling Stone’s Jonathan Cott must have thought it was a good time for his book of interviews about her to appear. Bad idea. Referring to the ice maiden’s “narcissism and pomposity”, the New Statesman’s reviewer described Cott as “a swooning acolyte” and writes “as if were some spoony undergraduate who had been desperately hoping to get off with her”. It wouldn’t have been published in book form at all, maintains Rachel Cooke, if the cult of Sontag didn’t continue to thrive on US campuses. “And why, I wonder, does it? Even at her best she is mostly muddle-headed, opaque, drunk on words whose meaning she does not seem to have wholly considered. At her worst, a whiff of the charlatan arises from the page”.

FOR THE SIXTEENTH year in a row, Goldman Sachs makes Fortune’s list of Best Companies to Work For, so it won’t be much of a surprise to learn that “the firm saw average compensation of roughly $380,000 over the past 12 months”. Less than 3% of the 97,600 applicants won a seat at the 144-year-old firm last year, the mag says, making it twice as hard to get into as Harvard. Ten thousand of the staff work in the 43-story HQ in lower Manhattan, with its half-dozen trading floors each bigger than a football field. Others are situated in a skyscraper across the Hudson in Jersey City, with thousands more in Salt Lake City and Bangalore. The hiring process, reports Fortune, “is brutal; it’s not uncommon for recruits to be vetted by 20 to 30 people”.

WHETHER THE EUROPEAN UNION will survive has been a contentious discussion ever since the original countries were—not always willingly—brought together 20 years ago. Now comprised of more than a score of countries, it is felt by many critics to be too big and too unwieldy, and there are endless objections to its central administration in Brussels “intruding ever deeper into national life, meddling in everything from budgets to pensions and wage-setting” as the Economist recently phrased it. Officials are anticipating with some alarm next May’s election to the EU parliament. Can the rise of anti-EU parties in half a dozen countries be countered?

IF IT’S ANYTHING to do with sex, you can rely on the Japanese to surprise you. The lingerie manufacturer Ravijou has devised a bra with a front clasp that only unhooks when “true love” is detected. The bra comprises a sensor which monitors the woman’s heart rate and other vitals, with the data constantly transmitted via Bluetooth to a mobile phone which processes the data. The rate elevation is measured via special algorithms and preset data and it is only when the heart has truly found that special someone would it beat in a way that the app would recognize and wirelessly unhook the bra. As a safeguard, not any changes in heart rates will unhook the bra, as the experts at Ravijour say it is only when a woman falls in true love does she get excited enough for the Adrenal Medulla to secrete Catecholamine (whatever that is) which affects the autonomic nerve and increases the heart rate in the right kind of way.

Love Bra

ROBOT DOCTORS are turning up in more and more operating rooms—2,000 have been installed so far—and their procedures expanded from delicate head and neck surgery to routine hysterectomies. “But robots in the OR may not be living up to their promise” warns the AARP magazine. “While the robot provides a benefit in some operations” says John Hopkins Hospital surgeon Marty Makary, “most uses are for procedures where there are no advantages and there may be potential risks”. And commenting about hysterectomies, noted obstetrician James T. Breeden adds: “All of the studies so far show it’s no better or worse, but it takes longer and is more expensive”. The FDA is currently reviewing the reports of complications, but many surgeons are fans of their automated colleagues praising how magnified 3D images on the screen improves their field of vision while the robot’s “hands” can reach into tighter spots and move in ways that human hands cannot.

THE NEW DEBTORS’ PRISONS is how the Economist describes the growing trend for courts to turn over the supervision of malefactors to private systems which can independently charge service fees on top of any fines. Judicial Correction Services (JDS), a private company, already managers probationers for roughly 200 misdemeanor courts in the southeastern US. The aim of such fees, says the mag, is to make wrongdoers cover some of the costs of the system that punishes them. “(But) jailing someone because he cannot pay violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause”.

THE WILCOCK WEB: Deep down, ominously predicts a Spectator columnist, the ultimate conflict between Shia and Sunni will be settled by Saudi Arabia acquiring a nuclear weapon from Pakistan, to use on Iran….. Cuba sent thousands of doctors to Brazil but greedily confiscated 80% of their wages. One has already defected, asking for asylum, and hopefully so will the others….The NYT says it’s increasingly fashionable for women to leave their pubic hair unshaved…Wall Street’s celebrated “pay for performance” system says, in effect, that these highly overpaid CEOs wouldn’t do a stroke of work more than the minimum necessary unless they could expect—unlike most people—to be paid extra for just doing their best….. Accepting billion dollar fines but no punishment, JPMorganChase pays Jamie Dimon his obscene salary insisting that nobody else in the world could do his job. That seems unlikely….“The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution”, predicted Thomas Jefferson, “will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations”…..Pity John Gotti died, ‘cos we could have sent him back to Italy instead of Amanda Knox….….. The main result of the numerous iPhone and/or Android apps which enable anybody to insert UFOs into photos (says the Skeptical Inquirer) is that “it is now trivially easy to produce a semi-convincing UFO photo hoax. So you can’t believe anything you see in a supposed UFO photo any longer”….. “The less you know, the more you believe,” submits Phil Proctor…...Britain’s Blest Machine which can recycle hundreds of pounds of old plastic into oil each day, is already in hundreds of businesses worldwide….And there’s a home-sized Filabot ($350) that can melt down your old plastic bottles into a filament that’s useable in your 3D printer…. Why do they destroy piles of counterfeit NFL clothing when they could dye it black and give it to the homeless?... Bill O’Reilly respects dead presidents much more than live ones… …“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been” wrote Isaac Asimov, “nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’”…. Joining Ireland’s Ryanair and Germany’s Air Berlin is Europe’s fourth discount airline, Norwegian Air Shuttle, which vows to offer transatlantic (Oslo to New York) flights for $180…..In Silicon Valley, techies are outspending incumbents—even fellow-Democrats—to buy their way into politics.…..Using up some of Europe’s 3.7bn gallons of surplus milk, designer Masami Lavautis is turning it into plastic furniture…... Pubs in Norwich, UK, are breathalyzing patrons before they enter, seeking to make sure they aren’t drunk already….Already dispensing more than 60% of the world’s processed cranberries, Ocean Spray—a fourth generation family—is moving into powdered or gelled concentrate for making individual drinks…Now there’s a motorcycle helmet with a rear-facing video camera and a screen beside the left eye……“Design has finally triumphed over functionality” observes Will Durst…. Asking office workers what they did to avoid bad luck, researchers at the University of Chicago’s business school reported that 72% replied, “Knock on wood” …...The love of liberty is the love of others, the love of power is the love of ourselves’—William Hazlitt (1778-1830)


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