Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Is Ham Radio in the US experiencing a revival?

It may be, if the number of people getting new licenses is an indicator:

Radio Days Are Back: Ham Radio Licenses at an All-Time High
The newest trend in American communication isn't another smartphone from Apple or Google but one of the elder statesmen of communication: Ham radio licenses are at an all time high, with over 700,000 licenses in the United States, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Ham radio first took the nation by storm nearly a hundred years ago. Last month the FCC logged 700,314 licenses, with nearly 40,000 new ones in the last five years. Compare that with 2005 when only 662,600 people hammed it up and you'll see why the American Radio Relay League -- the authority on all things ham -- is calling it a "golden age."


According to the American Radio Relay League, retirees and emergency groups are among the main reasons for the nearly 30,000 new hams that pick up the hobby each year.

Ham is a boon for safety as well as a fun pastime: When normal communications methods fail and cellphone towers are jammed, ham radios will still work and can help out in disaster situations, because they don’t require towers to relay the signal.

“Amateur radio came into play very much during the major earthquake in the Bay Area in 1989. The only thing I had was a little handheld radio. Nothing else worked, telephones didn’t work, cellphones didn’t work, amateur radio just kept right on working,” Pritchett said. [...]

And besides being useful, it's interesting and fun too. Read the whole thing for embedded links, video and more.

Free South Africa... Again

Free it from the South African "State Secrets Act". It sounds like something from the apartheid days, that used to cause "International Outrage":

South Africa passes secrecy bill, opposition: dark day for freedom
South Africa’s parliament passed a law to protect state secrets Tuesday. Opposition parties, labor unions and media companies protested that it limits free speech and stifles efforts to expose corruption.

The ruling African National Congress pushed the Protection of State Information Bill through the parliament by 229 votes to 107. Under this law, anyone revealing a state classified secret would face up to 25 years in jail.


Critics are concerned that officials will abuse the bill, while the press criticized it as an attempt to silence journalists.

Members of the South African National Editors’ Forum and the Parliamentary Press Gallery Association took to streets in Cape Town.

“We are broken inside,” Mondli Makhanya, editor-in-chief of Avusa Ltd. Newspapers and the chairman of the forum. “We never thought we’d come here dressed in black to actually witness democracy, this constitution of ours, being betrayed.”

Desmond Tutu, the retired Anglican archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said Monday that the legislation was an insult to South Africans.

The law raised doubts about the South Africa’s commitment to fight corruption. The state’s relationship with the local media has deteriorated as newspapers reported on scandals, including those of President Jacob Zuma.

“Today is a dark day for freedom of expression in South Africa. This fatally flawed bill, which is totally at odds with the South African Constitution, takes us right back to the apartheid-era restrictions on free speech,” said Noel Kututwa, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Africa.

Opposition parties plan to challenge the bill at the Constitutional Court. [...]

Where are the expressions of International Outrage now? How about even an international expression of disapproval? Or even a wimper of concern?

I won't hold my breath waiting.

But I am hoping that the bill will be successfully challenged and defeated.

Also see:

South Africa Passes Law to Restrict Reporting of Government Secrets

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Will Greece, Italy and other PIIGS sink the Euro?

For my fishtank, I got one of those Greco-Roman Ruins backgrounds. I thought perhaps, to make it contemporary, all I needed to do was add a Euro ATM machine:

It would be ironic if Greece and Italy, from which the principles of Western Civilization sprang, turn out to be also the springboard for it's collapse and ruin.

Is it really that bad? I can't say for sure. But it does look alarming, as the Europeans seem unable to contain the problem:

Spain and France: Market says you're next!
NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Next up on the 2011 Europe Financial Calamity tour? Spain and France.

Yes, government bond yields in Italy are still climbing -- even after the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi. With the Italian 10-year back above 7%, it's clear that investors are still very nervous about the debt problems in Europe's boot.

But perhaps more alarming is the fact that the market is now increasingly wary of Italy's Mediterranean neighbors as well.

Yields on Spain's 10-year bond have climbed to about 6.3%. That's dangerously close to the 7% level that many investors feel could signal the need for a Spanish bailout.

And France's bonds are starting to look like French toast. With yields now around 3.67%, that puts the "pain" in pain perdu. (Yes, I watch Top Chef.)


The verdict from the experts I spoke to: Unless the European Central Bank steps up to the plate with a real plan to stop the bleeding, Europe will keep bleeding.

"The market keeps looking ahead to the next potential victim in Europe," said Jurgen Odenius, chief economist for Prudential Fixed Income in Newark, N.J. "Volatility is rising because there is no comprehensive, credible solution. It's becoming readily apparent that there's only one game in town, an ECB rescue."

Europe: New leaders, same debt crisis

Odenius said he doubts that Europe will be able to convince China and other global sovereign wealth funds to put up enough capital to increase the leverage of the European Financial Stability Facility bailout fund. That means the ECB may have to be the proverbial lender of last resort.

If the ECB does not take more bold action -- namely a strong commitment to keep buying more sovereign debt -- Odenius thinks Spanish yields may soon hit 7% like in Italy. And if that happens, France could also be in serious trouble.

"The French have problems in their banking system related to Italy, Spain and other countries. Investors are not suggesting that France is a crisis just yet, but it is murky," he said.

Michelle Gibley, senior market analyst with the Schwab Center for Financial Research in Denver, agreed. European leaders need to bust out a "bazooka" to deal with the debt crisis, she said.


But the problem facing Europe right now is that leaders haven't even acknowledged they have a big financial weapon, let alone talk about a willingness to use it.

"I am concerned that European policy makers have yet to find the bazooka," Gibley said. "The crisis is rolling from one nation to the next. The contagion has not been contained."

Eurozone teeters on edge of recession

Her biggest worry is that European governments are simply choosing to focus on austerity to deal with their fiscal problems. But while budget cuts, higher taxes and more responsible spending can help cut onerous debt loads, such actions do nothing to help stimulate their economies.

"The debt crisis is now potentially entering a dangerous cycle where austerity just reduces growth, borrowing costs continue to rise and credit ratings get downgraded. That's because nobody is addressing growth," Gibley said. "How much more turmoil does there need to be before the ECB does more?" [...]

But how much more CAN they do? Can they stimulate economic growth, sufficient enough to stay on top of their debt payments? If they don't have a bazooka, will they get one in time?

It all remains to be seen. Hopefully not on a fish tank backdrop.

Also see:

Why Greece is in trouble. And a warning for us.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Curing Heart Failure? Is it possible?

Has the irreversible become reversible? The evidence is certainly interesting:

Studies: Stem cells reverse heart damage
[...] Conventional wisdom took a hit Monday, as Bolli's group and a team from Cedars-Sinai each reported that stem cell therapies were able to reverse heart damage, without dangerous side effects, at least in a small group of patients.

In Bolli's study, published in The Lancet, 16 patients with severe heart failure received a purified batch of cardiac stem cells. Within a year, their heart function markedly improved. The heart's pumping ability can be quantified through the "Left Ventricle Ejection Fraction," a measure of how much blood the heart pumps with each contraction. A patient with an LVEF of less than 40% is considered to suffer severe heart failure. When the study began, Bolli's patients had an average LVEF of 30.3%. Four months after receiving stem cells, it was 38.5%. Among seven patients who were followed for a full year, it improved to an astounding 42.5%. A control group of seven patients, given nothing but standard maintenance medications, showed no improvement at all.

"We were surprised by the magnitude of improvement," says Bolli, who says traditional therapies, such as placing a stent to physically widen the patient's artery, typically make a smaller difference. Prior to treatment, Mike Jones couldn't walk to the restroom without stopping for breath, says Bolli. "Now he can drive a tractor on his farm, even play basketball with his grandchildren. His life was transformed."


"This is unprecedented, the first time anyone has grown living heart muscle," says Marban. "No one else has demonstrated that. It's very gratifying, especially when the conventional teaching has been that the damage is irreversible."

Perhaps even more important, no treated patient in either study suffered a significant health setback.

The twin findings are a boost to the notion that the heart contains the seeds of its own rebirth. For years, doctors believed that heart cells, once destroyed, were gone forever. But in a series of experiments, researchers including Bolli's collaborator, Dr. Piero Anversa, found that the heart contains a type of stem cell that can develop into either heart muscle or blood vessel components -- in essence, whatever the heart requires at a particular point in time. The problem for patients like Mike Jones or Ken Milles is that there simply aren't enough of these repair cells waiting around. The experimental treatments involve removing stem cells through a biopsy, and making millions of copies in a laboratory.

The Bolli/Anversa group and Marban's team both used cardiac stem cells, but Bolli and Anversa "purified" the CSCs, so that more than 90% of the infusion was actual stem cells. Marban, on the other hand, used a mixture of stem cells and other types of cells extracted from the patient's heart. "We've found that the mixture is more potent than any subtype we've been able to isolate," he says. He says the additional cells may help by providing a supportive environment for the stem cells to multiply.


Bolli says he'll have to temper his enthusiasm until he can duplicate the results in larger studies, definitive enough to get stem cell therapy approved as a standard treatment. "If a phase 3 study confirmed this, it would be the biggest advance in cardiology in my lifetime. We would possibly be curing heart failure. It would be a revolution."

Wow. Read the whole thing.

Friday, November 04, 2011

My Surrogate Goldfish Substitute: The Gold Barb

I did a post earlier about the shocking truth about the common goldfish; about how, when properly cared for, they can live for decades and grow to be a foot long, requiring enormous aquariums and frequent water changes. Too much fuss! They are more easily kept in a POND.

I wanted a SMALL, golden, coldwater fish that would stay small, to be a surrogate replacement for my desire to keep small gold fish. And I think I've found it:

The Gold Barb (Puntius semifasciolatus)
Max. size: 7cm / 2.8inches
pH range: 6 – 8
dH range: 5-19
Temperature range: 18 – 24°C / 64.5 – 75°F
Care Moderate

Common names- Gold Finned Barb, Golden Barb, China Barb

The Gold Barb is a popular fish amongst aquarium keepers. Living between four and six years they originate from the sub-tropical parts of South East Asia and is exclusively native to China, Laos and Vietnam although it has now been introduced to other countries The Bright colours of the Gold Barb and their active personality add charm to any aquarium. This coupled with their ease of care makes the Gold Barb an ideal fish for beginners and experts alike.

Gold Barb are shoaling fish and should ideally be kept in groups of at least six. Living up to six years in age they are docile fish that make a good addition to a community tank when paired with fish with similar personalities and care needs.

It is known by several different names, most commonly referred to in the USA as the China barb.

The Gold Barb belongs to the minnow family, and is a medium long barb. Its body has a complete lateral line and the last simple dorsal ray is serrated. It has a pair of barbels located at the corners of the mouth on the upper jaw. The female tends to be duller than the male and bulkier. During the breeding period, the male golden barb's belly will change colour to a vivid orange.

They are mid to bottom level fish and need a tank of around fifteen gallons or more to be kept happily.

They are very active fish and need plenty of open space with plenty of plants at the back and sides of the aquarium as well as a strong current to mimic their natural conditions. [...]

They aren't as much of a "cold" water fish as a true goldfish, but they can live in an unheated aquarium in a house kept at normal room temperature.

And of course, they get on with other barbs/minnows. I've never collected them before, so I'm looking forward to it.

Wikipedia: Gold Barbs
[...] The Gold Barb, a gold colour variant of the China Barb, is an active, peaceful schooling species that spends most of its time in the mid-level and bottom of the water. Its typical lifespan in captivity is around four to six years. This peaceful green-gold fish is often used in community tanks by fish keeping hobbyists. It breeds readily in outdoor pools and free-standing ponds during summer months, and withstands cooler temperatures better than other tropical fish. However, it does not stand the cold as well as its original plainer China barb counterparts.

Albino variants of the Gold barbs have been produced by Dennis Wilcox in the 1970s in the US. Gold barbs with no black markings have been observed by Stanislav Frank in Europe also around that time. Flesh colour (pink) specimens appeared by 1990s. Tri-colour, ie, black, orange and pink specimens appeared recently. [...]
So there are variations, too. Goody!

Also see:

Gold Barb Fact Sheet


A very large and growing sunspot has appeared

Visualization of solar flare being ejected from the sun on November 3
courtesy NASA Solar Dynamics

Monster sunspot poses threat of significant solar storms
A major sunspot is presently emerging on the surface of the solar disk facing Earth. According to Jess Whittington at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), the huge and still growing sunspot is the most active part of the sun since 2005.

The area is called Region 1339 and is being referred to as a “benevolent monster.” 8.3 times bigger than Earth, it generated a solar flare which shot out a burst of charged particles yesterday but - this time - was not aimed at Earth.

However, this extremely active area of the sun will be facing earth for about two weeks. At this time there is no way to predict whether new flares will generate significant solar storms aimed towards Earth and, if so, whether they could result in geomagnetic storms capable of dire consequences on “life as we know it”. [...]

Read the whole thing, for embedded links and more.

Who should be allowed to die?

And what is the criteria to decide?

Put the elderly on ice?
(CNN) -- No one has come out yet and explicitly suggested that old folks like me (I am about to turn 83) should be treated the way the Eskimos, as folklore has it, used to treat theirs: put on an ice floe and left to float away into the sunset. We are, however, coming dangerously close.


... Once we set an age after which we shall provide mainly palliative care, economic pressures may well push us to ratchet down the age. If 80 was a good number a few years ago, given the huge deficit and the pressure to cut Medicare expenditures, there seems no obvious reason not to lower the cut-off age to, say, 70. And nations that have weaker economies, the logic would follow, should cut off interventionist care at an even younger age. Say, 50 for Guatemala?

Above all, age is the wrong criterion. The capacity to recover and return to a meaningful life is the proper criterion.

Thus, if a person is young but has a terminal disease, say, advanced pancreatic cancer, and physicians determine that he has but a few months, maybe weeks, to live (a determination doctors often make), he may be spared aggressive interventions and be provided with mainly palliative care. In contrast, an 80-year-old with, say, pneumonia -- who can return to his family and friends to be loved and give love, contribute to the community through his volunteering and enjoy his retirement he earned with decades of work -- should be given all the treatments needed to return him to his life (which in my case includes a full-time job and some work on the side). [...]

Sounds like someone is worried about the "death panels" that Sara Palin warned about. A bit ironic, given the author's credentials. But the article is a thoughtful examination of the topic.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The shocking truth about the common goldfish

When I was a kid, I got my first goldfish at a supermarket givaway. They were fish much like this:

Such fish can be found in pet stores as "feeder fish"; live food for larger fish to eat. I kept good care of mine, changed their water often, but they didn't last long anyway. I was told "gold fish don't live very long." But it got me interested in keeping fish, and got me started with my first 10 gal. tropical fish aquarium.

Since then I've always been interested in aquarium fish. In the early 1990's, I tried keeping goldfish again, fancy goldfish, just three of them in a 15 gallon aquarium, with good filtration, etc. Despite my best efforts, they didn't last all that long either.

Many years later; I'm living on a small farm. We have a 300 gallon tub, it's made to hold drinking water for livestock, but we just use it to hold rainwater or creek water for watering green house plants.

During the summer, it becomes a breeding pool for mosquitoes. We usually add anti-mosquito biscuits to the water, but this past summer, we bought a bag of "feeder" goldfish instead, and dumped them in to eat the mosquito larvae.

The water got murky, so we used an old pump and set up a charcoal/ammonia stone filter up in an old cat liter bucket, with a roll of floss-like material in it.

It worked quite well. The water stayed clean and clear. We took buckets of water out to water the greenhouse plants, and occasionally replenished the tub with water from our creek. We fed the goldfish flaked food for goldfish. They got very tame and friendly. There are about 16 of them now.

We figured the goldfish would croak by the end of summer, but they haven't. In fact, they seem to be thriving and getting bigger.

So why haven't they died, like all the one's I've kept in aquariums? Well, it seems that by keeping them in a large filtered tub, and taking out part of the water and replenishing it on a regular basis, we were inadvertently providing the ideal conditions for keeping goldfish.

I've been reading up on goldfish, from many different websites. It seems that goldfish aquariums require frequent partial water changes, of 30% or so, every few weeks. Even if the water is filtered! This is because goldfish have no stomaches, only an intestine. Thus they produce a lot of waste and foul the water quickly. Filtration alone will not prevent buildup of certain toxins over time, requiring water changes.

I also found out that Goldfish DO live very long, 20+ years typically, 40+ years rarely, if cared for properly. The following site lists several points worth noting about the proper care of goldfish:

Goldfish (Carassius auratus)
[...] Goldfish should NEVER be kept in unfiltered bowl environments. This is not a suitable home for any living creature.

Fancy Goldfish need at least 75.7 Litres (20 US G.) per Goldfish and Common Goldfish need at least 208.2 Litres (55 US G.) per goldfish. If well cared for, Fancies can get around 20.3cm (8") long and Commons over 30.5cm (12"), so adequate room for swimming and turning is also necessary. For this reason, Commons do best in a pond environment.

* It is myth that Goldfish only grow to the size of their tank or that there are slow growing varieties.

Goldfish are large and messy fish, so you should have filters that move at least four times the amount of water in the tank per hour. Very high flow rates greater than seven times tank volume may be harmful as some varieties of Goldfish are weak swimmers. Filters with separate areas for mechanical and biological are best. [...]

I was shocked that they suggest 55 gal. PER FISH, for a common goldfish. But those little feeder fish are only small because they are babies. According to one video, they can grow quite large in just 3 years:

Yikes! The large one is a foot long! They are in a 75 gal. tank. Some sites I read said you only need 20 gal. for the first fish, and 10 gal. for each additional fish. But perhaps that's for the fancy ones, which also get big, but are still smaller than the plain ones.

So now I know why my "feeders" have lived; they got plenty of room, and regular water changes. But what's next? Am I going to have them for 20+ years?

Who knows? It's early days yet. They have yet to survive an Oregon winter outside (but I believe the pool is deep enough to allow them to survive the types of freezes we have). The cat, and local raccoons haven't discovered them yet; but it's a deep pool, so they could have a hard time accessing it.

What I DO know for sure is, that they have already lived longer than they would have if they were sold as fishfood for larger fish, as they were meant to be. So whatever length of life they have now is gravy. I will keep taking care of them, and enjoy them for however much longer they last.

For more Goldfish FAQ and advice, also see:

Common myths about goldfish