Literally Robbing Themselves Blind

War often exposes otherwise unknown things about one of the combatants. That has been the case in Russia, where the invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing fighting have exposed a huge problem with outright theft of the supplies that were supposed to be used to clothe and equip Russian soldiers. The theft problem is so acute that the Russian men who have recently been conscripted to fight have to buy their own uniforms, boots, and other gear–and what they are given by Russian authorities is often obsolete. “The army has nothing,” one of the conscripts said in a recorded call.

The BBC has an interesting story about the official records concerning supplies stolen from the Russian army and the staggering scale of the thievery. One member of the Russian Duma complained that 1.5 million sets of soldier kit, consisting of basic items like uniform pants, shirts, and flak jackets, summer and winter boots, helmets, and other essentials, have vanished even though, for years, Russia has been allocating huge sums toward its military supply budget. One popular item for theft is the night-vision goggles that soldiers obviously need for operations under cover of darkness–which means the Russians are literally stealing themselves blind.

The BBC report suggests that most of the stealing is being done by members of the Russian army, so much so that theft from military stores seemingly is a way of life. Commissary officers are adept at pilfering goods, creating fake stock lists, invoices, or reports to cover their tracks, and writing off perfectly good supplies as damaged by mold or poor storage conditions. Russian army records of the thieves whose schemes have been discovered reveal that the larceny ranges from spur-of-the-moment decisions to boost available items to systematic schemes to take goods in such quantities that trucks are needed. In addition to clothing and protective equipment, the light-fingered Russians are filching food and petrol–which may be why so many Russian vehicles in the Ukraine seem to be running out of gas.

The prevalence and vast scale of the crime makes it likely that the official records of theft barely scratch the surface of what has really happened in Russian supply depots. And the extent of the theft likely would not have been detected but for Vladimir Putin’s ill-conceived decision to invade Ukraine, which revealed that the cupboard was bare when it was supposed to be fully stocked. You have to think that the invasion of Ukraine not only was opposed by the civilized world outside of Russia, but also by the supply officers and soldiers in the Russian army whose criminal schemes suddenly were at risk of exposure. Supply officers who have been stealing for years make for good pacifists.

The Lost World Of Two Sleeps

We tend to think that the basic elements of human lives–things as fundamental as sleep patterns–have forever been as they are now. I’ve always assumed, without thinking much about it, that sleep means going to bed and sleeping straight through until waking up in the morning. The BBC recently published a fascinating article about research that squarely refutes that assumption–and shows instead that our current approach to sleep is inconsistent with the accepted practices that prevailed for many centuries.

According to the BBC article, humans used to have “two sleeps” as a matter of course. The “first sleep” would last for a few hours, until about 11 p.m., followed by about two hours of wakefulness–a period known in medieval England as “the watch”–after which people would return to bed and sleep until morning. This pattern was confirmed by sworn testimony in court records and multiple references in literature, and the research indicates that it was followed across different countries and cultures dating back to classical times, during the prolonged period when life was much more communal than it is now and it was typical for multiple humans to share beds or other sleeping quarters.

What did those who awakened from their “first sleep” do during “the watch”? The research indicates they did just about everything from the exalted (it was viewed by some as a good time for quiet religious observances and reflection) to the productive (peasants completed some of their many daily chores, stoked the fire, and tended to animals) to the mundane (the newly roused typically answered the call of nature). The BBC article also reports: “But most of all, the watch was useful for socialising – and for sex.” People would stay in their communal bed and chat with their bedmates, and husbands and wives, refreshed from the day’s exhausting labors by their “first sleep,” might find a place for some alone time before “the watch” ended and it was time to hit the crowded sack again.

At some point, the practice of “two sleeps” ended and our current approach of seeking one, uninterrupted “good night’s sleep” became the norm instead. But, as the BBC article points out, a sleep research experiment from the ’90s suggests that it wouldn’t take much for people to be nudged back into the world of “two sleeps.” A careful look at some remote cultures also indicates that the practice of “two sleeps” still prevails in some areas. And of course, in some cultures where an afternoon siesta is commonplace, a different form of “two sleeps” is practiced.

What would the world be like if humans still followed the practice of “two sleeps,” and what would they do during “the watch”? I would guess that they would do just about everything that their medieval ancestors did–although with modern technology I imagine that many people would take “the watch” literally, and use the break in sleep to catch up on the latest offerings on streaming services.


I’ve loved the Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories ever since I first read them.  I loved the old London settings, Holmes’ brilliant deductions from observable phenomena, and the relationship of Holmes and the ever-loyal Dr. Watson.  The movie adaptations, however, have been a bit uneven — and I’ve particularly detested the kind of superhero Holmes depicted in the Robert Downey, Jr. movies.

So it was with some trepidation that Kish and I began binge-watching the BBC TV series Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the iconic consulting detective and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson, set in modern day London.  I’m relieved to report that the show not only is faithful to the characters and concept of the original Holmes tales, it also very cleverly updates the stories and adds in little references that only true Sherlockians would get.  So rather than serializing Holmes’ exploits for The Strand magazine, Watson writes a blog about their adventures.  Watson’s new journalistic efforts frequently are variations of the titles of the old stories, such as A Study in Pink rather than A Study in Scarlet and The Speckled Blonde rather than The Speckled Band.  And Holmes now craves cigarettes rather than the strongest shag for his pipe, but when he needs that tobacco fix he still looks in the persian slipper by the mantelpiece.  And now Holmes uses some of that uncanny deductive ability to figure out passwords to computers and smart phones.

mast-sherlock-benedict-martin-cove-hiresCumberbatch and Freeman have wonderful chemistry, and the cast of regular supporting characters is great, with Una Stubbs as the plucky Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’ landlady at 221B Baker Street, Rupert Graves as the dogged Detective Inspector Lestrade, and Mark Gatiss as the umbrella-toting, British-to-the-core Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s equally brilliant older brother who is a kind of one-man British government.  But one of the greatest updates is Andrew Scott as Holmes’ arch-nemesis “Jim” Moriarty, a “consulting criminal” who is every bit Holmes’ match in the intellect department but gleefully, psychotically twisted as well.  (I’m not quite as keen about Irene Adler as a dominatrix, but we’ll let that pass.)

We’re in the midst of season two, with the episode entitled “The Reichenbach Fall” dead ahead.  It’s another great allusion to the old stories, because one of the most famous of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s efforts, The Final Problem, had the great detective falling to his death in a final struggle with Professor James Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.  Doyle wanted to kill off Sherlock Holmes, because he had tired of writing the mysteries and wanted to try something else, but the character was so immensely popular that Doyle ultimately relented to popular demand and brought him back to life.

Holmes fans the world over were glad he did — and I’m glad I’ve found this latest version of the great detective to enjoy as well.  New episodes of Sherlock are currently being filmed and are supposed to be released around Christmas.

There’s Gold In Them Thar Poop

The members of the American Chemical Society must be very curious people.  For example, a presentation at the most recent national meeting of the ACS addressed the prospects for recovery of gold, silver, copper, vanadium, palladium, and other precious metals that are found in . . . human waste.

According to a BBC report, the ACS presentation concluded, through a study that must have been incredibly disgusting to conduct, that gold is found in waste from American sewage treatment plants at the same levels found in a minimal mineral deposit. A prior study had found that the waste from 1 million Americans includes about $13 million in rare metals, and scientists are evaluating whether an extraction process using certain leaches could be applied to the solid waste produced by waste water treatment plans to see whether the rare metals could be pulled out, presumably cleaned up, and then sold.

The concept of extracting metals from solid waste is similar to the notion of “mining” metals from landfills and waste dumps.  Some experts estimate that landfills contain billions of dollars in metals, if they could just figure out an economical way to separate the metals from the disposable diapers and other vile items that have American landfills filled to the brim.  Already some “landfill mining” operations are underway.

Metals, if improperly disposed of, can be environmentally damaging, so I’m all in favor of any process that results in more complete recycling — even if it means sifting through smelly tons of human waste.  The BBC story about the ACS presentation left unanswered my central question about this issue, however:  how in the world does gold and vanadium get into the human digestive system, and its end product, in the first place?

Fun With Physics

If you like physics — and slow-motion footage of science experiments — you’ll enjoy this very cool BBC video that recreates a legendary experiment by Galileo Galilei.

According to the story, Galileo began dropping objects of different weights from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Whether heavy cannonballs, lighter musket balls, or objects made of gold, silver, or wood, they all hit the ground at the same time.  Galileo therefore realized that gravity affects all objects and accelerates them at the same rate.

The BBC recreation takes the experiment one step farther, by dropping a bowling ball and some flouncy ostrich feathers.  They do it first in regular atmosphere, where air resistance causes the feathers to drift gently to the ground, and then when the air has been pumped from the room to create a vacuum.  It’s jaw-dropping to watch the feather and the bowling ball fall, in slow motion, at exactly the same rate and then crash to the ground.

There’s an Ohio connection to this story about Galileo, science, and the BBC, too:  the room where the BBC does the experiment at the NASA Space Power Facility in Sandusky, Ohio, which features the largest vacuum chamber in the world.

The Rise Of Anti-Semitism In The Eurozone

The BBC has a troubling story about the apparent rise of anti-Semitism in Europe — at least, as expressed in a poll of European Jews.  Of the nearly 6,000 people surveyed, two-thirds considered anti-Semitism to be a big problem, and more than 75 percent believed that bigotry has increased in the last five years.

Even worse, those depressingly high numbers don’t really tell the full story.  Survey respondents reported that prejudicial comments on-line — where distance and anonymity can allow the inner demons to run free — has become shockingly prevalent.  Moreover, 20 percent of the respondents had personally experienced verbal abuse or physical assault, with the most serious incidents involving Muslim extremists, people with left-wing political views, and finally people with right-wing views.  The situation has gotten so bad that, in many countries, significant percentages of the Jewish respondents are considered emigrating to ensure the safety of their families.

This is the kind of grim, brooding story that should cause serious concern for everyone who believes in democracy, pluralism, and freedom of religion.  We know what happened in the 1930s and World War II years, and we need to take steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again — in Europe, or elsewhere.

If we see instances of anti-Semitic speech on-line, we need to call out the speaker and shame them with their bigotry.  We shouldn’t tolerate anti-Semitic garbage from the podium of the UN General Assembly or the mouths of Middle Eastern zealots.  If we hear of an anti-Semitic incident, we need to take steps to ensure that the perpetrators are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  If we see vandalism in Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, we need to participate in the clean-up and figure out how to prevent such incidents in the future.  We need to fight hate speech with right speech, and criminal acts with criminal prosecution.

This is not a Jewish issue, it is a human issue.  Abuse and mistreatment of any religious or ethnic group weakens us all and splinters the world into feuding factions.  I don’t want to live in a balkanized world where any group may be targeted, scapegoated, and assaulted  with impunity.  I hope that the good people of Europe stand up, and I hope that those of us in America stay vigilant.

Harnessing The Power Of Thought

Every day, it seems, there is some dazzling new advancement in science and technology.  Consider the video above, which demonstrates how researchers are able to use brain waves to guide and control a helicopter.  It’s amazing stuff, and you can read about some of the science behind the thought control device here.

You can imagine the enormous value of this kind of technology as it relates to helping disabled people to control their environment, achieve greater self-sufficiency, and use their brainpower to make up for their disability-related losses.  For those who are wheelchair-bound but unable to speak due to injury or debilitating disease, for example, imagine the joy of being able to use your brain to communicate with the outside world once more.  That day can’t get here fast enough.

Applying Mom’s Rules To A Food Wasting World

The BBC reports today on a study by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers that estimates that between one-third and half of all the world’s food — as much as 2 billion tons — is thrown away. The primary reasons for the waste are poor storage, strict sell-by dates, people buying food in bulk, and picky consumers.  The report estimates, for example, that 30 percent of the vegetables grown in the United Kingdom aren’t harvested because their appearance isn’t quite up to snuff.

The amount of wasted food is infuriating, given the hunger found across the globe, but it’s also — in part, at least — an inevitable by-product of modern society.  We’ve moved far away from a world of families that ate the last withered carrots and turnips in the root cellar, knowing that they had harvested the vegetables themselves months ago and stored them in the same way their families had done for generations.  Now we eat food that is produced God knows where, God knows when, by God knows who.  If it looks a bit fishy, we’re not going to buy it, or eat it.  When you consume canned goods or frozen food, you’re obviously going to pay attention to the “use by” information — and anyone who pushes for expanding the “sell by” envelope will face pitchforks and torches the next time a mass botulism or other food-borne illness strikes.

But we can’s just thrown up our hands, either — and not just because we have to help people who are starving.  Food production requires lots of fresh water, which is in short supply.  We just can’t afford to devote huge amounts of water to growing vegetables that aren’t eaten.  (And we can’t afford to subsidize the growth of crops that aren’t eaten, either, but that’s an issue for another day.)

So, what to do if you are a red-blooded American?  How about listening to that inner Mom’s voice — you know, the one that told you to clean your plate and remember that there are starving people in Africa — and only buy what you can eat, and then eat it?  Don’t buy the enormous cans of food at Sam’s Club if you don’t honestly think you can finish them off in one setting.  Instead of purchasing huge quantities of food on your trip to the neighborhood grocery store, plan on shopping only for the immediate future and making a few more trips as a result.

With New Year’s Day not far behind us, there’s still time for a new resolution.  How about resolving to apply Mom’s rules and trying to avoid wasting food this year?

Trying To Understand Acts Of Senseless Artistic Destruction

On Sunday, at London’s Tate Modern Art Museum, a visitor walked up to the Mark Rothko painting Black on Maroon and boldly wrote some words on the painting in black paint, then left the museum.

Today a Russian named Vladimir Umamets claimed responsibility for the act, but said it was not an act of vandalism.  According to the BBC, he was later was arrested and held on suspicion of causing criminal damage.  The BBC also reports that Umamets claims to be the founder of a “movement” called “Yellowism,” which apparently posits that “Art allows us to take what someone’s done and put a new message on it.”

I don’t know if there really is a “movement” called Yellowism, as opposed to one nutty jerk seeking to justify an otherwise senseless act of artistic destruction, but his philosophy is asinine.  Part of the joy of art is its aspirational aspect.  People appreciate art that reflects great talent that they don’t possess.  Anyone who thinks a great painting is just a canvas for their personal aggrandizement is just piggybacking on greatness they could never achieve on their own talent.

What would happen if every museum patron felt free to scrawl whatever they pleased on a Rothko — or the Mona Lisa?  It wouldn’t be long before a Rothko ceased to be a Rothko and instead became a patch of random graffiti.  If I wanted to see that, I would book a flight for inner city Detroit.  Come to think of it, that might be a suitable punishment for whomever actually defaced the painting:  sentence them to a few years scrubbing away the graffiti in British toilets.

Many Questions To Be Answered, Publicly And Quickly (II)

While the Obama Administration and the State Department are trying to keep a lid on what really happened in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi — because they are treating it as a “crime scene” — the news media is doing its job.

CNN has an article about warnings that purportedly were given to U.S. officials in Libya about the deteriorating security situation there.  The New York Times reports on the “problem of Libya’s militias,” which indicates that since the overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi Libya has become a fractionalized, lawless place dominated by heavily armed, autonomous “miliitias” with little sense of central control.  A BBC story quotes the president of the Libya’s interim assembly as saying that the Benghazi incident was carefully planned by foreigners who came to Libya months ago and have been plotting the attack since then.  The latter story, of course, undercuts the notion that the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens was a spontaneous reaction to an inflammatory internet video.  And the photos of the burnt-out remains of the consulate, published in newspapers and on websites across the globe, demonstrate how devastating the attack was.

These reports raise obvious questions about the real cause of the Benghazi attack and whether the Obama Administration, the U.S. State Department, and the intelligence community ignored clear danger signs — or even explicit advance warnings — about the security situation in Libya.  These questions can’t be adequately answered by spin-oriented flacks like White House press secretary Jay Carney.  Instead, those questions need to be asked, in a public forum, and answered under oath by knowledgeable Administration officials whose jobs involve collecting intelligence, ensuring that our diplomatic outposts are adequately safeguarded, and communicating with host countries about embassy security.  We deserve to know how this fiasco happened.

You Get What You Pay For

Kish wisely says there are some things you don’t scrimp on.  Shoes, for one.  Toilet paper, for another.  And, presumably, restoring damaged church frescoes painted by long dead artists.

The latter rule was confirmed by a horrifying yet hilarious BBC story.  A Spanish church was trying to figure out what to do with a more than 100-year-old fresco of Christ created by Elias Garcia Martinez that had been visibly harmed by moisture.  A well-intentioned, 80-year-old parishioner decided to take matters, and a paintbrush, into her own hands.  Her inept restoration attempt resulted in a restoration gone terribly wrong — a painting that, in the words of a BBC correspondence, looks like “a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic.”  And, based on a comparison of the original painting and the “restoration,” that description is apt.

Now the church will have to decide whether the damage can be repaired, and if so, how.  In the meantime, the rest of us should remember:  if you want something done right, hire an expert!

Frozen Planet Follies

There’s a controversy brewing around the BBC nature show Frozen Planet.  It involves striking footage of newborn polar bear cubs that some viewers thought was filmed in a snowy bear den in the Arctic.  It turns out that the footage was shot in a Dutch animal park, instead.

The BBC denies that it sought to mislead anyone.  It concedes that the footage of the cubs and their mother was shown after footage of the Arctic, but points out that a “behind the scenes” footage on the show’s website discloses the animal park filming.  The BBC and the show’s presenter, Sir David Attenborough, also note that such filming is standard procedure for nature shows and that the footage of the polar bears in their den would be impossible to obtain in the wild.

I’m sure all of that is true, but it is still disillusioning to learn that not all footage screened in “nature” shows is, in fact, filmed in natural surroundings.  Perhaps it was naive on my part, but I always thought that part of the wonder of such shows was the uncanny ability of photographers to get real-world footage of the animals, reptiles, and insects in their unadorned, natural surroundings.  Now I know that, before I gape in wonderment, I first have to check the website for behind-the-scenes disclaimers and disclosures.

International Sports

I like to go to the BBC website regularly, just to get a more international perspective on the news.  The BBC home page always has a box with the latest sports news, and usually when I review it I understand almost nothing about the blurbs that are posted to entice people to look at the actual stories.  As an example, here is what currently appears on the home page under sports, as of 7:26 Eastern time on December 14, 2009:

Ballack plays down German chances

Ferrari clear way for Schumacher

Lotus F1 sign Trulli and Kovalainen

England call up spinner Tredwell

India v. Sri Lanka latest score

Yousuf stars as Pakistan hit back

Woods loses key sponsorship deal

Stade duo cited over gouge claims

OK, I get the reference to Tiger Woods and recognize that the BBC has a different convention on noun-verb agreement.  Other than that, what the heck are they talking about?  How can we ever hope to understand the Brits if we can’t even understand the sports they follow?  (Although I have to admit that being a “spinner” sounds like fun, and “gouge claims” sound intriguing.)