Headline of the week


MANILA, December 9, 2003 (STAR) Abu Sayyaf kingpin Galib Andang, captured in Sulu late Sunday, is a ruthless leader and chief organizer of abductions for the feared kidnap gang.

Popularly known as Commander Robot, he was the architect of the much-publicized kidnapping of 21 hostages, including Europeans and other foreigners, in the neighboring Malaysian resort of Sipadan in April 2000.

Armed with machine guns, he and other Abu Sayyaf leaders brought the hostages by speed boat to his base in Jolo and held them there for about a year.

In the end, the hostages were released, reportedly in exchange for millions of dollars in ransom paid by Libya.

Andang is known to be ruthless with his hostages, one of whom — the son of a local doctor — was beheaded after delays in ransom payments.

He had often posed for journalists, spraying fire from his assault rifle in the air, warning the military of serious repercussions if they attacked the group’s hideouts.

Following the Sipadan spree, Andang, believed to be in his 40s, kidnapped a local teenage girl and forced her to marry him.

Commander Robot in action
I know he’s evil, but I just can’t help but giggle when I read that headline.

Robot camel jockeys

Like horse racing in many Western countries, camel racing is a popular sport in many Middle Eastern countries. Also like horse racing, jockeys are chosen for their small stature, so as to be less of a burden on the animal, and allow it to race more quickly. Unlike horse racing, the jockeys in camel races tend to be children, and they often suffer serious and even fatal injuries.

A BBC story has more information:

The risk of serious injury, disability and death is shockingly high among child jockeys in camel races in Gulf countries, a report shows.

Researchers in Qatar looked at 275 boys, many younger than nine and some as young as five, treated for camel racing injuries at a local hospital.

Seventeen of the boys treated between 1992 and 2003 were left with permanent disabilities and three died.

Although the sport using child riders, many of them trafficked from South Asia, has been banned in many countries, including Qatar since 2005, experts fear many children continue to be at risk.

If reports are accurate, at least 16,000 camels race at the 17 official tracks in the United Arab Emirates.

While the use of child jockeys for sport is now illegal in most places, the law is often ignored, but growing compliance threatens to doom the sport. What can fans to do to save their sport from the claws of crazy anti-childkilling human rights activists? As with most of life’s problems, robots are the answer.

The Wall Street Journal reports that fans of camel racing in the small, rich nation of Qatar have hired a Swiss firm to design them custom camel-racing robots, roughly the same size and weight of a small child.

The WSJ is subscription only, so I’ll reproduce just the directly robot related part of the article below.

“The first thing we knew we had to do was study the behavior of camels, understand their psychology,” Mr. Al-Thani says. After speaking with breeders, trainers, racers and psychologists, the committee summarized the relationship between the camel and jockey in a detailed report, noting crucial elements of camel behavior. Camels’ eyes, for example, roll back far enough to see directly behind them. This meant any robotic jockey would have to bear some resemblance to a human. Camels also have exceptional hearing and might be spooked by mechanical sounds, they determined.

The committee concluded that what was needed was a remotely controlled robot with a human form and voice. Early in 2004, K-Team was called in and offered the $1.37 million contract.

A K-Team delegation arrived in Doha with a battery of digital cameras, taking hundreds of pictures to document the subtle interaction between jockeys and their camels. They shot from every angle, in different race situations, to capture the movements and the reactions of both jockey and camel.

Back in Switzerland, it took months at the drawing board to adjust balance and shock-absorption and to protect against heat. Camels race at around 25 miles an hour — about 10 or 12 miles an hour slower than racehorses — in temperatures well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. “We conducted 100 hours of testing with 20 prototypes,” says Mr. Al-Thani.

The final product is a 59-pound, human-shaped droid. Mechanical arms and legs help it lean, balance and pull at the reins. The robots are fixed to the special camel saddle, equipped with straps, hooks and clips to keep them in place. They receive orders from trainers riding along behind via a remote-control system attached to the back of the camel.

Equipped with a global positioning system, cameras and microphones, the devices allow trainers to track the animal’s heart rate (170 to 172 beats per minute is a camel’s maximum), the sounds they make and even their facial expression. And the trainer can use a microphone to deliver such exhortations as the typical “haey hej’in!”

The camel trainer uses a joystick on a laptop-size control box to give commands: pulling back to tighten the reins and slow down the animal, forward to ease up on them and left and right for turns. The robot can also operate a whip, and a button on the joystick sends a signal to pull the reins sharply for an emergency stop.

Drunks with guns

I read in the WaPo yesterday that there were over 50,000 deaths annually in Russia as a result of alcohol poisoning!

That’s more than gun deaths in any country in the world!

Not to worry though. Even Russia has its Anthony Burgess fans (come to think of it Nadsat was actually created largely from Russian slang) and one of them discovered a wonderful way to keep people on the wagon – scare the shit out of them!

Coding was created by a Soviet psychiatrist, Alexander Dovzhenko, who assumed a cult-like status in the treatment of alcoholism. “The Dovzhenko method is basically a form of hypnosis: You drink, you die,” said Andrei Yermoshin, a private psychotherapist who no longer uses the method, preferring long-term therapy. “It’s fast and cheap, and supposedly you don’t have a problem for a year or two years or five years, depending on how long you have been coded for.”

There are a number of variations, but here’s basically how it works:

In Svetlana’s case, [fear of death] was induced by mild hypnosis followed by injection of a temporary but powerful drug that could attack her respiratory system. Before the drug kicked in, the doctor gave her a little vodka to taste. She became dizzy and had difficulty breathing before the doctor stepped in with some oxygen to revive her.

The injected medicine, the doctor said, would stay in her system. “I’ve coded you for a year,” he said, according to Svetlana. “And if you drink in that time, you will die.” He insisted that she sign a release form saying he would bear no responsibility for her death should she drink within 12 months.

“I believed him, because we had all heard stories about people who were coded and died when they drank,” said Svetlana

How effective is it? The WaPo reports that its effectiveness has never been tested, but poor Svetlana actually called an ambulance before taking a drink when she fell off the wagon two years ago (which is a pretty powerful statement about both the human condition and the questionable effectiveness of coding.)

I sure hope the tea-totalers in this country don’t ever find out and try to start a new prohibition movement. If the anti-gun lobby sides with the anti-drink fanatics, some of us might find ourselves in a tight (pun intended) spot.

Even worse, if neo-prohibitionists ever allied with the anti-gun lobby and everyone was forced to take sides, the opposition would be a bunch of drunks with guns!

Bowling for Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg?

The Washington Post reports today that Brazil is considering a nationwide ban on all firearms and ammunition for everyone except its police and military.

The Oct. 23 referendum, in which all adults must participate (voting is optional for those over 70), will be the first time any country has taken a proposed gun ban to the national ballot. Brazil has the highest number of firearms fatalities in the world, with more than 36,000 people shot dead last year, according to government figures.

Not surprisingly, shooting was the country’s leading cause of death. The article cites an estimate of 17.5 million guns in Brazil. That’s approximately one gun for every ten people! Must be that Brazil is a country of fear.

On a more serious note however, this prompted me to wonder about the causal link between the number of guns per capita and the number of deaths by shooting. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find data for this (and I don’t have time today to spend looking for it). However, I was able to find figures for gun deaths internationally, both absolute and for every 1000 citizens (Some of these numbers seem on the high side and there’s a pretty steep drop off between Zimbabwe and Mexico. I can’t vouch for their accuracy, but Nationmaster.com assures me that they are from UN data.). Although Brazil seems to have been excluded from the dataset, here are the results.

Top ten ranking of death by firearms per year:

1. South Africa 31,918 (2000)
2. Colombia 21,898 (2000)
3. Thailand 20,032 (2000)
4. United States 8,259 (1999)
5. Mexico 3,589 (2000)
6. Zimbabwe 598 (2000)
7. Germany 384 (2000)
8. Belarus 331 (2000)
9. Czech Republic 213 (2000)
10.Ukraine 173 (2000)

Top ten ranking of death by fire arms per year, per 1000 citizens:

1. South Africa 0.71 per 1000 people
2. Colombia 0.50 per 1000 people
3. Thailand 0.31 per 1000 people
4. Zimbabwe 0.04 per 1000 people
5. Mexico 0.03 per 1000 people
6. Belarus 0.03 per 1000 people
7. Costa Rica 0.03 per 1000 people
8. United States 0.02 per 1000 people
9. Uruguay 0.02 per 1000 people
10. Lithuania 0.02 per 1000 people

One interesting thing that immediately stands out is only three OECD member countries make the top ten in total deaths, although Mexico and Germany drop out when the data is adjusted to deaths per 1000 people.

Another thing I notice is that South Africa tops both lists. This is perhaps not surprising for a country where personal flamethrowers were actually marketed for a time as an anti-carjacking measure. Both the Economist and the New York Times recently reported that although crime rates, including carjacking (sadly, with little thanks to the flamethrower) have declined in recent years, South Africans feel unsafe than ever before. I’d love to like you to the NYT piece, which is great, but the bastards have started that “Times Select” nonsense and while I ain’t paying $3.95 for it, if you’re so inclined please feel free to check it out here.

The meaning of Ic(h)or

During a dinner conversation with friends on Thursday night, the subject of ichor came up. (Don’t ask – the gentlemen who mentioned it writes crossword puzzles for a living.) Not surprisingly, none of us had the slightest idea what he was talking about. It turns out that ichor is essentially the blood of the Gods.

From Wikipedia:

In Greek mythology, ichor (Greek ἰχώρ) was a mineral present in the blood of the gods that kept them immortal. It was sometimes said to have been present in ambrosia or nectar. When a god was injured and bled, the ichor made their blood poisonous to mortals.

But the word did ring vaguely familiar. After a few seconds, I remembered having heard it mentioned once in an international trade theory class. Of course, the professor wasn’t talking about Greek Mythology. Not being able to recall what the acronym stood for, I sought to commit it to memory. Here’s what I found.

According to Deardorff’s Glossary of International Economics

The amount of additional capital that a developing country requires to increase its output by one unit; thus the reciprocal of the marginal product of capital. Used as an (inverse) indicator of how efficiently a country is using the scarce capital it acquires.

Sound complicated? Actually, it’s really not all that difficult. It’s basically a measure of investment efficiency. Chi Hung Kwan explains in an essay written for the Japanese Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (REITI):

When considering investment efficiency in macroeconomic terms, the “incremental capital – output ratio (ICOR)” serves as a guide. ICOR is obtained by dividing the ratio of investment to GDP with real economic growth, and the smaller it is, the more efficient the investment.

Here are some comparative figures from Mr. Kwan’s essay:


So, there you have it. The hematological and economic significance of ic(h)or. Two of the most useful words in the English (and Greek) language(s).