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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: April 17, 2010

John Wilcock

THE EXTREME TRIATHLON is what they’re calling it. And it’s being undertaken by one man, Dan Martin, 28, whose round-the-world journey begins next month with a casual swim across the Atlantic. Clad only in swim trunks and a cap he’ll swim the 3,600 shark-infested waters starting May 8 from Nova Scotia to Brest in France and then cycle across Europe and Asia to Alaska. After that comes a run across America to New York where, If he’s up for it, he’ll be there in time to participate in the New York Marathon in the fall of next year.

At present, he’s bulking up his 6′-4” frame to 340lbs so that his Vaseline-covered body will be able to cope with the eight-hour daily swim aided by an electro-magnet pulse on his foot to repulse sharks and a GPS device with which to restart the swim each day from where he left off.

Crossing the Salang Pass north of Kabul in Afghanistan

Although he’s a veteran at this sort of thing — he earlier cycled across the Sahara — his recent practicing has been mostly in water. “The only thing I can train for at the moment is the swim,” he says. “Any training I do for running or cycling will be lost in a four-month stint at sea, so I’m just spending all my time swimming longer and longer distances and getting used to being in very cold water. And It’s the swimming that confuses most people… they can get their heads round the cycling and the running but the thought of swimming across an ocean in just your trunks puts me in the nutcase category.

“And there are two mental challenges here, one is the danger element and the other is the challenge of just keeping going from day to day. The day-to-day challenge is about becoming the master of your own mind and focusing on short-term targets like the next 5 minutes and the next 10 strokes. On the danger side, I’ve been seeing a sports psychologist who’s helping me focus on the things under my control.”

ALL YOU’D EVER need to know about Wall Street could be summarized with the case of Charles O. Prince III, the banker who used to be the boss of the giant Citigroup until its near collapse after dropping $64bn while he was in charge. During his glorious tenure, he was rewarded with $68bn in stock and options but, of course, he couldn’t be just let go and tagged as the devastating loser that he was. He was given a $12.5m bonus for all his efforts and — get this — asked to sign a contract saying he wouldn’t work for a rival. Although you’d think that if he could continue his illustrious career by bankrupting a rival, that would be all the better for Citigroup.

“I don’t care if these quotes are made up,” blustered Rush Limbaugh. “ I know Obama thinks it.” Extra

American Ground Forces in Afghanistan are becoming more like armed relief workers whose job is to “secure the citizen rather than destroy the enemy,” according to a piece of wishful thinking in the Atlantic that nominates General Stanley A. McCrystal as the hero who’s going to save the country. The 10-page piece by veteran reporter Robert D. Kaplan, although weighted in McCrystal’s favor, also quotes a Western official as calling the corrupt Hamid Karzai “unsalvageable” and adds: “The Soviets may have been occupiers but they were truly interested in Afghan governance in terms of the advice they gave and the puppets they chose — unlike the United States, obsessed as we have been with the hunting of al-Qaeda.”

A FAKE CURE can sometimes be as effective as a real one according to the people who study the effects of placebos on patients who aren’t told that they haven’t experienced the drugs or treatments that they expected. Even pretend surgery or acupuncture (don’t subjects miss the cuts or pricks?) apparently is enough to fool people into getting better; in fact, researchers report that the bigger and more complicated are the rituals, the greater the placebo effect. Most of it comes from expectations, explains University of Colorado psychologist Tor Wager, 35, whose recent brain imaging studies show that the assumption of being treated causes the brain to create dopamine which triggers pain relief. “The placebo effect is a real thing,” says German researcher Falk Eippert, “and it is tied to an old, hard-wired pain-control pathway.”

TAKING BACK AN AIRPLANE isn’t quite as simple as repossessing a car but there are plenty of people doing it. One of them is Indiana’s Nick Popovitch whose story is told in Air&Space magazine which says that as there are 26,000 airlines in the world “one of them is always ending up in the hands of a failing carrier.” Some of these carriers are none-too-happy about having their craft repossessed and go to extreme lengths to keep them hidden, ironically by keeping them in the air on unscheduled flights. That’s where the Popovich-Sage company comes in, ready to track down everything up to a 600-passenger jumbo jet which, surprisingly, like other aircraft doesn’t need an ignition key to start it up. Usually, with the law on his side, Popovich can just take the plane away once he’s found it, but he claims he’s under a death sentence in Africa and can’t go back there since he snatched the president of the Congo’s plane.

THE WILCOCK WEB: Shooting innocent civilians from overhead might sometimes be justified, but as last week’s pix showed it’s occasionally pure murder, and listen to how gleefully the killers do it. From here on, it’s all excuses… Under international agreement, Russia and the U.S. will cut down their nukes to 700 each. Gee, what a relief to know that if war breaks out we’ll be bombed a hundred times a day for only one week…Tickets in Dubai’s $2million lottery cost $550 each…. When you place Sony’s new TransferJet camera on the keyboard of your computer it automatically transfers the pictures to screen without further ado….Serial seducers Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were last week shown in PBS’ show The Mormons to be the Tiger Woods of their day…. Deft Definition: Dopeler Effect — The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly……Projecting from experiments in which he exposed mice with “Alzheimer-like conditions” to the same EMF frequencies emanating from cell phones, a University of South Florida researcher claimed not only were no tumors created, but the creatures’ memories improved…. “The Vatican is against surrogate mothers,” observes Elayne Boosler. “Good thing they didn’t have that rule when Jesus was born”…

Romania has erected traffic signs warning of drunks ahead… The latest Swiss Army knives include a laser pointer and flash drive…...A Vietnamese engineering firm, TOSY, promises that its new  ping pong-playing robot Topio, will be able to beat all-comers at Munich’s trade show Automatica in June…. Having discovered that the white sap in dandelion stalks is a natural latex and a possible substitute for rubber, German scientists  are seeking ways to prevent its instant solidifying…. New Statesman columnist Andrew Stephen predicts that Hillary Clinton may end up on the Supreme Court…. Spain’s remaining fascists are trying to shut down that crusading justice Baltasar Garzón because he keeps indicting killers from the Franco era…. The men who make revolutions are always despised by those who profit from them—Francoise Guizot  (1787-1874)