Thursday, January 30, 2003

Hierarchies of Society:

I often wonder about personal habits, and lately being on a diet has brought this home. They really are a link to our animal nature. I first thought about this when I had recently changed jobs, and realized that one of the first habits I established was to always return to the same stall in the bathroom. We do this everywhere. We sit in the same seat in a class. We prefer the same seat on the bus. There is an entire culture of seating on the train into and out of New York. Don´t you dare violate it.

These are the things that enable us to survive - they are the learned behaviours transmitted to us by our families and by our experiences. Memes. There are certainly habits one has that remind of our parents. Especially if you have a sibling, you can see your parents in some of their actions. The sum of these habits are our personalities. We are known by our actions.

Cultures, are therefore the aggregate sum of personalities, habits and actions.

So, like dietary habits, cultures are amongst the most difficult things to change. And you wanted to change the culture of consumption, you said? Good luck - that´s one hell of a diet.

 Wednesday, January 29, 2003


A colleague of mine recently moved to Goettingen. He´s here in Argentina with me, and over a beer he told me of the experience with great dry humour, and I realized that he was expressing frustration with how his native land had changed during his absence, and in a larger sense, giving a warning on the social costs of having a light ecological footprint.

Germany has established an extremely conscientious program to control waste. Smoke, recyclables, kitchen waste, EM radiation - it´s all regulated. When he moved in to his home, he was given a booklet explaining how he was to use the different appliances to control all this.

The furnace is "105 percent efficient," getting that extra bit from the latent heat of condensation. I´m still suspicious about the number - I´m not sure how they get it that high. Wood burning is completely out of the question. Bottles and tin cans have to be taken back to the store from which they were bought, with the original receipt. The kitchen waste is great; it has to be sorted into five different bins. OK, that´s fine, but you have to estimate how much volume you put out each week, and you have to justify it when you fall short. He can get away with not putting out organics because he submitted a long form explaining that his household of x square meters was producing y kilos of waste which could safely be composted on z square meters of land. And we won´t even discuss the wireless telephone he smuggled in to be able to use the phone while he is in his woodshop...he operates it without having submitted the requisite forms applying for a permit to emit radio energy.

To live cleanly, one pays a price. The real question is, are you willing to pay it? It´s not likely that most of us would put up with this kind of nonsense.

Matto Grosso:

I was stunned today by a map of deforestation in Brazil. The map showed various different states of the Amazonian region (Amazonia Legal, in Brazil), and one of the ones with the greatest degree of clearing was Matto Grosso. I had always heard of Matto Grosso as the depths of the jungle. Cabeza de Vaca and all that. It was the archetype. To see all those red marks was to have my memory of childhood books on exploration wounded.

I had always known that this process was going on, having seen it live in many overflights of the Amazon. I remember being stunned then when I realized that one is never out of sight of a clearing. The night-time flights are even more stunning - fire, fire, everywhere. Never out of sight of a raging fire. But what can Brazil do? They have unleashed a genie with the road building program, and now Avanca Brasil will prove interesting to watch as it too blunders into the forest, fully mechanized.

 Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Scobee, Smith, Resnik, Onizuka, McNair, Jarvis & McAuliffe:

...and today is the anniversary of the STS-51L Challenger disaster.
For the United States, such a loss is a very public thing, and the political consequences are large. Public hearings occur, fingers are pointed, and occasionally the problem is fixed. The hearings that followed Challenger eventually determined that a breakdown had occurred in communications between the government launch decision and the contractor´s opinion of the safety of low temperature launches. Morton Thiokol knew that low temperatures made for leaky joints on the SRBs, but they could not effectively convince the correct decision-makers. The intense pressure caused by public scrutiny of the Teacher In Space Program made each successive launch delay more embarrassing, and the hurried presentation by Thiokol to NASA was not enough to stop the momentum of the public pressure.

I was very glad to see that NASA has restarted a Teacher In Space-like program, and that some of the previous candidates have come back. I will salute them as they glide by overhead.

 Monday, January 27, 2003

Chafee, Grissom & White:

Today is the anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire. I was not old enough to appreciate the importance of the event when it actually occurred, but I imagine it was much like the Challenger disaster. Some people cared, and most did not. Space is a dangerous place, and the equipment we use to get there is complicated, cranky, and built by the lowest bidder. I certainly don´t put the entire blame for the event on the contractor for the command module, because the process of designing, building and testing all of the components of Apollo was a very interactive process between private industry and government. Sometimes, these lessons are very expensive. This theme will be continued tomorrow (above) with the Challenger incident.

 Sunday, January 26, 2003

Mendoza, Argentina:

...where it is very hot. One hundred and ten. Forty-four C. Ah, but the wine makes up for it. From my hotel we can see the snow on the Andes. I wrote a story about climbing Aconcagua in 1977 that I will post at the appropriate dates later this year.

The main thing about the snow is that it is disappearing. All the glaciers in the Andes are in full retreat, and places like Mendoza, in the Andean rain-shadow, depend on the winter buildup of snowpack for both their surface- and well-water. The fact that the glaciers are retreating means that there is a current abundance of water, making the agricultural industries here viable - wine, wheat, etc. There is a large economy based on the current supply of water. Unfortunately, the snow pack is not being replenished at the same rate as it is melting - viz. the retreat of the glaciers. The water is being spent faster than it is being saved. It will take only a few decades to use up about 10,000 years of accumulation. After that, drought. Severe drought. In 1968 they had a lack of snowfall that caused an over 30 percent drop in gross regional product, so the vulnerability is real.

This long term trend does not bode well for some of Argentina´s prime exports: wine and wheat. So drink some of that delicious Malbec while you can. It probably won´t last your lifetime.

 Friday, January 24, 2003

Plop, plop, fizz, fizz:

Another Newton wireless nBlog submission, written while commuting...

Apparently the Park Service has protested to Proctor and Gamble about its advert showing a park ranger putting Metamucil in the Old Faithful geyser in order to get it to blow. The Service is saying that putting substances in geysers is dangerous and could damage them. P&G's response: "It's a joke, guys."

Your government at work, trying to avert another catastrophe like the infamous Colon Blow incidents, in which dozens of SNL viewers were hospitalized with severe compaction after being advised to eat a certain cereal...

 Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Misner, Thorne and Wheeler:

Strange things are afoot in cosmology. Physics is now looking with caution at dark energy, which is as wierd as it gets. Observations of high-z supernovae (really, really far away) indicate that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. Several lines indicate that dark energy makes up about two-thirds of the critical density in the universe, but an unexpected outcome of this is that this mass is behaving in a way that repels other mass. That is, that the force of gravity can sometimes be repulsive. If true, this will require a pretty fundamental re-write of several areas of physics.

And I haven't even started on the seven hidden dimensions curled up on themselves by string theory, which is one part of the dark energy debate...

 Tuesday, January 21, 2003


I was amused to read that the Danish government misconduct committee investigating the controversial book The Skeptical Environmentalist is now itself under review for misconduct...

Why should the business world have all the fun? Science wants in, too!


Posted wirelessly from my Newton using nBlog

My wife had been using AOL until I came along and convinced her that nano-bandwidth was a waste of her time. Plus, the phone service where we live is pretty pitiful anyway, leading to stunning baud rates like 9600, so it was constantly frustrating her. We eventually went with cable, and last weekend I dedided to get rid of unused software on her computer. Specifically, all the AOL paraphernalia. Bad idea.

AOL is like that little kid who takes the bat and ball and goes home when he loses. Uninstalling AOL removed all the drivers for any internet-related items on the machine: the old modem card, the ethernet card, and the WiFi I had just installed. Also, AOL had hijacked IE, replacing the throbber, and IE was claiming it was "supplied by AOL." Grrr. Of course the uninstall did not get rid of that, and I can't be bothered to get that far under the hood of IE to get rid of these traces.

This all points to not only AOL, but to a really poor field of engineering. Software is one of the most poorly quality controlled industries in the world. To even call it engineering is really stretching it. It's sort of like calling medicine as practiced by GPs "science." Yes, there are plenty of QA fora and so-called institutes offering courses on ISO9000 and 15000 issues at $3,000 a pop, but the end result is... you are still stuck with the OS's own QA/QC issues.

I'm pretty sure we are still in the real infancy of software development, and will remain there for a while. People still insist on writing code from scratch because no standard methods have dominated - yes, some tools are emerging that generate standard methods and cross-platform is almost de rigeur. But that's a long way from giving us the reliability we have come to expect from other complex engineering systems. Right now, the industry is being driven by costs that exceed user demand. You didn't get that upgrade because it helps you to do your daily work, did you? You probably upgraded because you found you couldn't use a new piece of software, or because the Joneses next door sent you an attachment you couldn't open. i.e. you were forced to do it because of factors external to your performance and especially external to your requirements.

None of us like being forced to upgrade, but since this is still a very tempting revenue stream with a business model that is tolerated by the consumer, the software empires will continue to use it. So go ahead. Use your .mac account, and/or Windows why don't you?

 Saturday, January 18, 2003


OK, so now it's Bastet's turn. She's Seth's sister. (a deep voice behind the mask says: "a sister?..."). I think she donated her brains to Seth, since she has some serious problems with being cat-like. The other day I watched in amazement as she prepared to leap onto the counter in the kitchen, but only succeeded in going head first into the drawer handle. She missed the top of the counter by several inches. I have this image frozen in my mind of a cat in mid-air, it's nose mashed against the drawer front, tail straight up, and back legs splayed. Well, she landed with a thump, and then walked away pretty sheepishly. I did go and console her, poor thing. She does stuff like that a lot. I've known a lot of cats, and never before seen so many mistakes by one.

Cats, Dogs, Cats, Dogs. Hmm. I used to have a pair of American Eskimos ("Eskies!). Kayak was smart as a whip, but she wasn't as nice looking as her brother, Igloo. Igloo was lovable, but thick as two planks. I remember calling to them from below the deck on the house, and while Kayak knew enough to realize that she had to run away from my voice to get to the stairs to come down, Igloo tried for several minutes to get through the railings and jump down 15 feet to the grass below. I miss those two - I had to give them away to a great family with twin daughters, and the dogs stayed by their new front door for four days waiting for me to come back. It's over five years ago now, and it still makes me cry. There's a pic of them here.

 Friday, January 17, 2003

Thomas Malthus:

All this ranting of mine about development made me think about a frightening fact I recently read in a Nature article by Antony Trewavas.

It's a nice piece outlining the successive agricultural revolutions that have enabled (or perhaps even been driven by) several jumps in population. My synopsis - there have been three basic revolutions in agriculture: methods, chemistry, and genetics.

  • Methods
    • 1) the change from hunter-gatherer to sedentary farming about 10,000 years ago;
    • 2) the mechanization of agriculture in the 1800's;

  • Chemistry
    • 3) the discovery of the basic principles of fertilization, also in the 1800's;
    • 4) the production of artificial fertilizers in the early 1900's;

  • Genetics
    • 5) the specialized hybridization of corn and cereals in the early 1900's;
    • 6) the Green Revolution increasing yields in the 1950's; and
    • 7) the current work on genetically modified organisms.

The Nature piece does, however, have a dark overtone to it in terms of the future, which made me recall the pretty simple fact that raising animals for meat requires more arable land than raising grain for people. It's about a ten-to-one ratio for beef, meaning it takes about ten times as much land to produce a pound of beef than it does a pound of grain. This fact, when combined with the changing diet of the increasingly wealthy Chinese (who are becoming Westernized and consuming more beef), means that if the average diet of China reaches Western levels of consumption for beef, there will be no arable land left on Earth. We are already using half of the available land -- to use the rest of course means getting rid of all of that troublesome forest and jungle.

If you start to consider the "footprint" that Western habits of consumption leave on the environment, the prospect of an increasingly Westernized China is pretty frightening. The alternatives, however, are not too pleasant either. I am not sure I have much confidence in environmental policy under a fundamentalist Islamic world government, or a fundamentalist Jain world government, but I would bet they would not differ much from a fundamentalist Christian view. You would think that the idea of stewardship of the Earth would have formed part of these philosophies, but the geographical areas under this type of political control have shown there was very little understanding of this concept.

Looking at the above list of revolutions, the equation for supply and demand gives fairly simple ideas on what can be altered. Either you increase production (by increasing the area sown, and/or increasing yield/acre) or you reduce demand (by reducing the number of people, or by reducing demand/person). We have concentrated so far on the first part of the equation (production), but the second part has always proved intractable. One wonders what might be possible in terms of genetically modifying humans to require fewer calories?

Arguments are often given that the sea will save us, in terms of increasing the amount of protein available for consumption in the form of fish, either directly harvested, or from aquaculture. Trewavas used two phrases that hit me square in the forehead: "The current malthusian crisis affecting world fisheries has been caused by the application of modern harvesting to an industry that has yet to escape the ethos of the hunter-gatherer." and "...A problem is that fish-farming as currently practised is not sustainable, consuming more fish protein than it produces". That is, that fish protein is not a place to look for feeding needs, as practised currently.

Oh, and the Chinese will all want to drive SUV's too.

 Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Rachel Carson:

Last weekend, as our neighbours drove us to dinner in their Ford M-1 Abrams, we were discussing my past lust for a Hummer. You see, I work on environmental issues, so there is a conflict. It's like PETA members wearing fur coats to the circus. I have to say that I have reasoned my way out of this lust, although I do occasionally succumb to it momentarily. I used to think that it was a no-net gain situation, where my daily work would compensate for the damage I would do, but my wife suggested that outsiders might think that I was just trying to guarantee my job in perpetuity...

Perhaps SUV owners should be able to participate in carbon trading permits. But I have also come to the conclusion that most SUV owners would have no idea what I was talking about. Heck, most car owners have no idea what they are. This made me wonder about who the most destructive segment of the population are, and I have to say that real estate developers are way up there. I know that real estate clears more forest acreage by far than the entire wood, pulp & paper industry combined. But of course that is for our convenience, and it is usually political suicide to suggest limiting urban growth in those places where forests are being cleared.

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 Monday, January 13, 2003

Haidinger & Shurcliff:

Hearing about being able to see UV light after you've had a cataract operation (since apparently the eye's lens filters out UV light) made me think of other latent (or perhaps vestigial) talents in our eyes.

I remember reading in high school that we can all detect the direction of polarization of light with our unaided eye - the Haidinger's brushes phenomenon. I remember rushing out to buy polarizing filters, and sure enough, with some patience, you really could see this faint pattern. I still marvel at it when I look up at the sky, and see it faintly hanging there like a bruise. What I didn't know then is that this phenomenon not only indicates the direction of polarization, but it can also indicate the phase shift for circularly or elliptically polarized light. I haven't tested this yet...

Now the question really is whether this is a vestigial property that once conferred an evolutionary advantage to one of our ancestors, or whether this is a mere observation of a property of the dichroism of the chemicals retinal and rhodopsin in our retinas.

George A. Miller:

A fragment overheard on the elevator (how often does this happen...) about meta-memory made me realize that as I age, I am recalling my memories more than actual events. I recently transferred all my family's old 8mm films to MiniDV and VHS tapes, in order for easier viewing and an (eventual) editing session. And I have been thinking about how viewing those old movies actually corrupts my memory of the same events: now when I recall an event, it is from the viewpoint of the camera, rather than from my viewpoint as a chattering, laughing child. Vision is such a huge portion of our memory that it makes memory vulnerable to modification by the same stimulus as created it. So be careful when you look at movies and pictures: you are erasing the past while under the impression that you are reliving it.

 Friday, January 10, 2003

Noam Chomsky:

This Sunday would be HAL's birthday. That is, according to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Certainly, artifical intelligence has not progressed as far as Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick thought it might have by now, but it certainly has gone in some unforeseen directions.

From today's special-effects-saturated perspective, it is hard to appreciate the social, political and financial effect that the April 1968 premiere of Space Odyssey had on the world. It was the first movie of this kind to be so widely seen. It is easily forgotten that the world was only just recovering from the stunning announcement, a few short weeks before, that extremely regular radio pulses had been detected coming from a star in a direction between Altair and Vega -- speculation as to what these signals might mean was of course rampant, even though the theory behind pulsars was already being discussed by astrophysicists. Manned launches were still rare (in fact, only 32 people had flown in space by this point).

I actually went to the premiere in London, at the ripe old age of five. I certainly don't remember much about that night, except for looking up at the marquee, the black monolith standing in the faux Louis-XVI bedroom, and Bowman's aging face. It suprises me that I don't remember a thing about the apes, or about the psychedelic flight and space sequences, which later in life proved so fascinating to me. At age 11 or so, I actually drew up construction plans to convert my own room into a part of the space station, lit from below by fluorescents under frosted glass. Lack of independent funding put an end to that...

I'm amazed that 2001 holds up so well, even today. It certainly kicks its own sequel's ass... because 2010 was firmly in the "B" column. Keir Dullea should never have agreed to the part in the sequel. I admit to owning 2010, but I have to say I have only ever played that DVD once...

OK, this is really creepy - while I was putting the final edits on this post, Thus Spake Zarathustra streamed through on iTunes...

(Avi's BackDrop module on my Newton MP2100 with image from Andreas Lindkvist)

John A. Barry:

An example of the technobabble I am faced with on a daily basis: "Spatial referencing simply means that geo-coded elements in the data relate information to a place which leads to the types of places that are identified as and conform to a Digital Earth metaphor." Uh-huh. Social scientists. Sheesh.

I'll have to go back and re-read my own doctoral thesis now that I have had the benefit of a decade to forget what I was working on. I'm sure I specialized in my own technobabble... I remember looking at Chi-squared distributions in the complex domain, in order to look at errors in frequency analysis. So long ago, so long. Thank goodness, because it was a really bitter stage in my life. Oh-oh. I promised myself never to type things like that... since blogs are so damned depressing anyway. Heh.

 Thursday, January 09, 2003

Wilson B. Key:

At the moment I don't want to pay for the Blogger upgrades that are so aggressively advertised by the annoying ad up top there (ahem, apologies to the readership). But this made me think that a very strange business model has emerged where the customer pays to avoid seeing advertising. I can just imagine our future now: while the elite can live quietly, the poor are bombarded by their city-supplied video-walls, and their printers pour out coupons for the local McNokia. No wonder Kim Il Sung hated us.

 Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Watson & Crick:

An interesting point on NPR - there are plenty of human clones walking around right now, and they are being produced at the rate of 30 babies a day in the USA. They are all the 'naturally born' identical twins.

The difference between naturally born twins and cloned twins is that the cloned identical twin would be born many years after it's 'sibling' and would be subject to a very strange set of expectations, and born under very different conditions. This is the crux of the issue behind the Raelian cult's cloning claim.

I was very interested to find out that not only are there the types of twins we have all heard about (fraternal, identical, conjoined), but there also are several other types: mirror, half-identical, and 'twins-of-two.' Google away, folks.

 Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Relative Risks:

Posted wirelessly from my Newton with nBlog!

I initially thought about putting this together after getting really mad at the panic generated by the Washington snipers. The Thursday November 7th NPR interview by Diane Rehm of David Ropeik spurred me to actually do it.

I know the list is coldly clinical (and highly vulnerable to criticism), but irrational fear is to be fought on all fronts. I confess that in the middle of the sniper affair I was a little creeped out by standing at the sink at night, feeling that I had cross-hairs on my forehead, especially knowing that the snipers had driven within 5 miles of my house several times. But such is human psychology.

What would be interesting is a cross-tabulation of relative risks, so it would be easy to see that dying from heart disease is about 24 times more likely than dying from a gunshot, about 140 times more likely than dying from food poisoning, and about 33,000 times more likely than contracting West Nile virus.

I'd also like to see a listing of how much money is spent on prevention of each of the items in the list, and then be able to list a "distortion" factor showing how public perception drives the political system to fund prevention of highly improbable events. But such is human psychology, and the price of comfort. Now, back to washing the dishes at my well-lit sink, facing the forest behind my house.

Annualized risk of:

  • Being obese: 1:6
  • Being an overweight child: 1:7
  • Suffering a serious non-fatal injury: 1:9
  • Engaging in excessive drinking: 1:15
  • Injuring yourself in a fall: 1:37
  • Being injured by a falling object: 1:55
  • Being injured in a motor vehicle accident: 1:82
  • Injuring yourself through overexertion: 1:85
  • Suffering an unintentional cut or piercing: 1:116
  • Dying from Any cause: 1:117
  • Being struck in a non-sexual assault: 1:213
  • Being bit or stung: 1:265
  • Being diagnosed with Chlamydia: 1:392
  • Dying from Heart Disease 1:397
  • Being injured as a cyclist: 1:417
  • Being injured in a fire: 1:510
  • Dying from Cancer: 1:511
  • Being diagnosed with Gonorrhea: 1:767
  • Being bitten by a dog: 1:797
  • Suffering a non-fatal poisoning: 1:823
  • Being injured in a machinery accident: 1:833
  • Dying from being overweight or obese: 1:918
  • Being injured in a motorcycle accident: 1:1,395
  • Self-harm poisoning: 1:1,617
  • Dying from Stroke: 1:1,699
  • Being stabbed or cut in a non-sexual assault: 1:2,255
  • Dying from Respiratory Disease: 1:2,313
  • Dying from All accidents: 1:3,014
  • Being injured by a firearm: 1:3,637
  • Dying from Diabetes: 1:4,072
  • Being injured in a reported sexual assault: 1:4,302
  • Dying from Influenza & Pneumonia: 1:4,320
  • Being injured as a result of law enforcement actions: 1:4,348
  • Dying from Alzheimer's: 1:5,752
  • Dying from Alcohol (direct & liver disease): 1:6,210
  • Dying from Auto accidents: 1: 6,745
  • Dying from Kidney Failure: 1:7,575
  • Being diagnosed with Salmonellosis: 1:8,596
  • Dying from Septiciemia: 1:9,037
  • Dying from a gunshot: 1:9,604
  • Dying from Liver disease: 1:9,749
  • Dying from Suicide: 1:12,091
  • Being injured by a BB gun: 1:12,992
  • Being diagnosed with Hepatitis A: 1:13,488
  • Dying from Poisoning: 1: 13,547
  • Dying from Hypertension: 1:14,323
  • Dying from Homicide: 1:15,440
  • Being diagnosed with Lyme's disease: 1:15,525
  • Dying from Pneumonitis: 1:15,560
  • Dying from Aortic aneurysm: 1:16,373
  • Dying from Parkinson's: 1:16,506
  • Being diagnosed with Tuberculosis: 1:16,808
  • Dying from HIV: 1:17,879
  • Dying from Atherosclerosis: 1:17,985
  • Dying from Perinatal Period: 1:18,399
  • Dying from Falling: 1:19,659
  • Being diagnosed with Shigellosis: 21,620
  • Dying from Suffocation: 1: 22,753
  • Being diagnosed with Group A Strep (incl. toxic shock): 1:31,280
  • Being diagnosed with Pertussis: 1:34,990
  • Dying from solar radiation induced Melanoma: 1:35,291
  • Being diagnosed with Syphilis: 1:46,039
  • Dying from Pedestrian accidents: 1:48,894
  • Being diagnosed with Hepatitis B: 1:55,000 (very approx.)
  • Dying from Food Poisoning: 1:56,424
  • Dying from Drowning: 1:64,031
  • Dying from Fire: 1:82,977
  • Dying from 9-11 terrorism: 1:86,284
  • Dying from Adverse effects of medical care: 1: 98,169
  • Being diagnosed with Meningococcal disease: 1:122,015
  • Dying from Washington snipers (resident in Montgomery County, MD): 1: 145,557
  • Being diagnosed with Malaria: 1:176,452
  • Dying from Group A Strep (incl. toxic shock): 1:275,266
  • Dying from an unintentional gunshot: 1:354,724
  • Dying from Bicycle Accident: 1:376,165
  • Dying from Machinery operations: 1: 407,198
  • Being diagnosed with Typhoid fever: 1:730,149
  • Dying as a result of law enforcement actions: 1:766,758
  • Being diagnosed with the Mumps: 1:814,396
  • Dying from Adverse drug effects: 1:1,079,475
  • Dying in an airplane crash: 1:1,100,000
  • Being diagnosed with Rubella: 1:1,564,011
  • Being diagnosed with Tularemia: 1:1,938,493
  • Being diagnosed with Toxic Shock Syndrome: 1:2,039,007
  • Being diagnosed with Measles: 1:3,200,000
  • Dying from Lightning: 1:4,478,159
  • Contracting Hantavirus: 1:6,713,805
  • Being diagnosed with Tetanus: 1:7,864,743
  • Contracting West Nile virus: 1:13,107,904
  • Being diagnosed with Trichinosis: 1:17,204,125
  • Dying from Overexertion: 1: 21,174,308
  • Dying from Washington snipers (resident anywhere in US): 1: 22,938,833
  • Being diagnosed with Bubonic Plague: 1:45,877,667
  • Dying from Tetanus: 1:45,877,667
  • Dying from Anthrax terrorism: 1:56,424,800
  • Dying from Toxic Shock Syndrome: 1:91,755,333
  • Dying from West Nile virus: 1:137,633,000

US Population divided by number of annual events for the year 2000 (except for terrorism and sniping). Sources: CDC WisQaRS system, Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, calculated for all ages.

Obviously this is a gross first cut that is highly unstable (insignificant figures were included). Risks depend on circumstance - your chances are much smaller of dying in a motorcycle accident if you are an infant, and you are less likely to be struck by lightning if you never go outdoors or do not live in central Florida. However, if you are over 18, and like riding morocycles in thunderstorms around Orlando, then you are somewhere high up on the table with a whole different set of numbers. But the table gives a good first idea of the order in which you should be concerned about things: eat right, exercise regularly, drink responsibly, and drive carefully. Thanks Mom. Turn over the lottery ticket you just bought, look at the odds, and place them in the table. Now repeat after me: "sucker." It also tells me that America is FAT. But I knew that - just ride the bus and you'll see. Yikes.

Banting & Best:

Let me state it up front: I am a type one diabetic. And thanks to modern medicine, I am still alive. Without my daily injections, I'd be dead by now. Diabetes mellitus is linked to genes in ways that are not yet completely clear - it runs in families, and yet also appears in families with no history, like mine. Even without a family history, I was of course concerned when my son was born. His mother came from a family with very prevalent male diabetes. Were we passing this on to him?

It occurred to me that my survival was guaranteeing my passing on of defective genes. Modern medicine is in many ways weakening the human gene pool by allowing these sorts of diseases to be propagated, and making us ever more dependent on pharmaceutical products for survival. Yes, all very nice for our present lifetimes, but what will this mean on a 10,000 year timescale?

I suspect that medicine is doing great harm in the very long run. And what can the present do about it, given the perceived short-term benefits?


We have two cats. One of them, Seth, has occasionally suprised me with his behaviours, which I think are evidence that he is actually doing some sort of reasoning. Reasoning more in a human sense than feline reasoning, which must of course go on all the time. Here's the scene: we baked macaroons, and left them wrapped on the counter overnight. Now Seth has a sweet tooth - enough of one to steal food from the hummingbird feeders, if he could only get at them. So naturally the macaroons were too much to resist, and he made off with one during the night. But he placed something where the macaroon had been: a small nugget of cat food.

Now what could this mean? "Here is a gift for you," "Here is an exchange," or even "Maybe they won't notice"? -- The fact that he had to carry his food from a bowl across the room and up onto the counter without eating it meant that this was a deliberate act. And one that required reasoning. Now cats are well known for presenting gifts: the proud show of a mouse or bird to a not very appreciative owner is a cliche. But it's the 'exchanging' part of this that I have not heard of before. Ah, that fuzzy-head...

 Monday, January 06, 2003

Watson & Crick:

Gee, was it any surprise that there was no access given to Eve's DNA? Speaking of DNA, I have a swab of my child's squamous epithelials in my freezer, and so should every parent. Having just seen "Minority Report" last night, I was glad I had taken that sample several years ago. Hmm... time to renew that swab.



All of these movies and stories about little green men (or grays) made me wonder about how evolution on a totally different planet could ever end up with a creature that looked anything like us (medially symmetric, bipedal, head configuration etc.). The chances are really infinitesimally small that something would evolve to look so like us. So if these creatures really exist, my only conclusion is that they would have to actually be humans from the far future. That is, they would be time-travellers. Therefore, we should be very afraid of them - they is us!

 Thursday, January 02, 2003

Dear A -

Many years ago (when you were less than two), I started to write down some stories that I thought might amuse you later, when you could read them for yourself. It is now time for me to get them onto some sort of medium where they will survive, and I felt that a blog would do the trick.

I do this because I felt a great deal of anguish when my mother died, and I realized that she had shared many stories with me about her childhood and later life, and I had not listened closely enough. Of what she had written down, I only had some fragments - the rest had been destroyed by life's continuing alterations of circumstance. This feeling -that I had missed an opportunity to capture part of an important contribution to our temperaments (yes, I see her in you)- led directly to my efforts to write things down for you.

Perhaps you will not read this. I am at peace with that possibility too. It is, after all, despite a parent's most fervent wishes, your life, and yours alone. That is the hardest lesson of all for us to learn, and nearly impossible for a parent to transmit. Your choices are yours to select, yours to carry out, to regret, and to rejoice.

I hope you enjoy these. Some will be dry, some might make you cry, but most of all, I hope some make you wonder and laugh.

Love always,

Your father,