Monday, April 28, 2003

BSE, Scrapie, Creutzfeldt-Jakob, Kuru:

Seeing my skull so prominently each day made me somewhat sensistive to a Science article (v. 300, Iss. 5619, pp. 640-643; 10.1126/science.1083320) about cannibalism and the presence of prions in brain matter.

The recent mad cow scare in Europe, and the ongoing struggle with similar diseases in sheep ("scrapie") has been linked to the use of animal matter in making feed for the same animals. In essence, an undetected infected animal is slaughtered and used to make feed for other animals, and the infection is passed on because prions can survive food processing cycles. This process is actually quite common - the part of animals that are not used for human consumption end up in the food chain for our pets and also back to feed the animals themselves. Sheep and cows often end up eating highly processed sheep and cows in their feed. They are unwitting cannibals. The mad cow scare came about precisely because brains from infected cows were used in the processing of food for human consumption -- and unlike bacteria, which can be killed or at least controlled by careful preparation and cooking, prions are not affected. A well-done hamburger could carry active prions.

Cannibalism among humans is now rare. However, it has not always been so, and prions were passed on and infection rates among groups practicing cannibalism reflected this. In New Guinea, where cannibalism was practiced until the 1950's, there are still many cases of kuru, a prion similar to CJD, among a group called the Fore. The Science article points out the interesting fact that there is a genetic trait that can confer protection against infection, and that this trait is prominent in the Fore, as we might expect. The surprising point was that when this trait is looked at among other groups worldwide, the most likely explanation for the observed distribution is that human cannibalism was once a widespread practice.

I am not clear on the transmission mechanism of prions in other animals, like deer, moose, antelope etc. that are known to suffer from them. These animals are not known to consume their dead, so there must be another form of transmission for the prions in these cases, which may also be valid for the cases with cows, sheep and humans.

For dinner tonight: Blackened hamburger. Carbonized. Irradiated.

 Friday, April 25, 2003

Brynner, Savalas, Stoor:

Well, it has been a week now since I shaved my head.


When I was growing up I often saw small children running around with shaved heads. The belief was that hair would come back stronger after shaving. I tend to doubt this, since I can't really see how the action of a razor would have much to do with the layer of skin where the roots of the hair follicle are. I suspect that seeing regrowth causes people to think that hair regrows quickly. My wife says that people in the industry (those highly trained hair stylists), will tell you that not even vigourous brushing will help accelerate growth. It's a myth.

The first day, say, it grows 1 mm (far too fast, according to my data so far, but bear with me). The next day, it has grown another mm, to 2 mm. 100 percent growth. The third day, another mm makes 3 mm total length. 50% growth. The fourth day, another mm makes 4 mm total, for 33% growth. etc. etc.

The impression given is that the initial shaving has caused a growth spurt, but in fact we are simply observing a diminishing fraction of total length being contributed by a completely constant growth rate. John Allen Paulos' books Innumeracy and Beyond Numeracy come to mind...

 Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Flit, Humm & Buzz:

The arrival of the season's first Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at our feeders occurred this week. I work with a program that provides funding for someone that works with these brassy little guys, so it was a joy to see them arrive. They are so damned cheeky that when we went to replace the food over the weekend, one of them was cursing at us in hummingbird-ese, and pushing in under our hands to get to the feeder. They are truly in your face, often literally, hovering a few inches from your nose, making a frightening hum like a bumblebee on steroids, and chattering away like mad.

It's amazing to think that these fellows are possibly coming all the way from Tamaulipas and Veracruz areas of Mexico. The big question is whether they come across the Gulf of Mexico to Florida, and then go North, or whether they take the shore route through Texas. No one knows, because no banded hummingbird has ever been recaptured in a place allowing us to figure out their migration route. Personally, I wonder about their metabolism during an over-water route crossing -- hummers eat insects as well as nectar, and it's quite possible that there are sufficient insects over most of the 500-plus km crossing, especially if they skirt the Cuban coast. But still... there's not much body weight to play with!




All this reminds me of bees, and the interesting symbiotic relationship they have developed with small segments of our population. There is an interesting subculture of bee-keepers in New York City, known as the New York City Rooftop Beelicious Honey Apiary -- they all maintain hives of bees for making honey that is sold at various markets and delis around the city. Apparently the bees do very well, living hundreds of feet above the madding crowds, placidly going from millionaires penthouse gardens to tenement flowerpots. No bears to raid their hives, either. Just the occasional fight against City Hall, which insists they are "wild, ferocious, fierce, dangerous or naturally inclined to do harm," and so are illegal to keep.

The other segment of the population that is mixed up with bees is a little more interesting. Migratory beekeepers actually move millions of bees around on tractor-trailer rigs, putting out their busy workers for hire to farmers along the route who need crops pollinated. Farmer pays cash, truck unloads hives, bees go to work for a day or two, plants are pollinated, hives are reloaded, honey is made, and off they go again to the next field, following the weather North! There are some good pictures of this going on here. A lot of food crops depend on this little-known group of people, who have been moving bees from Southern states and Mexico into Canada for almost 100 years.

Unfortunately, like the africanization problem (which causes honey productivity to drop, and for the bees to become "wild, ferocious, fierce, dangerous or naturally inclined to do harm") there is another threat looming from the South. The Varroa mite, which was originally exported from Japan to Brazil, is slowly moving North. This nasty creature infests bees and can kill off an entire hive -- fortunately they do reproduce and spread very slowly, but it will mean that customs at the border for those fellows will take a little longer.

"Sir, would you mind asking the Queen to lift her wing? Yup, that's right. OK, well y'all have a nice day pollinating now! You're free to go ahead."

 Saturday, April 19, 2003

Spud forecast -- hanging gale:

The end of the french-fry, the potato chip, tater-tots, and potato salad as we know it.

A large portion of the world's population depends on the potato, and not simply for providing fast-food menu items. They rely on it for raw survival. The security of the potato is the security of several hundred million people. And that security is at risk, because the potato varieties we rely on are highly vulnerable. Not to a concerted attack by terrorists, but to a lowly water mold, Phytophthora infestans, the "late potato blight" -- the same disease that caused the Irish potato famine.

The re-emergence of blight poses a real problem, because the mold is now resistant to many of the standard pesticides. Loss rates of 15% are considered acceptable on technologically advanced farms, and lately have risen up to 70% in Eastern Europe and Russia. It's not simply a matter of applying more chemicals - the potato is already the most highly treated food crop in the world, and the blight has become resistant to most of the treatments. In addition, most of the world cannot even afford to use present chemical treatments, let alone new ones, which would be even more expensive. The resistant varieties of mold are spreading, and we have few options.

Current efforts at fighting blight are focused on two approaches: either strengthening the resistance of the cultivar, or finding different ways of attacking the blight itself.

It looks like the only way to strengthen the current cultivars is through the introduction of genes from resistant varieties, or from other plants that resist the same blight. It's not simply a matter of cross-breeding either, because wild potato varieties are usually diploid (they have two sets of chromosomes), whereas the food potatoes are tetraploid. It looks like the only alternative is genetic manipulation. We would end up with a GMO, or a genetically modified organism.

GMOs are currently the center of very active debates concerning their acceptance in Europe, their use in relief supplies for countries facing starvation in Africa, and amazingly enough, as bioweapons in political struggles in Mexico. GMOs, like nuclear power, cause visceral reactions in people that cannot be effectively counteracted by education.

The situation we will face in a few short years will be that the only viable form for a critical food crop will be as a GMO. If you want to eat a potato, it will be a GMO. Period. All unmodified potatoes will be economically unfeasible for commercial farming. That means that some very powerful players in the food industry will have to reconsider their positions on GMOs. Frito-Lay. McDonalds. Burger King. Ore-Ida. The Health/Elder care industry. School systems. Corrective Institutions. Almost any aspect of the food industry has to deal with potatoes.

What about the second alternative -- finding different ways of attacking the blight itself? Wouldn't gene sequencing of the mold help? Well, yes and no. The amazing thing about molds is that they have incredibly complex genetics. Phytophthora infestans has over 200 million base pairs, and we have only just started to decypher their function (humans have about 3 billion). This kind of complexity could take decades to work through, and we do not have that kind of time.

There's a slight chance that the lowly potato will completely change the world's opinion of GMOs. And the race to 'invent' the super-potato is already on.

"Just try and have none. I bet you can't."

 Friday, April 18, 2003

Venter and Smith:

I was very surprised that the founding of this organization did not receive wider notice:
 
" IBEA?Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives

Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA) is a research-based institution dedicated to exploring solutions for carbon sequestration using microbes, microbial pathways, and plants. For example, genomics could be applied to enhance the ability of terrestrial and oceanic microbial communities to remove carbon from the atmosphere. IBEA will develop and use microbial pathways and microbial metabolism to produce fuels with higher energy content in an environmentally sound fashion. IBEA will undertake genome engineering to better understand the evolution of cellular life and how these cell components function together in a living system."


Craig Venter and his colleagues are planning to engineer an organism from the bottom up. Not to modify an existing organism, but make a new, man-made organism.

Now, before you go haywire and worry about a rogue bacterium or some such, we are assured that because of extensive work on what exactly a microbe can and can't live without, they will be able to make something that, say, eats oil spills, but can't live where spills don't exist. Other parts of the 501 (c) (3) empire that he is building deal with the PR aspects - looking at the ethics of the whole thing, and convincing the public.

At present, they have been able to get a drastically reduced genome to reproduce, but as far as packaging the genome in a working cell, and assigning it a very specific task... that remains in the future.

This technology is certainly of great interest to the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security. Not only in terms of how it could be mis-used, but in the immense potential it shows for dealing with current threats. A specifically-engineered virus could be used to mitigate an anthrax or botulinum attack. Other engineered bacteria might be able to catalyze the breakdown of nerve agents, either defensively during the dispersal itself, or later during victim treatment and site clean-up phases.

Remember, this type of engineering has allowed us to move from using pig insulin for diabetics, produced by processing millions of pounds of pork pancreas, to the production of human analog insulin using non-pathogenic E. coli bacteria.

Venter envisions many more uses for these techniques, using recombinant DNA (rDNA) to both insert and extract sections of DNA that are useful or inert in the target organism. The NIH has guidelines for using rDNA, and Venter's IBEA group will have set up an external committee that monitors his projects.

Stay tuned for the next best thing in bug-nology.

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 Thursday, April 17, 2003

Yul, Telly, Smeagal:

Well, following Adam Tow and Seth Golub's recommendations that one should do this at least once in one's lifetime, I shaved my head.

I can understand now why people do this as part of a ritual -- I have never felt this... clean. I can't keep my hands off my head. The initial feeling is one of extreme, almost unbearable, sensitivity. It's like having a newly exposed fingernail on your skull. Lying on a pillow was very strange -- I dreamt last night that I had woken up and already had an inch of hair back. But no, this morning the truth was still there, waiting to set me free -- a pasty white dome, slightly shiny, bobbed in front of me in the mirror on someone who couldn't help laughing nervously. Someone I didn't quite know yet.

So far, it is like shedding a personality, and being able to adopt whatever direction you want. A new start. Like the feeling when one wears a new suit. It is a small rebirth.

The need for this kind of ritual renewal is deeply written in our genes. Initiation rituals have an importance which we rarely realize - the feeling of belonging and progression along a well-understood path are important to aiding the constant struggle against our own insecurities.

Che l'affani, giganti guerrieri
Dan l'assalto al mio coro


-- after Dante, "...that worries, those giant warriors, attack my heart..."

(I am sure I have mis-remembered and mis-quoted Dante, because I have never been able to relocate the source. Somehow this phrase is cemented in my memories, but I believe it is incorrect -- it reflects that pounding of the heart when one is fundamentally unsure. )

I agree with Joseph Campbell when he said that gangs provide acceptance for youth where other social ritual has failed. In the suburban, grey world, education and professional advancement are supposed to fill this basic psychic need, but they do not do it very well. Graduation rituals, promotions, and training courses are no longer mystical events at all.

Perhaps this is the root of much employee dissatisfaction. The psyche has a need for exterior reinforcement -- confirmation -- that is almost constant. It is certainly what is provided by friends, family, and spouses, in settings that are regular, and ritualistic. Dinners, social events, intimacy -- they all follow certain codes and expected patterns which help make us feel comfortable, and part of the social group. But the environment in which we spend most of our time, the workplace, is devoid of a deeper meaning.

Shaving one's head is perceived as an act of rebellion. It is seen as a rejection of 'the person that came before.' And I can see, in the co-workers who cannot look at me, a certain discomfort. Perhaps they feel they no longer are able to predict what I will do. I have become unreliable in their eyes. I represent change and deviation from the comfort of habits well-defined.

For others, the change is a strong assertion of personality, and they seem attracted to it, as if this rebellion implies that I hold a new key to productivity,

Me? I am still me. I keep forgetting I have no hair, and then either reach up, or see a flash in the window off my pate, and am reminded --


I am the Easter egg. I am Ptah.

 Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Calculators galore:

Yesterday's foray into calculating tax burdens in Canada led me into this amazing place, where you can find an on-line calculator for just about anything:

Martindale's Calculators Online Center

So now you can figure out your birthday in Mayan, Chinese, Hijri, Lufkan or Vietnamese. You can calculate blackjack odds. You can convert bra and panty sizes from US to European... etc. etc.

Umph.

Ahh...

...there now, that feels better, doesn't it?

"...now let's see what those monkeys at the IRS make of THAT!"

Since most blogs that I see floating by on Blogger's front page are simply teen-age epics of angst and self-flagellation, and yesterday was a day of angst and self-flagellation for adults, I felt some levity was needed:

Wherein a teen shoots self in face with a frog. (log-in needed, thanks to Mark W. in Dallas for that)

Well, on second thought that's not very funny, so...

Wherein a Honda UK advert shows the most complicated car entry mechanism ever. (slow even on a 100Mbps line, but worth it, thanks to Victor R. in Toronto for that).

Onwards, we have not earned our bread yet, as April 19 looms in our future.

 Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Tax Freedom Day:

Each year on this date I have prepared my "Tax Calendar" and I hope bloggerdom enjoys it.

The idea is based on the concept of "Tax Freedom Day." The various governments under which we live (Federal, State, City) take a certain percentage of your income away in taxes. This could be interpreted as working a certain number of days for the government before you earn your own money. Tax Freedom Day is the day on which you complete paying for your taxes, and is a measure of how large the tax burden is - the later in the year, the higher your tax burden.

As with any of these things, there are complications if you look too closely. For example, it really depends on what State or Province you live in. In the U.S., Connecticut has the highest burden this year. In addition, because of differences in what is meant by "tax," and whether State and Local taxes are included, different people quote different dates.

I have used the date given for 2003 by the Tax Foundation.

For the first 74 days of 2003 we worked for the Federal Government, and Federal Tax Freedom Day was March 16, 2003. For the following 35 days, we worked for State Governments, and the 2003 Tax Freedom Day will be April 19, 2003.

So...

I took the Federal Budget, sorted it from largest to smallest Department/Agency/Branch, and calculated the date of payment for each of these items. I used to do this at the program-by-program level within each item (giving time to the second), but I can't find the budget in that format anymore.

Tax Freedom Times
Social Security Administration1/12/03 8:56 PM
Health and Human Services1/24/03 10:02 AM
Treasury2/2/03 8:31 AM
Medicare2/10/03 3:00 AM
Department of Defense2/18/03 10:41 AM
Interest on the Debt2/24/03 6:33 AM
Medicaid/SHCIP3/1/03 10:03 AM
Department of Agriculture3/3/03 3:20 AM
Department of Labor3/4/03 5:05 PM
Department of Transportation3/6/03 3:56 AM
Department of Education3/7/03 12:12 PM
Office of Personnel Management3/8/03 8:12 PM
Veteran's Affairs3/10/03 2:14 AM
Defense Civil Programs3/10/03 10:44 PM
Housing and Urban Development3/11/03 6:45 PM
Department of Homeland Security3/12/03 12:23 PM
Other Independent Agencies3/13/03 12:56 AM
Department of Justice3/13/03 1:16 PM
Department of Energy3/13/03 11:57 PM
NASA3/14/03 8:35 AM
International Assistance3/14/03 4:58 PM
Department of the Interior3/14/03 11:12 PM
Department of State3/15/03 4:58 AM
EPA3/15/03 9:31 AM
Department of Commerce3/15/03 12:43 PM
Judicial Branch3/15/03 3:34 PM
National Science Foundation3/15/03 6:25 PM
Corps of Engineers3/15/03 9:12 PM
Legislative Branch3/15/03 11:18 PM
Small Business Administration3/15/03 11:39 PM
Executive Office of the President3/15/03 11:51 PM
General Services Administration3/16/03 12:00 AM


I have to note that there was an entry in the Federal Budget for "relatively uncontrollable programs" under Allowances (really! it's here in this Excel file). What on Earth is this line referring to? Tokamaks? Shiva? Luckily, the entry is zero. What a relief - this proves incontrovertibly that there are no government programs that are relatively uncontrollable. Now, somebody sternly tell those protesters to quit making a racket.

Additional bits: In the U.K. Tax Freedom Day is June 2 (http://www.taxfreedomday.co.uk). In Canada, use this calculator to figure out your burden. In Cuba and North Korea, Tax Freedom Day is December 31.

 Monday, April 14, 2003

Pokerface:

I was intrigued by the mention of a pack of cards used for identifying the "55 Most Wanted Iraqi Officials."

There must have been some interesting debate about who got what card -- on one of the NPR weekend quiz shows, someone quipped that the Information Minister, Saeed Sahhaf, was the Joker, but this was not actually true - the two jokers in the pack simply have information on Arabic terms for different ranks in the Iraqi military, and information on Tribal names.

Arabic is the most difficult language I have tried to learn -- not because of the alphabet, because that is more straight forward than English (and I have to agree, Arabic script really does look more elegant than the Latin alphabet), but because the structure of the language is so very foreign to an Indo-European ear. I realize now that Indo-European listeners parse words with great emphasis on the endings. The endings are what give us the clues for plurals, tense, gender, and subject/object.

In Arabic, however, there are a great many medial changes. The text-book example of this change is the word for "mosque," masjed, which becomes in the plural "mosques," masajed. It is surprising how hard that medial change is to hear, simply because we have wired our ears to listen at the end of the word.

There are languages that are Indo-European that have a great many loan-words from Arabic, and some of these mix this system of changes. Spanish, with its large linguistic inheritance from the Moors, does not use this system, and follows the terminal change model. Farsi (or Persian), however, has an interesting mix. The word for "mosque" in Farsi is directly borrowed from the Arabic: masjed. The plural, "mosques," is masjedha in colloquial speech, but if you are eager to demonstrate your education, you would use the Arabic - masajed. Depending on the context, Farsi will use the terminal or the medial changes in words.

In English, a great many of the recent loan-words came from French. I had to chuckle when I heard a lot of soldiers use the word "cachet" (pronounced ka-shay) to refer to another French loan-word, "cache" (pronounced cash). The devil in French is all those silent endings, which obviously dogs us to this day.

"I love the cache of napalm in the morning! Bring that cachet of weapons over here so I can smell it, soldier!"

 Sunday, April 13, 2003

Watson & Crick (& Wilkins & Franklin):

General Tommy Franks' responses to a set of questions about whether the crater in Baghdad was being tested for Saddam Hussein's DNA was very interesting. Yes, the crater is being tested. And yes (emphatic yes), the U.S. does have a DNA sample against which to compare traces.

Hmm. That means that at some point, they got a sample from a hairbrush, a toothbrush, or a fedora. And either they got it from one of the recently entered palaces, or they have had it for a long time. I suspect the latter, because they would be much more controlled circumstances, and probably while Saddam Hussein was on travel. It also means there is probably a whole set of DNA samples that belong to other world leaders in some "mojo vault."

GATTACA. And so it begins.

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 Saturday, April 12, 2003

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin:

Forty-two years ago today, at age twenty-seven, Yuri Gagarin went for the ride of his life in Vostok 1. What is not widely known about his flight is that he did not have control of the vessel - that was considered too risky for such a politically important flight, and all commands were issued from the ground. He also ejected from the capsule with a parachute while it was still about 20 miles high rather than riding it all the way down, as the cosmonauts do today. Only recently, with the lifting of most of the secrecy surrounding the Soviet and Russian space programs, have many details come to light, including the fact that he, like his American counterpart, John Glenn, was prohibited from any future spaceflight by a secret executive order, so that the state could exploit his hero status fully without losing him to a space travel accident. One has to wonder what he would be like today if he had not died in a MiG crash a few short years later. The executive order did not limit his activities completely, and Gagarin became a pretty wild character.

In 2000 I was lucky enough to see and touch the enormous globe that Gagarin used to keep in his office - it is about 4 feet in diameter, and sits in a dim hallway outside the planetarium in the Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia. The globe has deep gouges on it over the North Pole because there is a cosmonaut corps tradition that once you are designated for flight, you have to throw yourself on the globe -- and the belt buckles from uniforms tended to cut into the cardboard. The Discovery channel used to have a picture of me kneeling in front of the thing, but they have taken the page away...

Aha - I found it:

Photo: Jane Ellen Stephens/Discovery 2000

 Friday, April 11, 2003

Mohammed Al-dhuri:

AFP -- While he may "love New York," it's certainly becoming an unsafe place to live for the Iraqi ambassador to the UN. Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, Minister of Information, states that the looting in New York is completely out of control since its liberation by Elite Republican Guard units that have been able to advance from the areas around the UN complex towards Grand Central along East 44th. On other fronts, he stated that progress in the South Pentagon parking lot was slow, but that the Fedayeen had been able to seize Row 4 in the last hour in a surprise move that resulted in angry commuters being pushed out of their regular waiting lines.

Perhaps these folks have suffered some fentanyl inhalation from leaking canisters sold to them by Russia? Or perhaps they are viewing things through rose-colored night-vision goggles sold to them by the French.

On a serious note, I worry that the missing coalition POWs will be dragged to Tikrit or to the Syrian border in order to execute a trade for safe passage of high-level Iraqi Baath officials.

Edward Tufte:

...obviously does not work at either Adobe or Apple. One would have thought this message would appear on April 1, but no...

On launching pdf files in OSX:

"Acrobat Reader 5.0 is not currently configured to be the default application for PDF files. Would you like to make PDF files open with Acrobat Reader 5.0 rather than Acrobat Reader 5.0?"

Umm... why yes! Err, well, no! Oh heck -- I dunno...

The message comes up after responding 'Yes,' and after responding 'No.' ...but I should have expected that, shouldn't I?

 Monday, April 07, 2003

Stéphane Douady:

A piece about singing sand in this week's Science caught my eye. Mathematician Douady's team built a 2-meter annulus to contain 72-kg of Moroccan sand, which they churned in order to get it to hum. Sort of like running a moistened finger around a wine-glass, but on a grand, government-funded, scale. (As a government program officer, I'd love to see the justification the scientists and the French grants officers used to fund the study at the Ecole Normale Supérieur in Paris...)

I remember hearing about dunes that made noise when I was a child, and to see this topic again brought back some memories of old encyclopedias. Sure enough, the web provides a way to hear singing sand too -- there are people who dedicate their lives to these things.

If you have walked over snow, you are familiar with squeaking sounds that solids can make under pressure and shear. Some beach sands make these squeaking sounds when you walk on them as well.

Prof. Shigeo Miwa of Kyoto has a fascination for sand, and provides a recording of a squeaking beach sand from two Japanese beaches, Kotohiki and Kagunari. The website does not explain how the sounds were obtained, but I suspect they were from shaking these beach sands in a container designed to amplify the sounds. Amazing. Think of the time devoted to this...

Much more impressive are the sounds made by the booming dune in the Badain-jaram desert, Mongolia. Franco Nori, at the University of Michigan, also has a good recording of the booming dune Sand Mountain, in Nevada.

Both of these made my hair stand on end, and I'm sure the real thing is even creepier. Sort of like having a Tibetan horn blown in your ear. For anybody who has heard a glacier groan, this is another take on how frightening a completely natural phenomenon can be to the human psyche. Unfortunately, Prof. Miwa points out that most singing sand is extremely sensitive to humidity and pollution (the requirement being for rounded, very dry, pure quartz sand), and many sites previously known to sing are now silent. We will have to rely on recordings for many of these (fortunately, as the note on Franco Nori's page indicates, the people recording the Sand Mountain piece were real pros -- Bernie Krause, David Criswell, Jim Metzner with some by Michael Bretz as well).

In the U.S., the following places are known to have booming sand:
  • Sand Mountain, Fallon, Nevada
  • Crescent Dune, Tonopah, Nevada
  • Kelso Dune, Mojave, California


Some reports of booming dunes also have come from the Eureka and Panamint dunes areas in California, and from Big Dune, Nevada.

 Saturday, April 05, 2003

Andreessen & Bina:

Be very careful when you change your blog Template. You can cause chaos. Wreak havoc. Let slips the hogs of war.

I had to scrap what I had and reconstruct it all from Blogger's template #59. There are still bits I hate, but can't figure out where they are coming from, like that annoying little grey line above the 'blog home' subheader... Grrr. Time to re-learn HTML.

And what's with not being able to re-publish archives? This is common, and crashes with the message:

Archive Error
Error 203:java.lang.NumberFormatException: (server:page).

You just have to wait it out, until some monkey at Blogger fixes the free servers...

Oh, for Grey Matter or Movable Type on my own server...

 Thursday, April 03, 2003

Who am I to say...

Many government questionnaires here in the U.S. ask questions about race and ethnicity. Such data is collected for various reasons having to do with trying to measure how these different groups are or are not distinguishable from each other using a different variable. Correlations. Whenever I have to answer such things, I am truly puzzled. Exactly which boxes do I fill/fall in?

If you saw me on the street, you might think "corn-fed American." And then, if you heard me speak, you might shift to one of several modes: somewhat of a Canadian accent / somewhat of a British phrasing and cadence / Eastern U.S.. However, if you had never seen me, and you heard me speak Spanish over the telephone, you would say "Nacido en Colombia, sin duda." (Born in Colombia, without a doubt.) I'm told my French is pretty outrageously Quebecois, and this from an authoritatively snotty person from Marseilles. I've lived in each of these places and have family links to all of them. I have defended each of these countries in arguments both friendly and vehement. I've even served in a unit attached to the Canadian militia (17th UCCR/2nd QOR), without them knowing I wasn't a Canadian citizen (shhh, don't let the U.S. know either...).

The U.S. has only conducted two consecutive censuses with the same criteria for race and ethnicity. Many studies have shown that self-identification is a changeable thing -- children answer these questions differently from their parents, even in same-race same-ethnicity families. Much has been made of the recent growth in the Latino population compared to the Black population, but I have to wonder how comparable the data is when these differences between methodologies, instruments, and self-identification are taken into account.

So what am I? American? Canadian? British? Colombian? Anglo? Latino? Hispanic? The point is, I'm all of them.

Unfortunately, that's what a lot of people around me can't grok - I remember being at a party where we were watching a Soviet-U.S. hockey game, and one of the people there was a recently defected Russian. One of the Americans, on the scoring of a Soviet goal, punched the Russian and asked, "why are you cheering for those fv<+!ng Soviets?" The Russian just looked at this idiot in disbelief. One can still be loyal to one's country and its symbols, even if one does not agree with the government. History, origin, tradition -- these are potent things.

I grimaced, and realized then that Harvard law students, even if they are part of Lincoln's Inn and on the Review, can be pretty stupid. Of course, this person's exposure to foreign countries might have been typical of college students: a Spring Break trip to Cancun, where the contact with locals was through the bellboys, maids, curio salesmen, cab drivers, and fat sweaty policemen. Even my grad school thesis advisor, frustrated with my time spent with extracurricular activities in Spanish-language theater, once said: "It's time to stop this Hispanic nonsense."

I see this mind-set in Iraq, where coalition planners expected an open-armed welcome. Wrong. Iraqis are going to be loyal to Iraq the country, even if they are disloyal to Saddam the President -- what we have failed to do is to convince them that there will be a better Iraq after 'regime change.' Even if the 101st Airborne landed in Toronto, I'm sure there would be opposition from Canadian loyalists. There was resistance the last time we invaded Canada, during the Fenian Raids. And why not?

What will be interesting is watching the inter-Arab relations play out after the end of the war. There are plenty of powerful Iraqis who are really angry at the other Arab states for resisting the invasion. There will be an interesting interplay 'on the street' between the Anti-american sentiment and the supporters, both within and without Iraq. The sad thing is that this country has a really strange image abroad, and there are powerful interests involved in the status quo -- Hollywood, CNN and Fox ensure that. What did we fret about just before launching the initial raid? How the Academy Awards were to be handled. "Yup. We're really serious, high minded folk, and we're here to tell you how to run your country." Sheesh. The folks who put in the time, the effort, the blood, their lives, as soldiers, logisticians and relief workers are getting their efforts completely short-circuited by pompous asses in the entertainment and media worlds, our mouthpieces and cultural ambassadors to the world.

And now, back to your regular science blog channel programming...

 Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Pleibol!

I heard the other day that Yankee second string pitcher Contreras just signed a contract worth $32 million dollars a year. Contreras is a Cuban defector. My equivalent in the Cuban government makes one of the top salaries, about $30 a month. Most people make less than $10 a month.

Contreras makes enough to feed about 100,000 to 300,000 Cubans. Is a Major League baseball player worth that many people? Even in U.S. terms, is Contreras worth 1,000 median income families?

An economist would say yes, since that is what the market is paying. What the hell are we thinking?