Saturday, September 30, 2006

It's A Trip

I'm still busy, busy, busy, painting and helping a friend move. I'm grateful on both counts that the weather is staying good here in "winter rain central," but it's not leaving me much time to read and write. I am going through a bit of withdrawal, but hope to catch up soon. Speaking of withdrawal, I did read this one rather trippy article from New Scientist, by Gaia Vince (because it came to my email inbox, and it was a quick fix.) It was about legal highs, all the recreational designer drugs that are just a step or two in front of the laws in many parts of the world. Apparently, as soon as one drug becomes illegal, there are a couple (or a couple dozen) more to take its place.

I actually don't really get the appeal of mind-altering drugs. It's a rare day when I even have more than a half a glass of wine. Personally, I prefer to remain in total control of my faculties. I have never wanted to have to apologize later for mistakes I've made while surrendering up my self-control to a pill, or a mushroom. I make enough mistakes as it is, without willingly compounding the problem. I had surgery a few years ago and kept asking my husband repeatedly if I was sounding lucid, or whether I was babbling incoherently about fish climbing up the IV pole, and hobbits surfing in my jello. No, drug use just ain't my cup of tea. I know, though, that a lot of people put an awful lot of effort into temporarily changing their mental state, whether I understand why, or not. In any case, I had no idea there was so much going on in the world of legal psychoactive substances. Many of them are being touted as safer alternatives to the illegal varieties. However, Vince's article does make it clear that, while they may be legal, there are still plenty of drawbacks to these "safer" drugs, including some nasty side effects. You can read the article for yourself to draw your own conclusions.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Hope For The Profoundly Allergic

Oh boy, if this works I will be a happy Kat. This is one of those rare blog posts that doesn't just interest me, but in a lot of ways is about me. Sorry, but occasionally it must be done. As I'm not the only one it concerns, however, I'll not refrain from saying, "read on," especially if you know anyone who struggles with severe allergies. Andy Coghlan, at, has just given me my hope spark for the day. He's written an article about a new method to trick the human immune system into thinking it's being attacked by a more serious threat, diverting it from other perceived dangers, leading to a long-term relief of allergies. That is music to my allergy-ridden ears...nose...throat, and every other part of my body saddled with an immune system that thinks every smell not emanating from food is something equivalent to an invading army, something to be attacked with the ferocity of the Picts repelling the Romans. In my world, going out among people, all of whom carry about fifty different offending odors of the perfume variety around with them on any given day, carries with it the promise of migraines and fevers, and various and sundry other ills. Wouldn't it be great if something could actually convince my (and anyone else's) very confused body that it shouldn't waste its effort on loud complaints that there are flowers nearby, or that somebody is smoking in Argentina, but should focus its energy on more serious, but illusionary, enemies?

Here's what Coghlan had to say:

Allergies could be wiped out in a single blow by tricking the immune system into thinking it is encountering an old foe. The idea is based on the so-called "hygiene hypothesis", the notion that the cleanliness of modern life deprives the immune system of a proper training against disease so that it ends up out of kilter and reacts to things that are harmless, such as grass pollen.

Cytos Biotechnology of Zurich, Switzerland, has developed a drug that it calls CYT003-QbG10, which fools the body into thinking it is being attacked by mycobacteria. This class of bacteria is encountered far less today because of modern cleanliness. The bogus attack tricks the immune system into changing tactics to focus on tackling the potentially larger threat, rather than producing allergic reactions to less harmful things.

Apparently, in the very limited trials performed to date, this little injection is showing results that sound miraculous, at least to me, and I'm not easy to impress when it comes to this topic. I have been jaded by far too many unmet promises of relief over the years to get particularly enthusiastic about new assurances of a breakthrough:

Preliminary results from a trial of 10 people with hay fever suggest that after a six-week course of injections, their sensitivity to grass pollen was reduced a hundredfold, eliminating their symptoms. Cytos claims the patients remained symptom-free up to eight months after the therapy, though it could not say whether the relief would be permanent.

Eight months are good. Heck, eight days are good. People given the drug for dust mites were still symptom-free a year later. Sign me up for the next trial.

I recognize that there are a lot of people who will say that it is better to treat the root physical cause of the allergies than the symptoms, and I agree for the most part. I've been working for a long time on the underlying health causes that keep my systems so out of whack. However, I bet the same people who want to focus on the root cause would be a little more inclined to grab at the chance to trick their bodies into behaving in a more civilised fashion if they were paying for every third trip to the grocery store with a migraine, wouldn't you?

Anyway, if the theory this treatment is based on is sound, the problem isn't fixable by a better diet, and proper exercise, or the right combination of herbs and yoga. According to this theory, it basically comes down to the immune system not getting enough exercise in our modern, sanitary world. The system doesn't mature properly, to tell the good from the bad, specifically because so much of the bad has been removed from our environments. It gets confused by this lack of legitimate targets, and starts attacking non-threats. So, the idea of the treatment is to give the immune system some exercise, sort of put it on a false alarm treadmill. By introducing a DNA strand that mimics a previously common and threatening mycobacteria, but is itself harmless, the body can be convinced that it needs to work very hard at addresses the DNA threat, thus fooling it into ignoring the formerly all-important menaces of pollen, dander, Windex, shoe polish, paint, Channel #5, and my personal nemesis, dryer sheets. I could continue the list indefinitely, but by now you get my point.

I hope, I hope, I hope, not just for my sake, but for everyone who suffers from the same problems, that this treatment goes somewhere, and isn't one of those flash-in-the-pan ideas that holds more promise than results. I know at least a half a dozen people who find allergies making more than a little crimp in their lifestyles, so I'm sure the market is there for any kind of wonder drug they can prove is effective and won't cause irreparable damage to more than one or two vital organs. I hope that the new treatment, if and when it becomes available, doesn't come with all those warnings that you see on pharmaceutical advertisements: "Use of this product may cause some small and insignificant side effects, such as: runny nose, cough, fever, limping, excessive nasal hair growth, baldness, blindness, Tourette's Syndrome, death, and, on rare occasions, bed-wetting, so call your doctor for a free sample today!!!" I don't really mean to disparage the pharmaceutical industry; they are, after all, my hope for a brighter tomorrow. I'm just glad they're making progress. Maybe someday my husband won't have to do all the shopping.

Big Brother Goes High Tech

I've been reading this morning about the high tech ways that employers are monitoring their workers, and it's really astounding how many effective methods tech savvy companies have to keep tabs on their employees. Annalee Newitz, at New ScientistTech, has a pretty thorough overview of the surveillance options currently available to bosses, that will tell them just how you're spending your working hours, as well as let them know some of what you're doing in your off-time. These methods are all legal, at this point, and most states don't even require that employees be informed that they are being monitored. Some of those methods include reading your email (even the personal ones), watching everywhere you go online, closed circuit television (even in bathrooms), hidden global positioning devices in company vehicles, and hidden microphones. Some companies are even going so far as to track down what employees say from home in online forums and blogs, on their own time, on their own personal computers.

Newitz spends a fair bit of time examining the results of this kind of big brotherism in the lives of some employees. One such person posted a complaint on a forum anonymously, and the company went to court and subpoenaed Yahoo! for his real name, and then fired him for what he had said on his own time, from his own computer, without disclosing his identity. Others have lost their jobs for blogging, despite it not being a work-related activity. (I assume for blogging things of which the employer disapproved. I can't imagine anyone would get fired for kissing up to the boss online.) According to Newitz, some of this blog surveillance could be happening even before a prospective employee gets hired:

David Nachman of background-screening company HireRight based in Irvine, California, agrees with Wickre that a job-seeker's blog might affect their chances of getting hired. Traditionally, HireRight has only provided criminal record checks and checks on qualifications and experience, but Nachman says interest in online activity is growing. "We don't offer this service yet, but it's absolutely already happening. Employers are going to blogs and social networking sites when hiring."

In effect this means that online monitoring may be starting before employees even sign their contracts. While some will find this shocking, many tech workers express a kind of fatalism. "There are always ways to find out what individuals are doing, and sometimes that results in people getting fired," says IT administrator John Gilbert. "Everywhere I've worked, there's never been any privacy."

Okay, I haven't processed this enough to have a well thought out response, but I do have an immediate gut reaction. I totally get employers wanting to make sure that employees are actually working when they're being paid to do so, especially with the plethora of potential distractions that are just a click away. The Meow, for example, is a compelling temptation, I am sure. I understand companies wanting to make sure that employees are not spending all their work hours shopping online, surfing porn sites, using the company phone to call Paris, running "Nigerian inheritance" email scams on company computers, or any number of other activities that are a waste of company dollars and employee time, are illegal, or would reflect badly on the business. I even get employers asking employees not to post defamatory statements on their blogs. (If I had an employee who was spending his off hours publicly criticising me as an employer, I would probably assume it was better for us both if we found someone who would be happier doing his job than the disgruntled blogger was.) I'm not oblivious to corporate motivations in this scenario.

I'm striving to be fair, here. However, now that looking "on the one hand" has been accomplished, I'm feeling at liberty to turn my attention to the other. Even having given all this understanding and forebearance to the bosses, my initial reaction to these kinds of tactics is not very enthusiastic. I hope that employers (and the legal system), step lightly in this employee surveillance dance that they are doing. Trying to control the thought lives and off-hours personal expressions of employees is hardly conducive to a productive work environment. Not only are cameras in the bathroom, hidden microphones, and personal emails going public a shocking invasion of privacy, I think they're just plain bad policy.

Employers make more money when they have a stable, loyal, contented workforce, with low turnover, and high levels of experience. Big brother your employees too much and they will not hang around long enough to make you any money. I suspect if you are worried about how your employees are spending their time, it would be better to set performance standards for them, rather than watch them every minute. If they're doing their job to your satisfaction, what does it hurt if they spend a few minutes of each day reading Instapundit? Better to have them content and productive, than burn them out by insisting that every moment of every day be spent in intense work-related concentration. Beyond that, some of this surveillance could bring about the very thing you want to prevent--bad online publicity. Over-monitoring and refusal to allow any personal comforts (such as personal email that's truly personal) are activities begging for that same online criticism that the paranoid companies who instigate such tactics are trying so hard to avoid.

Like I said, I haven't thought this through enough to have a really well synthesized response, but I do know that I'm glad that I don't work for a paranoid employer (unless you count my husband grilling me to make sure I've had enough to eat every day.) I'm also glad my husband works for a small company that actually trusts its employees. He's been there for almost twenty years, and he's by no means alone in his employment longevity. The turnover rate is extremely low. That relationship could not have lasted that long if both he and his boss weren't pretty satisfied with the arrangement. There is no such monitoring going on at his office, and I know Ked would be decidedly upset if there were. (I know such systems are supposed to be hidden, but I'm pretty sure he'd know. Since he's the computer guru there, I don't think they could have set up a system to monitor online activity without him.)

I'm curious, though, how the rest of you respond to the concept of companies monitoring what goes on at the office, both pro and con. Actually, I'm also curious what you think of employers monitoring off-hour activity too. Is there anyone who can defend that one? I can't think of a single positive to the notion that an employer would fire a worker because of an anonymous posting to a chat forum, but maybe someone else has a defense of that position. Anyway, if any of you have something to contribute on this topic, I'm all ears (well, eyes actually, but you know what I mean.)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

How Far Would You Go?

How far would you go to improve your craftsmanship in your given field, and test the limits of what it's possible to accomplish? How many heretofore non work-related skills would you add to your repertoire just to push the boundaries? If you were a violinist, would you learn to scuba dive, and develop new water-friendly playing techniques, just so you could become the first violinist to play "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" under the sea? If you were a carpenter, would you train as a mountain-climber, and personally haul your tools and equipment up Mt. Everest, just so you could build the world's highest (vacant) birdhouse? If you were a surgeon, would you train in zero-gravity machines, and strap yourself to the walls of an airplane that looped like a roller coaster, creating near zero-gravity conditions in 22 second bursts, just so you could remove a cyst in almost weightless conditions?

They all sound a little on the wacky side to me, but one of these things actually happened. Can you guess which one? Yes, of course you're right, the one with the most details in the description is the real deal--the surgery. I'm sorry I couldn't make it more difficult to guess, but I had a hard enough time coming up with anything even remotely comparable in terms of preparatory challenge, foreign environment, new skills required, and seeming pointlessness.

Actually, pointlessness is the wrong word. It's obvious what the point is for developing surgical techniques for zero-gravity. We, the human race that is, want to head more people out into space over time--lots of people, in fact. Some of those people may require surgery. It probably won't be convenient to ship people back to earth every time they need to go under the knife, so clearly some new techniques are required. What I meant was that the cyst removal, a ten minute procedure, seems an insignificant task to warrant all that trouble and motion sickness. However, it would be foolish to attempt something more complicated, since this was the very first surgery on a human in weightless conditions. A cyst may be anti-climactic on one level, but I have to give them points for wisdom and restraint--and success--the cyst removal went off without a hitch.

Jamey Keaten, of The Associated Press, writes that a team of French doctors, performed the operation during a three hour flight on Wednesday, in an effort to determine the feasibility of surgery in space. The same medical team had already successfully operated on a rat under the similar conditions in 2003. According to Keaten, this is all part of a project backed by the European Space Agency. They're hoping to develop robots for future use in remote surgeries in space, or even on Earth, but Earth-guided. It's an ambitious goal--even more ambitious than playing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" underwater. Whatever the end result of the quest for surgical space robots, these surgeons have performed their task admirably. They can truthfully say they have risen to the heights in their profession, and gone where no surgeon has gone before. I wonder of they were tempted to quote the cantankerous Dr. McCoy, saying something like, "Blast it Jim, I'm a doctor, not a bungee jumper!" Probably not. They would say, "Blast it Jeem," for starters. Do the French even watch Star Trek?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Reason and Religion

Okay, I know I use the word "interesting" a lot, but I really can't help that the word so often applies. It's reasonable to use it, where it fits, and I must be reasonable, whenever possible. Speaking of reasonable and interesting, there is an interesting examination of reason and religion, at The Weekly Standard. Lee Harris looks at Joseph Ratzinger's (the Pope's) speech from September 12th, which addressed the question of critical self-examination in the West regarding faith and reason. Harris digs deeply into the question of whether reason has any business consorting with God. Because it at one point questioned the reasonableness of Islam's tendency toward conversion by the sword, the Pope's speech has created a firestorm of debate, and anger in the Muslim world, which much of the West, supposed adherents of modern reason, have supported. Harris examines this support, and concludes at length that reason does not justify it. This is a wide ranging discussion, from Greek philosophy to modern reason, from atheism to Christianity to Islam, from Ratzinger to Socrates.

Harris' basic argument, drawn from Ratzinger's speech, as well as noted philosophical thinkers, boils down to the notion that atheistic, modern, scientific reason must make an ethical and religious judgement, between a religion that would demand belief through violence, and a religion that would decry that coerced belief is no belief at all. Harris points out that the very foundation that allowed modern reason to develop came from a unique convergence of influences: Biblical faith, Greek philosophical inquiry, and Roman heritage:

Modern reason is a cultural phenomenon like any other: It did not drop down one fine day out of the clouds. It involved no special creation. Rather, it evolved uniquely out of the fusion of cultural traditions known as Christendom.
Harris goes on from this point to clarify this debt of reason to Christendom, and I think what he has to say here is worth quoting at length:

A critique of modern reason from within must recognize its cultural and historical roots in this Christian heritage. In particular, it must recognize its debt to the distinctive concept of God that was the product of the convergence of the Hebrew, Greek, and Roman traditions. To recognize this debt, of course, does not require any of us to believe that this God actually exists.

For example, the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was an atheist; yet in his own critique of modern reason, he makes a remarkably shrewd point, which Ratzinger might well have made himself. Modern scientific reason says that the universe is governed by rules through and through; indeed, it is the aim of modern reason to disclose and reveal these laws through scientific inquiry. Yet, as Schopenhauer asks, where did this notion of a law-governed universe come from? No scientist can possibly argue that science has proven the universe to be rule-governed throughout all of space and all of time. As Kant argued in his Critique of Judgment, scientists must begin by assuming that nature is rational through and through: It is a necessary hypothesis for doing science at all. But where did this hypothesis, so vital to science, come from?

The answer, according to Schopenhauer, was that modern scientific reason derived its model of the universe from the Christian concept of God as a rational Creator who has intelligently designed every last detail of the universe ex nihilo. It was this Christian idea of God that permitted Europeans to believe that the universe was a rational cosmos. Because Europeans had been brought up to imagine the universe as the creation of a rational intelligence, they naturally came to expect to find evidence of this intelligence wherever they looked--and, strangely enough, they did.

Harris' article continues with an examination of whether reason should not judge between a God of free will and a God of slavery, and gets further into the points that Ratzinger made in his address, regarding critical self-examination in the West. The piece is far too long and complex of topic for me to do justice to it in a brief blog post, but I encourage you to read it for yourself. You may agree in part, and disagree in part, as is often the case with people of reasonable mind, but Harris' main point is that reason should have a place in religious discussion, and, because science cannot answer every question put to it, religion, ultimately cannot help but enter the discussion in matters of modern reason. The point seems reasonable to me.


Interesting. It looks like the recent, and successful, coup in Thailand had a lot to do with the Prime Minister's response to an ongoing Muslim insurgency. Why does it seem as if most of the notable conflicts in the world these days somehow involve Islam?

Hat tip: Instapundit

Monday, September 25, 2006

Following The Bird Flu

Global positioning systems and Avian flu--the connection at The Grich.

Mission To Mars

"Say again, Base Command? I don't understand. What do you want me to do? What am I looking for? Mars is too big. I can't find base-camp. Oh, we should never have come." The commander panicked as he realised he was lost, and he couldn't understand Base's instructions. It had only been a half an hour since he had taken off in search of the caves, and he had headed his rover in a straight path toward the designated coordinates, but something was wrong. He should have reached the caves by now. He should have seen the double peak just to the right of Sydney crater, which marked the opening to the series of caverns that Earth Command had sent him to explore, and now, when he knew he should be right on target, he was completely turned around. He couldn't even trace back along the route he had followed to relocate camp.

How could he have gotten so disoriented? He had only been driving for half an hour. Or was it half an hour? He looked intently at his watch and tried to remember exactly what the time had been when he left the confines of the Mars Base habitat. Memory failed him, despite the intense pressure he put on himself to think. Think. Why was that getting so much harder lately? Every day further into space had been more of a struggle on the long journey from Earth. He couldn't think clearly. Base-camp wasn't any help; none of them were doing any better than he was. Why was he feeling such anxiety? Why couldn't he remember even what time he had set out? Why hadn't he seen the landmarks he knew were right there? Somewhere.

The poor commander was really only a few hundred meters from his desired destination, but couldn't figure out where he was, or remember how to get home. Why? Radiation. Radiation can potentially cause problems with memory, spacial learning, and stress, according to an article by David Shiga, at New Scientist Space. Radiation. Space is full of it. We have a built-in defense from radiation here on Earth. A haven from the bombardment from space, our atmosphere protects us from much of its harmful effects. Even orbiting astronauts, tucked away up in the International Space Station, or jaunting about in a shuttle, or rocket, are kept safe from the dangers of most of the stray energy particles from space by the extended shielding of the Earth's magnetic field. What happens. though, if we leave the protection of our big blue marble?

NASA is looking to find out. According to Shiga, "...NASA recently awarded funding for 12 projects that will investigate how long-term radiation exposure in interplanetary space could potentially cause health problems in astronauts." Some of these projects are serving up some interesting results. One study, by Bernard Rabin of the University of Maryland in Baltimore, involves studying irradiated rats:

Rats whose brains have been exposed to heavy particle radiation perform more poorly in navigating mazes and have a harder time learning to press a button to get a food pellet. They also are more easily distracted and experience more anxiety in stressful situations.
One of the more intriguing findings in this study is that rats given strawberry and blueberry extracts before receiving the radiation were less likely to have their mental function impaired. The speculation in Shiga's article is that the anti-oxidants in the berries are the protectant factor:

This could be because the extracts contain antioxidants. Researchers still do not know exactly how heavy particle radiation creates cognitive problems, but it is known to create highly reactive oxygen-containing molecules in the body.

So-called reactive oxygen species are suspected as a contributor to the ageing process. As it turns out, the problems the rats encounter from radiation exposure are very similar to those that ageing rats experience, Rabin says.

Maybe if they just feed astronauts on an anti-oxidant rich diet, they won't suffer any ill effects from space radiation, and they won't get any older. Heck of a deal. (Unless that not getting any older involves not getting any older, if you know what I mean, or is that too obscure?) Anyway, the point of the NASA funding for these types of projects is partly to find out just how much radiation is tolerable, so they can design spaceships and missions which will keep the radiation exposure within acceptable limits. I'm sure they have other studies going on to determine exactly how to do that, what materials to use, what time parameters to establish, what Lunar and Martian materials may be adapted to astronaut use, as well as a whole host of studies designed just to help them think up more questions and possible scenarios, that will need further studies to come up with the answers.

While they are doing all this, I hope they stay away from sources of radiation themselves. We've seen what can happen to people who aren't properly shielded. If it weren't for the help of a friendly alien who happened to be passing by, our commander might still be wandering around Mars. Fortunately, the alien, from the lovely planet Gardenium, found him and led him back to base-camp. The other-worldly savior also brought them a token of good will--an eighteen month supply of strawberries and blueberries. Wasn't that a nice thing to do?

A Good Neighbor Fence

There's a rather interesting look at the political trend toward a fence on our border with Mexico, by Rich Lowry, at It seems the fence idea is gaining momentum and, potentially, funding, from Washington. Both the House and Senate have now passed legislation authorizing several hundred miles of barrier. (Now the two sets of legislation have to be reconciled, which still could take a while.) The mere concept of a fence faced a good deal of opposition from certain quarters at its inception, but, over time, public opinion is swaying the politicians, who are gradually coming around to the notion that the U.S. citizenry at large want the borders enforced. I'm hoping that what they are realizing is that most of us are for both immigration and border security. It's not only possible to be both, I suspect it is the dominant position.

Honestly, I don't know a single person who has ever expressed, in my hearing, the desire that we keep immigrants out of the country. After all, most of us are ourselves descended from immigrants. However, we want people coming into our country who will obey its laws, and in sneaking across the border, illegal immigrants are breaking those laws at the outset. There are security issues, as well as economic ones. We want to know who's here, and for how long, and why. We want accountability, and we also want those who work here to pay their fair share of taxes, so that the infrastructure and services provided by government at all levels can be funded by everyone who uses them, not excepting those who are working under the table to avoid detection. In this case, I think most of us want a "good neighbor fence," one that will enable us to continue growing a positive relationship with Mexico, unhindered by some of the current fears and resentments.

Most people aren't heartless. I doubt very much that the average American resents the money that gets sent from here to Mexico. Dollars from here goes a long way toward helping the quality of life there, and many of us are happy to see how much immigrant workers can aid their families back home, but they need to do it legally, and contribute to the infrastructure and services that they use while they're here. If U.S. citizens are assured of safe borders, with a flow of immigration that is generous, but accountable, controlled, and not sucking the public trough dry without reciprocal contribution, there will be a lot less resentment on the part of those Americans who are, right now, frustrated by abuses of the system. Most of us recognize that there are many benefits, on both sides, to be gained by a healthy exchange of goods and labor between our neighboring countries. I'm a big "a rising tide floats all boats" proponent. The more Mexico prospers, the better off we all are, in the long run.

I acknowledge that not everyone wants large numbers of immigrant workers flooding the American job market. Some people fear competition for employment, coming from migrant workers who willingly work for less than Americans generally will. Many immigrants accept a lesser standard of living than the people born and raised in American prosperity, and for good reason; even what would be considered a lesser standard here is still very high compared with the conditions back home. I'm not dismissing the fact that some Americans find competition from immigrant laborers, and that that competition might keep some wages suppressed; however, a prosperous Mexico also purchases more goods than an impoverished one, so if Mexico thrives, we have the potential to create more jobs here as well. Again, looking at the long run, a goods-consumer contributes to economic growth. Prosperous immigrants become goods-consumers.

Of course, there are other issues involved; the Mexican government is responsible, in the long run, for the economic climate south of the border, and those issues are far too complicated for me to get into without a lot more information than I have right now. My main point here is that I think it's a good thing that a border fence is gaining ground in Washington. Hopefully, Congress is seeing the light, that it's possible to be both pro-security and pro-immigration at the same time. It's encouraging that public opinion is having an impact on public policy. Maybe we'll see some consensus come out of the capital. Wouldn't that be a refreshing change?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Sunday Satire

Here's something to keep you amused while I'm busy painting trim on my house. Scrappleface comes to my mailbox, so this satiric look at where terrorists come from was a quick and easy thing to send your way. Sorry I'm not able to spend more time with you all this weekend, but duty calls, and calls, and calls. If this keeps up, I'm going to see about changing my number. Celebrate with us, though. We got the garage and three sides of the house painted yesterday, with nary a raindrop to slow our forward march. It was even really warm, so the paint dried quickly enough I could start on the trim. Progress!!

p.s. If you see anything that I will want to read when I'm back, let me know in the comments. I'm sure I'm missing important world events while the paint dries.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Racing Against The Rain

Blogging will be light for the next couple of days, as we're trying to get our house and new Power Tool Recreation Facility painted before the Oregon wetlands preservation season starts in earnest. (I'm running out of creative names for the garage, but we should be done with the project soon, so I will stop babbling about our progress, and lack thereof, soon, much to the relief of many, I'm sure. Cutesy "new garage" names will then all be relegated to the Meow archives.) Anyway, since I hope to have paintbrush very firmly in hand this weekend, I don't think I'm going to get too many big science discovery, or political opinion posts written. Laptops and primer don't mix. However, I may toss out something I find amusing in a (hopefully rare) lazy moment, or things I consider particularly self-explanatory. This fits both categories. Egyptian blogger, Big Pharaoh, is fast becoming a personal favorite. If he keeps this up, I may have to put him on the official "My Favorite Links" list.

Update: Here's another BP link. Be sure to see this one. It's great.

Driving Over A Precipice

I woke up early this morning with a disturbing dream. I was driving in a convertible through the neighborhood I grew up in as a child. I'm fuzzy on some of the details, but after an attempted car-jacking (who doesn't enjoy a good car-jacking dream?), when I was trying to get out of a tight spot by turning the car around, I lost control and ended up backing the car over a precipice. Then I woke up. I always do wake up. I am not one of those people who sees a bad dream through to the bitter end; I bail pretty soon after the scary bits start. So, afterward, knowing further sleep would elude me, I took refuge in an old friend, turned on my laptop, and started reading. I've been flitting about from topic to topic, and finally settled on one to pass on to you that shares a few elements with my dream.

At TCS Daily, Austin Bay is looking at the "ambush technique" used by Islamofascist terrorists, which combines violence and media. He discusses the terrorists' use of a "grievance trigger", aimed at attracting media coverage, and according to Bay, intimidating both non-Muslims, and Muslims of a non-violent persuasion. He assigns this deliberate combination an acronym with a bit of irony:

The ambush technique coordinates blood-spilling violence with sensational imagery and rhetoric using a dispersed network of media operatives, guerrillas and terrorists. Networked, Coordinated Blood-spilling plus Sensationalism -- hence the technique's acronym: the CBS ambush.
He discusses three specific incidents: the fake Guantanamo Bay Koran flushing story, which set off Muslim riots, the Danish cartoon debacle, which set off Muslim riots, and the recent remarks by Pope Benedict that quoted a Byzantine Emperor's criticism of Islamic conversion by the sword, that served as the trigger for "firebombing Christian churches (in several Muslim countries) and the execution-style slaying of a Catholic nun who worked in a hospital in Somalia." How ironic that protests against the Pope "slurring" Islam, by pointing out its violence, should take the form of violence. Can you say, "proving his point?"

Each of these stories has been magnified by a media that loves to report turmoil and upheaval, but the problem is that the media, by fanning these stories to life, creates much of that turmoil. Once there is a whiff of Muslim objection, the reporters of the news are all over it, and thus they spread it. I'm not blaming the media for the stories, but I am saying that the way they report them does add impact to the "grievance trigger." I am also not saying that no Muslim grievance is ever legitimate. I am simply saying that they get magnified to violence by the symbiosis of Islamofascist agitation and the media. This, I think, is Bay's main point--all of the incidents he cited required media cooperation to spread the grievance:
Executing a CBS ambush requires the implicit cooperation of sensationalist media -- media that delight in emotional slights and rarely probe beyond the superficial. Until that implicit cooperation ends, the Islamo-fascists will continue to exploit this productive stratagem, achieving propaganda victories designed to ignite a "clash of civilizations" and brutally intimidate their Muslim and non-Muslim opposition.
This is also where what Bay writes reminds me of my dream. We in the West find ourselves in a tight spot, facing ongoing "car-jacking" attempts by terrorists and Islamists. The Western media's reaction is to drive backwards, without looking, over a precipice. Ultimately, every time the media buys into the promotion of the "grievance trigger," they take us over another cliff, and we have to deal with the consequences. Unfortunately, unlike a sleeping Kat, the civilized world can't simply wake up. We have to run the full course of where the precipice leads, from riots to murdered nuns. I'm not saying the media should stop reporting things that might inconveniently incite Islamic ire, but I am saying that they ought to be more responsible. Could they have checked a little more closely into how it would even be possible to flush a book down a toilet, before filling magazines and newspapers with the story? Yes. Did the Danish cartoon kerfuffle really need to be pushed, even when (especially when) it was inciting riots? No. Does an obscure reference by the Pope, out of context, which was a very minor part of his lecture, warrant all the headlines? No. I know that I said we, as a civilization, can't really just "wake up," but I wish the media would.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Candy Store Giveth, The Camera Taketh Away

Oh My Gosh!! I would never believe this if I didn't see it for myself. You know all the fuss we've been having lately about photographers altering photos to suit their message? We've concluded that's a bad thing, right (the altering, not the fussing)? Well, maybe that only applies to photojournalism, because Hewlett Packard has added photo alteration as a feature to some of their digital cameras. The thing that HP digital cameras are making it possible for you to fix is how much you weigh. That's right, if you don't like how you look in HP images, the software in that HP camera can slim you right down.

I find this baffling. I admit that I don't have a problem with my weight, so maybe I'm just not being sympathetic enough, but don't people want the image to be real? I guess not. Now that I think of it, I have family who love having lots of pictures, but always complain about how they look, and stand behind one another to hide the parts of themselves they don't want showing, so they'll probably love this new camera option. It still amazes me though, that such a thing would be a setting on the camera, an official part of the camera's function. How much longer will photographic evidence be admissible in court, when all you have to do is adjust a setting and the original photo is different from reality? We're going to have to have an entire profession built around detecting fauxtography, or such evidence will always be called into question.

Actually, I've been reading lately about how our perceptions are built by our brains anyway, and how our perceptions don't necessarily coincide with reality, so I suppose this photography thing is only one more step down the rabbit hole. Heck, the way things are going with virtual reality, eventually everything will have to be called into question. Welcome to the twenty-first century. It's a good thing I believe in an Ultimate Reality. That's what's keeping me sane as I ponder all of this illusion.

Hat tip: Futurismic

Update: What was I thinking? I said, "We're going to have to have an entire profession built around detecting fauxtography, or such evidence will always be called into question." What we're really going to need, of course, is fauxtography detection software. Silly me. Although, to be fair to myself (fairness, after all, begins at home), we're going to need people who know how to use the software, which amounts to about the same thing.

Hat tip: Hot Air

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Nuclear Gumballs (not really--the title's just to get your attention)

Popular Mechanics is having another look at nuclear energy. A few days ago, I sent you to a debate about the efficacy and desirability of nuclear power, also at PM, but this article, by Alex Hutchinson, isn't debating anything, not what could happen, nor whether it should happen. Rather, he's looking at what is happening. Hutchinson examines the next generations of nuclear plants about to be constructed in the U.S., and the myriad ways they improve upon previous models. Some of the advances he describes are light years away from the form we've all come to associate with nuclear power: tall towers, water cooled, radioactive steam, melt-down fears--you know, the whole China Syndrome thing.

Some of the impetus for moving forward with nuclear alternatives here in the States come from technological advances, and some from government incentives to produce alternative energy, both as a replacement for fossil fuels, and as a supplement to meet growing energy demands. We all know that oil, and to a certain extent natural gas, are environmentally damaging, increasingly costly, and diplomatically and politically constraining. As part of the quest for a comprehensive solution, there have been some advances in national energy policy over the last few years that have led to more funding for nuclear options:

In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress approved up to $2.95 billion in incentives for new nuclear plants, and set aside another $1.25 billion for an experimental reactor to be built here in the Idaho desert. The reactor will be the centerpiece of a modern-day Manhattan Project, with scientists from around the world working together to revolutionize the production of nuclear power.

Hutchinson looks at the consequences of the Congressional action:

Thanks to the 2005 congressional incentives, a dozen utilities around the country have once again started the lengthy process of applying to build nuclear plants. If all goes smoothly, they could produce power by the middle of the next decade. These reactors would be Generation III and III+ designs--evolutionary improvements on today's Generation II reactors, which use water in some form as both a coolant and a moderator. But, according to the DOE, what is really needed are even safer, cheaper reactors that produce less waste and use fuel that's not easily adapted for weapons production. To develop this kind of reactor, 10 countries, including the United States, joined forces in 2000 to launch the Generation IV International Forum. A committee of 100-plus scientists from participating countries evaluated more than 100 designs; after two years, they picked the six best.

So, scientists around the globe are working on third and fourth generation nuclear designs. Hutchinson's article implies that we will be seeing the results of their work within ten years or so. Each of the better ides brings something valuable to the table. The concepts take various approaches to the nuclear question, with different advantages accompanying each design, but they all share some improvements over existing nuclear plants. The new designs are safer, quicker and easier to build, more cost effective, and more promising in terms of waste disposal than their predecessors. Nuclear energy is also a cleaner alternative than several of the other currently feasible options. As an extra bonus, according to Hutchinson, some of the new designs also have the benefit of producing hydrogen, refining shale oil, or desalinating water as side effects. The hydrogen has promise as an automobile fuel without the environmental drawbacks inherent to oil-based fuels. (In my own personal International Competition of Alternative Fuels, contestants get extra points for positive side effects.)

You should read the whole article for a more complete picture, and a closer look at the various design options. The pebble bed gumball machine is a personal favorite of mine. (Just read the PM piece. You'll see what I mean.) I keep wondering where this is all leading, whether in 20 years we'll be able to recognize the scientific, political, and international relations landscape. Is a potential revolutionary change in the energy frontier (and thus the international relations frontier, from my perspective), as close as this article at Popular Mechanics makes it sound? I certainly hope so.

Hat tip: Instapundit

Another Tour Around The Holodeck

First things first. Here's a link to a post I wrote a few weeks ago on advances in haptics technology, and how we're edging ever closer to the Holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I'll sum haptics up this way (keep in mind, this is not the official definition): haptics uses computer technology to make you feel things that aren't really there, or feel things differently than they actually are. It's a virtual reality type of fooling the senses, but haptics involves the sense of touch. I know this is a little challenging, but read the original post to get yourself up to speed. Wait, let me clarify. When I say up to speed, I mean up to my speed, which is about 2.5 miles per hour. I do not pretend to have any real insight into this whole field. In fact, until a few weeks ago, I didn't even know there was such a field, at least one that wasn't imaginary. Did you? Well, there is, and it's starting to grow some pretty interesting crops.

Last time, I wrote briefly about an article by Duncan Graham-Rowe, examining the work of Dr. Gabriel Robles-De-La-Torre, founder of the International Society for Haptics, who has developed ways to create physical illusions, like the feeling that you are running your hand over something sharp, or pointy, when you really just have your finger inside a thimble, attached to a computerized mechanical arm, which applies pressure to fool your mind into "feeling" different shapes. Confused? Well, here's the nifty part that led me to address this topic again so soon. I got an email today from Dr. Robles-De-La-Torre, with all sorts of links to help us understand his work better. I admit, I never expected such a smart person to be so helpful, and to voluntarily go out of his way to provide us with more information. "Really smart people" are supposed to be aloof and far above us all. I'm glad to be wrong, and also really glad to get all those links to follow up. It really has helped me to understand some more of what the doctor, and others working in the same field, are accomplishing.

I'll just list the links and where they lead. I've followed them all this morning, and done a fair bit of reading now, and I can assure you that the information is really helpful for understanding how sensory illusion can be created, and, more basically, how important the sense of touch is to our interaction with the world. It's not just dry reading, either. I really found everything I saw and read fascinating:

1) A demo of computer haptics. This is a short visual demonstration, but will help you get your head around the ideas.

2) A demo to help us understand what some illusory objects feel like. Be sure and read the text.

3) An article that discusses some related, earlier work with more illusory cases. The doctor explained to me that the technology goes beyond what I originally wrote about creating the illusion: "The cases mentioned in the article are even more surprising. It is possible to actually touch a combined real and virtual object and have our perception of the real object changed by the virtual one."

4) A broader article on why touch is important (but frequently misunderstood and underrated.) This article is amazing. Dr. Robles-De-La-Torre tells the story of Mr. Waterman, a man who permanently lost his sense of touch from the collarline down, and how he had to learn to control his body completely through visual reference. It's really an incredible tale. The doctor explains all the ways that we rely on touch information to function in the world, and how the lessons learned from Mr. Waterman relate to virtual environments. Read this one, if you can. For me it was a totally new look at the sense of touch, and gave me a new appreciation for its importance. God knew what he was doing when he gave us all five senses.

5) The good doctor also invited me (and thus, you) to keep up with the latest on haptics. Guess how? He's got a blog!! He calls it a newslog, which is much more legit sounding, but I'm a little more plebeian than that, so, a blog it is.

I hope you enjoy the opportunity to explore this subject some more. Anyone who reads the Meow much knows that I just eat this stuff up, and then ask for dessert. The world is an amazing place, and the accomplishments of people like Dr. Robles-De-La-Torre make it even more so. I'm looking forward to seeing where this research into haptic technology will lead us. There are exciting applications on the horizon, especially medical ones. Wouldn't it be great if surgeons could practice a procedure over and over with a haptic interface, before they ever took a scalpel to a real live human patient? What other precise and dangerous work will we one day be able to practice in realistic virtual environments? Will I ever be able to take a virtual vacation to the Moon? Will I ever be able to take a real vacation to the Moon? All of these questions have answers that are just around the corner. I'll be checking in on the doctor's world from time to time to see how close we're getting to the holodeck.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Fudging The Numbers

Here's an interesting glimpse at Swedish unemployment numbers. No, it's not an oxymoron. In this case they really are interesting, because of the methods the Swedish state unemployment agency is using to keep the numbers down. What methods are those you ask? Are they using some wonderful new training method which helps people transition from obsolete jobs to cutting edge employment opportunities? Not as far as I know. Well then, is the government cutting taxes to promote investment, leading to an increase in job availability? Again, not as far as I know. Okay then, are they using the socialist approach, and creating more government jobs, and that's how they're taking citizens off the unemployment roles? Sort of. According to Nima Sanandaji, at TCS Daily, they are re-classifying healthy young Swedes as mentally disabled, so that they don't count against the standard employment rolls, and then giving them menial work in a government subsidized project designed to provide jobs for the disabled, jobs such as cleaning and building wheelchairs.

Sanandaji cites one Swedish girl, Jessica Pettersson, that the agency wanted to classify as mentally disabled because she wasn't good enough in math, despite the fact she has a high school degree in economics. Pettersson refused the reclassification, but apparently, many people cave to agency pressure:

Alarmingly, what happened to Petterson is not an isolated incident in Sweden. The state unemployment agency is constantly attempting to force people to "admit" to being disabled. Today 19.3 percent of those seeking jobs at the unemployment office are being classified as disabled.
Wow, 19.3 percent of the people looking for a job through the government agency are classified as disabled?! What is wrong with the water in Sweden? Either there is something terribly wrong with the environment, or the gene pool, over there, causing so many people to be mentally handicapped, or (much more likely) the government doesn't want to admit they have an economic problem which is contributing to a dirth of jobs, so they're fudging the employment numbers, and calling their populace stupid to do it. Sweden is a socialist country, and not very big on free market economies, so they have high government employment anyway, but if Sanandaji is right, and the Social Democrats running the government are using this particular method of keeping the numbers looking shiny, that's just pathetic, don't you think? Fixing the numbers is one thing, but they're setting the accomplishment standard for a whole host of young people at far less than their true potential, telling them they are too dumb to do more, which could determine the course for their entire lives. The politicians who are benefiting from this kind of chicanery are literally sacrificing other people's futures to make their own political futures safer. Like I said, if it's true, it's pathetic.

False Alarms?

I just read a really interesting article from The Weekly Standard, by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, about terrorist practice runs on commercial airlines. He says that some of the false alarms we've been hearing about lately may not actually be false alarms, but rather exercises, probing for weaknesses, and figuring out what behavior triggers suspicion with passengers and crew. We do frequently read about incidents that don't result in immediate terrorism as mistakes, or over-reactions by a hyper-vigilant population. Gartenstein-Ross doesn't think that the suspicions are over-reactions, though. Rather, it's people response to legitimately disturbing events, designed by would-be terrorists to test the boundaries.

He cites several specific examples of questionable behavior, where the most reasonable explanation is the dry run theory, and says that since the foiling of the London bomb plot in early August, "at least 20 public incidents involving airline security have been reported in the United States and Europe." All of the examples cited by Gartenstein-Ross involved young Muslim men. Let's at least acknowledge the possibility that these incidents were precursors to future Islamic terrorist acts. According to him, terrorists have a couple clear things to gain from such dry runs:

If the terrorists have reasonable stories and don't possess weapons or the means to blow up a flight, their dry run or casing will likely be remembered as nothing more than a false alarm. Actions of this kind are fairly low-risk ventures for terrorists from which they derive two distinct advantages. One is that they can test the limits of our tolerance, determining what behavior will raise red flags and what will not. The second advantage is that, as an increasing number of law enforcement sources suspect, terrorists or their sympathizers may be trying to catch the Federal Air Marshals' attention in order to determine who the marshals are.
Even when certain travellers set off alarm bells with other passengers and crew, most suspicious behavior is dismissed by investigators after it becomes clear that there was no immediate threat. Garenstein-Ross, however, makes a good case for the argument that the young Muslim men involved in these incidents, don't have to bring down the plane they're on to be accomplishing their objectives. One of their main objectives might be to get us to start ignoring our own warning bells:

Beside the information that terrorists can gain, suspicious behavior that catches the attention of crews and air marshals may produce alert fatigue. When a number of "false alarms" occur on airplanes, it runs the risk that both airline personnel and the public will become desensitized to future threats. In Preventing Surprise Attacks, Richard Posner refers to this as the "boy crying wolf" cost of announcing terror threats, and warns that false alerts "increase the likelihood that true alarms will be ignored."
I think Gartenstein-Ross' theory is probably pretty darned accurate. It's a small example, but do you remember when car alarms first became the big new thing? Every alarm brought everybody to a window, or out to the street, to see what was going on and whether someone's car really was in peril. Pretty soon, however, we all started realizing that some of those alarms had a hair trigger, and would go off if a bird flew overhead, or someone's skirt brushed the fender. Two things resulted from this. One was that all the alarms started getting reset not to be so sensitive, and the other was that we all began ignoring the alarms when they did go off. Now if we hear an alarm, unless it's coming from the spot we parked our own car, we barely even notice it.

These airline incident "dry runs", unless every one of them really is a false alarm, are happening for a reason, probably several. Gartenstein-Ross raises some good points that bring us around to the question, "Can we afford to reset our alarms, and ignore them when they do go off?" My answer is no. I remember being at an airport not too long ago and seeing some unattended bags. I called over the security guard, and both he and the lady who ultimately came to claim the luggage looked at me like I was a little loopy. I don't care; I'm not resetting my alarm. You can decide for yourself where yours is set, but if you want my vote, I say keep it turned up. It may irritate a few people, but not nearly as much as it would if we ignore one of those false alarms long enough to make it a true one.

(By the way, it's worth reading the article just to see the dry run examples he gives.)

Military Coup

Coup attempt in Thailand. Newley Purnell has a round-up. HT: Instapundit

Monday, September 18, 2006

To Breathe, Or Not To Breathe

How would you like to live in an enclosed environment, dependant on elaborate mechanical systems to produce oxygen for you to breathe? I'm not talking about air filters, or pumps to bring in air from the outside, but something like the Elektron oxygen generator in use on the Russian side of the International Space Station, which actually splits water molecules to produce oxygen for the nauts to breathe (astronauts, cosmonauts, whatever they are up there, let's just call them nauts.) As much as I would love to be a naut myself some day, learn what it's like to be weightless, and see the Earth from somewhere out in space, or at the very least, orbit, it is a rather sobering concept, being enclosed in a vehicle with a totally artificial atmosphere. It's kind of like being a guppy in a fishbowl, except there's a little machine in there that has to keep making water, or the guppy will run out.

Most of us have been in planes, where there is bottled oxygen available in case of an emergency, but almost none of us have ever known what it's like to live in space, where the chosen few are completely dependant on that Elektron oxygen generator, or its equivalent, doing its job so that they can keep breathing freely. Of course, there are filter systems for the space station; if someone burns toast, or spills bleach, it's not like they can run outside for a breath of fresh air, but what if it were a major problem they were facing? What if the system broke down, and toxic chemicals were released into their very limited air supply? Well, naturally, they'd clean it up. According to Kelly Young, at New Scientist Space, three nauts spent Monday morning cleaning up a small toxic spill of potassium hydroxide, a chemical which can, when breathed, cause various nasty symptoms like "a burning sensation, cough, sore throat and shortness of breath."

It looks like the chemical came from the very system designed to provide the nauts with air to breathe, the Elektron oxygen generator. (It's like the poor guppy's water maker started producing ketchup.) So, the nauts turned off the ventilation system throughout the station, put on masks and gloves, turned up the air filters, and got to work fixing the problem. There is back-up oxygen, stored in tanks and canisters, on the space station, of course, and it looks like the problem has been repaired, although from the sound of it, the system is not completely reliable. According to Young, it has had repeated problems, and required previous repair, and they'll probably have to fix it again the next time their air supply is threatened. It's a good thing that NASA and its foreign counterparts have extensive repair manuals.

It makes me realize how much I take it for granted that God provided us with a system down here on Earth that naturally replenishes its own supply of oxygen, without help from the Maytag repairman. Can you imagine what would happen if the plants we rely on to change carbon dioxide back into oxygen suddenly started putting out potassium hydroxide instead? I don't have a spare oxygen tank lying around in case of system malfunction, do you? It's a good thing they do on the ISS, though. The station has a visitor coming on Wednesday--the first woman tourist to buy herself the experience. I'm glad for her sake that this little incident didn't happen while she was on board. It might put a damper on her vacation.

Science Meets Homeland Security

I've been doing a little tech reading this morning, as well as some current events and political analysis. Most of it has been mildly interesting, but nothing has screamed at me to blog it. Things occasionally do scream in such a manner, and I usually tell them to take a timeout. I don't want to encourage such behavior. Eventually, of course, I cave to their insistent pressure that I make a fuss over them, and give them exactly what they want by telling Meow readers how important, or interesting, or maddening I found them. I know I shouldn't reward screaming with positive attention, but sometimes I just have to give in to their demands so they will stop pestering me. I probably would have made a lousy parent. Firm consistency is very important with children. Less so with blogs; however, the same general truths apply. If my blog gets out of line, I have no one to blame, but myself.

All of this to say that, while I haven't found anything so compelling that it simply must be discussed at length, I did find something worth tossing your way. Not to whine, but I am on the second day of a migraine, so my thinking is a little unfocused. However, I still got enough out of a piece I read at IEEE Spectrum, by Ted G. Lewis, that I thought maybe those of you the topic interests enough to follow the link might get a bit more out of it than I, not being hindered as I am at the moment by brain-fuzziness. It applies mathematical networking analysis to Homeland Security issues, and looks at the defense of infrastructure of all sorts, from the Internet, to social structures such as governments, to physical infrastructure, power, transportation, communication and public health. Let my clarify: This is not an article about math, nor is there math in it. You do not have to understand math to understand the article. It is about networks of all kinds, and how to protect them. It is a bit of a dry read, not one of those science articles that brings ideas to life and makes them completely accessible to the non-scientific mind, but I still found it interesting. Not screamingly so, but one or two of you might want to go here anyway. If not, just tell it to take a timeout.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

If You're In The Northwest...

My husband and I just got back from the coolest belated-birthday celebration excursion. Our friend took us to the Rice NW Museum of Rocks and Minerals, in Hillsboro Oregon, and I'll tell ya, we had no idea we had such a gem in our own back yard. (I know, sorry about the pun. Sometimes they just crystallize.) The non-profit museum was started by an Oregon couple, Helen and Richard Rice, who shared a lifelong passion for unearthing the beautiful treasures that now line the walls and cases of the over 7,000 square foot home that they built to house their growing collection. One of the friendly guides at the museum spent quite a lot of time with us, opening our eyes to some of the beauties, oddities and uses of the minerals displayed in one of the two museum buildings. She told us that the Rices weren't just collectors, storing up the wonders that other people had discovered, but that they themselves had found many of the specimens that they had gathered over the years.

This collection, already impressive, has been expanded since the Rice's deaths in 1997. The brochure I picked up said the museum has become nationally recognized, and "is the finest rock and mineral museum in the Pacific Northwest, and one of the best in the nation." It went on to describe the museum's crystal hoard as "one of the world's finest collections of crystals from worldwide locations." There are meteorites, fossils (including really fascinating dinosaur eggs and a baby psittacosaurus), a fluorescent minerals room (they look all plain and boring, until black light is shone on them in a darkened room; then they're magic), and the most amazing display of petrified wood. Really, the petrified wood was remarkable. The collection belongs to Dennis and Mary Murphy, and has over 450 specimens. I never knew wood could turn so many colors.

In the museum's mineral and crystal sections we saw such a varied array of colors, shapes and sizes, that I couldn't begin to describe it all. There was a 3,000 lb. thunderegg, with a quartz interior, as well as minerals and crystals that looked like (I am not fooling here) frozen broccoli, AstroTurf, rabbit fur, melted crayons, cauliflower, a mass of stuck together bars of soap, abstract modern art, and butter cookies with butterscotch sprinkles. We learned some interesting facts about the minerals, too. We learned that some of the brighter colored minerals, like azurite, are ground up for eyeshadow. The giant mass that looks like bars of soap all stuck together is barite, and it is used to make magazine pages glossy, among other things, and also is the source of the mineral barium, which is used in some x-ray procedures. We kept asking ourselves who comes up with these ideas? I mean who thinks of grinding up a rock and putting it in paint, or antacids, or barium enemas?

Because the staff was friendly and helpful, we also were treated to some fascinating stories. One lovely tale involved an Italian lady of a previous century who ground up arsenic into face powder, to help women murder their husbands. The European custom of kissing people on both cheeks came in handy for the murderesses-to-be. That arsenic would get on their husband's lips, accumulate in the body, where over time it would make them sicker and sicker. The symptoms resembled cholera, so this scheme went unnoticed for quite some time. Over six hundred men died before the arsenic-laced makeup was discovered to be the culprit. This, in my opinion, gives new meaning to the common phrase, "putting on a face."

We spent three hours oohing and aahing, and listening and learning. We could have spent more. We will definitely be going back. Here's where I'll throw the museum a little more free advertising. My husband wants us to take a faceting class they offer that we got to sit in on for a few minutes, where they teach people how to shape a gemstone--it's a great deal; just $110 for twenty hours of instruction, equipment and materials provided, and you get to keep your finished work!!

Friday, September 15, 2006

Nuclear, Or Not? You Decide

Hey, there's an interesting bit of debate about nuclear energy at Popular Mechanics, between Dr. Patrick Moore, one of the co- founders of Greenpeace, and Anna Aurilio, the Legislative Director of the US Public Interest Research Group. I've known for a while, but was surprised at the time I learned, that the co-founder of Greenpeace has actually come around to being a nuclear energy advocate. He takes the pro-nuclear position in this discussion, while Ms. Aurilio takes the con. The debate points between them are interesting, covering cost, waste, safety, alternatives and the prevention of spent fuel finding its way into nuclear weapons. Dr. Moore even very briefly addresses water shortage issues which could be eased with nuclear technology.

I recognize that it was the intent of the editors of Popular Mechanics to present a fair opportunity for both sides to give their arguments, and it was not their aim to declare a winner in this debate. I'm sure they weren't setting out to support the concept of nuclear power. However, I think they could have, had they so chosen, using the same elements the article already contains. PM could have framed this into a pro-nuclear point-counterpoint, by placing Ms. Aurilio's portion of the debate at the beginning. Dr. Moore answers many of her objections in his portion of the article, especially as regards safety, which both of them address. Neither of them go into their arguments in great depth, but he holds his ground better than she does, in my "non-scientistic" opinion.

Dr. Moore makes the argument that nuclear energy should be developed in tandem to other alternative fuels. I agree. We ought to be exploiting every option that we can possibly implement feasibly and safely. I think some of Ms. Aurilio's points are weakened by putting nuclear energy in competition with other environmentally-friendly energy options, such as wind and solar. She seems to want to replace existing nuclear power, which, according to Dr. Moore produces 20 percent of our nation's electricity, with what she thinks are greener alternative choices, rather than replacing the greenhouse-gas-producing, terrorist- supporting fossil fuel options with solar, wind, and nuclear. Not to mention all the other energy options we can possibly explore that don't involve sending money to terrorist supporting states, and adding to potential greenhouse gas issues. The co-founder of Greenpeace thinks of nuclear energy as clean and safe, for Pete's sake. The more relevant comparison to be made at this point is nuclear versus oil and coal, since these are the predominant sources of power in the U.S. today. On the safety front, Ms. Aurilio is also less than persuasive. She limits her discussion of security and accident prevention to current safeguards, i.e. those safeguards which were put into nuclear facilities currently operating in America, but built over thirty years ago. Nuclear technology has come a long way since Three Mile Island. I'm with Dr. Moore.

Hat tip: Instapundit

Thursday, September 14, 2006

We Can Rebuild Her

It's been raining here today, off and on, so any hope we had of making progress in ridding our back yard of the last of the excavation dirt pile was in vain. The pile o' dirt remains. Instead we've been hanging cabinets in the Disneyland-in-the-making-for-people-who-like-power-tools that is our new garage. They are cabinets, I might add, that we got for free when somebody started a kitchen remodel project. The "for free" part is especially gratifying. This building project was by no means cheap. The cabinets weren't cheap either, but somebody bore the cost for them that wasn't us. A happy thing in Meowville.

So anyway, my husband is off rescuing my stranded mother (car trouble), and I turned to my favorite down-time activity. If you don't know what that is, this is clearly your first time visiting my particular bit of Internet real estate. I'm catching up on a little reading. Almost any kind of reading material would do, except for communist propaganda, or the kind of magazines that used to come with brown wrappers over them, but today what caught my eye is a bit of tech talk.

Having recently had both my arms very actively engaged in holding cabinets overhead while my Kedley attached them to the wall, it struck me personally when I came across an article which talked about the first woman to receive a bionic arm. I couldn't help thinking about all the ways in life that we (most of us anyway) depend on the fact we have two working appendages, with all the appropriate moving parts. The Washington Post article, by David Brown, tells the story of Claudia Mitchell, who lost her left arm at the shoulder, in a motorcycle accident, and says that the first time she "peeled a banana one-handed, she cried." Obviously, the situation really is personal to her, and not just a mental "wow, arms are really important" moment. Her whole life was transformed with that accident, and how could that ever be made better?

What's amazing is that, while she's not growing a new arm, or anything, to replace the one she lost (science hasn't progressed that far, although when they do get there, I'm sure it will involve carbon nano-tubes), she has been given a reasonably-functioning replacement to the limb she came with at birth. When I said earlier that her new arm was bionic, I meant it. This isn't just a prosthetic part with no real function. Doctors actually moved nerve clusters to different muscles than they were originally connected to, making this new arm respond to Mitchell's thoughts.

Apparently, even when an arm is lost at the shoulder, higher up toward the brain the nerves still exist which transmit messages from the brain to our limbs. Those nerves can be adapted to trigger impulses to other muscles than the ones they originally controlled, so Mitchells' "hand and arm" nerves were attached to chest muscle, which twitches when she thinks about moving her hand, or elbow, or whatnot. That muscular motion is sensed by electrodes that let a computer in the bionic arm know which motors to activate to move in response to Mitchell's thoughts. By this method, she can grab things with her "hand" and move the arm at will. Right now, there are three motors in her arm. They're working on one that will have six, and allow her to reach overhead for things that she can't get to currently, which could be very useful if she ever needs to put up overhead cabinets. Wouldn't that be absolutely amazing?

According to Brown, the part of the chest muscle that has been wired to the hand nerve cluster actually feels as if it were her hand:

The person also ends up with a patch of skin about the width of a baseball that, when stroked, warmed or pricked, feels like a hand rather than part of the chest.
What's really cool about this is that eventually the signals will go both ways. Not only will Mitchell's mind send signals to the hand, but the hand will send signals to the brain as well. Sensors in the hand will transmit to the brain, through those nerve impulses that are now routed through the chest muscle, allowing her arm to send messages that "...will be perceived as sensation." Astounding, isn't it? The Bionic Woman is a reality. Brown says Mitchell is the first woman, and only the fourth person ever, to receive this kind of arm--the thought-controlled variety.

There are lots of things still being worked out, but the implications are mind-blowing. As this technology improves, accident victims and soldiers will be increasingly able to face future life with hope that whatever injured them won't be a permanently life-altering event. Who knows where this will lead? Scientists are constantly pushing the boundaries, and finding new wells of genius from which to draw. I find myself wondering if the day will come when bionic limbs will have such functionality and appearance that no one else even knows that the person playing tennis with them lost an arm, or a leg. Amazing, astounding, and mind-blowing. I'm running out of superlatives.

Hat tip: Futurismic

AI--Signs Of Intelligence

From whence comes this sudden clarity of vision? Amnesty International has declared Hezbollah guilty of war crimes during its recent war with Israel. I'm not sure how many other organizations have dared to pronounce any guilt on Hezbollah's head, but this is the first I've heard of to do it with any volume behind its words. AI has yet to issue its report on Israels part in the conflict, but this does give me more hope that they might see the difficulty facing Israel with an opponent who hid among civilians, fired from their midst, and, according to Jules Crittenden, the Boston Herald City Editor, even sometimes wore Israeli uniforms in battle.

Maybe AI will recognize other challenges facing Israel, like the fact that Hezbollah was acting as proxy for Iran and Syria, and that despite international cries for "proportionality" Israel had to damage a lot of Lebanese infrastructure to try to prevent resupply from the puppet-masters. Maybe AI will recognize the difference between a terrorist organization attacking unprovoked, and a country defending itself when attacked, and attempting to do so in a way that would prevent the enemy from showing such aggression again. Maybe AI will see through some of the staged death scenes, the rusted-out ambulance claimed as a recent Israeli target, and the Hezbollah fighters numbered among the civilian dead, when they examine Israel's behavior throughout this war. Maybe. I'm not really counting on it, but then again, you never know. They surprised me this time. They might surprise me again.

Hat tip: Instapundit

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Helping The Weather Man

I love snow. I always have. I can sit for hours and watch it fall. Even when it's dark, I'll sit at the window, and sigh happily to see it float down in the gleaming circle of illumination coming from the streetlamp across the road. I have a very romantic view of snow. Snow is magical, and makes everything beautiful. On the practical end of things, snow is just frozen water coming from ice crystals in the clouds high above. A little warmer, and that snow becomes rain (something which happens often in Portland.) A bit of interference from warm air sneaking its way between upper and lower masses of cold air, and we get freezing rain, which is close to an annual event here in the Rose City, much to my annoyance. It's just not nearly as fun to watch rain freeze as it is to watch snow fall. The other almost annual event here is getting teased by forecasts, telling me there is a seventy percent chance that I'll get to bask in the warm and fuzzy glow that only snow brings, only to have the prediction be wrong. Again. Rain instead. I never believe them anymore. If they tell me it's going to snow, I assume there's a sixty-five percent chance they're wrong. Sixty-five, seventy.

In any case, whether I complain or not, whether it lands as rain or snow, or some other form of precipitation, moisture that comes down here, starts up there, as ice crystals high above us. Did you know, though, that lightning also comes from that ice in the sky? Well it does. A NASA report that I got today, written by Dr. Tony Phillips, confirms that an electrical charge is built up when different sized ice crystals in clouds rub together. Enough of that electrical charge makes lighting. By NASA's account, lighting heats the air in its path to three times the surface temperature of the sun. So much heat coming from ice is a bit of a mental leap, but according to Dr. Phillips, the science works. It just takes an awful lot of ice to produce the effect.

The awful lot of ice part is where this information gets useful. Counting lightning flashes, as it turns out, is an accurate predictor of how much ice is in clouds. After a three year study, by the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville, Alabama, using radar equipment that measures the amount of ice in clouds, and an optical detector to count lighting flashes, scientist Walter Petersen and his colleagues have determined a definite correlation between the amount of ice a cloud contains, and the amount of lightning it produces. The correlation held firm over land, sea, and coast. This information is going to help weather reports become more accurate--maybe even in Portland:

Now that the correlation between ice and lightning is so well established, it can be put to good use. Petersen explains:

"Computer programs we write to predict weather and climate need to know how much ice is in clouds. The problem is, ice is hard to track. We can't station a radar over every thundercloud to measure its ice content. To improve our computer forecasts, we need to know where the ice is."

Lightning can help. "Because there's such a strong correlation between lightning and ice, we can get a good idea of how much ice is 'up there' by counting lightning flashes."

According to Petersen, the optical detectors, called LIS (lightning imaging sensor), are inexpensive, and can be located on Earth, or in orbit, so, now that the correlation is clearly understood, the models on which they base weather forecasts could start giving a more accurate view of whatever weather is headed toward your area. If they place lots of LIS devices all around the globe, they can start counting all those lightning flashes. More lighting flashes mean more ice. More ice means more potential precipitation. It's not a stretch to connect that how much ice is in the clouds affects how much precipitation we get down here. Little ice means little chance of rain, snow, sleet, etc. Lots of ice could mean lots of rain, snow, sleet. I'm saying could mean, because even if the ice is there, it's not a guarantee that it's coming down in any given location. They'll have to figure out some other method to predict exactly where the clouds will release their burden. I actually think they ought to skip that step in weather science, and just go straight to a weather control device. That way maybe Portland could get some snow for a change, instead of freezing rain.

This new information and technology could be changing the accuracy of weather predictions in the not too distant future. I predict it will. I forecast a seventy percent chance of increased accuracy. Sixty-five, seventy. Somewhere in there. Unless the wind shifts, or the ocean currents change path, or a butterfly starts beating its wings somewhere over China. Yeah, I think the new info will help. Fifty-five, sixty percent chance. Maybe.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Walls Are Watching You--Or They Could Be Soon

Another Minority Report moment, brought to you by Futurismic. Here's what Armchair Anarchist has to say to us today, as he references an article at, by Tom Simonite:

As if you weren't sick of (or completely immune to) targeted advertising on the internet, the next place it could crop up is on the walls. A UK university is testing a prototype ad screen in a corridor - the screen identifies passers-by via the Bluetooth signals from their mobile devices, and then software agents hold a bidding war in microseconds to decide who gets to display their content. The system will be able to differentiate between different people to ensure no-one sees the same ad twice. I think we just found another good reason to keep the Bluetooth on your phone switched off when you're not using it.
Okay, this is getting kind of creepy. I really love that we're seeing so many technological advances these days, but buildings figuring out who I am by my cell phone or PDA, and pummeling me with ads aimed just at me, is not something that I want to be a part of our brave new world. I suppose it's unavoidable. Advertising Happens. However, this new "wave of the future" is one that I already find irritating, and we haven't even gotten there yet. Apparently, individuals can leave the Bluetooth function off, which would be option number one in my world, if turning it on meant Tide commercials would follow me wherever I go, or worse yet, Pepto Bimol. (Have you ever seen anything more humiliating than the ad campaign with the Pepto Bismol "dance"? A new low in American culture.)

The article suggests that in the future, people will be able to choose to activate the function anonymously, so that the building only recognizes the device, not them. This then would send the ads through, but lets the system know that the device has triggered certain ads before, thus decreasing the chances of repeats. This is the option to use if you like commercials, need variety, but don't mind random content. The other option will be to immerse yourself completely into the Minority Report way of life. You would be able identify yourself, and your profile would let the system know what things interest you, so that everything that comes your way is personally focused--advertising tailored just for you, provided by the highest bidder. This is the option for the marginally insane. Okay, maybe that's hyperbolically harsh, but boy, I'm about as far as I can be from understanding why anyone would intentionally call down the advertising hordes onto their own heads. I really don't have the slightest clue what would make anybody volunteer as an advertising receptacle. It'll be interesting to see how well this kind of thing flies, how many people make themselves available to the ad-osphere. Am I in the majority, or does the rest of the world really long for a Minority Report reality?

Big Government: It's Not Just For Liberals Anymore

I've just spent a considerable amount of time reading a very, very, very, very (I think that's enough veries) long piece at TCS Daily, by Ryan Sager. Why is it so long? It's the entire first chapter of Sager's new book, The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party. The first chapter is a fascinating look at the tenuous marriage between social conservatives/traditionalists and small government conservatives/libertarians in the Republican party, how and when that marriage came to be, and what is making the union a difficult one now that the Republican party is moving in a "big government conservatism" direction. I find this topic particularly interesting, because my own politics are something of a marriage between traditionalism and libertarianism. Frequently, I find the two extremely complimentary, personal responsibility and freedom, hand in hand. At other times, as played out politically, I see the two impulses are at war, personal responsibility turned to a strict set of rules imposed on society at large, and freedom turned to unbridled license, defying moral standards of any kind. Sager points out that each can be useful in checking the other's more extreme tendencies.

In their less extreme forms, both these impulses are pretty strongly rooted in the idea of limited government. It has been the traditional, small government, social conservative's belief that the less intrusive the government, the less likely that government was to tell them they couldn't pray in school or teach creationism as an alternative to evolution, and that less activist and meddlesome federal courts weren't as likely to mandate legalized abortion, or other perceived social ills. The libertarian's belief was similar, but with different social aims, centering around complete personal liberty, such as decriminalizing drug use, legalized gay marriage, etc. It's an uneasy union in terms of the ultimate aims, but the commonly desired method of achieving them has often seemed to make the two congruous. Both have wanted limited government interference, and also shared similar goals in terms of strong property rights, free trade, fiscal accountability, and limited government spending. It hasn't been a perfect marriage, but like many marriages, the two have gotten along well enough when they have focused on what they have in common.

Sager analyses what is happening as the Republican party heads in more of a "compassionate conservatism" direction, i.e. big government, unafraid to spend tax-payer money to curry voter favor, and set on using its recently acquired power to move forward with a conservative social agenda. Sager questions whether the small government conservative can remain married to the Republican party if the party continues to move in the direction of wielding the big government hammer to build a socially conservative government. Indeed, one must also ask the question of social conservatives. If big, intrusive government is a negative thing when the opposing party is in power, does it cease to be a negative when the power rests in your own hands for a while? Is the small government stand based on principle, or has it merely been viewed as the way to keep progressives from the redistribution of wealth, over-regulation, and restriction of free enterprise that both social conservatives and libertarians oppose? If the concept of small government is abandoned when it is no longer necessary to hold back the progressive agenda, what happens when the reins of power are transferred back into the hands of Democrats? Does it then regain its place of value?

Not all conservatives are hypocrites. Sager spends some time on the varied pockets of Republican discontent, both libertarian and traditionalist, who really do believe in small government, and are frustrated to see their party heading off in the big government direction. It's not just the libertarians objecting; many traditionalists, too, are concerned with the party veering off into the land of big. So, the question to be addressed is, can the marriage last, can enough traditionalists and libertarians come together to refocus on what they have in common? Sager isn't writing off the possibility. Reading the article, should give you the background history, which is useful in itself, but it's going to take reading the book to see if Sager's path toward reconciliation is a feasible one. Just what I needed, one more book on my "things to read" list.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Many Uses Of Spider Legs

Hey arachnophobes, there's finally a use for spiders besides just killing off other irritating pestoids!! Well, maybe I should rephrase that. There's finally a use for spider legs. Wait, one more rephrasing. There's finally a use for the design of spider legs. The way the spider's legs work, basically using a hydraulic system, that bends a joint by filling one part of it with fluid, rather than pulling with a muscle, is inspiring scientists with possible ways to adapt the system for human uses, such as lightweight, non-mechanical joints for miniature grippers to be used in space, or special fabric that can help people's posture. Clear? No? Well follow the link to an article by Lisa Zyga, at There's a nifty illustration to show you how a spider's leg joints work, as well as further explanation of the possible applications. I know, this probably doesn't make you any more "spider happy," and the mere mention of spiders in even now making some of you a little wiggy, but does it give you any joy to know that the dreaded spider has its useful side? Realistically, nothing I say is going to make you hate spiders any less, is it? Frankly, I knew that, so re-wiring arachnophobes wasn't really my goal, but I hope that maybe you will find the look at the wonderful world of spider legs, and their many useful functions, educational. So go to the article and learn something, to make this foray into the icky and unpleasant worth it.

Update: Oops, I just discovered that I left off the link to the article. Silly me. Here it is.

Hat tip: Sci Tech Daily

Some 9/11 Encouragement

Kenneth Silber, at TCS Daily, has a common sense, and optimistic piece on why we (we being the good guys, the non-terrorists) are likely to win the War on Terror, or more precisely, why the terrorists are likely to lose. Today, of all days, it's a good thing to be reminded that, no matter how right it is to remember the lost on the 5th anniversary of 9/11, the story doesn't end there, nor does the future hold our imminent demise. Silber looks at the Cold War, and how many of communism's opponents feared they were losing the battle, even as they were fighting on the side of freedom. Obviously, they were wrong. Communism did not ultimately prevail. Silber, learning from this example, applies it to the trend he observes today, that of pessimism regarding the struggle against our terrorist foes. He sums up some reasons why the enemy is far from invincible, and points out some of their weaknesses, which, though often overlooked, make them unlikely to be victorious in their quest for world domination.

One of those weaknesses is one that a reader and I have discussed briefly in the comments of a previous post. I think it is a crucial part of winning this war over time:

Oil revenue is the terrorists' lifeline. The wealth that subsidizes Islamic terrorism and totalitarianism is overwhelmingly derived from the Persian Gulf region's petroleum exports; such exports are the mainstay of Iran's economy and of private "charities" that have funneled money to terrorist groups throughout the region. Efforts to diversify world energy supplies, driven by an array of economic, environmental and geopolitical factors, can be expected to erode the dominance of the region's oil over the next several decades. The development of alternative fuels and technologies, and of new petroleum sources such as the multibillion-barrel field recently discovered in the Gulf of Mexico, pose an enormous strategic threat to our enemies in the War on Terror.
This is such a critical observation. All of the environmental and political pressures caused by our use of fossil fuels as our main energy source are leading to dramatic developments, and ultimately will lead to the end of our dependence on oil. So much effort and money is going toward the search for viable alternatives, and this search is producing such promising results, that real changes are on the horizon, and the horizon grows ever closer. When those alternatives are readily available, and oil wanes as a necessary component to the national economies of secular democracies the world over, the Middle East will lose much of its revenue, as well as much of its influence on the democratic world and its policies. Take Iran as an example. What civilized nation, or group of nations, would let that demented and tyrannical government dictate terms, expand its influence, or develop nuclear weapons, if Iran has nothing the other nations need? If Iran didn't sit on one sixth of the world's known oil reserves, what power would that nation have now, and how much tolerance would there be for its funding of Hezbollah, from other governments that weren't equally demented? I think the answer to that question is pretty close to zilch. Mutiply that effect by the whole region, and the dynamics of Middle East policy change significantly.

Silber is absolutely right that the ongoing development of alternative sources of energy is one of the primary reasons that Islamic fascism will ultimately go the way of the Soviet Empire. There are other reasons, as well, so read his article for a bit of 9/11 encouragement.