Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Affluence Or Poverty--Which Is Better For The Environment?

I was going to stay away from the brouhaha surrounding Al Gore's energy bill, and his proclivity to preach about reducing greenhouse gas emissions while himself producing a ton of them, but I read a piece by James H. Joyner Jr., at TCS Daily, that was such good common sense that I had to pass it along. He basically gives Gore a pass on the question of hypocrisy, saying that he doesn't know enough about Gore's stated policies, and carbon offsets and whatnot to render a judgement. His focus is more on the question of whether affluence or technologically backward poverty is better for the environment, and humanity. Here's a snippet:

Where Gore and I differ is that my aim is for more people to get to live like Gore. While environmental degradation in general and global warming in particular are real problems, certainly a serious case can be made that they pale in comparison with the ravages of poverty. Further, if millions of people not starving to death isn't its own reward, UC-Berkeley professor emeritus of energy and resources Jack Hollander explains in The Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment's Number One Enemy, that, contrary to conventional wisdom, as societies become more affluent, they produce less pollution. That's not particularly surprising, when you think about it, as those whose basic human needs are met have both the inclination and resources to worry about cleaning up their environment.
Joyner makes the case for something that I have believed for a long time; the solution to our environmental problems lies in more and better technology, not less technology. He quotes Jesse Ausubel, the director of Rockefeller University's Program for the Human Environment:
Inefficiency always costs much. Around the year 1000, before the invention of good chimneys, people in cold climates centered their lives around an open fire in the middle of a room with a roof louvered high to carry out the smoke, and most of the heat. Open fireplaces demanded constant replenishing and thus a large woodpile behind every house. A smart stove did not emerge until 1744. Benjamin Franklin's invention greatly reduced the amount of fuel required and, thus, the size of the woodpile was reduced for those who could afford the stove.
Advancing technology is constantly moving us forward in our efforts to preserve our environment, giving us more energy efficient, and less polluting wood stoves, cars, light bulbs, factories, furnaces, sewage treatment, batteries, water heaters, commuter trains, photographic equipment, and even nuclear power plants. That's just off the top of my head. New technologies are also taking things that once would have gone to landfills and giving them a second life, making more and more use of recyclable materials. Have you seen some of the decking materials and fabrics they are making out of old milk containers? The key to environmental responsibility does not lie in turning off all the amenities of modern life. (Heck, if it weren't for technology, most of us wouldn't even know there were global environmental issues.) It lies in promoting prosperity and creativity which will continue to address the rightly-raised environmental concerns of society--with technological progress. Joyner's got a bit more to say. Go have a look.

The Night Shift

Pink Tentacle has some rather icky, but compelling, time-lapse video of a "deep-sea feeding frenzy." Critters die in the deep all the time, right? Ever wonder how the ocean floors stay so clean? Here's your chance to see the cleaning crew in action. My response? "Ewwwww," and, "Cool!"

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Wealth In America

I’m not a class warfarrior. I’m always a little bemused by the people who are. Everyone starts with a certain set of circumstances, but what you do with them is usually the deciding factor in whether where you start is where you end up. I didn’t grow up with much money, and most of my friends as a child had nicer houses and better toys, fancier cars and more fashionable clothing. I was never taught to resent the advantages of others, though, nor to compare my lot with the more fortunate. In my parents' world, there was no point in comparisons. They didn't change anything. Things were what they were, and the best remedy for them was hard work and thrift.

My parents did work hard, but even so things were rarely easy. Money was a big source of tension at home, and we watched my mom stretch the dollars wherever possible. She clipped coupons, and shopped sales. She made friends with the guys at the day-old bakery outlet, who would give her the heads up when goodies came into the store for cheap. She recycled glass before it was popular, saving it in barrels in the back yard, one for clear and one for green, to sell when a barrel got full. My sister and I learned to straighten out the nails we pulled from old lumber, to be used later—when my mom would reuse that lumber to build a shed, or a pantry. We gratefully took what people gave us. Most of my clothes were hand-me-downs. (The hand-me-downs were rather unavoidable, money or no. I was the smallest kid in my class for years, and my friends’ parents saw me as the next inevitable phase in wardrobe deployment. I also had an older sister at home who spent all her babysitting money filling her closet. I benefited greatly from the temporary lack of human growth hormone.) My folks made the best of what we had, and we never went hungry. Although, sometimes we’d have to take the free lunches the school sent our way.

We weren’t what I would call poor, though. Poor is not having food to eat, or a place to live. Poor is freezing in winter, or not having shoes. We just had a normal life, with bouts of belt tightening and a few lessons in humility. Plenty of other people had more, but plenty others had less, too, and the best lesson I learned from it all was that no matter what advantages and disadvantages came my way, what I did with them would make all the difference in how things turned out. My parents never stopped working their blue collar jobs, while encouraging us to get an education, and my mom, especially, taught us not to waste what we had, but to use it to the fullest, turn it inside out, reuse it, and then rebuild it if necessary. I resented having to wash plastic bags and tin foil for reuse, rather than just throwing them away like my friends did (and I admit that I am often not so frugal today), but I learned the lesson all the same. Making the most of what you have is the best way to ensure that you still have something later. My mom opened savings accounts to get the free dishes, or whatever the giveaway of the day was. More importantly, she kept her money in those savings accounts. Mom, who really did grow up in abject poverty, who never did have a high-paying job, or a rich husband, nevertheless managed to save for herself a tidy nest egg. She is independent in her retirement, despite the pecuniary disadvantages of her earlier years. She was wise with what life and God handed her.

My sister and I frequently were teased because of my mom's frugal ways, the lack of luxuries that others took for granted, and because she expected us to learn to work as hard as she did. The hardest times for me were the teenage years, because those, of course, were the years that I cared the most what other people thought. In high school I was always embarrassed when other kids would see where I lived, because our house was sturdy and had a roof, but had little else to recommend it, and I tried my best to keep my address a secret. I was very careful about accepting rides. Only people who had proven they wouldn’t make fun of me were allowed to drive me home. Occasionally I misjudged the driver, and went through sufficient amounts of adolescent mortification at their ridicule to make me even more wary the next time. I particularly remember one cruel and insecure boy who kept repeating, “You live here. You live here,” like it was some kind of chant. Many of my home improvement skills were learned as I tried to make that house less of an embarrassment. Those are skills I’m so grateful I learned. At the time, I would have gladly traded places with almost anybody, not realizing that the lessons I was learning about hard work and frugality would serve me in good stead for my entire life. Then, I just wanted not to be embarrassed. Now, I wouldn’t trade what I learned for the world—or all the fun and popularity that money could have bought me in high school. I am far better off financially now, because I learned resourcefulness, fiscal responsibility and independence then.

So where is all this review of childhood history going? It’s my personal illustration of what Peter Cuthbertson writes about at TCS Daily, on class warfare, and the truth about the wealthy in America. There is a fair amount of resentment here in the USA, frequently fostered by politics, between the Haves and the Have-nots, and there is a perception that the Haves have gotten all the breaks, didn't do anything to earn their good fortune, flaunt it in other people's faces, and really should be sharing the undeserved wealth. Is this perception accurate, however, or is there more to wealthy Americans than meets the eye? I'll quote Cuthbertson at length here:

The picture of an actual millionaire is dramatically less glamorous than commonly-held visions of exclusive neighborhoods, expensive clothes and colorful social lives. In his 1996 book The Millionaire Next Door, co-authored with Dr. William Danko, Dr. Stanley revealed that the typical millionaire spent less than $400 on their most expensive suit, and only about 1% spent more than $2,800. Only one in ten millionaires had ever spent more than $300 on a pair of shoes. Most millionaires pay a few hundred dollars or less for their watch, and $30,000 or less for their main motor vehicle. They have been married to the same person most of their adult lives.

The wealthy are conspicuous for their lack of consumption: "What are three words that profile the affluent? FRUGAL FRUGAL FRUGAL". The book is full of startling individual cases: the millionaire who refused the gift of a Rolls Royce because he couldn't imagine driving up in one to eat at the crummy restaurants he prefers, or throw caught fish in the back seat; the wife who, after her husband gave her $8 million in stocks, returned at once to clipping the 25 cent grocery coupons from her newspaper.

This is no coincidence. It is not that most millionaires are in the habit of being frugal despite their wealth: it is that they are so wealthy because they are in the habit of living so frugally. The plentiful residual income goes into savings and investments that are left to grow for decades.

This picture of wealth in America certainly stacks up with what I have seen in my own family. My mom never quite made it to millionaire status, but all that saving and scrimping her way out of poverty have given her a comfortable life in her later years. My husband's father, too, came from real poverty, but he and my mother-in-law changed their own future through hard work and frugality. These are just a couple of examples of where Cuthbertson's premise holds true, but read the TCS article for his further examination of wealth in America. It's an eye-opener if you've had the notion that America's rich are all trust fund babies.

I'm so glad of the lessons I learned from my mom, and those my husband learned from his folks. I hope that we can be as responsible with our choices as they were with theirs as they were building their futures when times were hard, and never make decisions based on what other people will think of us, or what other people have. I hope I never buy into a politics that says that the government needs to redistribute everyone's income so that everyone's lot is exactly the same. If I had grown up with the notion that the perks of life were my right, and that frugality and hard work shouldn't be the cost of comfort, then I would have lost some of life's greatest character-building experiences. I'm glad I was embarrassed as a child. It taught me that I can survive embarrassment. I'm glad I had to work as a child. It taught me that I can not only survive, but thrive, on hard work. I'm glad that others had, and have, more than I do. It's taught me that, if there are comparisons to be made, then what I really need to be looking at is how much more I have than so many others, and to be grateful and generous. I don't ever want to look at what someone else has earned for themselves and say, "Hey, I don't have that, so you should give me some of yours." I want to earn and save, and make the most of everything, so that when my turn comes, I can look at someone else who has less and say, "Here, you don't have this. Let me share some with you."

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Save That Fat!!

Here's a little quiz for for you: What do racehorses, stem cells and liposuction have in common? If I were guessing, my first stab at an answer would be that they're all out of my price range. My second would be that they all are linked to someone taking a gamble on the future. My third would stretch my brain beyond comfortable tolerances, so I think I'll stick with two. How about you? Are you stumped? Maybe the better question to ask is; What could horses, stem cells and liposuction possibly have in common? They're certainly not intuitively linked. Actually, though, there's more connecting them than you'd think (unless you have a particularly active and well-trained imagination which is leaping ahead to where I'm going with this--in which case I am extremely impressed and somewhat baffled.)

Turns out that all the fat that people are paying doctors to suck out of their bodies has the potential for a second, and rather useful, life. No, I am not talking about a black market trade in human by-product candles and lipstick (and it's really disgusting that you even thought of it.) Human fat, it seems, is a terrific source of adult stem cells. So where do the horses fit in? From Biology News Net:

EuroSTELLS Project Leader Cesare Galli, from the University of Bologna, Italy has high hopes that transplanted fat stem cells will restore injured sports horses to their former glory. "Our aim is to regenerate the tendon structure that does not repair spontaneously," says Galli. Once scar tissue is formed, it hinders the animal’s recovery. "If you intervene, with cell transplants, within one week, you can repair the lesion," Galli notes. Like horses, humans are also vulnerable to joint injuries, and rehabilitations are long and costly. Now experience with horses is paving the way to cell therapies for sport-related tendon injuries in humans.
According to the BNN article, fat is "closely related to bone, cartilage, muscle and other connective tissue." Apparently, the hope is that it won't be that big a leap to get the fat stem cells to change to these other, more desirable tissues, but how do they sort out which cells can make the switch? Philippe Collas is leading a research team at the University of Oslo in Norway, and has, "...identified certain chemical marks that allow him to predict which, among the hundreds of millions of stem cells in liposuctioned fat, are best at regenerating tissue." Some people are so smart.

Okay, they can figure out which cells are useful out of fat soup, and they have potential treatments in the works for injured racehorses, but with hobbled humans in mind for farther down the investigative track. So, now all they need is a steady source of fat. Too bad it's in such short supply, right? Of course not:

"Fat tissue is an underappreciated source of stem cells," Collas pointed out. Unlike other sources of adult stem cells, such as bone marrow, fat is abundant and there is no shortage of donors. "It’s wonderful, we have litres and litres of material from cosmetic surgery clinics and end up with bucketfuls of stem cells to work with," he notes.

Now that we all have the image of bucketfuls of human fat in our heads, isn't it at least a little bit cool to know that they might actually have something useful to do with it? Besides being another step forward in the search to find treatments and cures out of the building blocks that God put into every human on the planet, it opens the door to a whole new way of justifying our personal vanity. Now people who go in to have a little bit of the waste trimmed from their waist can say that they were motivated by a desire to contribute a part of themselves to scientific progress. They will get to look all altruistic and noble, while still leaving their "excess stem cell supply" in that aforementioned bucket. After the surgery, they could mentally justify pigging out at will, and gaining back all the weight, since they would selflessly be growing another scientific contribution. I wonder, if people donate their fat to medical research, do they get to take the surgery off on their taxes? Maybe that would be pushing it, eh?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Odds And Ends And Apologies

If you're a Meow regular, I have to apologize for the flaky blogging of late. I've been quite busy--some work, some play--but I know that is no excuse!! If it weren't late February already, I'd make some sort of resolution, but for now let's just say I'm giving myself dispensation to only write when I'm inspired to do so. Truth is I'm not getting a lot of inspiration from what I'm reading right now. The political stuff is either boring me, or ticking me off (thus the rant that was my last post); a lot of the current events are making me sad, and while I'm reading some cool science stuff, I'm not sure how interested you all are in the sciency bits I bring you. Anybody have an opinion?

Actually, in the midst of work-related busy, I've been having a lot of fun lately. We went bowling last night for the first time in at least a decade. I had forgotten how much fun bowling is. I've never been much good at it, but that's never really mattered. I'm not the competitive type (or at least I have suppressed those tendencies as much as possible--it's a survival technique from childhood), so I don't care about winning or losing. It's just fun to throw heavy things and knock other things down. The friends we went with have adorable kids, too, and anything is more fun when you get to watch a six-year-old do it too. Other fun stuff is keeping me occupied as well. We're hitting the slopes again today, and from what we read at the Mt. Hood Meadows website, it's powder on top of powder, on top of tilled powder. Doesn't that sound nice? Can't wait to swoosh along the trails. Falling is so much easier when the snow is soft, too!!

Speaking of skiing, I should get ready to go soon, but I'm going to send a little reading material your way first. I don't usually just toss out links without summarizing, or commenting, or ridiculing, or something, but I'm going to today, because I found a couple of science articles over the last few days that I thought were really cool, but I've realized I'm not going to get them blogged in a more elaborate manner right now.

From 'It sounds almost too good to be true: a cheap and simple drug that kills almost all cancers by switching off their “immortality”.' Doesn't that make you want to read more?

From Wired News (via Futurismic): How about a mind-reading wheelchair? "Patients who suffer from disease or injury that leave them unable to move have little hope of independent mobility. But that may be about to change. Researchers are developing a thought-controlled robotic wheelchair." Who could possibly not want to read the rest?

From This one's for the geekier element. Star news: "A star found spinning more than a thousand times every second is thought to be the fastest rotating star known. The neutron star is a burned out corpse that's collapsed into an incredible density rivaled only by black holes. It packs the mass of the Sun into a sphere the size of a city. It has been reduced to nothing but tightly huddled neutrons. A thimbleful would weigh a hundred million tons back here on Earth."

Okay, I know that's one more than a couple, but I'm over-compensating for my previous neglect. Plus, I couldn't choose. I thought they all were neat. Happy reading!!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Since when are the words "Mom" and "Dad" "discriminatory language"? Honestly, I don't usually just call something stupid here at the Meow. I do try to see things from other people's perspectives, but THIS IS JUST PLAIN STUPID!!

Nurses and other health care professionals should avoid using the terms `mom’ and `dad’ to refer to family relationships since the terms could be offensive to homosexual couples with children, a new directive published by Scotland’s National Health Service recommends.

Issued in conjunction with the country’s leading homosexual activist organization Stonewall Scotland, the publication is entitled Fair For All - The Wider Challenge: Good LGBT Practice in the NHS.

I thought the Scottish had a reputation for practicality. Redefining an absolute reality, i.e., children have parents, just so some people can pretend that there isn't a normal biological way the human race continues, is utter lunacy. What are they going to call Mother's Day? Non-Gender-Specific Parental Unit Day? Maybe that would still be too discriminatory. Maybe they should call it Human-of-Influence Day, or perhaps that would be too speciesist and would offend the other higher order mammals. It would probably be best not to recognize relationships at all.

I don't care what Scotland’s National Health Service, or any other governmental body, activist organization, or lobbyist group says. My Mom is my MOM, and I'm not going to pretend otherwise just so people who structure their relationships in some other way than the traditional family unit won't be offended. No matter whether I agree with their lifestyle choices or not, I'm not demanding they change their lifestyle standards to please me, nor, I might add, do most people in democratic societies, and yet they want most of humanity to change reality to please them? How is that "Fair For All"? Tolerance is a two way street, or at least it should be.

Note: I got the link from the blog Stop the ACLU, but the article referenced came from LifeSite, and is longer, with more of the National Health Service text. It's worth reading the expanded article.

Hat tip: The Truth Laid Bear

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Tail For Fuji

I just thought this was neat. Bridgestone (you know, the tire company) used its expertise in working with rubber to make what's thought to be the first-ever artificial fin for a dolphin that had lost her tail fin (and much of her swimming ability) to disease. The dolphin's name is Fuji, and she lives at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. Who'd have ever thought they'd come up with a dolphin prosthesis? The rubber fin has allowed her to regain her swimming chops, and even to do some of that impressive dolphin jumping that makes these aquatic acrobats such a treat to see perform, at aquariums or in the wild.

Added note of silliness: If Fuji's name were Flipper, with that tail fin of rubber, we could call her Flubber. I don't know why that strikes me as funny. Put it down to it being Monday. That's probably the best excuse I'm going to come up with.

High Tech Parking

Remember the scene in i,ROBOT, when Will Smith, a.k.a. Detective Del Spooner, heads into the parking garage and his car is swept up by a giant hook, which carries it off in automated fashion to hang with all the other cars like freshly ironed clothes at the dry cleaner? After my initial reaction of, "Cool!," I remember having the fleeting thought that today's cars would never stand up to that kind of treatment. The bumpers would pull off, or the axles would snap, or whatever else can go wrong when you're hanging cars from their various auto appendages, and the cars would plummet to their sad vehicular ends: Death by Gravity. This was quickly followed by the notion that cars-of-the-future must be built out of space-age materials, designed to resist trivial impact like those from giant hooks, and maybe even other bumpers (kind of like the cars from the fifties.) This could have led me down many rabbit trails, including forays into stewing over planned obsolescence and the need for light fuel-efficient vehicles in a reality where tyrants control much of the world's oil, but i,ROBOT is a really good movie, and I couldn't stay in reality for long, at least until Will Smith had vanquished the psychotic, power-mad computer.

Once the movie's over, though, putting all the rabbit trails aside, removing the science fictional elements, and the complications caused by the Earth's gravitational pull, there's a lot of appeal to the idea of automated parking garages. They could maximize the available parking space and minimize the driving-in-circles-looking-for-someone-who's-leaving part of stowing the car while you're at the hospital visiting your friend with the newly-removed appendix. It could also mean that, since more parking would be available, you might actually be able to afford to park your car downtown sometimes during the work day, somewhere within a two-mile radius of your office. Wouldn't that be handy on those days when you have to rush off after work to meet your parents at the airport, or hurry to your daughter's school in time to catch her last soccer game of the season? (Traffic allowing, of course.) Don't you wish that someone would get on this whole automated parking thing?

Needless to say, since I'm bothering to write about this at all, somebody has. In fact, a lot of people have. Automated garages are popping up all over the world. Gizmag has a look at one in particular, AutoMotion, which recently opened in New York City (a prime candidate for expanded parking options, if ever there was one.) It's a fully automated garage:

Once a customer drives inside the garage's entry/exit room and locks their car, they swipe a card to activate the system and leave. Their vehicle remains motionless, transported on a pallet automatically to its storage bay. When returning, customers swipe their card and their car is returned back to the entry/exit point and the customer starts the car and drives away.

It's all very quick and painless. There are a lot of advantages to a system where humans are not involved in the storage process:

The current generation of parking garages has space-consuming access ramps and lots of access lanes that never get parked on, and also needs enough height for a very tall human being to comfortably walk upright – rather than the space-efficient compact box into which your car is slipped in an automated system. The ramps aren’t needed when you have a car lift and a computerized racking system. Whatsmore, a custom-built automated car parking facility of the same size as a conventional carpark can hold at least twice as many cars, offering double or more the income after a safe refurbishing investment. It’s more efficient for the customer (less than 2.5 minutes to get your car), costs less to run (no human attendants are required), there are no accidents, dents or scratches (because computers move the cars, not humans), and as the cars cannot be reached by other car park users, there’s no chance of theft or vandalism.

No scratches, vandalism, or tipping parking attendants? The car's back to you in 2.5 minutes? You don't have to climb ten flights of stairs at the end of a long day, or ride in a stinky elevator with sticky floors? Bring on the automation!! I'm not the only one who thinks this is a good idea. Stolzer Parkhaus, the developer of AutoMotion, has 28 automated garages, spread around 11 counties, so far. As the previous quote mentioned, it's a good deal for the land-owner/business operator, too.

Of course, there's always the concern that the system will break down while your car is inside, leaving you with no access to your vehicle during some crucial moment in life. In an effort to make sure your schedule is unaffected by technical difficulties (the name of the game being "repeat customers"), automated garages will not be completely people free. It will be in the best interest of the businesses involved to keep things running smoothly. AutoMotion is no exception:

AutoMotion installed its first automated parking in 1996 in Kronach, Germany. The company maintains teams of specially trained mechanics, available 24 hours, seven days a week in tandem with traditional parking service maintenance firms. Every parking cardholder is given an emergency telephone number to summon expert assistance.

This is probably about as much assurance as we're going to get: a team of people waiting to "get right on it" if something goes wrong. That might be a bit disconcerting for the techno-phobic, but really it's no different than what we do every time we get into an elevator. That technology is just a bit older, and more time tested. We'll get used to this one too, and be grateful for it when we go for years without worries like whether someone is going to break into the car, looking to steal the laptop that we left in the SUV because we didn't want to have to carry it around the mall for two hours. It may not be a flashy as a giant hook coming and hanging your car in a big old "car closet," but I still think, "Cool!" at the thought of the Auto Auto Garage.

(Note: If you're having trouble getting your brain around a system where cars are moved with no ramps or people, head over to the Gizmag article. There are lots of pictures to show you how it works.)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Attack Of The Giant Luminescent Squid

"Captain, what will we do? The giant squid has swallowed the mini-sub, and Jenkins and the Foster girl are trapped inside. We've got to save them." Cartwright clutched his chest and let out an agonized moan as he pled with the captain to find a way to save his lost ward. "How will I ever face her father again?" "Shut up, Cartwright," the captain commanded tersely. "Don't you know what this means? That creature's mother is still out there. If we try to leave this cave we're all doomed." Both men sank into fearful silence as the reality of their situation inexorably overcame all other considerations. There would be no escape from the glowing monster that waited to devour the Sea Queen and all aboard her, drawn by the secret, experimental, bio-nuclear power source that gave her life. Their very strength would be their downfall, and their watery playground would be their grave.

Mmmm, bad sci-fi... I'm a sucker for it. Who can resist the attack of a giant killer squid? Not me. I don't, however, know much about marine biology, outside of various televised misrepresentations from science fiction, and the occasional documentary from the Discovery Channel. I do find the topic interesting, though, and I found this article at, by Catherine Brahic, and its links to real undersea video (not the Hollywood kind), educational and worth tossing your way. The article tells of the first-ever video of a large deep-sea squid, the Dana octopus squid, and what scientists have learned from the encounter. Brahic says that the squid is bio-luminescent, with "bulbs" at the end of two of its arms, and that, "...the Japanese researchers who caught the squid on camera think they may have seen it attempt to communicate with the small torches they were dangling along with the bait in front of their underwater camera."

There are three short film clips linked from Brahic's article. They all took a while to load, and are dark and under-watery, but the third one in particular was pretty cool. It's a video of the Dana squid attacking the halogen spotlight of the underwater camera used to film it. Turns out that, whereas scientists used to think large deep-sea squid were sluggish and somewhat passive, they are actually quite quick and aggressive. Like I said, marine biology isn't really my thing, but since the giant squid brought back fond memories of really bad old sci-fi flicks, it lured me in. Actual video of a giant squid attacking undersea vessels?!! Neato.

Oh, by the way, the Foster girl and Jenkins saved the day. The girl, who was the only clear-thinking person under the sea that day, suggested reversing the polarity on the armour plating (whatever that means.) Jenkins crawled through the super-heated coolant tubes to manually adjust the predictably frozen controls, and that did the trick, causing the baby giant squid to "reverse course" on the digestive front, and cough up the mini-sub like he'd had too much cotton candy at the squid fair. They passed the news on to our somewhat-less-than-heroic captain, who finally slunk out of the cave with his bio-nuclear-powered tail between his legs. They discovered that Mom was really an alien from the planet Arthritis, and learned how to communicate with her using a disco ball and some rope lights. Turns out she's a big Hugo Chavez fan, which started a whole new series of problems, sure to lead to a sequel. The end.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Does This Sound Like A Good Idea To You?

Laurence Simon at IMAO is performing a public service, letting readers know about the latest edible sensation for the kiddies--LEGO-shaped fruit flavored snacks!! Looking for a fun and nutritious way to confuse your one-year-old? "Here honey, eat the LEGO. No, don't eat the LEGO, eat the LEGO! WAIT!!...maybe this wasn't such a good idea." Be sure to read the comments.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Congestion Pricing--The Solution To Gridlock?

Many residents of metropolitan areas in America know gridlock intimately. Even the folks who use mass transit for the daily commute to work, a pretty significant element of the population here in Portland, still know what a growing problem urban roadway congestion is. Most people can't rely entirely on public transportation for getting around the city, and we all know what it's like when we have to run out to the store unexpectedly, or pile the kids into the van to head to the dentist, just in time to hit rush hour(s). Some of us are frustrated by the belief that much of the traffic nightmare could be alleviated if our city would take necessary actions, and some hold firmly (with some solid ground underfoot) to the notion that the city refuses to expand the highways and roads from a political desire to force greater and greater numbers of people onto the bus or train--the notion being that if they make enough people miserable on the daily drive, the same people won't mind as much being miserable on the daily bus ride.

I speak as something of a dispassionate observer. My daily commute frequently involves going from my bed, to my shower, to my computer, vacuum, dishwasher, etc. However, that doesn't mean that I don't care about the struggle that goes on to balance traffic congestion, city access, cost, pollution, energy usage, convenience, and all the other elements that factor into our decisions about how to move human beings from point A to point B. I still go to the store, and the dentist, and church, just like the rest of you. Taking the kids to the dentist requires a leap of imagination for me, since I have no kids, but I do have the requisite imagination with which to leap, and when we're in the middle of whatever the latest home transformation project happens to be, Home Depot becomes our second address. It's not uncommon for us to head that way two or even three times a day. (Yes, you're right, we're not very good planners.) The route there includes stretches of freeway and busy thoroughfares, passing by the airport of all places. Getting there can take fifteen minutes, or forty, depending on the time of day and the state of traffic. I feel your pain. Really I do.

Anyway, I thought I'd pass on this TCS Daily article, by Joseph Giglio, about traffic congestion and private industry solutions to public highway woes, with some economic theory thrown in for added flavor. I'm not sure I agree with Giglio's position, but I did find it interesting, and think it has some merit on its face at least. He writes about a request from the Bush administration to Congress to provide funding for American roadways, which included a recommendation to institute "congestion pricing" on road use, as a way to alleviate snarled traffic across the country:

This week the Bush administration asked Congress for $175 million for state and local governments to reduce traffic congestion, in addition to the $105 million earmarked last year. One of the White House's marquee projects is congestion pricing, or charging motorists a fee for using a particular roadway based on its traffic volume at any given minute.
Giglio says that, while the media and the left will claim this as a capitulation to the Al Gore wing of the Democratic party, that really it is "conservative economics at its best." He goes on to explain:

For decades, conservatives have championed market-oriented solutions to highway problems as a means to allocate scarce resources. Congestion pricing gives consumers the opportunity to decide when it is in their economic interest to ride crowded roads, and whether the price charged for a given trip is worth their travel time savings.

In the former Soviet-bloc states, the standard way to allocate scarce goods was to set the purchase price low enough for everyone to afford, but to make consumers wait in long lines to buy them. The real price depended on what value consumers placed on their time.

This approach is the way we've always allocated access to most roadways in capitalist America - access is "free," just like for a public park. But our real cost skyrockets when we consider the time we spend crawling along in bumper-to-bumper traffic and with no option to pay extra for a faster trip.

Giglio goes on to discuss how, with "the advent of Electronic Toll Collection technology," the means are now available to make that choice possible, and adds:

Just as consumers are billed for water, electric power, cooking gas, and other essential utilities, motorists pay according to how many miles they travel, how large a vehicle they're driving, how much air pollution they generate, and whether they're subject to certain physical or economic disadvantages that entitle them to special discounts. This can be especially important for commercial vehicles where time saved translates into fewer operating costs. And let's remember that the main purpose of surface transportation is to facilitate and enhance economic activity.
Giglio explains further what he believes are the advantages to congestion pricing, and how such a system could help fund improved roadways, and lessened gridlock, using the private sector to make it all work. I'm not completely convinced that charging people for the amount of time they spend on the road, and how big their vehicle is, and how much pollution it contributes, etc., is the ultimate answer to the problems of modern commuting, but I do like the notion of the private sector being more involved in solving the problem, and I'm willing to be convinced that usage fees are the way to fund improvements, as long as those fees actually deliver the promised gains, and don't drop down a giant black hole of "rising costs." Anyway, have a look, and tell me what you think, if you're so inclined. I'm malleable on this one.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Another Scientist Refusing To Jump On The Man-Made Global Warming Bandwagon

I just read this post from a fellow Oregon blogger, at The Doc Is In, and wanted to pass it on while it was fresh. It's another look at global warming, adding to the growing supply of evidence that not every reasonable and articulate scientist on Earth is in lockstep with the notion that people are causing the planet to warm, or even that a warming planet is a bad thing:

Timothy Ball is no wishy-washy skeptic of global warming. The Canadian climatologist, who has a Ph.D. in climatology from the University of London and taught at the University of Winnipeg for 28 years, says that the widely propagated “fact” that humans are contributing to global warming is the “greatest deception in the history of science.” Ball has made no friends among global warming alarmists by saying that global warming is caused by the sun, that global warming will be good for us and that the Kyoto Protocol “is a political solution to a nonexistent problem without scientific justification.”
Read the rest. Some of the more interesting bits are where Ball explains that the oceans can't rise as much as alarmists predict, and how historically, based on the ice core record, temperatures rise, then CO2 follows--not the other way around. Ball also provides some web addresses where people who want more scientific information (from real scientists who are focusing on the science part of global warming science) can go to get a deeper look.

Update: It just occurred to me that the fact this particular scientist is Canadian might have something to do with why he's willing to consider the warming of the planet as something less than a crisis. Just goes to show, perspective is everything.

A New Approach To The Cost Of Healthcare

We were in transit to Florida during President Bush's State of the Union speech, and I confess that I have not looked online for the text or a video since we returned. Too many other things to do and read. I just haven't managed to make it a priority. However, I read a Michael Barone piece today that makes it sound as if the President has at least one worthwhile proposal to his credit from that speech. Ron Wyden, the Democratic Senator from my home state of Oregon, seems to think so, and is putting some effort into furthering the President's idea, engaging his fellow Senators on the topic. I have some respect for Wyden. Although I disagree with him on many issues, he seems to me to be a principled man, not simply a partisan, and his willingness to run with an idea in which he finds merit, despite the fact that it came from not only a Republican, but the oft-criticized Target-in-Chief himself, made me pay attention to what he's promoting (as well as sending Wyden up a step or two on my opinion meter.)

As an Oregonian, I've been aware that Wyden has been quite concerned about providing health care to those who cannot afford to buy it for themselves, and whose employers do not provide it for them, and he has encouraged the examination of The Oregon Health Plan (our state's answer to universal coverage) on the national level. He's not new to the topic of providing insurance to the poor. Michael Barone, writing at, examines the healthcare proposal the President made in the SOTU, which Wyden is now floating among his colleagues. I find a lot of merit in the idea, because it's not another government-run program, where bureaucracy and inefficiency (or is that redundant?) could make healthcare a nightmare for us all, but rather an adjustment in the way health insurance is taxed, which might lead to a more progressive, but reasonable approach to providing coverage that doesn't route it through the workplace. I'm going to quote at length here:

Bush's proposal in a nutshell is to end the preferential tax treatment for employer-provided health insurance. In 1943, in the midst of World War II, when wage and price controls were in effect, the government decided that employers could deduct the cost of health insurance for their employees and that employees would not be taxed on the value of the policies. This decision has saddled us with a system in which health insurance has been tied to employment, with many perverse results. Healthcare is perceived as a free good, and consumers have no incentive to take costs into account.

Bush proposes to change this by giving every couple paying taxes a standard $15,000 deduction ($7,500 for individuals) for the cost of health insurance. Those with employer-provided insurance worth more than $15,000 (about 20 percent of the total) would be taxed on the additional amount; this would very likely discourage expensive policies.

As a Washington Post editorial on the speech pointed out, this would be a progressive change.

The biggest beneficiaries of the current system are high earners with employer-provided insurance. The biggest losers in the current system are low earners without employer-provided insurance. Health insurance experts on the left, right and center have long called for ending the tax code's preference for employer-provided health insurance. But employers haven't wanted to lose the deduction, and politicians have flinched at the prospect of taxing voters on something they have been getting tax-free. Bush has found a way out, by equalizing the tax treatment of health insurance wherever it comes from.

What Barone says this would accomplish, and Wyden seems to agree based on his support of the idea, is to provide a mechanism to insure a broader range of people, without turning healthcare into a government-run catastrophe. Bush proposes a tax deduction for the insured, rather that the employer. Employer-provided insurance would be treated, and taxed, as income for the employee, rather than as a tax write-off for the employer, and both the people with employer-provided insurance, as well as those who purchase insurance privately, would have a tax break to offset the cost. Employees would then have incentive to keep down medical costs, helping to control the cost of the insurance, and competition within the private market would also serve in that capacity. According to Barone, with a $15,000 deduction, low-end earners could be subsidized by the tax on the policies that cost more than that $15,000 (the more elaborate and expensive insurance of the well-to-do.) This approach could well provide universal coverage without the direct intervention and control of Uncle Sam, leading healthcare in a "progressive" direction, without eliminating the free market and turning healthcare in America into a European nightmare.

There's room for political compromise here. Liberals and conservatives alike can find things to approve in this proposal, if they allow themselves to come at this from the direction of solving the problem rather than winning against the enemy. There are certainly a lot of people who could benefit from a new approach. I'm not big on government entitlements (this is an understatement), and am always reluctant to see the government take over from the private sector. However, if we as a society make the decision that it is in our best interest to ensure that everyone can afford healthcare, then something which keeps the decision-making and operation of the system in the hands of individuals and private companies is much to be preferred over one which makes the government the official healthcare provider. Ensuring equally bad healthcare for all is not my idea of an improvement in the system.

From a practical standpoint there are certainly people who could benefit greatly from the provision of health insurance being uncoupled from employment. Some of my own family members are currently providing their own insurance at $800 a month, and are struggling to do so on disability-hindered incomes. They are not disabled enough to go on the government dole, but are disabled enough to be unable to work at a full-time job which provides insurance. These disabilities also ensure that insurance is an absolute imperative for them. A tax write-off for that privately-purchased insurance would be a big help to them. I probably would not be in favor of this were it simply a new entitlement, but as a replacement to the deduction currently being given to employers, I can see the merit. Of course, I have not done much research on the cons of the proposal at this point, but as far as I've read to date, I think the idea is at least worth discussing in good faith.

Barone points out that the political climate isn't exactly ripe for good-faith compromise, but I at least have hope that some of our political leaders are willing to care more about solutions that reelection points. Wyden has already shown the willingness to cross the aisles on this issue. Maybe his fellows could find somewhere within themselves a willingness to do the same. Maybe.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Stem Cell Update

At The Grich.

The Key To The World

Hey, this is pretty cool (from Gizmag):

America’s top-selling lock-set manufacturer Kwikset, has unveiled a stylish biometric keyless entry system for the home. SmartScan eliminates the need for a key or key code, with the deadbolt activated simply by swiping a valid fingerprint across its sensor. Programmable with up to 50+ user fingerprints, SmartScan also has a special timed "lock out feature" that allows homeowners three levels of access options. This feature allows continual access (24/7) for family members, temporary access for house sitters or contractors, and time restricted access for babysitters or housekeepers.

I'm sure there are Smart People out there who could tell us all the inherent risks and dangers that come from having the deadbolts to your house activated by fingerprint scan, but until someone tells those reasons to me, I'm just gonna think it's neat. (Let's not go into the "what if someone cuts off your hand to break into your house?" routine. There is nothing valuable enough in my house to warrant such extreme burglary measures. I think my hand is safe on that front.) I'd love to be able to go for a walk around the neighborhood without having to worry about remembering my keys, and for my family and trusted friends to be able to access each other's houses without carrying a key-chain that can double as a an anvil. Ooh, wouldn't it be cool, too, if the reader could double as a sort of caller ID, so you'd know exactly how many times your plant-sitter really did come to water the ficus while you were at the beach?

When we were in Disney World, our hotel gave us a "key to the world," which was a combination room key, credit card, dining plan voucher, and park pass. The first time we left Epcot, wanting to come back in later, we expected to do the usual hand-stamp routine, where they stamp you with the ink-of-the-day and then run a special light over your hand when you come back to make sure you haven't "loaned" your pass to someone else, and that it really is you, but we were in for a little high-tech surprise. When we entered the park we ran our "key to the world" through a card reader, and placed our index finger on a scanner. A little blue light read the fingerprint, and from then on the system always knew we were us when we used our key. It was actually pretty slick, and saved the necessity of a whole host of hand-stamping and stamp-reading employees on Disney's end. It was no inconvenience to us, and clearly was a step up on the efficiency scale for the Happiest Place On Earth. It also provides the added bonus of finger-print identification should there happen to be some major crime--not that that would ever happen in the wonderful world of Disney.

Of course, now that Disney has our fingerprints on file, the real thing that we have to be worried about is that some genius employee will make a copy of our prints, replicate them using gummy bears (I've actually read of it being done successfully), fly clear across the country to Portland in the hopes that we have a print-activated door lock, and steal our television. Hardly likely. Now, if we had lots of money, or a priceless collection of some sort to motivate such an elaborate crime, I might be a tad more concerned. However if we were that well-funded we could afford a surveillance system, or a security guard, so even then I'm just not feeling the fear. Then again, maybe Disney's collection of fingerprints is part of some elaborate plot to rule the world, which simpler minds such as mine can't comprehend in our innocence. Well, if that's true, I hope they run it like Disney World. I like it there; it's fun and clean--and they already gave me the key.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Fat Police--Coming To A Supermarket Near You (If You Live In Britain That Is)

Here's a "you've got to be kidding" moment, brought to you by The Center For Consumer Freedom. The writing's a bit hyperbolic, but still...

An Automotive Crystal Ball

You're so excited. The road trip of your dreams has finally begun. You've haven't thought of anything else for days: the open highway, wind in your hair, getting away from the worries of life to enjoy carefree hours of pure scenic pleasure, all the cliche elements that make just getting in the car and driving look so wonderful in memory and movies. You're on your way. Wheeee!! It's all in front of you. Now you're zipping along, over the next hill, revelling in the perfect moment, when it happens. CLUNK! clunk clunk, gasp , sputter, pshhhhh....slow agonizing death of car....Noooooooo!!! Road trip over--in the middle of nowhere. Hope you get cell phone reception out here.

It's just not fair. You take good care of your car. You get the oil changed regularly, rotate the tires, change the air filter, and whatever else that people do to maintain their cars that I'm not aware of because my husband takes care of that particular aspect of household management. (It's one of the few areas of life where we stick to "traditional" roles. Can I help it my mom taught me how to use a circular saw as a child and not a torque wrench?) Anyway, the point is, how could this little example of personal human tragedy have been prevented? It's not like you have a crystal ball in your car that warns you ahead of time if the alternator, or u-joint, or carburetor (these are the only car parts that come to mind right now) is about to ruin your road trip.

Or do you? If you've got a car that's less than ten years old, you do have a "crystal ball" of sorts in your car. You have an OBD, an On Board Diagnostic system. Your mechanic uses it when he maintains your automobile. That's not much use to you though, right? The mechanic has all those specialized computer diagnostic tools to help him analyse what's going on under the hood, which is why you haven't even bothered trying to repair your own car since you got rid of that Celica you used to have. Everything is computerized and indecipherable. How are you supposed to figure it all out so you know to fix that problem before you hit the road? You thought about taking the car in for service before the trip, but you didn't have the time, and besides, that money was for the trip, not the auto shop! If only you could read that crystal ball yourself.

That day has arrived, for some people anyway, and is about to arrive for the rest of us too. Gizmag has the latest information on a a new system called SAM, for Smart Auto Management. Sam kiosks across the country will let car owners tap into that well of information that has up till now been the purview of the auto professional:

...SAM taps into a vehicle's On Board Diagnostic system (OBD) and prints an easy-to-understand report that reveals existing or pending problems. Motorists can save time and money by connecting their vehicle to a SAM self-service kiosk that provides vital information about their vehicle, instantly and affordably, allowing them to make smart choices about vehicle maintenance, vehicle safety and the purchase and sale of used cars. SAM taps into the On Board Diagnostic System of a 1996 or newer vehicle; scans and analyzes over 2,000 system codes pertaining to the engine, transmission, safety systems, body, chassis and more; and provides a printed report on the spot. In less than 10 minutes, for US$15...

Nifty, huh? There are kiosks already in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Raleigh and Northern California, and more will be following nationwide. Now you'll have an option for finding out what's going on with your car before anything goes wrong, and before you have to pay an expensive towing and repair bill out in the middle of road-trip-nowhere. Reading that crystal ball just got a little easier:

"We developed SAM to offer motorists an easy, inexpensive way to obtain important vehicle information," says Art Jacobsen, Program Director of Smart Auto Management LLC, a subsidiary of Environmental Systems Product Holdings Inc. (ESP). "Before SAM, motorists didn't have easy access to their vehicle's OBD system. SAM allows drivers to make smart decisions that can impact vehicle maintenance costs and safety, and allows them to reach their destination with confidence."
Hey, looks like the road trip's back on!! Anybody have a map?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Slightly Scary News For The Net-Dependant

According to an Associated Press report at

Hackers briefly overwhelmed at least three of the 13 computers that help manage global computer traffic Tuesday in one of the most significant attacks against the Internet since 2002.

Experts said the unusually powerful attacks lasted as long as 12 hours but passed largely unnoticed by most computer users, a testament to the resiliency of the Internet. Behind the scenes, computer scientists worldwide raced to cope with enormous volumes of data that threatened to saturate some of the Internet's most vital pipelines.

It's comforting the Internet held up so well to the attacks. For those of us who rely heavily on the Net for news, information, and entertainment (you know, the necessities of daily life), any threat to the www world is something to make us sit up and take notice, but national security is at stake as well. Homeland Security put out a statement saying there doesn't seem to be an imminent threat, but, according to the AP, the department also '...confirmed it was monitoring what it called "anomalous" Internet traffic.' The article goes on to say, 'Among the targeted "root" servers that manage global Internet traffic were ones operated by the Defense Department and the Internet's primary oversight body.' There may not be an imminent threat, but any time somebody's targeting Defense Department anything, it's gonna make me a tad bit less comfortable, especially when they have a degree of success. The article isn't long. Go ahead and read the rest. Oh, and my vastly understated thought for the day? Hackers aren't nice people.

Hat tip: Instapundit

Name That Tune

Remember that old TV game show Name That Tune? Contestants were given snippets of music (and sometimes clues and bits of lyrics, if I remember correctly) to see which of two contestants, champion or challenger, could name popular melodies in the fewest notes. The winner won "fabulous prizes" and the chance to compete again on the next episode. How many of us who were cognitively aware and had access to a television in the seventies don't have at least a dim recollection of the famous line, "I can name that tune in seven notes" (or six, or five, on down to one?) In the third round, there was a bidding war to see which contestant was willing to guess the tune off the smallest amount of auditory information. I remember there were actually people who managed to pull off the feat of naming that tune in one note. I don't think anyone ever ventured into no notes territory, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't an option--although had it been, we might have seen the rise of the psychic hot-lines a little sooner than we did. (Whatever happened to the "psychic buddy" lines anyway? I wonder if they saw their own demise coming and divested their assets?)

Anyway, all of this Name That Tune talk is just an intro to a more serious musical discussion. A reader tip sent me to Collision Detection, a science, tech and culture blog written by Clive Thompson, whose article, recently published in the New York Times (don't hold that against it, okay?), and reprinted in his blog, examines the work of Dr. Daniel Levitin, platinum record producer and music scientist at McGill University. From Thompson's description, Dr. Levitin's work centers on the emotional psychology of music, why music has such an emotional effect on us, and why the way music affects us changes when we actually see the musicians at work as well as hearing the sounds they produce. His studies are venturing into previously uncharted territory (pun intended, much to my shame) in the science of sound, and has the potential to help answer some rather important questions:

Ultimately, scientists say, his work offers a new way to unlock the mysteries of the brain: how memory works, how people with autism think, why our ancestors first picked up instruments and began to play, tens of thousands of years ago.

Levitin's stint in a punk band led to his branching out into production, and finally into the study of music as a scientific field:

Producers, he noted, were able to notice impossibly fine gradations of quality in music. Many could identify by ear the type of amplifiers and recording tape used on an album.

"So I started wondering: How was the brain able to do this?" Dr. Levitin said. "What's going on there, and why are some people better than others? And why is music such an emotional experience?" He began sitting in on neuroscience classes at Stanford University.

According to Thompson he began designing musical experiments, bringing his real world experience into the science of it all, which enhanced his ability to address the question of emotion and music:

Traditionally music psychologists relied on "simple melodies they'd written themselves," Dr. Levitin said. What could that tell anyone about the true impact of powerful music?

For his first experiment he came up with an elegant concept: He stopped people on the street and asked them to sing, entirely from memory, one of their favorite hit songs. The results were astonishingly accurate. Most people could hit the tempo of the original song within a four-percent margin of error, and two-thirds sang within a semitone of the original pitch, a level of accuracy that wouldn't embarrass a pro.

As Thompson explains, Levitin's experiments illustrated that people have an astounding level of memory for popular music, so he started really digging into the science of why, as well as the emotional connection. This is where things really get fascinating in Thompson's article. Dr. Levitin's work digs into exactly what happens in the brain when we listen to music, and he has charted the different sections of the brain's involvement, from the initial forebrain analysis of the tune and structure, to the release of dopamine by the nucleus accumbus and ventral tegmental, to the cerebellum's involvement with predicting where a tune will go and the tension it produces. He demonstrated to Thompson by playing a single chord from the song "Benny and the Jets," which Thompson was able to identify from that one musical clue. (Perhaps he should have tried out for the game show.) Levitin explained how this is possible, and all connected to the series of brain activity that he observed, and why pop music in particular triggers such a memory affect:

"When we saw all this activity going on precisely in sync, in this order, we knew we had the smoking gun," he said. "We've always known that music is good for improving your mood. But this showed precisely how it happens."

The subtlest reason that pop music is so flavorful to our brains is that it relies so strongly on timbre. Timbre is a peculiar blend of tones in any sound; it is why a tuba sounds so different from a flute even when they are playing the same melody in the same key. Popular performers or groups, Dr. Levitin argued, are pleasing not because of any particular virtuosity, but because they create an overall timbre that remains consistent from song to song. That quality explains why, for example, I could identify even a single note of Elton John's "Benny and the Jets."

"Nobody else's piano sounds quite like that," he said, referring to Mr. John. "Pop musicians compose with timbre. Pitch and harmony are becoming less important."

Dr. Levitin's experiments have moved on from there. He started looking at other questions: "Does the brain experience a live performance differently from a recorded one?", " much emotion is conveyed by live performers" and, in a classical performance, whether "...the conductor creates noticeable changes in the emotional tenor of the performance?" One of the really interesting questions that Dr. Levitin is currently addressing is whether there truly is a connection, as is widely believed, between musical and mathematical ability:

...Dr. Levitin argued that this could not be true, based on his study of people with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that leaves people with low intelligence. Their peak mental capacities are typically those of young child, with no ability to calculate quantities. Dr. Levitin once asked a woman with Williams to hold up her hand for five seconds; she left it in the air for a minute and a half. "No concept of time at all," he said, "and definitely no math."

Yet people with Williams possess unusually high levels of musical ability. One Williams boy Dr. Levitin met was so poorly coordinated he could not open the case to his clarinet. But once he was holding the instrument, his coordination problems vanished, and he could play fluidly. Music cannot be indispensably correlated with math, Dr. Levitin noted, if Williams people can play music. He is now working on a study that compares autistics -- some of whom have excellent mathematical ability, but little musical ability -- to people with Williams; in the long run, he said, he thinks it could help shed light on why autistic brains develop so differently.

Wouldn't that be incredible--if studying the way music works in the brain could lead to an understanding of autism, and, maybe, ultimately some practical treatments for helping people with locked-down minds to be able to interact with the world? (I have a friend who is a music teacher, who has taught kids with autism and other developmental disabilities. She sometimes reads this blog, so maybe she can give us the benefit of her experience about autistic kids and their level of musical ability.) It's amazing the things we can learn about the brain because someone takes a different approach to the examination. Here we have an example of a man whose initial love of music, performing and then producing it, led him eventually to the study of how the brain functions in the minds of autistic children. A punk band to a laboratory is not the standard route of scientific discovery, but it's one that makes sense in this case, because the musician involved let his questions about music go deeper than, "Wait--what key is this in?" It makes me wonder what kinds of things all of us could accomplish if we followed our talents and curiosities beyond their normal bounds. I know so many musicians; I feel like giving them all scientific assignments just to see what they would come up with. Of course, I know artists too, and teachers, and nurses, and accountants... What undiscovered secrets are just waiting to be found and explored because someone else decides they want to try to understand something more, like why a person can "name that tune" in just one note?

Hat tip: Sioux Lady

Monday, February 05, 2007

Pics In Space--The Late Edition

I must now repent before you all, and seek your forgiveness. I've been so busy vacationing, post-vacationing, and posting my own pictures of Disney World that I forgot all about the traditional monthly Meow diversion of MSNBC's space slide show!! I could spend a lot of your time and mine now, concocting elaborate and flowery apologies, begging for you to overlook my neglect of my Meowly duties, and generally being goofy, but I'm sure you'd rather I simply give you the link and get on with it. This wasn't the most spectacular set of photos, comparative to recent months, which have been outstanding, but this month's slide show has a few gems.

Those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere have mostly missed out on Comet McNaught, but they've been getting a visible-to-the-naked-eyeful down South, and such a sight could hardly escape being caught on film. There's a gorgeous shot of Saturn's rings, all back-lit by the Sun, with a little glimpse of a tiny blue Earth thrown in for good measure. We get to see mission specialist Christer Fuglesang (say that five times fast) taking a space-walk, and the camera angle, catching him suspended above Earth, is enough to make me both happy and very sad that I couldn't swap places with Christer for the mission. There are some false-color images of the Sun that view like a print by Andy Warhol, and of course, Mars and a few distant galaxies get into the act, as usual.

One of the pics that really drew my notice this time around was a very monochrome image of Jupiter, captured by the New Horizons probe's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager. The probe is on it's way out to hook up with poor demoted Pluto sometime in 2015, but on the way it's taking in the sights. There are a couple of Jupiter's moons, Ganymede and Io, that wrangled their way into the spotlight with the largest planet in our solar system, and the cool thing is that you can see where Ganymede's shadow is just a blemish on the surface of the giant planet. What's really amazing about that is that Ganymede is big--big enough that if it were orbiting the Sun, instead of Jupiter, it could be classified as a planet in its own right (unlike the aforementioned Pluto, demoted to dwarf status by the important and powerful people who decide such things), yet the shadow looks completely insignificant on the surface of granddaddy Jupiter. Some of that stuff out there in space is just plain huge.

Well, that's the slide-show run-down for this month. Hope you enjoy it, and I'll try to remember to get it to you on time next month, otherwise I'll have to actually write that flowery apology, and none of us really want that, now do we?

Friday, February 02, 2007

Disney World Pics Of The Day--The Finale

Home again, and full of happy memories. I'm going to toss one more bundle of pictures at you, mostly because the Meow became our trip journal for this Disney World journey, and I want to complete the set. If you happen to enjoy them too, then so much the better!! On our last day, Ked and I didn't have to catch a shuttle to the airport until three in the afternoon, so we went back to the Boardwalk just for the joy of playing photographer. Of course, since we were leaving (and I am convinced that it's only because we were exiting the state), the weather was suddenly gorgeous and warm, and everything was announcing in triumph that we were, in fact, in Florida. This caused us a small amount of pining for the vacation we planned before we left Oregon--the one with t-shirts and sunscreen instead of gloves and four layers of clothing--but we are by nature rather cheerful folk, so the pining died a fairly easy death and we settled into enjoying the moment for what it was--what it was being a lovely end to a wonderful vacation, and I have the photographic evidence to prove it!! I'm not going to caption these; there are no cute animals that need names, and no crucial educational information to impart. We just thought these places were pretty, and want to share. Here goes...

And thus ends our Florida vacation. For those of you who come here regularly to read about the doings in the world, I hope you have enjoyed the respit from global events and scientific discoveries. I can't stay away from those things for long, and will be plunging back in as soon as I get caught up with what I missed (and find something to spark my interest enough to share it with you.) I hope to come across something cheerful to pass on to you, though. I'm still basking in the post-holiday glow, and don't want to let the political types dampen my spirits too quickly. With all the wrangling in Congress, and political posturing in the world, there's also Epcot and Disney's Animal Kingdom. That's a happy thing.