Friday, June 29, 2007

The Health Care Debate

The Wall Street Journal has an op-ed today, by Kimberly A. Strassel, about a potential GOP approach to health care reform. It was interesting. The ultimate debate between Democrats and Republicans pits government-run health care against private insurance, and the big question for Republicans is how to cover more people--the main concern of many Democrats--without government taking over and creating an expensive and wasteful bureaucracy. Their current focus is on possibly taking the tax break that goes to employers, and giving that tax break instead to individuals, either by a tax deduction or a refundable tax credit. The thought is that insurance would not then be tied to employment, more people could afford it as a private purchase, and people could still retain individual choice and the benefits of market competition. It's still is not a fix for those who won't settle for anything less than universal coverage, and isn't likely to bring about any kumbaya moments between Republicans and Democrats, but it's an intriguing approach nonetheless.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Bill Is Dead--May It Rest In Peace

I just read at Instapundit that the "immigration bill" is dead, having failed to gain enough votes to limit debate and move on. I for one am glad. They need to deal with sealing the border. It's hard to approach the "undocumented worker" issue with compassion, when any action taken toward legal status for people who've already come across illegally, without closing the border to further illegal entry, is a clear invitation to folks still on the other side to trek on over without going through the proper channels, because our government has no intention of doing anything to stop them. Don't get me wrong; I'm all for immigration. (Contrary to popular belief, not everyone who wants to control the borders is racist and anti-immigration. Most of us just want people to come here through official channels and out in the open, rather than flouting our laws at the very first opportunity, and then slinking around under the radar.) By all means, the political types should up the quota of people who can come here legally if we need more workers--that's a mutually beneficial arrangement--but the key word there is legally.

As far as the people who are already here, if the politicians still want to legalize the people that came in unsanctioned--while I would argue that a $1,000 fine won't cut it when the people who come here legally pay far more than that for the privilege, in money, time and trouble--I'm guessing that the American people would be a whole lot more amenable to Senatorial amnesty suggestions if they knew the illegal well had run dry. Once the borders are secured, it will be a whole lot easier for Washington to sell the notion of amnesty (let's be honest here), because people won't assume that this is just the first batch with more to come, as the amnesty of the 80s has turned out to be.

What they will never be able to sell me, however, is the notion of the illegals as the victims in this scenario. I almost choked at AP reporter Charles Babington's quote from Ted Kennedy, as Senator Kennedy lamented the failure of the much-protested immigration bill to move forward. Senator Dole gets it here, but Kennedy is somewhere in la-la land:

Sen. Elizabeth H. Dole, R-N.C., said many Americans "don't have confidence" that borders, especially with Mexico, will be significantly tightened. "It's not just promises but proof that the American people want," Dole said.

But the bill's backers said border security and accommodations to illegal immigrants must go hand in hand.

"Year after year, we've had the broken borders," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "Year after year, we've seen the exploitation of workers."

Good grief. Kennedy makes it sound as if the broken borders were somehow a trap that snared poor unsuspecting Mexicans here into unwilling indentured servitude. I'm sorry, Senator, but those "workers" have been scuttling across our borders in droves to take advantage of jobs and wages they can't get at home, and "free" health care, and education and American citizenship for their children. That raises the question of exactly who is being exploited, don't you think? It wouldn't take a big leap to conclude that the real exploitation that Kennedy is contemplating is the electoral exploitation of all those registered, unionized Democrats he hopes to gain by legalizing these "undocumented immigrants."

Anyway, the bill is seemingly dead, and I hope it stays dead, until it can be considered from the American side of a nice tall fence.

Update: Rich Lowry has a look at the blogosphere and the power of the people that turned this bad bill off.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Second Skin

Medical research seems to be the Meow focus of the week. In keeping with that theme (which I may or may not abandon with the next post--I like to keep you guessing), I found this article by Pallab Ghosh, a science correspondent with BBC News, which I thought rather interesting. It's about a new form of artificial skin, from UK-based company Intercytex, made with human cells and proteins, which has the potential to reduce scarring significantly in burn victims and people with chronic wounds. This could be a nice step up from the traditional method of robbing Peter to pay Paul, a.k.a. skin grafts. Wouldn't it be great to see researchers come up with a way to help burn victims that doesn't require cutting the skin from one part of their body in order to graft it into another, damaged location? Wouldn't it be even better if that way meant that the patient would end up less scarred as a result? Limited tests so far are promising:

In tests researchers cut an oval section of skin from the arms of six healthy volunteers and replaced it with their lab-grown skin.

After 28 days the artificial skin had remained stable and the wounds had healed with relatively little scarring.

Dr Paul Kemp, Intercytex's chief scientist, said: "I was very surprised at how quickly the wounds healed.

"If this continues in larger trials then it could revolutionise the way in which wounds and burns are treated in the future."

Dr Kemp has been working with Ken Dunn, a consultant surgeon at the burns unit at Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester.

Mr Dunn said: "This particular product behaves like the patients' own skin.

"It seems to excite much less reaction than the other materials we are using at the moment.

"If this is borne out in larger clinical trials then we would be very interested in using it with our patient group."

This new form of artificial skin seems to be more promising than previous attempts to create a skin substitute. From what Ghosh says, the key seems to be the human elements from which the artificial skin is composed:

The skin is created from a matrix made up of fibrin, a protein found in healing wounds.

To this is added human fibroblasts - cells used by the body to synthesise new tissue.

In a process that effectively replicates the way the body makes new skin, the cells produce and release another protein, collagen, which makes the matrix more stable.

It is in this form that the "skin" is implanted into a wound.

The researchers say that because the matrix is in a stable form, it is more able to withstand changes that take place during the healing process.

The fact that the collagen is synthesised directly by the cells themselves also more closely mirrors the natural healing process.

This was just a small test, on healthy patients, but the results are good enough to warrant further research. I find myself wondering whether a product like this, if it really was a stable addition to the patient's own skin, and if it was tolerated well by most patients' immune systems, couldn't make a big difference in expanding the number of victims who could be saved after terrible burns. I don't really know anything substantial here, and I certainly couldn't tell you all the reasons that people die after being burned, but I do know that there is a certain point of no return, a percentage of the body's skin burned to a certain degree, that means they simply can't be saved. I wonder if having a ready-made supply of replacement skin on hand, just waiting to be grafted onto the victim's body, could up the survival rate for people who previously would have been considered impossible to save. Would a patient with a higher percentage of surface area damage be able to recover if the damaged skin were removed promptly and the new "skin" allowed to start healing right away? I have no clue, but I'm excited by the notion. Even if that is not the case, the rewards of finding a stable artificial skin are awfully high for the people who would get to go through life with much less scarring than with traditional methods, but I can't help hoping the rewards are even greater still, and that patients who would have been lost might one day be saved through the blessings of scientific advancement. It's all speculation on my part, but it's cheerful speculation, so I'm going to give myself permission to dream big.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Obesity Gene

You know those annoying people who can eat anything they want without gaining a pound? They never have to think about whether they should have an extra piece of lasagna; for them it's all about whether they want another piece. They don't even have to go out and run a marathon after dinner, either. Skinny is just wired into them. My husband is one of these fortunate souls. People started telling him when he was twenty-five, "Just wait until you're thirty. Then you'll start padding up." Then it was, "Wait until you're thirty-five." "No really, wait until you're forty." We're now hearing the same rhetoric about forty-five, but I suspect that that age will also pass without the weight cascade that others portend. I'm not sure why people feel the need to promise that the pounds are just around the corner, but my guess is that it's just too annoying to watch his slender frame reaching for another cookie, knowing it won't settle anywhere on his body. It's just not fair, and they have to comfort themselves with the notion that someday he'll have the same struggles as everyone else.

Then there are the people at the other end of the spectrum. It seems they could live on a diet of celery and water, and still have to squeeze into their Levis at the end of the day. No amount of dieting really pays off. As soon as they eat anything with the least bit of flavor, they puff right back up, like a human air bag in a head-on collision with the refrigerator. These are the people who find my husband and others like him the most annoying. (Can you blame them?) Something does seem to be really off in this equation. How can some people be so naturally thin, and others so naturally padded? Most of us try to keep our weight in balance by some combination of reasonable caloric intake and exercise, but there are people at both ends of the weight chart who just don't fit the mold, and nothing seems to make them. Why is that?

I found an article at Eureka Alert! that might just explain why, and more to the point, also suggests what can be done about it. Scientists at the Mayo Clinic are learning that maybe the problem of obesity might just be the result of a specific gene--a gene that can, in effect, be turned off. Dr. Eduardo Chini says that genes play a role in obesity about 50 percent of the time. He and a group of researchers at the Clinic have been conducting studies on mice that indicate that a deficiency in CD38, a gene which helps regulate energy metabolism, protected the mice from becoming obese, despite high-calorie, high-fat diets. Let me restate that--not having this gene meant that the mice ate high-calorie, high-fat foods, and didn't gain weight:

Researchers studied two groups of mice: one with the gene CD38 and the other without. Each group was fed a high-calorie diet with 60 percent of calories from fat. In a second test, each group was fed a standard diet in which 4 percent of calories came from fat.

As a result, the body fat of mice that carried CD38 and were on a high-fat diet nearly quadrupled and their body weight almost doubled. After eight weeks on a high-fat diet, mice with CD38 began to show signs of glucose intolerance, one of the first indicators of diabetes onset. In addition, this group of mice lived for only four-to-six months compared to the second group of mice that lived for 12 months.

For the group of mice that did not carry CD38, their body fat and weight did not change even though they were on a high fat diet. These mice burned more energy, were leaner and otherwise healthy.

“These changes contributed to the ability of these mice to fend off weight gain despite a high-fat diet and lack of exercise. Together these results suggest that a CD38 deficiency has a protective effect against high-fat, diet-induced obesity,” Dr. Chini says.

Okay, it looks like those people (or at least mice) who are lucky enough to be deficient in this little obesity gene (I'm betting my husband is a member of that club) have a natural "immunity" to gaining weight, which is why lasagna doesn't last very long here at Chez Meow. Note, too, that the mice without the gene lived longer and were healthier--nice bonus winnings in the gene lottery, wouldn't you say? What about the people who are just bursting with CD38, though, the ones who hear the word lasagna and put on five pounds? What's the hope for them? Here's the part that could get some people excited. Apparently, CD38 can be suppressed, or its effects can, anyway:

Dr. Chini and colleagues also examined the effects of resveratrol in mice. Resveratrol is a naturally occurring substance found in some plants such as mulberries, peanuts and red grapes used to make wine. It has been marketed as a drug that mimics the effects of moderate exercise without the physical act of exercising and also as a longevity drug, despite the lack of evidence that resveratrol is safe and effective in humans.

From the evidence the mice provided, the marketing might not be entirely misleading, because, "Researchers found that mice with CD38 that were treated with resveratrol for two weeks were protected from high-fat, diet-induced obesity." Time to add peanuts and red wine to the grocery list, eh? It will be interesting to see where this goes. I've seen the ads for those "miracle" pills, the ones that promise that you can eat all you want, lay around on the couch, and end up with the body of a supermodel in just three months, and always assumed they were just another scam. Now, I still think they're probably a scam, but who knows, maybe scientists are on the trail of something that might give some hope to those folks who can't seem to win the battle of the bulge, no matter how hard they try. Hey, if suppressing the effects of the gene works in mice, why not see where it could lead for people? As long as they don't discover that CD38 also regulates breathing, or something. Suppressing breathing would be bad, and probably not helpful for that life-extension they were mentioning earlier.

Border Opinions

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed today, Pete du Pont, former governor of Delaware, has an interesting analysis of the immigration bill which may find its way back into Senate debate this week. I agreed with a lot of what he had to say. How about you?

Monday, June 25, 2007

And You Thought Hubble Was Impressive...

Over the years, we have seen some amazing, incredible, astounding, superlative-laden images coming from our valuable space friend, the Hubble Telescope. Hubble's had a few struggles, and has needed the occasional repair job, but it's also shown us things in space that have made us "ooh" and "aah" with childlike delight. One of the last missions of the soon-to-be-retired space shuttle will be to go out and give Hubble another much-needed tune-up. Thank you NASA, and keep the pictures coming. NASA, however, isn't resting on Hubble's laurels, and has bigger and better things in mind. The James Webb Space Telescope will someday be sending us pretty pictures from farther out in space than Hubble can peer, because NASA has figured out how to send up a mirror in folding segments, segments that will unfold once they get to their new home and outshine Hubble in the process. This, however, is just the beginning.

NASA has some even bigger plans, due to the development of a new rocket, the Ares V, which will be able to take payloads of 284,000 pounds off this pretty blue ball we call home. With the Ares V, NASA could send mirrors (the main part that makes all that telescoping possible) of over 8 meters into space--no folding required. The mere mention of 8-meter-mirrors may not convey much information to us non-scientist types, but all those jaw-dropping pictures from Hubble come courtesy of a mirror that's only 2.4 meters wide. According to NASA, we're looking at the possibility of telescopes with three times the resolution of Hubble, and the ability to see things that are eleven times fainter than what Hubble can detect right now, because the mirror's surface area will be eleven times greater. I'm not sure how that works mathematically, or scientifically, or any other kind of "ically," but since that won't stop me from enjoying the pictures and the knowledge we gain from the new super space-viewing toy, I'm prepared to forgo any concern I might have at being so dependant upon Smart People for all the really cool space stuff, and simply to be grateful that Smart People exist.

Follow the link to the NASA article to read all about their plans. If you want to expand your brain a bit, click on this "Lagrange point" link for an explanation of 18th-century mathematician Josef Lagrange's discovery of "parking" spots in space, spots where the pull of the Sun and the pull of the Earth conspire together to keep satellites firmly in place. NASA intends to use these spots to the fullest, and fill up the parking lot with various and sundry telescopes, all searching the heavens for new and vital spacey information, and more jaw-dropping pictures. The information is cool and all, and I'm glad that the Smart People have ways to collect and use it, but if you ask me, the best part is the pictures.

Sanity Wins!!

Remember the recent "bad ideas" post about judge who was suing a dry cleaner over the supposed loss of his pants--to the tune of $54 million? This judge had a pretty high notion of what a sign saying "Satisfaction Guaranteed" meant for him as a customer. Well, sanity has prevailed, and not only did the loony lawsuit go down in flames, but the presiding judge has ordered the plaintiff to pay the dry cleaners' court costs, about $1,000, covering photocopying and filing and the like. Whether the litigation-happy jurist will also have to pay the "tens of thousands of dollars" in lawyer's fees for the shop owners is still a pending decision, but, obviously, the newly-unburdened proprietors are happy with the way things have gone so far--as am I, quite frankly. I'd rather the ridiculous case had never wasted the tax-payers' dollars necessary to send this thing to trial in the first place, but at least the decision is one in which sane people everywhere can rejoice. The cleaners didn't get taken to the cleaners. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the world has not gone completely mad.

Hat tip: Tasina (of Mobius Stripped)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Politics And The Media

I'm not going spend a bunch of time explaining that I'm still really busy and lacking time to blog right now. The lack of posts is really self-explanatory. However, I did get an email from the Wall Street Journal's Opinion Page, in which an op-ed by Tony Blair caught my eye, so I took the chance to read it, and definitely thought it was worth passing on to you. The Prime Minister (you know, of England) gave a speech on June 12 at Reuters headquarters in London, which the WSJ printed today (so, okay, I guess that's not really an op-ed by Tony Blair, but close enough for government work), in which he discusses the relationship between media and government in the changing communication environment in which we find ourselves, where news is instant and 24 hours a day, more up-to-date online than on the newspaper rack, and there are 70 million blogs and counting. Here's a key point:

The reality is that as a result of the changing context in which 21st-century communications operates, the media are facing a hugely more intense form of competition than anything they have ever experienced before. They are not actually the masters of this change, they're in many ways the victims.

The result, however, is a media that increasingly and to a dangerous degree is driven by "impact." Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamor, can get noticed. Impact gives competitive edge. Of course the accuracy of a story counts. But it is often secondary to impact.

It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unraveling standards, driving them down, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be but an impulsion towards sensation above all else.

Mr. Blair goes on from there to explain the consequences in terms of how the news is reported, and how news ends up taking a back seat to "views." He is speaking to a British audience about British media, but other than a few cricket references, different government institutions, and different "size of audience" numbers for the media, he might as well be speaking to Americans. It's a fascinating and solid analysis of the state of the media/political world. By the way, he doesn't give politicians a pass here; he makes it clear that politicians have courted the sympathetic media spotlight, and they are living with the consequences. He also stresses the enormous importance of a free media for the flourishing of free societies, but he also believes that some things need to change. He himself will soon be leaving office, so this is less about personal frustration than a concern for the future of his country (which translates well to civilization as a whole):

I do believe this relationship between public life and media is now damaged in a manner that requires repair. The damage saps the country's confidence and self-belief; it undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions; and above all, it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions, in the right spirit for our future.

He's got a lot more to say. Have a look.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Now I've Heard Everything

I've been out most of the day, so I haven't had any time to write anything of substance, but I had to pass on a link I got from IMAO, to an article in The Seattle Times. Religion can be confusing at times for most people, and usually if someone hasn't come up against hard questions that challenge their faith, they are either very sheltered or not thinking very deeply. Generally , however, people either resolve their issues to some degree, or move on to something that they can believe with more clarity. It's difficult to imagine someone doing both, but there is an Episcopalian priest--a woman who has been an Episcopalian priest for twenty years--who has recently converted to Islam, while still retaining her position as a Christian priest. Personally, I don't think it's possible to really be either if you claim to be both, at least not from a Christian perspective, but this woman claims to be okay with the conflicts inherent to the situation, although I'm surprised her denomination isn't less okay with it. Actually, now that I think about it, I'd be more surprised if the denomination involved wasn't on the front lines of redefining Christianity and Christian standards in America today. A Muslim Episcopalian. Now I've heard everything... maybe. (No, I take that back--when I've heard of a Hindu Baptist I will have heard everything.)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Space Plane

Europe's biggest aerospace company, EADS, is looking to ferry tourists out into space, for brief little jaunts that will take an hour-and-a-half round trip, and give passengers the thrill of about a minute-and-a-half of weightlessness. Peter B. de Selding, at MSNBC, says that EADS has spent a couple of years designing the vehicle that they hope will take passengers up, up and away--100 kilometers up to be exact. They've got the combination rocket-plane all planned out, and they're looking for investors to get the ball rolling, hoping to start with a fleet of five and go on from there. Once the money's on board the fun can begin.

If you've got big hopes about your own future space travel, here's a way to indulge that dream. Now, the trip could cost somewhere in the $267,000 range per person, so there's a couple ways you could go about it. The first is by saving every penny, foregoing home ownership, higher education, dinners out, high speed Internet, car maintenance (you can make this possible by not owning a car in the first place), electricity, heating oil, new socks, toothpicks, etc, etc. The second way is a bit simpler; you could just start out rich in the first place. It's your call, of course, but I suspect the latter plan has a better chance of succeeding.

For those of us who don't think it would be worth sacrificing our whole lives for a minute-and-a-half of dream fulfillment, this rocket-plane plan is still actually a pretty cool potential development. Private space tourism may start out as something fit for a segment on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, but it's all that rich-people money that will make the Technological Law of Gravity kick in, so that the price comes down and someday the rest of us can go for a ride. Even better, by the time that the average Joe can afford it, the technology will have improved dramatically, and it won't be just a quick trip out to lose your lunch, followed immediately by a return to Terra Firma. By the time the rich people have all payed for the R&D on space planes, there could very possibly be space hotels and giant space stations and the like, and lunar colonies might even be making their debut, making the trip into space much more destination-oriented. The well-to-do are really doing us a favor on this one. They'll go ride on the kiddie coaster, 100 kilometers up, all the while funding the Colossus for the rest of us--space proper. I say, "Go for it, Rich People. Go twice, even. Have fun, and tell us all about it." After all, didn't passenger trains and automobiles and airplanes all start out as rich-people-only clubs? Just wait. The rest of us will get our shot, as long as companies like EADS meet with success in these early ventures. Here's wishing them high flights and higher profits!!

Hat tip: Instapundit

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

"The Pants Suit"

Here's a first for the Meow "bad ideas" file. Various forms of human silliness have given me reason to bestow the honor of induction into the "bad ideas" hall of fame. Frequently, the recipient is some gizmo or gadget--a gold plated barbeque, or a million dollar laptop--or maybe a hazard of some sort, like the LEGO shaped fruit snacks. Occasionally a stupid law or edict has made the grade, but this is the first time a lawsuit has been dumb enough to get the nod. This is not because many lawsuits are not worthy of the "bad ideas" label. Far, far too many are; I've just thought that since this was patently obvious there was very little point in beating a clearly dead and smelly horse. Now, however, a lawsuit has come along that has so outstripped the others in ridiculability, that I warrant it as worthy of exceptional notice. It is an outstanding achievement.

A Washington, D.C. judge is suing a dry cleaner over the loss of his pants. That in itself is not worth even seconds of your time, and I wouldn't toy with you that way. It's the details that make this suit worth at least the minute or two it'll take you to read this post. You'd be surprised at the amount of drama this trial has involved. For some reason the judge's divorce, financial trouble and even his weight gain have been part of his testimony regarding his missing apparel. (He is, of course, representing himself.) While under his own "questioning," the judge has apparently brought himself to tears over the loss of his trousers. Now don't automatically assume that these tears are unreasonable, a play for sympathy, or evidence of an unstable mind--you'd cry too, if you thought your lost pants were worth as much as this judge does. You'd cry buckets. The judge's perception of the value of his knickers? $54 million (and I'm guessing that's the garage sale price.) $54 million for a couple of yards of fabric, some thread and a zipper.

So, you tell me, which of these two people is most likely to win the crazy award: the judge who thinks his pants are worth more than the GDP of some small countries, or the presiding judge who's wasting taxpayer money by not summarily throwing this case out of court? Either way, it's a bad idea.

Emil Steiner has been live-blogging the trial.

Update: Okay, my mistake. Upon closer perusal, I see that it is not the pants that the esteemed judge considers so valuable. The dry cleaner has a sign up which says "satisfaction guaranteed," and apparently it is his satisfaction, and not his slacks, which the judge considers as meriting the 54 million dollar price tag. This changes everything, doesn't it? Well... maybe not.

Hat tip: Overlawyered, via Michelle Malkin


Strategy Page has a fascinating (to me anyway) look at Russian/Soviet history, focusing on economic and military truth and illusion--all leading up to an examination of Russia's evolving perspective on in-the-works European/American missile defense systems. Have a look.

Hat tip: Instapundit

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Personal Post Alert: This blog post contains elements of uncertain interest to any but a select few. Unlike standard Meow posts, which try to bring something of interest to a broad range of tastes and enthusiasms, this post is strictly a giant sigh of personal relief. Reader boredom may follow. If you experience such boredom, please contact your local search engine and find something else to read. This is for your own protection. Any proceeding beyond this point is strictly the responsibility of the reader, and the fact that this post is available on a publicly accessible website in no way obligates the blog ownership to ensure that any certain level of amusement be associated with said post.

Having said all that... Celebrate with us! The garage just passed inspection! The garage just passed inspection! Of course, the guy from the City of Portland had to give me one last spasm of anxiety, because that's what the City Charter demands, but now that it's over I can look at all the bureaucracy-induced trauma with a sort of mild amusement--or at least I will be able to after the Prozac kicks in.

How, you might ask, did the inspector manage to punch my panic buttons? Well, he showed up at the door this morning, clipboard in hand, to announce that there was a problem--HE HAD NO RECORD THAT WE HAD PASSED ANY OF OUR PREVIOUS INSPECTIONS, clear on back to the framing stage of the project. This guy didn't have any of the paperwork from any of the myriad inspections we had sweated our way through all last year, no record of corrections made and previous inspector appeasements achieved. Yes, my heart did start to beat rather quickly at this point, while simultaneously dropping a few inches in my chest. As far as I know, the City is supposed to keep a paper trail which lets new inspectors know what old inspectors have proclaimed in all their infinite wisdom. Now, I knew we had passed the previous stages, and that we had the paperwork to prove it, but that didn't stop the initial moment of bureaucratic nightmare scenarios flashing before my eyes like a horror video on fast forward.

I pulled it together enough to point him in the direction of the evidentiary packet of inspection sheets that we had hung on the outside of the garage in a big plastic bag (thank you, Lord, for the invention of the Ziploc), and prayed fervently that none of the papers were missing. Inspector-man had me open the garage door, so that he could check that, yes, there were walls inside, and then started in on all his paper perusing. I was on the phone when the man with the power arrived, and fifteen or so minutes later, when I finished my call, he had still not finished his examination of the exculpatory evidence. So, I called my beloved to jibber at him while we waited for the verdict. I couldn't face the rest of the wait alone--not when the entire proceeding started with, "There's a problem." About ten minutes later, I looked out to see that the inconsiderate inspector had simply left, without telling me the verdict, or even letting me know I could close the garage door, leaving all of our wonderful power tools--the housing of which is the very reason for which we had gone through all the past year of self-inflicted, Alliance-pleasing hoops of pain--exposed to the avarice of any unethical pedestrian who happened to be passing by. How rude is that?

I've just one more grumble at the way the City does things. I'll share it now, and then hopefully put the whole episode mentally to rest. The most silly thing about the whole City hoops thing occurred this week. We had another inspection yesterday, which, according to the City had to happen before the "final." You might not believe that this is actually true, but I assure you, it did indeed transpire. The City required that they send another person--an entirely separate human being, making an utterly redundant trip to our house--just to make sure that we had grown grass in the yard. They couldn't send out the final inspector until this very important point was established. Now, I ask you, why couldn't the same guy who came to do the final inspection put a check-mark beside the "grass" column just as easily as the other guy? Is there some technique, know only to "erosion specialists" that enables them to determine that the green stuff growing out of the ground is, in fact, grass, which would justify a separate trip, with all the time, trouble and money that entails? That's just goofy thinking, and only a mindless bureaucracy would see any sense in it.

Okay, I think that takes care of the venting portion of this personal post. I now return you to its original point. Celebrate with us! The garage just passed inspection! The garage just passed inspection! Believe it or not, I'm awfully pleased, cynical and slightly contemptuous, but very, very pleased.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Fun With Fungi

"There's noothin' more I cen do, Cap'n. Ahv tried everthin'. Radiation levels are at critical, and soon our skin will begin meltin' froom ahr boohns. I'm sorey, Cap'n, yer gunta havta fire me." Scotty hung his head in shame as he finally admitted the unthinkable. He really didn't have a magical solution to the radiation that was flooding the ship from the ruptured nuclear-coolant-injector. He had nothing involving a revolutionary new matter/anti-matter mixture, or reversing polarity on the containment fields, or even an alien technology he could graft into the Enterprise's systems on short notice which would somehow just happen to have a compatible operating system and a nuclear-coolant-injector-failure failsafe button. No, this time there was truly no hope.

Scotty wasn't alone in his inability to pull a routine miracle out of his engineer's hat. The rest of the crew was failing just as spectacularly. The red-shirts had already gone the way of all red-shirts. Sulu, Uhura, Chekov and O' Reilly had all gone mad from the radiation exposure, so they were equally useless, having already dismantled the ship's navigational and communication systems in an insane attempt to simulate a fifteenth-century karaoke bar. (The first thing that goes with radiation-induced madness apparently being awareness of the historical time-line.) Despite all his protestations that he was a doctor, not a lounge singer, Bones didn't have a miraculous injection to inoculate the crew from the radiation leak using a quadrotriticale-based tribble-blood extract, and even Spock, after a brief but disastrous attempt at a mind-meld with the nuclear-coolant-injector, had receded into an impotent lump, content to stroke tribbles and listen to Chekov's rendition of "Back in the USSR," while Rand tried to get everyone to look at her legs.

Although Kirk found it difficult to focus on anything but Rand's lower appendages, he knew that with the rest of the crew so incapacitated by inadequacy, it was up to him to save the ship. Again. (He also thought that when he got back to Star Fleet he ought to look into hiring some more competant officers, but that was only a fleeting notion.) Back to the task at hand--saving the ship. Again. (He started to play the mental tape about finding some new officers, but then he realised he had just done that.) Okay, really back to the task at hand now. He spent a few minutes looking conflicted and dramatic, ocassionally putting some very strong emphasis into his ongoing monologue. For some reason, dramatic monologues were the best way to kick-start his thought processes. He wasn't sure why, but he just seemed to be wired that way.

After a particularly lengthy and dramatic monologue, during which Uhura had enough time to give a stirring rendition of "Endless Love", and the trio of Chekov, Sulu and O'Reilly managed to throw together a fair performance of "Born to be Wild," suddenly, it came to him. Of course, why hadn't he thought of this before? He took just a moment for a manly pose, and then called down to his defeated engineer, "Scotty, release the fungi!" "Ehr yeh shoor, Cap'n? Ah dunna know what that'll doo." "Just do it, man," the Captain cried, "We've got no choice. It's the fungi, or death." "Aye Cap'n," Scotty said resignedly, and slowly his hand reached out and pressed the fungi-release-button.

What nonsense, you must be thinking (and if you're not, maybe you should go back and read the part about fifteenth-century karaoke.) Of course it's nonsense. Well, most of it anyway. Can you guess which part of our Star Trek adventure has any basis in the non-nonsensical world? I bet you can. It's the radiation-eating fungi, of course!! Believe it or not, there are actually three known forms of fungi that convert radiation to energy the same way plants convert sunlight to energy. The main difference between them is that plants use chlorophyl for the process of photosynthesis, while the fungi use melanin (you know, the stuff that determines your skin color) to perform what I suppose I must call "radiosynthesis."

David Ewing Duncan, at Technology Review (an MIT publication), explains that this radiation-eating fungi could prove a boon in many ways, including as a nuclear clean-up crew, a food source in space, and a new form of biofuel. Versatile little critters, eh? Who would've thought of fungi as a potential source for alternative energy? It'll be fun to watch where this one goes.

I probably should wrap up our space adventure now. Using the radiation-eating fungi, Kirk managed to stave off the imminent destruction, although not in time to avoid a very bad rendition of "Bitter Dregs," performed by Spock and the tribbles. Uhura is now headlining on Wriggley's Pleasure Planet, whenever the Enterprise heads into that region of space. Stay tuned for our next episode with Kirk and his crew (who do manage to hold onto their jobs, by the way), in which we will probably have to deal with what happens when the fungi, fed by massive amounts of radiation, grow to sentience and try to take over the Enterprise. For now, let's just say there won't be karaoke, but there will probably be lots of monologues, and Kirk will have to save the ship. Again.

An Interesting Take On Aid To Africa

This one's quite thought-provoking. Does African aid do more harm than good? Speigel Online has an interview with a Kenyan economics expert, James Shikwati. Excerpt:

SPIEGEL: Following World War II, Germany only managed to get back on its feet because the Americans poured money into the country through the Marshall Plan. Wouldn't that qualify as successful development aid?

Shikwati: In Germany's case, only the destroyed infrastructure had to be repaired. Despite the economic crisis of the Weimar Republic, Germany was a highly- industrialized country before the war. The damages created by the tsunami in Thailand can also be fixed with a little money and some reconstruction aid. Africa, however, must take the first steps into modernity on its own. There must be a change in mentality. We have to stop perceiving ourselves as beggars. These days, Africans only perceive themselves as victims. On the other hand, no one can really picture an African as a businessman. In order to change the current situation, it would be helpful if the aid organizations were to pull out.

He's got some interesting things to say. Have a look.

Hat tip: Instapundit

Friday, June 08, 2007


Did you know that Kats and beavers have a great deal in common? Lately they do, anyway. They're both very busy dealing with the rushing waters of life, and sometimes they end up having to watch prime dam-building sticks float on downstream, because they just can't manage to grab a hold of 'em. That's me and the blog right now. I just don't have time to tell you about Talking Paper, and Mind-Controlled Computers (although both are awfully cool.) This is strictly a "letting you know I'm really busy" post. I'm not neglecting the Meow by choice--you all know I'd rather be blogging than doing most other things, usually--but there's a fair bit on my plate right now. I know that flaky is only good in pastry, so I'm cleaning my plate as fast as I can, and hope to be back with you soon. Meanwhile, feel free to alert me in the comments to anything cool and interesting that I'm missing, and I'll have a ready made reading list for when my schedule lightens up. Later, y'all.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Wave Power II

I got a comment last night on an old (and rather silly) post I wrote last October, about new technology being developed to extract some of the massive amount of power that's moving around in Earth's oceans. A company called Biopower Sytems is designing generators that work with the flow of the oceans to harvest that energy, and their technology shows some real promise. Nick Bruse, the commenter in question, left a link to his podcast, called The Cleantech Show, in which he interviews Biopower Systems' Founder and CEO Dr. Tim Finnigan. I found the interview fascinating, and was encouraged on several levels. Dr. Finnigan seems to have a clear vision for where his start-up company is headed, solid engineering to back up his hopes, and a realistic view of where renewable energies will fit into the world's complete energy package. The whole interview is half an hour long, and well worth a listen, so here's the link. I found Bruse's interview style to be relaxed and informative, and I'll be checking out what else he's found that's happening in the wonderful world of clean technology. Thanks for the heads up Nick!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Pics In Space: Focus On Technology

Good grief, guys, how did you let me get all the way to June 5th without reminding me that I hadn't coughed up these month's MSNBC Space Slide Show?! I repent in sackcloth and ashes (hereafter designated "repenting in S&A"), and can only claim the weekend as any kind of excuse. Truth is I just forgot. Bad Kat. Okay, now that I've grovelled in S&A, let's move on to something more interesting.

This month's slide show is very tech heavy, with lots of shots of rockets and telescopes, launchpads and landers. If you are into the gadgets of space, you'll like this focus on the technology that makes it possible for humans to reach out and touch the stars (figuratively, of course.) There are a few snaps of the people who use that technology, as well, with even the Queen of England sneaking her way into the photo journal, as she chats with some space station dwellers. Not all the people who grace this month's show are still among the living. The passing of astronaut Walter M. Schirra is noted with a photo of him suited up and seated in Gemini 6, and the ashes of actor James Doohan, of Star Trek fame, get a ride aboard a rocket from Spaceport America, in New Mexico.

My favorite photos this time around are, as usual, the ones that glow. There's a fine shot of a spiral galaxy, and an impressive rocket launch to light things up, as well as an observatory in Los Angeles that's glowing for a not-so-happy reason. It's back-lit by a rather vivid brush fire. The best pic of the lot, though, in my opinion, was the gorgeous infrared image of Saturn and her rings. Absolutely stunning. It made me want to climb aboard a rocket, fly out and perch right there in that spot, in a lawn chair, with a cold drink and some barbeque, and just watch the show, like it was a fireworks display. I'll have to find some way to switch my vision to infrared, but that should be a minor problem, especially given all the trouble it will have taken me to get there in the first place. While I'm out that far, I might as well take a gander at Jupiter's moons. The Slide Show has a montage all set up, where we can get a preview. It will make planning the trip a bit more complicated, since I'll have to make sure it's timed so that the two planets are somewhere in the same vicinity when I head out. It'll be worth the extra effort, though, don't you think? Hey, anybody want to come with?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Synthetic Biology II

There is some seriously next-level science going on in the world. Lee Silver at Newsweek has a fascinating article on where scientists are taking the quest to create build-your-own biological organisms, designed to do everything from growing hard-to-produce medicines, to acting as internal cancer-killing machines that live in your bloodstream and seek-and-destroy any and all tumors. Scientists envision synthetic biological critters which create plastic, wool or silk as a by-product, and "biodevices" that detect radiation, anthrax and other dangers. One of the goals with the most world-changing potential is a living organism that secretes fuel, "a self-sustaining, highly efficient biological organism that converts sunlight directly into clean biofuel, with minimal environmental impact and zero net release of greenhouse gases."

The kicker to all these lofty goals is that the biggest of them can be best accomplished if scientists come up with a way to manufacture life from scratch, rather than tinkering with the life that's already hanging around the planet. There's progress happening without that leap, but there's a lot of extra coding that gets in the way. There's also progress that's happening in the putting-the-building-blocks-together department. Scientists have done some amazing things:

They've forged chemicals into synthetic DNA, the DNA into genes, genes into genomes, and built the molecular machinery of completely new organisms in the lab—organisms that are nothing like anything nature has produced.

All of this, however, does not add the spark that makes something alive. They can mess like crazy with what's already there, but they haven't crossed the boundary into "creating life," although, that is certainly their aim. I will be really interested to see whether God allows scientists to put life into something where there was no life before. Sceptical, but interested. (It's still wouldn't be real creation. At a basic level, the matter of the universe was already created, regardless of what we do with it afterward.) According to Silver, scientists are on the brink, and they certainly are performing monumental feats with the newly acquired knowledge of genes and DNA and the like that has transformed science over the last half century. Will God grant them the ability to step beyond tinkering and into the realm of kick-starting life? I have no idea, and so I'm not as sanguine about all their grand schemes coming to fruition as some of the scientists who are working on synthetic biology seem to be, but even without that truly unique element, what they are already doing is astounding, even to the point of being scary.

There is so much good that could be done, but also an enormous amount of room for abuse, not the least of which is the potential for critters that have been tampered with running amuck in the world, doing things they weren't intended to do by the humans who are taking it upon themselves to redesign nature. Whether created by God and reconfigured by man, or entirely lab grown by human design (if God allows that barrier to be crossed), these human designers need to tread carefully. The idea of taking some newfangled critters, adding sunlight, and fueling the world is totally captivating, as is the notion of eliminating cancer, and the Newsweek article really is fascinating, but my alarm bells go off when I start reading about people whose attitude is that of James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA structure, who, as quoted by Silver, said, "If we don't play God, who will?" I'd be more comfortable if the people who are on this quest were a little more afraid of the outcome.

Hat tip: Instapundit