Saturday, December 13, 2003

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Sunday, May 26, 2002

Shopping is life, life is shopping : Due to having too much fun - yes, kiddies, there is life beyond the glow of a computer screen, if only barely - there was no posting yesterday and there will probably be little posting today. But I am working on another long SWVCTM and the doctors rant and will return to respond to comments, mail, and post more tommorow.
This changes everything : We've long suspected that there was once lots of water on Mars. We've long known that there is currently water on Mars, just not all that much of it compared to Earth. At least as I understand things, the theory has long been that most of the Martian water boiled off with its atmosphere.

Then again, maybe not. Data from Mars Odyssey is indicating that there's not just a little water on Mars, there's oceans of it in vast frozen reservoirs just beneath the surface.

This isn't just a minor bit of interesting curiosity solved, if further data backs it up it's a Major Big Deal™. Leaving aside the Martian life question, for us water is a big deal. It's a lot easier to go somewhere if there's water there. It's not only important for our lives, but from it you have a relatively easy source of oxygen and hydrogen. We need oxygen to breath, of course, but oxygen and hydrogen are also the two main components in liquid fueled rocket engines. Having lots of water already there vastly simplifies a lot of things.

While I don't know a whole lot about the subject, it also seems to me that having that much water "locked up" also simplifies the terraforming question - bigtime. As "sci-fi" as such matters seem, they're of more than a little importance. Having all of our eggs in one planetary basket - one major asteroid hit on earth and it could be hasta la bye-bye, humans - is not an overly comfortable position to be in. We don't have the ability to send people to other stars, even if we did know for sure that there were habitable planets out there, but we do, if we've the will, have the ability to send people to Mars. With or without terraforming, having water available locally would be a critical component in any self-sustaining Martian colony. If such a colony spent the next few hundred years terraforming the planet, we might just end up with another relatively nice basket. Not to mention that Mars is a whole lot closer to the bulk of the asteroid belt and all those nice metal-rich rocks.

Just to go outside the realm of the speculative and into the ludicrous, what if we were to find life on Mars, though? Some bacteria that can survive the harsh environment and live off of the ice, minerals, solar radiation, each other, and what have you. It's not completely beyond the realm of possibility, there are some terrestrial bacteria that survive nicely in some incredibly harsh conditions. So what if we found something like that?

I'm not really talking here about the inevitable ravings from idiots who think that sending anything to Luna is "defacing a pristine environment". I mean what if we found an active, if primitive, biosphere? Would we have the right to wipe it out in order to try and terraform Mars to be more Earthlike so humans could be halfway comfortable there?

Personally, unless such a biosphere turned out to be a whole lot more than anything we can imagine with our knowledge of Mars now, I say yes, hell yes, absolutely yes. But I think it'd be foolish to ignore the question completely or not to recognize that a serious ethical debate would be called for.

My speculative babbles aside, if this discovery pans out it's more important than ever that humans go to Mars. One human being with a lab could do more and better research in a few hours than every probe we've ever sent has managed to date.

Friday, May 24, 2002

Paranoid thought for the day : Not that I'm given to paranoid thoughts - it isn't paranoia if they are out to get you - but...

A housing complex in Encino went kaboom today. Preliminary indications (id est, the default guess that they've no current reason to doubt) are that it was a gas explosion. I'm sure that probably was what happened, but I couldn't help the paranoid thought "But would they tell us if it wasn't?".

[Fire Department Battalion Chief Roberto] Franco indicated that the circumstances of the explosion, particularly the few injuries, made the possibility of terrorism unlikely.


"It's not consistent with what a terrorist would want to achieve," Franco said.


Sorry, Chief, given how many times terrorists have managed premature explodization whilst putting together their little trinkets, that one won't fly. It's not like quality control is often a big item on a homicidal nutjob's priority list. I mean, how many bomb makers do you know who have ISO 9001 certification?
Leave my pancreas be : There is new evidence that Type I diabetes might be caused by a virus. I wouldn't, as the article does, call it strong evidence, but it has long been suggested as a possibility and this certainly points in that direction.

There are a lot of very serious researchers who are starting to think it's possible that a lot of what we think of as congenital/genetic defects or as part of the normal aging process may indeed instead be the side-effects of various viruses or bacteria. If this turns out to be true, the implications will be stunning and may very well change our entire medical worldview. A link between at least one cancer and viral infection has been shown, same with ulcers and bacteria, it'll be interesting to see where future research brings us.
Water, water, everywhere, but how many glasses to drink? : You've probably heard that you should drink eight glasses of water a day, right? Well, guess what, nobody even knows where that number comes from. Apparently someone, somewhere, once picked that number out of a hat and its been repeated so many times that it has become accepted wisdom.

Fact is, that's the case for an awful lot of the commonly accepted wisdom when it comes to diet and exercise. The food nazis like to beat you over the head with these various "facts", but a lot of the "facts" are anything from WAGs to last year's now-discredited study to something just this side of urban legend. A little common sense will take you a lot farther than any hard-and-fast rule or whatever the latest thang in the news might be.
So, like what's with all the butt slapping stuff then? : On the way home yesterday I stopped at the grocery store and got some cereal and milk - after only about three hours sleep and eight hours at the hospital (yes, dear readers, there is an upcoming SWVCTM rant, you have been warned) I was in no condition to cook much of anything. When I got home and was putting what I'd purchased away I noticed that on the front of one of the boxes was an image of "M. Piazza" and thought "Hey, I know who that guy is...".

Now understand that what I know about professional sports could easily fit into an average sized thimble with plenty of room left over. I can usually identify a local team name, but not always reliably and I'm never entirely sure which sport it is they play. That's really more than I want to know, to be honest, I just don't "get" professional sports. Amateur? Hey if someone wants to go out and play softball every other Tuesday in the summer, why not? Such things, I'm sure, can be entertaining and I "get" that. Well, except for golf - hit the ball, chase the ball, hit the ball, chase the ball... Isn't that what dogs were invented for? I suppose Fido might get ticked off if he had to run three hundred meters to chase the golf ball you walloped with your whatever iron...

But I digress.

Often.

I get why people like to play sports, I just don't get why people like to watch sports. I don't get why people pay ungodly amounts of money to sit in overcrowded stadiums watching some schmuck get paid a trillion dollars to try and get rid of a load of pig epidermis before some hulk with the nickname "Killer" can spread his component atoms all over a few hundred square feet of astroturf. I especially don't get why anyone would plop themselves in front of the boob tube with a couple of dozen bags of Doritos and spend eight hours in a trance watching ice get bloody. We won, we won! We, Kimosabi? The only muscle movement you've displayed in the last three hours was that uncontrollable facial tick that creeps up every time you think you're gonna lose that fifty dollar bet.

I just don't "get" professional sports, so I was rather amazed to recognize a sports-type dude on the front of a cereal box. Normally when I see some sports-type dude (or, increasingly, dudette - like, what, this is progress? NOT.) I have some sense that, well, it's a sports-type dude (or dudette), so what? I can even sometimes guess at what sport might be involved. Really tall? Basketball. Missing teeth? Hockey. Wad of chaw? Baseball. Tall as two and wide as three normal people? Football. Feather boa? Wrestling...

Okay, so maybe wrestling doesn't count as a sport. I've never entirely been clear on that one, to be honest.

So I recognized this guy. Why did I recognize him? Because he was all over the news, CNN musta played his clip like thirty times in the span of an hour. Why was he on the news? 'Cause he had a very important announcement. And what was the very important announcement? He's not gay.

Huh?!?

Now given that he's a very handsome sport-type dude, this is, no doubt, good news to some woman somewhere who will one day end up being Mrs. sports-type dude, but why in god's name would anyone else care if he's gay or not? I gather that he's a baseball sports-type dude and, unless the sport has changed markedly since I last dated a guy who was rabid on the subject and wouldn't stop trying to convince me to take an interest in it (a forlorn hope that yielded no appreciable result, I assure you), this baseball sports-type dude gets paid to hurl balls, catch balls, run around a diamond shaped thingy, and such like activities, none of which would seem to be overly effected, at least to my unschooled eyes, by whatever his particular sexual interests (or lack thereof) might be.

So why did this poor schmuck have to go on TV and announce to the world that he wasn't gay? And why was this such big news that various news outlets felt they had to play it fifty thousand times? Well, apparently, because there aren't any gay men in professional sports.

Huh?!?

This is 2002, right? I mean as a matter of statistical probability it is a virtual certainty that there are more than a few gay men in sports. But, apparently, no gay men that are "out". In fact it seems that the only places there are any gay men or lesbian women in all of sports are men's ice skating and women's tennis.

Hmmm...

So someone wrote a column saying that there is a gay man playing professional baseball on some east coast team somewhere. Isn't that a bit like writing a column saying that it's going to rain somewhere in the United States tomorrow? Like, ummm, duh, ya' know? Suspicion focused on this Piazza guy for whatever reason (I'm guessing it's because he's more than a bit of a "prettyboy", but who knows) and he felt he had to go and defend himself.

Talk about a circular story.

So add another item to my list of things I don't "get" about professional sports.
Constitution? We don't need no stenkin' constitution : A little truth from Jim Jeffords -

Most notably, Republicans accuse Democrats of blocking the president's judicial nominations. So far, 57 of the president's first 100 judicial nominees have been confirmed. One controversial nominee was rejected in the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote, and another was sent to the full Senate Thursday for a vote that Daschle says could come by year's end.


That record is fine by Jeffords, who praised fellow Vermonter Sen. Pat Leahy's handling of the process as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.


"I sleep better, Pat, at night knowing that you are picking the judges," Jeffords said.


Now maybe I missed something, but I don't recall Senator Leahy being elected President and, last I checked, it was supposed to be the President that picked the judges, the senate's function was advice and consent.

Thursday, May 23, 2002

You just knew this was coming, right? : After 2,000 years someone has noticed a little known detail about who the Catholic church does and does not ordain.

Claiming that the church's refusal to ordain women amounts to sexual discrimination, lawyer Susan Rockwell filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on her own behalf claiming the church's policy violates her right to free expression and religion.


Rockwell said that by granting the church tax exempt status, the federal government subsidizes the church's discriminatory policies. Rockwell is a Catholic who has sought to become a priest but was told the church's policy bars it.


Rockwell is basing her lawsuit on a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. The school lost its tax exempt status because of a long-standing policy that banned interracial dating. The ban was dropped in 2000, but the school has not sought to regain its tax status.


I'm sure this isn't the first suit of this nature, not by a long shot, and likely Ms. Rockwell won't get overly far. But given the legal atmosphere in these parts towards the Catholic church - to whit, the church at times practically begging to get drop kicked into next Wednesday - one never knows.

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Couldn't hoit : Alice, of Alice In TV Land is having her sinus surgery tomorrow (Thursday). It'd be nice if everyone kept a good thought for her...
And the 'blog rolls on (Part XXIII, or something like that) : Since I've been too brain dead - sleep deprivation can be such a PITA - to come up with much to say the last couple of days, I'll add a few more people to the blogroll o' doom who have quite a lot to say. Please welcome The Weigh In and WarLiberal.

Justin, of The Weigh In, has the dubious distinction of being the first person to actually ask to be added to the blogroll o' doom. Note to Justin - Flattery will get you... Well, not much, I'm rather notorious for not handling compliments any better than insults. Actually, given that I've made it my life's work to turn self deprecation into an artform... Eh, you do the math. Anyway, having a good 'blog, well that'll get you far. Justin's prolific linker who likes Buffy (god, am I the only one in outer Blogtopia who thinks Buffy jumped the shark about three seasons ago?), thinks you should KaZaA yourself silly (Trojan or no, I suppose), and is a radical feminist. Eh, I suppose no one's perfect.

Christ, I feel like I'm introducing contestants on a bad game show... Not that there are really any good game shows, are there? Actually, I wouldn't know, I haven't watched one in eons. I did see Alex on CNN this morning at the National Geographic thingy. Yikes, did he ever flub that one.

WarLiberal intrigues me. Maybe I've just been living in New England too long, but it's been an epoch or three since I've heard much in the way of sense coming from a self-described liberal. And yet Mac Thomason manages to speak much sense, it's almost... I dunno, scary. I'm not entirely sure the WarLiberal hasn't come over to the dark side. Time will tell...
Is there malaria in the area? : New GM mosquitos may help in the fight against malaria. These mosquitos have a gene inserted that causes them to be 80% less likely to spread malaria to humans. If released into the wild they would breed with other mosquitos and, hopefully, spread their modified genes far and wide. A lot more research and testing will be required before they can even think about doing that, of course, but it's an innovative and very creative approach that, while it wouldn't in and of itself eliminate malaria, would substantially reduce it.

We don't tend to think much about things like malaria here. Such diseases are rare and when they do crop up are generally treated fairly easily. But in other parts of the world, especially Africa, it's a very big deal - a lot of people die of malaria every year. If this pans out one hopes that the anti-GM zealots won't squash it they way they have tried to squash other advances that could help a whole lot of third-world people.
Go ahead, steal this car : Scotland Yard has unveiled a decoy car they hope criminals will try and steal. They're not really revealing much, but the car includes both tracking and remote control capabilities.

It's a great idea, when you think about it. Stick the thing by the side of the road somewhere, especially in a high-crime area, and wait for some lowlife to steal it. Then you can either nab said lowlife or follow them around and see where they go, possibly nabbing his compatriots and/or discovering the location of a chop-shop. Of course it could be rather embarrassing should said lowlifes figure out how to really steal the car and get the added electronics besides, but if you designed the system well that should be pretty difficult.

I wonder if this could be applied to some of the high car theft areas in this country? Or would it be considered entrapment?
To cell, or not to cell, that is the question : It seems lately that cell phones are becoming a huge boon to cops when it comes to catching moronic criminals. First we had the smiley face bomber twip, and now John Thomas Boston.

Wanted on burglary charges, Johnny had been avoiding the constabulary for eight years. I think it's probably safe to say that much of his success in avoidance was due to the cops not looking all that hard. But in May, for reasons unclear, Johnny sent a nasty-gram to the cops in which he claimed he was leaving for Canada and would never be seen again. This genius decided to include both a fingerprint and pictures of himself in Canada. Of course he also included, whether he knew it or not, genetic material. Said genetic material was enough to tie Johnny to at least one rape and possibly two others.

Oops.

But even that might not have been enough to get Johnny caught, at least not swiftly. But in April Johnny got real bright and made three taunting calls to the cops. Of course he used a cell phone to do so. What is it about cell phones that make people think they're safe and untraceable? How exactly do people think the cell system knows where you are in order to be able to deliver your calls if not because your phone periodically talks to the nearest available cell? Once the cops know that, well it doesn't exactly pinpoint your location but it does give them the general idea. In Johnny's case, the general idea turned out to be Dallas, where he was arrested the next day.

"In taunting investigators, it also got him caught," Louisville Police Chief Greg Smith said at a news conference Tuesday.


Double oops.

I mention all of this because there's always been something that has struck me about crime and punishment, and that is that it's a darn good thing that most criminals are dumb as dirt. If Johnny-boy had just kept his trap shut he probably could have avoided the cops for another eight years, perhaps indefinitely if he were smart about it. But he wasn't smart about it, and most criminals aren't. They commit crimes for which they have an obvious motive, thus making themselves an instant suspect. They leave obvious evidence at the scene, often in incredibly moronic ways - like leaving behind one's purse or wallet complete with ID. Johnny, he got creative about it and decided to basically paint a big honkin' "I'm here, come and get me!" sign in neon ink all over himself. On TV shows and in movies cops usually have to solve crimes by meticulous research and brilliant deduction, in reality they mostly just follow the breadcrumb trail of stupidity left behind right to the perp's front door. When there isn't such a trail, often they're completely lost - anyone seen Whitey Bulger lately?

This whole principle - that most criminals are mental midgets and that's a big part of the reason they get caught - has wider implications. Ever since the terrorist atrocities of September 11th there has been something of a debate over whether the murdering scum were super geniuses who only managed to commit their atrocities through careful planning and strict discipline, or whether they were just a bunch of dumb murdering schmucks who got extraordinarily lucky.

To some this might seem to be more than a bit of a moot question. After all, they're all dead and what does it matter? I think it matters quite a lot as it gives us a clue as to what kind of foes we might face in the future. I'm sure we'll never really know the answer, and not just because they're all dead. The law enforcement community has a vested interest in painting them as supercriminals and, given what they managed to pull off, so does a lot of the public. But just the fact that they managed to pull September 11th off is not enough evidence to me. I've several times, when hearing about someone going on a rampage and killing a number of people, had the thought that it was a damn good thing that the killer was basically a homicidal moron. A truly intelligent and well-trained individual - say, ex-special forces - who went off their nut could do a lot more damage than anything we've seen to date. You wouldn't just have a few people killed on a Long Island train - as horrid as that was - they'd kill everyone present in a cold and efficient manner and there'd be no jumping them whilst they tried to figure out how to reload.

If Atta and the rest of his crew of psychopaths were the super geniuses they're sometimes being painted as, we're in serious doggy-do and the chances of the next lot of 'em being caught before they manage to pull of their next bad-nasty are depressingly slim. If they're like Johnny, well we're still in serious doggy-do but it could be a whole lot worse.

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

Power to the sheeple : A good overview of some of the problems with expecting photovoltaics to be a primary power source over on TCS.

One particular line caught my eye, though I think I've seen it before -

When asked why the fantastical promise of solar power over the last several decades has not led to very much of it -- less than 0.1% of total energy supplied in the United States -- Ralph Nader in an interview could only explain, "Because Exxon doesn't own the sun."


As it happens, eons ago I used to work with an engineer who's previous job had been running a semiconductor plant for Exxon. Guess what they were manufacturing? Photovoltaics. The plant was set up by Exxon to try and see if they could 1) Make more efficient photovoltaics, and 2) Make them cheap enough to be marketable. Exxon poured a couple of billion into this particular plant and opened up another, but in the end decided that the technologies they were exploring weren't going to meet the second goal and they shut the whole thing down.

If Mr. Nader and his ilk ever got their heads out of their respective rectal orifices they'd realize that Exxon doesn't need to own the sun, they only need to own the process that makes the devices that make harnessing sunlight cheap and efficient enough to be commercially viable. Unfortunately, despite oodles of money having been spent, so far no one has managed that trick.

Exxon and the rest of the big oil companies spend boatloads of money exploring alternative technologies of all types, including alternative energy sources. Despite what the conspiracy theorists think, they don't really care how they make money, they just care that they're making it. Exxon didn't set up the plant my co-worker ran just because they're nice guys, they did so because if anyone ever does come up with a photovoltaic system that's truly viable on a large or personal scale, they're going to make buttloads of money off of it.

It's convenient to blame Exxon for the lack of viable solar-power, in fact the Naderites have turned blaming business for just about every ill there is into a hobby. Unfortunately here on earth reality tends to be far more of a problem than any big business will ever be.
When all else fails, sue : This could get interesting -

A U.S. national has filed a 100 million shekel suit against the European Union in Tel Aviv District Court. The plaintiff, who was paralyzed in a Palestinian attack, charged on May 20 that the EU knowingly allowed its monthly allotment of 10 million euros to be diverted for the financing of Palestinian terrorism.


To quote a phrase very much in vogue lately, what did the EU know and when did it know it?
Touch your inner doll : This is just too funny. You know those little Russian nested dolls? Well it seems that in Moscow some of the ones they sell depict American presidents -

Bush also faces stiff competition in the matryoshka contest from Clinton, who remains a favorite topic for satire in Russia.


The Clinton doll opens to reveal Monica Lewinsky, followed by Paula Jones, who sued Clinton for sexual harassment. The fourth layer depicts Clinton's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, now a U.S. senator from New York.


Next up, Carter?

Sunday, May 19, 2002

Fathers, Birthdays, Cruises and Time

My father and I are going on a cruise in November. This has been planned for some time now and I had worried that I might have to cancel because of the bone cancer situation. Right now, it seems like things will be fine for the November trip and I am looking forward to it. We will be flying to Lisbon and sailing across the Atlantic to Florida, stopping at the Madeira Islands and Nassau on the way.

Cruises are an interesting thing. Your whole world condenses to the limits of the ship which is like a small city, or a very fancy, floating hotel with an attached mall which specializes in unique and expensive products. There is incredible food of almost every type, style and preparation you can imagine (and probably a few you never thought of) and it’s available any time of the day or night. There are, in addition to the dining room, restaurants (Japanese and Italian on the last ship), bars and casinos, not to mention both movies and live shows. There is usually a library (necessarily small, but useful never the less) which also rents videos. There are swimming pools, spas and hairdressers. There are also a couple of lecturers, usually, who give several presentations over the course of the trip on whatever their particular specialty is. On the Caribbean cruise, there was an astronomer who talked about meteor impacts and their possible influence on the extinction of the dinosaurs, and a very engaging historian who’s lectures on Caribbean history and pirates were always fascinating and well attended.

For many years, this has been Dad’s favorite type of vacation. Once he’s on board the ship, he can sit back, relax and let other people do the worrying. It seems to be the one place he can truly let go and just enjoy himself. Still, it’s an interesting choice for a man like my father. He doesn’t drink – at all, so the lavish bars (and on some ships, the price of your drinks is included in the fare) are wasted on him. His food preferences are very limited as he won’t eat tomatoes, onions or spices or herbs of any kind and considers beef and chicken to be the only reasonable options where meat is concerned – and he’s not entirely sure about the chicken. So the sumptuous repasts offered every day are usually things he has no interest in and he often has a steak or a bowl of plain pasta. Well, he might put some cheese on the pasta.

It is, I think, the total detachment from the rest of the world (and therefore, the world’s activities and concerns) that attracts him so strongly. Out on the ocean, work responsibilities evaporate since there is no way to see to them in any case. Yassar Arafat becomes the stuff of myth. There’s no laundry to do, meals to prepare or car to maintain. Almost all you can do is relax and entertain yourself. It is the one set of circumstances under which he feels absolutely free to do and be whatever he likes.

Our birthdays fall on consecutive days. He was 79 on Friday and I was 48 on Saturday. We, typically, get together to go out to a nice restaurant for a mutual celebration. This year we went to a splendid place in Wells, ME called Lords Harborside and stuffed ourselves happily stupid with some of the best seafood we have ever had. It was a tremendous meal and we had a really nice day. Dad seemed more relaxed and in better spirits than at any time in the last 6 weeks.

I had decided I wasn’t going to approach the topic of how much time I had left with my father. I wasn’t sure how he was dealing with things (or not dealing with things – which is something he sometimes does) and it seemed better to let him handle the issue in his own way. When (if) he asked about it I would be perfectly, uninflectedly candid – but I wouldn’t bring the subject up myself.

Well, he asked at lunch yesterday.

“Have the doctors give you any idea what the prognosis is, in terms of time yet?”

I wasn’t exactly taken aback; I knew it was coming eventually.

“Well,” I said “The doctor tells me that under these circumstances, where there is cancer in the bones, but hasn’t spread anywhere else, 2 years is average. Depending on other factors, there may be as many as 5.”

He smiled thoughtfully and didn’t seem to be upset. Perhaps this was better news than he expected.

“Time for one or two more cruises then?”

I had to laugh.

I think he’s going to be okay.