Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Can’t Wait To Try Their Pharmacy

July 27, 2012


  Know what bugs me?  Crappy generic store branded stuff.  Like the matches of which you see some on the right above next to proud green strike anywhere Diamonds on the left.  What makes a bad match?  Thanks for asking.  I’m gonna tell ya.

  Few days back, there was an, uh, odor I hoped to dispel with first the flame and then the smoke of a struck match.  I opened the box, pulled one out and across the abrasive panel when it broke.  Next one ignited and then broke, fell onto my shirt, and burned a hole.  Oh well, work shirt. 

  Next one ignited, broke, fell onto the carpet, and seemed to have gone out.  It was in a corner and the carpet is dark and wife didn’t see.  Almost ‘oh well’ again, but didn’t want to burn the house down so dumped a glass of water on it which I did have to explain later.  (“Uh, was watering plants”) I’d by then forgotten about the odor, but in retrospect I’m pretty sure it was long gone.

  What’s more is that the cheap ones hail from a poor country in which forests are rapidly being decimated by the indiscriminate use of wood as fuel for cooking.  On the back of the box of good ones is a statement of which the following is part: “…sourced from responsibly managed Aspen forests of Minnesota…”

  Store where we mostly shop stocks only those on the right.  As of recently I should say.  There used to be a choice.  I’m no genius, but I’m sure management figured that the process of match procurement for the average consumer involves negligible consideration of price or quality.  Thus, remove the good ones, sell the replacements at the same price, and double the profit.

  Matches were invented in China* in or around AD 577 when it was found that dry sticks coated with sulfur would facilitate the sharing of an established flame.  Robert Boyle (remember Boyle’s Law?) figured out that a stick coated with sulfur would ignite when dragged across a piece of paper coated with phosphorus. 

  As further refinement a John Walker in 1826 soaked small sticks with a mixture of potassium chlorate, antimony sulfide, starch, and gum, and allowed them to dry.  Move tip across a rough surface and voila – a flame.  This solution was poisonous however and sickened factory workers.  So after some experimentation, in 1910 the Diamond Match Co substituted sesquisulfide for the phosphorus and patented the modern match.

  And now some pencil neck has taken us a few steps back.  Can’t wait to test their pharmacy…

*cf post of July 2, 2011 to read about the invention of fireworks.

**Most of the history of matches above was drawn from an article by Lisa De Nike in the Fall/Winter issue of The Boss.


Almost Perfect

June 29, 2012



  If you keep your eyes open and wits receptive, it’s amazing the cool stuff you come across.  Just yesterday, for example, I was driving by the jobsite you see above and did a double take.  At first, I thought that a piece of concrete pipe had loosed its restraints and was rolling toward disaster.

  Then, lo, a pair of steel arms lowered it to the ground gently as a nursemaid.  Beautiful bit of industrial choreography.  Had to stay to watch the whole process and was amazed at its efficiency and the economies of movement and energy.  One person unloaded the whole truck without assistance or requirement for outside power.

  Learned that the thing is a Pipemaster 100 and was invented in 1956 by Hank Schmidgall not far from here and has become an industry standard for all of the obvious reasons.  Easy one person operation – driver does it all.  Don’t have to wait for a crane or backhoe.  Thus no delays and can haul more pipe in a day. 

  Then later, on my way home, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  The Weinermobile!  I’d been struck with great good fortune twice in one day.  This bit of only-in-America was designed by Oscar Mayer’s nephew Carl in 1936.  There are now eight on the road: six built on a GMC chassis and two on that of a Mini Cooper. 

  Their horns can play the jingle (I wish I were a…) in twenty-one different genres from Cajun to Rap to Bossa Nova.  After multiple circumperambulations I drove home quickly, determined to find my Weiner Whistle.  Well, it wasn’t to be a perfect day, but one could hardly complain.

Let There Be Light

June 22, 2012


  Having been in the ER several times during the past week or so due to the aforementioned incident, I took the opportunity to sort of Rosetta Stone the placard you see above.  It was prominently mounted on a wall in every patient room I’ve visited thus far.  (Just one more visit to go!)

  Even though I’ve never had to worry about being in labor (rest assured my roommate would agree with that statement – whatever meaning you might ascribe to the phrase) the translation of that bit is what interests me most.

  I know a little Spanish and enjoy watching Despierta America (Wake up America) on Univision in the early AM.  You should watch it.  It is interesting even with the sound off, for the wonderful cultural counterpoint it conveys vis The Today Show, Good Morning America, et al.

  Anyway, the title and first phrase up to the conjunction translate easily word for word.  But then in English it says “…or are in labor…” and in Spanish “O Esta Dando A Luz” which I knew didn’t say anything about work or labor – trabajo.  I knew that Luz meant light.

  Turned to one of my research assistants, daughter #1, who informed me that the phrase does indeed mean “in labor”/giving birth, but translates literally as “…or you are giving light”.  I think that is beautiful, interesting, and further provocation for my sodium ion exchange (that’s what moves stuff along in one’s neurons).

  Had I ever have had the prospect of being in labor, I wonder if the nature of my anticipation of such an event would have differed if I’d  known it described exclusively by one or other of the phrases.  I’ll go out on a limb and say that it would have.  

  On the one hand, whatever combination of excitement, nervousness, and trepidation one might feel, to view the penultimate stage of a pregnancy in terms of work would be way different than, say, as the dawn of a new universe.

  Furthermore, that metaphor, “dando a luz” would (in my mind anyway) evolve through a series of metaphiers from the initial “giving light”, to the newborn’s astonished visage, to the acquisition of literacy, to a college mortarboard, and to a bright eyed effort to make the world a better place.

  But then I’ll never be pregnant and in all honesty the process of giving birth does not look that much like any sort of serene experience.  I would never have chosen the word “labor”.  More reminds me of William Wallace’s last experience of life in Braveheart.  Torture. I’ve watched it three times.  Birth that is.  Braveheart many more.

*Interested in metaphors and their contribution to consciousness?  Go to post of February 4, 2011



It’s True Even If It Didn’t Happen*

February 3, 2012


 OK. It is probably either because I’m an insecure misfit or else am in search of an excuse for misanthropic behavior, but I’m again going to quote my bud Carl Jung: “The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality”.

  Why now?  Well, because, as you may have heard, it is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.  On NPR I just heard the bit from the movie where Jack Nicholson playing McMurphy asks Nurse Ratched to modify the work schedule so the guys can watch the World Series.  “A little change never hurt, huh? A little variety?”

  She wouldn’t have it.  “What you’re asking is that we change a very carefully worked out schedule.”  Conform.  Hew to the baseline.  Don’t raise your hand, ask questions, or use your outside voice inside.  That was in 1962 and the tumult in western society was just getting started. 

  Thinking back upon all that, I find it incredible that in one sense popular culture is more misdirected than ever.  Globally now even.  As Irish poet John O’Donohue told Krista Tippett**, “One of the huge confusions of our time is to mistake glamour for beauty.”  It’s like the metaphor from The Cuckoo’s Nest that pervades is the lobotomy…

*A great line from the book.  And I guess it would apply to all great fiction…

**On Being 1/26/12

Thank God for Kutta-Joukowski

January 13, 2012


Know that a bird’s flight feathers are analogous to the blades on an airplane’s propeller?  It is actually the other way around of course, birds came before airplanes after all, but that is the manner in which the astonishment came to me.

And I’m not the Lone Ranger.  Long before Kitty Hawk there were attempts at manned flight designed around the avian wing.  The problem was propulsion.  Wright Brothers, or someone else, would have been aloft sooner had they understood how birds do more than just glide.

OK, you’ll remember that the mechanics of flight revolve around a curved surface – an airfoil.  As it moves through air (or water – think penguins) the molecules flowing over the curved top must move faster than those with the shorter path to travel below.  This creates a drop in air pressure above and lift*.

Well, the outermost part of a wing – the hand wing – is composed of stiff slightly pointed primaries which are longitudinally asymmetrical.  When a bird in flight flaps downward the narrower portion of the primaries curve creating airfoils and voila forward ‘lift’ occurs.

The several primaries on both wings of a bird combine into an analogue for a multi-blade propeller.  One on each wing.  Try it yourself next time you find a feather.  Hold it by the bare part of the shaft and move it through the air as had its original owner.  You won’t take off, but you’ll get the idea.

My favorite bird?  Cooper’s Hawk.  It is incredible to watch them Top Gun song birds.  Cuts bird seed budget line item way back.

*Bernoulli’s principle, developed in the eighteenth century, explains the ramifications of the pressure differential, but not why the air moves faster on top than underneath.  Explanations of flight and lift always bothered me because I was unable to get that part.  I’m happy to report that the Kutta-Joukowski theorem, developed in the twentieth century addresses that aspect.  It is complicated and I don’t completely understand, but feel better to know that I might one day.

I Need The Eggs

December 9, 2011


  Interestingly, in his new book Who’s In Charge* cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga wrote: “…we are people, not brains” by which he means that, uh, the whole is more than the sum of the parts.  That though an emergent property of the bit of grey matter up top, a meeting of minds can not be understood as can, say, theIndianapolis 500 by the mechanics of an internal combustion engine.

  He holds that: “analyzing single brains in isolation cannot illuminate the capacity of responsibility”.  Rather, it is “an interaction between people – a social contract”.  One, crucially, able to be honored or broken.  And it’s irreducible.  A solitary test lap would be meaningless.

  Makes me think of the Buddhist imperative to “forget the self”, because there’s not one really there to begin with.  It’s (they say) a construct assembled by the brain from inputs internal and external to aid us in navigation through a daily routine.  If some combination of influences doesn’t make you feel trustworthy or un-, you will have no ability to feel either.

  Perhaps the example of feral children can provide a useful, if horrific, example. Romulusand Remus aside, there have indeed been cases of infants and children who survived early extreme neglect, sometimes actually with the nurturance of wild animals.  If protracted, a child’s mental and psychological development ends at a prehensile stage.

  Beyond hope and possibility of resurrection.  Should a one not be exposed to language – in any form – by puberty, the potential for later acquisition would have thus been rendered forever lost.  But, with luck and the agency of a “Good Enough Parent”**, a child grows to become part of a rich network with myriad relationships – some inchoate and fleeting some deep and long.

  Of the latter sort, I like the way Woody Allen put it in his film Annie Hall.   “I-I thought of that old joke, you know, this, this, this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy.  He thinks he’s a chicken.’  And uh, the doctor says ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’  And the guy says ‘I would but I need the eggs’.  Well, I guess that’s pretty much how I feel about relationships.  You know, they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd and…but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us need the eggs.”

  I do.

*I read about this book in a review by Raymond Tallis in the 11/12-13 WSJ. Gazzaninga first gained prominence in the 50’s when he pioneered split brain research.  That is, brains in which the tissue connecting the halves – the corpus callosum – had been severed.  This lead to the knowledge of hemispherical specialization.  Interesting to note that the corpus callosum is more substantial in females.  I wonder what the ramifications of that are…

**I’ve heard this phrase a lot, but it’s capitalized in reference to the eponymous great book by Bruno Bettleheim.

***Perhaps the eggs come frequently to mind because Annie Hall came out – and won the Oscar – in 1977. The year I got my roommate.   

Wonder When The All Clear Will Come

November 25, 2011

Though it is not exactly the story he tells, in his new book The Bear History of a Fallen King, French cultural historian Michel Pastoureau shows how the coming of consciousness gave its bearers power which descendents have yet even now to effectively tame.

In prehistoric times bears were feared, perhaps deified as a result, and thus immortalized on cave walls.  Common in Europe they were more than a match for dimwitted pre-humans.  Once the light went on however, so was the hunt and the rest, well, history.

By the time of Charlemagne in the late eighth century it was mere sport.  He led forays that were responsible for incredible ursine carnage – thousands upon thousands.  By the 1200 sightings in the wild had become rare.  Bears did however make trifling appearances in zoos, circuses, and traveling minstrel shows.  They’re there now nearly extinct.

Reminds me of a roundtable discussion amongst nuclear weapon developers on NPR a decade or so ago.  Moderator asked about what had led to a particular cold war multiple level of magnitude increase in throw-weight.  Answer?  “It was a sweet technological problem.  Hee, hee, hee.”

Fortunately, we also are thus far this side of extinction.  But cf the ongoing decimation of species, climate change, and pressure of well armed hungry thirsty populations, the all clear is not yet out.

Funny thing though is that, with luck, the significant expansion of North American breeding bear populations might be an indicator of a new coming to conscience.  They are messy, destructive, and sometimes violent and deadly.  Yet, “The people [in their range] look at these bears as members of the community”.*

If a friend was killed or your kitchen destroyed by Yogi or Boo Boo the incident would not be something of which to make light.  However, yesterday was Thanksgiving and maybe we should look with favor upon the fact that these days the response to an initial minor incursion might not be to whack.  That there’s maybe an incipient wonder about the cosmic distribution of sentience and consciousness.

*WSJ; 11/21/11; As Bears Multiply, Human Clashes Rise.

**Photo on top of Cro-Magnon painting in Chauvet cave from Smithsonian 12/10

Route Description

November 4, 2011


  OK, I have another friend.  When he was about two or three his mother watched in horror as his great grandfather proffered to him a sip of bourbon.  Several years later while watching father and friends imbibe and pestering for a taste this friend was given a shot glass full of gin.

  Snuck some from time to time till when as a sophomore got a six pack from another friend’s older brother.  He downed five in quick succession and companion couldn’t finish the one.  Went on to college where the stuff was sanctified.  Guess that, honestly, not much happened during the week, but on weekends, well, he doesn’t really remember. 

  Vagabond years were more Dionysian than Apollonian.  Compadres were of a mind and proud to be successors to a storied group known as the “Vulgarians”.  Once, late after a revel at the Bar Nationale, one snuck up behind a gendarme and relieved him of his revolver.  Fortunately, the genius hadn’t noticed the weapon was tethered around flic neck and lost grip.

  Midst career and family this guy only occasionally lost hold and was able to cover tracks and count on short memory and collective norm.  No major bruises, breakages, or blackouts. 

  Problem really developed during shift from original indoctrination and responsibilities toward look at the future.  Seemed easiest not to deal, to make excuses, and to cover psyche’s symptoms.  Like TS Eliot wrote, “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. 

  But, then remembered Frost’s “Forgive O Lord my little jokes on thee and I’ll forgive Thy great big joke on me”.  And finally, interestingly, Michael Jackson: “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change”.

  Me? I’ve always said that my favorite drink by far is ice water.  First thing in the morning and last at night is a huge glass of l’eau glace.  Our two ice machines are always empty.  I don’t mind when berg in my large tumbler shifts, Adam’s Ale spills, and I look like a drunken idiot. 

  Plus, know what? Ice water is good for losing weight.  In a recent WSJ* were the results of a study that found that: “Drinking cold water causes the body to burn more calories and could be an effective weight loss method…”

  Yep, climb into the sack after a tall glass and it’s shivery for a while, but dreams are crystal clear. 


Feminization of AIDS in Africa

April 16, 2011


  While back oldest daughter was an intern at an affiliate of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).  Her work took her to a conference in Nairobi “Integrating programming to address gender-based violence and engage men and boys to challenge gender inequality in national AIDS strategies and plans”.

  On her day off, she explored Kibera, the second largest (after Soweto) slum in east Africa.  There, she came upon a group of women selling hand made crafts, such as the pin above, to help defray the expense of their AIDS related medicine.  The women had organized themselves because “no one was helping them”.

  “The women I met had been ostracized because their husbands (and their husbands’ families) threw them out of their house/family when they disclosed their status.  Odds are, they got HIV from their husbands (who are more likely to have been promiscuous outside of the marriage).”

  Three-quarters of those 15-24 living with HIV in Africa are female.  The grim reaper follows with AIDs being the leading cause of death for African women 25 to 34.  Aspects of biology and physiology make females more likely to contract HIV during even consensual sex. 

  Furthermore, “heightened female HIV susceptibility is rooted in gender inequality, which leads to sexual assault and women’s limited ability to negotiate safe sex”.*  Forced sex can lead to tissue tears and abrasions thus facilitating disease transmission. 

  The relative few women able to fund an IV drug habit are similarly disadvantaged because they are usually the last to share a needle. Some HIV positive women have been reinfected by a mutated version of the virus thus complicating treatment programs.

  These are acts of individual violence and discrimination, yet an emerging aspect of the human rights paradigm holds that states are responsible for amelioration. Due diligence principles are being developed with potential to “transform patriarchal gender structures and values that perpetuate and entrench violence against women” and the closely related feminization of AIDS in Africa. 

*These are very few words describing a complex and terrible state of affairs.  Read ”Due Diligence in the Context of Gender Inequality and HIV”, by Tiana O’Konek for more information


In His Image*

February 18, 2011

  On January 3, 1963 aired an episode of the Twilight Zone that I’ve not forgotten even though I was then not quite eleven years old.  My memory doesn’t always serve up perfection, but generally does well enough to summon up the gist. 

  We meet the chief protagonist, Alan Talbot, early on.  He seems to be going about his life in an average sort of way, but starts getting headaches and memory problems.  Visiting his hometown with his girlfriend he finds that nothing looks familiar.  Then, walking along a road confused, a car bumps him and he rolls into the ditch alongside.  Shaken, he stands up and checks for injuries. 

  Just before giving himself a clean bill of health, he examines an abrasion on his right forearm which strangely does not bleed.  We watch as he peels it back revealing lights and gears etc.  He’s a robot and no less astonished uncovering that fact than are we.


  Good story huh?  Well, it came to mind the other day when I read a paper written by Nick Bostrom, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Oxford.  It’s serious, well wrought, and entitled “Are You Living In A Computer Simulation”.

  “This paper argues that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.”

  It is all too easy to understand statement (1), but it is not unreasonable to doubt (hope!) that’s (not) how the future will unfold.  For statement (2) to be the way things pan out Bostrom argues that all future civilizations must converge in their inability or unwillingness to undertake ‘ancestor-simulations’.

  Statement (3) is by far the most interesting.  Perhaps we are not in the fundament of reality.  Perhaps some zitty ubergeek is at the controls.  When he/she/it detects incipient awareness in one of us he/she/it rewinds and edits or maybe just sends us to a bar.

  Computing power has increased incredibly and the pace seems only to quicken.  Moore’s Law has shortened from eighteen to twelve months.  Watson, the supercomputer that just bested the Jeopardy human champs juggles 80 trillion calculations a second spread over ninety servers.  At least one big thinker, Ray Kurzweil, predicts that a PC sized machine will be able crunch that much that fast in a decade or less.

  Bostrom demonstrates that there are no theoretical limits to continued expansion.  In a posthuman stage of civilization, he posits, such a mature stage of technological development will make it possible to convert planets and other astronomical resources into enormously powerful computers.

  Extremely sophisticated simulations are employed today for all manner of undertakings.  It seems inevitable that our distant descendants would run simulations of their forebears.  Furthermore, …”if we don’t believe that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations…”

  Implications?  No radical ramifications.  There might well be subtle modifications to our belief systems related to a desire to understand posthuman motivations, but “no tendency to make us ‘go crazy’”.  However, I guess I’d hope that they don’t run out of computer power or trip over the plug.    

*In His Image was the name of the Twilight Zone episode…

**Veracity of proposition (3) would ‘aha’ the manner in which mathematics perfectly describe the whole fabric of our universe.

***cf Post of 12/24/11 in which I discussed the concentric circles in the cosmic background radiation that Roger Penrose posits are vestiges of a former universe and how it might relate to “a Platonic world of abstract realities that can be discovered by human investigation, but are independent of human existence”.

****Here is Professor Bostrom’s paper.  Read it.  You’ll be blown away.