Better post something… I’m wasting my best domain name!

April 2, 2010 on 4:33 pm | In ethics, people, science, travel | No Comments

Ohhh riiiight…. I have a blog.  No, I didn’t forget about it – but one might wonder why I haven’t posted anything new since last November.  Well, let me just make this post into a few tidbits about what I’m up to lately so it won’t take too long, and then I’ll get back to my busy day.  (I hope to resume semi-regular updates shortly, though!)

  • Work. Shortly after my last post, I left the Great Satan-errr, the United States of America for a couple of weeks in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  It was a big project for my company, and I was fortunate to be one of a team of three nerds that were sent to install LIS software and train lab technicians at the UAE’s largest clinical reference laboratory to date.  It was a bit surreal, as it was my first trip outside North America and it felt more like I was in Las Vegas while a bunch of Arabs were in town.  That trip deserved a blog post all to itself, but I missed the last two weeks of the school semester and was therefore trying to keep up with biology and statistics, and then finals and then holidays and… you get it, I’m sure.
  • School. This semester it’s chemistry, which is not nearly as hard as it seemed when I took it at age 19, when I was still trying to figure out why I should get up for class if I wasn’t going to miss the school bus.  I’m still working 8-5 Mon-Fri, but Tuesday night I have a three hour lecture and Wednesday night it’s a three hour lab. I want to be annoyed with my classmates who don’t understand how much of a privilege it is to be there (they’re always rushing through the lab to get out early), but I’m sure I was just like them once. Plus, I still procrastinate like there’s no tomorrow, so I haven’t grown up that much.
  • Farming. I’ve been helping out where I can on the best new community project in Baltimore, the Ash Street Garden (aka Baltimore Free Farm).  It’s an inspiring groundswell of sustainability consciousness, DIY ethics, cleverness, and crunk-punk-rap-rock-folk-core anarchy in action — without pissing off the neighbors!  If any gardening or sustainability enthusiasts in the Baltimore region read this, you should definitely stop by some day to see what we’ve done with the place.  It was just a bunch of tree stumps and garbage piles a mere two months ago; today it is well on its way to the terraformed cathedral of urban agriculture it is bound to become.  Anyone is welcome to volunteer and join the fun.  If you have any experience in gardening, construction, farming, landscaping, plumbing, beekeeping, integrated pest management, or non-profit law and finance, you are especially needed!
  • Vacation. That’s right – Celeste and I spent an awesome week last month exploring the Pacific Northwest, including Whidbey Island (where we stayed with her ‘rents), Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, Vancouver, Olympic National Park, the Hoh Rainforest, Rialto Beach, and Port Townsend.  Olympic National Park and seeing my cousin Jeremy in Olympia were the highlights for me. . . Vancouver kicked ass, too.
  • Training. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration because I haven’t really done that much of it yet, but I’m trying to condition myself to endure 140 miles of bicycling in two days from Rehoboth Beach, DE to Baltimore, MD.  Shannon, my brother’s girlfriend, is the organizer of Ride For The Feast, which raises funds for Moveable Feast, a nonprofit organization that provides free meals to HIV and breast cancer patients. So, on May 15/16, Shannon, Mike, myself, and others will ride our asses off (literally, maybe) for this noble cause.  If you want to support my effort (please do!), you can make a contribution to Moveable Feast through my fundraising page.  Your contribution will help me achieve the $1,200 fundraising goal I’ve set for the event.  More importantly, though, it will bring the compassionate gift of good nutrition to our neighbors whose survival depends on it the most, at a time when their ability to provide for themselves is most diminished.
  • That’s it! I have no other excuses not to be blogging. We’ll see what happens…

On Obama’s health care reform speech

September 10, 2009 on 9:40 am | In culture, ethics, health, politics | 6 Comments

Last night, President Barack Obama delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress with a boldness and clarity that I think has been lacking since the end of his campaign.  His address laid out his proposals for health care reform in clear, concise language. He clobbered the atrocious lies and distortions that have been spread in the media lately as well as the anti-reform ideologues that started them. He also achieved the important goal of framing health care reform as a moral issue, and as a fundamental economic security issue:

“Put simply, our health care problem is our deficit problem. Nothing else even comes close.”
                                            -President Barack Obama

The address was also masterful political theater, clearly crafted to assert the President’s authority before the assembled chambers of Congress on the issue which may define his presidency.  Even reform opponents played their part in the spectacle: at a moment in his speech when Obama clearly asserted that his health care proposals would explicitly exclude coverage for undocumented immigrants, the traditionally quiet decorum of the event was punctuated by South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, who loudly shouted “You lie!” at the president. President Obama could not have illustrated the vapid thoughtlessness of health care reform’s enemies any better than that.

Now, while I certainly found much to commend in the president’s speech, it wasn’t all rainbows and whiskey.  As a progressive who favors a single-payer health care system, I can’t say that I agree with all of President Obama’s proposals.  In particular, I feel that private, for-profit health insurance companies represent a fundamental conflict of interest between investors’ expectation of profit and patients’ need for medical care.  Obama is pushing for new laws that will limit insurance companies’ strategies to maximize their profit, which appears to be a nuanced, measured compromise — but in practice, it will be the federal government that bears the burden of enforcing these laws, and that means it will take time for insurance companies to comply with the new laws. We can nearly rest assured that their compliance will be grudging and constantly in search of loopholes. Put simply, the new laws Obama proposed would not fully resolve that fundamental conflict of interest.  I realize that Obama’s proposals are a political and practical solution rather than an ideal one, and I encourage everyone to support any legislation that accomplishes the goals he set.  My criticism is only meant to serve as a reminder that the fight for equity, fairness, compassion, and justice in the U.S. health system will not end with the passage of health care reform. I think that Bad Astronomer Phil Plait expressed a similar point regarding Obama’s education speech on Tuesday very well, and with all due tribute, I will repost the image here that he used to do so:

“It is time for us to lead once again”

April 28, 2009 on 2:41 am | In biology, epidemiology, ethics, fauna, health, humor, people, politics, science | 2 Comments

I regret having just set a personal record for the longest period of time between posts.  But let’s forget about that right now, because today there are a couple BIG events to talk about.

Swine flu: Having very recently mutated to allow human/human transmission, it has already spread around the globe, leading to fears of a global pandemic.  To be fair, I think the mainstream news media have been doing more to fan the flames of fear (while sanctimoniously denying any intent to do so) than the flu itself.  As of this evening early Tuesday morning, only 40 50 cases had been reported inside the United States, and not a single fatality. CDC laboratory tests thus far indicates that the infection responds well to antiviral drugs such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza), which are being stockpiled in a number of states.  Maryland has already opened a swine flu command center right in my home city of Baltimore, in anticipation of likely infections occurring in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area.  CDC lab tests have also indicated that the other two FDA-approved antiviral drugs for flu, amantadine (Symmetrel) and rimantadine (Flumadine), are ineffective against the swine flu.  Both oseltamivir and zanamivir are neuraminidase inhibitors, which work by blocking the action of the viral neuraminidase protein.  This is the protein on the surface of influenza viruses that allows it to be released from the host cell in the process known as “budding.”  Amantadine and rimantadine are both M2 protein inhibitors, drugs whose mechanism of action involves blocking the ion channel that removes a virion’s coating and releases its genetic content into the cytoplasm of the host cell.  It is worth noting that poultry farmers in China used amantadine to guard againt the H5N1 avian flu in chickens, an ill-advised practice (H. sapiens as an agent of natural selection!) that has led to the abundance of influenza strains resistant to amantadine.

It’s too early yet to tell whether the swine-flu fatalities in Mexico will be seen here in the United States or elsewhere around the world, but we probably won’t have to wait very long to find out.  As the eccentric chaotician Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, “life finds a way” – we had better work hard to ensure that it’s human life that finds a way this time.  If you’re wondering what you can do, look at this guide on the US Department of Health and Human Services’ website.  And, of course, you can follow the CDC’s swine flu updates on Twitter.

In that vein, I lastly want to commend President Barack Obama, who, speaking today before the National Academy of Sciences, made a remarkable (and badly needed) commitment to the advancement of American science. After describing how the current swine flu emergency should remind us of the necessity of science, and among many breaks for applause, Obama said:

I believe it is not in our character, the American character, to follow.  It’s our character to lead.  And it is time for us to lead once again.  So I’m here today to set this goal:  We will devote more than 3 percent of our GDP to research and development.  We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science.

That’s why I campaigned for this guy. Let’s all make sure we hold him to this promise.

Reading List

February 19, 2009 on 11:37 pm | In culture, ethics, fauna, health, people, science | 2 Comments

I’ve decided I need to kick my reading into high gear, after realizing it’s been quite some time since I actually finished any new books.  So for inspiration, I compiled a brief sample list of books that I want to either read or re-read.  The ones followed by an asterisk I have already read at least partially.  This list is in no particular order – seriously.  I’d gladly welcome any comments, reviews, or recommendations.  Thanks to C for suggesting Stiff and to mobius for suggesting Godel, Escher, Bach.  If I actually complete this list, I’ll finally buy myself a telescope.  That sounds like a good bargain, right?

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter

The Evolution Of Compassion by Robert Axelrod*

Stiff by Mary Roach

The Lives To Come by Philip Kitcher*

The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond

An Anthropologist On Mars by Oliver Sacks*

In The Shadow Of Man by Jane Goodall

The Double Helix: A Personal Account Of The Discovery Of The Structure Of DNA by James Watson*

Monster Nation by David Wellington*

The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark by Carl Sagan*

The Red Queen: Sex And The Evolution Of Human Nature by Matt Ridley

Bad Astronomy by Philip Plait

Don’t mess with Pan troglodytes

February 17, 2009 on 11:31 pm | In culture, ethics, fauna, people, science | No Comments

I’ve been spending much of this evening brushing up on Pan troglodytes, or the common chimpanzee.  Yesterday, a woman in Stamford, Connecticut was terribly mauled by Travis, her friend’s 14 year old, 200 pound pet chimpanzee.  I feel terrible for the victims – including Travis, who was shot to death by police as he attacked an officer in his patrol car.  The human victim, Charla Nash, remains in critical condition in a Stamford hospital; she suffered a number of broken bones and a badly decorticated face.  Chimpanzees, while generally playful and good-natured, are still wild animals and therefore unpredictable.  From press reports so far, it sounds as if the chimpanzee may have been infected with Lyme disease, which could have been the cause of Travis’ unusual anxiety and aggression.  I don’t want to speculate about his living condition or treatment as I am not familiar with them, but I will say that handling great apes—especially Pan troglodytes—requires an excess of expertise and caution.  They typically possess four to five times the upper body strength of an adult human and can demonstrate possessive or territorial behavior.  In this incident, the human victim had recently made a significant change to her hair style which is being reported as a potential reason that Travis may not have recognized her (they were previously familiar) and identified her instead as an intruder.  I’m a bit skeptical of that theory, given that chimpanzees show remarkable ability to recognize and differentiate both human and chimpanzee faces.

I hope that Ms. Nash recovers remarkably, and that Travis’ death serves as a warning to those who own or may consider adopting pet chimpanzees.  They are best left to professionals running well-equipped sanctuaries.  Consider donating to a sanctuary if you want to help.  (Chimpanzees raised in captivity are almost never accepted by wild troops, and therefore cannot be released into the wild).

Edit: Apparently, the face-shredding is a common feature of chimp attacks.  I’d forgotten that I wrote about this in one of my very first posts on Survival Machine.

Wal-Mart Employee Trampled To Death in Black Friday Stampede

November 28, 2008 on 4:58 pm | In culture, ethics | No Comments

America’s annual day-after-Thanksgiving shopping binge, known perhaps foreshadowingly as ‘Black Friday’, reached a new low this year.  Early this morning, Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death in a stampede of shoppers after he opened the door to the Valley Stream Wal Mart on Long Island.  A temp agency employee, Damour was overwhelmed by the crowd of 2,000 shoppers which literally broke the door frame and pinned him underneath it as they surged into the store.  Four other people were taken to a nearby hospital for injuries sustained in the stampede.

I don’t think that commentary on this story is necessary.  I just want to make sure that everyone knows about it, and sees what despicable, self-absorbed cretins this celebration of crass consumerism can turn us into.  This wasn’t a mob of rapists or murderers.  They weren’t drunk or frightened.  This was a crowd whose blind violence was motivated by low prices and marketing.

Here’s looking at you, America.

Bill Ayers Is A Good Person

October 7, 2008 on 12:20 pm | In culture, ethics, people, politics | No Comments

Since Barack Obama doesn’t know him well, and since I’ve clearly endorsed Barack Obama for president, I’d like to take a quick moment to make a distinction between my own view of Bill Ayers and Senator Obama’s. Senator Obama is of course running for the highest elected office in the United States, so political reality necessitates that he strongly condemn Ayers’ actions during the late 1960s and early 1970s (and he has). I, on the other hand, feel that Ayers is being demonized unfairly. If I were trying to win the presidency, I probably wouldn’t say that. But most of America is still stuck in the violence-numb state of slumber that Ayers and the Weathermen were protesting with their bombs. It’s crucially important to tell or remind people that the Weather Underground bombings never killed anyone except Weather Underground activists (by accident). Right-wing critics have tried to blame several contemporaneous fatal bombings, for which no responsibility was ever claimed, on the Weather Underground. But after the accident that killed several Weathermen in a Greenwich Village townhouse on March 6, 1970, no one was killed by any Weather Underground-claimed bombings. The acts of property destruction occurred mostly at night, or with warning given to evacuate the area, or both. The intended aim of the Weather Underground was to wake America up to the genocide it was inflicting in southeast Asia.

In the course of this election cycle, Obama’s critics have frequently e-mailed this article about Ayers’ memoir, which coincidentally was published in the New York Times on September 11, 2001. Read it, but be sure also to read Ayer’s letter to the New York Times of September 15, 2001, in which he corrects the record on his disposition toward explosives and terrorism—and repudiates the 9/11 attacks for the depraved acts of intolerance and hatred that they were. And if you’re not familiar with the Weather Underground, the Wikipedia entry about it is a good place to start.

Without belaboring the point, I’d just like to say that I believe the actions of the Weather Underground were called for by the urgency of their era, and that Bill Ayers should be recognized as a courageous activist who took extensive personal risks to make a stand against terror and genocide. He is neither a murderer nor a terrorist, but he is a great American.

Atheist Soldier Sues The DoD, and The Evolution of Compassion

July 8, 2008 on 8:26 am | In culture, ethics, politics | 6 Comments

This April, The New York Times reported the case of U.S. Army Specialist Jeremy Hall, a soldier who started a chapter of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and subsequently had to be removed from Iraq due to numerous threats from his fellow soldiers.  Now, I’m not exactly surprised by this.  I’d expect the military to be drooling with evangelicals, of course.  And I could probably cynically overlook verbal harassment of an atheist in the armed forces, just because I expect that sort of bullshit from indoctrinated meat-heads.  But physical threats?  That really is beyond the pale.  Now, Spc. Hall is suing the Department of Defense and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld for failing to protect his freedom from religious persecution as protected by the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution.  You go boy.

Seriously, this is not the sort of reputation the military should want, given that non-religious Americans are the largest (non) religious group after Christians.  They have enough trouble recruiting as it is!  This is just another example, sadly, of Christians thinking the world revolves around them.  It’s bad enough that brave men and women who are devoted to the service of their country were blithely thrown into harm’s way in Iraq by a callous and evangelically-motivated administration… but non-religious soldiers’ lives are threatened by their loving, Christian comrades-in-arms as well?  What a disgusting blemish on our armed forces.  I hope Spc. Hall wins his lawsuit and the DoD cracks down on prosyletizing by officers.

Axelrod, Robert: The Evolution of Cooperation I haven’t posted anything in a while, have I?  Still, life marches on.  I got some paperwork done that’s been taking forever (to put it mildly).  I also was inspired by the news I wrote about in my previous post, and decided to read Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Compassion.  This book tells the story of his experiment: a computer tournament in the early 1980s that pitted programs submitted by game theorists from various academic disciplines (as well as an 11 year old computer prodigy) in the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma game (a classic thought experiment).  It’s quite interesting, and you can expect me to write a more in-depth review when I’ve finished it.

P.S. – I would love to get some comments on my posts.  If you’re reading this, any feedback will be appreciated.  It’s hard to talk myself into posting when it feels like no one is reading! I’d really like to get this blog fired up.

A life well spent: Aubrey Williams

May 12, 2008 on 10:58 pm | In culture, ethics, people, science | 3 Comments

I checked the website of my former college’s anthropology department today, and I was saddened to learn that one of my favorite professors, Aubrey Williams, died a couple months ago. The story was in the Washington Post, and I feel awful for having taken so long to find out about it. Aubrey (he insisted on being called by his first name, including by his undergraduate students) was one of those rare teachers who you inevitably remember fondly years down the road. He was also a humble guy; I didn’t know during his courses, for example, that he had been a B-17 gunner in the European theater of WWII. I did know, on the other hand, that he’d been actively involved in organizing protests against every war since, up to and including the present war in Iraq. I remember him telling my Cultures of Native North America class, for instance, of the time he was invited to partake in a peyote ritual with members of the Navajo church. He said that he’d gotten up and began running at right angles (in sort of a giant square pattern), and that it took four adult Navajo men to capture and restrain him until he calmed down. He also told of the time he was served psilocybin mushroom tea by an indigenous medicine woman in rural Mexico. He’d hallucinated that he was inside a soap bubble, and could see the world curved around him. Needless to say, that drew a lot of snickers from the wide-eyed classroom full of undergraduates. But I got the biggest kick out of it, having recently had my first experiences with that same entheogen.

At the end of my last class with Aubrey (I’d taken two), he invited all of us to a barbecue at his home in Tacoma Park. That was definitely one of the most unique experiences I had in college: hobnobbing with my professor and my classmates over cocktails, while our final papers sat on his living room table, waiting to be graded. When we spoke that night he said he was leaving soon to consider a job offer as the curator of ethnography at the national museum of Bhutan, one of the most isolated countries in the world and one where few westerners have ever traveled. As I later learned, that position was not funded as planned and it didn’t work out, but Aubrey still got to enjoy a rare vacation in the Kingdom of Bhutan. A selected autobiography of Aubrey Williams’ work can be found here.

I’ll always remember him for his intelligence, his humility, his passion, and his dedication to his students and his treatment of them as peers. His was truly a life well spent. Rest in peace, Aubrey, and thank you for making a difference in my life.

Professor Aubrey Williams, 1925-2008

Presenting science as art with interactive experiments.

May 11, 2008 on 5:32 pm | In culture, ethics, science | 2 Comments

This year, I’ll make my fourth trip to Black Rock City, Nevada for the annual Burning Man arts festival, which is, to understate, a bacchanalian explosion of radical self-expression. It’s also a pretty wicked extreme camping experience, set on a flat, alkaline plane of dust at 4,000 feet above sea level. Temperatures can soar to 44° C in direct sunlight during the daytime, and drop to around 5° C at night. The elevation causes you to receive a higher dose of UV radiation; this means unprotected skin burns faster. On windy days, there can be sudden gusts at speeds in excess of 120 km/h. All that said, it’s a fantastic experience—visitors are almost certain to witness the most gaudy, gauche, irreverent, and sublimely beautiful art they’ve ever seen. It’s a commerce-free event; although tickets are pricey (it costs a lot to build the city’s temporary infrastructure), nothing is allowed to be bought or sold once you’re inside the city limits. Black Rock City is built rapidly each year, with the overwhelming majority of the work occurring in the week before and the week of the event. The Leave No Trace ethic is fundamental to Burning Man, and each year the federal Bureau of Land Management gives accolades to the Burning Man organization for its remarkably thorough cleanup and restoration efforts.

Another important ethic at Burning Man is participation. It is not a spectator event – the subject/object dichotomy is constantly under attack, and this is generally agreed to be a good thing. However, in each of my past three attendances, I contributed relatively little to the overall interactive wacky-ness of Burning Man. This year I want to do something special to participate, and I have an idea of what it is. I want to perform (and invite onlookers to help me perform) science experiments. The point is to teach the value of skepticism and the scientific method, while having an entertaining time. I haven’t settled on any particular experiments, yet. So, dear readers, here’s where you come in. I need your input!

Please tell me your most memorable childhood experience involving a science experiment. Maybe it was something mom, dad, or a cool aunt or uncle showed you. Maybe it was a science teacher at school doing something wacky in the classroom. Maybe it was something you saw Mr. Wizard do on Nickelodeon. It doesn’t matter where you saw it. I’m looking for the most visual, most thought provoking, and most entertaining experiments you can recall. Once I get at least a short list together, I’ll start performing some of them to get a good idea of how practical they’d be to perform in the desert environment. If I can, I’ll record videos of them and post them here on Survival Machine. If you want to help me perform it (and even appear in the video) just let me know. I’d also gladly welcome video submissions of you performing the experiment yourself. If anyone actually does that, I’ll make a post just to feature your video!

So, brainstorm, and let me know what you remember from the exciting world of science experiments!

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