Friday, February 29, 2008

Synthetic Life

In today's San Francisco Chronicle, the article on the TED conference in Monterey centered on yesterday's speech by Craig Venter. Remember him from the Human Genome Project? The guy who said - and proved, as I remember - that a profit-making organization could beat a non-profit to the goal. Mr. Venter, having followed that up by sequencing his own personal genome, is now trying to build, from scratch, the genome for a "single, sustainable, living cell." Mr. Venter imagines
Imagine an organism that consumes carbon dioxide and can be used to battle global warming.
I have really bad news for Mr. Venter. He's re-inventing the wheel. These organisms already exist - they're called "plants." If he ever came out of his laboratory, he might even see some of them.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Barack Obama and the Turban of Doom

What IS all this flap about the photo of Barack Obama in a traditional African costume, on that visit he made to Kenya in 2006?? Everybody knows about that visit. Everybody knows, as Obama himself pointed out this morning, that when dignitaries of any kind visit countries that have a distinctive traditional dress, the local officials tend to give the dignitary a local outfit as a ceremonial present, and they expect him to put it on and pose for photos.

Apparently the Drudge Report started circulating a rumor that unnamed "Clinton staffers" were sending this photo around as a slam at Obama, citing an (unquoted) email. (No, I'm not going to give a link to the Drudge Report; I got this from an AP article, see the link above. If you want to read the Drudge Report you can Google it.)

Well, so what? Big fat hairy deal. Barack Obama did a photo op in Kenya, and the world is going to come to an end??

The person with a real grievance here is Hillary Clinton, because the accusation that her staff circulated this photo, to get some kind of an edge over Obama, just makes her look small minded and negative, and really really stupid. She may have thrown some negative lines, but she's not small minded and she certainly isn't stupid. Do you suppose Drudge was trying to bring Clinton down??

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Moth Spray

"I'm from the government and I'm here to help you."

The latest incarnation of this terrifying phrase is the California State Dept. of Agriculture's plan to spray the city I live in, Oakland, along with basically the entire rest of the San Francisco Bay Area, with a pesticide meant to combat the light brown apple moth. Every night this summer. And every summer for the next five years. Even though the initial spraying in Santa Cruz and Monterey last year produced hundreds of complaints about coughing, wheezing, muscle aches, eye and throat irritation, and asthma attacks.

We're doing this because the light brown apple moth "can damage" a wide range of agricultural crops and other plants. If we don't do this spraying, it'll destroy California agribusiness. The state, and the USDA, say they are trying to "head off a potential disaster."

Yeah, right. Have we got a widespread infestation of the apple moth? Well, no. They've found a few moths in about 11 counties. Does the apple moth cripple agriculture? Well, not visibly in Australia, where it originated; OK, maybe it has natural enemies there. But it's also been introduced into New Zealand, New Caledonia, the British Isles, and Hawaii. I haven't personally heard of the agricultural industry in those places being crippled by this moth; have I missed something??

Look, they propose to fly crop-dusters over the city of Oakland, at a height of 200 feet or less, and spray a chemical called CheckMate over the city (and about every other city in the Bay Area), every night, all summer. To read a professional analysis of the ingredients of CheckMate, review this article in today's San Francisco Chronicle, from Richard Fagerland, of "Ask the Bugman." It is scary. It is very scary.
The USDA says the amount of pesticide they want to use "shouldn't pose severe health risks." I'd like to know how they determine what health risks are "severe."

I'm an asthmatic; I also have eye problems due to other chronic conditions. I am seriously concerned about my health if I have to live with this crap falling out of the sky for the next five years. There are bills in the California legislature right now to block this spraying, and I think my next step is to go to my legislators' web sites and encourage them to pass those bills.

This is an attempt to protect California agribusiness at the expense of the health of the majority of the northern California urban population. Well, boys, there are more of us than there are of them, and we vote for you. Or we don't; your choice.

Imaginary Monsters

I have a very vivid imagination. Always have had. The trouble with a vivid imagination is that it imagines things you don't really want to consider, and then you can't get them out of your head.

Why do we always imagine disasters? Crime has been really bad in Oakland lately - but I'm a seasoned urban paranoid: I don't walk at night, or with an iPod plugged in, or while talking on a cell phone (all behaviors that increase your likelihood of being mugged). Why then does my imagination create detailed mental scenarios in which I'm being mugged by 10 armed street thugs? (Because, of course, somebody in my neighborhood was mugged by 10 armed street
thugs a couple of weeks ago, while walking home from BART at 10 o'clock at night...) I carefully avoid situations that might get me into trouble - why do I build such detailed mental images of stuff happening to me?

And then there's "medical student syndrome" - you know what I mean. You read about some disease in the newspaper and the next thing you know, you're convinced you have the symptoms. My imagination is convinced that I'm developing some incurable disease that my HMO won't catch. In fact, all my blood tests come back normal and my cholesterol is great (result of going to the gym multiple times a week); the worst thing wrong with me is probably my asthma.

In order to reduce my car insurance premium, I'm taking a "mature driver's safety course" (I think I'm the youngest student in the class). After the first session I'm now convinced that my peripheral vision is shot, my reaction time is practically nil, I can't drive at night, and I'm going to lose my driver's license and have to depend on the Bay Area's crummy public transit. Considered rationally, I'm actually a good, careful, defensive driver; but my imagination is at it again.

It was worse when I was younger; my sister was convinced that clairvoyance ran in the family and that she, and our late aunt, both had it. So of course I wondered if I had it. My parents used to take long driving vacations across the country. While they were gone, I would imagine all sorts of horrific things going wrong with them (car accidents; floods; armed robberies), and then I'd have to take emergency time off work and race to their rescue. These mental images are very real - they trigger adrenaline rushes. Your pulse pounds, you start to sweat, you go into flight-or-fight mode.

After a while, I realized that none of the things I imagined ever happened; I'm a good, careful, defensive driver because that's how my father drove, and that's why he never had any trouble. People who believe in clairvoyance simply haven't kept the records properly - for every disaster they saw coming, they also foresaw fourteen or twenty-seven disasters which never happened. But nobody remembers the clairvoyant predictions that never panned out.

Also, nobody ever seems to be clairvoyant about good things. If clairvoyance is real, why would you not foresee good luck as well as bad? But you never hear about anyone who had a successful premonition that he'd get the good promotion, or win the vacation cruise to Cabo.

When you name something you control it; I finally came up with a name for this syndrome. I called it "manufacturing monsters"; and then I could say to myself, "You're manufacturing monsters again, stop it." And most of the time, that would stop it. In fact for many years, I had only minor problems with it.

Then I hit menopause, and damn if it didn't all come back. But don't ask me - I just live in this brain, I don't understand it.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Book Tag Meme

By virtue of having read this post at Disgusted Beyond Belief's blog, I've been tagged with a meme. Specifically, the book tag requires:

1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the 5th Sentence.
4. Post the next 3 sentences.
5. Tag 5 people.

OK, for the fun of it, I will play the game. Both DBB and the person who tagged him chose to do the meme at a time when they could pick the book, so as to get a "cool" extract. I am sitting at my computer and have chosen a book I could reach, on the shelf next to the computer. Since this is a book my husband picked up in an airport, that I haven't gotten around to reading yet, I have no clue what I'm going to get. Here we go, the prescribed 3 sentences:
"It is important. Where were you?"
"That is none of your concern."
For the curious, the book I pulled for the meme was An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears.

At the moment, I'm going to follow DBB's lead and suggest that if you have read this post, you should consider yourself tagged. I may do some more active tagging later but it's late now.


Courtesy of the Pacific Film Archives, I spent a solid hour this afternoon watching Betty Boop cartoons, and what a treasure those were. If the only cartoons you've ever seen are Disney, or Looney Toons (aka Bugs Bunny), you have no clue what a cartoon can really look like.

The first description
that comes to my mind is "pre-Code". Movies, we all know, have been formally censored since the 1930s - they can't "lower the moral standards" of the audience, they must present "correct standards of life," they must not ridicule "natural or human law." Wikipedia's article on the Hays code, as it's also called, is quite interesting.

We're still living with this code, by the way - the R and X rating of movies that include nudity are directly related to it. And the sanitized cartoons of Disney and Warner Brothers, where only the violence is unrestricted, are related to this. (Nowhere in the code do I see any prohibition of violence. Violence is fine.)

Betty Boop cartoons are not sanitized. Betty is sexy - she has little boobs, she wears short frilly skirts and a strapless top, you can see her garter. In one cartoon, her dress falls down and shows her bra, and she pulls it back up; this happens about 4 times. And she flirts. Since Betty is sexy and flirty, male characters in the cartoons hit on her - often, she's delighted, but in one cartoon, her boss puts the make on her and threatens to fire her if she doesn't cooperate, in a sequence that would get a live human employer convicted for sexual harassment today. But her cartoon boyfriend (a clown) races to the rescue and the sexual assault disappears behind a cloud of cartoon violence.

One of the cartoons had Betty in a cameo role (as a hula dancer in a carnival) in what was actually a Popeye cartoon - that had plenty of violence, with Popeye fighting the evil Bluto for Olive Oyl. But you should have seen Popeye up on the stage doing the hula with Betty - in a grass skirt made of a beard which he pulled off the bearded lady in the next booth.

There were several carnivals in the Betty cartoons, with the usual carny games, and in the carnival in the Popeye cartoon, the "throw the baseball, win a prize" game used a target of a little black boy, a la Black Sambo, whose head was stuck through a hole in the back wall of the booth. You wouldn't see that in a later cartoon; but racism was just part of Betty's world.

Betty Boop cartoons are very musical - specifically, they are jazzy. This was the jazz age, and in a Betty cartoon, the mice and dogs pick up trumpets and blow hot licks, and inanimate objects turn into clarinets and do jazz riffs. I've now seen 2 Betty cartoons (one at the Paramount in Oakland) in which Cab Calloway sings the background - in the one today, he sang the Saint James Infirmary Blues and it was fabulous. In the last cartoon, Ethel Merman (not in animation) sang Let Me Call You Sweetheart in an introductory sequence and then afterward in a "sing along with the bouncing ball" - I've never seen Ethel Merman on film before.

I think of Betty Boop as black and white (if you've seen Who Killed Roger Rabbit? you know what I mean), but they showed one that was done in "cinecolor" - they did Betty as a redhead, for some reason. The story was "Cinderella", interpreted fairly straight (for a Betty cartoon), and it was actually one of the least interesting they showed.

Betty cartoons are fantastical, they're another universe. Inanimate objects get up and dance, and talk back. The rag man in Any Rags goes down the street pulling the uniform off the policeman, and the pants off a guy sleeping behind a tree. Dishes dance on the table. Cats and dogs and fish dance and play jazz. People turn into monsters, and vice versa. Buildings rearrange their fire escapes into roller coaster tracks so Betty and her little boy can have a ride. Some of the characters are human and some aren't. It's a fluid world, in which things don't stay the way they appear for long and you never know what will happen next. But it's a lot of fun.

Monday, February 11, 2008


Courtesy of the Pacific Film Archives, I spent last Saturday afternoon watching a jewel - a print of Speedy, a Harold Lloyd silent comedy from 1928. It must have been one of his last silents - The Jazz Singer came out the year before.

Apart from Lloyd's reliably funny physical comedy, this film had several wonderful benefits: it was set and filmed in New York City, so you get to see what New York City looked like in 1928. There's a whole sequence where Harold ("Speedy") takes his girl to Coney Island, so you get to see what Coney Island looked like in 1928, including the nighttime lights - fabulous! And there's a cameo appearance by Babe Ruth, playing himself (he only appeared in 3 feature films), and a short sequence of a ball game at Yankee Stadium. I mean, what more can you ask? Plus a great live accompaniment by a very accomplished pianist, Mr. Bruce Loeb. In one of those great Berkeley moments, I was discussing the film's views of New York with a trio of Even Older People, and one of the women commented that she was in New York in 1928 - she was in school then! (May I look that good when I get to that age!)

On top of all this, Speedy contains one of the greatest chase sequences I've personally seen in movies. (Do remember that I don't see that many movies, so don't haul out all your great hard-techno action sequences and throw them at me. I don't watch hard-techno movies.) I put this one up there with the chases in Around the World in 80 Days and the Seven Percent Solution, where they were tearing up the (train, boat) and feeding the pieces into the boiler to keep up steam. This one has no boiler, but Lloyd races a horse-drawn street car across New York in the middle of traffic. A better comparison might be Buster Keaton in The General, chasing his train.

We all walked out of the theater smiling, and that's just priceless.

BlackBerry Outage

Sigh - the news brings fond memories of days gone by. When I worked, the entire universe, including me, had BlackBerries. They were so bad some managers forbade people to bring them to meetings, because nobody paid any attention to what was going on in the room. When BlackBerry went down the world ended. I see it ended again today for awhile - in fact, as of around 7:30 ET it was still down with no estimate for a fix. May as well declare tomorrow a holiday - BlackBerry's out. Nobody can work.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Bird Fight

After several weeks of cold clear weather, and cold rainy weather, and cold cloudy weather (ok, ok - cold for northern California! All right??), last week the weather changed and we had warm sunny weather. By "warm", here, I mean, mid-60's! (Yes!)

So in the warm sunny weather I found myself walking home from the transit station last Friday, and I saw the damndest bird behavior I'd ever seen - there were two scrub jays apparently fighting on a lawn:

They were squawking madly at each other, scrabbling around in the grass.

You sort of expect to see birds fighting in the air, yes? I don't know - all I've ever seen scrub jays do is steal food.

They were scratching at each other's stomachs with their feet, and occasionally pecking at each other:

With no particular evidence (scrub jays aren't especially sexually dimorphic), I assume this was a pair of males fighting over a female - there was a third jay sitting on a wire overhead, squawking regularly. I cast that one for the role of female. Could this be some kind of courtship display or are they really fighting over the female?

I got one more picture that looks a little more affectionate, but believe me, the birds weren't acting affectionate:

They kept at it long enough for me to shoot these pictures with my cell phone (I really have to think about getting a functional digital camera); and then they all flew away, including the one on the wire.

If any of my genius readers can confirm what they were doing, I'd appreciate it.

Oh, Yes - the Election

I did vote, even though I hadn't had a decent night's sleep in nearly a week (see the last post). And I've accumulated the following comments on the California election:

I was disappointed that Obama didn't do better, but he didn't do badly, and as I've said before, I will happily back either him or Hillary in the general. The whole process has caused a lot of people to consider the existing electoral process in much more detail than usual, and if we're lucky, this will lead to some changes. Given the comparative turnout on Tuesday between Democrats and Republicans, and given the fact that McCain has so pissed off the "conservative base" that some of the mouthier ones are suggesting they will stay home in November and wait for a "real" conservative to run (you do that, boys; just do it), I think that if the Democrats can avoid any obvious stupidity and neither of the candidates breaks any laws on national TV, we may just have a Democrat in the White House this time next year. And he/she may even visit California from time to time.

Oh, Lord, the proposals. I've gotten so tired of the side effects of trying to run the state budget through the initiative process, that I automatically vote "no" on any proposition that locks up funding for anything on a statewide ballot. You guys in the community colleges, in case you wondered why you lost? That's why. Budgeting should be done in the legislature. (Yes, I know they're incompetent and don't do it; but that isn't the point.)

And I voted against the term limits revision. That's something that does have to be done by initiative, since the original term limits were done that way. Now, I am opposed to term limits. I voted against the original proposition. If we don't like the guy, we get a chance to vote for someone else every 2 or 4 years; and I think it may be useful to elect an occasional Green or Libertarian and let them see how it works firsthand. But term limits (AKA the "get rid of Willie Brown" act) passed, and we're stuck with it - and now the legislators have realized what I could have told them back then: running a state this size is a big job that takes a while to learn. You need more than 4 or 6 years. So why my "no" this time? Because I object to Don Perata and Fabian Nunez writing themselves, and a whole load of their buddies, a "get out of jail free" card in one of the later paragraphs. If they'd just changed the term limits, without trying to keep themselves in power, I would have gone for it. And I'll bet I'm not the only person who reacted that way.

I also voted against all 4 Indian gaming propositions. I voted in favor of the original Indian gaming proposal, and have regretted it ever since. Yes, I realize that Arnold has negotiated an actual slice of the take this time (although I don't think many people realize that it seems to be only of the take from the extra slot machines), as opposed to the pittance that Gray Davis agreed to back when. But this is gambling. Gambling is a tax on the poor; it's even more regressive than a sales tax. Gambling is also an addiction. And I don't think we should be taking our state operating funds out of the hides of the poor and the addicted. If we need more money to run the state, RAISE THE GODDAMN INCOME TAX. Which is a progressive tax, where the less you take in, the less tax you pay, and the converse. We haven't had a serious income tax increase in a dunnamany years, and the state is growing like Jack's beanstalk and running on baling wire and prayer. The trouble is, the unspeakable Republicans will block any tax increase, simply because they can, and because they have no useful ideas of their own except to cut funding for the poor and disabled (who wouldn't ever vote for them anyway).

We are running the state of California on credit, exactly as we're running the U.S.A. on credit, and as we're all running our households on credit (well, with a few exceptions) - and as I've said elsewhere, sooner or later, the bills come due, and if the money isn't there to pay them, what then??


Good heavens, it's been 10 days or more since I last posted! I've been having adventures in the land of medical devices - have you ever had to deal with a CPAP machine??

The short story: last May (10 months ago now) I was diagnosed with possible sleep apnea and took a sleep test. Symptoms? I couldn't drive the 25 minute freeway commute to work without at least 4 or 5 little narcolepsy incidents, where I had to fight desperately to stay awake at the wheel. It took them until July to schedule a review of the test, which meant August since (as we all know) I was in England and Wales in July. (Gloat.)

In the meantime I was sufficiently frightened by my symptoms that I went back to riding BART to work, having discovered that I can now walk the half mile or so to the station in under 20 minutes, my minimum requirement for a transit commute that doesn't take an hour and a half.

So: in August they told me I had "moderate sleep apnea", based on my May test. However, as we also know, between May and August - I retired. My stress level went down by several orders of magnitude; I quit getting up at 5:30 AM; and I quit falling asleep during the day, because I was getting enough sleep at night! I could drive again! I also learned that, with a relatively minor change to my current meds and personal habits, I might be able to deal with this problem without getting a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machine (in case you wondered what is "CPAP"). So I made the changes.

All was wonderful and lovely (as our chorus director puts it) for several months, and then I started occasionally (like, maybe every other week) waking up at night out of a horrific dream, and finding my heart pounding. Hmm, thinks I - can these be apnea episodes? I usually find myself on my back, the "bad" sleeping position. And if so, should I take some action? Maybe I need the CPAP machine after all?

Well, it didn't work out like that. The purpose of a CPAP machine is to blow enough air into your throat to keep your breathing tube open. All night. You wear a mask that looks like something out of World War II, and you hook it to a little motor, using a plastic hose a bit over an inch in diameter, which trails you around like an IV drip. So, first, if you need to sleep in a (relatively) silent room, fugeddaboudit - the thing whirs constantly in your ear. Second, every time you shift position the mask leaks; you're constantly fiddling with the thing. Third, you will find yourself - I found myself - constantly thinking about breathing, which makes it impossible to disengage the mind and fall asleep. Finally, having one of the world's less efficient breathing systems, I found myself hyperventilating, a state I once spent several tedious months of behavioral therapy trying to get out of...

Some people can't sleep without these machines; in fact, some people's possession of a driver's license depends on their being under treatment with CPAP. I found myself facing two options: either sleep normally, and occasionally wake up with my heart pounding - or use the CPAP machine and never sleep again (but get lots of fresh air). This is probably an exaggeration; but I'm told that it takes up to 2 months for some people to adjust, and I just wonder how they survive 2 months without a full night's sleep.

I'm happy to say I've talked to my doctor and he agrees that first, my apnea (if it still exists) seems to be under control with medication, and second, that I'm not adjusting well to the machine. I'm getting another sleep test, and unless it's much worse than I think, or my old symptoms come back, I won't have to have the machine.

Part of my problem was that my introduction to how to use the thing didn't mention anybody ever having any problems with it, so I went into it expecting everything to be fine, and spent an entire night trying to fall asleep and failing. I suppose they're afraid if they tell you the truth, you'll go in expecting it to fail. If I ever do have to use CPAP, I'll need to approach it very differently than I did this time.
Which God (or the Great Lobster) forbid.

And that's why I haven't posted - I couldn't write because I couldn't get enough sleep to think. I don't know if you missed me but I missed you!