2007-12-06

The Neurosociology of Caffeine: Coffee and the Rise of Science in the Western World

I have worked in four university-level graduate research labs in my lifetime--in cognitive science and physical and organic chemistries--and all of them ran on coffee. Each of these labs had organized a "coffee club" among the graduate students, which collectivized buying and preparation of coffee at a designated coffee station somewhere in the lab. Most graduate students I've known drink more than two cups a day, and almost every professional researcher or teacher I've known at least starts the day with a jumbo super-latte or some other coffee concoction.

It's true, scientific research is demanding work, at least on the mental muscles that give patience and persistence, but I think there's more to the institutional coffee jones than simply energy demand: I would go so far as to say that coffee, which may or may not be reduced to caffeine for this purpose, actively conditions the mind for scientific thought. I would not go so far as to say that science can't happen without coffee, but rather that coffee helps people who need to think scientifically do so. One almost never hears, after all, of scientists running on speed or cocaine, even though these are arguably more effective in terms of providing "psychic energy." Certainly there are good reasons why illegal drug use might exist but not be known about among scientists, but my point here is that there really aren't even many stories about this happening, whereas in other professions like trucking and the music industry at least there are persistent rumors. Culturally, various drugs are stereotyped with various professions, and for the profession of science, the drug is coffee. I don't have any good evidence to back up my hunch that coffee causes people to think scientifically, of course--just anecdote, mostly, and a set of interesting historical correlations.

Coffee, like science, comes to us from the Arab world. Coffee plants are native to the highlands of Ethiopa, and evidence of their use in Africa as stimulants dates to the 9th century CE. Italians brought the beverage across the Mediterranean in the 16th century, and it was in this same place and time (1543) that Nicolaus Copernicus published De Revolutionibus, and, by the standards of most historians of science, began the modern scientific revolution. Galileo Galilei, another Italian and a man known as "the father of modern science," appeared in 1564. From Italy, both coffee and the line of "first greats" in science migrate to England. The first English coffee shop opened at Oxford in 1652; Newton published his Principia in 1687. In fact, if we order the major European nations of the time by the opening dates of their first coffee shops, we get Italy (1645), England (1652), France (1672), and Germany (1721).



Major Events in the Introduction of Coffee to Europe


Further, if we plot the milestones of science as an arrow in space and time across the face of Europe, we find the same general ordering. Certainly there are deviations, and even if a statistically valid correlation could be proven it would still be insufficient to claim causality: It may be just as likely that thinking about science makes people want to drink coffee as the reverse, or there may be outside socioeconomic factors driving both phenomena.

In other words, my thinking on this matter is really not very scientific.

Think I'll go get another cup.

On Receiving Certified Mail

Some folks consider themselves "rational persons." I think the phrase is an oxymoron; almost everyone makes most of their decisions emotionally and uses their reason to confabulate. I'm no less guilty--indeed, probably moreso--than the next person. However, I like to think that when I recognize patently irrational decisions (that is, those that tend to minimize expected value) based on emotional impulses, I am capable of bringing them under control.

Yesterday I received one of the pink slips in my mailbox that usually means I have an oversize package waiting at the post office. Today I went to pick it up, and instead of a package was handed a certified letter from the IRS. I was immediately nervous and curious as to why the IRS would be sending me certified mail, so I quickly signed for it and rushed out of the post office to open it in the parking lot. Turns out my tax payment for the 3rd quarter was late and they're adding a $10 penalty, and they certify the notification really just as a matter of policy. It's not as if they're really going to pay a lawyer to go to court to prove that I received this letter and owe them an additional $10.

This is the third or fourth time I've received certified mail in my life, and they've all been letters I'd rather not have received. After all, the only reason people send certified letters is that they want to prove, presumably in court, that you've received whatever it is they sent you, i.e. that you are aware of the contents of their letter and cannot reasonably claim otherwise. So the very fact of receiving a certified letter lets me know it contains something I might want to someday deny having knowledge of.

So why do I keep signing for them? When you get a certified letter, the smart thing to do is to put down the pen and walk away and let the post office or mail carrier keep it. The only reason people continue to sign is that they're frightened and curious and don't want to have to worry for two weeks about what was in the letter in the first place. But you're really doing your enemies a favor by signing, and if their beef is really important you'll find out about it eventually, whether you sign the letter or not. Smarter by far to not sign and see if they go away.

2007-11-28

Fountains of Wayne

...is the name of a lawn-ornament store in Wayne, New Jersey. It bears the distinction, in my opinion, of being the most culturally significant lawn-ornament store in the world. The name, "Fountains of Wayne" has a ring to it, and it's not hard to imagine the lightly stoned conversation of a couple of aspiring young rockers driving past on Route 46: "Check it out, dude--Fountains of Wayne. That would make a great band name." Those guys would go on to record the somewhat corny, but nonetheless successful, one-hit wonder "Stacy's Mom" in 2003. I became familiar with them through their less-well-known "Red Dragon Tattoo," a significant leitmotif in Stephen King's americanized adaptation of the miniseries Kingdom Hospital, and catchy enough to inspire me to run it down on the web. It sat on my iPod for months ("Red Dragon Tattoo -- Fountains of Wayne 3:32") before I happened to notice, while watching episode 5 of season 3 of The Sopranos ("Another Toothpick"), that the lawn-ornament store at which Tony bumps into the traffic cop who's been run off the force after giving him a ticket is named "Fountains of Wayne." It's really a fairly significant location in Tony's story, because it's one of the few places where the mafioso we all hate to love shows emotions resembling what most of us would recognize as guilt or remorse. The name of the store is only briefly visible in an establishing shot, and would be lost on anyone who hadn't been primed to recognize its significance. I guess I'm sort of proud for catching this, honestly, and it really makes me want to visit the store and talk to the staff about its bizarre pop-cultural significance. To its credit, the store's website mentions neither the eponymous band nor the episode of the Sopranos which was filmed there.

2007-10-17

Interactive Fiction and the Rebirth of the Second Person

Interactive fiction is any narrative which is at least partly determined by one or more choices on the part of the audience. It can be extremely rudimentary, as in Frank R. Stockton's famous "The Lady or The Tiger"--in which the author sets up two equally likely but diametrically opposed endings and terminates the story without concluding one or the other, leaving the outcome to the reader's imagination--or extremely sophisticated, as in the modern computerized interactive fiction of Emily Short--in which the reader is prompted at each step to direct the decisions of the protagonist and may do so using typed commands in natural language (descended from the classic Infocom adventure games like "Zork"). Other variations include Ayn Rand's play "Night of January 16th" (in which audience members vote democratically to determine the outcome), DVDs which include the ability to choose between alternate endings, and the much-beloved "Choose Your Own Adventure" (CYOA) books of my youth. Many permutations of techniques and media can be imagined.

Very often (albeit not necessarily), interactive fiction is written in the second person "you" voice, which is generally rejected by authors of traditional fiction due to its artificiality. Although a competent fiction author will never tell the reader how to feel, he or she is more or less obliged to describe some action on the part of the protagonist, and if that protagonist is the reader, as the second person implies, the author almost inevitably ends up telling the reader how he or she will or did respond to certain events. This is insulting to most adult readers, who, one would hope, know their own minds and hearts better than any author ever will. The 2nd person can work in certain situations, for instance "guided meditation" narratives, in which the reader has made a conscious decision to be suggestible. But generally speaking, requiring readers to suspend personal will as well as disbelief is asking too much.

Interactive fiction takes some of this burden off the second-person pronoun. By allowing readers to choose actions for themselves, the author can limit his or her prose, at least, to simply describing the setting, events, and actions of other characters. Authorial intrusion persists in the definition of the alternatives (which, as E. E. Schattschneider reminds us, "is the supreme instrument of power.") which the reader may choose, but at least on the surface the air of mind-control is gone. In truth, this superficial remedy is rarely satisfying to a mature mind, which knows a rigged game when it sees one, and thus second-person interactive fiction typically ends up being regarded more as a game or puzzle, or as children's fare, than as serious literature. Also, the extent to which the form facilitates ready connections between choices and consequences makes it ideal for instructional purposes, and this only serves to exacerbate the just-for-kids aura. An interesting counter-example here, from the adult world, is John Antal's "Armor Attacks: The Tank Platoon: An Interactive Exercise in Small-Unit Tactics and Leadership," which is basically a CYOA book to help prepare calvary officers for combat decision making. But even the original children's CYOA books, although clearly written mostly for entertainment purposes, contain a certain didactic overtone, best exemplified by a quote from the Page 1 "Warning" common to all of the books:

"From time to time as you read along, you will be asked to make a choice. Your choice may lead to success or disaster! The adventures you take are a result of your choice. You are responsible because you choose! After you make your choice, follow the instructions to see what happens to you next. Remember--you cannot go back!"

I think Edward Packard, who popularized the form, would agree that while the stories may be pure fluff, there is a certain moral inherent in the form itself, which, of course, is that the reader, a child, is responsible for the outcomes of his or her actions. Certainly an important life lesson, but here we have, accidentally, uncovered a potential stylistic flaw in the CYOA genre, which probably results from tension between the drive to entertain and the drive to instruct. If the lesson is one of responsibility, then clearly there should be strong causal connections between the reader's choices and the outcomes for the story, so that the reader is encouraged to think ahead about what the potential consequences of a certain course might be. But very often in the genre one finds a causal disconnect between choices and outcomes; an example, here, from Packard's "The Mystery of Chimney Rock" will serve to illustrate:

On p. 38, the reader, while searching for his or her mischievous cousin in a haunted house, and having been confronted by the witch who owns the place and who, in the guise of a kindly old woman, offers cheese and crackers, has chosen not to take "candy from strangers" and instead to run away. The witch then instructs her maid to block the reader's escape, but the maid rebels and denounces the witch and tries to lead the reader out of the house. At this critical junction the reader is asked to choose between immediate escape with the maid and returning to rescue his or her cousin Jane, who has been trapped in another part of the house. If the reader chooses to escape immediately, he or she finds a policeman waiting outside the house, that Jane has already escaped on her own, and that the witch has died of a heart attack and the curse on the house is thereby (somehow) lifted. On the other hand, if the reader chooses to go back and rescue Jane, he or she finds Jane waiting in the hallway and escapes together with her and the maid as before. This time, however, there is no policeman, the witch is not dead, and the cat which is the witch's familiar (or were-form) stalks them menacingly as they flee into the night, suggesting that they may not have seen the last of the curse.

Now, while one could argue about which is "the right" choice for a child in this situation, that debate misses the point altogether: Jane escapes regardless of the reader's choice to try to rescue her or not, and the only difference between the outcomes of the two choices is that in one the curse is lifted and in the other it is not. But there's not really any conceivable causal connection between the reader's choice to escape immediately or to try to rescue Jane and either of these two outcomes, which are thus basically random. The message of the medium is that one has a choice, but the message of the content is that those choices make no difference as to what actually happens, and that one might as well choose randomly. This, patently, is opposed to the spirit of the enterprise, and particularly if the point is to impress the importance of careful decision making.

But even if the goal is merely entertainment, such a disconnect between medium and content remains aesthetically offensive. To make the point, imagine the kind of extreme deterministic mockery of a CYOA book, complete with many possible choices of routes through the pages, all of which lead to exactly the same outcome by exactly the same story. The reader is offered choices and may make them, but none of them make any difference to the course of the story. And while there may be a certain amusing philosophical irony in the presentation of the illusion of choice while denying its actuality, the reader of such a book is nearly certain to feel put upon and insulted. (More amusing, perhaps, is the possibility of an anti-didactic CYOA book which, in the spirit of some of Shel Silverstein's "children's" poems, consistently rewards bad behavior and punishes good.)

These "gimmicky" approaches to the problem of a mature CYOA book may be clever and perhaps very amusing, but truly would not rise much above the level of elaborate jokes. To achieve my longstanding goal of writing a CYOA book that could succeed as serious fiction, for adults, a more fundamental strategy is required. And that, in spite of the title and direction of this essay, is to drop the second-person voice, and write in the third-, where the "rigged game" effect becomes no more of a problem than in normal non-interactive fiction. The first person may offer some interesting possibilities, as well, with the narrator acting as the reader's "agent" in the fictional world and reporting back the outcomes of his assignments. This agent would have a character all his own, and might choose to obey or ignore the reader's choices for his own reasons, or likewise to accurately or inaccurately report the outcomes of those choices.

Finally, my conclusions about the second person for serious interactive book-fiction purposes should not be taken to imply that I think second-person interactive fiction in general is a lost cause. In fact, I think quite the opposite. It is probably fair to speculate that second-person interactive fiction can succeed to the extent that it presents the reader with a realistic level of choice. Given the infinity of futures that spiral away from every instant of reality, however, I find it difficult to imagine that this goal can be achieved in the format of a book. But computer-based interactive fiction is another matter entirely. It is conceivable, indeed some would argue commonplace today, for a computerized universe to offer sufficient choice on the behalf of the "reader" at every moment to escape the impression that things cannot unfold otherwise than as they do. To do so, contemporary computerized interactive fictions turns increasingly to rule-based reality simulation and multi-user participation. It might even be argued that MMORPGs like Everquest, Second Life, and EVE constitute interactive fiction in its highest state of development to date. And there is no fundamental reason why these graphically-intensive universes could not be implemented textually, thus overcoming the reservations of those who would argue that fiction requires written language.

2007-10-09

Operation Overkill: Blast From The Past

When I was but a wee lad of 12 or 13, I was a huge dork (imagine!): glasses, braces, zits, the works. Lacking friends, I spent much of my free time fiddling with computers, which in those days meant crude graphics or just text in applications that ran from the MS-DOS command line. I loved computer adventure games, and I played many of the old Infocom text classics as well as a couple of Sierra's graphical adventure series.

But my favorite of all computer pass-times was BBSing; I had ordered a printed list of BBS numbers all over the country, arranged by area code, from the back of some magazine (probably "Popular Science") and although there were only six or so of the fifteen odd numbers listed for 214 that actually worked, I soon found that all you really needed was one good one to get started. BBSers advertise with other BBSers, and if you find your way onto one big board it's no problem to come back with dozens of active numbers from its forums.

One of the active numbers from my catalog turned out to be for a BBS which existed solely to operate, advertise, and test an online "door game" called Operation: Overkill. For those who don't know the term, "door games" were some of the first online multi-user dimensions (MUDs). In Overkill, the players coexisted in a massive virtual post-apocalyptic world represented on a series of very large maps. A player character who was not online at the moment was "camping," and if you camped in a city you were safe, but if you camped out in the open anybody who happened along could attack you, and if they won they ensuing combat, take all your stuff. Player vs. player combat was an element from the beginning. The environment was full of resources and monsters and the currency was water. The baddest of the bad guys was "Overkill" himself, and if you successfully killed him you got the baddest of all weapons (the "Devastator") and essentially had "won" the game. The entire experience was text-based, with the only hint of graphics in the ASCII- and ANSI-art splash screens that came up when the game started.

I loved that game, and its sequel, Operation: Overkill ][, with all my heart. It's been nearly 20 years since I dialed that number, but I still remember that the prefix was 669. The Overkills had been written and the BBS was operated by a bright young fellow named Dustin Nulf, and at the time I started coming around he was just making the transition from the original Overkill to Overkill ][. I played both games, using the handle Become Death, because I knew from some movie that "the man who invented the atomic bomb" (of course I had no idea of his name, nor that to describe the bomb as the invention of one man was idiotic) had supposedly said, on witnessing its fury, "I am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds." It would be many years before I would learn that this man was Robert Oppenheimer, and that he'd actually been quoting the Bhagavad Gita, rather than just making up some cold-ass shit to say to a motherfucker before he blew up his country. But it was an appropriate name, given the post-nuclear holocaust setting of Overkill, and although I got several sounds-like-a-brand-of-bug-spray type jokes at the time, I was gratified to learn, years later, that the German progressive metal band Symphorce had thought the name wicked enough to bestow on their 6th album.

As geeked out as I was about Overkill (bordering on obsessed), I ended up getting involved in a number of hare-brained projects that revolved around the game. The first and most successful was the creation of several ANSI and ASCII-art splash screens like those used in the game. At first I made some ASCII ray guns and so forth like those in the original Overkill splash art, but with the advent of OO][, which was ANSI-enabled, I moved on to ANSI-type art. My triumph was a bright red-and-orange nuclear fireball with the words OVERKILL II imposed upon it. I was proud of this creation, and bold enough to e-mail it to Dustin Nulf himself. His response was enthusiastic and encouraging; he put the fireball splash up on the game and told me to send in any more I had like it. Glowing from his praise, I went on to make a couple more screens, including one with a large black-and-yellow radiation trefoil and one featuring a two-handed ray gun in profile that was intended to be the Devastor.

On a lark, I recently went Googling to see if I could find any information about what became of Dustin Nulf and the Operations: Overkill. Somewhat to my surprise, the game still has a signficant web presence, and its own enthusiast's website at www.operationoverkill.com. Apparently there's even a web-based Overkill portal in the offing; I already set up an account there, using my old handle, and as soon as it goes live you can bet I'll be putting down Everquest 2 and EVE for awhile to revisit their humble text-based roots and my own early adolescence. Overkill is maybe the only part of it I'd ever care to remember.

More surprising, still, than finding others like myself who remembered and loved the game, was finding that my original ANSI splash art had actually survived in the collective digital memory these past twenty years, when I myself had long since lost track of it, probably discarding it in a box of ancient 5.25" floppy disks when I first moved out of my parents' house more than a decade ago. All of the bundled OO][ splash art, including three of mine, are on display here, albeit without proper accreditation and not in their original ANSI format (which modern web browsers do not display). I've uploaded the images that are mine, here, in case that site ever goes down.


Sometime soon, when I get a minute, I'm gonna find an ANSI editor that's been ported to Windows and recreate the nuclear blast image in its original format. It takes special software to look at ANSI art these days, but the principle of the thing is important to me. I might even go so far as to make myself a mosaic tabletop based on the same pattern, but probably without the words.

That might look a little weird.

2007-10-04

Bright Moon on the Rise

This post has moved. Thanks for your interest!

2007-09-14

An Observation About Perception of Color

The visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum covers the continuum of wavelengths between about 800 and about 350 nm (nanometers). In terms of energy, which is inversely proportional to wavelength, this is a progression from lesser to greater energy. And here there is an interesting disconnect between the way humans perceive color and the physical truth of the matter. School kids learn the mnemonic

R O Y G B I V

that is, the man's name, "Roy G. Biv," giving the colors of the rainbow in order from longest to shortest wavelength, which is the same as saying from lowest to highest energy. The interesting part comes from the observation that our perception of color is really circular rather than linear, more like

R O Y
V G
I
B

which is supposed to represent a circle. Perhaps a real image is called for:


The important thing to note is that we don't perceive the break in energy that comes between RED and VIOLET in the physical world. On the color wheel, our perception of the difference between, say, GREEN and YELLOW, is equivalent to our perception of the difference between RED and VIOLET; in energetic terms, however, green and yellow may only differ by tens of nanometers, whereas RED and VIOLET differ by hundreds. Anywhere on the continuum between ORANGE up to INDIGO, the infinitesimal difference we perceive between any two adjacent colors is truly minimal, in terms of energy, while at some point between RED and VIOLET, on the other hand, the same infinitesimal difference of perception is actually a maximal difference of energy, at least so far as visible frequencies are concerned. Perhaps the simplest way to express it is to say that we perceive the spectrum as a circle when in terms of measurable physical parameters it is a line.

Now the real challenge: Having observed this discrepancy, what we might call a "discontinuity" of perception, can we imagine a way to exploit it in a useful invention?

My first thought: we have two colors between violet and red which are infinitesimally different, which amounts to imperceptibly different, to the human eye, yet are dramatically different in terms of energy, which electronic devices should be able to detect. So if we oscillate a signal between those two optical frequencies we should be able to transmit data in the optical range in a way that is invisible to the human eye yet readily machine-readable. So we could have a light flashing coded information that a machine could detect but which would appear to be constantly shining to the human eye. Now, what good is that?

I dunno yet. Visual radiation has the advantage that the atmosphere is generally transparent to its propagation (which is why our eyes have evolved to see it). but so do radio and lots of other invisible waves. So the key is that we want a signal that is necessarily visible for some reason, but in which machine readable information can be transmitted invisibly. What is the application?


2007-07-05

Sony Everquest II Customer Support Nightmare

A month or so ago I had to stop playing EQII, as the system stopped allowing me to log on. I believe it's a billing problem with the credit card on file but I don't know for sure because I have *never* received any communication from Sony regarding why my service was cancelled. I tried to log-in and check/update my billing info but I couldn't remember my password and had to reset it. I never received the e-mail containing the new password. I reset it several times and still never received the new one. I was told that it might be an issue with my Yahoo e-mail address; I turned off all spam filtering and message blocking to my Yahoo account and tried again, several times, and still did not receive any e-mails. I tried to resolve the issue by live chat but found that I couldn't log on without the password that I apparently couldn't receive by e-mail. I tried to create an entirely new station account so I would be able to talk to the live chat people. I did so, and when I tried to use it to log on to live chat I was told that it could not be verified and was not allowed to log on. I finally caved in and called SOE's voice number in San Diego, which is NOT an 800 number so I had to pay for it, and after navigating the voice mail system that told me repeatedly to do all the things I'd already done was finally allowed to talk to a human being. I told him the whole story and he was helpful and I spelled out my ID and e-mail over the phone and he found the account but finally refused to provide my password unless I could provide the last 4 digits of the mastercard I used to open the original account, which has expired and long since been destroyed. I don't have to provide the credit card number to reset my password online, but suddenly when I call by voice I do? And all of this because Sony seems unable to send an e-mail to my Yahoo address, in spite of the fact that I receive automated replies from other companies and services at that e-mail address constantly. In a crowning and glorious irony, I did receive an e-mail customer support satisfaction survey following my phone call. It is the first e-mail I have successfully received from Sony since the whole fracas began. Absolutely unbelievable.

2007-06-17

Octagonal Picnic Table

For her birthday this year, Dad bought Mom a beautiful cedar gazebo to go out by the pool, replacing an ugly blue canvas tent that had stood there since they'd purchased the house 6 years ago. Appointed the task to furnish it, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to construct one of the octagonal picnic tables I'd long admired, ever since first encountering one in the outdoor picnic area in front of Book People, where I used to work. I looked around on the web, and was pleased to find free plans for a very similar model available at BuildEazy.com.




Dad and I followed their plan very closely; the only change we made was to double up each table leg to enhance the symmetry of the finished design. We had to buy two additional 8-ft 2x4s to accomodate this modification. The stain we used, the same as that with which the gazebo itself had been finished, was sprayed on, and the excess wiped off with rags The project took about 20 man-hours.

2007-05-31

I Knew This Kid

I've been in Austin for almost a decade now. For most of that time, my favorite haunt was a campus-area punk-rock coffee shop named Mojo's Daily Grind. Owned and operated by Wade Beasley (scion of local aristocrat Roger Beasley's car dealership dynasty), who lived in rooms above the shop, Mojo's was a den of disenfranchised junkies, failed rock stars, and other countercultural wannabes. I met more than one girlfriend there, and over the years Mojo's saw me at my best and at my worst, but moreso the latter than the former. A couple of years ago Wade got fed up with the place and sold out to some dumbass frat boy with a bunch of Daddy's money who promptly fired all the help, ran off all the regulars, and tried to make the place "respectable." Of course he ran it into the ground. One or two other buyers came along and tried to save the place but the damage was done and Mojo's finally went down for the count with a massive party on New Year's Eve 2006. A bunch of the staff have opened a kind of spiritual successor called Epoch in a different location, and although I've never been there I've heard good things. But that's not the point at all.

The point here is to talk about Toby.

He showed up around the turn of the millenium, a fresh-faced young kid who surfaced among the gritty Mojo's regulars. Strikingly good-looking and baby-faced, Toby quickly became a sort of Mojo's mascot--he was always around and everybody loved him. I think he was 16 or so when he first started coming around. And for two or three years it went on that way--Toby was just a fixture, always running around, always in the background, always good for a laugh or a smart-ass remark. And that was it; I never paid too much attention to him, except perhaps to be annoyed by his easy charisma. I think the first time I spoke to him it was sharply; I was losing a game of chess against a former roommate when Toby sidled up and sat down. He said a few words to Matt, my opponent, and turned his attention to the game. It looked as though he meant to watch, and I didn't want him to. I asked him to go away, he resisted, and I got a bit meaner. I don't remember exactly what I said but I do remember his response, as Matt exploited my last lousy move to capture a rook: "You better wipe it off and play some chess, boy."

Even then it made me smile, a bit. He had spirit.

In fact, as I would eventually find out, Toby was good for quite a bit more than random snappy comebacks. If you wanted weed, Toby would hook you up. If you wanted mushrooms, Toby would hook you up. Acid? Toby knows a guy. Cocaine or speed? You bet. Heroin? Let's not get crazy now. But even then, if you were a real friend, and not just a client, Toby might be able to help you out. Suddenly it began to make sense how he could spend all his time just hanging around. Hell, Mojo's wasn't just a hangout for him--it was an office.

More than once, over the years, the Austin PD came sniffing around and the management threatened to ban Toby from the premises. But they never did, as far as I know, and if they did it never lasted very long. He eventually became more cautious, anyway, and although you could still meet up with him there to set up a deal, it would always go down somewhere else.

Bit by bit, details of Toby's life slipped out into the open: His father was an itinerant tattoo artist who lived in some other state. His mother was local but had kicked him out of the house and was not speaking to him. He had a sister, whom his mother doted on, with whom he did not communicate. He had been gang-raped as a young teenager by a bunch of hillbillies in a pickup truck. He would sometimes burn himself with cigarettes on purpose.

Besides dealing, Toby held down a job, for a while, at a local adult video store that survived from the 1970s, complete with jizz-encrusted coin-operated video booths in the back. I used to go up there and sit with him in the small hours and talk about life, the universe, and everything. He was really quite intelligent, but regrettably uneducated. That video store thing lasted until the owner figured out he was dealing from there on the side and fired him.

Toby's decline really began, in my mind, with a traumatic break-up with some hot little number who had captured his heart, and whose name I cannot rememeber for the life of me. They were together a relatively long time, all things considered, and Toby was truly in love. She left him for another man and he became consumed with hatred and jealousy. For weeks his every word was about her. He had elaborate and perverse schemes for revenge upon her, none of which, thankfully, ever came to fruition.

It was sometime later that I learned he was living on the street. He would still appear around Mojo's, but he favored it less. Instead, one might find him at any point along the stretch of Guadalupe street between 15th and 29th Austinites know as "The Drag." He seemed to always be hanging out in some doorway, rapping with the college kids and the so-called "drag-rats"--itinerant punk rockers who panhandled for money along the busy commercial sidewalks. For a while he even had a job at a video arcade, but that didn't last either. He used to steal food from various fast food establishments by claiming to be an aggrieved college kid whose order had been flubbed earlier in the day. Apparently this scheme was so successful for him that he eventually wore it out when all the restaurants in the area got wise to him.

I don't know exactly when he became addicted to heroin. He was using coke while he was working at the video store, I knew, but he claimed that he was not shooting it. The transition to needle abuse was stark and shocking. Suddenly Toby was not so fresh-faced anymore. He sported a septum piercing and went weeks without bathing or changing clothes; he looked like a GI who had spent the last month fighting guerillas deep in the jungle, and smelled worse. He was still a good looking kid and had little problem picking up a girl every now and again who would let him stay with her for a week or so, but eventually they always kicked him out. Besides the usual track marks, his skin developed streaks of carbuncles from whatever other nasty side crap was in the black tar he was shooting, sometimes together with cocaine in a suicidal cocktail called a "speedball."

I let him stay overnight in my apartment and use my shower, once, during this phase, and he gave me a small cheap plastic cross on a string given him by some church homeless outreach program. I still have it. He used my shower and slept on my floor but complained in the morning of stomach troubles, which he bitterly regretted having ruined a rare night indoors. He shot up in my bathroom, against my wishes, while I looked on anxiously to see if I was going to have to call an ambulance. In the grip of the drug, his head lolled against the countertop and he simply knelt there, nodding, for a very long time.



He had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, he told me that night, and he was paid some kind of relief check by the state but it could not come to him directly as he had no address. It went, instead, to his mother, who kept it for herself. He went through one of my stacks of magazines and traced the outlines of the models' faces with a heavy black marker; this was what he called "drawing," and he claimed that it calmed him tremendously. He said that he went once to whatever bureau was paying his disability and tried to have the checks transferred to a friend's address, but the voices in his head and in the busy office had overwhelmed him and he'd run back to safety in the street.

I never knew, for certain, how much of what he said was true. As with most homeless kids, you had to be prepared to be manipulated if you dealt with him. I was usually smart enough to spot this, and I did not let it bother me. I know that Toby liked me genuinely because I helped him without conditions and continued to treat him with respect even when he himself did not believe he deserved it. I resolved that I would let Toby scam me, if he needed to, thinking at the time that I'd rather live with having been played for a fool than with having denied aid and comfort to a person in dire need. Sometimes by whatever machinations he would procure a hotel room for a night or two, and in these cases he always called me in a celebratory mood, and I would make some excuse why I was just too busy to come hang out with him. His apperance became genuinely shocking, and I expected him to turn up dead very soon.

It was around this time, I think, that the mural was painted. Appearing on the north wall of what was then a GAP outlet on the southwest corner of Guadalupe and 24th streets, the mural, similar to an older painting at Renaissance Plaza further south along the Drag, seemed intended to represent a "slice of life" from Austin's busy street culture. There were college students with their books and sports, there were musicians with their instruments, and down in the right corner, leaning up against the frame, there was a street kid who looked EXACTLY like Toby had, before the needle changed him. I don't know if the artist knew him personally, but I rather doubt it; it was simply that Toby had become such a fixture on the Drag that he was part of its archetype. I wonder even today if the artist knew she was painting a real person.




He's still up there, immortalized as he was in his late teens, wearing baggy clothes and a sentry cap, trying to look tough in spite of the softness of his eyes and the smoothness of his skin. I walk past him every day on my way to the lab, and every time I notice him, it strikes me as fitting that the street remembers him even when most of the passersby do not. It's as if Toby's suffering burned so brightly that, like an atomic blast, it cast his shadow in the place where he lived and etched it there forever.

Toby may still be alive somewhere. The last time I heard from him he called from a motel to say that he was leaving town, and going to stay with his father. The call was interrupted halfway through when my cell phone cut out. He did not call back. I hope very much that it was true, and that he found his Dad and got straightened out. I hope that his Dad turned out to be the person Toby dreamed he would be. I hope that, whoever he is, he managed to love Toby unconditionally, and in so doing give him at least a taste of what a real family is like. I hope that Toby, himself, has hope again.

But I rather doubt it. In all likelihood, Toby is dead or in jail, and all that remains of his youthful promise is his accidental portrait on the wall of what is now a Wachovia Financial. And in the end even that, someday, will be covered over, lost beneath a thousand painted logos. When that happens, not even the street will remember him anymore. I will be the only one.

2007-05-30

Ethyl Acetate Intoxication?

Ethyl acetate is a small organic molecule used as a solvent in paints, varnishes, glues, and other consumer products. It has an intense fruity-sweet smell that can burn the nose if too strong. Notably less toxic than acetone, which it has fairly recently supplanted as the standard solvent in nail polish remover, ethyl acetate is rapidly and very completely hydrolyzed in the body to produce acetic acid and ethanol which, as my sophomore organic instructor pointed out, is like having a salad and a beer.

So given that EtOAc, as organic chemists abbreviate it, turns into vinegar and alcohol in the body, would it be safe to use as an alcohol replacement? An untaxed and unregulated source of drunkeness? As a man of age and at least modest wealth, my interest is only academic; I could get Everclear if I wanted to buy it. I'm just curious: Are there street kids somewhere who drink nail polish remover to get drunk? The one fatal case of ethyl acetate exposure I could find in the literature (For Sci Int, 154(2005) 92-95) involved a worker, standing over a tank full of it, who passed out from the fumes and fell in. His body was found at the bottom the next day, and even after pickling in the stuff overnight there was still 50 times more ethanol in his blood than there was ethyl acetate. An MSDS from a notable manufacturer of ethyl acetate lists the substance as an inhalation hazard due to the risk of anoxia (i.e. you can suffocate if there's so much EtOAc in the air you can't get oxygen) without known or expected carcinogenicity, and as safe to handle without gloves. It is flammable, of course, but then so is ethanol.

Unlike ethanol, of course, EtOAc is not infinitely soluble in water. But it is sufficiently so (about 10% by volume) to make esterwine or esterbeer that should be approximately as potent as its ethanolic counterpart. Without any rigorous studies demonstrating the safety of such a procedure, I would not like to see anyone try it as a result of reading this. But I am curious enough that I might someday try it myself using ultrapure laboratory solvent as a precaution against trace nasties.

2007-05-11

X-Mom


This is my mother, Alecia Ragan. While undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer at an advanced research facility in Dallas, Texas, she was exposed to COSMIC RAYS and developed SUPER-POWERS!

It's the truth.

Mom had thyroid cancer when I was a wee lad, and beat it, or so everyone thought. A couple of years ago it was discovered the cancer had survived. She underwent treatment with radioactive iodine at a hospital in Dallas, during which time she was sequestered in a radiation ward and we were not allowed to visit her. They had to dispose of her urine as both a biological and a radiological hazard. The treatment, though unpleasant, was successful and the cancer was beaten. A side-effect, however, was that Mom developed a hypersensitive olfactory ability--SUPER SMELL! She'd always had a pretty good sniffer, but now it's nearly supernatural.

Like all super-powers, Mom's super-sniffer has been both blessing and curse. On the one hand, she loves to cook and her new hypernose has enhanced her appreciation for the fragrant aromas involved; on the other, she couldn't sleep on her fancy expensive Tempurpedic mattress for several months after purchase because of the VOCs it outgassed; most people can't even detect this smell after a week. I certainly couldn't. Likewise, the smell of potpourri or artificial air freshener is so strong that it sickens her, and she cannot stay indoors with it. This has caused more than one embarassment at a party.

Still, in spite of the hardships fostered by her newfound ability, Mom continues to use her powers for good. Perhaps next Mother's Day I'll get her a costume.

2007-04-06

Minimalist Accent Lamp


The outlet is wired to a wall-switch, as is common in apartments and condominia. The "lamp" consists entirely of the outlet-to-socket converter from the hardware store for $1. The bulb is a low-power compact flourescent that generates lots of light but very little heat. The bottom plug can be used normally.

2007-03-29

Cel Has One L, Dammit

The 1990s saw the coining of the phrase "cellular telephone" and its inevitable contraction "cel." We all know this word: "What's your cel number?" "Call me on my cel!" "My cel's ringing; hold on."

Some perverts, however, seem to think this contracted word, when written out, should be spelled with two Ls, as "cell," having the same spelling as the word used quite broadly to indicate closed systems with distinct boundaries in biology, electricity, architecture, entomology, and aeronautics, among others. "Cell" returns 12 significant meanings at dictionary.com, whereas "cel" returns only 1, which is the noun referring to a transparent piece of celluloid used in the graphic arts, especially animation. If only for the sake of lightening the load on "cell," it makes sense to adopt "cel" to contract "cellular telephone."

But there are other reasons. "Cell" is not a contraction of any kind of longer word when used in its pre-wireless sense. When referring to the unit of biological structure or the room for containing a prisoner, we do not imply that the term we choose is aural shorthand for a longer, multisyllabic, more difficult phrase, as we do with hold-on-my-cel-is-ringing. And the natural place to contract "cellular" is at the syllable, between the Ls, as we would when breaking the word across lines on a page. Some might argue that since "cellular" is derived from "cell" we should contract "cellular" as "cell," but that misses some subtle points of etymology. "Cellular" may be derived from "cell," but when we contract "cellular telephone" we're not making the logically reverse adjective-to-noun derivation--we're just shortening a cumbersome phrase.

What's more, "cell" already has an established meaning in the field of wireless communications, viz. the geographical area covered by an individual antenna in a "cellular network."

Finally, there's the argument from Occam's razor: "cel" uses fewer letters and thus less ink and less space on the page or screen. The extra L is "done in vain," and while force of habit and concerns regarding clarity might excuse (if not justify) its presence in the traditional uses of "cell," if we're going to coin new uses for the sound we might as well spare the extra letter and emphasize both the novelty and contractive origins of the word with "cel."

2007-03-12

The Role of Isolation in Penology Under Social Contract Theory

Crudely, from the contractarian point of view, the criminal is one who has violated his obligations under the implied "contract" into which citizens enter by virtue of their participation in society. Turnabout being fair play, the obligations of society toward the criminal are likewise nullified by his violation. Now comes the humanitarian crisis: What are we to do with one whom we are no longer obliged to treat as a citizen? History provides scores of apalling answers, but I propose that which is simultaneously most effective and most humane (and most rational, from the contractarian viewpoint), which is simply imposed exclusion from society in general. Note that I do not say "polite society" or "the society of the governed" or "civilized society;" by "society in general" I intend not any particular society but society itself. I mean to say, i.e., that the proper punishment for crime is total isolation from the rest of humanity for a period of time suitable to the severity of the crime: No family, no friends, no guards, no lawyers, no other inmates. No visits, no conversations, no telephone calls, no letters, no e-mails. The cruelty of such treatment is not to be underestimated, and its value over the present penal system, which does not so much exclude the prisoner from society as introduce him to a new one, should be obvious. As a society, prisoners can adapt to the challenge of prison; all that's required for the individual is that he or she learn to play by a new set of rules. Witness here the gang phenomenon. As individuals, however, isolated prisoners are simply shunned. Their only hope for belonging is a return to proper society, and the only means to that end is reconciliation with its rules. Maintaining an environment of monkish isolation for every prisoner of course increases expense, but this could be recovered by releasing consensual criminals (i.e. those convicted of consensual crimes). Prisoners who truly do not understand what civilization requires of them are rare indeed; unwillingness, rather than ignorance, is the rule, and it should be the function of punishment to provide incentive for assimilation by promoting the need to belong.

2007-02-26

The Literature of Spam

The more I consider the huge volumes of spam that saturate the intertubes every day, and the ongoing battle between spammers and spam-fighters which drives the former to produce better algorithms for writing "realistic" human prose and the latter to produce better algorithms for identifying it, the more I believe we are approaching a literal manifestation of the old thousand-monkeys-at-a-thousand-typewriters concept. The difference is that spam-monkeys aren't just punching random keys--they're using sophisticated heuristics to write properly-constructed sentences and paragraphs that are at least grammatically meaningful. One of these days, simply by the law of probability, one of them really is going to produce the complete works of William Shakespeare, or something equally profound. The irony is that no one may ever read it because some super-advanced spam-filter somewhere will recognize it as spam an delete it. Hell, it may already have happened.

Can it be very long before we start receiving meaningful e-mails right out of the ether? Could spam be the basis of a whole new species of poetry or literature? A kind of oracle? The voice of the global brain? Are the snippets of prose and poems tacked onto the ends of those penny-stock scams and viagra ads the infantile babbling of a developing consciousness? It would be an irony worthy of Phillip Dick if it turned out to be advertising that ultimately drove our machines to learn to think and speak for themselves

Best Spam Ever

"Viagra Soft Tabs will give you the wings of the eagle."

2007-02-20

My Starrior

I was digging through my toy chest the other day, looking for a spare TV remote, and I chanced upon a number of toys preserved from my childhood and, until that moment, forgotten. It was quite the trip down memory lane.

When I was around ten I loved Starriors, which were a line of plastic robot toys produced by Tomy, which, in retrospect, were remarkably prescient of Lego's Bionicle. The franchise featured a somewhat-before-its-time storyline about a post-apocalyptic Earth in which two "races" of machines--"Destructors" and "Protectors"--vie for control of the planet. According to legend, both races were created by Man and left behind when he forsook the Earth's surface, the Protectors to salvage, reconstruct, and protect the natural environment, and the Destructors to eliminate nasty mutants and aliens and other out-of-control beasties. In Man's absence, the Destructors have taken over, enslaving the protectors and trying to blot out the memory of Man so they can rule without obligations. The Protectors keep the faith and do what they can to bring about the rebirth of Man, who is said to be concealed in hibernation in an ancient battle station. Most of the Starrior toys featured a tiny silver humanoid "pilot" figure apparently "riding" in the head which, in the story, was known as a "control chip." These contained the essence of each Starrior--his or her robosoul, if you will. Supposedly the chips were shaped by Man in his image so that the Starriors would never forget their obligations to their Creator. Although the mini-comics that came with the toys were somewhat ambivalent on this point, if the control chips were scale replicas of human beings then the Starriors themselves were giant mecha by our standards.

In proper collect-them-all spirit, the packaging inserts listed all the available toys in the franchise, and I owned every one that was sold in the US, including the super-cool Armored Battle Station playset, for which I worked odd jobs to earn the necessary $20. The toys were not all released at once, with at least two "generations" appearing months apart and two particular toys, I recall vividly, never coming to market at all. These two were humanoid-type Starriors (known as "Wastors") whose names were Flashfist and Bolar. Flashfist was a Protector and Bolar was a Destructor. They were listed and pictured in the packaging materials but never sold, a fact which frustrated me to no end. I even wrote a letter to Tomy asking when they would be released. I got some sort of canned response, as I recall.

One of the many cool things about the toys, in my opinion, was that the bits were interchangable. One could swap heads and arms and torsos and legs back and forth among the Wastors, and some of the other parts from the non-humanoid varieties. In truth there were few aesthetically satisfying combinations, however, as the colors from different toys tended to clash garishly and thus cause the hybrids to look exactly like what they were--bits and pieces of other toys stuck together. I experimented with lots of permutations before I discovered the red-and-black guy pictured below. I know I gave him a name, but I can't now remember what it was. I do remember that I loved him intensely, and that I obsessed over him in a way that probably wasn't healthy. I carried him around with me everywhere and would lose track of time staring at him from every angle, admiring the way all the bits fit together and complimented each other and considering myself pretty clever for having dreamed him up. He has the legs of Slaughter Steelgrave (the Destructor leader), the torso of Slice (a 2nd-gen Wastor with wind-up arm-weapon), and the arms and head of Saw-tooth (a 1st-gen Wastor with wind-up chest-weapon).



I remember quite clearly, when I was 11 or 12 years old, swearing to myself that when I grew old I would not put aside my toys and would continue to play with Starriors. They brought me so much happiness that I could not then bear the thought that I might ever part with them. In the end, of course, I did put them aside. They were dumped into a plastic barrel that lived in the attic of my parents' house until I went off to college, and subsequently donated to charity when they moved out of that house. Only my little custom guy survived, and as an adult that seems right to me. Now, as a grown-up, I understand that the magic I experienced with these toys was not in the toys at all--it was in my head. And that's why it's right that the only one still with me is the one I made.

2007-02-16

I Have Very Bad Posture

I realized while meditating this evening that I tend to hold my shoulders up and forward. The guided progressive relaxation I use includes the instructions that the hands should lay "alongside the body, with the palms open toward the ceiling." This position has always felt uncomfortable to me; my natural inclination has been to lie with my palms down against the bed. This is the position that feels most "relaxed" for me. When I tried to do it as instructed, I felt my arms uncomfortably twisted in a way that became downright infuriating after 45 minutes of motionless contemplation.

Tonight, in something of a breakthrough, I realized why. Rolling my shoulders in tends to bias my arms toward the palms-down position. If I really relax and stretch the muscles in my chest and put my scapulae flat against the bed, it becomes quite natural and comfortable to lie with my palms open to the ceiling, to say nothing of how it improves my experience of my chest and upper back. I have a barrel chest which, at least as an adolescent, looked pretty strange with my spindly limbs and neck, and I imagine the habit of pulling my shoulders forward was an unconscious effort to minimize this. It's a habit that might also date to my bodybuilding days, as pulling the shoulders back tends to flatten and minimize the pecs whereas pulling them forward tends to bulge and emphasize the pecs, which, I am somewhat ashamed to admit, is something I once wanted to do.

I should think about ways to correct my habit, which I believe is both a lifting and a rounding of my shoulders. My father once told me (and now I wonder if he had an ulterior motive at the time) that he had corrected his own shoulder-rounding problem by having someone affix a piece of surgical tape across his upper back between his shoulder blades when they were in the proper position. Then if he started to pull them forward he would feel resistance and tightening in the tape and would be reminded to leave them back.

If I had somebody around here to apply the tape, I might just try that.

2007-02-15

God Bless Bob Solomon and His Memory

He was the greatest professor I have ever known, and I've known a lot of them. I've just now heard of his passing this January.

I remember a physics class once, and the Russian professor was describing his reaction to textbook merchants touting the features of their latest, umpteenth, feature-packed editions.

"If you really want to make it great," he would say to them, "Make it cost five dollars."

Well, Bob Solomon did just that. I don't know how long he taught his existentialism class, but he compiled the little eponymous blue textbook for it, and it did cost $5, and it's one of the best damn books I've ever owned. Those lectures have been immortalized by The Teaching Company, and are available for sale as CDs or tapes. I can't recommend them enough.

I remember in a lecture about Kierkegaard, Dr. Solomon drew a tiny stick figure at the bottom of the board, and next to it, towering over it, an enormous circle that one first assumes is going to be a planet. Then he draws a pupil and an iris and the circle becomes a cyclopean eye, staring down at the little man like a bug beneath a microscope.

"This," he said, "is how Kierkegaard saw his relationship with God."

It still makes me laugh.

When we read Camus, he talked about the sense of hopelessness as a doctor might describe an interesting pathology. "Everything you do," he said, "becomes pointless if you think about it long enough. Even teaching. Every teacher has had the experience of a pupil who returns years later brimming with gratitude, and after talking to them for awhile, of realizing that they have completely and utterly missed the point."

I never got to know Bob as well as I should have. I had the best grade in a class of 60 when I took his course, and the way was open for me. But I was too intimidated and I failed to establish a relationship with him. I asked for a meeting with him to write me a letter of recommendation for law school. He agreed, and then stood me up. He must've thought I'd missed the point, too. And at that time maybe I had.

But I quit law school. I never should have gone in the first place. I like to think that if I'd gone back and talked to Dr. Solomon, before he died, he would have been proud of me for realizing on my own that the world has too many damn lawyers in it, already. I like to think that, in the end, I didn't miss the point at all.

Goodbye, Bob.

2007-02-04

The Lemon Mushroom

Several years ago my mother bought a potted lemon tree and kept it out on the back porch. One day, she was surprised to notice a ripe, yellow, new-fallen lemon lying in the dirt in the pot. There were some small lemons growing on the tree, but they were green and much smaller than the one that had fallen, and that night when I was over for dinner she mentioned it to me.

Curious, I went outside to investigate the prodigious lemon. I squatted down to examine it, then poked a finger at it, and only then did I realize that I was looking at the cap of a mushroom and not a real lemon. Regrettably, I did not have the presence of mind to take a picture. The resemblence was truly uncanny. The photo I've included here gives an idea, perhaps, of how this mushroom, which is lepiota lutea, could be mistaken for a lemon in terms of color and general shape, but the one I saw in the flowerpot that morning was much more convincing.


At the time, I was astounded, convinced this was a deliberate evolutionary strategy by the mushroom--growing at the bases of trees and mimicking fallen fruit in order to trick herbivores into eating them and thus spreading the spores in their stool. As it turns out, lepiota lutea is commonly known as the "yellow houseplant mushroom" because it commonly turns up in all kinds of potted plants, for some reason. So expert opinion is against my hypothesis which, as the old Time-Life Books commercial used to say, is "dismissed as coincidence." But part of me still wants to believe.



2007-02-03

Numbers 6 - Deliberate? Coincidence?


The ultimate costume pair for that hypergeeky couples Halloween party.

2007-02-02

The Counterjihad

Take all US troops out of Iraq and move them into Iran. The resulting power void in Iraq will leave the factions squabbling amongst themselves for control, and Iran will be too busy trying (and failing) to resist the US invasion to influence the process. Topple the Iranian government, destroy the infrastructure and all vestiges of WMD technology, administer free elections, and be done with it. At that point either bring the troops home or send them back to Iraq to knock over whatever maniac has seized power there in our absence, if he was not legitimately elected. Repeat the Iran-Iraq shuffle as necessary, until both nations get the point: We will not abide blind hatred and intolerance masquerading under the banner of religion, and especially not as a means of organizing a state.

If the Iraq debacle has proven anything, it's that we're really, really good at knocking over petty dictators and really lousy at installing democracies in their wake. So why not stick to what we do best? Knock 'em over and leave their nations to sort out their new governments for themselves. You can bet that whoever comes afterward will be, if not exactly grateful to, then at least respectful of US power.

2007-01-31

Hexanol Fermentation

Breed yeasts to produce hexanol, rather than ethanol

In conventional fermentation, yeasts turn sugars into ethanol. Ethanol, as everyone knows, is promising as an alternative fuel. The problem is that yeasts die at concentrations higher than about 10% ethanol by weight, and so the fermentation process can at best produce alcohol that is 90% water. Obviously, this "beer" cannot be burned as fuel, and the excess water must be removed somehow, by distillation or adsorbtion, which adds a significant energy cost to each unit alcohol produced. At the earth's equator, solar energy can be relied upon to make up this energy cost. At the more extreme latitudes, that's not necessarily the case.

Ethanol is not the only alcohol produced in fermentation. Higher alcohols such as butyl, amyl, isoamyl, and 1-hexyl are also produced, albeit in trace concentrations. As a fuel alcohol, 1-hexanol has a lot going for it compared to ethanol. Firstly, it's much "greasier" than ethanol, having a thrice-longer hydrocarbon tail, and thus will handle and burn much more like the hydrocarbon fuels we're already using. Second and most importantly, however, unlike ethanol, 1-hexanol is *not* infinitely soluble in water, meaning that at some concentration the fuel and the water will simply phase-separate. Now, instead of having to spend energy to dry the alcohol, you just tap it straight out of the bioreactor at burnable concentrations.

The only reason we're not doing this already is that (known) yeasts don't produce useful concentrations of 1-hexanol. But because they're microorganisms and they reproduce rapidly and in huge numbers it's not inconceivable that they could be bred to do so. What's needed is a rapid, colorimetric, quantitative assay for hexanol concentration so that thousands of individual yeast cultures can be rapidly screened in high-throughput equipment like plate readers. Without such an assay, chromatography of some sort is required, slowing the process of screening down by many orders of magnitude. With the right indicator, though, it would be possible to screen yeast cultures almost as fast as they could be selected and grown. A rate of 10000 generations per year is entirely reasonable. Note that 10000 generations is approximately the same "distance" that separates homo sapiens from neanderthals.

2007-01-26

The Passing of Two Trees

Yesterday I'm walking home from school and I look up to see some strange guy in a hard hat at the far end of the block waving at me with his arm. I look around for a minute and see that there's some kind of construction going on and I realize he wants me to cross to the other side of the street. So I do. But it miffs me a bit, because I dislike it when anyone assumes authority over me that's not clearly theirs.

As I get near my condo, at 2529 Rio Grande, I realize what's going on: They're knocking down trees, and not little ones either. Just inside the stone wall which is all that remains of the seedy block of furnished apartments that used to occupy the lot immediately north of my building, stood these two proud 40-ft. oak trees, just to either side of the main gate. I don't know how old they might have been, but I bet they predated the complex that was demolished around them. The workers have to clear the sidewalks because the branches are large and heavy and overhang them to some extent.


Now, I don't know if it was because I was already a bit grumpy with these guys, or solely because I was offended at the casual destruction of the beautiful old trees in my neighborhood, but I decided I was going to make a hard time for these workers, if possible, and in the best situation maybe stop them from killing the trees. I'm not such a radical (or maybe brave) person as to strap myself to one of the trunks, and it didn't really look like there would be time to make it to the hardware store and buy chain and a padlock for that purpose before they were finished, anyway.


So I did the only thing I knew to do, which was call the city. I know Austin has fairly tough municipal regulations regarding the felling of trees inside the city limits. I thought maybe I could at least verify that they had a permit to cut down these trees and get them stopped or at least fined if they didn't. The woman who answered the city information line was confused by my request at first: "There's a tree you want to cut down?" she said. "No," I explained, "I'm concerned that I'm witnessing the illegal felling of a protected tree." There was a pause, and then she said, "Hold on, I'll have to ask about that one." So I get the hold muzak, which is an impossibly banal counterpoint to the scene of arboreal slaughter outside my window. While I'm waiting on hold, the destruction of the first tree is completed and the excavator starts filling in the hole left by the torn-out roots.


Eventually the woman returns to the phone, and it's clear that she now understands and appreciates my situation. "You need to speak to the City Arborist," she tells me, and gives his name (which I never figured out how to spell, and hence will not include here), and his number, which is 512-974-1876. "I'm sorry it took so long for me to figure that out," she says. I tell her it's OK, and she thanks me for calling. It's obvious at this point that she's on my side.



I call the Arborist and get his answering machine. The excavator is now rumbling toward the second tree. I leave a rambling message about who and where I am and how they sure are beautiful trees and I just wanna make sure the workers are within their legal rights cutting them down. I am conflicted. A large part of me wants to go down and confront the workers, but I realize that will only make them defensive and will not stop them from doing what they're doing. I pace back and forth for awhile and figure the only thing to do is take pictures so I can make sure they get punished if it turns out they're breaking the law. So I snap a frame or two and turn back to the computer to work.


There's a loud CRACK a minute or two later and I go back to the window and see that the excavator has broken a large limb off the second tree. About then the phone rings, and it's the arborist, who, to my pleasure, sounds concerned and gets right to the point: "Tell me what you're seeing," he says. And I do. As I'm talking, the excavator repositions itself and strikes downward into the tree's crotch, splitting the trunk, and I realize that there's no stopping them at this point. I tell the arborist as much. "But I took pictures," I explain, "in case it turns out that what they've done is illegal."


"Where are you again?" he asks. "West Campus," I tell him. "Do you know the neighborhood?" He doesn't. "Do you have an address?" Apparently he's got a database of some sort that lists permit-holders. I don't know the exact address, but I can extrapolate from mine and take a guess: "Try 2601." A minute later he comes back and says, "Yes, there's a permit to develop that property," which I understand from his disappointed tone to mean that there's nothing to be done. Apparently the rule in Austin is that private homeowners need a permit to fell any tree with a diameter of 19 inches or greater, but that developers have more flexibility. The arborist can't tell me what the specific site plan calls for with respect to these particular trees, but he can tell me that there is a plan and it's been approved, so in all likelihood these guys are acting in accordance with it and hence within the bounds of law. I thank him and he thanks me, and before we hang up he asks me to call again any time I'm suspicious of tree-related crime, because his office depends almost completely on concerned citizens/nosy neighbors like me to catch and prevent the illegal destruction of trees. I assure him that I will.

And that's where the story peters out. I wanted to do something but I didn't, basically, and although I got some sympathetic voices on the phone none of it changes the basic fact of the matter, which is that there are now two muddy holes in the ground where there were once two live, beautiful, healthy trees. And I stood to one side and watched as a man with a machine tore them up. Should I have tried, physically, to intervene? Should I have obeyed that impulse to chain myself to the trunk? I don't know the spirit of a tree, but I know how hard it was to watch them be destroyed. It was like a crime was happening out on the street, in broad daylight, and everyone was just walking by indifferently. I didn't want to be the apathetic one; I wanted to be the one who gave a shit. But I tried to be a civilized adult about the whole thing and now I regret it. Even if I hadn't, ultimately, saved those particular trees, a show of strength might've brought some attention to the subject, might've made the developers or the city authorities or whoever think twice the next time they decided to hire out that kind of a dirty job. But in the end I was just like everyone else: Too busy with my own concerns to take hours out of my day to worry about something as simple as the killing of a tree.

2007-01-25

Medicine Mosaics


This is a mosaic made from various pills--vitamins, OTC, and prescription medications--presented to me by my beautiful and talented friend Jennifer. This medium is under-used, in my opinion. This example from a catalog background is the only other real instance I know of. This mosaic of Rush Limbaugh executed in prescription pain-pills exists as an image only; it was never really assembled.

2007-01-24

The Abuse of Fire in Warfare

What follows is in response to an article on the use of white phosphorus (WP) by US marines during the siege of Fallujah that appeared in the North County Times.

As a chemist, I find the debate about WP as a "chemical weapon" sort of amusing. One might as well claim that we're engaged in "chemical warfare" because the lead we use to make bullets is toxic.

It's like that question they ask me sometimes at the post office: "Does your package contain any chemicals?" Well, OF COURSE IT DOES, because the universe is made of chemicals and if there's any damn thing at all in the package, there's chemicals in it. In that sense, any weapon that EXISTS is a "chemical weapon," and the word becomes totally useless. The chemistry of WP is simply oxidation/combustion, which is the same chemistry that propels bullets and shells down gun barrels and causes fire in general, and the use of fire in warfare is as old as warfare itself. It just so happens that WP burns very hot and is self-igniting in air.

If "chemical weapons" is to remain a useable term, it's best reserved for toxic compounds which are employed primarily to exploit their toxicology.

That being said, it seems likely to me that in the future, as war continues to be "humanized," we will begin to see moral and eventually legal proscription of the use of burning as a means of offensive war. Destruction of uninhabited materiel or facilities is one thing, but the deliberate destruction of live human beings by combustion is pretty appalling. Think of the little Vietnamese napalm girl, or the fire-bombing of Dresden or Tokyo, or of the use of the flamethrower in trench warfare. Burning is agonizing, indiscriminate, and not terribly efficient versus shooting or blasting to bits. Burning is a frightening way to die (or, perhaps worse, to not die), and for this reason it is frequently employed as a psychological weapon.

I'm not necessarily advocating its regulation, because I think war is just nasty and efforts to "soften" it are hypocritical, but I can see it coming in the future anyway.

2007-01-22

WoTD: "Catastrophize"

Essentially, to "catastrophize" is to overreact in a negative way to a setback, such as the one who is stood up for a date and becomes upset that he or she will never find love. Broadly, catastrophization is a habit of mind that's commonly identified in the anxious and depressed. I don't know enough to speculate about what causes the formation of such a habit, but I can admit to recognizing it in myself. I have often characterized my depression as "an inability to control negative thoughts," and by these negative thoughts I essentially mean overwhelming catastrophization. When I'm depressed, even the smallest and most innocous event or impression can become symbolic of my total failure as a human being.

Recognizing the process as a habit, as something that can be lost or changed or replaced like any other habit, is itself very valuable to me. Even the simple fact that there exists a word to describe the phenomenon brings me considerable comfort--in the first place, it shows that I'm not alone in experiencing it, and in the second, well...everyone knows that to name a thing is to have power over it. The next time I begin to "catastrophize," the word itself will occur to me, and in matching the sign to the signified I will be reminded that the catastrophe I perceive is in my head and not in the world. Maybe, in time, I'll even be able to laugh about it, to find some humor in the extent to which I can blow things out of proportion, but of course there's a fine line to be walked here. I can already hear myself thinking: "I'm catastrophizing again. It's so like me to do that. No wonder I'm a such a TOTALLY WORTHLESS LOSER."

As in learning to meditate, the trick to changing habits of mind like catastrophization is probably to avoid trying too hard. Instead of recognizing catastrophic thoughts and working really hard to stop, it's probably better to just recognize those thoughts, release them, and then casually replace them with something else. Those three Rs could become a mantra: Recognize your negative habits, Release them in the moment, and Replace them with something more constructive. Perhaps there's even a fourth R: Repeat the process until they change.

2007-01-21

Maybe Not Too Little, But Probably Too Late

This week my father preserved for me a series of editorials from the Wall Street Journal by Charles Murray, of The Bell Curve fame, arguing his thesis for the reality of g, which he identifies as an inherent and inherited "intelligence factor" that differentiates the smart from the dumb. Distribution of g in the population follows a normal, or "bell," curve, and he points up many of the oft-touted depressing statistics of U.S. public education and explains them--convincingly, in my view--in terms of the normal statistical distribution of intelligence in our population. He revives the spectre of the IQ score, and although he acknowledges quibbles about the accuracy of the tools used to measure it, he also advocates its phenomenological legitimacy. He deals summarily with Gardner's multiple intelligences theory, citing relatively convincing evidence that g is a real phenomenon and can't be wished away by egalitarian reformers. He recognizes how the notion of uneven distribution of g chafes agains our ideals of equality and the political difficulties attendant to making policy decisions based on a worldview which is in this sense elitist.

I see Murray as one of a small but growing vocal minority of intellectuals who are prepared to acknowledge that human beings are in most meaningful ways determined by their genes. As biology and neurobiology advance, we come to understand more and more how even very complex human behaviors can be predicted genetically. This is certainly not the first time in history that a deterministic elitist movement has surfaced, but it may well prove to be the first time that the unpleasant awareness of genetic determinism is answered by an ethical technical solution. Before long, it seems obvious to any scientifically-informed observer, biochemistry will allow human beings to achieve meaningful control of their genetic destinies, at which point a political battle will ensue between the forces that advocate non-intervention in genetic fate and those who recognize biochemical eugenics as an escape from determinism.

Brief meditation on human nature leads me to predict that the battle will be a short one. Voices in favor of accepting determinism--such as Murray, et. al.--run up against the ubiquitous phenomenological fact of choice: Whether it is real or not, human beings experience a process of decision making that causes them to behave as if they have some measure of control over their fates. Although most rational adults can be persuaded to admit, if pressured, that there are things in life over which they have no control, most of them would also prefer that it not be so. If offered a choice between the certainty of a brilliant and beautiful and happy child and the luck of the draw, which of us would leave it to fate?

Practical eugenetic technology is not with us now, and may well not materialize until twenty years hence. Even if it takes that long, however, it still seems likely that we will find ourselves living with a technology that can correct our genes before we find ourselves living in a political culture prepared to accept that they determine our fates. In that most probable case, Murray's arguments, though convincing, come too late on the scene. Even if we begin now to implement the policy regime he advocates, it's likely that by the time reforms come into place the biology on which they are founded will become subject to the same socioeconomic pressures which corrupt the system now. Western culture has lived in denial of biological determinism for decades now, and in resentment of it for millenia--are we going now to give in and accept it on the very eve of our liberation? Better now to begin preparing for that future culture of eugenetic control, to begin steering now toward's Keillor's Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average, and away from Huxley's Brave New World, where minds are manufactured to meet the demands of industry.

2007-01-18

Another Fracking BSG Neologism

I propose the prefix "cylo-" to describe all matters pertaining to "cylon biology," in other words that "cylo-" be used analogously to "bio-" to describe any subject pertaining to cylon biology rather than normal human biology. The show, after all, has established that cylon biology ("cylology," under my new system), although generally indistinguishable from human biology at the macro-level, is chemically distinct. Which explains how Dr. Baltar can build a cylon detector and how cylons, though histologically identical to humans, can exhibit all the unique characteristics that they do, i.e. running for days without tiring, spinal bioluminescence, group consciousness, unusual RF susceptibility, etc. Thus "cylo-" can be assumed to denote that aspect of cylon physiology which is analogous to, but not identical with, human physiology.

Which gives us all kinds of great new words like "cylogenetic," "cylochemistry," "cylological," "cylonic," "cylosphere," "cylome," "cylophysics," and my personal favorite, "cylohazard."



In honor of this last term, I've made up a "cylohazard symbol," which is derived from the analogous human biohazard symbol, differing in that it is based on a five-fold axis of radial symmetry, instead of a three-fold axis. This decision is in keeping with the established significance of the pentagon and the nested pentagon as a symbol of cylon hegemony in both the old and the new Battlestar Galactica series. Material which is infectious of cylons, such as samples of the "cylon plague" from Season 3, would rightly bear the cylohazard symbol, regardless of whether or not it was also infectious of humans. Material which is infectious of both species should properly bear both symbols.

Someday I might write a pseudoepistolary "ANSI standard" from the BSG universe describing the layout and appropriate use of the cylohazard symbol by itself or in conjunction with the biohazard, chemohazard, and or radiological hazard signs.

2007-01-13

The Swerve Test

There is a road that begins, in my heart. with the general disdain I feel for most specimens of homo sapiens, and ends, in my spleen, with the blackest hate that one man can feel for another, the kind of hate most people, including myself, are fortunate enough never to experience, the kind reserved for a villain who has destroyed a loved one and witnessed by actions of murderous revenge. Arrayed along this road, like Burma-Shave ads on the highway to Abilene, are signposts, behaviors, that mark the boundaries between the states of disdain and dislike, dislike and loathing, loathing and hate.

It is somewhere around Wichita Falls, by my reckoning, that the countries of true hate begin. In mapping these infernal regions, I have found it useful to apply what I call "the sweve test," which is really a pair of tests: Driving along, I mount a rise to discover the person of my enemy, standing in the road a short distance ahead, and put to myself the question, "Do I swerve to avoid him?" If the answer is yes, then he has not yet passed into the territory of loathing; if no, then the second test must be applied: Mounting a second rise, I discover the person of my enemy standing beside the road a short distance ahead, and put to myself the question, "Do I swerve to hit him?" If no, he is loathed; if yes, hated.

The swerve test has much to recommend it. First, it is accurate: In the best tradition of Skinner, it avoids murky subjectivity by addressing only behavior. While my own estimation of the extent of my distaste for a particular person may vary with the weather, the proximity of my next meal or the quality of my last, or whether or not I remembered to take my medication that morning, the volition to actually effect his destruction, either passively or actively, is much less mutable.

Second, the swerve test is precise: We may imagine the swerve as a kind of behavioristic quantum--the smallest act measurable as evidence of intent. Here is a heavy mass, moving with great speed, having tremendous inertia, and by a small motion of my hand I can deflect its course and thereby choose to spare or destroy my enemy. In the first test, I must expend this minimum effort to save him, and in the second, to destroy him. The two outcomes differ only by a quantum.

Third and finally, the results of the test are easy to interpet: At the end of the day, the subject of the swerve test, like Schrodinger's cat, is either alive or dead.

2007-01-11

Virtual Earth 2.0

I'm imagining a portable device that integrates a global-positioning system (GPS) receiver with a short range (say 25m) LIDAR (laser imaging detection and ranging) system that could be used to map the street-level topography of the earth--buildings, rooms, trees, streetsigns--as the user moves through it. I'm imagining a built-in-panoramic video camera that can be used to map textures onto all the surfaces. I'm imagining an internal hard-drive and/or cellular modem so that all this mapping information can be uploaded, sooner or later, to a central server that compiles location-mapping correlation data from multiple users to create an immersive 3D simulation of the real surface of the earth. I'm imagining stores and businesses and schools having sales, conducting meetings, and teaching classes at virtual locations inside the virtual earth at the same time they happen in the real earth, or even in lieu thereof. I'm imagining mappers competing to be the first to scan the inside of Kitum cave, or the top of Mt. Everest, or the basement of the Pentagon. I'm imagining that we'll see it happen within 15 years. I'm imagining that the first people to make it work are going to be very, very rich.