Archive for June 2008

More on Vacation Recovery: Traveling with children edition

June 30, 2008

From the invaluable xkcd:

This reminds me of the old, old joke about the problem with neuroscientists. If you had a planet on which, for some reason, brain scientists dominated and electrical engineering had never taken off — but which was nonetheless awash in EM signals — imagine what would happen when a passing spaceship somehow drops a transistor radio into the hands of the eager savants. What would they do? They might, at some point they would twist the volume knob past the little click and turn the device on (assume, for the sake of the joke, intact, fully charged AAs on hand). Nothing — the device is tuned to a particular frequency, and happens to pick up no signal. So next, the experts would do what neuroscientists do — open the thing up and start taking bits off to see what would happen. First to go is a transistor, and all of a sudden the little plastic box emits a fearsome screech.

Knowledge! Holding up the transistor in a pair of sterile forceps, the team leader proudly instructs his loyal students: “Here we have,” he the gender-uncertain alien says, “the screech suppressor.”

I do remember the shocking experience of walking out of the hospital with our infant son and wondering where the hell the damn manual had gone.

I’m Baaack…with a little treat from the road: Unified Theory of Music edition

June 30, 2008

Real blogging on science, civic life and all the serious stuff to start almost immediately, but while my vacation hangover persists, one treat passed on to me by Travis, the 16 year old son of a dear old friend of mine (and a friend himself, now, as he has clearly reached the age of reason…heh.)

It seems that all known post-Baroque music, with the possible exception of settings of Vogon poetry, can be traced back to a single, well known Manchurian candidate of a ditty. See the proof of this subset of a Theory of Everything for yourself:

My informant, Travis, tells me that there are music videos for all fourteen songs referenced above. Consider it a challenge to run them down. (To be fair: one of the fourteen is a setting of the song against found images, not a true, music video.)

Just to get you started, here’s one:

Consider this an announcement of the return of Inverse Square.

Notes From the Road: Sympathy for George (HW) Bush edition.

June 22, 2008

Remember that moment in the campaign sixteen years ago when Bush the father was confronted by a barcode reader in a supermarket and wondered what it was?

He was widely ridiculed, by me too, for what was seen as upper-class cluelessness. Mere retail, it seemed, was for hoi polloi, not for those blessed by generations of privilege.

Well, I find myself a little more empathetic for the old spook now. On the first leg of my current vacation, I had occasion to visit a vast Target store on the edge of the San Francisco bay. Part of my reaction was like that of an Eastern European venturing west in the first weeks after the Wall came down. So much stuff they have in one place, comrade!

But what made me feel truly like a peasant from the hills was my first sight of what I understand to be commonplace: an escalator for shopping carts running between those moving stairs for people. According to this Youtube, I’m at least a year behind the times in being gobsmacked by this next step in massive retail.

Two things occur to me coming from this little excursion in technoshock. The first is that there is at least a bit of asynchrony going on in the experience of all kinds of new goodies across our country, much more around the world. My current home, the Boston area, does not have the concentrated techno-retail experience available in the land of my birth, paradise, AKA, the Bay Area. What is mundane here is astonishing to someone just arrived from there…

Which leads to my very brief flash of a sense of kinship with Bush senior. This stuff can sneak up on you. It remains kind of bizarre that he had somehow missed the bar code reader. But I can see how a President would never actually come that close to a cash register for much or all of his term — and a lot can change in four years.

What this means today: well the tech-positive candidate is clearly Obama. McCain — he’s the one who  doesn’t use a computer. I don’t think this will be determinative, but the election could be moved at least a bit by the relative proportions of those in the electorate for whom shopping cart escalators are strange and those for whom they are part of the furniture. My guess is that the balance has tipped towards those for whom tech, and more importantly tech-change is the norm. But my guess and a buck seventy five gets you on the subway, so take that for what it’s actually worth.

Consider this an example of a vacation-level post.

Image: Eniac Computer, Philadelphia. Image taken between 1947 and 1955. US Army photo. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Vacation Time. Yippee!

June 19, 2008

Dear all,

I’m going off the grid.  Heading for the hills. Off to one of the last corners of the lower 48 thoroughly untouched by modern communications — no cell phone, no regular phone, no internet, no newspaper delivery, nada.

I may sneak a short post in once or twice on our treks into “town” (a little grand for the destination in question, though I suppose the belated emergence of not one but two places that will sell you an espresso if you ask for it nicely does suggest creeping metropolization).  But basically, I’m outta here for a week.

See you then, refreshed.

Image:  Meindert Hobbema, “Hut Among Trees,” 1664.  Location: National Gallery of Art, Washington.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Guest Post: Michelle Sipics on Trouble in the Zoo…

June 19, 2008

With this post Inverse Square launches what I hope will be an expanding part of its repertory. The goal of this blog is to probe the intersection of science and public and daily life. That’s a big beat, the biggest — and it is much more than any one person could hope to cover.

So with the following work, Inverse Square’s first guest post we see the beginnings of what I would like to see become a community of insight into the ways science penetrates our experience at every level.

Your poster, Michelle Sipics, knows what she’s talking about in the piece below (and much besides). After deciding that her two degrees in computer engineering from Drexel weren’t enough, she came to MIT to join the Graduate Program in Science Writing, where she spent a good part of her year working on issues of geriatric mental health. Right now she’s writing and thinking in her beloved Philadelphia — and lending her formidable intelligence, wit, and style to all of us over here in the first of what I hope will be many future conversation-starters. (I don’t need to add, but I will, that Michelle was one of those students that make teachers want to keep teaching.)


When my gracious host first offered to let me guest-post on this blog, one thing worried me more than anything else: what would I write about? Could I come up with topics that would interest readers, generate discussion, and actually be informative simultaneously? Sometimes even attaining two out of three is difficult enough.

But earlier today, as I was browsing through my bookmarks to make sure that none were garbled during my transition to the lovely and fabulously improved Firefox 3 (note: they all survived), I came across an article that I bookmarked several months ago in a state of severe agitation. It was a story from my local paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, with the somewhat self-explanatory but still vague headline “Philly Zoo deals with aging animals.”

I could lie and say that I don’t know what made me click on this headline and read the article. Yes, I like animals, and I’ve been to the Philly Zoo–as zoos go, it’s not bad, and I went there with my cousin’s kids a few years back. But I’m not particularly interested in animals or zoos. Instead, I clicked on the link because I had a vague impression that something infuriating was waiting for me in the article, and I admit it: I sometimes enjoy getting fired up. Hey, sometimes getting angry about something is the first step toward improving a situation.

So, I clicked. And what did I find out? Well, let’s look at a few excerpts:

A few weeks ago, Philadelphia Zoo keeper Mandy Fischer heard a small cough.

It was Spot, 25, a grandmother and matriarch of her group of spectacled langurs.

X-rays and ultrasound showed that the elderly Asian primate is not just losing her teeth. She has advanced cardiac disease.

Ok. That might not seem terribly interesting, but here’s why it caught my attention: we’re talking about a zoo monkey who was given–without having to file paperwork, wait a month for a doctor’s appointment, or fight an insurance company to have a claim paid–X-rays and an ultrasound. If you read on, you’ll find out about a giraffe that gets arthritis pills hidden inside bananas. An emu (24-year-old “Mrs. Emu”) gets anti-inflammatory medication to treat her arthritis. And then we find this little three-sentence, three-paragraph gem:

Philadelphia has adapted living spaces for the elderly.

A tree kangaroo that could no longer climb her pole got handrails and ramps.

A snow leopard with failing vision got brighter lights.

You might still be wondering why this article irritates me so much. Well, it’s not the article that irritates me; it’s the fact that animals are getting immediate medical attention and treatment while elderly human beings have to fight to be seen by a doctor, struggle to pay for life-saving medications, and find a way to cope with diseases like Alzheimer’s, which the doctors and researchers that I’ll collectively refer to as “science” can’t claim to understand. Let me be clear: this is not a rant against scientists or doctors. Most of them are doing their best to keep up with the impending massive increase in the elderly population in this country as the Boomers turn 65, and are fighting against a lack of funding and–at least until recently–a general lack of interest in geriatric research. This is also not a rant against zoos, zookeepers, animal lovers or the animals themselves. The zookeepers are just doing their jobs, trying to keep the animals healthy; and the animals have a right to be kept healthy, I’m sure. But if a monkey can get arthritis medication, why is it so difficult for elderly human patients to receive good medical care? As the linked Washington Post article states, “The quality of care received by vulnerable elderly Medicare, Medicaid patients is barely acceptable.” To wit:

The study found that vulnerable elderly patients — those at risk of death or functional decline — received only 65 percent of tests and other diagnostic evaluations and treatments recommended for a number of illnesses and conditions, including diabetes and heart disease.

And less than a month after running the homegrown story about the Philly Zoo animals, the Philly press picked up an AP story detailing the impending crisis (note to AP: I came up with that phrase before I noticed that it was part of a quote in your story; please don’t sue me) in geriatric health care. In brief: there’s a shortage of geriatric specialists; there’s a shortage of available training; most of the people who DO work in the field are underpaid and stressed with a workload of too many patients; and Medicare doesn’t allow for a lot of the treatment and care that its patients require.

And this is referring to general health care; it doesn’t even discuss the dire state of affairs that is geriatric mental health in the US. I’ll leave most of the details on that situation for another post, but if I may briefly quote from a document I prepared as a student back in 2006, I will point out that several years ago, Anita Rosen, then-chair of the Mental Health and Aging network of the American Society on Aging, addressed the Policy Committee to the White House Conference on Aging, and pointed out drastic shortages in the number of professionals specializing in geriatric mental health:

[Rosen] reported that as of 2002, only 5 percent of social work practitioners listed aging as their primary area of expertise, and that only 1,115 Masters-level social work students specialized in aging. In contrast, the [National Institute on Aging] issued a report nearly 20 years ago emphasizing the need for 60,000 to 70,000 social workers specialized in aging by 2020. Despite two decades of warning, experts fear that the actual numbers will fall drastically short of the predicted need.

Why? Rosen lists bias and stereotyping as major issues, both for aging and for mental health. And it gets worse:

Rosen also cited shortages in the number of psychiatrists providing specialized care for the elderly. At the time of her testimony to the White House conference, less than 7 percent of the 38,691 practicing psychiatrists in the U.S. specialized in aging. According to Rosen, given the existing trends in medical schools and the retirement of current practitioners, there will be 5,682 older adults with psychiatric disorders for every one geriatric psychiatrist in America by the year 2030.

Meanwhile, kangaroos get ramps and handrails, emus get X-rays and arthritis medication, and I get really, really ticked off.

Image: August Macke, “Great Zoological Garden, Triptychon,” 1913. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Quote for the Day: Something to Remember…

June 19, 2008

in this relatively calm and still almost genteel lull before the general election storm.  I read this passage in the very small hours of last night and it cast a graceful, unexpected glow on the events taking place right now.

(This has nothing to do with the major themes of the blog, I know.  It’s just the predictable consequence of late, late night reading, a little bit too good not to share.)

It behooves us to keep a close eye on this process of Americanness.  My grandparents were slaves.  See how short a time it’s bee?  I grew up reading Twain and then, after all those Aunt Jemima roles, those Stepin Fetchit roles, roles with their own subtleties, here comes this voice from Mississippi, William Faulkner.  It just goes to show you that you can’t be southern without being black, and you can’te be a black southerner without being white.  Think of LBJ.  Think of Hugo Black.  There are a lot of subtleties based on race that we will ourselves not to perceive, but at our peril.  The truth is that the quality of Americanness, that thing the kids invariable give voice to, will always come out.” (Italics in the original).

That’s Ralph Ellison speaking after a a fine supper on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, March 1, 1994.

Among those who raised their glasses to him was New Yorker writer and editor David Remnick, from whose essay “Visible Man” this quote was taken. You can find the whole piece in The Devil Problem and Other True Stories.

For those reading this with an interest in the form horrible named “creative” non fiction (what?  so the rest’s chopped liver?) this book, a collection of profile from the early and middle ’90s, is a fine case book.  To my mind, the real secret of learning to write is learning to read with a professional’s eye, not a civilian’s — especially the stuff that made you want to be a writer in the first place .  Remnick’s work is a fine place to start.

Image:  Ralph Ellison in 1961, taken by an unknown photographer.  Library of Congress, courtesy of the National Archives.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Worst use of technology nominee: Food and Beverage Division

June 18, 2008

Caution: bad tempered vent to come.  Coors is the target, and their advertising goons.  Avoid if such old-fogeydom  annoys you.


I love science.  I really love technology.  I’m a toy and gadget freak.  I think it is amazingly cool that a bit of engineering mojo produces stuff like this.

But I have become truly sick of this.  Leave aside the raw contempt the associated ad campaign has for both stupid wives and boorish husbands…just stop to think about all the engineering talent that Coors brought to bear on  the design problem involved in making “The new vented wide mouth directs airflow into the can to enhance the swigging experience for can drinkers.”

Enhance the swigging experience?

Excuse me.  Just say it.  Time to chug.

Pity the poor team, up against the launch deadline, doing their 18/7s, working out the perfect size and shape and airflow and the rest, and then suddenly looking up and realize that their accumulated decades of person-years of study and experience had just been devoted to the task of speeding frat boys (superannuated, if the ad series is to be believed) towards their desired level of alcoholic coma.

All those problem sets and robot labs for this?

Just for the record:  it’s not beer that’s the problem (though it remains an open question how much violence one does to the language by calling Coors “beer”); what bugs me is the sheer mindlessness of the product differentiation game being played here.  Does anyone out there really care about the hole in the top of their beer cans?  If you want to gulp it down faster…just put it in a plastic cup or ten.  Otherwise, just shut up.

Image:  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “Monsieur Boileau,” 1893.  Image:  Wikimedia Commons.

News Flash — Dog Bites Man dept: John McCain does not care about global warming

June 18, 2008

This just in:  John McCain, who claims that “he has been a leader on the issue of global warming with the courage to call the nation to action on an issue we can no longer afford to ignore,” said on Monday that he believes “that lifting the moratoria from offshore drilling or oil and natural gas exploration is something that we place as a very high priority.”

This, on top of his recently renewed call for the twofer environmental and economic foolishness of a gas tax holiday, makes it clear, to me at least, where Senator McCain actually stands on the issue of global warming.

Not to beat a horse I long sinced blogged to near-death here, but if you are even remotely serious about the issue of global warming (not to mention, being a “leader”) you don’t look for ways to encourage people to burn more oil.  You can’t have it both ways (or rather, if you are anything but a straight talking, honest kind of guy, you can try, but annoying folks like me will point out the contradiction).

So — for anyone tempted to back McCain because of his environmental commitments — remember the last time we trusted a plausible sounding, straight shooting kind of fella on this issue, look at the other promises McCain is making, and think long and hard when you find yourself all alone in the voting booth.

Image:   Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky, “Moonlit Seascape with Shipwreck,” nineteenth century.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

John McCain’s reality problem: Guantanamo, State Power, and Theoretical Physics

June 17, 2008

You have to be quick to be good. Today, via Atrios, George Will (George Will!) is actually saying the right thing about John McCain’s latest, almost tragic, self negation.

The back story: The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that prisoners held by the US, on territory the US wholly controls, actually have some baseline of essential rights, in particular the right to make a habeas corpus claim, requesting a hearing (requesting! not automatically receiving) in which the government must demonstrate that it has due cause to hold the complainant, or else release him or her.

So what happened next? Joy amongst those who think the Constitution has some life in it yet, visions of the apocalypse for those who feel the rule of law is for other people.

John McCain, sadly — and I mean that — lined up with the latter, declaring the ruling “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”

It is sad: I’m no John McCain fan (dog-bites-man…ed.), but he is someone who once seemed to have a sense of who he was, and now he doesn’t. On everything from torture (agin it, except when the proper Americans do it) to energy polict, (even Cheney thinks he’s gone wacky) he now seems willing to say whatever he thinks at that moment might help him out. It’s never a pretty sight to see someone turning themselves into a caricature in public.

But here McCain is worse than sad: he’s dangerous on two levels. The first is obvious, and it is the one Will nailed — with exactly the same serious of examples I was planning to provide. As he writes,

Does it rank with Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), which concocted a constitutional right, unmentioned in the document, to own slaves and held that black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect? With Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which affirmed the constitutionality of legally enforced racial segregation? With Korematsu v. United States (1944), which affirmed the wartime right to sweep American citizens of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps?

No; of course not. As Will points out, there are in fact some issues to argue here — but there is no way to say that this decision defies reason or legal basis.

Will goes on to have some fun with McCain — there’s a tone of real contempt in lines like “Did McCain’s extravagant condemnation of the court’s habeas ruling result from his reading the 126 pages of opinions and dissents?”

While I can enjoy such snark (and from such a source!) the real point of Will’s column, and the one that moves the whole incident into the realm of a blog concerned with what science can offer public life is the real risk of a McCain presidency exposed here. And it is not just that he’s revealed (once again) as a shoot from the hip reactive kind of guy (contrast his approach to this legal decision with former law professor Obama’s preparation here). Rather, it is that there is a real problem in electing Humpty Dumpty to any responsible office.

That is: the one constant across all the disciplines that call themselves science is a commitment to reality, to acknowledging the actual data that observation and experiment produce, however much they may conflict with worldview or desire. Here’s Albert Einstein, acknowledging in public, for as broad a lay audience as he could reach, explaining the significance of of the new discoveries of quantum mechanics:

There is no doubt that quantum physics explained a very rich variety of facts, achieving, for the most part, splendid agreement between theory and observation. The new quantum physics removes us still further from the old mechanical view, and a retreat to the former position seems, more than ever, unlikely….The qunatum theory again created new and essential features of our reality…”

Einstein never reconciled himself to critical aspects of the modern quantum theory; he spent three decades looking for a more general theory that would subsume it; and yet he nominated its first architects, Heisenberg and Schroedinger for the Nobel Prize, and he did not deny its obvious power or importance. He hated it, but he knew it meant something very, very significant.

Contrast that with McCain in action here. It is a fact that this decision falls within the mainstream of American jurisprudence — one may not like the outcome, and there are meaningful arguments to support that dislike, but this is a perfectly conventional bit of Constitutional reasoning. To say that this is “one of the worst” Supreme Court actions is simply to ignore example after example, fact after fact, that gives the lie to McCain’s pique.

This post is long enough. I’d just say that we’ve had enough of people asserting facts not in evidence for their own, temporary advantage. If there were a ever a single disqualifying attribute in a potential President, it is this truly anti-science willingness to ignore what they do, or should, know to be essential features of the reality we inhabit.

Image:  Jade Record, Chinese, 19th Century.  Depiction of sinners being tortured in the sixth court of hell.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Russert RIP; and yet…

June 13, 2008

I was opening my “write new post” window to say this, when I saw that John Cole got here first.

I wish to extend my condolences to Tim Russert’s family, friends and colleagues — especially his son Luke; I lost my father much too early, and I know something of how wretched that is.

But Cole caught my thought exactly: the reaction to Mr. Russert’s death illustrates the depth to which our broadcast journalism has sunk.

It’s been coming for a while. I remember, at the very start of my TV training meeting Fred Friendly, one of the great pioneers (one of the Murrow gang at CBS) and then Tom Bettag who has held just about every position worth having in the TV news business. They both talked in different ways about the tension between the way the camera creates and rewards stars and the need to do the kind of work rarely associated with stars.

What each man was trying to say to our tiny class of would – be tv producers and reporters is that the danger faced by all journalists comes when you take the part, and even the persona of your sources. The camera, the celebrity that a presence in the ether produces, turbocharges that danger — and back in the mid ’80s, the consequences were already apparent, with the habit, then just starting, for network anchors to pick up their massive baggage trains and go to host a broadcast at whatever location became significant. It cost a bomb, defeated the purpose of having a foreign correspondent out there doing the daily work, and was, if we had the wit to see it, a clear sign of the decline of American TV foreign coverage. (The newspapers held out longer, but a similar dynamic followed soon enough).

The price paid, or one of them, is that the news reader becomes the story. That’s death to clear thinking, to reporting, just to keeping hold of the screen real estate needed to convey a story more complicated than a gotcha.

Russert, I think, was better than many, maybe most. Certainly, he did a job that is much harder than the audience realizes and did it better than most — his colleagues’ memorialzing of his talent is right on.

But the bottom line for me, past my sympathy to those who knew him and feel the loss on a personal level, is that we need that talent without the face time than he received. It’s the stories that should lead, not the storytellers. (I know that this is an impossible goal. The whole structure of the medium is against it. But what that really says is that the medium is structurally unsuited for the job it claims to do).

All of which is to say that the wall-wall NBC and other network coverage of the death of a man who would always retained his claim on the blue-collar heritage he genuinely possessed is an instance of a deep and dangerous pathology Russert both resisted and embodied.

And with all that, 58 is way too young. Tim Russert, RIP.

Image:  licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.  Source;  Wikimedia Commons