Sunday, May 30, 2004


This morning my youngest announced that he wanted to invent a home soda making machine. I warned him this had already been done, and sketched out how it worked on the back of a church bulletin. Then I asked him what new flavors of soda he'd want to try. And so . . . Ramen chicken broth soda, apple (or pineapple) juice (without dilution), fruit punch soda (Me: Like Slice?), habenero soda, spice soda (no sugar), and pizza flavored soda.

Isn't 10 years old wonderful?

Saturday, May 29, 2004

Militant Islam Reaches America by Daniel Pipes

For this book Pipes collected a number of essays he wrote or cowrote over the past decade. The first set are on the subject of Islamism and militant Islam, and the second on the subject of Islam in the US. The topics range from Elijah Muhammad to Hizbullah in North Carolina to why the US government is a patron of Islam. Naturally in such a collection you'll find many thesis, and perhaps even some evolution of his thought. And therefore my description will be somewhat scattershot :-(

In "Is Islam a Threat?" he introduces the idea that Islamism "turns the traditional religion of Islam into a twentieth-century ideology," more interested in political power than theology. I'll certainly accept the claim that Islamism owes a great debt to the Western totalitarian ideologies ( Berman's book goes into this in detail), but I think he draws too great a distinction between religion and state affairs in Khomeini's letter to Gorbachev. From Khomeini's point of view, accepting Islam as a political ideology automatically brings with it accepting Islam as a religion, since that is part of the implementation of Islamic laws. I suspect that some Muslims focus on getting the ritual and personal aspects of their religion down, and hope the social and political will follow naturally. Some clearly focus on getting the political and legal/social structure in place first, and worry about personal aspects later.

Interestingly, at some points in the book he points out that many Islamists are quite familiar with the West, and in fact this familiarity is part of what drives their anger. From what I've heard of some of the case histories this seems to be at least partly true. And yet in other parts of the book he insists that Islamists do not understand what distinctives of Western culture have given it its power. "Innocent of any deeper understanding of how the two countries differed, the Islamists vaguely thought they could repeat their Soviet success in America." Perhaps this is merely a contradiction. I think it may also reflect both our failure to educate even ourselves about our own culture, and a hollow in the heart of that culture. Aside from a few buzz-words about democracy and freedom, most of our youth seem to have no idea what the West was about; and a culture of solipsistic hedonism cuts the heart out of our ideals.

As Pipes points out, the Islamist's closest targets are other Moslems (as in Algeria); and they are often roundly hated in return. He claims that the Islamists have rolled their own version of Islam without reference to the traditions. I'm not sure this is true. He says classical Islam left minorities to rule their own affairs--which isn't exactly true, as Bat Ye'or showed. In regions (note that this is territorial, contrary to his formulation) of Dar Al Islam, the dhimmis were still controlled, albeit through their chosen representatives, and sometimes attacked despite the treaty. In any event, Islamists hate Jews and Christians even more than they hate apostates.

In several chapters Pipes points out what should be perfectly obvious to everybody by now--that in many places in Europe and the US some of the Muslim immigrants form a belligerent and unassimilated group with a hate-filled agenda. That most Muslims should want to establish a caliphate in place of the existing governments is hardly unexpected, given the nature of the religion. That they should often carefully nurture their hates is not forgivable, especially if we're the targets.

Pipes demonstrates that in the urge to keep from offending Muslim our government and most media have essentially propagandized in favor of Islam. Even Paul Harvey caved in quickly when Muslims complained about his reporting. Given that blaspheming the prophet is often a capital offense, I don't doubt that a lot of the phone calls and letters included threats. Still, we seem to be spectacularly invertebrate when it comes to judging and reporting on the obvious demerits of some Muslims and their practice of Islam. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Muslim Islamic World is a politically correct screed for Islam--never a negative; all joy and light.

Pakistan modified its code to make the (rather vaguely defined) crime of blaspheming Muhammad a capital offense. I have not yet found any reference to a punishment for blaspheming God, but I'm still looking.

Pipe's description of the Islamist is of a well-educated man exposed to the West and hating it. Aside from the obvious fact that most Islamists will be followers and not leaders, and thus probably less well-off, this thumbnail description seems to reflect a cult rather than a sect: more of a new religion than a breakaway group. I'm not sure if this distinction applies as well with Islam, but . . .

A large fraction of the Muslims in the US are from the Nation of Islam, a bizarre group led into to popularity by Elijah Muhammad. Pipes summarizes a book describing his life and the rise of the organization, which I'd not seen anywhere before. A "squeaky little man teaching hate" changed the face of religion in the US as he spread a creed mixed of science fiction and hatred.

Did slaves bring Islam with them from Africa? Pipe reviews a book claiming yes, though some of the details he reports are unconvincing. That may be due to omissions by Pipes, or the book may be stretching too far.

Pipes offers suggestions for American policy on Islam and Islamism in "Do Moderate Islamists Exist?" (short answer: no).

  • Formulate and justify a policy toward militant Islam. Distinguish this from Islam, show its political dimension, and say we're against it.
  • Prove that we're willing to resist.
  • Ally with appropriate governments; mostly left leaning, as right leaning are often allied with Islamists.
  • Do not engage in official or political dialogue with the Islamists.
  • Do not appease the Islamists.
  • Do not help the Islamists do anything at all. (tough to do when we have to ally with Pakistan to get at Afghanistan)
  • Pressure militant Islamic states to reduce aggressiveness
  • Support those confronting militant Islam
  • Urge gradual democratization. Too rapid means populist Islamist parties are apt to do "One man, one vote, one time" games. Work on creating a civil society first, with democracy as the capstone.

In "Who is the Enemy?" Pipes estimates that the Islamist supporters number about 10-15% of all Muslims, and half of all Muslims hate the US. Moderate Muslims are politically weak and don't have a lot of economic power either, and are often intimidated by the Islamists. The great battle is going to have to be between Islamists and the rest of the Muslims, because they're the biggest targets and us infidels don't have standing to change religious interpretations. One policy won't fit all countries, but our goal is to weaken the Islamist side and help the "moderate" side in each region. We have to diligently exclude and expel radical Islamists in the US (and yes, this is constitutional; the relevant law was upheld). Actually keep track of who is fomenting hatred, and jail them if possible. Use some thought about our propaganda campaigns overseas--we've been looking like dunces.

Read it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Fire devastates Saatchi artworks

The BBC reports on an intense warehouse fire that destroyed more than 100 "artworks" from Charles Saatchi's collection, including work by Turner prize winners and Emin's "Everyone I have ever slept with 1963-95" tent (with photos of everyone she's slept with and of her aborted fetuses sewn inside).

Unfortunately the disposal has also destroyed a cafe, furniture factory, and a auto repair shop. I hope the firefighters are safe and that the various businesses are able to recover soon.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

The Radioactive Boy Scout by Ken Silverstein

Some of us remember a story from late 1994 about a boy who tried to build a reactor in a shed in his backyard. Ken Silverstein tells his story.

David Hahn's father Ken was a mechanical engineer, and David early on learned how to disassemble and reassemble model kits, radios, printers, and other gadgets his father brought home. He dreamed of invention. A pivotal point in his life came with the gift of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments from 1960, which had lively experiments--making chlorine gas, or chloroform; not like the wimpy Usborne or DK safety-first science books. The Curies became his heroes.

His parents divorced and remarried and he shuttled back and forth between them. His father Ken was extremely inattentive, and his mother Patty mentally unstable and alcoholic. Supervision of David came second, obviously.

Enamored of the things he could do with chemistry (fireworks, tanning solutions, and on and on) David's reach grew; and the "frog in the saucepan" effect meant that his various parents got used to strange gases, explosions, damaged carpet, and the occasional emergency room visit. David had no conception of safety. One day he determined to get a sample of every single element, and over the years he collared quite a few. Some are hard to get: radium, for instance, and plutonium. So, inspired by the notion of transmuting elements, and on fire with the idea of creating a working model of a breeder reactor, he set about finding the peices to make his own nuclear reactions.

Ken had persuaded him to join the Boy Scouts, and try for Eagle--and naturally David went for badges in chemistry and nuclear science. These provided plausible cover for his activities. Since he couldn't find all he needed in the local library he wrote the NRC, DOE, and everybody else he could think of for information, and slowly he pieced together what he would need. Thorium and radium are fairly easily available: thorium in lantern mantles and radium in antique glowing clock dials. He bought, borrowed, and stole (still unrepentantly!) items he needed. He ashed and purified the thorium, stole some beryllium, and patiently collected and purified radium from old clock dials to make his neutron gun. At school his fellow students thought he was blowing smoke until he showed some of them what the Geiger counter did with his samples.

He put together a table-top model of a reactor, and started it going with the neutron gun--and was gratified to find more radiation coming out than went in. In fact, after a while the background levels were quite high even far away from his shed.

Luckily for the neighborhood's health, the police picked him up for suspicious activity, searched his car, and the authorities soon realized they had a major health issue on their hands. His shed was shipped off to a nuclear waste dump, and he claims that the bulk of his "good stuff" (radium and thorium) wound up in the public dump when his parents panicked and got rid of it.

And what became of him? He became an Eagle Scout, though there was an effort to strip him of his status on the grounds of his being so careless with public safety. He joined the Navy, wound up on a nuclear powered carrier, and was forbidden to ever tour the reactor. He seems to still have the old fascination with nuclear power, and brings his Geiger counter into antique stores still. He will probably die young--he undoubtedly breathed a lot of radioactive dust. He still can't spell, and is no good at academics.

The book is based on an article written in Harper's Magazine. It would have been better to keep it as an article. Silverstein pads the story shamelessly, and ignorantly. You can almost taste the horror he feels at having to write the word "chemical." Silverstein does his best to depict the Boy Scouts as a neo-Nazi group indoctrinating youth into right-wing fealty to big corporations. And of course, nobody could possibly consider nuclear power for any reasonable purpose--Silverstein tries to prove that it is all a naive boondoggle, breeders especially.

Silverstein did quite a bit of research for the book, but evidently didn't understand any of it. Over and over you may find explanations of some bit of chemistry or nuclear physics, but half the time the explanation is irrelevant to the issues at hand. Even some of the simplest stuff is wrong: sodium is not explosive, for example. Dump it in a puddle and you'll get some big bangs and splatters of sodium hydroxide, but to call it explosive is seriously misleading. And, as Silverstein points out in the notes "At times, I found David's tale incredible, and there's no way to be certain of how far he got with his experiments, as he was the only witness to many of the events."

I recommended the book to a few people before I'd read far into it. Now I think I'll recommend the original article instead.

Friday, May 21, 2004

High Society by Dave Sim

This is a "graphic novel," which is to say a high-toned comic book. Disclaimer: I haven't read the first book, so maybe I'm missing something. The story arc follows the aardvark Cerebus as he arrives at the big city and finds himself more and more deeply emmeshed in the political scheming. This isn't Cerebus' cup of tea--he/she/it has much simpler tastes, such as money: but of course money comes along with power and so he is enticed into trying to gain power. The deepest battles turn out to be fought over who is going to get paid by a city that's completely bankrupt in a country of completely bankrupt cities; and what role the religious authorities will play.

I gather that this is supposed to be satirical, and it almost works. Ever-scheming Astoria and her lunatic "superhero" husband are nicely done, and Cerebus skates in and out of being an interesting character. The artwork is well done, and some of the scenes are fun. I think I'll pass on the other volumes in the series--it isn't to my taste.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

The Progress Paradox by Gregg Easterbrook

"How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse"

By almost every measure, we're better off. We're healthier, richer, longer-lived, freer. And it isn't just Americans--even in the developing world people are healthier and richer on the average. Why are so many of us miserable and incessant complainers?

Gregg asserts that when you correct for the large population of first generation immigrants to America, there is no growing gap between rich and poor or rich and middle class. Crime is dropping, and "Leading a straight-arrow lifestyle is your best defense against becoming a crime victim." The air is cleaner. "During the 2000 presidential campaign much was made of the fact that Houston had taken over from Los Angeles as the nation's 'smog capital.' Hardly anyone added that this happened during a period when Houston's smog diminished; it's just that L.A. pollution declined even faster." The water is cleaner, and there are more forests than when Columbus landed. Car deaths are down; cars are more fuel efficient and even boast higher performance. Food is cheap, plentiful, and in a variety hardly known even to emperors of old. Information about virtually anything in the world is available in firehose quantities. Work is safer and less onerous (on the whole) than ever before. Marriages aren't disintegrating as frequently as in the recent past (I'm not sure my observations agree with his, though).

So why is depression so common, and why are people so anxious?

One obvious source is the bias in our information. When Bush delayed implementing new arsenic guidelines pending a review, it was front page New York Times news (misreported as a cancellation, in their now-customary creative approach to reporting). When the guidelines were approved, it was noted briefly on page 18. Fundraising groups hype the horrific possibilities lying in wait if you don't send money--sometimes hyping with deliberate omissions and sometimes with outright lies. "If it bleeds, it leads" is the law governing reporting in all our media, leading to "headline-amplified anxiety." Elites like a focus on bad news, since it offers them a raison d'etre.

Easterbrook spends the first few chapters explaining why things are actually going very well (almost all around the world), and then asking why we perceive it as bad. Then he looks at the relationship of money and possessions to happiness. The really poor tend to be unhappy; happiness rises with income up to a level commensurate with lower middle class; income and happiness are decoupled thereafter. Wants can never be satisfied, and you are likely to find yourself controlled by your possessions if you focus on acquisition: "The victor belongs to the spoils."

From the chapter "Stress--It's Nature's Plan" I took this excerpt:

Nevertheless many prominent researchers have embraces the estimate of a tenfold increase in unipolar depression in the Western nations. One who endorses this number is Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and a past president of the American Psychological Association. Seligman has developed a four-step theory on why depression is rising so much.

The first cause, Seligman thinks, is individualism. "Unipolar depression is a disorder of the thwarting of the 'I,' and we are increasingly taught to view all through the 'I,'" Seligman believes. Past emphasis on family, faith, patriotism, and community was sometimes suffocating, but also allowed individuals to view their private setbacks as minor elements within a larger context. Today in the United States and Western Europe, where formal adherence to religion is declining, community loyalties are diluted by constant moving, families are smaller and fragile, and, where only a minority now tell pollsters they consider devotion to country important, the "I" is practically the only lens through which to view events. "Rampant individualism causes us to think that our setbacks are of vast importance and thus something to become depressed about," Seligman continues. If your life is centered in family, community, faith, or nationk, and things aren't going well for you, surely there will be some person or some part of an institution to whom you are connected for whom or where things are going well, or, at least, where the problems seem more important than yours. If, however, your life is centered on pure individualism and something goes poorly, there is no counterweight. You feel bad and nothing pulls you in the other direction.

From the beginning of the Enlightenment, through the establishment of Jeffersonian democracy, through the French existentialist movement and up to the present day, writers, thinkers, artists, and huge number of typical men and women have fought for the idea that people should be free agents, unhindered by the demands of church, state, or social convention. Now that condition is largely achieved in the West, bringing with it unprecedented liberty. But freedom isn't free, as military theorists like to say. In the case of depression, the cost of freedom is leaving every person to the fate of pure individualism, without consolation or context. But the setbacks that almost everyone endures may, in the unanchored framework of pure individualism, accumulate into a cause of depression--about which, then, you may have no one or no institution to turn to, other than the disembodied voice on the 800 number at your HMO.

As his second cause of the depression epidemic, Seligman blames the self-esteem craze. It may seem counterintuitive that focus on raising self-esteem, which is supposed to make people feel good, results in them becoming depressed. But then, many initiatives have unintended consequences. "Self-esteem emphasis has made millions think there's something fundamentally wrong if you don't feel good, as opposed to just, 'I don't feel good right now, but I will later,'" Seligman says. If you don't feel good now but will ater, that's a minor matter. If something is fundamentally wrong with your life, that's pretty depressing.

Self-esteem counselors and others in the movement maintain that people ought to feel good about themselves all the time, a notion most psychologists find hopelesssly unrealistic. Everyone has setbacks, or bad days, or simply periods of time when things are boring or crummy; don't obsess because you'll have better days, is Seligman's advice. The preaching of self-esteem, now common in public schools and in the midafternoon-television and talk-radio universe, instills the idea that a person ought always to be beaming with satisfaction, and if not, then he or she must have been wronged by someone or some institution and should be angry. Fixation on self-esteem may, in the end, only cause us to go looking for things to become upset about. People who go looking for things to become upset about rarely fail to find them.

Seligman's third cause of depression flows from the second, being the "postwar teaching of victimology and helplessness." Intellectuals, politicians, tort lawyers, and the media have in the last few decades become ever more proficient at discovering victims. So many classes of victimhood have been proclaimed that, in cumulative terms, today every person in the United States may be able to call himself or herself a victim or something or other; leaving aside the question of, if we're all victims, then who did the victimizing?

Surveys, Seligman notes, show that ever higher percentages of Americans describe themselves as victims. A steadily rising percentage of incoming college freshmen, for example, characterize themselves as having been victimized or possessing little control over their fates. For university freshmen, such views may actually be rewarded--those claiming victimhood on admission essays probably increase their odds of being accepted to college, and the more innovative the victimhood claim, the better. But for contemporary Americans to claim lack of control over their own fates is striking, since, objectively, personal freedom has never been greater. The We're-All-Victims worldview only serves to deter men and women from asserting control over their own psyches.

Seligman finds particularly counterproductive, and depression-inducing, the craze for adults asserting they were victimized by their parents. Only in extreme cases, such as sexual abuse, is there a clear link between parenting behavior and adult personality, Seligman thinks the psychological data show. "You are entitled to blame your parents for the genes they gave you but you are not entitled, by any research that I know of, to blame them for the way they treated you," Seligman says. Yet the blaming of parents has become a minor industry in the contemporary United States, inspiring talk shows and whole categories of junk-science litigation. A relevant note: Depressed patients often blame their parents for their condition, but once recovered from depression, usually stop blaming parents and describe their former claims as a crutch.

Fourth of Seligman's inventory of causes of depression is runaway consumerism. Shopping, sports cars, expensive chocolates, and the like are "shortcuts to well-being," Seligman supposes. Acquiring material things may produce a momentary feeling of gratification, but the feeling rarely lasts. Incessant purchases may be piled atop one another in the quest for the same gratification that purchases once brought--this is the basic dynamic of shopaholism--while ever higher spending actives the cycle of work-and-spend. Spending as a "shortcut" to well-being is crippling owing to debt, or by locking a person or a head of a household into the soul-draining existence of always chasing maximized income.

That runaway consumerism may be a malady in the clinical sense is suggested by the fact that it sometimes responds to medication. Recent studies have suggested that shopaholism can be treated by the antidepressant Celexa. This may sound like a postmodern practical joke--if your problem is that you spend too much money, what you need is an expensive prescription drug. But it's inarguable that runaway consumerism harms some people's well-being: They spend too much, or waste too much time shopping, or make compulsion-driven purchases of things they don't even necessarily want. Perhaps excessive consumerism is a cause of depression, or perhaps a symptom, with people shopping too much because they are depressed--metaphorically, endlessly seeking that which they do not find. In either case, if an antidepressent relieves the condition, this tells us consumerism and depression are linked. That is not good news for a society grounded in consumerism.

The question of happiness and unhappiness cannot be separated from questions of meaning and responsibility. The current philosophical fashion bellows that existence is meaningless, since we arrive by accident and are shaped by random impersonal forces. Good and evil are imaginary, or at least arbitrary. You would think that claims so contrary to human experience would merely be laughed at--plainly the philosophers have made some mistake. But no, this permeates our entire culture. If there is no other meaning, we are left with "Whoever dies with the most toys dies anyway," which is pretty depressing.

So who is happy, and why? On the whole, the elderly are happier than the young. People willing to forgive are happier. People willing to be grateful are happier. People who have a purpose are happier. People who are with other people are happier. (One reason for increased loneliness and depression undoubtedly is the smaller and more separated families these days.)

Except for growing old, none of these is automatic. It is horribly easy to feel disgruntled. It takes practice to remember to be grateful. It is easier to hang out in front of a TV than to go and do things with people. Large families require time and money. Meaning and purpose don't drop out of the blue.

Parenthetically, Easterbrook claims that if you don't believe in God, you can still devise your own purpose, which is meaningful because you chose it. Unfortunately, that approach runs straight to the meaninglessness he and I decry, because without some fundamental right and wrong your choices are literally unjustifiable, and therefore meaningless. I do not say that it is impossible to have a moral code without God (that's another subject), but that roll-your-own doesn't work.

In the last few chapters he changes the subject; first to a criticism of the ethics of senior management of US corporations (an all too-easy target, their greed and dishonesty are of mythic proportions), and then to a plea for a higher minimum wage and a dramatic increase in foreign aid (which, as he points out, can in fact be helpful: things are improving and we wouldn't be pouring money down rat holes). The connection of these final chapters to the rest of the book is a bit tenuous, unless this is his suggestion for doing something useful to get us out of our funk. He is a bit overoptimistic about the war against the Islamofacists (they've been a perennial problem in Islam) and about the power of money as aid. For example, Zimbabwe would benefit less from another shipment of our food to rot on the docks than it would from a few well-placed bullets into their high and mighty kleptocrats. (That's not exactly Christian charity, but neither is deliberate starvation of your political opponents. Moi may be a crook, but Mugabe is wicked.)

Easterbrook points out a number of things we should celebrate, and the book is worth reading for those alone. I judge that he underestimates the seriousness of the disastrous trends in our culture: hyperindividualism, numbness to violence, family disintegration rates, and so on. That we can and should do more to help our neighbors is indisputable. Figuring out what will actually help is more problematic: some of our welfare programs had serious side effects. Ditto some World Bank efforts. Go read the book.


The BBC reports on a study in the American Journal of Physiology claiming to have evidence for nanobacteria. If I rely on the BBC account, though, the researchers seem to have missed the boat.

In the lab, they stained the specimens and examined them under a high power electron microscope.

The team found tiny spheres ranging in size from 30-100 nanometres (sic), which is smaller even than many viruses.

When the tissue was broken up, filtered to remove anything more than 200nm and the filtrate added to a sterile medium, the optical density - or cloudiness - of the medium increased.

This, the researchers argue, means the nanoparticles were multiplying of their own accord.

They should have taken samples of the medium at different times and tried to count the number of "nanobacteria" they could centrifuge out as a function of time. I'm not sure I believe optical density changes by themselves.

Little nonGreen Men has an article by Margaret Turnbull explaining why animals don't use chlorophyll. Essentially it boils down to "animals use energy faster than they can get it from the sun." This relies on three assumptions:

  • The solar constant is going to be pretty similar for any planet capable of sustaining life
  • You can't do better than chlorophyll's efficiency
  • Animals will use energy at similar rates

The second assumption is probably pretty good. 8 percent is not bad. The first I don't know about, but for the sake of argument we'll accept it. The third is dubious. Why shouldn't animals go around slowly? There are well-known examples: sea anemones, for instance, or starfish, or sloths (though they probably go too fast).

Weathering Asteroids

It sounds like a novel . . . But

The new study appears to answer an old question about why small meteorites, which are chips off asteroids, are often a different color than the typical asteroid. . . . .

The surfaces of asteroids are reddened over billions by space weathering effects, the study concludes.

So what could cause weathering?

  • Solar wind protons (1-3 MeV/c momentum) burying themselves in the outer layers has to cause some dislocations in the structure of the minerals making it up. (They should penetrate somewhere between 10 and 60 microns.) It also changes the chemistry of the outer layer. I wonder if adding extra protons tends to burn away the oxygen. Charged particles moving through matter ionize and excite nearby molecules. If you blast a silicate with protons, I'd guess that sometimes one of those ionized oxygens will combine with the proton when it comes to rest. If so, then you should see some absorbtion signatures for hydrosilicates, or exotics left behind after H2O or O2 diffuse out (the surface layer is thin, remember). X-O-SiO2 goes to X-O-SiO-H where X is the base part of the mineral (iron or magnesium or calcium or whatever).

    I don't know if these exotics are more red. Not enough chemistry. However, the dislocations should make the outer layer absorb shorter wavelengths better than an untreated surface--and make it darker. Over time you might be able to make the surface pretty black. If the asteroid is close enough to the sun to get hot, I'd expect the dislocation effect to go away thanks to annealing.

    According to today's 7-day solar wind report the average speed was about 300 km/sec and the density was about 5/cm3, which translates to a rate of 1.5 E8/(cm2 sec). 150 million protons per second per square centimeter is more than I expected.

  • Hard UV and X-rays would tend to split up compounds too, but since the pieces of the original molecule are still in the same general area I'd expect them to recombine at some rate. So there'd still be some exotics, but not a lot. The very first few molecular layers could be depleted in oxygen, which stands a better chance of diffusing out than in deeper layers.

    They also can, by ionizing molecules, make exotic bonding combinations; but most of these are probably not stable enough to worry about. If you had carbon instead of silicon, that would be a different story.

  • Gamma rays and penetrating cosmic rays will dump most of their energy deep enough into the rock that it should not effect surface color. I've not heard of embrittlement in things like olivine, but I suppose that might be possible. Still, meteor samples aren't famous for bulk changes due to radiation damage, so I think I can rule out any effect from high energy particles.

This could be interesting. I'll have to poke around and see what the NASA results were from the probe they launched years ago to measure solar wind and micrometeorite damage.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Bionicles and Folk Tales

Our youngest is "into" bionicles (the Lego action figures) and can recite chapter and verse about their qualities and doings. He was explaining a couple of central characters to us at supper the other night, thusly:

Mata Nui is the good guy, and Makuta was jealous, so he made Mata Nui fall asleep; like Snow White.

That's probably the first time those characters ever appeared in the same conversation, let alone sentence. Good analogy, though.

Great Wall of Iraq

Funny how well low-tech solutions often work. As long as you are willing to keep an eye on them, earthwork walls block trucks pretty well. And I suppose they also make it difficult to claim you were lost and didn't know you had left Syria . . .

Oops. Bands do get in the way.

The New Scientist reports on study showing that penguins with wing band ID's don't breed as well as others. I'd always thought those bands looked pretty huge, but apparently they don't interfere with range of motion. They do add noticable drag, though; and when life or death depends on swimming fast. . . Most banded penguins seemed to survive as well as the others, but not have the extra energy needed to breed.

The French team used an alternative tracking method--microchip transponders--and compared penguins with both with penguins with only the transponders. Apparently seals aren't as bothered by the small amount of drag--a UK group says they don't see any problems.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Dealing with disappointment 101

#3 daughter always watched her sisters' ballet and other productions with utter delight. When she first learned to walk, she got into her sisters' closet and swiped their ballet costumes. Usually she put them on upside down. When her oldest brother played his violin, she'd dance by shaking her seat up and down.

She is now 13 and has been in some small musicals as well as ballet. She has also won a blue ribbon at the County Fair for dramatic reading and has been to the State Fair in a 15 minute musical. This is no small achievement for a child with autism issues. She's a bit wobbly on stage and she doesn't always know what her voice is doing. She needs lots of coaching to get the right facial expression and pose. But performing matters to her, and she works hard.

Having friends also matters to her, as it does to every 13 year old. The hard part is, she doesn't know how to be a friend very well yet. She has trouble reading faces and body language and tone of voice. She doesn't know how to join a conversation without interrupting or being silly. Just 15 months ago, her only conversation starter was, "Do you have any pets?"

At Valentine's Day, she tried making a paper heart valentine suitable for a first grader, for an older girl who gets a lot of leads. She is under the impression that "hot" means "good." No, no, no. For her, the only time she should use the word "hot" is in reference to a cup of cocoa.

I asked her, "Who are your buddies at snack time?" She gave me two names. "Then that's who you give the valentines to," I explained. She took a stamp and ink and decorated three plastic gift bags and filled them with Hersheys, one for each snack buddy plus one buddy's mom. They liked the treat, and they thanked her. Appropriate contact made. A victory.

When her choir planned a 45 minute musical, she worked for two weeks to prepare for the auditions. None of the parts are big, but the staff looks for ways to give as many kids as possible something special to do. A few days after the audition, one of the audition committee (not the director) told me that the committee had been really impressed with her audition and that the competition was tough.

She hung on to that until after the parts were announced. She was not given a part. I repeated the committee members comment to her, dozens of times. She was NOT going back to choir. She hid the CD with the music on it under her bed. She tossed her score in the corner. The next rehearsal came after spring break. She'd had two weeks to deal with it, and she hadn't. She was NOT going back to choir!

"Yes," I told her, "you are going back. And you're going to give it your best shot."

She went back to choir the next morning without a word. She gave it her best shot. She relaxed and did her part on stage. She also made one friend she wants to get together over the summer.


Tonight was the concert. She sang well. Her facial expression was a little odd, but she had a good time and did a good job.

The Audition committee lady came to me after the concert, looking puzzled. "I thought they'd made a part for her. We'd all recommended that the director give her a part."

I said I didn't know anything about it. I did tell the committee lady how much of a difference her compliment made in #3's dealing with the disappointment.

I'm not going to spoil her victory by telling her that maybe somebody goofed and she was supposed to get a part. She made progress. She has a lot to be proud of.

Mrs James

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Requiem for a player piano

When No. 2 daughter started piano lessons,7 or 8 years ago, we had only a dinky 4 octave keyboard, with tiny keys. So when our neighbor offered us her great-aunt's old player piano for sale, cheap, we gladly rolled it up the driveway and into the living room.

The piano was a WWI era dinosaur, standing 5 feet tall, and the ivory was falling off the keys; but it still worked. We heard hours of scales and beginners' classics, and then somebody would put on a roll of "On Wisconsin," followed by the Yale fight song. We tried some of the other rolls; but "On Wisconsin" was #1 on the hit parade. Then one of the kids found the tempo lever, and somehow "On Wisconsin" kept getting faster and faster. Somebody pushed the lever to "prestissimo" once too often, and it stuck.

#2 daughter forsook the piano the tuba, and then the "A" above middle C stuck. The tuner couldn't get at it without disassembling the entire player mechanism, and he didn't have the tools for removing the mechanism; this surgery would require a specialist. You can't play anything without "A" above middle C. And the piano could no longer be tuned. The tuner set it to a quarter tone flat; otherwise the frame would crack. Hard to learn to play that way. To get the instrument playable, except for being a quarter tone flat, would cost well over $3000. And so we closed the cover, and the piano gradually turned into a huge ugly end table.

#1 son started singing lessons last year. He started because the speech therapist suggested it for voice control. To his great surprise, he discovered that, not only could he sing, but he had two decent baritone octaves. He got by with the little keyboard, and he took a music theory class for fun this semester. Not having any piano skills, he still managed to compose a little waltz based on the call of the chickadee for his class. Last Saturday, he won a part in the chorus of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Ruddigore."

Meanwhile, a Chicago lawyer informed me that my late aunt Philippine had left me a modest legacy, and after two years of putzing they finally had gotten the will into probate. My modest legacy came in just in time to pay of a fat bill, replace the engine in the car the teenagers drive, and buy an electronic piano. It's slender and black, with a harpsichord and pipe organ and several other instruments programmed into it. Not top of the line; no frills. A Discontinued model that the piano store wanted OUT of their warehouse. They wanted the sale bad enough that they agreed to take the dinosaur out. Today the music store delivered it.

The delivery men have handled many pianos. The skinny guy with the droopy mustache and long grey hair looked at the brand and groaned; it was a notoriously heavy brand. They wrestled it onto a dolly. The guy asked, "Want to kiss it goodbye?" I almost did.

#2 daughter came home, dug out her old piano books, and tried to remember how treble clef works. Everybody else had their turn; we have to remind #2 son that changing from organ to harpsichord in the middle of a line isn't good for the piano. We have music again.

--Mrs. James

Chinese food?

When a man sits down to the SuperBowl with nachos, he wants a big bag of chips and a really wide bowl of melted cheese. Is the bowl a Moo Goo Guy Pan? See, the cheese is . . . nevermind. Back to the drawing board.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Plastic fibers

I remember finding rounded green pebbles on the beach, and being startled to find that they were the remains of Coke bottles, battered into relative smoothness. I suppose I should have expected that plastic would be similarly battered. Some of the particles of plastic are 20 microns wide (the smallest size the researchers could see with their apparatus). The researchers say that amphipods, lugworms, and barnacles all ate the bits of plastic, but they don't know yet what long-term effects there will be as critters swallow the stuff. Maybe it'll be poisonous, maybe it'll block their guts--or maybe some bacteria will mutate to eat them. Sooner or later I expect the bacteria to make an appearance.

I suppose the best case is if the bacteria live in the lugworm guts. If free-floating bacteria can eat plastic--we have a lot of structural plastic around. . . Of course we have a lot of plastic in dumps too.

I don't know the biochemistry well enough to guess which variety of plastic is going to be eaten first. I also don't know what the waste products will be. This could get interesting.