Tuesday, January 29, 2008


So zoos find that birds can have arrhythmias--and the larger the bird, the worse it gets! A crow might need emergency attention once every couple of years, but the emu sees a cardiac unit every other month, an ostrich even more often; and you don't want to be between a roc and a heart place.

Vitamin D

This report in Science Daily is interesting. I'd want to see verification before I took any action though. And I'd want to look at the paper.

Marshall's research has demonstrated how ingested vitamin D can actually block VDR activation, the opposite effect to that of Sunshine. Instead of a positive effect on gene expression, Marshall reported that his own work, as well as the work of others, shows that quite nominal doses of ingested vitamin D can suppress the proper operation of the immune system.

Since the body generates its own vitamin D, there really isn't any need for supplemental D anyway. If this pans out (a really big IF), then vitamin D milk is a bad idea.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

American Islam, The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, by Paul M. Barrett

I hesitate to use the phrase, since the word bias has such nefarious connotations these days, but I suspect a sampling bias in the selection of people Barrett decided to illustrate his book with. I do not mean that he deliberately selected people who would look bad, but that he selected people who were mostly famous for one reason or another, and thus wound up with an unrepresentative sample.

I certainly hope so.

Barrett studies 7 people:

  • Osama Siblani, a publisher in Dearborn
  • Khaled El Fadl, a scholar
  • Siraj Wahhaj, an Imam
  • Asra Nomani, a feminist agitator
  • Abdul Kabir, a Sufi leader
  • Sami Omar al-Hussayen, a webmaster
  • Mustafa Saied, a radical who reformed

One theme common to almost all of them is the view of the Arab-Israeli conflict as the Ur-conflict, symbolic of all and subsuming all other conflicts into itself. Siblani's principal loyalty is not to the United States, despite his protestations. It is to his religion, and the political interests that his religion currently claims. He and several others say as much—their religious view of Israel and US interests in the Middle East is such that they would rather we suffered defeat than have the religious and political interests of their original homelands suffer. This is perhaps understandable in first generation immigrants, but it does not constitute loyalty to their new country.

I know we have a history of this kind of problem. One obvious example is immigrant Irish bringing their old feuds with them and nurturing them for generations; going so far as to raise support for terrorist organizations here to this day. They also failed in showing loyalty to their new country. The interests of Ireland are not the same as the interests of the United States.

Another common theme is the radicalization of American Islam thanks to new Arab and Pakistani immigrants. This dismays most of those Barrett talked to. It is a serious error to imagine that Islam is a simple faith with a single variety: some flavors are hideously intolerant and violent. Those varieties are on the increase in this country—and pretty much everywhere else too thanks to Saudi money and Egyptian Brotherhood organization.

Wahhaj worked to reduce crime in his neighborhood, and had quite a bit of success and fame from it, but his rhetoric pre-911 was not temperate and he celebrated terrorist supporters. Since then he has moderated his language a bit, but if his opinions have not changed he is not a friendly force.

Asra has worked for years trying to get women allowed to worship in the same place as men; to enter by the same door; to get equal treatment. She has partly succeeded, in one mosque.

Sami was accused of giving technical support to terrorist websites and promoting terrorist ideals on his own. The case was not proved and he was found innocent and made a cause celebre, and for some reason Barrett seems to think he actually was innocent. Perhaps so, but I don't find many people shipping me hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Something smells here.

Mustafa's story is chilling. Using nothing more than standard issue religious knowledge and the Muslim Zeitgeist, he found that the way to get respect was to be “holier than thou” by being “more militantly anti-Jewish than thou.” In effect, he spontaneously radicalized. He says he turned down an invitation from some Muslim Brotherhood leaders for cadre training, and some time later began to realize what an idiot he had been in mistaking infidel-hatred for piety.

Are these people representative? Apparently Asra isn't, or she'd have not had so much trouble trying to get the mosque to do something as simple as let women walk in the same door as men. Mustafa may well be representative of many youth—the story he told is very credible. I've seen Christian youth stand up and declaim positions of piety and assurance that I know they had no training or experience to understand, to the applause of the others. Fortunately the Christian Zeitgeist is far more benign than the Muslim one, and none of the kids dallied with terrorist groups.

Islam in America is multifaceted, as Barrett describes, and the problems are also complicated. Many of the new immigrants have no interest whatever in assimilation, and little pressure to do so from either fellow Muslims or the rest of the country. (“Multiculturalism” has never been seriously analyzed or debated publicly—it has been sold as if it meant nothing more than having lots of different ethnic restaurants in town.) Many forms of Islam are incompatible with liberal democracy, many are incompatible with personal freedom, and most Muslims pay lip service at least to the doctrine that they owe allegiance to a caliphate—a foreign government (recently abolished, but there's plenty of agitation for reinstatement). This isn't the same as Catholic allegiance to the Pope—he lost all governorship years ago and his authority for secular rule was never unchallenged. The Caliph is both Pope and King.

About thirty years ago my father told me that America was going to have to face up to the problem of Islam and democracy. I didn't know what he was talking about then. I know now.

Read the book. I don't take his recommendations at the end very seriously.


Today was recital day. Youngest Son sang "Wisconsin State of Mind" by Billy Joel and himself, Youngest Daughter sang a German song about Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, and Oldest Son sang "I've Got a Little List." All sang well, though Youngest Daughter adamantly refused to let me "film" her. What do you call it when you use a digital camera?

Today's opera is The Barber of Seville. Youngest Daughter likes opera, and came in to hear it when I turned it on, and was last seen fast asleep on the sofa. I wonder how much she can absorb that way...

Friday, January 25, 2008

Bread and circuses

I've been slowly reading a history of Rome, and just read a section on how the plebes were kept placid with food subsidies and entertainments (which grew more and more expensive), and the occasional banning of unofficial organizations. I looked up a blogger I read from time to time, and found him with his underwear in a knot about the offensive way a commentator I'd not heard of on a network I never watch described the death of an actor I'd never heard of. No doubt Mark's description was accurate and the degradation of discourse he complained of is perfectly real, but the blog post illustrated 4 levels of entertainments.

There's the movies, of course, and the reporting about actors, and the commentariat, and the blogging about it all. Luckily the blogging circus is cheap.

When the weather warms. ..

Now that the temperature has climbed up from windy -12F to a relatively mild +12F, people are unwrapping their faces and on campus I see red cold-chapped noses and cheeks and even (il faut souffrir pour etre belle) cleavage.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Current usage

Modern idioms insinuate themselves everywhere. My better half had been cleaning the counters and put back the appliances when she was done. Youngest Son asked "Is the toaster online?"

Friday, January 18, 2008

Is that a T-Rex lurking behind the snowbank?

The Smithsonian has a story on polar dinosaurs. Back in the day, when Australia hooked up with Antarctica and had a climate like Chicago's but with a 4-month long night each year, it had dinosaurs. It had the same kinds of dinosaurs as elsewhere. What did they eat during the long dark night of the pole? Did they migrate or hibernate or eat slim, or all of the above? Stay tuned.

Rock Art

OK, this is great! Sheep selected for breeding purposes in Wyoming were marked with paint, and they wandered around with wet paint on their rumps. Result? "Abstract rock art." No doubt some semiotics student is deleting chapter 5 of his thesis right now.

Bobby Fischer

I remember the Fischer-Spassky match well. The games were printed in the International Herald Tribune, and I'd cover the game with a card and try to figure out what each player's next move would be. Sometimes the card slipped and I missed a set of moves and wound up thoroughly confused. (Once or twice there was a misprint in the paper, too.) It was quickly pretty plain that I wasn't a grandmaster. We rooted for Bobby the underdog of course (the Russians dominated the chess field).

I didn't know then that chess masters were even more likely than mathematicians to snap, and Bobby certainly went weird on us. I don't know whether his famous diva-like behavior was calculated. Maybe it was at first, and grew on him, or maybe he found it a useful quirk until it went out of hand. But his alternate reclusion and ranting told us the poor man was in trouble away from the 64-square madhouse, and his embrace of new rules suggests that maybe he knew he wasn't as good as in his youth and couldn't stand it. Or maybe he was just tired of chess.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

On shift again

One of the big topics of conversation around here is the budget cuts for Fermilab. These were magnified because Congress, in its infinite wisdom, didn't generate a budget until well into the fiscal year, so some previously promised money (that will now never arrive) has already been spent. Everybody knows people who are getting laid off. The ILC is gone, and a lot of people thought it was the only serious way to go forward. And the B factories are gone early. Not too much left.

Odd sight: yesterday morning I arrived at 6:45 at B0. In front of trailer 170 (the first of two lines of trailers in the trailer complex) was a white stretch limo with the driver waiting. It was a bit brisk to try to go see if he'd open his window and explain, so I didn't find out who was hiring it. None of the scientists I know would go in for that sort of silliness. Fermilab isn't exactly the kind of place you go for a wild party--and you have to go through some rigmarole to get in. At a wild guess: the limo was part of some party that started the night before, and somebody thought it would be amusing to visit daddy at work.

And it is counterintuitive, but when we're actually running the shift crew can be much less busy than when we're not--and having to deal with umpteen folks trying to tinker.

Update: I talked with Ben, who had a curious explanation: There exists a limo service which takes people to/from the airport sometimes. They have a fleet of cars, and sometimes the only one available is a stretch limo.