Archive for March, 2010

Mind-blowing artwork in your pocket

March 30, 2010 3 comments

Bas-relief sculpture is the art of suggesting three-dimensionality in a pretty-much-flat surface.  Yesterday I noticed an example that really knocked my socks off.  I was waiting for a system to boot up and idly looking at coins in my pocket.

On campus there’s a sculpture of Abe Lincoln that looks pretty darn good and it’s only about two inches deep.  At about eighteen inches that’s a width-to-depth ratio of 9 to 1. 

But looking at this nickel I couldn’t help admiring how the image worked and got to wondering how deep it is. So I got out a micrometer and adapted it to measure small areas, and took measurements.  High spots – the arch of the eye, the cheekbone, ridge of the nose, etc.  And low spots – it dips just off the eye, just under the nose and chin.

From my photo album; Notes

Ready?  This portrait of Thomas Jefferson is 135 times as wide as it is deep.  None of these features is more than six thousandths of an inch above its surroundings.  I don’t know what figure I was expecting, but it wasn’t that small. For comparison, a sheet of standard copy paper is just under five thousandths thick.  An index card, ten thousandths. 

Damn.  Getting from artistic concept to finished die is NOT an automated process by any stretch.  My humble admiration to the artists and engravers

(Click through to the album, and click the magnifying glass icon for a closer look.  Specially note the detail around the eyes, and the rendering of the facial muscles.)

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Tyson on DWB

March 28, 2010 1 comment

Neil DeGrasse Tyson recounts an evening with friends at a conference.  They had gotten to telling stories about being confronted by police:

I had a dozen different encounters to draw from.  There was the time I was stopped late at night at an underpass on an empty road in New Jersey for having changed lanes without signaling.  The officer told me to get out of my car and questioned me for ten minutes around back with the headlights of his squad car brightly illuminating my face.  Is this your car?  Yes.  Who is the woman in the passenger seat?  My wife.  Where are you coming from?  My parents’ house.  Where are you going?  Home.  What do you do for a living?  I am an astrophysicist at Princeton University.  What’s in your trunk?  A spare tire, and a lot of other greasy junk.  He went on to say that the “real reason” he stopped me was because my car’s license plates were much newer and shinier than the seventeen-year-old Ford that I was driving.  The officer was just making sure that neither the car nor the plates were stolen.

From Neil DeGrasse Tyson, The Sky Is Not The Limit: adventures of an urban astrophysicist.  I’ve linked the Kindle version, though my copy is an actual book on paper.  It’s kind of cool that even though the book is out of print, you can still get it in some form, no?  Though used copies are available; I got mine for a buck on the discount table of the college bookstore.

The quote is from a moving chapter, Dark Matters in which he recounts his path to gaining his PhD in astrophysics, bringing “the national total of Black astrophysicists from six to seven (out of four thousand nationwide)”.  I had wondered why, though a top athlete, he had declined an invitation to appear in the “sexiest scientists” calendar but the chapter explains it completely.  And also the reason why, though frequently challenged to become some kind of civil rights spokesman, he chose to become an astrophysicist instead. 

I’d love to think we live in a post-racial era in our country.  I once did think that, in fact.

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Movie Review: Pirate Radio

March 27, 2010 3 comments

First of all, if your community doesn’t have an alternative theater, and you’re stuck with crappy corporate cinema ‘round the clock, I’m so sorry.  We have The Historic Normal Theater, a restored 1930’s Art Deco theater that plays foreign, alternative, and classic films.  Call city hall and bitch at them.  Start one yourself if you have to, but every community ought to have a Normal theater.  If you have not joined an entire theater audience wholeheartedly shouting out “A shrubbery!” when the movie character begins, “Bring me…”, or the whole audience bursting into applause at the end of a film, your community is missing a shared experience.  If you’ve never been deeply moved in the theater by a film that nobody has ever heard of, there’s a whole world of elitism for you yet to explore.

Anyway, this evening MrsDoF and I went there to see Pirate Radio: the boat that rocked.  It’s an ensemble comedy inspired by actual pirate radio in Britain in the 1960’s.  And when I say “inspired by” I mean; “characters in the story are carbon-based life forms, just like in the actual historical event!”  OK, it’s a little closer than that, but it isn’t a documentary.

Thing is, according to the movie, in Britain in the ‘60’s, you couldn’t broadcast Rock ‘n Roll – the official stations all broadcast classical music.  So there was this radio station on a ship moored out at sea, and practically everybody listened to that instead of the official station.  The authorities spend most of the movie trying to shut them down, and in the end they succeed, sort of.  Only not.  Which is not to say they don’t stop broadcasting.

It’s a delightfully improbable tale of filth, depravity, and Rock ‘n Roll and the bureaucrats who wanted all of it gone.  Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, and a whole bunch of other people some of whom I recognized. 

You might wonder if a bunch of whacked-out rock rebels know how to safely operate a ship at sea, and that’s a really good question.  One that perhaps they should have asked themselves…

The movie was not, to put it mildly, a financial success and may not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re used to having the story crammed down your throat with a cinematic score with car chases and explosions, you definitely won’t like it, but we enjoyed it.

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Everlast - “What it’s like”

March 25, 2010 Comments off

I have a nasty cold and feeling a bit dark today…

Not dark enough?  How about some Blue On Black?  Whisper on a scream; it doesn’t mean a thing…

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Economic connectedness - part 1 of ?

March 24, 2010 Comments off

I don’t know how long this series will be: three posts, maybe four.  And there’ll be nothing in it that could be considered profound or original – “stupidly obvious” might be a better description. 

The unexceptional individual

While an exceptional individual may rise above his circumstances, you can’t expect that most children will graduate from run-down schools in dangerous neighborhoods and go on to post- high school education.  And if they only have a high school education, and not a very good one at that, or even didn’t get to that point, again, once in a while an exceptional individual might surprise you, but that isn’t the norm.  For the most part, they’ll get low-paying jobs without meaningful insurance.  And they’ll live in poor housing, so their property taxes won’t support much of a school district, so their kids…

All this is predictable.  A lot of things are predictable.

For instance, conservatives who grew up in suburban neighborhoods with good tax bases and the resulting decent schools, who went to college or technical school and got jobs with major corporations and have never been sick and uninsured at the same time, might predictably blame the people in the first paragraph for being lazy or reckless.  You see, they read an inspirational story once about a kid who grew up in the ghetto and went on to invent something or become a star or whatever.  So everybody who wasn’t exceptional, must simply not be trying.

In all this, you’d think they would recognize just how unexceptional, and how fortunate, they are.  But they don’t;  it’s the air they breathe.  It’s neigh-impossible to imagine that anyone else breathes different air.  Most people take personal credit for their own good luck.  In their hearts, they believe it is deserved, and that the bad luck of the unfortunate person is deserved as well.  This is completely natural.

Of course they live in good housing, so their property taxes support a good school district, so their kids with grow up with the same sense of entitlement.  They’ll never realize how ridiculous they sound when they accuse poor people of having a sense of entitlement, either.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks….

The poor kid, not being stupid, can see that his or her future isn’t all that bright.  It might occur to them that if they’d just isolate themselves from the entire society around them, and concentrate on nothing but their schoolwork, that they could rise above the whole neighborhood and become a shooting star.  And suppose they do that – denying themselves friends and beer and weed and sex and all the things that (brace yourself, conservatives) high school kids of all economic classes enjoy, and in spite of all odds they achieve academically beyond anyone’s expectations. 

It takes exceptional fortitude.  To accomplish this feat, the poor kid had to work three times as hard, and practice that much more self-denial, as the middle-class kid (to say nothing of the rich kid).  Because “talent” is basically a myth, or such a rarity that it comes down to these other things.

Glory be, they’re going to college.  Their parents are so proud.  And because they did well in high school, they’re getting some scholarships.  But it isn’t enough, so when they graduate, they’re dragging a great big sack of student loans.  But these aren’t low-rate loans.  Their loan isn’t even owned by the institution they took it out from.  Nope, they missed one payment and that bank immediately sold it to a holding company that handles high-risk loans, and suddenly their interest rate has doubled and they payments have tripled.  And this can happen multiple times.

But hey, they’ve got that diploma, right?  So they should be able to get a good job with benefits, right?

Sure, assuming they happened to have chosen a major that, four years later, turns out to still be in demand. Assuming they don’t live in Michigan or some other state that isn’t lucky enough to be doing well right now.  And remember, the hiring departments of those major corporations are, in large part, still staffed by people who grew up in the suburbs.  Diversity directives notwithstanding, people hire people they trust, which is to say; people who are culturally like themselves.  Surprisingly, a diploma isn’t the only requirement for success.

If they perservere, and continue on a path of self-denial, in time they can grab that holy grail, that brass ring of a job with benefits.  But remember, that’s a exceptional person. Maybe a Sunday magazine will do a feature article about them.  And some conservative who never realized he has, since childhood, operated under basically a guarantee of success (allowing for minimal effort and barring the actual commission of a crime) will read that article and say; “See?  If they apply themselves, they can get insurance!”

But increasingly, either family may be hit with illness, and the insurance company will have their infernal bean-counters in rooms without windows bring up computer screens with the insured person’s name on them, and try to find some error.  Maybe they neglected to mention an emergency room visit for a toothache, back when they were teens and their parents didn’t have insurance and it looked like a crisis and they didn’t know what to do.  Maybe they wrote “OK” in a box entitled “Do not write in this space”.  Anyway, their policy is rescinded and in addition to being sick they must fight to make the insurance company pay what it should.

And their financial hole gets deeper.  They may find themselves without the resources to fight the insurance company, which then “wins” by posting a huge profit.

There is a saying that a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.  There could be some truth to that.  But increasingly the muggers are corporations, and they don’t make money by paying claims.  Maybe a liberal is a conservative who’s been mugged by a corporation.  Or cares about someone they know who has. 

And that’s just a few connections.  If someone thinks highly of their ability to make “good choices”, while simultaneously believing (they’d never put it this way) that they’re immune to bad luck (easy to believe that if you grew up on the right side of the tracks), it’s equally easy to blame the other guy for not being successful.  And they’re disinclined to pay taxes to pave the road for the guy on the other side of the tracks if it’s obviously all their fault.

But while congratulating themselves and their fellows on their virtue, they might not consider the role of plain old luck. Because it was luck that dropped them into their family, their neighborhood, city, county, state and historic economy.  Texas is rich, yes, but if they didn’t have oil?  They’d be modestly well-off, provided they made judicious use of their fortunate position for transportation and the production of free-range cattle.  But it would be much, much harder.  But any state that thinks it is just their native pluck that makes them rich should try discounting the effect of transportation positioning and natural resources.  Entire states benefit -  or suffer – from their neighborhoods just like families do.

“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.”—Herman Melville

Next: “But aren’t small businesses the real engine of our economy?”

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Health Care Reform bill passes

March 21, 2010 Comments off

The US House of Representatives has narrowly voted to pass a landmark healthcare reform bill at the heart of President Barack Obama’s agenda. The bill passed by 219 votes to 212, with no Republican backing, after hours of fierce argument and debate. It extends coverage to 32 million more Americans, and marks the biggest change to the US healthcare system in decades. The Republicans say the measures are unaffordable and represent a government takeover of the health industry. Lawmakers held two votes into the late hours of Sunday – the first on procedural issues, and the second to pass a Senate version of a health reform bill.

Mr Obama is expected to sign the legislation into law shortly.

BBC: US House passes key health care reform

It isn’t what it could have been, what it should have been, no thanks to Republican obstructionism.  But it’s a step in the right direction. 

(Ironically, hilariously, the Republicans have promised to sue.)

What a terrific cap on the weekend!

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Stupidity on Parade

March 21, 2010 Comments off
From my photo album; FAIL

Though it is included with our Sunday paper, I normally ignore Parade magazine; it only annoys me.  Typically the cover is some celebrity who has found peace or whatever, and the articles are along that line.  On today’s cover, a young woman named Miley Cyrus says “I know who I am now”; she looks indistinguishable from most high school girls, perhaps because they are imitating her.

This morning I spotted the cover headline next to Miley’s Photoshopped picture, which read; “How Safe Is Your Cellphone?”  Fearing the worst, I picked up the rag and turned to the article.

I suppose I should be inured to this kind of stupidity by now, but the teaser reads “New studies on radiation levels are troubling”, and there’s a scary radiation symbol and an x-ray skeleton hand holding a cell phone.  Just in case you’re too dumb to be frightened, there’s a little arrow showing that the scary radiation is coming from inside the cell phone in the scary skeleton hand.

First, the “new studies” on “radiation levels” are not really troubling… because of the kind of radiation involved.  When most people say “radiation” they mean “ionizing radiation” which is capable of breaking chemical bonds, such as those in DNA molecules, which could lead to cancer.  That’s the kind of radiation you find above the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum, starting at ultraviolet, going up through x-rays and gamma rays.  It’s the kind of radiation that made the skeleton-hand picture, and the kind that is referred to by the scary radiation symbol.

Cell phones work below the visible part of the spectrum, and below infrared, in the low end of the microwave region above radio .  Microwave radiation does not break chemical bonds, any more than warmth from a fire does.  At the milliwatt energy densities your cell phone can produce, you may – or may not – be able to detect slight warming from the signal but you are more likely to notice the infrared and conductive heat from chemical reactions in the battery.

The article is written by “Dr. Ranit Mishori”, a family practitioner MD who probably makes more money writing sensational stories for the Washington Post and Parade than she ever will telling people “Turn your head and cough”.  Dr. Mishori admits that cell phones make the wrong kind of radiation to break chemical bonds, and that studies have found no link between cell phone use and brain cancer.  She admits there’s been no change in incidence of brain cancer.  But still she says “more studies are needed”.

While they’re at it, they should study whether exposure to any temperature above absolute zero causes cancer too, because infrared is above microwave on the electromagnetic spectrum.  Light bulbs and space heaters could be our doom.  A fireplace?  Forget it – more studies are needed.

For that matter, avoid all visible light!  Best to cover yourself entirely in aluminum foil and breathe through a bendy-straw.

Dr. Mishori concludes with “Tips for smart cellphone use”:

  • Save cellphones for short conversations—and use them only when a landline is not available. 
  • Switch to hands-free devices or the speaker feature.
  • Text more, speak less.
  • Limit the time your child spends talking on a cellphone.
  • Buy models with low SAR ratings. (The SAR number is provided by the manufacturer.)

That section should be titled: “Tips for ignorantly fearful cellphone use”.  There’s a terrible price to pay for this kind of stupidity; if people can’t sort out sensational fears from real dangers, they can be easily manipulated.  And Parade is not helping.


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Spring flowers

March 20, 2010 Comments off

Saw these Thursday morning on the way home from work. They hadn’t been there in the morning.

From my photo album; spring

Just one of the fringe benefits of cycling to work.

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Attending a guest lecture on Atrazine

March 20, 2010 Comments off
From my photo album; Notes

Thursday night MrsDoF and I attended a guest lecture by Dr. Tyrone Hayes, a biologist from UC Berkeley, on the biological effects of the herbicide atrazine on amphibians and mammals. Using concentrations of 0.1ppb (which are, to say the least, environmentally relevant), he showed how atrazine caused high incidence of intersexed frogs, and prostate and mammary cancer in humans.  He also found neural damage in salamanders and mice.  The effects propagated in different ways through three generations even if exposure was discontinued.

His research was originally funded by Syngenta, the Swiss manufacturer of atrazine.  But when he started getting results like that, they told him to take a hike and threatened to sue him.  He now has funding from other sources to continue his research.  Atrazine is banned in Europe (or as the company prefers to say; “denied regulatory approval”) but we spray 80 million pounds of it on crops here in the US.  The highest concentrations of it in rainwater, groundwater, and tap water are in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana.  So this is a topic of no small interest ‘round these parts.

Syngenta says atrazine has “been used safely for over 47 years” but they decline to define “safe”.  The Epa (which is currently renewing its examination of the chemical) allows 30 times more atrazine in your drinking water than the levels studied by Dr. Hayes.

All very interesting. And you might ask a woman who has just miscarried or who has breast cancer – or a man with prostate cancer, what “safe” means.  The company’s press releases sound, with minor changes in wording, like they are from a tobacco company years ago. 

But something else occurred to me…

MrsDoF works with autistic children on a regular basis.  Because of a perceived increase in the rate of autism, many people are frantic in search for a cause, and hopefully a cure.  A strong focus has been turned on vaccinations, even though that’s been studied to death by independent scientists and the link just isn’t there.  The science came out on the side of the big pharma companies that make the vaccinations (and aren’t getting rich from them).  Never mind, Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey know better.  You never hear them wondering if the real reason might be some ubiquitous environmental chemical like atrazine or bisphenol acetate (BPA).  Something with proven endocrine disruptive and neurological effects.  If there is an increase in autism, it might be worth studying.

Everyone carries cell phones and some people get brain cancer.  Epidemiological studies aren’t showing a link, and cell phone radiation is in the wrong part of the electromagnetic spectrum to cause cancer (a couple orders of magnitude too far down the scale, in fact, to damage DNA molecules).  But never mind, the Maine legislation knows better and voted to require warning labels on cell phones.  In this case the science comes out on the side of the cell phone companies, which needless to say, are appealing the decision.  Again, nobody on the panic-side of the equation seems to be asking about ubiquitous environmental chemicals.

Jumping to conclusions has a certain satisfying feel to it.  But it’s wrong and ends up hurting people.  It is the environmental equivalent of arresting the first suspect.  For reasons I can’t even fathom, politicians seem content to do this and then trumpet the conviction, even if it is based on little more than a corporate press release that this chemical or that practice is “safe”.  It’s better to look for independent science on the subject, which is to say; “not from the company’s labs”.  Science takes time, and the results are frustratingly couched in terms of probabilities, but it’s our best bet for regulatory insight.  If it’s certainty you want, go jump off a thousand-foot cliff.


  • The R. Omar and Evelyn Rilett Family Life Sciences lecture series is presented by the School of Biological Sciences at Illinois State University.

  • Dr. Hayes’ website is Atrazine Lovers.  I do wish he could afford to hire a webmaster.
  • EPA atrazine page
  • EPA announces renewal of atrazine examination
  • One of life’s little ironies: the company that makes Atrazine, and the company that makes the most common breast cancer chemotherapy drug, are divisions of the same parent company.
  • Frogs are insectivores.  If we don’t have any more frogs (the spotted leopard frog is rare in Illinois now, used to be common) you have to wonder what bug’s life cycle is now unrestrained and what impact that will have on agriculture.  And for that matter, some “superweeds” are evolving resistance to atrazine, in some cases by gene-transfer from atrazine-resistant crops.  Which is to say; crops genetically engineered to allow higher levels of atrazine.
  • By the way, atrazine plays hell with oceanic phytoplankton. 
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Random acts of puzzlement

March 19, 2010 Comments off
From my photo album; Notes

I pass this liquor store often on the way to McDonald’s.  It looks, shall we say… “weathered”, but the owner does something very interesting: he leaves small objects, sometimes of considerable value, on a shelf in the alley for random strangers to pick up.  Really unusual objects like a box of pliers or a small garden statue.  I asked him why but did not understand his explanation.

Weird, huh?  In a very cool way.


  • I’ll do a whole post on the comic linked above soon.  It really is profound.

  • My son says this pacifier was most likely dropped by someone transporting a baby, since rave culture is thin hereabouts. 
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