Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Friday, December 31, 2004
New Year's

In case I don't blog again before 2005, I just want to thank all you readers for keeping me company this last year. We've had some good times amid all the craziness, and I hope that next year will be better for all of us. Take care and be well and safe!

Tsunami: Somalia, Sam-Uncle, Systematic Warning.

Thought it's now in the company of many, longer lists, I hope that if you haven't given and are looking for ways to help the Tsunami victims, you will please consider taking a look at my list of ways to help.

Somalia is often left out from discussion of this disaster, since it's not in the main region. This is particularly unfortuante because even though the initial death toll seems relatively "low" (~200 fatalities) tens of thousands of people have been displaced and there isn't really a working government in place to deal with them. UN relief agencies are asking for help, and the UNHCR would probably be a good agency to give money to. A Somalia round-up on the TsunamiHelp blog.

The United States has pledged $350 Million in Aid. I guess the clamor about us being "stingy" actually paid off, so yay for that! Political differences aside, I'm deeply appreciative of the Administration's efforts, and I hope they will feel their work is paying off. I finally turned on CNN last night (and found it to be just fine)--and heard one disaster relief expert, a man named Rosenblatt, calling for a figure of world-class stature to coordinate the efforts. He suggested it might be a good post-resignation job for Colin Powell once Condoleeza Rice takes over as Secretary of State. If his health is upto it, I think Bill Clinton might be a good choice.

Matthew Yglesias has been pointing out all kinds of awful disaster possibilities, like the calderas of Sumatra & Yellowstone, which routinely give me nightmares. (A Discovery Channel special about them I once watched was probably one of the most terrifying pieces of moving picture I've ever experienced.) My take home conclusion from all these thoughts of doom and gloom is that we have to approach disaster relief in an integrated, systematic fashion--globablly integrated, and integrated by type too. It's too overwhelming to make a global Tsunami warning system, then make a global typhoon warning system, then make a global chemical disaster warning system. But if we have an integrated global warning system, and make it a global priority to prepare communities and individuals for a range of disasters, we can make it a more singular & approachable task.
Wednesday, December 29, 2004
Google Rocks! (And so does Blogger)

After updating my list of ways to help with the Tsunami relief effort, I just want to abandon all pretense of detached objectivity and say that Google totally rocks and I am so proud to be even remotely connected to Googlers:

A screenshot of Google's frontpage, highlighting the link there to ways to help with the Tsunami relief effort.

See also Google's blog, and the almost immediate proliferation of tsunami blogs that use Blogger's push-button technology: Tsunamihelp, Tsunami Enquiry, Tsunami Help Needed, & Asha's Tsunami Relief. Thanks, Blogger!!
Tuesday, December 28, 2004
Sea-change: Tsunami & Blog

Keeping the important stuff uptop: If you are here looking for the list of Asian Tsunami relief funds, it's here, and an easy url to pass on is this:

I was out most of today, and when I came home I was rather staggered to see the surge in hits from people looking for ways to help with the tsunami-relief, and the emails I've gotten from readers about it. It will take me a while to update the list linked above, but I wanted to say a couple of things first. First some housekeeping: the many updates on the blog caused a few errors, and the main page of the blog may not display correctly. Please be patient, try again, and let me know. Any given entry should still read correctly, as should the above link. Comments have disappeared, but they aren't lost, and I hope to bring them back soon. You can still email me with your thoughts in the mean time. A big thanks to Steve from Blogger for helping me work out these bugs! Secondly, at this point (especially now that the Google spiders have kicked in) my list is a little redundant, so I will start to focus more on secondary issues instead of merely repeating donation drives.

The Shakespearean phrase "sea-change" is often willfully tossed about to describe any manner of intense changes, and the grim pun on this horrific story is almost irresistable, especially to journalists who are known for latching onto such wordplay. In this case the sea itself changed, and caused hideous and awesome change in its wake. I think the phrase has an even deeper meaning though, this time.

Please click on the timestamp Permalink below to read this whole entry.

On the phone this evening, my friend Rick in Manhattan told me that this globally distant natural disaster felt different to him somehow--that despite not even watching that much TV about it, he felt much more connected to it, more informed about it, more affected about it than, say the last one. This is a hard feeling to quantify and a hard phenomena to prove, even by loose journalistic standards, but I somehow think he might be onto something. I got whipped into blogging action by reading one of Matthew Yglesias's posts on it, and in that same post he wrote, "At any rate, this struck me as approximately the Worst Thing Ever, but looking at this list of horrors, including a tsunami in Bangladesh in just 1991 that killed 138,000 people, I see that things have actually been much, much worse." Yglesias is younger than even me, but he's hardly a naif about global events. The fact that local students set up an excellent blog about the disaster is weirdly both predictable and amazing. The global reaction is also an indicator of how strongly this part of the world is now tied up with the fortunes of Europe and the United States. Today's New York Times has articles on the thousands of missing tourists and the anxiety of immigrant families in the United States with family in the devastated countries. Maybe this time it really is different.

Let us take a look again at Ariel's deceitful speech in The Tempest which gave rise to the phrase:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Dictionaries love to quarrel about the fact that Shakespeare probably only meant "change from the sea" and not the cliched usage we have of "great change," but I believe in giving descriptive definitions their due, and Shakespeare's very stature makes him more open to appropriation. It is an astonishing verse, a false memorial, but a striking one. It is a rare line of poetry that simultaneously notes the horror of death and the potential creation of something good from that horror. Pearls, you will recall, are reactions to the pain caused an oyster by sand.

My admittedly ludicrously optimistic hope is that this really is such a case. In the comments you can't see right now my friend Scott, a disaster preparation expert, wrote: I see three issues: how to respond to this disaster, how to deal with warning issues, and how to prepare yourself and your family. That last part we can help with at CARD. The middle part needs a lot of work, but the good news is that I bet it will happen. Disasters get prepared for after they happen, so people will now start planning for the next one. Prbably the WCDR in Kobe will be the first place something may happen. Middle-tech geek infrastructure as you described is probably the answer. (Emphases mine.) This Reuters article by Robert Evans really hits the nail on the head in the first two grafs: Governments around the world must work together to build early warning systems that can cut death tolls from natural disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed nearly 40,000, United Nations experts say. And investment in broad education programmes is also vital so that ordinary people -- especially in coastal areas where catastrophe often hits hardest -- know what to do when alerted that calamity is on the way, they warn.

Preparation, warning, rapid & efficient response. It's a pretty simple and obvious formula. The problems are often logistics and the unpooled nature of most relevant resources. And I wonder if, perhaps, possibly, hopefully, maybe, technology could actually change that. Only this last November, the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (which coordinates the upcoming World Conference on Disaster Reduction that Scott and Robert Evans above talk about) launched a new website: Platform for the Promotion of Early Warning. Under Innovations they write, "Developing countries often have the greatest need for early warning systems, but at the same time the least capacity to implement them. In addition, advanced technologies are sometimes unsustainable in developing country economies. New initiatives and targeted research are needed to develop affordable tailored solutions for those in need." This Red Herring article which rather randomly mentioned me (thanks guys!), also linked to The Emergency Email & Wireless Network, which lets you sign up to be emailed, called, or paged with emergency alerts. The kinds of alerts they offer seem a little incomplete, but the idea is out there and being implemented. More broadly, people can join hands virtually and send resources from unaffected areas to the affected areas. Let's put it this way---its not inconceivable that one day a disaster in the developed world might leave the currently ravaged area safe and sound. If we help them get online and truly connected to us now, then if that day comes, they are much more likeley to easily and enthusiastically help us out. The metamorphosis of WiFi connections to heartful connections is a sea-change worth pursuing.
Monday, December 27, 2004
Tsunami Help

I have updated my list (below) of donation opportunities to help with the Tsunami relief effort, and you can keep checking it here. A smaller url that you can send your friends:

Small url generated by Sree.

Thank you! Please let me know if you know of other efforts, through comments and email.
eWalls of Water, II: Recap, How To Help, Preventable? & Future Preparation and Prevention

This is a long blog post, but I want to keep it in one piece for the purposes of permalinking. Read it all by clicking on Permalink/Full Post, or jump to the part you're most interested in:

I. Recap
How to Help
Future Prevention & Preparation


The very bad news only gets worse. The earthquake has been uprated to a 9.0. Remember that each point on the Richter scale is actually ten times more powerful than the previous one, as it's logarithmic. So a 9.0 magnitude earthquake is more than 1000 times more powerful than a 5.9 earthquake--the rating of the last major earthquake I was in, one in which enough stuff fell down in LA for a truly dangerous situation. The death toll in Asia has topped 14,000 according to CNN. Even East Africa felt the tsunami (Reuters). When you factor in thousands still listed as "missing," communications equipment in poor shape, and the secondary effects of water-supply contaminations and hundreds of thousands of people made homeless, this count will definitely climb very steeply. The entire island of Sumatra appears to have moved southwest by 100 feet. Google News Search of "Tsunami." The Asia Society has a very useful summary of the news and relevant links. UPDATE: Some locals have started a blog about the Tsunami.
Remember, please click Permalink/Full Post for the rest of this entry.

(If you have trouble seeing the whole blogpost in IE, please try hitting F-11 twice.)
I. RecapII. How to HelpIII.Preventable?IV.Future Prevention & Preparation

How to Help

UPDATE: Reuben Abraham @ Zoo Station has

Matthew Yglesias
has been blogging about the quake and that's how I found Michele Catalano's Command Post collection of relief links. Sree & the South Asian Journalism Association are also trying to keep tabs on the situation, Not to steal anyone's thunder, but I'm just going to list relief information directly, and I will update this list as I find out more. I'm not an expert on the most efficient ways of sending aid, and I urge caution with wire transfer arrangements, as I cannot verify the information myself.

1) RED CROSS:You can donate money to the International Committee for the Red Cross's International Response Fund through Americans can call 1-800-435-7669 in English or 1-800-257-7575 in Spanish, and Canadians can call 1-800-418-1111. The British Red Cross site is here. Americans can also mail a donation to American Red CrossDisaster Relief FundP.O. Box 37243Washington, D.C. 20013. (You can read lots of details about the IFRC's specific plans and work here.)
The website of the Indian Red Cross doesn't seem to have had a chance to update yet, but keep an eye on it.
From Eledolie, the Singapore Red Cross Society's appeal for funds, their online donation site, and their mailing address for checks from Singapore:
15 Penang Lane, Singapore 238486, Tel : (65) 6336 0269 Fax : (65) 6337 4360.
From The Command Post Forums: Thai Red Cross, Siam Commercial Bank - Red Cross Branch. Acct: 045-248899-3 Swift: SICROTHBK. Have your bank note that it's for Relief in Phuket. Please confirm this account information with your bank.
UPDATE: You can very easily give money to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief fund via Amazon, and as Amit Varma at India Uncut points out, there is something deeply satisfying about hitting refresh and watching the total go up every so often.

2)You can donate to India's Prime Minister's National Relief Fund by bank transfer or by faxing or mailing in credit card info, but unfortunately, not by web or by phone. The following three accounts are available for international money transfer:
U.S. $: A/C No. 000-03847-4 with HSBC BANK,USA, New York. ( SWIFT Code :- MRMD US 33 )
Pound Sterling: A/C No. 203253-80412368 with,BARCLAYS BANK PLC,
( SWIFT Code :- BARCGB 22 )
EURO: A/C No. 4112222001 with CITI
BANK,Frankfurt. ( SWIFT Code :- CITI DE FF ) .

Please confirm these with your bank, however, before you use them! If you are in India, you can send checks & money orders in the name of “The Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund” to the Prime Minister’s Office, South Block, New Delhi 110001 INDIA.

3)SEEDS India, which has a beautiful but very heavy website, is an organization devoted to disaster preparation and management. It has announced the following International Money Transfer Account:Mode of International Fund Transfer: Account Name: SEEDS Account Number: 52810017829 Bank: Standard Chartered Bank, M-1, South Extension Part-II, New Delhi, INDIA Swift Code: SCBLINBBDEL. Again, please confirm this information with your bank.

4) The United Nations relief effort will probably be coordinated by OCHA, the UN Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs. On their site I cannot yet find an appeal for donations, but I am sure one will be set up as was set up for the Iran earthquake last year.

5) If you're Canadian, you can make a donation to the Canadian Catholic Organization Development and Peace online, as they have announced they are mounting a relief effort.

6) Vasugi Ganeshanathan forwarded SAJA an announcement that the Sri Lanka Association of Greater Washington is creating a relief fund, and that checks payable to SLAGW can be sent to c/o ISTI, Inc., 1820 North Fort Myer Dr., Suite 600, Arlington, VA 22209. The email was written by Nihal Goonewardene, the association's president.

7) MercyCorps has an online donation form which allows you to specifically earmark funds for earthquake relief. You can also donate by phone 1 (888) 256-1900, or by mail: Mercy Corps,Dept W, PO Box 2669Portland OR 97208. UPDATE: Mercy Corps already has people working in the Aceh province of Indonesia, where over 40,000 people probably died.

8) Save the Children USA has created a specific relief fund for Children and families Affected by Earthquake and Tidal Waves in Southern Asia.

9) According to this ReliefWeb press release, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees will run U.N. relief efforts in Sri Lanka. You can choose your national UNHCR donation site from their global site, and right now on the American donation site you would probably want to specify Emergency Appeals. UNICEF has audio links about the disaster here, and you can make a general donation to them here.

10) CARE Australia has launched a relief effort, and it's already at work in Sri Lanka. Here's their donation site, and their online donation form has a space for comments. By phone (in Australia): 1800 020 046, and by mail: CARE Australia, Reply Paid 61843, Canberra ACT 2601.

11) Americares has launched a relief effort, and their online donation form (which promises to apply funds to this disaster as long as possible) is here. You can also mail them a check: AmeriCares Foundation, 88 Hamilton Ave., Stamford, CT 06902.

12) Oxfam America has launched relief efforts and is collecting money specifically for earthquake relief here. You can make a credit card donation by phone at 800-77-OXFAM, or mail a check payable to: Oxfam America, Attn: Donor Services Dept., 26 West Street Boston, MA 02111-1206. Oxfam UK's online donation form is here.

13) AID India is raising money online here, and or make out checks payable to AID, P.O. Box F
College Park, MD-20741, USA.

14) The Hindu, one of India's premier newspapers, has set up a relief fund that will accept online donations and mail donations. The online form takes credit cards, but in Rupees, so it's not clear to me how that would work with credit cards from other countries. "The Hindu Relief Fund," Kasturi Buildings , 859 Anna Salai , Chennai 600 002, INDIA. UPDATE: HR Mohan of The Hindu informs me that while they can only accept Rupees, credit card donations are automatically converted from the card holder's currency by the Visa/Mastercard centers.

15) People in India can send funds to the Chief Minister's Public Relief Fund of Tamil Nadu, one of the brutally hit Indian states: Chief Minister's Public Relief Fund, Finance Department, Secretariat, Chennai-600 009.

16) The truly amazing, Nobel-prize winning group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) is dispatching volunteers to provide medical help. Here is their online donation page. Remember, disease is going to be a huge problem in the weeks and months to come, whatwith the groundwater polluted by saltwater, sewage, and rotting bodies.

17) NEW: As Manoj said in comments, Asha for Education, one of my favorite charities, has joined in the relief effort. This is great news because they are extremely efficient. While disaster relief isn't their usual business, their experience and contacts working with poor children in southern India will undoubtedly make helping those children now much faster. Here's their online donation form, and you can mail checks in US$ to Asha for Education. P.O. Box 322
New York, NY 10040-0322, with "Tsunami relief in the memo." . There are Asha volunteers blogging from the area, posting deeply compelling dispatches about their efforts.

18) NEW: Sarang emailed me about the relief efforts of GIVE World/Give India: here's their online donation form, US tax-paying donors please send cheques favouring "GIVE Foundation Inc." mentioning "Tsunami Relief" on the reverse, along with your full name, address, phone & email ID to:
Pawan Mehra, GIVE Foundation, Inc., 25 Agapanthus Street, Ladera Ranch, CA 92694. I hadn't heard of them before, but they appear to have an intriguing way of directly connecting donors to their extensive list of partner NGO's.

It seems trivial now, but I have to say that I'm really glad that a policy wonk like Matt, who rakes in a lot of regular readers, is willing to step outside his subject matter, be honest about his horror at this, and make a small plea for help. As far as I can tell he was the first big name on my blog roll to talk about it. Crooked Timber & Cyrus Farivar pointed people to the Red Cross. Cyrus Farivar has just sent me an immense list of agencies accepting donation posted by the New York Times. I'm very glad that John and Belle decided not to spend Christmas in the ravaged Phuket. Besides The Command Post entry cited above, I got some relief information from the Indian blogger Chanakya at Vichaar, and writer Jay Manifold. I got the MercyCorps link from Chhavi Sachdev. You can try checking their blogs for updates. The new locally written TsunamiHelp Blog is also a good source of links.

NEW: If you are looking for ways to rate these charities, you can look the American Institute for Philanthropy's report card, which is based on general fundraising efficiency; blogger Benjamin Rosenbaum has a good table of ratings.

Remember, please check back for updates to this list. Please email me if you have more information on ways to help, & leave the information in comments.

I. RecapII. How to HelpIII.Preventable?IV.Future Prevention & Preparation


There is a already lot of spitfire raging in the media and on the web about how preventable this immense loss of life could have been. I think it's far too soon to draw conclusions about direct culpability, but there was definitely an element of preventability here. There are questions about the International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific of which India and Sri Lanka are not members, and for which, apparently, dealing with a non-Pacific earthquake was not in the plan: The Tsunami bulletin which the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center generated about an hour after the earthquake hit read,

According to Thomas Maugh at the LA Times the Tsunami began hitting coastlines two hours after the earthquake. Earthquakes are registered fairly instantaneously and automatically around the world, and even if there wasn't enough previous Indian Ocean tsunami data to definitely predict the ensuing walls of water, such immense and rare seismic activity should have generated some kind of warning and reaction. Andrew Revkin's article in the New York Times closes with a shocking quote from a tsunami expert of Indian origin based in Manitoba: "There's no reason for a single individual to get killed in a tsunami," Dr. Murty said. "The waves are totally predictable. We have travel-time charts covering all of the Indian Ocean. From where this earthquake happened to hit, the travel time for waves to hit the tip of India was four hours. That's enough time for a warning." Whether the failure was in converting an earthquake signal into a tsunami warning, conveying that warning to national governments in South Asia, spreading the appropriate evacuation information from the national governments to the locals, or some combination of all three, remains to be seen. But clearly this was not simply an unavoidable natural catastrophe.

I. RecapII. How to HelpIII.Preventable?IV.Future Prevention & Preparation

Future Preparation and Prevention

Not simply unavoidable means we can do things better. Whatever old fashioned system of telephoning and following diplomatic protocol was or wasn't in place would probably never be completely efficient. Total efficiency is too much to ask for, but in this age of the internet and wide spread cell phone usage, a multitude of robust, noncentralized and low-cost geeky solutions immediately suggest themselves. As has been widely reported, the use of cell phones has been growing exponentially in countries like India. In areas without Industrial-nation-style infrastructure already in place, 21st century-style technology like solar cells and cell phones can actually be cheaper.

How complicated or expensive would it be to outfit village elders with a cell phone that calls them with an automatically generated message detailing disaster response instructions? A computer server running a script to read the USGS registry of quakes could, upon detecting, say, a magnitude 8+ quake, automatically email a Tsunami warning with a pre-determined evacuation plans to a text-to-voice programmer, which could in turn email them to a Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol server, which would then call the network of, say, several thousand coastal village elders and civic authorities and several hundred coastal radio DJs and read them the instructions. The original computer server could also page an international network of volunteer experts, waking them up and asking them to check on the data and be on call for the aforementioned village elders and civic authorities to call and confirm.

When you consider that many lives would have been saved in Bhopal had the population been told to seal their windows and cover their heads with wet cloth, or that the more common South and Southeast Asia disasters like typhoons are also kind of predictable, the wider uses of such a system become clear. Moreover, they have a great advantage over traditional broadcast based emergency warning systems--they aren't dependent on that radio or tv being on in the first place. Won't matter what you're doing, as long as your cell phone is on and in range. Of course, it wouldn't work completely unless all fishermen and sailors were outfitted with walkie talkies, which would be considerably more expensive, but this would have to help. Is someone already working on this? It almost sounds like a plausible open source project. What about Geekcorps, or ISTI?

How badly I wish I could go to the upcoming World Conference on Disaster Reduction and pick brains about these topics. In general we should all pay more attention to disaster preparation, both on a global scale, and locally: In February I wrote about preparing for danger for, and I've often mentioned Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disaster, a local Alameda County non-profit, staffed by my friend Scott, which helps other local non-profits prepare themselves and their clients. You can support such agencies, and you can also use their resources: make your household and car a GO KIT (pdf)--something which would be helpful if you are asked to evacuate because of a Tsunami or similar situation--and know how to shelter in place(pdf), which is helpful in the case of chemical spills like Bhopal.

I. RecapII. How to HelpIII.Preventable?IV.Future Prevention & Preparation

Thank you for thinking about safety and helping others. Take care, all! Remember, please check back for updates. Please email me if you have more information on ways to help, & leave the information in comments.

Sunday, December 26, 2004
Walls of Water

This is very bad news: an 8.9 underwater earthquake near the island of Sumatra in Indonesia has apparently killed thousands of people across South and Southeast Asia, because of the enormous tsunami (tidal waves) it set up. "Waves as high as twenty feet," combined with densely populated areas, many of which are known for low infrastructure, can only spell disaster. I bet the International Committee of the Red Cross could use some help. This is apparently the most powerful earthquake to shake the planet since 1964.
Saturday, December 25, 2004
Merry Christmas!

Our Christmas Tree last night.

It's a sunny warm day by the Bay, and a bit hazy. I'm looking forward to the full moon and clear skies tonight--our version of a white Christmas. Regardless of how you view the holiday, I hope you are all having a wonderful day.
Friday, December 24, 2004
William Gibson Pops Up Twice And Gets Me Thinking About Influence

Has a blog. I'm just surprised at myself for not having thought to look for it before. Found via Mark Kleiman, that via Matthew Yglesias. Gibson links to this striking photoblog, which includes a Lego Gitmo*. For more reflections on on how else Gibson has popped up (and mostly a bunch of questions that I could use your help in answering), please click Permalink/Full Post.

Yglesias was excerpting yesterday's LA Times column on pockets of extreme urban violence and wringing his hands over the likeley uselessness of traditonal liberal solutions like universal pre-school. The resulting comments run the spectrum from a cold lack of sympathy for parents who would raise their children in such terrible environments to calls for the legalization of drugs. It's an erudite set of comments, but also a predictable one, and all of these policy debates revolve around twin questions of guessing: What could have changed this human dynamic? and What would happen if we did this?

Yglesias was merely razzing Kleiman for his new Gibson-fandom, but the apparently tangential Gibson connection goes deeper in my mind, especially in light of a few recent discussions in the Yglesias-Kleiman-Holbo sector of the blogosphere. The items discussed by Yglesias and Kleiman tend to be real and pressing issues of policy, matters that any responsible citizen has an interest in. Ideally they are analyzed with facts and evidence, and plans about the future are based on statistics and existing cases. This is particularly the proud tradition of the so-called "reality-based community," and when it comes to deploying troops and allocating the budget, I expect nothing less. You don't want bureaucrats on the public dole leaping into wild fits of action based on fanciful dreams.

What you might want is a wider citizenry actively engaged in producing fanciful dreams, and then carefully distilling them into a more solidly researched plan before handing it over to the bureacrats. Adressing what would happen if we did this? only in the dry tones of the public sector is liable to get you uncompelling answers. Andressing it in art, and especially in fiction, is more likely to provide answers that capture the imagination. But does all this capturing of the imagination actually make a difference?

Ultimately, Yglesias's doubt that a better school system would stem the tide of inner-city violence is really a doubt that capturing the imagination of children can be enough to fight all the negative dynamics of their life situations. I instinctively have a much greater faith in the ability of children to latch onto transformative inspirations. A better school-system would not solve these problems, but given the greal tradition of impoverished children growing up into accomplished adults, I think the burden of proof is on the proposition that more education wouldn't at least alleviate these problems.

Being currently powerless to do anything about these problems, I'd like to inspect another, related, question, one for which Gibson's work is more than tangentially relevant. Is there fiction that an have a significant impact on adults, one that quickly leads to wider social changes? John Holbo had a recent blogpost entitled "Plato's Quarrel with William Gibson," and it had a lot to do with "theory" and the kind of literary-philosophical thinking that I never got trained in because I was too busy learning quantum mechanics. But he quotes an Iris Murdoch summary of Plato's objection to art: Surely any serious man would rather produce real things, such as beds or political activity, than unreal things which are mere reflections of reality. Then Holbo follows it with a quote from a Gibson interview, wherein Gibson describes first buying a computer in the early 80s after he already wrote Neuromancer: That noise took away some of the mystique for me; it made computers less sexy. My ignorance had allowed me to romanticize them.

This quote was striking to me because, populated as my social circle is by geeks, Gibson and, to a larger extent, Neal Stephenson, have been celebrated as highly knowledgable authors whose visions of the future have had a real impact on the technologists actually producing said future. Is this an imagined effect? Do these books really just provide mind-candy that keeps young technologists going while they go about doing things they would have gone about doing anyway?
I don't have a real stake in this question because I somehow managed not to read much Gibson or Stephenson, something I am in the process of remedying. But I'm remedying it because I like reading clever and entertaining books, especially when I know my friends like them. Is it reasonable for me to expect these books to actually do me any good? Is it reasonable to expect speculative authors to provide a vision of the future that is so compellilng, so carefully hewn together that it actually changes my actions leading into that future? I don't just mean a technological future. Holbo writes, "It's not SF, science fiction; Hesse writes CF, cultural fiction. Theory is CF. The theorist ends up being conceptualized as a kind of cultural figure who is, in the end, simply unbelievable. Like Cayce Pollard, in Pattern Recognition, who is allergic to logos and brilliantly perceptive as a result. Theory is supposed to be like that. But in the real world attempts to 'do' philosophy like that simply decline into the looniness of the long distance coolhunter." It seems almost like gospel that good fiction writers don't worry too much about the impact their work will have on the audience, but if they wanted to, could they actually change things? Does cultural fiction have to be so unbelievable in the end?

Like I said, I can't really grasp Holbo's quarrel with "theory", but I can think about the more general question of literature that actually changes things. The examples that come to mind are Dickens & Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, perhaps To Kill A Mockingbird and The Grapes of Wrath. What are more recent novels that have directly made their mark on society? Moreover, are there any novels that have made their mark on society with a positive vision? All the examples I can think of pretty much work by showing society a mirror upon its uglier parts, forcing some kind of reform movement. This touches on another literary discussion brewed in this bit of the blogsophere: Kleiman started it with the question: Are there any modern (say post 1700) novels of high literary merit that can reasonably be characterized as pro-war? Or, at least as pro-war as the Iliad? Yglesias enlarged upon it, and Holbo added more. All the really good war novels seem to be negative, as you'd expect, and the "pro" ones, in the "Good War" mode, tend to be for children or rather old. (Rilla of Ingleside, The Three Musketeers.) The item that commentators keep trotting out is Starship Troopers, which Kleiman preemptively dismissed, but as artistically unified as ST is is, do we really want to hold it up as a good example of inspiring fiction? I'm willing to say that I don't want any novels of literary merit that are generically pro-war, but I'm also willing to accept that a time may come when we need one that's specifically inspiring, for the purpose of getting us through said hypothetical Good War. Would we be able to get a good one? In general--can you talk about a serious topic, for adults, imaginatively and inspirationally, without sinking into schlock and sap?

My suspicion is that an author doesn't need to accidentally stumble into providing intelligent inspiration when he meant only to create romantic metaphors. My suspicion is that it's possible to create an inspiring vision on purpose while still maintaining literary merit, honesty, and good craft. My even stronger suspicion is that the better established model of social-problem novel, in the Dickensian tradition, is still alive and kicking. But I would like to collect some real examples. We've all seen the collections of essays wherein writers (or directors or artists or musicians) ruminate on novels that have influenced them. But what about politicians and generals, doctors and scientists, computer programmers and accountants, economists and bankers, police detectives and union leaders, activists and nurses, diplomats and judges? When your day job is writing or other kinds of art-making or design, it's easy to see how you get up from your reading chair and take your favorite author's influence out into your daily work, out into society. But what about most people? How does all this cultural activity actually influence the society it's describing?

Off the top of my head, my guess is that our former president and vice president, Clinton & Gore, would have been good candidates for an interview on this topic, since, arguably, any influence on them could have been widely magnified onto the world, and they are both known as voracious readers. Gibson and Stephenson opened up the influence of a new niche, the technologists' niche, and I'd like to collect concrete examples of that influence. But I'd also like to collect examples of literature influential on more established socioeconomic niches like the ones I've listed above. Anytime you can recall or you see a person in an ostensibly non-creative field saying, "Well, actually, I was greatly influenced by Novel X," please pass it on.

*And for a more cheerful Lego creation, please see the delightful Lego Church, courtesy of Kevin G. Powell.
Thursday, December 23, 2004
Scared Of Santa

From, improbably enough, the blog of the American Journal of Bioethics, we have the Gallery of young children who are scared of Santa Claus. But I think it might almost as easily be named the Gallery of scary Santa Clauses. These toddlers might be onto something. The Photoshopped celebrity Santa gallery is also mildly amusing.

While you're at it, try the gallery of Unfortunate Christmas Cards. The four-part Stranded Santa series, in particular.
Wednesday, December 22, 2004
Thought and Action, Part II.

A couple weeks ago I blogged about a story from the BBC (found via Engadget) about researchers at SUNY Albany who had developed software that can process a person's brain waves, allowing the person to control a cursor without actually moving. The four subjects, two of whom were partially paralyzed, wore standard EEG caps and played a very simple game wherein they had 10 seconds to move a cursor from the center of the screen to a target at the edge. The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Since then Ruchira has been telling me that she has heard of similar projects, and today she sent me a link to It's a rather bare bones website, but it seems to describe a much more immediately useful version of the same basic idea: the user wears a headband which transmits electrical signals to a computer, and the Cyberlink software processes two kinds of brain waves, lateral eye movement, and "yellow muscle movement"--which would appear to be raising one's eyebrows or tightening one's jaw. The user then trains with the software until they can control a mouse without using their hands. The company has an impressive list of testimonials, mostly from suffers of ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and what Steven Hawking has.) Strictly speaking it's not quite the same thing as the Albany research, because there is willed muscle movement involved, not just brain waves.

If you're interested in playing around with these ideas and technologies, Ruchira has some more links for you: the book Mind Hacks now has a weblog and the Open EEG project aims to create low cost EEG hardware and software.
Tuesday, December 21, 2004
Why Stop At Nanofabric Scarves? Mesofabric Gloves! Millifabric Hats! Nanofabric Purses! AngstromFabric Shoes! Semiconductive SmartyPants!

Between me and Snarkmarket, we've got the Google market on the phrase "nanofabric scarves" cornered, and I intend to keep staking out the web-mention territory of electronically empowered clothing. Thanks to Engadget, we are no longer limited to discussing decorative diaphanous drapes, but can ponder more substantially sartorial matters of technological convergence: Karen Epper Hoffman at the MIT Tech Review informs us of NanoSonic's new Metal Rubber.
"Besides its conductivity and flexibility, it's much lighter than metal, weighing less than one percent of its steel equivalent. And when produced in large quantities, [Company President Dr. Rick Claus] expects Metal Rubber will be about one-thousandth the price of a comparable all-metal conductor. . . Beyond its potential applications in aerospace and defense, Lalli sees opportunities for the material to be used in biomedical devices, artificial muscles, and electronic displays. Claus envisions the material being used for handheld electronics, prostheses, toys, or in any product or device where "you would need a flexible interconnect that has good electrical conductivity.""
Clearly Claus and the company's director of nanocomposites, Dr. Jennifer Lalli, need to start thinking about WiFi and BluTooth enabled gloves that enable you to point to things in your house and make stuff happen. Their company, Nanosonic, is based in Blacksburg, VA, and is affiliated with Virginia Tech. They describe Metal Rubber as being a self-assembled nanocomposite, and elsewhere on their site they have a very cute animation showing the gist of how self-assembly works.

Monday, December 20, 2004
India Indifferent

From Kevin Drum over at Washington Monthly's Political Animal, a striking account of a recent congressional delegation to India. According to Tim Dunlop at The Road to Surfdom, a friend of his on Capitol Hill summarized what the Indians had to say to America thusly:
We consider ourselves as in competition with China for leadership in the new century. That's our focus and frankly, you have made it very difficult for us to deal with you. We find your approach to international affairs ridiculous. The invasion of Iraq was insane. You've encouraged the very things you say you were trying to fix - terrorism and instability. Your attitude to Iran is ridiculous. You need to engage with Iran. We are. We are bemused by your hypocrisy. You lecture the world about dealing with dictators and you deal with Pakistan. We are very sorry for your losses from the 9/11 terror attacks. Welcome to our world. You threaten us with sanctions for not signing the non-proliferation treaty, but you continue to be nuclear armed and to investigate new weapons. You expect us to neglect our own security because you want us to. We don't care about sanctions.
I'm having a hard time figuring out when this Congressional delegation was, and who was on it--only that Senator Bingaman of New Mexico is leading a delegation to Bengal next month. Regardless, though, I'm not very surprised. You can only court someone for so long, and there's a point at which you have to forge ahead and build your own life without them. America is used to being the powerful, all important indispensable nation, and perhaps it is. But that doesn't mean ignored great nations are just going to roll over and sulk. India started out its life as the biggest democracy with great hopes for love and friendship from the oldest democracy. For example, our Senate Gavel is a 1954 gift from India. Over the course of the cold war we proved again and again that we cared less about Democracy and freedom, and more about markets and military alliances. That finally turned around in the mid 1990's, and American congressional and presidential delegations to India were greeted with 50 years worth of Bollywood-scale affection. Bush has turned us around 180 degrees, so it's not surprising that India has moved on. Dunlop goes on to point out increasing Indo-Australian ties which also doesn't surprise me. It's a deep shame, considering that, idealistically, the two of us ought to be the best of friends.
Friday, December 17, 2004
In Which Saheli Wishes She Could Read Japanese

Gizmodo has a tantalizing image up: a Yamaha pedal taxi (seats 3?)that appears to have solar panels on the roof and an electric motor to help out the driver's leg muscles. If we could only add the ability to recover energy from braking, we would have a maha-hybrid. Apparently the vehicles will be made for next year's World Expo in Japan, because regular taxis won't be allowed on the sprawling fair grounds. But I think it would be fun to have one to tool around town, just about anywhere. Gizmodo got the link from Soroban Geeks, who links to this potentially more informative Japanese story. Running the link itself through the Google Translate A Webpage didn't get me very far, but copying and pasting the characters into the translate tool at least confirmed the basics:

As for Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd. December 16th of 2004, " 2005 year Japanese international exposition " (love * terrestrial Hiroshi, session: Is utilized the " bicycle taxi " was announced March 25th of 2005 - September 25th) as the portable tool inside the meeting place. It had electromotive assist mechanism, by " the rickshaw ", Yamaha receiving the request from foundation bicycle industrial Association, it produced. With the electromotive assist bicycle which adopts the hybrid bicycle technology " PAS " of the same company, with driver 1, placing 2 people in the rear seat, it is possible to run. Inside the meeting place for coexisting with the pedestrian, it travels with approximately the speed per hour 5km. As for development concept " it is theme of the exposition, ' the nature 叡 Satoshi ' and it is enterprise purpose of the Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd., ' impression creation ' with harmony ". As for appearance, you say it was compatible " longing " and the " future impression ", combining the surface which has soft curved line and hard impression with FRP technology. In addition, you use natural material such as flax and ligneous fiber to interior. Using the transparent material in the roof section, it emphasized one bodily sensation of the external space. As for body size total length 2950× full 1250× total height 1780mm, as for body weight 160kg. 7 total producing, it delivers in the exposition. With same Hiroshi, other than the Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd., Bridgestone and national bicycle industry, the VELOTAXI JAPAN (NPO corporate body environmental symbiotic city propulsion association) has produced the respective electromotive assist functional equipped bicycle taxi, the schedule which is used inside the meeting place. (Duck 沢 pale blue = Infostand) * Web sight http: of related information * Aichi international exposition Web sight http: of // * Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd. //

I thought that was actually pretty impressive, considering Japanese grammar must be quite different from English grammar. This translation worries me that the "solar panels" are not actually solar panels but merely sleek black roof decor. Regardless, though, it looks pretty awesome.

UPDATE: Thanks to Benjamin D. in comments, most of my questions have been better answered. The bike involves a lot of natural fibers and feel good design elements, and the motor is electric, which it makes it more adaptable to using sustainable energy. That said there are no solar panels, and definitely no braking-energy recovery systems, so it's using straight human-motor hybrid power. Ah well.
Thursday, December 16, 2004

The headline in today's New York Times (Defense Missile for U.S. System Fails To Launch, by David Stout and John Cushman Jr.) was unsurprising. My general understanding of the proposed National Missile Defense (NMD) system boils down to: It's a really expensive, rather bad idea with terribly risky geopolitical consequences. and it probably won't work.

The American Physical Society released a report on the matter, and their October press release started, "Intercepting missiles while their rockets are still burning would not be an effective approach for defending the U.S. against attacks by an important type of enemy missile." It seems that the main concern of the report was the narrow window of time in which the interceptor would have to hit its target, but in today's test the interceptor never even got off the ground (in fact, it can still be used again, though the target was wasted.) You gotta love the upbeat attitude of the agency spokesman: "Mr. Lehner said that despite the disappointment, Wednesday's event was not a total failure. He said "quite a bit" had been learned from the aborted test, which he called "a very good training exercise."

The problem with citizen oversight of this program is that it's incredibly difficult to wrap your head around. All the component projects are farmed out across the country, giving many Senators and Representatives a stake in preserving it for the sake of jobs (as opposed to efficient national defense.) When I graduated in physics from Berkeley in the spring of 2000, I belonged to a fairly political class. We tabled on Sproul Plaza, asking people to send postcards to Congress to preserve science funding. It's possible that we were too giddy at finishing college, but ourcommencement speaker's explanation of the problems with NMD didn't make a very strong impression, and it seems that similar speeches to much less receptive audiences also fail. Hopefully, however, the resounding echo of test failure after test failure will make some impression on the public. Remember, that's $50 Billion that's not going into streamlining production of armored vehicles for our troops in Iraq--a problem that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently said was not due to lack of funds but was "a matter of physics." (See thisCounterpunch article on companies that are more than willing to ramp up production of armored vehicles. ) It doesn't take a degree in physics to realize that money can be more productively thrown at an already working production process than at an most likely unworkable missile scheme that fails test after test.
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Go Tell It To The FCC

Scott sent me this deliciously outraged column by the San Francisco Chronicle's Tim Goodman: As was reported by Mediaweek's Todd Shields last week, the much ballyhooed 240,00 complaints of moral outrage that FCC chairman Michael Powell uses as evidence for "a dramatic rise in public concern and outrage about what is being broadcast into their homes," were 99.8% filed by single conservative activist group, the Parent's Television Group. Goodman charges the Internet generation with falling asleep at the wheel and allowing a single advocacy group help an all-to-willing FCC squander its responsibilities and powers in the culture wars:
Now the PTC and Powell have responded to the Mediaweek story by saying,
"Hey, it doesn't matter where these complaints about indecency came from. These are still Americans being outraged."
But you know what? Yes, it does matter.
Because the FCC is supposed to be a sounding board for people who view a TV show, are upset about the content and seek a place to complain outside of the network that aired it. But the process is being hijacked by people who in all likelihood aren't even watching the shows but are responding to a group that
tells them the content is wicked. Meanwhile, thinking people with minds that actually open and function are not sending in e-mails to Powell that say, "I saw
something I didn't think was appropriate for my kids, so I changed the channel.
I handled it. No need to start a holy war about it. I'm looking forward to 'Deadwood' on HBO. You should TiVo it if you haven't already. Anyway, have a nice day."

The fact is the FCC has much more important things to worry about, like the monopolization of radio, censorship and blatant political advocacy by chains of local stations like the Sinclair Group, the cowardly and nonsensical refusal of CBS and NBC to air the United Church of Christs ads about tolerance, or even protecting Astronomy. This is a straw-man that makes Powell look busy and important.

Don't get me wrong. I don't like most TV, and I strongly believe in the right of parents to control what their children see. But I don't believe in the right of someone else's parents controlling what your children see. When I was growing up, the rules were strictly enforced. If I was watching TV, and there was no adult with me (which rarely happened), it had to be on PBS or a very particular set of cartoons. I still strongly remember sneaking away from Mister Rogers to a soap opera after I had caught a glimpse of such things in the guest room TV, and the tragic result: being grounded from TV entirely for weeks. When my He-Man addiction became excessive, I had to extensively plead its educational value just to get a reduced sentence. Even after my parents graduated me to Hitchcock and Satyajit Ray at a rather tender age, they eyed my media consumption like a hawk. If my mother was working or away in the evenings, I rarely dared to slip away to something she wouldn't have approved of: she checked up on me too often, and gave me too many other things to do. There was no TV in my room. The first movie I remember renting was Amadeus--but when I was troubled or confused, my mother was right there next to me to answer my questions. Same with the third or fourth movie I recall going to the theaters for: The Last Emeperor. Desperate Housewives would never have been an issue--Sunday is a school night!

And you know what? I deeply appreciate that. I read a lot, and I watched a lot of amazing films as a child. Moreover, when I grew up some, I got to watch wonderful, dark, tales for grown-ups, like Taggart and Touching Evil with my mom, and I'm glad they were there for us to watch together. That's because my mom took the responsibility to parent me, instead of expecting a government body to do the job for her. You can always change the channel, switch the signal off and control the supply of video tapes and DVDs, switch the TV off, even get rid of it altogether. Please tell FCC Chair Michael Powell that he has better things to worry about, because most Americans are capable of better parenting skills than he wants to give them credit for. You can email him here, and you can write to him here: FCC, 445 12th Street, SW Washington, D.C. 20554. Pass it on!
Tuesday, December 14, 2004
Decadence at the Dojo

It's been a while since I did an Aikidoblog, but last night definitely qualifies, since I left the Dojo around 1am. Actually, I train much more often these days than I did in the summer. Last night we had a very special Dojo holiday party; besides being an annual event, this year's was particularly in honor of Dojo member Joshua, who is going on a three year monastic retreat to a Buddhist center in Santa Cruz. Peter Sempai felt that we, as Aikidoists, needed to balance out so much austerity and purity, so the theme of the party was Sin & Decadence. I'm not sure we accompished much on the first front (or perhaps I shouldn't blog it) but we definitely got the second part down.

It helped that the evening started out with an absolutely fabulous class. It was packed, almost three full rows of students, and the whole first row was just blackbelts in billowing hakama. Kim Sensei said that he couldn't really come up with a way of tying Aikido to sin, but since in meditation one needs to battle "bad things" he would show us ways of blending and reacting our techniques to an opponent who is doing an unexpected "bad thing." And it was just rock and roll after that.

It was wonderful to meet members of the Dojo whom I've been hearing about for a long time (including Josh) and also lovely to train with some people I haven't seen in a while, like Cynthia Sempai. For Aikidoists, I guess I'll just say that the class was pretty much built around morotedori kokyuho and how the nage can react and blend with variations in the initial attack of the uke. (The uke could pull down very hard; jab the nage's elbow up; twist the nage's elbow behind their back, lock their own elbows narrowly, lock their elbows very widely, keep dancing around, or--my personal favorite--attack two at a time, resulting in a precise dancing tangle where the two attackers are essentially knocked into each other and thrown down together.) There was also a great pin where the uke charges in with a fist, the nage blends with the uke's punching arm, controls this punching arm, pins the uke down on on their back and then flips them around onto their stomach. I would never have thought that being flipped over like an energetic rag doll could be so much fun.

Savoring fruit compote, artichokes, cookies, spinach stir fry, and Sara's magnificent "apple pie of lust", while musicians and feather-boa'd singers serenaded Joshua was, much more predictably, just as fun. So was dancing to James Brown and getting picked up and flipped over more times than I can count. And I did, finally, sorta, kinda almost manage to lift Scott and Diana off the ground. (Not at the same time. Though Scott did have me and Joshua up at the same time. Scott is big. Diana is taller than me, but not big.) Richard Sempai proved his skill at bawdy monastery-themed lyrics, despite being unfamiliar with the limerick dictionary. We did the limbo with the jo, both over and under (well, I stuck to under), and you haven't seen the limbo until you've seen someone go under with a full bottle on their head, unspilled. All in all, it was a great time. Happy Holidays everyone, and best of luck to Joshua.
Buy Blue

A buy blue meme has been going around for a few days, but I particularly like the format of this latest version. A few days ago Tre sent me a simple word document that listed companies that mostly donate to Republicans in red and companies that mostly donate to Democrats in blue. Yesterday I saw the list somewhat tackily laid out at My sister just sent me has the neatest format and simplest incentive: we can't cast ballots anymore this year, but we can still spend strategically. I've heard that some people think this is actually a Trojan horse--a way of publicizing Democratic companies so that the apparently more numerous red voters will boycott them. But I think the more productive economies of Blue states have cash on their side in this one.

I also find it interesting that discount "low-end" retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, & Kmart donate Republican. When I was in 8th grade and we were playing a stockmarket game in math class, I decided that since the job-market was bad, people would do more shopping at stores like these as middle class workers found their incomes shrinking and were compelled to cut their quality expectations. My stock portfolio did well in that pre-Clinton era, and I think this idea still holds. The stores on the blue side have more to gain when middle class people have more money to spend. I'm pleasantly surprised that my taste generally runs to the blue side anyway; the main regret on the red side is Victoria's Secret & Express. Well, I don't have a lot of money to spend this Christmas, but if you do, I hope you'll consider "shopping blue."
Monday, December 13, 2004
Making Medicine More Affordable in the Developing World

The Economist has a fascinating article on Freeplay Energy's work in developing applications for hand-cranked (or wind-up) energy: specifically, medical instrumentation for neonatal care. Besides the prohibitive cost of the kind of technology that has become vital to modern medicine, there is the prohibitive cost of running it--if you have problems getting enough electricity to keep the lights on, you may not have access to the amps necessary to run standard machines.

"Freeplay has now teamed up with a group of doctors at University College London to create medical equipment that works well in poor parts of the world. The project focuses on neonatal care, and with good reason. Infant death is still a fact of life in much of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia; roughly 14% of babies born in Angola, for example, die before they reach their first birthday, more than 30 times the rate of infant mortality in Britain."

The article describes four instruments the collaboration has developed: a pulse oximeter to measure levels of oxygen in the blood, a syringe driver to deliver carefully timed miniature doses of medicine to small babies, a microcentrifuge for doing blood analysis, and a fetal heart monitor. They are currently being tested in the field.

Freeplay's roots are in creating radios and flashlights, powered by hand and aimed at the third world market. Nelson Mandela cut the ribbon of its 1998 factory expansion in South Africa, and the founders had hoped that their hand-powered radios would help spread knowledge about HIV & AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. But the gadgets were more likely to sell at Sharper Image or REI, and in 2000 Andrew Maykuth of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote this article detailing Freeplay's decision to move jobs away from the South Africa plant that employed the disabled, opting for a cheaper venue in Hong Kong and focusing on wealthier markets. Treehugger recently featured one of their newer handranked lights, saying, "Now this is the light that needs to mate with a bicycle!" Given the company's early setbacks, it's heartening to know that they didn't lose their idealistic notions and kept trying to find ways to help others.

The notion of making rural communities more medically self-sufficient reminds me of a Berkeley nonprofit I learned about a couple of years ago: the Hesperian Foundation, which creates "open copyright," royalty free health care manuals: "Hesperian publications are written simply and include many illustrations so people with little formal education can understand, apply and share medical information. " The book Where There is No Doctor, for example, recognizes the realities of many communities and deals with it, instead of being overwhelmed with the impossibility of the more ideal solution of having more doctors in poor places.

Not that ideal solutions shouldn't also be pursued. I am fascinated with recent reports ( , The New York Post, & a much longer, more informative story at The Star Ledger by Kitta MacPherson) about an anti-HIV drug developed at Rutgers by a team led by chemist Eddy Arnold. This drug attacks the HIV virus's reverse-transcriptase enzyme, potentially knocking out it's ability to reproduce itself. As a single pill, instead of the current "cocktails" used in treating HIV-AIDS, it has great potential for helping out the epidemics in Africa and Asia. Let's hope that they are onto something, and that the companies holding the licenses do the right thing.
Sunday, December 12, 2004

According to this AFP article on Yahoo , and to this article from the Persian Journal, an ancient Backgammon set has been found in the 5000 year old "Burnt City" ruins of Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan province. The set sounds very beautiful, with the board made from ebony that was probably imported from India, and playing pieces made from locally quarried agate and turquoise stone. The Persian Journal article features a haunting picture of two streaked die, their number dots now empty little hollows. 60 pieces were unearthed with the set, instead of the modern 30, leading to speculation that rules were somewhat different than the ones we use. I'm wondering if their owner was merely paranoid about losing pieces. This set is supposed to predate a set previously found in Mesopotamian ruins by at least 100 years. Backgammon's rival for oldest board game is the Chinese Game of Go. Says the Persian Journal article: [Experts] are also intrigued that inhabitants of ancient civilizations, widely believed to be concerned with their daily survival, could afford to indulge in such luxuries as playing board games. The idea of ancient Baluchis meeting for board game nights not unlike the ones I indulge in is quite charming. Did they listen to music and pass around sweets while they watched each other play? How do you say "Happy Feet" in archaic Farsi?

Actually, I should take up backgammon again. I have a nice magnetic set with its own carrying case sitting in my desk drawer; when I was a child I used to play backgammon with my grandmother.

Friday, December 10, 2004
Oh, To Be In School Again

Where I would be able to use this delightful watch, found via Judi at Dave Barry's Blog. I stopped wearing a watch a while ago, but this would have been mighty useful in the great Science Department Wars of '95. The key, of course, is utter discretion about the watch itself, and using hard to detect projectiles. Eschew BB shot and dried peas (Does anyone actually eat dried peas anymore? They strike me as a fully weaponized agricultural product.) Bits of eraser are much easier to shrug off. Unfortunately, the manufacturers seem to think only guys would want such a present, and I doubt I could get the "Stylish Black Face & Silver Numbers" in a reasonable fit. I also think that any girl who gets this for her gentleman is either amazingly foolish or mildly masochistic. In the meantime I may have to content myself with a Bubble gun, or the Tabletop Trebuchet. Curses! How I miss the catapult I built in 8th grade.
Climate Change

Found via TalkingPointsMemo, a wonderful new enterprise: Climate Scientists blog about their field in order to better explain their field, on the new website I think blogs are an excellent way to get academics out into society, functioning as true public intellectuals, and I'm always happy to see more scientists doing so. I was particularly impressed with this round-up of attempts to discredit "the hockey stick" graph of global warming. This kind of work is especially important given the prevalence of misleading pop science and science fiction---see science writer Chris Mooney's sharp-tongued blog item on Michael Crichton, and Slate's mocking review. Maybe these guys can enlist the help of my friend Climateboy.
This apparently environmentally-friendly website, ClimateBiz, seems like a possible ray of hope: it aims to serve businesses and organizations that are willing to stop whining about nonexistent scientific discord, and start doing the hard work of rolling back emissions.
Thursday, December 09, 2004
Memorials and A Marathon

I have cause to do some remembering, and I'd like to tell you a bit about my Freshman year of college, and a friend I made then. There's something magically sticky about the early weeks of a semester Freshman year, when a passing comment like"I want to find a donkey to decorate my room with," put someone in the running to be my best buddy. Said donkey-searcher, Ben, helped me find many wonderful people, including the woman I would like to tell you about.

One day early in the semester I was waiting in a hallway for a friend to finish her physics lab. I was tickled pink by vector notation--i-hat, j-hat, and k-hat--and I started folding paper hats. On one I drew an eye, on another a blue-jay, and on the third, "Que?" in Spanish. Most of my passing classmates appropriately ignored me, but a friend of Ben's, Linda Pho, saw me and wandered over. Instead of deriding my silliness, she grinned her wide-as-the-sea grin, and called over our friend Judy. We conspired. Linda thought they would make appropriately mysterious greetings for the Chinese New Year, and on the back she drew the characters for double prosperity. We signed them, "the balcony crew," and left them at the office of our deeply tolerant professor, Bruce Birkett, who kept them hanging there for many years. We told our delighted buddies, and thereafter we all had to sit with our feet propped up on the lecture hall railing. Thus began a happy collaboration--we studied hard together, but we always tried to be ridiculously silly while doing it. Juggling, punning, and in-class-cartooning all made us rather happy folk. Linda was one of the founding members of the Society of Mad Hatters at Cal, a group that existed to serve tea to strangers for no better reason than that they might have a good day. (Oh, how we confounded people at the Business School!) If it was cold and drippy outside, we could go hang out with the industrious Linda, who held office hours for the Society of Mechanical Engineers she was already so passionate about. Our mailing list was called Fignewton, and we traded physics tips and tricks along with terrible jokes and college anxieties. I moved closer to Berkeley that summer, but many people went home. Linda went to LA.

That summer we learned that she would not take up her rightful place beside us in the fall because she had been diagnosed with leukemia, and needed to stay home in LA to be treated at the City of Hope hospital. For the next three years she kept us updated by email, and we sent down goodies and get well cards. Many of her friends went down to visit. We went on with college, while she fought her cancer and took classes whenever she could. Her hard work was inspiring from afar, but the distance made it hard for some of us to stay close to her--including, sadly, me. In the midst of our senior year, she seemed to be cured, and came up north to visit us. We had split off into our various majors and rarely all hung out together anymore, but we piled into a restaurant, and marvelled at the brightness of her face. She still adored the mathematics she was so good at, and she was planning on being a math teacher.

In May of 2000 many of us graduated. In the summer of 2000 Linda had a relapse, and she passed away. The next time our balcony crew gathered was to write notes to her family in remembrance.

This was all brought to mind by one of those friends I made in those magically sticky days, Rishi--or "Juggling-Boy". He's helping his brother's girlfriend Elaine Ybarra raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Marathon in Arizona next January. He told me how proud he is of her, because when she started she struggled with the half mile run and now she is sailing through half a marathon at a time. That's the kind of grit Linda had.

A little idle Googling made me realize that there is almost no trace of our exploits on the web. You can read an article from the Berkeley Issues Magazine Fall 1997 issue that profiles Linda, but I decided I wanted to put some of my happier memories out in this public space. If you feel so inspired, you can sponsor Elaine, and check out the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society webpage, the National Marrow Donor Program, and City of Hope Hospital. Please consider contacting Rishi about pooling your donation with his (which will be in memory of Linda)--he may be able to arrange for matching funds. (Email me for his address.) You can also read about a potential breakthrough in the treatment of some kinds of Leukemia. And remember--we always need blood donors.

Hug your friends, and savor the moments of silliness.
Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Scotto just reminded me that Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency is full of delightful bits, and in particular he pointed me to the wonderful list of lists. Lists posted yesterday include TV Catchphrases That Weren't, by Richard Long (e.g.: Hawaii Five-O: "Book him, Danno!"
Original: "Beat him, Danno. Beat him good.") and New Slogans for America to Use to Sell Itself to the Islamic World, by Rob Bates (e.g.: "Standing for Freedom and Democracy a Good Percentage of the Time"). Other lists to try: 56 Uncommon Baby Names for Boys, Culled From the Index of Volume 3 of Master of the Senate, Robert Caro's Biography of Lyndon Johnson, & What Not to Be in the Middle of When the Earthquake Comes.

I was also pleased to see the new section on Sestinas.

If you need your humorous lists to be a little more visual, you could do worse than the KFS Sweater Project: "My friend Kevin recently cleaned out his wardrobe, which, due to his pack rat nature, was crammed with clothes he hadn't worn in more than a decade. Among the discarded were 25 sweaters that can generously be described as "hideous." Or, as one critic put it, "Bill Cosby would not wear this." Kevin's defense? "I worked at Marshalls in North Olmsted, Ohio, during high school and got a 15 percent discount. It was cold. It was the late '80s."" With pictures and captions.
Tuesday, December 07, 2004
Thought and Action

It's an amazing day for neurotechnology. Via Engadget, check out this amazing story on the BBC: researchers from SUNY Albany & New York State's Wadsworth Center have demonstrated an electrode-cap system that converts the wearer's thoughts of controlling a cursor into actually controlling a cursor.

The researchers are Jonathan Wolpaw and Dennis McFarland, and they've published their results online with the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences--and their research report is publicly availaible. They describe their set-up as requiring EEG data from "64 standard electrode locations," which was then digitized and fed to a computer. The four subjects, two of whom are paralyzed but have normal arm-movement, wore the caps and faced a screen. A "target" appeared on one of 8 spots at the edges of the screen, one second later a cursor appeared in the center of the screen, and the person wearing the cap had only 10 seconds to move the cursor to the target. If they succeeded the target "flashed as a reward" but if they failed, it simply disappeared.

The signals from the cap were translated to the control of the cursor in an amazingly straightforward way, simply combining amplitudes from two types of brainwaves (mu waves at 8-12 Hz and beta waves at at 18-26 Hz) in linear equations for the horizontal and vertical directions, and adjusting the weights on those equations for each participant with an adaptive algorithm. You can download a Quicktime movie of one of these sessions here. Watching the little pink targets practically crash into their targets one after the other is mesmerizing.

The possibilities for people suffering from spinal cord injuries are inspiring, and in general mind-boggling. This doesn't seem like it should be a very expensive set up--its non-invasive and is built from existing, fairly common technology. It wouldn't take a lot to attach cursor-movement to a remote-controlled car, for instance, or a pen. I predict an eventual market for everyday objects equipped with WiFi-controlled motors.
Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com


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Blogs I Read (Or Try To)
113th Street
american footprints(Nadezhda & Praktike)
ANNA's Diary
Apartment Therapy
Armchair Generalist
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
Dave Barry
The Bellman
Mine's On The 45 (Brimful)
Campaign Desk (CJR)
Combing the Sphere
Crooked Timber
Daily Dose of Imagery
The Daily Rhino (Bong Breaker)
Dark Days Ahead
The Decembrist
Brad DeLong
Atanu Dey on India's Development (Deeshaa)
Daniel Drezner
Cyrus Farivar
Finding My Voice
Neil Gaiman
Ganesh Blog
Geeky Chic 2.0 (Echan)
Green Ink!
Alexandra Huddleston
Iddybud (Jude Nagurney Camwell)
India Uncut
Intel Dump: Phillip Carter et al
The Intersection (Chris Mooney)
Jesus Politics
John and Belle Have a Blog
Mark A. R. Kleiman
KnowProse (Taran Rampersad)
Maenad (Nori Heikkinen)
Scott McCloud
Mind Without Borders
Electrolite: Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Corey Pein
Political Animal(Kevin Drum, formerly Calpundit)
Kevin G. Powell
QuakeHelp (South Asian Quake)
Radiation Persuasion (Nick)
Scott Rosenberg(
Rox Populi
Nick Schager
Idea Spout: Daniel Sanchez
Sepia Mutiny
Amardeep Singh
Snarkmarket (Robin Sloan & Matt Thompson)
South-East Asian Earthquake and Tsunami Blog
SreeTips: New To Sree
Steprous (Bear)
Robert Stribley
Talking Points Memo: Joshua Micah Marshall
Tech Policy
A Tiny Revolution
To The Teeth
Manish Vij
Vinod's Blog
War and Piece
Nollind Whachell
Matthew Yglesias:Old
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham
Ethan Zuckerman

Some Categories

Blogs focusing on policy, politics, and national security:
Armchair Generalist
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
The Decembrist
Brad DeLong
Daniel Drezner
Green Ink!
Iddybud (Jude Nagurney Camwell)
Idea Spout: Daniel Sanchez
Informed Comment: Juan Cole
Intel Dump: Phillip Carter
The Intersection (Chris Mooney)
Irregular Analyses
Jesus Politics
Mark A. R. Kleiman
Liberals Against Terrorism(Nadezhda & Praktike)
Political Animal(Kevin Drum, formerly Calpundit)
Talking Points Memo: Joshua Micah Marshall
War and Piece

Photo Blogs
Daily Dose of Imagery
Alexandra Huddleston
Radiation Persuasion (Nick)

Columbia Journalism Folks
Apartment Therapy
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
Campaign Desk (CJR)
Ranajit Dam
Cyrus Farivar
Alexandra Huddleston
Corey Pein
Nick Schager
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham

Literature, Fiction and Entertainment
Dave Barry
Neil Gaiman
Electrolite: Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Scott McCloud

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