Friday, July 29, 2005

Sailors and Ships

Jonathan Caverly, one of the soldier-scholars (actually, sailor-scholar) who's filling out Intel-Dump while Phil Carter gets ready to be deployed to Iraq, has a post on a proposed plan for a new Naval expeditionary comabat battallion of soldiers, a group of 600 sailors who occupy a middle ground between regular sailors and Navy SEALS. Writes Caverly:
I’m not sure its 600 sailors will do much to relieve the Army or Marine Corps in Iraq, but it may aid the credibility of American small scale force elsewhere while much of the rest of the US military is tied down. . .In short: is this a sign of integrated operations without the jointness? . . .Nonetheless, the former sailor in me is pretty interested. It could develop into a real source of pride for the Navy as a whole. It’s also a time-honored tradition; I am proud to say that the only landing on mainland Japan before WWII hostilities ceased was accomplished by a submarine crew.
The notion of a landing on mainland Japan before the cease of hostilities caught my eye, and the linked Wiki article on the daring career of Rear Admiral Eugene B. Fluckey is worth a read, though it doesn't go into much detail about the landing party's destruction of a coastal rail line. But I'd never seen Wiki histories of actual Naval ships--take a look at the history of the one and only McCormick: it's dizzying in its switchbacks from the Atlantic fleet to the Pacific, which is all the more astonishing when you realize that any such switch required passage through the tropical (and at the time) fairly new Panama Canal. There's something mildly delightful about reading "her" biography.

She started with a year in the Pacific fleet, diplomatic capacity in the Mediterranean, then flagship for the Yangtze River Patrol. I had no idea that the American Navy routinely plied Chinese waters before World War II: "In the early 1920's the patrol found itself fighting the forces of deadly warlords and ruthless bandits, then, in the late 1920's, Chiang Kai-shek and the Northern Expedition, created a volatile military situation for the patrol along the Yangtze." She sat decommissioned in San Diego for a few years, before being brought into the preparations for war, going back and forth between Iceland and the US, and then up and down from Hailifax all the way to Argentina. She escorted convoys to Casablanca, in Morocco, and picking up prisoners from defeated U-baots. McCormick made more stops in Europe as the Allies gained control, before being repaired and then decomissioned at the end of the war. But look at that list--The Mediterannean, Turkey, China, Iceland, Argentina, Morocco, Panama--what a life!

Of course I realize this is all just Wiki; one of these days I'll look it up in a less changing Encyclopedia. In realistic literature and journalistic writing it is overly fanciful to anthropomorphize (gynomorphize?) a ship and consider "her" biography in any emotional detail, but it's okay in the realm of fantasy. Shipping and sailing, both military and mercantile, has remained dependably adventurous over the years, despite the advances of technology. Even in times of great peace there will always be pirates and disasters, and therefore even in times of greatest peace we will always require a great Navy--ships like the USNS Mercy in her Operation Unified Assistance work, aiding the Indonesian Tsunami victims. I wonder what the future holds for our Naval cast of Characters.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Japanese Female Android

Wow. Somebody call Harrison Ford. Link from TK.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Wacky Russian News

I've seen this article pop on a few bulletin boards, and it's dated Friday, July 22nd. It chronicles the discovery by a team led by Vladimir Baranov of the Ott Prenatal Diagnostics Laboratory of the prevalence of a gene among Russians which confers resistance to HIV. I'm sort of habitually interested in population genomics and tried to find the original paper on Google Scholar. The weird thing is, the only article by Baranov I can find on the subject is from 1997. Indeed, it seems like a fairly old and non-news-worthy result. And this 2002 pdf reviews the geographic distribution of the relevant gene over the entire Old world. (And yes, Africa and South and East Asia are almost completely lacking in it.)

So I realize this might be news---why does this happen to me so often with stories?!---but it's still pretty interesting. The mutation seems to have no natural selection bias. It seems like it just happened, and the lucky folks are the ones who happen to be descendants of the original mutant. I always assumed the disproportionate impact of AIDS in Africa was because it got it first and is so incredibly poor, but apparently genetics is also a factor. Unfortunately it's the kind of gene that governs a structural protein (a receptor on immune cells that the HIV virus latches onto) and not a secretion protein, so feeding people copies of the better protein won't really help. Still, I'm sure people are going to come up with some way of exploiting it.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Photos from Iceland

I've posted some photos from my Iceland trip. Did I mention that it was a mysterious and somewhat spooky place, in an entirely cheerful way? This, for instance, is where they used to drown witches near their ancient parliament:

The pool of water where they used to drown witches.

But they don't bother witches anymore!

Lots more photos below the jump! Click here to see them all.

I've already blogged about the Gullfoss--here's another view, with me in front of it:

Saheli in front of Iceland's biggest water fall.

There's a narrow, slippery ledge directly above one edge of the Gullfoss, and these rocks line it:


At Geysir there are hot--sometimes boiling hot--pools of water that bubble forth from the earth, one of which erupts several stories up into the air every few minutes. Two pools sitting next to each other are both electric shades of blue, but one foggy pool is entirely opaque:


while the other is clear as glass:


Hot was the last thing we felt when we were nearly in danger of blowing off the cliff that that over looks Dyerhoelay, a gigantic "door hole" rock formation on the Southern coast of Iceland near Vik. The photo is slightly murky because of the sleet sheeting down from the sky and the fact that I'm trying to keep my arm from blowing off:


This puffin seemed immune to the wind, as it contemplated the black sand beaches below, and completely ignored us:


Here are some Icelandic flowers growing in the black sand and volcanic rock, bright purple despite the wind and cold:


Here are some statues outside the Perlan, who also don't seem to mind the wind. Or do they?


The Perlan is a restaurant with a rotating dome that sits atop the highest point of Rekjavik. It's got a great view of the city:


It's surrounded by large water tanks, filled with the extremely hot water that's been piped down from the mountains and will flow down from the Perlan to the heat parts of the city.


Inside the Perlan, which is also a museum, there is a Viking encased in glass. I hope he doesn't escape!


I wonder what he would think of downtown Reykjavik at 5 o'clock in the morning?


And here is a cheerful penguin who is very far away from home:


Here's a link to my Flickr Iceland set as it currently stands; there are some pictures there I haven't blogged and I will let you know here if I add more photos to it. I would appreciate it if you would leave comments here on the blog. Enjoy!

Friday, July 22, 2005

Economic Flights of Fancy

This is the kind of thing that infuriates Americans about our own economic system. HP is laying off 14,500 workers (10% of its labor force) after "firing" Carly Fiorina with a $28 Million severance package. (I'm excluding the pension packages b/c that's presumably not cash the company had in hand.) Note that that works out to less than $2000 per laid off worker. Nevertheless many readers have a gut reaction of how unfair it seems: Fiorina is undoubtedly more responsible for HP's crashing descent than most of those workers. The glaring alternative, however, of using government to regulate things like CEO salaries is both unwieldy and somewhat repulsive.

But it should be possible to build into the structure of a corporation a more nuanced way of dealing with these things. At the time of a incorporation, a company can have all kinds of riders saying things like, "we're just not going to have huge CEO salaries," or "we're just not going to charge people for this service," or whatever. Investors in that company would essentially enter into a contract to agree to its prearranged philosophy; they can exert pressure for the sake of profit, but not if it contradicts whatever this philosophy is. Managers aggreeing to work for the company are also voluntarily entering into this set of self-imposed regulations. After that, it's sink or swim in the market--if the company's philosophy makes it less competitive then the players lose their bet, but if it makes it more, they win the bet. What they can worry less about, however, is being tied by either investment or employment to an entity whose philosophy diverges from the prearranged set-up. Clearly written contract law should hold them to it. It's kind of like a constitution.

I think it must be entirely impossible to refashion a corporate entity to fit such a constitution after it's already huge and traded. But it's basically how we run cooperatives and many kinds of nonprofits and other institutions of civil society--how, in fact, citizens manage to control many aspects of their life, and how ordinary people, without large amounts of capital, make things happen. When you look at the local histories of this nation, they're filled with barely-somebodies enthusiastic enough to write up a charter and recruit some friends. We apply that kind of democratic-economics to our lives constantly, just not in massive endeavors like building computers or running banks or laying electrical lines or making cars. There's nothing un-American about it. In no way does it violate principles of enterprise and private property. Everyone who enters into such contracts enters voluntarily, and they can even reap the results in some predetermined portion--their salary, a bonus, a dividend, whatever. In legal essence it's no different from any other firm. The difference is one of culture and emphasis--the ownership is more about who starts the thing and less about who provides the capital.

So I'm basically wondering if the tools of technology will encourage more people to become the enthusiastic nut waving a charter and recruiting some friends? Are we going to see more cooperatives and more non-profits?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Corporate Sponsorship I Can Get Behind

Lowell Observatory in Happy Jack, AZ, has just broken ground on a new $35 Million telescope that's being sponsored by The Discovery Channel. According to this article from, it will be the fifth largest telescope in the continental United States--I can only assume they mean fifth largest visible spectrum telescope, since radio astronomy arrays are huge.

I think Astronomy is like poetry--it may seem useless but it's inspiring and necessary. Actually, I have some hypotheses on why it's actually very useful, but lacking all the evidence I want to sustain that argument, I'll keep them to myself. In the mean time, however, I think it's safe to say that Astronomy provides a valuable kind of entertainment. The budget for this telescope pales in comparison to even mediocre summer blockbusters. There's no reason to fear that Discovery will unfairly influence the research that gets done, so this seems like an ideal transaction between a public that wants to consume this information and a group of scientists that want to discover it, with Discovery acting as the middleman. I wouldn't mind seeing more of this kind of thing, at various scales. Link from Abbas Raza at Three Quarks Daily.

Saturday, July 16, 2005


Mist coming out of the gorge of Iceland's Gullfoss (golden falls).

Slightly downstream on the glacial river Hvita, a view of the mist and gorge pounded by Iceland's Gullfoss (Golden Falls). The falls are so powerful--perhaps the most powerful in Europe--that the entire area is saturated with mist, which flies up from the torrents to meet the sky. One fellow traveller exclaimed, "Oh! So this is where clouds are made!"

The water is slightly brownish because it is glacial meltoff. The falls were almost used in a hydroelectric project until the local famer's daughet, Sigridur Tomassdottir, walked to Reyjavik and protested, saying she would throw herself off the falls before she would see them roped off and tamed. The nation voted in her favor, and the falls were saved. (Note: I have also updated my earlier post, "Horses" with two photos.)
The Land of Fire and Ice (and Steam and Salt and Rock. . .)

In many parts of Reykjavik, including where the apartment where I was staying, the hot water smells strongly of sulfur. (Which, apparently, is what rotten eggs smells like.) The water is plentiful and hot: it either directly or indirectly heats the homes, fills the swimming pools, powers the greenhouses that grow the bananas and the pineapples, and generates a significant portion of the country's electricity.

Iceland sits on a rift between the North American and Eurasian plates*, which are moving away from each other at 2 cm per year. So it's essentially the result of millions of years of volcanic build up as magma erupted out of the widening gap to create the island. The magma still courses and oozes in cracks and faults and calderas below the surface, occasionally still erupting. Water from the glaciers and precipitation that drips down into subterranean cavities gets heated by all that molten rock and gas, getting as hot as 350° Celsius (662° Fahrenheit) two kilometers below the surface.

Pumping the water upto the surface, it can be used to generate electricity directly or heat cold fresh water for bathing, drinking and mostly space heating. These geothermal waters usually have relatively large amounts of hydrogen sulfide dissolved in them, and at the Nesjavellir power plant, in the mountains above Reykjavik, we foreigners were shocked to learn that the Icelanders actually inject some hydrogen sulfide into the newly heated freshwater, mainly to counteract the corrosive properties of high dissolved oxygen content, but also to maintain the smell! From University of Rochester's District Energy site: "It is free of dissolved oxygen, and contains 0.5-2.0 PPM of H2S. The remaining H2S gas reacts against any oxygen absorption in accumulators and ensures that the "pleasant smell", which the users of geothermal water in Iceland have become accustomed to, is retained. "(emphasis mine.) On the trip lots of people insisted that while the water smelled bad to us foreigners, it was very good for our skin. Seeing how youthful older Icelanders look, I wondered if there was something to that theory. It's an idea that takes some getting used to--my second "night" in Iceland I even had a nightmare about sulfuric acid.

Topping off a surreal trip was our stop at the Blue Lagoon at Keflavik, a popular detour to the airport. The Svartsengi powerplant near Keflavik pumps hot sea water out of the ground, and its high salt and mineral content gives it a brilliant blue color and, apparently, skin-healilng properties. When this super hot water is done generating electricity and heating fresh water, it's still plenty warm, and is pooled into the manmade Blue Lagoon spa. (This site claims that it was originally a mistake and highlights the adventurous culture: "The residents of the area did not fail to notice the unnaturally blue lake that formed near the power plant. The bolder of the curious decided to check it out for themselves. After bathing in the warm blue lake for a couple days the Icelanders noticed that the water had curing properties." ) Wading towards my friends in a hot foggy blue pool, with lava beneath my feet, white salt plastered on my face, and rain drops fallng on my head has been one of the odder moments of my life. Here are some photos from the official site.

So is there anything to these rumors of dermatological goodness? Stay tuned.

*I was deeply amused by the fact that I live near the opposite edge of the North American plate, which is slip-grinding along the Pacific plate. Any geophysicists know if the drifting motion of the northeastern edge of the plate is at all correlated with the northern slipping motion here on the San Andreas? I'm sort of visualizing a slight clockwise rotation, but I have no idea how much of a rigid body these plates are.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


The Icelandic horse apparently has a rare fifth gait: the tolt, a way they can move fast without losing contact with the ground, creating a very smooth ride. But I think you have to be a trained and experienced horserider to either appreciate what this means exactyl or coax a horse to show the gait off. In the meantime this first time horse rider had quite the bouncy ride, but still very pleasurable.

The tallest Icelandic horse I saw couldn't have been more than 6 feet tall, and this made them much more appealing and approachable to me. For a first time horse rider, the ability to cover more ground is an awe-inspiring advantage to riding over a country with such rough and sweeping vistas as Iceland has. On the other hand, paying careful attention to the horse also seems like the overwhelmingly important first order of business. So waterfalls and mountains that I would have oohed and ahhed over on a hike or from the windows of a car sped by, were instead somewhat charming and unheeded. Nevertheless I was very pleasantly surprised at how easy and pleasant the riding was. But just as I was getting quite pleased with myself for choosing to go horse riding on the dryest day of the trip, we came up to a creek. It rushed healthily, about two feet deep and twenty feet across. I admired it as one who plans to walk, respectfully, alongside the gush of icy water.

Then the leader hop-hopped her horse in and all ours began to follow. "Dammit," I thought, "There really is nothing you can do outside in Iceland without getting thoroughly wet." But it wasn't so hard, and my horse was deceptive in his shortness--only the barest splash dampened my jeans. We had been instructed how to slow the horse down, and get him to turn left and right with the reins, but my horse seemed to know what to do and whom to follow, and I wasn't too offended when he didn't particularly obey me. I figured he knew what he was doing better than I did, and that it would be difficult to really turn a horse around on the first day.

So then we came to the tenth or twelfth stream-crossing and all of a sudden my horse didn't go into the water, he just went alongside the path. Eek! I thought. I had to get him back to the crossing, but the path alongside was already going up and above the river bank. Not the time to try to teach myself how to jump. So I tugged on the reins to turn him around--and he followed and spun around in a neat circle and went back to the crossing and made it, in a smooth motion. I haven't felt so cinematic in quite a while.

Updated--Photographic Evidence:


Saheli on an chestnut Icelandic gelding, named something like Flokka (the Danish horse hand I was with was new to the farm and didn't know for sure.) He was supposed to be a very gentle horse, and seemed quite nice. We rode for over two hours.

Earlier than the riding, on the road-trip portion of the trip, we drove along Iceland's southeastern coastal Highway 1. At one point we stopped and fed some horses in a pasture on High way 1. They didn't seem to care about the barbed wire, and were quite eager to taste the grass on the other side of the fence. It does appear to have been greener from their point of view. It was a very windy day.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Nightless At 66 Degrees

Greetings from Reykjavik! Where the sun barely sets and does not go very far even when it does set. My first morning here I woke up and totally flipped out that I´d overslept, but it was only 4 am: what had happened was the clouds had simply cleared. That made more of a difference in the brightness than the mere motions of the earth.

Clouds, glaciers, mist, fog, ice, frost, steam, giant towering torrents of water, collosus ghosts of spray reaching up to meet the clouds. Did I say Switzerland had a lot of water? HA! Switzlerland be a veritable dessert compared to this volanic island.

Imagine miles and miles squishy moss like pillows mottled with lichen and flowers and trampled by horses not much taller than me, and you can see why so many Icelanders might still believe in Elves. Just a few hours apart i´ve sen coppery blue puddles that go from flat to 2-story high geysers and beaches that are as black as coal. In between these two trips was a giant cliff, the symbol of Icelandérs freedom, the oldest Democratic parliament. An inspiring site which made my 5 am conversation with a stranger on the street a little more meaningful: crawling home on one lane cobbled street that is the heart of Downtown Rekjavik, after a night of feasting and dancing, we were speculating on rock songs and Iceland and the European Union. Why wasn´t Iceland part of the EU? we two Americans wondered to each other. Freedom, the viking lad walking next to us said---Iceland is all about freedom.

And lots and lots of water.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Take Care, London Town

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the UK, and London suburbs, where I spent a fairly short but significant chunk of my early childhood. It's all love today though, especially for the red double decker buses which are any child's delight. My condolences and prayers go out to the injured and killed and their loved ones, and all the workers struggling to make things right.

Glancing around the blogosphere and the oozing commentary, I have to say one thing. When people like me who were against the Iraq invasion bring it up in times like this, one should not assume that we are indicating a strict cause and effect. I am not trying to tease out the exact relationship between Britain's involvement in Iraq and the recent motives and causes of these particular terrorists. The point is not that invading Iraq might have been morally bad and that it then caused some other people to make definitely amoral choices. That argument is beyond me, especially right now. The point is that it's a drain on resources that was not justified in comparison to our other problems. We have finite intelligence officers, finite translators, finite money to spend on guards and emergency equipment, etc. etc.. Having to spend on these things in a foreign war cannot be ignored as a drain on budgets being cut or not increased for domestic emergency responders and domestic intelligence. Unfortunately it's a drain we're now stuck with, and we have to deal with the situation as it exists now. But as we deal with problems of terrorism using dwindling resources, we should remember that one reason much of those resources are scarce is that they're getting sucked up in another war. And we should remember that the next time someone asks us to go to war in a country that's not actually attacking us. And we should choose leaders who are likely to remember that as well, and care about it proportionately.

People may say the above in a nasty or partisian way, because they're angry or upset, but that doesn't make the analysis any less important to consider.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Black Maned Lion Superhero Triad!

Ruchira just sent me a story from CNN about how three Ethiopian lions seem to have scared of a 12-year-old girl's would be rapists, guarded her for half a day, and then padded away when the police arrived to rescue her:
The men had held the girl for seven days, repeatedly beating her, before the lions chased them away and guarded her for half a day before her family and police found her, Sgt. Wondimu Wedajo said Tuesday by telephone from the provincial capital of Bita Genet, some 560 kilometers (348 miles) west of the capital, Addis Ababa."They stood guard until we found her and then they just left her like a gift and went back into the forest," Wondimu said, adding he did not know whether the lions were male or female.. . ."If the lions had not come to her rescue then it could have been much worse. Often these young girls are raped and severely beaten to force them to accept the marriage," he said.
What caught my attention particularly, though, was the description of Ethiopian Lions as having black manes. Black manes! I'd never heard of seen of black maned lions before! They're pretty rare. Here are two pictures I found in a Google image search search.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Happy Fourth of July!
Hope you enjoy the big beautiful sky! Here's a song you can sing.

Friday, July 01, 2005


Justice O'Connor has resigned. Copied and pasted from an email I got from my friend Ben Brandzel at Move-On:
A few examples of landmark cases where Scalia or Thomas voted against O'Connor to try to strike down core rights and freedoms. In many cases if they had one more vote they would have succeeded.2
  • Worker's Rights: Nevada Dep't of Human Resources v. Hibbs, which protected the right of workers to care for newborn children or gravely ill family members.
  • Women's Rights: United States v. Virginia, which allowed women to attend all publicly funded schools. (C'Connor was not on the Court at the time of Roe v. Wade, but has opposed Scalia and Thomas on reproductive freedom issues in such landmark cases as Planned Parenthood v. Casey)
  • Church and State: Locke v. Davey, which ensured that states could not be required to fund religious training.
  • Environmental Rights: Friends of the Earth , Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc., which protected citizens' rights under the Clean Water Act to sue against the illegal dumping of mercury and other toxins.
  • Civil Rights: * Dickerson v. U.S., which upheld the "Miranda" guarantee that people accused of crimes are read their rights. * United States v. Fordice, which protected the rights of those still suffering from the effects of state-enforced racial segregation. * Grutter v Bollinger, affirmed the right of state colleges and universities to use affirmative action in their admissions policies. Civil Liberties:Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, which blocked the government from indefinitely detaining American citizens without charges, an attorney, or any basic rights.

They've got a petition to senators you can sign here.
Update: Slate has a long summary of possible replacements.