Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Friday, March 31, 2006
The Petroleum in Your Breakfast and the Carbon Dioxide Coming out of Your Shoes

Peter Slote, my first Aikido instructor and Oakland Recycling Specialist, kindly chastised me recently for even hoping that some recycled/recyclable plastic razors and tooth brushes were particularly environmentally friendly, pointing out that shipping to their east coast home and back alone consumed enough oil to be problematic. (On the other hand, I bet the normal ones are mostly shipped from China.) He just sent me a great article from today's Chronicle analyzing the fuel that went into transporting a simple, cheap, organic San Francisco breakfast to San Francisco.

There was a great (if annoyingly New York centric) article in Slate a couple weeks ago about the dark side of organic produce at places like Whole Foods---if your only concern is the environment (and not your probably non-threatened health or the health of the farm workers), you are over all better off buying local conventional produce than Chilean organic produce. (I was gratified because the day before this article came out I had picked my way through Whole Foods in Berkeley, carefully reading labels to pick up local cheese and crackers, but I was amused because most organic-supplying stores like Whole Foods label their produce adaquately enough for the consumer to make that choice and in the Western United States organic very often is as local as its going to get.)

Recently on Snarkmarket I left a somewhat snarky comment calling for a little browser plugin that would inform you how much the online purchase you just made would cost the atmosphere in carbon emissions to be shipped to your house. I later pointed out to Robin, climateboy, and Saurabh by email that this would be unfair, because the exact same problems apply to most "local" traditional stores, and Robin got the same feedback over at WorldChanging. In fact, shipping and handling may very well be more efficient than individual consumer driving.

I've been thinking about locality ever since last fall, when I went to the Peak Oil talk where I first met up with Hedgehog. For example, we have noticed that it is almost impossible to buy a solid pair of local shoes. Scotto is fond of pointing out that we basically take oil and turn it into food. Take a look at the Chad Heeter article Peter sent me:
What they've discovered is astonishing. According to researchers at the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Agriculture, an average of more than 7 calories of fossil fuel is burned up for every calorie of energy we get from our food. This means that in eating my 400-calorie breakfast, I will, in effect, have consumed 2,800 calories of fossil fuel energy. (Some researchers claim the ratio is as high as 10 to 1.)
It is, actually, pretty easy for me to mostly eat local food, because of where I live. Normally, my staple is basmati rice, and that, of course is shipped from India, but I have been eating less of that lately, and I know that almost everything else I eat is from Northern California, or at least packaged here. But the real problem here is an information problem. The oh-so-glorious free market is supposed to work when all the players are fully informed about all the risks and consequences of their choices. Besides their being ludicrous assumptions about how fast information can travel in time in that model, there are ludicrous assumptions about how much the information there even exists for the consumer to process. Heeter writes:
But if there was truth in packaging, where my oatmeal box now tells me how many calories I get from each serving, it would also tell me how many calories of fossil fuels went into the product.
In light of Colin's excellent recent post on James Woolsey's recommendation for avoiding foreign oil consumption, let me point out that this isn't just about foreign policy or even peak oil. This is about the fact that we are in a hell of a lot of trouble. See this week's Time cover -- our planet is melting. All the burning Turkey offal in the world may save us from more wars (though I doubt it) but it won't save our atmosphere. Hedgehog likes to give us pointed reminders that the best way to reduce our dependence on oil and save the atmosphere is to reduce consumption. (They're surprisingly effective reminders--small but spiny mammals land memorable punches)

I've been trying to drive less--and trying to come up with a palatable caffeine source that can get me to the closer parking lot without itself getting here from half way around the world. I've been very, very, very slowly working on becoming a competent biker with a lot of help from my friends. I've also been paying more attention to what I buy and where it comes from, and trying to cut down on non-local purchases. I'm not as enthused about having such a globetrotting 2006 as 2005 was. But it's all very slow and haphazard. It hardly seems optimal. I want to engineer something better, precise.

So, what do we do? Speak up, dear readers. I am at a loss. Really, we all are.
Let this be a lesson to all of you.

Poor Sepia Mutiny. Manish forgot to renew the domain name registration. Now they have cyber squatters. Renew your domain names!

/shakes head sadly.
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Today's News Roundup

I think it's safe to say that all of your rely on this blog to keep you appraised of important events in the world, at least in the sense that I will not suffer any serious consequences for saying it. Well, I wouldn't want to disappoint.

In entertainment news, beloved underwear magnet Tom Jones has been knighted, prompting the BBC to lead with the news, not that Buckingham Palace honored him, but that Jones decided to go get the medal.

Elsewhere in the world, important scientists investigate the theory that pretty people are better than the rest of us. Apparently they have a point, since their study into "the long-term consequences of being young and ugly" actually revealed disproportionate likelihoods of engaging in crime. My favorite part of this story is the phrase "The Unhandsome", which would be a great name for a rock band or a horror movie.

Meanwhile, things looks equally bleak for The Unhandsome down in Texas, where they will no longer be able to enhance their attractiveness with booze. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Control seems to have had enough of those nogoodniks who think bars are some kind of place to drink. You've probably already heard about "Operation Last Call", so I will simply include this quote, from Texas ABC Captain David Alexander: "Going to a bar is not an opportunity to go get drunk."

Perhaps this will change if musician slash mystery author slash independent gubernatorial candidate and public beer-drinker Kinky Friedman gets elected. I would love to live in an America in which Texas has a governor named "Kinky".

But, lest you become too worried about where your tax dollars are spent, rest assured that at least the Japanese central government is doing something to help the community. Specifically, it has enacted a benefits program for retired Yakuza gangsters. We're apparently facing the retirement phase of a Yakuza Boom, and it's becoming an issue. To qualify, you need to show a letter from a crimelord starting that you were, in fact, Yakuza. It also helps to have a criminal record, tattoos or missing fingers.

Sadly, it appears that there may be a few shady honest citizens with FAKE letters of proof of criminality trying to scam welfare cash away from its rightful gangster recipients. I mean, if you can't trust ostensibly retired mafioso thugs, who can you trust?
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Four suggestions for 1000 miles per gallon
by Colin

I went to one of those anthropologically curious Washington events last night that involve lots of people in suits (and a few in uniform) who show up with business cards on quickdraw and looking for a free drink. Usually these are really just an extension of working hours: pols mingle, staffers gossip, and everybody tries to talk to somebody more important than themselves. But this one ended up very differently. The 200-odd bureaucrats, military officers, embassy officials and scientists (yes, scientists!) who showed up were actually interested in hearing the principal speaker, and it turned out that he had something to say.

The issue at hand was energy, and the session was put together by the Defense Department, where a surprising number of people are thinking intelligently about the national security implications of America's dependence on oil. The speaker was James Woolsey, former CIA director under Clinton, ambassador to the Negotiation on Convetional Armed Forces in Europe under Bush I, army officer, and many other impressive things. Woolsey has been thinking about oil, and practical ways to reduce our oil use.

He started out by giving us some sobering stats on oil and the "Long War", the new name/concept for the Global War on Terror. America's annual trade imbalance is about $800 billion, one-third of which is for oil -- in other words, we spend ~$1 billion a working day for foreign oil with no return. Saudi Arabia's annual profit from oil is around $160 billion, of which several billion a year ends up in the hands of Wahabi fundamentalists, and almost certainly from there some goes into terrorist hands. As Woolsey says, this Long War is the only war other than the Civil where we've bankrolled both sides.

Woolsey then gave four very practical suggestions. Number one is to start making plug-in hybrid cars, that will charge their batteries from the grid overnight, when demand is low and power is cheap. This takes bigger batteries, but conversion kits to make a regular hybrid into a plug-in are going to be publically available in the next year. Building hybrids to be plug-in would currently add $7-$10k to their price, but that number could be slashed if car companies decided to begin production.

Suggestion two is to move from using corn ethanol to cellulosic ethanol. It's easy to turn corn into ethanol, but hard to ferment other biomatter. However, using genetically engineered yeast it is possible to break down cellulose and thereby use cheap feedstocks like the famous switchgrass of SOTU fame. This is already being done in Canada.

Number three is something Scotto pointed out to me just last week: the chemical conversion of animal waste (usually chicken or turkey offal) into crude oil. This is going on right now in the US, and (given subsidies similar to other alternative fuels) is becoming economically competitive.

Finally, Woolsey enouraged the use of carbon composite materials in private car construction. These composites are already used in race cars, and are the reason (along with seatbelts) that drivers can walk away from rolling crashes on the track. Composites are lighter and much stronger than steel, and can make cars much more fuel efficient by making them lighter. They can also "divorce survivability and size" so that the suburban mom who wants to keep the kids safe no longer feels compelled to buy an Excursion or a Suburban.

Given these budding technologies, all of which are very real (unlike hydrogen) Woolsey says that we could quite realistically push fuel efficiencies way over 100 mpg, perhaps approaching the 1000 mpg mark (although he didn't give a timetable for that). He emphasized that "the Wright Brothers have flown" on each one of the four, and what was needed was not lab coats but crescent wrenches to put these technologies into wider practice and spread them. I was impressed and couldn't agree more.
Sunday, March 26, 2006

The LA Times's Nicholas Riccardi writes about how the FBI is spending resources watching Food Not Bombs volunteers and Indymedia:
The FBI, while waging a highly publicized war against terrorism, has spent resources gathering information on antiwar and environmental protesters and on activists who feed vegetarian meals to the homeless, the agency's internal memos show.

. . .
Senior Special Agent Charles Rasner said one slide, labeled "Anarchism," was a federal analyst's list of groups that people intent on terrorism might associate with. . . .Rasner said that he'd never heard of [Indymedia & Food Not Bombs] before and didn't mean to condemn them. But he added that it made sense to worry about violent people emerging from anarchist networks — "Any group can have somebody that goes south."
Got that? Any group.
Friday, March 24, 2006
More Cephalopod Sex!

A fascinating short article in Discover this month (password required, alas) addresses the genuine morphing abilities of the cephalopod family:
Morphing in cephalopods works somewhat similarly to how it works in computer graphics. Two components are involved: a change in the image or texture visible on a shape's surface and a change in the underlying shape itself. The "pixels" in the skin of a cephalopod are organs called chromatophores. These can expand and contract quickly, and each is filled with a pigment of a particular color. When a nerve signal causes a red chromatophore to expand, the "pixel" turns red. A pattern of nerve firings causes a shifting image—an animation—to appear on the cephalopod's skin. As for shapes, an octopus can quickly arrange its arms to form a wide variety of them, like a fish or a piece of coral, and can even raise welts on its skin to add texture.
This alone is extraordinary, and I encourage you to get access to the article one way or another.[1] But in case you can't, or in case it's just not titillating enough, here's another article (no password needed) about transvestite cuttlefish using their cephalopodian ability to disguise as females:
With males outnumbering females by up to 10-1 on their spawning grounds, they're forced to go the extra mile. While the large males can simply guard a female and fight off small males, little guys have come up with their own little trick: They disguise themselves as females.

[1] Discover Magazine should be at your local library, for one thing. If not - demand it!
Thursday, March 23, 2006
My WTH?! Moment of the Week

So I was driving home, sitting in the north-facing left-turn lane of Sacramento at Ashby in Berkeley. It was about 7:15 pm, and fairly dark astronomically, but there were plenty of streetlights on. Several cars travelling west on Ashby, from my right, were turning left onto Sacramento--in front of me they twirled, and then down past my left side. Most of the cars were ordinary. One was not.

Living the Bay Area, as I do, I've seen cars with sculptures on top of them, once a pumpkin. I've seen cars painted all the colors of the rainbow. I've seen a van covered in armor made of old compact discs. I've seen a car with the dashboard totally colonized by gnomes. I've seen cars with skulls and figurines and mastheads.

But I have never seen a car covered as completely as possible in fur. 1-2 inch thick tawny, brown flecked fur, that looked very like it was taken off the back of an animal. You could see the glass, you could see the rubber, and you could see the fur. A plush car. A furry automobile. A fuzzy station wagon/hatch back. Nap going front to back. Slightly damp on top, the hairs clumping together a bit. Somebody decided to very carefully cover their car in fur. Either that or there are new species I had no idea about.
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
That's Kind of Obnoxious

I know that it's considered quite chic to just adore the Economist. Oh, such a smart magazine! And I grant you that it's very knowledgable and clearly written. But whenever I'm starting to really like an issue, like it enough to consider subscribing, some line of stupid wit pisses me off so utterly that I don't pick up another one for weeks. Usually this happens on a train or bus, so it doesn't stick in my brain enough to quote. This time it happened online, and here it is. An article about wheat promises to be incredibly informative, wonderfully detailed, with far-reaching insight drawing on multiple disciplines. Plenty to disagree with, of course, but still deliciously nerdy. It is, in fact, that, but not just that--like a tasty bowl of mueslix marred by discovering a roach leg, this line uptop brought my zen-reading to a screaching halt.
The Atkins diet and a fashion for gluten allergies have made wheat seem less wholesome.
Fashion, huh? I'm sure it's very fashionable to have your small intestine so damaged by your own immune system that it impedes the absorbtion of all kinds of nutrients, not just one of the principle carbohydrates in most western diets. Fatigue, anemia, osteopoerosis, and mouth sores are all very trendy these days. This new style even has a great name and an NIH sponsored webpage! It's called Celiac Sprue.

And no, I don't have Celiac Sprue, I don't even think I know anybody who does. That doesn't prevent me from having some bare minimum of respect for people who do.

Since all the articles lack bylines I find the unwarranted, pointless, distracting snittiness even more obnoxious, since it's institutionalized. Oh, and the kicker was an incredibly annoying oversimplication too, but that's another story.
Monday, March 20, 2006
Free Hao WuFree Hao Wu

I don't know a whole lot more than what you will find by clicking on this image--that Hao Wu, a Chinese blogger and filmmaker, has been detained in Beijing without charge since February 22, and that he was working on a documentary about underground Christian churches in China. There is apparently some fear that the authorities will try extract information from him that will be useful in cracking down on these churches, and that this process will not be very good for him. The source for this information is Ethan Zuckerman, founder of Global Voices (where Hao Wu blogged with the penname Tian Yi), develpment geek par excellence, friend of this blog and me through our guest bloggers Colin & Emily, and a generally brilliant and knowledgable guy.

I'm not sure what can be done at this point, how exactly awareness campaigns like this work, but I hope it does help. I know if I were making a documentary and I were detained by a government for a month, I'd want people to make some noise on my behalf. So please read up on it and consider posting this banner on your website, if you have one, and if you have more concrete ideas on how to help, please leave them in comments. FYI, the address of the Chinese embassy in the United States is:

Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the United States of America

2300 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 20008
How Do You Say I have cocaine in Hebrew? Ask the Tibetan Monk.

I culled this piece of wisdom from a link from IsThatLegal: it's a Jerusalem Post article about the dark inside humor of a group of travellers travelling in a red fire truck through the Sahara. They are two Israelis, a Palestinian, two Americans, an Iraqi, an Afghani, an Iranian, an Ukrainian, and a Tibetan, and their 16-person support staff, a media contingent, and an olive tree named Olivie.
Friday, March 17, 2006
Baby Octopus Adventures

I actually already blogged this on my own site, but I just had to cross-post this here because of this blog's octopus theme:

In this clip from an old Japanese TV show, [10 MB MP4] an octopus and a peanut try to get their hands on a baby octopus.


Found via this boingboing post.

P.S.: In completely unrelated news, for anyone out there who's feeling bitter about anything, just remember: Annie Proulx is more bitter than you are.
Thursday, March 16, 2006

There's a much talked about article by Michael Specter in this week's New Yorker that I have yet to sit down with. It's called "Political Science: The Bush Administration's War on The Laboratory," and from the substantial buzz I've heard about it, it contains yet another set of indictments along the lines of Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science. One blogger who's mentioned it recently is Chris Carlsson of Attitude Adjustor, and in his comments section James Acah (apparently, a nuclear engineer who seems to have a whole science-in-fiction novel for a blog) mentioned your new delicious link of the afternoon--LabLit! LabLit! LabLit! (You gotta say it three times fast. You know you want to.)

Links from my quick tasty test-test: Interviews with mathematician Jonathan Farley, who "teaches Hollywood to count," and physicist Sydney Perkowitz, who is also a playwright and has a whole book on foam; an editorial against iPods in the lab, and riff for the need for science communicators.

Given the proliferation of incredibly frustrating anti-science culture, politics, and business, it's a fun change to spend time on a site like this which celebrates the scientific endeavor.
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Happy 520

Tis the month of Phalgun, and the ground is whirling below a full golden moon. In a few hours it shall rise over Bengal, where so much and so many that are dear to me are waiting for its signal, and a dozen hours later it shall rise over the California hills and the bay. Between there and here the moonlight falling across the spinning planet will set off, in so many places, a most joyful clamoring of singing and dancing. The clap of cymbals, the trumpetting of conchshells, the ringing of bells and clay drums rolling out such sweet, sweet thunder. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. The whole universe is one family. May there be good fortune throughout the universe, and may all envious persons be pacified.

To be humbler than a blade of grass, more tolerant than a tree, and always ready to give respect to others--so very difficult to even contemplate, even with magnificent inspiration. I both ritually and informatively declare that I am quite useless and false at this endeavor, and feel somewhat useless even trying, but in honor of the day, I attempt to give my respects to all--those who have excelled at it already, and those who shall excel at it in the future, all far exceeding me. It is 520 Gaurabda, and if you are so inclined, have a Happy Gaurpurnima!

And if you are not so inclined, have a nice, colorful Holi.
Monday, March 13, 2006
Because it's worth saying again, dammit.

Some of you may have encountered this before. I myself am pulling it from the ever-absorbing Get Your War On I was browsing this weekend.

Last night I was watching The Fog Of War, starring SF hometown-boy-made-good, Cal alumni and Eagle Scout Robert Strange McNamara. Good film. Plenty that could be said about this, but what got my wheels spinning were the clips of Agent Orange dropping on the jungles of Vietnam, and the bizarre thought that we should find ways to slaughter ourselves that don't leave war zones as indefinitely fatal, toxic wastelands.

Which puts me in mind of DARPA, the good folks who brought you, you know, the internet, and by extension, this blog. They're proud as can be of their Self-Healing Minefield. A self-healing minefield! What a great idea! Blow up some tanks, kill some infidels, maybe the odd curious civilian, sure, but after the war, they turn themselves off! No more danger! Just a barren field full of deactivated armamenture.

No, no of course what they invented was a way for landmines to GET UP AND WALK TO AN EMPTY SPOT whenever their brethren left a hole by blowing someone up. Sandia labs and Lawrence Livermore have been a big help, of course.
Saturday, March 11, 2006
Your own personal bug?
by Colin

While driving home yesterday through the awful Washington traffic, I found myself swearing up a storm at a maniac driver ahead of me swerving lanes without signaling. After he had zoomed off I realized it was a good thing nobody could hear me inside my car, because I would have been embarassed by what I had said. But then I glanced over to what was sitting on the seat next to me, and suddenly I wasn't so sure.

Take out your cell phone and put it down in front of you. (Yes, you have one.) It looks inert -- no ringing, flashing, or anything like that -- and since you're not making a call, it's not transmitting or receiving, right? Don't be so sure. In order to receive incoming calls, your phone is constantly listening to the control frequencies of your cellular network. When it gets a call, it rings to get your attention, and then switches on the speaker and microphone when you flip open the phone or push the answer button. But it seems to me that it would be nothing more than a software tweak on the part of the cell company to instruct your phone that upon receipt of a special control signal, it should (a) not ring, (b) switch on the microphone only, and (c) transmit anything the mike picks up. Voila -- instant bug.

Would this work? In running this by Scotto he objected that if the phone is in your pocket the mike couldn't pick up anything you say. While we were talking by cell phone, he put his phone in his pocket inside his shirt and sweater, and kept talking. He was perfectly audible, if a little quiet. Would this be the case for a phone in a jeans pocket? Clipped to a belt? Inside a purse or backpack? I don't know, but obviously it's not impossible for some carrying positions. Scotto also raised the objection that for clamshell phones the mike may be blocked when in the closed position. Unfortunately, we can't test this, but in looking at my phone I'm not convinced.

A further technical objection to this scenario is that you would know if your phone were being used to eavesdrop on you when it was ostensibly not connected, because if you ever tried to place a call there would be a lag or delay, or the phone in some other way would behave oddly. But my phone behaves oddly all the time. I frequently try to place a call and wait for 60 seconds for it to ring, then give up and redial. If the reprogramming were done well, the phone display would not change during the eavesdropping, and in no other way would it be detectable in the normal course of use.

If someone subject to this kind of non-calling wireless eavesdropping were to monitor their phone battery life or even -- for the truly technically sophisticated -- the actual RF signals emitted by their phone antenna, they might notice something amiss. But ask yourself how many people would either think to do this or be able to.

Why would cell companies want to eavesdrop on their customers? Couldn't they just wait for them to place a call and listen in on them in the regular way? Imagine the following scenario: the FBI/DHS/whoever is tracking a mobster/terrorist/bank robber and wants to listen in on an important meeting. The suspect is paranoid about electronic eavesdropping, so he conducts meetings in person. But he carries a cell phone, and has it clipped to his belt everywhere he goes. One night he meets with an accomplice in the back room of a restaurant that has been screened for bugs and has no windows. The Feds are locked out of the conversation, until they place a call to Verizon with a special request: remotely turn on the mike in cell phone number X, without ringing or changing the display, and let us know what you hear.

In sniffing around the web for traces of this idea I've come up completely empty. I can't be the first person to have thought of this, and I was expecting to find page after page explaining either why it's technically impossible and will never happen, or how it's already happening all the time. But there's nothing. Can anybody help me on this one? Tell me why this idea is crazy, or otherwise why it's already old news?

There is a related issue to all this about the transmission of location information to the cell phone company, as part of the E911wireless emergency services program. This is not the same issue, although it's interesting. Declan McCullagh has an older article on cell phone tracking as part of the E911 program. In the UK, it's well established.
Friday, March 10, 2006
Blogging At A Distance

Saheli is, at this exact moment, unable to post, so she's reached out and deuptized me to put up something she'd like everybody to see: this East Bay Express article on new hope in the effort to prevent the spread of HIV, stemming from drugs that can stop an infection. SSRD will be back to put up her thoughts on this, but for the moment here's some perspective on the hope:
While these anti-HIV prospects have been a long time coming, their potential to slow the global AIDS epidemic could be truly awesome: A mathematical model produced by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimated that if just 20 percent of women in the world's 73 poorest countries used microbicides half the time, and if those microbicides were only 60 percent effective, it would prevent more than 2.5 million new HIV infections every three years.
And the dilemma:
The catch: None of these drugs has yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and most are years away from retail shelves. Big Pharma, which has the resources to usher them smoothly to market, has pretty much opted out. To be blunt: It is infinitely more lucrative to treat HIV than stop it.
Thursday, March 09, 2006
Eight legs. Eight sexy, sexy legs.
by Colin

Ah, squids. I've had a cephalopod interest for a long time. Back at Berkeley one of my main positions at the Berkeley Science Review was covering the cephalopod beat, and since coming to DC I've reconnected with my old scoutmaster, world-renowed cephalopodologist Clyde Roper. It turns out this web thingie has quite a bit in the way of tasty squid facts, which I'm sure you'd like to know.

Neither BSR nor Clyde Roper endorse any of these sites, but they probably should.

First of all, Pharyngula has probably the most comprehensive cephalopod sex site on the web, which is really saying a lot. squidblog is light on the sex but has some great cephalopod news and science. Bruce Schneier at least does a little squid sex blogging, as does collision detection (accidental gay giant squid sex really is pretty hot). For videos (yes, you can look at these at work) CephBase is pretty amazing, but be prepared to search by taxa. It looks like Apostropher gets into the cuttlefish action a bit. You can watch baby squid live on squidcam. And for those who might have let their paper subscription lapse, there's always The Octopus News Magazine Online, a treasure trove and a great site for octopus (and general cephalopod) discussion fora. There is a National Resource Center for Cephalopods, in case you were wondering. James Woods of The Cephalopod Page has studied how long octopi play with various toys (which is reminiscent of Prof. Roy Caldwell's video of a stomatopod solving a Rubik's Cube). And finally (for now) there is a Flickr photo pool not only for cephalopodia, but specifically for members of the subclass Coleoidea. Er, pictures of them, that is.
Get Movin'

Not too long ago Shah Rukh Khan was interviewed by Newsweek, and he said that the reason Bollywood movies almost always feature song and dance routines is that musical theater is India's preferred genre of fantasy--as opposed to the ludicrous special effects of American action movies--because "one of the simple fantasies of Indians is that we can sing and dance when we feel like it." That fantasy is not entirely unrealistic--nor is it even exclusively Indian. Just this morning I was thinking about fairly modern and popular western movies that break out into the musical motion--Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Billy Madison, In and Out, and of course that great classic of B-uh-Hollywood, The Blues Brothers. With cheap cameras and accessible soundtracks, the fantasy doesn't even have to be for the rich and famous.

Therefore I hand to you my new favorite vlog--video weblog--courtesy of ToastyKen: SuperSecretDanceSociety. (Toasty said the acronym reminded him of my inititals.) So far I've enjoyed everything I've seen, but I share with you the Hip Check* and Operation Panther Storm. On a day when I'm badly in need of a smile, it makes me want to grab my camera and troll the streets for movement.

Of course now that I've told you, someone's going to come and make me dance. The sacrifices I make for you people.

*someone tell Martina!
Kindness of Strangers

I was totally zoned out on BART this morning, when a ruckus on the loud speakers and the groans of other passengers' shook me out of my stupor. We were being diverted away from San Francisco towards Lake Merritt--one station south of my normal Oakland comfort zone--because of a fire on the tracks. The driver dolefully announced something like, "get off this train. . this train is bound for an unknown destination," which cracked up some of the passengers despite our irritation. "I want to go to the unknown destination!" Shades of the twilight zone. I blearily stumbled out into the station's sunshine--totally disoriented and unable to locate even a familiar corner, let alone the Lake (I guess it's a few blocks north of the station). After letting my boss know that I had no idea when I'd make it in, I called my friend Steve, who has lived around there, asking for a recommendation for a nearby wi-fi cafe where I could work until the problem cleared. Then one of my fellow passengers--the one who'd declared an interest in the unknown destination--offered me and two other ladies a ride to San Francisco with his girlfriend who had come to pick him up. Since they didn't bother introducing themselves, neither did we, but it was a fairly friendly chat ride over on the congested bridge. I told them about the Emperor Norton. When she dropped us off at the Embarcadero we eased our way past KGO Channel 7 cameras filming a segment with a reporter. When I got into work, Steve called me back and ended up putting me in a story--so now the kindness of strangers is enshrined on the SF Business Times website.
Wednesday, March 08, 2006
Only Thing Better

Than a Rock Lobster is a . . .


link from Scotto.
Flickr Crack

Stolen shamelessly from Snarkmarket, staring at this dynamically generated flickr assemblage of interesting photos from a given day is like getting a megadose of social-intellectual-sensual endorphins injected directly into your brain. Some favorites pulled out from the mosaic I got: adorably muddy kid, tree backlit by dusk, Rajastani bedecked with turban and scarf, black and white portrait with a shadow from a glass, frog with bokeh, a shimmering gate (askew), and a not so safe for work but extremely elegant nude silhouette.

Oh the humanity!

In other photography blogging, over at Daily Dose of Imagery Sam Javanrouh continues to inflate my sense that Toronto is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
American foreign policy: heavy, not light
by Colin

American politics has been really weird lately. If you dropped from the sky into DC this week and took your political bearings, you'd conclude that Democrats are a bunch of protectionist xenophobes, Republicans value foreign liberty above domestic security, and the vast majority of the public can't stand the guy in the Oval Office. What the heck is going on, and how did it get so confused?

Much of the problem in parsing politics lately is the tired old bipolar model of party positions. Democrats are liberals, who believe in, well, liberal stuff like government programs and helping the poor and being internationalists. Republicans are conservatives, who like traditional values and business and distrust other countries. Or at least that's what the bipolar model has gotten warped into lately -- if you had thought about it during the Clinton era the liberals would be pro-business and for smaller welfare programs, while during Bush I the conservatives would be internationalists but not that into traditional values. This is all gibberish, because the two-party model of liberal and conservative simply doesn't have enough axes to describe the main poles of American political thought.

Peter Beinart at TNR writes this week about a book that sounds like a good way to start revising this bipolar theory. It's Special Providence by Walter Russell Mead. Mead lays out a theory of American foreign policy positions that has four poles, mutually distinct but in sum covering the whole spectrum of positions.

First, we have the Wilsonian tradition, in which the goal of US foreign policy should be to make the world a safer place for liberty and thus a safer place for America. This is the internationalist position, the intellectual core of things like the United Nations and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Pole two is that of the Hamiltonians, who think foreign policy should focus on trade and commerce throughout the world, arguing that from trade comes security and liberty. From this point of view come the World Trade Organization and NAFTA, and that old saw about no two countries with McDonald's ever going to war. The third pole is the Jeffersonian, which fears that foreign entanglements ultimately threaten American safety and happiness, which is essentially the isolationist position ascendant until after WWII and (remember this?) was GWB's position before 9/11. And finally there's the Jacksonian pole, which believes that America should flex her muscles and aggressively confront those who threaten her safety and liberty, which is clearly the essence of modern neocon thinking.

This kind of quadripolar worldview makes a lot of the ports brouhaha much more intelligible. Most recent administrations have essentially been alliances of two of these positions: Clinton was the Wilsonian and Hamiltonian; Bush I was Hamiltonian with touches of Wilson and Jackon; and Bush II is Hamiltonian and Jacksonian (again, he abandoned his Jeffersonian leanings when the Twin Towers fell). As the two parties tangle and redefine their positions these alliances can shift, and rifts within the parties expose the fault lines between the positions. In the Dubai issue Bush is showing himself more Hamiltonian than Jacksonian, a preference he has not had to emphasize before now because his administration was able to pursue the goals of both traditions with the same, or at least compatible, policies.

And now for a brief analogy. While I'm sure I don't have to remind Saheli of this, some readers of this blog may be slightly slow to recall that electromagnetic radiation (like light and radio waves) is dipolar, oscillating in only one direction. Gravity waves, on the other hand, are quadripolar -- they oscillate like the tides, contracting in one direction while expanding in the other. Clearly, Mead's paradigm is for us to conceive of American foreign policy as more akin to gravitational than electromagnetic radiation, as administrations oscillate between not two but four distinct philosophical and policy poles. You can't describe gravity waves with a dipolar theory, just like American foreign policy really doesn't make sense unless you think of it with more than two positions.

And let that be a lesson to you about just how useful physics is when it comes to foreign policy.
Hit and Run Blogging

By Saheli.

Colin is doing a great job, but I want to put some thoughts out there before they expire.

It's an essay-topic that's knocking around my head, wanting to be written so I can better articulate it for myself, and just not getting done: balance. I haven't trained at the Aikido dojo in a while, but man, that idea keeps popping up even when you leave. Like the balance between consistency and effort.

I was talking about this with Rishi the other night, on the phone, and his comment brought it back up. Consistency is really important in the law. It's really important in being fair. It's really important in assessing any kind of evidence objectively. We use it to assess other people's and our own sincerity--the extent to which we do and say things out of a respect for what is true and good, and not just because we are selfish beasts needing to be seen as true and good so we can be liked. We use it to assess our own and other people's laziness. We use it to sniff out the difference between show-business and the real deal. It's the moral analyst's first tool.

But then there is the notion that the perfect is the enemy of the good. The hobgoblin of little minds. How is that not just an excuse for obvious failings, obvious self-righteousness and moral dishonesty? These days I have constantly pressing on my mind that life can be hard. We are frail creatures. We aren't principled robots that can be programmed with principled software and be expected to run on mathematical rules of moral instruction. (Hell, as far as a I can tell even computers can't be consistent.) Sometimes, when you put too much of an emphasis on consistency, on avoiding looking like a hypocrite, you end up not doing what you want to do at all. If people's ideals count for nothing, then their goals soon become worthless as well, and if their goals become worthless, their energy gets sapped. Why even try, if trying to be a little better, do a little more good, stake out a slightly more moral habit for yourself, is only going to make you an inconsistent hypocrite?

Of course, it would be best if we do good and be good without touting our own horns, but like I said, we are frail. We need people to pat us on the back even when we don't deserve it, we need to shout, "I'm going to climb that mountain!" and we need people to clap and cheer us up the mountain, even if we don't make it all the way. We need to reassure ourselves that we're good. But then again the road to hell is paved with good intentions, people are best at lying at themselves, pride is the greatest enemy, etc. etc. . .

And so some people ruthlessly, relentlessly self-examine and criticize others, hacking away at energy and enthusiasm with self doubt and cynicism and negativity, while other people drown their character and their ability to help the world in a self-indugent stew of forgiveness and cheap As for effort. The oppression of the dichotomy. Ah, back to Aikido.

It's all about balance. And balance can't be predetermined, programmed in. It has to be dynamically achieved, self-correcting at every moment. It's sort of what's great and awful about being human and alive. We have to constantly watch ourselves, be deliberate and willful about our actions, adjust our attitudes and then readjust. And also ready to reach out and help a friend if they start to stumble.

Part of these thoughts were inspired by a link Ruchira told me about--the phenomena of do-gooder derogation, which she found on the webpage of Stanford psychologist Benoit Monin. The example he picks is how people love, love, love to make fun of vegetarians and to find their inconsistencies. This is something I am so intimately acquainted with that it almost feels like water and air. I'm glad someone finally put a name to the gotcha-mentality that has plagued me my whole conversational life. As a journalist, I know quite well that there's often no substitute for a good game of gotcha. The gotcha games of some of my friends have made me a better vegetarian. But in real life and among friends, it's got to be tempered with compassion and kindness. Balanced.
Monday, March 06, 2006
They are not amused
by Colin

Anybody who's ever seen Jon Stewart and has half a brain knows he's (a) funny, and (b) astute. He's a guy who's blessed with the humor gene and cursed with open eyes. Unfortunately, that combination got him in trouble on Sunday night when one of the most staggering collection of hypocricies on the planet sat bejeweled before him waiting to be stroked. Stewart isn't good at stroking, either other people or himself. In fact, he's almost everything most of the Oscar audience is not: wry, self-deprecating, funny, and ruthlessly honest. To DVD pirates everywhere, he demanded that they look at the people they were stealing from -- some of them so poor they couldn't even afford enough clothing to cover their breasts, poor things. He reminded the audience that many people say Hollywood is out of touch with America, a den of sin and iniquity, a stinking cesspool of moral wastage where innocence is lost and dreams shattered ... and, well, he didn't really have much of a joke after that. George Clooney smiled a little bit. Charlize Theron looked like she wanted him drawn and quartered. For joke after joke, the stars of the silver screen turned up their noses at the lout at the mic who dared to criticize their majesty.

Yup, this is Hollywood. This is America's version of royalty, the people that captivate us at grocery store checkout lines and on celebrity ice skating TV, who drive crowds into a hysterical frenzy by walking down a street or waving from their passing SUV. Why do we put up with this crap? These people take themselves way too seriously, and we, America, have let them, because they're beautiful, rich, and have massive PR campaigns working night and day to bouy them up. Remember that the next time you pay $9.50 to see a movie.

My thanks to Jon Stewart for his solid emceeing job, and for standing up there in front of the glitz and telling it a tiny bit of truth, sugar-coated as it was. I hope he does it again next year, although I wouldn't bet on it. He may not even make the emcee reject montage at the start of next year's awards.

Andy Dehnart of MSNBC has a sensible take on why Stewart fell flat with the stars of the silver screen. And Eric Lundergard, also of MSNBC, is pissed off that Crash won best picture. He makes a good point: racism in America is much more complicated than this film depicts it, and crayola portrayals don't do anybody any good.
This is a test.
Friday, March 03, 2006
Attention Word Nerds
by Colin

This is great: Paul Brians' page of Common Errors in English. My favourites include affluence/effluence, viola/voila, and of course picaresque/picturesque (“Picaresque” is a technical literary term you are unlikely to have a use for. It labels a sort of literature involving a picaro (Spanish), a lovable rogue who roams the land having colorful adventures. A landscape that looks as lovely as a picture is picturesque.) Mmm, words.
Thursday, March 02, 2006
Of nukes and crackers
By Colin

Today's Washington Post carried a story about a class being taught this semester at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. The class, which has about 20 graduate students, is titled "How to Build a Nuclear Bomb" and is taught by Dr. Charles Ferguson, a physicist who now works on nuclear nonproliferation issues at the Council on Foreign Relations. A "senior White House official" is quoted as saying that there is a "proliferation concern" about this class, but Ferguson points out that what he's teaching are "cartoons" and that nobody's going to walk out of class with dangerous knowledge about nukes. Instead, the idea behind the class is to teach students who will go on to careers in foreign policy some of the basic science behind one of the most important international relations issues of our time.

I think this is great, and I'm glad that it's Ferguson who's doing it. I met Charles at an APS meeting last spring and we hit it off talking about a little-known uranium enrichment technology called Laser Isotope Separation (LIS). Several of the National Labs and some private companies in the US worked on this laser-based technology in the 1980s, but they eventually abandoned it. However, Charles is concerned that modern laser technology might make LIS an increasingly attractive enrichment method for countries that want to get their hands on a nuke. I agree, and we're now starting work on a collaborative project (along with Jack Boureston at FirstWatch) to better understand this threat and what we might do about it. Since laser technology follows somewhat of a Moore's Law, what was extremely challenging or impossible twenty years ago may no longer be that hard to do.

Scotto just sent me a link to a BBC story about cracking Nazi codes using distributed computing over a network of volunteer computers. Stefan Krah, a "German-born violinist," put together the project and now has 2,500 machines working on decrypting messages encoded with the advanced Enigma machine in 1942. So far the project has decyphered one message and appears to be working on two more. This reminds me of the RSA decryption contest held several years ago, in which one of the victorious teams to crack a 56-bit DES cypher did so using this kind of distributed computing, demonstrating just how powerful distributed volunteer computing can be. Happily they did it in less than 64 years.
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
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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

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Dave Barry
Neil Gaiman
Electrolite: Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Scott McCloud

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