Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Tortoises

The best animal on Earth.

Numb yet?

Former Sen. Sam Nunn says that terrorists are winning the nuclear race.
Although the government has enacted about half the recommendations -- including creation of a national intelligence director, Nunn said it had largely ignored those concerning the need to find, catalog and destroy plutonium and uranium. "Cradle-to-grave" monitoring of these materials is perhaps the most critical component of the war on terror, he said.

Part of the difficulty, Nunn said, is the effort requires broad international support -- particularly from Russia, where hundreds of tons of loose nuclear material reportedly sit unprotected.

...

Former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, who was a member of the 9/11 Commission, moderated the discussion and agreed the Bush administration and Congress had done virtually nothing since last July to curb nuclear proliferation.
Emphasis, mine.

Nice going, Republicans. You've locked up the OBL vote.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

A lovely book about... Chemistry?

While browsing at Borders this weekend, I found this beautiful book about chemistry.

I enjoyed my high school chemistry class partly because I enjoyed the subject and partly because it was taught by the best teacher in the whole school, Patsy Mueller. Despite this, I never took another chemistry class. I never tried to avoid it, it was just never in the syllabus. Consequently, I know embarrassingly little about chemistry.

Peter Atkins' book is 244 beautiful, glossy pages. It's easy to read, even for non-chemists. Each molecule is diagrammed, described, and related in structure to other molecules:
FORMALDEHYDE CH2O
We can think of the formaldehyde molecule as being obtained by removing two hydrogen atoms from a methanol molecule - one from the carbon atom and one from the oxygen atom. That is, in fact, the origin of the name
aldehyde (from alcohol dehydrogenated) given to compounds like formaldehyde that contain the group -CHO.
And that's just the first two sentences about formaldehyde! Each molecule gets anywhere from a paragraph to several pages of explanation, and there are many full-color photos of compounds in actions.

This book is educational and fun to read. It's also something that can be enjoyed a molecule at a time. As of today, I'm putting myself on the molecule-a-day plan.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Playing Rummy

I think it's always been true that the large country, the most powerful country, tends to be the one that people would like to bring down or tweak and that's always going to be there. I also think that the United States is notably unskillful in our communications and our public diplomacy. I think that we need to do a better job.

So says Donald Rumsfeld in an interview with the BBC. Um, Secretary Rumsfeld, America WAS skillful in its communications and public diplomacy before Bush took over.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Forbidden Planet

I just finished watching Forbidden Planet on TCM. It's an amazing movie. Made in 1956, it begins with a voice describing the advancement of humanity through the twenty-second century, and how, in the last decade of the twenty-first century, man reaches the moon. In reality, Apollo 11 would land on the Sea of Tranquility a mere 13 years later.

The film itself is about the dangers of god-like technology, and the writers, Irving Block and Allen Adler, obviously thought deeply about the subject. Though the slow pacing of the movie is typical of the 1950's, the themes in the film remain interesting today.

On the other hand, if we are to believe the movie, humans of the twenty-second century haven't changed a bit since the 1950's. Religion still plagues mankind in this future, and sexual equality never materializes.

WARNING! MOVIE SPOILERS FOLLOW

In the story, we learn that, long ago, an alien civilization developed the technology to move matter and energy anywhere on their planet. Then, in a single mysterious night 200,000 years ago, the entire alien race disappeared.

Before their demise, the aliens had become increasingly intelligent, rational and refined. Eventually, the aliens deployed a new and awesomely-powerful machine that would do their bidding by thought alone. Simply by thinking a thing, it would happen.

But the aliens had forgotten their animal origins, and though their conscious minds had great clarity, their id remained as primitive as ever. Given access to the machine, their subconscious minds became deadly weapons.


It's really a very clever story. And a very relevant one. We are about to develop our own mind-reading technology. NASA has already done the basics.

NASA's experimental subvocal speech system converts nerve impulses of your throat into speech. Merely thinking the words "large fries" (mmmmm, large fries) causes subtle electrical signals to be sent to your speech muscles.

Personally, I sort of like the idea that I might one day be able to think and communicate faster because I won't have to move my muscles to talk. Think of it as analogous to speed reading in reverse. Of course, this assumes that I can think as fast as I can talk, which doesn't always seem to be the case.

Anyway, there are lots of other possible ways to interface humans with machines, and we'll need to be mindful of machine responses to our unreasonable subconscious demands. I'd be willing to bet that NASA's machine will pick up signals from a person who's merely dreaming.



Thanks to Robin for the NASA link.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Revenge of the Watergate Crooks

It's hard to believe, but press reports about Deep Throat's unmasking are dominated by condemnation from the original gang of Watergate criminals.

President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign used illegal wiretaps and burglaries to spy on the Democratic National Committee office, then located in the Watergate Hotel. Nixon and his staff then tried to cover up the burglary by having the CIA interfere in the FBI investigation of the crimes.

The crooks who committed these crimes, and members of Nixon's White House staff, now read like a Who's Who of far right politics:

  • G. Gordon Liddy - Convicted Watergate burglar and persecutor of Pentagon Vietnam whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Now a right-wing talkshow host.

  • Chuck Colson - Convicted Watergate burglar. Now an advocate for "faith-based" prisons and Christian evangelical "just war" in Iraq.

  • Patrick Buchanan - Nixon advisor, speechwriter and suspected dirty tricks henchman.

  • Robert Bork - Reagan Supreme Court nominee. The only man in the Justice Department who would follow Nixon's order to fire the Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.

  • William Rehnquist - Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Assistant Attorney General under Nixon, and the man who demanded that the Washington Post cease publication of the Pentagon Papers.

Together, the Nixon team:

  • Burglarized the homes and offices of political opponents looking for embarrasing or incriminating evidence.

  • Used the CIA to obstruct domestic investigations, and possibly ordered the CIA to commit domestic assasinations (murders!).

  • Spread lies and rumors about political opponents, including forged letters from Democratic candidates.

  • Concealed the fact that we were losing the Vietnam War, then persecuted the whistleblower who revealed this Defense Department conclusion in the Pentagon Papers.

It's shameful that any of the Nixon people are allowed anywhere near government and politics, but it's a total outrage that Colson, Liddy and Buchanan dare to criticize W. Mark Felt, the whistleblower who blew the lid off of their corrupt, crooked, administration.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Stem-cell research opponents are unethical

Let's say we have a microproduct just 100 micrometers long, made through nuclear transfer technology, and let's say we have a human being who has lived in pain all his life. To argue that there is a balance (in considering the humanity of the two) would not be ethical.

-Woo Suk Hwang, Seoul National University, quoted on MSNBC