31 March, 2005

I'm not cut out for this gig

I've been blogging pretty steadily for about a year, now. I think I'm really bad at it. I treat ideas like precious jewels, to be hoarded and kept to myself and not shared with everyone else. On rare occasions I might want to show one off, to provoke a reaction from someone, to learn from the glint in their eyes. But that doesn't really happen on blogs (or in real life, either) - we're all relucant to open our mouths. I think maybe we're all worried about revealing what we have hidden there, under our tongues. Is it really a jewel, or were we mistaken? Is it just a hardened piece of clay? Why make that test? It's a jewel as long as I know it is, and no one tells me otherwise.

All of which is to say: forgive my intermittences. I am indulging my ego. I am relishing my opals.

28 March, 2005

Don't believe the hype!

Abu Aardvark points out this story about Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood when they started holding demos and forming an opposition party, arresting some 70 activists. Do you think George Bush will step forward and speak up for the democratic rights of Islamists? Considering it's longstanding U.S. policy to smile and nod benignly while Egypt beats the shit out of the Ikhwan, my guess is: no.

Kodos would say: "Democracy for some, brutal detention for others."


A frequent (perhaps the most frequent, if such things can be metered) plot of dreams is that one's teeth, usually the canines, are falling out. This is rather an alarming thing to dream, since teeth are precious but rather unappreciated things, and losing those sorts of treasures is always doubly shocking (one for the loss, and one for the discovery that you give a shit). Like most dreams, this one has been turned every which way, interpreted, and "understood" a hundred times over. You can satisfy yourself as to the enormous variety of explication. The origin is not quite so esoteric as most of these explanations, but still quite satisfying: the dream is a result of the loosening of certain maxillary tendons around the canines, usually as a result of impending or current illness. Thus, the dream may serve as an augur, which I think rather neatly restores some of the magic taken away by its mundane physiological basis.

When I first began to drift up out of my sub-basement of sleep (I just got some new bedsheets, crimson, and had quite a comfortable night), I thought that this was my dream; I had, after all, just recovered from illness. But then I was fully awake, and my tongue was still tracing out the unfamiliar space where my incisor should have been, and I was clutching something small and hard in the fingers of my right hand.

This isn't as alarming as it sounds at first; I've had a fake crown on my right incisor since the fourth grade (when I cracked the lower half off by whacking it against the floor). I'm not really sure how my tooth ended up in my hand; maybe I plucked it out of my mouth in my sleep, and knew enough to hold on to it. Lucky that I did. After my initial exclamation ("Oh, shit!") and vague panic, I put it on the bedstand and went back to sleep. I had been meaning to see the dentist anyway.

In the morning I called Harvard University Health Services to find out what sort of dental coverage I actually had. Turns out my Blue Cross coverage only extends to certain kinds of dental care. Specifically, emergencies. Well, this was an emergency, I thought. But only emergencies relating to previously undamaged and unmodified teeth. So my crown falling off didn't count. Neither would someone's filling coming out, I assume. Ouch.

What kind of evil, rat-fucking, fanged, pointy-bearded sadist writes such a dental plan? I'd like to give him (or her) a dental emergency relating to previously undamaged and unmodified teeth.

So I sucked it up and paid for it. It wasn't so bad, actually. Because I had miraculously held on to my crown in my sleep, my dentist (Dr. Peter Goldstone) was able to reattach it relatively cheap.*

This is a rather small and harmless anecdote, and I'm blessed that my emergency was a comparatively minor dental one, rather than a serious medical one. But still I'm annoyed by the fact that the ostensible "greatest country in the world" is one in which medical care is so constrained by the finance. I'm sure thousands of other people in this town could tell a similar story without the light and fanciful ending.

* My dentist, incidentally, is some kind of virtuoso. I sat down, he stuck a mirror in my mouth briefly, peered at the crown, asked some off-hand questions, tapped some things, then began to rough up my tooth to reattach it. "I'm just creating a bevel, here," he explained, making deft little motions against my tooth/stump with his thingummy. Then, whack, some cement, some UV radiation to set it, a little sanding, some fine-tuning, and I was done. Less than ten minutes, all told, that I spent in that chair. Competence is really quite gorgeous.


I was rather taken by this essay in the London Review of Books by Sean Wilsey (of the McSweeney's crowd), about rats, and so I thought I would recommend it.

23 March, 2005

Ode to Immunity

Because I have the flu, I have been thinking about the immune system, and what an under-appreciated system it is. By which I do not mean that we should throw it a party with cake to thank it for all the hard work it's been doing. I mean, rather, that we are profoundly ignorant of what that work is and how we can facilitate it.

Most people go their entire lives without realizing the existence of the lymphatic system, and few people have any sort of detailed knowledge about it. Even I, well on my way to a PhD in biology, have only a cursory understanding of how it operates. The spleen is a completely baffling organ; almost no one can tell you what it does. Compare this to the circulatory system, where the names of individual veins and arteries are relatively common knowledge. And there's very little understanding of what governs the health of the immune system. We all know what sorts of foods are bad for our heart and will clog our arteries; we know what will make us fat, what will be bad for our liver, what makes our colon happy. What's good for the immune system?

I suppose this is understandable in a society that has basically eviscerated disease - things that were killer plagues in previous centuries are unknown today, and almost no one is really worried about dying of infectious disease the way they are worried about cancer and the like. Even for the obvious exceptions (e.g. AIDS), the immune system is not the protagonist. We're looking out for efficient molecular weapons to deliver a precise and artificial cure; no one ever imagines their own bodies will protect them.

This ignorance is unfortunate for something we depend so vitally on, the more so because it is such a fragile guardian, so easily turned against us. I'm somewhat haunted by the idea that we're bathing ourselves in a chemical soup - detergents, preservatives, lubricants, pigments, deodorants, varnishes, insecticides, etc., etc. - with no idea of what it is doing to our immune systems. Every time I hear that increasingly common story about how someone's kid has some strange new allergy, I have to wonder whether we're not screwing ourselves up in unimagined ways.

People always make a big hoop-la over carcinogens. But carcinogenicity is well-studied. It's well-understood. It's one of the few things that actually gets tested for. No one has any clue about auto-immune disease, or immunodeficiency. It's not even on the map.

I've ended on rather a more somber note than I intended, unfortunately. But on the other hand, I seem to be convalescing, and I can take some comfort in the fact that MY immune system is performing quite well. So even though I don't have any idea what it is, I'm evidently doing something right.

19 March, 2005

How to win friends and influence people

Narendra Modi, the CM of Gujarat, just had his travel visa revoked by the U.S., in belated reaction for his role in the "riots" that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Muslims a few years back. I fail to understand the timing, the reason for the decision, and why, if "religious freedoms" are so important, Saudi diplomats (et alia) are regularly invited to the U.S.

But anyway: the response by Hindu nationalists (specifically the baboons in the Bajrang Dal, which, if you don't know, is basically a Brute Squad) was to raid a PepsiCo warehouse, smash bottles and set fires, in a show of anti-U.S. fervor. Way to go, guys. That'll teach 'em how reasonable you are. Now they'll definitely let your boss back in.

The Human Animal

I saw "Kinsey" last night, which, if you don't know, is a biopic about the life of Alfred Kinsey, who conducted the first major survey of human sexual activity in the United States. As a coda this morning I read this study in the Wash Post, on the high STD rate amongst teens who commit to maintaining their virginity, which often leads them to greater experimentation and riskier behavior.

One of my abortive posts this week was on a New Scientist article discussing the evolution of human altruism, which I thought would segue into a lament on the apparent lack of understanding of human behavior amongst people studying its evolution. People are a really startling evolutionary puzzle in many respects. We're first of all far too intelligent for the task at hand (mere survival), and much of our rich, complex social behavior makes very little sense from the dumb standpoint of selective advantage and fitness.

I'm often amazed that people studying this have such little appreciation for how much of what we do is there as social grease: we laugh, we fuck, we glower, we cry. Can you imagine such a thing? A fitness advantage that results from leaking salt water from the eyes and making strange howling noises. What does that imply? That communication of our emotional states to other humans is so important for us that even subtle signals become very meaningful. That a great part of our humanity lies in our expressivity, in revealing our inner selves to others. Think about that next time you're weeping.

As obvious is sex. Human beings are highly sexually abnormal creatures. They're better-equipped for it - a 500 pound gorilla has a 2 or 3 inch long penis, half the length of the average human male, who, for his body size, is one of the best-endowed creatures in the world. Human females are orgasmic, a completely unnecessary response for reproduction and almost unheard of amongst animals (if you've ever seen cats having sex, you know what I mean). Human females can be aroused at any time, not just during ovulation, even at the most paradoxical times (i.e. menstruation). Sex lasts much longer - most male animals only need to deposit some sperm, and the average mammalian encounter lasts no more than a minute; most humans would think they were being cheated if that were the case.

Our nearest living relative, the bonobo chimpanzee, has a similar problem. Bonobo society is built on sex. They have sex constantly, and they have varied, kinky sex. Oral sex, anal sex, homosexual sex, whatever. But they probably don't hold a candle to human sexual imaginations.

I've never understood why this doesn't scream out to people studying the evolution of human behavior. Why is sex so important to us, the ones who weep? The most intimate of acts, the conjoining of human flesh, isn't it obvious that it means more to us than simple fertilization? When we can laugh without marveling that we do so, can it really surprise us that we might take pleasure in each other simply for the sake of closeness, for comfort?

This is the way I've come to understand homosexuality in my mind. That particular sex act is described as deviant and unnatural because it clearly lacks procreative purpose. But human sex is NOT just about procreation; it's about social intimacy, a potent weapon in our arsenal of representation. Why not within sexes as well as between them? What then becomes "unnatural" is attempting to suppress that bit of us, that way of speaking. As well say we should not cry.

17 March, 2005

Shameless, positively shameless, self-promotion

The first paper I published in my current lab (and also the first paper ever published by the lab) came out in January in the small-but-feisty journal Trends in Genetics. It's called "A limited role for balancing selection." (If you're really interested I have a PDF of it).

Anyway: it got picked up by Faculty of 1000, a kind of metafilter for scientific journals which cherry-picks out articles of significance. It only got a score of 3.0, but still feels cool. F1000 is subscriber-only, so here's what the commenter said:
This nicely written short paper gives evidence that there are very few shared SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) in coding regions between humans and chimpanzees, suggesting that balancing selection has not had a major impact in preserving variation over the time scale of the human-chimp divergence. It will be interesting to see the results of similar analyses for Drosophila melanogaster and D. simulans and other closely-related species pairs.

14 March, 2005


Via Juan Cole, here's a Times bit about Arab/Kurd tensions in Kirkuk, which led to a collapse of the patched-together Shia-Kurd agreement to form an Iraqi government. Includes this mournful lament:
"We wish we didn't have oil in Kirkuk," he said. "If the oil wasn't here, we'd have a comfortable life now. All our problems are because of this damned oil."
I bet no one has ever said that before.

Government-Issue propaganda

Via Crooked Timber, a nice piece from the Sunday New York Times about government-produced news broadcasts. Before this sets off your BDS (Bush Derangement Syndrome, coined by Charles Krauthammer), you will note that the practice actually began under Clinton (or "the Clenis" as Ann Coulter would have it...). I'll take this opportunity to introduce this fascinating paragraph:
The practice, which also occurred in the Clinton administration, is continuing despite President Bush's recent call for a clearer demarcation between journalism and government publicity efforts. "There needs to be a nice independent relationship between the White House and the press," Mr. Bush told reporters in January, explaining why his administration would no longer pay pundits to support his policies.
Wonderful that the rules of journalism demand feigned ignorance of what is obvious to everybody (viz., Bush is engaging in some CYA). Seems to me there ought to be some happy middle ground between that and the manic, insult-peppered rantings of the likes of Greg Palast.

10 March, 2005

Occupation and elections

I'll admit it. Lebanon is hard. So many characters* to try and unravel - Maronites, Druze, Palestinian refugees, Shi'a militants, Syrians, Israelis, French, Americans - each with their own damn military force. And constantly-shifting alliances. So much intrigue it's almost salacious. Juan Cole is helpful - he dropped some history on me. I'm trying to cope and keep up.

But this just blows my mind:
[U].S. President George W. Bush... told an audience in Washington this week that Syria must withdraw all of its troops from Lebanon before parliamentary elections in May.

“All Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw before the Lebanese elections for those elections to be free and fair,” he said.
Does this mean that Bush openly acknowledges that the January 30th elections in Iraq, which were held under occupation with American military forces and intelligence personnel sprawled across the country, were NOT free and fair?

Well, I'm going to pretend he did, anyway.

*No, I haven't read "Gravity's Rainbow", yet, though I easily handled the cast of "The Brothers Karamazov".

09 March, 2005

McClellan response on Maskhadov

It's been a day since Maskhadov's death, now confirmed by Chechens*, and still no official reaction from the White House other than this weak bit:
Q On Russia. The Russians have just announced they have killed the secessionist leader, Aslan Maskhadov. First, do you have any independent confirmation of that?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, the last I heard before I came out here, I'd seen the reports, but I did not have any confirmation on those reports at this point. Our views, in terms of the situation, is that we believe it should be resolved through a political process, and that remains our view.

Q How can it be resolved in a political process if the leader of the secessionists have now been killed -- has now been killed? And a number --

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I've seen the reports. I don't have confirmation on that. But we've consistently said that when it comes to Chechnya, that it needs to be -- in this situation with Russia, that it needs to be resolved through a political process.

Q I don't -- I don't see the logic there. Why is it different from capturing and killing terrorists in other countries? Why is it different from capturing Saddam Hussein in --

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I mean, you're talking about a specific report. I've not confirmed that report. I would want to find out more about the information on this particular report.

Q I'm asking --

MR. McCLELLAN: Obviously, our views on terrorists are very well known.

Q I'm asking about your --

MR. McCLELLAN: We work very closely with Russia in the global war on terrorism.

Q I'm asking about your general approach to the situation. Suppose the report comes true -- suppose the report does not turn out to be true, why do you insist that in this particular instance, the political approach is what should work, whereas in other situations involving Americans themselves, you do not have much regard for political processes, as far as I can see, in Iraq, or maybe some other places?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, again, I don't -- I'm not going to suppose anything. I do not have official confirmation on the reports that I have seen, and I would want to have that first. But we have a longstanding position when it comes to the situation in Chechnya. And our view has not changed. Our view remains that it ought -- there ought to be a political resolution to the situation.
Kudos to the reporter, who is unnamed in the transcript, for sticking it out. I hope to god this isn't the last we hear of this, and the U.S. will have the guts to step forward and (hypocritically, I'll admit) condemn Russia for this killing. But I'm betting they'll stay mum and continue to spout the weasely "Russia is our partner in the war on terrorism" garbage.

*Ramzan Kadyrov, the warlord prick who has Russian "approval", claimed that Maskhadov was killed in a botched capture operation when he was shot accidentally by his own bodyguard. The Russians, meanwhile, claim that the entire compound Maskhadov was in blew up - astounding since we've already seen Che Guevara-esque published photos of the body.

08 March, 2005

Doff your papakhas

Aslan Maskhadov is dead.

He is dead at the hands of Russian security forces, who are triumphant, hailing this as a victory in their war against the Chechen terrorists. Maskhadov was the erstwhile "president" of Chechnya (before it blew to shit) and later became one of the more prominent rebel leaders, but was always the one with a grain of sanity. The Russian government has blamed Maskhadov for a whole spate of terrorist incidents: the hostage situations in a school in Beslan and a theater in Moscow, and a string of apartment bombings that were the initial spark for the current Russian invasion of Chechnya.

Maskhadov denied responsiblity for all of these.* Meanwhile, Shamil Basayev, who actually IS a diabolical Islamist terrorist, claimed responsibility for both Beslan AND the Moscow theater hostage-takings.

According to Moscow, Basayev and Maskhadov were both allied to al-Qaeda. Which sort of makes you wonder why they were such bitter, bitter rivals, and why Maskhadov continually made public commitments to eschewing terrorism (preferring a much more conventional military resistance), and why he wasn't an Islamist, and why he continually made (rejected) peace overtures to Moscow.

So now what are we left with? A bunch of crazy jerks. Putin on one side, and Basayev on the other. The one man who actually wanted some sort of peace in Chechnya is dead.

File this away under "Not just America is run by stupid assholes".

* As I've mentioned here before, it's widely rumored that Putin himself (or, his boys in the FSB) blew up all those apartments, so he could coast to power on a vitriolic anti-terrorist campaign. This is such a mainstream viewpoint that even John McCain has publicly mouthed it.

03 March, 2005

There is Hair on My Face

I have this unfortunate problem: the field in which I travail (evolution) dictates that, if my attention is focused on any physical feature, I will ultimately be forced to posit the evolutionary underpinnings of that feature. To wit: this five o'clock shadow I've had going for the past several days (now running in the vicinity of sixty-two o'clock shadow).

Some of you may have noticed that women, for the most part, don't have hair on their faces. When they do, it is generally considered somewhat odd. I'm sure that, in time, we will learn to overcome this form of chauvinism, but for the present it seems to be with us. Men get the beards. And since my face is itching like crazy right now, I have to wonder: "Why, God? Why did you do this to us? Are you still sore about that Tower of Babel thing? Was it because we stopped burning the fatted kine in your name, O Lord?"*

I'd like to point out that our nearest surviving relatives, chimps and gorillas, don't actually have facial hair. Or, rather, whatever facial hair they have is exactly the opposite the pattern seen in humans: they have hair everywhere but around the chin and mouth.

This implies two things: first, human males specifically evolved the growth of facial hair around the chin and mouth. And second, since human females did not evolve this feature, it is likely the result of sexual selection. At some point in our history, human females expressed a sexual preference for bearded males, strong enough that it conferred a selective advantage on them.

Which leads me to ask: what the hell is wrong with you, human females?

* I am aware that I'm not Christian or Jewish, but for the purposes of making fun of God, YHWH cannot be beat.

I'm also aware that I said I would be getting bored of these footnotes soon, but it doesn't seem to be happening.

02 March, 2005


My dad tells me that the most important lesson he learned in this country (through, apparently, the painful process of getting it wrong for a long time) was that you'll never get anywhere in America if you don't toot your own horn. "Americans are very good at talking about what they do," he more or less said.

So, here's this ultra-short piece of fiction I wrote last night. I haven't written much of anything recently, fiction-wise, which sucks, because I love it. But somehow I can't, right now. I'm trying to ease myself back into it with ultra-short pieces (thus avoiding problems of narrative craft, character development, and the like).

More Bunk

Okay, I know that everyone has ranted adequately about how hydrogen isn't really an energy source, it's a vector, and you still need an energy source to produce it, blah blah blah. But, there's an obvious value in developing this technology, which is this:

Energy sources are pretty well partitioned based on usage. Natural gas gets used for home heating, oil gets used for transportation, and coal gets used for electricity generation. There's some cross-over in all of these areas, of course, but this is a good enough approximation for my hand-waving argument.

Oil is obviously the best suited for being a transportation fuel: all you need to do is boil it for a while, and you've got gasoline. Meanwhile, no one has, to date, created a coal-burning car, and don't hold your breath (unless someone actually DOES create a coal-burning car, in which case you absolutely SHOULD hold your breath). And so once we run out of oil, we're not going to be able to drive to Wal-Mart to buy that super-cheap salad-spinner (and even if we DID drive there, the store would be fucking empty, because the goddamn boat never brought the salad-spinners over from China, and have you ever had a Chinese salad? No, because they don't eat salad in China, and they don't need salad spinners, and we've got the makings of a real tragedy here), because there's no liquid fuel besides gasoline. Unless, that is, we develop hydrogen as an energy vector and burn it in our cars. Q.E.D.

Of course, since oil and gas are on the outs, hydrogen is only ever going to be as "clean" as the energy source behind it. (I'm finally getting to the point, here! Exciting, isn't it?) And what have we got more of than we know what to do with?* Coal. We've got upwards of 200 years of Coal, which should be more than enough time for the Vogons to get their shit together and vaporize our planet.

But coal is NOT clean, and it never has been. In fact, it's way, way more polluting than oil and gas per unit of energy, and hydrogen fuel will probably not end up being as efficient a fuel source as gasoline (improbable as that sounds). Which is why the U.S. government is POURING money, tons and tons of money, into developing "clean coal technologies".

You've heard George Bush talk about it on more than one occassion. That other guy (the one with a jaw like a Tiki god) also stressed how important it was to develop "clean coal technologies". But both of these men are fuckwits.

"Clean coal" seems like a bad idea on all levels. Coal mining is, by itself, one of the worst polluting processes we've come up with. And coal burning has always been a rather nasty business, responsible for modern blessings like sulfuric acid rain. Not to mention all that CO2 it produces. So how can we make it "good"? Well, we can pour billions upon billions of dollars into researching "CCS" - carbon capture and sequestration. What's that? Why, it's removing CO2 from a stack, compressing it into a liquid or solid, and fucking burying it in the ground. That's right, kids. Your government is spending BILLIONS of dollars researching technology that will probably be viable in, oh, 20 or 30 years to make coal slightly less polluting by BURYING CARBON DIOXIDE IN THE GROUND!

This is a good time to do a happy dance.

* Besides lawyers, obviously, which won't make a good fuel source because they are a net energy sink - it takes far more energy to create a lawyer than we would produce by burning one.

01 March, 2005

Geek-out moment

For those of you who use Mozilla Firefox, I highly recommend the Mouse Gestures extension, especially with mouse trails enabled. It's so friggin' cool.

Those of you who are still using Internut Exploder: wake up, man. Disco is dead. Move on.

And those of you who are using Safari: hi Agi!

Everyone else... err, carry on.

Egyptian Democrapcy

If, like me, you're annoyed by all the effusions of praise over Hosni Mubarak's magnanimous and important steps towards democracy, you should read Abu Aardvark, who is doing a pretty good job throwing some cold water on that particular fire. Juan Cole also gives it brief mention, pointing out that Mubarak gets to decide which parties can run, and will not be allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to field candidates. I'm extremely suspicious of Mubarak's purported reforms (described here in reasonable detail), especially since not a month ago he jailed Ayman Nour, leader of a prominent opposition party (al-Ghad) and a strong advocate for democratic reforms in Egypt. Funny that Bush is putting the thumbscrews on Syria while patting Mubarak on the back, and meanwhile the latter is putting the thumbscrews on Ayman Nour.

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