In Norman Rush's excellent novel, Mating, the nameless protagonist is a female expat living in Rhodesia.
She falls in love with an attractive but difficult scientist who spends most of his time in the bush. The rest of the book is about how that works out (complications ensue, of course), but that's not what this post is about.
A recurring theme in the book is how difficult it is to get news, or anything good to read, in Rhodesia -- especially once you leave the capital. Books get endlessly passed around. There's a scene where one character hoards back issues of the Economist for months, in order to deliver them in a pile to another character. (Who is very, very happy to get them.)
I mention this because I lived through something very much like it. When I moved to the Marianas Islands -- more than fifteen years ago! -- that was more or less how things were. There were no bookstores on the island, and no public library. The local newspaper was better than you might expect, but you'd still be finished in five minutes. The International Herald Tribune would arrive in a couple of hotels and one cafe, but always two or three days late.
So we expats spent a lot of time trading books back and forth -- my friends Bruce and Maya had the biggest book collection on the island, and a little box with file cards where they'd keep track of who'd borrowed what -- and we got a lot of magazines. At one point in the mid-1990s I was subscribing to something like eight or ten. They arrived late, of course, but in a monthly magazine that's no big deal. And we handed them around, sometimes tabbed with a Post-It note where something was particularly interesting.
Armenia, too, has few English-language resources for readers. There are no daily newspapers (there's a weekly, but it's pretty bad). There's a library -- two if you count the lending library at the Embassy -- but it's small and hard to get to. There's no English-language bookstore. If you haunt the local booksellers, you can sometimes find a few English books -- I've mentioned the mysterious shelf of books from the 1940s in one store -- but it's a lot of time spent to turn up a Harold Robbins paperback from 1979. Objectively, it's as bad or worse than the Marianas Islands.
Yet we don't feel terribly starved for things to read. Sometimes one of us will wander around the house saying "I've finished my book... there's nothing to read...", but that's the normal peckishness of the reader who's between books, not the cold-sweat desperation of the reader who really has nothing to read.
What's the difference? Well, for one thing, we have less time for reading. Back in 1995 I was knocking off a book every day or so. Today... well, it's less than that. Kids take up a lot of time.
But the big difference, of course, is the Internet. If time allowed, I could read stuff online all day long. Supply is no longer an issue! Quality, perhaps, but not supply.
So anyway. Below the fold, some articles that I've read online in the last little while. Imagine me handing you a magazine with a Post-It note. There's nothing here that's particularly deep or astounding, but all of these made me chuckle, or at least say "Huh -- didn't know that."
[Note: this was going to be a post on obscure bizarre sponge biosynthetic pathways. They're bizarre all right, and obscure has never stopped me before, but the subject (sponges) isn't easy to fit into any paleo record. The following discussion is an old workhorse of mine, freely adapted from Karl Bloch's Blondes in Venetian Paintings, a book filled with many good things.]
The most common sugar on Earth is probably glucose, also known as blood sugar or grape sugar. It's found in blood and grapes, and pretty much everything else with a metabolism. It's ubiquitous in living organisms as an energy source.
A molecule of glucose has six carbon atoms, twelve hydrogen atoms, and six oxygen atoms. That's proportionately the equivalent of one molecule of water (H2O) for every carbon atom. Perhaps you've seen the Mr. Wizard clip where the good wizard dumps sugar into the aggressive dessicant sulfuric acid, leaving behind steaming carbon foam. Hence carbo-hydrate.
In glucose, in water solution, five carbon atoms and one oxygen atom of the glucose molecule are often arranged into a hexagonal ring. It's not a flat ring, but staggered, a little like a lawn chair. Each carbon atom in the ring is connected to two other atoms not in the ring: a small hydrogen atom and a larger carbon or oxygen atom. Each carbon atom in the ring also has two slots for further bonding: an equatorial position, like a cup-holder, or an axial position, like a parasol.
This is important, because in glucose, all the larger atoms avoid the axial position, in favor of the equatorial position. As a result, glucose the most chemically stable of the six-carbon sugars. (Picture the parasols on the lawn chair crashing against each other and tipping it over.) This stability is likely why glucose was selected by evolution to be a ubiquitous energy source in the first place, several billion years ago.
There's an odd exception. Insects, while they use glucose in their metabolisms (everything does), use a different sugar in their blood hemolymph, called trehalose.
As most of you know, my cousin Scott was killed in Iraq last year.
Scott's older brother, my cousin Mark, held a fundraiser in Scott's memory. The money from this went to Fisher House, a charity that helps military families.
There's a guy named John Rogers who has a blog called Kung Fu Monkey. John Rogers has done a lot of things. He used to be a standup comic. More recently, he's been a Hollywood screenwriter, working on movie scripts... some successful (Transformers) some less so (Catwoman). More recently still, he's been writing the Blue Beetle comic book, which is pretty good if you like comic books. Which I do.
Anyway: John announced a while back -- like, a year ago -- that he'd match contributions to Fisher House, dollar for dollar. So when cousin Mark decided to do the fundraiser, I sent an e-mail to John and asked if he would match that. He said he would.
Now, this was months ago; and, at the time, we didn't know how much Mark would raise. I told John maybe five thousand dollars.
Meanwhile came the writers strike. Maybe some of our non-American readers haven't heard about it... well, professional writers for movies and TV are on strike. Have been since early November. So, John hasn't had much income for the last three months, except for what he gets from writing the comic book. Possibly he's sitting on a huge pile of cash, I really don't know, but still: the guy's been pretty much unemployed for a while, and he doesn't know when he'll be able to work again. The strike could resolve tomorrow, or drag on for many months. Even if you're flush, that's gotta make you thoughtful.
So yesterday cousin Mark e-mails me and tells me how much he ended up raising. Mark's a hard-working guy, and he's really put some time in, and when the pennies are all counted the final figure is rather larger than $5,000.
So after some thought I send John Rogers an e-mail. I hem and haw a little and basically say, look, this is more than you bargained for, and things have changed, so if you don't want to do the matching thing, that's cool. Everyone will understand.
Got a response in about ten minutes: send the receipt. He's matching the entire amount.
It's been a challenging week. So, just a couple of links.
To fully understand this one, you have to be American and at least 35 years old. And some sort of nerd. Fortunately, this is a key demographic for this blog.
In an Uzbekistani context, this story qualifies as heartwarming. I wish the lady luck.
That's it. Project shutdown stuff, trying to make the last bits of money go far enough. Job transition questions (or question, singular: where next?). A little distracting.
Oh, and we've been watching Joss Whedon's Firefly, which my sister gave us on DVD for Christmas. It's... very mixed, but overall interesting. We have enjoyed watching an ep or two evenings after the boys are in bed.
(Um, except the DVD player broke down this morning. Weekend with no TV. This should be interesting.)
Let's see. Comments on Firefly if you've seen it? Otherwise, what've you got?
Generally I don't talk much about my Brooklyn life in this blog, because really. But Stay Free! magazine is running a series of Adult Education lectures at Union Hall -- or, as they put it, 'like "show and tell" for grown-ups'. Last night's was fun and packed.
However, next month's program has something of greater importance. To wit:
Daniel Radosh: The Quest to Develop Kosher Bacon.
Yes, Kosher Bacon.
February 12th, Union Hall in Brooklyn -- roughly, Union and 5th Ave. The lecture room opens at 7:30. (And yes, it's his son.)
I haven't blogged much about Armenian politics because, frankly, I don't see much point. In Serbia, the first few years of post-Milosevic politics were wild and unpredictable. In Romania, EU accession and a flawed but competitive party system made things interesting. Here in Armenia... well, it's been the same guys running things for a while, and that'll continue to be the case.
This is an oversimplification, but not by much. The last Parliamentary election was won by the ruling party; it resulted in some modest chair-shuffling among political and business elites, nothing more. The upcoming Presidential election pits Establishment candidate Serzh Sargsyan -- current Prime Minister and close associate of current President Robert Kocharian -- against former President Levon Ter-Petrosian. Sargsyan is pretty clearly going to win. The only question is whether the government will allow the elections to proceed to a second round, or whether Sargsyan will "win" with 50% in the first.
It was cold yesterday. It was cold in Massachusetts. It was even colder in Green Bay, like negative 17 degrees ... negative 31 with the wind. Third-coldest postseason game in NFL history.
The New England game ended the way I like. The Green Bay game did not. Overtime, Green Bay wins the toss, an interception, and then Lawrence Tynes gets the third field goal attempt after botching the first two. Did anyone catch Giants coach Tom Coughlin's temper tantrum after Tynes messed up the first? I hadn't seen anything like it since basic training. Sadly, though, it seems to have worked as a motivational device.
Anyway, I know Giants fans, and they simply don't deserve the victory. Everyone disenchanted with money-drenched professional sports has to love the plucky little municipally-owned team. And anyone annoyed by fair-weather fans (as a former Bleacher Creature, this often afflicts me at baseball stadiums not located in Boston or the Bronx) has got to love the dedication of those who love the Packers.
“It makes me feel like a sissy,” said Troy Aikman on national television when Fox cut to that shot. I have to agree. Over to you, Carlos.
Part 1 can be found here. Short version: Armenia has an enormous mountain lake, Lake Sevan, which was severely damaged by misguided Soviet engineering.
I wanted to drive up to the lake again this weekend, but Claudia hasn't been feeling well. So today was a quiet day at home. The boys and I watched a lot of cartoons (current favorite: Teen Titans), then went outside for a couple of hours, then came back in, ate popcorn, and watched some more cartoons. Maybe next weekend.
Why do I want to go to Sevan, you ask? Well, one, because we're leaving Armenia soon and this may be our last chance to see it. And two, because Sevan in January will be really freaking cold. Like, Siberian cold. 2000 meters up in the Caucasus: daytime temperatures run around -15 Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit), and at night it drops to -30. Although I'm no fan of cold weather, I find this sort of intriguing. Also, seeing a lake that huge frozen solid enough to drive trucks over sounds interesting.
But anyway. At the end of the last post, I left a question: how's Lake Sevan doing?
The forecast for the game at Green Bay tomorrow is 0 °F. That's about -18 °C for you people using a more imprecise system. This, by the way, is an improvement. It's about -10 °F (-23 °C) today. Cool and crisp.
Still, it's warmer than some places.
There are enthusiastic Packers fans in even the most remote parts of the planet. Dan Kleist sent the State Journal a photo of his son, Mike Kleist, and his co-workers posing with a Packers flag at the South Pole. Mike Kleist, from Madison, is an electrical engineer with Project IceCube, a program spearheaded by UW-Madison that is building and operating a neutrino observatory in Antarctica. Being a fan at the South Pole means there are some sacrifices, like a slight delay in when Kleist gets to watch the game. A copy of the Packers vs. Seattle Seahawks playoff game on VHS tape arrived Friday.
The Wizard of Oz was quickly adapted for the stage after its publication at the turn of the last century. The audience loved its special effects: The Realistic Cyclone! The Gorgeous Poppy Field! The Glittering Snow Scene! And they loved the story, and the pageantry. (Some differences: for instance, instead of Toto, there was Imogene the cow, played by a guy in a suit. The jaws could move!)
But in particular they loved the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow, played by the vaudeville team of Montgomery and Stone. Stone was the man who came up with the Scarecrow's floppy, rubber-legged walk. You can picture in your mind's eye how the comedy duo must have worked.
Performances were tweaked as the show went on. And in the 1905 season, a hot topic was the dangerous new game of football. Of course the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow needed to do a skit on it. From Mark Evan Swartz's Oz Before the Rainbow:
Montgomery and Stone's parody of the game's violence involved stunts so rough that doctors were kept on hand at every performance. [I smell publicity gimmick. -- CY] Costumed in football gear, the pair clowned around with a football as they sang:
Some maniac (Jervis Johnson) once decided that American football games set in the Warhammer universe would be a good idea. Thus, Blood Bowl. Some other maniac (Matt Forbeck) decided that stories set in the Blood Bowl universe would be a good idea. Thus:
Welcome to the world of Blood Bowl – football played fantasy-style, where teams can be human, orcs and ogres, and players are as likely to throw a goblin as a ball! These three stories follow the career of Paul Hornung Dunk Hoffnung, as he works his way up from unemployed adventurer to star player with the Green Bad Bay Packers Hackers.
Dunk scanned the situation downfield. Most of his team-mates — the ones in the yellow and green uniforms with the three-sword H logos on their helmets — raced ahead of him, converging to a point, trying to form a protective wedge behind which he could run. Meanwhile, the pale skinned elves in the black and blue uniforms came charging up the field, seeking to find a way past the Hackers’ linemen so they could rip Dunk’s heart from his chest.
Dunk spun to the left and charged up behind his brother Dirk, pump faking a pass to the right. Only one of the Cowboys got fooled. He hesitated just long enough for Spinne to smash him to the ground, and then do a little dance on his helmet with her spiked shoes.
I am a little surprised it wasn't a flying wedge -- no worries about lethality. Those are the Dallas Darkside Cowboys, incidentally.
A week of it. Days are sunny but it never gets close to freezing. Nights drop down around minus 15-20 Celsius: single or negative single digits Fahrenheit.
The sky is pale blue, clear but a little hazy -- we can't see Ararat. The house is cool even with the heat on full blast. Claudia curls up on the couch, blanket wrapped around her, whimpering: she can't get warm. I don't mind the cool so much but damn do I hate it when the car doesn't work. We got it started and out the driveway yesterday, but it was an hour of work: spinning wheels, chipping ice, finally bringing dirt to splash all over the slipperiest bits. The car lacks winter tires; it's okay on the main roads, which are mostly clean, but on the ice-covered side streets it handles like a... well, it doesn't really "handle". You sort of aim it and pray.
The boys complain that it's too cold, too cold to go outside, but in fact once you get them out and running around they like it pretty well. On Saturday we walked a couple of kilometers, down the street to the little general store and back. David got unhappy towards the end because he kept getting snow inside his boots, but otherwise they did very well... Jacob, in particular, managed to walk almost the whole way. Which I think is pretty good for two-and-a-quarter, walking on snow and ice.
No snowballs or snowmen, though. The snow is too powdery. Maybe if it warms a bit.
Anyway. I mind all this less than I would in, say, Chicago, because I know it'll be over in a few weeks. Winters here are cold but not long. It'll be getting damp and mild by early March, and by April the garden will be exploding in bloom.
Of course, we won't be here to see that. C'est la vie du consultant.
Oh the beautiful snowy nights of northern Wisconsin. I have had a crappy year so far. Not so much today. Packers 42, Seahawks 20. Wow, that Ryan Grant!
The Pure Product of America: You should add some actual content, you know. Or else SPIDERS SPIDERS GET THEM OFF ME AGH
All right, my insane doppelganger. (Why do I know so many crazy people?) Here's a quote from the French Jesuit psychoanalyst Michel de Certeau on the man:
Once again Favre is on the move. But it is no longer a move from one dream to another: now his journeys take place along the world’s dusty pathways. [...] But a capacity that Favre had from his youth remains. He is still sensitive to the infinite variety of human beings and to the constant diversity of interior movements. More than others would, he notices detail—he feels it, he notes it, and the detail fills [his record] in abundant complexity, occasionally too much so. Everything is precious to him, because everything is open... There is no point in looking within Favre for any other quality that might explain the fascination he radiated and the friendships that clustered round him. For each person he met, he was a saviour of something deep within that was being lost. He was not eloquent or brilliant; rather he bore, humbly, people’s burdens.
Not bad for a guy who died in 1986.
Update: did that just happen? Giants 21, Cowboys 17. Lambeau Lambeau Lambeau woo!
Internet quizzes are usually pretty stupid things. When Dan Drezner recommended a 36-question issues survey to see where you fit on the political landscape, it was a foregone conclusion that I would click the link in a moment of procrastination, but my expectations were low. To my surprise, the questions were smart and as unbiased as they could possibly be. Better still, the site provided a wealth of sources about how they determined the various candidates' positions. I was quite impressed.
Of course, since it was an internet survey, it didn't take a lot to impress me. But there are far worse surveys out there, based on nothing resembling data. I recommend that those of you who have used such surveys in any sort of serious way check your results against the one prepared by professional political scientists.
So where did I come out?
Now that result surprised even me, considering that no small amount of my support for Obama derives from considerations of character.
Unlike other surveys (like the one above), this one allows you to check exactly where you stand against the candidates, issue by issue. Details below the fold.
Skype is like democracy: it's better than the alternatives.
Me: Fifty dollars he goes all the way.
The Poor Guy in Armenia: Do assassinations count?
Hm. John Rogers seems to have stalled on the "Don't You Dare Kill Obama" T-shirts.
Anyway. Jerry and Jennifer Wittbrodt broke for Obama in Iowa; I don't doubt that Jonathan and Janet Whitebread are doing the same in New Hampshire. Barring something exceptional or horrific, that's pretty much it.
The troll party is much more interesting. I feel like breaking out a pink polo shirt and asking questions about the flat tax. Hail Eris!
Update ~9 PM EST: woo, that's some strong working-class support for Clinton in Manchester. (I have a Google Map up and the Concord Monitor returns. No TV.)
Update ~10 PM EST: wow. It looks like Clinton really pulled it in. I'm impressed. I checked exit polls and did the quick math on the calculator -- feels like cheating -- and it's pretty much there.
Tomorrow's narrative (been a long time since there was coverage) is going to be so dull to read -- I can write the stories in various pundits' styles in my head already -- and it won't answer the questions I want to know. Worse than football.
(Sorry if sound dispassionate about this, Noel, but I would be a nervous wreck if I didn't keep some distance. I'm really glad about the levels of blue-collar participation, which is an unexpected bonus for the Congressional races.)
I am a firm believer in the power of personal experience. Of course, it’s dangerous on its own: you never want to reason by anecdote. On the other hand, some abstract hypotheses are just hard to accept in the face of personal experience. When the data are ambiguous, I turn to my lying eyes.
There has been an increasing amount of discussion given to low European fertility in recent years. One problem with the whole discussion, among many, is that there is low fertility and then there is low fertility. Almost all of Europe is “low fertility” by historical standards, but some countries like France and Norway are certainly going to replace themselves, and others like Ireland and Denmark and the U.K. are quite likely to follow suit.
But there are the superduperultralow fertility countries, like España, where people seem to have given up on child-bearing as a bad deal. As many people besides me have pointed out, TFR is a really bad measure of fertility, but for what it’s worth Spain clocked in at 1.4 in 2006. Unlike some other countries, however, in Spain the pictures match the impression given by the TFR.
They're getting harder, and easier. Harder because now we're travelling with three kids, none of them babies but all of them under six. Just in terms of pure logistics it's getting challenging -- more tickets, more visas, more passports, more bags. (Coming back, we checked eight bags and a box. A large box.)
Easier because we're getting some of this stuff down to a routine. Security? Put bags inside bags whenever possible, drink the last water, loosen the shoelaces; Daddy goes through first of everyone and plays catcher, stroller comes next (to immobilize the two-year-old, who wanders), then kids shoes and jackets, then kids. There's still much room for improvement, but there are also moments of pride: three kids, two days, nine time zones, three continents. Just a couple of years ago, we could not have done this.
Many informed fans of American football believe that the rushing game, where an offensive player carries the ball, is tactically mature. That is to say, there isn't much more to innovate.
Get out the vote efforts were regarded in much the same way. The U.S. has low voter participation. Much of the success of the Republican Party in recent years was caused by pulling in voters from untapped demographics -- in the GOP's case, lower-income, white, non-mainstream Protestants. Pundits and consultants would talk wistfully about drawing in the youth vote, the college vote, the twenty-something vote, the MTV vote. And when they failed, they blamed the apathy of those hooligans and yippies standing on their front lawn, probably smoking reefer.
So. The Iowa Democratic caucus: interesting from an operational point of view. Instead of some guy in a raver hat voting for Nader in Florida, and now working at his dad's car dealership -- almost punishment enough (almost) -- you had a well-organized GOTV pulling in everyone, including a mass of younger people, who broke strongly for Obama. No, 'strongly' is too weak a word. The sort of percentage margin associated with countries where the leaders wear lots of gold braid.
It must have been like St. Crispin's Day for them. But without the disembowelment.
Remarkably few people (okay, one person) wondered why Imperial Stormtroopers had occupied downtown Philadelphia. So I'll tell you. It was the Fancies of Mummers Day.
I'll turn the floor over to Amma. "It's sort of a white people's Carnival. And since it's cold, they can make more creative costumes because they don't have to be concerned with, you know, battling the heat with nakedness." And to continue the parallel, the fancies are sort of like Carnival bands, kinda sorta not really, only that Mummers tend to be older and fatter as well as paler than your typical Carnival reveler. Which makes it a good thing that they wear more clothes.
Boring serious grown-up types have asked me to put the rest of the revelry below the fold.
Contemplating American politics leaves me worried. It's not only that we've had incompetent and malign fools running the government for the past few years -- in fact, people who are objectively traitors, to use the recently popular Orwellian formulation -- but that the rot has to be removed without using the traditional, conservative methods of the gallows and the firing squad. The majority of Americans is going to have to learn how to get along with those radicals who think the Constitution is a personal SWAT team and no-fault insurance policy without dumping their bodies into a lime pit, as members of other, less liberal nations might do... even if the only thing those people truly understand is force.
(Because the U.S. is still better than that, that's why. Even Jefferson Davis survived his time in chains, which is more than can be said for many inhabitants of his failed state.)
Thus, in a spirit of inclusion, I offer this vision of national reconciliation:
2007 is over, and 2008 smells like recession. This should be fun. I remember the Reagan recession. "Why is this old man wearing makeup and lying to me?" It's true: the man wore a lot of rouge. There's now a generation for whom Reagan is only a wheezy voice tired impressionists try to mimic on late night cable. A reputation constructed to have world historic importance has vanished like so much flash paper. Interesting.
2008 smells like recession, and Manhattan smells like unoccupied condos. Sadly, I don't know of any way to make money from this guess. Everyone is hunkering down, the animal spirits are churlish, and the Zeitgeist is checking its watch, like in Klute.
The only liquor store in Manhattan I've found which sells Korbel brandy was closed New Year's Day. I blame gentrification.