Thursday, December 23, 2004

Happy holidays everyone

Sending off my last emails... nearly finished shopping, barring a "drive-by gifting"... getting the boys to wrap their gifts for each other.... ok, almost holidays. Wow, no one should go through life without having had at least one Bavarian beer. On Christmas eve the stores are open until noon, and then NOTHING until Monday, at which point we'll already be in France. I won't blog until New Year's. In the meantime, check out Swithy in Ausland , who keeps a diary about her life near Freiburg, Germany. It's really great!

And check out these great photos of kids who are scared of santa .

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Figuring out what Titan's about

On Christmas Eve, the Cassini spacecraft, which is orbiting Saturn, will release a small probe, called Huygens, which will drop to the surface of Titan on January 14. As long as Cassini can hear Huygens' signals properly, the probe should give a lot of information about the composition of the atmosphere and hopefully even a few pictures of the surface.
The communications link is much harder than it needed to be, thanks to miscommunication between NASA planners and the Italian space agency which built Cassini's receiver for Huygens' transmissions. Basically the Italian team only halfway took account of the Doppler shifting of the communcations which will occur as the probe and spacecraft move relative to one another. Had this problem not been caught (and there have been extensive planning adjustments to just to address this one problem), most likely the communications from the probe would have been badly degraded.
This wrinkle in the mission is funny to me. My internationalist politics come in part from my experience of international scientific cooperation, both when in the US and now here overseas. But this Huygens snafu shows that even (especially?) we scientists can squabble and withhold data like anyone else. And these teams are the world's best! Luckily, they caught the problem.

Titan is really fascinating because its layers of smog seem similar to primitive earth (and present day Los Angeles). Earth-based spectroscopy has detected a lot of interesting, complex compounds, which are presumably being formed in the absence of life (it's too cold). Finding something like amino acids or riboses (the building blocks of proteins, and a chemical relative of RNA, respectively) on Titan would suggest that these compounds were also around on early Earth , meaning life here didn't have to "invent" its building blocks, but already had some raw materials.

UPDATE: For a nice summary of what Cassini has been able to see, see .
UPDATE#2: The ESA has a nice description of the Huygens mission. There are lots of unknowns and expediencies....

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Blogs are the window to the soul

David Adesnik beats me to it in complaining about the New York Times' latest blog-trend article. Jeffrey Rosen talks about bloggers who reveal personal details on their web pages, and the social chaos it wreaks.
I'm not even going to start up about the complete incomprehension of the NYT toward blogs (what's so hard to understand about people talking?). Instead I think Adesnik gets it right (and links it right, to Crooked Timber): the line between public and private is being pushed ever inward by any number of data-intensive technologies. If you're not comfortable having information about yourself leaking out onto the internet, then stay away from bloggers, perform all transactions by barter, and grow your own food.

Brain doping

The LA Times had a story yesterday about pharmaceutical companies having several mind-enhancing drugs coming down the pipeline. As the Times put it in their opening paragraph, a smart guy takes a pink one and gets even brainier for a few hours.
I know enough about the outskirts of this topic to say that the upside of these drugs is exactly what the article says. You will be able to get a temporary enhancement of concentration and arousal (alertness) with no hangover. I believe the compounds mentioned in the story will not be the ones which come in to widespread use, but the drug developers are probably only a hydroxyl group or so away from a water-soluble, non metabolizable smart pill.
The military is rightly very interested in these drugs. There was a widely reported friendly fire incident in Afghanistan in 2002 in which a Stealth bomber pilot was taking amphetamines at the time of the shooting. Amphetamines have similar drawbacks to caffeine, including jitters, which are not what you want in life-and-death situations.

The article discusses academic settings, specifically college tests, in which people pop a pill before taking a test. I think amphetamines would be as counterproductive as caffeine in this setting, but I don't have information about even ritalin. I'm guessing a very large, uncontrolled experiment is underway this week as college kids go through finals week. The new generation of brain pills will indeed improve scores when taken in this manner, and again, compared to alcohol, they will have tiny side effects when taken once-off.

The LA Times closes with a sort of scolding warning that the human brain has evolved to a certain equilibrium state, which these drugs might disrupt with long-term health consequences. I do believe this sort of argument for kids, and I try to keep my own kids away from even caffeine. And I would not take these pills myself. But that is my decision.
What is more interesting to me is the "brain-doping" concern: pills could give an unfair advantage to someone taking a test. This call for caution needs to be addressed, preferably before these pills are widely available. Compared to situations where athletic doping unfairly determines an outcome, far more people are professional "mind-athletes" (I think of myself as the intellectual equivalent of beach volleyball). So there are more competitive situations, more salaries and careers at stake, and therefore far more legal ramifications for a spoiled competition.

Efforts to keep performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals out of professional (and amateur?) athletics have been stymied by the gigantic market incentive pulling these products into circulation. (The health effects of steroids are very clear and alarming ). I guess the legal precepts guiding fair use will come on the athletic side first. But I think we're going to have to get comfortable with the fact that people will have access to these pills, and will take them.
UPDATE: Seems like not many of Fontana Labs' students have even heard of Ritalin. .

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Its lucky the holidays are only once per year

Mimi Smrtypants is stressed out.
I've gotta get about five more presents myself, and we're off to France right after Christmas. Oh boy, lots to do.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Wet Mars: breakthrough of the year

Science magazine has chosen the geological demonstration of long-term bodies of water on Mars as their breakthrough of the year. Even more appropriately, they sing the praises of doing science remotely. Robots with flash card memories are able to figure out a heck of a lot before astronauts are needed.
(Meanwhile, I didn't mention this before, but the Spirit site also now has minerological evidence of long-term water action: the robot has observed Goethite , esssentially rust, up on the higher hills. This could be very interesting, but I will need to read more about it. ) The two landing sites were pretty carefully chosen because of satellite evidence of water. Still, it's nice to see it confirmed, twice.

A press conference about Titan was scheduled for Thursday in San Francisco- maybe more interesting stuff.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Wardrobe malfunction

It's a bit of a challenge keeping the Santa thing going here in Germany. For one thing, he's Niklaus here, and he visits on December 6th, leaving the heavy lifting on December 25th to the Christkind (or even the Ghost of Christ, depending which house). But in our house the same guy shows up on both days.
We've managed to paper over these little inconsistencies with a steady flow of presents, and pure bluffing. The kids seem to accept that "German Santa" comes at one time, needing shoes, while "American Santa" needs carrots and shows up two weeks later. After all, as long as the loot keeps flowing, who cares who brought it? But it may have just gotten a little bit harder, as they encounter yet more Santas out in the real world.
For example, Matthew came home yesterday and announced that Santa had come to his ball club's Christmas party.
"But not the real Santa," he said, chewing on yet another huge piece of chocolate. "His beard was just made of paper."

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

This is WAY too teletubbies

The Register, a cool British tech site, talks about a new, Wi-Fi ready tabletop thingy which will flash lights or give audio cues when an email comes in. With this device, you don't have to lug your super heavy Blackberry all around the house. And it will match the lava lamp!
As a person who routinely hides from cell phones, I'm not sure I'd be their first customer...

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Creativity in the raw.

It's always funny to me how scientists get misrepresented out in the civilian world. Either we're Dr. Doom, or we're the professor from Gilligan's island. Most hilarious of all is that we're sort of exotic, neutrino-emmiting machines, with non-linear thought patterns and kung-fu action grip. Supporting my point, I've taken liberties with Fast Company and their attempt to dispel myths about creativity. (In the end, the article has some valid points. Check out Myth Number Two: that money is a creative motivator. But couldn't we just risk it??)

Eight years ago, Amabile took her research to a daring new level. Working with a team of PhDs, graduate students, and managers from various companies, she collected nearly 12,000 daily journal entries from 238 people working on creative projects in seven companies in the consumer products, high-tech, and chemical industries.

"The diary study was designed to look at creativity in the wild," she says.

Oh darn, I forgot to shave today.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Dave Barry's Christmas Suggestions

Dave Barry (registration required) has his annual roundup of, er, unorthodox gift suggestions for the holiday season. One of my favorites is the travel hot-dog cooker, which plugs into the cigarette lighter of a car (is that thingy still called the cigarette lighter?) I went to the CleverGear web page and found a number of gifts that are sure to leave the giftee at a loss for words, including this football-shaped slow cooker to keep your cheeze dip warm. Mmmm... And of course, the video of street-fighting tips should come in handy on Christmas day! Of course, I won't need it, since I'm left handed. (stolen from Freaky Trigger )

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Most horrible teaching experience ever

Hip Teacher sets a new record for the most horrible teaching day ever, with her potty mouth day. . You have to be pretty tough to be a teacher.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Mars: life not so likely

This week's Science magazine has 10 or 12 articles focused on the results from the Opportunity rover and analyses of the geology of the rocks near its landing site in Meridiani Plani. The articles are all behind a subscription wall, but a summary article by Jeffrey Kargel has linkouts to public sites. I will try to pull those in soon.
Two big points which struck me. First, Opportunity seems to be the whole show, in terms of evidence of a long-term presence of surface liquid water. The rocks at the Spirit site are volcanic in origin. *I have to change my blog wallpaper*
But the other is that even given the unique and strong evidence for liquid water at Meridiani Plani, Kargel at least is skeptical that organisms along the lines of earth extremophiles could hack out a life there. That is, there are Earth microbes which tolerate very high salt, those which tolerate cold, and those which tolerate strongly acidic environments-- but very few Earth organisms can tolerate all three. So even when Meridiani Plani was warmer and wetter, it woud still have been off the charts in terms of earth habitats.
I had always thought that the landing sites were chosen with the aim of proving liquid water. Nothing would be more definitive than a salt flat, so I had just assumed that the saltiness of the Opportunity rocks was part of the plan. But it seems the site had also been chosen with life habitats explicitly in mind. Thus, this week's results appear to be a true negative, rather than the absence of a positive.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Say it ain't so.

From the NY Times, it looks like Barry Bonds really did use steroids, among other things. If it's true, what a shame.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Blog your way up

Via Daniel Drezner, an interesting post by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution on the possible interface between blogging and "serious" academia. I can't deny that blogging takes up a lot of time, and, in between inspiration, I seriously wonder if I could not be alphabetizing my constructs or otherwise furthering my career. Thus blogging requires a bit of justification beyond doing it for the love.

Cowen's notion is that of blog as efficient vehicle for popularizing or communicating to non-specialists. Essentially the usenet formula. You can be informal; you can include harder (read: subscription) links for specialists, and you can marshal your vast army of slavish readers to double your funding... no, sorry, something must be in the coffee this morning (Gene Roddenberry? ). Seriously, though, I think the biology world really needs a better communications office. It's not as self-referential a discipline as the fashion world, but we lack Heidi Klum.

But then I go off and blog about extraterrestrial beasties, so I guess I'm not really bridging the gap.

Wow, I just ran's spell checker, and it didn't like "Blog" or "blogger." I should Replace blog with bloc? Don't they watch CNN?

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

CodeBlue Blog rocks!

Code Blue Blog has a very thorough look at the mysterious skin condition suffered by Ukranian presidential challenger Viktor Yushchenko (last name completely misspellt in earlier posts). After many caveats about looking at a photo and guessing what ails the poor lad, I think he nails it: alcoholism.

Check it out.