Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Skipping South in Japan

March 16th, 2011

News of quiet exodus appears in coverage of the spreading radioactivity in Northeast Japan. The best I’ve seen is in the German mag Stern. (This article translates pretty well on sites like )

As an accompanying map shows, the imperiled reactors spread out over the East coast and their danger regions are wide. As a result, folk are at least temporarily hieing to areas South of Tokyo, where life continues as normal — office perk, trains roll, and no officials or sirens insist on evacuation.

Many years have passed since my family was part of the post-WWII occupation army in Saga and Osaka. Those are safe cities in the South, one the big island and one right below it.

Over those years, my mother would occasionally discuss A-bombs (as the two we used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were known then) as well as our not-too-honest rush to nuclear power. For the latter, she saw straight through the false pride of the glories of breeder reactors we were building pell-mell. Business leaders and politicians crowed about how wonderful it was they made fuel, saving mining and handling costs, neglecting to mention the huge amounts of hot waste, deadly for 50,000 or more years we would have to do something with and pray that it remained contained for at least ten times longer than humans have had written language.

On a more personal concern, she mentioned in passing something that we could do nothing about. In Osaka, we were fairly close to Hiroshima and in Saga, even closer to Nagasaki.

Military families were forbidden from eating local produce. Ostensibly, that was because many farmers gathered night soil, excrement in public ditches, from the infrastructure and culture of the time to fertilize their crops. We also have to believe there was some concern over radioactivity from blown dirt.

Likewise, we were there in the period and location when the bombed cities were still seriously contaminated. Even for tots like my sister and me, that was and can still be part of military life. We went where we were told to go.

Most of our Japanese friends from that period eventually moved to new lives in the United States. Nearly everyone has joined his ancestors.

For us, my mother got breast/lymph cancer. However, I think that almost certainly related to her decades of cigarettes and not radiation exposure in Japan in her 20s. For my sister and me, either of us shows cancer. I assume that whatever exposure we received our young bodies were able to process adequately.

I’m not one to call for immediately shutting down nuclear-energy-generation programs worldwide. I see countries that use far safer reactor types than the U.S. and Japan do, energy generation far cleaner than the coal plants places like China use.

Instead though, I can’t believe we can’t look to Iceland’s tapping geothermal…and beyond. We have tides and winds as well as a hot earth constantly pulsing with energy. Those sources and likely others undeveloped are free of the dangers and poisons of petroleum and nuclear.

Must humans remain subject to perilous expediency?

Cross-post: At Marry in Massachusetts.

Spitting My Past’s Past

March 3rd, 2011


Surely within a few years (at least in generational terms), people will have easy, understandable access to their genetic information. Through a generous, question-asking/answering gift from #1 son, our family is suddenly immersed in an early version of it.

His Christmas present to his parents and two brothers was a saliva-based analysis of humans we are and our DNA. 23andMe reports what I suspected — I’m a fairly homogenized Northern and Western European type. I seem to have roots many thousands of years ago in what is now Arabia and even Northern Africa, but from way back, my folk populated the British Isles and Scandinavia, no big surprise for someone who grew up blond and pale.

At this nascent point in the science of DNA and related research, the what does all this mean remains sketchy to us relatively low-scientific resource types. The report site shows me as paternal haplogroup R1b1b2a1a1 and on the maternal side J1c3b. Huh?

The many screens of info suggest folk in the probably pretty small customer database who are like 3rd, 4th or so cousins genetically. Other screens and new notices regularly suggest proclivity toward various health conditions, traits and diseases. Again, with my genetics, there’s nothing startling, with slightly decreased or elevated tendencies to this or that. Of the long list, there is literally nothing alarming or even worthy of asking a doc about.

More curious making would be where my ancestor started, traveled and settled. Others are way ahead of me here. There are websites with voluminous related reports and people who have traced migration routes over tens of thousands of years, mostly based on analysis of bones all over Asia and Europe. Amusingly to me is that my paternal line stated a bit late but then mated with everyone in their way, leaving the haplogroup dominating Spain, the Basque region, France, Wales, Ireland, Britain, Denmark and Iceland.  That blew my idea that it was the Norsemen that started the bastardized lineage of what became Britain; instead, it may have been the R1b1b2 and so forth breeders who first became the Norsemen.

Clicking around on the haplogroups, I discovered that Wikipedia has numerous pages on various ones, including mine. These tend to be replete with links to academic studies, with all the data you can eat.

It also led to something I should have run across before, Doggerland. It was a real-world Atlantis in the sense that it was heavily inhabited 10,000 or so years ago and disappeared slowly at first from rising, post ice-age seas, then suddenly in a huge tsunami 8,000 years ago, give or take.

doggerThe accompanying image is part of one from a site with links to its tale. According to genetic traces still being dredged up, my ancestors heavily populated this land bridge between what became Europe and Britain. Many being washed away by 75-feet of tidal wave didn’t stop the stock.

Last year, I stumbled on a DNA-based series on PBS, the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. one Faces of America. As a non-TV watcher, I had read of it but of course missed it. I watched it online and as mildly sensationalized as it is (picking a few celebrities and tracing their genes way back), I was intrigued. Particularly moving too was when they presented Yo-Yo Ma with a copy of centuries of hand-recorded genealogy they discovered in China.

As it turns out, #1 son works for the Broad Institute in Cambridge that did key research for that series. I’m already hoping that folk there can tell him how to compare segments and get the most of the info on us.

As fascinating as I’ve found this stuff now that our family results arrived, I doubt it will consume me or us. Instead, I project to a future where such information becomes widely available and in much more manageable forms. Surely, we’re likely to start getting such testing as part of routine medical profiles. While docs may want to know what problems to watch for and eventually what to treat us preventively with genetic medicine in development or yet only imagined, we typical self-centered humans might rather know where our great-great-great-greats started, visited and stopped.

My father’s mother liked genealogy and had her husband’s side traced. There are some notable folk, but it’s really terribly British and on this continent from early colonial days (excepting the Spanish in Florida and so forth). In fact, that became very obvious to our sons when their Boston schools would have international nights, with pot lucks. The families were told to bring national dishes. That’s fine enough for the many with Latino, Russian, Vietnamese and other backgrounds. What’s a WASP to do and bring, pot roast or bread pudding? The kids wanted to do the right thing, but as a cook-everything guy, I ended up bring something I knew many would enjoy, like the un-English arroz con pollo.

My personal background seems not so much a melting pot as a lump of cheddar.

Friday Update: National Geographic had a Doggerland show, which doesn’t seem to rerun. However, it is available on YouTube.

Nothing New Under the Thumbs

November 21st, 2010

About that attention thing…people have not been paying attention to those around them as well as to behavioral literature. The meme that relates appears yet again in today’s NY Times maggy. Researchers are yet again pimping the concept that current technology distorts and ruins the mental abilities of youth.

Some of this seems purely generational. Thirty-something and older scholars decry the intellectual failings of those youngsters. We’ve been seeing this ploy from the origins of the written word.  “When I was your age…”

This time, it is yet again the current technology as a hook. Think, smart phone making kids stupid, truncated Twitter tweets ruining deep thought, and factoids from Wikipedia removing any drive to read and then analyze.

In the defense of those who discover, rediscover and shill this new, improved, exciting scholarship, we can see evidence worldwide. Kids with callouses on their thumbs, folk with wireless headsets chattering away (we hope not just to themselves), and youth who do not read newspapers or have even rudimentary knowledge of human history.

Ahem, go back one or two generations and see the same simple-minded fallacy. Back in the 1950s and 60s, it was TV. By cracky, boys and girls today sit with their mouths open, wasting their lives on cartoons and dumb programs; when I was their age, I knew how to read!

In the next generation, it was the internet, rather the World Wide Web, to those of us who, by cracky, used the net before browsers with text search and online message (bulletin boards). Now it’s iPhones, Facebook and such for the next generation.

For the attention weak, the Times puts the punchline near the top:

“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

That simply reeks of the same smelly sensationalism as previous super-generational hoo-ha.

If you’d like to see the living roots of such criticism, consider multitasking and look to boomer only children or firstborns. On the former, I’ve noted repeatedly (like here) Bill Gates is going to have to do considerable atoning for his foisting that belief on us to sell his Office software. Humans almost to a one are not capable of multitasking. Setting that expectation makes managers and workers alike inefficient and set up for failure. You can be sure that as nearly everyone says, “I’m a people person,” that everyone is sure he or she is a multitasker.

Second, for the special kids in any given family, the anecdotal evidence is powerful that the performance pressures are strongest for the firstborn and for an only child. That is particularly true, regardless of gender, if dad or both parents are overachievers.

We see a great sense of competitiveness. It often comes with doting parents and even teachers telling Master or Miss Special how superior everything they do and the people they are are.

The corollary effect is constant rewarding of the quick response. (Sound familiar today?) At home and in school and even among classmates, they learn to blurt an acceptable answer or interpretation before anyone else. Much praise follows and reinforces this behavior.

What they and everyone around lose is an emphasis on or drive to insight, completeness, analysis and even wisdom.  These, if you pardon, intellectual premature ejaculators become wired for shouting out the OK answers.

Thus, we presaged the meme of digital kids. We already have behavioral mechanisms in place to ruin thinking. We’ve done it for who knows how long…and without the need of technology.

Niggles and Memes

Of course, the sad truth of most academic research is that many perform it and few add appreciably to the body of their area’s lore.

Think of young Talmudic students. They may sit or stand in pairs or larger groups in yeshiva debating a passage or even a phrase. They may alternate debate positions, vigorously contradicting themselves in succession. The idea here repeats in much of secular scholarship. Attempt to worry ideas or facts beyond intellectual death and resurrection, with the idea that doing so brings you closer and closer to truth and knowledge.

Much of academic work and writing does the same, only without the give and take. Typically a scholar has a solid idea or realization and publishes it. Others already working in the field may defensively say and write, in effect, that this position is crap. Mostly they’ll take a detail and claim to refute it with the implication, in an Ayn Rand sort of way, that the whole paper is therefore unworthy junk. This inability to judge larger ideas and works again is the short-attention-span meme.

Most often, the critics are tired and effete. Without their own big ideas or innovations, they are reduced to finding holes or stains in the intellectual garments of others. There are, after all, many scholars and seemingly relatively few ideas and breakthroughs.

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We Have The Same – Ugh

November 15th, 2010

homomilkA broken desk chair and milk have an overlap — homogenization.

For the milk, I’m a Boomer and as a kid brought in the milk from the insulated silvery box outside the front door. The quart bottles had snug caps that nestled over the necks. Underneath each cap was a flat paper lid with a wee tab to pull to open the bottle. Under each of those lids was the invariable plug of yellowish milk fat, the thickened creamy stuff.

Nowadays of course, getting those relics requires touble and expense. You either contract with an atavistic dairy delivery or go to a hippie dippy food store and pay as much for a quart as a gallon of mass-processed milk, plus the bottle deposit. Everything in ordinary stores is homogenized.

Super-shaking milk so that the fats broke up into tiny pieces and disappeared in the liquid was but one of the seemingly endless points of pride of the WWII generation. From nylon for stockings, developed during the war, to vaccines, to oleomargarine, to breeder reactors, our parents and their media nearly deafened us with the glories of science all around us.

We got to know some downsides to those glories. Think of margarine, allegedly a much heart healthier, lower calorie alternative to butter. Well, I can believe it’s not butter. It tastes more like Elmer’s glue than a dairy product and its synthetic composition seems to cause many physical problems. It would be far better to eat a little butter and lay off the chemical spread entirely.

I honestly can’t think of anything wrong with stockings, nylon or silk. Pantyhose are awful, but stockings are sexy and fine with me.

Breeder reactors, on another hand, are crazy stuff. We were told how wonderful it was that we wouldn’t have to mine fuel for reactors, which could now make their own. They didn’t mention that disposing of the excess, plus the radioactive fluids and rods involved meant planning for 50,000 years of hot, fatal waste. No thanks.

Homo milk though is pretty cool. As the main family cook, I would appreciate the clot of creamy fat to cook with, but I don’t use it that often and can buy reasonable substitutes. I don’t get along well with any form of milk other than yogurt anyway and pay the internal price for ice cream and such. Yet, I admire the cleverness of mixed-together milk.

To the desk chair though, wider marketing homogenization that has been occurring for about 30 years came into play again. In a few areas of our lives, like supermarkets and wine/beer/liquor stores we have expanded choices. In far too many others, we constantly settle for ubiquitous homogenization.

Think such market segments as books, toys and hardware. If you can’t find what you have in mind in one store, huge or wee, you may have to forget it. The next store and the next and the next are likely to have identical products with the same brands in the same shapes, colors and sizes.

We learned when our now adult son was a little guy that Toys Я Us:

  1. was everywhere
  2. drove specialty toy stores out of business with low prices
  3. carried best selling items
  4. was not interested in special ordering anything

We see that in far, far too many retail areas. Again, you might be able to get fresh fruits and veggies your parents never knew existed, but you’re going to settle for what’s available in too many places.

Thus with hardware. I saw that again when I went to replace one of five casters on a steno chair.

It has been on sale at a Staples, the Toys Я Us of office supply. They didn’t have any parts, couldn’t get any, but would love to sell me another, different chair. I was supposed to toss mine.

Well, as my mother’s son, I don’t do that if I can help it. I repair or adapt and conserve.

Looking in office supply and hardware stores, including several home centers, I found homogenization. The same loose or bubble wrapped casters, not appropriate for my chair, were everywhere. The same sizes, colors, brands, configurations, and fittings were here, there and all useless to me.

casterClicking around wheel and caster manufacturers and wholesalers was frustrating. I eventually found a model that might be adaptable, as it came with five casters, each with four stems types. The package cost more than the chair or a replacement for it.

My damaged and useless caster had split and would not glue to repair. I know the implied rule of our era is to consider inexpensive items disposable. I was not raised to waste.

Alas, I set the chair aside and fell back on my lottery-as-a-retirement-plan strategy. I would not throw the chair away, rather I would keep an eye open for a discarded version with a similar 2-inch wheel set that I might adapt.

I decided that last night. As it was trash night, it struck me that I could start this perhaps quixotic quest the next day. My whole, dispersed and varied part of Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood has rubbish pickup on Monday. I pledged to take a shoulder bag on my bike ride, just in case a discarded desk chair with the right sized caster was obvious.

To my disappointment, I tooled around Fairmount Hill — a cardio challenge on foot or bike — and saw nothing remotely resembling my need. Swinging by Mayor Menino’s neighborhood, where natural gas imploded that house and cracked the bakery’s oven, and through and around Dedham, I was grokking streets and sub-neighborhoods. That’s a great benefit of urban biking, truly fixing the layout of your trips.

Finally on the way from Dedham center toward Hyde Park and up my monster hill, I noticed a hillbilly like display. A sidewalk had a disgusting sofa and matching chair just like the necks put on their porches. Upside down on the sofa, over stained once-tan fabric was a standard desk chair. The trash guys were running late.

I figured the casters were 2-inchers. I pulled off one and saw that the stem was wrong. Figuring I might be able to adapt it, I took one, then a spare, tucking them in my bag. Fairly giddy with scavenging luck, I cycled home.

Sure enough, with some considerable prying, I was able to remove the stem, and cut loose the Gordian netting of old carpet stuck in the two wheels. My chair’s stem is a tiny bit loose, but it fits. I’ll throw some filler in there and call it perfect.

My mother would approve.

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Multimedia with Astronaut

June 12th, 2009

Aldrin’s boot print on the moonEdwin Aldrin’s little sister couldn’t say brother. So she called him her buzzer.That boy became Buzz to the world and is famous as the second person to walk on the moon (that’s his boot print on the lunar surface).

Last evening, the 79-year-old did a credible job as narrator in a Boston Pops performance. He spoke a bit about his space experiences and then spoke scripted introductions to four Gustav Holst movements of The Planets.

It was the Pops at their poppiest. They ended with Stars and Stripes Forever even.  Somehow the link between Sousa and celestial bodies eludes me — perhaps it was the accompanying video of fireworks in the sky.

The performance made liberal use of drop-down screens. The four movements each got an artsy quasi-documentary silent video by José Francisco Salgado, astronomer at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.  Given that this was the annual MIT at the Pops night, that layered the evening with a patina of erudition. This was the loud part of a three-day conference on technology, Giant Leaps,  coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing.

Number one son works at an institute at the tool school down the river, as the Harvard types are wont to call MIT.  He provided the tickets for his parents and brother (number three could not be bothered).

So, we had a jolly time at the café-style tables that fill the orchestra nowadays. The waitrons even provided pale blue light sticks to wave in time to the children’s chorus that wrapped the evening with John Lennon’s Imagine.

I had forgotten how the indoors Pops does a good show. It’s rather like some singers and groups I had seen over the years. I think way back to Frank Sinatra, who I saw last in his later, creaky-voiced days, and the Four Seasons. I didn’t buy their music or care to listen to their recordings, but on stage, wow, could they hold an audience, including me.

So it was with Keith Lockhart and his band of merry strummers, pounders and blowers. The program didn’t challenge anyone’s mind or musical sense, but it was flawless and fun.

We were up close in the sixth row. That was perhaps too close, close enough for small distractions.

Funny Trousers

Lockhart is a pretty boy, delicate of hand and seeming without self-esteem problems. It was amusing though to see the back of his overly moussed do and his comical trousers. His hair is thick and tapered in the back, like a truncated mullet. The level cropping of the back drops off a heavy cliff of black hair onto a white neck. It’s like a row cut in a wheat field.His pants though…they were funny and kept catching my eyes. His black (maybe super-dark gray) suit jacket had no vents and was well tailored, so that it rose and collapsed smoothly as he rolled, waved and jerked his arms. He is uncannily fluid in hand, elbow and shoulder movements. His precision and amazing smoothness of movement is gracious and beautiful.

His pants though…they are not tailored. It’s as though he is in denial about how short his legs are. I rather doubt he bought the pants at the last hour and didn’t have time to get them fitted. They were much too long, draping to the bottom of his heels or below in the back and bunched like overly long curtains over his laces and below in the front.

The effect was of an old elephant’s heavily wrinkled legs. Up on his toes and with his arms high, his pants would almost, but not quite, straighten in the back. The bunching migrated upward. Then as he fell down off his toes, the ample black fabric again and suddenly surrounded his calves and ankles in generous folds.

Perhaps if the music had been more demanding, I would have gotten swept up by it. But, hey, it’s the Pops.

For his part, Dr. Aldrin, we all agreed, looked just like an aging astronaut should. He was trim and well dressed in a (well tailored) dinner jacket and patent leather shoes. He sported his Medal of Freedom around his neck. He spoke with eloquence and certainty. When the music took over, he sat motionless, except for the well timed taping of his right foot.

Yet, clicking around to refresh myself on his nickname’s origin, I was mildly dismayed to find that he bought some of his appearance. He is famous, and it would seem, a bit vain. All over the net are mentions of how he had a face lift two years ago. He told Howard Stern that he was keeping up with his latest mate, whom he called a trophy wife even though they are the same age. He also has said that the G forces over the years made his jaws sag.

Regardless, he could do whatever made him feel good. He looked fine and fit and a little younger than 79.

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Close-Enough Body Repair

March 6th, 2009

Another veil of illusion fell yesterday during the first follow-up visit following my broken-leg surgery. I had honestly and truly bought into the proposition that orthopedic surgeons were flawless, perfectionist artists.

Instead, I discovered very visually that they seem to share the same fundamental belief that most adults arrive at — doctors don’t heal people; the human body in its almost magical power does…or not. (Pix note: click an image below for a larger view.)

While I had envisioned my tibia and fibular breaks to have been realigned and repaired with great precision, I was naive and ignorant. The reality of surgical craftsmanship was both coarse and close-enough. I had imagined a Super Glue®-style pottery repair, showing only a fine crack where the adhered pieces pressed together. Instead, my bones are still broken and my body is left to its devices to grow enough grout-like material to fill the gaps and in effect create a larger set of bones.

Even at what feels like a patriarchal age in this repair period, I learned something yesterday. That was both disappointing and clarifying. It does me no harm to discard the delusion that surgeons are somehow different in type from other physicians. In mind and conversation, I had held that they were craftsmen and artists, in no small part because they could see and manipulate the body parts needing attention.

Yesterday was my first look at my leg x-rays. I should have asked to see the pre-surgery ones. They must have been grim. That would have given me additional perspective when I saw the post-operation, pre-fill-in-the-gaps ones.

leb topThe short of it is that both bones remain separated. My body has some serious rebuilding to do. I understand now why they speak of it being realistically a year to get my leg back. It also humanizes the surgeons for me.

Consider the tibia (the larger of the two lower leg bones). I now have a permanent titanium rod the length of it, with two screws top and two bottom holding it in place and keeping the two major pieces together.

There is a large, visible, pointy split left with no apparent effort to bring the splinters close enough to glue.  The next time I see the jolly cutters, I’ll ask whether leaving the gap and making the body fill in the space creates more ossified material, hence a stronger tibia, than had it been pressed together. In other words, was it expedience or wise planning to leave me with an obvious break?

Then just above the ankle, the broken fibula is in pieces still. The two surgeons I saw yesterday fairly giggled in pooh-poohing my questions about that jumble of pieces.

leg bottom

Basically, their version is that the bone itself is wee, not particularly weight supporting and fairly vestigial. One said that they let broken lower fibulae repair themselves or not. The other added that if docs need a spare bone piece to repair a more functional osteal unit, they cannibalize (my word) the fibula to get one.

So, what can I learn from this? Most obviously, my master craftsmen are more like pretty skilled weekend repairmen. In my case, they seem to have done a quite serviceable job that needs only to work, not be pretty.

From the outside, once the red, purple, wrinkled and muscle-toneless leg returns to its glory with use, there will be only a few external scars. I’ll set off airport and courthouse alarms and then have to pull up my trousers for wanding, but my beautiful calf and skin will look fine again.


Wonderful skills of our corporal factories

Inside, it is a combination of surgical skill but more of the body’s gross and fine powers to make itself whole and functional. Apparently, the shattered bone pieces need only to have been brought close enough in a couple hours of surgery. Then the major work of correcting and the real repair is, as the expression goes, afoot.

The flippant surgeons in the hospital did the over-the-wall thing. They said I could walk on the leg the next day…if I wanted. That is literally true in a structural sense. The rod in the bone is in effect an internal splint, giving me the physical capacity to stand even while the bones remain in multiple segments.

Of course, the reality is that even for someone who doesn’t wallow in the emotional aspect of pain (a family trained trait), I needed a couple of days and physical therapy sessions to be able to 1) use a walker at all while standing with eye-flooding pain, and 2) to shuffle and thump my way down a long hall to a set of stairs, and then stumble up and down a flight of stairs on crutches.

The surgeons came clean yesterday. Unlike the in-hospital glibness of I’d have my leg full back in six months and could hit the stationary bikes at maybe four months, the follow-up estimates are twice that. I go back in six weeks to see if I am lucky and healthy enough of the body to be a quick bone-generating sort.

I end up with my intrinsic and learned faith in my body as self-repairing. I’ll be sure to get printouts of the x-rays toward the end of next month. I’m hoping for some ossification in the big gap, my body’s own grout.

So, far better than centuries ago when a break like this would get a splint to heal or not having surgeons pound a rod from the knee down the ankle is good. Yet, it’s not great and works only because of the wonderful skills of our corporal factories.

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Pixar Goes Non-PC with LCD WALL-E

July 7th, 2008

Finally catching WALL.E on the big screen, I was surprised. The expected was there — high-quality animation, family-friendly story line and the usual. I don’t understand the incredible critical raves (96% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes).

The surprises were from the cloddish lowest-common-denominator insensitivity.  How about future humans are all WASPs and fatties are funny, really funny?

I noticed the chubby slapping immediately. It was very heavy handed and prolonged. When I started writing up my ideas on it, I clicked around to find:

  • One critic (Kyle Smith) had already covered the steato-phobia angle. He’s been skewered by others for noticing.
  • Pixar sites totally avoid showing the morbidly obese humans that dominate the last third of the movie. The trailers and stills do not show the humans.

Kyle’s Flyer

NY Post critic and columnist Smith put it fairly with:

…the human race of the future will become a flabby mass of peabrained idiots who are literally too fat to walk. Instead they zip around in flying wheelchairs surfing the Web, chatting on phone lines and stuffing their faces with food meant to be sucked down like milkshakes while unquestioningly taking orders from the master corporation that controls all aspects of their existence.

Also in follow-ups here and here, he adds such as:

…They never leave their spotless flying barcaloungers — and never could, since their bones have shrunk to useless twigs inside their Shrek-like masses…All foods are made to be sucked down like milkshakes for maximum convenience.

He gets considerable heat in his blog’s comments as well as about the net. He’s called blind to the obesity epidemic as well as anti-corporation. From his columns, I get the sense that he enjoys the ranting about his work.

Cheap Shots

Perhaps it was the laziness of the huge Pixar crew that led to low-brow stereotypes and one-flavor humanity. They surely had their fingers flying with the elaborate animation.

Yet the last third to half of the flick occurs on a gigantic spaceship, an ark populated with the fat white blob folk. It’s like Noah might have scratched the zebras — half black. No one black, yellow or brown need apply. Maybe they have their own separate but equal spaceships elsewhere in the galaxy.

Perhaps in and around the Pixar studies, the vast majority of humans are trim and white. Perhaps Wall.E merely reflects the crew’s reality.

Granted this is fundamentally a kids’ movie. Science is a bit player. There are tiny bows to reality with exposed circuit boards and such, but visual entertainment rules here.

Axiom captainWe would have no idea how these cruising porkers might produce the porker babies shown repeatedly, or even if they are lab produced. Sex and such are not featured.  Likewise, there’s a stylized x-ray on screen at one point to illustrate that the humans will need to start moving to get their shrunken bones functioning enough to support them when they return to Earth.  Then they zapped immediately across the galaxy and not in a decade to prepare. Of course, that’s also not the way people atrophy any more than they would continually increase in girth or be able to turn over much less walk if their bones no longer joined. Science is not it.

The mono-race thing is not as surprising as the ridiculing of the obese. That’s certainly a popular cultural humor form and will likely remain so. It’s safe to insult fatties and mock them.

Decades ago, it could be blacks or women or nearly any ethnic minority. Now comedians and popular entertainment as well as plain folk can joke at the expense of even the slightly chubby and laugh out loud at or say they are disgusted by the obese.

Pixar people likely think they did their part to neutralize the continued propagation of this making every single living human a caricature of a fat person. Even the baby ones have the Pillsbury Dough Boy look, with formless feet. Ha ha ha ha. They’re fat.

Everyone is waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay fat, clumsy and mindless. Any physical activity attempt is supposedly hilarious, even as the captain tries to stand to fight against the smart machines for his fellow humans. What should be heroic is awkward and disgusting.

Physique Freaking

Cindy McCainThe day were were heading out to see Wall.E, a right-wing acquaintance sent me another pro-McCain mailing. This one was on the glories of Cindy McCain. To me, she is not well-formed and represents another corner of the bad-body zoo. You need not deride the woman to admit that she is very peculiar and unhealthy looking.

I am pretty sure that the time will come again when the unnaturally and unhealthily skinny such as she are also the subject of ridicule. At the present, people other than humor pros like The Onion try to be decent to anorexics and the extremely thin.

Yet, from serious research and even Paul Campos’ well-grounded pop books, we know that folk wisdom you can never be too thin is a lie. The thinnest people die first and are often sick and weak. Then the fattest go, back and forth from thin to fat on the spectrum. The compilation of decades of huge studies around the world suggests that on average, being 5% to 10% above the theoretical ideal weight is best for longevity and health.

Yet the idea of the size zero jeans or the Nancy Reagan look are high in women’s body images. The former first lady was anemic and ill and under constant treatment as a result. That’s probably still the case. Her thinness was symptomatic not sought. The Cindy McCain wading bird look too does not seem healthy. Women without hips or busts are as odd looking to me as men without muscle mass and shoulders. Some are born that way, other missed hormones and exercise during developmental years, but none deserves derision.

I rather doubt that robot-driven cartoon movie will harm too many kids, be they thin or chubby. Although you can’t be sure in all cases, you’d hope that parents, teachers and doctors aren’t as clumsy and insensitive as Pixar. Kids who don’t fit unobtainable paragons of somatotypes certainly don’t need to be ridiculed or lumped with the lumpiest.

Otherwise for Wall.E, I would have appreciated better science. It would have been easy to research space atrophy and do a decent job with the humans on the ship. Then again, I grew up in the 50s and 60s watching movies and reading pulp that tried to layer decent science on entertainment. It would have been easy for Pixar, but they didn’t bother.

Apparently the director, Andrew Stanton, did the LITE version. “I wasn’t trying to make the humans into fat, lazy consumers…The reason I made them look like big babies was because a NASA guy told me that they haven’t yet simulated gravity perfectly for long-term residency in space. And if they don’t get it just right, atrophy kicks in and you begin to lose your muscle tone—you just turn into a blob of goo.” So, he kind of asked, but didn’t get the obvious, that it was about muscle tone. Filtered through a Southern California brain, that translated into fat, not asthenic. His teaching opportunity became a pop slur.

It’s a small shame that the Disney folk chose the LCD humor for the humans. Yet, plugging into the popular culture for viewer identification is one of Pixar’s fortes. It’s clumsy though.

Big Site Update: Over at Slate, another snooty type, Associate Editor Daniel Engber, joins in the derision and nit picking. He also disdains the simple-minded stereotyping. He goes on to rip the incorrect and artificial link between the human porkers in the movie and damage to the planet.

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Know the Blow

February 20th, 2008

Depending on who’s talking, the Blue Hills Observatory 10 miles south of our state house is both historical and dynamic. They’ve been doing it since 1885.

Historians and scholars in general manage to justify their study and existence by assembling facts and opinions is various ways. They’ll start a strong declaration, only to becloud it with adverbs, adjectives and qualifiers.

Observatory sunlight deviceWe lucked into a surprise tour from the program director, Don McCasland on Tuesday. It’s not open to the public all that often, but he was so impressed by the nice weather he unlocked the door. For $3 a head, it’s a lot more memorable and visually stimulating that $3 worth of a movie. (Normal open times are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., weekends, except Dec. and Jan.)

We got to get intimate with the sunlight-measuring globe (description follows). Pix Click Trick: Click on an image for a larger view.

For the history aspect, depending on which historian is saying he can spit the farthest, weather observation has its proponents. Consider:

  • In 1870, the Signal Corps didn’t have a lot of spying and long-distance flag and other manual communication to do. So the War Department expanded their duties to include the nascent field of weather forecasting.
  • Some of those teams apparently made intermittent measurements on Mount Washington. That observatory’s history page conflates that with full-fledged status, as in, “…from 1870 to 1892. The Mount Washington station was the first of its kind in the world, setting an example followed in many other countries.”
  • A wealthy dilettante (Bostonian, MIT grad, family whaling fortune), Abbott Lawrence Rotch, had an interest in weather, the time and money, and maybe no other career ideas. He had the stone observatory constructed at the top of the Great Blue Hill in Milton. It’s been taking and recording measurements since 1885.
  • According to McCasland, when the Mount Washington folk got around to building a station in 1932 for a permanent observatory, they turned to the well established Blue Hill people. Their original instruments were gifts from Rotch’s facility. Some of those are still in use.

Having toured Mount Washington’s station, I admit it is much larger and more elaborate. Until recently, they also had the famous pet cat Nin, who recently retired from the alpine life. BHO has no cat and does not get the intensity of storms.

BHO is a more human and manageable scale though. Upstairs, Robert Skilling has been recording and analyzing for 45 years. The sills and bookcase tops have dozens of manual typewriters and a mechanical abacus, representing well over a century of human intensive analysis. These reflect the daily work there, also a blend of ancient, just old, and modern.

Most of the TV and internet weather relies on the National Weather Service’s Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS). Indeed, there are computers constantly updating displays. While we were there, the NWS sent alarms of small-craft warnings in Boston Harbor too.

The BHO is a hobbyist’s delight though, with old-time devices that worked in 1885 and work now. The BHO records are in binders there (and backed up in files off site, of course). Using the same techniques and machinery for decades makes the comparisons useful and meaningful.

There are electronic barometers, but the world’s oldest continuously (qualifier again) used mercury barometers are still there from 1885 and still read and recorded by eye and hand. Calibrated every decade or so, they remain amazingly accurate.

For one, the wind-speed devices turning on the top of the tower are still mechanical. After one turns 640 times, it trips a recorder, which makes a red line like a polygraph. The quaintness of the system is perhaps epitomized by the clothespins that keep the paper from curling too much. At various points, Skilling or McCasland examines various such recordings and figures out such data as peak wind gusts, average window speed, precipitation and more.

Boston from observatory towerAt specified times of the day, someone goes onto the tower platform to do things such as look at the sky. What parts of the sky have any clouds? How are can you see and how clearly. For example, the State House is 10 miles away, Mt. Monadnock 60 and so forth. We could see Cape Ann very clearly (Gloucester is 36). It must be torture in sleet and high winds.

Don loading sunlight cardPerhaps the singular most fascinating device though is the Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder on top of the tower. It would be the perfect prop for a Gypsy fortune teller stereotype.

The pic to the left shows McCasland inserting the card for the new series of sunlight readings. Sun, rain, whatever, the cards must be swapped and examined. It was damned windy that afternoon, but he says the pin always keeps the card in place.

Sunlight measuring cardIt is sublimely simple and also blends science and art. One of the BHO staff places a long, heavy, dark paper strip under the globe, holding it safe from the wind with a metal pin. As the sun hits the glass, it does the magnifying-glass thing, burning a hole or erose line in the card. Depending on how bright the sun is, its focused light reaches certain temperatures. Hotter burns a wider space. The pic above shows number three son holding a burned card.

Don and Cindy at sunlight card displayAfter retrieving the paper, Skilling or McCasland can see when the sunlight was bright, brighter or brightest. The temporal measurements are simple too. Each white line represents the end of an hour. And so it has been since 1885.

The pic to the left shows McCasland and my uxorial unit examining example sunlight cards.

Perhaps a future post will talk weather kites.

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