Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Baby toes sure are amazingly cute. Here's Quinn just chillin' with mama and daddy, enjoying life.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Web 2.0 reinvents the chain letter

I've been on Facebook for several months now and I have to say it is both addicting and annoying. Clearly, they have created a social networking site that works. This is what friendster always wanted to be. The web-design is very clean and appealing (as opposed to blinky, flashy and cluttered) and they cleverly got in on the ground floor with college frosh nationwide. Then they let the oldsters like me in the door. And as a way of finding and re-connecting with old friends, it's effective if only due to its vast size. So ... w00t for them.

As many have pointed out, Facebook is also evil (or potentially evil), with connections to the CIA's venture capital firm, the DOD and the founder of (shudder) the Stanford Review. That's not to say Facebook is necessarily doing anything vastly more evil than Google (i.e. corporate data-mining and targetted ads), but if anyone in government ever gets the bright idea of re-starting the Total Information Awareness system, I guess they know who to talk to.

But really, my main gripe with Facebook is all the requests. In the 90s we all got chain letters asking us to Save Sesame Street or forwards brimming with inspirational sayings -- now I'm being asked to turn my friends to zombies or forward FunWall posts or take quizes on how many kids I'll eventually have. The big improvement seems to be that the chain letter now installs itself on your profile page and automatically selects a list of friends to forward on to. Really? No thanks. Maybe I'm just being grumpy, but with Facebook there is an exhausting expectation that you're supposed to communicate through an endless volley of thrown sheep.

Don't get me wrong - some of the apps are pretty cool. The Wall is nice, and SuperPoke is cute. I love the maps and the webcomic feeds and its nice that they've resurrected Oregon Trail. The open source development of applications is clearly the way to go and I'm sure there are some very creative people writing some cool and useful programs out there. But I don't think it's quite the killer app that will help grow a true online community - there's too much noise right now.

Of course, I still want you to be my friend...

Friday, February 22, 2008

Lenten Blogging

Instead of giving something up for Lent, this year Laura Jean decided to start up a new blog as a daily spiritual discipline. She's been posting about busyness, Manga Jesus, visiting prisoners and finding "the moments of grace in my everyday living." (Of course she's still keeping her old blog as a steady source of baby photos.) She is, of course, a wonderful preacher, and that shines through in her posts too.

I've also been trying to blog daily for Lent, with notably less success (and less quality control). We're also trying to commit to reintroducing some activism and community service into our lives for Lent, although being new parents really cuts back on your free time, so we'll see how that goes.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


National Geographic had a really interesting article in their January edition on the ultimate fate of high-tech electronics sold in the U.S. and Europe: quite a lot of it gets shipped (or smuggled) to China, India or Africa where people burn the components and salvage the scrap metals. As usual with NG, the words are good but the pictures tell the real story.

Needless to say, burning and poking around through old electronics is an extremely hazardous occupation. Click on the pictures link above and then go to the 9th pic and you'll see one of the scariest photographs I've seen in a while. Here's the caption:
In a poor suburb of New Delhi, India, where informal e-waste processing is a common household business, a man pours molten lead smelted from circuit boards. His family uses the same pots for cooking—a potentially deadly practice.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

AAAS wrap-up

I just returned from five days in Boston for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) - the world's largest general scientific society. It was a fun meeting - although these things are always kind of exhausting, aren't they? It was especially interesting to go to a general scientific meeting and listen to talks well outside my realm of expertise. Definitely makes you appreciate someone who can clearly explain his or her research well.

The reason for attending was because UCS released a report that I helped write. Entitled Federal Science and the Public Good the report outlines the systemic and harmful changes the Bush administration has made to the federal scientific enterprise ... and what needs to be done to reverse them. We also released a call-to-action endorsed by a group of senior scientists, organized a conference session on science policy in the next Presidential administration and my boss was a guest on NPR's Science Friday.

A busy weekend, to say the least. A few of the other highlights:
  • Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, spoke about his ambitious plan to invest a large fraction of Rwanda's GDP in science and tech.
  • The world's oceans are doing poorly and a their status and conservation was a big theme of the meeting with talks on dead zones and declining fisheries.
  • There was one session on my thesis topic: gamma-ray bursts. It was great nerdy fun to dip back into the topic after a year and a half doing other stuff, although I have to admit I was a little disappointed to find the field hadn't really advanced much in that time-frame. I was sort of hoping to learn the exciting new developments...
  • Not surprisingly, climate change has really blossomed into a Major Scientific Theme in the past few years, and there were a number of interesting talks at this meeting. My friend Holmes Hummel organized an interesting session on the next steps in organizing an international framework to reduce carbon emissions - and she closed with a surprising summary of the many bills currently under congressional consideration.
  • There were also two good talks on the communication of science to the non-scientific world. Andy Revkin, the NY Times's cracker-jack energy and global warming reporter, gave an engaging talk to a packed room on how to report about complex scientific topics in a media-saturated world. Matthew Nisbet applied his 'framing science' theory of communication to global warming and the evolution/ID debate, and biologist Kenneth Miller called for evolutionary theorists to adopt (co-opt?) the idea of 'design' when talking about evolution.
  • Finally, I dropped into a session on environmental toxicology and heard two terrific talks pitched to the general scientist: one on the discovery of a genetic pathway that predicts Alzheimer's disease, and the other on recent advances in understanding endocrine disrupters (specifically DES and BPA).

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Grand Central

This popped through my inbox the other day and I thought it was pretty cute:

It put me in a mind of this scene from Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King:

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I Voted

[ Update: Big night for Obama in the Potomac Primary. I voted this morning in DC using what has to be the simplest ballot efver--just one question--and I used a tiny golf pencil to fill it out. Talk about high-tech. I was reminded of the crazy CA governor recall ballot from several years ago (~150 candidates and a confusingly worded recall? yay). ]

Monday, February 11, 2008

Skill Sets

Quinn is figuring out new things everyday and every time I pick her up I swear she is bigger. It is really amazing to watch her grow and to think of all the things she couldn't do even a few weeks ago. Laura Jean recently blogged about how she can (occasionally) roll herself from her back to her side. As Holly put it: with a strong wind in the right direction, she could get over onto her tummy.

She is also able to reach and grab hold of things she wants. Or sort of. Its not a very reliable skill yet, but she's practicing! She has clearly mastered the art of getting both hands into her mouth at the same time (and keeping them there rather than having them fly away unexpectedly).

She has started in with the baby talk in a big way, and her smiles continue to be magic.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Saturday Night Deep Thoughts

Here's an interesting interview with John Haught, a Catholic theologian who testified against intelligent design in the Dover court case. It is a wide ranging discussion, touching on everything from why neuroscience probably won't be able to explain "subjective experience" to why he dislikes the "new atheism" of Dawkins and Hitchens:
Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus would have cringed at "the new atheism" because they would see it as dropping God like Santa Claus, and going on with the same old values. The new atheists don't want to think out the implications of a complete absence of deity. Nietzsche, as well as Sartre and Camus, all expressed it quite correctly. The implications should be nihilism. [...] I don't have any objection to the idea that atheists can be good and morally upright people. But we need a worldview that is capable of justifying the confidence that we place in our minds, in truth, in goodness, in beauty. I argue that an atheistic worldview is not capable of justifying that confidence.
Unfortunately, he ducks the follow-up question about Camus, who I always thought had the best response to this argument. He also talks about Einstein's discomfort with a "personal god":
Einstein was a man who thought the laws of physics have to be completely inviolable. [...] So the idea of a responsive God -- a God who answers prayers -- would have to violate the laws of physics, the laws of nature. This is why Einstein said the problem of science and religion is caused by the belief in a personal God. But it's not inevitable that a responsive God violates the laws of physics and chemistry. I don't think God does violate those laws.
I confess, I didn't think he elaborated convincingly on how that would work. Still, its a very interesting chat with someone who has thought a lot about how science and religion might play well together. Of course, if that is still to much religion for you, check out the top 50 atheist bumper stickers (#42 is my favorite). H/t to boppyjean for the article.


I've been helping out with the weekly music at church and this week our pastor requested an all-Leonard Cohen Sunday. So we obliged and will be playing 4 Cohen tunes. Like many folks, I know Cohen mostly through "Suzanne" and "Hallelujah" -- especially the gorgeous rendition by Jeff Buckley (a version of which can be found here, although they wouldn't let me embed the video).

So, its been nice to get to know some of his lesser-known stuff. He's a lot like Dylan: can't sing worth a damn, but he sure can write some amazing songs. A lot of his songs mix and match Jewish, Buddhist and Christian themes, which makes him a natural for church services. In addition to "Hallelujah", we'll be performing "Anthem" (which is kind of a Buddhist call to arms, if you can imagine that), "The Story of Isaac" (which turns the biblical narrative into an anti-Vietnam War protest song) and this one: "the Sisters of Mercy."

Thursday, February 07, 2008

OK, so I was wrong...

That prediction I made about Romney winning the republican nomination? Not so much. The republicans have their nominee before the democrats? And it's McCain? Go figure.

Top 7 in '007: Movies

I've done books and music, so here are my film faves from 2007.

7. Shortbus -- Hedwig creator John Cameron Mitchell sets out to free explicit sex from the pornography ghetto. This one is not for the prudish and definitely not the sort of movie you watch with your parents. But for all this ambition, Shortbus is really just a charming, unassuming, militantly-pro-sex indie-comedy. Sure, it's not perfect (e.g. the ending is joyous, but narratively unbelievable), but it's still quite a lot of fun. (Don't worry the trailer below is SFW.)

6. (tie) Juno / Knocked Up -- Quick! When was the last time a comedy won Best Picture? (ans. 1977, Annie Hall) Comedies don't get no respect, but if you've ever tried ... it's a helluva lot harder to make someone laugh than it is to make them cry. Maybe it's because we just went through the whole pregnancy thing this year, but we both loved these two movies ... both funny and both true. And by-the-way, Ellen Page is amazing.

5. Once -- A lovely little DIY musical about making music and emotional connections. It doesn't try too hard and dances lightly away from all the cliches you think you see coming. Even if you're not a fan of angsty folk rock, I'd be willing to bet you'll love Glen Hansard's and Marketa Irglova's songs. Like this one:

4. Offside -- Jafar Panahi shot much of this film guerrilla-style during the 2005 World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain. The film centers on a group of young female soccer fans caught and arrested while trying to sneak into the game. Panahi's genius is in taking an abstract political issue (women's equality in Iran) and finding a way to dramatize it, concretize it and even dress it up in a veneer of Iranian patriotism. Aside from its political impact, it's also a very engaging film that gives you many reasons to love the plucky heroines and even sympathize with their jailers.

3. Hot Fuzz -- Huh. Lots of funny movies this year. This was the most purely enjoyable movie I've watched in a while. Big 'ole grin upon leaving the theater.

2. Men With Guns -- John Sayles inverts Dante's Inferno to weave a parable of the past 30 years of Central American history. A wealthy doctor leaves his comfortable life to go in search of a band of medical students he turned loose in the jungle years before to serve the Mayan villages. He finds only an unreported dirty-war waged by his government against the people. As he journeys deeper into the jungle and into the stories of his missing students, he hears stories of a village high up in the mountains that has never known violence.

1. Children of Men -- High-quality, believable special effects are so common now that its easy to become jaded by movie spectacle. And yet, my jaw was literally hanging open for the last 45 minutes of this movie, courtesy of an extended, uncut sequence--set in the midst of a battle in a concentration camp--that truly has to be seen to be believed. The story and the acting are first rate as well -- Clive Owen is an appropriately low-key hero. News reports from the end of humanity never seemed so matter of fact. I don't know how well it will stand up on a second viewing, but for now, this is the best and most memorable movie I've seen in several years.

Old School: I've been periodically netflixing some oldies but goodies -- these were all great films, but it seems weird to put them on my list: Burn!, On the Waterfront, Chinatown.

Honorable Mention: Ratatouille, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Pan's Labyrinth, Brick, The Queen, The Science of Sleep, Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix, In The Mood For Love, Instrument, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, The Bourne Ultimatum, and ... Casino Royale

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Cheap 'n' Green

We are feeling overwhelmed by our 'stuff.' The reasons for this are clear: we moved from a house to an apartment (less space) and we added a new member of the family (more stuff). So, with a constant reminder of the material economy surrounding us (and often underfoot) we decided to make a new year's resolution: buy nothing new for an entire year.*

[ There's a group in San Francisco called the Compact that evangelizes for this sort of thing (interesting stories about them here and here, plus a listserv). They seem idealistic, nicely pragmatic and not, you know, psychotically dogmatic about it. Also check out "Ask A Brokeass" -- Gristmill's fountain of "cheap green" advice. ]

So, why? Well, obviously I bet we can save a ton of money if we work at it. Plus there's something hard-wired in my brain that thinks landfills and disposable consumer products are pretty-much the dumbest ideas ever. I will walk several miles to find a recyling bin. I mean, what ever happened to using every part of the buffalo? What mega-genius came up with those cheap plastic happy-meal toys? The environmental costs of the American high-consumption lifestyle are bad and bound to get worse. For example, do you know where your old TV ends up once you're done with it? Why not take it to your friendly neighborhood TV repairman (hi Dad!) and get a few more years out of it?

And then there's the psychological aspect to it. Unplugging from commercial culture can be very liberating. There's something eye-opening in thinking hard about what we really need and how much is 'enough' and what a sustainable economy might actually look like. And anybody can do it - you don't have to be able to afford the organic section at Whole Foods to play.

And yet, and yet, disposable stuff is so convenient and useful ... and so easy to get rid of. There is certainly something undeniably exciting about saying: I don't need this anymore and I can just make it disappear! Sigh. Too much stuff is definitely an input and output problem, and this is our current plan to deal with the inputs. *Now, of course, there are caveats:
  • Food. This is a clear exception to the rule. The idea of eating 'used' food is gross. (I suppose we could restrict ourselves to dumpster-diving -- and, hey, people do -- but, that doesn't quite seem like our style. Plus, my sister made me promise I wouldn't.)
  • Experiences. Movies, concerns, cultural events, video rentals are all exceptions.
  • Travel. Gas for the car, plane tickets -- not technically stuff, although it would probably be a good idea to reduce these too.
  • Necessity. And of course, if there's a pressing need for something essential that we can't really find a replacement for (I'm thinking ... diapers), then yeah, we'll buy it.
But, in general, we seem to be doing pretty well for our first month, and I expect it really won't be all that hard. There are thriving second-hand markets for most of the stuff I spend money on (books and CDs). High-quality used baby stuff is easy to find (since babies outgrow clothes and toys so rapidly) -- not to mention Quinn has several doting, loving grandparents happy ensure she wants for nothing. Clothes shouldn't be too hard either: I haaate shopping for clothes and will happily avoid doing it for years. I'm pretty sure I've subsisted on free t-shirts for decades now anyway. (fyi-- there is a also well-established exception for used underwear.)

Anyway, between craigslist and freecycle, we seem to be doing pretty well. I got a great used bike a few months ago for a cool hundred bucks from this guy who runs a bike repair business out of his backyard. Now, I really need a new pair of dress shoes, so I expect I'll be checking out the shoe section of the Goodwill soon enough.