Monday, May 25, 2009


It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes.
Douglas Adams

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Happy Birthday Bob

    Photo is from Rolling Stone, by Matthew Rolston.  Mr. Dylan appears to have his hat nailed on.

Bob Dylan is 68 today.

Friday, May 22, 2009


A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure.
Segal's Law


The most feared silhouette on the battlefield.  A Panzer VI Tiger somewhere in Russia, fall 1943.

Squid News

Excuse me sir, your squid is showing.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Gorgeous photo of Saturn.  Click for big.

Via Bad Astronomy


There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.
Rex Stout

Human Footprint

Worth a click to see the big version.

Mostly what you'd expect, but there are a few surprises.  For example, I had thought all of central Africa was densely populated.  But its not.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

My Pix

    Wall and tower, Novodivichi Convent, Moscow, 1993
    Kodak High-Speed Infrared

One of the most remarkable places I've ever seen.  After Red Square, this is coolest thing in Moscow.  The graveyard beside the convent has a who's who of Russia since the revolution.  Anyone not famous or connected enough to be buried in the Kremlin wall is here. 

All of my photos are on Flickr.


There's nothing colder than chemistry.
Anita Loos

RNA Excitement

A new study of the nucleotides that make up RNA may be the biggest science story of the decade, maybe the century.  It has been known since the 1950's that amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, could be synthesized from existing chemicals on the young earth.  We have also discovered that many of these amino acids, and other more complex organic molecules, have arrived from space in comets and metiorites.  We know the ingredients were laying around.  But there has been little progress in showing how the ingredients were assembled.  This question has sparked a thousand theories.  But until now, none had succeeded in creating a credible model of how you progress from the building blocks to the edifice.  One of the more popular theories is that self-replication started with RNA and that DNA was a later advance.  There are some RNA based life forms (the term is used loosely) such as retro-viruses like HIV.  The advantage of this theory is that RNA is easier to make from the building blocks than DNA.

Even so, every attempt to synthesize the nucleotides that make up RNA has failed.  But that just changed.  This article in the NYT discusses the discovery of a method that results in nucleotides self-assembling.  Its an article well worth reading.  But here is the key paragraph:
He (chemist John Sutherland) has solved a problem that for 20 years has thwarted researchers trying to understand the origin of life — how the building blocks of RNA, called nucleotides, could have spontaneously assembled themselves in the conditions of the primitive earth. The discovery, if correct, should set researchers on the right track to solving many other mysteries about the origin of life. It will also mean that for the first time a plausible explanation exists for how an information-carrying biological molecule could have emerged through natural processes from chemicals on the primitive earth.

Wow.  That's a big discovery.  If you read the details in the article, it becomes quite convincing.  I obviously can't evaluate the chemistry, but his theory resonates intuitively.  He describes a process of fits and starts, random and messy, just as we observe in the living world.  More importantly, his theory posits that life was a process, not an event.  It could have started a million times, and come to fruition once, or ten thousand times.  It may have happened several times over multiple eras.  But the key thing is that there is no point where you can say "there, that's life!"  You can say that at the beginning there's no life, and at the end there is.  There is the possibility of many intermediate steps, none of which constitute a magic moment.

As we are beginning to learn through the study of viruses, bacteria and archea, defining what is and is not alive isn't exact.  There is no acid test.  By some definitions, a virus is not alive, but a mule is.  By other definitions, a virus is alive, but a mule is not.  Obviously, this is a problem of imagination.  But Sutherland's theory accomidates everything that self-replicates.

This theory also fits with observations that there was probably no single organism that is the ancestor of all life on earth.  It would appear from the DNA that certain problems were solved more than once and that several alternative designs are present on earth.  There is the possibility that life actually formed multiple times, and that similar problems were solved in similar ways by otherwise unrelated organisms.  If the formation of life on earth was not a single, unique event, then it becomes more likely it happened elsewhere.  Lots of implications.

There are lots of people chasing this subject.  However, they couldn't get much beyond go until someone came up with a credible scenario.  That's now happened.  Look for a lot of quick progress on multiple fronts as a result.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders
Jessie Ventura on Larry King, May 10, 2009


This is a visualization of the frequency subjects were mentioned in the New York Times in 2003 and their relationships to other stories by blprnt_van at Flickr.  An amazing visualization. See them all here.  Its worth the effort to see the detail, how they change year to year and his other visualizations.  I love the idea of making art from data.

Friday, May 8, 2009


This is a happening map, if I do say so myself.  Via Google Maps mashups, you can see not only the borders and main cities of Pakistan, but also the population density and, outlined in blue, the Pashtun areas.
The Americans seem to have gone nutty about Pakistan in the last few weeks.  The New York Times, in particular, has been fear mongering like its 2003 again.  There have been articles as full of paranoia, guilt by association, speculation and unrealistic worst case scenarios as anything they printed in the run-up to Iraq.  This article is a good example. Here is another.  
The first thing is that the Taliban are an expression of Pashtun nationalism.  They have no traction whatsoever outside Pashtun areas.  Where they do have a presence, like Karachi, its based on the city`s Pashtun community.  They operate there like a crime gang, not an ideological force.  Even if most Pakistanis wanted an Islamist government, they wouldn't stand for one run by the Taliban.  Punjabis are not going to be ruled by Pashtun.  Despite the Times' assertions, there is no public evidence of a connection between the Taliban and other creatures of the ISI like Lashkar-e-Taiba.  The only things they appear to have in common are radical interpretations of Islam, a love of violence and their paymaster.  In addition, the city that the Times identifies as an outpost of the Taliban in Punjab is Dera Ghazi Khan.  A look at the map above shows this city is on the border of Pashtun territory.  It would be more surprising if they didn't have a presence there.  Tell me when they are taking over Lahore.  
Second is that the Times details some pretty tenuous associations to say that Punjabi groups are linked to Al-Qaida.  They insinuate that elements of the Pakistani government share these links.  The last operation unambiguously carried out by Al-Qaida was 9/11.  They are more of a bogyman than a real threat these days. The survivors would all be dead if it weren't for the Pashtun code (see Pashtunwalli).  This is the kind of thing you'd expect The New York Times to know about.
Forth, the Taliban are not going to take over Pakistan.  They do not have the capability.  Besides the ethnic issues noted above, there is the Pakistani Army.  They are a well trained and well armed conventional military.  The Army may not have much enthusiasm fighting the Pashtun in the tribal areas, but would feel a lot different if the Taliban came out of the mountains and tried to take Punjabi cities by force.  That`s not their only problem, India, Iran, China and Russia would be very unhappy with a Taliban takeover and might intervene to prevent it.  
Last, there's much crazy talk by the Times and many others about terrorists getting their hands on some or all of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.  The Taliban have no more chance of getting Pakistani nukes than I do.  The Americans seem to have forgotten everything from the Cold War.  One of the key things is that the most dangerous nuclear weapons are you own.  Anyone with a credible second strike capability doesn't need to worry about being attacked.  The worst thing that can happen is one of your own people sets one off either locally or against another country.  That was the main story in Doctor Strangelove.  No matter what their religious or ideological leanings, the Pakistani Armed Forces are going to retain 100% control over those weapons at all time.  The Pakistani Air Force has especially close relations with the US on nuclear weapons control.  Believe it, even if the Taliban were able to take over Pakistan, the last thing they`d want is to lose control of the nukes.  That would be, at the least, a career limiting move. 
What this looks like is a preparation by the Americans to move into the Pakistani border areas.  This would be an effective military move, but fraught with so much political downside that it would seem to be impossible.  Don`t think for even a second that countries like Qatar (home of the US 7th fleet), Saudi Arabia and even Iraq would support a US invasion of another Muslim country.  The only ones who would cheer would be Iran and India.  In all, this looks like a worse idea than invading Iraq, and that was one of the worst ideas a US President ever had. 

Sunday, May 3, 2009


In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.
Isoroku Yamamoto, 1940


This is almost the exact moment when Japan lost WW2.   After the conquest of the Phillipines and the Maylay barrier, Japan won no significant battles. The Japanese thought the Americans were unskilled at war and unwilling to fight, that one hammer blow would be sufficient to knock America out of the war.  They were wrong.

Both Japan and Germany had no real chance of beating their respective opponents.  The Germans may have had a tiny window in Aug-Sept 1941, but the Japanese never had a chance.  On December 7, 1941, the US Navy had 4 aircraft carriers in the Pacific.  By September 1945, they had 150.  End of story.

Here's a spectacular photo from a Japanese plane during the attack.  This photo was taken 2 - 3 minutes before the one above.  The attack started just before 8 am and is well underway here.  The Arizona exploded at 8:06 and hasn't been hit by the fatal bomb yet.

Lots more great photos of the battle here (scroll down).

My Pix

    Centro Commercial, Isla Mujeres, Mexico, 1987
    Kodak High-Speed Infrared

I liked Mexico, but despite a lot of work, I didn't get many good photos.  I am keen for another go.

All of my photos are on Flickr.