Sunday, December 28, 2008

Weather Bias

To a meteorologist, this is very, very funny.

Weather Channel Accused of Pro-Weather Bias

Who's Counting Anyway?

So we were eating, talking and laughing at the restaurant, and we counted up the number of vacations I took this year.
  • 3 weeks in New Zealand
  • 1 week skiing at Mammoth, California
  • 1 week in Maui, Hawaii
  • 1 week at the Lair of the Golden Bear in the Sierras
  • 1 week tandem bicycling in the San Juan Islands
  • 1 week in San Francisco Bay Area
In spite (or because of?) all this R&R, Mark and I were both shown appreciation at work. This is only my second cold of the year, par for a healthy person. A good year, indeed.

When Mark totaled up the medical flex-spending receipts, we didn't spend enough to recoup what we had set aside. In fact, I didn't spend enough on health care to justify the extra premiums for double coverage. But we both agreed that the true benefit of double coverage (with automatic cross-billing and coordination of benefits) is the ease of paperwork. We are double covering our entire family in 2009. Our health care delivery and tax systems were devised by lunatics or Machiavelli.

Happy New Year!

Good Times in Bad

I am sitting at home in bed, nursing a cold. My retirement portfolio tanked 30% this year. I regained the 5 pounds I worked so hard all summer to lose. Why am I happy?

I met up with some old friends from Boulder in a pizza joint in Menlo Park on our way home from San Francisco. Our kids played, as we lingered over the meal and at Kepler's books afterwards. I have issues with the way the University of Colorado treats its graduate teaching assistants (not well), but my life is much richer for the people I met there.

As Richard Florida points out in Who's your city?, Boulder really is a special place. It is not just the jaw-droppingly beautiful mountain setting; it's a mecca for Earth Science and Atomic, Molecular and Optical (AMO) Physics.

Last week, I helped preside over an AGU session entitled High-Resolution Active Optical Remote Sensing of Atmospheric Processes in which every paper had a connection to Boulder. (Some of the papers don't list a current Boulder connection, but many authors have studied or worked there at some point in their careers or their Lidar system was built by a laser jock trained in Boulder.) Come to think of it, every other person at AGU seemed to have a connection to CU.

The last two weeks have been a blur, what with discussing science at AGU, volunteering to help run the meeting, visiting family and friends, and catching a cold. There is not much progress on the knitting or reading front. But I did read a fantastic column by James B. Stewart, Good Times Can Be Had in a Bad Economy.
Now we're in the midst of what many are calling the worst recession since World War II, something that might even qualify as a depression. I don't know what the future holds. But looking back over the years has brought me to a somewhat startling conclusion: Recessions have coincided with some of the best times of my life. Is this coincidence or causation? I'm not sure.

I don't mean to minimize the suffering and hardship that recessions bring and that are all too evident now as evictions and unemployment soar and as charitable endowments and donations plunge. But to the extent recessions shake up the status quo and force us to examine our goals and priorities, they also offer enormous opportunities.
Just as my own past health crises helped me get my priorities in order, a recently laid-off friend is exploring new avenues.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

By Apollo!

Oonae bragged about how her baby knows how to lit crit. I had my own proud moment last weekend at LACMA. Mark and I really wanted to see the Hearst the Collector show, but Iris' museum going patience had worn out. We promised her she would see suits of armor if she would just walk through the show quickly with us.

We talked a bit about whether each suit of armor was for ceremonial or actual battle use. But then she was drawn to a room full of vases. The placards identified them as mostly Greek in origin (with a couple of Etruscan pieces) and 2500 years old. They were not behind glass, though they were a bit high for Iris' vantage point.

We tried to decipher the stories on the vases. I thought that one figure might have been Bacchus because of a jar (perhaps full of wine?) next to him. She impatiently said, "No, that's Apollo. He's holding a lyre." She further pointed out scenes from the big war over the woman--the Trojan war.

Then she pointed at a black vase with minimal decoration. "That's the most expensive because that's the rarest. They almost always use their vases to tell stories."

If you go:
  • The NexGen Kids program at LACMA gives free admission to children 17 and under and one accompanying adult per child. The link above takes you to a page showing all the activities for kids and families at LACMA.
  • LACMA Hours and directions
  • We like to go on Sundays because the metered street parking is free.
  • Many families eat nearby at the farmers' market or the Grove, but we prefer Little Ethiopia. Every restaurant we tried has been pretty good. We usually split a vegetarian sampler and a doro wot combo family style.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

This is how it begins

We had our first parent-teacher conference last week and received her first trimester report card. There were no surprises.

This week, Iris came home with another copy of her report card and a blank 'contract'. Her homework assignment was for us to work together to pick areas to strengthen, propose a remedy, write down a deadline for meeting her objectives, and her desired reward for meeting those objectives.

She's eight years old and in fourth grade.

I find this very unsettling, but I signed it anyway.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Side to Side

Someone glanced at my knitting and exclaimed, "Don't you ever knit a sweater side to side, the normal way?"

"Why would I want to do that, when so many others do it so well?"

(15 of 30 motifs so far.)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill

I've finished 13 of 30 apple core units so far. This is the back, without one last row of units on the bottom.
The units are very stretchy and I can block them to make the sweater longer than it is wide. After blocking, I see that I could have knitted the smallest size, with 28 stitches per unit. I am going to plow ahead with the 33 stitch units and make it large enough for layering.

There is no avoiding the twisted K or P through back loops. See how they make the knit column of stitches stand out in bas relief?
Doesn't it make you want to sing?
I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill
On Blueberry Hill when I found you
The moon stood still on Blueberry Hill
And lingered until my dreams came true
Sing the rest.

Prior post:
Blueberry Strawberry Hill

LACMA Sunday

The palm tree is on the scrim, the cloudy sky is real.
Mark and Iris went to a book reading while I visited the Vanity Fair Portraits exhibit. Then Iris and I relaxed in the LACMA bookstore while Mark saw it. I learned much more from the show than the mediocre reviews led me to expect. The first part of the exhibit showed the BACKS of photos, bearing stamps and signatures. They were a window in how the photography and magazine worlds operated. Don't miss the letter from Conde Nast to Cecil Beaton, urging him to agree to a large pay cut, but continue to honor the magazine exclusivity part of the agreement. I was also surprised to learn that, in 1934, $12,000/year would be a large pay cut for Cecil Beaton. I only wish that the placards gave more technical information like the type of print process, or how the photographers achieved some of the effects.
The La Brea Tarpits adjacent to the LACMA complex.
There is much civic boosterism about a "Subway to the Sea" running down Wilshire Boulevard (beyond the fence in the picture) from downtwon LA to Santa Monica Beach. That works well in theory, when you are staring at a map of transportation patterns. But, think about it geologically.

The subway would need to run through underground fields of tar. Can you see the bubbling methane in the photograph? How can you tunnel through that and ventilate the tunnel so that the methane doesn't build up to dangerous levels? Scientists in the USC geology department have strongly cautioned that a subway under Wilshire would be too costly and too dangerous.

This isn't my car

But I should get one for our minivan, but Iris is definitely more the Wise than the Kiss kind.

Friday, December 05, 2008

I'm a finisher*

I suppose everyone has his/her Open Sesame, his/her Abracadabra or Presto Chango, the arbitrary word, event or unforeseen signal that knocks a person down, causes him/her to behave, either permanently or for the short term, out of the blue, contrary to expectation, from nowhere. A shade is pulled, a door creaks open, some kid goes from Geek to Glamour Boy. And Milton's Hocus-Pocus, his Master Key, happened to be a flowy sentence in Mr. Johnson's generic speech, a speech Dad would call "stirring as a wall of cinder blocke," indicative of the "Hallmark fever infecting our politicians and official spokesmen of late. When they speak, actual words don't emerge, but summer afternoons of draining sun and tepid breeze and chirping Tufted Titmice one would feel gleeful shooting with a handgun"

"When he said that thing about Hannah bein' like a flower," Milton said, "like a rose and all, I felt kinda moved." His big right arm lumber-rolled on top of the steering wheel as he edged the Nissan between the cars and out of the Student Parking Lot.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics goes on like this for 500 pages. You are either captivated by this type of gushing prose, or you are not. Why on earth I persisted, is a mystery. Actually, the book might have made a good 150 page mystery. I am the type that has to find out whodunit and I had to read it to the finish Final Exam.

All along the way, I wondered if Marisha Pessl was paid by the word or the pound. The first-person narrative by teenage genius, Blue Ver Meer, is just too precious. She paints mental images with words, accompanied by "visual aids" illustrations drawn by Blue/Marisha. The imagery is certainly vivid, but she and her editors never ask, "Is this image necessary?"

Pessl also hit my two pet peeves, the portrayal of Asian Americans and of modern physics in novels (for I cannot bear to call this book literature). Nearly all the characters are white, and there are plenty of insulting stereotypes to go around. But the portrayals of Asian Americans is particularly galling.

Character development for Blue's roommate at Harvard:
"You," said Soo-Jin, barely turning from Diagram 2114.74 "Amino Acids and Peptides" to hand me the phone.
and for a fellow high school classmate:
"I hope you're reincarnated as a mammal and our paths cross again, sooner rather than later because when I go to med school I doubt I'll have a life," wrote Lin Xe-Pen.
'Nuff said. What about the physics?
Whenever I heard an awful noise, one I couldn't identify, I told myself it was nothing but Chaos Theory, the Doppler Effect or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applied to lost people in the dark. I think I repeated the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in my head at least one thousand times; the mathematical product of the combined uncertainties of concurrent measurements of position and momentum in a specified direction could never be less than Planck's constant, h, divided by 4 π. This meant, rather encouragingly, that my uncertain position and zero momentum and the Beast Responsible for the Sound's uncertain position and uncertain momentum had to sort of null each other out, leaving me with what is commonly known in the scientific world as "wide-ranging perplexity."
Huh? Read Heisenberg's own words.

IMHO Phillip Roth wrote the best use of physics imagery in literature I have ever read. Do you remember the line about the (white, lace) shiksa curtains? He described that fleeting moment each evening when glass becomes transparent (when the inside and outside light levels are roughly equal and the incidence angle of the light is less than Brewster's angle). In those few sentences, I could see the window, the curtains, the position of the sun and the yearning boy outside. I could even hear the sounds of dinner preparation inside.

Marisha Pessl is no Phillip Roth.

* One of my coworkers earned a PhD in engineering from CalTech while his wife pursued a PhD in Engligh Lit at UCLA. He told me that the piles of unfinished books around their house was driving him crazy. He didn't understand how she could start so many books and not finish them.

He called himself a finisher, a completer. Even when he didn't like a book, he felt compelled to finish it, just for the closure. He simply could not understand how she could put down book after book before the end. She never did complete her PhD dissertation and it bothers him more than it bothers her.

Anyway, this book taught me I am a finisher, too.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

DNA Shuffle

A friend who suffers from a different auto-immune disorder was wondering how we can have both too much and too little immunity at the same time. I said something handwavy about lymphocytes gone bad. I learned in the November 2008 issue of Science Matters @ Berkeley that everyone makes bad lymphocytes, but healthy people destroy the bad ones before they can leave the bone marrow.
We rely on antibodies to recognize and sound the alarm on potential invaders. Yet our cells come programmed with less than 30,000 genes, far fewer than the billions of foreign structures we might encounter.

Even so, says Mark Schlissel, a Berkeley professor of immunology and pathogenesis, "the immune system is capable of recognizing literally hundreds of millions of foreign chemical structures."

This phenomenal flexibility comes courtesy of a remarkable DNA shuffling system called V(D)J recombination. Just as riffling a deck of cards can produce an endless variety of poker hands, shuffling specialized DNA segments in developing immune cells can produce a different antibody structure nearly every time. During the reaction, enzymes select one of many available genetic versions for each variable antibody segment, snip out the unused portions, and stitch the chosen pieces back together. The resulting antibody travels to the surface of the immune cell, or lymphocyte, where it can recognize bacteria, viruses and toxins in the bloodstream.

"All of us have developing lymphocytes in our bone marrow shuffling these antibody genes around continuously, from the time we are in the womb," Schlissel says. Schlissel studies V(D)J recombination and its place in lymphocyte development. Understanding when this reaction occurs and how it is regulated will help scientists learn to treat leukemia, lymphoma, immune deficiencies and a wide array of autoimmune diseases.
Every shuffle of DNA segments also carries the danger of producing an antibody that recognizes the body's own tissues. To avoid such potential autoimmune reactions, every new antibody undergoes self-tolerance testing in the bone marrow. If the antibody flunks, the recombinase returns to the nucleus for another round of gene rearrangement.
Read the rest of Doing the DNA Shuffle.