Archive for October, 2007

Random thoughts

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Arthur Kornberg died last Friday. Kornberg isolated the enzyme that synthesizes DNA in E. coli, and named it DNA polymerase. He won the Nobel for this — not a big surprise, as this was a major breakthrough in biology. He continued to do research for a really long time on DNA replication. His son Roger also won the Nobel — are there any other father/son Nobel winners? Anyway, a major light in the world of genetics, and I’m a bit older now that he’s gone.

Meanwhile, James Watson resigned as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories. Watson, of course, won the Nobel along with Crick and Maurice Wilkins for figuring out the structure of DNA. He recently earned considerable notoriey:

The former Harvard University researcher created instant controversy when he commented on the intelligence of Africans in a Oct. 14 article in the Sunday Times Magazine of London. Watson told the newspaper that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa. … All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really. …There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically.” Watson also said that while he hoped all people are equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.”

Now, first of all, he’s quite right in principle when he says that geographically separated peoples could evolve differently.  The problem with this is that there’s no reason at all to suppose that the continent of Africa is geographically isolated from the rest of humanity. Homo sapiens originated there, and then spread to the rest of the world.  Since that time, genetic evidence indicates that there has been more or less continual flow of peoples back and forth from Africa.  Furthermore, there’s more genetic diversity among people in Africa than in the entire rest of the world, as is typical for the center of origin of a species.  So saying anything about “africans” as a whole is pretty misleading — very little would apply to Bantus, Masai, and !kung equally, other than the fact that as an adaptation to a hot, sunny environment, they all have lots of melanin.   So he’s wrong, and racist.  The problem is, this shouldn’t come as a big surprise.  Watson has gone on record being sexist and racist before.  For that matter, anyone who has read his book The Double Helix knows what a jerk he is.

Meanwhile, I’m reading a book called Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible.  Did you know that several Psalms are acrostics?  Psalm 119 has 22 groups of 8 verses.  In each group, all eight verses begin with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the groups are in alphabetical order.  It was apparently a penmanship exercise for training scribes.  Neat, huh?

How’s this for a Halloween post?

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

Thursday I go to St. Louis to see a coagulation specialist. I had to get all my medical records to take with me, which means I now have a copy of the CD with my CT scans and MRI on it. Yep. This is my brain on drugs:

MRI of my brain

Well, morphine, anyway.  Apparently it’s normal, though.  They didn’t find clots anywhere except my kidneys.

Really cool toy I used to have that your kids will never have

Monday, October 29th, 2007

This morning I was walking by one of the labs, and my colleague Lucinda and some students were in there preparing a bunch of planting pots.  This procedure consists of poking holes in the bottoms of plastic cups such as one would have at a kegger.  They were using a soldering iron to do this, as it melts neat holes in them.

The thing was, the smell immediately brought back memories of this toy I used to have.  It was a Mattel Vac-U-Form.  You heated up a sheet of colored plastic on this metal block, then flipped it over onto a platform where you could put various forms.  Then you pumped a handle that created a vacuum, pulling the soft plastic down onto the form.  You could make all kinds of little cars and boats and stuff, and also little signs with raised letters.  I’d forgotten all about this thing.

I immediately asked Walt if he’d had one, and of course he had — we were very similar geeky little kids.  We were marveling at what a great toy it was, and also at the fact that this toy could never be sold today.  We were lucky enough to be around at just the right time — they had invented lots of cool stuff, and nobody had yet started worrying about whether we would burn our faces off with it.

Adventures in bike commuting

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

Jason Ogg, the blacksmith in the Discworld country of Lancre, has the gift of being able to shoe any animal that is brought to him to shoe. The price of this gift is that he has to shoe any animal that is brought to him to shoe, including for instance an ant, and Death’s horse Binky.

Similarly, when you have all the bike gear necessary to ride in any kind of weather, however cold and wet, you feel sort of obligated to ride in any kind of weather, however cold and wet. This morning it was about 45 degrees when I left the house at 6 AM, with a moderate rain that had been falling all night long. On the plus side, I had a 15 mph tailwind, so I didn’t have to work that hard. I wore tights and a fleece pullover, with rain pants and GoreTex jacket over them, and the long-fingered gloves. I don’t have the neoprene booties yet, so my feet did get wet. Still, I was okay.

It’s sort of ironic that school buses can be relied on always to pass me unsafely on my bike. This morning it was pitch dark and wet, but I was very visible — I have a headlight, a flashing front light, a flashing red tail light, and flashing mini lights on my helmet, red in back and white in front, as well as reflective stuff on the panniers, my ankle straps, etc.* I was laboring up one of the steepest hills on route W, next to the Morning Star development, and a school bus overtook me. And of course, passed me going up the hill, with a car coming the other way in the opposite lane, leaving me about 6 inches of clearance. I was momentarily trying to decide how bad the shoulder was and whether I should just bail out, but I managed to hold my line while it went by.

That’s the kind of thing I’m normally looking out for, though. Some people always pass in inappropriate spots, and I’m constantly checking my helmet mirror to see what’s coming, and watching the shoulder for likely places to go off the road if necessary. What I was not looking for, a couple of miles further down, was the kid crossing the road to get to the bus stop.

I heard the clopping of shoes on the pavement, and then saw a couple of reflective stripes on the kid’s dark-colored raincoat right in front of me. I hit the brakes hard, and the kid continued blithely over to the driveway where the others were waiting for the bus. From the height, I’d guess this kid was maybe 10 or so. Old enough to know better than to run in front of me, I’d think. I nearly had a heart attack.

Such is the sorry state of our nation’s moral fiber that I doubt that the kid’s vocabulary was expanded at all by what I yelled immediately following this event.

*One of my co-workers told me the other day that she’d seen me on the road when she was driving in, and I really cheered her up because it made her think of Christmas.

Legba’s Amazing Adventure

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

This morning the alarm went off at 5 AM as usual, and I got out of bed griping about how damn cold it was. The heat was on, too. I looked over at the outside door, and it was standing wide open.

A quick look around the room. The dog was sleeping on the couch. Darwin and Finch were on top of the bookshelves. Legba…

Hmmm.

This is Cabell’s giant neurotic cat, who as far as I know has never been outside in his life. Not good. So, I went out into the light rain and 45 degree temps and started calling the cat. Not that he’s likely to come to me, especially when he’s already freaked out. So I went back in and told Robin, and the two of us starting hunting for him.

Robin went out the south door and started calling. I went out the west door, onto the porch. Suddenly there was a striped blur going by toward the north end of the house. I found Robin, and she went around to the east side, while I wandered around the north end of the house calling. Pretty soon Robin called me, because she’d found him in the furnace room (it has a cat door so that Gurgi can get in there), and got him back inside.

Twenty minutes later I was getting ready for work and Legba was yowling at me because I wasn’t petting him enough. He seems to be over the trauma.

Don’t worry, Cabell, we’re actually responsible parents. Your childhood experiences notwithstanding.

Another Confederate Outpost

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

I rode my bike to Jackson to get groceries at the WalMart today. On the way back, I took part of the route that I ride normally to and from work. There was a strong south wind, so the flag was showing well at this Confederate outpost.

Another confederate outpost

I never have been able to get a really clear look at this flag — it’s not a standard battle flag, since it has something in the middle with a ring around it saying “The South Will Rise Again.”  Googling that, I was able to find this image:

Nice, huh?  The skeletal Confederate soldier, sword dripping blood… Don’t you wish you lived next door?

My bike ride to work

Friday, October 19th, 2007

Morning commute - Touchdown Estates

This is the view from the top of the hill at the entrance to Touchdown Estates.  They have a wooden statue of a football player, and the streets are named things like “Linebacker Lane” and “Touchdown Drive” and “Incomplete Pass Alley” or something.

It’s really fortunate that good views tend to occur at the tops of hills, because I’m not all that likely to hit the brakes in the middle of a 25 MPH coast at the bottom of one so I can stop and take a picture.  When you’re panting after a walking-speed climb to the top of a steep grade, a photo break seems like a pretty good idea.

Rain

Monday, October 15th, 2007

I rode my bike to work today, and then to the doctor’s office.  And when I came out of the doctor’s office, it was raining.  I can’t say the weather people didn’t warn me.  So I put on the rain pants and the rain jacket, and rode home.  It was actually a nice ride, even if I was a bit damp.

However, this morning when I left the house at 6, it was dark.  Dark. As in can’t see if there’s a dead cow in the road dark.  I went to the bike shop this afternoon and bought the brightest headlight available.  Wednesday I ride to work again — can’t wait to try out the light.

Calculators

Friday, October 12th, 2007

When I started junior college in 1971, my Dad bought me a calculator. Prior to this I had, like every other nerd in my high school, done calculations on a slide rule. As I remember it, the calculator was a Texas Instruments, and it added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided. And it took square roots, which was a really big deal. Actually, now that I’ve spent some time digging around on the web looking for it, I think he must have gotten it for me in 1972, because TI didn’t make them until then. It appears that it was an early model in the SR-10 series.


Anyway, I remember that it cost $99, which is about $480 today, adjusted for inflation.

The other day I was buying a new printer/scanner/copier at Staples, and in a bowl on the counter by the cashier they had a bunch of little calculators on key chains. I realized that a) they had all the functions my original calculator had and b) they sold for 99 cents, exactly 1/100 the price.

My keychain calculator

I think this indicates that I am old.

Tour de Cape

Monday, October 8th, 2007

Saturday I went in to town early for the Tour de Cape. I got there about 7 AM, and Patrick had been there for two hours already. As he informed me, he also played a gig the night before, so he’d had approximately two hours of sleep. You can see what that does:

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The long haul trucker got a lot of attention on the ride, by the way. I ran into Rick Brindell after the ride and it turns out he’d seen it parked before the start and had been admiring it. Patrick said there was a woman there from out of town who wanted to try mine because she’s thinking of buying one, but unfortunately we never did manage to find her.  I think it’s the next big thing.

Anyway, I started out fast, which is something I always am tempted to do. I wound up somewhere in the front 10 or so by the time we got out to CR 621. I have to admit I find a bit of entertainment in passing people on steep hills and thinking of their view of my mud flaps as I recede in the distance. Of course, I can only keep this up for a few miles before I run out of steam, but at the moment, I gloat.  One person I managed to pass was my student Steven Smith, looking almost as retro as me on a bike with a rear rack and clip-on fender.

I did fall in with a pretty fast group, though, and finished the first 30-mile loop in a short time. Then I wound up riding with Gene Magnus and Gordon Glaus on the trip over to southern Illiinois.  It’s a nice ride, avoiding the main roads, with some pretty scenery and not too many hills.  Somewhere in there we passed a couple of dogs that just watched us go by. I heard later that they’d chased the lead riders a long way. I guess by the time we got there, they’d had enough.

I was kind of hurting from the fast pace by the time we got to the turnoff onto Bean Ridge road, or whatever it is. Gordon was in front, missed the turn, and continued blissfully on toward IL – 3. I tried yelling, but he was in the zone or something. I had to chase him down and persuade him to turn around; meanwhile the rest of the group had blown us off. This provided me with a bit of a break, so I caught my breath and proceeded to suck Gordon’s wheel down Bean Ridge a ways. After a while we could see Gene up ahead. Gordon says “There’s Gene struggling along all by himself,” and speeds up. I was personally okay with Gene struggling by himself, but I managed to hang on and we caught him.

Next thing you know, we had another little rest when we came around a downhill curve to see an ambulance ahead. A woman had taken the hill fast, found a hay truck in her way, and run off into the gravel. She wiped out and broke her collarbone.  I resolved once again to watch out and try to keep all my blood on the inside.
We eventually got to Olive Branch. At the fire station they had quite the spread of food.  I skipped the hot dogs, but I did eat a muffin and a banana and some cookies. Steve had beaten me there (I blame the delay when Gordo missed the turn) and he took off shortly after we arrived.  Gene and Gordon continued on the 100 mile leg, while I turned around and headed back.

I’d never ridden the route back, on Rock Springs Hollow road. It was pretty, and I was also enjoying being alone for a while.

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When I got back to Cape, Hannah, Sophie, and Robin were there to cheer for me. I did the arms spread triumphant finish, but Hannah didn’t have her camera ready, so I had to go back and do it again. I guess I’ll get that pic from her eventually. Meanwhile, here we are at the end:

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63.3 miles, 17.1 mph rolling average, total time 4 hours 15 minutes including stops. I think the broken collarbone was the most serious injury — the only one I heard of. If it hadn’t been so damn hot, it would’ve been a perfect outing for the Tour de Cape. At least, unlike the Chicago Marathon, we were able to finish it.