I just learned from the latest issue of Parabola magazine (Chaos and Order, Fall 2003) that the word for monster has the same root as admonish, taking its meaning from the Latin monere, to warn. Monsters, like the dragons that inhabit the vague and unpeopled borders of old maps, do not exist for the purpose of rending and terrifying. They are there to warn us about the unnameable corrosive chaos just over the horizon; their purpose is to turn us back. Monsters are the last conceivable form before the unknowable black froth beyond. They are thrown up from the darkness of our minds and projected onto the fringes of the void. They stand on the lip of the tiny cup that contains us and everything we know. More explicitly: if you are afraid of the dark, what are you afraid of? Not monsters. Monsters are your friends, projections and personifications of who you are and what you know. But just beyond them is the thing worth fearing. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. You’ll find out one day.

Many years ago I had the good fortune to travel in Japan with my friend Mike. He took us north to Nikko, where the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate is buried in a vast temple complex. We snuck onto the temple grounds one night after a late dinner, and this is what happened: Filling the Void. Happy Halloween!

Green machines

When I was in junior high, I saw a documentary about plants that utterly amazed me. The show was an episode of Nova on PBS called The Green Machine, and it used a lot of time-lapse photography to illustrate how “alive” plants are. They move like animals do, only much more slowly. They can coordinate their motion with nearby plants, and they are constantly nodding and dancing in response to environmental cues. If you could only look at them with your slow eyes, alfalfa sprouts would give you the major creeps. My interest in botany stayed with me through high school, and when I was in biology senior year, I did research at a local university on thigmomorphogenesis, or how plants respond to touch (people always challenge me whenever I play that word in Scrabble, and boy are they sorry). I was even a co-author on a paper on the topic… Computer-Assisted Image Analysis of Plant Growth, Thigmomorphogenesis and Gravitropism. Plant Physiology 77(3): 722-730. No kidding! Rush down to your local botanical lending library and check it out.

So I was very excited to see the new site called Plants In Motion out of Indiana University. It does justice to the wild sentient gyrations of our green friends. Make sure you look at the movies for morning glories twining, and corn seedling phototropism. Next time you stroll through a garden, keep in mind that those plants are watching you too.

This is Jay

It’s been extremely gratifying to hear from so many people about my Red Sox essay. Thanks to everyone who has left a comment or mailed in a kind word. I’m off for a vacation for the next few days (20th high school reunion), but I thought before I left I would post links to two other pieces that I wrote about Jay. That’s him on the left…

The first is an account of his birth: Meeting the Little Man. The second was written soon after his diagnosis: Something Happened.

The Red Sox and me

All across New York City, baseball fans are pinching themselves and wondering: Is this the year? Is this the magical season when it all comes together and maybe, just maybe, the Yankees finally win that coveted twenty-seventh world championship, their first in over two and a half years?

As a Red Sox fan, I have a hard time getting excited for them. In fact, after the agonizing conclusion of the recent American League Championship Series, I had to write down some thoughts before I could go to sleep. Here is the result.

Maybe you don’t cheer for the Red Sox, but indulge me. Pretend like you do and read what I have to say…
Continue reading “The Red Sox and me”

Incest in the boardroom

SIGNALS Magazine is a good biotech trade “online magazine,” although it publishes new content relatively infrequently. But what do you expect for that paltry online revenue model? The articles I have worked through have been interesting (I particularly enjoyed the systems biology piece), but more than that, I was impressed with a little Flash application they did call “Power Brokers.” With it, you can see how insanely incestuous the biotech world is by looking at who is serving on which board. It’s a nice little data visualization app even without the interesting data. I don’t know how up-to-date their database is, but try this. Start with Paradigm Genetics. They’ve got heavy-hitter Leroy Hood on their board, but also the well-connected Terrance McGuire who sits on nine boards. If you open up two of these, deCODE Genetics and Inspire Pharmaceuticals, you’ll see that Andre Lamotte is common to both of those.

There’s even a nifty tool in this power viz app that lets you test out the six-degrees-of-separation concept. Choose two companies and see what the shortest path is to join them up by board members. It’s a small world, and some of these power brokers are very well-connected. For instance, if you’re raising money for a biotech venture, consider talking to Jean Deleage. He sits on what must be a record of 18 different boards.

Comment spam

I should have seen this coming: comment spam. A bot posts a meaningless comment to your blog and leaves behind a link that points to their porn or e-business site. I got hit by it a few times, though at least (so far) the comments themselves have been dumb but innocuous. In a larger sense, it’s interesting to watch the blog community immune system kick in. The reaction has been vigorous, ranging from informed discussions about various corrective actions to outing the alleged perpetrator (see the continuation here). All the discussion, and the speed with which it matures, makes me confident that we’ll have some good solutions in short order.

I’m always a little concerned about violent reactions because once you’ve made it clear you have a knee-jerk response to something, someone will come along and hack your reflex to bring about their own desires. For instance: people really hate spammers, so all I have to do is convince the world you’re an unrepentent repeat-offending mass spammer and other people will take you down for me. Or as they said during the French Revolution, j’accuse!

(Thanks, Snowboard Girl, for getting me started with a good link on this)

Glass be gone

Last week there was a piece of glass in my foot. It hurt. I could actually see it sticking out of the arch of my left foot an eighth of an inch or so. In fact, it had been lodged in my foot for almost thirty years and only in the last month or so had it finally worked its way back up to the surface. It was a weird sight, because the sharp end was poking out, so that you could have cut yourself by rubbing too closely against the arch of my foot.

I can’t remember exactly when it joined me, but I was something like ten or eleven years old. The weather was warm. I was standing barefoot in a creek late in the afternoon, when I saw my dad walking across the park. I made a happy noise, ran for him, and then WHAMMO! The glass shard went into my foot and decided to unpack its bags and stay for a while. Only just this week did it manage to work up high enough for me to start poking at it with tweezers and needles, and a few days later it emerged, a little slippery, but none the worse for the wear. I felt like breaking out the photo albums to show it all the interesting places we had gone together. I’m relieved my foot is finally glass-free, but I still can’t quite bring myself to just throw the little guy in the trash.

Waiter, what’s this fly doing… ?

Once on a business trip from Boston to Stockholm, I had a brief morning layover in Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport after an all-night flight over the Atlantic. Bleary-eyed and sleep-greasy, I stepped into the men’s lounge to freshen up a bit and lounge. While I was in the process of lounging, I was surprised to see a fly in the urinal. Actually it was a picture of a fly in the bottom of each of the urinals. There was something oddly amusing about this. Why would they put a fly there? Of course, human nature being what it is (okay, man nature being what it is) I couldn’t stop myself from leaning in that direction. Hey, that fly was looking for trouble.

The Dutch are the most sensible, straightforward people in the world. There must be some reason for this display, and it must have to do with its magnetic attraction on nearby downpours. I thought about taking a picture of the urinal… but didn’t. And I have since regretted not taking that picture, because it’s a funny little story.

Still, if the 21st century has taught us anything so far, it’s that you can find anything on the web. So it is with the Fly UI. This link is to a weblog that looks at the urinal’s design from a user interface point of view, and includes the feedback of several honest-to-goodness Dutch industrial designers.

As long as we’re on this subject, I have to mention the mysterious pre-flushing Japanese urinals. Japan, like many other countries, has lots of infra-red triggered self-flushing urinals. No need to touch the hardware… do your business and walk away. But I noticed that many of these automatic urinals in Tokyo flushed briefly just as you stepped up and got comfortable. I couldn’t figure out why they’d waste the water until I realized it subtly encouraged the priming of the pump. The little splash and whoosh gets the ball rolling sooner (à la Pavlov), fights stage fright in a self-conscious country, and probably increases crowded bathroom throughput by 25%. That’s my theory, anyway. Anybody out there know better?

Acme products

If you had to catch a roadrunner somewhere in the Great American Southwest, where would you turn for quality roadrunner-catching equipment? Where else but the Original Illustrated Catalog Of Acme Products. Someone has spent a lot of time grabbing images off video to put together a catalog of every Acme product placement across many years of Warner Brothers’ cartoons. There are some pre-Roadrunner examples, but the obvious acme of Acme comes with Wile E. Coyote (super-genius). Scroll through the list… it’s long and comprehensive. I had no idea there were so many. Look for the Iron Birdseed and Giant Magnet combination, the Indestructo Steel Ball, the Dehydrated Boulders, and the Jet-Propelled Pogo Stick. They’re all there.

A few thoughts: First of all, I’m impressed that this plucky little Acme company negotiated such an lucrative product placement deal with Warner Brothers. Second, these guys should probably prune some of their slow-moving items (e.g. Do It Yourself Tornado Kits) and branch out into less esoteric products if they want to maintain solid growth. Finally, their e-commerce catalog site sucks. I tried to order some Rocket-Powered Roller Skates, and I couldn’t get anywhere. Bottom line: downgrade Acme Products (NYSE ticker ACME) to weak hold.

Live from Mesopotamia

The war correspondent for the Rambles weblog is good friend and Renaissance man Jay Czarnecki. Almost exactly a year ago he filed a report from the front lines of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area just as the snipers were being put behind bars. He’s back this week with a timely report on developments in Mesopotamia, also known as… well, I’ll let Jay take it from here. What was it George Santayana said about history? I forget.

I just finished working my way through “A Peace to End all Peace” written in 1989 by David Fromkin and subtitled “The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.” I had wanted to understand the historical antecedents for the various stuggles occurring in the Middle East, especially Iraq. I really was surprised to see how directly connected today’s troubles are to the post-World War I arrangements imposed by the Great Powers.

I use the phrase “working my way through” because it was a bit of a chore for a layman like me – but worth it. Although the book emphasized British political and diplomatic activities, it’s analysis was very even-handed. I would recommend it for the determined reader who has a hankering for both the broad sweep of history – and how random events or individual decisions can change its direction. For example:

– The ultimately disastrous Allied attempt to take Constantinople in 1915 came within a few hundred yards of victory. The Ottoman army was practically out of ammunition as the Allied navy steamed up the straits of Dardanelles. Constantinople was being evacuated, the treasury’s gold bullion dispatched to safety, and gasoline was stockpiled to burn the city rather than surrender it intact. The British Navy’s minesweepers had cleared all the mines that lay across the narrows – except for a single line of mines running parallel to the shore. With uncanny accuracy, the attacking naval force hit them, however, and a number of ships were lost. They still could have continued the next day, but the British commander deferred, thinking the way was impassable. You can view the immediate tragic aftermath in the decent 1981 film about the ensuing land battle, “Gallipoli,” co-starring a young Mel Gibson.

– In 1920, at a delicate time in the maneuvering over the land of Asia Minor, the King of Greece was bitten by a monkey and died of the resultant infection. The next Greek government aggressively pursued a war against the Turkish remnant of the Ottoman Empire – with devastating results for both sides. “A quarter of a million people died of this monkey’s bite,” wrote the British Colonial Secretary at that time, Winston Churchill.

Here’s another gem:

“[They] either were not aware of, or had given no thought to, the population mix…The antipathy between the minority of Moslems who were Sunnis and the majority who were Shi’ites, the rivalries of the tribes and clans, the historic and geographic divisions of the provinces…made it difficult to achieve a single unified government that was at the same time representative, effective and widely supported.”

No, that’s not from the editorial page of yesterday’s New York Times criticizing the Bush Administration’s approach in post-war Iraq. It is describing the British Empire’s struggles there in 1917 (it was then called Mesopotamia – the name Iraq made it’s debut in a few years later). And by the way, the book’s title comes from a quote by an officer who said of the post-war Peace Conference in Paris: “After the ‘War to end all War,’ they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘Peace to end all Peace.’ ”