ed_rex: (Tardis)

And meanwhile, those of us still alive live in a time of miracles and wonder (as I've said before).

Ring shadows line the face of distant Saturn, providing a backdrop for the brilliant, white sphere of the icy moon Enceladus. The image was taken by the orbiting Cassini spacecraft on June 28, 2007, at a distance of approximately 291,000 kilometers (181,000 miles) from Enceladus. Image scale is approximately 2 kilometers (1 mile) per pixel. Detail.
"Ring shadows line the face of distant Saturn, providing a backdrop for the brilliant, white sphere of the icy moon Enceladus. The image was taken by the orbiting Cassini spacecraft on June 28, 2007, at a distance of approximately 291,000 kilometers (181,000 miles) from Enceladus. Image scale is approximately 2 kilometers (1 mile) per pixel."

The Atlantic has posted a stunning series of photographs from NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn and its moons, in particular, the "snowball" with what is almost certainly a liquid water ocean in its interior.

The pictures may have been taken by a machine more than one billion kilometres away from Earth, but to me they have the beauty of great art. I highly recommend you take some time to inhale those miracles of technology and human imagination. As has been said by others, sometimes I too love living in the future.

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Apparently a team of American researchers have created life.

That's right. Create life, out of its constituent bits, like building brand new house of building blocks. Or so I understand it.

Nature has an article about it here and to the best of my understanding that's exactly what they're claiming to have done.

"With this approach we now have the ability to start with a DNA sequence and design organisms exactly like we want ... We can get down to the very nucleotide level and make any changes we want to a genome." (Emphases mine.)

This isn't to say that scientists (or your a-social cousin Mary) are going to be churning out designer pets or new diseases next year, but the door first pushed ajar by Watson and Crick sure as hell looks wide open to me.

In honour of this potentially [insert adjective of choice] world, a poll:

[Poll #1566999]
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"One small step ..."
Pondering Apollo 11, 40 years later

Magicians and astronauts

Some time in 1969 or 1970 — I was about five years old — my maternal grandparents paid a visit to our small 2-floor apartment, where we lived above my aunt and uncle and three cousins.

Naturally (I was only five after all!), I don't remember a great deal about that visit — in truth, since Grandpa Hart died in 1975, I don't remember all that much about him at all, at least not memories uncontaminated by the memories and stories of others.

He was a small, compact man (though of course he did not then seem small to me; nor would he now, come to think of it, since he was probably an inch or so taller than I am as an adult), with a thinning but full head of hair and a small, neat mustache.

Family lore has it that he was a man burdoned with a great deal of anger, of rage and of disappointment in himself. An American child of Finnish immigrants, socialists, he had nevertheless bought fully into the American Dream and, apparently, he went to his grave a disappointment to himself. He had never made a million dollars.

Major Matt Mason - my spaceman doll, probably not exactly as shown.
Major Matt Mason - my spaceman doll?
Probably not exactly as shown.

Nevertheless, he was no disappointment to me. Far from it. In his younger days he had been an acrobat and an escape artist. He had been a professional magician and hypnotist (he had been good friends with Harry Blackstone!). I thought he was, as I might have said today, cool. And he seemed to take great pleasure in pulling a coin from my ear, performing card tricks or — best of all! — in making objects vanish or appear from nothing more than a blanket draped across his forearm.

One day during that visit, what he pulled from that blanket was (or so I believed) an exact duplicate of what was then my favourite toy, an astronaut doll (I'd never heard the term action figure in those days), quite possibly the same model that pictured at left.

I was properly impressed as I held the figure in my hands. I examined it closely and could see no obvious differences between this doll and my doll. Which, I soon discovered, had mysteriously disappeared (you can probably guess where this is going).

It was only some days after my grandparents had left — gone home to Detroit — that I gave up the search. I think I first believed the "original" doll was simply and finally lost; I don't remember when it was I realized, or perhaps had it explained to me, that Grampa didn't really create something out of nothing beneath that blanket, but that it was only a trick.

Grampa and Grandma retired to Sudbury during my 10th year, where we now also lived. Grampa then began to teach me magic, only a few simple illusions, before he died in his sleep, less than a year following his retirement.

Mission insignia, Apollo 17
Apollo 17
Mission insignia

But he had, despite the apparent unhappiness that had dogged his life, left a legacy of mystery and love in the heart of at least one of his grandchildren — and whether he appreciated it or not, he had been born only a scant three or so years after the world's very first recorded powered flight and died three years after the last time any human being has set foot upon the surface of any other world but our own.

One giant leap

I am fairly certain I watched the first moon-landing when it happened, but I can't be certain of it. I know I remember watching one of them, but so many years later, who knows which one leaves a vague, original impression in my mind's cluttered archives?

At any rate, I was four and a half years old when, a mere 66 years after the Wright Brothers managed humanity's very first powered flight (not so much longer between Kitty Hawk and Tranquility Base than there is between the moon and now, is there?) and I obviously didn't then have the historical perspective to understand just how momentous an event — in fact, a series of events — it was that I was privileged to witness.

Yes, "momentous". In the space of 66 years, we changed from a species that took its first, fumbling leaps into the air, to one that had set foot on another world.

I ask you to take a moment and simply think about that accomplishment, that triumph of imagination, of courage, of will.

66 years! 66 years from Kitty Hawk to Luna! If we can accomplish that in so short a time, what can't we manage if only we put our minds to it!

That we have not been back there for 35 years, is sad; if we never go back, it will be a tragedy. If we block our collective vision so that low-Earth orbit is as high as we can aspire to, we will eventually leave that space as well, and sooner or later, a great rock will fall from the sky, or some other disaster will put an end to our species; not only our past will be erased, but every possible future will gone as well.

On a marche sur la lune
On a marché sur la lune.

We might as well never have been at all. In a million years, our arts and culture, our loves and hates, will have been erased from the surface of the Earth, our only memorial, the slowly-eroding footprints left upon the Lunar surface.

Prognosis: Negative?

Even 20 years ago, I thought there was a realistic possibility that I might personally live long enough to, in my dotage, set foot upon the surface of Mars as a paying passenger, a tourist. I wasn't naive enough to think there was a good chance I would have the opportunity, but I thought it significantly better than zero.

Barring some completely unexpect developments — either in space travel or some kind of life-extension technology — I now believe the odds that I will have a chance to even set foot upon the moon is very close to zero. Time marches on and hurries us along with it.

In another 40 years I will be 84 and though we are a long-lived bunch (my maternal grand-father notwithstanding), I don't expect regular flights from here to there between then and now. We could do it, of course — Apollo proved we can do just about anything, at least to my satisfaction — but I don't expect any nation to bring the necessary resources to bear, nor that private industry will find a sufficient source of potential (short-term) profit to be able to command the necessary investment.

And yet. And yet ...

Despite my admitedly elegiac tone, and despite signs that NASA will not getting the necessary funding for the (sort of) planned return in 2020, I take some comfort in a couple of facts worth keeping in mind.

First, that history takes its own course and its own time. It took Europeans hundreds of years to fully conquer North America. I use the analogy not because I expect there to be native Martians which we will then exterminate, or try to, but to remind myself simply that it took a long time to get from Columbus' first contact in 1492 to the world we know today.

It is easy to forget, from the eternal now just how many small steps it takes to create history, how many tentative missions, how many failures, it took to get from there to here.

It may not be the Americans or Russians, or even the Chinese or Brazilians. In my heart of hearts I'd like the first human on Mars to sport a maple leaf on her shoulder, but in my mind of minds I imagine it will be some sort of international project — or else many projects, some private, some state-sponsored, slowly moving outward from this "small blue dot", spreading veriditas from our blooming blue world to her silent sisters.

So. Here's to 1969, and to the men and women who even now circle above our heads and so keep our future alive.

Earthrise, as seen by Apollo 17 in 1972.
Earthrise, as seen by Apollo 17 in 1972.

Cross-posted from Edifice Rex Online.

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DANDRUFF The ANSWER is usually vinegar. To some problems there are solutions.

What we call dandruff is often the result of a PH imbalance on the skin, which shampoo exacerbates. Wash your hair with a simple non-detergent shampoo, soap, olive oil, beer, almost anything. Rinse. Then close your eyes and pour on some vinegar. The extremely cheap but natural sort — apple cider, for example — is probably best. The smell will stimulate interesting conversations in changing-room showers and your explanation will win you friends. Wait thirty to sixty seconds. Rinse it off. The smell will go away. So will your dandruff.

All dermatologists, pharmacists and pharmaceutical companies know this simple secret. They don't tell you because they make money by converting dandruff into a complex medical and social problem. By most professional standards this would amount to legally defined incompetence or mis-representation.

Dandruff shampoos that promise to keep your shoulders and even your head clear are harsh detergents and may promote baldness, which ought to constitute malpractice.

John Raulston Saul, The Doubter's Companion

psoriasis, not my back
Not my back, praise be.

I was 29 or 30 years old when I quite suddenly developed a skin condition which was subsequently diagnosed as psoriasis. Unlike the man in the accompanying photo, my case wasn't horribly disfiguring, but it was a definite drag. In particular, it showed up on my knees and elbows, spots on my head and a few smaller ones on my face. At it's worst, my skin would be raw and bloody, though strangely it didn't hurt or even itch much.

Anyway, after it didn't go away for a couple of weeks I found myself talking with a dermatologist, who advised me psoriasis is an auto-immune disease about which little was known. He suggested a couple of medications and said we would then see whether or not they worked.

Since then, I've probably tried a good half-dozen creams and ointments, most of them including hydrocortisone, a substance that frankly makes me nervous.

All of them seemed to provide some release from the worst outbreaks, none of them actually got rid of the flaking skin or oozing sores.

So, having read the entry from Saul's rather excellent book (see my soon-to-be-updated reading list for more), it occurred to me that, Saul being no one's fool and dandruff and psoriasis both being somewhat mysterious skin conditions, that I might as well give vinegar a try.

That was a bit more than three weeks ago, since which time I haven't touched my prescription medications. And since which, the huge and ugly patch on my left knee has shrunk to the point where there are two smaller patches, rather than one big one; that on my right knee has almost disappeared; and my elbows are looking vastly better than they have for years.

So, so far, more than so good; I'll keep you posted — and will try to get my camera working so I can post a before/after photo before my skin has (knock wood) been cleaned up completely.

Cross-posted from Edifice Rex Online.

Am I convinced that this is the cure for psoriasis? Of course not; one test-subject, over the three weeks does not nearly make for a decent, double-blind study. At the same time, none of the medications I've tried have worked as well as — so far — is the cheap, apple-cider vinegar I happened to have on hand. Well enough, that a good friend of mine, who suffers from a sometimes quite awful case of eczema is going to try it on a couple of patches of his own embattle skin.

So far, more than so good; I'll keep you posted — and will try to get my camera working so I can post a before/after photo before my skin has (knock wood) been cleaned up completely.

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This item has got my Inner Nerd very excited indeed.

"It would appear that the US President has been briefed by Phoenix scientists about the discovery of something more "provocative" than the discovery of water existing on the Martian surface. This news comes just as the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) confirmed experimental evidence for the existence of water in the Mars regolith on Thursday. Whilst NASA scientists are not claiming that life once existed on the Red Planet's surface, new data appears to indicate the "potential for life" more conclusively than the TEGA water results. Apparently these new results are being kept under wraps until further, more detailed analysis can be carried out, but we are assured that this announcement will be huge…"

The full item can be found here.
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Gentle Readers,

Due to the paucity of my own entries here lately, and to my concern for the mental well-being of you, my Gentle Readers, I have decided to hand this space over to my good friend William Needle, whose occasional thought-provoking essays will, I hope, provide you with alternate views that are both entertaining and provocative. Take it away, Bill!

Let Them Buy Wheat!

There's been a lot of talk lately about how food prices going up all around the world. Folks are rioting from Mexico to Haiti to Somalia, just to name a few hot-spots of socialist discontent. They say they they can't afford to feed their families, as if any of us have a God-given right to eat. This world is one where only the fit survive and always has been, folks. I figure, if you don't earn enough to buy food and you're not competent enough to steal it, well, that's just part of God's plan. Unlike the Hindoos, the way I see it, you don't get punished for what you did in a past life, you get punished for what you didn't do in this one.

Of course, the usual trouble-makers are complaining, not just poor people. The tree-huggers and do-gooders are all out in force, trying to socialize this and socialize that while they make a fat living in their back of their air-conditioned SUVs, doling out so-called aid to lazy graspers from Haiti to Somalia

And of course, they point their fingers are everyone but the starving folks themselves.

The price of corn is going up because: the Americans are too fat; the Chinese are getting too fat (and who can blame 'em for wanting a steak, after so many decades of living off rice and locusts?); or because we here in North America (and Europe - gotta give the great unwashed credit when it's due) are finally starting to do something about global warming, turning our corn into gasoline.

You can't win with those people for losing, folks. First they complain that global warming is causing droughts and floods (after all this time, you'd think they'd get their stories straight). Then, when we get suckered into doing something about it by turning corn into fuel, they blame us for making food too expensive for the poor in the world.

Now even the International Monetary Fund is jumping on the bleading heart socialist bandwagon. Monday's Globe and Mail quoted its managing director, a certain Dominique Struass-Kahn - whose name alone maybe explains a few things, though I'm damned if it tells me whether its a mister or a missus - as saying, "Hundreds of thousands of people will be starving. Children will suffer from malnutrition..." I know I'm not the most subtle guy in town, and maybe he was misquoted, but it sure sounds to me like he's saying it as if it's a bad thing.

It's not that I'm in favour of human suffering, don't get me wrong. And I don't know it it's us or God to blame for this global warming, but it seems pretty clear there's something to it - and that it's too late to do much about it. The oceans are going to rise by 1.5 metres (that's about five feet, if I remember my conversion tables) over the next 90 years whether we all start eating grass or not. Sure, a black child feels pain just as much as a white one, but if you've got to choose, well, you stand by your own, don't you? It's only natural.

What I'm trying to say is, it's too late folks. There's more than six billion of us kicking around this little space-ball and like a herd of deer after one too many easy winters and the wolves are about to close in during the first deep freeze (or big melt). A hundred years from now, we'll count ourselves lucky if there are a billion of us left, and I say we cup our balls and start staking out the high ground now.

And one way to do that is bio-fuels. The only problem with them is we haven't gone far enough! Here in Ontario, every gallon (or socialized litre) now contains 5% ethanol - I say, why not 50%? Ethanol which comes from corn, grown right here in Ontario! Sure the price of corn is going up, but we all have to do our part, and there's no denying our farmers have been hurting lately, so it's good for them, too.

Okay, it's true that it takes almost as much fuel to grow the corn as the corn provides in ethanol, but "almost" isn't the same as "as much" - and every drop counts. And sure, growing all that corn to run your Hummer is corn that doesn't go to fatten a heifer or a hog, or make into a taco down south.

But that's the Free Market, isn't it? It's not my problem if the Mexicans can't afford to buy our corn, and it's not your problem; it's the Mexicans' problem. And if the Bangladeshis can't buy their own rice now, how are they going to do afford to import our corn when their whole country is under water?

Ethanol is just a way to limit the suffering. Most of the world is going to starve to death in the next few decades, so why not speed things up and put them out of their misery before they breed more babies who are just going to starve to death anyway? Meanwhile, those of us with the means might as well keep on enjoying our life like civilized folks.

Well, all this typing has created in me a powerful thirst. I'm going to fire up old Bessie and leave that Hummer running while parked in the handicapped zone at the beer store. Just doing my part for the greater good.

Well, Duh!
(Bryan Gable, Globe and Mail, 2008-14-15
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"D.K. Belyaev and his colleagues took captive silver foxes, Vulpes vulpes, and set out systematically to breed for tameness. They succeeded, dramatically. By mating together the tamest individuals of each generation, Belyaev had, within 20 years, produced foxes that behaved like border collies, actively seeking human company and wagging their tails when approached. That is not very surprising, although the speed with which it happened may be. Less expected were the by-products of selection for tameness. These genetically tamed foxes not only behaved like collies, they looked like collies. They grew black-and-white coats, with the white face patches and muzzles. Instead of the characteristic pricked ears of a wild fox, they developed 'lovable' floppy ears. Their reproductive hormone balance changed, and they assumed the habit of breeding all the year round instead of in a breeding season. Probably associated with the lowered aggression, they were found to contain higher levels of the neurally active chemical serotonin. It took only 20 years to turn foxes into 'dogs' by artificial selection."

- Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale
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The God Delusion

by Richard Dawkins

Houghton Mifflin, 2006; 406 pages, $35.95
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Those of us schooled from infancy in his ways can become desensitized to their horror. A naif blessed with the perspective of innocence has a clearer perception. Winston Churchill's son Randolph somehow contrived to remain ignorant of scripture until Evelyn Waugh and a brother officer, in a vain attempt to keep Churchill quiet when they were posted together during the war, bet him he couldn't read the entire Bible in a fortnight: 'Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud "I say I bet you didn't know this came in the Bible..." or merely slapping his side & chortling "God, isn't God a shit!"' Thomas Jefferson - better read - was of a similar opinion: 'The Christian God is a being of terrific character - cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.' (The God Delusion, page 31.)

To read my review, click here to see below the cut; but be warned, it's a long one. )
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A Winter's Tale

Mighty Lada - Whoo!

After a balmy December when it seemed everyone suddenly was suddenly a long-time believer in Global Warming, General Winter has struck back with a vengeance. Here in Toronto, the past week has seen temperatures dipping to -15 or so - chilly enough, but nothing compared to the Winter of '88 to make hopping on my bike in the morning an excersise of will, though I'm always sweating by the time I get to work.

But -15 isn't really cold ...

Back in the late 1980s I found wintering in Sudbury, living out in the bush with my mother. I had a temporary job as a production assistant on what was then known as CBC Northern Ontario Radio's flagship program, Morning North. It was during the winter of that 16-week stint that I experienced real cold.

My mother and I usually drove in to work together (she too worked for the Mother Corp - but that tale of semi-nepotism is one for another day) but she was out of town the night the temperature dropped to -44 celsius (for you Yanks, that's about 47 below F). And note: that figure did not include the windchill factor!) and I forgot to plug in block-heater. For those not familiar that term, please see sooguy's post about his return to the north.

Now this car was a Lada, a vehicle of Soviet make that was then probably pushing 10 years old.

And so it was with little confidence that I slipped the key in the ignition. Instinctively, I knew the key itself was at risk of snapping from the cold. Gingerly, I tried turning it.

Nothing. Not a hint of motion.

I tried again, with just a little more force. Still nothing.

I decided to apply heat and drew forth my lighter, held the key in the flame almost until my fingers burned.

And tried the ignition again. Still no movement.

I decided on a little more force - and the key snapped in two, leaving the head between my thumb and fingers, the shaft lodged in the ignition.

At which point, no longer worried about breaking the key, I a quarter from my pocket (and yes, I was fucking cold by this point!), slipped it into the slot and twisted for all it was worth.

Awwwooouurrrggghhh, said the Lada.

Amazed, I turned the key again, and stomped the gas peddal like a madman.

Aawwoouughggg ...


Awough! Woouughh, roooouuu, brroooommmm!

It cost me $275 to get the ignition drilled later, but I was always proud of that car. -44 is cold!

The Ice Age That Wasn't

Mighty Analog - Whoo!

As most of you know, I'm a year-round cyclist, and this cold-snap hasn't stopped me. But it has led me to reflect that, although I really do like winter, the warm weather makes life a good deal easier.

Thursday morning, I was gifted with an early visit by Canada Post and so was able to giddily stow the latest issue of Analog in my backpack before hitting the frigid January streets.

Now, I haven't read the whole issue yet, so you needn't worry that I'm going to bore you with more science fiction critiques (not yet, at any rate). No, it's science I want to talk about.

Analog's science column this month, by Richard A. Lovett (who seems to be almost a non-entity on the web - no link, for once) is entitled, "The Ice Age That Wasn't", and it's a fascinating read.

Back in the 1970s, there was a lot of talk about the possibility the earth was heading into another ice-age, something that those who question the science behind global warming still like to brandish like an ex-lover's mash-notes to support their contention that global warming isn't "proven" and so we need do nothing about it.

Lovett's article makes a strong case for the idea that "those scientists" weren't so dumb after all. The article is based on a paper, paper"The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago, by one William F. Ruddiman, PhD.

Over the past 400,000 years, the earth has gone in and out of glacial ages on a regular schedule and, according to Ruddiman via Lovett (I have not yet read the paper), by all rights we should be heading towards - if not already be in - another ice-age. Ice-cores, pollen samples and other methods all point to the same pattern. "You have to throw 395,000 years of history out the window to come up with a natural explanation" for the fact the earth is heating up right now, rather than cooling down, Ruddiman said in 2003. "Something's overridden the natural system."

Most of us associate the increasing levels of green-house gasses - carbon dioxide and methane, in particular - with the industrial revolution, but Ruddiman claims humanity has been altering our planet's natural balance for a good deal more than a few hundred years.

In fact, according to the Professor's thesis, humanity began to modify the planet's natural cycle some 8,000 to 12,000 years ago, when we began the shift from living as hunter-gatherers to farming.

We cut down trees for cropland, and flooded fields to grow rice. Enough so, that the resulting loss of carbon sinks and increases in methane output changed the composition of the atmosphere enough to stop the global cooling trend that "should" have been happening.

If professor Ruddiman is correct, at least those of us living north of the 49th parallel should probably be giving a huge vote of thanks to global warming, as the normal cycle would have seen the world cooling for another few thousand years before it went once again into an inter-glacial period.

Which doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned about what is happening now of course. The 20th century saw the human influence on our atmosphere's composition grow vastly stronger and the consequences - at best - are going to be difficult to deal with. Rising oceans, changing rainfall patterns, all happening quickly and concurrently are going to cause a great deal of suffering, and not just to people. Between the changing weather and the loss of habitat, species are going extinct at a rate not seen in millions of years.

It seems that humanity has been playing god for millenia, but is only now becoming aware of it. Which begs the question: now that we do have an inkling of our power, and that our inadvertent use of it has kept the ice-sheets at bay, what are we going to do with that power?

Clearly, if it were put to a vote, the side wanting a complete return to the "natural cycle" would lose in a landslide. At the same time, I doubt most of us want a world with rainforests growing on Antarctica, either. But Ruddiman's thesis, for me at least, somehow makes it clear that we are gods now, and in the 21st century, we had better face up to our power and figure out what we want to do, and what we should do, with that power.

Like it or not, the earth is ours. We can nurture it or destroy it, and pretending we can "go back to the natural order" can only guarantee we will do the latter.

July 2017

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