Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Elephant-shaped teapot dilemma

The SL is hijacked from something I heard on the radio the other day, and it seems to fit the subject at hand. The other evening Dulcie launched into a tirade about the amount of money people spend on pointless "crap" (as she refers to it) at Christmas. "Why are they doing this?" she rails. When in these moods, Dulcie can become a terrifying figure; grown men have been known to crumple into gibbering ruins before her onslaught. Fortunately I am largely immune, partly because I am not a fully grown man.

Anyway, her tirade brought me round to something I had been thinking about regarding carbon footprints: "virtual" carbon and its significance. If the carbon footprint of America was adjusted for all the carbon that was emitted in the production of the goods purchased by Americans, then it would be colossally higher. Concomitantly, the footprint of China, adjusted for the carbon emissions involved in producing goods for export to America, would be something like 30 % lower.

So, this means that America is even badder than generally thought environmentally wise. But wait, is this really fair? I mean, the analysis suggests that somehow the poor Chinese are being exploited by the nasty Americans and being forced to manufacture all that stuff against their will. Surely they derive some benefit from all this manufacturing? Like earning tons of money and becoming a fantastically wealthy nation that has totally transformed itself from the nation of "re-educated" peasants that Maoism had created.

So, I put the point to Dulcie about what would happen if we (collectively the nation, not just us two for we buy no crap) stopped buying stuff. What would all the Chinese do then. Oh, they could just go back to doing what they used to do and be happy she returned cheerfully. I don't think so.

The radio discussion from which I stole the SL was very much along the same lines, though perhaps a little more intellectually profound than ours. The dilemma is one of personal financial responsibility versus the needs of the larger economy. In difficult times it is individually fiscally responsible to leave the elephant-shaped teapot (the crap in Dulcie's more Saxon vernacular) on the store shelf. However, if everyone did the same, the economy would (has) frozen up. In other words, we should all do our bit and buy elephant-shaped teapots by the truck-load. Even better if said teapots were fabrice en U.S.A. Fat chance there though.

In an even bigger picture, the dilemma of the SL is probing the prevailing philosophy of society depending on economic growth. Ultimately, growth and sustainability are on a collision course. To achieve the latter, at some point the former goal must be moderated. We could start by not buying the elephant-shaped teapot.

Monday, December 22, 2008

All Natural

Have you, like me, wandered along the "health" isles of stores like Wholefoods and marveled at the endless rows of prodigiously expensive little bottles of vitamins, potions and supplements, proclaiming in strident tones, all natural, how a meaningful life is impossible without them? Largely overweight people are to be seen sweeping them off the shelves in droves, to be glugged down later with oceans of pomegranate juice and mountains of acai berries.

I have always held a healthy skepticism towards these products, and find them in a way to be in philosophical opposition to the whole natural/organic ethos of the Wholefoods concept. I mean, piles of little machine-produced pills are scarcely commensurate with images of lambs gamboling happily in their hillside fields, free-range poultry hailing the dawn and flapping their untethered wings, lusty cattle munching on their rich prairie grasses, or plump salmon leaping the ice-cold waters of the PNW. Yet they must be remarkably popular given their abundance.

Years ago I discovered that my financial advisor was a devout believer in the benefits to be derived from the variously colored and shaped tablets. I know this because one year, for my Christmas gift thanking me for my business, I received a year's subscription to some bogus health publication in lieu of the conventional food package of nasty, rock-hard smoked cheeses and greasy little salamis of vaguely Germanic inspiration, though one finds they invariably hail from only as far as Wisconsin. Incidentally, these days, my annual gift is a donation "in my name" to some obscure charity. What it is to be compassionate. In slight disbelief, seeing as how my millions are entrusted to his stewardship, I quizzed him on this health thing. Indeed, it transpired that each morning was celebrated with a veritable witch's brew of tablets and potions designed to promote good health and long life. Gazing upon his physique, hardly to be confused with that of Johnny Weismuller, I remained skeptical.

The latest wisdom about supplements, appearing this day in the Tribune, suggests that my skepticism is well placed. Research has shown that vitamin supplements have no important benefits. A survey involving 50,000 participants showed that vitamin C, E and selenium don't reduce the risk of prostate, colorectal, lung, bladder, or pancreatic cancer. (Mulling over that intelligence is a sure-fire way to start one's day with a squirm; even the Go Lean (but not lightly) hesitates in the craw). Other studies have shown that the tabs don't afford defence against cancers, strokes or cardiovascular disease. Indeed, some of them may have effects opposite to those intended; excessive imbibition of certain vitamins can have deleterious consequences for health. It's a bit of a surprise in a way as to why these studies yield such gloomy results. It is undoubtedly true that vitamins and minerals are essential for good health. So, it would seem to be pretty simple logic that taking proper amounts as supplements should be beneficial. Yet the research does not bear that out. The problem is thought to be that it is virtually impossible to establish a true placebo group - the control group that does not receive the supplements, but instead gets a placebo. It is impossible to eliminate intake of those vitamins or minerals under study from natural sources, and thus the impact of the supplemental substances is muddied.

For all that inconsequence, their popularity grows; the total market is about $10 billion compared with only $5 billion ten years ago. For once, I feel it pays to be a cheapskate and rely on a modest, balanced diet for one's regimen of chemicals. Just as nature intended.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


Largely lost amongst all the hurly-burly of Blugo's sudden but all-too-welcome arrest was a short article on the decision by the Department of Energy to award the Rare Isotope Beam (RIB) project to Michigan State University, the only other competitor in the field, rather than Argonne National Laboratory. The article appeared, appropriately enough, on the obituary page just above Betty Paige's obituary (they had "those" back in the fifties?).

This is a great pity, the loss of the RIB not Betty Paige, as I think I might have discussed on these very pages my, albeit remote, involvement with the project. What with the presence of Fermi Lab and the proton therapy centers sprouting like mushrooms in DuPage county, the addition of the RIB would have truly made this area a center of accelerators. The SSCP and his colleagues would be expected to educate future operators of these various bits of high-tech machinery. COD involvement aside, the project would have brought a lot of coin ($500 million or so) to struggling Argonne.

So, some lousy state university beats out the likes of one of the great national research laboratories that had its origins in nuclear fission. How does this happen? Well, some would argue it was a logical decision based on the fact that MSU already has existing technology and expertise, while for Argonne it would really be a new thing. The pre-existing facility at MSU was probably a major factor. Another was the readiness of the university to lob in some matching funds to sweeten the deal; a move not matched by Argonne apparently.

Which kind of brings me back around to that pelt-headed, potty-mouthed lout of a (hopefully) soon-to-be-ex governor, entertaining though his taped conversations may be. What, no thought of a bob or two from the state to grease the wheels, a few mil to land maybe 500? This sort of failure is truly Blugo's legacy. One might almost be tempted to forgive the craven nature of his (alleged) fattening at the trough, if there was something to show for it. However, not only has he been corrupt, he has been completely incompetent to boot.

Earlier this year, on a visit to the wooded hills around State College, Pennsylvania for a workshop on nanotechnology education at Penn State University, I was struck by what enlightened state government could do. Students pursuing a degree in nanotechnology from about twenty different community colleges got to spend one semester at Penn State funded completely by state money, fees and board and lodging. What a brilliant concept. What a fantastic opportunity for those students. The program was the result of a collaborative effort between the colleges, the university, regional industries and the state. Can one imagine such a scenario in Illinois, blessed as we are with the most dysfunctional, inefficient and broken system of government? The thought makes me weep.

Friday, December 12, 2008

High Dunsinane Hill has come to Springfield

"Where were you when Blugo was nabbed?" might not rank up with similar questions about JFK's assassination or 911, but, for corruption-weary Illinoisans, Tuesday was indeed a memorable day. I was preparing for class, last-minute deep-breathing exercises and so on, when Dulcie calls with the news. I respond appropriately enough with something along the lines of "(expletive) me."

By way of small digression, why is it that papers and news media tiptoe around the actual words with such delicacy, when it is as plain as day what was actually said? A "racial epithet," "f-bomb" and so on are the euphemisms used in polite society. What is avoided by not printing the actual letters? The far more cerebral New Yorker does not stand on such delicate ceremony; to them a fuck is a fuck, printed with an almost palpable defiance, much like David Mamet. Even a c is a c to them, but I couldn't bring myself to do that.

Joy of joys, my day was made, and I floated into the class as if on tiny clouds of air, my feet gilded with wings like an angel. The Tribune the following day made compulsive reading, with the full sordidness and vulgarity of the Thane of Ravenswood and his Lady Patty Macbeth laid bare courtesy of the wire. Far more gripping than even the best of The Sopranos could manage. The obvious comparison of Mrs Blugo to literature's most ambitious woman was made, though I fear that the formerlacks the latter's poetic power. One can scarcely picture potty-mouthed Patty galvanizing a faltering Rod with something along the lines of "Screw your courage to the sticking place and we'll not fail." "Unsex me here" perhaps. "Fuck the fuckers" more like; which I'm sure the eloquent Blugo could appreciate, speaking his language after all.

One can take the Macbeth analogy a bit further for this lovely couple, initially so brash and handsome, sweeping into the throne room on a wave of optimism, self-proclaimed reformers; then increasingly isolated as enemies mount, investigators circulate, and finally cornered in his castle, alone in a dark room in the early hours, in pyjamas. "Is this a joke?" the plaintive response. The real Macbeth showed greater courage at the finish:

"Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'"

One can picture the Mell family fingering the youthful Blugo for greatness, tossing assorted eye of newt, tail of toad, spleen of dog, or whatever, into the Allclad, predicting a bright future: Congress and Guvnor too. All hail, Blugo! hail to thee Thane of Ravenswood!" "All hail, Blugo, hail to thee, Congressman of the something district!" "All hail, Blugo, thou shalt be governor hereafter!" "Fucking golden!" was perhaps the response, but there were no wires back then to record the dialog for posterity. Is it possible that Patrick Fitzgerald is not of woman born? Is he alone capable of smiting the tyrant's head from off his shoulders?

So why is that, on that most glorious of days when corruption is met with its comeuppance, the rest of the politicians are so distraught, mumbling and dissembling about it being a sad day for Illinois, a sad day for the governor. No! No it isn't sad at all! It is a day of singular celebration. The wicked are sent scurrying for their burrows in the dark; the righteous may once again walk in the light, like the day in Narnia when the White Queen lost her power.

What makes a sad day is when the new king of Camelot, the tall, sylvan-tongued Barack who pulled the mighty sword from the stone and smote the nasty Republicans, can only muster that it would be impolitic of him to comment. He later managed a little stronger, but it was too late, too late to have said something to make us believe that there really will be Camelot in Washington. It is a sad day when that same king finds it impolitic to comment on the treachery of another, Durbin, pleading for mercy for the unrepentant, imprisoned Ryan. It is a sad day when that same king, he of transparency and change, given every opportunity to promote said change in Cook County, instead backed the infant son of the stricken Stroger, thereby ensuring for the citizens of that county many more years of the same corrupt self-interest. Of course those citizens really brought it upon themselves by voting for a corpse, but at least he could have made a symbolic gesture. I fear Camelot-come-to-Washington will be little different from Chicago City Hall. Stay those tears you romantic fools; a single person, even one of golden tongue and much intelligence, cannot overcome a system, particularly when he was the product of the system.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Setting the world on fire

In an article in The New Yorker about the rise of over parenting, evidence for this trend cited growing pressure on youth to be successful in the university entrance process. Not surprisingly, applicants resort to plagiarism (the Illinois way) when preparing applications. Even Oxford and Cambridge are not immune to this; or perhaps it should be that especially Oxford and Cambridge are subject to this. The article stated that two hundred and thirty-four applicants to read chemistry at those venerable institutions cited the same example, 'burning a hole in my pyjamas at age eight,' as a formative experience. Two things are noteworthy here. One, it demonstrates an alarming bankruptcy of imagination amongst these applicants that they feel the need to search for a formative experience on the internet. Two, it is perhaps even more alarming that said applicants would think that an Oxford don would be impressed by such a puerile notion.

Times have obviously changed in the entrance process to Oxford. Although my memory is dimmed by the passage of time, I don't recall having to cite a "formative experience" in my application. I'm sure I would have been hard-pressed to come up with something suitably impressive. I was just good at it. Isn't that enough? There were the exams, late in the year; then the anxious wait for the summons to the interview. Alan Bennett's account of his interview resonates somewhat with my own experience of what was probably the most nerve-wracking moment of my young career. I had not yet tackled the driving test, for at that age had no interest or need for cars.

In the dark of a winter night I alighted from the train at Oxford station and walked the mile or so to New College clutching the map tightly so as to be able to navigate the narrow, echoing alleys that snake between the colleges. I entered the college through the narrow door within the larger gate by a porter's lodge that was dark and uninhabited. After a couple of laps of the quadrangle I singularly failed to discover any living thing. All was dark, damp and just a little bit terrifying. Eventually someone appeared, as if from nowhere, and was able to direct me to where I needed to go. There was a slit-like opening in what I later learned was the old city wall; and on the other side of that opening lay another quadrangle wherein life prospered. I was then able to locate my room and prepare for the interviews. I can't remember now if a scout summoned me from my slumbers or not; of course, in later life, the scout, a mainstay of the Oxford tradition, would become a stabilizing influence in one's college career. I'm sure they are all vanished from the scene now, doubtless replaced by eastern European immigrants and the like. The scouts of old would display a kind of parallel lineage to the students; my scout had relatives at several colleges and was clearly well bred for the job.

All meals during the interview stay were taken in college, and we candidates quickly discerned preferred colleges whereat to dine at different times of the day: breakfast at Brasenose, lunch at Wadham, dinner at John's, that kind of thing.

The interview itself was a rather quiet affair. Neither of my would-be tutors was possessed of a particularly dynamic personality. They sat back in their armchairs in a dim, musty, ever-so-slightly claustrophobic room, located somewhere up an improbably ancient creaking staircase, while I teetered on the edge of an old, large, leathery sofa (do I dare slide back in it and relax?). Not being possessed of a dynamic personality either, the interview was pretty low-key. I have no recollection of what was discussed, though I am pretty sure I was not asked about any formative experiences. What impression did I make in those few minutes? Whatever it was, it was not bad enough to undo any good work I might have done in the exams, and I was duly offered a place.

When I look back, my education seems frightfully random: the choice of high school, the selection of chemistry, the choice of college; they were mostly accidents. Did I make any real, informed, intentional decisions at any point? I think not. Much like chemistry itself: a series of random collisions.