Monday, May 05, 2008

Turkmenistan on the way up?

So, articles about Turkmenistan always catch my eye. It is such a fascinating place, what with the previous ruler and all. So, I was really pleased to see an article on Turkmenistan hit the front page of the New York Times. I was especially pleased to see that a friend of mine, Prof. Eric McGlinchey, was interviewed for the article! However, contrary to Eric's suggestion, I think I will pop the cork on the champaign. I am ecstatic that the new ruler has been dismantling the vestiges of the Turkmenbashi, and I hope his more moderate reforms (such as allowing internet access and upping the amount of schooling for children) mark a turning point for this nation.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Rising prices pushes people towards genetically modified foods

There is nothing like cash to help focus the mind.

While in Britain, I saw first hand the public distrust of Frankenfoods, or genetically modified crops. The continent was much more suspicious than Britain about the foods, but there were some outspoken critics (like Prince Charles) in Britain as well. I was doubly mortified when some African countries started to reject genetically modified donations, because they reasonably assumed that what was bad for Europeans is bad for Africans. However, there is no indication that genetically modified foods are harmful, and while Europe is rich enough to reject genetically modified crops, Africa is not, and rejection of the crops yields starvation.

Fast forward to the food crisis of today, and an article in the New York Times shows that with grain prices doubling and tripling, the less expensive genetically modified grains are gaining in popularity, or at least objections to them are declining. I am pleased to see that irrational fears fall away when cash is at stake.

The key word there is irrational. No one has shown popular genetically modified organisms to be harmful, and they can help feed multitudes more. To the people who object because we are "playing god," that ship has sailed. Wheat is the most crossbred organism in existence, not because we've turned our microscopes at it (indeed, it is one of the more difficult crops in a lab), but because we've been manipulating it for the last six thousand years. We've been doing the same with cattle. Ever seen a cow on a hike in the forest? That isn't natural.

I do hope that this allows people to get past their reservations for the "new."

Monday, March 24, 2008

Rocking through Easter

So, Courtney and I headed down to Arkansas for the Easter weekend, both to see my family and to attend my nephew's baptism. While we were there, we stayed with my brother, who has a wii and a playstation 3. After a Friday night of playing Guitar Hero, he headed to Sam's on Saturday and bought Rock Band. I learned two things over the weekend: 1) this game is incredibly fun, and 2) I am incredibly talented.

For the uninitiated, Rock Band is an extension of the performance games such as Guitar Hero or Karaoke Revolution, where in a person plays on a play guitar or sings into a microphone and is measured on hitting notes or playing combinations. Rock Band takes it one step further and has a guitar, a microphone and a drum set in one game, and all three are played in concert to complete a popular song.

With the entire family there, it was great fun. Trulie singing, Andrea on guitar, Kin on drums; fantastic. I didn't know many of the songs (I am not much of a music person), but I still had a great time. It seems like the game sort of transcends the normal limitations of video games, and so reaches a much larger audience (much like the wii console). It makes me think that maybe we should buy the game, just for parties and such.

Even if we don't, I'll remember singing Black Hole Sun. I think everyone will remember. Even the neighbors. (If you can't sing well, sing loud.)

Friday, March 21, 2008

I love my iPhone.

So, I was just working on my computer, writing some e-mails, and a notification came up telling me about a meeting I have in 15 minutes. I naturally reached up to my screen and tapped on the button to dismiss the notification, and was momentarily taken aback when my computer did not respond.

I can't wait for a touch sensitive computer. It will be so much more natural in so many instances.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Astronomy away!

So, last night a bit after 11 I submitted a 15 page revised paper to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. It has taken me a while, but this is the research simulating extrasolar planets that I did under Sara Seager for the final chapters of my dissertation. Even though there was only a little bit of work to do, it hung over my head, so now I feel like I have all kinds of free time. Maybe that will mean some more posts.

Actually, I have decided to begin writing some specific astronomy posts at a new blog, called Space The Nation. If you get bored of reading what I think about the presidential candidates, then you can head over there and read what I think about water in extrasolar planet atmospheres. Perhaps soon I will get around to writing the laymen's explanation of my research that Adam Langley asked for so long ago (I haven't forgotten.)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Ohio, Texas, Vermont, Oh my!

My friends who know me know that I go to bed around 9:30; maybe 10 pm if I am going crazy. I can't remember the last time I saw Dave, though he is the best. However, here I am, at 11 pm, watching the election results.

I had given up on Hillary, but apparently the people of Ohio hadn't. Only half the state has reported, but she is giving Obama a drumming, 15 points ahead. She has won Rhode Island, while Obama took Vermont. They are neck and neck in Texas, though they say Obama might have a lead in the caucuses there.

How exciting! It really is great when a contest is so fluid and dynamic that it isn't predictable. I am thinking back to Sunday, specifically, when the top story of the New York Times were top Democrats basically asking Hillary to step aside, in order to unite the party. It is conceivable that she will be the big winner tonight, and gain significant ground tonight, but more importantly, take the spotlight off Obama.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Hillary is going to lose

I was wrong. I mentioned earlier that I thought Hillary was going to win the Democratic nomination, and now I am not so sure. Obama supporters are doing a great job keeping the momentum and the spotlight on them. It was a great move today to pull the news coverage towards them by asking Hillary to drop out if she doesn't win some big states on Tuesday. Most people read the headlines to mean that Hillary was basically staying in the same way Huckabee is staying in: without a chance in the world of actually winning. And that means that only two days before the next round of important voting, it looks like Obama has already won.

I don't think Obama should be the democratic nominee. I do like Hillary, but mainly I question giving support to Obama. I question Obama because I think most of the reason he is doing so well is because he is unknown. Though the press has done its perfunctory job of digging into his background, mainly he is a blank slate: one on which people are projecting their own desired candidate traits. Because we don't know how he would react in a specific situation, everyone assumes that he would react with them. He is basically being rewarded because he is an unknown, and I don't think that should be a reason to win.

I should clarify that I don't think that Obama has some skeletons hiding in his closet that are waiting to pop out. In fact I don't think he does, but I don't think he should be ahead simply because Hillary has made bold and public support of certain initiatives such as healthcare for every American.

I remember not so long ago another president promised to reach across the aisle and change politics as usual. He actually even had a pretty good record to show that he would work with the other party (unlike Obama's short record, which basically looks like the Democratic platform, and shows little-to-no work with Republicans.) However, that president has changed his tune, and become one of the most divisive presidents in memory. Oh well.

Monday, February 25, 2008

What is "natural"?

I was so pleased to read this article on virgin birth in the New York Times. It tells of a single female komodo dragon at the Kansas zoo who just had baby komodos without being in contact with a male komodo for the last decade. The birth is a fantastic occasion which points to the wonderment of nature, but the article uses it as an illustration of how little we know (and assume) about nature.

I am annoyed and frustrated by numerous individuals to justify their beliefs and their morals based on what is "natural." On the left, people are quick to scorn herbicides, pesticides and genetically modified foods because they are "unnatural". On the right I've people decry homosexual marriage, in-vitro fertilization and both therapeutic and whole cloning because it is "unnatural". Specifically in the realm of vegetarianism, I've heard the argument used by both sides: vegans claiming that it isn't "natural" for humans to drink cow milk, and meat-eaters claim that eating meat is healthy and "natural" for humans.

It joys me to find that "natural" is not such an easy concept to triangulate. Nature is better at doing its job than we are to understanding it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

HD DVD Dead, shame on Sony

It appears that HD DVD has died. I can't say that I had much skin in this game. Though I have a high definition television, I still enjoy plain old vanilla DVDs, and much of the content I watch is television recorded digitally (and in high definition) through my computer. However, I had a strong preference that no company win the format war (er, skirmish, war is a bit grandiose) that pitted Blu-Ray against HD-DVD, and especially not Sony. I had hoped that Sony had learned, through years of heartbreak, that creating a proprietary format and attempting to ram it down people's throats was not the way to go. They have enough experience, with beta and connect, to know that they should embrace partners and work with other companies. I am not sure that Toshiba was a lot more reasonable in their efforts to "reach across the aisle", but I don't think they have such an asinine history of rejecting partnerships or open technology as Sony. Honestly, I wanted both sides to continue their ridiculous positions until digital downloads could trump both of them, so both companies could lose their investments, and hopefully think twice next time about not working together.

Astute readers might mention that I seem to like Apple, and Apple nearly never works with anyone else. Well, that is right. What can I say?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Romney drops out?!

I did not see this one coming. I sort if wanted it to happen, since Huckabee is my conservative candidate of choice, but I honestly thought Romney would fight it out for a little longer. Maybe his sons convinced him to save some of the inheritance for them.

I am really interested to see how this might change the dynamic between McCain and Huckabee. It would be really difficult for them to continue to be so chummy now that there are only two. If Huckabee wants to maintain the possibility of a vp spot, he ought to bow out soon. However, he is basically in the best position he has ever been to really take the nomination. Romney and Huckabee combined took about as many delegates as McCain, so conceivably he could be in a good position if all of those were value voters. However, probably too many of them are fiscal conservatives who wouldn't touch Huckabee with a ten-foot pole.

I think what is fascinating is how the two final Republican candidates are so distasteful to certain segments of their party. This is a critical election for the future of the Republican party, especially if they win the general election.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Super Tuesday

Well, I am heading to bed, but what a fantastic day. To have the excitement somewhat like a general election day, but with so many candidates, is pretty great, I think. It looks like Hillary is taking a slight lead over Obama in number of states won, but the proportional system of Democratic delegates will keep him going well past today.

However, I think the Republican contest, with three active candidates, is of course more dynamic. Support is solidifying around John McCain, but it looks like Huckabee is going to be able to pull out enough state wins to keep going. I can only imagine how this must make Mitt Romney's blood boil. He thinks that had Huckabee been out of the race all Huck's support would flow to him, however, I don't know if I support that theory. I think the reverse is a lot closer to the truth. Were Romney to drop out of the race, I think Huckabee would get a big boost, because of the value voters who would go to Huckabee. I think a lot of Huckabee's evangelical voters would have a problem with Romney's religion.

I can only hope it gets to a brokered convention. Isn't it strange, how now that I am 28, I am excited about watching a decisive convention on television, when only three elections ago I was cursing the political coverage because it prevented my favorite television shows from being on? Wow, I've gotten boring.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Why a Democratic scientist is noticing Mike Huckabee (in a good way)

I am a scientist, and a Democrat, and in general I respect people who value scientific knowledge. So, it was with great surprise that I recently found myself interested in Mike Huckabee's presidential run. I know that at this point he doesn't have much of a shot of actually receiving the nomination, but I think he will do respectably in some contests come super Tuesday. He will probably win Arkansas, I think, and he at least has a small shot at Georgia and Tennessee, and maybe Oklahoma. I was surprised at my interest because Mike is nearly unapologetic about not believing in evolution. I am pretty sure that we would be on opposite sides of the stem cell research debate and abortion, but I feel like I am still rooting for him, nonetheless.

There are a few reasons why I found myself hoping another man from Hope would be nominated for president:
1) My main reason for defending Mike Huckabee is because I feel like I know what guides him, and can appreciate and anticipate how he will make decisions. He is foremost a Christian, and secondly a Republican. So many of his political leanings are rooted in the Bible, and can be anticipated. The Bible is, I think, a generally good guide to life, so why wouldn't I support a candidate who chooses to follow the Bible in his daily life, both personally and politically?

This is a sharp contrast to Mitt Romney, whom I can not anticipate at all. I have a feeling that Mitt Romney uses not the Bible to guide his hand in his day to day decisions, but instead uses political polling. When he was running for the Senate against Ted Kennedy, he sounded like a Democrat, and when he ran for Massachusetts governor, he sounded like a moderate Republican. Now that he is running for the Republican nomination, he sounds like a conservative Republican. I anticipate, if Mitt receives the nomination, that he will tack hard to the center, and start to reclaim those past liberal credentials, in order to win over Democrats and independents. As a Democrat that ought to make me happy, but it just feels like Mitt is slimy enough to say anything to win any election, and I can't stand that. I'd rather vote for a candidate with whom I disagree, but respect, than someone with whom I agree (somewhat more) but don't respect.

2) Secondly, I have found Mike Huckabee to break with his party enough for me to consider him a good leader. This harkens back to my first point a bit, because when "Republican" gets in the way of "Christian", I know Christian will win. In my state of Arkansas, Huckabee proposed and pushed through the biggest creation of child health care through ARKids. Republicans chide him now for expanding the government, but making sure kids have health insurance was more important, as a Christian, than limiting the growth of government. I don't know if he has spoken on the subject, but I feel pretty sure that Huckabee would have stayed his veto pen when considering the expansion of the children's health insurance program that Bush recently vetoed, even though it would have been paid for with tobacco taxes.

I have also beamed with pride as fiscal conservatives have attacked Huckabee six ways to Sunday. I always thought the fiscal conservatives and evangelicals, whose Christian values should direct them to help people, were strange bedfellows. Huckabee basically kicked the Wall Street types out of the bed. He is much more internally consistent than the other candidates, in my opinion.

2) Finally, I would be joking if I didn't mention that the biggest reason I am interested in Huckabee is because he is from Arkansas. I love my state, and I love seeing people from my state succeed. If I were from somewhere else, I think I'd be deriding Huckabee as ignorant and ill-prepared for the White House. However, as it stands, I am excited for him.

Like I said before, I don't think Huckabee has much of a chance on super Tuesday, but I think he will pick up a few states. At this point, I hope he does well, and I hope McCain considers him in choosing a Vice President. With McCain's paucity of religious credentials, Huckabee might just fill out the ticket to secure a certain victory. Just a couple of days and we will see.

Eating meat in the world

So, I am a little late commenting on this article from the New York Times, Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler, but I'd like to mention it none the less. I want to discuss it because I am a pot-smoking, hippy, vegetarian liberal. Actually, I am not all those things, but I am a vegetarian, so sometimes I get lumped into political movements in which I don't believe.

In general, I really enjoyed this article. The author presents ample evidence about the environmental impact of consuming meat, and for the most part doesn't use the accusatory tone often associated with PETA or their supporters. I am especially pleased that he doesn't start down the path of "animal rights," or cruelty, as it is such a nebulous and contentious notion that it is dismissed (as I think it ought to be) by most people who are generally sympathetic to notion of environmental degradation due to meat production.

I am also very much in favor of two of the solutions he submits, namely reduction of farm subsidies and better food technology. I don't agree with President Bush on many things, but I support very much his attempts (in the past, at least) to curb agricultural subsidies. These subsidies prevent consumers from seeing the true cost of their foods, and because of the massive lobbying groups supporting particular foods (I am talking to you, corn), situations develop where food is used in crazy and inefficient ways simply because the cost is artificially low (corn-based ethanol to reduce greenhouse gases? Ridiculous!) Though I am a democrat, I hope that a republican president has the will to cut these subsidies. Goodness knows the politicians from my state of Arkansas don't have the gumption. Growing food is something that the developing world, including South and Central America, do very well, and we should let them, and bring down trade tariffs to prevent their cheaper foods from being sold in our markets. The argument that in a crisis we need to be able to produce our own food doesn't quite hold water to me. In a crisis, we could stop eating a bit of the meat we eat and basically be flooded with the extra grain. I'm disappointed that Mike Huckabee has taken this stand in the presidential debates.

Secondly, the author mentions advancing food technology as an option, and I am proud that he does:
Longer term, it no longer seems lunacy to believe in the possibility of “meat without feet” — meat produced in vitro, by growing animal cells in a super-rich nutrient environment before being further manipulated into burgers and steaks.

I am proud the author mentioned this because for many of the hippy vegetarians who shop at the farmers market and whole foods, this is an option they find so distasteful as to be repugnant. However, it is a viable option, and we have continually manipulated nature in order to feed the growing population of humans (by domesticating cows, domesticating wheat, breeding chickens, etc.) It would be morally deficient of us to not develop technology that could help feed people because it doesn't sit right with us.

However, speaking specifically about moral decisions in food production and consumption, I am disappointed with the authors final paragraph:
In fact, Americans are already buying more environmentally friendly products, choosing more sustainably produced meat, eggs and dairy. The number of farmers’ markets has more than doubled in the last 10 years or so, and it has escaped no one’s notice that the organic food market is growing fast. These all represent products that are more expensive but of higher quality.

My problem with this paragraph is that there is an assumption that farmers market and organic food is better for the environment, when there is at least compelling evidence that organic food and farmer's markets are actually worse for the environment. There may be benefits of organic and farmers markets, such as less chemicals for sensitive consumers, but to say it is environmentally better is either nebulous or outright false. To the author's credit, though, he mentions that these specialty and more expensive options for meat hopefully will lead to less consumption, which, considering the epidemic of obesity in our country, would be over all a good thing.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Florida makes Rudy cry

Wow. So it seems like Rudy made the wrong decision. Today Floridians decided that John McCain would be a better nominee for President of the United States, along with Hillary Clinton. I think that will be the way the country also goes.

Rudy is struggling for third place, nearly even with Mike Huckabee. It doesn't seem like his campaign can go much further than tonight. However, how was Rudy to know? He couldn't have made a stronger showing in Iowa, with his liberal tendencies, nor in South Carolina. Michigan was conceivably MItt Romney's to lose, possibly because of the income differences between good ol' Mitt and the multitudes of laid off voters there, but in hindsight, Mitt pulled it out and Rudy did well to not have wasted his resources. However, the one state I don't quite understand is New Hampshire. That is where McCain gathered most of his momentum, and Rudy could have been seen as a local(ish) vote in that state. It was really a poor calculation. It seems obvious to say it now, but I think for the last six years people (republicans) have been asking themselves how things would be different if John McCain had been elected in 2000, and now they get the chance to vote for him. He was Rudy's big opponent, and he was able to grab the momentum in New Hampshire, and he isn't giving it away. He already looks like a national candidate, which was Rudy's only claim to fame.

Now, I think the democratic candidacy is still somewhat up in the air, but I think Hillary will win it. She will take New York, probably California, and Obama will take Illinois and Georgia. They will split some smaller states, but she will look like the winner, and then she is back as the inevitable candidate. I am going to pretend John Edwards isn't in the race, and I am going to say it will be so much more difficult to survive until the convention if their are only two candidates. I can see the republicans getting to a brokered convention, especially with the southern states in the mix and giving Huckabee a possible boost, but with only two viable democratic candidates, it will be easier for that tree to fall one way or the other, and I think it will fall to Hillary.

So, McCain versus Clinton. I am not sure it looks good for the democrats if that is the case.

Monday, January 28, 2008

MacBook Air

So, I used to work at the fruit stand, and because of that, some people have asked me what I thought about Apple's last big offering, the MacBook Air. I have to admit that I am pretty underwhelmed. So, Apple has released a lot of products that were panned initially, and then turned out to be hugh hits, like the original iMac (only USB!) and the iPod ($400 for a music player!), but I don't see the MacBook Air making any such significant waves. The reason is that the design (to quote an Apple poster) is evolutionary instead of revolutionary. Like the iMac, the machine could mainly be defined by what it is missing (firewire port, PC card slot, and most significantly, an optical drive), but in terms of the basic offering, it is far less bold a statement than the iMac was at the time. It is a slightly thinner and much lighter portable computer, for basically a 50% cost premium over the MacBook. The only reason I let myself get a little excited about the MacBook Air is because of what it portends, namely future iterations of thinner, lighter MacBooks. I think there is a market for this offering, but I am hesitant to say it is going to be a big market. One could say that mobile executives would buy this (and I am sure they will), but I think the lack of an evdo integrated card (along with Apple's typical ease of use) will limit the uptake.

I think the biggest buyers of the MacBook Air may be the least exciting (to me, anyway) of all market segments, which is at least the situation in my family. Of all my family members, only one called me asking about purchasing the MacBook Air: my Mom. She is a baby boomer with excess income, no interest in firewire ports or the fastest processor, and she puts a premium on making everything she carries with her light, so that she can pick up and visit the grand-babies at a moment's notice. For some reason, I am not sure she will make it onto the next Apple ad, however.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Star Trek trailer

OK, I've never hidden the fact that I am a dork. As an astronomer and a former captain of a Star Trek fan club, I don't think of myself as the coolest kid in the class. So, I'm not embarrassed to say that a big reason I went to see Cloverfield is because of the trailer at the beginning of it. It is the first showing of the trailer for the new Star Trek film being released Christmas 2008, by producer J.J. Abrams of Lost. The movie has recast all of the characters of the original series (Kirk, Spock, etc.), and though the trailer was limited and enigmatic, I am excited. I am hoping that the new movie will be a bit of a re-imagining, like Battlestar Galactica. Star Trek, though I am a huge fan, has become a little stagnant, and having some time off, with no tv series or movies in active production was probably pretty good for it (Star Trek: Enterprise was canceled in 2005). Here's hoping they have shed some of the baggage of the past and come up with a good movie that more than just trekkies can enjoy.