and that’s a great name for a blog, too

If you like stimulating conversation, you should be reading Crooked Timber. These are just from the last few days:
How will history judge? Micah picks up on this post at En Banc and asks, What will the America of 2104 think of the America of 2004?
In this post, philosopher Brian Weatherson points with sensible trepidation to Peter Singer’s new book, The President of Good and Evil: The Convenient Ethics of George W. Bush. Given the timing of its release, I honestly suspect the book is aimed more at getting Singer back on TV than anything else. Nonetheless, Brian raises interesting questions that he’d like to see Singer tackle, and the comment thread has some interesting back-and-forth about Singer’s most famous ideas regarding abortion and infanticide.
Speaking of books, this post is a must-read. Harry wants to know of “two books you think every educated person should have read, published 1970 or later”. On another blog, this topic could be tiresome, but on CT I can almost guarantee that you’ll get some great reading recommendations out of it. For me, so far:
The History and Geography of Human Genes – Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza
In Search of Lost Time – Marcel Proust
Feynman�s Lectures on Physics
Maus – Art Spiegelman
Development as Freedom – Amartya Sen
Love in the Time of Cholera – Marquez
The Drowned and the Saved – Primo Levi
The Eighth Day of Creation – Horace Judson
Understanding Media – Marshall McLuhan
An Artist in the Floating World, Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
Sometimes a Great Notion – Ken Kesey
The Sheltering Sky – Paul Bowles
Finally, this post is a quick pointer to a book review, but the comments thread finds its way to the question “what is science?”, which I find endlessly interesting. Commenter Keith M Ellis does a bang-up job of making Kuhnians (Kuhnites? Kuhnts?) look ridiculous.
Update: that remark was unfair, the more so since I keep comments off on posts highlighting conversations on other blogs. My apologies to Mr Ellis; see the thread (in the next day or so; I’m really busy) for a more substantive contribution from me.
Update: see also here.

well, shit.

Like pretty much everyone, I’ve been using Tris-based buffers for nucleic acid electrophoresis since I started doing it. Turns out that the buffering capacity of the solution makes no real difference, and what you really want is a solution that doesn’t carry so much current (and therefore doesn’t generate as much heat; I’ve melted TAE/agarose gels before). I guess something was lost in translation between the interview and the article, because “carries a voltage” is meaningless to me. Also, I note that Kern and Brody have “filed for a provisional patent on the sodium boric acid solution” — bwahahahaha! Good luck enforcing that. (In defence of the researchers, I suspect that beancounting shitbags at Johns Hopkins have made such idiocy mandatory.)
What’s great about this is that everyone has been doing it the same way for thirty years, not bothering to think about improving the method since it worked well enough and, you know, that’s the way everyone does it. Now these guys come along and deliver a smack-your-forehead moment to every molecular biologist in the world. *smacks self in forehead*
What’s bad about this is that my one burning scientific ambition is to get a methods paper like this published, and I’m insanely envious. Why didn’t I think of this? (Don’t answer that.)

random stuff

photo of Porpidia sp., an Alaskan lichenPorpidia flavocaerulescens, orange boulder lichen, photographed in Alaska by Steve and Sylvia Sharnoff, whose beautiful lichen sampler and gallery are taken from their book, Lichens of North America. (thanks to Anne Galloway for the link)

03Brit2.jpg I never thought too much about the old adage that you can’t fold a piece of paper in half more than 7 times; I tried with a couple of different pieces of paper, couldn’t do it, and stopped there, except for a vague idea that I could do better with a much bigger piece of paper. Not Britney Gallivan, whose elbows you see there on a piece of paper folded 11 times (she’s since managed 12). She derived expressions to describe the folding limits for one direction (L = (π.t/6)(2n + 4)(2n – 1), where L = length and t = thickness of the material and n is the number of folds) and alternating directions (roughly W = π.t.23(n-1)/2), then demonstrated the validity of her equations with gold foil and then with paper. Another approach is described here on Math Forum, or you can buy Ms Gallivan’s booklet. I wish I’d had her chutzpah, not to mention her smarts, when I was in high school.


8<Education is about as important as an issue gets, if not quite so pressing as poverty or disease, and science education is, for obvious reasons, my thing. For this reason, and as part of an ongoing program of becoming more involved in the various communities (geographic, scientific, etc.) to which I belong, I’ve applied to be a judge at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Besides, it’s gonna be fun.
8<(via Language Hat) Ever wonder what was up with the odd names for those new superheavy elements? William Drenttel explains that they’re placeholders, just the atomic numbers rendered in Latin, for use until their existence is confirmed and someone comes up with a real name.
8<(via Rebecca Blood) Washington State Supreme Court Justice Faith Ireland won her second national powerlifting championship last weekend. The 130-pound judge squat lifted 198 pounds, bench pressed 133 pounds and deadlifted 253 pounds. Oh yeah — she’s sixty-one. Makes me feel kinda, eh, flabby.
8<(via Leuschke) This is a great short story.
8<Over at Language Log, John McWhorter is engaged in some utterly fascinating cross-disciplinary detective work. It’s a bit complex to compress, so just go read it. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
8<(Joi Ito) Eisbrecher‘s self-titled debut album is being released with two blank CD-ROMs, because “We are of the opinion that the music buyers are criminalized enough and have been made responsible for the wretched state in the music industry. We are giving them the chance to make 2 legal copies for private use with ‘official blanks’. It can’t always be that the end users have to take the blame for something that international corporations have arranged with their artist-burning methods.” Kudos.
8<(via Slashdot) Stephen Wolfram’s much-hyped book A New Kind Of Science is available free online. I still won’t understand it, but at least I won’t waste fifty bucks on being reminded how dumb I am.
8< Eliot takes a smack at that talentless idiot Lileks so I don’t have to.


Notiosorex cockrumi, a new shrew speciesNew Shrew: Texas Tech University professor Robert Baker has named Notiosorex cockrumi after his PhD supervisor. Baker discovered the shrew in 1966, but only recently confirmed that it is not the same species as N. crawfordi , which shares its home range in Arizona’s Santa Rita mountains. Cute little sucker (but don’t let that fool you: shrews are savage). Photo credit: Robert Baker, Arizona University.

mountain bongoBeleaguered Bongo Being Brought Back By Biologists: the last wild mountain bongo is thought to have died on Mt Kenya in 1994, but the species is not extinct thanks to hunter-turned-conservationist Don Hunt. Between 1970 and 1980, Hunt established a breeding program in the US that saw the captive population climb from the 20 he caught to around 400. On January 20, 18 bongo from the US joined 17 others at the Mt Kenya Game Ranch, where it is hoped that they will establish a semi-tame breeding pool with which to re-establish a wild population. If this story doesn’t bring a lump to your throat, you’re a serious hardass. Sniff. Photo credit: Mount Kenya Animal Orphanage.
Missing Monkey May Still Survive: no picture, sadly, as Miss Waldron’s red colobus (Procolobus badius waldroni) is just too damn rare. Anthropologist Scott McGraw and colleagues declared it “probably extinct” in 2000, but shreds of evidence have rekindled hope that the species may survive in remote corners of the Ivory Coast. McGraw has a photograph, a skin and a tail, all of them collected in the last few years. Hunting and destruction of habitat have brought the Miss Waldron’s to the brink; if they have in fact pushed it over, it will be the first recorded primate extinction in 200 years. Apart from being a shitty thing to do, that’s a bad sign for the region because primates are extraordinarily adaptable, and the local ecology would have to be in really bad shape to have killed one off.
oceanic whitetip sharkSeveral Species in Shark Decline: once the most commonly caught sharks in the region, oceanic whitetip and silky sharks have almost vanished from the Gulf of Mexico, according to biologists Julia K. Baum and Ransom A. Myers. Their study (Ecology Letters Feb 2004: vol. 7 pp. 135-145) compared 1950s and 1990s catch rates data and concluded that the whitetip, silky and mako shark populations in the Gulf of Mexico have declined by 99, 90 and 79 percent, respectively. The study has drawn extensive criticism; oddly enough, the critics cited work for the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Blue Water Fishermen’s Association. The photo shows an oceanic whitetip (credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium).
sea otter, Enhydra lutrisSomeone Otter Do Something: for reasons that remain unclear, the northern sea otter (Enhydra lutris) population of southwest Alaska has declined to the point where the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is listing it as “threatened”, one step away from “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. The Alaskan population was nearly eliminated by 1911, when an international treaty banned hunting; by the 1980’s almost half of the world’s northern sea otter population lived in southwest Alaska. Since then, the population has declined by somewhere between 50 and 70 percent. Photo credit: Friends of the Sea Otter; more info available from

nader nader nader

It seems that Ralph Nader’s recent announcement that he is considering running for Preznit again has stirred up controversy in the blogosphere. Max has this to say, and Lawrence Lessig this; the comments threads on both are good. A while back, Patrick said this, which also begat a commentfest that I meant to feature.
The Nader issue is interesting to me because it highlights two potentially very different approaches to politics. Is your vote a tactical weapon in the struggle to improve society, or an expression of your political and ethical worldview? Is politics the art of the possible, or the arena in which different moral systems do unflinching battle? I’m something of a utilitarian and very much a meliorist, so I think you should write or paint or flash a boob on national TV if you want to express yourself; when you vote, do the most good you can and leave your ego out of it. (I should add: that’s not to say that even swing-state Nader 2000 voters were simply indulging their ego; it seems to me that it would have been possible, before the excesses of Gee-Dub and the Corporate Welfare Tribe, to be willing to risk electing Bush II in order to promote a strong progressive voice and a third party.)
(An aside: I note with pleasure that Max’s trackback window says “Continuing the discussion…”. As always, comments off on this entry; the conversation is happening at the end of those links.)

i’m just here for the food

headshot of Alton BrownI sure like Alton Brown. I don’t watch his cooking show Good Eats as often as I might, because the wacky/zany stuff feels forced to me, and gets in the way of the information (which is excellent), but Mr Brown seems like someone whose company I would really enjoy. His website is entertaining, informative and well designed, and gives me the sense of a complex and curious mind. He even has a blog:

Georgia state school Superintendent Kathy Cox has decided that the word

a welcome voice in any medium

(via BoingBoing) I don’t think this quite qualifies as a blog, but Jimmy Carter will be sending regular reports to be posted at the Carter Center as he travels through West Africa as part of a program aimed at eradicating Guinea worm and in order to launch the Development and Cooperation Initiative in Mali. In any case, I am always glad to hear from the best ex-President the US has ever had, and that down there is just about my favourite combination of categories.
Update: There were complaints (“Bastard, I nearly hurled!”), so I moved the pictures of Guinea worm infection below the fold.

Continue reading


8< “Open Reading Frame” would have been another good name for this blog. I didn’t think of it until after the spousal unit built me a site and a logo that I like too much to change, so mol biol geeks feel free to steal that idea.
8< (via Jared) A big ol’ collection of record labels on the web.
8< Like photoblogs? is your one-stop shop (3,273 photoblogs in 54 countries and 25 languages as I write this). If that’s too much, just try Eliot Shepard’s, which is consistently wonderful.
8< (via BoingBoing) It had to happen sometime, I guess: geek names son version 2.0.
8< Super Size Me wins Documentary Directing Award at Sundance. I want to see this film, in which madman Morgan Spurlock documents the terrible things that a month-long diet of nothing but McFood does to his body.