A Walk in the Park

April 21, 2010 at 12:27 am (By Amba)

Like a root cracking cement, Chapel Hill is starting to get through to me.  It’s taken three years, but I’m beginning to feel as if I live someplace besides just Planet Jacques.  My fractured mental map of this place, isolated snapshots from frazzled forays out to fetch this or that and rush back home again, is beginning to fuse into some kind of whole.

With me it’s not the culture (though I’m starting to be interested in that, too), it’s the nature.  I grew up in a city, Chicago, that at the time had a lot of big old trees and weedy wilderness left in its back alleys, back yards, and empty lots.  This is like that, only the town is much smaller and the green is bigger.  Whether by accident or design, or a combination of the two, there’s a lot of greenery streaked through the town — parks, leftover woods, greenways for biking and jogging built under the streets where, except for the distant swish and growl of cars, you can feel as if you’re deep in the country.  It’s reawakening the nature nut I was as a child.

Pushing Jacques along the Bolin Creek Trail greenway this afternoon, I kept stopping to examine things, locking J’s brakes so I could stray off the path, peering up into trees to try to locate and identify singing birds.  I made the unoriginal discovery, new to me, that birds of the same species make the same call very differently — they have individual voices.  Why don’t I know any of these trees’ names?  It seems as rude and alienating as not speaking a word of the language of the country you’re living in.  I found myself wanting to find the binoculars I won on Wheel of Fortune, wanting to get bird and tree field guides, or maybe to find a local botany course to take.  Natural History, baby!  Got the name, might as well have the game!North Carolina is very jungly, and probably was even before the introduction of kudzu, which now blankets and smothers everything, making bushes into tempting dark tents you want to crawl under.  The tree on the right has been pythonized by and has fused with some kind of vine.  Has the vine replaced the tree, or has the tree engulfed the vine?

“Bolin Creek” is probably as much a sewer as anything, but it’s pretty anyway.  It must swell enormously after a rainstorm, from the height to which its banks are carved out and tree roots like these exposed.  We want to walk over (it’s all of about two city blocks from home) someday right after a big rain to witness one of these flash floods.

There’s a fungus among us.

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Photographic History

April 20, 2010 at 11:14 pm (By Randy)

Take a gander at these B&W photos of some cars of yesteryear and then read “the rest of the story” under the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Food for Thought

April 20, 2010 at 10:44 am (By Amba)

Chart from Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (a group that links animal rights to human health), via David Kekich of Maximum Life Foundation:

When you look at federal subsidies for food production, here’s what you find:

  1. Meat/Dairy                             73.8%
  2. Grains                                     13.2%
  3. Sugar/Oil/Starch/Alcohol        10.7%
  4. Nuts/Legumes                           1.9%
  5. Vegetables/Fruits                      0.4%

97.7% for foods that make you sick vs. 1.9% for nuts and legumes and a pathetic 0.4% for the healthiest foods.

Think this has anything to do with why Americans are obese?

The average 18-year-old today is 15 pounds heavier than an 18-year-old in the late 1970s. Adults have put on even more weight during that period. The average woman in her 60s is 20 pounds heavier than the average 60-something woman in the late 1970s. And the average man in his 60s is 25 pounds heavier.

And unhealthy?  PCRM quotes the 2006-2007 Annual Report of the President’s Cancer Panel:

[C]urrent agricultural and public health policy is not coordinated—we heavily subsidize the growth of foods (e.g., corn, soy) that in their processed forms (e.g., high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated corn and soybean oils, grain-fed cattle) are known contributors to obesity and associated chronic diseases, including cancer.

“Not coordinated” is a delicate way of putting it —  how about “rampant hypocrisy”?  Not even conscious hypocrisy — the federal bureaucracy is itself so obese that its right hand and left hand are no longer remotely in touch.

Scolds on both the right and left blame our lack of self-control and “personal responsibility” for obesity.  Sure, that’s a factor, but it’s also a plain fact that many people couldn’t afford to eat healthily if they knew how and wanted to.  The next chart shows the direct impact of government subsidies on food and beverage prices: These policies have made simple healthful eating a gourmet experience — a luxury for the affluent, educated elite, who then scold and despise the less affluent for their “lack of self-control.”

(I’m very aware of this problem because I’m in the middle:  I insist on eating healthily, but it means I spend way too much on food, even though I almost never splurge on organic unless it’s marked down. I probably spend close to $1500 a year just on romaine lettuce and apples, never mind the whole-grain artisan bread.  We used to eat blueberries by the bucket, like bears, in summer when they were 99 cents a pint.  I buy them now, maybe, the one week in summer when they get down to $1.50.  The rest of the time, they’re an expense I can’t justify — $3.99 a half pint.)

Jeff Nield of Treehugger suggests that the solution would be to subsidize fruits and vegetables too; David Kekich of Maximum Life Foundation counters, “Better yet, let’s just get the government out of subsidies altogether, and let the markets and your health find their natural levels.”

Related:  a new study shows that the same metabolic pathways in yeast, fruit flies, mice, and humans respond to calorie restriction in ways that protect against cancer-causing mutations and prolong life.

Luigi Fontana, MD, PhD, and his co-authors . . . write about how cutting calorie intake between 10 percent and 50 percent decreases the activity of pathways involving insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), glucose and TOR (target of rapamycin), and considerably increases lifespan in animals.Genetic mutations involved in those pathways have the same effect. Those animals have far fewer problems with diseases related to aging, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and cognitive problems.

“About 30 percent of the animals on calorie restriction die at an advanced age without any diseases normally related to aging,” Fontana says. “In contrast, among animals on a standard diet, the great majority (94 percent) develop and die of one or more chronic diseases such as cancer or heart disease. In 30 percent to 50 percent of the animals on calorie restriction, or with genetic mutations in these aging-related pathways, healthspan is equal to lifespan. They eventually die, but they don’t get sick.”

Unfortunately, many humans are moving in the opposite direction. As obesity reaches epidemic rates in Western countries, Fontana says rather than closing the 30-year gap between healthspan and lifespan, the gap is likely to grow. It’s even possible lifespan may decrease as people develop preventable diseases such as atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes and certain forms of cancer.

Those growing rates of obesity are a reason some scientists think calorie restriction will never catch on, regardless of its potential benefits.

Severe calorie restriction is no fun, and it has side effects such as loss of muscle mass, “reduced libido because calorie restriction reduces testosterone levels,” and sensitivity to cold, because metabolism slows and core body temperature drops.  It gives new meaning to the old joke, “Your life may not be longer, but it will feel . . . much longer.”  But the scientists are hoping “it may be possible to develop less drastic interventions or medicines that influence [the same molecular] pathways affected by calorie restriction and help keep people healthy as they get older.”

In the meantime, there is surely a happy medium.  But one thing is crystal clear:  our government’s preventive health policy is doomed by its own agricultural policy.

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Where I Lived, and What I Lived For

April 15, 2010 at 10:38 pm (By Amba)

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A Gibbous Man

April 11, 2010 at 1:38 am (By Amba)

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My Side Versus the Other Side

April 10, 2010 at 10:37 pm (By Randy)

Why is the other side of the debates I’m on always so hypocritical? They always jump on what my side says, and yet they willfully ignore all the faults on their own side. Let’s be honest about the double standard: The other side gets away with stuff that my side would never get away with. It’s just like the other side to be so deceitful: They’re always looking to score any advantage they can. People like that drive me crazy, and it seems like most of the people on the other side are just like that.

(Source: The Internet)

– Orin Kerr at The Volokh Conspiracy

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20 Great Foods You Aren’t Eating

April 10, 2010 at 10:31 pm (By Randy)

OK, maybe you are eating them, but that’s the headline of this article in The Times (UK).

The list:

  1. Baked Beans
  2. Green Tea
  3. Oily Fish
  4. Parsley
  5. Apples
  6. Grapefruit
  7. Tomatoes
  8. Pomegranates
  9. New Potatoes
  10. Oats
  11. Poached Eggs
  12. Frozen Peas
  13. Prunes
  14. Dark Chocolate
  15. Frozen Berries
  16. Olives
  17. Almonds
  18. Chillies
  19. Wholewheat Pasta
  20. Turmeric

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The Harmonious Blacksmith

April 10, 2010 at 2:01 am (By Theo Boehm)

(Cross-posted from A Quiet Evening)

For no other reason than I think this is a fun piece and the interpretation by Trevor Pinnock so spot-on, I’d like to offer you the last movement of Handel’s Suite for harpsichord No. 5 in E major, HWV 430, a set of variations called “The Harmonious Blacksmith.”

Here is the reasonably good Wikipedia article about the piece. The name “Harmonious Blacksmith” apparently was not given until the 19th century.

This is odd, because this piece seems to have blacksmithing built into it, no matter when it was named. One of the reasons is the effect of the slightly distant key of E major. Most keyboard tuning systems in Handel’s day had noticeably different tone colors in different keys, owing to the uneven thirds inherent in the unequal temperaments used at the time. In every system I’m familiar with, the “sharp” keys, starting with A major, become increasingly bright and almost “clangy”-sounding, because thirds such as E-G#, A-C#, B-D#, or, my favorite, F#-A#, are often quite a bit sharper than they are in equal temperament used for pianos today, in which all the thirds are equally sharp.

The dominant (V) chord of E major, B major (B-D#-F#), has two rather out-of-tune intervals, courtesy of any of the tuning systems likely to have been used by Handel. This chord has a remarkably metallic sound on the harpsichord. The immediate impression of this piece played, as it is here, with historical tuning on a good harpsichord, is distinctly one of clanging. That, combined with the characteristic “hammer blow” figures in the bass in the first variation, and other obvious imitations of the sounds of a smithy throughout the entire thing, leaves very little doubt that this was intended as a “character piece,” featuring a blacksmith at his anvil. The fast runs in the last variation nicely represent showers of sparks, as well.

The question is whether there was a real blacksmith who was the inspiration for this piece, or, more likely, the mythical blacksmiths behind the famous story of the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras discovering the laws of musical harmony by listening to hammers striking in a forge. The sounds Pythagoras heard that harmonized well when struck together were the result of hammers that had mathematical relationships—their masses were simple ratios or fractions of each other. Here is a good, illustrated summary that also mentions Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith.

The Pythagorean story was passed down to the Middle Ages and later in Boethius’ early 6th century treatise, De Musica. “Pythagoras at the Forge” had become a well-known musical conceit, old in Handel’s day, that connected tuning and temperament with this legend.

As I said, Handel must have chosen the key of E major for its “metallic” sounds, but there could be something a little more sly behind the obvious symbolism of the story and achieving the desired effect to tell it on the harpsichord. The tension between the mythical Pythagorean purity of simple numbers, and the compromises of tuning necessary to play in all keys—even the E major that makes the instrument sound like an anvil—might have seemed a hidden piece of wit to Handel, fit for connoisseurs who understood that the dirty end of keyboard temperament got to represent mathematical and Classical perfection.

As philosophy and religion have been saying for thousands of years, nothing is perfect in this fallen world. But is seems to be our fate to grasp for perfection and order, even if it’s to be imagined under swinging hammers or among out-of-tune strings.

The gentleman at the harpsichord uses this part of our nature to draw us from the coarse thoughts and crude instincts that also occur naturally to us. If he can truly succeed for a few minutes,  I suppose that is all you can ask of any music.

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Hungary Gets Ugly [UPDATED]

April 9, 2010 at 11:54 am (By Amba)

From the essential European media-watch newsletter Sign and Sight:

Die Welt 03.04.2010

The situation in Hungary looks very sinister indeed. Viktor Orban’s right-wing populist Fidesz Party is expected to win 60 percent in the general election on April 11th – with the far-right Jobbik party scooping a further 20. Hatred is constantly being stirred up against Jews, homosexuals, Roma and prominent intellectuals, the literary academic and writer Lazlo F. Földenyi tells Paul Jandl: “Not long ago a weekly paper published an article calling on the population to destroy the works of Imre Kertesz, Peter Esterhazy, Peter Nadas and György Konrad, to borrow their books from the libraries and destroy them. It was meant as some sort of book burning. This paper has close ties to Victor Orban. It is symptomatic of the mood in the country in general. Anyone who speaks critically about Hungary is branded a ‘nest fouler’. People know that these writers are held in high regard abroad and this makes them nervous. Even Orban recently made a speech in which he railed against the ‘star intellectuals’.”

The original interview is in German.

UPDATE:  Pajamas Media showcases the positive side of the now nearly completed Hungarian elections:  the election of an antisocialist, and hopefully anticorruption, conservative majority.  The negative side — the 17% won by the radical-right Jobbik party — remains  a worry.

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Why I Gave Thanks

April 8, 2010 at 9:39 pm (By Rodjean)

The call came the afternoon before Good Friday. They obtained custody of their teenaged grandson from their daughter six months before. Now during Spring Break a driver crossed the center line on a California highway. Grandma was still in the hospital, and their grandson lay dead in a Las Vegas mortuary. The twist was that the boy’s mother was fighting them over disposal of his body. She obtained lawyers based on the promise of a wrongful death suit against the driver of the other car. It turns out that the custody order didn’t survive the death of the boy, so the parents have priority in deciding what to do with his lifeless body.

It seemed a travesty on top of a tragedy to the grandparents. The mother was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She abused her son badly enough that she went to prison when the boy was two, but regained custody thereafter. The grandparents had acted when the kid, beaten and bullied, refused after a visit to go back to Miami with his mother. He hated the town and he wanted nothing to do with her. The court appointed psychiatrist said the relationship with Mom was awful. She hit her son and gave him a black eye between court hearings. Her lawyers finally convinced her she was going to lose and she conceded custody to the grandparents last fall.

Despite law favoring the parent, even a parent who had lost custody twice due to abuse, the grandparents wanted to bury this troubled child where they knew he would want to be: near their Indiana home, not in the city he loathed. There were negotiations over the Easter weekend. She might agree to cremation (paid for by the grandparents) and splitting the ashes. After several hours of attorney time devoted to hammering out the details of a deal, she backed out. She might agree to allow burial in Indiana at the grandparents’ expense if the grandparents paid to fly her and her three other kids and a boyfriend up to Indiana for the funeral, paid for her hotel room and got a her a car. Wait – that’s not enough. She needs to have a Catholic service instead of the one prepared by her Protestant parents. Would it work if the grandparents paid for a priest to do a Catholic service before the Protestant funeral? OK. More attorneys prepared the paperwork, then she backed off again.

By this point they had spent several thousand dollars on attorneys. They could probably prevail if they put together the evidence of her abuse and testified that Miami was the last place the boy wanted to be. But, that would cost thousands of dollars more and prolong their pain. They gave up, and they are now on their way to Indiana for a memorial service. And I, a witness to this family tragedy, thought about my children and my grandchildren and all the petty problems of everyday life and gave thanks.

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