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Travels in Siberia, II

December 13, 2010 Leave a comment

At the end of August, I mentioned reading an article by Ian Frazier in that week’s New Yorker about his 2005 visit to the site of a former gulag in Siberia. I also noted that he would have a new book coming out in October, Travels in Siberia.

Well, it came out, and two weeks later I pondered whether to buy the physical book or the Kindle e-version. Before heading to Chicago last month, I bought the Kindle version in anticipating of reading it on the plane. Perhaps that was the wrong decision. I spent the flight to Chicago working on a NYT Thursday crossword, then reading a New Yorker. On the way home, the next night, I watched some dumb movie, listened to music, and I don’t know what else.

But I’m now reading the book, about a third of the way through, and missing the book version, since I would have liked to be able to refer regularly to the map of Siberia. In the Kindle version, the map is essentially unviewable (as is invariably the case). And even on the iPad, which usually renders graphics far better than the Kindle does, the map doesn’t work too well. The print and the cartographic details are just too small.

This is a minor nuisance, though, because the tale’s the thing, and the tale is fabulous, as is Frazier’s writing. Like in his earlier gem Great Plains, he bounces around a lot — deciding to visit, making early forays into Siberia from the west and the east, learning Russian, preparing for a drive across the length of Siberia. Years pass in between various of the episodes. People come and go. I’m now at the beginning of the Siberia drive, two days in.

The foray into Siberia from the east was not a deep one. After some time in Nome, he went due west across the Bering Sea to Provideniya, from which he took a fascinating side trip to a salmon fishing site. A better map would help, since a theme of this part of the book is just how stunningly close North America and Asia are, and how similar the Native cultures on either side are, which once one thinks about it is hardly surprising, as they are essentially one. The peoples, climate, topography, food sources are the same. However, history, governments, and funding aren’t, and however poor that part of Alaska is, the Russians have it worse.

Frazier also gets to Little Diomede Island for the briefest of stays, shuttled there by helicopter and shuttled back later in the day. With Russia’s Big Diomede Island looming not much more than a mile away, this is the place where one really can look out one’s window and see Putin rearing his head.

Excellent book. I just wish I could have seen Frazier in late October when he passed through town on his book tour. I intended to, but couldn’t make it. I do hope to see him some day, given how much I admire his writing (and given our slight connection as college classmates).

Categories: Books

Profiles in Humiliation

December 9, 2010 Leave a comment

[Reuters]

I wrote just three days ago about John McCain’s disgraceful fight against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. There may be no need to re-visit the issue, but after today’s Senate vote “against” repeal of DADT, I can’t help myself. (The quotes surround “against”, of course, because in a normal universe, a vote of 57-40 in favor of repeal would not be called a vote against it, but in wacko-US-Senate universe, you need 60 votes to do anything. An issue for another day.)

Three votes short. How did this happen? Susan Collins was the lone Republican voting for repeal. Where, among others, was Scott Brown, who said just last week that he supported repeal? But the real question is, how did John McCain turn into such a dickweed?

I suspect the real answer is that he always was one. (See entry under dumping first wife.) But some think he was once a man of principle. Esquire writer Chris Jones for example. Here’s what he wrote last week. I think he’s too kind.

Over the last four years, since 2006, McCain has become one of the great American tragedies. He will be studied in history books for the wrong reasons.

This week, he has clashed bitterly with the military’s leadership — including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen — over the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” It’s just the latest in a long series of about-faces and sellouts.

McCain, in his waning years, has become a traitor to reason. He has erased every good that he’s done.

In October of 2006, speaking about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he said: “The day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, ‘Senator, we ought to change the policy,’ then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it.”

Now that leadership has come to him, after careful study and thought and internal debate, and has made a loud and unwavering appeal to the Senate to strike the seventeen-year-old compromise. Never mind that it’s unconstitutional. It’s a hateful, outdated law from a different time.

Most of the kids joining the military today were toddlers when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was instituted, and there is now concrete, factual, surveyed evidence that they think differently than the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines with whom McCain served in Vietnam.

Really, though, McCain’s opposition has less to do with the substance of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and more to do with the blackening of his own heart.

Categories: Politics

Mariners Make Moves

December 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Jack Cust

[Elaine Thompson, AP]

And here I was afraid the Mariners would stand pat over the winter rather than making the bold moves that will get us back to respectability after our 61 win, 101 loss 2010 season. Boy was I wrong. In the last 24 hours, we’ve signed Jack Cust and Miguel Olivo.

Okay, Cust and Olivo aren’t Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford (just signed by the Red Sox), but the Mariners don’t have Red Sox kind of money. We must be content with a little less.

I know. This sarcasm isn’t becoming. But I don’t know how else to react. How excited am I supposed to be? A year ago, we were coming off an unexpectedly successful 85-77 season, and then we signed Cliff Lee. Anything seemed possible. This of course turned out to be an illusion. We didn’t address the holes in our lineup, and we paid for it with a historically low-scoring team. The thing is, are Cust and Olivo the answer? Every little bit helps, but Cust and Olivo will both be 32 when the season starts. Their best seasons may be behind them.

I’ll be patient. These may just be the first steps in a broader plan. Still, it’s a lot more fun this week being a Red Sox fan.

Categories: Baseball

Potato Latkes

December 8, 2010 Leave a comment

My favorite food! Top five anyway. And last night we had some. Gail figured out years ago how to make near perfect potato latkes. Not the flour-filled blobs most restaurants serve, but crisp ones. And I was the fortunate beneficiary most Chanukahs — maybe two out of three or at least one out of two.

But it’s been awhile. Our last happy latkes dinner was five years ago. Chanukah came late that year, starting after Christmas. We celebrated Chanukah and the new year jointly with a New Year’s Day latkes dinner, we being Gail, me, Joel, and Joel’s friend Dmitry. Joel was home following his first semester at college; Dmitry was back from a fall in South America.

This year, like that year, we waited until the seventh night of Chanukah for our feast. Accompanying the latkes was apple sauce made by our brother-in-law Jim. Latkes. Apple sauce. What else do you need? A perfect dinner. The miracle of oil.

Categories: Family, Food, Holidays

Department of Missed Opportunities

December 6, 2010 Leave a comment

Remember August 2008, when John McCain still dreamed of asking Joe Lieberman to be his vice-presidential running mate? Then he came to his senses, realizing the right would excoriate him, and instead chose an obscure first-term governor from Alaska. What a clever move it seemed, following his post-convention rise in the polls and the excitement engendered by the move. But soon he recognized that in his ignorance and cynical desire to appeal to the right-wing base, he had selected a nincompoop who was destined to drag him down.

Last week brought us a vivid display of what we missed out on. There was McCain leading the valiant fight against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

In a sometimes tense hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. McCain, one of the senators who is closest to the military, was in the remarkable spot of arguing with a phalanx of its senior leadership — the defense secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the general who commands the Army in Europe and the Pentagon’s general counsel — and saying they should not push for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the 17-year-old law that requires gay men and women in the military to keep their sexual orientation secret or face discharge.

. . .

“I remain concerned,” Mr. McCain said, “as I have in the past, and as demonstrated in this study, that the closer we get to service members in combat, the more we encounter concerns about whether ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ should be repealed. These views should not be considered lightly, especially considering how much combat our forces face.”

As Fred Kaplan explains at Slate:

With the release of the Pentagon’s report on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” will Sen. John McCain and his fellow resisters man up, do the right thing, join the 21st century (as well as every other Western country), and let homosexuals openly enlist in the military?
Certainly the report’s findings leave little room for continued stalling on the issue.

McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said a few years ago that he would consider repealing DADT once the senior military leadership endorsed doing so. When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did just that earlier this year, McCain said he would await the results of a Pentagon study that had been commissioned.

When the study came out on Nov. 30, concluding that repeal would carry “low” risks for any measure of military effectiveness, McCain said he needed to question the officers who actually command troops—which (with all due respect) neither Gates nor Mullen directly does—especially the service chiefs, including the commandant of the Marine Corps (who had already spoken out against repeal).

In persisting with this charade of bigotry disguised as prudence, McCain sidesteps the fact that the repeal of DADT has publicly been endorsed by his very own favorite officer, Gen. David Petraeus—who has been the commander of both the wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, that U.S. troops have been fighting lately.

Lieberman, in contrast, is strongly in favor of repealing DADT. He told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that “John is my good friend, but I disagree with him on this. … I think the question that John raised today has been answered in this survey. Two-thirds of the American military, a little more than that, say that they don’t think repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ will have any effect on military effectiveness, and most importantly, 92 percent of the American military who feel that they have served with somebody gay or lesbian in their own unit say that it has simply not been a problem.”

But Lieberman had other things on his mind last week. In his role as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, he decided to exercise authority no one knew he had.

Early this week, after hacker attacks on its site, Wikileaks moved its operation, including all those diplomatic cables, to the greener pastures of Amazon.com’s cloud servers. But today, it was down again and mid-afternoon we found out the reason: Amazon had axed Wikileaks from its servers.

The announcement came from Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Lieberman said in a statement that Amazon’s “decision to cut off Wikileaks now is the right decision and should set the standard for other companies Wikileaks is using to distribute its illegally seized material.”

Committee staff had seen news reports yesterday that Wikileaks was being hosted on Amazon’s servers, a committee spokeswoman told TPM. The service, we should note, is self-serve; as with services like YouTube, the company does not screen or pre-approve the content posted on its servers.

Staffers then, according to the spokeswoman, Leslie Phillips, called Amazon to ask about it, and left questions with a press secretary including, “Are there plans to take the site down?”

Amazon called them back this morning to say they had kicked Wikileaks off, Phillips said. Amazon said the site had violated unspecified terms of use.

Soon a company based here in Seattle had followed suit:

But his pressure on Amazon is already having a wider effect. The New York Times reported this afternoon that a Seattle-based company called Tableau had deleted charts and graphs uploaded by Wikileaks.

Tableau explains on its web site:

Our decision to remove the data from our servers came in response to a public request by Senator Joe Lieberman, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee, when he called for organizations hosting WikiLeaks to terminate their relationship with the website.

We are fortunate that Joe is watching out for the privacy interests of our empire, as self-appointed corporation watchdog and chief of police.

What a pair!

Categories: Politics

Gil McDougald, RIP

December 5, 2010 Leave a comment

When I learned that former Yankees third baseman Gil McDougald died one week ago, I thought immediately that I should write about him. Then I realized that I didn’t know much about him. His last season, 1960, was my first as an attentive follower of baseball (and passionate Yankee fan). Thus, he occupies a central role in my baseball memory, but more in the abstract than through any concrete images of him. That 1960 Yankee team was a great one. My father took me and my brother to an April game, only for us to learn it was rained out as we searched for parking. We would return for game three of the World Series, a fabulous victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates in a fabled Series.

There’s much I could say about that season, and I imagine doing so some day. For now, I’ll limit myself to just a few thoughts.

I always think of the Yankees infield that year as comprising Moose Skowron at first, Bobby Richardson at second, Tony Kubek at short, and McDougald at third. The third baseman of that era whom I got to know much better than McDougald was his successor, Clete Boyer, younger brother of the Cardinals’ Ken. Looking over the stats from 1960, though, I was surprised earlier today to discover that McDougald was already on his way out that year, with Boyer playing more games at third than McDougald did. Casey Stengel, who would be fired after the World Series loss to the Pirates, moved the players around far more than I remembered. McDougald played 84 games at third and 42 and second; Boyer played 99 at third and 33 at short. Kubek played 133 at short but also played all three outfield positions. Richardson’s outings were more stable — 141 at second and 11 at short.

The combinations were dizzying. I had the impression that Elston Howard had supplanted Yogi Berra behind the plate by 1960, and the stats bear that out. If the DH existed, Berra would probably have taken on that role. Instead, he caught 63 games in 1960 (compared to 116 the year before and 15 the year after), while Howard caught 91 in 1960 (compared to 43 the year before and 111 the year after). Of course, the Yankees had the luxury of a third first-rate catcher, Johnny Blanchard, who would be behind the plate for the fateful final pitch of the season, the one Bill Mazeroski . . . well, never mind.

As long as I’m going around the field, I’ll remind you that Roger Maris was in right in his first season as a Yankee, alongside Mickey Mantle. He would hit 39 home runs, second to Mantle’s 40, but win the MVP award ahead of Mantle. Their home run competition the next year is the stuff of legend, with Mantle succumbing to health problems and Maris moving well ahead late in the season. Again Maris won the MVP ahead of Mantle. Mind you, these are the first two seasons that I followed baseball closely. I had no idea this wasn’t normal. I was spoiled.

And who was in left field? I suppose that’s something of a trivia question now. It was Hector Lopez, a pioneering ballplayer from Panama.

The most striking thing to me as I review McDougald’s 1960 teammates is how young many of them were. Boyer was 23, Richardson and Kubek 24, Maris 25, Mantle still only 28, and Skowron 29. This could have been a team for the ages. And indeed, they would make the World Series five straight seasons, from 1960 to 1964. But Mantle had injuries, Maris was haunted after 1961, Kubek would retire at 29, Richardson at 30. No wonder the Yankees fell apart so quickly after losing the 1964 series to the Cards.

As for McDougald, you can read more about him in the NYT obituary from last Tuesday’s paper. An excerpt:

Playing with the Yankees for 10 seasons, McDougald was a five-time All-Star and a gifted fielder, appearing mostly at second and third but also at shortstop. He helped preserve what became Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers when he threw out Jackie Robinson in the second inning after Robinson’s liner was deflected to him, caroming off third baseman Andy Carey.

The next spring, McDougald was enmeshed in another long-remembered baseball moment, this one bringing sadness. On the night of May 7, 1957, at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, McDougald drilled a line drive off a pitch from the Indians’ brilliant young left-hander Herb Score that struck Score in the face. Only in his third season but seemingly destined for the Hall of Fame, Score remained on the ground for several moments. He was carried off the field, having sustained a severe injury to his right eye and a broken nose.

After the game, McDougald told reporters, “If Herb loses the sight in his eye, I’m going to quit the game.” McDougald went on to finish fifth in the balloting for the A.L.’s most valuable player. Score, the league’s strikeout leader his first two years, regained his vision but was sidelined for the rest of the season. He later developed arm trouble and was never again a successful pitcher.

. . .

Like Score, he had been victimized by a line drive, this one hit by Yankees outfielder Bob Cerv during batting practice before a game in August 1955. McDougald, who was standing near second base, was struck in the ear. He missed only a few games, but he gradually began to lose his hearing.

By the 1980s, he had become almost totally deaf and had withdrawn from baseball old-timers events and other social situations.

His deafness remained unknown to the public until he spoke about it in an interview with Ira Berkow of The New York Times in July 1994. Physicians who read the article told McDougald of a surgical procedure called a cochlear implant, which converts sound to electronic signals.

He underwent the implant in November 1994, and tests the next January confirmed that his hearing was essentially restored.

McDougald later worked to raise awareness of technology to aid the hearing impaired. As he told Sports Illustrated in September 1996: “When you see the progress, particularly with little children, it’s so satisfying. It’s like hitting a home run with the bases loaded.”

Categories: Baseball, Obituary

Less, Fewer, Euphony

December 4, 2010 2 comments

While I was eating breakfast Tuesday morning, I turned to the Wall Street Journal sports page, which featured an article about the college football conference championship games that would be played this weekend. The theme of the article was that these end-of-season games have not been all that good. They’re just a money grab by the leagues and the networks. By way of evidence, it was pointed out that

Quite often, these games don’t even turn out to be good: Fewer than half of them have been decided by 10 points or fewer.

Gulp! I almost choked on my milk. There’s a story to be told here. So let’s tell it.

Some people believe language use should be based on rules, and that these rules should be followed consistently. Not that long ago, I tended to fall into this camp, the prescriptivist camp. The alternative view might be described as “anything goes”. The underlying view of this camp is that the study of language is empirical. Language usage evolves, people do what they do, with variation arising naturally. We can study this variation, and indeed we may well take pleasure in the study, but dictating how people should speak is not only misguided, it’s pointless, like trying to tell water to roll down the hill one way rather than another.

Descriptivists don’t reject the notion of incorrect usage. They do reject the creation out of thin air of usage rules that bear little relation to the actual work of people judged to be good writers, and even to the writings of the rule makers themselves.

Exhibit number one is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which has been oft and well criticized by linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and co-founder of one of my favorite blogs, Language Log. You can take a look, for instance, at his article 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice, or at many of his Language Log posts.

I was introduced to Language Log four years ago when colleague and linguist Ellen Kaisse gave me Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log, a compilation of many early Language Log posts by Pullum and blog co-founder Mark Liberman. What they said made sense, was funny, and changed my life. Really. Enough so that I had the aforementioned trouble swallowing when I read the quoted sentence from the Wall Street Journal.

Let’s turn to the ultimate rulebook itself, Strunk and White. We learn there, under the entry for Less, that it

Should not be misused for fewer. . . . Less refers to quantity, fewer to number. “His troubles are less than mine” means “His troubles are not so great as mine.” “His troubles are fewer than mine” means “His troubles are not so numerous as mine.”

Not one of their best explanations, but the point is simple. I like to think of it in terms of quantities we measure that are liquid-like versus quantities we measure that we count one by one. Thus, if we each fill buckets with water, I might have less water than you, but I wouldn’t have fewer water. If instead we fill the buckets with apples, I might have fewer apples than you. Can I have less apples than you? Well, maybe, but it sounds a bit awkward. Or does it?. Maybe a better example would be fingers. If I lost one through an accident, I would say I have fewer fingers than you do. Saying I have less fingers is just odd (though I may well have an odd number of fingers).

It’s not a bad rule as far as such rules go, but it shouldn’t be followed slavishly. And when we get to points rather than fingers or apples or water, we get into uncertain territory. If I came home from a basketball game and someone asked how I did, I might say not so good [or not so well, but that’s a whole nother issue], I didn’t even score my usual 20 points. The person might respond, in shock, “You had less than 20 points?” That sounds right, doesn’t it? Or do you prefer “You had fewer than 20 points?” I wouldn’t. Points are indeed discretely measured. I can score only a finite number of points, and I can count them one by one. But “fewer” isn’t necessarily the more natural word here.

We can argue this. Argue what, exactly? I would suggest that we should be arguing which word sounds better. It comes down to euphony, as judged by native (or long-term) speakers/listeners/readers/writers of the language, not adherence to a rule.

Once we let euphony be our guide, the situation facing the WSJ writer is no contest. Let’s look again. “Fewer than half of them have been decided by 10 points or fewer.” Even if using less rather than fewer with points is a close call, it’s not at all close in this context, with fewer occurring already at the start of the sentence. The double use of the word is unconscionably grating. Why would anyone do that, other than to honor an absurd rule?

I decided Tuesday that I would need to write a post about this. It has taken four days. What didn’t take four days was my email to Professor Pullum. He would share my shock, wouldn’t he? And so, without delay, I wrote him the following note:

Maybe this is such a tiresome issue that you would just as soon not get an email about it. Stop reading if you see fit. But I just wanted to pass on an example in the sports section of today’s Wall Street Journal that brought my reading to a halt. It was in an article about college football conference championships, with URL

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704584804575644840639073672.html

Here’s the sentence that tripped me up:

“Quite often, these games don’t even turn out to be good: Fewer than half of them have been decided by 10 points or fewer.”

Even though the rules of football allow only 11 options for point differences in the interval [0, 10], I would probably always prefer “10 points or less” to “10 points or fewer”. But given the nearby “Fewer than half”, I don’t really see much of a choice here. It’s just an awful-sounding sentence.

Oh well.

I know that Professor Pullum is a busy guy. I really did imagine he might not finish the email. I surely didn’t expect a reply. So when I didn’t get one Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Thursday, I thought nothing of it. But then, late Thursday afternoon, a Language Log post popped up on my RSS feed with the title, Stupid less/fewer automatism at the WSJ. That got my attention. It was by Professor Pullum, and it turned out to be the post I should have written myself, if only I had his knowledge and his merciless wit. (Rather than quote from it, I suggest that you click through and have a look.)

Am I mentioned? What academic wouldn’t want to know? See for yourself, but you may have to read to the end. Don’t worry. Doing so will take fewer time than reading this post has.

Categories: Language

Dumb Move of the Day

December 2, 2010 Leave a comment

On Sunday I described some of our Thanksgiving Eve woes, one being the difficulties we were having setting up Gail’s new iMac. Ultimately, we had to do so from scratch, without transferring data from her old iMac. The worst indignity was that iTunes wouldn’t recognize the new computer as hers, which means she couldn’t recover all the items she has bought — songs, TV shows, iPhone and iPad apps. As we learned, one must write to the appropriate iTunes rep (calling isn’t an option) and beg for forgiveness. The friendly but patronizing iTuner assured her that he understood how frustrating it is to lose one’s data. He would make an exception to policy and allow her to download her purchases from iTunes again. They were put in the appropriate place on iTunes’ end and she was able to see them in her downloads folder at the iTunes store. This afternoon, almost 48 hours later, the download to the new iMac was complete.

But that’s her story. This is about me. I mentioned near the end of the Thanksgiving Eve post that I ordered my own new iMac last Friday. It came this afternoon. I didn’t want to set it up right away, because doing so would involve transferring data from my ancient MacMini, which I suspected might take hours, during which time I wouldn’t be able to use either of them. Around 5:00 PM, with Joel’s assistance, I connected the two and began the transfer. We then went out to do some errands and have a quick dinner. On our return, the transfer was going well, with an estimated time remaining of 3 1/2 hours.

What to do? Maybe this was a good time to disconnect my computer’s external speakers, which I would no longer need thanks to the built-in iMac speakers. Of course, the external speakers are better than the iMac speakers, but they also take up space. I figured I would try life without them. To my surprise, Gail offered to take them, which meant the speaker clutter wouldn’t disappear. It would simply move from one corner of our extended built-in desk to the other. I wasn’t sure that was progress, but that was the plan.

To implement the plan, I started to slide the new iMac out of the way so I could get to the speakers. It was right in front of them, and in front of my about-to-be-retired MacMini, to which it was yoked as it sucked up the MacMini’s data. If you have the picture, perhaps you can guess what happened next. I’ll pause a moment.

Ready?

When I slid the new iMac away from the MacMini and its peripherals, out came the iMac’s power cord. The iMac shut down, the MacMini kept pumping out the data, but it was just spilling all over the desk. Well, okay, maybe not. I don’t know what the data was doing. All I know is, it wasn’t going into the iMac, and I had just wasted two hours.

That’s your dumb move of the day.

I plugged the iMac back in, started the process again, left the speakers alone, and realized I could work on Gail’s new iMac. That’s where I am now. The data dump will surely be continuing when I go to sleep. I’m eager to see what dumb thing I do tomorrow.

Categories: Life, Stupidity

Arsenic-Based Life

December 2, 2010 Leave a comment

I can’t remember the last time I had a science post, but there was a pretty cool announcement today in the realm of astrobiology, and I can’t resist mentioning it.

One might describe astrobiology as the inter-disciplinary study of how life begins, or could begin, on Earth or elsewhere in the universe. One challenge to studying this is that we haven’t found life anywhere else in the universe. That makes it a little difficult to study life elsewhere. But what we can do instead is study life in harsh conditions on Earth, such as at deep sea hydrothermal vents. Faculty at my university study such things. I even know some of these faculty. And a few years back, my administrative duties included overseeing our Astrobiology Program, not that that made me especially knowledgeable about the field. But I did come to develop some appreciation for it. I always remember the remark of a visiting astrobiologist that this field is really going to explode when life is found elsewhere in the universe.

Meantime, we have to settle for life here. That’s the context for the news announced today. The NYT’s Dennis Overbye explains in his story in tomorrow’s paper:

Scientists said Thursday that they had trained a bacterium to eat and grow on a diet of arsenic, in place of phosphorus — one of six elements considered essential for life — opening up the possibility that organisms could exist elsewhere in the universe or even here on Earth using biochemical powers we have not yet dared to dream about.*

The bacterium, scraped from the bottom of Mono Lake in California and grown for months in a lab mixture containing arsenic, gradually swapped out atoms of phosphorus in its little body for atoms of arsenic.

Scientists said the results, if confirmed, would expand the notion of what life could be and where it could be. “There is basic mystery, when you look at life,” said Dimitar Sasselov, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and director of an institute on the origins of life there, who was not involved in the work. “Nature only uses a restrictive set of molecules and chemical reactions out of many thousands available. This is our first glimmer that maybe there are other options.”

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA astrobiology fellow at the United States Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., who led the experiment, said, “This is a microbe that has solved the problem of how to live in a different way.”

This story is not about Mono Lake or arsenic, she said, but about “cracking open the door and finding that what we think are fixed constants of life are not.”

Dr. Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues publish their findings Friday in Science.

I find this pretty exciting.

*Responding to the notion of powers we have not yet dared to dream about, the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson asked, “Is this where we have to choose between X-ray vision and flying?”

Categories: Life, Science

FIFA Travesty

December 2, 2010 Leave a comment

FIFA's Sepp Blatter announcing the 2022 World Cup host

[Shaun Botterill/Getty Images]

FIFA announced the host countries for the 2018 and 2022 soccer World Cup today. It had already been established that the 2018 World Cup would be in Europe, and Russia had been considered a front runner, so it was no great surprise when they were selected. For 2022, the US and Qatar were perhaps widely considered the two favorites, so it was perhaps no surprise either when Qatar was chosen. But as unsurprising as the result may have been, it served only to lend credence to the belief that the entire process is corrupt, as are many FIFA officials.

Let’s start with the obvious. Why would anyone schedule a sporting event in Qatar in the summer? Why in particular schedule the most widely watched sporting event? Would the answer have something to do with money? It’s hard to think of any other explanation.

The US did have the disadvantage of having been a World Cup host just sixteen years ago. Fellow finalists Japan and South Korea served as joint hosts just eight years ago. Yet if the priority were to award the honor to a country new to hosting, the remaining finalist, Australia, would have been an excellent choice.

There probably isn’t much point in being shocked by the behavior of FIFA. Just frustrated. Let me turn to Sports Illustrated’s soccer expert, Grant Wahl, for more.

Choosing Qatar and Russia is the biggest indictment possible that FIFA is not a clean organization. The message here is that petrodollars talk. For an outfit that likes to thump its chest and claim that it is not corrupt (Trust us, says FIFA president Sepp Blatter), having two oil-wealthy winners is the clearest message possible that FIFA needs a complete overhaul in its leadership and organization. Russia had a pretty good case for being chosen, but Qatar (which was funded heavily by its government and bought the support of celebrity endorsers) didn’t make a lot of sense in the first place. Get ready for searing summer heat in the Middle East!

The pity is, a World Cup here in 12 years would have been extraordinary. Not only is the quality of play in the US better and better, not only are more US players having an impact in the top European leagues, but US fans are increasingly sophisticated about soccer worldwide. I get to observe this daily in my own house. Joel, and he is surely typical of many in his generation, follows all the major European leagues and knows all the top players in the world. I learn a lot from him. The next World Cup in the US, whenever it occurs, and I hope I get to see it, will be something special.

Categories: Politics, Sports