Monday, January 31, 2011

Football worries

When the Green Bay Packers take the Super Bowl field Sunday, you can bet I'll be in front of the TV, tuned to the dreaded Fox, ready to root them on. They may have taken the boy out of Cheese Head Land, but put the Pack into the championship, and the youthful thrill returns.

Still, in the back of my mind, worries already are growing. Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers already has suffered two concussions this seaon. Will this be the game that sets Rodgers on the road to chonic traumatic encephalopathy or even Alzheimer's?

Rodgers, in true football fashion, has asserted that he won't alter his scrambling style in hopes of avoiding another concussion. But brave talk can't change a growing undercurrent of concern that head hits - from under the Friday night lights to Sunday afternoon extravaganzas - may be signaling the end of football as we know it.

So fart, studies offer plenty of cause for worry. But much remains unproved. For instance, scientists don't even know if 50 minor head hits are as dangerous as two or three concussions. But it is clear that college football players suffer over 1,000 such hits a year in games and practice.

My boyhood conviction that the Packers are My team is back this year. But I don't want my players turning into punch-drunk losers in life.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Saying goodbye to helium

Looking for more to worry about? Well, how about helium? The world is running out of it.

There's something absurdly ironic about this. Throughout the universe, helium accounts for 24 percent of the mass of the elements. It was created during the first three minutes of the Big Bang, when it still was hot enought to act as a cosmic furnace sythesizing the simplest of atomic nuclei. Our sun is stuffed with the stuff. So are Jupiter and the other gas giants.

But the Earth is too small. Practically all helium free in the atmospher heads up and away, straight into space. That's why it is rare. In fact, the element was discovered in the sun in 1868, before it was found on Earth.

It turns out that helium is found captured in natural gas that has been around radioactive decay. (It's a decay product.) It was mostly produced in the U.S. on the Great Plains.

Now, according to a National Geographic article, the National Research Council says we're running out. The magazine said the U.S. began stockpiling helium in 1960 but later decided to sell it off. When it is gone, most production will be in Russia, Algeria and Qatar. And that could be just 40 years worth.

That's bad news. Helium is crucial for cooling things like MRI scanners, purging rocket engines, and much more.

But worst of all: Can you imagine a kid's birthday party without helium balloons?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why beer batter is better

It is time for something light and fluffy ... something like beer batter.

My late father-in-law was a good guy who was raised on a farm, had no education after high school, and was a swing-shift laborer at a tire factory for most of his life. But when it came to finding, catching and cooking walleyes, he was a genius.

He made his own beer batter - alternately swigging and pouring in search of perfection - before dipping the boneless fillets and gently dropping them into the hot oil.
The result was a kind of bliss. The fish tasted better than a fish has any right to taste.

So what was the secret? Now I know.

It turns out that it really is the beer. The beverage is saturated with carbon dioxide, which (unlike salt or sugar) doesn't dissolve well in hot liquids. Instead. it emits bubbles that expand the batter mix and gives it that lacy, crisp texture.

But if the bubbles just flew off, like champagne bubbles, they wouldn't do much good. Beer, however, has foaming agents that not only give a glass of beer its head, but keep the bubbles in the batter. The foam also insulates the meat so it can cook gently while the batter turns golden brown.

The alcohol helps, too. It evaporates faster than batter made of water or milk, so it doesn't have to cook as long. And the faster the batter dries, the lower the risk of overcooking the food.

I don't know whether or not my father-in-law knew any of this. He'd never been to cooking school. But, being a genius, maybe he did.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Time to redefine 'universe?'

I can't read anything by physicist Steven Weinberg without learning something (albeit in a limited, popular-science kind of way). In a review of a 2010 book called "The Grand Design" by Stephen Hawking, Weinberg notes that there is a new and startling necessity for "fine tuning" of the universe to allow for life.

It has to do with dark energy, the energy of "empty" space that is driving the accelerating expansion of the universe. The problem is that, via quantum mechanical calculations, dark energy should be so powerful that the expansion would prevent galaxies, stars and planets from forming. Obviously, this is not the case, and other factors must cancel out almost all of that speed. The thing is, those other factors - not well enough understood to calculate - must be fine tuned to about 56 decimal places.

That's a lot of fine tuning! But if we live in a "multiverse" where a gazillion different universes exist, only a tiny fraction of which could support life, the fine tuning would be moot. A universe like ours could exist - would almost have to exist - along with all those other universes with entirely different laws of nature. And it is no big whoop that we happen to live in a good one.

The multiverse idea, much discussed among physicists these days, remains speculative, but multiple lines of scientific thought support it.

I've been interested in this stuff since I was about 10 and read George Gamow's book explaining general relativity. I wish I could rewind back to 10 years of age ... just to keep up on whatever unfolds next.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Language and thought

Scientific paradigms come and go. An idea will emerge and flower, often to be overshadowed by a newer, better idea, and find itself left to wither and die. But sometimes, rarely, the old idea stirs in its grave, threatening to rise from the dead.

A case in point is the idea by linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf that a language may determine h0w its speakers are able to think. Their most famous example came from studying the Hopi language, which they said lacked many markers for past, present and future, leaving them to speculate that Hopis don't think of time in the way that we do.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis gained a big following in the 1930s and 40s, but by the 1970s it was all but abandoned. The problem? It suffered a near complete lack of evidence to support the claims. And, it turned out, they didn't know enough Hopi to realize it did the tense job in other ways. Linguists came up with a new idea: thought is universal.

Enter an article in the current Scientific American by Lera Boroditsky, an assistant professor at Stanford and editor in chief of "Frontiers in Cultural Psychology." Now, she said, researchers have the evidence.

She's armed with plenty of examples,, such as the little girl from an Australian Aboriginal tribe that has no words for "left" and "right," but only uses absolute cardinal directions. She can instantly point to due north from anywhere (you try that away from home), or the Amazon language that lacks numbers and only has words for "few" and many."

Examples abound, and although more work is needed, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis seems intuitively correct. But here's a self test: If you were told that "grue" is a color half way between green and blue, would you start noticing the color grue?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A sad tale

A transit of Venus was a really big deal in astronomical circles during the last few centuries - timing the planet's apparent passage across the surface of the sun was the only way to get a better estimate of the Earth's distance from its very own star.

Transits visible from the Earth are rare. They occur in an odd pattern: eight years apart, then 121.5 years, then eight years, then 105.5 years. (The next one happens in 2012, then we wait 12 decades.)

Usually we read about successful measurements. Here's the other side of the coin.

Guillaume Le Gentil (Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean Baptist Le Gentil de la Galaisier to his friends) was born in 1725 in Coutances, a city in the northwest part of France near the English Channel. Le Gentil trained for the church, but became fascinated by astronomy. He did well, and discovered many Messier objects (galaxies, star clusters, etc., that looked like blobs in contemporary telescopes).

As the 1761 transit of Venus approached, he was one of many astronomers who scattered all over the world to view the event. Le Gentil headed for India, but conflict with the British and other problems delayed him. He ended up watching the transit from the rolling deck of a ship, making accurate measurements impossible.

Then he made the fateful choice to stick around exploring the region until the next transit in 1769. When the big day arrived, clouds obscured his view. Rats.

Dejected, he headed home, only to run to more delays - storms, dysentery, you name it. When he finally got back to France, he discovered he had been declared dead. His wife was remarried, and his relatives had divided up his property.

(There is a happier ending. He remarried, regained his property via lawsuits (and some help from the king) and got his job back. He died at 67.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

That old-time constitution

Jill Lepore, a New Yorker staff writer and professor of history at Harvard, began her recent piece on the U.S. Constitution by quoting Benjamin Franklin urging delegates to sign the document. "I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve," he said. But he hoped that all delegates with reservations "would with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument."

Lepore was contrasting Franklin's open-mindedness with "originalism," the idea judges must only interpret the constitution by determining the Founding Fathers' intent. This is nothing new. In 1916, conservatives blasted Woodrow Wilson's concept of a "living constitution. In 1921 Warren Harding called the constitution "divinely inspired." Then along came the New Deal and, a little later, civil rights legislation to further stir the conservative pot.

The fight goes on. After Ronald Reagan nominated Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall was moved to comment: "I do not believe that the meaning of the constitution was forever fixed at the Philadelphia Convention."

Liberal legal scholars are quick to note that the writers of the constitution are long dead. And even if they could be brought to life, they would be nothing like us. Columbia law professor Jamal Greene wonders how rote obedience to views more than 200 years old, in a time of "wildly different racial, ethnic, sexual, and cultural composition," can be justified on democratic grounds."

If the Founding Fathers were revived, they would understand so little and be baffled by so much. Just their views on the place of women and blacks would render them pariahs.

Originalism will march on in the hearts of many conservatives. And remember: For many of them, their stance is no great leap. After all, many are pretty sure the Bible is infallible, too.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

An icy lesson

It didn't take a kid growing up in northwest Wisconsin long to realize that, pleasant as the respite from the cold might be, a January Thaw was bad news. We may have been throwing snow into higher and higher piles for a couple of months, but it was snow. Ice was a different story.

Icy, dangerous sidewalks. Icy, slippery roads, with the ice often of the no-see-um black variety. A January Thaw never lasted long, and the people were glad. Let new snow bury all that ice.

Saturday morning, as I backed out of my garage into the alley, ice was far from my mind. That changed in a hurry when my futilely spinning tires sang: "Abandon all hope." Before long I managed to end up crossways across my alley, my tires trapped in icy ruts made all the more slippery by the film of water freed by the miserable 45-degree temperature.

Abandoning pride as well as hope, I called Helena Towing Service. The guy said he could help, but warned it probably would cost at least $75. Had he been within reach, I would have answered with a hug.

He arrived 45 minutes later with a big bag of something called FloorDry, made for cleaning up machine-shop spills. He had me turn the wheels right and left as he spread the stuff, and suddenly I could back into a neighbor's yard, pull into the alley (heading downhill this time!) and scoot off to run my errand.

It was an expensive lesson, but I learned it well: FloorDry. Never back out of your garage without it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A pipe dream

It probably is a pipe dream of the highest order to even hope that current talk of greater inter-party cooperation in Congress might lead to reform of that body's most noxious cancer - filibusters.

Before the new Congress convened this year, all of the returning Democratic senators urged Majority Leader Harry Reid to do something about filibusters (and about "holds," by which an anonymous legislator can block a nomination without giving a reason). Few paid any attention. But now ... after Tucson?

Let's dream on for a moment. After all, it was filibusters and holds that kept the healthcare law from including a public alternative to private insurance, kept financial reform from being able to prevent another meltdown, and kept nearly 200 executive and judicial nominees in limbo. While totally abolishing filibusters is beyond even dreams, what if there were new rules that required filibusters to actually be conducted, not just threatened? What if a rule would limit them to final passage of a bill, not every little stage a bill goes through? Such things would go a long way toward meaningful reform ... and cooperation.

Hey, I can dream. Would you pass the opium?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Out of it in TV land

Probably because of all my years as a print journalist, I never formed the habit of watching the local TV news. After all, these people didn't have the staff or the airtime to cover much of anything. And, unlike bigger cities, small-town Montana seldom had fires or bleeding with which to lead the broadcast.

But about a month ago I re-caught the Jeopardy bug. "THIS is Jeopardy!" finds me moving to the front of my seat, ready (or not) for the challenge.

Jeopardy is broadcast on a Great Falls station, Channel 9, just after the local news. But while Great Falls is 90 miles to the north, I discovered that the local news is HELENA local news! (It's the same on the Butte station, 65 winding mountain miles to the south.) Have people in Great Falls and Butte suddenly developed a craving for news from the capital city? I rather doubted it.

So I did some digging. It didn't take long. It turns out the new reality dates back to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which required planning to begin on changing TV stations from analog to digital. It's taken a while, but you might remember those scary warnings that as of June 12, 2009, your analog TV is junk without a conversion box. One of the purposes of the act was to free up broadcast spectrum space, and analog takes far more space than digital does. Now, broadcasters have room to play. That's why those mini-channels are popping up.

I must report that local TV news hasn't improved much, wherever it comes from. But I finally took a close look at the Channel 9 logo. On my TV, it says Channel 9.1.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Doing time at a traffic light

I drove southwest on Helena Avenue through falling snow, pulling to a stop behind two other cars at Malfunction Junction - a five-legged monster further complicated (the way I was going) by yet another traffic light just a few hundred feet ahead and quick to turn red.

I was sitting at the longest red light in town. I knew this because, about a quarter century ago, I wrote a feature story about Helena's traffic signals. Settling in for at least a two-minute wait, I began recalling some history.

The first changing traffic signal arrived years before cars came along. In London in 1868, red semaphore arms and a red gaslight told carriage drivers to stop. Green meant caution - go ahead carefully. In 1912 Salt Lake City installed traffic lights for its streets - designed to be wide enough for a long mule train to turn around - but each signal required an operator. Two years later Cleveland installed the first electric lights.

By 1921 Detroit had the first automated, hour-way, three-light signals, installed towers in the middle the street. But the Detroit police should be more famous for another feat. In 1915 some genius invented the stop sign.

Whoa - the cars in front of me were pulling out. But as they chugged along up the snow-covered little hill, hope of making the next light dimmed. But maybe ... maybe ... rats!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Let's walk for sex!

If you want to watch a paleoanthropologist blow a gasket, just ask him about the "missing link."

"The term is wrong in so many ways, it's hard to know where to begin," said Tim
White of the University of California, Berkeley. "Worst of all is the implication that at some point there existed something halfway between a chimp and a human. That's a popular misconception that has plagued evolutionary thought from the beginning, and one Ardi should bury, once and for all."

"Ardi" - short for Ardipithecus ramidus - is the 4.4 million year old adult female fossil White and his team found about 15 years ago that may be the oldest hominid on the books. It's more than a million years older than the famous "Lucy," which was 3.2 million years old. (It certainly is NOT a link to the far-off creature that was an ancestor to both apes and humans.)

But what's ironic is that nowadays, Ardi may be just what many people have in mind when they think about a missing link.

Ardi is a curious mix of ancient traits far older than the apes of its time and modern hominid traaits that lead straight toward humans. For instance, take Ardi's foot. It allowed the creature to walk upright, if not easily, and walking upright is the main definition of a hominid. The foot is built much like Lucy's - who strolled with ease - but it also had a big toe that stuck out to the side - great for climbing trees.

And then there's Ardi's pelvis, which National Geographic author Jamie Shreeve called a perfect example of a "primitive primate caught in the act of becoming human." Lucy had hips made for walking; chimps have hips made for climbing (they walk with a huge lurch); but Ardi's hips are (dare I say it?) half and half.

So why walk at all? Some think it had to do with sex. Apes have giant, sharp canines to fight off other males for mates. Maybe Ardi's menfolk, with their small canines, made sex-for-food deals with females and had to have hands free to carry the food home.

Now, there's the beginning of a human trait!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

History and memory

An essay reviewing "The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History" by Jill Lepore opened by own eyes a little. (Apparently they only open so far.)

Gordon S. Wood, professor emeritus at Brown, wrote that Lepore came down a bit too hard on the Tea Party, which is only doing what Americans (and people around the world) have been doing forever - taking inspiration from THEIR version of history. That version says nothing of slavery, the subjugation of women, and all that. It's all about white people in white wigs fighting against taxation and for freedom on the individual level.

But the Right is hardly the only side to exploit history for its own uses. For example, when tried in 1970 for blocking a military base, the radical historian Howard Zinn told the court he was acting "in the grand tradition of the Boston Tea Party."

Freethinkers love to point out that Jefferson was a deist and that the founders deliberately excluded God from the Constitution. Unfazed, the fundamentalist Right praises God that the United States has been a Christian nation from the very beginning. Never mind that either point of view leave out a whole lot of history.

Wood says there is as big difference between the job of professional historians - to dispel myths - and the popular memory that acts as a touchstone for people's beliefs. For instance, a 1996 biography of Sojourner Truth correctly pointed out that she never said, "A'n't I a woman?" Fans of the woman hated the book. They felt blindsided by the debunking of beloved myth.

Many think that kind of collective memory, true or not, is essential for fostering community, identity, and continuity. At the least, it deserves respect for its role in the understanding of the emotional lives of a people.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Be happy

If love is a mystery, happiness is a conundrum. What is it? What causes it? Why do some people have it, while others don't?

Many of us know people - a family subsisting on food stamps, a cheerful waitress earning the minimum wage - who seem to be among the happiest folks in town. We also know other people, much better off financially, who never seem happy at all.

Here's another question: How much should we value happiness? A thought experiment by the philospher Robert Nozick imagines a machine that can give you any experience you want by stimulating your brain (while the real you floats in a tank). You think and feel that you are accomplishing great things, or winning the love of your life. You could preprogram enough such wonderful experiences to last your whole lifetime. You would experience lifelong bliss, never knowing you were hooked up to a machine. Would it be right to say that you had a happy life?

Social scientists have long conducted surveys on happiness. One consistent finding is that, beyond a modest level of sufficiency, people's reports on their own happiness aren't strongly correlated with income. This suggests that people tend to find happiness in their actual circumstances, as long as they aren't too dire. Another finding, unwelcome to liberals, is that economic inequality has little bearing on happiness. Nor does the amount a nation spends on social welfare programs.

Maybe the U.S. should focus less on economic inequality in general and more on specific causes of unhappiness - things like inadequate medical protection, chronic pain, and depression.

Or maybe we're just stuck with singing along with Bobby McFerrin: "Don't Worry, Be Happy."