Fiddling while the world burns

May 4th, 2015

It’s hard not to get discourage when I see stories like this. The Republican-proposed NASA budget guts Earth sciences research in the name of getting NASA back to its “real mission” of space exploration. God help us if one of those bozos gets elected President in 2016. Talk about willful blindness. They’ll still be denying global warming while waves are hitting the steps of the White House.

The arguments of Ted Cruz and his Republican compatriots in the House are disingenuous. Their primary motive is not to get NASA back to where it once belonged. It’s to do everything possible to cripple research into humankind’s impact on planet Earth, most especially global warming.

And that’s like tying a blindfold on humanity so that we’re incapable of seeing treacherous but politically inconvenient hazards ahead.

This latest effort by the GOP in the House of Representatives to advance the cause of global warming denialism harkens back to the Presidency of George W. Bush. Back in 2006, the words “to understand and protect our home planet” were removed from NASA’s mission statement of the time.

And you thought US medicine couldn’t get any worse

May 4th, 2015

If you thought US medicine couldn’t get any worse, think again. Now the free market medical system has found yet another way to make money on the back of its patients, and in the meantime, make it harder for ordinary (read the 99%) people to get medical care. Welcome to concierge medicine.

It started as a little itch. In a 777 bumping from updraft to updraft above Central America, my forearm pricked. By the time we landed in Miami, I had a complete set of red dots scattered across my body.

It’s probably just lice, I thought, remembering the bus I’d shared with a few dozen chickens and baby guinea pigs. But by the time I hit Miami International’s baggage claim, my throat was burning and a fever had set in. Technically I’d been in a malaria zone of the Amazon. But I’d opted not to take the drugs since cases were rare—one to two per year max, said the guidebook.

What if I was that one case?

I needed to see a doctor. But as a 30-year-old “invincible” who’d only recently received health insurance (as a wedding present from my federal employee husband), I didn’t have a primary care doctor to see. I turned to Google and picked up my phone.

My first six calls were all met with the same response: “Oh, we’re a concierge practice; there’s an annual retainer fee. Would you be interested in joining?” When I finally found a nonconcierge practice, the wait time for a new patient appointment was three months.

That was disappointing

May 2nd, 2015

Ann Leckie’s first novel, Ancillary Justice, hit the SF field in a big way, winning both Hugo and Nebula awards last year. Because her latest book, Ancillary Sword is nominated for a Hugo this year, I decided to read Ancillary Justice first. I gave up half way through.

There are a lot of interesting ideas, but I couldn’t make any sort of an emotional connection with any of the characters. The story never drew me in to the point where I could feel that I was living in the society. It reminds me of C. J. Cherryh’s later work, which is not a good thing,. I haven’t been able to read anything she’s written from Cyteen on. And this had much the same feel – a lot of pointless plotting and details  with the occasional jewel of a scene. Kind of like a bad raisin pudding. It’s too bad – I really wanted to like the book, but I just could not get into it.

I will take a look at Ancilliary Sword, but if it’s like Ancillary Justice, I won’t be voting for it.

More Bad News for U.S. Science

May 1st, 2015

And the hits just keep on coming. A House panel has proposed a budget that guts NASA’s earth sciences research. These are the programs that study weather, deforestation, crop yields, and so on from space. It’s science that’s vital to many people and a bunch of Neanderthals want it cut because it conflicts with their biblical world view. Jesus wept.

There’s no other way to put this, so I’ll be succinct: A passel of anti-science global warming denying GOP representatives have put together a funding authorization bill for NASA that at best cuts more than $300 million from the agency’s current Earth science budget.

At worst? More than $500 million.

The actual amount of the cut depends on whether some caps enacted in 2011 are removed or not. If they are, then Earth sciences gets $1.45 billion. If not, it gets $1.2 billion. The current FY 2015 budget is $1.773 billion.

Compare that with the White House request for FY ’16 of $1.947 billion for Earth sciences. The bill will be marked up (amended and rewritten) by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee today.

This, for the space agency which has a critical role in understanding climate change and its effects on our planet.

Teaching Scientists How to Write

April 29th, 2015

Being able to write well is becoming an essential skill for scientists. Just to name one example of why it’s important, consider grant applications. If the reviewers can’t understand the purpose of the research, they may be unwilling to approve the grant. Now there’s a course that specializes in teaching scientists the basics of clear writing.

The students tried not to look sheepish as their professor projected the article on the whiteboard, waiting for their work to be devoured by their classmates. It was the second class for the nine students, all of whom are Ph.D. candidates or post-doctoral fellows. Their assignment had been to distill their extensive research down to just three paragraphs so that the average person could understand it, and, as in any class, some showed more aptitude than others. The piece on the board was by one of the students, a Russian-born biologist.

The professor, the journalist and author Stephen Hall (with whom I took a different writing workshop last year), pointed to the word “sequencing.” “That’s jargon-ish,” he said, circling it on the board. “Even some people in the sciences don’t have an intuitive understanding of what that means.” He turned to another student in the class, an Italian native working on his doctorate in economics, for confirmation. “Yes, I didn’t know what was going on,” he said, turning to the piece’s author. The biology student wrote something in her notebook.

Alan Lomax Recordings Archive Now Online

April 29th, 2015

Alan Lomax was a folklorist who specialized in field recording. He recorded thousands of people and groups from all over the world. Now many of his recordings are available online. If you are into folk music or world music, this archive is going to blow your mind.

The Sound Recordings catalog comprises over 17,400 digital audio files, beginning with Lomax’s first recordings onto (newly invented) tape in 1946 and tracing his career into the 1990s. In addition to a wide spectrum of musical performances from around the world, it includes stories, jokes, sermons, personal narratives, interviews conducted by Lomax and his associates, and unique ambient artifacts captured in transit from radio broadcasts, sometimes inadvertently, when Alan left the tape machine running. Not a single piece of recorded sound in Lomax’s audio archive has been omitted: meaning that microphone checks, partial performances, and false starts are also included.