Archive for January 2nd, 2007

Time-Delayed Christmas Photoblogging

Okay, this is pretty much the last of the pre-NYC pics, other than a great photo of my little sis that would probably get me skinned alive if I posted it.


Top-down view of a nativity scene with a candle fan, turned by hot air from the candles.

Crazy chandelier shadows.

Even crazier chandelier shadows. I debated on whether or not to post two photos so similar, but I like the composition of the first one, and the abstract wildness of the second one.

7 comments January 2nd, 2007 at 10:47pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Photoblogging


Necessarily brief, as I am typing this on the bus with one thumb while my other hand holds onto my groceries:

As I attained my bus stop for my return voyage and turned to search for my bus, what should I see but a great big Trader Joe’s logo, no more than fifty feet away.

I know TJ’s is kind of a big deal to a lot of people, so can anyone give me some recommendations of what I should check ouy in order to get the full, glorious effect?

Much obliged in advanceowmythumb.

12 comments January 2nd, 2007 at 06:13pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Uncategorized

Very Sane, Well-Adjusted Cows

Prii-ii-ii-ii-on over yooouuu…

Scientists have genetically engineered a dozen cows to be free from the proteins that cause mad cow disease, a breakthrough that may make the animals immune to the brain-wasting disease.

An international team of researchers from the U.S. and Japan reported Sunday that they had “knocked out” the gene responsible for making the proteins, called prions. The disease didn’t take hold when brain tissue from two of the genetically engineered cows was exposed to bad prions in the laboratory, they said.


The research published in the online journal Nature Biotechnology could be used as a tool that would help researchers better understand similar brain-wasting diseases in humans, Glenn and others said.

Scientists are still mystified by the biological purposes of normal prions, which humans also produce. But they believe that even one prion going bad can set off the always fatal and painful brain disease — known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.


In the lab, Robl and his colleagues, who included a scientist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, scraped skin cells from cows and “turned off” the gene that makes prions.
Then, using those cells as a “starter kit,” they produced 12 calves through cloning processes — the fusing of the cells into the eggs of cows….


But Hematech isn’t much interested in producing serum for scientists and has no plans to become a beef producer.

Instead, the company is genetically engineering cows to produce antibiotics and other medicines for people.

The company embarked on the mad cow disease project five years ago to ensure it could produce medicines that were free from the brain-wasting disease. BSE is caused when one misshapen prion prompts normal prions to turn bad, slowly boring lesions in the brain and making infected animals go mad.


At least 180 people worldwide have died after eating meat infected with mad cow disease in the last two decades. Symptoms can take years to develop.

But scientists are certain the brain-wasting diseases are caused by the misshapen prions, one of the most mystifying particles in biology. No one knows the function of normal prions and the research published Sunday suggests the proteins have little value.

All the prion-free cows the research team created were born healthy, although Robl noted that since they are only two years old they will have to be watched to see if the lack of prions has any future health effects.

“It furthers the mystery of prions, for sure,” Robl said.

I’m not sure what I find more intriguing: That mad cow disease can possibly be genetically engineered away, or the other aspect of this experiment – what happens to an animal that can’t produce prions? If they do in fact serve some hitherto unknown function, this may be the only way to find out. I just hope the whole process isn’t too cruel – I didn’t get the impression that Hematech places much of a premium on humane treatment…

2 comments January 2nd, 2007 at 03:35pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Science

Free Will-y

NYT tackles the age-old question: Do We Have Free Will?

As William James wrote in 1890, the whole “sting and excitement” of life comes from “our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another, and that it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago.” Get over it, Dr. James. Go get yourself fitted for a new chain-mail vest. A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.

As a result, physicists, neuroscientists and computer scientists have joined the heirs of Plato and Aristotle in arguing about what free will is, whether we have it, and if not, why we ever thought we did in the first place.


Mark Hallett, a researcher with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said, “Free will does exist, but it’s a perception, not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They have the sense they are free.

“The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don’t have it,” he said.


The traditional definition is called “libertarian” or “deep” free will. It holds that humans are free moral agents whose actions are not predetermined. This school of thought says in effect that the whole chain of cause and effect in the history of the universe stops dead in its tracks as you ponder the dessert menu.At that point, anything is possible. Whatever choice you make is unforced and could have been otherwise, but it is not random. You are responsible for any damage to your pocketbook and your arteries.

“That strikes many people as incoherent,” said Dr. Silberstein, who noted that every physical system that has been investigated has turned out to be either deterministic or random. “Both are bad news for free will,” he said. So if human actions can’t be caused and aren’t random, he said, “It must be — what — some weird magical power?”


In the 1970s, Benjamin Libet, a physiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, wired up the brains of volunteers to an electroencephalogram and told the volunteers to make random motions, like pressing a button or flicking a finger, while he noted the time on a clock.

Dr. Libet found that brain signals associated with these actions occurred half a second before the subject was conscious of deciding to make them.

The order of brain activities seemed to be perception of motion, and then decision, rather than the other way around.

In short, the conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing. The decision to act was an illusion, the monkey making up a story about what the tiger had already done.


Naturally, almost everyone has a slant on such experiments and whether or not the word “illusion” should be used in describing free will. Dr. Libet said his results left room for a limited version of free will in the form of a veto power over what we sense ourselves doing. In effect, the unconscious brain proposes and the mind disposes.


The belief that the traditional intuitive notion of a free will divorced from causality is inflated, metaphysical nonsense, Dr. Dennett says reflecting an outdated dualistic view of the world.

Rather, Dr. Dennett argues, it is precisely our immersion in causality and the material world that frees us. Evolution, history and culture, he explains, have endowed us with feedback systems that give us the unique ability to reflect and think things over and to imagine the future. Free will and determinism can co-exist.

“All the varieties of free will worth having, we have,” Dr. Dennett said.

“We have the power to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes,” he said. “We have the power of imagination, to see and imagine futures.”

In this regard, causality is not our enemy but our friend, giving us the ability to look ahead and plan. “That’s what makes us moral agents,” Dr. Dennett said. “You don’t need a miracle to have responsibility.”

Other philosophers disagree on the degree and nature of such “freedom.” Their arguments partly turn on the extent to which collections of things, whether electrons or people, can transcend their origins and produce novel phenomena.

These so-called emergent phenomena, like brains and stock markets, or the idea of democracy, grow naturally in accordance with the laws of physics, so the story goes…. A knowledge of quarks is no help in predicting hurricanes — it’s physics all the way down. But does the same apply to the stock market or to the brain? Are the rules elusive just because we can’t solve the equations or because something fundamentally new happens when we increase numbers and levels of complexity?

I know I’m waaaay out of my depth here, but I find this last explanation the most satisfying, and not just because it gives me some degree of free will (yippee!). My reading of it is that free will is a form of, or a result of, complexity – the outcome of stimuli funnelled through all the baggage and impulses and decision processes of each individual’s personality. It’s possible that it’s not truly random, but it’s so close to it that it might as well be – and the conscious mind is not cut out of the loop.

And that’s the problem I have with the monkey-on-a-tiger analogy (much as I like monkeys) – it’s simply too mechanistic and autonomic. I’m sure there are people who act solely on basic animal instinct and then rationalize lofty and noble reasons behind their actions (i.e., Republicans), but people in general are capable of more, and many in fact dedicate themselves to various forms of self-denial where they steadfastly refuse to yield to their base instincts. Any conception of free will needs to make very generous allowances for self-control and individual codes of behavior.

My all-time favorite “solution” to the problem of free will in a mechanistic universe was that of Liebniz, who posited that the physical and mental universes were separate but synchronized, so that all your preprogrammed thoughts and sensations would unfold at the exact same time that the physical universe provided their cues. In other words, your mind would be set to experience pain at 11:25:13.71 AM next Monday, at the precise instant that the physical universe would give you a paper cut.

Which brings me to a more basic question: Why exactly is free will a “problem” in the first place? What’s wrong with the universe unfolding randomly? Why should human reactions be as simple and predictable as those of mindless physical objects? Why shouldn’t the human mind be an independent actor as the universe plays out?

11 comments January 2nd, 2007 at 12:10pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Science

Pre-Christmas Flashback Blogging

Some appetizers before I get to the NYC main course…

Sunset from the plane to NJ.

More advanced sunset.

Christmas candles. Posted by Picasa

3 comments January 2nd, 2007 at 07:28am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Aerial,Photoblogging

Useful Telecommuting Tips

From today’s spam:

Daiei Trading Co, Inc. our simple and powerful online system has helped people just like you build financially and personally rewarding lives by telecommuting; working at home. For example, try placing the shaver directly underneath the jug.

I never would have thought of that.

January 2nd, 2007 at 07:15am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Favorites,Spamoptikon

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