We're All Gonna Die
I went to a talk on campus the other night by Laurie Garrett, a prize-winning journalist, commentator, and author of a couple of books about infectious diseases and public health issues. I haven't read the books, but if the talk is any guide, they must be phenomenally depressing.
A rough outline of the talk, from memory:
- Biological warfare is very scary.
- We're not prepared for biological attacks at all.
- The Soviets had a huge bioweapons program, and nobody knows where most of the scientists from it have gotten to.
- Even without biological warfare, diseases are rampant.
- Poor countries are disease-ridden hell-holes, with no jobs, inadequate medical care, and no clean water.
- The public health infrastructure in poor countries is utterly inadequate to stop the spread of diseases like Ebola.
- Worse yet, AIDS is sweeping through Africa like wildfire.
- AIDS is sweeping through Russia, too, borne by IV drug users.
- AIDS is spreading through all of Asia, for that matter.
- We're all going to die horribly.
OK, I added that last item. But she stopped just short of actually saying that, and more than a few people have noted that that was pretty much the point of the whole talk.
It was a tremendously frustrating talk to listen to, though, because it really wasn't much more than a list of bad situations around the world that are only getting worse. She would occasionally throw in caveats like "If nothing is done..." or "Unless aid is provided...", but basically, it was just one long litany of doom and gloom. She almost got through the question period without saying anything about what can be done, too, but I shouted from the back of the room to squeeze in one more question, and asked "What can we do about this stuff? Who do we send money to? What do we tell our representatives to vote for?"
Even more annoyingly, her answer, well, wasn't an answer. She quoted some activist or another (I missed the name) who she credited with coining the ubiquitous slogan "Think Globally, Act Locally," and went off on a weird tangent about how people shouldn't drink bottled water, but should demand that our tap water be safe to drink. Which really makes about as much sense as telling children "Eat your vegetables, there are children starving in Africa." Given that the disparity between living conditions in Western countries and the developing world was one of her major points, I find it hard to see how better tap water in Schenectady is going to help-- if anything, it would seem to be making the gap worse, not better...
(This non-answer was prefaced by an "I get that question a lot..." Yeah, well, if you get that question a lot, you might want to think about adding something to the talk to head it off...)
My dissatisfaction with the talk probably has a lot to do with the difference between being a journalist and being an experimental scientist. Her job is to report on things, not solve the problems she's reporting on. My job is all about solving problems, usually by hitting something with a laser (or possibly hitting a laser with something blunt and heavy...). I don't know how to do anything especially useful to the problems she's discussing, but still, my basic attitude is that for any problem, there's something that can be done to fix it, and what we need to do is figure out what that is, and get to work on it.
I was especially disappointed because the audience was partly made up of college students (there were more faculty than students there, I think, but there were some students). These are the people that need to be reached-- they're young, they're smart, they're energetic, and they're impressionable. So impress them, energize them, send them out to do... something. Don't just rattle off depressing statistics-- give them something to do to make the world a better, safer place. That's what college students are for.
Instead, we got a litany of horrors, followed by vague platitudes. Feh.
To be sure, a lot of the causes taken up by college students and others looking to do something about these issues are, well, stupid. Vague platitudes and insipid slogans abound in the organized protests against most of the evils Garrett cited (and she cited all the obligatory horrors of capitalism-- wealth gaps between rich and poor, inadequate foreign aid money, obscene drug company profits... This got tendentious enough to actually start pushing me toward sympathizing with the drug companies-- another reason to dislike the talk). And it's equally certain that some of the current problems are almost insurmountable-- stopping the spread of AIDS around the world basically requires getting millions of people to stop doing idiotic things, and if we could do that... well, there'd be no limit to what we could accomplish.
But there's got to be somebody out there with concrete, specific suggestions for things that can be done now to alleviate some of the myriad public health problems Garrett listed off (even unglamorous ideas, like this one). I'd still like an answer to my question-- who should we send money to, and what should we tell our representatives to vote for? If you've got specific suggestions, throw 'em in the comments section. I can't promise to pass them on to energetic and impressionable college students, but I'll at least post links to anything that looks halfway sensible.
And if there's a way to make the world healthier by hitting something with a (low-power) laser, I'm your guy...
Every Little Bit Helps
For the benefit of the three or four people who read this site, but not Jim Henley's, I'll throw up links to his two speculative sniper items:
Theory One: The Shooter Works in Retail
Theory Two: The Shooter Works in Construction
Both theories are based on the timing of the shootings, and the white vans which may or may not be connected to this. As Jim notes elsewhere, "material evidence - time, space, matter - will play a much bigger role in apprehending the killer than any amount of 'getting inside his head.'" Whether you count this as material or not is open to debate, but as I noted last night after a thoroughly depressing talk on campus (about which more later), almost any attempt at positive action is better than doing nothing.
I don't expect this to lead to much, but on the off chance that it might, read Jim's posts. Anything that speeds the apprehension of this piece of filth is a Good Thing.
Benefits of a Classical Education
On the road this morning, I found myself behind a pickup truck with a vanity plate reading "MED1C1." "Ah," I thought, "a Rennaissance art lover..." It took me a couple of minutes to realize that "MEDIC 1" was a more likely meaning, especially given that the truck had pulled out of a fire station.
I need to get out more.
Yes, this post is fluff, to cover an update to the blogroll over on the left. Why do you ask?
Why I'll Never Be a Real Rock Critic
One of those smarmy "Talk to your kids" tv commercials features a pudgy middle-aged guy hacking away at an acoustic guitar, and singing a song presumably called "Danger Dog" with lyrics something like "Danger Dog will bite your ankles... Danger Dog will bite your knee..." The camera pans back after a few bars of this to show that he's playing for a bunch of young kids (one or more of them presumably his), and who crack up laughing at the end of the song.
I swear to God, "Danger Dog" was the first thing I thought of on hearing "I Think I Smell a Rat" on the White Stripes' White Blood Cells. This is not a Good Thing, in case you were wondering.
So far, I've been unimpressed with the new "garage band" groups that are supposed to be the latest Saviours of Rock. They've certainly got the "garage band" thing down, but the sound is more on the "of questionable musical ability" side of things (raising bad memories of high-school classmates attempting Rush covers...) than the "we only know four chords, but we're going to make 'em count" aesthetic of great garage bands of the past (see, for example, the Ramones, or Crazy Horse). I like "Hotel Yorba" a lot, but the rest of the White Stripes album sounds like some sort of weird A&R joke gone horribly awry. I'm not going to demand virtuoso performances from pop artists, but I can't say I understand people who choose to sound as if they can't quite figure out which end of the guitar they're supposed to hit with the drum sticks.
Put "Sound like you don't know how to play your instruments" down in the general category of "musical decisions that draw critical praise for no reason I can understand."
The other big item in this class would be "Experiment with irritating feedback noise" and its close relative "Write songs with good hooks that dissolve into weird screeches and clanks and bangs at the end." See, for example, Kid A by Radiohead. I liked OK Computer a lot, save for the guest vocals by the Mighty Steven Hawking on "Fitter, Happier," but Kid A was a bit much. Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, sad to say, is another (less severe) example.
(I listened to the first track of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in a store, and it fell apart into weird clanks and bangs at the end. A particularly annoying sort of howling noise started up in the middle of that, and continued on into the next song. "Boy," I thought, "If that keeps up for the rest of the album, it'll be really irritating..." Then I took the headphones off, and discovered that the clerk had started vacuuming the floor right behind me-- the noise I was hearing was the vacuum cleaner, but it blended right in... It's a better album than that led me to believe, but that incident does color my perception of it.)
Other critically acclaimed musical puzzlers include:
- Excessive Topicality. The simple fact is, most issue-specific songs just aren't that good. "The Hurricane" is minor Dylan, and "American Skin (41 Shots)" isn't an especially good Springsteen song. And despite all the blather about "America-hating," the most that can really be said about Steve Earle's "John Walker's Blues" is that it's not all that good a song (more on the album later, maybe). The desire to be topical tends to trump good songwriting instincts, and leads to really strained lyrics. Topicality will get you reviewed in major publications, but five or ten years on, odds are that the topical songs will either be forgotten, probably deservedly so, or become kitsch. If you want to write political songs, go with U2-style "soaring vagueness," and resist the temptation to call out political figures by name. Otherwise, you risk being half-remembered as the person who did the "99 Luftballoons" of the new millennium.
- Hiring Ethnic Musicians. Before you rush out to record an album featuring a track with backing from a traditional choir of Nepalese yak herders, take out your wallet, and check the name on the driver's license. If it doesn't say "Paul Simon," you should probably forget about the ethnic flourishes. Graceland is an immortal album, but even Paul Simon only really got the ethnic thing to work once. A single track with Nepalese yak herders will get a reviewer to listen to the record a second time, but as with topical songs, ethnic-flourish songs tend to be written in a way that screams "Listen the the nifty ethnic singers that I found on the Web!" at the expense of any other musical virtues.
- Changing Styles For No Clear Reason. U2's Achtung Baby is a fantastic record, probably a Perfect Album, but it's got a lot to answer for. Their radical departure from their original straight ahead, earnest rock songs drew great praise, but also inspired any number of other bands to attempt similar genre transformations (including U2 themselves, with the blessedly forgettable Pop). The most egregious example would probably be the Rolling Stones' flirtation with electronica on Bridges to Babylon (You've got the ageless and famously metronomic Charlie Watts in the band-- what's the point of tinkering around with drum machines? Are you hoping to add some spontaneity to the rhythm section?), but then again, most of what the Stones do these days is pretty egregious (Any lawyers out there want to put together a class-action suit against Jann Wenner for that shirtless Keith Richards cover? That put me off my food for a day or two-- I think Rolling Stone owes me some money...).
These are all tried and true tactics for adding a star or two to your record reviews-- if REM were to record a reggae album full of songs about Donald Rumsfeld, the ratings would probably be off the scale-- and all of them leave me cold. Which is why I'm not destined to be a guy who gets to charge expensive lunches to major media companies, but rather a schlub with a web site spouting off about music from time to time.
Living in the Future
Every now and then, I see something that reminds me that we are, in fact, living in a science fiction world. Today, it was an ad in Physics Today, with a big headline yelling "Grow Nanotubes? It's Easy!"
Is there any part of your research that's easy? Now, the growth of carbon nanotubes can be. With the EasyTubeTM NanoFurnace you can produce single or multiwall nanotubes directly on device substrates.
Yeah, fine, it's 2002, and we still don't have flying cars or Mars colonies. But we've got turn-key nanotube fabrication systems with names that make them sound like toys. (I want one. I have no use for it, but I want one...) The "Mr. Fusion" power source can only be a matter of time...