Just Curious

Please state the answer in the form of a question... Just Curious is the occassional blog of Andrew Nelson. In an attempt to balance the polemical tone of most of the blogosphere, all entries hope to pose at least one useful question. Many entries simply advance useful memes. Personal entries may abandon the interrogative conceit.

Friday, July 29, 2005

was Frist gaming the religious right?

This morning's news carries the story that Bill Frist has decided to break with the president on the use of human embryonic stem cells in research, bringing the Senate closer to the 60 votes it would need to overcome a filibuster (tho Bush could still veto a bill). It doesn't surprise me that Frist wants this research to happen -- most doctors do. But it seems unlikely that this is a spontaneous decision on Frist's part. Like Bush's original stem cell decision, it seems like a calculated political move. In Frist's case, however, I think it also explains a lot of his recent actions with regards to the religious right.

It has been my position for some time that neither Bush nor much of the Republican leadership really believe what they say about stem cells. Bush's original rule was that federal funds could go to research using existing stem cell lines, but not new ones. He said that for the existing lines "the life or death decision has already been made." At the time, I argued that this statement showed that Bush did not really respect embryos as persons with rights, because one would never make such a statement about, say, corrupting a mass grave. If he were staying consistent with his principles, Bush would have either banned all stem-cell research or offered the alternative justification that such research encourages abortion (which is the reason why I personally think there should be strict guidelines for the research, as there are with organ donation and similar procedures).

Frist basically admits the contradiction in his position when he says: "I am pro-life. ... I believe human life begins at conception. ... I also believe that embryonic stem cell research should be encouraged and supported." (To be fair, Kerry made similarly vexing statements, but no one is chanting "flip flop flip flop" at Frist.) I'm guessing what Frist actually believes is that life begins *shortly after* conception, since the ethical problems posed by sacrificing a life for the sake of research are obvious (particularly for doctors). He explains the apparent change in his position by saying that the stem cell lines left available by Bush are not sufficient for research -- but this poses similar problems.

This is all besides the point though. The real question is why Frist decided to change his position now. The point about the number of lines seems like a sham -- people tend to have a fundamental passion for or against stem cell research, just as they do with abortion. Frist's statement is not cautionary -- it seems clear that he has always been sympathetic with the idea of using stem cells in experiments. So why come out in favor of them now.

My guess is that when the stem-cell debate re-emerged after the election, Frist wanted to be in favor of research, but knew he might lose support with the religious right. So, to gain credibility with them, he attempted to gain as much media attention as possible for his stances on two other issues of importance to the religious right -- the Terri Schiavo case and Bush's federal circuit court nominees (which, one could argue, was not considered a religious issue before Frist helped make it one). Now it would be hard to avoid attention on these issues for the Senate majority leader. But Frist deliberately went out of his way to draw attention to his stance on these topics by doing things like making a medical judgment based on a video tape and touting the "nuclear option" in the Senate. Perhaps Frist knew that he would need to vote in favor of stem cell research in the future, and wanted to raise sufficient political capital with the religious right so he could avoid being punished when he did.

That's just my theory. Any further speculation either way would be welcome.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

who's so tired?

Don't let the cuteness fool you. She was probably about to bite down on Lindsay's hand.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

what reporter was lazy enough to do this?

Okay, let's face it, most of us journos (and ex-journos) are lazier than we like to admit. But this item, cited by Romenesko, is really low:

EDEN — Dave Matthews isn’t Emma Burgin’s favorite band, so the Greensboro woman was surprised when her photo appeared in The Reidsville Review with a comment, attributed to her, saying that it was.

She was surprised because no one at the newspaper ever interviewed her.

Burgin’s photo, and photos of some other young people who have appeared in the newspaper, were copied from Thefacebook.com, a college social networking Web site.

Burgin is one of at least six people — none of whom live in Rockingham County — whose photos appeared in the newspaper’s daily man-on-the-street feature, “Two Cents Worth,” during May.

Someone should keep a blog (or just a page) recording all the Facebook controversies... Northwestern had one its own, of course.

who did curiosity kill?

I'd rather not contemplate June's demise, thanks, but this photo makes clear that she shares some traits with her owner (the curiosity, not the crazy eyes).

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

did Bostonian liberalism cause priests' child abuse?

Apparently Sen. Rick Santorum implied as much. Links and discussion at my friend Ellen's blog.

why are we sending Spicy Noggin into space?

from the unfortunate spell-checking department...


so what's hop-pening with these toads?

Sorry about the pun; I can't resist.

So I don't see anything awful about this John Roberts guy so far, but the discussion over his nomination has made me start thinking of something that has bothered me since I first read about it. In a 2003 dissent, Roberts argued that because a certain species of toad only exists in California, it might not be governed by the Endangered Species Act. (See this article in the Miami Herald. Now I don't see this as a reason to oppose Roberts, since he's said there might be other justifications for the act and he said he thought it should be reviewed anyway. I'd worry if he displayed a general disregard for environmental legistlation, but this article suggests that's not going to be a problem. But I'm vexed by the specific argument in the toad case.

Even tho I'm sympathetic with the New Deal and its descendants, it's pretty clear that the federal government uses "interstate commerce" to justify all sorts of things the Foudners wouldn't have intended. So I could understand if some people, even members of the federal judiciary, thought that the *entire* Endangered Species Act is unconstitutional. But I believe precedent establishes that if you're justifying a law using the commerce clause, you can't use the "I kept it in one state" excuse to get out of it. The most recent example is the Supreme Court ruling on marijuana in California (the CNN story linked there cites the majority opinion, which says the thing being regulated must have a "substantial effect" on interstate commerce). One of the other interns here, a law student, mentioned a case from the New Deal era in which a farmer grew and ate his own crops in Ohio and felt he should be exempt from regulation (he lost).

The point is I don't think you can do piecemeal federalism. The Endangered Species Act is a lot like laws governing *actual* interstate commerce; to be effective, it has to regulate things that stay within one state, because they have an overall effect on everyone else. Besides, if the point of the "federalism revolution" is to empower states, this doesn't seem to do it. Let's say the California toad had been exempted from the act. California might want to protect it, but if it did, it would be forced to create an entire program just for this one create that happened to stay in-state most of the time. I could see the Supreme Court or Congress deciding that species regulation is best left to the states. But exempting a handful of species doesn't seem to help them do that.

But -- as this blog is about questions -- does anyone know of a *different* sort of justification for exempting species that stay within one state, one that would be compatible with commerce clause precedent? Or am I just hopping mad?

etes-vous une kid-kodak?

sorry about the missing accent in the title line. I try to hit the "next blog" function on blogger once a day. Ran into a French-language blog in which someone was described as "une vraie kid-Kodak" or "a real Kodak kid." Ah, j'adore le francais (sorry no circumflex).

want to hear my lame flip-flop joke?

Why are people making fun of the Northwestern lacrosse team for wearing flip-flops to the White House...

when its current occupant walked all over them to get there?

wakka wakka wakka!

Images shamelessly stolen from the White House and this site.

Note: a Google search for flip-flops turns up a shoes site first, but then about a page worth of sites documenting both Bush and Kerry's, um, nuances. If that meme is still current, I'm kind of surprised that a similar pun didn't make it into the Trib story that broke this thing (or maybe I'm just unobservant).

am I becoming one of those people...

...whose Web site is filled with pictures of his cat?

oh yes

These pictures of June are about a month old... she's roughly twice as big now. I would post more recent pics, but I'm trying to keep you in suspense.

do computers have symptoms?

I was trying to explain a computer problem I've been having to my roommate. I was trying to explain why I thought it was a hardware malfunction and not the software, and I used the word "symptom." Neither of us were really sure if it made sense to apply to computers. Part of me thinks that the biomedical connotations are just too strong. On the other hand, there are few words that fit. I thought of "error" or "bug," but both of those seemed too essential for what I was talking about -- a sign that indicated something else.

I checked the Merriam Webster def of symptom, but that didn't help much... it emphasizes the biological, but doesn't limit it (tho I did discover that its etymology is related to that of "feather.")

Anyway, I think "symptom" would be useful because it helps one talk about phenomena related to the original cause which may or may not be problems in themselves. And the biological metaphor might not be so bad -- we already talk about computer viruses. But I'm convinced that computer scientists must have a settled term for this. Does anyone know what it is?

And can anyone fix my wi-fi?

Monday, July 25, 2005

where can I find out about George Bush's hemorrhoids (and Oliver Cromwell's head)?

One of the other interns and I were discussing the height of the President this morning, so I decided to look it up. What I found was far more extensive -- a site with a medical history of not just Bush, but all the presidents, vice-presidents, English monarchs and astronauts. He doesn't seem to think Cromwell died of malaria (this matters for my thesis, I swear). Also provides an interesting anecdote about the Lord Protector's head:

When the monarchy was restored, Cromwell's body was dug up. It was hanged from a tree, then beheaded (it took eight blows). The head was displayed on a high pole of Westminster Hall for 25 years, until it was blown down in a gale. A guard saw it, recognized it, hid it under his cloak, and later sold it. It passed through several owners over the years, and was ultimately willed to Sidney Sussex College of Cambridge University. The college gave it a proper burial in 1960. A plaque at the college states the head is buried "near to this place," but the exact location is a guarded secret. [p. 173]. In the 1930s the head was examined, and the results published in the journal Biometrika.

Warts and all!

Friday, July 22, 2005

what does Ann Coulter think about John Roberts?

Apparently he's not the *right* kind of guy...

Apparently, Roberts decided early on that he wanted to be on the Supreme Court and that the way to do that was not to express a personal opinion on anything to anybody ever. It's as if he is from some space alien sleeper cell. Maybe the space aliens are trying to help us, but I wish we knew that.

full column here

why did they attack England?

One of my fellow interns passed this on to me...

Terrorists are Stupid
They chose to bomb England? These morons will be found out soon enough. The country is apparently chock full of sleuths: Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, The woman from Murder She Wrote (isn't she British?), James Bond, and Mr. Belvedere (he discovered all of Wesley's schemes). They should have tried France, where Inspector Clousseau can't even find an oddly colored jungle cat.

From Barely Legal Blog

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

how do I make the intern read my blog?

This may be a more relevant question than you think. Consider this -- for the past week or so, I have been trying to figure out a good way for our ethics office to keep track of blogs kept by doctors, bioethicists, health lawyers, and other sources. There are hundreds of these, and the people in charge will really only want to read a handful. And the choice has more or less fallen on me. This isn't due to any particular expertise, but basically because I am the youngest person in the office and, as a result, more familiar with resources like Bloglines.

When you think about it, this situation must be repeated time and again in American corporations. Because of stories like the fall of Trent Lott, Howard Dean's campagin, "Rathergate" and the Downing Street Memo, many professional people have now heard of blogs. But most of them have no desire to read them, or when they try, feel completely lost. So it falls on the younger staff members to create some way of getting the information to them (in our case, through a group Bloglines account I'm putting together). Note to Graham, if you're reading -- this might be a story.

So what sort of criteria does one use to quickly evaluate the utility of more than a hundred blogs? Here's what developed as I was poking around:

* if you haven't posted in the past month, you're probably not worth reading.
* personal anecdotes or announcements make your blog much less palatable to the bosses, who are slow to buy into this medium anyway. The same thing goes for animation, cute graphics, and other things that make Web sites annoying. However, the occasional photo might help.
* links, in themselves, are not that useful, particularly to people whose job it is to know the news anyway. Collecting links in a useful way is good, but the thing people need most is insightful commentary, which they can't always get from the newspaper.
* large blocks of text are a big turn-off, especially for people who have never encountered the medium before.
* a niche will get you noticed. Generic blogs by doctors eventually became so repetitive that I got tired of including them in our list. But a blog that focuses on a speciality or issue is a resource to people doing research in that area.
* as a rule of thumb: the more political, the less useful. Even if a blog contains great information on, say, stem cell reserach, it's hard for me to designate it as one of our official sources when it also includes long screeds against creeping socialism.
* obscenity poses a similar problem -- if every fifth post is a sex joke, it's difficult for me to send a blog around the office.
* using a generic blogging service (like Blogspot) versus having your own site doesn't seem to matter much, especially when we're reading over RSS.
* I didn't give a lot of consideration to a blog's current popularity among other bloggers, since I knew the higher-ups would never know or care.

Of course, these aren't guidelines I would use to judge *all* blogs (that would obviously be hypocritical, given some of the weird things I've posted here). The point is that if you want your blog to be picked up in the sort of search I just did (and which interns around the country are probably also doing), they might be some things to consider.

can an experiment make us learn less?

Mary tends to do useful things like post poems, prose selections and quotes on her blog. Today, she put up a list of R. Buckminster Fuller quotes. I love Bucky as much as the next guy, but I had to take exception to one of his opinions. Here is the comment I posted on her site, which serves as a useful independent post, methinks (slightly modified):

I wish I could agree with this one:

"Every time man makes a new experiment he always learns more. He cannot learn less."

But I just don't think it's true. I think there are probably entire fields of studies whose assumptions generate experiments that shackle our imaginations. The first one that comes to mind is economics -- by assuming that humans are rational beings attempting to increase efficiency, there are probably many economic studies that are causing us to ignore data about how people actually behave. And I'd say there are analogues in the physical sciences too. Of course, there are also experiments that are just poorly designed. I think you could argue that we learn from these failures in the long run, as a species, but they limit us in the short term. So I'd like to say that I might agree with the intent of the statement, but not its content. I'd say that while science represents a fulfillment of human nature, our inherent experimental impulse is still primary. We shouldn't claim that the scientific process itself is inherently good. Instead, we should say that human curiosity is the primary good, and science is good to the extent that it furthers that curiosity (rather than stifling it).

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

why do the aliens speak English?

The FAQ for Stargate: Atlantis admits the dirty secret of the "universal translator:"

Q: Why do the aliens speak English?
A: Practical reasons that come with television production. The time constraints of an hour-long episode mean that it would become a major hindrance to the story each week if the team had to spend the first 10 minutes of each episode learning to communicate with a new species.

I remember loving the "language" incidents in Star Trek -- the argument that Shakespeare is better in Klingon, the TNG episode with the language made out of metaphors (um, isn't that every language?), the DS9 episode in which the universal translator broke down -- good stuff. Of course, a better criticism of that world (which, I think, does not apply to Stargate) is why so many sentient species have achieved exactly the same level of technological development and why they are all genetically compatible. This was partially answered by the TNG episode that revealed the common genetic heritage of all sentient life (paging Dr. Rael), but we all know the real answer is television.

Monday, July 18, 2005

how did Londoners really react?

ha, this post by Warren Ellis gives a good idea (you'll have to page down to actually see it)

(yes, that Warren Ellis, the one who Patrick Stewart so admires)

too bad he didn't see the tribute I posted about earlier...

Thursday, July 14, 2005

how did the press cover the London bombings?

This article from the Boston Phoenix, cited by Romenesko, provides a useful analysis. One thing the author seems to have overlooked is the "Anglophilia" element to much of the coverage. I think I counted four independent Churchill references in the Trib (tho the rhetoric of Bush, Blair or the Trib editorial board got nowhere close). Actually, if anyone can find a truly Churchillian response to the bombings, I'd like to see it.

Another question -- is there an equivalent to this Boston Phoenix story for 9/11? I know it would have to be a very large document, but I would love to see a long essay simply describing all the press reactions for the first 24 hours. The reactions after that are, as they say, history...

Monday, July 11, 2005

is there a Web page to convert English spellings?

Since English is a global language and doesn't have very consistent orthography to begin with, a number of different systems of spellings have developed. The most famous have to be the differences between American and British (or Commonwealth) English. I found this useful list of the differences on wikipedia some time ago, and have always been amused by the Economist's list of Americanisms. But today it occurred to me that if there are Web pages that convert one language to another (sort of), there ought to be a site that does the same for American and British spellings.

I couldn't find one, tho there are a number of downloadable programs that claim to be able to do this. I had trouble getting most of them to work, and as a Mac person most of them are not useful to me anyway. If anyone knows of a site that does this, tho, I'd like to know.

It turns out that this might be rather difficult, tho probably less difficult that the problems facing BabelFish and similar translators. One programmer wrote of some of the difficulties here.

doctors have blogs?

Indeed, they do. This may be old hat to those who are more blogocentric than I, but there is a small community of medical bloggers, which were covered in a recent artice in the Los Angeles Times. I might end up following a few of them for personal enjoyment. Also, one of the higher-ups at work was interested, so I put together a list. I don't really feel like making all these into links -- I figure you can copy-paste.


Sunday, July 10, 2005

who's the cutest cat?

Ju-Ju Bee
June Carter Cat

Friday, July 08, 2005

could you use a mouse with no click button?

on this site you could

one of the most common complaints about Apple computers is that the mice (and corresponding mice-like devices) only have one button. Steve Jobs, here's what's next...

want a list of some of the most important things ever conceived by Man?


I made a little contribution... I was surprised to find it wasn't there yet.



Thursday, July 07, 2005

can they raise the terror threat level just for mass transit?

You may have asked this question, as I did, after hearing that the Department of Homeland Security raised the threat level to orange for mass transit following the London bombings. I don't think the color-coded system means a lot in the first place, but I did wonder if they were even following their own internal logic (a single threat level for the entire country, or at least a region).

They are -- the rules of the system say that the threat level can be raised for specific industries, and that would seem to include mass transit. However, it should be noted that the entire country, rails and all, stayed on yellow after the Madrid bombings, which (at present count) killed about five times as many people. You could argue that they know something we don't, but the DHS site says there is no specific threat at this time.

Tavistock Square

I don't have anything coherent to say about the London bombings... but they're jarring me more than I might expect. Tavistock Square, where the bus exploded, was just up the street from where I stayed. I came into the city at King's Cross station and the Tube station I used every day was Russell Square. I have been to New York and Madrid, but only when I was younger and as a tourist... I remember the insides of buildings better than the streets. But I got to know my little bit of Bloomsbury rather well, and to think that this happened there... still don't know what to say.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

please won't you neighbor me?

From an article in today's Trib on how Biosphere is up for sale:

A sprawling new retirement community now neighbors the facility to the south, and developers would love to snag the Biosphere 2 property for residential use

At first I was shocked that the Tribune (tho a well-known spelling innovator) would use "neighbor" this way. But apparently it can be used as a verb, according to Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage. This struck me as a modern usage (kind of like "friend me" from the facebook world), but the OED records similar usages going back to the 16th century (plus a bunch of obsolete ones meaning something like "to behave in a neighborly way.") Whodathunkit?