Thursday, January 31, 2008

I Can't Believe I'm Writing About This...

And now, because I was recently reminded that I made unfortunate yet public promises to research and blog on this topic (damn you, red wine!), here's the latest on Ashley Olsen and Lance Armstrong. The two are not dating. I repeat, they are not dating. Back in October they met up a couple times in New York and went clubbing with friends, which of course was taken completely out of context by the gossip columns for the next couple weeks. Armstrong says of Ashley (In a New York Post Page Six interview last November), "Ashley Olsen and I are strictly friends. We have hung out amongst other friends, and she strikes me as a nice, smart lady." The two have not been seen out together lately.

There, that's done. Now can I please have my dignity back?

Interesting New Eye-dea

This just in from

Scientists have now found a way to use radiocarbon dating on the eyes of dead people to determine their approximate year of birth, providing a useful tool for forensic scientists wanting to establish the age of an unidentified body. The details are pretty interesting.

Radiocarbon dating is currently used to date biological archeological finds that are up to 60,000 years old. Carbon-14 is a radioactive isotope that occurs naturally in the atmosphere and is not dangerous to us because it occurs in very small amounts and decays at a very slow rate into nitrogen. "Carbon is one of the principal organic elements, and constantly moves in and out of the food chain. The same is true for the tiny quantity of C-14 in the atmosphere. As long as an organism is part of the food chain, the amount of C-14 in its cells will remain constant and stay at the same level as the C-14 atmospheric content. When the organism dies, however, the quantity of C-14 will slowly but surely drop over the course of thousands of years, while it transforms into nitrogen." This drop in C-14 levels can be measured over time to determine the approximate date of death with some accuracy. So, how is it that we can now determine the date of birth using deceased human eyes?

Here's where it gets interesting. Human eyes are made of transparent proteins that behave like crystals, "allowing light to pass through the eye so we can see." These proteins, called crystallins, are formed in the first two years of life and after that remain relatively unchanged for the remainder of our lives. As the crystallins form, they absorb C-14 from the atmosphere and food stuffs. Now, "from the end of World War II and up until about 1960, the superpowers of the Cold War era conducted nuclear tests, detonating bombs into the atmosphere. These detonations have affected the content of radioactive trace materials in the air and created what scientists refer to as the C-14 bomb pulse. From the first nuclear detonation until the ban on nuclear testing was evoked, the quantity of C-14 in the atmosphere doubled. Since 1960, it has only slowly decreased to natural levels." Because the increased levels of radioactive trace materials in the atmosphere were closely monitored, we have complete records of levels over the years. Matching the amount of C-14 from a human eye sample at the time of death (which has remained unchanged since about age 2) to the amount of C-14 in the atmosphere at a certain time should tell us age of the decedent.

Also, it should be noted that "Bomb Pulse" would be a good band name.

Public Library of Science. "The Eyes Have It: Researchers Can Now Determine When A Human Was Born By Looking Into The Eyes Of The Dead." ScienceDaily 30 January 2008. 31 January 2008 .

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Posting Comments

I finally figured out a way to change the settings so anyone can post comments here on the blog, instead of just those with Google accounts. So, if you've been having trouble posting, that should be fixed now. I'm still getting used to all this. Blog fame--it's a gift and a curse..... : )

Monday, January 28, 2008

Snow Cave Photos!

Snow Cave in the Park

Snow Cave in the backyard

For Rent: Spacious Backyard Snow Cave with Great Location & Ammenities!

Spokane got some wonderful snow yesterday--and we played in it from dawn 'til dusk! Gordon and I strapped on our cross country skis and went up to the store just as the sun was rising. Since it was so early on a Sunday morning, no one was around and we were able to ski right down the middle of the streets. Later we picked up friends and went to try out Snow Bocce and Snow Croquet. I had high hopes for these new sports, but there were some obstacles I had not foreseen. The balls tend to sink into the snow and then continue rolling under the crust, so you have no idea where they are! We gave up those pursuits and Gordon decided to pass on his newly-acquired skills in snow cave building. We picked a nice spot in Cannon Hill Park and started shoveling. An hour or so later, we had a nice little snow cave--with room for four adults. Some local kids and a nice puppy enjoyed it as well. Snow caves are a very wet enterprise, so we all went home to shower and change. Or tried to, anyway--The snow hadn't let up the whole time we were in the park and we had a little trouble navigating the streets. Our little car got stuck several times and each time we'd all pile out to push it out of the snow or over the snow or around the snow. It was quite the adventure.

Even after beer and pizza at Benedito's for lunch, Gordon didn't seem to have the snow cave thing out of his system, so he got to work on another one in our backyard. This one was more of an igloo than a cave and was much larger. Several of our neighbors came out to have a look. We all ran out of energy as it got dark and cold, but Gordon pulled us right back out to finish it after we took a short break. It looks really cool--I'll try to post some photos as soon as I figure out how! : )

Today, all the schools in Spokane are closed, so Gordon is enjoying yet another snow day. It looks like a lovely clear morning, but there is more snow on the way. We now have over a foot of accumulation here in town and could get another foot within the next week, with the largest storm coming in around Thursday. Just think of the snow castles and labyrinths we could build then!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Results: Inconclusive

I'm having a little problem with information lately. I try to be unbiased in my information-gathering by getting the news from multiple sources and always paying attention to citations and the respectability of sources, yet there is still a lot of uncertainty as to what is absolutely true. Take the issue at hand at last night's Toast Party: Does drinking out of aluminum cans give you Alzheimer's disease, or at least increase your risk? I spent some time researching this (just using on-line sources) and came up with the following answers, Yes, No, Maybe. All of those answers came from what appear to be reliable sources. Now that I've educated myself on the topic, I could come up with a fairly convincing argument for each answer and many people have. So where does that leave me? Nowhere. And the Alzheimer's/aluminum debate is just one of many. Sunscreen/Skin Cancer. Soy Good/Soy bad. Global Warming/Cyclical Climate Change. Antibiotics/Bloodletting. Okay, maybe that last one isn't much of a mystery anymore : ).

I've found that in a conversation where one party moves to the far extreme in a certain argument's theoretical continuum, it tends to force everyone else to the opposite extreme, if only for the sake of balance. This is unacceptable. If you are standing in front of me arguing that bloodletting is the ideal and only true way to treat infection, I shouldn't have to stand up and say that antibiotics are the ultimate panacea for all mankind's ills. But if I give a fair and balanced report on antibiotics (they generally do the job, but their success is waning; they tend to destroy the good bugs as well as the bad, etc), then the middle ground between us is somewhere in the area of "Leeches and antibiotics are both acceptable treatment options and patients should be advised about the benefits and risks of both before making any treatment decisions." This, of course, is ridiculous.

The only intelligent answer to these questions is the unsatisfying shoulder shrug. The evidence literally goes both ways and the only absolute truth is, We Don't Fully Know Yet. You may prefer one view over another, but to be rational you have to acknowledge all the evidence. So how do we take a stand? And how should we live our lives? And how do we communicate with people who refuse to acknowledge the evidence on both sides? Or why talk about it at all if there's no satisfying conclusion to come to at the end? And what about the possibility, put forth and effectively argued by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, that the more information we have, the less we are able to see the correct answer?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The E-Word

Yesterday I came across the best description of evolution I’ve ever read--in an unlikely place. It was in Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. Weisman devoted a chapter to pondering the question of whether another sentient creature would evolve if humans suddenly disappeared from Earth. I haven’t finished the chapter, so I can’t tell you his final conclusions, but along the way he mentions some interesting things about monkeys in Africa. Apparently, there are some places where the resources are so thin that, to survive, different types of monkeys have begun mating with each other (“…out of desperation or creativity.”). The monkeys have different numbers of chromosomes, so it is likely that some of the offspring of these matches are sterile, however, researchers were surprised to discover that a few of them are not. This is one way we are seeing evolution at work before our very eyes. Resources are scarce and the monkeys have to get creative about their survival, even to the point of trying to join up with other animals. It should be noted that the two types of monkey in question are thought to be distant relatives. At some previous point in evolutionary history they were the same monkey, but time, distance and different circumstances forced them to take on different characteristics until they were no longer the same animal at all.
Wiesman's other knock-out example takes place in a deep, fertile, jungle-filled rift valley in Africa that is home to many monkeys. Though the valley is rich with resources, there is not enough for all the monkeys that live there. Scientists (and, I assume, locals) have observed the occasional adventurous monkey climbing to the tops of the trees and climbing out of the rift valley, standing on wobbly two feet to look around across the Savannah. The monkey picks out a tree or group of trees nearby and takes a run for it, hopefully without being spotted by any scary Savannah predators on the way. Those few seconds, when the monkey stands on two feet and scans the horizon for the first time, are like a glimpse into our own evolutionary history, and it is happening today--right in front of us.

I'd also like to post a quote from Richard Dawkins' book The Blind Watchmaker, which is also about evolution. Dawkins eloquently describes our difficulties in understanding the amount of time that evolution requires. He explains that skeptics (including the highly-religious) will admit that evolution seems to work on a small scale. For example, they are willing to concede that dark coloration has evolved in various species of moth since the industrial revolution, a well-established and documented fact. "But having accepted this, they point out how small a change this is. ...[It's] no match for the evolution of the eye, or of echolocation [in bats]. But equally, the moths only took a hundred years to make their change. One hundred years seems like a long time to us because it is longer than our lifetime. But to a geologist it is about a thousand times shorter than he can normally measure."
Puts it into perspective, huh? Dawkins goes on later to point out that if we make the time when humans began breeding dogs (such as Pekinese, Bulldogs, Chihuahua, etc.) from wolves to the present time equivalent to a footstep, then we need to make the amount of time from the first human fossils equivalent to two miles and geologic history the equivalent of walking from London to Baghdad!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Feeling Blue/Seeing Red....

It's a beautiful, sunny day in Spokane today; I hate to be stuck inside. After work, we are getting together with friends to try out a new sport: Snow Croquet. Okay, maybe sport is a strong term. Nevertheless, I'll let you know how it goes : ).

Gordon and I had a very productive weekend and got a lot done around the house. We switched out all our old light bulbs to new, energy-efficient bulbs and instituted a recycling policy. Gordon replaced a couple of our old light fixtures with cute new ones we found at Lowes. And we repainted our bedside tables and my lotion shelf a pretty color of blue called Empire Fleet Blue. Of course, we didn't discover until too late that Seymour (the cat) had inadvertently rubbed against some of the wet paint when we weren't looking, so one side of him had a nice bright blue stripe. Everything around the house he'd laid on and rubbed against also had blue paint on it (our new red comforter, green chair, etc). And I thought cats were supposed to bring your blood pressure down.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Is It Just Me, or Is It Not Really All That Hot in Here?

An article at headlines, "2007 Was Tied As Earth's Second Warmest Year." ( The article is referring to the past 100 years, and the findings are pretty interesting. It's easy to shrug off Global Warming when it's 20 degrees and the ground is covered in snow. Hell, it's even easy to shrug it off when its 102 degrees in July and you're wishing you were at the lake. It's hard to get really worked up over such small degrees of change, even with all the doom-saying going on. The interesting thing about the article, was that it explained why this is. Warming trends are happening all over the globe, but to pretty small degrees. The only exception is in the Arctic regions. In areas that are usually covered in snow and ice, there have been relatively huge changes in temperature. This is because, "the loss of snow and ice leads to more open water, which absorbs more sunlight and warmth. Snow and ice reflect sunlight; when they disappear, so too does their ability to deflect warming rays." So a small warming trend in the arctic has a tendency to snowball out of control quickly. In contrast, warming trends over land and even over temperate ocean water do not change the reflectivity/absorption rates of heat and sunlight, so there is no snowball effect.

So, want to know what to expect in the coming warmer, wetter world? Check out this Newsweek article which talks about some of the many adaptations we will have to make in order to live in the future,( including increasing the length of airport runways (necessary to get the lift needed to raise a jet in all this heat) and creating "power lines that don't snap when they've got hundreds of pounds of ice on them."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

When Lovers Go Kayaking....

As you probably guessed by the title, Gordon picked today's blog topic : ).

So here's what I think about relationships: I lucked out. Gordon and I met and married when I was nineteen. What I now know about teenagers is that they are notorious for making bad decisions, and I am sure rushing into marriage with someone I didn't know all that well could be characterized as such by some people. But Gordon and I are still very happy and in love. We actually enjoy spending time together and bouncing new philisophical or poliitcal ideas off each other. I have strong suspicions that he likes me just the way I am. He's supportive and kind. Plus, he's totally sexy. So this is me, thanking my lucky stars for that : ).

Now, on to the much more exciting topic of kayaking. Or, more specifically, whitewater kayaking. Apparently, there are several types of kayaking and each has its own distict style and requires a different boat. I have never been whitewater kayaking, but from what I hear it is second to nothing on this Earth. I have it on good authority that kayakingness is next to godliness. Now, it being ass-cold here in Spokane right now, there isn't a lot of kayaking going on, however, Gordon and Co. were able to kayak for several hours last night in the EWU pool, so he is floating on air today (and can't wait to do it again next week). If I'm not mistaken, the best part of the evening was when he was surrounded by friends who repeatedly tipped his boat so he had to use combat rolls to get upright again. To some, this may sound like a new torture method that the CIA came up with to interrogate terrorism suspects, enemy combantants and innocent bystanders, but apparently it can also be "totally cool."

Happy Kayaking to All!

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Sweet Smell of Academia

Last night I was on the EWU campus with Gordon for an Epic meeting and potluck (Epic is the college's outdoor adventure program; Gordon is an apprentice trip leader with them). It had been a long time since I had been on a college campus and I was blown away by the ambiance of it all. People scurrying around by themselves, heads down, carrying impossibly large bookbags. Cheering boys attempting to snowboard down the icy ramp to Patterson Hall. The thick, musty silence of the library. As we were walking through the student union building I commented to Gordon about the smell, "Wow, I never noticed how academic it smelled in here!" We were only on campus for a little over an hour, but I am still recovering from the yearning I felt to go back there and start my education all over again.

Meeting Gordon's classmates has been fun--they seem like nice people, with a good amount of crazy thrown in. It was a potluck dinner and I knew that there was small chance of there being real food (since the whole thing was put on by college students), so I had Gordon make up a big batch of homemade Mac and Cheese, his specialty. It was a big hit. The potluck also featured about 15 bags of chips, one cheese and cracker tray, and a whole lot of microwaved taquitos. Not my usual dinner fare : ). The Epic trips sound pretty amazing, though. Whitewater rafting, kayaking, ice climbing, snow-shoeing, back-packing, alpine and nordic ski trips, just about anything you could ever want. And it's all very inexpensive for the students; a great campus program if you ask me.

If any of you have ideas or opinions about what I should go back to school for, let me know : ).

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Fun with Politics

Had a great political discussion at Drew's last night (over some fine red wine and a fabulous chicken curry). It was nice to have a discussion about politics that didn't devolve into irrational drivel.

I am so excited about this year's presidential race! It is such a widely varied field of candidates and there is no clear front-runner for either party yet. Isn't it exhilarating? So let's recap. In Iowa last week Obama came first for the Dems and Huckabee secured a win in the GOP. Both were sort of surprise wins (Possibly the real surprise there was who didn't win). Yesterday in New Hampshire Hilary Clinton and John McCain were the front-runners, both surprising wins that revitalized their campaigns. Next up is Michigan. Their primary will be held on January 15th. Nevada, South Carolina, and Florida round out the end of the month. Several candidates who have not yet had much success are counting on big South Carolina and Florida wins, which would shake up the race even further. February 5th is the big day, Super Tuesday. Nearly two dozen states hold their primary elections on that day (including California) and it usually serves to narrow the field of candidates down quite a bit. After that, the other states trickle in here and there. Here in Washington, we will hold our primary on February 19th, although our caucuses will be held on February 9th. Primary and Caucus results will be used by the Republican party to choose delegates for the national convention. The Democratic party will only use Caucus results to allocate delegates. So, if you lean towards Democrat and you have a strong opinion about a candidate, you should attend your local caucus meeting!

(This website should help you find a caucus in your area:

Monday, January 7, 2008

Maybe Mondays Aren't So Bad After All....

I read in Stephan Klein's The Science of Happiness that in general, people are actually happier at work than they are at home. If I remember correctly, a study was done where participants wore a device that would beep each hour, at which point they would input a number to indicate how happy they were. In this way, their happiness levels could be tracked as they moved through their daily routines. As participants left work at the end of the day, you would expect a spike in happiness, but actually the opposite occurred. It turns out, we are much happier when we are busy and our minds are engaged in our work than we are when we are at home slouching in front of the TV. (Klein also noted that the two activities that are nearly guaranteed to induce some amount of happiness are physical exercise and sex. So if you are having a bad day, those are sure bets to improve it!)

This Saturday, I spent the whole day working hard to get things done around the house so I could take Sunday and just relax. I did the laundry (it had been a few weeks and the pile was beginning to show signs of sentience), washed dishes, vacuumed, paid the bills, caught up with a friend at coffee, updated my blog, and went for a walk. Then, on Sunday, I had nothing left to do really, so I just sat around and watched movies. Which day was the better day? Saturday, of course. We have this tendency to think that if we could just sit down and relax for a few hours we would be happier, but in fact, being busy and active seems to be the better solution. So here's my question: How does this information apply to the oft-expressed complaints of busy soccer moms and over-scheduled kids? How does it apply to work-aholics? How does it apply to you?

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Just Say "No!" to Cynicism!

So, who is paying close attention to the political primaries? Anyone made up their mind yet? I certainly haven’t; I usually like to reserve judgment until the parties have picked their candidates. No sense getting attached to anyone this early in the game. I think our system of voting has the unintended consequence of forcing us to turn tiny distinctions between candidates into grand canyons of dissimilarity. One good way of thinking about it, particularly if you would like to minimize the amount of cynicism in your life, is to make a list of all the candidates currently in the race who you don’t hate. Instead of just picking one candidate, try to stay open-minded about all the candidates who you think could probably do the job admirably enough. The truth is, there is no way to know who will be great and who will only be okay. This is further complicated by the fact that there is no way to know in advance what kind of problems or crises the next president will have to deal with. Maybe you love one candidate for his domestic policy and know he would be a kick-ass president in that sphere, but what if Syria and Iran go to war, could he handle the fall-out from that? No way to know for sure. Every candidate has strengths and weaknesses. So keep your list as long as possible and try to be reasonable instead of emotional.

Friday, January 4, 2008

...And I used to think blogging was dumb....

Hi Everyone. Welcome to my new blog and my first blog post! Hopefully it will be witty and thought-provoking, but it's too early to tell : ). Please feel free to submit topics you'd like me to write about, otherwise, you'll just have to read whatever garbage is running through my head each day! More later!