Just Another Effin' Observer

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Location: Huntsville, Texas, United States

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Stop It or You’ll Go Blind!

I caught this item last night while generally ignoring the NBC Nightly News, with Brian Williams:

Blindness noted in men using impotence drugs

This morning, I found that Patterico had picked up on it from a story on the Guardian’s site.

My prediction:
The jokes are just gonna write themselves.

UPDATE (30 May 2005): Told ya.

The Rest of the Story...

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Brave New World of Kim Possible

I’m going to admit something in a public forum that most people would never own up to, even on the Jerry Springer Show: I am a forty-something-year-old Disney Channel junkie.

My favorite Disney show, hands-down, bar none and running away, is Kim Possible. I make it a point never to miss an episode. (I sort of have a “thing” for Shego – I just luv a “bad girl”! And she is the definitive tasty babe with attitude. So what if she's nothing more than paint and plastic; you've just described half the population of Southern California.) And did you know that there actually is such an animal as a naked mole rat? I had always thought that was just a tweak on "mall-rats", presumably the show's target demographic. Live and learn.

A recent episode was particularly topical, in that the storyline involved Dr. Drakken setting out to create an army of genetically-modified, chaotic-evil (Dungeons & Dragons® afficionados will know what I’m talking about) clones of Kim Possible, whom he can send out to do his evil bidding; the idea of using copies of his arch-nemesis to further his plan for world-domination was just too delicious to resist. Fortunately (or unfortunately -- it all depends on whom you're rooting for in this grudge match), Drakken took a few short-cuts (what can we say -- he's a cheapskate), and the clones he ended up producing were unstable, requiring nothing more than a healthy spritz of grape Nehi® to cause them to decompose into a puddle of bright green gunk. (I may be wrong about the grape Nehi®, but the stuff coming out of that soda-fountain spritzer was purple and carbonated; it's a reasonable conclusion, based on the available evidence.)

I seriously doubt that the show was intended as a morality tale, but it was nonetheless instructive.

The whole issue of cloning has been around for years, and has been the subject of many serious bioethical debates, not to mention some astoundingly crappy sci-fi/horror movies, ever since Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World was published in 1932 and, in a more obscure fashion, even before. The first successful experiments in cloning date as far back as 1963.

The topicality of that episode of Kim Possible stems from current goings-on in the Hallowed Halls of Congress: two pieces of legislation, both authorizing federal funding for various types of stem-cell research, have passed the House and are headed for the Senate. One of them, the so-called Castle bill, named for one of its principal sponsors, Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE), faces a promised Presidential veto if it makes it to the Oval Office, because this bill proposes to authorize and fund embryonic stem-cell research, in which human embryos are created, allowed to grow, and then destroyed for the purpose of harvesting their stem cells.

The process of cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer (as the process is referred to by people who appreciate the fact that we, the Great Unwashed, actually know what the word 'cloning' means, and who are thus trying to hide what they're up to behind an impenetrable curtain of technobabble), goes something like this:

  • Step 1: Get an unfertilized egg;

  • Step 2: Remove the nucleus from the egg cell;

  • Step 3: Replace that cell nucleus with the nucleus from another type of cell;

  • Step 4: Artificially induce the cell to start dividing;

  • Step 5: Halt Step 4 when you have a blastocyst, or a cluster of about 150 cells.

That "cluster of about 150 cells" are your stem cells; what you'll do with them at this juncture is a whole 'nother issue entirely, but the current answer to that question seems to be... not a lot. You see, so far, not a single medical breakthrough, or even a promising avenue of research for an effective treatment, has been made possible through the use of embryonic stem cells; not one. On the other hand, research using "adult" stem cells (the production of which do not involve the destruction of embryos) has led to many promising areas for further research, and in several cases, effective treatments.

That hasn't deterred the advocates of embryonic stem-cell research from touting all sorts of pie-in-the-sky promises, from the regeneration of nerve pathways (a la Christopher Reeve) and new skin (for burn victims), to the possibility of customized pharmaceuticals tailored to a patient's specific body chemistry, to the ability to grow complete replacement organs for transplant (although I have my doubts about that one -- the minute a sip of grape Nehi® hits your cloned, replacement liver..., you're screwed!)

Thus, it would appear that the most compelling argument in favor of embryonic stem-cell research is little more than a Utopian fantasy, and the most persuasive argument against it is an eminently pragmatic one: that this godawful-expensive avenue of research has yet to produce anything remotely approaching the results that other avenues of research have already delivered. So why are some people pushing so hard to promote a field of research which has, thus far, yielded no significant results, and yet is so heavily saddled with ethical baggage?

The only explanation I can think of for this attitude points to the fundamental nihilism of embryonic stem-cell research proponents and their cultural fellow-travellers: a gut-level belief that there is nothing particularly special about human beings; that we're just a collection of chemicals; an extreme expression of the notion that "a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy", according to Ingrid Newkirk of PETA. (Uh, speak for yourself, Ingrid; people who are unable, or cannot be bothered, to count the chromosomes aren't the most authoritative sources on species-related issues. And if you honestly cannot draw any distinctions between "a rat or a pig or a dog or a boy", then your parents' reaction to your prom date must have been a 'Film-at-eleven' moment.)

The Rest of the Story...

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Last Time I Saw Paris…

I had promised myself that I would never, ever, mention Paris Hilton on this blog, but my promises haven’t been worth bupkis since I told my agent that I would never take a job in New York, and that I would never work on a Macintosh – and then spent the better part of two years writing Mac code for a company in Manhattan (and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world).

So why am I changing my mind? It’s hard to explain, really, but I suppose the answer might lie somewhere between the phrase, “target of opportunity”, and CBS News’ reason for rushing the Rather memos onto 60 Minutes Wednesday: “too good not to run with”. I can’t define it, I can’t explain it, but Paris Hilton has a certain je ne sais qua: there is an indefinable quality about her that just makes you want to smack her like a piñata full of Krugerrands.

One commenter on the Knowledge Is Power blog characterized Paris as “…famous for being rich, stupid and easy to nail”. All of which of course is true, but what comes to my mind when I think of Paris Hilton is an obscure line from Arthur Hailey’s novel Hotel (how's that for irony?), about a minor character in the story: “Her brains are in her tits; the only problem is, they’re not connected.”

Okay, I can see, for all that I am alarmingly close to being eligible for membership in the AARP, that Ms. Hilton would have a certain visceral appeal to a particular demographic, but let’s assume for the moment that you have graduated from middle school; as that magical moment at the apex of puberty (and you guys know what I’m talking about) recedes into the past, the allure becomes ever more incomprehensible. What, pray tell, is so sexy about this vapid prima facie evidence that blonde jokes aren’t jokes, after all?

There has to be something I can point to and say, “This is why she’s famous.” But what could that something be? The fact that she’s obscenely wealthy? Big tap-dancin’ whoop; she didn’t earn a nickel of it. She’s beautiful? Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so behold. Now that’s beautiful! She’s talented? I never saw the sex video, so I can’t judge her in that particular talent contest, but I did see this. Fine, so she can eat a hamburger and wash a car; hey, it’s a skill, like anything else. But can she do both at the same time? The evidence is inconclusive on that point.

Oh, how I long for the days, not so very long ago, when the words ‘Paris Hilton’ conjured up an image of an overpriced chain hotel on the Champs Elyssee. Instead, VH-1 treats us to Paris Hilton’s Most Shocking, and we spend the entire program wondering how long it took how many editors to whittle the list down to the mere dozen or so that actually made it into the final cut. Hell, every breath she takes is a shock to me (if only by demonstrating that she has enough cognitive function to do so). VH-1 proclaims in its Web page about the show that Paris is “a lot smarter than you think”. That still leaves them plenty of wiggle-room, frankly; define ‘a lot’. (And you probably don't want to know how I would define the phrase '...than you think'; there are things in my refrigerator that exhibit higher-level cerebral activity.) The page’s blurb ends with what I have to assume is a rhetorical question: “What will she do next?” Actually, it merely serves to beg the more pertinent question, “Who the f*** cares!?” (And for any readers in California, let me assure you that those persistent rumblings you feel beneath your feet are not the San Andreas getting ready to cut loose; it’s Grandpa Conrad spinning in his grave so fast that he’s about to drill himself into another, posthumous, fortune in oil.)

Andy Warhol famously remarked that everyone is famous for fifteen minutes. Well, Paris exhausted her quarter-hour a long time ago; she’s running on my minutes now, and I want ‘em back!

The Rest of the Story...

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Beam Me Up, Scotty!

I moved a couple of months ago, which explains why I haven’t added any new entries to this blog since late February. I also started a new contract recently, and it’s shaping up to be one of the more interesting I’ve had in the decade or so I’ve been doing this “consulting” shtick. I’ve always hated being called a consultant, because every company and/or manager who referred to me by that title never listened to a word I said. I will answer to “contractor”, “itinerant rent-a-geek”, “data-center concubine”, or any of a number of other “colorful metaphors”, but if you call me a consultant, I’ll just ignore you. (Miss Manners would call it rudeness; I call it karma, coming back to bite you on the ass.)

I am now a telecommuter, working from my home. This is both a good thing and a bad, since the company I am working for is located in southern Virginia, and I live in East Texas. I don’t have to absorb the expense of maintaining a residence twelve hundred miles from home, but I don’t get the tax-free living expense per diem, either. It required a few adjustments, like summoning up the self-discipline to drag my lethargic ass out of bed every morning (which I would have to do, anyway, no matter where I worked), and immediately get down to working, without benefit of that nerve-jangling drive to the office. On the other hand, there is also the fact that I am never really off-duty. (This, also, can be considered a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your outlook.) I can work whenever the muse inspires me, which is good for the company, because they get more bang for their buck, and for me, because I have always been motivated more by getting things accomplished than just putting in the hours. I’ve always been something of a night-owl, anyway; my most productive periods tend to coincide with the times the maintenance crews come on duty, and those Rolls-Royce RB211 turbofan-powered vacuum cleaners they insist on using can be a bit, shall we say, distracting.

Another adjustment that was required was to upgrade my Internet connection. Since I am now living, to use the technical term, twelve miles north of nowhere, I have had to compensate for the slower, simpler pace of living in the middle of a prairie. For the techno-geek, the phrase “slower, simpler pace” translates to… dial-up. You can’t get DSL out here, and the local cable company is pushing their technology envelope delivering the Disney Channel; expecting them to offer broadband is completely out of the question. Out here, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain – oh, sorry, that’s Oklahoma – there is only one alternative: satellite.

It was installed last Saturday.

Okay, it took a while to connect the title to the text, but I finally got there.

Internet via satellite is probably the greatest invention since the cordless vibrator. You get wicked fast downloads (faster than DSL, in many cases), connectivity in areas where DSL isn’t available, along with a cool-looking piece of high-tech sculpture in your back yard. (Hey, if that Joan Miro piece of crap in downtown Houston qualifies as art….) Admittedly, it is a bit pricey (the service starts at sixty bucks a month, and the equipment and installation runs from six hundred to more than a grand), but if the only alternative is dial-up at 28.8, then the check is in the mail.

So now that I am connected in true Star Trek fashion, what am I planning to do with my new-found bandwidth out the gazotch? I’m gonna kick some bytes and take down some file names, is what!

The Rest of the Story...