Sunday, November 25, 2007

Stem Cells and the fine print

During another agonizingly monotonous Thanksgiving dinner I asked my grandfather, a geneticist and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, about the recent Stem Cell breakthrough. The story is that a couple of scientists at the University of Wisconsin and Kyoto University have found a way to turn regular cells in mice into a stem cell equivalent. Stories have spanned major media outlets in the last week or so on this. In perfect character, my grandfather skipped all the exciting and beneficial aspects of the new discovery and went straight to the problem, fortunately for him it's a rather big problem. He went over to his study and came back with a manila folder. Inside the folder was a collection of stories in different publications. He pointed to a few of the articles about the finding which mentioned ever so briefly that "the new method includes potentially risky steps, like introducing a cancer gene," according to one article in The New York Times. Some other articles didn't even mention this rather large caveat. The discovery is being spun as a complete era-changing breakthrough. I doubt everyone would receive this stem cell news so warmly if the headline read "New Stem Cell Breakthrough May Also Cause Cancer."

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Star Goes South

Of interest to that curmudgeonly old guy who lives alone and scowls at all the kids who walk by but loves his community newspaper:

Come Sunday, the Daily Southtown and Star Newspapers will be no more. For those who don't know (which is almost everyone), these are two small, excellent, Chicago newspapers. The Daily Southtown is the more renowned of the two. It has a reputation for strong reporting, clever columnists, and general activism in the kind of public service role newspapers are meant to have. It's won a number of major awards, such as Newspaper of the Year by a suburban newspaper judging committee, the George Polk Award, and the Studs Terkel Award. Pulitzer Prize winners have worked there.
The Southtown also keeps an bureau at Chicago's city hall. Perhaps if the newspaper industry was in a better state, the Southtown could and definitely would surpass the Sun-Times and rival the Chicago Tribune.
The Star is a different kind of beast. It's a twice a week paper tending to a number of suburban middle class and blue collar regions of the Chicagoland area. Like the Southtown, the Star carries excellent journalists, and awards, who are familiar with the area -most have lived in Chicago or Illinois their entire lives. The Star's greatest success as a newspaper is its clear contribution to uniting the outlying suburban communities into one larger one.
Both the Southtown and the Star are historic newspapers that have seen major events in Chicago of the twentieth century. To save money, the two papers will unite into one this Sunday to be named the SouthtownStar. The reasoning is money and nothing else. The name change is to keep aspects of both brands alive and therefore avoid detracting complete change with people familiar with either newspaper. Part of its merging also means newsroom job cuts on both sides, a not so unusual event in the newspaper business these days.
Budget constraints are the worst part, no question about it. To a much lesser extent so is the death of both papers. So now two papers must die but did they have to merge? Could the Southtown have not kept its more prominent name and simply "acquired" -as it's called in the business- its sister paper? That might at least keep an appearance of strength. This is all secondary in importance to the real problem behind the merger though. The papers' parent company, the Sun-Times Media Group, would definitely rather just cut as many costs in its minor papers than keep entities that are going through tough times but clearly uphold the honorable jobs that newspapers were always meant for. Well, for the moment at least, it's good that some kind of south suburban community newspaper is around. The longer it lasts, the better.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Crystal Castles

Of interest to the electronica/noise-lover and retro video game fanatic:

Suburban parents everywhere fear that their precious pipsqueaks' corruption by video games will lead them to discover the bullets aisle at the local Wal-Mart. Crystal Castles, whose members are known only as Ethin and Alice, is the 8-bit sound track to their love affair with violence and technology. In songs with titles such as "Crimewave", this duo matches innocently bloopy electronic loops with eerie, often nonsensical lyrics.

In "Alice Practice," so named because it was recorded accidentally while lead singer Alice was practicing, their professed influences such as murder and knives are a bit more evident. Rough ripples and harsh, not-quite-screaming vocals add a layer of distress.

The track "xxzxczx me" (pronounced "Excuse Me"), while not my favorite track, is in my opinion their best. Its pace is faster than their usual dreamy adventures, reminiscent of a slightly coked-up version of the last level on your old favorite game, or the time the strobe lights and booze lowered your seizure threshold a little too far during that rave at the anime convention.

The sound flips to the other end of the spectrum on "Magic Spells", an empty lullaby. Lack of direction or content makes this lazy near-melody one repetitive, though not otherwise offensive, never-ending loop. Magic Spells is certainly a weak point for Crystal Castles, showcasing one of their biggest flaws: their lack of structure and movement. They create wonderful, hypnotizing beats and add adorably bizarre flourishes to a foundation of dark yet gentle noise, but their foundation isn't very firm. They need content. Drive. Their songs need a thesis, a raison d'etre. The tradition of hiding their faces in official photos mirrors the facelessness of their music. It's a delightful distraction that's at it's best in their skillful remixes, in which their 8-bit tweaks transform the originals into entirely new characters. Perhaps Crystal Castles can be best thought of as skillful future producers. That would certainly be an interesting role for them. But for the time being, they are an interesting sound that's different enough to justify its existence, even if it is still in its amateur stages.

Downloads (from Pitchfork Media):
Goodbooks - Leni (Crystal Castles Remix)
Crystal Castles - Air War
Crystal Castles vs. The Little Ones - Lovers Who Uncover
Crystal Castles - xxzxczx me
DJ Howlemonkey: "Crystal Castles Omnibus Mix"


Jews seeking spiritual renewal bowled over by sixth grader seeking ice cream

On a personal note:

I’ve been working for two weeks washing dishes at a Jewish retreat center and farm in Connecticut. We host a variety of programs throughout the year–this autumn an ecology-focused camp for Jewish 6th-graders called "Teva." The Teva counselors live onsite from September to December, and a new group of 6th graders comes every Monday and stays for a week, during which time they learn about the synthesis of Jewish and environmental values.

These campers are 11 or 12 years old, which means that in about a year each will have a "Bar Mitzvah," the Jewish rite of passage. In the ancient era (when the tradition was founded) this would have meant leaving their parents’ homes and becoming apprenticed to a master of a trade. In the 21st century, it means a big party and then return to life as normal.
This dichotomy is reflected intimately in my interactions with the campers. Talking individually to one of these young men is like talking to a small, inexperienced adult–but an adult nonetheless. We can chat back and forth about school, religion, vocation, girls, you name it. I have to remind myself not to offer him a beer. But put them in a group and a setting that reminds them of their status as children (as most activities at camp do) and they revert to animals, screaming and howling as they ricochet off me, each other, and my laboriously stacked dishes.

As they lay waste to the freshly mopped dining hall, I think to myself: "Who the hell thought it would be a good idea to put a hundred and fifty of these energetic, impressionable creatures in one room with only a dozen adults?" With that kind of ratio, the only means of supervision is crude crowd control: systems of shouting and singing that we normally reserve for groups of dogs. Back when kids this age were learning to be blacksmiths and bankers and scribes, there would have been two or three experienced workers for every apprentice, and the dominant culture would have been one of mutual maturity–not herd and herder. "That’s how these kids could really learn something," I think, "working in small groups under close supervision, doing essentially adult activities."

But hold time–we have a program exactly like that, going right now! It’s called "Adamah" (Hebrew for "the land") and runs quietly in the background of the more dynamic Teva. Fifteen "Adamahniks" live onsite, rotating in small groups between kitchen, housekeeping, maintenance, and farming tasks, always under the supervision of a professional. They get room and board in exchange for their work: a modern apprenticeship model.

So what’s the catch? The Adamahniks aren’t sixth graders–they’re mostly in their mid- to late-twenties, the same age as the Teva counselors. They come from wealthy families and hyper-successful university backgrounds, and aren’t sure what they want out of life or where they’re going next. So they’re here, learning the life of a socialist Jewish farmer crossed not-so-smoothly with the life of a capitalist Jewish retreat center (capitalist enough to charge almost $200 a night for guests not associated with a specific program).

So while we’re treating our twelve-year-olds like animals, we’re treating our twenty-somethings the way we used to treat twelve-year-olds. The phase of odyssey and search for vocation has been pushed back more than a decade, and the personal anachronisms are bizarre to witness: a biological adult bowling over his peers to get first dibs on ice cream, or a 28-year-old with a master’s degree reflecting that when this program ends he’ll probably go back and live with his parents. Even as children in the inner city learn to grow up faster, the larval stage of the upper middle intellectual class is getting longer...and longer...and longer.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: in biology successful organisms often have longer childhood phases (and even the most politically correct among us can’t deny the upper middle class intellectual is a successful organism). But it’s a strange thing, a little unprecedented, and I wonder what it bodes for upcoming generations. Will these post-adolescent wanderers settle down to careers in business and law sometime in their thirties, have children in their forties, and achieve full bourgeois-dom by the time they’re fifty? Or will they form networks of utopian spiritual communities that raise their children on campfire songs and compost bins? Or will the entire system implode with all the grandeur of Rome burning?

Needless to say: only time will tell.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Darjeeling isn't so Limited

Of interest to the Wes Anderson fanatic:

Wes Anderson is all about consistency. His movies are always masterfully filmed, draped in cheerful scenery and bright props, heavy on the sarcasm, and partially about death. His latest film, The Darjeeling Limited doesn't miss any of these elements. And it goes further. There's a glorious montage epitomizing Anderson's skill as a director on the train where the camera compartmentalizes minor characters in locomotive cars. The film also allows for major visible character development, a rare trait among his movies. A major theme of the film is growth, which Anderson may have experienced since his last work.
It starts out...well, actually it starts out with a welcome cameo of Bill Murray chasing a train. Murray misses the train but a lankier and faster Adrian Brody catches it and reunites with his two brothers who haven't spoken in years. The eldest is Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson) who's head is bandaged like those old leather football player helmets. Francis has organized a "spiritual" journey through India. He's organized it so well that every morning each brother receives a laminated itinerary detailing what at each minute the brothers will be doing. Francis has commissioned an assistant to shadow the brothers and plan the next day's events. It's clear early on that Francis feels a sense of responsibility to care for his younger brothers, who are both grown. Peter (Adrian Brody), the middle child, of course must rebel against authority, while the youngest Jack (Jason Schwartzman) tries to stay out of the quarreling brothers way. Jack's efforts prove fruitless as at one point he has to mace his siblings with a gigantic can he bought at a break-stop early on. There's a lot of pent up emotion among the three brothers, in addition to the jarring recent death of their father. The two oldest brothers are coping with their father's death in different ways. Francis it turns out, is micromanaging in the same way that his mother and probably his father did. Peter has begun wearing his father's glasses and shaving with his razor, and probably more. Jack may have taken on another symbolic trait but none is clearly revealed. His character is somewhat underdeveloped, ironically because he helped write the script along with Anderson. We know that Jack is at the very end of a disastrous relationship (with the ever annoyingly googlie eyed Natalie Portman) and is a writer whose stories are obviously just recounts of actual events. "The characters are all fictional," he presses, pathetically. Even Jack knows that Jack's writing is about Jack.
For the planned India trip, mostly bickering occurs between Francis and Peter as Francis struggles to keep to his unbearably strict schedule in the darkly humorous world of Anderson. Life's curve balls triumph in the end and the adventure really kicks into gear. As the Whitman brother's train goes further and further off the track (by then, the train they were actually riding on abandons the trio) we learn more about each sibling. It turns out Peter is going to be a father and has no idea what to do, Jack is really continuing his relationship of meaningless sex with Portman's character while trying to find love elsewhere, and Francis was more torn up -literally- about his father's death than it seemed. Perhaps the coming together of the three brothers combined with the various potholes in the road pushes them to come to terms with mortality and each other's unique problems. Whatever it is, by the end of the movie they mature and realize adulthood has finally arrived, and been there for some time.
You can't live life in chaos though so after confronting what each brother had worked hard to suppress they regain a semblance of control. Francis grew the most, even though he's the oldest, and the maturing shows in his contributions in the world. Thanks to his change, the trip is a bit more comfortable. It's a welcome advance, a lot like the progression of maturity in Anderson's movies, maybe he did some growing also. Maybe.
He meant for the characters to be fictional.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Knock knock. Who's there? Walt Mossberg? Come back later

On a personal note:

So I'm reading Walter Mossberg's always engaging Personal Technology Column the other day. This time he's comparing the latest Gateway PC to the latest iMac. Because I have the attention span of a gnat I'm almost always multitasking and so I sat down at an iMac in an attempt to sign on to AIM while reading the column. As I futilely pressed the AIM icon over and over again I read this line
The iMac has been a success, however, partly because it combines beauty and power.

Now, I understand that he was writing about an entirely different model of iMac. I also must stress that Mossberg is both an excellent writer and insightful voice; but really, as I struggled to run a simple program on an iMac, I had my doubts about Mossberg's "solution". After all, I have never been an Apple guy. Sure, I love my iPod and am starting to dream about an iPhone rather than my overrated Razr but when it comes to computers, what I really need is a sturdy workhorse (read Dell), not some chesty-blonde-show-her-off-to-the-guys kind of computer (gee, that was an odd analogy). In my experience iMacs are really just for show, so this week Walt, I won't take your advice. Don't misunderstand, I won't go near a Gateway computer! But I will stay with PCs for that much longer.
I'm sure he'll spend many a sleepless night wondering how this could have been avoided...

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Stephen Colbert's Op-Ed Column

Of Interest to the Colbert Nation:

Stephen Colbert struck again with his October 14 Op-Ed piece in the New York Times entitled I Am An Op-Ed Columnist! (And So Can You!). As usual, there are some great passages that arrive at sharp criticism through Bill O'Reilly's looking glass:

Well, suddenly an option is looming on the horizon. And I don’t mean Al Gore (though he’s a world-class loomer). First of all, I don’t think Nobel Prizes should go to people I was seated next to at the Emmys. Second, winning the Nobel Prize does not automatically qualify you to be commander in chief. I think George Bush has proved definitively that to be president, you don’t need to care about science, literature or peace.

And of course there's plenty of Colbert's signature comic word-play; he pushes his metaphors, like his conservative punditry, to their extreme but logical conclusions:
Our nation is at a Fork in the Road. Some say we should go Left; some say go Right. I say, “Doesn’t this thing have a reverse gear?” Let’s back this country up to a time before there were forks in the road — or even roads. Or forks, for that matter. I want to return to a simpler America where we ate our meat off the end of a sharpened stick.
Let me regurgitate: I know why you want me to run, and I hear your clamor. I share Americans’ nostalgia for an era when you not only could tell a man by the cut of his jib, but the jib industry hadn’t yet fled to Guangdong. And I don’t intend to tease you for weeks the way Newt Gingrich did, saying that if his supporters raised $30 million, he would run for president. I would run for 15 million. Cash.

All this comes as a telephone poll conducted by Rassmussen Reports shows that 13 percent of Americans would support Colbert if he were a third party candidate pitted against Hillary and Giuliani. A facebook group called "1,000,000 Strong For Colbert" has more than 1,000,000 members, while an equivalent Obama group has some 390,000.
All harmless fun, except for a bit of a snafu about campaign finance laws that may have had some bearing on Fred Thompson's campaign had it not been discovered that he is actually a toaster oven.
Still, what does this show about the electorate? Isn't 2008 supposed to be the year the Dems strike back, take the presidency and right our capsized ship of state? Aren't we liberals supposed to be angry and determined to find a political solution to horrendous political problems? Yet in the first poll that included Colbert 2.3 percent of Democrats said they would vote for the comedian in the primaries--more than for Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gavel.
You could say the polled Dems are just being ironic in that effete urban elitist way that conservative pundits, real and fake, love to hate. Or they just don't care that much about polls. But do you think that anyone in the 1968 election would have had enough time to be ironic when it was widely felt that the nation was off course? Actually, there was a comedian write-in candidate: Pat Paulsen, who ran in five presidential elections between 1968 and 1996 and actually got 200,000 votes in the 1968 election. It therefore can't be the seriousness of the times that deters people from voting for throwaways.
What can be the meaning of Paulsen and Colbert's numbers? People who voted for Paulsen and declare their support for Colbert can't be wholly joking. I think they are rather venting their frustration about the critical lack of choices in politics. And I tend to agree with them. It's way past time to seriously consider third party options. I simply don't think either party will deliver exactly what many people want.
On the upside, I'm pretty confident that we'll at least have a Democrat in the oval office, since the Christian Right appears splintered. With the loss of that major voting bloc, I don't think a Republican candidate has a serious chance. Any thoughts?