Thursday, August 31, 2006

And the week was off to such a great start ...

This week started so well. My first lectures and labs all went smoothly, a potentially devastating technology problem was fixed by our tech folks in less than 2 hours, and my department bought me a cake to celebrate getting tenure.

However, low enrollments are now wreaking havoc. This semester I was going to be teaching a new course (a little 1-unit course that was intended to help our students think about what they could do with a biology degree). It was going to be great fun. There was only one problem: official enrollment was less than half what the administration wanted. In fact, it was so low that they almost cancelled the course the week before classes started.

I went into advertising overdrive and did all I could to attract students. Fliers. PowerPoint slides. E-mails. I needed at least eight extra students to walk into the room on the first day; only three extra students came. I thus got to cancel a class five minutes after it started. It was depressing, especially since I knew most of the students who were enrolled (they were great students of mine from prior semesters).

And, even more depressing, my main course is also under-enrolled (we're not sure why; we've finally arranged time slots that conflict with few other courses). The enrollment is so bad that it's nearly certain a lab section will be cancelled.

If the administration cancels a lab section, it will cause problems with my own load, but it will almost certainly mean that the adjunct I have helping me teach the course will lose their job (or at least lose more than half their courseload). This adjunct is a stellar instructor (there's a reason they're teaching my course), and deserves better.

Tonight I've been asked to write a justification for why we should keep all my labs running. The thing is, the enrollments are so low that I don't have much of a case. While I love teaching small labs, financially we just can't afford it as a college. But I've got to give this my best shot, because a large part of my adjunct's job is riding on it.


Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Going to church is bad for your health?

Here's a Science News article I know PZ will find interesting:
Holy Smoke: Burning incense, candles pollute air in churches
Long story short, it turns out that concentrations of small particulate matter in the air jumped about 7-fold in churches when both candles and incense were burned during a service. Unfortunately, the article doesn't provide any reference data (e.g., how harmful is that change likely to be?), but it sounds like that particulate matter is probably not terribly good for you.

This also makes me wonder if my fondness for making (and then burning) candles is really such a good thing ...

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Universal Health Care for Californians?

Both the California state Assembly and Senate have passed SB840, a bill (I've written about before) that would create a system of universal health insurance for all Californians.
[The bill] would provide every California resident with health insurance through a system controlled by a newly created entity called the California Health Insurance Agency.

The agency would be under the control of a health insurance commissioner appointed by the governor.


Under Kuehl's bill, the state's health care overhaul would be partially financed by converting existing governmental programs to the new system, while the rest would come from consumers and their employers in place of private insurance.

All told, the state would save nearly $8 billion in the first year, according to an analysis by the independent Lewin Group that was commissioned by the bill's supporters.

The report found that consolidating the health care system into a single plan would significantly reduce administrative costs, a finding the bill's proponents seized upon when arguing in its favor.
SF Gate
For more information on the bill, see the Senate Democratic Caucus page on SB840 and the official legislative page on it. There's even a fact sheet (PDF) that provides more details on what the bill will do, if made into law.

While Governor Schwarzenegger has "declined to take a position on the bill," it appears that he is unlikely to sign it:
During an appearance in July at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club, Schwarzenegger said, "I don't believe in universal health care.

"I don't believe that government should be getting in there and should start running a health care system that is kind of done and worked on by government," he said.
Wouldn't it be amazing to be able to afford to go to the doctor without having to be employed by the right employer? Or old? Or really poor? Or really rich? I suspect the more than 6 million uninsured Californians would think so.

Monday, August 28, 2006


As soon as I set foot on campus this morning I will be officially tenured. Yippee!

Tenure at a community college is, admittedly, not as difficult to obtain as tenure at a research university. There is no requirement to obtain grants or publish papers to get tenure at a community college (heck, I don't even have any space to do research in); the primary criteria used to evaluate an instructor for tenure is their ability to teach (imagine that). The process has taken four years, and primarily involved interacting with a small committee (made up of tenured professors and my dean) that evaluated me annually. The tenure process went very smoothly, and I never felt that I was in danger of not getting tenure, but it sure is nice to know that as of today I won't have a committee filling out a form every December that has a large checkbox labeled "Do not renew contract" (translation: you're fired).

Of course, other than not being evaluated by said committee annually, there are also relatively few benefits of being tenured (other than the fact that it sounds really, really cool). I still have to teach my classes. I can still be fired. And I still have to go to committee meetings. But even so, I'm still psyched.

[Update 11:00am: I'm now on campus!]

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Political news of the week take 21

[You can skip to the end of this post, if you want. See also: political news of the week takes 20, 19, 18. 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Mutiny as passengers refuse to fly until Asians are removed (Aug. 20):
British holidaymakers staged an unprecedented mutiny - refusing to allow their flight to take off until two men they feared were terrorists were forcibly removed.

The extraordinary scenes happened after some of the 150 passengers on a Malaga-Manchester flight overheard two men of Asian appearance apparently talking Arabic.

Passengers told cabin crew they feared for their safety and demanded police action. Some stormed off the Monarch Airlines Airbus A320 minutes before it was due to leave the Costa del Sol at 3am. Others waiting for Flight ZB 613 in the departure lounge refused to board it.


Websites used by pilots and cabin crew were yesterday reporting further incidents. In one, two British women with young children on another flight from Spain complained about flying with a bearded Muslim even though he had been security-checked twice before boarding.

The trouble in Malaga flared last Wednesday as two British citizens in their 20s waited in the departure lounge to board the pre-dawn flight and were heard talking what passengers took to be Arabic. Worries spread after a female passenger said she had heard something that alarmed her.

Passengers noticed that, despite the heat, the pair were wearing leather jackets and thick jumpers and were regularly checking their watches.

Initially, six passengers refused to board the flight. On board the aircraft, word reached one family. To the astonishment of cabin crew, they stood up and walked off, followed quickly by others.

The Monarch pilot - a highly experienced captain - accompanied by armed Civil Guard police and airport security staff, approached the two men and took their passports.

Half an hour later, police returned and escorted the two Asian passengers off the jet.


Soon afterwards, the aircraft was cleared while police did a thorough security sweep. Nothing was found and the plane took off - three hours late and without the two men on board.

Monarch arranged for them to spend the rest of the night in an airport hotel and flew them back to Manchester later on Wednesday.


A spokesman for the Civil Guard in Malaga said: "These men had aroused suspicion because of their appearance and the fact that they were speaking in a foreign language thought to be an Arabic language, and the pilot was refusing to take off until they were escorted off the plane."

Thousands of Marines face involuntary recalls:
The U.S. Marine Corps said Tuesday it has been authorized to recall thousands of Marines to active duty, primarily because of a shortage of volunteers for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Up to 2,500 Marines will be brought back at any one time, but there is no cap on the total number of Marines who may be forced back into service in the coming years. The call-ups will begin in the next several months.

This is the first time the Marines have had to use the involuntary recall since the early days of the Iraq combat. The Army has ordered back about 14,000 soldiers since the start of the war.

Marine Col. Guy A. Stratton, head of the manpower mobilization section, estimated that there is a shortfall of about 1,200 Marines needed to fill positions in upcoming unit deployments.

Poll: Opposition to Iraq war at all-time high
Opposition among Americans to the war in Iraq has reached a new high, with only about a third of respondents saying they favor it, according to a poll released Monday.

Just 35 percent of 1,033 adults polled say they favor the war in Iraq; 61 percent say they oppose it -- the highest opposition noted in any CNN poll since the conflict began more than three years ago.

Despite the rising opposition to the war, President Bush said the U.S. will not withdraw from Iraq while he is president.

"In this case, it would give the terrorists and extremists an additional tool besides safe haven, and that is revenues from oil sales," the president said. "Leaving before the job is done would be a disaster," he said.

A bare majority (51 percent) say they see Bush as a strong leader, but on most other attributes he gets negative marks.

Most Americans (54 percent) don't consider him honest, most (54 percent) don't think he shares their values and most (58 percent) say he does not inspire confidence.

The White Elephant Fleet:
The Air Force would like to retire 1,033 of its 6,100 aircraft in the next five years. But more than a third of those it wants to lose must remain in service because of the protections. An additional 492 aircraft the Air Force is considering retiring in the near future are cloaked in similar protections, further limiting options.


Of the aircraft it is seeking to retire, the venerable B-52 is among the most expensive to maintain. Designed in the 1950s as the cornerstone of the Strategic Air Command, the "Stratofortress" was the heavy bomber designated during the Cold War to be at the ready to drop nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union. After the Cold War, it found a second life delivering smaller and precision-guided bombs, including during the 2003 Iraq invasion.

But in 1995, the Air Force determined it no longer needed all 94 of its B-52s to complete this more limited mission. It wants to retire 38 of them by 2011, 18 of which would be mothballed this year


The Air Force estimates that maintaining the unwanted B-52s costs $53.7 million each year. That doesn't include occasional upgrades to communications equipment and safety features.

"You've got to ask yourself: Why are you upgrading airplanes that you have no intention of using [in the future]?" Wynne said.

The Air Force has faced a similar problem with its F-117s, the stealth fighter once so secret that its very existence was classified. Its stealth capabilities, developed in the 1970s, have aged — one F-117 was famously shot down by Serbian air defenses in 1999 — and it will soon be replaced by the F-22.

Despite that, for the last two years the Senate has inserted measures into annual defense bills preventing the Air Force from getting rid of any F-117s, due largely to efforts of New Mexico's senators, Republican Pete V. Domenici and Democrat Jeff Bingaman. All 52 of the F-117s are based at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, N.M.

Matt Letourneau, a spokesman for Domenici, said the senators were concerned that a gap between the retirement of the F-117s and the ramp-up of the F-22 would leave the Air Force without a radar-evading fighter. But he also acknowledged that the base's future was just as important a motivation for the anti-mothballing move.

Report: Overhaul system or New Orleans will suffer again:
The catastrophe caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans could happen again unless the city's hurricane protection system is massively overhauled, an engineering panel said Friday.

"We must place the protection of public safety, health and welfare at the forefront of our nation's priorities. To do anything less could lead to a far greater tragedy than the one we have witnessed in New Orleans," a report issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers External Review Panel said.

More than 150 engineers and scientists contributed to the panel's report analyzing what happened in New Orleans.


Among the findings:

The city's system of levees and floodwalls, "failed catastrophically at over 50 different locations."

Pump stations "were not designed to function in a major hurricane or mitigate flooding if the levees were overtopped or breached."

Politicians and the designers and operators of New Orleans' hurricane protection system did a poor job, "evidenced by the fact that the system took decades to build and remains incomplete yet today."

Katrina Aid Far From Flowing
From the ghostly streets of New Orleans' abandoned neighborhoods to Mississippi's downtrodden coastline, the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's onslaught is arriving with emerging signs of federal money at work — rented trailers parked in the driveways of flood-ravaged homesteads, teams of Army engineers overseeing levee repairs, beaches swept clean of debris.

But the federal government has spent less than half the rebuilding funds that it amassed for Katrina recovery, which has raised sharp questions about the Bush administration's stewardship of the Gulf Coast's reconstruction and has provoked a chorus of complaints about excessive delays and government sluggishness.

Despite four emergency spending bills approved by Congress to provide more than $110 billion in aid, federal agencies have spent only $44 billion. Even as President Bush insisted last week and in his radio address Saturday that $110 billion was a strong commitment, he conceded that the recovery effort was plagued with bureaucratic hurdles.


In July, Congress' nonpartisan Government Accountability Office reported that disbursement of Small Business Administration recovery loans was marred by "significant delays." A report last week from Democrats on the House Small Business Committee said that of $10 billion approved for such loans, just 20% had reached recipients. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the administration's top recovery authority, already attacked for its response to the storm, has again taken heat.

Until last week, when the White House Office of Management and Budget released an agencywide breakdown of recovery spending, the administration had not provided a clear overview of how the money was being doled out. For much of the year, elected officials, government auditors and outside experts had to rely on fragmentary indicators of the pace of recovery spending, which handicapped efforts to monitor the process.

Feinstein unveils Dem plan to cut greenhouse gas:
Sen. Dianne Feinstein offered a new Democratic outline Thursday night of a plan to attack global warming in the next session of Congress -- and put political opponents on the defensive headed into the fall campaign season.


Parts of her speech touched on legislation already introduced, such as a requirement that cars, sport utility vehicles and light trucks get another 10 miles per gallon within 10 years.

But Feinstein also called for new provisions, in particular a proposal to bring agriculture and forest managers into a market system for greenhouse gas emissions known as "cap and trade." This would allow farmers and landowners who plant trees or convert crops into bio-fuels to earn emission credits that could be sold to companies that exceed emission limits.

Deal to Raise [California's Minimum] Wage to $8:
More than 1 million Californians who earn the minimum wage will get a nearly 20% pay increase over the next year and a half, thanks to an agreement announced Monday between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic leaders in the Legislature.

The hike, the first since early 2004, will lift the state minimum wage to $8 an hour from $6.75. Workers will get a 75-cent increase Jan. 1 and an additional 50 cents on Jan. 1, 2008.

Schwarzenegger praised the agreement as a boost for low-wage workers and the business climate. "I have always said that when the economy was ready, we should reward the efforts of California's hardworking families by raising our minimum wage," he said. "This is another sign California is coming back stronger than ever."

The jump to $7.50 on New Year's Day will make California's minimum wage the nation's fourth-highest, trailing those of Washington, Oregon and Connecticut, according to the California Federation of Labor. The federal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour.

Black students ordered to give up seats to whites
Nine black children attending Red River Elementary School were directed last week to the back of the school bus by a white driver who designated the front seats for white children.


After Richmond and Williams filed complaints with the School Board, Transportation Supervisor Jerry Carlisle asked Davis to make seat assignments for her passengers, Sessoms said.

"But she still assigned the black children to the back of the bus," she added.

And the nine children had to share only two seats, meaning the older children had to hold the younger ones in their laps.

A new solution reached Monday by School Board officials has a black bus driver driving across town to pick up the nine black children.

F.D.A. Approves Broader Access to Next-Day Pill
The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday approved over-the-counter sales of the morning-after contraceptive pill to women 18 and older, resolving one of the most contentious issues in the agency’s 100-year history.

Nationwide over-the-counter sales of the drug, Plan B, are expected to start by the end of the year. It will be sold in pharmacies and health clinics only, and buyers must show proof of age. Anyone under age 18 will still need a prescription. Men may also buy Plan B for a partner.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

New version of Blogger coming soon!

I just found out that there's a new beta of Blogger available. It looks like it should be pretty snazzy; two features that caught my eye are that it comes with Gmail's spellchecker (slick!) and has built-in support for post labels (goodbye hack!) Once they allow me to switch over, maybe I'll even start using Blogger's comments and trackbacks ...

Friday, August 25, 2006

Happy 15th Birthday!

Posted by Linus Torvalds on August 25, 1991 to comp.os.minix:
Hello everybody out there using minix -

I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I'd like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).

I've currently ported bash(1.08) and gcc(1.40), and things seem to work. This implies that I'll get something practical within a few months, and I'd like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions are welcome, but I won't promise I'll implement them :-)

Linus (

PS. Yes - it's free of any minix code, and it has a multi-threaded fs. It is NOT protable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that's all I have :-(.
From those humble beginnings came Linux.

(via Google Operating System)

It is done!

The second edition of my lab manual has now been published. As with the first edition, sales of it are limited to my own students, and it's published under my real name, so I won't be linking to it from here. Sorry ...

That said, I would highly recommend self-publishing a lab manual to anyone who runs a lab using their own material. It's a lot of work to get the labs ready to publish (much of it fiddly formatting), but I've found that it saves me a ton of time during the semester. Thanks to having the manual, I no longer have to post labs to my course website every week, wonder if I have enough copies for everyone who hasn't printed off the labs, remind students where the labs are, or stress out by trying to revise the labs the week before they're scheduled. I suspect it also helps the students prepare for lab, as they can focus on reading the manual instead of trying to figure out where next week's lab is.

As an additional bonus, since I self-publish the manual and am using solely public-domain or otherwise non-commercial artwork, I can post the entire manual as a PDF on my course website, meaning that my students don't even have to buy the manual if they don't want to. Of course, since the manual costs less than $10 (for more than 200 pages), it seems well worth it for them to buy it, but at least they have the choice.

Why one visits the bookstore before the semester starts

As is generally recommended around here, I stopped by the bookstore a few days ago to make sure all of my course materials were in stock. Given that we're asked to turn in detailed order forms about ten years in advance, this seems like it should be unnecessary. But it was a nice sunny day, so what the heck.

Textbook? Check (no used copies, as usual). Supplemental book? Check. In-class response system transmitters? Um, yeah. In-class response system? Hello?

After about 20 minutes I finally determined that they had none of my in-class response system transmitters in stock. They didn't even know that my course needed them. Sigh.

It appears as though this drama will have a happy ending, though. The staff of the bookstore was amazingly helpful, and by 8am the next morning I was told the transmitters were on order and would be shipped 2nd day air.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Where has Radagast been?

Regular readers have probably noticed that my posting frequency has dropped a bit recently. The primary reason for this is that I'm frantically working on revising my lab manual and otherwise getting ready for the upcoming semester (which starts next week). The lab manual editing has, of course, meant spending lots of time writing, and so in my down time I haven't felt like writing a whole bunch more (though I have been finding some cool things which I will post about). The manual should be complete within a day or two, but shortly thereafter the semester will start right as some relatives arrive in town for a long visit; so, it'll be a little while before blogging is back up to full speed.

Oh, and the slowdown hasn't been all due to work; many recent weekend hours (when I typically write a lot of posts) have been spent playing German-style board games. But that's a topic for another post ...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

In which I weep for my profession ...

Some of my readers have probably already heard about that tree down in Texas that was "burbling water." Religious nuts, of course, swarmed the thing and declared it to be a miracle. Long story short, it sounds like the tree's roots grew into a water line, which caused water to flow up the xylem (the cells that transport water in a plant) and exit through a wound in the trunk.

I was about to close the browser and move on, when I came across this:
Linda Cortinas, 56, soaked her hands in the streaming water after hearing the disclaimer, hoping for a miracle. Cortinas is legally blind, a result of leukemia that damaged her optic nerve.

She hugged Velia Garza, 59, like a long lost sister in the driveway before her sister Trini Ramon, 55, drove her back to the Northwest Side of town. It was the first time that the women had met. They prayed side by side under the sprawling branches of the great red oak.

"I pray it's from God," Garza said. "And nothing will be false here. How can water go up a tree?"
Let's see, first the water enters the root from the soil because the root tissues have a more negative water potential than the soil, and then it eventually enters the xylem and flows up to the leaves, again driven by differences in ...

Oh, never mind.

How we have failed.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Caramel ice milk (aka low-fat caramel ice cream)

Caramel ice milk
Caramel ice milk being frozen in our ice cream maker.

Ice milk is like ice cream except that it's made with milk instead of cream. While ice milk is not as creamy as ice cream, it's also not nearly as calorie-dense, and thus it makes for a less guilt-inducing snack than ice cream. In fact, most low-fat ice creams sold in the US are actually ice milk (wikipedia); thus, maybe a more popular name for this recipe would be low-fat caramel ice cream1.

My SO and I had no luck searching online for caramel ice milk recipes. About the closest we got was this cappuccino ice milk recipe (which we ended up basing our recipe on), but the majority of caramel-flavored dessert recipes we found involved adding store-bought caramel sauce to the ingredients.


Caramel has to be about one of the easiest things in the world to make: all you have to do is heat sugar in water and it, well, caramelizes. It turns into caramel. Right there in front of you. All by itself. So, if you want some caramel ice milk, don't rush out and buy a jar of caramel sauce. Just combine some water and sugar and cook it for a bit. I guarantee you it'll cost less, and will likely taste better.

This caramel ice milk was soft and velvety when it came out of the ice cream maker, and every bite was filled with a rich caramel flavor. As we just made a batch tonight, it fits the bill to be this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

This recipe requires an ice cream maker; for more background on home ice cream makers, see this post.

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 1/2 cups evaporated milk (1 12-oz can; we used evaporated whole milk)
1/2 cup milk (we used 1%)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla

0. Sometime before step 2, combine the evaporated milk, milk, and vanilla in a container that can be easily poured from.
1. Mix the sugar and water in a small pot (the sugar will not dissolve completely).
2. Heat the sugar and water over medium heat without stirring; let the mixture simmer until it turns a rich, dark golden brown and smells roasty (probably 10 to 15 minutes; the bubbling seems to slow down once it's almost ready). This mixture will eventually reach temperatures more than 50F above the boiling point of water, so handle with care.
3. Reduce the heat to low. Add the evaporated milk, milk, and vanilla to the caramel while stirring with a heat-proof implement; the mixture may bubble somewhat violently for a short while. The caramel will likely turn into a solid mass attached to your stirring implement and/or the bottom of the pot; this is not a problem. Stir until all the caramel dissolves (do not boil).
4. Once the caramel has dissolved, remove from the heat and let cool. Put the mixture into the fridge until it is cold enough to be frozen by your ice cream maker (at least 1 hour, probably more).
5. Pour the mixture into your ice cream maker and freeze.
6. Serve in chilled bowls once it's frozen; freeze any leftovers immediately.


If all you're used to eating is bottled caramel sauce, you may be a bit surprised by the flavor of this ice milk; it will have a dark, roasty flavor (a bit like coffee), and will have a hint of burned sugar flavor. Don't worry, that's exactly what caramel is supposed to taste like (and if you don't like that flavor, just cook the sugar less during the caramelization stage).

The creaminess of this ice milk is completely up to you; the more fat, protein, and sugar you add, the creamier the ice milk will be. If you use the entire 1 1/2 cups of evaporated milk (which has more fat, protein, and sugar than regular milk), this will be smooth and creamy. If you use all 1% milk, it will be icier, but still refreshing and delicious. So, if you don't have any evaporated milk, just use 2 cups of milk instead. Also, there's nothing magical about 1% milk; it's just what we have on hand. Non-fat, 2%, or whole milk should all work fine.

1 Bah. There's not a drop of cream in this recipe. Thus, this is ice milk, not ice cream.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Political news of the week take 20

[You can skip to the end of this post, if you want. See also: political news of the week takes 19, 18. 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

NSA eavesdropping program ruled unconstitutional - A major ruling (that will certainly be appealed) on a topic I've written about many times before:
A federal judge on Thursday ruled that the U.S. government's domestic eavesdropping program is unconstitutional and ordered it ended immediately.

In a 44-page memorandum and order, U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor, -- who is based in Detroit, Michigan -- struck down the National Security Agency's program, which she said violates the rights to free speech and privacy.


The defendants "are permanently enjoined from directly or indirectly utilizing the Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP) in any way, including, but not limited to, conducting warrantless wiretaps of telephone and Internet communications, in contravention of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and Title III," she wrote.

She further declared that the program "violates the separation of powers doctrine, the Administrative Procedures Act, the First and Fourth amendments to the United States Constitution, the FISA and Title III."

She went on to say that "the president of the United States ... has undisputedly violated the Fourth in failing to procure judicial orders."


The lawsuit, filed January 17 by civil rights organizations, lawyers, journalists and educators, "challenges the constitutionality of a secret government program to intercept vast quantities of the international telephone and Internet communications of innocent Americans without court approval."

The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Plaintiffs included branches of the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Washington and Detroit branches of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Greenpeace.

A Defiant Hezbollah Rises From the Rubble:
Hezbollah's urban nerve center is a shattered shell. Its most loyal followers trudged homeward to a heartland laid to waste. And yet the Shiite organization lighted up the night sky with fireworks Monday and declared itself triumphant over Israel.

Israel meant to break Hezbollah with its monthlong offensive, but instead the militant organization has been strengthened politically in Lebanon, analysts say. The movement has a fresh boost of popularity, at least for now, and a renewed sense that it is entitled to keep its armed militia outside the control of the Lebanese army, they say.


The U.N. resolution that paved the way for the truce calls for Hezbollah's disarmament. So, for that matter, does an earlier, long-ignored resolution. But the terms for giving up the weaponry are vague. And as a prominent party in the Lebanese government, Hezbollah will have a hand in deciding how and whether the language translates into fact.

If anything, analysts say, the war has worsened Lebanon's underlying instability, bolstering Hezbollah at the expense of more moderate, secular figures in government.

"Most of the government really thought that Hezbollah could be trimmed by the Israelis, and that would give them less of a problem," said Judith Palmer Harik, a Hezbollah expert. "But it didn't work out that way, and now there's nothing they can do, in my opinion, to get Hezbollah away from doing what it wants.

"This is a victorious group. Do they want to be disarmed at this point?" Harik said. "That is such a nonstarter."


But even the anticipated deployment of 15,000 Lebanese and 15,000 international troops won't necessarily drive Hezbollah's militia from the southern borderlands. Many analysts believe the Lebanese army is more likely to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with Hezbollah than to shut it down. Foreign troops are no novelty, either — the militia was founded and flourished under Israeli occupation and amid international observer forces and is deeply rooted in the civilian population of the southern towns and villages.

Before the war erupted in mid-July, Hezbollah representatives had agreed to participate in national negotiations about disarmament.

Even then few analysts put much stock in the notion that the guerrillas would voluntarily lay aside their guns. Nevertheless, the fact that the powerful organization agreed to talk about its weapons was taken as a sign that Hezbollah sensed it had to compromise with domestic critics of its militia.

Not so now.

It is unclear what remains of Hezbollah's arsenal. But the group made it plain Monday that the sacrifice of its weapons was off the table for the time being. Nasrallah scoffed at the idea that the "resistance" should lay down its guns in order to build a strong Lebanon. It should be the other way around, he argued.

Iraqi Death Toll Rose Above 3,400 in July:
July appears to have been the deadliest month of the war for Iraqi civilians, according to figures from the Health Ministry and the Baghdad morgue, reinforcing criticism that the Baghdad security plan started in June by the new Iraqi government has failed.

An average of more than 110 Iraqis were killed each day in July, according to the figures. The total number of civilian deaths that month, 3,438, is a 9 percent increase over the tally in June and nearly double the toll in January.

The rising numbers indicate that sectarian violence is spiraling out of control and seem to bolster an assertion that many senior Iraqi officials and American military analysts have been making in recent months: that the country is already embroiled in a civil war, not just slipping toward one, and that the American-led forces are caught between Sunni Arab guerrillas and Shiite militias.

The numbers also provide the most definitive evidence yet that the Baghdad security plan started by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki on June 14 has not quelled the violence. The plan, much touted by top Iraqi and American officials at the time, relied on setting up more Iraqi-run checkpoints to stymie movement by insurgents. Those officials have since acknowledged the plan has fallen far short of its aims, forcing the American military to add thousands of soldiers to the capital this month and to back away from proposals for a withdrawal of some troops by year’s end.

The Baghdad morgue reported receiving 1,855 bodies in July, more than half of the total deaths recorded in the country. The morgue tally for July was an 18 percent increase over June.


The American military in recent weeks has been especially eager to prove that Baghdad can be tamed if American troops are added to the streets and take a more active role — in effect, a repudiation of earlier efforts to turn over security more quickly to Iraqis.

The American command has added nearly 4,000 American soldiers to Baghdad by extending the tour of a combat brigade. Under a new security plan aimed at overhauling Mr. Maliki’s efforts, some of the city’s most violent southern and western areas are now virtually occupied block-to-block by American and Iraqi forces, with entire neighborhoods transformed into miniature police states after being sealed off by blast walls and concertina wire.

When the tally for civilian deaths in July is added to the Iraqi government numbers for earlier months obtained by the United Nations, the total indicates that at least 17,776 Iraqi civilians died violently in the first seven months of this year, or an average of 2,539 a month.

The Health Ministry did not provide figures for people wounded by attacks in Baghdad but said that at least 3,597 Iraqis were injured outside the city in July, a 25 percent increase over June.

United Nations officials and military analysts say the morgue and ministry numbers almost certainly reflect severe undercounts, caused by the haphazard nature of information in a war zone.

Baghdad, a City of Enclaves:
Conditions that lead Pentagon generals to say civil war is close are already polarizing many neighborhoods. Although Shiites and Sunnis still live side by side in some places, about 200,000 Iraqis, most of them from Baghdad, have left their mixed neighborhoods and taken refuge in communities where they can live among their own. In July, the Baghdad morgue reported more than 1,800 violent deaths.


Baghdad has become a sinister parlor game of unmasking affiliations with subtle and not so subtle questions: Where does your family come from, north or south? Who is your uncle? What tribe do you belong to? It is a place where death squads call the family of someone they've kidnapped and ask: Is he a Shiite, or a Sunni? A wrong answer can mean a trip to the morgue to identify a body streaked with acid burns and drill holes.

Jabbar Dulaimi bobs along in this vortex. A calm man with neatly combed hair, he's a councilman in Mansour, a once mixed neighborhood that is increasingly dominated by Sunnis. More than 150 shops are shuttered on 14th of Ramadan Street, many of them after owners received fliers from insurgents telling them to close or die. Garbage blows on sidewalks, rats scurry, sewage backs up in homes.

Dulaimi's cellphone buzzes and blinks with calls from constituents, but what can he do if fear keeps his municipal crews from work?

"I can't even pick up the garbage anymore," said Dulaimi, a Sunni. "One ward leader in Mansour told me, 'I can't send my trash collectors in there, they'll kill them.' "

Sectarian bloodshed has escalated since February, when Sunni insurgents attacked a Shiite shrine in Samarra. In the old arithmetic of Iraq, Sunni Arabs, many of them Baathists who benefited under Saddam Hussein, despised the American occupation. The majority Shiites wanted the U.S. to help rebuild a country. Now the Shiites are in control, and their death squads have forced Sunnis to inch toward the Americans for cover.


Fatima Omar lives across the river in the Sunni neighborhood of Amiriya. The tallest female student in the English department at Baghdad University, she is slim and wears a hijab. She has a degree, but no job, and sometimes when she looks for one, she must cross into dangerous neighborhoods that U.S. troops are steadily turning over to Iraqi forces, which are often ambushed by insurgents.

Helicopters shake the night sky and flares float like bright ghosts over the rooftops. A curfew keeps the streets mostly empty, but come daylight, rolling sectarian checkpoints appear, looking for anyone with the wrong last name, like hers.

"A lot of Omars have been killed crossing certain checkpoints," she said. This is why the neighborhood boys, even though they swagger, don't roam far from home, and why her father wants to reinvent himself with a fake ID card.

Lebanon Approves Troop Deployment:
Lebanon’s divided cabinet voted Wednesday night to send the national army into the south beginning on Thursday under a United Nations-mandated cease-fire, but finessed the delicate issue of disarming Hezbollah.

It seemed probable that when the army moved past the Litani River into the long-held separate realm of Hezbollah, the militia’s fighters would simply put their weapons into hiding and melt away into the civilian population.


In the hard-hit Shiite suburbs just south of Beirut, Hezbollah supporters fanned out Wednesday to assess war damage. Around them, residents and visitors wandered in stunned silence through a charred, bombed-out landscape. Someone had hung a banner with the words “Made in U.S.A.” over the ruins of one collapsed building; passers-by stopped to stare and take pictures. Here and there, gunmen could be seen watching over the streets.

But the group’s army of civilian volunteers and its advance plans for rebuilding were far more apparent. One slim young man walked down a rubble-strewn street holding a pink folder and a stack of printed damage assessment forms. He carried a yellow baseball cap with the name and symbol of Jihad al Binaa, the Hezbollah reconstruction committee.

“This not overnight work,” said the volunteer, a 30-year-old architect who declined to give his name. “The work being done now was prepared over the past month, with the collaboration of architects and engineers.”

He showed a reporter his map, which included numbers for each building on the small sector he had been assigned. There were also forms for each building, with spaces for the names of every resident and a description of damage to the units and needs. Photographs were being taken, to be used as comparison after the rebuilding has been done, he said.

He is one of 250 to 300 architects and engineers who are already assessing damage, the architect said, and the group hopes to finish 70 percent of its assessments in the Dahia, or Shiite suburban area, by the end of the week. Then will come the second and third phases, he said, in which the group will reimburse residents for damage, and start the long process of rebuilding.

The plans also include a strong dose of publicity for Hezbollah. A few blocks away, volunteers had set up a tent and plastic chairs for the press, and Ghassan Darwish, the group’s Beirut information officer, was giving interviews.

The group divided the Dahia into 70 districts, each one with two to four buildings in it, Mr. Darwish said. The goal was to get people back into their homes, or into alternative houses, or to give them enough cash to rent another apartment, all within 72 hours, he said. In the meantime, a team of architects was being assembled, he said, from Dubai, Qatar, Egypt, and Syria as well as Lebanon, to reconstruct the entire Dahia within a year. The money, he said, was coming from “people who hate Israel and believe in the resistance.”

Bureaucracy impedes bomb-detection work:
As the British terror plot was unfolding, the Bush administration quietly tried to take away $6 million that was supposed to be spent this year developing new explosives detection technology. Congressional leaders rejected the idea, the latest in a series of Homeland Security Department steps that have left lawmakers and some of the department's own experts questioning the commitment to create better anti-terror technologies.


Lawmakers and recently retired Homeland Security officials say they are concerned the department's research and development effort is bogged down by bureaucracy, lack of strategic planning and failure to use money wisely.

The department failed to spend $200 million in research and development money from past years, forcing lawmakers to rescind the money this summer.

The administration also was slow to start testing a new liquid explosives detector that the Japanese government provided to the United States earlier this year.

FCC cracks down on 'fake news':
The Federal Communications Commission has mailed letters to the owners of 77 television stations inquiring about their use of video news releases, a type of programming critics refer to as "fake news."

Video news releases are packaged news stories that usually employ actors to portray reporters who are paid by commercial or government groups.

The letters were sparked by allegations that television stations have been airing the videos as part of their news programs without telling viewers who paid for them.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said Tuesday the letters ask station managers for information regarding agreements between the stations and the creators of the news releases. The FCC also asked whether there was any "consideration" given to the stations in return for airing the material.

"You can't tell any more the difference between what's propaganda and what's news," Adelstein said.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Now that's a cool fungus

Sea anemone fungus photo by kjbeath from Flickr
Sea anemone fungus; photo by kjbeath, used with permission.

No, that's not a terrestrially adapted sea anemone; it's a picture (I found on UBC's Botany Photo of the Day) of the Sea Anemone Fungus (Aseroe rubra).

The fungus is in a (previously unknown to me) group of fungi called stinkhorn fungi. The Botany Photo of the Day site kindly linked to this Mushroom Expert page, which has a good summary of the fungi. It turns out that they're basidiomycetes (the same phylum as the mushrooms on your pizza1), and are in order Phallales, which includes such cool-looking fungi as earthstars and coral fungi.

These fungi get their name from the stinky mucus covering their fruting bodies at some point in their life cycle; the mucus is apparently used to help with spore dispersal:
The foul-smelling slime is calculated to attract flies and other insects, who land on the slime and gobble it up. Little do the insects know that they have been duped into covering their little insect feet with stinkhorn spores, and have ingested spores into their digestive tracts! Later, these spores are dispersed by the unwitting insects, and the stinkhorn life-cycle continues elsewhere.
So, we've got a fungus that looks like a sea anemone living on land that tricks insects into dispersing its spores. How cool!

1 Assuming, of course, that you don't put morels on your pizza. Morels are ascomycetes.


Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Sea anemone fungus photo by kjbeath from Flickr
Swallowtail butterfly; photo by moonbird (Creative Commons licensed)

PZ posted the picture above, and asked his readers for information on what it was. It was quickly identified as a gynandromorph, a butterfly that is literally half male and half female. This page has even more pictures, and explains the biological basis of the phenomenon in layman's terms (the gynandromorph results from an error during the first cell division of the butterfly zygote that causes half of the butterfly to lose its male-determining chromosome).

[Update 9/23/06: A colleague sent me a link to a page on chromosomal mosaicism, which has more details on the developmental biology behind gynandromorphs and similar genetic errors.]

Millard Fillmore's bathtub

A while back PZ (or was it Orac?) linked to Millard Fillmore's bathtub, a blog written by a history instructor who writes about US history and modern events related to teaching history. The blog has quickly become one of my favorites; here's a selection of posts to get you started:


Sunday, August 13, 2006

Political news of the week take 19

[You can skip to the end of this post, if you want. See also: political news of the week takes 18. 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Shia Embrace Partitioning of Iraq:
They have a new constitution, a new government and a new military. But faced with incessant sectarian bloodshed, Iraqis for the first time have begun openly discussing whether the only way to stop the violence is to remake the country they have just built.

Leaders of Iraq's powerful Shiite Muslim political bloc have begun aggressively promoting a radical plan to partition the country as a way of separating the warring sects. Some Iraqis are even talking about dividing the capital, with the Tigris River as a kind of Berlin Wall.

Shiites have long advocated some sort of autonomy in the south on par with the Kurds' 15-year-old enclave in the north, with its own defense forces and control over oil exploration. And the new constitution does allow provinces to team up into federal regions. But the latest effort, promulgated by Cabinet ministers, clerics and columnists, marks the first time they've advocated regional partition as a way of stemming violence.


Sunni leaders see nothing but greed in the new push -- the Shiites, they say, are taking advantage of the escalating violence to make an oil grab.

Iraq's oil is concentrated in the north and south, with much of the Sunni west and northwest desolate desert tundra, devoid of oil and gas.

"Controlling these areas will create a grand fortune that they can exploit," said Adnan Dulaymi, a leading Sunni Arab politician. "Their motive is that they are thirsty for control and power."

Still, even nationalists who favor a united Iraq acknowledge that sectarian warfare has gotten so out of hand that even the possibility of splitting the capital along the Tigris, which roughly divides the city between a mostly Shiite east and a mostly Sunni west, is being openly discussed.

Pullout Is Sticking Point in Cease-Fire Plan:
All of southern Lebanon was under virtual lockdown after Israeli aircraft dropped fliers warning that all non-humanitarian vehicles venturing out on roads south of the Litani River would risk being shot.

"Every vehicle, whatever its nature, which travels south of the Litani (River) will be bombed on suspicion of transporting rockets and arms for the terrorists," said the leaflets, which were signed by "the state of Israel." Aid vehicles were officially allowed to enter the security zone, but were all but stranded north of the Litani River after Israeli jets took out a secondary bridge north of Tyre that had been used to carry in aid shipments from Beirut.

"For the time being, Tyre is cut off," said Robin Lodge, spokesman for the U.N.'s World Food Program. "Food and fresh water are a problem. The supplies seem to be limited, and they're running out."

U.N. Security Council Adopts Resolution to End Fighting Between Israel and Hezbollah (Aug. 11):
The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution Friday that calls for an end to the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, and authorizes the deployment of 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers to help Lebanese troops take control of south Lebanon as Israel withdraws.


Using particularly strong language in remarks before the vote, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said hundreds of millions of people around the world shared his frustration that the council had taken so long to act. That inaction has "badly shaken the world's faith in its authority and integrity," he said.

"I would be remiss if I did not tell you how profoundly disappointed I am that the council did not reach this point much, much earlier," he said.


At the heart of the resolution are two elements: It seeks an immediate halt to the fighting that began July 12 when Hezbollah militants kidnapped two Israeli troops along the Blue Line, the U.N.-demarcated border separating Israel; and it spells out a series of steps that would lead to a permanent cease-fire and long-term solution.

That would be done by creating a new buffer zone in south Lebanon "free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the government of Lebanon and UNIFIL" -- the acronym of the U.N. force deployed in the region since 1978. The force now has 2,000 troops; the resolution would expand it to a maximum of 15,000.

Israel expands campaign as U.N. passes deal:
With an expansion of its ground campaign under way, Israel bombed targets in southern Lebanon Saturday hours after the U.N. Security Council approved a proposal aimed at ending the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.


Israeli troops began moving Friday toward the Litani River, which runs about 15 miles (25 kilometers) north of the Israel-Lebanon border, Israel Defense Forces confirmed Saturday. The IDF said this was the farthest troops have advanced since the conflict erupted July 12.


Resolution 1701 calls for increasing the number of U.N. troops in the area from 2,000 to 15,000. They would be joined by 15,000 Lebanese troops and charged with ensuring Hezbollah could not operate anywhere between the Israel-Lebanon border and the Litani River.

The measure also calls for the unconditional release of two Israeli soldiers captured July 12 by Hezbollah. The action precipitated the conflict.

It also calls for a "full cessation of hostilities" and says that once a cease-fire has been achieved the Lebanese government will deploy its forces into southern Lebanon as Israel withdraws its soldiers from the area.

It was unclear exactly when a cease-fire would take effect. The Lebanese Cabinet was to meet Saturday to discuss the resolution and was expected to approve it.

The cessation of hostilities includes an end to Israeli "offensive operations." That, according to a senior U.S. State Department official, would mean Israel could continue to respond to Hezbollah attacks.

Lebanese U.N. Ambassador Nouhad Mahmoud said any cessation of hostilities should be unqualified, noting, "The Lebanese are not comfortable with the Israeli distinctions of what is defensive and what is offensive."

Israel, Hezbollah step up attacks as cease-fire deadline nears:
Israel and Hezbollah pounded targets with heavy missile barrages Sunday, looking to inflict maximum damage in the final hours before a cease-fire resolution was to go into effect.

Israel reported that 250 rockets hit its territory, including the port city of Haifa. At least one person was killed in the rocket attacks.

The Israel Defense Forces, meanwhile, launched what appeared to be one of the heaviest bombardments on southern Lebanon in the 33-day-old conflict, and struck targets in Beirut's southern suburbs.


"It's time to do all we can to destroy as much as we can of the infrastructure in the next 12 or 13 hours, and then we'll see what is next," former prime minister Ehud Barak told CNN.

Plane plot involved 'explosive cocktail,' official says:
Terrorists were in the "final stages" of a plot to simultaneously blow up as many as 10 jets leaving Britain for the U.S., sending the planes and thousands of passengers into the Atlantic Ocean, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Thursday.

British and Pakistani authorities teamed up to thwart the attacks, and 24 men were arrested in overnight raids in Britain, authorities said.

An undercover British agent infiltrated the group, giving the authorities intelligence on the alleged plan, several U.S. government officials said.

The men had not bought plane tickets, the officials said, but they were in the process of perusing the Internet to find flights to various cities that had similar departure times.


A senior congressional source said it is believed the plotters planned to mix a British sports drink with a gel-like substance to make a potent explosive that could be ignited with an MP3 player or cell phone.

The sports drink could be combined with a peroxide-based paste to form a potent "explosive cocktail," if properly done, said a U.S. counterterrorism official.

U.S.: 'Do your attacks now' message triggered arrests:
Suspects in an alleged plot to blow up trans-Atlantic flights received a message within the last three days in which they were advised, "Do your attacks now," according to U.S. sources.

The message, which was intercepted and decoded, was part of the reason authorities in Britain decided that an attack was imminent, possibly just a few days to a week away, according to an unclassified security memo sent to law enforcement agencies Friday by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Police also noticed increased Internet communication, and two men under surveillance had dropped out of sight, the memo said.

A British official said Friday that the "go ahead" message originated with an operative in Pakistan.

Source: U.S., U.K. at odds over timing of arrests:
NBC News has learned that U.S. and British authorities had a significant disagreement over when to move in on the suspects in the alleged plot to bring down trans-Atlantic airliners bound for the United States.

A senior British official knowledgeable about the case said British police were planning to continue to run surveillance for at least another week to try to obtain more evidence, while American officials pressured them to arrest the suspects sooner. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case.

In contrast to previous reports, the official suggested an attack was not imminent, saying the suspects had not yet purchased any airline tickets. In fact, some did not even have passports.

The London Plot - An editorial in the New York Times:
On Wednesday, when the administration already knew that British agents were rounding up suspects in what they believed was a plot to blow up planes en route to the United States, Vice President Dick Cheney had a telephone interview with reporters to discuss the defeat of Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut in a Democratic primary. Mr. Cheney went off on a rather rambling disquisition, but its main point was clear: In rejecting Mr. Lieberman, who supported the war in Iraq, the Democrats were encouraging “the Al Qaeda types.” Within the Democratic ranks, the vice president added, “there’s a significant body of opinion that wants to go back — I guess the way I would describe it is sort of the pre-9/11 mind-set, in terms of how we deal with the world we live in.”

The man who beat Mr. Lieberman, Ned Lamont, lives in Greenwich, a suburb full of commuters who work in New York high-rise buildings. They are completely aware of the way international terrorism can come crashing down on an ordinary family, leaving the survivors stunned and bereft. A dozen of their neighbors died at the World Trade Center. They will never be able to go back to a “pre-9/11 mind-set.”

No lotion, long lines in U.S. airports
Airline passengers around the country stood in line for hours and airport trash bins bulged with everything from mouthwash and shaving cream to maple syrup and fine wine Thursday in a security crackdown prompted by the discovery of a terror plot in Britain.

U.S. authorities banned the carrying of liquids onto flights after the arrest of 24 people in an alleged plot to blow up U.S.-bound planes using explosives disguised as drinks and other common products.

The restrictions forced people to unpack their carry-on bags on the floor in the middle of terminals to remove the prohibited items. Some travelers tried to squeeze makeup, sunscreen and other toiletries into their checked baggage, where liquids were permissible.

But people without checked bags or those who had already given their luggage to their airline had to throw out the banned items.


The ban on liquids and gels covered such things as shampoo, toothpaste, contact lens solution, perfume and water bottles. The only exceptions were for baby formula and medications, which had to be presented for inspection at security checkpoints. Liquids were allowed in checked bags because those suitcases are screened for explosives and are stowed in the cargo hold beyond passengers' reach.

Airline screeners fail government bomb tests: 21 airports nationwide don’t detect bomb-making materials (dated March 17, 2006):
Imagine an explosion strong enough to blow a car's trunk apart, caused by a bomb inside a passenger plane. Government sources tell NBC News that federal investigators recently were able to carry materials needed to make a similar homemade bomb through security screening at 21 airports.

In all 21 airports tested, no machine, no swab, no screener anywhere stopped the bomb materials from getting through. Even when investigators deliberately triggered extra screening of bags, no one discovered the materials.


Investigators for the Government Accountability Office conducted the tests between October and January, at the request of Congress. The goal was to determine how vulnerable U.S. airlines are to a suicide bomber using cheap, readily available materials.

Investigators found recipes for homemade bombs from easily available public sources and bought the necessary chemicals and other materials over the counter. For security reasons, NBC News will not reveal any of the ingredients or the airports tested. The report itself is classified. But Lee Hamilton, the vice chairman of the 9/11 commission, says the fact that so many airports failed this test is a hugely important story that the American traveler is entitled to know.


NBC News asked a bomb technician to gather the same materials and assemble an explosive device to determine its power. The materials for the bomb that exploded a car's trunk fit in the palm of one hand. NBC News showed the results to Leo West, a former FBI bomb expert.

"Potentially, an explosion of that type could lead to the destruction of the aircraft," said West.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Easy tomato and yogurt salad

Last week my SO wandered out into the yard and picked about two pounds worth of cherry tomatoes from our garden; we decided to make a salad out of them. We were reminded of a yogurt salad (from Sahni 1980) we made a few months ago; at the time we used unripe store-bought tomatoes, and the salad turned out quite bland (and unmemorable, as my SO had to remind me that we'd made it). This time we made exactly the same recipe with our freshly picked home-grown tomatoes, and it was delicious. The tangy, savory yogurt sauce was an excellent complement to the ripe, sweet tomatoes. So, if you're overwhelmed with tomatoes and are looking for a way to "dispose" of them, you might want to give this salad a try.

Since the salad was so good, it's this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

3/4 cup plain yogurt (we used whole-milk yogurt)
1/4 cup sour cream
Scant 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 pound ripe tomatoes
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Scant 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 red jalapeno (or other fresh chili) pepper, deveined, seeded, and sliced into thin strips about 1-2cm long

1. Mix the yogurt, sour cream, and salt in a medium-sized bowl (large enough to hold the entire salad).
2. Chop the tomatoes into bite-sized pieces. We used cherry tomatoes and quartered the large ones while halving the small ones. Add the tomatoes to the salad, but do not stir yet.
3. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a small frying pan.
4. When the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds and cook until they turn grey (~30 seconds to a minute). If the mustard seeds burn, discard and start over.
5. Immediately add the sliced peppers, and cook for another 30 seconds.
6. Immediately pour the oil mixture over the tomatoes and yogurt. Stir to mix.


This salad's flavor is almost entirely dependent on the tomatoes; the better the tomatoes taste, the better the salad tastes. If your tomatoes are very watery, they could conceivably dilute the yogurt and make the salad runny.

If you can't find red jalapeno peppers, use a green one or any other fresh chili pepper. As with our chili, we prefer to use red peppers, as they're the ripe fruit of the pepper plant.

This salad keeps well in the fridge for a few days; in fact, the mustard and pepper flavors will be stronger if you let the salad sit for a little while before serving.

Sahni, Julie. 1980. Classic Indian Cooking. William Morrow & Co, NY. pp. 345-346.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

I am now a true blogger

My recent (extremely generous) houseguests decided to take pity on poor, technologically-behind-the-times me, and thus purchased and installed a wireless router here at the Radagast and SO Estate. Thus, I'm now able to write posts while sitting on my couch. And that's exactly what I'm doing right now.

I finally feel like a true blogger.

So, do I get some kind of bonus now (other than overheated thighs, sore wrists, and a bad monitor)?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Squabs (baby doves)

Those are the two baby doves (squabs, according to this site) I posted about a few days ago.

Aren't they just adorable?

Monday, August 07, 2006

Some good biology links

I've got houseguests visiting currently, which, combined with some work that needs doing, means that I won't have much time to post. So, to help you, my dear reader, get through this tough time, I've assembled a few biology links for you to peruse.

Here are a few from PZ Myers:

The evolution of deuterostome gastrulation - the title sums it up.
Ancient rules for Bilaterian development - looks at the evolutionary roots of bilateral symmetry in animals, focusing on sea anemones (which are generally radially symmetrical).
Generic bumps and recycled genetic cascades - looks at similarities in gene expression during the development of genital structures and limbs.
Flap those gills and fly! - posits that insect wings evolved from crustacean epipod gills.

And here are a few from Orac:

Creationists muscling in on my territory - a post looking at the control of blood vessel growth in the human eye.
Overcoming difficulties reporting science - a post looking at science reporting from the perspective of science reporters.
And, of course, don't forget his recent series on alternative treatments.

Political news of the week take 18

[You can skip to the end of this post, if you want. See also: political news of the week takes 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Charity Wins Deep Loyalty for Hezbollah - An excellent article in the New York Times showing a side of Hezbollah few news outlets have discussed.
Hezbollah paid for his wife’s Caesarean section. It brought olive oil, sugar and nuts when he lost his job and even covered the cost of an operation on his broken nose.

Like many poor Shiites across southern Lebanon, Ahmed Awali, 41, a security guard at an apartment building in this southern city, has received charity from Hezbollah for years. He says he is not a member. He does not even know the names of those who helped him.

Hezbollah fighters move like shadows across the mountains of southern Lebanon; its workers in towns and villages, equally as ghostly, have settled deeply into people’s lives.

They cover medical bills, offer health insurance, pay school fees and make seed money available for small businesses. They are invisible but omnipresent, providing essential services that the Lebanese government through years of war was incapable of offering.

Their work engenders a deep loyalty among Shiites, who for years were the country’s underclass and whose sense of pride and identity are closely intertwined with Hezbollah.


The group is at once highly decentralized and extremely organized. Mr. Awali, whose job as a guard pays $170 a month, far lower wages than average, ran out of money for food shortly after his second daughter was born. He mentioned this to one of his neighbors, and days later, people with bags of groceries showed up at his tiny one-room apartment.

“They just put it down in the middle of the room and left,” said Yusra Haidar, Mr. Awali’s wife, sitting on a stoop outside their building, her young daughters, now 6 and 9, eating grapes at her feet.

But it was the health insurance, when Ms. Haidar was facing a difficult pregnancy, that saved the family. They applied for and received the insurance by submitting photographs and filling out paperwork. Someone from Hezbollah — he did not identify himself — came to inspect their apartment, and ask about their finances, checking their application.

They were issued a medical card that they can use in any hospital in Lebanon, Mr. Awali said. The $1,500 needed to pay for Ms. Haidar’s Caesarean section was now taken care of. Mr. Fayadh’s brother also is covered by the insurance, an alternative to state insurance that the group has made available to poor people for only about $10 a month.

Israel Halts Bombing After Deadly Strike: (July 30)
An Israeli air raid on the southern Lebanese town of Qana killed dozens of civilians on Sunday, many of them children, marking the bloodiest day of this conflict and putting enormous pressure on Israel and the United States to move rapidly toward a cease-fire.

Late Sunday, Israel agreed to suspend its airstrikes for 48 hours while it investigates the bombing of Qana, a State Department spokesman said. The spokesman, Adam Ereli, told reporters in Jerusalem that Israel would coordinate with the United Nations to provide a 24-hour period during which residents of southern Lebanon could leave area safely.

“Israel has, of course, reserved the right to take action against targets preparing attacks against it,” he said.

Israel said the Qana strike was aimed at Hezbollah fighters firing rockets into Israel from the area, but an explosion caused a residential apartment building to collapse, crushing Lebanese civilians who were spending the night in the basement, where they believed they were safe. The Israelis raised the possibility that munitions stored in the building blew up hours after the airstrike, destroying the building.

Israeli Air Raids Destroy Bridges North of Beirut: (August 5)
sraeli airstrikes destroyed four bridges along Lebanon’s main north-south highway in the Christian heartland north of Beirut on Friday, and killed more than 30 people in other areas far from Hezbollah-controlled territory.

With the Beirut-Damascus road already cut at several points, the attacks seemed aimed at arms routes from Syria. But because those same routes bring supplies and aid into the country, the strikes tightened Lebanon’s sense of siege.


An eight-truck United Nations convoy carrying tons of supplies was stuck north of the blown-out bridge. Other aid convoys from Beirut were unable to travel south.

“The whole road is gone,” said Astrid van Genderan Stort, a United Nations official here. “It’s really a major setback because we used this highway to move staff and supplies into the country.”

In the Bekaa Valley, hard against the Syrian border, an airstrike killed at least 28 seasonal farm workers, most of them Syrian Kurds, loading fruit and vegetables into a refrigerated truck.

In Asylum, Another Kind of Casualty:
The war closed in. The doctors fled the asylum. The patients took over.

At the Fanar Hospital for Psychiatric Disorders, 250 patients are languishing through this hallucinatory summer of war. The phone lines have been bombed to silence. Family members can't get here. Food is running out. Only a few nurses remain.

And the drugs that hold the patients' shattered psyches together will be gone by the time this newspaper is in print.


With a quarter of the population driven from their homes and the death toll inching toward 1,000, Lebanon has sunk into despair. At the Fanar, the desperation is more pointed. They painted an enormous red cross on the roof in hope of protecting themselves from warplanes. But below that crude shield, the patients need medications.

Three exhausted nurses in a panic sift through the dregs of their psychiatric medicine. Straining to make the drugs last a little longer, they carefully sliced each pill in half Friday.

Everybody had been getting a little less than needed. Fights already had begun to erupt among under-medicated patients.

"This is all the medicine we have," 26-year-old nurse Hossam Moustapha says, showing off a tray with a paltry collection of halved pills arranged in paper cups. "Without the medicine, they will be completely lost."

Detainee Abuse Charges Feared (plus commentary at Balkinization ):
An obscure law approved by a Republican-controlled Congress a decade ago has made the Bush administration nervous that officials and troops involved in handling detainee matters might be accused of committing war crimes, and prosecuted at some point in U.S. courts.

Senior officials have responded by drafting legislation that would grant U.S. personnel involved in the terrorism fight new protections against prosecution for past violations of the War Crimes Act of 1996. That law criminalizes violations of the Geneva Conventions governing conduct in war and threatens the death penalty if U.S.-held detainees die in custody from abusive treatment.


Language in the administration's draft, which Bradbury helped prepare in concert with civilian officials at the Defense Department, seeks to protect U.S. personnel by ruling out detainee lawsuits to enforce Geneva protections and by incorporating language making U.S. enforcement of the War Crimes Act subject to U.S. -- not foreign -- understandings of what the Conventions require.

The aim, Justice Department lawyers say, is also to take advantage of U.S. legal precedents that limit sanctions to conduct that "shocks the conscience." This phrase allows some consideration by courts of the context in which abusive treatment occurs, such as an urgent need for information, the lawyers say -- even though the Geneva prohibitions are absolute.

The Supreme Court, in contrast, has repeatedly said that foreign interpretations of international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions should at least be considered by U.S. courts.


The Defense Department's deputy general counsel at the time declared at the sole hearing on it [the War Crimes Act] in 1996 -- attended by just two lawmakers -- that "we fully support the purposes of the bill," and urged its expansion to cover a wider range of war crimes. The Republican-controlled House passed the bill by voice vote, and the Senate approved it by unanimous consent.


Jones and other advocates intended the law for use against future abusers of captured U.S. troops in countries such as Bosnia, El Salvador and Somalia, but the Pentagon supported making its provisions applicable to U.S. personnel because doing so set a high standard for others to follow. Mary DeRosa, a legal adviser at the National Security Council from 1997 to 2001, said the threat of sanctions in U.S. courts in fact helped deter senior officials from approving some questionable actions. She said the law is not an impediment in the terrorism fight.

Top Military Lawyers Oppose Plan for Special Courts:
The military's top uniformed lawyers, appearing at a Senate hearing yesterday, criticized key provisions of a proposed new U.S. plan for special military courts, affirming that they did not see eye to eye with the senior Bush administration political appointees who developed the plan and presented it to them last week.

The lawyers' rare, open disagreement with civilian officials at the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the White House came during discussions of proposed new rules for the use of evidence derived from hearsay or coercion and the possible exclusion of defendants from the trials in some circumstances.


The basis for the lawyers' concerns about administration policy, which they first articulated in private memos in 2002 and 2003 for top Defense Department political appointees, is that weak respect for the rights of U.S.-held prisoners eventually could undermine U.S. demands for fair treatment of captured U.S. service personnel.

"The United States should be an example to the world, sir," Maj. Gen. Scott C. Black, judge advocate general of the Army, told Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. "Reciprocity is something that weighs heavily in all of the discussions that we are undertaking as we develop the process and rules for the commissions, and that's the exact reason, sir. The treatment of soldiers who will be captured on future battlefields is of paramount concern."

Police spies chosen to lead war protest:
Two Oakland police officers working undercover at an anti-war protest in May 2003 got themselves elected to leadership positions in an effort to influence the demonstration, documents released Thursday show.


The documents showing that police subsequently tried to influence a demonstration were released Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union, as part of a report criticizing government surveillance of political activists since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The ACLU said the documents came from the lawsuit over the police use of force.

Jordan, in his deposition in April 2005, said under questioning by plaintiffs' attorney Jim Chanin that undercover Officers Nobuko Biechler and Mark Turpin had been elected to be leaders in the May 12 demonstration an hour after meeting protesters that day.


Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for Lockyer, said the attorney general had not yet read the ACLU report. But he said his boss "won't abide violations of civil liberties. There's no room in this state or anywhere in this country for monitoring the activity of groups merely because they have a political viewpoint."

Following the Oakland port protest and disclosures about the monitoring of activists, Lockyer issued guidelines in 2003 stating that police must suspect that a crime has been committed before collecting intelligence on activist groups.

But Schlosberg said the ACLU had surveyed 94 law enforcement agencies last year and found that just eight were aware of the guidelines. Only six had written policies restricting surveillance activities, he said.

Wage Bill Dies; Senate Backs Pension Shift:
Senate Democrats on Thursday blocked legislation tying the first minimum wage increase in almost a decade to a decrease in the federal estate tax, denying Republicans a legislative victory as lawmakers head into a crucial month of campaigning before the November elections.


Mr. Frist and his allies in business viewed the wage increase, stretched over three years, as an acceptable trade-off for a permanent reduction in the estate tax and $38 billion in tax breaks and federal aid that constituted the third part of the measure. But they could not overcome intense opposition from Democrats and organized labor.


The opposition was aided by a dispute over a provision that would allow employers in a handful of states to begin counting employee tips against minimum wage increases, an approach Democrats said could end up cutting the pay of some workers. Republicans disputed that contention, but the prospect was enough to deter some Democrats Republicans had hoped would vote for the bill.

“Cutting the salaries of Washington tip workers by more than $5 an hour is horrible,” said Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington, who called the legislation “a cynical ploy on the part of the Republican leadership in an election year.”

Under the estate tax proposal, the amount of an individual’s estate that would be exempt from taxes would rise to $5 million by 2015, with $10 million exempt for a couple.