Saturday, October 25, 2014

Lawrence Hall of Science

Part of the exhibit on Nano
Having a few hours to while away in Berkeley on Thursday, we visited the Lawrence Hall of Science. As science museums go, it's not as large as popular destinations like the California Academy of Sciences or the Exploratorium. However, featured exhibits like the one on nano technology are thoughtfully presented to non-scientists (like your humble observer), and the "toys" in the play area are well designed illustrations of scientific principles.

The 3-D movie was first-rate, as is the view of San Francisco Bay. The Lawrence Hall of Science is not on most people's top-ten list of Bay Area attractions, but for long-time residents it's definitely worth a visit.

Very useful when watching Thursday's eclipse

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Paleontology was Unsettled

Male (left) and female he created them. (Economist photo)
After noting that most fish "simply broadcast eggs and sperm into the water and hope that these will meet" paleontologists hypothesized that sexual intercourse developed when creatures moved ashore.

A mollusk that lived 400 million years ago has upended that theory. Paleontologists observed that males of the presciently-named Microbrachius dicki
have special bony claspers that would, when the animal was alive, have held a female close for mating, while others (presumably female) have dermal plates corresponding to these claspers that would have allowed their paramours to get a good grip.
Today claspers can be found in male sharks and other fish. Perhaps the lyricist should have included the humble mollusk when he sang
Cold Cape Cod clams, 'gainst their wish, do it
Even lazy jellyfish do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Teachable Moments

The familiar thump-thump-thump of a flat tire caused me to pull over into a parking lot. Normally I'd call the auto club, but, mindful that this was a teachable moment (see yesterday's post) for a young passenger, decided to change the tire myself.

It had been decades since I had performed the task, but fortunately the steps are easily reconstructed using common sense: 1) Ensure that the vehicle won't roll; 2) Pry off the hub cap; 3) Loosen the lug nuts before jacking up the car; 4) Jack up the car; 5) Remove nuts, remove tire, put on spare; 6) Put everything back in reverse order.

The Bridgestone spare was flat, not surprising because I hadn't bought Bridgestones since the mid-1990's and probably hadn't touched the tire since. Remember to check the air pressure on the spare---another teachable moment.

We limped to the gas station a block away, pressurized the tire, and continued to our destination.

Next time I will call the auto club. © 2014 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

“Most people don’t get killed parallel parking"

Empathy with one's parents becomes particularly acute when one tries to teach a teen to drive. Advances in technology, psychology, risk analysis, and education, however, can make this "rite of child-rearing" more bearable and beneficial:
researchers placed video equipment in 50 parents’ cars during supervised driving. They found much of parents’ instruction focused on vehicle handling, says Arthur Goodwin, a senior research associate at the Highway Safety Research Center, who led the study. Parents also tended to stick to routine daytime driving along familiar routes, Mr. Goodwin says. Parents’ instruction tapered off after teens learned basic vehicle-handling skills.

Few parents went on to teach higher-order driving skills, such as spotting and avoiding potential hazards, according to the study, published in March in Accident Analysis and Prevention. Many parents aren’t even conscious that they exercise these skills, such as slowing when approaching a crosswalk where pedestrians might appear, Mr. Goodwin says.

Parents tend to drill teens on maneuvers that gave them the most trouble when they learned to drive, such as parallel parking. “Most people don’t get killed parallel parking,” says Deborah Hersman, president of the National Safety Council. “The most important things parents can teach teens are how to develop hazard recognition and judgment—making the left turns into oncoming traffic, how to merge on and off highways at high speed.”
The studies' recommendations:
  • Do have teens practice on progressively harder roads, from quiet streets to busy highways.
  • Practice at night and in rain or snow.
  • Do coach teens to avoid glancing away from the road for more than two seconds.
  • Don’t bring up sticky issues while your teen is driving, such as poor grades.
  • Don’t tell the teen what is wrong in sweeping terms, such as “You’re always in too much of a hurry” or “You never listen.”
  • In other words, parents should be more communicative without being judgmental. The outcomes may be better, but the dreaded rite of child-rearing is still stressful. Personally, driverless cars can't come soon enough for me.

    Tuesday, October 21, 2014

    On the Screen

    Netflix popularized watch-what-you-want-when-you-want video, and the big players (television networks, cable, and satellite companies) in the TV industry have resisted mightily:
    Viewers have long wanted to pay only for the channels they watch, not the bundle that cable companies foist upon them. Television executives have resisted, rightly fearing that doing away with the bundle could tear apart a business with annual revenues of around $150 billion.

    Unlike newspapers and the music industry, which saw their businesses sink with the rise of the internet, change has come gradually.
    The reward for being first to abandon the old business model proved too alluring to HBO and CBS, however, both of whom announced an internet subscription service. The switchover from traditional TV to streaming should occur slowly because of inertia (which couch potatoes have in plentiful supply), the slow pace of demographic change, and convenience (subscribing to multiple providers vs. getting one bill). Nevertheless, the handwriting is on the screen.

    Monday, October 20, 2014

    November 4th, When the Cacophony Should Subside

    Despite my initial desire to stay beneath the political-contribution disclosure laws in 2008, I sent in a little more during the fall campaigns, which meant that I had to submit my address and phone number. In retrospect the additional donation was a big mistake.

    Every two years the phone has been ringing off the hook. The old Panasonic feature-phone can block up to 30 identified numbers, plus out-of-state callers. That limit has been quickly overwhelmed by political callers from our own area code.

    Those people are clever, but I refuse to upgrade to a new system just to block these calls. I can't wait for November 4th, Election Day, when the cacophony should subside.

    My advice to anyone considering a political donation for the first time? Don't. Find another way to support your candidate or cause. © 2014 Stephen Yuen

    Sunday, October 19, 2014

    Remarkably Discerning

    Another venerable word, recently in the news, may have religious roots:
    The original quarantine, dating back to the medieval era, actually lasted 40 days, and that history is embedded in the word itself. It comes to English from Old Italian “quarantina,” originally from “quadraginta,” the Latin word for the number 40.

    In the 14th century, as the bubonic plague ravaged Europe, cities took extreme measures to limit the epidemic....

    Historians are unsure why 40 days became the standard European length for a quarantine, giving it its name. While the rationale was tied to observations for how long it took for infected people to die from the plague, it may have had more religious underpinnings.

    Forty-day periods show up throughout the Old and New Testaments: from the length of the Great Flood, to Moses’ stay on Mount Sinai, to the time that Jesus spent fasting in the desert. The latter is commemorated in the 40 days of Lent, and the same time period has been used for other expressions of penance and asceticism.

    In fact, the first known appearance of “quarantine” in English (from around 1470, according to the Oxford English Dictionary) refers to the place where Jesus is believed to have fasted. In the 16th century, it could mean the 40 days in which a widow was allowed to reside in her late husband’s house.

    The use of “quarantine” for infectious diseases made it into English by the time of the Great Plague of London in 1665.
    The recommended waiting period for people who may have been exposed to Ebola is 21 days; if symptoms don't appear within that period, the quarantine can be lifted.

    If one does have the disease, the quarantine can last much longer. Ebola can be transmitted for weeks, even past death. WHO:
    Burial ceremonies in which mourners have direct contact with the body of the deceased person can also play a role in the transmission of Ebola.

    People remain infectious as long as their blood and body fluids, including semen and breast milk, contain the virus. Men who have recovered from the disease can still transmit the virus through their semen for up to 7 weeks after recovery from illness.
    Considering that micro-organisms weren't observed until the 17th century, and that they weren't established as one source of disease until the 19th, the ancients who developed the rules of quarantine were remarkably discerning.

    Saturday, October 18, 2014

    165th Diocesan Convention

    The speech timer was turned off for Bishop Marc.
    Under halcyon skies we drove to Grace Cathedral for the 165th Diocesan Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of California.

    The Diocese of California consists of 80 congregations in the greater Bay Area, and lay and clergy showed up from 71 and 68 congregations, respectively. IMHO, it was a decent turnout, though a bit shy of the perfect attendance that the Bishop desired.

    Bishop Marc opened the meeting at 9 a.m. Through strict enforcement of speech cutoff limits we held to the schedule and were done a little after 5 p.m. Most of the agenda consisted of reports, elections, and resolutions. There were very few surprises, with only one of seven resolutions being defeated.

    The six approved resolutions were:
    1) to support Prop 47, the safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, which reduces petty theft and drug possession to misdemeanors;
    2) to encourage better coordination with the other five Episcopal dioceses in California;
    3) to revise the wording of the marriage ceremony in the Book of Common Prayer to include same-sex couples;
    4) to redirect the church’s endowment funds to socially responsible investments;
    5) to reaffirm the church’s position in support of reducing carbon emissions and against environmental racism (how power plants are often located in poor neighborhoods and harm the health of families living next to them);
    6) to call for Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This last resolution was one of the most contentiously debated, though it did pass.

    The measure that was defeated was entitled “Benefits Cost Sharing." It attempted to raise the premiums on medical insurance dependent coverage for all employees of the Diocese, both lay and clergy. This is in line with what is going on in the marketplace, and many clergy agreed with it. However, the no's prevailed when a few pointed out the severe harm that would have occurred to their finances as they deal with debilitating diseases in their children.

    There was a resolution from the floor that concerned the actions of the Board of Trustees of General Theological Seminary. (GTS was founded in 1817 in Manhattan and is the oldest Episcopal seminary.) A conflict between the Dean and faculty culminated in the firing of 8 of 10 faculty members. The resolution to condemn this action passed overwhelmingly.

    One of the highlights of the convention was its theme, From tears to joy: Our Asian experience. In addition to presenting the history of their communities within the Church, clergy of Asian descent led the prayers and scripture readings that were interspersed throughout the day.

    The church is steadily moving into the 21st century. Most of the delegates no longer needed the over-100 page binders of materials but downloaded them to tablets and computers. Also impressive was the growing number of young people—under 30 and even teenagers—who had important roles to play.

    Perhaps the church's decades-long decline in attendance has finally bottomed out, but, as I've stated before, am not too hopeful. © 2014 Stephen Yuen

    Friday, October 17, 2014

    Hold Your Breath

    (ABC News photo)
    With headlines like Ebola Death Rate Hits 70% the public is understandably panicked.

    The good news seems to be that Ebola will not be contracted if the uninfected completely avoid the body fluids of a sick person:
    It kills health workers by exposing them to patients who, by the end, exude up to ten litres of virus-laden fluids a day. The number of infections [in Africa] seems to be doubling every two to four weeks. As health-care workers fall ill and the infection grows exponentially, a society’s defences against Ebola are rapidly overwhelmed.

    The disease poses only a slight risk in rich countries, because tracing, diagnosing and isolating scattered cases is within the scope of their health systems. Officials are minimising the threat by screening travellers.
    As of this writing, eight cases have been treated in the United States, but only two of them were contracted on American soil.

    Hold your breath.

    Thursday, October 16, 2014

    San Francisco Giants: We Want More

    San Franciscans believe in spreading the wealth around, but not when it comes to the success of their sports teams. The Giants are going to the World Series for the third time in five years. Even fans with a progressive disposition are saying "back up the truck and give us another trophy."

    No one here is crying for the Cubs, who haven't been to the baseball championships since 1945, or the Washington Nationals, a never-been-there team whom the Giants defeated in the playoffs.

    Most of the nation is probably rooting for the Kansas City Royals (29 years since their last title) in the World Series. Nevertheless there are good reasons to cheer for the Giants, whose individual players have engaging narratives.

    Before 2014 Tim Hudson, 39, a multiple-year All-Star for the Oakland Athletics and the Atlanta Braves, had never played in a League Championship Series, much less the World Series. Injury-prone 32-year-old Michael Morse also never made it past the LDS.

    From the doghouse to the penthouse  (NY Daily News photo)
    But perhaps the most compelling story belonged to Travis Ishikawa, 31. After being cut by the Giants in 2011 (he did earn a 2010 World Series ring as a back-up first baseman), he tried unsuccessfully to land a spot on the Brewers, Yankees, Orioles, and Pirates. In 2014 he was re-signed by the Giants to the minor-league Fresno Giants, where he only played intermittently. A father of three, he was giving serious thought to giving up the game when the San Francisco Giants, in desperate straits due to injury, asked him to play left field for the first time since high school.

    On Thursday night Travis Ishikawa hit the game-ending home run that propelled the Giants into the World Series. The last player to strike a walk-off National-League pennant-winning home run was the 1951 Giant Bobby Thomson, who hit the shot heard 'round the world.

    If we stopped here, it would be a great story already. But we want more.

    Wednesday, October 15, 2014

    Painful Enough

    Today is the last day taxpayers may file their returns for 2013.

    Because we had to wait for the final piece of information to arrive in August, we submitted Form 4868, which grants a six-month extension, by April 15th. Last weekend we mailed in the tax returns.

    For the record, we will receive a Federal refund but owe money to the State, including taxes and penalties (sigh). Federal Form 4868 and California Form 3519 (unnecessary if there's no balance due) grant extra time for completing and mailing the returns, but not for paying amounts owed on April 15th.

    Coincidentally (or maybe not), we just received a phone call purportedly from the IRS. Below is the text.
    Hello, we have been trying to reach you. This call is officially a final notice from IRS, Internal Revenue Services. The reason that this call is to inform you that IRS is filing lawsuits against you.

    To get more information about this case file please call immediately on our department number 202-864-1284. I repeat, 202-864-1284. Thank you.
    It should be noted that my caller ID says that the call originated from 932-569-3661, not the 202 number in the message.

    From the grammatical and other mistakes (Service, not "Services"), the phone call is obviously fake. I forwarded the information (admittedly without much hope that anything will be done) to some government agencies. Paying taxes and filling out the forms are painful enough without falling for a scam.

    Tuesday, October 14, 2014

    The Last Frontier

    Two young scientists researched whether multitasking affected their fellow high school students' cognitive performance:
    Though most teens perform better when focusing on a single task, those who are “high media multitaskers”—about 15% of the study participants—performed better when working with the distractions of email and music than when focusing on a single activity.
    Most people perform poorly if they try to focus on more than one task at the same time; hence the laws against texting while driving. However, for a small minority these seeming distractions are correlated with higher performance.

    Parents are concerned about the effect of information overload on the development of young brains. But the opposite---an environment with zero input to the senses ("sensory deprivation")---can also drive a mind mad.

    One of the last frontiers of understanding is indeed the origin of understanding, the human brain.

    Monday, October 13, 2014

    When It Really Matters

    SRO at City Hall (SMDJ photo)
    The City Hall parking lot was filled by 6 p.m. Hundreds of Foster City residents were up in arms over the developer's proposal to raze the small shopping center and build a retail-residential complex with 150 townhomes and 250 parking spaces.

    Bowing to civic pressure, the City Council killed the proposal without even taking the first step of referring it to the Planning Commission for further study.

    Much as I believe property owners should be allowed a lot of leeway to maximize the value of their holdings, I couldn't support the redevelopment. Over the past 30 years a public elementary school and a private pre-school have sprung up across the street, and traffic is already a severe problem in the morning.

    Traffic backs up in the morning heading north (to the left in the Developer's picture)
    As I wrote to the City Council members
    The intersection of Beach Park and Edgewater is one of the most congested in Foster City at 8 a.m. on a weekday, with children being dropped off and walking and biking to school. That is also the time when hundreds of residents are trying to get to work from Dolphin Bay, Sea Colony, Plum Island, and other developments, and Edgewater Blvd. is the only practical feeder route to the main exits from Foster City. Edgewater heading north is frequently stopped up for the entire length of the shopping center (to Port Royal Ave).

    I cringe as drivers make hurried right turns from Beach Park to Edgewater with little kids on the sidewalk or cut through the shopping center to make a right from Edgewater to Beach Park. Pouring an additional 250 cars onto this intersection at this time (I imagine most of these projected homeowners will be working) would be a traffic and public-safety nightmare.
    After the dust settles, I hope that some of the neighbors will stop complaining about every little move (painting a different color, putting up some signs) the shopping center owner proposes to improve his profitability.

    Say no only when it really matters.

    Sunday, October 12, 2014

    History's Catalyst

    (Image by Dragoart)
    University of Utah professor Polly Wiessner claims that the campfire catalyzed much of human history [bold added]:
    The human ability to control fire had transformative biological effects. It allowed us to extract nourishment from the toughest roots and roasts, and to feed our hungry, helpless children, with their big energy-guzzling brains. But Dr. Wiessner suggests that it had equally transformative social effects. Fire gave us the evening —too dark to work, but bright and warm enough to talk.....

    This nighttime talk engaged some of our most distinctively human abilities—imagination, culture, spirituality. ....they transmitted cultural wisdom and historical knowledge to the next generation, and they explored the mysterious psychological nuances of other minds.
    Campfires were part of the shared human experience up till a generation ago. Now they're the victim of concerns about global warming and forest fires, not to mention the now much-easier ways to meet people at night over a glowing light. But I'll miss the marshmallows.

    Saturday, October 11, 2014

    However, Cub Fans Are Still Waiting

    The Economist reports that China is once again the world's largest economy in terms of purchasing-power parity.

    The U.S. overtook China circa 1900 (see graph) and, 114 years later, China is back.

    Economist: "The brief interlude in which America overshadowed it is now over."