Monday, December 30, 2013

Yule Log

JV and I spent Christmas Day in transit from Stockholm to the family farm in Uppsala. We managed to accomplish all the baking we intended to accomplish on Christmas Eve, so we had two tins of cookies and two tins of cupcakes to take with us. This in addition to JV's companion cube, gifts for the white elephant exchange, and overnght clothes meant we were a bit overburdened. Irritating, but not the end of the world.

The gathering included us, JV's mom (Ginja) and stepfather (Rolf), and his sister's (Petra's) family (husband Micke and two kids). The youngest son, Noel, is too young to have any kind of personality yet, but older brother Tim has full command of language and his facilities and is thus, basically, a little person. More specifically, he is a very forward and, in the kindest sense of the term, presumptuous little person. He could not give a shit what you are doing; if he thinks it looks fun or interesting he will walk right up to you and demand to be let in. If he wants you to play with him, he will tell you in no uncertain terms that it's time to play now. If he doesn't like something, you'll know. (At Thanksgiving, he turned down apple crisp because he "[didn't] want tomatos," which instead of being offended I thought was hilarious.) It's cute now, but I do hope he'll grow out of it as he ages, or at least learn to temper it with concern for other people. Which, to be fair, it's not like he's a little psychopath. He demonstrated spontaneous and appropriate concern for little brother Noel after the latter had sucked down too much ice cream too quickly and went from cooing and gurgling to crying from ice cream headache.

So when Rolf got a pretty powerful, compact little LED flashlight in the exchange, Tim immediately thought it was the best thing in the world and decided that it  was going to be his jam for the rest of the day. He commandeered me and JV in a made-up game of walking around in the dark, in which each person took turns walking across the room to the other two people on the couch. Eventually it evolved into Tim deciding who should be walked toward, and also who should be scared and who should do the scaring.

Petra's family, having a car, left after a few hours, while JV and I stayed over the night (and then another). It's a long way to Tipirary, but it's also a long way to Alunda. As soon as they were out the door, the Boy said, "You know, I'm glad we're not having any kids. I don't have the energy for this." Neither do I, but the nice thing about being around such  little kids is that they use the simplest possible Swedish so that even I can understand most of what's going on, and they also don't (yet) have much grasp of English, so Swedish is my only option.

It was a good Christmas, overall. We brought home a delicious garlic lamb sausage and chocolates from the gift exchange; Petra got the hilarious Svenglish decoration I bought and Ginja got the sushi kit he had picked out. She also sent us home with eggs (from their chickens) and garlic (from their garden), in addition to a pair of mittens and a book (in Swedish) for me. She dotes on JV and, by extension, me. How good to feel welcomed and loved in a new country.

 The food, also, is always fantastic at the farm. Ginja is retired now and so has plenty of time to cook really amazing food; we never eat half so well at home as we do there. Plus, it's farm country so all of their friends and neighbors are farms and everyone buys from (or trades) with each other. At lunch, Ginja pulled out like a gallon tub of proper honey from a nearby apiary to go with the "Graham's grain porridge."

 Unfortunately, the farm itself is rather far removed from the village of Alunda, which is nice enough but rather far removed from Uppsala, which is something like a proper city but still far removed from Stockholm; such remoteness makes it a pretty good place to retire to if you want to just futz around by yourself and live off the land and maybe do a little writing or arting or studying or whatever, but is rather untenable if you (like JV and I) are idiots who don't know how to farm and who lack a car for running errands (and the license to drive it). Thus we get the best of both worlds: carte blanche to visit whenever we like, for as long as we like, but without any of the responsibility of really taking care of the place (though we do help with basic things while we're there, if asked).

I always get a lot of reading done when we visit, and this time was no exception. I'm now about halfway through A History of Histories, and also started Crime and Punishment in Swedish. It sounds overambitious, I guess, but I already read it in English and it's one of my favorite books, so it's not really IMPOSSIBLE. At least, with a dictionary it's not impossible. Without a dictionary I'd be pretty boned. Either way, it's plenty of vocabulary for my notes. One page down, maybe four hundred more to go...!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Happy Christmas!

A happy (belated) solstice to you this season, whether it's the longest or shortest day of the year!

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Problem of Women in Philosophy: Are We Just Not Mean Enough?

I stumbled across this read from....somewhere. On Twitter, I do believe. How can we end the male domination of philosophy?

I appreciate your concern, Mr. Wolff, but I find your solution to this problem rather troubling. Condescending.

We don't need to make philosophy "nicer" to encourage more women; women don't shy away from the field  because we don't enjoy rigorous debate. The gender ratio in my undergrad graduating class of philosophers was pretty evenly split, and it wasn't suddenly tea parties and diplomacy. Maybe it would be better for philosophy overall if it were "nicer," I don't know. Maybe it would be better if we started painting philosophy classrooms pink and giving them frilly lace curtains, while we're at it.

You cited a blog in your article, Being a Woman in Philosophy. Did you even read it before you linked to it? As if "everyday sexism," like "points made by women in meetings being ignored until repeated by a man; a room full of men falling silent when a woman walks through the door; clumsy sexual advances that when rebuffed generate a hostile atmosphere" are just piddling little issues to be brushed aside, and that the real problem is the nature of the discipline itself. That if we make philosophy nicer, women will be able to laugh off things like their dissertation's reception being dependent upon whether or not they agree to date one of the assessors or presenters using incredibly inappropriate rape analogies. There are few, if any, entries on that blog that complain of philosophy departments being "too mean." Yet there is a near endless stream of entries on male colleagues and higher-ups using their power to negotiate sexual attention or favors from women students/colleagues/candidates; rabid insensitivity to sexual harassment; and tolerance for crass attitudes and comments. The problem is not the field's focus on health debate as the whetstone against which we sharpen our ideas. It's the same kind of chilly, unwelcome atmosphere that pervades so many fields. 

If you want philosophy to be nicer, that's one thing. That's not even necessarily a bad thing. But then admit that it's what you  want, for yourself and the future of the discipline, not because us sensitive womenfolk with our sensitive ladybits will never manage otherwise.

Friday, December 13, 2013

23andMe (and the FDA)

In case you missed it: as a result of ongoing disputes (not the right word, but it'll do) with the FDA, 23andMe has agreed to forego the "health risks" part of their analysis. Customers who purchased their kit before November 22, 2013,  still have access to that data, but any new customers will only get the genealogy data. You can read 23andMe's official response on their blog.

The FDA asked 23andMe to comply with legislative standards set forth by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, specifically by "validat[ing] the PGS [Personal Genome Service] for its intended uses, which have expanded from the uses that the firm identified in its submissions." One can only assume that the "the uses the firm identified in its submissions" are the genealogical ones. 23andMe was years behind in providing the validation of their medical recommendations and interpretations, and to avoid further action by the FDA, has agreed to suspend any health interpretations of the data until they can verify the accuracy of their results.

To the public, this comes across as the FDA stepping in on the public's behalf to prevent them from making any permanent, important health-related decisions (e.g. mastectomies) on data that aren't 100% sound and verified. That would seem to be the logical conclusion. Some arguments about FDA's "unholy union" with Big Pharma etc. are also coming to the surface, but that's a road that's a bit too tin hatty for my liking.

When you send your spit kit off to 23andMe, the data you get back from them doesn't just stay with you. They—and your survey results—are also part of a vast genomic library. Your individual results, as linked to you, John Doe, can't be sold, but 23andMe
reserves the right to sell that information in the aggregate, or use it to market other events and products to individual customers.
The issue then becomes not of protecting consumers from their own idiocy, but of protecting their information from being used in ways they couldn't foresee, know about, or agree to. It's not the accuracy the FDA is concerned with (multiple Internet searches do not indicate any rash of faulty results), nor is it the consumer's private use; it's 23andMe's corporate use of said data. The question is about whether or not that kind of data in the hands of large corporations (health insurance, life insurance, drug companies, etc.) is a desirable or ethical thing.

That said, I found the medical results from 23andMe useful. In particular, I was surprised to find out that I had one copy of the APOE-4 gene. I understand science enough to know that this doesn't mean I'm definitely going to get Alzheimer's (even with one copy of the gene my chances are 14%, compared to 7% without), but if I had just looked at my family history, I would have never known I was at an elevated risk for the condition—not the same way I already knew from family history that I was at risk for hypertension and high cholesterol.

Do I value those, and other, results enough to be okay with my anonymized survey and spit kit results being sold to corporations? Yes, actually. At least, the deed is done, so there is no good regretting it. And in a way, I'm excited that my DNA is contributing, at least in part, to medical research. Is corporate buying and selling of this kind of information something to be concerned about? I don't know. This is a relatively new field and we have yet to see just how the nuances will play out.

Originally I was prepared to come to the conclusion that I simply couldn't understand the FDA's concern with 23andMe, since the site is full of disclaimers about how genetics only indicate risks and that you should consult a medical professional and so forth (your personalized risk factors for Alzheimer's and breast cancer are even hidden behind little "consent" walls where you have to read through an explanation of these points before you can even see your results). The information they provide to their customers is reliable enough, after all, and can be immensely beneficial. As one comment on the 23andMe blog suggested: if the FDA is so concerned about people making terrible medical decisions, why does WebMD still exist?

But after some reading on it—and the implications of all that genetic information in 23andMe's possession—I can begin to understand the concern. The question then is: should the FDA be in the business of regulating market practices? (If the kits and the PGS work as intended and provide accurate results, that's really all the FDA should be concerned about.) Would this be better left to something like the FTC? Is fear of buying and selling genomic information justified, or is it destined to become part of "business as usual" in the near future?

May you live in interesting times, indeed.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

101 in 1001

I have been meaning to write about the confrontation between 23andMe and the FDA but haven't found the brain cells to do so. This is mostly a reminder to myself to do that. For now, though, a belated 101 in 1001 update! More after the jump.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Birthstones: Amethyst (February)

(Author's note: much of this entry is taken from my earlier geo-shopping post on amethyst.)

The February-born shall find
Sincerity and peace of mind,
Freedom from passion and from care,
If they an amethyst will wear. 

If there's one thing all of the different birthstone lists can agree on, it's that amethyst belongs to February.

Am├ęthystre sceptre2
Image courtesy Didier Descouens and Wikimedia

Amethyst is a silicate, like agates. Technically speaking, amethyst is actually quartz. Just that it's purple.

Like agates, amethyst have a long history that dates back to at least the ancient Greeks. The name "amethyst" actually comes from the Greek "amethustos," meaning "not drunk." Amethyst was believed to protect against intoxication; many chalices from Greek and Roman times were actually made out of amethyst for that very reason.

Unsurprisingly, there are a few stories associating amethyst with Dionysus, the Falstaffian alcoholic of the Greek pantheon. In one variation, Artemis protects a young maiden named Amethystos from Dionysus' unwelcome attention (some versions he's after her chastity, other versions he's just irritated at mortals in general and she's in the wrong place at the wrong time) by turning her into stone. Dionysus is then so moved by her beauty/chastity/etc that he weeps (or pours wine) over the stone, dying it purple. In another, the titan Rhea gifted the stone to Dionysus to keep him from losing his mind to wine.

amethyst soap
Amethyst Crystal Soap by amethystsoap

Amethyst was rare in those days, and was also prized as a valuable gem for adornment. Today, you can get amethyst fairly inexpensively, due to rather substantial finds not available to the ancient Greeks. Most of it today comes from Brazil, but you can find it all over.

The purple color in amethyst comes from a combination of aluminum and iron. Heat treatment will darken the purple color, or even turn it yellow (at which point it becomes citrine). You do occasionally find natural pieces of beautiful ametrine (quartz crystal with purple and yellow coloration), but this is a rare occurrence. Like citrine, most ametrine you find has been treated (with heat or otherwise).

More about amethyst:

Amethyst at 3D chem has a neat clickable and dragable molecular model of amethyst (silicon dioxide), as well as some more information.

Amethyst results on Flickr

Amethyst on

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What I Read: Solaris

I finished this book over Thanksgiving weekend and I don't know what to say about it.

When I wrote my undergrad philosophy not-a-thesis on artificial intelligence and the moral worth of Rachel Rosen, one of the sources (I think it may have been The Mind's I) mentioned Lem's The Cyberiad. For all of my reading and sci-fi enthusiasm, that was the first time I'd ever even heard of Lem. I didn't know much more about him when I came across Solaris a couple years later, except that the name had stuck in my memory.

The edition of Solaris you're going to read in English is a translation from French, which was itself translated from the original Polish. I eagerly await the day a fresh new English translation from the original Polish hits the shelves, because I think the resulting language ends up rather clunky, especially in the descriptions of Solaris' fantastic shapes and displays.

But wait—that deserves a backtrack. Solaris is the story of a far-off planet, Solaris, that attracts attention from Earth scientists first because of its unusual orbit and then because of the giant, fantastic ocean of goo that covers nearly all of its surface. Specifically, the story is about Kris Kelvin's expedition there and what he finds. Kelvin arrives after the scientists at the Solaris research station decided to bombard the ocean with heavy duty X-rays. Now, as a result, all of the scientists on board are getting "visitors": neutrino flesh and neutrino blood replicas of someone haunting their past. Kelvin's visitor is his dead wife, Rheya. Perhaps they are a result of the X-ray bombardment, perhaps not; perhaps the ocean is trying to study its new inhabitants, or perhaps it's a totally thoughtless and reflexive reaction. We don't know and (spoiler alert!) we never get conclusive evidence. That is left up to the reader.

The movie versions of Solaris (there have been three) all focus on the dramatic aspect of the past's intrusion on the present, which Lem found frustrating. To him, the point of the book, like much of his other work, was to speculate on the possibility—or impossibility—of two vastly different lifeforms to communicate in any meaningful way.

It's the open-ended speculative nature of the book that makes me unsure of what to say about Solaris. This was the rare piece of fiction I immediately turned back and started reading again. I'm not ever opposed to rereading a book, but usually I have to give it a few years before I can go back and enjoy it.

But—did I like it? I...guess.  I love the idea of a maybe-sentient blob creature forever beyond our understanding. There's something about the writing, though, that keeps me from really loving the book. That's why I want so much for there to be a visual version—if not movie, then graphic novel. It's such a poetic and thought-provoking idea, but ultimately it feels trapped in the language and aesthetics of mid-century science fiction. This is a far different kettle of fish than, say, Philip K. Dick.

In fact, the one piece of comparable science fiction that came to mind when writing this review was Harry Martinson's Aniara. I say comparable, even though at first blush they are not particularly similar aside from being space-oriented science fiction written by European writers in the middle of the 20th century: Aniara is a series of poems about the fictional future spaceship, the Aniara, which was originally intended for Mars but instead became cast adrift into the space beyond our solar system. What holds them together for me is that they are not content to be mere diversions, entertainment; Lem and Martinson, in very different ways, use the same genre as a stepping stone towards a greater statement, maybe even art (whatever that is).

Did I enjoy either of them in the same way that I enjoy other pieces of science fiction, like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Light? No. Definitely not. But worth reading? Yes. Will it challenge you? Without a doubt.