Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Do You Really Need that Light On?

My father was an environmental visionary. (Who knew?) As evidence, I cite the numerous occasions when he railed at us to turn out the lights when we left a room, scoffed when we asked for a ride to the local swimming pool, and challenged us as we sat reading beside a sunlight window, "do you really need that light on?"

I was reminded of this voice from the past as I listened today to a friend describe the efforts she and her husband need to stay within the energy budget imposed by their generator, the sole power source for their rural retirement home. They choose this power supply as a "green" statement. In a greener-than-thou region of California, they decided not to have PG&E run power lines over hill and dale to their house.

Instead, they ruthlessly hunt and eliminate every power drain. Microwave and coffee-maker are on power-strips so they can be switched off except when in use; the clock on the front panel draws a trickle. Likewise the VCR and TV: microvolts vanish into the circuitry as these appliances retain their settings.

Clocks are wind-type, not electric. They have no air-conditioning unit; for a breeze, they open windows on either side of the house. No vacuum cleaner, either. A Huffy broom scoops dust from the floors and whisks cat hairs from the area rugs. No electric blankets for this couple! Carol drops an extra quilt on the bed if the temperature drops at night.

Still, Carol's husband follows her around the house at night, watching for potential power-drains. "Honey, do you really need that light on?"

In short, except for the high-tech restrictions, they are doing all those things my family did when we were kids because our parents wanted to keep the power bills in check, and avoid filling the car too often. But it wasn't only money-saving that motivated my Dad. We had a push-lawnmower, because there were plenty of kids available to shove it around the yard. "Builds character and muscles," my Dad said.

We were green in a lot of ways in my home. No SUVs prowled the streets then, but my large crowd of siblings jammed somehow into the family station wagon. Littles sat in bigger kids' laps as we went to church or traveled to Grandma's house. We dried clothes on that wonder of green-tech, a clothesline in the back yard.

We rode bikes to our high school, and blushingly locked them to the rack near where the "cool kids" parked their cars. "You don't need a car to go 12 blocks," my Dad was certain in his opinion. He was right. I didn't get far without a car while I was in high school.

And now, I hear that echo of Dad's foresight in the complaints of my environmentally-savvy friends. You can ride your bike to work, can't you? You don't need that SUV to drive to the gym for your workout.

And do you really need that light on?


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Hit & Run May 31st: New Nibbles from the Legal Cowpie

Spanish Pleas: In Spain, where it is illegal to use a cell phone while driving, a cop stopped a motorist driving along with one hand held to his ear. Despite the driver's demonstration that he didn't have the phone in his hand, and that it hadn't been in use for the last 12 hours, the cop still wrote him a ticket. The citation was for "holding his ear with his right hand in a prominent manner."

The driver, a lawyer, appealed the ticket, arguing that Spanish law does not prohibit scratching one's ear while driving. He won the case.

Illegal Jargon: Legal documents contain their own version of the Mother Tongue, but sometimes even lawyers need help translating what their secretaries type. In one legal memo, the typist rendered "search and siezure" as surgeon seizure. In another, the word "paratrooper" became parrot trooper.

Polly want a hand grenade?

Moot Court A man in Santa Fe, NM, is suing his wife in federal court to stop smoking, after years of trying other methods to get her to kick the habit. The premise of his lawsuit? Air Pollution. He's suing her under the Federal Clean Air Act.


Sunday, May 28, 2006

Getting into J. Craig Venter's Genes

At the Edges of Science

What could possibly be next for manic bio-radical J. Craig Venter? Venter's entire personal genome will be published as a reference databank, to be available for all researchers, later this year. Where will the maverick researcher, once introduced in New Yorker with the opening line. "J. Craig Venter is an asshole," head now?

Venter has been an object of hate and derision among fellow genome researchers, who call him arrogant and focused on the commercial aspects of his research, and claim he "bogarts" his data. He petitioned for permission to use his "shotgun" DNA-reading method, which he developed to identify fragments of working genes while employed by the National Institutes of Health, for genome-sequencing, but was turned down by the government. So he founded TIGR Institute, which became the first to sequence the entire genome of a living organism, the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae, which causes meningitis.

In the 90s, Venter and a rival research group headed by Francis Collins, both published human genomic sequences derived from an amalgam of individuals. These two teams "achieved the feat of reading three billion letters of DNA code, the entire human genetic recipe, triggering endless discussions of the extraordinary implications of having access to all the instructions required to make every protein that builds and runs a body." (Roger Highfield, Daily Telegraph Magazine, May 27, 2006)

The "successful" human genome sequencing, however, was less than helpful in interpreting the meaning of the DNA code. For one thing, the combination of five sources in the DNA that was sequenced means both teams ended up with a recipe more goulash than human. As Nobel laureate Sir John Sulston admitted, "We were just a bunch of phoneys."

Now Venter proposes to publish the entire genome of a single individual — himself — in a databank available to all DNA researchers. Knowing the sequence does not, as yet, allow reading one's DNA like a book. The six billion "letters" of Venter's sequence are not organized into words yet, let alone the sentences and paragraphs that would allow us to identify the effects of all these genes. Nevertheless, Venter has learned a few things by sequencing his own DNA; for example, he now takes drugs to forestall heart disease after finding a gene sequence associated with heart problems.

Venter sees a future in which "personal genomics" will contribute to long healthy life for the average person. To that end, he has offered a $10 million prize to the first person to develop a way to sequence a genome at a cost of $1,000 or less.

In the meantime, having succeeded in reading his own DNA, Venter has no qualms about what comes next: writing it. Venter and his team have already launched a project to create life by building a custom DNA sequence for a microbe. Challenged to answer if this isn't "playing God," Venter replies with a grin, "We aren't playing."

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Hit & Run May 23rd: Slicing the Legal Cowpie

Fuzzy Logic in Kentucky: In this state, it is against the law to dye baby ducks or chickens, unless you have more than a half-dozen to sell. And if someone else's horse dies on your property in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and the horse owner doesn't remove it within 24 hours, it is the responsibility of the property-owner to dispose of the dead animal.

An ancient law in Kentucky requires that all citizens bathe at least once a year. Lest the aroma kill any horses, or cause chicks and ducklings to turn blue, one supposes.

Moot Court: A couple in Canada sued their real-estate agent for mental anguish and financial damages after they recognized their new house in a TV show about a grisly murder. They watched, horrified, as the show dramatized the crime, in which a man killed his wife, cut her up in pieces and hid the parts around the house — their house.

They might not have had such a strong case, except that many of the pieces have never been found.

There Go the Judge! In South Africa, a judge was faced with a 22-year-old thief who stole candy to get arrested and sent to prison. His plan? To write a book about his experiences.

The judge did sentence him to jail, then had a subsequent hearing where he persuaded the young man to abandon his desire for a stint in the stir. He ended up on probation for the candy theft.


Saturday, May 20, 2006

Robson Green: From Wire in the Blood to Rocket Man

In case I haven't mentioned it lately (and I know I haven't), Robson Green is the man you want when you have a subtly-damaged, slightly-weird, very intelligent role to cast on BBC TV. I'm basing this opinion on two excellent series currently airing on BBC America: Wire in the Blood and Rocket Man.

I've already sung the praises of Green in Wire in the Blood, in which he plays Dr. Tony Hill, a criminal profiler who solves mysteries and finds killers by the simple process of "noticing everything." Green's Dr. Hill is an intense, complex fellow who seems incapable of making strong emotional connections with other people. His best connections seems to be with the killers he profiles.

This is the subtle damage to Dr. Hill, an easy thing to overplay, yet Green carefully skirts the boundary between comic and tragic in his portrayal. We are not inclined to laugh at Tony Hill, even when we see him do something comedic. Robson Green shows us that the cause of Dr. Hill's bumbling lies in his very focus on something outside himself, something necessary and noble.

In Rocket Man, we see that same intensity turned in another direction. Here, Green plays George Stevenson, a nearly-illiterate, widowed engineer "made redundant" when the local factory closed. Now he and his friends are misemployed as candy packers, night watchmen and janitors. Green's solo project, to create a rocket to shoot his late wife's ashes into space, becomes a consuming team effort, first for his engineer buddies, then for their wives and the owner of the defunct factory.

In last week's episode, George berated the team for lack of focus, then made an appeal that encapsulated the theme of the series. "We were engineers in this factory, and now we're packing silly little chocolates into silly little boxes, but that's not who we are. This is who we are, this rocket."

The rocket has come to mean more to these people than a project to put Bethan Stevenson's remains into orbit. Each person on the team uses the rocket project to transcend all the major and petty troubles in their lives. In this, the series reminds me strongly of The Full Monty, another tale of a group of unemployed workers and their one-time manager who come together to reaffirm their worth as men.

Wire in the Blood aired first in the US, but Wire was preceded on BBC by Rocket Man. Because of that reversal, it seems strange to us that Green should "follow" the cooly-distant Dr. Tony Hill with such a likeable leader-type as George Stevenson. Rocket Man could rise or fall on the strength of the central character.

Fortunately, with Robson Green as George Stevenson, it seems destined for a path to match one of the team's rockets.


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Review: Dead Lines by Greg Bear

What if some of the things you see every day aren't really there? What if they just look normal? You seldom compare notes with anybody, do you? You don't bring along a video camera and record every minute of your daily life to see what you might have seen that wasn't there after all.
 — Greg Bear, Dead Lines

For those who would dine on old, dead dreams of glory, Hollywood is always willing to set a place at the table. In his house in the Glendale Hills, Peter Russell has been dining for years on his defunct dream. A one-time creator of "nudie films" and Playboy cartoons, he planned novels, plays, short stories that somehow never were completed. Peter's creative stream was first diverted by the easy sex of his heyday, and then dammed up by the murder of one of his twin daughters.

Now he retains just enough charm to get by. He provides the likable "face" of business for a misanthropic millionaire, and charms the trophy wife of his employer, his remaining daughter, and just about every woman he meets (except his ex-wife). And even though he is not in the movie business anymore, he does still have connections.

Those connections bring him an innovative new cell phone, a hefty commission check, and an exciting chance to get back in the game by creating a complete marketing campaign for the Trans, an eerily-clear communication device that, according to the inventor, taps into a space "below our world, lower than networks used by atoms or subatomic particles, to where it is very quiet."

Even as he dreams of revived glory, the spirit of Rod Serling is waiting to detour him into nightmare. Peter's "signpost up ahead" is a phone call to let him know his best friend is dead. After that call, his life becomes more like a Twilight Zone episode with each passing day. His dead daughter, his deceased friend, and a host of other "ghosts", living and not, begin to haunt his life.

Peter's efforts to understand these things take him from one memorable extreme to another: he consults a charismatic psychic, takes a funereal road-trip to San Francisco to dump his friend's ashes in the sea, and visits a famous prison-turned-office bloc where the death chamber is now the server room for a telecommunications startup. Phone calls from Prague and an invisible chess opponent come to seem equally mundane in Peter's new world, as the tale moves in increments from creepy understanding to real horror, ending in a crashing climax of fire and discovery.

Greg Bear's Dead Lines is truly spooky, in the way ghost stories seldom are after we enter our cynical middle years. Peter, like most of Bear's readers, does not believe in psychics, ghosts or paranormal powers. He may not be happy, but at least he is content with his life and himself. The power of Bear's story is that we understand how Peter loses both that easy contentment and his disbelief. We travel with him on the downhill path into the queasy realization that Hamlet was right. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.

And if we're lucky, none of them have our cell phone numbers.


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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Farewell Tom Corbett: A Space Cadet Departs the Earth

The black depths of space are no stranger to Frankie Thomas, who starred as Tom Corbett, Space Cadet from 1950 to 1955. Dead at age 85, the veteran actor departs for his own space journey: he was buried yesterday wearing his "Tom Corbett" costume.

The TV show, which aired on CBS, NBC, ABC and the Dumont network, spawned the first science-fiction product marketing campaign, and informed school-boy's conversation with catch-phrases like "Blast your jets!" and "Spaceman's luck."

For a young DrPat, the premise was absorbing. Cadet Corbett, living 400 years in the future, being trained for his job as a Solar Guard, went to school just like we did, but found adventure zapping intruders and sailing the spaceways with his plucky companions Roger and Astro. I ate Kellogs Pep from the "Solar Cereal" box adorned with Thomas' image as Corbett, and yearned for a plastic "fuser pistol" so I could ZZZT my playmates in style.

Alas, the program ran only from 1950 to 1955, and Thomas retired when the program was cancelled. The severely-dated look of the sets and props never quite rose to the camp level of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, and the series is remembered mostly for its hearty baritone introduction. When Jackson Beck boomed out, "Tom... Corbett! Space... Cadet!", we settled in for an enjoyable ride to the outer limits of our mid-century imagination.

Farewell, Mr. Thomas. Don't fuse your tubes!

Frankie Thomas, dead at 85, departs for a further destination than any in his 1950s TV career.

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Hit & Run May 17th: Bites from a Legal Cowpie

Ham-Handed Burglar: When a would-be bandit walked into a deli and told the owner it was a stickup, the counterman grabbed a huge hard salami and clobbered the thief with it, breaking his nose and knocking him to the floor. Streaming blood from his broken nose, he ran from the deli and tried to hide in a nearby parked car.

Bad choice -- the car belonged to undercover cops, who were happy to take the thief to get medical help. From the doctor at the local lockup.

Moot Court: A convict in a Nevada prison is suing the state, claiming that he has been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. His tribulation? He ordered two jars of chunky peanut butter, and received one jar of chunky and one of smooth.


There Go the Judge! In England, a somewhat drunken couple decided to make love in the dark road beneath a burned-out streetlight. In the midst of their passion, a bus ran over them, killing them both. The police decided the bus driver was not at fault and that the illicitly intimate couple bore the entire burden of blame for their own deaths.

The judge, however, disagreed, saying the driver's skill was "below standard", and suspended the bus driver's license for six months.


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