Monday, February 21, 2005

Good-bye, Hunter S. Thompson

No doubt you know Hunter S. Thompson is dead by his own hand. I learned on Reason's Hit and Run that his essay "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" is available online. I first encountered it in The Best American Sports Writing of the Century — the twentieth century, that is — an anthology that for the most part suffers, as sports writing often does, from an ill-advised portentousness. Thompson just suffers.

"I thought it was because of the Mace," he said.
"What Mace?"
He grinned. "When you shot it at the headwaiter, don't you remember?"
"Hell, that was nothing," I said. "I missed him...and we were leaving, anyway."
"But it got all over us," he said. "The room was full of that damn gas. Your brother was sneezing was and his wife was crying. My eyes hurt for two hours. I couldn't see to draw when we got back to the motel."

Why lobsters are blue

Well, I was enjoying myself at a party recently (attended by, among others, famed starlet of the web, Todd's Girl) when the question of lobsters came up.

I first took that as an opportunity to tell my hilarious story about the time I attached a lobster to my thumb in a Maine seafood restaurant (it's on Mile Road in Wells) and then jumped up screaming that I was being attacked. I thought better. It wasn't that funny at the time.

But people were wondering, why are lobsters blue when they're in the water. I didn't know, but I hate to admit such things. I did admit it, though, but I said that perhaps it had something to do with their blood. As most everyone knows, some people have a ruddy hue, and this comes from the presence of blood vessels close to the surface of their skin, combined with the relatively translucent nature of the dead skin of the epidermis. (It is interesting to note that there is a black nationalist group based in New York led by a man who denies the existence of white people. He once told a reporter interviewing him for the New York Press something along the lines of, "You're not white--look at yourself, man. You're red!)

In the case of humans and other vertebrates, the blood carries oxygen via hemoglobin, which is a protein that hosts four iron atoms, and they appear red when the iron is oxidized, for the same reason that rust and Mars are red. In the case of some invertebrates, including the arthropods, which includes lobsters, oxygen is carred around by a protein called hemocyanin, which moves around the animals in a fluid called hemolymph, rather than blood. Hemocyanin is colorless when not binding oxygen, and blue when it is. So, I said at the party, perhaps lobsters are blue because their "blood" is blue when oxygenated.

I thought that was a good effort--as every politican knows, when asked a question he either can't answer or doesn't want to answer, he ought to answer a different question, one that he can answer and wants to.

But I, unlike a politican in most ways, would like to be able to give an answer. And, what did I find when I got to work last Monday morning, but an article about a paper that answered the very question posed two nights previously.

I was pretty far off the mark. It turns out that lobsters are blue or black because of pigment in their exoskeletons called astaxanthin. It also turns out that the fact was already well known. When lobsters are cooked, the structure of the pigment, which is made of two astaxanthin molecules crossed as an X, changes, as do the interactions between the two crossed molecules. This changes the way the molecules absorb light, and thus the color of a lobster, turning it red.

Monday, February 14, 2005

As I type this I am eating cheese.

Anyone who has ever been to a Jimmy Buffett concert (and, readers, you can count your correspondent among that number; I went to one in 1996) can attest to the presence of large numbers of socially conservative people who undergo a transformation into dead-drunk socially conservative people singing along loudly to "Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw" and "Cheeseburger in Paradise," all the better to stick it to those stick-in-the-mud PC liberals who don't want you to eat meat, get drunk, or screw. Or so they imagine.

Perhaps memories of those summer evenings in the local amphitheatre are what drove the Weekly Standard to sail around the Caribbean on the good ship Westerdam. Or perhaps it was a desire to see Tom Delay's big plan—a lot of sunbelt Republicans in a cruise ship (as if that has never happened before)—at least partially realized.

I don't know which it is, if either. I invite the Standardized (or whatever you call yourselves) to email and tell me what the motivation was, and whether anyone sang "Boat Drinks" at a karaoke bar during the cruise. Also, did anyone say, "Man, we are putting the party in Republican Party!" at any point?

Jonathan Last demonstrated an unfortunate flair for nurturing the trans-Atlantic relationships the left holds so dear, coming dangerously close—I think Ann Coulter would agree—to treason. First, on Day 4, he reports:

The island is divided into two sections, one controlled by the Netherlands, the other by France. Since the French have a better reputation when it comes to fun in the sun, we settled on Orient Beach, a wide swath of white sand and warm, turquoise water about 30 minutes away.
Shocking. And somewhat ridiculous, considering the reputation that Amsterdam has among the drooling backpacking masses. Perhaps he is confusing the Dutch with the Belgian. Then, Day 5:
[W]e took a taxi to Frenchman's Cay.
I'm dismayed, if only because the solid ideological fault lines I rely on to organize my limited thoughts have been so utterly shattered.

That said, I am hoping that the fellows over there at the Weekly Standard will invite me along next time. The hope that they will shall keep me warm as the long northeastern winter wanes into a probably chilly spring.

The price of a roof

I am a registered Democrat, but I find myself more or less perpetually at odds with most of my fellow partisans on a number of issues. Not least among those issues is the question of affordable housing, and how to guarantee it. One of the time-honored if misbegotten approaches to the question is to require that builders included sub-market-rate housing in new developments. Now, that might sound like a perfectly fine idea, especially in a market such as New York's, in which the average cost of an apartment is $1 million in Manhattan and of one in my borough, Brooklyn, is rapidly approaching that figure, even in neighborhoods that require some fairly substantial commuting times into peoples' places of business.

The upshot of controlling the prices of some housing units, whether for sale or (more typically, I would imagine) for rent is to increase the prices of the other housing units, while creating a disincentive for builders to build anything at all, if the return on some of their investment is going to be substantially reduced or eliminated by the action of government. A simple though experiment demonstrates what happens to prices. Imagine a landlord wants to make a gross income of $50,000 per year, and she owns one building that includes ten apartments. Obviously, she should charge $5,000 per year per apartment to do so. But if she is required to rent twenty percent of her apartments at only $1,000 per year, then she will have to charge her other tenants $6,000 per year to do so.

None of that is news. But what is intersting is a paper discussed in the Economics Focus column in the 2/11/05 issue of the Economist, which can be found here. Three economists set out to reckon what exactly has been behind the massive increase in housing prices in the United States in the last several decades, and the answer, especially as it pertains to New York City, demands attention.

As the Economist puts it:

[T]he authors look at Manhattan, where free land is so scarce that the cost of a new unit of housing is simply that of adding an extra floor to a building. Comparing this cost with the market price of housing, the authors estimate that the regulatory “tax” of Manhattan's planning laws has risen to more than 50% of the average price of an apartment.

Still, New York's zoning rules might be economically justified if they reflect the costs imposed by additional residents on those already living in Manhattan. The authors first estimated the value of views and sunlight lost when new flats are built. Then they examined the costs of extra congestion and of new public services, such as schools, sewers and so forth. By their calculation, all these costs taken together could not come close to explaining such a high regulatory burden. In other words, the zoning “tax” was much higher than the cost to existing residents of having new people in the neighbourhood.

To try and explain the constraints on supply, the authors delve into political economy. Perhaps, they wonder, judges and regulators have become more protective of the environment. However, direct evidence for that is lacking. Or maybe property developers have become less adept at making political contributions, or paying straight bribes, to the right politicians. Then again, American politics scarcely seems short of money. Nevertheless, the authors' favourite theory is that existing home-owners have become better at organising themselves politically to thwart new building.

Fifty percent of the cost of housing comes from nostalgia for turn-of-the century buildings—the sort one finds in so many of New York's best neighborhoods, which so often originated as tenenments, and have the 170 square foot apartments and slumping stairways to prove their heritage—and sunsets. What to do, then? Make new housing easier to build is the obvious solution. Maybe, since it is almost certainly the wealthy who are demanding politically that a new (or newly heightened) building doesn't rob them of their $100,000 sunsets, taxes in neighborhoods with low-slung buildings should be taxed at a greater rate, to offset the economic damage—to get an idea of what this is for you, multiply the length of your round-trip commute by your average hourly wage—the residents of them are doing to others by compelling them to live in more far-flung neighborhoods where the residents are not organized enough to stop new development.

For further reading on the topice, see this essay by Joel Kotkin in the Weekly Standard.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

In which Todd's Girl confuses me with the president

Todd's Girl, author of The Coming Hipster Social Security Crisis and famous to a few for her appearance on Wonkette, has deigned to read my page. She takes issue with my support for Social Security reform, and, in doing so, commits the same fallacy that she committed last week in the bar (and I don't mean drinking Whitesides scotch whiskey—which sadly lacks a web presence for me to link to—although that comes close).

Here she is:

Our opposition to social security reform does not come from a view that wants to stop history's clock but rather from an ideology opposed to the ideology behind privatization of social security and the "ownership society." We support social security as a mild (one might say, too little, too late) form of wealth redistribution. Bush touts his program by pointing out that payroll taxes paid into the system and saved in private accounts will now be left to heirs should a beneficiary die at, say, age 66. His "you should keep your money" message has a tattoo on its dark underbelly that reads "let's screw the poor."
First, she confuses me with the president. I think his plan for "privatizing" Social Security is hopelessly flawed. His plan may or may not allow people to have a shot of retiring with more money, but what it certainly does is make the federal government a large shareholder in a variety of corporations—the mutual funds one could buy into, as I understand it, are managed by Wall Street firms but the holder of the securities will be Uncle Sam. Perhaps I'm wrong; please tell me if I am. Of course, Todd's Girl might like that aspect of the plan; giving Washington the opportunity to vote at shareholder meetings would certainly give it the ability to pull some of the strings of business that some people think the government already does have. That's a good deal closer to giving the people control of the means of production, no?

Frankly, though, the idea terrifies me. Why liberals, who love to talk about the idiocy of government when it's acting overseas, would like to further empower it at home is quite beyond my comprehension.

It's not that I'm interested in screwing the poor. Who could possibly be in favor of that? I merely know that the money provided by Social Security is, on average, right at the poverty line. Let the golden years ensue, indeed. It is not clear to me that the present system does that much for them. Watch a retiree picking coke cans out of 100 square blocks of Brooklyn if you don't believe me.

I would prefer to be given more control over my future. Let me opt out of Social Security--if I'm wrong, then you can mock me in my superannuated penury.

Beaten to the punch

So today I found a website called The Ornery American. You might notice that the first paragraph onthe about page discusses the derivation of the word "ornery." So be it. You might also notice the poll. Today they wanted to know whether Pete Rose or Barry Bonds did more damage to baseball. When I checked it was Bonds by a landslide. Thanks for sharing, everyone! It's nice to know that Bonds has become the poster child for steroid use in baseball. Leaving aside whether or not players should be allowed to use steroids, why not refer to players using steroid generally, rather than just one particular one?

There are number of points on that "about" page that beg for consideration, and I, who has nothing if not time, will get to several of them eventually. But let me briefly discuss this one first:

5. We'll forgive your misdeeds, but only if you apologize sincerely and
never do it again. Our trust, once betrayed, is not lightly restored.

Mommy, the mean man wants me to apologize! And he's speaking about himself in the first person plural!

I need to do my job, but I feel good--it seems that my first Internet rivalry has fallen into my lap.

Cameron is so uptight, if you stuck a piece of coal up his ass...

I come to share exciting news from regions of space neither you nor I will ever reach, courtesy of Science Now.

Some exotic "carbon planets" in our galaxy may harbor internal layers of diamonds, according to a report this week at a conference devoted to extrasolar planets. Such carbon-rich planets could arise within dusty disks around newborn stars that have more carbon or less oxygen than typical stars--an altered chemistry that will become more common as our Milky Way ages. High pressures inside the oily planets would convert the graphite form of carbon into thick diamond layers, calculations show.

I think there's a useful metaphor here for a movie about an awkward, pimple-faced teenager. "High pressures [such as the four-hour erections in English class*] inside the oily planets [read: pock-marked, pizza-faced cranium] would convert the graphite form of carbon [ingested while the slovenly kid chews his pencils] into thick diamond layers." The last of course would be revealed in the last twenty minutes of the movie, when the hot cheerleader realizes that the dork is actually the diamond in the rough of the eleventh grade hall, but which would be confirmed when he accepted the pretty dork's invitation to the Sadie Hawkins Day Dance.

* Don't you think, in the commercials for Cialis and the like, that the announcer should say, "Please use as directed. Erections lasting longer than four hours should receive immediate attention, unless you are in high school, because everyone has already noticed, you perverted freak! No carefully carried textbook could ever conceal your shame!"

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Save me first, please

It's not entirely clear to me how going to Times Square for New Year's automatically makes anyone unthinking, as the owners of Save the Humans suggest. Forgetting your artifical bladder when going anywhere, I will agree, is a terrible mistake. But a post today reminds me of writing a blog as much as it does of sex:

"There's no such thing as a collective orgasm. But let's try our best."

Dammit Jim, I'm a doctor, not a member of a secret society

Here's hoping that in the next Star Trek feature, "Bones" McCoy has to protest that he was never a member of Yale's premier secret society.

Either that, or the crew has to battle the good doctor's doppelganger: it could be called Star Trek: Skull and Bones.

Mealy-Mouthed Morons

I don't know if you've had occasion to visit Todd's Girl, a blog run by a film student of some limited intellect, but her critics seem even greater simpletons.

If there were other films addressing caregivers in a more positive light, I may feel differently, but this seems to stand alone.

I think we can all agree that even if no other blog exists discussing the world and all that transpires on, above, and within it with the same wit and grace that I do, then nothing else needs to exist to justify my blog, either as art or criticism.

The Mood I Am In

There are not enough emoticons to express my joy. I am on the web, capping off a remarkable nine days that began with me learning to read.

I am Ornery Citizen, Ornery to my parents, and Hank to my friends. Thank you for visiting.

According to the dictionary, "ornery" means "mean-spirited, disagreeable, and contrary in disposition; cantankerous," and it is an alteration of "ordinary." I suppose that we have the same people to thank who turned "mean" from "average" (one might say ordinary) to denoting so many less pleasant things.

At any rate, I am Ornery Citizen, and I prefer to recall the ordinariness my name implies rather than anything less civil. That is not to say I can't be uncivil—you will notice that I sometimes use apostrophes in something so formal as writing, or typing. This blog will be my occasion to share the point of view of one ordinary American with the world. So what if I do use the subjunctive mood?

One Small Step For Man, Backwards?

It has been some number of years since William F. Buckley stood astride history and told it to stop.

As we can see, he hasn't been very successful in his pleadings. That isn't through a lack of trying, however, on the part of any number of people. Creationists prove that the fear of the future is pluripotent, capable of spawning not just the likes of William Jennings Bryan, who, among other things that I am sure I will return to in a future posting, spent his last breaths howling at the moon in defense of ignorance in Tennessee, but also the likes of intelligent design witch-Doctor Michael J. Behe, who landed with a sulfurous stench on the op-ed page of the New York Times yesterday morning (and more, dear non-existent reader, on that will come later).

Perhaps the most succesful individual is the now near-absolute ruler of Nepal, King Gyanendra. One is quick to say near-absolute at the least for the presence of Maoist insurgents who dominate much of the Nepalese countryside. The Maoists themselves—I like to imagine the warmth of the reception they might receive from the twenty-first-century people's republicans holding sway in the Middle Kingdom these days—have managed to achieve a certain amount of politico-economic atavism that would be amusing if it weren't so deadly. (Nevertheless, I'll be making jokes about it, at some point.)

Buckley's Marxism, however, is funny. Surely Marx's view of history was what he was thinking of, all those years ago. Fortunately for all of us, history did not stop, although to hear some of my liberal friends talk about it, one might be tempted to think that Buckley's plea was the correct one. Equally fortunately for all of us, history did not stop where Marx thought it would, either. It remains to be seen if history stops where Francis Fukuyama thought it would, but, if I were a betting man I would bet no.

At any rate, like Buckely, my liberal friends suffer from conservatism—obviously not Conservatism or Liberalism (in the European sense) or Small-Government Republicanism (presumed dead, although confounding the coroner's investigation is a certain uncertainty as to whether it ever existed) but just a fear of the future. "I want to get off," they cry, "and I'd like to take my Social Security check with me. Also, I would prefer it if we could restore the Standard Social Sciences Model to its former glory in psychology departments across the United States."

I am not sure where that leaves me. But I am pleased that history has not stopped, even if, like my watch, it needs to be wound up sometimes.