Monday, December 31, 2012

Tuesday Tool New Year Edition

A tool is a device that will allow you to do a job more effectively, yes?  Well, the job at hand is having a quiet, yet celebratory evening at home with the Real Doctor to end the year.  The tool is
Navarro Vineyards Cuvee 2009 Gewurztraminer Brut Methode Champenoise Sparkling Wine.  Because, sometimes, a cordless screwdriver just isn't the right thing. 

A 2013 full of love, happiness, wisdom, health, peace and prosperity--and, where permissible, good wine in moderation--to all who stumble upon this blog.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Wednesday words vowel movement edition

I found myself lying awake last night, and circumstances reminded me of the word "owl."  A curious word--it's got one vowel, but two syllables.  I tried to distract myself from the anxieties that were keeping me awake by thinking of another such word, and I got nowhere.  Not even "awl," despite the similarity.  Plenty of words have two vowels and one syllable, and that old Scrabble standby with two letters and two syllables, "aa", percolated into my sleeplessness.  What eventually let me get to sleep was thinking of my niece's pronunciation when she was feeling cranky this summer, pronounced with the kind of whine that only a young child can pull off: "I'm hot" pronounced "I'm hoo-oe-aaaawwt!"  One vowel, at least three syllables, stretched out over about fifteen seconds, and "Mom" was pronounced just the same way.

Anyone know any other one-vowel, multisyllable words?  Please comment if you do.  I'll sleep better.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Friday Flora

Sort of seasonally appropriate: a microforest, from a bog/pine forest/sand dune interface, Oregon Dunes:
Sort of inappropriate, no matter the season: a stinkhorn fungus, from a few yards away:

Second thoughts on enzyme kinetics (and Newtown)

Some unorganized thoughts about the fallout from the idiocy surrounding our national response to the incidents in Newtown:

1.  In a conversation with a near-random stranger (I purchased a truck topper from him; he actually works as a small cog in the military-industrial complex), the subject turned to preparations for Christmas.  The fellow has kids, and he said something to the effect of "I don't know, I'm just not that into it this year.  I mean, I think about those kids in Massachusetts..."  I heard basically the same thing from a local hunter.

2.  Dead people are dead, regardless of age.  I heard a right-wing TV bloviator saying that he was rock-solid on unfettered gun rights after Columbine, after Aurora, after Virginia Tech, and everything else.  But Newtown changed his mind, and now he says he supports some restrictions on gun ownership.  Well, bloviator, I'm glad you're seeing sense, but the people who died in Aurora (and the people shot dead every day) are just as dead as those shot in Newtown, and their deaths were just as meaningless.  Perhaps you should apologize for pissing on the graves of those earlier victims of gun violence?

3.  Alert reader MM pointed out in response to the earlier post that we, as a society, need to ensure better access to mental health care, and that mental health issues have no more social stigma than colon polyps.  To use the language of enzyme kinetics, the fraction of "evil" enzyme can be reduced.

4.  Looking at the letters to the editor in our local paper, there seems to be mostly qualified support for the idiot State Representative who suggested increasing the number of guns, especially in schools.  Only one letter writer thought it was insane. As has been noted, I live in a very "red" area. 

5.  I still haven't heard anyone give a convincing explanation for why a semiautomatic weapon of any sort is really necessary for a civilian.  The hunters I've talked to, at least around here, all value marksmanship, and use bolt action rifles.  One told me that you you should need only one shot; if you need two shots, you might have slipped; if you need three or more, you need to practice your marksmanship, and you don't belong out there.  But that's if you're sissy enough to need a gun; if you're for real, you use a bow.

6.  What was Wayne LaPierre on at that "Press Event"?  I mean, he basically claimed that he was the victim at Sandy Hook.   

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Wednesday Word Wha?!?!? edition

I saw a billboard as I was driving home from Eugene the other day, and it definitely got me interested in what was being advertised.  It urged me to stay in Roseburg at the such-and-so hotel, which features among other amenities a "110% hospitality guarantee!"


What are the SI units for measuring and quantifying hospitality?

110% relative to what?  is there an RDA for hospitality?

If you have more than 100% hospitality, is that a bad thing?  Like, if you have a friend who is trying to get into your privacy a little (ten percent?) too much?

If they fail to provide more than 110 percent hospitality, how do they honor their guarantee?  If they're only 85% hospitable, do they track you down later and provide you with the remaining 25% of hospitality?  Or, is there a set exchange rate--one percent of hospitality is worth so many dollars?

Thus far, I've resisted the temptation of going to this hotel and pestering the desk clerk with these questions.  I'm not sure if I'll be able to resist much longer.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A simple lesson in enzyme kinetics

(Ever since a college class on physical chemistry, I retreat to the verities of thermodynamics when confronted with the incomprehensibility of human behavior.  There’s no understanding what happened in Connecticut a few days ago--just trying to arrive at a mechanism that will allow you to get through your day without hiding in a bunker to avoid every other human being.)

Look, here’s a test tube of solvent with two solutes in it. 
One is a substrate—a chemical that can undergo a reaction, but doesn’t readily do so.  The other is an enzyme—a chemical that, when it bumps into the substrate, makes it undergo the reaction. 
Enzymes are proteins, noodle-like strings of amino acids that must fold up into a specific shape to do their job.  This process can, and does, go awry at a certain rate; a defined proportion of a population of this enzyme will be misfolded.  If there are only a few molecules of the enzyme, then it’s unlikely that you’ll find a single misfolded enzyme.  If there are thousands of molecules of the enzyme, then you’ll find a couple misfolded enzymes.  If there are millions of molecules of the enzymes, then it’s a certainty that you’ll find a good number of misfolded enzymes.
Now, the misfolded enzyme is evil.  When it bumps into a molecule of substrate, it makes it undergo the wrong reaction, one that produces a lethal product.
Very simple.  Since the proportion of misfolded enzyme is constant, if you increase the amount of enzyme in the jar, you will increase the amount of evil enzyme.  There’s no way around that fact. 

Let’s say that you keep the amount of enzyme in the jar constant, but you increase the amount of substrate.  You will increase the likelihood that a molecule of evil enzyme will bump into a molecule of substrate, and make something lethal.  This is physical chemistry, this is the way the world works, and arguing against it is like arguing against gravity.

(In the picture, I’m just looking at the "evil" reaction; the “good” reaction still happens, but I’m more interested in the “evil” reaction catalyzed by the evil enzyme.)

If you’ve had college biology, you may have encountered enzyme kinetics.  That’s what we’re seeing here.  You can make a graph showing the relationship between substrate concentration and the rate at which the reaction happens.  Eventually, you saturate the system, and the reaction goes as fast as possible. 
There’s two ways you can avoid producing the lethal product.  Make the concentration of enzyme really, really low—it will be less likely that you’ll have any of the evil enzyme.  Or, you can make the concentration of substrate really, really low—it will be less likely that a molecule of substrate will encounter a molecule of evil enzyme.

In any population of humans, there’s going to be a small percentage that just ain’t right in the head.  If there’s only a thousand people in your population, and there’s a good social support network, then there may not be any such troubled individuals.  But, in a country of 300 million, there’s going to be people who do evil.  Unless we reduce our country’s population to a thousand people, there will be psychopaths, just like in a collection of millions of molecules of enzyme, there will be evil misfolded enzyme.

For a normal human being—for most of my neighbors here in a pretty “red” part of the country—an encounter with the substrate in this argument, a gun, is part of a recreational experience.  People hunt, or practice marksmanship, or just go plinking tin cans.  Many of my neighbors have the kind of semi-automatic weapons used in Clackamas and Connecticut and Aurora and Milwaukee, and nothing bad happens.   

But if you put the substrate of a semi-automatic weapon into the hands of a psychopath, you get that lethal reaction that we saw in Clackamas a week ago and in Connecticut a couple of days ago. 

If you increase the concentration of substrate—of guns, especially those guns that are useless for hunting—you will increase the rate of the reaction.  This is reality, this is how thermodynamics says the universe works, despite the idiot fantasies of Dennis Richardson, the Oregon State Representative from Central Point, just down the interstate from here:

“If I had been a teacher or the principal at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and if the school district did not preclude me from having access to a firearm, either by concealed carry or locked in my desk, most of the murdered children would still be alive, and the gunman would still be dead, and not by suicide…we need to ensure that our children are safe, and we can’t do that by disarming those who are on the scene.”  

I don’t know if Representative Richardson ever studied any physical sciences in school; if he were taking introductory bio from he, he’d have just failed.  This is really simple stuff. 

As I’ve said, many or most of my neighbors have guns, mostly for hunting.  More than a few have handguns (We once got our car towed by a guy who had his on the dashboard, and who reminded me a little too much of the character John Goodman played in “Barton Fink”*).  Some have semiautomatics.  They tend to feel more strongly about their weapons than I do about my most prized possession.  They will all aver that they are of sound mind and practice all the rules of gun safety.  Most will point to a highly ambiguous clause in the Constitution.  A few of the fringier ones will maintain that their ability to outgun government representatives is the bulwark that prevents tyranny, which I’d find laughable if it didn’t reflect a cocktail of psychosis and lethal force. 

Reading and talking with gun enthusiasts, I’m struck by the degree to which these weapons are signifiers of something transcendent and essential to their self-regard.  They try for words to explain it to me, and give up—it ends up being like explaining religion or love.  Having not had their—I’m at a loss for what to call it…epiphany? Love affair? revalation?...I’ll admit that I utterly fail to understand their point of view.  I’m fine with hunting rifles.  But no one needs an automatic or semiautomatic weapon, any more than they need a howitzer or Sherman tank. 

Reading Representative Richardson’s remarks, two things are clear: he wants lots of guns, and he ardently wants dead children (just not as many).  Other gun enthusiasts have basically said that there’s no eliminating psychopaths, but the right to hyper-lethal weaponry is sacrosanct—so, we just have to accept a certain baseline of slaughter.  In their view, we’d be best off if we were in the saturated region of the enzyme kinetics graph. 
If we, as a society, want evil such as happened this week to stop, the only way we can do it is to reduce the concentration of substrate—of weapons whose designed purpose is to kill lots of humans—to zero.  If we, as a society, don’t have the will to do this, then we, as a society, are affirming that we want this to happen again, and again, and again. 

This is not politics; this is really basic, simple physical science.  How we get there is politics. 

*I’ve heard it argued that a well-armed society is a polite society.  This is both true and utter horse$#!+.  I was very polite and most agreeable with the tow-truck driver.  I did not feel especially freedom-y, and I don’t think I would have felt any more freedom-y if I were also armed. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wednesday Word Inigo Montoya Edition

In the last few weeks I've been getting bothered by a phrase I've heard over and over again.  Every time I hear it, I think "that word, I do not think it means what you think it means." And yet, every politician or celeb or plain Joe Schmoe who gets some award or is elected to some high office says

"I am deeply humbled...*"

As I learned the meaning of the word, if you were the direct object of a humbling, you would be degraded, perhaps forced under a yoke while people hurled dung at you.  If you were describing yourself as humbled in the passive voice, you might dress yourself in sackcloth and ashes and go about on your knees.  You would not have just been elected president, or have won the Vacuum Cleaner Salesperson of the Year (Southern Wyoming District) Award.  If either of those had happened, you might have chosen to describe yourself as exalted, or on cloud nine, or maybe blurted out that "You like really like me."  You might even have taken the opportunity to reflect a little on your own inadequacies.  But you would not have been humbled. 

Just sayin'. 

*Try googling "I am deeply..." and see what happens.  Also, people are always deeply humbled.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Tuesday Tool Getting to know the inner person edition

Today's most significant tool would have to be the colonoscope. 

'Nuff said. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Culture comes to the hinterlands (updated wth video)

One of the things that I have really missed since moving from Sacramento to Roseburg is a lively classical music scene.  The Real Doctor and I were spoilt rotten by the concert programming at UC Davis—the yearly series by the Alexander Quartet, the recitals by Garrick Ohlsson and Joshua Bell and the like.  The scene here is considerably colder, as might be expected in a town of 20,000.  Roseburg’s nearest neighbor with artistic aspirations is Eugene, over an hour away, and beyond that, there isn’t much less than three hours away.  Roseburg gets a yearly visit from the Eugene Symphony, which is the best orchestra in the southern Wilamette Valley.  There is a Community Concert series, whose offerings tend to be jazz or pop-classical.  There is the Umpqua Symphony Association, which focuses mainly on local talent for its handful of concerts each year.  If we went to every concert that could be filed under “classical music” this last year, we’d have seen less than 10 events, of wildly variable quality.

Given that, here’s a big shout-out to the proprietors of MarshAnne Landing Winery, who have seen fit to invite some classical musicians to have recitals in their tasting room/gallery.  The space can hold thirty people or so, making it quite cozy; the “stage” is nook with a decent-but-not-fabulous upright piano and room for a string quartet or a single very expressive violinist.  The concerts are the personal effort of the winery’s proprietors, so programming is necessarily modest.  Joshua Bell won’t be playing there, and the two recitals we’ve seen may be all for the season, but they’ve been thoroughly appreciated.  I don’t feel like being the music critic here; my attitude is more gratitude than judgement.  So, I’ll go on about some externalities.  

One program featured the violinist Lindsay Deutsch, playing a very casual show of Gershwin, Piazzola, Vivaldi, Brahms, and De Falla (the pianist played one of the Debussy Images while the violinist took a break).  The concert reflected the cultural stereotype that when you go out into the sticks, you have to play pop or light classical stuff.  It was pretty clear that there were a few audience members who would not be satisfied with any violin show that did not involve some of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—and “Winter” was duly served up, to audible sighs of contentment.  The Brahms concerto was presented, but with apologies about its length and (to prevent boredom, I guess) as isolated movements separated by shorter, snappier pieces.  It was nice to get the Piazzola; it’s a little off the beaten path, and I really enjoyed the De Falla “Suite Popular.”

The concert by Chamber Music Amici of Eugene was a bit more “Serious”; a Mozart violin sonata, a cello sonata by the 20th-century Portuguese composer Luis Costa, and a string quintet by Bruch that, while written in 1918, had only been published around 1980.  It was so nice to hear unfamiliar stuff presented straight up; the cello sonata was convincingly delivered and the Bruch made me go home and buy a recording.  The performances were good; the Amici have day jobs, and though most are connected with music, the violinist for the Mozart is a practicing physician. 

A couple of the instruments being played were of interest to the Real Doctor and me.  We are both a bit geeky about violins, and sometimes my attention to the music can be diverted by attention to the violin it’s played on.  In this case, the instruments were both inspired by Guarneri “del Gesu”, but took the inspiration in different directions.  The first, from across the room, really had the look of a del Gesu, but as it was played, it just didn’t seem to have the same tonal oomph.  It (and the player) was clearly aspiring to tonal richness, but it just was not really there.  The second instrument looked del-Gesu-ish, maybe early 1730’s, but just didn’t seem visually to be abused enough for a violin of that age.  However, its sound was rich—not as rich as the best del Gesu’s, but much more satisfying than the first violin.   

There are different schools of thought about what makes the difference between a good and a great violin.  Being who I am, I tend to think in graphs.  Here’s what some people like, which happens to be the first violin:
On any note, at any volume, the violin can only produce a limited number of interesting tones; however, it’s extremely uniform across the entire spectrum.  There’s also this:
Combine that with the fact that it tends to sound good under the ear of the person playing it, and you have what some people—including big names such as Hahn and Tetzlaff—find satisfying. It should also be noted that the brown line for your average student violin rarely gets as high as the brown line above. 

Here’s a rather different sort of violin, which happens to be the second violin, and also is more like the violins of Stradivari and del Gesu.
Few or no notes are wanting in tonal richness, and some regions are positively oozing with the stuff.  But,
It takes a lot of work to pull that stuff out of the violin.  It’s harder to play, and effectively use the entire endowment of the fiddle—but if the player has the skill and patience to exploit it, the results are amazing. 

The violin is a tool, a physical entity.  So what makes this difference?  The musicians giving these concerts were generous enough to let us take a closer look at their instruments and tell us about them. 

The first violin was a Vuillaume, made in the mid-1800’s.  Vuillaume enjoyed a reputation for making the finest copies of the finest violins, so it’s not too surprising that the fiddle visually announced itself as “del Gesu” from across the room.  However, close-up, a couple of details emerged.  One was that the arching was very low—if you looked at the fiddle side-on, it was several millimeters skinnier than a classic Cremonese instrument, which bulges out 15 or more mm front and back.  Another structural detail that affects sound was the absence of recurve as the arch blends into the side of the violin; if you were an ant, marching from the bridge to one of the sides, your trip would be downhill all the way, rather than pitching up for the last few paces.  These structural details—and lack of tonal richness--are pretty characteristic of Vuillaume.  Now, these are not horrible fiddles; I wouldn’t reject one as a gift, and one recently sold at auction for over $200,000.  They are just not my thing.

The second violin of note was an American instrument made by Carl Holzapfel in Philadelphia in the 1920’s, who was (it turns out) the great-grandfather of the violinist.  It had nice arching and nice recurve.  As I mentioned, it also had terrific sound; according to the violinist, it won a slew of awards and was the pride and joy of its luthier.  Holzapfel has some limited recognition as a good maker, and despite the obvious quality of the instrument, it will never sell for a tenth of what the Vuillaume will bring.  Go figure.

This raises a couple of questions.  The obvious one is why does sound mean so little in the sale price of a musical instrument—but the answer there is probably like the answer to why a 500-square foot apartment in downtown New York costs as much as our farm.  Another question, to which I don’t have a good start of an answer, is why Vuillaume made the copies he made in the way that he made them.  Was he aware of arching, and discounted it as meaningless?  Did it just not register in his eye?  I just don’t know.  To emphasize the point, I’ll close with photos of a different Vuillaume and a real Cremonese violin (alas, I can’t remember its identity; I think it’s a Petro Guarneri; the photos were taken during the 2012 Claremona workshop).  
And here, courtesy of Michael Darnton, is a video of a Brothers Amati violin that really illustrates the classic shape I'm talking about: Go watch this!