September 2008 Archives

Science as Political Joke Fodder

It's Not a Fish Story

Once at social event I was introduced to a couple sitting nearby, and after a brief exchange of greetings, one began to pepper me with questions. His first question was about fish, simply: "Why do scientists study fish?" Followed without pause by: "What could you possibly learn?" Nothing I've ever done has anything to do with fish, and everything I've done is only even remotely related to his subject, so it all seemed a bit out of the blue at the time -- even weirder now -- "Hello, nice to meet you why do they study fish?" Who's "they"? What fish? Where and how do you start with that? Gently.

Was it a specific fish study? As you the reader know, there's a lot of "fish" research; for aquaculture for instance- a growing industry that produces farmed fish for consumer products and agriculture. Scientists also study reproduction and development in wild salmon or sharks or trout or striped bass, they do migration studies, studies of predators, studies on the impact of non-native fish, the impacts of fishing, recreation, pollution, and global warming on inventories. Scientists study nutritional values of fish and fish oil for human and animal consumption. Researchers study mercury levels in fish. They study shellfish and crustaceans. Did my acquaintance mean fish in oceans, or in rivers, estuaries, or lakes? Perhaps he meant zebrafish used as a model to study neurobiology, physiology, the cellular and molecular basis of disease?

But it turns out his question wasn't about fish, per se, more just research in general, which he'd recently taken special interest in...something to do with investigating wasteful research spending for the government. After a cocktail or so, he thought I might be the source of a little information to help him with his new project.

Although he was clearly predisposed to a certain answer -- research having to do with fish is wasteful -- he wasn't hostile, just baffled. He had no way of connecting "fish research" to anything meaningful in his life and was bent on doing his patriotic best to route out fraud.

With further conversation it became clear that he was repeating a line that was told to him as an example of government excess. He had clearly absorbed someone's mission and its easy target, wasteful spending in science. If you blank out of your mind everything you know about science and research, you too could be convinced to think this way. 1

It's Not About the Fish

The food we eat is supported by research, as is the water we drink, the air we breath, our medicine, the materials we build are houses with, the lawns we grow, and the toys we buy our children. Our lives are supported by science research. But while research is applauded when the result is a new iPod, people for some reason get skittish about other science research and its results, from genetically modified anything to global warming science.

In the past decade there's been great attention paid to science as a political target, especially during the last Bush administration. Analyzing the reason why this is so, some people even blamed the scientists themselves for their communication styles, their personalities, or the size of the words they use. While these things may contribute to lack of understanding, as I've written here before, I think there are more essential problems, for instance the paltry attention paid to science education.

The lack of understanding and interest isn't unique to science, it permeates our culture and influences conversations about economics, math, finance, history, and medicine. The ignorance is reflected in the priorities of our politics. So perhaps more fundamental to even-handed science policy than communication and education, is reconsideration of legislator's motivators and campaign finance.

But even small changes would improve things. Congress certainly doesn't need a greater percentage of scientists to balance science interests, as some have suggested, nor do more voters need to be scientists to think analytically. Not everyone needs to know the nitty-gritty details of polar ice research. But you'd hope they'd recognize the importance of the research in order to recognize talking points from balancing the pros and cons of an issue.

If they did, some could shut down politicians who talked science nonsense, Or at least tell them their jokes aren't so funny. Because as it turns out science is sometimes a target not because of lack of education or understanding, or communication, or scientists have a penchant for four syllable words. It just because it makes a good joke.

Furthermore, Don't Call Me Four Eyes..."Friend"

Take John McCain's repetitive joke about "pork spending", where he uses the example of the study on endangered grizzly bears in Montana. Since at least 2003 McCain has been using this one study to make a point about of excessive spending. He guffaws that he doesn't know whether it's a "paternal" issue or a "criminal" one. "Gotta get their DNA", he chuckles, riling up the crowd. Ad he gets a good response -- part indignant, part laughter, all approval. "Corrupt, my friends", he yells. "Corruption, my friends!" he yells louder.

In the past, so many people have pointed out the flaws of his joke that it immediately shows up on all those post-debate "fact-check" blogs. The "Religionblog" at the Dallas News, for instance, griped "the loser was the truth." Introducing their own assumptions and bias along with "the facts", they wrote:

"In fact, that study is part of a push by Montana ranchers and farmers (most of them Republicans) to have the grizzly bear removed from the endangered species list. If successful, that effort could lead to increased logging and oil and gas drilling in Montana, which would cover the government's costs for the DNA study many hundreds of times over."

So the good news is, that as grating it may be to hear McCain distorting science information one more time, wide swaths of the population do get the facts right. So then why is McCain still grinding away with the same joke? Despite how many times reporters tell him, over and over that it's both flawed and not funny, I guess McCain still gets a ha-ha from the audience -- so he continues.

It's akin to offering up your wife at the Buffalo Chip "beauty contest" during the biker convention. If it gets a laugh and is a crowd-pleaser, who cares? If women take offense or call you sexist, just scoff that they just don't know how to have a little fun...Vroom, Vroom!

Deoxyribonucleic Acid Tactics

There are several components to the bear DNA joke that apparently make it funny and effective for McCain. There's his insertion of a paternity or crime part, which confuses (on purpose?) the research with forensic science as seen on TV. If you think about it, his distortion of the this particular research also connects the research on bear populations with images of crime scenes and children of unknown fathers that are favorite Republican campaign devices.

There's also his utter denial of the value of the research, no mention of the Endangered Species act, and the sort of down home, "don't know much about bi-ol-o-gy" slap-on-the-back camaraderie in his joke. The actual Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project succeeded. The goal was to obtain an accurate count of the bears in one of the Endangered Species grizzly areas, which the scientists achieved. The results were widely publicized, and will be published more formally as a research study in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management.

Oceans of Pork? Maybe it is About Fish

Congress waxes on about earmarks because people like to hear about "cutting out the pork". The real issue says McCain, is that these appropriations use resources from the central bill and shouldn't be tacked on. Despite his angry fist thumping however, McCain voted in favor of the bill that included the bear population study appropriation. The bill's sponsor, former Sen. Conrad Burn, chairs McCain's campaign in Montana.

The White House Bulletin wrote August 11, 1997, "Mr. McCain has waged a lonely, battle against pork before. And in almost every case, he loses". But actually in every case he wins. He doesn't need to vote against anything, he just needs to sound tough. Basic research scientists generally don't make large campaign contributions, so its not surprising that individual research projects might be picked out by our representatives for public pillory. Basic science is not the farm lobby, the auto industry, the oil industry. It doesn't cost much political capital to score some points with voters on the back of a scientist or two. 3

And so the politicians continue to use science projects as examples of pork.2 Tom Coburn M.D. (R-OK) recently complained about a Homeland Security bill. Citing the Citizens Against Government, he said there were "11,620 earmarks worth $17.2 billion for all 12 appropriations bills in 2008." But out of thousands of earmarks Coburn spoke of, he pointed out just a few for special focus, and those were disproportionately science studies.

He cited (in his words) a "Hibernation Genomics" study, and a "space technology" education center. He plucked quotes from the grants to amuse the readers and added short explanations. With no elaboration whatsoever, I guess because its so funny without explanation, he wrote these words in his list of studies "Pseudofoliculitis Barbae (PFB) Topical Treatment". Frankly, I don't know whether these are good projects or not, but they apparently have great political value for Senator Coburn.

The media piles on too. In countering McCain's grizzly bear DNA routine a few months ago, Politico wrote that "Palin requested millions of federal dollars" for the State of Alaska everything from improving recreational halibut fishing to studying the mating habits of crabs and the DNA of harbor seals." Politico chose a few egregious Palin examples from the Alaska's 30 item summary of appropriation requests, and the three they listed as absurd expenditures were all (coincidentally?) marine biology projects.

After perusing the state of Alaska's appropriations, Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish was also offended by GOP contender's hypocrisy -- indicating that all McCain's ranting about pork and bragging about Palin's record was a sham. Sullivan called John McCain's bear DNA joke an "endlessly repeated, grandpa-at-Thanksgiving, punchline provided, anecdote". But while he could apparently see the purpose of bear DNA, he commented derisively on one of Alaska's appropriations: "The DNA of seals?"


1 I never found out exactly what he was doing for whom or what the overall intent was, though I asked.

2 Similarly his talk about "ethics and transparency" despite what many have pointed out to be dubious dealing and practices through the Reform Institute that he founded.

3 I'm know some research is pork.

The Canceling Game

If John McCain called you a "Super-Trailblazer", You'd Feel.....?

Before we dove into more earthy science news in our last post, we wondered why Palin's handlers had canceled so many of her public appearances. A couple of days later Politico inadvertently answered our query. Apparently an "anonymous aid" to the McCain campaign "stressed" they weren't canceling her appearances, instead: "the finance calendar was planned before Palin was tapped...and it's being adjusted now to fit the nominee."

Unsurprisingly, the somewhat discomfiting explanation doesn't really mesh with history. Just a week or so earlier, McCain campaign officials bragged to reporters around the nation about the amazing reception for Palin's campaign events that kept forcing them to change to larger venues. In an article describing the Obama campaign's "urgency" for funding, the New York Times and other outlets reported that GOP fund-raising was especially successful after Palin's nomination and that "party Officials have also sketched out plans for Ms. Palin to do some 35 fund-raisers over the next two months."

Every time they talked to the press, and they often did, McCain's fundraisers gloated about how popular Palin was and how much money she was going to raise in those 30-35 scheduled appearances, with comments like: "I just think it speaks volumes that she is coming in here. I can tell you, it has generated great excitement. And it has reinvigorated, certainly, the Republican base".

In the spirit of things, GOP organizers upgraded the titles they would award fundraisers who raised another $100,000 or $250,000 to more glorious labels, "Trailblazers" to "Super-Trailblazers", "Innovators" to "Super-Innovators". Lavish words in light of their simple folksy targeting, words, come to think of it, that could more easily be attached to a Google product than to the McCain campaign -- but I digress.

In California, Palin was scheduled to star at an event at the home of software mogul Tom Siebel, "where the asking price for a snapshot of her and a seat at the headtable is $50,000." (Just think, your smiling face with the hot one at the head table. A $50,000 snapshot that you could place under your mounted fixed-eyed, six-point buck's head at the cabin. Who needs "spit parties"? Unanswered -- if you purchased two photo-ops could you be called a "Super-Innovator"?) Alas, Palin canceled.

Scintillating Starlet Strategies

However, Palin did re-appear on the Katy Couric show, according to the short clips released by CBS at carefully timed intervals. You can't say McCain oversold her international experience when he said: "Alaska is right next to Russia; Sarah Palin understands that". Still her re-debut must have been a blow to all her coaches. Canceled, canceled, canceled.

Even if the Couric preview was disappointing, Palin's cancellations still nagged, we haven't been so let-down since the projectionist abruptly stopped The Princess Diaries halfway through the movie. The McCain campaign probably told Sarah that it wasn't personal, and it now seems it wasn't. The campaign also canceled all of Carly Fiorina's upcoming talks, including the one scheduled at Iowa State. She was to speak on: "Tough Choices: Women, Leadership and Power". Now you're sorry. They canceled a Fiorina headlining GOP rally in Florida, canceled her television appearances, rallies and other events -- canceled, canceled, canceled.

As if cancellation were a disease, yesterday McCain himself started canceling -- the Letterman show, his debate, Palin's debate. And to note, since the VP contender and present executive of Alaska previously cued us in to the importance of blinking, we couldn't help noticing that McCain showed a disconcerting blinking pattern when explaining the necessity of the bailout and needing to be in DC.

Canceling seems to be McCain's new endgame. You dash a lot of hopes, so it seems like an odd vote-getting strategy but granted, its a real attention getter. It keeps the-media-on-its-toes too. Try it at home. You'll have to adjust his routine to take into consideration the fact that you're not tailed by paparazzi day in and day out, but if it works, you won't actually have to participate at events anymore. What you need to do is every time you get to a party, don't say anything, just walk out the door and slam it with loud, conversation disrupting force. Then turn around a while later and walk back in, leaving the door open so that everyone is freezing from the draft and begs you to close the door. Cell phones are a great decoy to keep you moving in and out the door as if you had something else more important to tend to. See how now all eyes are trained on you, waiting for your next move? Make everyone else blink -- gotcha. Results guaranteed.

McCain eventually flew to Washington, where apparently he sat on the sidelines during the meetings and said very little, then reported that he was there. See? Walk-in. Do nothing. Walk-out. Precisely the executive skills America needs.

How to Bail Out

Really, I didn't want to write about all this. I wish I could follow this game with anything but lurid fixation. I wish it were a joke, or a light movie that I could walk out of when I pleased. In my airy flick, Fiorina, Palin and McCain would be going around a bend in the back of the Straight Talk Express, talking about all they have in common and enjoying a glass of Chardonnay together, getting pedicures, when the ladies would convince John that he too needs to take some time off. None of it would really matter because would be a light movie. So I'd walk out. But the actual unfolding real-life scenario is tense, filled with suspense and innuendo. It feels ominous as if it could all end badly.

Why am I so fixated? For the past couple of decades we have desperately needed responsible, wise, smart, resourceful council and leaders in government. There are many excellent, dedicated public servants. But the louder voice heard from government and the media that represents it is that of a tremendously spoiled, petulant 13 year old. Now, as the headlines scream that the whole edifice is crumbling, the GOP has the gall to suggest to us a VP leadership solution that's 180 degrees opposite of what's needed, someone who presents herself as so vapid and un-informed, so incapable of putting a sentence together or formulating a cogent response, yet such a smart-ass. (Not to be uncharitable, but Palin's not my stage-struck friend trying to get over a phobia at Toastmasters, nor is she running for student council here.)

The GOP suggestion their VP pick even approaches a solution completely insults any remaining dignity of America. Palin makes me squirm because she's will be representing the US to the world. Yet at the same time the cynical choice is perfect, as it represents the apex of an ignorant, manipulative, self-indulgent leadership that's increasingly excused, if not celebrated. How can this even begin to create a better vision for the country? [That's my bi-partisan opinion.]

Squaring the Circle

And that's not even touching Palin's talking points on the $700 billion dollar bailout. As the FT explained it a couple of days ago in "Bernanke logic reveals route to square a virtuous circle":

"the US government would fix the problem of procyclicality embedded in the mark-to-market accounting regime by the back door. It would use its purchases to establish new prices to which banks would mark their portfolios - prices based on expected cash flow rather than the prices private sector buyers would be willing to pay."

Supply, demand, you ask? Please don't garble on. Instead, we trust congress, a cadre of millionaires. We trust they won't sympathize too much with previous heads of banks who ran up debts with investors money and are now down on bended knee praying for their way of life to continue. And of course the de-regulators bay in the background for further concessions based on their own unique interpretations of research.

Personally, we hope that the government can negotiate down the "firesale price" and properly assess the "hold-to-maturity price", as its called. For now, the tentative bailout agreement is now apparently in disarray following the John McCain's little walkabout.

After their initial stunned silence at the news of the $700 million dollar proposal, it looked like the Democrat Party was staging a new episode of "They're Not Going To Get Away With This", but we harbor doubts about their gumption to negotiate any course they articulate. In examples from oil drilling, to military spending, to vetting Supreme Court appointees, to investigating the mushroom clouds of the Iraq War, the Democrats talk big then whimper submissively in the end, signing exactly what they vehemently said they opposed (but of course with all the right rhetoric).

Watching the Democratic Party in action can be like watching the occasional little league player who's assigned to right field. A ball's hit at them, they hike up their pants, scrunch up their face with can-do determination, run, run, run, plant their little legs, assure everybody "I got it", then the ball sails off past them, hits the wall and finally emerges from the flurry of mitts and dust. Meanwhile, the third base coach for the other team is circling his arm with rotator-cuff straining enthusiasm, yelling "go on home" to the hectic base-runners and the crowd covers their eyes.

Next, when the next player comes up, the bat cracks and another ball flies towards right field, the loyal fans will of course squint out in between their crossed fingers, as if imagining a time when their fielder might actually field the ball. Perhaps the Democrats will make it work. Or is all the fumbling around in the dust simply a populist charade?

Less ephemeral, but speaking of large numbers, scientists reporting in Science about rocks they found in Quebec that are 4.28 billion years old. Said one of the authors to the New York Times, "early earth looked pretty much like modern earth".

Notes on Science in a Mixed Market Economy

It's the Economy and the Election...

When US citizens wake up each morning wondering what they might have lost from their retirement accounts overnight, and what they inadvertently gained: i.e., one morning you learn you're part owner of a gargantuan mortgage business, the next you find yourself lassoed into a giant insurance collective -- no one knows what's next. W

When congress says they're reeling, they're "stunned" from the news delivered by the Fed, and when the press is overwhelmed with the ups and downs of an off-the-charts financial crisis and the back and forth poll numbers for McCain and Obama, we completely understand that you can't give science your usual riveted attention. With the Fed sucking up all these great liabilities and throwing the whole the "government needs to get out of the way of business" idea out the window -- or did we just all misunderstand what that really meant? -- we agree that reading up on monetary policy and investigating your own sense of what "full-scale panic" means might be your highest concern.

Sure the future of permafrost is interesting, cell culture research and science curriculum really important, and yes, these things should definitely claim our attention and that of all four candidates. But I get distracted wondering why GOP VP nominee Sarah Palin canceled more appearances in the last few days than the number of heavyweights the Republicans have pulled in to play defense in Troopergate. Palin's appearances have been canceled in Seattle & the Eastside, Virginia Beach, Dayton, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Tampa and Central Florida, Virginia Beach, Cincinatti, Jackson Hole, and all of California, as well as other places. Did McCain shoo her off-stage to be seldom seen and not heard? Is she cramming for a American Politics 101 final? Dental work? Did she she see a Russian tanker trawling the water out her dining room window? Sure the also "hot" Cindy McCain will replace Palin at some events, but there's got to be some disappointed Palin admirers.

Anyway, we tear ourselves away from those distractions (for the moment), in order to glance at some recent science-ish news.

Some Science Headlines

  • Thousands Tens of thousands of babies are sick and several have died from Chinese baby formula contaminated with melamine that compromises kidney function. This is the same chemical that was found in pet food imported from China to the U.S. last year. Officials in Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangladesh Yemen, Gabon, Burundi and Myanmar express concern that the tainted products might be available to consumers their countries also.

    Melamine has also be found in milk, yogurt and ice cream in China and Hong Kong. In 2007 the FDA found that US manufacturers of animal feed had also adulterated their product with melamine.

    Earlier this year, contamination of US supplies of heparin led the FDA to investigate and find myriad problems in the oversight process of the imported product. The agency discovered quality control issues, ranging from agency confusion about the real name of a Chinese plant that they failed to inspect; to the crude processing methods of the pigs intestine in family-style workshops". Experts admonished drug makers (after the fact) that the shortage of pigs in China due to blue-ear disease should have served as a red flag to the possibility of spiked heparin.

    Heads will certainly roll (figuratively if not literally) in China over the milk scandal, but an overall plan about how to prevent the next batch of fatalities has yet to emerge. In this instance, neither US and Canadian health agencies have found melamine contamination in their milk products.

  • In other news, the FDA has banned 31 drugs manufactured for export to the US by the Indian company Ranbaxy, based on an inspection of the company's Dewas plant that revealed cracked equipment, unsterilized and unclean preparation areas, inadequate procedure specification, and sporadic documentation of testing and cleaning.

    Yesterday, in response, Ranbaxy announced that it had hired Rudy Giuliani, last seen speaking on behalf of McCain at the GOP convention, to help lobby the US agency.

  • Also: Environmentalists cheered last year when Florida penned an agreement to buy land in the Everglades from the sugar industry. Interestingly, some of those who pressed hardest for the move were free-market conservatives and groups such as the Cato Institute. Sugar subsidies were instituted back in the 1930's, but the industry has since shrunk, and been monopolized by a few firms whose prices were kept artificially high with the subsidies, crowding out foreign competitors. The Fanjuls, an entrepreneuring family originally from Cuba, own one of two Florida companies that control most of the sugar consumed in the US. Last Sunday the New York Times ran a great article about the buyout, digging deeper into some of the issues complicating the deal, and questioning whether the company actually arranged for their land to be lucratively bought out by the state when its business began to suffer in the downturn.

  • In infectious disease news: The CDC estimates that 90,000 people die in the US each year from institution acquired infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Science reports this week that the "perfect storm" of antibiotic resistance and diminished reserves of medicines portends trouble The situation not only demands new drugs, according to Science, it requires new drug targets.

    The journal summarizes two recent studies that work in this direction. In the first, a group of scientists created a class of synthetic antibacterials effective against staphylococci including methicillin and multi-drug resistant Staphylococcus aureus.(D. J. Haydon et al., Science 321, 1673 (2008)) The chemicals target specific proteins responsible for cell division. The August 22nd issue of Sciencecontained a report from another group who found a molecule that inhibits the gene which causes virulence and is turned on when certain conditions occur as the host responds to the infection. (D. A. Rasko et al., Science 321, 1078 (2008))

    On the prevention side of things, researchers at the University of Illinois found that tetracycline resistance genes can most likely be transferred from animal to animal in large hog containment areas into groundwater that feeds the public water supply. This could be one way that antibiotics used in feed to prevent infection and promote growth are adding to the overall problem of antibiotic resistance.

    And to get a sense of how far our understanding about microbes and mechanisms of infection, read Stanley Falkow from Stanford University's work, one of five scientists honored with a Lasker prize for his work on microbes and aspects of antibiotic resistance.

  • Iran has detained AIDS doctors Dr Kamiar Alaei and his brother Dr Arash Alaei since late June. (via Nature News) The two were known world-wide for working to prevent and treat the disease, and for tackling issues around HIV/AIDS in model ways, for a country which long denied that HIV/AIDS was anything but a "Western Disease". Their disappearance in late June has drawn global concern and calls from various physician groups for the Iranian President to answer questions about the whereabouts of the AIDS doctors. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled appearance at a UN meeting next week.

  • In other news: Both McCain and Obama have now submitted answers to questions about their science policy gathered by ScienceDebate2008. Some of their statements have been published here at the LA Times also. Several other science groups have submitted a document for both campaigns that lays out strategy for the incoming president on science and technology policy. Obama has named five science advisers who would serve his administration.

  • Now for some old news: Last May the Anchorage Daily News (ADN), Sarah Palin tried to obfuscate the contents of report written by state scientists that supported the federal scientists' decision of list polar bear as an endangered species. Palin wrote in an editorial in the New York Times January 5, 2008: "I strongly believe that adding them to the list is the wrong move at this time. My decision is based on a comprehensive review by state wildlife officials of scientific information from a broad range of climate, ice and polar bear experts." But the state's biologists agreed with the federal assessment. Palin is has also been criticized for her positions on global warming, oil and gas drilling, Exxon Valdez oil spill damages, and the Endangered Species Act. Why does this sound so familiar to me?

Oops, we've inadvertently gone full circle, escaping politics with science then allowing ourselves to get whooshed back into the politics. But why not wonder about Palin? We wonder what science policy would really be like in a McCain government, or in an Obama government? More like China? More like India? More of the same? Science and technology depends on politics and government. We may think we know what science and technology looks like in an "extreme" market economy, we've seen its penultimate apex during the Bush administration. 1 But lets not forget that we didn't anticipate Bush's actions. Now's the time to think beyond the rhetoric. I'm not sure I buy what many people insist -- that the candidates will be very alike on science issues. Now's the time wonder why McCain chose Palin if their philosophy is so different. Now's the time to learn more about Obama's science advisers.2

Perhaps we can have some government involved before the next giant catastrophe...? Before the energy investment bubble, the imminent infectious disease outbreak, the next bunch of poisonous products consumed by citizens because manufacturers successfully slipped drugs cut with toxic proteins past the FTC or the FDA, the next species that goes endangered, the growing storm of global warming, or the EPA....does whatever they do? There aren't too many science problems that won't be directly influenced by the new administration's policies.

1 The book Supercapitalism by Robert Reich was interesting.

2Though it's certainly nice to see he has any now.

In Memoriam: David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace died last Friday, and tributes to him pour out, here, and here, here, and here, and elsewhere. I was only introduced to the Wallace's writing in the past few years, by a friend who stored Wallace's Infinite Jest on a shelf for years, before reading it very slowly, over a period of many months, and occasionally sharing with me poignant, amusing, sad, or shocking snippets, insights, and footnotes.

I found Wallace's essays thought-provoking or entertaining even when obsessively self-reflective, overtly grim, sad, or downright depressing to read. Suicide and death were fair game in any context, from an essay on the seemingly benign topic of a cruise ship vacation, to long form fiction such as Infinite Jest, to a commencement address he gave to the Kenyon College Class of 2005.

With piercing observation and salient humor he buffered the sharpest commentary on vagaries of modern culture or various abysses a person might fall into, and he certainly didn't shy away from delivering this dystopian if hopeful fare no matter how stilted or predictable the occasion. In his Kenyon graduation speech he mostly avoided the usual soaring, upbeat yet forgettable accolades, the "pervasive cliche[s] in the commencement speech genre", he said, instead warning graduates of inevitable "day in day out" drudgery that would inevitably greet them in the future. He told them to keep their brains "well adjusted" in the face of the upcoming tedium, "alert and attentive". He called the mind the "terrible master", often and not coincidentally the target of firearm suicides, then described liberal education as the freedom that allows one to be "lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms".

With words of wisdom interspersed with clauses of modesty, he urged graduates in the thick of the "day in day out" to focus on the "important freedom", that which "involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able to truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day."

To me reading Wallace's writing was somewhat like watching an Olympic gymnast, or as he once described, Roger Federer's tennis. I didn't need to identify with the ability to performance such stunts in order to appreciate the talent. To this admittedly casual reader, his wisdom and clear view of the world kept his writing eternally optimistic despite his propensity to focus on some dark, unbearable moments of life.

Like many people, I found his use of footnotes fascinating, perhaps especially so because of my science background. Footnotes and endnotes serve many purposes for fiction and non-fiction authors but they're essential to science papers, not only to document sources but to describe previous research that lays the foundation for the experiments in the current work.

Scientists stand on the shoulder's of previous scientists, as the cliche has it, but the truth is that without the footnotes, ("references") scientists would be at sea. The common connotation of the word "footnote" as supplemental information, tremendously diminishes they're importance to science. Every new experiment depends on the veracity of the research that advanced the field to it's current place. And an untrustworthy reference can set a scientist back interminably -- stuck trying to figure out why, when they repeat this previous scientist's work, do they get a different result? I was taught to pay inordinate attention to references (previous research) and to pay close attention to the assumptions researchers chose to build their work on.

In a lot of non-fiction however, the "footnote" merely augments the main body of work, or is used to expound on non-integral ideas, to aid a reader's independent study, or for routine documentation of sources. That type of footnote helps speed the reader through the main points of the text. David Foster Wallace used it for the exact opposite purpose, to slow the the reader down.

Recently, the reputation of footnotes has been confused and corrupted by Michael Crichton and his ilk. Crichton the fiction writer deployed them cynically in his pseudoscience fiction to fool readers into thinking his fiction was actually non-fiction. Politicians and our current president highlighted the presence of the footnotes Crichton used to dispute actual science and to manipulate voters about global warming. Crichton used footnotes to the exact opposite purpose of how they're intended, and politicians were cynical in deploying them to their own ends.

Wallace's footnotes were the antithesis of these politically constructed ones. Not that his prolific footnoting didn't confuse people. Charlie Rose asked Wallace in a 1997 interview : "What are the footnotes about? Where did it come from? 304 footnotes?"

Wallace explained that he inserted footnotes to "fracture" his writing, to make it more like reality. The alternative he said, was to jumble the sentences, but obviously you couldn't do that to the reader. As with every other topic, Wallace's ideas about footnotes turn out to be complex, but reading his footnotes is integral to reading his work. They're speed bumps that slow the reader down, perhaps drawing her in, perhaps repelling him -- but in any case forcing Wallace's reader to refocus again and again, to reconsider what might be important, what's true, and to think more deeply, even when the footnotes seemed inserted solely for amusement.

And sometimes they seemed to be just that, for your amusement. In his famous 1997 "Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal Comforts of Luxury Cruise)"1, he wrote about developing a "lifelong grudge" against the cruise ship's hotel manager. He explained in a footnote:

1 "Somewhere he'd gotten the impression that I was an investigative journalist and wouldn't let me see the galley, bridge, or staff decks, or interview any of the crew in an on-the-record way, and he wore sunglasses indoors, and epaulets, and kept talking on the phone for long stretches of time in Greek when I was in his office after I'd skipped the karaoke semifinals in the Rendez-Vous Lounge to make a special appointment to see him, and I wish him ill."

Wallace continues on, expounding on his fascination with sharks and sharing in a subsequent footnote that during the first cruise ship dinner gathering he asked one of the waitstaff if they could donate "a spare bucket of au jus drippings from supper so that I could try chumming for sharks off the back rail of the top deck".

He quickly second guesses his own odd request and wonders if it may have been "a journalistic faux pas", one perhaps so repulsively disturbing to everyone who learned of it, that they treated him differently, with the hotel manager reflexively barring Wallace's access to the ship's behind-the-scenes workings. Of course, despite the author's stated remorse about his subsequent lack of access, his essay doesn't suffer a whit, in fact this conceit of nautical isolation and his self-reported bumbling anchors the story.

The last essay of Wallace's I read was last February's,"The Compliance Branch", published in Harper's and originally presented at a conference in Italy in 2006. In Wallace's fictional account he observes and interacts with a "fierce" infant, a managera-like baby. Unlike some of his other work, the essay is short, less than 2000 words; not sad, or maybe sad only in the way "The Office" would be soul-sucking without the over-the-top humor; and it contains none of Wallace's trademark footnotes.

I didn't know him, never read his work as prolifically as others, and don't claim to have any insight about who he was, but in digesting accounts of those who knew him better, it seems he lived the life he prescribed. I probably run amok of proper respect by quoting his work out of context, and also risk underselling him, but we'll miss his perspective on all things.

1 (Harper's, 1997), also included in the collection, A Suposedly Fun Thing I'll Never do Again.

NIH Defends Public Access

Have you ever tried to read original research on the web only to be barred from access once you clicked beyond abstract to full text? Or been offered a chance to read the article, special patient privilege, for $40-$50 -- only it's not clear that the article would be useful anyway?

Last spring the National Institutes of Health (NIH) implemented a measure passed by Congress mandating that papers funded by NIH to be uploaded in PubMed, a publicly accessible database, within a year of initial acceptance for publication. The law gave journals 12 months to put research up on PubMed, after which the value of the original publication "decays" significantly, since the majority of value from readers occurs within days of publication.

The NIH reasoned that their new policy allowed better communication of science research. The guidelines took into account the recent proliferation of data made possible by high throughput sequencing and drug development, as well as increased data storage capabilities. The NIH simply adapted its policies to the glut of information in the electronic age and the need for better public access to tax funded research.

Now, pressed by opponents to the NIH measure including the Association of American Publishers and the Association of American University Presses Congressman Conyers (D-MI) has introduced the "Fair Copyright in Research Works Act" (HR 6845), which would stop the NIH from requiring PubMed posting.

In defense of NIH policy, yesterday Dr. Elias Zerhouni, Director of the NIH testified before Congress that the mandate increased access to research and encouraged increased impact of publicly funded scientific research without cannibalizing publishers profits. He noted that hundreds of thousands of users access papers every day, and that since Congress made the policy mandatory over 50% of NIH funded published papers are uploaded.

In turn, the American Physiological Society's (APS) Martin Frank, an opponent of open access who has tirelessly voiced his opposition to the NIH PubMed initiative, attacked the recently implemented NIH model. Frank said that his publishing company paid for peer review, publishing, and the "heavy lifting", and that PubMed access would "lead to subscription cancellations". As a result, he said that researchers of NIH policies, have "less freedom to choose where to publish". Without HR 6845, he said, researchers will need to resort to publishing in second choice journals, then in spiraling into hyperbolic rhetoric, he noted that researchers will be decimated by "authors fees" of these journals and will not be able to fund "treatments and cures for diseases".

Journal articles receive the highest readership immediately upon publication, after that readership drops-off significantly. Zerhouni and others testified that no library could cancel subscriptions since scientists depend on timely research which is not effected by the NIH's 12 month policy. The APS was arguing for control, Zerhouni said, by downplaying taxpayer investment and exaggerating their own contribution. He said that the publishers' appeals were not substantiated by arguments about economics or researcher well-being, rather the publishers wanted control.

APS head Frank managed to sidestep claims that scientists or NIH underwriters might have on their significant input to research while emphasizing only the publishers' contribution. He also noted that APP had already contracted with HighWire Press of Stanford which published many free articles. This too is a bit mysterious. If HighWire has that same 12 month policy, as it appears, than what about the NIH policy is really at issue? What does HighWire have to do with this?

Why Worry? Beyond Palin-drone.

Can We Wake Up Now?

It's a presidential campaign: Can't we talk about Iraq, Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan...? About global warming, energy, education or healthcare? Economics -- housing, unemployment, banking, regulation, etc.? Isn't the US international standing diminished enough without the entire press corps fixating on "lipstick on the pig" and Jane Swift's "truth squad" and rote coverage of Obama's perfunctory swift-boat charges?

There's a faux seriousness and tension to all this, like in "Dancing With the Stars". Episodes full of inane commentary and winking gravitas that communicates to the audience: "none of this really matters you know, its just a game."

But it does matter. As Letterman joked, "A vice president who likes guns? Well, what could go wrong there?" There's so much more. A vice presidential candidate who believes that dinosaurs, Adam and Eve roamed the earth a few thousand years ago; who appears to fundamentally misunderstand current events such as the recent government nationalization of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; who's been in politics a shorter time than your average school board member; who jokes about her lack of international experience, and who treats the VP position like it were the challenge of bagging a moose. Ms. "I'm Ready". What could go wrong there? Think the Bush administration, I suppose, then pick some exponent to multiply the disaster by.

But lets not go overboard in histrionics. On one hand you just want Palin-drone to stop. Can't the show move on to any more substantive issue? On the other hand we might as well throw our arms up in the air and surrender to the inanity. So what if the US turns out bands of nincompoops who elect leaders with the gall to convince citizens that they'll prosper by praying for oil, promoting ignorance, and making their primary democratic focus advocating for teens' rights to pregnancy? Does anyone really lose when candidates pander to the lowest common denominator? So what if the US ends up with all the international clout and resources of a Trashcanistan?

In the Lands of Olive Trees and Insouciance

Other countries have successfully expanded their cultural offerings and so achieved acclaim, proving that perhaps it's not the worst fate. Are Greece, Italy and England deprived by their eviscerated international clout? In order to make the post almost-empire transition, perhaps the US should invest in culture. This will certainly appeal to some middle school teachers as well as to people like Wendell Berry who suggest art as the antidote to all the problems science and technology can't solve. 1

Sure, Greece had its dark moments during and after the Empire. But it ditched the drachma, joined the Euro, and now things look brighter. Greece shores up its economy by cementing every inch of every island, and serves up nothing more serious than feta, freshish fish and ouzo.

Maybe the US is a "nation of whiners". But I'm sure Americans would relax if the whole country took a daily nap between fourteen hundred and twenty-two hundred hours.

Then there's Italy. As tourists gawk at the splendor that was once Rome, Italians sniff in scorn. Americans would turn their noses up too if we could satisfy the yearnings of international tourists clamoring for our "culture" by serving them no more than a sneer and limp pasta or Tuscan pizza, costing excessive Euros. Perhaps if the country simply invested more in sculptors and painters the US could run a sham of a military while chiding other nations for their military blunders.

Britain hasn't fared as well as Italy and Greece in developing an enviable cuisine, but I believe in time, like the rest of the continent, they'll develop their culinary offerings to the point that no one will pay attention to their diminished importance on the world stage. You can imagine that eventually the UK will serve dishes that augment those kidney pies, chips, and Yorkshire puddings (the most deceptively named of their flour and water specialties).

They haven't had enough time in Britain, with surviving generations still alive and attached to the legacy of the former Empire and collectively a bit too up-tight for the post-megapower club of nonchalant arrogance. They cling to the pound drink to excess on the continent and when vacationing in India sniff crossly about the train system being the only sign of civilization.

But you can see cracks in the stiff-upper lip resignation. At home they'll joyfully tuck into Indian curries rather than wash down one more dried out baking powder biscuit ("scone", they euphemise). As they delightedly slosh back their Rogan Josh you can imagine that eventually they'll lose the polo helmet and the clipped speech and take cues from their laid back Mediterranean brethren. They'll spice their food and enjoy long afternoon siestas. Sooner of later the UK will be so laid back they'll be exporting the Channel Diet.

The Post Never-Quite-An-Empire Adjustment

To successfully follow in these footsteps the US will have to lose aspirations to empire and adjust to the relaxed life. Americans will have to settle on some national cuisine. I'm not sure Freedom Fries will cut it, but perhaps some local, fresh California diet will suffice. If they adopted some of the Mediterranean cooking guidelines that might help with the adjustment to not thinking your hot stuff, as well as heart disease.

The US tourist industry is already booming, with Europeans shopping in New York, whirling through to peek at the Washington Monument, at Hollywood, and at Golden Gate Bridge. I've recently met several tourists renting RVs and touring the National Parks, a trend which will give the country continued rational to build large vehicles and continue the wars for oil.

Does the US really need to worry about the strength of the Chinese economy, about terrorists in Pakistan, about that grand "way of life"? Maybe the nation should ditch its hegemonic inclinations, make movies, brew beer, invest in artists and edifices, build some fences, kick-back under olive trees, stop arming the rest of the world and just mock it. If worse comes to worse they could temper certain inclinations to meet the Copenhagen Criteria, then appeal to the European Union for membership. This whole McCain, Palin thing just doesn't matter.


1 In Harper's, "Faustian economics: Hell hath no limits", May 2008, Berry proposes somewhat circuitously and alarmingly:

"To deal with the problems, which after all are inescapable, of living with limited intelligence in a limited world, I suggest that we may have to remove some of the emphasis we have lately placed on science and technology and have a new look at the arts. For an art does not propose to enlarge itself by limitless extension but rather to enrich itself within bounds that are accepted prior to the work."

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