Friday, April 30, 2010

Leslie Buck, RIP

This is the most beautiful place on earth.

There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio, or Rome — there's no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment.
So begins Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire; he perfectly captures a notion of perfection that Plato would have hated... and been secretly envious of.

I have heard it argued that "there is no such thing as perfect". I disagree, of course; my view, instead, is that there are many perfect things; ask a new parent (do so before diaper changing gets old--you have maybe a day or two). Monday saw the passing of the designer of one perfect thing. I had never heard his name before today's obituaries, but I knew and loved his design, as did literally millions of other people.

Leslie Buck (born Laszlo Büch) was 87, a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald (that alone is worthy of note), designed the coffee cup that embodied New York City, the classic blue and white "anthora", with its Greek Key border, pair of amphoras, and the perfect three golden cups of steaming coffee under the words "We are happy to serve you". Buck designed it to honor (and, to be honest, to sell to) the Greek diners that populated New York. Hundreds of millions were sold each year (currently, it is no longer in standard production, although it may be custom ordered).

Greeks traveling to the US were welcomed by their countrymen who had already made the journey. Some of the most successful of the earlier wave were the owners of diners--Greek diners, yes, but also many others; because success breeds success, the diner niche in New York was filled by Greeks (oddly enough, I did not learn this in NY, but in Greece, from a historian there). Buck's design was a shrewd marketing ploy, and it paid off royally. The cup is perfect, and perfect New York.

Last time I was in NY, I and a friend had breakfast in a Greek diner. With the news of Buck's death, I regret that we did not get our coffee to go. Oh, well. And it is getting harder to find the cup these days, with invasive species of coffee growing unchecked in the city.

Nothing could be finer
Than a New York City diner
With a perfect cup of coffee in your hand
And I wish I had, once more, a
Paper blue-and-white anthora
There's no better cup you'll find in all the land
With a bit of Greek confection
And a cup o' Joe, perfection
Could be found, it seems, on every city block
So, Leslie Buck, here's to ya
Though I never even knew ya
Both the cup and the designer... out of stock.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dispatches From The Vaccine Wars

Notes and quotes and anecdotes
And third- or fourth-hand stories
A cheesy website, which promotes
Colloidal silver’s glories
A drop of homeopathy,
A touch of chiropractic,
Let’s claim it’s enteropathy,
Or try another tactic—
It doesn’t matter much at all
Which quack earns our reliance,
So long as children never fall
Into the hands of science!

Tales of sales and such details
Show evil in Big Pharma
When alt-med leaves such paper trails
We’ll claim it’s just bad karma.
Vaccines are money-grubbing schemes—
Each virus or bacillus
Is part of nature’s plan—it seems
That doctors want to kill us.
We’ll separate the false from true
By confirmation bias—
There are no data we can’t skew;
Just go ahead and try us!

We agree, the CDC
Has no concern for health
It’s all a great conspiracy
Protecting doctors’ wealth
You can’t trust doctors any more
It isn’t even funny—
This is important! This is war!
We trust the former Bunny!
Vaccines are tools of mind control
That’s really why they’re made
But they’ll have no effect on us—
The tinfoil hat brigade!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

On The Constant And Unchanging Absolute Morality Of The Catholic Church

The Church is a constant; unchanging; a rock;
The foundation of morals; the source of true light
The views of society shift like the sand,
But the church remains solid, and fixed in God’s Sight.

(Abuse is something we’d never allow—
Well, maybe before; that was then, this is now.)

The Church is unwavering, ethically bound,
The Lord’s representatives here on this earth
Committed to God, to The Word he revealed,
The Church has not altered a bit since its birth

(Abuse has happened, yes, we know,
But such a long, long time ago!)

The Church is a shoulder on which you can lean,
The best source of solace; a comfort in grief
Its unchanging nature is part of its strength,
You bring us your troubles, we’ll bring you relief

(Some priests’ behavior may have raised fears,
But why bring those up, after so many years?)

The Church is the teacher of absolute morals,
Of ethics not bound by the whims of the day;
The laws set in stone by Our Heavenly Father
Which never will alter one bit, come what may

(That cover-up of which you speak?
That’s not us now, that’s us last week!)

It seems to me that the church, in recent weeks, has been simultaneously advocating two positions. It is a rock of absolute morality (when compared with the situational ethics we see in secular society, which is clearly inferior) that does not change, has not changed, will not change, because it is, was, and will forever be God's representative on earth. And it is not raping children any more, would you please quit calling them child rapists, cos after all, that stuff happened sooooo long ago, and we've changed since then!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Pope Reacts?

If the silly men in dresses
Will not recognize their messes
Then the remedy, I guess, is
We shall have to point them out

If the pope we have offended
Think but this, and all is mended:
That's no less than was intended
(If there ever was a doubt)

Should he stay away from Blighty,
Scorn has beaten God Almighty--
We should all exclaim "all righty,
Then!", and disregard the pope!

But a cancelled papal visit
Isn't realistic, is it?
Still, the prospect is exquisite...
And a Cuttlefish can hope!

Again, context.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Changing The Pope's Itinerary

"Your Holiness, a moment please--we've made a couple changes
To the schedule you will follow while you're visiting this week.
It's really nothing, mostly--it just sort of rearranges
All the visits, cos a group or two would like to hear you speak."

"There's a group of rape survivors; there's a dozen men with AIDS;
There's two priests--a married couple--who are looking for your blessing
There's an epidemiologist, who says his courage fades
When he sees you're banning condoms when he knows the need is pressing"

"There's an hour with some "Hitchens" and another with some "Fry"
And between the two, expect to feel a modicum of shame
And then lastly, there's this "Jesus" bloke, who wants to ask you why,
You are doing all this stupid shit, and say it's in his name"


Thursday, April 22, 2010

To A Rat, On Looking Back On Her Career, In The Lab

Oh, little lab rat, in your prison,
What a sad day has arisen—
Yours, a life of serving science,
Not of resting,
You help us climb atop of giants
Through rodent testing

Tis your misfortune, some fine morning
To be dispatched without a warning
With hopes we’ll find, on close inspection
Some information
Perhaps enough so your dissection
Is our salvation

Some remedy for our diseases,
Grown from bread mold, or from cheeses:
In times of plague or killing fever
You played the villain;
It’s fitting now, you help deliver

Psychologists who study learning
Used your help in their discerning—
You led them through the many phases
Of their endeavors,
Teaching them, by running mazes
And pressing levers

And pictures made from careful staining,
Slicing, mounting, then explaining
Former secrets, now revealed
Through brain perfusion,
Dissecting what we know is real
From mere illusion

As we devised atomic powers—
Mushroom clouds that bloomed like flowers—
And looked at what we’d now created
With admiration
You showed us how you tolerated
The radiation

You’ve had a paw in our advances;
We blunder on, and take our chances
Faster than our contemplation,
So please forgive us;
Our lot is likely annihilation,
And you’ll outlive us.

The high plateaus we’re proud of reaching
Are ours because of your good teaching
Let’s hope these skills, which keep on growing
Through your instruction
Are for the best, not simply sowing
Our own destruction

Hat tip to NPR's story on Joseph Priestley's mouse, and of course to Robert Burns, who did all the heavy lifting.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Poetry In The History Of Science

From NPR, the story of a mouse, and the verse written in its voice:

The year is 1773, and Joseph Priestley is busy working with "airs" (you or I would probably call them "gases"); his experiments were published beginning in 1774, and include the discovery of nitrous oxide, ammonia, and "dephlogisticated air" (we would call it "oxygen"; we can't quite credit him with discovering oxygen, for two reasons--first, others can legitimately make the claim, and second, he insisted on the phlogiston world-view). Priestley apparently went through quite a lot of mice in his experiments; in additioning to researching airs, he also examined lungs. Mice, in one experiment, were put in a chamber from which the oxygen would be removed; as you might expect, this did not end well for the mice.

Priestley's assistant, Anna Barbauld, wrote a bit of verse and (by the NPR account) left it in the cage of a mouse scheduled for the following morning's experiment. You can read the verse, or hear the whole story (in what I found to be a rather twitch-inducing edit) here at NPR's site. They quote historian Richard Holmes, who calls it "perhaps the first animal-rights manifesto ever written". I suspect a bit of revisionist history--we've had pet rodents, and I know how quickly they turn paper products into fluffy bedding. But the verse was published, so parts of the story ring true.
Oh, what the hell, here it is as the mouse wrote it:

And, given the immense power of verse (something your pal Cuttlefish knows something about), from that moment onward, mice have been spared from participating in science.


Ok, it's still a cute little verse, a tear-jerker of a story, and some really cute watercolor illustrations.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Superstition And Ignorance Driving Vultures Extinct In SA

Superstitions develop in all kinds of cultures
And ignorance, too, inextricably linked
The latest rendition is bad for the vultures
Where betting on football could make them extinct

South Africa, hosting the World Cup this season
Has vultures of various beautiful kinds
"The wisest of animals"--this is the reason
Some ignorant gamblers have plain lost their minds

For the sake of advantage, the vultures are hunted--
In gambling, you need any edge you can get--
Their brains, dried and powdered, are all that is wanted;
They're snorted, for luck, before placing a bet

With so many people so desperate for money
And looking for help, to see which teams to choose
It's tragic as hell--if it weren't, it'd be funny
In a hunt for good fortune, the vultures will lose

South Africa's vultures are magnificent birds. There are some eight different species (I think I saw six while I was there), which coexist in complementary roles--our guides used the vultures to locate carcasses (as did other scavengers, of course), where we might get a glimpse of something spectacular (here we see cheetahs, but from quite a distance--they were driven off by hyenas later).

The BBC reports that the World Cup and its associated betting may actually drive vulture species extinct in South Africa (video at link, and well worth watching). Superstition holds that these wise birds have the power to predict the future... and so of course they are killed, and their brains extracted, dried, and powdered for use in prognostication. One wonders if the users have thought through the implications of using the brains of a bird that did not see its own demise coming at their hands... perhaps that is why it isn't working.

All photos by Cuttlefish.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

500th Post! (And A Poll)

So... according to blogger, this is my 500th post. I really never would have guessed it. Einstein was right about time being relative; I have been blogging here for just over a week, or for decades, if you go by how it feels from time to time. The calendar puts it at late 2007 when this version of the blog started up. Since then, 500 posts, 129,515 visits from 159 countries (I need to work on reaching central Africa), two books (well, one and a half, really), and a line of designer swimwear worn by high-fashion models around the world. Ok, not that last bit, unless you count when they go skinny-dipping. I did design that.

It has been wonderful getting to know you. My readers are incredible people, and have made it possible for me to do some things I never would have been able to do without them (those people know who they are, and I can never thank them enough!). I would not have traded these last 500 posts for anything.

It is at nice round numbers like this that one starts getting introspective. What does the future hold for The Digital Cuttlefish? If you have any ideas, let me know. Meanwhile, a poll.

And hey, if you are reading this, thanks! Yes, you, personally!

The Cuttlefish, clearly perplexed,
Introspected aloud (well, in text):
It's been five hundred posts!
First, a couple of toasts,
Then the serious question: What next?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Who Is To Blame (For Catholic Scandal)?

There is far, far too much scandal
At the Vatican these days
Since it cannot be the Church’s fault
Let’s try to blame the gays!
With their sinful choice of lifestyle
And their flaunting of God’s creed,
If we have to point the finger
They’re a likely cause indeed!

There is much too much at stake here—
Far too much that we could lose—
So to keep our asses covered
We should also blame the Jews!
They have constantly conspired to
Bring a downfall to the Church:
If you want to find a smoking gun,
The Jews are who to search!

There is blame enough to go around
(As if you couldn’t tell),
I think it prudent we should blame
The atheists as well!
They have no moral compass
But they want to write the laws—
A secular society
Must clearly be the cause!

It’s hardly worth our mention,
Yet another group to name,
But you cannot help but notice
There’s the media to blame!
The reporters keep on digging,
Though they’re covered up in dirt—
Such a filthy occupation;
Think of all the priests they’ve hurt!

There’s one more group deserving blame;
They’re making lots of noise,
And claiming to be victims, too—
I mean, of course, the boys!
Their baseless accusations are
But acts of desperation;
They, too, should shoulder guilt
For leading priests into temptation!

So many guilty parties,
Waging war against the Pope—
One fact alone sustains us
And allows us still to hope:
One group alone is blameless—
There is nothing to discuss—
No matter where we’re finding fault
It won’t be found in us!


The sad thing, of course, is that each of these groups *have* been named, by one or another apologist, as the true culprits to blame for the scandals.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Everything Is Upside Down, Down Under

When life gives you lemons, the old-timers warn,
And everything starts to look sour,
Just make lemonade! This is no time to mourn,
But a time to start "Church Happy Hour"!
From ten to eleven, on Saturday night,
Half off blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ,
Come knock off a chalice of red or of white,
While the sacrament's reasonably priced!
There are pretzels and chips at the pew, in a dish,
For the church-going Happy Hour snacker,
Or the Flesh Of Our Savior, if that is your wish,
For the folks who want more than a cracker
It's the hippest of hippest, the best place I know
Where believers can mingle or meet--
But this weekend, I'm thinking It's safer to go
To the topless church, just down the street!

The news from Australia: More crimes committed in churches than in strip clubs.
A breakdown of the figures showed that 85 people were assaulted in places of worship, compared to 66 at an adult entertainment premises.

According to the report, places of worship include churches, synagogues, monasteries, mosques, convents, cathedrals and chapels.

Premises listed under adult entertainment included strip clubs, sex shops, brothels, massage parlours, homosexual clubs, gaming houses as well as gambling clubs.

Places of worship were also ahead on sexual offences (16), theft from motor vehicles (33), resisting arrest (seven) and liquor offences (10).

Harassment and threatening behaviour at places of worship (30) was more than double that of adult entertainment (13).

Cuttlecap tip to PZ

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Creationists? What Creationists?

The NSF found a solution
To a culture that shuns evolution:
We think it is best
That the national test
Make a critical, small substitution—

Since creationists find it offensive
We are more than a bit apprehensive—
So we think, if you please,
It is best to appease
(Besides, lawsuits get rather expensive!)

Sure, it may be the coward’s way out
But religion, it carries some clout—
Just one thing we will hide,
Because national pride
Is what testing is really about!

So our scores will be where they belong
And it looks like our science is strong.
And besides, we’re not fools—
The creationist schools
Are aware that their teaching is wrong!

Though uncomfortable truths make us squirm,
We do not need a test to confirm
Half the country will choose
To most willingly lose
On exams at the end of the term!

It’s their faith that we put to the test
When we ask them which answer is best
If they really do well
Then they’re going to Hell—
If they flunk, then they’re heavenly blessed!

We could gather their scores, with a blush,
And confirm that their thinking is mush,
Or do this: with a shrug,
Sweep it under the rug:
Don’t address it, but keep it hush-hush.

Cuttlecap tip to PZ

Thursday, April 08, 2010

You Are What You Eat

Bacteria are living, by the trillions, in your gut;
There's an ecosystem hidden in your skin
It's a case of symbiosis, if an icky one, somewhat,
Where both human and bacteria can win.

They help us with digestion (as they mostly help themselves)
Through their enzymatic breakdown of our food.
For the source of these bacteria, some current research delves,
And they're finding it in seaweed (raw, not stewed).

It's a horizontal transfer, from bacteria on seaweed
To bacteria already in your "zoo",
Of the genes that code for enzymes-so the scientists said "Gee, we'd
Like to see if it's in other people, too!"

But on close examination of a sample from Missouri
Not a single one had enzymes such as these!
Still the study will examine many further groups--don't worry--
From societies with diets from the seas.

And this fascinating finding shows us how to take a look
At some questions that are really really neat:
We may change ourselves, depending on the food we choose to cook,
And we are (through enzyme transfer) what we eat!

BBC story here, and Ed Yong's (far more interesting) one here.

Hmmm... on second reading of my verse, it sounds as if I am saying that *all* of these bacteria must come from seaweed. I think I need another verse...

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Easter At Beaverdale Park

It's the Easter egg hunt down at Beaverdale Park
With activities scheduled from dawn until dark--
Would you like to join in on the fun? On your mark,
Set, and go!
To and fro!
And explosion of children cascades on the lawn
They are searching for eggs, hither, thither, and yon;
The older kids soon reach the forest, and on
Down below!
There they go!

The sun's shining brightly, the sky is so blue
A beautiful day, not a cloud is in view
The flowers are blooming, the birds are in song
And nothing at all could go wrong...

And it's all so idyllic, it feels like a dream
But things aren't exactly the way that they seem--
From down near the river, a teenager's scream
Full of dread
Fills your head
While searching along on the leaf-covered ground
It wasn't an egg, but a body they found
It was still, it was cold, and it made not a sound
He was dead
Cold and dead


The police quickly came, and they saw on inspection
This Easter would not bring a new resurrection--
They roped off the park, for the families' protection
"Don't go
Down below"
The excitement the day held, it quickly had flagged
As the victim's remains were collected and bagged
And were brought to the morgue, with his toe duly tagged
With "John Doe"
They don't know


Easter is better with blue skies and sun
With chocolates and eggs, and a whole lot of fun,
Not the death of a man, who was somebody's son
Who will cry
Asking "why?"
Easter's important, but this is the thing--
Not for death on a cross, but the coming of Spring
So the flowers can bloom, and the birds can all sing
In the sky
As they fly


From KCCI in Des Moines, the story of an Easter-egg hunt with an unexpected find. Personally, I think Easter is a much better holiday when it has nothing to do with anyone's death. (video at link, and some rather tasteless commentary on the story, unless the editors remove it.)

For some reason, I am reminded of this beautiful song:

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Pity The Pedophile Priests, Pleads Pope.

The Pope pleaded "pity the pedophile priests;
Protect the poor padres, please pray"
They've sinned, but since Eden, we're nothing but beasts
These men--why, they're victims, I say

It's Satan, or sickness, not something they choose
When they lust after children, God knows
They're clearly as blameless as Holocaust Jews
(As the rhetoric reaches new lows)

With your staff and your ring, with your mitre and cape,
And with millions that heed your command
This is not just P.R.; this is forcible rape--
What's the part that you don't understand?

The fact that your coverup now comes to light
Has you pacing the Vatican floors--
And the grim realization must fill you with fright:
These sins are not Adam's; they're yours