JANUARY 2020

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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

THE IG-NOBEL PRIZES FOR 2019

I have been aware of the Ig-Nobel Prizes - “...actual Nobel Prize winners giving away prizes to real scientists for doing fucked-up things...” -  since they started holding them in 1992. The annual Saturnalia might be best described as an American version of an English public school farce, accented by abysmal jokes delivered by the normally humorless monks of science. And as a non-scientist, watching this fete is a bit like witnessing an octopus play the piano. Why on earth would anyone watch such a thing? Well, because wouldn't you want to see an octopus play the piano? At least once.
Shortly after 7:00 pm on Thursday, 12 September, 2019, Professor Nicole Sharp (creator of the world's most popular fluid dynamics web site) and Physics Professor Melissa Franklin (co-discover of the Higgs Boson) stepped to the microphone at Harvard's Sanders Theater. They then proceeded to direct 1,100 intelligent audience members to behave they way they have seen others behave when they are having fun. They wear funny hats and bizarre accessories. 
And they now unleashed a 36 second barrage of paper airplanes at a human target. Thus began the first 29th annual Ig-Nobel awards ceremony, illegitimate step child to the most prestigious awards in science – The Nobel Prizes.
At the time of Alfred Nobel's death in 1896, almost nobody was killed anywhere on earth without at least few Kroner finding their way into the pocket of the infamous Swedish “merchant of death”. Luckily for the world of Science, a guilty Nobel posthumously donated 94% of his massive fortune to the creation of the Nobel prizes, each of which comes with around a million dollars in cash. 
By comparison, the winners of the low rent alternative Ig-Noble prizes for 2019 got a certificate and $10 trillion Zimbabwean bill – real but no longer remediable. But then, the Ig-Nobel winners never killed anybody. That we know of.
Next to step up to the microphone was author Karen Hopkin, a Phd from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and creator of the “Stud Muffins of Science Calendar” ("If you have a Y-chromosome and a PhD, you could be Doctor December”). She introduced the “Air Head In-Chief”, editor of the bi-monthly “Annals of Improbable Research”, inventor of the Ig-Nobel awards, and practitioner of the most unlikely business model ever developed, Harvard graduate and “manly little mallomar”, Marc Abrahams (above). In 2004, he admitted to the London Guardian, “It's a little embarrassing that it took me about 12 years to describe what I do....First, it makes people laugh, and then makes them think.”
The first award this night, the 2019 Ig-Nobel Prize for Medicine, went to Doctor Mario Negri, head of the Laboratory of Lifestyle Epidemiology at the Milan Institute for Pharmacological Research. Between 2003 and 2006 Doctor Negri published three studies quantifying the defense offered by real Italian pizza against various cancers, “...if the pizza is eaten in Italy.”.
In his 90 second acceptance speech, Doctor Negri attempted to explain that the lower Italian rates of cancer were an indicator of the Mediterranean diet, not the local consumption of melted cheese and processed meats. Or, at least he tried to, until he was interrupted by an 8 year old child. She was the “charming....Miss Sweeite Poo,” and time keeper for the awards, who, after a minute and a half, shouted at Doctor Negri, “Please stop. I'm bored”, until he did.
Next came the prize for Medical Education, which was awarded jointly to behavior biologist Karen Pryor, animal trainer Theresa McKeon, and orthopedic surgeon and border collier lover, Dr. Martin Levy, for their joint paper advocating the training of surgeons using the same methods used to train dogs – primarily a combination of  kibble and clicker.  In teaching interns, according to Karen Pryor, “... experienced surgeons... make it quite hard, which leads to tension and fear of failure. With our method, they learn to use the tools (scalpels and forceps) with great confidence and calmness..."
The Biology Ig-Nobel was awarded to researchers from Singapore, China, Krak├│w and Gdnask Poland, Hanover, Germany and Vienna, Austria. It took this international collection of biologists and physicists, using “...highly sensitive quantum sensors” to discover “...magnetic deposits with strikingly different behavior in...” living and demised American cockroaches. 
They even held a dead cockroach against a refrigerator door. It stuck, while a live cockroach fell directly to the floor and escaped.  You might think it would have been safe to assume the internal juice of cockroaches behaved differently after death then before, but now we have scientific proof. However, it cannot be said that “no cockroaches were harmed in this experiment.”
The Anatomy Prize was awarded to two doctors from Toulouse, France. Doctor Roger Mieusset, (above, right fg)  was the new Editor-in-Chief of “Basic and Clinical Andrology” - the study of diseases which make men feel sick and behave like children - and Dr. Bourras Bengoudifa, who is Dr. Mieusset's “accomplice”. Their 2007 study - “Thermal Asymmetry of the Human Scrotum,” took the temperature of both testicles of clothed postal workers, 20 to 52 years of age, walking and standing, and discovered that the right testicle was consistently 3 hundredths of a degree centigrade warmer. As Dr. Mieusset said during his acceptance speech, “We all knew that French delivery men were cool. Now we know how cool.”  Personally, I hope the relationship between the right and left handedness to right and left testical-ness will be the subject of future studies.
And just as a side note; Dr. Mieusset had originally achieved fame back in the 1980's when he invented a uniquely French style of birth control, i.e. ,underpants with an internal pocket for the testicles, intended to keep them just warm enough to 'cook' their sperm. There is no record that this attempt at male birth control was a success, but at least he was trying.
The Ig-Nobel Chemistry prize was awarded to 68 year old Dr. Shigeru Watanabe (above), and a team of dentists for their 1995 study, “Estimation of the Total Saliva Volume Produced Per Day in Five-Year-Old Children.” On stage with Dr. Watanabe were his three sons, who, along with 32 other innocent subjects of both genders, had produced spit for the advancement of their father's career. By the way, the result was an average of “about 500 milliliters” per day – approximately a full 12 ounce soda bottle – something of interest to professionals wrist deep in this deluge.
The subject of the Ig-Nobel prize in Economics was dirty money, specifically the 2013 study, “Money and Transmission of Bacteria”. This was the brainchild of Professor Andreas Voss (above, left), head of the Department of Medical Microbiology and Infection Control, at Canisius-Wilhelmina Hospital and Radboud University, in Nijmegen, Netherlands. He convinced his son. Timothy Voss (above, right) and Doctor Habip Gedik, Chief of the Department of Infectious Diseases and Clinical Microbiology, at the Okmeydan─▒ Training and Research Hospital, Istanbul, Turkey, to join him in this semi-serious, semi-whimsy of an investigation.
Random bank notes (American, Canadian and Euro dollars, Romanian Leu, Indian rupee and Croatian Kuna) were first sterilized. They were then soaked in a solution infused with various bacteria, and then allowed to dry for between 3 and 6 hours. The dirtiest currency was discovered to be Romanian, allowing the bacteria to survive over a day on dry Leu bills, while the Croatian Kuna was found to be the cleanest currency. However, Dr. Voss points out, “The rupee and the kuna felt dirty but weren’t. Grimy looking banknotes are not always sources for infection”. Also, bacteriophobes should consider that the current exchange rate is 10 Kuna to about $1.40.
Stretching the definition of Peace almost to the breaking point, the Ig-Nobel Peace Prize for 2019 went to scientists in the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, China and the United States for the 2012 research paper entitled “The Pleasurability of Scratching an Itch: A Psychophysical and Topographical Assessment.”

The Psychological Ig-Nobel prize for 2019 was a double award. Both went to German Social Psychologist, Dr. Fritz Strack, of the University of Wurzburg. The first half of the award was for his 1988 paper, titled “Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a non-obtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis.” In this study Dr. Strack proved that test subjects rated more “Far Side” cartoons, by Gary Larson, as funny if they had a pen in their mouths.

The second half of the prize was also awarded to Dr. Strack for his 2017 paper, ““From Data to Truth in Psychological Science. A Personal Perspective”. In this paper Dr. Strack reran the same experiment to prove the test subjects did not rate more “Far Side” cartoons as funny, no matter what, if anything, they had in their mouths. Dr. Strack attempted to explain the discrepancy by pointing out subjects in the second experiment were aware they were being video taped, thus putting the lie to the entire field of “Reality Television”.
The final Ig-Nobel prize for the evening was the Physics award. It went to researchers in the United States, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and the United Kingdom, for a 2018 paper simply entitled, “How Do Wombats Make Cubed Poo”.  
Because, you see, they actually do. It is exactly like a square peg coming out of a round hole. To illustrate this process, all of the recipients showed up in the Sanders Theater dressed as various parts of this mysterious process.
The ceremony ended with the traditional pointless photo opportunity, where everyone was showered with self esteem. And then Marc Abrahams offered a final word for the winners and those who had hopes of winning in the future - “Better luck next time”.
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Monday, December 30, 2019

IS IT COLD IN HERE? The Noble Start To the Cold War


I don’t believe most Americans have ever heard of Igor Gouzenko, but he actually had more to do with the collapse of the Soviet Empire than Ronald Reagan. Igor was one of those little nobodies whose lives defy the “Great Man” theory of history. Simply because Igor and his wife wanted what all new parents want, a better life for their children, the best laid evil plans of Joseph Stalin eventually collapsed.Igor dreamed of becoming an architect, and while studying in Moscow he met and married Svetlana (Anna) Gouseva.  But Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June, 1941, put an end to personal  dreams.. After basic training in the Red Army, Igor received a year of training as a cipher clerk.
In May of 1943, the 24 year old Lieutenant was reassigned to the Soviet Embassy on Charlotte Street in Ottawa, Canada (above), to work coding and decoding messages for “spymaster” Colonel Nicolai Zabotin.
As an officer in the GRU - Soviet Military Intelligence, - Colonel Nicolai Zabotin  (above) was aware of how much he depended on the talents of  the young Igor, which is why Zabotin obtained permission for Igor’s pregnant wife, Svetlana , to join him in Ottawa in October of 1943.  It was a not a boon the Stalinist security structure usually granted.

And to accommodate the wife of his favorite code clerk,  Zabotin even gave them an apartment,  at 511 Somerset Street in Ottawa (above).  The couple were stunned. "In Moscow," Igor would later say, "a place that size would have been shared by four or five families." And it was while living in such relative opulence, in June of 1944,  the loving couple welcomed a bouncing baby boy.
In September of 1944 the NKGB - the Peoples'  Commissariat of Internal Affairs -  ordered the happy couple and their 3 month old son to return home to Soviet Russia.  Because he had two more years  left of a standard tour of duty,  Igor believed he was suspected of some violation, or perhaps had made a mistake. And even if he could defend himself, he  feared that because he knew so much about Soviet espionage in Canada and the United States, he would likely be imprisoned in a Siberian gulag (above)  to keep him quiet. And if he were lucky enough to be allowed to return to Canada, his son and wife, who was now carrying their second child,  would not be permitted to join him The families of agents overseas were effective hostages, should an agent contemplate making a dash for freedom. 
Lieutenant  Gouzenko  appealed to Colonel Zabotin, who granted him a year’s extension. But as that extension began to run out in August of 1945, Igor decided to run out, too. He began to stuff  what would eventually be 109 top secret cables and documents under his shirt and wear them home. Then, shortly after 8:00 pm on  5 September, 1945,  just days after Japan formally surrendered  bringing the Second World War to an end, Igor walked out of the embassy for the last time.
Unsure of just what to do next,  Igor asked his next door neighbor, an officer in the Canadian Air Force,  for advice. He suggested they should approach the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And that was what Igor immediately did, showing up at the headquarters with his family.  But end of war celebrations were still going on,  and the few people on duty had no idea what to do with their would-be Russian defectors. True, Igor had plenty of documents which indicated some sort of Soviet spy ring operating in Canada and the U.S.. But at the time the Russians were Canadian allies. The RCMP weren't even sure they should be looking at this stuff. They told Igor and his family they should come back tomorrow.
That night, while Igor and his family huddled, terrified, in the dark, on the floor of their apartment, there was an ominous pounding on their front door. They returned to the RCMP first thing the next morning. The officers asked some questions, and wrote down the answers, but then sent them home yet again. 
That night their neighbor allowed the exhausted couple and their infant to sleep in his apartment. They heard more pounding on their door across the hall. It seemed likely that Colonel Zabotin had finally noticed the 109 documents that were missing from Igor’s desk. After another fruitless visit to the bewildered RCMP, Igor spent the day walking about the Canadian capital trying to find someone in some government agency who was interested in a desperate young man who had the code names and covers of an entire Soviet spy ring in their midst. He even applied for Canadian citizenship. Nobody was interested in his story. 
In desperation that evening he walked into the newsroom of the Ottawa Journal (above) and blurted out to the night editor, “Its war. It’s Russia.” The editor suggested he go to the Department of Justice. The Gouzenkos tried, but found the offices of the Canadian Department of Justice were closed.
The calm of the next night was shattered when four burly men burst into Igor’s apartment and ransacked the place. Fortunately Igor and his little family were again sleeping on their neighbor’s furniture. But this time the neighbor called the police. The four men were detained long enough for all to be identified as employees of the Soviet embassy. But while the police officers looked the other way, the Russians escaped. The following day the embassy protested the brief detention of their staffers, and demanded the immediate return of the “criminal” Igor Gouzenko..
When Canadian Prime Minister, 70 year old William Lyon Mckenzie King, was told of the Soviet's demands, his first instinct was to hand Gouzenko and his family over.  But before he could act, 
Lieutenant Gourzenko and Svetlana suddenly appeared at the  office of Justice Minister with their  collection of documents. And this time somebody with a knowledge of intelligence actually looked at them. King would later claim, ""It was like a bomb on top of everything else."
On his own initiative, Under Secretary for External Affairs, Norman Robertson had the desperate Russian and his family swept up and transported to the secret  "Camp X" on Lake Ontario (above), used during the war for the training of underground intelligence and sabotage agents inserted into occupied Europe. By this time, Igor was threatening suicide. And without asking Prime Minister King, Robertson granted the family asylum. 
Prime Minister King asked the British Foreign Intelligence Service, MI-6, to evaluate Igor's information. The service sent two agents from their section 9, Kim Philby (above) and Roger Hollis, to interrogate Igor. What no one knew at the time was that both of these trusted and respected high ranking British intelligent agents were lifelong Communists, Russian moles right in the core of British Intelligence.  
It appeared as if poor Igor was about to be betrayed, branded  a fraud, and handed over to the murderous NKVD. But  just a few days into his interrogation,  the secret arrest, trial, conviction and sentencing of scientists Alan Nunn May (above) broke in the press. Until March he had been building the Chalk River Nuclear Reactor just outside of Ottawa, and handing the top secret designs directly over  to  Colonel Zabotin,.  May was prominently mentioned in Gouzenko's documents.  Even more importantly, shortly before all of this, a Soviet code book had been captured in Norway,  which allowed the decoding of hundreds of secret Soviet transmissions. While everything to do with the code book was still top secret, it all confirmed everything Igor had been telling the Canadians. After all of this, to have questioned Gourzenko's information would have merely raised questions about Philby and Hollis.  So they recommended the Canadians accept Igor as genuine and grant him asylum.
Among the 39 Soviet spies arrested because they were mentioned in Igor's documents was Fred Rose (above), a Communist Party member of the Canadian Parliament from Cartier, Quebec. He was in the perfect position to betray Canada and sway government policy in favor of the Soviet Union.   He was convicted of espionage by the secret Kellock-Tascherau Commission, and served 4 1/2 years in prison.  Stripped of his Canadian citizenship, Rose lived out the rest of his life in Warsaw, Poland, where he died in 1983. 
Colonel Zabotin (above) was returned to the Soviet Union under arrest by the NKVD, where he was convicted as an enemy of the Soviet People for allowing his trusted cipher clerk to escape. He served 4 years in a labor camp.  After that, nothing is known about his life.  In six years Kim Philby would retire with honors from MI6, and in 1961, just before he was unmasked as a traitor, he would defect to the Soviet Union. 
 The cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko, became George Brown. He and Svetlana, now Anna, were moved to Clarkson, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto.  He wrote two books, and made publicity tours, always hidden inside a cloth hood.
The Browns lived middle class lives in Canada, raising 8 children and 16 grandchildren. Igor died in 1982, of complications of diabetes. Anna died in 2001. Their legacy was a victory for average people who just want to live their lives without becoming the playthings of ambitious egos, like Joseph Stalin. 
And that is how the cold war started.
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Sunday, December 29, 2019

MENSCH UND UBER-MENSCH - Friedrich Nietzsche

I hope they continue to leave Friedrich Nietzsche alone. I understand why they once wanted to dig him up, of course.  And I understand why, if he was still around,  somehow, to offer an opinion, that he would say it really didn't matter.  He’s been dead a hundred years and what is left of him has long since turned to dust or mold spores. What does it matter where his dust resides, or even if it all resides all in the same location? Clearly it mattered to his sister, but she was an anti-Semitic witch. She loved Friedrich but her attachment to his dust was her opiate, not his. He didn’t worry about such things, so why should I?  Why should we?  In that light, the threat to his dust was a nasty joke. The very ground they buried him was briefly considered too valuable to be allowed to simply rest where it was, with him in it.
I care because although there is much about Friedrich that is troubling and contradictory, there was also one thing in particular which Friedrich wrote, words that spoke to me like a clarion call of honesty and integrity; and which dispelled half a lifetime of conventional pandering and route idiocy. These were the words he wrote which convinced me that intellectually I was not alone on this earth;  "Plato was a bore.” God, yes, he certainly was: a fascist, hate mongering snob and a bore; and Friedrich Nietzsche was the first man I ever read who was brave enough to say that out loud. Sometimes I feel like shouting it. PLATO WAS A BORE!
Friedrich, on the other hand, was nuts; toward the end of this life, a literal raving lunatic - was what he was. He ordered the Kaiser to journey to Rome, and once there to be executed by the Pope. And Friedrich wasn’t kidding. He wrote to friends to explain why he had done this, as if they were going to disapprove of the Kaiser’s imminent demise and hold Friedrich responsible, as if the Kaiser was imminently about to demise. Maybe that is how you know he was crazy; he could not distinguish between what he wanted to do and what he could do.
Perhaps insanity is that simple, the inability to divide in the mind between what is and what ought to be, some kind of hormonal imbalance of the chemical hierarchy of the brain, encouraging you to stuff your pigeon into the wrong hole. It was probably a symptom of the syphilis or gonorrhea he had contracted as a young soldier in the service of the crown. He was a medical orderly who in retrospect hated war and all the justifications for it. The crown he served as a young man was the last thing he had believed in outside of his own brain. As Friedrich himself wrote, “A casual stroll through a lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.” And who would know that better than Friedrich?
But that was yesterday, the age of mensch and uber-mensch. Today the mensch (or men) of Germany are far from uber (0r super), with smaller minds and smaller dreams. Unemployment in the first decade of the 21st century,  in what was recently the corrupt East Germany, was over 20%. And the little village of Rocken, where Friedrich lies in the church yard, buried next to his father, sits atop a vast reserve of lignite, politely known as “brown coal”.
It is ugly and burns dirty. But Germany has over six and one half billion tons of such lignite reserves. The heat produced by burning lignite (as opposed to anthracite) is so low as to be uneconomical unless the power plants are built right next to the vast open pit mines. Twenty-five villages had been  already eaten up by such open pits since World War Two. And it seems Rocken would be number twenty-six or twenty-seven.  And they had to burn the coal. Who could ever imagine a world without coal?  But then, whatever would become of Friedrich? What a nasty joke on him.
And it’s an old joke. A dead atheist is one who is all dressed up with no place to go. And there is the story of the rabbi, the priest and the atheist sentenced to death by the French Revolution. Asked if he has any last words, the rabbi proclaims, “I believe in the one true God!” The executioner yanks the rope and the blade flashes down and -Thud! - it stops just short of the rabbi’s neck. He is immediately released, much to the crowd’s disappointment. The Priest is next, and he proclaims, “I believe in the son, the father and the holy ghost!” The blade flashes down and – Thud! – stops just short of his neck. To the disappointment of the crowd, he is also released. Then the atheist is tied down and asked if he has any last words. And he says, “Oh, here’s your problem. You’ve got a bone stuck in the gears.”
And then of course there was the indecisive insomniac/dyslexic agnostic who lay awake all night, pondering the existence or non-existence of dog. Is Friedrich laughing yet?
Friedrich Nietzsche usually gets the blame for providing the philosophical justification for Hitler and the “final solution”, but in fact Friedrich considered anti- Semitism to be foolish. He wrote that it should be “…utterly rejected…by every sensible mind”. He hated the ultra-nationalists, like the Nazis. That’s why he broke off his friendship with the composer Richard Wagner.
Friedrich called the idea of a “master race” “…a mendacious swindle” which was a polite way of saying that Hitler was full of manure, or would be full of manure, since Hitler was 11 ½ when Friedrich died in 1900. As Friedrich wrote, “Although the most acute judges of the witches and even the witches themselves were convinced of the guilt of witchery, the guilt nevertheless was non-existent. It is thus with all guilt.” Could a man who could write that really have condoned killing Jews for having killed Jesus Christ?
Friedrich answered Rene Descartes bold claim of "God’s logic" (I think, therefore I am) with a desperate appeal for compassion: “I still live, I still think: I still have to live, I still have to think.” 
Or, to put it another way, logic once dictated that eventually Friedrich and his father and all other "less important" graves in the Rocken church yard, and the church and the entire village, would  have to be dug up. Logic dictated that every drop of oil that was burned made each remaining drop that much more valuable, and that increased the value of every ton of lignite beneath the little village of Rocken. The mining company, Milbrag, insisted the mining must start by the year 2005. But it did not. Well over half of the residents (64%) opposed the idea, and in 2008 the plans were dropped. Today Germany is moving to shut down all coal production and burning. You might still argue with Fredrick that God is dead , but there can no longer be any doubt that coal is dead, As a door nail.  While Friedrich Nietzsche lives. Not bad for a crazy old atheist. To have outlived what was once thought an essencial. 
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