Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Black milk of morning we drink you....

    It's been a long time since I posted a poem. Here's one in German that I particularly like. It's by Paul Celan, and was written around 1945. Of course, the theme is morbid, befitting the epoch. The poem is, however, music.  Here's a translation into English.


    Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
    wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
    wir trinken und trinken
    wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
    Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
    der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
    er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
    er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
    er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz

    Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
    wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
    wir trinken und trinken
    Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
    der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
    Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
    Er ruft stecht tiefer ins Erdreich ihr einen ihr andern singet und spielt
    er greift nach dem Eisen im Gurt er schwingts seine Augen sind blau
    stecht tiefer die Spaten ihr einen ihr andern spielt weiter zum Tanz auf

    Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
    wir trinken dich mittags und morgens wir trinken dich abends
    wir trinken und trinken
    ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
    dein aschenes Haar Sulamith er spielt mit den Schlangen
    Er ruft spielt süßer den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
    er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft
    dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng

    Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
    wir trinken dich mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
    wir trinken dich abends und morgens wir trinken und trinken
    der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau
    er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau
    ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
    er hetzt seine Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in der Luft
    er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

    dein goldenes Haar Margarete
    dein aschenes Haar Sulamith

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Leave me Reeling

I cycled quite a way on a rainy day in 1979 to the Leeds Irish Centre. There were only maybe 50 or so people at the concert; I sat in the second row. The woman in front of me had an annoying habit of slapping her knees loudly during the music.

The band in front of me was in some disarray. They kept breaking down in the middle of tunes and appeared somewhat annoyed with each other. They had only been together for three years and they disbanded forever a few weeks later.

But they were the band that  changed the face of  Celtic music.  Three unparalleled virtuosos  tangled with each other for that brief period: Matt Molly's flute, Paddy Keenan on the Uilleann pipes and Kevin Burke, the fiddler; shepherded by a precise rhythm section. The result was jigs and reels had never before been played with such brilliant driving energy.  The Bothy Band. Check them out.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Quotas on Asian Students?

I have always argued against any sort of differential treatment based on skin color. An example of this is race-based affirmative action in college admissions, increasing admission rates of minority racial groups, which was explicitly allowed in a 2003 Supreme Court decision. College selection should based solely on how well  a prospective student is likely to succeed. Given this criterion, there is indeed an argument in favor of some preference for low-income students, based on the precept that their circumstances have made it more challenging for them to achieve a given level at high school, and therefore they are  more likely to succeed on the level playing field of college. Of course, discrimination based on income does favor low-income racial groups, but this is not an explicitly race-based policy.  

Given the above position I am curious to learn that the three most selective Ivy League colleges may well be discriminating against Asian candidates. Apparently, although Asian-Americans made up over 27% of the applicant pool  from 2008 to 2012, they comprised only 17-20% of the students admitted. Of course, it is conceivable that the Asian-American applicants were less qualified on average, collectively sending in hopeful below-par Hail Mary applications just in case. But if not then these schools are rejecting bright, qualified hard-working future leaders solely on the basis of race. Why? Because they 'work too hard'? Because they're 'no fun'? Because their parents don't have enough money or connections? No, in the interests of 'diversity', ostensibly, so that the universities can plant their pretty little gardens mirroring the make-up of society.   

My response is to say to the University of Tennessee is "Bring 'em here"! Let's get those thousands of highly qualified future leaders to UT. That'll get us up towards the Top 25, help motivate the locals  and teach the Ivy League a lesson. The use of race in college admissions should end. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Our Corduroy Physiography

We live among 800 miles of corduroy trousers, according to Google Earth. It really is striking; a  ridge and valley physiography that stretches  from Alabama to Pennsylvania, and we, in Oak Ridge, are in the middle of it. The ridges are very long, with few gaps in them. How did they form? Some kind of remnant of tectonically thrusted then folded strata. I'm not sure there's anywhere else in the world quite so  corrugated. Is there?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Big Pharma and Science

We've been talking recently with "Big Pharma", and this has made me reflect on the state-corporate nexus in high-tech R&D.

Much of the background work needed for targeted drug development is done in academia; the identification of disease-related biological phenomena, the testing of hypotheses concerning modification of these, target identification and validation, and early-stage pre-clinical development. As a compound transitions from 'hit' to 'lead' and is more and more validated, it gains commercial value, and at any time companies can jump in to bring the product to market through further preclinical optimization and clinical trials. Somewhere there's a transition between typical academic work and industry,  and that's where things are interesting. For example, both pharma and academia engage in high-throughput hit discovery and lead generation.

 Early-stage discovery in academia tends to be sustained. For example, an NIH project  in which we participate has  5 years of funding to come up with new drugs against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If researchers in Big Pharma try to do  the same thing they must be ready to get a "No Go" command from above at any time, as the company responds to rapid market shifts and competitors' results.

I think a merger between the two approaches is a good idea. Academic researchers often complain at the lack of direct relevance of their research, whereas industrial scientists bemoan the buffeting they get from market whims. Why can't the same researchers do a bit of both: some projects that are insulted from the industrial Sword of Damocles and others that respond to  immediate commercial pressure? That would be ideal. Blue sky creativity combined with high-pressure competition. Maybe it is the future.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

How to Fix College Football

Yesterday the Tennessee Volunteers football team got thumped again, 34-20, by the 4th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, a defeat that was widely predicted and by a margin close to what was expected. Previously they were also roundly beaten 34-10 by then 3rd ranked Oklahoma and 34-3 by 3rd ranked Ole Miss.

In contrast, they thrashed the minnows of Chattanooga, Arkansas State and Utah State earlier on.
So, out of 9 Vols games so far this season, 7 have been match-ups between clearly unequal teams.

Its a wonder anyone bothers to turn up at Neyland Stadium. It's not as if there's much excitement there any more.

They should not be playing teams ranked 50 places above them. It's boring for the fans, and demoralizing  for the young kids on the losing team.

Here's how to fix it:

At the beginning of the season there is a preliminary ranking of schools. Only the first month should be firmly scheduled, with games against teams within 15 places either side in the rankings, preferably geographically close. That means that, in the current rankings, the Vols would be playing colleges such as UNC, Western Kentucky, MTSU, Florida, Georgia Tech, Mississippi State and Texas Tech.
These would all be exciting games because we WOULDN'T KNOW IN ADVANCE WHO IS GOING TO WIN!

Now, in college football teams can sometimes turn out to be much better or worse than expected, as the roster turnover each year is high. So every week, as the rankings are adjusted, so would be the schedule for games a month away and longer. Thus the schedule would adapt to the strength of the team. We'd keep all games scheduled within 4 weeks as they are, though, so as to not disrupt travel plans. But a team that is 6-0 after the first month and half could well be facing Top Ten teams in the third month.

Of course, this would be the virtual demise of the conference system; no more SEC, ACC etc.
And some of our treasured match-ups, such as Alabama, LSU etc, wouldn't take place every year.
But what's the point of them when the game is a foregone conclusion?
Adaptive Scheduling - the Future of College Football!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Superman Disorder?

When I was 13 years old I was diagnosed with Gilbert's Syndrome, a genetic disorder affecting the promoter of a gene for the enzyme glucuronyltransferase, which conjugates bilirubin. 5-10% of the population have GS, and it is benign, leading only to elevated levels of unconjugated bilirubin in blood tests and occasional slight jaundice, which friends of mine have sometimes remarked on.

What seems weird, though, is that in the last few years there has been a raft of statistical epidemiological studies suggesting that us GS guys have a huge, invisible health shield! Those of us with the disorder appear to be  protected, sometimes strongly,  against cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and kidney disease, and have lower BMIs, reduced cholesterol, more elastic arteries, reduced inflammation status and all sorts of other yummy stuff. There was even an article published last year showing success in the bottom line: in a study of 25,000 people over 350,000 person-years the overall mortality  of us Gilbert's Grenadiers was only half that of normal people.

Why would this be? The suggestion (albeit disputed) is that protection arises at least in part because unconjugated bilirubin is a powerful antioxidant, and therefore protects against oxidative stress. That would then be a bit like having had your ration of five fruits and vegetables before you even get up in the morning.

I'm not buying it, of course. There has to be a catch somewhere, doesn't there? Hyperbilirubinemia in infants can lead to irreversible kernicterus, or brain damage. Also, drug toxicity would appear to be worse in some cases for us guys. So I'm waiting for the negative metabolic effects of GS to be elucidated using systems medicine approaches. But until that time, I'm formally in the superman club!