Monthly Archives: August 2010

How Researchers Keep Their Bedbugs Alive

The NYT looks at the scientific research side of bedbugs. It’s as gross as you might expect:

The classic bedbug strain that all newly caught bugs are compared against is a colony originally from Fort Dix, N.J., that a researcher kept alive for 30 years by letting it feed on him.

But Stephen A. Kells, a University of Minnesota entomologist, said he “prefers not to play with that risk.”

He feeds his bugs expired blood-bank blood through parafilm, which he describes as “waxy Saran Wrap.”

Coby Schal of North Carolina State said he formerly used condoms filled with rabbit blood, but switched to parafilm because his condom budget raised eyebrows with university auditors.

Col. Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D: F*** Powerpoint, Afghanistan edition

Colonel Sellin, who was fired from his post after writing this awesomely frank description of his duties as staff officer at ISAF Joint Command in Afghanistan for UPI. Excerpting doesn’t do it justice, but here are some highlights:

For headquarters staff, war consists largely of the endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information. Even one tiny flaw in a slide can halt a general’s thought processes as abruptly as a computer system’s blue screen of death.

The ability to brief well is, therefore, a critical skill. It is important to note that skill in briefing resides in how you say it. It doesn’t matter so much what you say or even if you are speaking Klingon.

And then, tragicomedy:

The CUA consists of a series of PowerPoint slides describing the events of the previous 12 hours. Briefers explain each slide by reading from a written statement in a tone not unlike that of a congressman caught in a tryst with an escort. The CUA slides only change when a new commander arrives or the war ends.

The commander’s immediate subordinates, usually one- and two-star generals, listen to the CUA in a semi-comatose state. Each briefer has approximately 1 or 2 minutes to impart either information or misinformation. Usually they don’t do either. Fortunately, none of the information provided makes an indelible impact on any of the generals.

One important task of the IJC is to share information to the ISAF commander, his staff and to all the regional commands. This information is delivered as PowerPoint slides in e-mail at the flow rate of a fire hose. Standard operating procedure is to send everything that you have. Volume is considered the equivalent of quality.

What made the 61-year-old reservist, who served in both current theaters of war, go off the ranch in such a brilliant manner? According to Wired, Sellin tried giving his higher-ups constructive criticism, including “proven organizational methodologies,” but was ignored (even though, Wired notes, he delivered it using a 5-slide PowerPoint). His PowerPoint rant, though, got attention.

Sellin had been opining frequently for UPI; it’s amazing he lasted this long (it may be that PowerPoint and its use in the military has gotten a lot of ridicule lately). Many of his columns complain about operational inefficency and bureaucratic idiocy. On June 24, he wondered if a military mental health test was “just a Pentagon public relations exercise to pretend that ‘something is being done'” and stated that “on face value it appears to be not only a waste of taxpayer’s money but a total waste of time for the deploying soldiers and the CRC staff.” His ripping on PowerPoint started as early as July 15, when he wrote that “command briefings become nothing more than the same updated Power Point slides presenting data about daily operations

And back in June 15, he gave a impolitic assessment of (presumably) the Obama administration, in comments that make Gen. McChrystal look as obedient as a bootlicking middle-manager:

Far too many in Washington appear to be, not only dangerously out-of-touch with the sentiments and values of the American people but also laughably incompetent in accomplishing anything beyond rhetoric and self-aggrandizement.

Much of our current leadership seem less committed to addressing critical national security issues than pursuing political agendas dedicated solely to the perpetuation of personal power and privilege.

They persist despite the knowledge that their inaction may ultimately weaken the country. It is a degree of selfishness that defies description.

“If you can sleep with it, do it”; New Orleans cops given orders to shoot looters

Photo by Alex Brandon/The Times-Picayune

Photo by Alex Brandon/The Times-Picayune

New evidence and reports showing that New Orleans police were given orders to shoot looters in order to take back the city after Hurricane Katrina, a fundamental change in use-of-force policies. This gives some context to the reports of innocents gunned down during that chaotic time. The story is the result of an investigation by my ProPublica colleagues, Sabrina Shankman and A.C. Thompson, along with reporters at Frontline and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Settlers of Catan: A peaceful “Monopoly Killer”

Just finished reading this 2009 Wired piece by Andrew Curry on the popularity of Settlers of Catan, which apparently is the “Mona Lisa” of modern board gaming.

The most interesting insights to me were how board games are so popular in Germany that major media review them with the same seriousness as they do movies and books. And, that Germany’s post-WW2 revulsion towards violence affects their board game industry, so much that “Risk” risked being banned for fear that it would inspire another Hitler among the youth. They ended up getting past the censors by having players “liberate” opponents’ territories, rather than conquer them.

Back when I was in college, a lot of my dormmates played the game (it was an engineering/science dorm…) nightly. I avoided it because there didn’t appear to be any battleships or ICBMs and was more interested in Counterstrike anyway. But it sounds like a pretty legit game, sans armies. I bought the $4.99 iPhone app today.

Rep. Ron Paul shows how conservatism is done, re: Cordoba House

In contrast to my previous post on Republican U.S. House candidate Ron McNeil telling schoolkids that Islam is the enemy, Rep. Ron Paul demonstrates what happens when you take conservatism to its logical end (and in the process, showing up even Democrats when it comes to protecting civil rights):

I think it’s a big distraction, a grand distraction from the real issues… To me it should have been a grand opportunity, and you really touched on the opportunity, because it’s really a property rights issue, and who owns the property? And it’s also a civil liberties issue. It’s a freedom of speech issue… Property rights and civil rights are one and the same… drives the neo-cons nuts… I don’t believe for a minute that the, quote, religion of Islam is our enemy.

Ron McNiel (R-Fl. candidate) shows how teaching religion in schools is done

From Northwest Florida Daily News, this report of U.S. House candidate Ron McNiel teaching high school students how to make compromises on a heated First Amendment issue:

“That religion is against everything America stands for. If we have to let them build it, make them build it nine stories underground, so we can walk above it as citizens and Christians.”

As the Daily Show/Colbert Report’s Indecision blog notes, “You can’t un-read that, sorry.”

Men’s Health: The Tarahumara Indians, Men Who Live Forever

Again from, this 2008 article in Men’s Health magazine that seems too good to be true: the Tarahumara Indians, a remote tribe in Mexico’s Copper Canyons, live cancer and disease-free lives on a diet seemingly of corn and beer. Outsiders have adopted their lifestyle and writing technique: Scott Jurek was able to to win two ultra-marathons (100+ miles) within two weeks, all on a vegan diet.

The piece, by Christopher McDougall, is beautifully written, though devolves at the end into a technical dissertation on running technique. Not that it isn’t useful, and something I’m going to try (basically, the Tarahumara advocate a barefoot-running style that looks like riding an “invisible unicycle”, but I would’ve liked to read more about the Indians themselves. McDougall wrote a book, “Born to Run,” reviewed favorably by the Washington Post.