Thursday, October 25, 2007

Live Long And Starve

Why some people live longer than others is not well understood but one fact is known: severe caloric reduction can prolong life considerably. Far from starving yourself to death, you can starve yourself to a long life, if you do it right. (Here & here.) But who wants to live to be 100 if it means eating a near-starvation diet? Not me, that's for sure. Take away good food and drink of all kinds, and good tobacco, and 100 years of life will feel like 100 years of perdition.

But there may be hope for those of us who want our birthday cakes --- many, many cakes --- and to eat them, too.
"[R]esearchers from Harvard Medical School, in collaboration with scientists from Cornell Medical School and the National Institutes of Health, have discovered two genes in mammalian cells that act as gatekeepers for cellular longevity. When cells experience certain kinds of stress, such as caloric restriction, these genes rev up and help protect cells from diseases of aging." (Here.)
That's good news right there. But it gets better. It may be possible to target those genes to retard aging.
"'We've reason to believe now that these two genes may be potential drug targets for diseases associated with aging,' says David Sinclair, associate professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School and senior author on the paper."
Keep working on that gene therapy idea, professor. Maybe one day your research will lead to the replacement of the one a day multivitamin with a one a day longevity pill. The sooner the better.


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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

First Impressions Of Disaster

Nature's to blame.

My home town is burning and hundreds of thousands of people are refugees in San Diego County. My own home is unaffected because it's located inside miles of residential neighborhoods far from the brush that fuels the fires in Southern California and the canyons that provide pathways for the fires to travel. Well, not completely, there's a canyon across the street but it's surrounded by neighborhoods. If it burns it will be from arson and the fire won't have a clear path of dried brush to travel far. It's not development that leads to wildfires. It's nature.

Locals make all the difference.

San Diego's response to the fire has been professional and effective. Volunteers, private organizations, and government have worked together to save lives and take care of the thousands of displaced persons in the county. Katrina was the nadir of disaster preparation and response in our country. The response of state, county, and city officials to the fires here shows that local, not federal, preparedness and response is the most important factor in fighting disasters. We will need the feds to help with recovery. But it's the local authorities who have gotten us through the disaster itself.

Sports facilities are a civic benefit.

Evacuees have gone to sites all over the county and to homes of friends and family. The place that houses the most evacuees so far is Qualcomm Stadium. Qualcomm is where the San Diego Chargers play football. The stadium has been the center of controversy for what seems like forever. It's an old facility that has seen better days. The Padres got out and the Chargers want to build a new facility. San Diego's financial problems make it virtually impossible for the city to chip in for the building of a new stadium at that site. And political opposition by government officials opposed to government subsidies of sports teams is surprisingly strong here. So the Chargers are looking to build outside the city in Chula Vista, a town to the south.

City officials may want to rethink the value of having a large stadium inside the city. Qualcomm Stadium is centrally located and far from most danger. The use of the facility to house thousands of evacuees comfortably demonstrates the value of having a large sports facility inside San Diego's city limits. It may be worth sharing the cost of building a new football stadium with the Chargers to have the facility available for disaster relief.

Wall to wall news coverage.

Local radio and TV are both the best and the worst sources of information in this disaster. On the positive side, the coverage has kept us informed of events. The fire coverage has been 24/7 on radio and television and crews have fanned out all over the county to bring pictures and sounds of the fire and devestation, as well as the announcements of local officials. On the negative side, the coverage tends to get sensationalistic. Much of the county has been in danger from these fires. But there are large parts of the county that are unaffected by the fire except for the thick smoke in the air. If you only paid attention to the pictures and the interviews you would think that every neighborhood in the county is either burning up or in imminent danger of doing so. But maps that show the fire's progress help the most when you're trying to learn whether you're at risk or not. The fires have gone straight to the west both north and south of the central parts of the city of San Diego. The people in the center are at little risk. But you wouldn't know it from the coverage. There is one notable local exception.

The weatherman at KUSI Channel 51 is John Coleman. He's an older guy notable for goofy antics and science questions while still being a knowledgeable meteorologist. He was the only weatherman and news reporter on TV all day yesterday who accurately predicted that the winds would die down and that the weather would work to prevent the fires from reaching the coast. Everybody else was reporting the prediction that the fire would reach the sea somewhere around Del Mar. It's looking like that won't happen and that Coleman was correct.

Nature is bigger than us.

Humans have come a long way in 60,000 years. We live in a great civilization, highly developed and technogically advanced. But this fire shows that sometimes the only thing we puny humans can do is run like hell and get out of the way. It's looking like we're turning a corner against the fire today. And why? The weather is calming down and making it possible to bring all our resources to bear against the fire. We'll see what happens tomorrow. Pray for us, cross your fingers, or wish us well, whatever your beliefs allow.

People are better than you might think.

Most people want to be part of the solution, or at least get out of the way of those who have the solution. Only a few people tried to take advantage of the disaster by looting or scamming. A few others decided they knew better than professionals and disobeyed evacuation orders. Public opinion turned on those holdouts fast as reports came in of firefighters leaving the front lines to rescue people who refused to evacuate. When the evacuation orders came the vast majority of people complied. Thousands of people then offered time, supplies, their homes, and money to help those in need. San Diegans pitched in to help. When push comes to shove people come through.


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Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Birds Of Paradise: Part 15

Events took a turn for the worse for the Coopers Hawk recently. It was sitting in its favorite place near the bottlebrush tree close by the five birdfeeders. A gang of crows gathered. One crow counted coup on the hawk and the chase began. The crows chased the hawk next door. Then the hawk chased the crows back to my backyard. The crows continued to pursue the hawk in series of attacks from yard to yard until they drove it away. The crows have returned every day. The hawk hasn't been around. Part of the combat is captured on video. It's best appreciated when played at slow speed. (Youtube link here.) Some screenshots are posted below.


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Monday, October 08, 2007

The Birds Of Paradise: Part 14.

The tale of the hawk continues. The feeders were silent this morning. The Coopers Hawk was hiding by the bottle brush tree right by the platform feeder. I'm a novice birdwatcher so this is a guess, but the dark streaks and the white body identify this as a juvenile, less than 1 year old. The clumps of morning dove feathers scattered near the feeder suggest the hawk can hunt well enough.

The pigeon coming into view to the left circled in a panic twice and flew off. The hawk left it alone for some reason and flew away in short flights from power line to jacaranda, to fencetop, to power pole, and then gone. The 20 or so small sparrows and finches hiding in the bottle brush tree showed themselves about 5 minutes later. Ain't the suburbs grand?

By the way, the pigeon spikes in the top picture are there to protect the feeders from the cats that used to jump over the fence. They worked well against the cats. They've turned out to be a bit of a Maginot Line, however. The cats can't go through the spikes but the hawk has no problem going over them.


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Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Birds Of Paradise: Part 13

Power poles are unsightly but handy. This hawk, the Coopers Hawk, I believe, is resting on top of the pole in my backyard. Some crows had been there a few minutes before. Below the hawk flies away staring at me. (Click photo to enlarge.) It doesn't seem to like paparazzi.


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Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Tie Game That Went To The Rockies

Baseball fans by now have seen the blown call at home plate that ended the Padres-Rockies tiebreaker game. Matt Holliday of the Rockies never touched home plate and he still hasn't. Padres catcher Michael Barrett blocked the plate and kept Holliday's head-first slide from crossing the plate. The umpire saw it differently so the game will go down in history as the tie game that went to the Rockies.

But I don't write to complain about the umpire. His blown call is just a fact. The Rockies played hard and deserved to win, especially for coming back against Trevor Hoffman. The Padres have nothing to be ashamed of for that last game. They played like champions that night and most games during the year. But on the 163rd game of the season, they got beat by a team on a roll. The Rockies look like the team to beat in the playoffs. As for the Padres, it'll be another wait until next year off-season.

The Padres' organization is consistently putting a winning team on the field. It's a welcome change from the many years of losing teams fans have had to endure. So what about next year?

Starting Pitching: The front end of the rotation looks set with Jake Peavy, Chris Young, and Greg Maddux. Two back-end starters are needed. Clay Hensley should be back from surgery next year and with luck, he'll regain his 2006 form. Whether the Padres will still want him is an open questions.

Relief Pitching: Hoffman is the all-time saves leader but his days look numbered. Not that the team won't bring him back. He had another great year with 44 saves. But he blew two key saves in the last weekend, and to put it bluntly, if he hadn't blown just one of those saves the Padres, not the Rockies, would be playing the Phillies. Even in games Hoffman saves he regularly gives up hard base hits. His fastball has slowed down and if he doesn't have perfect command, major league hitters knock him around. Contrast that with Heath Bell's performance this year. Bell is a lights-out pitcher who blows batters away with a high-mileage fastball. Next year may see the transition from Hoffman to Bell in the closer's role. There are a number of fans ready to make that move.

Catcher: Josh Bard is great. He handles pitchers well and he hits. He hits hard and under pressure. He can't throw out a base stealer to save his life. But the Padres seem to subscribe to the theory that the running game is nothing to worry about.

Infield: The Padres infield is stocked with excellent young players. That infield is going to keep the Padres in contention for years to come. Adrian Gonzalez at first base plays stellar defense and hits with authority. Khalil Greene is the best shortstop for the Padres since Ozzie Smith, if not in baseball. He never misses a routine play and he makes astounding plays look routine. Plus, he's got power. Kevin Kouzmanoff may finally be the answer to the Padres quest for a third baseman who can hit and field. Kooz is a perfect fit for Petco Park with his right-handed power. The one small hole is second base, which was filled by Geoff Blum after Marcus Giles failed. Blum is one of the team's most valuable players. Last year he stepped in at short when Green was out with an injury. This year, he became the starting second baseman. The Padres could do worse than bringing back Blum at second next year. Bard followed by Blum made a great 7-8 combination at the bottom of the lineup this year.

Outfield: Lots of holes there. Brian Giles should remain at right and in leadoff. He is an iron man in the field. He played all year with a microfracture in his knee, that required surgery two days after the season ended. Contrast that with left-fielder Milton Bradley. Left field was the big hole at the beginning of the year and remains empty at season's end. Bradley is not worth the time, the money, or the trouble. He's too fragile to be counted on. Scott Hairston was a great late-season filler in left. His right-handed power is also perfect for Petco Park. He deserves a shot at left. As for center field, Mike Cameron should be brought back. His defense is essential in Petco Park's huge outfield. The Padres should keep him for his defense. Whatever he contributes on offense is a bonus.

It's going to be an interesting off-season.


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