Jun 29, 2011

Clicking sounds?

Yglesias directed me to this Bob Kravitz article, which contains, I surmise, what passes for humor:
There were foreign players chosen late in the second round whose names are a series of clicking noises. It was as if NBA general managers were playing some sinister sort of Scrabble game, grabbing Chukwudiebere Maduabum and Targuy Ngombo instead of the likes of Ohio State's David Lighty and Butler's Matt Howard. Ater Majok! Triple word score!

It somehow seemed disrespectful and frivolous to watch teams justify their overseas expense accounts by picking players whose scoring averages were lower than Lindsay Lohan's blood-alcohol level. I understand taking some fliers -- the Spurs grabbed Manu Ginobili at No. 57 in 1999 -- but Ginobili was already establishing himself as a prospect in the Italian league. Seriously, if Maduabum plays in the NBA, I will take a Rosetta Stone course to learn his language -- whatever that might be.
Staggering ignorance and prejudice aside, these names are fairly easy to pronounce; it's about how you'd expect just sounding them out.  As Yglesias points out, "click" languages exist mostly in southern Africa, and sure enough, we've got a few such sounds even in Setswana.  To say "I need," you say ke tlhoka.  That "tlh" sound is made by clicking your tongue against the side of your cheek Donald Duck-style.  It's not too hard, but does take a bit of practice.

Zulu and Xhosa, on the other hand, have many different clicks—the X in "Xhosa" itself is a click, and proper pronunciation can take years to learn.  I'd like to see Kravitz try to pronounce Mnquma.

Jun 28, 2011

COS date confirmed!

I now know for sure when I'll be coming home: August 18th!  (Plus or minus a day or two.)  I'm stoked to be coming home!  More thoughts later when I've got a bit more time.

Debt ceiling?

After begin away from the computer for a bit, these negotiations seem completely surreal.  I just hope Republicans don't destroy the government so badly that it can no longer afford to buy me a plane ticket home.

Jun 25, 2011

Programming note

I'm currently coming back from Pretoria where I got a new pair of glasses.  Not much to report, except that like the dentist here, the optometrist had equipment of greater sophistication than anything I'd ever seen back in the states.  We may have sub-par stuff, but at least the system is really expensive.

Jun 22, 2011

WIC cuts

My mother is a public health nurse, so the news that House Republicans are going to slash WIC's enrollment by between 200,000 and 350,000 is especially infuriating.  Yglesias brings the snark:
I was thinking to myself the other day, “You know what sucks? All this wasteful government spending on improving nutrion for babies.” I mean, sure, a baby’s got to eat, but if the baby’s hungry, it should have thought of that before it was born, you know, and made sure to have richer parents. Fortunately, the House Republican caucus has approved a budget that will finally grapple with the problem of over-nourished infants and the country’s shameful coddling of poor pregnant mothers.

Jun 21, 2011

Peace Corps South Africa packing list

I remember when I was getting ready for departure I was surfing around reading a lot of blogs for advice on what to pack. SA24 is coming up, so I thought I'd lay down some of my nearly-infinite wisdom. For a sensible list for a guy, this is a good place to start. I'm not going to give you my exact packing list, though; I reckon I'm a bit idiosyncratic in that department. I don't even remember what I had exactly, but more than half of the weight was books and I was much lighter than most people.

Instead, I'll just give some general advice about what to bring and what to worry about, in more-or-less descending order of importance.  Feel free to pick and choose what sounds good to you and ignore the rest.

1) Money
. South Africa is an expensive country, quite a bit more than the average Peace Corps country. It's quite possible to make it on the stipend alone, but I only know of two people offhand who have done it and they're constantly scrimping on everything. Most of you, especially older volunteers, will have access to a bit of US cash. My advice is to be ready to spend some of that, at least on vacation—if the volunteers I know are any judge, it's going to be almost impossible to resist. I eat nothing but beans, rice, and Morvite and I still dip into my US funds occasionally. There will be lots of vacation opportunities, and there's no reason why you shouldn't take full advantage of them. Besides, a night at a nice B&B every once in a while can really help your sanity. In my opinion, there's really nothing wrong with living it up a bit if you so desire. Living on the village standard is an admirable goal, but Peace Corps is primarily up to you, and don't listen to anyone who says different.

2) Electronics. This is sort of related to #1, but it's worth considering on its own. Electronics here, especially computers and related peripherals, are roughly twice as expensive as in the US (cell phones aren't as bad). I recommend bringing along a laptop, and an external hard drive with at least 500 GB of space. Make sure it is USB powered. The power will probably go out a lot where you are, and this will help prevent hard drive death as the drive can run off your battery. You can load it up with shows and stuff, but usually you can get those at PST if you must. If you know how to get an unlocked, SIM-ready phone in the US (don't ask me), that could be a good buy but it's not quite as critical as cell phones are a bit closer in price to the US.

Power is 230V and 50 Hz here, similar to Europe. Practically all sophisticated electronics nowadays can take that voltage with only an adapter, which just arranges the conductors so they can get juice from the SA plugs. Look on the transformer of your device, it should say somewhere 100-240V, and 50-60 Hz. Basically all laptop, iPod, Kindle, etc. chargers are like that. I've only heard of a couple common devices that need 120V—a Nintendo DS is one, I think, and to run such a device, you'll need a converter that can step down the voltage.  Those tend to be rather expensive.  If you're worried about power surges, you can bring a surge protector, or buy one here; they aren't too expensive.

You can get adapters online, just make sure they say SA specifically, as SA has a weird plug scheme that isn't included in a lot of the "universal" adapters. Most people don't bother, and during PST usually they'll order a bunch of adapters for everyone that wants one. That's what I did.

3) Camping gear. Camping can save you loads of money at backpackers and hostels.  If that sounds like you, go with the best backpacking-style stuff you can afford; hauling around heavy tents and sleeping bags on public transport is a terrific nuisance. (Not bringing this stuff was my biggest regret, I had it sent from home.) It doesn't have to be Antarctica-ready or anything (most of South Africa rarely gets below freezing even in July), but the lighter the better. Bring a nice pack towel.

4) Books. I brought a lot of books. I don't really regret it, but looking back I would have bought an ebook reader.  Right now I have an Amazon Kindle, and I absolutely love it.  I take it everywhere, the battery lasts forever, and the screen is very easy on the eyes.  It's not necessary to buy dozens of books off Amazon; you can thousands from Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.  However, it is worth poking around the Amazon site for cheap or free books, there are some hidden gems there.  I've downloaded loads for $5 or less.

5) Clothes. I don't have much to offer here, except that South Africans put a lot of stock in dressing nicely, which spills over into the Peace Corps administration. Pressed pants or dresses, shined shoes, the works. I wear nothing but Dickies to school so I don't have to iron, so you might want to throw in a pair or two of those if you're lazy like me.  Also don't forget that it gets really cold during the winter, and there's usually no indoor heating.  I'd bring enough warm stuff for -5 C (23 F), which might be a bit of overkill, but better than being cold.

6) Take it easy.  Something about the way Peace Corps works in South Africa often makes for a rather abrasive environment, particularly at PST.  It's anybody's guess why, but I'd just say be ready to deal with a lot of logistical screwups within the Peace Corps bureaucracy.  It can be a huge pain in the ass, particularly with the deep South African tradition of buck-passing, but I think the critical thing to realize is that it doesn't have to ruin things for you.  PST very well might provide you with enough material to complain every waking moment, but it should also be fun!  You make new friends, you learn a new language, and some (hopefully) nice people take you into their home and make you part of the family.  Before they kicked me out of the last PST, I said it's good to develop a "Zen mode," where you don't let things you can't control ruin your afternoon.  It doesn't always work, but it's good to try and head things off before you have to adjust your blood pressure medication.

7) Sexual frustration. Most volunteers are young and many are single, and there will likely be a large gender imbalance towards females. This sometimes leads to weird competitive phenomena that don't work out for anyone. Combine that with South Africa's titanic HIV epidemic, and you can see how there's a chance one could end up clawing up the walls. Be warned.

8) Miscellaneous.
-Bring some maps of the US and the world. Even more than one perhaps—they make great presents.
-Bring a nice pocketknife with a wine opener.
-Smartwool socks are extremely nice, especially in the winter.
-Bring a decent backpack if you're into hiking or backpacking.
-Playing cards or some travel board games are always a good idea.
Anything I'm forgetting?

Jun 20, 2011

Psychedelic psychotherapy

For those that remember my post on DMT, here's some interesting news on one of its close relatives:
Here's something a little offbeat for a Friday morning. A team of researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine has recently documented a safe, long-lasting way of improving both your life and your personal feelings of well-being: shrooms. [...]
Notably, 61% of volunteers considered the psilocybin experience during either or both the [highest dosage] sessions to have been the single most spiritually significant of their lives, with 83% rating it in their top five. Consistent with this, 94% and 89% of volunteers, respectively, indicated that the experiences on those same sessions increased their well-being or life satisfaction and positively changed their behavior at least moderately.

....One month after sessions at either or both the two highest dose sessions, 94% of volunteers endorsed that the experience increased their sense of well-being or life satisfaction moderately or very much, and 89% rated moderate or higher changes in positive behavior. At the 14-month follow-up, these ratings remained high. The types of behavior change most frequently cited by volunteers were better social relationships with family and others, increased physical and psychological self-care, and increased spiritual practice (Table 6). Ratings by community observers before and after the study as well as ratings by study monitors after the study were consistent with the persisting positive changes in behavior and attitudes claimed by the volunteers.

This replicates the results of earlier studies, and it's worth noting that, Eminem songs aside, there have been no recorded cases of death from psilocybin alone, ever.  Here's the structure:


Like heroin, psilocybin is not actually a drug. Rather it is a prodrug, meaning it is metabolized to an actual drug in the body. In this case, psilocybin is processed into psilocin via dephosphorlyation, meaning your nips off that honkin phosphoryl group up on the top left.  Psilocin is doing the actual psychedelic lifting.


If you'll recall my DMT post, this structure is remarkably similar.  It always astonishes me that substances like psilocin and DMT, with widely varying effects, often differ by only a couple of atoms.  Get rid of that hydroxyl group (the OH on the top left), and you've got DMT.

Sunday chemistry blogging: catalysts

Ok, it's a day late, sorry, and it will be a bit short.  But during the camp when we were having a bit of trouble getting a fire started (meaning a guy kept throwing huge pieces of wood on before it got started), someone produced a plastic bag.  "Any of you taken chemistry?  This is called a catalyst!" he said, and cast the bag into the flames, where it burned about like you'd expect (very quickly).  I imagine this reflects the popular understanding of catalyst as something that makes a reaction go faster, like pouring gasoline on a fire.

Of course, I couldn't help gleefully pointing out that I actually have a degree in chemistry, and that the guy's definition of catalyst was completely wrong.  (Why study science if you can't be an asshole about it at least once in awhile?)  Here's the real definition: a catalyst is something that changes the rate of a reaction while not being consumed by the reaction.  So the common movie trope when someone sprinkles a bit of "catalyst" into a big vat of chemicals and it starts to boil ferociously is close to the mark, but it's worth thinking about why this is.

The critical part of the catalyst definition above is the "not consumed" part.  Most catalysts do something like this:

R1 + R2 + C → R1-C-R2 → P + C

Here we've got a reaction where two reactants, R1 and R2, are reacting to form a single product P.  The catalyst, C, is helping things out by forming an intermediate stage on the way to the product—it's kind of like a chemical matchmaker that steps back after making introductions.  (Like anything in science, the details of each individual catalytic reaction can get stupendously complex, and sometimes work in ways completely different from my picture above.  But this is a decent way of thinking about it in general.)

Most catalysts are used to speed up reactions (called positive catalysis), but some are used to slow them down (negative catalysis).  Now you too can correct people at parties!

Jun 17, 2011

Programming note

I'm currently helping out with a children's camp over in Northwest Province. Regularly scheduled posting will resume sometime after Sunday, though I may pop in from time to time before that.

Jun 15, 2011

Lunar eclipse!

This is probably a terrible picture, but it's of the happening lunar eclipse. Too bad those of you in the Northern Hemisphere can't see it.

Jun 14, 2011

Warm fuzzies

Stranded out in a strange town in the dark I was rescued by a stranger who sat with me and chased down my bus. It may be a bit of a selfish country on the whole, but it's worth repeating that there are some truly top-drawer people here. I'm glad to have known some myself.

Jun 12, 2011

How to end the war on drugs?

Ezra Klein asks a question:
The Global Commission on Drug Policy recently reported back. What it said was what most everyone who's looked into this issue already knew: "The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world." A new approach, one based more on realistic interventions than martial metaphors, is needed.

The news, however, was who was saying this: Former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker. Former secretary of state George P. Schultz. Former president of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardozo. Former secretary-general of the United Nations Kofi Annan. Former president of Switzerland Ruth Dreifuss. And many more important "formers."

So here's my question: What alignment of political forces and events would be needed for America to seriously rethink its drug laws? Would it have to begin in the states? Is it something a law-and-order Republican needs to do?
The last few years has seen a slow fruition of years of work from the drug policy reform community.  A batch of organizations and individuals, from SSDP to NORML to Erowid, from Gary Johnson to Bill Maher to Pete Guither, have brought the issue onto the national radar.  Still, I see a few big realignments that need to happen or progress before anything besides marijuana can be addressed intelligently.

1) Drug policy reform must be anointed with Seriousness.  One of the biggest obstacles here is the media's usual portrayal of reformers as wild-eyed DFHs or drug-addled monsters.  As Jay Rosen has said, "the power to place certain people, causes and ideas within the deviant sphere is one of the most ideological things journalists ever do."  This is partially the fault of irresponsible fools like Timothy Leary, and as the memories and fears of the sixties fade, the effectiveness of the "soft on drugs" charge will slowly fade.

This realignment is starting to happen, particularly with the rise of fine new media organizations like TPM.  Reports like the one from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, and pressure from groups like SSDP, are key to keeping this trend going and taking some of the air out of the "tough on drugs" stance.

2) Various middle-income and poor countries that are being devastated by anti-drug policies must assert their views and be taken seriously.  Places like Columbia, Nicaragua, and Mexico have serious and continuing problems because of the massive amounts of money to be made creating drugs to be sold on the US market, and the US's insistence on using chemical defoliants to try and poison the drug fields.  Moreover, those same countries are often stuck with obnoxious treaties on things like coca leaf that were stuffed down their throats years ago by the US.  Here again, there are some positive things happening; Evo Morales' crusade against anti-coca trade agreements is a good example.

3) Drugs, particularly "hard" ones, must be reconsidered.  The popular image of cocaine, heroin and meth is one mostly taken from drug memoirs.  This says that they are staggeringly dangerous substances where one try leads nearly inevitably to a life of crime and irreversible brain damage.  This is simply not true.  Take this review article about cocaine:
After a decade when cocaine use was reported to be rampant and uncontrollable for a sizable group of Americans, the 1990 National Household Survey of Drug Abuse (NHSDA) found that 11.5 percent of Americans reported ever using cocaine, 3 percent used cocaine within the past year, and 0.9 percent used in the last month (NIDA, 1991; see Harrison, 1994). Of current users (those who have used the drug in the last year), a third used the drug 12 or more times a year, and 10 percent used cocaine once a week or more. These results replicate another, earlier study:
Cocaine use appears to be experimental in nature and to involve few experiences for a substantial portion of those who report any lifetime experience with the drug. One-half (53%) of the male users and two-thirds (67 %) of the female users have used cocaine less than 10 times in their lives; 34% and 28 %, respectively, have used 10 to 99 times, 9% and 3% have used 100 to 999 times, 3% and 2% have used 1,000 or more times. (Kandel, Murphy, & Karus, 1985)
A Canadian survey found 5 percent of current users used monthly or more often (Adlaf, Smart, & Canale, 1991). But monthly and weekly use are far from addiction, and only 10-25 percent of regular users resemble clinical addicts, or about 1-2 percent of all current users (Erickson & Alexander, 1989).
To be sure, hard drugs are not to be trifled with.  But the reality of drug use needs to be part of any reasonable policy calculation—and the common view of "drugs" as substances of distilled evil is a big part of propping up the drug war architecture.  At the very least, drugs like LSD and marijuana must be untangled from their association with heroin and meth in federal law.  Psychedelics, in particular, are completely unsuited to their current designation under the Controlled Substances Act.  (The strangling of psychedelics research for more than forty years, only now being haltingly reversed, is a big scientific tragedy.)

As to Ezra's final questions: I'm somewhat skeptical that reform could start in the states.  Steps toward even marijuana reform are now being met with federal SWAT teams and legal threats (by an alleged Democrat!).  Absent at least federal nonintervention, I don't see serious reform happening.

There could be a Nixon-in-China effect for some conservative Republican who decided to tackle drug policy reform, but the idea of someone making it through the Tea Party meat grinder with such a policy beggars belief.  Gary Johnson and Ron Paul will never win the nomination because they are just such supporters.  Believe me, I would be the first to cheer if Johnson was the nominee, but I don't see it happening.

Sunday chemistry blogging: why do hot things glow?

I got the idea for this one looking at an electric burner on a stove, but let's start with a slightly different example.  When you're looking at campfire flames, what are those flames actually made of?

Via Wikimedia

The answer is superheated glowing gas, mostly carbon dioxide from the burning of carbon.  But that just raises another, more interesting question: why does the hot gas glow?  Classical physics had an answer for this; basically they said that it's from the vibration of the molecules, each one emitting electromagnetic radiation (light) corresponding to the frequency of vibration.  However, if one looked closely at the physics, it turned out there were a few problems with this theory.

It had been known for a long time that a black body (meaning a perfectly absorptive mass—like frictionless planes, these don't actually exist but are good for learning stuff) at thermal equilibrium would emit radiation in roughly this pattern:

The problem with classical physics was that the usual model there predicted that any blackbody at thermal equilibrium would emit infinite radiation at small wavelengths.  This was later awesomely called the "ultraviolet catastrophe."  Max Planck, working on the problem from a completely different direction, discovered that energy is quantized (meaning it only comes in discrete little squirts—this is where "quantum mechanics" comes from), and later came up with the correct answer to the catastrophe, though the derivation was rather implausible and no one took it seriously for awhile.  Einstein applied this same basic idea to light, postulating that light also only comes in little squirts he called photons.

Setting aside a lot of math, this gives us the modern picture of how atoms and their electrons behave.  Electrons swirl around atoms in mathematical corrals called "orbitals," and those suckers are also quantized according to strict laws.  When an electron absorbs some energy, it shoots up to a higher energy orbital for a time, then relaxes back down to the original level, emitting a photon of equal energy to the difference between the orbital levels.  The higher energy the situation (i.e., hotter), the larger the energy difference and the higher energy the photon.  If we're talking about visible light, different energy photons means a different color, so blue flames are hotter than yellow are hotter than red.

That's it for today.  Corrections, comments, and especially topic suggestions are always welcome.

Jun 11, 2011

The year anniversary of the World Cup

I find it extremely hard to believe it was actually an entire year ago that me and my friends embarked on an epic whirlwind tour around South Africa.  Now one of those friends is married, fergawdsake!  Pierre de Vos looks back:
It is exactly one year ago that I bought my first Vuvuzela at my local Spar and discovered what a beautiful racket I could make with that piece of plastic, donned my Bafana Bafana shirt and joined friends in the city to watch our team take on Mexico in the opening game of the Soccer World Cup. That was the day Simphiwe Tshabalala scored the glorious opening goal of the World Cup and South Africa suddenly turned into the country we all wished we had lived in all our lives.

Almost all the professional whiners – of which our nation seems to have more than its fair share – fell silent while almost all of us marveled at our ability to put on the show of our lives. Reports of corruption and nepotism disappeared from the front pages of our newspapers, politicians mostly refrained from making embarrassing statements and many white people who had been hiding behind the high walls of their security complexes took public transport for the first time in their lives and discovered that most of their fellow South Africans of all races are actually pretty decent people just trying to live lives of dignity and respect.
The rest is about the South African constitution, and well worth a read.

Jun 10, 2011

Things I will miss about South Africa, part I

Part of my continuing series.

1) The village.  Strange as it might sound, I think I will miss this place.  Not the people as much as the land, the overgrazed washed-out rim of the Kalahari.  It's not beautiful or spectacular like Victoria Falls, but I like its quiet unassuming presence, and interesting hidden features.  Though it is terribly inefficient, I like living out of the way in a small community; I enjoy being right on the edge of the wilderness.  I've never lived anywhere I didn't love at least a little before I left; there's something worth savoring nearly everywhere.

2) My host family.  As I've said before, these folks are a preposterously inappropriate choice to host an American for two years.  But that isn't their fault—they're not bad people, and they've tried to do right by me, in their own way.  They've taught me a bit about the Tswana way of doing things.  About the only friends I have in the village are my family, and I'll certainly miss them.

3) Living simply.  Getting back home is certainly very appealing, but there's a certain satisfaction to be had living Thoreau-style.  I've got basically every need taken care of (and then some). and there will definitely be some tradeoffs being thrust back into the hardened arteries of America.  Don't get me wrong, I'm looking forward to creature comforts, but cutting back to the basics has a way of focusing the mind that I'm going to try to remember.

Jun 9, 2011

Things I won't miss about South Africa, part I

The end of my Peace Corps service is about two and a half months away, and now seems like as good a time as any to crank up some serious navel gazing.  Why have a blog if you can't be narcissistic with it?  So I've got some posts planned looking at things I'll be missing and things I won't.  Up first, some items I'll be glad to leave behind.

1) Poorly designed houses.  This one is particularly pressing sitting in my tin shack where it is colder than outside during the winter and hotter in the summer.  I can't blame people for lack of central heat—that stuff is expensive—but things could be done way, way better, even with the simple building materials used around here.  No insulation, no screen doors, no north glass, bare tin roofs, etc.  Using the same materials I could build a house that would stay cool in summer and warm in winter that would cost maybe ten percent more and last three times as long.

2) Crime.  Compared to the US, crime is apocalyptically bad here, and though I haven't had any attacks since near the beginning of my service, the tension of being in certain parts of Kuruman or other cities definitely grates.  I'm sick of not being able to walk around after dark alone, sick of clenching up every time a bunch of young men walk by, and sick of having to take extensive precautions for the most ordinary activities. 

3) Roosters.  I loathe roosters with the fire of a thousand supernovas.  I hate their puffed-up strutting (not for nothing are asshole men called cocks), I hate the their hen raping, I hate their little neck scrotums, and I hate their self-important flapping.  Most of all, I hate their goddamn crowing.  The roosters at my house always perch right outside my window and make this horrible grinding screech that's the audio equivalent of dragging your face across a cheese grater, or chewing a big handful of broken glass, or inserting needles into your eyes.  It's a common belief that roosters crow only during the morning.  Not so.  They crow in the morning, the afternoon, and at night.  They crow when someone leaves or when someone goes, or when no one is around.  They crow at dogs, cats, goats, sheep, cows, birds, jackals, snakes, insects, cars, and phantom spirits.  Most of all, they crow at each other.  One goes off, and one across the street does, and pretty soon the whole village is echoing with their demon sound.  I've had them wake me up through earplugs every two hours all night long, and I can sleep through thunderstorms.  I've thought seriously about somehow obtaining an equal number of turkeys and replacing my family's chickens (of course killing the roosters myself with something blunt Office Space style).  Nailing one with a big rock is unadulterated joy.  I've—uh, I'll stop now (I could go on for hours), but stay tuned.  Maybe I can come up with something positive for next time.

Jun 8, 2011

Quick book review: The Guarden

Tyler Cowen turned me on to this ebook by the blogger Tim Kane, called The Guarden, apparently "a bedtime story that got out of hand."  Since it was only $3, I picked it up and blasted through it in a couple hours.  It's a gripping and surprisingly deep look at the future in a adolescent novel wrapper.  Once you get your teeth in (for me, about paragraph six), it's a fun read.  (Don't worry, it's nothing like Twilight, as proved by the fact that I got to the end.  I literally couldn't read three pages of Twilight without tasting bile.)  Check out here for a free 3-chapter sample.

I'm a big fan of books like this: a definite pop feel, with a hard-charging story, some reasonable characterization, but really cool ideas lurking underneath everything.  Not so philosophical that it gets weighty or pretentious, though.  If you've got an e-reader, I recommend it highly.


I has been raining on and off for the last two days and it is absolutely freezing. I rarely leave my sleeping bag in my room. I don't remember it getting this cold last year, and I'm fairly sure it didn't rain between about May and October. Some sun, please?

Collected links

1. Greenwald delivers the smackdown to our idiotic press corps.

2. Against prudery.

3. Slate uses Rotten Tomatoes to generate some awesome graphs.

4. Evidence of widespread collusion amongst Wall Street firms. Color me unsurprised.

5. This horrible addiction causes "a serious adverse event every 350 exposures." Ban it!

Jun 7, 2011

See me hurl myself off another bridge

Unfortunately, this time there's no video, as they didn't allow recording devices so you'd have to buy their proprietary recording, but I did spring for the picture package.
I was going to add a couple more pictures, but given that this one took almost three hours to upload, that will have to wait until later. Maybe once this rain has stopped it'll be a better signal. Brr!

The Setswana Grammar Manual

One of my few successes during my service here was formatting the Peace Corps South Africa grammar manual for Setswana, written mostly by Art Chambers, an SA16 volunteer.  For anyone wanting to learn Setswana, I reckon it's a pretty good primer, so I present it for free here.  If you think it sucks and you want to make changes, or you'd like to take a look at the raw TeX file, you can find it here.

Jun 6, 2011

Drug policy blogging

Mark Kleiman reasserts his role as the resident drug policy concern troll:
The grandiloquently-named Global Commission on Drug Policy has issued its final press release report. Not a new idea to be found; just recycled legalization talking points. Not surprising, with a commission long on celebrity but short on relevant expertise and a staff of “advisers” drawn entirely from within the “drug policy reform” cocoon.

I wouldn’t mention it, except an academic colleague asked me at lunch Friday about the “new United Nations report about the failure of the war on drugs,” and a Canadian network called and asked me to join in a debate on the report (invitation withdrawn after they asked me whether I was for or against decriminalization and I answered simply “No”). So it looks as if the decision to put resources into press relations rather than analysis has paid off.
This is a petty and irritating misrepresentation of the report. Let's take a look at the executive summary:
Our principles and recommendations can be summarized as follows:

End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others. Challenge rather than reinforce common misconceptions about drug markets, drug use and drug dependence.

Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens. This recommendation applies especially to cannabis, but we also encourage other experiments in decriminalization and legal regulation that can accomplish these objectives and provide models for others.

Offer health and treatment services to those in need. Ensure that a variety of treatment modalities are available, including not just methadone and buprenorphine treatment but also the heroin-assisted treatment programs that have proven successful in many European countries and Canada. Implement syringe access and other harm reduction measures that have proven effective in reducing transmission of HIV and other blood-borne infections as well as fatal overdoses. Respect the human rights of people who use drugs. Abolish abusive practices carried out in the name of treatment – such as forced detention, forced labor, and physical or psychological abuse – that contravene human rights standards and norms or that remove the right to self-determination.
Sounds like a basically uncontroversial—even bland—list of measures that would be labeled "sellout" by a committed civil-libertarian legalizer.  Kleiman himself would probably agree with most of them if they were phrased in the right way by the right person.  Of course the point of the report is mostly to get media attention; as he rightly points out, most of the ideas in it have been knocking around for years.  The reason why they're giving them the umpteenth repetition is that no one, especially in the US, seems to be listening.

As drug policy reformers have been pointing out for the last thirty years, the war on drugs has been a gigantic disaster significantly contributing to an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.  Kleiman more-or-less agrees with this, but instead of constructively engaging with a report that is pointed in the right direction, he busts out the troll.  The really irritating thing is that he has written an excellent book, When Brute Force Fails, about the shortcomings of the jackboot-style drug war and how it might be improved.  But any reformer's report that doesn't cater to Kleiman's preferences, i.e., one that has "DRUGS ARE REALLY BAD ALWAYS" printed on every other page in 48 point font, must be sarcastically dismissed.  What a chump.

Jun 5, 2011

Sunday chemistry blogging: phenethylamines part I

Subject of Alexander Shulgin's excellent book PIKHAL (Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved), phenethylamines are a broad class of substances with a tremendous variety of effects.  Shulgin, a research chemist, synthesized dozens of new varieties and tried them on himself.  Some of the commonest drugs fall under this category.  Let's start with the basic skeleton (remember the structural shorthand from this post):


The name "phenethylamine" is not strictly correct, but fairly close. "Phen" is short for phenyl, the six-membered ring, "ethyl" refers to the two-carbon chain, and "amine" refers to the NH2, or nitrogen bonded to two hydrogens. An amine is more or less a nitrogen single-bonded to a carbon (there are some exceptions, but that's close enough for now).

Phenethylamine itself is a psychoactive drug all by itself, but some of its derivatives I imagine you've heard of before:


This is amphetamine, where we've basically stuck another carbon onto the carbon connected to the nitrogen.  The squiggly line indicates a mixture of molecules where that carbon goes back into the screen and where it comes out of the page.  The name is another truncation: alpha-methyl phenethylamine = amphetamine.  This is one of the basic stimulants, sold under the brand name Adderall, Dexedrine, and others.


This is methamphetamine (or meth), where we've stuck a carbon onto amphetamine's nitrogen.  Despite the media's fixation on meth as the latest drug-based moral panic, meth has been around since 1893 and used recreationally for more than 60 years.  Though it is quite addictive and dangerous, it's worth noting that the majority by far of people who try meth do not go on to become addicts.  For my money it's not all that different from regular amphetamine.  Meth can be prescribed under the brand name Desoxyn for obesity and ADHD, though apparently it's also good for narcolepsy.


This is dopamine, another well-known neurotransmitter—a chemical that your brain uses to transmit signals.  Here we've got hydroxyl (HO- = hydrogen connected to oxygen) groups stuck onto our six-membered ring.  Once again, to pave over a lot of staggeringly complicated information, the similarity of phenethylamine-based drugs to this neural tool basically allows them to interact with the brain in a similar—but not identical—way and so temporarily alter brain function.  This is not to say that they do the same things as dopamine, rather that they are close enough to dopamine's structure to get in and interact with the same places, with sometimes wildly varying effects.


This is methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, better known to the world as ecstasy.  You can see it's a cousin to meth with the oxygen-carbon-oxygen bridge on the left side, but the effects are markedly different.  Subject to its own moral panic back in the 80's, it is not remotely as dangerous or addictive as meth.  It does not eat holes in your brain.  It will not instantly give you Parkinson's disease.  Most of all, it does not kill 20% of the people that take it.  In my opinion, from a psychological therapy basis, MDMA is probably the most promising chemical ever discovered.  Fuck Prozac.  Too bad the patent is expired so some drug company can't make $100 billion off this thing. 

I've barely scraped the surface of the phenethylamines, but I'll be back at some point with part II.  Part of why I love pharmacology is the sheer absurdity of it all.  The idea that you can take ten or so carbons, a nitrogen, maybe an oxygen or two, and a few hydrogens, arrange them in the right way, take them, and the way you perceive and feel the world will change for a little while, is just weird.  Subtract or add so much as a single carbon and the compound will change your perception in a completely different way, or not at all, or poison you.  I find that utterly fascinating, gripping, in a way that strikes at the heart of some of the fundamental questions of life.  If drugs aren't fascinating, I don't know what is.

Jun 3, 2011

Good Eats

I have recently become totally addicted to the show Good Eats from the Food Network, which I had never heard of before joining Peace Corps.  One would think that this would be the ideal time to learn some new delicious cooking techniques, but I've mostly reverted to bachelor mode and eaten the food equivalent of unleaded petrol: giant pots of rice and beans for 3-5 days at a time.  The incentive of delicious food simply wasn't enough to persuade me to cook interesting things.

Alton Brown (the host) brings a Bill Nye-style approach to his show and explains a lot of the underlying science behind whatever he's cooking.  For me, the explanations are key.  Some time ago I took the Myers-Briggs personality test, and while I take it with a grain of salt, one result that definitely fits with my self-perception is a love of theorizing.  I do love to eat delicious meals, but what overcame my laziness is understanding what's happening when I throw the ingredients in the skillet.

Of course, I'm not even remotely close to an expert.  It's a new hobby, and who knows, I might get bored with it in a few months.  But for right now it's great fun.

Jun 2, 2011

Drug war news

From wandering Mike Powell, here's a great look at the coca leaf:
The coca leaf has been an integral part of Andean culture for centuries. It’s sacred among indigenous people (consider my hot dog example, but with “communion wafers”). Coca has important medical properties, such as fighting altitude sickness, especially useful to those living in the mountains. Since pre-Incan times, the coca leaf has been used in religious ceremonies, brewed into teas, and chewed as a mild stimulant. A stimulant about on the same level as coffee.

But then Europeans “discover” South America, rush in, rape the Andean nations of their natural resources, murder and enslave its indigenous people, and install themselves as kings and presidents. And then, just to further piss on an already humiliated people, they take the Andes’ most important and sacred plant, and figure out how to distill cocaine from it. After discovering that their new drug can be deadly, they freak out and declare that cocaine must be eradicated from the earth. They demand that Andean nations destroy their coca fields … crops which constitute the only livelihood for legions of farmers. Do you think Bolivia should be pissed off?

It’s ridiculous. Shameful. Juergen and I have chewed coca leaves a few times since arriving in Bolivia… it’s really as mild as we had read. You feel a slight increase in energy, which lasts for an hour or so. Even among the most heavy users, chewing coca presents absolutely no risk of addiction, nor does it have any dangerous consequences — those are just medical facts, proven over and over again. The USA and Europe have no business telling Bolivian farmers what they can and can’t grow.
Also, a global commission has concluded the war on drugs has failed:
Among the members of the commission are former presidents of Columbia, Mexico and Brazil, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz and former Fed Chair Paul Volcker, among others.

The report calls for an end to the "criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others," and for governments to experiment with ways to regulate drugs so as to undercut organized crime and improve public health.

"Begin the transformation of the global drug prohibition regime," the report says. "Replace drug policies and strategies driven by ideology and political convenience with fiscally responsible policies and strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights - and adopt appropriate criteria for their evaluation."
You can imagine what the official US response was.

The earth: rounder than I suspected

Right now, the Big Dipper is just barely visible on the northern horizon.