Monday, March 24, 2003

"Self-criticism is the secret weapon of democracy, and candor andconfession are good for the political soul."--Adlai Stevenson

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Blog in Baghdad? Where is Raed?

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

it's over.
we've been together a long time
but it just isn't working out.
this isn't healthy anymore.
i am going to have to end my relationship with you
all of you
all billions upon billions of you.
wide-spread death will be visited upon you indiscriminately
because as a community, you have failed me

this is a relationship
so I must have failed you too.
but I seem incapable of changing me
and I am barely aware of who you are
so i condemn you to the plague of
tablet-sized carpet bombs for all my legions of bacteria
I have no fine-tuned laser-guided weapons to single out the key perpetrators
no, to get at the virulent ones i will have to take down billions of innocent civilians.
and then begin a new community within
aided by the agents of
Stonyfield and Dannon
Hoping I can rebuild new civilizations
more stable and healthy than before

How much is life worth,
when it's one-celled?

Monday, March 17, 2003

My most recent unqualified recommendations about public health.....
Wash That Advertising Away
Just Say "No" to anti-bacterial soap
. . . by Ari Johnson
[Illustration by Tavet Gillson]

They have probably already invaded your home. They are soaked into your sponges, smothering your countertops. They are covering your skin. They are all over your kitchen and bathroom appliances and utensils. They may even be in your clothes, and on your children’s toys.

And they may be dangerous.

They’re called anti-bacterials.

In the early 90s, there were only a few dozen cleaning products on the market with chemicals especially designed to kill bacteria—microscopic one-celled life. By 2000, more than 700 bacteria-killing products graced the shelves of “Soaps and Cleansers” aisles.

Now, antibacterial chemicals have seeped into every room in the house; they are marketed for a wide array of products including mattresses, chopsticks, clothing, bathroom and kitchen appliances, and children’s toys.
Labels boast claims like “Kill more germs to keep you and your family healthier.” In commercials, bacteria are belittled as ubiquitous and dangerous invaders that responsible home-makers must destroy.

But such demonization is perhaps better fitted to the antimicrobial products than to the bacteria they claim to destroy. Antibacterial products are unproven in their usefulness, and they may even pose a threat to personal and public health.

Together forever, that’s how it must be
The lives of bacteria and humans are intimately intertwined. Bacteria in the human body outnumber human cells ten to one. Humans host immense communities of bacteria, especially along the skin, mouth, and digestive tract.
Only a small fraction of bacterial strains actually make us sick. Many are harmless. Some are actually helpful—they make their homes in our bodies and often out-compete other invaders that might otherwise have caused disease.
Medicine has recognized the protective properties of certain harmless bacteria, which has spurred the emergence of “probiotics,” a treatment in which essential bacteria are administered to protect humans from infection. This procedure is particularly useful to people who have just finished an antibiotic treatment that has weakened indigenous bacterial communities essential to health.

Humans count on bacteria for certain vital functions, including digestion, production of vitamin K, and sensitization of the immune system. Studies done by proponents of the “hygiene hypothesis” have shown that lack of sufficient exposure to bacteria can lead to immune-deficiency related to problems such as allergies, asthma and eczema.
Yet we continue to associate bacteria with causing disease. We persist in quixotic efforts to rid them from our lives, though such a goal is as futile as it is undesirable.

Resistance is futile
Bacteria are perhaps the most enduring and successful living things on this planet—they flourish everywhere, even in some of the most extreme environments, where no other living things can live.

“As competitors, microbes are unbeatable,” said Julian Davies, President of the American Society of Microbiology.
Bacteria are unbeatable because they are master evolvers. High gene mutation rates allow for rapid changes in traits from generation to generation. But they do not have to wait until reproduction to change their genetic makeup; bacteria can pick up and trade traits packed in genetic suitcases called plasmids. This is just one of an array of tools bacteria harness to acquire genes from other bacteria, as well as from plants, animals, and the environment.
Imagine picking up genes from an apple, or exchanging genes in a handshake. Such rapid and extreme genetic flexibility allows bacterial populations to rapidly acquire and spread traits that help them survive in a particular context.

Bacteria possess the evolutionary tools to survive, often in spite of our best attempts to eradicate them. The impossibility of removing bacteria ceases to be a tragedy once we acknowledge that complete bacterial extermination would be a terrible idea anyway.

There is madness behind the popular method
Perhaps the most surprising part of this story is that antibacterial products have not been proven to perform their purported functions in the home. Many of the studies documenting the bacteria-killing abilities of these products took place in laboratory and clinical settings, environments quite different from the home.

When used sporadically and quickly, and when diluted in household settings, antibacterial soaps have not been shown to effectively kill bacterial populations.

The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) conducted a systematic study and analysis of current research literature and data provided by eleven different antibacterial-producing companies. “The literature yielded no scientific data supporting the use of antimicrobial agents in household products as a means to prevent infection,” the APIC report concluded.

Not to be outdone, the American Medical Association conducted its own comprehensive analysis of scientific studies and advised, “It is prudent to avoid the use of antimicrobial agents in consumer products.” They also urged the FDA to expedite its regulation of antibacterial products, in light of unproven efficacy and potential health risks.
Despite unproven claims and potential dangers, the craze over antibacterial household products is still rampant. This is foolishness.

To meet the mounting challenges of infectious disease and live healthfully, humans will need to abandon such delusions about bacteria and commit to living better with them, taking greater advantage of mutually advantageous relationships.

Household hygiene should promote human health. To do so, the concept of the bacteria-free home needs to be supplanted with an appreciation of the significance of bacterial communities to maintaining our health.

The final hour
So antibacterial products cannot be counted upon to make good on advertised promises. But are the promises of Lysol, Clorox, and Dial even worth pursuing? Killing bacteria en masse and trying to eradicate them from the home may turn out to be a pretty terrible idea.

If you put bacteria-killing products out into the home environment, you will, at best, succeed in killing the bacteria that are vulnerable to that product. Bacteria that can resist the attacks of these products will thus be encouraged to survive and reproduce.

The evolution, emergence, and proliferation of bacteria resistant to the attacks of antimicrobial products might seem only a concern for the producers of these bacteria-killing products. But a number of studies, including those of Stuart Levy’s lab at Tufts University, have shown that resistance to some antibacterial products can also help bacteria resist the attacks of several antibiotic medicines, including a drug commonly used as a tuberculosis treatment.
The “hygiene hypothesis” is still a hypothesis, and the extent of resistance spurred by antibacterial household products requires further study and substantiation. Still, the potential dangers of anti-bacterials, coupled with their generally unproven efficacy, should provide sufficient reason to opt for soaps and other household products without the “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial” label.

An evolutionary understanding of human-bacteria relationships should inspire new kinds of hygienic frontiers that capitalize on the potential protective effects of certain bacteria. Pro-bacterial soap, anyone?

Ari Johnson B’04 would like to thank the legions of bacteria that contributed to this article.

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Seventy-three years ago, a female golden hamster was removed from her home to become the mother of a great nation. Every golden hamster in America can claim her as their mother--from the pets that get their aerobic workouts on metal wheels (early precursor to the treadmill) to those studied in laboratories by devoted scientist disciplies.
One such disciplie arrived at Brown from Cornell yesterday to talk about how this nation of hamsters define each other's identities. A key to the hamster identity is their smells. Each golden hamster emits a mosaic of odors from different glands of their body. No single one of the odors distinguishes them-- no mosaic distinguishes itself by a single tile--but a wide array of them. Some of these odors are used to mark territories, but the reasons they mark territories are not well understood--golden hamsters have become a domesticated nation, and few have been studied in the wild. Apparently one German scientist has set off for the Syrian desert on this mission, but between Beirut and the desert, no one else have been bold enough to brave such a laboratory environment. We do know that golden hamsters can distinguish well between the odor mosaic identities of their kin, and even of adopted kin which they grew up with. They tend to be less able to discriminate between strangers. But if they have fought with a stranger and lost, they will make a rapid retreat. I know a few people by scent, but I doubt if I could find them with nose to the ground.
"What's your name?"
"do you know what that means?"
"lion, yes?"
"yes, lion. do you know that your name has the hebrew letters aleph and reish in it? Light is in your name. Oori. My light. Well that 's not exactly your name, but it is in there."
Chabad identities are wrapped up in names. Chabad itself, is an acronym for "Chochma, beena, daat"--understanding, wisdom, knowledge. It is a sect of Chasidism--which roughly could be translated as rightousness. Chabad's rebbe is called the "lubuvitcher rebbe"--the rabbi of the city of love.
I read a letter about Jewish Mysticism by the Lubuvitcher rebbe Schneerson Z''L last night at a class on Chasidic meditation. He talked about transcending the dichotomy of body and soul--the nigleh and nistar, the revealed and the hidden. To give supremacy to the hidden, the soul, and through that supremacy unify it with the body. With one Torah, one G-d, one people on earch, he writes, there can be no dichotomy.
Chabad cares about names.

Sunday, March 09, 2003

Here's a story about things entirely outside of my control, recently printed in the INDY. I am trying to improve my writing, so critique is most welcome.
Dude, Where's My Car?
A pedestrian tale of a stolen automoile
. . . by Ari Johnson
[Photo by Aiko Wakao]

Any moment, they will come for me--perhaps arrest me—for driving my own stolen car. Within less than a week, my car has been stolen, abandoned, towed, and returned to my possession—all before the Providence Police had time to process the paperwork recognizing the theft.
It began in ebbing lunch hours at the Ratty. As I lounged, taking in the last of a plate of soy nuggets, my roommate spotted me, strolled over with his tray, and sat down. He dug his fork into his chicken pot pie, and, raising it to his mouth, remarked distractedly, “Your girlfriend called. She said she couldn’t find your car in the lot. I think she said she is going to take a cab to the train station instead.”

Coming from my roommate’s calm voice, through a half-conscious soy nugget haze, this information took a little while to process.
The lot at the Anthropology department where I park has only a handful of spaces.

My girlfriend knows exactly where I park.

She was with me the last time I parked the car.

In that same spot.

Camry! Come home…
I snapped out of the haze, threw my tray on the rack, and ran down Thayer and up Power to the Anthropology Department, where I got a fresh gaze at the big empty space where my car should have been.

My first instinct was to question my sanity. My 15-year-old car, parked within the seven-foot-high brick walls surrounding the Anthropology department lot, stolen? I wandered around, desperately looking for my car on streets I had not even traveled.

Finally, I gave in and called the Brown Police to file a report to be passed along to the Providence Police. The reporting officer took some information from me, then asked if I had questions.

“What are the chances of getting my car back?”

“Pretty slim. It’s probably already stripped down by now in some chop shop. The old Toyota Camrys are some of the most commonly stolen cars in the country. Camrys have been around for so long, their parts can be used on all sorts of different models. Also, when those locks get old and wear down, it gets so that almost any Camry key will work.”

I smiled wryly at this. My car had over 150 thousand miles on it, and was approaching its fifteenth birthday. Rust had begun to creep around the edges of the shiny brown body. The thieves and I might be the only ones with any appreciation for the car—in a way, it tied us together.
Whatever insurance could cover would certainly not pay for a new vehicle. So over the course of the next day, I reconciled myself to a car-less existence. I even managed to distract myself with other matters, like class, until I returned home.

I opened up Eudora to find a message from my dad. He had received a call from the Captain of the Central Falls, RI Police Department, about 10 minutes north of Providence. Hours after I had first realized it was stolen, the Central Falls police had discovered my car abandoned behind a tenement, and towed it to Lemyres Towing and Collision Center.

I called the Captain in Central Falls and asked him, “How am I going to get the car home? Is it still drivable?” I pictured a barely-recognizable skeleton, completely stripped, tires missing.

“The car looks fine,” the Captain told me. “There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it.”

What was going on? Why would anyone go to the trouble of stealing my car out of a walled lot only to abandon it unscathed two towns over? The most likely conclusion I could think of was that the thieves had needed a vehicle to commit some other crime. I resolved to try to find out the next day, when I went to wrestle my car back from three police forces and a tow company.

The Providence Public Safety complex rises up against I-95, an image of modern efficiency: Fire Department, Police, and municipal courts all in an enormous glass structure. Inside, I learned that it takes several days for the Providence Police to process the theft report they got from Brown. “We have no record. Your car has not been stolen,” the officer at the vehicle recovery unit told me. With some persuasion, he agreed to call Central Falls, and give them clearance to release the car to me.

Adventures in Central Falls
I set off with my friend Adam, who graciously volunteered to give me a ride. Through a small maze of old industrial buildings, we eventually came to a ranch-style brick building that housed the Central Falls police. The lobby was small. On the counter was a binder with Polaroids of puppies and kittens up for adoption.

The officer on duty at Central Falls quickly filled out the forms I needed to pick up my car from Lemyres tow shop.

“So what do you think happened?” I asked the officer.

“They probably just needed a ride home,” he replied.

My images of drive-by shootings and midnight pillaging faded. “Really? Does this happen often?”

“All the time. People will steal a car to get home from Providence, and sometimes they’ll steal another to get back. And not just in Providence. This happens all over the country.”

“That just doesn’t really make sense. Why would anyone go to the trouble of stealing cars just to make a ten-minute commute? It must be a lot harder than catching a bus.”

“I think the best answer that I can give you is that”—the officer looked up from his paperwork—”they’re assholes.”

Adam and I went out to get the car at the tow lot, and spotted the manager working with some jumper cables. The battery had been drained, and the tank was almost bone-dry. I walked around several times, looking for damaged or missing parts, but the exterior appeared untouched.
When I peeked into the passenger side seat, I saw what looked like a minor natural disaster. I saw the maps and papers of my glove compartment strewn wildly across and under the seats, which were both careened back almost to horizontal—I imagined the driver reclining with eyes just above the height of his outstretched hands on the wheel.

The thieves had taken nothing and damaged nothing, but they had left quite a bit behind:
1. An open backpack held some highlighters, The Little Book of Macs, another computer programming book, and a sketchbook filled with anime-style original drawings.
2. Among the papers on the floor I found a folder with more anime art, some original, some printed off a computer, and what seemed like a syllabus for a class.
3. Next to the gearshift leaned a large metal bat, scratched across its body with signs of heavy use.
4. On the back seat lay two disembodied car stereo speakers—but when I examined the car, I noticed that none of my car stereo speakers had been removed.

I felt very much in the midst of a crime scene, but there were no police around. In fact, with the paper trail still inching along back in Providence, my car hadn’t even been officially stolen yet. No police would be coming to take fingerprints and collect fingernail samples. And I needed to get the car home. I left things as they were, put my seat back into the full upright position, and headed back to College Hill, wondering who had last sat in my driver’s seat, and what hands had last held my steering wheel.

Back on campus, the Brown Police took a follow-up report and confiscated the gifts my thieves had left for me. One officer expressed particular interest in the metal bat, in light of the numerous recent assaults reported in the area.

I left 75 Charlesfield dazed and bewildered. What had happened? Where had my car been, who had taken it, and what had they done while they were in it? Any day now, the paper trail will catch up downtown at the Providence Police station, and they will process the stolen vehicle report. Then, long after my car has been recovered, maybe it will be discovered stolen. And maybe they’ll spot my plate the next day I go out for a ride, and come after me.

Car-E” Johnson B’04 is wanted in 49 states.

copyright © 2002, The College Hill Independent
last updated 03 05 03

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

wake up!

we have just passed a pivotal moment

Sunday, March 02, 2003

in genesis, God declares "we will make man in our image." but who is we? is this the royal "we"? Or, as some comentators suggest, does this refer to God and hosts of ministering angels? I prefer to struggle with God as unified and transcendent--the idea of angels seems to me like a division. If God is really unified, there should be no other gods. Who then could this we refer to? Well, what else was around? On the sixth day there were already plants and the animals--the hosts and legions of life assembled. Man emerges from all of life that came before, created by God, in the image of all creation.