Sunday, June 04, 2006

Keeping up with life in Pittsburgh

Walking into the main Carnegie Library in Oakland, next to the Universities, the Phipps Conservatory, and a 400 acre park, one can't help but be reminded that Pittsburgh abounds in the basic necessities for high civilization, and even better, it's right on your doorstep. Or rather, to be more exact, it's about 5 minutes drive from home and 7 minutes drive from work. Right on our doorstep, opposite the Spanish immersion elementary school, is the other 400 acre park, where Rolo happily snuffles every morning and fondly imagines that some day he has a hope of catching a squirrel, a bunny rabbit, a chipmunk, or a deer. So far he hasn't come anywhere near, though he has got himself lost in the woods a couple of times trying, given up, and turned up back home several minutes before his chapperone stops calling for him in the park. Which is always a completely harrowing several minutes, as every dog owner knows. Fortunately Rolo only crosses one road on the way, and has absolutely no chance of getting lost on the way back. As well as a symphony, ballet, big theatre district, respectable art and natural history museum, and the National Aviary, all within a 12 minute drive, we also have waterfalls, white water rafting, forests, falling leaves, skiing and snowboarding within an hour's drive. In the spring, for a month or so, the city blooms like no other I've ever lived in. Cherry, apple, dogwood, and many others that one day I'll photograph and publish somewhere online so that flower lovers who would never have dreamt of visiting can put Pittsburgh in their calendar.

By now the blossoms have given way to leaves and fruits. We're very lucky to have a cherry tree in the garden, and the cherries themselves are now turning from green to pink to red. Hopefully there'll be plenty to share with folk for a few weeks. We've also been working on bookshelves, plastering, painting, rewiring, planting flowers, and generally way too many things to do at once, especially since in the past two or three months I've been travelling to England, France, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, and a trip to Maryland. As well as some chance for holiday, there has been a lot of travel to present some of MAYA's work to communities that are interested in what we're doing, sharing information, reusing resources, merging and combining information in the biomedical domain, building smarter devices, smarter networks, and all that good stuff. If anyone's interested, there are a few papers at my local MAYA webpage, and there will probably be more to come. And if you're more interested in the house projects, here's a picture of the bookshelves (and Rolo and me).

So, as usual, there's a millions exciting, harrowing, predictable and surprising things happening in the world and at home. I just thought I should scribble something down, and for once I thought I should skip politics, science and religion and write about a couple of the things I concentrate on in real life.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Oil and Coca

The front page of the BBC website was interesting on Wednesday (which gives some idea of how busy I have been in the meantime).

The main story was the tragicomical spectacle of George Bush urging the USA to reduce dependency on foreign oil. Rather like the pyromaniac who's burned the street down finally accepting that fire is dangerous and the community should invest in fire extinguishers. So finally, the Republican leadership is accepting that the streets of Baghdad aren't full of cheering Iraqis draping American flags from every lamppost, the price of oil is sky high, and the war is not going to pay for itself by improving the oil supply - quite the opposite (in contrast with the rosy picture presented to us before the war began, that it was going to cost $60 billion payed for by Iraqi oil, whereas the current cost is some $400 billion and counting).

It's probably too late to turn around the American Imperial machine, as real events since the speech have demonstrated. More money for the war in Iraq, specifically for military expenses not reconstruction, hikes in US defense spending across the board, and cutbacks everywhere else. According to friends and former research collaborators who receive funding from the military budget (there are many defense research programs in the USA), those cutbacks are eating into information systems research. I don't recall the 9/11 report recommending that resources be diverted away from information integration programs, nor stating that the reason for the 9/11 attacks was that the USA wasn't spending enough money fighting insurgents in foreign countries - nonetheless, that is the priority that has been set by the current US administration. The people who could implement the overhaul of information infrastructure recommended by the 9/11 commission aren't receiving the necessary funding - they're afraid of losing their jobs to pay for Iraq. Compare the State of the Union address with tomorrow's budget and make your own judgment. (There a preview on MarketWatch here.)

Sadly, that's all very predictable. We will remember this regime as the one that spent the USA out of global influence, both fiscally and morally. Many may rejoice. I don't - as a traditional European social liberal, I have a lot of bones to pick with the USA, but I would still much prefer US hegemony to Chinese.

However, a much more interesting story was about legal coca growers (you can find the story at Since the election of Eva Morales in Bolivia, himself a former coca farmer, there has at last been some interesting debate and awareness raising about the role of crops in the "war on drugs". The article describes the varied uses of the coca leaf for making drinks and medicine, just as the hemp plant has been used for centuries to make rope and textiles. There are many farmers worldwide trying to build a living out of the legal and beneficial uses of the coca plant, instead of using huge amounts of it to make small amounts of cocaine.

If we can just make the right connections between these coca farmers and the right markets, we can bring a variety of great new products to consumers and cut the narcotics out of the business. The two main enemies of this strategy are of course the drug barons and the (somewhat ignorant) drug warriors. As with the global "war on terror", and almost every other conflict there is, the warriors on both sides would much rather have the war continue than to face the challenge of peace.

Having lived in Bolivia for a time, I have some good experience of the coca leaf - my Bolivian host once heard that I had a stomach ache and literally stuffed some into my squeamish Western mouth, and within a few minutes the stomach ache went away. It's quite a miracle - it seemed to cure both constipation and diarrhoea with equal effectiveness, don't ask me how.

Needless to say, us prissy western Christian kids were terribly worried that we were getting hoodwinked into "taking drugs", whereas our hosts had no idea what the fuss was about and of course, thought we were refusing hospitality and saying that their plant wasn't good enough for us, while we were obviously suffering from ill effects that the plant was known to cure in many cases. It was an interesting situation, as you can imagine, and it will surprise none of my readers to hear that, for me at least, the "conquer evil by force of will and force or arms" rhetoric of Cromwellian Protestants was soon quietened by the humble but wise coca plant.

Some of my teammates had a little more difficulty letting go of the rules, of course, but we had very different attitudes on a range of topics and the positions we chose on the coca leaf debate were very predictable.

"You should pray to God for relief from your stomach ache."

"I did. God heard my prayers and gave me coca leaves."

Of course, this idea is many world's away from the way the USA has traditionally fought its "war on drugs", fighting violence with violence, because overmonied idiots in the USA encourage tons and tons of perfectly good coca leaves to be condensed down to mere grams of cocaine so they can get high, do dangerous things, and damage their health. Just as you can distill large amounts of grain to make small amounts of whisky, which we all know to be a dangerous and harmful substance.

Imagine that the year is 1760 and the whisky problem in Britain is getting out of hand. And suppose that it's easier to sneak a barrel of whisky into England than to disguise the cultivation of a grain and the nearby distillery. To prevent the uncontrollable surge of illicit whisky across the Atlantic, the Redcoats start marching around the American countryside burning grain fields, on the grounds that the British, the world's most sophisticated people and the champions of liberty in the modern world, can't be trusted not to use all that healthy grain to get horribly drunk, act violently, and go blind. Sadly but seriously, this is very much how the American "war or drugs" has been perceived in Bolivia, and with good reason. It doesn't sound like such a good policy when you try and put the boot on the other foot, does it?

So, thumbs up to Auntie for publishing such a jolly good article on its international frontpage. And if there is any unifying theme to this little essay (except that the source articles both appeared last Wednesday), could we please in future try to connect some of the dots before we decide to go to war? It might even be more profitable.