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Goats in the News

PBS has launched a four part series under the Nova banner called “Making Stuff”, hosted by New York Times Tech columnist David Pogue. If you didn’t catch last Wednesday night’s first installment, you can watch it here.

Especially if you like goats, and I know a few of you do.

About three quarters of the way through the hour, Pouge’s search for the strongest stuff on the planet, which has already covered steel and Kevlar, finally comes around to some extremely tough, undeniably natural stuff – spider silk. And he introduces us to a University of Wyoming scientist named Randy Lewis who is trying to solve the problem of producing massive amounts of spider silk without having to rely on finicky, famously uncooperative spiders. Instead, he’s working with genetically modified, finicky, famously uncooperative goats.

Yes, there are goats in his lab that produce the right protein for making spider silk as one component of their milk. Spider Silk Goat Milk!

Spider web photo from losttulsa.com

It’s all part of an ambitious dream of mass-producing super strong materials. Two ambitious dreams, actually – the other one being to make goats the engine behind the next major global industrial manufacturing revolution. Three ambitious dreams if you consider what it would mean for goats to be returned to their rightful place at the center of our crucial economic revitalization and national security efforts. (Ambitious dreams #2 and 3 aren’t part of the official goal, but why not?)

Think of it – factories springing up out of nowhere to process goat’s milk into super-duper strong cables for bridges, components that far exceed steel in terms of durability and flexibility, and all manner of impervious materials. With vast amounts of goat cheese as a by-product.

The upside? Those who already have advanced animal husbandry skills could form the next global cartel to manage a vital resource – GOATPEC (Goats Organized to Assert Total, Permanent, Everlasting Control).

The downside? Bigger webs in the barn rafters.

Do you have a good real-life example of the truth (or irrelevance) of the standard caution “Be Careful What You Wish For”?

Now Appearing Elsewhere

People sometimes politely ask “how’s it going”, meaning, “are you finding any work”?
I always feel like I’m letting them down when I say “not really”, so it’s nice to have something tangible to point to every now and then. I’ve managed to complete a couple of freelance projects, which are now housed at different places online.

The Line, an online magazine, posted this article I wrote about the University of Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory – a highly prestigious research facility on the Mississippi River. I was happy to get this assignment, as I have a lot of admiration for scientists. We media people tend to think we’re pretty important but it’s the careful peer-reviewed work going on in laboratories all over the world that will have real meaning over time, while radio and TV programs, magazine articles and yes, blogs, will fade away very, very quickly.

The first time through, I wrote the article as a straight-ahead bit of reporting with a rather neutral and somewhat distant sounding “voice”. As I re-read my work, it seemed a bit dry. So on a lark I wrote a second version with a more casual, smart alecky, non-scientific style of narration, and submitted them both. Guess which one the editor chose?

There’s a strong chance that no responsible scientist will ever speak to me again.

The other project was a half hour radio profile of one of my favorite local music groups – The Brass Kings. I put this piece together for a fine community station, KFAI. In my previous professional life, (spent under the wing of a large, very polished media organization), whenever I needed recording equipment I merely had to ask and something that was state-of-the-art and in flawless condition would quickly be provided. This time I had to go out and buy a digital audio recorder and teach myself how to use it. As anyone I’ve interviewed can tell you, I’m still learning.

I also had to find a way to edit the work on my home computer using something other than the very expensive and temperamental “industry standard” sound mixing program – Pro Tools. I found one that was available for free – a really useful and effective program from Denmark called Hindenburg. Again, it took some learning with more confusion yet to come, but I think it turned out all right.

You can hear the result here.

I’ve picked up a few tricks and met some very nice folks over the past few months, but it is just beginning to dawn on me how hard people have to work when they are living from project to project. Patience, faith and persistence are three necessities in any freelancer’s toolbox.

What is your most marketable talent?

Real Crime Overlooked

A new dispatch has arrived from sensation loving, factually impaired journalist Bud Buck, as he attempts to capitalize on the latest headlines.

Midwestern Crime Families Remain Untouched By Federal Probe
By Bud Buck

Yesterday’s FBI roundup of New York and New Jersey crime families has sent shockwaves through national syndicates of biologically related people who engage in illegal activities, but so far the ruthless crime families of the American Midwest are untouched by this latest probe.

“Are we looking over our shoulders?” asks a source who demanded that he remain unidentified, and is definitely not Joey Erickson of Shoreview, Minnesota.

“Sure,” he said, looking over his shoulder. “Always.”

The Erickson crime family is reputed to be a major player in the following areas:

* Cartnapping (The reckless use and subsequent abandonment of grocery story carts outside cart corrals)

* Transfer Laundering (Illegal exchange of unexpired bus transfers to riders who are not the initial recipients of those transfers)

* Yard Waste Embezzlement (Systematic, secret disposal of organics in improper trash containers)

* Library Book Racketeering

The “godfather” of the Erickson syndicate, Duane Erickson, is said to run the book racket using a network of “lieutenants” who approach people at local libraries and offer substantial cash payments to “sublet” the books they have already withdrawn on their personal library cards. Once the “mark” is enlisted in the “program”, the return of these “sublet” books is refused until tributes are paid or illegal activities are conducted. Failure to comply with the mob’s demands can lead to the destruction of previously spotless personal reputations, the accumulation of vast library fines, and even the complete loss of one’s library card.

Anguish and despair are often the lot of those who become enmeshed in the Erickson crime family’s web of deceit, and yet federal and state authorities continue to do nothing while spending their time and precious resources attacking the same old suspects in New York and New Jersey.

When will law enforcement get serious about the true extent of organized crime? Time will tell!

This is Bud Buck!

I think Bud is in love with the whole mob movie genre and would like to be a Godfather, although I personally can’t think of anything that would be less fun than having to follow the rules, take the risks and live with the uncertainty of being a member of a crime “family”. I guess that means I’d be the kind of sniveling wimp who gets bumped off in the first ten minutes.

If you were in a mobster movie, what sort of character would you play?

Beechly Preaches Reform

Here’s a special message from Congressman Loomis Beechly, who represents Minnesota’s 9th District – all the water surface area in the state.

Greetings 9th Districters

There have been several phone calls to my office asking if I voted to repeal the Health Care Bill yesterday. This is disturbing because I thought my office number was unlisted – if people keep calling, how will we get any work done?

Besides, my position on Health Care Reform has been crystal clear all along – I’m ambivalent.

We have no health care facilities located in the 9th district, and until someone decides to build a floating hospital or set up a clinic at the end of their dock, I see no reason to get excited. For the most part, the health care industry is a huge money game anyway, and the players are all on land. If people who live in the 9th district need to see a doctor, it stops being my concern as soon as they cross the shoreline.

Congressman Beechly Addressing Constituents

Interestingly, during the summer months when many people in other districts want medical attention, they discover the doctor is here in the 9th district, drinking beer on a pontoon and water skiing after dark – things he said they should never ever do when he was in finger wagging mode, back at the office.

So basically I’m for Health Care Reform if it puts more money into the hands of the doctors who like boats. If it enriches the doctors who like to go hiking in the woods or the doctors who are into flying their own airplanes or alpine skiing from helicopters, I’m not interested.

I’m also for Health Care Reform that promotes things like intensive Ice Fishing Treatments, Inner Tube Massage and Jet Ski Therapy. I haven’t seen any of those things in the health care bill that was passed, so I don’t care if it gets repealed or not.

In my opinion, we need a REAL health care measure – something that skips over all this nonsense about co-pays and deductibles and simply requires every American to spend at least one day at the lake every year. Whether they’re calming their stressed out nerves by relaxing or taking part in some kind of beneficial physical activity doesn’t really matter, as long as they’re spending money.

That’s the kind of reform I’m after, and I’ll keep fighting for it here in Washington D.C. until I get it. But don’t hold your breath.
Unless you happen to be trapped under the ice.

Your Faithful Congressman,
The Hon. Loomis Beechly

I know it’s impossibly cold today, so let’s mentally transport to vacation time.
What’s your favorite thing to do at the lake?

A Message From Beyond

Thanks to the prominence of a particular item in the news, I received an urgent message this morning from Beverley Crandall, Animal Medium.

Mr. Connelly, I have heard rumors in the town that behind closed doors, you use strange electrical forces to communicate with dozens of unseen living people simultaneously. I am not one to criticize. Your odd habit of invisible, mystical outreach sounds remarkably like my work with the departed. In fact, I’m hoping you can assist me on a case.

I’ll get right to the point.

When I heard that scientists were seriously discussing the idea of bringing a Wooly Mammoth back into the world through cloning, I rushed to the attic to retrieve a relic left there for me in 1939 by my erratic Uncle Erasmus. I was a mere infant at the time and understood nothing of what was going on, but he pinned a note to my diaper that said ‘When you feel it is time to call him, his remains are in the ivory trunk.” Said to be a jawbone fragment taken from the last living mammoth, the article in question is an extremely powerful artifact. I resolved to bring it to the séance that very night!

When I revealed my plan to the spiritual assemblage, it was agreed that we would pool our supernatural energies immediately for no task was more important than this – to ask the one vital question that was not being asked. With the light dimmed, I uttered the mystical incantations and we held hands as we stood around the shard.

Within moments a frigid breeze swept through the room, followed by the stench of a shaggy coat matted with filth and left to rot for ten thousand years. A low, reverberant grunting filled our ears. It was soft but capable of great power, like bulldozer, cooing to its love.

“Oh great spirit of the last departed Wooly Mammoth,” I called out into the darkness.
“Oh speak to us, great caboose of your kind! Are you prepared to walk the Earth again? For men are at work to bring you back into our world! Speak, oh Mammoth! Tell us, do you wish to return to this land of the living?”

And then a great caterwauling erupted – an ear-splitting, trumpet-like thunderclap, followed by labored breathing, a rapid huffing that was reminiscent of a steam engine laboring up a hill, a massive timber-rattling groan like the toppling of a giant wooden structure, an indignant snort, a throaty cacophony of low burbling and gurgling sounds that made me think of the last drops of water being drained from a massive muddy pool, something that sounded surprisingly like a giggle, and then … silence.

Unfortunately, I realized at that very moment that we had no one in the room who was capable of speaking Woolibulli, the lost language of the extinct giants. In our rush to make contact, not only had we forgotten to get a translator, we had neglected to record the sounds or have them transcribed. My account of what I heard is, at best, approximate.

My first impression was that the response was negative. But again, not being a speaker of the alternately musical and guttural Wollibulli, I cannot be sure that I asked the question properly. I might have said something more like, “Oh Hairy Abutment of Yore, would you like to appear as a guest on ‘Sarah Palin’s Alaska’?”

Mr. Connelly, I hope you will use your mystical connections to parse these signals from beyond – signals sent with great vigor through the veil of time – so that we may finally know if reviving the Wooly Mammoth meets with the approval of the last in line of these long lost, round tusked wonders.

Sincerely,

Beverly Crandall
Animal Medium

What was the Wooly Mammoth saying?

Scorpions Escrow Opera

I admire a good headline, and my eye was caught by one in the Wall Street Journal the other day – “Prices Soar on Crop Woes”. Basically the story is that a worldwide reduction in various agricultural harvests is causing food prices to go up.

Cheery, eh?

But despite the dire news it delivers, I decided I really, really like the sound and the rhythm of the five word sequence “Prices Soar on Crop Woes”. (Note to young musicians: “The Crop Woes” would be a great name for a band.)

I told myself that a global food shortage spurring higher prices everywhere is the kind of catastrophe that, if it can be averted, should be. And I resolved to come up with an inventive solution that had not yet occurred to anyone, because my brain is so unique. Hmmm.

I’ve never been good at anagrams, but the thought slipped into my head that maybe there’s an unseen angle on this problem hidden somewhere inside the 20 letters of the headline “Prices Soar on Crop Woes,” and it would reveal itself through re-arrangement. I was fairly sure no one had tried to solve the problem this way, so I started to puzzle it out.

The headline has 20 letters. When you group them by type and arrange them alphabetically, it looks like this:

a
cc
ee
i
n
oooo
pp
rrr
sss
w

Does laying it out this way make it easier to see new words inside the headline? I’ll leave it for you to judge. After thirty minutes of noodling, this is all I could come up with:

Poor Cows Are In Process
Sow Opera Ropes in Crocs

What does it all mean?

“Poor Cows Are In Process” could certainly be a problem in the global food supply. We beef eaters shouldn’t dine on poor cows if rich, hearty, healthy ones are available. A partial solution to the crisis! I was pretty proud of that.

“Sow Opera Ropes in Crocs”, however, was baffling. An opera by pigs might reduce our planetary appetite if we can get enough people to listen to it, but it won’t do anything to stop hunger. Although if crocs attended any opera put on by pigs, those particular pigs would never make it to any human’s table, so that’s a potential food supply problem, though probably not the worst one that we face.

Obviously my letter juggling approach to finding a novel solution to “Prices Soar on Crop Woes” was going nowhere. In desperation, I turned to the Internet Anagram Server, which is a place to go if you want evidence that your poor brain is not up to the task of competing with a computer.

On the Internet Anagram Server, type in a phrase and the software will re-arrange the letters for you. In the “advanced” menu, you can ask the server to include specific words. Since I already knew “sow” and “cow” could be made with some of the 20 letters, I included them. Unfortunately the headline doesn’t have the letters to spell “chicken”, so to represent the third most common meat to appear on American plates, I asked the server to find anagrams that included the word “coop”.

Here are some results:

Reprocess a Poor Cow? Sin.
A Porcine Cow Sores Pros.
A Nice Cow, or Oppressors
Poor Cow. A Prison Recess.

A Poor Sow, Sincere Crops
A Precise Sow Croons Pro
Sow A Sonic Pop Sorcerer
Sow Conspires a Coop Err

Coop Row Coarseness Rip
Sorrows Nip Coop Crease
Carrier Sews Coop Spoon
Spacier Coop Sore Sworn

What does this tell us?

It tells us that it is unbelievably easy to lose 90 irreplaceable minutes of your life online, even if you have nothing to play with but a 20 letter headline.

Aside from Trail Baboon, what is your biggest online time waster?

Staring at the Organic Ceiling

My cellphone chirped in the middle of the night with a rambling message from a restless friend who lives in the woods. It has been translated from the original Ursus Textish.

Bart - The Bear Who Found a Cell Phone

Hey, it’s Bart.

I know, I’m supposed to be hibernating but I couldn’t sleep. Know what that’s like?
Being awake in the middle of January is a real bummer. I’m afraid when April comes, I’ll still be tired. I’m dug into a hole under a big tree that fell over. It’s good. Out of the wind. Snow packed all around – that makes it cozy.

But when I open my eyes it’s just … you know. Bark. Not much to look at. I’ve tried counting sheep but it doesn’t help. Makes my stomach growl. We bears are already good at growling, so our stomachs get real loud. Somebody passing by could hear it and figure, ‘Hey, there’s a bear under the tree.’ Then I really wouldn’t be able to sleep. Rumor is, there are scientists in the woods.

Yup, I get a little paranoid.

But there’s good reason. Some of the bears say home invasions are on the rise. You’re sleeping and suddenly the door opens and these people reach in with needles and electronic collars and tags. They’re putting their hands all over you and poking you and measuring you, whispering all the while like it’s some secret mission. Then they go away! But when you get up in spring, all their merchandise is hanging off you, like you’re a Christmas tree that got decorated and forgotten. Then you have to drag that stuff around with you through the whole summer and maybe the rest of your life, clattering and beeping … slows you down. And the lady bears really don’t go for guys with flashing, humming collars. It feels like you’re being watched. Or so I hear.

Anyway, thinking about this is gonna keep me awake for days unless I figure it out, so if you’ve got advice about going back to sleep … something other than counting sheep … let me know, eh?

What cures insomnia?