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The world is (not) growing safer

You’d think a bunch of biblical literalists, or whatever the hell they are, would have at least read the book they’re always swearing by. Haven’t they heard about “sowing the wind, and reaping the whirlwind”?

Words fail me, and the information really needs to go viral, so I’ll just quote Andrew Heavens mindboggling post:

August 29, 2007

the scariest headline of the week award goes to … today’s Khartoum Monitor:


In a scientific symposium yesterday at the Islamic Jurisprudence complex, participants said it is essential to establish research centres and installations in the fields of physics, chemistry and physical engineering which will enhance atomic and nuclear research…

Scientists recommended a drive to obtain mass destruction weapons and that if the enemy is suspected to be in possession of these weapons, we must get prepared and be trained in their use.

Just what Sudan needs. And who is “the enemy”?

The point is not that terrorists could get at these weapons. The point is not even that Sudan will waste resources getting a nuke or two. (Although both are big issues.) The point is that they want nukes.

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This morning’s lunar eclipse

You know those “How to tell if you’re a redneck” lists? This morning it occurred to me that there’s a foolproof way to tell if you’re a geek: getting up at three a.m. to stare at the moon for a couple of hours because it’s a funny color.

Better than television, as far as I’m concerned. Way better. Pictures below the fold.
Read more »

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The US Obligation to Iraq

Here’s the situation. For whatever mixed motives, the US deposed one of the world’s outstanding dictators. That’s the good news.

There is no other good news. The US did not and does not fulfill its obligations as an occupier to keep order. The US never fulfilled its obligations as an occupier to count the dead among the occupied. And that’s just the beginning. Read more »

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Old signs of life on Mars?

A reinterpretation of 30 year-old Viking data could mean that there were about as many bacteria in the Viking samples as there are in some Antarctic environments. These were the samples confidently pronounced as totally lifeless, proof that there not only wasn’t, there couldn’t be, any life on Mars.

Dr. Houtkooper hypothesizes that the carbon – oxygen balance observed in the samples could be a sign of microbes that use hydrogen peroxide as an anti-freeze. Bacteria like that are known from extreme environments on Earth. They’re not just an idea, at least on Earth. However, I can’t find the original references yet, or critiques, so this may be a lot less interesting than it sounds.

But finding life outside of Earth would be as much of a mind-expander in biology as the equivalence of matter and energy were for physics. (I discuss that a bit (I discuss that a bit here.)

I can’t wait.

[Update about a week later: Available evidence suggests Dr. Houtkooper was talking through his hat. Ah well.]

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Profits cost us cures

I know nobody here needs convincing that the free market doesn’t provide the best medical care for all. But it’s not just the care part that struggles. The real heart of medicine is cures and, best of all, preventing disease altogether. Profit-driven drug delivery actually hampers finding the best solutions.

I’d say the most insidious effect is how research gets shunted away from the really good stuff. That takes away benefits in the future, and we don’t even know what we’re missing. It could be the cure for cancer or a vaccine against the common cold. Maybe it’s something that makes childbirth feel like orgasm. (Contractions are contractions. It’s an interesting question why there’s such a big difference in felt sensations.) The point is we don’t even know.

And don’t even get me started on what’s painfully obvious: the fact that prevention can never be a priority in a profit-driven system. Read more »

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Ten Minute Cancer Test

Now all they need is the ten-minute cure.

No, seriously, this is interesting and promising. While a patient is in a doctor’s or dentist’s office, the test can be run and provide results that are much more sensitive than x-rays or other diagnostic methods.

It’s done with “biomarkers.” All cells have hundreds (thousands?) of different proteins on their surfaces, and the specific kinds are characteristic of specific cells. Cancer cells are bizarre in many ways, and have lots of unusual proteins not otherwise found on normal cells. It’s possible to produce a complementary protein that can bind to a specific weirdo protein, and attach a bit of fluorescing dye to the end of the complement.

The complement binds, and when you look at the whole sample under a fluorescence-imaging system (specialized microscopes, but also cheaper gizmos), the cancer cells light up bright green. If there are no cancer cells, nothing lights up. Cancer cells can be detected, so cancers can be caught much earlier than the tumor stage.

The device only works when given a sample, so the first application is a test for oral cancer. (Via Technology Review, which is always full of fascinating news.) Cells from any surface accessible externally, such as the cervix, skin, or rectum, could be diagnosed this way. I also don’t see any reason why any liquid sample, such as blood, cerebrospinal fluid, maybe even cells in suspension, couldn’t be tested the same way. The biomarkers are different, though, so each type of cancer requires its own sampler system.

I’m not sure when the first of these devices might come to a dentist’s office near you, but as an external diagnostic test there aren’t the same sort of years-long studies to be done as for drugs. The future is (kinda sorta) here. All we need is a medical industry that can deliver it.

Being a pessimist, I’m not sure the cure for cancer isn’t a simpler problem.

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Beggars the Imagination (and the Republic)

I find this unbelievable. Washington Post, Aug. 15, In High Court Filing, It’s U. S. vs. Investors. Whatever happened to Bubble Boy’s great sense of humor (or something) at the charity fundraiser, telling the assembled rich and mighty, “Some people call you the elite. I call you mah base.” I guess he meant they were something he’d stand on to wipe his shoes.

The Bush administration yesterday sided with accountants, bankers and lawyers seeking to avoid liability in corporate fraud cases, arguing that investors must show they lost money after relying on deceptions by third parties in order to proceed with private lawsuits.

So if you relied on Enron’s fraudulent annual reports to make investment decisions, you could sue Enron for fraud. What you couldn’t do is sue the “independent” auditor who “verified” the annual report and said it was trustworthy. If Arthur Andersen, Enron’s accounting firm, still existed, you couldn’t sue them either for aiding and abetting the fraud.

“Words or actions by a secondary actor that facilitate an issuer’s misstatement but are not themselves communicated to investors, simply cannot give rise to reliance (and thus primary liability in a private action),” [according to US Solicitor general who filed the Administration’s brief.]

He’s said, this pillar of the legal community said, that if accountants, lawyers, or bankers knowingly participate in a fraud, but don’t send reports directly to investors, what the company does with the fraudulent numbers is nobody else’s fault.

By the same logic, if I, as a botanist, tell someone exactly how to make ricin from castor beans, knowing that they need a method to kill one of their peskier in-laws, then it’s nothing to do with me if the in-laws die of ricin poisoning. Yet the law would put me behind bars for years as an accessory to murder. So, what’s the big difference between assisting a murderer or assisting in fraud that beggars thousands?

Business advocates pointed out that … allowing such private lawsuits to proceed would have the practical effect of forcing businesses to settle cases rather than risk crippling jury awards.

“Litigation, transaction, and compliance costs would soar — squeezing bottom lines for companies in the U.S. and deterring foreign investment — at the expense of the American economy, its workers and investors,” warned Marc Lackritz, chief executive of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.

That isn’t some pinko commie talking. It’s the head banana of a financial trade association. According to him, the US economy is so corrupt and riddled with criminals that if we try to do anything about them the whole thing will collapse.

He ought to know, I guess.

And the criminal Administration sides with … the criminals. Why do I keep getting surprised by this? Why?

Crossposted at Shakespeare’s Sister

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It’s about the power, stupid

Mark Lilla, professor at Columbia University, has written a long article“The Politics of God” in the Aug. 19, 2007, NYTimes. Shorter Lilla: people who think belief and state should be separated exist, but lots of people want God, the whole God, and nothing but the God. The article explores the history of and people’s need for religion in politics.

[O]ur problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.


Lilla’s analysis is fine if you accept his premise, which is that this is about religion, about people’s sense of their place in the world, about feeling comfortable in the world. But he seems to be forgetting some significant points from very recent history in the course of reaching back to the 1500s. Read more »

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Science goes to the movies

This is one of my Big Peeves. It’s so huge, it’s not even a pet. The incredibly dumb treatment of science in entertainment is only the beginning. As someone who’s on both sides of that fence, a professional biologist and a rarely-paid science fiction writer, the thing that drives me screaming batshit crazy is when the mental midgets don’t follow their own rules.

Ars Technica has an excellent post on two physics profs in Florida, Efthimiou & Llewellyn, who detail a whole series of nonsense.

The excuse for the crap is always that the story comes first. Can’t get in the way of the story. So why do they get in the way of their own ignorant plots?

The two physicists describe a movie, The Chronicles of Riddick, about a prison breakout on a planet that’s explodingly hot by day. The prisoners escape at dawn, the sun’s overtaking them, one guy stops to look back at the hero rescuing the female prisoner who’s lagging behind (now there’s something that’s not a cliche). The stopped fellow is literally incinerated to nothing in seconds when the sun hits him. The hero, meanwhile, saves the girl by gallantly sacrificing all the drinking water in his canteen and pouring it over her to keep her cool enough to get away. Read more »

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Advanced paper #2: Stirling engines

This was on BoingBoing August 10th, but it’s too good to pass up so what the hell. Better late than never. Here’s a graphic example of how far away we are from tapping the energy that is all around us, while we stare ourselves cross-eyed on oil.

It’s a Stirling engine, made from paper no less, chugging away on the heat from a coffee cup.
short clip showing rapidly turning die-cut paper wheel

Stirling engines, to define terms, work by using temperature differences as their source of power. Any difference will tend to equalize, like water flowing down hill, and that flow can be tapped. There are temperature differences all over the place: between you and the ambient air (could be used to power wearable gadgets or medical devices), between the roof of a house and the basement (a/c, refrigerators, lightbulbs), between the surface of the ocean and a few meters down (power generation, desalination in cold climates), and so on. Stirling engines aren’t just a parlor trick. They’ve already been used to run cars and refrigerators.

One of the main problems with them has been that the critical parts have to be very precisely shaped, but are usually subject to high temperatures (eg in cars) and will therefore deform unless made out of expensive materials. Modern manufacturing methods and materials science have largely solved that problem, but there’s no big push to mass produce Stirling engines because it’s more trouble to change manufacturing processes — initially — than to just continue with internal combustion machines.

The English-language web site has more information, complete with Google’s hilarious automatic translation. A good example of why translators won’t be out of jobs any time soon. (Link to the German site where you can also order your very own die-cut paper, coffee cup machine. Precision German engineering!)

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Science, logic, and infidelity

Due to anatomical constraints, humans (and mammals generally) can really only have sex with one partner at a time. And if two people are having sex, then the fact that person A is having sex necessarily means person B is too.

We know all this.

So how is it that we’re so ready to believe research which says men have more sex partners than women? How could the scientists who did the research not notice that little flaw in their project?

Gina Kolata highlighted the issue with respect to heterosexuals in a recent NY Times article. She cites David Gale, an emeritus mathematician from UC-Berkeley, who pointed out the logical impossibility.

Although she doesn’t state it explicitly, note that a few promiscuous women can’t explain the survey results. In one study, for instance, men claim 12.7 heterosexual partners, on average, and women 6.4. That’s about a hundred percent difference. At least a few of these highly promiscuous women would be in the sample, and you’d see a skewed bimodal distribution. There’d be a large number of women with numbers of partners in the low single digits, a trough with very few having, say six to twenty partners, and then a spike showing that a few women had dozens or hundreds of partners. The overall average would still have to be the same for both sexes.

Nor can the results be explained by assuming men are having all that sex when traveling to places outside the survey population. Some men would be traveling to the survey population, and the women who are having sex with them should show up as more promiscuous than the men in the population.

But the surveys don’t show any group of women, however small, who are more promiscuous. If you want to believe the surveys, then somehow men are having sex with phantoms.
Read more »

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Dutch bishop suggests using “Allah” for “God”

Bishop Muskens … told Dutch television on Monday that God did not mind what he was named and that in Indonesia, where Muskens spent eight years, priests used the word “Allah” while celebrating Mass. … “What does God care what we call him? It is our problem.”

(via memeorandum, reported in WaPo [2015: link broken] and MSNBC)(2015: also e.g. in Dutch press.)

Unlike some of the people who think they have a direct line to God, if this Bishop claimed it, I might believe him.

What a great way to remind everyone that there is only one God. (Right? I mean, that’s a central tenet, isn’t it?) In which case, some reciprocity in naming is an excellent way to put that front and center in all our minds.

And a great way of reminding everyone how far we’ve slipped from really believing that.

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Relax: Wall Street bonuses are fine

I’m so relieved. “Wall Street bonuses safe from volatility” MarketWatch tells us.

Compensation will be hit by firm-wide financial losses from loan-related fees and write offs. Those losses will be offset by the seven- to eight-month build up of the bonus pool

So nice to know they’ve been thinking ahead, at least in this case.

Bankers also can expect to see more options in compensation packages.

The poor diddums. (At least, I assume this isn’t as nice as a few million in plain cash.)

“The growing divergence in incentive pool increases and compensation levels between major firms and broader comparators continues.”

Translation: Executives’ bonuses and their actual performance in the market (“broader comparators”) have less and less to do with each other.

[A series of the biggest brokerage firms] have set aside more than 45% of revenue for compensation and benefits

No comment.

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Any advanced technology looks like magic: paper batteries

Actually, what Arthur Clarke said was “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but that wouldn’t fit in a title, and it’s true either way. Paper batteries. Whoda thunk it. (Hat tip to Space Cowboy for giving me the idea of blogging this.)

Seriously. Paper batteries. Actually, what they mean is carbon nanotubes arranged in a sheet of paper which acts as a battery when placed in the right sort of liquid.

A battery is just a way of having a source of electrons, moving those electrons from point A (the electron donor) to point B (the electron acceptor) and tapping into that flow to get electrical energy. In traditional batteries, that requires all kinds of parts, which corrode, explode, and generally die inconveniently.

A group of researchers at Rensselaer Polytechical Institute have made the leap from many parts to an integrated battery. They use the analogy of vacuum tubes versus transistors, and that’s a pretty good one.

What allows them to do this is the amazing properties of nanotubes. Wikipedia (which is a great resource so long as the topic is beyond Fox News) explains that the electrical properties of nanotubes vary depending on how they’re “rolled.” Oversimplifying grossly, if the cylinder is formed by rolling “straight across,” the nanotube will act as a semiconductor. If it’s rolled “on the bias,” the nanotube will conduct electricity. Theoretically it can do so as much as 1000 times better than silver, which is one of the best conductors known.

The RPI group has imbued paper with aligned carbon nanotubes which act as electrodes on a battery when they’re in a solution that can conduct electrons. Water with dissolved salts can do that. Blood is essentially water with dissolved salts (and lots of other stuff). So, besides the fact that there are plenty of electronic and industrial applications where it would be convenient to have thin batteries you can twist into any shape, people are also excited about the medical applications. Neither paper nor carbon is toxic, and blood or intercellular fluid is a ready-made ionic solution, making these batteries a vast improvement over what’s currently available for pacemakers and the like.

There are, however, lots of things the press release glosses over. Batteries need a source of electrons. That’s what the lead acid, sulfuric acid, or lithium ions provide in a normal battery. Inside the body, you can probably keep pulling electrons out of the blood. In an electronic application, it sounds like you’d have to replenish the salt solution as the electrons get depleted. That may be no big deal, but they don’t actually say how this part is going to work.

Another thing that’s unclear is how the flow of electrons will be tapped. Where do you attach the wires? Maybe I’m missing something, or maybe it’s also no big deal, but they don’t say.

Frustratingly, all we have right now are press releases. The actual article is supposed to appear August 13th in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but last I checked it hadn’t shown up yet. When it does, only the abstract may be available. Keep an eye on on the PNAS site and if we’re lucky, the questions will be answered in the fullness of time.

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Chopped hands don’t matter … over there

Glenn Greenwald annoyed me yesterday. What gives? He’s one of my go-to people for new and useful insights. He’s got no business disappointing me.

What set me off was his column The islamists are coming. In his masterful way, he laughs at the wingnuts who are hot and bothered about the about the imminent Islamist invasion.

Every now and then, it is worth noting that substantial portions of the right-wing political movement in the United States … actually believe that Islamists are going to take over the U.S. and impose sharia law on all of us. And then we will have to be Muslims and “our women” will be forced into burkas and there will be no more music or gay bars or churches or blogs.

Can’t happen here, he said. Not to worry.

Well, duh, but there is a much bigger issue than how wrong the wingnuts are. Just because we aren’t losing rights under sharia over here (we’re losing them for other reasons, of course), doesn’t mean other people aren’t being robbed of their human rights. It IS happening. It is happening over there. That matters. It is no more acceptable over there than it is over here.

In a more perfect world, I carped, he’s writing a column making that clear right now. Well, he has updated that column, pointing out that there are other choices besides believing that ultimate evil comes with cloth on its head or believing that Islamists pose no danger at all.

But he’s still looking at it through a US lens. Read more »

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