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Our Government (Not) At Work

Although, really, I guess that would depend on how you define their work. Let me put it this way: the government is continuing not to protect and help the citizens who pay the government to help and protect them.

Via Shaker Nik E. Poo, another depressing bit of news.

Despite the protests of more than 50 scientists, including five Nobel laureates in chemistry, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday approved use of a new, highly toxic fumigant, mainly for strawberry fields.

The new pesticide, methyl iodide, is designed for growers, mainly in California and Florida, who need to replace methyl bromide, which has been banned under an international treaty because it damages the Earth’s ozone layer.

I happen to live a few miles away from some of the strawberry fields in question. (Upwind, luckily.) The procedure when they’re fumigating the fields is to cover them in acres of plastic. Great rolls of white stuff, about six feet wide, are rolled out and taped at the seams. Then a couple of guys dressed in white moon suits show up. These are the full biohazard overalls, with their heads completely enclosed in a gas mask sort of thing. They pace around, doing something obscure with hoses and stuff. They have a pickup-sized truck with a metal tank. Once they start pumping the gas under the plastic it billows in a dreamy way. It continues billowing for a few days. Anything alive under there is killed. I drive by with my windows rolled up, wondering how well those seams are holding up.

Meanwhile, a couple fields away, dozens of farmworkers are bent over, picking celery, or cabbages, or carefully hand-weeding a sod farm. When they’ve finished picking a box load, they run to the collecting truck. Then they run back. It’s not easy work, they do it for at least eight hours, and there’s probably scarcely a minute when they’re not breathing hard.

I can hear people sputtering, “Why the HELL don’t the farms just go organic!”

They can’t. If they tried to, it would take about three years before the soil microbiology and organisms built up to the point where something besides pests could live in those fields. Three years of paying taxes on the land and no income to show the shareholders is not something any agribusiness wants any part of. It’s not that they’re against organic farming as such. (Really. Organic farms are often more profitable after the transition period.) It’s that they can’t stand not making money all the time.

So they have to keep killing everything that moves. But life is very adaptable, especially pestiferous life, and there aren’t many poisons that will do that. Methyl bromide was a fumigant that did. It’s a very light molecule that went floating straight up into the stratosphere where it destroyed ozone. Bad for the planet.

But the farms that need a fumigant couldn’t function without it, so even though the stuff was outlawed years ago, it continues to be used with “exemptions” in quantities of thousands of pounds. (When an exemption is a continual thing, is it still an exemption?)

Now, I guess, the EPA has decided it has to get serious about stopping the use of methyl bromide. If you look at that column of elements in the periodic table, you see fluorine, chlorine, bromine, and iodine. All truly vicious toxins, which is why they work as disinfectants. Iodine is a bigger atom than bromine, so when it’s attached to a methyl group, you have a heavier compound. Methyl iodide does not go straight to the stratosphere. It hangs around where we are and gets into the groundwater. Bad for people.

So that’s the choice the “hydroponic” model of agriculture has given us. Kill the planet (and us, eventually), or kill (some of) us now.

There’s an interesting twist at the end of the LATimes article:

The manufacturer [of methyl iodide fumigant], Arysta, has spent eight years and more than $11 million collecting toxicological and environmental data to persuade the EPA to register methyl iodide as a pesticide.

Arysta’s former chief executive, Elin Miller, is now a top official at the EPA and was appointed administrator of its northwest region last year.

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“Germs taken to space come back deadlier”

That’s the AP headline, and for once they’re not exaggerating.

The germ: Salmonella, best known as a culprit of food poisoning. The trip: Space Shuttle STS-115, September 2006. The reason: Scientists wanted to see how space travel affects germs. …

“Wherever humans go, microbes go, you can’t sterilize humans. … and it’s important that we understand … how they’re going to change,” explained Cheryl Nickerson [professor at Arizona State University].

The researchers placed identical strains of salmonella in containers and sent one into space aboard the shuttle, while the second was kept on Earth, under similar temperature conditions to the one in space.

After the shuttle returned, mice were given varying oral doses of the salmonella and then were watched.

After 25 days, 40 percent of the mice given the Earth-bound salmonella were still alive, compared with just 10 percent of those dosed with the germs from space. And the researchers found it took about one-third as much of the space germs to kill half the mice, compared with the germs that had been on Earth.

The researchers found 167 genes had changed in the salmonella that went to space.

It seems — they haven’t proved this yet — that microgravity stimulated the Salmonella to activate different genes, which happen to result in more virulence. The original article will be published in Tuesday’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (for those of you who can’t keep a straight face at the usual PNAS reference).

If this turns out to be true of other bacteria as well, especially the ones which are normal parts of the human body’s ecosystem, that’ll be really bad news for long term space travel.

Given that if I knew how to make a rocket in my back yard, I’d be heading to Mars already, this is devastating news for me.

First posted at Shakesville]

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Conflating Morality and Disgust is Immoral: Haidt and the Happiness Hypothesis

Liberals, says Haidt, don’t understand morality. They think it’s only about fairness, something he thinks operates between individuals. Conservatives see the bigger picture, the social glue that makes people behave themselves. That depends on loyalty, respect for authority, and purity. That “broader view” of morality which is not “limited” to notions of fairness, is ingrained, and goes back through evolutionary time. He knows this because he spent some time in India.

I kid you not. Okay, I kid you slightly. He studied other cultures once he returned. He is now a professor at the University of Virginia and researches moral psychology.

I have so many problems with his views, I hardly know where to start.

  • 1) If he wants to imply that morality is genetic, something that evolved like standing upright, then he needs to look at entities that change over evolutionary time, like species, not ones that change depending on the stories people tell, like cultures.
  • 2) He has conflated religion, morality, and disgust without even realizing it, apparently. This is like confusing heterosexual relationships with good parenting. Heterosexuality is not unrelated to parenting. Good parenting can include heterosexuals. But the two are separate issues, and mixing them leads to neither good relationships nor good parenting.
  • 3) He seems oblivious to the role of power in social relations. This is mindboggling. It would be like ignoring this:

    BBC picture of Banksy art in Los Angeles: elephant painted like pink chintz in a pink chintz living room

I’ll go over my reasons for vehemently objecting to Haidt. In fact, I hope to beat his points to death. And I’ll also explain why I feel that strongly.

Starting with the biological angle, my first problem is that he didn’t start with it. Read more »

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Science-ish links, 2007-09-20

Evidence from a sudden climate warming 55 million years ago suggests that increased production of methane by warming bogs accelerated the warming. Feedback loops are something scientists have been worrying about for years. They could speed up warming beyond any hope of controlling it. One of the scary loops is coral reef dieback, and the millions of tons of carbon locked up there dissolving into the ocean. The other real biggie is what happens when all the carbon locked up in frozen northern bogs starts unfreezing. Well, roads in Alaska are buckling as the permafrost melts. The Northwest Passage is opening up. So far, scientists have just been predicting what it all means. Now there’s geological evidence that they’re perfectly right. (Speaking as a scientist: DUH!)

Chronic fatigue syndrome may be due to an intestinal virus. “Eighty-two percent of stomach biopsy samples from 165 chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) patients tested positive for enterovirus infection versus 7% of samples from controls (P<0.001), John K.S. Chia, M.D., and Andrew Chia, of EV Med Research, reported in the Journal of Clinical Pathology." (The p<0.001 means there's less than one in a thousand chance that the results are meaningless.) Another "it's all in your head" explanation falling by the wayside? White blood cell transplant may help fight cancer. From the BBC. These are not the usual T-cells and B-cells that stem cell and monoclonal antibody research has worked with. These cells are granulocytes, which people had thought acted only against bacteria. Turns out, some people have cancer-killing granulocytes that keep working even in a petri dish. Transplanted to patients, maybe they could do the same thing. The bad news (there’s always bad news) is that foreign cells lead to rejection, which can be so severe it kills the patient. Another therapy where embryonic stem cells (which don’t have the same rejection issues) might be the answer?

[First posted at Shakesville]

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Hero Rats

I came across this great story on Ars Technica.

Trained rats sniff out unexploded mines. They’re smart, calm, and light enough not to set the horrible things off. And cheap, compared to the $25,000 invested in a trained dog. A Belgian outfit called Apopo came up with the idea and has been training the rats, a special, six-pound, African species. It takes about a year, and one in four “graduates.”

Thousands of children and farmers would not lose legs, hands, eyes, or their lives if these animals could be deployed everywhere they’re needed.

Oh, and did I mention that they’re seriously cute?

African giant pouched rat hunting for mines in a farm field

Not only would lives be saved, hundreds of square miles of farmland could be returned to production if the explosives were cleared.

The rats can be trained for any work that requires a sensitive nose, such as TB scanning, as well as other diseases. Imagine it. Each health worker with her or his own little pet carrier.

The hardest part, I gather, has been getting people to fund work with rats.

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Right. Fine. Brains Differ.

Everyone’s been beaten to boredom, or at least I have, by the news that liberals are better at processing visuals and pressing the right key, an M or a W. (Abstract of article)

Not that there’s anything wrong with the research. The data support the conclusions, they’ve shown quite clearly that brain activity is different in the two groups, yadda, yadda yadda. (You can quibble about how well they’ve distinguished political leanings, or how big a deal pressing “M” or “W” is, but the results are pretty clear-cut.)

But this is boring because it is old news. Very old news.

Just a few years ago, Jost and his co-authors discussed the different orientations of liberals and conservatives, and they have a bibliography that gives a good sense of the dozens upon dozens of articles all pointing the same way over the decades. (Jost et al., 2003, Political conservatism as motivated social cognition, Psychological Bulletin 129: 339-375 (pdf). The only thing that’s different in the work of Amodio et al. is the specific bit of the brain they studied and how they studied it. That’s a valuable contribution, but it is not, in any sense, unexpected.

The fact that conservatives are more cautious became evident with the very first studies done in the 1930s. I mean, hello?, they’re conservatives. The very name means they’re trying to conserve something, to prevent it from falling apart. Why it should ever have been a surprise that this is a fear-based mindset, I can’t imagine.

(Fear really is very useful. As is pain. They keep us out of trouble, when used correctly. There is a place for that kind of thinking, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that just because we’re currently suffering under a bunch of paranoids.)

Any basic psych text will tell you that fear is associated with more mental rigidity, greater willingness to follow authority, and, again, yadda, yadda, yadda.

We know all this.

What we need is the cure.

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Zombies like global warming

Amoeba zombies, that is. As a headline in put it, “Brain-eating Amoeba Deaths Spike in Warmer U. S. Climate.” [link not working, deleted, 2007-10-22]

These brain-eaters are for real. They’re amoeba that like warm water, live in lakes, infect swimmers via the nose, migrate to the brain, and start living it up. Naegleria fowleri is said to be very rare. But as lakes warm up, it’s getting less rare.

From the LATimes report:

“This is definitely something we need to track,” said Michael Beach, a specialist in recreational waterborne illnesses with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “This is a heat-loving amoeba. As water temperatures go up, it does better. In future decades, as temperatures rise, we’d expect to see more cases.”

To be less tabloid about it, it’s not that many cases. The national yearly average has gone from about 2.3 deaths to 6 this year. But though the absolute numbers are small, that’s more than a doubling. If it does that every ten years, in fifty years we’d be up to some 200 cases. Compare that to a total of 27 SARS cases in the US at the height of that scare in 2003. The country was ready to shut down over that.

Also compare the approximately 10% mortality rate in SARS with the near-100% rate from the zombie amoeba. That’s what it is at this point. Amoebic diseases are notoriously difficult to cure. I could see people start to avoid every fresh body of water, including swimming pools (it turns up in less-than-pristine pools), and having to do that right when it’s 110F outside.

But global warming is nothing to worry about. It’ll be nice to spend less on heating, and to have a Northwest Passage, and to grow corn in Canada. No problem. Nothing to see here.

First posted at Shakesville

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Nukes can never be the answer

One bizarre effect of global warming is how it’s become a reason to make the problems worse.

Global warming is so bad, that we have to pull out all the stops. That’s true. So far, so good.

But then people go on to lobby for fuel that doesn’t reduce greenhouse gases, that takes land away from food production, and that’s already causing food crises and environmental destruction. They lobby for hydrogen made from coal, because hydrogen is so clean-burning. (No, no, don’t look at the coal plant. Look over here at the hydrogen car.) And they lobby for nuclear power. The first application in over twenty years to build a new nuclear reactor was recently submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The nuke stuff just blows me away. At least the other technologies haven’t been tried on a national scale in the US. If you’re stupid, you could pretend you can’t figure out what the problems are. But nukes have been tried. They did not work. They do not work. They will never work, because they can’t work.

Let me go over exactly why that’s true.
Read more »

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Science Links 2007-09-07

We live in interesting times. From the (UK) Telegraph:

Professor Ulf Leonhardt and Dr Thomas Philbin, from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, have worked out a way of reversing this pheneomenon, known as the Casimir force, so that it repels instead of attracts.

Their discovery could ultimately lead to frictionless micro-machines with moving parts that levitate. But they say that, in principle at least, the same effect could be used to levitate bigger objects too, even a person.

More at Dr. Ulf Leonhardt’s page on this research.

The dinosaurs were always doomed. From the BBC, a report on research about the asteroid that struck off Yucatan 65 million years ago. It was a piece off a larger one that broke up in a collision 160 million years ago. That set the Chicxulub chunk on its fateful trajectory. Most of the dinosaurs that went extinct hadn’t even evolved when that collision happened. Creepy.

And finally, it’s not just cord blood anymore. “Personalized” embryonic stem cells for sale. “A company in California called StemLifeLine has announced that it will offer a service to generate stem cells from excess frozen embryos stored after in vitro fertilization (IVF). The company promises a huge potential payoff: the cells could one day be used to treat disease in the buyers or in their families. But the service is already garnering criticism from some scientists and ethicists who say that without current medical uses for those cells, there’s no point in people paying for them.” All I have to say is, “Christ on a bike!”

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Stem Cells and Ethics

We’ve heard it all by now. “Stem cells will cure everything.” “Stem cells kill embryos.” “Stem cells are overrated.” We hear much less about the science of it all. (Oh, no! Not science!) And that’s too bad, because it can tell us a lot about the rest of what we hear. Let’s get to it.

Think of stem cells like tiny organ transplants, and you’ll be pretty close to grasping the essentials. If you could grow a new heart from your own tissues, there wouldn’t be any need to worry about transplant rejection. That’s how adult stem cells work when used in the adult they came from. Used in another person, they’re like a transplant. Anti-rejection drugs need to be taken for the duration.

So, conceptually, stem cells are simple. Politically, it’s another matter. I’m going to try to give the Cliff Notes version of both the science and my take on the ethics, as well as what we can realistically expect in the way of cures in the near term.

Intro … at warp speed

Adult stem cells are a very rare cell type, are hard to grow, and are hard to turn into useful tissues. Embryonic stem cells are easier to find because they’re present in much higher proportions relative to the total number of cells in the embryo. The earlier the embryonic stage, the more stem cells, until at the very earliest stages (zygote, blastula) it’s pretty much all stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are easier to grow and mature. They can generally be coaxed to mature into a wider variety of tissues.

Also, the earlier the stage, the less developed the immune system is, so the less chance there is of rejection even when the tiny cell transplant is given to an unrelated person. However, due to research restrictions in the US, there hasn’t been enough work done here to know whether rejection will be an issue or not. Research is being carried forward elsewhere (Britain, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, China, Brazil, and other countries), but I haven’t heard about definitive results on this question yet.

The downside of stem cells is that they can have a nasty tendency to turn cancerous. There’s some evidence (eg here, and here) that at least some cancers get their start as stem cells that lose the fine-grained regulation necessary to grow and differentiate into something useful. Instead, they just grow. However, it’s still not clear whether so-called cancer stem cells start as normal stem cells or just look like them in some ways.

There are also other down sides. One is that more research really does need to be done. We’re just taking the first baby steps in this field.

Some results are being obtained now, and those are therapies for conditions due to malfunction of a single cell type. Things like macular degeneration blindness (retinal cells), replacing insulin-producing cells, and regrowing damaged nerve cells, such as in Parkinson’s (simpler, here), and brain or spine damage. But we’re years away from growing new organs.

[update, Sept. 4. The hardest thing about writing this post is that the field overtakes me before I have the paragraphs finished. The scuttlebutt is that Israeli researchers have grown a whole heart from embryonic stem cells. So we’re obviously not years away from growing new organs. We’re not even days away, if that report is right.]

Getting a stem cell to mature into one cell type is just a matter of figuring out how to trigger it and then keep the cells alive while they grow. An organ is dozens (hundreds?) of cell types, all of which have to be perfectly placed together in order to function. At this point, we’re miles (but not light years) away from understanding cell growth regulation well enough to know how to do that. Figuring out how far away we are from growing new hearts or limbs is an unknown itself. It’s like trying to figure out how far away a mountain peak is when you’re hiking. If you’re seeing the whole mountain, it’s on the horizon and maybe fifty miles away. If you’re only seeing the tip, then the base is around the curve of the Earth somewhere and it could be 500 miles away. We don’t know enough about growth regulation to know how far we have to go, but we can see the peaks in the distance.

And then there’s the huge downside that people get hung up on stem cells, especially when they’re from an embryo. So let’s just dive right into that issue, since it has to be addressed before anything else can be done.

[Fair warning: this is a long post…] Read more »

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Riverbend is in Syria

I’m relieved to hear she and her family made their way out. I’m depressed that she and her family had to make their way out.

Just go read.

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Writing about the future with a crow quill pen

I am ashamed to admit, though once I was proud (or proud-ish), to say that I was a member of Science Fiction Writers of America.

This is the crew who’s been discussed recently for takedown notices that rival those of Big Media in counterproductive silliness. Cory Doctorow was told to take down his own work. What is it about these people not doing their homework before plastering the planet with takedown notices? It seems to be a function of reduced grey matter to think it’s a good idea to plaster the planet with takedown notices.

This is the crew who sends mailings to members about the evils of creative commons. If you look at the bottom of my blog, you can imagine where I stand on that. But okay. It’s possible to have honest differences of opinion.

However, this is just downright paleolithic. A then-current veep of SFWA wrote that “I’m also opposed to the increasing presence in our organization of webscabs, who post their creations on the net for free.” Explaining why he didn’t want to run for president of the organization, he said he didn’t want to be a party to promoting the “downward spiral that is converting the noble calling of Writer into the life of Pixel-stained Technopeasant Wretch.”

I have to admit, he has a way with words. That last trenchant phrase has become the motto of thousands and a global holiday. You can even buy the t-shirt or mug.

What was SFWA’s official reaction? Did they distance themselves? Did they realize it was high time for the futurists to catch up with the present? The official reaction was nothing. Search their web site, and I, at least, can’t find anything at all.

And then there’s something that was not remotely funny. At the 2006 WorldCon in Los Angeles, Connie Willis was a speaker. Harlan Ellison was next to her. They are both giants in the world of science fiction. He decided it would be humorous to reach over and grab her breast. The initial reaction from him and from too many within the SFWA community was, “Why don’t people have a sense of humor any more?”

There was a firestorm. I gather his later reaction was to apologize for offensive behavior.

How can there be so much pathetic cluelessness in such a great writer? Patrick Nielsen Hayden said it best: “the basic message of Ellison’s tit-grab is this: Remember, you may think you have standing, status, and normal, everyday adult dignity, but we can take it back at any time. If you are female, you’ll never be safe. You can be the political leader of the most powerful country in Europe. You can be the most honored female writer in modern science fiction. We can still demean you, if we feel like it, and at random intervals, just to keep you in line, we will.”

What was SFWA’s official reaction to a huge issue of principle involving two of its members? Embarrassed silence, as far as I can tell. Mealy-mouthed mumbling. No censure. No statement denouncing appalling behavior. Nothing. Nothing front and center, where it belongs.

These are supposed to be the people envisioning new worlds. Boldly going where no one has gone before.

I don’t think so. There’s much I don’t know about the future, but, taking the longest view of humanity’s cultural evolution, one thing is obvious.

The future belongs to the free.

Technorati tags: SFWA, creative commons, futurist, pixel-stained technopeasant

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Science Links 2007-09-03

RFID chips in humans. The good news is the CA Senate has blocked mandatory implants of these “bar code” chips in employees. The bad news is, there are already companies out there doing it! I had no idea. And I consider myself well-informed. Why isn’t this all over every news channel?

For a reason to look up after that, consider this BBC report about a way of getting better-than-Hubble pictures from ground-based telescopes. The issue has always been that the atmosphere muddies the image.

“The Lucky camera overcomes this problem in two ways. First, it uses one of the most sensitive light-detection systems developed to date. This comprises a chip that has very low electrical noise and so can see much greater detail. Secondly, the software system is able to distinguish when the atmospheric distortion starts and stops.”

They don’t say, but that’s done by shining a laser into the atmosphere. The line of light reflecting off dust should be perfectly straight. To the extent that it’s not, the atmosphere distorts it. The observed distortions are used by the software to instantly make minute adjustments to the curvature of the telescope’s mirror. The adjustments cancel out much of the distortion.

The mechanical engineering, aside from everything else, is a miracle in itself. See, for instance the OverWhelmingly Large telescope, especially the bit on Structure and Kinematics, and details.

Two pictures recently released by the group who developed the technology:

Globular cluster M13, Mt. Palomar telescope unaided, left, with adaptive optics and software processing, right:
Cat’s eye nebula:
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So THAT’s why the Republicans fought the ERA

Look, I try not to blog about stuff that’s silly and insignificant. Honest, I do. But I have to share a major “Aha!” moment with you.

Way back in the 1970s, Republicans fought like demons against the Amendment for equal rights for both genders. It seems like an obvious Mom and apple pie issue. Like being against war and poverty.

But the Republicans couldn’t stand it. Their big issue? It would lead to unisex toilets! That would be the worst thing in the world.

Even more amazing was how many people agreed with them.

But now, suddenly, it all makes sense.

First link not completely work safe….

Technorati tags: Craig, Allen, Republican, hypocrisy

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Science Links 2007-09-01

There’s way more out there than a procrastinator like me can write good posts about. So, when the spirit moves me, I’ll post a few links.

IBM researchers demonstrate the feasibility of storing data on a single atom. (Original sources here and here. Another, slightly more detailed, popular article here.) The storage densities are vast. Somebody pointed out you could put all of YouTube on one small chip, or thereabouts. I’m sure the advertising industry will figure out a way to fill it all with crap by tomorrow.

Possible vaccine against multiple sclerosis. This is over two weeks old by now, but, well, that’s how it goes. The vaccine consists of special parts of the myelin protein, the one which the immune system attacks in multiple sclerosis. DNA engineering was used to get just the part that tends to calm the immune system down. Early results look promising.

Engineered cells in the brain dissolve amyloid plaques in mice. Amyloid plaques are the immediate cause of brain degeneration in Alzheimer’s, so this is exciting news. Mice have rather different brains than people (well, most people), so it remains to be seen how well this scales up. The method was to take fibroblast cells from the skin of the mice, introduce the gene for an amyloid-destroying enzyme, and then implant the engineered cells into the brains of the mice where they proceeded to secrete enyme and destroy plaques.

And, finally, a crochet project. You too can represent Lorenz equations in your living room.

crocheted model of 3D graph of solutions to Lorenz equation describing chaotic systems

Lorenz manifold model crocheted by Hinke Ozinga and Bernd Krauskopf, Bristol University

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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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