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Denial, Inequality, and Ignorance, Oh My

There’s a long piece I’ve been procrastinating on / working on for weeks (WokeBros™ Are Pushing Us Into A Republican Trap) , and now all this blows up. Maya Forstater’s judge with no judgement. JKRowling deciding enough is enough. By the time I push the “publish” button, this will be hours out of date and suitable for the Stone Ages.

Anyway, just some minor commentary which everyone else has already said too.

Mammalian sexes are not a spectrum. They are binary. There is the large gamete sex, female, and the small gamete sex, male. That’s it. There ain’t no more. Spergs and speggs don’t exist.

Earliest instance found: by Pinepalm on reddit.

Denying this biological reality is more la-la than being a Flat Earther. At least a Flat Earth *looks* plausible if you’re completely ignorant. Denying biological sex is denying how babies get made and that is something all of humanity is rather clear on. (Well, except for WokeBros™, male or female.) It’s much much much stupider than denying evolution or climate science since those require a minimal understanding of not-always-immediately-obvious evidence.

The usual refrain, including from some biologists, is “but, but clownfish!” Yes, there are clownfish. Yes, there’s sea lettuce (Ulva sp.) with identical sized gametes. Yes, some fungi have dozens of mating strains with very complex ways of producing the next generation. Invertebrate animals have all sorts of gametic flexibility. Even alligators and some birds have temperature-dependent sex ratios in their offspring.

Notice one thing about all of those? They are not mammals. Humans are mammals. We have none of that sexual diversity. In humans sex is binary. End of story.

Intersex individuals do not change that. They have chromosomal or developmental variants superimposed on the basic binary. Their secondary sexual characteristics can vary from the usual. Since everything except the production of egg or sperm is a secondary sexual characteristic, including organs like penis, vagina, or breasts, looks can be unrelated to genetics. That means without scientific tools, like karyotyping or DNA sequencing, the genetics is unknown.

The existence of variants does not turn sex into a spectrum any more than the existence of babies born without limbs means that there’s a spectrum of leg formation. Chimeric inheritance is a condition where two zygotes (fused egg and sperm) fuse together and develop as one individual. The cells derived from one of the two can be interspersed or more or less separate in different organ systems or even sides of the person. That can result in a very rare Difference of Sex Development (DSD) where there’s one ovary and one testicle in one body. (The two hormone systems interfere with each other during development, so there have been no documented cases of both systems being fertile.) In another situation, separation of one embryo into two may stop before completion and conjoined twins result. But the existence of developmental variants like chimerism or conjoined twins does not imply we’re all on a spectrum from one to multiple people.

Intersex individuals are uncommon. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) is the commonest, at about 1.4% of live births. All the other forms combined come to 0.1%, one in a thousand, live births. CAH causes overproduction of hormones. Since a number of sex organs are developed from homologous embryonic tissues (clitoris – penis, outer labia – scrotum) overproduction during development can — does not always — alter external morphology to superficially resemble the opposite sex.

Chromosomal abnormalities, like XXY, or XYY, or XO, also change nothing about the sex binary. They either result in individuals indistinguishable from XX / XY without genetic testing, or in individuals who don’t reproduce but look and are treated as female or male. They have nothing to do with the desire to transition to some other social role.

To me, an interesting side note is XO, also known as 45X, aka Turner syndrome. Just one X chromosome results in a female-looking individual who is sterile. The second X has a role only in the formation of the female reproductive tract. One of the two Xs is eventually inactivated in each cell during development. The only function of the Y chromosome is to develop the variants on the female pattern that result in male reproduction. In other words, human society has been wrong about this for millenia. Male is not the default. Female is the default.

A chart of DSDs annotated to show their rarity and the point that about 75% of them are due to just one of the factors noted, congenital adrenal hyperplasia. (The original image is here, full size image here)

None of the above has anything to do with gender, which is the main concern of trans people. Gender is defined as the collection of character traits society decides belong to people based on their sex. Social constructs can be anything society decides — there’s no limit on alphabets, for instance. So if trans people want to invert or subvert or multiply genders, that’s up to them.

Which brings me to the other thing that made my jaw drop about this massive kerfuffle. When JKRowling made her extraordinarily obvious tweet:


the bad feelings engendered in some of the trans community were explained in a thread on Twitter.

@alicegoldfuss / ms claws is a protected account. This quote was in a comment by @jackstarbright / Amanda.

JKRowling’s points are “not actual support.”

Well, DUH. Of course they’re not. You’re not supporting me, you know. Nor do you have to. Neither do I have to support you. In a free society we all have equal rights and nobody gets to demand service from others. We just leave each other alone to live our lives as we want and as best we can.

It’s called equal rights. Not equal support. Who died and made you king of deciding who has to stand ready with support?

That attitude of expecting others to forget their own needs and support transwomen is so blitheringly smug and entitled, it’s mindboggling.

It also reminds me a lot of something I see out in the world all the time. Something like a class of people who seem to think women should always hover about fulfilling their needs…. It’s on the tip of my tongue…. But that can’t be right because the transwomen who have that attitude are quite sure they’re women.

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About Ohio’s anti-choice heartbeat bill

You’ve all heard by now that Ohio passed the “detectable heartbeat” anti-choice bill. Women are not to control their own bodies or make their own choices, ever. Not even when they’re the victims of crimes arguably worse than murder. You get to live with the aftermath of torture using sex.

There’s another class of people who don’t get to control their own bodies. Slaves. It’s the definition of slavery. You don’t own yourself.

But, yes, we know all that. What I actually wanted to write about was the biological angle here.

Do you know one of the weird things about live heart cells in a petri dish? They beat.

(Which, speaking as one of those unpoetic scientists who take all the fun out of things, does not mean that heart cells in a petri dish can feel warm fuzzies or celebrate Valentine’s Day or know hope. The beat is a consequence of the chemical and electrical properties of that kind of cell. It’s not actually evidence of a soul. Note also that we’re talking about cells. A functional heart develops by about the 20th week.)

Heart cells in a human embryo are differentiated enough to start beating at about 18 or 19 days following fertilization.

By convention, doctors calculate the duration of pregnancy from the first day of the last menstrual period (not from actual fertilization). That means a heartbeat is detectable at 32 days or four and a half weeks. (The Ohio backers of the bill, at least one of whom doesn’t know why women get abortions, stipulated 6 weeks because that’s the limit of detection for equipment currently available in doctors’ offices.)

A woman doesn’t even know she’s pregnant at that point.

Fertilization happens in the middle of the ovulation cycle. The exact day varies a bit. Menstruation starts 14 days later. Periods are often 3-5 days later than expected because of common variations in the cycle. A missed period is the way a woman suspects she’s pregnant. She only knows she’s missed a period some 19 days after fertilization at the earliest.

At that point there’s already a heart beat.

graphic representation of timings discussed in the post

No, home pregnancy tests won’t help. They only start working about 14 days after fertilization, and they tend to give false negatives, i.e. unreliable results, up to about 20 days after. For those doing the math, that means they become reliable at about 5 weeks of pregnancy, calculated according to the medical convention.

No, advances in technology won’t change the test timing much. A woman is only pregnant once implantation occurs near the 3 week mark (ten plus or minus a few days after actual fertilization). About half of fertilized eggs implant, so earlier testing for fertilized eggs, once that is possible, would only mean a lot of false positives that never actually result in pregnancy.

So once research-grade heart beat detection is available everywhere, there will never, even theoretically, be so much as a day when a woman can control her own life.

That’s always been the point and goal of treating women as reproductive organs.

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Offensive offendedness

I haven’t commented on the murders of freethinkers at Charlie Hebdo or in Copenhagen because I’m too angry. Goons want to send us all back to the Dark Ages. We mustn’t let them. That’s beyond self-evident. Human rights, basic freedoms, secular governments, obliviousness to blasphemy rules, these are all essential to peaceful societies where everyone’s rights are equally respected.

(Yes, it includes blasphemy. Otherwise, if you can’t say anything I don’t like and I can’t say anything you don’t like, and nobody can say anything Joe doesn’t like, it won’t take long before everyone can say nothing and there is no freedom of speech.)

I do realize that free speech which gives offense is a complicated subject. It is said to justify harassing women into silence, soaking a crucifix in urine and calling it art, or drawing Mohammed to comment on the methods of violent loonies who call themselves Muslims.

Do I think it justifies these things? In the order given, no, yes, and yes. I’ll do a second interminable post on it some day explaining exactly why simply because I feel compelled.

But, really, there’s no need. It’s all been laid out by Evolving Perspectives in one cartoon. (I took the liberty of translating the French back to English. Click on the image or the link to the source for a full size version.)

What to do about offense: a flowchart. (Note the first fork: Is anyone harmed?)

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I’m a writer. Not a spy.

I’ll come out with it: I’ve written a bunch of books. Most are just straightforward feel-good stories. (I like feeling good.) One is about how to govern so it interferes with feeling good as little as possible.

Besides not being a spy, I’m also allergic to salesmanship. So all I do with my stuff is post it on my website, and throw it on Amazon and the Nook where they make me charge a dollar. A little independent isn’t allowed to post free books. (Yes, I know about Smashwords. I have conscientious objections to the Terms of Service. And, yes, I have COs to Amazon’s TOS too, but I’m only pure mostly. Being really pure is too much work.) In case you’re wondering why the Nook, it’s because when I started doing this, that was a thing. That gives you some idea how much time has gone by. So I’m thinking of putting my books on a few more sites — Kobobooks sounds like a good one — and today I heard about Oyster.

Oyster seems like an interesting idea. You pay a subscription of $10/month and can read as many books as you have time for. A visit to the web site gives you about five ways to reach the “Join” page and no links to any actual information. Did I mention that I hate pushy selling? So I didn’t like being pushed to join and went searching for more information. Wikipedia pointed to an article in the NYTimes. There, as with every new thing in recent times on the web, it turns out that yes, this is just one more business looking to turn users into gold.

(I find myself agreeing more and more with Maciej Cegłowski and wishing that I still saw new technology with wonder instead of an automatic feeling of dread.)

But what astonished me was this:

[A writer] interacts extensively with her fans on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Goodreads, YouTube, Flickr and her own website. … But having actual data about how her books are being read would take her market research to the ultimate level.

“What writer would pass up the opportunity to peer into the reader’s mind?”

Well, I would. I’d feel revolted. Just as I would if I caught an author peering over my shoulder, saying,

“Aha. You liked that bit, did you?”

No, not anymore.

Sometimes I feel like the only one left who feels put off at the thought of going around and sniffing people’s underwear.

Stop the world. I want to get off.

And, no, I won’t even try to publish anything on Oyster.

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Larry Page wants to see your medical records

But of course. What’s good for Mr. Larry is good for everybody. He’s quite clear on that. Why aren’t you?

From ITWorld:

A day after breaking an almost year-long silence on a medical condition that had affected the way he speaks, Google co-founder Larry Page said Wednesday that people should be more open about their medical histories.” …

“At least in my case I feel I should have done it sooner and I’m not sure that answer isn’t true for most people, so I ask why are people so focused on keeping your medical history private?”

Then the icing on the cake:

The Google CEO guessed most people are guarded about their medical history because of insurance reasons. [Or he could, maybe, guess that he could ask people what their concerns are.]

“You’re very worried that you’re going to be denied insurance. That makes no sense, so maybe we should change the rules around insurance so that they have to insure people,” he said to a round of applause.

Wow. Thanks, Larry. Where were you during the whole Obamacare bullshit? When not a single powerful anything came out in favor of Medicare For All, the only way to just “insure people.” At your rate of breakthrough insights, I’ll be waiting for the flash of inspiration sometime in 2020.

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I once bought a house

Buying a house is a hugely intimidating process. At least it was for me. It was more expensive than what I make in years — incomprehensibly more expensive than anything else in my whole world — and I felt like I was signing over the rest of my life when I signed the papers.

Which brings me to the papers. There was a stack of them, I think it was six inches high (around 15cm for those of you who live in the civilized world). Theoretically, you read and understood every word before signing. There was what felt like a damn ceremony, where I went to some office, and signed papers for a few hours. If I started reading any of them, there was a pregnant stage wait. I could just feel the professionals thinking, “Oh my God. If this pointy-haired buyer keeps doing this, we’ll be here all day!” I’ve got news for them. If I’d read all those papers, we would have been there for several weeks.

So, in some respects, I was one of those ignorant buyers you hear about. (For instance, Krugman discussing the subprime situation, “the hundreds of thousands if not millions of American families lured into mortgage deals they didn’t understand.”) The only real difference between me and them was that when I tried to make sure I had a real estate agent I could trust, I was lucky and turned out to be right. But — and that’s a legal hole you could drive a bankruptcy through — if I’d been wrong, there could have been anything buried in that mountain of paper and I wouldn’t have known until the bills arrived. That’s true even though I’m absurdly over-educated, can do statistics and calculus, and understand a little bit about accounting and finance.

Given how easy legal obfuscation has made it to cheat people, all the professionals in the real estate and finance industries who had a part in this process do bear a great deal of the guilt for creating the situation we’re in. I’m not arguing with Krugman or anyone else who says that. The heaviest costs of digging ourselves out of this hole should fall on the financiers. Agreed.

It’s also clear that some buyers really were actively and unethically (if not criminally) cheated. There are too many stories of creditworthy people being steered toward higher-profit subprime loans when they could have qualified for ordinary ones. People whose ignorance was used to cheat them should have that wrong made right at whatever cost to the damn financial industry. I’m completely agreed on that, too.

However.

Some of the ignorant buyers were more than just ignorant. They were greedy, just like the bankers. Unlike the bankers, the only people they’re ruining are themselves, but the fact remains that they were not the unwilling dupes of Wall St.

They were willing. They were out there, scooping in the free money with both hands. I had people tell me that it didn’t matter how much a house cost because the monthly payments were “only” $3000, or whatever. (I live in California.) That’s called charging whatever the market will bear, but it didn’t seem to matter, because everyone knew that houses would coin hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for them from now till doomsday. I saw people re-mortgaging their houses to their maximum, then-current market value so that they could go buy Stuff.

Some buyers weren’t paying close attention to the terms of their loans because they thought none of that mattered. The money was going to keep growing forever.

That’s exactly the same mistake Wall St. made, and for the same reason. If we’re ever to get a handle on Enron-style scamming, we’re going to have to acknowledge that the greed of some of us little people is right in there with the greed of the big people, creating the problem. Our greed may be a lot smaller than theirs, but there’s more of us.

And that’s why I get angry when I read about all the poor people lured into loans by Wall St. Suddenly everyone’s transformed into a Hispanic family who had trouble reading the contract.

Bullshit. There are plenty of people out there who didn’t know because they didn’t want to know. There always are and there always will be. So when we’re thinking about reforms to the financial system to prevent these sorts of meltdowns in the future, let’s try to remember that the rules are there to stop the little people from going crazy, too. The financial industry is a problem, but it’s not the only problem.

Crossposted to Shakesville
Technorati tags: politics, subprime, debt, housing, current events

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Insurance companies cause global warming

Seriously. I’m beginning to think they’re the source of all evil. Think about it. Insurance companies are at the heart of the US health care disaster. This post is an off-the-cuff rant, so I can’t be arsed to dig up the links, but go read Paul Krugman, Ezra Klein, Kevin Drum. Even I have a post about it. It’s obvious to the meanest intelligence.

But what brought this on is that my neighbor is cutting his trees to ten feet high. (Pollarding is the technical term.) I like those trees. They’re almost the only trees left on my street. This is a low rent district, full of little, ramshackle houses. With trees, it looked like something out of Harry Potter. Without trees, it looks like a slum. Even more important, the hummingbirds who visit my feeders live in those last few trees. They are currently Not Happy.

Now, my neighbor is a nice guy, so I went out to moan at him about what he was doing.

“It’s the insurance,” he said. “If I don’t cut them shorter, they won’t insure the house.”

What he means, of course, is that they’ll insure it, but they’ll want bags more money in case a branch comes off in a high wind and knocks off a roof tile or two. The trees themselves are too small and too far from any house to fall right over on one.

So, because the few little trees might, someday, cost the insurance company a few hundred dollars, it’ll either jack up premiums to the point where he has to pay hundreds extra every goddamn year, or it wants them gone. The neighborhoods I live in, nobody has an extra few hundred a year, so all the trees disappear, one by one.

This is the third neighborhood I’ve lived in during the last decade or so where I’ve seen this happen. Multiply that times thousands of neighborhoods, because I’m sure it’s the same thing everywhere. Then calculate how much CO2 that residential urban forest could have taken up. Calculate the increased heat island effect because the trees are no longer there to evaporate acres more water. Calculate the increased air conditioning used because there are no trees to throw shade. Calculate everything, and there’s only one conclusion.

Insurance companies (help) cause global warming.

Why aren’t we regulating the piss out of these bastards, and making it impossible for them to aid and abet the murder of trees?

Crossposted to Shakesville

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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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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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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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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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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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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.

Really?

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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Female Genital Mutilation

It’s gone by other names, primarily female circumscision, as if it was nothing more than the male equivalent of removing the foreskin. It’s supposedly another one of those awful things that “can’t happen here.” Read the CNN report about the British, who may finally get serious about stopping the practice, and you’d never guess that tens of thousands of children suffer through the mutilation and its lifelong consequences right here in the good old U. S. of A.

Why the bizarre silence? Because it’s a “cultural issue,” you know. The approved term is now female genital cutting. Some people felt that the term “mutilation” was culturally insensitive.

For those occasions when somebody starts suggesting that this is a “cultural” matter, consider the facts.

First, an anatomy lesson, developmental anatomy, to be precise. The tissues in males and females come from the same embryonic structures. They just follow a different path of development. The biologists’ term for that is homologous structures. The types of nerves and arousal present in the different male and female structures are much the same, with some differences I’ll note below.
Read more »

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Molly Ivins: Now laughing in the great beyond

I miss her. I still miss her. I didn’t know her, and yet I did. You know some of a person by her work, and what a work it was. (I don’t know how long the Alternet posts of her recent essays will stay up, but at least for now, they’re there.)

And now she’s left us behind, when we need her more than ever. We have cockroaches in suits fomenting World War III, and no Molly anymore to point out that the suits don’t fit.

I realize it’s customary to write tributes in a more timely fashion, but it’s taken me a while to understand that I was never going to find the words I want, and, well, the rest of the reason is under the “About Me” in the sidebar. It’s no less heartfelt for being late. Besides, Krugman (via donkey.od) has written more eloquently than I ever could.

Molly, don’t forget us.

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