Thursday, December 29, 2005

Icarus in Seoul—when your wings melt

About the only thing left is the dog, right dog? Dog? Get back here!—The disgrace of Hwang Woo Suk is now complete and the story gets sadder. It turns out now, he faked his human stem cell cloning experiments, embarrassing not only himself but his country and two science journals. He could produce no evidence to his university that he did what he said he did. It wasn't a question of exaggerating; he faked it.

His announcements, published in Science and Nature galvanized biology and made him a national hero, bordering on rock star status. His country was so proud of him; Little Korea passes them all. [I'm very fond of Korea and the Koreans. I feel their pain.] But what happens raises some really uncomfortable issues not discussed elsewhere—which is why I blog, I guess.

I've written here before that American science, if not also the American Empire, is in decline, that other countries are now doing serious work that often is ignored by American media. It was the reason part of me wanted to believe him. But while I was reading Hwang's papers and the reaction to his claims I was taken by two things. One, with stem cell research a matter of some controversy here, incredibly, many of us wanted very badly for Hwang's work to be real and true, and perhaps some of the coverage was biased that way. We were cheering him on, in part because many of us believe the field can do good things for people, and partly a reaction to the restrictions on the research forced on us by the morally obtuse—look, even Korea is ahead of us because of the ignorant meddling! The second thing that came to me was the little alarm in the back of my head wondered how a veterinarian in a small Asian country can do this when no one else seems able to. Turns out he couldn't.

I long ago learned to trust that little alarm in the back of my head. All good reporters learn that. I should have paid attention. So should we all. Science journalism does so little real probing. It is hindsight now but the signs of problems were all over the place, including the suspicious similarities in the illustrations of the cell lines. And, I'm sorry to say, the simple unlikelihood he really could have done that. I feel sorry for the Koreans and for Hwang.

Hwang also claimed to have cloned a dog. Whether he did or not remains to be seen. Don't bet on it

[Photo by Reuters]

Friday, December 23, 2005

Scorpio rising

I've had it with these Virgos, man. Give me a Pisces anytime—The Washington Post, in a move I would consider beyond brilliant, has posted on its web site the astrological signs for members of the U.S. Senate and how they voted on the cloture motion for the defense appropriations act, in other words, to block the bill containing drilling in the arctic wildlife preserve, the brainstorm of the idiot from Alaska. We Geminis did not come out as well as I would have hoped, but what can you do. Click on the headline to get the chart, and a bow to the Post for having a sense of humor. And to Carol for passing it on.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The decline of Western Civilization —Part V, or Barbie is toast

First, we’ll put Barbie in a wet t-shirt, then Ken is going to put her over his knees and spank her—The latest from the world of abnormal psychology (in other words, pre-pube girls) comes from a study from the University of Bath in Britain. It seems that many young girls like to mutilate and torture their Barbie dolls. A study of 100 children, aged 7 to 11, came up with a number of girls who got violent with their dolls. They hated the dolls so much they tortured them, removing hair, decapitating them, burning them, and best of all, sticking them in microwaves. Why, you may ask? “When we asked the groups of junior school children about Barbie, the doll provoked rejection, hatred and violence,” said Dr Agnes Nairn from the University of Bath’s School of Management. “The meaning of ‘Barbie’ went beyond an expressed antipathy; actual physical violence and torture towards the doll was repeatedly reported, quite gleefully, across age, school and gender.” One theory is that they have outgrown the dolls and thought it would be cool to terminate them violently. Outgrowing Barbie, apparently is a rite of passage. Mattel, which makes the dolls, said the study was too small to mean anything. It would seem to me, the best thing to do would be to dress them up in something really ugly and play rap music to them for hours at a time. Even those dolls would surrender. How about a double mastectomy?

Well, if we cut Barbie’s hair real short, put her in slacks and a tight bra, we’d have Barbie Dyke—So there is an alternative. Lesbian dolls. If you go to Dykesdolls on the web, here, you will see a splendid line of lesbian action figures. It doesn’t say what the action is but nothing would surprise me. The line includes the butch Bobbie doll, with “denim jeans and boots...all boy on the outside but woman underneath." And there is the Baby Dyke line too. I don’t know what any of this means. A gay Ken would flesh out the picture, don't you think? [With thanks to reader Larry M.]

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Christian War on Christmas

This has nothing to do with science and medicine, the usual fodder for this blog, but I've wanted to say it for years and it's my blog!

There is indeed a “war” against Christmas. By Christians. The evangelicals and the Fox commentators ought to be reminded of the sagacious Pogo, who exclaimed that he had met the enemy and “he is us.” It is the Christians who have become the enemies of Christmas, certainly in the U.S.

I always thought this was a good time of the year not to be a Christian. I don’t have to be offended by what they’ve done to my most important religious holiday. “They” are not Jews or Moslems or secularists. They are Christians.

Some historical background would be useful here. Christmas doesn’t really coincide with the birth of Jesus. If the New Testament is accurate, he was born in the spring. Remember the shepherds and lambs? There are no lambs in December. The holiday in December derived from the pagan worship of the winter solstice. The Yule tree is one of the pagan symbols, which is why the Puritans banned Christmas trees. In fact, they banned Christmas for several generations because for the holiday’s pagan origins.

Christmas itself was not always the major Christian holiday it is now. Easter was more important. It became a big deal during the Victorian era, at least in the English-speaking world. Most of the Christmas carols, which sound so ancient, actually were written in the 19th century. Americans tend to give credit to Clement Moore and his poem about the night before Christmas, written in 1822, which morphed St. Nicolas into Santa Claus, the holiday’s prime icon—a jolly old guy who drove a sleigh of reindeer and dropped down the chimneys of homes—millions of them simultaneously—to bring presents to the families. You see a lot more pictures of Santa than Jesus these days.

But a more likely fashioner of the modern Christmas was Charles Dickens whose A Christmas Carol (1843)—one of several Christmas stories he wrote, created the aesthetics of our current holiday. Think of how many images of Christmas come in Victorian dress. Throw in a little Currier & Ives, and you have our idealized holiday.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that. Indeed, it’s quite lovely, actually, especially the music. But that’s the ideal. It turns out Christmas is nothing like that at all.

It has become a materialistic orgy with the Jesus part just noise.

When I was a kid, the rule was that the Christmas season began the weekend after Thanksgiving. Now the ads and the decorations begin before Halloween and the ads come in torrents. Christmas has become not a religious holiday, but a commercial event, the biggest of the year. For many businesses, your profit comes in November and December or it comes not at all. I stay out of malls in November and December because the goyim are out in droves shopping and dropping credit cards.

What the hell does any of that have to do with the purported birth of the messiah. Ain’t my messiah, but if he is yours, why aren’t you offended? You cannot name a product that doesn’t have a Christmas ad, sometimes invoking the melodies of carols to sell stuff. From celebration of what you believe is the most important event in history we get a holiday of consumption, materialism and bad taste.

It wasn’t the ACLU that did it. We Jews don’t care what you’ve done to your holiday and I doubt many Moslems do either.

Is there a war on Christmas? Yes, and Christmas lost. And Christians did it.

Oh, and Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy New Year. Don't bother me with Kwanza.

And, as my Christmas present to you all, the words of Walt Kelly:

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

Don't we know archaic barrel
Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker 'n' too-da-loo!
Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloupe, 'lope with you!

Hunky Dory's pop is lolly gaggin' on the wagon,
Willy, folly go through!
Chollie's collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarm bung-a-loo!

Dunk us all in bowls of barley,
Hinky dinky dink an' polly voo!
Chilly Filly's name is Chollie,
Chollie Filly's jolly chilly view halloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Double-bubble, toyland trouble! Woof, woof, woof!
Tizzy seas on melon collie!
Dibble-dabble, scribble-scrabble! Goof, goof, goof!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Kennedy boy is in the soup again—UPDATED

Look, they said it was real kimchi—Don Kennedy is in trouble again and this time it isn’t his fault. Kennedy is editor of Science magazine, about as prestigious a position as you can have in science. He came to the job after screwing up as president of Stanford and has done, by all accounts, a good job as head of America's most prestigious science publication. Now, it appears, he has been the victim of science fraud and he is in the spotlight again.

Background: I was science writer at Stanford when he was president, and I wrote the initial stories that began Stanford’s indirect cost scandal that eventually cost Kennedy his job. In brief, the university was charging everything from light bulbs to yachts and commodes to the government to do research, a practice that made doing research at Stanford so expensive that scientists started losing grants and the faculty was in an uproar. The practice began under Kennedy and when it exploded into the public—thanks to a slightly wacky whistle blower —Kennedy mishandled it. He never got control of the situation so we were getting surprised every day. He also made the mistake of forgetting you hire lawyers to give advice, not make decisions. Nonetheless, he was fired and to some extent, I’m told, he blames me partially. There goes my freelancing opportunities at Science.

Now for the present contretemps. The world has been agog at the exploits of a Korean veterinarian, Hwang Woo Suk, who claimed major advances in stem cell research and cloning. His work was published in Science. Hwang has become a national hero in Korea. In recent weeks, there have been questions about the ethics of his work and veracity of his claims. One colleague, Roh Sung Il, says Hwang faked photos in a claim that he created stem cells from 11 patients for an article in Science (an article I reported on this blog too, by the way). The stress has put Hwang in the hospital and it is apparently going to get worse. Things really fell apart when a coauthor of the Science paper, Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, an accomplished and well-respected researcher, asked Science to take his name off the paper. Schatten was listed last, the place reserved for the most important scientist. Schatten said he now had substantial doubts about the paper’s accuracy,” which is interesting since he signed off on it. Science refused because the paper had not been withdrawn, putting Kennedy on the spot. See Connie Holden's piece in Science here.

Today I got a call from a reporter at the New York Times who heard I had some bumpy experiences with Kennedy and the question was, did I know anything about Kennedy that could let me predict he would get into a jam at Science. The answer was no. I don’t think he did anything wrong. He got an important paper that passed peer review and was coauthored by an established scientist of unquestioned repute. What the hell was he supposed to do with it? Nature also accepted an article from Hwang on cloning a dog and no one has asked if there was anything in that editor’s past that would warn of a problem. The referees on the Science paper asked for additional tests, which may have led to uncovering the problems. If Hwang did fake the research the worst that can be said is that the system worked. He got caught.

UPDATE—A panel at Hwang's university, Seoul National, has concluded that Hwang faked at least nine of the 11 stem cell lines he claimed to have produced and Hwang resigned. His downfall is particularly said because he had become a national hero in Korea, a Korean who was leading the field in science, attaining rock star fame in the country. "I sincerely apologize to the people for creating a shock and disappointment," he said. [AP photo above]

It wasn’t Kennedy’s fault that the stories were published. The papers will undoubtedly be withdrawn.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Virgins in space, Kirk on the web.

What if the tourists come and there is nothing to see?
Richard Branson, the rock ‘n roll entrepreneur is not a man to think small. He has just come to an agreement with the state of New Mexico to build a $225 million spaceport in the desert. What he or anyone else is going to do with a $225 million spaceport doesn’t seem clear. His company, Virgin Galactic, however, now has a waiting list of 38,000 people who have put down deposits on a seat on Virgin Galactic’s space ships, only Virgin Galactic doesn’t have any space ships. One hundred of them laid out $200,000 up front and Branson says they are going to boldly go up in 2008 or 2009. The spaceport, state officials, say will be largely underground near White Sands and Virgin will have a 20-year lease, paying $1 million for the first five years. Branson has a deal with Burt Rutan to build five spacecraft modelled after Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, the first privately manned rocket to reach space last year and the winner of the $10 million Ansari X prize. Meanwhile, Branson has something perhaps more serious in mind. He and a group of American investors are starting up a U.S. airline, Virgin America, to compete with JetBlue and Southwest. It will be based in San Francisco and already has funding and an order for more than 30 Airbus 320s. They will fly before his spaceships will.

Jim, Jim. What the hell are we going to do with all those consonants? —Star Trek fans have a treat in store if they click here. They will go to the most viewed movie in Finland, a full-length movie in Finnish with English subtitles made by students and amateurs that is surprisingly professional. OK, not profession. Not amateurish. OK, not not amateurish but surprisingly decent. Whatever. It’s funny and it's called "Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning," and it has been downloaded more than 3 million times since the beginning of October. That’s more people than those who went to the theatre to see Finland’s most popular movie, “The Unknown Soldier” (or, as you know it better, “Tuntematon Sotilas.”) It’s fun to watch and there is a lesson to the film industry in there somewhere.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Water horrors—collateral damage

Will that be red or white wine with your sludge?—The collateral damage to Hurricane Katrina knows no limits. I know people are homeless and more than 1,000 died, but one must add to the tragedy. The wine cellar at Brennan’s Restaurant, one of the best in the world, is gone. Vinegar. Slurry. Think of 35,000 bottles, including some of the best wines in the world (oh, how about a 1870 Lafite Rothschild?) broiling in the heat of August. When the electricity went out, the wine cellar—two floors of the circa 1795 building—was at the mercy of the heat. The wine was usually kept at 58 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature rose to 120 with the power out, cooking the stuff, or at best making cooking wine out of it. Brennan’s is just one of almost a dozen restaurants owned by the Brennan family, all of which are probably down for months. No more Bananas Foster. (They have branches and I was a denizen of the Houston shop during the space program). All are a major loss, but the wine cellar at the flagship is a serious stuff.

We’re doing swordfish today so you can throw the damned tuna out—No doubt Brennan’s and the other sea food restaurants get their catch as the result of the modern fishing industry, which brings us to more collateral damage. According to a report from U.S. and Canadian scientists, the modern fishing industry is amazingly inefficient and wasteful. They regularly toss out 22% of what they catch in their nets. In an article published in the journal Fish and Fisheries, they say the Gulf of Mexico has the worst fishermen. The problem is that the shrimp nets, which are dragged across the ocean floor, scoop up tons of what is called bycatch, about a billion pounds of it, which is then dumped back into the water. They discard four times as many fish as they keep. In one of the great analogies of the week, one of the scientists said the bycatch would fill every bathtub in a city of 1.5 million people. How he figured that, I don’t know, but it is impressive. Besides noncommercial species (jelly fish, for instance) the bycatch includes whatever the boats were not out to get. The figures are for 2002 and representatives of the fishing industry say they are doing better now, but it’s as good as it’s going to get.

Friday, December 09, 2005

A Titanic struggle on the telephone while debating evolution

No, Muscatine is not a bad Italian wineThe next town you hear from in the great debate over “intelligent design” could be Muscatine, Iowa. According to the Muscatine Journal, the school board of the small, 22.000 population city on the banks of the Mississippi, thinks that students should be aware of ID and plan on taking the matter up at a meeting within the next two years. Ann Hart, vice president of the school board said there was no thought to removing evolution from the curriculum—it is, after all, science—but that “intelligent design should be brought up because a lot of people believe in it, and otherwise, kids aren’t going to understand it as well as they should.” The first point, that a lot of people believe in it, is debatable. The second isn’t. If taught properly—that it is anti-evolution dressed up as a scientific theory—would be a good thing, and last about 10 minutes. “I would hope,” she said, “it wouldn’t become a big issue.” Good luck.

It was said when the great ship went down. Husbands and wives—little children lost their lives—oh it was sad when the great ship went downIn most books as well as the movie, the R.M.S. Titanic hit an iceberg, broke apart and sank. In the movie it looks like everyone had time for high drama, and the designer says it will sink in about an hour. The bottom section of the hull broke free, the bow and stern split, with the bow sinking first and the stern 20 minutes later. Apparently, that isn't so. The stern, as depicted in the film, is where all the survivors fled for temporary safety before it too filled with water and plunged into the frigid water. In the original exploration of the wreck, Robert Ballard never found the bottom section. Now others have and it gives a new picture of what happened that night in 1912— a more merciful death. The stern sank after only five minutes. The bottom part of the hull was found a third of a mile from the stern in two pieces and the researchers were able to use that to create a new scenario. Ballard was unimpressed with the discovery. “They found a fragment. Big deal.” [The thing that bothered me most about the movie is that the water was lethally cold and people who jumped or fell into it would have been dead in a few minutes. In the film, they had time for all kinds of histrionics and adventures, all quite impossible in the wintery North Atlantic. On the other hand, the movie had Kate Winslett and the ship didn’t.] By the way, Canadian researchers report that the wreck will disintegrate by 2028.

Well, your honor, I was multitasking and just didn't see the truck—In the category of what else is new, researchers at Oregon State University have discovered that talking on the telephone is distracting if you are driving. Duh. Research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology [not on the website yet], came to an obvious conclusion, but the reason why phones and driving are a bad combination is kind of interesting. Research at NASA has shown that there just are limits to multitasking like this, and the reason is an “information bottleneck.” Our tiny brains simply can’t handle all the input. With practice, we can get better, but only just so. We aren't bright enough. Some people are better than others. Young people who play video games are best at it. This fits in with other research that shows that most people on the telephone while driving, drive like old people. They drive and react more slowly. And oh yes, the most common accident is a rear-end collision.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Agencies behaving badly, pewter mugs and splashing Martians

Just take two pills and call me in the morning, presuming you are still alive in the morning—The federal Food and Drug Administration was once the gold standard by which government agencies were judged for efficiency and caution. The lives of millions of Americans depended on it. A new study by Consumer Reports, however, documents just how badly the FDA has fallen. CR has identified 12 relatively common prescription drug types linked to serious side effects—some of them potentially fatal—that were approved by the FDA without proper attention. Many are still being advertised and lack a useful warning. CR identified several reasons for the lapse in effectiveness.
  • Rush to approve—the agency had tight deadlines, insufficient data and not enough time to make good decisions. Scientists complain their bosses pressured them into prematurely approving some.
  • Lack of power—the FDA, thanks to Congress, lacks the power to compel companies to do proper studies before approval, force doctors to report adverse reactions, or dictate warning labels. It assesses drug side effects after they erupt but then can’t do much about them.
  • Hidden risks—some companies withhold information from the FDA that might limit the sales of the drugs.

For a list of the drugs, click here.

When the final storm comes in a pewter mug—Ludwig von Beethoven was an unpleasant fellow. He had no friends. He did not bathe. He had a vile temper–indeed, as he grew older he was more than a little mad. Oh, yes, and he was deaf. He could conduct his Ninth Symphony but he never actually heard the orchestra. One of the great mysteries is why he was the way he was and why he died in misery at the age of 56, depriving the world of about 10 years of, well, Beethoven. Rearchers at Argonne National Laboratory, probably have solved the mystery. Ludwig von died of lead poisoning. They took six hairs, known to be from Beethoven's head and a few pieces of his skull and put it all through the Advanced Photon Source, which shoots particles around a loop at 99.999 percent of the speed of light. The result, Beethoven had 100 times more lead atoms in him than normal. (Incidentally, he had very little mercury in him, which seems to debunk the canard that the great man died of syphilis, which would have been treated with mercury.) The lead might also explain his really bad behavior toward the end. It's not clear if the deafness came from the poisoning. Where did the lead come from? Unknown, but it was common to drink with lead or pewter mugs and Beethoven did like his drink. The skull fragments? They were passed down through the family of an Austrian physician, who apparently coped them from the dead composer. Bad.

I’d like a single-malt scotch and some Martian ice cubes, stir don’t mixIf there is one thing future human visitors to Mars won’t have to worry about, its finding something to drink. While scientists now believe the place was never a water wonderland despite all the evidence it once had surface water, they now think any water on the surface quickly froze or evaporated. But research reported at the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco seems to indicate there is lots of water still on the Red Planet, buried in the dirt and gathered around the poles. That raises the possibility that microbes have found a conducive place to live. They won’t make a Spielberg movie out of them, but it’s a start. The ice cap may be as much as a mile thick, something like the ice sheets during the terrestrial Ice Age. The water may even be pure enough to drink, which is more than can be said for water in lots of places on Earth. Much of the research, incidentally, came from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express satellite that began orbiting Mars in 2003.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Kabbalah and evolution—Madonna not withstanding—UPDATED

"The theory of evolution accords with the secrets of Kabbalah better than any other theory. Evolution follows a path of ascent and thus provides the world with a basis for optimism. How can one despair, seeing that everything evolves and ascends? When we penetrate the inner nature of evolution, we find divinity illuminated in perfect clarity. Ein Sof [the essence or light of God] generates, actualizes potential infinity."
From The Essential Kabbalah; the heart of Jewish mysticism, by Daniel C. Matt.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Horny writers, rebellious writers and fat asses—you read it here first

New rule: Croatian terrorists and drug companies shouldn't hire writers.—
The guys and gals at Big Pharma, the pirates of capitalism, had a bright idea. In order to deter Americans from buying drugs in Canada, which has price controls and a moral health care system, they hired two people to write a novel in which Croatian Muslim terrorists contaminate Canadian drugs in order to kill Americans. I’m not making this up. But the gang who can’t shoot straight, still can’t shoot straight. The novel, tentatively called The Spivak Conspiracy, was the idea of Mark Barondess, a Hollywood divorce lawyer (need I say more?) who took it to PhRMA, the lobbying group for the drug industry, which willingly produced $300,000 for the project. According to Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lazar in Slate, the scheme backfired. They found a publisher, a writer (Julie Chrystyn) and an editor. The editor was Jason Blair, the disgraced New York Times reporter (great minds think alike), who was promptly fired after four days (he's not having a nice life). A lawyer, Kenin Spivak, joined Chrystyn in producing the manuscript. But when Barondess saw the finished manuscript, he rejected it. The writers blame an executive at PhRMA, who wanted more polemics and wanted to dumb it down to attract women readers. (I repeat, I’m not making this up). So the project got killed and the writers were offered $100,000 to shut up about it. But they didn’t accept. They rewrote the book and it will be published next month. The new villain? Why a giant drug company, of course. It’s called The Karasik Conspiracy.

Oh, and by the way. The drug companies have, for years, justified the exorbitant prices they charge American consumers as the cost of doing the research that produces new drugs. As Brownlee and Lenzer point out, a new study in the British Medical Journal reports that there is no relationship between what drug companies charge and their ability to do research. “Lower prices do not lead to less research.” Non-American companies “fully recover their research and development costs, maintain high profits, and sell drugs at substantially lower prices than in the U.S."

I must have sex with you, I’m a writerWhere was this great line when I needed it? Psychologists at the University of Newcastle on Tyne and the Open University in Britain (the Brits can be counted on for pertinent research) report that creative geniuses really do lead active sex lives and may need it. Artists and writers screw twice as many partners as, say, lawyers and insurance salesmen. Their creativity acts as a sexual magnet. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they suffer from higher rates of depression. The study is the first to tackle the reputation that us creative folks are more sexually active than the rest of you slugs. They found that artists and poets had between 4 and 10 sexual partners while, say, your average CPA had only three on average. It was true of both men and women. "It could be that very creative types lead a bohemian lifestyle and tend to act more on sexual impulses and opportunities, often purely for experience's sake, than the average person would," said Daniel Nettle, one of the researchers. It’s all for the sake of creativity. Have some Madeira, my dear.

Get your fat butt on the table while I get the long needle—The increasing obesity of Westerners, particularly Americans, is as much a health horror as an aesthetic one. It has forced coffin makers to redesign wider coffins, airlines to charge double for really fat people who want to fly coach, and clothing manufacturers to expand their offerings in multiple ways.According to a study at an Irish hospital, reported at the Radiological Society of North America, the standard-sized needles used to inject drugs into buttocks muscles aren’t long enough. They can’t get through the layers of fat to deliver the drugs. In a test of 25 women, the needles failed to deliver in 23 of them; the women ended up with the drug in buttock fat, not in the muscle, meaning they did not get the correct dosage. Doctors use the buttocks for drug delivery because muscles have plentiful blood vessels to carry the drugs around the body and the buttocks have few nerves, bones and major blood vessels that can be damaged by a needle. The drugs that end up in the fat just sit there and can cause irritation or infection. And they don't improve anyone's looks. So if you want to have sex with one of those horny writers above, you girls know what to do about it. We have standards.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Silicon hubris

My God, there is a worm in your Apple!—
A random computer thought. Those of us smug bastards who use Macs and turn down our noses at the masses who have had Windows foisted on them (usually by corporate IT people—it’s not your fault), just received notice of a new security update for our operating system, Mac OS-X, which brought to mind a little tremble. It is not clear we will be able to stay smug forever.

The security upgrade is one of about a half dozen this year, which means that Apple is not taking anything for granted. Good on them. That Macs are more stable and secure than Windows machines is a given. OS-X, particularly it’s new incarnation, Tiger, is widely recognized as the best operating system going, and there has yet to be a successful virus, worm or spyware program written for it. I don’t have anti-virus software on my computer. I don’t need it.

But that might change.

Two reasons account for the Mac’s security advantage, and both may not be permanent. One, and the most obvious, is that if you are going to write malicious software you would want to do the maximum amount of damage, so you pick on the operating system found on 95 % of the world’s computers, not the system with about 3%. You pick on Microsoft, which almost seems to be a willing target. Second, Windows is what you would expect from a monopoly source, fat and sloppy, and comes complete with backdoors and gaps that virus writers can find faster than Microsoft. OS-X has far fewer of them. OS-X is based on UNIX, which is a far more secure base than Windows, and Apple’s variant, completely rewritten when Apple abandoned its original operating system, is elegant, sleek and tight. It is much, much harder to write a virus that attacks Tiger. Spyware and viruses can slip into Windows through various openings; OS-X will not load one without your express permission. Just say no. Viruses that do get loaded, usually in mail, are simply ignored by Tiger and spyware just takes up space. You can spread a virus in your Mac mail, but it won’t affect your computer. And you can’t run Outlook Express on a Mac.

But this are good times for Apple. The so-called halo effect (people enthralled with their iPods and their visits to Apple’s retail stores are more likely to buy their computers) seems to be working, and Apple’s share of the market is growing, if ever so slowly. It may not remain such a small target forever. As it grows, it may become an irresistible challenge to hackers to see if they can break in. For years, a 12-year-old boy can attack Windows; it takes a man to bust into Tiger. Moreover, Microsoft has promised a grand upgrade of Windows next year, and if the folks at Redmond are as bright as everyone thinks they ought to be, it will be far more secure that what they are pushing now. That’s not a given. The new system, Vista, is not even out yet and already viruses that can get it are circulating. I am counting on them to screw up. And Apple is rumored to be working on yet another version for next year.

Meanwhile, whether you use Windows or Tiger, when you get notice of a security upgrade, only an idiot would ignore it.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Porpoises, penises and Parkinson's—UPDATED

Goodby and thanks for all the antidepressants—Scientists at the University of Leicester in England, report in the British Medical Journal that having depressed patients swim with dolphins is a good thing. Swimming with dolphins is popular with the alternative medicine set and with people who happen to think very highly of the animals (Hi, Carol) and they are used for helping autistic kids, among others, although there is not a lot of evidence it works in the long-term. The British researchers used 15 depressed people in Honduras who swam with dolphins an hour a day over a two week period. Another 15 swam around but without the presence of dolphins. Both groups were off their meds. At the end, the researchers reported, the group that had the dolphins as swimming mates seemed to be in better shape than the ones that did not. They credit the aesthetic values of the animals plus the emotions raised by swimming with them. Perhaps it is just having an interaction that doesn’t involve other people. "As humans we are hard-wired to need touch and to be connected to others,” said Iain Ryrie, the lead researcher, "something that differentiates us from reptiles say, who don't have a limbic communication system and who are not suckled. So it's possible for humans to make loving relationships with many different mammals because of this biological/social similarity." Both Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut may be right about the dolphins.

Adams wrote:
...Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much... the wheel, New York, wars, and so on, whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely the dolphins believed themselves to be more intelligent than man for precisely the same reasons.
Whatever. The researchers said it seemed to help people with mild to moderate depression. I bet dogs work too.

Shortly after I wrote the above I found confirmation in the British journal. Pets are good for you. I will immediately stroke the chocolate lab, say nice things to the fish in the dining room and go praise the cat, if I can find her. The journal, incidentally, has a whole issue on human-animal relations

Snip, snip. You are on a mission from God so ignore Google—Researchers in South Africa, where HIV is rampant, found that men who were circumcised had half the cases of HIV than men who were not over a two year period. In the first random trial on the topic, involving 3,200. The uncircumcised, had 49 cases of HIV infection; the circumcised only 20. This is part of a long list of research projects showing that circumcised men have fewer sexually transmitted diseases. The research on HIV is in the newest Public Library of Science Medicine, the wonderfully free medical journal—which brings up an interesting point. If you search Google, you would not know that the preponderance of scientific evidence supports the health benefits of circumcision because the first pages in a Google search have been taken over by anti-circumcision groups, including the Circumcision Information and Resources Page (CIRP), which cherry-picks its data to tilt the balance against circumcision. Freud would probably have an excellent explanation. Circumcision is not politically correct these days and fewer baby boys in the U.S. are being circumcised. It’s one of the problems with Google—what you get is not what you are looking for always because it can be corrupted. If you use Google to decide what to do about your baby son, you have to work hard to get unbiased information. Use Google’s Advanced Scholar Search, which is less prone to being tilted, and you will get an entirely different, and far more accurate picture. The American Academy of Pediatrics calls it elective surgery. You don’t do it to your kid just just to prevent diseases, especially HIV, which is still relatively rare in the U.S., but there are known health benefits and few if any disadvantages. Unless, of course, your are Jewish, in which case it is a non-issue. We’ve been doing it before HIV and probably before most STD evolved.

Lousy living through chemistry— One theory of the origin of Parkinson’s disease is that it has an environmental antecedent. A good piece in the Los Angeles Times gives that theory considerable support. Parkinson’s may be the result of exposure to agricultural and industrial chemicals. The scientists involved don’t actually use the word “cause.” They fudge, mostly because you can’t prove cause and effect with statistics. “Scientists are "definitely there, beyond a doubt, in showing that environmental toxicants have to be involved" in some cases of Parkinson's disease, said Freya Kamel, an epidemiologist with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences who has documented a high rate of neurological problems in farmers who use pesticides. "It's not one nasty thing that is causing this disease. I think it's exposure to a combination of many environmental chemicals over a lifetime. We just don't know what those chemicals are yet, but we certainly have our suspicions." Think pesticides. The chemicals destroy the neurons that produce dopamine, a messenger that controls human motion. Of all the major diseases, Parkinson’s is the one most closely linked to environmental trauma. It is an exceedingly unpleasant way to live and die.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Stomp that bug and brag a little

I'm an engineer. I don't make mistakesWe listed some of the highlights in the history of the Internet and I thought you’d like to learn about the worst of computer programming: history’s worst software bugs. They were accumulated by the estimable Simson Garfinkle for Wired. Some of them are pretty technical and will amuse only programmers, but some of them were not. A few were even lethal.

The most current, though surely not the worst, struck my favorite car, the Toyota Prius. Sometimes the newer models of the hybrid simply stopped. The warning lights flashed and the gas engine quit on the highway. Annoying to be sure. It was a software bug on this most computerized of all cars, affecting the main ICU. It’s since been fixed.

Some of Simson’s others include;
  • Mariner 1 space probe, which had to be destroyed after launch in 1962, when the rocket went wildly off course. It seems that a formula written with a pencil on paper was not transcribed into the main computers program correctly, causing the main computer to miscalculate the rocket’s trajectory.
  • Soviet gas pipe line blew up in 1982 because the CIA slipped a bug into a Canadian computer system sold to the Soviet Union for its trans-Siberian pipe line. This bug was deliberate, as part of the economic Cold War. It caused the greatest non-nuclear man-caused explosion in history. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
  • AT&T’s long distance service crashed in 1990 when the software in its switches went crazy and crashed 113 of its neighbors. Long distance service for 60,000 people went down for nine hours.
  • The National Cancer Institute in Panama kills eight patients in 2000 when software from an American firm sent double the proper dose of radiation to patients. The software actually didn’t have a bug, it had an undisclosed feature that triggered the accident when the doctor in charge played with a machine’s configuration. He was indicted for murder.
  • An Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed into Antarctica’s Mt. Erebus in 1979, when the pilots trusted its autopilot. This one was added to Simson’s list by a reader. The flight was a sight-seeing tour of Antarctica. It turned out that someone who changed the coordinates in the computer the morning before the flight. Two hundred fifty-seven died.
By the way, know why they are called “bugs”? In 1945, researchers at Harvard, using one of the first electronic computers, Mark II [I’ve always wondered who Mark was. The name is very popular with engineers] noticed some calculations were off. They traced the error to a moth that flew into a relay, the world’s first computer bug.

I hate to brag. I’m known for my modesty. Everyone talks about it—NPR this morning did a fine story on the website that tells you how to circumvent the voice response system companies use to protect themselves from their customers. The site, run by Paul English here , lists how to by-pass all the button pressing and get a live human, even if he or she is in New Delhi. Gentle readers here knew about it because I posted it here. And readers of David Pogue's blog at the New York Times could have had it a day earlier. English reports more than one million hits. I take full credit. Ok, maybe not.

An aside. I propose that the three worst inventions of the last few decades, since we are doing lists, are Astroturf, shrink wrapping and IVRs. If you want to know what an IVR is, press one. If you want it in Spanish, press 2. If you haven't figured it out yet, press 3. (Interactive voice response systems)

Monday, November 21, 2005

I'm gonna drink a cup of coffee, pray and drive down the shore—for health reasons of course

One double decaf mocha frappuccino with soy milk and to hell with it—Possibly no consumable beverage or food is the cause of more confusion in medicine than coffee.It is either very bad for you or not bad at all. If you have to drink coffee drink it decaffeinated. Or maybe not. Turns out, maybe not is ahead at the moment. A study at the American Heart Association’s Scientfic Sessions indicates that decaffeinated coffee—a substance I drink reluctantly—is bad for you. According to the Coffee and Lioprotein Metabolism (CALM) study, the hairless stuff can increase the harmful LDL cholesterol in your blood and that’s not good for your heart. Not to mention that it does no good starting the engines in the morning. Coffee with caffeine has no such effect. Atlanta researchers studied 187 people and randomized their Java doses. One group drank 3-6 cups of regular coffee; another drank 3-6 cups of decaf, and the third group staggered through their mornings unaided by any beverage. The decaf cohort had a rise in ApoB and LDL while the others did not. ApoB is the protein attached to LDL and is a good predictor of heart disease. Keep in mind that within a year someone will come up with a study showing exactly opposite results, but for the time being, we can be smug Meanwhile, might I recommend Peets Sulawesi-Kalosi blend.

Go ahead. Get Sprinsteen and Lucy the Elephant pissed—Those of us who are concerned with global warming have some things to keep from total despair. If the seas do rise and flood the coast, we get to watch Miami sink. We figure New York and Boston can take care of themselves, and LA, Seattle and San Francisco have lots of hills. But a new study out of Princeton puts a chill in my bones. Rising sea levels in the next hundred years would shrink New Jersey by 3%, taking most of the Shore with it. The coastal counties include about 60% of the state’s 8.6 million people but more important when you go “down the shore,” the Jersey slang for going to the beach, you will end up in New Brunswick or someplace. Asbury Park, Long Beach Island, Bradley Beach. Harvey Cedars. Shipbottom. Margate and it's giant wooden elephant. Gone. All of them Now that’s serious. What will Springsteen sing about? What will parents tell their children about their summers down the shore?

Praying over your crossword puzzle is good for your healthMany researchers think that one way to stave off the onslaught of Alzheimer’s comes under the heading of use it or loose it. If you put your brain to sleep watching television or golfing, you are more susceptible to senile dementia and other forms of serious senior moments. Researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Case Western Reserve have found that gardening, reading, writing and praying can delay Alzheimer’s. The study was done with 600 Israeli Arabs and found that incurable dementia was delayed by certain leisure mental activities. Genetic factors, of course, also played a role as did inadequate physical activity and smoking. Inbreeding showed up the genetic components. OK, I made that up about golf. Surely you must have something better to do with your time. Do don’t marry your cousin, be active, garden, pray, and don’t smoke. I forget the rest. [Registration required for Jerusalem Post]

Friday, November 18, 2005

Go to bed, take two aspirins and pray, cause there isn't any flu vaccine

When Johns Hopkins can’t get flu vaccine you know we’re in trouble—There is a major shortage of flu vaccine and no one is reporting it. I’m not talking about the bird flu, which may or may not ever get here. I’m talking about the normal flu shot, the one most of us get around this time of the year to lower the chances of getting the flu this winter. There ain’t none around.

Even Johns Hopkins Medicine, which ought to have enough clout to get anything it wants, can only get enough to vaccinate clinical staff. Scheduled vaccination sessions for regular employees and families were cancelled and my doctor at Hopkins said he was told they would not be getting any for patients.

Maxim Health Systems, one of the largest, cancelled its clinics because it too can’t find vaccine. Kaiser Permanente, even larger, also cancelled its shots, hoping to save some for those most vulnerable, which should include the very mature, like me. Same reason.

Why is there a shortage? Larry Altman in the Times said there are production and distribution problems and that even the mother of Julie Gerbinding, director of the Centers for Disease Control can’t get any. There is less vaccine out now than there was last year, where there was a well-publicized shortage. Click the headline for the story. Some 71.5 million doses have been distributed, Altman wrote. Maybe so, but where are they? Part of the problem may be that the publicity about bird flu stirred up enough people to send them to a needle and that emptied the supply. There is no clue when the supply will meet demand.

According to Google, Altman’s story in the Times is the only one reporting a shortage this year. I have no idea why.

The only good news is that the flu season is off to a slow start this year so it is possible there will be enough vaccine by the time the bug starts really circulating.

[Photo: Baltimore Sun]

Do one brave thing today, then run like hell

Thanks, Carol.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Screwing your neighbor and the Netscape fish

Some good will come out of this technology, I promise you—The Internet isn’t new. We take it for granted even though I can make a case it is the greatest invention since the printing press. Absolute garbage that has found a home here, along with the seriously ill people who produce it, but mostly it is a wonder. I have no idea how I did my work before the internet.

Someone—there is no identification on the blog—has produced his or her list of the 100 greatest moments in Internet history. Go see for yourself but my favorites include:

  • Pathfinder, Time Inc.’s first attempt at strutting it’s stuff on the internet had two problems. One, it was badly designed. Two, well, on the day of the O.J. verdict, they kind of fucked up.
  • Before corporate America discovered the internet, nerds did. For instance in 1994, while playing around with domain names, Wired reporter Josh Quittner registered When the fast food chain decided it needed a presence on the web, they were too late. Some others who had taken corporate names early sold them for a fortune; Quittner gave it to MacDonald’s for a promise to fund a T-1 line in perpetuity at a high school in the Bronx.
  • Bloggers discover that a guy asking President Bush a meatball question at a White House news conference isn’t a reporter, is not giving his real name, and has posted on a naked homo-erotic website.
  • One of the first internet games was Psycho Bondage Bunnies, in which a robot in a corset fought bunnies wielding cattle prods. Very bad bunnies.Then there’s also Quake
Australian Bernadette Taylor was one of the first to use a webcam. She fought censorship (happily posing naked) and launched a one-woman war on Microsoft. Then one day, she announced she had breast cancer and started an online diary. She went offline in 2001 and presumably died of her cancer. No one seems to know. That's her to the left.

  • A young woman in Washington kept a blog on her sex life. She was getting laid by six different guys and she was an intern for a Republican Senator. Ana Marie Cox found it and published all over Wonkette, her political gossip blog, and ran down the identity of the woman (who indeed worked for an Ohio senator) making herself and her blog famous. The intern made it to Playboy.
  • In 1997, someone in Hollywood hired two guys to produce a cartoon as a video Christmas present. He paid them $2,000. The cartoon spread from one end of Hollywood to another. It took six hours to download “The Spirit of Christmas” (53 megabytes) and you got some foul-talking kids and a kung fu match between Santa Claus and Jesus. Then it went on television (censored a bit) and became “South Park.” I bet you didn’t know that.
  • Jennifer Ringley was another pioneer of the webcam, keeping her camera on for eight years and becoming an old friend to her audience. Then she slept with her neighbor’s fiance—on camera—and pulled the plug on JenniCam. They are still together. That's her picture up top, taken a few days before she went offline.
  • Oh yes, the Netscape fish. When Netscape ruled the world, before Microsoft made it road kill, they had a salt water fish tank in the lobby of their Mountain View headquarters. They set up a webcam and if you knew the URL you could watch the fish. That’s all. I did it for hours. They are still there.

And finally, there is the website Jesus of the Week. It speaks for itself.

You hate me! You really hate me!

The center will hold. It will just take a while—I stay out of raw politics here (God knows there are enough pollical blogs around) but I do have an interest in and some training in polling. I’m not an expert but I’m happy to refer you to someone who clearly is. Your best bet for understanding political polls remains Mark Blumenthal’s wonderful blog, Mystery Pollster, and his posting this week is particularly fascinating. If you’ve been watching our Peerless Leader’s polling numbers tank and wonder how real it is, go look. Prof. Charles Franklin (not further identified by Blumenthal) has taken all but the latest Gallup Poll results and produced a graphic showing the decline in Bush’s approval rating. I’ve reproduced it here:

That’s pretty impressive. The slide is not ambiguous. The newest Gallup, done for USA Today and CNN, had him at 37, right in the line.

What is most fascinating in Blumenthal’s analysis is that the bleeding has come from independents, meaning that all Bush has left supporting him is his wingnut base. Everyone else who voted for him, probably because of 9/11 and terrorism, has abandoned him. The center is holding.

Blumenthal’s other point, crucial for making science of this science—if science it be—is to always ask the question “compared to what.” The chart above is a good start.

We have three more years of this.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

I'm shocked. Shocked that there is political interference at the FDA

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. And bureaucrats with a political agenda—The General Accounting Office has reported that the Food & Drug Administration decided to block over-the-counter sale of Plan B, the “morning-after pill,” before the study of its safety and efficacy was complete. I know you find that hard to believe but here is the text.

Then-FDA Director Mark B. McClellan told the FDA staff the request to sell the pill without a prescription would be rejected and he then signed what is called a “not approvable letter.” Other top supervisors had to co-sign after the administrators below them refused. The GAO report called McClellan’s actions “novel,” not the way the FDA usually handles these issues. The explanation, of course, is that McClellan was one of the political hacks put in place by the Bush administration because he was a favorite of the anti-abortion crowd. This, of course, makes no logical sense. If you are against abortions (a thoroughly reasonable decision if allowances are made for the life and safety of the mother) you would be in favor of Plan B because it makes abortions less frequent. The pill itself is a contraceptive and does not cause an abortion.

FDA officials, including the Director and Deputy Director of the Office of New Drugs and the Directors of the Offices of Drug Evaluation III and V, told us that they were told by high-level management that the Plan B OTC switch application would be denied months before staff had completed their reviews of the application. The Director and Deputy Director of the Office of New Drugs told us that they were told by the Acting Deputy Commissioner for Operations and the Acting Director of CDER, after the Plan B public meeting in December 2003, that the decision on the Plan B application would be not-approvable. They informed us that they were also told that the direction for this decision came from the Office of the Commissioner. … Both office reviews were not completed until April 2004.

The application by Barr Laboratories, the manufacturer of Plan B, was opposed by 49 members of Congress and many social conservative groups and the FDA surrendered, with politics trumping science again. The excuse given was that the safety of Plan B in teenagers had not been established. In fact, it has. The manufacturer has now asked that it be sold to women over the age of 17, and the FDA is sitting on that as well.

In response, the FDA disagreed with the conclusions and criticized the study for not paying sufficient attention to its input. But Susan F. Wood, former assistant FDA commissioner for women’s health, who quit over this deal, said the GAO report was exactly correct and the reason she left. The GAO study did not go into White House involvement in the decision.

Friday, November 11, 2005

It's too damned hot here in heaven. I want to go to hell

Hell will freeze over before heaven does—The temperature of Heaven can be rather accurately computed. Our authority is Isaiah 30:26, "Moreover, the light of the Moon shall be as the light of the Sun and the light of the Sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days." Thus Heaven receives from the Moon as much radiation as we do from the Sun, and in addition 7 x 7 (49) times as much as the Earth does from the Sun, or 50 times in all.

The light we receive from the Moon is one 1/10,000 of the light we receive from the Sun, so we can ignore that.

The radiation falling on Heaven will heat it to the point where the heat lost by radiation is just equal to the heat received by radiation, i.e., Heaven loses 50 times as much heat as the Earth by radiation. Using the Stefan-Botzmann law for radiation, (H/E)^4 = 50, where E is the absolute temperature of the earth (-300ºK), gives H as 798ºK (525ºC).

The exact temperature of Hell cannot be computed. However, Revelation 21:8 says "But the fearful, and unbelieving ... shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone." A lake of molten brimstone [sulphur] means that its temperature must be at or below its boiling point, 444.6ºC.

We have, then, that Heaven, at 525ºC is hotter than Hell at 445ºC.

[From the blog Jesus' General]

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Second Take: You know you're in trouble when you piss off Microsoft—UPDATE

I am very stupid and I’m in a panic and I really need to borrow your computer—Now Sony is in real trouble. Microsoft is unhappy with them.

It is axiomatic by now that the stupidest people in business have gone to work for the recording industry. These are the numskulls who sue 11-year-olds for piracy, distribute music decreasing numbers of people want to listen to and wrap their products in packaging that can kindly be described as consumer infuriating. They then wonder why 11-year-olds feel justified in pirating their ripping them off. It also is true that the largest company in the greatest decline in the world (not counting General Motors) is Sony, once the great innovator and now virtually clueless. So what happens when the dim bulbs in the music division of Sony decide to fight piracy?

You get a piece of software hidden in a music CD that sneaks unannounced onto your computer, alters the Windows operating system in ways that makes it more vulnerable than Windows is already, and hides from view. If you manage to find it and erase it, it interfere with your ever playing CDs again on your computer. I’m not making this up. It’s part of their Digital Rights Management system (DRM) system. It’s in the fine print on the obtuse license agreement that no one in their right minds reads.

The discovery was made by a Windows programmer named Mark Russinovich who was tinkering with his PC when he noticed that there was a program hidden in the operating system he didn’t put there. He managed to trace to a music CD, a SonyBMG Van Zant album he’d purchased at Amazon. When he first put the disk in his computer, the program loaded unannounced. Worse, he discovered it was a kind of program called a “rootkit,” a cloaking device that can be used by bad guys to hide viruses. Essentially, it had unlocked the back door to Windows, which needs no help in keeping doors wide open. Only a programmer could find it. Click here and follow his tale.

He posted his finding on his website. To Sony’s amazement, people actually objected to them sneaking software into their operating systems. The manufacturer of the rootkit, First 4 Internet of England, said it had been working closely with antivirus companies to make sure the program was safe and posed no threat. The purpose was to make it difficult to hack the protection program on the disk, and there have been no reports of any harm actually being done, they said.

Not true. A Dutch firm said it had discovered the first virus (a Trojan Horse, actually) to ride in on the Sony system. A hacker mass mailed a Stinx-E virus to British email addresses. If you click on the attachment, your firewall collapses. Symantec found a trojan horse that rode in on the program. Sony’s response was that no one knew it was there until Russinovich opened his mouth and nobody cared.

Well, they did. Under an absolutely furious barrage of bad publicity and a classic case of how not to handle a p.r. crisis, Sony has since announced a decloaking patch that will uninstall the program but makes it very difficult—a major pain in the ass, actually. Not only that, it made the announcment of the uninstall to the press, not its customers, and hid the support on its webpage. See for yourself.

Apparently a lot of people did care. Sony was sued. There is the possibility of criminal charges. And finally, they announced last week they would withdraw the security feature and were decided unapologetic about it all. That doesn't mean you can get rid of it easily if it's on your computer. Fortunately, the folks at Microsoft, who get a little sensitive when people diddle with Windows, announced it was going to supply a deenstall program that will get rid of it for you. You can get yours by clicking here.

Virus writers and others trying to screw up your computer use rootkits because they burrow deep inside Windows and are hard to find. Having the rootkit on your computer does not mean your computer has been compromised, only that the threat is there, another opening to get inside, as the Dutch company found.

As usual, Macs are immune, as are Linux computers. Both use UNIX as an underpinning for their operating systems. There was one report of a Mac sucking up the rootkit from a CD, but it turns out, as with all applications, MAC OS-X demands affirmation, a remarkably simply safety procedure no one at Microsoft has thought of yet. It asks you if you really want to install the program and it won't install unless you agree. That's why there is no Mac spyware. If you say no, it doesn't install, and you can find it and remove it from your disk. It's called ""

For a list of Sony CDs containing the rootkit, click here.

And finally, the folks at the Electronic Frontier Foundation actually went into the license agreement that comes with the CDs, written, no doubt, by lawyers smoking bad pot. A few of the best:
  • If your house gets burgled you have to delete all the music from your laptop if the thieves steal the CD.
  • If you move out of the country, you have to delete the music.
  • If you file for bankruptcy, you have to delete the music.
  • And best of all: Sony has the right to enter your computer through the back door its program open without notice any time.

UPDATE—And just when Sony thought it was over, another programmer discovered that if you do deinstall the Sony program you open Windows to another major security problem. As if Microsoft needed any help. Don't use it.

And finally, Sony announced on Wednesday it was recalling all the CDs, all 20 million of them.

Take a letter, kid, right to left

You go practice that alphabet on the stone right there and don't start a fireEvery time you dig a hole in Israel or the adjacent areas, you stand good chance of digging up something interesting. On July 15, the last day of digging in the site called Tel Zayit, archeologists from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Johns Hopkins uncovered the oldest known writing of a full alphabet, what is called, lovingly, an abecedary, of early Hebrew. What makes the finding so remarkable is that the archeologists claim have been able to date it precisely, late 10th century BCE, and to trace it to the kingdom of Israel founded by Solomon and David.

All it is are the 22 letters of the alphabet, slightly out of order from the modern Hebrew alphabet, but the find is interesting for several reasons. The abecedary was probably written by a scribe practicing his letters, which meant formal writing and probably a bureaucracy, and was inscribed on a limestone boulder embedded in a wall, probably as a good-luck charm. The charm didn’t appear to work: a fire soon destroyed the place.

The writing also shows that the ancient Israelites were literate 3,000 ago, according to Pittsburgh’s Ron E. Tappy. Biblical Hebrew is thought to derive from Phoenician and the inscription appears to many scholars to reflect that transition. The letters are clearly on their way to being the aleph, bet, gimmel of Hebrew, written from right to left. All western alphabets eventually derived from the same source.

The Zeitah Excavations at Tel Zayit are halfway between the Israeli city of Ashkelon and the West Bank city of Hebron, south of Tel Aviv. The ancient town was apparently part of a border settlement protecting the southern approaches to the capital at Jerusalem. The site reflects the Caananite culture, the foundation of the kingdom of Israel and may have been written about the time of David and his son, Solomon, who took over in 1037 BCE or shortly thereafter. Following Solomon’s death, the kingdom split in two, Israel and Judah. The Tel Zayit find would have placed it in Judah.

The formal presentation of the find will be next week in Philadelphia. And, as with all archeological finds in the area, there also will be controversy. Not everyone is convinced it is what Tappy says it is, with the dating, as usual, the source of most of the contention. And people who want to believe in what's in the Bible (in this case, Kings 1) will claim it as proof and those who don't won't.

But wait. There is more. Would you believe a reference to Goliath? Israeli archeologists digging at Tell es-Safi, an ancient Philistine city and the biblical city of Gath, have found a small ceramic shard with the earliest Phoenician inscription ever found. It was written in “proto-Canaanite” letters and contains two non-Semitic names, one of which, is etymologically related to the name Goliath, and Gath was supposed to be the home of the giant slain by the young David. The archeologists from Bar-Ilan University don’t claim the Goliath on the shard is the Goliath of the Bible as it apparently was a common name. The shard is dated about 50 years after little David hurled his stone. Nice story anyhow.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

When a Panda sticks his thumb in your face—UPDATED

Pay no attention to the religion behind the curtain—
While the Kansas Board of Education was making asses of themselves, the voters in “red neck" Pennsylvania did themselves proud. They threw the scoundrels out. All eight members of the Dover, PA school board, whose efforts to insert “intelligent design” into the local schools, were routed in yesterday’s election. Even the people who won were surprised at the victory. The word “repudiation” is hard to avoid.

"I think voters were tired of the trial, they were tired of intelligent design, they were tired of everything that this school board brought about," said Bernadette Reinking, who was among the winners. Election results here.

The poster child for the ID people who tried last month to convince a federal judge religion had nothing to do with the debate, Alan Bonsell, came in last. Another said he was going to contest the vote because in one voting district he got no votes at all. Nada. Zip. Zero.

In October 2004, the board voted to require ninth grade biology students to hear a short statement pointing out gaps in Darwin’s theory, asserting that ID was a valid alternative to evolution and to go out and read the bible of the ID, Of Pandas and People. The board was taken to court by parents and the trial ended last week. The judge is expected to rule after the first of the year

What happens to the court case? Well, it’s still on. The vote doesn’t change anything. For an excellent description of ID vs. the two flavors of creatonism (you didn’t know it came in two flavors?), click here for the usually wonderful Panda’s Thumb.

UPDATE: For a good look at the mood of Dover after the election, go here. The good folks of Dover are embarrassed and glad to be rid of the know-nothings.

Meanwhile, in Kansas (I promise, no Kansas jokes), the school board there is going ahead with its ID curriculum despite the usual warnings it would turn Kansas into a laughing stock of the civilized world. They are going to have some trouble getting organized since at least two major science organizations have refused to allow them to use copyrighted material. The vote was 6-4. That makes Kansas the fifth state to adopt standards challenging evolution, Ohio, Minnesota, New Mexico and Pennsylvania. Ohio is the furthest out. Maybe we should tell Ohio jokes instead.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

That was the American Century, this is something else-Part II

Just think, Albert, your theory could someday lead to Geraldo Rivera
—According to a group of technology researchers and scientists called the Marconi Society, the U.S. is falling behind the other countries in innovation. Partly, it is the reduction in funding by the federal government and industry; partly it is that other countries are getting much better. And the crunch seems to be centered on basic research.

Basic research is problematic politically. Even my mother, who knew zip about science, knew that intuitively. One day, she visited us in California and my wife, the cetacean biologist, gave her a private tour of her lab and a special demonstration with her dolphins. Carol studied echolocation, how dolphins use their sonar not only to locate themselves in their world, but to communicate with each other. At the end of the session, my mother was suitably impressed and then asked the question most basic scientists dread most: “Why do we want to know this?” Or, in other words, what’s it good for.

The answer, of course, is we don’t know yet. When Einstein produced his theory of electromagnetism, he couldn’t possibly have thought of a practical application and didn’t care. (In his case, one answer is television). Carol had no idea if what she found would be of use in the practical world and it hasn't. Not the point, she would say. And answers like that don’t sit well with politicians, who are far more interested in spending millions of dollars on bridges no one needs.

The reason for the lapse in innovation is precisely that problem. Basic research is a long-term investment with no guarantee anything useful will come of it—and in most cases, a pretty good chance that nothing will—except knowledge. Isaac Asimov once wrote that all knowledge is intrinsically good . He wasn’t in Congress or a funding agency.

The Marconi Society lamented all this, particularly in information technology.

"I think we are in trouble," said Leonard Kleinrock, professor of computer science at the University of California at Los Angeles and creator of the basic principle of packet switching. "Years ago, people took a long-range view to research. There was high-risk research with the potential for big payoffs. That's no longer the case."

Part of the problem is that in most of the 20th century, basic research was done in industrial labs, the most famous the late and lamented Bell Labs in New Jersey, where, among other things, the transistor was invented, a result of basic research begun 20 years earlier. Think of Xerox Parc and IBM’s Watson Labs. The results of their work were licensed cheaply to other firms. Those labs are now a ghost of their former selves, and in the case of Bell Labs, virtually non-existent. While some companies will join with academia for some research, it isn’t the same and it is not as productive.The federal government did a great deal, mostly with DARPA (the Internet for one), but they have cut back too. Deadlines have been shortened. Even DARPA no longer thinks long range.

One clear culprit, besides Congress, is Wall Street, which demands instant gratification and pressures companies not to invest in long-term projects. Defense and anti-terrorism are siphoning off billions.

Who’s doing the innovating now? Stay tuned. To be continued. For a good review of the Marconi session, see CNet.