Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Are terrorists stupid and can you cure the common cold? Wow!--UPDATED

On the morality of publishing and the prevcntion of the cold or smoking dope in Rhode Island--the march of science news is just so exciting, isn't it?
June 29, 2005

Let’s assume that all terrorists are idiots--A paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences raises serious issues for both science and journalism. What do you do with a paper that describes how terrorists could contaminate our milk supply with botulism? The paper had been submitted earlier this spring and then got held up, in part because the government objected to its publication. Now normally I get all crazy when the government tries to prevent the publication of anything, but it this case, they at least raised a valid issue. If terrorists hadn’t thought of this before, here was a great idea to cause a great deal of harm and total terror in the country. The paper even gave enough information on how to go about it. “Analyzing a Bioterror Attack on the Food Supply: The Case of Botulinum Toxin in Milk,” was written by Lawrence W. Wein of Stanford, and a graduate student, Yifan Liu [all graduate students at Stanford have names like that]. What you would do is slip some toxin into a milk tanker. You would kill several hundred thousand Americans and sow total panic. Now, pretend you are a newspaper editor. How much of that do you report? That was an issue because the paper was circulated among science writers beforehand with an embargo, standard procedure in science journalism. An official of the Department of Health and Human Services wrote to the academy asking that it not be published, calling it a “roadmap for terrorists.” The academy held up publication to study the matter. Meanwhile, the New York Times published [$] a bowdlerized version on its op-ed page (eliminating a lot of details). The academy, after considerable thought, went ahead with the publication, which you can read here. The issue of giving ideas to terrorists is interesting and in the end the academy (and I) reject it. The terrorists don’t need business professors from Stanford to tell them what to hit and how. The information is readily available and they have at least as vivid an imagination as normal sane people. I’ve always wondered what would happen if a suicide bomber walked into the food court at the Short Hills Mall some holiday period. You think they haven’t thought of that?

“If the law supposes that...the law is a ass--a idiot”--Dickens never met the U.S. Supreme Court but he’d occasionally love them. Three weeks after the SCOTUS [that’s journalese for the court] ruled that federal authorities could prosecute those who use marijuana for medical purposes even if they don’t sell it, the great state of little Rhode Island [Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations, to be exact] enacted a law that told them to stick it. Rhode Island became the 11th state to pass such a law. Patients, who must be residents, can receive a registration card allowing them or their caregivers to grow up to 12 plants or posses up to 2.5 ounces without being busted. Doctors would be able to prescribe for five patients at a time. The vote, wonderfully, was 33 to 1. The House voted earlier 52-10 to pass the bill.

UPDATE: The governor, Donald L. Carcieri, vetoed the law as he said he would. He said that "This bill's noble goals cannot mask its serious safety flaws." "This bill will increase the availability of marijuana on the streets of our state." That would probably be hard to do. The legislature has the three-fifths needed to override.

[I’d give you the Providence Journal URL for the story but they require registration and I’m getting really pissed off about these registration requirements so screw them! The story wasn’t that good anyhow.]

Linus Pauling turns over in his grave--Does vitamin C really prevent or shorten colds? Probably not, says research published in the wonderful Public Library of Science Medicine [It’s wonderful because it’s peer reviewed and it’s free]. Researchers from Finland and Australia did a meta-analysis of the literature and the conclusion was that vitamin C did nothing to prevent colds and may reduce the length of them under special circumstances only. The studies used in the analsysis required the use of at least 200 mg/day, some as high as 2 g (which Linus Pauling, the leading advocate of the vitamin, took, incidentally]. “The lack of effect of prophylactic vitamin C supplementation on the incidence of common colds in normal populations throws doubt on the utility of this wide practice,” they wrote.
The clinical significance of the minor reduction in duration of common cold episodes experienced during prophylaxis is questionable, although the consistency of these findings points to a genuine biological effect.

In special circumstances, where people used prophylaxis prior to extreme physical exertion and/or exposure to significant cold stress, the collective evidence indicates that vitamin C supplementation may have a considerable beneficial effect; it was the results of one of these six trials, with schoolchildren in a skiing school, that particularly impressed Pauling. However, great caution should be exercised in generalizing from this finding, which is based mainly on marathon runners
Oh well.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Truth on the cob--UPDATED 5.29.05

The quiet evil of the corn lobby
June 28, 2005

The corny con job--Some day someone is going to do a long investigative piece or book on the corn lobby in the U.S., mentioning the effects of corn syrup on health, as a starter. But it doesn’t end there. With the price of gasoline soaring, we are hearing again about the wonders of ethanol, the so-called fuel of the future.

[Yesterday, the Senate passed an extensive energy bill. The Senate bill would require gasoline refineries to add at least eight billion gallons of biofuels like ethanol to the nation's gas supplies by 2012, a provision critical to gaining support from farm-state senators. The bill drew some opposition from coastal state senators who oppose a plan to conduct an inventory of offshore oil and gas reserves, a proposal they see as a prelude to drilling in areas now off limits to rigs.]

It already is used as an additive in gasoline in most places. California alone adds billions of gallons of the stuff to lessen the cost of the petroleum fuel, and in most of the country, what you pump into your SUV is 5% ethanol. Advocates say it burns cleanly (it does), does not harm your car (mostly), produces less carbon monoxide than regular gasoline (true) and is a lot cheaper than burning fossil fuels. It turns out the latter is may not not correct. A study published in an obscure British peer-reviewed journal, Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences (really!) by a Berkeley researcher says that when you figure in the cost of farming the corn making the ethanol, the cost advantage goes up in smoke--or at least carbon dioxide. It costs six time more energy to make ethanol than ethanol contains, according to Tad Patzek. The amount of fossil fuels used to make the ethanol easily outweighs to costs of the energy produced.

Ethanol is heavily subsidized by the federal government as a result of the extensive lobbying of the agribusinesses that produce corn in this country. Patzek says it’s a waste of money. By the way, figuring this out did not take graduate students in rocket science. Patzek used freshmen in a seminar to calculate the fuel’s cost as a class exercise. The conclusion: when you factor in all the costs, ethanol contains 65 percent less usable energy than is consumed in the process of making it. Taken aback by the results, he did his own research and found the freshman (being young) had understated the cost. When you figure in the environmental costs--fertilizer that runs into the water--and it gets even worse.

It did not take long for critics to emerge, mostly charging that Patzek was using a model of ethanol production that is rapidly becoming outdated. Most new plants are far more efficient than the ones that provided the data for the study. A USDA study says ethanol contains 67% percent more energy than is used to produce it, the exact opposite of the Berkeley study.

He has his backers, however, including a Cornell ecology professor who called the use of ethanol fuel “subsidized food burning,” saying the USDA study doesn’t include all the costs of farming.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Water world

Dolphins use tools and and cynics may dwell in Washington. Who knew?
June 27, 2005.

dolphin with spongeI say, old girl, could you had me that sponge? There’s a bit of sharp coral I’d like to explore and I don’t want to cut my nose--A number of animals--besides h. sapiens--use tools, including crows who use twigs and leaves to forage for food. Those behaviors, however, are believed programmed in their genes. Primates were alone, however, in making use of tools as a matter of culture, taught by one critter to another. The tools aren’t in their genes. It turns out they may not be alone. Dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia wear sponges on their nose, it is believed, to protect them from sharp coral and stinging animals. The trick is passed on as a matter of Shark Bay dolphin culture, from mother to daughter. One dolphin apparently figured out it was safer nosing about that way and told her daughter about it and it got passed on. The dolphins, Pacific bottlenoses, are the first marine mammals known to have this ability and it could mean that culture within a group of animals isn’t quite as uncommon as once thought. The research came from a Swiss scientist, Michael Krutzen of the University of Zurich and a team of Australian, American and Canadian scientists, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, and it must be added that not everyone believes his conclusion. The sponge-wearing is well-known; it’s the culture part that is met with some skepticism. Since you can’t ask a dolphin, any conclusion is guesswork. But Krutzen and his colleagues said they have done a genetic search and while all the sponge users were related, sponge use was not consistent with how those genes would be expressed. They all descended from one particular female, presumably the one who figured out the advantage (“Sponging Eve”). Also, there is nothing in Shark Bay’s environment that would make it logical that wearing a sponge on your nose would be an automatic response. On the other hand, of course, the dolphin ladies may be wearing the sponges because they think they look cool.

salmon spill Cynicism in Washington? I’m shocked. Shocked!--The Bush war on the environment had a set-back recently when a federal judge ruled that the operators of several dams on the Pacific Northwest have to spill water over the dams to let the salmon go by. Calling a plan to “protect” the salmon put forward by our Esteemed Leader “more cynicism than sincerity” (gosh, can you imagine?) he ordered the four spills because it was the only thing that can be done now to save the fish from extinction. Dam operators hate the idea because water spilled over the dam can’t be used to generate electricity. Fish use the spillways to avoid the turbines that generate that electricity. The dam operators had been catching the salmon, loading them onto barges, and shipping them up river, but that clearly hasn’t worked. The spills will cost the Bonneville Power Administration, and some Idaho rate payers, some $67 million. But the judge, James Redden, who actually did not give environmentalists everything they asked for, said there simply wasn’t an alternative. Salmon in that area are on the cusp of extinction. And those of you nodding in agreement at the perfidy of the Bush people ought to know that the Clinton Administration wasn’t a helluva lot better at this and lost in court repeatedly. In a column in the Los Angeles Times, writer Paul Van Develder blames this go-around on the neocons in government, who are trying to roll back the Endangered Species Act.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Bush obstructs, speed doesn't kill--UPDATED 6.24.05

G8 meeting to discuss global warming and we're the bad guys again, oh, and speed limits don't do what you think they do.
June 23, 2005

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, it's the facts I can't stand--To the Bush Administration, science is a mindset that keeps getting in the way of ideology. You see it in almost everything they do, but nowhere more impressively than in the issue of global warming. There no longer is any dispute in the scientific field: global warming is real. Most politicians reluctantly accept that, as painful as it may be, but not this administration and the disconnect is about to erupt again. In July, the G8 and major developing countries will meet and everyone but the U.S. is willing to stick to U.N. schemes to curb emissions of heat-trapping gasses, especially carbon dioxide. Because of opposition from the U.S., the chances of anything good happening are nil. Even Tony Blair of Britain, Bush’s sole major ally in the Iraq war and host of the meeting, understands the ramifications of doing nothing, and but he couldn’t get Bush to connect with reality. He understands that climatic change could doom species and push sea levels up by as much as a meter, which could be catastrophic. He calls it the most important issue humanity now faces. In a leaked document, it is clear that the U.S. objects to such wording as “our world is warming” and "We know that the increase is due in large part to human activity.” The U.S. Senate is to take up three pieces of legislation on the subject and almost anything useful they could do is likely to get vetoed, so they probably won’t do anything. There is a point at which incompetence becomes dangerous. This is the point.

autobahn It's either the Autobahn or I-95, Hans, and you can go as fast as you like--It makes sense: the higher the speed limit the more likely it is that people will get killed. Well, so much for making sense. That doesn’t appear to be true. A study to be published in the Review of Policy Research [not yet posted] could find no significant increase in fatalities per miles driven when federal speed limits were abolished and the states set the limits--usually higher than the feds. In some states, speed limits themselves were actually abolished and still that had no effect on overall fatality rates, according to Robert O. Yowell. The reason for the federal legislation was conservation, not safety, when they were enacted in the 1970s. In 1995, Congress let the states set their own. The trend in fatalities has been declining since, probably because cars are safer, the use of seat belts, the increase in the drinking age, and the improvement of roads. The Yowell study is not alone. Others have shown the same. One suspects that the chances of getting killed in a high-speed accident are higher, the higher the speed, but that clearly is not the only variable.

UPDATE--The FDA has approved the drug, BiDil (see here) for treatment of heart disease on black patients, the first racially targeted drug ever approved. Science defeats political correctness.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Beaver and the Rabbit

Jack Kilby, inventor of the integrated circuit, dies well-appreciated.
June 22, 2005

Kilby Invention being the mother of necessity—A very important, and by all accounts, nice man died yesterday; Jack Kilby, who won the Nobel Prize for his invention of the integrated circuit. You can’t get much more important than that. Kilby died in his home at the age of 81, wealthy and apparently contented. You can't get more important than that either. He said once that he wasn’t too impressed with prizes—it took 40 years for the Nobel Committee to give him one—but was mightily impressed by just how ubiquitous his invention has become in modern life.

The story goes back to the late 1950s. Kilby, all 6-foot-7 of him, was in a technology race at the time with Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore who had just split with William Shockley at Shockley Semiconductor and formed their own company, Fairchild Semiconductor. The transistor was about 10-years old, clunky and underutilized. Kilby was at Texas Instruments. The only thing everyone agreed on was that any chips containing the transistors would be made of silicon. Shockley had determined that. How to put it all together was an engineering conundrum.

Kilby jumped first. He conceived of a manufacturing system that permitted the miniaturization of electronic circuits on semiconductor chips, which came to be called integrated circuits, or ICs, and he filed a patent in 1959. TI could sell the chips for $450 each, a lot of money in those days.

The first ICs, however, were clumsy to manufacture and had one basic problem: the transistors still had to be wired together. At Fairchild, however, Noyce adapted a system called “planar” manufacturing, in which all the transistors and resistors were formed together on the silicon, with the metal wiring embedded in the silicon. His IC was essentially all one piece. He filed for a patent five months after TI. [They eventually moved on, founding Intel].

Naturally, a lawsuit followed, as TI claimed patent infringement by Fairchild. A court eventually found for Fairchild, but any company wish to produce ICs needed licenses from both companies. Kilby, who apparently did not have the entrepreneurial gene, stayed with TI and while he never became obscenely rich, he was well taken care of. He also invented the hand-held calculator there.

He once described what he did in a parable. A rabbit and a beaver were standing in the shadow of Hoover Dam and the rabbit asked the beaver if he made the dam. “No,” said the beaver, “I didn’t build it myself. But it’s based on an idea of mine.”

[There are lots of good stories on Kilby. See T. R. Reid’s piece in the Washington Post, and an interesting press release, issued before Kilby died, from the University of Texas.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Summer breaths

Dear Readers:

Summer kids I have good news and bad news. The good news is I have a contract with Macmillan for a book, my biography of William Shockley, the co-inventor of the transistor and general all-around shit, to be published next spring. The bad news is that it will keep my fairly busy during the summer. I will still be filing here regularly, but perhaps not as often as I have been doing, especially since the book pays, the blog doesn't. I will keep it going because it's fun, but I may not be able to make it five days a week. The deadline is August 31. Patience and keep coming by.

The management

Good sex, bad sex and Microsoft Windows

Repressed memories go to court, men and women have orgasms for science, and then there is the fox and the chicken coop.
June 21, 2005

Memories When the dawn comes, night will be a memory too, or will it?--No field of social science is as controversial or emotional than the issue of repressed memories. People under psychotherapy--sometimes hypnosis--will charge that years ago they were subject to sexual abuse and had repressed the memory. Often, the cases turn into criminal matters and people--mostly men--have gone to jail when someone--aided by a therapist--“recalled” the memory. What makes it controversial and emotional is that many therapist think there is no such thing. One of those doubters is Elizabeth F. Loftus, a world-famous psychologist, now embroiled in a fascinating law suit, chronicled by the Los Angeles Times. Loftus, a professor at U.C. Irvine, read a report in a journal written several years ago by a psychiatrist whose patient, then 17, recalled the repressed memory of her mother sexually abusing her. She had sealed off the painful experience and only under therapy did it emerge. She was named in the report only as Jane Doe [You really don’t want the Doe family moving in next door. They are nothing but trouble]. Skeptical, Loftus hired two private detectives, and managed to track down Ms. Doe and her family, and investigate further. Her conclusion, the girl probably had never been abused and the psychiatrist had mishandled the treatment. The story doesn’t end there. Ms. Doe is now suing Loftus, claiming she now is being abused by the psychologist’s report and that Loftus is probing her private life “for professional and commercial exploitation.” Loftus, ranked among the top psychologists of the 20th century, is one of the leading critics of repressed memory and has made herself a number of enemies, including therapists who have almost made a cottage industry out of patients recalling what may or may not have ever happened. The case has reached the California Supreme Court.

Orgams So how was it for you? Hello? Hello!--Researchers in the Netherlands report that when women have orgasms, parts of their brain shut down. Well, duh! When they fake it, the researchers said, that doesn’t happen. Also duh. How do they know this? Read on. It almost makes you want to join their lab. The scientists at the University of Groningen, reporting at a meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, said that they injected dye into subjects’ blood stream that detected changes in brain activity. Then they scanned. The men were tested at rest, during erection, and while they were being whacked off by a woman [that is a technical term, of course]. They were also asked to fake an orgasm. The data on the men turned out to be a little woozy because the mens’ orgasm didn’t last long enough to get complex readings. Women were tested the same way. When the women faked an orgasm, their cortex lit up with the exertion. When they had a real orgasm, it was not active, knocked out by the sheer joy, the absolute pleasure, the.… never mind. I made that part up. Motion was involuntary. The section of the brain that shut down was the amygdala, the part of the brain involved with anxiety and fear, which explains a helluva lot, doesn’t it?

fox That fox guarding the chicken nest does Windows--Everyone knows--or thought they knew--that all you have to do to get a computer virus or trojan horse or spyware is buy a computer with Windows installed. Sooner or later, usually sooner, your machine would grind to a halt. Now, it turns out, Windows is not the most dangerous thing to have on your computer. Security software, designed to prevent attacks through Microsoft software is. Hackers are now attacking the programs you buy to protect yourself, and one has already used that to attack computers: The Witty Worm was sent out to computers 72 hours after a weakness was discovered in Internet Security Systems software. According to the Yankee Group, a consulting firm, the number of vulnerabilities found in security products such as Norton Antivirus is increasing sharply, surpassing even the number found in Microsoft products. They found 60 flaws in a variety of programs designed to protect computers, double the number from the year before. And the number is rising. There’s not a lot of irony in technology, but here we have companies making billions of dollars selling software designed to shut down the lapses in Microsoft programs which now are even more vulnerable, in part because Microsoft has been cleaning up its act. Symantic, the largest company, is the most vulnerable. McAfee, the second largest, has managed to close a number of doors and windows and improve security.

Monday, June 20, 2005

The yolk of stem cells restrictions--UPDATED 6.22.05

American loses another, whales may lose a big one, and a ship that moves by sunlight gets ready.
June 20, 2005

Human eggs We serve no eggs before their time; or at least we didn’t—Another barrier to embryonic stem cell research fell, and again, it was not by American scientists. This time the news came from Belgium, Ghent University Hospital, where researchers apparently took immature eggs, aged them in the test tube and then created human embryos. It becomes an alternate source for the embryos and uses eggs that could not be used for fertility procedures. The embryos can then produce stem cells for both research and therapeutic cloning. They aren’t there yet—the embryos formed had only 8-16 cells, insufficient for cloning--but it was a major step in that direction. Last month, South Korean scientists created clones stem cells from living patients. All of this moves science forward into unknown places. Highly touted, stem cells could be the answer to a number of terrible diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, but no one really knows if that is so yet despite the hype. The research remains to be done. What is known is that restrictions on stem cell research originating from the Bush administration, cutting off federal aid to most of this kind of research, has pushed American scientists to the background in many cases.

images-1 Sailing on the solar wind—If all goes well, we may see the first solar sailing ship launched into space. Using a method first conceived by Johannes Kepler, an international group of space aficionados will launch the world’s first spacecraft propelled by sunshine. The device, 6,500 square-feet of Mylar looks like a flower with eight petals. Each petal is 1-1/2 times the size of a conventional basketball court. [pdf] The propulsions system is a wonder, the solar wind, the tiny particles that stream from the sun throughout the solar system. The particles hit the Mylar petals and give a minute, gentle push. The force is tiny but over sufficient time, it could propel the spacecraft faster than a conventional rocket-engine device because it is cumulative and constant. There is little friction to slow it down. The vehicle does not have to carry fuel and the supply is endless. Equally interesting is the source of the spacecraft. With NASA five years behind and no other government interested in this sort of thing, the spacecraft is privately organized, much of it from the 80,000-member Planetary Society created in 1980 by Bruce Murray and Carl Sagan. The funding comes from a film company, Cosmos Studios, run by Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan. It is to be launched from a Russian submarine in the Barents Sea. WP LAT

UPDATE--The spacecraft--boringly named Cosmos-1--blasted off successfully today, but alas, as soon as the final stage of the rocket fired, all communications ended and the attempt was a failure. Nice try, though, dudes.

Moby Dick Ishmael, white courtesy telephone please—The whale wars are on again. The few countries that support the hunting of whales—for “research,” of course—may try to take over the International Whaling Commission, the international body that so far has succeeded in keeping whaling to a minimum. Japan, Norway and Iceland are starting another fight in this week’s meeting in South Korea. They lost the first battle, but not the war. Pro-whaling countries tried to change voting by the IWC to a secret ballot—probably so no one would know who supports the killing of whales—but by the slimmest of margins, 30-27. Three countries—would you believe Gambia, Togo and Nauru—who are expected to support whaling (having been literally bought off) didn’t vote because they either haven’t paid their dues or hadn’t made it to Ulsan yet. A number of countries, mostly in the Caribbean and Africa, want the rules changed to allow more whaling but are afraid of the outrage of conservationists, who find whaling morally unacceptable. In retaliation, Australia, which supports restrictions, is proposing a measure for condemning Japan for its whaling practices. The Japanese claim they hunt whales for scientific study. Everyone who has visited a fish market in Japan knows they lie. They announced today they want to double the hunt, 850 Minke whales, but lost the vote.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Economists on dope, get your children off the streets

A large band of supposedly sober scientists make a reasoned case for legalizing marijuana, and you can just hear Washington laughing.
June 17, 2005

imagesFive hundred economists led by that great radical Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, called for a national debate on marijuana. The issue: is the prohibition on the stuff worth the effort? A cost-benefit analysis says no. The call comes on the heels of a study by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, suggesting that if marijuana was legalized, the government would save between $10-14 billion a year and make $2.4-6.2 billion in tax revenues.

Miron’s study indicated that dropping the efforts to wipe out the drug—which everyone in his or her right mind knows can’t be wiped out—would save the government $7.7 billion in enforcement. Since enforcement is a total failure (the price of the weed—I’m told—is less than it was before the billions and billions were spent, and in several counties in the west, marijuana is still the largest cash crop), little is lost. Those figures, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, may be conservative. Miron’s study does not include the costs to the legal system and the costs of incarceration, all of which would go away if the government put its efforts elsewhere. One percent of all inmates in state prisons are there for marijuana offenses.
Last year, 85.8 percent of high school seniors told government survey-takers that marijuana was "easy to get" -- a figure that has remained virtually unchanged for three decades. While marijuana arrests nearly tripled from 1991 to 2003 (the latest figures available), the number of teens trying marijuana for the first time went up by over 50 percent.

According to the federal government, nearly 15 million Americans use marijuana at least once a month. That's equal to every man, woman and child in the states of Oregon, Nebraska, Indiana and Oklahoma combined. It's nearly as many Americans as will buy a new car or truck this year. It's a huge market.

Prohibition cannot and will not make that market go away. It has simply given criminals and violent gangs an exclusive franchise, and society pays the price every day: In unregulated drug dealers with no incentive not to sell to kids, in clandestine grows hidden in national parks and surrounded by booby traps, in the bloodshed that inevitably comes with prohibition -- just as it did during America's ill-fated experiment with alcohol prohibition during the 1920s.
The Washington-based project estimates that saving $14 billion would cover the price of securing all the loose nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union in less than three years, and one year’s savings would pay for the anti-terrorism port security measures now in place.

The economists sent a letter to President George Bush asking that the marijuana policy be reassessed. We know what a thoughtful reception that will get.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

We'll all wait for the apologies--UPDATED 6.16.05

Virginity, scoundrels and earthquakes; and what would honorable men do?
June 15, 2005

images Of course, an apology can be expected at any time—Right. An autopsy on Terry Schiavo has affirmed the diagnosis that she suffered from irreversible brain damage and no treatment would have made a difference. She really was as bad off as the experts said she was and as the wretched politicians and ideologists denied she was. Moreover, the coroner’s report said there was no evidence her husband, Michael, or anyone else, had abused her. During the fevered debate over her treatment, the Congress of the United States and the President of the United States, pried themselves into her hospital room and the wingnuts tried everything including defamation of her husband—alleging he strangled her into her condition. Her parents insisted she was treatable, and the reactionary right produced “experts,” almost none of whom had come anywhere near her, to bolster their claims. All untrue. She died of dehydration after her feeding tube was removed. Now, of course, we can expect apologies from the folks at Fox News and the right wing for being wrong and slanderous. Sure.

The autopsy results, which showed among other things that half her brain was gone and she had no cerebral functioning at all (part of what was missing was the part that handles vision--she was effectively blind) has had a fascinating effect. Cable news channels were full of supporters of the Schiavo family who simply chose to ignore it. Pressed by reporters like Aaron Brown on CNN, their eyes glazed over. One kept referring to her as "disabled"'; Brown kept pointing out that word didn't seem to cover someone with half a brain missing.

Real experts added that the autopsy didn't really add any information; we already knew this from the MRIs.

The politicians were having a swell time defending themselves, usually by lying or refusing to answer. There were some honorable exceptions: Florida's Republican Sen. Mel Martinez had the balls to say he was rethinking his position. The ethically disabled Tom DeLay, who said during the fight over her care: "Ms. Schiavo's condition, I believe, has been misrepresented by the media. Terri Schiavo is not brain dead; she talks and she laughs, and she expresses happiness and discomfort." Now it turns out none of that was true so DeLay's spokespeople declined to comment.

The worst, however, is Senate Majority Leader Dr. Bill Frist, spokespeople angrily denied the cardiologist made any diagnosis after seeing a tape of Ms. Schiavo. Here is what he said on March 17, on the Senate floor: "To be able to make a diagnosis of persistent vegetative state--which is not brain dead; it is not a coma; it is a specific diagnosis and typically takes multiple examinations over a period of time because you are looking for responsiveness--I have looked at the video footage. Based on the footage provided to me, which is part of the facts of the case, she does respond." No, she didn't.

A spokesman now acknowledges that the autopsy does add facts to the situation, which wouldn't have been necessary had the man, now pandering to the wingnuts for a presidential nomination, had kept his mouth shut. He, above anyone else in Congress, knows better.

Honorable men would have apologized. As E.J. Dionne Jr., writes in the WashPost, people are entitled to their own opinions. What they are not entitled to are their own facts. Real men hold themselves accountable.

If I were Michael Schiavo, my lawyer would be preparing defamation suits against a large number of people and the news media that gave them a microphone and camera even after they defamed him. I'd be a rich, if sadder man.

images Virginity is a bubble in the froth of life; one prick and it’s gone—It's also a political issue. The conservative Heritage Foundation issued a report that contradicts earlier surveys claiming that young people who take a public oath of chastity had the same amount of sexually transmitted diseases and engaged in as many dangerous sexual activities as those who do not. The foundation used the exact same data but different methodology than the earlier studies. The earlier work, including one published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, said that the teens who took the pledge often didn’t live up to their promises and suffered from the same disease rates as those who did not, which of course upset conservatives. The Heritage study has not been published in a peer journal and won’t in its present form [actually, it is only a news release], a researcher said. But others immediately challenged the foundation’s methodology and said it was lacking the statistical analysis to support its conclusions. What is really important is that studies made by think tanks, and that means all of them, liberal and conservatives, should all be taken with a grain of salt. To quote another anonymous sage: “Losing your faith is a lot like losing your virginity; you don’t realize how irritating it was until it’s gone.”

images Would you excuse me while I run like hell?—A 7.0 magnitude earthquake rumbled through the ocean southwest of Crescent City in northernmost California, triggering a tsunami warning and the evacuation of some of the coastal areas. Sensitized to what happened in Asia in December, the authorities took action they probably would not have taken in November. The quake struck at 7:50 p.m., and 24 minutes later, the town’s tsunami alarms went off, warning the 7,542 residents to get out of town. Most of them did, heading north into Oregon, escorted by local police. By 9 p.m., it was obvious there would be no tsunami and the all-clear was sounded. Folks took it seriously; in 1964, the great quake in Alaska created a tsunami that killed 11 people in Crescent City.

Politically incorrect drug wins a battle, not the war--The FDA has posted a staff review of the drug BiDil, which data show works for blacks with heart failure, but doesn't do much for anyone else. The FDA said it works. The posting comes despite controversy, mostly from scientists upset at the notion that race actually has some biological meaning, which of course, most physicians, will tell you it has. It is the first step in final approval, and if it comes, it will be the first drug approved for a specific race.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Freedom of speech is for those who generate a profit

Microsoft knuckles under to Chinese demands and censors blogs.
June 14, 2005

images How do you say “The love of money is the root of all evil” in Mandarin?:—You probably can’t if you are using Microsoft’s blogging software in China. Don’t use the word “democracy” either. Or “freedom.” If you are blogging in Beijing or the high-tech center in Shanghai, and use words that the Chinese government considers offensive, you get a message saying, “Please delete the forbidden speech from this item.” Microsoft banned them from the site so as not to piss off the government. Wouldn’t want to do that. Like most totalitarian governments, the Chinese are terrified of the Internet and the World Wide Web and have every reason to be. It makes the mullahs in Iran simply crazy. The Chinese have been trying to sit on the web for several years and have had no end of willing capitalists to grovel in compliance. There’s plenty of precedent. Rupert Murdoch censors his satellite news shows. You see, making money trumps morality every time, as the Apostle Paul pointed out in that famous, and often misquoted aphorism. Microsoft’s Robert Scobie defended the move thusly:
I have ABSOLUTELY NO BUSINESS forcing the Chinese into a position they don't believe in. I've been to China (as an employee of Winnov about seven years ago). I met with Government officials there. I met with students. I met with professors. They explained their anti-free-speech stance to me and I understand it. I don't agree with it, and I will be happy to explain to anyone the benefits of giving your citizens the right to speak freely, but it's not my place to make their laws. It certainly is not my right to force their hand with business power.

All quite true. But what you see there is a classic example of the straw man argument. No one thinks Microsoft should be telling the Chinese what laws to pass (although they are certainly not shy about doing it elsewhere—like Washington). The issue is whether they should be collaborating in a matter of principle, one critic pointed out, which is what they are doing by playing along. The correct and moral thing to do is say, “no, we won’t do that. Thank you for your consideration.” If Microsoft believed in free speech instead of simply blathering on about it, it would have walked and taken very little time getting around to it. For moral people, it is a no-brainer.

The restrictions affect Microsoft Spaces, which offers blogging space in conjunction with a government-owned agency connected to MSN China portal. According to Agence France-Presse, bloggers are not allowed to use a list of terms on their sites. The government has already issued a requirement demanding that website owners register.

Censors already roam the Internet chat rooms and blogs in the hunt of subversive dialog. Now they have automated the process.

Like all demands of censorship, silliness is the first attribute. Let’s say you are doing a term paper on Lewis Carroll and write: “Alice exercised her freedom in determining whether to follow the rabbit in the hole.” Bounce. How about: “Socrates challenged the Athenian democracy?” Splat. But of course, it is worse than that, it limits political speech in a place that desperately needs more free political speech, and Microsoft is abetting the injustice. Their excuses are pathetic.

See more on John Paczkowski’s Good Morning Silicon Valley here. Microsoft-owned MSNBC is here.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The rare, the foolish, the ancient--and then there's George Bush

The march of science news goes backwards, forwards and sideways.
June 13, 2005.

imagesWhat we need more research on here is how these people got elected—The oil guys in the Bush Administration may suddenly discover they are all alone. With the exception of a few folks who are being paid by the coal industry, everyone now agrees that global warming is real and no, we don’t need any more research. In a fascinating story in USAToday, Dan Vergano writes that the consensus now is widespread, all the groups agree. It is no longer controversial. The only thing wrong with the story is that it is not new—the scientific community has been virtually united on this conclusion for almost 10 years. Global warming is real and we all know that, in the words of Pogo, we have met the enemy and they are us. Even large corporations like General Electric, which produces huge electric generators, are on board; religious groups are united to see what they can do about it, and only the most foolish or clueless politicians are holding back, like our esteemed leader in the White House. A recent study by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA confirms what everyone knows, that carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases are trapping more of the sun’s energy in the atmosphere than is being released back up into space and that means climate change. That and scores of other studies are the research the President says we need. Just how incompetent does a President have to get before the peasants start storming the streets with pitchforks?

images-2The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree, but it may take a while—Sometime, about 2,000 years ago, a band of Jews then living in Roman Judea, barricaded themselves in the mountain fortress of Masada, surrounded by Roman legions and determined not to be captured. They had amassed a huge collection of food—plants and animals—and cisterns full of water. But the Romans built a ramp up the mountain and before they made it to the top, the Jews killed themselves. Later archeologists dug up the ruins of Masada and found, among other things, seeds of the date palm tree, a tree storied in legend (and the Bible) for its beauty and medicinal efficacy, wiped out by the Crusaders. Some of the seeds wound up in a drawer at Bar-Ilan University. Two scientists, Sara Sallon and Elaine Solowey took some and succeeded in germinating one. They now have a plant, nicknamed Methuselah, the only indigenous date palm of the Bible. It may be a short-lived victory: most very old seeds (and this is perhaps the oldest anyone has been able to germinate) grow a few inches and then keel over in exhaustion. And, if it is a male plant (50-50), it will not be able to reproduce. So far, however, so good.

images-3 Politically incorrect pharmacology—For decades now, scientists more interested in political correctness than science, have fought a long and valiant struggle against the idea that race is a biological attribute, that there really is a biological difference between, say blacks and Asians or whites. The evidence in medicine is overwhelming that race is real, but we are not talking about science here. Now a drug company has roiled up things. It has asked the FDA to approve a heart drug aimed at African-Americans. The drug, BiDil, seems to have very little effect on most patients, but the drug company that developed it, NitroMed, found that it significantly reduced death and hospitalization among blacks. The American Heart Association calls the drug a major development, but it has met with considerable resistance. You see, there are no such things as races and even if a useful drug is blocked, it is attitude that matters. The FDA is expected to reject the argument and approve the drug—one hopes.

images-4 Redemption in the skies, even if they are ugly birds—High above the Grand Canyon, its sere, varicolored limestone and sandstone cliffs, they soar and circle. Giant birds from another age, once on the brink of extinction, now returned to play on the updrafts from the canyon. California condors have returned to the Grand Canyon, as many as 25 or 30. When once there were so few that scientists knew everyone by name and knew where they were, the birds now own the skies over much of the isolated west. Six were released north of the canyon in 1996 and now 53 live there, including wild-born condors, the first in more than 20 years. We can do good when we want to.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Canada's Third Rail, in-your-face in Texas, and the Osborne Effect—UPDATED

The March of Science News laments, applauds and speculates.
June 10, 2005

At least they don’t have pie sales to fund cancer surgeryCanada’s vaunted national health plan got a kick in the shins yesterday, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a law in Quebec that forbade private health insurance was unconstitutional. The court ruled that despite multiple promises from the federal government that it would provide sufficient funding for the national plan to eliminate waiting lists, it has not and Canadians have suffered grave health consequences as a result. Backers of the plan fear that the decision would eventually mean a two-tiered system in Canada, with the public system suffering as a result. In Canada, everyone is insured by the government (everyone is insured in every developed country in the world except the U.S.) and the health plan is the Third Rail of Canadian politics, beloved by one and all, but suffering from funding problems which have gone unsolved by successive governments. Supporters have demanded that Parliament invoke a constitutional provision called “the notwithstanding clause” to get around the ruling, which means—I think—notwithstanding the court, we are going to go ahead and do something. Several other provinces have similar laws banning private health insurance that would be effected by the ruling. In those provinces, people must either wait for their government to drop the barriers or go to court to get them dropped.

Why not meet in Texas, where a lot of folks really hate us and have guns?—Supporters of embryonic stem cell research are holding a meeting to plan strategy in a most unlikely place, that otherworldly state called Texas. Where else would you meet to think up ways to quell resistance to the research than in the capital of the resistance? The researchers, from academia, politics, health care and medicine are meeting at the Genetics Policy Institute of Baylor (incidentally, a Baptist college), one of the islands of support for the research. Houston has first-rate medical centers but they stand alone in the vast red sea. President Bush, the most prominent opponent of embryonic stem cell research was governor and the present governor said it was fine with him if other states stepped in to lead the way. “This is a war on behalf of science,” one researcher said. One hundred-fifty people are coming, including the South Koreans who seem to be ahead of everyone else.

Apple, Intel and the conspiracy theory—Down below we quoted from Robert X. Cringely, one of the more prescient writers out of Silicon Valley. We do so again because he has a fascinating column I’m not sure I accept. Cringely thinks the adoption of Intel microprocessors in Apple computers is a lot more important than many make out. He thinks it is a merger between Intel and Apple and the target is nothing less than Microsoft and its Windows hegemony. Cringely says he was moved by the apparent absurdity of the change, especially coming after years in which Steve Jobs and Apple dissed Intel chips as slow and badly designed, and he lists several reasons why the whole thing makes no sense at all. One of the reasons is called the Osborne Effect. Adam Osborne was the inventor—more or less—of the luggable computer. His company folded after Osborne announced a new product, twice as powerful and only $200 more expensive than the one he was selling several months before he had them to sell. His customers, who had planned to buy new Osbornes, decided to wait and sales disappeared. So did the company. Jobs is announcing computers two years before he will sell them. Would you buy an Apple now, or wait for the Intel machines? Seems odd. Unless: unless technology has nothing to do with it. It’s business.
Microsoft comes into this because Intel hates Microsoft. It hasn't always been that way, but in recent years Microsoft has abused its relationship with Intel and used AMD [another chip manufacturer] as a cudgel against Intel. Even worse, from Intel's standpoint Microsoft doesn't work hard enough to challenge its hardware. For Intel to keep growing, people have to replace their PCs more often and Microsoft's bloatware strategy just isn't making that happen, especially if they keep delaying Longhorn [the planned upgrade of Windows].

Enter Apple. This isn't a story about Intel gaining another three percent market share at the expense of IBM, it is about Intel taking back control of the desktop from Microsoft.
Intel buys Apple, its OEMs produce computers with Intel chips running Apple’s operating system (almost universally acknowledged as the best there is) just as Microsoft announces yet another delay in Longhorn. Computer manufacturers (who also hate Microsoft) would love to get higher profit margins then they can while playing with Microsoft, or they would have a bludgeon to beat the boys from Redmond over the head for better deals. Then Intel-Apple extends the merger into the home entertainment business and Steve Jobs has won the golden grail—he beats Bill Gates.

I don’t believe it because I don’t think Jobs would want to sell it and because Apple, besides being nicely profitable these days, has a fortune in cash sitting around in the bank and not even Intel can afford them. Apple is more likely to buy someone than be bought by someone, even Intel. But that would be soooo cool.

UPDATE: For John Markoff's take on all this, a bit more sensible, see here. Markoff says Microsoft is indeed the target (along with Sony) but not over operating systems. It is the home digital market he's after.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Bad science, bad fishing, bad spawning--The March of Science News 6.9.05

Almost a third of scientists said they diddle the facts a little, a lot of fishermen cause collateral damage, and whatever happened to the shad.
June 9, 2005


Do as I say, not as I do, or not doAs many as one third of American scientists have done something questionable in their work. A confidential survey funded by the National Institutes of Health says that science is becoming so competitive, that the pressures to move the ethical lines are overwhelming many. That doesn’t mean—as some reporters wrote—they have all done something unethical; many of their actions are subject to interpretation. Nonetheless, 27.5 percent admitted to inadequate record-keeping; 15.5 percent admitted to changing the design, methodology or results under pressure from the funding source; 15.3 percent said they dropped observations or data points because they had the gut feeling the numbers were wrong; 13.5 admitted using inadequate or inappropriate research designs; 12.5 percent said they overlooked bad results from other people; 10.8 percent said they withheld details of methodology or results in papers or proposals, and 10 percent assigned authorship inappropriately. Interestingly, the author had trouble getting the study published. Science and the Journal of the American Medical Association rejected it and Nature accepted it only as a commentary. [Story is premium content and Nature won't let you see it unless you have a paid subscription] Anyone what to guess whose picture I used?

Goodbye, and thanks for the fish—Almost 1,000 marine mammals are killed in fishing nets every day and unless changes in trawling methods are changed, the slaughter will continue, according to the World Wildlife Federation. It poses one of the greatest threats to Cetacea and some species are being pushed to the brink of extinction. The fishing industry calls the collateral damage “bycatch”—as in oops, we didn’t really mean to kill you. The WWF report says that 10 species in total—including harbor porpoises in the Black Sea, the Atlantic humpback dolphin and the Franciscana dolphins of South America—are at the gravest risk, as is the Irrawaddy dolphin, among the rarest. The main culprit are gill nets, WWF said, because the dolphins and whales can’t spot them.


Waiter, get me shad roe—Waiters following Cole Porter’s request will have a harder time than usual: the number of shad in the Chesapeake Bay area is mysteriously down. The fish are counted at a huge fish elevator—the largest in North America—at the Conowingo Dam, on the Susquehanna River, just north of the bay. The dam is one of four blocking the route of the shad as they swim to their spawning area. To help the fish get up river, a $15 million fish elevator was built into the dam and it seemed to work, saving the herring-like fish from extinction. But this year the numbers are down mysteriously. The lift transported about 70,000 fish during the spawning season, down from 130,000-140,000 they usual count. Reasons are pure speculation at this point, mostly centered on temperature changes in the bay. Shad were the fish that saved George Washington’s Valley Forge encampment, suddenly showing up when the army ran out of food, called “savior shad.” See John McFee’s The Founding Fish.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The decline of Western Civilization--Part III UPDATED

The not-so-secret plot to foster Creationism, the zoo of the very, very distant past, and the war on the ocean.June 8, 2005

Even paranoids have enemies--
It is called the Wedge. It is the way anti-evolutionists pry their way into public institutions—even the Smithsonian—to get their religion-disguised-as-science to the public. It is not a chimera of paranoid biologists, but an actual plan, worked out in considerable detail. You can read it here, a site posted on a public page at Arizona State University (I’m not sure why) and published by the Center for the Renewal of Science & Culture, part of the Discovery Institute, the home of Intelligent Design. The basis of their plan is open and concise: if man was created in God’s image, he cannot be the result of evolution, nor can he be the kind of complex, materialistic, subconscious-ridden creature of Freud (and Marx). They divide the process of replacing evolution into three parts: research, writing and publication; publicity and opinion making; cultural confrontation and renewal. Once the research is done (how one researches a religious doctrine is never stated), the public must be prepared to accept the idea of creationism (they of course use an euphemism—part of the public relations spin) and then go confront the scientific community. You know, it is actually possible to believe in evolution and that there was a “designer?” I do, for one. But that, of course, is not what these people are up to. You can follow along, step-by-step. The galoots are loose. And if you don’t believe me, visit the Tulsa Zoo in the near future.

Creationists two by two--The Tulsa (Oklahoma) Parks Board has approved—after some debate—an exhibit chronicling the biblical account of creation. The only refreshing part of the debate was that those in favor admitted their point was religious in nature, not scientific, and as there were other religious icons in place at the zoo now, so what’s another one? It also means other accounts of creation can go up. An attorney for the city said the display could only go up if it had a disclaimer saying that it was just one of many views of creation. A guy named Dan Hicks is involved. In 1995, he protested displays showing the evolution of humanity as being “offensive.” The zoo, remarkably, told him to shove it.

The best place to keep track of this mishegas is The Panda’s Thumb, a wonderful blog, and The Society for the Study of Evolution.

When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.'--The Bush administration has never been accused of letting facts get in the way of ideology and tinkering with government documents is not the least of how this policy is played. Andrew Revkin, in the New York Times, reports that a White House official, who once represented the oil industry’s battle against global warming theories, edited government documents to minimize any link between greenhouse gases and climate change. His name is Philip A. Cooney and he saw it as his function to remove or alter reports of government research that didn’t fit into the administration’s perverse worldview. Sometimes he was subtle, adding a modifier here and there. Other times he just went at it armed with scissors. Cooney was a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, listed as a “climate team leader.” While every administration tinkers with government documents, bowdlerizing scientific reports is new.

UPDATE--Two days after Revkin's story, Cooney resigned. The White House said his resignation had nothing to do with the story. The White House is shameless.

Taking the war on the environment out to sea--The administration announced it was proposing to expand the practice of fish farming out as far as the U.S.’s 200-mile limit. The administration called it a boon for consumers and for the economy. It is, rather, yet another disaster from the most anti-environmental administration in modern American history. For one thing, most of this farming is more a matter of shoveling money, not fish. The industry is heavily subsidized and all this would do is pump money like water to the companies owning the factory farms. More important, however, is that fish farming on a mass scale is a terrible idea. Most of the fish is second-grade, poor tasting and so devoid of color they have to add coloring to the flesh to convince anyone to buy it and eat it. Worse, however, is that they are the seagoing equivalent to chicken farms in terms of the pollution they create. Huge farms already exist raising salmon in Chile, Norway and Canada. In some cases, they fill a void because the natural stocks are in steep decline, and most seafood served in the U.S. is now imported.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

No wonder they want to subpoena book store records--6.7.05

The March of Science News on the guilt involved in agreeing with Justice Thomas.
June 7, 2005

Big Brother in the Garden—You know things are getting tight when you wind up agreeing with Justice Clarence Thomas, who apparently got the decision on medical marijuana right and did so for the right reasons. The justices ruled yesterday that the federal government has the right to prosecute the possession of marijuana even for medical uses and even in the 11 states that had passed laws legalizing it. Oddly, it was the liberal justices that won out. At first blush, it seemed a slam dunk that the U.S. Supreme Court would rule that way: every first year law student knows that federal law trumps state law every time. But this was different, or, as Justice Thomas wrote in a dissent: “Diane Monson and Angel Raich [the defendants] use marijuana that has never been bought or sold, that has never crossed state lines, and that has no demonstrable effect on the national market for marijuana. If Congress can regulate this under the commerce clause, then it can regulate virtually anything - and the federal government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.” Exactly. William Renquist, by the way, also voted in the minority. He is a cancer patient. Sandra Day O'Connor, however voted with the majority. So is she. It’s none of the federal government’s damned business. Read the decision here.

Come and get us, big guys—Meanwhile, in those states were the people and/or their representatives voted to legalize medical marijuana, there was defiance, and also the well-founded hope that the federal government has more important things to do than raid their basements looking for a couple of weeds. The feds usually go after the big guys and leave the little ones to local officials, who in California, at least, rarely give a damn. The grand theocracy in the White House, however, may see differently. At least one group, WAMM, based in Santa Cruz (where marijuana comes in second only to artichokes as a cash crop) said it would probably have to fold its seaside communal garden. Some supporters expressed hope that Congress would take up the court’s idea that it had the right to change the law. Good luck.

Got poison?—The federal government asked the National Academy of Science to remove an article from its website that described how terrorists could poison the nation’s milk supply. NAS complied. The paper, written by Stanford’s Lawrence M. Wein and grad student Yifan Liu, appeared briefly in a section of the academy’s website set aside for journalists to give the writers an advanced look at papers to be published in the academy's Proceedings. The paper described how the milk supply could be contaminated and what to do to protect it. The feds, in the person of Health and Human Services assistant secretary Stewart Simonson, called it a “road map” for terrorists. “It seems clear on its face that publication of this manuscript could have very serious public health and national security matters.” Of course, some of us might make the case that it is also a warning of an avenue of attack and road map on how to protect the milk supply, but the federal government must know best.

They forgot Catch 22Human Events, the national wingnut weekly, had a fascinating piece a few days ago, listing the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries, which is (seriously) an interesting idea. The books they came up with were in some cases predictable, in some cases hilarious and in a few cases so obscure or unread as to be irrelevant. The most dangerous, of course, was The Communist Manifesto (Marx & Engels), followed by Mein Kampf (by the name that is not spoken), and then Quotations from Chairman Mao. So far, I’m with them, although I would have changed the order. Then things start getting weird, with the Kinsey Report going at number four (“designed to give a scientific gloss to the normalization of promiscuity and deviancy”—don’t you just love it when they fall apart?). Then comes Democracy and Education by that well-known subversive John Dewey; Das Kapital (Marx makes it twice); The Feminine Mystique (small sexual organs made you do that); The Course of Positive Philosophy by Auguste Comte (wouldn’t know); Beyond Good and Evil by Freidrich Nietzsche [“God is Dead”—Nietzsche/ “Nietzsche is dead”—God), and finally, General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by John Maynard Keynes (“a recipe for ever expanding government”). Paul Ehrlich, Johns Stuart Mill, B.F. Skinner, Margaret Mead, Ralph Nader and Rachel Carson, among others, got honorable mention. Darwin made it twice, Freud once. I'm not making this up. Nothing by Ann Coulter or Ayn Rand. All are, of course, available at your local bookstore.

Monday, June 06, 2005

We thank you for your persecution, stupid

Utah researchers say that Ashenazi genetic diseases is what makes Jews so smart.
June 6, 2005.


I blush. I had second thoughts about running with this, but what the hell. Nick Wade of the New York Times says it’s legit and it is about to be published in a real journal.

Researchers at the University of Utah say that the pattern of genetic diseases that afflict Jews of eastern European (Ashkenazic) background is the result of natural selection for intelligence. Winning the coveted award for the most politically incorrect scientific paper of the year, the researchers (none of whom appear to be Jewish) said that because the Jews of the Middle Ages were locked in ghettos and forced into professions that required mental agility, natural selection selected the brightest.

images-3 For decades, going back to eugenics and William Shockley, scientists have erupted over the notion that intelligence was inheritable. Shockley, among others, destroyed his career by pointing out the obviousness of that claim. It still isn’t acceptable in polite scientific company.

The paper will be published in the Journal of Biosocial Science, (Cambridge University).

The diseases are similar evolutionary reactions to sickle cell, which occur in populations threatened by malaria. Evolution was forced to counter the threat by favoring any mutation that protected against it, even if it had side effects.
images-2 The notion derives from an theory propounded by Jared Diamond that Jews who were smarter than their fellows were more likely to survive the repeated persecutions brought on them. They also were more likely to succeed at the professions imposed on them, usually commerce, which required managerial and mathematical skills. The successful ones reproduced at a faster rate. In other words, your persecution made us smarter. I love it.

The Utah researchers said that the four Ashkenazi diseases—Tay Sachs, Niemann-Pick, Gaucher and mucolipidosis type IV, all manage chemicals called sphingolipids, which promote the growth and reproduction of brain cells.

I humbly point out that Jews represent 0.25 percent of the world’s population and have won 22 percent of the world's Nobel Prizes. The Utah researchers added that we represent 3 percent of the U.S. population and have won 27 percent of America’s Nobels. It can’t be the cuisine.

The secret life of Tiger--Jobs bets the company. UPDATING 6.7.05

Jobs moves Apple to Intel chips and a secret backroom operation scores again.
June 6, 2005


The personal computer world is about to undergo something of a paradigm shift. Steve Jobs announced that that Apple will begin using Intel processors in its Macs. It's been in the works for years.

At the World-Wide Developer's Conference in San Francisco, Jobs announced that every Mac operating system for the last five years had a secret doppledanger: a version that would run on Intel microprocessors. He even demonstrated it. Every system now in Tiger (Mac OS-X 4.1) runs on the Intel system and it is apparently indistinguishable from the current OS. Starting next year, your Macs will have Intel inside. The transition will be complete by 2007.

As he spoke, a sign bearing the Intel logo was lowered on the stage. Michael Dell, eat your heart out.

Why should you care, even if you own a Mac?

For one thing, it is an act of daring, born of frustration, and it could either kill the computer part of Apple, or make it a more serious player in the personal computer business—something more than just being an icon for nuts like me. The decision will be taught in business schools as an act of sheer balls, win or loose.

All this has to do with a major shuffling in the computer business that is realigning old allies and enemies in interesting ways. It involves industry giants: Apple, IBM, Microsoft and Motorola.

The move to Intel is risky for several reasons, the most important being that it is going to require the software engineers to essentially rewrite all their Mac programs. Applications are written with the architecture of the main microprocessor in mind. Windows programmers know their programs are going to be used on Intel chips (Pentium or whatever), or chips manufactured by other companies that emulate Intel’s architecture. Apple programs are written for PowerPC chips, made either by IBM (desktop PowerMacs) or by Freescale Semiconductor, a Motorola spin-off (PowerBook laptops). Eventually, all Mac programs would have to be written for the Intel architecture but will still have to be backwards compatible on present computers. Jobs is making his announcement at Apple’s developers convention and he has a sales job on his hands because they are the ones that are going to have to figure out how to make it work. He seems to have succeeded at first, but then word got out [on one of the websites Apple is busy suing] that it took four Pentium processors to get the Tiger demonstration to work.

Several Mac software suppliers, clued in a while back, have already produced Intel-ready versions of their Mac software, including Mathematica 5. Apparently, there is software that helps the transition; converting Mathematica took two hours. Both Adobe, and interestingly, Microsoft, promised Intel software, including the next version of Office.

The chutzpah is breathtaking. He is betting the company.

Rumors have circulated for years that Apple has an operating system in a closet somewhere that works on Intel chips. The rumors were true. The codename was Marklar (Apple loves codenames). Apparently, there were two teams of programmers: one doing the OS for the real world Macs and the guys in the Marklar rooms. There is history here: the Mac was developed in a similar way, with a secret operation totally isolated from the rest of the company, then producing Apple IIs.

Jobs admitted the task of converting completely to an Intel-savvy operating system isn't completed yet and he needed the developers to leap in. It likely will be ready for the new system update, Leopard, scheduled for the end of 2006 or the start of 2007, about the time, he said, Microsoft will release its very-late Longhorn Windows update.

Why is he doing this?

In part, Apple has been unhappy with its relationship with IBM for quite a while. The first PowerMacs used Motorola microprocessors and in order to get the supply system efficient, Apple, Motorola and IBM formed an alliance in 1991 to design and build microprocessors. The result was the PowerPC chip. Essentially, IBM supplied the PowerPC chips for Apple’s desktop computers while Motorola (and as of last year, Freescale), supplied the chips for Apple’s popular laptops. But there were problems.

The high cost of the chips made it harder for Apple to compete with price; the supply was unreliable and often caused Apple to announce machines it could not produce in sufficient quantity, and most of all, IBM had a technical problem it could not solve. The current laptops use a PowerPC G-4 chip, increasingly outdated by Intel’s competing microprocessors. Apple desktops have moved up to the G-5, which is at least as powerful as anything Intel produces, but it can’t put G-5s in their portable PowerBooks because IBM can’t find a way to make them cool enough—literally, they generate too much heat. Unless Apple does something, they will lose the laptop market. IBM also has failed to produce a 3 gigahertz G-5, which Apple has been promising for several years.

Jobs told the convention the PowerPC simply doesn't hack it any more. The Intel chips are far more efficient and obviously can be slipped into a laptop that doesn't scald your thighs.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has dropped Intel as a supplier for its video game machine (for the same chip Apple uses), a surprising move on its own because the Microsoft-Intel relationship rules the world ("Wintel" has become a generic abbreviation), and the two companies appear to really need each other. With Apple and Microsoft all moving toward home-centered electronic multi-purpose devices, the shuffle is fascinating because it will determine which microprocessor will be in which machine and who wins the gaming wars. The history of personal computing will be rewritten.

For IBM, the loss of Apple is not a big deal. Apple wasn’t that big a customer; the Apple account was barely profitable, and IBM is moving out of the personal computer business anyway. For Intel, it is the end of a long romance to get its chips into Macs, something they have been working on for 20 years. For Apple, it is a serious risk, but one that could pay off marvelously—if it works.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The actuarial cost of gun violence in the U.S.

An actuary looks at the cost of the gunslinger society.
June 2, 2005

In a study to be published in September in The Journal of Risk and Insurance, Jean Lemaire, a professor of insurance and actuarial science at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, takes on the actuarial cost of the Second Amendment. And the result is staggering.

Lemaire points out that in 2000, the U.S. recorded 11,000 firearm deaths. The European Union, with 25 percent more people had fewer than 1,300. Japan had 22. Looking at that same year, Lemaire pointed out a study showing that gun violence costs the U.S. society $100 billion annually or $360 for every American. But that might not be the most serious cost.

Lemaire calculates how much time Americans as a whole lose off their lives because of gun violence in the actuarial tables, and how much more they pay in insurance costs as a result. What is striking about both costs is how unevenly they are distributed throughout the population. According to Lemaire, all firearm deaths in 2000 -- that is, both homicides and suicides -- reduced the life expectancy of all Americans by an average of 103.6 days. Broken down by race and gender, however, there are notable gaps in how various groups fare. Men lose between five and six times more days than women: 166.8 versus 30.5. African-American men lose more than twice as many days as white men: 361.5 versus 150.7. The most significant gap, logically enough, combines these racial and gender differentials: There is more than a tenfold difference between days lost by African-American men (361.5) versus days lost by white women (31.1).

The annual cost in insurance to all this mayhem is $4.9 billion, although that figure, he admits is problematic. Most deaths happen to young Americans who by and large don’t buy life insurance. Total annual medical bills for gun violence is somewhere between $2 and $2.3 billion a year for gun-related injuries. The increased cost to the criminal justice system? $2.4 billion.

“Among all fatal injuries, only motor vehicle accidents have a stronger effect [than firearm deaths],” he says. “The elimination of all firearm deaths in the U.S. would increase the male life expectancy more than the total eradication of all colon and prostate cancers.”

He does not think Americans are more violent than other people. He also thinks the notion that if we didn’t have so many guns we would find other ways to do each other in specious. If you compare two similar cities, Seattle and Vancouver you find that 41 percent of people in Seattle have guns while only 12 percent of people in Vancouver do. The rate of assault with a firearm is seven times higher in Seattle, and the homicide rate is 4.8 times higher. The people in Vancouver didn’t resort to knives and hatchets to commit mayhem when denied guns. They just committed fewer murders.

The evidence is clear, he concludes: The availability of handguns in Seattle increases the assault and homicide rates with a gun, but does not decreased the crime rates without guns, and that restrictive handgun laws reduce the homicide rate in a community.

Good luck, guy.