Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Just when you thought it was safe to RSS, he’s back!

Watch what you suck, fella. God may be watching--It would be harder to find a better topic to start off the autumn blogging with than circumcision. I knew you’d agree.

There is a minor brouhaha going on in New York City--and I say minor because it involves a small minority of one community and the issue is clear cut--over an ancient and totally discredited practice involving a mohel, the rabbi who performs circumcisions. The issue is not, I emphasize, circumcision--it involves how it is done. Circumcision binds a Jewish male to the covenant with God and is mandated in the Torah, the five books of Moses. It defines a jewish male. Except for a small group of disconnects, the practice is not controversial in the Jewish community, including among those of us who have had one. There also are clear medical benefits.

Mohels are rabbis trained in the practice. Most are Orthodox but that does not limit their practice. Virtually all Jewish families (perhaps as many as 90%) hire a mohel eight days after the birth of a son. The whole family shows up, the mother leaves the room in terror, the baby (usually anesthetized on wine-soaked cotton) cries, and the whole thing is over in a matter of seconds. The food is usually excellent.

Enter Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer, 57, a mohel in New York City. Three boys, one in Staten Island and twins in Brooklyn, contracted Type-1 herpes after Fischer did the procedure. Using an ancient technique mentioned in the Talmud, Fischer used oral suction to stop the bleeding of the penis. I don’t have pictures. One of the boys involved died of the infection, which can be lethal to infants. It is possible Fischer had a cold sore when he performed the oral suction and the virus was transmitted through his saliva. The practice has been condemned as unsanitary since the 19th century, has been abandoned by most Orthodox mohels and is rejected by nearly every non-Orthodox authority. Using a tube for suction is now the norm and is endorsed by the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinic association. Use of oral suction now resides exclusively in charedi (ultra-Orthodox) communities such as the Hassidim, where it is considered integral to the procedure. These communities say they have no intention of stopping the practice.

(Keep in mind that endangering the life of a child--or any other human for that matter--is the gravest of sins in Jewish law so these people are several entrees short of a kosher combo plate.)

Since February, Fischer has been under court order not to perform the ritual in the city while the health department investigates.

That would seem to be a slam-dunk, but this is New York City and this is an election year. The charedi community is in high dudgeon over the interference by the city and there are a lot of them in New York, particularly in Brooklyn. So, when they pressured Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who is, of course, Jewish, and is running for reelection) for a meeting, he acceded to their request and afterwards issued a statement that sets new records for pandering:

“We’re going to do a study, and make sure that everybody is safe and at the same time, it is not the government’s business to tell people how to practice their religion.”

Yes, but:

• The study already has been done and was published in the journal Pediatrics. There have been eight neonatal infections all traced to oral suction.

• It most certainly is the business of the government to intervene in religious matters when lives are at stake. If a witch doctor in Queens started practicing unsaniary female circumcision and was endangering the lives of girls in the city, would the government say it couldn’t interfere? Alas, there are few witch doctors who vote in New York City.

• And keep in mind, no matter what the charedi rabbis say, the practice violates basic Jewish law. When they wrote the Talmud they didn't know about viruses.

Then again, it is an election year. He is a very wealthy man, and he got wealthy by character and intelligence. He seems to have parked it when he became a politician.

By the way, Christopher Hitchens, with whom I disagree often but also read often, has a column on this is Slate and he is absolutely correct this time.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Mental Health Week

This here blog will be inactive next week as your humble servant and family make their annual pilgrimage to the Berkshire hills of Massachusetts, the Tanglewood Music Festival, Great Barrington (I've always wondered if there is a Less Barrington) and the discount malls of Adams. You are on your own until the 29th or 30th, when action resumes.

Live long and prosper.


Thursday, August 18, 2005

Flying over Kansas

For those of you following the creationism and intelligent design stuff, here is another website worth bookmarking, along with Panda's Thumb. It's here, CSICOP's Creation and Intelligent Design Watch.

If you live in Kansas, you get a discount.

Fetuses, cold soup and the bar at the center of the galaxy

August 18, 2005

Burning to stir up the abortion controversy--Here we go again. A group of Swiss scientists report in Lancet [subscription required] that they have used human fetal cells as a form of bandage to treat serious burns in children. The bandage was derived from the skin cells of an aborted fetus and proved, in the test, far superior in encouraging healing than skin grafts. Keeping in mind that the sample size is very small, eight children, the results still are impressive because of the context. Normally, burns are treated by taking skin from part of the patient that was not burned, and grafting it over the burns. That hurts like hell, often leaves serious scars, and doesn’t always work. In this study, scientists at the University Hospital of Lausanne, took artificial fetal skin, grown from a postage-stamp sized sample of skin from a fetus aborted three years earlier. The goal was to use the artificial skin to cover the wounds, just as a graft would. That’s not what happened. The new skin had to be replaced every several days because it dissolved, but the doctors found that the skin restored the damaged tissue which regenerated and healed the wounds. The experiment needs to be replicated and certainly requires tests on a larger number of patients before any real conclusions can be reached--and those experiments won’t happen in the U.S. They would be illegal.

Waiter, there’s life in my soup--Scientists have long puzzled over the inelegance of the human genome. There’s a lot of junk in it, stuff we don’t seem to need and doesn’t appear to serve any purpose, and it seems unnecessarily complex. A group of British scientists [hey, did you notice, science actually gets done in other countries?] think they have an explanation: life formed in hot soup that eventually cooled down. The theory speaks to a 40-year-old puzzle--why does the DNA vocabulary contain 64-three-letter words (codons), when they translate into only 20 amino acids. Seems sloppy and inefficient. Several codons even translate into the same amino acid. The researchers, from the University of Bath reporting in the Journal of Molecular Evolution [I always have it by my bedside], working on an idea from Francis Crick, suggest that the three-letter code evolved from a simpler two-letter code. The original code involved reading only two of the three letters--the first two or the last two. Two amino acids excluded from the doublet system, glutamine and asparagine, appear to be late comers. Neither can hold their molecules together in high temperatures, so the researcher theorize they formed after the hot soup cooled down, complicating the rise of life.

So set ‘em up Joe, I’ve got a little story I want you to know--The bar at the center of the galaxy sounds like a Douglas Adams sequel but it isn’t. It’s a odd-shaped cluster of stars. Long and narrow (we are using relative terms here), it cuts through the Milky Way and is even bigger than anyone thought. Keep in mind, this is really huge: 27,000 light years in length, about 7,000 light years longer than originally thought. It’s comprised of old and red stars, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison [I thought I’d throw in some American science here so everyone would feel better]. It sits at a 45-degree angle between our sun and the center of the galaxy and is a structure considered fairly rare in the known universe. It was found by the orbiting Spitzer Space Telescope. Most astronomers thought the center of the galaxy was spiral. Nope. There’s a bar there. Don’t panic.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

That's Schroedinger's cat mewing on the porch

August 14, 2005

I'll take a vowel, Vanna, and then I'll know less--What if I gave you information that would result in your knowing less than you did before I gave it to you--negative information? Can there be such a thing? Well, yes, in the quantum world, anything is possible.

Jonathan Oppenheim at Cambridge has a wonderful webpage describing negative information, how you can actually reduce knowledge by adding to it. It's great fun--if you believe in quantum mechanics or existentialism.

Oppenheim points out that in information theory, “this dude Claude Shannon” pointed out that understanding information is less important than understanding how much there is. Give an information theorist a copy of War and Peace, and she would say, “gosh, that’s a lot of information.” [Woody Allen once said he took a speed-reading coure and read Moby Dick in 15 minutes. It’s about a whale.] A message with 10 letters doesn’t transmit a lot, so Shannon defined information as the minimum amount of letters needed to convey a message, irrespective of how it is delivered.

Think of the television show “Wheel of Fortune,” in which you have to guess a sentence as letters are added to a matrix. Once you have the meaning of the sentence, the rest of the letters are irrelevant. "Wheel of Fortune" uses information theory. Now consider there is something called prior information--knowing some of the letters before the game began--and partial information--the number of letters you need before you know the sentence. Got it?

OK, but the quantum world is different. It is, you should pardon the expression, existential. In Erwin Schroedinger’s wonderful quantum cat mind exercise, the answer to the question, is the cat alive or dead, is yes. Is an object here or there? Yes. It could also be neither here nor there. Einstein found that notion repulsive, but generally, that’s what physicists think is the nature of nature when dealing with very small objects. Feynman (stealing from von Neumann), is rumored to have said that "you don't understand quantum mechanics, you just get used to it." Also keep in mind, that quantum objects are fragile. Look at one, and it stops being quantum. An electron can be pointing up and down simultaneously. The moment you look at it, it is either one or the other, or with Schroedinger’s cat, it is either dead or alive. So, if you decide that an electron pointing up is a 1 and one pointing down is a 0, the first person who looks at the electron removes it from its quantum state and decides it is one or the other. That’s why quantum computing is so difficult.

OK, now negative information. A mythical Bob in Oppenheim’s paper, has some prior information so that when the equally mythical Alice wants to send him a message, we can figure out how much information she must send before he understands the message. That’s tough because Alice doesn’t know what Bob knows, and in the quantum world, Alice doesn’t even know what Alice knows. [Alice is a good choice of names for this exercise]. Oppenheim uses a new adjective to decribe this, "Rumsfeldeque." Love it.

He then points out that the equation used to quantify how much information Alice has to send--how much partial information is required for Bob to understand the message--can produce a negative number. Huh?

Well, you probably are going to have to read this more thoroughly on your own, but here is Oppenheim’s example from his web page.

Information is always information about something. This can be expressed in terms of correlations. If you have either a white or a black ball, and I claim to know the color of your ball, then there is an easy test to figure out whether I really know something. I write the color of your ball on a piece of paper, and you put your ball in a box. Then we give the piece of paper and the box to a referee, who checks whether the color I wrote on the paper is the same as the color of the ball in the box. The referee can determine that I know something about what you have. If we repeat this test over and over again, the fact that I have information about your ball, will manifest itself in the fact that the referee will always find that the color I wrote on the piece of paper will be correlated with the color of the ball you gave her.

Now let us imagine that you give me your ball. Now I still know something, because the color on my piece of paper (and the ball I have), is correlated with your brain, which remembers what the color of the ball was. So by giving me the ball, you haven't changed anything: a referee can still perform a test to determine if I know something. The referee will ask me for the piece of paper, and ask you to write down the color of the ball you sent me. If they match, we have proved to the referee that I know something about what you have (or had).

But if the balls were quantum particles, then it can sometimes be that there is no memory of what color they are. A quantum ball can be completely isolated from anything which might record a memory of its color....

Now let us imagine that you have a quantum ball, which is black or white, and I have a piece of paper where it is written what color the ball is. Then I have some information, because my piece of paper is correlated with your ball. We could convince the referee that I know something about what you have. But if you give me the ball, then I will no longer have any correlations with things external to me. You have no memory of the color of the ball, and so there is no test we can perform with the referee which will prove that I knew something. By giving me the ball (giving me information), I now know less!

And, now, I think, I do too. Well, not really.

While we're on the subject of the weird and fascinating, may I recommend this? Report back.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

We're capitalists; we won't hurt you

August 11, 2005

Don’t worry about yourself, think of the cockroaches--The proposed changes by the Environmental Protection Agency to protect human subjects in insecticide studies, is under attack from environmentalists, their own scientists, and Congress. No, not those old proposals. The new ones, the ones that were supposed to correct flaws in the first proposals. Several critics call it a sell-out to the industry, which of course is absurd--government wouldn’t do that, would they? Earlier this year, Congress lambasted the EPA’s proposed guidelines to protect human subjects, noting health risks and ethical lapses in the industry-supported plan. The EPA promised to go back and redo the proposals to take those concerns into consideration. The Baltimore Sun, however, reports today it has a copy of the 76-page draft of the new proposals and the EPA apparently either wasn’t paying attention or decided to ignore the criticism. Although the introduction contains wording say was going to propose tighter rules, the Sun says the text doesn’t come close. Even the agency’s own scientists are appalled. “This is a very important ethical, scientific and clinical issue,” one said, “and they are trying to fool the American public about its intent. It’s a magician’s trick.” [As an aside, the fact that scientist was an unnamed source is a good example of why reporters need to have unnamed sources and protect them]. Environmentalists say the rules have so many loopholes they are essentially meaningless. The proposal came from a congressional study that reviewed 22 EPA-related human studies conducted by the pesticide industry. The study found that in many cases the test subjects didn’t know what they were being exposed to or, in many cases, why the tests were being done. The study also found that some of the tests did not follow accepted ethical standards. Some of the test subjects at risk included pregnant women and children. An EPA spokeswoman said she couldn’t comment as it was only a draft proposal.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

"You don't like me! You really don't like me!"--UPDATED

August 10, 2005

Well, they never call me--Too much is made of polling, or at least of individual polls. There is the common tendency to reject the ones that come to conclusions you don’t like or agree with (”the only poll that counts is the one on election day”) and embrace the ones that show you are definitely among the intelligent elite. And then there is the disbelief that you can make 1,500 telephone calls and tell what 300 million people are thinking. [Your humble servant was actually trained to do exactly that at a program at Northwestern University back in the last Nixon year]. Whether you believe individual polls or not, you sometimes run into a meta-analysis of polls--a study of lots of polls asking similar questions--and you come up with some interesting and believable stuff. Mark Blumenthal and his excellent blog, Mystery Pollster, has done just that. His essay was triggered by an op-ed piece in the New York Times by the Pew’s Andrew Kohut and Peter Hoey, that compares public opinion and major events during the first half-year of the second term for Presidents Nixon, Reagan Clinton and Bush. As Blumenthal points out, the graphic that goes with it is amazing. Essentially, it shows that President Bush’s approval rating is the lowest of any president in a second term with the exception of Richard Nixon who was being swallowed by Watergate. It’s down to 44 percent in the Pew poll. If, however, you go and combine all the respected national polls and plot them on one chart, they all--with one exception--show essentially a similar result:

Bush’s approval spiked naturally at 9/11 and quickly began to slide. That’s expected; no one would think any president could keep that high an approval as we moved away from the attack. It took another uptick with the capture of Saddam Hussein. It rose 5-10 points around the election. But the trend throughout Bush’s presidency has been steady and consistent in all but one of the polls--downward. [The exception is the Rasmussen poll, which uses machine voices for interviews in a tracking poll, and neither Blumenthal nor anyone else can explain why it is an outrider, besides the fact is uses robot interviewers. Blumenthal guesses it is because Rasmussen weights his polls by party which doesn’t catch changes in public’s party affiliation. More people are now associating themselves with Democrats then they did several years ago.)

One possible explanation for the downward slide, suggested by Slate’s blogger, Mickey Kaus, is that the polls are simply reflecting the natural approval rating Bush would have if 9/11 never happened. It’s not the war or the economy. It’s Bush. Think, Kaus says, of a baseball hitter who has a hot streak and then regresses back to his natural batting average. Bush has. What he sees it what he gets.

Works for me.

UPDATE: On 8/14, the Rasumussen robots fell into line, making it unanimous.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Steroids and the working man

Guest column
By Jon Shurkin
August 9, 2005

Is that a hypodermic needle in your pocket or are you just coming up to bat?—Thanks to Viagra spokesman Rafael Palmiero’s suspension for using performance enhancement drugs, there’s been a lot of squawking about cheating and illegality in baseball, not to mention the old favorite: "won’t somebody think of the children?" In fact, taking a turn through all the ESPN talking sport pundit shows, they’re all comparing this whole thing to the Black Sox scandal of 1919 or Pete Rose’s cheating on baseball. But is it?

A lot of people don’t know what they’re talking about. It may not be so terrible after all.

Quick, what is a steroid? It’s something you inject into your body to make you beefier and stronger, right? Well, err no. Why would doping be soprevalent in the Olympics in sports like swimming or track, where being beefier would be a hindrance not an advantage? Who were the first players to get busted this year for steroids in baseball? None of them were the body builder types. In fact, one of the things that’s being said repeatedlyabout Palmiero was that he didn’t seem like one because he wasn’t unusually big, strong and muscular so he could crush home run balls. Yet crush them he did.

As you listen to all this steroid kerfuffle, remember this: There are, in fact, over 600 types of
steroids, some of them even used for medicinal purposes. The main ones everyone talks about are those related to testosterone, which has the effect of yes, building muscle mass, but also in tissue building. The infamous "cream" often mentioned in the media does nothing but help people recover faster from an injury or the common aches, pains and tiredness that a full season of sports can bring. Roger Clemens, currently in the midst of one of the greatest seasons in baseball history at the tender age of 43, has been named as a doper by Jose Conseco.
But nobody mentions that when they’re all gushing over Roger, who is not the weight-lifter type at all. And when Ryne Sandberg and Wade Boggs gave their Hall of Fame speeches, everyone admired them because they were definitely not on the juice. But how do we know?
Steroids can do more than just make you big and strong. In the most cases, it’s your
normal, average looking guy who could be using them. The fact that everyone is out with pitchforks looking for the bashers shows once again that most people have no idea what
they’re talking about.

But what about the drug Rafael took, which is one of the big, nasty, bend over and inject type drugs. The reality is that nobody knows for sure what they do. They’re not even sure if all those supposed side effects that we keep on hearing about are from taking the steroids or from taking a particularly crappy steroid, the kind of steroid one gets on the black market because of the illegality of steroids. Don’t try the brown acid, indeed. Jose Canseco, reality TV star and the alleged Dr. Feelgood of baseball even writes in his book that he thinks steroids are good for you and that if administered properly can be completely non-harmful and beneficial to the athlete.

Of course, as everyone knows, there was a huge explosion of home runs over the years. Conspiracy fans would claim that baseball was in trouble after the ‘94 strike and so they souped up the ball, juiced up the players, and cranked up the volume. Sammy and Big Mac go after Roger Maris and fans fall back in deep love with American’s Pastime. True, but that era also included smaller ballparks and expansion. Smaller ballparks and expansion always
mean more home runs. Oh, and the man who some people think is the focus of all this, Barry Bonds? Yeah, he hit more home runs at a later age than he did when he was younger but so did Henry Aaron. And a lot of other great ballplayers. The dude worked out. A lot. Is it entirely possible that good conditioning, supplements (some legal, some not so much), incredible
genetics, and twenty years of baseball experience all came together to create an offensive force baseball hasn’t seen since the Babe was chasing hookers through trains?

But it’s cheating, right? Maybe. But say you have a baseball player who uses it to recover quickly from an injury. What’s the difference between doing that and taking cortisone, also a steroid? Or baseball’s deepest, darkest secret ˜uppers. Why is Jason Giambi considered a villain for taking drugs but not Curt Schilling? Schilling, after all, gained baseball immortality
by donning the bloody sock and pitching with a busted ankle. As studly as his performance was, he was also doped up to the beejesus on pain killers. How do football players survive the completely inhuman physical thrashing they do on a weekly basis? Gobs and gobs of pain pills. Ever see "North Dallas Forty?"

In other words, where do we draw the line? It is entirely possible for an athlete to go in and get lasik surgery to improve their eye sight, even going from normal 20-20 to 20-10. What’s the difference between that steroids? It’s also becoming possible for pitchers to get arm surgery to add muscle to their perfectly normal arm. Why? Because of instead of pitching with their however-old-they-are arm, they can add some unused tissues and muscle fromsomewhere else in the body and add it to their arm, thus fixing a lot of wear and tear on the arm. It’s like putting a new engine into a car; old body but newish firepower. Is that cheating? And at some point were about to see stuff involving genetics that will make using steroids seem like a second graders chem lab experiment.

Sure there’s something not right about steroids. And Rafael Palmiero might be the dumbest man in sports right now. But what we have here is a good old fashioned witch hunt, the kind of thing that happens when you combine a hysterical media, bad information, and politicians in blow-hard mode. The future isonly going to make things more complicated and messier, we haven’t even begun to think about all this.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Mr. Galileo, your table is waiting

August 5, 2005

You mean the earth goes around the sun? Who knew?— It seems that the Roman Catholic Church—or at least much of it—learned some lessons from the Galileo Affair, and the battle with those who didn’t is getting public. The British newspaper, The Independent, is reporting that an American Jesuit (who else) is blasting the Archbishop of Vienna (a long-time friend of Pope Benedict XVI) for an op-ed piece he wrote in the New York Times on evolution [no longer posted]. In the article, Cardinal Shönborn said that it is not possible to believe in random evolution—that the life we see around us is the result of random mutations—and be a believer in "God the Creator." "Evolution," he wrote, "in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense—an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection—is not." That would put him right up there with President Bush, who thinks “intelligent design” needs to be taught in school. According to The Independent, Shöborn’s piece was instigated by Mark Ryland of the Discovery Institution, the mouthpiece for intelligent design. Now Father George Coyne, who happens to be the Vatican astronomer, has gone on the offensive in The Tablet [registration required, click headline], Britain’s Catholic weekly. Fr. Coyne said the article has "darkened the waters" of the rapport between Church and science, and says flatly that "life...has evolved through a process of random genetic mutations and natural selection and that is compatible with God’s dominion...Why does there seem to be a persistent retreat in the Church from attempts to establish a dialogue with the community of scientists?"

"Even today, disquiet still rumbles over the treatment of Galileo, despite the formation of the Galileo Commission to investigate the treatment of the scientist after John Paul II realised that many in the scientific world still believed there was an intrinsic animosity between the Church and science.," he writes.

"We can only come to know God by analogy. The universe as we know it today through science is one way to derive an analogical knowledge of God. For those who believe modern science does say something to us about God, it provides a challenge, an enriching challenge, to traditional beliefs about God. God in his infinite freedom continuously creates a world that reflects that freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process to greater and greater complexity. God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution. He is not continually intervening, but rather allows, participates, loves. Is such thinking adequate to preserve the special character attributed by religious thought to the emergence not only of life but also of spirit, while avoiding a crude creationism? Only a protracted dialogue will tell. But we should not close off the dialogue and darken the already murky waters by fearing that God will be abandoned if we embrace the best of modern science."

That Fr. Coyne felt it permissible to take after the Archbishop of Vienna is, the newspaper said, “unprecedented.” He probably had to clear the article with his Jesuit superiors.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman in the New York Times, points out that the same technique reactionaries use push forward their agenda with non-science—for example, all those think-tank studies showing that global warming was exaggerated—is being used in the intelligent design debate, trying to foist off non-science as science and then insist there is a controversy when none actually exists. There is no controversy in science over global warming; there is no controversy in science over evolution. Journalists get trapped in the he-said, they-said syndrome in which just because proponents of intelligent design say there is a controversy, they feel obliged to cover it as if there actually was one. There ain’t. Krugman says Irving Kristol (Bill’s father) invented the technique in the 1970s, urging "corporations to make 'philanthropic contributions to scholars and institutions who are likely to advocate preservation of a strong private sector." That was delicately worded, but the clear implication was that corporations that didn't like the results of academic research, however valid, should support people willing to say something more to their liking.”

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Decline of Western Civilization Part VI—The Hummer and the Ice Berg

August 4, 2005

Well, at least it didn’t fall on the White House—The Larsen B ice shelf in Antartca collapsed over the austral summer in an event unprecedented in 10,000 years, according to American and Canadian researchers. You would have to go back to the end of the last ice age to find an equal. According to the paper published in Nature [$], the hunk of ice that fell off the Larsen is about the size of Luxembourg. Cause: probably global warming. In five years, the shelf has shrunk by 5,700 square kilometers (3,500 square miles). The conclusions were based on six ice cores taken from the vicinity of the ice shelf. The shelf has been thinning for years, but apparently reached, you should pardon the expression, a tipping point at the end of March when 50 billion tons fell off into the Weddell Sea, creating thousands of large ice bergs. It all happened in 35 days. The ice is floating so by itself, that won’t raise sea levels, but it could speed up the motion of ice on the land toward the sea which will. Remember that great scene in “The Day After Tomorrow” (an otherwise really stupid movie) in which a tsunami attacks Manhattan? That kind of stuff. But what is our government doing about all of this? Read on.

Let’s skip the details and jump right to the evasions—The U.S., Australia, China and India—countries that are unhappy with the Kyoto protocol, have issued a new pact to develop technologies that will combat global warming by reducing greenhouse gasses, thereby actually eliminating the need to do something. It would make it unnecessary to actually make sacrifices and would finesse the Kyoto protocol, which the U.S. and Australia, alone among developing nations, refuse to adopt. Kyoto demands that greenhouse emissions be cut by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2008. That would require the world’s largest polluter (us) by far to to take real action rather than pass energy bills like the bill it passed last week, which dumped billions of dollars of tax relief to energy companies who make billions in profits every week and takes no action whatsoever. The U.S.’s criticism is that Kyoto doesn’t include developing nations in its restrictions. For the U.S. to fulfill Kyoto would probably mean putting restrictions on the big SUVs some Americans seem to love (”what, give up my Hummer?”) and the pickup trucks they don’t need, and it would mean putting restrictions on power plants owned by companies that pay millions to Congresspersons as election bribes. Not us.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Clone bitch! Nice doggy

Koreans clone an Afghan and expect to be hounded. August 3, 2005

Can’t we clone them after they are house-broken?— The Korean researchers who seem to be ahead of the rest of the world in cloning mammals now have cloned an Afghan hound. It wasn’t easy. Using the same somatic cell nuclear transfer technique that produced the famous sheep Dolly, the researchers, led by Woo Suk Hwang at Seoul National University, used 1095 eggs containing the DNA of a three-year-old male Afghan (taken from ear cells) and transferred to 123 canine surrogates. Only three pregnancies resulted; one miscarried. Two clones were born, but one died of pneumonia at 22 days, leaving Snuppy, born of a Labrador retriever bitch. New Scientist reports the researchers are already worried about being inundated with requests from pet owners to clone little Snoopy, but one warned “We are not in the business of cloning pets; we perform nuclear transfer for medical research.” So far, labs have cloned sheep, mice, cats, rats, cows, goats, pigs, horses, rabbits and a mule. They do keep climbing the mammal tree don’t they? Dog eggs are notoriously difficult to work with because they don’t mature readily in labs. Hwang used naturally ovulated egg cells, cells released from the ovaries into the fallopian tubes. Other researchers point out the potential. For instances, there are dog models of human diseases that could be studied by cloning. Pedigreed dogs suffer from multiple genetic diseases, like hip dysplasia, that might be treatable if the genetics could be better understood. The experiment is also a step toward cloning canine stem cells. The real question is: why an Afghan, possibly the world’s dumbest dog? Well, said one researcher, having a distinctive dog means that if we got a dachshund we’d know something funny happened.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Primordial soup with nuts—UPDATED

The green cheese argument
August 2, 2005

The country’s in the very best of hands—
Where was Al Capp when we need him. Our Esteemed Leader said yesterday he believes intelligent design (Creationism lite) should be taught in schools along with Darwinian evolution. That’s actually not new; as governor of Texas, George Bush supported creationism in the classroom as well. “I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought,” he said. “You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes.” We could, of course, announce the moon was made of green cheese and then demand that be included in a science curriculum so people can be exposed to different ideas, but what the hell. Christian reactionaries are trying to get intelligent design not science classes on grounds it is an equally valid theory to Darwin’s.
The National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have both concluded that there's no scientific basis for intelligent design and oppose its inclusion in school science classes. "The claim that equity demands balanced treatment of evolutionary theory and special creation in science classrooms reflects a misunderstanding of what science is and how it is conducted," the academy said in 1999. "Creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life or of species are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science."

UPDATE—No sooner did the media catch up to this story (I was a day earlier, thank you), than the reaction began. The groaning sound you heard early on come from John Marburger, the president's science advisor who said something like, well, he didn't mean it or say anything new. Marburger, an actual scientist, said that "evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology" and "intelligent design i not a scientific concept." He said Bush's comments should be taken to mean that intelligent design should be taken to mean he thinks it should be part of the social context in science classes. Right.

"It's what I've been pushing, it's what a lot of us have been pushing," said Richard Land, the president of the ethics and religious liberties commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Land, who has close ties to the White House, said that evolution "is too often taught as fact," and that "if you're going to teach the Darwinian theory as evolution, teach it as theory. And then teach another theory that has the most support among scientists."

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the president's comments irresponsible, and said that "when it comes to evolution, there is only one school of scientific thought, and that is evolution occurred and is still occurring." Mr. Lynn added that "when it comes to matters of religion and philosophy, they can be discussed objectively in public schools, but not in biology class."

How about this? Everybody has a right to ignorance. Everyone even has a right to pass their ignorance on to their own children, alas. What they don't have the right to do is insist on passing on their ignorance to my children.

For those of you who want to learn more, that wonderful blog The Panda’s Thumb, points out that the Geological Society of America will hold session on creationism at its annual meeting in Salt Lake City in October. See here.
And for a review of scientific efforts to create a tree of life, see this in the American Scientist.

You might also want to try Carl Zimmer's piece in the excellent blog Corante here.