Friday, September 30, 2005

At least the gorillas don't whack the sturgeons with sticks

The next thing you know, they’ll demand iPods so they can listen to The Monkeys—A researcher from the Bronx Zoo, working in the Congo, reports he has seen gorillas using tools. We know that smaller apes like chimps and orangutans make use of sticks as tools, but the only time any has seen gorillas do so has been in captivity. The researcher, Thomas Breuer of the Wildlife Conservation Society, calls the discovery “astounding”; other scientists call it pretty interesting. Breuer says he saw a female named Leah (that’s her human name, not her gorilla name) trying to wade through a pool of water created by elephants stomping around. When she found herself waist deep in the water, she climbed out of the pool, retrieved a branch from a dead tree and probed the water ahead of her to see how deep it was. Pretty clever, huh? Another time, another gorilla (Efi) used a detached tree trunk to support herself with one hand while digging with her other hand for herbs. She also used the tree trunk as a bridge to walk across a muddy patch. Video will be broadcast on PBS Saturday.

Look, I’ve got champaign, I’ve got toast, now I need those little red things—Caviar is an acquired taste, usually acquired by people who can afford it. It is most surely not like the roe you get from ordinary fish. Caviar, the best stuff, of course, comes from beluga sturgeon found only in the Caspian Sea. In the last 20 years, the number of fish has declined by an estimated 90 percent because of overfishing, pollution and illegal trade. Sixty percent comes to the U.S., and the Bush administration, in a rare act of environmental concern, has decided to ban the importation of the caviar to help preserve the fish. The ban goes into effect today. Last year the quota of caviar production was cut 20 percent but it didn’t make a difference because of the illegal trade. Last near Kazakhstan, one of the exporting countries, could not find a single producing female in the wild.

See if he has any sushi, Friday—In 1719, Daniel Defoe, one of England’s most imaginative writers, wrote Robinson Crusoe, the story of a man marooned for years on a Pacific Island. The book was based on a real event. A Scottish privateer, Alexander Selkirk, was marooned on an island far off the coast of Chile for more than four years. The island is named for him, or rather for the fictional him, Robinson Crusoe. According to the National Geographic Society, a Japanese explorer, Daisuke Takahashi, had found the remains of Selkirk's hut. He dug where islanders said they remember a hut once existing and found a navigational artifact of the right time, most surely Selkirk’s. It’s all in these month’s Nationals G.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Homo neanderthalensis

Where is H.L. Mencken when we need him? Here baby--Somewhere in Loudin Park, a cemetery in Baltimore, the ghost of H.L. Mencken is writhing in agony, trying desperately to get out of the grave, get his hands on a typewriter and get to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Mencken, the “bard” of this fair city, is famous for his coverage of the Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925. Scopes II, as it is not quite accurately described, begins there today in Harrisburg.

Last year, the school board in nearby Dover ordered that intelligent design be taught in biology classes. The students were given a brief, four-paragraph statement relating that there is a competing theory to evolution (usually read by an administrator because the science teachers refused), that evolution is a theory not a fact, and that any students interested can find copies of the intelligent design text book, Of Pandas and People: the Central Question of Biological Origins in the school library. The vote was 6-3 and the three who voted against the measure resigned in protest.

The nefarious part of the intelligent design argument is that it is disingenuous. It never mentions God or anything supernatural. It merely lays out the argument that biological development is too complicated to have happened on its own. The student is then invited to take the next, unspoken step. Well, if it didn't happen on its own, where would the help come from? Let me see.…. Having failed to get creationism into schools, thanks to a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, they devised this nifty end run.

That religion is behind all of this pops up despite the advocates’ best efforts. “Nearly 2,000 years ago,” one board member, William Buckingham said, “someone died on a cross for us. Shouldn’t we have the courage to stand up for him?” He has since denied having said that but he did and the major flaw in the argument is that nothing in evolution denies the possibility of the supernatural. Intelligent design is religion, not science.

Which brings us to H.L. Mencken. Mencken’s role in the Scopes trial was so prominent his character made it into the play and film Inherent the Wind as the smart-assed reporter. Mencken’s columns, syndicated from the late and lamented Baltimore Evening Sun are cruel, hilarious and spot-on. No one has either the sharp knife nor the guts to use it in Harrisburg, so I thought you’d like to see some of it.

Such obscenities as the forthcoming trial of the Tennessee evolutionist, if they serve no other purpose, at least call attention dramatically to the fact that enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed. It is common to assume that human progress affects everyone -- that even the dullest man, in these bright days, knows more than any man of, say, the Eighteenth Century, and is far more civilized. This assumption is quite erroneous. The men of the educated minority, no doubt, know more than their predecessors, and of some of them, perhaps, it may be said that they are more civilized -- though I should not like to be put to giving names -- but the great masses of men, even in this inspired republic, are precisely where the mob was at the dawn of history. They are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little if anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge....

The so-called religious organizations which now lead the war against the teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters. They mirror very accurately his congenital hatred of knowledge, his bitter enmity to the man who knows more than he does, and so gets more out of life. Certainly it cannot have gone unnoticed that their membership is recruited, in the overwhelming main, from the lower orders -- that no man of any education or other human dignity belongs to them. What they propose to do, at bottom and in brief, is to make the superior man infamous -- by mere abuse if it is sufficient, and if it is not, then by law....

The inferior man's reasons for hating knowledge are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex -- because it puts an unbearable burden upon his meager capacity for taking in ideas. Thus his search is always for short cuts. All superstitions are such short cuts. Their aim is to make the unintelligible simple, and even obvious. So on what seem to be higher levels. No man who has not had a long and arduous education can understand even the most elementary concepts of modern pathology. But even a hind at the plow can grasp the theory of chiropractic in two lessons. Hence the vast popularity of chiropractic among the submerged -- and of osteopathy, Christian Science and other such quackeries with it. They are idiotic, but they are simple -- and every man prefers what he can understand to what puzzles and dismays him.

H.L., baby, you gotta get over this shyness and say what you mean. Don’t hold back. Here's more on the trial from the NYT, LAT, and the York (PA) Daily Record.

We'll have more Mencken as the trial develops.

There are holes in that evolution theory folk. There is just one fewer than there was last week—While all this is going on, scientists scored another for dear Charles Dawin. As Rick Weiss and David Brown reported in today’s Washington Post, the unravelling of the genetic code of chimpanzees, has lent more proof to the theory of evolution. Last month, scientists were able to sequence chimps and found that their genome and ours is 96% identical. If Darwin was correct, the scientists noted, they should be able to use a mathematical formula that could predict the number of harmful mutations in chimpanzee DNA by knowing the number of mutations in a different species’ DNA and the two species’ population size. Evolutionary biology predicted that number, and when the researchers at the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard pumped in the numbers, the prediction came out on the money. As Weiss and Brown point out, that little piece of experiment is just one of many performed in the last few years nailing down the accuracy and importance of Darwinian theory. To tell a child otherwise is criminal, or as Mencken would put it, an act of the boobosity.

The best source for background, information and links in this debate remains Panda’s Thumb.

Friday, September 23, 2005

When the disaster comes before the storm arrives

All J.G. Ballard has to do for the next novel is type—We mentioned earlier that the scenes from hurricane-ravaaged Gulf Coast read like J.G Ballard novels. He’s the British novelist who specializes in environmental disaster sci-fi, like Drowned World and Drought. The scenes from the Texas highways leading out of Houston today would make another chapter. I would guess it is one of the biggest traffic jams in history: tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people trapped in their cars on an interstate highway so jammed that no one moves and a killer storm is coming. Cars run out of gas and are pushed to the side. People ensnared in their cars in 100-degree heat, unable to run their air conditioners let they too run out of gas. A bus carrying sick people blows up. The government once again clueless on how to handle this, although, to be fair, no one has tried to evacuate the country’s fourth largest city before. And, why is God picking on Texas? My daughter’s take is that God is punishing Texas for giving us George Bush. Even He has had enough.

And Ballard gets more help. Research compiled by the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Conservation Foundation suggest that world-wide temperatures could increase, displacing millions and touching off social chaos. Droughts, floods and typhoons (Ballard has already done two of them) could lead to an increase in diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and cholera. The study is predicting the average temperature will rise by between 1 and 6 degrees Celsius by 2100. Crops would fail. Civilized society would be threatened. Fifteen thousand people could die each year in Australia alone just from the heat. Ironically, Australia—along with the U.S.—is the only developed country refusing to sign the Kyoto Accord on global warming.

How to screw the censors—It has been a theory of mine for years that the Internet represents the ultimate communication tool: no matter how hard governments try, they cannot control it, cannot censor it effectively, and generally have to learn to live with free expression whether they like it or not. Most do not. But that doesn’t keep them from trying. China regularly tries to censor bloggers. It works for a while. Now a media watchdog group in Paris has issued a booklet with hints on how to foil the censors. Reporters Without Borders’ “Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents”, partially financed by the French Foreign Ministry, has technical advice, for instance, on how to stay anonymous on the web. It contains advice for setting up blogs and explains technologies for circumventing the government filters. The information, in five languages, can be downloaded from here. This, of course, only works when companies like Yahoo don’t go squealing to authorities.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

I fail, therefore I am. President

The following was posted on Google:

"If you do a Google search on the word [failure] or the phrase [miserable failure], the top result is currently the White House's official biographical page for President Bush. We've received some complaints recently from users who assume that this reflects a political bias on our part. I'd like to explain how these results come up in order to allay these concerns.

Google's search results are generated by computer programs that rank web pages in large part by examining the number and relative popularity of the sites that link to them. By using a practice called googlebombing, however, determined pranksters can occasionally produce odd results. In this case, a number of webmasters use the phrases [failure] and [miserable failure] to describe and link to President Bush's website, thus pushing it to the top of searches for those phrases. We don't condone the practice of googlebombing, or any other action that seeks to affect the integrity of our search results, but we're also reluctant to alter our results by hand in order to prevent such items from showing up. "

-- Marissa Mayer, Director of Consumer Web Products at Google, says President George W. Bush is likely to remain the butt of a long-running Googlebombing joke for the foreseeable future.
I didn't make that up.

From the Valley of Heart's Despair

That shack costs how much? Oh, that's just the garage—I am often asked why I left a home in a redwood forest in the Santa Cruz mountains of California for modest little Baltimore. Well, besides having a nice job offer, there was an even more serious reason. We didn’t own that house and there was no chance in hell we could afford one there. House prices in Northern California—around Silicon Valley—long since went beyond the ridiculous, passed the obscene, to the upspeakable. We bought an entire house in a wonderful neighborhood in Baltimore for the down-payment on a fixer-upper in Palo Alto, and that was six years ago. And therein lies an interesting story.

Until recently it was the case that Silicon Valley—the area south of San Francisco, mostly Santa Clara County between San Jose and Palo Alto—thrived because the industries there could attract the best and the brightest engineers and scientists. It had perfect weather and great physical beauty. When William Shockley, who grew up in Palo Alto, built what was to be the ancestor of all Silicon Valley electronic companies there, the attractiveness of the place was key. Given a choice of where they wanted to live, very bright people would choose the Santa Clara Valley (its real geographic name). Jack London called it the “Valley of Heart’s Delight,” but that was before the orchards were stripped and replaced with shopping malls and bungalows and the fragrant air blew away. San Francisco, one of the world’s great cities, is an hour away. When I was science writer at Stanford, I’d give lectures to people from other parts of the country who wanted to grab some of the local economy for their areas and wanted to know why they were having trouble. Well, I’d tell them, you are in Michigan and the weather sucks and it’s flat and boring, and we are in Palo Alto and we have coeds running around in halter tops and shorts in December and we are within two hours of the Sierra for skiing and one hour from surfing beaches and we can pick lemons off the trees from our bicycles when we peddle to work and eat fresh vegetables all year around and....

What brings this up is a survey done by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the local business group in San Jose. They matched the San Jose area with seven other areas known for high-tech research and discovered that in terms of good places to live, Silicon Valley now comes in last. Dead last. The change has been a well-kept secret for years; I’m hardly the only refugee. Stanford has a helluva time trying to get faculty, junior or senior, because candidates come to visit, take one look at real estate prices and break out in laughter. Then they go home. Subsidizing housing helps only a little; even Stanford is not that rich. The only people who can afford a house in California already own a house in California. Real estate isn’t the only problem. Try traffic. Proposition 13, which limits real estate taxes, long ago destroyed the school system. Prices for everything are higher, and while salaries also are elevated, it doesn't make up the difference.

Reports the San Jose Mercury News, the hometown paper:

The report, called ``Daring To Compete: A Region-to-Region Reality Check,'' will be officially released Wednesday. The leadership group compared Silicon Valley to Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Fairfax, Va.; Boston; Seattle; Austin; Portland, Ore.; and San Diego.

Among the findings:

• In the seven categories examined, Silicon Valley ranked no higher than six. When it came to housing affordability, only San Diego did worse.

• Raleigh-Durham ranks first among the eight regions overall, thanks to its low cost of housing, easy commutes, good schools, and low unemployment and taxes.

• While all the tech regions were hit hard by the downturn, Silicon Valley continues to struggle with the highest unemployment rate.

• While Silicon Valley eighth-grade students have some of the best math test scores in California, the state as a whole ranks last in the list.

• Silicon Valley still has the second-highest tax rates, tied with San Diego and behind only Boston.

While all the issues are considered important, housing that workers can afford remains easily the most vexing problem for the valley -- and the most intractable, [Carl] Guardino [president and CEO of the group] said.

If we could afford it, we’d move back because it is a lovely place to live. My wife was heartbroken when we left (she's there visiting now). But we can’t. You can’t either. None of us can. They fucked up a good thing.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Drug companies and hurricanes--it's just one disaster after another

You can run but FEMA will find you--Oklahoma and Kansas have tornados, which is why it's called Tornado Alley. We certainly know the dangers of living in Florida and the Gulf Coast, forgetting the ugliness of the place. You get floods and blizzards in the Dakotas, and California gets earthquakes, mudslides, monsoons and actors as governors. So where do you go to hide from Mother Nature? Slate did some number crunching and concluded that good old southern New England--specifically Rhode Island and Connecticut--is the safest place to live in the U.S. To be really specific, enroll in the University of Connecticut or teach there because it's in Storrs, perhaps the safest city. It's a nice area, very pretty and pleasant to live in, but very pricey. Surrounding New England is relatively safe too, but there is that coastline and major storms. Storrs is 50 miles from major bodies of water. It's even a blue state. Since the area does not have a lot of poor people, you can expect the government will respond quickly. What more could you ask for?

The voices you hear are the pharmaceutical companies assuring you they have only your best interests at heart, the dears--If you are, God forbid, schizophrenic, you run into two hardships in life, besides the schizophrenia. One is the price of the drugs, which can run upwards to $600 a month! The other is the notion that if you are having a psychotic attack, it is because you are not taking your medicine like a good boy. A new federally funded study from the National Institute of Mental Health suggests both burdens are unnecessary and the drug makers are responsible. The new, expensive drugs turn out to be not generally better than the older, cheaper ones, including at least one generic drug. That doesn't mean that for some people, the new drugs aren't more beneficial--the study measures the effects in the population as a whole. It will be published in the New England Journal of Medicine and the study itself cost $44 million. Since Americans spent $10 billion on the newer antipsychotic drugs last year (Zyprexa, Risperdal, Seroquel and Geodon), it may prove to be a good investment. An older now-generic drug, perphenazine works apparently just as well and is a tenth the cost. The new drugs, marketed as having fewer side-effects, now have 90% percent of the market, and indeed, have their own collection of side-effects. They also don't always work, and if a patient is having a psychotic episode it does not mean they haven't taken their medicine. They may well have done so. It just isn't working. And they--or somebody--will have paid too damned much.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The clack of keystrokes as passwords fly

Gone phishing, clickety-clack--
You may have noticed that you are getting some really clever e-mails that look exactly like messages from banks or payment websites notifying you that your account is in trouble and you need to log onto a URL and fix it. In almost all cases, that’s phishing, phony messages designed to get private information people can use to do you harm. Much of the time you can dismiss it with a laugh, especially when you get notice from a bank you never had an account with. Sometimes you are not so sure. The latest ones are visually indistinguishable from real messages. The best thing to do is ignore the message or contact the website through the usual method and check support. I just did that with three phish messages from “PayPal,” which Paypal never sent. Last month it was “EBay.” Most of these sites have e-mail addresses you can forward messages to to check out, for instance, Also, it appears, enough people are catching on that the number of phishing expeditions has dropped 90% in August, but that is still 1.84 million messages. I’ve had about a dozen.

Some sites will now send the last several letters of your account in legitimate mail, something phishers wouldn’t know. Others will tell you what language they use in real messages and what to look for. It seems to be working.

So, we can worry about something else [SJ Mercury-News, registration required] like someone tuning into the sound of your keystrokes while you punch in your password. Actually, the government has long had the ability to do that to some extent, but now a researcher at Berkeley has made it available to one and all. Plug a $10 microphone into a laptop running speech recognition software and a spellchecker, and you are in business. Li Zhuang, a grad student in computer science, and her teammate were able to associate the sound of individual keys on a keyboard with specific letters and figure out what was being written with 95% accuracy. Zhuang got her idea from research being done at IBM, which was able to decipher the sounds of single keystrokes on the same keyboard by the same typist. She wanted to see if that would work in general. Apparently so.

It’s not clear why the sound of my typing a b on my keyboard is different from my typing an n, but it is. How serious is all this? Some experts point out there are lot easier ways of getting someone’s password. Also, with the right software, you don’t actually need to put in your password through the keyboard. For instance, on a Mac, once you type in a password it is stored in a program called Keychain and whenever you call up a website requiring a password, it enters it without any typing. I do it with my bank daily. I suspect there are similar systems for Windows.

I wonder if loud music works?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Google censors, organic chemistry rules, and don't believe a word of it

Searching for the real Paris Hilton--Did you know that Google filters its searches so as to not offend the offendable? It’s an option most people don’t know exists called SafeSearch. You set it on your Google Preferences. You can do moderate filtering, which excludes most explicit images (presumably including Paris Hilton’s reason for fame--she apparently is not big on the missionary position), strict monitoring (which guarantees you get noting of interest) or turn it off and go with the flow, which trust me, you don't want to do). The problem with the filtering is that no filtering system is perfect and most aren’t very good. You get false positives; it filters out things you really want because this is just a machine, after all. It is possible, for instance, to filter out some breast cancer sites that you might want because the damned program thinks its dirty. So, to the rescue we have Google UnSafeSearch for those of you who want to make sure you don’t miss anything important but don’t want to have gynecological adventures in your web searches. (It also lets you filter when kids are on the computer and still not miss what you want when you recover the computer). It cleverly grabs the first 100 results of a filtered Google search and the first 100 results of an unfiltered search and compares the two. It then shows only those results which appeared soley in the unfiltered search so you can see what the filtered search filtered. It’s here. We aim to please, (and thank you Jonathan. Again.)

What’s with this organic chemistry?--Having described who the most cited clinical scientists are in the world, what about the rest of science? Which are the most cited papers in each country in all the sciences? ISI Essential Science Indicators has an answer. In the U.S., the paper cited most often in the last 10 years was “Gapped Blast and PSI-Blast, a New Generation of protein Database Search Programs,” published in Nucleic Acids Research (I have a copy by my bed-stand) by Stephen Altschul et al at the National Institutes of Health. It has been cited--and is still being cited--13,478 times. I have not the faintest idea what it is about but it smells of organic chemistry and I try to avoid such things. The country with the second most cited papers is England and the winner there is "Specificity Of Receptor Tyrosine Kinase Signaling - Transient Versus Sustained Extracellular Signal-Regulated Kinase Activation" by C. J. Marshall in Cell in 1995. It’s been cited 2,544 times and I don’t understand that one either. Too bad the authors don’t get residuals.

Look, I had a grant. I had to say something--And then there is the possibility that most of those papers--indeed most scientific papers--are wrong. A Greek-American physician, writing in the Public Library of Science, has proposed just such a thing. You’ve seen it happen: coffee is bad for you; no it’s good for you; wait a minute, it will take years off your life. Vitamin E will prevent cancer. No, vitamin E will not only not stop cancer it can cause a heart attack. Make up your minds. John P. A. Ioannidis of the University of Ioannina School of Medicine and Tufts, says the truth in a science paper depends on how many other papers on that subject have been published and the “ratio of true to no relationships among the relationships probed,” although I’m not sure what that means. Here’s Ioannidis:
There is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false. The probability that a research claim is true may depend on study power and bias, the number of other studies on the same question, and, importantly, the ratio of true to no relationships among the relationships probed in each scientific field. In this framework, a research finding is less likely to be true when the studies conducted in a field are smaller; when effect sizes are smaller; when there is a greater number and lesser preselection of tested relationships; where there is greater flexibility in designs, definitions, outcomes, and analytical modes; when there is greater financial and other interest and prejudice; and when more teams are involved in a scientific field in chase of statistical significance. Simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.

What he says.

[The picture above is the Piltdown man, one of science's most famous frauds. He probably wouldn't have liked the missionary position either].

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Terrific scientists, missing cats and conservatives with feathers

Well, at least there are no emergencies in dermatology-
-So who are the country’s tops clinical scientists? How the hell can we tell? One way is to keep track of whose papers are cited the most. If you write a paper and no one cares enough to cite it—and scientists will throw in all kinds of citations to make their papers look authoritative—you might consider a career change. But if you publish it and they come in droves.… According to the ISI Essential Science Indicators, the numero uno of the clinical set over the last 10 years is Meir Stampfer, chair of the department of immunology at Harvard. He has published 376 papers cited a total of 30,739 times. His speciality is the etiology of chronic diseases and has done work on breast cancer, prostate cancer and cardiovascular disease. Harvard takes second place too, with Walter Willett (516 papers, 29,311 citations), a specialist in diabetes, among other things. Then comes Bert Vogelstein at Johns Hopkins (118 papers, 25,516 citations), who works on the genetics of cancer, especially colorectal. Another Hopkins researcher, Kenneth Kinzler comes next (105 papers, 24,310 citations). He also works on the genetics of cancer. Then there is Charles Hennekens at the University of Miami (aspirin in cardiovascular disease); John C. Reed at the Burnham Institute in La Jolla (aptosis); Graham Colditz, Harvard (breast cancer); the Cleveland Clinic’s Eric Topol (cardiovascular disease, and Robert Califf at Duke (cardiovascular disease). You can see where the action is these days.

No column is complete without at least one cuddly animalFor those of you keeping score on the extinction list, the very rare—like 60 in the whole world—Asiatic cheetah has been spotted and photographed in Iran. Using a remote camera, Wildlife Conservation Society scientists, along with colleagues from the Iran Department of Environment (yes, they have one) photographed a mother and four cubs in the Dar-e Anjir Wildlife Refuge (yes, they have one). They were lounging under the shade of a tree. The species once ranged from the Red Sea to India but now there are only a few dozen left in the wild, mostly in Iran. They are extinct elsewhere.

Neoconservative penguins point to American politicians as role models if you don’t mind skin instead of feathers—Conservatives are weird. Down below, we did a small piece on the French documentary, The March of the Penguins, which incidentally is the second highest-grossing documentary ever. Only Michael Moore beat the birds. We pointed out it was beautifully photographed under extraordinary conditions, and is good fun if you manage to ignore that it glosses over a good bit of nature. It turns out that according to the New York Times, conservative and religious groups have embraced the film and the penguins as role models—if don’t mind feathers instead of skin. They are monogamous (to a fault), are supposed to be good examples of the truth of Intelligent Design (bosh), and they are passionate about child rearing (oh boy, are they). Conservative film critic and court Jew Michael Medved (I’m allowed to say that) called the film passionately affirming. Of course the producers, no fools they, managed to avoid such touchy topics as evolution and global warming, and turned their cameras away when the cute little critters were providing lunch by the thousands for attacking skuas, or being dragged off the ice by leopard seals, and to the best of our knowledge, none are Christians, but if Medved’s affirmed, does it matter? "In the harshest place on earth, love finds a way." Still, go see it.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Lord is my Archeologist, I shall not want

Bathsheva, call your agent--
One of the bitterest fights between religion and science is the fight between believing Jews on one hand, and a new generation of Biblical archeologists over the historical accuracy of the Torah, particularly about the kings of ancient Israel, David and Solomon. Where they really, as the Bible says, great kings over a rich kingdom that ruled a vast area of the Middle East, or were they insignificant rulers of a pip-squeak monarchy in the armpit of some other major kingdoms. Was Jerusalem a major capital or a backwater in the last days of the Bronze Age? The Biblical archeologists are, as you can imagine, not terribly popular among believing Jews and the fact that most of them are Israeli makes the battle nastier. The fact is that the archeological evidence for many of the events in the Bible or Torah is not plentiful.

Enter the archeologist Eilat Mazar, of the Shalem Center and Hebrew University, who is digging in what is called the City of David slope in Jerusalem. She has uncovered what is apparently a very large building, possibly even a palace. Pottery found in the ruins she dates to the Jebusite period, which immediately predates the reign of David, 11th or 12th century BCE. The building itself is later, probably 10th or 11th century BCE, about David's time. She is working a strip 10 meters wide and 30 meters long and the building is bigger than that. How much bigger, she doesn’t yet know.

The building’s foundation consists of huge stones placed on an earthen landfill. Because of the size, she guesses it has to be a palace, temple or fortress, probably the first.

"For years, there have been those who contended there was no evidence of public construction in 10th century BCE Jerusalem," says Mazar. "Based on this, they claim that David and Solomon were not important rulers, as described in the Bible. Now there is evidence of such construction, and those who minimize the importance of David and Solomon have to deal with the facts. Because in an out-of-the-way and remote settlement you would not find a structure like this, the construction of which required abundant resources and a great capacity to plan and execute."

II Samuel 5 descibes David conquering the city and then building a palace outside the boundaries of the city, a new building, not one constructed on the ruins of an old one. Mazar says there is no evidence of anything under the ruins she’s uncovered. The construction itself is complex and was probably very expensive, the kind of thing a new ruler would want to throw up to impress the people he just conquered.

Not everyone, of course is convinced. Two Jews, three opinions. Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, the leading critic of the Torah’s historical accuracy, is not impressed. He’s visited the site and thinks the dating is a “stretch.”
"Once every few years, they find something in Jerusalem that seems to confirm the biblical description of the magnitude of the kingdom in the time of David. After a while, it turns out that there is no real substance to the findings, and the excitement subsides, until the next outburst," he says, "and the excitement subsides, until the next outburst."

Obladi Oblada

I am the walrus, see me die--Well, you can’t. The walrus camera project, which shows live camera shots of the Walrus Island State Game Sanctuary in Alaska on the Internet, will be turned off for a few weeks while the natives do a subsistence hunt. To be fair, it is a subsistence hunt, not a bunch of guys going off to demonstrate the size of their genitals by blowing away mammals. And, also to be fair, nothing is changed. The cameras on the island have had power problems and at the moment, aren’t working anyhow. Because of the weather and lack of funding, the site would probably go down about now as well. You can go here and see for yourself. The natives are worried that the scenes of the slaughter would be going out on the net around the world and a lot of people--especially those living down the street from a Safeway--might get upset. “When you go deer hunting you don’t want a camera shining on you,” one told the AP. The cameras went on line about a month ago and the websie has had thousands of hits, sometimes so many it crashed the server. The hunt begins Friday and the beach camera will be removed tonight. The natives are allowed to take as many as 20 of the beasts. The walruses represent a major food source for the Yupik and Inupiaq communities. Bones become art objects and walrus skins provide clothing.

Think of the guilt

But you got her the same flowers you got me on Mother's Day--British authorities have given permission for doctors at the Newcastle University to transfer genetic material created when an egg and sperm fuse into a second woman’s egg. In other words, the embryo would have two mothers. The procedure is designed to see if it is possible to prevent mothers from passing mitochondrial diseases to their offspring. Mitochondria are responsible for producing energy in the cells and come with their own DNA, inherited down the female line. If that DNA contains errors, there is no cure for the diseases it can produce, which includes a form of multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy. Researchers think that if they can take the good DNA from an egg and insert it into an egg with good mitochondrial DNA, they can eliminate the chances of mitochondrial diseases in the embryo. In 2001, researchers at St. Barnabas Hospital in New Jersey tried the experiment in reverse—injecting the mitochondrial DNA from one woman into the egg of a woman with the disease—and have produced 15 healthy children, free of their mothers’ disease. In the Newcastle experiment, the resulting egg will not be allowed to develop into a baby; they are just testing the theory. (And how, you ask, would such a baby turn out if they did permit it to develop? Since mitochondrial DNA does not contain the genetic material that gives us our individuality, any baby would resemble it’s biological mother and father).

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Finks and nincompoops—glory days in technology--UPDATED

Remember the days when those terrific kids in Silicon Valley promised they would do things differently? —For Yahoo, this is apparently the Year of the Rat [and thank you, John Paczkowsky for that line—I couldn’t think of a better one]. It turns out that in order to do business in China you have to sign something called the “Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the Chinese Internet Market." It means that if anyone misbehaves, like expressing an opinion contrary to the offiicial state line or criticizing the country, you have to cooperate with authorities in tracking the miscreant down. OK, you want to do business, you sign the damn thing and then forget it. Not Yahoo. According to Reporters Without Borders, a Chinese journalist, Chi Tao, sent out a message warning people that there could be social destabilization on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. That, the government said, was a “state secret” and damaging to the country. The government demanded information from Yahoo to track down the evil-doer. Yahoo, to it’s great shame, turned him over to the authorities. He is now in jail. Apparently, profit trumps morality even for the young Silicon Valley set. I don’t often quote the New Testament, but in the words of Paul, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” I’m thinking of changing my Yahoo accounts.

UPDATE--The story finally made it out of the blog world and is in this morning's New York Times.

Look, unless you are really dumb, FEMA can't help you—OK, you are trapped in a house in New Orleans or in Pas Christian or one of those unhappy places left desolate by Hurricane Katrina. You need some information fast. You turn on your Mac (or if you are really a nerd, your Linux computer) and dial up the website for those splendid folks at FEMA. Sorry, can’t help you. The FEMA website, which should know a disaster when they see one, will only work for Windows computers using Explorer 6. Go away. So unless you use Windows and are really stupid (you use Explorer? defense rests), you can’t get any help from FEMA. Don't believe me? Click here.

By the way, Macintouch says you can usually fool the website if you use Opera, the Norwegian web browser that can pretend it is Explorer. And for more, there is always Good Morning Silicon Valley, a wonderful website run out of the San Jose Mercury News.

Cotton candy in space

What’s soft as a pillow, cold as hell and just got smacked in the face?—Earlier this summer, when things were sunnier and merrier—give or take a war or two—NASA chased down a comet, Tempel 1, and blasted it to see what flew out. The answer was a lot of the stuff that created the early solar system, which is just what everyone seemed to expect. But that’s good; it’s nice when things work out that way.

The dust contained soot-like hydrocarbons, the stuff you find in limestone and crystalline silicates, scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab told reporters prior to publication in Science. They also found aluminum sulfides and iron sulfides, the stuff of the earth's crust. The comet also contained a lot of carbon, the building block of carbon-based life forms like us. That also fits the theory, which holds that comets contain the material of the solar system’s beginnings frozen in time and place. It is from that mix that the sun and its planets accreted. While the solar system’s bodies were being formed, the comets were sailing around in the Oort Cloud, untouched. “It’s a missing link between what we’ve seen around these younger, baby stars and solar systems and what we now see around our own,” said Carey Lisse, a member of the Deep Impact team at Hopkins.

The outer layer of Tempel 1 is soft as a pillow, consisting of very fine, grainy material, very fragile in nature, and marked with craters.

NASA launched the project, Deep Impact, in January, sending it 268-million miles to intercept the comet on the Fourth of July. A copper bullet, weighing about 820 pounds, was shot off to intercept the comet while something like 80 observatories watched to see what blew out. Now we know.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Just put your theories together and blow

Correlation does not equal causation, unless politics are involved—Is the intensity of Hurricane Katrina and the other serious storms of the last decade the result of global warming? Despite the political posturing—particularly of envirnonmentalists—the honest answer is, we don’t know. It most certainly could be, but the kind of data you need to make that conclusion doesn’t exist.

The theory goes this way. Hurricanes and storms like typhoons are generated over the ocean and the higher the temperature of the water, the more intense the storm is likely to become. Raise ocean temperatures two degrees and you have a storm on steroids. And, the ocean temperatures are rising, the result, almost every scientist believes, of global warming due to increased greenhouse gasses. Add to that the perceived increase in intensity of recent storms (Katrina comes after a summer of unusually high temperatures in the northern hemisphere) and you have the usual suspects.

The idea isn’t new. There is a long list of computer models showing this was certainly a possible conclusion. In 1998, researchers at NOAA in Princeton reported in Science that they used a “regional, high-resolution, hurricane prediction model” comparing 51 storms in the Pacific under present conditions with 51 storms in a world with higher CO2 concentrations. The result: more intense hurricanes. In 2001, NOAA scientists in Miami measured the number of Atlantic hurricanes between 1995 and 2000, and found that the overall activity doubled in that time compared to the previous 24 years. The increase was, they reported, the result of sea-surface temperature increases. “The present level of hurricane activity is likely to persist for an additional 10-24 years. The shift in climate calls for a reevaluation of preparedness and mitigation strategies." Good luck.

But the most important paper came in July in Nature on-line. MIT climatologist Kerry Emanuel concluded that the destructive power of hurricanes (duration and highest wind speeds) had increased 50% over the last half a century and that a rise in surface temperatures was likely to be at least part of the reason. He studied both typhoons in the Pacific and hurricanes in the Atlantic, essentially the same phenomenon. He doesn’t say it is the only reason; it could be just one variable, but it appears real.

NOAA data shows that hurricane activity has been higher than normal in nine of the last 11 years and it has forecast 21 tropical storms this season, which runs into late fall. That would make it one of the most dangerous hurricane seasons in history. Indeed.

On the other hand, hurricanes run in 20-30 year cycles and this could be just one of those up-cycles. It could also just be a statistical blip. It also is true that the data for most parts of the world is not complete and that would make analyses very difficult. The few remaining scientists who don’t believe in global warming (who of course must be quoted in every news story on global warming), scoff at all that, but they are in a lonely little world all their own. Emanuel’s research is the first to claim a link between global warming and hurricane intensity, and as they say in science, it needs more study. And funding. And we damned near better do it.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Remarkable journalism

The New Orleans Times-Picayune's remarkable series on the threat to the city from hurricanes, which even predicted the horror of the Superdome, can be found here. Next time you hear someone from Washington say they could not predict this disaster, remember this.

Your obedient servant

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The reporters' revolt

I am a long-time and persistent critic of the news media, of which I once was a member, and particularly of television news, which I have described as something other than journalism. Last night I was forced to change my mind, at least temporarily. If you did not see the reporter's revolt on Fox, you missed one of broadcast journalism's great moments. The "anchors" and talking heads in the air conditioned studios tried to put "perspective"--read an administration spin--on what the reporters and producers were showing. At which point their own reporters chopped their heads off. Shepard Smith and--would you believe--Geraldo Rivera (in tears--and I believe the tears) would take no crap from the airheads. The people at the Superdome and the Convention Center were locked in by government officials and kept from leaving. Kept from leaving! Rivera asked how that could happen and Smith described a check point in which the government blocked escape Why are they doing that? Smith paused, shrugged, and said quietly "I don't know."

"I want to get perspective here..." Sean Hannity started.
"That's all the perspective you need!"
Hannity said Fox had been showing the convoys entering the city, suggested that the reporters tell them what wonderful difference it made. Smith and Rivera wouldn't stand for it.
"Look at the face of the baby," said Rivera in tears. "Let them go. Let them out of here. Let them walk over the interstate and get out of here."

Hannity couldn't break away fast enough.

If you'd like to see the video--and by all means do, it will make your day--go to the video feed at Crooks & Liars.

Meanwhile, Jack Shafer at Slate has noticed the same thing. He calls it the revolt of the talking heads. Everytime a reporter talks to a politician they spend all their time congratulating each other on the swell job they're doing. The reporters are having none of it. It is the greatest fiaco in the histor of the country and the folks suffering in the South, and those of us appalled at the incompetence of the various governments apparently don't believe a word of it.

As Bill Maher said on HBO, maybe we got our media back.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Drowned Worlds

Four days later and they are still picking people off roof tops! People are without water, food and civilization now for four days! In America!

Those of us who are fans of the British novelist J.G. Ballard are not surprised at what is happening in New Orleans. We knew it would turn out this way.

Ballard, who is best known for his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, which Steven Spielberg turned into a movie, makes his living writing environmental disaster fantasies, including The Drowned World. (He actually goes both ways: another novel is called Drought.) It is what happens when an environmental disaster peels off the thin veneer of civilization that covers us all, what happens when the social contract breaks down. See New Orleans 2005. A city in America.

A few thoughts:

President Bush told ABC no one expected the levees to break. Nonsense.

FEMA 2001
Louisiana State University and FEMA 2004
New Orleans Times-Picayune 2004-2005
U.S. News & World Report 2005
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for years

One wonders if he is a liar or is really so out of touch with reality.

Watching too many hours of television news. The difference between CNN's coverage and Fox is interesting. CNN's version is that things are pretty bad and getting worse. Fox's version is that things are pretty bad but help is on the way. I wondered if CNN, particularly Wolf Blitzer, was over-emphasizing the civil unrest but it appears, from seeing other media, that CNN was more accurate. And only Fox would broadcast a preacher blaming this all on a government that drives prayer out of schools. (If God was so pissed off at liberals why did He send the hurricane to Louisiana and Mississippi.)

Both networks rose to the occasion with heroic journalism but by far the best I have seen was NBC (I have not watched the other two networks so I can't comment). It was some of the most graphic and emotional broadcast journalism I can remember and done under extraordinary circumstances. There are times when I desperately miss not working for a newspaper or a news service. This is one of them.

Question: If CNN can get a producer and cameraperson to the convention center, why can't the U.S. army get there? If NBC can find tourists trapped on the roof of a building in an apartment they took over, why can't the New Orleans police? (The answer to the last question, which brings us back to Ballard, is in a fine story by Douglas Birch in the Baltimore Sun of what happens when the police also are victims when the social contract fails.

Networks are grappling with how graphic to let their pictures become--particularly the dead bodies. They are doing a fair job but I wonder about the question. One journalism professor was quoted as saying "dead is dead," but he is a journalism professor and you expect something like that from them. This is happening in an American city. It is a disgrace of historic proportion (the mayor of New Orleans called the federal response the third disaster) and it must be shown, the American people must see the result of what Washington has done through the years and what the Bush administration is doing now. And dead bodies carry the message.

And finally, the reaction of folks overseas is interesting and disturbing. They are properly appalled. My father used to say you can be incompetent or you can be arrogant. You can't be both.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Where is Jonathan Swift when we need him?

That may explain why they are calling it "Lake George"--New Orleans looks like a scene from a disaster movie. Thousands may have died but we don’t know the real number because much of the area is covered with a fetid, poisonous sea, in effect, the world’s largest toxic waste dump, filled with chemicals, excrement, dead animals and humans, gasoline and oil and a huge collection of bacteria and viruses. It may take half a year to drain. The economies of three of America’s poorest states are now almost non-existent or at least severely hobbled, and one of the world’s most interesting and beautiful cities in uninhabitable and will have to be evacuated--if, however, roaming bands of looters and gangs of armed thieves can be subdued. Water levels in the city are now equal to the water level in Lake Pontchartrain because the city has, in essence, become part of the lake. Hundreds of thousands of people are homeless, most of them without food or water. This is not Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, it’s here. Both the regional and federal government was unprepared for a disaster this size although everyone knew one was inevitable. It is what happens when the Yahoos take over.

Knew it was inevitable you say? In 2004 and earlier this year, the New Orleans Times-Picayune [by all means click here] printed a series of stories warning this would happen because federal spending on disaster relief and flood control was cut, largely to fund the Iraq war. You are invited to see Will Bunch’s piece in Editor and Publisher here. Much of the federal dollars for protection against this kind of thing went to the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project but that money was essentially cut off by the Bush administration, the newspaper said, and the Army Corps of Engineers was never shy in giving the war and funding for homeland security as reasons. We might also add the tax cuts. We wouldn’t want the transfer of wealth to the very rich get interrupted. The Times-Picayune, publishing now only on its website because it had to abandon its print facilities, can now add: “No one can say they didn’t see it coming... Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation.” Maybe. As John Stewart said the other night, President Bush owes his great health to regular exercise and a total disengagement from reality.

Which brings up global warming, a phenomenon that the Yahoos insisted was not real and when finally forced to acknowledge it might be a problem, insisted nothing be done about it. The number and ferocity of hurricanes--which have both increased in recent years--may in fact be attributable to changes in the climate. Keay Davidson, points out in the San Francisco Chronicle that as bad as Katrina may have been, it won’t be the last of the season and the Gulf Coast could be in for an extended period of gigantic storms. The generator, according to some experts: global warming. But the Bush administration has refused to sign the Kyoto agreement or to acknowledge it is serious. That battle continues as the Know-nothings in Congress continue their warfare against scientists who warn against climate shift. See Irene Sege’s story in the Boston Globe about what is happening to a professor at UMass who keeps insisting the climate is warming.

And of course, it is not just the hurricane. At the FDA, the scientist in charge of women’s health issues quit this week because the FDA, putting politics before science, has again delayed approval of the morning-after pill without prescription. The agency’s own scientists and an outside advisory board both concluded that the pill, Plan B, was safe, but the FDA, now run by the Yahoos, despite the promise to make a decision by today, delayed it again. Susan F. Wood, a woman of honor, did the honorable thing and resigned publicly. What is interesting about this argument is that opposition to the pill comes from antiabortionists even though the pill--which does not kill a fetus--actually would reduce the number of abortions.

Where is Jonathan Swift when we need him?

By what I could discover, the YAHOOS appear to be the most unteachable of all animals: their capacity never reaching higher than to draw or carry burdens. Yet I am of opinion, this defect arises chiefly from a perverse, restive disposition; for they are cunning, malicious, treacherous, and revengeful. They are strong and hardy, but of a cowardly spirit, and, by consequence, insolent, abject, and cruel.