31 December 2007

Rock Snot, I'm not kidding. Rock Snot.

Rock Snot Hitches Ride on Fishing Gear
I've never heard of this diatom before but its really slimy and has a really literal name. Rock Snot. Wow.

"You try to reel it back in, and you end up with a giant gooey cottony wad (on your hook)," he said. "There is nothing like that that I have experienced. It makes streams essentially unfishable."

I think its interesting that many hunters, fishers and farmers are no longer automatically opposed to the environmentalists. They see how human impact has changed the land that they live with. In this case the fishers, the environmentalists and the scientists are all worried about this (totally weird) invasive species.

As a native Minnesotan, I've been hearing for years about how you need to clean your boat and other toys in order to try to stop the spread of Zebra mussels and Eurasian watermilfoil. This mostly involved spraying down the boat and trailer, and not spreading ballast water. At the same time, I wonder if there is some fisher in Virgina thinking back to his fishing trip in Colorado and going "Awe, shi...." To this hypothetical fishers credit, diatoms are really tiny and a small amount can do a lot of damage and would be rather hard to see.

"Something changed the diatoms in ways that made them more aggressive," said researcher Andrea Kirkwood of the University of Calgary. She says the change may have taken place when a European version of the rock snot diatom was accidentally brought to Canada. Kirkwood says it's also possible that the native version of this algae evolved in ways that created much more massive and more frequent blooms.

This is where science now can see things that no one could fifteen or twenty years ago. We could take samples from the most distant bloom in Virgina, the European version and maybe we could find an isolated Western sample that is different from the Virgina bloom.

The scientific name for rock snot is the much more dignified sounding Didymosphenia geminata. Its a diatom, a group of single celled organisms with a unique cell wall made of silica, the same chemical glass and sand are made of. For single celled organisms some of them are quite large, up to two millimeters, which means they can be seen under relatively cheap microscopes. They look quite pretty.

And this is the diatom.

30 December 2007

Lead Acetate

This blog is named after a chemical that was once called "sugar of lead" and is sweet tasting but ultimately deadly. It is made up of one atom of lead with an charge of +2 and two acetate groups.



When this is hydrated with water, it forms a white crystal. With this form and its sweet taste its easy to see how this would be called sugar of lead. As with any lead compound, its poisionous to most every living thing since the lead atom will displace the metal ions that are normally used in enzymes. Solid pure lead is not as dangerous as lead compounds since the compounds are more soluble. This is true for lead and for mercury; pure mercury can lead to acute poisoning, but organic mercury compounds such as dimethyl mercury are insanely deadly. While mercury is more toxic in lower doses, the paralells are true.

In a comparison of the bioactivity of different lead compounds, lead acetate and lead oxide lead to higher lead levels in the bones of rats. Comparison of lead bioavailability....

Lead acetate was made by the Romans when they boiled wine in vessels that were either lined with lead or had lead in the bronze. This would cause the acetic acid in the wine to react with the metallic lead, this would sweeten the resulting defrutum. This probably also contributed to the relatively high intake of lead that the Romans had.

As I mentioned earlier this week, lead acetate is still around. Its found in some hair dyes. Useless Information tells us here how the small concentration lead acetate reacts with sulfur also in the dye to create a black pigment. The lead will still be present in the hair even after the dye is no longer used. Our government has decided that the level of lead acetate in these hair dyes is low enough to not pose a risk. How much using this lead acetate product would add to your overall life time lead exposure is unclear. I for one wouldn't want to actively add more lead to my life.

Why did my name my science leaning current events blog after a strange lead compound? To be honest I just thought the story about the Roman's sweet boiled wine was neat. One could make an analogy about something being sweet but deadly or tasty in the short term but poisonous and debilitating in the longterm, but I'll leave that to those better at such things.

References: Wikipedia and Molecule of the Day were both very useful.

28 December 2007

Rare diseases bringing parents together

Searching for Similar Diagnosis Through DNA(New York Times)
How to save your own child(CNN)

While these articles have different focuses, they are talking about the same movement. The NYT article focuses on children with rare, newly specified genetic disorders that have previously been enveloped under umbrella terms such as autism and mental retardation. The CNN article is focusing on the parents of children with rare disorders banning together to raise money so that research can be funded.

The common thread is that people with children suffering from rare disorders and diseases are finding each other. They are making a community that can support its members in a very specific way.

But the two families are not related, and would never have met save for an unusual bond: a few months earlier, a newly available DNA test revealed that Samantha and Taygen share an identical nick in the short arm of their 16th chromosomes.

The NYT article starts with two girls that look enough alike to be sisters, but that is due to the same genetic quirk. The article is full of stories about groups of families of children with the same genetic change. Some of the mutations have as few as 11 known examples. The families have come together to support one another through the problems. Families with older children are able to give those with younger children a heads up about what might happen in the next few years.

The parents in the CNN article are doing more than supporting each other, they are raising money to try to fund research into the diseases their children have developed. Rare juvenile diseases, such as the brain tumor called Juvenile Pilocytic Astrocytoma that is mentioned in the article, are much less likely to be the focus of the pharmaceutical companies' money. They would rather come up with drugs to help all the aging seniors be able to hold it in till they can get to a bathroom, since that is a vastly larger customer base.

Sometimes Witt gets frustrated that parents have to sell cookies, or hold golf tournaments, to fund medical research. "It's totally sad. It's ridiculous. It makes me mad," she says. "But I can't get wrapped up in that or I won't get anywhere."

The CNN article comes down to money and the way those who save our health are repaid for it. How we pay doctors, how we pay researchers, how we pay for the manufacture of the medicine we need; sometimes it feel manipulative since not getting the health care we need is often an unthinkable option.

27 December 2007

Benazir Bhutto is dead.

I don't really think I need to give you a link to this one. Its the top of Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, NPR and everybody else. Precisely what happened is unclear; there may have been shooting, there was a suicide bomber, at least 20 people and the former prime minister died.

What Musharraf does next is going to speak volumes. He has already declared a three day mourning period, but that is at best a holding pattern. There are elections scheduled on 8 January, but those are up in the air. The funeral is set for tomorrow and that will be followed by a 40 day mourning period. The next most well known opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, has, according to the NPR news coming out of my radio, called for Musharraf to step down and that his party will boycott the elections. The wide spread boycott of the election means that the results will not actually represent the will of the people.

Well I am going to share this link with you, photos of Benazir. It seems to be an old set, none of the photos are newer than October. But there are lots of older photos.

As many have been saying, its not as if she didn't know the risk. She knew that she was risking he life, she said that it was something that she had to do for her country.

Peter Galbraith is on the radio is sounding very pessimistic, saying that the Bhutto family was arguably the only national institution, that the nation is very fractured, no one is really in charge of all of the government, and all in all its very sad.

26 December 2007

Texas kills more people than every other state combined.

At 60% of Total, Texas is Bucking Execution Trend

Of the 42 executions in the last year, 26 were in Texas. The remaining 16 were spread across nine other states, none of which executed more than three people. Many legal experts say the trend will probably continue.

Now, one could argue that Texas is a big state and its murder rate is slightly higher than the national average. But 61.9% of all executions in the nation? There has been a de facto moratorium on executions since the Supreme Court decided to hear Baze v Rees which will decide if the most commonly used cocktail of drugs used for lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment. That has lead to a lower total this year than would have been expected otherwise.

There is reason to think that the number of death sentences in the state will fall farther, given the introduction of life without the possibility of parole as a sentencing option in capital cases in Texas in 2005. While a substantial majority of the public supports the death penalty, that support drops significantly when life without parole is included as an alternative.

You mean it wasn't before? Before 2005 in Texas, capital cases could either be life with a chance of parole or death? Jebus. I would think that life without parole as an option would be obvious. But then I'm not from that end of I-35. I'm from the end where the death penalty was made illegal 96 years ago and the Governor's talk about reinstating it was dead in the water three years ago.

Killing people as punishment for killing people is stupid and hypocritical. Gandhi summed it up better than I can; "An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind." Vengeance is not the business of the state. People can be removed from society because of their misdeeds, but that need not mean that they have to die.

24 December 2007

Domestic polution

Everyday Items, Complex Chemistry

Scientists are starting to raise questions about the safety of the chemical that are used to make the objects around us. I've talked about this before, there are tons of chemicals around us and many of them were never in significant levels, or at all, before the twentieth century.

“The bottom line is that there isn’t widespread evidence that exposure to consumer products is causing public health problems,” said Mike Walls, director of government affairs at the American Chemistry Council.

This is misleading. There isn't widespread evidence because there are so many new chemicals. The studies that we do have discuss acute exposure, one exposure to a high level of one chemical. The real situation that we are living is constant, low level exposure to thousands of chemicals. Like I said in Choose your Poison, there are so many chemicals we are exposed to, that choosing one to personally obsess about it futile. What is needed is a change at a national and international level to try to limit many of these.

There is a precedent for this. The Montreal Protocol banned chloro flouro carbons and is the best example of international cooperation working to save our planet from the poisons we have made. But because this appears less pressing, less obvious than a hole in the ozone layer, it is less likely to be acted upon.

An interesting addition to this article is the interactive picture that comes with. It mentions BPA (which I've already talked about), phthalates, brominated diphenyl ethers, formaldehyde, perflourinated compounds and lead acetate. I haven't talked about the chemical that is the name for this blog yet, but since I get a lot of references from google for lead acetate, I've decided that on Sunday I'm going to do another special post and talk about it in detail.

23 December 2007

Learning from this administration

I got an email earlier this week from Thomas J Hanson from Open Education asking me to comment about this post. In it Hanson talks about the numerous ethical lapses of this Bush administration. I am reminded of Keith Olbermann's new segment "Bushed" in which he reminds you of three Bush administration scandals that have been buried by newer scandals. Its tiring, aggravating, disheartening and very important to be reminded.

My first response to Hanson's post was rather knee jerk. I talked about why my 20-something peer's don't vote. I ranted a bit about how the way Clinton was treated, the 2000 election and this administration has tinted (tainted?) how people my age see politics.

But when I went back and read more carefully both the post and Hanson's email to me, I realized I had missed the critical point. Open Education is an education blog, and the post was asking "How do we tell children and teens about these failures in the government without appearing political?"

For teachers, the behavior and decision-making within the current White House makes it very challenging to fairly discuss politics with the next generation of voters. Walking the political line of fairness in a high school social studies class has likely never been more difficult than it is today. That is because the close examination of these ethical transgressions would be seen as nothing more than bashing our president.

However, our democratic process is supposed to lead our great nation in a direction that puts the proper people in the position to further the very ideals our country was founded upon. If we adults are thoroughly confused and shaken by what we are witnessing, imagine how difficult it must be for our children.


I'm not sure you can. Its not possible to say for sure if a Democratic president, under the same external pressures would do the same, but the fact remains that this is a Republican that did these things. You can say that Bush and his administration did these things, and yes they are Republicans, and no not all Republicans agreed or approved of all these bad things. Even some Democrats went along for some, even many, of these things. But you can't ignore the fact that he it is a Republican that did these things.

Its a correlation, not necessarily a causation. Maybe that would work. These bad things did not necessarily flow from the fact that he is a Republican, but how intertwined the two things are is open to interpretation. Leave that for the child to ponder with or without an adult of their choosing.

I'm also going to take this in another direction. High school science teachers have been under intense pressure to not talk about evolution in a way that would offend those who prefer a specific religion's view on how the world came to be. The teachers have been pressured not to talk about the truth that science knows for political reasons.

What then happens to the civics or history teacher who wants to talk about the facts of the Nixon or Reagan administration? What about those who want to talk about Vietnam when there are parents at home who have a different view about that war? What happens when there are people who want to impress upon their children a world view that ignores certain facts? Those are much bigger questions that swirl around what it means to grow up and think independently.

22 December 2007

The FEC is in Limbo

As Primaries Begin, the FEC Will Shut Down

So the gist of it is that there are supposed to be six people on the FEC's panel, with a vote of four to get anything done. When the year ends, three recess appointments will run out and the board will be left with only two people. There are supposed to be three from each party, but things are held up.

The potential for an FEC shutdown has been looming for weeks, as a handful of Democratic senators voiced opposition to one of Bush's nominees to the commission, Hans A. von Spakovsky. Their concern stemmed not from von Spakovsky's work on the FEC but from his tenure in the Justice Department's civil rights division.

His critics contend that von Spakovsky advocated a controversial Texas redistricting plan and fought to institute a requirement in Georgia that voters show photo identification before being permitted to cast ballots.

In return the Republicans are holding up the Democrats two nominees.

I wish I could get impassioned about this. The FEC is an important body that keeps track of the money that the campaigns get and spend. I understand the opposition to von Spakovsky; I come from a state with same day registration and I think that should be the way to do things, so this guy seems downright backwards.

But it all seems so many layers removed from hunger, homelessness, our civil liberties and international diplomacy that its hard to get worked up about it.

Bureaucracy is like an opiate. It dulls my response and makes me sleepy. And this sort of bickering makes me roll my eyes. Part of me wishes it didn't; the devil is in the details and there is so much detail at this level. At the same time I know if I cared too much I would burn out. You can only maintain that level of focus for so long.

21 December 2007

Pointless pill popping


Hilary Swank swallows 45 food supplements every day ...


"This is my Aloe C," she began (Aloe C, as the name suggests, is a combination of Aloe Vera and vitamin C). "Here's my flax. This one's for my immune system. And this one is my BrainWave." BrainWave is designed to enhance mental function through a balance of "smart nutrients". It hasn't been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration in the US, but Swank is already convinced. "It's great, like if I have a lot of lines to memorise." Or a lot of pills to memorise, since she continues to rattle off a list of the 45 supplements she takes every day. "I just took my most important ones," she concluded, "which are my Oz Garcia Longevity Pak."

My god. There is no reason for this. Most people in the developed world get all the nutrients they need from their diet. Vitamins are usually excess and they simply get excreted. Any claim that a vitamin regiment will make you smarter, improve your memory or keep you from getting a cold is frail at best.

I take a multivitamin about three times a month, or one a day for about two days before I give blood to make sure my iron is high enough. I don't think it actually does much for me, just a little boost for anything I might be low on and nothing more.

There is evidence to suggest that nutrients in their natural state are more effective. "We know that fruit and vegetables can help protect against cancer," says Baic. "But remove the antioxidant ingredients from the food and just take them as supplements and they appear to have no benefits. The supplements we can buy are only the ones that have been identified as necessary - there are probably others [in food] we don't know about."

This goes back to the fact that we know about most vitamins because we know what happens when one is lacking from someone's diet. For all we know about biochemistry and nutrition in humans, its the subtle stuff we know less about. The subtle stuff might be the role of some chemical we don't know much about, or the way our bodies treat things differently if there is fiber as well as the vitamin.

So eat your vegetables before you worry about your vitamins.

20 December 2007

Ask me anything!

Al-Qaida chief launches 'any questions' session on web

"Individuals, agencies and all information media outlets" have been told they can question Egyptian-born Zawahiri in what is described as "an open meeting" and get answers from mid-January. Zawahiri is assumed to be in hiding on the borders of Afghanistan or Pakistan.

This is an interesting move. Obviously he wont answer any questions he doesn't want to, but just the appearance of being that approachable is something any politician would want. Sort of like the YouTube debates. Here you are, some shmuck off the street and your question is chosen and answered by a powerful public figure. But some how I don't think that anyone will be asking Zawahiri about global warming.

Its interesting how the internet has changed not just the way people interact with each other, but also with those above them in the power structure. Think about how much more it will continue to change as more people get access to this technology.

Zawahiri's latest message, on Sunday, emphasised the importance of "jihadi information media", saying they were "waging an extremely critical battle against the Crusader-Zionist enemy". Information "used to be the exclusive domain of ... the official government media, and the ... media which claim to be free and non-governmental".

Zawahiri taunted Britain for its handover of Basra and warned tribal leaders in Iraq who are cooperating with the US military that they would lose "both their religion and their life" when the US left the country.

This shows how its not going to change somethings. Just because they're using the internet hasn't lead to a change in the message. And you can see that with any fundamentalist group. The information is slicker and easier to get, but the ideas in it are still the same.

19 December 2007

I hate to assume the worst, but...

Bush Lawyers Discussed Fate of C.I.A. Tapes
Of course they did. I mean, did we really think that the CIA would do this without talking to someone in the White House first? We see the crap coming out of Washington and we are schooled enough in the vileness of this administration to recognize their particular style of crap when we see it. Whenever its got something to do with the torture of people who may or may not have anything to do with terrorism, its a damn safe bet that the White House was in there somewhere.

At least four top White House lawyers took part in discussions with the Central Intelligence Agency between 2003 and 2005 about whether to destroy videotapes showing the secret interrogations of two operatives from Al Qaeda, according to current and former administration and intelligence officials.

Guess who is on that list; Harriet Miers, John Bellinger, Alberto Gonzales and David Addington. Some of those names ring a bell, don't you agree?

Some other officials assert that no one at the White House advocated destroying the tapes. Those officials acknowledged, however, that no White House lawyer gave a direct order to preserve the tapes or advised that destroying them would be illegal.

I'm picturing lots of winking and nodding and knowing looks and in the end there very probably wont be anything solid other than the distinct impression that they all knew damn well what they were up to.

Ms. Perino’s statement said that other than President Bush’s comment that he had not known about the tapes, White House officials have declined to discuss the matter because of pending investigations by the Department of Justice and the C.I.A. inspector general.

Dur. Of course Bush didn't know about it, he doesn't seem to know about anything. This is like seeing a friend with a set of lock picks, seven cans of spray paint and a face mask and saying to yourself "I really don't want to have to lie about this later, so I'm just not going to ask."

Except in this case people were tortured. Thats a much bigger sin than tagging up some billboards.

18 December 2007

Lets build some bridges

Federal budget includes $195 million for 35W bridge

Minnesota would receive $195 million to help replace the fallen I-35W bridge, as well as $50 million in security money for next year's Republican National Convention, under a year-end budget bill passed by the House of Representatives late Monday.

About friggin time. I mean, the bridge fell over four months ago. I know that infrastructure isn't exciting, but thirteen people died. But I suppose I shouldn't be moaning too much. Look at New Orleans. The whole place flooded, the levies broke and the place is still under martial law.

But there are more bridges that need work around here. A one time shot of money from the Feds can't help with all of them; the Lafayette bridge takes Highway 52 over the Mississippi near downtown St. Paul, the I-35 E bridge over Cuyahoga Street in St. Paul, the Highway 61 bridge over the Mississippi at Hastings. Infrastructure is not an exciting topic, but it is a necessary one. And not just on a state level.

There are probably thousands of bridges around the country that are in similar condition. There were a lot of bridges built after WWII that are getting older. I'm willing to bet that many of them have the same feature of the 35W bridge where one part fails and the whole thing goes, no redundancy in the structure. While many bridges don't get the same heat-cold-road-salt assault that those here in Minnesota do, they probably have their own problems. Still, not a riveting discussion, despite all of the discussion of rivets.

But war! thats exciting and usually unnecessary. Maybe the deficiencies of one can compensate for the other.

On Monday, Bush said he was hopeful he could sign the bill, but only after Democrats agree to accept funding for U.S. troops in Iraq.

Great. Bush is tying up the money we need to pay for the bridge (and security for the RNC) with the funding for his god damned war.

13 December 2007

Democracy in Pakistan?

Most Want Musharraf to Quit, Poll Shows

The first comprehensive public opinion poll conducted in Pakistan since President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency last month has found that 67 percent of Pakistanis want him to resign immediately and that 70 percent say his government does not deserve re-election.

The poll suggests that Mr. Musharraf will have to engage in substantial vote rigging to have the government of his choice win national elections on Jan. 8.

This is going to be an interesting couple of weeks in Pakistan. This will be a real test of Musharraf's declared aim of a real democracy.

An American-backed proposal that Mr. Musharraf form a government with Ms. Bhutto also appears to be deeply unpopular. Sixty percent of Pakistanis polled opposed such a deal, which American officials had hoped would bolster support for Mr. Musharraf.

What I'm wondering about is how much of this has anything to do with the fact that Musharraf is supported by the US? How much of this is an anti-American thing, how much is pro-democracy, how much of this is a combination of the two?

12 December 2007

A small step in the right direction

Retroactively, Panel Reduces Drug Sentences

The agency that sets guidelines for federal prison sentences voted unanimously on Tuesday to lighten punishments retroactively for some crimes related to crack cocaine, a decision that could eventually affect about 19,500 inmates and mean freedom for some within months.

In 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act enacted some absurdly harsh mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. The most famous was the fact that 5 grams of crack cocaine had the same mandatory minimum as half a kilo (500 grams) of powdered cocaine. Given that crack was a ghetto drug used more by African Americans, and powdered cocaine was more of a white man's drug, the racism is pretty obvious.

“No one has come before us to justify the 100-to-1 ratio,” Judge Castillo said, referring to a provision of federal law that imposes the same 10-year minimum sentence for possessing 50 grams of crack and for possessing 5,000 grams of powder cocaine.

Thats because there is no justification for it. It is out and out racism. And it should have been addressed long before now. Its disgusting that this law is still on the books. There have been attempts to fix it, but fairness is too often spun as being "soft on drugs." Man, that's sadness.

The mandatory minimums have also lead to an increase in the number of women going to jail. The ACLU report Caught in the Net tells that the number of women in the prison system for drug crimes increased 888% in the the twenty years since the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.

Better late than never, but thats a very optimistic view of a very bad situation.

Maybe not CIDP, but still bad

Pork-plant ailment a mystery again

The Department of Health has backed off from the initial diagnosis of CIDP. That said they do have another case, bringing the total up to 12 people.

Key to differentiating the condition from CIDP is a characteristic of CIDP involving an interruption or blockage of the electrical signaling in and between nerves, Lachance said. Tests now show that none of the 11 workers has that problem, he said.

They do have damage to the nerve system caused by their immune systems, he said. But at this point it can be categorized generically only as an inflammatory response that is damaging the nerve sheaths, he said.


What I said before about the myelin sheath and Schwann cells being the target of the immune reaction is still true. My speculation about a connection to the Guillain-Barre syndrome and the 1976 swine flu vaccine is out the window though.

There is no doubt in my mind that this still has something to do with the fact that they were literally blowing the pigs brains out. What I would call aerosolized biological tissue, Norwegianity is calling "Brain Mist."

When solids are aerosolized they are able to get into places they normally wouldn't, such as the lungs. From there they can get into the blood stream and then strange things can happen.

Not exactly accurate, but good at getting one point across; some things should not be aerosolized.

10 December 2007

Choose your poison

Canadian Retailer Bans Some Plastic Bottles

The retailer said that it would not restock the bottles, which are made by Nalge Nunc International in Rochester, a unit of Thermo Fisher Scientific, until Health Canada completed a review of bisphenol-a, or B.P.A., a chemical used to make hard, transparent plastics as well as liners for food cans.


This is bisphenol-a.

The rings with the -OH on the end are the phenol groups.

The chemical in question is an endocrine disruptor. Specifically, its an estrogen receptor antagonist. The biochemistry of receptors and antagonists has become more complicated in recent years and I would need to read up on this to explain it fully, but the end effect is similar to increased levels of estrogen. The physiological effect this has is complicated by age and gender. The effect of any chemical on the young is more pronounced not only because of their smaller size, but also because their bodies are actively growing and chemistry we don't see in adults is going on. In adults it is possibly carcinogenic.

While there is little dispute about that, the plastics industry, supported by several studies from government agencies in Japan, North America and Europe, contends that polycarbonate bottles contain very little of the chemical and release only insignificant amounts of B.P.A. into the bodies of users.

At the same time that BPA is not terribly good for you, it seems that it only leaches from the bottle at high temperatures, or when acidic chemicals are used. So what does this all mean, together?

What it really means is that we are slowly poisoning ourselves. But thats not new and its not just from plastic bottles. There are all sorts of anthropogenic (man made) chemicals in our lives, that we humans put there, that are killing us slowly. To pick out one source over another is an exercise in futility. Sure, you can limit your exposure to certain chemicals, but you can't let that be all consuming. I feel bad for the people who eat organic food just because they're afraid of pesticides.

“Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in one pretty and well preserved piece, but to skid across the line broadside, thoroughly used up, worn out, leaking oil, shouting GERONIMO!” ~Bill McKenna, professional motorcycle racer, Cycle magazine Feb. 1982


I'll keep using my nalgene for water and I'll wash it by hand in the sink from time to time, but I'm not going get freaked out.

08 December 2007

Congress is suddenly so curious

Democrats Call for Inquiry in Destruction of Tapes by C.I.A.
Review of Iran Intelligence to Be Sought
But they are curious about very different things.

Angry Democratic lawmakers called for investigations today into the Central Intelligence Agency’s destruction in 2005 of at least two videotapes documenting the interrogation of two [al] Qaeda operatives in the agency’s custody.

On the other hand...

Senate Republicans are planning to call for a congressional commission to investigate the conclusions of the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran as well as the specific intelligence that went into it, according to congressional sources.

Democrats want to know why tapes interrogations of high level al Qaeda, interrogations that were probably quite harsh, were destroyed in the middle of questions about how interrogations are done. Needless to say, people are very suspicious of why this was done. Of the two topics, this is the one that needs more investigation.

In the mean time, Republicans are calling into question the National Intelligence Estimate that has effectively halted the Bush administration's war mongering with Iran. And while asking questions about the intelligence is good, this isn't about wanting to understand, this is about questioning the objectivity of the 16 intelligence agencies.

"Iran is one of the greatest threats in the world today. Getting the intelligence right is absolutely critical, not only on Iran's capability but its intent. So now there is a huge question raised, and instead of politicizing that report, let's have a fresh set of eyes -- objective, yes -- look at it," [Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.)] said in an interview.

What the hell is that? Really? He's really questioning the objectivity of these career intelligence officers?

The "jungle telegraph" is transmitting the message that "intelligence career seniors were lined up to go to jail if necessary" to get this NIE out to the public.

So on one hand we have the Democrats asking the CIA where the tapes went and the Republicans are questioning the objectivity of all 16 agencies. On top of that, they got taken for a ride regarding the Iraq intelligence back in 2003. Its got to be tense over there.

07 December 2007

These are the children we need to think about

Many Children Struggling After ’05 Storms
Not all the children displaced by Katrina and Rita are hurt by exploding bags of chemicals like Isiah Polk. Most are hurt simply by the fact of their displacement and the continuing lack of stability.

At least 46,600 children along the Gulf Coast are still struggling with mental health problems and other serious aftereffects of 2005 hurricanes, according to a new study by the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and the Children’s Health Fund.

There are more estimated numbers; 163,000 children displaced, 81,000 to 95,000 have returned to Mississippi and Louisiana, and 11,200 are still living in FEMA trailecs. These children are suffering from depression, anxiety and behavior problems. In places that lack doctors and for families that lack health insurance, I can't imagine that getting the needed psychiatric help is going to be easy.

What happens to the children when their lives are disrupted like this? What happens to children after wars? Or the Boxing Day Tsunami? Can we, as a first world country, do more for our children than a war torn nation?

I would like to say that we can, but given the response to Katrina thus far, I'm not holding my breath. This is an issue of public health that will have repercussions for years. Well adjusted children make healthy productive citizens; children plagued with behavior problems and anxiety have a much harder time getting to that same place. But thats taking a longer view than most conservatives seem able to. The idea that we the people, the tax payers have an obligation to see that the next generation is happy, productive and comfortable. Many conservatives seem to think of that as a "personal problem" that has no effect on them. They're wrong though.

At some point I saw, as I spun through the channels, a man stand up at some city council meeting. He wanted to know why he, a childless bachelor, had to pay for other people's children to go to school. Some elected official told him that he had to pay for their education because either they would be paying for his social security when he retired or he would have to pay for their jail cells with the taxes from the pay checks he would keep having to work for into his eighties. Snarky, yes, but true.

06 December 2007

Potential versus kinetic ideas

'Lyrical terrorist' sentenced over extremist poetry
I first talked about the Lyrical Terrorist about a month ago in this post. She has been given a nine month suspended sentence.

"Samina Malik was being prosecuted in effect for a thought crime because she had downloaded some material from the internet which anyone could download." Mr Bunglawala said the case demonstrated how ill-conceived and "incredibly broad-ranging" the law is under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act. "Teenagers download some quite nihilistic material every day and they are not prosecuted," he said.

"The fact that this case went to court sends a very worrying signal that if you are Muslim and you are downloading from the Internet you may be judged to a quite different standard from others. Fortunately the judge has been sensible about this. The wider Muslim community must be relieved that she hasn't got a custodial sentence."

I agree with Mr. Bunglawasa, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, on this issue. As I said before, Malik did not actually hurt anyone. She collected information, speeches, rants and wrote poetry. It was disturbing, but it wasn't actually a crime that hurt someone.

The fact that this new law has been used against a Muslim woman more than hints at a bias. While I would hate to see it, I wonder if they would apply this law to militant anti-vivisectionists. Who else are they having trouble with in the UK?

In a statement, the Crown Prosecution Service said: "Samina Malik was not prosecuted for writing poetry. Ms Malik was convicted of collecting information, without reasonable excuse, of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism."

Potentially useful? Heck, I've got chemistry books that are potentially useful for all sorts of things. And spray paint, thats potentially graffiti. I know plenty of people with some potentially useful Recipes for Disaster.

Plotting and conspiring is one thing, its like kinetic energy. The movement has started, things are becoming active. Simply having the potential is something else entirely. Actions are crimes, ideas are not. No matter how inflammatory, disgusting, disturbing or dangerous.

05 December 2007

More on the CIPD in Austin

I read most of this from the Dead Tree Edition of the Star Tribune, but it has been reposted by the fine folks at MSNBC so we don't have to run into the subscription problem.The question at Austin pork plant: Why?

There isn't much here that I didn't already know or figure out on my own but there were a few bits that caught my attention.

CIDP is the chronic form of another disease, Guillain-Barré; syndrome, which develops much more rapidly and has a number of known triggers. It first received public attention in 1976 when linked to the swine flu vaccine.

That seems interesting to me. Could there be a connection between the swine flu and what happened here?

Symptoms first emerged around the same time the plant began using the high-powered air system. Some health experts think exposure to blood and pulverized tissue might have caused the autoimmune response.

But the compressed-air system almost certainly is not the problem, said mechanical engineer Frank Moskowitz, a compressed-air expert based in Phoenix. "Compressed air itself absolutely cannot introduce anything bad," he said. He said pressurization kills any living organism in the air.

Well that maybe true, but I doubt anyone was actually thinking that this was do to physical pressure from blasts of air. But the fact that the compressed air system and the disease are temporally linked means to me that there was something about blowing biological tissue into the air that is the key here.

Meth in the FEMA trailer park

Caught Up in a Storm, With His Eyes Wide Open

On that hot July afternoon, Isaiah and two friends hunted for tiny crabs, threw dirt bombs and visited the cemetery across the creek where his grandfather, who used to give him firecrackers, is buried. They also found treasure: a mysterious black duffel bag that came with them on their return climb over the wobbly fence separating the forbidden from the forgotten.

The bag was jostled, kicked, and finally opened to reveal strange things, including a pair of pliers, some tubing, nail clippers and a two-liter plastic bottle filled with a milky liquid. Isaiah waved a younger boy away from the bag, then bent over to zip it up. He heard a hiss and then BAM!

The boys had found a bag full of chemicals from a methamphetamine lab. He was terribly burnt. The chemicals got on his face and in his eyes. But he appears to be making an amazing recovery. The story has called attention to the fact that there are still people living in FEMA trailers they were given after Katrina two years ago. Its also made people think again about the meth cookers.

When I was a child, one of our neighbors was dealing meth. I don't remember all of it clearly, but I remember the mean rottweilers, the hungry little kids and all the cars that would drive by. I was out of state when it happened, but as recently as high school a neighbor's garage burnt and there is still speculation that there may have been meth cooking in there. Besides the horrendous things meth use will do to you, meth production is very dangerous. Its some serious organic chemistry being done with equipment not made to handle it by people who may not even have a high school education. The laws that limit sale of pseudoephedrine have helped curb production, but obviously there are places where its still a problem.

More than that, my family is not a poor black family in the deep south living in a two year old trailer from the government because a hurricane destroyed our house. Thankfully the community has come forward to help, as much as it can considering the circumstances.

One way the community responded was down at the Wal-Mart, where the receiving manager, Patsy Poole, set up a fund-raising booth near Register 1 that displayed photos of Isaiah’s transformed face. More than $2,000 in four hours; more than $5,000 in a few days.

“Twenties!” Ms. Poole says. “They was just throwing in the money.”

Another way was by inundating the Narcotics Task Force of Jackson County, still working out of a poststorm trailer, with tips about dozens of meth labs and dumpsites. Sgt. Curtis Spiers, its commander, said many calls came from local meth users, whose arms and hands often carry telltale burn scars of their own accidents. They hadn’t informed in years, but what happened to this boy was too much.


People can stand to see their own lives fall apart, but there is the idea that the innocent shouldn't suffer for the sins of others. Thats something at least.

04 December 2007

Gross job leads to rare disease

Pork plant employees contract neurological illness

Between December last year and July of this year 11 workers at a pork processing plant in Austin, MN have been victims of a strange set of symptoms. Numbness and tingling in their hands. At first I'm sure they thought it was some repetitive stress, but the Health Department is saying that it is Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy.

Department investigators have been poring over the cases since then. So far they say they have determined that the workers experienced an inflammatory response to some kind of trigger. But they haven't identified the trigger yet. It could be an infectious agent within the plant, or even a chemical exposure.

Well, lets look at what CIDP is. Whats happening is that something, the Health Department doesn't know what, is triggering an immune response that is targeting the myelin sheath that is wrapped around the dendrite of the nerve cell.



The Schwann cells make up the myelin sheath, the gaps between them are nodes of Ranvier. This set up allows the electrochemical impulse to travel down the axon more efficiently than an unmyelinated axon. Human neurons need this myelination, when those Schwann cells are damaged, the message from the nerve cell doesn't travel as it should, leading to the weakness, numbness and tingling. See Wikipedia.

So the next question is what would make the immune system target the Schwan cells that create the myelin sheath? The Health Department doesn't know right now. Since all the workers suffering were using compressed air to remove the brain from the pig heads, most people are going to think of a prion disease. But this is not much like prion diseases that tend to attack the central nervous system rather that the peripheral. Plus, there are not any known prion diseases in pigs. That isn't to say it isn't possible that there is a mad pig disease, just that we have no documentation of anything that would fit that description.

I'm going to reference the Star Tribune now, since its physical newspaper thats in front of me, but I don't like to use their online stuff since they require registration after a few clicks.

Anyway, the paper says that the workers are different ages, ethnicities, and genders. This means that it really is something at work and probably not the water. Add to that the fact that no one not working with the brains has come down with this. So there is something about either the brains or the way they were removing the brains.

"We've already given some of our employees a face mask, and discontinued some operations that could be potential. Again, we have no idea of the cause," said Wadding. "But we do want to take every precautionary step that the Department of Health recommends, and that we see that could possibly contribute to this."

The Strib dead tree edition also says the company is no longer using compressed air, and is now giving out safety goggles, disposable sleeves and towels for showers. You mean that the workers were using compressed air, shooting brain matter all over, and they didn't have goggles, face masks, or sleeves? Besides the immediate eeww factor, I don't think its a good idea to be aerosolizing raw biological tissue at all, much less without eye protection.

However, there is still a chance that the root cause of this CIDP is chemical rather than biological. I don't know enough about how one cleans a pork slaughtering plant to speculate on the cleaning agents. Might they have used a different chemical for cleaning the debraining room? Might the compressed air lines have been cleaned by some nasty chemical?

On top of all this, the plant has a strange history. The plant was spun off from Hormell in 1989. According to my father, whom I don't think counts as a scholarly reference, this lead to a strike because the spin off meant it was suddenly a non-union shop. Anyone who wasn't four at the time, as I was, want to confirm that? Maybe its my pro-union bias, but I worry about safe working conditions at non-union companies.

I hope the workers get better.

EDIT: It seems that CIPD has been ruled out, see more here.

03 December 2007

Algal Oil

Algae Emerges as a Potential Fuel Source
Another possible energy source. I really like reading about these, there is such creativity and possibility in them.

Some algae is as much as 50 percent oil that can be converted into biodiesel or jet fuel. The biggest challenge is cutting the cost of production, which by one Defense Department estimate is running more than $20 a gallon.

I can honestly say that I didn't know the chemical composition of algae. I wonder what specific oil they produce and what kind of processing is needed. What chemicals are needed, what catalysts? This is the point at which corn ethanol production becomes so inefficient. Those steps between the thing that grows and that which ends up in the gas tank are the most important part, and sometimes it gets only mentioned vaguely as processing.

If the price of production can be reduced, the advantages of algae include the fact that it grows much faster and in less space than conventional energy crops. An acre of corn can produce about 20 gallons of oil per year, Dr. Ruan said, compared with a possible 15,000 gallons of oil per acre of algae.

That is impressive. All of these alternative energy processes require that we look at whats needed as input and how much those are going to cost. Land use, water use, chemicals as fertilizer or in the processing, energy input for production and transport, and so on. I don't think one can honestly look at an alternative energy without looking at all of it. If a process requires several kilograms of a metal that has its ore mined in Africa and a ton of ore produces a few grams of metal, you can't honestly call it a viable alternative energy. If a process requires so many gallons of water that it dries up huge aquifers, the I don't think that can be called viable.

This seems like a good one though. Easy to grow, doesn't require pure water, and no fertilizer. So I really want to hear about the steps between green thing in a tank and diesel in my car tank.

The other part of this that I find interesting is that the funding is coming from oil companies and the Pentagon. There was a time not long ago that when an alternative energy process started making noise, the oil companies would buy the patents just to make it go away. But with the Pentagon, they really are looking at other sources for fuel. Say what you will about the Pentagon, some one there seems to have figured out that the remaining fossil oil is under countries that we don't always get along with.

30 November 2007

One more reason not to binge drink


If you thought a hangover was bad ...


When doctors warn of the dangers of binge drinking, exploding bladders may not immediately spring to mind. However, last week a report in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) made alarming reading. In the report, the medics discuss the unprecedented appearance in emergency wards of women who have suffered alcohol-induced "bladder rupture": their bladders have quite literally torn apart under pressure of a big night out.

Oh god. As if a night of binge drinking didn't sound unappealing enough. What the hell is up with those Brits? The biology of in is pretty simple, as the article explains.

The mechanics of this gruesome problem are relatively straightforward. Alcohol is diuretic - it makes you urinate more - hence the sight of drunk people urinating in the streets on a Saturday night. Alcohol is also an anaesthetic: it dulls the urge to go. The combination of large volumes of urine, and a dimmed, possibly non-existent urge to pee can result in a seriously over-full bladder.

When they tell you that alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, they really mean it. When you're so pissed that your body can't tell you that you need to piss, my god. So after the bladder bursts, urine is is the abdominal cavity and this is a very bad thing. Urine is all the stuff that your body has decided it doesn't want; mostly urea, but also by products of different metabolic processes. When urine is in the abdominal cavity, the urea is going to be reabsorbed into the blood stream and you're going to feel really crappy.

I don't drink, but I did go to college and party with people who do and I sort of understand the social reasons for heavy drinking. But from what I've read the Brits seem to approach freshman-in-college level drinking as a weekly hobby well into their thirties. Thats... interesting.

29 November 2007

Democracy in Pakistan

Musharraf Says Emergency Rule Will End on Dec. 16
To be honest, I'm not sure if I believe him. Having taken power in a coup d'état, suspended the constitution and dismissed the Supreme Court when he knew they were going to rule against him, I don't exactly trust that he will end martial law.

But he said parliamentary elections would now go ahead as scheduled on Jan. 8 without the need for continued emergency rule, and he called on the opposition leaders Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to participate fully.
....
Mr. Musharraf took the oath of office as a civilian president here in the capital a day after relinquishing his role as the country’s military chief.

At the official ceremony, he warned assembled foreign diplomats not to force democracy and human rights on developing countries, but to let them evolve in their own time. Many of them had been highly critical of his recent actions.


To sum up, he was sworn into a second term that was probably not exactly legal. But he did finally take off his uniform. He says that there will be a return of the constitutional rule and there will be an election for parliament in January, both of which are very good things. But, like I said, I'll pleased when those things actually happen.

One thing that has to be kept in mind, whatever Musharraf's real opinion on the matter, the region is destabilized. Most of Afghanistan is run by warlords and the boarder is hardly secure. With its immediate neighbor so fragmented, any leader of Pakistan would be in an unenviable position. We can hope that Pakistan will make democratic reforms, but with a leader prone to dictatorial means, an unstable neighbor to the north and lets not forget its long running dispute with India, I hope Pakistan can do this.

Its interesting to read that since the dissolution of the Supreme Court, lawyers have been in the streets protesting. Here, lawyers are pretty low key people and the thought of a huge group of lawyers taking the streets sounds like something out of the Onion. Then again, if the rule of law was being suspended, I would like to think that at least some lawyers would come to the defense of their profession.

The really interesting thing Musharraf says is this:

“There is an unrealistic or even impractical obsession with your form of democracy, human rights and civil liberties, which you have taken centuries to acquire and which you expect us to adopt in a few years, in a few months,” he said, addressing the diplomats.

“We want democracy; I am for democracy. We want human rights, we want civil liberties, but we will do it our way, as we understand our society, our environment, better than anyone in the West,” he said.

While I disagree that an obsession with democracy and civil rights is a bad thing, I can see how one could argue that you can't force democracy. I system that requires the population to be active participants cannot be built overnight. That said, we look back at the lawyers in the street and see that Pakistanis do want to participate in their government. I hope that their desire to participate is strong enough and that Musharraf is able to recognize when that the time has come.

28 November 2007

Bush appointees do science badly

7 Decisions on Species Revised

In the course of those reviews, for example, Mitch King, then the agency's Region 6 director, said in a June memo to headquarters that while the field and regional office's scientific review concluded there is "substantial" evidence that the white-tailed prairie dog faces a risk of extinction, "the change to 'not substantial' only occurred at Ms. MacDonald's suggestion."

A Bush appointee rewriting the recommendations from scientists in the field? This should be shocking, unheard of and we should all be appalled that a political appointee would dare do such a thing. But of course we aren't. Because this has happened before in this administration, notably with global warming.

What does it mean to the animals that they were probably improperly sorted as not endangered? Well it means that the land they live on might have been given away to some human habitation. The water that they live in might have been siphoned off to water some farm or flush some toilets. What does it mean to you when you have to wait another day to see a doctor? Sucks doesn't it? That extra day can make a big difference to you.

I guess it comes down to the fact that I'm disgusted that politics gets to dictate science. Its happened here, it happened at NASA about global warming. It started with the dissolution of the Office of Technology Assessment in 1995 by Newt Gingrich and all the Republicans that came into office after the 1994 election. Since I was all of nine years old at the time of that election, I don't really remember what life was like when science was taken seriously and the conclusions of scientists were not met with purely political opposition.

Changing the data or changing the conclusions drawn from the data to fit a predetermined goal is not science. Thats why Young Earth Creationism isn't science, thats why Intelligent Design isn't science, and thats what this administration has been doing. Ignoring the science about species extinction and global warming means that big businesses get to do what they want. "Drill for oil in ANWR? Sure! Hold Detroit to emission standards? Whatever for?"

Another reason I want to like Hillary, she says she'll work to reestablish the OTA.

27 November 2007

Wont someone PLEASE think of the children?

Indiana's Legal High: Teens Turned On To Powerful Drug
Here it is again, the horrible, terror inducing, the thing that strikes fear into every parent; the legal high.

The plant provides a quick high that some have compared to LSD, and it's readily accessible to anyone.

This sentence is totally misleading. Firstly "high" is usually reserved for marijuana. Think of the "round the table" scenes in "That '70s Show." LSD is not generally described as a "high" but rather as a "trip" as are many other hallucinogens. This quibbling about words is not without a point. The media's portrayal of this powerful drug is barely more than a scare story. They don't bother to try to understand what this drug is doing or why people find it attractive. Instead they throw around loaded words that are bound to get a rise out of people.

Drug counselors said they are worried salvia is a gateway drug to other harmful substances.

Ah yes, the slippery slope argument. While its true that for many drugs, users can build up a tolerance that sends them looking for another high, the idea that one chemical leads to another is usually pretty silly. The gateway aspect comes from the social atmosphere; the illegality, the sneaking around, the discovery that this chemical they authorities don't want you to use is actually kind of fun.

"You do have to keep in it check. It's something that you do need to use responsibly," Sidler said.

There is any number of low activity psychoactive substances that he could be talking about. Hell, I'm pretty sure I've heard people saying that about alcohol, even late night caffeine use.

Considering the intensity of the short trip, and the fact that this society likes its acceptable psychoactive substances to be low concentration/high dilution, I think that there will be laws passed making this illegal. The active substance is Salvinorin A and its potency starts at 200 micrograms. It acts on an opioid receptor, unlike LSD and other hallucinogens which act on seritonin receptors. Marijuana acts on cannabinoid receptors. So this drug, while highly active, is not acting in the same manner as LSD or marijuana as many of the news stories claim.

So is this really a post about regional news? Not really, but the biochemistry part of me just takes over at some point and I can't resist.

26 November 2007

The Japanese go Whaling

Japan Hunts the Humpback. Now Comes the Backlash.

Vessels from the groups Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace tail and harass the whaling fleet, while strong protests are lodged by environmental groups, many marine biologists, and officials from the United States, Australia and other countries. But this year those complaints have intensified, largely because Japan has added a new animal to its planned harvest of more than 1,400 whales from seven species — the humpback, Megaptera novaeangliae.


Usually I can understand both sides of a debate and at least appreciate where those I disagree with are coming from. I can usually understand that reasonable people can disagree. I can usually accept that people coming from different cultural backgrounds can look at the same thing and see different things.

Usually I don't feel like I need to dress in black and hurl Molotov cocktails.

On this point I feel the need to do spectacular physical damage, I feel the need to send these people to Sea World followed by a long stint in a small cell.

There is no reason for the Japanese to continue to hunt any whales. Their appeal that they are doing real scientific is totally undermined by the fact that most of the whales end up on the market as food.

The interesting comment comes near the end of the article.

The Japan Whaling Association, a private group representing the whaling operations, has described complaints as cultural imperialism on its Web site, whaling.jp:

“Asking Japan to abandon this part of its culture,” the association says, “would compare to Australians being asked to stop eating meat pies, Americans being asked to stop eating hamburgers and the English being asked to go without fish and chips.”

Whaling was part of American culture once too. At some point we got over that. Yeah, it hurt, whole communities were upset and people were put out of work. And while thats horrible, society moves on and culture adapts. Besides, how much of Japanese culture is still dependent upon this whaling culture? Falling back on the idea of respect for other cultures to defend this horrible act is a pretty ridiculous.

There is no reason for Japan to be whaling and the rest of the world needs to call them on it. In fact you should go over to Green Peace and send a letter to Condoleezza Rice urging her to put pressure on Japan. I am doubtful that Condoleezza is going to actually do much, but something is better than nothing.

24 November 2007

Scandal as a tease and a ghost.

Publisher: McClellan doesn't believe Bush lied

Peter Osnos, the founder and editor-in-chief of Public Affairs Books, which is publishing McClellan's book in April, tells NBC from his Connecticut home that McCLellan, "Did not intend to suggest Bush lied to him."


Hrmm. When things aren't totally clear, its best to go back to the original source document.

What Happened Inside the Bush White House and What's Wrong with Washington

The most powerful leader in the world had called upon me to speak on his behalf and help restore credibility he lost amid the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So I stood at the White house briefing room podium in front of the glare of the klieg lights for the better part of two weeks and publicly exonerated two of the senior-most aides in the White House: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.

There was one problem. It was not true.

I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice President, the President's chief of staff, and the President himself.


The key word here seems to me to be "involved" in the last sentences. How could Bush be involved in "unknowingly passing on false information" and not be lying? Was Bush passing false information to the press secretary because he was told false information? Someone in that group of five people must have known the information was false.

There is another side to this. McClellan "Did not intend to suggest Bush lied to him." Maybe not, but the publisher knew damned well the stir that those three short paragraphs would cause. A little bit of scandal helps hustle dead trees, everyone knows that. And that is the real reason for all this. The idea that McClellan might know who gave Valerie Plame's name to those reporters is a tease. A tease as surely as a flash of lace at the top of a stocking.

The scandals that haunt this administration do little more than haunt. They players get shuffled on and off the stage, get rearranged a bit, cause a little panic each time a new one shows up. But nothing substantial seems to have really happened. We still have no time table for withdrawal. We still have detainees being tortured I'm sure. None of these scandals seems to be able to solidify into anything that can throw the White House off track. All the ghosts of all the dead in Iraq don't even seem able to scare away the saber rattling with Iran. Maybe they've got some killer ghost traps over there.

21 November 2007

The rights of the unpopular.

Victor Rabinowitz, 96, Leftist Lawyer, Dies
Sometimes you only hear about really neat people when they die. I had never heard of Victor Rabinowitz until I read this obituary.

Victor Rabinowitz, a leftist lawyer whose causes and clients over nearly three-quarters of a century ranged from labor unions to Black Panthers to Cuba to Dashiell Hammett to Dr. Benjamin Spock to his own daughter, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 96.

Thats pretty damn interesting. I have a lot of respect for people who are willing to help the people the public despises. Defending Cuba's right to its land that had been held by US corporations? Sheesh, that couldn't have been popular at all. Its that idea about doing whats right versus doing whats popular. And this reminded me of a blog post I read a few days ago at Emeriblog. Kim, the writer, posted a letter from an annonymous Army Nurse.

Somewhere in the midst of the War on Terrorism, there are nurses that have been called to duty to care for, none-other-than, the very people that are being accused of attacking, plotting against, funding attacks on, and killing the very same forces that these nurses work along side of.

Didn’t we all take some oath when we became nurses? Something along the lines of caring for all humans regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or situation? I can’’t recall, I think I have become jaded. None-the-less, somewhere detainee nurses are putting to test that oath everyday as they struggle to cope with their actions


Lawyers defending the rights of spies, hated foreign governments, radicals and murderers; doctors and nurses treating the enemy, the terrorist and the detainee; these are people that we should all be proud of. Anyone willing to stand up for people who are already down is to be applauded. Its not just about defending the innocent from system, but also the guilty from unfair punishment by that system.

The idea that the guilty still have rights by the simple virtue of being human is hard to act on.

When the misdeed is a nicked candy bar, thats no big deal. But the idea that Slobodan Milosevic deserved medical attention? It's not like I've ever really had to deal with anything that weighty, but I would like to think I'd be able to do what needed to be done.

20 November 2007

Security costs money, money we don't have right now.

Security Funds For Conventions Tied In Stalemate

A stalemate in Washington is holding up money for security during next year's GOP and Democratic conventions and could force Minneapolis-St. Paul and Denver to front tens of millions of dollars, lawmakers warned Monday.

This could also go under DC Drama, but since I am currently in the Twin Cities this is pretty local. St. Paul's downtown is tiny and Minneapolis is bigger, but its really not that big. Minneapolis, St. Paul and Denver don't have enough money right now to get the security contracts signed. I don't know about Denver, but St. Paul is trying to plan but running up against a lack of information. If you have enough time you can get planned enough for most things. You can even plan enough to be flexible for any strange things that might happen. But with no information and no money to get the ball rolling, you end up planning at the last minute. And thats fine for picnics and potlucks, but national political conventions for the two major parties should not be planned like a pot luck.

The bill that is being held up would give $25 million each to the Twin Cities and Denver. That is not a small bit of money. What happens if the cities don't get the money? I'm really not sure how things like this work. I guess the security contracts need to get signed. Where would the money come from? I could speculate, but I'd rather not. I'd rather see the feds or the respective parties cough up the money.

But lets not get too downhearted about all this. The mayors St. Paul and Minneapolis don't want this to be a riot, and there are promises that there wont be "pens" for the protesters. And some of the proof can be found at The Uptake. Good stuff.

19 November 2007

There is no reason for this...

Other than the fact that I want to brag.
cash advance


This is probably partially due to the fact that make liberal use of block quotes. Lets see if I can keep this up. The key seems to be big words. Maybe I can add footnotes.

Homeopathy, dilution is not the solution

Since I did science on Friday, I'm going to do some health today to make up for it. These two articles appeared in the Guardian only a few days apart. Homeopathy is "Western Medicine" in that it was invented by an Englishman, but it is not modern nor is it scientifically supported. Its a much bigger deal in England than it is here in the US. The first article is by Jeanette Winterson and is appropriately titled In defence of homeopathy. She starts, as many do, with an anecdote.

Picture this. I am staying in a remote cottage in Cornwall without a car. I have a temperature of 102, spots on my throat, delirium, and a book to finish writing. My desperate publisher suggests I call Hilary Fairclough, a homeopath who has practices in London and Penzance. She sends round a remedy called Lachesis, made from snake venom. Four hours later I have no symptoms whatsoever.

Interesting sure, but as the quote says "The plural of anecdote is not data." So lets get down to where Winterson starts talking about the real criticisms of homeopathy, mainly its use of absurdly diluted substances to treat illness.

Objections to homeopathy begin with what are viewed as the impossible dilutions of the remedies, so that only nano amounts of the original active substance remain, and in some cases are only an imprint, or memory. Yet our recent discoveries in the world of the very small point to a whole new set of rules for the behaviour of nano-quantities. Thundering around in our Gulliver world, we were first shocked to find that splitting the atom allowed inconceivable amounts of energy to be released. Now, we are discovering that the properties of materials change as their size reaches the nano-scale. Bulk material should have constant physical properties, regardless of its size, but at the nano-scale this is not the case. In a solvent, such as water, nano particles can remain suspended, neither floating nor sinking, but permeating the solution. Such particles are also able to pass through cell walls, and they can cause biochemical change.

The argument that water somehow remembers the chemical activity of a substance that was is absurd. If water remembered and acted like all the chemicals it had come into contact with you could be bathing in water that is going to act like Queen Victoria's stomach acid. I don't even know what the argument for their pills is. Winterson's use of the "nano" is an appeal to the authority of buzzwords that most people don't understand.

So, three days later Ben Goldacre asks if its A kind of magic? He discusses the placebo effect and regression to the mean as the real reasons that the anecdotes support homeopathy. He goes on to talk about how supporters of homeopathy react to this type of criticisms.

With alternative therapists, when you point out a problem with the evidence, people don't engage with you about it, or read and reference your work. They get into a huff. They refuse to answer calls or email queries. They wave their hands and mutter sciencey words such as "quantum" and "nano". They accuse you of being a paid plant from some big pharma conspiracy. They threaten to sue you. They shout, "What about thalidomide, science boy?", they cry, they call you names, they hold lectures at their trade fairs about how you are a dangerous doctor, they contact and harass your employer, they try to dig up dirt from your personal life, or they actually threaten you with violence (this has all happened to me, and I'm compiling a great collection of stories for a nice documentary, so do keep it coming).

They don't take it well. People don't tend to act rationally when defending something that isn't rational. Thats the nature of the beast, so I'm not surprised to find that he has been threatened. But the irrationality of the homeopaths is not the main point of his essay. The point is that homeopaths, like AIDS/HIV, evolution and global warming denialists, hurt science understanding of the general population.

By pushing their product relentlessly with this scientific flim-flam, homeopaths undermine the public understanding of what it means to have an evidence base for a treatment. Worst of all, they do this at the very time when academics are working harder than ever to engage the public in a genuine collective ownership and understanding of clinical research, and when most good doctors are trying to educate and involve their patients in the selection of difficult treatment options. This is not a nerdy point. This is vital.

There are many points on which I am willing to concede that science doesn't or can't know everything. But this is not one of them. A logical look at the dilutions says that homeopathy doesn't work the way it claims. Yet the idea persists. Part of me can understand the need to believe that something simple can cure us, but the logical part of me balks. And I can't ignore that no matter how I try.

17 November 2007

Republicans and the Farm Bill

Farm Bill At Standstill After Vote

The immediate cause of the deadlock has been the insistence of Senate Republicans on their right to introduce a series of politically explosive tax and immigration amendments that Democrats deem not relevant. Harkin said yesterday that these include changes in the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax, and a ban on issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.


When I say that there needs to be changes to the Farm Bill, this is not what I had in mind. When I say that I want changes to the Farm Bill I would like to see changes that make healthy food less expensive than a Twinkie. I want this graph on one of those ridiculously big posters used in Congressional debates.

But rather than, Republicans are trying to add immigration stuff and all sorts of other things that have nothing to do with farming or food stamps. Bush is going to veto it anyway so why the Republicans are tacking on random stuff is a little confusing. Holding up the Farm Bill, with or without the kind of changes I would like to see is generally a bad idea. It just doesn't play well, the idea that you are "turning you back on rural America" just can't be spun well.

Really, the farm bill needs to be reworked so that the money is flowing in a way that actually encourages small farmers and farmers that grow food that is good for us and not simply made into high fructose corn syrup. Large Agribuisnesses that pretend to represent small farmers need to be called on their deception.

16 November 2007

When does a species cease to exist?

Off Endangered List, but What Animal Is It Now?

The historic Great Lakes wolf is an enigma, with scientists debating whether it is a subspecies of gray wolf or a distinct species. The Fish and Wildlife Service officially considers the western Great Lakes wolf a “distinct population segment” of the gray wolf, found in a discrete geographic area.

That population today is made up largely of hybrids between the gray wolf and coyote, but some 31 percent of the animals carry genetic material from the native wolf, which appears to no longer exist in pure form. The researchers analyzed mitochondrial DNA, inherited through the mother and often used to distinguish lineages in humans and animals, from 17 early-20th century wolves and 68 contemporary wolves.

I must admit I'm of two minds about this. On one hand, saving species from extinction resulting from human actions is a noble goal and one that we need to work harder on. On the other hand, there is a point at which a distinct species ceases to exist in a pure form. When that happens, in order for any part of the genome to survive, hybridization happens. There is a point at which it is too late to save a species, and if that species is so lucky as to have a near relative with whom to interbred, its better than going totally extinct.

So should the Great Lakes grey wolf, be taken off the endangered species list? I don't think so. The pure species is still endangered and very possibly totally extinct. The hybrids are not the same species, even if their genome is similar. Just because some animals out there are similar doesn't mean that the animal is safe. This isn't just about the loss of a set genome, its about the loss of an ecosystem and everyone in it. The existence of the hybrids does not change the ideals of the endangered species act.

There is something bigger here that I could talk about, either the political (This administration and their utter disregard for this sort of thing) or more philosophical about the change in populations over time as they interact with other species ( H. sapiens in this case). However an accident here at home has me a bit wiped out so we'll just have to live with the implication that I do in fact think deeper about these things.

14 November 2007

Legalize Industrial Hemp

Farmers Ask Federal Court To Dissociate Hemp and Pot

Hemp, a strait-laced cousin of marijuana, is an ingredient in products from fabric and food to carpet backing and car door panels. Farmers in 30 countries grow it. But it is illegal to cultivate the plant in the United States without federal approval, to the frustration of Hauge and many boosters of North Dakota agriculture.

This is one of those places where the law is stupid. The history of it is at least partially tied up in racism, and partially in the wood paper business of William Randolf Hearst.

Hemp makes a better paper that wood. There is more cellulose in an acre of hemp than an acre of trees. And unlike trees, hemp can make fabrics as well as papers. Hearst owned a lot of forest, so you can guess that making hemp illegal along with marijuana would bring him into a fair bit more money than he already had. Writing about the "terrors" of stoned Mexican migrants was a win all around for him. He sold more newspapers with these fanatical stories, demonized the Mexicans who he hated, and got rid of a rival product.

So the original reason for the law banning hemp was not really in the best interest of the public, but rather one member of the public and his family. The biochemistry doesn't support the ban either. The main psychoactive component of marijuana is of course THC. I say main because the combustion of organic material is not neat. There are many things that burn and many things that change chemical activity at different temperatures. There might be more compounds present, but they probably have relatively low activities. That said, hemp wont get you stoned.

"You could smoke a joint the size of a telephone pole," Hague said of hemp, "and it's not going to provide you with a high."


The history and the biochemistry don't support the ban. That alone should be enough. Superfluous and stupid laws should be removed. There are also plenty of environmental reasons. Cellulose is a good starting point for biofuels, especially since it isn't a food crop and wont drive up the price of milk the way corn ethanol has. Its a dense crop and doesn't need much in the way of pesticides.

As is almost always the case with an illegal drug, I learned about the history of marijuana and hemp from Illegal Drugs by Paul Gahlinger.

13 November 2007

Jury Duty

I've got jury duty this week so posting will be even more irregular.
Go read Bus Tales for a laugh.

12 November 2007

A bit more precise than burning trash

Fuel Without the Fossil

They believe techniques borrowed from oil refining and other chemical industries will allow them to crack open big biological molecules, transforming them into ethanol or, even more interesting, into diesel and gasoline. Those latter fuels could be transported in existing pipelines and burned in existing engines without fuss. Advocates of the chemical methods say they may be flexible enough to go beyond traditional biomass, converting old tires or even human waste into clean transport fuel.


This isn't the first time I've heard of using waste biomass to make fuels, nor is it the first time I've seen the emphasis on Chemistry rather than Biology. So lets look chemically at what they are trying to make. No matter what the fuel is, whats happening is the oxidation of carbon to release the energy in the carbon-carbon bond.

Ethanol: Has one carbon carbon bond and already has one carbon-oxygen bond. It burns to CO2 more readily because of that carbon-oxygen bond. But it doesn't have as much energy as other hydrocarbons because it only has one c-c bond. Ethanol is usually made using the same process we've always used, brewers yeast digesting sugars. This only produces so much ethanol, because eventually the ethanol concentrations kill the yeast. Some research is looking into using bacteria to make the ethanol rather than the yeast.

Diesel and gas: These are both hydrocarbons, diesel with ten to fifteen carbons and gasoline with 5 to 12. There are no carbon-oxygen bonds and you are more likely to get carbon monoxide, but there are so many more carbon-carbon bonds mean there is a lot more energy in there. I don't know exactly how you get those out of biomass, but I'm guessing that most of it comes from different lipids, thought I don't know how they get broken down. I'm guessing that this is where the chemical processes come in.

The real question is about how well this is going to work. In my opinion its all a matter of time. This is one of those things where the market is going to make this look better and better. The price of oil is going to come up, thats just the way it is with finite resources. Is this specific process viable? At this point just about anything that doesn't burn oil is on the table and really only time will tell.

09 November 2007

Vioxx payout

Merck to Pay $4.85B Vioxx Settlement

Jury trials in the initial suits have produced a dozen decisions in favor of the company and five in favor of the plaintiffs. Today's settlement gives a bit of certainty to both sides, the company and the plaintiff's attorneys said in a news release.

Previously Vioxx said that they were going to fight every lawsuit, but the rulings have been inconsistent. Some have been large pay offs for the plaintiffs, some have been dismissed, many are running into a statute of limitations. So Merck has decided to offer a large settlement by way of a fund that will pay out money once the claim has been reviewed.

I don't really have anything terrible curmudgeonly to say about this. I think its a good idea for the company and the plaintiffs to get something set up to reimburse them for their loss and to get as much of this as they can out of the legal system. The lawyers might not like it as much, but this isn't really about them.

I could say something curmudgeonly about the FDA and Merck both letting this get on to the market despite its obvious problems. But I think that would be beating an already dead, rotting horse. Everyone knows the FDA is broken. What the hell are we going to do about it is the real question. Lawsuits work after the fact, but it shouldn't have to get to that.

08 November 2007

'Lyrical terrorist' convicted over hate records and
'Lyrical Terrorist led double life'

[From the Guardian]Malik, who worked at WH Smith at the airport, was arrested in October last year. When her bedroom was searched police found a ringbinder full of documents as well as a bracelet bearing the word "jihad".There was also a sticker on a mirror inside the door, bearing the words "lyrical terrorist". ... In a box file in the family lounge was a printed version of the "declaration of war" by Osama bin Laden.

[From the BBC]The jury found her not guilty of possessing articles for terrorist purposes. But they did convict of the lesser terror charge of collecting articles "likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism".

My first thought about this conviction is that it couldn't happen here. But my second thought is "Of course it wouldn't, here she wouldn't even get a trial." Pretty god damn depressing.

People should not be convicted for having books and documents about terror, or for writing poetry about terror. She did not act on her self proclaimed desire to be a martyr, she did not kill, hurt or attempt to hurt anyone. Could she have? Would she have? We can't actually say. We know from things such as the tragedies at Columbine and Virgina Tech that some people will act upon such writings, but that doesn't mean they should get jail time. She should get psychological help to deal with her desire to be martyred, rather than get jail time and become a sort of martyr.

07 November 2007

The Feminine Critique
First off, this is in the Fashion and Style section. If only I could purse my lips and arch one eyebrow in a manner that would sufficiently convey my confusion and disappointment.

It found that women who act in ways that are consistent with gender stereotypes — defined as focusing “on work relationships” and expressing “concern for other people’s perspectives” — are considered less competent. But if they act in ways that are seen as more “male” — like “act assertively, focus on work task, display ambition” — they are seen as “too tough” and “unfeminine.”

This isn't something I hadn't heard before, but why oh why is this in Fashion and Style? Its a pretty good article about how women are perceived in the workplace, it summarizes some new research about why women still are underrepresented in positions of power. It seems pretty obvious to me, I've seen it a dozen times in the "Tom Boy" narrative, but thats the point of this type of research. Is something that many of us think to be true, true at a statistically significant level? It is, and thats interesting.

But why is this in Fashion and Style? I just can't seem to get past that. Its a good article and its relevant to business, so why is it here?

06 November 2007

Its still not fair, even if it was a drug deal.

Police: Drug Dealer Charged In Bicyclist's Killing

According to the criminal complaint, Jackson admitted they were selling drugs on the corner of 38th and Chicago Avenues when they saw Loesch and decided to rob him. Jackson told investigators his friend hit Loesch with a bat three times before removing $40 from his pants pocket.


I was in the Cities when this happened and it hit me hard. Now the cops have arrested a drug dealer.

"The information that we received from the drug dealers was that this was a drug transaction," said Minneapolis Police Lt. Amelia Huffman.
....
"The first thing that comes to mind is a public relations idea. It sounds better. The people of Minneapolis can sleep better if they know it's just a drug addict," said Mark's father-in-law, David Barnes.

I'm probably projecting, but I find it hard to believe that a forty year old with four kids would be out buying drugs. The Star Tribune article about the slaying at the time characterized him as a pretty harmless bike nerd. I know middle aged bike nerds that go on night bike rides. My father is one, many of his friends are others.

But this got me thinking, the police do this all the time. They arrest someone saying that it was a drug deal gone bad. And most of the time I don't question it. Its not the same as being Nancy Grace who assumes that if you were arrested you must be guilty, but its in the same line. Just because the cops say that this is how it went down, doesn't means it necessarily so. How do those families feel? They are grieving their loss and then the people investigating basically say, hey he put himself in that situation. And as much as they can say that even drug buyers don't deserve to be beaten to death, the truth is that our society doesn't usually see it that way.

05 November 2007

Another disease has anothere gene

New gene clue to arthritis is found

Scientists have found a genetic marker that might predispose people to developing rheumatoid arthritis. The discovery could lead to a better understanding of the debilitating disease and provide clues for treatments or even cures.

Now you're never going to find me saying that research into which genes are associated with which diseases is a bad thing. These write ups in newspapers however are pretty useless. Its getting to the point where we don't need to hear about ever gene, just like at some point launching a satellite stopped being news.

Tell me when the scientists get a model for what is going on with rheumatoid arthritis, but I don't need to hear every time we can add another acronym for a gene to the list for every disease.

Bah, maybe its just a slow science news day.