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.