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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Cave Fear

posted by on July 16 at 12:45 PM

More horror:

The World Health Organization has warned [white] people not to go into Ugandan caves with bats, after a Dutch tourist contracted the deadly Marburg virus.

The woman, aged 40, died after being taken to hospital following her return to the Netherlands, health authorities there said.

They said she probably contracted the disease while visiting a Ugandan cave inhabited by fruit bats.

Marburg is a contagious disease that causes sudden bleeding and high fever.

There is no treatment or vaccine.

The cave, the bats, the bite, the fever, the blood, the death.

No One

posted by on July 16 at 8:57 AM

Why jungle life is even more idiotic than rural life:

ScienceDaily (July 15, 2008) — An Amazonian language with only 300 speakers has no word to express the concept of "one" or any other specific number, according to a new study from an MIT-led team.

The team, led by MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences Edward Gibson, found that members of the Piraha tribe in remote northwestern Brazil use language to express relative quantities such as "some" and "more," but not precise numbers.

A farmer can at least count his pigs.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Anyone Left on the Science Beat in Seattle?

posted by on July 15 at 7:40 PM

After all the buyouts and staff cuts, is there anyone left reporting on science in Seattle?

I'm not asking about a business reporter who covers biotech. Nor someone who reads press releases and RSS feeds of published scientific articles. I'm definitely not asking about wire reports, or reruns of New York Times articles. Is there anyone, at any of the local papers, who actually covers the scientific community in Seattle, who knows the lab managers, the budget officers, the department chairs, the graduate students and fellows? Anyone who is connected enough to know the science that isn't being done, what crucial questions are going unanswered?

I'm not gloating here. I'm horrified. Seattle is a world class scientific city, right up there with Paris, Boston, San Francisco, Tokyo and Baltimore. The University of Washington is consistently one of the largest federal grant recipients--many years second only to Johns Hopkins in total dollars, typically hovering around a billion dollars--largely due to the high quality of work being done. With all we need right now from science, to have no real press coverage, in one of the primary centers of global scientific research, is terrifying.

I don't count. I'm far to conflicted to honestly report on the state of science in Seattle. I can say there are fantastic stories to be had. Anyone out there?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Brad Steinbacher Still Frightens Me

posted by on July 11 at 4:35 PM

Without Brad, I wouldn't be writing. Mr. Steinbacher was my first editor, ever. I'm trained as a computer and biomedical engineer, not exactly professions known for their communication skills.

He was responsible for introducing me to the very basics: What in the hell is a byline? What do I do with a semicolon, other than terminate a statement in C? Do I get paid? Are all writers temperamental? Should I contribute to slog? All of this was right when he was attempting to pull together the massive SIFF guide. I'm forever indebted.

But yes. As a deeply shy person myself, Brad scares me. He always did and still does, despite his always being kind and welcoming to me. I've always felt like I'm sitting at the wrong table in middle school when in the room with him--a person as much as any who made the Stranger, a paper I truly and honestly respect.

Brad, take this as the ultimate victory: At the conclusion of my General Exam (for my PhD), my committee members turned to me and said, "your writing for the Stranger is vastly better than your science writing." Ouch.

Thanks Brad.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Being The World

posted by on July 3 at 9:46 AM

Diamonds hint at 'earliest life':

Tiny slivers of diamond forged on an infant Earth may contain the earliest traces of life, a study has shown.

Analysis of the crystals showed they contain a form of carbon often associated with plants and bacteria.

The rare gems were found inside zircon crystals, formed a few hundred million years after the Earth came into being.

There is a point at which the Earth came into being? In this meaning (or use), "being" is something that can be alive or dead. "Being," here, is just "being there," being something. In this case, "being" is simply the state of appearing.

Living, then, can be separated from being. Being can be both living and dead. Living can only be living, in the way nothing can only be nothing. Being is in the middle; its appearance is the opening of life and the closing of nothing. At the end of the day, what is easy is define is being, and what is hard to grasp is nothing and life.

Scientists still do not have an agreement on what life is--some propose it's something that can evolve; others, something that can communicate; others, something that can replicate. The Russian biochemist Oparin made the radical suggestion that there is no real difference between organic (the living) and the inorganic (the dead--the dead being not nothing, the dead being being, the opening of life). All the things that a living being can do are things that a dead being can do. Under certain conditions, the remains of the living remineralize, returns to the seemingly stable (or slow intensity) status of a rock, returns to what they actually always are but are too quick to realize it--our rock bottom, being qua being.

There might be no strict line between the quick and the dead, the living and the slow, but we (the living) do feel there to be a difference between living and just being. This feeling is one-sided. A rock, like being qua being, knows no difference. Living is the difference.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Hey Mr. Fancy Science Guy

posted by on July 2 at 11:17 AM

How tha hell'm I s'posed ta watch all muh fave cop shows when all the, uh, ind-yum is gone?

Armin Reller, a materials chemist at the University of Augsburg in Germany, estimates that in 10 years the world will run out of indium, used for making liquid-crystal displays for flat-screen televisions and computer monitors. He also predicts that the world will run out of zinc by 2037, and hafnium, an increasingly important part of computer chips, by 2017.

Other articles about rapidly consumed rare elements have been gathered in a convenient scare-blog at Slashdot, and the guy doesn't slouch on copper stories either. The supply may be somewhat greater than these articles let on--Golob?--but if these timeframes are anywhere near legit, lots of alternative power sources listed in these articles (fuel cells, solar panels, even nuclear) may soon need their own alternatives.

Monday, June 30, 2008

More Grist for the Maul

posted by on June 30 at 9:15 PM

Adding more fuel to the Pit Bull Debate '08--continuing today with a delightful tale of a scalping--I present to you data from the latest and greatest paper on the subject: Canine and human factors related to dog bite injuries. Courtesy of your own Elenchos!

Breed is absolutely a factor, as are dogs remaining sexually intact. Like the earlier study I covered on this topic, certain breeds of dogs, particularly if not spayed or neutered are vastly more likely to bite to the point of harming a person than others. Specifically?

Terriers, the broad family that includes pit bulls, tops the list in this case-control study.

Breed mattering is another way of saying genes matter. If you artificially select dogs to be violent, they'll be violent. Combine breeding for violent temper with breeding for strong jaw muscles and large size and you have an unwelcome combination. It's also worth noting that breeding for a dog the size and shape of a terrier does not require breeding for bad and uncontrollable temper.

To insist on having a badly tempered, strongly muscled large dog as a pet is like insisting on the right to drive a backhoe to work each day. Yes, if you as the owner act perfectly, most likely nobody will get hurt; there just isn't much room for error.

Yes, pit bulls can be sweet, kind, gentle dogs. Can be. The breed has been mis-selected so long, it's understandable for a stranger to assume your pit bull is capable of injurious violence; the data backs up his or her suspicions.

If we're banning anything, I'd like to see a ban on selection for violent tempers in dogs--regardless of breed. And I recognize it's about as likely to succeed as a pit bull ban.

Friday, June 27, 2008

For Bill Gates on his Last Day at Microsoft

posted by on June 27 at 12:29 PM

Dear Bill,

Congratulations on your last day at Microsoft and welcome to the world of biomedical research!

Everyone I know who endured a ‘billg’ review agrees—you’re apparently a bit of an ass. Quick to question and call bullshit, to point out errors or inconsistency, and to demand the best, willing to yell if yelling is needed.

Excellent! We need an ass working in public health right now--right here in the United States. Peter J. Hotez makes the case in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases:

In 1962, an estimated 40 million Americans lived in poverty, almost one-quarter of the US population. Today, the poverty rate in the US is roughly half of what it was when The Other America was first published, however, the total number of people living in poverty remains about the same. We now recognize that this group of 36.5 million impoverished Americans is at higher risk for heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases compared to the rest of the US population. However, it is not well known that just as the poorest people in the low-income countries of Africa, Asia, and Central and South America have the highest rates of the neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), there is evidence to suggest that large numbers of the poorest Americans living in the US also suffer from some of these unique infections.

Like what? Hookworm--causing malnutrition and severe anemia--is assumed to be eliminated in the South. Why assumed? We stopped looking for it in 1970. The last study completed showed the disease still exists. Why stop looking? "...because they only occur among impoverished people and mostly underrepresented minorities, I believe that there has been a lack of political will to study the problem, so that these diseases of poverty have been allowed to simply remain neglected," notes Dr. Hotez.

Imagine this Toxocariasis worm slowly chewing its way through your body--migrating through your skin, causing horrible itching, through your lungs, causing horrible asthma, and even across your eye.

We know that playgrounds in poor cities are full of toxocariasis eggs. In Bridgeport and New Haven Connecticut around 10% of children have evidence of current or past infection with these guys. Ten percent!

Another? Cysticercosis tapeworms are surprisingly common, particularly among Hispanics.
This tapeworm, in the process of smashing the brain, can cause seizures; in certain Los Angeles hospitals about 10% of seizures are caused by cysticercosis.

I'll let Dr. Hotez finish up for me:

We need to begin erasing these horrific health disparities by stepping up measures to conduct active and national-scale surveillance for soil-transmitted helminth infections, especially toxocariasis, as well as cysticercosis and congenital toxoplasmosis. In addition, based on data suggesting that the NTDs cutaneous leishmaniasis, ratborne leptospirosis and hantavirus infection, dengue fever, brucellosis, tuberculosis caused by Mycobacterium bovis, trichomoniasis, and louse-borne trench fever are emerging among the poor in the US, it is imperative that we address these conditions as well...

The fact that reliable numbers on the actual prevalence of the NTDs are simply not available is reflective of their neglected status, and their disproportionate impact on minorities and poor people. There is an urgent need to support studies that (1) assess the disease burden resulting from the NTDs in the United States and (2) identify the minority populations at greatest risk, and then to (3) identify simple and cost-effective public health solutions. Accordingly, PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases is pleased to consider and review articles on this vitally important topic. There are no excuses for allowing such glaring health disparities to persist in one of the world's wealthiest countries.

We don't like hard realities in the United States. We don't like thinking of ourselves as in the same category as the poorest nations on the planet. When it comes to horrific diseases, the poor in the United States might be as burdened as the poorest around the world. Human beings with these diseases cannot study, cannot develop fully, cannot reach their full potential. To not even bother looking, to willfully ignore the problem is deeply immoral.

We need an ass to stand up and demand we find out the true extent of this problem, demand we accept reality so that we can start to fix it. BillG, you are just than man for the job. Have at it!

With Sincerity,
Jonathan Golob

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wait, Why Are There Gay Men?

posted by on June 26 at 10:40 AM

If being a gay man is an inborn, inherent trait with some genetic basis--as the massive, overwhelming, credible, sound, tenable, probable, corroborating, confirming, affirmative collection of scientific evidence states--why are there gay men at all? It's a trait that strongly discourages procreative sex. Less sex with women means less babies and therefore less spreading of the gay genes.

These alleles should drop out of the population.


Well, what is known about gay men and their family members?

i. Gay men are everywhere, persisting in every culture and in every human population at more-or-less the same frequency--regardless of how much a culture loves gay men.

ii. The sisters, mothers and aunts of gay men have more babies than those without a gay brother, son or nephew--but only if the relation is through the gay man's mother.

iii. A gay man's male relatives are more likely to be gay--but only if related again through the gay man's mother.

Well, we can come up with a few possible explanations, and see what best fits these observations.
1. Kin Selection.

The idea? A gay man in the family can only help make the heterosexual relatives pop out more kids and have the kids do better after birth. Babysitting, sexual counseling, consoling, food preparation, hunting.... it's all gotta be good for making kids, right? Even if the gay uncle, brother or son doesn't have babies himself, all those related babies are so much better off, the gay alleles survive to make future gay men!

Sadly, this appears to not be the explanation.

2. Overdominance.

This is the gay-is-like-sickle-cell-anemia argument. If having two gay alleles makes you gay, and therefore less prone to baby-making, perhaps having one gay allele makes you a better straight man. Therefore, straight men carrying one gay allele and one straight allele do better than their all straight allele counterparts--the gay alleles survive!

3. Maternal effects

In other words, the ever popular mom-made-you-gay theory. Genetically this time. For almost all genes, we get one copy from mom and one copy from dad. For a few of these genes, one of these copies is always turned off from the mom or dad, called genetic imprinting. For example, while dads tend to want the biggest babies possible, mothers tend to prefer surviving childbirth--genetically speaking here. So, the mother's copies of the genes for growing big tend to be turned off in the baby. Perhaps the same thing is going on for genes that make boys straight.

4. Sexually antagonistic selection.

This is the general blame-women theory. Perhaps the gene for making a gay man (not so good for future reproductive prospects) is super good for straight women (making baby making more likely and easier).

Ok, well which is it? Andrea Camperio Ciani, Paolo Cermelli, Giovanni Zanzotto recently published a possible answer in PlosONE.

Running the available empiric data about gay men through a whole bunch of models of these possibilities, they discovered one combination that best fits reality and a few aren't really possible at all.

Overdominance seems really unlikely. None of the models including this idea fit the data all that well. Nor did the models based on maternal effects. It appears that mom cannot make you gay. Sorry.

The best fits needed two genetic loci (two genes), with at least one of these loci on the X chromosome. Recall, while women get two X-chromosomes, men only get one. Additionally, at least one of these alleles must be sexually antagonistic--in favor of women reproducing if they have it, even if it makes you gay as a boy.

Or, as the authors of the study stated:

Our analysis allows us to draw several conclusions that clarify the basic evolutionary dynamics of the genetic factors influencing human male homosexuality and the related female fecundity increase, resolving a number of open questions. As a main point, we can exclude the GFMH propagation mechanisms based on overdominance (male heterozygote advantage), because none of the models (1b), (5a), (5b) account satisfactorily for the sexual-orientation asymmetries of requirement (B1). At this level of genetic analysis, we can also exclude maternal effects, including maternal genomic imprinting, as they lead too easily to GFMH extinction or fixation, against requirement (A). Only the hypothesis that the GFMH are characterized by sexually antagonistic selection (i.e. the GFMH favor one sex and disfavor the other) produces viable population genetic models (see the case (4) above) leading to the persistence of the trait at low frequencies and capable of accounting for the related pedigree asymmetries. For this reason, predictions of possible widespread diffusion of male homo- or bisexuality in human populations are not warranted, as stable low levels of this character are actually compatible with a broad range of parameters in population genetic models.

For what could this allele be? Well, an obvious choice is digging dudes. If a woman has an allele that really makes her like guys, she's more likely to have babies than a woman who has a less guy-loving allele for this gene. If she passes on this dude loving allele to her son, via the X-chromosome, perhaps he'll be gay. But since she's having more babies, it's a wash.


(Updated for clarity and some more details.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Bruno Future

posted by on June 24 at 12:42 PM

On seeing this bit of silliness (silly in both the lost and current sense), I thought of...
AniJesusWorldStarsExc.gif hero (and father of Spinozism) Giordano Bruno. On February 17, 1600, the Catholic church burnt the philosopher's naked body to nothing for believing what we now know to be true (planets are all over the universe) and what will eventually be known to be true (life as we understand it is on some of these planets). We must never forget that until 1997, the only planets in our universe were those in our solar system.

As Socrates is the martyr of the ancient world, and Jesus the martyr of the middle world, Bruno will be the martyr of the worlds to come.

Friday, June 20, 2008

You Don't Understand Fuel Economy; Blame MPG

posted by on June 20 at 4:25 PM

Assuming you drive the same miles per year, which change will save more gas in a given year:

* Switching from a Dodge Ram at 13 MPG to a Toyota Tundra at 15 MPG

* Switching from a Honda Fit at 32 MPG to a Toyota Prius at 44 MPG.

(Mileage figures are from Consumer Reports.)

Have your answer? Ok, next question.

Assuming you drive the same miles per year, which change will save more gas in a given year:

* Switching from a Dodge Ram that needs 770 gallons per 10,000 miles, to a Toyota Tundra that needs 667 gallons per 10,000 miles

* Switching from a Honda Fit that needs 313 gallons per 10,000 miles, to a Toyota Prius that needs 238 gallons per 10,000 miles.

Did your answer change?

As a measure of fuel economy, miles-per-gallon is incredibly unintuitive. One must consider both the change and the starting point when deciding the significance of an increase in MPG. Nasty.

How nasty? Richard P. Larrick and Jack B. Soll collected data to discover just how confused people become when considering changes in miles-per-gallon. Their work was just published in the Journal Science.

The most telling passage from the study:

The study was presented in an online survey to 171 participants who were drawn from a national subject pool. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 75, with a median age of 35. All participants were given the following scenario (5): "A town maintains a fleet of vehicles for town employee use. It has two types of vehicles. Type A gets 15 miles per gallon. Type B gets 34 miles per gallon. The town has 100 Type A vehicles and 100 Type B vehicles. Each car in the fleet is driven 10,000 miles per year." They were then asked to choose a plan for replacing the original vehicles with corresponding hybrid models if the "overriding goal is to reduce gas consumption of the fleet and thereby reduce harmful environmental consequences."

One group of 78 participants was randomly assigned to a policy choice framed in terms of MPG. They were asked to choose between two options: (option 1) replace the 100 vehicles that get 15 MPG with vehicles that get 19 MPG and (option 2) replace the 100 vehicles that get 34 MPG with vehicles that get 44 MPG. Note that town fuel efficiency is improved more in option 1 (by 14,035 gallons) than in option 2 (by 6,684 gallons). As expected, the majority (75%) of participants in the MPG condition chose option 2, which offers a large gain in MPG but less fuel savings [95% confidence interval (CI) = 65 to 85%].

Participants in the GPM condition (n = 93) were given the same instructions as those in the MPG condition. In addition, they were told that the town "translates miles per gallon into how many gallons are used per 100 miles. Type A vehicles use 6.67 gallons per 100 miles. Type B vehicles use 2.94 gallons per 100 miles." They read the same choice options as used in the MPG condition, including the MPG information, but with an additional stem that translated outcomes into GPM for the hybrid vehicles [(option 1) replace the 100 vehicles that get 6.67 gallons per 100 miles with vehicles that get 5.26 GPM and (option 2) replace the 100 vehicles that get 2.94 gallons per 100 miles with vehicles that get 2.27 GPM]. As expected, the majority of participants (64%) in the GPM frame chose option 1, which offers a small gain in MPG but more fuel savings (CI = 54 to 74%). Overall, the percentage choosing the more fuel-efficient option increased from 25% in the MPG frame to 64% in the GPM frame (P < 0.01).

When talking about fuel efficiency in terms of gallons per mile, people were nearly three-times as likely to make the rational choice as compared to the same numbers in miles-per-gallon. Remember this when making your next car purchase.

Updated for the graphically minded, like me:

The Rock of Our Sun

posted by on June 20 at 12:58 PM


What philosophy has in common with the pharaoh Akhenaten is Atenism--both worship the sun. One philosophical text: "[O]ne morning with the rosy dawn, [the philosopher] went before the sun, and spake thus unto it: Thou great star! What would be thy happiness if thou hadst not those for whom thou shinest!" Another text: "Spirit often seems to have forgotten and lost itself, but inwardly opposed to itself, it is inwardly working ever forward, until grown strong in itself it bursts asunder the crust of earth which divided it from the sun, its concept..." In the Republic, the sun is nothing less than the truth. Even today, Badiou talks about the truth (scientific innovation, a work of genius, a moment in love) as a "return" from the sun.

But the sun in philosophy is not as great as the sun in reality. Our star is not destined for greatness. In the deepest future, it will begin to grow smaller and smaller. Its death will be a rock the size of our planet. A hard and compressed rock drifting through the stupidity of space. As our deaths reveal the corspes that are buried in our living bodies, the death of the sun will reveal the rock that's buried in its brightness.

Imagine how wonderful it would be if the sun was destined to explode like the great stars do. Explode into the brilliance of billions of stars. Explode positive stuff into the depths of negative space. Stuff that would eventually cool into new stars and systems of planets. If this were our sun's end, it would truly deserve all of our philosophy and praises.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

More Data for the Great Slog Pit Bull Debate, '08

posted by on June 19 at 5:42 PM

I put this figure together, based on data from a May 1997 MMWR.

Undeniably, more people have been killed by "pit bull" breeds, or dogs with some "pit bull" mixture, than any other breed. This does not prove the breed is bad. Fatality is a combination of a whole variety of factors--age of the victim, size of the dog, the training of the dog and the breed.

Also of note? Nearly two-thirds of fatal attacks involve unrestrained dogs, at the owners house or running wild in the streets.

Fatalities from dog attacks are very, very rare. Vastly more people are bitten by dogs each year, often with enough injury to require medical treatment. It's much easier to study what leads to a dog bite, accounting for breed, training and so on. A 1994 study in the journal Pediatrics did just that. The money table:

(Click for a larger version.)

"Pit bulls" aren't included in this study. This study is based on data from Denver, where pit bulls were already banned.

If the matched odds ratio 95% confidence interval is entirely below 1.0, this factor makes a bite less likely to happen. If the interval is completely above 1.0, this factor increases the risk of a bite. If it spans 1.0, the factor doesn't necessarily increase or decrease the risk of a bite.

Big factors increasing the risk of a bite? Breed. Male dogs. Non-neutered dogs. Big dogs (> 50 pounds). Young dogs (<5 years old). Dogs chained in yards. Dogs that don't get regular rabies vaccines. Having a child in the house. The owner not bothering to license the dog in the past year.

Reducing the risk? Dog that were ever disciplined by a takedown (holding a dog to the ground, on its back, while holding its neck) or stringup (lifting a dog by its neck chain). That's it.

Training and discipline didn't seem to significantly reduce the risk of biting, at least in this study.

Have at it!

Props for Golob

posted by on June 19 at 5:30 PM

Jonathan Golob's Dear Science gets some love from my beloved MetaFilter.

Congrats to both.

"...this was not a problem that money could solve. It was a problem that the scientists could solve."

posted by on June 19 at 12:35 PM

Oh Mark Mitchell, thanks for reminding me of the Reagan administration.

Margaret Heckler, Reagan's heath secretary, lead the charge against AIDS. Specifically, she made sure to cut the CDC's budget right at the start of a massive global epidemic, leading the charge right into a ditch. Sweet!

Check out this exchange from the exemplary Frontline documentary, the Age of AIDS:

NARRATOR: Margaret Heckler became Reagan's secretary of health and human services in 1983. She says she was looking to the scientists to set her priorities on AIDS.

MARGARET HECKLER: AIDS was a mystery. It was a puzzlement even to the scientists. And before we knew what to do or how much it would cost or anything like that, we needed to find out what the scientists could tell us. And my goal was simply to expedite the process.

NARRATOR: But at the CDC, an agency Heckler supervised, officials said their efforts had been severely hurt by the budget cuts.

WALTER DOWDLE, Ph.D., Director, CDC 1989-90: The Reagan administration had come in, and there was a mandate to cut all government activities, but CDC was slated to be cut by at least 25 percent. There was no travel allowed at all. And so therefore, we virtually had our hands tied.

DON FRANCIS, M.D., CDC 1972-92: My area of responsibility at the time was to establish a laboratory to investigate the cause, develop a blood test, and do all of these things. And we really had nothing for the first two years, essentially nothing. We had to steal equipment from the other laboratories. We had to dig out space, and we had to- this was not an appropriate response to a disease that had a mortality that looked like greater than most other infections that we had to deal with.

NARRATOR: In April 1983, four months into her term, Secretary Heckler told a congressional committee that all the federal agencies researching AIDS had adequate funding.
"In the AIDS situation," she said, "I really don't think there is another dollar that would make a difference because the attempt is all-out to find an answer."

INTERVIEWER: There were a lot of people who felt that more money should have been spent.

MARGARET HECKLER: I disagree with that. I think that we could not have gained anything more by increasing the cash expenditures. We were in the right direction. We were placing the emphasis on those who could provide the answers. And in a peculiar case, this was not a problem that money could solve. It was a problem that the scientists could solve.

Money can't solve the problems. Scientists can! Ergo? Cut the scientists' funding, and things will go faster--the making of an all-out effort. Neither Orwell nor Kafka ever hit this absolute high in doublethink. I'm practically crazed, thinking she was in charge. Even better? The Reagan administration was an order of magnitude more competent than W's.

This is some of the central thinking behind the conservative movement, the movement over half the country still adores. Step 1: Science and progress will solve everything! Step 2: We don't have to spend money on science; tax cuts for everyone! Step 3: Profit!

Any wonder why we're so totally and absolutely fucked today?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

How to Read a Poll

posted by on June 18 at 5:14 PM

As we approach November, I anticipate a tidal wave of blog posts on polls. Reading the polling data improperly is hazardous to your health. The disconnect between the polling and the 2004 election results nearly resulted in my death. Avoid my mistakes.

1. Remember that polls are always of a population that may or may not resemble who actually goes to the polls. Only pay attention to polls that randomly select respondents. Consider how the poll selects the respondents.

For example, almost all polls used in the presidential race are based off random telephone surveys of landline telephones. I only have a cell phone. Therefore, I am not in the statistical population surveyed.

Thus, even if the poll is perfect, it might not reflect the reality at the polls in the fall, as the populations might not match.

2. A poll only shows a statistically meaningful difference between two candidates if the difference between them is more than twice the margin of error. Most political polls in the United States are designed to have a margin of error of +/- 3%. Therefore, the difference between the candidates must be greater than 6% to be anything other than a tie.

A margin of error of 3% tells us that the true percentage in the population has a 95% chance of being somewhere between three percent above or below the number reported by the survey.

For example, the Rasmussen June 9 2008 poll of Michigan voters has Obama at 45%, McCain at 42%. The actual percentage of the population for Obama ranges from 42% to 48%, McCain 39% to 45%. The ranges overlap, and therefore we cannot say that one is leading over the other, often called a statistical tie.

Another fun thing to consider. 95% confidence means that for one in twenty polls, the true population percentage will not be in this range.

The practical meaning of all this? Beware selectively looking at the poll results! If you are selective enough, you can only see the error you want to see. Net result? Suicidal thoughts in November.

3. Often the real trends are smaller than the error ranges of the surveys. We can employ two math tricks to make things better.

First, we can aggregate many surveys together and get an average of percentages. We have to be careful when estimating the confidence interval after this averaging, but we can get a better guess at the true population's percentage just by looking at more than one survey at a time.

The second trick is to use moving averages as a mathematically safe way to sort out random ups-and-downs in the poll numbers from the real longer term changes in the sampled population.

Think of how much your weight changes each day, by when you've last gone to the bathroom, how much water you've drank and so on. The change on a day-by-day basis is far larger than what you'll typically gain or lose in a week. So, if you measure your weight each day, and then average together the last seven days, you end up smoothing out all the variance. Left behind is the actual change on a week-long basis. We can use the same math on the polls.

Quite a few websites are around that basically do all of this for us, limiting themselves to polls with some statistical rigor, base their analysis on the confidence intervals, and aggregate multiple polls together in a moving average. None are perfect, but I've taken a shine to for it's non-commercial goodness and openness. I think the site is too aggressive in calling states--Michigan is listed as barely Obama, I think it should be a toss-up--but overall it's a decent place to start.

Several readers have pointed me to as the source for aggregated poll data on the 2008 election.

This is great Science. Have you checked out yet? Election data porn for DAYS...complete with charts! Would love to hear your thoughts on its methodologies Posted by sherman | June 18, 2008 5:22 PM
no, dude, you need more than a cursory glance at 538 uses detailed methodology to apply trends across congressional districts with similar demographics. The guy who runs it is the same genius who created PECTOA for the Baseball Prospectus.

Trust me, is so 2004. This years it's all about Nate at 538.
Posted by el ganador | June 18, 2008 6:43 PM

538 is the real deal.

Nate Silver is the brains behind it and the guy is a math wizard - he's a legend in baseball circles for being by far the most accurate at ball player projections (PECOTA)

You need to read a his FAQ - much of the stuff is over the head of anyone without a PHD in statistics but it is grounded in hard science. He was recently hired by Rasmussen and appeared on CNN - FWIW the 'main stream' is taking him very seriously.
Posted by DavidC | June 18, 2008 6:45 PM

After reading over the faq and methodology, I agree. 538 seems a very worthwhile place to follow the 2008 polls. Thanks guys!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Antarctic Winters Not So Wintery Anymore

posted by on June 17 at 10:46 AM

From the ominously titled European Space Agency press release, Even the Antarctic winter cannot protect Wilkins Ice Shelf:

Wilkins Ice Shelf, a broad plate of floating ice south of South America on the Antarctic Peninsula, is connected to two islands, Charcot and Latady. In February 2008, an area of about 400 km² broke off from the ice shelf, narrowing the connection down to a 6 km strip; this latest event in May has further reduced the strip to just 2.7 km.

This animation, comprised of images acquired by Envisat’s Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR) between 30 May and 9 June, highlights the rapidly dwindling strip of ice that is protecting thousands of kilometres of the ice shelf from further break-up...

Wilkins Ice Shelf has experienced further break-up with an area of about 160 km² breaking off from 30 May to 31 May 2008. ESA’s Envisat satellite captured the event – the first ever-documented episode to occur in winter.

Excellent! The jury might be coming back on climate change. Perhaps this would be a good time to remind you of my posts and introduce you to a new podcast on nuclear power listen.

Scary animated GIF of the ice shelf breaking off is after the jump...

Continue reading "Antarctic Winters Not So Wintery Anymore" »

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Complex Trait by Random Chance? Ok.

posted by on June 13 at 6:58 PM


No one really argues about the validity of natural selection. Only the most hardened of young Earth creationists contest that organisms with more adaptive traits will preferentially survive and reproduce. The Intelligent Design crowd tends to wave this off as a trivial truth. Of course, they say, better traits are selected for. They instead claim you need a designer to provide these traits. How could something as complicated as a metabolic pathway simply arise from chance? Where's the proof that such beneficial traits can simply arise, with no guiding hand?

Zachary Blount, Christina Borland, and Richard Lensk, from Michigan State University, set out to test this tricky question in evolution.

E. Coli, a gut bacteria commonly used in the lab, cannot eat citrate. While other organisms can, it takes a whole complicated set of interacting genes that E. Coli lack. Could E. Coli, by random chance, mutate such a family of genes? How long, how many and how many generations of bacteria would it take?

In 1988, cultures of E. Coli were started in media with little sugar, but much citrate. Any bacteria that could eat citrate would have a huge selective advantage. After 31,500 generations, one colony finally gained the ability to eat citrate. Going back to the freezer, and looking at the earlier colonies frozen back, it became clear that the pieces started to come together in parts at around 20,000 generations.

What an amazing finding! Just by being in a selective environment, that rewarded bacteria that could learn to do a complex new task, the part could form by a series mutations and eventually be selected for. Exactly as evolution would predict--an elegant demonstration of both halves of evolution, natural selection and the arising of complex traits by random mutation. It's a stinging slap in the face of the Intelligent Design creationists, whose entire loudly touted faith-system is based on the impossibility of this event.

Eat it, M. Night!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Nuclear Power

posted by on June 7 at 2:10 PM


With oil prices spiking again--I say from both real increases in global demand and speculation piggybacking on the market conditions, you may disagree--and global energy supplies at some of the tightest margins ever, is it any surprise that...

Nuclear power, long reviled as a dangerous source of energy, is on the verge of a comeback. That’s because a growing body of scientists, politicians and environmental activists see atomic energy as part of the solution for global warming and our ever-growing dependence on foreign oil, much of it from nations that, if not downright hostile toward us, certainly don’t share our values.

Well, what of nuclear power? On the Dear Science blog, I've just completed a six post series on nuclear power, covering...

...the physics behind nuclear power:

Every nuclear power plant in operation today works by capturing the energy release when a really unhappy large nucleus breaks up into two smaller and more successful get-togethers–atomic fissioning. When these cranky huge parties break up, a few neutrons typically get flung out at high speeds–think of these as a few type-B’s from the party screaming away in tears. If these neutrons hit another large nucleus, teetering towards breaking up already, they can smash the party to pieces, sending yet more neutrons out.

So, you can imagine a game where you place enough of these large nuclei next to one another, such that the neutrons from one breaking up shortly cause a neighboring large nucleus to break up, sending more neutrons out to break up more nuclei… creating a chain reaction.

... how almost all current nuclear power reactors work...

The goal? A controlled fissioning of large nuclei. You’ll need fuel, moderation, coolant, and some control...

Hey, something nifty! Water is both a good coolant and moderator! No moderator, no chain reaction, right? So, if you use water as your coolant and moderator, your reactor has an intrinsic safety feature. If you lose coolant, you lose moderation and the chain reaction stops. We all live! Thus, almost all nuclear reactors in operation today use water as a coolant and moderator.

... radiation...

Alpha particles, the cannon balls, can be stopped by a single sheet of paper. Smash! Likewise, the dead outer layer of skin does a damn good job of protecting your living cells from alpha particles. Beta particles, the bullets, go right through paper. A thin sheet of aluminum, or something of similar density and substance, will gobble these up.

Gamma radiation is trickier. Gamma radiation is just a freakishly high energy version of light, with almost no substance. Just like light can pass right through your hand, gamma radiation can pass through all but the heaviest and densest of metals, wreaking havoc deep into the body.

... nuclear waste ...

When we loaded our reactor, the fuel was chemically fairly pure. Recall, however, that nuclear decay typically results in new chemicals being created–whether by alpha or beta decay or by fissioning. As our reactor operates, these new atoms build up. Most are radioactive themselves, also undergoing various decays. Most of these atoms are neutron hoarders–gleefully absorbing our precious neutrons, while offering up few when they themselves decay. So, as these new atoms build up, we lose more and more neutrons. Eventually there are too few free neutrons left to keep the chain reaction going, even if we completely remove the control rods. Such fuel, still containing a bunch of Uranium but now contaminated various highly radioactive but non-chain reacting atoms, is called spent. It’s hideously radioactive, more radioactive than when we put the fuel in the reactor, but useless as fuel.

Welcome to the trickiest problem of nuclear power, the waste. What can we do?

... the two most famous disasters at nuclear power plants ...

I’d like to imagine the following exchange, between a middle manager in the Soviet Union and us, some plucky nuclear engineers, when planning these plants:

Middle manager: “You have my plant design?”
Us: “Yes, but it is incredibly dangerous!”
MM: “But it will work without any Plutonium, enriched Uranium or heavy water?”
Us: “Yes. In fact, it produces Plutonium as a waste product!”
MM: (Claps hands) “Excellent. We shall have such nice dachas when I tell everyone of this plan.”
Us: “It is far to dangerous to build. I refuse to do it!”
MM: (Laughs. Then pauses.) “Oh. You’re serious.”
MM: (Considers his boss, probably some one-eyed, one-armed veteran of Zhukov’s Berlin campaign in the Great Patriotic War, who won’t be sympathetic to concerns about hoards of irradiated civilians after asking why his reactor isn’t operating yet.)
MM: (Points to us.) “Guards, shoot this man.”
Us: (Shot in the head)
MM: (Turns to our assistant) “So, ready to build the reactors?”
Assistant: “Let’s just pick some places in Ukraine, Romania and other shitholes to build ‘em, yes?”

... and finally what future reactor designs will be like.

The designs are, individually, brilliant. The lead-cooled variant is designed to be modular. The reactor is small, easily installed and removed and works for about fifteen to twenty years without having to be opened or refueled. Perfect for countries or remote areas with no interest in or infrastructure for refining nuclear fuels. The gas-cooled variant can operate safely at huge temperatures and is incredibly efficient at minimizing waste products in a relatively simple manner. The sodium-cooled design is the dreamiest to me. Such a reactor complex could not only operate at tremendous efficiencies, but also eat up the waste of the older pressurized water reactors. Keen!

2030 is too far away. If we were smart, we would throw resources at these fourth generation technologies, pushing to have the pilot reactors and designs finalized within ten years. None of these are perfect. No source of power is without risk or environmental injury. None. Our planet hosts nearly seven billion people. Fossil fuel reserves are dwindling. The atmosphere and oceans are buckling under the carbon strain. Nuclear power, particularly responsibly applied with standardized plant designs and a real plan for dealing with the waste, remains our best hope. The physics and technology is available. We just need to do it. Now.

It’s time we talked about nukes. For most, the opinions run deeper than knowledge. Read my series, or pick up a good book on the subject. Educate yourself. Get an informed opinion and then go out and win some arguments.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Dear Science Pot Cast

posted by on June 5 at 11:21 AM

You’ve seen Jonathan Golob get all smart here on Slog, and you’ve seen me ramble about pot—but now you can listen to him being smart and me ramble on a podcast all about drugs. We talk about such sophisticated topics as: how opiates can stop the shits, pharmaceutical pot sprays, and pot-brownie overdoses that make you wish you could die. You can listen to the Dear Science podcast—drug edition—over here.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Rebranding Intelligent Design

posted by on June 4 at 1:42 PM

The New York Times has a good story today about the newest rebranding efforts of the intelligent design proponents at Seattle's very own Discovery Institute.

Laura Beil goes over a few of the good old catchphrases--creationism to creation science to intelligent design--but it's useful to remember that there are also nitty-gritty PR tactics under those larger umbrella strategies. As newly favored phrases like "strengths and weaknesses" [of the theory of evolution] and "academic freedom" are being phased in (with the help of mass culture and new media propaganda in movie theaters and on YouTube), many others have been or are being phased out: "equal time for creation science" (this was dropped after the Supreme Court called bullshit on it in Edwards v. Aguillard; "intelligent design" appeared soon thereafter), "abrupt appearance theory," "critical analysis of evolution," "teach the controversy," etc. Others are being retracted so you'll only hear them in creation-friendly audiences: "Evolution is a theory in crisis," "evolution is just or only a theory," "evolutionist," etc.

Intelligent design is a legal strategy wrapped in a robustly funded public relations campaign. (In terms of content, it's still dependent on the tired old God-of-the-gaps reasoning of 18th-century philosopher William Paley, who died before Charles Darwin had been born.) Sound, innovative ideas don't need that kind of arsenal to succeed in the public sphere.

The Human Habit

posted by on June 4 at 11:03 AM

The world is big; our world is so small:

The whereabouts of more than 100,000 mobile phone users have been tracked in an attempt to build a comprehensive picture of human movements.

The study concludes that humans are creatures of habit, mostly visiting the same few spots time and time again.

Most people also move less than 10km on a regular basis, according to the study published in the journal Nature.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Get Those People a Wal*Mart!

posted by on May 30 at 11:51 AM


Members of one of the world’s last uncontacted tribes have been spotted and photographed from the air near the Brazil-Peru border. The photos were taken during several flights over one of the remotest parts of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil’s Acre state....

There are more than one hundred uncontacted tribes worldwide, with more than half living in either Brazil or Peru. All are in grave danger of being forced off their land, killed and decimated by new diseases.

(from Survival International)

That there are at least a few groups of people not completely absorbed into the global petroleum-fueled gaping consumerist maw is quite comforting.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Why Cyborg Monkeys Are Cool

posted by on May 29 at 4:26 PM

RobotMonkey.jpg (From the current edition of the journal Nature.)

Thanks to our continuing success in Iraq, you might have noticed distinctly fewer limbs in today’s America. Hence this recent work published in the journal Nature is quite encouraging:

Here we describe a system that permits embodied prosthetic control; we show how monkeys (Macaca mulatta) use their motor cortical activity to control a mechanized arm replica in a self-feeding task. In addition to the three dimensions of movement, the subjects' cortical signals also proportionally controlled a gripper on the end of the arm. Owing to the physical interaction between the monkey, the robotic arm and objects in the workspace, this new task presented a higher level of difficulty than previous virtual (cursor-control) experiments. Apart from an example of simple one-dimensional control, previous experiments have lacked physical interaction even in cases where a robotic arm or hand was included in the control loop, because the subjects did not use it to interact with physical objects—an interaction that cannot be fully simulated. This demonstration of multi-degree-of-freedom embodied prosthetic control paves the way towards the development of dexterous prosthetic devices that could ultimately achieve arm and hand function at a near-natural level.

The big plan here? Brain cells make electrical currents when doing their jobs. By listening for these electrical spikes with electrodes, we can eavesdrop. Using a map of the brain, giving us a clue which part of the brain controls (or controlled) the limb, we can put the electrodes over the right spot. When we detect a change in the brain cells in this spot, we can move a robot arm. Enjoy your new cyborg limb!

Well, Meel Velliste et al. got a monkey to move a robotic arm just by thinking. Nifty. Many groups, including my buddy Kai Miller right here in Seattle, have gotten people to play video games just by thinking. This brings us one step closer to replacing all those lost limbs.

Still, we really don’t have the best idea of exactly what these brain cells must say to one another when they want to move a limb or a finger. The better we understand this language, the better we can program the computer sitting between the electrodes on the brain and the robotic limb. Back to my friend’s thesis defense this week.

Listening to the brain with these electrodes, that read millions of brain cells at a time, is a bit like listening to the crowd at a stadium. You can hear large groups chanting in unison, horns or general roar; trying to pick out an individual conversation in all of this is next to impossible.

Still, we can figure a lot out at this level. When parts of the brain are at rest, they’re subject to regular gonging. The idea is somewhat like the best scene in Blazing Saddles (“Dag namit. The sheriff is a n{GONG}…”) Every time the part of the brain starts getting an idea to activate out of turn, the gonging from deeper levels interrupts the planning. So, the absence of this gonging is one way to detect when a part of the brain is activated. The problem is, this happens over a huge area of the brain. We need to figure a way to listen in on the planning among the brain cells that can now proceed uninhibited. A good old-fashioned scientific knife fight emerged in the field. One camp figured this planning would be synchronized--like a section in the stadium starting to chant, “Wave! Wave! Wave!” The other camp figured it’s hard to plan anything by only chanting in unison. Any meaningful planning would be the brain cells taking to one another, out of sync, and thus just sound like a bit louder roar from a small section. Screw listening for chants, listen for an increase in crowd noise and you’ll figure out when the brain is trying to, say, wiggle a finger.

My friend, sifting through recordings from human brains and using complex mathematical earplugs to separate the raw data from the electrodes into manageable pieces, figured out the second camp is probably right. Listen for the roar!

Two fun advances in science at a timely moment.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

European Space

posted by on May 28 at 4:10 PM

The Europeans are tired of catching American and Russian rides to the stars. They now feel a great want for a spaceship of their own.

This is a model of the future European spaceship...

The interior is more PR-orientated. We have three leather benches in there; we have touch screens - we can show simulated flights on the monitors; but of course the accessible volume is a lot larger than the real vehicle, which would have lots of equipment, a docking port, and these kinds of things.

Russia and America! Move out the way, move out the way.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

This Is Hell

posted by on May 27 at 3:13 PM

2475394863_cfa4fe699f_o.jpg Above the volcano (it erupted in Chile several weeks ago) is a nightmare plume of ash and electricity.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

NASA To Attempt Rare Mars Landing Today

posted by on May 25 at 4:46 PM

Often enough, attempted landings of unmanned probes on Mars have ended in disaster. NASA is attempting one right now, the Phoenix project.

Check it out, live, on NASA TV.

Update at 4:55pm: A successful landing! Much nerdy rejoicing.

This pleasant little video explains the mission.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Acidifying Ocean off the Pacific Coast

posted by on May 22 at 3:50 PM

Ok, just in case slog hasn't been depressing enough today....

Since the beginning of the industrial era, the oceans have absorbed approximately 127 ± 18 billion metric tons of carbon as carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or about one third of the anthropogenic [human produced] carbon emissions released....

However, the ocean's daily uptake of 30 million metric tons of carbon dioxide is significantly impacting its chemistry and biology. Recent hydrographic surveys and modeling studies have confirmed that the uptake of anthropogenic CO2 by the oceans has resulted in a lowering of seawater pH by about 0.1 since the beginning of the industrial revolution....

The reaction of CO2 with seawater reduces the availability of carbonate ions that are necessary for calcium carbonate (CaCO3) skeleton and shell formation for a number of marine organisms such as corals, marine plankton, and shellfish...

In May and June of 2007, we conducted a North American Carbon Program (NACP) West Coast Cruise on the Research Ship Wecoma along the continental shelf of western North America, completing a series of 13 cross-shelf transects from Queen Charlotte Sound, Canada to San Gregorio Baja California Sur, Mexico.

(from Science, Richard A. Feely et al. AOP)

What did they find? When the normal seasonal upswelling of deep ocean water occurs, the CO2-laden (and therefore acidified) offshore water comes into the continental shelf. This water is now acidic enough to be corrosive to the shellfish that support the entire ocean ecosystem. So, we're all just a bit closer to doomed. Sweet!

Where's Aquaman when you need him?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Death of a Star

posted by on May 21 at 11:55 AM

It lived for a long time...
...But no matter what the length of life be, the end is always one and the same.

Astronomers have been able to capture and record the first moments when a massive star blows itself apart.

After decades of searching, researchers have used the world's top telescopes to observe the remarkable event.

Previously, scientists had only been able to study these "supernovas" several days after the event.

The results, published in the journal Nature, show that within two hours of the blast, a giant fireball scattered radioactive debris across space.

To be a living dog is better than a dead star.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bitching About People Not Using Metrics Doesn't Make You Sound Smart

posted by on May 15 at 4:46 PM


I know that as a scientist, I am expected to loathe all imperial measurements--inches, cups, quarts, gallons and Fahrenheit. Whining about the United States' failure to embrace the metric system? Default behavior for dim bulbs seeking to seem sophisticated.

You know what? I don't like metric measurements for many daily tasks. Why? Factors!

The metric system is based around base 10 numbers. Why? We have ten fingers, so our counting system is based around base 10. This makes jumping between large differences in magnitude--say between the size of my desk and the size of the State--relatively easy. But, ten is a terrible, ugly, number. With only two factors, two and five, it's a bitch to subdivide measures.

Why couldn't we have twelve fingers? Twelve is a beautiful number--breaking down into factors of two, three, four and six. Ahhh! Grab a ruler and try to measure a third of foot. Easy! Try to measure a third of a meter. A total pain in the ass! Nothing like an infinite repeat (33.3333333333333333333333333333333333... cm) to ruin a perfectly pleasant day.

Imperial measures for volume are even more pleasant, residing in the world of base 2. Thirty-two fluid ounces to a quart--factors of two, four, eight and sixteen. I'm practically drooling. Ever try to adjust a recipe using measuring cups in milliliters? Ack!

For the lab where I'm routinely bouncing between microliters, milliliters and plain old liters, metric measures are great. Nifty even. For daily activities like cooking? Not so much so.

(Tip of the hat to WiS.)


If I could kill off two non-metric measures right now... hmmm.

So long Fahrenheit! What an inane way to measure temperature! We cannot even figure out how zero Fahrenheit was defined.

And goodbye to Letter, Legal and all the other hideous US paper sizes! Metric paper sizes are totally rad! The height-to-width ratio is 1: square root (2). So what? That means if you take two pieces of paper of the smaller size and put them next to one another? You get the next size up. Yay!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Platypus Genome!

posted by on May 14 at 5:51 PM

(Salim Virji)

Who doesn't love the platypus? This is a creature bizarre enough to make marsupials feel better about themselves. The platypus, lactates (mammal!) and lays eggs (reptile!), grows fur (mammal!) and venom (reptile!).

This might be the single most interesting creature, from an evolutionary point of view, on the planet. About 315 million years ago, Amniotes--a primitive vertebrate with four legs, pretty much resembling a blurry picture of every animal that comes to mind--split into two groups. The Sauropsids eventually became all reptile-like creatures, including Dinosaurs, snakes, lizards and birds. The Synapsids became, well, us and all other mammals. Almost 170 million years ago, the Platypus split off from the rest of the Synapsids and hung out on a little evolutionary twig of its very own.

This is all a bit like reading the Silmarillion or Numbers, so I'm moving on to the big, exciting, point for evolutionary biologists. 170 million years ago, we and the Platypus shared a common ancestor. If you want to reconstruct how we evolutionarily came to have external testicles, nipples, separate opening for pee and poop--all things we have but the Platypus doesn't--we could compare how a Platypus is put together, its genome, to our own. Our common ancestor probably lacked all these things. Likewise, the Platypus has been busy since departing our common ancestor, figuring out how do things we can't--like make poison or see the world using only electricity. How'd that happen?

Well, we now have a draft of the Platypus genome. This'll be fun.

Right off, the male Platypus has five X and five Y chromosomes. Huh? By comparison, every other male mammal has one X and one Y. One of the more pleasant observations is how similar we are to them. Over 80% of the genes in the Platypus strongly resemble those in humans or mice.

The remaining fifth is where all the fun actions occurs! Like what? The genes for chemical receptors, that make the nose work, are totally different. Genes for making eggs? Different from just about anything. The eggs are tiny and the baby Platypus hatches much earlier than is typical in egg-laying creatures. The baby then licks milk off the belly of the mother--remember, no nipples! If you wanted a snapshot of the evolution of mammals, that don't lay eggs and nurse their young, this is pretty much it.

Ok, enough of my wonderment. Read the paper, if you can! If you can't, bitch to your representative about the publication of publicly funded research in private, subscription only journals.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Subject Line of the Day

posted by on May 6 at 1:27 PM

"Chipotle Launches Naturally Raised Chicken"

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Top Five Nuclear Weapons of All Time

posted by on May 2 at 4:24 PM

My week is ending poorly.

Rather than go into a lengthy whine about irritatingly arrogant-yet-foolish coworkers, crappily designed and maintained websites, the evil of both the SAX and DOM XML parsers in Python and "what, you can only do one miracle at a time" management, I'd rather present you with an appropriately glum bit of my knowledge.

Thus, I present to you Science's top five most awesomest nuclear weapons of all time!

V. Little Boy

Little Boy was the first nuclear weapon used on a human population during the decimation of Hiroshima. I happen to love the evil simplicity of the beast.

Let's take a moment to talk about what makes an atomic bomb go boom. Every element secretly, deeply, desperately wishes to be iron--atomic number 26. The bigger or smaller you--Mr. element--are, the more you yearn for iron-ness. As the fatter elements or skinnier elements get closer to the ideal of iron, they breathe some relief--in the form of a massive release of energy. Boom!

Take Uranium, for example. At a mighty atomic number of 92, it's so irritable! This is a big boy, coming in isotopes of 238, 235 or 234; the rare 235 variety is particularly ready to cause some mayhem. When it spontaneously splits into two smaller atoms--a little bit closer to iron. YES!--it flings off high energy neutron bullets that have a tendency to split other obese atoms. Get enough U235 in a small space, and a chain reaction starts, resulting in a whole mess of atoms splitting in a short period of time. Combine all the energy and you have a big boom.

So, you're tasked with building a bomb around these ideas. Some general comes to your desk and tells you "here are kilograms of Uranium enriched for 235. Make a bomb that will definitely work. We don't want to look bad in front of the Japanese. Boom, or it's your ass!"

You think to yourself... hmm... if I put this much U235 together it'll explode. Let's split this amount into two pieces, and put them on opposite ends of a loooong track. One piece will be bolted in place, the other on a little track, with wheels and shit. Put a little chemical explosive charge at the end of the piece-on-wheels, careening it towards the fixed bigger piece. When they meet, BOOOOM! Excellent. While the bomb might blow itself to pieces before all the U235 can fission, spreading incredibly radioactive half-split products all over the place, who gives a shit! They're just Japanese! And it's my ass if there isn't a boom.

Ah! Little boy was invented.

Very few actual atomic bombs have this design. What if the little piece falls of the track?! No boom! No dead Japanese! It's your ass. The Fat Man-style plutonium implosion device is quite a bit more popular. Still, not everyone has gotten the memo. The North Korean nuke, so far as we can guess, was most likely a Little Boy-like device. Hence more a fizzle than a boom. I cannot imagine what the poor North Korean bomb engineer's week-after was like. To quote Ghostbusters, "Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!"

Continue reading "The Top Five Nuclear Weapons of All Time" »

News from the Animal Kingdom

posted by on May 2 at 9:57 AM

_44620484_seal_debruyn_466.jpg Yes, it is what you think it is: a seal fucking a penguin.

[The] bizarre event took place on a beach on Marion Island, a sub-Antarctic island that is home to both fur seals and king penguins.

At first glimpse, we thought the seal was killing the penguin
Nico de Bruyn, University of Pretoria

Why the seal attempted to have sex with the penguin is unclear. But the scientists who photographed the event speculate that it was the behaviour of a frustrated, sexually inexperienced young male seal.

Equally, it might be been an aggressive, predatory act; or even a playful one that turned sexual.

"At first glimpse, we thought the seal was killing the penguin," says Nico de Bruyn, of the Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria, South Africa...

...The 100kg seal first subdued the 15kg penguin by lying on it.

The penguin flapped its flippers and attempted to stand and escape - but to no avail.

The seal then alternated between resting on the penguin, and thrusting its pelvis, trying to insert itself, unsuccessfully.

Animals! Animals! Animals!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Global Energy Flux

posted by on April 30 at 11:50 AM

I've tried to stay out of this little fight, but I have to jump in here.

(As a prelude, I think both Erica and Annie are smart and all three candidates energy policies are an embarrassment. As an example, corn-based biofuels are a fucking farce.)


And she addresses some of the actual reasons gas prices are at record highs: America’s refusal to dip into oil reserves, and OPEC’s stranglehold on oil production.

is wrong.

1. The strategic petroleum reserve is intended for, and should remain for, genuine supply shocks--sudden losses of major sources of oil. A nuclear war in the Mideast, a revolution in Russia, a massive earthquake destroying the Alaskan pipeline, a hurricane decimating the gulf oil platforms, New Orleans and Texas--these are good uses for the strategic petroleum reserve, not as a response demand-driven rises in energy costs. If we use up the reserve in a vain attempt to reverse long-term trends, we will be left without petroleum when we really need it. And we need it. Without petroleum, our society stops. No food at the grocery store. No clean water coming out of the taps. No lights. No heat. The reserve is absolutely necessary to keep our civilization afloat after an unexpected sudden hit in production, to give us enough time to scramble and find an alternative source or drastically ration.

Any politician than wants to use the reserve for short-term political gain--to drive down energy costs temporarily before a key election--is profoundly selfish and irresponsible.

2. With the rise of major new suppliers and alterative oil sources, OPEC plays an increasingly minor role in global energy production. Further, the oil reserves and production rates in most OPEC countries have already started their decline.

Let's talk numbers. In 2007, the United States imported 13,439 thousand barrels of oil per day from foreign countries, down slightly from 13,707 in 2006. Domestic field production was about 5,103 thousand barrels per day in 2007. Therefore about three quarters of oil consumed in the United States is from foreign sources.

Personally I think this is a good thing. I'd much rather the United States consume other nations oil resources for as long as we can get away with it, saving our deposits for the future in which they will inevitably be more valuable than they are now. From a strategic point of view, it's a decent trade-off. We keep an intrinsically valuable resource in our nation while sending off a fiat currency abroad. Far better than the trade deficit from China, in which we mostly receive shitty consumer goods.

But wait, you say, why should we send all this money to the Mideast! Only about 2,170 thousand barrels per day came from the Persian Gulf, or 16% of all imports, ten percent of the total. Imports from all OPEC nations were just shy of 6000 thousand barrels per day, or just under half of all imports, a third of all oil consumed.

The nation from which we imported the most petroleum? Canada at 2,426 thousand barrels per day. For those of you keeping track, that's more than we imported from the entire Persian Gulf in 2007. Much of this was alternative petroleum sources, like oil sands. As I've written before, these alternative sources often come at a horrific environmental cost.

Which brings me to my final point. Probably the single most important technology to develop right now, if you care about protecting the environment and expanding energy reserves, is carbon sequestration. Coal, oil shale, tar sands and other dirtier fossil fuels are going to play in increasingly large part in global energy production. China and India are, right now, embarking on a massive expansion of coal-fired power plants. Italy and Germany, having banned nuclear power, are also on a coal-plant building spree. With carbon sequestration, at least, the emissions of these plants can be contained and the impact reduced.

Carbon sequestration, often absurdly wrapped under the term "clean coal," remains a lab process. No one has invested in the R&D needed to make it commercially viable. We should. It's the most obvious, the easiest and clearly most potentially effective way of reducing the impact of coming environmental and energy crises.

So, I give Obama credit for having a policy position that recognizes coal as an increasingly dominant source of energy worldwide, a policy that seeks to reduce the environmental impact of this reality--even if I think the majority of his energy policy is about as crappy as the others...


Commenter arduous takes me to task:

First of all, I disagree that carbon sequestration should be our first priority. Carbon sequestration is far from proven, and like hydrogen vehicles, appears to be pie in the sky and somewhat of a red herring. The science isn't there yet, and may not be there for a long while. Our first priority should be on alternative energy like solar and wind. According to Scientific American's article entitled "A Solar Grand Plan" investment in solar could supply "69 percent of the U.S.’s electricity and 35 percent of its total energy by 2050." Here the science is much more clear, and the technology is closer to being developed. Renewables HAVE to be our first priority....

Read what Tim Flannery has to say about carbon sequestration.

Even if you are right and he is wrong about carbon sequestration's viability (and honestly I hope carbon sequestration is eventually viable because I think it would be another useful tool to have in our arsenal, shouldn't we be focusing the bulk on our money on REDUCING emissions rather than something that MIGHT in a few decades be able to sap emissions out of the air?

Solar energy might be cheaper than oil in about FIVE years. We're so close. It's ridiculous to say that carbon sequestration should be our first line of offense.

To which I reply:

If I was elected president in 2000, I would have invested massively in solar and wind technology. Solar and wind power are among the very few energy sources with even the possibility of having a lower lifetime environmental impact--when considering producing the plant, running the plant and dismantling the plant--than fossil fuels.

I wasn't president; arduous wasn't. Bush was.

The policy decision worldwide--in India, in China, in Germany, in Italy and dozens of other nations--was to stick with coal for at least another thirty years. We didn't make this decision. The lack of a viable non-fossil fuel technology right now, not five years from now, did.

The plants are going to be built, regardless if we get carbon sequestration working. So, although I don't prefer carbon sequestration and I share the doubts that it'll ever work on a commercial scale, it's our best and last hope for dealing with the decisions already made.

Since we're in fantasy land, if I were president today, I'd focus policy on the demand side of the equation. I'd progressively increase the gas tax over time, add in a fossil fuel windfall tax and use the revenues to invest massively in deploying existing energy efficient technology. Increase federal subsidies for mass transit. Invest in a West coast high speed rail corridor. Pay for homeowners to put in new insulation and windows, new boilers and air conditioners, new refrigerators and ovens and so on.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Go Me!

posted by on April 23 at 4:42 PM

PMID #18425849

I also have a new column up in this week's paper, explaining the financial crisis through junk food.

Many modern financial investments—whose number and amount of money invested within increased dramatically after the depression-era financial controls were dismantled in the 1990s—are more like processed foods than produce. Investors just figured this out. And they've started to get nervous about where their cash has gone.

Take the mortgage-backed securities at the center of this crisis—in which thousands of mortgages were blended together, sliced into pieces, and then sold to millions of investors. Compared to the traditional mortgage lent out by a single bank to a single investor, these are the pizza-flavored low-fat Pringles to a baked potato.

The Most Important Issue

posted by on April 23 at 4:30 PM

Have you caught the "Audacity of Government" This American Life yet? You should.

Stories of the Bush Administration, its unique style of asserting presidential authority, and its quest to redefine the limits of presidential power.

To my mind, the single most important issue for the 2008 election is the massive increase in both the power and incompetence of the executive branch--under the heinous ideology of the Unitary Executive. The massive power grab by the Bush administration--stealing authority from both the States and the co-branches of government--goes a long way to explain the decline of so many institutions in the United States. Most of the executive branch drones, given this massive authority, have little competence beyond winning College Republican elections.

Hence my desire to have an angry and voracious HRC thrust into a leadership role in the Senate, nipping at the heels of anyone and anything in the executive branch. I was thinking of all this while listening to the election returns last night. I miss the old, wonky HRC--vastly preferable to this pandering, fear spouting politician now winning elections.

Among the fear being spouted against Obama is the central role young voters have played in his successes. "Young voters don't vote in general elections," HRC supporters point out, "why not stick with Hillary, whose base are more reliable at the polls?"

True, most young people can't be trusted to vote. But this thinking misses a key advantage of having an administration led by someone--like Obama--who can really inspire young people, particularly highly educated young people: You get better bureaucrats.

Young college graduates--smart chemists, biologists, physicists, historians, political scientists, linguistic experts--are vastly more likely to consider a career in the government--the EPA, the FDA, the DOE, the State Department, the CIA, the NSA--when inspired by a charismatic and smart leader. Hence the vastly increased competence of young Democratic presidential administrations, like Bill Clinton's or potentially Barack Obama's.

So, I hold my (increasingly distant) dream situation alive. An invigorated and aggressive Senate overflowing with excellent policy encoded into legislation, lead for decades by the experienced wonkiness of Hillary Clinton. A competent executive branch, chocked full the best and brightest young minds, led by a charismatic and eloquent president Obama, capable of clearly explaining and executing the brilliant policy flowing from the legislature.


Monday, April 21, 2008

Beautiful Space

posted by on April 21 at 3:15 PM

Because space is useless...
malay_astro.jpg is the ideal place for beautiful people. The beauty above is Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, Malaysia's first spaceman. The one below is Ko San, a South Korean spaceman.

Because Yi So-Yeon is so plain...
...she has no business being in space. She must stay on earth, bare feet on the ground, hardened hands busy doing practical things.

Useless spaceships and the stars are for exquisite beings like Jeon Do-yeon.

On Making Scientific Decisions

posted by on April 21 at 2:55 PM

Ready? Prepared to have your mind blown?

(cartoon via xkcd)

Ideas are tested by experiment. That’s all there is to science. This is the only bar an idea must be taller than to take the ride of science as a legitimate hypothesis.

An untestable, unknowable, incomprehensible supernatural force is required for the existence of living things--the central idea behind Intelligent Design, creation science, creationism, or whatever you want to call it--is inherently unscientific. If the idea is untestable, it cannot be scientific and has no place in a science curriculum--save it for the philosophy courses, or evenings after eating too many enhanced baked goods.

This latest assault by the anti-science, pro-creationist crowd--to whine that their ideas aren’t given a fair shake in the scientific community due to some overarching conspiracy--is a three year old having a temper-tantrum upon being told he is too short to go on a roller coaster. This idea of a supernatural being, at its very core, refuses to be tested. It might be true, it might be false, but it’s certainly never going to be scientific.

Continue reading "On Making Scientific Decisions" »

The Propaganda Arm of the Intelligent Design Movement...

posted by on April 21 at 10:06 AM

... is off to a brilliant start with Expelled, an agitdoc proposing that a vast conspiracy has risen out of the academy to shut down free thought and inquiry. The evidence for this supposed conspiracy is completely anecdotal (here, an underperforming assistant professor being denied tenure, there, an unpaid research assistant being moved to another office at the Smithsonian), but that hasn't stopped the movie from doing a rollicking business at the box office.

The Discovery Institute has been covering the movie obsessively on its blogs: Ten of the last ten posts on its Evolution News & Views blog are dedicated to the movie (sample headlines: "Discovery Salutes Expelled; "Is There a Connection Between Hitler and Darwin?"; and, my favorite, "Opponents of Academic Freedom Using Outlandish Rhetoric"). Officially, however, the Seattle think tank denies any connection to the documentary. This official position is belabored during the movie itself, in a scene where host Ben Stein wanders the streets of downtown Seattle struggling to locate the organization's headquarters. There are reasons to doubt this official story (in an unguarded interview with the Christian film site Past the Popcorn, Stein explains he learned about arguments for intelligent design from one of the film's producers, Walt Ruloff, and someone named "Steven Meyer"—presumably a transcription error for Stephen C. Meyer, vice-president of the Discovery Institute and cofounder of the intelligent design movement).

But even if you charitably assume that the Discovery Institute was not directly involved with the production, an alarming percentage of the people who helped make the film have Northwest connections. The production company is located in Vancouver, B.C.. Producer Walt Ruloff lives outside of Vancouver and made his millions selling a software company to Microsoft. Almost all of the intelligent design proponents interviewed in the film are affiliated with the Discovery Institute, including Meyer, senior fellows David Berlinski, William Dembski, and Jonathan Wells, and fellow Paul Nelson. Meanwhile, several of the academics who claim to have been discriminated against for their ideas about intelligent design have a Seattle connection. Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer who was denied tenure at Iowa State University, received his PhD from and did postdoctoral work at the University of Washington. He is now a Discovery Institute Senior Fellow. Robert J. Marks II, an engineer at Baylor University (which declined to host his intelligent design website), taught at the UW for 25 years and served as the faculty advisor for the UW's chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ for 15 years.

So when the Discovery Institute tries to brag about box office performance in my hometown, it annoys me:

Across the country this weekend, people did a rare thing and turned out in droves for a documentary. In Ames, Iowa the line to get into Expelled stretched around the block Friday night. In Seattle theaters were crammed with students—on a Saturday afternoon, no less.

In the spirit of anecdotal sharing, I'd like to point out that Pacific Place at the 3:10 pm Saturday screening was hardly "crammed with students." There were about 20 people in attendance, most of them sweet, delusional older couples. A couple of teenagers pranced in about halfway through, but I suspect they, like me, had not bought a ticket to this particular show. (Don't worry, Pacific Place--I did buy a ticket to 10,000 B.C. and several items from the concessions stand.)

My review of Expelled will be in this week's issue of The Stranger. For now, please enjoy the National Center for Science Education's anti-Expelled website,