Monday, March 24, 2008

Whales in the news

Two pieces of whale news mentioned over at Talk Rational that I found interesting.

Scientists spot white killer whale off Alaska

That's quite interesting, especially since it seems like it's not a true albino. The other story, however, is even more interesting.

NZ dolphin rescues beached whales

Quite remarkable.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

The future of the web?

In one of the threads over at Rants n' Raves, a post pointed to this brilliant little science fiction short story, combining an internet forum with time travel.

by Desmond Warzel

Well worth reading.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Weakness in virus gives hope for cancer cure

ScienceDaily has the news.

Serious Weakness Found In Virus Responsible For Most Cervical Cancer

The virus responsible for most cases of cervical cancer has a serious weakness which may provide hope for new treatments for the disease.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a virus which causes several types of cancer but is particularly associated with cervical cancer, has developed clever ways of hiding in the body, but researchers at the University of Leeds have found that its ability to trick the body's first line of defence leaves it vulnerable to attack from a second defence system.

This sounds like a promising line, and hopefully the new knowledge can lead to a treatment for this virus, before it causes cancer.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Anna David's The Little Girl

A few months ago, the Danish music artist Anna David released a new album, on which there was a song "Den Lille Pige" (trans.: The Little Girl).

The song generated some notice in Denmark when it was released, because it was about rape and the costs of it. Not only that, it was a deeply personal song, about Anna David's own rape, when she was seventeen. She made a song about it to help others in the same situation.

I hadn't heard it before today, but the song is deeply moving, especially if you know the back story. Sadly, I haven't been able to find an English version of the text, but the music video is below. The chorus is something like

Outside no-one can see it, but it is inside.
You took something that for ever changed the small girl.
Even though she is grown up now, she'll never forget you.
Believe me words, because the little girl was me.

I liked some of her earlier stuff, but my respect for her has increased a lot.

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It's world TB day on the 24th

I assume that I wasn't the only one unaware of this fact, but it's World TB day on March 24th. My awareness of the day is due to coming across the following.

Statement of Christine F. Sizemore, Ph.D., Barbara E. Laughon, Ph.D., and Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health on World TB Day, March 24, 2008

The statement gives a good overview of the current state of TD and TD research, as well as explaining the future focus areas.

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Walking upright for 6 million years

National Geographic brings us the news that research indicated that our ancestors might have been walking upright for as long as six million years ago.

6-Million-Year-Old Human Ancestor 1st to Walk Upright?

An analysis of six-million-year-old bones from an early human ancestor that lived in what is now Kenya suggests that the species was the earliest known hominin to walk, a new study says.

The study that the National Geographic article refers to can be found here (behind the paywall at Science), and an Science article about it can be found here (again behind the paywall).

I can't really add anything to this, so please go read the articles.

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I want to see this movie

There are always interesting movies being made, but this sounds like a movie that I really got to see.

They are currently making a new movie in San Francisco, Milk, about the first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, in California.

The wikipedia article about Harvey milk gives a good background story of Harvey Milk, his importance, and his death.

I became aware of the movie, when reading this San Francisco Chronicle article about the filming.

The article starts of with describing how Sean Penn, who plays Harvey Milk, not only makes one of Milk's most important speeches for the movie, but then makes his own speech after the shooting had ended.

A production assistant followed Penn around the front of City Hall with a large navy blue umbrella. She held it over his head to shield him from the sun. Seeing he had a captive audience, Penn broke loose of the umbrella to deliver an impromptu speech that Milk would have loved.

"I almost wish Jerry Falwell were alive to see this. Almost," Penn shouted to the crowd. After dropping some names of conservatives who are still with us - "Bill O'Reilly, who is too stupid to talk about," and "Sean Hannity, the butt boy of Rupert Murdoch," Penn said, "We know something more. We know their end is near."

I hope Penn is right.

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This is why we have to address anti- and pseudo-science

Chris Mooney has written an article for Science Progress that already has created some debate among science bloggers. He elaborates a little more on it in this blogpost: How Science Defenders Enable Anti-Science Forces.

The basic premise is that by debating anti-science people, scientists gives credibility to their views. Mooney thinks that instead, scientists should focus on doing and communicating science.

I think this is both right and wrong. Certainly, debating pseudo- and outright anti-scientific people will give them some credibility, if done by scientists. This is why scientists refused to debate Creationists and neo-Creationists when the Dover School Board and the Kansas State Board of Education wanted such debates.

However, that doesn't mean that we should ignore the arguments put forward by the anti-scientists. These people have only one goal in mind - to "win" the debate, by making people think that there might be something to their side. They don't care if the arguments they put forward are wrong, misrepresenting, or outright falsehoods, as long as they can be used to convince others that there is something wrong with the science they are attacking.

Since it's hard for laypeople to see through these falsehoods, mistakes, and misrepresentations, it's vital that they are addressed by scientists, who explain what's wrong with the arguments. While this is done, it should also be made clear that the anti-scientists don't have any science on their side.

Relevant to all this is a long article in the Dallas Observer about the current battle for the science curricula in Texas - Battle Against Teaching Evolution in Texas Begins. Here the creationists are using their old tired phrase "teach the controversy" while spreading lies about the problems with the Theory of Evolution. Yes, debating those points will give some credibility to the claim that there is some kind of controversy, but if scientists actively attack their claims (while putting emphasis on the fact that there is no controversy), then the controversy will be move to their field.

In my opinion, the biggest and best coordinated attack on anti-science was done during the Kitzmiller trial, where scientists not only "defended" the Theory of Evolution, but also used the time to explain what science is, educate people about evolution, and attack the bad arguments made by the proponents. This resulted in a very clear defeat of the neo-Creationists, and a victory for science. This is the sort of thing we need to see more of. Hopefully not in the courtrooms, but rather in the elections for school boards and similar political events. We need to make it clear that while people are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.

In other words, we shouldn't debate anti-scientists, we should call them out on their bullshit.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Why medical experiments matter

A couple of days ago, Orac wrote a long post about animal testing - Bad scientific arguments in the service of "animal rights" activism.

Personally, I dislike furs and am against unnecessary animal testing ("unnecessary" of course being the hard-to-define keyword). Necessary testing, such as medical testing, on the other hand, I'm all for, and Orac gives many good arguments for why I should continue endorsing it.

One of the good examples that Orac mentions Dr. Judah Folkman, who did some critical cancer research on mice.

Folkman found a mouse tumor model that mimicked this behavior and in the early 1990s did a series of pioneering experiments. In a strain Lewis lung carcinoma cells of low metastatic potential (LLC-LM), when cells are injected into C57BL/6 mice and allowed to grow subcutaneously, if the tumor is left alone, mice develop only microscopic lung metastases. These metastases do not grow and kill the mouse. If, however, the primary cancer is removed, then many large lung metastases grow rapidly. The results of the experiment above strongly implied that the primary tumor is secreting something that suppresses the growth of microscopic metastases. After this, the Folkman group did what we like to call "brute force" science, collecting mouse urine and analyzing it for tumor suppressive activity until they were able to purify a single 38 kDa peptide, which they designated angiostatin. This involved analyzing literally gallons of mouse urine. (Who said science isn't glamorous?) Once Folkman's group had a bunch of angiostatin on hand, it peformed the following experiment. Two groups of mice were injected with LLC-LM and the tumors allowed to grow to a certain size, after which they were surgically removed. One group was treated with angiostatin, and the control group with saline. The result was that the control group developed massive lung metastases and died, while the group treated with angiostatin had microsocopic lung metastases that never grew beyond a ball of cells. Dr. Folkman then demonstrated that it was the inhibition of angiogenesis by the angiostatin that kept these tumors in check. Ultimately, he used a similar method to discover endostatin, and later he demonstrated that endostatin could induced tumor dormancy in mice. I trust that the reader can see how these seminal preclinical observations about angiogenesis would have been virtually impossible without animal models, given that angiogenesis requires the interaction between tumor cells, cells in blood vessels, and the surrounding tissue stroma to occur.

Of course, after this was done, Folkman could move on to testing on humans, but the animal testing was vital.

Just to put Orac's example into perspective, the very next day the NY Times, had an article about one of the humans involved in the tests - A Daring Treatment, a Little Girl’s Survival. The treatment is still being researched, and the data is so far anecdotal, but it seems promising. This means that it looks like Folman's experiments on mice will end up saving the lives of many humans, including the small girl mentioned in the NY Times article.

I'm sorry, but if I have to choose between humans and laboratory breed mice, I'll go for the humans.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

New mathematical object found

I came across this interesting piece of news. A student, Ce Bian, at Bristol University, has togetehr with his supervisor, Andrew Booker, discovered a new mathematical object. It's described as a ‘third degree transcendental L-function’ by the Bristol University's news story the subject.

I won't claim to have any deep knowledge about L-functions - it's way to hardcore for me - but many people will know of the Riemann Zeta Function, which comes from the Riemann Hypothesis, one of the Millennium Problems from the Clay Institute.

According to the news article from Bristol University, the new discovery might be a step towards proving the Riemann Hypothesis, but I can say if that's correct or not.
Perhaps Foxy or Mark can tell us more.

Edit: More about this from the American Institute of Mathematics

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Still no evidence for a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaida

We knew this already, but it has been verified again - there was absolutely no link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaida, no matter what the Bush administration claimed before the invasion.

Exhaustive review finds no link between Saddam and al Qaida

An exhaustive review of more than 600,000 Iraqi documents that were captured after the 2003 U.S. invasion has found no evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime had any operational links with Osama bin Laden's al Qaida terrorist network.

The Pentagon-sponsored study, scheduled for release later this week, did confirm that Saddam's regime provided some support to other terrorist groups, particularly in the Middle East, U.S. officials told McClatchy. However, his security services were directed primarily against Iraqi exiles, Shiite Muslims, Kurds and others he considered enemies of his regime.

While state sponsored terrorism is always bad, it certainly is not grounds for preemptive attacks, according to international law (which allows for self-defense), unless it can be proven that the terrorism was targeted towards the country making the preemptive attack.

I don't know if George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell actively lied when they claimed a link existed, and that there were evidence for it, but it might be a impeachable offense if they lied, since they used the lies to take the US into an unjustified war.

Caveat: yes, I know that Saddam Hussein was a bad man, and that it would have been better for Iraq if he hadn't been in power. However, given the frightening death toll in Iraq after the invasion, you won't get me to ever say that the invasion was good for them.

I am no dove, and have supported numerous military interventions in the past, but there was nothing to justify this one, and I've been opposed to it from the start.

Edit: I got the link from a poster, tpc, in Readerville, who also posted another very relevant link: False Pretenses - about the at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Good takedown of Charlotte Allen

A week or so ago, anti-feminist Charlotte Allen, who used to work for the Independent Women’s Forum, wrote an incredible stupid and nasty anti-woman screed, which for some reason was published in the Washington Post.

Unsurprising, the feminist blogsphere were all over it (e.g. Feminsite), and the Washington Post's ombudsman called the piece "a bad joke" (probably due to the 1500 angry letters the piece generated).

Now, Katha Pollitt has a great response to it in the newspaper.

Dumb and Dumber: An Essay and Its Editors

The question is not why Charlotte Allen wrote her silly piece -- it's why The Post published it.

Oh, and you know that you've burned yourself, when even your allies dismiss your piece (warning, takes you to the Independent Women’s Forum website).

Also of interest: Media Matters demolishes the so-called facts in Allen's piece

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

What a strange article

I came across a rather strange article about some troubles that Pakistan prime minister candidate Jabil Bush Hussein has run into.

Pakistan prime minister candidate denies he is Christian

I was rather puzzled by the story, since I had never heard about the candidate before, and I was actually pretty sure that the Pakistani election was over. Still, I began to read it, and found the story fascinating, not only because of the rather weird tone of the article, but also because of the obvious parallels to the current US preliminaries.

Turns out that I was suckered by a parody article. The obvious parallels were there for a good reason.... Still, quite worth reading.

I'll admit that I got all the way down to the references to President McCain before I actually caught on.

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Bush wants torture to continue

There is no other way I can interpret the news about Bush's latest Presidential veto.

Bush vetoes bill to curb waterboarding

Citing security imperatives, US President George W. Bush announced on Saturday he had vetoed legislation on intelligence funding that called for the CIA to abandon interrogation methods widely seen as torture.

It was a weak bill to start with, and actually unnecessary, as torture is already illegal by US law - and make no mistake, waterboarding is torture. Bush's willingness to veto this bill, however, shows that he endorses torture.

Why do I say that - well, look at what the bill was aimed at.

The bill calls for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to question suspected terrorists under the rules of the US Army Field Manual, which forbids the controlled-drowning tactic and other methods widely seen as torture.

"The bill Congress sent me would take away one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror -- the CIA program to detain and question key terrorist leaders and operatives," Bush said in his weekly radio address.

It cannot be stated often enough. Even if your morale compass it too fucked up to understand why torture should never be allowed, torture is the worst kind of intelligence gathering tool. People will say whatever they think will make the torturers stop. In other words, you cannot trust any information you get through such methods. The only reason to use torture is to intimidate people, and make them fear you. Something which I hope is obviously not acceptable to mot people, even if the current US President don't seem to be able to understand this.

Would it be possible to impeach George W. Bush for crimes against humanity?

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Cool astronomy news

Phil Plait brings us two amazing pieces of astronomy news. I can't add anything to what he's written so just check out his posts:

BREAKING: Martian avalanche caught in the act!

WR 104: A nearby gamma-ray burst?

Why are you still here?

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Feminist theology banned by the Vatican

Once in a while you come across something you didn't know existed - in this case, it's feminist theology, which I've found out that the Vatican frown upon. Well, that's actually putting it too mildly.

The Pope rules out feminist theology

The Vatican has cracked down on feminist interpretations of the liturgy, ruling that God must always be recognised as Our Father.

In a move designed to counter the spread of gender-neutral phrases, the Holy See said that anyone baptised using alternative terms, such as "Creator", "Redeemer" and "Sanctifier" would have to be re-baptised using the traditional ceremony.

The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith said yesterday: "These variations arise from so-called feminist theology and are an attempt to avoid using the words Father and Son, which are held to be chauvinistic."

Instead, it said that the traditional form of "Father, Son and Holy Ghost" had to be respected.

Wow. We really can't have gender-neutral language going on, can we?

The Vatican said anyone baptised under the feminist terms could invalidate their marriage. Cardinal Urbano Navarrete, who wrote a formal commentary on yesterday's ruling, gave warning that anyone who attempted to baptise someone with a gender-neutral form would be penalised. "It is seriously illegitimate and unjust," he said.

Monsignor Antonio Miralles, a professor at the Pontifical Holy Cross University, said the new baptism "subverts faith in the Trinity" because it does not make the relationship between the three persons clear. "God is eternally Father in relation to His only begotten Son, who is not eternally Son except in relation to the Father."

Can anyone say Patriarchy? And of course, this wasn't the only important issue that the Pope spoke out against.

Meanwhile, the Pope also spoke out against gay marriage and abortion before his first trip to the United States before Easter. He praised Americans who respected the "institution of marriage, acknowledged as a stable union between a man and a woman".

Can someone explain to me why we take this man seriously? He is a Neanderthal, and should be rightfully ignored.

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Blogroll update

At long last I have gone through my blogroll, and updated it. Mostly I've added some new ones, updated some, and removed a few dead links. The updates have either been to a newer link, or with a newer title - if both have changed, I consider it a new blog.

I've removed a blog from the list, even though the link wasn't dead - the reason was that I can't any longer endorse it, even implicitly, since the authors apparently think it's fine to write inflammatory posts which they later claim to be a social experiment. Be that it might be, I consider it trolling, which I don't support.

Next to some of the blogs still on the blogroll, I've written "discontinued", which is an indication that the blog is either officially closed, or there haven't been any activity there for several months. These blogs are candidates for purging the next time I update my blogroll (which is getting too long).

I recommend people to go through the blogs, which are a mixture of blogs posting about skepticism, science, feminism, economics, and to a lesser degree politics.

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Plagiarism in the White House

Like many people somewhat connected to academia (in my case, as a student), I take a harsh view on plagiarism, which I consider a form of stealing. Now, via an off-topic comment over at Evolving Thought, I see that there has been another high-profile case.

Bush Aide Resigns Over Plagiarism

White House official who served as President Bush's middleman with conservatives and Christian groups resigned Friday after admitting to plagiarism. Twenty columns he wrote for an Indiana newspaper were determined to have material copied from other sources without attribution.

Timothy Goeglein, who has worked for Bush since 2001, acknowledged that he lifted material from a Dartmouth College publication and presented it as his own work in a column about education for The News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne. The newspaper took a closer look at his other columns and found many more instances of plagiarism.

In these internet days, how does anyone expect to get away with this? It might be possible to hand in a plagiarized assignment, but anything that gets published will be read by someone who has read the original. I regularly read articles and op-eds in obscure American and Australian newspapers, even though I live in Northern Europe. And I regularly come across articles in Danish where I can recognize the "inspiration" (it doesn't help the "authors" that they don't seem to be aware of any sources other than NY Times and LA Times).

When I read the next part of the article I couldn't help laughing though.

''The president was disappointed to learn of the matter and he was saddened for Tim and his family,'' White House press secretary Dana Perino said in a statement.

She said Goeglein had accepted responsibility and ''has apologized for not upholding the standards expected by the president.''

Yes. The President, who used faked data to convince politicians to support his war against Iraq, is disappointed!

Anyhow, given Goeglein's role on many repugnant issues, I think we can all be happy to see him leave.

Update: Lindsay has more

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Koch's treatment

If you follow the fringe of the health debate - where the woo proponents and the deniers make their round - you'll probably have heard something about Koch's Treatment, a cure for whatever health issue being debated at the moment.

Why does this treatment always come up? Well, because it's supposed to be a cure-all treatment, that can help you against everything, including cancer (and in recent times HIV/AIDS). It was "developed" by Dr. William F. Koch, who in 1919 announced the "discovery" of a new drug, which he called "glyoxilide". This drug is injected into people, and it supposedly increases the effectiveness of the immune defense, which gets rid of the problem.

Need I say that this is not only unproven1, but in many cases scientifically impossible?

Koch's claims about his treatments have be falsified repeatedly, and when analyzed chemically, it's indistinguishable from distilled water - probably because that's what it is.

Of course, this doesn't keep people from promoting it as a homeopathic remedy, and from claiming that there is a conspiracy keeping the wonder drug away from people. The main reason mentioned for the conspiracy is of course claimed to be money, since the medical companies would go bankrupt, if such a wonder drug came to the market.

However, this is not the only reason mentioned - Koch's treatment has long ties with the Christian far right in the US. As a matter of fact, Koch created the Christian Medical Research League to sell it to people, and among his most vocal supporters in the past, were people like Gerald B. Winrod2 and The American Fascist Party3, and according to James A. Aho, the drug "is celebrated by [Christian] Identity spokesmen as a spiritual 'homeopathic preparation,' not an 'earthly substance' as are 'allopathic poisons."4 Of course, to these people, the main reason why the drug is kept from the market, is a Jewish conspiracy which either tries to undermine the health of White people, or who does it for financial reasons.

Interesting to see how crazy political beliefs and crazy medical beliefs can tie together. Maybe we should start emphasizing Koch's ties to far-right fundamentalist ideas and organizations?

1 Koch Treatment / Koch Synthetic Antitoxins (BC Cancer Agency)

2Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science by Martin Gardner (Courier Dover Publications, 1957) page 213-215. The relevant passage can be found at Google Books

3The Politics of Healing by Robert D. Johnston (Routledge, 2004) page 100. The relevant passage can be found at Google Books

4The Politics of Righteousness - Idaho Christian Patriotism by James A. Aho (University of Washington Press, 1990) p. 265.

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Science's Waterloo!

Okay, couldn't resist taking a dig at a well-known neo-Creationist claims about scientists meeting their Waterloo (phrased differently, but that was the essence).

Why this dig? Well, because the following story takes place in the Waterloo Region (wherever that might be - there are quite a few Waterloos out there).

Anyway, I think that this is a great idea.

Science Superheroes and Explorations

Technology served up to young minds by local organizations

Teenagers love technology. In malls, on buses, in school yards, there is hardly a young person who isn't plugged into a cellphone, digital music player or video gadget.

But most young people don't see the connection between science and the technology that they are immersed in, David Yach, chief technology officer for Research In Motion, told school teachers this week during the launch of a Science Superheroes program for teachers.

"Kids don't grasp the link between the science and technology," he said.

Science Superheroes is the newest program of the Business and Education Partnership of Waterloo Region, an organization managed by the Communitech technology association that works to connect educators and students to businesses.

The partnership's program manager, Alayne Hynes, said Science Superheroes involves a series of lectures designed to connect teachers and department heads to "real-life" technology and science experts.

While it seems that the focus is somewhat narrow (no Earth sciences it sounds like), I still think it's great that they try to explain to people how technology and science is connected. There seems to be a blind spot on many people, so they don't realize that you need science to make technology better and better. Much like you need science to make medicine better and better. Tragically, some of the people who don't realize this, are engineers and doctors, who are some of the very people applying the science in their fields.

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81st Skeptics' Circle

I'm a few days late, but still thought I should mention it.

The 81st Skeptics' Circle is up at the Conspiracy Factory, in a special leap year edition.