"It is true, and thus the question of whether it is sad or happy has no meaning whatever."
Bernhard Schlink

Science is best when discussed: leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments!!

Friday, July 29, 2005

Piss Diagnostics 

If you find Japan's high-tech (occasionally conversations) toilets a bit unnerving, you probably should avoid these.

Malcom Kimberley has designed a urinal which analyzes your pee and then messages your phone, telling you what STDs you have. Finally a reason I'm happy not to have a BlueTooth-enabled phone! But I guess it'd be good to let any good-looking phishers know I'm clean.

More Mucking About 

The Bush regime has spent its entire existence defying reality and obstructing real research and progress, especially in matters of science. The American people don't seem, generally, to have noticed this yet, but a leading member of the Preznit's own party, Senator Bill Frist, has broken with the White House on stem cell funding.

Maybe Frist has started to remember a few things about medicine that he seems to have forgotten as a politician. That reducing a patient's suffering and improving their lives is more important than pandering to special interest groupsvoters. I doubt it. My guess is he sees this as a way to distance himself a bit from Dubya's falling poll numbers and prepare to make a run in 2008.

But it's a start. Getting more funding for real stem cell research will definitely help people. And that's why it is so important to me that the government stop fucking around.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

More Tasty Science 

Cats may not care for sweet foods, but people certainly do. However, how we perceive taste, and what we like and dislike, seem to be governed by different areas of our brains.

Researchers studied a patient, B., who lost his amygdala, hippocampus, the nearby temporal cortices, and his insula to a herpes infection. B. has a 40 second memory span, and (among I'm sure quite a few other disabilities) cannot name familiar foods by taste or smell.

He does, however, have an unconscious preference for sweet drinks over salty ones. This is incredibly interesting. I'm not shocked that perception of nutritiveness (sweet=calories=good to eat) would be separate from like-dislike decisions or complicated taste perceptions, but that that most basic function is the one preserved in the higher brain. The limbic area, which B. largely lacks, is generally most responsible for primal functions, and other areas handle complicated matters like consciousness and preference. This is the kind of study I love to see. Brains are so cool!

Needlessly A Propos QOTD 

Google's new customized homepage thingey has a quotes-of-the-day feature. One of the quotes today is
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.
- Richard Feynman
This is entirely too relevant to my current work situation for comfort. I'm just sayin. I hate it when things become surreal.

Recent Lifeforms 

Researchers looking at a fruit fly infesting honeysuckle plants have found that the flies seem not only to have speciated very quickly, but also to have done so via hybridization of two parent species - something that is traditionally held as the domain of plants. This is a really cool idea. Most times (that I know of) when you get two animal species interbreeding, the best you can hope for is a sterile offspring, like a mule or liger. Also, the work indicates that host selection plays a much bigger role than thought in animal speciation.

On the opposite end of everything, Japanese scientists have built a female android, who can apparently pass as human for a short time. Calling her "Repliee Q1," however, may be one of the least tasteful jokes in all the history of robotics (with the possible exception of the "It's a Small World" ride at Disneyland, which is just sick).

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Broca Monkey 

A new study indicates that monkeys have an area homologous to a critical speech center in the human brain - Broca's Area. This is a major departure from previous theory, which posits that humans developed speech following growth of new brain structures. The new study hints more at a model of preadaptation, which is very interesting.

Sex and Consequences 

Showering your 'boo with costly but meaningless gifts is a winning strategy for finding a mate, says a new study, which also proves that mathematicians are short on real-life dating experience.

Once said mathematicians have a date though, another new study (supporting earlier findings) will make him wish he was Jewish: circumcised men are less likely to contract HIV.

And finally, nine-or-so months later, the parents should make sure they live in a school district that doesn't douse their kids with pesticides. This is, apparently, not good for them.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Burden of Proof 

One of the many, many claims levied against new immigrants is that they overwhelm the health system. And, like so many of the other claims levied against them, this one turns out to be, surprise surprise, false.

What's Up With Wired? 

I was shocked, absolutely shocked, and a bit dismayed to read this morning that the end was near; the environmental lobby had given up, and decided to embrace a polluted planet once and for all: "Enviros Make U-Turn, Praise SUV."

I expect better from Wired. They know technology, and have even managed to publish some really good and insightful pieces on other topics as well. The Sierra Club is not endorsing SUVs, or really even Ford's new hybrid. They are saying 'its a start' and making a play to encourage the hybrid to sell well enough to encourage more demand. Sierra Club representatives interviewed make it very clear that the Mariner hybrid is *better than the gas-powered Mariner,* but loudly point out that it still gets fairly crappy gas mileage, on the whole.

Why does Wired seem to be pandering?

Reality Skipping 

Ever get stuck in one of those meetings that, despite no one having anything to say, just. Won't. Ever. End. ? Yeah, me too. Wouldn't it be nice if you could just skip them - or better yet, send a robot replica of yourself who could just sit there silently (as you are expected to do) and nod occasionally (as you are expected to do) and not drool on your pillownotepad (as you are sometimes chastised for doing)?
There may be a solution!! Just blink a lot. I'm not kidding - it appears that when we blink, our perception of the universe 'switches off' for a moment, allowing us to perceive an uninterrupted stream of life. If you can blink constantly for that entire three-plus-hour meeting, you won't even perceive how awful it was.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Monday Morning Roundup 

Being too busy to really think about any of these things right now, I'm putting them out to remember, and for others to discuss.

You may have noticed that your cat, unlike you and your dog, does not have a sweet tooth. It turn out that this is because cats have non-functional sweetness receptors. No wonder they're cranky.

Extract of pineapple stems seem to hold promise for a completely novel set of cancer drugs. I think that's pretty cool.

Injections of intestinal hormone oxyntomodulin seem to aid weight loss and appetite suppression. Might work even better if subjects stopped watching so much TV.

And archaeologists have discovered what may or may not be a 28,000 year-old dildo. Needless to say it was discovered in Germany.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Baby Pandas 

(photo swiped from Zunta)
Does anyone else wonder if maybe it should spending a bit more time with their parents than with the zookeepers? I mean, maybe the reason they don't breed in captivity is that they learn all their social skills from zoologists? They should be growing up learning how to do panda things, like the sexy way to eat a bamboo shoot that boy pandas (or girl pandas, depending) can't resist.

Maybe the zoologists just have better panda make-up tricks or can get them into the posher panda clubs.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Killer Caterpillars 

Tropical islands have always been treasure troves to evolutionary biologists - a trip to the Galapagos largely fueled Darwin's ideas. In Hawaii, researchers have characterized a group of caterpillars that do a couple of things other caterpillars don't do: they eat snails; and they do so by trapping them.

This is really so cool. Like spiders, all caterpillars secrete a sticky substance, but other caterpillars merely use theirs to spin cocoons, whilst clever spiders spin webs to trap prey. This is even cleverer.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005


(Via Fark)
I posted before about how Costco's generousfair treatment of its employees was putting it in very good stead, business-wise. Apparently, the Wall Street crowd doesn't like that analysis, and feels that he should not only cut benefits to his employees but also jack up prices, so that he can make an even bigger profit. Note that I say they don't like it, not they dispute it: Costco's stock is rising healthily while its chief competitor, that evilest of evil corporations, Wal-Mart's has dropped heavily.

So far, Costco's chief, Jim Sinegal, is holding firm. Bloody good for him. If I lived anywhere near a Costco, hearing that would convince me to buy a membership and shop there.

Building Better Bones 

In a paper published earlier this week, UCSB researchers describe finding a molecular 'glue' that holds bones together and helps them resist breaking. These proteins seem to act as a sort of spring mechanism or shock absorber, which I think is pretty cool.

The main implications of this finding are fairly obvious - improved break healing, prevention in weakened patients, even prevention in healthy patients - and would be hugely beneficial if realized.

Fatty McInsulin 

Insulin is not just for blood sugar regulation anymore. A paper published yesterday has found that insulin pulses - which are the result of food intake in normal systems - inhibit fat production and storage in the liver. This is a bit surprising, as elsewhere in the body, insulin increases fat storage. This discovery has implications for treatment not only of diabetes, but of fatty liver diseases and perhaps obesity in general.

Insulin is also a 'gut hormone,' so it probably has even more jobs to do.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Fat and Forgetful 

No wonder fat people are so jolly; they have impaired memory! This is the claim of new research into our old friend Leptin and its function in the brain. As a body hormone, Leptin increases metabolism and decreases fat storage, but in the brain it seems to enhance long-term potentiation in the hippocampus, a process key to memory formation and retention.

This isn't the first time a food-related hormone turned out to be a major player in the brain: Cholecystokinin (CCK) is a gastrointestinal hormone, involved in food intake and satiety, that also turned out to be an excitatory neurotransmitter, implicated in systems including anxiety, memory, and perhaps schizophrenia.

This 'brain-gut' connection has always been fascinating to me. Without too much of a stretch, you can see how the brain is really just a means towards advancing the gut's ends. However, I cannot wait until Leptin comes out in pill form, so I can have a better memory and never hear about the bloody South Beach Diet ever again!

Monday, July 18, 2005


In case you hadn't noticed, smokers tend not to have the nicest teeth. If you quit, they're more likely to get better. Said the pot to the kettle?

Friday, July 15, 2005

Baby Shields? 

Apparently, there is a long-held belief that fetuses in utero are somehow protected from dangerous chemicals to which their mothers are exposed. What with all the hubub about fetal alcohol syndrome and crack babies, among other things, I am completely stumped as to who exactly holds this belief. Maybe the same people who think abstinence-only sex-ed works?

But, at long last, a study calls this inexplicable belief into question: the umbilical cord blood of 10 newborns contained all kinds of nasty chemicals and toxins. Ten is a totally pathetic n, but if people still think the placenta is some sort of "magic shield," we clearly need all the studies we can get.

Killing Bugs 

The good news today is that scientists have sequenced the genomes of three particularly nasty parasites - Trypanosoma brucei, which causes African sleeping sickness; Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chegas disease; and Leishmania major, which causes leishmaniasis - all of which have received little attention in recent years due to a combination of low incidence and prevalence overall and very low incidence in richer nations.

The Beeb's coverage focuses on these neglected diseases while the New Scientist explains the science involved nicely, a split I find wholly appropriate. I want to read about the genes sequenced and their function - and why T. brucei might be especially hard to vaccinate against - but also think it's vital that the general public thinks about these diseases that probably don't affect them directly. Just because people in DC don't tend to get leishmaniasis doesn't mean we won't benefit from a cure/vaccine: for starters, learning about things increases our general arsenal, if you will, against new diseases.

On the other hand, there is bad news: a study has linked the sweetener Aspartame to leukemia. This is the sweetener of choice for most diet sodas, since the much-overblown risks of Sodium Saccharin were reported in the 1980's. I hope this study is similarly without external validity, since I love me some diet cola, and Splenda is really nasty.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Prevention Purse Strings 

Dubya is fond of trying to apply 'business models' to non-business issues, particularly healthcare. The trouble is, these models don't work very well.

I wonder if there's any chance that this editorial will sway anyone? It's an economic analysis which reaches a completely obvious conclusion: treatment programs for HIV and AIDS in Africa are hugely more expensive than effective prevention programs would be. The thing a model like this doesn't take into account is the non-HIV-related improvements that education and prevention programs would yield...better overall health knowledge and access, particularly for women, civil rights advancements, etc., would all be likely outcomes. I fear, however, that this will only be used as an excuse to promote politically-motivated, counter-productive programs of which bushco is so fond.

* I'm fairly sure the faith involved is that in that fact that most voters are not really paying attention.

Miss Fatty McOversized 

We all know that obesity is a growing problem, particularly among American kids, but the precise reasons are still sketchy: obviously some combination of eating too much and moving too little is to blame, but the details have proved rather elusive. A new study in today's Lancet gives an interesting look at girls' dietary and exercise habits from age 9-19, a period when girls are seen to be gaining lots of weight (despite all the mass media hysteria over anorexia).

It's a very interesting read, though I can't say it produces a particularly useful result. Knowing that lower daily activity is clearly related to more weight gain is good to have established, but the methods of this study don't allow much in the way of possible solutions: it doesn't address cultural differences (various socio-economic, ethnic, etc. groups have wildly varied eating and activity habits and opportunities), and I can't help but feel like this could fuel a sort of 'throw-up-your-hands' mentality.

Press release here, article here (use bugmenot). Read the commentary too.


Most of the research on simian-human disease exchange has focused on Africa, where experts see the bushmeat trade as a serious danger, but there is much more contact between humans and monkeys in Asia, where people and monkeys live and work (the monkeys actually seem mostly to play and steal, not unlike children). It's true that probably nastiest example comes from there (though some don't seem to be as severe), but that is in my mind no excuse for ignoring Asia.

A new study from the University of Washington indicates that researchers haven't all been ignoring Asia, and documents the first instance of simian foamy virus passing to humans. I don't know anything about that virus, and though the guy shows no symptoms as of yet, it's probably just a matter of time before he does, or someone gets something else. But then, this is how nature works.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Expanding Bosoms 

Along with everything else in the entire universe*, exposure to excessive amounts of environmental estrogens seems to cause breast cancer. This is really bad if it turns out to have any external validity, but I suspect it won't. And even if it does, I don't really expect anyone to change much of how things are made or consumed. Oh well.

* In large enough quantities, everything will kill you.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Freakshow. Continued. 

Yeah, I couldn't help posting it. Thanks for the thought, Mark, and probably also for providing fantasy fodder for whatever sickosgentlepersons are out there looking for Siamese twin porn.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Stopping The Runs 

Diarrhea kills millions of people each year, mostly in the developing world. I have personal experience with such, uhm, gastric distress, in that when I was in Belize, we all got the requisite water-bourn nasties. When it hit, we (my group of teenage volunteers) had just been to visit Rosita Arvigo at her Ix Chel Centre, where I'd purchased a bottle of her Traveler’s Tonic (I wish I'd thought to Google her up back before ZAF and AMG's adventures began). Others in the group were less trusting of the 'alternative medicine' shtick, but I'd suffered through dysentery on trips before, and knew full well to take whatever the locals suggested. All in all, whilst I went out the next night, the others remained home, hovering by the (non-flushing) loo.

All this is to say that I am really happy to hear about Napo Pharmaceuticals’ taking an innovative, direct approach to addressing diarrhea in the developing world: they have developed an inexpensive drug that will be available and affordable to these populations immediately upon release, as opposed to many years later like the expensive 'blockbuster' drugs the really big companies (Merck, Glaxo-Wellcome, etc.) produce, which are initially marketed exclusively, and unapologetically so, to the wealthiest of the world's citizens.

The drug, called Crofelemer, was isolated from a rainforest plant, shown to researchers by South American traditional healers. It is especially promising because, unlike most current anti-diarrheals (like Imodium), it does not inhibit bowel motility, allowing disease agents to accumulate in the body, and it is not absorbed into the bloodstream, reducing drug interactions. These two factors make it promising for children and immunocompromised diarrhea patients, who are among those hardest hit by the disease. There are so many more treatments out there, I only hope we find them before they go away.


Business and corporate speak have long been one of my biggest peeves. Not even 'pet' peeves anymore, as they've outgrown the back yard. "Leverage" is not a verb, and "operationalize" is almost certainly not an actual word. People at my office talk like this, and it makes me crazy: it takes five times as long to get anything done because everyone is so busy covering their asses with stupid, lazy, and obtuse language. I'm no great writer, to be sure, but I do greatly respect language, and especially appreciate the amount of precision and flexibility available in American English, which I feel exceeds especially in this case.

You can understand, then, why I laughed so hard at this piece that I had to close my office door, so as not to be "observed engaging in distractionary nonbusiness engagements" or something. It's also scary, how even our very language has been co-opted to better transform us from an advanced civilization into a mindless consumer conglomerate.

"Leverage" is still not a verb.

"Biochemistry Without a License" 

That is how biochemist Erwin Chargaff characterized molecular biology. At the time, it was a rogue field, made up largely of people with assorted backgrounds (most famously a physicist and an ornithologist) scrambling to discover how things work.

Nowadays, molecular biology is a discipline in its own right,* science has become even bigger and more complicated and more interesting, and people are claiming that we're in a "new era" (beware of anyone who uses this term, under any circumstances) where we will need Big Interdisciplinary Teams of scientists to solve problems.

I've been a fan of interdisciplinary-ness since forever, even before I read Consilience, which verbalizes many ideas better than I can, but not this way. I firmly believe that people need to be interdisciplinary, not teams; the surest way for nothing to get done is to appoint a committee.

An essay in the inaugural edition of the Public Library of Science Journal PLoS Computational Biology, by Sean Eddy, calls for such a pull back away from super-specialization: the establishment of antedisciplinary science. A key passage:

Focusing on interdisciplinary teams instead of interdisciplinary people reinforces standard disciplinary boundaries rather than breaking them down. An interdisciplinary team is a committee in which members identify themselves as an expert in something else besides the actual scientific problem at hand, and abdicate responsibility for the majority of the work because it's not their field. Expecting a team of disciplinary scientists to develop a new field is like sending a team of monolingual diplomats to the United Nations.

I couldn't agree more. I remember how helpful it was to chat with geneticist friends of mine while I was doing my psychology research; they just saw problems differently and could suggest approaches I never would have thought about. Imagine if I'd had the genetics background to do that all myself! Science is too broad, and too interconnected for researchers to not have at least passing familiarity with all of it. As much as I hate chemistry (and I really do), I know not only how much better a biologist it makes me, but how much easier it makes learning physics (I like examples to which I can relate).

*Biochemists still tend to look down on molecular biologists, but I suspect that this is because, like all chemists in my experience, they are still trying to compensate for no being physicists.

Bad News, Good  

The bad news for Vietnam veterans (and others too, probably) is that exposure to Agent Orange/Dioxin seems to increase the risk of developing diabetes.

The release doesn't say so, but I would suspect that this increase could be due to destruction of islet cells or other damage to vital organs. If this is not the case, however, we get into Really Interesting territory: a chemical trigger for a disease can greatly facilitate and stimulate research: it'd be easier to create animal models, and figuring out just what biochemistry is happening can point to greater understanding and new treatments. Come to think of it, even if dioxin is just killing islet cells, that might be a good way of getting animal models. Hmm.

Bird Brain, Part 2 

Following earlier indications, researchers have found that Alex, a 28-year-old African Grey parrot, seems to have discovered the concept of zero. As is pointed out ad nauseum in the press, this is something that humans did not properly do until about 3,000 years ago, or 300 in Europe*.

While it's not entirely clear that Alex actually made the kind of intellectual leap he seems to have done, it is clear he's smarter than the average sparrow.

*We're still not sure about certain parts of America, where they still seem to think the Earth is flat.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Gimmie One Reason 

...That Plan B, the 'morning after pill,' should not be allowed over the counter. Since opposition to this plan has been entirely political, I don't expect a new study of the facts to sway our famously non-reality-based administration.

But, it's interesting to me: the British study found that OTC availability of emergency contraception did not increase its use (i.e., did not encourage unsafe practices). The only increases in use one could reasonably have expected would have been quite transient, since the side effects are rather extraordinarily unpleasant, and anyone who took it once would be motivated not to take it again. Given this, and that bad news travels fast, I would expect that women would hear quickly that they didn't want to take it, and would therefore only think of doing so when absolutely necessary.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Malpractice Crisis? What Malpractice Crisis? 

Certain factions claim that the skyrocketing cost of medical care in the US today is largely due to soaring malpractice awards.

A new study of malpractice claim outcomes in Texas from 1998 to 2002 supports previous evidence to indicate that this isn't likely to be the case, because the cost of claims over that period rose with inflation, whereas care costs rose in ginormous excess of inflation. This study is very satisfying to read, but unfortunately I doubt it will change any lobbyists minds or improve the situation at all.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


May be helpful in preventing Type 2 Diabetes. The results are hardly conclusive, but it's a interesting finding. Coffee has been shown to be protective of the liver, which is key in diabetes, so that may have something to do with it, but I wonder if there's any way to control (in these data, anyways) for the appetite-suppressant effects of coffee? Still, it's clearly time for another cup!

Where's My Time Machine? 

I spent seven years wearing braces, and my orthodontist had early-stage Parkinson's; you can imagine how much fun that was. Now, researchers may have found a way to cut orthodontic procedure substantially and eliminate the need to wear a retainer (which, as far as I can tell, nobody does for long anyways).

How? By injecting patients mouths with recombinant Relaxin, the hormone that relaxes a woman's pelvis during labor. The idea is that the treatment will stop the mouth from pulling itself back into its natural state, and allow the braces to work with less resistance. Then, at the end of treatment, the relaxed connective tissue will not want to spring back, eliminating the need for a retainer. Cool.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Shower of Mass Destruction! 

Wake Forest researchers, who clearly don't have enough experience with dirty hippies, claim that taking a nice, hot shower exposes you to harmful amounts of vaporized manganese. If these researchers were at Oberlin, they would know better than to encourage the stinky ones.

Biblical Prevention 

While American wingnuts continue to call for abstinence-only sex ed as a means of curbing disease and unwanted pregnancy, despite its uselessness, a new study shows that a very different divine commandment may be more promising: circumcised men seem to have a 70% reduced risk of HIV infection.

Meanwhile, pediatricians add themselves to the list of sensible people for real sex ed.

Monday, July 04, 2005

4th of July Thoughts 

"There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a
- Arthur C. Clarke

"“In the shadow of total calamity why not set off a firecracker?"
- Ursula K. LeGuin

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
- Benjamin Franklin

"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."
- Theodore Roosevelt

"“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their consciences."
- C. S. Lewis

"“Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all sorts of directions."
- Lord Vetinari

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Anatomical Anomalies 

Brennan wants us all to know that the geoduck could be our backyard key to riches and delicious meals. That is, if your female and gay male friends don't, err, spoil them first.

Speaking of spoiling bits of anatomy, anti-rape activists in South Africa are calling on the government to ban an 'anti-rape' device, which women wear like a tampon but which would slice up a rapist's bits. They say it will only increase the danger a victim is in; I can't imagine it would be particularly effective...wouldn't an attacker just see the string or something? I agree with them that enforcement of sexual assault laws would be a much better solution.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Same Sex Marriage and Society 

Three (or more) cheers to the governments of Canada and Spain, for moving clearly down the road of Doing The Right Thing, against strong opposition from powerful forces (especially in Spain). This is so heartening to me for many reasons, not the least of which is that it's clear evidence that history is progressing in a positive direction.

Rivka links to a fascinating discussion and analysis of the Canadian situation...read her reaction as well, it's similarly interesting. I'm not sure where I come down on the idea of efficiency versus values deciding a governmental system - it seems a bit simplistic to me - and so I need to read the book. Canadian politics is a fascinating thing as well, I think, since they seem to in-between in so many ways, between Catholic France and Socialist France and Secular America and Imperial Britain. Well worth a read.

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