"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!!

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

France Doesn't Surrender... 

...to bird flu.
I'm sure it will piss off any number of Freedom-Fry-eating jingos, but when the bird flu pandemic begins, those "nationalized-healthcare-surrender-monkeys" will be much better off than us. They have begun stockpiling antiviral agents and pre-ordering vaccines. We have not.

Everyone in France has access to medical care, which means that cases will be caught, isolated, and treated much more quickly than in places where huge swathes of the population can't afford to seek treatment until it's too late. Unfortunately, "places where huge swathes of the population can't afford to seek treatment until it's too late" include the United States. Even if we did stockpile vaccines and antivirals, that second detail would render them rapidly ineffective.

Our national lack of healthcare and sufficient paid leave to seek it has economic effects: health woes cost the US economy about $260 billion per year (pdf)! It's unclear how much of this is really due to inadequate insurance coverage and inadequate leave time, but it is clear a good bit of it is.

Suicide Bug/Mind Control 

The worm, Spinochordodes tellinii, is aquatic as an adult, but lives in brains as larva and consequently, it needs its hosts to be in the water when it matures. For reasons not made clear by the article, S. tellinii uses grasshoppers (instead of, say, fish) as hosts, so of course the problem for them is to get these hosts into the water - swimming not a normal grasshopper activity - so that the mature worm can escape to live its life.

To do this, S. tellinii has evolved an unbelievably cool trick: like those alien body snatchers, it takes control of the grasshopper's brain, and forces it to commit watery suicide. The maturing worm produces a number of proteins which mimic grasshopper neurotransmitters and hormones, forcing the host to go for a swim, at which point the worm busts out, killing its host.

The question is, what proteins are these? This is not only cool from a biology perspective, but the potential implications for psychiatry are huge! Anyone have full-text for Proc. Royal Soc. B?

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Mitochondrial Immunity? 

Researchers in Texas have identified a protein which seems to be critical for viral immunity, but what's really interesting is where they found it. It is produced by a gene in the mitochondria. This study encourages long-held suspicions that there is a good deal more to these mysterious organelles than just metabolism and paternal lineage. We shall see.

Tuesday Monday 

I spent yesterday mostly preparing for my calculus final last night. I then took the final. I have never aimed so low in my life: my goal was to get 75%. Maybe I did, maybe not, I can never tell. I really hate that calculus makes me feel so utterly stupid. Because I'm not, I swear!

Quick items this morning as I rush to catch up on what happened yesterday:

Most science papers wrong? Can anyone say 'hyperbole?' Sure, I knew you could.
Killer whales and chimps engage in cultural learning. Cool.
Loudon County starts an innovative new science program. Sounds good to me - I like the idea of learning science in an integrated fashion, especially early on.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Atkins 2? 

With all the contradictory evidence, I was hoping that the Atkins craze would just go away - I really like my carbs. It may still, but a new study in this month's Journal of Nutrition again claims that the good doctor may have been on to something (besides an excellent marketing campaign).

The problem is, I don't buy it. The study examined two main groups of dieters - those who ate a high-carb diet and those who ate a high protein diet, while keeping lipids equal. Also within groups were those who exercised and those who did not. The study found a trend towards more weight loss in the high protein group, but only a trend: p=.10. The protein group also seemed to lose more fat and less lean weight. But, again, p=.10.

Given the very small n=48 and 4-month timeframe, the findings do warrant further investigation, but I'm not ready to switch my diet around just yet. The author hypothesizes that people on the high protein diet are getting more leucine, that this explains their better performance, and that Americans do not get enough leucine in general. I'm also pretty sure I don't buy that. I am very sure I will not buy Dr. Layman's Brand Leucine Supplements.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Weasel: An Observational Approach 

Has anyone else noticed, or is it just me, that a person who pointedly speaks about being 'fair to everyone' is either (a) asking you to give them something; or (b) asking you to let them get away with something?

Does The Pill Affect Sex Drive? 

That's a cheap attention-grabbing title because this study is very interesting, and I have no time to think about it now.

Discuss amongst yourselves!

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Placebos Work! 

No one knows why, but our bodies seem to heal themselves better when they (we) think they are being healed: the placebo effect, which has long confounded medical scientists and practitioners. But why does it work, and is it all in our head? Apparently not. A new study of a painkiller and placebo trial has found that even just a placebo painkiller increases opioid transmission (natural painkillers) in subjects' brains, actually decreasing their pain.

The ethics of really working with placebos as treatment is dubious, so it's not as well researched as it probably ought to be. So I'm happy when I see work getting done.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

CX717: My Future Best Friend? 

A new study of CX717 indicates that this Ampakine is very promising as a sleep replacement postponer. Control monkeys deprived of sleep and given working memory tasks performed very poorly, but those given CX717 performed at or above baseline. There are still, to my knowledge, no studies on the long-term effects of this treatment - I cannot imagine that sleep deprivation can be made wholly harmless - but I would love to get my free trial prescription to find out!

Life was so much easier when I was young and didn't sleep much. Pfft - then again, I was in high school, which sucks.

More Wing-Nuttery 

Is it just me or does Pat Robertson just keep getting crazier? Now he's called for the US to again (this time unquestionably) break international law and possibly start another war, this time by assassinating Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Does anyone wonder why Chavez doesn't trust the US?

East and West 

I've always been interested in Asian culture. My grandfather collected Asian art - he had an amazing assortment of pieces ranging from near-modern to very ancient - and was always happy to tell my sister and I all about each piece, where it came from, and how it might have been made. Being a good American Jewish family, we ate Chinese carryout quite a bit too.

A study published this week has found an interesting difference between how American and Chinese students process visual images: the Americans focus on a central object, and the Chinese take in the whole scene. This work supports the hypothesis is that Americans focus on discrete things, whereas East Asian people focus on how things relate to a whole, along with previous studies observing American and Japanese mothers introducing their children to toy trucks.

Besides the sociological implications of this study, another thing that I like about it is that it is a beautiful example of how culture influences a fairly basic, unconscious part of how the body works: the cultural differences between Chinese and American students dictates how they physically look at things, not just metaphysically!

Monday, August 22, 2005

A Very Interesti-hey let's go ride our bikes! 

ADHD, the scourge of American classrooms everywhere, does not just go away when you hit adulthood. This is, apparently, a shock to some people. New long-term study of ADHD kids found that they were more likely to grow and do ADHD-like things as adults, such as save less money, have sex sooner and without protection, and get fired from their jobs.

The real problem, to me, with ADHD, is not only is it not really generally recognized in adults, but also there's so little (if anything) to be done about it. Medications - the only real treatment available - barely work, and unlike teachers, bosses tend not to give out special considerations. Part of me feels like "ADHD" is largely fiction: just a way of pathologizing a personality trait that no one noticed until we became so societally obsessed with achievement (which of course requires sameness), particularly in our educational and work lives.

Amyloids - Not All Bad 

We found hopeful news last week in a study hinting at a way to block amyloid beta proteins in the brain, protecting against Alzheimers, but this week we are reminded that everything, especially in the brain, comes back to equilibrium. Studying fruit flies, scientists have found that a major role of Amyloid Precursor Protein (APP) is to stimulate axonal arborization (that means neurons making connections with other neurons, which is critical to all brain functions).

So it seems, the author points out, that a protein which allows our brains to function as well as they do in our youth, ends up causing our decline in old age. But only in some people. It would be easy to hypothesize, given this paradox, that more intelligent people might be more prone to Alzheimers later in life; alas, I don't think the data have bourne this out. Still, it's fascinating stuff.

Friday, August 19, 2005


Cheers to Charlotte Hatherley, who was on Tom Robinson on BBC6 Thursday night, for most gratuitous use of the word "lothario" in a song ever (or at least that I've heard). I just had to say, because it made me laugh.

Megafauna in America: Follow-Up 

Turns out tigers already know how tasty middle American children are. After noting this week's proposal to import large endangered mammals to the American Great Plains, I cannot fail to point out further evidence that this probably isn't a good idea: a Siberian tiger in Kansas killed a teenage visitor yesterday.

No details are given as to the specifics of the situation (was the tiger hungry, being taunted, etc.?), but even without some sort of provocation, tigers are known for eating things so....

Smaller is Better 

Oregon State researchers have been studying SAR11 for about 15 years, and have found this single-celled organism to be a truly elegant example of natural efficiency, so much so that it comprises one of the largest biomasses on Earth and plays a significant role in life and carbon cycles.

SAR11's genome only has 1.3 million base pairs, the smallest number ever found in a free-living organism (not a parasite)*. The press release talks about how humans' genomes are so wasteful, with all that 'junk' DNA, and they may be right; I've just never been comfortable with the term. We keep discovering that some bits of this stuff serves a purpose, why shouldn't the rest of it?

*Compare that to humans' ~3 billion base pairs, Amoeba proteus' ~290 billion, or even Arabidopsis thaliana's ~115 million.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

More from the Dept. of Bad Ideas 

An editorial in this week's Nature calls for elephants, lions, cheetahs, and camels to be introduced to the American Great Plains. Because ... um ... there used to be large mammals there, and those mammals' modern relatives are endangered at home in Africa. And because current attempts to reintroduce native animals to these regions have been so easy and met with so little resistance? I think not.

Even though I'd love to find out what happens when the lions and cheetahs discover how yummy Midwestern evangelicals are, this is a really bad idea. I would also love the opportunity make my next road trip a safari, but that may have to wait until I go to Africa. Introducing species to new environments has pretty rarely gone well - gypsy moths, for instance - and you never know what they're going to do to the local ecosystem.

Aside from eating tourists (which I don't so much mind - the smart ones will keep their arms and legs inside the vehicle), introduced species tend to ravage native flora and fauna, not to mention wreak havoc on the environment.

Long Hours and Loud Music 

What do these things have in common, you ask? Well, for starters, they may both be bad for you. A new study indicates that working longer hours (a 60 hour week as opposed to 40) increases the risk of illnesses and of injuries on the job. As an occasional member of the 60+ hours club, and a perpetual resident of the 45-50 hours club, I can attest that I do feel gross when I work too much.
Working 10-12 hours a day usually means that I have to cut the time I spend doing three other things key to my health: sleeping, working out, and cooking healthy meals. I end up hitting the gym for 45 minutes instead of 90 (my preferred workout duration), I sleep 6.5 hours instead of 9, and I eat frozen crap (high preservatives, and often carbs, sodium, and other crap) instead of cooking a proper meal. The 35 hour week may be a disaster, but I would love to try it!

In addition to time spent at work, there is of course the time you spend getting there and back - about 100 hours a year for Americans. During those long commutes, many people create themselves a calm, quiet personal space by listening to music on personal devices such as the iPod. Unfortunately, this too has its risks: a new study has found that nearly 25% of listeners keep the volume at levels which risk their hearing.

This is something that's alwayslong bothered me. Trust someone who knows: losing you hearing really, really sucks. Granted, I didn't do it listening to loud music, but I still miss being able to hear out of my right ear. So if you go deaf by your own choice, I really have no sympathy.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Walk the Walk 

I never rode the bus to school (neither the short one nor the regular); I always either walked or drove. In high school, I usually got a ride in the morning and then walked home (via swimming practice, which was at another school's pool). Sometimes I biked. Sometimes I bummed a ride. JK's stories suggest I may have missed out on the fun.

A new study in the BMJ suggests (pdf here) that adolescents who walk to and/or from school get more exercise than kids who take the bus, and are consequently thought to be less at risk of obesity, etc. I'm not exactly sure what this study establishes: kids who exercise more get more exercise seems to be the basic thesis - how is that a publishable finding?

Also, I didn't turn out more or less of a couch potato than JK, and if he turned out much skinnier, he might have been an Olsen.

Master What? 

Everyone knows I'm easily annoyed by bad science journalism. That today's example comes from a generally respectable source, and in an article about some really fascinating research, just makes it worse.

Researchers working in mice have found that knocking out the gene p63, they cause the mice to age at an accelerated pace and die sooner. This is a really interesting and exciting discovery. My problem is that the New Scientist article calls p63 a "master gene," which is a completely stupid word, since we all know that the more we learn about complex traits (like aging and skin tone), the more obvious it is that many, many genes are almost always involved. And with a gene that is apparently so little studied, it feels really premature to go calling it "master."

But still, it's a cool discovery, and if it helps me eliminate those crows feet, so much the better!

Crocodile Cures 

Researchers in Australia are looking to the crocodile for new medicines. These tough critters have tough immune systems which let them survive major injuries in swampy waters without major infections, and even seems to be able to fight off HIV. I wonder what Mick Dundee would say about using crocodiles as bio-factories?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


We all remember those color-changing shirts from middle school, right? The ones that we thought were so awesome? We were probably wrong about that, and probably still are, but that is not likely to stop us from buying new Hypercolour shirts this year.

It's like an acid trip back in time that threw up on your shirt!!!

Straight Rams Only, Please 

New research coming from Oregon State University suggests that about 8 percent of male sheep may be gay. The press release doesn't give any details on the study, so I can't say whether I believe that number or not, but it is similar to the estimated 10% in humans, which does make sense.

The researchers are looking for the 'gay genes,' and are hoping to develop a test sheep farmers can use to better choose which stud to buy. This is a bit creepy in sheep to begin with, but then what happens when it inevitably gets applied to humans? This is the scary part of genetics: the part where we start picking what traits we want our kids to have, and limiting or predetermining people's place or role in society by genetic tests; this is the part we have to watch out for.

Optimistically, discovery of a 'gay gene' will lead to more tolerance and less discrimination and idiotic ranting about gayness being against some petty, hateful vision of god*.

* I prefer my god generous and loving and wise.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Piss Power 

No, it's not the latest in the fight for certain sexual freedoms. It's a battery. In the future, if you're lost in the woods and need to power your cell phone, you'll just pee on it*.

* I'll be the guy who hikes to the nearest town while you do that.

Friday, August 12, 2005

DUI Unconstitutional? 

(via Fark)
A Virginia judge, in an apparent attempt to prove both that Virginia isn't all bad and that Virginians are idiots, has ruled that the state's DUI laws are unconstitutional because they consider anyone with a blood alcohol of 0.08% drunk, outside of presumption of innocence.

Now, I'm not a big fan of the way our DUI laws work, but I know that I'm an idealist and that having officers meaningfully (not to mention fairly and without bias) assess drivers' sobriety is not a realistic expectation, so I let that slide. While the judge is correct that not everyone who has BAC of .08% is necessarily drunk, he seems to be missing the point that almost anyone with a BAC of .08% who is not drunk is a flaming alcoholic, and probably shouldn't be driving.

Brain Changes 

Alzheimer's disease is one of the scariest things out there - it's unclear what really causes it, and the effects are dramatic and deadly - and most of our hopes against the disease rest upon finding a vaccine. Previous vaccine attempts have proven fruitless at best, but a new technique, to be tested in humans perhaps as soon as next year, offers hope by taking a slightly different approach.

Microglia are a large part of the brain's innate immune system, acting as 'janitors,' supporting and cleaning up after neurons (and probably glia too, it's just unclear how). It makes sense, therefore, that microglia could be helpful against the beta amyloid plaques of Alzheimer's disease, which are themselves immune byproducts. Researchers at Brigham and Women'’s Hospital have been testing a nasal spray of two drugs, Copaxone and Protollin, which are known to activate microglia and are approved for use against multiple sclerosis, and found that they significantly reduced amyloid plaques in the brains of mice with Alzheimers.

This is not only a very hopeful study - perhaps we will soon have a treatment or vaccine for a really nasty disease - but it is also an excellent example of how studying one disease can lead to breakthroughs against another.

There's No MMRPG in Your Violence 

Since the medium's inception, the usual suspects have been up in arms about how video games are bad for kids and cause anti-social and violent behavior. Most of their evidence has been anecdotal at best, but that doesn't deter them because they feel they *just know it does.* These are the same people who, hundreds of years ago, said that polyphonic music would bring an end to civilization.

A new study, which claims to be the first long-term study of video games and violence, found no significant increases in violent or aggressive behavior after playing “Asheron’s Call 2,” an MMRPG that is apparently pretty violent. I'm not entirely clear on how the authors can justify calling one month "long-term," but, compared to tpreviousous studies I've seen - which generally do same-day before and after measurements - it's a step. Also a step is that the study attempted to measure real-life effects, as opposed to cooping kids up in a lab, having them play a game, and then giving them mallets and seeing how often they hit each other. Also, the questions described as measuriaggressionion levels don't look like they really amount to much.

All in all, I'm not sure about how great the methods or results of this study are, but if they represent a progression towards real research in this area, and better yet to shut up a few whiney suburban moms who prefer to blame others for their obnoxious offspring than bother raising them themselves.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Women Are Skanks 

A new study, to whose validity I cannot speak, as the release is vague and I can't find an abstract, claims that as many as one in twenty-five kids may not be their fathers' own, unbeknownst to either.

Aside from the ... complicated ... social issues arising from this knowledge - particularly when daddy dearest finds out - are compounded by the potentially lethal medical issues this could cause. Not knowing that you have, say, a genetic predisposition for diabetes or heart disease can affect medical treatments, for starters.

The only way this "paternal discrepancy" happens is that a mother either (a) lies to the man she's with, or (b) doesn't even know herself who the father is. Conclusion: about 4% of women are lying hobags. Then again, at least 75% of men are lying hobags (aka players), so it evens out, right?

Correction: 1 in 25, not 25%...yay alexia.

Science Journalism 

As you may have noticed, I take discussions on how science is represented in the media very seriously. Part of the reason that the current administration is able to get away with the kind of bullshit they throw out about "intelligent design" and evolution and "cultures of life" and such is that the public is totally ignorant and uninformed about science. While the ignorant part is due to our miserable educational system, the uninformed part is largely the responsibility of the media.

A really lovely editorial in the current PLoS Medicine digs in to the media and science journalists for their lazy, sloppy work, and describes what roles they ought to be playing. For me, I think it starts with a couple of simple and possibly quite unpleasant (for editors and producers) steps: require journalists on the science and medicine beat to (a) have a degree in a real science (biology, chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy) and (b) hold themselves to the same background and fact-checking standards to which any other reporter is supposedly held.

PLoS also highlights the importance of recent whistleblowers, and what we can learn from them. Better science journalism might have made these guys come forward sooner, or even uncovered the problems without their trouble.

DC Officer Dies 

On top of the local news this morning is the story of a 25-year-old DC cop who died yesterday after a training exercise. He was young, in fairly good shape, and highly regarded in the department. He apparently died of hyponatremia, a condition only recently recognized as a major risk by doctors, and all too unknown amongst athletes.

It is a totally unnecessary tragedy - had he drunk less water, or drunk gatorade instead, he'd likely not have died - and one that is not as uncommon as one might expect.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Boredom Kills Braincells and Profits 

Boredom is not just an annoyance -– it can also be harmful to your and your employees'’ health and productivity. This is true even for the highest-ranked and most powerful executives and appointees, though el WaPo fails to distinguish that bored cabinet members get to look out their picture windows onto the National Mall, while bored cubicle-workers get, at best, to hit 'refresh'’ on CNN.com over and over again. The homeless at least get to surf for porn.

I would argue that high school students are more affected by boredom than many other groups'– and that it probably hurts them the most. Yesterday, CNN ran a story about how high school students wish their courses were more demanding, which doesn'’t surprise me in the least.
I went to a highly regarded high school, and it was a challenging school for those who were highly self-motivated. Sometime about the 8th grade, however, I discovered that I could work really hard and get A's, or I could play video games, write bullshit, and get B's. Three guesses which one I chose. This decision was never really called into question, except by a couple of teachers my senior year (advanced bio and constitutional law, the only really hard classes I took in HS), when it was too late. So, I was bored and spent huge swaths of time skipping '‘real'’ classes and hiding in the darkroom. I arrived at college completely unprepared for the workload.

My first real job out of college was a lovely example of unnecessary boringness. I was working in a biochem lab, where there really was some cool stuff going on. The thing was, my boss was too enamored with his ideas about age and experience and status to realize that he could give me more than menial tasks. So, while he rushed around overworked and stressed, I sat at my desk, reading books (we had no internet -– gasp!) and waiting on PAGE runs to finish or, when I was lucky, waiting for a Western blots to happen. He couldn’t grasp that I, with a mere bachelor's degree, could possibly do anything so advanced as … anything. So I was bored. I was miserable. And I quit. At my current job, though it is infinitely better in every way, I still spend too much time on tasks which in no way engage my imagination, or even any of my real skills or talents. But bored sometimes is better than all the time!

What can we do about boredom in the workplace? I don'’t really know, but if you dig past some of his pedantry, Paul Graham may have a good idea.

Faster Drying 

My apartment has its own washer/dryer. It's right there in my kitchen, and I don't think I could ever go back to using shared facilities, or (gasp!) laundromats. I like throwing a load in the washer as I leave for the gym in the morning and tossing it in the dryer as I head to work, and coming home to nice clean dry clothes. Sadly, my dryer is crap, and about half the time I come home to still-slightly-damp clothes in the dryer.

Soon, however, science may have an answer! University of Florida researchers have found a mixture of detergents and fabric softeners that forces clothes to dry out more in the washer. This result, if it turns out to really work and be not-too-toxic and hard on clothes, would not only make my life easier, it would save us all on our electric bills by shortening drying times overall. Woo-hoo!

Cuteness Alert 

Researchers in Madagascar have discovered two new species of lemur. New species are always a cool thing to discover, especially when they're cute and cuddly. Unless they're also tasty, in which case cute and cuddly stops being a benefit.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Jingo Again 

CNN, which is usually at the less reprehensible end of the Republican-bought-and-sold mass media, has a piece up right now that reaches levels of jingoism I normally only expect from Fox.

In describing Venezuela's decision to refuse 'aid' from the US DEA - that is, Venezuela declined to allow a US government agency famous for its meddling in foreign affairs to operate from within its own boarders - CNN emphasizes that Chavez is "an ally of Communist Cuba" [emphasis added] and that "The United States...views him as a threat to stability in the region." There is no mention of the US's domineering policies and the actual history of DEA interference with local politics, let alone the US history of killing Latin American presidents.

This sort of article really pisses me off. First of all, there's the War On Drugs®, which is totally evil and counter-productive in every way. Then there's the overt bias from what claims to be an independent news source. I get to be pedantic and one-sided - I do this for free and all three people reading know that - but CNN ought to be expected to do better. Much better.

Attractiveness and Self-Propagation 

An article in the current issue of PLoS Biology describes a study of Kenyan children and Anopheles gambiae, a malaria-carrying mosquito. The researchers found that children infected at the most transmissible stage of malaria (the gametocyte stage) are more attractive to mosquitoes than are uninfected children and those at less transmissible stages of disease. The parasite self-propagates by attracting vectors to itself, which is a really fascinating idea - what if HIV infection somehow made people sexier or increased their libidos?

It's not clear what exactly happens to make the infected kids more attractive to mosquitoes - some pheromone, or residue in sweat or what - but it reminds me of the race of beings in one of the later Ender's Game books who communicated entirely by molecular emissions. Well, it does!

Monday, August 08, 2005

Jingo Calling 

In June, discussed the "MARC Marshals" poster, and decided that while it is not really Soviet in style, it is damn creepy and disturbing. This evening on my way to calculus class,* I spotted a poster version of the below ad, plugging an enterprise messaging system to government agencies and contractors. The full poster features the same perky, generically Aryan-esque woman, except with full cleavage and sailor uniform top. It's fucking scary.

It can be found at the Farragut North Metro Station.

* Anyone who actually understands calculus and/or can explain it is encouraged to call or email me.

Medieval Medicine 

At the same time that Western society is so fascinated by traditional medicines from Asia, Africa, and South America, we tend to ignore European traditions. It may be that we associate medieval Europe with the Dark Ages, and misconstrue that to mean that it was a period when nobody knew anything, which was of course not really the case.

Brian Moffat, an archeo-ethno-pharmocologist (that is a damn cool title) has been digging about monasteries in the British Isles, and has found a great deal of evidence that medieval healers knew much more about pharmacology and medicine than they're given credit for knowing.

I really appreciate this work, as I'm a big believer in herbal medicine, and, now that I think about it (which admittedly I never did), I do find it odd that we focus so much on what the ancient Mayans or Chinese or whomever knew about herbs, and forget entirely that the Europeans had to have had some medical practices too.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Butter Bear 

Following John and Chrisafer's lead, I add my name to the request that the Chinese panda-naming authorities name DC's new panda the name that is the Mandarin translation for the word "butterstick."


Better than Borf 

After all the commotion around DC's guerilla artist/protester/pseudo-anarchist Borf, you had to know it wouldn't be long before somebody decided to show him up.

Bansky, a semi-anonymous Bristol native, has been putting up satirical graffiti all over the West Bank Barrier. His images are of holes in the wall with various idyllic scenes of what might be on the other side*. This guy kicks Borf's ass. He's gone to a war zone - on holiday - to make fun of the ruling faction, his work is pretty, his satire effective, and he has a spokeswoman.

C'mon, DC...you gonna let some Brit outshine your political graffiti glory??!!

* Much to the disappointment of those managing to get across, all that's there is more desert and xenophobic Israelis.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Target: Quinolinic Acid 

The battle against Alzheimer's may have a new target: quinolinic acid (QUIN), a neurotoxin known to be elevated in inflammatory neurological diseases. A paper published this week indicates that the kynurenine pathway, of which QUIN is a byproduct, is also upregulated in the hippocampus of Alzheimer's patients.

Inhibition of the kynurenine pathway has already been demonstrated effective in decreasing neurotoxicity in AIDS dementia, and there is hope that new treatments using this system could be developed relatively quickly.

Possibly Related To My Dream Job 

The US Air Force and Army are now funding scientists to do something incredibly cool, and on which I. Want. In!!! They're teaching them to write movies about science and scientists to stimulate interest in American kids, who are not growing up to be scientists. I love this idea for many reasons, and I would absolutely love to be one of these writers (if you're involved, please email me!!).

First of all, it would be really refreshing to have a few science-based movies that have any grounding in science whatsoever: Jurassic Park is the only good example that comes to mind. Bad science and, even worse, bad scientific methods, in movies totally ruin them for me. The best science fiction literature is from people like Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, all of whom are/were trained scientists.

Secondly, it sounds like a ton of fun. I would totally watch things like CSI and ER if they had more of the soul of scientific pursuits - the thrill of discovery, of figuring things out for their own sake - and less (forced) romances and such. That's what kids aren't getting in their science curricula and it's driving them away from science. High school science classes and even intros at colleges (including Oberlin, which is renowned for its science departments) tend to be these god-awful exercises in mass memorization, instead of learning how to think about things scientifically. I'd rather see these problems addressed before we start the marketing effort, but hey, every little bit helps.

Logically, this is at extreme odds with the preznit's mission to destroy science education in America once and for all, but he won't notice, as it probably falls under his radar.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Good Advice Will Be Ignored 

When the bird flu epidemic starts (note how I say when, not if), it can be bad or really bad or even Really Bad. A new modeling experiment suggests that with proper international cooperation and coordination, it can be pretty well contained and casualties limited.

Unfortunately, our own health system isn't up to the challenge, and our prospects for getting other people to cooperate with us keep getting worse. Hopefully it won't get this bad.

Science Under Review 

There's been a good bit of noise recently about the need to reconsider how clinical trials get conducted and published. A study in this week's BMJ describes a series of statistical tests which, the authors claim, can detect fabricated data in trials.

This is a very interesting paper to me; the methodology is fascinating, and the idea compelling. But alas, I think it is crap. Yeah, that's right - I. Think. It. Is. Crap. The theory that you could detect likely patterns of fabrication is probably valid, but only the first time, and only for people who fabricate like you do. The preference to round made-up numbers to the nearest 5 or 0 is common, but so is the knowledge that people are more likely to trust odd-numbered figures than even ones. Which takes precedent? Can you analyze for both?

Also, what happens after this paper, when fabricators change their methods? I agree with the beginning thesis - that reviewers need access to basic data elements, and that there should be more lookout for fraud - but don't think that there's an easy plug-and-chug solution like this. Still, it's fascinating.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Bad News for Celebrity Babies 

As if being constantly hounded for your mom's autograph wasn't bad enough, the children of ultra-skinny celebrities may be at increased risk of developing schizophrenia later in life.

A new study has found, corroborating an earlier one, that children born in famine are more likely to develop this disease which is, reports indicate, even more debilitating than failing to drink your kabbalah water. And, since the key thing about famine is not eating enough, Olsen spawn may grow up to be even crazier than their mother(s). This study may also explain Liv Tyler.

Too Cool Quickie 

Everybody loves a quickie. I have no time to write about these, but they are too cool to put off.

1. Researchers have found that our old friend CCK's mediation of appetite is reduced by high-fat snacking. So now Dr. Atkins is broke and broke down. Good thing he died, I guess.

2. Genetic researchers have found good evidence that life began in hot soup, not cold broth. Very, very interesting and cool study.

Lying Might Help 

A new study (which I would like to read in full, since I don't really believe it) suggests that giving people false memories of having had bad reactions to fattening foods makes them avoid those foods. Aside from the completely frightening ethical issues involved, I really am not sure how this could be an effective real-life treatment.

I mean, the first time you go out to dinner with your mom and say "Eww, I hate strawberry ice cream - it made me sick," she'll correct you and it's all over. I would have no problem, however, of making people feel ill every time they watched Fox news.

Ecstasy for Parkinsons? 

Contrary to (somewhat dubious) previous studies and certainly to logic, a new study indicates that amphetamines, particularly MDMA, or Ecstasy, may help treat the symptoms of Parkinsons disease. In a really fascinating study, researchers found that the drugs are acting somewhere besides DA receptors to have these effects. This puts forth all kinds of new questions about how amphetamines work, and what they may do long-term. I'm very interested to see how this pans out.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Potty Pot 

Inflammatory bowel disease patients have long said that smoking pot helps relieve their symptoms, and science is finally catching up. New research has found that IBD patients have a higher density of CB2 receptors in their guts - CB2 is the second, less-well-characterized of the cannabinoid receptors in the body - and indicates that cannabinoid-based treatments might be helpful. Speaking to New Scientist about this research, author Karen Wright makes an amazingly stupid statement, which doesn't necessarily undermine her work, but sure makes me wonder if she's an idiot:
“We are not advocating cannabis use, particularly as smoking tobacco exacerbates Crohn's disease and many smokers of cannabis use tobacco as well.”
That is a complete and total nosequituror.

Also, why is 2003 UB313 being called the Tenth Planet? What happened to Sedna?

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