"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!!

Sunday, December 31, 2006

DC Taxi 

I've been taking cabs more than usual while here in DC. I hate cabs in DC. Everyone else in the universe has discussed the evils of the zone system, et cetera, so I needn't go in to that now.

My question is: why has no one used Google maps to make an easily readable zone mapper thingey so that one might more easily jigger one's fare? I don't know how to do it myself, or I would.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Bad News for Feminists, Good News for Audiophiles 

In a turn sure to depress, enrage, and otherwise irritate the womens' movement, it seems that women who do more housework may be less likely to get breast cancer. Truthfully, what the researchers found was that women who were not obese and got a good amount of moderately strenuous exercise were less likely to develop the disease, but it seems that the way women were getting said exercise was by doing housework. (insert your own vaguely demeaning and sexist comment about the dust in my apartment here...I'm too tired to think of one)

On the upside, an Austrian has performed a recently discovered 'lost' Mozart composition. If it really is by Mozart, that's pretty cool. Actually, if it's good, it's pretty cool!

Also sadly, but worth coming out to celebrate, is tonight's penultimate Bluestate at the Black Cat. It's free, there will be dancing, and there will be ridiculousness. See you there!

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Monday, December 25, 2006

A Christmas Drag 

Merry Christmas to all!

This is one of a pair of ornaments my mother just bought for our tree.

We're Jewish, so I guess there's no reason it shouldn't look like a drag queen did our Christmas tree, right?

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Ultimate Feminist Ideal: Two-Headed Reptiles 

Female reptiles don't really need males for much of anything, including reproduction. Recent (possibly) virgin births by komodo dragons represent the first time we've seen parthenogenesis in that species, but it is quite common amongst other reptiles. There's a catch though, ladies: the parthenogenic offspring are all male!

Speaking of strange offspring, researchers in China have found a two-headed reptile fossil. It appears as though the specimen died very young, and so was probably just the product of a birth defect, not a man-eating dragon.

Humans have offspring too, of course, but for us the process is made rather more complicated by (among other things) busybodies who want to dictate 'morality' on us all. Despite all the preaching, it seems that the vast majority of Americans are having premarital sex. Needless to say, the usual suspects are decrying the research, and demanding that more money be spent on 'abstinence education.'

Once human kids are conceived, that's really just the start of their problems - it's increasingly likely that they'll grow up to be fat and suffer from some chronic disease, et cetera. Many factors influence how fat people get, including exercise, diet, and, it seems, the bacteria in their guts. US researchers have found that obese people (and mice) seem to have higher proportions of certain natural gut bacteria, which allow for better absorption of calories from food. This is really a cool concept, and one that, if it turns out to be a major factor, could maybe be pretty easy to treat.

Also, living in the suburbs makes your kids fat. Duh.

The good news? More vitamin D may reduce risk of developing multiple sclerosis - a nasty autoimmune disease which ravishes the nervous system, and high blood alcohol levels may actually help you survive the car crash you caused by driving drunk. Very interesting, but weird.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Back in DC - A Roundup, with Superheroes. 

So I'm finally done with finals, and back in DC for the winter. Questions as to my sanity vis. moving *north* for this season aside, here I am. And really, what better way to return to the District than with a lawsuit? The DC government has joined a number of states in suing to force the EPA to adjust its soot-emission guidelines to jibe with the EPA's own scientific assessments on the subject. See? Good things could come from (a) a lawsuit and (b) the DC government! I've missed quite a bit over the last few days, so here's a quick-fire of what's up:

It's also a pretty good day for people who drink alcohol. Not that any of them write on this blog, no sir... Researchers have foud evidence that alcoholism-related briain damage may be reversable - subjects displayed significant increases in brain volume after only a few weeks abstinence. Needless to say, brain volume is not necessarily a measure of regrowth (let alone functional improvement), but coupled with improvements on cognitive test scores, this is hopeful research.

On the good side of alcohol consumption, a preliminary Swedish study of mice has found that moderate alcohol consumtpion may help stave off arthritis. Awesome!

Back on the bad-for-your-brains topic, it seems that younger siblings may be more than just annoying: having too many could increase your risk of a brain tumor! I find this result a little bit baffling, so I do hope we hear more soon.

Rats appear to have visual dreams, just like us! We already knew that they used some sort of memory replay in sleep, to help with consolidation just like in humans, but this is the first evidence of something much more like dreams. Granted, this isn't a big shock to me, as one of my dogs is plagued by nightmares (the other one is very good at comforting her after these), but it is nice to have confirmation of my anthropomorphizing tendency!

Speaking of dogs, you might not need that bloodhound afterall: just hire a Berkeley grad student. The researchers had students track the scent of chocolate across a field with one nostril or two, and found that, not only could they do it (like a bloodhound), but also that two nostrils was best for time and accuracy. Cool!

And now, the superheroes. Forget Batman - could the batfish really save the Great Barrier Reef? Unrelatedly, NIH researchers have come upon a potential malaria vaccine which could, if successful, help eliminate that ancient nemesis.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Demon Chestnuts 

So, when the Wingnut Daily claimed that soy was the devil's food, I think they were forgetting these guys. I picked four of them up at my local Asian grocery today, because (a) all the grannies were a-twitter about their arrival, and (b) they look bloody cool. They were labeled "Black Chestnuts," but I can find no reference to such things on Google.

Anyone have any idea what to do with them??

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Old and New Solutions 

Sometimes the newest and shiniest technology is what you need to solve a problem. Nanobots promise to revolutionize science and (especially) medicine, but powering them has been tricky. Now, Japanese researchers have found a way to get nanosized fiber-optic cables to convert light into small electrical currents - the way some bacteria do - which could be used to power the tiny machines. I wonder about the feasability of doing this on a larger scale - i.e., better solar power?

On the other hand, sometimes an old technology turns out to have previously-unknown utility. We've been hearing for some time that male circumcision might reduce HIV risk, but the NIH announced yesterday, in a fairly dramatic press conference, that they have ended two major trial early due to overwhelming positive results. So there you have it: circumcision dramatically decreases HIV transmission. (Jews and Muslims around the world rejoice that there may have been a reason after all!)

Much of our technology, in science at least, goes towards figuring out How We Got Here. Investigation into the origins of life on Earth may have just gotten a big boost from outer space: organic molecules found on comets look like the kind of stuff that, if it had crashed on Earth a few billion years ago (roughly), may have helped catalyze the first chemical reactions of life. "We are ET."

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Boyfriend Material 

As I am too fried from the tail end of finals (p = .857143, if you're interested) to really think clearly, and am looking for any excuse to giggle, Dan Renzi has made a list of his Rules for how well-meaning stright friends should go about setting their gay friends up together.

My take:

1. Definitely critical.

2. +/- 5 years for me, if only because more than that might make it a crime for him to buy me a drink!

3. "Being gay" is not 'something we have in common.' It is something that is true about both of us, but not something worth talking about.

4. Agreed.

5. I'd drop the "slightly" and "recipe for drama."

6. Quite.

7. Yes, but do make sure I know I need to be presentable...don't invite me out to play beer pong and then say to my ratty-t-shirted and probably not-on-anything-approaching-my-best-behavior self "oh, you should meet ..."

8. Yup.

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More Stupid: Evangelicals Hate Multiple Sclerosis Victims 

Following yesterday's monsoon of idiocy, the American Far Right felt that it needed to contribute. So, Jim Rutz wrote a bogglingly inane editorial in which he claims that eating soy-based foods are the cause of homosexuality, and that they make mens' dicks smaller. Aside from committing pretty much every logical fallacy imaginable, he may also be attempting to deprive MS sufferers with an effective treatment: neurologists have found that a soy extract greatly improves mobility in mouse models of MS.

Cornell researchers have discovered that teenagers are swayed by peer pressure, and enjoy instant gratification. Mind-blowing research there, thanks for curing cancer!

Also stupidly, or at least unnecessarily, it seems that the Baiji (Yangtze River dolphin) is extinct. The amazingly strong conservation efforts by the Chinese government in the last decade seem to have been too little, too late. Hopefully one or two remaining Baiji will be found, and can at least have their DNA catalogued. It's the least we can do, for killing them off!

Speaking of China - neuroscientists have found that the brain processes the 'musical' aspects of tonal languages like Mandarin before its semantic content. This helps explain why hearing aides are not so helpful to people who speak such languages, and offers more cool insight into how we deal with language.

Those who like music, outside of language, can download Mozart's entire cataloge for free, as a closer to his 250th birthday celebration in Europe.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Astoundingly Bad Ideas 

Sometimes, smart people get stupid ideas and say stupid things. A US researcher, upon finding that a tiny sea creature (the salp) could theoretically 'mop up' after humans' excess greenhouse gas emissions, has suggested that we artificially alter the oceans' nutrient content, to try and make more of them. This is a mind-blowingly numb-nutted idea. For starters, even if it worked it would fail to address the actual problem: excess greenhouse gas emissions, and at best be only a temporary solution. Then, we move on to what the effects of altering ocean chemistry would be on, well, EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD!

A similarly lame-brained idea to solve our mounting environmental and energy crises is that of a 'hydrogen economy.' I've never been a fan of this idea - H is expensive, hard to produce, and hard to store, but for whatever reason the dubya administration bloody loves it. A leading fuel cell expert, Ulf Bossel, has put together a paper saying about that, and claiming that hydrogen is impracticable to meet our energy needs.

His arguments go beyond the simple technology problem (which could theoretically be solved) to the abundance problem: water is already a scarce resource in much of the world, and burning it all up as hydrogen fuel would make things worse. In that hydrogen fules burn to water, I'm not sure I believe outright quantity is so much the problem as distribution (i.e., not only who has the water to make hydrogen, but where all that end-product ends up relative to where it started).

And then there's cancer. The vast majority of men who die in old age have prostate cancer on autopsy, and the recent fad of screening has caused PC rates to skyrocket. But, the majority of men do not die of prostate cancer, and it rarely even affects them. Treatment is traumatic, expensive, and causes impotence and incontinence, but a study now suggests that it may increase life expectancy in older men, who would normally not be treated. The study's methodology, however, is dubious, and especially given the serious side-effects of treatment, its recommendations should be taken with many grains of salt.

Finally, of course, the most asinine idea of the day, possibly the year, comes from the Texas legislature (where else?). Representative Edmund Kuempel wants to make it legal for blind people to hunt. And they would be allowed, under his bill, to use laser targeting devices and other unsportsmanlike technologies which are otherwise banned. As long as they have a sighted friend help them aim. I don't think I even need to mention the trillions of ways this is a stupid, irresponsible, and likely-to-increase-the-murder-rate idea. Hmm...maybe it'll lower the population in Texas...could be a good idea...

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Vibration Trip 

Psilocybin may be an effective treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder: a number of subjects with severe OCD saw at least transient remission of symptoms after taking the drug. The methodology was weak and n small, so it doesn't really look like those magic mushrooms are a good home remedy just yet!

In a much stranger (and also more interesting) but of science, physicists have paved the way for a highly controversial theory of olfaction to be more seriously investigated. A ULC physicist examined Luca Turin's hypothesis that smell is not triggered by the shape of airborne molecules, but by their molecular vibrations, and he found that this was, mathematically, plausible.

The idea is that the shape theory doesn't really fit all that well with how smell works. Very similar molecules can smell very different and similar ones smell similar - some animals can even smell the difference between isotopes! The vibration concept, while far from proven or even evidenced so far, is intriguing and could really shake up our perception of how our senses work if it pans out.

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Get Innocuous (Not an auspicious opening title, not at all.) 

I'm kinda hoping that what I got handed by The Best Bartender In Atlanta is not really the upcoming LCD Soundsystem album, The Sound of Silver, but I fear it may be. The above mentioned opener is too long, and doesn't seem to go anywhere. LCD Soundsystem's goofy-rockin-out-funness shows up here only on one track, "Watch The Tapes," but really even that's much more sleepy and down-tempo.

I'm not saying it isn't pretty, or that it might not really grow on me, but at first listen I was kinda hoping for more fun and less ... just pretty. C'est la vie, non?

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Monday, December 11, 2006

More Birth and Death 

The rise of large animal life has long baffled biologists; the so-called "Darwin's Dilemma" fuels not only scientific inquiry and curiosity, but also gets used by crazies as 'evidence' that evolution isn't real. The 'Dilemma' is this - that for billions of years, life on Earth was pretty simple (well, small anyways), but then suddenly all kinds of large animals started appearing, and it's unclear why.

Queen's College researchers looked at evidence of the atmospheric composition in past eras, and found that the sudden development of large animals happened as atmospheric oxygen levels were dramatically increasing. Oxygen is, of course, critical to sustaining life as we know it on Earth, and large quantities of it are necessary to sustain large animals: before there was much oxygen around, big animals wouldn't have survived, but once there was enough to support them, one can speculate that larger size began to hold many advantages.

In terms of more recent beginnings of life, the evidence strongly indicates that breastfeeding babies is the best thing to do for them. Despite this, about 60% of American women don't breastfeed even for the first six months of life, which is the base recommendation for health, and researchers wonder why. An Australian study found that women who take an epidural pain killer during labor are less likely to breastfeed their babies.

It's not clear whether the drug itself is responsible for the difference, or if it's just that women who go without are more likely to stick it out in terms of breastfeeding. My guess is that it's a bit of column A and a lot of column B, but then, I'm a cynic.

On the other end of gestation, it appears that anti-impotence drugs, which increase NO transmission, may actually help the body fight cancer. That's right: Viagra for cancer! Researchers found that the increased NO levels interfere with immune down-regulating myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs), allowing the system to detect and kill cancers more effectively. Awesome!

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Long Tongues and Short Penises 

The National Geographic reports that an Ecuadorian bat, Anoura fistulata, has the longest tongue of any known mammal. Like me, they also cannot resist the obvious Gene Simmons commentary.

The bats use their super-tongues to reach their food, and it also seems that malaria allows HIV to reach more victims. Research indicates that when an HIV-positive individual is infected with malaria, that person's viral load increases dramatically, upping the chance of passing on the virus. AIDS sufferers are also more susceptible to malaria. This is just more evidence that we need more and better research into malaria, as well as HIV/AIDS.

The best way to reduce HIV spread is to encourage effective condom use. Unfortunately, it appears that the majority of condoms on the market are too big for Indian men, and so can't be used effectively. Unsurprisingly, most people aren't willing to go to the pharmacy and ask for smaller ones. (It's also hilarious to note that the article insists that size doesn't count - and convincingly(?) uses India's population growth rate as evidence)

Finding a good fit is important in most situations, most notably in finding a job, where nowadays burnout is a seemingly inevitable result. Best Buy is leading the pack in innovative workplace schemes, with their no-mandatory-meetings and output-over-time-assessments that allow workers to work whenever, and wherever, so long as good work gets done. Since implementing their program, whose '7th commandment' is that "Nobody talks about how many hours they work," Best Buy claims massive gains in productivity, satisfaction, and retention. This sounds like someplace I could work! It also sounds like an idea that Washingtonians especially ought to consider.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Rep. John Dingell claims that he will try to correct a major failing of the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act, which created the Part D drug benefit, to make CMS negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies. This is the only rational thing to do, of course, but the pharmaceutical industry gives lots of money, especially to the Republicans, who will thus do anything to stop the legislation, and keep drug prices high.

Also in Washington, possibly due to short penises: SUV-heavy DC is rated the nation's unfriendliest place to drive.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Divide by Zero 

You can't divide by zero. Computers and mathematicians choke up, and you'll never get an answer. That's assuming, of course, Dr. James Anderson, of the University of Reading, is not batty. The professor has come up with a new mathematical concept, which he calls 'nullity,' that allows you to divide by zero. I don't really understand the math, possibly because the explanation is so brief, but I think it's cool, even if it is just an example of something that pisses me off: making up a new 'imaginary' number to solve a real problem you can't just solve.

It's a big day for the previously-believed-impossible: analysis of satellite imagery suggests that there may be periodic flash floods on Mars. Liquid water on Mars would change how we think about the planet, and what life might be like there. Also, the Conservative Jewish movement has decided to allow gay marriage and ordination of gays. But it still bans anal sex. This is a major step in a good direction; I hope that it will be followed soon with full 'decriminalization' - these rabbis (even, or perhaps especially, those who resigned in protest) know that there are bigger gefilte fish to fry.

Similarly improbable, researchers claim that MRI scans of the temporal gyrus reveal pre-schizophrenia. If this turns out to be real, it is a massively huge finding - even if nothing can be done really to prevent the disease today, knowing that such 'priming' conditions exist would give researchers all kinds of direction in searching. Very cool!

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Good Solar, Safe Cellphones, and Tasteful Memory 

The US Department of Energy (DOE) says that one of their contractors, Boeing-Spectrolab, has managed to produce a solar panel with about 40% efficiency, more than triple the efficiency of current commercial panels (10-12%). Assuming that the system is useful on a marketable scale, this will have a MAJOR impact on energy use and production, worldwide. Hopefully this technology will lead to even more advances, allowing us to start using solar for just about everything.

Everything, that is, including your cell phone charger. Which you'll be using, because it seems that cell phone use (even over as long as 10 years) does not cause tumors. I feel like the jury's still probably out on this one, but since I only wish I could give up my cell at this point (they are addictive, no?), I'll take it as good news.

The bad news, for me at least, is that yet another study has shown how important sleep is to memory consolidation. Using a novel measurement technique, Max Planck researchers have found evidence that memories are 'moved' from the hippocampus to the cortex during sleep. More interesting is their finding that the cortex seems to actively control this transfer, though I'm not clear on how.

Also in the brain department, UK researchers have found that different antidepressants seem to alter taste bud sensitivity. The serotonin agonist paroxetine increased sensitivity to sweetness, and the noradrenergic
reboxetine increased sensitivity to sour flavors. Strange!

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A Suzuki Ate 

That's all I really have to say about that. Finals, et cetera.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Brain Dead Babies 

When humans get mad cow disease, it's called variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease (vCJD), and it kills them within about a year. What few treatments exist are ultimately ineffective. Research using RNA interference now suggests a possible way to slow the disease progress - treated mice lived much longer with a prion illness than did controls.

However, the mice had to be treated embryonically, so it's not clear how this will apply to humans, and it is possible that interfering with healthy prion production could have serious side effects. We shall see.

Speaking of brain damage: it seems that psychopaths do not process fearful faces the same way non-psychopaths do. Psychopathic subjects' brains were observed to 'light up' less than controls' when shown pictures of fearful faces, while they were the same for happy faces.

Miscarriage is an extremely traumatic event, and its causes are often utterly mysterious, but a study of 600 UK women whose pregnancies lasted more than 12 weeks suggests a number of factors that may play a role. First of all, underweight women are more likely to miscarry. No shock here, as being underweight is often associated with amenorrhea and fertility problems. Single women, and those who don't take vitamins or eat chocolate are also at increased risk. So ladies? Get thee to Godiva!

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

New Hilarity. 

I just have to point all six of you to one of my newest favorite sites, Indexed. Introduced to me by my friend/in-class-IM-and-facebook-comments-buddy SA, the Old Bag makes me laugh nerdily. Enjoy!

UPDATE: It seems that I'm not the only one who's, uhm, cataloged Indexed recently. Good work, mystery card drawer!

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Friday, December 01, 2006

Living Well, Passing it On 

Also, a good excuse to plaster Winston all over the blog.Parents generally want their kids to be healthy and happy. Kids often want pets. The two, it turns out, seem to go hand in hand: Cincinnati researchers have found that infants raised in households with two or more dogs seem to have lower rates of wheezing disorders.

The press release is a bit self-contradictory, so I can't tell what the group's actual findings were in regards to allergy risk, but it would make sense that protective effects against wheezing would suggest protection from allergy development, right?

Something else that may have unexpected benefits is mifepristone (aka RU-486). A UC-Irvine study suggests that the 'abortion pill' may block breast and ovarian cancers in mice.

They examined mice with the BRCA1 mutation, known to predispose for cancer; those treated with the progesterone-blocking drug developed fewer tumors than controls. Probably not a treatment for humans, but a nice suggestion of future steps.

Speaking of breeding, it seems that alpha-male stags are more likely to produce male offspring. The idea that parents health or status can really influence (besides chance) in mammals is pretty amazing.

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