Archive for December 3rd, 2007
Although society is accustomed to seeing Garfield-sized cats, obese, middle-aged cats can have a variety of problems including diabetes mellitus, which can be fatal. The causes of diabetes mellitus in cats remain unknown although there has been a strong debate about whether a dry food diet puts cats at greater risk for diabetes. A new study from a University of Missouri-Columbia veterinarian suggests that weight gain, not the type of diet, is more important when trying to prevent diabetes in cats.
Because dry cat food contains more starch and more carbohydrates than canned cat food, some have argued that a diet containing large amounts of carbohydrates is unnatural for a cat that is anatomically and physiologically designed to be a carnivore. Carbohydrates constitute between 30 percent and 40 percent of dry cat food. Some have been concerned that this unnatural diet is harmful to cats and leads to increased incidence of diabetes. Wet cat food, on the other hand, is high in protein and more similar to a natural carnivore diet.
In the study, Robert Backus, assistant professor and director of the Nestle Purina Endowed Small Animal Nutrition Program at MU, and his team of researchers compared a colony of cats in California raised on dry food with a colony of cats in New Zealand raised on canned food. After comparing glucose-tolerance tests, which measures blood samples and indicates how fast glucose is being cleared from the blood after eating, researchers found…
What a sleazy person: Julie MacDonald:
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday reversed seven rulings that denied endangered species increased protection, after an investigation found the actions were tainted by political pressure from a former senior Interior Department official.
In a letter to Rep. Nick Rahall, D-West Virginia., the agency acknowledged that the actions had been “inappropriately influenced” and that “revising the seven identified decisions is supported by scientific evidence and the proper legal standards.” The reversal affects the protection for species including the white-tailed prairie dog, the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse and the Canada lynx.
The rulings came under scrutiny last spring after an Interior Department inspector general concluded that agency scientists were being pressured to alter their findings on endangered species by Julie MacDonald, then a deputy assistant secretary overseeing the Fish and Wildlife Service.
MacDonald resigned her position last May.
Rahall in a statement said that MacDonald, who was a civil engineer, “should never have been allowed near the endangered species program.” He called MacDonald’s involvement in species protection cases over her three-year tenure as an example of “this administration’s penchant for torpedoing science.”
If ever there was a single newspaper story that showed just how much today’s Republican Party hates working people, this Rocky Mountain News story is it. The headline reads “Right to Strike in Colorado Paid With Blood,” and documents how after National Guardsmen mowed down striking mine workers in the early 20th century’s Ludlow Massacre, the Colorado state legislature solidified workers’ right to strike – that is, workers’ right to withhold their labor as a way to protest the way they are treated. It was the least the legislature could do following one of the ugliest displays of worker oppression in American history.
This would seem like a basic right in an industrialized countries because, really, what’s the opposite? Right – forcing workers to work, whether they like it or not. However, as this article shows, even with the right to strike in Colorado “paid with blood,” the Colorado Republican Party is gearing up to eliminate that right for workers.
The article includes the above picture of troops heading toward the Ludlow workers to execute them back in 1914 – and in the paper, the picture is, rather appropriately, juxtaposed next to the legislature’s Republican leaders who are leading today’s assault on workers.
You’d think anyone who remembered J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and Nixon’s CIA, the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 — let alone the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution — might be concerned about the government illegally snooping on Americans. But executives at the nation’s biggest telecoms — AT&T, Verizon, and others — didn’t blink an eye when the National Security Agency came knocking. You want records of domestic phone calls? Sure, help yourself! Emails? Yeah, we got tons. They’re yours!
When word of this leaked out and the companies got sued by Americans who didn’t particularly like the idea of government rummaging through everything they said or wrote, the telecoms went to Congress and complained it wasn’t their fault. They deserve immunity from such lawsuits, they argue. They were only following orders. Congress is about to decide whether their argument holds water. It doesn’t.
Only following orders? What if the government told telecoms to use their technologies to spy on American bedrooms, or turn over our bank accounts, or our photographs, home videos, anything else we store on computers or transmit through cables or over the Internet? The “only following orders” excuse would make telecoms extensions of our spy agencies.
Corporate executives have a duty to disobey government orders when they have reason to believe those orders are illegal or unconstitutional — and make the government go to court to get what it wants. The duty to refuse is especially important when it comes to the nation’s telecoms, whose technological reach is extending deeper and deeper into our private lives.
Sure, there’s a delicate balance between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberties. But that’s for courts to decide – not spy agencies and not telecom executives. If in doubt, the telecoms can go to the special courts set up precisely to oversee this balance, and get a declaratory judgment. Yet the only way to keep pressure on them to do this and not become agents of our spy agencies is to continue to allow Americans to sue them for violating their legal rights.
Named Dakota, this 67-million-year-old dinosaur is one of the most important dinosaur discoveries in recent times – calling into question our conception of dinosaurs’ body shape, skin preservation and movement.
The find is documented in the UK premiere of Dino Autopsy on Sunday 9 December at 9pm on National Geographic Channel. The special follows leading palaeontologists in the UK and United States as they uncover the rocky tomb of one of the most complete dino mummies ever found and carry out a CT scan on the specimen.
Most of our understanding of dinosaurs is based on fossilised skeletal remains – from bones and teeth, usually the only tissue durable enough to fossilise. Dakota includes an uncollapsed skin envelope on many parts of the body and limbs that offers a degree of insight impossible from just bone structure. Fossilised skin and tendons have allowed us to reconstruct major muscle sizes – with many body parts offering a tantalising glimpse of a 3-D dinosaur.
“It is quite fair to say that our dinosaur mummy [Dakota] makes many other dinosaurs look like road kill. Simply because the evidence we’re getting from our creature is so complete compared to the disjointed sort of skeletons that we usually have to draw conclusions from”, said Dr Manning, a palaeontologist from The School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Studies (SEAES) at The University of Manchester.
Perhaps the first stars in the newborn universe did not shine, but instead were invisible “dark stars” 400 to 200,000 times wider than the sun and powered by the annihilation of mysterious dark matter, a University of Utah study concludes.
The study – to be published next month in the journal Physical Review Letters – calculated how the birth of the first stars almost 13 billion years ago might have been influenced by the presence of dark matter – the unseen, yet-unidentified stuff that scientists believe makes up most matter in the universe.
The findings “drastically alter the current theoretical framework for the formation of the first stars,” says study author and astrophysicist Paolo Gondolo, associate professor of physics at the University of Utah.
It is conceivable that gigantic dark stars may exist today, and although they do not emit visible light, they could be detected because they should spew gamma rays, neutrinos and antimatter and be associated with clouds of cold, molecular hydrogen gas that normally wouldn’t harbor such energetic particles, he adds.
“Without detailed simulations, we cannot pinpoint the further evolution of dark stars,” Gondolo says. “They could last months. They could last 600 million years. Or they could last billions of years and still be around. We have to search for them.”
Bruce Schneier points out an increasing problem:
We’ve opened up a new front on the war on terror. It’s an attack on the unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it’s a war on different. If you act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested — even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants and a CYA attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation of reported threats.
This isn’t the way counterterrorism is supposed to work, but it’s happening everywhere. It’s a result of our relentless campaign to convince ordinary citizens that they’re the front line of terrorism defense. “If you see something, say something” is how the ads read in the New York City subways. “If you suspect something, report it” urges another ad campaign in Manchester, UK. The Michigan State Police have a seven-minute video. Administration officials from then-attorney general John Ashcroft to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff to President Bush have asked us all to report any suspicious activity.
The problem is that ordinary citizens don’t know what a real terrorist threat looks like. They can’t tell the difference between a bomb and a tape dispenser, electronic name badge, CD player, bat detector, or trash sculpture; or the difference between terrorist plotters and imams, musicians, or architects. All they know is that something makes them uneasy, usually based on fear, media hype, or just something being different.
Even worse: after someone reports a “terrorist threat,” the whole system is biased towards escalation and CYA instead of a more realistic threat assessment.
Watch how it happens. Someone sees something, so he says something. The person he says it to — a policeman, a security guard, a flight attendant — now faces a choice: ignore or escalate. Even though he may believe that it’s a false alarm, it’s not in his best interests to dismiss the threat. If he’s wrong, it’ll cost him his career. But if he escalates, he’ll be praised for “doing his job” and the cost will be borne by others. So he escalates. And the person he escalates to also escalates, in a series of CYA decisions. And before we’re done, innocent people have been arrested, airports have been evacuated, and hundreds of police hours have been wasted.
A man with something to prove could change the world. And Rene Nunez had something to prove. After dedicating his life and fortune to his invention, he had to prove it could be done to show his family and friends that he is not following a crazy dream. Nunez claims to have succeeded. His invention, the Turbo-cooker (or turbo-cocina), could make life better for 3 billion people who rely on primitive wood- or biomass-burning stoves for cooking and heating.
According to the World Health Organization’s report Fuel for Life (pdf), “The inefficient burning of solid fuels on an open fire or traditional stove indoors creates a dangerous cocktail of hundreds of pollutants, primarily carbon monoxide and small particles, but also nitrogen oxides, benzene, butadiene, formaldehyde, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and many other health-damaging chemicals.” Nunez claims to have a stove that burns very efficiently, reducing the amount of fuel which is needed by over 95%. That is 95% less deforestation, less greenhouse gases and less toxins in the living space of women and children around the world.
Nunez has won an environmental prize from the UN, funding from the Fondo Iniciativa para las Americas El Salvador (FIAES) and has received a US patent for his invention. According to Nunez, in an interview in the El Salvador (Spanish), the secret to his cooker is that the combustion occurs at a much lower temperature than in a normal, open fire. In theory, this concept could apply to any combustibles, including natural gas or propane for example.
The turbo-cooker joins inventions like the solar oven in trying to address a fundamental need for humans around the world, while taking steps to sustainability which may also be useful for those of us lucky enough to consider cooking an engaging hobby or at least a pleasant household duty.
But will the world respond? This would seem to be something that the Gates Foundation could back. In the meantime, look:
A spectacular set of photos from SOHO showing a complete solar cycle. Astonishing.
UPDATE: Read the first comment: it’s not the entire opera, but just the highlights, that are downloadable for $12. It even says that, if you read the entire title. Duh.
Last year she appeared in an even more controversial Harnoncourt production, “Le Nozze” this time, directed (by Claus Guth) in such a way that it more nearly resembled a play by Ibsen or Strindberg than a comic opera. Just about everyone here is neurotic and oversexed, including Susanna (Netrebko), who has clearly been receptive to the Count’s advances even before the curtain comes up and is also turned on by Cherubino. To play the part Netrebko has to give up a lot of Susanna’s traditional charm, and yet she makes the character appealing, and even sympathetic, through the richness of her singing. Netrebko found this role hard, she told me, because Susanna has so few high notes and also because the character was so complicated. “This Susanna is a lost person,” she said. “Very lost. She doesn’t know what to do, and it’s sad.”
So I go to Amazon, the CD set of the production: $49.00. Hmmm. That’s pretty steep for an impulse purchase. So I go to the Deutsche Grammophon on-line store, do a search and find quite a site devoted to that very production, with the downloadable version of the set (MP3 320 kbps, no copy-protection so I can move it from computer to MP3 player, cut a CD for the car, etc.) for $12, including (as I discover after paying for the set) a PDF of the booklet and a jpg of the album cover.
I at first tried to download individual tracks, but not only did that not work, it would have been a pain. And then I noticed up at the top two other choices: “zip file” and “download manager.” I clicked “download manager” and it did a superb job, plopping all the files in the folder I created, managing the entire download—as, I guess, one would expect.
So now I have a $49 album for $12, and really good sound quality (note this article on the change in criteria for recorded music—thanks, Ray), and am as pleased as punch.
The lobbyists have a government. And why? Because they have more money to given to politicians than you do. Our current government is a puppet where the strings are money. What we desperately need, I think, is public financing of political campaigns, with no outside money allowed. That would break the lever that Big Business and lobbyists use to move legislation in the direction they want.
From the (must-read) article I mentioned earlier, “How America Lost the War on Drugs“:
It is only in retrospect that these moments – the barrels of ephedrine seized in Dallas, the quiet suggestion that meth had worked its way into the cocaine supply chain – take on a looming character, the historic weight of a change made manifest. Up until methamphetamine, the War on Drugs had targeted three enemies. First there were the hippie drugs – marijuana, LSD – that posed little threat to the general public. Then there was heroin, a horrible drug but one that was largely concentrated in New York City. And, finally, there was crack. What meth proved was that even if the DEA could wipe out every last millionaire cocaine goon in Colombia, burn every coca field in Bolivia and Peru, and build an impenetrable wall along the entire length of the Mexican border – even then, we wouldn’t have won the War on Drugs, because there would still be methamphetamine, and after that, something else.
Gene Haislip, who served for years as one of the DEA’s top-ranking administrators, believes there was a moment when meth could have been shut down, long before it spiraled into a nationwide epidemic. Haislip, who spent nearly two decades leading a small group at the agency dedicated to chemical control, is his own kind of legend; he is still known around the DEA as the man who beat quaaludes, perhaps the only drug that the U.S. has ever been able to declare total victory over. He did it with gumshoe methodicalness: by identifying every country in the world that produced the drug’s active ingredient, a prescription medication called methaqualone, and convincing them to tighten regulations. Haislip believes he was present the moment when the United States lost the war on methamphetamine, way back in 1986, when meth was still a crude biker drug confined to a few valleys in Northern California – a decade before the Mexican drug lords turned it into the most problematic drug in America. “The thing is, methamphetamine should never have gotten to that point,” Haislip says. And it never would have, he believes, if it hadn’t been for the lobbyists.
Interesting thought on why modern politicians seem to have no core and no ability to think unless directed by money. (I imagine the writer would say that the study is Latin is necessary but not sufficient for a political figure who has a core.)
At first glance, it doesn’t seem tragic that our leaders don’t study Latin anymore. But it is no coincidence that the professionalization of politics — which encourages budding politicians to think of education as mere career preparation — has occurred during an age of weak rhetoric, shifting moral values, clumsy grammar and a terror of historical references and eternal values that the Romans could teach us a thing or two about. As they themselves might have said, “Roma urbs aeterna; Latina lingua aeterna.”*
None of the leading presidential candidates majored in Latin. Hillary Clinton studied political science at Wellesley, as did Barack Obama at Columbia. Rudy Giuliani had a minor brush with the language during four years of theology at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn when he toyed with becoming a priest. But then he went on to major in guess what? Political science.
How things have changed since the founding fathers.
Of the 7,000 books originally in Thomas Jefferson’s library, only a couple of dozen are still at Monticello. The rest were sold off by his descendants, and eventually bought back by the Library of Congress. The best-thumbed of those remaining — on a glassed-in shelf in Jefferson’s study — is a copy of Virgil’s “Aeneid.”
Jefferson started learning Latin and Greek at age 9 at a school in Virginia run by a Scottish clergyman. When he was at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, a Greek grammar book was always by his side. Tacitus and Homer were his favorites.
High school, Jefferson thought, should center on Latin, Greek and French, with grammar and reading exercises, translations into English and the memorizing of famous passages. In 1819, when Jefferson opened the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (built according to classical rules of architecture), he employed only classically trained professors to teach Greek and Roman history.
This pattern of Latin learning continued for more than 150 years. Of the 40 presidents since Jefferson, 31 have studied Latin, many at a high level. James Polk graduated from the University of North Carolina, in 1818, with top honors in math and classics. James Garfield taught Greek and Latin from 1856 to 1857 at what is now Hiram College in Ohio. Teddy Roosevelt studied classics at Harvard.
Very neat (though coincidental) tie-in with previous post: this book review.
Look at the graph reproduced on this page. It shows the material standard of living of the average English person over a span of eight centuries beginning in 1200. In 1800 the average English person was literally no better off, in food, clothing, and shelter, than in 1200. Although there had been ups and downs, there was no long-term improvement. Nobody would have been talking about “growth.”
Then, in the early 1800s, not exactly suddenly but quite rapidly on this long time scale, it all changed. Less than two hundred years later, the previously stagnant standard of living had multiplied by six or more. That was the Industrial Revolution. Nothing closer to a Big Bang had occurred in human history. Now nobody talks about anything but growth in standard of living. This is not a new observation: the broad facts had long been noticed and discussed by Paul Bairoch, Carlo Cipolla, and other economic historians.
According to Gregory Clark, who teaches economic history at the University of California at Davis, this picture could be extended to cover the whole world and the thousands of years since the beginnings of settled agriculture. He even catches the reader’s attention with a graph looking just like this one, but extending from 1000 BCE to the present. That graph, as far as one can tell, is largely made up. Only a handful of scattered and crude estimates of income per person exists for ancient times. On the other hand, Clark is very good at piecing together figures from here and there, including those from isolated groups of hunter-gatherers alive today. He makes a plausible case for the basic pattern: for thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution, there was essentially no sustained improvement in mankind’s general material standard of living, nor was there much variation from place to place around the world. The Industrial Revolution made all the difference.
It is worth emphasizing that this is all about material standards, not cultural evolution or the “level of civilization.” Shakespeare, Purcell, and Newton had done their work in England long before 1780 or 1800. But ordinary people still lived in hovels and wore rags.
Accepting this big picture, Clark is after deep answers. He proposes to explain why the stagnation lasted so long, why it ended with the close of the eighteenth century and not much earlier or later, why the Industrial Revolution occurred first in England and not in China or India or somewhere else, and why some parts of the world, such as Europe and the United States, continued to improve standards of living long after the Industrial Revolution, while other parts of the world, including Africa, stagnated or deteriorated. And he attempts to do all this not encyclopedically but by applying a neat, clean theory.
Last night I got to thinking about the peculiar fight about the theory of evolution, which is as well established a scientific theory as, say, gravity. Why is it such a big deal for some (though certainly not all) religious people?
It occurred to me that it’s part of an on-going struggle for control of explanation. One component of the origins of religion was an effort to find reasons for why things were and why things happened. Where did everything come from? What were those twinkling lights in the night sky? What was the sun? Why did that storm happen to us? Why did the plague or the drought or the flood or the earthquake happen to us? (Note the “to us”—the implicit idea that we are the reason for things. I’m reminded of a profile of Marty Zuckerman I read in the New Yorker. He and a guest were in his private plane when it hit an air pocket, raising them both a couple of feet in the air before dropping them back into their chairs. “Wow!” said Zuckerman. “Did you see what just happened to me?!”)
One of religion’s roots was the effort to have answers for those questions, and so religions have creation myths and stories of God(s) punishing people with floods and plagues and earthquakes and the like.
Then along comes science and starts to look at evidence and to test its explanations with experiments designed to demonstrate the explanation is false. If the explanation isn’t proved false, one can trust it a bit more—but further experiments are always possible and in fact done.
And it turns out that, in general, the “to us” and the “for us” part of the question is, generally speaking, irrelevant: barking up the wrong tree. We’re not the reason for everything, as it turns out, though certainly we’re the reason for some things. For example, it was found that careless handling of city sewage does cause outbreaks of illness.
Some of the religious were reluctant to let go of the explanatory role of religion, even when the new technique proved to be markedly better: better explanations, more understanding, and the ability to build upon the explanations to do new things.
Yet religion still had other components that science didn’t touch: social justice, for example: how we should treat one another, individually (person to person) and as group (government/organization to person). Indeed, as you read the teachings of, say Jesus, they seem focused on social justice and how we should relate to one another and to God. Very little natural explanation (and that, predictably, wrong: illness caused by demons, for example).
This, I think, is why religion wants to argue with science: they’re working the same territory. Notice that religious issues don’t come up that much in, say, mathematics: the territories are different.*
Of course, issues of how we should treat one another—and explanations for why we treat one another the way we do—are gradually coming under the sway of science, in psychology and neuropsychology and evolutionary psychology. So far, though, the advice given by religion—to treat others as we would like to be treated—seems to be (in general) consistent with what we’re learning when we approach the question from a scientific direction.
As promised, D.R. Harris Marlborough played a big role in today’s shave: the shave stick and the aftershave. The Rooney Style 2 Finest created a wonderful lather, and the Edwin Jagger Georgian with a once-used (twice-used?) Sputnik blade did a fantastic job—after the second downward pass, it was all just clean-up. This shave is clearly a 9.9 or even a 10.0. Great way to start the week. I’m skipping the Sunday shaves again.