Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for January 24th, 2010

Judgment on steak dinner, etc.

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First, for the steak and sauce, see the update here.

Second, I started watching The American President from the beginning and am glad I did: I spotted several nice touches I missed the first time around.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2010 at 4:29 pm

Posted in Daily life, Movies

One major improvement in Win 7 over Win XP

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No longer does Windows "start up"; now it simply starts. What a relief. Every time I booted Windows XP I had to see that redundant preposition. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2010 at 1:18 pm

Posted in Daily life

Greenwald interviews executive director of ACLU

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Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2010 at 12:33 pm

Legitimate power increases hypocrisy

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Fascinating paper (PDF). We’ve certainly see enough instances to already suspect this finding.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2010 at 12:32 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

It has happened before

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And I suspect that, with global warming, it will happen again. Anne Gibbons reporting for Science, the publication of the AAAS:

With 6.8 billion people alive today, it’s hard to fathom that humans were ever imperiled. But 1.2 million years ago, only 18,500 early humans were breeding on the planet–evidence that there was a real risk of extinction for our early ancestors, according to a new study. That number is smaller than current figures for the effective population size (or number of breeding individuals) for endangered species such as chimpanzees (21,000) and gorillas (25,000). In fact, our toehold on the planet wasn’t secure for a long time–at least 1 million years, because our ancestral stock was winnowed with the emergence of our species, Homo sapiens, 160,000 years ago or so and, again, with the migration of modern humans out of Africa. "There’s this history of a precarious existence not just for our species but for our ancestors," says co-author Lynn Jorde, a human geneticist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Researchers have long known that modern humans lack the genetic variation found in other living primates, such as chimpanzees or gorillas, even though our current population size is so much larger. One explanation for this lack of variation is that our species underwent recent bottlenecks–events where a significant percentage were killed or otherwise prevented from reproducing. Some researchers proposed that the lack of variation in our maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA suggested these bottlenecks took place as our ancestors spread out of Africa relatively recently. One possibility occurred 70,000 years ago, when the Toba super-volcano erupted in Indonesia and triggered a nuclear winter that fewer than 15,000 individuals survived. Studies of diversity in other regions of the human genome, however, attributed low genetic variation to chronically low numbers, with as few as 10,000 breeding humans at different times during the past 2 million years. But the problem with all these studies is that they tracked specific genetic lineages, and not the entire genome and, hence, populations.

Now, a new method of studying markers across the entire genome is allowing geneticists to look back farther in time, before the emergence of our species 200,000 years ago, to see the population history of our really ancient ancestors, such as Homo erectus. Jorde and his colleagues used short lengths of DNA that randomly insert themselves into the genome, known as Alus, as probes to find ancient parts of the genome. Alu insertions are rare events but once inserted, they are hard to remove–a 300-basepair-length of an Alu is seldom lost in entirety, so Alu insertions work like fossils to mark ancient regions of the genome. By examining the mutations in DNA near Alu insertions in two completely sequenced modern human genomes, they could calculate how much genetic diversity existed in our ancestors. They used the number of those genetic differences between the two genomes to calculate how large the population was at that time.

As they report online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers found that the ancient human effective population size 1.2 million years ago, the number who could breed–was about 18,500, and couldn’t have been larger than 26,000…

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2010 at 12:29 pm

Nightmare visions: Our probable future

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Johann Hari reviews James Hansen’s new book Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity:

I started reading James Hansen’s new book, Storms of My Grandchildren, at the edge of a vanishing Arctic. I sat on a bare brown Greenland hillside listening to the ferocious crack and crash of the dying glaciers in the distance. As I watched the corpse of the ice sheet float by, broken into a thousand icebergs, it seemed the right place to begin the leading NASA scientist’s explanation for what I was seeing. Since the year I was born, 1979, 40 percent of the Arctic sea ice has vanished. If we don’t change our behavior fast, Hansen says I will live to see the day when it is all gone, and the North Pole is a point in the open ocean, reachable by boat. He stresses these are only the starting symptoms of a planetary fever that will remake the map of the world—and the capacity of human beings to survive on it. I finished reading the book at the Copenhagen climate summit, where the world’s leaders gathered to offer a giant shrug.

Professor Hansen has been driven into a strange situation, and produced a strange book. For one-third of a century now, this cantankerous scientist has been more accurate in his predictions about global warming than anyone else alive. He saw these disastrous changes coming long before others did, and the U.S. government has tried to censor or sack him for his prescience. Now he has written a whistle-blower’s account while still at the top: a story of how our political system is so willfully, deliberately blind to environmental realities that we have no choice now but for American citizens to take direct physical action against the polluters. It’s hardly what you expect to hear from the upper echelons of NASA: not a call to the stars, but a call to the streets. Toss a thousand scientific papers into a blender along with All the President’s Men and Mahatma Gandhi, and you’ve got this riveting, disorienting book.

How did such an implausible American story come to pass? Hansen was born into a dirt-poor family in Iowa, to a farmer who left school in the eighth grade. But he was whip-smart and rose through university science departments, where he spent a decade studying the atmosphere of Venus. But then he noticed a more interesting story was happening right in front of him: “The composition of the atmosphere of our home planet was changing before our eyes, and it was changing more and more rapidly.” Yes, we had known for more than a century that human beings were releasing warming gases into the atmosphere. Every time we burn a lump of coal or a barrel of oil, we unleash in one sudden burst greenhouse gases that took millennia to accumulate. But Hansen believed the effects were now becoming plain—and could be dangerous.

After studying the evidence, in 1981 he made a number of predictions for what a warmer world would look like by the early 21st century. He said that the Arctic ice would be retreating dramatically and the fabled “North-West Passage” would open up, making it possible to sail through the Arctic. It has happened. I have seen it. Yet he was derided at the time as “alarmist” by the political class, and the Reagan Energy Department responded by slashing his research budget.

This set the pattern for his career: Hansen makes scientific warnings that are correct and need to be known by the public, and he is punished for it. In 1988, he famously testified before a Senate committee, …

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Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2010 at 12:24 pm

Opaqueness in government

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From the London Evening Standard:

Evidence relating to the death of Government weapons inspector David Kelly is to be kept secret for 70 years, it has been reported.

A highly unusual ruling by Lord Hutton, who chaired the inquiry into Dr Kelly’s death, means medical records including the post-mortem report will remain classified until after all those with a direct interest in the case are dead, the Mail on Sunday reported.

And a 30-year secrecy order has been placed on written records provided to Lord Hutton’s inquiry which were not produced in evidence.

The Ministry of Justice said decisions on the evidence were a matter for Lord Hutton. But Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, who has conducted his own investigations into Dr Kelly’s death, described the order as "astonishing".

Dr Kelly’s body was found in woods close to his Oxfordshire home in 2003, shortly after it was revealed that he was the source of a BBC report casting doubt on the Government’s claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction capable of being fired within 45 minutes.

An inquest was suspended by then Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, who ruled that Lord Hutton’s inquiry could take its place. But in the event, the inquiry focused more on the question of how the BBC report came to be broadcast than on the medical explanation for Dr Kelly’s death.

Lord Hutton’s report in 2004 concluded that Dr Kelly killed himself by cutting an artery in his wrist. But the finding has been challenged by doctors who claim that the weapons inspector’s stated injuries were not serious enough.

One of the doctors seeking a full inquest, former assistant coroner Michael Powers, told the Mail on Sunday he had seen a letter from the legal team of Oxfordshire County Council explaining the unusual restrictions placed by Lord Hutton on material relating to his inquiry.

The letter states: "Lord Hutton made a request for the records provided to the inquiry, not produced in evidence, to be closed for 30 years, and that medical (including post-mortem) reports and photographs be closed for 70 years."

Dr Powers asked: "Supposedly all evidence relevant to the cause of death has been heard in public at the time of Lord Hutton’s inquiry. If these secret reports support the suicide finding, what could they contain that could be so sensitive?

More here from blogger Larisa Alexandrovna:

Well this latest news won’t fuel any conspiracy theories (cough) or bring even more serious questions about the alleged murder (not suicide) of former UN weapons’ inspector Dr. David Kelly (cough).

Before we get into the latest astonishing developments, here is a quick summary of who Dr. Kelly was and what happened to him:

1. Dr. David Kelly worked for the Ministry of Defense/U.K. as an expert in bio-weapons. He was also one of the key UN weapons inspectors in Iraq.

2. He became concerned about the US/UK claims of WMD in Iraq in the build-up to the Iraq war in 2003. Much the same way that former US Ambassador Joseph Wilson became concerned about US claims of yellowcake uranium purchases by Iraq from Niger. Like Wilson, Dr. Kelly became an anonymous source for a journalist. In Kelly’s case, he met with BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan.

3. The MoD leaked Kelly’s identity (just like Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity was leaked) to the press.

4. A Parliamentary committee tasked with investigating the planted intelligence on Iraq asked Kelly to testify, which he did.

5. Several days after his testimony and while preparing for a trip with his wife, Dr. Kelly was found dead in a park nearby his home, which was ruled a suicide. On the day he "committed suicide" he had sent an email to New York Times reporter Judith Miller in which he said "many dark actors playing games."

6. Leading physicians and first responders who arrived at the park and inspected Kelly’s body did not think he committed suicide, even going so far as to sue the British government to prove their case.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2010 at 12:10 pm

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