Later On

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

Archive for August 21st, 2012

The GOP’s platform

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Editorial in the NY Times:

Over the years, the major parties’ election-year platforms have been regarded as Kabuki theater scripts for convention week. The presidential candidates blithely ignored them or openly dismissed the most extreme planks with a knowing wink as merely a gesture to pacify the noisiest activists in the party.

That cannot be said of the draft of the Republican platform circulating ahead of the convention in Tampa, Fla. The Republican Party has moved so far to the right that the extreme is now the mainstream. The mean-spirited and intolerant platform represents the face of Republican politics in 2012. And unless he makes changes, it is the current face of the shape-shifting Mitt Romney.

The draft document is more aggressive in its opposition to women’s reproductive rights and to gay rights than any in memory. It accuses President Obama and the federal judiciary of “an assault on the foundations of our society,” and calls for constitutional amendments banning both same-sex marriage and abortion.

In defending one of the last vestiges of officially sanctioned discrimination — restrictions on the rights of gay men and lesbians to marry — the platform relies on the idea that marriage between one man and one woman has for thousands of years “been entrusted with the rearing of children and the transmission of cultural values.”

That familiar argument ignores the fact that the number of children raised by one-parent families has been rising steadily since the 1970s, long before anyone was talking about same-sex marriage. Census figures indicate that one out of every two children will live in a single-parent family before they reach 18. Studies purporting to show that children of lesbians are disadvantaged have been shown to be junk science. Marriages between people of the same gender pose no threat to marriages between men and women.

The draft attacks President Obama for not defending in court the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages. It calls that decision a “mockery of the President’s inaugural oath,” when in fact Mr. Obama would have been wrong to ignore lawyers who concluded that the law is unconstitutional.

In passages on abortion, the draft platform puts the party on the most extreme fringes of American opinion. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 August 2012 at 7:33 pm

Posted in Election, GOP

Two more fascinating articles in New Scientist

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New Scientist is a wonderful publication, although some articles are accessible only to subscribers. Here is one, by Will Ferguson: Why wood pulp is world’s new wonder material. At the link, you can read the opening paragraphs, but the entire article is worth reading (subscribe!). The conclusion is particularly exciting:

. . . “The beauty of this material is that it is so abundant we don’t have to make it,” says Youngblood. “We don’t even have to use entire trees; nanocellulose is only 2 nanometres long. If we wanted we could use twigs and branches or even sawdust. We are turning waste into gold.”

The US facility is the second pilot production plant for cellulose-based nanomaterials in the world. The much larger CelluForce facility opened in Montreal, Canada, in November 2011 and is now producing a tonne of NCC a day.

Theodore Wegner, assistant director of the US factory, says it will be producing NCC on a large scale. It will be sold at just several dollars a kilogram within a couple of years. He says it has taken this long to unlock the potential of NCC because the technology to explore its properties, such as electron scanning microscopes, only emerged in the last decade or so.

NCC will replace metal and plastic car parts and could make nonorganic plastics obsolete in the not-too-distant future, says Phil Jones, director of new ventures and disruptive technologies at the French mineral processing company IMERYS. “Anyone who makes a car or a plastic bag will want to get in on this,” he says.

In addition, the human body can deal with cellulose safely, says Jones, so NCC is less dangerous to process than inorganic composites. “The worst thing that could happen is a paper cut,” he says.

And another, presented in its entirety, is by David Strahan on Peak Oil; here’s the part that leapt out at me:

. . . An excellent International Monetary Fund working paper in May received much less attention.

The IMF’s paper sets out to test the idea that the recent 10-year rise in the oil price – it hit a low of $10 a barrel in the late 1990s – can be explained by geological constraints. The team took an approach which expresses mathematically the idea that oil becomes harder to produce, the less there remains to be produced – the basis of peak oil theory. This is clearly right: why would we be scraping out tar sands if there were easy oil left?

When they combined this with the impact of global GDP and oil price, the results were striking. By testing their model against historical data, they found their production forecasts were more accurate than those of both peak oilers, who are traditionally too pessimistic, and authorities such as the US Energy Information Administration, which is generally far too optimistic.

Their price forecasts were also far more accurate than traditional economic models that take no account of oil depletion, predicting a strong upward trend that closely fits what has happened since 2003. “When you look at the oil price [over the past decade], the trend is almost entirely explained by the geological view,” said Michael Kumhof, one of the authors, when I interviewed him earlier this year.

The IMF paper also slays the belief that rising oil prices will liberate vast new supplies and vanquish peak oil. The team found that production growth has halved since 2005, and forecast that even the lower rate of growth will only be sustained if the oil price soars to $180 by 2020. “Our prediction of small further increases in world oil production comes at the expense of a near doubling, permanently, of real oil prices over the coming decade,” write the authors. In this context, shale oil is not a “game-changer” but a sign of desperation. “We have to do these really expensive and really environmentally messy things just in order to stand still or grow a little,” says Kumhof. . .

Read the whole thing—it’s talking about our future.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 August 2012 at 4:35 pm

Why the opposition to Golden Rice?

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The editorial in the current New Scientist states well my own position:

ONE of the more unedifying aspects of the fight over genetically modified food has been the unbending opposition of Greenpeace and others to rice that has been modified to help prevent blindness. Golden Rice contains a precursor of vitamin A, deficiency of which blinds an estimated half a million children every year.

Opponents of the rice are not oblivious to the tragedy, but argue there are other solutions. They are correct. One has just been found effective in Uganda – a naturally bred, fortified sweet potato.

Good news, but no single solution will work everywhere. To eradicate preventable blindness, we need as many options as possible. The sweet success of the potato doesn’t mean that GM can or should be taken off the menu. So it is also good news that the latest research into Golden Rice bolsters the case for its adoption (see “Nutrient-boosted foods protect against blindness“).

In light of this, opposition to Golden Rice increasingly looks like bullheadedness rooted in a desire to halt GM at any cost. There are reasons to be wary of GM promoted by big business. But tarring a humanitarian project with the same brush is dogmatic – and wrong.

And do read the article on nutrient-boosted foods: Not only is Greenpeace stupidly opposed to Golden Rice, they also are lying about it.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 August 2012 at 3:57 pm

Spontaneous human combustion solved?

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Very interesting article by Brian Ford in New Scientist on research into spontaneous human combustion. Key paragraphs:

. . . I felt it was time to test the realities, so we marinated pork abdominal tissue in ethanol for a week. Even when cloaked in gauze moistened with alcohol, it would not burn. Alcohol is not normally present in our tissues, but there is one flammable constituent of the body that can greatly increase in concentration. Triacylglycerol lipids cleave to form fatty acid chains and glycerol. The fatty acids can be used as an alternative source of energy through beta-oxidation, giving rise to the key metabolic molecule acetyl-CoA. This helps drive the energy-producing Krebs cycle within the mitochondria of cells.

If the body’s cells are starved (which can occur during chronic illness and even during a workout at the gym), acetyl-CoA in the liver is converted into acetoacetate, which can decarboxylate into acetone. And acetone is highly flammable. A range of conditions can produce ketosis, in which acetone is formed, including alcoholism, fat-free dieting, diabetes and even teething. So we marinaded pork tissue in acetone, rather than ethanol.

This was used to make scale models of humans, which we clothed and set alight. They burned to ash within half an hour. The remains – a pile of smoking cinders with protruding limbs – were exactly like the photographs of human victims. The legs remain, we think, because there is too little fat for much acetone to accumulate. For the first time a feasible cause of human combustion has been experimentally demonstrated.

So does this mean that victims of ketosis are likely to spontaneously combust? Hardly – there are only about 120 cases on record throughout history, so it is vanishingly rare. . .

Subscribers have access to the entire article.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 August 2012 at 2:51 pm

Posted in Science

Frankenstein computer virus

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In New Scientist Jacob Aron reports on a new type of computer virus:

ARY SHELLEY’S Victor Frankenstein stitched together the body parts of ordinary individuals and created a monster. Now computer scientists have done the same with software, demonstrating the potential for hard-to-detect viruses that are stitched together from benign code pilfered from ordinary programs.

The monstrous virus software, dubbed Frankenstein, was created by Vishwath Mohan and Kevin Hamlen at the University of Texas at Dallas. Having infected a computer, it searches the bits and bytes of common software such as Internet Explorer and Notepad for snippets of code called gadgets – short instructions that perform a particular kind of small task.

Previous research has shown that it is theoretically possible, given enough gadgets, to construct any computer program. Mohan and Hamlen set out to show that Frankenstein could build working malware code by having it create two simple algorithms purely from gadgets. “The two test algorithms we chose are simpler than full malware, but they are representative of the sort of core logic that real malware uses to unpack itself,” says Hamlen. “We consider this a strong indication that this could be scaled up to full malware.”

Frankenstein follows pre-written blueprints that specify certain tasks – such as copying pieces of data – and swaps in gadgets capable of performing those tasks. Such swaps repeat each time Frankenstein infects a new computer, but with different gadgets, meaning that the malware always looks different to antivirus software, even if its ultimate effects are the same.

The research was part-funded by the US air force, and Hamlen says that Frankenstein could be particularly useful for national security agencies attempting to infiltrate enemy computer systems with unknown antivirus defences. “It essentially infers what the [target computer’s] defences deem permissible from the existing files on the system to help it blend in with the crowd,” he says. . .

Continue reading.

The sidebar is chilling:

Defending against malware able to build itself from other bits of code is never easy. Last month, Microsoft released an updated version of its Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit (EMET), which provides extra protection for some PC users. It features a new defence designed to stop malware from executing other software’s code, just as Frankenstein does (see main story). It works by wrapping key software in a layer of code that checks whether parts of the software are being repurposed.

Microsoft paid $50,000 in a recent security prize to the creator of the technique, but just two weeks later an Iranian security researcher called Shahriyar Jalayeri claims to have bypassed EMET’s protective wrapper.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 August 2012 at 2:46 pm

“Dilbit”: Diluted bitumen, a new (and poorly regulated) hazard

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Our thirst for oil—and our desire to end regulation of businesses—ultimately threatens us. David Sassoon writes in the NY Times:

EVERY day more than one million barrels of oil flow to refineries in the United States from western Canada’s oil sands region. Producers hope to quadruple that amount in the next decade, arguing that oil from a friendly neighbor will deliver an extra degree of national security.

But this oil is no ordinary crude oil, and it carries with it risks that we’re only beginning to understand. Its core ingredient — bitumen — is not pumped from wells but is strip-mined or boiled loose underground.

Industry insiders long considered bitumen to be a “garbage” crude. But now that the light, sweet oil we covet has become more scarce and its price has skyrocketed, bitumen has become worth the trouble to recover. At room temperature, bitumen has the consistency of peanut butter, thick enough to hold in your hands. To get it through pipelines, liquid chemicals must be added to thin it into what’s known as dilbit, short for diluted bitumen.

Last month, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report that was harshly critical of the federal government’s regulation and oversight of pipeline safety following a spill of more than one million gallons of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010. The accident underscored not only how different dilbit is from conventional oil, but how unprepared we are for the impending flood of imports.

After the dilbit gushed into the river, it began separating into its constituent parts. The heavy bitumen sank to the river bottom, leaving a mess that is still being cleaned up. Meanwhile, the chemical additives evaporated, creating a foul smell that lingered for days. People reported headaches, dizziness and nausea. No one could say with certainty what they should do. Federal officials at the scene didn’t know until weeks later that the pipeline was carrying dilbit, because federal law doesn’t require pipeline operators to reveal that information.

The 2010 spill could have been worse if it had reached Lake Michigan, as authorities originally feared it might. Lake Michigan supplies drinking water to more than 12 million people. Fortunately, the damage was restricted to a tributary creek and about 36 miles of the Kalamazoo, used primarily for recreation, not drinking water.

This close call hasn’t deterred the energy industry from announcing plans to build or repurpose more than 10,000 miles of pipelines to carry dilbit to the United States and global markets. That includes the controversial Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline, which would pass through the Ogallala aquifer, the nation’s largest drinking water aquifer. It supplies drinking water for eight states and about 30 percent of the groundwater used for irrigation.

The nation’s pipeline network was designed to handle conventional crude oil and is governed by laws and regulations that were written long before the unique risks and hazards associated with dilbit began to emerge. In fact, dilbit is exempt from an excise tax that pays for oil spill cleanups, because the 1980 law that created the tax did not consider bitumen from the “tar sands” to be crude oil. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 August 2012 at 2:37 pm

Deluded Individualism

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Firmin Debrabander has an intriguing piece in a recent NY Times on how we delude ourselves in various ways:

There is a curious passage early in Freud’s “Ego and the Id” where he remarks that the id behaves “as if” it were unconscious. The phrase is puzzling, but the meaning is clear: the id is the secret driver of our desires, the desires that animate our conscious life, but the ego does not recognize it as such. The ego — what we take to be our conscious, autonomous self — is ignorant to the agency of the id, and sees itself in the driver seat instead. Freud offers the following metaphor: the ego is like a man on horseback, struggling to contain the powerful beast beneath; to the extent that the ego succeeds in guiding this beast, it’s only by “transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own.” [The idea of the id seems to have a lot in common with what we now call the adaptive unconscious. – LG]

By Freud’s account, conscious autonomy is a charade. “We are lived,” as he puts it, and yet we don’t see it as such. Indeed, Freud suggests that to be human is to rebel against that vision — the truth. We tend to see ourselves as self-determining, self-conscious agents in all that we decide and do, and we cling to that image. But why? Why do we resist the truth? Why do we wish — strain, strive, against the grain of reality — to be autonomous individuals, and see ourselves as such?Perhaps Freud is too cynical regarding conscious autonomy, but he is right to question our presumption to it. He is right to suggest that we typically — wrongly — ignore the extent to which we are determined by unknown forces, and overestimate our self-control. The path to happiness for Freud, or some semblance of it in his stormy account of the psyche, involves accepting our basic condition. But why do we presume individual agency in the first place? Why do we insist on it stubbornly, irrationally, often recklessly?

I was reminded of Freud’s paradox by a poignant article in The Times a few months back, which described a Republican leaning district in Minnesota, and its constituents’ conflicted desire to be self-reliant (“Even Critics of the Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It,” Feb. 11). The article cited a study from Dartmouth political science professor Dean Lacy, which revealed that, though Republicans call for deep cuts to the safety net, their districts rely more on government support than their Democratic counterparts.

In Chisago County, Minn., The Times’s reporters spoke with residents who supported the Tea Party and its proposed cuts to federal spending, even while they admitted they could not get by without government support. Tea Party aficionados, and many on the extreme right of the Republican party for that matter, are typically characterized as self-sufficient middle class folk, angry about sustaining the idle poor with their tax dollars. Chisago County revealed a different aspect of this anger: economically struggling Americans professing a robust individualism and self-determination, frustrated with their failures to achieve that ideal.

Why the stubborn insistence on self-determination, in spite of the facts? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 August 2012 at 10:36 am

The case for assisted dying

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The case is quite strong, it seems to me, at least as articulated by Raymond Tallis in the New Humanist:

The case for a law to legalise the choice of physician-assisted dying for mentally competent people with terminal illness, who have expressed a settled wish to die, is very easily stated. Unbearable suffering, prolonged by medical care, and inflicted on a dying patient against their will, is an unequivocal evil. What’s more, the right to have your choices supported by others, to determine your own best interest, when you are of sound mind, is sovereign. And this is accepted by a steady 80-plus per cent of the UK population in successive surveys.

Even so, after decades of campaigning, the law has yet to change. How can this be? The answer is simple: there has been a highly organised opposition by individuals and groups, largely with strong religious beliefs that forbid assistance to die. Such groups know that religious absolutism cuts little ice in a predominantly secular society, where many will point out that the doctrine of the sanctity of life has been historically negotiable, with clerics supporting “just” wars that kill the innocent, and in some cases the death sentence for murder, apostasy, blasphemy or being gay. (Some religions, it seems, are more at ease with killing healthy people who want to live than with helping terminally ill people to realise their wish to be released from suffering.) The role of religion is particularly evident in the case of the medical profession, where bodies such as Care Not Killing and the Christian Medical Fellowship are punching above their numerical weight. . .

Continue reading.

The NY Times ran an article by Katie Hafner recently on how benign the laws in Washington and Oregon that allowing a terminally ill patient to obtain a prescription to end his or her own life when they wish. It turns out that often the prescription is not used, but having the choice is comforting and allows more peace of mind. That article is worth reading as well and begins:

SEATTLE — Dr. Richard Wesley has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the incurable disease that lays waste to muscles while leaving the mind intact. He lives with the knowledge that an untimely death is chasing him down, but takes solace in knowing that he can decide exactly when, where and how he will die.

Under Washington State’s Death With Dignity Act, his physician has given him a prescription for a lethal dose of barbiturates. He would prefer to die naturally, but if dying becomes protracted and difficult, he plans to take the drugs and die peacefully within minutes.

“It’s like the definition of pornography,” Dr. Wesley, 67, said at his home here in Seattle, with Mount Rainier in the distance. “I’ll know it’s time to go when I see it.”

Washington followed Oregon in allowing terminally ill patients to get a prescription for drugs that will hasten death. Critics of such laws feared that poor people would be pressured to kill themselves because they or their families could not afford end-of-life care. But the demographics of patients who have gotten the prescriptions are surprisingly different than expected, according to data collected by Oregon and Washington through 2011.

Dr. Wesley is emblematic of those who have taken advantage of the law. They are overwhelmingly white, well educated and financially comfortable. And they are making the choice not because they are in pain but because they want to have the same control over their deaths that they have had over their lives.

While preparing advance medical directives and choosing hospice and palliative care over aggressive treatment have become mainstream options, physician-assisted dying remains taboo for many people. Voters in Massachusetts will consider a ballot initiative in November on a law nearly identical to those in the Pacific Northwest, but high-profile legalization efforts have failed in California, Hawaii and Maine.

Oregon put its Death With Dignity Act in place in 1997, and Washington’s law went into effect in 2009. Some officials worried that thousands of people would migrate to both states for the drugs.

“There was a lot of fear that the elderly would be lined up in their R.V.’s at the Oregon border,” said Barbara Glidewell, an assistant professor at Oregon Health and Science University.

That has not happened, although . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 August 2012 at 10:23 am

Slant + new Kai blade = Very smooth shave

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I put a new Kai blade in my Slant: whoa! Smooth shaving indeed. Of course, the stubble was well-prepped: pre-shave wash, then the Tabac shave stick with the Vie-Long brush. I’m willing to accept that it’s boar now, but really an exceptional boar. I will try soaking it before use, which I’ve not done (but still enjoyed good results). The lather was thick and abundant, and the passes were easy. A good splash of Tabac aftershave, and the day has well begun.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 August 2012 at 7:32 am

Posted in Shaving

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