Archive for November, 2007

Science Friday: creation, pain, plastics, energy technology and disaster preparedness

November 16, 2007 10 comments

Just a few unrelated cool items this week:

  • John Scalzi visited the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, and suffice to say, he had a lot of fun.  Oh, you could probably skip the first few paragraphs where he compares it to equine excrement, but it was apparently worth every penny of the $27m they spent trying to present the first chapter of Genesis as a science textbook. Be sure to take the photo tour.

  • Of considerable interest to me is the use of brain imaging studies to understand chronic pain.  Of course this is early stuff but it turns out there are structural differences in the brains of chronic pain sufferers.  It might suggest future research directions.  Maybe they’ll come up with really effective treatments by the time it just doesn’t matter anymore, at least to me.
  • What to do with all that excess carbon dioxide?  How about make plastic with it?  Someone found out how to use a zinc-based catalyst to use CO2 as a feedstock at low temperatures and pressures.  Thing is, even if we made all our roads and buildings and trains and cars and houses out of CO2 plastic, it would hardly make a dent.  At least it’s biodegradable, which I assume means it would produce methane.  Oh well, it is still a very cool technology and may lead to other things.  A startup has venture capital to build a pilot program using the new process.
  • In a country where ‘high ground’ means getting up on top of a car, it looked like cyclone Sidr was going to cause mass casualties like the one in the 1970’s that killed a half-million people.  But preparations have been made since then and even though huge destruction is occurring, it looks like loss of life will be much less this time around.  Maybe FEMA could learn something from them about preparation, since the agency started economizing on preparedness when the current administration took over from Clinton.
  • BBC has a neat animated page on hurricanes and cyclones (same thing).  On slide 8 you can see the damage differential for different levels.  Sidr made landfall as a 5 and dropped to a 3 inline – still no joke where high ground is rare and reinforced structures in the minority.
  • Here’s an idea I just love – spherical solar cells.  Tiny ones, each in its own itty-bitty scale hexagonal reflector.  It uses one-fifth the amount of silicon as conventional cells, should have better efficiency, and goes on a flexible foil substrate.  They are going on sale now, and the goal is to make them half the price of conventional cells by 2010. 
    Why is this so cool?  First because using less silicon will reduce the carbon imprint and lower costs.  But also because they can be shaped to anything, like the roof of a car or tiles on a house.  The sun has been dumping free energy on us all this time, and we should start snagging it.
  • Oh, one other thing: the new IPCC report is due out soon and it looks bad.  But hey, let’s keep denying and evading and stalling. 

Vote the way we tell you or burn in hell

November 15, 2007 4 comments

Bishops emphasized that voters must consider the church’s teachings on abortion and other moral issues when they select a candidate for the White House or any other office. If they don’t, bishops said, it’s not clergy who will judge them but God.

“It is important to be clear that the political choices faced by citizens have an impact on general peace and prosperity and also the individual’s salvation,” the bishops said in the document, titled “Faithful Citizenship.” “Similarly, the kinds of laws and policies supported by public officials affect their spiritual well-being…

…the guidelines issued Wednesday for the first time spelled out possible consequences as well as giving much more nuanced instruction to the Catholic electorate than in years past. Voters are implored not to support abortion-rights political candidates but also advised that views on abortion should not be the sole factor. Catholics should also weigh church teaching on such moral issues as immigration, just war and poverty, bishops said.”
Chicago Tribune: Catholic bishops say voters’ souls at stake

Y’know, I try pretty hard to be tolerant of mainstream religion.  After all, we share a lot of goals in common and I’d prefer to focus on the positive.  Maybe I’m just grouchy today but this crosses a serious line.  Not just “here’s some issues to think about” but a bald threat of eternal torture.  This is worse – worse than the Republicans’ fear-mongering that only they can keep you safe from Big Scary Osama (except when they can’t find him and they pretend he doesn’t matter). This is a divine protection racket.

Credible studies show that laws against abortion don’t keep it from happening.  But education does, and nonjudgmental availability of contraception does.  Yes, Planned Parenthood offers abortion services in some places but with all their other services, they’ve prevented more abortions than all the well-intentioned sign-toting Catholics who ever got sore feet wearing out sidewalks in front of clinics. 

Suppose a Catholic voter applies statistical thinking and reasons; “I want fewer abortions, so I’m going for the candidate with the most rational policies?”  Well then I guess that voter can just burn in hell.  Or does it matter if there are abortions, as long as the doctor and the desperate mother are punished?  In that scenario only the irresponsible sperm donor gets off scot-free.

Oh wait, I think I understand now.  :shut:

Categories: Religion

Jonathan Kozol lecture this evening

November 14, 2007 1 comment

MrsDoF and I heard a lecture tonight by Jonathan Kozol, the educator and author.  Here (allowing for the well-known inaccuracy of my memory) are a few quotes from his talk:

“Very few great intellectuals devote themselves to writing educational standards.  Can you picture one of the great minds devoting a year or more of their lives chopping cognition into little bits of pretentious curricular sausage?”

“I have dinner with rich people who send their elementary school kids to private academies that cost fifty thousand dollars a year – and they have three in school at once. That’s a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year.  These are the same people who ask me; ‘Is money really the answer?  Can we buy our way to better education?’ If small class size and lots of individual attention is good for the children of the rich, it is good for the children of the poor. ‘All our children have equal value in the eyes of God’, they say, and that’s true; but not in the eyes of America.


“I can’t tell you how much pleasure it gives me as a Jew, to preach the words of Jesus to delinquent Christians”

“There is an infinitely deep hypocrisy in a government that tries to hold an 8-year-old ‘accountable’ for the failings of a deeply unequal, fear-driven system.”

Kozol isn’t going to many dinner parties these days.  He is on a hunger strike, and has lost thirty pounds (at 71, he looks terrible) to protest the failed ‘No Child Left Behind’ law that is up for renewal.  He invites us to write to one of the original co-sponsors of the law, Senator Ted Kennedy, to ask that it be scrapped and educational equality be perused. 

Categories: Education

Judgment Day - Intelligent Design On Trial

November 14, 2007 4 comments

I reckon there’s a discussion to be had over the PBS Nova documentary Judgment Day: Intelligent Design On Trial.  I just finished watching the first half of it and will try to get the second hour tomorrow. 

Meanwhile, if you have seen it and want to give your impressions, feel free.  Don’t worry about spoiling it for me, I followed the trial pretty closely.

Update: the PBS ombudsman gets letters from viewers about the program.  Most criticized Judgment Day for being too “one-sided”.  To me this is a pretty good illustration of how successful creationists have been in undermining biology education in this country, and as a bonus it illustrates how journalism’s daffy definition of “balance” has permeated the public mind.  If you find an expert in any field – someone of world renown who embodies the best current science, a “journalist” will prop up alongside him some whacko who disagrees with him/her because it isn’t biblical, and call it “balance”. 

What NOVA did in this program was different – it was real journalism.  They reported on what happened.  And what happened is the Discovery Institute and the school district had their asses handed to them on a plate by a conservative judge, a Bush appointee, who made an honest ruling.  Sometimes reality is “one-sided” and it’s perfectly fair and balanced to report it that way.

Categories: Reviews

But at least the interface is pretty

November 12, 2007 12 comments

I get email, lots of it.  Chopping through the uncontrolled undergrowth in my inbox, Outlook informs me that I have 224 unread messages.  They’re probably mostly spam but I’d like to flip through them anyway.  So I set up a “Read” column icon in the message sorting pane and clicked on it.

Yeah, that makes perfect sense.  Hey Micro$oft, do you think you could pull a couple young geniuses off the program to innovationalize transparent animated title bar interfaces, and get them to fix basic functionality? 

Categories: Geeky, Software

Monday Morning Music - There she goes

November 12, 2007 1 comment

The first time I heard this song I thought it was a tribute to the singer’s daughter, and I really liked it.  Later I found out it is thought to actually be about heroin.  I like my interpretation better (reference our earlier discussion about Dumbledore being gay), and I still like the song a lot. 

(And yes, I really like watching Leigh Nash sing it.)

Categories: Uncategorized

Lots of great stuff from around the web this week

November 11, 2007 14 comments
  • LEAD STORY: Today is Veterans Day, appropriately the day that the first World War came to an end on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.  As one of the comics said this morning, the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day is that we can still thank the Veterans.  And thank you too, anyone currently serving.

  • Paul at Cafe Philos opens up a can of whup-ass on “Just Say No” (the neocon’s favorite answer to everything) with New study damns abstinence-only sex education
    “Why does America lead the industrialized world in teen pregnancies? Let me suggest the reason might have something to do with the willful stupidity of American policy makers…”

    Our short-sighted policies are damaging kids’ lives by lying to them about something really important.  It’s hypocritical and stupid and we should stop wasting millions of dollars on it.

  • Don at Life Cycle Analysis turns a spotlight to those pesky kids in Powershifters shut down Citibank!  I had not heard of the Powershift youth leadership movement on global warming but it is good news as our brave state and federal legislators (to say nothing of our denier-in-chief) are busy ducking the crisis every chance they get.  There’s always a chance the next generation may embarrass us into thinking about the future.
  • On a related topic: one reason it’s so hard to develop innovation on energy production and conservation is that new ideas have to compete with massive corporate welfare to old technologies.  You get more of what you subsidize and from The Pump Handle, here’s a prime example: Illinois’s Subsidy to Coal’s Bob Murray, Wilbur Ross and Exxon.  Cmonforton asks; “The demand for coal is going through the roof.  Do giant U.S. energy companies really need a handout?”  (This is hardly confined to the coal industry, BTW)
  • Also over on The Pump Handle, Liz Borkowski ‘splains Why should you care about your neighbor’s insurance?  Hey, I have health insurance.  The part of the boat where I’m sitting doesn’t have a leak in it…
  • Anyone with an interest in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (and that would pretty much include every taxpayer) should read this Science Daily article Biomarker For PTSD And Why PTSD Is So Difficult To Treat.  It’s all too common to dismiss any mental illness as a moral failing, if one has forgotten the old proverb about walking a mile in the other person’s moccasins.
  • Another nugget from the TED talks – Sir Ken Robinson asks, Do schools kill creativity?  I thought he was trying a little too hard to be funny but the last third of his talk raises some great points.  Most important: that the complexity and diversity of students’ intelligence is being ‘strip-mined’ for particular properties to the detriment and even destruction of other, unrecognized properties.  In the process he makes an excellent observation about ADHD and how our current approach may be simply wrong.  And the third commenter lights up a good angle:
    “Anecdotally at least, I would have to say yes, schools do kill creativity. They start by killing the creativity of the teachers…”

  • Finally Greg Laden’s blog shares with us a Nature review of Tuesday’s broadcast of ‘Judgment Day’, the PBS documentary about the Intelligent Design trial in Dover, Pa.  I will definitely be watching that one. (Check your local listings)

One Other Thing:  I’m a pretty decent bicycle mechanic but the mechanics of this man’s relationship to his bicycle just have me thoroughly puzzled. Also although I’m pretty fond of my bike, uh, not that fond…

Categories: observations

High rate of PTSD in returning veterans

November 8, 2007 4 comments

Corpus Callosum discusses a Medscape article on Iraq veterans and PTSD.  The trouble is, it isn’t one disorder, it’s [1*(number-of-solders-who-have-it)] disorders.  Treating it will be expensive, but so will not treating it.  There is no third option and no guarantee of success. 

The figures the committee came up with sound like a misprint, but so would the actual cost of the war had it been known when Rumsfeld and company were spewing promises about how brief and glorious it would all be.  Next time a politician tells you how much a war will “cost”, multiply their figure by ten just for starters.  It could be more and in this case, already is – and we’re just beginning to explore the aftermath.


  • AP: Study: Veterans make one in four homeless
    Some advocates say the early presence of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan at shelters does not bode well for the future. It took roughly a decade for the lives of Vietnam veterans to unravel to the point that they started showing up among the homeless. Advocates worry that intense and repeated deployments leave newer veterans particularly vulnerable.

    “We’re going to be having a tsunami of them eventually because the mental health toll from this war is enormous,” said Daniel Tooth, director of veterans affairs for Lancaster County, Pa.

    Hey, stop worrying.  I’m sure it can all be fixed up with a nice parade.

Categories: defense, Politics

A tax on people who are bad at maths

November 7, 2007 7 comments

I’ve become accustomed to sad reports of innumeracy in my country, to say nothing of encountering cash register clerks who freeze with terror if I give them $20.02 for a bill of $13.77 But misery loves company.  Apparently the handbasket in which we are riding also has room for our major allies in the War On Terror: Pathetic innumeracy, this time from Great Britain.

“On one of my cards it said I had to find temperatures lower than -8. The numbers I uncovered were -6 and -7 so I thought I had won, and so did the woman in the shop. But when she scanned the card the machine said I hadn’t.

I phoned Camelot and they fobbed me off with some story that -6 is higher – not lower – than -8 but I’m not having it.”

That sobbing you hear must be from UK school teachers.  Of course, since the article is about Brit lottery players we shouldn’t expect that particular demographic to be good at ‘maths’ in the first place.  In any case, the contest has been pulled.  Apparently their phone clerks were spending too much time saying “Well all right then, suppose I dig a hole two meters deep; let’s call that minus two meters…”

Categories: Education

Anyone up on rail technology?

November 7, 2007 4 comments

Anybody carrying around a cache of railroad technology knowledge?  Is this just a giant rail-slurper, or was it conditioning the rails it picked up somehow?

I’ll do a later post about this thing after I learn more.  There were old rails lying alongside the track in maybe 25-yard lengths.  This contrivance was followed by about a mile of flatcars and preceded by a crane with some workers.  As they came to each old section, they’d cut new bolt-holes with a cutting torch, and bolt the old rail to previous sections on the flatcars and slurp the rail up off the ground in mile-long lengths.  It was the damndest thing to watch…

Holding a short length of rail in my hands, I wouldn’t think it could be very flexible but I suppose it has a natural bend radius like anything else. As the men worked it and the machine slurped it up, it seemed about as flexible as dry spaghetti.  OK, dry spaghetti made of steel and weighing 139 pounds to the yard…