Friday, April 30, 2010

popping pills to boost "brain power"

Watch CBS News Videos Online

CBSNews | If there were a drug that would make you smarter, would you take it? Today an increasing number of healthy people are using drugs without a prescription as a way to improve their mental function.

It's called neuroenhancement and if you want to find someone who's trying it out, just visit a college campus. That's where a surprising number of students are turning to drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, originally developed to treat attention disorders, to boost their brain power and help them make the grade.

the psychiatric drugging of children

Video - a pharmacist describes Depakote.

Counterpunch | Of all the harmful actions of modern psychiatry, "the mass diagnosing and drugging of children is the most appalling with the most serious consequences for the future of individual lives and for society," warns the world-renowned expert, Dr Peter Breggin, often referred to as the "Conscience of Psychiatry."

"We're bringing up a generation in this country in which you either sit down, shut up and do what you're told, or you get diagnosed and drugged," he points out.

Breggin considers the situation to be "a national tragedy." "To inflict these drugs on the growing brains of infants and children is wrong and abusive," he contends.

The kids who get drugged are often our best, brightest, most exciting and energetic children, he points out. "In the long run, we are giving children a very bad lesson that drugs are the answer to emotional problems."

Dr Nathaniel Lehrman, author of the book, "Coming Off Psychiatric Drugs," believes that giving infants and toddlers "powerful, brain-effecting psychiatric medication is close to criminal activity."

"Giving them these drugs," he says, "has no rationale, and ignores the basic fact that youngsters are very sensitive to their environments, both social and chemical, with the juvenile brain easily damaged by the latter."

During an interview on ABC Radio National in August 2007, Dr David Healy, the noted British pharmacology expert, and author of the book, "Mania: A Short History of Bipolar Disorder," told reporter Jane Shields: "Just to give you a feel for how crazy things have actually got recently, it would appear that clinicians in the US are happy to look at the ultrasounds of children in the womb, and based on the fact that they appear to be more overactive at times, and then possibly less active later, they're prepared to actually consider the possibility that these children could be bipolar."

On April 9, 2009, Christopher Lane, author of the book, "Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness," published an interview on his Psychology Today blog with Dr Healy. In the interview, Healy explained the history behind the drastic rise in the sale of anticonvulsants and antipsychotics as "mood stabilizers," and the diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

"The key event in the mid-1990s that led to the change in perspective was the marketing of Depakote by Abbott as a mood stabilizer," Healy tells Lane, and further explains:

"Mood stabilization didn’t exist before the mid-1990s. It can’t be found in any of the earlier reference books and journals. Since then, however, we now have sections for mood stabilizers in all the books on psychotropic drugs, and over a hundred articles per year featuring mood stabilization in their titles. Fist tap Dale.

church pitted against society and itself

NYTimes | As the sexual abuse crisis continues to unfold in the Roman Catholic Church, with more victims coming forward worldwide and three bishops resigning last week alone, it is clear the issue is more than a passing storm or a problem of papal communications.

Instead, the church is undergoing nothing less than an epochal shift: It pits those who hold fast to a more traditional idea of protecting bishops and priests above all against those who call for more openness and accountability. The battle lines are drawn between the church and society at large, which clearly clamors for accountability, and also inside the church itself.

Uncomfortably, the crisis also pits the moral legacies of two popes against each other: the towering and modernizing John Paul II, who nonetheless did little about sexual abuse; and his successor, Benedict XVI, who in recent years, at least, has taken the issue of pedophile priests more seriously.

He has had little choice, given the depth of the scandal and the anger it has unleashed. But when supporters defend Benedict, they are implicitly condemning John Paul and how an entire generation of bishops and the Vatican hierarchy acted in response to criminal behavior.

“The church realizes that it doesn’t have a way out, at least not until it confronts the entirety of its problems,” said Alberto Melloni, the director of the liberal Catholic John XXIII Foundation for Religious Science in Bologna, Italy.

This latest eruption of the scandal, nearly a decade after the costly turmoil in the American church, may just be beginning. Last week, a bishop in Ireland resigned, acknowledging he had covered up abuse, while one in Germany and one in Belgium also stepped down, admitting that they themselves had abused children. Other resignations are expected in Ireland after two government reports documented decades of widespread abuse and a cover-up in church-run schools for the poor.

The question, Mr. Melloni said, is whether the Vatican will hew to old explanations that pedophilia is the byproduct of a sexual revolution it had always fought, or whether it will confront the failures in church leadership that allowed sexual abuses to go unpunished.

Benedict expressed both views in a pastoral letter to Irish Catholics released March 20, his most complete remarks on the sexual abuse crisis. He said that secularism and “misguided” interpretations of the reforms of the liberalizing Second Vatican Council contributed to the context of the abuse.

But he also strongly decried a tendency in society to favor the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the church and the avoidance of scandal.”

no racial stereotypes or social fear

Discoverblog | People with Williams syndrome are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. They are incredibly sociable, almost unnervingly so, and they approach strangers with the openness that most people reserve for close friends.

Their sociable streak is the result of a genetic disorder caused by the loss of around 26 genes. This missing chunk of chromosome leaves people with a distinctive elfin face, a risk of heart problems, and a characteristic lack of social fear. They don’t experience the same worries or concerns that most of us face when meeting new people. And now, Andreia Santos from the University of Heidelberg has suggested that they have an even more unique trait – they seem to lack racial bias.

Typically, children start overtly gravitating towards their own ethnic groups from the tender age of three. Groups of people from all over the globe and all sorts of cultures show these biases. Even autistic children, who can have severe difficulties with social relationships, show signs of racial stereotypes. But Santos says that the Williams syndrome kids are the first group of humans devoid of such racial bias, although, as we’ll see, not everyone agrees.

Santos compared the behaviour of 20 white children with Williams syndrome, aged 7 to 16, and 20 typical white children of similar backgrounds and mental ages. To do so, she used a test called the Preschool Racial Attitude Measure (PRAM-II), which is designed to tease out traces of gender or racial biases in young children.

Santos suggests that children with Williams syndrome don’t develop the same biases that their peers do, because they don’t experience social fear. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, who led the study, says, “There are hyper-social, very empathetic, very friendly, and do not get danger signals.” And because they’ll freely interact with anyone, they are less likely to cultivate a preference for people of their own ethnic groups. Alternatively, it could be that because they don’t fall prey to stereotypes, they’re more likely to socialise with everyone.

Santos is quick to rule out alternative explanations for this result. Some of the children with Williams syndrome were more intelligent or mentally advanced than the others, but they behaved in the same way. Nor could it be that they suffered from a general inability to assess people’s features, for both groups of children showed a bias towards their own gender. Fist tap Dale.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

will goldman sachs prove that greed is god?

Guardian | The investment bank's cult of self-interest is on trial against the whole idea of civilisation – the collective decision by all of us not to screw each other over even if we can.

So Goldman Sachs, the world's greatest and smuggest investment bank, has been sued for fraud by the American Securities and Exchange Commission. Legally, the case hangs on a technicality.

Morally, however, the Goldman Sachs case may turn into a final referendum on the greed-is-good ethos that conquered America sometime in the 80s – and in the years since has aped other horrifying American trends such as boybands and reality shows in spreading across the western world like a venereal disease.

When Britain and other countries were engulfed in the flood of defaults and derivative losses that emerged from the collapse of the American housing bubble two years ago, few people understood that the crash had its roots in the lunatic greed-centered objectivist religion, fostered back in the 50s and 60s by ponderous emigre novelist Ayn Rand.

While, outside of America, Russian-born Rand is probably best known for being the unfunniest person western civilisation has seen since maybe Goebbels or Jack the Ripper (63 out of 100 colobus monkeys recently forced to read Atlas Shrugged in a laboratory setting died of boredom-induced aneurysms), in America Rand is upheld as an intellectual giant of limitless wisdom. Here in the States, her ideas are roundly worshipped even by people who've never read her books oreven heard of her. The rightwing "Tea Party" movement is just one example of an entire demographic that has been inspired to mass protest by Rand without even knowing it.

Last summer I wrote a brutally negative article about Goldman Sachs for Rolling Stone magazine (I called the bank a "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity") that unexpectedly sparked a heated national debate. On one side of the debate were people like me, who believed that Goldman is little better than a criminal enterprise that earns its billions by bilking the market, the government, and even its own clients in a bewildering variety of complex financial scams.

On the other side of the debate were the people who argued Goldman wasn't guilty of anything except being "too smart" and really, really good at making money. This side of the argument was based almost entirely on the Randian belief system, under which the leaders of Goldman Sachs appear not as the cheap swindlers they look like to me, but idealised heroes, the saviours of society.

In the Randian ethos, called objectivism, the only real morality is self-interest, and society is divided into groups who are efficiently self-interested (ie, the rich) and the "parasites" and "moochers" who wish to take their earnings through taxes, which are an unjust use of force in Randian politics. Rand believed government had virtually no natural role in society. She conceded that police were necessary, but was such a fervent believer in laissez-faire capitalism she refused to accept any need for economic regulation – which is a fancy way of saying we only need law enforcement for unsophisticated criminals.

parasitic psychopaths control major financial institutions

five fundamental errors

Dieoff | Any ONE fundamental error in neoclassical economic theory should be sufficient reason to reject conclusions based upon that theory. Here are five fundamental errors in the theory:

#1. A fundamentally incorrect "method": the economist uses "correlation" and "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" (after-the-fact) reasoning, rather than the "scientific method".

#2. A fundamentally inverted worldview: the economist sees the environment as a subsystem of the economy, rather than the other way around. In other words, economists are trained to believe that natural resources come from "markets" rather than the "environment". The corollary is that "man-made capital" can substitute for "natural capital". But the First Law of thermodynamics tells us there is no "creation" -- there is no such thing as "man-made capital". Thus,ALL capital is "natural capital", and the economy is 100% dependent on the "environment" for everything.

#3. A fundamentally incorrect view of "money": the economist sees "money" as nothing more than a medium of exchange, rather than as social power – or "political power". But even the casual observer can see that money is social power because it "empowers" people to buy and do the things they want -- including buying and doing other people: politics.

If employers have the freedom to pay workers less "political power", then they will retain more political power for themselves. Money is, in a word, "coercion", and "economic efficiency" is correctly seen as a political concept designed to conserve social power for those who have it -- to make the politically powerful, even more powerful, and the politically weak, even weaker.

#4. A fundamentally incorrect view of his raison d'etre: the economist sees "Homo economicus" as a "Bayesian utility maximizer", rather than "Homo sapiens" as a "primate". In other words, contemporary economics and econometrics is WRONG from the bottom up -- and economists know it. The entire discipline of economics is based on a lie -- and economists know it. Moreover, if human behavior is not the result of mathematical calculation -- and it isn't -- then in principle,economists will NEVER get it right.

#5. A fundamentally incorrect view of economic élan vital: the economist sees economic activity as a function of infinite "money creation", rather than a function of finite "energy stocks" and finite "energy flows". In fact, the economy is 100% dependent on available energy -- it always has been, and it always will be.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

sources of heritable novelty

How is new genetic material acquired? How much new genetic material can be acquired a gene at a time, or just a few genes - the ones desired? The new technology of DNA-sequencing lets us answer these questions directly.

The minimal heritable genetic change is a single base-pair change in DNA - from A-T to G-C (or from G-C to A-T). The maximal heritable change is the acquisition of an entire set of genes to run an organism (the genome) along with the rest of the organism in a healthy state so that the genome may have something to run. In between are many other ways in which organisms gain and retain heritable novelty. When the complete sequencing of the human genome was announced at the beginning of this millennium, many were quite surprised to learn that some 250 of the more than 30,000 human genes of our bodies have come directly from bacteria. These genes, long sequences of DNA that code for proteins, are as recognizably of bacterial origin as a feather is recognizably from a bird rather than, say, a shark's mouth.

How bacteria passed genes to people no one knows, but a good guess is via viruses. Bacteria are notorious for harboring viruses and moving them to new localities, such as to other bacteria.

The genome of the common yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae has been fully sequenced, and it gave the scientists who did it a nice surprise. The chose S. cerevisiae-a single-celled fungus-as the representative of the fungus kingdom to sequence because this versatile little cell's life is tied to ours in many ways. This yeast makes dough rise, and therefore most baked goods - bread or cake or brioche - depend on it. It brews beer, therefore all beer with alcohol depends on happy growing conditions for Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It abounds in yougurt and other dairy products. It grows quickly and well under laboratory conditions and has been a favorite object of study in the investigation of fungal sex, fungal viruses, chromosome behaviour, growth, and survival as well as spore formation. Each Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast cell, as was well known, is "haploid", which means it has only one copy of each of its ten chromosomes. (We human animals are diploid, which means each of us has two copies of each of our twenty-three chromosomes; one set comes from our father, the other comes from our mother). What surprised everyone was that haploid yeast had two copies of nearly all the genes.

The yeast story adds another item to our collection of ways to gain new genetic materials: duplication. Every organism that has been studied has some detectable degree of gene duplications; a part of an older gene, and entire single gene, a set of a few genes, a chromosome's worth, or - as in yeast - nearly every gene in the cell's little body. Just as extra copies of manuscripts or instruction booklets free up the originals to differ from the copies, extra sets of genes have proved to be very useful as yeasts and other organisms have evolved to larger sizes and more complexity. Principles of Evolutionary Novelty - Acquiring Genomes - Dr. Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan.

"deep" homology - not quite....,

NYTimes | Edward M. Marcotte is looking for drugs that can kill tumors by stopping blood vessel growth, and he and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin recently found some good targets — five human genes that are essential for that growth. Now they’re hunting for drugs that can stop those genes from working. Strangely, though, Dr. Marcotte did not discover the new genes in the human genome, nor in lab mice or even fruit flies. He and his colleagues found the genes in yeast.

“On the face of it, it’s just crazy,” Dr. Marcotte said. After all, these single-cell fungi don’t make blood vessels. They don’t even make blood. In yeast, it turns out, these five genes work together on a completely unrelated task: fixing cell walls.

Crazier still, Dr. Marcotte and his colleagues have discovered hundreds of other genes involved in human disorders by looking at distantly related species. They have found genes associated with deafness in plants, for example, and genes associated with breast cancer in nematode worms. The researchers reported their results recently in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The scientists took advantage of a peculiar feature of our evolutionary history. In our distant, amoeba-like ancestors, clusters of genes were already forming to work together on building cell walls and on other very basic tasks essential to life. Many of those genes still work together in those same clusters, over a billion years later, but on different tasks in different organisms.

Studies like this offer a new twist on Charles Darwin’s original ideas about evolution. Anatomists in the mid-1800s were fascinated by the underlying similarities of traits in different species — the fact that a bat’s wing, for example, has all the same parts as a human hand. Darwin argued that this kind of similarity — known as homology — was just a matter of genealogy. Bats and humans share a common ancestor, and thus they inherited limbs with five digits.

Some 150 years of research have amply confirmed Darwin’s insight. Paleontologists, for example, have brought ambiguous homologies into sharp focus with the discovery of transitional fossils. A case in point is the connection between the blowholes of whales and dolphins and the nostrils of humans. Fossils show how the nostrils of ancestral whales moved from the tip of the snout to the top of the head.

In the 1950s, the study of homology entered a new phase. Scientists began to discover similarities in the structure of proteins. Different species have different forms of hemoglobin, for example. Each form is adapted to a particular way of life, but all descended from one ancestral molecule. Fist tap Nana.

race and empathy matter on a neural level

ScienceDaily | Race matters on a neurological level when it comes to empathy for African-Americans in distress, according to a new Northwestern University study.

In a rare neuroscience look at racial minorities, the study shows that African-Americans showed greater empathy for African-Americans facing adversity -- in this case for victims of Hurricane Katrina -- than Caucasians demonstrated for Caucasian-Americans in pain.

"We found that everybody reported empathy toward the Hurricane Katrina victims," said Joan Y. Chiao, assistant professor of psychology and author of the study. "But African-Americans additionally showed greater empathic response to other African-Americans in emotional pain."

The more African-Americans identified as African-American the more likely they were to show greater empathic preference for African-Americans, the study showed.

Initially, Chiao thought that both African-Americans and Caucasian-Americans would either show no pattern of in-group bias or both show some sort of preference.

The take-home point to Chiao: our ability to identify with another person dramatically changes how much we can feel the pain of another and how much we're willing to help them.

"It's just that feeling of that person is like me, or that person is similar to me," she said. "That experience can really lead to what we're calling 'extraordinary empathy and altruistic motivation.' It's empathy and altruistic motivation above and beyond what you would do for another human."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

no link between growth and better life

Video - Gapminder unveiling the beauty of statistics for a fact-based world.

Times of India | Economic growth seems to have little to do with human development. On the other hand, the empowerment of women may have a lot more to do with an entire country's development than previously believed. Those are the conclusions reached by a study done by two economists for the UNDP, conclusions that are sure to reignite the growth versus development debate.

Economists George Gray Molina and Mark Purser analysed data from 1970 to 2005 for 111 countries to reach these conclusions. The as-yet unreleased paper, Human Development Trends Since 1970: A Social Convergence Story is one of several commissioned by UNDP for its 20th anniversary Human Development Report, to be released later this year. The Human Development Index (HDI), inspired by Amartya Sen's capability approach, is recommended by some development thinkers as giving a fuller understanding of a country's development than mere money indicators, like GDP growth rate. It is a composite indicator with an income component (GDP per capita) and a non-income component (life expectancy, school enrollment ratio, literacy) with different weights.

Molina and Purser tracked the changes in the income and non-income components of the HDI separately. They found that changes in the two components are not correlated, thus undermining the common view that economic growth automatically leads to or at least is accompanied by human development.

The evidence shows that massive increases in education and health achieved over past 40 years had little if anything to do with globalization. They had to do with decision by states to expand their educational and health systems, coupled by initiatives of the international community to enable access to vaccines and antibiotics, said Francisco R Rodrmguez, Head of Research Team, Human Development Report Office, UNDP, commenting on Molina and Pursers paper. The increase in human development is actually an example of how state intervention works, he added.

Several poor countries have caught up with much richer countries in the non-income aspects of the HDI. In fact, the most rapid improvements in life expectancy and literacy are not occurring in the fastest growing economies of the world. They are occurring in a subset of lower and middle-income countries in Asia, the Middle East and northern Africa. China and the Republic of Korea are in fact the only two countries which appear both among the top ten income and HDI performers.

The paper found that changes in gender roles (literacy, fertility and labour participation) were a strong driver of human development achievements over time. Molina and Purser concluded that the forces that drive economic growth are not the same as the ones that drive human development. Demographic transitions, urbanization and declining fertility rates have accelerated life-expectancy and literacy achievements over past half-century. We believe the underlying drivers of these changes are linked to individual and household-level decisions concerning fertility and female schooling, the paper said. Fist tap Dale.

who broke america's jobs machine?

Video - Who Broke America's Job Machine discussion.

Washington Monthly | But while the mystery of what killed the great American jobs machine has yielded no shortage of debatable answers, one of the more compelling potential explanations has been conspicuously absent from the national conversation: monopolization. The word itself feels anachronistic, a relic from the age of the Rockefellers and Carnegies. But the fact that the term has faded from our daily discourse doesn’t mean the thing itself has vanished—in fact, the opposite is true. In nearly every sector of our economy, far fewer firms control far greater shares of their markets than they did a generation ago.

Indeed, in the years after officials in the Reagan administration radically altered how our government enforces our antimonopoly laws, the American economy underwent a truly revolutionary restructuring. Four great waves of mergers and acquisitions—in the mid-1980s, early ’90s, late ’90s, and between 2003 and 2007—transformed America’s industrial landscape at least as much as globalization. Over the same two decades, meanwhile, the spread of mega-retailers like Wal-Mart and Home Depot and agricultural behemoths like Smithfield and Tyson’s resulted in a more piecemeal approach to consolidation, through the destruction or displacement of countless independent family-owned businesses.

It is now widely accepted among scholars that small businesses are responsible for most of the net job creation in the United States. It is also widely agreed that small businesses tend to be more inventive, producing more patents per employee, for example, than do larger firms. Less well established is what role concentration plays in suppressing new business formation and the expansion of existing businesses, along with the jobs and innovation that go with such growth. Evidence is growing, however, that the radical, wide-ranging consolidation of recent years has reduced job creation at both big and small firms simultaneously. At one extreme, ever more dominant Goliaths increasingly lack any real incentive to create new jobs; after all, many can increase their earnings merely by using their power to charge customers more or pay suppliers less. At the other extreme, the people who run our small enterprises enjoy fewer opportunities than in the past to grow their businesses. The Goliaths of today are so big and so adept at protecting their turf that they leave few niches open to exploit.

Over the next few years, we can use our government to do many things to promote the creation of new and better jobs in America. But even the most aggressive stimulus packages and tax cutting will do little to restore the sort of open market competition that, over the years, has proven to be such an important impetus to the creation of wealth, well-being, and work. Consolidation is certainly not the only factor at play. But any policymaker who is really serious about creating new jobs in America would be unwise to continue to ignore our new monopolies. Fist tap Arnach.

do we really want the unvarnished truth?

Video - Colonel Jessup breaks it down.

NYTimes | Why are people praising Chinese autocracy these days? Perhaps they fear that the open society is opening too wide.

The trend toward reappraisal of China comes after hard years for democracy enthusiasts: Iraq and Afghanistan; Hamas’s election; the disappointment of many of Europe’s colored revolutions; persistent repression in Iran and Myanmar; an economic crisis that free societies were unable to prevent and unravel; growing sclerosis in the U.S. political system; and China’s extraordinary success, despite what Westerners have often regarded as a political system incompatible with success.

The question the reappraisers seem to be asking is whether their belief in bottom-up, spontaneously ordering, self-regulating societies blinded them to other truths (as their enthusiasm for China risks blinding them to the cruelty and violence of autocracy). They are asking: Can openness go too far? Can public opinion be measured too frequently? Can free speech sow disorder? Is the crowd really smarter than the experts? Can transparency hamper governance?

Or, to put it in the terms of an influential 1997 essay, is the bazaar always better than the cathedral?

In that essay, Eric S. Raymond, a software programmer, heralded the rise of the Linux operating system and the bottom-up, open-source, we-the-people world that it reflected. He wrote that old-style software was “built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation.” Open-source pointed to a new way: “a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches,” as he put it, “out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles.”

Mr. Raymond’s immediate subject was software, but his essay spoke for the age. It was a moment when democracy seemed on the march worldwide, when “the end of history” had been declared by Francis Fukuyama, when new tools called Web logs, or blogs, promised to empower the little guy. In that moment, as went the open-source technology, so went the world.

But today, in this moment of autocrat envy, as goes the world, so goes the technology.

Unfettered openness has been a near theology not merely for boosters of democracy; it is also the defining ethos of the Internet. But here, too, are signs of pushback and a new questioning among technophiles about the limits of openness. Fist tap Nana.

Monday, April 26, 2010

urban aerial reconnaissance

smaller missiles...,

WaPo | The CIA is using new, smaller missiles and advanced surveillance techniques to minimize civilian casualties in its targeted killings of suspected insurgents in Pakistan's tribal areas, according to current and former officials in the United States and Pakistan.

The technological improvements have resulted in more accurate operations that have provoked relatively little public outrage, the officials said. Pakistan's government has tolerated the airstrikes, which have killed hundreds of suspected insurgents since early 2009, but that support has always been fragile and could quickly evaporate, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.

The CIA declines to publicly discuss its clandestine operations in Pakistan, and a spokesman would not comment on the kinds of weapons the agency is using. But two counterterrorism officials said in interviews that evolving technology and tactics have kept the number of civilian deaths extremely low. The officials, along with other U.S. and Pakistani officials interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the drone campaign is both classified and controversial.

Last month, a small CIA missile, probably no bigger than a violin case and weighing about 35 pounds, tore through the second floor of a house in Miram Shah, a town in the tribal province of South Waziristan. The projectile exploded, killing a top al-Qaeda official and about nine other suspected terrorists.

The mud-brick house collapsed and the roof of a neighboring house was damaged, but no one else in the town of 5,000 was hurt, according to U.S. officials who have reviewed after-action reports.

Urban strikes
The agency, using 100-pound Hellfire missiles fired from remotely controlled Predator aircraft, once targeted militants largely in rural settings, but lighter weapons and miniature spy drones have made killings in urban areas more feasible, officials said.

no secrets in the sky

NYTimes | THE highly classified C.I.A. program to kill militants in the tribal regions of Pakistan with missiles fired from drones is the world’s worst-kept secret.

The United States has long tried to maintain plausible deniability that it is behind drone warfare in Pakistan, a country that pollsters consistently find is one of the most anti-American in the world. For reasons of its own, the Pakistani government has also sought to hide the fact that it secretly agreed to allow the United States to fly some drones out of a base in Pakistan and attack militants on its territory.

But there are good reasons for the United States, which conducted 53 such strikes in 2009 alone, and Pakistan to finally acknowledge the existence of the drone program.

First, there is the matter of Pakistani civilian casualties caused by the drones. In a poll last summer, only 9 percent of Pakistanis approved of the drone strikes. A key reason for this unpopularity is the widespread perception that the strikes overwhelmingly kill civilians.

A survey we have made of reliable press accounts indicates that since January 2009, the reported strikes have killed at least 520 people, of whom around 410 were described as militants, suggesting that the civilian death rate is about 20 percent.

It’s possible, however, that the number is even lower. An American counterterrorism official told The Times in December that the civilian fatality rate is only 5 percent, saying that “just over 20” civilians and more than 400 militants were killed in 2009. Should the American government’s claims about the small number of civilian deaths be verified, some of the Pakistani hostility toward the United States might dissipate. This would be much easier if the now-classified videotapes of drone strikes were made available to independent researchers.

Acknowledging the drone program would also help advance our efforts — and improve our profile — in the region by providing an excellent example of the deepening United States-Pakistan strategic partnership. Since January 2009, up to 85 reported drone strikes have killed militants who are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistanis. A good deal of the intelligence that enables these strikes comes from the Pakistanis themselves.

Last, Pakistanis once considered any military offensive against the Taliban as fighting America’s war. But because of the cumulative weight of the Taliban’s atrocities against politicians, soldiers, police and civilians, Pakistanis now believe that battling the militants is in the country’s own interest. As a result, over the past year, the public’s support for the Pakistani Army’s efforts in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan has surged. If Pakistan came clean about its involvement with the drones, public backing for the program might similarly increase.

Of course, by acknowledging the drone strikes, the Obama administration would also have to admit that civilians are sometimes killed in these attacks. When Afghan civilians are killed by American forces, their families are often compensated by the United States. Surely, the families of Pakistani civilians killed in American drone strikes deserve the same.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

stephan hawking - don't talk to aliens

Video - Discovery Alien Planet

Telegraph | THE aliens are out there and Earth had better watch out, at least according to Stephen Hawking. He has suggested that extraterrestrials are almost certain to exist — but that instead of seeking them out, humanity should be doing all it that can to avoid any contact.

The suggestions come in a new documentary series in which Hawking, one of the world’s leading scientists, will set out his latest thinking on some of the universe’s greatest mysteries.

Alien life, he will suggest, is almost certain to exist in many other parts of the universe: not just in planets, but perhaps in the centre of stars or even floating in interplanetary space.

Hawking’s logic on aliens is, for him, unusually simple. The universe, he points out, has 100 billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of millions of stars. In such a big place, Earth is unlikely to be the only planet where life has evolved.

“To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational,” he said. “The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.”

The answer, he suggests, is that most of it will be the equivalent of microbes or simple animals — the sort of life that has dominated Earth for most of its history.

One scene in his documentary for the Discovery Channel shows herds of two-legged herbivores browsing on an alien cliff-face where they are picked off by flying, yellow lizard-like predators. Another shows glowing fluorescent aquatic animals forming vast shoals in the oceans thought to underlie the thick ice coating Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter.

Such scenes are speculative, but Hawking uses them to lead on to a serious point: that a few life forms could be intelligent and pose a threat. Hawking believes that contact with such a species could be devastating for humanity.

He suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky”. He said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

beyond the farthest reach of the sun's power

Video - Abundant Life in and around Hydrothermal Vents

In the eyes of many Christians, the darwinian revolution left nature purposeless, at least on paper. Darwinians, faced with a personal Creator as the only conceivable source of purpose, hastened to agree. But physical purpose is more subtle than that. From the thermodynamic vantag point, purpose has a physical aspect. It is no more uniform than memory, which manifests itself in bodies, genetically, and brains, neuronally - and even in machines - magnetically. And like memory, purpose - with its orientation toward the future - has a thermodynamic genesis.

Life is thermodynamic. A continuous whirlpool downstream of Niagara Falls has a name; "Whirlpool". We give names to things like species and hurricanes, that keep their identities - at least for a time. The formation of stable identities aids the thermodynamic process of gradient reduction. The highly heritable members of a species, like other cyclical and complex thermodynamic agents, provide stable vehicles of degradation. The cycling selves of life survive in order to reduce the energetic and material gradients that keep them going, they covet and tap into these gradients to survive long enough to reproduce. As natural selection filters out the many to preserve the remaining few, those few ever more efficiently use environmental energy to "purposefully" reduce their gradients. The key point is that living and nonliving "selves" come into being to reduce gradients naturally. The reproducing self of biology is a higher order cycle whose antecedents can be inferred from the cycles of the nonliving world. Nucleotide replication and cell reproduction do not emerge from nowhere. They are born in an energetic universe from thermodynamic tendencies inherent in nature.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

the driving force II

Video - Excerpt from Chronos.

Acceleration of change sweeps us away. One week recently, I passed a yellowed, run-down, student-infested house on the main street of town while bicycling to the campus as usual. A week afterward the view past the house across to the neighboring schoolyard was splendid. For the first time in living memory, it was unobstructed.

Mountains framed the distant backdrop. The house was gone. No sign that any house hade ever been there remained, except newly raked soil in the footprint of a simple ground plan. Such dramtic changes in our immediate surroundings are commonplace. Burger King, Toys "R" Us, Wendys, McDonalds, and bank branches sprout in our cities and towns. Mom-andpop shops, wheat fields, and old oaks disappear like coins dropped into the sand. Native Americans thrive if they form gambling liasons, graduate students receive stipends when they change from studying the habits of beavers inside their lodges to the search for genes in the human genome.
  1. Why do the forces of change always seem to prevail over the quiet and uneventful habits of the past?
  2. Why does the evolution of life seem to accelerate as we move into the present and out toward the future?
  3. Is evolution just random change?
  4. Does the evolutionary process itself, the origin and diversification of life from common ancestors, seem to be directed?
When we ask evolutionary biologists and other scientists if the evolution of life is going in some direction, they adamantly deny it. But our everyday experience suggests that our social environment grows more complex. Our natural green and watery environment seems to shrink to be locally augmented with metallic solids. Neon lights, traffic signals, and other aspects of urbanization replace woodlands and open streams at an ever-increasing rate of change. People crowd out foxes and antelope, pigeons and sparrows replace orioles and woodpeckers. Digital tools supplant simple mechanical devices at alarming speeds. Evolution of life does seem to have a direction. Life's peculiarities and human technologies do seem to expand at an accelerating rate of change as we come from the past toward the present. Darwin's Dilemma Acquiring Genomes Lynn Margulis.

nature abhors a gradient

"Streaming Gradient" by Jen Stark from Jen Stark on Vimeo.

A gradient is defined as a difference across a distance.

Evolution is a science of connections, and connection does not stop with ties of humans to apes, apes to other animals, or animals to microbes. Life and nonlife are also connected in very fundamental ways. The organization of life is material and energetic.

Life exists in the very real thermodynamic difference between 5800 Kelvin of incoming solar radiation and 2.7 Kelvin of outer space. It is this gradient upon which life's complexity feeds. This thermodynamic idea connects life to nonlife.

Life is one of a class of systems that organize in response to a gradient.

it's not the size that matters, it's how you use it

Life After Growth - Economics for Everyone from enmedia productions on Vimeo.

the imminent crash of the oil supply

ICH | This graph was prepared for a DOE meeting in spring, 2009. Take a good look at what it says, assuming it to be correct:

1. Conventional oil will be almost all gone in 20 years, and there is nothing known to replace it.

2.. Production of petroleum from existing conventional sources has been dropping at a rate slightly over 4% per year for at least a year and will continue to do so for the indefinite future.

3. The graph implies that we are past the peak of production and that there are750 billion barrels of conventional oil left (the areas under the "conventional" portion of the graph, extrapolated to the right as an exponent ional). Assuming that the remaining reserves were 900 billion or more at the halfway point, then we are at least 150 billion barrels, or 5 years, past the midpoint.

4. Total petroleum production from all presently known sources, conventional and unconventional, will remain "flat" at approximately 83 mbpd for the next two years and then will proceed to drop for the foreseeable future, at first slowly but by 4% per year after 2015.

5. Demand will begin to outstrip supply in 2012, and will already be 10 million barrels per day above supply in only five years. The United States Joint Forces Command concurs with these specific findings. , at 31. 10 million bpd is equivalent to half the United States' entire consumption. To make up the difference, the world would have to find another Saudi Arabia and get it into full production in five years, an impossibility. See The Oil Drum,

5. The production from presently existing conventional sources will plummet from its present 81 mbpd to 30 mbpd by 2030, a 63% drop in a 20-year period.

6. Meeting demand requires discovering, developing, and bringing to full production 60mbpd (105-45) of "unidentified projects" in the 18-year period of 2012-2030 and approximately 25 mbpd of such projects by 2020, on the basis of a very conservative estimate of only 1% annual growth in demand. The independent Oxford Institute of Energy Studies has estimated a possible development of 6.5mbpd of such projects, including the Canadian tar sands, implying a deficit of 18-19 mbpd as compared to demand, and an approximate 14 mbpd drop in total liquid fuels production relative to 2012, a 16% drop in 8 years.

7. The curve is virtually identical to one produced by geologists Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere and published in "The End of Cheap Oil," in Scientific American, March, 1998, twelve years ago. They projected that production of petroleum from conventional sources would drop from 74 mbpd in 2003 (as compared to 84 mbpd in 2008 in the DOE graph) and drop to 39 mbpd by 2030 (as compared to 39 mbpd by 2030 in the DOE graph!). . Campbell and Laherrere predicted a 2003 "peak," and the above graph implies a 'peak" (not necessarily the actual peak, but the midpointr of production of 2005 or before.

So here we are, if the graph is right, on the edge of a precipice, with no prior warning from either the industry, which knows what it possesses, or the collective governments, which ostensibly protect the public interest. As Colin Campbell, a research geologist who has worked for many large oil companies and studied oil depletion extensively says, "The warning signals have been flying for a long time. They have been plain to see, but the world turned a blind eye, and failed to read the message. The world was completely transformed by oil for the duration of the twentieth century, but if the graph is right, within 20 years it will be virtually gone but our dependence upon it will not. Instead, we have;
  • zero time to plan how to replace cars in our lives
  • zero time to plan how to manufacture and install millions of furnaces to replace home oil furnaces, and zero time toproduce the infrastructure necessary to carry out that task
  • zero time to retool suburbia so it can function without gasoline
  • zero time to plan for replacement of the largest military establishment in history, almost completely dependent upon oil
  • zero time to plan to support nine billion peolple without the "green revolution," a creation of the age of oil
  • zero time to plan to replace oil as an essential fuel in electricity production
  • zero time to plan for preserving millions of miles of roads without asphalt.
  • zero time to plan for the replacement of oil in its essential role in EVERY industry.
  • zero time to plan for replacement of oil in its exclusive role of transporting people, agricultural produce, manufactured goods. In a world without oil that appears only twenty years away, there will be no oil-burning ships transporting US grain to other countries, there will be no oil-burning airlines linking the world's major cities, there will be no oil-burning ships transporting Chinese manufactured goods to the billions now dependent on them.
  • zero time to plan for the survival of the billions of new people expected by 2050 in the aftermath of ":peak everything."
  • zero capital, because of failing banks ansd public and private debt, to address these issues.

Friday, April 23, 2010

strong biology

Be careful never to use either "cooperation" or "competition" to describe biological or other evolutionary phenomena.

These words may be appropriate for the basketball court, computer industry, or financial institutions, but they paint with too broad a brush. Far too often they miss the complex interactions of live beings, organisms who cohabit. Competition implies an agreement, a set of actions that follow rules, but in the game of real life, the "rules" - based on chemistry and environmental conditions - change with the players. To compete, people - for example on opposite teams - must basically cooperate in some way. "Competition" is a term with limited scientific meaning, usually without reference to units by which it can be measured. How does the green worm or the lichen fungus assess its competitive status? By the addition of points in its score or by dollars, or Swiss francs? No. Then what are the units of competition? If you ask what are the units of biomass we can tell you in grams or ounces. If you ask how light or biotic potential is to be measured, we answer in lux or foot-candles or numbers of offspring per generation. But if you ask "what are the units of competition" we reply that yours is not a scientific notion.

Vogue terms like "competition" "cooperation" "mutualism" "mutual benefit" "energy cost" and "competitive advantage" have been borrowed from human enterprises and forced on science from politics, business, and social thought. The entire panoply of neodarwinist terminology reflects a profound philosophical error, a 20th century example of a phenomenon aptly named by Alfred North Whitehead; the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. The terminology of most modern evolutionists is not only fallacious but dangerously so., because it leads people to think they know about the evolution of life when in fact they are baffled, ignorant, and confused. The "selfish-gene" provides a fine example. What is Richard Dawkins's selfish gene? A gene is never a self to begin with. A gene alone is only a piece of DNA long enough to have a function. The gene by itself can be flushed down the sink; even if preserved in a freezer or a salt solution the isolated gene has no activity whatsoever. There is no life in a gene.

There is no self. A gene never fits the minimal criterion of self, of a living system. The time has come in serious biology to abandon words like competition, cooperation, and selfish genes and replace them with meaningful terms such as metabolic modes (chemoautotrophy, photosynthesis), ecological relations (epibiont, pollinator), and measurable quantities (light, heat, mechanical force). So many current evolutionary metaphors are superficial dichotomizations that come from false clarities of language. They do not beget but preclude scientific understanding.

Would not society be better served, then, if we adopted symbiotic metaphors instead of competitive ones? No. Society will be better served by more accurate scientific understanding, and this is not to be gained by substituting one pole of oversimplified metaphors for another. But of course organisms do vie in various ways with each other for space and food. Such vying however, (or competition) among members of the same species does not in itself lead to new species; a source of genetic novelty-usually symbiogenesis-is needed. excerpted from Darwinism not NeoDarwinism Acquiring Genomes Lynn Margulis.


colleague disputes case against anthrax suspect

NYTimes | A former Army microbiologist who worked for years with Bruce E. Ivins, whom the F.B.I. has blamed for the anthrax letter attacks that killed five people in 2001, told a National Academy of Sciences panel on Thursday that he believed it was impossible that the deadly spores had been produced undetected in Dr. Ivins’s laboratory, as the F.B.I. asserts.

Asked by reporters after his testimony whether he believed that there was any chance that Dr. Ivins, who committed suicide in 2008, had carried out the attacks, the microbiologist, Henry S. Heine, replied, “Absolutely not.” At the Army’s biodefense laboratory in Maryland, where Dr. Ivins and Dr. Heine worked, he said, “among the senior scientists, no one believes it.”

Dr. Heine told the 16-member panel, which is reviewing the F.B.I.’s scientific work on the investigation, that producing the quantity of spores in the letters would have taken at least a year of intensive work using the equipment at the army lab. Such an effort would not have escaped colleagues’ notice, he added later, and lab technicians who worked closely with Dr. Ivins have told him they saw no such work.

He told the panel that biological containment measures where Dr. Ivins worked were inadequate to prevent the spores from floating out of the laboratory into animal cages and offices. “You’d have had dead animals or dead people,” he said.

The public remarks from Dr. Heine, two months after the Justice Department officially closed the case, represent a major public challenge to its conclusion in one of the largest, most politically delicate and scientifically complex cases in F.B.I. history.

Asked why he was speaking out now, Dr. Heine noted that Army officials had prohibited comment on the case, silencing him until he left the government laboratory in late February. He now works for Ordway Research Institute in Albany.

Dr. Heine said he did not dispute that there was a genetic link between the spores in the letters and the anthrax in Dr. Ivins’s flask — a link that led the F.B.I. to conclude that Dr. Ivins had grown the spores from a sample taken from the flask. But samples from the flask were widely shared, Dr. Heine said. Accusing Dr. Ivins of the attacks, he said, was like tracing a murder to the clerk at the sporting goods shop who sold the bullets.

“Whoever did this is still running around out there,” Dr. Heine said. “I truly believe that.”

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Video - First images from the new solar observatory.

BBC News | NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory has provided an astonishing new vista on our turbulent star.

The first public release of images from the satellite record huge explosions and great looping prominences of gas.

The observatory's super-fine resolution is expected to help scientists get a better understanding of what drives solar activity.

Launched in February on an Atlas rocket from Cape Canaveral, SDO is expected to operate for at least five years.

Researchers hope in this time to go a long way towards their eventual goal of being able to forecast the effects of the Sun's behaviour on Earth.
“ It's like looking at the details of our star through a microscope ”
Richard Harrison, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory

Solar activity has a profound influence on our planet. Huge eruptions of charged particles and the emission of intense radiation can disrupt satellite, communication and power systems, and pose a serious health risk to astronauts.

Scientists working on SDO say they are thrilled with the quality of the data received so far.

"When we see these fantastic images, even hard-core solar physicists like myself are struck with awe, literally," said Lika Guhathakurta, the SDO programme scientist at Nasa Headquarters.

SDO is equipped with three instruments to investigate the physics at work inside, on the surface and in the atmosphere of the Sun.

The probe views the entire solar disc with a resolution 10 times better than the average high-definition television camera. This allows it to pick out features on the surface and in the atmosphere that are as small as 350km across.

The pictures are also acquired at a rapid rate, every few seconds.

In addition, the different wavelengths in which the instruments operate mean scientists can study the Sun's atmosphere layer by layer.

A key quest will be to probe the inner workings of the solar dynamo, the deep network of plasma currents that generates the Sun's tangled and sometimes explosive magnetic field.

It is the dynamo that ultimately lies behind all forms of solar activity, from the solar flares that explode in the Sun's atmosphere to the relatively cool patches, or sunspots, that pock the solar disc and wander across its surface for days or even weeks.

"The SDO images are stunning and the level of detail they reveal will undoubtedly lead to a new branch of research into how the fine-scale solar magnetic fields form and evolve, leading to a much, much better understanding of how solar activity develops," said co-investigator Richard Harrison from the UK's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL).

"It's like looking at the details of our star through a microscope," he told BBC News.

what links the banking crisis and the volcano?

Video - ashy Icelandic volcano.

Guardian | Man proposes; nature disposes. We are seldom more vulnerable than when we feel insulated. The miracle of modern flight protected us from gravity, atmosphere, culture, geography. It made everywhere feel local, interchangeable. Nature interjects, and we encounter – tragically for many – the reality of thousands of miles of separation. We discover that we have not escaped from the physical world after all.

Complex, connected societies are more resilient than simple ones – up to a point. During the east African droughts of the early 1990s, I saw at first hand what anthropologists and economists have long predicted: those people who had the fewest trading partners were hit hardest. Connectivity provided people with insurance: the wider the geographical area they could draw food from, the less they were hurt by a regional famine.

But beyond a certain level, connectivity becomes a hazard. The longer and more complex the lines of communication and the more dependent we become on production and business elsewhere, the greater the potential for disruption. This is one of the lessons of the banking crisis. Impoverished mortgage defaulters in the United States – the butterfly's wing over the Atlantic – almost broke the global economy. If the Eyjafjallajökull volcano – by no means a monster – keeps retching it could, in these fragile times, produce the same effect.

We have several such vulnerabilities. The most catastrophic would be an unexpected coronal mass ejection – a solar storm – which causes a surge of direct current down our electricity grids, taking out the transformers. It could happen in seconds; the damage and collapse would take years to reverse, if we ever recovered. We would soon become aware of our dependence on electricity: an asset which, like oxygen, we notice only when it fails.

As New Scientist magazine points out, an event like this would knacker most of the systems which keep us alive. It would take out water treatment plants and pumping stations. It would paralyse oil pumping and delivery, which would quickly bring down food supplies. It would clobber hospitals, financial systems and just about every kind of business – even the manufacturers of candles and paraffin lamps. Emergency generators would function only until the oil ran out. Burnt-out transformers cannot be repaired; they must be replaced. Over the past year I've sent freedom of information requests to electricity transmitters and distributors, asking them what contingency plans they have made, and whether they have stockpiled transformers to replace any destroyed by a solar storm. I haven't got to the end of it yet, but the early results suggest that they haven't.

There's a similar lack of planning for the possibility that global supplies of oil might soon peak then go into decline. My FoI requests to the British government reveal that it has made no contingency plans, on the grounds that it doesn't believe it will happen. The issue remains the preserve of beardy lentil-eaters such as, er, the US joint forces command. Its latest report on possible future conflicts maintains that "a severe energy crunch is inevitable without a massive expansion of production and refining capacity".

It suggests that "by 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10m barrels per day". A shortage of refining and production capacity is not the same thing as peak oil, but the report warns that a chronic constraint looms behind the immediate crisis: even under "the most optimistic scenario … petroleum production will be hard pressed to meet the expected future demand". A global oil shortage would soon expose the weaknesses of our complex economic systems. As the cultural anthropologist Joseph Tainter has shown, their dependence on high energy use is one of the factors that makes complex societies vulnerable to collapse.