Monday, November 30, 2009

"Laboratory rules prevent the scientists eating the fruits of their labour"

From Times Online
SCIENTISTS have grown meat in the laboratory for the first time. Experts in Holland used cells from a live pig to replicate growth in a petri dish.

The advent of so-called “in-vitro” or cultured meat could reduce the billions of tons of greenhouse gases emitted each year by farm animals — if people are willing to eat it.

So far the scientists have not tasted it, but they believe the breakthrough could lead to sausages and other processed products being made from laboratory meat in as little as five years’ time.

They initially extracted cells from the muscle of a live pig. Called myoblasts, these cells are programmed to grow into muscle and repair damage in animals.

The cells were then incubated in a solution containing nutrients to encourage them to multiply indefinitely. This nutritious “broth” is derived from the blood products of animal foetuses, although the intention is to come up with a synthetic solution.

The result was sticky muscle tissue that requires exercise, like human muscles, to turn it into a tougher steak-like consistency.

“You could take the meat from one animal and create the volume of meat previously provided by a million animals,” said Mark Post, professor of physiology at Eindhoven University, who is leading the Dutch government-funded research.

Post and his colleagues have so far managed to develop a soggy form of pork and are seeking to improve its texture. “What we have at the moment is rather like wasted muscle tissue,” Post said.

“We need to find ways of improving it by training it and stretching it, but we will get there. This product will be good for the environment and will reduce animal suffering. If it feels and tastes like meat, people will buy it.”

At present there is a question mark over the taste as laboratory rules prevent the scientists eating the fruits of their labour.

The Dutch experiments follow the creation of “fish fillets” derived from goldfish muscle cells in New York and pave the way for laboratory-grown chicken, beef and lamb.

The project, which is backed by a sausage manufacturer and has received £2m from the Dutch government, is seeking additional public funds to improve the technology.

Global meat and dairy product consumption is expected to double by 2050, according to the United Nations. This could have an unprecedented impact on climate change because the warming effect on the atmosphere of methane, a digestive by-product from farm animals, is 23 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. The UN has attributed 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases to livestock.

The Vegetarian Society reacted cautiously yesterday, saying: “The big question is how could you guarantee you were eating artificial flesh rather than flesh from an animal that had been slaughtered. It would be very difficult to label and identify in a way that people would trust.” Peta, the animal rights group, said: “As far as we’re concerned, if meat is no longer a piece of a dead animal there’s no ethical objection.”

Evolution produces immunity to mad-cow disease

Fromm BBC: "Villagers suffering from a major epidemic of Kuru, a fatal CJD-like brain disease, seem to have developed a strong genetic resistance to the condition.

The infection, which is associated with mortuary feasts, where mainly women and children consume the remains of respected relatives, devastated populations in the remote eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea. Things go so bad that in some villages there were no women of child-bearing age left alive and the practice was banned in the late 1950's and quickly died out.

But it seems that natural selection was already developing a response of its own. Scientists working on the new variant of CJD associated with eating meat from cattle infected with BSE have found that people living around the Purosa valley in Papua New Guinea, where Kuru was most rife, have a unique genetic variation that seems to offer high, or even complete, protection against the disease.

The scientists from the MRC's Prion Unit studied over 3,000 people from the area, including 709 who had participated in cannibalistic mortuary feasts, 152 of whom subsequently died. They discovered that many of the survivors, and their children, seemed to have a unique variation in the prion protein gene G127V. …

Professor John Collinge, director of the unit, said it was a fascinating example of Darwinian selection at work. 'This community has developed its own biologically unique response to a truly terrible epidemic. The fact that it has happened in decades is remarkable'.

The discovery is exciting because it could help scientists to understand the genetic mechanisms that underpin the development of CJD in people and even BSE in animals.

But it's also important because many of those same genetic mechanisms play a vital role in the development of other debilitating brain conditions including Alzheimers and Parkinson's disease.

In could be that the cannibalism in Papua New Guinea holds the key to cures for a wide range of degenerative brain disorders.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tom Friedman on being a clean-energy hawk

Tom Friedman frequently writes about clean energy. Here he argues that
the best way to launch E.T. [energy technology] is to set a fixed, long-term price on carbon — combine it with the Obama team’s impressive stimulus for green-tech — and then let the free market and innovation do the rest.
Most of the column is about why it's in our financial and political interests to invest in clean energy.
What happens [otherwise] is that the price of oil goes through the roof … The petro-dictators in Iran, Venezuela and Russia … get richer.
I tend to agree with Friedman. But making his case an economic one requires that he justify interfering with the markets. If it's so obvious that developing clean energy is a financial win, why isn't the free market already doing it? Are the people who want to make money so dumb that they don't see what he sees? Why do we need a carbon tax at all?

Perhaps one could argue that profitability is too far in the future, that only those with very deep pockets can afford to invest in clean energy now, and that if we don't the Chinese will—and will leave us in the dust when the time for clean energy arrives. But he hasn't made that point. Or perhaps he can argue that the free market is too short-sighted to see as far ahead as is necessary to invest in clean energy—and that the necessary development will take so long that when we need it we will not have the time to develop it. But he hasn't made that case either.

Appealing to the power of the free market to develop the technology if only it is subsidized by government tax policy somehow doesn't seem like a completely cogent argument.

Monday, November 16, 2009

scanl in "Infinite list tricks in Haskell"

See this for a description of scanl. It's similar to foldl except that it returns a list of intermediate results..

in reference to:

"Infinite list tricks in Haskell"
- Infinite list tricks in Haskell - Program - Builder AU (view on Google Sidewiki)

This was my first "sidewiki" posting.

A view from the paranoid right

I don't know how I got on this mailing list, but for the past few weeks I've been getting a stream of scare messages from an organizatino calling itself AmeriPac. It's been mainly anti-healthcare. Today's was partciularly amusing.

Register For Your ObamaCare Draft Card!

White House Alert: The ObamaCare Draft Is Legal!

You are to be drafted against your will into ObamaCare. …

The ObamaCare Draft plan is simple, you just register to get your ObamaCare Draft Card. Then wait in line for the ObamaCare lottery to draw your number and tell you when you can line up at a government clinic to get care.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why Compact, Contiguous Districts are Bad for the Democrats

The abstract from a paper by Chen and Roddin.
When one of the major parties in the United States wins a substantially larger share of the seats than its vote share would seem to warrant, the conventional explanation lies in manipulation of maps by the party that controls the redistricting process. Yet this paper uses a unique data set from Florida to demonstrate a common mechanism through which substantial partisan bias can emerge purely from residential patterns. When partisan preferences are spatially dependent and partisanship is highly correlated with population density, any districting scheme that generates relatively compact, contiguous districts will tend to produce bias against the urban party. In order to demonstrate this empirically, we apply automated districting algorithms driven solely by compactness and contiguity parameters, building winner-take-all districts out of the precinct-level results of the tied Florida presidential election of 2000. The simulation results demonstrate that with 50 percent of the votes statewide, the Republicans can expect to win around 59 percent of the seats without any “intentional” gerrymandering. This is because urban districts tend to be homogeneous and Democratic while suburban and rural districts tend to be moderately Republican. Thus in Florida and other states where Democrats are highly concentrated in cities, the seemingly apolitical practice of requiring compact, contiguous districts will produce systematic pro-Republican electoral bias.
Once you think about it, it's obvious. The Democratic districts will be overwhelmingly Democratic; the Republican districts will be only moderately Republican. So there may be more Democrats overall, but if the Democratic districts are overwhelmingly Democratic and the Republican districts are only slightly more Republican than Democratic, the Republicans will win more districts than their proportion of the population deserves.

My Near Death Panel Experience

A great first-hand account of the "death-panel" fiasco by Earl Blumenauer, the Democratic Congressman from Oregon whose well-intentioned provisions were twisted unrecognizably and used for political purposes. An op-ed in the
I reached out to Republicans, including conservative members of Congress who often expressed support for [paying doctors for providing voluntary end-of-life counseling], and worked with national experts in palliative care and advocacy groups in devising the end-of-life provision. My Republican co-sponsor, Charles Boustany of Louisiana, told me he had many end-of-life conversations as a cardiovascular surgeon but unfortunately they often were too late. He wished that he could have spoken to patients and their families when they could have reflected properly, not when surgery was just hours away.

While continuing to work on other important health care reform provisions, I was confident that in this area, we had made a contribution that would ultimately be in the final bill. It might even serve as a bridge for bipartisan compromise as we entered the frustratingly contentious end game of finishing the overall legislation.

But the battle lines were being drawn. Little did I know how deep the trenches would be dug, nor how truth would be one of the first, and most obvious, casualties.

The House Ways and Means Committee “mark-up session” of the health care bill, on July 16, lasted all day and into the night. Republican colleagues offered dozens of amendments aimed at numerous provisions. Nowhere was there a single proposal to change the end-of-life language, nor a word spoken in opposition. Not a single word.

Then Betsy McCaughey entered the fray. A former lieutenant governor of New York, Ms. McCaughey had gained notoriety in the 1990s by attacking the Clinton health plan. In a radio interview, she attacked the end-of-life provisions in the health care legislation, claiming it “would make it mandatory, absolutely require, that every five years people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner.” The St. Petersburg Times’s fact-checking Web site PolitiFact quickly excoriated her: “McCaughey isn’t just wrong; she’s spreading a ridiculous falsehood.” *hellip;

The most bizarre moment came on Aug. 7 when Sarah Palin used the term “death panels” on her Facebook page. She wrote: “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.” …

The news media was a particular culprit in this drama. This was not just Fox News; seemingly all the national news organizations monitored any meetings they could find between lawmakers and constituents, looking for flare-ups, for YouTube moments. The meetings that involved thoughtful exchanges or even support for the proposals would never find their way on air; coverage was given only to the most outrageous behavior, furthering distorting the true picture.

My office quickly produced testimonials from 300 respected professionals and organizations to set the record straight. Articles followed about how Republicans themselves had supported such provisions. Sites like PolitiFact and as well as national organizations like the AARP pushed back on the lies.

It didn’t matter. The “death panel” episode shows how the news media, after aiding and abetting falsehood, were unable to perform their traditional role of reporting the facts. By lavishing uncritical attention on the most exaggerated claims and extreme behavior, they unleashed something that the truth could not dispel.

There was a troubling new dynamic: People like Senator Chuck Grassley, a Iowa Republican, were now parroting these falsehoods in their town meetings and letting it drive their policy decisions. (Mr. Grassley: “We should not have a government program that determines if you’re going to pull the plug on Grandma.”) When the most extreme elements peddling false information can cow senior members of Congress into embracing their claims, it does not bode well for either policymaking or for the Republican Party. …

The inability to protect even the smallest element of bipartisan consensus from being used as a savage weapon of political attack makes lawmakers’ tasks harder, and the American public even more disillusioned.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Where do/would people spend their money?

Has anyone ever studies how people spend money? What I have in mind is an analysis of what people would do with the next marginal increase in their income. Presumably with a minimum income, enough for only food, shelter, etc. most people would concentrate their spending in those areas. What if they had a bit more. What would they do with it? Of course different people would do different things with it. Some would save—at least part of it. Some would buy (more) entertainment or eat out more. Some would buy (more or more expensive) clothes. Some would buy toys. Etc. I suspect, though, that one could come up, with an aggregate forecast of the increased demand to be generated in various sectors (including savings instruments) of an increase in income levels. Why hasn't anyone done a study of that sort—or has someone?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

University Public-Access Mandates Are Good for Science

Good for PLoS Biology!
Why would university faculty choose to place their scholarship on electronic archives for a world-wide audience? Many US universities have adopted such mandates for public access to faculty research, perhaps most notably Harvard [1], MIT, and the University of Kansas [2]. These policies (and many more like them in various stages of consideration on campuses across the nation and world) are harbingers of a new order, one in which essentially all scholarly articles can be found and accessed by any interested individual.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Let's "Fall back" an hour every week

It was so nice to have an extra hour Sunday morning, that Debora and I thought it would be a good idea to do it every week. Here's how.

Every day, Monday through Saturday, at 2:00am in the morning, we "Spring ahead" 10 minutes. Then Sunday at 2:00am we "Fall back" an hour. By "saving" 10 minutes six days a week, we can afford to give ourselves an extra hour Sunday morning. Wouldn't that be nice?

Of course this would work only if it's done fairly universally. We can hardly do it individually. But if the whole country did it, I think it would work—and we would each have an extra hour every Sunday morning.

What about Daylight Saving Time? That would work the usual way. In the Spring, on the weekend during which we would normally "Spring ahead" an hour, we simply give up our extra Sunday morning hour. We will have "Sprung ahead" during the week. By not taking it back we will be on Daylight Saving Time. In the Fall, on that one weekend when we normally "Fall back," as we did last weekend, we "Fall back" two hours instead of the usual weekly one. That would put us back on standard time.

The Health Care nightmare scenario

From Political Action: Health Care Accountability Pledge
It's December. After a year of non-stop work by progressives and President Obama to pass real health care reform, the House has passed a strong bill. It's time for the Senate to vote.

But the vote never happens—because one Democratic senator joins Republicans to filibuster and block a vote. 2009 becomes just another year when health care reform failed.

If someone decided to take on that senator in the Democratic primary afterwards, would you chip in to help the challenger? I know I would.

Here's the thing: If thousands of us make it clear we'd do the same, and Democratic senators know it, we might just be able to keep this nightmare scenario from ever coming to pass.

I just pledged to support a primary challenge if it comes to that, and it's critical that all of us who would, say it now. Will you join me?

Pledge here. No credit card required. Just your pledge.