Archive for November, 2006

Pigs Eat Kids

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | November 29, 2006 6:00 pm

In a man-eats-pig world, the pigs are now eating man. The Hindustan Times reported today that a three-year-old boy named Ajay in Delhi, India was recently eaten alive by a herd of domestic pigs. If you have a weak stomach for gore, don’t read this nugget we pulled from the story:

“Ajay’s skull, eyes, face and torso had been ripped open and eaten. Only his limbs could be recovered.”

Yesterday we discovered sea lions are increasingly attacking people—were these pigs just hungry, or has DiscoBlog scratched the surface of an Animal Farm uprising?

(We hope this doesn’t incline anybody to use pigs for dead-body disposal, as per the movie Snatch:


Beware the Deranged Sea Lions

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | November 28, 2006 6:00 pm

This recent AP morsel might appear to be your average tale of dog bites man, except with the twist that “dog” is replaced with “sea lion.” And that part alone is a good enough story: sea lions gone wild, nibbling on Alaska fishermen, chomping on Southern California beach bums, horrifying Midwestern tourists in San Francisco, etc.

But what makes this story especially good—we’re talking DiscoBlog good—is the theory that these sea lions might be acting out because they’re brain damaged. Scientists at the Marine Mammal Center say these sea lions might have eaten fish that might have eaten toxic algae that might have bloomed because of agricultural fertilizers that might have run off into the ocean. This may sounds a wee bit speculative, but apparently the center treated 200 sea lions who were poisoned by domoic acid from toxic algae last year.

And the fear of renegade sea lions could make perhaps the strangest argument ever for eating organic produce.

We Need Smarter Breasts

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | November 21, 2006 6:00 pm

As DiscoBlog delphically predicted in its first post, silicone breast implants have jiggled back to life, as the FDA approved them for cosmetic surgery. (They were already approved for breast reconstruction, as in for cancer survivors, although those surgeries have more complications.)

The problem with these silicone implants is that they sometimes rupture, and some people are concerned that the silicone coursing through a woman’s body can be dangerous, perhaps even causing cancer (though the FDA found that not to be the case). Which raises an obvious question in my mind: Has anyone put a sensor inside a silicone implant that can report when the thing breaks? In recent years people have put sensors into the body to do all kinds of things—monitor blood pressure in the heart, control computer cursors with a thought, monitor healing in a hip replacement, etc. How about a sensor inside the breast implant that could monitor a change in pressure when the implant breaks? Or the presence of blood or organic molecules seeping in?

Science Poem of the Week (5)

By Josie Glausiusz | November 20, 2006 6:00 pm

I was about six years old when I first saw a living pig. It was at the Brent Show, an autumn festival that annually brought the joys of the countryside to my neighborhood in north-west London, turning a local park into a muddy swamp as the crowds trampled the grass in the rain. (It always rained.) The pig was penned in a row with an array of other farm animals, and it fascinated me: it was large, grey and lumpen and lay unstirring in mucky puddle. I now think it must have been very bored. Though sorely maligned as slovenly, slothful and greedy, pigs are in fact highly intelligent and resourceful foragers, and, as Galway Kinnell reminds us in Saint Francis And The Sow, are also creatures of great beauty. The poem is reprinted here with kind permission of the poet, who can be heard reading it at Imagine Nature, a collection compiled by the American Museum of Natural History.

Saint Francis And The Sow
By Galway Kinnell

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

Note: Galway Kinnell is the author of 11 volumes of poetry, including Strong Is Your Hold (2006); A New Selected Poems (2001) (a finalist for the National Book Award); Imperfect Thirst (1996); The Book of Nightmares (1973), and a children’s book, How the Alligator Missed Breakfast (1982.) Social justice, animals and nature form strong themes in his work. “If you could keep going deeper and deeper,” he has said, “‘you’d finally not be a person … you’d be a blade of grass or ultimately perhaps a stone. And if a stone could read poetry would speak for it.”

For another lovely prose ode to a pig, see The Good Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood, (Ballantine Books, 2006) by Sy Montgomery, whose musings on animals, including tarantulas and sperm whales, have appeared in her many features and reviews for DISCOVER.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Poem of the Week

I Know What I Want for Xmas…

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | November 17, 2006 6:00 pm

It’s hot, it’s hi-tech, and it multitasks: an efficient natural gas heater that also provides electricity. Apparently, it can squeeze 90% efficiency from that fuel, which is about three times as much as you get from electricity over the grid. Is it just me or does that sound really, y’know, amazing?

The problem (or perhaps I should say “obstacle”) is that these micro-CHP systems cost a lot on the front end—”from $13,000 to $20,000, installed… that’s at least $6,000 more than a new high-efficiency hot-air furnace, even after a gas company rebate”—and the payback period (aka breakeven point) can be from 3-7 years. My question is this: Couldn’t the companies selling these things figure out some clever way to finance the heaters by selling them for less up front and then skimming some of the money that people save over their first 3-7 years? It would work essentially as a loan, but if these things really are so efficient, the companies will make their money back.

Time to Harness the Sperm

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | November 14, 2006 6:00 pm

More than four decades after the premier of the birth-control pill, we finally seem to be nearing a way to bridle the sperm cavalry that a pair of testicles produces—that is, the male pill. Scientists are trying to foil spermatogenesis from multiple angles. Some have achieved promising results with Adjudin, a compound derived from an anti-cancer drug, which inhibits sperm maturation. Others have identified a protein found exclusively on the sperm’s whip-like tail. They are searching for a drug that would inhibit that protein, paralyzing sperm so they can’t swim to the egg. And yet other researchers are pursuing the hormonal route, trying to manipulate the male endocrine system, just as today’s birth-control pills manipulate the female endocrine system. But when it comes to developing this type of pill, researchers pussyfoot because toying with hormones usually begets side effects. Giving men extra doses of testosterone, for instance, may block sperm production but also promotes oilier skin, acne, and weight gain, among other things.

Concerns about these effects are appropriate, but we cannot forget that women have borne (so to speak) the side effects of birth control for over 40 years. Today’s pills (which are far milder and safer than the warheads used in previous generations) have been linked to increased risk of breast cancer, cervical cancer, and, among some groups, liver cancer. True, the pill has been shown to reduce rates of ovarian and endometrial cancers, but breast cancer claims far more casualties. And of course there are the less serious, but nonetheless irksome, spin-offs of synthetic hormones: weight gain, acne, and mood swings, just to name a few. It’s simply not fair that women have shouldered this burden alone for four decades.

Nor is it fair to men who stand on the periphery of reproductive control. Leaving birth control primarily in female hands only reinforces the notion that men are mere auxiliary players in procreation. Getting pregnant is the first step in parenting, and control over that first step sets the tone for all stages that follow. Women and men share equally important, albeit different, roles in childrearing, so why should the balance be off-kilter at the get-go? The current mood is that the issue of birth control is a done deal, a chapter already closed by the female pill. Pharmaceutical companies certainly aren’t in a mad scurry to develop a male pill as they prosper from the nearly 12 million American women taking the pill every day. The demand for more equitable birth control options must come from consumers, men and women, who want more equitable reproduction.

Science Poem of the Week (4)

By Josie Glausiusz | November 13, 2006 6:00 pm

“Poetry and science form the basis of my experience,” wrote the Czech poet and immunologist Miroslav Holub (1923-1998.) Probably the only poet who could lay claim to developing a strain of nude mice, Holub studied to be a doctor after the second World War, supporting himself as an editor of a science magazine, Vesmír (The Universe). He published 150 scientific papers and a monograph, “Immunology of Nude Mice,” as well as 14 books of poetry and five books of essays.

Holub’s poem “Brief Reflection on Cats Growing in Trees,” perhaps a sly reflection on the unknown universe beyond our own narrow world, appears in the collection Poems Before & After and is reproduced here with kind permission of Bloodaxe Books. It is, in my opinion, a perfect illustration of the scientific method (as well as a good example of why scientists so frequently disagree about the outcome of an experiment.)

Brief Reflection on Cats Growing in Trees
By Miroslav Holub

When moles still had their annual general meetings
and when they still had better eyesight it befell
that they expressed a wish to discover what was above.

So they elected a commission to ascertain what was above.
The commission dispatched a sharp-sighted fleet-footed
mole. He, having left his native mother earth,
caught sight of a tree with a bird on it.

Thus a theory was put forward that up above
birds grew on trees. However,
some moles thought this was
too simple. So they dispatched another
mole to ascertain if birds did grow on trees.

By then it was evening and on the tree
some cats were mewing. Mewing cats,
the second mole announced, grew on the tree.
Thus an alternative theory emerged about cats.

The two conflicting theories bothered an elderly
neurotic member of the commission. And he
climbed up to see for himself.
By then it was night and all was pitch-black.

Both schools are mistaken, the venerable mole declared.
Birds and cats are optical illusions produced
by the refraction of light. In fact, things above

Were the same as below, only the clay was less dense and
the upper roots of the trees were whispering something,
but only a little.

And that was that.

Ever since the moles have remained below ground:
they do not set up commissions
or presuppose the existence of cats.

Or if so only a little.

(From Poems Before & After, translated by Ian and Jarmila Milner, Ewald Osers, George Theiner, David Young, Dana Habova, Rebekah Bloyd & Miroslav Holub (Bloodaxe Books, 2006.)

Poems Before & After is available for $29.95 from

Note: For more about Miroslav Holub’s life and poetry, see The Complete Review. A fine collection of his essays, Shedding Life: Disease, Politics, and Other Human Conditions was published by Milkweed Editions in 1997. Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Richard Schweder wrote that the essays revealed Holub to be “a wraith of reason deriding all Dark Age flights of fancy,” who was “above and against Marxism, parapsychology, Zen, yoga, animal rights advocates, alternative medicine, Hindu gods, J.R.R. Tolkien, postgraduate mystics, California philosophers and anyone or anything either premodern or postmodern.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Poem of the Week

Election Madness, Part I: Five Bucks on a Change in World History

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | November 7, 2006 6:00 pm

Slate did something that I’ve been meaning to do for weeks: put together a summary of the various electronic markets where people bet money on the outcomes of political races. I find it quite amusing that there are lots of people (hundreds? thousands? I’ve no idea) sitting around in the underwear, in front of their computers, betting good money on the fate of national politics. I imagine that this kind of thing used to happen in back rooms filled with political machers, beefy teamsters, cigar smoke, and plenty of scotch. Now, in messy, exurban bedrooms around the country.

Anyway, go check it now before the election’s over…

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

Rhode Island’s Rumble of Insanity™

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | November 7, 2006 6:00 pm

You may have read DiscoBlog’s earlier post about an incessant rumbling sound driving people crazy in Auckland, New Zealand. Last weekend, 8,959 miles away from New Zealand, I also encountered a mysterious Rumble of Insanity™.

While raking leaves at my sister’s home in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, a neighbor—let’s call him “Ned”—stopped by with a leaf blower. “Can you hear that damn sound?” Ned asked me. A plane began to fly overhead. No, not the plane, he said; it sounds like a plane but you can hear it when there are no planes around. After the plane passed, I heard a rumble that was almost imperceptible—but louder than when I put my ear to, say, a rock.

Confusing legal authority with scientific authority, Ned called the police. They could hear it, too. And that was that—a shrug of the shoulders and everyone was back to blowing leaves and doing other weekendish chores.

No word yet on whether there’s any connection here between the rumbling in RI and NZ. We’ll keep our ears to the ground on this one.

PS: To hear a simulation of the sound, courtesy of The Sydney Morning Herald and Phil Strong, click here. Wear headphones, because most computer speakers can’t produce the sound—and, apparently, some human ears can’t hear it.

Election Madness, Part II: Revenge of the Gerrymander!

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | November 7, 2006 12:00 pm

A couple of years ago, there was a big to-do about Republicans using computer software to very aggressively create the best congressional gerrymanders possible—that is, to stuff most Democrats into just a few congressional seats and thereby dilute their representation. The art of the gerrymander had become an exact science. (Not that the traditionally practiced art was all that ineffective: After Texan Democrats pulled “the shrewdest gerrymander of the 90s,” Republicans took 59% of the 2000 congressional vote but only won 43% of the seats. Which begins to explain why Texan Tom DeLay was so hellbent on shafting Lone Star Dems in the next decade.)

With most people predicting that the Democrats will win back the House today (and the smart money giving the GOP 9-1 odds), I wonder if this exquisite gerrymandering will bite the GOP in the ass. Consider this simplified example:

Say the country is split exactly 50-50 between purple and yellow. The purple team gets to draw the maps, so it makes 1/3 of the districts have 10% purple supporters, 1/3 of the districts have 55% purple, and 1/3 of the districts have 85% purple. So while they receive just 50% of the votes, they get a commanding 67% of the districts. (Time to whip up some amendments!)

But then imagine that purple starts a war that goes sour and they have a few scandals. Support for purple drops 6% across the board, so in the three districts they now have 4%, 49%, and 79% support. Although they get 44% of the votes, they grab only 33% of the districts.

And that’s a risk of gerrymandering: when the tide goes out, it can go way, way out.

(I’m talking, by the way, only about risks as defined by one’s self-interest, not risks to the polity or any high-minded ideals like that. Because really, it’s politics.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

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