Archive for July, 2008

Charged With a Crime? Better Check Your Facebook Pictures

By Melissa Lafsky | July 22, 2008 11:29 am

facebookEarlier this year, the realms of law and new media collided when Lori Drew was hit with federal charges for creating a fake MySpace page and harassing a neighboring teenager, who then committed suicide. In another case of courtrooms v. technology, prosecutors are reportedly searching Facebook and MySpace for photos of defendants to use as character evidence in sentencing hearings.

CNN reports that party photos and pictures of defendants drinking or looking unrepentant have resulted in harsher sentences for people charged in drunk driving accidents, with prosecutors presenting the incriminating pictures as evidence that the defendant lacked remorse.

In one instance, a prosecutor showed the court a Powerpoint presentation of party photos that had been posted on Facebook by a 20-year-old defendant after he nearly killed another driver in a three-car collision. The pictures depicted him at a Halloween party dressed as a prisoner in an orange jumpsuit labeled “Jail Bird.” The judge slammed him with a two-year jail sentence.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in the Courtroom
MORE ABOUT: facebook, technology

The Latest in Illegal Immigrants' Woes: People-Sniffing Robots

By Melissa Lafsky | July 21, 2008 1:02 pm

robotThe U.K. Telegraph reports on a new tech trend in border security: U.K. officials are using robots to search cars, buses, and other vehicles for illegal immigrants attempting to smuggle themselves into the country.

The robot in question, described as being “the size of a briefcase,” has searchlights, high-resolution video cameras, four-wheel-drive, and can also be fitted with heartbeat detectors and sensors to identify smuggled chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials. Border officials have been dispatching it to search the undersides of vehicles and other closed spaces and sniff out anyone hiding inside.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Goes to Washington

The Wind's Picking Up in Texas: State Approves $4.93 Billion for Wind-Power Transmission

By Melissa Lafsky | July 21, 2008 11:22 am

wind turbinesGood news for the already burgeoning Texas wind-power industry: State regulators are funneling nearly $5 billion into creating transmission lines to carry wind electricity from remote parts of the state to cities like Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. According to the New York Times, the new lines will be able to transport 18,500 megawatts of power, enough for “3.7 million homes on a hot day when air-conditioners are running.”

Texas is already the nation’s leader in wind power (with California coming in a distant second) and the state already has 5,300 installed megawatts of wind-generated energy in place. The new project is expected to save customers money on energy costs, not to mention boost the wind industry, which is already well on its way towards becoming a major market player. Now if we could just get those darn tax breaks worked out…

Image: iStockPhoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Energy

Weekly Science & Politics News Roundup

By Melissa Lafsky | July 18, 2008 1:52 pm

• Offshore drilling: The floodgates have been opened, and many are rushing to discredit it before it starts. But will their voices be enough to squelch the demands of angry election-year constituents?

• With all signs pointing to a tanking economy, it’s nice to know that one area can still rake in the dough: The video game industry.

• Will Wikipedia shut the doors on its self-governing open edit system?

• How do scientists love thee, Wall-E? Let us count the ways. Over at Slate, associate editor Daniel Engber scolds the film for its inaccuracies about obesity, while neuroscientist and Frontal Cortex blogger Jonah Lehrer discusses Pixar’s apparent hat-tip to Darwin.

• Still, Pixar may have a point: U.S. obesity levels continue to rise.

• Whither the salmonella-laden tomatoes? The FDA shifts its eye towards peppers.

American Political System Prevents Tyranny But May Prolong Use of Torture

By Melissa Lafsky | July 18, 2008 1:08 pm

Americans love to hail our democratic system as the pinnacle of freedom and justice, the gold standard in the protection of human rights. But according to a new study by FSU political science professor Will Moore, countries with checks and balances systems in place are less likely to outlaw the use of torture.

The reason, Moore explains, is that a multi-faceted system of government makes it inherently more difficult to effect change:

“Checks on executive authorities are viewed as a positive attribute of liberal democracies,” Moore said. “Unfortunately, they are also associated with the continuation of the status quo. So this liberal democratic institution that at first pass one might expect to be positively associated with the termination of the use of torture is actually a hurdle to be overcome.”

After analyzing nine years of data from the CIRI Human Rights Database, which is based on Amnesty International and U.S. State Department reports, Moore found that other “traditionally democratic” aspects of government such as universal suffrage and a right to free speech increased a country’s chances of terminating the use of torture. They also found that 78 percent of the world’s governments used torture at least once during the last 25 years of the 20th century, and those who used it in a given year had a 93 percent chance of using it the next year.

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MORE ABOUT: government, torture

Title IX Hits the Science World, But Will It Do Any Good?

By Melissa Lafsky | July 17, 2008 12:17 pm

female scientistThe New York Times is reporting that the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Department of Energy are invoking Title IX, the anti-discrimination law usually reserved for college athletics, to examine science programs at schools receiving federal money.

Specifically, the feds are sending investigators to take inventories of lab space and interview faculty and students in physics and engineering departments in order to determine whether there are signs of discrimination (an issue we’ve addressed before). The only problem with this tactic: Overt discrimination, the kind that leaves a clear and visible trail, is rarely what’s operating in science departments. Rather, subconscious biases (the power of which we’ve also discussed before) and subtle forces such as a lack of childcare options and flexible maternity leave are more likely to be contributing to the gap.

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MORE ABOUT: government, law, women

Do Americans Expect Their Business Leaders to Be White? Study Says Yes

By Melissa Lafsky | July 16, 2008 6:40 pm

white business manAnyone who’s turned on a TV or read a newspaper lately can’t help but notice that race is currently at the forefront of American politics. But the subtle biases operating in the current debate aren’t always obvious, or even visible on the surface. In one example of how embedded racial biases can play out, researchers at Duke, the University of Toronto, and Northwestern business schools found that Americans still overwhelmingly expect business leaders to be white, and rank white leaders as more effective than their minority counterparts.

The study’s data came from 943 undergraduate and graduate students, nearly all of whom had experience working for a company or corporation. They were given fictitious news reports and performance reviews from a fake company and then asked to guess the race of a set of CEOs, project leaders, and other employees described in the materials.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: The 2008 Election
MORE ABOUT: bias, business, racism

The Meds Made Me Do It! Drug Side Effects Include Gambling, Risky Sex

By Melissa Lafsky | July 16, 2008 12:14 pm

Here’s some news that could put an interesting twist in the gambling addiction/genetics debate (not to mention supply new reasons to sue drug companies): ABC News reports that several of the drugs prescribed for Parkinson’s disease and restless legs syndrome can cause a range of dangerous behavioral side effects including increased drinking, drug use, risky sex, and gambling.

The drugs, which include Mirapex and Requip, are dopamine agonists, which mimic dopamine in the brain to boost the movement and coordination centers—and also stimulate the pleasure response by reinforcing certain behaviors. Unwitting patients who’ve taken the drugs have wound up with costly gambling habits, DUI arrests, and compulsive eating disorders, as well as even stranger effects—one man reportedly plays basketball for up to 36 hours at a time, while another compulsively fishes.

Given that more than 10 million prescriptions have been written for Mirapex alone, it’s not unlikely that we’ll see some serious fallout, be it motorists killed by a drunk driver on the drug, or an STD spike as a result of risky sexual practices (which are already on the rise among seniors, the demographic most likely to be taking meds for Parkinson’s and RLS).

As such, it’s worth it to start asking to what degree patients should be held legally responsible for their actions while taking the drug—and, perhaps even more importantly for lawyers, whether the drug companies can be held at all responsible for all that irresponsible boozing and sex.

MORE ABOUT: drugs, gambling

Legislating Obesity: South L.A. to Ban Fast Food Joints?

By Melissa Lafsky | July 15, 2008 3:23 pm

hamburgerThe era of government regulation on calorie consumption has begun, and nowhere is it playing out more clearly than in California. The state legislature has proposed a trans fat ban in restaurants (a rule that’s already in place in New York City) and now Los Angeles Councilwoman Jan Perry is proposing a moratorium on new fast food restaurants in South L.A. The ban is based on research indicating that 45 percent of the restaurants in South L.A. are of the fast food variety, compared to 16 percent in West L.A.; plus child obesity rates in South L.A. are 29 percent, compared with 23 percent nationwide.

The racial and socioeconomic politics here are obvious—KFC-laden South L.A. is predominantly African American and Latino, while the vegan/organic wonderland of West L.A. is home to a highly affluent (and mostly white) population.

Critics raise the obvious, and valid, point about incentives—rather than punishing restaurants for serving unhealthy food, shouldn’t we be offering economic incentives for health food stores and salad bars to open in South L.A.? Simply keeping a new Burger King out does nothing to provide South L.A. residents with healthier and more nutritious food options. As one busy mother interviewed for the piece said, “There’s never any place you can go over here to buy … organic food. There’s no Trader Joe’s over here.” That pretty much sums it up right there.

Image: iStockPhoto 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Nutrition & Obesity

Want to Send Your Representative a Message? Use Twitter!

By Melissa Lafsky | July 15, 2008 11:58 am

twitterCNN is reporting that, in an effort to foster quicker and easier communication with constituents, members of Congress are turning to Twitter and other message-streaming sites to relay and receive information. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, is reportedly “at the forefront of a new effort to reach constituents” through the sites as part of an effort to “‘shine sunlight in every dark corner of the Congress.'”

Of course, how exactly elected officials plan to use/are using Twitter isn’t made clear—are Congressmen subscribing to voters’ feeds? Tweeting from their cell phones during committee meetings? But use of technology to increase government transparency has become a general theme in this election—though Culberson’s staunch support appears to carry the issue across party lines.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Goes to Washington
MORE ABOUT: technology, Twitter
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