Archive for December, 2008

Weekly News Roundup: 'Twas the Night Before Jan. 20

By Melissa Lafsky | December 19, 2008 2:46 pm

• Where have we seen this before? A President’s Guide to Science, in video form.

• A holy union of incentives and science: A car key that disables cell phones when the car is in use.

• Will the hordes of laid-off techies be driven to crime?

• All this carbon offsetting and greening is nice and all, but the elephant in the room is still coal.

• Any chemists want to weigh in on what type of drugs can be manufactured at home?

• When Madoff strikes, no sustainable food business is safe.

• And finally, the perfect Christmas medley: electronics meets art meets taut consumerist criticism.

MORE ABOUT: crime, drugs, greed, technology

Is Nothing Sacred? Nobel Prize Engulfed in Drug Company Scandal

By Melissa Lafsky | December 19, 2008 12:20 pm

Welcome to today’s heaping dose of cynicism, to start off the weekend right: Scandal has hit none other than the Nobel Prize, after it was revealed that a member of the Nobel selection committee also sat on the board of AstraZeneca, a pharmaceuticals juggernaut that will benefit from this year’s award for medicine.

The 2008 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine went to three people this year, Luc Montagnier and his (ahem, female) partner Françoise Barre-Sinoussi for discovering HIV, and Harald zur Hausen for his work on the human papilloma virus (HPV) and its link to cervical cancer.

Wouldn’t you know it, AstraZeneca just happens to have a big fat stake in two lucrative HPV vaccines.

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The Biotech Bailout: A Good Idea?

By Melissa Lafsky | December 18, 2008 6:10 pm

Car companies are doing it, banks are doing it, and magazines may (ahem) soon be doing it—bailouts are all the rage these days. Which makes it less surprising that the biotech industry is getting in on the action. Lobbyists for the biotech industry are pushing Washington to pass a law granting biotech companies that are currently hemorrhaging money (a.k.a. nearly all of them) a chance to get cash now in exchange for not taking tax credits in the future should they become profitable.

According to the New York Times, the proposed bill:

could enable the industry to receive potentially hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, on the condition that the money would be used for research and development.

The effort comes as many smaller biotechnology companies, particularly those trying to develop drugs, are facing a severe cash shortage that is forcing them to dismiss workers, curtail research and even file for bankruptcy protection or liquidation.

In fact, it’s so bad that BIO, the main lobbyist for the industry, is saying that a quarter of the 370 publicly traded U.S. biotech companies have less than six months of cash on hand.

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And Obama's Science Adviser Is…John Holdren

By Melissa Lafsky | December 18, 2008 2:36 pm

John HoldrenPhysicists, rejoice! (Even more!)

Science magazine is reporting that Obama has chosen to nominate physicist John Holdren as his science adviser. The well-credentialed and -bearded Holdren is currently a professor of environmental policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, as well as the director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. A top adviser to Obama’s campaign and world renowned expert on climate change, energy policy, and nuclear proliferation, Holdren is the second physicist to join the president-elect’s team, following Nobel Laureate Stephen Chu’s appointment as Secretary of Energy.

Cosmic Variance: Steven Chu Nominated to be Secretary of Energy

Image: AAAS

The "Dirty War Index" Shrinks Human Atrocities Into Useful Data

By Melissa Lafsky | December 17, 2008 7:21 pm

What’s worse, the genocide in Darfur or the horrors of North Korean prison camps? While the question may seem a bit like comparing global warming and the financial crisis, it can be useful to evaluate and compare all the awful things humans are doing to each other around the globe.

And in order to create an effective comparison, you need a set of objective data that can be analyzed to evaluate wars and even give direction for intervention and deterrence. While throwing around numbers like “45,000 Iraqi civilians killed” can be useful for nabbing attention, it typically does little for inspiring solutions.

With this idea in mind, Madelyn Hsiao-Rei Hicks of King’s College in London and Michael Spagat of Royal Holloway College in Egham, UK, have created a “Dirty War Index” that quantifies all of the various atrocities we commit—such as rape, civilian murder, or torture—and labels them as a proportion of the total number of incidents reported. For example, the DWI of civilian casualties would be “the number of civilian deaths divided by the overall number of mortalities in the conflict, both civilian and combatant, multiplied by 100.”

While turning carnage, beatings, and other horrors into data might sound callous, it can have major benefits as far as finding solutions in war-torn areas, says University of Toronto biostatistics professor Nathan Taback:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in Wartime
MORE ABOUT: data, human rights, war

Bush Interior Department Official to Endangered Species: $#% You!

By Melissa Lafsky | December 16, 2008 5:17 pm

January 20 can’t come soon enough, but first let the crimes of the Bush administration be released and judged. Today’s chopping block head is Julie MacDonald, a former high-ranking official in the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service. According to a newly-released report from Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney, MacDonald successfully “tainted nearly every decision made on the protection of endangered species over five years” and even exceeded expectations by “exert[ing] improper political interference on many more rulings than previously thought.”

MacDonald’s priority, according to the report, was not so much the well-being of hurting species, but rather a particular political agenda (hmm, perhaps we see a pattern?) that led her to push through a host of rulings axing greater protection for endangered species. Seven of them were (thankfully) reversed by the department, but Devaney’s report found an additional 13 decisions that MacDonald skewed to fit her agenda, and two more that she “indirectly affected.”

MacDonald, a civil engineer with a master’s degree in management, resigned from her post in May of 2007 amid accusations that she’d “violated the Endangered Species Act, censored science and mistreated staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

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Insert "Superpoke" Pun Here: Facebook Used to Serve Court Documents

By Melissa Lafsky | December 16, 2008 1:18 pm

We’re all for the continued intersection of law and technology, but this is getting a little nuts: A court in Australia has ruled that a lawyer can serve legally binding documents to a couple via Facebook.

Lawyer Mark McCormack tried several times through home visits and email to serve process on a man and a woman who had defaulted on their home loan. Eventually, he looked up their profiles on Facebook, and sent them the lien notice as an attachment via the social networking site.

Granted, by the time McCormack got the documents approved by the court, the couple’s profiles had been removed from public view. Still, the ruling, coming out of no less than the Australian Capital Territory Supreme Court, effectively sets precedent for the practice of using Facebook as a binding legal tool. If that trend heads across the ocean, Lord help us all.

RB: Charged With a Crime? Better Check Your Facebook Pictures
RB: Obama Would Win Easily…If the Election Were a Web Poll
RB: How Down With Technology Are Each of the Candidates?

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

Making War with YouTube: The Technology Battle in Sri Lanka

By Melissa Lafsky | December 15, 2008 6:28 pm

In the wake of near-daily scandals involving billions of dollars, it can be easy to lose sight of the rampant unrest in the rest of the world—including Sri Lanka, the small Asian nation that has been fighting a lengthy civil war. The conflict is between the government and a group of insurgents known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and while the violence has been ongoing and tragic, the fascinating aspect is how both sides are using technology to spin their actions, gain public support, and put down the other side.

Brian Calvert at World Politics Review, who is doing an investigative series on the country’s unique technological warfare, reports that releasing YouTube videos depicting things like suicide bombers has become standard practice for both parties. The government even has a headquarters for its information campaign, called the Media Center for National Security, which was established in 2006 to “disseminate accurate defense-related news within short as possible time, to both local and international media, and then at the same time to counter the LTTE propaganda.”

The insurgents, meanwhile, have formed their own technological strategy, described as follows:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in Wartime
MORE ABOUT: sri lanka, terrorism, war

What, Me? Steal? The Psychology of Bernie Madoff

By Melissa Lafsky | December 15, 2008 4:32 pm

In case you haven’t picked up a newspaper in the past few days—or if you have, but the number of huge scandals has grown too big to digest in one sitting—a certain elite hedge fund manager by the name of Bernie Madoff has been accused of running a Ponzi scheme that defrauded hordes of the world’s most elite investors out of a possible $50 billion. The level and depth of fraud, as well as the amount of money involved, could make this the single biggest scandal in financial history.

So what path of psychology could possess someone to steal so much, so blithely and brazenly, for so long? How can white-collar criminals, who typically lack the sociopathic personality that accompanies more violent crimes, lie so much and so well to the point where reality (and astronomical sums of money) are lost?

Lauren Cox at ABC News spoke to one such (reformed) white-collar criminal to find out. Barry Minkow, who spent seven years in federal prison for a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme (which, by comparison, looks like pennies next to Madoff), had the following insight about the psychology that lies behind this level of ongoing criminal activity:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Goes to Washington
MORE ABOUT: criminals, greed, money, power

Weekly News Roundup: Who Says We Can't All Take Drugs?

By Melissa Lafsky | December 12, 2008 3:33 pm

• Don’t have ADD, or any conceivable medical need for prescription drugs like Ritalin? Take ’em anyway, says a group of experts. Granted, whether the people who do need them really need them is still up for discussion.

• Next in this week’s “just what the health care system needs” news: Special guns for the elderly may be classified as medical tools.

• Ask Obama! The transition team launches a new site to take your questions for the president-elect.

• Muslim countries are charging into the evolution/creationism debate. May they approach and handle the topic with the same sanity, respect, and rationality as their Western counterparts.

• Christmas, green-style: solar gingerbread houses!

• And finally, the best global warming protest we’ve seen yet.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Climate Change, Health Care
MORE ABOUT: christmas, guns, obama
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