Archive for January, 2009

One Religion that's Actually Embracing Science: Buddhism

By Melissa Lafsky | January 12, 2009 1:43 pm

Major sectors of Christianity and Islam have made it clear that they’re not going to be best friends with science anytime soon. But at least one of the major religions is extending an olive branch.  New Scientist reports that:

More than 30 Tibetan monks, plus a handful of nuns, will be collaborating with a team from San Francisco’s Exploratorium (“the museum of art, science and human perception”) to build exotic machines to create patterns from sunlight using cardboard, dowels, reflective sheets of mylar and electronic components.

If all goes to plan, the monks will return to their monasteries and start spreading the joys of scientific exploration among other followers of their religion.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science & Religion

Ok, We Admit It: Bush Hits Ocean Conservation Out of the Park

By Melissa Lafsky | January 9, 2009 6:57 pm

We’ve covered (and covered, and covered) the teeming mass of nature-killing vileness that has been Bush’s environmental policy. But we’re more than happy to join the props-giving bandwagon when the outgoing president does something right. And this week, he really nailed it, announcing the establishment of three national monuments in the Pacific Ocean and thereby protecting a massive chunk of marine life from mining, oil exploration, and commercial fishing. Environmental activist George Grattan summed up the enormity of this move as follows:

At a time when the world’s oceans face the very real prospect of an apocalyptic collapse, this development is an unalloyed good for worldwide efforts to bring us back from the brink. The scientific research which will be able to take place in these protected ecosystems may produce the data and solutions we need to keep burgeoning world populations in a more sustainable balance with the oceans’ roles in climate, food supply, and biodiversity. And, as Roosevelt knew and Bush seems to have remembered, there’s an intrinsic value to protecting vast areas of wilderness even if most people never encounter them.

So, kudos, President Bush, truly.

Of course, there’s more to say:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Goes to Washington

Weekly News Roundup: Here's Your Proof of Evolution

By Melissa Lafsky | January 9, 2009 1:19 pm

• Happy Friday! Half the world’s population could face a global-warming-induced food crisis by 2100, according to a new study.

• And then there’s the floods

• Need proof that evolution’s more than just a “theory”? Look no further.

• The fruit flies are back! And this time, it’s not just Palin dissing them.

• “Dear Obama: Please bring me cap and trade legislation this year.” A wish list from environmentalists.

• The U.S. isn’t the only tech sector getting slammed by the downturn.

• And now for a lesson in brutal honesty: How much does racism really bother you?

New Chief Technology Officer Points to a Tech-Friendly White House

By Melissa Lafsky | January 8, 2009 6:48 pm

The tech world is literally (and virtually) beside itself over Obama’s announcement that he plans to appoint the first ever chief technology officer to oversee the full-fledged technologization (not actually a word, but it should be) of his administration. Today, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and entrepreneur Andrea Weckerle took to CNN to extol the president-elect’s decision and offer their advice for the fledgling CTO. Among their more interesting suggestions:

Ruthlessly modernize: Examine the technology used within the federal system and determine what is outdated, redundant and inadequate, then keep what works and expel what doesn’t. Examine procurement polices and demand they are in line with best practices. The results of this endeavor alone will save the federal government massive amounts of money…

Create openness of information: This will serve two important functions, namely allowing people to see what the government is doing, thus fostering accountability born of transparency, and also providing access to data that will inevitably inspire and support innovation and collaboration within the private sector. In this realm, the old adage from the free software movement of “release early, release often” is quite helpful…

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The Science of Detecting Torture

By Melissa Lafsky | January 8, 2009 3:30 pm

The torture debate in the U.S. has highlighted a key paradox in American ideology: We value human rights, but we also fear outside threats, enough that we’re willing to put the rights issue aside when we want to wring truth out of a suspected Al Qaeda operative.

But what about the medical side of torture? Search magazine has a fascinating article on how doctors are specializing in torture detection, and researching how torture affects the body and mind. Specifically, writer Jina Moore profiles Rajeev Bais and Lars Beattie, two doctors at the Libertas Human Rights Clinic in Queens who provide medical affidavits for U.S. asylum-seekers who claim they were tortured in their home countries.

These affidavits hold a ton of weight with judges, and play a key role in determining whether or not asylum is granted. The reason is that Bai and Beattie can tell with relative certainty if an applicant is telling the truth about being tortured, first by interviewing and observing him, and then doing a physical exam to look for corroborating evidence—in effect, using the patient’s body to check out his story.

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MORE ABOUT: torture, war

The Anti-Vax Apocalypse Will Be Televised: Measles Spike in Europe

By Melissa Lafsky | January 7, 2009 5:35 pm

How many times do we have to say it? At least once more, apparently: The anti-vaxer movement is wrong, it’s dangerous, and it’s having major effects on public health. Like this one: More than 12,000 cases of measles, around four-fifths of which were in unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated children, surfaced in Europe in the two-year period from 2006 through 2007, with an additional 6,000 infections reported in the first three quarters of 2008.

These results come from a study published in the upcoming issue of The Lancet, and were written up by Mark Muscat of Copenhagen’s Statens Serum Institut. The study includes data from 32 countries, though 85 percent of the cases were in Romania, Germany, the U.K., Switzerland, and Italy—all of which have vaccination rates below 90 percent, well below the World Health Organization’s 95 percent recommendation.

So here it is, a highly-contagious and also highly-preventable disease making its way into children because their parents saw some study or read some pamphlet filled with inaccurate and scientifically disproved information.

To make matters worse, there’s also the class problem that anti-vaxers are causing:

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MORE ABOUT: autism, children, vaccines

Bad Idea of the Day: Creating "Virtual Parents" for Kids of U.S. Troops

By Melissa Lafsky | January 7, 2009 12:24 pm

baby at computerThe Department of Defense has apparently grown a conscience. After nearly six years of deploying troops to Iraq, many of them parents, the DOD is acknowledging that kids are spending years without a mother or father around. And, given that mental health issues are already taking a severe toll on Iraq vets, putting stress on marriages and disrupting lives, it’s only logical that children are getting caught in the crossfire, so to speak.

So, rather than oh, say, ban repeated deployments or lift stop-loss orders, the government has decided to nip the absent-parent problem in the bud by creating… computerized parents. According to a proposal solicitation (via InformationWeek) on the Department of Defense Small Business Innovation Web site, the DOD is looking for a “highly interactive PC- or Web-based application to allow family members to verbally interact with ‘virtual’ renditions of deployed Service Members.”(Insert “Hello, DAD”—”Hello, Little Dave” joke here.)

The proposal outlines the idea as follows:

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MORE ABOUT: Iraq, military

Could Steve Jobs's Illness Really Be Just a "Hormonal Imbalance"?

By Melissa Lafsky | January 6, 2009 1:39 pm

Steve Jobs looks terrible. He has for months. After losing a reported 30 pounds last year, the Apple CEO has been the subject of constant scrutiny concerning his health, sparking media coverage that’s bordered on the morbid—including a mistaken obituary and a false report that he’d had a heart attack

The speculation reached a frenzy when Jobs announced he wouldn’t give the keynote speech at this month’s Macworld Expo. While Apple originally denied that the cancellation was due to their CEO’s poor health, they later conceded that Jobs had pulled out because he was ill. Exactly what this illness could be, however, remains the subject of mass conjecture.

In August 2004, Jobs announced he had had surgery to remove an islet cell tumor in his pancreas—a form of cancer that’s far rarer and less deadly than regular pancreatic cancer. It was later reported that he’d delayed the surgery 9 months after his diagnosis in order to pursue holistic treatments—a dangerous move that likely gave his doctors, and Apple’s board members, at least one ulcer apiece.

According to the New York Times, Jobs underwent another surgical procedure in 2008, the “details of which remain unclear.” Off the record, Jobs told Times reporter Joe Nocera that the CEO’s health problems “weren’t life-threatening, and he doesn’t have a recurrence of cancer.”

Still, Jobs’s current illness has reached a point where no one—not even the notoriously secretive Apple and its even more secretive CEO—can deny it.

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MORE ABOUT: Apple, medicine, steve jobs

Don't Mess With Guyana: President Sics Police on Facebook Impersonator

By Melissa Lafsky | January 5, 2009 6:33 pm

facebookRight now on Facebook, you can find around 20 Britney Spears’, at least 6 George Bushes, a Barack Obama (which is legit!) and a couple Elvises. But you won’t find a profile for Bharrat Jagdeo, the president of Guyana. Why not? Because after learning that an impersonator had created a profile claiming to be him, Jagdeo, the president of the South American nation since 1999, threw a veritable hissy fit, calling the Guyana police in to track down the page’s creator.

Considering that Jagdeo’s phony profile attracted around 170 supporters before it was pulled, and that the page contained no mocking comments, revealing personal information, or doctored photos (the tenets of celebrity impersonations on the Internet), Jagdeo might have even taken the impersonation as a compliment—imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and all.

But not so.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Goes to Washington

Bye Bye Freebies! Drug Companies Ax Free Goodies to Doctors

By Melissa Lafsky | January 5, 2009 1:16 pm

We’re back from a brief holiday hiatus, just in time for some heartening news to kick off 2009: As of Jan. 1, the Big Pharma companies have all agreed to stop producing and issuing the gobs of free loot—everything from pens to mugs to flashlights to T-shirts—they’ve been passing out to doctors for years.

Critics poo poo the measure as little more than lip service, a PR move that doesn’t address the far bigger issue: that the drug industry and medicine are hopelessly financially intertwined. (Want proof? Exhibits A, B, and C.) Doctors, meanwhile, brush off the idea that logo-ed pens and Post-Its could alter their prescribing habits.

Still, there’s plenty to be said for the influence of everyday objects, not to mention the power of advertising. Surround yourself with enough Burger King merchandise, and you’d be amazed at how often you start craving Whoppers. Wouldn’t the same principle apply when it comes to physicians and drugs?

(Full disclosure: RB is the child of two doctors, and our childhood desk was filled to overflowing with pens, paperweights, magnets, notepads, and countless other booty emblazoned with words like Diflucan, Avandia, and Provigil. We never went to med school, but we’d probably prescribe Lipitor simply because of their awesome mousepads.)

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