Friday, March 31, 2006
This is an English Garden David Austin English rose.
English roses are by far my favorite type of rose - they have gorgeous, complex blooms and are bred to smell incredibly good; if you've never smelled a Prince rose on a warm, sunny day, you've never really smelled a rose. And, thanks to living in Southern California, I have half a dozen Prince blooms sitting on my dining room table right now.
"Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found."The study under discussion (Benson et al. 2006) is a multi-year, multi-thousand participant study that examined the effect of prayer on patients undergoing heart surgery. The study treats its subject matter with deadly seriousness; I'm not a medical doctor, but from what I can tell the methods in the study were clean, precise, and exactly what I'd look for in any study of a possible medical treatment.
The study included patients who were undergoing coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery. The study's coordinators asked more than 3,000 patients at six different hospitals in the United States to participate, and they ended up with more than 1,800 patients in the study. The patients were randomly divided into three groups:
- Patients who were prayed for, but were told that they "may or may not be prayed for." (Group 1)
- Patients who were not prayed for, but were told that they "may or may not be prayed for." (Group 2)
- Patients who were prayed for, and were told that they "will be prayed for." (Group 3)
The study's methodology had a number of good points:
- Patients were randomly assigned to each treatment group.
- Patients were informed of their treatment group via a sealed letter; hospital staff were not informed of the patient's treatment group, and patients were told not to inform hospital staff of their assigned treatment.
- Data collection and analysis were conducted without knowledge of the treatment group of the patients.
- The treatment groups were sized to be able to statistically detect 10% changes in outcomes between the groups.
- The authors collected a tremendous amount of data about all participants (e.g., age, religion, cardiovascular history statistics, operation time) and showed that "[t]here were no important differences in baseline or operative characteristics across the 3 groups."
- Standard statistical analyses were used to analyze all the data.
- The statistical comparisons to be made appear to have been decided before the study commenced (a procedure that prevents data fishing).
- Comparing the two groups (1 and 2) who were informed they might be prayed for; this tested whether prayer had any effect, since one group was prayed for and one group was not prayed for.
- Comparing the two groups (1 and 3) who were prayed for; this tested whether patient knowledge of prayer had any effect, since one group was certain they'd be prayed for while the other group was not certain.
A modified version of Benson et al.'s (2006) figure 2; their statistical analyses (chi-square tests) are summarized in the figure. The black bars at the top of each bar represent the number of patients who either did not undergo surgery or did not complete the study. [Axis labels were redrawn by me for clarity; everything else is original.]
Here's a quick summary of the results:
- Prayer had no significant effect on the number of patients experiencing complications after surgery (comparing groups 1 and 2, 52% vs. 51% of patients respectively; P=0.67). In other words, prayer did nothing.
- Patients who knew they were being prayed for had significantly more complications after surgery than patients who were prayed for but weren't sure they were being prayed for (comparing groups 1 and 3, 52% vs. 59% of patients respectively; P=0.025). In other words, knowing you were being prayed for appeared to hurt, not help.
The authors did more data analysis than what is summarized above, but everything else follows the same trends identified above.
I am impressed by these authors - they appear to have done a first-class study on a very controversial topic. However, what's distressing is that the study will probably not change anyone's opinion. Those who already believe that prayer is useless didn't need a $2.4 million study to show as much, and those who believe in prayer will probably just rationalize this study away. Examples of this rationalization can be already found in many of the newspaper articles covering this study:
- "Working in a large medical center like Mayo, Mr. Marek [a hospital chaplain] said, 'You hear tons of stories about the power of prayer, and I don't doubt them.'" (NY Times)
- "A person of faith would say that this study is interesting," Mr. Barth [spiritual director of Silent Unity] said, "but we've been praying a long time and we've seen prayer work, we know it works, and the research on prayer and spirituality is just getting started." (NY Times)
- "Dr. David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, said he believes intercessory prayer can influence medical outcomes, but that science is not equipped to explore it. 'Do we control God through prayer? Theologians would say absolutely not. God decides sometimes to intervene, and sometimes not,' he said." (Houston Chronicle)
- "'Maybe the people weren't praying very hard,' Higgins said of the study. 'I have no doubts that intercessory prayer works, (just) not all the time.' Even Christ's prayers in the garden of Gethsemane weren't answered, Higgins said. 'At the end, it's God's will be done. ... I don't know how you can measure those things.'" (St. Petersburg Times)
If there were a good rational basis for why prayer should work (and/or multiple other well-controlled studies showing that prayer did actually help), I could see listening to these critics and attempting to argue that maybe this study wasn't quite perfect and thus we should do more study. However, there is no good evidence that prayer does anything, and not even an evidence-supported mechanism for why prayer should work, so let's just call it a day and focus on remedies that might actually help people.
So, can prayer now be considered an altie treatment?
H Benson, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, Lam P, Bethea CF, Carpenter W, Levitsky S, Hill PC, Clem DW, Jain MK, Drumel D, Kopecky SL, Mueller PS, Marek D, Rollins S, and Hibberd PL. 2006. Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. American Heart Journal 151 (4): 934-942 (abstract)
Thanks to PZ Myers for helping locate the original journal article.
Thursday, March 30, 2006
So, I'm now hunting for a mechanism to organize my posts. As part of a giant list of Blogger hacks, Freshblog has a two post series that discusses three different methods for adding del.icio.us or technorati tags to posts. Rahul Gupta also has a walkthrough on tagging, complete with links to other blogs that have done the same. There's even FreshTags, a site that has code that allows users to navigate tagged posts via the sidebar (though the navigation interface isn't quite as intuitive as many category implementations are).
There are also multiple methods to create categories: netcf2 has a script that uses Blogger Search to create categories, and there's also an independent service, lablr, that is designed to integrate with Blogger templates to add categories. Sambot compares tags and categories, and argues that tags are better than categories; in doing so Sambot summarizes the benefits of each technique.
In the coming days I'll likely be exploring various options for organizing my posts. If anyone has suggestions on how to best implement tags or categories here on Blogger, or has preferences for tags or categories they'd like to see here, I'm all ears!
[Update: I've decided to tag my posts with del.icio.us; I've written more about this here and here.]
The animation runs at ten frames per second - one frame for each day [of the war in Iraq] - and a single black dot indicates the geographic location that a coalition military fatality occurred. Each dot starts as a white flash and a larger red dot which fades to black over the span of 30 frames/days, and then slowly fades to grey over the span of the entire war.This goes well with the Washington Post's Faces of the Fallen project.
Accompanying the visual representation is a soft 'tic' sound for each fatality, the volume of which increases relative to the number of fatalities that occurred simultaneously that day. More deaths in a smaller area produces visually deeper reds and audibly more pronounced 'tic's.
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Confessions of a Community College Dean looks at how community colleges are portrayed in Strapped, a book by Tamara Draut; in doing so the Dean counters some common misconceptions about the role of community colleges in higher education.
PZ Myers wrote an excellent post on the molecular underpinnings of fly eye development.
Deep Sea News summarized the variety of habitat types found in the deep ocean.
Prometheus analyzed how some mail-order labs bias their tests so that they are much more likely to report an abnormally high level of some toxic compound (e.g., urine mercury concentration, which is often used to support alternative-medicine claims that mercury poisoning is causing autism). (Via Orac)
Orac started a new series on his blog called Medicine and Evolution, and as the series' inaugural post he summarized a study that uses an ecological diversity index to predict the likelihood that a non-cancerous condition (Barrett's esophagus) will develop into cancer. Very neat stuff.
UBC Botany Photo of the Day had a picture of Illicium anisatum (Japanese star anise), which is toxic, even though it's a close relative of Illicium verum (the star anise commonly used in cooking). According to the Wikipedia, the two are sometimes confused, leading to unhappy consequences.
And, for a bit of fun, Orac linked to an amazing lego aircraft carrier.
Downtown Baghdad: We took this photo of dowtown Baghdad while we were in Iraq. Iraq (including Baghdad) is much more calm and stable than what many people believe it to be. But, each day the news media finds any violence occurring in the country and screams and shouts about it - in part because many journalists are opposed to the U.S. effort to fight terrorism.There's only one problem: posters on DailyKos have determined that the picture was actually taken in Bakirkoy, a suburb of Istanbul, Turkey. Here's a picture of the same neighborhood taken by Faruk and posted on the wowTurkey.com website:
Photograph of Bakirkoy, Turkey, by Faruk on wowTurkey.com.
(Want more examples of politicians misusing images? Go take a look at a Bret Schundler campaign photo and Bush's plagiarized yakuza ad.)
[Update 7pm: Kaloogian's website has been updated; the picture has been replaced and the caption now reads: "We originally posted a photograph not of Baghdad, Iraq but from Istanbul, Turkey where our delegation traveled on the way home to the United States. We apologize for this mistake. We have corrected it with a photograph we took from Baghdad. We took this photo of downtown Baghdad ..."]
Monday, March 27, 2006
If all you've ever eaten are American-style pilafs ("I cooked my rice with chicken stock; now it's a pilaf"), you're in for a pleasantly flavorful surprise.
2 cups basmati rice
4 cups water
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
24 whole peppercorns
10 whole cloves (or 1/3 teaspoon ground cloves; add ground cloves with the ginger)
4 black cardamom pods (or 8 green cardamom pods)
1 bay leaf
1 3" cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons Kosher salt
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped or grated
1. Rinse the basmati rice repeatedly with water in a large bowl until the water draining off is mostly clear.
2. Drain as much of the rinsing water from the rice as you can, and then add 4 cups of fresh water. Let soak for 30 minutes.
3. Drain the rice, reserving the soaking water (it will be used to cook the rice later).
4. Heat the oil in a nonstick pot over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add all the whole spices (peppercorns, cloves, cardamom pods, bay leaf, and cinnamon stick) and cook, stirring constantly, until they start to brown (~1-2 minutes)
5. Add the rice, and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice turns translucent (~5 minutes; Sahni states the rice should begin to brown, but it never does for us).
6. Add the water, salt, ground cloves (if using), and ginger. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 10 minutes. At the end of this time the water should be mostly absorbed.
7. Turn the heat to the lowest setting possible, raise the pot above the burner (we set it on a wire roasting rack placed over the burner), and let sit, covered, for 10 minutes.
8. Turn off the heat and let sit for 5 minutes.
9. Fluff the rice with a fork, and serve.
You can leave the whole spices in the dish when you serve it, but should probably avoid eating them. This recipe is from Sahni (1980).
Sahni, Julie. 1980. Classic Indian Cooking. William Morrow & Co, NY. pp. 368-369.
Sunday, March 26, 2006
Once Protected by Hussein, Palestinians Suffer Backlash - an article in the New York Times about hate crimes against Palestinians in Iraq:
The bill of death appeared overnight on Thursday, addressed to "the Palestinian traitors," and the killers were specific in their intent.Bound, Blindfolded and Dead: The Face of Atrocity in Baghdad - Another article in the New York Times about the current state of Iraq:
"We warn you that we will eliminate you all if you don't leave the area for good within 10 days," the leaflet said. It was signed by a group calling itself the Judgment Day Battalion, and it was scattered in front of the homes of Palestinians in Al Hurriya, a northern Baghdad neighborhood.
Mohannad al-Azawi had just finished sprinkling food in his bird cages at his pet shop in south Baghdad, when three carloads of gunmen pulled up.Bush shuns Patriot Act requirement:
In front of a crowd, he was grabbed by his shirt and driven off.
Mr. Azawi was among the few Sunni Arabs on the block, and, according to witnesses, when a Shiite friend tried to intervene, a gunman stuck a pistol to his head and said, "You want us to blow your brains out, too?"
Mr. Azawi's body was found the next morning at a sewage treatment plant. A slight man who raised nightingales, he had been hogtied, drilled with power tools and shot.
In the last month, hundreds of men have been kidnapped, tortured and executed in Baghdad. As Iraqi and American leaders struggle to avert a civil war, the bodies keep piling up. The city's homicide rate has tripled from 11 to 33 a day, military officials said.
What frightens Iraqis most about these gangland-style killings is the impunity. According to reports filed by family members and more than a dozen interviews, many men were taken in daylight, in public, with witnesses all around. Few cases, if any, have been investigated.
When President Bush signed the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act this month, he included an addendum saying that he did not feel obliged to obey requirements that he inform Congress about how the FBI was using the act's expanded police powers.Memos Reveal War Crimes Warnings:
Bush signed the bill with fanfare at a White House ceremony March 9, calling it ''a piece of legislation that's vital to win the war on terror and to protect the American people." But after the reporters and guests had left, the White House quietly issued a ''signing statement," an official document in which a president lays out his interpretation of a new law.
In the statement, Bush said that he did not consider himself bound to tell Congress how the Patriot Act powers were being used and that, despite the law's requirements, he could withhold the information if he decided that disclosure would ''impair foreign relations, national security, the deliberative process of the executive, or the performance of the executive's constitutional duties.
The White House's top lawyer warned more than two years ago that U.S. officials could be prosecuted for "war crimes" as a result of new and unorthodox measures used by the Bush administration in the war on terrorism, according to an internal White House memo and interviews with participants in the debate over the issue.Senate hearing set on move to censure Bush - Senator Feingold's resolution to censure President Bush will be the subject of a hearing next Friday in the Senate Judiciary committee.
The concern about possible future prosecution for war crimes—and that it might even apply to Bush adminstration officials themselves— is contained in a crucial portion of an internal January 25, 2002, memo by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales obtained by NEWSWEEK. It urges President George Bush declare the war in Afghanistan, including the detention of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, exempt from the provisions of the Geneva Convention.
In the memo, the White House lawyer focused on a little known 1996 law passed by Congress, known as the War Crimes Act, that banned any Americans from committing war crimes—defined in part as "grave breaches" of the Geneva Conventions. Noting that the law applies to "U.S. officials" and that punishments for violators "include the death penalty," Gonzales told Bush that "it was difficult to predict with confidence" how Justice Department prosecutors might apply the law in the future. This was especially the case given that some of the language in the Geneva Conventions—such as that outlawing "outrages upon personal dignity" and "inhuman treatment" of prisoners—was "undefined."
500,000 protest immigrant legislation:
In a mobilization that far exceeded the expectations of organizers, hundreds of thousands of people rallied in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday to protest legislation in Congress that would tighten enforcement against undocumented immigrants and erect more walls along the southern border.Online sexual material is obscene if any community in US objects:
The proposal that inspired the protests already has passed in the House of Representatives and is expected to be debated by the Senate this week. It includes strict measures that would make it a felony for immigrants to be in the United States without proper documentation, and it imposes criminal penalties on those who employ illegal immigrants. It would also finance the construction of tall fences along roughly one-third of the U.S.-Mexican border to try to stop illegal crossings.
The Supreme Court of the United States has declined to overturn an important case about obscenity and the Internet, leaving anyone who publishes sexual material on the Internet in uncertainty about whether they're open to federal penalties.
At stake is the obscenity section of the Communications Decency Act, which bans publishing "obscene" material on the net. The problem is that US courts use "local standards" to determine whether something is obscene -- so if in the eyes of some local community, the material is obscene, then you can't distribute it there.
By turning down this case, the Supremes have said that the whole country is now subject to the decency standards from its most conservative, anti-sex, anti-nudity corners; that the local standard from that place will become the national standard.
Friday, March 24, 2006
I've loved They Might Be Giants from the moment a college friend and I went to a concert of theirs and got to stand in the front row about 6' away from the band. Thus I was happy to find that they have a song all about mammals (titled, appropriately enough, "Mammal"):
Glass of milkEven if you haven't gotten to go to one of their concerts, how could you not love a band that sings about the high metabolic rates of endotherms?
Standing in between extinction in the cold
and explosive radiating growth
So the warm blood flows
Through the large four-chambered heart
Maintaining the very high metabolism rate they have
Their names are called
They raise a paw
The bat, the cat
Dolphin and dog
Koala bear and hog
One of us might lose his hair
But you're reminded that it once was there
From the embryonic whale to the monkey with no tail
So the warm blood flows
With the red blood cells lacking nuclei
Through the large four-chambered heart
Maintaining the very high metabolism rate they have
Their names are called
They raise a paw
The bat, the cat
Dolphin and dog
Koala bear and hog
Placental the sister of her brother Marsupial
Their cousin called Monotreme
Dead uncle Allotheria
Their names are called
They raise a paw
The bat, the cat
Dolphin and dog
Koala bear and hog
The fox, the ox
Giraffe and shrew
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
To entertain yourselves, go enjoy this real-life version of The Simpsons' opening.
Monday, March 20, 2006
Today's most interesting session was the keynote address by Dr. Walter Bumphus, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. This year's meeting was in fact supposed to be held in New Orleans, but due to hurricane Katrina it was moved to Atlanta.
Dr. Bumphus's excellent lecture focused on how the community college system of Louisiana was affected by the hurricane, and detailed how they've responded to the challenges of rebuilding the affected colleges; it's a massive undertaking. The talk was recorded, so if you get a chance to see it, I'd recommend watching.
Probably the most memorable statement of the entire day was Dr. Bumphus's blunt summary of how much money the federal government has delivered to his system to aid in recovery efforts:
"We've gotten more money from student government associations than we've gotten from the federal government."Shortly later he clarified that while they have received promises of funding,
"To date we've not received one federal penny."Stunning.
[Note: I wrote the quotes down during the meeting as quickly as I could, but they may not be precisely accurate.]
The first real talk I went to was much more interesting; it was presented by Dr. Joseph Opatz, president of Central Lakes College in Minnesota. Prior to being college president, Dr. Opatz served for more than a decade in the state legislature in Minnesota, so he has an interesting perspective on academic politics. Dr. Opatz presented his talk ("Lobbying your legislature: Making your college's case at the capitol") as a practical guide on how community college administrators can (and should) interact with their state legislators so as to benefit their colleges. While he only has experience with Minnesota politics, his ideas almost certainly transfer to most other states.
Dr. Opatz started the talk with a "how much do you know about lobbying" quiz. I failed miserably:
- Name your state legislators, especially the ones that have your college in their district.
- What are some personal details about your legislators (e.g., family details, careers, personal interests)?
- What are the key features of your legislators' districts (especially the political leaning of the district)?
- Name the committees your legislators serve on.
- List the key policy interests of your legislators.
- Name all the legislators that are college alumni, or whose spouses (or children) are students or alumni.
- Name the legislators that sit on higher education committees (and, if possible, list how many of their district members attend your school).
The primary suggestion Dr. Opatz had was to build personal relationships with the legislators that serve your district. Once you've built a relationship, your legislators will at least be familiar with you (and your institution) when bills or other items come up that need attention, and thus they'll be more likely to understand your specific needs and interests.
Obviously Dr. Opatz was not suggesting that college presidents and employees should become best friends with their representatives, but instead they should at least visit them and build professional relationships with them. Simple things like inviting your representatives to campus events, publicly thanking your representatives for their service when you see them attending college events, and visiting the capitol to meet them would all help. However, he also cautioned that you must remember that the legislator is probably exceptionally busy (he mentioned that the Minnesota legislature annually introduces about 3,000 bills), and thus you should never abuse the time you're given.
The presentation was packed with helpful information, and I'm sad to report that Dr. Opatz's slides are not available online. However, here's a short list of some of his suggestions that I was able to write down (keep in mind that this is my interpretation of his talk; Dr. Opatz has clearly not read this post):
- If you do get invited to testify at a committee: talk only for your allotted time, talk with the committee staff beforehand to see what they want you to talk about, and know exactly what you want before you go in (as you may be asked to give feedback on wording changes on the spot).
- If you do visit the capitol, have an "elevator speech" ready about your topic. In one minute you should be able to clearly state your problem, 1-3 facts backing up the problem (ideally with real life stories), and then propose your solution.
- When referring to bills, don't use just the bill number; it's likely that nobody will know what you're talking about.
- Remember to visit the capitol and talk to your legislator even when you don't have any important issues on the table. He reported that he regularly noticed which college presidents attended the higher education committee meetings. He also said that while most education lobbyists are treated as "just another lobbyist", personal visits from students, faculty, and administrators are often given more attention.
- Find opportunities for informal socializing, like inviting the representative to lunch or dinner; he said this is especially worthwhile with legislators whose districts are far from the capitol.
- If a committee or legislator tours you campus: plan their visit to the minute, make sure any local legislators are invited, don't overwhelm them with people, and make the visit fun and worthwhile.
- Legislators often like to give guest lectures and teach courses, especially in areas they're personally interested in; this can be a great way to build relationships and get them more involved with your campus.
- The "biggest mistake" most institutions make regarding bond funding is not having a plan "on the shelf" ready to submit; he recommended that all institutions, even if they have just gotten an item funded by a state bond, develop a plan for what their next highest priority is.
- Most decision making at the legislative level is not decided by the local parties, but instead by the caucuses -- the groups of elected representatives that all share a similar party; caucus politics often differ from those of the caucus's party. Your representative will have to justify your case to their caucus, not their party, so learn about the caucus if you can.
- Don't get involved (as an institution) in campaigns or candidate endorsements, primarily because it's possible the opposing candidate will win.
- Avoid the temptation to mail or e-mail documents and items; they will most likely be thrown away or deleted (especially if they look like a mass communication). If possible, personally deliver items or call to talk about the issue.
Sunday, March 19, 2006
The only other conferences I've attended have been scientific meetings. The typical schedule for a scientific meeting is near-insane: talks and poster sessions usually start at 8am and run until 9pm, there are usually dozens of different talks going on at once, and (except for keynote presentations) talks typically last only about 12 to 15 minutes. The 12-minute talks force the speakers to be extremely concise, and prevents any kind of meaningful question and answer session (as, assuming the session isn't running behind, there are typically only 2-3 minutes for questions).
In Innovations there are talks from 9am to 5pm, but each presenter (or, more often, team of presenters) is given a full hour to speak. This allows enough time for a detailed presentation, often complete with demonstrations, audience participation, and tons of questions (as one might expect when educators plan the schedule). It's very different, and I'm looking forward to it. I'm also looking forward to having the evenings free to digest everything.
Like most meetings, the schedule for Innovations has multiple talks running concurrently. On the flight here I read through the titles of all the talks, and highlighted the ones I was interested in; I don't think there's a single hour-long slot for the entire four days that has fewer than two presentations I want to attend (except for Sunday at 9:15am when there is only one talk). Monday seems particularly jam-packed with interesting presentations: at 11am there are seven talks I'd like to go to, and there are at least five talks I want to go to at each of the later time slots (12:15, 1:30, 3:00, and 4:15). Tonight I've got to read through the abstracts and somehow choose between them all.
But right now I've got to go to my first session of the day!
Saturday, March 18, 2006
Of course the first thing I did when arriving at my hotel was ask about wireless net. The receptionist was pleased to say that they had it in every room, but careful inspection of their brochure revealed a $10 per day charge to use it. On a whim I booted up my laptop in the lobby, and what do you know - there's free net here. And once I found the right chair, there's even free power.
So, now it's time to look for a place for dinner (online, of course).
[Update: I'm attracting laptop users to the lobby - someone just walked up and asked me if there was an outlet here; I let them in on the location of the precious mana.]
Friday, March 17, 2006
Alabama cow tests positive for disease - The possibly infected cow from last week was, on Monday, confirmed to have had mad cow disease.
A cow in Alabama has tested positive for mad cow disease, the Agriculture Department said Monday, confirming the third U.S. case of the brain-wasting ailment. The cow did not enter the food supply for people or animals, officials said. The animal, unable to walk, was killed by a local veterinarian and buried on the farm.Government to Scale Back Mad Cow Testing - In a completely paradoxical move, the day after it was announced that yet another cow in the US had mad cow disease, the government announced that it would reduce the number of cows tested for the disease. One of their rationales? Focus groups determined that people felt beef was safe. We're now doing science by focus group?
The local vet examined the Alabama cow's teeth and said the animal was older, "quite possibly upwards of 10 years of age," Clifford said. Investigators are working to pinpoint the cow's age, he said.
The age of the cow is important because the U.S. put safeguards in place nine years ago to prevent the disease from spreading. The U.S. banned ground-up cattle remains from being added to cattle feed in 1997. Eating contaminated feed is the only way cattle are known to contract the disease.
Despite the confirmation of a third case of mad cow disease, the government intends to scale back testing for the brain-wasting disorder blamed for the deaths of more than 150 people in Europe.ACLU Releases First Concrete Evidence of FBI Spying Based Solely on Groups’ Anti-War Views:
The Agriculture Department boosted its surveillance after finding the first case of mad cow disease in the United States in 2003. About 1,000 tests are run daily, up from about 55 daily in 2003.
Officials haven't finalized new levels, but the department's budget proposal calls for 40,000 tests annually, or about 110 daily.
Consumer groups want every animal to be tested, said Gary Weber, head of regulatory affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association in Denver.
"It's not cost-effective; it's not necessary," Weber said. "The consumers we've done focus groups with are comfortable that this is a very rare disease and we've got safeguards in place."
Two documents released today reveal that the FBI investigated gatherings of the Thomas Merton Center for Peace & Justice just because the organization opposed the war in Iraq. Although previously disclosed documents show that the FBI is retaining files on anti-war groups, these documents are the first to show conclusively that the rationale for FBI targeting is the group's opposition to the war."A Recent Surge In Violence..." - A post on Democratic Underground cataloging how many times since the invasion of Iraq the US government has said that there has been "a recent surge in violence."
The Abu Ghraib files - More Abu Ghraib pictures and videos from Salon.
Although the world is now sadly familiar with images of naked, hooded prisoners in scenes of horrifying humiliation and abuse, this is the first time that the full dossier of the Army's own photographic evidence of the scandal has been made public. Most of the photos have already been seen, but the Army's own analysis of the story behind the photos has never been fully told. It is a shocking, night-by-night record of three months inside Abu Ghraib's notorious cellblock 1A, and it tells the story, in more graphic detail than ever before, of the rampant abuse of prisoners there. The annotated archive also includes new details about the role of the CIA, military intelligence and the CID itself in abuse captured by cameras in the fall of 2003.Third Democratic senator backs censure resolution - One of my state senators has decided to back Feingold's resolution (that I posted about last week) to censure president Bush.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has become the third U.S. senator to back a move to censure President Bush over the warrantless wiretapping program. She joins Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI)Reporters covering anti-IED tech: America's enemies? - BoingBoing refutes the Bush administration's recent argument that the LA Times is "helping the terrorists" by writing about the military.
Schwarzenegger Bond Issue Not on June Ballot - Speaking of the LA Times, it had an article on the first big failure of Gov. Schwarzenegger's ambitious plan to "rebuild California".
Stymied by Republican resistance, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's hope of placing the most comprehensive rebuilding project in California history on the June ballot foundered Wednesday amid recriminations among legislative leaders and the administration.And, in a week where the headlines read things like U.S.-led raid kills civilians in Iraq, U.S. launches largest Iraqi air assault since invasion, and More than 80 dead in apparent reprisals: Bodies found around Baghdad in 30-hour period, we also see this headline: Bush: Iraq turning away from 'the abyss'. Is there some disconnect here?
The California Assembly approved only a $4.1-billion borrowing plan to shore up the state's levees and $19 billion more for school construction. But late Wednesday night, the Senate declined to act on either measure, and the upper house's leaders said further negotiations would have to focus on the November ballot.
GOP legislators, almost all of whom are more conservative than the governor, objected to the idea that the state should go deep into debt to pay for the ambitious building project.
Schwarzenegger proposed a sweeping infrastructure improvement plan in January that involved $68 billion in borrowing. The centerpiece of that proposal was the most popular, according to public opinion polls: a $12-billion investment in upgrading California's highways.
Thursday, March 16, 2006
Luckilly, by the time you read this it should be fixed. Let's just hope it's sooner rather than later.
[Update: Looks like they got it fixed around 11am (after more than 12 hours of downtime).]
Something must be amiss. This just simply isn't possible.
Of course I have plenty of other work to do, and I'll be getting more papers to grade in a few hours, but still ... this is amazing.
Even neater than the picture, though, is the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden's summary of the life history, anatomy, and ecological conditions of four genera in family Aizoaceae that all live in xeric enviornments and have adapted to look like rocks.
The only problem with the UC Berkeley summary is that there are no picutres. So, to help with that, here are links to Google Image searches for most of the listed plants:
Image from UBC Botanical Garden's Botany Photo of the Day Pleiospilos nelii post (Creative Commons licensed)
However, in the unlikely event that I do have some downtime (that I don't want to spend blogging), does anyone have any suggestions for worthwhile things one can do in Atlanta in a few hours in the evening without a car? If it matters, the meeting is being held in the Atlanta Hilton.
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Through appreciation of "insects in art and the art of being an insect", the Pestival aims to create positive PR for this 400-million-year-old, highly evolved taxon that has had thousands of years of bad press.I would so love to go to this! I do have pictures ... too bad it's on the wrong continent.
We are building up a fantastic programme of talks, demonstrations, workshops, art installations, films, music and performance, fusing art and science to reach out to a broad, interested audience of homo sapien adults and children.
The Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons: Medical "science" as dubious as it gets - A reminder from Orac that just because something has the word "journal" in the title, it isn't necessarily a good scientific journal.
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Ubuntu is purported to be very user friendly (see, for instance, 10 Things that make Ubuntu a Neophyte's Distribution); the makers of Ubuntu report that the average user can get it installed in less than 25 minutes, and most items that typically require command-line editing in other Linux distributions have graphical equivalents in Ubuntu. Ubuntu also has a regular release cycle; every 6 months a new stable release comes out that is guaranteed to be easily upgradeable from their last release.
Ubuntu has a Live CD version of their distribution that allows users to run Ubuntu on their computers without installing anything. I tried this out last weekend on my Debian box (which, as regular readers might recall, took me days of fiddling to get running), and the system booted to a functioning Ubuntu system in about a minute. The only configuration I had to do was select the language I wanted to use, my location in the world, and my keyboard type (and every one of those had the proper default set, so all I had to do was hit return). The only problem I encountered was that the system didn't auto-configure my network properly (it acquired an IP address that conflicted with my SO's computer). In Debian I would have had to delve into a terminal window and type lots of magic words to resolve this; in Ubuntu, however, I was able to resolve the conflict in just minutes using their graphical network configuration tools.
While I spent hours trying to get my printer configured in Debian, Ubuntu actually auto-detected the model of my printer for me. Once I went into Ubuntu's graphical printer installation menu and selected the printer model, Ubuntu did all the rest. It took me about 30 seconds to go from starting to configure the printer, to actually printing a test page; it was easier than Windows XP.
Ubuntu has also taken Debian's already super-cool method of getting new programs (apt-get) and made it even easier to use by wrapping it in a graphical interface. All the information you might want is right in front of you (all the programs are categorized by function, and the list of programs is also easily searchable); installing a program is as easy as checking a box. And, did I mention that all the hundreds of programs listed in their menus are all free to install?
Ubuntu also did a lot of other things easily; for instance, adding a new repository (to install non-supported, but still free, programs) involved a couple of simple menu clicks, mapping drives was easily done with an intuitive graphical interface, and a little popup window alerted me that there were some security updates I might want to download (but, unlike Windows, the popup didn't force me to download them).
What was even more amazing was that all of this was happening with absolutely nothing installed on my hard drive; the Live CD runs solely in RAM. This does lead to one problem: since there's nothing installed on the hard drive, there's no way to save all of the changes when the computer is shut down. However, there are reports that when the next version of Ubuntu comes out (in April 2006), Ubuntu will be able to save Live CD session information on a USB thumb drive (or other partitionable disk).
After a few hours of playing with my Ubuntu install (and getting a more functional system than I had after days of installing Debian), I'm highly tempted to switch to Ubuntu. Considering that Microsoft is going to be releasing not one but six new versions of their operating system this year (which I'm sure they'll charge for), I'm extremely tempted to switch my main home computer to Ubuntu as well.
Let's take score:
- Ubuntu: Free (+1), "Ubuntu is, and always will be, 100% free." (+2; from their FAQ), thousands of supported programs installable (and upgradeable) with one very easy-to-use menu (+2), doesn't even need a hard drive to run (+1), configures itself automatically (+1), not used at my workplace (-1), doesn't run Civ IV (-2) = 4
- Windows: Expensive (-2), must pay for additional programs (-2), requires gobs of hard drive space (-1), usually configures itself automatically (+1), used by most everyone else in the world (0), runs Civ IV (+2) = -2
[If you're interested in trying out Ubuntu, download an image of their latest Live CD from this page. Go ahead, give it a try - the most it will cost you is a CDR. Oh, and if you don't want to burn a CD, Ubuntu will even ship you a CD for free. To find other places on the net that discuss Ubuntu, see this post.]
This year they're actually going to mail out badges ahead of time, so there (hopefully) won't be long waits in line to get the badges.
[Update: I guess it would help to include the dates and location: Anime Expo 2006 will be held July 1 to July 4, 2006 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, CA.]
Monday, March 13, 2006
Culex mosquito larvae. Image from PLoS Biology (Gross 2006); Creative Commons licensed.
Go look at the high resolution version - the beasts are beautiful (and don't worry, only the adult females feed on human blood; these guys just feed on algae, bacteria, and organic debris in the water).
The larvae are even neater in real life, as they normally float with the end of their respiratory tubes just touching the surface of the water, but if you place your hand near the water's surface, all the larvae under your hand swim down. They swim back to the surface shortly after the hand is removed. It's strangely addicting to sit near a tank of mosquito larvae and slowly move your hand over the surface of the water; it's almost like watching some grand dance.
Gross L (2006) A New Model for Predicting Outbreaks of West Nile Virus. PLoS Biol 4(4): e101
Sunday, March 12, 2006
One of the neat things about Civilization IV is how flexible the game is. Even how a player wins the game is up to them; players can win by using military might to conquer the other civilizations in the world, by out-performing their competitors scientifically, by having the most cultured civilization, or by playing politics just right and winning a diplomatic victory. [As a side note, I generally try to play so that I don't win militarily, and am proud to say that this afternoon I finally won a cultural victory.]
To make the game even more flexible, the game is coded so that fans can easily modify the game's mechanics. This is called modding, and even though the game has only been released for a few months, sites like CivFanatics have dozens of fan-created mods already available (see the pages on them here). These mods can do everything from changing the way the clock displays to changing the game so that it models WWII.
Since the game is attempting (to some extent) to model history, discussions that occur in the modding forums can often be historically interesting; take, for instance, this discussion on how to better model military technological development in the middle ages. The discussions can also be exceptionally geeky, as with the discussion surrounding a mod that allows players to play as various Star Wars civilizations. The Civ IV Hall of Fame even has its own set of mods approved for use in games players want to submit to the Hall of Fame.
I haven't used any of the mods yet (I'm still thoroughly enjoying the "basic" game), but two that have caught my eye are the logging mod (which allows players to take notes on their games) and the alerts mod (which sends the player messages when important events are happening in each of their cities).
U.S. Expands Training to Address Iraqi Police Woes - An article in the LA Times documenting the lack of planning the US put into training Iraqi police units.
Problems with the fledgling [Iraqi police] force have been exacerbated by a lack of steady oversight, some U.S. officials say. For much of the last three years, U.S. advisors to the police units have been stretched thin as the United States focused on training Iraqi army recruits. That has led to a police force that has access to modern equipment, weapons and vehicles, but no track record of keeping control of its hardware, much less its personnel, the officials say.Senate Votes to Ban Gifts and Meals of Lobbyists:
Despite the planned overhaul, the training programs remain an exercise with extremely high stakes and little certainty of success.
The focus on the Iraqi army meant that while thousands of Iraqi and U.S. soldiers shared space at military bases and conducted joint operations throughout last year, by the end of 2005 there were only 700 U.S. police trainers for an Iraqi police force of more than 100,000.
Trainers now acknowledge that was a mistake that allowed the Interior Ministry forces to grow into an inscrutable bureaucracy of overlapping jurisdictions and tangled lines of authority.
Facing accusations that lawmakers are not serious about breaking the tight bond between Capitol Hill and K Street, the Senate voted Wednesday to bar members of Congress and their aides from accepting gifts and meals from lobbyists.Possible U.S. case of mad cow being investigated:
The meals and gifts ban was part of a broader piece of legislation that includes provisions requiring lawmakers to disclose privately financed trips and that would double, from one year to two, the "cooling-off period" during which lawmakers who leave Capitol Hill for K Street are barred from lobbying their former colleagues.
The measure would also create a mechanism enabling lawmakers to strip so-called earmarks — the special interest projects that are sometimes inserted into bills at the behest of lobbyists — from legislation. And it would require, for the first time, the disclosure of big, paid grass-roots lobbying campaigns aimed at influencing government officials.
A routine test indicated the possible presence of mad cow disease, said John Clifford, the USDA official. The agency would not say where the animal was from.US issues biometric passports despite concerns - (via BoingBoing)
The cow did not enter the human or animal food chain, Clifford said.
The department is conducting more detailed tests at its laboratory in Ames, Iowa, and should have results in four to seven days.
The US has begun issuing passports that contain biometric information stored on remotely readable microchips, in spite of lingering security and privacy concerns.Feingold to Introduce Resolution Censuring the President - In addition to the summary (included below), the press release from Senator Feingold's office also includes a fact-sheet detailing why the president's warrantless wiretapping program is illegal, complete with quotes from Bush (before the program was made public) showing that he was likely misleading the public.
Supporters of the new passports say they enhance border security, reduce the possibility of identity fraud and impose minimal burdens on travellers – all goals the US has been working towards since the September 11 attacks.
But civil liberties and privacy groups are uneasy about the formation of biometric information databases on US citizens and concerned that identity-theft rings, foreign government agents or even terrorist groups could "skim" information from the RFID chips or "eavesdrop" on the communication between official readers and the microchips.
Last month, security concerns about the new passports arose anew after a Dutch television programme detailed how, in July 2005, the Dutch security laboratory Riscure successfully penetrated the encryption scheme planned for use in forthcoming Dutch electronic passports.
U.S. Senator Russ Feingold has announced that he will introduce a resolution in the U.S. Senate on Monday to censure the President of the United States. Feingold’s resolution condemns the President’s actions in authorizing the illegal wiretapping program and then misleading the country about the existence and legality of the program. Feingold calls the resolution an appropriate and responsible step for Congress to take in response to the President’s undermining of the separation of powers and ignoring the rule of law.
"The President must be held accountable for authorizing a program that clearly violates the law and then misleading the country about its existence and its legality," Feingold said. "The President’s actions, as well as his misleading statements to both Congress and the public about the program, demand a serious response. If Congress does not censure the President, we will be tacitly condoning his actions, and undermining both the separation of powers and the rule of law."
Saturday, March 11, 2006
- Spiders of North America: An identification manual - This tremendously cool book contains keys to all the genera of spiders found in the continental US and Canada. This is no wimpy field guide; it's two and a half pounds of technical drawings, precise keys, and cool biology. Using this book one should be able to identify any spider found in North America down to genus. Drool.
- Borror and DeLong's Introduction to the Study of Insects: 7th edition - If it's an insect, it's probably in here; this book has nearly 600 pages dedicated to describing all the orders of insects (including keys to all the families of insects found in the continental US and Canada) . This book is a classic; why I've never gotten around to buying a personal copy of it before baffles me.
- Penny Arcade's Attack of the Bacon Robots - An anthology of Penny Arcade's comics from 1998-2000. I've already sneaked in a bit of time to read this one, and while Gabe's art is very different from his current style, it's still the same hilarious strip. And, unlike many comic anthologies, Tycho has also added commentary on every strip.
- From Eroica with Love vol. 6 - The latest volume of a classic manga that my SO and I have been reading for a while now. (as a side note, these last two were Valentine's Day presents for my SO; I'm such the romantic.)
- Firefly: The Complete Series DVD box set - I'll finally get to watch the series I've heard so much about.
You scored as Moya (Farscape). You are surrounded by muppets. But that is okay because they are your friends and have shown many times that they can be trusted. Now if only you could stop being bothered about wormholes.
Nebuchadnezzar (The Matrix)
Millennium Falcon (Star Wars)
Enterprise D (Star Trek)
Andromeda Ascendant (Andromeda)
Babylon 5 (Babylon 5)
Deep Space Nine (Star Trek)
Galactica (Battlestar: Galactica)
Bebop (Cowboy Bebop)
FBI's X-Files Division (The X-Files)
Your Ultimate Sci-Fi Profile II: which sci-fi crew would you best fit in? (pics)
created with QuizFarm.com
I'm happy to see that I scored high for Serenity, as we just got Firefly's DVD set in the mail. Sadly, I have no idea how well I fit in with the Moya, as I've never watched Farscape (I want to; it's just that their DVDs are too darn expensive).
(via Orac, though PZ also did the survey)
Friday, March 10, 2006
I'm exhausted. It's time to go home and sleep.
Wednesday, March 08, 2006
The Senate Republicans completely capitulated today to the Bush Administration, sacrificing our privacy and scores of personal rights and liberties to provide approval, after the fact, to the Bush warrantless wiretapping program. A group of "moderate" Republicans have joined Senator Dewine of Ohio in support of a bill to allow warrantless wiretapping ...Apparently the Republican bill includes some provisions to strengthen the FISA court, but as Rep. Conyers says:
... if you don't get penalized for ignoring the court in the first place, where's the incentive to now begin obeying the law? This is absolutely disgraceful.Oh, and did anyone mention that the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program is almost certainly illegal?