Sunday, April 30, 2006


Pesto is probably one of the simplest pasta sauces. All you need to do is throw some basil, pine nuts, garlic, cheese, and oil into a food processor, turn it on, and voila, you've got pesto ready to serve. It doesn't even need cooking. Even though pesto is easy to make, it's still very flavorful - the spiciness of the basil combines with the sharpness of the garlic and the savoriness of the cheese to make a delicious whole. So, if you're looking for a quick and easy pasta sauce that isn't tomato-based yet is full of flavor, this may be what you're looking for. Since we just made some for breakfast today, it's this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

As a side note, basil can sometimes be expensive to purchase in bulk at the store. However, it's relatively easy to grow, and basil plants often produce copious crops of leaves; I grow basil in my garden every summer (though, sadly, caterpillars and/or desiccation often get to the basil before I do).

3 cups fresh basil leaves, loosely packed (~4oz)
3 medium garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup pine nuts
3/4 cup finely grated pecorino Romano (or parmesan) cheese
2/3 cups extra-virgin olive oil

1. Rinse the basil and pick off any bad spots. I remove any thick stems, but keep the petioles and small stems.
2. Add the basil, garlic, pine nuts, and cheese to a food processor (or blender). Process until it turns into a thick paste, scraping down the sides as necessary.
3. With the food processor (or blender) on, slowly pour in the oil.
4. If you're not going to be adding salty components to the pesto (e.g., grating cheese over pesto-covered pasta), add salt to taste.
5. The sauce is ready to serve; we often serve it immediately over freshly cooked pasta.

Notes (including a pasta recipe):

To serve with pasta, put freshly cooked pasta into a large bowl, add enough pesto to coat the pasta, and mix thoroughly. How much pesto you add is up to you; we find that adding about a cup of pesto to a pound of dry pasta, cooked, is a good starting point. We often bring a small container of pesto to the table so we can add additional pesto if we so desire.

Pesto oxidizes quickly when exposed to air (turning a dark green color); store in a sealed container in the fridge to slow this process. Mix before using. The oxidation doesn't really affect the flavor, though, so don't worry too much about this.

According to Joy of Cooking, pesto can be served with pasta that has been cooked with green beans and potatoes. Here's a quick recipe for that (feel free to add more green beans and potatoes than we add):

1 pound dry pasta (e.g., linguini)
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup chopped green beans (we use frozen)
1 medium potato, washed and sliced into ~3/16-inch-thick slices (waxy potatoes are preferable)

1. Fill a large pot with enough water to cover the pasta (at least 6 quarts), and bring to a boil.
2. Once the water is boiling, add the salt, pasta, green beans, and potato slices.
3. Cook for the recommended time on the package, testing the pasta regularly (by tasting it). Do not remove the pasta until it is al dente (just slightly chewy inside); depending on the brand, your pasta may be al dente before, at, or after the recommended cooking time on the package. Don't cook pasta solely by the time printed on the package. Drain the pasta when cooked.
4. Put the drained pasta and vegetables into a large bowl, add about a cup of the pesto, and mix thoroughly (I use two forks to do this).
5. Serve with additional grated cheese and extra pesto on the table.

This recipe is slightly modified from Rombauer et al. (1997).

Rombauer, I. S., M. R. Becker, and E. Becker. 1997. Joy of Cooking. Scribner, NY.

Colbert at the Press Corps

Stephen Colbert (host of The Colbert Report) did a hilariously scathing bit at the recent White House Press Corps dinner. A transcript is here, and what appears to be a partially cut-off video (missing the beginning) is here.
[A]s excited as I am to be here with the president, I am appalled to be surrounded by the liberal media that is destroying America, with the exception of Fox News. Fox News gives you both sides of every story, the President's side and the Vice President's side.

But the rest of you, what are you thinking, reporting on N.S.A. wiretapping or secret prisons in Eastern Europe? Those things are secret for a very important reason, they're superdepressing. And if that's your goal, well, misery accomplished. Over the last five years you people were so good over tax cuts, W.M.D. intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.

But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works. The President makes decisions, he's the decider. The Press Secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know, fiction.
There's much more; watch it. (via BoingBoing)

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Political News of the Week, take 11

[See also: political news of the week takes 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Mick beats George to suite (via PZ Myers):
PRESIDENT George Bush can’t get no satisfaction — after Mick Jagger grabbed his hotel room.

The Rolling Stone splashed out £3,600 a night for the suite days before the US leader tried to book it.

Now Mick, 62, who has been a fierce critic of the Bush-led war in Iraq, is refusing to give it up.
U.S. to Free 141 Terror Suspects:
The Pentagon plans to release nearly a third of those held at the prison for terrorism suspects here because they pose no threat to U.S. security, an official of the war crimes tribunal said Monday.

Charges are pending against about two dozen of the remaining prisoners, the chief prosecutor said. But he left unclear why the rest face neither imminent freedom nor a day in court after as many as four years in custody.

Only 10 of the roughly 490 alleged "enemy combatants" currently detained at the facility have been charged; none has been charged with a capital offense.
U.S. Says It Fears Detainee Abuse in Repatriation:
A long-running effort by the Bush administration to send home many of the terror suspects held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has been stymied in part because of concern among United States officials that the prisoners may not be treated humanely by their own governments, officials said.

Administration officials have said they hope eventually to transfer or release many of the roughly 490 suspects now held at Guantánamo. As of February, military officials said, the Pentagon was ready to repatriate more than 150 of the detainees once arrangements could be made with their home countries.


But Washington's insistence on humane treatment for the detainees in their native countries comes after years in which Guantánamo has been assailed as a symbol of American abuse and hypocrisy — a fact not lost on the governments with which the United States is now negotiating.

"It is kind of ironic that the U.S. government is placing conditions on other countries that it would not follow itself in Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib," said a Middle Eastern diplomat from one of the countries involved in the talks. He asked not to be named to avoid criticizing the United States in the name of his government.
Rebuilding of Iraqi Pipeline as Disaster Waiting to Happen:
When Robert Sanders was sent by the Army to inspect the construction work an American company was doing on the banks of the Tigris River, 130 miles north of Baghdad, he expected to see workers drilling holes beneath the riverbed to restore a crucial set of large oil pipelines, which had been bombed during the invasion of Iraq.What he found instead that day in July 2004 looked like some gargantuan heart-bypass operation gone nightmarishly bad. A crew had bulldozed a 300-foot-long trench along a giant drill bit in their desperate attempt to yank it loose from the riverbed. A supervisor later told him that the project's crews knew that drilling the holes was not possible, but that they had been instructed by the company in charge of the project to continue anyway.

A few weeks later, after the project had burned up all of the $75.7 million allocated to it, the work came to a halt.


Although the failures of that effort are routinely attributed to insurgent attacks, an examination of this project shows that troubled decision-making and execution have played equally important roles.

The Fatah project went ahead despite warnings from experts that it could not succeed because the underground terrain was shattered and unstable.

It continued chewing up astonishing amounts of cash when the predicted problems bogged the work down, with a contract that allowed crews to charge as much as $100,000 a day as they waited on standby.


An independent United States office, The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, began an investigation of the project and issued a report earlier this year. It sharply criticized KBR for not relaying the problems, and concluded that "the geological complexities that caused the project to fail were not only foreseeable but predicted."

The company received a slap on the wrist when it got only about 4 percent of its potential bonus fees on the job order that contained the contract; there was no other financial penalty.
Contractor's Plans Lie Among Ruins of Iraq:
Parsons Corp., the Pasadena engineering firm that won one of the largest rebuilding contracts in postwar Iraq, fell dramatically short of a number of goals, according to interviews and documents that cite shoddy work and negligent government oversight.

The firm was to have rebuilt Iraq's health and security infrastructure. However, an audit and interviews show it will finish only 20 of 150 planned health clinics, and nearly $70 million of medical equipment meant for the clinics sits unused.

Additionally, as few as 12 of 20 hospitals planned to be refurbished will be completed. Some border forts built by the company lack walls, and some fire stations may be structurally unsound.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to properly monitor Parsons' performance, stonewalled investigative efforts and exercised "poor cost controls" as Parsons spent $186 million on a contract to build the health clinics, according to a draft copy of an audit obtained by The Times. About $60 million of that was spent by Parsons on management and administration.
Long-Delayed Story on Pre-War Intel Still Important - A post on The Huffington Post by Robert Scheer:
Confession time: In fall 2004, during a crucial presidential election campaign, I made the mistake of playing by corporate media rules that amount to self-censorship.

Specifically, I joined other journalists in denying the public the right to learn of a definitive investigative report by CBS' 60 Minutes on President Bush's disregard for the truth concerning the weapons of mass destruction threat allegedly posed to the United States by Iraq. Having received an advance copy of the devastating segment, I honored CBS' proprietary request not to write about the news it carried until after it aired.

Only, it never aired. CBS got cold feet, probably because of Dan Rather's troubles over an unrelated story critical of the president. The suppressed story was solidly reported and, by exposing the Bush administration's utter disregard for the truth concerning Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, should have been made available to the public before the November election. Now, no one seems to care.


Perhaps most damning is an interview, added for the broadcast version, with Tyler Drumheller, a CIA veteran of 26-years' service who was the agency's top spy in Europe until his retirement a year ago. According to him, before the war Hussein's foreign minister had been "turned" and was talking secretly to U.S. intelligence. At first excited by this rare inside look at Hussein's regime, the top dogs at the White House dropped the issue like a hot rock as soon as his information contradicted their overheated rationale for "pre-emptive" war. "The policy was set," Drumheller told CBS correspondent Ed Bradley. "The war in Iraq was coming. And they were looking for intelligence to fit into the policy, to justify the policy."
EU: 1,000 CIA flights since 2001:
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has conducted more than 1,000 secret flights over European territory since 2001, some to transfer terror suspects, European Parliament investigators said Wednesday.

Lawmakers investigating alleged illegal CIA activities in Europe also said incidents when terror suspects secretly were handed over to U.S. agents did not appear to be isolated.

They said the suspects often were transported around Europe on the same planes -- by agents whose names repeatedly came up in the investigation -- which suggested a pattern of operations.
Rove Appears Before Grand Jury in Leak Case Again:
White House political advisor Karl Rove today went to a courthouse where he testified for the fifth time before a federal grand jury investigating his role in the CIA leak case.


Rove has been under scrutiny over whether he promptly disclosed to investigators and the grand jury conversations he had with journalists about CIA officer Valerie Plame, whose identity was leaked to the media in the summer of 2003. It is a crime to disclose the identity of a covert CIA agent.

Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is believed to be considering perjury or obstruction charges against Rove or charges that he offered misstatements to investigators.
Loss of Competition Is Seen in Health Insurance Industry:
Federal investigators have found that a handful of companies account for a growing share of the health insurance policies sold to small businesses in most states, leaving consumers with fewer options and higher costs.

The Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, said that the largest insurer had 43 percent of the market for small group coverage in a typical state, up from 33 percent in 2002. In nine states, the largest carrier — a Blue Cross and Blue Shield company — has more than 50 percent.

Small businesses and doctors also report a steep decline in competition in health insurance markets, a problem Congress is trying to address.


The Census Bureau estimates 45.8 million Americans have no health insurance. More than half of uninsured workers are self-employed or working in businesses with 50 or fewer employees.

In a study of 294 metropolitan areas, the American Medical Association found a "remarkable reduction in the number of competing health plans." In 95 percent of those regions, a single insurer had at least 30 percent of the market, and in 56 percent of the areas, a single insurer had a share of 50 percent or more.
Senators to push for $100 gas rebate checks:
Most American taxpayers would get $100 rebate checks to offset the pain of higher pump prices for gasoline, under an amendment Senate Republicans hope to bring to a vote soon.

However, the GOP energy package may face tough sledding because it also includes a controversial proposal to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil exploration, which most Democrats and some moderate Republicans oppose.


As outlined by Frist and other GOP senators, the energy package would give taxpayers a $100 rebate, repeal tax incentives for oil companies and allow the Federal Trade Commission to prosecute retailers unlawfully inflating the price of gasoline.

The measure would also give the Transportation Department authority to issue fuel efficiency standards for passenger vehicles, expand tax incentives for the use of hybrid vehicles and push for more research into alternative fuels and expansion of existing oil refineries.

Well, that's a coincidence

On Wednesday I watched Safety Last!, a 1923 silent movie featuring Harold Lloyd. It was the first silent movie I'd ever watched in its entirety. Then, today, I opened my mailbox to discover that the cover picture for this week's Science News is a classic shot from the movie. Wacky.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Safety Last!

Today has been an interesting day. It started off with teaching lab, continued with traveling to a local university campus (where I was reminded how much I miss having regular access to online journal articles; I spent nearly two hours in their library saving dozens of PDFs for later reading), transitioned to writing the formal proposal to teach my course online, and finished with my SO and I watching a silent movie. It was the first one we'd ever seen in its entirety.

The movie was Safety Last! (IMDB page, Ebert's review; caution - both links contain major spoilers without warning), a 1923 comedy starring Harold Lloyd as a harried department store salesman running from one crisis to the next. We didn't plan to watch the movie, but my SO spotted it on TV, and we became intrigued trying to figure out if it was a fake old movie or a real old movie (the picture seemed too crisp for it to be original; turns out it was a recent restoration). After a few minutes we were hooked.

The pacing was very different from modern films; plot developments (such as they were) came slowly, and events that would have been 15-second clips in a modern film took several minutes (though they were generally funny minutes). All the actors were extremely good at physically expressing emotions; we could often figure out what people were saying even if there was no speech card.

While I enjoyed the comedy (I'm not much of a comedy watcher, so don't know what comedy genre this fits in), I also enjoyed what Ebert calls the documentary factor of silent films:
In a way that later films could never duplicate, silent films, especially comedies, have a documentary level beneath their fictions: They're often shot on real locations and use the locations, and the backgrounds are often unrehearsed and real. Into this actual universe steps a character who for reasons of his own will do extraordinary things.
I might just have to watch more of these.

Oh yes, and I now must go out and buy a hat. All those 1920's guys looked darn stylish.

A few good links

A post by Pharyngula on fetal pain.

A post by Orac on physicians seduced by "intelligent design" creationism.

An article in Forbes by PZ Myers on remaking humanity.

A post by Orac containing links to all his posts on "Holocaust, Holocaust denial, and anti-Semitism."

Regular video updates from the currently-ongoing deep-sea Submarine Ring of Fire 2006 expedition (via Deep Sea News).

Monday, April 24, 2006

Gender bias in Evolution

A post by Evolgen examines why Teri Markow resigned as president of the Society for the Study of Evolution. It appears that Teri felt that "women were not adequately considered for the editorship of its journal, Evolution." I've worked with Teri: she's extremely dedicated, hard-working, and forthright; I have no doubt that if she felt something was amiss, it probably was.

For more on gender issues in modern science, see PZ's great post "The cost of being a woman in science".

Designing an online course - an open question

Last Friday I posted that I was working on a proposal to teach my majors' biology course online. I'm still in the initial design phase, and the course won't be run online for at least a year, but I've already identified one key question I need to answer: how much of the course should be run online?

Right now the course is a combination lecture and lab course that's taught entirely on campus; it has one large lecture section and multiple lab sections. The lecture meets twice a week, and then the students divide up into smaller lab sections that meet separately. I have no plans to change the labs - they will remain completely in-person (at least for now).

I can, however, see two possible ways to redesign the lecture:
  • Run the lecture portion of the course entirely online; the only time students would spend on campus is in the lab.
  • Run the lecture as a hybrid; I'd introduce much of the lecture content through online activities, but then have a weekly meeting (say once a week) on campus to highlight and discuss topics in a more traditional manner.
I can see benefits to both styles. If I ran the lecture entirely online, I could probably give the students much more feedback (via interactive activities) on their progress than I ever could in an in-person environment, and I'd have more freedom to use nontraditional techniques (e.g., getting the students using discussion boards, creating websites, doing online research, or blogging). And, even if the lecture was run entirely online, the students would still have time to interact with instructors in lab if they were confused about lecture content.

On the other hand, I can see how having a weekly meeting on campus could be helpful. I could spend a few minutes highlighting key points, and then spend most of the time doing in-class activities (e.g., discussions, problem sets). Heck, the in-class time could even be a straight lecture, if that was the best way to help students learn the material. I'm a bit concerned, however, that doing a hybrid might minimize the effectiveness of the online components of the course (e.g., students might come to rely on the in-class material to the exclusion of online material), and that discussions might end up focusing on only the questions of a few students, thus using time inefficiently.

Unfortunately, thanks to the school bureaucracy, I need to make this decision by the end of the week. So, if anyone has any suggestions or thoughts, I'd love to hear them.

[Update May 1: The proposal is in; see this post for more.]

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Political news of the week, take 10

[See also: political news of the week takes 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Ending Jam, Iraq Fills Government Posts:
Breaking months of political paralysis, Parliament installed the cornerstones of Iraq's first permanent post-invasion government on Saturday, approving a president, a speaker and their deputies, and formally giving the Shiite prime minister nominee the task of forming a cabinet.

Under the Constitution, the prime minister nominee, Jawad al-Maliki, has 30 days to complete the government, a duty that Iraqi and American officials have said will be crucial to restoring confidence in the public leadership and ending the raging sectarian violence that has brought this country to the brink of civil war.

"We are going to form a family that will not be based on sectarian or ethnic backgrounds," he said at a news conference on Saturday.


Violence around the country underscored some of the challenges the new government will face.

Four American soldiers were killed Saturday when a homemade bomb detonated next to their vehicle during a combat patrol south of Baghdad, the American military command said. A fifth American soldier died in a separate attack south of Baghdad, the military said.

An improvised bomb exploded in a marketplace in Miqdadiya, north of Baghdad, setting a shop on fire, according to the police. When firefighters arrived at the site, the police said, another bomb exploded, killing a firefighter and a civilian and wounding 15 civilians.
List of Guantanamo detainee names released - The US has finally released the names and nationalities of all those held at the Guantanamo Bay prison:
In all, 558 people were named in the list provided by the Pentagon in response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit by The Associated Press. They were among the first swept up in the U.S. global war on terrorism for suspected links to al Qaeda or the Taliban.

Those named are from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and 39 other countries. Many have been held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay for more than four years. Only a handful have faced formal charges.


The combatant status hearings at Guantanamo Bay were held from July 2004 to January 2005 after the Supreme Court ruled that the detainees had the right to contest their status before a judge or other neutral decision-maker.

All detainees at the prison during that period had such a hearing. Of the 558 detainees who received one, the panels classified 38 as "no longer enemy combatants," and the military later approved the transfer of 28 of those detainees from Guantanamo. A military spokesman said he had no information about the other 10.


"Lawyers have been asking for this stuff for 2 1/2 years," he [Mark Denbeaux, a law professor at Seton Hall University] said.
American Pleads Guilty as Iraq Corruption Inquiry Expands:
The American businessman at the center of a widening corruption inquiry in Iraq pleaded guilty on Tuesday to federal charges of conspiracy, bribery and money laundering for illegally obtaining millions of dollars of construction contracts at the heart of the American-led rebuilding program in 2003 and 2004.

The court papers describing the plea agreement, motions filed by the legal team representing the businessman, Philip H. Bloom, 66, and interviews with contractors and government officials in Iraq make it clear that the case is certain to expand. The court papers, focusing narrowly on Mr. Bloom's contracting work in the south-central Iraqi city of Hilla, indicate that at least three more senior Army Reserve officers are likely to be implicated.


In the guilty plea on Tuesday, Mr. Bloom admitted showering Mr. Stein [a former American government official in Iraq] and other officials with more than $4 million in bribes, gifts and stolen cash in return for steering huge reconstruction contracts to Mr. Bloom's companies. Mr. Bloom moved much of the money through wire transfers from banks in Romania, where he lived for many years, Switzerland and the Middle East to accounts controlled by his co-conspirators, the court papers say.
Prewar Intelligence Ignored, Former C.I.A. Official Says:
A former top official of the Central Intelligence Agency has accused the Bush administration of ignoring intelligence assessments about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programs in the months leading up to the Iraq war.

Tyler Drumheller, the former head of the C.I.A.'s European operations, is the second C.I.A. veteran in recent weeks to attack the White House's handling of prewar intelligence. The criticism comes as the administration is already facing complaints from retired generals who have criticized the decision to go to war in Iraq and charged that civilian policy makers at the Pentagon ignored the advice of uniformed officers.

In an interview on the CBS News television program "60 Minutes" that will be broadcast Sunday evening, Mr. Drumheller said that White House officials had repeatedly ignored the intelligence community's assessments about the state of Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.
Iran-Contra Figure the New Bush Iranian Intelligence Asset? - A post by Rep. Conyers:
Larisa at Raw Story is reporting that the Vice-President's office and the Department of Defense has been working with Manucher Ghorbanifar during its recent increased interest in Iran. For those of you that don't remember Ghorbanifar, he was the Iranian arms dealer and central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal through whom the Reagan White House armed the Contra militias in El Salvador in direct violation of Congress and federal law.

The CIA has issued a "burn notice" on Ghorbanifar meaning he is not to be trusted and shouldn't be considered a source for intelligence. However, Raw Story reports that Cheney and DoD are operating beyond the agency, having already placed the arms dealer on payroll and using him as an intelligence asset to monitor U.S. diplomatic efforts in Iran. Knight-Ridder reports that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra and the second-ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee Curt Weldon met secretly with one of Ghorbanifar's associates in Paris last week.
Groups question US plan to detain sick travelers:
Infectious disease experts and the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns on Friday about an agreement that would allow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and customs agents to detain anyone who looked sick with bird flu.


"I was absolutely astonished when I saw that proposed federal regulation," Henderson said in an interview.

"It's so silly," added Henderson, who now works at the Baltimore-based Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Henderson noted that people can be infectious with influenza and other diseases long before they begin to feel sick or show any symptoms.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Proposing an online course

I just posted that I'm swamped with work, so thought I'd share one of the things I'm working on.

Probably the most exciting thing on my desk is a proposal to turn my majors' biology course into a hybrid online course. My plan is to teach the lecture online (maybe with a single meeting in-person each week as a discussion section), while teaching the lab entirely in-person. My motivation for this comes partially from the Innovations meeting (tag: Innovations), where I met a lot of faculty who adamantly felt that online education was better than in-person (they were very convincing). I'm also slowly realizing that, while I enjoy lecturing, most of the time I'm just rattling off information that could easily be posted online. I even have a suspicion that teaching the information online might be more effective than lecturing on it.

I at least want to give running my course online a shot, but I can't even try unless this proposal gets approved (and even then I won't be able to teach the course entirely online for at least a year). And, of course, the proposal is due within the week.


There are still five weeks to go in the semester, but I'm already exhausted. The past few weeks have been draining - just about every day has been a minimum of 9 hours, with many 12-hour days scattered in for fun. This past week was particularly bad, and unfortunately this weekend I'll be running field labs on both days.

Hang up and drive!

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has just released the results of a year-long study (press release, full report PDF) aimed at quantifying the behaviors that lead to traffic accidents.
The 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study tracked the behavior of the drivers of 100 vehicles equipped with video and sensor devices for more than one year. During that time, the vehicles were driven nearly 2,000,000 miles, yielding 42,300 hours of data. The 241 drivers of the vehicles were involved in 82 crashes, 761 near crashes, and 8,295 critical incidents.
The study results seem to conclusively show that most accidents are, in fact, preventable:
Nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involved some form of driver inattention within three seconds before the event. Primary causes of driver inattention are distracting activities, such as cell phone use, and drowsiness.
The report goes on to detail the effect of various types of distractions on the risk of crashes; cell phones were, of course, very distracting:
The most common distraction for drivers is the use of cell phones. However, the number of crashes and near-crashes attributable to dialing is nearly identical to the number associated with talking or listening. Dialing is more dangerous but occurs less often than talking or listening.
Factors other than cell phone usage also increased driver risk, incluing:
  • Drowsiness is a significant problem that increases a driver’s risk of a crash or near-crash by at least a factor of four. But drowsy driving may be significantly under-reported in police crash investigations.
  • Reaching for a moving object increased the risk of a crash or near-crash by 9 times; looking at an external object by 3.7 times; reading by 3 times; applying makeup by 3 times; dialing a hand-held device (typically a cell phone) by almost 3 times; and talking or listening on a hand-held device by 1.3 times.
  • Drivers who engage frequently in distracting activities are more likely to be involved in an inattention-related crash or near-crash. However, drivers are often unable to predict when it is safe to look away from the road to multi-task because the situation can change abruptly leaving the driver no time to react even when looking away from the forward roadway for only a brief time.
So, as the title says, hang up and drive. It might just save your life.


National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. April 2006. The Impact of Driver Inattention On Near-Crash/Crash Risk: An Analysis Using the 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study Data. DOT HS 810 594. (press release, full PDF)

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Photos for the gardener

I know I've got some gardeners as readers, so here's a link for them: UBC Botany Photo of the Day has some great pictures of fields of Hyacinthus and Narcissus. The linked page also discusses competition in the modern flower-production industry.

The Iraq Index

The Brookings Institution has a treasure-trove of statistical data regarding Iraq; it's called the Iraq Index. The 50-page document collates data from a wide variety of sources, and presents it without interpretation. It seems like a good, non-biased source of information on the state of affairs in Iraq.

I found the index a few weeks ago, and was hoping to find time to delve through the data to find some really interesting statistics to share, but there's no way I'm going to have time for that in the foreseeable future (two hiring committees and a huge pile of papers to grade will do that). So, I leave it up to you to find your own statistics.

Forensic entomology talk in San Bernardino

David Van Norman, Supervising Deputy Coroner Investigator for the San Bernardino County Sheriff Department, Coroner Division, will be giving a talk on forensic entomology next Wednesday (April 26) at 7:30PM. The talk will be at the San Bernardino County Museum in Redlands, CA; admission is free. The museum has a flier (pdf) available that has more information. I don't know much about the speaker; he isn't a diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Entomology (list here), but it also seems very difficult to become a diplomate (there are only 11 in the US), so that's not saying much. If I have time, I'm hoping to go.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Switching to Google Calendar

For the past few years I've been using Outlook (at work) to keep track of my calendar. I find that if I don't put an appointment into Outlook as soon as I schedule it, I'm highly likely to forget it.

However, I've been slowly growing frustrated with Outlook. I can log into my work e-mail from off campus and view my calendar remotely, but the calendar is extremely cumbersome when used via the web interface. Since I track both work and personal events on my calendar, it's annoying that the best place to access my calendar is at work. One theoretical benefit of hosting my calendar at work is that it's possible for me to share it with colleagues (e.g., to make scheduling meetings easier), but no-one has ever taken advantage of that ability.

Enter Google Calendar; it was just announced to the public a few days ago, and I already like it. It's got the classic Google intuitive interface, has multiple options to send reminders about upcoming appointments, lets me specify which other users can view (and edit) my calendar (so I can share it with my SO), and has a built-in invitation manager to handle RSVPs and the like. It's little things like being able to change the length of an appointment with one click and drag (rather than having to open up the full event window), getting e-mailed a daily agenda every day at 5am, and being able to display multiple people's calendars simultaneously, that make me like this application. And, of course, it's free to use; if you already have a Google account you don't need to sign up for anything new.

Because I only had a few dozen events upcoming in Outlook, switching was relatively easy - I just re-typed everything in from scratch (which was quick thanks to Google's great interface). However, for those with busier calendars, Google has the ability to import calendars from other programs (including Outlook).

My sole gripe is that the notification feature needs a little work. Right now the popup notification only works when I have a web browser open to the calendar page; it'd be nice if it interacted with the Google Talk application so I'd get reminders even if I didn't have a web browser open. Making things a bit worse, the popup notification also has a habit of grabbing the focus of the web browser, switching me away from whatever page I'm working on. The program also doesn't have any options to snooze an alert, a feature I use regularly in Outlook (e.g., if I want to be reminded the day before a meeting, and also five minutes before it). However, I expect that they'll improve this over time, and everything else works great.

If you want to learn more, this blog has a good review, though I'd suggest just trying it out. It's very easy to use.

Monday, April 17, 2006


Jambalaya is a hearty southern (Cajun / Creole) dish of rice cooked with meats, vegetables, and spices. Recipes for jambalaya are highly varied; the Wikipedia has a summary of the dish.

What follows is an old Radagast family recipe (translate: my mom found it somewhere and made it frequently when I was a child; the original source has been lost). I make no claims that this is anything close to a traditional Creole or Cajun jambalaya; I only claim that it is absolutely delicious. We cooked this two weeks ago, but due to working on taxes last weekend I never got a chance to post it; thus, it's this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

While this recipe may seem long, it is actually easy to make. The primary work is chopping the meat and vegetables and then doing the initial cooking; after that it just simmers for an hour and needs very little tending.

1 to 1 1/2 pounds meat (kielbasa and ham are traditional for us, but see below for more ideas), cut into bite-sized (~1/2- to 1-inch) pieces
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (less if using meat that will release fat)
4 medium onions, coarsely chopped
2 bell peppers, seeded and coarsely chopped
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped or pressed with a garlic press
1 (29 oz) can whole peeled tomatoes, chopped
3 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
scant 1/2 teaspoon cayenne (or to taste)
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper (or to taste)
2 cups white rice (we use jasmine, but most types will work)
1/2 cup chopped scallions (~1/2 bunch)

0) Have all the vegetables and meats chopped (and otherwise prepared) before beginning to cook.
1) Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed nonstick pot over medium-high heat.
2) Add the meat and cook, stirring frequently, until browned (if using shrimp or some other fast-cooking meat, add it after any other meats).
3) Add the chopped onions and bell peppers and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables have softened (~5 minutes).
4) Add the garlic and cook another minute, stirring frequently.
5) Add the tomatoes and cook another 2 minutes.
6) Add the chicken stock and spices (bay leaves, chili powder, cayenne, thyme, cloves, allspice, salt, and pepper), stir to mix, and let simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
7) Add the rice, stir to mix, bring to a boil, and cook for 2 minutes.
8) Reduce the heat to low (or whatever heat you normally cook rice over) and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.
9) Remove the lid and stir, checking the moisture level. If the jambalaya is dry, add more liquid. Re-cover the pot and simmer for another 15 minutes.
10) Mix in the scallions and cook, uncovered, for another 5 minutes.


This recipe makes enough to serve four easily; it reheats excellently and makes for great lunches at work (that will have your coworkers insisting you tell them what you're eating). There are many possible meat choices, including andouille or kielbasa sausage, ham, chicken, and shrimp (though usually not all at once). We typically use about a pound of kielbasa sausage, though if we have ham available, we'll mix ham and kielbasa. Use whatever meats appeal to you.

Jambalaya is typically made with celery (in addition to bell peppers and onions), though since my SO doesn't like celery we've removed it from this recipe. The original Radagast family recipe calls for 2 chopped celery ribs and only 1 bell pepper; the celery is cooked with the other vegetables.

Probably the biggest problem you might encounter is the rice burning on the bottom of the pot while it cooks; I've found that this can happen if I use a thin-bottomed pot over too-high heat. If you find that the rice has burned (e.g., after the first 15 minutes of cooking), transfer the unburned jambalaya to a new pot and continue cooking - it should turn out fine. However, in the future you might want to use a different pot or lower heat during the simmering.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


Lots of carnivals up this week, as always:

Political news of the week, take 9b - Iran special edition

[See also: political news of the week takes 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

The Iran Plans: Would President Bush go to war to stop Tehran from getting the bomb? - An article by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker that started many discussions about Bush's policy towards Iran.
The Bush Administration, while publicly advocating diplomacy in order to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack. Current and former American military and intelligence officials said that Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups. The officials say that President Bush is determined to deny the Iranian regime the opportunity to begin a pilot program, planned for this spring, to enrich uranium.


There is a growing conviction among members of the United States military, and in the international community, that President Bush’s ultimate goal in the nuclear confrontation with Iran is regime change. Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has challenged the reality of the Holocaust and said that Israel must be “wiped off the map.” Bush and others in the White House view him as a potential Adolf Hitler, a former senior intelligence official said. “That’s the name they’re using. They say, ‘Will Iran get a strategic weapon and threaten another world war?’ ”

A government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon said that Bush was “absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb” if it is not stopped. He said that the President believes that he must do “what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do,” and “that saving Iran is going to be his legacy.”


One of the military’s initial option plans, as presented to the White House by the Pentagon this winter, calls for the use of a bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon, such as the B61-11, against underground nuclear sites.
U.S. Is Studying Military Strike Options on Iran:
Preparations for confrontation with Iran underscore how the issue has vaulted to the front of President Bush's agenda even as he struggles with a relentless war in next-door Iraq. Bush views Tehran as a serious menace that must be dealt with before his presidency ends, aides said, and the White House, in its new National Security Strategy, last month labeled Iran the most serious challenge to the United States posed by any country.

Many military officers and specialists, however, view the saber rattling with alarm. A strike at Iran, they warn, would at best just delay its nuclear program by a few years but could inflame international opinion against the United States, particularly in the Muslim world and especially within Iran, while making U.S. troops in Iraq targets for retaliation.
We are children of the Cold War, and we learned nothing - An opinion piece by PZ Myers responding to the two articles above.

Bush: Talk of Iran attack 'wild speculation':
Bush addressed the issue [of his administration planning to attack Iran with nuclear weapons] during comments at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.


"... We hear in Washington, you know, 'prevention means force.' It doesn't mean force necessarily. In this case, it means diplomacy.

"And by the way, I read the articles in the newspapers this weekend. It was just wild speculation, by the way. What you're reading is wild speculation. Which is, kind of a -- you know, happens quite frequently here in the nation's capital."

Earlier Monday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan used the same term as president to describe a New Yorker magazine article that said the White House has considered striking underground nuclear sites in Iran.


McClellan called Hersh's article "hyped-up reporting based on anonymous" former officials outside the White House who are not familiar with the administration's thinking on Iran.

When pressed on whether the Bush administration has left nuclear strikes on the table as an option, McClellan declined to confirm or deny the essence of the New Yorker report.
Rumsfeld: Iran attack talk in 'fantasy land':
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday he would not engage in "fantasy land" speculation about a possible U.S. attack on Iran, though he said the Bush administration is concerned about Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

"The United States of America is on a diplomatic track," Rumsfeld said.
U.S. intelligence agencies say Iran is years away from building nukes:
U.S. intelligence agencies say Iran is several years away from being able to produce enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon, the nation's chief intelligence analyst said Thursday.

The nation's 16 intelligence agencies haven't changed their view of Iran's capability, said Thomas Fingar, chairman of the National Intelligence Council.

That's despite Iran's announcement Tuesday that it had mastered the ability to enrich uranium for a civilian nuclear reactor, raising the possibility it could make a bomb.

"Our timeline hasn't changed," said Fingar, a top analyst for intelligence chief John Negroponte.


White House spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush was skeptical about a peaceful resolution to the standoff with Iran, "given the regime's history."
Bombs That Would Backfire - An editorial in the New York Times by Richard Clarke and Steven Simon that looks at why the US decided not to bomb Iran in the 1990s, and draws parallels to today's conflict:
So how would bombing Iran serve American interests? In over a decade of looking at the question, no one has ever been able to provide a persuasive answer. The president assures us he will seek a diplomatic solution to the Iranian crisis. And there is a role for threats of force to back up diplomacy and help concentrate the minds of our allies. But the current level of activity in the Pentagon suggests more than just standard contingency planning or tactical saber-rattling.

The parallels to the run-up to to war with Iraq are all too striking: remember that in May 2002 President Bush declared that there was "no war plan on my desk" despite having actually spent months working on detailed plans for the Iraq invasion. Congress did not ask the hard questions then. It must not permit the administration to launch another war whose outcome cannot be known, or worse, known all too well.
Talking Sense On Iran - A Nation blog post by John Nichols (sent to me by my dad - thanks!) about a congressman with a very level-headed view of the situation in Iran:
What will the U.S. do about Iran? Sanction? Bomb? Invade?

How about... nothing.

That's right, nothing.

So suggests a Republican member [Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas] of the U.S. House who has been sounding the alarm in Congress about the rush to act against what he dismisses as nothing more than "the next neocon target."

... [what follows are excerpts from a speech Rep. Paul gave to the House last week.]

Iran does not have a nuclear weapon and there's no evidence that she is working on one -- only conjecture.

If Iran had a nuclear weapon, why would this be different from Pakistan, India, and North Korea having one? Why does Iran have less right to a defensive weapon than these other countries?

If Iran had a nuclear weapon, the odds of her initiating an attack against anybody-- which would guarantee her own annihilation-- are zero. And the same goes for the possibility she would place weapons in the hands of a non-state terrorist group.


There's been a lot of misinformation regarding Iran's nuclear program. This distortion of the truth has been used to pump up emotions in Congress to pass resolutions condemning her and promoting UN sanctions.

IAEA Director General Mohamed El Baradi has never reported any evidence of 'undeclared' sources or special nuclear material in Iran, or any diversion of nuclear material.

We demand that Iran prove it is not in violation of nuclear agreements, which is asking them impossibly to prove a negative. El Baradi states Iran is in compliance with the nuclear NPT required IAEA safeguard agreement.


Anti-Iran voices, beating the drums of confrontation, distort the agreement made in Paris and the desire of Iran to restart the enrichment process. Their suspension of the enrichment process was voluntary, and not a legal obligation. Iran has an absolute right under the NPT (nuclear proliferation treaty) to develop and use nuclear power for peaceful purposes, and this is now said to be an egregious violation of the NPT. It's the U.S. and her allies that are distorting and violating the NPT. Likewise our provision of nuclear materials to India is a clear violation of the NPT.

Political news of the week, take 9a - non-Iran news

[See also: political news of the week takes 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

U.S. Study Paints Somber Portrait of Iraqi Discord:
An internal staff report by the United States Embassy and the military command in Baghdad provides a sobering province-by-province snapshot of Iraq's political, economic and security situation, rating the overall stability of 6 of the 18 provinces "serious" and one "critical." The report is a counterpoint to some recent upbeat public statements by top American politicians and military officials.

The report, 10 pages of briefing points titled "Provincial Stability Assessment," underscores the shift in the nature of the Iraq war three years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Warnings of sectarian and ethnic frictions are raised in many regions, even in those provinces generally described as nonviolent by American officials.

There are alerts about the growing power of Iranian-backed religious Shiite parties, several of which the United States helped put into power, and rival militias in the south. The authors also point to the Arab-Kurdish fault line in the north as a major concern, with the two ethnicities vying for power in Mosul, where violence is rampant, and Kirkuk, whose oil fields are critical for jump-starting economic growth in Iraq.

The patterns of discord mapped by the report confirm that ethnic and religious schisms have become entrenched across much of the country, even as monthly American fatalities have fallen. Those indications, taken with recent reports of mass migrations from mixed Sunni-Shiite areas, show that Iraq is undergoing a de facto partitioning along ethnic and sectarian lines, with clashes — sometimes political, sometimes violent — taking place in those mixed areas where different groups meet.
The full government report is worth reading.

In Attics and Rubble, More Bodies and Questions - A New York Times article about the continuing recovery efforts in New Orleans.
The bodies of storm victims are still being discovered in New Orleans — in March alone there were nine, along with one skull. Skeletonized or half-eaten by animals, with leathery, hardened skin or missing limbs, the bodies are lodged in piles of rubble, dangling from rafters or lying face down, arms outstretched on parlor floors. Many of them, like Ms. Blanchard, were overlooked in initial searches.


In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, there were grotesque images of bodies left in plain sight. Officials in Louisiana recovered more than 1,200 bodies, but the process, hamstrung by money shortages and red tape, never really ended.


In October and November, the special operations team of the New Orleans Fire Department searched the Lower Ninth Ward for remains until they ran out of overtime money.

Half a dozen officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency rebuffed requests to pay the bill, said Chief Steve Glynn, the team commander. When reporters inquired, FEMA officials said the required paperwork had not been filed.

During that period, if someone called to ask that a specific location be checked for a body, Chief Glynn said, there was no one to send. The Blanchards were not the only family left to find a loved one on their own.
$13,700 an Hour - An opinion piece in The Nation citing data about the relative wages of various workers:
Last Sunday, the New York Times reported that--for the first time--a full-time worker earning minimum wage cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in America at market rates.


[A] full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $10,500 annually, while [Representative Sherrod Brown said that] "last year the CEO of Wal-Mart earned $3,500 an hour. The CEO of Halliburton earned about $8,300 an hour. And the CEO of ExxonMobil earned about $13,700 an hour."
How Piracy Opens Doors for Windows:
Microsoft Corp. estimates it lost about $14 billion last year to software piracy — and those may prove to be the most lucrative sales never made.

Although the world's largest software maker spends millions of dollars annually to combat illegal copying and distribution of its products, critics allege — and Microsoft acknowledges — that piracy sometimes helps the company establish itself in emerging markets and fend off threats from free open-source programs.


Of course, Microsoft executives prefer that people buy, but theft can build market share more quickly, as company co-founder and Chairman Bill Gates acknowledged in an unguarded moment in 1998.

"Although about 3 million computers get sold every year in China, people don't pay for the software. Someday they will, though," Gates told an audience at the University of Washington. "And as long as they're going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They'll get sort of addicted, and then we'll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade."
AOL won't deliver emails that criticize AOL:
Opponents of AOL's proposed email tax -- which will charge $0.025 to "guarantee delivery" of email to AOL customers -- are being censored by AOL, which is blocking emails containing the URL, an activist site for people who want to petition AOL to reconsider its actions.
Update: AOL stopped blocking e-mails linking to the site shortly after the EFF did a press release on the topic.

Gov. Backs Greenhouse Gas Strategy: An LA Times article about California Governor Schwarzenegger announcing his backing for a plan to reduce greenhouse gasses.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will announce today his support for a strategy to combat global warming that has drawn criticism from Republicans and business leaders, aides said Monday.

The market-based approach would include controversial "cap-and-trade" requirements mandating greenhouse gas producers who exceed certain tonnages of harmful emissions to buy credits from other companies that have lowered emissions.
Stem Cell Institute Awards 1st Grants:
After 16 months of litigation-induced delay and uncertainty, California's $3-billion voter-approved stem cell institute has cut its first checks to research institutions across the state, officials announced Monday.


California voters approved the publicly funded institute in November 2004 as a response to federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, dedicating $3 billion to the nascent science over the course of a decade.

But litigation by taxpayer groups and religious organizations opposed to the use of discarded embryos in some of the research has paralyzed the issuance of state bonds meant to fund the venture.

Instead, the state for the first time in its history last week issued so-called bond anticipation notes, purchased by six philanthropic entities to help the institute fulfill its mission while litigation is pending.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Want to join an elite group? Start blogging.

This article in the New York Times focuses on the elderly "more experienced" among us blogging, and has these interesting data about bloggers:
According to a recent report by the Perseus Development Corporation, a research company that studies online trends, the Internet is home to approximately 54.3 million blogs, nearly 60 percent written by people younger than 19. Just 0.3 percent of blogs are run by people 50 or older ...
The article also debunks the myth that bloggers are antisocial people who spend all their time in front of a computer:
Still, does all this online activity isolate people from the real world? No, says a recent report called "The Strength of Internet Ties" by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a nonprofit group that studies the effects of the Web. According to the report, "The Internet is enabling people to maintain existing ties, often to strengthen them and, at times, to forge new ties. The time that most people spend online reduces the time they spend on the relatively unsocial activities of watching TV and sleeping."
So, here's a message to the parental units I've talked with about blogging: start. You know you want to.

[And, as a side note, I'll second that comment about sleep.]

(via Blogger Buzz)

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Viruses - they're not just diseases anymore

There's been a rash of articles on viruses recently. Carl Zimmer posted on the genetic remnants of retroviruses that infected the genomes of organisms millennia ago; it turns out that they've left markers that allow us to track the evolutionary history of many lineages of animals. Even more recently Zimmer posted on a virus that may cause prostate cancer, as well as speculation that some primates may be resistant to HIV because they carry copies of the virus's genetic material in their own DNA.

And, in March, a PLOS Biology article (Wren et al. 2006) announced the start of a project to study the biodiversity and ecology of plant viruses.
The Plant Virus Biodiversity and Ecology (PVBE) project has been initiated to survey the biodiversity of viruses affecting vascular plants, including their endophytic fungi, in The Nature Conservancy's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve of Oklahoma, home to over 700 plant species.
The article reports that only about 2,000 species of viruses have been identified, yet cites a paper (Breitbart and Rohwer 2005) reporting that "there are an estimated 5,000 viral genotypes in 200 liters of seawater and possibly a million different viral genotypes in one kilogram of marine sediment." In short, there are a lot of viruses out there that haven't been identified yet, and it's likely that a lot of those viruses affect plants in the wild:
approximately 60% of plants surveyed in a Costa Rican region containing about 7,000 plant species total were positive for double-stranded RNA, a marker suggesting the presence of viruses.
However, the only type of plant viruses that have been studied in any depth to date are those that cause diseases in crops. Since the authors argue that it's likely the majority of viruses do not cause disease, but instead interact with their hosts in non-pathogenic relationships, by gaining an understanding of plant viruses they may "revolutionize" plant physiology and ecology:
Not only will these efforts help us understand virus ecology, but there is also great potential for revolutionizing plant ecology. The extended phenotype of a virus may affect a plant's local adaptation to its environment. Endophytes, mycorrhizae, or other symbionts could potentially mediate such interactions. Given that many plant viruses are generalists with respect to host species, it is theoretically possible that such effects may be ecosystem-wide. RNA silencing [6] has dramatic but unexplored ecological implications. As a hypothetical example, a bison-borne virus could silence genes for antigrazing defenses, thus facilitating its transmission.
This is a good example of how little we know about the world around us: there are probably thousands of viruses with myriad functions living in the plants we see on a daily basis, yet we have no idea that they're even there, much less any clue what they're doing. Hopefully in a few years we'll hear back from Wren et al. and learn more.

Breitbart M, Rohwer F (2005) Here a virus, there a virus, everywhere the same virus? Trends Microbiol 13: 278–284. (abstract)

Wren JD, Roossinck MJ, Nelson RS, Scheets K, Palmer MW, et al. (2006) Plant Virus Biodiversity and Ecology. PLoS Biol 4(3): e80 (full text)


Yesterday I donated blood after a long day on campus; I came home and promptly flopped down on the couch, exhausted. I didn't wake up for 12 1/2 hours (excluding a short period wherein I moved from the couch to bed). One could say I had a draining evening.

[And yes, as compensation for being exposed to that awful joke, I give all regular readers permission to subject me to even worse jokes.]

Today I'm perkier than I've been in a long time, even though I'm a pint low and should be at least a bit tired. Amazing what getting enough sleep will do.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Vote count fixing in the 2004 presidential election

I saw the following post on Representative Conyers's blog a few days ago, and considering that I wrote a lot about the 2004 presidential election, I thought it was worth posting here:
You may recall that I had done a considerable review of the 2004 elections in Ohio, uncovering scores of voting irregularities. ... Today, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports on an issue that I raised in my report, that the Cuyohoga County board of elections had purposely misrepresented voting machine performance to avoid a recount. A special prosecutor issued indictments for three top officials in the county because he has evidence that this is exactly what happened.
The full article that Rep. Conyers links to is much more detailed:
[In Ohio, during the 2004 presidential election recount] Election workers in each county are supposed to count 3 percent of the ballots by hand and by machine, randomly choosing precincts for that count.

If the hand and machine counts match, the other 97 percent of the votes are recounted by machine. If the numbers don't match, workers repeat the effort. If they still don't match exactly, the workers must complete the recount by hand, a tedious process that could take weeks and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But the fix was in at the Cuyahoga elections board, Baxter charges.

Days before the Dec. 16 recount, workers opened the ballots and hand-counted enough votes to identify precincts where the machine count matched.

"If it didn't balance, they excluded those precincts," Baxter said.

"The preselection process was done outside of any witnesses, without anyone's knowledge except for [people at] the Board of Elections."

On the official recount day, employees pretended to pick precincts randomly, Baxter says. Dozens of Cuyahoga County election workers sat at 20 folding tables in front of dozens of witnesses and reporters.


But observers suspected that the precincts were not randomly chosen and asked a board worker about it, said Toledo attorney Richard Kerger. The worker acknowledged that there had been a precount.
Need I mention that this is exactly what bloggers (and the Green party) suggested was happening back in 2004?

Crickets, worms, frogs, and fish. Oh boy!

Gordian worms (Paragordius tricuspidatus) parasitize crickets and eventually force the cricket they're parasitizing to drown itself. Then, after the cricket drowns, the worms have to avoid being eaten by both frogs and fish. They're pretty cool worms.

Carl Zimmer has just put up a detailed post about them, and it starts off with this absolutely perfect intro:
At the Loom we believe that the path to wisdom runs through the Land of Gross.

We do not show you pictures of worms crawling out of frog noses merely to ruin your lunch. We do not urge you to check out these freaky videos of worms crawling out of frog mouths and fish gills merely to give you something to talk about at the high school cafeteria table tomorrow (Dude, you totally will not believe what I saw...) These images have something profound to say.
Be sure to watch the videos.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Autism awareness

Give yourself time to read all the pages on the site Autism: Getting the Truth Out; it may take a half hour or more, but I guarantee it will be worth your time. It talks about much more than just autism.

A background of grey bricks with a puzzle piece stamped on, with the words, Getting the Truth Out, Autism Awareness

Don't just read the first few pages.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


I just got finished wading through pages upon pages of tax forms and IRS legalese; I don't mind paying taxes (really), but doing the paperwork just makes me grumpy, especially since I spent all of a perfectly good Sunday on it. Ugh.

This article in the New York Times motivated me to calculate my tax savings due to Bush's investment income tax cut. That particular tax cut saves individuals with incomes over $10 million an average of $500,000 in taxes; I saved $11. I don't want it.

So, I'm going to be sending my $11 to the Bureau of the Public Debt to help reduce the national debt. Assuming my payment were received today, this would cut the publicly held debt to $4,895,394,650,264.20 (down from $4,895,394,650,275.20 on April 6th); of course the debt seems to increase by hundreds of millions of dollars a day, so I suspect that my $11 isn't going to do much.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

A cooking survey

Don't take my word for it, take the word of an internet survey!

You Are an Excellent Cook

You're a top cook, but you weren't born that way. It's taken a lot of practice, a lot of experimenting, and a lot of learning.
It's likely that you have what it takes to be a top chef, should you have the desire...

Political news of the week, take 8

[See also: political news of the week take 7, take 6, take 5, take 4, take 3, take 2, and take 1.]

California Considers Bill to Limit Greenhouse Gas Emissions - There are times when I'm proud to live in California:
California may become the first state to impose limits on the emissions of all greenhouse gases, under legislation introduced today in the State Assembly.

The bill would require that emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases linked to global warming be reduced by 145 million tons, or 25 percent less than the current forecast, by 2020. That would bring the emissions back to the 1990 level.


The bill, which was introduced by the speaker of the State Assembly, Fabian Nuñez, Democrat of Los Angeles, would also require the California Air Resources Board to set up a mandatory emissions reporting and tracking system to ensure compliance with the limits, which many of the state's business leaders have opposed.


"The speaker said this bill was his top legislative priority this year," said Craig Noble, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group that is supporting the bill. "The governor has said he wants to reduce emissions. That means we have a very good chance of getting a first law in the nation to set statewide limits on emissions."
Attorney General Won't Rule Out Warrantless Wiretaps of Purely Domestic Telephone Conversations of Americans:
During a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee today [April 6, 2006], Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-CA) questioned Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about the NSA's secret domestic wiretapping program.


After citing his concerns that there was no limiting principle to the Administration's claim of authority in the War on Terror, Rep. Schiff asked the Attorney General whether the Administration believes it has the authority to wiretap purely domestic calls between two Americans without seeking a warrant.

"I’m not going to rule it out," responded the Attorney General.

"This is very disturbing testimony," Rep. Schiff commented later, "and represents a wholly unprecedented assertion of executive power. No one in Congress would deny the need to tap certain calls under court order -- but if the Administration believes it can tap purely domestic phone calls between Americans without court approval, there is no limit to executive power. This is contrary to settled law and the most basic constitutional principles of the separation of powers."
Cheney's Aide Says President Approved Leak:
Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff testified that he was authorized by President Bush, through Mr. Cheney, in July 2003 to disclose key parts of what until then was a classified prewar intelligence estimate on Iraq, according to a new court filing.

The testimony by the former official, I. Lewis Libby Jr., cited in a court filing by the government made late Wednesday, provides an indication that Mr. Bush, who has long criticized leaks of secret information as a threat to national security, may have played a direct role in authorizing disclosure of the intelligence report on Iraq.
White House: Bush did not flip-flop on leaks - within a day of the story above breaking, the White House was responding:
... White House spokesman Scott McClellan argued Friday that the president staunchly opposes releasing classified information that could affect U.S. security. And he pointed out that the president reserves the right to declassify material.

Looking at the specific 2003 case, McClellan said, "Because of the public debate that was going on and some of the wild accusations that were flying around at the time, we felt it was very much in the public interest that what information could be declassified be declassified, and that's exactly what we did."

But the court documents show that Bush approved the release of the information 10 days before the White House said the information was declassified.

The information was released on July 8, 2003, according to the documents.

On July 18 of that year, McClellan told reporters "this information was just, as of today, officially declassified."
U.S. Rolls Out Nuclear Plan:
The Bush administration Wednesday unveiled a blueprint for rebuilding the nation's decrepit nuclear weapons complex, including restoration of a large-scale bomb manufacturing capacity.

The plan calls for the most sweeping realignment and modernization of the nation's massive system of laboratories and factories for nuclear bombs since the end of the Cold War.

Until now, the nation has depended on carefully maintaining aging bombs produced during the Cold War arms race, some several decades old. The administration, however, wants the capability to turn out 125 new nuclear bombs per year by 2022, as the Pentagon retires older bombs that it says will no longer be reliable or safe.
Hurricane Relief From Abroad Was Mishandled - A New York Times article summarizing a House Government Reform Committee's report on the use of foreign aid after Katrina.
Confusion over how to handle the emergency supplies, offers of military assistance and $126 million in cash that poured in from foreign governments after Hurricane Katrina meant delays, and in some cases wasted opportunities, in aiding storm victims, federal officials acknowledged Thursday.


Thousands of ready-to-eat meals donated by governments, as well as loads of medicine, were never used, because officials learned only after they arrived in the United States that they did not meet federal health standards. Instead of distributing the supplies, the federal government spent $60,000 to store them.

Of the $126 million in cash donations received, only about $10.5 million has been spent. Nearly half sat in a noninterest-bearing account until last month, when it was transferred to the Department of Education for a grant program to help damaged schools and colleges, although no grants have yet been awarded.

An additional $66 million was earmarked last October for United Methodist Committee on Relief, a charity based in New York City which promised, in an alliance with other nonprofit groups, to take on 2,060 paid and volunteer workers to provide counseling to 101,000 displaced families over the next two years.

Just over $10 million has been spent, an official of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said, and the charity's records show that only about half of the staff has been hired and that 3,100 families have signed up for help.
Big Gain for Rich Seen in Tax Cuts for Investments: The New York Times analyzed the effect of Bush's tax cuts on investment income and found the following:
  • Among taxpayers with incomes greater than $10 million, the amount by which their investment tax bill was reduced averaged about $500,000 in 2003, and total tax savings, which included the two Bush tax cuts on compensation, nearly doubled, to slightly more than $1 million.
  • These taxpayers, whose average income was $26 million, paid about the same share of their income in income taxes as those making $200,000 to $500,000 because of the lowered rates on investment income.
  • Americans with annual incomes of $1 million or more, about one-tenth of 1 percent all taxpayers, reaped 43 percent of all the savings on investment taxes in 2003.


Those making less than $50,000 saved an average of $10 more because of the investment tax cuts ...

... I.R.S. data show that among the 90 percent of all taxpayers who made less than $100,000, dividend tax reductions benefited just one in seven and capital gains reductions one in 20.
In Massachusetts, Health Care for All? - Both houses of the Massachusetts legislature have just passed a bill that has Rep. Conyers interested:
The bill, approved by the heavily Democratic Massachusetts legislature on Apr. 4, marries conservative and liberal ideas. For the first time ever in the U.S., all state residents would be required to have health insurance -- dubbed an individual mandate. Gov. Mitt Romney, a moderate Republican expected to run for the White House in 2008, champions this as a conservative victory that leads residents to take responsibility for their own health insurance.


The legislation also includes such liberal measures as huge government subsidies to help low-income individuals buy insurance. What's more, all companies with 11 or more workers are required to help pay for health insurance -- a so-called employer mandate.


Those earning up to 100% of the federal poverty level would get what amounts to a free ride -- they wouldn't have to pay any premiums or any deductibles. Those making between 100% and 300% of the poverty level would pay part of their premiums, based on a sliding scale.
Smithsonian becomes Showtime's exclusive first-refusal archive - A post by BoingBoing about a questionable deal being made by the Smithsonian; BoingBoing also has a detailed follow-up post, complete with replies from the Smithsonian.
The Smithsonian has sold exclusive first-refusal rights to its enormous film archive (including tons of public-domain material) to Showtime, a commercial network. This means that anyone who wants to use Smithsonian footage in a documentary will have to take a back seat to Showtime's execs.

What's more, if the US signs the evil WIPO "Broadcast Treaty," it means that Showtime will get a new, 50-year copyright over the public domain material they air as part of this deal, so doc-makers won't even be able to piece together works from the crumbs that Showtime chooses to air.