Franken. J. Archive 007 (to 18 MAR 03)

a science blog for science fiction writers and readers by chris lawson


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  Pinker and Hurlbut!
  Jack Magic
  More on crows using tools
  Warning: parental indulgence
  Engineering invades evolution labs
  Vaccines for mad cow disease?
  Grandstanding diminishes important word
  Crows v. chimps
  No abortion link to breast cancer
  Squirrels and ice ages
  Bugs and history
  Mothers, kids, and work
  Character in Psellus
  The locksmith and the rowboat
  Morton's Demon
  The scientist-therapist gap
  We done kill'd the Columbia
  Fight terrorism at home
  Mark Twain's "War Prayer"
  Propaganda redux
  Nanoswitch gets really small
  Chinese fossils reveal dinosaur ecosystem
  Sequencing Skippy
  How old is Mungo Man?



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Pinker and Hurlbut!

18 MAR 2003 | source The President's Council on Bioethics

Who would have thought childish sniggering could be stimulated from such a sober site? The President's Council on Bioethics is a pretty weighty place to visit. But nothing could stop my giggles at the Q&A session in which Dr Steven Pinker was questioned by Dr. Bill Hurlbut. Now I know this is close to the lowest form of humour, but I couldn't help myself. Pinker and Hurlbut! It really ought to be the title of a campish TV series about a crime-fighting, double-entendring duo. Oh wait. That's been done.

Apologies to S.P. and B.H. who are highly respected thinkers and deserve better than this.
More apologies to S.P. upon it being pointed out to das Frankenblog that the name is Pinker, not Pinkner.


     

Jack Magic

18 MAR 2003 | source The President's Council on Bioethics

Mind you, the reason I'm writing this blog is (in part) to create a searchable reference for my story notes (thanks, Google!). And in the discussion sniggered at above, Steven Pinker said something absolutely extraordinary. He may not have even been aware of it himself. I mean, he's certainly aware of the meaning of what he said, but he may not be aware of its signficance to a writer. I was gobsmacked. Here I am, an SF writer who while not well known has at least escaped the "utter obscurity" basket. I am best known for my stories on biotechnology and genetic engineering. I have read other writers tackling these same issues. And it never occurred to me before. Pinker has given me the key to an ancient story-telling device, commonly used in fantasy of the more sophisticated variety, that applies perfectly to genetic engineering. Think Elric. Think Skafloc. Think Aspen Dirk the space-warped mindboggler from Terry Dowling's Wormwood. Now this particular trope has appeared in other genetic engineering and biotech stories, but it had never occurred to me just how blindingly useful this is. In fact, I suspect that half of the writers weren't even aware that they were using it.

I already know the character's name. Jack Magic. It's not his real name, but that's what people call him. I don't know what Jack Magic is going to do yet, but I know who he is and what makes him interesting. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to identify the idea in Pinker's session.


     

More on crows using tools

17 MAR 2003 | source Bob Allanson

Bob Allanson contacted das Frankenblog after reading the story about tool-using crows. He says "crows at a friend's place pick up dried bread and put it into the dogs' water bowl to make it edible."

That's one smart bird, the crow.


     

Warning: parental indulgence

17 MAR 2003 | source Frankenblog

Igor apologises for the master's self-indulgence, but the master insisted on putting up these kiddy pix, and when the master insists, Igor knows what happens if he objects, oh yes he does. Worse follows. The master's son drew this picture of a mounted policeman after seeing some at Moomba and the Kew Festival.

It disturbs Igor that the master's 4-year old son has a better mastery of line than the master himself.

The master recently purchased a new digital camera, and his son has played with it. The still life above shows the master's son has a better sense of composition than the master himself. Better not tell the master, though. He's in one of those moods...


     

Engineering invades evolution labs

15 MAR 2003 | source Nature

A team of English biologists has started treating evolution research the way physicists and engineers do: they've engineered yeasts to see what happens to their ability to mate across species. Two closely related yeasts form sterile hybrids when cross-mated. But when the genomes were tinkered with to make them match up more closely, the yeasts were able to produce fertile offspring. This extraordinary paper may herald a new tool in evolutionary research.


     

Vaccines for mad cow disease?

15 MAR 2003 | source Nature

Prions are fascinating. They show that shapes can be considered to be self-replicating entities. A prion is not a bacterium, a fungus, or a virus. A prion is a protein made by the host creature that is folded in an odd way. The abnormal folding turns it into a catalyst that makes proteins like it fold into that shape. That is, when a prion protein meets a protein with the same amino acid sequence, it makes that protein fold into the same shape as the prion. Since the shape of a protein affects its catalytic function, this means that prions are self-replicating shapes. This would be fascinating in itself, but it is also hugely important. Prions cause real diseases: bovine spongiform encephalopathy, scrapie in sheep, and Creutzfeld-Jacob disease and kuru in humans.

Another English paper in Nature has shown that it may be possible to immunise against prions. It seems that you can prime the immune system to recognise and destroy prions while leaving alone normally-folded proteins that have important functions.


     

Grandstanding diminishes important word

10 MAR 2003 | source ABC News in Science

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet has made it a personal mission to upset applecarts. On some occasions this has been a valuable exercise, but his latest bout of publicity-hugging is bound to backfire. You see, Horton has examined the papers published in the major international medical journals and concluded that they are focussed on, as Tom Lehrer famously put it, "diseases of the rich." He's right. And it needs to change. But Horton has taken one step too far and found himself with one foot over a cliff. It wasn't enough for him to accuse the medical research fraternity of narrow focus and Western bias. No, he called it "institutional racism."

When challenged, he quoted Britain's Commission for Equal Opportunity, which says "Institutional racism occurs when the policies and practices of an organisation result in different outcomes for people from different racial groups." Well, hang on a moment. Clearly the Commission has made the mistake of making their definition so broad as to be virtually meaningless, which allows the word "racism" to be hijacked just as Horton has done. By this definition, screening people with African or Mediterranean backgrounds for sickle-cell disease is racist unless you also screen Caucasians, even though it's so rare in Caucasians as to be a waste of money. This definition makes affirmative action a form of institutional racism, not to mention Aboriginal Land Councils, indigenous-specific vaccination programs, and relaxed pharmaceutical patent laws in Africa to allow cheaper generic anti-HIV drugs. The WHO, UNICEF, Red Cross, Oxfam, MSF, they're all institutionally racist. Officially. What exactly is the point of using a definition of racism so broad that it can be used to insult organisations that help the victims of racism?

It gets worse. In Australia we have a big problem with Aboriginal health. The Aboriginal life expectancy is over a decade shorter than the general population's. Infant mortality is double the average. So what do we do about it? If we do nothing, then we maintain an awful difference in health. This results in different outcomes for people of different racial groups, and is therefore racist. But if we step in and intervene to improve Aboriginal health, that means spending money and diverting resources to a specific racial group -- which results in different outcomes for people of different racial groups, which is racist. In other words, according to the British CEO, the only way not to be racist is to start with perfect racial equality and maintain it vigilantly. The looseness of this definition is the perfect weapon for those who oppose spending on underprivileged racial groups, because not only can they call differential spending "institutional racism", they also know that the profligate use of racism as an accusation, just like profligate use of antibiotics, builds up community resistance for little benefit.


     

Crows v. chimps

10 MAR 2003 | source ABC News in Science

New Caledonia's crows are more sophisticated tool-users than chimpanzees. They make barbed hooks out of Pandanus leaves for digging insects out of trees. Crows from different parts of New Caledonia use different tool-making techniques, which implies that there has been progression in tool design over time.


     

No abortion link to breast cancer

10 MAR 2003 | source Science

Last June, the National Cancer Institute in USA was forced by political pressure to remove a website claiming there is no link between abortion and breast cancer. The political pressure was exerted by Congressmen from the far right acting on information from Joel Brind, an anti-abortion endocrinologist who published a deeply flawed research article that showed what he wanted to show. Now the NCI has taken the time to address the issue thoroughly and reinstated their original finding. That is, they've put their web page back up having genuflected to the political blinkers of certain members of Congress. The next question is, what the hell are these politicians doing spouting disinformation that anyone with a modicum of sense can see is dressed up by an activist with a personal agenda? Having heartfelt convictions does not entitle professional, tax-funded politicians to support their personal belief systems with half-truths and distortions. Even if you are anti-abortion, you should be steering clear of Joel Brind, because he's going to end up embarrassing his cause.

If you want a role model, look at C. Everett Koop, US Surgeon-General in the late 1980s. Koop, a Reagan-appointee, was not only anti-abortion, he was an active fundamentalist Christian and Creationist. Reagan asked Koop in 1987 to assess the emotional trauma caused by abortion. Koop reviewed the evidence and decided that the studies, while numerous, were not sufficiently well-designed to come to any firm conclusions. However, in closed meetings with anti-abortion groups, he said that any risk of mental illness following abortion was "miniscule" and should be abandoned as a rhetorical tactic. It didn't stop him being anti-abortion, but he did not believe in lying for his cause. Koop isn't a perfect role model -- he did his best to keep his conclusion from the public and had to be pushed to publish the findings -- which eventually were released nearly two years after being written. Still, compared to Joel Brind, Koop is a shining knight.

More on Brind's study another time.


     

Squirrels and ice ages

10 MAR 2003 | source Science

Squirrels radiated to every continent bar Australia and Antarctica. By checking molecular clocks and phylogenetic changes, John Mercer and Louise Roth have shown that major divergences of the squirrel family tree are associated with known geological events such as the opening and closing of the Bering land-bridge. The geological history of the Earth is watermarked in our genes.


     

Bugs and history

10 MAR 2003 | source Science

In an astonishingly similar study, the human stomach bacterium Helicobacter pylori has seven different genetic types. The divergence of these genetic groups can be traced to major migration events in human history such as the prehistoric colonisation of Polynesia and America, the introduction of farming to Europe, and the slave trade. Extraordinary. There's got to be a story idea in this.


     

Mothers, kids, and work

10 MAR 2003 | source Science

A new longitudinal study of 2402 low-income families shows that mothers moving from welfare to work is not associated with emotional problems in pre-schoolers or young adolescents. In fact, there was some "slight" evidence that mothers starting work was associated with improved mental health in their children. On this (early, unreplicated) evidence, the conservative story that working women damage their children is nothing more than a myth. In fact, the stay-at-home mother appears to be a luxury for the wealthy. Further research needed. Let's get a big prospective study going here.


     

Character in Psellus

09 MAR 2003 | source Frankenblog

Reading Michael Psellus's Fourteen Byzantine Rulers (Penguin Books, 1966), I came to the story of one the most fascinating historical figures I know, Basil II the Emperor of Byzantium. He was also known as Bulgaroctonus, which means "Bulgar-Slayer". Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, even if he does sound a little like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with a nickname like that, was obviously not your average peacenik St Jerome. On page 46 of this translation, we read that of Basil that "all his natural desires were kept under stern control, and the man was as hard as steel."

I am bitterly disappointed. This book is much less interesting than I expected. Translator E.R.A. Sewter was in thrall to the text and, to an extent, Psellus the author. He even describes Psellus as a wonderful character writer. But how to explain then, Psellus completely ignoring the interesting aspects of Basil's character?

Basil was a vulgar peasant boy with a vicious streak who befriended the Byzantine emperor's son, and then soon after his succession, had the boy murdered and took his place. Despite having no education, no hereditary right to the throne, and no contacts in the Byzantine military, bureaucracy, or church, Basil not only seized the throne but kept it for fifty-two years in the face of two military uprisings and constant external threats. He destroyed an empire (this is a lot harder than it sounds) through a decades-long guerrilla war, exemplified by Basil's early grasp of the tactics of extreme terrorism. (When Basil captured a large part of the Bulgar army, he had them all blinded by red-hot irons, except for one in a hundred who merely lost one eye, so that each "centurion" could lead the blind soldiers back to their Tsar James, thus bringing the terror home.) Hence Bulgaroctonus. Despite his ruthless streak, he was also surprisingly modest. He wore only bland clothing, avoiding the traditional porphyri colours of the Emperor for clothes dyed with cheaper purples.

Amazingly, the Psellus account mentions not one skerrick of this story. He does not even mention the term Bulgaroctonus, the moniker contemporaries and future historians applied to Basil. Sorry, Mr Sewter, but I fail to see how this could be considered the work of a masterful writer of character. The best writer of all is still Gibbon. Many historians have challenged Gibbon's findings, which is only to be expected of a long polemical narrative history written nearly three hundred years ago, but the basic thrust of Gibbon's argument still holds, and more importantly, his incisive descriptions of the men and women of the later Roman and Byzantine empires still stand as models of good writing.


     

The locksmith and the rowboat

08 MAR 2003 | source Talk Origins

I came across this lovely analogy by Richard Wein that skewers Dembski's Intelligent Design hypothesis. Sorry to harp on about ID, but it really needs a few thumpings right now. Wein's article includes a brilliant dissection of the intellectual poverty of ID theory.

Robert Wein says: Consider an imaginary scenario in which a safe's combination dial is randomly rotated by natural forces. Let's say the safe is on a rowing boat at sea, and the rolling of the boat is sufficient to make the dial rotate. Now suppose that, while the sole occupant of the boat looks on, the safe springs open. For good measure, suppose that the rower is a locksmith who has thoroughly inspected the lock, found it to be flawless, closed the safe, and thoroughly randomized the dial, all since he has been alone on the boat. How will he explain the spontaneous opening of his safe? Let us say that he appreciates the sheer improbability of the safe opening by pure chance if it was operating to specification, and he rejects that explanation. Does he infer design? Or does he infer that, despite his thorough check, there was a flaw in the mechanism that caused it not to operate correctly? Even though it may seem implausible that the safe sprang open spontaneously, he will surely consider it even more implausible that someone boarded his boat and opened the safe while he was watching it, without him noticing, and he will prefer the former explanation...

According to Dembski's logic, the rower should have inferred design, no matter how certain he was that no human agent could have been responsible, even if it required him to posit an unembodied designer.


     

Morton's Demon

08 MAR 2003 | source Talk Origins

Another great post from Talk Origins. Here Glenn Morton introduces his own version of Maxwell's famous demon. It's a sort of Cartesian-reality spin on the old thermodynamic devil. I strongly recommend the entire post, but this quote will give you a taste.

Glenn Morton says: Thus was born the realization that there is a dangerous demon on the loose. When I was a YEC [Young Earth Creationist -- Igor], I had a demon that did similar things for me that Maxwell's demon did for thermodynamics. Morton's demon was a demon who sat at the gate of my sensory input apparatus and if and when he saw supportive evidence coming in, he opened the gate. But if he saw contradictory data coming in, he closed the gate. In this way, the demon allowed me to believe that I was right and to avoid any nasty contradictory data. Fortunately, I eventually realized that the demon was there and began to open the gate when he wasn't looking.

However, my conversations have made me aware that each YEC is a victim of my demon. Morton's demon makes it possible for a person to have his own set of private facts which others are not privy to, allowing the YEC to construct a theory which is perfectly supported by the facts which the demon lets through the gate. And since these are the only facts known to the victim, he feels in his heart that he has explained everything. Indeed, the demon makes people feel morally superior and more knowledgeable than others.

The demon makes its victim feel very comfortable as there is no contradictory data in view. The demon is better than a set of rose colored glasses. The demon's victim does not understand why everyone else doesn't fall down and accept the victim's views. After all, the world is thought to be as the victim sees it and the demon doesn't let through the gate the knowledge that others don't see the same thing. Because of this, the victim assumes that everyone else is biased, or holding those views so that they can keep their job, or, in an even more devious attack by my demon, they think that their opponents are actually demon possessed themselves or sons of Satan. This is a devious demon!


     

The scientist-therapist gap

03 MAR 2003 | source The Chronicle of Higher Education

Thank goodness for Carol Tavris and her wonderful, important essay on the gap between scientific practice and psychotherapy. I tried to write a story about this, but couldn't get it to gel, and as a result it was unpublishable (didn't stop me from trying, but after two rejections I finally realised that I needed to work on it to a depth that I was incapable of at the time; may try again in the future). In the meantime, if you want to read a superb essay that covers the same ground I was hoping to cover in a story, here it is.

Carol Tavris says: Our society runs on the advice of mental-health professionals, who are often called upon in legal settings to determine whether a child has been molested, a prisoner up for parole is still dangerous, a defendant is lying or insane, a mother is fit to have custody of her children, and on and on. Yet while the public assumes, vaguely, that therapists must be "scientists" of some sort, many of the widely accepted claims promulgated by therapists are based on subjective clinical opinions and have been resoundingly disproved by empirical research conducted by psychological scientists. Here are a few examples that have been shown to be false:

• Low self-esteem causes aggressiveness, drug use, prejudice, and low achievement.

• Abused children almost inevitably become abusive parents, causing a "cycle of abuse."

• Therapy is beneficial for most survivors of disasters, especially if intervention is rapid.

• Memory works like a tape recorder, clicking on at the moment of birth; memories can be accurately retrieved through hypnosis, dream analysis, or other therapeutic methods.

• Traumatic experiences, particularly of a sexual nature, are typically "repressed" from memory, or split off from consciousness through "dissociation."

• The way that parents treat a child in the first five years (three years) (one year) (five minutes) of life is crucial to the child's later intellectual and emotional success.


     

We done kill'd the Columbia.

28 FEB 2003 | source LOCUS Online

Das Frankenblog received this from an old friend by the name of Charlie Whopsnorts. Now Charlie isn't the world's best at spelling and grammar, and it's a mystery how he comes to write prose in his own dialect, but there's no doubtin' he has sumthin' to say. Dang, now he's got me doin' it!

Charlie Whopsnorts writes: Poor ol' Gary Westfahl. It wuz lookin' like it wuz gunna be a good year for him. He went and got hisself awarded some Pilgrim Award, or sumthin', on the grounds that he's like some bigshot lifetime contributor to science fiction. Guess that trophy's gonna look like John Wayne. So he's happy, like, but then he goes an'...well, there's no other way to put it, he done screwed the pooch.

Ol' Mr Westfahl, ya see, has got hisself in trouble. He done wrote this thing called "Columbia and the Dreams of Science Fiction" and ever since he's had all sorts'a folk out to plug him with lead. Ya see, Ol' Mr Westfahl went and blamed whut happened to that there space shuttle on science fiction. Yup! That's right! I ain't kiddin'! Lookit here, he says "The real reason why so many people feel this compulsion to carry on with space travel is simple enough. We must conquer space because science fiction has told us to." See, the reason why that there space shuttle blew up wuz 'cos Star Trek and Close Encounters made space travel look as easy as drivin' into town for the weekly pick-up of used car parts and bourbon.

He also said "America has launched over 150 space missions and has watched three of them end in catastrophic failure. A 2% failure rate just isn't acceptable; would trains or jets be in use today if there was a 2% chance that every trip would end in disaster?" Ya know, I thought this sounded purty sensible for a while, even though I had to look up "catastrophic" in the dicshunary. Until I wuz reading the lingerie ads in the local paper and came across a story about Mt Everest. Didya know that the death rate for people climbin' Everest is 2.9% -- an' that includes the people who turned back cuz of weather? If ya add up jus' the people who actually made it all the way to the top, seems ya get a 23% death rate. An' these people paid for the privilij of suffocatin' in snow. I don' know too many science fiction stories 'bout climbing Everest.

Well, of course this article razzed up some of them sci-fi fanboys. Ol' Mr Westfahl oughta know ya don' mess with 300-pounds of Spandex-wrapped, Klingon-fluent flesh. Some of them there sci-fi geeks wrote some purty nasty stuff back. I guess some of it's a little extreme, but then Mr Westfahl did go an' write his thang just a few days after the space shuttle went gooey over Texas. People was still feelin' a little raw. Back here in my home town, we even had news stories about the schoolkids grievin' cuz their spiders got burned up to a frizzle. Seems they won some internashional NASA contest for school science experiments and sent some spiders up to see how they spun their webs in zero gravity. Poor ol' spiders. One minute they're tryin' to figger out how to spin a web without knowin' which way's up and down, and next minute they're tryin' to figger out how to re-enter the atmosfear with a sudden lack of spaceship.

Now, I dunno about whut sci-fi movies Mr Westfahl's bin watchin', but it sure ain't whut I've been goin' to. I guess if this wuz a big Hollywood pro-duction, that there school science experiment would be to blame. All that cosmic radiation would cause them spiders to mutate into giant, flesh-eatin' monsters who'd escape their cage jus' before re-entry an' eat them poor astronauts, and this'd jus' be the start of the film. Jus' about now people in Texas'd be seein' strange sights and some no-name drifters'd be turnin' up dead with weird injuries that the local sheriff can't figger on. That's the way sci-fi'd do it, cuz ya know ya can't go wrong in movies blamin' dumbass science experiments foolin' with Mother Nature.

Sorry to say it, Mr Westfahl, but you're wrong on this 'un. If the space shuttle blowin' up wuz a sci-fi film, then the last thing we'd be doin' would be laughin' it off and launching another shuttle next week cuz it's all so easy. Nah, if this wuz a sci-fi film, right about now we'd be fightin' for the future of the human race.


     

Propaganda pix

Micah Ian Smith has kindly allowed me to put up some of his images. If you want a taste of his work, scroll down to here.


     

Fight terrorism at home

26 FEB 2003 | source das Frankenblog

Das Frankenblog refuses to be a warblog or an anti-warblog. Yes, Mr Bush, it is possible to be neither with you nor against you. However, there are times when we cannot maintain silence. Bush is right about some things.

It is time. Time to fight terrorism. Time to make the world a safer place. Let's identify the sources of terrorism and root them out.

Story One: Just last year, a series of bioterror attacks took place using anthrax. Almost none of the targets was harmed, but many innocent workers were affected by these indiscriminate attacks. Some died. Consider the following: a great deal of evidence points to the bioterror agent coming from a military source within the country. The targets were opposition party leaders and journalists known to be unsupportive of the government. Nobody has been arrested. One suspect has been interviewed and although he cannot be arrested on the current evidence, the FBI has had no trouble seeing him as someone who should be named in press conferences. Now, if this was Iraq we were looking at, these facts would be thrown about as proof of government involvement in terrorism.

Story Two: Even more recently, a retired National Guard intelligence officer and his ex-wife were caught trying to sell secret information on biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons to white supremacy groups. Fifteen boxes of the documents are missing, presumably already sold to parties unknown.

How about we make military scientists and intelligence officers with access to deadly weapons accountable? How about we create an audit trail for dangerous substances so we can find people who dabble in terror, or better yet, identify them before they act?

Story Three: Then there's the case of James Kopp. In 1997, he used a rifle and a scope to shoot Dr Barnett Slepian in his own home, in front of his wife and children, because Dr Slepian performed abortions. Kopp buried his rifle in the woods and disappeared from the US. He was arrested in France in 2001, after four years on the run. This man did not act alone. He was helped by an international network of sympathisers. Two other antiabortion extremists kept in touch with Kopp through a Yahoo email account which must have been set up before the shooting. While in Ireland, Kopp was given two different identities, complete with official passports and birth certificates and employment references. So when are we bombing Ireland?

The reason is that Ireland isn't the problem -- the problem is right in heartland USA. When Kopp was arrested, Rev Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition warned his own government not to "harass and intimidate the pro-life movement". Apparently arresting suspected murderers is considered harassment and intimidation. So when are we going to see antiabortion extremists sent to Camp X-Ray? (The Kopp trial, by the way, is due to start soon.)

Story Three: Terrible as this is, it pales into comparison with the fact that the US judicial system has given tacit approval to antiabortion extremists. About the time Kopp was arrested, an antiabortion website called the Nuremberg Files listed the names and photographs of abortion providers. Abortion providers who were murdered had their names struck through, like this. An injunction to force the Nuremberg Files off the web was successful, but was overturned on appeal on the grounds of protecting free speech. Apparently the Ninth Circuit judges unanimously felt that intimidation, implied threats of assassination, and assisting would-be assassins by giving personal details of potential targets was protected speech. According to Judge Alex Kozinski, such intimidation was protected because it "merely encouraged unrelated terrorists." There you have it. The US judiciary has ruled that it is legally acceptable to encourage, foster, and even indirectly (but knowingly) assist terrorism provided you are "unrelated" to the perpetrator. By this logic there's nothing wrong with Saddam Hussein giving money to families of suicide bombers -- after all, he isn't "related" to any of them. He doesn't know them or train them; the bombers aren't Iraqi; and unlike the Nuremberg Files, he doesn't even draw up lists of Israeli targets to guide the killers heavenward.

War on Terrorism? I'm all for it, provided it is waged against all terrorism, and not just bin Laden's Wahhabism and Hussein's socialism. Fight Terror? Sure, but fight it at home and not just in the Middle East. Root it out? Hell yeah, but only if it's done systematically, intelligently, and with the goal of minimising human distress. You don't fight terrorism to reclaim national pride. You don't fight terrorism to avenge the dead. You fight terrorism to prevent suffering. Why is this so hard to understand?


     

Mark Twain's "War Prayer"

26 FEB 2003 | source Infinite Jest

Mark Twain's "The War Prayer" is an absolute must-read. God, I wish Mark Twain was alive today; he'd make such a difference to the level of "debate" going around...damn, I hear a scratching coming up the driveway...I knew I should have given away that skanky old monkey paw...


     

Propaganda redux

26 FEB 2003 | source Micah Ian Wright

Micah Ian Wright describes himself as a Writer, Producer, and Blight on the Internet. He has produced a series of pastiches of old WW2 propaganda posters rejigged for today. They are brilliant. Utterly brilliant. You can see them here, and then you will want to buy the book at Amazon.com.

Thanks to Micah for allowing me to use these images.


     

Nanoswitch gets really small

24 FEB 2003 | source PhysicsWeb

A team of European scientists has made the least energetic switch ever. They have constructed a porphyrin molecule with an arm that can be clicked from one stable position to another with a mere 47 zeptoJoules of energy -- that's 10,000 times less than the best modern electronic switches. This is pretty exciting -- but even more interesting from my point of view is the size issues. Looking at the molecule, I'm going to guess it's about 1 nanometer across (corrections welcomed), which means that an array of these molecules arranged on a flat surface could pack the entire 60 Gb hard drive of my computer onto a wafer less than a square millimeter in size. That's about the size of this dot: •


     

Chinese fossils reveal dinosaur ecosystem

24 FEB 2003 | source Nature

The latest boom in dinosaur science has been the exploration of China for fossils. Some of the findings have been nothing short of extraordinary. Paleontologists in north-eastern China's Jehol Group have uncovered a treasure chest of fossils so well preserved that many have visible internal organs. The scientists are using their findings to reconstruct this early Cretaceous ecosystem.


     

Sequencing Skippy

24 FEB 2003 | source Nature

A team of Australian scientists has made a bid to sequence the genome of the tammar wallaby, a rabbit-sized relative of the kangaroo. The results could shed light on evolution, as the marsupials diverged from the rest of us mammals 130 million years ago, in the Early Cretaceous (see above).


     

How old is Mungo Man?

24 FEB 2003 | source Nature

A homeland controversy: Mungo Man is the oldest human remains in Australia. Heated debate has centred on exactly how old Mungo Man is, but a new paper adds weight to the idea that humans were in Australia 46-50,000 years ago, and that this event is correlated with megafauna extinction, increasing aridity, and increased dust deposition. Bad humans, baaaad humans!