Archive for January 2008

It Was 40 Years Ago Today

January 31, 2008

…approximately, that someone (probably John Lennon) spoke in a distorted voice at the very end of the fade out to “Strawberry Fields Forever” the words “I buried Paul”. Between that and an open hand above McCartney’s head on the cover of the Sgt. Pepper album, we had a great deal of fun looking for the clues to Sir Paul’s demise. I think we decided that the body was found in the Octopus’s garden, and the deed was done by Mean Mr. Mustard, with a silver hammer owned by Maxwell (probably on Wednesday morning at five o’clock).

Or something.

The 21st century version is playing out now.

Paul McCartney says recent media reports that he had a heart procedure last year are “entirely untrue.””People are ringing and texting me saying, `Are you OK?'” he writes in a posting on his newly redesigned Web site. “I hadn’t seen the report so I was puzzled by so many enquiries about my health. So I think it’s a good time to put this rumour to rest.”

On Human Dignity, And The Lack Thereof

January 31, 2008

Reuters quotes Pope Benedict XVI on bioethics.

In an address to members of the Vatican department on doctrinal matters, Benedict said the Church had a duty to defend the “great values at stake” in the field of bioethics.

It’s not clear who else will do that job.

Benedict, who headed the same department for years before his election in 2005, said the Church was not against scientific progress but wanted it based on “ethical-moral principles”.He said this included total respect for the human being as a person “from conception until natural death,” and respect for the natural transmission of life through sexual intercourse.

Practices like freezing embryos, suppression of embryos in multiple pregnancies, embryonic stem cell research, the prospect of human cloning and artificial insemination outside the body had “shattered the barriers meant to protect human dignity”, he said.

“When human beings in the weakest and most defenseless state of their existence are selected, abandoned, killed or used as pure ‘biological material,’ how can one deny that they are being treated not as ‘someone’ but as ‘something,'” he said.

You might want to remember those words – How can one deny that they are being treated not as ‘someone’ but as ‘something’?

As if by coincidence, from the University of Newcastle this is reported on the same day:

Sperm cells have been created from a female human embryo in a remarkable breakthrough that suggests it may be possible for lesbian couples to have their own biological children.British scientists who had already coaxed male bone marrow cells to develop into primitive sperm cells have now repeated the feat with female embryonic stem cells.

Ann Althouse points out the implications.

And face it: A woman could be impregnated with her own sperm.But right now, at this stage of the technology, [italics]a female embryo is being destroyed to create a sperm cell[/italics]. One doctor calls this procedure “double-damned,”

(Ann’s emphasis). I am boggled and agog.

Late Update: With (very) few exceptions, the Denizens of Slashdot have gone out of their way to prove that the popular conception of geeks as idiot-savants with pocket protectors is correct.

Quick! Get In Your SUV And DRIVE!

January 31, 2008

We must all help out in this time of grave crisis! We must all contribute to Global WarmingTM.

The Canadian Space Agency’s radio telescope has been reporting Flux Density Values so low they will mean a mini ice age if they continue.Like the number of sunspots, the Flux Density Values reflect the Sun’s magnetic activity, which affects the rate at which the Sun radiates energy and warmth. CSA project director Ken Tapping calls the radio telescope that supplies NASA and the rest of the world with daily values of the Sun’s magnetic activity a “stethoscope on the Sun”. In this case, however, it is the “doctor” whose health is directly affected by the readings.

This is because when the magnetic activity is low, the Sun is dimmer, and puts out less radiant warmth. If the Sun goes into dim mode, as it has in the past, the Earth gets much colder.

Numbers reflecting solar activity are at or near record lows. All together now – How low are they, Johnny?

Tapping, who was originally from Kent, says that “Typically as you go through the ten or eleven year solar activity cycle you see the numbers go up or down. The lowest number is 64 or 68. The numbers 71 or 72 are very low, but they usually start to go up. We are at the end of a cycle, but the numbers still haven’t gone up. We have been joking around coffee that we may be seeing the Sun about to shut down.” (To date Tapping has been far more concerned about global warming.)These were the values released yesterday –

Density Values in sfu [Solar Flux Units – ed] for 22:00 on 2008:01:30
Julian Day Number : 2454496.406

Carrington Rotation Number : 2066.207

Observed Flux Density : 0073.6

Flux Density Adjusted for 1 A.U. : 0071.4

URSI Series D Flux, Adj. x 0.9 : 0064.3

And what could this possibly mean?

If the Sun’s magnetic activity does not increase, and it goes dim for an extended period, it will get quite chilly. In the meantime the Canada Space Agency, the Royal Observatory Greenwich and the US Air Force Solar Optical Observing Network are all keeping an eye on the Sun.

With apologies –

Yes we need a little warming,
right this very hour.

Burn a little carbon,
extra hot the shower!

Can we sell a few more autos
In the poorer nations?

For we need a little warm-ing now.

Myths In Medicine

January 31, 2008

While remembering that it’s a myth that myths are myths, we’re into questioning some of the received wisdom being passed down from our forefathers. One of the more commonly known “facts” out and about these days is that high cholesterol causes heart disease. Rand Simberg questions the answers.

One of the prevailing myths of modern life (I use the word here in the sense of something that everyone believes, not necessarily something that is false) is that cholesterol causes heart disease and stroke, and that reducing it will reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. But the recent Vytorin issue should give us cause to question this conventional wisdom.Whenever I’ve looked at the research, I’ve never been able to see any clear indication that taking cholesterol-reducing medication actually reduces risk, per se–all that the clinical studies that I’ve seen seem to indicate is that cholesterol reduction is taking place. But correlation is not causation. It could be that both high cholesterol and vascular disease are caused by some third factor that hasn’t been identified, and that in reducing cholesterol, whether by diet or medication, or both, we are treating a symptom rather than a cause.

And the Vytorin issue? From the linked NYT article:

Vytorin is a combination of cholesterol-lowering drugs, one called Zetia and the other a statin called Zocor. Because the two drugs lower LDL cholesterol by different mechanisms, the makers of Vytorin (Merck and Schering-Plough) assumed that their double-barreled therapy would lower it more than either drug alone, which it did, and so do a better job of slowing the accumulation of fatty plaques in the arteries which it did not.Heart disease specialists who were asked to comment on this turn of events insisted that the result implied nothing about their assumption that LDL cholesterol is dangerous, only about whether it is always medically effective to lower it.

But this interpretation is based on a longstanding conceptual error embedded in the very language we use to discuss heart disease. It confuses the cholesterol carried in the bloodstream with the particles, known as lipoproteins, that shuttle that cholesterol around. There is little doubt that certain of these lipoproteins pose dangers, but whether cholesterol itself is a critical factor is a question that the Vytorin trial has most definitely raised. It’s a question that needs to be acknowledged and addressed if we’re going to make any more headway in preventing heart disease.

So just how long has this – um – situation – been going on?

The truth is, we’ve always had reason to question the idea that cholesterol is an agent of disease. Indeed, what the Framingham researchers meant in 1977 when they described LDL cholesterol as a “marginal risk factor” is that a large proportion of people who suffer heart attacks have relatively low LDL cholesterol.

So daily I’m taking an expensive drug (expensive even with most of the costs taken out by my insurance, which means I pay for it with money taken out of every paycheck before it’s even printed…) that may not be doing anything for me except changing a meaningless number on a test. Maybe. Or not.

It has one other effect. It makes me raise an eyebrow.

[Pokes finger in the air and does a Horshack.] Ooh! Ooh! I have a question. Can the FDA say Scientific Method???

What’s Wrong With The World?

January 31, 2008

The Anchoress invites us to answer the question in 100 words or less and she reminds us that G.K. Chesterton answered in two – I am.
My response is that there are two things wrong with the world; too much fear and too little (or misplaced) faith. They are, of course, intertwined and feed off each other.

The rest would be exposition.

What Happens When A Committed Leftist Blasphemes?

January 31, 2008

Alexander Cockburn confesses his sins.

[F]rom left to right, the warming that is occurring today is taken as being man-made, and many have made it into the central plank of their political campaigns. For reasons I find very hard to fathom, the environmental left movement has bought very heavily into the fantasy about anthropogenic global warming and the fantasy that humans can prevent or turn back the warming cycle.

So what happens when a leftist denies that mankind is destroying the planet?

Since I started writing essays challenging the global warming consensus, and seeking to put forward critical alternative arguments, I have felt almost witch-hunted. There has been an hysterical reaction. One individual, who was once on the board of the Sierra Club, has suggested I should be criminally prosecuted. I wrote a series of articles on climate change issues for the Nation, which elicited a level of hysterical outrage and affront that I found to be astounding – and I have a fairly thick skin, having been in the business of making unpopular arguments for many, many years.There was a shocking intensity to their self-righteous fury, as if I had transgressed a moral as well as an intellectual boundary and committed blasphemy. I sometimes think to myself, Boy, I’m glad I didn’t live in the 1450s’, because I would be out in the main square with a pile of wood around my ankles. I really feel that; it is remarkable how quickly the hysterical reaction takes hold and rains down upon those who question the consensus.

Oh, don’t worry. He really hasn’t converted religions. He may be saying that mankind isn’t causing global warming, but Alexander Cockburn quickly identifies the real culprit, who benefits from the scare mongering.

In truth, environmental catastrophism will, in fact it already has, play into the hands of sinister-as-always corporate interests. The nuclear industry is benefiting immeasurably from the current catastrophism.

Of course! It’s the evil corportate interests! Bwahahaha!

oh oh. Cockburn, the committed leftist, has just taken a look over his right shoulder and saw reality bearing down on him. I suggest that he read some David Horowitz before going much further to see what happens next.

More From Mercury

January 31, 2008

At The Planetary Society‘s web site, Emily Lakdawalla continues to do an incredible job of keeping us informed about the latest results from various NASA missions. One of them, the Messenger Mission to Mercury, is interesting to me because it is a mission on-going out of the Applied Physics Lab in Laurel MD, where I had the privilege of working on New Horizons. I’m acquainted with a few of the principals.

It was only a fly-by, the first of three before Messenger settles into orbit around the small planet. But the results are stunning, and the science is already coming out. You can see from the image (and especially from the enlarged view available from the link above) that Mercury is not as simple as the Mariner 10 mission of the ’70s led us to believe. The false color image (which sort of kind of reveals what we would see if our eyes were more sensitive to the infrared portions of the spectrum) has the potential to show parts of Mercury that are differentiated by composition, age, weathering (Weathering? In Space? Most certainly!) and even by the original circumstances of birth.

And it’s only a brief fly-by. Imagine what the data will contain when Messenger is in orbit!

I thought I was in a golden age of astronomy when I was a student, way back when. Not only had man just recently set foot on the moon (real moon-stuff in our hands to study!), but Mariner had set back pictures of Mercury, Pioneer 2 was about to orbit Venus, Pioneer 10 and 11 were heading out to Jupiter and Saturn, and Voyager was getting ready for launch. I was fortunate enoug to hear Carl Sagan give his signature lecture on the Mars Viking Missions.

It wasn’t just planetary astronomy that was heating up. The discovery of Gamma Ray Bursters had just graduated from closely guarded secret to mysterious natural phenominon. Steven Hawking was starting to turn cosmology inside out.

All this new information was telling us – shouting at us – that everything we thought we knew before about space was wrong. Guess what. The same thing has been happening for about the last 15 years, since Hubble was launched. The incredible data sets, distributed world wide (and freely) within hours of being collected are shouting at us again. May it be ever so.