24 April posts

Medicare reform plan: Democrat vs. Republican (From the New York Times)

One of the biggest differences, under both parties’ plans, would be a large reduction of unjustified subsidies to private Medicare Advantage plans that serve 11 million of Medicare’s 46 million enrollees. Last year, those plans were paid 9 percent more per enrollee, on average, for coverage comparable to what traditional Medicare would provide. By eliminating most of the subsidies, the Democrats hope to save $136 billion over 10 years. The Republicans plan to cut only $10 billion less.

The Republicans have also embraced health care reform’s necessary plan to slow the growth rate of payments to health care providers, which was expected to save hundreds of billions over the next decade.

House Republicans would make another deep cut — definitely not in the Democrats’ plan — that would hit many current and future Medicare users hard. The reform law provides subsidies to help close a gap in prescription drug coverage, known as the doughnut hole, that poses a hardship for millions of patients who need lots of medicine and often cannot afford to pay for it. The Republicans would repeal that subsidy.

Perhaps most significant, the two parties have very different approaches to what they would do with their savings. The Democrats would use the savings to extend coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans, a goal we heartily endorse. The Republicans say only that they would use the money in some way to bolster the solvency of Medicare. That is not good enough.

MEDICARE IN THE FUTURE The differences get even bigger over time. President Obama wants to retain Medicare as an entitlement in which the federal government pays for a defined set of medical services. The Ryan proposal would give those turning age 65 in 2022 “premium support” payments to help them buy private policies. There is little doubt that the Republican proposal would sharply reduce federal spending on Medicare by capping what the government would pay at very low levels. But it could cause great hardship by shifting a lot of the burden to beneficiaries. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2022 new enrollees would have to pay at least $6,400 more out of pocket to buy coverage comparable to traditional Medicare.

Trains: the con (via the New York Times)

IT is hard for liberals like me to find good news in the latest agreement to cut the federal budget, but there is at least one silver lining: subsidies for high-speed rail have been sharply reduced. Why is this good news?

In his State of the Union address, President Obama compared high-speed rail to the 19th-century transcontinental railroads as parallel examples of American innovation. I fear he may be right.

For the country as a whole, the Pacific Railway Act of 1864 and subsequent legislation subsidizing the transcontinental railroads — the lines that crossed the continent from the 98th meridian to the Pacific Coast — were the worst laws money could buy. By encouraging dumb growth, those laws sacrificed public good for private gain, and Americans came to regret it.

It is not that either transcontinental railroads or high-speed railroads are always bad ideas. A compelling case can be made for high-speed rail between Boston and Washington, for example, but the administration proposes building high-speed lines in places where there is no demonstrated demand. In California, construction of the new high-speed rail line from San Francisco to San Diego will begin with a line from Borden to Corcoran in California’s Central Valley. It is already being derided as the train to nowhere. The reduction of federal subsidies has not stopped the project, which now threatens to become a forlorn monument to hubris.

Proponents of the transcontinental railroads promised all kinds of benefits they did not deliver. They claimed that the railroads were needed to save the Union, but the Union was already saved before the first line was completed. The best Western farmlands would have been settled without the railroads; their impact on other lands was often environmentally disastrous. For three decades California commodities could move more cheaply, and virtually as quickly, by sea. The subsidies the railroads received enriched contractors and financiers, but nearly all the railroads went into receivership, some multiple times; the government rescued others.

The author goes on to point out that the world only has two non-subsidized high speed rail lines; one of them is Tokyo to Osaka. But I say this: what about the other transportation systems in the world; aren’t those heavily subsidized too? What about the United States; aren’t the airlines subsidized to some degree? The issue is that the high speed rail should be seen as being in competition with the airlines.

The Fed: yes, it bought up debt. This has helped slow down or stop the slide somewhat, but that’s about it:

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve’s experimental effort to spur a recovery by purchasing vast quantities of federal debt has pumped up the stock market, reduced the cost of American exports and allowed companies to borrow money at lower interest rates.

But most Americans are not feeling the difference, in part because those benefits have been surprisingly small. The latest estimates from economists, in fact, suggest that the pace of recovery from the global financial crisis has flagged since November, when the Fed started buying $600 billion in Treasury securities to push private dollars into investments that create jobs.

As the Fed’s policy-making board prepares to meet Tuesday and Wednesday — after which the Fed chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, will hold a news conference for the first time to explain its decisions to the public — a broad range of economists say that the disappointing results show the limits of the central bank’s ability to lift the nation from its economic malaise.

“It’s good for stopping the fall, but for actually turning things around and driving the recovery, I just don’t think monetary policy has that power,” said Mark Thoma, a professor of economics at the University of Oregon, referring specifically to the bond-buying program.

Paul Krugman: sympathy for the poor, put upon wealthy:

Matt Yglesias has a good question, but I don’t think that I agree with his answer.

He points out that

we used to have a debate in which the left said redistributive taxation might be a good idea nd then the right replied that it might sound good, but actually the consequences would be bad. Lower taxes on the rich would lead to more growth and faster increase in incomes.

but that now the right seems fixated on the point that taxing the rich is unfair — they made it, they should keep it.

And he suggests that the right is, implicitly, conceding that trickle-down economics doesn’t work.

But my take is that what we’re looking at is the closing of the conservative intellectual universe, the creation of an echo chamber in which rightists talk only to each other, and in which even the pretense of caring about ordinary people is disappearing. I mean, we’ve been living for some time in an environment in which the WSJ can refer, unselfconsciously, to people making too little to pay income taxes as “lucky duckies”; where Chicago professors making several hundred thousand a year whine that they can’t afford any more taxes, and are surprised when that rubs some people the wrong way. Why wouldn’t such people find it completely natural to think that the hurt feelings of the rich are the main consideration in economic policy?

Ok, so the next person who calls the poor “lucky” because they don’t pay income tax will get a punch in the nose! Ok, no they won’t, at least not from me as I am far too wimpy to carry out such a threat. 🙂


Did you know that there is a chance that the HIV virus could be mutated to provide some benefit to humans?

Human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, is responsible for the disease Aids. Every year, around 2 million people, including 250,000 children, die because they have become infected with the virus, with the vast majority of deaths occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. Efforts by the World Health Organisation and other aid agencies are beginning to reduce mortality levels. Nevertheless, HIV – which wreaks its havoc by attacking the very immune system that is supposed to protect humans against disease – is still destined to cause tens of millions of deaths over the coming decades before it is brought under control.

The notion that the virus could be used to improve human health is therefore an unexpected one. Nevertheless, this is the remarkable idea that is being pursued by Mary Collins, professor of immunology at University College London. She is leading a group of scientists who are devising ways to turn HIV’s lethal properties on their head and to harness the virus so that it can be used to treat a range of diseases.

April 24, 2011 Posted by | Barack Obama, biology, disease, economics, economy, health care, High Speed Rail, political/social, politics, politics/social, Republican, republicans, republicans political/social, republicans politics, science | Leave a comment

17 October 2010

Science, the public and medicine

Sandwalk alerts his readers to the following video which is plugging an ID work:

Actually, I agree with much of the beginning of the video; a evolution, as scientists understand it, precludes a directed process by which a deity could intentionally create beings designed to worship it. The people in this video clearly don’t understand this process and end up making ridiculous statements toward the end…and no, that evolution happened in more or less the way that scientists say that it did is accepted science.

Sandwalk points us to yet another article in which a non-scientists expresses hurt feelings over the fact that scientists don’t take their criticisms seriously. Yes, non-scientists can criticize all they want, but they have no right to be taken seriously. It would help if they got the science right prior to making their criticisms.

If you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all. Maybe not. 🙂 Seriously, surf to this article to see some awesome variety of trees; here is but one to tease you:

Here is a case study that highlights:
1. Why diagnosis is so darned hard
2. Why what you did years ago can come back to haunt you today
3. How the body can keep a fungus at bay for decades only to fall prey to it when the defenses go down.

I simply love the the Vital Signs feature in Discover Magazine. In the November 2010 issue there is an article called Reckless Medicine (by Jeanne Lenzer and Shannon Brownlee which talks about how science is often NOT used in medicine.

Along the same lines is this article:

[…]Last spring, I sat in on one of the team’s weekly meetings on the medical school’s campus, which is plunked crazily across a series of sharp hills. The building in which we met, like most at the school, had the look of a barracks and was festooned with political graffiti. But the group convened in a spacious conference room that would have been at home at a Silicon Valley start-up. Sprawled around a large table were Tatsioni and eight other youngish Greek researchers and physicians who, in contrast to the pasty younger staff frequently seen in U.S. hospitals, looked like the casually glamorous cast of a television medical drama. The professor, a dapper and soft-spoken man named John Ioannidis, loosely presided.

One of the researchers, a biostatistician named Georgia Salanti, fired up a laptop and projector and started to take the group through a study she and a few colleagues were completing that asked this question: were drug companies manipulating published research to make their drugs look good? Salanti ticked off data that seemed to indicate they were, but the other team members almost immediately started interrupting. One noted that Salanti’s study didn’t address the fact that drug-company research wasn’t measuring critically important “hard” outcomes for patients, such as survival versus death, and instead tended to measure “softer” outcomes, such as self-reported symptoms (“my chest doesn’t hurt as much today”). Another pointed out that Salanti’s study ignored the fact that when drug-company data seemed to show patients’ health improving, the data often failed to show that the drug was responsible, or that the improvement was more than marginal.

Salanti remained poised, as if the grilling were par for the course, and gamely acknowledged that the suggestions were all good—but a single study can’t prove everything, she said. Just as I was getting the sense that the data in drug studies were endlessly malleable, Ioannidis, who had mostly been listening, delivered what felt like a coup de grâce: wasn’t it possible, he asked, that drug companies were carefully selecting the topics of their studies—for example, comparing their new drugs against those already known to be inferior to others on the market—so that they were ahead of the game even before the data juggling began? “Maybe sometimes it’s the questions that are biased, not the answers,” he said, flashing a friendly smile. Everyone nodded. Though the results of drug studies often make newspaper headlines, you have to wonder whether they prove anything at all. Indeed, given the breadth of the potential problems raised at the meeting, can any medical-research studies be trusted? […]

To get funding and tenured positions, and often merely to stay afloat, researchers have to get their work published in well-regarded journals, where rejection rates can climb above 90 percent. Not surprisingly, the studies that tend to make the grade are those with eye-catching findings. But while coming up with eye-catching theories is relatively easy, getting reality to bear them out is another matter. The great majority collapse under the weight of contradictory data when studied rigorously. Imagine, though, that five different research teams test an interesting theory that’s making the rounds, and four of the groups correctly prove the idea false, while the one less cautious group incorrectly “proves” it true through some combination of error, fluke, and clever selection of data. Guess whose findings your doctor ends up reading about in the journal, and you end up hearing about on the evening news? Researchers can sometimes win attention by refuting a prominent finding, which can help to at least raise doubts about results, but in general it is far more rewarding to add a new insight or exciting-sounding twist to existing research than to retest its basic premises—after all, simply re-proving someone else’s results is unlikely to get you published, and attempting to undermine the work of respected colleagues can have ugly professional repercussions. […]

Now I am NOT going to say that such research is worthless but there are some problems.
Here are some statistical problems:
1. Confidence intervals are often set at 95 percent. This means that right off the bat, 5 percent of the studies will “show” an effect that really isn’t there.
2. People often don’t understand what the studies say. Here is but one example: (from the November 2010 Discovery Article “Reckless Medicine”):

For example, when an ad for the anticholesterol drug Lipitor trumpets a one third reduction in the risk of heart attack or stroke, that is a relative risk, devoid of meaning without context. Only by knowing how many patients have to be treated to achieve a given benefit and how many will be harmed can doctors determine whether they are doing their patients any good….[…] in the best-case scenario, 50 men at risk for a heart attack would have to be treated with statins like Lipitor for five years to prevent a single heart attack or stroke.

In other words, 98 percent of these men would receive no benefit at all (but which ones?)

If this seems strange, consider the data presented in another way: if I could find a drug that would cut my risk of a heart attack by one third, should I take it? Well, “it depends”: according to an online calculator, I have about a 3 percent chance of getting a heart attack (or dying from from heart disease in the last 10 years) and this medicine would reduce it to 2 percent. Well, what side effects would this drug have? On the other hand, if someone has a 30 percent chance, a 1/3 reduction of risk could be substantial and perhaps worth the risk of side effects.

Religions and atheism

How outspoken should atheists be? I see no reason why we shouldn’t challenge widely held but unsupportable ideas. But remember that, in general, people deserve respect even if their ideas don’t. I know that I sometimes forget this.


The tea party people often conflate the Constitution with their own ideas on how America should be:

[…] But near the end she veered into stranger—and more revealing—territory. O’Donnell once told voters that her “No. 1” qualification for the Senate is an eight-day course she took at a conservative think tank in 2002. Now she was revisiting its subject: the Constitution.

The Founders’ masterpiece, O’Donnell said, isn’t just a legal document; it’s a “covenant” based on “divine principles.” For decades, she continued, the agents of “anti-Americanism” who dominate “the D.C. cocktail crowd” have disrespected the hallowed document. But now, finally, in the “darker days” of the Obama administration, “the Constitution is making a comeback.” Like the “chosen people of Israel,” who “cycle[d] through periods of blessing and suffering,” the Tea Party has rediscovered America’s version of “the Hebrew Scriptures” and led the country into “a season of constitutional repentance.” Going forward, O’Donnell declared, Republicans must champion the “American values” enshrined in our sacred text. “There are more of us than there are of them,” she concluded.

There is much more there.

On the whole, Americans are remarkably uninformed:

Economy: Paul Krugman points out that this current government is NOT a big spending government; the problem is more with the fact that we are underperforming with respect to what our GDP should be.

2010 election It appears that the expected value of the number of expected House pickups by the Republicans is 50; but the confidence interval is very, very wide. In other words, there is a ton of variance in the expected value (either way).

October 17, 2010 Posted by | 2008 Election, 2010 election, america, atheism, Barack Obama, biology, creationism, Democrats, disease, economics, economy, evolution, nature, religion, Republican, republican party, republicans, republicans politics, science, statistics | Leave a comment

13 October 2010 pm posts

Running: does long distance running hurt your knees? Studies are, surprise, inconclusive.

Humor: this guy lowers the bar for all of us.

Republicans: they seem to be in love with stupidity. Here is their high profile Senate candidate:

Barack Obama: this New York Times Magazine article is 8 paged long, but is worth reading. It is even handed; it isn’t written for supporters or detractors.

A friend linked to this Huffington Post “Open Letter to the President” who says that one of the President’s biggest mistakes is thinking that the Republicans might bargain honestly with him.

An attack on a Republican that I don’t approve of:

A five-year-old rape case that was never prosecuted is suddenly causing major ripples in the Colorado Senate race and headaches for Republican candidate Ken Buck.

Three weeks from Election Day, stories have suddenly emerged about Buck’s refusal to follow up on rape allegations involving a University of North Colorado student during his stint as Weld County District Attorney. He declined to file criminal charges against the alleged victim’s attacker on the belief that not enough evidence existed to win the case, a conclusion that is not entirely rare with such delicate cases.

Renewed criticism, however, has erupted over Buck’s handling of the case in light of some of his newly-resurfaced remarks, including a conversation he had with the victim and his suggestion that a jury would view the rape charges as merely her “buyer’s remorse.” […]

Again, a district attorney has to make decisions on which cases are winnable and that is what appeared to happen in this case. A defense attorney made this comment that I agree with:

No applause here on either side. As a defense attorney I can understand why the prosecution would not go forward. Even if the prosecuting authority believes a rape occurred, beyond a reasonable doubt is another question. That said, the case seems to have been handled cavalierly and perhaps insensitively. It’s easy to see how this victim would have come out of this feeling like she had been told “You were asking for it.”

On the other side, it seems like this poor woman is being abused again, albeit this time with her consent, by people trying to score political points with her pain. Win at all costs, no matter who gets hurt. Is it any wonder that so many people come to distrust ALL politicians. Meanwhile, someone somewhere is being taken out for cocktails to celebrate their accomplishment in digging up this old issue and exploiting this young lady to gain a couple of points in a poll and throw the opponent off message.

Side note: one of my less than rational facebook friends appeared to take offense to my posting this; she appeared to “know” how the DA was supposed to do his job (e. g., which cases to bring forward) but had zero experience and provided zero data/examples. Yep, there are emotional idiots on the left as well….

The mine rescue in Chile was an impressive feat of human endurance and engineering. But you knew that this was coming:

The rescue of the trapped miners in Chile is a truly wonderful story. The careful plan put together by international teams seems to be working smoothly in bringing the stoic miners back to the surface and 21 of the 33 have been rescued so far, after spending over two months trapped half-a-mile below the surface. See here for how the rescue was carried out. It is a triumph of perseverance, endurance, cooperation, patience, technology, and science.

But apparently three different Christian denominations are claiming it was their prayers that resulted in god intervening that resulted in the successful rescue and are vying to claim credit for the successful rescue. They did not explain why if god wanted the miners rescued he didn’t simply lift them out of the mine himself or why their gods were silent when the 29 miners died in the West Virginia in April. It is pathetic to see people so desperate for a sign from god that they clutch at these straws.

Now had this deity teleported the miners to safety, I might “believe”. 🙂

Creationism: another example of those who oppose evolution really don’t understand it:

Casey Luskin is at it again. The Intelligent Design Creationists are trying to argue their way out of the obvious implications of the path taken by the recurrent laryngeal nerve, especially in giraffes.

Now they’re saying that, far from being an example of sloppy design, the path of the nerve has to have some selective advantage according to science. Thing is, you need to have a proper understanding of evolution in order to discuss this intelligently.

Surf to the link to get a link to the lunacy.

(ps: I recommend Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin for an easy to understand explanation of how this nerve got to be the way that it is in humans).

Woo: homeopathic deodorant!

Cosmic Log has an interesting series on the electric car (they took a trip and took notes). Scroll down.

Wind Energy: is moving offshore in the US; we lead the world in “land based” wind energy.

Genetically based medicine: is moving closer to reality:

In an approach that many doctors and scientists hope will form the medical care of the future, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston has for the past year and a half been offering people with cancer a novel diagnostic test. Instead of assessing tumours for a single mutation that will indicate whether a drug is likely to work or not, the hospital tests patients for some 150 mutations in more than a dozen cancer-causing genes, with the results being used to guide novel treatments, clinical trials and basic research. This form of personalized medicine tailors treatments on the basis of the molecular and genetic characteristics of a patient’s cancer cells, potentially improving the treatment’s outcome.

Now Britain is set to test whether an entire health-care system is ready for the approach. Plans were unveiled this week to deploy broad genetic testing for selected cancer patients in Britain’s government-run health-care provider, the National Health Service (NHS). This form of ‘stratified medicine’ uses genetic information to group patients according to their likely response to a particular treatment.

“The United Kingdom is really the ideal place to do this,” says James Peach, who heads the programme for Cancer Research UK, the charity that is leading the effort. As the NHS treats millions of people each year, unprecedented numbers of suitable patients could be enrolled in the genetic-profiling programme. “The idea is to scale this up to every patient in the NHS,” says Peach. In its first phase, the programme will be rolled out to as many as 12,000 NHS cancer patients over two years, beginning in early 2011. By contrast, Massachusetts General has tested about 1,600 patients, and other hospitals’ efforts each number in the hundreds.

The tests, which will look for several dozen mutations in about a dozen genes linked to cancer, will be carried out on people with lung, breast, colorectal, prostate or ovarian cancers, or metastatic melanoma, who are being treated at six NHS hospitals. Therapies that target specific tumour-causing mutations have already been approved, or are on the verge of approval, for most of these conditions, says Peach.

Surf to read more; Massachusetts General is doing something like this.

October 14, 2010 Posted by | 2010 election, atheism, Barack Obama, biology, creationism, disease, energy, environment, evolution, green news, human sexuality, humor, nature, political/social, politics, politics/social, relationships, religion, Republican, republican party, republicans, republicans political/social, republicans politics, running, science, technology | Leave a comment

5 October 2010 (AM)

Thanks PZ..Rana sphenocephala utricularia…so cute!

Here is an article about a professor who is working to fight a frog disease:

From the summit of Bishop Pass in the Sierra Nevada, elevation 11,972 feet, all you can see are miles of granite peaks against the sky. There is no traffic and no pollution. The natural world seems pure and unspoiled.

But appearances are deceiving. Over the last decade, disaster has struck in the form of chytridiomycosis, or chytrid, a deadly fungal disease that has driven at least 200 of the world’s 6,700 amphibian species to extinction. One third of the world’s frogs, toads and salamanders are threatened. Forty percent are declining. Chytrid’s arrival has laid waste to the indigenous Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog, Rana sierrae. […]

In Dusy Basin, a remote glacial valley in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks a few miles west of Bishop Pass, Vance Vredenburg, a professor of biology at San Francisco State University, is conducting an experiment he hopes will help preserve what remains of these once abundant creatures. Dr. Vredenburg and his colleagues are inoculating chytrid-infected frogs with a bacteria, Janthinobacterium lividum, or J. liv, that does not prevent infection with chytrid but can help frogs survive.

Dr. Vredenburg, Reid Harris of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., and colleagues found the symbiotic bacteria on several amphibian species. Lab experiments last year showed that J. liv produces a metabolite, violacein, that is toxic to the chytrid fungus. Dr. Vredenburg wants to see how effective the treatment will be in the wild. […]

Leaders at the National Park Service, too, once felt that “we need to protect the national parks from research scientists,” said David Graber, chief scientist for the service’s Pacific West region. Scientists’ agendas were viewed as being at odds with the service’s mandate, which calls for conservation and preservation as well as making parks available for recreation. “Now it’s different,” Dr. Graber said. “Now all we care about are the massive frog die-offs. We’re passionate about conservation. We can’t wait for ‘survival of the fittest.’ ”

It is nice to see the new found levels of cooperation!

Science and mathematics
Scientists push around larger objects (relatively speaking) with light pressure.

Paul Krugman: the math might be right, but one has to make the correct interpretation and understand the limitations of models.

The tail wags the dogs: the Republicans now work for Fox News.

But the Democrats keep fighting each other; this author makes the point that the liberals should keep up the pressure but understand the necessity of Democrats winning the election.

Political Ad

This ad flops with me: I don’t WANT someone who, if elected, would “do what I would do”. I want someone who knows what they are doing and has the necessary skills to be a good politician!

October 5, 2010 Posted by | biology, Democrats, disease, economics, economy, evolution, frogs, mathematics, physics, Political Ad, political/social, politics, politics/social, Republican, republican party, republicans, republicans political/social, republicans politics, Spineless Democrats | Leave a comment

25 August 2010

Classes start today. Back at it; I’ll be busy with a rewrite and classes, and rehabbing my knee/shoulder.

Politics Senator Jim Inhofe calls Senator John McCain a “closet liberal”. I say: Senator Inhofe is an out of the closet loon (creationist, climate change denier, etc.)

But Senator McCain did win his reelection primary (57-32 at of last night) and will probably win reelection.

Mice can be trained to sniff out disease:

Scientists have trained mice to recognize the whiff of bird flu in duck poop, and they think they can train dogs to do the same thing. If so, flu-sniffing dogs — or chemical sensors built to duplicate this not-so-stupid pet trick — could become a new line of defense in the fight against epidemics.

The latest findings focus on the detection of avian influenza, a.k.a. bird flu. But Bruce Kimball, a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher who presented the study today in Boston at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, suggested that the trick could be used to sniff out other diseases as well. “To be honest with you, I think we could demonstrate this type of effect in a lot of areas,” he told me.

Human evolution Here is an interview with a scientist who thinks that tools really forced human evolution; that is, it wasn’t mostly natural selection after a certain point:

You begin your book The Artificial Ape by claiming that Darwin was wrong. In what way?

Darwin is one of my heroes, but I believe he was wrong in seeing human evolution as a result of the same processes that account for other evolution in the biological world – especially when it comes to the size of our cranium.

Darwin had to put large cranial size down to sexual selection, arguing that women found brainy men sexy. But biomechanical factors make this untenable. I call this the smart biped paradox: once you are an upright ape, all natural selection pressures should be in favour of retaining a small cranium. That’s because walking upright means having a narrower pelvis, capping babies’ head size, and a shorter digestive tract, making it harder to support big, energy-hungry brains. Clearly our big brains did evolve, but I think Darwin had the wrong mechanism. I believe it was technology. We were never fully biological entities. We are and always have been artificial apes.

So you are saying that technology came before humans?

The archaeological record shows chipped stone tool technologies earlier than 2.5 million years ago. That’s the smoking gun. The oldest fossil specimen of the genus Homo is at most 2.2 million years old. That’s a gap of more than 300,000 years – more than the total length of time that Homo sapiens has been on the planet. This suggests that earlier hominins called australopithecines were responsible for the stone tools.

Is it possible that we just don’t have a genus Homo fossil, but they really were around?

Some researchers are holding out for an earlier specimen of genus Homo. I’m trying to free us to think that we had stone tools first and that those tools created a significant part of our intelligence. The tools caused the genus Homo to emerge.

I don’t know how this conjecture will play out.

Social From NPR: young people are struggling to find athletes to use as a hero or role model.

My take: so what? Being a good athlete means that you are good at sports. That is fine; I enjoy boxing,NBA, NFL and track action. But being a good athlete hardly means being a hero. Scandals? Meh. Sure, I don’t like cheating. But this off the field/court/out of the ring stuff means little; these peoples are really a type of entertainer and not much else. Scandals involving our elected leaders or, say, scientists who falsify research bother me much more.

August 25, 2010 Posted by | 2010 election, arizona, disease, evolution, flu, health, John McCain, mccain, morons, nature, political/social, politics, politics/social, Republican, republicans, republicans politics, science | Leave a comment

Fun posts 9 July 2010

I am not at the top of my game tonight (early morning really) so I’ll mostly post this as a link dump of stuff I found interesting.

Sports: of course, there are men’s and women’s competitive categories in sports; the idea is that men have a natural competitive advantage at these sports, hence it would be unfair to have the best men compete against the best women. But, what constitutes “a woman”? I am not talking about the transgendered cases but rather the case where, genetically speaking, the distinction isn’t clear. Brotherpeacemaker has an interesting discussion on an African 800 meter runner whose sex has some ambiguity. This is NOT the case of someone trying to cheat but rather a case where everyone is behaving honestly but the fact that male/female distinction does not neatly classify everyone into “crisp” sets; in fact the sets are “fuzzy”.

Science/Cosmology Sean Carroll has an interesting post on one way of measuring how “finely tuned” our universe is. Note: measure theory (as in “measure theory in real analysis”) is brought in.

Science/medicine/biology Some progress in the fight against the HIV virus. Note that this virus is not aggressive in killing the person quickly; this could well be evolutionary as a virus needs an alive host to spread. But here is the Scientific American article:

Variations in individuals’ immune systems can dramatically affect responses to infection—HIV is no exception. The result generally can be shown as a bell curve, with a group of people whose disease progresses rapidly, a broad middle segment who progress typically, and a small group of “elite controllers” whose immune systems are quite effective at containing HIV viral replication.

The quest to figure out why has focused primarily on the adaptive immune system, because CD4+ and CD8+ T cells have a clearly demonstrated capacity to kill cells infected with HIV. But that response only arises some days, weeks and even months after a person has been exposed to HIV and the virus has integrated itself into cellular DNA, establishing lifelong infection. The adaptive immune response can only contain an established infection, it cannot prevent that infection from occurring at its onset.

B cells are the first line of defense against infection. They attack at the initial exposure to a pathogen, and can prevent the establishment of infection—and HIV is no exception. But there are a number of reasons why it has proved difficult to identify their contribution to neutralizing the deadly virus.

HIV transmission is not very efficient. Exposed persons may avoid infection for a variety of mechanical (barrier) and biological reasons, such as the virus’s failure to penetrate to the surface of mucosal tissue or dendritic cell difficulties in latching onto the virus to carry it to a lymph node. So it is challenging to conclusively identify the contribution of a specific immune response that can prevent an initial infection.

Over the years, it has become clear that there are factors other than CD4+ and CD8+ T cells that help to control the virus in at least a portion of those infected with HIV.

Researchers have identified several antibodies that can neutralize the virus. Most of them bind weakly to small, often deep, pockets on the virus. In most instances, once infection becomes established rapidly mutating HIV evolves resistance to those narrowly focused antibodies, often by adding glycans or sugars to its outer envelope, which shields or blocks antibody access to the binding site.

What is needed is an antibody that binds strongly to a surface site on the virus, and which cannot be easily blocked. It is also important that the binding site is greatly conserved across the many strains of HIV.

Researchers at NIH Vaccine Research Center (VRC) decided to look at neutralizing antibodies in the blood of persons who are able to better control HIV infection. Elite controllers were not part of the mix because they seem to control HIV through their adaptive immunological system T cell mechanisms.

Using sophisticated reverse-engineering techniques, the researchers identified three proteins that are broadly neutralizing, which they labeled VRC01, VRC02 and VRC03. They also isolated the B cells that produced them. […]

Science/medicine It has been shown that the environment, in terms of brain stimulation, has a relation on how mice get cancer. That is, an interesting “intellectual” environment reduces the probability of contracting cancer. Is this one of those “p = .05” flukes?

Science/nature: yes some birds can literally “see” magnetic fields.

Technology Here is an interesting look at obsolete but still “in use” technology. It is kind of fun to think about how things have changed. I was aware of that when I got operated on today; my last surgery was in 1984.

Evolution Here is a “new to me” mechanism for evolution: an organism can effectively “borrow” the genes of an invading organism! This is different than using an invasive organism for one’s own purposes. This is especially useful when the host organism lacks the genetic variation to produce the useful mutation.

Evolution and nature Wild cats have learned to mimic monkey calls…so as to better lure the poor monkeys into being their dinner! So human duck hunters aren’t the only animals that do this.

Machine Learning/Artificial Intelligence Billy Dennis reports on a new program that will take an automatic “play by play” and box score and put out an article on the game. How did it do: “not that terrible”, says one newspaper person. Yes, I agree that that isn’t good enough to replace a human reporter, but I love the use of artificial intelligence here. 🙂

Education: it is amazing at what students will do to cheat. Why don’t they study instead?

I see this as a strong political ad. The event itself is tragic, and I admit that I didn’t research all of the details behind it.

Economy Paul Krugman takes his usual line on the economy (and one that I agree with). But what is interesting is that he points out that there is sometimes a difference between what the business lobby wants and what actual business people want:

So where’s the evidence that an antibusiness climate is depressing spending? The answer, supposedly, is that this is what you hear when you talk to entrepreneurs. But don’t believe it. Yes, when you talk to business people they complain about taxes, regulations and the deficit; they always do. But the Obama’s-socialist-policies-are-wrecking-the-economy chorus isn’t coming from businesses; it’s coming from business lobbyists, which isn’t at all the same thing. Read the report on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the latest Washington Monthly: peddling scare stories about what Democrats are up to is a large part of what organizations like the chamber do for a living.

Or read through the latest survey of small business trends by the National Federation for Independent Business, an advocacy group. The commentary at the front of the report is largely a diatribe against government — “Washington is applying leeches and performing blood-letting as a cure” — and you might naïvely imagine that this diatribe reflects what the surveyed businesses said. But while a few businesses declared that the political climate was deterring expansion, they were vastly outnumbered by those citing a poor economy.

The charts at the back of the report, showing trends in business perceptions of their “most important problem,” are even more revealing. It turns out that business is less concerned about taxes and regulation than during the 1990s, an era of booming investment. Concerns about poor sales, on the other hand, have surged. The weak economy, not fear about government actions, is what’s holding investment down.

In short: many business people know that potential customers simply don’t have enough money to spend. That is where a stimulus comes in.

July 10, 2010 Posted by | astronomy, biology, civil liberties, cosmology, Democrats, disease, economy, environment, evolution, mathematics, mind, nature, physics, Political Ad, politics, politics/social, science, space | 2 Comments

Scifri Videos: Rumble In The Jungle

Science, technology, environment and health news and discussion from the makers of the NPR public radio program Science Friday with host Ira Flatow.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about "Scifri Videos: Rumble In The Jungle", posted with vodpod

Jerry Coyne has more here: he thinks that this will be some sort of mating call (a ‘froggy flirt”) and goes on to talk about scientific papers and how to “sell” your work to the journal.

May 30, 2010 Posted by | alternative energy, biology, blogs, brain, cosmology, dark energy, disease, environment, evolution, frogs, green news, health, matter, nanotechnology, nature, neuroscience, physics, public policy and discussion from NPR public radio program Science Friday with host Ira Flatow. Science Videos, science, Science Friday teachers, Science Friday teens., technology | Leave a comment

3 May 2010

Workout notes
3.1 mile walk (untimed), rotator cuff exercises, then 2650 yards: 1000 pull in 17:55, 10 x 100 on the 1:50 (again, no push offs), 5 x (3g/free alternating) with fins, 3 x 50 with paddles.

Later: I decided on a whim to give a double red cell donation; basically you don’t get as dehydrated but you get “out of shape” for a few weeks. Since my swimming is “no push off limited” and I am not going to be walking “fast” for a while, this was the perfect time.

I am not saying that I won’t walk a 5K here or there in the near future, but I won’t be in shape (in terms of injury recovery) to really put the hammer down for a couple of months, at the earliest.

Injury notes: shoulder is slightly sore at night; the knee was all but unnoticeable last night. The improvement has been dramatic; I am starting to forget to take my NASIDs.

Personal: evidently, I am not the only atheist that finds prayer, meditation and yoga to be useful.


Education Grade inflation? It is real. Here is one professor’s take on why:

I think it comes down to this: I was worn to a nub. I did not have the energy to withstand the onslaught of complaints that inevitably came my way when students did not like their C’s. It takes a lot more work to give a C or D rather than an A or B. You have to write many more comments on papers. You have to have many more unpleasant conversations with students. They feel entitled to their A or B, and similarly entitled to an explanation from you when they don’t receive the grade they desire. “I don’t understand why I got a C. I don’t think it’s fair. I worked so hard. Classmate X got an A and they hardly did any work at all,” they will complain. Students will also tell you that they would have done better on an assignment if you, the proffie, had done a better job teaching. “You should have ___ fill in the blank ____.” (It’s usually something you actually did, which they have forgotten about. Or something completely unreasonable, like videotaping and transcribing your lecture and posting everything on the class blog.) Conversations like these — whether in person or via email — take loads of time and energy. The denser the student is, the more rounds it takes. Students with an entitlement mentality don’t want to listen at all.

The reason for my grade inflation was, quite frankly, self-preservation. I was knackered. Exhausted. Burnt out. I no longer found half the conversational at all productive. I think that a lot of us are in the same self-preservation boat, just trying to stay afloat.

Being overwhelmed is the new norm. The state of overwhelmed-ness is another aspect of grade inflation. About mid-point this semester, I realized why I was so exhausted all of the time. I was talking with a friend about all of the issues I’d been dealing with in my classes. On the back of a paper place mat, I made a list.

Here’s the list. On top of grade complaints, in past couple of years, I have dealt with:

* Students with serious health issues such as morbid obesity, Crohn’s disease, Fibromyalgia and diabetes.
* Serious drug and alcohol addictions.
* Simple-minded students lacking basic skills who’d been carried along by the system as B students because they were “nice.” (But now needed a lot of my help.)
* Refugee students with English-as-a-second-language comprehension difficulties.
* Asperger’s students with impaired communication skills.
* Students who had recently lost a parent to cancer. (Mostly moms with breast cancer, sadly.)
* A whole group of students with various learning disabilities who required special accommodation.
* Bipolar students who stopped taking meds.
* Clinically depressed students who stopped taking their meds.
* Super moody students with serious eating disorders.
* The Internet addicts who routinely stayed up until 4 am.
* A bunch of really broken and insecure “mean girls” who glared, gossiped, passed notes and whispered in every class.
* Two pathological liars who absolutely fit the definition of sociopaths.
* A totally crazed adult student with fetal alcohol syndrome, just now enrolling in college at the age of 30.
* Students who routinely wept if you tried to point out how they could improve their work.
* Students in their mid-20’s, members of the National Guard, who returned broken from their experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq or Bosnia.
* A couple of utterly frazzled single moms juggling college, work AND kids (who obviously were having a tough time).

My friend was amazed by the length of the list. I had to assure him that I was not making any of it up. “I have documentation for all of it,” I added. He then remarked that my experience sounded somewhat similar to another friend of his — a high school teacher. Remove the veterans and the single moms, it was the same package.

When I started teaching college as a graduate student back in 1989, these issues were rare.

Yes; I started full time college teaching in 1991. But the percentage of people going to college has gone up. Hence the quality of the students has regressed to the mean; colleges are becoming the old high school.

Now my situation is a bit different; since I mostly teach calculus, the derivatives and integrals haven’t changed and it is easy to tell students that “you got number 2 wrong because the derivative of e^x is not xe^{x-1} “.

Other topics

It is “better weather” time. So around here, it means the 24-7 drone of power mowers, edgers, and the like. Given that one of our neighbors has retired, he now thinks that the grass needs cutting a couple of times a week. That works doesn’t it: make it pretty outside but make it so noisy that it is impossible to enjoy it. Morons.


I am not swimming in the Congo where they have a “king sized piranha”. Click the link to see this beast of the river.

Speaking of science: Watch the Republicans go after a scientist because they don’t like his conclusions on climate change:

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli “has demanded that the University of Virginia turn over documents related to a former UVa climatology professor,” reports the Charlottesville Daily Progress. The documents involve five federal grants received by Mann, who taught at the University of Virginia from 1999 to 2005.

“This really looks like a witch hunt, with a politician going after a researcher,” says Aaron Huertas of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group. “The people attacking Mann are sidelining discussion about climate science with personal attacks on scientists.”

“The attorney general’s office can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of a pending investigation,” says Brian Gottstein, a spokesman for Cuccinelli, by e-mail. Cuccinelli made headlines recently by appealing an EPA finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health.

Mann is best known for a 1999 Nature study he co-authored finding average surface temperatures in the 20th century higher than past centuries, leaping dramatically upwards in a “hockey stick” shape, resembling an “L” lying on its back. Following 2005 Congressional hearings over the “hockey stick” results, a 2006 National Research Council report found the Mann paper’s conclusion, “has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence.”

Politics and things

(from facebook)

Democrats: Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar (also of Minnesota), and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa have introduced a bill to expand research and prevention efforts for eating disorders.

More education
Do charter schools work? Often: not any better than the regular schools:

But for all their support and cultural cachet, the majority of the 5,000 or so charter schools nationwide appear to be no better, and in many cases worse, than local public schools when measured by achievement on standardized tests, according to experts citing years of research. Last year one of the most comprehensive studies, by researchers from Stanford University, found that fewer than one-fifth of charter schools nationally offered a better education than comparable local schools, almost half offered an equivalent education and more than a third, 37 percent, were “significantly worse.”

Although “charter schools have become a rallying cry for education reformers,” the report, by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, warned, “this study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well” as students in traditional schools.

Researchers for this study and others pointed to a successful minority of charter schools — numbering perhaps in the hundreds — and these are the ones around which celebrities and philanthropists rally, energized by their narrowing of the achievement gap between poor minority students and white students.

But with the Obama administration offering the most favorable climate yet for charter schools, the challenge of reproducing high-flying schools is giving even some advocates pause. Academically ambitious leaders of the school choice movement have come to a hard recognition: raising student achievement for poor urban children — what the most fervent call a new civil rights campaign — is enormously difficult and often expensive.

I love it: let’s go by what the data says. Unfortunately, most of the arguments for this educational idea or that educational idea that I’ve heard have been backed up by bluster and not much else.

Speaking of backing up ideas:

(hat tip: Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub)

Speaking of “made up stuff”: I wonder if there is any validity to this:

The new book “The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind,” by Barbara Strauch, has the answers, and the news is surprisingly upbeat. Sure, brains can get forgetful as they get old, but they can also get better with age, reports Ms. Strauch, who is also the health editor at The New York Times. Ms. Strauch, who previously tackled teenage brains in her book “The Primal Teen,” spoke with me this week about aging brains and the people who have them. Here’s our conversation:
Barbara Strauch

After exploring the teenage brain, why did you decide to write a book about grown-ups?

Well, I have a middle-aged brain, for one thing. When I would go give talks about “The Primal Teen,” I’d be driven to the airport or back by a middle-aged person, and they’d turn to me and say: “You should do something about my brain. My brain is suddenly horrible. I can’t remember names.” That’s why I started looking into it. I had my own middle-aged issues like going into an elevator and seeing somebody and thinking, “Who are you?”

So what’s the bad news about the middle-aged brain?

Obviously, there are issues with short-term memory. There are declines in processing speed and in neurotransmitters, the chemicals in our brain. But as it turns out, modern middle age is from 40 to 65. During this long time in the middle, if we’re relatively healthy our brains may have a few issues, but on balance they’re better than ever during that period.

Do teenage brains and middle-aged brains have much in common?

The thing the middle-aged brain shares with the teenage brain is that it’s still developing. It’s not some static blob that is going inexorably downhill. Scientists found that when they watched the brains of teenagers, the brains were expanding and growing and cutting back and shaping themselves, even when the kids are 25 years old. I think for many years scientists just left it at that. They thought that from 25 on, we just get “stupider.” But that’s not true. They’ve found that during this period, the new modern middle age, we’re better at all sorts of things than we were at 20.

So what kinds of things does a middle-aged brain do better than a younger brain?

Inductive reasoning and problem solving — the logical use of your brain and actually getting to solutions. We get the gist of an argument better. We’re better at sizing up a situation and reaching a creative solution. They found social expertise peaks in middle age. That’s basically sorting out the world: are you a good guy or a bad guy? Harvard has studied how people make financial judgments. It peaks, and we get the best at it in middle age.

I can say this: when I was a graduate student in mathematics (1985-1991), I picked up new material much quicker than I can now. I concentrated better and learned nuanced content better. Then again, I was in an intellectually demanding atmosphere daily; now I’ve been subjected to 19 years of teaching mostly mind-numbingly dumbed down material aimed mostly at mediocre talent; it may well be that I am intellectually out of shape and that I’m suffering from brain atrophy. Perhaps it is different for others. Still, most of the really good mathematicians make their mark early and not in middle age.

There appears to be a difference between liberal and conservative websites:

Many liberal blogs, it turns out, were created with platforms to host multiple authors and share attention with guest contributors. Conservative blogs, in contrast, often use technologies highlighting a single author–while consigning guests to the digital equivalent of a newspaper’s classified section. Those are some key findings of a forthcoming study by researchers from Harvard, Yale and Berkeley, “A Tale of Two Blogospheres,” which disputes several conventional views of political blogs (view a chart summarizing the comparisons).

The dominant academic literature posits an ideologically symmetrical blogosphere–an arena where liberals and conservatives practice similar writing, linking and mobilization tactics. The political and media establishment, meanwhile, tend to treat blogs as an isolated medium for political polarization. In this narrative, blogs are a digital refuge for the radical pacifists and tea party insurgents stuck at the margins of their own parties.

The first premise is wrong, according to the study’s findings, and the second misses the mark, which suggests consequences for politicos across the spectrum.

The study, conducted by Yochai Benkler, Aaron Shaw and Victoria Stodden and obtained before publication by The Nation, began with a content and technological analysis of 155 leading political blogs during two weeks of the 2008 presidential election.

One of the most striking findings is structural: liberal blogs provide audience participation options at triple the rate of conservative sites. That means visitors to progressive sites are more empowered to contribute entire posts to the “front page,” and more likely to have their contributions or comments highlighted before potentially hundreds of thousands of readers (see chart).

The popular site DailyKos, for example, has over 160,000 registered users. On a traditional media site, those people would be relegated to commenting at the bottom of articles. Yet on DailyKos’s platform, every registered user can write guest entries. Social voting allows the community to pick favorite guest posts, which are featured on the main page. That kind of deep audience production and interaction is one reason that Daily Kos’s traffic, which tops 4 million page views a week, rivals the sites of many newspapers. In the blogosphere study, this kind of amateur writing is distinguished as “secondary content,” in contrast to the “primary content” by bloggers who control the means of production. And on this score, again, the study found that liberals are more into amplifying voices from the crowd.

“The Left adopts more fluid and permeable boundaries between primary and secondary content,” the study concludes.

One odd conclusion:

As always, there is demography. The left skews younger, in this theory, and is simply more savvy about options online.

Fat chance. The authors note that first, political blog communities are generally older than other online audiences. You don’t even need Harvard for this nugget, just cruise the bar scene at any blog convention. Second, other research indicates that there are actually more Republicans online than Democrats (84 percent to 71 percent–who knew?). Third, and more to the point, it was Republicans who used the web for politics more in 2008 (68 percent to 53 percent, though these numbers vary depending on the polling).

May 4, 2010 Posted by | arizona, atheism, Democrats, disease, economy, education, humor, immigration. racial profiling, injury, nature, Peoria, Peoria/local, Personal Issues, politics, politics/social, ranting, republicans, republicans politics, sb1070, science, social/political, swimming, training, walking | Leave a comment

1 May 2010 (am)

This bill will face some difficult opposition; the Senate will be the big problem.

Public Education

My one worry: public education can be undermined by the parents. But some quality exposure to things can make a difference, I think. I wonder if there are some studies out there that show differences.

Religious/Social: it is a fine line between being deliberately offensive and making a point. I understand why University of Illinois students drew “The Prophet” on the ground in chalk. But my dilemma: does one make a point to the idiots that issue death threats at the expense of deliberately making decent people feel bad?

Science Inflammation can affect the brain (e. g., there is correlation between tooth loss and a loss of cognitive brain function):

Researchers at Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine (GSDM) link tooth loss and periodontal disease to cognitive decline in one of the largest and longest prospective studies on the topic to date, released in this month’s issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Dr. Elizabeth Krall Kaye looked for patterns in dental records from 1970 to 1973 to determine if periodontal disease and tooth loss predicted whether people did well or poorly on cognitive tests. She found that for each tooth lost per decade, the risk of doing poorly increased approximately eight to 10 percent.

More cavities usually meant lower cognition too. People with no tooth loss tended to do better on the tests.

Dr. Kaye says inflammation is a possible cause, noting that other studies found higher levels of inflammation markers in people with Alzheimer’s. “Periodontal disease and caries are infectious diseases that introduce inflammatory proteins into the blood,” she says. “There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that inflammation raises your risk of cognitive decline and it could be that gum inflammation is one of the sources.”

The men studied—veterans living in the Boston metropolitan area—enrolled in the VA Dental Longitudinal Study in the late 1960s and early 70s and came back for medical, dental, and cognitive exams, which started in 1993, every three years.

Participants took two cognitive tests. The first, the Mini-Mental State Examination, tests orientation, attention, calculation, recall, language, and motor skills. The second, a spatial copying test, asks participants to copy nine geometric designs ranging from easy to complex.

“The ability to copy is one of the things people lose as they lose cognitive ability,” Dr. Kaye says.

Hmm, my knee swells from time to time…does this explain why I am an idiot? 🙂

Speaking of brains: the brains of some top athletes operate rapidly:

The qualities that set a great athlete apart from the rest of us lie not just in the muscles and the lungs but also between the ears. That’s because athletes need to make complicated decisions in a flash. One of the most spectacular examples of the athletic brain operating at top speed came in 2001, when the Yankees were in an American League playoff game with the Oakland Athletics. Shortstop Derek Jeter managed to grab an errant throw coming in from right field and then gently tossed the ball to catcher Jorge Posada, who tagged the base runner at home plate. Jeter’s quick decision saved the game—and the series—for the Yankees. To make the play, Jeter had to master both conscious decisions, such as whether to intercept the throw, and unconscious ones. These are the kinds of unthinking thoughts he must make in every second of every game: how much weight to put on a foot, how fast to rotate his wrist as he releases a ball, and so on.

In recent years neuroscientists have begun to catalog some fascinating differences between average brains and the brains of great athletes. By understanding what goes on in athletic heads, researchers hope to understand more about the workings of all brains—those of sports legends and couch potatoes alike.

As Jeter’s example shows, an athlete’s actions are much more than a set of automatic responses; they are part of a dynamic strategy to deal with an ever-changing mix of intricate challenges. Even a sport as seemingly straightforward as pistol shooting is surprisingly complex. A marksman just points his weapon and fires, and yet each shot calls for many rapid decisions, such as how much to bend the elbow and how tightly to contract the shoulder muscles. Since the shooter doesn’t have perfect control over his body, a slight wobble in one part of the arm may require many quick adjustments in other parts. Each time he raises his gun, he has to make a new calculation of what movements are required for an accurate shot, combining previous experience with whatever variations he is experiencing at the moment.

To explain how brains make these on-the-fly decisions, Reza Shadmehr of Johns Hopkins University and John Krakauer of Columbia University two years ago reviewed studies in which the brains of healthy people and of brain-damaged patients who have trouble controlling their movements were scanned. They found that several regions of the brain collaborate to make the computations needed for detailed motor actions. The brain begins by setting a goal—pick up the fork, say, or deliver the tennis serve—and calculates the best course of action to reach it. As the brain starts issuing commands, it also begins to make predictions about what sort of sensations should come back from the body if it achieves the goal. If those predictions don’t match the actual sensations, the brain then revises its plan to reduce error. Shadmehr and Krakauer’s work demonstrates that the brain does not merely issue rigid commands; it also continually updates its solution to the problem of how to move the body. Athletes may perform better than the rest of us because their brains can find better solutions than ours do.

This is, of course, a very different activity than understanding, say, complex mathematics.

I know that when I attempt sports, I look very machine like and mechanical; for me, each movement is a bunch of discrete movements.

Cancer Research: more news:

MicroRNA is linked to a shut down of genes that repair DNA and attempt to prevent cancer causing mutations:

New research shows for the first time that molecules called microRNA can silence genes that protect the genome from cancer-causing mutations.

The study, led by researchers at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center-Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute, shows that microRNA-155 (miR-155) can inhibit the activity of genes that normally correct the damage when the wrong bases are paired in DNA.

The loss or silencing of these genes, which are called mismatch repair genes, causes inherited cancer-susceptibility syndromes and contributes to the progression of colorectal, uterine, ovarian and other cancers.

“This is the first evidence that deregulation of microRNAs can cause genomic instability, a characteristic of cancer cells,” says principal investigator Dr. Carlo M. Croce, professor of molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics, and director of Ohio State’s Human Cancer Genetics program.

“We discovered that miR-155 targets and downregulates mismatch repair genes and that overexpression of miR-155 results in an increase in genomic alterations that contribute to cancer pathogenesis,” he says.

The study was published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows the following […]

Surf to the article to read more.

Risks The oil slicks resulting from oil rig fires are changing the public’s attitudes toward off shore drilling. But how should rare but very damaging events be viewed and how should information from them be used?


Adorable I don’t know what her sexual orientation is. But were I single and 15 years younger, I’d be on my knees, begging her for a date.

I am interested in the upcoming NBA playoff series between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics. I see the Cavs winning in 5-6 games but will be pulling for the Celtics. Evidently this series should feature some spirited play:

LeBron James’(notes) famed right elbow won’t be the only one drawing attention.

Bitter enemies, the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers are about to exchange elbows, shoves, insults and baskets in the NBA playoffs.

This reunion won’t be peaceful.

“We don’t like them, they don’t like us,” Cavaliers guard Mo Williams(notes) said. “It’s obvious.”

It’s on. Again.

For the second time in three years, the Cavaliers and Celtics will meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals, renewing a sweltering rivalry that has grown with intensity and will be ratcheted up to a new extreme when the clubs open the best-of-seven series on Saturday beneath a fire-spewing scoreboard inside Quicken Loans Arena.

Forget the buzzer.

Maybe a ring-side bell would be better to signal the end of each quarter.

“It’s going to be a good heavyweight fight,” Boston’s Paul Pierce(notes) said.

The Celtics and Cavs, who played a knock-down-drag-out series won by Boston in seven games two years ago, have been pummeling each other for some time. […]

But this year, the Cavs have the better team.

May 1, 2010 Posted by | basketball, disease, education, mind, nature, NBA, obama, politics, politics/social, religion, science, superstition | Leave a comment

30 March 2010 (early am)

Injury note Painful sleeping again; I seem to do better then there is no bed cover to force my toe to stay “pointed”. Symptoms: ache that wakes me up; the ache goes away quickly when I get up and walk around.

Science Image: go here to see a NASA image of the earth’s magnetic field protecting the earth from coronal mass ejections.

Health and behavior Though personal responsibility is good, it is impossible to enforce and all but impossible to build a workable health care policy that depends on everyone behaving optimally. We all have bad habits: some talk on the cell phone while driving, others smoke, eat too much, drink too much, or, on occasion, walk/run too much (see my first entry) 🙂 .

Books: It is a different world out there and independent book sellers are hurting (as are authors):

The death of independent bookshops is just one symptom of a much wider crisis in publishing. Discounted books, online bookselling and the advent of ebooks are destroying old patterns of reading and book buying. We are living through a revolution as enormous as the one created by Gutenberg’s printing press – and authors and publishers are terrified they will become as outdated as the monks who copied out manuscripts. How this happened is down to ambitious editors, greedy agents, demanding writers and big businesses with an eye for easy profit. Combine that with devilishly fast technological innovation and you have a story as astonishing as the credit crunch – and potentially as destructive.

Politics Republican “gotcha” FAIL:

Sorry Jason. The bill doesn’t say anything about playgrounds or jungle gyms or monkey bars. And when you approach someone who is much more knowledgeable than yourself about legislation, you ought not try to lie about what’s in the bill. What the bill says is that funds in this section can be used for…

(i) creating healthier school environments, including increasing healthy food options, physical activity opportunities, promotion of healthy lifestyle, emotional wellness, and prevention curricula, and activities to prevent chronic diseases;
(ii) creating the infrastructure to support active living and access to nutritious foods in a safe environment;

So now we see that Breitbart and his ward are just as opposed to safe schools and nutritious foods as they are to preventing child abuse. But I have to admire his tenacity. After making an ass of himself over the non-existent jungle gyms, Mattera plowed ahead with a complaint about language in the bill that provides new mothers with reasonable breaks for breast feeding. I thought Republicans were supposed to be the “family values” party. Not that they ever actually supported family values, but they have long sought to pretend that they did. But here the truth is revealed as Mattera berates Franken for supporting a bill that permits new mothers to care for their infant children.

Note: not every line in the bill is to lower cost. But doesn’t “healthier kids” imply kids getting sick less frequently? Isn’t this part of prevention?

March 30, 2010 Posted by | books, disease, health care, injury, politics, politics/social, republicans, science | Leave a comment