Wednesday, February 27, 2008

What you don't know...

Washington Post:
The lead author and peer reviewers of a government report raising the possibility of public health threats from industrial contamination throughout the Great Lakes region are charging that the report is being suppressed because of the questions it raises. The author also alleges that he was demoted because of the report.

Chris De Rosa, former director of the division of toxicology and environmental medicine at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), charges that the report he wrote was a significant factor in his reassignment to a non-supervisory "special assistant" position last year.

The House Committee on Science and Technology is investigating De Rosa's reassignment, in light of allegations that it was related to the Great Lakes report and his push to publicize the possibility of a cancer risk from formaldehyde fumes in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers housing victims of Hurricane Katrina.

De Rosa said his agency cited the Great Lakes report being below expectations as one of the reasons for his removal from the post he had held since 1992. The ATSDR is housed within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC spokesman Glen Nowak said he could not discuss personnel issues.

The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative group, has obtained a copy of the draft report and posted portions on its Web site.

Diversity matters

Science Daily:
Human migration from Africa to Europe more than 30,000 years ago appears to have left a mark on the genes of Europeans today.

A Cornell-led study, reported in the Feb. 21 issue of the journal Nature, compared more than 10,000 sequenced genes from 15 African-Americans and 20 European-Americans. The results suggest that European populations have proportionately more harmful variations, though it is unclear what effects these variations actually may have on the overall health of Europeans.

Computer simulations suggest that the first Europeans comprised small and less diverse populations. That would have allowed mildly harmful genetic variations within those populations to become more frequent over time, the researchers report.

Egypt's first agricultual community

Science Daily:
Archaeologists from UCLA and the University of Groningen (RUG) in the Netherlands have found the earliest evidence ever discovered of an ancient Egyptian agricultural settlement, including farmed grains, remains of domesticated animals, pits for cooking and even floors for what appear to be dwellings.

The findings, which were unearthed in 2006 and are still being analyzed, also suggest possible trade links with the Red Sea, including a thoroughfare from Mesopotamia, which is known to have practiced agriculture 2,000 years before ancient Egypt.

"By the time of the Pharaohs, everything in ancient Egypt centered around agriculture," said Willeke Wendrich, the excavation's co-director and an associate professor of Near Eastern languages and cultures at UCLA. "What we've found here is a window into the development of agriculture some 2,000 years earlier. We hope this work will help us answer basic questions about how, why and when ancient Egypt adopted agriculture."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Why not everyone's celebrating

Spiegel Online:
Kosovo is turning out to be a huge source of conflict, both in the Balkans and across Europe. Six EU member states are against recognizing Kosovo's independence, because they fear it could lead to problems with their own ethnic minorities.

Star stocking food and water

Science Daily:
New calculations by University of Sussex astronomers predict that the Earth will be swallowed up by the Sun in about 7.6 billion years unless the Earth’s orbit can be altered.

Something stinks

Washington Post:
Under pressure from agriculture industry lobbyists and lawmakers from agricultural states, the Environmental Protection Agency wants to drop requirements that factory farms report their emissions of toxic gases, despite findings by the agency's scientists that the gases pose a health threat.

The EPA acknowledges that the emissions can pose a threat to people living and working nearby, but it says local emergency responders don't use the reports, making them unnecessary. But local air-quality agencies, environmental groups and lawmakers who oppose the rule change say the reports are one of the few tools rural communities have for holding large livestock operations accountable for the pollution they produce.

Opponents of the rule change say agriculture lobbyists orchestrated a campaign to convince the EPA that the reports are not useful and misrepresented the effort as reflecting the views of local officials. They say the plan to drop the reporting requirement is emblematic of a broader effort by the Bush-era EPA to roll back federal pollution rules.

Let there be life!

Science Daily:
The rise of oxygen and the oxidation of deep oceans between 635 and 551 million years ago may have had an impact on the increase and spread of the earliest complex life, including animals, according to a new study.

Today, we take oxygen for granted. But the atmosphere had almost no oxygen until 2.5 billion years ago, and it was not until about 600 million years ago when the atmospheric oxygen level rose to a fraction of modern levels. For a long time, geologists and evolutionary biologists have speculated that the rise of the breathing gas and subsequent oxygenation of the deep oceans are intimately tied to the evolution of modern biological systems.

To test the interaction between biological evolution and environmental change, an international team of scientists from Virginia Tech, the University of Maryland, University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and Chinese Academy of Sciences, examined changes in the geochemistry and fossil distribution of 635- to 551-million-year old sediments preserved in the Doushantuo Formation in the Yangtze Gorges area of South China.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Don't Eat Farmed Salmon!

Science Daily:
Comparing the survival of wild salmonid populations in areas near salmon farms with unexposed populations reveals a large reduction in survival in the populations reared near salmon farms. Since the late 1970s, salmon aquaculture has grown into a global industry, producing over 1 million tons of salmon per year. However, this solution to globally declining fish stocks has come under increasing fire. In a new study Jennifer Ford and Ransom Myers provide the first evidence on a global scale illustrating systematic declines in wild salmon populations that come into contact with farmed salmon.

Previous studies have clearly shown that escaped farm salmon breed with wild populations to the detriment of the wild stocks, and that diseases and parasites are passed from farm to wild salmon. However, until now, there has been no assessment of the importance of these impacts at the population level and across the globe. Here, Ford & Myers compared the survival of salmon and trout that swim past salmon farms to the survival of those fish that never pass a salmon farm.

Waiting at the gate

Science Daily:
The human journey from Asia to the New World was interrupted by a 20,000 -year layover in Beringia, a once-habitable region that today lies submerged under the icy waters of the Bering Strait. Furthermore, the New World was colonized by approximately 1,000 to 5,000 people - a substantially higher number than the 100 or fewer individuals of previous estimates.

The developments, to be reported by University of Florida Genetics Institute scientists in PloS One, help shape understanding of how the Americas came to be populated - not through a single expansion event that is put forth in most theories, but in three distinct stages separated by thousands of generations.

"Our model makes for a more interesting, complex scenario than the idea that humans diverged from Asians and expanded into the New World in a single event," said Connie Mulligan, Ph.D., an associate professor of anthropology at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and assistant director of the UF Genetics Institute. "If you think about it, these people didn't know they were going to a new world. They were moving out of Asia and finally reached a landmass that was exposed because of lower sea levels during the last glacial maximum, but two major glaciers blocked their progress into the New World. So they basically stayed put for about 20,000 years. It wasn't paradise, but they survived. When the North American ice sheets started to melt and a passage into the New World opened, we think they left Beringia to go to a better place."

UF scientists analyzed DNA sequences from Native American, New World and Asian populations with the understanding that modern DNA is forged by an accumulation of events in the distant past, and merged their findings with data from existing archaeological, geological and paleoecological studies.

The result is a unified, interdisciplinary theory of the "peopling" of the New World, which shows a gradual migration and expansion of people from Asia through Siberia and into Beringia starting about 40,000 years ago; a long waiting period in Beringia where the population size remained relatively stable; and finally a rapid expansion into North America through Alaska or Canada about 15,000 years ago.


Spiegel Online:
In a SPIEGEL interview, prominent Turkish archeologist Muazzez Ilmiye Cig discusses her country's move to lift the headscarf ban on college campuses and why she feels it represents a "step back" for her country.

Supporters of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Anatolia: "What is really at stake is power and political interests!"
Hardly any other issue is so divisive in Turkey as the headscarf. For some it is an expression of individual religiousness, while others see it as a declaration of war against the secular republic. The parliament in Ankara, which is dominated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic conservative AKP, voted last Wednesday to lift the ban on wearing the headscarf at universities.

On Saturday, parliament voted overwhelmingly to approve the two constitutional amendments. In lifting the ban, Erdogan made good on a campaign promise he had made five years ago. Leading up to the parliament's decision, tens of thousands of secular Turks took to the streets to express their support for keeping the ban. The amendments have been sent to the office of President Abdullah Gül, who is expected to agree to the changes.

In an interview with SPIEGEL, Muazzez Ilmiye Çig -- the 93-year-old doyenne of Turkish archeology, and one of Turkey's best-known opponents of the headscarf -- discusses the development and its ramifications for the secular nation.

Neanderthals were going mobile

Science Daily:
A 40,000-year-old tooth has provided scientists with the first direct evidence that Neanderthals moved from place to place during their lifetimes. In a collaborative project involving researchers from the Germany, the United Kingdom, and Greece, Professor Michael Richards of the Max Planck institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and Durham University, UK, and his team used laser technology to collect microscopic particles of enamel from the tooth. By analysing strontium isotope ratios in the enamel - strontium is a naturally occurring metal ingested into the body through food and water - the scientists were able to uncover geological information showing where the Neanderthal had been living when the tooth was formed.

The tooth, a third molar, was formed when the Neanderthal was aged between seven and nine. It was recovered in a coastal limestone cave in Lakonis, in Southern Greece, during an excavation directed by Dr Eleni Panagopoulou of the Ephoreia of Paleoanthropology and Speleology (Greek Ministry of Culture). The strontium isotope readings, however, indicated that the enamel formed while the Neanderthal lived in a region made up of older volcanic bedrock. The findings could help answer a long-standing debate about the mobility of the now extinct Neanderthal species.

Some researchers argue that Neanderthals stayed in one small area for most of their lives; others claim their movements were more substantial and they moved over long distances; and others say they only moved within a limited area, perhaps on a seasonal basis to access different food sources.

Professor Richards said: "Strontium from ingested food and water is absorbed as if it was calcium in mammals during tooth formation. Our tests show that this individual must have lived in a different location when the crown of the tooth was formed than where the tooth was found. The evidence indicates that this Neanderthal moved over a relatively wide range of at least 20 kilometres or even further in their lifetime. Therefore we can say that Neanderthals did move over their lifetimes and were not confined to limited geographical areas."

Saturday, February 9, 2008


Robin Morgan's 1970 feminist essay, Goodbye To All That.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s great 2005 speech to the Sierra Club.

Garrett Hardin's legendary environmental essay, The Tragedy of The Commons.

The Real Reagan

Michael Kinsley:
But the biggest fairy tale about Reagan is the most central one: about taxes and spending. It is one thing to sit in a North Vietnamese prison in the early 1970s, dreaming of a California governor who one day will balance the federal budget. It is another to imagine that it actually happened.

When Reagan took office in 1981, federal receipts (taxes) were $517 billion and outlays (spending) were $591 billion, for a deficit of $74 billion. When he left office in 1989, taxes were $999 billion and spending was $1.14 trillion, for a deficit of $141 billion. As a share of the economy, Reagan did cut taxes, from 19.6% to 18.4%, and he cut spending from 22.2% to 21.2%, increasing the deficit from 2.6% to 2.8%. The deficit went as high as an incredible 5% of GDP during his term. As a result, the national debt soared by almost two-thirds. You can fiddle with these numbers -- assuming it takes a year or two for a president's policies to take effect, or taking defense costs out -- and the basic result is the same or worse. Whatever, these numbers hardly constitute a "revolution."

McCain's stagy self-flagellation, on behalf of all Republicans, for betraying the Reagan revolution when they controlled Congress and the White House is entirely misplaced. George W. Bush and the GOP Congress did precisely what Reagan did: They cut taxes, mainly on the well-to-do, but they barely touched spending.

If the GOP is looking around for an icon to worship, it might consider Bill Clinton. He cut spending from 21.4% of GDP to 18.5% -- three times as much as Reagan. True, he raised taxes from 17.6% to 19.8%, but that's still a smaller chunk than when Reagan left office. And he left us with an annual surplus that threatened to eliminate the national debt. What's more, I think he's available.


Science Daily:
New research shows that people with blue eyes have a single, common ancestor. A team at the University of Copenhagen have tracked down a genetic mutation which took place 6-10,000 years ago and is the cause of the eye colour of all blue-eyed humans alive on the planet today.

“Originally, we all had brown eyes”, said Professor Eiberg from the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine. “But a genetic mutation affecting the OCA2 gene in our chromosomes resulted in the creation of a “switch”, which literally “turned off” the ability to produce brown eyes”. The OCA2 gene codes for the so-called P protein, which is involved in the production of melanin, the pigment that gives colour to our hair, eyes and skin. The “switch”, which is located in the gene adjacent to OCA2 does not, however, turn off the gene entirely, but rather limits its action to reducing the production of melanin in the iris – effectively “diluting” brown eyes to blue. The switch’s effect on OCA2 is very specific therefore. If the OCA2 gene had been completely destroyed or turned off, human beings would be without melanin in their hair, eyes or skin colour – a condition known as albinism.

Free Trade is not very popular

"We are the champions - of the world" may be the verse that rings out in stadiums across the U.S., but in the great game of global trade, Americans are increasingly feeling like the losers. A large majority - 68% - of those surveyed in a new Fortune poll says America's trading partners are benefiting the most from free trade, not the U.S. That sense of victimhood is changing America's attitude about doing business with the world.

We are a nation crawling into a fetal position, cramped by fear that America has lost control of its destiny in a fiercely competitive global economy. The fear is mostly about jobs lost overseas and wages capped by foreign competition.

But it is also fueled by lead-painted toys from China and border-hopping workers from Mexico, by the housing and credit crisis at home, and by the residue of vulnerability left by 9/11 and the wars that followed. Americans were willing to experiment with open borders during the exuberant 1990s. Today that mood has darkened. We are turning inward. Especially now, as the U.S. economy sputters, we are on the verge of becoming a country of economic nationalists.


McClatchy Newspapers:
President Bush took office in 2001 with a budget surplus, but his final budget proposal envisions federal deficits of more than $400 billion a year for the next two years. As big as those numbers are, experts think that the administration is lowballing the deficits, and they put little stock in Bush's vow to balance the budget by 2012.

"I think the promise that it will be balanced by 2012 is ridiculous," said Chris Edwards, the director of tax policy for the Cato Institute, a libertarian policy research group.

Bush's estimates of a $410 billion deficit this fiscal year and $407 billion for fiscal 2009, budget experts said, rely on very low assumptions of war costs, unrealistic estimates on tax collection and spending cuts that won't sell politically, regardless of which party is in charge of Congress.

"No sensible analyst takes this (budget) estimate seriously," said Robert Greenstein, the executive director of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Hidden Treasures

Science Daily:
Like X-rays let doctors see the bones beneath our skin, "T-rays" could let art historians see murals hidden beneath coats of plaster or paint in centuries-old buildings, University of Michigan engineering researchers say.

T-rays, pulses of terahertz radiation, could also illuminate penciled sketches under paintings on canvas without harming the artwork, the researchers say. Current methods of imaging underdrawings can't detect certain art materials such as graphite or sanguine, a red chalk that some of the masters are believed to have used.

The team of researchers, which includes scientists at the Louvre Museum, Picometrix, LLC and U-M, used terahertz imaging to detect colored paints and a graphite drawing of a butterfly through 4 mm of plaster. They believe their technique is capable of seeing even deeper.

In March, the scientists will take their equipment to France to help archaeologists examine a mural they discovered recently behind five layers of plaster in a 12th century church.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Wasting money and exacerbating tensions

Poland and the US have reached an agreement in principle to install a controversial American missile defence system on Polish soil.

In return for hosting part of the shield, the US has said it will help bolster Poland's air defences.

The US wants to install interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic.

Russia opposes the project, saying it would destabilise global security and undermine its own nuclear deterrent.

Making things worse- as usual

Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh, in Foreign Affairs:
Summary: The Bush administration wants to contain Iran by rallying the support of Sunni Arab states and now sees Iran's containment as the heart of its Middle East policy: a way to stabilize Iraq, declaw Hezbollah, and restart the Arab-Israeli peace process. But the strategy is unsound and impractical, and it will probably further destabilize an already volatile region.


The recent flyby of Mercury by NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft has given scientists an entirely new look at a planet once thought to have characteristics similar to those of Earth's moon. Researchers are amazed by the wealth of images and data that show a unique world with a diversity of geological processes and a very different magnetosphere from the one discovered and sampled more than 30 years ago.

Mrs. Greenspan, spinning

Media Matters:
Summary: NBC's Andrea Mitchell falsely claimed that during the January 31 Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton "really misstated her vote on the Levin amendment" -- referring to an amendment offered by Sen. Carl Levin to the 2002 resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. In fact, during the debate Clinton acknowledged her vote against the Levin amendment and provided an explanation for her vote that is consistent with the way she explained her position on the day of the vote.