Swimmers’ Sunscreen Killing Off Coral

Thursday, January 31st, 2008

Swimmers' Sunscreen Killing Off Coral:

Four commonly found sunscreen ingredients can awaken dormant viruses in the symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae that live inside reef-building coral species.

The chemicals cause the viruses to replicate until their algae hosts explode, spilling viruses into the surrounding seawater, where they can infect neighboring coral communities.

Zooxanthellae provide coral with food energy through photosynthesis and contribute to the organisms’ vibrant color. Without them, the coral “bleaches” — turns white — and dies.

“The algae that live in the coral tissue and feed these animals explode or are just released by the tissue, thus leaving naked the skeleton of the coral,” said study leader Roberto Danovaro of the Polytechnic University of Marche in Italy.

The researchers estimate that 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen wash off swimmers annually in oceans worldwide, and that up to 10 percent of coral reefs are threatened by sunscreen-induced bleaching.

Logic Test

Thursday, January 31st, 2008

I suppose a logic test isn’t meant to be terribly challenging for a (former) computer scientist.

Blue-eyed humans have a single, common ancestor

Thursday, January 31st, 2008

Blue-eyed humans have a single, common ancestor, according to researchers at the University of Copenhagen:

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.

Variation in the colour of the eyes from brown to green can all be explained by the amount of melanin in the iris, but blue-eyed individuals only have a small degree of variation in the amount of melanin in their eyes. “From this we can conclude that all blue-eyed individuals are linked to the same ancestor,” says Professor Eiberg. “They have all inherited the same switch at exactly the same spot in their DNA.” Brown-eyed individuals, by contrast, have considerable individual variation in the area of their DNA that controls melanin production.

Professor Eiberg and his team examined mitochondrial DNA and compared the eye colour of blue-eyed individuals in countries as diverse as Jordan, Denmark and Turkey. His findings are the latest in a decade of genetic research, which began in 1996, when Professor Eiberg first implicated the OCA2 gene as being responsible for eye colour.

What Our Top Spy Doesn’t Get: Security and Privacy Aren’t Opposites

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

Security expert Bruce Schneier notes that what “our top spy” — Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell — doesn’t “get” when he says “Privacy and security are a zero-sum game,” is that Security and Privacy Aren’t Opposites:

I’m sure they have that saying in their business. And it’s precisely why, when people in their business are in charge of government, it becomes a police state. If privacy and security really were a zero-sum game, we would have seen mass immigration into the former East Germany and modern-day China. While it’s true that police states like those have less street crime, no one argues that their citizens are fundamentally more secure.

I suppose an economist would say that we don’t have to trade privacy for security unless we’re on an efficient frontier — and we’re clearly not trading off the least privacy for the most security right now.

A Very Stimulating Crisis

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

We face A Very Stimulating Crisis, and economists are no longer so sure they know what to do:

Does the U.S. economy in early 2008 need a stimulus? If so, will tax cuts or attempts by the Fed to lower interest rates do the trick?

I used to be able to answer such questions with confidence. Now I cannot.

The theory of the causes of unemployment, interest rates, and inflation falls under the subject known as macroeconomics. Macroeconomics is like astrology or Freudian psychology, in that a lot of people used to believe it, and a lot of people still do, but many with a scientific bent tend to stay away from it.

When Health Care Becomes Personal

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

Arnold Kling discusses how the medical establishment has treated his elderly father, in When Health Care Becomes Personal — then draws some larger conclusions:

Medicare is wonderful for relieving the elderly from the burden of worrying about health care expenses. By the same token, it is wonderful for relieving doctors of the burden of worrying about the elderly as customers. You get paid for understanding the billing system, not for understanding your patients.

Scientists Are Learning How Weed Causes Paranoia

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

Scientists Are Learning How Weed Causes Paranoia:

By injecting small amounts of the marijuana-derived drug into different parts of a rat’s brain and then watching for behavioral cues, they learned that THC works wonders in the prefrontal cortex and ventral hippocampus, but causes anxious behavior when dribbled into the basolateral amygdala.

German biochemists had an even better story to tell: Beat Lutz and his colleagues at Johannes Gutenberg-University studied an enzyme that is partially responsible for anxiety. Make a drug that can slow it down and you may be able to prevent paranoia.

They proved their point in two ways: Knockout mice, animals lacking the genetic recipe for that protein, were resistant to nervous behavior. Also, unusually nervous lab mice were calmed by an experimental chemical that inactivates the same molecule.

(Hat tip to Mike.)

The Electric Car Acid Test

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

Shai Agassi, who has spent his entire career in software, and who has no previous experience in either the auto or energy industries, is now facing The Electric Car Acid Test:

Just over a year ago, on Dec. 31, 2006, Shai Agassi settled into a leather couch in the office of Ehud Olmert to meet with the Israeli Prime Minister. Agassi, then a top executive at German software giant SAP, had come to pitch the idea of his native Israel reducing its dependence on oil by replacing gas-powered cars with electric ones. Olmert liked the concept but laid down a steep challenge: He wanted Agassi to raise hundreds of millions in venture capital and get an auto industry CEO on board before he would pledge his support. “You go find the money and find a major automaker who will commit to this, and I’ll give you the policy backing you need,” Olmert said.

Within a year, Agassi had pulled off everything Olmert had asked. He raised $200 million in venture capital and, with help from Israeli President Shimon Peres, persuaded Carlos Ghosn, the chief executive of Renault and Nissan, to make a new kind of electric car for the Israeli market. On Jan. 21, Agassi, Olmert, Peres, and Ghosn unveiled the novel project, under which Agassi’s Silicon Valley company, Better Place, will sell electric cars and build a network of locations where drivers can charge and replace batteries. Olmert has done his part, too. Israel just boosted the sales tax on gasoline-powered cars to as much as 60% and pledged to buy up old gas cars to get them off the road.

His idea requires a decent amount of infrastructure, but that’s not such a big barrier in a small, dense country where you have the government’s support:

The trouble with traditional electric cars is that they can go only 50 or 100 miles and then they need to stop for hours to recharge their batteries. Hybrids overcome the mileage limitations, but only by burning gasoline. One of Agassi’s unconventional ideas is to separate the battery from the car. That will allow drivers to pull into a battery-swapping station, a car-wash-like contraption, and wait for 10 minutes while their spent batteries are lowered from the car and fully charged replacements are hoisted into place. Better Place will build the service stations, as well as hundreds of thousands of charging locations, similar to parking meters.


Monday, January 28th, 2008

Twenty-two years ago — wow — the space shuttle Challenger blew up. Five years ago — again, wow — I cited Malcolm Gladwell’s already-old Blowup, which looks at the inherent dangers of complex systems:

But what if the assumptions that underlie our disaster rituals aren’t true? What if these public post mortems don’t help us avoid future accidents? Over the past few years, a group of scholars has begun making the unsettling argument that the rituals that follow things like plane crashes or the Three Mile Island crisis are as much exercises in self-deception as they are genuine opportunities for reassurance. For these revisionists, high-technology accidents may not have clear causes at all. They may be inherent in the complexity of the technological systems we have created.

Fight Science

Monday, January 28th, 2008

The National Geographic Channel — “Nat Geo” to its friends — has been very good to me lately, first with Fight Club: No Limits and now with two new episodes of Fight Science.

The MMA episode was great, despite the laughable narration, written by someone who clearly does not “get” the sport. Two things really stood out to me. First, Bas Rutten really does punch twice as hard — well, almost twice as hard — as Randy Couture, a UFC champion — and kicks much harder than the Muay Thai “expert” they tested in a previous episode. Second, Couture’s ground and pound strikes were four times as hard as his standing punches.

The Special Ops episode focused on environmental extremes. A Navy SEAL sat in an ice bath for an hour before he started showing negative effects from exposure. He was able to “compartmentalize” his blood flow to keep his internal organs and brain functioning — in fact, his core temperature went up when they put him in the ice water. When they put him through a tactical drill after that, he performed roughly as well as when he was fresh. Then they put an Israeli commando on a treadmill, in a plastic suit, with a fifty-pound vest on, under heat lamps. After they brought his core temperature up to 103-point-something, they put him through his own tactical drill, and he vastly outperformed his fresh run.

The next episode, Fighting Back, looks at self-defense techniques — which might explain the Krav Maga ad during the show.

Don’t treat the old and unhealthy, say doctors

Monday, January 28th, 2008

Don't treat the old and unhealthy, say doctors in Britain:

Smokers, heavy drinkers, the obese and the elderly should be barred from receiving some operations, according to doctors, with most saying the health service cannot afford to provide free care to everyone.
Obesity costs the British taxpayer £7 billion a year. Overweight people are more likely to contract diabetes, cancer and heart disease, and to require replacement joints or stomach-stapling operations.

Meanwhile, £1.7 billion is spent treating diseases caused by smoking, such as lung cancer, bronchitis and emphysema, with a similar sum spent by the NHS on alcohol problems. Cases of cirrhosis have tripled over the past decade.

Among the survey of 870 family and hospital doctors, almost 60 per cent said the NHS could not provide full healthcare to everyone and that some individuals should pay for services.

One in three said that elderly patients should not be given free treatment if it were unlikely to do them good for long. Half thought that smokers should be denied a heart bypass, while a quarter believed that the obese should be denied hip replacements.

Del Toro doubles up to direct big-screen "Hobbit"

Monday, January 28th, 2008

Del Toro doubles up to direct big-screen "Hobbit":

Guillermo del Toro is in talks to direct back-to-back installments of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” which is being co-financed by New Line and MGM.
Del Toro has built that goodwill through such films as the Oscar-nominated “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy,” “Blade 2″ (which was made by New Line) and “The Devil’s Backbone.”
The December resolution of the Jackson suit, facilitated by MGM CEO Harry Sloan, paved the way for “Hobbit” to get back on the road to the screen. However, because of other commitments that included “The Lovely Bones” and “Tintin,” Jackson could not take on writing and directing roles, opting instead to become an executive producer with approval over creative elements of the pair of films.

Orca Attack Wave

Monday, January 28th, 2008

An Orca pod attacks a lone seal — with waves:

Why were five killer whales spending so much effort on one seal?

In January 2006 while visiting Antarctica, we witnessed a most unusual method for orca to dislodge a crabeater seal from an ice floe — they made large waves to wash the seal off the relative safety of the ice. Later the orca put the seal back on the ice and dislodged the seal a second time which suggested strongly they were training their young.

Don’t Get in a Street Fight in Bali

Monday, January 28th, 2008

Listen to champion MMA fighter Urijah Faber tell his tale of trouble in Bali — and imagine what would happen to any of the rest of us:

(Skip two minutes in for the story.)

Fight Club: No Limits

Sunday, January 27th, 2008

Years ago — wow, maybe a dozen years ago now — I went to one of the Dog BrothersGatherings of the Pack, back when it was an informal meeting in a park near one of the Dog’s homes. I simply had to see live stickfighting, especially since it was “no holds barred” — in the sense that grappling was allowed, and minimal pads were involved. It was an experience.

You’ll note that I didn’t jump in that day, and I didn’t ramp up my Filipino Martial Arts training in order to jump in next time either. Once you’ve seen a guy get hit hard enough that his fencing mask gets stuck on, you have to take the whole thing seriously.

The other night, National Geographic had an excellent documentary on the Dog Brothers, Fight Club: No Limits, which largely — with the exception of an interviewed professor or two — seemed to “get” the ethos of the event:

The “elders” of the pack run the event by these magic words: No judges, no referees, no trophies. One rule only: Be friends at the end of the day. Our goal is that everyone leaves with the IQ with which they came. No suing no one for no reason for nothing no how no way!

One element has changed over the years: the knife fights now use a Shocknife to keep things “real” — and it does hurt, from what I’ve heard. Too bad it’s $500…