Giant Carnivorous Centipedes

Monday, November 27th, 2006

Giant Carnivorous Centipedes are, of course, super-creepy. Perhaps you’ve seen footage of one eating a mouse. What I didn’t realize was that they also eat bats:

Centipedes in general are carnivorous, though this term usually refers to a diet of smaller bugs or scavenged remains. The Amazonian giant centipede, however, creeps out at night to stalk even larger victims. Groping through the darkness with its long antennae, the centipede will make a meal out of any number of unsuspecting small animals, including lizards, frogs, birds, and mice. With one quick motion the S. gigantea snags its prey and injects an extremely potent venom. The animal is dead after a very brief, thrashing struggle, allowing the centipede to gorge itself on the catch.

But the natural hunter’s most impressive skill is that which is demonstrated inside the caves of the Amazon jungle. In an environment completely devoid of light, the centipede scurries across the damp floor, stepping over writhing mounds of beetles to scale the wall and clamber across the ceiling into a position near the center. The giant centipede then grips the stone with it rear legs, allowing its forward segments to dangle into the cave below. Its front section sways as its legs wriggle through the air in search of the intended target: a passing bat.

The fast-flying bats have little warning of the centipede’s presence, and within moments one is snatched from the air in mid-flight. The S. gigantea’s toxic venom works quickly as the bat hopelessly attempts to squirm from the grasp of many legs, only to succumb to the poison seconds later. There, dangling from the cave ceiling, the centipede eats every scrap of flesh from its prey over the period of about an hour. It then pulls itself back up to the ceiling and climbs down the wall to return to the dark, damp corner of the cave from whence it came.

If you enjoy creepy-crawlies, watch the video.

A Rare Material and a Surprising Weapon

Saturday, November 25th, 2006

Polonium, discovered by Marie Curie and named after her native Poland, is A Rare Material and a Surprising Weapon:

Polonium 210 is highly radioactive and very toxic. By weight, it is about 250 million times as toxic as cyanide, so a particle smaller than a dust mote could be fatal. It would also, presumably, be too small to taste.
Polonium 210 does its damage by emitting alpha particles, which have enough energy to tear apart the genetic machinery of cells, killing them outright or causing them to mutate into tumor-producing forms. It gives off 5,000 times more alpha particles than does the same amount of radium.

Alpha-emitters are not picked up by normal radiation-detection devices, a British expert said, so it would be relatively easy to take the substance across a border.

The particles disperse through the body and first destroy fast-growing cells, like those in bone marrow, blood, hair and the digestive tract. That would be consistent with Mr. Litvinenko’s symptoms, which included hair loss, inability to make blood cells and gastrointestinal distress.

It is also a better match than the symptoms caused by thallium, a heavy metal that was first suspected when Mr. Litvinenko fell ill after eating at a sushi bar on Nov. 1. Polonium is so radioactive that it gives off heat, and tiny amounts have been implanted in satellites to make heat and electricity. It was also used in the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod moon rovers.

Don’t misunderestimate yourself

Saturday, November 25th, 2006

Don’t misunderestimate yourself, The Economist advises:

A study just published in Evolution and Human Behavior by Sarah Hill, a psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin, shows that people of both sexes reckon the sexual competition they face is stronger than it really is. She thinks that is useful: it makes people try harder to attract or keep a mate.

Dr Hill showed heterosexual men and women photographs of people. She asked them to rate both how attractive those of their own sex would be to the opposite sex, and how attractive the members of the opposite sex were. She then compared the scores for the former with the scores for the latter, seen from the other side. Men thought that the men they were shown were more attractive to women than they really were, and women thought the same of the women.

Dr Hill had predicted this outcome, thanks to error-management theory—the idea that when people (or, indeed, other animals) make errors of judgment, they tend to make the error that is least costly. The notion was first proposed by Martie Haselton and David Buss, two of Dr Hill’s colleagues, to explain a puzzling quirk in male psychology.

As studies show, and many women will attest, men tend to misinterpret innocent friendliness as a sign that women are sexually interested in them. Dr Haselton and Dr Buss reasoned that men who are trying to decide if a woman is interested sexually can err in one of two ways. They can mistakenly believe that she is not interested, in which case they will not bother trying to have sex with her; or they can mistakenly believe she is interested, try, and be rejected. From an evolutionary standpoint, trying and being rejected comes at little cost, except for hurt feelings. Not trying at all, by contrast, may mean the loss of an opportunity to, among other things, spread one’s DNA.

There is an opposite bias in women’s errors. They tend to undervalue signs that a man is interested in a committed relationship. That, the idea goes, is because a woman who guesses wrongly that a man intends to stick around could end up raising a child alone.

Putting the Coca Back in Cola

Saturday, November 25th, 2006

The Columbians are Putting the Coca Back in Cola:

An ad featuring the slogan “Coca Tea — the Holy Leaf of the Sun Children” hangs above a colorful, cloth-draped sales booth in the Santa Barbara shopping mall in Bogotá. As recently as 10 years ago, any mother would have yanked her child hastily to the side if they had passed such a stall. But things have changed: Coca tea, coca wine, coca cookies and a variety of similar products have become an integral part of every street festival and flea market in the Colombian capital.

Such products are also beginning to become standard on store shelves. David Curtidor and his wife Fabiola Acchicvé started selling coca tea to students at Javariana University seven years ago. Their product was such a hit that marketing and packaging it more professionally seemed the logical next step. Now, Curtidor can point to the boxes of teabags stacked in the corridors of the Nasa Esh building — the headquarters of the company Curtidor and his wife founded on behalf of the Nasa, one of more than 60 indigenous tribes in Colombia.

But Curtidor’s spacious store room features more than just teabags and crates full of Mate de Coca: Other boxes contain coca wine and the small company’s latest product, Coca-Sek — a yellowish cocaine-based soft drink. The invigorating drink hit the market at the end of last year and has made headlines far beyond Colombia’s borders.

The soft drink has a fresh, slightly sour taste, like lemonade. Curtidor says he and his wife spent six years developing the flavor. The drink is natural, he says, just like tea — and, unlike cocaine, it’s completely harmless.

Man grabs girl’s arm – now he’s a sex offender

Friday, November 24th, 2006

“The law is a ass.” Man grabs girl’s arm – now he’s a sex offender:

A man who grabbed a 14-year-old girl’s arm to chastise her after she walked in front of his car, causing him to swerve to avoid hitting her, must register as a “sex offender,” the Appellate Court of Illinois has ruled.

Fitzroy Barnaby, a 28-year-old Evanston, Illinois, man was prosecuted for attempted kidnapping and child abduction charges following a November 2002 incident in which he nearly hit the teen with his vehicle.

The girl testified Barnaby yelled, “Come here, little girl,” when he jumped out of his car and grabbed her arm. She broke away and called authorities. Barnaby says he was merely trying to lecture her for her carelessness.

The trial jury accepted Barnaby’s version of the story, but found him guilty of unlawful restraint of a minor – a sex offense under Illinois law.

As a convicted sex offender, Barnaby is required to be listed on the state’s sex offender registry and must keep authorities informed of his place of residency.

Danger: Assassins at Work

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006

Danger: assassins at work — from Russia, but working around the world:

On November 1, Alexander Litvinenko, a 43-year-old Russian who used to work for the FSB, (the post-Soviet version of the KGB), had lunch at Itsu, a cheap-and-cheerful Japanese eatery, with an Italian spycatcher. By that evening, he was feeling so ill he was admitted to hospital. Doctors wasted 10 days trying to treat him for food poisoning. His condition deteriorated — hair falling out, difficulty speaking, white blood cells disappearing, unable to eat, even nourishment from a drip causing him to vomit. It was only when they listened to his pleas to investigate whether he had been poisoned that doctors realised Litvinenko’s body contained three times the fatal dose of thallium, a tasteless, odourless killer used in rat poison until, in the 1970s, it was banned as too dangerous. They are now trying to neutralise the slow-acting poison; but it may be four weeks before it is clear whether the ex-secret service man will live.

Litvinenko’s friends in London have been quick to accuse the Kremlin of being behind this poisoning. They say Russia wanted to stop Litvinenko investigating the assassination last month of another high-profile critic of the Russian government — his friend, the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya. They believe the Kremlin was also to blame for Politkovskaya being shot outside her Moscow apartment door.
In 1978, operatives from one of the Soviet Union’s satellite states, Bulgaria, decided to bump off Georgy Markov, a diplomat who had defected to Britain. In true James Bond fashion, his assassin prodded a ricin pellet under the defector’s skin from the point of a doctored umbrella while he stood in a bus queue. Markov, who felt a sharp pain as the pellet entered his body, died after three days. When Bulgaria’s Communist regime collapsed a decade later, a stock of special assassination umbrellas was discovered at the interior ministry in Sofia.
In the winter of 2004, the pro-western candidate for Ukraine’s presidency, Victor Yushchenko, was poisoned with dioxin, a drug that thickened his film-star features into an elephant-man mask and nearly killed him. The poisoning has often been blamed on pro-Moscow secret service operatives. In the autumn of 2004, Politkovskaya, the journalist, said she had been poisoned aboard the plane she was taking south to the Chechen frontier, hoping to help negotiate a peaceful end to the hostage drama at Beslan school. In the summer of 2004, a Chechen separatist leader called Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was assassinated in Qatar; two Russians were arrested for the killing, though Moscow denied any connection. Earlier that summer, as Putin jailed Russia’s richest oligarch, his political opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky, on fraud charges that the billionaire says were politically motivated, a helicopter carrying Khodorkovsky’s British lawyer, Stephen Curtis, crashed on the English south coast. Curtis had said shortly before the crash that if he died mysteriously, “it would not be an accident”.

Books for Brooks

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

Nick Schulz suggests some Books for Brooks — books for New York Times writer David Brooks, who complained that “big books” of “politically useful” thought have been replaced with blogs:

Brink Lindsey, Against the Dead Hand
Robert Shiller, The New Financial Order
Robert Fogel, The Escape From Hunger and Premature Death
William Lewis, The Power of Productivity
Joel Mokyr, The Gifts of Athena
Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches
Virginia Postrel, The Future and Its Enemies
William Easterly, The Elusive Quest for Growth
Richard Herrnstein, Charles Murray, The Bell Curve
Charles Murray, What It Means to Be a Libertarian
Charles Murray, In Our Hands
Arnold Kling, Learning Economics
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital
CK Prahalad, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid
Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics For an Age of Commerce
Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist
Jerry Muller, The Mind and the Market
Richard Thaler, The Winner’s Curse
David Warsh, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations
Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel
Michael Cox, Richard Alm, Myths of Rich and Poor
Jonathan Rauch, Demosclerosis
Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter (forthcoming)
Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate
Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near
Andy Kessler, How We Got Here
Carl Schramm, The Entrepreneurial Imperative
Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Empire

Oases in Navajo desert contained ‘a witch’s brew’

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

Doctors believed that Navajo Neuropathy was a rare genetic disorder, until they realized that the oases in the Navajo desert contained “a witch’s brew” of dangerous substances — like uranium:

In the mountains and mesas of the Navajo reservation, mining companies drilled tunnels in the sides of cliffs to extract uranium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program during the Cold War. But in the red and ocher sands around Cameron, where deposits were shallow, the ore was blasted out of the plains, creating pits.

As demand for uranium eased in the late 1950s, the U.S. government allowed the companies to leave without filling in the craters. The pits collected snowmelt in the winter and runoff from summer torrents. The holes, some as deep as 130 feet, soon formed oases in the desert.

Lois grew to depend on them as she ranged far from home, covering as much as 10 miles in a day. At dusk, she often camped for the night. She got in the habit of filling and refilling a small container with her drinking supply as she moved from one “lake” to the next, watering her herd.

Every few weeks, the Neztsosies butchered one of the sheep. They ate each one down to the bones, which they sucked around the fire. They destroyed the lambs that could not walk.

Deformed animals were showing up in other sections of Dine Bikeiyah, Home of the People, as Navajos call their homeland. In areas around old mines, lambs and cattle developed shaking limbs, yellow eyes and white patches on internal organs that were discovered after slaughter.

Word of these strange developments did not reach the Neztsosies. Navajo families tend to live miles apart from one another. They prize their privacy. Local officials heard occasional complaints about damaged animals, but no one discerned a trend.

This is where it gets “messed up”:

Laura Neztsosie, now 36, is the oldest surviving patient from the Indian Health Service registry.

She and her mother live in two-stoplight Tuba City (population 8,000). Laura drinks protein shakes and takes a periodic table of vitamins, as recommended by Rosen. Her mother dresses her every morning. Nearly blind in one eye, she flips her Bible open with one gnarled hand to find her favorite verses, highlighted in pink.

She also cares deeply about the healing ceremonies held under the wide dark skies outside town. Lois parks her truck close so Laura can watch the dancing from the front seat.

Later, at home, Lois lights a pipe packed with dried mint and mountain flower and holds it to Laura’s lips. Lois waves the sacred smoke toward her daughter.

After years of firelight and kerosene lamps, they have electricity. Treated water runs from kitchen and bathroom taps.

But old habits hang on. One day, on her way to visit Linnie’s grave on the sagebrush plain, Lois pulled over at a familiar spot. While Laura waited in the truck, the mother walked a short way from the dirt road and lifted boards that had been placed over a natural watering hole to keep coyotes away.

Lois was thirsty and didn’t hesitate. She leaned down and drank deeply from the spring.

Altered cottonseed could feed millions

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

Altered cottonseed could feed millions:

Scientists have found a way to use the cotton plant, long a source of fiber for clothing but inedible by humans, to feed potentially half a billion people a year.

Texas A&M University plant biotechnologist Keerti Rathore and colleagues reported on Monday they have genetically altered the plant to reduce the levels of the toxic chemical gossypol in cottonseed, making it fit for human consumption.

“It actually tastes pretty good. It reminds me of chickpea. It’s a fairly good-tasting seed,” Rathore said in an interview.

“It tasted better than soybean, I can tell you that,” added Rathore, who admitted he had not tasted it until being asked repeatedly about its flavor in the days before the research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The new-and-improved cottonseed could be ground into a flour and made into bread and other foods, Rathore said.

Rathore and his team turned to a technique also being used in cancer and AIDS research — so-called RNAi or RNA interference technology that can “silence” a gene — to cut the amount of gossypol in the cottonseed, home to significant amounts of protein. When eaten by people, gossypol can damage the heart and liver.

The researchers left gossypol intact in the remainder of the plant because it guards against insects and disease.

“So the trick is not to affect the levels of these compounds in the rest of the plant, but eliminate it from the seed only. And that’s what we have done,” Rathore said.

This cottonseed could serve as a high-protein food for the world’s hungry, and falls well within the criteria set by the World Health Organization and U.S. Food and Drug Administration for food consumption, the researchers said.

“Potentially, if all of the cottonseed today which is produced can be utilized for human nutrition directly, it can meet the protein requirements of 500 million people on an annual basis,” Rathore said.

Cute Overload

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

This Cute Overload is, well, a cute overload. The bunny is just the beginning.

The unlucky star in a new Jaws movie

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

This fur seal has become the unlucky star in a new Jaws movie — or, more accurately, the BBC’s Planet Earth series.

Friedman Sampler

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

Emily Parker and Joseph Rago compiled a Friedman Sampler from The Wall Street Journal:

On the Free Market
What most people really object to when they object to a free market is that it is so hard for them to shape it to their own will. The market gives people what the people want instead of what other people think they ought to want. At the bottom of many criticisms of the market economy is really lack of belief in freedom itself.

— from “The New Liberal’s Creed: Individual Freedom, Preserving Dissent Are Ultimate Goals,” May 18, 1961

On Social Security
I have long been a critic of Social Security, basically because I believe that it is not the business of government to tell people what fraction of their incomes they should devote to providing for their own or someone else’s old age. On a more pragmatic level, Social Security is another example of the generalization that government programs typically have effects that are the opposite of those intended by their well-meaning sponsors (what Rep. Richard Armey calls the “invisible foot of government”).

The well-meaning sponsors intended Social Security to ensure a minimum income to the poor in their old age. It has largely done that, but at the cost of what they would have regarded as a perverse redistribution of income from the young to the old, from black to white, from the relatively poor to the relatively well-to-do.

From its inception, Social Security has been an unholy combination of two items: a flat-rate tax on earnings up to a maximum with no exemption and a benefit program that awards subsidies that have essentially no relation to need but are based on such criteria as marital status, longevity and recent earnings. As I wrote many years ago, “hardly anyone approves of either part separately. Yet the two combined have become a sacred cow. What a triumph of imaginative packaging and Madison Avenue advertising!”

— from “Social Security: The General And the Personal,” March 15, 1988

On Hong Kong
By some accident of officialdom, the colonial office assigned John Cowperthwaite, a Scotsman and a disciple of Adam Smith, to serve as financial secretary of Hong Kong. Cowperthwaite’s free market policies are widely credited with producing the subsequent economic miracle that led to a phenomenal rise in the average level of living despite a nearly 10-fold rise in population.

It is hard to conceive of a more severe test of free market policies. Hong Kong is an island devoid of any significant natural resources other than a great harbor. When the Communists took over China, refugees came streaming over the borders with only the possessions they could carry. They and their successors produced a rapid rise in population. Hong Kong received negligible if any foreign aid to assist the assimilation of the refugees.

Under these adverse circumstances, the salvation of Hong Kong has been its complete free trade and free market policy. No tariffs on imports, no subsidies or other privileges to exports. (The only restrictions are those that Hong Kong has been forced to impose by pressure from other countries, including the U.S., as under the multifiber agreement.) There is no fixing of prices or wages; few if any restrictions on entry into business or trade; and government spending and taxes have been kept low. The top tax rate on personal income is 25%, with a maximum average rate of 15%.

What a contrast to the experience of most of the colonies to which Britain gave their freedom after the war. And what a striking demonstration of how much better free trade and free markets are for the ordinary citizen than the protectionism of Mr. Buchanan and the “fair trade” of President Clinton. “Fair” is in the eye of the beholder; free is the verdict of the market. (The word “free” is used three times in the Declaration of Independence and once in the First Amendment to the Constitution, along with “freedom.” The word “fair” is not used in either of our founding documents.)

— from “Hong Kong vs. Buchanan,” March 7, 1996

Sharpest cut from nanotube sword

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

Damascus sabres may get their famed pattern and strength from nanotubes in the steel:

Sabres from Damascus, now in Syria, date back as far as 900 AD. Strong and sharp, they are made from a type of steel called wootz.

Their blades bear a banded pattern thought to have been created as the sword was annealed and forged. But the secret of the swords’ manufacture was lost in the eighteenth century.

Materials researcher Peter Paufler and his colleagues at Dresden University, Germany, have taken electron-microscope pictures of the swords and found that wootz has a microstructure of nano-metre-sized tubes, just like carbon nanotubes used in modern technologies for their lightweight strength.

The tubes were only revealed after a piece of sword was dissolved in hydrochloric acid to remove another microstructure in the swords: nanowires of the mineral cementite.

Wootz’s ingredients include iron ores from India that contain transition-metal impurities. It was thought that these impurities helped cementite wires to form, but it wasn’t clear how. Paufler thinks carbon nanotubes could be the missing piece of the puzzle.

At high temperatures, the impurities in the Indian ores could have catalysed the growth of nanotubes from carbon in the burning wood and leaves used to make the wootz, Paufler suggests. These tubes could then have filled with cementite to produce the wires in the patterned blades, he says.


Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

Carol Sarler discusses Ephebophilia:

Given the fussing and carrying-on, you would think the poor man had advocated massed orgies with infants. He hadn’t. All that happened was that Terry Grange, the Chief Constable of Dyfed-Powys and spokesman on child protection for the Association of Chief Police Officers, suggested greater clarity in the labelling of sex offenders: for instance, he says, it is incorrect to say that those who have sex with underage teenagers are paedophiles — and if we say they are, we risk overestimating the scale of the problem of paedophilia.

With predictable fury, Michele Elliott, the director of the children’s charity Kidscape, rounded on the policeman’s wish to reclassify those who have sex with youngsters between 13 and 16: “He is saying they are not paedophiles and they bloody well are.”

If Miss Elliott would care to borrow my dictionary, she would discover that they bloody well aren’t. A paedophile is defined as one who is sexually attracted to children; children are defined as those between birth and puberty. What our teen fanciers are, in fact, is ephebophiliacs: adults attracted to postpubescent adolescents.

Galactus is Coming

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

Galactus is Coming is “the long rumored, but never confirmed, collaboration from 1983 between Marvel’s Chairman Emeritus Stan Lee and religious comic tract creator Jack Chick.”