Since the twentieth century...

Yet Another Web Log

A clipping service without portfolio*, compiled and annotated by Vicki Rosenzweig since March 1999

ISSN 1534-0236

Technology and ideology alike are exercises in applied imagination.

21 May 2006

NOAA is predicting another above-average Atlantic hurricane season: the forecast is for 13-16 named storms, including 8-10 hurricanes. They "do not anticipate reaching or exceeding last year's extraordinary tally of storms"; this is not all that reassuring, given that a year ago, they predicted up to nine Atlantic hurricanes, and fifteen occurred. (I'd be more worried if the spike in tropical storm activity had been worldwide, not just in the North Atlantic.)

An investigation into the failure of the New Orleans levees during Hurricane Katrina attributes the problem to inadequate and piecemeal funding by the federal government, and poor management by the state and local governments.

"You tend to get what you pay for," Dave Rogers, one of the academics who studied the levee system, told a news conference on Monday.

Floods overwhelmed levees and flood walls, the report said.

Weak soil in the levees, poor engineering and breakdowns where different types of flood protection met all contributed to the breaches.

Another member of the independent study team said that engineers must also examine other parts of the system that may fail if another hurricane hits the city.

"The next weakest link is the one you have to be worried about," Raymond Seed said, according to AP.

What we're paying for is, no surprise, not enough: the current government hasn't shown any real interest in infrastructure maintenance or repair.

The US Army Corps of Engineers has been working to repair and upgrade the levee system in New Orleans but officials have said that not all the work will be concluded by the start of the new hurricane season.

The Corps, which is also conducting the official government inquiry into the failure of the levees, is expected to deliver its final report on 1 June.

New Orleans, and the rest of the United States, would be better served if they were going to deliver working levees by that date.

18 May 2006

There's a stand of young American chestnuts on a ridge in Georgia.

"There's something about this place that has allowed them to endure the blight," said Nathan Klaus, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources who spotted the trees. "It's either that these trees are able to resist the blight, which is unlikely, or Pine Mountain has something unique that is giving these trees resistance."

Experts say it could be that the chestnuts have less competition from other trees along the dry, rocky ridge. The fungus that causes the blight thrives in a moist environment.

The largest of the half-dozen or so trees is about 40 feet tall and 20 to 30 years old, and is believed to be the southernmost American chestnut discovered so far that is capable of flowering and producing nuts.

The American Chestnut Foundation hopes to breed these trees into its existing project of crossing the very few known surviving American chestnuts with Chinese chestnuts to produce blight resistance, and then back-crossing to get as close to a pure American chestnut as possible. [via Andy Hickmott]

8 May 2006

In 2003, the EU made a secret agreement to share airline passenger data with the US Department of Homeland Security, although the US doesn't have privacy protections sufficient to satisfy European law. The DHS promised to use the data only to fight terrorism.

DHS then turned around and, in another secret agreement, gave the data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That Memorandum of Understanding promises that CDC will protect the data--data that DHS shouldn't have had by EU law, and shouldn't have shared according to its own previous agreement. In general, I'd rather trust CDC than DHS. I'm surer of their competence and their good intentions. In this case, it's not clear that they have any practical use for the data: names, nationalities, and whatever else is on those lists won't tell CDC "the passenger in 17F showed signs of X communicable disease," which is the sort of thing they might reasonably have a use for.

As the ACLU points out,

the U.S. government is distributing information that it explicitly promised it would not share. This is very troubling for several reasons.

First, it is continuing evidence that the American government, and especially its security establishment, does not take privacy and data protection seriously.

Second, it undermines the respect and credibility of our government when it makes promises as a result of careful negotiations among different stakeholders and then breaks those promises.

[via Schneier on Security]

7 May 2006

Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker considers the recent searches for that bird, in terms of conservation, ornithology, and story-telling. At the moment, a lot of people--including David Sibley, who posted an online addendum to his birding guide about the ivory-bill when the story of its rediscovery broke--are again dubious of whether the bird survives in that corner of Arkansas. The author notes continuing threads in the story over the last few decades, including the common pairing of a Northern birder or ornithologist with a Southerner who knows the area, and discusses some of the ways false positives can occur, from the human tendency to find what we're looking for to the sounds, from wood ducks to machinery, that can mimic the double knocking.

I hope Cornell is right and the birds are in there; officially, they and the Nature Conservancy are pointing out that, at the very least, they're preserving a large chunk of good forest habitat for all the species that live there. [Permanent link, I don't know if it works outside an rss feed.]

29 April 2006

In response to an online comment, Angela Gustafsson sent me a pointer to the ginkgo pages, an excellent collection of information and photos, covering the evolution and recent history of the tree, ginkgoes in art, bonsai, uses of ginkgo nuts, the history of the odd name, and photos of four trees that are valued as survivors of the Hiroshima bombing.

What prompted this was a note about a male ginkgo in Kew Gardens that, after a couple of centuries, has started growing female flowers. Gingkoes are almost all dioecious, meaning they have flowers of only one sex, but occasional exception have been observed elsewhere.

6 April 2006

The National Geographic Society is unveiling The Gospel According to Judas, a third- or fourth-century CE Coptic codex that seems to be a translation of an earlier Greek text. It claims that Jesus asked Judas to betray him.

"It's crumbling; it's a particular kind of papyrus; it's a particular kind of script," Pagels said. "It would be absolutely not worth anyone's while, and far too difficult, to try to fake this kind of text. This is a genuine ancient text."

So what is in the Gospel of Judas? It is a dialogue that claims to be a conversation between Jesus and Judas in which Jesus asks Judas to betray him.

"Judas has the terrible task of taking it upon himself to turn him over to the authorities for this reason," Pagels said. "Now, the Gospel of Judas also has Judas say to Jesus in fear and terror that he has a dream that the other disciples will hate him and will stone him to death, will attack him.

"And Jesus says, 'Yes, in fact, they will think that you are a terrible person because of what you did. This is part of the burden that you bear. But they will be wrong about that.' So it is an extraordinary transformation of the ordinary understanding of Judas Iscariot."

Obviously, this doesn't prove that the events really happened as described, or at all--nor is there, could there be, proof that Judas really wrote it. The same, of course, is true of the canonical Christian gospels: the question is what people will find believable.

ObSF: "The Way of Cross and Dragon," by George R. R. Martin, for both the idea of a gospel according to Judas and what Martin suggests about the value of truth and belief.

[via Peg Kerr]

2 April 2006

Moderate drinking may have no effect on health after all. Kaye Fillmore and her colleagues ran a meta-analysis on all the studies that found better health in moderate drinkers than abstainers. Most of those studies included people who had recently stopped drinking as abstainers. "Because many older people abstain from or cut down on drinking for health reasons such as disability, frailty, or medication use, the abstemious group in these studies likely included many people in poorer health than those who continued to drink moderately, Dr. Fillmore and colleagues argued online in Addiction Research and Theory." They ran a new analysis on only the seven available studies that didn't include people who had recently stopped drinking as "abstainers," and found no benefit to drinking.

Focusing on a subset of 35 studies that also examined mortality from coronary heart disease, the significant results favoring alcohol consumption again disappeared when only the two studies not committing the abstainer error were considered.

Furthermore, introducing the abstainer error into the formerly error-free studies produced data that appeared to indicate a significant protective effect of moderate drinking on all-cause and coronary heart disease mortality, the investigators reported.

This isn't an argument to give up that glass of wine with dinner--it means you shouldn't drink if you don't enjoy it.

[via Follow Me Here, my regular source of medical and especially psychiatry-related links.]

23 March 2006

Three main-belt asteroids, with sedate circular orbits, show cometary behavior, namely intermittent comae. Henry Hsieh and David Jewitt, of the University of Hawaii, are calling 133P/Elst-Pizarro, newly discovered comet P/2005 U1, and asteroid 118401 "main belt comets." Hsieh points out that the visible activity from these bodies lasts too long to be dust stirred up by an impact, though small impacts may have exposed the ice and made outgassing possible.

Elst-Pizarro has been a puzzle since its discovery--but while one object with an asteroidal orbit and cometary behavior is an anomaly, three start to form a pattern.

"The main-belt comets are unique in that they have flat, circular, asteroid-like orbits, and not the elongated, often tilted orbits characteristic of all other comets," said Hsieh. "At the same time, their cometary appearance makes them unlike all other previously observed asteroids. They do not fit neatly in either category."
The researchers suggest that similar bodies--icy or rock-and-ice objects that formed in the inner solar system--may have been the source of Earth's water.
Because of their large ice content, comets were leading candidates for many years, but recent analysis of comet water has shown that comet water is significantly different from typical ocean water on Earth.

Asteroidal ice may give a better match to Earth's water, but until now, any ice that the asteroids may have once contained was thought to either be long gone or so deeply buried inside large asteroids as to be inaccessible for further analysis. The discovery of main-belt comets means that this ice is not gone and is still accessible (right on the surfaces of at least some objects in the main belt, and at times, even venting into space). Spacecraft missions to the main-belt comets could provide new, more detailed information on their ice content and in turn give us new insight into the origin of the water, and ultimately life, on Earth.

17 March 2006

Fun with statistics: prompted by a claim that the NCAA tournament was costing US businesses billions in lost productivity, The Register adds up all those claimed costs from sporting events, tobacco, eating badly, spam email, and so on. These claimed costs, plus the federal budget, add up to more money than there is in the U.S.--and that's before taking into account money spent on food, clothing, or shelter, let alone books, movies, or music.

We wanted to know just how expensive life really is, and just how badly thoughtless, self-indulgent people are stuffing it up.

It turns out that when we allow for unavoidable costs like crime and taxes, the burden to society of our bad habits and voluntary indulgences pushes the cost of living to a sum that actually exceeds the amount of money in existence. And please note: we have not included the costs of health care for diseases and accidental injuries that are not our fault, or the costs of pensions. No wonder the finger-wagging farts are so worried.

First, the methodology. We felt that it was right to use the statistics as supplied, rather than do our own primary research. After all, we're comparing what's claimed to reality, not reality to reality.

For the record: FAIR has a collection of quotes from 2003, asserting that the Iraq War was over, and that anyone who'd opposed it, or Bush, was deluded and should apologize. Three years out, the Faux News people quoted aren't apologizing for their errors and insults, or even admitting that they were wrong and it wasn't that easy. [via D. C. Simpson]

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