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Today’s New York Times introduces us to Energy Secretary-designate Steven Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who was responsible for forming the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, California, famous home of Peet’s and Pixar.

JBEI is a research facility dedicated to efforts to produce useable fuel from a type of plant cellulose called lignocelulose. If successful, that would mean fossil fuels can be supplemented or even replaced by renewable waste plant matter—e.g., stalks and stems—to power homes and businesses and for transportation. It would be a triumph of applied science, with vast and far-reaching effects.

This is one of a number of alternative fuel research projects Chu initiated and implemented during his tenure at Berkeley Lab. The current Secretary of Energy, research chemist Samuel Bodman, is one of the few members of the Bush Administration about whom I can’t find anything really negative to say; however, his energy approach seems to center on nuclear power, which requires costly infrastructure and perpetuates the vulnerable power-plant-based model of electric power.

To power a community with nuclear energy, you have to build an expensive nuclear plant. If accident or terrorism disrupts a nuclear plant, while that probably wouldn’t be dangerous by itself, entire towns, states, or regions could go dark—in August of 2003 such an accident shut off power for an estimated 50 million people in Ontario and eight northeastern states in the U.S. (and Al-Quaeda falsely claimed responsibility). On top of all that, nuclear energy is a useless option for cars, trucks, trains, and air travel—you can’t put a nuclear engine in an airplane, if only because of the weight of the necessary shielding.

Global warming and global warfare point to the need to embrace new sources for energy. Steven Chu is on the forefront of that effort. It’s good to see the incoming Obama administration supporting progress in this area.

And with that, I’m taking the week off. Happy holidays, one and all.


Statistics is hard. Anti-choice advocates went shopping for reasons why it’s dishonest to say that Planned Parenthood does a lot more not-abortion than abortion.

You see, according to their Annual Report (PDF), Planned Parenthood mostly provides contraception, and most of what isn’t contraception is STD and HIV testing. In particular, the organiztion provided contraceptive services to 3.9 million clients, STD screnings to 3 million, and pregnancy tests to 1.1 million in 2006, a year in which they preformed fewer than 290,000 abortions. By normal math, abortion constitutes 3% of the services Planned Parenthood provides

However, for fairly obvious reasons, every one of those women who had an abortion also had a pregnancy test. Presumably many of them were subsequently given contraception. According to some, those pregnancy tests and BC prescriptions somehow don’t count. That means that instead of 3% of PP’s services being abortion, 11% are abortion-and-pregnancy-test-and-whatever-else.

But why stop there? They probably also throw in pregnancy and STD tests with the tubals (600 or so in 2006) and reversible contraception procedures (2.4 million) they perform; no matter how you count those, that’s fewer non-abortions. Emergency contraception (1.4 million) is occasionally accompanied by STD and HIV tests, so we daren’t count those tests. Presumably some of the 800,000 people who had pregnancy tests and didn’t have abortions had those tests come up negative. Let’s add those negatives to the abortion count, just in case they would have terminated their pregnancies if they were pregnant.

There, we’ve demonstrated that Planned Parenthood does little else but abortions, and all we had to do was throw out most of their non-abortion services. It’s amazing what numbers can tell you if you ignore them.

Few people these days believe that television poisons the mind, but more and more scientists are growing concerned that plasma TVs may be poisoning the atmosphere.

That’s because a gas used in the manufacture of LCDs and plasma screens, nitrogen trifluoride, or NF3, has been implicated in global warming. In fact, NASA researchers believe NF3 is an even more potent hazard than carbon—possibly 17,000 times as effective as carbon gasses at trapping sunlight in the atmosphere.

Interestingly, NF3 was chosen because it was less polluting than carbon dioxide. Not because it’s a weaker greenhouse gas, or easier to contain close to earth. The Kyoto Protocol regulated carbon emissions, but some other pollutants weren’t regulated at all1. So factories located in Kyoto signatories could release as much NF3 as they needed to (which, admittedly, wasn’t much when Kyoto was drafted) without being considered polluters.

Researchers are working on other, non-polluting gasses that can be used in the process for which NF3 is used, or ways to make LCDs without using it at all. As LCD TVs and monitors become more and more ubiquitous, the need is becoming ever greater.

1Which is not to say it wasn’t a step in the right direction

In an effort to trim the fat from the state budget (due April 1), Governor David Paterson is proposing a number of new regressive taxes, including one on soda. This isn’t really a bad idea, since soda is a popular product with fairly inelastic demand, and a relatively modest tax will provide a steady flow of revenue.

Unless people drink diet soda. It turns out this brilliant plan to close the budget gap is not ostensibly intended to raise money. No, no, Albany is kindly worried about my health1. This new tax on non-diet soda is intended to keep the fat fatsos who populate New York2 from being so fucking fat.

There are a couple of problems with this. First, tax policy is neither an effective nor a proper technique for shaping behavior. Taxation is not an end run around freedom. Taxes are how the government raises money, nothing more

Second, the direct connection between weight and health is probably bullshit, and studies supporting it are typically produced by (unconsciously) biased researchers. Not all fat folks are unhealthy, and being fat doesn’t make you (or anyone) unhealthy. Many people who acknowledge this counter that being fat doesn’t cause illness but constitutes it. This is a complete departure from what constitutes physical illness in most other contexts.

Third, soda doesn’t make you fat. Researchers are regularly discovering hormones, enzymes, or viruses that are implicated in weight.

Fatness is not a crime, and it’s not an expense, and a recession is the last time we should be using taxes to shape people’s lifestyle habits.

1Well, not my health, because I’ve largely stopped drinking soda, but other people’s health.
2And who populate New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, or Vermont and work in New York, and who follow the Canadiens or Maple Leafs or Senators3 to HSBC Arena, and who come as tourists, and. . . .
3I don’t know where Ottowa is.

Sex is natural, generally, and many people feel that sex is, indeed, fun (the specific circumstances under which it is best are for another day). “Fun,” however, isn’t the same as “always top priority for everybody.”

This isn’t a problem per se. Unless it is; in other words, when there’s a woman involved. Researchers are working feverishly on treatment for female sexual dysfunction. Progress is said to be slow because the condition is so complex.

Of course, to simultaneously affect 12% of the female population and 44% of the female population, it would have to be.

The 44% is the number of women with “low desire.” The 12% is the number of women bothered by low desire. Since “low” is obvously subjective, normally you would expect a “low libido” to be so low as to bother the person with this condition, but evidently not always. There’s a brass libido in a lab somewhere that all sex drives are measured against, I suppose.

An interesting thing about this is that when a woman is less interested in sex than her male partner, she’s considered to be the one with the problem, but when a man is less interested in sex than his female partner . . . she’s still the one with the problem, as in the demeaning term “nymphomaniac” (Carol Groneman‘s excellent book Nymphomania details the horrors visited on women in the name of “diagnosing” and “treating” a sex drive) and jokes about new brides and all. I can’t help but wonder what happens with mismatched same-sex couples, when one partner can’t whine about the other being all female and stuff.

What I suspect happens is they either work it out or split up, helped by the lack of any sort of expectation that one partner, and only she, needs to make whatever changes are necessary. That’s because it turns out “normal” actually covers quite a wide range, and it’s possible for two normal people to be hideously mismatched, and then each meets a normal person with whom he or she is quite well matched.

Like with any other emotional, a sex drive at or near one end or the other of the bell curve is only a problem if, well, it’s a problem. Being different from one’s partner is no reason to take a pill.

” צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף [Justice, justice shall you pursue].”–Deuteronomy 16:20

According to a study, pooches don’t like being screwed. If one of two dogs is given a reward, the other becomes disobedient—more so that a dog being tested alone.

Dogs, in other words, can detect unfair treatment, at least when it’s happening to them. Other studies have also shown that dogs experience jealousy. These most human of all human emotions may cross species lines more than we think.

This isn’t exactly noble, of course. It’s looking out for number one. Dogs don’t care that there’s suffering in the world if it’s not happening to them. Not really admirable; very human.

Want some space beer?

Sounds like the perfect refreshment for a MST3K marathon, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s a fine product of the Sapporo brewery, reports Science, Not Fiction.

This strange brew is made from barley sent into space as part of an ongoing experiment to see if food can be grown in space. If successful, this can eliminate an obstacle for long-term—and distant—missions.

Now if only there was some way to watch the game.

CNN is disbanding its science division. This is unfortunate, because the science section is almost always one of my favorite parts of any news Web site (unsurprisingly).

Science journalism is what stands between the public and the abyss. Just as it’s easy for someone to vote down gay rights who doesn’t think they know any gays, it’s easier for someone to oppose funding for research—from any source, government or private—who literally doesn’t see any results. I’m much less likely to tell my representative to give money to some ivory-tower scientist than to a lab that’s producing results that are interesting or useful or both and telling me about them. It’s easy to drum up opposition to vague abstract “science,” to paint it as anti-religious or anti-American (which it is insofar as ideally the point is the facts themselves, not whether the facts are what you want them to be), when people don’t hear about anything but the big discoveries.

It’s also important for us to know this stuff. Bad Astronaut points out “[w]e depend on science and technology information every single day of our lives. People love it, and people need it.” Nonetheless, in the larger world people interested in science are seen as a little, well, different. Not quite trustworthy, perhaps, elitist snobs or Nazis manque or a bit soft.

This is not a good sign for America’s future.

Roger Ebert failed to review eXpelled: No Intelligence Allowed when it came out for some lame reason like “it isn’t worthy of consideration.” Well, never mind that now, he’s filled in the gap.

Confession time: when this movie first came out, I thought “ok, Ben Stein’s widely considered smart, or at least ‘television smart,’ he must have really ripped creationism a new one, right?” To make a hollow laughing. His thesis was that it was creationism “intelligent design” that had been kept out of schools. Now, as Phil Plait notes over at Bad Astronomy, it’s not like the movie wen’t anywhere, so it’s hardly a major part of the public discourse on the subject. However, Stein (rather childishly; showing someone getting made up to go on camera is like laughing at people for being naked under their clothes) does rehash some familiar arguments that I will never get tired of obliterating.

Let’s start with the probability argument. The collective mutations required to produce George W. Bush from unicellular protozoa are so unlikely that we may as well consider them impossible. This is looking at the problem the wrong way. There are 3954242643911240000000 possible bridge hands (I think, my abacus dropped a bead). At 1 a second, it would take you a bit over 125 trillion years to inspect all of them (and at $1 a year, you’d earn enough to bail out GM 5,000 times). Since you don’t have 125 trillion years, it follows that you can’t inspect every possible bridge hand, and the odds of you encountering any particular one are, well, roughly one in 1 in 4 sextillion. We may as well consider that impossible, thus bridge is impossible. This won’t get much argument from anyone who’s actually read the rules of bridge, I suppose, but look at it this way: my gradfather plays bridge, so if bridge is impossible, my grandfather doesn’t exist, therefore I don’t exist, therefore I didn’t post this, therefore you’re not reading it. Doesn’t that just blow your fucking mind?

Ahem. The a priori probability of human life (or bridge) may be small, but the a priori probability isn’t relevant. The question isn’t “how will these protozoa develop?” but “how did contemporary biodiversity develop?” The unlikelihood of evolution leading to us proves we don’t exist, not that we didn’t evolve.

Another ID argument asserts that life can’t come from non-life. That’s not what I learned in 6th-grade biology. In fact, it’s somewhat circular: life can’t come from non-life, therefore life didn’t evolve from lifelessness. Now, the counterargument is also circular, except that it’s been observed.

I can almost hear the discussion about this: the IDer says “life can’t possibly arrive from inorganic matter.” The science-ortented response if “actually, it can, and it’s been simulated by scientists.” “Yes, but they had to zap it with x-rays from a huge machine.”

But that’s moving the goalposts. Now that we know it can be done, figuring out how is that much simpler.

Today’s Times brings us the tale of Dr. Alan Greene, a pediatrician in California who strove to have himself certified organic.

Organic foods in the United States are certified under rules developed by the National Organic Program of the USDA, though the actual certification is done by private groups that may be for-profit. If a product bears the seal, it means at least 95% of the ingredients are organic, a designation that presumably includes (filtered) water. For an ingredient to be organic, it needs to be raised without antibiotics or hormones or grown without pesticides or artificial fertilizer (as appropriate) and producers—a loaded word, that—must follow soil and water conservation procedures and treat animals with a minimum of humaneness. I was surprised to learn that; I hadn’t realized organic meat was antibiotic-free. Michael Pollan notes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that antibiotics are needed to produce maketable meat from cattle raised on a maize-based diet because cattle do not thrive on a maize-based diet.

The system isn’t perfect. For often perfectly benign reasons, regulations such as those for organic foods tend to be written and enforced to favor industry. The cost of certification—not organic practices, maintaining the paper trail and paying the inspectors—can be more easily borne by large businesses.

The biggest problem is that the regulations govern technique, not outcome. So the oregano you grow in your window box or the tomatoes you grow in your garden are not organic, no matter what you did or didn’t do in growing them. More seriously, a farm such as Polyface in Virginia can’t be certified because it’s a lot of frankly unnecessary work to maintain the necessary records. Organic livestock has to eat only organic foods for three years, just as Dr. Greene did, and they won’t just take the farmer’s word for it. This doesnt mean the farm doesn’t operate under principles that I, at least, trust will produce food that’s no less healthful or sustainable than the duly inspected products of the nutrition industry.

One benefit of the system, however: when you eat organic, you know what you’re getting, which is more than you can say for processed foods.

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