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    • Exchange Rates 101
      In light of the collapse of the Ruble I think it’s worth revisiting what controls exchange rates. Supply and Demand. Yeah, if you know something about the subject you’re probably shaking your head. Supply and Demand doesn’t set prices in many cases in the way that an Economics 101 course tells you. Such texts will [...]
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Wednesday News

Good Morning Conflucians!!

A few interesting things happening in the news. First up, we have a cure for HIV infection, at least in one patient:

Doctors believe that they may have found one of the largest breakthroughs in the battle against HIV, the virus which leads to AIDS. The news broke today (December 14) out of Berlin, Germany when doctors confirmed that Timothy Ray Brown received a stem-cell treatment while battling leukemia. His doctors recently published a report in the journal Blood affirming that the results of extensive testing “strongly suggest that cure of HIV infection has been achieved.”

Here’s the abstract of the paper in question for any of you up on your hematology research. Here’s the salient point:

In conclusion, our results strongly suggest that cure of HIV has been achieved in this patient.

There’s a lot of work yet to do, and this may not be an overall cure, but it’s a major breakthrough.


As reported yesterday by RD, a federal judge in VA ruled the mandate to buy a private product part of the health insurance company bailout bill is unconstitutional. Here’s a follow up article about the ruling and the VA district attorney’s winning strategy:

Virginia’s go-it-alone legal strategy to challenge the nation’s sweeping federal health-care overhaul – once questioned by both advocates and some opponents of the law – seems to be paying off for state Attorney General Ken T. Cuccinelli II after Monday’s court ruling, in his favor, that a key provision of the law is unconstitutional.

When Cuccinelli (R) filed suit in March against the federal law – rather than signing on to one filed jointly in Florida by 20 other attorneys general – Democrats said it was an exercise in grandstanding for political gain.

[…]

But his decision has undermined those who contend that constitutional challenges to the law are frivolous.

“There’s no question that this was a gamble in terms of how the litigation would have been perceived if he’s received the third strike in a row,” said Jonathan Turley, professor of law at the George Washington University Law School. “It’s certainly a gamble that’s paid off.”

Cuccinelli has maintained all along that filing his own challenge made more sense than signing on to the Florida effort.

The Virginia General Assembly had passed a law in March that made it illegal to require state residents to carry health insurance. The conflict between the state statute and the federal law gave Virginia unique standing to sue, he argued.

“You just don’t go to other states to protect your own laws,” Cuccinelli said in an interview Tuesday.

That being said, the real test will be the supreme court. Which at the earliest would be sometime next year, and likely the year after that. I think it’s an interesting issue and very worth a supreme court case. Clearly there’s gray area with being “punished’ for inaction with respect to having to buy a commercial product. And of course when the health insurance lobbyist wrote the bill, making that part not a tax was a big issue. Those calling the issue silly or frivolous were being silly.


And speaking of silly, Republicans that think the 2010 midterm elections were about them are of course not even close. A new poll out back up what everyone should know (again):

Republicans may have made major gains in the November elections, but they have yet to win the hearts and minds of the American people, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The midterm elections – in which Republicans gained 63 seats to take control of the House and added six seats to their Senate minority – were widely seen as a rebuke to President Obama. Still, the public trusts Obama marginally more than they do congressional Republicans to deal with the country’s main problems in the coming years, 43 percent to 38 percent.

The poll suggests that the election, while perhaps a vote against the status quo, was not a broad mandate for Republicans and their plans. The survey also underscores the degree to which Americans are conflicted about who they think is setting the agenda in Washington.

The president’s narrow advantage is a striking contrast to the public’s mood at this time in 1994 and 2006, the last two midterm election years when one or both chambers of Congress changed hands.

[…]

In the new poll, just 41 percent of respondents say the GOP takeover of the House is a “good thing.” About 27 percent say it is a “bad thing,” and 30 percent say it won’t make any difference. Most continue to say that the Republicans in Congress are not doing enough to compromise with Obama on important issues.

At this time in 1994, six in 10 Americans said the GOP had taken a stronger leadership role in Washington, while just one in four said Clinton was firmly in charge. In the new poll, Americans are about evenly split between Obama and the Republicans in Congress on this question.

Of course it’s idiotic comparing 2010 to 1994 for many reasons. One is that in ’92 Clinton won a three man race without  a majority. So his numbers were building up from a low point. Obama’s numbers in contrast have been steadily coming down from a high point. Also in ’94 Democrats got shown the door precisely because a large number of them were breaking the law. Whereas in this case, we have a supermajority Democrats in congress and a Democratic president elected in ’06/’08 to fix a majorly broken economy. And in the last 4/2 years respectively, it’s gotten worse. And for better or worse (or right or wrong), the voters wanted a new direction. That is, it’s the economy stupid. On top of that, Obama’s a real piece of shit and the congress that just does what he says (same as they just did what Bush II said before) were getting a bit tiring.

But what these numbers do indicate to me is that if things don’t get better economically, esp. with respect to jobs, then the Republicans will incur losses in ’12. If we’re around high 8% or higher in unemployment, there’s going to be some more changes. And they might just be dramatic.


The Commandant of the Marines says repealing DADT will result in casualties:

The Marine Corps’ top general suggested Tuesday that allowing gays to serve openly in the military could result in more casualties because their presence on the battlefield would pose “a distraction.”

“When your life hangs on the line,” said Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, “you don’t want anything distracting. . . . Mistakes and inattention or distractions cost Marines’ lives.”

In an interview with newspaper and wire service reporters at the Pentagon, Amos was vague when pressed to clarify how the presence of gays would distract Marines during a firefight. But he cited a recent Defense Department survey in which a large percentage of Marine combat veterans predicted that repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law would harm “unit cohesion” and their tight-knit training for war.

“So the Marines came back and they said, ‘Look, anything that’s going to break or potentially break that focus and cause any kind of distraction may have an effect on cohesion,’ ” he said. “I don’t want to permit that opportunity to happen. And I’ll tell you why. If you go up to Bethesda [Naval] Hospital . . . Marines are up there with no legs, none. We’ve got Marines at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] with no limbs.”

I understand Commandant Amos’ concern for his marines and why he would want to move very slowly when it comes to any change that shakes things up. But it’s way past time for this change. We have women at most levels and in combat (though we pretend they’re not), and of course for a long, long time, we’ve had people of color in the armed forces, even though both of those were changes that shook things up and were distractions at the time. I have faith in the marines that they can handle such a change just fine. If memory serves, the previous commandant has similar issues. I hope he can take a lead from his boss, Adm. Mike Mullen, and move to deal with the new realities instead of throwing wrenches in the works.


In the latest news from the world of WikiLeaks, the Air Force has blocked WikiLeaks from it’s own networks:

The Air Force is barring its personnel from using work computers to view the Web sites of The New York Times and more than 25 other news organizations and blogs that have posted secret cables obtained by WikiLeaks, Air Force officials said Tuesday.

[…]

Cyber network specialists within the Air Force Space Command last week followed longstanding procedures to keep classified information off unclassified computer systems. “News media Web sites will be blocked if they post classified documents from the WikiLeaks Web site,” said Lt. Col. Brenda Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Space Command, a unit of which oversees Air Force cyber systems. “This is similar to how we’d block any other Web site that posted classified information.”

Colonel Campbell said that only sites posting full classified documents, not just excerpts, would be blocked. “When classified documents appear on a Web site, a judgment will be made whether it will be blocked,” she said. “It’s an issue we’re working through right now.”

The other armed forces are handling it differently:

Spokesmen for the Army, Navy and Marines said they were not blocking the Web sites of news organizations, largely because guidance has already been issued by the Obama administration and the Defense Department directing hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors not to read the secret cables and other classified documents published by WikiLeaks unless the workers have the required security clearance or authorization.

“Classified information, whether or not already posted on public websites or disclosed to the media, remains classified, and must be treated as such by federal employees and contractors, until it is declassified by an appropriate U.S. Government authority,” said a notice sent on Dec. 3 by the Office of Management and Budget, which is part of the White House, to agency and department heads.

A Defense Department spokesman, Col. David Lapan, in an e-mail on Tuesday night sought to distance the department from the Air Force’s action to block access to the media Web sites: “This is not DoD-directed or DoD-wide.”

The Air Force may have gone too far. We’ll see how that plays out. And in related news, Julian Assange paid bail, but is still in jail:

Sweden tonight decided to fight a British judge’s decision to grant bail to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has spent more than a week in prison over sexual assault allegations involving two Swedish women.

A dramatic day in and around City of Westminster magistrates court saw Assange win bail, but then be forced to return to what his lawyer Mark Stephens described as “Dickensian conditions” at Wandsworth prison while the international legal battle played out.

Sweden has decided to contest the granting of bail to Assange, who is being held pending an extradition hearing, on the grounds that no conditions imposed by a judge could guarantee that he would not flee, a legal source told the Guardian.


And speaking of crimes, it looks like the Senate will pass the near trillion dollar deficit increase and social security destruction bill today:

The U.S. Senate today is poised to pass President Barack Obama’s $858 billion proposal to extend Bush-era tax cuts for all income levels, cut payroll taxes and extend expanded jobless benefits.

Majority Leader Harry Reid said last night on the Senate floor that the chamber will start debate at 11 a.m. on the measure. Before a vote on final passage, senators will take up three amendments, Reid said. Amendments require a two-thirds supermajority for adoption.

Senate passage will send the tax bill to the House, where Democrats — who threatened last week not to bring it to the floor — late yesterday discussed a plan to let Democrats vote on an alternative to estate-tax provisions many of them oppose.

We will see soon after that what happens in the House. Please write your congressman and tell them not to pass anything like this POS giveaway to the rich and obvious ploy to destroy social security and medicare.


Rahm “The Fish” Emanuel got a Chicago style grilling yesterday about his mayoral run:

The most serious attack on his candidacy came in the first 90 minutes of the hearing as the lead attorney challenging Emanuel bored in on the issue of whether the former White House chief of staff meets the requirement of being a Chicago resident for one year prior to the Feb. 22 election.

But after that, it was open season as a long line of citizens who object to Emanuel’s run for mayor quizzed him on everything from when and where he purchased a city sticker for his car to whether he played any role in the violent 1993 Waco, Texas, siege to if he has ever been a member of the Communist Party.

Sadly I think he’ll be able to run just fine. And sadly he’s still the front runner.


Interest rates have been inching up and the Fed has taken notice:

Interest rates are marching upward, making it more expensive to take out a mortgage or get a loan to expand a business, and diluting efforts by Congress and the Federal Reserve to strengthen the economy.

The rise is partly because of good news: The outlook for growth has improved, putting less pressure on investors to keep their money in ultra-safe bonds. When there’s less demand for bonds, their interest rates – or yield – go up to attract more investors.

And the better economic outlook could allow the Fed to pull back sooner than expected on the extraordinary steps it’s taking to keep rates low.

But bond investors are also spooked by the tax-cut deal between President Obama and congressional leaders, which if enacted would increase the budget deficit substantially over the next two years.

The climb in interest rates is confounding the Fed’s efforts as it tries to bring down rates by buying $600 billion in Treasury bonds. The central bank affirmed that it would stay on course with those plans Tuesday after a policy meeting.

Yes, it’s good and it’s bad and it’s messing up their efforts to make money cheaper. It’s all going to end in tears I tell you. Our economy as well as the world economy is fragile. The dollar is on the brink. It’s scary out there. The current worry about interest rates going a bit higher (as if things are getting better.. give me a break) reminds me of a small leak in a dam being plugged by a finger. Sadly we’re all living in the small village below the dam.

On that lovely note, let’s open the floor to more news. And some positive news please. Chime in with what you’re reading.

Sunday News – Science Section

Lockheed Martin's Proposed L2-Farside Mission

The regular news is just to irritating with Obama working hard to cut Social Security benefits, surprise, surprise, among other things. So I thought I’d focus on just the science section of the TC paper today. Oh, and I’m horribly late due to getting back late from an away game (i.e., meetings, yuk), and sleeping in. So let’s see what’s happing with people actually trying to do something good in the world unlike our politicians.

First up, stars, stars, stars, my god, look at all the stars. It turns out we have been underestimating the number of stars, even in our own galaxy, by an order of 100. That’s a lot:

Red dwarfs are stars like the sun, but smaller, fainter and cooler, with somewhere between one-half and one-tenth the sun’s mass. They may be small, but they are legion—astronomers estimate that red dwarfs outnumber sun-like stars in the Milky Way by a factor of 100.

Until today’s result, astronomers had been forced to assume that the 100-to-1 ratio held in other galaxies, too. But evidence has been mounting recently that elliptical galaxies—which lack the distinctive spiral arms of galaxies like the Milky Way and are usually made of older, redder stars—had more stars relative to their dark matter than spiral galaxies do.

“Within these galaxies, a good chunk of the mass that had been ascribed to dark matter is probably stars,” said Pieter van Dokkum, the lead researcher on the project.

And of course you know what that means. More stars, more planets, more planets, more places where life exists. More things that say “eep, eep.” Wave at your new neighbors tonight.

Oxygen has been found on Saturn’s moon Rhea. The Cassini probe did a fly by and sniffed some sweet, sweet oxygen:

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has taken a breath of oxygen while passing over the icy surface of Saturn’s second-largest moon, marking the first time a spacecraft has directly sampled oxygen in the atmosphere of another body. Cruising just 60 miles above Rhea, one of more than 60 moons orbiting Saturn, Cassini found an extremely thin atmosphere of oxygen and carbon dioxide likely sustained by high-energy particles slamming into the moon’s frozen surface.

Rhea’s isn’t the only other atmosphere in the universe, but it is so thin that Cassini had to fly through it just to confirm that it was there at all (other atmosphere’s have been detected and studied from afar by tools like the Hubble Space Telescope). According to Cassini’s onboard science instruments, Rhea’s atmosphere contains something like 50 billion oxygen molecules per cubic meter, matched by 20 billion carbon dioxide molecules.

Lockheed is pitching a program to go to the dark side of the moon (see image above). Of course the obvious question that comes to mind is, no, not can we afford it, but will Pink Floyd music be involved:

The mission, Lockheed says, will serve several purposes. Most immediately, it would allow astronauts to study, via unmanned robots, some lunar real estate that hasn’t been seen with human eyes since the Apollo missions. But its real function is to test out technologies and skills that will be necessary to make a manned trip to an asteroid, and then on to Mars.

The idea is to park an Orion space capsule at the L2 Lagrange point about 40,000 miles above the moon’s far side, where the combined gravity from the Earth and the moon would allow the spacecraft to essentially hover in one place in sync with the moon. From there, the astronauts would deploy and conduct remotely-operated surface science, collecting rock samples and exploring the South Pole-Aitken basin, one of the oldest craters in the solar system. From the L2 point, the capsule would continuously maintain line of sight with both the Earth and the far side of the moon.

I think unmanned missions is the way to go for a lot of these explorations. Much more cost effective and quicker to execute. We can revolutionize our materials science, our manufacturing, and our economy with such efforts. Or if we don’t, China can.

Some amazing progress has been made in our understanding of the aging process lately. Here are some recent results of interest:

Harvard scientists may be a step closer to a medical fountain of youth after figuring out how to reverse the aging process in mice. The breakthrough could lead to a way to slow the aging process in humans which in turn could extend quality of life by reducing the impact of age-related ailments like heart disease or dementia. That is, if it doesn’t kill them first.

Harvard Medical School scientists turned unhealthy old mice into youthful versions of themselves by tampering with an enzyme called telomerase. While the aging process is not totally understood, one of the many factors that causes the deterioration of the body’s tissues is tied to telomeres, which protect the end of each of the chromosomes in DNA. When cells divide, the telomeres are cut shorter and shorter until eventually they stop working altogether and the cell either dies or goes into a dormant state.

The researchers genetically engineered mice that lacked telomerase, an enzyme that stops telomeres from shortening. As such, the telomeres rapidly grew shorter and the mice aged quickly, developing all the signs of old age including damaged organs, a shrinking brain, and infertility. The researchers then injected the mice with a cocktail that reactivated their telomerase. This didn’t just slow the aging process, but actually reversed the effects of aging, essentially making the mice grow younger.

But rejuvenating old organs in mice does not necessarily mean a human treatment is on the way, the researchers warn. For one, mice make telomerase throughout their lives, but the enzyme is switched off in adult humans, as it can cause unchecked cell replication (read: cancer). None of the mice in the study developed cancer, but there’s no telling if human tissues would tolerate the treatment so well.

A lot of anti-aging research seems to come down to age vs. cancer. That is, if you can change cells so they don’t age, then the chances of cancer increases tremendously. And in fact there seems to be a direct relationship. It may turn out that in order to make more progress in dealing with aging issues, we need to get better at understanding and dealing with cancer. A win win in my opinion. More efforts to figuring out and stoping or reversing cancer sounds good to me.

We might be on the verge of a whole new computer technology revolution. Nanophotonic computing, or light based vs. electron based computing, has been under investigation for some time. IBM just showed off some new results lately that look promising:

Silicon chips will be communicating with pulses of light instead of electrical charge starting in 2011, according to International Business Machines Corp., which described its CMOS Integrated Silicon Nanophotonics (CISN) technology Wednesday (Dec. 1) at a tradeshow.

At Semicon Japan in Chiba, Japan, IBM (Armonk, N.Y.) heralded silicon nanophotonics as the enabler for future exascale processors that can execute a million trillion operations per second (1,000-times faster than today’s petascale supercomputers).

“The CMOS silicon nanophotonics technology we have developed at IBM can meet the requirements for exascale systems, by scaling up per-chip transceiver bandwidth and integration density,” said Will Green, an IBM researcher involved with the CISN project. Green worked on CISN with Yurii Vlasov, manager of silicon integrated nanophotonics at its T.J Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and fellow researchers Solomon Assefa, Alexander Rylakov, Clint Schow and Folkert Horst.

I for one welcome our new nanophotonic based overlords.

In the slightly creepy news department, researchers are able to tag eggs and embryos with bar codes:

Researchers at the Autonomous University of Barcelona have come up with an ingenious solution for keeping track of embryos and egg cells during in vitro fertilisation procedures: microscopic bar codes.

These mouse eggs were tagged by injecting microscopic silicon bar codes into their perivitelline space, the gap between the cell membrane and an outer membrane called the zona pellucida, which binds sperm cells during fertilisation.

The bar codes, which carry unique binary identification numbers, are biologically inert: they do not affect the rate of embryo development and are shed before the embryos implant into the wall of the uterus. The technique aims to simplify individual embryo identification, streamlining in vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer procedures.

OK, sounds like it’s for a good reason. But still, a bit creepy.

And speaking of new technology and creepy, or rather bad, all our new wifi broadcasting may be hurting trees:

Studies on the impact of wireless radiation on humans are endlessly inconclusive, but a recent study on the effects of Wi-Fi radiation on trees–yes, trees–indicates that our woody friends may be much more vulnerable than we are. And trees can’t even enjoy the benefits of Wi-Fi. It’s all very unjust.

The study, conducted by Wageningen University, investigated findings that trees in areas with high Wi-Fi activity (urban areas, especially) were suffering from symptoms that couldn’t be tied to typical bacterial or viral causes. The symptoms included bleeding (!), fissures in the bark, the death of parts of leaves, and abnormal growth.

Oops. Of course it’s not an issue if forests and in rural areas. But still, it’s something to look into. Perhaps they’re only hurt by certain frequency ranges that we can avoid.

And finally, a nice development in methods to desalinate water also includes the ability to easily extract hydrogen:

Fresh water and reusable energy. Humans are on a constant hunt for a sustainable supply of both. Water purification requires a lot of energy, while utility companies need large amounts of water for energy production. Their goal is to find a low-energy-required treatment technology. Researchers from the University of Colorado Denver College of Engineering and Applied Science may have discovered an answer.

Last year, a study published in Environmental Science & Technology incorporated desalination into microbial fuel cells, a new technology that can treat wastewater and produce electricity simultaneously. However, putting it into practical use proved to be challenging due to current fluctuation. Zhiyong (Jason) Ren and his team with the University of Colorado Denver discovered, after six months from the initial hypothesis to completion, that they could produce hydrogen gas, which is collectible and storable, thus making improvements in the technology.

[…]

A recent study by Logan group at Penn State University also demonstrated similar findings in that the energy contained in hydrogen gas not only can offset the energy used for the desalination process but has surplus that can be used for downstream processing.

That would solve our two biggest resource problems, water and energy. Nice bit of work there people. More of that please.

There’s a bit of science news for you. Chime in with more of that or with other news. This is an open thread.

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