June 27, 2016: Saving marine mammals; "Himalayan viagra:" Same old housing crisis (again)

Stranding sleuth

"Marine mammal veterinarian Frances Gulland's tireless efforts to glean tissue and knowledge from hundreds of whale, dolphin, and seal strandings around the world have made her a prominent figure among marine mammal scientists. But her influence stretches far beyond pure research. She has helped transform a once sleepy rehabilitation facility into a vibrant, globally recognized science and conservation center and become a presidentially appointed adviser to policymakers, weighing in on thorny issues such as endangered species management. Her team demonstrated the potentially deadly role of an algal toxin in sea lions, shed light on marine mammal cancers and infectious diseases, and has convinced many that marine mammal health is a good indicator of the health of our oceans."

Demand for ‘Himalayan Viagra’ Fungus Heats Up, Maybe Too Much

"They came in search of what is known as caterpillar fungus, or yarsagumba in Nepali. A parasitic fungus, it forms out of the head of ghost moth larvae living in the soil at altitudes above 10,000 feet, and has been used as an aphrodisiac for at least a thousand years, earning it the nickname Himalayan Viagra."  FROM WIKIPEDIA: "In Chinese medicine it is regarded as having an excellent balance of yin and yang as it is apparently both animal and vegetable. Assays have found that Ophiocordyceps species produce many pharmacologically active substances[citation needed]. They are now cultivated on an industrial scale for their medicinal value. "

How Housing’s New Players Spiraled Into Banks’ Old Mistakes

"When the housing crisis sent the American economy to the brink of disaster in 2008, millions of people lost their homes. The banking system had failed homeowners and their families. New investors soon swept in — mainly private equity firms — promising to do better. But some of these new investors are repeating the mistakes that banks committed throughout the housing crisis, an investigation by The New York Times has found. They are quickly foreclosing on homeowners. They are losing families’ mortgage paperwork, much as the banks did. And many of these practices were enabled by the federal government, which sold tens of thousands of discounted mortgages to private equity investors, while making few demands on how they treated struggling homeowners"

Sunday, June 26, 2016. Cruise ships behaving badly; Noah's new ark, Dark money; family leave; Bias in algorithms

Tax Dodging on the High Seas

"An average of about 20 people fall off cruise ships every year, which the industry points out is only about one in a million travelers. But still, I suspect that passengers work under the assumption that if they do somehow wind up in the water, someone will notice....Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council says cruises en route to Alaska “routinely drown out the calls of the endangered orcas” trying to communicate. "

Kentucky’s Ark Defies Science but Evokes a Version of Christianity

"In the beginning, Ken Ham made the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. And he saw that it was good at spreading his belief that the Bible is a book of history, the universe is only 6,000 years old, and evolution is wrong and is leading to our moral downfall...And Mr. Ham said, let us build a gargantuan Noah’s ark only 45 minutes away to draw millions more visitors. And let it be constructed by Amish woodworkers, and financed with donations, junk bonds and tax rebates from the state of Kentucky.....The workers, standing on hydraulic lifts, have covered over the Tyvek, and just in time. The Tyvek was printed all over with the slogan of its maker, Dupont: “The Miracles of Science.” "

The Secret Power Behind Local Elections

"Persuading the Supreme Court to overturn recent decisions such as Citizens United, which empowered donors to spend unlimited amounts via opaque business and nonprofit entities, would go a long way toward fixing the problem....But until that happens, there is evidence that states, through strong disclosure laws and enforcement, can make it very difficult for spenders to conceal their identities from the public, even if they can’t eliminate dark money."

A Family-Friendly Policy That’s Friendliest to Male Professors

"The central problem is that employment policies that are gender-neutral on paper may not be gender-neutral in effect. After all, most women receive parental benefits only after bearing the burden of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and often, a larger share of parenting responsibilities. Yet fathers usually receive the same benefits without bearing anything close to the same burden. ...Economics remains a male-dominated field, and the research shows that policies fueled by the best intentions of universities have made an imbalance worse. Three female economists have shown that the tools of economics — which enable a careful assessment of incentives and constraints informed by real-world data — suggest that a more nuanced policy would lead to better outcomes. It leaves me wondering how many other policy mistakes we could avoid, if only we had more female economists."

Artificial Intelligence’s White Guy Problem

"...the very real problems with artificial intelligence today, which may already be exacerbating inequality in the workplace, at home and in our legal and judicial systems. Sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination are being built into the machine-learning algorithms that underlie the technology behind many “intelligent” systems that shape how we are categorized and advertised to.....A very serious example was revealed in an investigation published last month by ProPublica. It found that widely used software that assessed the risk of recidivism in criminals was twice as likely to mistakenly flag black defendants as being at a higher risk of committing future crimes. It was also twice as likely to incorrectly flag white defendants as low risk....The reason those predictions are so skewed is still unknown, because the company responsible for these algorithms keeps its formulas secret ..."


Friday, June 24, 2016: FluMist ineffective; Clinical RNA; Zika worse; More Gravitational Waves

Sorry, Kids: Flu Shots Work Better Than Nose Spray

"The new recommendation is based partly on preliminary data that came out in late May, gathered during the 2015-16 flu season. It showed that the nasal vaccine had an efficacy of about 3 percent — in other words, it offered virtually no protection at all. By contrast, the injected vaccine, which uses an inactivated form of flu virus, is about 63 percent effective....The problem is that FluMist does not work against the H1N1 strain, which has been circulating more widely in recent years and causes the most serious disease in children.  "he live version is not working as well as it needs to,” Dr. Flannery said. “Why that is, we don’t know.' "

From the RNA world to the clinic

They describe 4 ways that RNA is used clinically.

Experts fear Zika's effects may be even worse than thought

Zika Virus infect more than just neuronal precursors

LIGO detects another black hole crash

Maybe such events are not as rare as previously thought!

    Thursday, June 23, 2013: Muxes, Unregulated stem cells, Save the sand; Opinion: don't bomb Syria

    Bathroom Debate Complicates Mexican Town’s Acceptance of a Third Gender

    "To the people of this town in southern Oaxaca State, the existence of a third gender is as much a part of life as the ancient Zapotec language they speak and the huge, spiny iguanas that laze in the trees. Here, the muxes — people born with male bodies but who identify as neither male nor female — are part of the social fabric, admired for their embroidery, hairstyling, handicrafts and cooking."

    A Cautionary Tale of ‘Stem Cell Tourism’

    "Jim Gass has undergone stem cell therapy at clinics in Mexico, China, and Argentina to try to recover from a stroke. But doctors found a huge mass with someone else’s cells growing aggressively in his lower spine."

    The World’s Disappearing Sand

    "Every yard of asphalt road that connects all those buildings is also made with sand. So is every window in every one of those buildings. Sand is the essential ingredient that makes modern life possible. And we are starting to run out. That’s mainly because the number and size of cities is exploding, especially in the developing world. Every year there are more people on the planet, and every year more of them move to cities. Since 1950, the world’s urban population has ballooned to over 3.9 billion from 746 million."

    The False Lure of Military Intervention in Syria

    "There have never been good options in Syria, and the situation is getting worse. But no one has yet made a persuasive case that direct American military involvement against Mr. Assad is the answer."


    Monday, June 20, 2016. Wind Power in Wyoming


    As Wind Power Lifts Wyoming’s Fortunes, Coal Miners Are Left in the Dust

    “With Obama’s clean power regulations, and the signing of the Paris agreement, it creates a stable market for wind — and this is the best wind in North America.”

    That remains cold comfort to Wyoming’s coal community. Mr. Godby estimates that in the coming years, Wyoming could lose up to 10,000 jobs related to the coal industry."



    Why the Orlando Shooting Is Unlikely to Lead to Major New Gun Laws

    "Gun politics infect much of what Congress tries to do; bills to advance changes to the nation’s mental health system are held up over the issue, and that is unlikely to stop. But bipartisan solutions will almost certainly have to wait until the election is over."


    Monday, June 22, 2016 "White trash", Benoîte Groult, Biometric scans will replace passwords


    American history, viewed from below: Review: ‘White Trash’ Ruminates on an American Underclass

    "Crackers and squatters, rednecks and hillbillies, sandhillers and mudsills, clay eaters and hoe wielders: America has developed a rich vocabulary to describe one part of its permanent underclass....Throughout this volume, there is an awareness of a cruel aspect of our moral complexion. “Americans not only scrambled to get ahead,” she writes, “they needed someone to look down on.” Gore Vidal put this another way: “It is not enough merely to win; others must lose.” "


    Benoîte Groult, French Feminist and Writer, Dies at 96

    "By her own account Ms. Groult was a late bloomer, as both an author and a feminist. Having taught Latin and worked in radio while raising children, she was in her 40s when she began a writing career and in her 50s when she embraced feminism..  ...Married women, Ms. Groult wrote, were in a particularly poor position to lead an effective fight for equality. “When the ‘oppressor’ is your lover and the father of your children and often the principal purveyor of the funds, freedom becomes a complex and risky undertaking,” she wrote in her autobiography. “So much so that many women prefer security, even under supervision, to the hazards of freedom.”...  .“[Olympe de Gouges] would have said: ‘Don’t get married, it’s not worth divorcing. Stay free and write what you want, in words that are yours,’” she replied. But many women, she added, would find that advice difficult to follow even today.."


    Goodbye, Password. Banks Opt to Scan Fingers and Faces Instead.

    "Long regarded as the stuff of science fiction, biometrics have been tested by big banks for decades, but have only recently become sufficiently accurate and cost effective to use in a big way. "


    "The Anti-Defamation League added a new symbol this week to Hate on Display, its database of prominent white supremacist imagery. It’s called the “echo,” and it is used online to call attention to Jewish names in the news.  The symbol originated in 2014 on an anti-Semitic podcast, “The Daily Shoah,” which applied a novelty sound effect to Jewish names that made them echo ominously. That practice then spread to blogs and Twitter, where the podcast’s creators and fans created a visual translation of the echo sound effect by placing three sets of parentheses around a Jewish name, like (((Cohen))) or (((Goldberg))). (Google has since banned the extension from the Chrome store.)  The “echo” is the first officially recognized symbol to emerge from the “alt-right,” a movement of white-and-proud extremists who are as obsessed with cultural memes as they are with white nationalism. They play fast and loose with white supremacist iconography, remixing it with pop culture and the sardonic tone of internet subculture. Their regressive message, cloaked in an ultramodern skin, is being spread online to a new generation of race warriors.  Jewish public figures are fighting back. On Twitter, Jewish writers have reclaimed the echo, adding parentheses around their Twitter handles in a show of defiance. In turn, white nationalists like Lana Lokteff have flipped the symbol to signal their non-Jewish heritage: )))Lana Lokteff(((.   Out of the depths of online culture, new hate speech rises: “Cuckservative,” a portmanteau of “cuckold” and “conservative” (it’s a long story) has now been acknowledged by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a racist slur."

    Saturday, June 12, 2016; Sean Carroll; Nicholas Kristof; child migrants; aliens; trump

    Sunday, June 12, 2016


    ‘The Big Picture,’ by Sean Carroll

    "The physical world is “largely ­illusory,” an editorial in The New York Times announced on Nov. 25, 1944....Only the scientific objects were really there, according to ­Eddington. Hence the idea that our familiar world is a deception on a grand scale...But Carroll rejects the sort of reductionism that says all valid descriptions can be deduced from fundamental physics. That venerable idea seems to have been a mirage.Instead, Carroll defends what he calls “poetic naturalism.” “Naturalism,” because there is nothing above and beyond nature. In particular, there are no gods or spooks to transcend or interfere with natural laws. So Einstein’s dice are rolling themselves. “Poetic,” because “there is more than one way of talking about the world.” True enough, but “poetic” is a bit of a stretch. Carroll might just as well have called his position “romantic reductionism” or “fragrant physicalism,” since what he’s trying to convey is a stance that is hard-nosed yet soft to the touch — a kinder, gentler, more capacious science.


    Is It a Crime to Be Poor? Nicholas Kristof

    "IN the 1830s, the civilized world began to close debtors’ prisons, recognizing them as barbaric and also silly: The one way to ensure that citizens cannot repay debts is to lock them up.

    In the 21st century, the United States has reinstated a broad system of debtors’ prisons, in effect making it a crime to be poor....I sat in the jail with Rosalind Hall, 53, a warm, mild-mannered woman with graying hair who has been imprisoned for a total of almost 18 months, in short stints, simply for failing to pay a blizzard of fines and fees relating to petty crimes (for which she separately served time). Hall has struggled for three decades with mental illness and drug addictions and has a long history of shoplifting to pay for drugs, but no violent record.Tears welled in her eyes as she told how she was trying to turn her life around, no longer stealing, and steering clear of drugs for the last two years — but her fines and fees keep increasing and now total $11,258. With depression and bipolar disorder, she has little hope of getting a regular job, so she is periodically arrested for failing to pay....  A new book, “A Pound of Flesh,” by Alexes Harris of the University of Washington, notes that these modern debtors’ prisons now exist across America. Harris writes that in Rhode Island in 2007, 18 people were incarcerated a day, on average, for failure to pay court debt, while in Ferguson, Mo., the average household paid $272 in fines in 2012, and the average adult had 1.6 arrest warrants issued that year."


    The Child Migrants of Africa:The Italian government has largely kept reporters from entering shelters and interviewing refugees.

    Libya is particularly brutal on migrants. Boys are set to work by local residents at backbreaking jobs in construction and in the fields for less than $5 a day until they earn enough to afford the $1,500 passage. Girls are often forced into sex work. “They used to rape us and beat us,” said Tsenga, an Eritrean woman who today lives at a sprawling refugee camp in Sicily. “The girls cried, they cried bitterly. They cried because they are just children.”


    Yes, There Have Been Aliens. Gray Matter By ADAM FRANK

    "LAST month astronomers from the Kepler spacecraft team announced the discovery of 1,284 new planets, all orbiting stars outside our solar system. The total number of such “exoplanets” confirmed via Kepler and other methods now stands at more than 3,000....In a paper published in the May issue of the journal Astrobiology, the astronomer Woodruff Sullivan and I show that while we do not know if any advanced extraterrestrial civilizations currently exist in our galaxy, we now have enough information to conclude that they almost certainly existed at some point in cosmic history....Since the odds of contact with alien life depended on how many advanced extraterrestrial civilizations existed in the galaxy, Drake identified seven factors on which that number would depend, and incorporated them into an equation....In other words, given what we now know about the number and orbital positions of the galaxy’s planets, the degree of pessimism required to doubt the existence, at some point in time, of an advanced extraterrestrial civilization borders on the irrational."


    How Donald Trump Bankrupted His Atlantic City Casinos, but Still Earned MillionsBy RUSS BUETTNER and CHARLES V. BAGLI

    [1.] "But even as his companies did poorly, Mr. Trump did well. He put up little of his own money, shifted personal debts to the casinos and collected millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and other payments. The burden of his failures fell on investors and others who had bet on his business acumen.... [2.]  His casino companies made four trips to bankruptcy court, each time persuading bondholders to accept less money rather than be wiped out. But the companies repeatedly added more expensive debt and returned to the court for protection from lenders....[3] After narrowly escaping financial ruin in the early 1990s by delaying payments on his debts, Mr. Trump avoided a second potential crisis by taking his casinos public and shifting the risk to stockholders....[4] And he never was able to draw in enough gamblers to support all of the borrowing. During a decade when other casinos here thrived, Mr. Trump’s lagged, posting huge losses year after year. Stock and bondholders lost more than $1.5 billion....[5] All the while, Mr. Trump received copious amounts for himself, with the help of a compliant board. In one instance, The Times found, Mr. Trump pulled more than $1 million from his failing public company, describing the transaction in securities filings in ways that may have been illegal, according to legal experts."