Daily Archives: December 3, 2012

Help with this petition regarding a facebook page on teen suicide DONE

UPDATE: The pages are DONE. Good work, Miriam!

Let’s try to act like a civilized society, for at least a few minutes, OK? There is a facebook page called “No respect for suicidal teens” that seems to have been put up by someone annoyed by attention given to someone who killed herself that the facebook page creator has judged worthy of death. Thus the page. It almost looks like a persona vendetta of some kind.

Miriam Mogilevsky has created a petition asking Facebook to take this page down. I should note that there are actually two almost identical pages; either the person who created them was incompetent, or that person created two pages in order to cause some confusion so it would stay up longer.

A lot of teenagers commit suicide. An even larger number try. Those who use inadequate methods or who otherwise don’t succeed tend to get help and usually get past that period in their lives and survive. Those who use, say, a handgun tend to die. Clearly, suicide is not inevitable. There is about a 100% chance that someone close to you, whom you know and love as a adult attempted suicide at one time in their past and you don’t even know it.

I’m sure the person who put this web site up is emotionally immature and ignorant. Or, possibly a sociopath, but I’m assuming the former. They may get past this stage in their life when they are being an unmitigated ass. Let’s help that person get past the unmitigated ass stage by getting Facebook to take notice of these pages and take them down.

How Girls Evolved to Shop

Rebecca Watson gave the following talk at Skeptcon. It is funny, well done, and critiques a Pop-Evol-Psy concept or two, which I have also addressed (Why Do Men Hunt and Women Shop?, Understanding Sex Differences in Humans: What do we learn from nature?, Falsehoods: Human Universals, A Tutorial in Human Behavioral Biology, Driving The Patriarchy: Demonic Males, Feminism, and Genetic Determinism, Race, Gender, IQ and Nature, What is the most important human adaptation?, How Do You Get Sexual Orientation and Gender in Humans?, Men = Testosterone Damaged Women!, Sex and Gender in An Odd Primate), as Rebecca notes, thank you Rebecca! I don’t agree with everything Rebecca said about the role of men and women in forager societies, but that isn’t too important to her talk.

The original video is HERE. Please be so kind as to go and “like” it, as there will be many haters who will bother to go and “unlike” it because they are haters.

CLICK HERE for my followup post on this. And, HERE is another, related post.

Actual Mars Rover Press Conference and Release

Despite rumors to the contrary, NASA actually does real, non-Parody science! And the famous press conference about Mars Rover happened today, and it was exactly as I predicted. Very, very interesting.

PASADENA, Calif. – NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has used its full array of instruments to analyze Martian soil for the first time, and found a complex chemistry within the Martian soil. Water and sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, among other ingredients, showed up in samples Curiosity’s arm delivered to an analytical laboratory inside the rover.

Detection of the substances during this early phase of the mission demonstrates the laboratory’s capability to analyze diverse soil and rock samples over the next two years. Scientists also have been verifying the capabilities of the rover’s instruments.

Curiosity is the first Mars rover able to scoop soil into analytical instruments. The specific soil sample came from a drift of windblown dust and sand called “Rocknest.” The site lies in a relatively flat part of Gale Crater still miles away from the rover’s main destination on the slope of a mountain called Mount Sharp. The rover’s laboratory includes the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite and the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument. SAM used three methods to analyze gases given off from the dusty sand when it was heated in a tiny oven. One class of substances SAM checks for is organic compounds — carbon-containing chemicals that can be ingredients for life.

“We have no definitive detection of Martian organics at this point, but we will keep looking in the diverse environments of Gale Crater,” said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Curiosity’s APXS instrument and the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on the rover’s arm confirmed Rocknest has chemical-element composition and textural appearance similar to sites visited by earlier NASA Mars rovers Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity.

Curiosity’s team selected Rocknest as the first scooping site because it has fine sand particles suited for scrubbing interior surfaces of the arm’s sample-handling chambers. Sand was vibrated inside the chambers to remove residue from Earth. MAHLI close-up images of Rocknest show a dust-coated crust one or two sand grains thick, covering dark, finer sand.

“Active drifts on Mars look darker on the surface,” said MAHLI Principal Investigator Ken Edgett, of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego. “This is an older drift that has had time to be inactive, letting the crust form and dust accumulate on it.”

CheMin’s examination of Rocknest samples found the composition is about half common volcanic minerals and half non-crystalline materials such as glass. SAM added information about ingredients present in much lower concentrations and about ratios of isotopes. Isotopes are different forms of the same element and can provide clues about environmental changes. The water seen by SAM does not mean the drift was wet. Water molecules bound to grains of sand or dust are not unusual, but the quantity seen was higher than anticipated.

SAM tentatively identified the oxygen and chlorine compound perchlorate. This is a reactive chemical previously found in arctic Martian soil by NASA’s Phoenix Lander. Reactions with other chemicals heated in SAM formed chlorinated methane compounds — one-carbon organics that were detected by the instrument. The chlorine is of Martian origin, but it is possible the carbon may be of Earth origin, carried by Curiosity and detected by SAM’s high sensitivity design.

“We used almost every part of our science payload examining this drift,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “The synergies of the instruments and richness of the data sets give us great promise for using them at the mission’s main science destination on Mount Sharp.”

That’s the text of the press release. Click here to see the pretty pictures that go along with it.

Pornography Actresses: Testing the Damaged Goods Hypothesis

A study has just come out in the Journal of Sex Research comparing various psychological and lifestyle measures of women who act in pornographic films with matched sets of women who do not.

ResearchBlogging.orgThere is a pretty clear association between negative attitudes towards pornography and negative assessments of the quality of life for actresses in the pornography genre. Studies have shown that those who regarded pornography as harmful to society also believed that those acting in the films must not like their work. Studies have also shown that people tend to believe that porn stars have sexual and physical abuse in their backgrounds at a higher rate than the general population. Conversely, people who have more positive attitudes towards pornography also seem to have a more positive attitude about porn actresses. As a whole, the research that involved asking people what they thought about pornography and those who participated on the stage in making it painted a picture that has become known as the “Damaged Goods Hypothesis.”

The damaged goods hypothesis posits that female performers in the adult entertainment industry have higher rates of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), psychological problems, and drug use compared to the typical woman.

The purpose of the study at hand was to test this hypothesis. Among the numerous data collected for each participant, the following especially salient questions were asked: Continue reading Pornography Actresses: Testing the Damaged Goods Hypothesis

This was not an easy thing to write

My friend, Aslhey Miller, just wrote this thing and it is important. She has fallen in love with someone that her father does not approve of, and he, her father, has gone ahead and “disowned” her (a strange word when you think about it) for that reason. You should read this because it is socially and politically relevant, and Ashley is a social and political activist and a great writer. But she wrote it because she is a writer and needs to write about these things. This was not easy for her … not easy to make the decision to write about this experience. I would appreciate it if you would go and give her some kind words.

This is the essay: Racism, homophobia, and how I lost my dad last week.

NASA Mars Rover Press Results Leaked!

As you know, NASA is planning a press conference later today, but you don’t have to wait for the big news. It was leaked, and I’ve got it.

The NASA Curiosity Mars Rover has discovered something interesting and rather enigmatic. I understand NASA will be asking your help in trying to identify what it is.

At first, the object appeared as three enigmatic shapes, kind of gray in color, very near each other, spotted in a ground-oriented medium resolution image. This is what the Rover image looked like: Continue reading NASA Mars Rover Press Results Leaked!

Regenesis: Taking over biology using readily available materials from your kitchen

I might be exaggerating slightly about the ready availability of the materials…

Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves by George Church and Ed Regis looks like a futurist tome on what could happen when technology finally catches up with human imagination and everything changes. Except it isn’t. Most futurists are people with some knowledge of technology, a fertile imagination, and a publicist. Regenesis is by a scientist (working with a writer) who is busy making a different future and who has been involved in every stage of development of the technology under discussion, and for this reason is one of the more important new science-related books you can read right now. Regis is a multiply published science author (his most recent book is What Is Life?: Investigating the Nature of Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology) and George Church is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School who is one of the key players in the Personal Genome Project. He directs Personal Genomics.org, which curates the only OpenAccess human “Genomic, Environmental and Trait database. His work led to the first commercial genome sequence (for apathogen) and he has been involved in both genome sequencing (reading the genes) and synthesis (making new ones) in both the academic and private milieu. He is also director of the NIH “Center for Excellence in Genomic Science” which places him at the center of biosafety, gene privacy, and security policy development.

Church was finishing is PhD work at Harvard the same year that I started mine. We never met to my knowledge, but I remember the construction in those days of the new genetic research facility there. Cambridge, Massachusetts was the first and only city (and still maybe the only one) to write zoning and building regulations for genetic research facilities, and the building was right across from the museum I worked in. People were afraid of what might happen if some of the genes, or genetically modified organisms, they were working on in that building got out. That was a valid concern given the unknowns, but it would eventually happen that the details of what people needed to worry about shifted considerably over time. Had George Church been sent back in a time capsule and put in charge of that project, his understanding of and commitment to safety in genetic research would have been more than a little reassuring. Of course, this would have then affected his own future and thus … oh never mind, that damn Time Paradox is too confusing…

Regenesis covers the history and current status of some of the most innovative and interesting research in genetic engineering, and it is organized in a way that I really liked. The book is written as a time line. The chapters run as follows:

  • -3,800 Myr, Late Hadan
  • -3,500 Myr, Archean
  • -500 Myr, Cambrian
  • -360 Myr, Carboniferous
  • -60 Myr, Paleocene
  • -30,000 YR, Pleistocene Park
  • -10,000 YR, Neolithic
  • -100 Yr, Anthropocene
  • -1 Yr, Holocene
  • +1 Yr, The End of the Beginning, Transhumanis, and the Panspermia Era

See what they did there?

Each of these past eras represents a change in the genetics, cellular biology, evolutionary stage, or environmental context in which live existed, with the human role coming along in a big way near the end. This allows the authors to discuss the nature of life at each stage, and related the last 20 or so years of genomic and genetic research to different levels of organization of life. This causes this book to be different from the average run of the mill futurist book in two ways: 1) You learn stuff about how things are and have been, detailed stuff, interesting stuff; and 2) There is a solid road map imposed on the discussion of what is being done now and what could be done in the future, which allows the authors to avoid the messing around we see in a lot of futurist books. In other words, this is not futurist manifest; It is a history of life and a detailed discussion of what humans are actually doing with life these days and what we seem poised to be able to do based on a solid grounding in actual ongoing research.

One of the most interesting themes that helps underscore the nature of this discussion is left- vs right-handedness in biology. Most complex biological molecules could be built with the structure and symmetry organized in a left handed vs right handed way. It is quite possible that we could encounter a planet (if we could get there) rich in life that is all built on molecules that are the opposite in orientation from what we have here on Earth. Not only that, but it is possible to build such a life form now. We could construct a human that is left-handed, and thus, fundamentally different from all other humans. Such a human could not be infected by many, perhaps most, cell-level pathogens because those pathogens would not be able to interact with the left-handed body. Obviously, this is a complex issue and there is a lot too it…you’ll have to read the book to find out what the implications and complications of such a thing might be.

The most important theme in the book, and also very interesting, is the concept of synthetic biology. The goal of synthetic biology is to create an organism or set of organisms that use the standard biological machinery (proteins and enzymes and stuff building other molecules in a certain way) that will be instructed with their DNA to produce a certain product, such as oil, a house, a cute little furry organism that will replace your Roomba. Well, maybe not that last one. We use lots of synthetic biology now but we are at the chipped-stone tool phase. The basics are in place, the research is progressing, the market for the products is there. Synthetic biology is one of those “technologies” that many hope will come along and solve many of our problems. It should be relatively straight forward to create a thing that will make hydrocarbon based fuels, which one must admit are a very handy way of storing energy, from raw materials that do not include fossil carbon. My personal fantasy is to build large flat factories on the sea surface or in open arid regions that will produce a solid that we just pile up somewhere to contain carbon taken from the atmosphere, and a steady stream of a clean burning liquid. Down the street, I want to see a factory that consist of a giant, 30 acre leaf surface under which is constantly being built a layer of genetically engineered wood, with whatever properties are needed. Imagine 2X4s of just the right strength and flexibility, but indurated with anti-fungicidal and other preservative chemicals. A combination of balsa, ebony, maple, cedar and hickory. Left-handed, of course. Who needs plastic and concrete when we have Frankewood! Bwahahaha!

I interviewed George Church a couple of weeks ago on the radio. The podcast of that interview is located hare on iTunes
icon, or you can find out other ways to get it or listen to it directly here.

From the official description of the book:

Imagine a future in which human beings have become immune to all viruses, in which bacteria can custom-produce everyday items, like a drinking cup, or generate enough electricity to end oil dependency. Building a house would entail no more work than planting a seed in the ground. These scenarios may seem far-fetched, but pioneering geneticist George Church and science writer Ed Regis show that synthetic biology is bringing us ever closer to making such visions a reality.

In Regenesis, Church and Regis explorethe possibilities—and perils—of the emerging field of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology, in which living organisms are selectively altered by modifying substantial portions of their genomes, allows for the creation of entirely new species of organisms. Until now, nature has been the exclusive arbiter of life, death, and evolution; with synthetic biology, we now have the potential to write our own biological future. Indeed, as Church and Regis show, it even enables us to revisit crucial points in the evolution of life and, through synthetic biological techniques, choose different paths from those nature originally took.