Archive for May, 2010

It’s not Iran or Palestine. It’s Israel.

I generally refuse to comment on the Israel/Palestine situation. Like, say, J Street, I would like some sort of two-state resolution to this sectarian mess. But most of the time, I simply don’t know enough about the situation to comment intelligently, so I try to avoid it altogether. I know when I’m out of my league.

However, even to me, today marks a pretty serious low in Israel’s history. Today’s news has detailed a botched incident last night, in which a “flotilla” of ships carrying tons of supplies was on its way to Gaza. What happened next isn’t entirely clear, but in the end, Israelis boarded the ships via helicopter and now a bunch of non-Israelis are dead. The dead include some Turks, and it hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention that Turkey is (was?) perhaps the closest thing Israel has to an ally in the region.

The pro-Israel forces who can never admit an error of Israel’s are out in full force. They claim that the soldiers were “ambushed,” “lynched,” and that the flotilla consisted of “terrorists” who were seeking to provoke a conflict (I’m too lazy to link right now, but just browse anything at the Corner, Commentary, Weekly Standard, etc.) But you know what, I just don’t care. I will even grant them that there probably were people on the boats who were quick to escalate the conflict, or “not-exactly-Gandhi-like anti-Israel protesters.” But the bottom line is that in international waters, Israeli commandos entered boats carrying tons of aid via helicopter, and now a bunch of non-Israelis are dead while none of the Israelis are dead. I refuse to defend the indefensible.

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An oil well in the Gulf of Mexico suffers a well blowout, exploding the rig and releasing a gusher of oil that would eventually become the largest oil spill in history, coating thousands of miles of coastline and devastating wildlife.

Except this wasn’t 2010; it was 1979. And instead of being near the U.S. coast, it was near the Mexican coast, where most of the damage ended up.

The entire coast of Texas was eventually affected, and it took 10 months to clean up the spill. Two relief wells had to be drilled, and cleanup and damage costs remain unknown.

A few things to point out (you can read an extensive JSTOR article here, if you have access):

  1. They were talking about mandatory shut-off valves in 1979; they were never made mandatory. Surprise, surprise.
  2. Once the oil is out, there’s really not that much you can do other than plan for sucking up as much oil as you can.
  3. Natural seeps do occur and the Gulf of Mexico has a number of natural factors in its favor (as opposed to, say, Alaska), such as sun and warm water.
  4. This will probably take a long time to clean up. It is very doable, just very expensive.
  5. It sure is a lot easier when the oil ends up on someone else’s coast, not yours.

As long as we are reliant on oil, there will be accidents. As long as oil companies avoid liability and regulation, the accidents will get worse.

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The more I read about the oil spill, the more I rage and despair. Here are just a few of the questions I have. If anyone can answer any of these, that would be great:

Why was the “top kill” not tried a month ago? Was it only because top killing seals the well, and they were hoping to keep it productive in the future?

Why did all the headlines say yesterday that the top kill seemed to work, while they admitted two nights ago that they had suspended the procedure and that oil was still seeping out?

Will drilling additional wells nearby be the only way to alleviate the pressure and stop the spill? How long would that take? Months, right?

Will we ever have an accurate estimate of how much oil spilled? By dumping tons of dispersant chemicals into the ocean, has BP made it more difficult or impossible to get an idea about that?

Are those dispersant chemicals safe?

Why is there a liability cap on how much BP will have to pay? Why do Republicans oppose changing the law? Free marketers would presumably oppose corporate handouts.

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I’ll be happy when Ke$ha slides into obscurity so I no longer have to type that stupid dollar sign.

Also, does Usher really say “Oh My Gosh”? Singing about wanton sex = OK. Singing the Lord’s name in vain = no dice.

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The frequency with which science breaks headlines is extremely rare compared to overall scientific output. Top journals like Nature and Science publish ~15 new articles every week of the year, and most of it never makes ripples in the news media. (Case in point, my paper was recently published in Nature, and neither me nor my adviser has been in contact with even my own university’s press department.) Let’s face it, most science just isn’t that important, or interesting, or flashy.

But a paper published today in Science is flashy, oh my! The work is a culmination of years of work led by Craig Venter. What Venter’s institute did was to take the genome from a bacterium (let’s call it X) whose sequence was already known in its entirety. They then decided to make a few changes to it (call this X’). Then, they assembled the full 1,000,000+ nucleotide genome for X’ from an extremely nifty synthesis after ordering fragments of this genome that are 1,000 nucleotides long. Then, they managed to insert this genome for X’ into a new organism, bacterium Y. This insertion, like the prior synthesis step, is also a technological marvel. In doing so, they actually replace Y’s genome with that of X’, essentially reprogramming the single celled organism from one type into the other. The organism is then able to grow and divide, and sequencing its genome reveals that all 1,000,000+ of its nucleotides are exactly what Venter designed.

That’s the actual experiment. And, yes, it is really, really cool. But if there’s one thing Venter is better at than science, it’s probably self promotion. He originally made a name for himself when his former company, Celera, challenged the government funded Human Genome project and sequenced the human genome (they released their results at the same time). Since then, he has sailed around the world on his yacht, sequencing genomes of sea microorganisms in what is essentially a genetic treasure hunt. More recently, he has been trying to create “new life.” This article posted online today, and Venter has already held his own press conference heralding the work. The implication of all this, of course, is humanity’s ability to create life. Venter is calling it a “a living species now, part of our planet’s inventory of life.”

News media have been all over this. Some are asking whether Venter has “made us Gods,” while other articles are quoting scientists like David Baltimore (no slouch) saying things like, “To my mind Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this.” That while it is “a technical tour de force… He has not created life, only mimicked it.” In my opinion, Baltimore is mostly right, even though I think this work is great. They key is that X’ really isn’t all that different from X. Venter just deleted a few genes that make the species dangerous, and inserted a few new unique sequences (called “watermarks”) that mark it as his own. What this represents is a technological breakthrough more than a biological breakthrough. What I mean by that is that we currently do not possess enough knowledge of biology to design our own organisms from scratch. To do so is every synthetic biologist’s Holy Grail. It would enable the design of microbes that produce biofuels, or breakdown oil in oceans, or specifically destroy cancerous cells. It’s the stuff of dreams. But we don’t yet know how to design those things from (mostly) scratch. However, if we successfully designed a sequence that could do those things, now we would be able to synthesize that genome and put it into a new organism. Venter’s technology of genome assembly and manipulation is outpacing our understanding of biology. This isn’t a bad (or dangerous) development, but it simply minimizes the usefulness of his results until that day comes. Which might be a long time from now.

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Every time there’s a story about stolen paintings, I always wonder who’s buying.

Presumably it can’t be an investment. After all, the only way to cash it in would be to sell it on the open market — a clear impossibility.

A private art-lover? A criminal art-lover? Still, a fair amount of the price of artwork — especially the Picassos, Matisses and the like that are most commonly stolen — is in the showing-off. A glance at the list of most expensive paintings gives an idea of the kind of person who buys expensive art. Who can you show off to, if you have contraband goods? Most people who would be impressed/interested in your contraband would also be appalled by its provenance.

At the same time, you would have to have a buyer, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t just steal paintings without a buyer; you’d be holding onto the hot goods without any way of extracting any profit from them.

If anything, I think the persistence of art theft points to the persistent shadiness of art dealing in general. Unsuspecting private collectors probably buy them without knowing what they are, at bargain-basement prices compared with Sotheby’s and Christie’s. But with high-profile pieces, I would imagine that the collectors must know the pieces are stolen, unless they are mislabeled, misattributed, etc. Basically, the stolen art market must rely on the ignorance of its buyers, rather than some super-savvy Mafia collectors, hoarding stolen paintings.

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I submit this without comment:

[via Boing Boing]

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