Friday, November 30, 2007

The Greatest Political Ad Your Sorry Asses Will EVAR See!

. . . which isn't saying much, I'll admit. Still, this ad from Republican Mike Huckabee beats Hillary Clinton's pathetic Sopranos parody by a long shot.

Chuck Norris' endorsements of Democratic presidential candidates cure cancer. Too bad he's. . . oh, never mind!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Meet The New Boss. . . Same as the Old Boss. . .

. . . which in this case is a good thing. Two teams of scientists have discovered a way to convert skin cells into stem cells. Scientists have been trying to conduct research on stem cells for years, in spite of opposition from the U.S. Government, which has refused to provide federal funding due to political pandering to the religious right objections over the use of human embryos, which are killed during extraction. This new method of stem cell production should hopefully overcome the ethical barriers traditionally associated with stem cell research. From
Laboratory teams on two continents report success in a pair of landmark papers released Tuesday. It's a neck-and-neck finish to a race that made headlines five months ago, when scientists announced that the feat had been accomplished in mice.

The "direct reprogramming" technique avoids the swarm of ethical, political and practical obstacles that have stymied attempts to produce human stem cells by cloning embryos.

Scientists familiar with the work said scientific questions remain and that it's still important to pursue the cloning strategy, but that the new work is a major coup.

"This work represents a tremendous scientific milestone - the biological equivalent of the Wright Brothers' first airplane," said Dr. Robert Lanza, chief science officer of Advanced Cell Technology, which has been trying to extract stem cells from cloned human embryos.

"It's a bit like learning how to turn lead into gold," said Lanza, while cautioning that the work is far from providing medical payoffs.

"It's a huge deal," agreed Rudolf Jaenisch, a prominent stem cell scientist at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass. "You have the proof of principle that you can do it."

The White House lauded the papers, saying such research is what President Bush was advocating when he twice vetoed legislation to pave the way for taxpayer-funded embryo research.

There is a catch with the new technique. At this point, it requires disrupting the DNA of the skin cells, which creates the potential for developing cancer. So it would be unacceptable for the most touted use of embryonic cells: creating transplant tissue that in theory could be used to treat diseases like diabetes, Parkinson's, and spinal cord injury.

But the DNA disruption is just a byproduct of the technique, and experts said they believe it can be avoided.

The new work is being published online by two journals, Cell and Science. The Cell paper is from a team led by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University; the Science paper is from a team led by Junying Yu, working in the lab of in stem-cell pioneer James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Both reported creating cells that behaved like stem cells in a series of lab tests.

Thomson, 48, made headlines in 1998 when he announced that his team had isolated human embryonic stem cells.

Yamanaka gained scientific notice in 2006 by reporting that direct reprogramming in mice had produced cells resembling embryonic stem cells, although with significant differences. In June, his group and two others announced they'd created mouse cells that were virtually indistinguishable from stem cells.

For the new work, the two men chose different cell types from a tissue supplier. Yamanaka reprogrammed skin cells from the face of an unidentified 36-year-old woman, and Thomson's team worked with foreskin cells from a newborn. Thomson, who was working his way from embryonic to fetal to adult cells, said he's still analyzing his results with adult cells.

Both labs did basically the same thing. Each used viruses to ferry four genes into the skin cells. These particular genes were known to turn other genes on and off, but just how they produced cells that mimic embryonic stem cells is a mystery.

"People didn't know it would be this easy," Thomson said. "Thousands of labs in the United States can do this, basically tomorrow."

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which holds three patents for Thomson's work, is applying for patents involving his new research, a spokeswoman said. Two of the four genes he used were different from Yamanaka's recipe.

Scientists prize embryonic stem cells because they can turn into virtually any kind of cell in the body. The cloning approach - which has worked so far only in mice and monkeys - should be able to produce stem cells that genetically match the person who donates body cells for cloning.

That means tissue made from the cells should be transplantable into that person without fear of rejection. Scientists emphasize that any such payoff would be well in the future, and that the more immediate medical benefits would come from basic research in the lab.

In fact, many scientists say the cloning technique has proven too expensive and cumbersome in its current form to produce stem cells routinely for transplants.

The new work shows that the direct reprogramming technique can also produce versatile cells that are genetically matched to a person. But it avoids several problems that have bedevilled the cloning approach.

For one thing, it doesn't require a supply of unfertilized human eggs, which are hard to obtain for research and subjects the women donating them to a surgical procedure. Using eggs also raises the ethical questions of whether women should be paid for them.

In cloning, those eggs are used to make embryos from which stem cells are harvested. But that destroys the embryos, which has led to political opposition from U.S. President George W. Bush, the Roman Catholic church and others.

Those were "show-stopping ethical problems," said Laurie Zoloth, director of Northwestern University's Center for Bioethics, Science and Society.

The new work, she said, "redefines the ethical terrain."

Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of pro-life activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the new work "a very significant breakthrough in finding morally unproblematic alternatives to cloning. ... I think this is something that would be readily acceptable to Catholics."

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the new method does not cross what Bush considers an "ethical line." And Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a staunch opponent of publicly funded embryonic stem cell research, said it should nullify the debate.

Another advantage of direct reprogramming is that it would qualify for federal research funding, unlike projects that seek to extract stem cells from human embryos, noted Doug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

Still, scientific questions remain about the cells produced by direct reprogramming, called "iPS" cells. One is how the cells compare to embryonic stem cells in their behaviour and potential. Yamanaka said his work detected differences in gene activity.

If they're different, iPS cells might prove better for some scientific uses and cloned stem cells preferable for other uses. Scientists want to study the roots of genetic disease and screen potential drug treatments in their laboratories, for example.

Scottish researcher Ian Wilmut, famous for his role in cloning Dolly the sheep a decade ago, told London's Daily Telegraph that he is giving up the cloning approach to produce stem cells and plans to pursue direct reprogramming instead.

Other scientists said it's too early for the field to follow Wilmut's lead. Cloning embryos to produce stem cells remains too valuable as a research tool, Jaenisch said.

Dr. George Daley of the Harvard institute, who said his own lab has also achieved direct reprogramming of human cells, said it's not clear how long it will take to get around the cancer risk problem. Nor is it clear just how direct reprogramming works, or whether that approach mimics what happens in cloning, he noted.

So the cloning approach still has much to offer, he said.

Daley, who's president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, said his lab is pursuing both strategies.

"We'll see, ultimately, which one works and which one is more practical."
When I learned that one of the two teams that made the discovery was Japanese, being the lovely little cynic that I am, I started to wonder whether this was part of Japan's "scientific whaling."

People Listen to Me. . .

Last Thursday (November 15th, 2007) I responded to a post by ScienceBlogger Jonah Lehrer about "science criticism":
*Why don't we have science critics? We have music critics and literary critics and dance critics and architecture critics...Wouldn't it be great to also have knowledgeable people point out the flaws and achievements of the latest scientific papers? And yes, I did write an article on this idea a few years ago in Seed, although it seems to have been lost by Google.
To which I responded rather hastily:
We do. It's called peer review.
Imagine my horror when, the next day, I find that Mr. Lehrer has devoted a whole bloody post to my comment:
In response to my call for science critics, a position analogous to a music critic or art critic except that they review the latest science papers, a commenter wrote the following:
"Why don't we have science critics?"
We do. It's called peer review.
My response is that peer review is necessary but not sufficient. (I've discussed the limitations of the peer review process before.) As every scientist knows, lots of crap gets published in journals. (In fact, it's possible that most published research findings are false. ) The job of a science critic, like all critics, would consist of two separate parts: 1) criticize what deserves criticism and 2) praise what deserves praise. Here's what I wrote about science critics way back in the spring of 2004 in Seed:
I believe we need to treat science like culture. We should interrogate and question our science no less than we judge our art. What we need are figures outside of the scientific process to remind us that science is a process, that the data might mean this, or that. What we need are critics of science.
Why does the phrase "critics of science" sound so strange? Why can't our newspapers have, right next to the review of the philharmonic, a thousand opinionated words about molecular biology? Just as there are souls who know Bach better than Bach himself and yet choose to sit in the audience, to listen to the orchestra from the plush velvet chair, so we need figures who know science inside and out and yet choose to site on the sidelines. Modern science is a specialized body of knowledge; an archipelago of disciplines, with each island dominated by its own codes and coasts. Our critics would have to master that island biogeography. In other words, our science critics would have to really know what they were talking about.

Karl Popper, an eminent defender of science, argued for just such a figure: "It is imperative that we give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it is beyond our reach. There is no authority beyond the reach of criticism."
I know, kids. . . I'm scared too.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Sometimes, You Just Need to Slow Down and Take a Look Around. . .

. . . and sometimes, you need a high-speed camera to do it for you.

For instance, have you ever wondered how a popped balloon actually pops? Well, wonder no more!

While we're on the subject of popping. . . what about popcorn?

Some gunshots:

A lighter:

Welding(The light is an electric arc between welder and metal, and the what looks like a waving cloth is actually molten metal):

Atomic bomb explosions(try to ignore the music):

And finally. . . well, see for yourself.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I Got Yer Freedom of Religion Right Here! Part II

Police in Afghanistan-- you know, the country we saved from an Islamist dictatorship-- have just arrested a man for publishing a translation of the Koran.
Afghan police have arrested a man accused of publishing an unofficial translation of the Koran that has sparked protests in parts of the country, newspapers said on Monday.

The translation into Dari, one of Afghanistan's main languages, sparked an emergency debate in parliament and protests in at least two parts of the country as key passages were changed.

Ghaus Zalmai, the publisher of the translation, was arrested on Sunday trying to cross the border into neighbouring Pakistan. Zalmai was also a spokesman for Afghanistan's attorney general.

"This is a plot against the religion of Islam, and no one will ever accept the book as the holy Koran," daily Armaan newspaper quoted judge Abdul Salam Azimi as saying.

"The Supreme court has ordered an investigation into this matter and to bring the culprits before the court," he said.

Perceived insults to Islam, such as the cartoons of the prophet Mohammad or alleged violations of the Koran have sparked angry protests in Afghanistan.
I'll give a bit of background on why this is supposed to be such a big deal in Islam. According to Islam, the prophet Muhammad, inspired by the angel Gabriel, recited the word of God to the people of Mecca. Muhammad's inspired words, as transcribed by his followers, became what is known today as the Koran, the holy, infallible word of God. Trouble is, that particular word is in Classical Arabic, and is so infallible that any translation of the book into other languages is considered invalid and, in this case at least, unholy.

Now that I've elucidated at least some historical and theological baggage, I'll close with a rant.

I don't like the war in Afghanistan. But in spite of myself, I still do buy the moral argument that Canadian troops should stay in Afghanistan to help fend off the Taliban. Unfortunately, the trouble with that argument is the government that U.S. coalition installed to replace the Taliban-- the one that Canadian troops are fighting and dying to protect-- is now, slowly but surely, beginning to resemble the religious dictatorship it was meant to replace by eroding one of the fundamental principles necessary for democracy, the separation of church and state. I don't mean to say that, based on this, the government of Afghanistan is as bad as the Taliban, not by a long shot. It's still possible that the case may dismissed in the courts, though based on the quote by judge Azimi, that's not likely. It's also still possible that coalition governments could exert enough pressure on the Afghan government to get them to dismiss the case. . . though that certainly won't quell future protests.

For some reason, the phrase "the lesser of two evils" seems decreasingly relevant here.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

One Step for Small Men. . .

. . . and I'm just gonna stop there.

Japan has launched a probe into lunar orbit. The probe, SELENE, is taking HDTV images of the Moon's surface even as I speak(so to speak). Below I've posted two time-compressed video streams sent back by the probe (the video below shows them both).

Thursday, November 8, 2007


In response to my last post, Naomi said:
hahahahahah wow. As if that isn't bad enough, their reunion tour is supposed to gross over $100 000 000.

$100,000,000. Really? Well then. . .

But methinks this is all part of a plan:

Just replace "Get the warhead" with "Launch a Spice Girls concert" and you get the idea.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

This is the end. . .

Ladies and, well, A.J., I present to you the long awaited return of. . . The Spice Girls!

Or, as I prefer to think of it:

Perhaps more to the point:

Yeah, like that, only cause by five girls from an island nation.

I got it!

Yup. Somehow that pretty much sums up how I feel right about now.
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