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Entries from blogs tagged with “Faith”

The Moment of Truth - Fox’s new show

The Fox channel had its debut showing of "The Moment of Truth" Weds. evening following American Idol.

The show works something like this: pick a contestant and ask them fifty personal questions behind the scenes to get to know them and their vices and flaws.

Next, hook them up to a lie detector test in front of an audience, their spouse, their friends, and even their employer. Then comes the fun part as the contestant is asked the first six questions, which answered truthfully puts 10,000 dollars in their pocket.

It isn't as easy as it sounds, however, because some of the questions are down right demented! Some random questions from last night's show were

:"Are you addicted to gambling?"

"Are you currently a member of the hair club for men?"

"As a personal trainer, have you touched a female client more than was required of you?"

"Have you used the internet to flirt with other women?"

"Have you stolen a peek at another man's privates during a shower?"

"Have you had a sexual fantasy during mass?"

"Have you gone through a co-workers belongings without their knowledge?"

"Have you delayed having children because you don't think your spouse is your lifelong partner?"

The friends/spouse/employers have one out - they can push a large button that is centered between them (one time only) if they do not want to hear the person answer the question that was asked. The problem with that is it will be replaced with another question and the other question just might be worse then the first.

After the initial six questions, that can earn the contestant 10,000 if answered correctly, the next five questions, if answered truthfully, can get the contestant up to the 25,000 dollar mark. The higher you go, the harder and more revealing the question. Answer all 21 questions truthfully and you have $500,000 in your pocket. You may not have a job to go back to, your wife, husband, and friends have probably abandoned you, but you decide how important money really is in your life.

This show is destined to be a hit - audiences love to see people squirm in the hot seat, see their lives (and their friends and families lives) destroyed right in front of them - and the contestant most probably will end up leaving with nothing.

This reminded me of the games we played as teenagers: truth or dare and twenty questions.

Would you risk it all and tell the truth for $500,000?

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Snowflakes abortion and cloning

The other day there was a report that scientists have been able to simulate the development of snowflakes with a relatively simple computer model based on our understanding of the physics of water. The report noted that the model works but that scientists still don't understand why it works so well.  So notice, the underlying principles are understood pretty well- but the model suggests that at some higher level of snowflake organization there are interactions going on that we still don't understand.

Now what does this have to do with abortion and cloning? It suggests that if we are going to talk about these issues related to human existence we need to think carefully about reasoning behind our positions. For instance, on the abortion issue, and the same thing applies to human cloning, we hear phrases such as "Life begins at conception". Sounds nice but conception simply is the formation of a zygote from the egg and sperm. Of course the egg and sperm are cells and alive themselves and yet we don't worry too much about the fate of millions of unfertilized eggs and all those unlucky sperm that don't find an egg.

Oh then but I mean "Human life begins at conception". But here is a little thought experiment. Consider a cow. Is a cow zygote a cow? If you think a human zygote is a human then perhaps a cow zygote is a cow. Ask your self does that make sense? I haven't tried this but I think that most people upon thinking about it would agree with me that a cow zygote is not a cow, anymore than a water molecule is a snowflake. "Snow flakiness" is really a set of emergent properties that arise because of the way that water molecules interact given conditions conducive to snow flake formation.

I think you see where I am going. If a cow zygote is not a cow then "cowness" must emerge from the genetic, developmental and environmental influences on the developing embryo. There is no mystical essence of cow. Since humans are animals-as I tell my students special animals but still animals- what Daniel Dennett calls a euprimate- then a human zygote is not a human being. "Humanness" emerges just as "cowness" does. There is no mystical essence of human.

Now conduct the converse experiment. Start with a new born baby. Is the baby human in the sense of a person having rights? Sure, at least some basic rights. Does a woman have a right to kill it? I think most of us my self included would agree-not under most circumstances. Suppose the baby is one week from full term...here you get some disagreement but I suspect just about everyone would agree this is not something that ought to be done lightly. It offends our sense of person hood.

But here we see the germ of the obvious conflict-what about medical necessity to save the life of the mother? A fetus though is not an embryo-so that slogan "abortion stops a beating heart" is only true some of the time. But the closer and closer we get to full term the more the fetus becomes invested in our minds with "humanness".

Calling a zygote a cow does not make sense at all-calling a cow fetus a cow (OK a calf) doesn't make sense either, but I think lots of us start to get a bit uncomfortable even about cow fetuses. "Do they suffer?" "Could it survive?" We at least begin to have empathy toward it. We can clearly see the future cow in the cow fetus. And we do for humans, hence the proposals to make women going for late term abortions see sonograms. And hence the appeal to empathy embedded in the partial truth of the beating heart slogan.

Well what about cloning to produce embryonic stem cells for therapy or research? Consider the following. Is harvesting an early stage embryo from a mother to get embryonic stem cells wrong? Is harvesting an early stage embryo fertilized and cultured in a "test tube" wrong? How about, as was just allegedly done, removing a human skin cell nucleus, placing it in a zygote which has had its nucleus removed, treating and culturing the resulting cell, letting it divide into a little ball of embryonic cells and harvesting stem cells- does that really strike you with the same sense of wrongness- or wrong at all?

Or how about this which by the way has been done, I believe in mice- a cell from the body is coaxed into dividing into a little ball of cells that behave like embryonic cells. Let's take one more scenario, we take a cell from the body treat it to effectively deprogram it to form a stem cell useful for therapy. By the way in all these cases from the third one on we are technically dealing with cloning! But we are not making a human being, and I think even abortion absolutists would have a hard time finding much wrong with the last scenario even though it conflicts with the idea that abortion is wrong because it kills a potential human.

However, we as a species love to draw lines. That's what Roe v. Wade tried to do with abortion. It put that line where abortions are allowable at the point when a fetus (which by the way is not the same thing as an embryo) is viable and of course that line is a moving target as technology improves. Roe v. Wade was also dealing with another line-the line at which a person's right to make their own reproductive decisions conflicts with society's stake in the developing fetus. From my perspective Roe v. Wade was not as Cal Thomas claims "a reflection of our decadence and deviancy" but an attempt to find a balance between these two conflicting lines and an attempt to resolve a conflict heightened by changes in reproductive technology such as the pill.

Maybe we do want as a society to draw the abortion line at conception. But many of the arguments are based merely on slogans-"right to life" "woman's right to choose". Perhaps we will get further if we scrap these extremes and the name calling and the absolutism that goes along with them and think about how we as persons emerge from zygotes and realize that people of good faith might draw their lines in different places. Likewise with cloning, we need to consider the conflicts involved and realize that people of good faith can disagree just as they can about where to draw the lines about abortion.

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Bad News on the Cholesterol Front?

A couple of reports hold bad news for some of us with high cholesterol. According to the New York Times, Zetia a cholesterol lowering drug that acts on cholesterol from food may not be effective. Zetia is probably best known as one of two cholesterol lowering medicines in Vytorin. The other cholesterol medicine in Vytorin , the statin Zocor is believed to be both relative safe and effective.What is interesting is that Merck and Shering-Plough, the companies that make these drugs repeatedly missed deadlines in reporting these these clinical trial results, meanwhile heavily marketing Vytorin. This trial, a small scale clinical trial involving 720 patients, was designed to see if the combination of Zocor and Zetia would have an enhanced cholesterol lowering effect and reduce the build up of plaques in arterial walls that lead to heart attacks.Zetia did lower cholesterol but unexpectedly increased plaque formation, raising concerns about its safety. Merck and Shering-Plough are conducting longer term clinical studies to examine of Zetia on the rate of heart attacks. The hope of the drug companies of course is that Zetia will be shown to lower the risk of heart attacks. But the the small scale clinical results related must have drug company executives sweating.Also, Merck and Shering-Plough are being investigated by the House Energy and Commerce Committee as to reasoning for the company's suspicious delay in reporting the clinical results.The finding that Zetia lowered cholesterol but seemed to increase the rate of plaque formation has led a few scientists to wonder if the link between cholesterol levels, specifically Low Density Lipoprotein or LDL, and heart disease is as simple as we currently believe. This concern is discussed in a second Times article here. This link is so well accepted that the FDA typically approves LDL lowering drugs if they are safe and lower LDL levels in the absence of completed long term clinical trials, on the drug's effectiveness at actually reducing heart attacks.Meanwhile large scale clinical trials on the experimental cholesterol lowering drug, torcetrapib, produced by Pfizer, were halted when scientists found that while the drug raised high density lipoproteins (HDL) and lowered LDL levels, contrary to expectations the drug increased the rate of heart attacks. This was bad news for Pfizer which desperately needs a new drug to replace Lipitor which is due to loose patent protection in 2010. Possibly, Pfizer went right away to long term clinical trials to save time. If so it probably was a wise decision in retrospect.Clearly lowering LDL levels and overall cholesterol level is a good thing, but there is a lot we don't understand about the details connecting cholesterol levels to build up of plaques and heart disease. Personally, I am on a statin (a generic of Zocor) and see no reason to stop taking it-it does lower LDL levels, unlike the pizza I just ate.These results do call into question again the way in which drugs are tested. The current system creates a clear conflict of interest between the ethical responsibilities of clinicians and scientists involved in drug testing and the high economic stakes for the drug companies. So how should we test drugs, and what should the role of drug companies be in drug testing? Can government's ability to oversee drug testing be enhanced? If so who will pay?

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Hearse in a roundabout

In a hearse, there goes the dearly departed,stuck in a roundabout;round and round he goes;where he'll stop,nobody knows;hell or heaven, will have to wait;because Lawrence thinks it has traffic "woes;"slow that final funerial route.

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Hearse in a roundabout

In a hearse, there goes the dearly departed,stuck in a roundabout;round and round he goes;where he'll stop,nobody knows;hell or heaven, will have to wait;because Lawrence thinks it has traffic "woes;"slow that final funerial route.

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The Winter Forest is a Lively Place

Took a lovely walk in the woods at Clinton State Park this morning. I decided to take advantage of the snow and followed animal tracks instead of the established human trail. Though the forest was mostly quiet, I saw many signs of animal life. Here are some photos and observations from a novice animal tracker. There were many, many deer trails. The deer I tracked certainly did not take the path of least resistance. In fact, they seemed almost oblivious to trails created for humans. They meandered through the forest and seemed undeterred by undergrowth that came up to my thighs. Sometimes, the trails squeezed through passages that seemed too narrow for all but the smallest deer. http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2008/Jan/18/100_1663.jpgDeer trackshttp://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2008/Jan/18/100_1664.jpgClose-up of a deer trackI frequently saw a few trails heading roughly in the same direction, so I suspect that deer often travel in small groups. They also seem to sleep in small groups. I found quite a few deer beds, areas where the undergrowth was trampled down and the animal's body heat had melted the snow. These beds were clustered in groups of two to six, with each bed a few yards from the others. http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2008/Jan/18/100_1657.jpgDeer bedhttp://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2008/Jan/18/100_1658.jpgDeer scatI saw evidence of squirrels scampering from tree to tree. Scared up a rabbit. Saw small tunnel-like mounds that I believe are made by mice and rodents who tunnel through the snow. Saw a red-tail hawk with a small rodent in its talons. (Guess the little one abandoned its tunnel at an inopportune time!) Saw woodpeckers and nuthatches. Heard bird calls that I don't hear around my central Lawrence home.http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2008/Jan/18/100_1665.jpgFootprints of bird gathering seedsI left the forest (reluctantly) feeling a renewed connection to the natural world. This sense of connection, and thoughts of the animals whose home I visited, have lingered with me in the hours since my walk. A fine way to spend the morning.

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Brother Can You Spare A Tax Cut?

Today's middle-class workers are experiencing, like never before, job instability related to international competition, technological advances and outsourcing of jobs to China and India. Yet, our belief in the American Dream spurs us to strive ever harder in the face of greater unemployment levels; rising healthcare and energy costs; and the current housing crisis.Until recently, our economy has experienced a rise in overall growth and productivity; some say due to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Many businesses have experienced record profits while the middle class worker has seen decreases in wages and skyrocketing healthcare and energy costs. For some of these workers, the promised trickle down effect has come too late. Recently, talk of a recession has the stock markets falling and Washington considering an economic stimulus package. That has lobbyists and special interest groups scrambling to grab a piece of the pie, while Democrats and Republicans fight over economic ideological differences. Back in the real world more and more Americans are falling below the poverty line and middle class workers, like the forgotten Everyman in E. Y. Harburg's "Brother Can You Spare A Dime," ponder:"They used to tell me I was building a dream,And so I followed the mob.When there was earth to plow or guns to bear,I was always there, right on the job.They used to tell me I was building a dream,With peace and glory ahead --Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?"

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Rummaging around the cryosphere

Today I was looking for information related to changes in the Arctic sea ice and found the National Snow and Ice Data Center, (NSIDC) - yes there is such a thing- run out of the University of Colorado. There is even a word for the snow and ice and glaciers that make up the frozen water part of this planet-the cryosphere. Seems like a minor environmental niche until you think about the important role that ice plays not only in the energy budget of the Earth by altering the reflectivity of the planet, but also ecologically.http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2008/Jan/16/news_glacierpairs.jpgThe NSIDC has a great series of graphics related to sea ice and glaciers. For instance, here are two shots of Muir Glacier from the same vantage point, one taken in 1941 and the second taken in 2004. The difference is quite sobering though I am sure those people who don't think we need to be concerned about climate change can put a positive spin on all the vegetation present in 2004. Of course not all glaciers are melting. Climate change is much more complex than we sometime think.http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2008/Jan/16/nasa_snowdunes.jpgThere is lots of information about the polar regions including some features, quite new to me. For instance, in the Antarctic, there are structures called megadunes. These features are so large that a person on the surface doesn't really notice them, and it is only with satellite imagery that they can be properly visualized. How they form is not clear, but they seem to be made by the winds carving into the ice rather than by wind deposited snow.I don't think anyone is seriously thinking that the cryosphere will disappear completely. Also, the movie Waterworld may be a great story but it is just that-were all the ice to melt the Earth would not end up completely covered in water. Even during the warmest part of the Creataceous period roughly 90 million years ago, there is evidence of extensive glaciation. But the best available models predict rapid loss of the arctic sea ice as discussed in this post from RealClimate.In fact, during the late 1960's and early 1970's the concern among some scientists was that we might soon enter another ice age. Global warming skeptics are fond of pointing this out. There were several reasons for thinking this might be plausible. First it was thought that statistically we have been in a relatively long interglacial period so the thought was maybe we are just due for a period of cooling. This was re-enforced by a short term cooling trend that began in the 1940's. Next, some scientists thought that the effects of dust and soot in the air might counteract the warming due to the excess carbon dioxide produced by human activity.Global warming skeptics often conveniently ignore the fact the issue wasn't the reality of human induced global warming, but that other factors might counteract it. New Scientist has an article discussing the global cooling idea that meshes well with what I remember of these debates, ongoing when I was an undergraduate.Curiously the cooling idea has been been advanced again by some scientists who hypothesize that global warming might have the paradoxical effect of cooling the climate in Europe. The basic idea is that fresh water added to the North Atlantic would stop the flow of heat via ocean currents to Europe. However, scientists are still debating this possibility and improved understanding of ocean currents heat transfer in the ocean suggests that this cooling will not happen.So the ice is melting. But we must be careful not to ascribe all that melting to human activity. For example, a recent report,summarized in Science Daily, suggests that at least some of the melting of the Greenland ice cap might be due to heat from inside the Earth. There is a Lawrence Kansas connection since one of the scientists involved, Timothy Leftwich at Oregon State University, is a post doc associated with a consortium called CRESIS, the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets. KU is the lead institution for the consortium.
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Sharing Nature with Children Part I: The Winter Moon

http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2008/Jan/12/100_0651.jpgThe Planting Moon in 2007, between Lawrence and Topeka. On this night we heard whippoorwills and barred owls.One of my regular New Year's resolutions is to pay more attention to nature. This year, I've also resolved to more regularly and systematically encourage my young children to notice the natural world. Noticing and learning about the moon is an easy and rewarding way to focus attention on natural cycles and rhythms. Here are some ideas for sharing the moon with children.1. Read stories about the moon. Some nice ones are Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me by Eric Carle, Kitten's First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes, and Rise the Moon by Eileen Spinelli.2. Talk about the phases of the moon. You can approach this "scientifically", explaining why our view of the moon changes throughout the month. Or, you can talk about moon mythology--how people have interpreted different phases of the moon. Let the ages of your children and your own preferences guide you.3. Pay attention to the moon. Make a point every day to look for the moon. Can you see it in the morning, afternoon, evening, or not at all? How big is it? Or, for a more systematic strategy, look for the moon every evening at 6 pm. This works especially well if you begin observing with a first quarter moon, and the next first quarter moon occurs on January 15. (The weather page of the Lawrence Journal-World gives dates for the first quarter, full, last quarter, and new moons, as well as moonrise and moonset times. Many websites provide moon phase calendars.)4. Native Americans and other peoples have given names to each full moon. For example, according to farmersalmanac.com, several Native American tribes call the January full moon the "Full Wolf Moon." In the terrific book Wild Douglas County, Ken Lassman writes that the Osage Indians who lived in Kansas and Oklahoma called the January moon the "Frost on the Inside of the Lodge Moon" and "The Moon That Stands Alone." Find some traditional names for the full moon coming up, and talk with your kids about why these names might have been chosen. 5. Make and eat "moon cookies" with your children. This could be as simple as following a simple sugar cookie recipe and using cookie cutters to make circle and crescent shapes. Or, if you're feeling ambitious, decorate round cookies, using chocolate frosting for the dark side of the moon, and white frosting for the light side. 6. Have a special activity for the evening of the full moon. For example, gather a bell, a drum, or other instrument; a candle; a safe lighter; and moon cookies. Sit in a darkened room. Have an adult or child ring the bell or strike the drum. Light the candle. Give thanks for elements of the universe that might have inspired the full moon name, or for the beauty of the universe, or say whatever feels comfortable to you. Share moon cookies. By the way, the next full moon-the Full Wolf Moon or the Full Moon that Stands Alone--occurs the morning of January 22. You could celebrate the full moon on the 21st or the 22nd, whatever works for your family. No need to worry about "getting it right", just have fun! And pay attention.

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The Ant and the Elephant

There is a wonderful article in the NY Times science section reporting on some work by Todd Palmer, an ecologist at the University of Florida. Dr. Palmer's work is good illustration of how very different groups of organisms can be connected in very subtle and counter intuitive ways. Dr. Palmer studies the role of certain species of aggressive ants which in part protect Acacia trees from large herbivores including elephants. Acacia trees are one of the dominant types of trees in many parts of Africa so this is a very important study.Dr. Palmer and his associates tested the hypothesis that the trees would grow better long term in the absence of elephants and other large herbivores. For 10 years they followed the fate of Acacias in control plots and experimental plots which excluded the herbivores.They found something quite unexpected. Over time, in the absence of the elephants, the Acacias produced less sap for the ants, and other species of insects, harmful to the Acacias, invaded the trees. The net result was that over time the Acacias actually did worse when there were no elephants to feed on them.Given the threat that large mammals in Africa are under, this study should remind us of the complex and subtle interdependencies that have evolved in natural systems. Removing certain keystone species such from an ecosystem can have, what Palmer terms, a cascading effect on the rest of the ecosystem.The other thing is that when we focus on conserving a single species, say in a zoo or greenhouse, we lose the context in which the species evolved. This diminishes our understanding of that species and the sorts of adaptations it evolved to its original environment. For instance many orchids produce lots of extra sap. In some orchids, the sap is actually secreted from the leaves. I have tasted the sap produced by some of my orchids and it is very sweet. If you grow certain species of orchid at home the leaves get sticky an often will get a fungus. So why the sap?At least part of the answer again, is perhaps to attract certain species of aggressive ants for protection. So what might the implication be? Consider that orchid species. We take that species out the community in which it evolved, grow it in a green house. Over a number of generations it becomes just another domesticated species. A pretty flower perhaps but one that has lost its context, like an artifact in a museum.By the way, there is a Kansas connection to this story since much of the now classic work on ant - Acacia interactions was done by Dr. Dan Janzen who taught at KU from 1965-68.

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‘Sham’ Treatments in Medicine

According to a study cited in Science Daily, roughly 45% of internists responding to a survey about the use of placebos said that they had given placebos to their patients at least on occasion. Placebos are sometimes used to determine if the symptoms exhibited by a patient are in the mind or physical and controlling for the placebo effect is an important design issue in drug tests.The therapeutic use of placebos is controversial and given the notion of informed consent in medicine, perhaps unethical. But there is no doubt that the placebo effect is real and perhaps behind why many alternative therapies of dubious scientific standing such as "energy work" or homeopathy appear to work.Many of the physicians put a more benign spin on placebos. The physicians often defined placebos as being interventions "not expected to work" through any sort of known mechanism. Personally I would not want my physician to give me a placebo and strangely enough for the very reason that I believe in the mind body connection that alternative therapists often times misuse to justify their treatments. For instance, I got dragged to a workshop on "energy work" and "auras" last year and as you might guess I had to bite my tongue repeatedly to maintain some level of politeness at the drivel the speaker was feeding us. And yet the exercises did work. When asked to feel the boundaries of someone else's energy field, indeed I could feel SOMETHING.Of course the hard headed side of my was designing little experiments that could test whether or not there was any objective reality to this feeling. After all I ought to be able to measure some sort of energy and manipulate it experimentally. My suspicion is that what I felt was due to the power of suggestibility.I also do Yoga and when the instructor tells me to visualize my chakras, I know that chakras don't have any serious anatomical basis. I don't really have a third eye for instance- unless it is the imagination. I am suspending belief and harnessing that suspension to bring about physiological changes.Physician's use of placebos may well be justified in spite of the notion of informed consent. But wouldn't it be better if people could learn to harness their own powers of suggestion rather than be tricked into it either by well meaning physicians or by snake oil sellers of alternative therapies?

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Mercury and Autism: when is enough enough?

Today's Lawrence Journal World carried a report of a California study the says that autism is not related to mercury exposure from childhood vaccines. This study from my way of thinking is pretty convincing especially in light of independent studies that come to the same conclusion.For a number of years, some scientists and advocacy groups have been concerned that a mercury containing compound called thimerosal might be the cause of an increase in autism and perhaps other neurological disorders. What I found interesting in the Journal World's report was this comment by Geraldine Dawson from a group called Autism Speaks which advocates for autism research:"The bulk of the evidence thus far suggests that mercury is not involved, but I think parents still have many questions ... I think until parents are satisfied, we need to continue to examine the question."Now granted parents are generally the prime advocates for their children, as well they should be, but in terms of research Dawson's comments leads to a big question. Given the limits on research dollars, should we keep chasing after a hypothesized association between vaccines containing thimerosal and autism which the available epidemiological evidence says is weak at best given current vaccine protocols?How many parents do we have to satisfy? All of them? Some people will simply persist in not believing any amount of scientific research. Now don't get me wrong-mercury in the environment is an important issue and the effects of mercury on health are clear-but why should autism researchers be distracted because a few parents choose to discredit the science?Related Links:EPA mercury fact sheetCDC Mercury and Vaccine Fact SheetMercury Exposure and Child Development OutcomesMercury and Autism: A damaging delusionWhat parents should know about Thimersol and Vaccines

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Strong Women

Cal Thomas' column (last week) on Benazir Bhutto took me by surprise. It wasn't just the fact that he had sipped tea with her, an experience he said he would never forget, but that he called her a "strong woman" and pointed out that "leadership is more than biology. It takes a well-crafted ideology and goals beyond one's self." He believed Bhutto had them in abundance. He also stated that:"Women who are strong in the things that matter most - courage and character - are a threat to weak men without such traits. Some men will go to any length to oppress such women, even invoking the "will of God" as the ultimate justification, when God wants to liberate women (and men), not subjugate them to self-righteous sinners."Hmm. I agree with Thomas. One doesn't have to go outside the United States, or even Kansas, to find rantings when strong women are appointed to or seek positions of leadership in national life. It wasn't too long ago that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church were attacked in some sections of the media simply because they were women. Do you remember any previous Speakers being ridiculed for the ties they wore, or the size of their biceps for that matter? The topic of Pelosi's pearls drew nearly as much attention as her appointment and, at one point, Hilary Clinton's cleavage was inflated to grab pretty large headlines.The US touts itself as the land of freedom, equality and opportunity but one wonders why a woman has not yet been elected to its highest office? England AND Ireland, small countries who could well fit into the state of Texas with plenty of room left over, have already had females in the top posts. England had its first woman Prime Minister nearly 30 years ago until she was ousted by the "Big Boys," and Ireland has experienced two female Presidents. And then there is Benazier Bhutto, the focus of Thomas' column, who became Prime Minister in a Muslim country. She balanced family life (with a husband and children ) with her political duties, and managed to retain her femininity. I know that comparisons are odious, but, in this case, they should give food for thought, even though some may choke in the process.I'm not saying that Hilary Clinton should be elected President simply because she's a woman; I'm saying that she shouldn't be ridiculed and dismissed just because she is. If she is the only women to emerge as a potential Presidential candidate, what is this saying about the women in America? Or what is it saying about the men?

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A Blog Entry regarding max1’s tired Bush Quote

"I don't know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."- George Bush Sr. ( in response to a question about whether he recognised the equal citizenship and patriotism of American atheists)-max1, over and over and over, as he is want to do.Allegedly.While this is a favorite fall-back quote to prove the danger the GOP poses to non Christians, it is only alleged to have been uttered by Mr. Bush by one man: Rob Sherman. http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2008/Jan/07/rob_sherman.jpgThis quote was apparently uttered by the then sitting Vice President of the United States, poised for a run for President of the United States, in a "news conference." http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2008/Jan/07/George_Bush.jpgYet no other person has ever been able to substantiate the claim made by Sherman. No video or audio of the "news conference" (involving the Vice President) exists. No other people at the "news conference" have stepped forward to substantiate the quote. In fact, in 2002 on his website http://www.robsherman.com Sherman wrote: "One reporter, in particular, who recalls this exchange quite well is Greg Lefevre. He was, in recent years, the San Francisco Bureau Chief of CNN until CNN fired him in 2001, along with a group of other fine reporters, for budgetary reasons. I've referred people to him about this several times over the past fifteen years, but I don't know where to find him now since CNN got rid of him."http://web.archive.org/web/20020323184302/http://www.robsherman.com/information/liberalnews/2002/0303.htmSeveral people have apparently contacted Mr. Lefevre, who is indeed alive and available at http://greglefevre.com/ and have been informed by him that he never heard any such utterance.http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2008/Jan/07/greg_lefevre.jpgHowever, an examination of Sherman's website reveals that he has since purged any mention of Lefevre.http://www.google.com/search?q=Lefevre+site%3Ahttp%3A%2F%2Fwww.robsherman.com&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-aNow why on earth would a respected journalist put it all on the line like this? Standing alone in the storm of neocon blowback, why would this one lonely journalist stand by an indefensible quote? I'm sorry, did I say journalist?Who is Rob Sherman? Is he a tireless reporter, in the model of Dan Rather?http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2007/oct/27/atheists_daughter_fights_momentsilence_law/Why, he's here! Right here in a Lawrence Journal-World story! His daughter is filing a ridiculously frivolous lawsuit challenging a moment of silence law in Illinois! Turns out Rob Sherman may just be a guy with an axe to grind, and he may be grinding away, with his daughter in tow.Rob Sherman is a lonely oppressed atheist, fighting the GOP anti-atheist pogroms. Now the alleged Bush quote makes a lot more sense! Now Sherman can get a thousand atheist or anti-GOP blog posters to use the "quote" as a signature file, and have them help carry the water, potentially giving millions of web-surfers the uneasy feeling that the GOP is poised to revoke citizenship rights of non-Christians. Erosion of Democracy, indeed!Allegedly.

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Rememberance

There is anger between factionsThere is no understanding Differences not always celebrated There is sadness across a countryPakistan has been hit, as Israel once wasGreat leaders of Peace fallThey are remembered and mournedBenazir Bhutto led a fightMade things different for the womenPushed for a change that was resistantBut never gave in, never lost her footingExiled and loss of powerDid not stop her from her fightThis is a great womanA loss for PakistanA loss for the Middle EastFor women everywhereThe loss will be feltjust as Rabin and othersThe fight for peace is often violentA single tear flows downSadness at this lossFollowed her since middle schoolI pray this day that her death Will not be in vain But that when others remember herThey will keep her spirit aliveAnd strive toward peace and understanding

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Garden responsibly!

Brazilian pepperThis is a plant picture I took last month at Disney World. At first I thought the plant was some sort of viburnum, but while catching up with Jenn Forman-Orth's wonderful Invasive Species Web log, found this post showing a plant called Brazilian pepper, considered to be a highly invasive introduced species in Florida. So I sent the picture off to several plant identification groups on flickr and the ID came back... Schinus terebinthifolius AKA Brazilian Pepper or Christmas Berry.According to the University of Florida's Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, this species is from South America and has been aggressively colonizing a wide range of habitats in South Florida, replacing native plants. As so many other plants, Brazilian Pepper was introduced as an ornamental. The orange berries are attractive to birds and mammals and this combined with a high germination rate under a range of conditions appears to be the main factor in it's spread.You might think that invasive species are just a major problem in places such as Florida but Kansas has it's own collection of problem introduced species. The USDA's list of Kansas invasive plants alone has 35 species on it and the list is very incomplete. Some of these species such as musk thistle are obvious pests, but others such as Russian Olive, Japanese Honeysuckle, Tree of Heaven and certain types of St. Johns wort are less well known invasives.An example of a potentially invasive ornamental, one that I have in my garden, is "Zebra grass", Miscanthus sinensis. This plant isn't in the same league as Kudzu but it is a plant to watch according to the Global Invasive Species Database.So think carefully before you buy that ornamental. Get the scientific name and find out if it is an invasive species-not all invasive species are officially banned so you can't rely on the plant being environmentally friendly just because it is at your local nursery.If you want a particular type of plant, often there are native or a least non invasive alternatives. One useful source for alternatives from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens also has tips on garden design and gardening for wildlife. Another useful site is the Global Invasive Species Database, mentioned earlier. This is a good site because it will clue you in to potential problems, such as zebra grass so you can do a little prevention. Also check out the Invasive Species Weblog for quick updates. Of course our local extension agents can help you as well.

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Why Obama Will Never Win

Obama may look like the winning horse leading the pack at the beginning of this year's Presidential race, but he won't be able to keep up the pace all the way to the finish line. He isn't seasoned. He isn't experienced.

Neither he or Edwards have the lineage behind them that would be required to go the distance.

Still, Obama is working the track and has picked his way from the back of the pack and moved into a key position to make a run for the final stretch. It hasn't been an easy task. He has been hit by dirt and mud as much as any of his opponents. He seems to be gaining speed. He is a full length ahead of Edwards and Edwards is a nose in front of Clinton.

I am glad I have my bet on Clinton though. She is saving herself for the finish line. She has great stamina, loves to be pushed for a grand finish and is well seasoned and confident. She stands head and shoulders above the competition because of her previous experiences in other races such as these - some of which she watched from the sidelines.

Obama has blinders on; he won't be able to see the filly passing him on the inside track until he begins to taste the dust that is stirred up as she leaves him far behind.

And she hasn't even begun to work up a lather.

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Have You Changed Your Mind?

A favorite online read is Edge which bills itself as representing the third culture. The third culture refers to those intellectuals who bridge the sciences and the humanities, what C.P. Snow referred to as the "Two Cultures". One feature of Edge is a series of contributed response to some important question of the year. This year's question is "What have you changed your mind about?" and the responses are quite fascinating. At least the scientist's responses should put to rest the notion often bandied about by non scientists that scientists are inflexible and dogmatic.Here are some mind changers worth checking out:Paul Davies used to be a committed Platonist. About time he came around to my type of thinking.Lera Boroditsky has decided that language can change our sensory perceptions after her experimental data contradicted her original and long held belief.William Calvin has changed his mind about global warming after visiting Greenland.Roger Bingham has given up evolutionary psychology..or at least what had been the prevailing notion of how the human mind worked.Finally on a pessimistic note but he may be right, Lee Silver concludes that in contrast with what intellectuals like to often believe:" While its mode of expression may change over cultures and time, irrationality and mysticism seem to be an integral part of normal human nature, even among highly educated people. No matter what scientific and technological advances are made in the future, I now doubt that supernatural beliefs will ever be eradicated from the human species."What have I changed my mind about? Over time I have gradually shifted my belief in the balance of nature, now believing that the biological world consists of populations opportunistically evolving and that the balance of nature, like design, is an illusion.What other mind changers are out there? How have your beliefs changed?

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Science in 2007

The end of a year unavoidably brings various "top 10" or "Break through" lists and science is no exception. So much happens in science and technology that a single list may not be meaningful. So I decided instead to sample some of these science lists which you can look at for yourselves.Popular Science has a "Best of What's New" issue online. Their innovation of the year goes to a private company called Nanosolar which has found a way to cheaply produce a low cost coating that can convert solar energy to electricity. Popular Science is mainly oriented toward applied science and technology, so I am pleased to see that they also chose to recognize advances in detecting planets orbiting other stars. Some of their picks are potentially very disruptive technology. Take the Meraki Mini. This is a Wi Fi device with an important difference:"...add more Minis, and the network can blanket acres. So instead of all your neighbors paying an ISP, you could let them tap into your connection. To boost the whole network's bandwidth, just plug any of the Minis into another wired link."This could be very disruptive to local broadband companies. Heads up Sunflower!Science Magazine has a very different list in their Break Through Issue more oriented to basic science. The Break through of the year is not really a single break through per say but a recognition of how faster cheaper DNA sequencing methods are making it possible to really study genetic variation in humans. These methods have the potential to provide new insights into disease as well as human evolution, but also raise privacy and ethical concerns.Runners up include a new technique for reprogramming cells, new semi conductors and superconducting compounds, and strangely enough a brute force proof that checkers between players with perfect foresight leads to a draw. May seem almost intuitive but demonstrating this has involved new techniques in information processing and artificial intelligence that may be useful in other areas such as deciphering sequences of DNA.The Guardian has a biology laden list. The human genome is tops as it was in the Science list, but they also included the finding that skin cells and other sorts of cells in the body can be reprogrammed relatively easily to behave embryonic stem cells. If this discovery pans out, it could much of the ethical debate about harvesting stem cells from embryos to rest.Finally Scientific American has a "Top 25" list. Not presented in any particular order the list, has some overlap with the Guardian's list but also includes the spread of hospital infections caused by antibiotic resistant staph bacteria (Can you spell evolution?). Climate change received a lot of play on this list as it did on most of the other lists including a special report. One intriguing change that is often ignored in the popular press is the resurrection of nuclear power as a serious option including a proposal to build the first nuclear power plant in this country in 30 years. Nuclear technology has not stood still since the 1970's and reactor builders claim that today's designs are much more efficient and safe.As should be clear, many of the top stories of 2007 really are a recognition of technological or scientific trends that began before 2007. For instance, over at Space.com the big space events in their Top 10 list include planetary flybys, the successful Bigelow space station prototype, along with the privatization of space flight, and more space activity from Asian countries, especially China and Japan.It is hard to believe that the Space Age is 50 years old taking Sputnik as the starting point. Considering all the optimistic predictions made early in the Space Age, it may seem we haven't done much- remember the movie 2001. But given the cost of getting into space we have done pretty well. For instance, advances in robotics have taken us in directions and provided us with opportunities for exploration that we didn't envision in the late 1950's. Who would have thought that a pair of mechanical rovers would have allowed us to learn so much about Mars!I hope people enjoy looking at these lists...what is big in science in your mind? What trends are being ignored? What's coming up next?

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Sedum and Ice

Of course my wife is nothing like I portrayed her in my last post, and she got me a macro lens for Christmas so I can take even more pictures of critters only a biologist could love. After Church today I taken with this sedum in my garden peeking through the snow. sedumandiceBy the way, I am addicted to flickr and clicking on the image will take you into my public photo stream.

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