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Entries from blogs tagged with “Green”

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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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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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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Kansas financial supports for grandparents and other relative caregivers

In response to my last post on grandparents raising their grandchildren a comment was made that SRS pays the grandparents as they would anyone else.We, the citizens of Kansas through SRS, do not assist all grandparents equally. This gets very technical and there are many different types of assistance but I will briefly identify the major types of available financial help. The information below is the latest that I have and may not be current.There are at least 4 different ways that grandparents can obtain financial assistance for raising grandchildren. Each has different rules and reimbursement rates. Then there are those grandparents who may be struggling financially and are asked to assume care of a grandchild but not told of available financial assistance. But that is another story.Grandparents raising grandchildren can obtain financial assistance through:1.Temporary Assistance for Families (TAF) typically provides assistance of about $175 month and medical insurance through Medicaid. The last data I had was that about 500 grandparents in Kansas are receiving this assistance.2.Grandparent caregivers have access to adoption assistance as any other family who adopts through the state child welfare system. Yes, when asked, many grandparents are ready and willing to adopt their grandchildren. SRS reports that nearly 200 children per year are adopted by relatives. We can assume that most of these are grandparents. Not all of these receive financial help.There is a maximum of $400 per month allowed for subsidized adoption. There are also provisions for up to $1000 per child for one time purchases for such items as bedroom furniture, special equipment for handicaps, home modifications, lifts for vans, or respite care. There is an additional $2000 for non-recurring adoption expenses. SSI eligible children may receive up to $500 per month. If the child is eligible for Home and Community Based Services the adoption subsidize maximum is $500 per month plus a $200 special needs payment. 3.Subsidized permanent guardianship - In 1999 the Kansas Legislature allocated $1,000,000 of TAF funds to subsidize permanent guardianship. The maximum subsidy is $225 per month, which supplements child only TAF benefits including a medical card, if the child qualifies for child only TAF. The allocated amount was never used. In recent years about $170,000 of these funds were expended. SRS reports nearly 200 children per year receiving this type of assistance.4.Grandparents are eligible to be licensed foster parents and receive the same reimbursement as any other licensed foster parent. That is about $550 per month. All of this is very complicated and it is unreasonable to expect grandparents who simply want to step up and help the family understand all of this. Certainly we can design a less complex system that provides needed help and honors those grandparents willing to help raise the next generation.

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Darnell Jackson’s Grandmother

Darnell is receiving a lot of press due to the start of a stellar senior year on the basketball court. Part of this press is being reminded of how important his grandmother was to him and her sad death.Being part of a much older generation I had fewer grandparents and was only somewhat close to a grandmother who took care of me for a short time when my mother was hospitalized.Grandmothers may be more important today that ever before. The US Census reports that 32,582 Kansas children were living with a grandparent in 2006. For 21,278 of these children their grandparents are responsible for them. That is Census speak for they are raising their grandchildren.There are a host of reasons that children are being raised by their grandparents and the Census Bureau does not list them. Situations that I have been aware of include poverty, parental drug abuse and incarceration. These grandparents are providing a wonderful service for their children, grandchildren and the state regardless of the reason. The Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS) is the parent for many children needing an alternative home. During the last fiscal year SRS reports that there were 10,025 children in out of home placement. This is less than half as many children as the grandparents in Kansas are taking care of. SRS also places about 25% of children with relatives and it is likely that many of these relatives are grandparents. As taxpayers we pay for the care of the children in SRS custody. That is another reason to be grateful to those grandparents who have accepted the responsibility to raise their grandchildren. As anyone who has raised children knows it is not always easy juggling child care, jobs and other responsibilities and these grandparents face the same challenges. The more than 21,000 Kansas children in grandparent households were cared for by 19,000 grandparents. Most are relatively young with 17,000 between the ages of 30 and 59 and 13,000 are in the labor force. In other words these are grandparents with lots of other responsibilities and they still took on the task of taking care of the next generation of their family.If you know of a grandparent raising a child, thank her or him.

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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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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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20,000 Kansas poor children are without health insurance.

President Bush gave us a New Years present with the signing of the SCHIP legislation (Health Wave in Kansas). This legislation extended government subsidized health insurance for children in families with limited income through March 2009. Without this extension Kansas would have serious problems maintaining the Health Wave program. President Bush twice vetoed this legislation because Congress, controlled by Democrats, wanted to extend the program to more children. But that is not the story here.Kansas Action for Children reports that there are 20,000 children living below the poverty line without health insurance (http://www.kac.org/ftp/File/Publications/KC_datanotes2007.pdf). This is 39% of Kansas children without health insurance.A White House statement dated December 19, 2007 praised Congress for passing SCHIP legislation that President Bush could sign. This statement said that this is an "important program for America's low income children." There seems to be a contradiction here. What was debated was not health insurance for children living in families below the federal poverty level. Medicaid is the health insurance program for these children. SCHIP is for children in families above the poverty line. The debate was where to draw the line for eligibility. Should it be at 150% of poverty, 185% of poverty, 200% of poverty or higher?Why isn't Medicaid working for the 20,000 Kansas uninsured children living in poor families? There are many answers. For one, consider a single mother with one child living on less than $13,690 a year. That is the current poverty line for this family ($17,170 if she has 2 children). Incidentally, the US Census reports that more poor children live in married couple families but their challenges are similar. So mom needs to get to her job (81% of women heading poor households work according to the US Census), keep food on the table, take care of child care and, by the way, get to the SRS office and take care of Medicaid applications and requirements. This includes the issue of proving that you are a US Citizen. When did we last see those birth certificates?She needs help. More attention, both individually and collectively, needs to be given to these families and you can help.1.Statewide advocacy organizations need to focus on getting children in poor families enrolled in Medicaid.2.Local social service organizations need to advocate for these families and remove whatever barriers exist to Medicaid enrollment. 3.What about a house to house survey in poor neighborhoods that identifies poor families and provides assistance with enrolling in Medicaid?4.Friends and neighbors can volunteer to help enroll poor families5.Friends and neighbors can question local social service providers on their efforts to help poor families enroll in Medicaid or Health Wave.By the way, think about the economic benefit to the local community if the medical expenses of all poor families were covered by Medicaid rather than the local community through donations to organizations like Health Care Access.

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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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The Abominable Snowman in Lawrence?

http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2007/Dec/30/rabbit1.jpgThursday morning I received a call from my wife asking me if I had seen the footprints in the yard. She had noticed them when she was leaving for her job in Topeka."Definitely human footprints only the person was barefoot and my boss said that there could be a homeless person living in the woods.""Kay, that sounds really unlikely to me but this is Lawrence, and we've had other strange things happen such as the escaped cows in our backyard..so I will go look."So out I went and I did find some prints, but they were not very deep..."Hey Kay nope not human, I think rabbit""But they look like bare feet you can see the toes and everything.""Nope rabbit""Well how do you know? Were you there? After all you can't test anything that happened in the past""Kay, I have seen rabbit footprints before and these are rabbit.""Just because you are trained as a biologist doesn't mean I am wrong...you are just plain dogmatic. They looked human to me. You are being dogmatic.""This is just based on experience...Kay look at this picture. I wasn't about to freeze my toes off here but notice how much deeper my shoe print is than the the ones like you found."http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2007/Dec/30/rabbit2.jpg"I still think they are human. Why do you always have to explain everything away as something ordinary? Just a rabbit...huh maybe they are that hobbit man or a gnome. A baby Sasquatch. There all kinds of strange sightings even in Kansas.""Kay I am a scientist and we look for the simplest explanations first.""That is silly, all you scientists think alike. It is some sort of liberal group think. You need to think outside the box. Maybe you should go work for the government.""What does that have to do with anything?""Well everyone knows those government scientists fake data..if you are told to think rabbit then you're going to think rabbit.""Besides that rabbit idea is just a theory and scientists deal with empirical facts-not interpretations."Sigh...fortunately at that point my cell phone died.Note: Any relationship to current public discussions about evolution or global warming is purely coincidental.http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/blogs/entry_img/2007/Dec/30/rabbit4.jpg

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A desire for amputation?

While traveling to Disney World the other week, I picked up a copy of Scientific American Mind to keep myself from being too bored on the flight. One by Sabine Miller called "Amputee Envy" concerns what she terms "Body Identity Disorder" (BID). People with this extremely rare disorder desire to have one or more of their appendages removed, and some actually have such discomfort that they request that the appendage be removed. A summary of the article is here.I had heard about this sort of thing and chalked it up to being a sexual fetish. The reality appears to be much more complex. Some appear to be seeking attention rather than any sort of sexual gratification. But most interesting to me is that at about two thirds of the disorder report that amputation will enable them to express their "true" identity. Thus, there may be a parallel between this disorder and Gender Identity Disorder (GID), which is of personal interest to me. Indeed there are some interesting parallels-both disorders arise early in life, and sometimes the discomfort (which can be extreme) is only resolved through surgery.One might think that these sorts of identity statements are merely part of our modern cultures preoccupation with identity or authenticity, but some cases of BID appear to arise from irregularities in how the body is mapped out in the cerebral cortex. Indeed, sometimes temporary cases of body image problems result from brain tumor, injury or disease. When the disease or injury is fixed, the body image problem goes away.The article also address the issue of surgery for BID cases. Some ethicists argue that, as in the case of certain types of GID, if the person is fully informed of the risks and is not psychotic then surgery ethical. Other ethicists consider this wrong headed and that the Doctor must protect the patient from his or her "irrational desires."Again this sort of debate parallels that about Gender Identity Disorder. Since Gender Identity Disorder is much more common, there is actually standard of care called the Benjamin Standard of Care to provide a way to select those most likely to benefit from sexual reassignment surgery. So lots of interesting things in this article to chew on. What makes our identity? Is it merely socially constructed as some would have us believe? How much is changeable about our identity? What are the boundaries of ethically acceptable medical intervention?There are lots of other interesting articles in this magazine...so you might look for it at your newsstand or for purchase online at www.SciAmMind.com.Citation: Sabine Miller(Dec 2007/Jan 2008) Amputee Envy Scientific American Mind 18(6) pp 60-65Other links:BIID-Info.orgWorld Professional Association for Transgender Health

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WIC participation helps prevent obesity.

An Associated Press article from Thursday December 27 brought attention to the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program. The news was that 3 stores that specialized in serving WIC participants were going out of business. More than 30 people commented on the article in the Lawrence Journal World. It is clear from the comments that the program and its benefits are not well understood including the fact that there are many other stories that supply WIC products. Let's change the headline Children who participate in the WIC program at age 4 are at significantly lower risk of being overweight. This is according to a RAND Corporation study of 2004 (Rand Working Paper 172). This wasn't reported yesterday so it is not "real" news. Previous research has found that WIC reduces the risk of infant mortality, low birth weight and reduces the cost of maternal and neonatal care. While not news, many people do not know of these substantial benefits. WIC basics WIC is a program that was originally intended to prevent hunger by providing food assistance to pregnant, postpartum and lactating women. This is an overly simple description of the program. Complex rules and regulations make a concise description of who is eligible and what they receive impossible. To check out the details go to http://www.kdheks.gov/nws-wic/wic_nutrition_prog.htm. The Department of Health and Environment administers the program in Kansas under regulations from the United States Department of Agriculture that Congress charged with developing the program.The rules are not complex because KDHE or USDOA are large government bureaucracies. They certainly are. The rules are complex because we don't trust poor people to make good decisions. We don't want people that are not really poor to benefit and we don't want people buying caviar when they are suppose to buy milk. Of course some people make bad decisions but our paranoia probably adds more cost to program administration than fraud would. The Rand studyThe findings of the Rand study that children who participate in the WIC program are at reduced risk of being overweight are quite impressive. Childhood obesity is a problem with major future health care consequences. A program that reduces the likelihood of obesity may significantly reduce future health care costs. We already know that WIC participation reduces maternal and neonatal care costs. Are WICs benefits due to the food that the family receives or the nutrition education they receive? The study couldn't determine that. It is likely that it is some of each. Were the children in the study different in some way that would explain the results? The study found that the WIC children were less well off than others. In other words those most in need were participating in the program.This study demonstrates that WIC is a program that reaches children and families who need it and produces substantial benefits. We should all be supporters.Reaching out to poor women and childrenA disturbing finding in the RAND study is that only 38% of eligible children between ages one and four use WIC. More than twice as many poor children could be receiving these benefits and are not. Data for Kansas or Douglas county are not available but it is likely that there are local women and children who could benefit from the program but are not participating.If you know a struggling mother with young children, ask if they know about WIC. Volunteer to help determine if they are eligible. The KDHE website is useful for that and it identifies Gayle Sherman of the Lawrence Douglas County Health Department as the local contact.

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About this global warming stuff…

My wife and I returned from Florida last Friday just in time for last week's snow. And as I write, it is snowing again. But the discussion section in the Lawrence Journal World is hot today because of a column by Cal Thomas in which he accuses Al Gore and other believers in global warming as being fundamentalists. He cites a global warming skeptic "Paleoclimate scientist" Bob Carter as writing""In one of the more expensive ironies of history, the expenditure of more than $50 billion (U.S.) on research into global warming since 1990 has failed to demonstrate any human-caused climate trend, let alone a dangerous one..."This is an interesting comment which flies in the face of the general scientific consensus. So who is the average person to believe? This is important because if Gore and the vast bulk of climate scientists are right then we have an environmental problem that can't wait another 50 years to fix. We are going to have to make both personal and policy decisions either directly or indirectly about this issue.The first thing we need to do is cut partisanship out of the loop. Second of all we need to look at the information that is out there and try to evaluate it as best we can. Fortunately there are several good sources of information. The U.S. government's EPA site (http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/) is much improved in terms of its coverage and I strongly recommend exploring its links. Another site is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Global Warming FAQ which gives a quick synopsis the current consensus on global warming. There is plenty of room to discuss what sorts of solutions - free market, government incentives and mandates, individual action but denying what we are doing to the environment is not productive.As for non governmental sources, Science Daily keeps tabs on climate change at http://www.sciencedaily.com/news/earth_climate/global_warming/ and this is perhaps the site for the latest developments in our understanding of climate change.If you are a regular blog reader, a good unbiased site is Real Climate (http://www.realclimate.org/). This blog's contributors are climate scientists-not geologists and not ideologues. Of course look at some of the advocacy sites on the left and the right-what ever your ideological fancy, but do yourself and civilization a favor and check the claims that are made on those sites against each other and come to an honest judgment for yourself about where the truth most likely is. Don't just believe some numskull on the left or the right because you agree with their ideology, unless the numskull happens to be me of course.In the interest of full disclosure I am pretty much in agreement with the scientific consensus but some of my conclusions about where we stand probably go beyond the scientific consensus:1. Global warming is real and not just an artifact of changes in data collection.2. Much but probably not all of recent global warming is due to human activity including burning of fossil fuels but also deforestation and increased agricultural production.3. Global warming may be to the point that we can do little to affect it quickly.4. Climate change happening more rapidly than we thought possible even five years ago and may be happening more rapidly than many populations can adapt to.5. There is no magic bullet to solving global warming and we probably will need to make some uncomfortable choices concerning energy sources and (dare I say it?) some sacrifice of living standards.6. Poorer countries will be more severely affected than developed countries.7. We have exceeded the ability of the planet to sustain our current population, and global warming is interacting with other human disturbances to bring about an irreversible biodiversity crisis.8. There is still hope for our species but our environment is going to become biologically impoverished in ways we might not like.Of course all comments are welcome; just play nicely.

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