Friday, July 29, 2011

ENVIRONMENT - Update, the Honeybee Problem

"5 Years Later, Scientists Still Puzzled by Honeybee Decline" PBS Newshour Transcript 7/28/2011


SPENCER MICHELS (Newshour): In a field of sunflowers in California's Central Valley, it's obvious not all the bees have disappeared. Despite five years of mysterious trouble in American honeybee hives and devastating die-offs that continue to happen, bees are still pollinating 130 kinds of fruits and flowers worth $15 billion.

What agriculture and scientists continue to fear is what they call colony collapse disorder, or CCD, will remain unchecked, unsolved and destructive.

California beekeeper Randy Oliver had this happen to his hives.

RANDY OLIVER, California beekeeper: With the colony collapse, it's very sudden, where you see the colony just kind of teetering, still full of bees. Then, boom, overnight, all the bees are gone.

SPENCER MICHELS: Here at the University of California at Davis, scientists are trying to find ways to improve health of the bees, partly by changing what they eat, partly by selective breeding of healthier, disease-resistant bees.

A new garden of bee-friendly plants has been planted at Davis courtesy of an ice cream manufacturer, whose business depends on fruits pollinated by honeybees and who is funding research.

Eric Mussen has been the university extension apiculturist throughout the colony collapse crisis. Mussen is frustrated that the disease is still rampant, though not for all beekeepers.

ERIC MUSSEN, University of California, Davis: We really don't seem to have accomplished a whole lot, because we're still losing, on an average, approximately 30 percent or more of our colonies each year. And that's higher than -- than it used to be. Only 25 percent of the beekeepers seem to have this CCD problem over and over and over. The other 75 percent have their fingers crossed and say, I don't know what this is, but it's not happening to me.

SPENCER MICHELS: In Joe DeRisi's University of California, San Francisco lab, scientists are now using the tools they developed for studying human pathogens to hunt for the culprit in colony collapse disorder.

JOE DERISI, University of California, San Francisco: One of the frustrating things with CCD is, it doesn't look like there's any one single agent or culprit. Imagine if you had the cold, and you got the flu on top of a cold. Well, that might be the case with the honeybees. You have a weird fungus and a virus, and it causes a drop in the health of a colony to the point where the colony can't maintain itself.

SPENCER MICHELS: Scientists working with DeRisi essentially are starting from scratch. Using a modified vacuum cleaner, they collect healthy bees from nearby hives to try to figure out what pathogens normal bees contain, so they can recognize abnormal when it occurs.

Michelle Flennekin is a postdoc microbiologist.

MICHELLE FLENNEKIN, University of California, San Francisco: Honeybee colonies, kind of like human populations, are exposed to a number of viruses and pathogens throughout the whole -- the entire course of the year. So what this study provides us is a normal, healthy colony baseline of the ebb and flow of the microbes associated with that colony throughout the course of the year.

SPENCER MICHELS: In the lab, Flennekin's colleague Charles Runckel smashed up the dead bees, in order to extract DNA or RNA and analyze what viruses or bacteria are present.

As part of their study, they followed and got samples from a huge commercial beekeeping operation as it traveled across the country pollinating crops. Their work has already paid off.

CHARLES RUNCKEL, University of California, San Francisco: We found four new viruses in this study, and one of them was so frequent, it was more -- there was more of that virus present than every other virus that we have know about put together.

SPENCER MICHELS: Finding such normal viruses makes finding the causes of CCD more likely.

CHARLES RUNCKEL: Once you know each of these viruses and you know their genetic makeup, you can look for them very easily. But finding them in the first place takes years and a lot of effort. And so that's what we did here, the first step.

SPENCER MICHELS: Still, the progress has been slow since scientists are starting with little knowledge of bees and bee diseases.

JOE DERISI: In comparison to what we know about human biology and the infectious diseases that affect all of us, we know almost nothing about honeybees, for which we depend so much. This is what I think CCD has really done, is brought new science, new interest and new researchers into the game.

SPENCER MICHELS: But that hasn't yet helped beekeepers trying to keep their hives alive. In Grass Valley, Calif., Randy Oliver rents out 1,000 hives to make his living. He's experienced die-offs before, but this one has been more persistent.

When his colonies collapsed, he started experimenting and reading the scientific literature. He agrees with DeRisi that several factors are at play in this perfect storm that he figures weakens the bees' immune system.

RANDY OLIVER: The first one is bees are stressed by the cold. They're a tropical insect. The second one is any kind of pathogens, parasites, viruses, bacteria. The next one is nutrition. And that's critical, for the bees to get good nutrition, or they can't fight the pathogens. And the last one is pesticides.

SPENCER MICHELS: Oliver and others have started splitting their hives every year, taking half the bees out and starting a new hive. He calls it "forever young," and it seems to keep the bees healthy.

RANDY OLIVER: That simple act of splitting gives the bees a fresh start. And, in nature, that's what they do. Bees -- bees reproduce frequently. They swarm every spring, and they give themselves fresh starts. And that's what beekeepers are tending to do, too.

SPENCER MICHELS: In the field, Oliver is running controlled tests of a natural antiviral product, one of several remedies promoted by private industry.

At his home, Oliver examines bee tissue under the microscope for pathogens to see what conditions, what foods may be associated with CCD. It's a continual fight, he says, a fight that's easy to lose, given the nature of bees and pathogens.

RANDY OLIVER: You have to be running all the time to stay in place, that because the pathogens never stop evolving -- the viruses evolve constantly. The fungi evolve constantly. The parasitic mite is evolving constantly. If the bees are not constantly evolving, the parasites will overwhelm them.

SPENCER MICHELS: So far, the consensus is that most beekeepers are avoiding colony collapse disorder though careful management of their bees. But the disease, whatever it is, has not gone away, and scientists ruefully admit they don't yet know what causes CCD or how to cure it.

POLITICS - Fed Up With Deadlock? You're Not the Only One

Note that the very big mistake of linking the federal budget to Debt Ceiling is in the following discussion.

Fact; the Debt Ceiling has absolutely NOTHING to do with the federal budget. Raising the Debt Ceiling IS about heaving enough money in the "bank" to PAY TODAY'S BILLS. The bills that are law today.

Budgets are spending PLANS for the future. Also, budgets do NOT actually spend money. Federal dollars get spent, allocated, by Appropriation Bills that are passed separately.

"From Ohio to Nevada, Voters Fed Up With Debt Ceiling Deadlock"
PBS Newshour 7/28/2011

CHINA - Microblog Sina Weibo Punches Holes Through Censorship

"In Baring Facts of Train Crash, Blogs Erode China Censorship" by MICHAEL WINES and SHARON LaFRANIERE, New York Times 7/28/2011

(Sina Weibo = China's Twitter-like site)


“After all the wind and storm, what’s going on with the high-speed train?” read the prophetic message posted last Saturday evening on the Chinese microblog Sina Weibo. “It’s crawling slower than a snail. I hope nothing happens to it.”

They were a few short sentences, typed by a young girl with the online handle Smm Miao. But five days later, the torrent that followed them was still flooding this nation’s Internet, and lapping at the feet of government bureaucrats, censors and the state-controlled press.

The train the girl saw, on a track outside Wenzhou in coastal Zhejiang Province, was rammed from behind minutes later, killing 40 people and injuring 191. Since then, China’s two major Twitter-like microblogs — called weibos here — have posted an astounding 26 million messages on the tragedy, including some that have forced embarrassed officials to reverse themselves. The messages are a potent amalgam of contempt for railway authorities, suspicion of government explanations and shoe-leather journalism by citizens and professionals alike.

The swift and comprehensive blogs on the train accident stood this week in stark contrast to the stonewalling of the Railways Ministry, already stained by a bribery scandal. And they are a humbling example for the Communist Party news outlets and state television, whose blinkered coverage of rescued babies only belatedly gave way to careful reports on the public’s discontent.

While the blogs have exposed wrongdoers and broken news before, this week’s performance may signal the arrival of weibos as a social force to be reckoned with, even in the face of government efforts to rein in the Internet’s influence.

The government censors assigned to monitor public opinion have let most, though hardly all of the weibo posts stream onto the Web unimpeded. But many experts say they are riding a tiger. For the very nature of weibo posts, which spread faster than censors can react, makes weibos beyond easy control. And their mushrooming popularity makes controlling them a delicate matter.

Saturday’s train disaster is a telling example — an event that resonated with China’s growing middle class, computer-savvy, able to afford travel by high-speed rail, already deeply skeptical of official propaganda.

As state television devoted Saturday evening to reports of mass murder in Norway, Sina Weibo weighed in four minutes after the train accident with a post from the crash scene, by a passenger reporting a power blackout and “two strong collisions.” Nine minutes later, another passenger posted a call for help, reposted 100,000 times: “Children are crying all over the train car! Not a single attendant here!” Two hours later, a call for blood quickly clogged local hospitals with donors.

Then the reaction began to pour in. “Such a major accident, how could it be attributed to weather and technical reasons?” blogged Cai Qi, a senior Zhejiang Province official. “Who should take the responsibility? The railway department should think hard in this time of pain and learn a good lesson from this.”

From a Hubei Province blogger: “I just watched the news on the train crash in Wenzhou, but I feel like I still don’t even know what happened. Nothing is reliable anymore. I feel like I can’t even believe the weather forecast. Is there anything that we can still trust?”

There is no clearer sign of the rising influence of microblogs than their impact on government itself.

Last weekend, Wenzhou bureaucrats ordered local lawyers not to accept cases from families of victims without their permission. After weibos exposed them, they withdrew the order and apologized.

AUTOMAKERS - Backing Better Gas Mileage

What this is really about is the Big-3 automakers have no faith in their engineering technology getting the job done, by 2025 no less. Nor in the American people willing to pay, even after history has proven we will pay for what is better.

Like most Wall Street businesses, they are very short sighted.

"Carmakers Back Strict New Rules for Gas Mileage" by BILL VLASIC, New York Times 7/28/2011


Four years ago, the American auto industry was so opposed to higher fuel economy standards that executives of Detroit camped out in Washington in an unsuccessful bid to undercut them.

On Friday, when President Obama is scheduled to announce even stricter standards — in fact, the largest increase in mileage requirements since the government began regulating consumption of gasoline by cars in the 1970s — the chief executives of Detroit’s Big Three are expected to be in Washington again.

But this time they will be standing in solidarity with the president, who will also be surrounded by some of Detroit’s highest-tech — and most fuel-efficient — new vehicles.

While the American carmakers, as well as their Asian rivals, once argued against even minimal increases in government fuel rules, they are acquiescing without protest to an increase to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, from the current 27 miles per gallon.

The new standards are seen by the Obama administration as critical to reducing oil consumption and cutting consumer expenses at the pump, and the White House made it clear to Detroit executives that the changes were coming and they needed to cooperate.

It is an extraordinary shift in the relationship between the companies and Washington. But a lot has happened in the last four years, notably the $80 billion federal bailout of General Motors, Chrysler and scores of their suppliers, which removed any itch for a politically charged battle from the carmakers.

And the auto companies have gotten a lot better at building popular small cars that are fuel efficient — thanks to gas-electric hybrids and advances in battery technology — and consumers are responding. Six of the 10 best-selling vehicles in America are small or midsize cars, and one of the most popular pickup models on the market is a Ford F-Series with a high-mileage, six-cylinder engine.

Still, the industry’s meek acceptance of what are considered extremely challenging fuel-economy goals is a marked retreat from years past, when the companies argued that consumers would not be willing to pay for the technology needed to meet higher mileage requirements.

“The auto companies’ level of vitriol and rhetoric has changed,” said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, a group that works to mitigate global warming. “We welcome all epiphanies.”

The new mind-set in Detroit has been helped by some give and take on the government’s side. G.M., Ford and Chrysler pressed for less onerous mileage goals for their profitable pickup trucks and got them. And the administration agreed to revisit the new requirements halfway through their course, with the possibility of adjusting them.

In the end, though, Detroit was faced with an undeniable political reality: there was no graceful way to say no to an administration that just two years ago came to its aid financially.

Lets rephrase that last sentence, "there was no graceful way to say no to the American taxpayer that just two years ago came to its aid financially.

ON THE LITE SIDE - Circus Smirkus Boy Clown

(click for better view)

"A Young Clown Follows in a Father’s Giant Footsteps" by DAN BARRY, New York Times 7/28/2011


Down Clown Alley, in the backstage tent for Circus Smirkus, a slight boy of 14 studies his clown self in a jagged piece of mirror. This is Sam Ferlo, the son of a former circus clown and a former circus showgirl, and the godson of a man once known as the Human Cannonball.

Guess what Sam wants to join when he grows up.

Seeing the need for a touch more of the garish, the boy dabs a finger into the greasepaint he keeps in his most precious possession, a makeup kit that is small, red and well traveled. His every move is watched by the tiny photograph of a clown taped to the inside of the kit’s lid. Practice, this clown tells the boy. Take clowning seriously. And always: Be big.

Throughout New England and parts of upstate New York, summer means that the traveling youth circus called Circus Smirkus will once again be pitching its tents on dry-grass fields, inviting one and all to see circus acts performed with precision by the summer-camp young. Tightrope walkers. Acrobats. Jugglers. And clowns, but not the scary kind.

This year the troupe has nine clowns, including Sam, the smallest. Hunched now in a fold-out chair, dwarfed by steamer trunks and surrounded by other teenagers tending to their looks (“Do my eyebrows work?” one asks), Sam paints his cheeks, pats his face with a white sock packed with baby powder and studies with a portraitist’s care the clown face about to be shared with another fidgeting audience in the big-top tent a few yards away.

Not quite done. Not quite ready for that finishing touch, a rubbery nose the color and size of a cherry.

Every one of us clowns has a back story, and here is Sam’s.

Nearly 30 years ago, the train for the blue team of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus pulled away from Florida and up the Eastern Seaboard, a clown named Ted Ferlo and a showgirl named Mary Beth Combs in tow. The clown car was close to the showgirl car and, well, things between them blossomed like a bouquet of paper flowers.

When the train reached Rhode Island, Ted summoned the nerve to ask Mary Beth out for a slice of pizza. They were a team after that. She strutted about in feathery costumes, and he worked hard for laughs as a kind of Chaplin type. But he was definitely his own clown.

They took some time off after Ted injured himself falling from his stilts, but came back to join the circus’s red team and were part of the final tour of the animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams. They got engaged in an elevator before rehearsals for a show in New Jersey. The ring presented by Ted neither buzzed nor squirted water. It was for real.

They got married in Rome — the Rome of upstate New York, Ted’s hometown — during a short break in 1991, rejoined the circus and quit at the end of that season. After briefly trying to make it in show business in Manhattan, the couple returned to Rome, got what Mary Beth calls “regular jobs,” and began raising two sons, Sebastian and Sam.

But Ted kept his white-gloved hand in the game by becoming a marketing manager at the nearby Turning Stone Resort Casino, which allowed him to hire some of his circus friends. He also performed occasionally at the casino and at various fund-raising events, but only after rehearsing for hours in his garage or basement. He was a perfectionist.

The Ferlo boys became enthralled with clowning, especially Sam. At the age of 2 or 3, he began watching videotapes of Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. “You could tell he was studying them,” his mother says.

Ted soon began to include his sons in the act. They practiced their balance on a board and cylinder called a rola bola, learned how to juggle and became comfortable on unicycles. He taught them how to make every movement count, from a raised eyebrow to a pratfall.

“Make it big with your whole body,” Sam says his father would say.

But behind every “washerwoman gag,” with the three of them slapping one another with wet rags, and behind every “dead-and-alive gag,” with Sam playing a stiff-as-a-board stiff, were days of grueling, unfunny rehearsal. This is what it takes, his father would tell him.

Sam listened. He wanted to be like his father. Ted, though, was a worrier. When not wearing greasepaint, he worried about his job, his kids, his life; Mary Beth says he sometimes had trouble keeping the pressures of the world at bay.

Last summer, Ted helped Sam develop a short audition tape to submit to Circus Smirkus, a nonprofit organization that accepts only a few youths a year to join its troupe of about 30. Ted appears briefly in the tape, and only to assist Sam, who balances on his chin a wooden ladder that, at six feet, is a foot taller than he is.

ON THE LITE SIDE - Today's Tea Party

(click for better view)

Humor Times

Thursday, July 28, 2011

ECONOMY - Big-3 Automakers and UAW Talks

"Stakes High at Start of UAW-Big 3 Talks, But 'Both Sides Want This to Go Well'" PBS Newshour Transcript 7/27/2011


JEFFREY BROWN (Newshour): Autoworkers and Detroit's carmakers have opened labor negotiations for the first time since escaping a near-death experience during the recession. And this time, the expectations have changed.

Kicking off with a ceremonial handshake at a plant outside Detroit, representatives of the United Auto Workers and General Motors began labor contract talks today. The union's four-year contract with the Big Three automakers expires in September. And the new round of talks comes at a critical time for the industry.

GM and Chrysler both filed for bankruptcy two years ago, and at the time, the UAW made significant concessions in wages, benefits and more to help keep the companies afloat. Now, amid some early signs of a rebound, -- GM, for example, has reported five consecutive quarterly profits -- the union is eager to regain some of its losses. Today, both sides talked about working together to remain competitive.

BOB KING, United Auto Workers: We're proving that labor and management and government and community can all work together.

At the same time, GM CEO Dan Akerson insisted it was still important to hold down labor costs.

DANIEL AKERSON, General Motors: The world is really quite brutal. It doesn't tolerate weakness in business. It doesn't tolerate uncompetitive cost structures. We have one today, and I hope we will have one upon conclusion of these negotiations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Both GM and Chrysler received tens of billions of dollar from the federal government to stave off collapse in 2009. As of last week, the U.S. government no longer owns any Chrysler shares and retains only a minority stake in GM stock.

LIBYA - Add One More Nation to Giving Diplomatic Recognition to Rebels

"Libyan Rebels Gain New Diplomatic Allies, Plan to Fight During Ramadan" PBS Newshour Transcript 7/27/2011 (includes video)


RAY SUAREZ (Newshour): Britain today added itself to a list of more than 30 countries, including the United States, now giving diplomatic recognition to the rebels' National Transitional Council.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague:

WILLIAM HAGUE, British foreign secretary: The National Transitional Council has shown its commitment to a more open and democratic Libya, something that it is working to achieve through an inclusive political process. This is in stark contrast to Gadhafi, whose brutality against the Libyan people has stripped him of all legitimacy.

RAY SUAREZ: Hague also said the move paves the way for the rebels to get access to $150 million of Libyan oil money now held in Britain. And he announced the expulsion of the few remaining envoys from Colonel Gadhafi's regime within three days. But they could reportedly be given more time if they choose to defect.

Gadhafi, meanwhile, continues to reject calls to step down. And in a further act of defiance, Libyan state television yesterday showed the Lockerbie bomber, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, at a pro-government rally. His appearance comes nearly two years after he was returned from Britain on humanitarian grounds because his doctors said he was months away from dying from cancer.

On the ground in Libya, a virtual stalemate continues. Over the past five months NATO has flown more than 6,000 bombing sorties on government targets. But pro-Gadhafi forces have still been able to keep the rebels from making significant advances on the capital, Tripoli.

Anti-Gadhafi forces control much of the east and pockets in the west. The rebels say they will continue to fight during the holy month of Ramadan, which begins next week.

"Libyan Businessman, Adviser to Rebels: 'It's Miserable in Tripoli'"
PBS Newshour 7/27/2011

EDUCATION - Succeeding by Really, Really Trying

"How to Succeed in Business by Really, Really Trying" PBS Newshour 7/27/2011

Part-2 on Bard Prison Initiative

Excerpts from transcript

PAUL SOLMAN (Newshour): The cliché is that prisons are schools for scoundrels. But during his time behind bars, Cardenales seems to have become, quite literally, a different man.

If many of us outside could be tipped to violence by extreme circumstance, he appears to have been tipped the other way, by the Bard College prison program. Barely 24 months out of jail, Cardenales is a rising middle manager at an electronics recycling company in Westchester county, New York, making some $80,000 a year. He's proof that a liberal education in prison, or at least a Bard degree, can pay off.

Moreover, says his boss, he represents a hidden national economic resource just begging to be tapped.

VIRGIL FISHER, WeRecycle: Look, we have got a hidden work force out here. I'm talking about you all.

PAUL SOLMAN: In a job-challenged economy, Virgil Fisher is looking to hire, as the company he runs, WeRecycle, expands. Impressed by the ex-con grads of Bard College's prison program who already work for him, he's looking to recruit more of them at Woodbourne.
PAUL SOLMAN: Fisher isn't targeting everyone behind bars. Talent inside, he believes, is distributed just like outside: as a bell curve.

VIRGIL FISHER: You're going to have a group in the middle that is average, and then you're going to have a group that is below average, and then you're going to have a group that just rises to the occasion. And that's typically about 10 percent to 15 percent.

PAUL SOLMAN: Aren't you skimming the cream of the crop here?

VIRGIL FISHER: Absolutely. What business wouldn't want to have the best and the brightest?

PAUL SOLMAN: The best and the brightest who no one else is competing to hire.
PAUL SOLMAN: In 2001, Cardenales made the inaugural class of a new college program for convicts run by Bard, an elite liberal arts school in nearby Annandale-on-Hudson. He graduated in 2008.

ANTHONY CARDENALES, Bard Prison Initiative: The title of my senior project was "Space, Time and Human Resilience."

PAUL SOLMAN: Any particular authors that influenced you?

ANTHONY CARDENALES: I used Kierkegaard. I used a lot of the existentialist writers. They had that deeper vision and deeper dialogue that made me struggle with it. And then, in struggling with it, it enabled me to tie it into, you know, the everyday experience.

VIRGIL FISHER: Talking about existentialism, and I can't even pronounce it. I -- we get in a lot of philosophical discussions. And you have to sometimes pinch yourself and say, well, how could they be so smart, because they were away for so many years?

PAUL SOLMAN: But a lot of companies would say, I'm running a huge risk by taking the best and the brightest from a prison in upstate New York.

VIRGIL FISHER: But are they any different than the population that is coming out of college? I would say that they have better work ethic. And their work ethic rubs off on the rest of the team.

PAUL SOLMAN: Yet another hidden work force benefit for a small company, says Fisher, that has trouble both competing with blue-chip firms for top talent and finding good workers willing to get down and dirty.

VIRGIL FISHER: We have gotten used to a certain lifestyle and a certain concept of what our job should look like. You take, for example, our jobs that we have downstairs.

The majority of college-degree people wouldn't do that job even if it meant, within six months, you're going to move up to a production supervisor and, after about a year, you're going to move up to a plant manager. I -- that's fast trajectory right there, but it's that first six months of working as a material handler, and that's thought to be a menial job.
PAUL SOLMAN: The grads here have roughly the same credentials, but perhaps a better, some might say more desperate, work ethic.

BENJAMIN WILSON, inmate: When I leave here, I'm not coming back to prison. I have no choice in the matter.

BILL DOANE, inmate: I'm going to work harder for you than the next guy, because I have to. You understand? Because...

PAUL SOLMAN: Because the stakes are high.

BILL DOANE: The stakes are very high. I can't afford to screw up even a little bit. And so I'm going to -- I'm going to give you 150 percent, where maybe the kid coming out of college, he might be just using you as a stepping-stone, or he's looking around, he's feeling his way around in the world. You see the difference?

Personal Comments: While watching the videos (Part-1 & Part-2) I noted just how well Anthony Cardenales speaks.

Also, the Bard Prison Initiative represents what prison rehabilitation SHOULD be.

SECURITY - Cybercrime, Attacker Arrested

"British Police Make Arrest in Net Attacks" by SOMINI SENGUPTA, New York Times 7/27/2011


The British police announced the arrest on Wednesday of a 19-year-old man who they said was the spokesman of the online vigilante group Lulz Security, which has claimed responsibility for a string of attacks on the Web sites of government agencies and private corporations.

In a statement, the police said the man used the online alias Topiary and had been picked up during a raid on a residence in the Shetland Islands, the rugged archipelago off the northeastern coast of Scotland. The police said they were also questioning a 17-year-old but had not arrested him.

On Twitter, Topiary described himself as a “simple prankster turned swank garden hedge.” His missives were often facetious, suggesting the handiwork of someone who relished playful language.

Lulz Security, the offshoot of a larger and more amorphous hacker group called Anonymous, has said it was responsible for attacks on the sites of PBS, the Senate, the Arizona Department of Public Safety and a company associated with the F.B.I.

SCIENCE - The Immortal Molecule

Note: San Diego (my home town), among other things, is a center of research in biotechnology.

"‘It’s Alive! It’s Alive!’ Maybe Right Here on Earth" by DENNIS OVERBYE, New York Times 7/27/2011


SAN DIEGO — Here in a laboratory perched on the edge of the continent, researchers are trying to construct Life As We Don’t Know It in a thimbleful of liquid.

Generations of scientists, children and science fiction fans have grown up presuming that humanity’s first encounter with alien life will happen in a red sand dune on Mars, or in an enigmatic radio signal from some obscure star.

But it could soon happen right here on Earth, according to a handful of chemists and biologists who are using the tools of modern genetics to try to generate the Frankensteinian spark that will jump the gap separating the inanimate and the animate. The day is coming, they say, when chemicals in a test tube will come to life.

By some measures, Gerald F. Joyce, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute here, has already crossed that line, although he would be the first to say he has not — yet.

Biologists do not agree on what the definition of life should be or whether it is even useful to have one. But most do agree that the ability to evolve and adapt is fundamental to life. And they also agree that having a second example of life could provide insight to how it began and how special life is or is not in the universe, as well as a clue for how to recognize life if and when we do stumble upon it out there among the stars.

“Everything we know about life is based on studies of life on Earth,” said Chris McKay, a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Laboratory in Mountain View, Calif.

Dr. Joyce said recently: “It drives me crazy when astronomers say, ‘Surely the universe is pregnant with life.’ If we have an Earth-like planet, what are the chances of life arising? Is it one in a million? Is it one in two? I don’t see how you can say.”

He continued, “If you had a second example of life, even if it were synthetic, you might know better. I’m betting we’re just going to make it.”

Four years ago Dr. Joyce and a graduate student, Tracey A. Lincoln, now a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, evolved a molecule in a test tube that could replicate and evolve all by itself, swapping little jerry-built genes in a test tube forever, as long as it was supplied with the right carefully engineered ingredients.

An article in the Joyce Laboratory newsletter called it “The Immortal Molecule.” Dr. Joyce’s molecule is a form of RNA, or ribonucleic acid, which plays Robin to DNA’s Batman in Life As We Do Know It, assembling proteins in accordance with the blueprint encoded in DNA. Neither RNA nor DNA is alive by itself, any more than any other chemical, like bleach, or a protein. But in Dr. Joyce’s test tube, his specially engineered RNA molecule comes close, copying itself over and over, and evolving.

But, Dr. Joyce says, “We really would hope for more from our molecules than just replicating.”

Reproduction is the job of any life, he explained, but Earthly organisms have evolved a spectacular set of tricks to improve the odds of success — everything from peacock feathers to whale songs. Dr. Joyce’s molecules have not yet surprised him by striking out on their own to invent the molecular equivalent of writing a hit pop song.

It is only a matter of time, he said, before they do.

“Our job is to give them the running room to do that,” Dr. Joyce said.

The deeper philosophical and intellectual ramifications of test tube life are as enormous as they are unknown. The achievement would probably not come with sci-fi drama, say scientists who are squeamish about such matters anyway, saying such speculation is beyond their pay grade. No microbe is going to leap out of the Petri dish and call home, or turn the graduate students into zombies. Indeed, given the human penchant for argument and scientists’ habit of understatement, it could be years before everybody agrees it has been done.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

RELIGION - Rift Grows Over Priest Abuse

"Rift Grows Between Ireland, Vatican Over Priest Abuse Allegations" PBS Newshour 7/26/2011

Excerpt from transcript

RAY SUAREZ (Newshour): We saw that just small excerpt of what was a scathing statement from the prime minister in parliament, then echoed by the attorney general, the minister for children.

Does this represent a change in the way Ireland regards its relationship with the Roman Catholic Church?

RICHARD DOWNES, RTE: I think, if it does, it's a change that has been a very long time in coming.

This whole episode, this whole series of episodes started about 20, 25 years ago with a number of books, and then a television series on our own television station exposing the cruelty and the torture of children that went on in a number of institutions.

Up until about 10, 15 years ago, a number of people, including a number of the clerics involved, they were kind of able to say, look, this is an isolated thing, it's a thing in the past. But as time has gone on, it has become clear and abundantly clear that such was the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland that they were able to -- that a number of people or, in particular, sick individuals, you could say, within that institution were able to continue the abuse right up until very recently, and, according to the Cloyne report, up until very recent times.

But now nobody can be in any doubt. The number of reports, the number of investigations has been so extensive, that, you know, it would be a fool who would -- who would disagree with them and try to play them down.

So, yes, it is. It's a watershed. But there are still many, many other investigations to happen. This is just one diocese in one corner of Ireland. Donegal has to happen. There's also talk of an inquiry into the Diocese of Galway. So, yes, we're going to have more of these reports.

ECONOMY - Household Worth, the Killing of Our Economy

"Study: Housing Bust Hit U.S. Minority Households Especially Hard" PBS Newshour Transcript 7/26/2011 (includes video)


GWEN IFILL (Newshour): As the economy struggles to rebound, a new analysis of census data shows gaping wealth disparities have opened up among white, black and Hispanic Americans. The Pew Research Center found that this economic chasm, documented most recently in 2005, grew even worse during the housing bust and the subsequent recession.

In 2009, white households had a median net worth of just over $113,000. Compare that to $6,300 for Latinos, and not quite $5,700 for African-Americans. Between 2005 and 2009, whites lost 16 percent of their median net worth, but Latinos lost 66 percent, black households 53 percent, and Asians, who had topped white households in 2005, dropped 54 percent.
PAUL TAYLOR, Pew Research Center: Well, we were able to look at a before-and-after set of snapshots from 2005 to 2009.

In 2005, the wealth gap ratios were roughly 10-1. And they doubled to 20-1. So, they were already big and they got even bigger. So what happened? The main driver of these disparate impacts was the housing market. Blacks and Hispanics have fewer financial assets. Wealth -- wealth is a combination of all your assets, your home, your car, your 401(k), your stocks, if you have them, minus all your debts, your mortgage, your car loan, your student loan, your credit card.

The financial portfolio of blacks and Hispanics are much more dependent on their housing wealth than on anything else. They don't have much else. So, when the housing market tanked, as it started to in 2006, it disproportionately impacted blacks and Hispanics. On top of that, there was a regional impact.

The housing market rose higher and fell more steeply in certain sections of the country. Those were sections in particular that Hispanics, but also to some degree Asians, are disproportionately located in. So you had sort of a double whammy.

GWEN IFILL: And we also have been watching, Roderick Harrison, these unemployment numbers, in which we see there is such a great gap between black unemployment, for instance, and certainly youth unemployment than white unemployment. Is this something that is connected, or is that a separate phenomena?

RODERICK HARRISON, Howard University: It's related.

I mean, wealth becomes an accumulation from income. You have to have savings to invest in a house, in stocks or bonds, in other things. And, clearly, historically, some of the wealth gap when it was 10-1 reflected the lower incomes and therefore the greater difficulty of saving and investing.

Also -- and this is going to be very important going forward -- I think we are going to have a generation of blacks and Hispanics, given this very severe drop, who won't be able to contribute, as they might historically have, to their children's education and investment in their future to perhaps a down payment for a home or other kinds of investments that typically are very important to transmitting wealth to the next generation, even before inheritance and things.
GWEN IFILL: Are there government policies which are part of the problem or part of the solution here or are they, as we talked about predatory lending, private sector policies which should be addressed?

RODERICK HARRISON: It's both private and public.

I think one thing that we need to note is that income inequalities and class inequalities are now larger in the United States than through much of Europe. Intergenerational mobility is now greater in Europe. We used to think of ourselves as the land of opportunity. So, Europe is now making more efficient use of finding and allowing to rise talented people who are born in lower-income brackets than the United States is.

That doesn't speak well for global competitiveness. So to the degree that both private sector and -- or our reliance on free markets that have some of these negative effects, the fact that we don't have government policy to the extent in Europe that -- that tries to temper the effects of these markets, the fact that...

GWEN IFILL: Economic equality is not a goal.

RODERICK HARRISON: And it is part of, I think, what's killing the economy. Again, there is not enough consumer demand in the lower- and middle-income ranges.

It was sustained by debt, by -- by accumulating debt. People sustained their living standards. And, of course, that was unsustainable. So we're now paying -- part of one cause of the great recession, I think, is the greater income inequality and the degree to which it leaves insufficient purchasing power in the lower- and middle-income brackets.

NORWAY - Victims and Survivors

"Breivik's Lawyer: 'He Expected to Be Killed'"
PBS Newshour 7/26/2011

EDUCATION - Collage Students at Correctional Facility are Better

"From Ball and Chain to Cap and Gown: Getting a B.A. Behind Bars" PBS Newshour 7/26/2011

Part-1 on Bard Prison Initiative

Excerpt from transcript

MAX KENNER, Bard Prison Initiative: We get the best 15 students at each place, each year. And, typically, you have roughly 10 applicants per spot.

PAUL SOLMAN (Newshour): Forget SATs or GPAs. Some of these guys never even started high school, much less finished it. The key criterion for admission, how badly do they want it, determined by an essay and interview.

MAX KENNER: Those students that are most intellectually ambitious, that are most curious are so often the same people as children who dropped out of conventional school the youngest.

MIGUEL MUNOZ-LABOY, Columbia University: How many people will you do in your survey?

MAN: I would think about what would be a representative number. If it was a large study, I would need maybe one percent of the population maybe. I don't know. I will have to figure that out.

PAUL SOLMAN: The courses within these walls are nearly identical to those without.

MIGUEL MUNOZ-LABOY: So, what is the decision-making process?

PAUL SOLMAN: Professor Miguel Munoz-Laboy teaches the same class to these inmates at Woodbourne Correctional Facility that he teaches to grad students at Columbia University School of Public Health. Yes, he acknowledges there is a difference. The students at Woodbourne are better.

MIGUEL MUNOZ-LABOY: It's incredible. I have never had a student who reads everything, every page that I assign. And they do.

NOTE: Later in the transcript it's commented that, "Admittedly, this is a captive audience, with study periods that last all day. But they sure do use them." Prison convicts are not distracted by outside social activities.

This is much the same experience I had in my Navy carrier with long deployments at sea (with fighter and helo squadrons aboard carriers and destroyers) where there are not daily social distractions, so study was easier.

Also, excerpts from transcript

PAUL SOLMAN: With 2.3 million prisoners, one in 100 adults, the U.S. locks up the most people anywhere in the world, and at the world's highest rate. Repressive China comes in a distant second, with 1.6 million inmates, closer to one in 1,000.
PAUL SOLMAN: Bard practices what so many academics preach; not vocational, but liberal education, like Max Kenner got at Bard.

MAX KENNER: Our belief is that a liberal education prepares people to find work wherever the jobs may be. You give them job training for job X, job X disappears, you have nothing. You give someone the opportunity to think critically and to understand the context in which they're looking for work, they go where the jobs are to be found.
PAUL SOLMAN: What the Bard prison program tries to do, redirect the impulses that put these men away while maximizing the rationality they will need when they get out.

One such graduate is Anthony Cardenales, who has come back to speak to those still working on their degrees and their sentences.

ANTHONY CARDENALES (Bard Prison Program grad): Bard is here for a reason.

PAUL SOLMAN: But can Bard actually place a self-described stick-up artist, who did years in here for homicide, in a meaningful, well-paying job?

ANTHONY CARDENALES: I don't care what state the economy is in. If one person is successful, then so can I be successful.

PAUL SOLMAN: In other words, is that pep talk poppycock? Or are Bard grads getting real jobs?

ANTHONY CARDENALES: Is it difficult? Yes. Is it impossible? Absolutely not.

POLITICS - Old is New Again

"Old Ideas May Require New Arguments (Pro and Con)" by Cliff Wilson, Cliff's Notes 7/25/2011


It is said that as most people become older they become more conservative. Not so with me, I have become more liberal. But I always remember reading the words that Woodrow Wilson spoke as he left office. He was of course heartbroken with the failure of the US to enter the League of Nations. He said to his closest aides “I do not doubt the ultimate triumph of what we have fought for. But I will concede it may come about in a better way.”

Democracy is based on the idea that people come together in society and govern themselves. It works when the government they institute has the support of those people by accomplishing things the people admire. It cannot succeed, as dictatorship cannot, in the long run, if it loses the inherent support of the populace. A new generation of Americans is beginning not only to vote for leaders but to become those leaders. People who were born in the 1980’s are now beginning to hold decision making positions in business and in government; and that will increase as the economic and political leaders of our country age out. Over the next two decades even many of the generation of the 1980's will begin to be the “old” folks as today’s teenagers begin to assert themselves into leadership roles.

And it may be that new ideas, or old ideas once rejected, may begin to attract the interest of the populace. I believe the gold standard is an old idea that was properly rejected by a past generation. But perhaps the populace will demand it or something like it again. And maybe the fact that it was once the nations’ monetary policy and was discarded will not be enough of an answer to those who would revert to past ways of doing things. Perhaps we will as a body politic again debate the efficacy of tying our currency to a precious metal like Gold or perhaps even Gold and Silver (bimetallism)

It may well be that our people are going to have to re-decide what our generation thought were settled matters. It is not enough to answer those who would say “take the US out of the UN” with “we did that after WWII and we were right”. Instead it is incumbent upon us to reargue the value of collective security and nations working together for Peace. It is not enough to tell the Ryanites that they can’t mess with Social Security or Medicare because it is a contract with our people. We must make those under fifty understand why Social Security and Medicare were put in place to protect seniors and reduce the burden of caring for the elderly upon the younger generation so they could concentrate their resources on their children. We can’t just say “we tried that” “it didn’t work” or “we’ve done that for a hundred years” because it was “the right thing to do”. As frustrating as it may be to defenders of the way it is -- we must educate our citizenry as to the value of things we did to make life better than the way it was.

In the midst of the Great Depression we built the infrastructure of America, roads, school buildings, public works, dams etc. that served America for half a century and many still do today. At the close of our devastating Civil War we built the intercontinental railroad and after World War II we built the interstate highway system. These mammoth undertakings unified the country and opened it up to all Americans.

I believe we can convince the citizens of today that these were worthwhile projects and that others that the this federal government should be fully engaged in; e.g., continued space travel, expanding broadband access, reinvesting in manufacturing and providing quality education, from pre-K through college, for all.

Going back to old ways simply because some think they worked long ago – going Back to the Future is not the answer to America’s problems. Moving forward, guaranteeing new freedoms, and building a greater society is the way we assure a fair deal for all Americans of the generations to come.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

NORWAY - Terrorist Jailed and National Mourning

"Breivik Sent to Solitary Confinement as Norway Mourns Attacks' Victims" PBS Newshour Transcript 7/25/2011 (includes video)

JEFFREY BROWN (Newshour): And we turn to Norway, as that country mourns the victims of Friday's bombing and shooting attacks, and begins the court process against the killer.

We start with a report from Carl Dinnen of Independent Television News in Oslo.

CARL DINNEN, Independent Television News: The man in the red top just about visible in the car park is the killer. Anders Behring Breivik was rushed to and from court with a police escort today. In the backseat, he smiles, looks relaxed. Although Breivik admits the killings, he denies he's guilty of a crime.

One small mercy today, the police admitted he had shot dead 68 people on the island of Utoya, not 86, as they had originally thought.

OYSTEIN MAELAND, Norwegian Police: The police and other rescue personnel had a very demanding task on the island just after they arrived. And it was necessary to give priority to those who were injured, and to secure the whole area. In these complex situations, the number of deaths first reported were too high.

CARL DINNEN: Speaking from France today, Breivik's estranged father said he wished his son had killed himself.

In Oslo, hundreds had gathered outside the courthouse. But the court ruled that the remand hearing would be heard in closed session.

What are the reasons for holding a closed hearing today?

GEIR ENGEBRETSEN, Oslo District Court: It's because of the needs for the further investigation and also the security questions in this very, very special matter.

CARL DINNEN: But after the short hearing, the judge emerged to relay, through his translator, Breivik's first explanation for his murderous actions.

WOMAN: "The accused explained that the Labor Party has failed the country and the people, and the price of their treason was what they had to pay yesterday.

The operation was not to kill as many people as possible, but to give a strong signal that cannot be misunderstood, that as long as the Labor Party keeps driving its ideological line and keeps deconstructing Norwegian culture and mass importing Muslims, then they must assume responsibility for this treason. And any person with a conscience cannot allow its country to be colonized by Muslims" -- end of quote.

CARL DINNEN: In court, Breivik also claimed there were two more cells in his organization. While the police investigate his claims, he has been remanded in solitary confinement for the next eight weeks.

A short time earlier, at 12 noon Oslo time, there was a minute's silence. Norway's king, queen and prime minister led the act of remembrance from the steps of the university.

In Oslo, the trams stood still. Near Utoya, the rescue workers paused. And across Scandinavia, the moment was marked. Then, by the field of flowers at the cathedral, some people began to sing the words of a famous poem written for the young people of Norway.


My personal heartfelt condolences to the Norwegian people.

EUROPE - Violent Extremists

"How Organized Are Europe's Political and Violent Extremists?"
PBS Newshour 7/25/2011

ECONOMY - Presidential Address, Dangers of Default

President Obama Addresses the Nation on Dangers of Default
The White House 7/25/2011
PBS Newshour Transcript

Monday, July 25, 2011

NORWAY - Ghost of Nazi Germany?

One has only to think back to the rise of the Nazi Party (National Socialist German Workers' Party) in 1919, and the results of gaining power, to be alarmed by what is happen in today's Europe. Let us hope this does not repeat.

"Oslo Suspect Wrote of Fear of Islam and Plan for War" by STEVEN ERLANGER and SCOTT SHANE, New York Times 7/23/2011


The Norwegian man charged Saturday with a pair of attacks in Oslo that killed at least 92 people left behind a detailed manifesto outlining his preparations and calling for a Christian war to defend Europe against the threat of Muslim domination, according to Norwegian and American officials familiar with the investigation.

As stunned Norwegians grappled with the deadliest attack in the country since World War II, a portrait began to emerge of the suspect, Anders Behring Breivik, 32. The police identified him as a right-wing fundamentalist Christian, while acquaintances described him as a gun-loving Norwegian obsessed with what he saw as the threats of multiculturalism and Muslim immigration.

“We are not sure whether he was alone or had help,” a police official, Roger Andresen, said at a televised news conference. “What we know is that he is right wing and a Christian fundamentalist.”

In the 1,500-page manifesto, posted on the Web hours before the attacks, Mr. Breivik recorded a day-by-day diary of months of planning for the attacks, and claimed to be part of a small group that intended to “seize political and military control of Western European countries and implement a cultural conservative political agenda.”

He predicted a conflagration that would kill or injure more than a million people, adding, “The time for dialogue is over. We gave peace a chance. The time for armed resistance has come.”

The manifesto was signed Andrew Berwick, an Anglicized version of his name. A former American government official briefed on the case said investigators believed the manifesto was Mr. Breivik’s work.

The manifesto, entitled “2083: A European Declaration of Independence,” equates liberalism and multiculturalism with “cultural Marxism,” which the document says is destroying European Christian civilization.

The document also describes a secret meeting in London in April 2002 to reconstitute the Knights Templar, a Crusader military order. It says the meeting was attended by nine representatives of eight European countries, evidently including Mr. Breivik, with an additional three members unable to attend, including a “European-American.”

"Norway Attacks Put Spotlight on Rise of Right-Wing Sentiment in Europe" by NICHOLAS KULISH, New York Times 7/23/2011


The attacks in Oslo on Friday have riveted new attention on right-wing extremists not just in Norway but across Europe, where opposition to Muslim immigrants, globalization, the power of the European Union and the drive toward multiculturalism has proven a potent political force and, in a few cases, a spur to violence.

The success of populist parties appealing to a sense of lost national identity has brought criticism of minorities, immigrants and in particular Muslims out of the beer halls and Internet chat rooms and into mainstream politics. While the parties themselves generally do not condone violence, some experts say a climate of hatred in the political discourse has encouraged violent individuals.

“I’m not surprised when things like the bombing in Norway happen, because you will always find people who feel more radical means are necessary,” said Joerg Forbrig, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin who has studied far-right issues in Europe. “It literally is something that can happen in a number of places and there are broader problems behind it.”

Personal Opinion: This is what happens when a person has a weak personal identity. So weak that they feel threatened by difference; different religions, ethnic groups, political views, etc.

They do not realize that this attitude is an exact mirror of the terrorists that threaten all societies.

NORWAY - Two Terror Attacks

"Norway Reels as Death Toll Rises From Day of Unexplained Horror" PBS Newshour 7/22/2011

Excerpts from transcript

JUDY WOODRUFF (Newshour): At least 17 people were killed today in two terror attacks in Norway. An official said the total could go higher. So far, one person, a Norwegian man, has been arrested.

In the first attack, a bomb exploded outside government buildings in Oslo, where at least seven people died. Officials said 10 more were killed in the second attack, on a nearby island, when a gunman opened fire at a youth camp.
BILL NEELY, Independent Television News: Fear in his voice, death on the streets of Oslo.

Anywhere, this scene would be shocking. In peaceful Norway, it is stunning. But for Norway, there was more horror to come -- on a peaceful island near the capital, the scene of a massacre, the bodies of more than a dozen people motionless on the shore, a double mass murder, connected, say police. But who did this?

"Were Norway Attacks Somehow Politically Motivated?"
PBS Newshour 7/22/2011

Friday, July 22, 2011

SYRIA - More Protests, Violence, and Deaths

"Eleven killed during mass protests in Syria" by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Reuters 7/22/2011

Syrian forces shot dead at least 11 people during mass protests on Friday against President Bashar al-Assad, rights activists and witnesses said.

Five civilians were killed overnight in Homs, 165 km (100 miles) north of the capital Damascus, when tanks were deployed to halt protests in the besieged city, residents said.

A further six were later shot dead in protests in the Damascus suburb of Mleeha, in Homs, and in the Idlib area in the northwest, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the National Organization for Human Rights said.

"So far we have six martyrs across the country. All six were killed today," said Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights.

The four-month-old uprising is the biggest challenge to Assad's authority since he succeeded his father 11 years ago and it is spreading.

Rights activists reported protests after Friday prayers in several places -- the Medan district of Damascus, Latakia on the coast, Deraa in the south and Deir al-Zor in the east -- as well as Homs, the latest focus of the armed crackdown on protesters.

"Tanks and armored vehicles have deployed in Homs thoroughfares, but in every street adjacent to them there are people in the streets," a resident of Homs, who gave his name as Osama, said by telephone.

Once confined to outlying towns and rural regions, the uprising has now taken a firm hold in cities such as Homs and Hama, scene of a 1982 massacre by the military.

In the first crackdown on Kurds since the uprising began, dozens of people were wounded when police and militia used batons and teargas against protesters in the mainly Kurdish northeastern city of Qamishli, witnesses said.

The protesters demanded political freedoms and an end to state-endorsed discrimination against Syria's 1 million Kurds, as well as voicing solidarity with the protesters elsewhere.


Assad, 45, has described the uprising as a foreign conspiracy intended to sow sectarian strife.

Opponents say he has played on sectarian fears to maintain support of the minority Alawite sect and keep power for his family, which has ruled Syria for 41 years.

Once courted by the West to break Syria's alliance with Iran and militant groups, Assad is becoming increasingly isolated internationally. Iran's Shi'ite clerical rulers are maintaining their support, to the disquiet of Syria's majority Sunnis.

Rights groups say Assad's forces have killed more than 1,400 civilians since the uprising began and the deaths are causing a backlash against Assad among the mostly Sunni rank and file in the army.

Rights activists say several tank crews defected this week and joined protesters in the eastern town of Albu Kamal bordering Iraq's tribal Sunni heartland, prompting the deployment of Alawite forces who surrounded the town and demanded that the army defectors be handed over.

Diplomatic pressure has also mounted on Assad this week after Qatar, previously a supporter, shut its embassy in Damascus and the European Union said it was considering tougher sanctions.

Relations with Qatar deteriorated when Sunni Muslims were among those killed by Assad's security forces, whose leaders, like the president, are Alawites.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Jeff Feltman told U.S. based Al Hurra TV that fear of a sectarian crisis was being instigated by Assad to sow fear among the population.

"They are trying to raise the specter of the ghost of a civil war but it's clear from the majority of demonstrations that everyone is protesting without concern about the dangers confronting them for the sake of a better future for Syria," Feltman said.

SAN DIEGO - For Those Living Under a Rock, Comic-Con 7/2011

My Favorite Geek Photo
(click for better view)

"Comic-Con Diary, Day 1: Fear and Branding in San Diego" by Lev Grossman, Time Techland 7/22/2011

Dateline: San Diego! Where every year countless hordes of “Trekkies” and “cosplayers” and other freaky “pocket protector” types descend on the convention center for what “some” have called “nerd Woodstock”…

OK. Now that's taken care of.

The first thing you notice when you get close to Comic-Con is the creeping branding that grows on everything. It's like a rapacious mold. The entire exterior of my hotel is one gigantic Cowboys and Aliens ad. I'm looking out at the world through somewhere around Daniel Craig's right nipple. The inside of the elevator is a wall-to-wall ad for True Blood. One of my hotel keys is an ad for Lord of the Rings: War in the North. The other key is an ad for the complete Smallville DVDs.

You get the idea. I'm just trying to give you a feel for the situation on the ground here. This is the place where all the shows and movies and books that you love will be force-fed to you till you can't stand them. One day they're going to put an ad on the last flat surface in all of San Diego, and it'll be like when they cut down the last Truffula tree in The Lorax.

I had been scheduled to interview Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried today, but the schedule got borked, so I spent most of my first day as what they call a “professional” here at The Con, which means I'm being a novelist rather than a journalist. My plane ticket here was paid for not by Time but by my book publisher, who sent me here to flog my new book. (I will flog it once here, then leave off flogging for this and all future columns: The Magician King, out August 9. There. Done.)

So I gave interviews. I signed autographs. I appeared on a panel called “Magic & Monsters.” I tried to make the case for a five-year moratorium on new books with monsters in them. We, as a culture, are busily chewing through all the major monster types – vampire, zombie, werewolf – to the point where they're practically used up. They're not scary anymore. They're like tuna, they're getting overfished. Let's let them grow wild for a while.

Yep. I made the case.

Afterwards, to reward myself for having been vaguely coherent on the panel, I went to Hall H – the huge auditorium where they put the really heavy hitters – to hear Jon Favreau and Guillermo dell Toro talk. Two large men. As Favreau put it, "We never look thinner than when we're sitting next to each other."

They're also very funny next to each other. You don't always get that with directors -- two years ago I watched Peter Jackson and James Cameron in this same hall, and I left halfway through. It was all technical jargon and mutual congratulations.

But these guys actually like each other. Apparently del Toro helped out with the puppetry on Cowboys and Aliens -- they both bagged on directors who use too much CGI instead of puppetry. They're both doing work for Disney too -- del Toro is working on The Haunted Mansion. "One of the best days of my adult life was when they opened the Haunted Mansion for me at 5 AM. It was research!" He laughed. You could tell he can hardly believe how awesome his life is.

He added: "I'm a weird fat motherfucker! And you know what? I plan to stay that way."

Favreau showed a few minutes of Cowboys and Aliens, which was enjoyable, but not more enjoyable than it had to be. It wasn't weird. It was pretty, but not smart and sharp the way Iron Man was. There was none of that twinkly Downey Jr. self-awareness -- I never cracked a smile. It looked like a movie made by people who knew they had a rock-solid billion-dollar idea on their hands, and they went for the base hit. I hope the full version will prove me wrong.

The most surprising thing about the talk was that there was no line outside. I just breezed in. I was almost disappointed. I wanted to get in the face of the guy at the door. You're just going to let me in? Come on. This is Comic-Con. I came here to wait in huge lines! Do you even know who I am?

(PHOTOS: Comic-Con 2011, opens in new page)

NASA - Atlantis Lands and Ends an Era

"Atlantis lands to end space shuttle era" by Scott Powers, Los Angeles Times 7/22/2011

Reporting from Cape Canaveral, Fla.—

In the faintest glimmer of dawn, Atlantis safely touched down Thursday, ending the flawless final mission of NASA's space shuttle program.

With Commander Chris Ferguson at the helm, Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center at 5:57 a.m. on a cloudless, windless morning. When the orbiter's wheels stopped a minute later, NASA saluted 30 years of triumph and tragedy for a shuttle program that has kept the United States at the forefront of manned space flight since 1981.

"The space shuttle changed the way we view the world and changed the way we view the universe," Ferguson said. "We have emotion today, but one thing is indisputable: America is not going to stop exploring.

"Thank you Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and our ship Atlantis," Ferguson continued, acknowledging the other orbiters. "Thank you for protecting us and bringing this program to such a fitting end. God bless all of you. God bless the United States of America."

The mission, Atlantis' 33rd and the shuttle program's 135th, carried a year's worth of supplies to the International Space Station. It equipped and stocked that space lab to become the new centerpiece of NASA's manned space flight program until the agency can develop the deep-space rockets it wants to build. That could take a decade or more.

"Everything worked just flawlessly," NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier said of Atlantis' final mission.

The $100-billion space station, with a six-member international crew — currently three Russians, two Americans and one Japanese — has been the crowning achievement of the shuttle, which was first launched in April 1981 as a do-all space truck capable of science, military, commercial and exploration missions.

The five shuttles launched satellites and space probes; they deployed some of humanity's great observatories, including the Hubble Space Telescope.

There was also heartbreak. In 1986, Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff, killing seven astronauts, and in 2003 Columbia broke up reentering Earth's atmosphere, also killing seven astronauts.

"It's been an extraordinary spacecraft," said Marion Blakey, president of the Aerospace Industries Assn. "And I think it's fair to say has pioneered work in a variety of areas beyond simply accomplishing what is an extraordinary feat, that is building the International Space Station."

Atlantis — which will go on exhibit at Kennedy Space Center — will join Discovery and Endeavour in retirement. Endeavour will become the centerpiece of a new wing at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

EUROPE - Oslo Norway Bombing

"Big Blasts at Government Buildings in Oslo; 1 Dead" by ELISA MALA and J. DAVID GOODMAN, New York Times 7/22/2011

Powerful explosions shook central Oslo on Friday afternoon, blowing out the windows of several government buildings, including one housing the office of the Norwegian prime minister. The Norwegian public broadcaster NRK reported that at least one person was killed and several more injured, but a spokeswoman for the prime minister said he was “safe and not hurt.”

Stunned office staff and civil servants working in the vicinity of the bombed building said two explosions could be heard in close succession. The sound of the blasts echoed across the city just before 3:30 p.m. local time. Giant clouds of light-colored smoke continued to rise hundreds of feet into the air over the city as a fire burned in one of the damaged structures, a six-story office building that houses the oil ministry.

Photos and television footage showed windows blown out in the 17-story office building across the street from the oil ministry, and the street and plaza areas on each side were strewn with glass and debris (video, opens in new page).

Norwegian police did not immediately return messages requesting comment.

The cause of the explosions was not immediately clear, but a Reuters reporter described seeing the mangled wreckage of a car near one of the buildings.

The explosions ripped through the modern cluster of government buildings around the Einar Gerhardsens plaza at a time when many Norwegians were on vacation and many more had left their offices early for the weekend.

At the bomb site, police evacuated and roped off the area around the buildings as tension mixed with shaken fascination. Many residents milled around the area, some snapping photos of the destruction. Store windows were blown out for several blocks around the plaza.

While Norway has seen little political violence in recent years, the country has a small fighting contingent in Afghanistan and was one of several countries cited by Ayman al-Zawahri, the Al Qaeda leader, as potential targets for attack. In 2006, Norwegian newspapers reprinted Danish cartoons that angered Muslims by lampooning the Prophet Muhammad.

A Norwegian security analyst, who asked not to be named, the country has historically seen a low risk from terrorism but cautioned that the nature of the explosion was still not know. Three Norwegian men were arrested in July 2010 on suspicion of terrorism and were said to be a terrorist “node” in a larger global network, American counterterrorism officials said at the time.

The city filled with an unfamiliar sense of vulnerability. “We heard two loud bangs and then we saw this yellow smoke coming from the government buildings,” Jeppe Bucher, 18, who works on a ferry boat less than a mile from the bomb site. “There was construction around there, so we thought it was a building being torn down.”

He added: “Of course, I’m scared, because Norway is such a neutral country.”

HEALTH - Medical Apps for Smartphones

"Medical Apps Slated for FDA Checkup" by Jason Kane, PBS Newshour 7/21/2011

They can check your heartbeat, count your calories, and even conduct your ultrasound, but the Food and Drug Administration wants to decide whether Smartphone apps are ready to start seeing patients.

This week, the FDA began seeking input on proposed guidelines that would allow it to regulate the ballooning market for "mobile medical apps." That's any app for a Smartphone, tablet computer or personal digital assistant that helps diagnose, treat or prevent a disease or medical condition.

The FDA isn't planning to examine all health apps -- just the ones that could be used as "an accessory to a regulated medical device" or that "transforms a mobile platform into a regulated medical device."

"The use of mobile medical applications by health care professionals is revolutionizing health care," said Dr. Bakul Patel, an FDA policy advisor in the Center for Devices and Radiological Health. "But inaccurate information can present a significant health risk to patients."

Industry analysts estimate that there are already well over 17,000 medical applications available, and according to the mobile research company Research2Guidance 2010, 500 million Smartphone users worldwide will be using them by 2015.

FDA officials say they have yet to receive any reports of mobile apps causing harm, but they worry about the "additional or different risks due to the unique characteristics of the platform."

Prime example: radiological images on a mobile device could be adversely affected by the smaller screen size, lower contrast ratio, and uncontrolled ambient light of the mobile platform, the proposed guidelines say.

Any app that uses attachments, display screens, or sensors to turn a mobile device into regulated medical equipment like an ECG machine or a stethoscope will fall under the new rules. So will those apps that control medical devices -- like the inflation and deflation of a blood pressure cuff or the delivery of insulin on an insulin pump.

In the same vein, apps intended to analyze glucose meter readings would be considered similar to software running on a desktop computer and would need review, the regulations say.

The line isn't always so clear, though. If an app is built to give off light that generally illuminates an object or space, it doesn't qualify. If, on the other hand, it's marketed "as a light source to examine patients," it would.

Textbooks and reference materials don't meet the bar and neither do those that simply "relate to a healthy lifestyle and wellness" -- including apps that count calories, log appointments, suggest healthy eating tips, or recommend better posture and exercise techniques.

For example, Patel said, a calorie counting app used by anorexia patients would fall into a gray area that FDA officials are still attempting to navigate.

Apple declined to comment on the potential impact of the regulations on the company, but the news received mixed reviews from app manufacturers, who generally agree that any product serving as a medical device should already be regulated.

"As a developer, any time you see the FDA getting involved, you hope that the burden of regulation isn't too great," said Dr. Terrence Truxillo, vice president of iAnesthesia LLC and a practicing anesthesiologist. "As a physician, I'm definitely concerned about patient safety and this is all a good step in that direction."

iAnesthesia creates a slate of products, including dosing calculators, that will likely face FDA scrutiny. Truxillo called that "very reasonable" and said his company isn't concerned.

Clive Smith, CEO of Thinklabs, designed his electronic stethoscope app (which sells for $69.99 on iTunes) knowing that the FDA could "jump in at any time," he said. The app attaches to an FDA-regulated electronic stethoscope, allowing doctors to easily capture, store and email results.

Still, Smith thinks regulation for his particular app might be a bit much -- especially when it "only acts as a very convenient display device," he said.

"If we have to have severe regulation, that could definitely be burdensome," he said. "But overall, a limited amount of guidance -- and regulation, as necessary -- is beneficial to patients and the industry. It will mean that those who play by the rules aren't going to be competing against the jokers out there who are basically creating toys with no medical value."

FDA officials are hoping to hear from manufacturers and the public as they attempt to "strike the right balance between promoting innovation and protecting public health," said Patel. Shortly after the comment period closes in three months, the rules will become final.

Existing Apps and Those Pending Regulation Include:
  • Analyzing and interpreting ECG or EEG data

  • Screening blood transfusion results

  • Remotely inflating/deflating a blood-pressure cuff

  • Controlling devices for MRI or X-ray machines

  • Acting as a blood glucose meter, using an attachment to a mobile platform

  • Using the light source from a mobile platform to treat and control conditions like acne

  • Acting as an electronic stethoscope, by connecting to an external sensor

  • Calculating the amount of chemotherapy needed based on the patient's body surface area

  • Assisting with patient-specific dosing, such as for radiation planning

  • Calculating dosage of local anesthesia based on a patient's weight and age

  • Defining disease stage or progression or predict a patient's response to treatment based on a analysis of physiological, laboratory, and other data

ECONOMY - Borders Books Liquidates, End of an Era

"Borders Closes the Book as Decisions Come Back to Haunt Chain" PBS Newshour Transcript 7/21/2011


JEFFREY BROWN (Newshour): For Borders, it is, yes, the end of the story. In February, the book chain filed for bankruptcy, hoping to reorganize and stay in business. But, today, its representatives were in court with a plan to liquidate its remaining 399 stores beginning as early as tomorrow. More than 10,000 employees will lose their jobs as a result.
JEFFREY BROWN: From humble beginnings -- the first Borders, a used bookstore, opened in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1971 -- the company became a pioneer of the big-box bookseller concept.

At its peak in 2003, Borders had more than 1,200 stores around the country, each with thousands of new titles. The company says a host of factors led to its demise, including the turbulent economy, the move away from brick-and-mortar stores to online retailers, and the rise of e-readers, like Amazon's Kindle, Apple's iPad, and the Nook of rival Barnes & Noble.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, part of this is, of course, about larger trends of the Internet's impact on the book business. But Borders also made its own mistakes, I guess, along the way, right?

ANNIE LOWREY, Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: What happened?

ANNIE LOWREY: It's not an easy climate for any retail business. It's not an easy climate for anybody who is selling books, obviously.

But Borders made some strategic mistakes. First and foremost, they had a very, very tenuous relationship with the Internet. They actually outsourced the sale of a lot of their books online from 2001 to 2008 to Amazon. And on top of that, they were very slow to come around to e-readers.

That, combined with some other strategic mistakes, having too many stores, having those stores be too expensive, ended up really hurting their business.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so take that apart a little bit, first the online sales.


JEFFREY BROWN: Now, that's clearly where a lot of the business has gone, right, in the book business?

ANNIE LOWREY: Yes, absolutely. It's increasingly migrated on to the Web.

And so what you had was these big-box stores which they always sold themselves as a place that you could come and find any book. All of a sudden, when you could go to Amazon or any of a dozen sites and get a much bigger selection of books, you didn't need those big-box stores as much, and so they became places where you could go, you could sit, you could sip and -- sit and have a cup of coffee.

But Borders also made some strategic mistakes there. They lost a Starbucks contract to Barnes & Noble, for instance, and the company just ended up being mismanaged.

JEFFREY BROWN: But people do go to those -- to the real stores to look at the real books, but increasingly then they leave and order online.

ANNIE LOWREY: Exactly. Exactly. It's very, very hard to compete unless you are offering a very boutique experience.

And Barnes & Noble has done pretty well to take advantage of e-readers and e-books and also to make sure that its stores are places that people want to go and congregate.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, talk a little bit more about the e-readers. You mentioned Barnes & Noble with the Nook, of course, Amazon with the Kindle. This was an area where Borders fell way behind.

ANNIE LOWREY: Absolutely.

So the Nook is not as big as the Kindle, but it sells really quite well. And more so, every time that somebody buys a Nook, Barnes & Noble not only benefits from selling the Nook, but also then gets to sell e-books to that reader, so they develop a relationship over time. That reader comes back to them. And so it generates a lot of repeat business for Barnes & Noble. And that really helps them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where are we in the e-reader and physical book situation? Now, the e-readers have grown and grown and grown. But is there any sense of reaching an equilibrium as to the number of books that will still be sold?

ANNIE LOWREY: Well, I don't think that you will ever see the physical book die out as a form. I think that 50 years from now, physical books will still exist and I think people will still be buying them in bookstores.

But you're going to see this migration towards e-readers and e-books, especially since there is a lot of competition in the market. Prices are going to come down. And so for consumers, it is going to make more and more sense. If you have an e-reader and you can get a book within -- any book, almost, in seconds, basically, you know, in your lap, yes, that's pretty powerful. And that's a good thing for consumers.

I was a Borders shopper in the past. Go in to buy books, Movie DVDs, Music CDs, and have a Cappuccino. So I'm sad that Borders did not survive.

Also, just recently (since I installed WiFi at home) got Amazon's Kindle. The experience is just like reading a paperback book, including the soft-white screen (even when it's off), but advantages like adjusting text size. I use my Kindle for mostly non-fiction books like "A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea" (my first purchase) an excellent book about the Gulf Oil Disaster, BUT I still buy fiction books (hardcover), mostly Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy, I've been a member of the Science Fiction Book Club since the '60s.