Category Archives: Science

Out of Touch, Out to Lunch

So why do they think they get to say?


It doesn’t much matter which side of the Atlantic you’re on. If you’re a woman in the UK or the US this week, you’ve been thrown under the bus.


In the US, a 60-something Missouri man running for the US Senate, Todd Akin, has put forth the most horrendous, ignorant tripe. He believes, it appears, that some rapes are “legitimate”, some rapes are not. And that women have a mysterious system enabling them to “shut down” their reproduction if they don’t want a particular man’s sperm to fertilize their eggs.


Number one. Rape is rape. It’s the entrance of someone else’s body into one’s own, without consent. Just as home invasion is the entrance into one’s abode by someone who does not have permission.


And, yes, that means each and every time. Over in the UK, some men are calling what Julian Assange (the Swedish Wikileaks guy – and you can admire Wikileaks without admiring Assange’s sexual behavior) is alleged to have done “bad sexual etiquette” but hardly rape. This, because he entered a woman’s body while she was asleep.


Look, why is this so hard for men to understand? You want to enter someone’s body, you ask. The other person needs to be alert enough, sober enough, old enough, to make an informed decision. After that, if s/he says yes, that “yes” holds for that particular time, but it doesn’t give you carte blanche to re-insert ad infinitum. Especially not when s/he’s not awake.


I believe men know this. They understand it – because when the situation is reversed, when they are the ones whose bodies are being entered, they want the right to say when and how. Oh, they understand, all right. They just don’t like it.


They don’t think they should have to ask each and every time. They believe they should be entitled to free entry if one entry has been permitted. In lots of places (Sweden and Israel, so unlike each other in many ways, are countries where this happens), men think they’re entitled to sex without condoms – leading at least one woman in Israel to give up sex entirely for the duration of her stay. She grew exhausted trying to argue with men who felt entitled to bareback and thereby infect her with more than sperm.


Let’s get this out of the way, too: No woman is able to shut down her reproductive system in order to prevent conception. Would that we were! But no. Akin and his ilk claim they were told this lie by “doctors”. They’re not naming names. But they need to. Because those doctors should be stripped of their licenses to practice medicine, for these falsehoods.


Why did Akin say this? Aside from believing it? Because he’s a Republican, and the GOP is trying to eliminate abortion. So if you can say that raped girls and women cannot conceive – because of an alleged “shutdown” during rape – then you eliminate the need for abortion. Because if a woman is pregnant, she has not been raped. No shutdown, no rape.


This is so false and outrageous it beggars belief. Particularly in 2012, stated by Akin, a member of the House Committee on Science.


You could not make this stuff up.


Some right-wingers are saying, “why are we talking about this, when we have so many problems with the economy?”. Because you right-wingers want people to think this is not happening. Because you want to disguise the GOP stance on abortion. And because this, too, is a problem. It’s a problem of attitudes and beliefs (and in Akin’s case, raw ignorance) about women, 50% of the adult population.


I’m not a Rudy Giuliani fan at all, but if you know what NYC was like before he as mayor began to attack “small” problems (graffiti; broken windows; guys who splashed suds on your car windshield and then demanded payment to clean it off; etc.), you know that attention to small problems means you prevent larger ones.


Even if attitudes toward rape were “small” — they aren’t, they go to the heart of what constitutes bodily integrity, just as attitudes toward burglary and home invasion go to the heart of what constitutes integrity of one’s abode — we would do well to pay attention to them simply in order to prevent wholesale destruction of the rights of women.


A story in today’s Telegraph reports that in the UK, 11% of rape complaints are simply “written off” and ignored. That’s 1 out of 9. Not investigated at all, 11%.


Compare that to allegations of other UK crimes, not investigated:

2% of reported burglaries

3% of drugs complaints

5% of robberies

6% of non-sexual assaults.


If you experience a sexual assault in the UK, therefore, your protest to the police is twice as likely to be ignored as if you were simply knocked on the head – especially since head-bashing can occur to men as well as women, but women are subjected to rape in far higher numbers than grown men. I wonder what the US statistics on ignoring rape are?


That’s why we need to pay attention to attitudes and beliefs. They direct one’s behavior. So, if Akin continues in his quest for a seat in the Senate – he’s declared himself ready to “rush to the gunfire” – we need to heap scorn on him. (It’s simple. This is the man who declared John Paul Jones, who died in 1792, an “old friend” of his.) Because it’s not just his beliefs in falsehoods. It’s not just that he stubbornly refuses to accept that females have the same right to bodily integrity as males.


It’s that he wants to turn his worldview into the accepted American worldview.


Which would be a slap in the face of civilization.

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Filed under Abortion, Conception, Contraceptive, Domestic terrorism, England, English, GOP, Harassment, Julian Assange, Law, Misogyny, Rape, Rape is torture, Rapist as parasite, Science, Sexual assault, Todd Akin, War against women, Wikileaks

New Oil for Old

Producing oil from algae


One of the coolest things about blogging is getting to post about exciting things with a world of readers – not that there are many of you yet, so please, link this blog to your e-friends! – who may not have the faintest knowledge of what’s up for discussion.

Today: algal oil.

Huh? Oil, yes, understood, the stuff we use to power cars and heat homes and it comes from under the earth, usually from too-hot places with awful endemic attitudes toward over half their populations. Oil, got it. But algal? As in, algae, the stuff in the sea?

Got it.

As this London Guardian article details, there’s a new – and renewable – force for running engines, and it will be put on trial by none other than the US Navy in a trial of marine fuel, for which some or perhaps all of ordinary “bunker” fuels may someday be substituted. This change is big, because using biofuels instead of the usual up-from-the-earth fuels will absolutely transform the world’s shipping fleets.

The history of using oil instead of coal to fuel ships goes back to Winston Churchill, he of the cigars and round hats, before he took the helm as Prime Minister of Great Britain. A century ago, as Navy Minister, he was persuaded that burning oil rather than coal would make the Britisih navy more efficient. He ordered the change. It worked. As the Guardian describes, “Two years later he bought for the UK government a 51% controlling interest in the then-small Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Within a few years, the company changed its name to BP, and is now the world’s fourth largest corporation.”

Unfortunately, it’s still oil. Black gold. Texas tea. Protecting the flow of it has cost lives, pain and billions of dollars.

But algal oil? It can be produced virtually anywhere. Right now, most of it comes from Pennsylvania, produced by a firm called Solazyme. It’s manufactured in giant fermentation tanks where the captive algae munch on such low-cost delicacies as crop and forest wastes. They’re fantastically cooperative, the algae. No risk of wandering. Happy to stay warm and fed.

Yet they need not be kept indoors. The Guardian once more: “Craig Venter, the scientist who first sequenced the human genome and designed the first synthetic cell, is trying to develop a genetically engineered algae fuel that depends only on sunlight and sea water and can be grown and harvested at sea. In an interview in this month’s Scientific American, he said: “We need three major ingredients: CO2, sunlight and seawater, aside from having the facility and refinery to convert those things. We’re looking at sites around the world that have the major ingredient. To us, this is a long-term plan.’” (My suggestion: look only at sites in nations whose sex ratio at birth is staying constant, rather than skewing male. You’ll save a great deal of money and worry.)

And as any beach dweller knows, algae are diverse. With that diversity comes new potential. Says a Solazyme spokesperson: “We have tested thousands of algae, found in swamps, in mountains and at sea and we know we can be competitive. By using different strains of algae we can produce different kinds of oils.”

Different kinds of oils. From tiny green plants. The mind boggles.

Every time it seems things couldn’t be worse, there’s a spark of hope, light at the end of the tunnel. Science fiction veers toward contemporary truth. A new path is struck.

Let’s take it.


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Filed under Algae, Algal oil, Bunker fuel, Craig Venter, London Guardian, Nature, News, Oil, Science, Solazyme

Making PMS History

Chinese girls, a vanishing breed


I confess: that title intentionally misleads.

There’s no way to make PMS vanish totally in a population of healthy girls and women. Where there is menstruation, there will be some women whose pre-period lives tend to be fraught with hormonal angst. Remedies and hormonal influences are all over the internet, as are suggestions that PMS is all in one’s mind and not really such a big deal, is it? – these largely from men who happen not to be married to a woman who suffers from PMS.

The Nazis (and others) had an effective preventive for PMS, though: hunger. Where women (imprisoned or not — see, for example, the longitudinal research on Dutch women who suffered from such malnutrition during WWII that the knock-on effects can be seen in their grandchildren’s small size and poorer health) had little to eat, where they routinely expended more calories than they absorbed and thus lost kilos of body weight, they often stopped menstruating. No menstruation, no PMS.

Of course, no babies, either.

There’s another way to largely eliminate PMS. That’s to eliminate the people prone to it. Which is what’s happening in China and India, and is spreading through much of Asia, where the trend is to get an ultrasound image of the fetus carried in a woman’s belly in order to determine its sex . . . and then, if looks female, to at least consider aborting, even if the fetus in every other respect looks healthy.

Are there false attributions? Do some male fetuses with what’s called a “shy” penis get taken for girls and thus eliminated? You bet they do, to the parents’ grief.

Those “mistakes” may end, as blood tests with greater accuracy replace the ultrasound machines that travel with doctors and nurses across rural India, giving even the poor access to the choice that fashion-conscious urban Indians have had for years. Because in India – unlike China with its wavering one-child policy – sex-specific abortion is largely the result of two factors: the Asian preference for boys (even stronger in the Hindu population, with its male-specific religious duties and tradition of cutting off married women from their birth families), plus the tradition of dowry paid by a bride’s family to a groom’s.

If dowry (which was made illegal in India in 1961, but continues in various forms) were entirely eliminated, daughters would not be regarded as an automatic economic burden. Yet sex-specific abortion did not begin in poor families, which have always dealt harshly with unwanted girls: leaving them in wasteland, failing to nourish them, allowing them to die rather than seek medical care. These abortions began in the wealthiest parts of India, in families that could well afford to raise girls. It’s a mark of the ubiquitousness of the practice that the wealthy, extended Patel family (in the Indian state of Gujarat) has announced its rejection of ultrasound and sex-specific abortion, in an attempt to model for others. Research indicates that sex-specific abortions among British and American women of Indian descent are on the rise, especially where the married couple already has a daughter or two – and these are people who pay little or no dowry as their girls marry.

Eliminating girls and women simply because of their sex is an effective way to reduce or eradicate PMS. But as the Chinese proverb has it, “Women hold up half the sky”.

So I’ll be Henny Penny, and look upward, and declare with all seriousness that we really ought to take cover, because truly, though metaphorically, the sky is falling. A continent with too few women must have, by definition, too many men for its own health . . . and that of the rest of the world.


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Filed under China, Dowry, Family, Health, India, Law, Misogyny, One-child policy, PMS, Politics, Science

Growing Up Too Soon

Teen boys -- like their sisters -- are growing up much earlier than their ancestors

Apologies to my readers – I cannot believe August has swum by with only a few posts here. I could blame it on my getting my youngest ready for university, and that was true. There were loads of list cross-outs and discussions of what/where/how, and multiple trips to Bed Bath & Beyond. Logistics and acquisition of materièl take time. But really, regarding the past few weeks with hindsight’s 20/20, I think what was happening was mourning in advance. As a new empty-nester, I believe grief grabbed the scruff of my neck and wouldn’t let go, even if the cause of grief – the college transition – hadn’t yet happened.

It has. We’ve talked, Skyped, e-mailed. We’ll both be fine, eventually. So, onward.

It’s been many years since pediatricians began reporting that menarche (the start of menstrual periods) was occurring in increasingly younger patients, in girls as young as 10. The search for a reason led to improved nutrition and more time in the sun. The lack of sunlight in 19th century girls’ lives has been blamed for later maturation as well as rickets, the deficiency disease caused by a lack of Vitamin D – girls were routinely kept inside to work at textile manufacture, cooking, and the care of younger children.

Growth hormones given to meat animals such as cows and pigs may also influence girls’ early development, it’s been thought.

Until recently, however, research focused solely on female children – since menarche is a startling and definitive sign of change. Could it be, however, that boys’ bodies are maturing earlier, as well?

As it turns out, they are, and that spells potential bad news for them, their neighbors and the rest of us. And it may have nothing to do with growth hormones in their Big Macs.

A recent article in the journal PLoS ONE (reported in a UK newspaper) described studies carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. Because there is no “bright line” definition for male maturity analogous to menarche, researchers struggled to find out whether the same early maturation documented for girls was also true for their brothers. They found proof that it was in the “accident hump”. This hump is a surge in deaths that occurs when boys reach sexual maturity. With the concurrent rise in testosterone, boys take extra chances, and some of those risks result in their own deaths. The death records of several countries in Europe showed that the average age at which deaths spiked – the accident hump – has fallen steadily since the 18th century, in a consistent decline of approximately 2.5 months of age per 10 years of history.

Although there must be a bottoming effect, the research shows what has been demonstrated through anecdotal evidence. We’ve known for years that “great girls” – that is, girls who were 17 or 18 years old but had not yet reached physical maturity – were not unusual in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, of course, the parents would bring them to a physician before that age. What about boys?

One type of evidence linked to maturity in boys has been well-documented: the age at which their voices break and reach deeper registers. Choir directors have long recorded the change, since a boys’ choir would lose sopranos and altos each year. In the mid-18th century, in a choir led by Johann Sebastian Bach, the average age to lose a chorister because of a voice break was 18. By now, the average age is 14.

Earlier maturation puts boys at risk of testosterone-fueled recklessness and chance-taking – which can affect their fellow students, parents and neighbors, as well – at a time when their mental and emotional maturity lags far behind. The prefrontal cortex, the decision-making part of the brain, does not fully mature until age 25. If a boy reaches sexual maturity at age 14, he is far less able to cope with urges toward violence, sex and risk-taking than his 18th-century ancestor. Even though contemporary 14-year-olds take longer to achieve the social markers of maturity (completing schooling, beginning careers, marrying, becoming fathers), their bodies and brains are flooded with more testosterone than their 18th-century counterparts, with far fewer ways in which to channel their energy and aggression. Gone are many family farms and ranches, which absorbed hours of work. Gone, too, apprentice programs in army, navy and the trades, where boys learned while working hard under the supervision of men. Few boys even walk to school these days, and school athletics are more rigidly structured, allowing only the most-skilled to participate in many schools.

Meanwhile, their prefrontal cortexes cannot keep up with their physical growth.

The causes? Probably the same ones affecting their sisters: better nutrition and medicine, more sunlight, and improved living standards.

No one wants to return to a time of famine and rickets. Yet boys who in no way are accountable for their own early development must be guided toward responsible behavior, for their own health and safety, and for that of the people around them.

This will be of increasing importance in both China and India, where — due to sex-specific abortion of female fetuses — boys already outnumber girls in some regions. The trend toward boys has not abated. In fact, it’s increased, and has spread outside these two nations (influencing Southeast Asian nations and former Soviet Socialist Republics). With such an excess of males, and the knowledge that physical/sexual maturity precedes mental/emotional maturity by up to 12 years, these countries need to put in place now policies to preserve them from what will be a source of widespread and lasting societal rebellion and risk-taking.

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Filed under China, Family, Health, India, Nature, Science, Teenage boys

Breaking The Skin

What happens when the top layer is cut?

Right now, I’m in the middle of a daughter’s post-surgery recovery. It’s going well, all things considered, but a couple of small bumps heightened my alertness . . . and made me consider what we do when we cut.

It’s said that surgery is healing by means of a knife. Oxymoron, certainly. But who would – given the alternatives – not wish to get rid of a life-threatening tumor, for example, if the best method for ridding oneself of it were to literally cut it out of the body? We haven’t yet reached a place where medical knowledge and technology have fully replaced using the knife, though advances since the 1970s are extraordinary. Sometimes, breaking the skin is what’s needed.

Unfortunately, that gets us into a whole different realm, because surgery breaches the body’s largest organ and first line of defense, the skin.

In June, the skin on my forearms went through a series of unfortunate events. Branches ripped into it, tools fell on it, thorns ripped at it. Even bandages removed caused tears (memo to self: never, ever, buy cheap band-aids again). None of the injuries were big, and luckily, since I’m in good health, none became infected.

But they could have. Rewind a hundred years. In 1911, any one of those injuries might have hosted horrible bacteria that my body (possibly ill-nourished as are many women’s bodies in contemporary Asia and Africa) would have had problems fighting. Antibiotics were non-existent in 1911, so the best we could have done is advise bedrest, hydrate well, apply natural antibacterials like honey or onions, hope the patient’s immune system was strong enough to fight . . . and pray.

When the skin is breached nowadays in a hospital setting, the body confronts armies of foreign bacteria (some extremely resistant to drugs and especially prevalent in hospitals). That’s why antibiotics are routinely prescribed for the patient, and are begun immediately, so they give the body’s own immune system a boost. If antibiotics were unavailable, we’d be in almost the same position we were in a century ago – unable to fully control the ravages of infection.

Now, think about that chicken leg you ate last week. That chicken was probably raised in an overcrowded battery farm where disease was so rampant that antibiotics were given in feed, as preventive medicine. But giving preventive antibiotics only makes bacteria stronger. They become so strong – like MRSA – that they become resistant to antibiotics. The body then cannot get the antibiotic boost, post-surgery, that it needs to help its own armies fight off the hordes of bacterial invaders.

I, for one, don’t want to return to 1911, when every extended family, no matter how wealthy, lost members (especially women who’d just given birth) to raging infection. We need to stop the use of preventive antibiotics in food production, and advocate for healthy amounts of space for animals that will be eaten. Eating less meat will also help, as the pressure to produce more and more flesh, added to a business model that insists more is always better, brings forth crowded conditions.

Breaking the skin has consequences. Let’s make sure they’re beneficial ones.

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Filed under Antibacterial, Battery farm, Family, Health, Love, MRSA, Nature, Science, Surgery

Coming Together in Orlando

Casey Anthony, post-acquittal -- who will speak to her now?

At the end of the O.J. Simpson criminal trial on October 3, 1995, it was clear that a dividing line had been placed between those who rejoiced at his acquittal and those who thought he’d gotten away with double murder.

Largely, the line was racial.

People who were black almost inevitably believed that Simpson had been wrongly accused, wrongly tried, and rightfully acquitted of murdering his ex-wife – and mother of his two minor children then asleep in the house mere yards from the brutally gruesome murder scene – Nicole Brown Simpson and a young man who barely knew her, Ronald Goldman.

People who were white almost inevitably believed the opposite, that Simpson – who had led a much-televised low-speed chase sequence through Los Angeles, threatening to commit suicide in a car in which police later found $8,000 in cash, a change of clothing, a loaded gun, a passport, and a fake goatee and mustache – had been rightfully accused and tried in the horrific deaths, and wrongfully acquitted. (A 1997 civil case resulted in Mr. Simpson being held liable for the wrongful deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and in 2008 a Los Angeles court upheld a renewal of the civil judgment, which has yet to be paid by Mr. Simpson, who is currently incarcerated as a result of different criminal verdicts.)

This division – which has, in later years, largely subsided, due in part to the public understanding of DNA evidence, which was in 1995 fairly new – rocked the US, drove friends and co-workers apart, and dominated the media for months.

Today’s crowds in Orlando, however, protesting the acquittal of Casey Anthony in her trial for the murder of her two-year-old daughter, are not black. They’re not white. They’re not Asian or Hispanic or female or male. They’re not parents, they’re not childless.

They are everyone.

That has, in this confusing time, been the one factor that I think we can be proud of. In the sixteen years since the Simpson criminal trial, and despite continuing problems with racial divides, the fact that we can find common ground outside a courtroom, at work and school, even on city streets – as people watched the Anthony verdict standing outside electronics shops – says something very good about America’s growth as a nation. The fact that most people, regardless of their race or age, deplored the Anthony defense team’s rollicking, celebratory party – that also is something to celebrate. That a pornography company rescinded its employment offer to Casey Anthony out of worry about public disdain is almost – almost! – to be celebrated.

If nothing else, we can be proud of our growth and development in understanding that the color of our skin has nothing to do with what is in our hearts and minds.

Let’s not forget, though, that a little girl was killed. It wasn’t Caylee’s death that sparked our coming together – we came together because we were ready to do so, to protest and mourn a life lost.


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Filed under Family, Health, Law, Musings, News, Science

Prevent Crime, Be A Great Parent

We need more happy kids.

A recent New York Times article on the growing research into the genetic basis for crime – research that in the past would have been both technologically impossible and highly criticized as pointing toward eugenics – notes that it’s not just DNA that influences criminal behavior. Like almost everything else in human development (education level, age at marriage, number of children), the environment plays a huge role. And it acts early.

Researchers agree that here is no single “crime gene”. Instead, a group of so-far-unidentified genes seem to act together to tilt an individual toward crime, through traits such as aggression and anti-social behaviors. The role of empathy is hugely important, as well. Psychopaths, for example, exhibit little to none. But in the continuing nature versus nurture debate, nurture is increasingly seen to play an essential role in “turning on” the genes that influence crime.

People, even children, exhibit self-control to various degrees. Children who have been taught to wait for rewards, to delay gratification of simple desires, maintain self-control for longer periods. A Duke University researcher, Terrie E. Moffitt, studied 1,000 New Zealand children from birth onward, and found that the more self-control children were able to display by age 3, the less likely they were to commit crimes much later in life. “Forty-three percent of the children who scored in the lowest fifth on self-control were later convicted of a crime, she said, versus 13 percent of those who scored in the highest fifth.”

Adrian Raine, of the University of Pennsylvania, recently presented a paper that demonstrated how the brains of toddlers could be used to predict with significant accuracy whether the child would later commit a crime. Looking at variations in a part of the brain that regulates emotions – the amygdala, associated with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) – he found that some children’s brains contained smaller amygdalas, and that that dearth (which is responsible for fear conditioning) could be key to understanding why ASPD-affected people fail to fear the consequences of their antisocial behavior. However, the development of that part of the brain could be affected not only by genetics, but also by maternal nutrition and by the way children have been treated.

At Florida State University, Kevin Beaver points out that while genetics may account for some aggression, the markers for it seem to be associated with many genes that, depending on the environment, may be either left quiescent or – in a stressful environment full of negativity and violence – turned on, like an extremely slow-motion flick of a light switch. Beaver studied male twins and siblings (some separated at birth and raised in very different families) to determine how factors such as having delinquent friends, violence in the home, or living in a poor neighborhood “switch on” a predisposition to antisocial behavior. What he found was that in boys who were not exposed to risk factors – whose home environments were positive – the genetic “switch” was left off. In boys who lived with at least eight risk factors, however, the “switch” had been flipped on, leading to violence.

What does this say? It says that early environment is crucial to children’s development. Parents who provide a non-violent household, good structure, guidance, training, good nutrition, love, physical affection and gentle humor are on the right track for producing healthy children. Seeking out healthy friends and neighborhoods is also crucial. Even a child from a healthy family is affected by surrounding violence, which can push a genetic switch to “on”.

It’s not just bad genes, bad seed. No child asks to be raised in a violent family or a neighborhood characterized by neglect and criminality. No child wants to attend a school with leaking buildings and uncaring teachers. A child who by the age of 12 has faced all these challenges is one who – without his even knowing it – may have had the genetic switch of criminal behavior turned on.

Social context – which begins in the family – is, as always, crucial.

Link to NYTimes article:

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Filed under Family, Health, Law, Love, Nature, News, Science