Category Archives: Science

Pope Francis, the protopunk pontiff

I very much liked this piece in The Washington Post today about Pope Francis:

The pope himself seems unconcerned, continuing his unpredictable riff. He embraces the big bang. He appears in selfies. He criticizes euthanasia. He invites Patti Smith, the godmother of punk, to perform at the Vatican. He cashiers opponents. He calls the kingdom of God “a party” (which is precisely how the founder of the Christian faith referred to it). He is a man, by his own account, with no patience for “sourpusses.”

As a Protestant, I have no particular insight into the internal theological debates of Catholicism. But the participants seem to inhabit different universes. One side (understandably) wants to shore up the certainties of an institution under siege. Francis begins from a different point: a pastoral passion to meet people where they are — to recognize some good, even in their brokenness, and to call them to something better. That something better is not membership in a stable institution, or even the comforts of ethical religion; it is a relationship with Jesus, from which all else follows.

Instead of being a participant in a cultural battle, Francis says, “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” First you sew up the suffering (which, incidentally, includes all of us). “Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds.” The temptation, in his view, is to turn faith into ideology. “The faith passes,” he recently said, “through a distiller and becomes ideology. And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus; in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. . . . The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.”…

As I’ve said before, this pope hasn’t said anything new, in terms of doctrine. I am bemused when nonCatholics, or extremely inattentive Catholics, express wonder that the pope embraces, say, evolution. I had never before run into any basic conflict between the Catholic faith and evolution.

But the very simple, and yet amazing, thing that he does is make sure that you hear what’s important about the faith. He makes sure you hear the love. You patch up the suffering first — heal the wounds. The rest is secondary.

Who cares that Patti Smith’s “Gloria” doesn’t start “Glory to God in the highest,” but rather, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine?” Well, OK, I guess we should care to some extent. But what this pope does is reach out to Patti where she is. He tries to get her to feel the love. And she seems to dig it.

And so it is that we now have our first protopunk pontiff…

So why can’t a hallucination be an actual message?



First, a confession…

Sometimes in Mass, my mind wanders. This is not entirely my fault. I love St. Peter’s and its architecture, but the acoustics have always been terrible. Everything said from the altar or the pulpit bounces around in the dome above it, so that the last thing a speaker said is competing with what he or she is saying after that. This is particularly bad for me with my Meniere’s problem, because it causes me to have particular trouble separating speech clearly from background noise. Add to that the fact that the Mass I attend is in Spanish, and while my pronunciation is good, my understanding isn’t what it was 50 years ago when I lived in Ecuador. Even when I can hear it clearly, I have to work hard to catch enough words to get the drift.

Put all that together, and I have a lot of trouble following what is being said. So my mind wanders. Frequently. And when it wanders, I often think of religious-themed posts for the blog. But then, by the time the Mass is over, and I go home and have lunch and, if I have my druthers, have a nice Sunday afternoon nap, I’ve forgotten about it. So Sunday posts remain rare.

But here’s the one that was going through my head in Mass yesterday…

The night before, I watched on Netflix an episode of “House,” from Season 5, titled “Unfaithful.”

It opens with a weary, dissolute-seeming young priest (Greene’s “whiskey priest” in The Power and the Glory seems to be a literary antecedent) who has just taken off his collar and is trying to relax in his dingy cell, located in the charity that he runs for the homeless, by knocking back a whiskey or three.

A few moments before, a homeless man had knocked, seeking a warm coat, which the priest gave him. Now, someone is insistently knocking again. Reluctantly, grimly, he drags himself to the door, opens it, and before him is a bloody Christ, with fresh stigmata, scourge wounds all over, and the crown of thorns.

The priest says, “That’s not funny, freak.” The figure before him answers, “No one is laughing, Daniel.” The priest looks down and sees that the figure’s nail-pierced feet are hovering several inches from the ground.

This, to say the least, freaks him out.

The priest immediately turns himself in to the hospital where House works — because, of course, he was hallucinating. He leaps to that conclusion because, after being hounded from parish to parish by a false sexual abuse charge leveled at him by a young man several parishes back, the priest has no faith left.

So to him, as to the atheist House, the only explanation for such an incident is that there is something wrong with his brain. It’s a symptom, not a message from God — a diagnosis with which the writers of the show clearly agree. And we viewers, being moderns, are meant to assume this is the case.

The next day, thinking about this in Mass, it occurred to me that there’s something wrong with the logic underlying the show’s premise. To follow me, I ask my unbelieving readers to suspend their disbelief for a moment. Stipulate — just for the sake of this discussion — that there is a God and that He does try to tell us things from time to time.

So, if we accept that… why would the incident being a hallucination mean that it wasn’t an actual message from God? Mind you, I can’t tell you what the message in this case would be, beyond shocking the priest out of his faith slump.

But what about a hallucination makes it an invalid form of perception, within the context of faith? Think about this: The Bible is filled with instances of people receiving divine messages through dreams, from the original Joseph of the many-colored coat to Joseph of Nazareth. No one says, “It can’t be a real message because it was just a dream.”

And what is a hallucination except a waking dream?

We mortals have a wide variety of methods of communication. We can speak to people face-to-face, or tell them what we’re thinking with sign language. There’s writing, smoke signals, Morse code, email, videochat, texting — some of which are more “virtual” than others, but all seen as genuine communication. And let’s not forget movies with special effects — do such effects mean that they can’t communicate a serious message? (Not that CGI-rich films tend to be heavy on ideas, but they can be, just as any other film can.)

The hallucination, or the sleeping version, seems to be a favorite mode of communication of the Almighty.

And you don’t have to be a believer to find meaning in dreams, to see them as powerful communicators of important ideas. Ask a Freudian. Absent God, it could be your superego is trying to tell you something.

We empirical moderns like to think that something isn’t real if it can’t be independently confirmed — which seems rather narrow and limited of us. If someone else looking out his window at the moment the priest was having his waking dream did not see the crucified figure hovering there, then the priest didn’t, either. Except that he did. And if anyone could make him see something that his neighbor didn’t  — encoding the message for him alone to see, which is not a radical concept — an all-powerful God who knows everything about how every individual is made would be the one. Again, you have to believe in God to follow this, but if you do, why would you think the Deity couldn’t do that?

A photograph taken at the time wouldn’t show the Jesus figure. There would be no drops of blood on the sidewalk. But then, there was no physical evidence of Moses’ burning bush experience, either. The scripture specifically notes that although it was burning, the bush was not consumed.

So while you might not believe, if you do believe, why is this priest’s vision automatically less legit than that of Moses, or the dream in which Joseph was urged to go ahead and marry Mary?

There are some belief systems that are all about hallucination, even about deliberately inducing them — I think of shamans who treat peyote as a sacrament.

Have you ever read any of Carlos Castaneda’s books? They’re all about achieving greater enlightenment by inducing hallucinations, and actually entering into those hallucinations and taking action within them. The Separate Reality is as legitimate, within the context of that system of thought, as one that concrete thinkers see as the only reality.

So, given all that, what’s the justification for seeing a hallucination as just a hallucination, and therefore automatically devoid of meaning? That seems a very shallow, and at the least unimaginative, explanation.

Anyway, that’s what I got to thinking about during Mass when I was supposed to be paying attention…

I don’t see how police body cams will help with this problem


Normally, I find Nicholas Kristof’s columns to be models of calm reason. They tend to add up nicely.

So I was disappointed with this one from last week, which you may have seen in The State today.

First, I was disappointed because I thought both Kristof and I had written before about this first-person-shooter test, which gauges the extent to which we — regardless of how enlightened we may be on the subject of race — are more likely to shoot first at a black man than at a white one. But I couldn’t find where I wrote about it before. If anyone can point me to it, I’ll be grateful.

Anyway, according to Kristof, here’s what the test continues to find:

Joshua Correll of the University of Colorado at Boulder has used an online shooter video game to try to measure these unconscious attitudes (you can play the game yourself). The player takes on the role of a police officer who is confronted with a series of images of white or black men variously holding guns or innocent objects such as wallets or cellphones. The aim is to shoot anyone with a gun while holstering your weapon in other cases.

Ordinary players (often university undergraduates) routinely shoot more quickly at black men than at white men, and are more likely to mistakenly shoot an unarmed black man than an unarmed white man.

I’m typical. The first time I took the test, years ago, I shot armed blacks in an average of 0.679 seconds while waiting slightly longer — 0.694 seconds — to shoot armed whites. I also holstered more quickly when confronted with unarmed whites than with unarmed blacks.

In effect, we have a more impulsive trigger finger when confronted by black men and are more cautious with whites. This is true of black players as well…

I tried taking the test (again) this morning. I don’t think it was working right. It kept throwing scenarios at me well past the five minutes it was supposed to take, so I just quit after awhile, and therefore didn’t get graded.

I found the interface rather glitchy. Many times I would press either the J key (to shoot) or the F key (to holster) and it wouldn’t register. I’d be told I was dead, or merely out of time. But then, even when it did register, I was very often too late. That’s the crux of the test, you see — not to give you time to think. If I were a cop in a real situation, I would take that second to think. Maybe I’d be dead as a result, but I would take the second.

I did accidentally shoot a “good guy” at least three times — about the same number of times that I holstered when the guy had a gun, meaning I was dead. On a couple of the innocents I shot, I noticed before the image was gone that my victim was black. But that points to another flaw with the test: I tended to see the gun before I saw the guy. Several times, I would shoot, be told I’d made a good shot, and then the picture would be gone before I could look to see if the guy was black or white.

As for that quick-holstering thing — why would a cop holster his gun, when unthreatened, as quickly as he’d fire it if threatened? The natural reaction would be to keep the gun out, keeping options open, for a bit longer — wouldn’t it?

Anyway, the sad thing is that, assuming there is bias in our shooting tendencies (and as I said, I never got my test results), how are we supposed to be reassured by this:

There’s some evidence that training, metrics and policies can suppress biases or curb their impact. In law enforcement, more cameras — police car cams and body cams — create accountability and may improve behavior. When Rialto, Calif., introduced body cams on police officers, there was an 88 percent decline in complaints filed about police by members of the public….

OK, maybe. But how does that help with the shoot-don’t shoot equation? If that is reflexive, and tends to play out even when we know we’re being tested on it, what good does the body cam do? Seems to me there is still a marginally greater chance that black suspects will be shot. The only difference is that with a body cam, there’s more likely to be huge community outrage over it.

Right? Or am I wrong? My point is, either these atavistic impulses are reflexive — in which no amount of supposed “accountability” will stop bad things from happening — or they are not. Which is it?

OK, now THIS is impressive technology

This is very cool, and very impressive:

Your bag of potato chips can hear what you’re saying. Now, researchers from MIT are trying to figure out a way to make that bag of chips tell them everything that you said — and apparently they have a method that works. By pointing a video camera at the bag while audio is playing or someone is speaking, researchers can detect tiny vibrations in it that are caused by the sound. When later playing back that recording, MIT says that it has figured out a way to read those vibrations and translate them back into music, speech, or seemingly any other sound….

Alexei Efros, a University of California at Berkeley researcher, says in a statement…. “This is totally out of some Hollywood thriller. You know that the killer has admitted his guilt because there’s surveillance footage of his potato chip bag vibrating.” The research is being described in a paper that will be published at the computer graphics conference Siggraph.

Although it’s only marginally more amazing than what my iPhone can do — know me by my thumbprint, not by scanning it visually (which my laptop can do), but by touch. The sensor in the Home button is so sensitive that it reads the tiny ridges in my thumb — either thumb, from any angle — and recognizes the pattern. Which just floors me. This is that kind of analysis of the tiny, the subtle, taken to another level…

WashPost: ‘Amazing cloud-repelling islands’


I like this picture that the WashPost posted yesterday showing a really cool weather phenomenon off the coast of Baja California.

The absence of clouds over the islands is explained thusly:

The clouds form over the ocean because the chilly Pacific water creates a layer of cool air at low altitudes. When the air is heated just above the ocean surface, it cools and condenses into clouds and fog forming the so-called marine layer (which is held in place by a temperature inversion, in which the air – divorced from the cool sea surface – warms with altitude).

But over the islands, the layer of cool air required for these clouds to form is often absent since land masses and the air above them heat up quickly (thanks to the low heat capacity of land versus water).  And so, unless there is wind  to push the marine layer over the islands, they’re bastions of sunshine….

I’m enjoying my new Digital Premium subscription to The Washington Post

NASA’s starship, the IXS Enterprise


This is the coolest thing I ran into over the weekend. I think the info has been out there awhile, but it was new to me when I saw it at the WashPost site.

First, there’s a guy at NASA, engineer and physicist Harold White, working on how to make a warp-drive spaceship, a true starship, a vehicle that can move at speeds exceeding the speed of light. Which, it is believed, may one day be possible.

Better than that:

And now, to boldly go where no designer has gone before, Mark Rademaker — who is collaborating with White — has created a CGI design concept for the “warp ship.” They’re calling it the IXS Enterprise.

Admittedly, the pictures are less about getting to the other side of the galaxy, and more about getting kids excited about pursuing STEM careers. But they’re a lot of fun anyway. You can see more images at Rademaker’s Flickr account.

White explains in detail how his warp drive would work in the video below. But for those of you who want the quick, oversimplified version, basically it works “by expanding space-time behind the object and contracting space-time front of it.”

A disappointing aspect of that is that it makes for a bit of a clunky design. In the photo above, I saw that structure around the ship and thought it was docked in a construction bay, or making a stop at a space station. No, apparently, that huge ring is part of the ship — an essential element to making the warp drive work. “The rings are most important as they will form the Warp bubble,” says Rademaker.

But maybe they can streamline them some before NASA’s ready to “boldly go.” Which is bound to be awhile, given that NASA currently has no operational spacecraft. We’ll see. Or our descendants will, anyway…

‘Sitting is the New Smoking:’ Recent research makes some of my colleagues stand up and take notice

Take a momentary break from stressing about saturated fat, second-hand smoke, carbohydrates, terrorism, stranger danger and lack of exercise to consider the new source of alarm: Sitting.

Going by the new research — which you can read about here, and here, and here — it really doesn’t matter how much you work out. If you sit too much the rest of the time, it’s killing you.

Consider this warning to the hyperkinetic readers of Runner’s World:

You’ve no doubt heard the news by now: A car-commuting, desk-bound, TV-watching lifestyle can be harmful to your health. All the time we spend parked behind a steering wheel, slumped over a keyboard, or kicked back in front of the tube is linked to increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and even depression—to the point where experts have labeled this modern-day health epidemic the “sitting disease.”

But wait, you’re a runner. You needn’t worry about the harms of sedentary living because you’re active, right? Well, not so fast. A growing body of research shows that people who spend many hours of the day glued to a seat die at an earlier age than those who sit less—even if those sitters exercise.

“Up until very recently, if you exercised for 60 minutes or more a day, you were considered physically active, case closed,” says Travis Saunders, a Ph.D. student and certified exercise physiologist at the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. “Now a consistent body of emerging research suggests it is entirely possible to meet current physical activity guidelines while still being incredibly sedentary, and that sitting increases your risk of death and disease, even if you are getting plenty of physical activity. It’s a bit like smoking. Smoking is bad for you even if you get lots of exercise. So is sitting too much.”

Unfortunately, outside of regularly scheduled exercise sessions, active people sit just as much as their couch-potato peers…

The denizens of ADCO — some of them, at any rate — have taken this to heart (and lung, and brain, and all the other organs allegedly affected by excessive sitting), and have started standing at their desks to work.

Meanwhile, others among us are both sitting and eating potato chips while writing this blog post. Literally.

We’ll report on the results of this internal study, if we’re still around when the data are in…

ADCO's Nancy Atkinson stands at her desk, oblivious to the fact that this blog's format lends itself better to HORIZONTAL images.

ADCO’s Nancy Atkinson stands at her desk, oblivious to the fact that this blog works better with HORIZONTAL images.

‘Mental Palaces’ are cool, but wouldn’t ‘Mnemonic Mansions’ be more memorable?

This guy only came in third, but he had the best pose...

This guy only came in third, but he had the best pose…

Saw an interesting piece in the NYT about this international Extreme Memory Tournament. I was particularly impressed with the explanation of the method used by the best “mental athletes” — a method that, despite efforts by upstarts to come up with alternative strategies, can’t be beat — to file memories so that they are available during the competition:

The technique the competitors use is no mystery.

People have been performing feats of memory for ages, scrolling out pi to hundreds of digits, or phenomenally long verses, or word pairs. Most store the studied material in a so-called memory palace, associating the numbers, words or cards with specific images they have already memorized; then they mentally place the associated pairs in a familiar location, like the rooms of a childhood home or the stops on a subway line.

The Greek poet Simonides of Ceos is credited with first describing the method, in the fifth century B.C., and it has been vividly described in popular books, most recently “Moonwalking With Einstein,” by Joshua Foer.

Each competitor has his or her own variation. “When I see the eight of diamonds and the queen of spades, I picture a toilet, and my friend Guy Plowman,” said Ben Pridmore, 37, an accountant in Derby, England, and a former champion. “Then I put those pictures on High Street in Cambridge, which is a street I know very well.”

As these images accumulate during memorization, they tell an increasingly bizarre but memorable story. “I often use movie scenes as locations,” said James Paterson, 32, a high school psychology teacher in Ascot, near London, who competes in world events. “In the movie ‘Gladiator,’ which I use, there’s a scene where Russell Crowe is in a field, passing soldiers, inspecting weapons.”

Mr. Paterson uses superheroes to represent combinations of letters or numbers: “I might have Batman — one of my images — playing Russell Crowe, and something else playing the horse, and so on.”…

One of the traits that makes these competitors so good is, paradoxically, their ability to forget — basically, they clean out their mental palaces between rounds, to make room for new memories.

However, they’re not as good at forgetting as they think they are. They will report that they forget everything, right away. But tests have shown that the following day, even after restocking their palaces with new memories, they can still regurgitate three-fourths of the old material.

I suppose this indicates the existence of a mental attic — a far less-organized place where memories collect dust and cobwebs, and you forget that you have them.

The fascinating thing about this method, I think, is that something so seemingly abstract as memory is so dependent on the concrete — objects and images in identifiable spaces. It’s almost like being dependent on your fingers and toes in order to count.

If I were one of these competitors, I’d call my palaces “mnemonic mansions.” That’s more memorable…

Of course, the interior of my palace or mansion would probably look like this.

Burl, who is an expert, shows us how airplanes fly


And if you doubt it, well, he’s the curator of the Pacific Aviation Museum in Pearl Harbor. What are your credentials? (He got the info from something called ScienceDump, which sounds credible as all get-out to me.)

I, of course, believed the diagram immediately, as it fit perfectly with my understanding of this phenomenon. Frankly, I have trouble believing they do fly. It may just be mass hypnosis that makes us think they do. If you think about it, that explanation actually taxes credulity less than the theory that those massive things actually do hang up there in the sky.

(Seriously, haven’t you ever looked up at a plane, way up in the sky, and thought, Oh, come on — that’s ridiculous!)

The Cartographers for Social Equality

The other night, continuing to make my way through “The West Wing” (which I never saw when it was on) while working out each evening, I saw the one in which the Cartographers for Social Equality were allowed to make a presentation on Big Block of Cheese Day.

I enjoyed it. It reminded me of the time, maybe a quarter-century ago, when I visited my friend Moss Blachman in his office, and saw his map of the Western Hemisphere with south at the top and north at the bottom. As someone who lived in South America as a kid and who has long thought my fellow gringos give Latin America short shrift, I got a kick out of it. Because, of course, the practice of putting north at the top and south at the bottom is totally arbitrary (an obvious fact that sort of blew C.J. Cregg’s mind).

I enjoy things like that which cause us to look at things in fresh ways.

Of course, the political conclusion that the cartographers draw from the way the Mercator distorts the world is rather silly. I’ve always known Africa is way bigger than Greenland, and that Africa is thousands of times more significant in world affairs. But I also know that Africa doesn’t derive its importance from being bigger; it derives it from the fact that there are multitudes of nations and cultures and geographic and biological diversity in Africa, and it is not mostly a frozen waste. Population of Greenland: 56,840. Population of Africa: 1.033 billion. Duh.

If I were stupid enough to think the significance of nations and continents were a function of size, I’d conclude that England has been of no account whatsoever in world history. Which I don’t. And I can’t think of anyone who does.

But I enjoyed the scene anyway, because it is good for the brain (and pleasurable as well) to flip things around and look at them from unaccustomed angles. And if there are people who did make foolish assumptions about the world based on the usual depiction, and their eyes are opened, then great. But I wouldn’t attach a lot of importance to that.


‘Our pollster’ making SC biotech connections for SC in Poland

I’m jealous of people who get to travel for their work. Yeah, I know people like Doug and Silence will talk about what a grind it is, but I’m envious nonetheless. My trip to England three years ago was my first time out of the country in many years. In my newspaper job I used to bop up to Washington occasionally, or to a conference somewhere else in the country now and then, but never abroad.

And I enjoy travel. It doesn’t just broaden the mind; it stimulates it, generating thoughts that wouldn’t occur running on the usual, everyday fuel.

So today I’m feeling jealous of my good friend Emerson Smith, who tells me from his berth on the Queen Mary II somewhere in the South China Sea (I think — there’s no telling where he is at a given moment) that next month he’ll be back in Poland — another place I’ve never been.


International Man of Mystery Emerson Smith

He’s one of two people who will be representing South Carolina at the BioForum 2014 ( in Lodz, Poland on May 28-29, 2014, Emerson and Brad Goodwin from CharlestonPharma, speaking on how biotech companies in central Europe can create joint ventures in the U.S. and South Carolina.

“South Carolina is well known for having international companies from Germany, Belgium, France, Japan, China and other countries,” writes Emerson via email. “Most of these companies are large manufacturers. What we need to attract, in addition, are small biotech companies from Europe, which includes western Europe as well as central Europe, which can grow in South Carolina. Central Europe is historically known for its scholarship and science. Copernicus is from Krakow, Poland. South Carolina’s SCRA and SC Launch are always looking for opportunities to attract biotech companies from abroad and provide seed funding as well as assistance in dealing with state and federal commercial laws.”

Emerson is CEO and president of Metromark Research here in Columbia. He is also a sociologist, as he used to point out to us when we called him “our pollster” in the newspaper, which bugged him. He used to do our South Carolina Poll back when I was governmental affairs editor at The State. We did quite a bit of polling in those days. And while he didn’t like being called a “pollster,” he was a good one. His horse-race polls — the only kind where you get a real-world check on your accuracy — were always dead-on. Even multi-candidate primaries, which were notoriously hard to call.

So now, our pollster is working to grow the biotech sector in SC. Good for him. Even if I’m jealous that he gets to be an International Man of Mystery while doing it.

Will life in the future be nasty, brutish and short? (Without effective antibiotics, it could be)

The last surviving CDC researcher shares the terrible secret with Rick.

The last surviving CDC researcher shares the terrible secret with Rick.

Just last night, I was rewatching a portion of the “Walking Dead” first-season episode in which our dwindling band of survivors reach the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The news they find there is, to say the least, not good.

And now I see that the real-life CDC has been putting out warnings over the last couple of weeks about the dangerous overuse of antibiotics. And this statement out of the CDC, from the Daily Mail late last month, sounds almost as ominous as what that one surviving researcher on “Walking Dead” had to say:

A high-ranking official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared in an interview with PBS that the age of antibiotics has come to an end.

‘For a long time, there have been newspaper stories and covers of magazines that talked about “The end of antibiotics, question mark?”‘ said Dr Arjun Srinivasan. ‘Well, now I would say you can change the title to “The end of antibiotics, period.”’…

Now, there seems to be a sort of contest to see who can raise the alarm in the most, well, alarming manner.

A piece at Bloomberg headlined, “Life Without Antibiotics Would Be Nasty, Brutish and Much Shorter” begins:

Sometimes I imagine how our descendants will look back on our world. Unless something is done about antibiotic resistance, I’m very much afraid that they’ll look upon us the way 19th-century science fiction writers viewed Atlantis: as a lost paradise of magical technology — in this case, one in which you could go to a child coughing her life out with pneumonia, stick a needle in her arm, and watch the disease melt away almost before your eyes. The first doctors who treated patients with antibiotics felt like they were witnessing miracles. Our grandchildren may feel much the same way about the ease with which we cured disease.

But, you say, we’ll just keep developing new antibiotics that microbes are not immune to. Yeah, maybe, but this math, in a piece headlined “Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future,” is kind of scary:

Every inappropriate prescription and insufficient dose given in medicine would kill weak bacteria but let the strong survive. (As would the micro-dose “growth promoters” given in agriculture, which were invented a few years after Fleming spoke.) Bacteria can produce another generation in as little as twenty minutes; with tens of thousands of generations a year working out survival strategies, the organisms would soon overwhelm the potent new drugs.

Fleming’s prediction was correct. Penicillin-resistant staph emerged in 1940, while the drug was still being given to only a few patients. Tetracycline was introduced in 1950, and tetracycline-resistant Shigellaemerged in 1959; erythromycin came on the market in 1953, and erythromycin-resistant strep appeared in 1968. As antibiotics became more affordable and their use increased, bacteria developed defenses more quickly. Methicillin arrived in 1960 and methicillin resistance in 1962; levofloxacin in 1996 and the first resistant cases the same year; linezolid in 2000 and resistance to it in 2001; daptomycin in 2003 and the first signs of resistance in 2004.

With antibiotics losing usefulness so quickly — and thus not making back the estimated $1 billion per drug it costs to create them — the pharmaceutical industry lost enthusiasm for making more. In 2004, there were only five new antibiotics in development, compared to more than 500 chronic-disease drugs for which resistance is not an issue — and which, unlike antibiotics, are taken for years, not days. Since then, resistant bugs have grown more numerous and by sharing DNA with each other, have become even tougher to treat with the few drugs that remain. In 2009, and again this year, researchers in Europe and the United States sounded the alarm over an ominous form of resistance known as CRE, for which only one antibiotic still works.

Health authorities have struggled to convince the public that this is a crisis. In September, Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued a blunt warning: “If we’re not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era. For some patients and some microbes, we are already there.” The chief medical officer of the United Kingdom, Dame Sally Davies — who calls antibiotic resistance as serious a threat as terrorism — recentlypublished a book in which she imagines what might come next. She sketches a world where infection is so dangerous that anyone with even minor symptoms would be locked in confinement until they recover or die. It is a dark vision, meant to disturb. But it may actually underplay what the loss of antibiotics would mean.

Is there a cure? Not really; more of a delaying tactic — it’s to slow down unnecessary use of antibiotics, and develop new antibiotics faster. But there are psychological and cultural barriers to the former, and market forces working against the latter:

In countries such as as Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands, government regulation of medical and agricultural antibiotic use has helped curb bacteria’s rapid evolution toward untreatability. But the U.S. has never been willing to institute such controls, and the free-market alternative of asking physicians and consumers to use antibiotics conservatively has been tried for decades without much success. As has the long effort to reduce farm antibiotic use; the FDA will soon issue new rules for agriculture, but they will be contained in a voluntary “guidance to industry,” not a regulation with the force of law.

What might hold off the apocalypse, for a while, is more antibiotics—but first pharmaceutical companies will have to be lured back into a marketplace they already deemed unrewarding. The need for new compounds could force the federal government to create drug-development incentives: patent extensions, for instance, or changes in the requirements for clinical trials. But whenever drug research revives, achieving a new compound takes at least 10 years from concept to drugstore shelf. There will be no new drug to solve the problem soon—and given the relentlessness of bacterial evolution, none that can solve the problem forever. In the meantime, the medical industry is reviving the old-fashioned solution of rigorous hospital cleaning, and also trying new ideas: building automatic scrutiny of prescriptions into computerized medical records, and developing rapid tests to ensure the drugs aren’t prescribed when they are not needed….

Anyway, have a happy Monday.


A big step forward in medical research in SC

We hear a lot about setbacks to the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. So it’s nice to take note of actual progress in a cooperative effort intended to improve health outcomes here in South Carolina — one that puts SC out ahead of the rest of the nation:

Health Sciences South Carolina Launches Nation’s First Statewide Clinical Data

Warehouse Clemson University, the Medical University of South Carolina, the University of South Carolina and major SC health care systems collaborate to track 3.2 million patients, 25 million health records

COLUMBIA, S.C. – A revolutionary information technology project launched by Health Sciences South Carolina (HSSC) could lead to major breakthroughs in improving the health of South Carolinians and attract millions of dollars of investment to the state’s economy, including the recruitment of biomedical clinical trials and the development of next-generation pharmaceuticals and medical devices—right here to South Carolina.

HSSC’s Clinical Data Warehouse (CDW) links and matches de-identified (anonymous) electronic patient records from South Carolina’s largest health care systems to enable providers and researchers to follow patient conditions in real-time. It also allows biomedical researchers to conduct patient-centered outcomes research and comparative effectiveness studies across a much broader and aggregated patient population base. This is the first system of its kind to bring together three major research universities and several large health care systems.

Bioinformatics for the system came from the Medical University of South Carolina, while the University of South Carolina developed the operations software. Clemson University hosts and provides patient privacy and security for the CDW. And all participating HSSC member hospitals share their data.

The project is a reality in large part thanks to The Duke Endowment, which has made major contributions of over $32 million to HSSC to fund the CDW and other health care initiatives. The South Carolina General Assembly also provided critical support through the creation of the South CarolinaSmartState Program.

Mary Piepenbring, Vice President of The Duke Endowment, said the foundation is proud of its longstanding commitment to Health Sciences South Carolina. “The Endowment’s support of the Clinical Data Warehouse initiative falls squarely within our mission to promote health in both Carolinas. This innovative health care tool has the potential to inform and improve health care outcomes in South Carolina and to serve as a model for information sharing.”

Earlier this year, HSSC began populating the database with historical data from Greenville Hospital System, the Medical University of South Carolina and Palmetto Health. The database currently contains more than 3.2 million medical records. Data from Spartanburg Regional Health System will be added in 2014. The CDW will eventually have data from all HSSC member health systems.

This is an unprecedented achievement for South Carolina,” said Dr. Jay Moskowitz, HSSC president.

“While the United Health Foundation ranks South Carolina among the lowest states in overall health status, we can now say with confidence that we rank among the highest places in the world with this level of collaboration and this kind of access to knowledge that will improve health for all South Carolinians.”

Moskowitz said the CDW will be invaluable to researchers studying rare conditions that affect underrepresented populations. For example, less than one percent of the population is diagnosed with Sickle Cell disease, and using data from a single South Carolina health system yields a very small patient population from which to build a potential research patient cohort. However, with the Clinical Data Warehouse, a researcher can triple or quadruple previous sample sizes, expanding queries to include more than 3 million patients across the state. Researchers in South Carolina now have a better chance of determining the potential success of a given research project and easier ways to build patient cohorts. Moskowitz also pointed to the potential for groundbreaking research on obesity and hypertension, conditions which affect many South Carolinians.

University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides also noted this benefit of the CDW.

“Researchers need large pools of data to develop and test scientific theories. Until recently, they had no simple way to study broad patient populations and doing so in real-time was almost unthinkable,” Pastides said. “The CDW provides clinical researchers with an integrated learning tool where the statewide patient population can now be surveyed and tracked in real time.”

Charles Beaman, president and CEO of Palmetto Health, said the CDW is an example of a new sense of collaboration among universities and health care providers.

“We are sharing data in ways we never have before, because we all realize that we share the same goals and the same mission: to serve the people of South Carolina and help them improve their lives through better health,” Beaman said.

If you would like to learn more about HSSC, CDW and other research endeavors, visit

About Health Sciences South Carolina Health Sciences South Carolina (HSSC) was established in 2004 as the nation’s first statewide biomedical research collaborative. Today its members include six of the state’s largest health systems—Greenville Hospital System University Medical Center, Palmetto Health, Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System, McLeod Health, AnMed Health, and Self Regional Healthcare—and the state’s largest research-intensive universities—Clemson University, the Medical University of South Carolina, and the University of South Carolina. The collaborative was formed with the vision of transforming the state’s public health and economic wellbeing through research. It also is committed to educating and training the health care workforce.


Jay Moskowitz told me yesterday, at the data warehouse’s unveiling at the State House, that he expects that 3.2 million number (the number of medical records) to grow as other health systems contribute their data. At the same time, the database will be compared to death records to cull out patients who are no longer among us, eventually providing an up-to-date picture of virtually the entire state population.

For more see the front-page story in The State yesterday.

Nice timing there, global warming researchers

I like the touch with the melting Earth, don't you?

I like the touch with the melting Earth, don’t you?

I had to smile this morning when I saw this story on the front page of The State, under the headline, “Climate change research: Southeast will swelter:

Poisoned seafood, scorched forests, flooded homes and crumbling bridges are just some of the problems the Southeast can expect as the earth’s climate changes and temperatures heat up in future decades, according to a study released Tuesday.

The 341-page report, based on the expertise of more than 100 scientists and researchers, is considered the most comprehensive study to date of how global warming is affecting the South – and what Southerners can expect…

I don’t know about you, but I was rather startled to learn, about 10 last night, that it was snowing outside in my yard. As also reported today in The State, under the headline, “Unusual November snow falls on Columbia.” And this morning, I almost, but not quite, wore my coat that I got for a winter trip to England three years ago, which I’ve only worn about twice since then. And when I got outside, I regretted that I had decided not to wear it.

Yeah, I know, the study’s about long-term trends, etc. But still, not great timing. Earlier in the day, it had been what? 70 or so? And then there were all those high winds as I was driving home last night, and behind them — snow.

It’s like somebody up there really didn’t like these researchers…

Trees, both old and new, in South Carolina

Some of the few old-growth trees left standing, in Congaree National Park.

Some of the few old-growth trees left standing, in Congaree National Park.

Heard a pretty cool story out of South Carolina on NPR this morning:

Like much of the United States, South Carolina was once covered in old-growth forests. By the mid-20th century, virtually all of the virgin wood in the state was gone, either hauled away on trains or floated down rivers to be cut into lumber at saw mills.

But not all that timber made it to its destination. Some sank on its way down the river, where those old-growth logs have been preserved for about a century. Now, these precious leftovers can be worth up to several thousand dollars each.

But getting that treasure out is no easy task. First, anyone hoping to dredge the logs, known as sinker wood, must obtain a permit from the state. The logs weigh tons and are buried deep down in the muck. Once removed, the wood must be properly stored before milling to avoid cracking. And then, there are the alligators…

I learned several things from that piece, the most surprising of which was that wood that had been underwater for generations, even centuries, could still be useful, even valuable. I would have thought it would be ruined….

Anyway, I listened with particular interest because of an interesting project I’ve been working on. ADCO is doing some work for Hobcaw Barony. If you don’t know what or where that is, it would take a lot of words to tell you. But basically: It’s a 16,000 acre tract of land, essentially the southern end of Waccamaw Neck, just above Georgetown. It was originally a land grant to one of the Lords Proprietors, had been broken up into multiple rice plantations, and had been mostly reassembled around the time of the Recent Unpleasantness. After the end of slavery made it tough for SC planters to compete with cheaper rice from out west, the owners started using the mostly wild land for hunting clubs for rich Yankees. Bernard Baruch, the Camden native who had made an immense fortune on Wall Street and would become a close adviser to seven presidents (he’s the guy who put the term “Cold War” into circulation, in a speech to the SC Legislature), bought the tract and some additional land to more or less assemble the original royal grant. He used it as a winter home and hunting preserve.

His daughter, Belle, bought it from him in chunks, starting in the mid-30s. When she died in 1964, she left it to a foundation that was to preserve the land in its natural state in perpetuity, and open it to the state’s colleges and universities for educational and research purposes. Both USC and Clemson have operated institutes on the land since the late 60s — USC studying the estuary, Clemson the forest.

Anyway, one of the projects is to re-establish long-leaf pine, which was mostly cut down for naval stores in the age of sail. One challenge in doing this is the wild hogs on the land — descendants of swine left there by some early European settlers — which love tender young long-leaf pine roots.

OK, so it’s a thin connection, but since that’s what’s on my mind these days, that’s what caused me to be particularly interested in this NPR story…

The King's Highway running through Hobcaw, looking much as it did in colonial times.

The King’s Highway running through Hobcaw, looking much as it did in colonial times.

Here’s one argument for a liberal-arts education

A recent essay in The Wall Street Journal scoffed at those who bemoan the decline in the number of students majoring in the humanities.

Perhaps that writer was right. But you know, I think it would really help if some of those left-brain STEM types would take a couple of English classes.

Remember that story from yesterday’s VFP about experiments into whether warp-speed travel is possible?

Did you see this quote?

“Space has been expanding since the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago,” said Dr. White, 43, who runs the research project. “And we know that when you look at some of the cosmology models, there were early periods of the universe where there was explosive inflation, where two points would’ve went receding away from each other at very rapid speeds.”…

Ow! He might be a heck of a rocket scientist, or whatever, but his abuse of the language is rather distressing.

Studies: smoking dope can lead to schizophrenia

By Torben Hansen, via Flickr

By Torben Hansen, via Flickr

What I had always heard, and even seen in real life, was that teenagers who smoke a lot of dope tend to have trouble maturing, that things that are going on in their undeveloped brains get derailed, with long-term cognitive effects. Hence the phenomenon of the 30-year-old stoner who seems in some ways like a 15-year-old.

But I don’t recall having read this before, even though the research results seem to have been out there for awhile:

There is a significant and consistent relationship between marijuana use and the development of schizophrenia and related disorders….

Though they receive little attention in the legalization debate, the scientific studies showing an association between marijuana use and schizophrenia and other disorders are alarming. A 2004 article in the highly respected British Journal of Psychiatry reviewed four large studies, all of which showed a significant and consistent association between consumption of marijuana (mostly during teenage years or early 20s) and the later development of schizophrenia. The review concluded that marijuana is a “causal component,” among others, in the development of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.

A 2007 study in the Lancet, a British medical journal, concludes that using marijuana increases the risk of young people developing a psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia. This risk is greatest—up to a 200% increase—among those who use marijuana heavily and who start using at a younger age.

So I pass it on, for those who still think the stuff’s harmless, and Sheriff Lott was a Blue Meanie for busting the Olympic swimmer.

And yeah, for those who think it’s a terrific argument to say “Alcohol’s worse” — it may be indeed. But we tried outlawing that, and it didn’t work out, because it was too far ingrained in the culture. I’m not ready to give up on this ban. We have enough trouble with alcohol.

I give up — what’s that bright thing in the sky? (Oh. Sirius.)

Image from my app.

Image from my app.

Any astronomers out there? Because I’ve got a question that’s been bugging me.

Some time ago, I picked up one of those cards at Starbucks that provides a code that lets you download a free iPhone app. This one was called “Star Walk,” and it was very cool.

Basically, you hold your phone up to the sky, and it gives you a labeled diagram of what you’re looking at. For that matter, you can use it inside, and it will tell you exactly where the planets and the constellations and major satellites are in relation to where you’re standing. You can even hold it toward the ground and see where the heavenly bodies are when they’re not in the visible sky, on the other side of our planet.

I appreciate it because I’ve always felt particularly ignorant because I know so little about what’s out there. I read those novels I love about Jack Aubrey and Dr. Maturin, and Jack is always so dumbfounded by how little his friend the doctor knows about the planets and stars or anything else having to do with seamanship. And I’m not genius with languages like the doctor, so I feel particularly stupid.

Before the app, if I saw a particularly bright object in the sky, I assumed it was Venus, unless it had a reddish tint, in which case I assumed it was Mars. But I really had no idea.

I’m not that much brighter now, but I’ve picked up a couple of things. I can look up right away and say, “There’s Jupiter.” And at this time of night, I can pick out Orion pretty clearly.

But there’s something that’s been perplexing me in recent weeks.

Jupiter is off to the right of Orion. Fine, I can see that. But there’s something a roughly equal distance off to the left of Orion, at about the same elevation, that’s just about as bright as Jupiter. And what with light pollution from streetlamps and such, that object is the only thing bright enough to see in that part of the sky.

There’s nothing on Star Walk’s celestial map to indicate that there’s anything that really stands out in that part of the sky. There’s Sirius, and…

You know what? I just looked up Canis Major, which I know to be to the left of Orion, and according to Wikipedia Sirius is the brightest star in that constellation by far. In fact, I see elsewhere that it’s the brightest star in the sky other than our own Sol. So, you know. Duh.

(Yes, all of you who know something about astronomy; I am abysmally ignorant. No way would they let me be master and commander of any vessel in Nelson’s Navy.)

Don’t know why my app didn’t indicate that. (It makes it look like Murzim and Betelgeuse and Bellatrix and Rigel are all just as bright, which they’re not.) But hey, it’s a free app. And what it does do is pretty cool.

It’s got to be Sirius. So never mind. Unless you know I’m wrong, in which case please tell me…

So take THAT, all you deductive reasoning types!

As one who reaches conclusions intuitively, I’ve taken a lot of grief from some of you who are more the mathematical-proof types.

So, I appreciated this piece in the WSJ over the weekend, headlined “Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math.” The thrust was that it’s a shame that so many people turn away from a career in the sciences because they aren’t good at math. An excerpt:

Fortunately, exceptional mathematical fluency is required in only a few disciplines, such as particle physics, astrophysics and information theory. Far more important throughout the rest of science is the ability to form concepts, during which the researcher conjures images and processes by intuition.

Everyone sometimes daydreams like a scientist. Ramped up and disciplined, fantasies are the fountainhead of all creative thinking. Newton dreamed, Darwin dreamed, you dream. The images evoked are at first vague. They may shift in form and fade in and out. They grow a bit firmer when sketched as diagrams on pads of paper, and they take on life as real examples are sought and found.

Yeah, baby! That’s what this INTP is talking about: Intuitive reasoning!

Not that I’m bad at math or lack skills in that regard. I was always in the 99th percentile on standardized tests of mathematical aptitude in school. I’ve just never been overly fond of it.

I lack the patience for the methodology. Here’s what I mean: In geometry class, I’d be asked to prove that triangle A was congruent to triangle B, or some such (I’ve forgotten most of the basic concepts now, which shows what you can accomplish when you really apply your mind to forgetting). I would say, well, it is congruent, and that’s obvious. I didn’t mean that it looked congruent. I meant that I knew all the theorems and such, and in glancing at the triangles, I could tell that all the tests were met. Because I perceived it holistically. Having to go through all the infant-school steps, one at a time, made me want to bang my head against a wall. I hated it. And as I went on, I didn’t like algebra II, or analytical geometry, or calculus, either. I just took all those courses because I thought that’s what you were supposed to do in school. (And yeah, I suppose that proofs have more relevance when you get beyond such simple stuff as congruent triangles, but I didn’t have the patience to pursue it that far.)

I had a calculus professor in college who was very enthusiastic about what the Brits are pleased to call “maths.” He drove me crazy. One day he came in all excited because someone had taken pi out to a million decimal places. I raised my hand and asked, “Why?” He said because it showed the numbers never repeat, even that far out. I asked what possible purpose knowing that could serve. He said it taught us things about the principles governing randomness. I said randomness had no principles governing it, because it was random. I basically was saying anything I could to damp his enthusiasm, because it irritated me. I was unsuccessful; he was a natural enthusiast.

I wasn’t the kind of kid you wanted in your class.

Of course, I would have run into the same problem in science as in math, since there’s all that mind-numbing step-by-step methodology. (The piece in the WSJ later says, “Eureka moments require hard work. And focus.” And not the fun kind of work, either.)

But I was pleased to see the plug for intuition.

So there’s something we can DO about asteroids?


Last week, we saw quite an array of celestial events. First, lightning struck St. Peter’s Basilica only hours after the Pope shocked the world by announcing his retirement, suggesting that Someone preferred to keep such decisions to Himself.

Then, on the same day that we smugly expected an asteroid that we knew would come closer than some man-made satellites, but miss us, a smaller one that we weren’t anticipating didn’t. Miss us, I mean. It put on a light show and did spectacular damage in Siberia, injuring more than a thousand people. (Apparently, meteors hate Siberia more than tornadoes hate trailer parks.)

It’s like the heavens were mocking us and our belief that we have a handle on things.

Speaking of which, I thought I’d pass on this interesting piece that I saw in The Guardian from ex-astronaut Rusty Schweickart. He said that we need to know more about these smaller asteroids, and that we can, if we invest in new telescope technology. But the most surprising thing he said was that if we spot these rogue rocks early enough, we can actually do something to keep them from hitting us. Excerpts:

Spaceship Earth just took two celestial shots across its bow as, first, a meteor struck Russia, showering the Chelyabinsk region with fragments and reportedly injuring several hundred people, and second, as Asteroid 2012 DA14 whizzed past on 15 February. Traditionally, a torpedo across the bow is fired as a warning to change one’s behavior – and this coincidence of events should be a warning to humanity that meteors are not always as benign as “shooting stars” and that the next asteroid might not miss! Will we, the crew of SS Earth heed this warning?…

Nevertheless, the Earth is hit by one of these relatively small DA14-sized asteroids about once every 300 years, on average. And “small” is far, far from insignificant. The DA14-like asteroid that hit Earth in 1908 did so in a remote region of Siberia, where the explosion (the equivalent of about 250 Hiroshima nuclear bombs going off at one time) destroyed over 800 square miles of the countryside. This disaster zone, superimposed on any city in the world, would have wiped it and all its residents from the face of the Earth. I refer you, as a graphic reminder of the power of such explosions, to the post-facto Hiroshima bomb pictures readily found online.

The second way to view DA14 is to realize that, until just about a year ago, it was one of about 1 million similarly sized, near-Earth asteroids, which we know are out there, statistically, but that we haven’t yet seen. Consequently, until we find them in our telescopes, we are like sitting ducks in a shooting gallery with nothing more than luck to prevent a disaster. Regrettably, the Earth-based telescopes we’ve been using to discover and track these objects have, practically speaking, reached their limitations for finding the vast majority of these cosmic torpedoes.

Why do we care about finding them if there’s nothing we can do about it? Because, unknown to most people, is that if we have adequate early warning, our current space technology is sufficiently advanced to deflect these asteroids. For smaller impacts, even a last-minute warning of several days could enable a local evacuation and save many lives.

Deflection, however, will generally require several decades of warning. Fortunately, due to the relatively pure nature of space dynamics, forecasting an asteroid impact 100 years in advance is possible once its orbit is well known. The sine qua non, therefore, is finding them…

He goes on to make a pitch for the Sentinel telescope. He’s involved with a nonprofit that wants to build this thing and save the planet. Which is good of him.

What he does not to, to my frustration, is explain his claim that we can deflect these things. However, Stuart Clark, also writing in The Guardian, answers my question:

“There are three ways to deflect a dangerous asteroid: the gently pull, the swift kick and nuking it,” says Fitzsimmons. Which method is best depends on the asteroid’s size, composition, orbit, and crucially, how much warning we get. Typically, warning times of a decade or so would be required.

With plenty of warning, the gentle pull may be all that is needed. In this scenario, you send the heaviest spacecraft you can launch to “hover” close to the dangerous asteroid. The tiny gravitational pull that the spacecraft produces on the asteroid then adds up over many years to shift it off collision course. It’s a concept known as the gravity tractor.

The swift kick actually involves a collision. You hit the asteroid with a heavy spacecraft that instantaneously changes its orbit. The more warning you have, the smaller the kick you need to give it. Observations can quickly show whether the method has worked or whether another kick is needed.

Finally, if things are desperate, nuke it. This can provide the biggest kick of all. But don’t shatter the asteroid. The last thing you want to do is break it up. That turns a cannonball into buck shot without significantly changing its orbit.

Instead, a nearby nuclear explosion would evaporate the surface layers of the asteroid. As the vaporised rock jets into space, the asteroid would be pushed in the opposite direction.

But — correct me if I’m wrong — in order for us to do any of that, our space program needs to be more advanced than it is now. The gentle pull, anyway. To be able to intercept an asteroid decades away from us in time to gradually pull it off course sounds to me well beyond our current technology. Seems that we might want to step up our game a bit. As Clark quotes Larry Niven as saying, “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space programme.”