Scientific Fraud

The New York Times is now reporting that the human cloning result of Hwang Woo Suk was completely fabricated. His two Science papers in 2004 and 2005 rocked the scientific community and put South Korea at the forefront of stem cell research. He had planned to open cloning centers around the world to provide research labs with various embryonic stem cell lines. Now, he has been completely disgraced and the field has been set back somewhat.

I think this is an example of how giving unlimited resources to a single individual can lead to bad results. The Korean government gave Hwang almost 40 million dollars since 1998 in hopes of garnering the nation’s first Noble prize. He must have felt tremendous pressure to succeed.

I can envision a scenario that led to the fraud. His lab probably had preliminary results that seemed to work but they then couldn’t reproduce it. Hwang likely felt frustrated but confident that the method would eventually work so he decided to proceed with publication so they wouldn’t get scooped. Maybe he rationalized that there would be little harm to embellish some data to get the news out earlier. In the meantime he would get it to work reliably. He may even have gotten away with it if the papers didn’t have as large an impact which led to greater scrutiny of the work.

Sometimes throwing money at a problem does pan out. Examples include the Manhattan project and the Apollo moon mission. In these cases, there was a talented and motivated team focused on the task. There was a sense of urgency but there was also an imperative to be correct. People were checking other people’s work because making an error had dire consequences. The participants weren’t thinking about future riches or fame. While it is true that Oppenheimer became a household name, he certainly didn’t put pressure on the team to succeed so he could become rich and famous. What he did do was assemble the greatest minds of the time.

Will a Manhattan type effort work in biology? I’m not so sure because there is still a lot of basic science to discover. We don’t really know what must be done to cure diabetes, malaria or cancer. I think the best thing to do now is to have many labs pursue many different paths. We may even want to divide the money out more evenly than it is now. Someone should do a study to see if it is more cost effective to fund a few big labs or many small labs. I’m betting on the latter.

Life Will Go On

At this moment, we are undergoing a massive loss of species on par with the six great extinctions of history such as the most recent one 65 million years ago and the Great Dying of 250 million years ago. Being a good existentialist, I agree that we should do all we can to prevent loss of biodiversity even if the effort is likely to be futile. However, a part of me is secure that life will go on regardless of what happens now. Each great extinction is always followed by a flowering of new life. It was only because of the demise of the dinosaurs were mammals able to rise. I agree that it is a major cause of concern as to whether we will survive this extinction but on the long time scale all species eventually go extinct.

Ironically, one reason for my optimism is the large amount of garbage we dump into the environment. The toxicity of a waste product implies that it is bioreactive and hence could be exploited. Remember that oxygen was once an environmental toxin that forced major changes to life on earth. The extra methane and carbon dioxide we currently spew into the atmosphere could likewise be utilized. I’m sure new species of life will be found in garbage dumps sometime in the future.

There are already some signs of adaptation to the modern world even by large animals. For example, deer are now doing so well in cities and suburbs that some communities need to cull them. New York City has several pairs of thriving peregrine falcons. Some fear that beautiful species like orchids, parrots, and sea otters will disappear leaving behind only drab scavengers like cockroaches, coyotes, crows and rats. I think we need to give life more credit. I don’t think beauty is necessarily correlated with fragility. Also, our standards of beauty have been shaped by our environment. As the environment changes, so too will our brains and hence what we consider beautiful. Barring a catastrophic event like a nearby supernova or a complete loss of atmosphere, I think we can be fairly certain that life will continue to flourish on earth in spite of what we do.

Observations of a Dad

When a baby is born, she immediately has a set of reflexes – like rooting for a nipple, crying, grasping, and sleeping. These reflexes are hardwired into the brain and get triggered by certain sensory cues. Hunger and discomfort trigger crying, stroking of the face sets off rooting, and putting something in her hand initiates grasping.

What makes a baby fussy or easy going is coded in the thresholds that trigger the reflexes and shuts them off. Some babies can tolerate a large amount of discomfort before they cry and transition from an active state into sleep quickly. These are easy babies. In fussy babies, the discomfort thresholds may be very low and small perturbations can trigger crying. Most babies are somewhere in between – fussy in some aspects, impervious in others.

The multiple thresholds are set at birth and in essence define the initial personality of a baby. There is probably a genetic component but I bet most are set entirely randomly. After the baby is born, neural plasticity can shift these settings. So depending on how the parents react to the baby, thresholds could be moved up or down.

An entire book industry has sprouted in an attempt to educate parents on how to train their baby to be an easy going one. However, I doubt there will ever be a surefire method. The different sensory and reflex modalities probably interact in a highly nonlinear fashion. So trying to make a baby less sensitive to one thing could make them more sensitive to something else. Personally, I think we should just enjoy our babies the way they are. But then again, I think my baby is pretty easy, even if she stays up all night.

Life with Baby

Time stands still, time rushes forward.

A day is gone and what has happened?

Change her diaper, feed her, make a trip to the doctor, go get food, do the laundry, do some more laundry, make another trip to the doctor.

Did I miss a day? When did I last sleep?

Yet, when she opens her bright wide eyes and sneaks a peak, my heart melts.

When she cracks a wry smile, I just want to hold her close.

What if she could be like this forever, so tiny in my hands, so beautiful?

She waves her arms about and alights one gently on her cheek.

She is my one joy, my being, my life.

She is my baby.

Why vote?

In last Sunday’s New York Times magazine, the economists that brought us Freakonomics argued that a rational individual should abstain from voting. According to them, virtually no election is decided by a single vote so the cost for voting is never compensated by any payoff. Their conclusion of why we (or some of us) actually do vote is because of the social esteem gained by being seen voting by our peers. They predict that internet voting may actually reduce voter turnout because we would no longer get this social payoff.

It seems to me that using social prestige as the basis for selecting a leader is a shaky way to maintain a democracy. The real intent of an election is to determine which candidate is favoured by the majority of the populace. For the most part, our current method accomplishes this task (insert your favourite Florida 2000 joke here) although it has two main problems.

The first is that making everyone vote to determine who is preferred is wasteful. In statistics, this is known as an overpowered experimental design. We only need to sample a fraction of the population to obtain an estimate of the election result. The error on the estimate scales with the square root of the sample size. In an election, when enough people have voted so that the error in the estimated result is less then the eventual margin, additional polling won’t give you any new information. This is why a single vote doesn’t matter.

In a practical sense, this is already what we do because only a fraction of the population votes. However, the fraction that votes is not guaranteed to be a representative sample of the population. Any bias in how the sample is selected will bias the estimate. This leads to the second problem with elections. In a close election, who shows up to vote could skew the results. One facet of election strategy is to enhance the turnout of your voters and suppress that of your opponent’s. This never seemed very democratic to me.

If we really wanted to elect leaders based on what the true majority wishes then an election is not the optimal method. What we really should be doing is to scientifically select a sample of the population to vote. Of course deciding on how to choose this sample will never be perfect. There will also be some misrepresentation (like underrepresentation of homeless people) but I think we can certainly do better than what we have now. If we wanted to be really efficient we could even use a bootstrap method to estimate the error compared to the estimated margin of victory on the fly. Now, I’d like to see some brave politician suggest this scheme.

Dark Genome

Cosmologists are very troubled by the fact that they can’t account for (depending on whom you ask) 90% to 99% of the mass and energy of the universe. The nature of this “Dark Matter” is the most pressing problem of their field. However, biologists don’t seem nearly as perturbed by the fact that the purpose of a similar fraction of the mammalian genome is completely unknown. They are so unconcerned that only a small fraction of the genome is in the genes that code for proteins that much of the non-coding region is simply called junk DNA.

It has always perplexed me why most of our DNA would be junk. I can’t believe that 90% of the DNA has no use whatsoever. It would seem much more likely that this so-called junk DNA is necessary for genetic regulation. After all, the main reason I am different from another person is not in the differences in the proteins I carry but in how and when they are expressed. Darwin himself recognized that much of the variation in nature must be due to regulation.

A very nice paper by Peter Andolfatto in the October 20 issue of Nature shows that in the fruit fly between 40% to 70% of the DNA nucleotides situated between genes are under selection pressure by evolution. He showed this in a very clever way. He analyzed the DNA of two species of DrosophilaD. melanogaster and D. simulans and looked at the level of polymorphism (differences within a species) and divergence (differences between species) in the genome. As a control he looked at synonymous sites (region in the coding region of DNA where a change in the nucleotide does not change the amino acid it codes for because of redundancies in the nucleotide triplet code).

Andolfatto found that the rate of mutation in non-coding regions is slightly lower than in synonymous sites indicating these sites have undergone negative selection pressure. Additionally, he found that the divergence rate in selected sites was increased relative to the polymorphism indicating that they also experience positive selection pressure. In other words, most mutations in these regions are deleterious and thus are selected against but every once in a while a nucleotide substitution confers some advantage and this is selected for. The bottom line is that these non-coding regions are crucial for the survival of the organism.

What these non-coding regions are for is unknown. The current dogma says that gene expression is controlled by sets of transcription factors that act on various promoter regions. According to Alex Kondrashov in the accompanying News and Views piece, current estimates of the fraction of functionally important segments of mammalian non-coding DNA is less than 15%. Although, an equivalent study still needs to be done in mammals, I’m betting that a significant portion of what is thought of as junk DNA is used for regulation and in a completely novel way.

The Make Work Society

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about economics, the dismal science. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the creation and distribution of wealth. Of course this question has been analyzed countless times before, most notably by Marx, but I’ll add my take anyway. Let’s define the wealth of our society as the sum of everything we create. More precisely, we create wealth at a given rate and it dissipates at another rate. Some things like a restaurant meal or a pop tune, dissipate rather quickly, and others like a gold figurine can last a long time. For the most part, we only get a share of this wealth if we work.

As time goes by, we get more efficient and increase the wealth creation rate (or decrease the dissipation rate). While that seems to be a good thing it does generate some problems. One of them is quite simple. If you get more efficient at making something and you work the same amount of time, then you’ll make more of that thing. However, unless someone wants to buy more of your thing, the extra stuff you’ve created will just sit around and not be of much use. They way around this problem is to either convince people they need more of the same stuff (i.e. marketing) or to produce other stuff. That is why thirty years ago you had a pair of dress shoes and a pair of athletic shoes but now you must have running shoes, basketball shoes, tennis shoes, squash shoes, mountain biking shoes, climbing shoes, light hiking boots, heavy hiking boots, and so forth.

However, even the best ad agency can only convince us to consume so much of one thing. So, once a market is saturated, increased efficiency means fewer people are required to make that product. These people must then find new ways to work to get a share of the wealth. Some can either make new stuff for you to buy like iPods, digital cameras, gourmet food, and storage crates to put all this stuff in or create new services like personal chefs, dog walkers, and fitness instructors. Most likely, they’ll work at a low paying jobs like fast food server.

More efficiency means we will be inundated by more stuff and services we don’t really need or want. Many of the new jobs will not be well compensated so the gap between the rich and poor will grow. In some sense, our solution to distributing wealth is to create a “make work” state where most of the people support themselves with artificial or menial jobs. I don’t really see this as being much better than a welfare state.

One solution is that we could choose to keep wealth creation per capita fixed so as our efficiency increased we would simply work less for the same pay. So if a factory can make the same shoe in half the time then people could just work half as long. Cutting the work week even just a little bit could solve our unemployment problem. The US has twice the wealth of most western European countries. As I wrote before, we are already more than rich enough. What we now need is the time to enjoy some of this wealth.

Your Ecological Footprint

The ecological footprint gives an estimate of how much productive land and water is necessary to support what you use and discard. This includes all the land you need for the food you eat, the fossil fuels you burn to sustain your lifestyle, the amount of forest required to absorb the green house gases you produce, and the waste you create. There are many websites estimating the ecological footprint. I recently tried You fill out a questionnaire and then it gives you the result. According to this website (and I didn’t check their algorithm) the average American has a footprint of 24 acres. Worldwide there only exists 4.5 biologically productive acres per person. I answered the quiz twice. The first time I gave what I thought was the upper bound for my current lifestyle and I got a result of 24 acres – the American average. I then tried it again using the lowest bound, ignoring my now long commute and it still came up with 8 acres. It is almost impossible to live in the US and get below this value. Our whole infrastructure is based on an inexhaustible supply of natural resources. I am simply not paying for the true cost of having a New Zealand grown apple in February, working in a climate controlled office year round, and being able to jet over to Europe when I need to. If this is true then we’re going run into serious trouble when the rest of the world starts to consume like we do.

Stem Cell Loopholes

When gas mileage regulations were tightened after the energy crisis in the late seventies, the American car companies hired lawyers to challenge the regulations while the Japanese companies hired engineers to find ways to comply. Given that Toyota is on the verge of surpassing GM as the world’s largest car company, it seems pretty clear which was the better strategy.

Now, a similar situation exists for stem cell research. In an earlier post, I wrote about some of the ethical questions surrounding the issue. Current US regulations only allow federal funding for human stem cell research on embryonic stem (ES) cells derived from a fixed set of cell lines established prior to August 2001. However, many of these lines have been contaminated and researches would like to create more lines. So while some people are striving for a political solution to obtaining more stem cell lines, another group is looking for a technological fix to ease the ethical and religious concerns.

Two papers appearing in today’s Nature advanced online publications, demonstrate possible methods in mice to obtain stem cells without technically destroying an embryo. The first by a group from Advanced Cell Technology, extracts a single cell from a developing blastocyst when it is comprised of 8 cells. They then show that they can create an ES line from this single blastomere that remains viable even after 50 divisions. The second paper from MIT, uses a method called altered nuclear transfer (ANT). This is a means of doing therapeutic cloning without destroying an embryo. Instead of implanting adult cells directly into a donated egg that can become a viable embryo to harvest stem cells, certain developmental genes are first deactivated in the adult cell so that the ensuing blastocyst can never implant in a uterus and hence fully develop.

Both approaches have been embraced and criticized and the New York Times has a synopsis of the reactions. I find both approaches to be rather unsatisfactory and expose the hypocrisy of the whole issue. Evidently, fertility clinics already do single-cell embryo biopsy for genetic screening prior to implantation. Supposedly, it is safe and there have been many successful births from embryos that have had a cell extracted. But I wonder who were the first parents to have had this procedure done on their baby? It sounds like rolling the dice on a life to me. The child may seem normal now but we don’t know if there are any long term consequences. ANT seems completely contrived. The altered blastocyst is completely identical to a normal one when the stem cell is extracted. The only difference is that if both happen to be in a uterus, then one can implant and the other can’t. However, unless you actually implant it you’ll never know. So, if we were to say that we fully intend to alter a nucleus prior to implantation for therapeutic cloning, would that be good enough?

If one wants to have a fully consistent position on stem cells then one can either be for them or against them. There is no middle ground. There are no semantic loopholes. Each cell contains the entire genome so it has all the information to create life. Destroying a cell is thus equivalent to destroying an embryo. If one is against stem cell research then one must be against all genetic and cellular manipulations in humans (and perhaps all animals). That means no in vitro fertilization, no gene therapy, no ultrasound imaging of the fetus and certainly no amniocentesis. One could possibly take it further and say that any biological research that destroys cells should not be performed. People must start accepting that it’s the software and not the hardware that defines a human life.

Forbes 400

Every Fall, the Nobel Prizes are awarded and Forbes Magazine publishes a list of the 400 richest Americans. The bottom line is that the rich are definitely getting richer. Bill Gates again tops the list with 51 billion dollars although the five members of the Walton family (numbers 6 through 10) if combined would exceed his fortune with close to 80 billion. Rounding out the top 11 are Warren Buffet at number 2, Paul Allen at 3, Michael Dell at 4, Larry Ellison at 5, and Steve Balmer at 11.

The combined wealth of the Forbes 400 is 1.13 trillion dollars. To put this in perspective, according the CIA world factbook, the US GDP in 2004 was 11.8 trillion dollars and the world GDP was 55.5 trillion. If we assume an income of 10% per year, the Forbes 400 makes up 1% of the US GDP and 0.2% of the world GDP.

The US per capita GDP works out to be about $40,000 a year. Thus, if income were distributed evenly, every family of four would take home $160,000 per year. You wouldn’t know it after seeing the effects of Katrina but the US is wealthy enough such that every family could be upper middle class. The US is by far the richest nation on the planet. In comparison, the other group of 7 nations all have per capita incomes below $30,000.

So what is the solution to poverty? I think the argument that it can be eliminated with economic growth seems to be proven wrong. We already are more than rich enough to ensure that every person could have a comfortable life. Obviously, some form of reallocation is necessary although I’m sure there are those who would argue that any attempt to redistribute wealth would only decrease US productivity. However, this imbalance cannot be sustained forever. It took a great depression and two world wars to lessen the income disparity from the robber baron era of a century ago. Do we need to go through something catastrophic again to repair our current inequities?

Grass Power

A possible promising crop for biofuel may be a form of Elephant Grass (Miscanthus x giganteus). This tall grass hybrid could yield up to 60 tonnes of biomass per acre. It is currently being tested in Europe. It thrives in northern climates and requires very little fertilizer. It has a low water content so it can be easily harvested at the end of the growing season and simply burned for power. Stephen Long of University of Illinois calculates that if 8% of all the land in Illinois was dedicated to this crop, it could generate half of the electrical needs of the state. It also has little effect on the carbon balance because it simply releases the CO2 when burned that was sequestered when it was growing. The hybrid does not produce seeds so it can’t spread. Further bioengineering could make it even more efficient. Who says I can’t say something positive?

Programmed for Failure

Every time I feel kind of optimistic about the future, I think back to the Roman Empire and realize that it could all end pretty quickly. It may be no accident that civilizations tend to have finite lives and our brains may be responsible. Jared Diamond(in his book Collapse) posits a framework for a society’s demise but he basically believes it is some combination of bad decision making and management that leads to failure. I’m proposing that it may actually be embedded in how our brains work and how it reacts to success. What allows us to build great civilizations may ultimately be responsible for our undoing.

As has been written in countless columns and blogs, manufacturing, software development, clerical work and so forth is being or will soon be outsourced to an offshore location where labour costs are so much lower. Many have argued that the US can retain world dominance by remaining a source of innovation and ideas. However, Thomas Friedman and others have been screaming lately that the US is losing it’s lead in technology and science and American students are falling behind the rest of the world in technical subjects.

The reason is not just that we’ve become lazy or stupid. The Flynn effect shows that average IQ’s have actually been rising every generation and in the recent book Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, Steven Johnson argues that video games and popular culture are actually making us smarter. So why is it that we are becoming less intellectual even though we are getting smarter?

I think it is related to the fact that it takes effort to concentrate on something. This effort is not because we’re using more energy. Although it may seem that thinking hard burns more calories, there is in fact little evidence for this. So if there is no metabolic cost then why is it so difficult to think? The reason may be that the brain is a novelty machine that constantly seeks new stimuli. Advertising and marketing people know that they need to change a scene every 10 or 15 seconds in a commercial or people’s attention will be lost. Our brains are designed to wander and seek new stimuli. This constant novelty seeking probably helps in the early stages of a civilization where things need to be built and everyone sees open opportunities for growth.

As a civilization matures, it takes longer and longer for the citizens to acquire and digest the accumulated knowledge required just to keep it running much less advance it. Years of training is necessary before anyone can make a contribution. Given our current comfortable circumstances, there is little incentive to undertake such an ordeal when there are so many other distractions to occupy us. In the past, scholastic learning might have been the most cognitively stimulating thing one could engage in. Now, our lives are filled with leisure activities that are much more interesting and entertaining than what we learn in school. For every high school kid with his nose stuck in an analysis textbook, there are hundreds or thousands of other kids who are playing video games, surfing the web, reading a Harry Potter novel or solving a Sudoku puzzle.

Is there a way out? I’m pessimistic. While it is true that those on the cutting edge are doing very interesting and stimulating things, the journey to get there is so long and arduous that fewer and fewer are likely to take it. No matter how appealing you may make calculus or organic chemistry, they just will never be able to compete with the endless variety of distractions in modern society. There will still be an educated elite but there won’t be enough of them to keep the engine going.

The decline of the US could be very rapid. Even now, much of science and technology is being driven by foreigners. However, as the balance of power starts to shift overseas and the US remains xenophobic, that spigot could be shut off quickly. The incentive to come here will diminish and people may return to their native countries as things decline here accelerating the process.

It may be that the only hope for humanity is to maintain uneven economic development. If the entire world became comfortable simultaneously, it might completely collapse all at once. However, if the decline of the US is accompanied by the rise of China and India then at least some order in the world could be maintained. After a century or so, the US could rise again in a perpetual cycle of localized growth and decay.

Peak Oil Production

We all know that the supply of oil is finite so the big question is how much do we have left. Geophysicist M. King Hubbert created a model of known oil reserves in 1956 and proposed that American oil production would peak between 1967 and 1972. US oil production peaked in 1971 and it’s been downhill ever since. Hubbert died in 1989 but other geologists have applied his theory to global production and predict a peak between 2000 and 2010.

This month both American Scientist and Technology Review have book reviews of James Howard Kunstler’s book ‘THE LONG EMERGENCY: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. Kunstler’s thesis is that the 20th century defied Malthus because we have been living on cheap oil but when it does run out we will be in big trouble. He argues that all alternative sources of energy like solar, wind, nuclear, biofuels, hydrogen are a pipe dream that won’t even come close to replacing oil. He believes that the depletion of oil will lead to social unrest and upheaval of the likes we’ve never seen before. The 14th century with the black death and all was pretty bad so this is really saying something.

The events of the past few weeks has sent me into a “The World is Going to End” kind of mood so I’m rather susceptible to this message. However, I think that we still have a chance to save ourselves. Conservation measures could prolong the supply of oil for say another century. This would buy us time to bring all alternative energy sources online. We will probably have to depend on nuclear power for much of it. If we’re really lucky, we might get fusion to work in 50 years but that will also bring it’s own set of problems. We will have to use bio-derived fuels for plastic and to power airplanes. However, our current unstainable American standard of living will decline. How far it drops is up to us.

Pitch perception and beyond

American symphony orchestras tune their instruments to A 440 Hz (in Europe they tend to go a little sharper with A 444Hz). However, no instrument produces a single frequency. Instead, they tune their instruments so that it sounds like an A. Humans can do this quite easily but if you were to look at the spectrum you would see a mess of frequencies. If you removed the fundamental frequency and just listened to the harmonics of a sound you would still identify the pitch you hear as that of the fundamental. It has always been quite puzzling as to how the brain does it. In this week’s issue of Nature, a group from Johns Hopkins reports that it has found neurons in the auditory cortex of the marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) that respond to pitch, the way a human responds. These neurons will fire when the animal is presented with the pure tone fundamental or a set of harmonics without the fundamental.

This is without a doubt a very nice and illuminating piece of work but I wouldn’t say it was surprising. Ever since Hubel and Wiesel discovered orientation selective neurons in the visual cortex in the late fifties and early sixties, much of systems neuroscience has been driven to providing more and more exotic stimuli and looking for neurons that respond to them. Given the data from the past forty years, I would venture that for anything which we can sense, perceive or ideate, there exists some neuron who’s activity is directly correlated to that thing. That is not to say there is just one neuron that responds to some given concept. The other lesson we learned from Hubel and Wiesel is that neurons are broadly tuned over some category. Thus, for any type of perception there will be a population of active neurons.

By any type of perception, I mean all aspects of a thought. So if you are viewing a Cezanne landscape for example, there will be neurons responding to primitive elements like shapes, lines, colours and so forth. Simultaneously, there will be other neurons that respond only to more specific things like a coloured square or to a pair of adjacent coloured squares. Then there will be neurons that respond just to trees or houses and if you know enough about art just to Cezanne paintings. What we don’t know is what sorts of neural architectures and learning rules can give rise to such behaviour and how all this cacophony of activity gets sorted out. While there are some candidate ideas floating around, the jury is definitely still out.

Aquarium of the Americas

My favourite aquarium was the one in New Orleans. It had the most spectacular jelly fish display I have ever seen. I use the past tense because CNN reports that most of the sea creatures have died because of the power loss which shut down the water oxygenation systems. A few of the animals like the 250 pound sea turtle, the white alligator, birds, sea dragons and sea otters have survived. Another loss in this major tragedy.

Agriculture’s downside

Brad De Long has posted an opinion piece from Jared Diamond arguing that agriculture, which displaced hunting and gathering as the means for sustenance, was actually humanity’s greatest mistake. The article contends that agriculture promotes a much larger population with a lower quality of life for most people except for a dominating elite. In a recent post, I argued that welfare could be considered compensation for eliminating the right to forage. According to Diamond, that would hardly be a fair deal.

Fragility of civilization

The disaster unfolding before our eyes is even more troubling because it could have been mitigated in so many ways. I don’t need to add anything more to the disbelief and anger spreading across the nation but it is hard not to. Among the many lessons to be drawn is that we are just a few days away from a complete breakdown of civil society. If ever there was an argument that government serves an essential role then this is it. It is quite clear who was able to get out and who was not. To blame the victims for their predicament is beyond reproach. If a city gives a mandatory evacuation order it must also provide a means for evacuation and resources for the evacuees. I can only hope that this tragedy will make us reevaluate what a just and fair civilization really means. Given that “values” was an issue in the last election I will quote directly from the bible:

The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor; the wicked does not understand such concern. Proverbs 29:7

The flooding of New Orleans

It seems that the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will be of much greater concern than the storm itself. Eighty percent of New Orleans is currently under water. Two levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi have burst and water is pouring in (Here is a map from the NY Times). Since most of New Orleans is below sea level, this water cannot drain out. It will have to be pumped out. As of now, workers are still trying to repair the levees. Science writer Mark Frischetti wrote about such a possible disaster in the October 2001 issue of Scientific American. The only good news is that most of the inhabitants evacuated before the storm and water did not overwhelm the levees initially.

The nightmare scenario is that a severe storm surge will flow over the levee walls and flood the city quickly. The levees that were then designed to keep water out will now keep water in. In such a scenario, all of New Orleans would be under water up to 10 or more metres. Right now, the parts of the city above sea level like the French Quarter may be spared. I know I’m a doom and gloom kind of guy but it could take months just to make New Orleans habitable again. Half a million people could be displaced for a long time. I know the sentiment will be to rebuild the city but this will not be the last time a major hurricane will pummel the city. Wetlands that used to protect New Orleans to the south and east are diminishing at a pace of an acre very 24 minutes. The city sits directly in the path of where the Mississippi really wants to go and to top it all off it is slowly sinking. Should we seriously consider if it is worth maintaining New Orleans?

The Flying Spaghetti Monster

I’ve always been partial to linguini but it turns out I’ve been worshipping a false prophet. We must now give praise to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who came to Bobby Henderson in a divine vision. You can learn about the Church of FSM at Henderson has written an open letter to the Kansas State Board of Education arguing that if intelligent design is to be taught in schools then all forms of it including those involving the FSM must also be taught. He is threatening legal action if they don’t comply. He has started a whole movement of followers including splinter groups. There was a humourous column about it in the New York Times yesterday. In that article the author wonders if anyone has every converted parody into a religion. Does the Church of Scientology qualify? Personally, I’m all for “teaching the controversy”. After all, less than 50% of the population believes or even understands evolution anyway (see a previous post). It may even stir up some interest in science.