22 October 2005

Accidentally committing an act of honesty?

A quote from John Calvert in a recent article caught my eye:

“it’s just another example of science interfering with education,” Calvert said.

I've got to give Calvert credit here. It's not often that you see someone sum up the entire intelligent design movement in just nine words.

19 October 2005

European Relations

It would seem that our relations with Europe have taken yet another turn for the worse, with the inane decision by a Spanish judge to issue international arrest orders for three American soldiers (see WaPo story for more details).

The arrest orders result from a tragic incident that occurred in 2003, during the invasion of Baghdad. An American armored unit was holding territory in Baghdad, and was being attacked both by small arms fire and by indirect fire (artillery and mortars). The troops knew that the Iraqis had been using spotters to direct artillery, and were trying to find the spotters, in part using information intercepted from captured radios. From the intercepts, they became aware that a spotter was in the process of trying to call in fire from a high-rise building in the area.

At the Palestine hotel, near the site of the battle, several reporters were observing the battle from balconies. Some of the reporters had cameras set up on tripods, and at least one was observing the action using binoculars. When the soldiers saw a reporter on a balcony using binoculars, with some sort device on a tripod next to them, they believed that they had found the artillery spotter, and fired a tank round into the building, killing two journalists. One of the journalists was a Spanish citizen. This incident is reported in detail in the book Thunder Run.

The incident was tragic, and an international media group, after an investigation, believed that the incident could have been prevented had the soldiers received better information about the hotel, which was well known to be occupied by journalists. An army investigation also concluded that the incident was an accident, and that the troops had acted within the rules of engagement.

This incident falls into the "bad things happen in wars" category. Reporters try to see what's going on. They use things like binoculars to do this. Artillery spotters try to see what's going on, in order to better direct high explosives toward their enemies. They use things like binoculars to do this. Soldiers who are on the receiving end of artillery fire have an understandable dislike of artillery spotters, and will do whatever they can to make them stop. Under the circumstances, it can be understandable for them to mistake a reporter on a distant balcony with binoculars for an artillery spotter on a distant balcony with binoculars.

The Spanish government doesn't see things that way. They have demanded that the US government either permit them to take statements from the soldiers involved, or to allow a Spanish delegation to quiz them. The US government has refused, so a Spanish judge issued the detention orders.

It is possible, I suppose, that the Spanish government is acting in good faith here. Stranger things have happened, or so people say. I'm not so sure. I've got to wonder exactly how likely it would be that this whole thing would be happening were the curent Spanish government not so opposed to the Bush administrations and its policies.

Be afraid. Be very afraid. And pissed off, too.

Well, it seems that it has been more possible for Big Brother to watch us than we thought. So much so, in fact, that had this information come from a less reputable source, and without confirmation from manufacturers and government sources, I would have written it off as a psychotic conspiracy theory.

It appears that the government can look at documents produced by many color printers, and determine the time and date that the document was produced, as well as the serial number of the printer that the document was printed on. Doesn't that make you happy you sent in the product registration card? By the way, there are no laws that would prevent the printer manufacturer from handing over the registration information to the government upon request. "Request" here, by the way, means just that. Request. Not subpoena, not court order. Just "request".

The research that has lead to this discovery was conducted by the cyber-rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, and their report can be found here. They are continuing to collect information from various printers, but have already succeeded in cracking one of the codes used - it was so tough to crack, so secure, it took their intern a whole week to figure it out. If you think this is crazy, join the crowd. If you think this couldn't possibly be the case, and that the folks at EFF have suffered mass paranoia, read the Washington Post story on this, which includes confirmations from both IBM and the Secret Service.

Here's the quote from the Secret Service:
"It's strictly a countermeasure to prevent illegal activity specific to counterfeiting," agency spokesman Eric Zahren said. "It's to protect our currency and to protect people's hard-earned money."

Here are the excuses given by some of the involved companies:
Xerox spokesman Bill McKee confirmed the existence of the hidden codes, but he said the company was simply assisting an agency that asked for help. McKee said the program was part of a cooperation with government agencies, competing manufacturers and a "consortium of banks," but would not provide further details. HP said in a statement that it is involved in anti-counterfeiting measures and supports the cooperation between the printer industry and those who are working to reduce counterfeiting.

What pisses me off about the situation - and it should piss you off, too - is this: this was done, and has apparently been done for a long time now, without the knowledge of the vast majority of people using the printers. The government, banks, and big business went and put together a set of measures to protect their own interests. These measures involve a technology with chilling implications both here and in other countries - especially those with repressive governments and no civil rights protections. The measures were put in place to make life easier for the banks, businesses, and law enforcement, and they were put in place without the knowledge of the public.

If the printers that we buy stamp identifying information on every page that they spit out, this is something that we sure as hell had the right to know. We also sure as hell had the right to participate in an open discussion of this policy, its implications, and the possible costs and benefits associated with it. We definitely should have been able to take part in the discussions in order to ensure that our own interests were being looked after here, not just the interests of the goverment and corporations.

Of course, had we been informed about this from the start, that might not have worked so well for the government and corporations. We might have rebelled at the concept. We might have demanded that some sort of unreasonable privacy protections - like legal due process - be put into place to protect our right to privacy. We might not have purchased printers with that "feature". Doing an end run around the public was definitely the convenient thing for the feds, the banks, and the printer manufacturers to do.

It just wasn't the right thing.

This situation screams for an investigation. Who made these decisions? What the f--k do they think gave them the right to make those decisions without informing the public? Who in the government was involved in setting this up? What people at what levels of the government knew about this, and what gave them the delusion that they had the right to leave the public in the dark?

Most importantly, are there any other little surprises out there that we haven't been deemed worthy of knowing?

18 October 2005

Tangled Bank #39

The Tangled Bank

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
-Charles Darwin

The Tangled Bank is many things. It is a famous metaphor used by Charles Darwin in the passage quoted above. It is the blog carnival that you are reading right now. And it is a very good description of modern science.

Once upon a time, science was considered to be a largely academic endeavor. Academic scientists, like academic historians, English professors, and other such university types, were largely secure in their ivory tower. Commercial, political, and other "applied" aspects of science were frowned upon. This is still sometimes the case, of course, but the distinctions have become more and more blurred. Science, now more than ever, is part of modern life, and life is more connected to science. The difference is no longer clear. As in the picture of the tangled bank above, it's not really possible to pick a point where pure science ends and applied begins.

Now that my little introductory sermon is done, on to the links:

Before we get to the posts discussing scientific discoveries, we have a some reminders that science is a field that is, above all else, a human occupation. And we humans are, of course, what we are.

Ms. PhD of YoungFemaleScientist shows us that the practice of science is sometimes different from the ideals, and that people don't always live up to their responsibilities. GrrlScientist has a post that compliments this one rather nicely, discussing some of the university politics that interfere with some of those minor things that the schools do - the little things, like educating students.

From Dr. Mom, we have a nice article about the giant squid, and how it relates to the loss of prestige that scientists have experienced in American culture. (This blog was new to me, and may be new to you as well. If it is, take some time to look through some of the other posts, too. There's a series in progress on how to write a scientific paper that's shaping up to be particularly good.)

On a more somber note, Orac provides us with a needed reminder that the history of the euthanasia and eugenics movements include far more than just the history of Nazi Germany. Sometimes crimes against humanity start at home.

This week, we also have a pair of posts on the love-hate relationship between economics and the environment. The perspectives the two take are somewhat different from each other, and I'm not sure whether or not I agree with either of them, but it is definitely worth remembering that the relationship between humans and our environment is complex, and that when we look at the effects that we have on the environment we cannot ignore the effects that the environment has on the way we live.

Shifting from the practice of science to actual scientific news, we'll start with the realm of the very large, out at galactic scales. In one of the very few "pure" science posts for this edition, The Bad Astronomy Blog, gives us a nice look at the Andromeda galaxy using two different types of imaging: visible light and infrared.

At the moment, a hurricane with a name that starts with "W" is roaming the Atlantic. This storm is getting some attention, since the list of storm names ends with "W". The next tropical storm in the Atlantic (if there is one) will receive the highly original name of "Alpha". The sheer number of storms this year, coupled with the strength of Katrina and Rita, has lead to a great deal of discussion about the relationship between hurricanes and global warming. If this type of thing interests you, you might want to take a look at the Oxford University Press Blog, which gives us a short interview with author Kerry Emanuel on Hurricanes and Global Warming.

Moving on, Dr. Freeride reminds us that this is National Chemistry Week. On the lines of chemistry, the applications of chemistry, and the increasingly blurry distinction between pure and applied sciences, we get a reminder from In the Pipeline that Big Pharma does Real Science, too. (Even if the criteria for success are slightly different than they are for academics.) There's also an interesting article on biochemistry and trust at Twochemists.

I don't know exactly how to classify the next entry. It might be physics, it might be chemistry, it might be an environmental post - it's a mini-tangled bank all by itself in some ways. Sometimes the simple solutions are the best solutions, and sometimes you get really lucky and the simple solution to one problem turns out to solve a whole bunch of other things, too. Political Calculations blogs about some of the unexpected benefits that may come from a rubberized pavement designed to reduce noise.

In the field of the cognitive sciences, Dave Munger has an article over at Cognitive Daily about how humans learn the deceptively simple process of pattern recognition.

We've got a few field-biology submissions this week.
10000 Birds reports on a recently published article on Barn Swallow mating. The report demonstrates something that many of us already suspected - the odds of successful monogamy increase if you put effort into continuing to look good even after the honeymoon.

One of the nicer things about fieldwork is that you can often see more interesting (or at least photogenic) things in the field than you do in the lab. Over at Henry's Webiocosm Blog, there's a picture that reminds us that life has a way of turning up and hanging on even in the most unexpected places. On a more seasonal note, there's a nice picture of variability in leaf colors over at the Botany Picture of the Day website. The post that it's attached to is worth reading, too.

Jennifer Forman Orth, of The Invasive Species Weblog, comments on a recent case that appears to demonstrate that the financial penalties that may occur if you get caught after causing problems by introducing a pest to an area probably don't outweigh the benefits to doing it in the first place. The issue of invasive species is one that I've been thinking about a lot lately, since the effects of a new invasive out here in paradise are becoming more noticeable as time goes on. The post of my own that I link to is an old one, but if you check back in a day or so there will be a large, but not happy, update to the story.

We also have a number of posts about genetics this week. Some of them are more reality-based than others, but all are interesting. EvolGen decided to address a cartoon character's question about whether or not a somewhat atypical set of relationships constitutes incest. The scenario might seem a bit silly, but it takes a nice look at the mechanics involved in figuring out genetic risks.

Keats' Telescope brings us an article on the amount of "free" DNA that can be found in ocean sediments. This research has some interesting implications, particularly when it comes to the utility and validity of genomics work with "environmental" samples.

Aetiology discusses the vast diversity that seems to exist within each species of bacteria. It's interesting stuff. We tend to forget that something in excess of 99.99% of all life that has ever lived on this planet, by any measure you choose to use, is some sort of bacteria. Their genetics are very different from the life we usually look at, and we are only just beginning to fully grasp the depth of the evolutionary and medical implications that this raises.

PZ Myers reminds us that there can be more to the way that DNA works than just the order of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs with an article on Tourette's Syndrome.

There's also a few posts worth looking at (here and here) that discuss an article in Science about intellectual property rights and the human genome. Apparently, lots of genes have been patented so far, some of them more than once. Allowing people ot patent chunks of human DNA sequence has its good and bad points, I guess, but it does feel a bit creepy sometimes. As long as they don't start requiring us to get tattooed with the patent numbers, I guess I can live with it.

That pretty much concludes the posts that were submitted to me for this edition of Tangled Bank. There do, however, seem to be a couple of big things missing. I received only one submission that was directly related to creationism this time. That's particularly strange, since there is currently a major lawsuit underway in federal court related to a Dover, Pennsylvania school board policy. Anyone interested in the trial can find pretty much all the information that they want over at The Panda's Thumb. There's also a good series of posts available there on bird flu, which is the other big gap in this week's posts.

That wraps it up for this one, folks. It's been a pleasure hosting this, and I hope to do it again someday.

The next edition will be posted on November 2, at The Examining Room of Dr. Charles. Submissions can be sent to Dr. Charles, to PZ Myers, or to host@tangledbank.net.

17 October 2005

Tangled Bank

The next Tangled Bank will be posted here on Wednesday morning, so if you haven't yet done so, please send your links to host@tangledbank.net

16 October 2005

Hope and Fear, from just one paper.

As much as I like to think of myself as being a middle-of-the-road kind of guy, politically speaking, I tend to lean far more to the left than to the right. Typically, I am not someone who normally manages to agree with Charles Krauthammer on very much, if anything. But his Friday article on the genome sequencing and reconstruction of the 1918 Spanish Flu virus provides a solid summary of both the desparate need that scientists have for that information, and the all-too-real reasons to be very afraid of the consequences of having that material available in the public domain.