Reality in Iraq

Brad DeLong points to an excellent article in Newsweek concerning present conditions in Iraq and the numerous problems and obstacles the U.S faces in achieving anything over there. Many will probably complain that the media is again focusing on the negative while ignoring the positive. Perhaps. But ignoring the serious problems will not make them go away. A taste:

From the beginning of the war, the Bush administration has not wanted to think of Iraq in these sectarian terms, preferring instead to believe the country was the place it hoped it would be—united, secular, harmonious, freedom-loving. As a result, Washington massively underestimated the challenge it faced. By unseating Saddam Hussein and introducing democracy, the United States introduced Shia-majority rule to Iraq. It also disbanded the Army, with its largely Sunni officer corps, fired 50,000 mostly Sunni bureaucrats and shut down dozens of state-owned factories (many run by Sunnis). In effect, the United States destroyed both the old Iraqi nation and the old Iraqi state. And yet it had no plan, people or resources to fill the void left behind.

Call for Change

Call for Change is a chance for you to help reach out to voters about this year's election. You can do it from your home phone or computer and it is relatively straight forward. A little bit can go a long way.

Call For Change


Coral Catastrophe

From CNN:

Researchers fear more than half the world's coral reefs could die in less than 25 years and say global warming may at least partly to blame.

Sea temperatures are rising, weakening the reefs' resistance to increased pollutants, such as runoff from construction sites and toxins from boat paints. The fragile reefs are hosts to countless marine plants and animals.

"Think of it as a high school chemistry class," said Billy Causey, the Caribbean and Gulf Mexico director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"You mix some chemicals together and nothing happens. You crank up the Bunsen burner and all of a sudden things start bubbling around. That's what's happening. That global Bunsen burner is cranking up."

Causey was one of some 200 private and government researchers from the Caribbean, Florida and U.S. Pacific islands who gathered in St. Thomas for a meeting of the NOAA's U.S. Coral Reef Task Force.

Last year's coral loss in the Caribbean waters supports predictions that 60 percent of the world's coral could die within a quarter century, said Tyler Smith of the University of the Virgin Islands.

"Given current rates of degradation of reef habitats, this is a plausible prediction," Smith said.

More than 47 percent of the coral in underwater study sites covering 31 acres around the U.S. Virgin Islands died after sea temperatures exceeded the norm for three months in 2005, said Jeff Miller, a scientist with the Virgin Islands National Park.

The unusual warm water can stress coral, causing it to lose its pigment and making it more vulnerable to disease.

This year, Caribbean coral narrowly avoided another widespread episode of bleaching when sea temperatures briefly surpassed levels considered healthy for reefs.

Up to 30 percent of the world's coral reefs have died in the last 50 years, and another 30 percent are severely damaged, said Smith, who studies coral health in the U.S. Virgin Islands and collaborates with researchers globally.

"U.S. Virgin Islands coral today is likely at its lowest levels in recorded history," Smith said.

The researchers said global warming was a potential cause of the abnormally high sea temperatures but was not the only suspect in the reefs' demise.

What causes disease in coral can be hard to pinpoint and could be a combination of things. Other threats include silt runoff from construction sites, which prevents the coral from getting enough sunlight, and a record increase in fleshy, green algae, which competes with coral for sunlight.

"Climate change is an important factor that is influencing coral reefs worldwide," said Mark Eakin, director of NOAA's Coral Reef Watch. "It adds to the other problems that we are having."



I won my first poker tournament over the weekend. Twelve players (a group of friends) with a five dollar buy-in. Nothing spectacular, although it was a lot of fun. My wife got second, which was cool. If you want to read a good account of some really high stakes poker, go here. Andy Beal and Phil Ivey had quite a showdown a few months ago.



Ed Brayton points to a Yahoo News article where General Peter Pace says that Rumsfeld receives his insights from God himself. Considering Rumsfeld's crappy track record on pretty much everything he has done, I'd say the message is getting garbled somewhere. It also makes me much less confident in Peter Pace.


Don't Start Worrying...Yet

This is bound to stir up some controversy. A professor at the University of Washington, Eric Cheney, claims the idea that we are running out of oil is one of the seven myths concerning resource geology. Why?

Changing economics, technological advances and efforts such as recycling and substitution make the world's mineral resources virtually infinite, said Cheney, a UW professor emeritus of Earth and space sciences. For instance, oil deposits unreachable 40 years ago can be tapped today using improved technology, and oil once too costly to extract from tar sands, organic matter or coal is now worth manufacturing.
The article goes on to explain some of his other thoughts on the matter. Included are the other six myths:

  • Only basic extraction and processing costs affect economic geology. That fails to account for such costs as exploration, transportation, taxes and societal and environmental programs.
  • Production always damages the environment. Accidents do happen, Cheney said, but much of the perception is based on problems of the past and don't reflect current reality. "It's inevitable that there are going to be oil spills, just like tere are traffic accidents on the freeway," he said. "We hope we can manage them, but nothing is risk free."
  • Mineral deposits are excessively profitable. Despite widely reported huge oil company profits in the last year, Cheney notes that as a percentage of company revenues oil profits lag far behind those of some major software and banking companies.
  • Transportation costs are trivial. In fact, the retail cost of building materials such as sand and gravel are largely driven by the cost of moving them from one place to another, particularly in crowded urban areas. Moving quarries and pits farther away from where people live only increases those costs.
  • Ore deposits are uniform. While a valued ore can be found in a large continuous deposit, often it is mixed with other kinds of minerals and extraction becomes more expensive.
  • Resources are randomly distributed and so, if human population encroaches, a mine or quarry should simply be able to relocate.


A Round of Evolution for Everyone

One of my favorite science writers, Carl Zimmer, has a couple of great new articles available. One, found on his blog, explores what mycologists are starting to discover about the evolutionary history of fungi. Fungi have to be some of the weirdest organisms on the planet and its been very difficult to tease out their origins and subsequent evolution. Scientists are making headway though.

Carl's second article can be found in this month's National Geographic. It provides and up-to-date overview of the evolution of complexity found in living organisms. On his blog, Carl provides some links to published papers to give interested readers more background. All around, fascinating stuff.

Update: ScienceDaily has an article on the fungi paper in Nature. Good for the lay person.


Face the Truth

(HT to Razib)


Spying on Mars

Click on the picture to get a bigger view. What you're looking at is a snapshot from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the rover Opportunity at Victoria Crater. The Mars Rovers only had a 90 day mission life; they are nearing day 1,000. It's pretty cool to see two very successful space missions interact like this.



If you're like me and wished you owned a hybrid vehicle and wondered what you can do to offset the CO2 emitted from you're standard vehicle, well, you now have an answer: TerraPass. This organization gives you a chance to offset your carbon emissions due to driving or flying. A yearly pass costs anywhere from $9.95/year (41+ mpg and up) to $79.95/year (for cars getting between 10-18 mpg). The money you spend is then used to fund clean energy projects such as wind energy, biomass products, and projects related to industrial efficiency. All funds are verified by a third party, the Center for Resource Solutions. As cars are responsible for 25% of CO2 pollution worldwide, this program could have a real impact.

In addition to your cars, you can also purchase a TerraPass for any flights you may be taking. Again, the cost of the pass depends on how many miles you are planning to fly. The low end is $9.95 for flights under 6,000 miles while frequent fliers can pay up to $1,499 (1,000,000 or so miles). Higher payments have some nice little gifts associated with them (not to mention the feeling of doing something positive!).

Inner Life Explained

A few weeks ago I posted a video that takes an inner view of the cell. Now, thanks to Wayne of the blog Niches, we have a shot by shot explanation of what we are actually seeing. The animation is much more fascinating with a little knowledge.

Liberal Top Ten

Geoff Stone of UC Law Blog has drafted ten propositions that he feels define a liberal. He invites a debate, so go read and think about them here.


Traveling & Learning

One of the advantages of working in a private school is options for professional development. Many public schools simply don't have the money to send their teachers to major conferences or workshops. My Head of School really advocates teachers getting out there and learning new ideas and methods and thus always has a healthy budget for development. So far I'm scheduled to take a NOAA/Seattle Aquarium workshop on ocean science; a workshop for specific science topics and methodologies for grades k-5; a math workshop to improve problem solving skills; and the National Science Teachers Association's regional conference in Salt Lake City. I'm actually amazed he said yes to all four. Just goes to show you that it doesn't hurt to ask. So, the next three months should provide me with some exciting opportunities to learn new ideas and have discussions with my peers. It will also help recharge the old battery before going into the long winter haul.


The Nobel for Chemistry has gone to Roger Kornberg, of Stanford University, "for his studies of the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription." Transcription is the process by which our DNA is copied into a single strand of RNA, later followed by translation. A 5-page PDF file for the lay person can be found here.



One of the great technological feats to be constructed in the 21st century is the Square Kilometer Array. Imagine thousands of small antennas spread out over 3,000 kilometers with a total collecting area of a million square feet. This radio telescope will be able to spot active galactic nuclei to within a billion years of the universe's formation. The leading contenders of where the site will be housed are South Africa and Australia. Construction should begin in 2010 and SKA will be fully operational in 2020. A long wait, but radio astronomers have some very exciting years ahead of them.


The winners of this year's Nobel Prize in Physics are two Americans, John Mather and George Smoot. As described on the Nobel website:

This year the Physics Prize is awarded for work that looks back into the infancy of the Universe and attempts to gain some understanding of the origin of galaxies and stars. It is based on measurements made with the help of the COBE satellite launched by NASA in 1989.

The COBE results provided increased support for the Big Bang scenario for the origin of the Universe, as this is the only scenario that predicts the kind of cosmic microwave background radiation measured by COBE. These measurements also marked the inception of cosmology as a precise science. It was not long before it was followed up, for instance by the WMAP satellite, which yielded even clearer images of the background radiation. Very soon the European Planck satellite will be launched in order to study the radiation in even greater detail.

For a more detailed piece on the importance of their work, click here (pdf file).


TV and Academic Performance

From CNN:

Parents now have science to back them up when they say, "Turn off the TV. It's a school night."

Middle school students who watch TV or play video games during the week do worse in school, a new study finds, but weekend viewing and gaming doesn't affect school performance much.

"On weekdays, the more they watched, the worse they did," said study co-author Dr. Iman Sharif of Children's Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx. "They could watch a lot on weekends and it didn't seem to correlate with doing worse in school."

Children whose parents allowed them to watch R-rated movies also did worse in class, and for boys, that effect was especially strong. The findings are based on a survey of 4,500 students in 15 New Hampshire and Vermont middle schools. The study appears in the October issue of Pediatrics.

Weekend viewing and gaming slightly hurt school performance, but only when the students spent more than four hours each day at it over the weekend.

The study didn't look at grades or test scores, relying instead on students' own rating of their performance from "excellent" to "below average." Sharif said other studies have shown that students generally inflate their actual school performance when asked. But since both good and bad students overrate their performance, she said, self-reporting is reliable.

Researchers took into account the possible effect of different parenting styles as reported by the students, and they still found weekday TV viewing, video games and R-rated movie-watching harmful.

The researchers did not ask specific questions about homework rules at home, said Sharif, who has three children, ages 7, 11 and 15. Her children watch about an hour of TV after school and then "it goes off and they do homework," she said.

The researchers didn't speculate on why boys might be more affected by R-rated movies than girls.

But Douglas Gentile, who does similar research at Iowa State University, said boys may be watching more violent R-rated movies that make them more aggressive. The aggression may lead to poor school performance, said Gentile, who was not involved in the new study.

"This study should hammer home to parents that this is really serious," Gentile said. "One question all parents are going to be faced with (from their children) is, 'Can I have a TV in my bedroom?' There's a simple two-letter answer for that."

Previous studies have found links between the ability to learn and TV watching, including a study that found that children with TVs in their bedrooms scored about eight points lower on math and language arts tests than children without bedroom TVs.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that older children watch no more than two hours daily of "quality" programming and that televisions be kept out of children's rooms.

I've noticed the difference in performance with my own students who I know are not allowed to watch tv during the week, or at the very least are very limited. These are the kids who read more, spend more time outside, and generally are much more thoughtful regarding their school work. The above study provides some very good advice for parents.

Physiology & Medicine

The winners of this years Nobel Prize in Physiology & Medicine are Andrew Fire and Craig Mello for their work on RNA interference (RNAi). Their discovery was a revolution in cell biology and genetics. For a cool animation click here.

UPDATE: Carl Zimmer has a nice post on their work here.

UPDATE II: Here's another article from the New York Times.


I Wish I Could Say I Am Shocked

UPDATE: It's been confirmed.

If there is any truth to this then we should have a new Secretary of State:

Members of the Sept. 11 commission said today that they were alarmed that they were told nothing about a White House meeting in July 2001 at which George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, is reported to have warned Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, about an imminent Al Qaeda attack and failed to persuade her to take action.

Details of the previously undisclosed meeting on July 10, 2001, two months before the Sept. 11 terror attacks, were first reported last week in a new book by the journalist Bob Woodward.

The final report from the Sept. 11 commission made no mention of the meeting nor did it suggest there had been such an encounter between Mr. Tenet and Ms. Rice, now secretary of state. . . .

Although passages of the book suggest that Mr. Tenet was a major source for Mr. Woodward, the former intelligence director has refused to comment on the book.

Nor has there been any comment from J. Cofer Black, Mr. Tenet's counterterrorism chief, who is reported in the book to have attended the July 10 meeting and left it frustrated by Ms. Rice's "brush-off" of the warnings.

He is quoted as saying, "The only thing we didn't do was pull the trigger to the gun we were holding to her head." Mr. Black did not return calls left at the security firm Blackwater, which he joined last year.

The book says that Mr. Tenet hurriedly organized the meeting -- calling ahead from his car as it traveled to the White House -- because he wanted to "shake Rice" into persuading the president to respond to dire intelligence warnings that summer about a terrorist strike. Mr. Woodward writes that Mr. Tenet left the meeting frustrated because "they were not getting through to Rice."

The disclosures took members of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission by surprise last week. Some questioned whether information about the July 10 meeting was intentionally withheld from the panel.

(Via DailyKos)