Archive for May, 2010

AAP Comes To Senses

They must have read my critical post. The American Academy of Pediatrics retracted their policy advice of ritual clitoral nicking. Honestly, I’m very happy the AAP did this; I’m sure the chorus of media, doctors, and other critics against the policy influenced this encouraging decision.

“We retracted the policy because it is important that the world health community understands the AAP is totally opposed to all forms of female genital cutting, both here in the U.S. and anywhere else in the world,” said AAP President Judith S. Palfrey.

The contentious policy statement, issued in April, had condemned the practice of female genital cutting overall. But a small portion of statement suggesting the pricking procedure riled U.S. advocacy groups and survivors of female genital cutting.

(via Pharyngula)

A Conspiracy’s Doomsday

A few of my friends, I’m embarrassed to say, have been taken in by some of the 2012-End-of-the-World-quetzalcoatl-tin-foil-hat conspiracy theories. Well here’s David Morrison, a NASA scientist, addressing the Top 20 Questions About 2012 in Skepitc magazine. In short, don’t worry… it’s bullshit. 

10. What is the polar shift theory? Is it true that the Earth’s crust does a 180-degree rotation around the core in a matter of days if not hours? Does this have something to do with our solar system dipping beneath the galactic equator?

A reversal in the rotation of Earth is impossible. It has never happened and never will. There are slow movements of the continents (for example Antarctica was near the equator hundreds of millions of years ago), but that is irrelevant to claims of reversal of the rotational poles. However, many of the disaster websites pull a bait-and-switch to fool people. They claim a relationship between the rotation and the magnetic field of Earth, which does change irregularly with a magnetic reversal taking place, on average, every 400,000 years. As far as we know, such a magnetic reversal does not cause any harm to life on Earth. A magnetic reversal is very unlikely to happen in the next few millennia, anyway. But the 2012ers falsely claim that a magnetic reversal is coming soon (in 2012 of course) and that this is the same as, or will trigger, a reversal of Earth’s rotational poles. The bottom line is this: (a) rotation direction and magnetic polarity are not related; (b) there is no reason to expect a reversal of magnetic polarity any time soon, or to anticipate any bad effects on life when it does eventually happen; (c) a sudden shift in the rotational pole with disastrous consequences is impossible. Also, none of this has anything to do with the galactic equator or any of the other nonsense about alignments that appears on many of the doomsday websites.

Of course I’ve dealt before with this 2012 ridiculousness.  

Endangered Species?

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Gary Johnson
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Fox News

Where is the libertarian Republican that used to populate the west? Gary Johnson (Western-style Republican) was term-limited out. I would love to get behind a candidate like this. The GOP could really use the socially liberal, fiscally conservative influence these days. It’s possible the contradictions in a party that blended “don’t tread of me” individualists and religious traditionalists finally caught up to it. Yet the electoral success with that coalition worked so well for the GOP, I’m surprised it has got this bad; I suppose economic downturns can do that. 

In the short term they may have some success, but if they plan on having any long term prosperity they need to broaden that coalition back up. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in The Right Nation warned Republicans in 2004; their words have received too much neglect:

At the risk of caricaturing a region that takes up a third of the union, the reputation for intolerance is entwined with the party’s Southern strategy. For the party of Lincoln, capturing the South has been a remarkable electoral achievement, but it has come at a price. There is a recurring fear that an overdominant Southern wing will drag the GOP onto the cliffs of extremism in the same way that the McGovernite wing pulled the Democrats too far to the Left during the 1970s.

Does anyone think Rand Paul fits this mold? Why or why not?  

Separate But Equal?

It’s not true for race but is it for religion? Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, argues in The New York Times that compassion is “a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths.” 

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

An early eye-opener for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in India shortly before his untimely death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions.

Back on April 25th, The Boston Globe ran an op-ed by Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, who thinks glossing over religions’ differences “is untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous.” 

There is a long tradition of Christian thinkers who assume that salvation is the goal of all religions and then argue that only Christians can achieve this goal. Philosopher of religion Huston Smith, who grew up in China as a child of Methodist missionaries, rejected this argument but not its guiding assumption. “To claim salvation as the monopoly of any one religion,” he wrote, “is like claiming that God can be found in this room and not the next.” It might seem to be an admirable act of empathy to assert that Confucians and Buddhists can be saved. But this statement is confused to the core, since salvation is not something that either Confucians or Buddhists seek. Salvation is a Christian goal, and when Christians speak of it, they are speaking of being saved from sin. But Confucians and Buddhists do not believe in sin, so it makes no sense for them to try to be saved from it. And while Muslims and Jews do speak of sin of a sort, neither Islam nor Judaism describes salvation from sin as its aim. When a jailer asks the apostle Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), he is asking not a generic human question but a specifically Christian one. So while it may seem to be an act of generosity to state that Confucians and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews can also be saved, this statement is actually an act of obfuscation.

A sports analogy may be in order here. Which of the following — baseball, basketball, tennis, or golf — is best at scoring runs? The answer of course is baseball, because runs is a term foreign to basketball, tennis, and golf alike. Different sports have different goals: Basketball players shoot baskets; tennis players win points; golfers sink putts. To criticize a basketball team for failing to score runs is not to besmirch them. It is simply to misunderstand the game of basketball.

While the Dalai Lama is right that “mutual understanding” between faith traditions can help promote “peaceful coexistence,” Prothero gets it more right that “we need is a realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate. The world is what it is. And both tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know whatever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.” 

Just a note: I also found it oddly uncharitable of the Dalai Lama to reserve his scorn for “radical atheists” while minimizing the actual threat of violent jihadis inspired by Islam. Religion and ideology can promote compassion or can promote cruelty – pretending they don’t or that it’s not a real version dangerously obscures reality. 

(image from Jason Lee of The Boston Globe)

Understanding Cause and Effect

The Tea Party has grown partly in response to ballooning deficits and what they see as irresponsible government spending. Well, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities graphs data from the CBO to illustrate where our massive deficits originate. While partly to settle the “blame game,” this also helps us figure out how best to combat the deficit (if that’s really someone’s concern; looking at you Tea Party). 

Any fair observer can see that the economic recovery measures (lighter blues) are not the cause of out of control long-term deficits. The economic downturn and Bush’s tax cuts are the major issue. My solution: fix the economy (ok, easier said than done) and raise future taxes with a VAT. It should be clear that if solutions to fix the economy involve spending money that should not be a valid concern – a healthier and productive economy will help diminish the deficit more than any spending will contribute to it.

Although I agree to a certain extent that the Obama administration shouldn’t focus on blaming the Bush administration for the deficit, The New Republic points out… they’re not wrong.

Now, I think it’s fine for a story to eschew “balance”when one side is making an unsupportable or hypocritical case. But Obama’s case isn’t wrong — it really is true that the economic and budgetary problems we’re facing were inherited from the previous administration. What’s false is the Republican effort to imply that Obama caused the problems — an argument that collapses upon the slightest empirical pressure. But somehow the standard here is not what’s correct but what’s polite, and it’s impolite for Obama to blame Bush.

VAT Watch, ctd: Bill Clinton’s Endorsement

I’m happy to see President Clinton endorse a VAT. However, he need not make spurious arguments when plenty of sound ones exist. Greg Mankiw quotes Alan Viard on why a VAT wouldn’t “improve our trade balance.” 

A common fallacy holds that border tax adjustments—imposing taxes on imports and rebating taxes on exports—would enhance American exports and reduce imports. The reasoning behind this mistake is simple enough. A border adjustment seems to provide a subsidy to exporters and to levy a tariff on importers. Border adjustment proponents, noting that international trade rules allow nations to border adjust consumption taxes such as European-style value added taxes, urge the adoption of a consumption tax in the United States so that we can border adjust and enhance our trade competitiveness.

Yet, such an argument ignores an essential truth about imports and exports: over the long term, exports and imports must be equal. We can think of a country like a household. Purchases are paid for from the proceeds of sales, and sales are made for the purpose of additional purchases. In the long run, purchases and sales must be equal. A nation’s trade policy works the same way. Over a nation’s history, the value of exports in current dollars must equal the value of imports in present value. Any attempt to permanently increase exports and decrease imports is futile.

Primum Non Nocere

Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes the case in The Daily Beast against the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) proposal to allow doctors to preform a ritual “nick” on a female child’s clitoris, an alternative to more severe forms of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

I am familiar with this debate in two ways. First, I come from a culture where virtually every woman has undergone genital cutting. I was 5 years old when mine were cut and sewn. Second, while serving as a member of parliament in the Netherlands, I was assigned the portfolio for the emancipation and integration of immigrant women. One of my missions was to combat practices such as FGM.

To understand this problem, we need to begin with parental motives. The “nicking” option is regarded as a necessary cleansing ritual. The clitoris is considered to be an impure part of the girl-child and bleeding it is believed to make her pure and free of evil spirits.

The AAP, whatever their good intentions, needs to recognize that this dignifies FGM by helping to remove the stigma behind it. Just because a practice is common or traditional or religious does not mean it deserves any special privileges. What if a medical academy endorsed ritual pedophilia or ceremonial incest? What doctor would condone or perform, say, grazing a child’s genitals in sexually suggestive ways in order to placate the child’s abusive parents? Does anyone think it would improve anything if they did? What about ritual cannibalism – a swift and modest surgical cut from a child’s backside could provide a medically “harmless” morsel for those looking for the taste of the divine? I don’t think I’m making too extreme a comparison; for example, Catholics’ history with pedophilia and cannibalism isn’t hypothetical. And to be clear, ritual FGM isn’t as ceremonial as some might hope.

First there is the ritual pinprick. This is what Pediatrics refers to as the “nick” option. To give you an idea of what that means, visualize a preteen girl held down by adults. Her clitoris is tweaked so that the circumcizer can hold it between her forefinger and her thumb. Then she takes a needle and pierces it using enough force for it to go into the peak of the clitoris. As soon as it bleeds, the parents and others attending the ceremony cheer, the girl is comforted and the celebrations follow.

It is bad enough that crazy fanatics are mutilating young girls; doctors need not join in.  

Now You Can Cut The Budget

Have fun playing with this budget simulator from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Even stabilizing the US debt to only 60% of GDP by 2018 isn’t an easy task if you take the game seriously. Now remember that in real life we can’t just click boxes but need to get enough votes. Argh…

(h/t to The Daily Dish)

Around the 4.54th Billion Year Man Creates… DNA

Here’s a short roundup of Venter’s amazing work.

J. Craig Venter Institute:

Now, this scientific team headed by Drs. Craig Venter, Hamilton Smith and Clyde Hutchison have achieved the final step in their quest to create the first synthetic bacterial cell. In a publication in Science magazine, Daniel Gibson, Ph.D. and a team of 23 additional researchers outline the steps to synthesize a 1.08 million base pairMycoplasma mycoides genome, constructed from four bottles of chemicals that make up DNA. This synthetic genome has been “booted up” in a cell to create the first cell controlled completely by a synthetic genome.

The Economist:

Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, the two American biologists who unravelled the first DNA sequence of a living organism (a bacterium) in 1995, have made a bacterium that has an artificial genome—creating a living creature with no ancestor (see article). Pedants may quibble that only the DNA of the new beast was actually manufactured in a laboratory; the researchers had to use the shell of an existing bug to get that DNA to do its stuff. Nevertheless, a Rubicon has been crossed. It is now possible to conceive of a world in which new bacteria (and eventually, new animals and plants) are designed on a computer and then grown to order.

That ability would prove mankind’s mastery over nature in a way more profound than even the detonation of the first atomic bomb. The bomb, however justified in the context of the second world war, was purely destructive. Biology is about nurturing and growth. Synthetic biology, as the technology that this and myriad less eye-catching advances are ushering in has been dubbed, promises much. In the short term it promises better drugs, less thirsty crops (see article), greener fuels and even a rejuvenated chemical industry. In the longer term who knows what marvels could be designed and grown?
Other scientists say that, aside from assembling a large piece of DNA, Dr. Venter has not broken new ground. “To my mind Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this,” said David Baltimore, a leading geneticist at Caltech. Dr. Baltimore described the result as “a technical tour de force” but not breakthrough science, but just a matter of scale.
Craig Venter has taken yet another step towards his goal of creating synthetic life forms. He’s synthesized the genome of a microbe and then implanted that piece of DNA into a DNA-free cell of another species. And that…that thing…can grow and divide. It’s hard to say whether this is “life from scratch,” because the boundary between such a thing and ordinary life (and non-life) is actually blurry. For example, you could say that this is still a nature hybrid, because its DNA is based on the sequence of an existing species of bacteria. If Venter made up a sequence from scratch, maybe we’d have crossed to a new terrain.
[Zimmer posts some good links on this area of research]
The synthetic bacteria have 14 “watermark sequences” attached to their genome – inert stretches of DNA added to distinguish them from their natural counterparts. They behaved and divided in lab dishes like natural bacteria.
M mycoides was chosen as a simple microbe with which to develop and prove the technology. It has no immediate application.
But scientists at the J Craig Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics, the company funding their research, intend to move quickly on to more useful targets that may not exist in nature.
Science: (the journal that published the paper)
We report the design, synthesis, and assembly of the 1.08-Mbp Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 genome starting from digitized genome sequence information and its transplantation into a Mycoplasmacapricolum recipient cell to create new Mycoplasma mycoides cells that are controlled only by the synthetic chromosome. The only DNA in the cells is the designed synthetic DNA sequence, including “watermark” sequences and other designed gene deletions and polymorphisms, and mutations acquired during the building process. The new cells have expected phenotypic properties and are capable of continuous self-replication.

(image from The Economist)

May 20th: Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!

May 20, 2010 1 comment

Here’s my contribution.

An adaptation of the most annoying cartoon I could think of.

[update: I’ve been linked]
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