Hope over stem cell ethical fears

From BBC:Stem_cell

The Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology removed embryonic stem cells from mice embryos with no apparent damage, the journal Nature said. Scientists believe it would sidestep some of the ethical objections to stem cell research if repeated in humans. But campaigners said they still had concerns and urged scientists to concentrate on other areas. Stem cells are “master” cells that can become many kinds of tissue. Those harvested from early-stage human embryos are thought to hold the most potential for research, as they have the ability to become almost any kind of adult cell in the body.

More here.

PERCEPTIONS: Victor Hugo’s Other Art


Victor Hugo: Mysterious Ruin

Hatching from a nameless gleam of light I see
Monstrous flowers and frightening roses
I feel that out of duty I write all these things
That seem, on the lurid, trembling parchment,
To issue sinisterly from the shadow of my hand.
Is it by chance, great senseless breath
Of the Prophets, that you perturb my thoughts?
So where am I being drawn in this nocturnal azure?
Is it sky I see? Am I in command?
Darkness, am I fleeing? Or am I in pursuit?
Everything gives way. At times I do not know if I am
The proud horseman or the fierce horse;
I have the scepter in my hand and the bit in my mouth.
Open up and let me pass, abysses, blue gulf,
Black gulf! Be silent, thunder! God, where are you leading me?
I am the will, but I am the delirium.
Oh, flight into the infinite! Vainly I sometimes say,
Like Jesus calling out “Lamma Sabacthani,”
Is the way still long? Is it finished,
Lord? Will you soon let me sleep?
The Spirit does what it will. I feel the gusting breath
That Elisha felt, that lifted him;
And in the night I hear someone commanding me to go!


From ‘Le bien germe parfois…’ (Good Sometimes Germinates…),
from the collection Toute la lyre, first published 1888.

Monday Musing: Leonard Cohen


I heard Leonard Cohen’s music for the first time driving from Skagen down to Copenhagen some years ago. Skagen is at the top of the world, at least as far as mainland Europe is concerned. We walked along the beach on a grayish day. You can walk until the sand tapers into a point and then vanishes beneath the North Sea.


A group of painters became fascinated with the light and the landscapes there during the mid-nineteenth century. They became known as the Skagen painters. It’s true that the light is special there. It’s diffuse and it’s sharp at the same time, which doesn’t really make any sense but I guess that’s why it is special.

Driving back south again through marshes, dry marshes you pass miles and miles of little trees. My Danish friend told me that the trees are all so small because of the make-up of the soil and all the sand. I have no idea if that’s true or even if my memory is entirely accurate about the trees or the soil. But I have an image of vast stretches of the tiny bare branches of thousands of little trees filtering the strange dying light late in the evening.

We watched the scene from the car window and listened to an album of collected Leonard Cohen songs. We listened to Chelsea Hotel #2:

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
you were talking so brave and so sweet,
giving me head on the unmade bed,
while the limousines wait in the street.
Those were the reasons and that was New York,
we were running for the money and the flesh.
And that was called love for the workers in song
probably still is for those of them left.

And I remember that we listened to Hallelujah in several different versions.

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah


Anyway, with that weird northern light up at the end of the world and those forests of tiny little trees and the mournful throaty singing and those Cohen lyrics that always manage to surprise you with some funny-tragic turn of image it was quite a ride. Not something you’d want to do every day but affecting, memorable.

Well, he has a new album coming out in a week and half called Dear Heather. I don’t know what to expect, really. A lot of his more recent music found him utilizing some rather strange arrangements, cheesy synthesizers and drum machines. I’d say it was all an elaborate con or something but you never can tell with Leonard. He spent the late 90’s at the Zen Center of Mount Baldy where he’d become a monk and took to calling himself Jikan.

He started making drawings and writing poetry like this:

Seisen has a long body. Her shaved head threatens the skylight and her feet go down into the vegetable cellar. When she dances for us at one of our infrequent celebrations, the dining hall with it’s cargo of weightless monks and nuns, bounces around her hips like a hula-hoop.

This from a man who was said by one journalist to have penned “the most revolting book ever written in Canada.” So, you never know with Leonard. Of course, he seems to have spent much of his time at the Zen retreat drinking, smoking cigarettes, and taking sex breaks. He calls himself a “bad monk, a sloppy monk.” It also turns out that while he was practicing Buddhism up on the mountain his lawyers and accountants stole all his money. When he found out the he’d been fleeced of all but a fraction of his cash he said “You know, God gave me a strong inner core, so I wasn’t shattered. But I was deeply concerned.” For better or worse he’s been stimulated to write a lot of music again and go back into touring.

The lyrics for the song Dear Heather seem promising though, they sound like the Cohen of old, just having gotten a lot older:

Dear Heather
Please walk by me again
With a drink in your hand
And your legs all white
From the winter

His best music clearly came from a time when he was a miserable wreck. But it will be interesting to hear what comes out of a Leonard Cohen who’s reached 70. Recently, he said of his old age:

There was just a certain sweetness to daily life that began asserting itself. I remember sitting in the corner of my kitchen, which has a window overlooking the street. I saw the sunlight that shines on the chrome fenders of the cars, and thought, “Gee, that’s pretty.”

Fair enough, Jikan. I’ll buy the album.

Mrs President: Clinton vs Rice

Dick Morris in The Guardian:

Riceclinton10 On 20 January 2009, at precisely noon, the world will witness the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States. As the chief justice administers the oath of office on the flag-draped podium in front of the US Capitol, the first woman President, Hillary Rodham Clinton, will be sworn into office. By her side, smiling broadly and holding the family Bible, will be her chief strategist, husband, and co-President, William Jefferson Clinton.

If the thought of another Clinton presidency excites you, then the future indeed looks bright. Because, as of this moment, there is no doubt that Hillary Clinton is on a virtually uncontested trajectory to win the Democratic nomination and, very likely, the 2008 election. She has no serious opposition in her party. The order of presidential succession from 1992 through 2008, in other words, may well become Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton. But her victory is not inevitable. There is one, and only one, figure in America who can stop Hillary Clinton: Secretary of State Condoleezza ‘Condi’ Rice. Among all of the possible Republican candidates for President, Condi alone could win the nomination, defeat Hillary and derail a third Clinton administration.

More here.

One-Fifth of Human Genes Have Been Patented

From The National Geographic:

The study, which is reported this week in the journal Science, is the first time that a detailed map has been created to match patents to specific physical locations on the human genome. Researchers can patent genes because they are potentially valuable research tools, useful in diagnostic tests or to discover and produce new drugs. “It might come as a surprise to many people that in the U.S. patent system human DNA is treated like other natural chemical products,” said Fiona Murray, a bDna_1 usiness and science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and a co-author of the study. Gene patents were central to the biotech boom of the 1980s and 1990s. The earliest gene patents were obtained around 1978 on the gene for human growth hormone. The new study reveals that more than 4,000 genes, or 20 percent of the almost 24,000 human genes, have been claimed in U.S. patents. Of the patented genes, about 63 percent are assigned to private firms and 28 percent are assigned to universities. The top patent assignee is Incyte, a Palo Alto, California-based drug company whose patents cover 2,000 human genes.

More here.

A Culture of Rapture

From The New York Times:

16lou1841_1Fascination with the end of days is seemingly everywhere, in popular television ministries (like Pat Robertson’s), on best-seller lists (the “Left Behind” series) and even on bumper stickers (“In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned”).

What could be behind this fascination? Many church leaders and theologians, including evangelicals, give little effort to trying to interpret natural disasters and other events that might portend the end of history. The preoccupation these days stems mainly from the outsized influence of a specific, literalistic approach to biblical prophecy, called dispensationalism, which only came to occupy a dominant place in American evangelicalism relatively recently.

“Dispensationalists have never had the kind of public exposure and the kind of political power that they have now,” Mr. Weber said. As a whole, evangelical Christians are united in their belief that Jesus will come back in human form at some point in history. Where they, as well as members of other Christian groups, have differed is precisely how this will occur, depending on how each interprets a single verse in the 20th chapter of the Book of Revelation and its allusion to a 1,000-year reign by Christ.

More here.

U.S. Losing Its Competitive Edge In Science

  From News.com:

A panel of experts convened by the National Academies, the nation’s leading science advisory group, called yesterday for an urgent and wide-ranging effort to strengthen scientific competitiveness.

The 20-member panel, reporting at the request of a bipartisan group in Congress, said that without such an effort the United States “could soon lose its privileged position.” It cited many examples of emerging scientific and industrial power abroad and listed 20 steps the United States should take to maintain its global lead.

“Decisive action is needed now,” the report warned, adding that the nation’s old advantages “are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength.”

More here.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Laura Helmuth and Art Wolfe in Smithsonian Magazine:

Wolfe_lionThe wildlife photographs that make us ooh and aah usually depict dramatic action. A lion digs its teeth into a zebra’s neck, buffaloes stampede through a cloud of dust, a pair of cranes strut out a mating dance—we like our animals highlighted at their most furious, frightened or amorous.

That’s rarely how they appear in nature, of course. Most of the time, they’re just trying to blend in. Photographer Art Wolfe, 53, has more than 60 books and plenty of wildlife action shots to his name, but in a new book, Vanishing Act, he defies conventions to show what he calls “animals’ incredible ability to vanish in plain sight.” In these photographs (taken in Kenya, South Africa, Panama, Malaysia and 21 other nations), the animals typically appear in the corner of the frame rather than the center, and some are partly obscured by plants. He further helps the subjects get lost by making both the foreground and background sharp. “Basically, I’m teasing the audience,” he says.

Wolfe_seal_1Ever since people thousands of years ago noted the uncanny trickery of animal camouflage, nature watchers have taken pains to understand it. Some animals’ color matches their favored habitat: plovers that feed in wet sand and muck have darker-brown backs than plover species that spend their time in dry, lighter-colored sand dunes. Some animals coordinate their look with the seasons, shedding dark fur or molting dark feathers once the snow flies. Certain sea creatures tint their skin with pigments from the corals they’ve eaten to take on the color of their home reef.

More here.

Raise the Red Lantern

Last night I saw the brilliant ballet Raise the Red Lantern at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (thanks Ga). The production was spectacular and so luscious that it made me feel royal just to be able to watch it. Here’s Loren Noveck in nytheater.com:

2457The piece’s strength is in its overall visual sense—striking tableaux, gorgeous costumes (by Jerome Kaplan) and sets (by Zeng Li), bold use of color. Moment after moment makes an immediate and vivid impression: In the prologue, the second concubine, dressed like a schoolgirl, is forced into an elaborate palanquin, where she remains for much of the first act, emerging in sophisticated red robes only for her wedding. The majority of the wedding night is played behind screens, so that the second concubine and her master appear as silhouettes, his shadow towering over hers; as she attempts to evade his sexual advance, she continually rips through panels of the screen. The execution at the end is symbolized by a stylized procession of soldiers, each smacking a white screen with a club and leaving a blood-red streak—over and over, until all three bodies are motionless in a heap at center stage, and then are covered by a shimmering snowfall as the curtain falls.

More here.

The aftershocks of Pakistan’s temblor will be felt for years

Russell Seitz in the Wall Street Journal:

K2The exaggerated verticality of northern Pakistan makes it scientifically transparent but politically opaque, with borders hard to define and harder to guard. The chaos in the quake’s aftermath has put the field in motion for fugitives of all stripes. Al Qaeda cadres and Islamist Kashmiri separatists can readily lose themselves among the flux of refugees in a region famed for discreet hospitality. It cannot have escaped Osama Bin Laden’s attention that in the 19th century the Aga Khan spent tranquil years in Hunza while internecine war made him a hunted man elsewhere in the Islamic world. Today, the Raj has evaporated in India, but in Pakistan’s Northern Areas some local notables’ business cards still read “Head of State.” Political parties–some religious, some ethnic–have proliferated in the Punjab and the parts of southern Pakistan that share an Urdu culture with India; but in the North, men owe their first allegiance to where they were born, not to where politicians in Islamabad want borders to be.

The region’s isolation in the months to come could erode Pakistan’s often-resented efforts to integrate the linguistically and ethnically distinct populations of areas like Baltistan, a “Little Tibet” where mountains five miles high enforce local autonomy–and where the central government’s authority fades out of sight of the now-obliterated roads built to enforce it. The temblor’s timing is itself disastrous, for the north helps feed Pakistan, and harvests have been isolated from the urban markets by the wholesale destruction of infrastructure. Far away, in Karachi and Quetta, the political impact is being felt, as food prices soar despite the imposition of price controls.

More here.

‘Saving Fish From Drowning’: Bus of Fools

From The New York Times:Tan

Amy Tan is among our great storytellers. In each of her previous novels, she has seduced readers with the intimate magic of her tale. In “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” she enthralled us with the painful complexity of human relationships, especially between mothers and daughters. Obscure parts of history became as immediate as the reader’s own experience; she made us breathe the air of other times and places.

Tan_amy Her newest novel, “Saving Fish From Drowning,” half spoof and half fairy tale, is narrated by Bibi Chen, a San Francisco socialite and art dealer who was supposed to lead a group of high-powered friends on a trip down the Burma Road, starting in Lijiang in China and continuing across the border into Myanmar, appreciating cultural sites and natural beauty along the way. Bibi Chen has died under mysterious circumstances, but the group goes off on the trip anyway, and Bibi goes along as a spirit, invisible to the travelers, only sporadically able to influence what is going on, but very much involved with – and frequently rather annoyed by – her friends and their choices. A quirky narrator, alternately omniscient and helpless, she is enthusiastic, colorful and spirited, but also self-important, snobbish and didactic.

More here.

The world’s first biplanes were … dinosaurs?


Dinobiplane_hmed_1p Scientists say dino-chicken used two sets of wings to flit between trees: Like the Wright brothers, the first flying dinosaurs took to the air with two sets of wings. New analysis of the winged Microraptor gui suggests that the first feathered dinos relied on a biplane-like wing configuration to swoop from tree to tree. The result may settle a century-old controversy over how the first feathered creatures achieved flight. “It is intriguing to contemplate that perhaps avian flight, like aircraft evolution, went through a biplane stage before the monoplane was introduced,” said Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University. “It seems likely that Microraptor invented the biplane 125 million years before the Wright 1903 Flyer.”

More here.

Pakistan Earthquake

Dear Readers of 3 Quarks Daily,

Over the last six days I have received various emails and phone calls asking about the welfare of my family and friends in Pakistan. I want to thank you for the concern you have expressed, and tell you that while my family escaped all direct effects of the earthquake, various friends and their families have not been so lucky. The centuries-old house of my friend Yousaf in Wah has collapsed. Other friends from Kashmir are in bad shape. It is an odd coincidence that for our honeymoon last year, my wife and I chose to go sightseeing in two places: the incomparably beautiful beaches of the south of Sri Lanka, and the majestic mountain regions of the north of Pakistan. None of the hotels we stayed at in either place exist any longer. Between the tsunami and the earthquake, all we have left are the pleasant memories and some pictures we took while in these serene, lovely places.

Several people have asked how they can help the victims of the earthquake. After looking into this a bit, I have come to the conclusion that the best way is by donating money to the Human Development Foundation. This is a U.S. based secular group which was started by Pakistani-American doctors more than a decade ago (one of my sisters has been actively involved). They have set up schools and clinics all over Pakistan, and their efforts have been recognized by President Musharraf to the extent that the government of Pakistan asked them for advice and is now following their model of human development to fight poverty and illiteracy in all of Pakistan. The important point is, they already have an infrastructure on the ground in many of the areas affected by the earthquake, and therefore, they assure me that ALL the money which is collected in their earthquake fund will go directly to the victims, and NONE of it will be used for administrative purposes. I know some of the individuals at the HDF, and can personally vouch for their integrity. If you would like to donate to them, please click here.

Tens of thousands are dead. More are injured. Millions are homeless. The Himalayan winter is well on its way. Help if you can. If you like, leave your email in a comment on this post, and I will be sure to write to you personally to thank you.

Gratefully yours,


Here are some pictures of the affected areas from the NY Times:











new space race?


With the successful launch of its second manned spacecraft, Shenzhou VI, China has shown the world that it is moving confidently towards the status of a global leader, one among eight or 10 — or even two or three — world powers that will be at the top in the next few years.

China needed the second successful launch to vindicate its space program. Since 1996, it has launched a total of 46 unmanned craft, including five this year. All of them were put into orbit by the Chinese Long March rocket. The maiden mission by Col. Yang Liwei on Oct. 15, 2003, meant China joined the prestigious club of nations able to send a man into space, joining Russia and the United States. Also important is that Beijing stuck to its launching schedule for the second vehicle with two cosmonauts aboard.

Beijing’s space plans are an established reality now, even if they may occasionally suffer setbacks and delays, as is the case with other countries. These plans include a space walk in 2006, a family of new carrier rockets, including one capable of putting into orbit a research station weighing 20 tons, an unmanned craft to be sent around the Moon in 2007, a lunar landing in 2012, and the return to Earth of another lunar vehicle with soil samples in 2017.

more form UPI here.

Where have Pakistan’s Jews gone?

There was once a small but vibrant community of Jews in what is now Pakistan. Most of them left Pakistan decades ago in circumstances that were not comfortable for them and a matter of some shame for us.

Adil Najam in Pakistan’s Daily Times:

16_9_2005_najam_1The front page of last Friday’s Jerusalem Post featured a boxed item headlined “Surprise! There are still Jews in Pakistan.”

The story in The Jerusalem Post was triggered by an email sent to the newspaper’s online edition in a Reader’s Response section by one Ishaac Moosa Akhir who introduced himself thus: “I am a doctor at a local hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. My family background is Sephardic Jewish and I know approximately 10 Jewish families who have lived in Karachi for 200 years or so. Just last week was the Bar Mitzvah of my son Dawod Akhir.”

I remember seeing the mail when it originally appeared middle of last week and wondering whether the writer was, in fact, who he claimed to be or an over-zealous Pakistani trying to make a point behind the Internet’s obscurity. The Jerusalem Post and the experts it interviewed seem to have harboured similar doubts, I think largely because of the tenor of the debate on that discussion board.

More here.  [Thanks to Atiya Khan for the link.]

God’s Billboard, or is it pop-up?

Hmmm . . . (from the e-printed archives)

Suppose some superior Being or Beings got the universe going. We do not address the issue of whether or not this is likely, but merely proceed with this supposition. Furthermore, suppose that they actually wanted to notify us that the universe was intentionally created. The question we would like to ask is: How would they send us a message? . . .

In the United States, people with certain religious convictions have even imagined that the message might be encoded in the rock formation of the Grand Canyon, as another example. In our opinion, such suggestions are clearly not universal enough, and they seem to require direct intervention by the Creator during the evolution of the universe. Another possibility, that a message might be hidden deep in the digits of pi or the Riemann zeta function, is also appealing, but we have no way of addressing how feasible that might be without some measure over possible realizations of mathematics. . .

We have convinced ourselves that the medium for the message is unique: it could only be the cosmic microwave background. The cosmic microwave background is in effect a giant billboard in the sky, visible to all technologically advanced civilizations. Since different regions of the sky are causally disconnected, only the Being “present at the creation” could place a message there. (There are also cosmic neutrino and gravity wave backgrounds, but given the elusive nature of neutrinos and gravity waves it seems that photons are a better choice for carriers of the message.)