Shuttle Disaster

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In case you hadn’t heard, contact with the space shuttle Columbia was lost shortly after 9:00 a.m. Eastern time this morning as it began reentry from its recent orbital mission, heading for a landing in Florida. Multiple contrails were seen in the sky and debris has fallen over central Texas. There was no indication of any difficulties aboard the craft in prior communication with NASA. While not acknowledging that the vehicle had exploded or fragmented, NASA warned area residents of the dangers of the debris and cleanup crews are working in the area. There does not appear to be any possibility, it probably goes without saying, that any of the astronauts on the crew could have survived. Security for the flight was tight because of the presence of an Israeli astronaut, who had been selected in 1995 to be a guest on a US shuttle mission. There are no indications of terrorist actions in the shuttle’s destruction. Warnings From NASA on Falling Debris; Bush Calls Meeting NY Times. My thoughts are with the astronauts’ loved ones. Let’s hope there is not a media feeding frenzy upon their private grief in days to come.

Spooky Action at a Distance:

Light Particles Are Duplicated More Than a Mile Away Along Fiber: ‘Employing a facet of quantum mechanics that Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance,” scientists have taken particles of light, destroyed them and then resurrected copies more than a mile away.

Previous experiments in so-called quantum teleportation moved particles of light about a yard. The findings could aid the sending of unbreakable coded messages, which is limited to a few tens of miles.

The new experiment used longer wavelengths of light than earlier ones, letting the scientists copy the light through standard glass fiber found in fiber optic cables.’ NY Times

The Empire Strikes Back

The Tribal Rites of America’s Military Leaders:

‘This Saturday, more than a thousand of America’s top military and government leaders and their guests are scheduled to gather at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., for a secretive tribal rite called the 103rd Annual Wallow of the Military Order of the Carabao. And they won’t be singing “Kumbaya.”

In fact, on what these days feels like the eve of war, nothing says “imperialism” better than the annual Wallow, which celebrates the bloody conquest of the nascent Philippine Republic a century ago in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War.’ Village Voice

Collecting Bug

Teresa Nielson Hayden goes in search of the truth about animal hoarding and writes a post several people have pointed me to. Lay readers will find the phenomenon disturbing and fascinating. As a psychiatrist I see more than my share of these folks coming to the attention of the mental health authorities and hospitalized on my service for being unable to care for themselves. While TNH, too simply, notes that “hoarding used to be thought of as an eccentricity, but more and more it’s being recognized as a social problem–and, more to the point, a form of mental illness”, there are delicate decisions and a complicated evaluative process to be faced in each given case to decide if it is evidence of psychiatric disturbance or merely an eccentricity of which an (often socially isolated) person should not be deprived and for which they should not be penalized with the loss of their autonomy. It may be both; the tolerable quirkiness of the longterm ‘cat lady’ may turn eventually — only in the end — to tragedy for both the animals and their benefactor when she (almost invariably a woman, almost invariably elderly) is disabled by physical or mental illness or inanition and no longer able to care for them. It is psychiatrically trendy to recognize hoarding as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (don’t forget, OCD is treated by the best-selling serotonin reuptake inhibitor class of antidepressants — Prozac and its cousins — and, if your favorite tool is a hammer, it pays to see everything as if it were a nail) and to lump animal hoarding in with other bizarre and out-of-control collecting pnehomena. This is too simple, however; in cases where animal hoarding is due to an illness, the definitive stroke in the person’s inability to care for herself and her animals is often a dementing process such as Alzheimer’s Disease or a late-life psychotic disorder instead.

One point that has struck me over and over again is how serendipitous it usually is that the squalor and misery in which such a person is living comes to anyone’s attention and provokes an intervention. TNH cites statistics about the estimated prevalence of the problem, but my strong instinct is that the recognized cases represent the tip of the iceberg. As such, they dramatize the epidemic of social neglect of the elderly in our society. I would love to see statistics of the prevalence of animal hoarding in other societies correlated with their community and social welfare infrastructure.

As she concludes her post, which does an impressive job of collecting and presenting what she has gleaned from intelligent googling on the topic, TNH starts to slide down the slippery slope of villifying — or citing sources which villify — the ‘cat ladies’ for their denial and their control motivations. Again, I would emphasize that this is tarring with a broad brush, and it is largely the brush of the animal welfare advocates who share the social prejudices about the odd, the different, the deviant, the offensive. Every case is different; some are harmless eccentrics; most are mentally ill and not in control, and needing help rather than prosecution (although I fully support the interventions of the animal welfare agencies and the health departments which often have to condemn the dwellings in which these unfortunate scenes have played themselves out). Very few are malevolent in their conscious intent.

Simplicity: A Unifying Principle in Cognitive Science?


Much of perception, learning and high-level cognition involves finding patterns in data. But there are always infinitely many patterns compatible with any finite amount of data. How does the cognitive system choose ‘sensible’ patterns? A long tradition in epistemology, philosophy of science, and mathematical and computational theories of learning argues that patterns ‘should’ be chosen according to how simply they explain the data. This article reviews research exploring the idea that simplicity drives a wide range of cognitive processes. We outline mathematical theory, computational results and empirical data that underpin this viewpoint. Trends in Cognitive Science [via BioMedNet]

Meat Role in Human Evolution Questioned

Tubers, scavenging, and women — “this might have been the winning combination that spurred human evolution about 2 millions years ago, according to a provocative hypothesis by American anthropologists.

Writing in the current issue of the Journal of Human Evolution, University of Utah anthropologist James O’Connell and colleagues challenge the conventional wisdom that meat, brought home by man the hunter and shared out, fueled the rise of early humans.” Discovery

Golden Rule:

1.618 is the magic number

Think of any two numbers. Make a third by adding the first and second, a fourth by adding the second and third, and so on. When you have written down about 20 numbers, calculate the ratio of the last to the second from last. The answer should be close to 1.6180339887… [Technically, this is the number which is one more than its reciprocal, i.e. the solution to the equation x-1=1/x, which is 1/2(1+sqrt[5]). — FmH]

What’s the significance of this number? It’s the “golden ratio” and, arguably, it crops up in more places in art, music and so on than any number except pi. Claude Debussy used it explicitly in his music and Le Corbusier in his architecture. There are claims the number was used by Leonardo da Vinci in the painting of the Mona Lisa, by the Greeks in building the Parthenon and by ancient Egyptians in the construction of the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Guardian UK


Primates found popping prenatal drug: “A Madagascan lemur has been revealed as the first animal known to

self-medicate when pregnant. Female sifaka eat plants rich in poisonous

tannins in the weeks before giving birth, researchers have discovered.

It is unclear why the sifaka does this. In other mammals, small doses of

tannins kill parasites and stimulate milk production. And vets often use

tannins to prevent miscarriage, raising the intriguing possibility that by

eating the plants the sifaka is protecting its developing baby.” New Scientist

Conscious objector

“The ultra-modern view of consciousness turns science upside down, writes Colin Tudge in The Guardian: “Is the brain simply a computer, and is consciousness merely the feeling we get when we think? Or is consciousness a primary component of the universe, which the brain can latch on to, like a radio receiver? A definitive answer will always be elusive, but scientists are making intriguing forays into the subject, and if they are not explaining consciousness, they are certainly telling us a great deal about the nature of science.”

‘Silent Talker’:

Lie Detection: “A new technique which interprets facial gestures has been developed by scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University and could be the most accurate lie detector yet created. ‘Silent Talker’ detects and analyses the thousands of “microgestures” which indicate someone might be telling untruths and which go unnoticed by both trained and untrained professionals.” BBC