As Climate Changes, Scientists See Irene as a Harbinger

From his vantage point high above the earth in...

“…Are hurricanes getting worse because of human-induced climate change? The short answer from scientists is that they are still trying to figure it out. But many of them do believe that hurricanes will get more intense as the planet warms, and they see large hurricanes like Irene as a harbinger.” (via NYTimes).

Breaking News: Eastern Seaboard Earthquake Today

“A 5.8-magnitude earthquake rocked Northern Virginia Tuesday, briefly causing the shutdown of power at a nuclear plant in Louisa County.

The U.S. Geological Survey, headquartered in nearby Reston, Va., said the epicenter of the quake was 34 miles northwest of Richmond, Va., and 87 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. It was the strongest quake in Virginia in more than a century.

The quake struck at 1:51 p.m. at a depth of 3.7 miles.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported the quake was felt in Washington, New York and North Carolina. The newspaper said buildings swayed, and damage reports had begun to trickle in.” (via UPI).

My co-workers and I felt this in the hospital where I work. I saw a large plate glass window in the interview room I was in shimmying and the walls squeaked. It seemed to go on for about 30 seconds. I noted on my watch that the time was 1:53. (Does the two-minute lag reflect the time it took for the vibrations to travel the distance from VA to MA?) I recognized immediately what was happening, as I have been in earthquakes before, when I lived briefly in Tokyo. There have been reports that it was felt as far from the epicenter as Toronto.

Did any of my readers on the Eastern Seaboard feel it?

Chernobyl II

Zone Near Fukushima Daiichi May Be Off Limits for Decades: “Broad areas around the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant could soon be declared uninhabitable, perhaps for decades, after a government survey found radioactive contamination that far exceeded safe levels, several major media outlets said Monday.

The formal announcement, expected from the government in coming days, would be the first official recognition that the March accident could force the long-term depopulation of communities near the plant, an eventuality that scientists and some officials have been warning about for months.” (via NYTimes).

Higgs signal sinks from view

Large Hadron Collider
Image by John McNab via Flickr

“The Higgs boson, the most sought-after particle in all of physics, is proving tougher to find than physicists had hoped. 

Last month, a flurry of ‘excess events’ hinted that the Higgs could be popping up inside the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s most powerful particle accelerator located at CERN, Europe’s high-energy physics lab near Geneva, Switzerland. But new data presented today at the Lepton Photon conference in Mumbai, India, show the signal fading. It means that “this excess is probably just a statistical fluctuation”, says Adam Falkowski, a theorist at the University of Paris-South in Orsay, France.” (via Nature News).

Street View goes to the Amazon

“We’ll pedal the Street View trike along the narrow dirt paths of the Amazon villages and maneuver it up close to where civilization meets the rainforest. We’ll also mount it onto a boat to take photographs as the boat floats down the river. The tripod—which is the same system we use to capture imagery of business interiors—will also be used to give you a sense of what it’s like to live and work in places such as an Amazonian community center and school.” (via Official Google Blog).

The Kids Are Not Alright

Photograph of Joel Bakan, American lawyer and ...
Image via Wikipedia

‘ As Nelson Mandela has said, “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” By that measure, our current failure to provide stronger protection of children in the face of corporate-caused harm reveals a sickness in our societal soul. ‘  —  Joel Bakan (via NYTimes op-ed).

National Parks Aren’t Theme Parks

An example of a roller coaster, one of the sta...
Image via Wikipedia

“More than ever, an urban nation plagued by obesity, sloth and a surfeit of digital entertainment should encourage people to experience the wild — but does that mean nature has to be tame and lawyer-vetted?

My experience, purely anecdotal, is that the more rangers try to bring the nanny state to public lands, the more careless, and dependent, people become. There will always be steep cliffs, deep water, and ornery and unpredictable animals in that messy part of the national habitat not crossed by climate-controlled malls and processed-food emporiums. If people expect a grizzly bear to be benign, or think a glacier is just another variant of a theme park slide, it’s not the fault of the government when something goes fatally wrong.”  — Timothy Egan (via NYTimes op-ed).

The History of Torture

Abu Ghraib stencil

Why We Can’t Give It Up:   Torture had become ‘as extinct as cannibalism’ in post-Enlightenment Europe. So why has it come roaring back in the last century? (via Historynet)

You Just Can’t Go On Deciding One Thing After Another…

Sleeping when studying - Nakhon Sawan, Thailand
Image via Wikipedia

Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? “Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing.” (via NYTimes)

‘West Memphis Three’ freed from prison

Some good news this week, a gross miscarriage of justice undone by a strange legal maneuver.  If you haven’t been following the case, here is a Wikipedia article. Three young men have spent 18 years in prison after convicted, on little basis beside being into Death Metal, of a brutal  murder they did not commit. Many of us were first introduced to their plight in this documentary. Now they have been released on time served in return for changing their pleas to guilty, even though they have always maintained their innocence. (via  Washington Post).

13-Year-Old Makes A Solar Breakthrough With Fibonacci Sequence

He devised a more efficient way to gather solar energy utilizing an array of small solar panels arranged according to the Fibonnaci series, observing that this replicates tree branch patterns in nature. It turns out to be superior to a manmade flat array, and he has garnered a patent and commercial interest from the discovery.

‘Summing up his research and imagining the possibilities, Aidan wrote: “The tree design takes up less room than flat-panel arrays and works in spots that don’t have a full southern view. It collects more sunlight in winter. Shade and bad weather like snow don’t hurt it because the panels are not flat. It even looks nicer because it looks like a tree. A design like this may work better in urban areas where space and direct sunlight can be hard to find.” ‘ (via Treehugger, thanks to julia)

Beyond the Genome, Cancer’s Secrets Come Into Sharper Focus

The structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), ...
Structure of DNA

‘…[S]ome 90 percent of the protein-encoding cells in our body are microbes. We evolved with them in a symbiotic relationship, which raises the question of just who is occupying whom.

“We are massively outnumbered,” said Jeremy K. Nicholson, chairman of biological chemistry and head of the department of surgery and cancer at Imperial College London. Altogether, he said, 99 percent of the functional genes in the body are microbial.

In Orlando, he and other researchers described how genes in this microbiome — exchanging messages with genes inside human cells — may be involved with cancers of the colon, stomach, esophagus and other organs.’ (via NYTimes).

R.I.P. Leston Havens

Boston Globe obituary for the noted 86-year old psychiatrist who was my first and greatest mentor in my field: “Psychiatrist, professor, and writer, Dr. Havens examined patients and the therapeutic process itself in a series of books and a career that spanned decades, as he taught and influenced succeeding generations of Harvard Medical School students.” Havens’ presence was really the reason I came to train at the department of psychiatry at the Cambridge Hospital, where he was principal psychiatrist, although I wish I  had been wiser when supervised by him, so as not to have squandered the privilege of exposure to his erudition.To understand some of his fiercely idiosyncratic and humanistic approach to those he treated, a good place to start is simply a list of his major book titles: Making Contact. Coming to Life. A Safe Place. Learning to be Human.

New Drug Can Treat Almost Any Viral Infection by Killing the Body’s Infected Cells


“A new broad-spectrum treatment for viruses could be as effective as antibiotics fighting bacteria, MIT researchers report. The method uses cells’ own defense systems to induce invaded cells to commit suicide, preventing the spread of the virus. In lab tests, the new drug completely cured mice that had been infected with influenza….

“In theory, it should work against all viruses,” said Todd Rider, a senior staff scientist at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory who invented the new technology.” (via Gizmodo.)

Shameless Self-Promotion

Image representing Dropbox as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase



If you install Dropbox (for free) as a result of this referral from me, I get extra space in my Dropbox. I find this an invaluable tool. Having a Dropbox folder on each of my machines (at work and at home, both PC and Mac as well as portable platforms), anything I put into the folder on one of my machines is instantly available on all of them. There is also a public subfolder where files are accessible across the web to anyone to whom I send the file’s URL.

As you know, FmH is totally noncommercial and I have never sought or derived any compensation from the almost 12 years I have been weblogging here. Could you consider gifting me with 0.25 Gb of Dropbox storage at no cost, and lots of potential benefit, to yourself?

What’s The World’s Favorite Number?

radiolab live

Robert Krulwich: “It’s a simple question, really, but a cunning one, because the answers are so embarrassingly, voluptuously personal. Alex Bellos thought it up. He’s a writer, math enthusiast, and nut.

Here’s what he wants: He wants to know your favorite number. Just that. Tell me your favorite, and tell me why, he says.

He’s set up a website, and he’s asked people to write in. So far he’s had about 13,000 submissions. He wants more. So I’m pimping his site here…” (via Krulwich Wonders… : NPR).

I wonder if there is a significant constituency for 23.

Drugs and the Meaning of Life

Sam Harris
Image via Wikipedia

Sam Harris: ‘I discuss issues of drug policy in some detail in my first book, The End of Faith (pp. 158-164), and my thinking on the subject has not changed. The “war on drugs” has been well lost, and should never have been waged. While it isn’t explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution, I can think of no political right more fundamental than the right to peacefully steward the contents of one’s own consciousness. The fact that we pointlessly ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them, at enormous expense, constitutes one of the great moral failures of our time. (And the fact that we make room for them in our prisons by paroling murderers and rapists makes one wonder whether civilization isn’t simply doomed.)

I have a daughter who will one day take drugs. Of course, I will do everything in my power to see that she chooses her drugs wisely, but a life without drugs is neither foreseeable, nor, I think, desirable. Someday, I hope she enjoys a morning cup of tea or coffee as much as I do. If my daughter drinks alcohol as an adult, as she probably will, I will encourage her to do it safely. If she chooses to smoke marijuana, I will urge moderation.[2] Tobacco should be shunned, of course, and I will do everything within the bounds of decent parenting to steer her away from it. Needless to say, if I knew my daughter would eventually develop a fondness for methamphetamine or crack cocaine, I might never sleep again. But if she does not try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in her adult life, I will worry that she may have missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.’ (via Sam Harris‘s weblog).

The science behind disgust


Image via Wikipedia

In an interview in Salon, Daniel Kelly, Purdue philosopher and author of “Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust,” discusses the evolution of the emotion from a mediator of protection from toxic foodstuffs to one protecting us from dangerous ideas:


‘Does disgust play a role in creating social inequality? So gays and lesbians shouldn’t be denied the right to marry on the grounds that their so-called disgusting lifestyle undermines the sanctity of marriage?

The groups that are most likely to elicit disgust are often the lowest on the social hierarchy. Women have been made into objects of disgust a lot throughout history. Disgust can be a very powerful rhetorical tool to discredit, undermine or demonize an opponent or a group of people with whom you don’t agree. An easy way to do those things is to portray someone as infecting the integrity of your own social group. Disgust is a really potent emotion, and using it can be pretty rousing and effective because it has an almost subliminal influence on how we think of things.

Why not use it to make discrimination unfashionable?

I argue against disgust ever being used as a social tool, even to get rid of something we all logically agree is morally pernicious. It’s easy to imagine someone arguing that, since rational and calculated arguments haven’t done a lot to change public opinion about racism, maybe we should try portraying racism and racists as disgusting. The powerful influence of this emotion might help push racism to the edge of society or eliminate it altogether, but my response is that we still shouldn’t do it. It’s not ethically appropriate to deliberately depict any group of people as disgusting because disgust makes it very easy to dehumanize, and that would do the very thing we seek to undo.’ (via

What’s Wrong with the Culture of Critique

A bonobo fishing for termites using a sharpene...

“There’s an essential freedom in being alone with one’s thoughts, oblivious to and unpolluted by anyone else’s. Diminish that aloneness and we start to doubt our own perspective. Do I really think Blue Bottle coffee is that great? Or Blazing Saddles that funny? Do I really not like that pizza place because it isn’t authentic New York-style? Sure, it’s entirely possible to arrive at one’s own opinion amidst a cacophony of others. But it’s also possible to bend, unknowingly and imperceptibly, toward a position not naturally our own.” (via Magazine).

A Trick of the Mind

Image by cmdln via Flickr

“Beliefs come first; reasons second. That’s the insightful message of The Believing Brain, by Michael Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine. In the book, he brilliantly lays out what modern cognitive research has to tell us about his subject—namely, that our brains are “belief engines” that naturally “look for and find patterns” and then infuse them with meaning. These meaningful patterns form beliefs that shape our understanding of reality. Our brains tend to seek out information that confirms our beliefs, ignoring information that contradicts them. Mr. Shermer calls this “belief-dependent reality.” The well-worn phrase “seeing is believing” has it backward: Our believing dictates what we’re seeing.” (via Reason Magazine).

The Cult That Is Destroying America

Citizens registered as an Independent, Democra...
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Paul Krugman: “Watching our system deal with the debt ceiling crisis — a wholly self-inflicted crisis, which may nonetheless have disastrous consequences — it’s increasingly obvious that what we’re looking at is the destructive influence of a cult that has really poisoned our political system.

And no, I don’t mean the fanaticism of the right. Well, OK, that too. But my feeling about those people is that they are what they are; you might as well denounce wolves for being carnivores. Crazy is what they do and what they are.

No, the cult that I see as reflecting a true moral failure is the cult of balance, of centrism.

Think about what’s happening right now. We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating — offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.

So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent — because news reports always do that. And we have influential pundits calling out for a new centrist party, a new centrist president, to get us away from the evils of partisanship.

The reality, of course, is that we already have a centrist president — actually a moderate conservative president. Once again, health reform — his only major change to government — was modeled on Republican plans, indeed plans coming from the Heritage Foundation. And everything else — including the wrongheaded emphasis on austerity in the face of high unemployment — is according to the conservative playbook.

What all this means is that there is no penalty for extremism; no way for most voters, who get their information on the fly rather than doing careful study of the issues, to understand what’s really going on…” (via NYTimes op-ed).