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Update as of December 21st, 2006

One in five species of livestock endangered: FAO

ROME (AFP) - Some 20 percent of the world's livestock species -- cattle, pigs and poultry -- are threatened with extinction, with one breed disappearing each month, the Food and Agriculture Organization warned.

Over the past five years alone, some 60 breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry have become extinct, the Rome-based UN agency said in a draft document, blaming globalization as the "biggest single factor" in the erosion of livestock biodiversity.

"Of the more than 7,600 breeds in FAO's global database of farm animal genetic resources, 190 have become extinct in the past 15 years and a further 1,500 are considered at risk of extinction," the draft says.

Some 150 experts from 90 countries met in Rome this week to review the findings, the first of their kind on a global scale.

"The globalization of livestock markets is the biggest single factor affecting farm animal diversity," the FAO says.

"Traditional production systems require multi-purpose animals, which provide a range of goods and services, (while) modern agriculture has developed specialized breeds, optimizing specific production traits," the report says.

"Maintaining animal genetic diversity will allow future generations to select stocks or develop new breeds to cope with emerging issues, such as climate change, diseases and changing socio-economic factors," said Jose Esquinas-Alcazar, secretary of the FAO's Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

Rearing livestock contributes to the livelihoods of one billion people in the world, the FAO says.

A final report will be published for the first International Technical Conference on Animal Genetic Resources, to be held in Interlaken, Switzerland in September next year.

Update as of September 18th, 2006

Global Warming -- Signed, Sealed and Delivered

Scientists agree: The Earth is warming, and human activities are the principal cause.

By Naomi Oreskes, NAOMI ORESKES is a history of science professor at UC San Diego.

AN OP-ED article in the Wall Street Journal a month ago claimed that a published study affirming the existence of a scientific consensus on the reality of global warming had been refuted. This charge was repeated again last week, in a hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

I am the author of that study, which appeared two years ago in the journal Science, and I'm here to tell you that the consensus stands. The argument put forward in the Wall Street Journal was based on an Internet posting; it has not appeared in a peer-reviewed journal — the normal way to challenge an academic finding. (The Wall Street Journal didn't even get my name right!)

My study demonstrated that there is no significant disagreement within the scientific community that the Earth is warming and that human activities are the principal cause.

Papers that continue to rehash arguments that have already been addressed and questions that have already been answered will, of course, be rejected by scientific journals, and this explains my findings. Not a single paper in a large sample of peer-reviewed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003 refuted the consensus position, summarized by the National Academy of Sciences, that "most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations."

Since the 1950s, scientists have understood that greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels could have serious effects on Earth's climate. When the 1980s proved to be the hottest decade on record, and as predictions of climate models started to come true, scientists increasingly saw global warming as cause for concern.

In 1988, the World Meteorological Assn. and the United Nations Environment Program joined forces to create the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to evaluate the state of climate science as a basis for informed policy action. The panel has issued three assessments (1990, 1995, 2001), representing the combined expertise of 2,000 scientists from more than 100 countries, and a fourth report is due out shortly. Its conclusions — global warming is occurring, humans have a major role in it — have been ratified by scientists around the world in published scientific papers, in statements issued by professional scientific societies and in reports of the National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society and many other national and royal academies of science worldwide. Even the Bush administration accepts the fundamental findings. As President Bush's science advisor, John Marburger III, said last year in a speech: "The climate is changing; the Earth is warming."

To be sure, there are a handful of scientists, including MIT professor Richard Lindzen, the author of the Wall Street Journal editorial, who disagree with the rest of the scientific community. To a historian of science like me, this is not surprising. In any scientific community, there are always some individuals who simply refuse to accept new ideas and evidence. This is especially true when the new evidence strikes at their core beliefs and values.

Earth scientists long believed that humans were insignificant in comparison with the vastness of geological time and the power of geophysical forces. For this reason, many were reluctant to accept that humans had become a force of nature, and it took decades for the present understanding to be achieved. Those few who refuse to accept it are not ignorant, but they are stubborn. They are not unintelligent, but they are stuck on details that cloud the larger issue. Scientific communities include tortoises and hares, mavericks and mules.

A historical example will help to make the point. In the 1920s, the distinguished Cambridge geophysicist Harold Jeffreys rejected the idea of continental drift on the grounds of physical impossibility. In the 1950s, geologists and geophysicists began to accumulate overwhelming evidence of the reality of continental motion, even though the physics of it was poorly understood. By the late 1960s, the theory of plate tectonics was on the road to near-universal acceptance.

Yet Jeffreys, by then Sir Harold, stubbornly refused to accept the new evidence, repeating his old arguments about the impossibility of the thing. He was a great man, but he had become a scientific mule. For a while, journals continued to publish Jeffreys' arguments, but after a while he had nothing new to say. He died denying plate tectonics. The scientific debate was over.

So it is with climate change today. As American geologist Harry Hess said in the 1960s about plate tectonics, one can quibble about the details, but the overall picture is clear.

Yet some climate-change deniers insist that the observed changes might be natural, perhaps caused by variations in solar irradiance or other forces we don't yet understand. Perhaps there are other explanations for the receding glaciers. But "perhaps" is not evidence.

The greatest scientist of all time, Isaac Newton, warned against this tendency more than three centuries ago. Writing in "Principia Mathematica" in 1687, he noted that once scientists had successfully drawn conclusions by "general induction from phenomena," then those conclusions had to be held as "accurately or very nearly true notwithstanding any contrary hypothesis that may be imagined…. "

Climate-change deniers can imagine all the hypotheses they like, but it will not change the facts nor "the general induction from the phenomena."

None of this is to say that there are no uncertainties left — there are always uncertainties in any live science. Agreeing about the reality and causes of current global warming is not the same as agreeing about what will happen in the future. There is continuing debate in the scientific community over the likely rate of future change: not "whether" but "how much" and "how soon." And this is precisely why we need to act today: because the longer we wait, the worse the problem will become, and the harder it will be to solve.

Update as of September 8th, 2006

Zoroastrians Keep the Faith, and Keep Dwindling

BURR RIDGE, Ill. — In his day job, Kersey H. Antia is a psychologist who specializes in panic disorders. In his private life, Mr. Antia dons a long white robe, slips a veil over his face and goes to work as a Zoroastrian priest, performing rituals passed down through a patrilineal chain of priests stretching back to ancient Persia.

After a service for the dead in which priests fed sticks of sandalwood and pinches of frankincense into a blazing urn, Mr. Antia surveyed the Zoroastrian faithful of the Midwest — about 80 people in saris, suits and blue jeans.

“We were once at least 40, 50 million — can you imagine?” said Mr. Antia, senior priest at the fire temple here in suburban Chicago. “At one point we had reached the pinnacle of glory of the Persian Empire and had a beautiful religious philosophy that governed the Persian kings.

“Where are we now? Completely wiped out,” he said. “It pains me to say, in 100 years we won’t have many Zoroastrians.”

There is a palpable panic among Zoroastrians today — not only in the United States, but also around the world — that they are fighting the extinction of their faith, a monotheistic religion that most scholars say is at least 3,000 years old.

Zoroastrianism predates Christianity and Islam, and many historians say it influenced those faiths and cross-fertilized Judaism as well, with its doctrines of one God, a dualistic universe of good and evil and a final day of judgment.

While Zoroastrians once dominated an area stretching from what is now Rome and Greece to India and Russia, their global population has dwindled to 190,000 at most, and perhaps as few as 124,000, according to a survey in 2004 by Fezana Journal, published quarterly by the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America. The number is imprecise because of wildly diverging counts in Iran, once known as Persia — the incubator of the faith.

“Survival has become a community obsession,” said Dina McIntyre, an Indian-American lawyer in Chesapeake, Va., who has written and lectured widely on her religion.

The Zoroastrians’ mobility and adaptability has contributed to their demographic crisis. They assimilate and intermarry, virtually disappearing into their adopted cultures. And since the faith encourages opportunities for women, many Zoroastrian women are working professionals who, like many other professional women, have few children or none.

Despite their shrinking numbers, Zoroastrians — who follow the Prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek) — are divided over whether to accept intermarried families and converts and what defines a Zoroastrian. An effort to create a global organizing body fell apart two years ago after some priests accused the organizers of embracing “fake converts” and diluting traditions.

“They feel that the religion is not universal and is ethnic in nature, and that it should be kept within the tribe,” said Jehan Bagli, a retired chemist in Toronto who is a priest, or mobed, and president of the North American Mobed Council, which includes about 100 priests. “This is a tendency that to me sometimes appears suicidal. And they are prepared to make that sacrifice.”

In South Africa, the last Zoroastrian priest recently died, and there is no one left to officiate at ceremonies, said Rohinton Rivetna, a Zoroastrian leader in Chicago who, with his wife, Roshan, was a principal mover behind the failed effort to organize a global body. But they have not given up.

“We have to be working together if we are going to survive,” Mr. Rivetna said.

Although the collective picture is bleak, most individual Zoroastrians appear to be thriving. They are well-educated and well-traveled professionals, earning incomes that place them in the middle and upper classes of the countries where they or their families settled after leaving their homelands in Iran and India. About 11,000 Zoroastrians live in the United States, 6,000 in Canada, 5,000 in England, 2,700 in Australia and 2,200 in the Persian Gulf nations, according to the Fezana Journal survey.

This is the second major exodus in Zoroastrian history. In Iran, after Muslims rose to power in the seventh century A.D., historians say the Zoroastrian population was decimated by massacres, persecution and conversions to Islam. Seven boatloads of Zoroastrian refugees fled Iran and landed on the coast of India in 936. Their descendants, known as Parsis, built Mumbai, formerly Bombay, into the world capital of Zoroastrianism.

The Zoroastrian magazine Parsiana publishes charts each month tracking births, deaths and marriages. Leaders fret over the reports from Mumbai, where deaths outnumber births six to one. The intermarriage rate there has risen to about one in three. The picture in North America is more hopeful: about 1.5 births for one death. But the intermarriage rate in North America is now nearly 50 percent.

Soli Dastur, an exuberant priest who lives in Florida, is among the first generation of immigrants who started the trend. Mr. Dastur grew up in a village outside Mumbai, where his father was a priest, the fire temple was the center of town and his whole world was Zoroastrian.

He arrived in Evanston, Ill., in 1960, where he knew of no other Zoroastrians, to attend college on a scholarship provided by one of the Parsi endowments in Mumbai, which have since provided scholarships to many others. He earned a Ph.D., worked as a chemical engineer and married an American Roman Catholic he met on a blind date 40 years ago.

Mr. Dastur is a priest in much demand to perform ceremonies because of his melodic chanting of the prayers. He and his wife, Jo Ann, have two grown daughters. Neither married a Zoroastrian.

“They’re good human beings,” Mr. Dastur said. “That’s more important to me.”

The very tenets of Zoroastrianism could be feeding its demise, many adherents said in interviews. Zoroastrians believe in free will, so in matters of religion they do not believe in compulsion. They do not proselytize. They can pray at home instead of going to a temple. While there are priests, there is no hierarchy to set policy. And their basic doctrine is a universal ethical precept: “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.”

“That’s what I take away from Zoroastrianism,” said Tenaz Dubash, a filmmaker in New York City who is making a documentary about the future of her faith, “that I’m a cerebral, thinking human being, and I need to think for myself.”

Ferzin Patel, who runs a support group for 20 intermarried couples in New York, said that while the Zoroastrians in the group adored their faith and wanted to teach it to their children, they in no way wanted to compel their spouses to convert.

“In the intermarriage group, I don’t think anyone feels that someone should forfeit their religion just for Zoroastrianism,” Ms. Patel said.

Despite, or because of, the high intermarriage rate, some Zoroastrian priests refuse to accept converts or to perform initiation ceremonies for adopted children or the children of intermarried couples, especially when the father is not Zoroastrian. The ban on these practices is far stronger in India and Iran than in North America.

“As soon as you do it, you start diluting your ethnicity, and one generation has an intermarriage, and the next generation has more dilution and the customs become all fuzzy and they eventually disappear,” said Jal N. Birdy, a priest in Corona, Calif., who will not perform weddings of mixed couples. “That would destroy my community, which is why I won’t do it.”

The North American Mobed Council is so divided on the issue of accepting intermarried spouses and children that it has been unable to take a position, said Mr. Bagli, the council’s president. He supports accepting converts because he said he can find no ban in Zoroastrian texts, but he estimated that as many as 40 percent of the priests in his group were opposed.

The peril and the hope for Zoroastrianism are embodied in a child of the diaspora, Rohena Elavia Ullal, 27, a physical therapist in suburban Chicago.

Ms. Ullal knew from an early age that her parents wanted her to marry another Zoroastrian. Her mother, a former board president of the Chicago temple, helped organize Sunday school classes once a month there, enticing teenagers with weekend sleepovers and roller-skating trips.

The result was a core group of close friends who felt more like cousins, Ms. Ullal said recently over breakfast.

Both of her brothers found mates at Zoroastrian youth congresses, and one is already married. Ms. Ullal stayed on the lookout.

“There were so few,” she said. “I guess you’re lucky if you find somebody. That would be the ideal.”

Ms. Ullal’s college boyfriend is also the child of Indian immigrants to the United States, but he is Hindu. [They married on Saturday and had two ceremonies — one Hindu, one Zoroastrian.] But Ms. Ullal says that before they even became engaged, they talked about her desire to raise their children as Zoroastrians.

“It’s scary; we’re dipping down in numbers,” she said. “I don’t want to hurt his parents, but he doesn’t have the kind of responsibility, whereas I do."


Update as of September 6th, 2006

The World Health Organization (WHO) today expressed concern about the emergence of virulent strains of tuberculosis (TB) that are virtually untreatable with existing drugs and called for the strengthening of prevention measures.

Extensive Drug Resistant TB (XDR-TB) is resistant to not only the two main first-line TB drugs – isoniazid and rifampicin – but also to three or more of the six classes of second-line drugs.

Recent findings from a survey conducted by WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that XDR-TB has been identified in all regions of the world but is most frequent in the countries of the former Soviet Union and in Asia.

“XDR-TB poses a grave public health threat, especially in populations with high rates of HIV and where there are few health care resources,” said WHO in a statement issued in Geneva.

Separate data on a recent outbreak of XDR-TB in an HIV-positive population in Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa found alarmingly high mortality rates, said WHO. 52 out of 53 patients identified with XDR-TB died within 25 days on average, including those benefiting from antiretroviral drugs.

WHO noted that its recommendations for managing drug-resistant strains of TB include strengthening basic TB care, ensuring prompt diagnosis and treatment of drug resistant cases, increasing collaboration between HIV and TB control programmes, and boosting investment in laboratory infrastructure.

On Thursday, WHO will join other TB experts at a two-day meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, to assess the response required to critically address TB drug resistance, particularly in Africa.

Update as of September 4th, 2006

Global warming is affecting the intensity of Atlantic hurricanes, according to a new study by a university professor in Florida who says his research provides the first direct link between climate change and storm strength. Reuters

What Is the Latest Thing to Be Discouraged About? The Rise of Pessimism

NY Times- The early stages of the Iraq war may have been a watershed in American optimism. The happy talk was so extreme it is now difficult to believe it was sincere: “we will be greeted as liberators”; “mission accomplished”; the insurgency is “in the last throes.” Most wildly optimistic of all was the goal: a military action transforming the Middle East into pro-American democracies.

The gap between predictions and reality has left Americans deeply discouraged. So has much of what has happened, or not happened, at the same time. Those who believed New Orleans would rebound quickly after Hurricane Katrina have seen their hopes dashed. Those counting on solutions to health care, energy dependence or global warming have seen no progress. It is no wonder the nation is in a gloomy mood; 71 percent of respondents in a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll said the country is on the wrong track.

These are ideal times for the release of “Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit,” by Joshua Foa Dienstag, a U.C.L.A. political theorist. Mr. Dienstag aims to rescue pessimism from the philosophical sidelines, where it has been shunted by optimists of all ideologies. The book is seductive, because pessimists are generally more engaging and entertaining than optimists, and because, as the author notes, “the world keeps delivering bad news.” It is almost tempting to throw up one’s hands and sign on with Schopenhauer.

Pessimism, however, is the most un-American of philosophies. This nation was built on the values of reason and progress, not to mention the “pursuit of happiness.” Pessimism as philosophy is skeptical of the idea of progress. Pursuing happiness is a fool’s errand. Pessimism is not, as is commonly thought, about being depressed or misanthropic, and it does not hold that humanity is headed for disaster. It simply doubts the most basic liberal principle: that applying human reasoning to the world’s problems will have a positive effect.

The biggest difference between optimists and pessimists, Mr. Dienstag argues, is in how they view time. Optimists see the passing of time as a canvas on which to paint a better world. Pessimists see it as a burden. Time ticks off the physical decline of one’s body toward the inevitability of death, and it separates people from their loved ones. “All the tragedies which we can imagine,” said Simone Weil, the French philosopher who starved herself to death at age 34, “return in the end to the one and only tragedy: the passage of time.”

Optimists see history as the story of civilization’s ascent. Pessimists believe, Mr. Dienstag notes, in the idea that any apparent progress has hidden costs, so that even when the world seems to be improving, “in fact it is getting worse (or, on the whole, no better).” Polio is cured, but AIDS arrives. Airplanes make travel easy, but they can drop bombs or be crashed into office towers. There is no point in seeking happiness. When joy “actually makes its appearance, it as a rule comes uninvited and unannounced,” insisted Schopenhauer, the dour German who was pessimism’s leading figure.

As politicians, pessimists do not believe in undertaking great initiatives to ameliorate unhappiness, since they are skeptical they will work. They are inclined to accept the world’s evil and misery as inevitable. Mr. Dienstag tries to argue that pessimists can be politically engaged, and in modest ways they can be. Camus joined the French Resistance. But pessimism’s overall spirit, as Camus noted, “is not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments.”

President Clinton was often mocked for his declarations that he still believed “in a place called Hope.” But he understood that instilling hope is a critical part of leadership. Other than a few special interest programs — like cutting taxes on the wealthy and giving various incentives to business — it is hard to think of areas in which the Bush administration has raised the nation’s hopes and met them. This president has, instead, tried to focus the American people on the fear of terrorism, for which there is no cure, only bad choices or something worse.

Part of Mr. Bush’s legacy may well be that he robbed America of its optimism — a force that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other presidents, like Ronald Reagan, used to rally the country when it was deeply challenged. The next generation of leaders will have to resell discouraged Americans on the very idea of optimism, and convince them again that their goal should not be to live with their ailments, but to cure them.

Update as of September 3rd, 2006

  • A New study on mice suggests exposure to ultrasound to effect fetal brain development, researchers say the findings should not discourage pregnant women from having ultrasound scans for medical reasons-CNN
  • Alzheimer’s drug galantamine protects guinea pigs from the effects of compounds in pesticides and poisons that attack the nervous system, researchers at the Univ of Maryland School of Medicine report-CNN
  • In just one meal high unsaturated fat can quickly prevent “good” cholesterol from protecting the body against clogged arteries, a small study shows-CNN
  • A 6.7 earthquake reported off coast of Vanuatu US geological survey says, pacific tsunami warning center reports higher initial reading of a 7.0 magnitude but said that there is no Pacific Ocean wide tsunami threat. – CNN
  • Philippines troops and officials evacuated tens of thousands of villagers as the restive Mayan volcano showed more signs of an imminent eruption. CNN
  • UN’s Humanitarian Chief describes Gaza as a “ticking time bomb” the head of a key foreign and donors meeting. BBC
  • Zimbabweans express outrage at proposed legislation to monitor telephone calls and Internet use. BBC
  • Nigeria’s police are planning to buy 80,000 new firearms ahead of New Year’s Elections, a spokesman says. BBC
  • Police say that a Connecticut lawyer has been charged with 1st degree murder for allegedly stabbing his 59-year-old neighbor to death, after being told the neighbor had sexually assaulted his two-year-old daughter. CNN
  • Rules to stop convicted pedophiles from committed sex abuse abroad are being evaded, campaigners say. BBC

Update as of August 31st, 2006

Almanac Predicts Unusually Cold Winter
Associated Press

LEWISTON, Maine -- After one of the warmest winters on record, this coming winter will be much colder than normal from coast to coast, according to the latest edition of the venerable Farmers' Almanac.

The nearly 190-year-old almanac, which says its forecasts are accurate 80 percent to 85 percent of the time, correctly predicted a "polar coaster" of dramatic swings for last winter, editor Peter Geiger said. For example, New York City collected 40 inches of snow even though it was one of the warmest winters in the city's history.

This year, predicts the almanac's reclusive forecaster, Caleb Weatherbee, it will be frigid from the Gulf Coast all the way up the East Coast.

But it'll be especially nippy on the Northern Plains -- up to 20 degrees below seasonal norms in much of Montana, the Dakotas and part of Wyoming, he writes.

And, he says, it'll be especially snowy across the nation's midsection, much of the Pacific Northwest, the mountains of the Southwest and parts of eastern New England.

Last winter was the fifth-warmest on average in the lower 48 states. Forty-one states had temperatures above average, according to the National Climatic Data Center. That reduced energy demand by an estimated 11 percent, it said.

This year's retail edition of the Farmers' Almanac is the biggest ever, at 208 pages. It includes traditional charts on astronomy, average frost dates, and planting and gardening calendars. It also has the usual down-home features and cornball humor.

Update as of August 26th, 2006


What is it going to look like in the future?

Ray Kurzweil, renowned author and futurist, tells us that in the future, medicine will use nano-bots, blood cell sized devices to enhance our health from the inside out. For example if you have an ulcer, a doctor would make a small incision, insert the nano- bots into your system and the tiny machines fix the ulcers from inside of your body.

It's only a question of time before these devices are being used in people's bodies on a more regular basis. A New techonology called MIKEY (Motorized Independent Kinetic Electric Yanni) is a small chip that’s implanted in a body part (ie, hand). Test subjects can demonstrate the ability to unlock a deadbolt by simply waiving their hand (with the implant) near it. Some people enjoy the idea of having computer technology integrated into their body, while others find it repugnant.

We have scientist friends who tell us that alongside nano-bots, it's extremely likely that there are also nano-bugs (viruses or bacteria fused  into a nano-unit) in use or in development. These could infect the body and do God knows what. This is cutting edge science, and one can only imagine what's actually being implemented and tested around the globe today.  There's generally a lag time between when something hits the streets and when the public at large becomes aware of it.  

The character of "Data" in the later Star Trek series could actually be walking around in prototype form right now. Ray Kurzweil states that by 2030 there wont be a clear distinction between humans and cyborgs, or androids, whatever you want to call them, and that there will also be (and probably already are) people who are part machine, part human.

Could E-Voting Put Your Vote At Risk?

 Is our Democracy at Risk? 
60% of the votes in the 2004 Presidential Election were cast or tallied by electronic voting machines, that may hit 80% by this November’s election.

28 States have legislation or rules for a mandatory paper record of the vote, but 22 states completely rely on electronics to deliver their vote properly.

Now activists are suing the government for violation of state constitutions to force legislators to require a paper trail on all electronic votes.  Some cases focus on the unreliability of the electronic voting machines, saying they can be hacked or tampered with. The goal is the same; to make sure that a permanent record exists of any election held in the United States.

A successful suit in New Mexico forced the entire state to use optically scanned paper ballots, thereby providing a sure fire way to validate results if necessary.

It’s come to the point to where people actually have to sue to convince their state to use a method which provides a tangible record of votes cast, otherwise legislators won’t do anything about it.

Update as of August 25th, 2006

Global warming is affecting the intensity of Atlantic hurricanes, according to a new study by a university professor in Florida who says his research provides the first direct link between climate change and storm strength. Reuters

David Copperfield says he has found the “Fountain of Youth” in the southern Bahamas amid a cluster of 4 tiny islands he recently bought for 50 million, he tells Reuters the water brings dying leaves and bugs back to life.

Scientists in the United States say that the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica appears to have stopped growing and may now return to normal within the next 60 years or so. At the worst the hole is a big as North America.

The ozone layer has been worn down by human- made chemicals (CFC’s), international agreements have banned the harmful substances to the environment, but with the solution has come a major problem, cheap chemicals that have replaced CFC’s are contributing greatly to Global Warming.

Nations are being forced to acknowledge that without more intervention the progress in the South Pole could be in vain. BBC News

 Update as of August 24th, 2006

European unions have banned any imports from the US into Europe after Washington’s admission that commercial rice had been contaminated with an experimental strain of  Genetically Modified rice. This strain hasn’t even been tested on humans, or even been approved for animal feeds. The US insists that it doesn’t pose any risk to humans or to the environment. Japan already suspended imports of rice from the US.

High tech biometric cards were supposed to be a fool proof way to check worker immigration status, but evidence shows that is not the way to make sure temporary workers are in fact temporary.  Bio- metric smart cards, which contain memory chips can be used to identify people using biologically individual markers such as scans of a person’s iris and fingerprints. The Bush administration claims that this could be a solution to our illegal worker problem - creating a way for temporary workers to be identified and legally visit the U.S.  However, critics say there are may flaws to this concept.

Members of the House immigration reform caucus are promoting a “solution” which is to create and implement a biometric social security card. In that case, we’d all be issued new identification cards in the form of our social security cards, but they’d have some new, extremely personal information in a biometric data chip. The proponents of this concept say that it will be much easier to implement, since the SS system is already up and running.

We just saw a little blip on a more fringe news program. It said that school children in a particular state are forced to listen to a radio station as they ride to school on the bus. What style of music? The quote from the news piece, said, “Not to worry, it’s only patriotic music and chants.”  Imagine that.

Update as of August 23rd, 2006

EU restricts imports of US long grain rice

Brussels (dpa) - The European Commission on Wednesday slapped stringent testing requirements on imports of American long grain rice in a bid to restrict entry of unauthorized genetically modified foods (GMOs) into the 25-nation bloc.

The commission, the European Union's executive body, said all imports of US long grain rice would now have to be certified as free of the unauthorized GMO LL Rice 601 before being exported to the EU.

"The decision has been taken in light of the recent announcement by the US authorities that this unauthorized GMO had been found in samples of commercial rice on the US market," said a commission spokesman.

The emergency measures mean that, with immediate effect, only consignments of US long grain rice that have been tested by an accredited laboratory using a validated testing method and accompanied by a certificate assuring the absence of LL Rice 601, can enter the EU, the spokesman added.

"We have strict legislation in place in the EU to ensure that any GM product put on the European market has undergone a thorough authorization procedure based on scientific assessment. There is no flexibility for unauthorized GMOs - these cannot enter the EU food and feed chain under any circumstances," said Markos Kyprianou, EU chief for health and consumer protection.

Under EU rules, national authorities are responsible for controlling imports at their borders and for preventing any contaminated consignments from being placed on the market.

In addition, controls will be carried out on products already on the market, to ensure that they are free from LL Rice 601. European importers will also have to ensure that the products they import from the US are free of the banned GMO.

The commission decision will be reviewed by national EU experts within ten days. Once approved, the measures will remain in place for 6 months, after which the situation will be reviewed again.

The US is a major supplier of rice to the EU, followed by India, Thailand and Guyana.

US authorities informed the commission on August 18 that trace amounts of non-authorized genetically modified rice had been detected in samples of commercial long grain rice on the US market.

The EU decision has been criticized by environmental group Greenpeace International as "a minimal response to a serious contamination problem."

Greenpeace said the EU should stop reacting to contamination "accidents" and start preventing them instead.

Brussels and Washington have often crossed swords on GMOs in recent years, with US officials complaining of overly-strict EU requirements which they say act as a trade barrier.

The EU has argued that its hardline stance is only prompted by concerns for the safety of consumers.

Update as of August 2oth, 2006

Long after mosquito bite, ill effects could linger

It has been more than three years since Laura Booker was bitten by a West Nile-infected mosquito - a bite she thinks might have caused her declining health.

A new study suggests that Booker's ongoing health problems could be linked to West Nile virus, an illness once thought to rarely cause long-term effects in those who survive it.

More than a year after being diagnosed with West Nile virus, half of the patients have continuing health complaints, including fatigue, memory problems, extremity weakness, depression, tremors and headaches, according to an article in the current issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases, a medical journal.

Booker said joint pain and tremors, among many other problems, prompt frequent doctor visits.

"I don't know if all of it is because of West Nile," said Booker, 47, of Nederland. "But I was perfectly healthy. I was never sick. And now all the sudden I have all these problems."

The new study concludes that abnormalities in motor skills and executive functions are common long-term problems among patients who have had the West Nile viral infection.

"Patients with milder illness are just as likely as patients with more severe illness to experience adverse outcomes," it states.

The majority of people infected with West Nile virus develop no symptoms, but about 20 percent experience a flu-like illness called West Nile fever, according to the study.

About 1 percent of patients develop more severe diseases such as meningitis or encephalitis, it states. Patients who develop meningitis or encephalitis often are hospitalized and some die, but the fever generally is considered benign and self-limiting.

That might be about to change, the study suggests.

"What we found is that there is a substantial amount of ongoing symptoms, both among those patients diagnosed with West Nile fever as well as those with the more severe diseases, encephalitis and meningitis," Dr. Paul Carson, lead author of the study, said in news release.

The study involved testing and surveying 49 patients, all from eastern North Dakota, who had lab-confirmed West Nile virus infections.

Beaumont physician James Holly said the problem with long-term effects is that they are incredibly subjective.

"It is very hard to control for those subjective symptoms," he said, adding the study contradicts what the medical field currently thinks about West Nile virus.

Holly himself was infected with West Nile in June. He had a fever, became weak and had severe muscle soreness before being tested for the virus, he said.

He said on the day he first experienced symptoms, he spent 66 minutes on a treadmill. This week, he has only been able to stay on the treadmill for 30 minutes - and that was at a reduced incline and a slower pace, he said.

But Holly does not believe he will have long-term health problems because of the illness. He said it will take up to two months to get back to his pre-West Nile strength.

"There is no doubt there is a physiological price you pay for having this illness," he said. "But it is not a permanent physiological price until you allow it to change your life."

Jefferson County officials Thursday said there have been eight confirmed West Nile cases in Beaumont this year. Five of those were in Beaumont. One person who had West Nile died, according to the Beaumont Public Health Department. There have been no confirmed cases of West Nile in humans in Jasper or Newton counties, officials there said.

There have been at least a half dozen West Nile-related deaths in Southeast Texas since 2002, when someone died in Jefferson County, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Statewide, there have been 47 confirmed cases of meningitis or encephalitis caused by West Nile this year. There have been five deaths, according to the department.

Department spokeswoman Emily Palmer said these numbers only include cases confirmed in state labs. They do not, for example, include the recent West Nile-related death in Beaumont.

In 2005, there were 128 human cases in Texas, including 11 deaths, according to state statistics.

Nationwide, there have been 388 confirmed human cases in 26 states this year, according to the most recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers, released on Aug. 15. Thirteen infected people have died.

West Nile has been confirmed in mosquitoes or animals in 40 states this year, according to the CDC.

West Nile virus first appeared in North America in 1999, many decades after it was first reported elsewhere, the CDC reports. It was first isolated in the West Nile District of Uganda in 1937.

Toni Matherne, 38, of Mandeville, La., became ill with West Nile in 2002. She spent a week and a half in the hospital, but has generally recovered, she said.

"The only thing I noticed long-term is that my immune system is not as good," she said. "It is a coincidence that ever since getting West Nile, it has been like that."

Update as of August 12th, 2006

Scientists measure the 'dark matter' of the universe

by John Johnson Jr., Los Angeles Times

Across the tapestry of the night sky, hundreds or perhaps thousands of stars are doing frantic dances of death, spinning wildly around each other and shooting off waves of invisible gravitational energy like interstellar beacons.

In one of the most exotic observatories in the world, Fred Raab is waiting for those waves to wash up on the shoreline of Earth. When they do, they could change our understanding of the universe.

"We've spent 400 years since the invention of the telescope looking at a small portion of what exists," said Raab, head of the LIGO laboratory in the high desert of southeastern Washington.

LIGO -- the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory -- could reveal the rest.

"This gives us an observational tool to probe the dark, strong-gravity part of the universe, which we've never really done," said Kip S. Thorne, a California Institute of Technology physicist who is one of the world's foremost experts on relativity.

Like the first bathysphere diving into deep-sea trenches, the $300 million LIGO project, conceived more than 25 years ago, is expected to uncover exotic creatures, such as dancing neutron stars and binary black holes, circling each other like heavyweight fighters. Physicists also may uncover the mysterious "dark matter" that is believed to be all around us but has never been measured. Some think they might find gateways into extra dimensions.

What makes LIGO different from other observatories is that it doesn't "see" the cosmos by detecting electromagnetic energy in the form of light, radio waves or X-rays. It feels it, measuring waves of gravity that wrinkle space-time like ripples on a lake.

One advantage to gravity-wave science over light-wave science is that whereas light bounces off solid objects, gravity waves go through everything -- planets, stars, people's bodies.

Raab, Thorne and about 500 other scientists around the world caught up in the race to measure the first gravity waves are essentially giving birth to a new science.

It has been gestating 90 years, since Einstein theorized that large bodies moving through space would give off waves of gravity, traveling at light speed, that would shrink and expand space-time itself.

The problem with gravity waves is that they are so difficult to detect that many physicists long doubted they would ever be found. In November, however, LIGO reached a level of sensitivity at which Thorne and other experts believe they might detect waves.

Now excitement has gripped the scientific community as it awaits word.

It can be felt inside the LIGO control room, where Raab studies a series of constantly changing graphs flashed up on the wall. Like a man translating a foreign language, Raab points to one squiggly line that he says is traffic passing on the main road a dozen miles away. Another is construction in the nearby cities of Richland and Kennewick.

If you know what to look for, Raab said, you can pick out the seismic signature of ocean waves hitting the shoreline of western Washington -- 200 miles away.

In the dun-colored desert-scape of southeastern Washington sits the Hanford nuclear site. Plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki was made here. Now, the signs of decay and rust are everywhere. The site has become a relic of the Cold War.

Down a twisting side road, LIGO appears out of the Russian cheatgrass and mustard plants, a bulky apparition with two tubes extending at right angles into the desert.

The 2.4-mile-long tentacles are the heart of LIGO. They are at right angles so that incoming gravity waves will shrink one arm while lengthening the other. An identical facility sits in a forest in southern Louisiana, so that the readings made at one observatory can be cross-checked almost 2,000 miles away.

The National Science Foundation has provided the funding.

Inside the arms is a laser interferometer, which works by splitting a laser beam and sending one of the two resulting beams down each arm. The beams then bounce around 100 times on a set of mirrors before being sent back to a photodetector.

The two beams should recombine at exactly the same time because they travel an identical distance.

But if a gravity wave passes by, the beams will be thrown off as the arms are alternately stretched and squeezed.

Detecting such a minute signal has required extraordinary steps.

Because the site had to be as flat as possible, satellites were used to survey the land, which was eventually graded to within three-eighths of an inch over five miles.

To get around the problem of air molecules shaking the mirrors, workers sucked the air out of the tubes down to a billionth of an atmosphere. But that still wasn't good enough to make sure the speed of light would be constant throughout the tubes. So the team had to get the tubes down to a trillionth of an atmosphere.

The surface of the four 10-inch mirrors in the arms is so smooth it doesn't vary by more than 30-billionths of an inch. Thirty control systems keep the lasers and mirrors in alignment. The vibration isolation system is so sophisticated, the only thing approaching it is the mechanics used by semiconductor chip makers to etch circuits on the chips.

Even though ground was broken for the LIGO project more than a decade ago, it was only in November that the facility was ready to hunt seriously for gravity waves.

"We're operating right now where we can see changes a thousandth the size of a proton," Raab said.

Some vibrations still manage to get through.

"A bulldozer 10 miles away knocks us offline," he said.

One recent problem was caused by a stunt pilot practicing loops.

Since the November data run began, LIGO has managed to get 10 weeks of clean data.

The hunt is on.

On the wall outside Thorne's cluttered office at Caltech are framed letters containing the bets he has made with other prominent scientists, including two with physicist Stephen Hawking. Thorne won both.

In fact, Thorne has lost only two bets, and both were over gravity waves. In 1978, he bet a dinner that gravity waves would be found within a decade. It didn't happen.

The second time, he bet a case of good California wine that the first gravity wave would be detected by Jan. 1, 2000. Once again, he had to pay up.

Thorne is no longer taking bets on when gravity waves will be found. But found they will be, he said.

It just might not be with this version of LIGO. Even though LIGO is operating within the range where gravity waves are thought to exist, it's just barely there.

"We're at a level now where we could see one every 30 years to every three years," said Jay Marx, executive director of the LIGO program.

Those aren't great odds. The solution is Advanced LIGO, a $200 million upgrade that will increase the sensitivity by a factor of 10. Among the improvements are a more powerful laser and more sophisticated vibration isolation hardware. Work is expected to begin sometime after 2008.

After the improvements, a gravity wave could be detected every three weeks, Marx said.

Thorne said: "We are at a level where we could see waves now. After the upgrade we will be operating in a domain where we are likely to see waves."

And if they don't find waves?

"That would show something is wrong with our understanding of the universe," he said.

Update as of July 7th, 2006

Canada Confirms 6th Case of Mad Cow

TORONTO (AP) -- Canada confirmed on Tuesday its sixth case of mad cow disease and said it would investigate where the cow was born and what other animals may have eaten the same feed.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said test results confirmed what was suspected last week. The animal was at least 15 years of age, and was born before Canada implemented restrictions on potentially dangerous feed in 1997.

The agency said it was launching an investigation.

Mad cow disease is believed to spread through feed, when cows eat the contaminated tissue of other cattle. Humans can get a related disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, in similar fashion - by eating meat contaminated with mad cow. There have been more than 150 human deaths worldwide linked to the variant.

Two of the six confirmed mad cow cases in Canada have involved animals that were infected after 1997, when a ban was instituted on the use of cattle parts in feed for cattle, or other ruminants such as sheep and goats.

The agency says Canada's food supply is safe, and the level of mad cow disease in the national cattle herd is very low. Canada has an estimated national herd of 17 million cattle.

U.S. Agriculture Department spokesman Ed Loyd said last week trade was resumed with Canada with the assumption that more mad cow cases would be found. Loyd said U.S. officials have "a high level of confidence in the safeguards and mitigating measures in place in the U.S. and Canada."

George Luterbach, an animal scientist with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said the latest case should not have any repercussions internationally.

"It is unwelcome news but not necessarily unexpected news," Luterbach said, adding "it should have little or no implications internationally."

Having tested 60,000 cattle last year, Luberbach said the agency is confident that mad cow is not a common in Canada or something that is growing.

Shipments of live cattle to the United States were halted in 2003 after the first reported mad cow case in Canada. Trade in young animals resumed last year, but there has been no word on when the border may be reopened to older animals.

Hugh Lynch-Ftaunton, president of the 90,000-member Canadian Cattlemen's Association, said some Asian and European countries may wait to see the final report on the latest case before reopening their borders to Canadian cattle.

"Some of the countries that are on the verge of dealing with us differently will probably want to study the report on this and that might slow it down marginally but I don't think it's going to be make or break," Lynch-Ftaunton said.

Last month, Canada announced it was broadening restrictions on animal feed in an effort to fight mad cow disease. The Agency revealed measures, to be phased in over the next year, aimed at keeping potentially risky cattle parts from all animal feed, not just feed destined for cows.

The parts will also be banned from pet food and fertilizers to avoid the risk of inadvertent cross-contamination of feed on farms and ranches.

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