Blue Marble

TX Women Paying for Own Rape Kits?

| Fri May 8, 2009 9:28 AM EDT

Consider this the Friday edition of the "You Gotta Be Kidding Me" beat: Women in Houston are being forced to pay for processing their own rape kits. So I guess that means that people claiming burglary will have to pay for fingerprint analysis, right? From Click2Houston.com:

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Bioelectricity Beats Ethanol

| Thu May 7, 2009 2:33 PM EDT

A new study in Science shows the best way to maximize "miles per acre" from biomass is to convert it to electricity, not ethanol.

Compared to ethanol used for internal combustion engines, bioelectricity used for battery-powered vehicles would deliver an average of 80 percent more miles of transportation per acre of crops, while also doubling the greenhouse gas offsets to mitigate climate change.

"It's a relatively obvious question once you ask it, but nobody had really asked it before," says study co-author Chris Field, director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution.

The researchers performed a life-cycle analysis of bioelectricity versus ethanol technologies, taking into account the energy produced and also the energy consumed in each.

Bioelectricity was the clear winner in the transportation-miles-per-acre comparison, regardless of whether the energy was produced from corn or from switchgrass.

A small SUV powered by bioelectricity could travel nearly 14,000 highway miles on the net energy produced from an acre of switchgrass. A comparable internal combustion vehicle could only travel 9,000 miles on the highway.

"The internal combustion engine just isn't very efficient, especially when compared to electric vehicles," says lead author Elliott Campbell of the U of California Merced. "Even the best ethanol-producing technologies with hybrid vehicles aren't enough to overcome this.

While the results of the study clearly favor bioelectricity over ethanol, the researchers caution the issues facing society in choosing an energy strategy are complex.

"We found that converting biomass to electricity rather than ethanol makes the most sense for two policy-relevant issues: transportation and climate," says David Lobell of Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment. "But we also need to compare these options for other issues like water consumption, air pollution, and economic costs."
 

Freeze-Dried "Typical Diet:" Yours for $800

| Thu May 7, 2009 1:14 PM EDT

Ever wonder whether the nutritional labels on your food are telling the truth? Wonder no more: For just $800, you can order "Typical Diet," two six-ounce bottles of a freeze-dried blend of four days' worth of all your daily recommended fat, protein, calories, vitamins, and minerals, prepared by the US government's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). 

Nutritious and delicious? Maybe not. I'm not sure anyone has ever tasted this concoction (and in fact NIST warns it's not for human consumption"). It's used as a standard against which food manufacturers test the nutritional content of their products. The Guardian points out that fans of Typical Diet might want to check out NIST's other fine food products, which include baby food composite, meat, and a standard issue fish from Lake Superior, methylmercury and all. But the fun doesn't stop there:

Nist offers many kinds of useful and, to the connoisseur, delightful Standard Reference Materials. Its catalogue runs to 145 pages.

Prospective purchasers can peruse page after page of bodily fluids and glops, among them bilirubin, cholesterol and ascorbic acid in frozen human serum. There are other speciality products in dizzying variety: toxic metals in bovine blood, naval brass, domestic sludge and plutonium-242 solution, to name four.

Prices are mostly in the $300-$500 range. There are bargains to be had, including an item called "multi drugs of abuse in urine", on offer at three bottles for $372.

Good news for all you 2012ers out there: Typical Diet doesn't expire till 2016, so you can start stocking up now.  

 

What Color Is the Sky in GOP-land?

| Thu May 7, 2009 7:56 AM EDT

How excruciating it is to be a GOP conservative with any minute strand of integrity or intellectual ability? If you want to see Mike Pence (R-Ind) eviscerated by Chris Matthews for refusing to answer a simple question, watch this.

It's painfully obvious that Pence believes in evolution but has been so Limbaugh-ized, he prefers to babble incoherently rather than say "Yes, I believe in evolution." And global warming, and the need for conservation. By the time it was over, poor Pence was blithering on about belonging to the party of Teddy Roosevelt, who started the national park system and hugged pandas daily. Near as I can tell.

Here's a snippet from HuffPo:

Today's Science Word: Epizootic

| Wed May 6, 2009 6:24 PM EDT

Sobering news today from ABC Science Online, via Discovery.com:

An epizootic—the wildlife equivalent of a human epidemic—of black band disease has appeared in the Great Barrier Reef, say Australian researchers.
Scientists, who have been monitoring the progress of the disease, say this the first time an epizootic of this type has been documented in Australian waters.

Read Julia Whitty's excellent Fate of the Oceans piece for some sorely needed context on today's news about our seas.

British Columbia Votes on Carbon Tax

| Wed May 6, 2009 3:32 PM EDT

North America's first carbon tax faces a critical test in upcoming elections in British Columbia. The results are likely to ripple across the continent.

Nature News points out that Canadian provincial elections don't normally garner international attention. But economists and environmentalists are viewing the election on May 12th as a test of several climate change policies. 

The incumbent Liberal Party government imposed a carbon tax in British Columbia in July 2008. It's been unpopular with many from the start because it boosted fuel costs during a time of record-high oil prices.

The opposition BC New Democratic Party (NDP) has vowed to "axe the tax," claiming it's ineffective and unfair to populations living in remote locations. Traditionally the NDP has been a greener party than the Liberals—leading some to accuse it now of attacking the carbon tax simply to chase votes in a tight election.

According to Nature News, economist Charles Komanoff, co-founder of the non-profit Carbon Tax Centre in New York, says: "We are keenly interested in watching this unfold. If [the tax] persists, it will give a big boost to the cause in the United States."

During Canada's 2008 federal election, the Liberal party campaigned for a green shift, hoping to put more tax burden onto polluters. They lost a bunch of seats for taking that stance and consequently the idea of a national carbon tax was scrapped.

A battle is also being fought in BC over independent power production. The Liberals have allowed private companies to apply for licenses for small hydroelectric projects that don't require building dams, claiming this is the most efficient way to boost renewable power production. Others claim company profits are incompatible with environmental stewardship and the NDP is campaigning to scrap this scheme too.

Tzeporah Berman of the climate-change advocacy group PowerUp Canada in Vancouver says British Columbia is going through are some of the world's first growing pains in adapting to  real climate policy. "The debate had been all abstract until now," says Berman. "It had been entirely possible to support a phase-out of fossil fuels and build-out in clean energy without having to face what those things mean in practice."

Developments in Canada are interesting to note in terms of a new political science study predicting the Obama presidency will likely break through a structural bias in American politics favoring the status quo and bring about significant changes in policy. The study predicts a shift in policy being twice as large as produced by Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, 40 percent larger than Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, and twice as large as FDR's election in 1932.

The prediction is based on a "pivotal politics" theory and employs the concept of the "gridlock interval" to assess the likelihood of policy change in Obama administration. You can download the paper [pdf] from PS: Political Science & Politics for free.
 

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Weird Bird Smuggling News

| Wed May 6, 2009 3:13 PM EDT

Liquids? Nope. Gels? Nah. Aerosols? Uh-uh. Birds? Ah-ha!

Yesterday, a man attempting to smuggle songbirds into the US from Vietnam was betrayed by his flamboyant leggings:

Sony Dong, 46, was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport in March after an inspector spotted bird feathers and droppings on his socks and tail feathers peeking out from under his pants, prosecutors said.

"He had fashioned these special cloth devices to hold the birds," said U.S. attorney spokesman Thom Mrozek. "They were secured by cloth wrappings and attached to his calves with buttons."

The reason? American collectors shell out $400 per bird. They cost less than $30 each in Vietnam.

In other bird smuggling news, over at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, customs officers discovered that a Nigerian passenger was carrying a souvenir pigeon head concealed in some homemade soap. (HT @noahwilliamgray.)

More bird smuggling stories? Post 'em in the comments.

Cute Animal vs. Global Warming

| Wed May 6, 2009 2:30 PM EDT

The Fish and Wildlife Service said today that it will launch a year-long review to see if the American Pika is endangered by global warming. The American Pika is a small, furry, rabbit-related mammal whose habitat and range, conservationists say, has been severely restricted by global warming. The pika, not to be confused with the jerboa or Pikachu, lives in cold, mountainous regions of the Western US. As those foothills and mountains have warmed, the pika has been forced to make its home in higher elevations. Problem is, there's a limit to how high they can go: the higher the elevation, the smaller the habitat.

If the pika receives endangered status next year, it will be the first mammal in the lower 48 states to receive protection due to global warming. The pika might make a great mascot against global warming. It's small, furry, cute, has big ears and shiny eyes... to further the cuteness factor, the pika communicates with "whistles" and actually gathers wildflowers to nibble on. Take that, polar bears.

200-Plus New Frogs in Madagascar

| Tue May 5, 2009 7:18 PM EDT

Somewhere between 129 and 221 new species of frogs have been identified in Madagascar—nearly double the known amphibian fauna on the island. The new study suggests that biodiversity in this biodiversity hotspot has been significantly underestimated, even in well-known and well-studied national parks.

"People think we know which plant and animal species live on this planet," says Miguel Vences of the Technical University of Braunschweig, one of the authors. "But the century of discoveries has only just begun—the majority of life forms on Earth is still awaiting scientific recognition."

In the 15 years prior to these findings, researchers had discovered and described over 100 new frog species from Madagascar and believed their species inventory to be nearly complete.

But the new surveys show far more species than suspected. The results come from DNA sequencing of 2,850 specimens of amphibians at 170 sites. The data don't show suggest more individual amphibians living in Madagascar—only more species diversity. Which means the new species are likely fragile and less populous.

The new research also implies that total biodiversity of all species on Madagascar could be higher than previously thought. Therefore the continuing destruction of rainforest in Madagascar may be affecting more species than we know.

Although many reserves and national parks have been created in the past ten years, real protection on the ground is thin. Madagascar has already lost more than 80 percent of its historic rainforest.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that nearly one-quarter of the new species were discovered in unprotected areas.
 

Note to Self: Avoid Surgery in Georgia

| Mon May 4, 2009 7:32 PM EDT

Doesn't "wrong-site" surgery sound oh so much friendlier than "Oops, we removed the wrong breast?"

From the AJC:

A surgical team at Northside Hospital was supposed to remove one of the patient’s breasts — but performed a double mastectomy because of a mistake, state records show. At Atlanta Medical Center, a surgeon drilled into the wrong side of a patient’s head before discovering the error. At several Georgia hospitals, doctors circumcised the wrong babies, performing the procedure against their parents’ wishes in cases at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital and Cartersville Medical Center. At others, doctors mistakenly operated on the wrong hand, knee, hip, leg, hernia and other body parts.

In Georgia, wrong site surgeries apparently get reported once a month. And it's not just a problem in the South: Pennsylvania's even worse.

I wonder how many of these mistakes are related to sleep deprivation in doctors, don't you?

[H/T ProPublica.]