Blue Marble

More Genetic Tests: Still Creepy

| Wed Dec. 3, 2008 12:41 PM EST

There's another spit test out on the market, this one claiming to tell parents which kids have the genetics to be which kinds of athletes. I've got a bad feeling about this.

What's going to happen is that kids of privilege will be tested almost from the cradle, with their helicopter-parents frog marching them toward whichever future seems the most successful. Twenty years later. And poor kids? Kids who'll never get to find out that they'd rather teach or dance than be the Olympian weight lifter their parents drove them to be?

From Slate:

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Making Iraq Fertile

| Tue Dec. 2, 2008 7:42 PM EST

446px-Alleged_location_of_Eden.jpg Iraq is flushing salinity out of millions of acres of land. The process should breathe new life into dirty rivers and dying soils. The idea is to restore "fertile" to the Fertile Crescent. You remember: the swath of once-fecund land arching from the Mediterranean across Iraq and down to the Persian Gulf—aka, the Garden of Eden.

But centuries of irrigation and overuse have turned the farmlands of southern and central Iraq saline—aka, the Garden of Apocalypse. The problem derives from salt collecting in soil when farmers irrigate it with salty water or don't drain it properly. The end result is that Iraq is now so fallow the country imports virtually all its food, paying with oil profits. Much of the government's current budget is spent on food rations, reports Reuters. Making Iraq fertile suggests there might actually be a post-oil future for that nation.

The plan is to pump out subterranean groundwater. The process—which has already worked in Australia—will take years. The work begins with a pumping station in Nassiriya sidelined for decades by the war with Iran, UN sanctions, and the war with the US. The project is further challenged by an ongoing severe drought and by 55,000 miles of crumbling drainage and irrigation channels. . . Suggestion: run the pumps on solar or tidal power and minimize that other problem too. And while we're at it, why not donate the sweat equity of those short-sighted Detroit CEOs? They've been part of the problem for long enough. They could toil in the desert and meditate on their manifold sins.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

Charge Your Cellphone By Talking

| Mon Dec. 1, 2008 9:26 PM EST

112px-Cell_phone_icon.svg.png Imagine a self-powered cellphone that charges by the pressure waves formed when you talk or walk. Researchers have found a certain type of piezoelectric material that can covert energy at a 100 percent increase when manufactured at a very small size (specifically 21 nanometers in thickness). This suggests that disturbances in the form of sound waves could be harvested for powering nanodevices and microdevices of the future.

Here's how it works. Piezoelectrics are (usually) crystal or ceramic materials that generate voltage when a form of mechanical stress is applied (think car cigarette lighters). It's an old technology now powering dance floors in Europe. Combine piezoelectrics with the strange, infinitessimally small nanoworld, where many materials change their properties dramatically (gold turns red, toxic, and liquid at room temperature; opaque materials like copper become transparent; insulators like silicon become conductors). Piezoelectric materials at 21-nm thick turn into power-harvesting titans.

The findings could have potentially profound effects for low-powered electronic devices like cell phones and laptops. Many contain nano-sized components (1 nanometer equals one-billionth of a meter). All need a lot of recharging. But pressure-senstitive, self-powered piezoelectrics could harness energy from the sound waves in your speech or your walk. Free of charge takes on a whole new meaning.

The research is published in Physical Review B, the scientific journal of the American Physical Society.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

Just Say No to Drug Czars

| Mon Dec. 1, 2008 8:05 PM EST

Below is a guest blog entry by MoJo author Maia Szalavitz:

The "drug czar" position has never worked as intended. Originally proposed as a cabinet-level coordinator of drug policy by Joe Biden in the early 80's, it was a knee-jerk response to growing hysteria over widespread cocaine use. Ronald Reagan initially vetoed the idea as more bureaucracy, but eventually got on board, signing the relevant legislation in 1988.

The post's creation was part of a package of harmful laws that included the death penalty for "drug kingpins" and the notorious mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine that helped make an already racially-biased drug policy (.pdf) into a situation where one in ten young African American men are in prison.

Ever since, the job has been held by political operatives (William Bennett), police officers (Lee Brown) and generals (Barry McCaffrey). Never once has an academic drug policy expert, an MD, PhD, or other addiction researcher who has actually studied the subject served as drug czar. Will that change under Obama?

Bus Economy Booming

| Tue Nov. 25, 2008 11:29 PM EST

800px-Leyland_double_decker_bus.JPG Intercity bus service in the US jumped nearly 10 percent in the last year. In fact, the rate of growth was the highest in more than 40 years. Rising fuel prices played a role. But so did the revival of downtown districts and a growing acceptance of bus travel among younger travelers. Because of them, the atmosphere was spared roughly 36,000 tons of CO2 emissions.

Thank you bus riders.

Meanwhile air travel in the same period declined 8 percent. Travel by private vehicle was down 3.3 percent. Train ridership increased about 3.3 percent.

Thank you train riders.

Much of the growth was driven by two companies, Megabus and Boltbus, a joint venture of the Greyhound and Peter Pan bus companies. Both started kerbside pick-up service in northeastern states in spring 2007. The two companies offer high-frequency service between major US cities and wireless Internet service on board.

Thanks to the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University in Chicago for the new study.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

All-Expenses-Paid India Vacation, Courtesy of Your Health Insurer

| Mon Nov. 24, 2008 4:09 PM EST

tajmahal.jpgYou know your healthcare system has a problem when your insurance company starts offering to fly you halfway across the world for medical care.

Indiana-based health insurer WellPoint, Inc. has begun testing a program that allows patients to undergo elective surgeries in India instead of the US.

The program is currently available only to employees of a Wisconsin-based printing company whose employees WellPoint insures. And even though flights cost roughly $2,000 per person, round trip (according to Orbitz), it's still more cost-effective for WellPoint to send patients to India than it is to airlift them down to Milwaukee. Want your knee fixed up? Knee surgery typically costs $70,000-80,000 in the US; in India, it's a tenth that price.

Even more incredible is the fact that, at least according to the insurers, patients are actually more likely to receive high-quality, transparent care in India than they are here. An insurance-company medical officer quoted in the article says there's "a lot more willingness to share data about complication rates, the total number of procedures and the outcomes."

Now, I'm all for people receiving the best possible care at the lowest possible cost. But the fact that sending a patient to the other side of the world and back is less expensive than putting him up at a local hospital should send a strong signal to our policymakers (President-elect Obama, are you listening?) that our current system is beyond repair.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from betta design.

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Obesity Linked To Grandparent's Diet

| Fri Nov. 21, 2008 10:12 PM EST

600px-Lab_mouse_mg_3135.jpg At least in mice. So far. Nature reports on research presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Mice fed on a high-fat diet during pregnancy and lactation had larger-than-normal offspring. Those offspring also went on to have larger-than-normal offspring.

The 1st-generation offspring also tended to overeat, whether they were fed a high-fat or normal diet. Plus they were insulin-insensitive, a feature of diabetes that often leads to obesity. The 2nd-generation offspring did not overeat, but were large and insulin-insensitive too. Male pups born to mothers on a high-fat diet also transmitted the traits to their own offspring.

The U of Pennsylvania team wants to know which genes were involved in passing on these traits. So far they've found epigenetic changes in the hypothalamus, which controls feeding behaviour. Epigenetic changes are biochemical modifications that affect how DNA functions without actually altering its nucleotide sequence. Epigenetic changes can be induced by environmental and/or genetic factors.

Brodner's Cartoon du Jour: Red, NY and Blue

Fri Nov. 21, 2008 8:17 PM EST

Here's an Election Day comic about a political junkie who leaves his apartment to vote only to find he can't see straight anymore. This was a project brought to me by Bob Mankoff with very smart art direction by Bob, Chris Curry, and Caroline Mailhot, who suggested I draw this while looking in the mirror. Oy. Hope tomorrow's a lot easier than this.

Rainforest Woes? Blame Cocaine.

| Thu Nov. 20, 2008 6:09 PM EST

Cocaine1.jpgThere's a new tactic to target casual drug users: Convince them drugs are polluting the planet. On Tuesday, according to the Guardian, Francisco Santos Calderón, the vice-president of Colombia, told a conference of British senior police officers:

If you snort a gram of cocaine, you are destroying 4m square of rainforest and that rainforest is not just Colombian—it belongs to all of us who live on this planet, so we should all be worried about it. Not only that, the money that you use to buy the cocaine goes into the hands of FARC, of illegal groups that plant mines, that kidnap, that kill, that use terrorism to protect their business.

As the Guardian explained, Santos wanted to persuade casual British users, the "social user who drove a hybrid car and was concerned about the environment" to eschew the drug because of its environmental impact. As Gawker asked sardonically, "You might not stop for the sake of your money, your police record, or your septum, but would you give up blow if you knew that every eight ball cost ten square meters of precious rainforest habitat, you Whole Foods junkie?"

While Santos didn't cite any evidence to prove his point (or his 4m square statistic), what he is saying sort of makes sense. The coca plant is a cash crop and Columbia is a tropical country; growing cocaine—like oranges, mandarins, or coffee—obliges farmers to cut down some of the rainforest. Still, something about this seems a little suspicious. Are casual users of cocaine really responsible for pervasive environmental destruction?

While it's true that in the last five years, production of cocaine in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru has increased almost 20 percent, the truth is that the destruction of the rainforest is not due to increased demand from wealthy British cocaine users. In fact, it makes more sense to wonder if inept efforts to eradicate the coca plant don't cause most of the destruction of the rainforest. Farmers grow coca because it's a lucrative cash crop; then drug control agents spray the plants with poison. As Mother Jones explained back in March 2007, this causes farmers to, sensibly, push further into the rainforest.

So yes, it is technically true that the cocaine industry is destroying the Columbian rainforest. But while casual drug use certainly doesn't help, it's not the main cause of environmental destruction; that award goes to Plan Columbia (.pdf). It looks like Santos can't see the rainforest for the coke.

—Daniel Luzer

Image by flickr user Jungle_Boy

Dog Helps Orca

| Wed Nov. 19, 2008 10:00 PM EST

Tucker.jpg

Photo copyright Fred Felleman

It's been a bad year for the southern resident population of orcas in Puget Sound. Seven have gone missing and are presumed dead. Including the nearly 100-year-old matriarch of K Pod, along with two reproductive-age females vital to the future of the whales. One female, L-67 showed clear signs of emaciation before she disappeared in September. That leaves only 83 animals in this culturally-unique population of orca.

It's been a bad year for salmon too—the primary prey of southern resident orca. Researchers suspect the missing whales may have starved. Now researchers at the U of Washington Center for Conservation Biology are trying to answer that question using a specially trained dog. The Seattle Times reports how Tucker, a black Lab, has been deployed two of the past three summers to track orca scat from the bow of a research boat.

Analysis of hormone levels in the scat suggest mortality among the orca was highest when their thyroid hormone levels were lowest. This means they're malnourished. Katherine Ayres, a UW graduate student working on the study says: "It is interesting and sad. We have a link to what scientists have been saying for a long time."