Cluster Map

Friday, May 24, 2013

Here is Pollyanna again

Pollyanna is with you again and would like to open with a suggestion that you take a look at the sky to the Northwest after sunset on the 24th and 25th. There will be a small Olympian convention with Jupiter, Venus and Mercury getting together for a chat and presumably a drink.

Thanks to This Year in Space and Sky and Telescope for the information

For starters, let us refer you to the Miriam Shlesinger Human Rights action blog. As the weeks and months go by without Miriam, we continue to realize what we have lost. She got us into the human rights struggle. Please act on behalf of people who are so much in need of support in their trials and tribulations at the hands of oppressive regimes and corporations.

This has been a week of much senseless death at the hands of both man and nature.

Pollyanna weeps for the two little girls who were  murdered in Israel apparently by their father. The mother of the two girls who were murdered on Monday had complained a day earlier to the Arad police, saying she feared her ex-husband would kill her daughters. The police ignored the complaint and did not call the girls’ father in for questioning nor send anyone to the house. On Tuesday the girls, ages three and five, were found strangled in their home in the Bedouin village of Al-Fura’a.
Sisters Asinad, 3, and Ramais, 5, who were found dead Bedouin town of Al-Fura’a.
Sisters Asinad, 3, and Ramais, 5, who were found dead in Bedouin town of Al-Fura’a.

One must wonder if racism played a role in the police malfeasance. We are promised that heads will roll.

Pollyanna mourns the loss of life in the terrible tornado in Oklahoma.  The blows we  sustain from nature are unavoidable, but we must prepare for them as best we can. In the Golan, an Israeli soldier who was working at mine clearing was killed by an explosion of an old mine, despite warnings by the Engineer Corps that these mines were faulty and liable to explode unexpectedly. This amounts to criminal negligence and we hope some lessons will be learned and some careers ended.
In Beersheba in Southern Israel a disgruntled bank customer, who had been refused an expanded overdraft, shot and killed four people, including the branch manager, his deputy and two customers before shooting himself. In London, two crazed Muslims attacked a British soldier in the street and hacked him to death with a meat cleaver. A suicide bomber attacked a military base and uranium mine in Niger and killed at least 19 people. This is the tip of the murderous iceberg. Pollyanna is shocked and appalled. There seems to be no end to killing, whether by malice or incompetence. Pollyanna salutes the brave woman, the Cub Scout leader, , Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, who bravely stood up to the killers in London. 
Ingrid Loyau-Kennett talks with Woolwich attacker


A vulture is freed in the Israeli southern Neguev Desert (Pic:Getty)
Vulture released in Israel with GPS and markings
This majestic bird is one of nature's great scavengers. In recent years it has been threatened with extinction and as a result is now a protected species. In France, its population has increased and it is now accused of being a predator as well as scavenger. It now has attracted attention by the speed with which the body of a woman who had fallen to her death from a mountain was devoured. In less than an hour from her death, nothing was left except bones and clothing. Since farmers are required to burn dead animal carcasses, the birds have no carrion and have become predators on livestock. The incident of the human body may be the trigger to legalize hunting the vultures. In Israel, there are just a few breeding pairs left and major efforts are being made to restore the species. The birds are tracked by GPS devices which caused one poor individual to be taken into custody by the Saudis as an Israeli spy!

Let us move on to happier things and start by welcoming James Levine back to the podium. He conducted a
concert at Carnegie Hall after a long hiatus caused by illness.

Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times
James Levine conducted the Met Orchestra on Sunday.
We also find some solace in the joys of science. The comet ISON is arousing much interest and as a sun-grazer it might put on a dazzling show when it reaches its perihelion of 1.17 million kilometers from the surface of the sun on Nov. 28.Because of this extremely close approach, comet ISON holds the "potential" to flare into a dazzling object — possibly becoming bright enough to be briefly glimpsed in broad daylight. On the other hand, we recall comet Kohutek that was supposed to be a Star of Bethlehem in December 1973, but fizzled badly, although it provided rich scientific information to telescope observers.

This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image of Comet ISON was taken on April 10, 2013, when the comet was slightly closer than Jupiter's orbit at a distance of 386 million miles from the sun (394 million miles from Earth).
CREDIT: NASA, ESA, J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute), and the Hubble Comet ISON Imaging Science Team

In other news from astronomy, it appears that the Kepler space telescope mission has come to an end after four years (the designed lifetime) because of hardware failure. While the telescope’s search for planets may be over, researchers’ analysis of the data it collected is not. Kepler data have yielded more than 2,700 likely planets and 132 confirmed ones, with more yet to come as the data are mined. It is disappointing that not all the questions are answered, but we are grateful for what we have obtained.

A BYZANTINE MOSAIC has been found in southern Israel. It is most impressive, 12 by 8.5 meters in size and was obviously the floor of a public building during the Byzantine period, 4th to 6th century C.E.
byzantine mosaic from the byzantine period
The mosaic discovered prior to construction of a highway in Israel, was decorated with geometric structures and amphoras, or vessels for holding wine. The amphoras were also decorated, for instance, one was flanked by a pair of peacocks.
CREDIT: Yael Yolovitch, Israel Antiquities Authority

It is most encouraging that for the first time, scientists have created human embryonic stem cells by transferring the nucleus of a mature cell into an egg.
Using a laser and a tiny needle, researchers suck DNA from a human egg, the first step of a newly revised process that created human embryonic stem cells for the first time.
Courtesy of M. Tachibana
The cloning technique could nudge the dream of personalized medicine closer to reality, researchers suggest May 15 in Cell. These cells can be used for various therapies and can give hope to sufferers from spinal cord injuries and diseases such as diabetes or Parkinson’s. In other news, we are told that the people of Europe are really one big family. DNA data show that everyone living in Europe 1,000 years ago who left any descendants is an ancestor of every European living today. On the other hand, the hypothesis that humanity represents a small population of survivors for a huge volcanic eruption 75,000 years ago has come under further scrutiny and doubt has been raised on both geological and genetic grounds. This is an ongoing investigation, so stay tuned.

A study conducted in Russia over a fifty year period shows that by selective breeding, foxes can become either dog-like, i.e. tame or wolf-like, i.e. more aggressive.
Taming silver foxes (shown) alters their behavior. A new study links those behavior changes to changes in brain chemicals.
Tom Reichner/Shutterstock
 No DNA changes took place, but the activity of certain genes in brains of the animals changed, in particular in the the prefrontal cortex and amygdala. The former is involved in decision making and in controlling social behavior, among other tasks. The latter helps process emotional information. The researchers found that the activity of hundreds of genes in the two brain regions differed between the groups of affable and hostile foxes. This gives a hint about what happened to the brains of wolves on their way to becoming dogs.

Pollyanna sends her mazal tov to Prof. George Daniel Mostow who was awarded the Wolf Prize in mathematics last week for the discovery of the rigidity phenomenon in geometry, known as the strong rigidity theorem.
George Daniel Mostow
Wolf Prize laureate Prof. George Daniel Mostow. Photo by David Bachar

Prof. Mostow will turn 90 on July 4, but just took a swim in the Mediterranean. We all salute his great achievements, described by the  prize committee who wrote that "In Mostow's work one finds a stunning display of a variety of mathematical disciplines," and that "few mathematicians can compete with the breadth, depth and originality of his works."

The Wolf Prize is awarded annually in Israel to scientists and artists from abroad, for "achievements in the interest of mankind and friendly relations among peoples." So far it has been awarded to 272 laureates from 23 countries, for their contributions to agriculture, chemistry, mathematics, medicine, physics, architecture, music, painting and sculpture.

What if is amusing this week.  

Those of us who have Ph.D.'s can recall the halcyon days of graduate  school and the terrible shock of getting the longed-for degree and being thrust out into the real world where things have to be done. Of course, you can chose an academic career which is in some ways a continuation of graduate school. Those who like money will turn to jobs in industry. Dilbert encounters such a person and we present the beginning of the relationship.
Dilbert Cartoon for May/23/2013

Dilbert Cartoon for May/24/2013


Barney & Clyde Cartoon for May/19/2013

Friday, May 10, 2013

Pollyanna greets Shavuot

Ruth and Boaz, first date

Pollyanna is with you and gearing up for the Shavuot festival that comes next Wednesday. She is of course asking how our government would deal with Ruth the Moabite lady if she were to show up today.It is traditionally the festival of the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple in ancient times and is also the anniversary of the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Torah in general on Mt. Sinai. It has some nice traditions, such as the Tikkun or study session in the synagogue on the eve of the holiday and eating dairy dishes such as cheeses etc. during the holiday itself. The source of the former is the belief that Heaven opens up and presumably answers to difficult questions are forthcoming. The latter derives from the proximity between  the commandments to celebrate Shavuot and to refrain from cooking a kid in its mothers milk. None of us have ever committed such an atrocity. The prohibition is the base for all our meat/dairy kashrut rules.

Pollyanna also wishes Felice Cinco de Mayo to all our friends who celebrate this day.
 It is indeed a worthy celebration of the victory of the Mexican people over the army of Napoleon III who thought that the Civil War in the US would give France an opportunity to carve out an empire in America. We presume that it also helped Franz Josef get rid of a bothersome younger brother  who had been so successful as Duke of Lombardy that he was being touted for higher things.

For starters, let us refer you to the Miriam Shlesinger Human Rights action blog. As the weeks and months go by without Miriam, we continue to realize what we have lost. She got us into the human rights struggle. Please act on behalf of people who are so much in need of support in their trials and tribulations at the hands of oppressive regimes and corporations.

This week saw the 28th of Iyar in the Hebrew calendar on Wednesday. This is the date of Jerusalem Day, to mark the so-called unification of the city during the Six-Day War in 1967. It is as phoney as the other manufactured holidays since Jerusalem today is one of the world's most segregated cities. It is, however, the date of a real and worthy event, the commemoration of the 4,000 Ethiopian Jews who died en route to Israel. They died of thirst and hunger in the desert and suffered murder, rape and torture at the hands of the Sudanese.We join the Ethiopian community in honoring their memory. May they rest in peace.

Pollyanna also notes with sadness the death of Mary Thom in a motorcycle accident.

Ms Thom was one of the founders of the Women's Media Center and a long time editor of Ms magazine. She made major contributions to feminist journalism and to the empowerment of women. She will be sorely missed by the community that she served for so long and with such devotion.

Pete Seeger, one of our iconic figures, turned 94 this week. We wish him many happy returns of the day. He is a great singer and a political leader whose integrity cost him dearly in the McCarthy era. He led the opposition to the Vietnam war and stood at the head of countless left-liberal causes. We have long admired him and wish him continued life and health. We offer you a song that he composed with Joe Hickerson, Where have all the flowers gone? It is nice to see him singing with Arlo, the son of his old friend and colleague Woody Gurthrie.

The banning of smoking in the public space has yielded many benefits such as reduction of asthma hospitalizations and premature births. The latter is evidenced in a new study from  Belgium. While it does not show a direct cause-effect connection, the stats are convincing. A team of researchers, lead by Dr Tim Nawrot from Hasselt University, investigated whether recent smoking bans in Belgium were followed by changes in the frequency of preterm delivery. In Belgium, smoke-free legislation was implemented in three phases (in public places and most workplaces in January 2006, in restaurants in January 2007, and in bars serving food in January 2010). The researchers analyzed 606,877 live, single-born babies delivered at 24-44 weeks of gestation in Flanders from 2002 to 2011. Preterm birth was defined as birth before 37 weeks. A dramatic fall in premature births  was also seen in Scotland with the implementation of clean indoor air laws.

They found reductions in the risk of preterm birth after the introduction of each phase of the smoking ban. No decreasing trend was evident in the years or months before the bans. Pollyanna thinks that deniers of second-hand smoke effects should be confined in the smoke-filled enclosures found in airports together with climate change deniers.

Time trend in rate of spontaneous preterm deliveries (with 95% confidence interval) in Flanders,
2002–11, with vertical lines indicating stepwise implementation of smoke-free legislation
Apropos maternity, Save the Children has come out with its annual report on maternity and child deaths. Babies in Somalia have the highest risk of dying on their birth day. First-day death rates are almost as high in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, and Sierra Leone. Mothers in these four countries are also at high risk on this day. Mothers in Somalia and Sierra Leone face the second and third highest lifetime risk of maternal death in the world, respectively. The best places to be born and to give birth are the Nordic countries, with Finland at the top. The worst is the Democratic Republic of Congo. The bottom ten are all in sub-Saharan Africa. The report attributes the fact that the US has the highest rate of preterm births in the industrialized world to poverty and racism.  The report is worth reading. Israel is ranked 25th in the Mother's Index, between the Czech Republic and Belarus and the US is ranked 30th. The table on page 69 of the report has some surprises. One might have expected Canada(22) to rank above Estonia(21) and France(16) above Slovenia(14). With the exception of Australia (10), the top ten are all in Western Europe. There is food for thought here, especially for people who oppose socialized medicine.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Mothers’ Index

Why doesn’t the United States do better in the rankings? The United States ranks 30th on this year’s Index. Although the U.S. performs quite well on educational and economic status (both 10th best in the world) it lags behind all other top-ranked countries on maternal health (46th in the world) and children’s well-being (41st in the world) and performs quite poorly on political status (89th in the world).

To elaborate:

• In the United States, women face a 1 in 2,400 risk of maternal death. Only five developed countries in the world – Albania, Latvia, Moldova, the Russian Federation and Ukraine – perform worse than the United States on this indicator. A woman in the U.S. is more than 10 times as likely as a woman in Estonia, Greece or Singapore to eventually die from a pregnancy- related cause.

• In the United States, the under-5 mortality rate is 7.5 per 1,000 live births. This is roughly on par with rates in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Qatar and Slovakia. At this rate, children in the U.S. are three times as likely as children in Iceland to die before their 5th birthday.

• Women hold only 18 percent of seats in the United States Congress. Half of all countries in the world perform better on this indicator than the U.S. Sixteen countries have more than double this percentage of seats occupied by women. In Finland and Sweden, for example, women hold 43 and 45 percent of parliamentary seats, respectively For comparison, there are 27 women among the 120 members elected this year to the Knesset (Parliament) in Israel, i.e.23% slightly better than the US, but still not up to standards of real democracy. We refer you to an analysis of the gender map of our Knesset.

The sea creature known as the comb jelly is causing evolutionary biologists to look again at conventional wisdom. The comb jelly has a certain degree of complexity, i.e. a fairly sophisticated nervous system with a rudimentary brain and cellular connections called synapses that are also found in flies, humans and most other animals.
The sea gooseberry comb jelly Pleurobrachia bachei (left) snags prey with its long tentacles, while Mnemiopsis leidyi (right) employs mucus-covered lobes. Its appetite for fish eggs and larvae has crashed several fisheries.
From left: L.L. Moroz & M. Citarella/Univ. of Florida; William Browne/Univ. of Miami
 Yet, detailed looks at the genomes of two species of comb jellies suggest, surprisingly, that they are the most primitive animals, and not the jellyfish, sea anemones or corals, as has long been thought. It is even possible that the sophisticated comb jelly lineage may have evolved before the brainless, gutless, muscle-less sea sponges. Most biologists contend that the increase in complexity from the first clumping of cells is monotonic. The comb jelly genome lacks certain genes which implies that they branched off from the tree of life before sponges. This bodes well for the future of evolutionary biology, for as the famous physicist Niels Bohr once said "How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress."

The Solar System is a dangerous place especially if you are big and offer a tempting target. The Cassini imaging team has caught meteorites in the act of colliding with the rings of Saturn. The resulting images are most impressive and there is much to be learned from the frequency of the hits and the size of the debris.
Five images of Saturn's rings, taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft between 2009 and 2012, show clouds of material ejected from impacts of small objects into the rings. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Cornell

A new study in linguistics suggests that people in the northern world speak languages that are all descended from one common language spoken everywhere at the end of the last Ice Age, about 15,000 years ago. The theory, put forward by Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. is based on the study of cognates that serves as a form of "DNA" of language. The statistical study makes some strong claims and is, of course, controversial. There are some critical comments that make sense. In general, as well said by the late Carl Sagan, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." A Bayesian analysis might help resolve this issue.

Many of us take various food additives. Some indeed have passed FDA tests such as Glucosamine Sulfate for arthritic joints and others have turned out to be snake oil equivalents such as Omega 3 and Saw Palmetto. Bob Park whose blog focuses on voodoo science has ranted long and hard about the food additive industry that is totally unregulated and easily separates a fool and his gold. Here is how it works:

Barney & Clyde Cartoon for May/06/2013 

In Israel there is much talk of social protest and ranting against the ridiculous gap between tycoons and working stiffs. Dilbert's CEO would fit in here beautifully.

Dilbert Cartoon for May/10/2013 

Fourier analysis is a very powerful mathematical tool for dealing with periodic phenomena in nature.Fourier 

We may apply it to Murphy when he next shows up with a turtle.

What If? is interesting in its usually weird way. Pollyanna will share it with you as usual.