Techs and the city

Lab by lab in and around San Francisco

Monday

SAN FRANCISCO conjures up images of hippies and of free love, the psychedelic 60s and leftist politics. A member of Jefferson Airplane, a rock band, described it as “49 square miles surrounded by reality”. It has always had that air. In a letter written in 1889, Rudyard Kipling wrote of “a mad city, inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people.”

But as someone who writes about science (and in the interests of full disclosure, practices it for a living), I see a different side of San Francisco and the broader Bay Area around it. I don’t see a region full of people looking to escape reality; I see scientists and engineers at universities, companies, and national labs probing and investigating that reality on a daily basis. Instead of mind-altering drugs, I see the world-altering technology that flows out of Silicon Valley.

A city built on science

Plutonium was first discovered in a Berkeley lab (as were the aptly-named berkelium and californium). The Bay Area is the birthplace of “big science” and of the atom smashers that have told us so much about the fundamental building blocks of matter. Quarks were first discovered just down the peninsula at the Stanford linear accelerator.

In the 1970s, two professors from Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) figured out how to use bacteria to clone segments of DNA. In the process, they gave birth to genetic engineering and the modern biotechnology industry. South of the city, Silicon Valley gave us the personal computer, the mouse, and the verbs “to google” and “to tweet”. Sit down in any local coffeeshop and you’re just as likely to end up next to someone nursing a startup as you are someone nursing a cappuccino. Now, the Valley’s venture capitalists are hoping that their magic will work just as well on the clean-technology industry.

The Bay Area hosts the world’s biggest laser (at the National Ignition Facility in Livermore), the world’s most intense X-ray source (at the LCLS at Stanford’s national lab) and an institute devoted exclusively to the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence (the SETI Institute in Mountain View). NASA’s outpost here just launched a probe that will slam into the lunar surface in search of water.

Between them, Stanford, Berkeley, and UCSF employ some 50 Nobel laureates spanning the full range of scientific disciplines. True, a handful of these are for economics, but we’ll cut the dismal science some slack.

Science and technology are to the Bay Area what finance is to New York and what cars are (or were) to Detroit. They underpin the region’s economy, influence its culture and shape the very character of this region as much as its notoriously active seismic geography does.

Over the next four days, I intend to explore a few of the different faces that science and technology present to residents here. From the stem cell research that promises to revolutionise medicine, to the science of growing and making the best wine, to the science-fiction sounding search for extraterrestrials, we’ll be taking a scientific road trip around the San Francisco Bay Area. Think Thelma and Louise meets Watson and Crick.

Tuesday

I WAKE up slightly disoriented at 5:45am. Waking in darkness makes me feel more like a farmer than a scientist, but perhaps that’s appropriate for the task at hand today. I’m on my way to the University of California, Davis for their annual RAVE conference, a gathering of scientists, winegrowers and winemakers meant to share the most recent advances in the disciplines of viticulture and oenology.

Gulping down a large coffee, I head east on I-80 across the Bay Bridge and through the sprawl of the East Bay. I pass the exit for Highway 37, which winds its way north and west to Napa and Sonoma, the heart of California’s wine country. In Napa alone, over 40,000 acres of vines produce an annual crop of grapes worth $400m. I manage to resist the pull of the wineries and instead follow I-80 east into the brightening dawn.

The wine before the bottle

You may not realise it when you pop the cork on a nice bottle of cabernet sauvignon, but many scientists spend their lives studying every facet of wine, from the best pruning and watering techniques for growing the tastiest grapes to the genetics of the bacteria used in their fermentation. And UC-Davis is one of the world’s great centres for wine science.

Its Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, founded with a donation of $25m from the father of California’s wine industry, boasts 75,000 square feet of state-of-the art labs, kitchens, and sensory-testing equipment. Inside, the halls literally smell of wine and the researchers seem to be having a lot more fun than the typical science PhDs.

Studying wine seems like a far cry from curing cancer or weaning the world off of fossil fuels, but the scientists who do so are no slouches. They make use of the latest techniques in biochemistry and biotechnology. Their analyses are sprinkled with complex mathematics and multivariate statistics.

As I learn later in the morning, “whole genome shotgun sequencing”, originally developed for the Human Genome Project, was put to work on pinot noir in 2007. Besides shedding light on fundamental issues of plant evolution, wine scientists hope the grapevine genome will reveal some of the pathways that control wine flavour and resistance to various pests.

The packed program includes lectures on viticultural practices, techniques for drying grapes into raisins, the perils of something called “berry shrivel” and how microbes contribute to flavour during fermentation. We hear about genomics, proteomics, and the “wired vine”, where all aspects of growing are monitored and controlled by sensors. Terpenes, norisoprenoids, oak lactones—the biochemical jargon comes thick and fast and eventually overwhelms me.

But what comes through is a sense, as one speaker puts it, that wine is truly “chemistry in a glass”. Wine contains hundreds of complex chemical compounds, some of which are active in startlingly small amounts. Methoxypyrazine, which gives sauvignon blanc a slight bell-pepper odour, can be detected by the nose at less than two billionths of a gram in an entire bottle.

To the purist, all of this measuring and quantifying might destroy the beauty of a perfectly balanced bottle paired with a delicious meal. But I think of the child who looks up at the night sky and grows up to become an astronomer. Science begins with and returns to beauty and wonder.

As I hit the road back to the city, I think about the theory that it’s better to give grapes slightly less water than they want in order to stress them and to concentrate their intense flavours. Out of great struggle comes great wine—and great science.

Wednesday

TONIGHT I’ve got two of the hottest tickets in town. As the bouncer checks my ID, I can hear the low bass emanating from the DJ’s turntables inside the glass doors. The crowd is dressed in slinky skirts, tight jeans, and sport coats. This is not the hippest new club in the city, but the normally staid halls of the California Academy of Sciences. My girlfriend and I head off for a stiff gin and tonic at one of the many bars (though not the one sitting beneath the watchful eye of Tyrannosaurus rex).

To most people, the words “science” and “nightlife” don’t usually go together. This spring, however, the Academy opened its doors for a series of boozy evenings intended to give the residents of this young, tech-savvy city another view of the science museum. “NightLife”, as the event is called, has been selling out, with more than 3,000 people attending each week.

It was only last September that the Academy returned to its home in Golden Gate Park. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the aquarium here, the Academy undertook a complete rebuilding project that took $488m and the better part of a decade. Designed by Renzo Piano, the museum is now the largest public building in the world to have a LEED Platinum rating. Its design, which melds modern glass and steel with the classical architecture of the original building, reminds me of science itself—a combination of the new and modern with the solid, tested principles of the past.

Inside, an exhibit demonstrates some of the building’s environmentally friendly features. Recycled blue jeans are stuffed into the walls to serve as insulation (which seems fitting, as San Francisco is home to both Levi’s and The Gap). Half of the building’s cement was made with recycled waste products from coal combustion and steel production, and the glass canopy outside houses 60,000 photovoltaic cells. Instead of using treated freshwater for the aquariums, water is pumped in directly from the Pacific at the other end of the park.

We continue our stroll past the 90-foot diameter glass dome that houses a living rainforest. Next to the DJ, people are gaping through a glass window at scientists in white coats working on specimens—perhaps a nod to the traditional view of scientists in a museum.

Downstairs, the Steinhart Aquarium is packed and people are noticeably tipsier. An alligator drifts towards the thick glass, having recently sent its albino tankmate Claude to the hospital with a nasty bite on the toe. A scantily clad girl sticks her tongue out at a lizard in its tank. It responds in kind and then lazily drops off its branch.

We head back upstairs and onto the museum’s “living roof”, which is planted with native Californian grasses and flowers. They help reduce runoff and, from a distance, cause the building to mirror the hilly landscape of the city around it. A line is patiently snaking its way to a docent with a telescope trained on Saturn’s rings and the moon Titan.

After we’ve had our fill of stargazing, we spill out into the beautiful evening and stroll out of the park. I’m left with the inescapable feeling that this taste of the nightlife has been high on style but a little light on the scientific substance. But that’s no terrible thing. Science will survive and grow, as this museum has.

Thursday

IT IS a classic San Francisco morning. The downtown skyline is shrouded in a blanket of fog. By noon the sun has finally burned its way through, but the fog will likely roll back in with the cool evening breeze. It’s a bit like scientific progress, actually—an endless ebb and flow from haziness to clarity and back again.

Today I’m downtown to cover a town hall meeting hosted by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). From the subway I head to one of the Palace Hotel’s elegant chandeliered ballrooms. It holds around 300, and eventually fills to standing capacity.

Though it seems like a euphemism, “regenerative medicine” does not refer to plastic surgery (that is, dare I say, an Angeleno rather than a San Franciscan pastime). From its office in San Francisco’s Mission Bay, CIRM oversees California’s $3 billion investment in stem cell research.

Soldiers awaiting orders

In November 2004, California voters passed Proposition 71, a ballot measure allowing the state to fund research into human embryonic stem cells. Overnight, California became one of the largest backers of stem-cell research in the world. At a time when the federal government was unwilling to invest in regenerative medicine, the message from the state’s voters was clear: the incredible therapeutic promise of stem cells outweighs the moral objections to using them.

That therapeutic promise, the meeting’s three panellists explain to us, comes from stem cells’ chameleon-like ability to turn into any of the cells that make up the body’s tissues and organs. Most cells are tailored to perform a particular function. Heart cells are good at beating, neurons transmit electrical signals and pancreatic islet cells produce insulin. While they all contain the full set of instructions of the human genome, each uses only the small subset that directs its particular task.

A stem cell, on the other hand, is a cellular jack-of-all-trades. Given the right signals, it can become a brand new heart cell or neuron or insulin-producing cell. Bruce Conklin, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco and the second speaker of the evening, plays us a dramatic video of 2,000 human heart cells that had been derived from embryonic stem cells. Sitting in their Petri dish, they wriggle and beat, just like a human heart.

Embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998, and since then the pace of progress has been furious. Much work has gone into figuring out how to reliably and efficiently generate the different cell types that doctors would like to use in patients. In addition, as the speakers emphasise, understanding exactly when and how implanted stem cells can go awry and cause tumours remains an essential research task that confronts all potential therapies.

Such therapies are slowly, but surely, making their way towards the clinic. In January, Geron, a biotechnology giant, got FDA approval to conduct the first clinical trial testing the safety of an embryonic stem cell therapy. It will work with patients with severe spinal cord injuries. For its part, CIRM is hoping to get ten to 12 human stem cell trials going in the next four years. In December, it will award $20m to researchers and their corporate partners with that goal in mind.

After the speakers finish their presentations, the moderator opens the floor to questions from the audience. From the front row, a young girl raises her hand. In a high-pitched, slightly faltering voice, she asks a deeply personal question: “I was burned very badly in August 2008. How might this help me, and how can I help in your research?”

After the dry PowerPoints and data-filled charts, the scientists seem slightly taken aback by the raw emotion. They stammer through some answers, but none seems satisfying. Despite stem cells’ promise, the science just isn’t quite there yet. This moment brings home both the deep hopes and the urgent desperation that surround what are undoubtedly the early days of regenerative medicine.

Friday

ONCE again I’m braving the early morning traffic on I-80, heading out of the city past Oakland and Berkeley. But just before I reach Davis, I veer north onto Interstate 5. It’s not the earthly delights of carefully cultivated varietals and nuanced terroir that concern me today. I’m heading into the mountains to get a tour of the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), a collection of 42 large telescopes that have just begun scanning the heavens for radio transmissions from intelligent extraterrestrials. Yes, you read that right—aliens.

Three hours later, my small Toyota begins the climb into the mountains of Lassen National Park. Eureka, Whiskeytown, Old Oregon Trail—the road signs here recall the miners and pioneers who trudged through during California’s mid-19th century gold rush. The two-lane road I’m driving on used to be a trail for rattling stagecoaches.

The San Francisco radio stations faded hours ago, and now only a few talk stations break through the static. Maybe I’ve lived in Haight-Ashbury for too long, but as I make a right turn into the observatory, Timothy Leary is in my head: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Here in Hat Creek, which is nearly devoid of manmade sounds, the ATA just turned on for science operations in May. For many years to come, it will tune into the radio sky to study the evolution of galaxies, the properties of black holes, and one of the most profound questions of all—whether we’re alone in the universe.

My tour guide this afternoon is Garrett Keating, a former cop turned astronomer. We walk out towards one of the 42 telescopes, a gleaming aluminium dish six metres in diameter. Mr Keating opens a trap door and we poke our heads inside. The main dish reflects incoming radio waves onto a smaller dish off to our left. That in turn bounces them onto the telescope’s main receiver, a long pyramid with different sized antennas poking off of it.

The antennas pick up an extremely wide range of frequencies, from those used for broadcast television on the low end up through the ones that transmit satellite television. In between is the emission frequency of hydrogen gas—the most common element in the universe and the raw material for the formation of stars and galaxies.

Off in the distance, we hear the rumbles of an approaching storm, and several lightning bolts streak across the sky. Mr Keating insists we return to the lab. The antennae, he reassures me, are well grounded. I don’t tell him that it wasn’t the antennae I was worried about.

Inside, fibre-optic cables carry the signals from the dishes to enormous racks of computers. By using the computers to combine data from each individual dish, the ATA is able to mimic a much larger telescope for a fraction of the cost. An initial donation of $25m from Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, and $25m from other sources financed these first 42 dishes. Eventually, the team hopes to collect enough funding to get up to 350.

Operating together, the telescopes are quite sensitive. And they need to be, since a single mobile phone located on the moon would give off a much stronger signal than almost every astronomical object in the radio sky. In addition to its sensitivity, the ATA also views a large patch of the sky all at once. Most other radio telescopes are like telephoto lenses, zooming into a tiny region of space. The ATA, however, is the first that can take snapshots with a wide-angle lens.

Just outside the sliding glass door to the control room, I notice a doormat with a bug-eyed alien and the caption “welcome all species”, a reminder of the ATA’s second mission. This telescope array represents a great leap forward for the enterprise known as SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

In the past, SETI has had to squeeze precious observation time out of existing telescopes around the world. With the ATA, the search for signals from intelligent life elsewhere in the universe will be carried out constantly, right alongside the astrophysics.

So what exactly is SETI looking for? Essentially, something that seems not to belong—an odd man out in the cosmic radio haze. One possibility is a very powerful signal confined to a tiny frequency band, like the manmade transmissions that are continually leaking off of earth. As Mr Keating explains, “nature doesn’t produce pure tones”. In addition, if the signal really is extraterrestrial, its broadcast frequency should drift, as the alien planet orbits its own star.

Over its lifetime, the ATA hopes to survey 1m promising candidate stars within a thousand light years of earth, and ten billion more in the central region of our own Milky Way galaxy. And as computers and algorithms improve, so will SETI’s ability to look for more complex alien transmissions in this mountain of data.

Black holes, exploding stars, clouds of swirling hydrogen gas light-years across the galaxy—this is hallucinatory stuff. Yet if the little green men finally arrive, San Francisco—built as it is on science, tolerance and the counterculture—would seem like a natural first port-of-call.

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Full article and photos: http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?story_id=14113332&source=hptextfeature&CFID=70299326&CFTOKEN=65073551

A taste of the Taliban

An Islamist insurgency in the north of Nigeria comes on top of another in the Delta

VIOLENCE has often disfigured religion in Nigeria. Usually, it has been a matter of bloody confrontation between Muslims and Christians in the middle of the country, where the largely Muslim north rubs up against the mainly Christian south. This week, however, Nigeria experienced its most serious outbreak of another kind of religious violence, provoked by Islamic fundamentalists who take their inspiration from the Taliban of Afghanistan. At least 180 people were killed in five days of clashes between militants and the police.

The fighting started on July 26th in Bauchi state after the police arrested several suspected leaders of an Islamist sect called Boko Haram, a local Hausa term that means “education is prohibited”. In particular, the group is against Western education and influence. It wants to impose a pure Muslim caliphate on Nigeria. In retaliation for the arrest of their leaders, militants went on the rampage in several northern states, attacking the police with anything that came to hand, from machetes to bows and poison arrows.

The police fought back, killing, so they claimed, 39 militants in Bauchi. Fierce fighting took place in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, where the sect has its headquarters. On July 28th the army was called in to shell the compound where the sect’s leader, Muhammad Yusuf, has been based. As well as killing scores of Boko Haram fighters, the police arrested hundreds of suspected members of the group. Mr Yusuf himself was arrested on July 30th reportedly while hiding in a goat pen at a relative’s house. He was taken into custody and promptly shot dead, according to police as he “tried to escape”.

The “Black Taliban”, as such groups are dubbed in Nigeria’s northern states, have carried out isolated attacks for several years. This time the violence has been more widespread and prolonged. Muslim sharia law was introduced in 12 northern states after general elections in 1999, but the states’ Muslim rulers have usually been cautious in applying it. This has prompted the militants to demand a more extreme form of Islamist rule and for sharia to be extended to the whole of Nigeria.

Nigeria’s federal government, along with Western intelligence agencies, has long worried that extremist groups in the north may link up with Islamist terrorist groups elsewhere in Africa, in particular with al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. This outfit grew out of the blood-soaked struggle by Islamists to overthrow Algeria’s government in the 1990s. Such connections raise the spectre of a concerted Islamist threat against Nigeria, a close ally of America and a large oil exporter. But the links have not been proved and little is known about groups such as Boko Haram.

On this occasion Nigeria’s president, Umaru Yar’Adua, acted swiftly. But it was the exception to his presidential rule. Now halfway through his four-year term, the former governor of the northern state of Katsina has achieved little. His administration is beset by indecision and drift.

This week’s violence in the north comes on top of unceasing violence in the southern Niger Delta region, where an insurgency by militants demanding a bigger share of the country’s oil wealth continues to disrupt oil exports. By some estimates, Nigeria now exports only half of what it should: Angola has taken over as sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest producer.

Despite floating various well-meaning plans to pacify the Delta, the government has failed to stop the region’s unrest. The fall in tax revenues, as a result of illegal bunkering and the sabotage of pipelines, means that Mr Yar’Adua has even less chance of tackling his country’s other problems, such as a chronic lack of electricity. The insurgency in the Delta has thrived on the back of dire poverty and high unemployment in what should be a relatively wealthy region, were it not so poorly governed. Some fear the Islamist militants in the north may profit from the same lack of opportunities, which saps the morale of young Nigerians and makes so many of them prey to extremists.

The Economist

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/world/mideast-africa/displayStory.cfm?story_id=14156107&source=features_box1

Are We What We Search?

Ancient Greece had the Oracle at Delphi. The Shang dynasty had oracle bones. Contemporary America has Google.

Earlier this month, Lawrence Summers, President Obama’s top economic adviser, unveiled a new class of tea leaf to gauge the direction of the American economy: Google searches. The number of queries for “Great Depression,” which surged earlier in the year, had declined sharply, Mr. Summers noted. Economic anxiety is abating. The economy is probably turning the corner.

It was not the first time Google was invoked to show us the way. The company has a tool to track the path of the flu virus by looking at geographic trends in Internet queries for related terms. A study by Google researchers suggested search patterns could be used to track everything from home sales to the popularity of tourist destinations, and add to the accuracy of forecasts for new-home starts and car sales.

Polling has long been used by marketers and politicians to detect shifts in fashion and policy. Surveys of consumer confidence play a major role in economic forecasting. Economists have also tried to marshal collective wisdom with “prediction markets,” where people’s bets on all sorts of things are distilled into a remarkably accurate forecast. (Punters on Intrade.com, by the way, think there is a 75 percent chance that the economy will grow in the third quarter, but only a 12 percent chance that it grew in the second.)

Still, there is something new and mysterious about the high-tech oracle. Polls are a useful indicator of people’s tastes because they ask people what they like. Prediction markets require players to forecast. Google searches offer a roundabout impression of the world: what people want, what they fear, what they expect. It’s harder to tell what they mean.

What was going on when searches for terms related to suicide jumped fivefold last November? Was it the recession? Were people looking for techniques? Maybe it was the proximity of Christmas.

The number of searches for terms about depression in the economics category peaked in February, but so did searches about recovery. Anxiety about a Great Depression has abated since then, as Mr. Summers suggested. So has interest in the term “dead cat bounce.” But in June and July people became very interested in a “double dip” recession.

For all the uncertainty about the meaning of Google’s statistics, using them to help make the case that the economy is turning the corner might be a shrewd move. We might not know exactly what they signify, but they can provide any economic forecast with a populist cover.

Eduardo Porter, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/31/opinion/31fri4.html

Why Vampires Never Die

vampires

TONIGHT, you or someone you love will likely be visited by a vampire — on cable television or the big screen, or in the bookstore. Our own novel describes a modern-day epidemic that spreads across New York City.

It all started nearly 200 years ago. It was the “Year Without a Summer” of 1816, when ash from volcanic eruptions lowered temperatures around the globe, giving rise to widespread famine. A few friends gathered at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva and decided to engage in a small competition to see who could come up with the most terrifying tale — and the two great monsters of the modern age were born.

One was created by Mary Godwin, soon to become Mary Shelley, whose Dr. Frankenstein gave life to a desolate creature. The other monster was less created than fused. John William Polidori stitched together folklore, personal resentment and erotic anxieties into “The Vampyre,” a story that is the basis for vampires as they are understood today.

With “The Vampyre,” Polidori gave birth to the two main branches of vampiric fiction: the vampire as romantic hero, and the vampire as undead monster. This ambivalence may reflect Polidori’s own, as it is widely accepted that Lord Ruthven, the titular creature, was based upon Lord Byron — literary superstar of the era and another resident of the lakeside villa that fateful summer. Polidori tended to Byron day and night, both as his doctor and most devoted groupie. But Polidori resented him as well: Byron was dashing and brilliant, while the poor doctor had a rather drab talent and unremarkable physique.

But this was just a new twist to a very old idea. The myth, established well before the invention of the word “vampire,” seems to cross every culture, language and era. The Indian Baital, the Ch’ing Shih in China, and the Romanian Strigoi are but a few of its names. The creature seems to be as old as Babylonia and Sumer. Or even older.

The vampire may originate from a repressed memory we had as primates. Perhaps at some point we were — out of necessity — cannibalistic. As soon as we became sedentary, agricultural tribes with social boundaries, one seminal myth might have featured our ancestors as primitive beasts who slept in the cold loam of the earth and fed off the salty blood of the living.

Monsters, like angels, are invoked by our individual and collective needs. Today, much as during that gloomy summer in 1816, we feel the need to seek their cold embrace.

Herein lies an important clue: in contrast to timeless creatures like the dragon, the vampire does not seek to obliterate us, but instead offers a peculiar brand of blood alchemy. For as his contagion bestows its nocturnal gift, the vampire transforms our vile, mortal selves into the gold of eternal youth, and instills in us something that every social construct seeks to quash: primal lust. If youth is desire married with unending possibility, then vampire lust creates within us a delicious void, one we long to fulfill.

In other words, whereas other monsters emphasize what is mortal in us, the vampire emphasizes the eternal in us. Through the panacea of its blood it turns the lead of our toxic flesh into golden matter.

In a society that moves as fast as ours, where every week a new “blockbuster” must be enthroned at the box office, or where idols are fabricated by consensus every new television season, the promise of something everlasting, something truly eternal, holds a special allure. As a seductive figure, the vampire is as flexible and polyvalent as ever. Witness its slow mutation from the pansexual, decadent Anne Rice creatures to the current permutations — promising anything from chaste eternal love to wild nocturnal escapades — and there you will find the true essence of immortality: adaptability.

Vampires find their niche and mutate at an accelerated rate now — in the past one would see, for decades, the same variety of fiend, repeated in multiple storylines. Now, vampires simultaneously occur in all forms and tap into our every need: soap opera storylines, sexual liberation, noir detective fiction, etc. The myth seems to be twittering promiscuously to serve all avenues of life, from cereal boxes to romantic fiction. The fast pace of technology accelerates its viral dispersion in our culture.

But if Polidori remains the roots in the genealogy of our creature, the most widely known vampire was birthed by Bram Stoker in 1897.

Part of the reason for the great success of his “Dracula” is generally acknowledged to be its appearance at a time of great technological revolution. The narrative is full of new gadgets (telegraphs, typing machines), various forms of communication (diaries, ship logs), and cutting-edge science (blood transfusions) — a mash-up of ancient myth in conflict with the world of the present.

Today as well, we stand at the rich uncertain dawn of a new level of scientific innovation. The wireless technology we carry in our pockets today was the stuff of the science fiction in our youth. Our technological arrogance mirrors more and more the Wellsian dystopia of dissatisfaction, while allowing us to feel safe and connected at all times. We can call, see or hear almost anything and anyone no matter where we are. For most people then, the only remote place remains within. “Know thyself” we do not.

Despite our obsessive harnessing of information, we are still ultimately vulnerable to our fates and our nightmares. We enthrone the deadly virus in the very same way that “Dracula” allowed the British public to believe in monsters: through science. Science becomes the modern man’s superstition. It allows him to experience fear and awe again, and to believe in the things he cannot see.

And through awe, we once again regain spiritual humility. The current vampire pandemic serves to remind us that we have no true jurisdiction over our bodies, our climate or our very souls. Monsters will always provide the possibility of mystery in our mundane “reality show” lives, hinting at a larger spiritual world; for if there are demons in our midst, there surely must be angels lurking nearby as well. In the vampire we find Eros and Thanatos fused together in archetypal embrace, spiraling through the ages, undying.

Forever.

Guillermo del Toro, the director of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and Chuck Hogan are the authors of “The Strain,” a novel.

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Full article and photo: 

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/31/opinion/31deltoro.html

Today’s papers – July 31, 2009

In Afghanistan, U.S. May Shift Strategy

The Washington Post leads with word that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has written an assessment report that proposes to make several changes to the way U.S. and NATO troops operate in Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal wants to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to help fight against the Taliban through a more local approach that relies on building trust with the Afghan people and vastly increasing the number of Afghan security forces.

McChrystal is waiting to hear back from advisers who are currently reviewing his assessment report before making any final recommendations to the White House, particularly on the sensitive issue of troop requests. It’s not clear exactly how many more troops McChrystal thinks are needed in Afghanistan, but it’s likely that a request of that nature would “receive a chilly reception at the White House,” as the Post puts it. Administration officials say the president wants to first see how the additional troops that were sent in the spring are used before even thinking about approving more. Other items in McChrystal’s assessment aren’t exactly surprising, seeing as though they continue on the same theme that has been talked about for a while now. He wants to make changes to how the troops operate so that they’re living in the middle of population centers, carrying out foot patrols, and working with local power brokers. McChrystal wants more attention paid to fighting corruption in the government while also almost doubling the size of Afghan security forces.

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/30/AR2009073003948.html

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Thousands Mourn In Tehran

The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with, while the WP and Los Angeles Times front, the Iranians who took to the streets to publicly mourn those who were killed in the post-election violence. Thousands gathered at Tehran’s main cemetery to mark the religiously significant 40th day since the most violent clashes took place, including the shooting of 27-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan.

Iran’s security forces prevented opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi from visiting the cemetery in Tehran and fiercely tried to disperse the demonstrators, who had not been given permission to gather. The WP is the only paper to have a staffer inside Tehran—the LAT has a special correspondent—and paints the most dramatic picture of yesterday’s clashes, noting that protesters often fought back, for example by beating members of the Basij militia with their own batons and breaking the windows of a van to free demonstrators who had been arrested. The WP describes unhinged security forces that smashed cars when their drivers dared to honk in support of the protesters. The LAT notes that the size of the protests seemed to catch security forces off guard and says that at certain points they “appeared divided” over whether they should beat demonstrators. Coming almost 50 days since the election, the protests showed there is still widespread anger at the results and virtually guarantees there will be more confrontations next week when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is inaugurated for a second term.

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124894946440393289.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/30/AR2009073000291.html

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-iran-protests31-2009jul31,0,7400028.story

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Big Banks Paid Billions in Bonuses Amid Wall St. Crisis

The New York Times leads with a report by the New York attorney general’s office that reveals nine big banks that received government bailout money paid almost $33 billion in bonuses last year. About 5,000 of their employees received bonuses of more than $1 million each.

Releasing the new report on Wall Street bonuses, Andrew Cuomo, the New York attorney general, said last year’s hefty bonuses were particularly insulting considering the companies got billions of dollars from taxpayers in order to survive. “When the banks did well, their employees were paid well,” the report said. “When the banks did poorly, their employees were paid well. And when the banks did very poorly, they were bailed out by taxpayers and their employees were still paid well.”

While the new numbers are almost certain to reignite outrage in Washington and beyond, those in Wall Street defend the practice saying that bonuses are usually based more on individual performance rather than the company’s overall results. In a display of how important the bonus culture is in Wall Street, the WSJ points out that six of the nine banks paid out more in bonuses than they received in profit. Cuomo highlighted that if bonuses had any relation to overall performance, the pay levels should have declined in 2007 and 2008. But that wasn’t the case, and several banks continued to increase their compensation even as revenue dropped.

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/31/business/31pay.html

http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-exec-pay31-2009jul31,0,4042465.story

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124896891815094085.html (subscriber content preview)

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‘Cash for clunkers’ program runs out of gas

The Los Angeles Times leads with, and everyone fronts, news that the $1 billion Congress appropriated for the “cash for clunkers” program may have run out in less than a week. The program was designed to increase auto sales by offering vouchers of up to $4,500 to consumers who traded in gas-guzzling vehicles for more fuel-efficient new trucks or cars.

There was lots of confusion last night over whether the “cash for clunkers” program would be suspended. The WP says Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called lawmakers yesterday to warn that the program would end at midnight. USAT confirmed the suspension with the legislative director for the National Automobile Dealers Association. But then, administration officials came out to say that the program was not being suspended. Yet it’s unlikely that dealers will continue to honor the deal until they get assurances from the government that more money is available since they don’t want to get stuck holding the bag. Congress could decide to appropriate more money for the program, but obviously nothing in Washington is that simple, and passing funding bills is often a challenge. Two senators said yesterday that if lawmakers are going to approve more money, they should do so under the condition that the new cars get better fuel economy than required by the original program.

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Full article: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-car-clunkers31-2009jul31,0,7307910.story

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/30/AR2009073004122.html

http://www.usatoday.com/money/autos/2009-07-30-cash-for-clunkers-program-suspended_N.htm

 

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Routine GI health needs not met

USA Today leads with Army records that show the number of Army medical centers and clinics that can’t provide timely access to routine medical care is the highest in five years, and around 16 percent of patients end up being sent to doctors off-base. Twenty-six of the Army’s medical centers can’t meet the Pentagon standard that requires 90 percent of patients get appointments for routine car within seven days.

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Full article: http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/2009-07-30-careaccess_N.htm

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Key Senate Panel Won’t Vote Till Fall

In the continuing fight over health care reform, Sen. Max Baucus said that the finance committee wouldn’t be voting on any legislation before the August recess. Baucus, the committee’s chairman, said he would continue working on the bill next week but couldn’t promise that a draft would be made public before the recess. The NYT notes that two of the top Republican negotiators in the committee vehemently disagree that they’re anywhere near reaching a deal. Republicans have apparently been warning their party’s negotiators in the committee that they might be compromising leadership posts in the future if they make too many concessions to Democrats. Meanwhile, liberal Democrats in the House expressed their anger at the concessions their party leaders have made and threatened to vote against the bill if the public health plan isn’t strengthened in the final version of the legislation.

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124896091749093589.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/31/us/politics/31health.html

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-health-overhaul31-2009jul31,0,2426079.story

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Industry Is Generous To Influential Bloc

The WP fronts an analysis of campaign-finance data that shows conservative Democrats known as the Blue Dogs typically receive about 25 percent more donations from the health care and insurance sectors than other Democrats. Their pivotal role in shaping legislation has been good to their coffers, as their political action committee has raised more than $1.1 million this year through June, more than half of that money came from health care, insurance, and financial-services industries.

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/30/AR2009073004267.html

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Health Reform’s Taboo Topic

In the WP‘s op-ed page, Philip Howard, chairman of a legal reform coalition, writes that as lawmakers look for waste in the nation’s health care system, they’re refusing to look at “the erratic, expensive and time-consuming jury-by-jury malpractice system” thanks to the influential trial-lawyers lobby. Pilot programs could be set up to test whether “expert health courts” should replace the system, but lawmakers won’t even consider it even though it could help cut down on “defensive medicine,” a far-too-common practice of ordering unneeded tests and procedures as lawsuit protection. Debating health care without addressing defensive medicine “would be a scandal,” writes Howard, “a willful refusal by Congress to deal with one of the causes of skyrocketing health-care costs.”

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/30/AR2009073002816.html

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Over Beers, No Apologies, but Plans to Have Lunch

All the papers front a picture of the hotly anticipated “beer summit” with President Obama, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Sgt. James Crowley. At the last minute, the White House decided to include Vice President Joe Biden, which, as the NYT points out, allowed the administration to “add balance to the photo op that the White House presented: two black guys, two white guys, sitting around a table.” Obama and Biden were dressed “in exaggerated casual attire,” as the WSJ puts it, in order to highlight that this was supposed to be a friendly, happy hour conversation. But the two guests wore ties and dark jackets, despite the heat. A small group of reporters and photographers were allowed to watch the exciting action for only 30 seconds from about 50 feet away. What happened? Not surprisingly, nothing really. They talked, exchanged pleasantries, and no one apologized. But Gates and Crowley did apparently agree to have lunch together soon.

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/31/us/politics/31obama.html

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124899365578295227.html

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-beer-summit31-2009jul31,0,1427021.story

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The Gifts of Gaffes

In the Post‘s op-ed page, Michael Kinsley writes that Obama’s “rhetorical goofs” are different from the standard political “gaffe,” which usually involves a politician accidentally telling the truth. Obama’s “goofs” usually are a result of talking before he thinks through everything he wants to say. But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t say it. “The more concerned you are to avoid saying anything wrong or offensive,” writes Kinsley, “the less likely you are to say anything inspiring or true.”

The full article reads:

The Gifts of Gaffes

Isn’t it great to have a president who says something foolish or impolitic from time to time?

With his remark that the Cambridge, Mass., police acted “stupidly” in arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr., President Obama managed to extend the story by a week or more and to turn a nice little summer amusement for the political opinion industry into a “teachable moment,” which means something everyone must get serious about. Obama also solidified his reputation as a foot-in-mouther almost as accomplished as his vice president. Before Gates and the police, there was his joke about Nancy Reagan conducting séances in the White House, and then an unfortunate (though very common) use of the Special Olympics as a punch line, and so on.

But Obama’s rhetorical goofs usually are different from Joe Biden’s momentum-mouth, just as they are different from the empty-headed nonsense of George W. Bush and the bizarre country-club-bar chatter of Bush’s father. They are also different from the standard political “gaffe,” which, as we know, is when a politician accidentally tells the truth. Obama’s goofs are generally not a result of speaking the truth. They come from thinking things through incompletely. It turns out that the police officer who arrested Skip Gates was not necessarily acting “stupidly” and that Gates might have been doing just that. The president ultimately came up with a typically elegant formulation, describing the episode as a misunderstanding between “two good men.” Wouldn’t it have been better if he had just kept quiet until all the facts were in and all his thoughts were in order?

No, it would not have been better. The media, in their ill-fitting role as guardians of civility, now lecture the president on the special responsibilities of his office. His own aides no doubt shake their heads and tell one another that this is what happens when the man goes “off the reservation” — that is, when he fails to follow the script they have written for him. And of course the Limbaughs and Gingriches of the world are so upset that they can barely contain their delight at having this stick to beat Obama with.

The rituals of umbrage that have become so big a part of our political narrative aren’t just tedious. They do real harm. Very often the offense taken is completely phony, such as during last fall’s campaign when Obama stood accused of insulting Sarah Palin and all of womankind by using the phrase “lipstick on a pig.” Three problems here. First, the whole fuss was stagey and false. Second, it consumed valuable attention when citizens had more important subjects they should have been thinking and talking about. And third, it encouraged further fancied slights.

But even when the remark at issue is genuinely unfortunate and the offense taken isn’t completely imaginary, the fuss is usually excessive and damaging. The people who declare that a president has a special responsibility not to say anything offensive have it wrong. The president has a special responsibility to address important topics and to say important things. That can’t be done in a thin-skinned political culture obsessed with gaffes, and with a citizenry overly quick to take offense.

The more concerned you are to avoid saying anything wrong or offensive, the less likely you are to say anything inspiring or true. We have elected a president with a speculative mind. He wrote a book worth reading — wrote it himself! — even before running for president. It’s interesting to hear what he thinks about various subjects — even those that don’t immediately affect his own presidency. But every teachable episode we put him through teaches him that speculation is risky. And the riskier we make it, the less of it we’re likely to get.

Jokes are a slightly different category, but the dynamic is the same. The more we punish jokes that fall flat, the fewer good ones we’re likely to get. Just as presidents start by chafing at the Secret Service and end up enjoying life inside the cocoon, they start by speaking their minds and gradually learn that it’s safer and easier to live by the Teleprompter.

We complain about politicians who talk in pre-tested and rehearsed sound bites, but we punish anyone who strays too far into his or her own thinking.

Michael Kinsley, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/30/AR2009073002820.html

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Full article: http://www.slate.com/id/2224022/

http://www.thebigmoney.com/features/todays-business-press/2009/07/31/can-clunker-be-saved

What’s Wrong With a Single-Payer System?

pelosi august

In late May, dozens of health care reform activists staged a protest outside the San Francisco Federal Building while waiting to deliver petitions to U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Gail Collins: David, your writing on health care has been incredibly thoughtful, so I’m going to take this opportunity to poke you a little. Then I’ll shut up so you can talk.

The other week I said I agreed with you about the critical importance of cost controls. Then I asked — O.K., I sort of demanded — that you denounce the Republican leaders in the Senate who were flinging around proposals to make it illegal to investigate cost controls at all. You basically said that was a stupid thing to do, but that the Republicans weren’t really the problem since they aren’t in charge. 

But actually, they are. And so are we. The reason the country can’t solve the health care mess is because the people with the biggest bullhorns don’t speak honestly and clearly about it. Nobody understands the Democratic plan, and that scares the public. The irresponsible Republicans are just waiting to make whatever comes out sound terrible. The responsible Republicans are working to come up with a compromise that’s going to be even more incoherent than the Democratic version.

My version of reality is that:

A.) Since something like a third of the cost of health care is in administration, and the problem with reorganizing health care has to do with all the multitudinous plans and policies, a single-payer system would be far and away the most cost effective answer. We don’t talk much about it because it isn’t politically possible. But it isn’t politically possible because we don’t talk about it. The opponents of a public plan are afraid that people would all gradually migrate toward it, causing the insurance industry as we know it to wither away. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

B.) There have to be limits on what doctors can prescribe. The president pretends the only limit will be on useless tests and drugs that have an equally good, cheaper alternative. But useless and equally good are in the eye of the beholder.

There are already limits unless you have a really, really good insurance plan, but a lot of the country either has very good coverage or imagines their coverage is good because they haven’t really tested it. They’re afraid of change. Yelling “rationing” every three seconds totally poisons the discussion. And that is no little matter.

I’ve already gone on longer than I promised, so there’s no C.

David Brooks: Gail, as you know, I begin and end my days by reciting Congressional Budget Office reports. I even put on tefillin, just to make it seem holy. So let me begin my reply with the sentence from the latest report. It’s from a section in which the C.B.O. analyzes what the House plan, with the strong public program and all the rest, would do to health care inflation:

The net cost of the coverage provisions would be growing at a rate of more than 8 percent per year in nominal terms between 2017 and 2019; we would anticipate a similar trend in the subsequent decade.

This is devastating. The plan was sold as a way to bend the cost curve, to reduce the rate of health care cost growth. Instead, the cost of the plan to the federal budget would rise by 8 percent a year, and there wouldn’t be anything close to offsetting revenues to pay for it.

This is a loud trumpet for all health care reformers. Start over. Get serious about costs. We can either pass this kind of reform and bankrupt the country or we can pass another kind of reform. End of story.

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let me say I admire your get-serious list (though my sixth grade teacher once said that if you have an A and B, you should also have a C).

I’m not crazy about the public plan. I dislike the idea of the government competing in a marketplace it regulates. I think the temptation to subsidize the public entity will be overwhelming. But I’m not vociferously against it either. That’s because:

A.) I’m not that thrilled with the insurance companies.

B.) I think it will save money, but not that much (the C.B.O. agrees).

C.) (!) I think it will produce small administrative efficiencies.

Democratic politicians throw around statistics claiming that Medicare has much, much lower administrative costs than private insurers. I’ve been told by various economists that this claim is three-quarters trickery. It’s a lot cheaper to administer a targeted population that uses a lot of care than it is to administer a large population that uses little care per capita. Plus you can save a lot of administrative costs if you don’t actually regulate treatments that much.

As for your second point, that there should be limits on what doctors can prescribe, I say: “Amen to that.”

If I had to add a few other items to the list, I’d say putting a serious cap on the tax exemption is the way to measure the seriousness of a reform proposal. Without that, it’s not serious. And finally, I’d say that there have to be cost conscious consumers within a closely regulated market. Unless you get proper incentives for both providers and consumers, I doubt you’re going to get very far. In the current plans, all the emphasis is on the providers.

There’s a group called the Fresh Thinking Project, which has a sensible list of reform ideas.

I’d only add in closing that the health care system is as big as the entire British economy. There is no way something that big and complex and dynamic can be run out of Washington. We have to try to set up a dynamic system, not trying to establish a set of rules to be imposed by fiat. The smart reformers at the Office of Management and Budget are aware of this. I’m not sure the congressional staffs are.

Gail Collins and David Brooks, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://theconversation.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/29/whats-wrong-with-a-single-payer-system/

It’s Crunch Time for Israel on Iran

After years of failed diplomacy no one will be able to call an attack precipitous.

Legions of senior American officials have descended on Jerusalem recently, but the most important of them has been Defense Secretary Robert Gates. His central objective was to dissuade Israel from carrying out military strikes against Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities. Under the guise of counseling “patience,” Mr. Gates again conveyed President Barack Obama’s emphatic thumbs down on military force.

The public outcome of Mr. Gates’s visit appeared polite but inconclusive. Yet Iran’s progress with nuclear weapons and air defenses means Israel’s military option is declining over time. It will have to make a decision soon, and it will be no surprise if Israel strikes by year’s end. Israel’s choice could determine whether Iran obtains nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.

Mr. Obama’s approach to Tehran has been his “open hand,” yet his gesture has not only been ignored by Iran but deemed irrelevant as the country looks inward to resolve the aftermath of its fraudulent election. The hardliner “winner” of that election, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was recently forced to fire a deputy who once said something vaguely soothing about Israel. Clearly, negotiations with the White House are not exactly topping the Iranian agenda.

Beyond that, Mr. Obama’s negotiation strategy faces insuperable time pressure. French President Nicolas Sarkozy proclaimed that Iran must re-start negotiations with the West by September’s G-20 summit. But this means little when, with each passing day, Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile laboratories, production facilities and military bases are all churning. Israel is focused on these facts, not the illusion of “tough” diplomacy.

Israel rejects another feature of Mr. Obama’s diplomatic stance. The Israelis do not believe that progress with the Palestinians will facilitate a deal on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Though Mr. Gates and others have pressed this fanciful analysis, Israel will not be moved.

Worse, Mr. Obama has no new strategic thinking on Iran. He vaguely promises to offer the country the carrot of diplomacy—followed by an empty threat of sanctions down the road if Iran does not comply with the U.S.’s requests. This is precisely the European Union’s approach, which has failed for over six years.

There’s no reason Iran would suddenly now bow to Mr. Obama’s diplomatic efforts, especially after its embarrassing election in June. So with diplomacy out the door, how will Iran be tamed?

Mr. Gates’ mission had extraordinary significance. Israel sees the political and military landscape in a very inauspicious light. It also worries that, once ensnared in negotiations, the Obama administration will find it very hard to extricate itself. The Israelis are probably right. To prove the success of his “open hand,” Mr. Obama will declare victory for “diplomacy” even if it means little to no gains on Iran’s nuclear program.

Under the worst-case scenario, Iran will continue improving its nuclear facilities and Mr. Obama will become the first U.S. president to tie the issue of Israel’s nuclear capabilities into negotiations about Iran’s.

Israel understands that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent commitment to extend the U.S. “defense umbrella” to Israel is not a guarantee of nuclear retaliation, and that it is wholly insufficient to deter Iran from obliterating Israel if it so decides. In fact, Mrs. Clinton’s comment tacitly concedes that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons, exactly the wrong message. Since Israel, like the U.S., is well aware its missile defense system is imperfect, whatever Mr. Gates said about the “defense umbrella” will be politely ignored.

Relations between the U.S. and Israel are more strained now than at any time since the 1956 Suez Canal crisis. Mr. Gates’s message for Israel not to act on Iran, and the U.S. pressure he brought to bear, highlight the weight of Israel’s lonely burden.

Striking Iran’s nuclear program will not be precipitous or poorly thought out. Israel’s attack, if it happens, will have followed enormously difficult deliberation over terrible imponderables, and years of patiently waiting on innumerable failed diplomatic efforts. Absent Israeli action, prepare for a nuclear Iran.

Mr. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203609204574316093622744808.html