Harvard, Yale and Stanford join the fight against Trump’s Muslim ban


(…I’ll get even with those schools that turned me down)

❝ Seventeen elite universities including Harvard, Yale and Stanford have joined forces to fight President Donald Trump’s ban on travel to the U.S. by refugees and citizens of seven mostly Muslim countries.

The schools say in court papers the ban threatens their ability to recruit students, faculty and scholars from abroad and to “meet their goals of educating tomorrow’s leaders from around the world.”

❝ The schools filed papers Monday in Brooklyn federal court seeking a judge’s permission to join a lawsuit fighting the ban. The American Civil Liberties Union and immigrant rights groups’ lawsuit has already led to a national order barring the government from relying on the ban to deport those who arrived on U.S. soil.

The other schools joining in the request are Brown, Carnegie Mellon, University of Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Emory, Johns Hopkins, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Vanderbilt.

❝ …In Brooklyn, the schools say it’s their mission to attract the world’s best scholars, faculty and students as they strive to foster a rich educational environment and draw from all over the world. During the 2015-2016 academic year, more than 1 million international students studied at U.S. universities, according to the schools.

The sort of vulgar education generally favored by Trump chumps – and the Chump-in-Chief – kept in place sufficiently long will drag down the overall level of education in the United States from mediocre to pitiful. If Republican neo-cons and their Teapublican cohort continue to get their way in Congress.

Give ’em enough time. The traffic will reverse and they’ll not only lose one of their chief worries about furriners — those smartass kids who actually study science, the arts, fact-based history and economics will be leaving, too. Only student who obey will enter Mudville U.

3% of Americans own half the guns in the country


AP Photo/Danny Johnston

In the past two decades, Americans have added approximately 70 million firearms to their private arsenals. There are more gun owners, but they make up a slightly smaller share of the population. Handguns have surged in popularity, and the era of the super-owner is here: roughly half of all guns are concentrated in the hands of just three percent of American adults.

These are among the key findings of a sweeping new survey of gun ownership, provided in advance of publication to The Trace and The Guardian by researchers at Harvard and Northeastern universities. Our two news organizations are partnering to present a series of stories this week based on the survey.

There have been other evaluations of American gun ownership in recent years, but academics who study gun-owning patterns and behavior say the new survey is the most authoritative and statistically sound since one conducted in 1994 by Philip Cook, a researcher at Duke University.

Roughly 100,000 Americans are injured by a gun every year, with a third of those incidents resulting in death. But research into the causes of the violence, methods of prevention, and its toll on families and communities is almost entirely conducted by academics and other private groups.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the government entity that studies other public health issues, virtually ignores gun violence, owing to legislation widely interpreted as preventing such research.

Otherwise known as chickenshit Congress.

The responses reveal a fundamental shift in gun-owning attitudes. Whereas most owners once considered their firearm primarily a hunting or sports shooting tool, a majority now say they keep guns to protect themselves, their families, and communities.

Accurate reporting on what these people believe. Whether evidence-based facts provoke those beliefs is another question.

Meet the microbes sharing your seat on public transportation


Boston’s Red LineRebecca Siegel

❝ The subway is crowded–and not just with people. Sharing your commute are trillions of invisible microbes. They’re on the seats, poles, ticket kiosks; pretty much on anything people hold, lean against, sneeze on, swipe, or bump into. “We’re constantly shedding bugs into our environment,” says Curtis Huttenhower, an associate professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

Huttenhower is the senior author of a study…that reveals the character of the microbial community that shares the Boston transit system…

❝ …Huttenhower and his team weren’t simply out to catalogue nasty microbes and cause a stir. They wanted to get an overall profile of the microbes in the subway environment, and gain a better understanding of the interactions between humans, microbes, and the space we share. “We really set out to understand how a transit environment — where thousands and thousands of people constantly interact — contributes to the harmless transmission of microbes between people. Does that environment serve as a sort of reservoir or exchange for microbial communities?”

❝ The researchers swabbed a variety of locations — seats, hand rails, hanging grips, walls, seats, and touch screens at ticket booths — on three different subway lines and five subway stations in Boston. Using metagenomic sequencing, the team was able to profile the microbes. What they found was a familiar cast of characters…Huttenhower says, These are the bugs we would have on our bodies anyhow.”

They also discovered who was living where. Skin microbes were the most prevalent overall, found on all of the surfaces examined. But oral associated bugs, which are transferred by touching, coughing, or sneezing, were prevalent on face-level surfaces like hand grips and poles. And seats revealed genital-related microbes, which can be transferred through clothing. The team found little variation based on location of the train lines or the demographics they served.

❝ As for those nasty bugs other studies trumpeted, Huttenhower said in a statement, “We were surprised to find that the microbes that we collected on surfaces that people touch — and sometimes sneeze on — had low numbers of worrisome pathogens or antibiotic resistance genes. These environments have drastically lower virulence profiles, in fact, than are observed in a typical human gut.”

It’s been decades since I left the Boston area. Dunno if life has become cleaner or less clean. BITD I found public transport – especially the rail lines – to be comparatively clean. Is that a Boston thing? Are public health standards uniform nationwide?

Scientists hold private discussion about creating synthetic DNA

This was published a few days after the meeting

Scientists are now contemplating the fabrication of a human genome, meaning they would use chemicals to manufacture all the DNA contained in human chromosomes.

The prospect is spurring both intrigue and concern in the life sciences community because it might be possible, such as through cloning, to use a synthetic genome to create human beings without biological parents.

While the project is still in the idea phase, and also involves efforts to improve DNA synthesis in general, it was discussed at a closed-door meeting on Tuesday at Harvard Medical School in Boston. The nearly 150 attendees were told not to contact the news media or to post on Twitter during the meeting.

Organizers said the project could have a big scientific payoff and would be a follow-up to the original Human Genome Project, which was aimed at reading the sequence of the three billion chemical letters in the DNA blueprint of human life. The new project, by contrast, would involve not reading, but rather writing the human genome — synthesizing all three billion units from chemicals…

It was made clear to participants that public discussion, expanded scientific discussion, would begin with publication of discussion documents in SCIENCE…allowing access to a wider audience than participants could have gauged in advance or managed to accommodate.

The project was initially called HGP2: The Human Genome Synthesis Project, with HGP referring to the Human Genome Project. An invitation to the meeting at Harvard said that the primary goal “would be to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years.”

But by the time the meeting was held, the name had been changed to “HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells.”…

Scientists and companies can now change the DNA in cells, for example, by adding foreign genes or changing the letters in the existing genes. This technique is routinely used to make drugs, such as insulin for diabetes, inside genetically modified cells, as well as to make genetically modified crops. And scientists are now debating the ethics of new technology that might allow genetic changes to be made in embryos.

But synthesizing a gene, or an entire genome, would provide the opportunity to make even more extensive changes in DNA…

…Cost and capabilities are rapidly improving. Dr. Endy of Stanford, who is a co-founder of a DNA synthesis company called Gen9, said the cost of synthesizing genes has plummeted from $4 per base pair in 2003 to 3 cents now. But even at that rate, the cost for three billion letters would be $90 million. He said if costs continued to decline at the same pace, that figure could reach $100,000 in 20 years…

“Our ability to understand what to build is so far behind what we can build,” said Dr. Jeremy Minshull, who was invited to the meeting at Harvard but did not attend. “I just don’t think that being able to make more and more and more and cheaper and cheaper and cheaper is going to get us the understanding we need.”

Lots of pertinent questions raised within the scientific community. The ethicist wing of junk science will be full-bore on the topic. As will be those more concerned with reason and material reality than trying to construct a script to sell to Disney.

The NY TIMES covered its buns doing truthful headlines in some editions and scare headlines after they saw competitors successfully processing clickbait with tales of a “secret” meeting. I walked back to a date closer to the original meeting and used this one for the post.

Harvard study confirms Tim Cook is right = encryption bans and backdoors won’t work

Efforts by the FBI and certain lawmakers seeking to ban Apple and other U.S. companies from selling products with real encryption will not be effective, note researchers in a study citing 865 encryption products already available in 55 countries — two thirds of which originate outside the U.S.

❝The study for Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, conducted by cryptography expert Bruce Schneier and colleagues Kathleen Seidel and Saranya Vijayakumar, surveyed the availability of encryption products worldwide, compiling findings that make it clear that U.S. laws to weaken domestic encryption wouldn’t stop malicious users from obtaining foreign encryption, but would put U.S. firms at a competitive disadvantage.

Schneier noted that an earlier form of the same findings were published back in 1999, when the Federal Government was considering whether to continue classifying strong encryption as a “munition” banned for export outside the U.S…

Now, do we expect real findings to mean a damned thing to politicians and obedience pimps?

Seventeen years later, an updated version of the same survey discovered 546 foreign encryption products, “44% of which are free,” and “34% are open source.”

It noted, “there is no difference in the advertised strength of encryption products produced in or outside the US. Both domestic and foreign encryption products regularly use strong published encryption algorithms such as AES. Smaller companies, both domestic and foreign, are prone to use their own proprietary algorithms.”

The report added, “some encryption products are jurisdictionally agile. They have source code stored in multiple jurisdictions simultaneously, or their services are offered from servers in multiple jurisdictions. Some organizations can change jurisdictions, effectively moving to countries with more favorable laws…”

❝”Any mandatory backdoor will be ineffective simply because the marketplace is so international. Yes, it will catch criminals who are too stupid to realize that their security products have been backdoored or too lazy to switch to an alternative, but those criminals are likely to make all sorts of other mistakes in their security and be catchable anyway.

Add into that particular equation the government snoops and lazy-ass coppers too full of donuts to push themselves away from a desk and try useful work.

For a change.

Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook has made privacy—and the encrypted security protecting users’ privacy from corporate, government or terrorist snooping—into a key issue.

A year ago, Cook stated in an interview that “none of us should accept that the government or a company or anybody should have access to all of our private information,” adding, “This is a basic human right. We all have a right to privacy. We shouldn’t give it up. We shouldn’t give in to scare-mongering or to people who fundamentally don’t understand the details.”

“Terrorists will encrypt. They know what to do,” Cook said. “If we don’t encrypt, the people we affect are the good people.

How a prison debate team beat Harvard — David Register


David Register, Darryl Robinson, Rodney Spivey, and Paul Clue.

The debaters of the Bard Debate Union at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility are methodical in their approach to their craft. They take the stacks of materials they are provided and carefully comb through each item, extracting the specific pieces of data they will use to support their claims. They are critical of one another and push each other to improve. They practice constantly.

This hard work is all done within the confines of a maximum security prison. Our debaters face a unique set of obstacles – they wait weeks to receive the information I gather for them from internet sources, and they have limited time to type and print their ideas. But everything paid off last month when the team, whom I coach, beat Harvard in a debate about whether public schools should be allowed to deny enrollment to undocumented students.

Most of the overwhelming media attention about this debate has focused on the fact that our students were victorious. No one has yet told the story about how they prepare for debates.

I started the Eastern branch of the Bard Debate Union in the summer of 2013. The goal was to provide a competitive outlet for Bard students at Eastern that would mirror what was happening at the Bard Debate Union on the college’s main campus, where my wife and I co-direct the undergraduate team. Bard Debate Union members see themselves as part of one team, despite the obvious physical distance between the two branches and despite the fact that prison rules mostly prohibit them from debating together…

When they aren’t in class, BPI debaters request time in the school to meet. When they can’t get into the school, they talk debate in their cells, the yard and the mess hall. They verbally spar with BPI students who are not on the debate team, and talk with their families – creating for themselves a group of informal coaches. And some of the veterans of the team, like Rodney Spivey and Darryl Robinson (among many others), have worked tirelessly to help build the debate team at Eastern into what it has become by welcoming and training new members.

Our debaters spend hundreds of hours preparing in the three to four months they usually have to get ready for a debate, in addition to carrying full course loads.

On 18 September, after facing off against Harvard at the prison, our debaters were deemed the winners by a veteran panel of debate judges…from Cornell…Our debaters were honored that members of Harvard’s team were willing to engage them in competition, and the contributions and character of these Harvard debaters should be celebrated.

It is critically important to remember that our debaters are students first and debaters second – and prisoners a distant third. By the time I encounter BPI students, they have been trained by an incredibly gifted group of faculty members, so I deal with highly literate and intellectually curious students.

One of the primary goals of the Bard Debate Union at Eastern is to provide a robust civic education, in which our students learn how to engage in their own governance. Many of our debaters openly express the desire to someday make positive contributions to society. I have no doubt that they will.

An example of what can be accomplished, what rehabilitation of convicts can be achieved.

I have no idea of the background of these young men. In addition to being ex-cons [when they get out] they face the additional handicap of being Black in a racist nation. Hopefully, they will have an opportunity to confront circumstances based upon what they have become – not who they once were.

Robot powered by exploding farts

Harvard uni boffins have 3D printed a robot with a soft butt able to belch hot gases, thus unleashing a remorseless and invincible-ish hopping trouser-cough machine…

The new design offers a fresh solution to the engineering challenge that the Harvard Gazette claims “has plagued soft robotics: the integration of rigid and soft materials.”

“The vision for the field of soft robotics is to create robots that are entirely soft,” said senior author Robert J. Wood. “But for practical reasons, our soft robots typically have some rigid components — things like batteries and control electronics. This robot is a demonstration of a method to integrate the rigid components with the body of the soft robot through a gradient of material properties, eliminating an abrupt hard-to-soft transition that is often a failure point.”…

To initiate movement, the robot inflates its pneumatic legs to tilt its body in the direction it wants to go. Then butane and oxygen are mixed and ignited, exploding the robot into the air.

Perhaps we could design something like this on a smaller scale to hunt grasshoppers. Or something like that.

Hinode satellite recorded X-ray footage of solar eclipse


Click to enlarge

On October 23rd, while North America was witnessing a partial eclipse of the sun, the Hinode spacecraft observed a “ring of fire” or annular eclipse from its location hundreds of miles above the North Pole. This image was taken by the X-ray Telescope – the XRT.

The Hinode spacecraft was in the right place at the right time to catch the solar eclipse. What’s more, because of its vantage point Hinode witnessed a “ring of fire” or annular eclipse…

…The XRT was developed and built by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Hinode’s X-ray Telescope is the highest resolution solar X-ray telescope ever flown.

The XRT collects X-rays emitted from the sun’s corona — the hot, tenuous outer layer that extends from the sun’s visible surface into the inner solar system. Gas in the solar corona reaches temperatures of millions of degrees. The energy source that heats the corona is a puzzle. The sun’s surface is only 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, while the corona is more than 100 times hotter.

Science is so beautiful. But, then, the quest for truth always is.

Thanks, Ursarodinia

2014 IgNobel Prizes awarded


Some of my favorites:

NEUROSCIENCE PRIZE [CHINA, CANADA]: Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, and Kang Lee, for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.

REFERENCE: “Seeing Jesus in Toast: Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Face Pareidolia,” Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, Kang Lee, Cortex, vol. 53, April 2014, Pages 60–77. The authors are at School of Computer and Information Technology, Beijing Jiaotong University, Xidian University, the Institute of Automation Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China, and the University of Toronto, Canada…

PUBLIC HEALTH PRIZE [CZECH REPUBLIC, JAPAN, USA, INDIA]: Jaroslav Flegr, Jan Havlíček and Jitka Hanušova-Lindova, and to David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan, Lisa Seyfried, for investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat…

REFERENCE: “Changes in personality profile of young women with latent toxoplasmosis,” Jaroslav Flegr and Jan Havlicek, Folia Parasitologica, vol. 46, 1999, pp. 22-28…

REFERENCE: “Describing the Relationship between Cat Bites and Human Depression Using Data from an Electronic Health Record,” David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan, Lisa Seyfried, PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 8, 2013, e70585. WHO ATTENDED THE CEREMONY: Jaroslav Flegr, David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan…

ECONOMICS PRIZE [ITALY]: ISTAT — the Italian government’s National Institute of Statistics, for proudly taking the lead in fulfilling the European Union mandate for each country to increase the official size of its national economy by including revenues from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling, and all other unlawful financial transactions between willing participants.

REFERENCE: “Cambia il Sistema europeo dei conti nazionali e regionali – Sec2010”, ISTAT, 2014…

A good time was had by all…

Thanks, Mike