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November 2005

Sad News

At Duxbury Beach.

Friday, David's mother, Constance Nash Hartwell, suffered a severe stroke. She turned 92 in September.  Whatever happens from here, it's pretty clear that the person we knew isn't coming back. I have set up a Flickr photo set for pictures of her. If you have pictures you would like to contribute, email me for an invite to the related photo pool.

Young Jonathan Post on Whether to Duck and Cover

Bert2In the comments section, in the context of whether one is more likely to survive the collapse of a building using the duck-and-cover technique or the triangle of life technique (taking refuge next to furniture, not under it), Jonathan Post tells the following story:

When we had "duck & cover" nuclear drills at my Robert Fulton elementary school (P.S. #8), in the late 1950s, I refused to get under my desk, and got sent to the principal's office. I explained to him that we were directly across the East River from downtown Manhattan, and that Wall Street could be ground zero. I explained that the radius of the fireball varied with the 2/3 power of megatonnage, and that the desk would not give even a microsecond of protection. He agreed, and told me not to tell all this to the other students, as it might frighten them. For that matter, he advised me not to scare the teachers. I did not leave my baby teeth for a "tooth fairy." Rather, I had my Mom snailmail them to someone who was researching Strontium-90 levels in teeth, for fallout research.


Avian Flu Outbreak Maps

UnknownDeclan Butler, my current favorite science journalist, has updated his avian flu outbreak maps and added a network link. He says:

I'm getting the entire outbreak database soon, which is much richer in detail as to sizes of outbreaks etc, which I can extrude [from] the maps, so the who thing should be substantially better soon.

Declan Butler's Avian Flu Outbreak Map

And avian flu is a story that really needs good science journalism. Systemic health risks are very hard to understand for people without a good command of statistics.

Examples of health scare stories that were widely mispereived: When West Nile reached the New York area, Westchester moms panicked and for several weeks of glorious Indian Summer, wouldn't allow their kids to play outside. The real health risk in yards like mine was not West Nile, but Lyme Disease. Also, I had a severe lung infection requiring hospitalization just as the anthrax scare was peaking. I knew I didn't have anthrax, but very carefully went to my regular doctor an not to the ER because I was concerned I might be turned away as an anthrax hysteric. (At the time, NYC ERs were alleged to be turning away peole who said they had difficulty breathing.)

Butler has been tracking down the facts of the matter and putting a lot of them into his overlay.

UPDATE:  Here is his Connotea Avian Flu links page.

The Pakistan/Kashmir Earthquake Zone: Getting the Picture

ValleyGlobal ConnectionIn the interests of expediting the Pakistan relief effort, Google Earth sprang for a whole bunch of Digital Globe images of the Pakistan quake zone most needed by relief organizations, and the folks at Google Earth have worked very hard to get the images processed into an overlay and now it's out! Hooray! Good work!

From Anne Wright at the Global Connection Project:

Got some happy news from Google Earth: They've got some static overlays of a strip of fresh Digital Globe satellite images from after the quake up.  The strip runs North/South from a little above the Naran Valley, past Muzaffarabad (misses it to the east), and ends up about level with Rawalpindi.  You've got to click on an individual red dot to pull in the overlay texture.  I've attached a netlink KML and a couple of placemarks containing nice views of the Naran slice.  If you click on the red dot right next to the placemarks it'll pull in the texture you see in the screenshots. Hopefully we'll have VBR of this up in the not-too-distant future, though we've got some technical challenges to overcome first...

KML files available here: (the main KML file) (a couple of placemarks corresponding to the screen shots).

UPDATE from the hard-working Kenson Yee at Google:

We have 3 scenes at:

Extents are lat/lon approximations.  These images are the 2k x 2k static overlays.

(Updated screen shots of the area covered are here and here.)








We hope for dynamic overlays of the same images soon, but to make it a little easier on you to use these current ones, Randy Sargent of Global Connection makes this helpful suggestion:

These are static overlays.  To use, load the KML into Google Earth  and click on the red dot over the area of interest.  In the bubble  which pops up you have the option to load a 2k x 2k overlay.

Depending on the RAM in your machine, you may notice your machine  slowing down after you load a number of these 2k x 2k images.  You  can unload images by going to the Places pane on the left and  scrolling until you're at the top of the "Temporary Places" folder,  where you'll see your loaded overlays like this:


Right-click in the pane on these and choose delete.

(Don't delete the entries of form DG-N-NNNNN-NNNNN.kml, with the  red dot to the left;  these are the dots on the globe which let you  load and reload the overlays).

Yes, I could do with a change of climate, too, but I don't think that's what we're talking about.

The following passage nearly made me snort my coffee out my nose, except it seems the poor fellow is serious. The best way to prepare yourself for this is to get out your old Monty Python soundtrack albums (there must have been soundtrack albums?) and put on the little number from The Life of Brian, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." (OK, I don't have the record either, but imagine you do and you've just put it on.) Now we're ready:

Greens need to be more positive: Blair adviser

Porritt, who is now an adviser on sustainable development to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, makes the comments in his new book, "Capitalism: As if the World Matters", seen by The Observer and to be published this week.

The book argues that all sides should embrace capitalism as "the only economic game in town" and thus search for ways in making free markets work for a more sustainable future, the newspaper said.

Without change by environmentalists, "a continuing decline in (their) influence seems the most likely outcome", Porritt says in his book.

In an interview with The Observer, Porritt added: "Environmental organisations for many years (were) saying 'no' and protecting and stopping because in a way that became part of the culture of the movement.

"There's still a lot of criticising and blame-laying and not enough saying what solutions are available."

Instead, he argued, the movement must emphasise the positive, worldwide benefits of issues such as using clean energy to help tackle climate change.

"If you consider the way the environmental movement portrays climate change, it's the end of the world as we know it," Porritt told the paper.

"In reality, climate change could provide a stimulus to an extraordinary shift in the economy (and) it could improve people's quality of life. You never hear of all that," Porritt told the paper.

Regardless of one's opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism, Porritt's punchline is, um, really strange. He's trying to tell us to look at the upside to Global Warming, isn't he? My personal quality of would be improved by migrating to the garden spots of the world at planned intervals over the course of the year. (I really could do without experiencing a harsh Northeast winter ever again.) But that isn't what's under discussion.

But if we are to take him at least a little seriously, I suppose we should imagine all the marvelous species that might evolve in time to replace us. I hear some species of squid are pretty smart.

(And yes, it is possible that he's been comically misquoted. Porritt sounds a lot more sensible here.)

Pandemics: ". . . and Federal coordination goes to -- drum roll -- Homeland Security"

From Effect Measure, the progressive health blog, a scenario that reads like black comedy: Homeland Security in charge of pandemic?

DHHS has lead on the medical response, Agriculture on the veterinary response, State on international activities, and the overall domestic incident management and Federal coordination goes to -- drum roll -- Homeland Security.

Don't you feel better, now? The folks who brought us color coding, Katrina, Michael Brown and so many other museum pieces of incompetence will be coordinating a public health emergency.

The same blog has a subsequent post on the Federal plan for pandemics. The post concludes:

So that's what the planners were planning for. Straightforward. Correct. None of it news. It says, in essence, what many have known for years. If a pandemic strikes, we're screwed.

A 1918-like influenza pandemic would tax the resources of the best prepared nation. It is an overwhelming natural catastrophe. But like other natural catastrophes (e.g., hurricane Katrina), adequately preparation makes a world of difference in mitigating the consequences. And we are not a best-prepared nation. Our government hasn't gotten us ready, and in fact, has pursued policies that severely weakened us. The Iraq mistake was an ideologically based experiment that failed in spectacular and tragic fashion, its failure affecting almost everything else. As we generate anti-American feeling abroad, we spend more at home to cope with the anticipated effects. This diverts existing resources to topics like "biodefense" which have severely distorted and weakened our public health system. The gigantic $200 billion war cost has run up an even larger deficit (caused by give-to-the-rich tax cuts) which in turn prompts budget cuts which further weaken public health.

We hear daily about "the war on terror," a war we are losing and whose vague outlines are often contrived or worse. Until now we heard almost nothing from our "leaders" about the pandemic threat public health scientists knew was ever-present. Even our preparation for terrorism was a botched job, so with the expenditure of countless billions, we are left worse off than before.

Hence the stark reality of the Pandemic Flu Plan, which has no real plans in it except to say to the states and localities, "Watch Out. Here it comes. Good night and good luck."

MEANWHILE, Declan Butler writes in Nature about how a drug cocktail could extend supplies of Tamiflu. Wartime tactic doubles power of scarce bird-flu drug: Use of common drug could stretch world stocks of Tamiflu.

Doctors think they have hit on a way to effectively double supplies of a drug that fights bird flu. Administering Tamiflu alongside a second drug that stops it being excreted in urine means that only half doses of the treatment would be needed.

Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate) is the main antiflu medicine recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO suggests that, in anticipation of a flu pandemic, countries should stockpile enough for at least a quarter of their population. But although Swiss drugmaker Roche, the sole supplier, has quadrupled its production capacity over the past two years, the current supply is thought to cover just 2% of the world population.

Last week, Joe Howton, medical director at the Adventist Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, suggested a way to double supplies, after browsing basic safety data from Roche for a talk on avian flu.

The technique was invented during the Second World War to extend precious penicillin supplies. Scientists found that a simple benzoic acid derivative called probenecid stops many drugs, including antibiotics, being removed from the blood by the kidneys. Probenecid is readily available and is still widely used alongside antibiotics to treat gonorrhoea and syphilis, and in emergency rooms, where doctors need their patients to have high, sustained levels of antibiotics in their blood.
. . . [And the article closes:]
Like many scientists, Fedson is stumped by the apparent lack of interest from Roche, and the relevant authorities. "It's stupefying," he says.

Asim Khwaja: “The nice thing about computers is that they don’t go into shock."

AsimkwajaA while back I noticed this interesting site called RISE-PAK which I've featured prominently in my sidebar for about a week.  The site provides and gathers demographic, disaster, access, and assistance data and maps on all earthquake affected villages to help coordinate relief efforts. I had the vague impression it was run to of Pakistan, so I was surprised when Harvard Gazette article about RISE-PAK noted that the project was co-founded by a professor, Asim Khwaja, an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. That's Khwaja to the right, as shown in the Harvard Gazette.

KSG prof starts earthquake relief Web site

As an urgent call goes out for relief supplies to aid those homeless and hungry from Pakistan's Oct. 8 earthquake, a Kennedy School professor is using cyberspace to get relief supplies where they're most needed. Assistant Professor of Public Policy Asim Khwaja, with collaborators Jishnu Das and Tara Vishwanath from the World Bank and Tahir Andrabi from Pomona College, has rushed to create a Web site that can help coordinate relief efforts. The site, complete with a list of affected villages and satellite maps, aims to ensure that places off of main roads and in other less accessible locations aren't forgotten.

The site,, gathers information from census data, maps, satellite photographs, and other sources together with real-time postings from relief workers, government agencies, and individuals visiting the affected areas. It was created with the help of the World Bank, WOL (Pakistan's largest Internet service provider), and dozens of volunteers in Pakistan.  . . .

"People [relief workers] go to the most accessible areas. They may not realize that right behind the mountaintop there's another 60 homes," Khwaja said. "Our motto is 'no village left behind.'"

RISE-PAK's approach seems to me one of the most sensible on the Internet, in that it is very obvious to me, sitting here in Pleasantville, that people in rural agricultural areas must be having a terrible time. And following the New Orleans experience (also over the Internet), it is morally unacceptable to me that the world might decide that some of those in jeopardy just aren't worth rescuing. (I am also a fan of the Citizen's Foundation's plan, in collaboration with the Institute of Architects Pakistan, to build earthquake-safe housing following the initial relief effort.) So I had been trying to help get out the word.

I called him up. Asim Khwaja is this high-octane fast-talking intellectual who is at the same time deeply compassionate and respectful of the people he's trying to help. He had a good idea fast and acted on it fast. And within that context he was able to visualize a situation in which rescue would not be a luxury reserved for those in urban areas, unavailable to the rural poor.

There's also a nice piece on RISE-PAK in the Harvard Crimson:

Khwaja added that in the wake of a disaster, relief efforts tend to be somewhat disorganized.

“It is like a dartboard. If you blindly throw all the darts at once, you might miss something,” he said. “It doesn’t work. . . . You might get 10 to 20 percent of an area, but who is doing the rest?” . . .

RISE-PAK’s frequently-updated Top 100 Villages list provides information about the location of villages that need help and informs relief workers about exactly what is needed. The website gleans information from a network of villagers, volunteers, and student call center workers in Pakistan.

This kind of technology would have been useful in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when ordinary people wanted to help but didn’t know where to go, Khwaja added.

“You and your friends get together and rent a van, decided to buy some tents and some food. This website can tell you where to go and what to take,” Khwaja said.

Although Khwaja said the effectiveness of the RISE-PAK initiative is still unclear, he thinks that the technology could be used in the event of future disasters.

He said that part of the reason relief efforts are often uncoordinated is because people are in shock.

“The nice thing about computers is that they don’t go into shock,” he said.

Weaponizing Sound the Old Fashioned Way

photo of a US plane making a sonic boom from the NASA websiteFurther to the subject of sonic weapons, Noah Schachtman at Defensetech writes about how the Israeli military is blasting the old fashioned way: with sonic booms produced by jets: Israeli Jets in Gaza Soundclash (This is contrast to the newer, more, shall we say, energy efficient technique available: using sonic blasters, aka "Long Range Acoustic Devices.") Photo to the right: US plane producing a sonic boom; from the NASA website.

(I'm a Seattle girl so I remember when the Seattle economy went down the tubes with the cancellation of the SST; I remember that billboard on I-5 that read Will the last person out of Seattle please turn out the lights? Accidental sonic booms were not permissible over inhabited areas and so Boeing had a huge layoff. Surely the world shouldn't be expected to accept the idea that it's OK to boom some of the people some of the time on purpose?)

The BBC has an interesting article on the problem: Medics condemn Gaza sonic booms

Doctors' groups have filed a petition at the Israeli Supreme Court seeking to halt air force jets from breaking the sound barrier over the Gaza Strip.
The UN says the tactic is an abuse of human rights, causing widespread fear especially among children, and medics say it induces miscarriages.

The sonic booms from Israeli jets are designed to be a show of force to militant groups, correspondents say. . . .

The joint Israeli-Palestinian petition filed in the Supreme Court by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel says that according to international law, "the booms are collective punishment against the civilian population and thus illegal."

In my previous post on sonic weapons, I argued that such use violates the UN Convention Against Torture.

(For more on sound used as a weapon, see Noah Schachtman and Xeni Jardin. UPDATE: And see Xeni today.)

11/6 UPDATE: Defeat pirates with sound!
11/7 UPDATE: See also Noah Schachtman's new post, Sonic Boom Redux.

A Dermabond Evening

LizwcutI had other things I was going to blog about, but I've had my first direct experience with Dermabond -- the topical skin adhesive -- this evening. I was fixing dinner. My son was carrying a small bowl of cornchips into the livingroom, since he said he was too hungry to wait. My daughter, apparently, was running down the hall at top speed.

I didn't see it, only heard it. There was a collision as my son went out the kitchen door. Entirely by chance, the bowl he was carrying was ceramic, rather than the plastic ones I usually give the kids. Entirely by chance, it had a chip out of the side. Entirely by chance, the bowl impacted my daughter's face just to the right of her right eye. When I went to investigate, she had her face turned, so I didn't see the blood. At first I thought she wanted chips, too, and that that was why she was crying.

When I saw the other side of her face, I knew we needed to go to the ER. Our local emergency room now has a "Fast Track" system whereby those with minor injuries can be seen quickly by nurse practitioners. So we were in and out in an hour. The wound is glued shut with what is essentially superglue. It's got a bandaid over it to keep her from picking at it.

I feel extremely calm. But at 43, I also know that this calm is an illusion. Soon our delayed dinner will be ready and we will eat it and go to bed. Ah, motherhood.

I just looked at the Dermabond website:


I don't think Elizabeth would agree that there was "no discomfort."  But there are a lot of nerves in the eye area. Also, I'm sure glueing the cut shut probably hurt a lot less than stitching it would have. She had been very brave up until the glue was applied, but she cried the whole way home.