Thursday 20 August 2009


I was amazed at how roomy the USS Bowfin was inside.

Saturday 15 August 2009


I'm in Honolulu now, with my son and partner. So blogging will be sporadic for the next two weeks.

Friday 14 August 2009


(Click to enlarge)

Curtsey to longtime reader Scottie McG

Thursday 13 August 2009

Defecate or Extricate

Clark Lindsay over at Hobbyspace has been reporting on the public meeting that is assessing the US Space program, the Augustine Commission.
Key Finding:
/-- The program of record (i.e. Ares I/V/Orion/Altair), which exceeds the expected budget substantially, will no longer be in the options table but kept separately just as a reference.
It can't be done. Not with the current budget. The expressed goal of getting a US crew to the Moon and back back 2025, let alone 2020, is not feasible with the financing available.

Other crewed options, and missions, are available and useful, that work within the budget. Building infrastructure so that some day, access to space beyond Earth Orbit will be economically feasible. But the current plan of returning to the Moon won't work without a massive and sustained increase in funds. And even if the funds are available, the planned way of doing it is a clunker, and has to be scrapped.

From the Wall Street Journal :
Current budget constraints confronting the National Aeronautics and Space Administration make it virtually impossible to sustain manned missions to the Moon, Mars or further into space in coming decades, a blue-ribbon study group is expected to tell the White House.

The findings mean the Obama administration, which created the commission, faces a stark test of its commitment to pursue expensive human space exploration efforts despite ballooning federal deficits.

The advisory group, headed by former Lockheed Martin Corp. Chairman Norman Augustine, concluded at its final public meeting Wednesday that NASA's existing manned exploration plans are "not executable" under today's budget guidance from the White House. That makes it unlikely for NASA to continue an $80 billion-plus program to develop a new manned capsule, a family of next-generation rockets and a lunar lander intended to carry astronauts back to the Moon.

But it isn't clear what alternatives the White House is likely to embrace. The commission, among other things, laid out an array of manned exploration programs it considers more viable. They include using versions of existing military rockets to access space, relying on derivatives of the space shuttle to boost cargo and astronauts past low-earth orbit, and creating fuel depots in space to help power missions to explore asteroids and other parts of deep space.
All of the options recognize the importance of commercial cargo and crew delivery to the future of the International Space Station, said former astronaut Sally Ride, a member of the commission. "We need to get NASA out of the business of getting crew" to low-earth orbit, she added.

Ms. Ride said manned "exploration doesn't look viable" without significantly larger NASA budgets. The panel seeks to eventually boost NASA's manned exploration budget -- currently projected at roughly $9 billion annually -- between 25% and 50% over the next few years.
As Mark Whittington says in Cumudgeon's Corner says:
Obama is going to have to step up, in the middle of all the other problems he has brought upon himself, and either cough up more money (and sell it to the Congress and the American people) or be the President who--again--deferred American space exploration for perhaps another generation.
Or in other words, time to defecate or extricate. Sh1t or get off the pot. As Sally Ryde said, and I again emphasise, manned exploration doesn't look viable without significantly larger NASA budgets.

Somehow, I don't think a $3Bn a year increase in NASA's budget is going to be popular with Obama. Nor with Congress.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Wednesdays in Pictures

But seriously... as my GP said the other day before using a scalpel to slice open my tush to insert a pellet, "You thrive on stress, don't you Zoe? Admit it, you wouldn't miss doing a PhD for the world!"

Darnit, he's right. I'm just thriving a bit too much at the moment. Never mind, on Saturday I leave for Hawaii with my family for a 2-week vacation. We arrive 10 hours before we leave.

And hopefully I'll be seeing Milton Diamond there over dinner a week later.

It's the first time I've actually paid for a trip overseas, and the first time we've had a vacation longer than a week off since our honeymoon. That was delayed a few years, we both were too busy to take time off at the time we were married. We had four weeks driving around the UK (I'd been posted to the Netherlands at the time, and the boat train was cheap). We got a little irradiated by the Chernobyl fallout in Scotland when the cloud did a U-turn over the Atlantic. *SIGH*.

That was.. 1986. 23 years ago. Time for another one, I think. This time with three of us.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Artificial Brains Within 10 Years

As I've blogged about before, there are two approaches to AI - analytic and synthetic.

Here's some news on the progress made in the Analytic approach, where instead of trying to "grow" and AI, we analyse what happens at the cellular level of existing intelligences, and try building a brain out of simulated cells. From RedOrbit :
A leading scientist has claimed that a detailed, functional artificial human brain could be built within the next 10 years, BBC News reported.

Henry Markram, director of the Blue Brain Project, has already simulated elements of a rat brain.

A synthetic human brain would be of particular use finding treatments for mental illnesses, Markram told the TED Global conference in Oxford.

He said some two billion people are thought to suffer some kind of brain impairment and that it is not impossible to build a human brain within 10 years time.

Launched in 2005, the Blue Brain project aims to reverse engineer the mammalian brain from laboratory data, particularly focusing on the neocortical column – the repetitive units of the mammalian brain known as the neocortex.
He likened it to cataloguing a bit of the rainforest, as in how may trees does it have, what shape are the trees, how many of each type of tree do we have, what is the position of the trees.

"But it is a bit more than cataloguing because you have to describe and discover all the rules of communication, the rules of connectivity," he added.

His team has been able to digitally construct an artificial neocortical column with a software model of "tens of thousands" of neurons - each one of which is different.

They have found that the patterns of circuitry in different brains have common patterns even though each neuron is unique.

Markram said we do actually share the same fabric even though each brain may be smaller, bigger, or may have different morphologies of neurons.

"And we think this is species specific, which could explain why we can't communicate across species.

The team feeds the models and a few algorithms into a supercomputer to make the model come alive and Markram said since you need one laptop to do all the calculations for one neuron, they would need ten thousand laptops.

But instead they use an IBM Blue Gene machine with 10,000 processors and the simulations have started to give the researchers clues about how the brain works.

For example, they can show the brain a picture of a flower and then follow the electrical activity in the machine, where it creates its own representation.

He said the ultimate goal is to extract that representation and project it so that researchers could see directly how a brain perceives the world.
One thing - the Human brain cas about 100 Billion neurons. However, today's average desktops can simulate maybe a dozen each.

I don't know whether to be amazed at how complex the human brain is, or how simple. Because we'll soon have 10 Billion people on the planet. And if each one had an average desktop of the time, each communication with the 20 or so in the local area... yes, there would exist a network capable of modelling at a fine-scale a human brain. With about the same reaction times too.

A Brain the size of a planet.

I wonder...

More in this at the Blue Brain project. How appropriate.

Monday 10 August 2009

The Incidence of Transsexuality

Over at Pam's House Blend, the irrepressible Autumn Sandeen crunches some of the numbers regarding genital reconstruction surgery (usually, but inaccurately called Sex Reassignment Surgery, SRS) for transsexual people. RTWT as they say. Read The Whole Thing.

The prime source she uses for the incidence of surgery is The Incidence and Prevalence of SRS among US Residents(PDF) by Dr Mary Ann Horton. She used a simple technique - she determined that most such procedures are performed by a comparative handful of specialist surgeons. It's not exactly a common form of surgery, nor is it simple. Getting it wrong, even in a minor way.... let's just say that trans people take very great care indeed in choosing which surgeon to go to. As should anyone contemplating surgery on their "naughty bits". And in order to qualify for surgery, one of the hoops that must be jumped through is convincing the gatekeeper psychs that you've done the research in this area, and know the Pros and Cons of different surgical techniques.
The number of US residents undergoing primary SRS in the year 2001 (run rate) was 1170 (740 Male to Female or MTF and 430 Female to Male or FTM.)
Persons desiring irreversible surgical procedures who value the quality of the result usually go to a surgeon who has performed the procedure many times previously. It is known within the American transgender community that the vast majority of transsexuals seeking surgery go to one of a relatively short list of surgeons for their final surgery. By reputation, the vast majority of US transsexuals went to one of 15 surgeons. (Eight of these surgeons are in the US, and seven of them are not.) This study refers to these 15 surgeons as major surgeons. It is believed that the major surgeons account for nearly all the primary surgeries performed on US residents.
...12 of 15 major surgeons, or 80%, provided usable data for this project. Two surveys were returned by surgeons who were not on the list of major surgeons. One of these provided MTF data for the study; one provided both MTF and FTM data.
The 14 valid surveys (a 25% usable response rate) represented 866 MTF primary surgeries performed by 10 surgeons, and 336 primary FTM surgeries (top surgery) performed by 10 surgeons. 7 of the 14 surgeons performed both MTF and FTM surgeries, 3 MTF only, and 4 FTM only. (Of the 12 major surgeons with usable surveys, 3 did MTF, 3 did FTM, and 6 did both.) Missing data was reconstructed and extrapolated, as described above, to arrive at a total annual run rate of extrapolated total primary surgeries.
Some extra work is needed to take into account "re-do"s of surgeries which would decrease the number, then add some more to take into account the lack of response.

Call it 1,000 per year. I would have estimated more than that, but those are the figures.

Friday 7 August 2009

World Net Daily

August 2nd
WND was able to obtain other birth certificates from Kenya for purposes of comparison, and the form of the documents appear to be identical.

August 6th (after the forgery became obvious to even the most credulous)
WND obtained several samples of Kenyan birth certificates in use around Aug. 4, 1961, the date of Obama's birth, showing differences from the Taitz document.

They Lie. A lot. All the time, in fact. They make the late, lamented National Inquirer look like a model of veracity.

Not all of what they say is false - but anything that supports a right wing political position is far less likely to be true than anything that undermines it.

In my innocence, I had thought that they were imperfect, letting their bias get the better of their judgement, but not in the same league as Green Left Weekly for example.

But I was wrong. They deliberately lie.

Thursday 6 August 2009

Electrons, Spinons and Honons

This is interesting.

The paper title "Probing Spin-Charge Separation in a Tomonaga-Luttinger Liquid" by Jompol et al in Science 31 July 2009:
Vol. 325. no. 5940, pp. 597 - 601 sounds almost as interesting as watching paint dry. But if you get beyond the impenetrability of some of the exact, but dense scientific jargon, you find some really neat things happening.

The electron is a fundamental building block of nature and is indivisible in isolation, yet a new experiment has shown that electrons, if crowded into narrow wires, are seen to split apart.

The electron is responsible for carrying electricity in wires and for making magnets. These two properties of magnetism and electric charge are carried by electrons which seem to have no size or shape and are impossible to break apart.

However, what is true about the properties of a single electron does not seem to be the case when electrons are brought together. Instead the like-charged electrons repel each other and need to modify the way they move to avoid getting too close to each other. In ordinary metals this does not usually make much difference to their behaviour. However, if the electrons are put in a very narrow wire the effects are exacerbated as they find it much harder to move past each other.

In 1981, physicist Duncan Haldane conjectured theoretically that under these circumstances and at the lowest temperatures the electrons would always modify the way they behaved so that their magnetism and their charge would separate into two new types of particle called spinons and holons.
The Cambridge physicists, Yodchay Jompol and Chris Ford, clearly saw the distinct signatures of the two new particles as the Birmingham theorists, Tim Silk and Andy Schofield, had predicted.
Neat! Another one of Nature's secrets revealed. OK, now some will say "So what? Of what use is it? Well, read on...

Here's what Dr Chris Ford from the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory said:
'Quantum wires are widely used to connect up quantum "dots", which may in the future form the basis of a new type of computer, called a quantum computer. Thus understanding their properties may be important for such quantum technologies, as well as helping to develop more complete theories of superconductivity and conduction in solids in general. This could lead to a new computer revolution.'
And from Professor Andy Schofield of the University of Birmingham's School of Physics and Astronomy:
Our ability to control the behaviour of a single electron is responsible for the semiconductor revolution which has led to cheaper computers, iPods and more. Whether we will be able to control these new particles as successfully as we have the single electron remains to be seen. What it does reveal is that bringing electrons together can lead to new properties and even new particles.'
So it's no bigger than the theoretical work that led to computer chips. And how much have electronics affected our lives, after all? Only... completely.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Today's Battle

Over at the Canada Free Press.:
When asked by Senator Orin Hatch (R-UT) whether President Obama’s proposed socialized healthcare plan will mandate taxpayer funded abortion, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) admitted that it will require “any service deemed medically necessary or medically appropriate.” It now appears that the plan’s “medically appropriate” umbrella is far more expansive than most Americans could have imagined.

In addition to abortion on demand, the weight of the evidence indicates that cosmetic “gender reassignment” surgeries for both U.S. citizens and illegal immigrants who suffer from APA recognized “Gender Identity Disorder” (GID) may also be provided – free of charge – courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. The current price tag for such a procedure can exceed $50,000.

Page 972 of the House version of the bill (H.R. 3200) provides for “standards, as appropriate, for the collection of accurate data on health and health care” based on “sex, sexual orientation [and] gender identity.” The Senate draft indicates that the government will “detect and monitor trends in health disparities,” requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to “develop standards for the measurement of gender.” (i.e., officially recognize subjectively self-determined “transgender” or “transsexual” gender identities). It further mandates ‘‘participation in the institutions’ programs of individuals and groups from…different genders and sexual orientations.”

Matt Barber, Director of Cultural Affairs with both Liberty Counsel and Liberty Alliance Action commented: “There’s a gulf of difference between what Obama and liberals in Congress, and the American people deem ‘medically appropriate;’ especially when it’s ‘we the people’ footing the bill. To force Americans, against their conscience, to fund abortion on demand and to facilitate gender confusion by subsidizing the elective practice of genital ‘sex-change’ mutilation is unconscionable.

“After hearing Sen. Mikulski’s ‘any service deemed…medically appropriate’ admission, I was prompted to dig a little deeper. I contacted the offices of Sen. Harry Reid, Rep. Charlie Rangel, Rep. Barney Frank and the House Subcommittee on Health. I asked, very simply, for ‘an assurance that the proposed healthcare plan will not allow taxpayer funded gender reassignment surgeries or hormone therapies.’ When faced with the bill’s relevant language, every staffer I spoke with either declined to answer or would neither confirm nor deny that such procedures would be covered.

Here's my reply:
I doubt sex reassignment will be included, too controversial.

It would make financial sense of course, we have the figures to prove it, but too many people find it all too icky.

Yes, it makes far more sense for taxpayers to not pay the 2c per year once for sex reassignment surgery, and to continue to pay 0.3-0.5c per year for 20, 30, or 50 years for all the drugs and psychotherapy to deal with the misery caused by not having it. Not financial sense, mind you, but it's a cost many are willing to pay.

Oh yes, and foregoing the additional tax revenue from having a functional, productive citizen, rather than a miserable, dysfunctional and desperately unhappy one. That's far more significant from a financial viewpoint, if we're talking about government-run healthcare.

OK, so it costs the taxpayer or insurance policy holder more over 5 years just in direct costs, and far more in foregone revenue. But there are significant savings in aged care, as so many die before they reach old age if they don't have it. It doesn't cost that much to ensure that trans people die, and many consider it a bargain at a few dollars a year in taxes, and a few cents in health insurance.

Every medical condition, from heart disease to hangnails, has a "Standard of Care", a "Best practice". Here's what the SOC for transsexuality says about genital reconstruction:

"Such a therapeutic regimen, when prescribed or recommended by qualified practitioners, is medically indicated and medically necessary. Sex reassignment is not "experimental," "investigational," "elective," "cosmetic," or optional in any meaningful sense.

Medically necessary. Not cosmetic. Not elective. Not optional.
But they're just medical specialists, what do they know?

Tuesday 4 August 2009


Go FSCK yourself!

The trouble is... for some people intersexed in peculiar ways... although no actual intercourse is involved... yes, it's possible for them to make themselves pregnant. Involuntarily.

I know of no case where a foetus has been successfully carried to term. I know of several cases where teratomae have been found. I know of one case where, in the course of genital reconstruction surgery, a partially-reabsorbed foetus was found.

But in theory, yes, it's possible.

From "Autoreproduction in Hermaphrodites by Joseph D.Schulman and Richard J.Sherins Hum Reprod. 1995 Mar;10(3):500-1.:
True hermaphroditism is a relatively rare 'experiment of
nature' in which, by definition, both ovarian and testicular
tissue are present in the same individual, and sometimes in
the same gonad. There have been several extensive surveys
of the diverse experience with human true hermaphrodites,
including a review of 283 cases published since 1980 by
Krob et al. (1994). The surveys and individual case reports
document wide variability in phenotypic expression and karyo-
type patterns. However, it is clear that many hermaphrodites
have oocytes and relatively normal uterine anatomy, about half
menstruate, and there have been at least 22 pregnancies
reported in 11 such individuals (Verp et al., 1992; Krob et al.,
1994). The external genital phenotype has been normal female
in many of these cases, although some females display variable
degrees of clitoral hypertrophy (Krob et al., 1994).
Regardless of the genetic cause of a particular case of
hermaphroditism, meiosis in such individuals would be
expected to produce a wide variety of genetically different
gametes; hence any offspring resulting from autoreplication
either of a mosaic or a chimaera through gamete formation
and gamete fusion would be a genetically distinct as well as
potentially normal child.
Thus, it can be speculated that autoreplication by certain
human hermaphrodites is not biologically impossible. In prin-
ciple, ICSI could be applied to facilitate spermatozoa—egg
fusion in those cases where only spermatids or small numbers
of spermatozoa are available on gonadal biopsy; in the very
rare hermaphrodites in which oocytes and spermatozoa produc-
tion are abundant, standard IVF could be employed.

If it is indeed true that in some hermaphrodites autoreproduc-
tion could be possible with medical intervention, another
question may be asked: 'Is it possible that such autoreproduc-
tion could, with the greatest rarity, occur without such an
intervention?' Indications exist in the mythology of various
cultures which mention hermaphroditic reproduction, and there
are references to virgin births in the historical documents of
several different societies.
Should such a baby come to term, there are certain theological aspects that would arise. At least though, the same glitches that cause such an unusual physiology also cause enough genetic variation during meiosis that the baby won't be, for want of a better term, the product of incest. Some people have bodies composed of very variable cell-lines. Some people, really nice ones, people I know who are good and kind, really are entitled to say "I am legion". It is perhaps fortunate that none have taken up a life of crime, the DNA evidence would give a forensic scientist a nervous breakdown.

From a biological viewpoint, a scientific one, this is all very interesting. But we're dealing with human beings here. People. People who are in fact more usual and common than my own rare situation. Compared with them, it is I who am the "lusus naturae", the freak of nature. While I can and do shrug about that myself (always knew I was an... individual... and rather like the idea), I can't help but feel some empathy for such people. And perhaps, just possibly, such children.

My thanks once more to Professor Italiano for bringing this piece of data to my attention.

Monday 3 August 2009

One Reason for not going alone

For Surgery, that is.

Trinidad, Colorado is (not very accurately) described as the "sex change capital of the US". Certainly one particularly well known surgeon, Marci Bowers operates there, and does perhaps 200 surgeries per year.

Many people face this surgery alone. They've lost friends and family. But it might be an idea for them to consider that there might be safety in numbers.

From the Pueblo Chieftain:
Police are investigating the alleged rape and attempted murder of a transsexual man visiting Trinidad for a sex-change pre-operation procedure.
District Attorney Frank Ruybalid said, as of Friday, there had not been an arrest. According to a police report, on July 16 the police department received a 911 call regarding a female party that was found in a room at the Trinidad Motor Inn bound at the feet and hands with a telephone cord, not clothed and injured.

Upon arrival detectives discovered that the victim, who was hearing impaired, also had been sexually assaulted with a wooden coat hanger.

The victim, who according to reports, was from California but had spent some time in Washington state, had been residing at the hotel during a stay in Trinidad.

The report stated that the victim, 25, had an appointment with a local doctor about a transgender surgery on July 15.

The victim had gone to the motel's lobby at about 9 p.m. on July 15 to use one of its computers. According to the report, it was there that the suspect entered the scene.
According to the report, police, using a sign-language interpreter, gathered statements from the victim.

According to the report, the suspect attempted to talk to the victim in the hotel lobby. After leaving to go back to her room, the victim said that the man from the lobby knocked on her door.

The report stated that the suspect was very adamant about wanting to come into the room and was "eyeballing" the victim’s body, up and down. The victim refused to allow him in and said that the suspect left. The victim then went to bed.

A short time later, the victim said, the suspect knocked at the door again before forcing his way in. He then allegedly forced the victim onto the bed.

The report stated that the suspect directed pejorative terms for homosexuals at the victim, forced the performance of sexual acts upon him and sexually assaulted the victim with a coat hanger.

The report stated that the suspect then dragged the victim into the bathroom, filled up the bathtub and attempted to drown the victim. The suspect also allegedly grabbed a hair dryer in the bathroom and plunged it into the bathtub with the victim, in an apparent attempt at electrocution.

The electrical breaker, however, dislodged from the wall plug and foiled the attempt.

According to the report, the victim was then was allegedly dragged back to the bed where the suspect bound the victim's feet and hands together with a telephone cord. Before leaving, the suspect allegedly slapped the victim, using more epithets and said people like that should not come to Trinidad.

The victim was discovered late the following morning, still tied up, and was taken by ambulance to Mount San Rafael Hospital.
So for any of you considering surgery anywhere in the US - be careful out there. Canada and Thailand are far safer - and you'll have people around you who understand.