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Bear CSI

During the first presidential debate, John McCain once again made reference to the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project, a five-year study to which USGS has allocated $3 million to “study the DNA of bears.”

The Scientific American article linked above compares that $3 million, and its relative merits, to the $233 million “Bridge to Nowhere.”  I like to compare it to the tax dollars we are spending in Iraq.  At $7 billion per month, we spend $3 million ever EIGHTEEN MINUTES.

Read that again.  Fix it in your mind.  Now tell me where the outrage should lie.

Sure, “freedom and democracy” in Iraq are more important than the North American grizzly population, but normalized for cost, I would say that the Iraq War campaign — which originally was not about “freedom and democracy,” but rather WMDs; how quickly we forget and reset the bar — is a  monumentally greater waste of taxpayer dollars.  We’ve spent $600 billion chasing a dragon that was never there, and continuously re-rationalizing our reasons for doing it.  If you have any intellectual honesty at all, you should be outraged about that.

The bear DNA reference so often quoted by McCain is just another distraction that he’s so good at inventing.  Again, fake outrage, misplaced priorities.  Part and parcel of modern politicking.

At the end of the day, the grizzly bear project still costs $3 million over five years, and it will tell us something important about the distribution of and conservation status of the greatest (remaining) land mammal in North America.  Also over five years, the Iraq war has cost some $600 billion — for the sake of comparison, that is two hundred thousand times as expensive as the grizzly bear project over the same time period — and we never accomplished our originally stated goal of ferreting out WMDs, and even Plan B, “freedom and democracy”, has been outrageously mismanaged, and may only now be seeing any fruits.  Given that four of those five years were wasted on the Bush-Rumsfeld plan (which made the project five times as expensive as it could have been), you know where your outrage should lie.

BTW, did you know that the Gravina Island Bridge (the so-called Bridge to Nowhere), was a two-part project, one involving the bridge, and the other involving an access road that linked the bridge to a small airport?  The bridge project got nixed, but a contract for the access road had already been signed, so it got built.  Yes, it got built, and it goes nowhere.  It dead-ends at the island coast where the bridge should connect to it.  And it cost…wait for it, wait for it…$3 million per mile!  At eight miles long, that project is eight times as expensive as the whole grizzly bear project.  And, yes, it is indeed a road to nowhere.

Your tax dollars at work, folks.  And guess who was governor and who could have nixed the contract on the access road and prevented that absurd waste of federal tax dollars?  You guessed right.  Our girl, Sarah Palin.

So tell me again, where should your outrage lie?

A propos: my friend Sakshi points out on her blog that McCain voted for funding the grizzly bear project!

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As of 7:10 pm EDT on Friday night (the time of this writing), it is apparent that John McCain has won the debate.  See the back story.

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Paul Krugman…

“You’ve heard there are no atheists in foxholes.  There are no libertarians in financial crises, either.”

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Three have died already.  This is yet another failure of unregulated markets.  Considering all the tainted pet food and lead-filled toys that caused a scare last year, maybe the Chinese are finally going to realize that they’ll have to regulate their products better.  You can’t just let the private sector “police itself.”

And the Dow has dropped another 250 points as of this writing.  The federal government has agreed to loan AIG $85 billion.  If AIG can’t recover and pay that back (plus interest), the fed gets 80% of the company.

When will the idealogues learn?  We’ve seen this before, in 1928 and 1987.  Those who won’t learn from history are destined to repeat it.

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“What we’ve seen the last few days is nothing less than the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed. And I am running for president of the United States because the dreams of the American people must not be endangered any more.

“It’s time for a government that is fighting for you — not ignoring you, or fighting against you.

“If you want to understand the difference between how Senator McCain and I would govern as president, you can start by taking a look at how we’ve responded to this crisis. Because Senator McCain’s approach was the same as the Bush Administration’s: support ideological policies that made the crisis more likely; do nothing as the crisis hits; and then scramble as the whole thing unravels. Now, my approach has been to try to prevent this turmoil from occurring in the first place.

“In February of 2006, I introduced legislation to stop mortgage transactions that promoted fraud, risk or abuse. A year later, before the crisis hit, I warned Secretary Paulson at the Treasury and Chairman Bernanke at the Fed about the risks of mounting foreclosures and urged them to bring together all the stakeholders to find solutions to the subprime mortgage meltdown. Senator McCain did nothing.

“This March, in the wake of the Bear Stearns bailout, I called for a new, 21st-century regulatory framework to restore accountability, transparency, and trust in our financial markets. Just a few weeks earlier, Senator McCain made it clear where he stands, [saying] ‘I’m always for less regulation,’ and referred to himself as ‘fundamentally a deregulator.’

“Now this is what happens when you confuse the free market with a free license to let special interests take whatever they can get, however they can get it.”

Actually, there is no confusion.  Any “free” market is a license for special interests and power brokers to take whatever they can get.  Freedom from regulation always makes that possible.

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Yep, the story just crossed the news wire.

BEIJING (Reuters) – The International Olympic Committee has ordered an investigation into allegations Chinese authorities covered up the age of a double gold medal winning gymnast because she was too young to compete.

He Kexin, who won team gold in artistic gymnastics and an individual title on the asymmetric bars, was registered as being born on January 1, 1992.

There have been persistent media allegations that He had competed in earlier tournaments under a later birthdate, and on Thursday an American computer expert said he had uncovered Chinese state documents that proved she was 14 and not 16.

An IOC official said the International Gymnastics Federation had been asked to investigate because of “discrepancies” over He’s age. Gymnasts must turn 16 in the year of the Games to take part.

There’s also a more complete story.

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The interwebs are abuzz over a controversy regarding the ages of several Chinese women gymnasts.  Critics point to several news reports, and even an official Chinese government web site, which listed Chinese gymnast He Kexin’s birthday as 1 January 1994 instead of the “official” date of 1 January 1992.  That would make her 14 years old and not qualified to compete in the Beijing Olympics.

The problem is that the only official and accepted documents for age — birth certificates and passports — are printed by the very entity that is accused of engaging in fraud.  It would be trivially easy for the Chinese government to forge such documents.

Is there another way to ascertain her age?  Well, there are age- and development-related changes in hormone levels and other physiological markers.  However, these always distribute on a normal curve, and it’s entirely possible for a 16-year-old at the tail end of the distribution to have the developmental and physiological profile of your average 14-year-old.  Some girls simply develop more slowly.

(Of course, it’s also possible that the gymnasts’ development was retarded with drugs, which violates IOC rules, and while the IOC is cracking down on other forms of doping, they seem to be turning a blind eye to the possibility of doping for developmental retardation.)

So physiological profiles won’t yield a precise age.  Another option is developmental markers such as growth plates in the long bones.  Once again, however, the presence of growth plates of a certain size could merely indicate that He is a slow developer.  It wouldn’t be proof positive that she is underage.  However, the presence of growth plates that indicate a 16-year-old in development would dispel the rumors once and for all.

Another option is amino acid racemization.  All amino acids produced in living systems, including humans, are in the L stereochemical configuration.   Over time they racemize to the R enantiomer until they reach stereochemical equilibrium, and each amino acid does this at a precise and measurable rate.  By comparing the ratio of L and R enantiomers, a time since the deposition of the protein can be determined.  One common technique utilizes aspartate racemization.  The problem is that the assay must be performed on tissues that are formed at or before birth, and that become essentially biochemically inactive.  The most common sources are myelin proteins that line the axons of neurons in the brain, and proteins from certain layers of the lens of the eye.  As you might imagine, a biochemical assay of this sort is too invasive to be performed on living subjects.

So there is no good biological aging assay for living human subjects.  We are stuck with having to take the word of the Chinese government.

Unfortunately, the Chinese government has a dubious track record on such matters.  Chinese gymnast Yang Yun earned a bronze in the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and later admitted that she had been underage during the competition.

Of course, nobody is denying that these gymnasts are talented.  He Kexin and her teammates are the best gymnasts at the Beijing Olympics.  But if we’re going to have rules, they must be followed.  Otherwise, China gains an unfair advantage by being the only team not handicapped by the rules.  After all, there may be plenty of 14-year-olds in other countries who are more talented than the gymnasts chosen to represent those countries in Beijing.

Ultimately, this controversy isn’t about gymnastics.  It’s about government fraud and government censorship.  The damage that could be inflicted on the reputation of the Chinese government, which is working feverishly to orchestrate a positive image of itself during these games, would be far worse than the loss of a few medals.  I guess it’s no wonder they are working just as feverishly to cover their tracks.

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