Friday, June 08, 2007

Open access and autism research

I missed this press release in February relating to a major international research exercise investigating the potential genetic basis of autistic disorders. I don't remember it getting any major publicity at the time but it is yet another example of what is possible when scientists share data and expertise.

"The genomes of the largest collection of families with multiple cases of autism ever assembled have been scanned and the preliminary results published in Nature Genetics (February 18, 2007). They provide new insights into the genetic basis of autism.

The research was performed by more than 120 scientists from more than 50 institutions representing 19 countries. In the UK, work was carried out at The University of Manchester, the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College, London and the University of Oxford.

The international collaboration started in 2002 when researchers from around the world decided to come together and share their samples, data, and expertise to facilitate the identification of autism susceptibility genes. They formed the Autism Genome Project...

The innovative combination of these two approaches implicates a previously unidentified region of chromosome 11, and neurexin 1 - a member of a family of genes believed to be important in the contact and communication of neurons. The neurexin finding in particular highlights a special group of neurons called glutamate neurons and the genes affecting their development and function, suggesting they play a critical role in autism spectrum disorders.

The first phase of the effort - the assembly and scanning of the largest autism DNA collection ever - was funded by Autism Speaks, a non-profit organisation dedicated to increasing awareness of autism and raising money to fund autism research, and the US National Institutes of Health.

Phase two of the project, which will build on the success of the linkage scan, is now being launched. It represents a £7.44 million investment over three years by Autism Speaks, the UK Medical Research Council (MRC), the Health Research Board of Ireland (HRB), Genome and partners, Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center (SARRC), and the Hilibrand Foundation. This unique combination of international, public and private partners funding a consortium of clinicians and scientists is unprecedented in the field of autism research."

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

X-ray glasses

Apparently the State of New Jersey introduced legislation in 1896 to ban X-ray glasses shortly after William Rontgen discovered X-rays. Why don't they tell you these little anecdotes in science classes in school? I first heard of Rontgen and his experiments in a chemistry class when I was 14 and though fascinated by his experiments never even thought of the effect the news might have had on the wider populace of the day.

There was, of course, no evidence to suggest that such glasses existed or were likely to exist. A bit like Tony Blair, his succession of increasingly thuggish Home Secretaries and now Gordon Brown using wild exaggerations of the potential threat of terrorism to introduce draconian liberty damaging legislation. In relation to the ID cards costs it seems they've even decided to order civil servants to shred the evidence that might undermine their rhetoric.

See no evil?

Cory Doctorow has been writing about Net filters for the Guardian

See no evil?

"every filtering enterprise to date is a failure and a disaster, and it's my belief that every filtering effort we will ever field will be no less a failure and a disaster. These systems are failures because they continue to allow the bad stuff through. They're disasters because they block mountains of good stuff. Their proponents acknowledge both these facts, but treat them as secondary to the importance of trying to do something, or being seen to be trying to do something. Secondary to the theatrical and PR value of pretending to be solving the problem."

Words in a Time of War

Mark Danner addressed the new graduates of the U.C. Berkeley Department of Rhetoric recently.

"Now I turn to you, my proper audience, the graduating students of the Department of Rhetoric of 2007, and I salute you most heartily. In making the choice you have, you confirmed that you understand something intrinsic, something indeed…. intimate about this age we live in. Perhaps that should not surprise us. After all, you have spent your entire undergraduate years during time of war — and what a very strange wartime it has been.

When most of you arrived on this campus, in September 2003, the rhetorical construction known as the War on Terror was already two years old and that very real war to which it gave painful birth, the war in Iraq, was just hitting its half-year mark. Indeed, the Iraq War had already ended once, in that great victory scene on the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego, where the President, clad jauntily in a flight suit, had swaggered across the flight deck and, beneath a banner famously marked “Mission Accomplished,” had declared: “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”

Of the great body of rich material encompassed by my theme today — “Words in a Time of War” — surely those words of George W. Bush must stand as among the era’s most famous, and most rhetorically unstable. For whatever they may have meant when the President uttered them on that sunny afternoon of May 1, 2003, they mean something quite different today, almost exactly four years later. The President has lost control of those words, as of so much else...

I give you my favorite quotation from the Bush administration, put forward by the proverbial “unnamed Administration official” and published in the New York Times Magazine by the fine journalist Ron Suskind in October 2004. Here, in Suskind’s recounting, is what that “unnamed Administration official” told him:

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…. and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”

I must admit to you that I love that quotation; indeed, with your permission, I would like hereby to nominate it for inscription over the door of the Rhetoric Department, akin to Dante’s welcome above the gates of Hell, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

Both admonitions have an admirable bluntness. These words from “Bush’s Brain” — for the unnamed official speaking to Suskind seems to have been none other than the selfsame architect of the aircraft-carrier moment, Karl Rove, who bears that pungent nickname — these words sketch out with breathtaking frankness a radical view in which power frankly determines reality, and rhetoric, the science of flounces and folderols, follows meekly and subserviently in its train. Those in the “reality-based community” — those such as we — are figures a mite pathetic, for we have failed to realize the singular new principle of the new age: Power has made reality its bitch.

Given such sweeping claims for power, it is hard to expect much respect for truth; or perhaps it should be “truth” — in quotation marks — for, when you can alter reality at will, why pay much attention to the idea of fidelity in describing it? What faith, after all, is owed to the bitch that is wholly in your power, a creature of your own creation...

Let me read to you a bit of an account from a young Iraqi woman of how that war has touched her and her family, drawn from a newsroom blog. The words may be terrible and hard to bear, but — for those of you who have made such a determined effort to learn to read and understand — this is the most reality I could find to tell you. This is what lies behind the headlines and the news reports and it is as it is.

“We were asked to send the next of kin to whom the remains of my nephew, killed on Monday in a horrific explosion downtown, can be handed over…

“So we went, his mum, his other aunt and I…

“When we got there, we were given his remains. And remains they were. From the waist down was all they could give us. ‘We identified him by the cell phone in his pants’ pocket. If you want the rest, you will just have to look for yourselves. We don’t know what he looks like.’

“…We were led away, and before long a foul stench clogged my nose and I retched. With no more warning we came to a clearing that was probably an inside garden at one time; all round it were patios and rooms with large-pane windows to catch the evening breeze Baghdad is renowned for. But now it had become a slaughterhouse, only instead of cattle, all around were human bodies. On this side; complete bodies; on that side halves; and everywhere body parts.

“We were asked what we were looking for; ‘upper half’ replied my companion, for I was rendered speechless. ‘Over there.’ We looked for our boy’s broken body between tens of other boys’ remains; with our bare hands sifting them and turning them.

“Millennia later we found him, took both parts home, and began the mourning ceremony.”

The foregoing were words from an Iraqi family, who find themselves as far as they can possibly be from the idea that, when they act, they create their own reality — that they are, as Bush’s Brain put it, “history’s actors.” The voices you heard come from history’s objects and we must ponder who the subjects are, who exactly is acting upon them."


Sunday, June 03, 2007

Wiretaps to be used in evidence?

From Ian:

"Gordon Brown has signalled his support for wiretap evidence to be usable in courts, as is common in most other countries around the world. This move is supported by the police as well as campaign groups such as JUSTICE, although furiously opposed by some in the intelligence establishment, notably former Interception of Communications Commissioner Sir Swinton Thomas, who wrote in his final report (p.12):

In conclusion, in my judgment, the introduction of intercept material in the criminal process in this country (other countries have different systems) would put at risk the effectiveness of the agencies on whom we rely in the fight against terrorists and serious criminals, might well result in less convictions and more acquittals and, most important of all, the ability of the intelligence and law enforcement agencies to detect and disrupt terrorism and serious crime and so protect the public of this country would be severely handicapped.

However, the prime minister-elect is also calling for the 28-day limit on detention without trial to be extended because of the difficulties of gathering evidence from overseas and from suspects' computers. As FIPR said in its evidence last year to the Home Affairs Select Committee, wouldn't these problems better be dealt with through increased resourcing and training of investigators?"

One of Those Rare Instances in Which the Nazi Analogy is Unavoidable

Also from Balkanization, this time Marty Lederman:

"Andrew Sullivan describes the uncanny and chilling correspondence between the Gestapo's "enhanced" (or "sharpened") interrogation techniques, and those that have been officially authorized and used by the United States over the past few years. Not only are the techniques, and the nomenclature, of a piece -- but so are the legal and ethical justifications offered in their defense.

In general, I'm a big believer in Godwin's Law. And the fact that what we're doing is eerily reminiscent of the Gestapo -- and of conduct that the United States has readily and uncontroversially deemed "torture" and war crimes when employed by repressive regimes (and U.S. forces) in the past -- should not be the final word, cutting off all further discussion. Of course, the fact that the Gestapo did something -- even something that was treated as a war crime -- does not necessarily mean that it is wrong or that we should condemn it.

But surely it ought to give one pause. And make one wonder about a major political party debate in which the candidates eagerly brag of their willingness to emulate the Gestapo -- and in which the audience lustily cheers them along.

Andrew Sullivan:
Critics will no doubt say I am accusing the Bush administration of being Hitler. I'm not. There is no comparison between the political system in Germany in 1937 and the U.S. in 2007. What I am reporting is a simple empirical fact: the interrogation methods approved and defended by this president are not new. Many have been used in the past. The very phrase used by the president to describe torture-that-isn't-somehow-torture - "enhanced interrogation techniques" - is a term originally coined by the Nazis. The techniques are indistinguishable. The methods were clearly understood in 1948 as war-crimes. The punishment for them was death.
One other thing, of a more legal nature:

As Andrew has argued repeatedly, and as Greg Djerejian has recently explained, some of these techniques do constitute "torture" under federal law, at least in some circumstances. Unfortunately, however, Congress imposed some limiting elements on the statutory definition of torture that are not found in international law, which makes the legal question in some cases more complicated than it ought to be; and, more importantly, OLC has gone even further, and come up with a reading of the torture statute under which even waterboarding would not be torture -- a reading that I've argued is plainly wrong.

Be that as it may, however, Andrew and Greg are asking the wrong question. Metaphysical and political debates about where, exactly, the line is between torture and quasi-torture may matter for purposes of criminal penalties. But such line-drawing is unnecessary if the primary question is, as it should be, whether the President can authorize the CIA to use these techniques going forward.

Even if some of these techniques are arguably short of legally defined "torture" in some cases, surely they are the sort of "cruel treatment" that the Geneva Conventions prohibit -- particularly when one recalls that those treaties were written largely with Germany's practices in mind. (The techniques might also, at least in many cases, violate the federal assault law and the McCain Amendment, as well.) And therefore the techniques are plainly unlawful -- and a President committed to faithful execution of the law would not authorize their use by the CIA -- whether or not they are subject to the criminal sanctions reserved for "torture" as such."

Follow the voter suppression schemes

Jack Balkan suggests that the way to understand the ongoing Department of Justice firings scandals we need to follow the voter suppression schemes.

"Hasen also links to an interview with Iglesias in which he accuses Rove, through an intermediary, of pressuring him to bring spurious vote fraud prosecutions. The identity of the intermediary is particularly interesting. It was Pat Rodgers from the American Center for Voting Rights, a faux grass roots organization which was essentially created by Republican Party operatives to trump up phony charges of voter fraud, to claim that the problem of voter fraud was pervasive, and to support various laws that would restrict voting rights in the name of preventing fraud. As Hasen pointed out, this organization suddenly and mysteriously disappeared off of the face of the earth following the 2006 elections when the Democrats regained both houses of Congress (and, concomitantly, the power to investigate the White House).

One theme keeps reappearing in the DOJ scandal: The Bush Administration wanted U.S. Attorneys who would push frivolous voting fraud claims that would discourage likely Democratic voters in close races. This is the big story behind the DOJ scandal; it's what the media should focus on.

During Watergate we were told to follow the money. In this scandal, you should follow the voter suppression schemes."

See also Balkan's
Did Rove Aide "Cage" Black Voters in 2004? Did McNulty or Goodling Know About It?

The dead playright, his brother and power of copyright

From the NYT:

"Since Bernard-Marie Koltès died in 1989 at 41, his reputation as a playwright has continued to grow. In February, for the first time, one of his plays, “Le Retour au Désert,” entered the repertory of the Comédie-Française, the historic Paris theater popularly known as the House of Molière.

Yet soon after Muriel Mayette’s production of the play opened there, Mr. Koltès’s brother, François, who owns the copyright to his works, ordered that it be taken off the stage on June 7 after just 30 performances."

Kim and Ben on identity laws

There is a fascinating exchange of views on the laws of identity going on at the moment between Kim Cameron and Ben Laurie. Essential reading for ID geeks.