Wednesday, June 27, 2012

African scientists brainstorm on solar geoengineering

Lamine Ndiaye, AAS president declaring the workshop open
As the world's climate continues to warm so are scientists, policy makers and other stakeholders thinking of ways to mitigate the challenges posed.   For Africa, a continent for which climate change represents both a nightmare scenario, and as some say, a remarkable opportunity for scientific evolution, focus has began on geo-engineering.  Today in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, under the auspices of Africa Academy of Sciences, African scientists, policy makers, members of the academia and other stakeholders are examining the relevance, impact and policy imperatives of solar geoengineering.
The continent cannot afford to be left behind on this issue which is globally gathering attention since the Royal Society of the United Kingdom launched a report titled 'Geo-engineering the climate', a report that observed that though not the answer to climate change, solar geoengineering could be helpful in cooling our world.
As many now acknowledge, scientists and non-scientists alike, global warming is real and its impact is unevenly distributed socially and geographically.  Anthropogenic climate change is now recognized as the world's greatest developmental and environmental challenge.
Given this reality, I think that no discussions on solar geoengineering can be complete without inputs from Africa, a continent whose very existence is threatened by climate change.  Besides, an Africa that is well integrated into the global economy is an Africa that is free from poverty.
Some colleagues and friends are attending the workshop.  I am monitoring the discourse at the workshop and hopefully will do another posting on the issue later.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Covering wicked problems

This is a keynote address by Jay Rosen (journalism professor at New York University) to the 2nd UK Conference of Science Journalists, June 25, 2012 at The Royal Society, London.

Jay Rosen

I think every writer, every journalist, every scholar, should tell you where he’s coming from before he tells you what he knows. I am not a science journalist, or a science blogger, or a scientist who writes. But I am interested in your world, and I try to follow developments in it. My field of study is what I call “pressthink,” which is sort of like groupthink– but for people in journalism. Lately I have been fixated on the problems of the press as it tries to adapt to the digital world. So that’s what I do. But it’s not where I’m coming from.
Culturally, I’m a secular Jew. (From New York.) Demographically, a baby boomer. Socially, I’m an introvert who has learned to fake conviviality. Politically, a liberal democrat. Musically: lost. Intellectually, I am a pragmatist. Among professional philosophers, practitioners of what used to be called “moral science,” pragmatism is sometimes called the only homegrown American philosophy. William James and John Dewey are the heroes of the discipline, and two big ideas animate us. First: the test of a good idea is what you can do with it. A thinker should be try to be useful. Second: pragmatists believe that our knowledge advances not when we have the best theory, or the best data, or the best lab, but when we have really good problems.
And that’s what I have for you today: a really juicy puzzle. It begins with a distinction that I have found useful. The distinction is between tame and wicked problems. Now given what’s happened to science writer Jonah Lehrer lately I should tell you that I’ve written about this issue before and since I said it about as well as I could say it then, I am going to say it in a similar way again… okay?
Here is a problem that anyone who has lived in New York City must wonder about: it’s impossible to get a cab at 5 pm. The cause is not a mystery: taxi drivers tend to change shifts around 4 to 5 pm. Too many cabs are headed to garages in Queens because when a taxi is operated by two drivers 24 hours a day, a fair division of shifts is to switch over at 5 o’clock. Now this is a problem for the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, it may even be a hard one to solve, but it is not a wicked problem. For one thing, it’s easy to describe, as I just showed you. That right there boots it from the category.
Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. 
There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible. In a word: it’s a mess.

Read more

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Boko Haram attacks 3 churches, kills 36

A church attacked today in Kaduna
Suicide car bombers believed to be members of the Boko Haram group, attacked three churches in Kaduna on Sunday, killing at least 36 people and wounding over hundred, and triggering retaliatory attacks by Christian youths who dragged Muslims from cars and killed them.
 The violence stoked fears of wider sectarian conflict in Nigeria, an Opec member and Africa's top oil producer. The Christian Association of Kano, northern Nigeria's main city, called the bombings “a clear invitation to religious war”.
The previous Sunday, militants attacked two churches in Nigeria, spraying the congregation of one with bullets, killing at least one person, and blowing up a car in a suicide bombing at the other, wounding 41. Boko Haram claimed responsibility.
One of the injured
In the latest violence, the first two blasts rocked churches in the town of Zaria within minutes of each other.
First, a suicide bomber drove a blue Honda Civic into Ekwa Church, its pastor told a Reuters news agency cameraman at the scene.
“Three people are confirmed killed. Others have been taken to hospital for treatment,” said the Rev Nathan Waziri.
The second suicide car bombing was at Kings Catholic Church, killing 10 people, said Bishop George Dogo of Zaria, who was giving a service in the church when it was attacked.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Cloned skin for 3 yr old South African burn survivor

A three-year-old South African girl who suffered severe burns over 80 per cent of her body after an accident at a family barbecue has successfully undergone a rare surgery in Africa that gave her a new layer of cloned skin, her surgeon said yesterday.
"Everything went quite smoothly," said Dr Ridwan Mia, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who performed the surgery Monday in a Johannesburg hospital. "She is sedated at the moment but she did well overnight."
Isabella Kruger was injured on New Year's Eve when a container of fire lighting fluid exploded. Mia said he did not hold much hope for her survival when he met her in January. Burn victims with injuries as severe as Isabella's rarely survive, he said.
"She had swelled to three times her size from her injuries," Mia said of the toddler.
Isabella was in the hospital for several months battling pneumonia and kidney failure, and suffered several cardiac arrests. Doctors eventually stabilized her so that Monday's complex skin transplant surgery could be performed.
Mia and his team used enough cloned skin during the surgery to cover a placemat and stapled it in pieces onto Isabella's wounds. On her face, doctors used absorbent stitch material instead of staples. The new skin had been created by cloning two samples of skin taken from one of the few parts of Isabella's body to escape injury thanks to a diaper she was wearing at the time of the accident.
The samples were sent to Genzyme laboratory in Boston where the skin was cloned using mouse cells as a scaffold. The procedure has been used often in the US and Europe but rarely in Africa, Mia said.
On Monday evening, a special courier arrived from Boston with a stainless steel container carrying about 30 to 40 grafts of Isabella's new skin. Thin, delicate and almost transparent, the skin was taken to a Johannesburg hospital by ambulance from the airport. The skin needed to be grafted onto Isabella within 24 hours of leaving the laboratory.
"It was like clockwork the way the skin arrived on time," said Mia.
As Isabella was wheeled out of the surgery, her father Erwin Kruger expressed his relief to reporters.
"Everything looks great, it's fantastic," he said.
Isabella's mother, Anice Kruger, who has been by her daughter's bedside since the accident, looked equally relieved.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Nobel Foundation slashes prize money amid crisis

Ada Yonath, Isreali, fourth woman to win the Nobel
chemistry prize and the first since 1964;  (won in 2009) 
This year's Nobel Prize laureates will have a little less to pad their wallets with than previous winners, organisers said Monday, announcing a 20-percent cut in the award because of the economic crisis.
"At its meeting on June 11, 2012, the board of directors of the Nobel Foundation set the amount of the 2012 Nobel Prizes at 8.0 million Swedish kronor (900,800 euros, $1.13 million) per prize," the foundation said in a statement.
That meant it was effectively lowering the prize sum from the 10 million kronor that has been given for each award since 2001, the statement added.
The move was "a necessary measure in order to avoid an undermining of its capital in a long-term perspective", said the statement.
The Stockholm-based foundation administers the prestigious Nobel Prizes for Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace and Economics.
Foundation chief Lars Heikensten told AFP that the decision had been a difficult one to make.
But he stressed that "there is a lot of turbulence in financial markets, a crisis, and there is also reason to believe that we may have a number of quite difficult years ahead.
"We think it is wise to act now before it is too late."
The Nobel Prizes are paid for from money left behind in prize creator Alfred Nobel's will.
Heikensten said that while the foundation aimed to keep its expenses below the return it received on investments, for the past decade it had not managed to do so.
Legendary Albert Einstein, won the Physics Nobel Prize
in 1921 for his discovery of the law of photoelectrical effect
"Now, we're living in a time when it is difficult to get as good a return on investments as we did earlier," he said, pointing out that the foundation had raised the prize sum after the 1990s had given them good yields.
In 2000, each prize was worth 9.0 million kronor, and since 1994 the prize has never dipped below 7.0 million, according to the TT news agency.
Corrected for inflation, the new prize amount of 8.0 million lies at the same level as the prize money when the prestigious awards were first handed out in 1901 -- which was 150,782 kronor at the time, Heikensten acknowledged.
The foundation's ambition in the long term was to raise the prize amount, he said, but he stressed that it was important "not to be complacent" in light of the raging eurozone crisis.
"It is important to make sure that we can continue handing out these prizes going forward as well," he said. He did not think lowering the prize sum would undermine the award's intrinsic value.
"The value lies first and foremost in the fact that this is such a unique prize," he said.
"When we get to the autumn (when the prizes are announced), I'm certain that the winners will be very, very happy regardless."

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The science of civil war

For the past decade or so, generals commanding the world’s most advanced armies have been able to rely on accurate forecasts of the outcomes of conventional battles. Given data on weather and terrain, and the combatants’ numbers, weaponry, positions, training and level of morale, computer programs such as the Tactical Numerical Deterministic Model, designed by the Dupuy Institute in Washington, DC, can predict who will win, how quickly and with how many casualties.
Guerrilla warfare, however, is harder to model than open battle of this sort, and the civil insurrection that often precedes it is harder still. Which, from the generals’ point of view, is a pity, because such conflict is the dominant form of strife these days. The reason for the difficulty is that the fuel of popular uprisings is not hardware, but social factors of a type that computer programmers find it difficult to capture in their algorithms. Analysing the emotional temperature of postings on Facebook and Twitter, or the telephone traffic between groups of villages, is always going to be a harder task than analysing physics-based data like a tank’s firing range or an army’s stocks of ammunition and fuel.
Harder, but not impossible. For in the war-games rooms and think-tanks of the rich world’s military powers, bright minds are working on the problem of how to model insurrection and irregular warfare. Slowly but surely they are succeeding, and in the process they are helping politicians and armies to a better understanding of the nature of rebellion.
One of the best-known projects in this field is SCARE, the Spatio-Cultural Abductive Reasoning Engine, developed at the United States Military Academy at West Point by a team led by Major Paulo Shakarian, a computer-scientist-turned-soldier. SCARE operates at the most militarily conventional end of the irregular-conflict spectrum: the point where an army of guerrillas is already in being and is making life hard for a notionally better-armed army of regular troops. That, of course, has been the experience of American forces in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Major Shakarian and his team have analysed the behaviour of guerrillas in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and think they understand it well enough to build reliable models.
Their crucial insight is the local nature of conflict in these countries. In particular, bombs directed at occupying forces are generally planted close to the place where they were made, and on the territory of the bombmaker’s tribal kin or co-religionists. That is not a surprise, of course. Kin and co-religionists are the most reliable allies in wars where different guerrilla groups may not always see eye to eye about objectives, beyond the immediate one of driving out foreign troops. But it does give Major Shakarian and his team a convenient way in. Using the co-ordinates of previously bombed sites, data from topographical and street maps, and information on an area’s ethnic, linguistic and confessional “human terrain”, SCARE is able to predict where guerrillas’ munition dumps will be to within about 700 metres. That is not perfect, but it is close enough to be able to focus a search in a useful way.
Moreover, SCARE’s focus should soon become more precise. Major Shakarian’s latest trick is to include data on phone-traffic patterns in the calculations. An upgraded version of the program, employing this trick, will be created next month.
All of which is useful for dealing with a conflict once it has started. But it is better, if possible, to see what may happen before things get going. And for that, America’s navy has a project called RiftLand.
Read more

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Sights and sounds of the Lagos plane crash

Two days after Nigeria's worst air disaster in decades, emergency workers are still searching for corpses in the Iju area of Lagos where an aging Dana Air passenger plane crashed, killing all 153 on board. Death toll on ground is at least 40, bringing the overall figure to about 193, according to reports.
The Dana Air jetliner crashed into businesses and crowded apartment buildings near Lagos' Murtala Muhammed International Airport.  By midday Tuesday, searchers had recovered 150 bodies, according to Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency. 
"We are without eyes," said Jennifer Enanana, as she sobbed in the parking lot over the death of her younger brother in the crash. She had lost another brother within the year.
"We don't have anybody that will protect us that can stand like a man and defend us. Dana stole him."  
 “The latest Dana aircraft crash is even more tragic than the previous ones with a total casualty figure of about 190 people including 153 passengers, six crew members and about 37 people on the ground," said Hope Uzodinma, Chairman, Senate Committee on Aviation.

Google mourns victims of Lagos plane crash

Google Nigeria joined millions all over the world in mourning the victims of the Dana Air plane which crashed in a Lagos surburb during the weekend.
The American multinational corporation, which provides Internet-related products and services, including Internet search, cloud computing, software and advertising technologies, on its search engine - - included a black ribbon in remembrance of the estimated 170 people who died in the crash.On placing a cursor on the black ribbon "in remembrance of the Nigerian crash victims" pops up on the screen.
Meanwhile evacuation continues at the site with The Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) alongside other emergency  rescue agencies saying they've so far removed 148 bodies from the site of the crashed DANA aircraft.

Monday, June 4, 2012

MIT develops new drug-delivery technology

If you avoid the doctor’s office because of a fear of needles, you may soon be short one excuse.  Scientists at MIT have developed the prototype of a needle-less injection mechanism.
The device uses a high-pressure stream to deliver drugs directly into tissue, eliminating the need for a needle. It features a computer interface that controls the volume and velocity of the drug as its being delivered.
The maximum velocity? The speed of sound.
It can also take a drug in the form of a powder, which it then vibrates, making the powder behave like a liquid prior to being injected into the skin. It also works in reverse, being able to inject and remove liquid from the body.
If you’re wondering whether the injection would be painful, Hunter says the device is comparable to being stung by a mosquito.

Courtesy: Emi Kolawole, Washington Post

Sunday, June 3, 2012

15 killed in Bauchi car bombing

A vehicle used for suicide bombing by Boko Haram

A suicide car bomber drove into a church compound in northern Nigeria and detonated his explosives as worshippers left an early morning service, killing at least 15 people and wounding dozens more, officials and witnesses said.
The bomber targeted the Living Faith church, in a district near the airport in Bauchi, the capital of Bauchi state. The timed blast caught many people outside the church without any cover to protect themselves from the explosion, causing heavy casualties, witnesses said.
At least 15 people died in the blast, not counting the suicide bomber, the Nigerian Red Cross said, while more than 30 people suffered injuries.
Bauchi state police commissioner Mohammed Ladan said security personnel stationed near the church compound stopped the car from getting any closer to worshippers than it did.
The powerful blast from the car destroyed part of the Living Faith Church, sending walls of the building crashing down on worshippers still inside. Others suffered burns in the blast.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, though it is widely believed that the radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram must have carried out the attack.
Shekarau (middle) leader of Boko Haram 
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north, has been blamed for killing more than 530 people this year alone, according to an Associated Press count. The sect's targets have included churches, often attacked by suicide car bombers.
Boko Haram, which speaks to journalists through telephone conference calls at times of its choosing, could not be immediately reached for comment. The group has been largely quiet since claiming a suicide car bombing and another attack at offices of the Nigerian newspaper ThisDay on April 26 that killed at least seven people.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Kenyan student kills, eats housemate

A 21-year-old student from Kenya was held without bail in the US state of Maryland Saturday after allegedly killing and eating parts of his housemate, CNN television reported.
Alexander Kinyua was arrested after being charged with first-degree murder, first-degree assault and second-degree assault in the alleged cannibalism case, the network said.
Harford County Sheriff Jesse Bane told reporters that Kinyua admitted killing his Ghanian housemate, cutting him up, and then eating his heart and part of his brain, the report said.
According to the Harford County District Court case record, the killing occurred on May 25.
Six days earlier, Kinyua was involved in a fight on the Baltimore campus of Morgan State University, which had led to charges against Kinyua, including first-degree assault and reckless endangerment, CNN said.
The gruesome find was made by Antony Kinyua — Alexander Kinyua’s father — who called a Harford County detective and told him that he had come across two metal tins containing human body parts covered by a blanket in the basement laundry room, the report said.
The tins contained the head and two hands of Kujoe Bonsafo Agyei-Kodie, a housemate of Kinyua, who lived in Joppatowne, Maryland, and was considered missing.
The rest of the victim’s remains were found in a dumpster.
A missing person’s report filed May 26 described Agyei-Kodie, 37, as “very intelligent.” He had earned multiple master’s degrees from schools in Ghana and was a graduate student at Morgan State University until 2008, CNN said.