Saturday, April 30, 2005

Kidnapped brides in Kyrgyzstan

This is truly appalling.
More than half of Kyrgyzstan's married women were snatched from the street by their husbands in a custom known as "ala kachuu," which translates roughly as "grab and run." ... Recent surveys suggest that the rate of abductions has steadily grown in the last 50 years and that at least a third of Kyrgyzstan's brides are now taken against their will.

The custom predates the arrival of Islam in the 12th century and appears to have its roots in the region's once-marauding tribes, which periodically stole horses and women from rivals when supplies ran low. ... Kyrgyz men say they snatch women because it is easier than courtship and cheaper than paying the standard "bride price," which can be as much as $800 plus a cow.
The story of one woman who was kidnapped after escaping one previous attempt by lying about her virginity:
Then, one balmy September evening, [Ainur Tairova] again found herself in a car filled with men, ostensibly on their way to a restaurant to meet other friends. But the car drove into the countryside and soon arrived at the farmhouse of her suitor's parents.

By then Ms. Tairova was hysterical. The men dragged her from the car and carried her kicking into the house. She swore at her future mother-in-law. She ducked and struggled when the women tried to put the jooluk [the wedding shawl symbolizing submission] on her head. Close to midnight, she broke free and ran outside into the darkness, but the men caught her. ...

But as with many Kyrgyz women, she eventually accepted her fate. She since has reconciled with her in-laws and says she is happy with her husband now. "He says he had to kidnap me because he heard someone else was trying to kidnap me first," she said. "He's a good man."
Uh...Stockholm Syndrome, anyone?

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Selling DNA

Celera has finally faced the obvious and given up trying to sell genomic information. Celera was the company that "tied" with the Human Genome Project in finishing the draft sequence of the human genome in 2000, and its business plan was to sell subscriptions to its genome sequence information. The obvious problem is - how do you sell something that's already freely available? Since Celera and the public genome project "tied," Celera never had a real edge in terms of amount of sequence information available. Even if Celera finished the genome first, the public project was bound to catch up eventually, so Celera's raison d'etre would be gone. So I have to ask, what were the investors smoking? I suspect that Craig Venter just wanted to show up the public project and sweet-talked a bunch fo investors into giving him money...

In the end, I think it was a great thing - the competition really sped up the sequencing process, especially after Venter's idea of whole genome shotgun sequencing spread. But Celera's original business model just seems so strange, I don't understand how it got off the ground.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Polio returns to Yemen

A couple months ago, I wrote about the threat of a resurgence in polio caused by anti-vaccine movements in Nigeria. As I feared, polio is indeed spreading, now to Yemen (which had been free of polio for six years), either out of Mecca after pilgrims brought it there from Africa, or from Sudan where the civil war and genocide are creating the kind of chaos perfect for spreading disease.
Polio has broken out in Yemen and may have been imported by pilgrims returning from Mecca, international health officials said yesterday. The disease appeared to have been on the verge of eradication [i.e., global eradication, not just in Yemen --ed.] in early 2004, but has since spread to several countries across Africa and Saudi Arabia. ...

All the migrating strains originated in Nigeria. Three largely Muslim states in northern Nigeria stopped vaccinating in 2003 after rumors spread that the vaccine was a Western plot to sterilize Muslim women, that it transmitted AIDS, and that it contained pork products. They resumed vaccinations in mid-2004 after entreaties from top Muslim clerics and after state officials visited foreign vaccine factories. But by then new cases were turning up from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and as far south as Botswana.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Liberty and the Pope

I find it astonishing that Michael Novak says that "the new pope's first concern is liberty, in all its facets," when the Catholic Church is one of the most illiberal institutions in the world (and here I mean, opposed to liberalism as a philosophy, including "classical" liberalism, not being opposed to left-liberalism). The orthodox Catholic conception of liberty (you are most free when you submit to God's law) is something I want nothing to do with.

(Novak doesn't use that specific phrase in his op-ed - it's the tagline on the "Op-Eds" page - but it does sum up the argument he makes about liberty and the Pope.)


Nate Paxton uses a neologism that I immediately find very appealing: Christianists. The obvious parallel is to the "Islamists" that hawks love to talk about. I plan to refer to fundamentalist Christians as Christianists from now on and hope that others will too. Andrew Sullivan calls them "theocons," but I hope he starts using "Christianists," as they are both illiberal in the same way.

(Before anyone says that Christianists don't explode suicide bombs and so on, I was making the comparison to Islamists not in terms of acts of political violence, but in terms of worldview and ideology. Moreover, apocalyptic violence is part of the most radical of "Islamism," but not essential to it.)

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Go Lib Dems?

According to this quiz, I should vote for the Liberal Democrats:

Labour -3     
Conservative -28     
     Liberal Democrat 42
UK Independence Party 0     
     Green 24

I would in fact be very interested to see what happens in the unlikely event that there is a hung parliament and Labour has to make a coalition with the Lib Dems to form a government. I'm not so far left that I disapprove of New Labour's economic policies for being too market-oriented, but I have been really put off by the Labour government's preventative detention laws, proposals for national ID cards and so on.

Meanwhile, being under the impression that UKIP is a party of far-right crazies, I was very surprised to see that I apparently rate UKIP higher than Labour. (Especially since I support both British membership in the EU and adoption of the euro.) But I see that perhaps UKIP is not as crazy as I might have thought:
Some opponents have claimed that UKIP is a hardline Thatcherite party exploiting widespread Euroscepticism in Britain in an attempt to bring back characteristic Thatcherite policies such as dismantlement of the welfare state, elimination of legal restrictions on business, and an unquestioning alliance with the US. However, the policies outlined in the party's 2001 manifesto suggest otherwise. ... it maintains a strong commitment to the welfare state and in particular to the National Health Service. UKIP does in general support continuing military cooperation with the USA through NATO but said in 2002 that it could only support a US invasion of Iraq if there was a clear United Nations mandate for such action.

The UKIP is against the planned introduction of identity cards... Concern for civil liberties also led UKIP to oppose the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which gives additional powers to the UK Home Secretary in broadly defined "emergency situations".
But at least I was right that the BNP really is crazy.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Aid slow in coming to Indonesia

As I worried a couple months ago, it looks like aid to rebuild Banda Aceh has been very slow to materialize:
Three months after a tsunami devastated this city, vast areas remain a flatland of rubble, mud and stagnant water where only palm trees and the stumps of broken buildings break the low horizon.

Tens of thousands of bodies from among more than 126,000 reported dead in Aceh Province have been cleared away and nearly half a million homeless people have found other places to live.

But among the ruins here, and for many miles along the coastline of barren fishing villages, almost nothing seems to have been done to begin repairs and rebuilding.

There is little sign in Aceh of the billions of dollars in donations from governments, aid organizations, civic groups and individual people who reached out to help from around the world.

"The only thing we've gotten is small packets of food and supplies," said Samsur Bahri, 54, a shopkeeper who lost his home and now lives with nine people in a small room. "Where the money is, we don't know. It's just meetings, meetings, meetings."

The government and the United Nations defend the pace of the reconstruction, saying the scope and complexity of the challenge requires a careful and well-planned response.
Let's hope they're right and that after all the careful planning we will start to see some real improvement in Aceh.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Never criticize the King and Queen

One afternoon in a bookstore I happened across this amusing reprint of instructions issued by the War Depatment to American soldiers who were headed to Britain in 1942. There was a line at the end that said something like, "And whatever you do, never criticize the King and Queen, because this will really offend Britons."

How times have changed:
The British news media, never particularly friendly to Charles, has seized on each misstep, each gaffe, each potential impediment [of the upcoming royal wedding] with undisguised glee. "These bloody people," the prince muttered about the news media on the ski slopes last week and, in a way, you can't really blame him.

Not only was the outburst front-page news but in the last week or so, a Daily Mail article making the point that older women look dreadful in jeans was illustrated by a huge photograph of Mrs. Parker Bowles, wearing jeans and looking dreadful. And in The Telegraph, the writer Pam Ayres, asked to produce a poem for the occasion, came up with "Dejected Thoughts on the Royal Wedding," just four lines long:

My mother said 'Say nothing,
If you can't say something nice.'
So from my poem you can see
I'm taking her advice.
I especially enjoyed this analysis:
When exactly such attitudes changed is a matter of debate. It may have been when Queen Elizabeth II made her mystique-shattering decision to cooperate with "Royal Family," a comically anodyne 1969 documentary that showed Prince Philip tending a family barbecue. Or it may have been the broadcast, in 1987, of "It's a Royal Knockout," a charitable money-raising venture in which celebrities and royals like Prince Andrew and his wife at the time, Sarah Ferguson, ran around in muddy fields, pelting each other with fake hams and playing games while dressed as giant vegetables.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Biologically improbable phrases

Via Kieran Healy and Kevin Drum I see that Amazon has a new feature:’s Statistically Improbable Phrases, or "SIPs", show you the interesting, distinctive, or unlikely phrases that occur in the text of books in Search Inside the Book. Our computers scan the text of all books in the Search Inside program. If they find a phrase that occurs a large number of times in a particular book relative to how many times it occurs across all Search Inside books, that phrase is a SIP in that book.
Kieran notes that "SIPs effectively convey the essence of an author’s ideas, provided that the author is a phrase-maker," and provides some examples from sociology. Since I'm a biologist, here are some examples from important works in my own field. Some of them are statistical artifacts, but most really do convey the message of the book.
Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: constant speedism, tossing tournament, artifact hermeneutics, awful stretcher, greedy reductionism, amber strings, pervasive adaptation, adaptationist reasoning, greedy reductionists, adaptationist thinking, universal acid (!), somatic line, mindless purposeless forces, real intentionality, habitat tracking, original intentionality, hidden constraints, feasible algorithm, biological possibility, idea that evolution, typographical change, human mathematicians, adaptationist explanation, daughter species, language organ

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene: fluke genes, selfish machine, evolutionarily stable set, optimum clutch size, snail genes, philanderer male, nasty strategies, caddis houses, selfish gene theory, extended phenotypic effects, forgiving strategies, conscious foresight, new replicators, baby cuckoo, replicator molecules, nice strategies, survival machines, celled bodies, group selection theory, gene machine, generation distance, parental altruism, meme pool, parasite genes, nonzero sum game

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species: temperate productions, genera descended, arctic productions, transitional gradations, perfect fertility, unknown progenitor, fossiliferous formations, our domestic breeds, aboriginal species, naturalised plants, consecutive formations, sessile cirripedes, our domestic productions, modified offspring, doubtful forms, neuter insects, closely allied forms, domesticated productions, profitable variations, enormously remote, transitional grades, very distinct species, diversified habits, mongrel offspring, transitional varieties

Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul: vivid visual awareness, first visual area, awareness neurons, percept changes, reverberatory circuits, single cortical area, cortical sheet, correlated firing, neural terms, distinct cortical areas, visual hierarchy, figure from ground, illusory contours, real neurons, subjective contours, particular neuron, different cortical areas, primal sketch, iconic memory

Mark Ptashne, Genes and Signals: activator bypass experiments, activators that work, polymerase bearing, recruiting protein, transcribing machinery, contacts polymerase, activating regions, amino domain, lytic genes, regulated recruitment, acidic activators, three activators, polymerase interaction, yeast activators, eve gene, establish lysogeny, activators work, repressor concentration, lac genes, activating loop, lac case, repressor synthesis
By comparison, one of my favorite books is relatively poor in SIPs, reflecting its role as a popularizing book, and not, perhaps, a seminal book full of groundbreaking (or, at least, originally phrased) ideas:
Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: mental dictionary entry, doggie paper, discrete combinatorial system, flapping rule