January 6th, 2010

[BRIEF NOTE] Is Britain's Labour nightmare over?

That would be the logical consequence of this, another article in the palace coup within Britain's Labour Party that @DougSaunders has been Twittering about for the past bit.

Geoff Hoon, the former defence secretary, and Patricia Hewitt, the former health secretary, sent a letter to fellow Labour MPs asking for support for the measure.

Immediately there were fears among Mr Brown’s supporters that Cabinet heavyweights could be secretly backing the plan.

Mr Hoon, who the Daily Telegraph named this morning as a likely plotter against Mr Brown, is a very close friend of Alistair Darling, the Chancellor. Mr Darling has been at odds with Mr Brown in recent days over issues like how to pay down the deficit.

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, has also reportedly been unhappy with some aspects of the Prime Minister’s recent performance.

It is the gravest threat to Mr Brown’s leadership since James Purnell walked out of the Cabinet in June. Mr Brown was able to hang on to power after other Blairite ministers backed the Prime Minister.

In the latter the pair wrote: “As we move towards a General Election it remains the case that the Parliamentary Labour Party is deeply divided over the question of the leadership. Many colleagues have expressed their frustration at the way in which this question is affecting our political performance. We have therefore come to the conclusion that the only way to resolve this issue would be to allow every member to express their view in a secret ballot.

“This could be done quickly and with minimum disruption to the work of MPs and the Government. Whatever the outcome the whole of the party could then go forward, knowing that this matter had been sorted out once and for all.”

They urged supporters of Mr Brown to back the plan so that the question is resolved.

They added: “This is a clear opportunity to finally lay this matter to rest. The continued speculation and uncertainty is allowing our opponents to portray us as dispirited and disunited. It is damaging our ability to set out our strong case to the electorate. It is giving our political opponents an easy target.

I've three questions to ask my readers, especially but not only the Britons.

1. Could this actually work?

2. Isn't this how the same sort of way that Thatcher lost power?

3. Is anyone looking forward to a Conservative government under David Cameron? I regularly read the Spectator, but I suspect it's not representative.

[LINK] "Sun Glints Seen from Space Signal Oceans and Lakes"

The existence of ethane lakes has been confirmed on Titan thanks to sun glints. Now they're taking this to extrasolar planets for bodies of water. Too cool.

These sun glints are like sunshine glancing off the hood of a car. We can see them reflecting off a smooth surface when we are positioned in just the right way with respect to the sun and the smooth surface. On a planetary scale, only liquids and ice can form a surface smooth enough to produce the effect—land masses are too rough—and the surface must be very large. To stand out against a background of other radiation from a planet, the reflected light must be very bright. We won’t necessarily see glints from every distant planet that has liquids or ice.

“But these sun glints are important because, if we saw an extrasolar planet which had glints that popped up periodically, we would know that we were seeing lakes, oceans or other large bodies of liquid, such as water,” says Drake Deming, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Deming is the deputy principal investigator who leads the team that works on the Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterization (EPOCh) part of Deep Impact’s extended mission, called EPOXI. “And if we found large bodies of water on a distant planet, we would become much more optimistic about finding life.”

One of EPOCh’s goals is to observe the Earth from far away—in this case, about 11 million miles away—so that we know what an Earth-like planet would look like when viewed from our spacecraft. The images in these videos were collected when the spacecraft was close enough to resolve some of Earth’s features, but at the same time, Earth could be treated as a very distant, single point. “This allows us to properly simulate what we would have observed if Earth were an extrasolar planet,” says Michael A’Hearn, principal investigator for EPOXI.

The researchers expected to see the sun glints but were surprised by the intensity and small focus of some, says Goddard’s Richard K. Barry. Glints appeared over oceans, most likely in relatively calm patches, and over a few land masses, probably caused by large inland lakes. Barry, who is leading the Earth-glint research effort, is putting together a catalog that will relate each glint to an exact location on Earth.

Together, the new videos provide the first view of Earth for a full rotation from the north pole (shown in one video) and south pole (the second video). The resolution is high enough to distinguish land masses, bodies of water and clouds. Each 16-second video is a compilation of a series of green, blue and near-infrared images taken every 15 minutes on a single day. Each is also the end product of months of planning, sophisticated data processing and analysis by the team.

The choice of infrared light, which is beyond the range of human sight, instead of visible red produces a better contrast between land and water. “People think of land as being greenish, but that’s because our eyes aren’t sensitive in the infrared,” Deming explains. “Vegetation actually shows up better in the infrared.”

[LINK] "Popular Drugs May Help Only Severe Depression"

This news article gives me yet another reason to be very happy with my psychopharmacologist. I've been simply shoved drugs without getting any other kind of followup before. That treatment modality is not helpful.

A team of researchers, including psychologists who favor talk therapy and doctors who consult widely with drug makers, performed the new analysis, using government grants. The group evaluated six large drug trials, including 728 men and women, about half of them with severe depression and half with more moderate symptoms.

Three of the trials were of Paxil, from GlaxoSmithKline, a so-called S.S.R.I., and the other three were of imipramine, an older generic drug from the class known as tricyclics. The team, led by Jay C. Fournier and Robert J. DeRubeis of the University of Pennsylvania, found that compared with placebos, the drugs caused a much steeper reduction in symptoms of severe depression (cases scoring 25 or higher on a standard scale of severity, putting them in the top quarter of the sample). Patients with scores of less than 25 got little or no added benefit from the medications.

“We were able to give an overall estimate of effectiveness for the first time in this more moderate severity range, from 14 to 20 on the scale, in which there’s no question that doctors would likely consider prescribing medication,” Dr. DeRubeis said.

[. . .]

Dr. DeRubeis and others said antidepressants’ inability to outperform placebos against moderate symptoms stemmed partly from the sustained attention that patients in drug trials received from top doctors — which itself can help relieve symptoms, drug or no drug. For some people, too, the drugs’ side effects may cancel any benefit.

“The message for patients with mild to moderate depression,” Dr. DeRubeis said, “is, ‘Look, medications are always an option, but there’s little evidence that they add to other efforts to shake the depression — whether it’s exercise, seeing the doctor, reading about the disorder or going for psychotherapy.’ ”

[LINK] "New Images Reveal Traces of Ancient (and Life-Friendly?) Martian Lakes"

In more space news, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found the ancient traces of lakes and streams on that world.

MRO imaged several deep depressions that scientists previously attributed to the sublimation of underground ice 4 billion years ago. However, the new images show that the depressions are connected by long channels, and researchers say these channels could only be formed by running water, and not by ice turning directly into gas. The scientists’ ageing of the region, which on bodies like Mars is done by counting craters, suggests the features formed during the so-called Hesperian Epoch on the Red Planet [BBC News]. Essentially, this means that there was water on Mars a billion years more recently than previously thought. The findings were published in the journal Geology.

The researchers aren’t quite sure how the lakes, which are up to 12 miles long, were filled with water. Scientists had believed that the planet was a frozen wasteland during the Hesperian Epoch, but researchers now suggest that it may have had short-lived warm phases. Mars could have been warmed by volcanic activity, meteorite impacts or even orbital shifts. The result would be a temporary increase in planetary temperature as the gases created in those events thickened the Martian atmosphere [SPACE.com]. Regardless of how it happened, scientists and space nerds are giddy about the possibility that these lakes could have once harbored life.

A few months ago, NASA announced their finding of a huge ice sheet under the Martian surface, and where there’s water, there could have once been life. According to researcher Sanjeev Gupta, “potentially life could have survived in these lakes, we would be talking about microbial life…. But now we have shown that there was standing water, this is another avenue to explore” [Telegraph]. The researchers are widening their search to include spots along Mars’ equator to determine how large an area the lakes covered.

[LINK] " Blood ban trial moves to closing arguments"

I'm not adding any comments because I want to keep all my friends.

After a 10-week Ontario Superior Court trial, the case of Kyle Freeman v Canadian Blood Services (CBS) has moved to closing arguments. The proceedings, which focus on a gay man who lied in order to give blood, have been seven years in the making.

Freeman's lawyer, Patricia LeFebour, is asking Superior Court Justice Catherine Aitken to strike down CBS's lifetime ban on blood donations by men who've had sex with another man even once since 1977.

"Now that it's 2010, that's a 33-year deferral rate. Any man, gay or straight, who has had one sexual experience with another man is excluded (from donating blood). This is blanket exclusion and it doesn't take into account the reality of today's HIV statistics of gay men," says LeFebour.

[. . .]

ll blood collected by CBS is tested for HIV. Testing has improved remarkably since it was introduced in 1985, and the window period for infection has been drastically reduced. Back then, a typical window period — when a newly HIV-positive person could slip through the screening process — was six months to a year, and tests still didn't always pick up the HIV antibody. Nowadays, HIV can often be detected within two weeks.

But LeFebour wants to make it clear she is not asking for a deferral period for gay men to be removed permanently.

"No one is saying they should eliminate the deferral period. What we're saying is 33 years is not scientifically warranted when you look at the advancements in testing. This is especially true when you look at the new pattern of heavy HIV infections coming from not just the gay community, but other groups in society like women, younger people, people from countries where HIV is endemic, and sadly amongst First Nations' people. And yet when you look at the questions of potential blood donors, a man who has had sex with a man even once since 1977 is deferred permanently. A woman who has had sex with a bisexual or gay man is deferred for 12 months and can come back to donate blood again. The current rule unfairly singles out the entire gay population," says LeFebour.

[LINK] "Battle lines form over Iceland's borrowed billions"

The Icelandic president's decision to to guarantee British and Dutch deposits in Icelandic banks might play well at home, but internationally?

Iceland yesterday set the date for a referendum that will decide the fate of a £3.6 billion loan made by Britain and the Netherlands at the height of the banking crisis in 2008.

President Grímsson shocked world stock markets this week when he refused to sign into law a Bill that would have committed the country to a repayment schedule. The Government in Reykjavik has now proposed to put the issue to a referendum on February 20.

It wants to repay the debt so that it can continue to access a much-needed $7 billion of financing from Nordic nations and the International Monetary Fund. The loan was extended to Iceland after its savings bank Icesave collapsed, threatening the savings of 300,000 investors from Britain and the Netherlands.

Chancellor Alistair Darling telephoned his Icelandic counterpart yesterday to voice Britain’s determination to pursue the debt. Britain has warned that Iceland faces isolation if it does not pay. Steingrímur Sigfússon, the Finance Minister, said that the Government was keen to repay the loans.

[. . .]

Össur Stropheöinsson, Iceland’s Foreign Minister, indicated in an interview with The Times that he was confident the Government would be able to persuade voters to agree to repayment in the referendum. While the vote is expected to be close, Mr Skarphéöinsson said that the Government had the hardest hitters on its side. “The Prime Minister is a tough campaigner, and as for our finance minister, he is like a Roman gladiator,” he said.

Mr Skarphéöinsson warned the governments of Britain and the Netherlands not to interfere in the legislative process. “Despite the President’s decision, which I deeply regret, it has to be remembered that he exercised his constitutional right,” he said. “We in the Icelandic Government have to respect it, and so too do the British and the Dutch.”

The President, he said, had vetoed the Bill on the basis of a poor analysis. “We are on the road to recovery. The gross domestic product had not contracted as drastically as predicted. There has been no mass emigration.”

It was imperative to reach an accommodation, he said, because the repayment terms were intertwined with measures to open up Iceland.

The country needed to restore international financial credibility and win back the trust of the British and the Dutch to press ahead for fast-track entry into the European Union

[BRIEF NOTE] On the sadness of astronomical truths revealed.

Centauri Dreams reports that our solar system, with rocky planets close to their star and gas giants far away, is rare.

[Astronomer Scott]Gaudi’s team has concluded that about fifteen percent of the stars in the galaxy are orbited by planetary systems like our own, meaning they have several gas giants in the outer part of the solar system. That fifteen percent is telling. “Solar systems like our own are not rare,” says Gaudi, “but we’re not in a majority, either.” Microlensing is useful for this kind of study because the method does a good job at picking up giant planets far from their primary star, a more difficult task with Doppler methods.

Working with colleague Andrew Gould, Gaudi used four years of MicroFUN data and folded in a statistical analysis based on ‘robust assumptions’ and the earlier work of both men. It turns out that MicroFUN in that period of time has revealed precisely one solar system with two gas giants in roughly the configuration of Jupiter and Saturn. Statistically, if every star had a solar system like ours, we should have found about six such systems by now. The slow discovery rate implies only a small number of systems have our configuration, no more than about fifteen percent.

[. . .]

[G]iven the number of stars in the galaxy, even narrowing the odds down to fifteen percent leaves several hundred million systems that could resemble ours. Nor should we assume that a system necessarily has to mimic our own for life to develop within it. Nonetheless, this is an intriguing result that reinforces our sense that extrasolar planetary systems come in a surprising variety, one we learn more about with every new detection.

Andrew Barton's thoughts are worth noting.

The stars beyond Sol have been ciphers for all of human history - for almost all of the time that science fiction has been written, Earth's intrepid explorers might find anything under other suns.

This decade might see this change a bit. NASA's Kepler telescope, launched last March on a multi-year mission to discover strange new worlds, has been hard at work, and on Monday details were released of the five new exoplanets detected by its efforts. All five of the newfound planets are hot worlds, orbiting extremely close to their parent stars, and only one is smaller than Jupiter. Going back to the discovery of Bellerophon in 1995, many of the exoplanets so far detected have been such "Hot Jupiters." Kepler is poised to change that, with its sensitive instruments said to be capable of detecting Earth-mass planets orbiting other stars. Not only that - in the near future, telescopes may well be able to detect individual moons orbiting these gas giants. Presumably, only the exotic properties of the mass relays will prevent Kepler from detecting them as well.

While this is great news to me, as a scientifictionist it poses a problem for the immediate future. Back in 1940, spaceflight itself was widely considered a fool's dream - whether or not Mars had canals and Venus jungles, if the writers of the time were concerned about accuracy, for all they knew it might have been a hundred years until they were proven wrong or right either way. I feel like I'm in a similar place now as to when Larry Niven wrote and sold The Coldest Place in 1964, written when the leading consensus was that Mercury was tidally locked, a consensus that was only broken by radar mapping - and after
The Coldest Place had been bought, but before it was published.

[. . .]

Kepler, if successful, will revolutionize our understanding of the interstellar neighborhood. In ten years, maybe we'll know that a planet of Tau Ceti or a moon of a gas giant at 55 Cancri has an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere and liquid water. We wouldn't be speculating blind anymore.

I'm not a published writer (yet?), but I am heavily involved in the onliny 2300AD/2320 community. This roleplaying game universe is hardish science fiction, the game universe using only real stars in their proper locations as best was known in the late 1980s. I'm participating in the Tirane Sourcebook project, an effort to detail the heavily populated Earth-like world of Tirane orbiting Alpha Centauri A. I've written an extensive article about Neubayern, the name for the Groombridge 1618 planetary system that hosts the heavily-populated Earth-like if tidelocked world of Nibelungen. I could once write these knowing that, maybe, worlds like these might exist orbiting those stars and in any case there'd be no way of finding out otherwise. That's not the case now.

It'll be wonderful to find out what's out there, of course, but still, I can't help but feel a bit of sadness at waking up from those dreams.