June 2011 Archives

Warner Herzog's latest movie, the highly rated "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" explores some cool cave paintings at the Cave of Chauvet-Pot-D'Arc in France. The ~30,000 year old paintings are significant archaeologically, geographically and culturally, and the movie does a great job of bringing the art of the restricted cave to a larger audience, albeit at times ponderously.

Some people will surely appreciate the mystical sometimes overwrought other-world importance Herzog brings to the cave finds. In the film's postscript, Herzog films some albino crocodiles that he describes as downstream from a nuclear power plant near the valley. The move perhaps encourages the audience to compare some dystopic nuclear future inhabited by spooky radioactive albino crocodiles crawling the land, to his vision of a beautiful pristine valley once populated by mammoths, bears, lions, rhinoceros and loin-clothed artistes.

Herzog seems to imbue the Aurignacian culture with the same mythical qualities that James Cameron gave to the fictional Na'vi of "Avatar", both are feted with dreamlike qualities these men seem to admire - wisdom, god-like eco-consciousness, and the capacity to appreciate (and produce) immense beauty. 1 Herzog makes a good film. But our ancestors of 30,000 years ago perhaps mastered the exquisite details of very large and dangerous beasts via many close and no doubt brutal encounters. Such encounters perhaps stirred memories that kept them up nights feverishly scratching very vivid animal portraits on cave walls with charcoal sticks. Is it too facile to point out that the art wasn't necessary created in the lush, happy tranquility of a remote French valley as viewed through modern man's eyes 30,000 years later?

At the end of the movie, Herzog tacks on some fictional "radioactive crocodiles". When interviewed by Stephen Colbert, Herzog said he wanted the audience to come with him on a "wild fantasy" that "illuminates". Without embellishment, he said, reality would be the Manhattan phone directory, 4 million entries, all correct. You would not know what anyone thinks, he said, or cries about...Therefore he's not "this kind of filmmaker". (Colbert invited him to party sometime.)

So the film seems a sort of 'up in smoke' melding of fact and fiction. The paintings are real, but with a fictional allegorical meta-framing. And the postscript crocodiles are in fact non-radioactive alligators, alligators imported from Louisiana, to a French Crocodile Farm where he filmed them. There are only about 20 albino alligators in the world apparently, because they are rare and genetically fragile. The two of Herzog's wild fantasy movie are usually used to attract tourists. Wild.


1 Added 06/11/11: Except now I learn Herzog more or less hated "Avatar", comparing it unflatteringly to yoga

Notes in June 2011: Cell Phone Warnings, Fossil Teeth

  • Cell Phone Warnings

    Recently, the World Health Organization's (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) put the risks of cancer associated with cell phones in a 2B group: Possibly carcinogenic to humans, based on their analysis of available studies. From greatest to lowest risk the classifications are Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans, Group 2A: Probably carcinogenic; Group 2B Possibly carcinogenic; Group 3: not classifiable as to carcinogenicity; Group 4: Probably not carcinogenic.

    Scientists and journalists responded to this with their own interesting and sometimes quirky analyses. Many said the new information made them feel safe about cell phones and pointed out that the 2B group included the coffee. Others said they were concerned about the new classification, and focused on the fact that the 2B group includes DDT. And others argued in more complicated ways, things like - since DDT only affects eagles' eggs, they felt ok about cell phones. Some people reasoned that they know with certainty that tobacco is carcinogenic, and cell phones aren't in that category. How do people decide how to judge risk?

    Because logically, of course, some of this reasoning breaks down. It's not clear what people mean when they announce they'll take a risk with cell phones *because coffee is a possible carcinogen too*. Most likely they haven't read the research on the possible/maybe/sometimes connection between coffee and bladder cancer (the deciding factor for IARC on coffee). No, they're not thinking *bladder cancer*, they're thinking they'll take their chances with cellphones since they drink coffee all the time. But possible/maybe/sometimes isn't really reassurance.

    Some people say that since cell phones have been in use for 15 years or so, we would know if they caused cancer. But the use patterns were different, as were the strength of signal. And recall that cigarettes were only widely acknowledged to be carcinogenic in the 1950's and 1960's, when people had been smoking for hundreds of years. Then it took decades for that research to be acted upon. And people still smoke, no matter how clear it is that smoking causes cancer. At the present stage of cell phone research, we might not even know enough about physics and physiology to understand how cell phones cause or don't cause cancer. It adds up to a lot of unknowns.

    But still, everybody wants an answer. So do journalists and bloggers feel compelled to try to give one? This is sort of funny since no one really knows yet. But science journalists should understand how research works and the inherent uncertainty and risks and the unpredictability of evolving health research. So why feel compelled to provide an answer? Personally, (see, because we can't help ourselves) I think there's enough research that I won't walk around with my cell phone in my front pocket or stick a little mini cell phone inside my ear all day and night. And I hate to say this but I really do want to see more non-industry research. But that's based on what I know of the research, science, economics, and politics.

  • Our Ancestors' Social Groups...Two Million Years Ago

    Scientists looked at the teeth of two million year old fossils and found that female hominids were more likely to leave the area they were born in, whereas males were more likely to stay closer to the cave they were born to...Oh wait, that's not catchy. We should say something like this: "Ancient male hominids had 'foreign brides'", or, hominid men "like[d] their man caves", they were "mama's boys" or were "homebodies"? See, all the good ones are taken. But by all means, lead anachronistically to catch the reader's attention.

    "Foreign Brides"? Really? It's not cool enough that scientists figured out how to analyze the teeth of our human ancestors from 2 million years ago in order to determine their possible social group structure? 1

    Using newly evolved laser technology, Copland et al profiled the strontium mineral levels in the teeth from Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus, and from modern plant and animals around two caves in South Africa. Strontium moves up the food chain from plants to animals, and accumulates in developing teeth until about the age of eight. Scientists can analyze radioactive strontium levels in teeth for instance, and compare them to surroundings bedrock to determine birthplace. In this study, the two caves were within a band of dolomite bedrock in South Africa and non-dolomite geology surrounds this band. Researchers designated the dolomite band as local, and the non-dolomite regions further afield (~3 - 30km), as non-local.

    The teeth from both species were previously found to be similar in size, but importantly, females typically have smaller teeth than males. So the investigators found that females of the Australopithecine more likely had teeth with non-local strontium profiles, and the males teeth more likely to have a strontium profile reflecting their dolomite home turf. A probable explanation is that the females left the social structure they were born in to. This conclusion is supported by the pattern of female dispersal in our nearest ancestors, chimpanzees and bonobos. By comparison, in gorillas and other primates to whom we're not related, males tend to leave their natal group.

    1 Copland et al; Nature 474, 76-78 (02 June 2011) doi:10.1038/nature10149

Bisphenol A Bill Killed with a Pow-Wow and a Bottle of Chardonnay

A Republican state senator in Oregon cleverly killed a state bill to ban bisphenol A when he reneged on a deal he made with Democrat senator. The bill to ban bisphenol-A in baby bottles (SB 695) had received bipartisan support in a 20-9 vote in April. With such support, people predicted it would continue to committee, but the GOP had other plans.

Oregon Senator Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland, recounted an agreement she had made with Oregon House environment committee co-chair, Representative Vic Gilliam, R-Silverton. Apparently the two worked out that he would initiate a work session on SB 695 in exchange for committee action on some other bills. According to Dingfelder, Gilliam ditched his end of the bargain and effectively squashed the bill. Gilliam then sent Dingfelder a bottle of Chardonnay and a scrawled note that read: "After all I put you thru yesterday - it is a tribute to your character that you would keep the 1st and 2 parts of our pow-wow inspite of it all."[sic]

Dingfelder told reporters that Gilliam's reasons for dropping the bill were unclear - he indicated the GOP pressured him. One Republican lawmaker offered: "it's not because I want to kill children".

Plastics industry lobbyists had also campaigned against the bill. For instance the American Chemistry Council wrote a letter in early May to Ben Cannon and Vic Gilliam, co-chairs of the state House Energy, Environment and Water Committee. In the letter, ACC used isolated quotes from government agencies about research on canned and packaged food to argue incongruously that polycarbonate baby bottles shouldn't be banned. The letter also misrepresented the US FDA position. The FDA is especially concerned about the endocrine disrupting effects of BPA on babies, and advises parents to avoid using bottles with BPA. It advocates alternatives to BPA lined food containers. Yet the ACC letter stated "optimistically" that the FDA said BPA is "not unsafe" (safe).

Representative Gilliam also voted against a plastic bag ban, noting he thought they should be recycled instead. He said he was disappointed Dingfelder had released their personal correspondence to reporters.


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