Awash in oily news from the Niger Delta

Whoa. Could it be that the universe/Gods of justice/media heard my complaint from 12 days ago? On June 5th, I wrote about the bigger spill (the one that even the NYTimes isn’t saying much about) because I was peeved that the 50 year-long ongoing oil spill in the Niger Delta was nowhere to be found in a NYTimes multimedia feature on the history of major oil spills. I was also peeved that save for one superb article in the Guardian, there was no other mention of this tragedy in the the rest of the media, who went on and on, however, about Exxon-Valdez, Ixtoc1, the Kuwait episode, etc.

And then all of sudden, today saw a  deluge of Niger Delta oil spill stories. Check out the timeline that I saw on a google news search page:

Google news tracker: Sudden spike in stories about the Nigerian oil tragedy

That’s right. As of 9pm today, no less than 130 news reports appeared on this issue today.

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Now Big Brother wants your DNA too (psst, it might already have it)

Whether it’s a good thing or not is debatable, but the truth of the matter is that Big Brother, a.k.a, the federal government, already has gathered a little too much info about us by snooping on our digital lives. Govt.-commissioned programs read our emails, scan our financial records, eavesdrop on our phone calls, track our digital footprints as we wander around the internet, and perhaps even quietly catalogue all the mostly irrelevant nuggets that we drop into our Facebook pages.

Now, it turns out, the government wants our DNA too.

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10 year old human genome feels the weight of false expectations

DNA birthday cake. Image credit:

It’s annoying when people pick on the human genome. Especially since this June marks its 10th birthday (scientists unveiled its first draft 1o years ago), and we should be throwing the genome birthday bashes, not bashing it up. And particularly because the genome critics are two rather prominent members of the media who get a lot of bylines by writing about genome-related medical advances and who should know better than to rough up the poor genome because it hasn’t coughed up causes and cures for human diseases — all of them — in 10 years.

A Decade Later, Genetic Map Yields Few New Cures,” lamented Nicholas Wade in the NYTimes earlier this week.

Why our decade of genome sequencing should end,” exposited Sharon Begley in a 2010 Newsweek essay not too long ago.

It’s true that 10 years have passed and $3 billion spent to sequence the human genome (completed in 2003) since the Human Genome Project (HGP) was initiated with the goal of finding the genetic causes of common diseases and ways of curing them.

Mr. Wade’s right; it hasn’t done these things. But then again, it wasn’t expected to, at least not by scientists, in that timeframe. Expecting the decoding of the genome to solve humanity’s health problems in 10 years is absurd. It’s like asking astrophysicists and NASA, “Well, we’ve been throwing billions of dollars into outer space for more than half a century now. Where is E.T? Or the colonies on the moon? And Mars – are we there yet?”

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New ways of hitting cancer: peptide rockets and nanobombs

You can make a cancer drug that only targets cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone. You can even tailor a cancer drug so that it specifically targets genetic mistakes that are unique to the particular subtype of cancer that a patient has. But if you can’t get that drug into the cancer—I mean, get it all the way into and around the depths of a solid tumor mass—then you’ve got nothing. Well, not nothing. But drugs that barely shave a few millimeters off a solid tumor or those that prolong survival by 3-6 months are not the standard that we should be shooting for.

An intricate blood vessel network within a solid tumor

That’s pretty much where the world of cancer research and drug development is at right now. At the gigantic American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting that just wrapped up in Chicago this week, about 30,000 people (researchers, clinicians, pharma company folks, journalists, patients and patient advocacy groups, venture capitalists and business analysts) listened to hundreds of presentations on how dozens and dozens of drugs against various cancers are performing in clinical trials right now. But all of the drugs aimed at cancers that give rise to solid tumors—pretty much everything with the exception of drugs for blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma—face the same, crippling roadblock: they penetrate only a few cells deep into the mass of a solid tumor tissue. Such a feeble attack on the tumor basically gives the bad guys within a chance to regroup and come back stronger, with greater resistance to the drug.

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The Neanderthalizer and other weapons of mass instruction

Want a Neandertal makeover? There’s an app for that. There’s also an app to keep tabs on NASA. And a couple for beating climate-change skeptics and anti-evolutionists at their own game.

These and scores of other nerdy downloads are some of the coolest reasons to like Apple products, even if you don’t like Apple people.

After scanning a dozen scientific, pseudo-scientific and downright disturbing apps, here’s a run-down of a bunch that I liked, some of which are totally worth a look and others that are totally worth a free (or 99cent) download.

The “fun-for-the-entire-family” category

A much loved Homo neanderthalensis

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History released this one a few weeks ago (for both the iPhone and the Android). The “MEanderthal” is presumably meant to evoke the ‘Neanderthals-are-us” bonds and emotions, now that science has proved that we’ve inherited a decent amount of genetic material from them (but not their looks, thank God!).

The app, which could be better, is based on a paleo-artist’s interpretation of Neandertal facial features from fossil data. You choose one of your best mugs, adjust it so it fits the app’s facial recognition markers, and choose an early human species that you’re dying to look like. Let me say by way of warning, ladies – you’re in for a jolt. Guys – you go right ahead.

(The image here, btw, is of a loved one transformed into Homo neanderthalensis, a caveman who lived 200,000 to 28,000 years ago.)

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The bigger spill (the one that even the NYTimes isn’t saying much about)

The Deepwater Horizon blew up on April 20th. About 3 weeks later, when it became apparent that the resulting oil spill was an historic disaster in the making, the New York Times put up a slick (no pun intended) timeline-type slideshow called “A History of Major Oil Spills.”

Intending to write a post on the biological costs of the spill, I clicked on the Times’ slideshow today with the hope of understanding how this disaster stacks up against other oil spills in history. What I found, or rather, didn’t find, has driven me to write about something else instead.

But first, check out the slideshow here.

Grim, yes. But thorough? Absolutely not.

The NY Times' "A History of Major Spills"

The NY Times' "A History of Major Spills"

In the 1970 – 2010 period, currently bookended by spills in Santa Barbara, CA, and the Gulf of Mexico respectively, there’s a whole chunk of oil spill history — about 500 million gallons worth and more — that’s embarassingly and shamefully missing.

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May days: a couple of highlights

May has morphed into June, but there are a couple of “origin” stories from last month that will percolate for a long time in the groove that they’ve dug into my brain.

Although one is about the origins of the Universe and the infinite mystery of why we exist at all – always a biggie – and the other is about the origins of humans – a story with a much smaller scale – both have immense CPP (Cocktail Party Potential) values.



We exist because matter exists, but why matter itself exists has been the $10billion (and counting) question in particle physics. Thanks to some folks who study high-energy collisions between sub-atomic particles, we now have a clue. But the news comes not from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the alpha-dog of particle accelerators – near Geneva, Switzerland. This time, the scoop belongs to Fermilab (situated amidst what appears to be cow pastures near Chicago), where a small bunch of Davids calling themselves the DZero collaboration have been trying to hold their own against the LHC Goliath. Well, the DZeroes have now scored an A-plus.

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