Archive for category Public Policy


Posted by on Thursday, 26 September, 2013


Russia nationalizes science




The Russian Academy of Science is caught in Russia’s political tractor beam. It’s being drawn back, back, back into the yawning maw of the state.

The academy, which includes hundreds of institutions and over 50,000 researchers, was messed with in every  possible way  when Russia was the “Soviet Union”. That was to be expected, right?  But not even Stalin had the brass round ones to try to turn it into a branch of the state

Russian Acadamy


Quirin Schiermeier (NATURE International Journal Of Science) reports that  it’s all over for the 289 year old academy. The State Duma just voted to grab it.

The vote in the upper house is a done deal.  Soon enough, this venerable institution  of Russian science will be breathing the fetid air of bureaucracy and the suave Vladimir  Putin who leads modern Russia will be left wondering why his country’s science is lagging.

It  wouldn’t be right for MISTER ScienceAintSoBad to bite his tongue when a venerable institution of science is being attacked.

I hope you agree.

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Cartoon by me.Credits for the photo to the Russian Academy of Sciences: Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Posted by on Saturday, 14 September, 2013

Don't know about guns



Writing about guns is scarier than writing about religion. You never know when you’ll hit a nerve.  But what’s a science writer to do? This study (American Journal of Public Health) is the first to show a strong relationship between the number of guns in a state and the number of homicides. The more guns, the more homicides.

Make of it what you will.


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Drawings are mine.


Posted by on Friday, 6 September, 2013



The new IPhone is expected to have a fingerprint sensor which MISTER ScienceAintSoBad thinks is a great (marketing) idea. People trust fingerprints. If you really want to protect your phone do it with fingerprints.  It”s as close to perfect security as you can get.

So let me ask you something.

How do we know that fingerprints  can be trusted? Is it for real? Does every single person on earth really have a unique paw print?

It is in courtrooms, where where fingerprints matter the most. And there, the fingerprint evidence is judged by an “examiner” who’s opinion, in effect, is the fingerprint since the jurors don’t get to see the originals.  How good are they? Do they ever  hang the wrong guy? What if the prints are smudged? Or partials? What about examiners who slug back a couple on work days? Are you telling me there’s never a deal where the examiner screw it up?

Matching prints


The International Association for Identification (the fingerprint guys) administered a proficiency test to 156 examiners.

Not that it was worried.

Still.  How could it hurt to have some proof?  Maybe back off some skeptics. The results were a surprise.

“Despite the absence of objective standards, scientific validation, and adequate statistical studies, a natural question to ask is how well fingerprint examiners actually perform. Proficiency tests do not validate a procedure per se, but they can provide some insight into error rates. In 1995, the Collaborative Testing Service (CTS) administered a proficiency test that, for the first time, was “designed, assembled, and reviewed” by the International Association for Identification (IAI).The results were disappointing. Four suspect cards with prints of all ten fingers were provided together with seven latents. Of 156 people taking the test, only 68 (44%) correctly classified all seven latents. Overall, the tests contained a total of 48 incorrect identifications. David Grieve, the editor of the Journal of Forensic Identification, describes the reaction of the forensic community to the results of the CTS test as ranging from “shock to disbelief,”..

(That’s taken from Wikipedia)

They flunked their own test – and  they didn’t do much better when they were retested later. Can we expect better from smartphone sensors?

We don’t know.

Apple probably won’t share its secrets. (Does it ever?)  We won’t know how good the rejection rate is on those sensors but why should they push too hard? The lower the rejection rate (the sloppier the fingerprint sensor is about allowing a false match), the more convincing the fingerprint magic will seem. After all, this more about user convenience.

Until someone swipes the phone.

Loosening up on the rejection rate means the idea that only you can unlock your phone is wrong.  You’re not the only one.  Actually? There are three of you. Maybe a thousand of you. Maybe, even, a million. The odds are still pretty stiff against any one who swipes the phone being among the lucky million.

That’s good enough for me.

The IAI deserves credit for its transparency. At least we know the idea of fingerprinting perfection is an illusion. If, indeed, Apple uses this technology, isn’t it fair to ask for something similar?

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Both drawings are mine




Posted by on Sunday, 25 August, 2013





Narendra Dabholkar was a 67 year old doctor who thought religious extremism, black magic, superstitious ideas, and general ignorance were holding India back. He called out people who exploited the poor.  So – that’s right – of course somebody shot him. Why tolerate a loose canon who cares about others and tries to educate?

His scientific colleagues hit the ceiling when they heard about his murder. They’re furious and they are speaking out about it, decrying the act and  trying to get some new laws.  Maybe Dr. Dabhoklar will wind up a reluctant martyr but MISTER ScienceAintSoBad is very sad  about this. If the authorities in Pune are trying to figure out what to do with his assassins, I have an idea. Why waste lab rats when we have the real McCoy in a cell?

The details are in an article in The Guardian by Maseeh Rahman.

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Image above is by me


Posted by on Sunday, 28 July, 2013



Two (married to each other) mathematicians are taking a shot (get it?) at settling the wide disagreement we have about guns.  They tried to get some science into this putting aside their own biases and looking at the best evidence  going back through almost a century  of data.   Dominik Wodarz (University of California, Irvine) and Natalia Komarova (Rutgers)  found mixed results. Under some circumstances, packing a weapon might prevent a mass killing whereas, where domestic violence is concerned,  less guns equals less deaths. Their goal was to get more science into the discussion and lower the temperature. They think a calm deliberative look at things might save lives.

They may be right and I hope you will give the smith’s a break here. They’re trying to get us to take a fresh look. That’s  a bad thing?

The work is published in Plos OnePlos One is a little different as journals go. It is an open access peer reviewed journal.  Its  goal is to make sure that the stuff that comes to it is professionally done but it doesn’t make an a priori judgement about the importance of the article. It trusts that the truth of the article’s claims will be thrashed out in public so it does accept a wider range of articles. Does this mean it is less reliable? MISTER ScienceAintSoBad isn’t sure.  But if you’re kinda a zealot on this issue and you don’t see anything wrong with the research but hate its conclusions, you can always go after the damn journal.

Good luck on that one.

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Yup. I’m the guilty party. My drawing again. 

Innovation Award Goes To WWII Spy

Posted by on Saturday, 25 May, 2013

Frederick Mayer











I’m back to my bloggin’ ways again and there’s lots to write about of course. All kinds of stuff is happening in medicine including key developments in  cancer, alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. Eric Weinstein (no credentials link here because he’s a rogue academic who left physics years ago) is pushing a  theory that COULD  be THE physics  theory of the 21st century.  It will take months to dig through it all and figure out what’s most important and what you might be looking for from MISTER SASB.

In the meantime, I’m kicking things off with an article about a heroic  feat of innovation.

Fred Mayer, the guy shown above, is a citizen of West Virginia. If you’ve heard of him, it’s because you’re something of a World War II buff.  I know about Fred because I happen to know one of his  kids who is pretty special in her own right.

Fred? He helped save the world.

Back in the day.

And I’m dedicating this volume of Science Ain’t So Bad to him. Because he and his extraordinary team, though they were not scientists themselves, helped keep science what it is today – an impertinent, irreverent enterprise that dares to question orthodoxy.  If he hadn’t outsmarted a bunch of Nazi officers, Einstein’s “Jewish” theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, and a lot of the other stuff that’s part of your phones, televisions, and heart pacemakers – as well as our understanding of the world, itself – might still be suppressed by a bunch of goons.

Here’s what he did. Listen carefully please because this is a little different from my usual stuff about consumer technology or particle physics. There’s a story here.   If I need an excuse for the tale – and I don’t think I do – I’ll go with: if people like Frederick Mayer didn’t exist, science would have been ruined by a dark ideology.

But I don’t need an excuse. Do I?

Fred Mayer was  an American serviceman in 1945. He was a funny guy with a quick smile, dark hair, and tons of confidence.

And he had a bone to pick with the Nazis who had  forced his family to flee Germany.  He saw Nazism as a perversion of the German spirit. He needed to get into this fight and he managed to get the attention of the OSS which let him join its ranks.

I want to get back into Germany he said.

Forget it, they said. you’ll just muck things up.

Come on, he said. I speak the language better than the morons in the German officer corps. I can sweet talk my way into their confidence. Give me a chance here. Okay?

And exactly how would you do that, son?

Just watch me, he said.

Eventually, after numerous screw ups, Mayer and his handpicked team got themselves squirreled away in a village in occupied territory where Fred was able to get hold of a uniform from a conveniently dead German officer. Making it up as he went along, Fred established himself among other German officers (just as he said he would) and gained their confidence. Night after night, his radio man sent coded messages to the allies about arms shipments, troop movements, etc, etc. Fred (as an electrician this time) even  smuggled himself into a highly secure factory that was building bombers .

When he requested authorization to lead an uprising in Innsbruck, the OSS turned him down. He was too valuable as a spy to get himself shot up.

Mr. Mayer kept sending stuff to the allies until he got captured. Even after they tortured the crap out of him, Mayer had the presence of mind (hence our innovation award) to unnerve his captors. The nutty thing? He eventually talked them into surrendering and giving up Innsbruck. To HIM!!!

Thus the Science Ain’t So Bad Innovation Award goes to Frederick Mayer who saved many, many lives.

Whether he actually shortened the war by six months, as some have claimed, is for the historians to sort out. But one thing is clear. We in science, and the community as a whole, owe a real debt to to this man. Senator Rockefeller thinks so too. Mayer deserves high praise and official recognition for what he accomplished. Shouldn’t he get the Medal of Honor? What do you think?


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image credits: permission from C Mayer





Posted by on Tuesday, 28 August, 2012



We have moved on from the last recession best we could. Companies are profitable. Stocks are back. even the housing market seems to be steadying.

But jobs? Peh!

Why is that?

In a word? Robots.

Nobody – not even a glib politician – is going to add jobs faster than the “robot revolution” scrapes them away. Cut taxes all you like. Stimulate till the top blows off. The fact is, technology’s outgunning us and we will keep losing jobs till we cry uncle.

Why WOULDN’T a company use the best available tools? Isn’t that what it is supposed to do? What’s wrong with that? Of course companies will buy “intelligent machines” to reduce labor costs. And why worry? Aren’t new jobs being created to replace the ones that were lost?

I have talked about this before. I’m still talking about it. Technology is zooming. Faster and faster. And jobs are being eaten alive.

Let’s look at how we shop. Consuming is a lonely chore now.  We cavort with machines at the store instead of clerks. No friendly smiles. Not even a nasty scowl.

And work? Well that’s been you and your best buddy,  the machine,  for a long time, right? Only now it’s more so. Flesh-and-blood workers aren’t valuable enough to waste a wall on. Just a cubicle. Soon humans will be so rare in the workplace, the computers will gawk when they see one. Wherever there are human workers, their computerish adversaries are crowding in.

Isn’t it time to examine our basic assumptions about why jobs aren’t rebounding along with the rest of the economy? The recovery has been slow. But that’s really not the whole story. There’s something else going on. The very technology that has the potential to free us from muckery is tossing us about like a rubber ducky in a hurricane. Unless we pay attention, there will be less rubber duckies.


This last economic bubble was real estate. At least, that’s how it began. The next economic bubble is inflating under our noses – an unemployment crisis that is being confused with a slow economic recovery.

Here’s the thing. It used to be  that automation, though disruptive , was something we could adjust to.  Jobs got eclipsed but others took their place. And because we seemed to adjust, we came to assume that we always would. No matter how powerful our computers, no matter how capable  our robots, no matter how fast the rate of innovation, we would adjust. Jobs would show up when others were destroyed. How did we know we could adjust? It’s simple. We always do.


Till it isn’t.

Look around you kids. The high unemployment is only being MASKED by the “recession” which, by the way, has been over since June of 2009. Those high unemployment numbers are your beloved technological revolution peeping at you over the walls of your complacency. While you were focused on the last set of problems, there’s a whole new set arising.

That’s bad, right?

No. It shouldn’t be.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad is just a science guy. He shouldn’t write tirades like this. It’s not his cup. Not his tea.  Techies like me? We’re THRILLED when our intelligent machines work right. Rare as it is. We shouldn’t be the ones to worry about the social implications. That’s the other guy.  Advanced robotics and computing is good stuff. It should be helping us, not hurting. It shouldn’t be ME who points out that science has consequences. That’s for the philosophers and the social engineers and the political types. Who are slouched around the TV, watching each other making speeches.

Guys! Wake up! Too many people. Too few jobs.

Get it?

What are the options? Okay, I can help  you with that.

Option A: We could make more stuff.  Create jobs that way. With all of our great technology, we could use it to increase the benefits for all. We haven’t run out of needs. Our knees and backs still hurt. More medical stuff please. The air’s too hot. Global warming solutions please. And I guess we can all agree we need lots more ringtones for our friggin’ smartphones.

There’s lots to do. It’s just a matter of finding the right way to encourage a bit more risk – taking by entrepreneurs. Maybe we need more government. Maybe we need less government. Maybe we need more leadership. Maybe we need more patent law suits.


Amping up sales could  increase employment. Can’t argue with that, right? However, maybe  things can only be pushed so fast. Maybe the public isn’t up for more innovation right now. Maybe there’s a limit too how much new stuff can be absorbed at any one time.

And that’s okay by me.

Option B: But if we can’t incentivize, brutalize, or hypnotize society into upping the need for stuff (and hence jobs) we may need to approach this differently. Maybe we need to find a better way to share out the existing jobs or, at least, the benefits of those jobs.

More, I will not say. There’s a limit to how far a technical guy is willing to debase himself. But you  – YOU know who I’m talkin’ to – you love this crap, right? You, who can’t wait till the next copy of The Journal Of Politics And Society shows up, you’re a social engineer, a political mover/shaker, one who dreams of changing the world, one dreary meeting at a time. Maybe you didn’t notice that there’s a burgeoning unemployment bubble that’s independent of the economic recovery until I said so. I helped you out, didn’t I? Now you know.

Get busy.


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Credits for the animation: to Heather’s Animations. Please note that donations are gratefully accepted in return for which (or even without a contribution) you can utilize the work you find there in your emails, articles, and what not. 


Posted by on Friday, 11 May, 2012





Passenger: Could you pick up the pace a LITTLE?

Me: Are you NUTS? This is a safe speed.

Passenger: You’re driving like you’re a hundred (instead of just 71.)

Here’s the thing. You get older, you get more cautious. Sometimes you actually OBEY the speed laws. Which means extracting some tailgaters from your rear bumper after you arrive. I’m not braggin’ or nothin’ but when you get older.. okay .. it’s p-o-s-s-i-b-l-e your eyesight and hearing aren’t as good. Maybe. Even your reflexes aren’t..uh.. THAT sharp.

But screw you. I drive just fine. And you ain’t gettin’ MY keys!


In fact – and contrary to what you probably think – statistics favor geezers who, while doing everything wrong and forcing YOU off the road, tend to compensate for their degraded skills by not taking so many gee-whiz chances. And – yeah – after a hundred years behind the wheel, they DO recognize black ice better than a teenager does.

Wisdom, see?

Doesn’t mean geezering around in a vehicle’s perfect. The risks are real. Some older drivers are b-a-d! And I MEAN bad! Some oldsters could take you out  as you’re leaving the church with your top hat on. At the TOP of the steps.

What to do?

Senior drivers have, obviously, earned the right to a little consideration. It means a lot to be able to drive.

Independence and self respect.

For some, it doesn’t feel like a choice. They don’t have anybody in their lives to take the wheel.




The Intelligent Transport team  (Newcastle University) with Dr. Amy Guo at the head, has created a duded up car. It’s a mobile lab with sensors and monitors to figure out if customized aids such as night vision systems, specialized navigation systems, adaptive speed management, and various other innovations can keep older drivers behind the wheel longer and, hence, keep them healthier and more independent overall. The work is to be presented to the Aging, Mobility and Quality of Life conference in Michigan.

For those who are too far gone for Guo’s technology, autonomous (self driving) vehicles should offer another option before long.


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Credits for the car plowing through the stone wall to Martin Addison  Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.

Protect Yourself Against Nuclear Weapons

Posted by on Friday, 16 March, 2012



If you get a big dose of radiation (like some of the workers at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant) you’re hosed, aren’t you?

Not necessarily.

Here’s the thing. Radioactivity’s scary. If the blast don’t get you, the “vapours” will.

It’s invisible, insidious, and inevitable.

Until now, if you got overexposed to radiation, all anyone could do was to toss you in the shower, give you a pill (which didn’t do much good) and keep you comfortable while your hair fell out.



If  “the bomb” blows you up, no pill is going to put you back together again. But Rebecca Abergel (Berkeley Lab’s Glenn T. Seaborg Center) is doing great work on a decontamination pill. It’ll flush the actinides (the “nasty stuff”)  out into your urine before much damage is done.

Maybe bombs ARE being made under the mountains of your least favorite countries. But you can rest easy now with an antidote by your bedside.

Science. An answer for everything, eh? Snide comments aside, this is a terrific project with the potential to save lives; it deserves a ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10 .

Thank you for the good work, Gleen T. Seaborg Center and Dr. Abergel.

Image credits to Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Posted by on Sunday, 21 August, 2011




The Governor of Texas just injected himself into a ScienceAintSoBad debate.

Remember The Mystifying Case Of Chloe SohlMove over, Chloe.  Rick Perry (same one as wants to run the United States) just had his own stem cells stuck into his back to “cure” degenerated vertebra.  (Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times) .


You can’t live with it. You can’t get it straight.


Credits for the above image to Robert Scoble and Flickr photostream
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.