OK, I’ve given up on pretending that I’m gonna be regularly blogging away over here… I’m finally enjoying a little break in the action, with a couple of pieces slated for publication over the next few weeks, and additional ‘spare time’ writing is not on the agenda just now.

HOWEVER. It is a good time for a spot of Winter Cleaning around here, most notably on my Writing Portfolio page. The old one was bland and ugly and it made my soul bleed to look at it, so I’ve cleaned it up quite a bit and added some pretty pictures. I won’t pretend that my aesthetic sensibility is matched by my web-design acumen, but hopefully the improvement will be clear even to the casual visitor (the only kind I get around here, I’d imagine).

I’ll hopefully be doing some more touch-up in the days ahead, especially if the weather around here turns out as nasty as everybody seems to expect it will…

The enemy of the people is dead!!!

By which I mean, I finally got rid of my old phone – the HTC Touch Pro, a device that was surely forged in the fires of Hell by Lucifer himself. I remember how excited I was when I brought that phone home, so full of promise and potential – and it was lies, all lies. How can I count the ways the Touch Pro betrayed me? Turning on in my pocket, and running down its already-meager battery while I remained blissfully unaware? Starting up countless apps as my (admittedly handsomely-chiseled) cheekbone pressed up against the touchscreen during phone calls? Missing and dropping calls, and not bothering to inform me of the resulting voicemails? Oh, this phone had at all.

Oh yes, we know who your true master is.

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Two new articles

A few weeks ago, I published a short interview/profile of National Medal of Science recipient Warren Washington over at JustGarciaHill. I haven’t done one of these in ages, but I got a lot of practice in the past when I used to write a regular monthly feature on the history of some ‘classic’ molecular biology techniques, for which I’d track down and interview the folks who made it all happen. In some cases, it was pretty straightforward to track them down because they’d have gone on to win a Nobel or become head of Caltech or something like that, but in other cases they’d retire or leave science or otherwise drop off the map, and I’d have to pull a bit of a Sam Spade to make it happen. I remember at least one case where the guy I was looking for had left research more than a decade ago, and the only way I found him was through his membership in a Scottish beekeeping organization that happened (against all probability) to be maintaining a well-updated public website. Dr. Washington fell plainly in the former camp – he’s been at NCAR for decades, and is a regular on the lecture and interview circuit. He was very nice and helpful and although there were no shockers or scandals in this write-up to spice things up, he’s an interesting guy and it was definitely a fun change of pace.

I also published a news feature in this month’s Nature Biotechnology about the recently issued government guidelines on how synthetic DNA companies should screen orders and customers in an effort to intercept purchases that might be put to dubious use by shady individuals. A big motive force behind this document was the mini-scandal brewed up by a UK Guardian reporter back in 2006, when he managed to purchase a small segment of the variola (smallpox) virus genome with a personal credit card, and had it sent to a residential address. The DNA itself was harmless – and the reporter managed to rile up synthetic biology luminary Drew Endy with his efforts to enlist the latter’s help in designing a harmless, but smallpox-specific gene order (“Please consider reporting the news instead of creating it,” responded Endy).

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There’s doin’s a-transpirin’

Although I’d hoped to maintain at least a weekly rhythm of posting after I got back from vacation, I’ve instead been completely swamped by work – I’ve just finished three articles for an upcoming issue of Nature, which should be out in print next month. But now I’m in the middle of three entirely new articles that promise to more or less knock me out of commission for another week or two.

Once things settle down a bit, I’ll get back into the blogging thing a bit more routinely. Since my Nature articles were mercilessly cut and compressed for space, I may include some ‘deleted scenes’ here, just because I talked to some pretty interesting people about some really cool stuff. Vague enough for you? Well, that’s all you’re getting for now.

“This is why you fail.”

OK, so I’ve been back for a week and really busy. I mean REALLY busy, hammering away at some big assignments and trying to get caught up and forget that just 8 days ago, I was here:

Calgon, take me away...

I really don’t have time to blog, but then I stumbled on something of dazzling stupidity – a singularity of offensive pseudo-scientific blather on, and I just have to stop what I’m doing. I almost don’t want to link to it, but it’s by Matt Bowman, an attorney with the evangelical legal organization Alliance Defense Fund (co-launched by the estimable Dr. James Dobson!), and co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the ongoing debacle regarding Dickey-Wicker prohibition of embryonic stem cell research, entitled: “Embryonic stem cells: Outmoded science”

Well, say! Surely we can look forward to some top-notch scientific analysis with a not-at-all hyperbolic (or ludicrous) title like that! But please, Mr. Bowman – proceed.

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On holiday

Stem cell shenanigans aside, it’s been an extremely manic couple of weeks, which is great for that whole not-starving-to-death-in-the-street thing, but now it’s time for a spot of vacation.

No, I'm not going to spend the week at Coney Island.

Aloha, and I’ll be back in early September…

Better late…

So it looks like some Democrats are recognizing that they better get their butts in gear after the Sherley v. Sebelius fiasco. According to Talking Points Memo, Congresswoman Diana Degette (D-CO) – whose pro-stem cell advocacy bona fides seem well-established and who co-authored the twice-vetoed (in ’05 and ’07) Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act – is trying to rally her colleagues in the House to pass a bill that would reinforce the standards first established by Obama’s now-overridden executive order. She claims that “she believes legislation could be passed as early as next month,” which sounds just lovely but completely unrealistic given the breed of conservatives that have emerged in this election season. In parallel, TPM also reports that Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) aims to kick off hearings on 16 September.

In the meantime, the administration has made it clear they will appeal, and it seems likely they will ask for a stay of Judge Lamberth’s injunction. ScienceInsider has a nice brief overview of where things stand until then (and for the foreseeable future, should the stay be denied). Time to cross fingers…

Uneasy rider

The New York Times has reported on a nasty setback for embryonic stem cell research – apparently, DC District Court judge Royce Lamberth has ruled that Obama’s 2009 executive order, which reversed Bush-era constraints and allowed researchers to gain access to federal funding for human ESC work, is in violation of the Dickey-Wicker amendment.

And just what is that? Well, it’s a nasty little leech that’s been clinging tenaciously as a rider to the federal budget year after year since 1995 (roughly three years before James Thomson published his seminal human ESC cultivation article in Science), and stipulates that “None of the funds made available in this Act may be used for… research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero.” That’s right, for 15 years now that sucker’s been hanging on, draining a steady stream of blood out of what should be a vital area of American life science research. And each and every time the budget gets passed, the amendment is renewed essentially without debate.

So who filed the challenge against Obama’s policy?

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I vill ask you again: “Is it safe?”

Just try reading this new post at Dan Ariely’s blog at Technology Review about online password strength without thinking of Spaceballs:

I’m moderately sloppy in terms of overusage of a handful of passwords, but on the other hand, I think the ones I’ve chosen are relatively hard in terms of being just weirdo nonsense with no obvious guessability unless you plan to pull an Inception-style extraction when I nod off next to you on the train. Even my low-impact (read: impossible to forget) password is at least something fairly random. But this is pretty striking:

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And so it ends… or not?

It’s a weird feeling for me when I see that an article I’ve covered is being retracted.  I find myself wondering whether I should have asked more questions about the quality of the work – which may or may not be fair. But after all, these articles have (presumably) gone through peer-review by experts in the field (for whatever that may be worth) and been seen by many thousands of eyes before I got around to reading them, and it’s not like I’m replicating the experiments myself. But I still remember the gut-twinge I felt during the infamous Woo-Suk Hwang stem cell debacle, just a few months after I’d covered their team’s work in a two-page news feature.

Now it’s happened again – coincidentally, with another Science article. This time the circumstances are a bit weirder, though. To be sure, Ferrer and Golyshin were making a pretty big claim – by assembling chips containing arrays of more than 2500 fluorescently-labeled molecules, they hoped to essentially catalogue the various metabolic reactions being performed by a particular cell or microorganism. Their proof of concept, with the bacterium Pseudomonas putida, was an apparent success, but it wasn’t long before the trouble started.

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