Two articles you should read…

 biofuels  Comments Off on Two articles you should read…
Sep 272007
A good review of the biofuels situation is now in BioScience (a subscription is required). Steve Nash (not the basketball superstar) breaks down the serious problems and misconceptions surrounding our growing infatuation with biofuels, as well as areas of research that are actually showing some promise. Thanks to the fine fellows at Deep Sea News for pointing it out.

For those who like NFL football, Sports Illustrated‘s Paul Zimmerman has a really nice column up at the SI website about the state of the game. It’s not about whether 3-receiver sets are in; Dr. Z is more concerned about how the league portrays itself and is sabotaging itself. There’s a little bit of (possibly misplaced) nostalgia in the piece — I’m not sure I’d agree that we should go back to the days when the players had no option but to befriend the press in order to keep their careers going. However, his attacks on the inanity of the close-mouthed coaches and hoot’n’holler broadcasting really resonated with me, as did the anecdotes about the appeal of football at the end of the piece.

Merck HIV vaccine trial fails

 boo  Comments Off on Merck HIV vaccine trial fails
Sep 212007
Bad news today from the fight against AIDS: the Merck STEP trial has been discontinued due to evidence that the vaccine neither prevents nor attenuates HIV infection. This is a serious setback, as the trial was utilizing a new strategy and had sufficiently promising results two years ago that it was actually expanded. While this doesn’t mark the death-knell of the CTL approach by any means, it is certainly a major disappointment and will probably send a number of approaches in development back to the drawing board.

The classic approaches to vaccination in humans have failed for HIV for a variety of reasons. Part of the difficulty is that HIV has such a high degree of variation. There’s no guarantee that any single vaccine could protect against every strain for any length of time. Moreover, vaccination using the virus itself is incredibly risky — even a virus that is missing the essential Nef protein from its RNA can damage the immune system. Experiments in SIV show that a damaged or attenuated virus only confers protection if it reproduces at low levels in the host, but at the same time this gives it a greater opportunity to revert to pathogenic status. For this reason, chemical inactivation, which truly kills the virus, doesn’t produce a viable vaccine because the virus does not stimulate sufficient antibodies to protect the patient.

The Merck vaccine used a different approach entirely, based on the idea of activating cytotoxic T lymphocytes. Rather than using inactivated HIV, the Merck team transplanted three HIV genes into an adenovirus (one of the viruses that produces the common cold). The idea was that these genes would get expressed into protein and displayed on the cell surface in the major histocompatibility complex. This would train T cells to attack any cell that the HIV virus had infected. Thus, the approach would not be to immobilize the virus with anitbodies, but rather to destroy any infected hosts cells before virus production really swung into gear. Even if it failed to prevent infection per se, it was hoped that this approach would arrest the development of an HIV infection into AIDS.

Unfortunately, this clever tack seems to have failed, at least in this application. It may take some time to understand why things did not work out, and maybe there was just an unfortunate choice of which HIV proteins were used or some other idiosyncratic issue with Merck’s particular formulation of the approach. Until a detailed post-mortem is complete, however, CTL-stimulation approaches will have to be evaluated in a harsher light, with a little less hope.

NOTE: IAVI probably won’t have the study status updated until Monday.

Hot alien lesbian sex!

 video games  Comments Off on Hot alien lesbian sex!
Sep 202007
The disclosure that Bioware’s upcoming XBox 360 game Mass Effect will feature nudity in a sex scene has actually dulled my interest in the game, which is sad because that interest was substantial. Although Bioware wasn’t promising to do anything deeply revolutionary, Mass Effect promised to be an important step towards the maturation of video games as a interactive storytelling format, as well as a key iteration in the continuing fusion of the FPS and RPG genres. In both these respects it was similar to presumptive Game of the Year favorite Bioshock, though Mass Effect promises to come down more towards the RPG side of this fusion genre. It’s discouraging that a game that has the potential to advance the artistic level of the medium has also set itself up to be a key exhibit in the conservative case against video games.

My concern is not that the scene will be especially gratuitous or exploitive. For one thing, Bioware itself has not attempted to draw significant attention to the scene’s existence or use it as a selling point. Contrast this with BMX XXX, which had no other selling points, or even the God of War games, which had robust gameplay and graphics but included nudity and sexual content for additional shock value. Although the news about Mass Effect’s content has made some waves in the internet community, it did not to my knowledge originate from Bioware, nor has it been talked up by anyone associated with the company. Based on their reputation and the quality of their previous work, I fully expect that the scene will fit into the game as a plot event, and that those who object to it will be those who object to sexual content per se, with a little bit of extra offense due to the possibility of having a lesbian encounter. Nor am I particularly troubled by the fact that a male/male encounter is not apparently possible, except to the extent that it reveals the reasons the scene was included at all.

Not being especially gratuitous does not mean the scene won’t be gratuitous, which sex scenes almost always are. This is not a complaint unique to video games — it is rare to find a sex scene in any medium that serves a narrative end that would not be as well or perhaps even better served with a mere indication that intercourse took place. The actual depiction of sexual intercourse mostly just titillates and rarely contributes to plot or characterization, though it may fit in with them.

I acknowledge that there are exceptions to this generalization; a very unromantic sex scene in Gohatto comes to mind. And a sex scene can serve some other purpose, as in Hot Shots! where Top Gun was parodied almost viciously. For the most part, though, a sex scene in a movie ends up more like the case of Highlander, where we learn less from the sex we see between MacLeod and Brenda than from what is implied by the ominous exchange between the Kurgan (Clancy Brown) and a prostitute (“I’m Candy”/”[chuckle] Of course you are”). Perhaps it is too much to expect high-minded content from a movie about immortal men lopping each others’ heads off with swords, but the same can be said of sex scenes in almost any movie or book.

The problem with a sex scene is that the audience expects to be titillated by it, and this tends to distract from any narrative purpose it could serve. Graphic depictions also suffer from the fact that not everyone is aroused or even interested by the same things as the scene’s creator. Those who aren’t titillated will view the scene as something to be suffered through, rather than appreciated. This puts the creator in a double bind: nothing of value to the narrative can be depicted in a sex scene if it titillates the audience, but the audience is likely to be bored or repulsed if the scene is not arousing. At least in the latter case the story can be developed or advanced, but at the cost of making some viewers turn away or lose interest.

For Bioware, the answer to this latter problem is, as always, choice. Bioware has produced several games that are the epitome of the western RPG — you get to decide almost everything about your character, down to the gender, and you are given considerable control over outcomes in the game, often including whether the main character is good or evil. As a result the participants in the scene will be decided by the player, within limits.

It is somewhat curious that a male/male encounter is apparently impossible, though I could not say with certainty whether this reflects the biases or preferences of the programmers or intended audience. I’m inclined to believe either that the developers (keeping in mind that the industry skews strongly male) included only options that turned them on, and that if a gay option was suggested that it was rejected due to a perceived lack of interest or perceived negative outcomes. Bioware must be sensitive to, if not directly partaking of, a double standard in society which is more accepting of female than male homosexuality, especially among the male demographic that dominates videogame purchases.

Regardless of the reasons for the possible exclusion of male homosexuality, the very mutability of the scenario makes it difficult to believe that the scene has a strong narrative purpose. One of the characters in the scene cannot produce any honest revelations, because in this style of RPG the main character is a direct player avatar. The fact that the other character can be selected in some way by the player suggests that the intention of the scene is to arouse. That the selections all feature humanoids supports this view. If the scene is intended to titillate, then not only would it be more difficult for the developers to use the scene to advance the plot, it is less likely that they would even try. I would have been more intrigued to learn that the intercourse scene involved something utterly alien, that wouldn’t be arousing (or at least not arousing to most).

I doubt most people will share my reaction (after all, what normal person boos boobies?), but the difficulties of incorporating such a scene into a solid narrative make me almost certain that Bioware didn’t succeed at it. Yes, the primary features that sell Mass Effect will be the gameplay, graphics, and perhaps the overarching story, and yes, I’ve always had doubts about its western RPG narrative method. Still, what I hoped for from Mass Effect was a high-minded, interesting story (and yes, a game can have one), and it’s disappointing to learn that something detrimental to such an experience has been built in.

Sep 172007

Recipe for “Bolivarian stew”:

6,600 pounds of chicken
4,000 pounds of beef
tons of vegetables
1 evil motherf***er

In an effort to prove that there really are no food-supply issues in his country, Venezuela’s soon-to-be dictator for life Hugo Chavez has cooked the world’s largest pot of soup. At a hefty 3,960 gallons, Chavez’ effort has outdone the previous record by 2,500 gallons. A spokesman estimated that the enormous vat held enough to feed more than 60,000 people, surely a relief to those Venezuelans facing a shortage of basic staples that has led to protectionist measures while the currency falters on the global market. Chavez also took the opportunity today to warn private schools that they must either submit to government control or be nationalized. Soon, too, he’ll be meeting with his ‘communist’ compatriots in FARC, ostensibly for the purpose of negotiating the release of their hostages, but maybe he’s just going to buy them a beer. Truly a banner day for the leading lord of South America.

The soupvat is only part of a larger celebration to prove that Venezuela’s economy is in good shape, even though the nation’s oil boom is playing out like a bust for the average citizen. Of course by now I should be getting used to examples of Chavez’ royal intentions, and to the fact that they’re apparently invisible to the masses in his country. On the other hand, the arrogation of regal authority by the Bush administration in response to the terrorist threat was met with far too little and too faint protest until only recently. Other examples include Putin’s Russia, which has clearly returned to Imperial ambitions (he’s even anointed a successor), and the disastrous state of affairs in Zimbabwe under Mugabe. Almost everywhere, it seems, legislatures of nations facing real or perceived threats have abdicated their authority in favor of the executive, with uniformly disastrous effects.

This demonstrates both the key strength and the major failing of republican governments. A republic only ever works because the corrupting influences and petty concerns of individual representatives are held in opposition to the corrupting influences and petty concerns of other representatives. For every Tom DeLay there is a Barney Frank, so to speak. Unfettered from this secret system of checks and balances, you get screwballs like Chavez and Mugabe running their countries into the ground, or Bush and Putin draining their treasuries on pointless military development and adventurism.

The main failing of republicanism is that it relies heavily on having these same divisions within the electorate. When the electorate unites in confrontation of a threat, a failure of the Republic is likely. Sometimes the danger passes without too much ill effect, as with WWII in the United States, for instance. However, when a threat, real or perceived (like American Imperialism, terrorists, or white people), is exploited by a charismatic leader with popular support, then freedom is almost certain to suffer, as in America, or perhaps perish entirely, as has happened in Zimbabwe and seems likely in Venezuela. There is never any greater threat to liberty than unity of the electorate, particularly unity behind a popular leader. The love affair doesn’t even have to last very long… just long enough for the leader to consolidate authority, as Chavez did (and Bush very nearly did). Once the leader is strong enough, he can dismantle his enemies and then even after the situation deteriorates (as in Zimbabwe) he can be relatively secure behind the apparatus he has assembled.

If you think we couldn’t go down the road that Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Russia are on, you should ask yourself what would have happened if Bush hadn’t made the mistake of attacking Iraq. Without that quagmire destroying his popularity, would Democrats, even moderate ones, have taken power last year? Would the few voices of discontent that were raised against the Patriot Act and the Guantanamo prison have gained any traction had they not been united with those raised against the unjust and wasteful war? Despite the lives and treasure wasted in Iraq, the Republic is fortunate that Bush and the neocons made this mis-step. Otherwise Bush might even now be anointing his successor, while Chief Justice Harriet Miers writes decisions cementing the power of an Imperial Presidency that might take decades to reign in.

Mr. Excitement

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Sep 172007
Clint Bowyer finished the season-opening race at Daytona upside-down and on fire, and didn’t finish any higher than third for the rest of Nascar’s “regular season”. But Nascar’s points system has always been forgiving to a fella who just can’t win a race, and the driver of the 07 did well enough in all those races to put himself in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, something significantly more popular drivers such as Mark Martin (who was semi-retired and voluntarily sat out several races), Dale Earnhardt junior (who sat out several races involuntarily because the engines his evil stepmother Teresa gave him blew), and Kasey Kahne (whose cars for most of the season just plain blew) couldn’t manage. Of course, being the only driver in the 12-man Chase without a single win meant he went in dead last, and I’m sure there was a contingent of fans who hoped he would stay there as a stark argument that Nascar’s championship system is still fluky. Not me, though — from the moment I saw him step out of his flaming car and calmly stare at it, I figured he was a good man to root for. He rewarded that optimism at an opportune time.
Today’s win at New Hampshire was not only Clint Bowyer’s first win of this season, it was his first win on the Nascar Nextel Cup circuit period, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Beyond merely moving him up from 12th to 4th (a byproduct of the new Chase scoring formula which grants 10 points for every regular season win), it proved that he deserved to be in the Chase at all. That was especially needed coming off his disappointing performance at Richmond, where he challenged early only to spin out while trying to pass Carl Edwards for the lead. Though he managed to fight back to 12th in that race, and the quality of his run suggested his team was getting stronger, the spinout looked like a rookie mistake. A number of people were saying he didn’t belong in Nascar’s idiosyncratic little “playoff”, but a win answers a lot of ills.

After a weekend full of surprises — Mississippi State’s big win over Auburn, somebody managing not to lose the ND-UM game, and ‘Bama’s stirring comeback over Arkansas — it was nice to see the only contender who never won before take a trophy home in the first race of the Chase. Bowyer’s only 15 points behind the leaders (Johnson and Gordon, with Stewart in third at -10), and though it doesn’t seem possible that he could win it all, here’s hoping Mr. Excitement has another surprise or two hiding somewhere in the 07 Chevy.