Archive for the 'Science and Public Safety' category

The WikiLeaks Pager Archive Dump: Who's Been Intercepting Private Texts, and How Long Has It Been Going On?

Nov 25 2009 Published by under Science and Public Safety

WikiLeaks.org - a group that's dedicated to posting leaked material from governments and other major institutions - has obtained and is currently publishing an archive of over 500,000 text messages that were sent, intercepted, and archived on 11 September 2001. The messages begin several hours prior to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and span the time of the attack and the following hours.

As the WikiLeaks intercepts page notes, this material is undoubtedly going to be a fantastic resource for anyone who wants a better understanding of how people reacted as events unfolded. However, the mere existence of this archive raises enormous concerns. Where did it come from? Who compiled it, who stored it, and under what authority?

Given the scope and magnitude of the archive, it is virtually impossible to believe that any non-governmental group could be responsible. The texts were sent over multiple telecommunications carriers, and do not appear to be related to any single agency, governmental or otherwise. Many of the early messages appear to be automatic warnings from computer systems to their operators, and many of those appear to be related to the financial industry, and not a government agency.

It's also important to note that the archive begins prior to the attacks. This is not something that can be excused as a response to the attacks, or as a new tool needed in the new post-9/11 world. This -whatever exactly it might be - is very clearly a project that was ongoing prior to the official start of the "War on Terror".

Who compiled these texts? Who told them to, and under what authority? When did it start, and has it ever stopped?

Those questions need to be answered, and they need to be answered soon.

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HR 669 and Invasive Species Prevention: I Still Think It's A Good Bill

Over the last few days, there has been a fair amount of discussion about the Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act (HR 669). Some of that has occurred in the comments on my blog post on the subject, and quite a bit more over at GrrlScientist's blog. So far, I haven't seen anything that leads me to change my view that the bill is, on the whole, a good piece of legislation.

There are two main objections that I've seen that I'd like to specifically look at. The first is the possible impact that the bill would have on breeding species for conservation purposes. The second involves the potential impact that the bill might have on the owners of some pet species, and on the exotic pet industry.

HR 669 and Conservation Breeding:

In the comments section of my earlier post and on his own blog, Bob O'Hara raised the concern that the bill could severely impact conservation breeding. He points to two separate reasons that this could become a problem - the permitting language in the bill does not appear to permit breeding, and if a captive species is ruled to be a potentially harmful invasive, existing breeding programs could be forced to come to a halt.

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Something Called "Tsunami Warning" Issued For Portion of South Pacific Following Mag 7.9 Quake

Update 2: PTWC has cancelled the regional warning. A tsunami was in fact generated, but the waves have been measured and are very small (about 1.5 inches in height).

Updated: The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center states that a tsunami was generated by this earthquake. The size of the tsunami is not yet known, and the warning has not been extended to other areas of the Pacific. (Remember,tsunamis can be very small.)


An earthquake tentatively measured by the USGS at magnitude 7.9 has struck Tonga in the South Pacific. It's unknown at this time if the quake has generated a tsunami, but given the size and depth of the quake, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center has issued a regional tsunami warning for the areas around the quake's epicenter.

Tsunami warning is one of those things that's like "volcano monitoring" - it's something that's done by a small number of scientists who work in relative obscurity. The budget line for our tsunami monitoring program contains quite a few things that people who are skeptical of the federal government's spending habits might question - like providing geophysicists with Hawaiian homes.

In actuality, this is one of those cases where appearances are deceiving. Tsunami warnings are, at least in theory, capable of preventing all fatalities from tsunamis. The waves take time to travel, and only areas that are relatively near the coastlines are typically impacted. Given even a limited amount of time, it's possible to get everyone at risk out of the way.

That's good, because there is often only a limited amount of time.

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If I shouldn't say they're anti-science, what should I call it?

Matt "Framing Science" Nisbet has some more advice for scientists on things we shouldn't be saying:

Another frame to avoid is the same type of "war on science" and "restoring science to its rightful place" rhetoric that was used on the campaign trail and in the early days of Obama's administration.

While during the Bush era this public accountability frame justifiably mobilized liberals and many scientists, now that Obama is in office the same message likely alienates Republican segments of the public that the president desperately needs to rally around climate action. The frame provides the heuristic that science is for Democrats and not for Republicans and focuses on conflict rather than consensus.

Let's think about this one for a minute or two. In fact, let's try something radical: let's assume for a minute that Nisbet's actually right. We'll ignore his use of the phrase "likely alienates Republican[s]" and assume that he's got solid data that says that Republicans are definitely alienated by recent uses of "war on science" and "rightful place" in public discussions.

If that's actually true, then I might have messed up yesterday when I (twice) discussed Bobby Jindal's speech. I might not have directly accused Jindal of engaging in anti-science behavior, but I definitely implied it. (I hope I did, anyway, because I was sure as hell trying to.) If I shouldn't have taken that approach, what should I have done?

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Hurricane Ike Storm Surge in Pensacola

If you have any doubt about how dangerous Hurricane Ike is likely to be, I've got some pictures for you. These pictures were taken within the past two hours, on the shoreline along the grounds of Naval Air Station Pensacola.

This is a sheltered shoreline, protected by both barrier islands and sandbars, and typical wave heights run under one foot. Currently, they're running at about 3 feet, on top of a water level that looks to be at least 3-5 feet above where it should be. So far, this storm has done more to reshape the beaches I looked at than Gustav did, and Gustav came closer and was moving toward us.

The conditions I was looking at were taking place at a time when the storm center was more than 350 miles to the south, and moving more or less parallel to the shoreline. This storm is moving a hell of a lot of water around. You do not want to be in front of it. If you've been told to get out of the way, get out of the way.

The pictures can be found below the fold.

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The Need For Scientific Study of Doping

The latest issue of the journal Nature has two articles (an editorial and a perspectives piece) on the topic of drug testing for athletes. Both the editors and Donald Berry (the author of the perspectives article) argue for the need for both more scientific testing to support standards for athletic drug screening and for more openness in the process.

From the editorial:

Nature believes that accepting 'legal limits' of specific metabolites without such rigorous verification goes against the foundational standards of modern science, and results in an arbitrary test for which the rate of false positives and false negatives can never be known. By leaving these rates unknown, and by not publishing and opening to broader scientific scrutiny the methods by which testing labs engage in study, it is Nature's view that the anti-doping authorities have fostered a sporting culture of suspicion, secrecy and fear.

From Berry's article:

Whether a substance can be measured directly or not, sports doping laboratories must prospectively define and publicize a standard testing procedure, including unambiguous criteria for concluding positivity, and they must validate that procedure in blinded experiments. Moreover, these experiments should address factors such as substance used (banned and not), dose of the substance, methods of delivery, timing of use relative to testing, and heterogeneity of metabolism among individuals.

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The Role of Science in Politics: A Plea for Activism

Suppose that you are taking a walk through the hills above a town, and you reach the foot of a dam. There's a crack in the dam, and it's getting wider. You run back down to the town, and you knock on doors, and you yell and make a fuss, and you tell everyone that the dam is breaking. They thank you for the news, and go back to bed. What do you do next? Do you grab some tools and do what you can to fix the dam, or do you turn and walk away?

Strangely, a number of people (including ScienceBlogger Matt Nisbet) seem to think that the role of the scientific community in those circumstances really should be to turn and walk away:

Let's agree that the goal of the science community is to educate and inform.

That's not just wrong, it's downright dangerous.

There are any number of issues - climate change, resource usage, conservation, species loss, energy policy, global epidemics and pandemics, and that's just the tip of the iceberg - where we, the scientific community, have said we see real threats. In some cases, the threat is distant and preventable; in others, it's a clear and present danger. In all of them, real people are really at risk. Why on earth would I agree that my goal should simply be to educate and inform others about the threats?

The scientific community is not some real grouping of beings that sits off somewhere isolated from the real world. As hard as this might be to believe sometimes, we don't live in a bubble. We don't live in some ivory tower, protected by moats and walls and gates. We really do live in the real world. When we're talking about threats, we're talking about things that will affect our world. They will affect our country. They will affect our neighbors, our friends, our families, and ourselves.

Our understanding of science makes it easier for us to see the threats, and it makes it easier for us to figure out what can be done to minimize the risks. We should not simply tell people what the threats are, and what can be done about them. We need to do everything in our power to make sure that the right steps are taken.

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Today's Indian Ocean Tsunami, Small Tsunamis, and The Tsunami Warning System

This is a continuation of a post I wrote (and updated a couple of times) earlier today. Since the tsunami is no longer a possibility - it's an actual event - I thought a new title was probably a good idea. Here's the situation as it currently stands:

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a final watch statement for the event at 11:05 am Eastern time. They report that a tsunami was generated, and is currently traveling across the Indian Ocean. Based on the data that they have - currently, they have readings from three near-shore tide gauges and one deep-ocean gauge - the tsunami is small, and is not expected to cause damage in distant areas. (It should be noted, however, that PTWC's message also notes that they still only have limited access to sea level data in the Indian Ocean, and that they might be wrong about that.)

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Possible Indian Ocean Tsunami

A very large, shallow earthquake occurred at 11:10 UTC today. The earthquake epicenter is located in the Indian Ocean, about 375 miles from Jakarta, Indonesia, and is currently estimated at magnitude 7.9. The magnitude of the earthquake and the shallow depth of the quake have lead the Pacific Tsunami Warning center to put a tsunami watch into effect for the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, there are still not a lot of sea level gauges in the area, so it's not yet known if a tsunami occurred.

Our thoughts are with those who have been affected by the quake, and with those who might be affected if there is a tsunami.

Update: 8:16am

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center is now estimating the magnitude of the quake at 8.2, and a few media reports have come in indicating that the quake caused buildings to sway for "several minutes" in Jakarta, and was felt in Singapore and Thailand.

Update 2: 8:45am

PTWC now reports, based on a tide gauge in Padang, Indonesia, that a tsunami has been generated. The good news at this point is that the first wave detected was small - 0.35M (1.2 feet) high. It's not yet known if this is going to be the biggest wave produced, so an Indian Ocean-wide tsunami watch remains in effect.

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