Again, water on Mars. Also abortion, Planned Parenthood, fetal tissue research


Emily Lakdawalla thinks everybody should calm down about NASA’s much-trumpeted latest discovery of liquid water on Mars. The discovery, which is probably not flowing water but rather something more like damp sand, doesn’t, she argues at the Planetary Society’s blog, make Martian life any more likely than it has been.

“An incredibly salty, corrosive, transient water environment is not a very good place to look for life,” she says. More likely possibilities are the thin films of water that Phoenix observed in the soil at its near-polar landing site, or maybe deep underground, which would offer life protection against radiation, and where the planet’s internal heat could keep groundwater liquid.

The narrow, 100 meter-long streaks flowing downhill on Mars are believed to be water. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The narrow, 100 meter-long streaks flowing downhill on Mars are believed to be water. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Elizabeth Howell describes how researchers arrived at this latest discovery of Martian water at LiveScience. Corey Powell gives you the bad news and the good news about the finding at Out There. This latest discovery, he says, strengthens the case for missions that will bring back Marian samples.

Lakdawalla (and others) also point out that the announcement is yet another example of NASA’s hard-working (and successful) hype machine. “Of course, NASA didn’t lead the story by saying “Cool New Incremental Result!” They said: “Mystery Solved!” and “Major Announcement!'”


“We know there’s life on Mars because we sent it there,” John Grunsfeld, a science director at NASA said during a press conference Monday, according to Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic.

That’s potentially a serious problem, which is why the Planetary Society advocates that any human-led mission to Mars stay in orbit. “If we keep our filthy meatbag bodies in space and tele-operate sterile robots on the surface, we’ll avoid irreversible contamination of Mars,” Lakdawalla argues.

At Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne doesn’t see Earthling contamination as such a big deal. All Earth life stems from a single source and contains DNA. Whatever alien life looks like, it probably doesn’t operate with Earthlike DNA. So in principle it ought to be possible to distinguish Martian life from our contaminating microbes.


Ridley Scott could hardly have asked for a better concatenation of events for his Matt Damon movie The Martian, opening today (Friday, Oct 2.) In fact, I can’t help wondering just how accidental the timing was, given NASA’s aforementioned hype machine and the fact that the movie was made with NASA’s cooperation.

At The Conversation, Helen Maynard-Casely describes how both the movie and the Andy Weir book it’s based on work hard to emphasize science in this science fiction account of an astronaut stranded on Mars. However, according to Mike Wall at, the very authentic-looking spacesuits were an exception.


The folks who are trying to bring down Planned Parenthood have chosen lying as a strategy. Kinda stupid, since they have been exposed as liars repeatedly. But I suppose they’re counting on most people hearing only their claims, not the proof that the claims are false. And, sigh, they are probably right.

Here’s a particularly marvelous example of their data perversion, which Timothy Lee presented at Vox. This graph was an exhibit at Congress’s hearing on Planned Parenthood this week. It was achieved by simply dispensing with the vertical or y axis of the graph, creating a false equivalence between the large number of preventive services and smaller number of abortions. An apples to oranges comparison if there ever was one, not to mention an exceedingly unKosher data display.


Here’s the correct display of the same data, with the y axis restored. It’s still accurate that the number of preventive services Planned Parenthood offered went down dramatically between 2006 and 2013. The organization said this was in part because of new official recommendations that Pap smears be done less frequently.

planned parenthood accurate abortion-chart-Fpo1.0.0

The major point of attack on Planned Parenthood has been that doctored video claiming, falsely, that the agency profits from selling aborted fetus parts for fetal tissue research. At XXfactor, Amanda Marcotte does the math and shows, in her words, “You can make more money selling bottles to recycling plants.”

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina’s lie about seeing a video of an aborted fetus still alive and being readied for brain harvesting for research has been exposed repeatedly; the video doesn’t exist. Now an anti-abortion group has come up with another video that it says proves Fiorina wasn’t lying.

Anna Merlan at Jezebel’s The Slot has collected expert commentary arguing that the graphic new video actually shows a late miscarriage, not an abortion. Her post also includes a transcript of a CNN interview with an official of the Center for Medical Progress, sponsor of the video attacking Planned Parenthood. The official sorta kinda admits that the fetus in its video is the product of a miscarriage, not an abortion.


Planned Parenthood’s role in providing fetal tissue for research has undoubtedly damaged the research. For one thing, scientists who do it are afraid to defend it publicly.

Virginia Hughes has described BuzzFeed’s largely unsuccessful attempt to get researchers who have received funding for fetal tissue research to explain why. She says the funding has gone for “understanding human blindness, developing vaccines, making better models of HIV, and creating therapies for liver failure, just to name a few.” BuzzFeed has contacted more than 70 researchers but only 6 have agreed to be quoted–and then only anonymously.

The silence extends even to professional organizations. Arvind Suresh is part of the Genetic Expert News Service, which collects comments from scientists on current issues. In a recent post for the Genetic Literacy Project he wrote, “At the Genetic Expert News Service (GENeS) we tried to reach out to experts to comment on the issue when the videos were released in July. In nearly every case, we were turned down. Institutional media relations teams often said that faculty were not going to be able to comment given the sensitive nature of the subject. We also spoke to national scientific societies and received a similar response.”

In the meantime, claims in the media that fetal tissue research is worthless are going unchallenged (and also unverified.) In an analysis of a piece at National Public Radio that quoted an anti-abortion activist as calling the research “outdated”, RH Reality Check’s Jodi Jacobson noted that the activist “provided no evidence whatsoever for this claim nor did he point to successful medical advances based on use of his suggested alternatives.”

At WebMD, Rita Rubin provides an FAQ on fetal tissue research.

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Drug price hikes: revolt on the way? Also, the Pope, climate change, and a super eclipse


Will the rage over Martin Shkreli’s extortionate overpricing of the old reliable toxoplasmosis drug Daraprim trigger a rebellion over the cost of our medicines?

That’s what Dan Diamond argues at Vox. He hails Shkreli as a hero for bringing on the revolution by an overnight jackup from $13.50 to $750 per pill. “Pharmaceutical companies have been buying up generic drugs, jacking up their prices, and messing up patients’ lives for years. . . No one cared about it until Shkreli appeared on the national scene this week.”

HT Jonathan Eisen. Credit: Equality House

HT Jonathan Eisen. Credit: Equality House

It helps that Shkreli is very nearly a caricature–or maybe I mean the Platonic idea–of the rapacious capitalist. For one thing, he’s a former hedge fund manager, a job description so vilified that even some tax-averse Republican presidential candidates have declared it a target.

That guy is nothing. He’s zero,” said Donald Trump. “He ought to be ashamed of himself.” Of course this may simply have been a Trump reflex. The Donald, who wants to tax hedge fund managers, says that sort of thing about lots of people.

For an unusually revealing and not entirely negative take on Shkreli, see Mathew Herper’s post at Forbes. There you will learn about the guy’s other recent career moves, which have landed him in serious legal trouble and made him the subject of criminal investigation. Herper says, “He is very smart, but also callow and possibly sociopathic.”


Shkreli tweeted nose-thumbings at his critics for a little while, but before long appeared to have succumbed to pressure to cut back Daraprim’s price. He has yet to announce the new price, but what do you want to bet that it won’t be anything like the original price of $13.50 per pill? Which itself is pretty steep, at just under $5K per annum, for a drug that must be taken daily for up to a year.

Shkreli complained about the not-yet-announced price cut to Joanna Walters at The Guardian. “We might have to curtail research for several lethal diseases that we are seeking treatments for. We might have to fire people.” Sure. And just which lethal diseases would those be?

Shkreli had claimed “Daraprim is still underpriced, relative to its peers.” PolitiFact has ruled that claim false. Daraprim has no peers; Shkreli was comparing it to the price of new and patented cancer drugs. Daraprim is the trade name for pyrimethamine, created by Nobel Prize-winning scientist Gertrude Elion. It can treat malaria as well as toxoplasmosis, and its patent expired in 1953.


Shkreli is now the exemplar of this business model for the pharmaceutical industry: Buy a company that makes an inexpensive drug essential to only a small market and raise the price stupendously for your captive customers. Rake in the profits from  a super-expensive drug cheaply with no messy and costly research, endless clinical trials, FDA hassles, etc.

But Shkreli didn’t invent this pharma business model, as Aaron Carroll recounts at the Incidental Economist. The practice of buying an old drug and then inflating the price is more common than many think, he says, citing several examples. “I’m having trouble understanding the optics of this.”

Carroll, no particular friend of the pharma industry, has acquired strange bedfellows on the topic of drug pricing optics. Shkreli’s biotech and pharma compatriots appear to be equally appalled about the message Shkreli is sending, unapologetically, about these industry practices.

Some of them may be taking seriously the Vox post’s claim that the Shkreli’s Daraprim affair could trigger a government crackdown on drug pricing. Ariana Eunjung Cha reports at To Your Health that both the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and BIO, the biotech industry association, have publicly disowned him.



The Pope Comes to the US.  Pope Francis’s first public talk, outside the White House, was mostly about climate change,  Jack Jenkins reports  at ClimateProgress.

Climate change was also expected to be the topic of his second,  an address to the entire Congress. But, as Tim McDonnell recounted at Grist, the Pope never uttered the phrase climate change in those sacred halls. In fact, the whole talk was a remarkable example of what you might call pointed indirection. Here’s the transcript, at Time’s Swampland, and Vox has the video.

Credit: Jeffrey Bruno

Credit: Jeffrey Bruno

Read or listen carefully, keeping in mind current events and policy disputations, and you could say that the Pope lectured Congress ever so gently not only about climate change but also other hot political issues. These ranged from immigration, freedom of religion, and the Iran nuclear treaty (pro) to the evils of capitalism, inequality, the weapons industry, the death penalty, gay marriage, abortion, even contraception (con).  He also urged members to work together and talk to each other.

Subtle. Too subtle, perhaps, for that particular audience. Which, come to think of it, may have been the point.

Ah. Even more subtle.

Upcoming moonglow.  Extra-special on Sunday night, September 27: a supermoon eclipse, first one in more than 30 years, last one until 2033. A supermoon is a full moon that looks bigger than usual because it’s at its closest to the Earth. This one is also the Harvest Moon, but that’s an every-year event, the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox, which was September 23.

See David Appell’s brief explanation of the supermoon eclipse at Quark Soup, lots more from Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, and comprehensive tips on how and when to watch from EarthSky. For total immersion, consult Fred Espenak at his blog Photography advice from Eliza Sankar-Gorton at HuffPost Science.

supermoon eclipse

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Trump and GOP candidate docs debate science! Should vaccine schedule be slowed?


Oh, goody. Donald Trump again, this time at Wednesday night’s debate among the legions of Republican Presidential candidates, repeating his long-standing declaration that childhood vaccination causes autism. A claim that–need I even say it?– has long been emphatically debunked by several studies.

And this time Trump added to it the notion that the government’s recommended two dozen immunizations before age 2 should be spaced out and given in smaller doses. For which he got support from the two docs running for president, opthalmologist Ron Rand Paul and pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson (left) and The Donald debate childhood vaccination.

Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson (left) and The Donald debate childhood vaccination.

Professional commentators quickly attacked the autism claim, first promulgated about the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine in a fraudulent 1998 study The Lancet retracted in 2010. At To Your Health, Ariana Eunjung Cha recounts this history and describes some of the studies showing no connection. So does Julia Belluz at Vox.

The idea that there is a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism has been rejected repeatedly by, among other authorities, a 2011 report from the (former) Institute of Medicine, now the National Academy of Medicine. (This report is particularly noteworthy because it concluded that some vaccines did seem to cause rare adverse reactions, some of them serious.)

So the argument is moving on from the (relatively) simple and bogus claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism to a more complex and on its surface not implausible claim: that a great number of inoculations in a short time can overwhelm an infant immune system.

It’s not crazy to wonder if two dozen inoculations before the age of two is asking too much of a baby that already has a very full dance card. This is an immune system only just learning how to live with, and in some cases defend itself against, the millions of microbes (trillions if you count viruses, and why not?) it encounters in everyday life. Keeping in mind that our immune systems evolved mostly before agriculture became widespread only about 10,000 years ago. We were living in smaller groups, without close contact with animals, so babies were encountering a much more circumscribed range of microbes than are part of our communities today.


That is, of course, also a strong argument in favor of early vaccination. The chance of meeting a dangerous bug is greater than in yesteryear, all the more reason children should be vaccinated on the recommended schedule. Among the studies backing up this idea (HT Steven Novella) are one in JAMA Pediatrics showing an association between pertussis and undervaccination with the DPT (diptheria-pertussis-tetanus) vaccine and another showing vaccinations on the recommended schedule before age 1 have no association with neuropsychological outcomes at ages 7-10.

It’s an argument employed by several horrified docs who responded immediately to the spectacle of their supposedly informed presidential candidate colleagues endorsing the Trump prescription for spacing out vaccines more and giving smaller doses. The Genetic Expert News Service has collected several such comments here. Sample, from Mark Schleiss, who heads the Division of Infectious disease and Immunology, University of Minnesota:

“In fact, children today get far, far fewer vaccine antigens that they did in the 1960s. The total number of antigens the immune system “has to deal with” from vaccines has been steadily decreasing over the past 40 years.  These numbers are not subtle. In 1960, in the well-child immunization series that was universally recommended for all children, a child would be exposed to ~3,217 vaccine antigens through the vaccine cocktails we would give. In 1980, the average child would be exposed to ~3041 vaccine antigens. In the year 2000, that number had been reduced to ~126 antigens.”


Speaking of the debate, “This was a disaster,” cried Steven Novella at Neurologica. “Carson and Paul had an opportunity to sharply criticize Trump and expose him for the bloviating buffoon that he is, on a medical topic where they, as physicians, could credibly claim expertise and therefore have solid ground upon which to stand. It was a golden opportunity to stand up for science. They blew it. They gave Trump and out, in fact they supported him by echoing a key piece of his pseudoscience. Just stunning.”

autism lancet retracted

But people convinced that autism is caused by a vaccine and that infants are vaccinated too often and too soon aren’t giving up. At Age of Autism, an anti-vax blog, Anne Dachel quoted from several of the posts deriding Trump’s (and Carson’s and Paul’s) comments but ended up posing several questions she thinks the media ought to be asking. Examples:

“Why has there never been a comparision study of fully vaccinated and never vaccinated children? . . .  Let’s see if never-vaccinated kids have the same health issues, including autism, as fully vaccinated ones.” and “Should we be asking why multiple vaccines [are] given in one doctor visit, yet they’re only studied individually?”

Vox’s Dylan Matthews, who says he’s on the autism spectrum, argues that the Republican debate fosters bigotry against people with autism. “What parents who believe in the MMR vaccine-autism link, and don’t vaccinate as a consequence, are effectively saying is, ‘We’re willing to increase our child’s risk of death and serious illness in order to reduce their risk of getting autism.'”

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All about the fossilized bones of (maybe) Homo naledi


As you know, most fields of science, especially the ones best beloved by media, are dominated by white guys. Paleoanthropology, for example. Unless you are pretty familiar with human paleontology, Meave Leakey is likely to be the only female name that springs to mind (not counting Lucy.)  And doubtless it helps that she is part of the most famous family in that field.

But what may turn out to be the biggest human origins tale ever depends entirely on the 6 women paleontologists who made it happen: Marina Elliott, Elen Feuerriegel, Alia Gurtov, K Lindsay (Eaves) Hunter, Hannah Morris, Becca Peixotto. Literally the biggest: 1550 hominin fossil bones recovered so far, parts of at least 15 individuals, most of them from just a single square yard of the site. Many more bones are still to be unearthed.

Little women: The team of scientists who excavated the cramped chamber where H. naledi was discovered. Left to right, Becca Peixotto, Alia Gurtov, Elen Feuerriegel, Marina Elliott, K Lindsay (Eaves) Hunter and Hannah Morris. Credit: John Hawks

Little women: The team of scientists who excavated the cramped chamber where H. naledi was discovered. Left to right, Becca Peixotto, Alia Gurtov, Elen Feuerriegel, Marina Elliott, K Lindsay (Eaves) Hunter and Hannah Morris. Credit: John Hawks

These scientists made it possible because they were able to wriggle their way through the narrow passageways, 300 feet down into the hidden chamber where lay the bones of what the researchers are calling Homo naledi. In November 2013, Elen Feuerriegel gave us a first-person tour at the Rising Star blog.  More recently David Smith describes these journeys, and the fossil recovery process,  at The Guardian.

As paleontological finds go, this one went fast, with papers appearing just two years after discovery by fossil-hunting cavers exploring Rising Star, a well-mapped cave 30 miles north of Johannesburg. At National Geographic, which funded this project, Jamie Shreeve recounts how the discovery came about.

He sets this history in the context of what is already known about human evolution and about head man Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, whose ideas about the geography of human origins have been controversial and often ignored.

What does H. naledi look like? Apelike and primitive above and humanlike below. Shoulders well adapted for climbing but feet nearly indistinguishable from ours. So, both a climber and a walker, which is odd. Not so tiny, the males nearly 5 feet tall and weighing about 100 pounds.

Bones of Homo naledi. This is a composite skeleton, put together from bones of different individuals. Credit: John Hawks

Bones of Homo naledi. This is a composite skeleton, put together from bones of different individuals. Credit: John Hawks

But a tiny brain, only about a third the size of ours. More like Australopithecus than Homo, but in his Why Evolution is True post setting the find in the context of what is known about human evolution, Jerry Coyne explains why these are not the bones of Australopithecus.

Says Shreeve, “These were not human beings. These were pinheads, with some humanlike body parts.” The researchers have declared nevertheless that these people were members of our own genus, Homo, and have named them Homo naledi. Coyne is skeptical.


The site contains no rock so is technically a challenge to date. Thus the age of these fossils is unknown. They might be 2 million or more years old–or only 100,000 or so. Radiocarbon dating might work but would involve destruction of bone. It’s been delayed so analysis can be completed first.

Dating will be critical for making sense of H. naledi’s place in our own story. Many are calling H. naledi a new human ancestor, including the project’s head guy, Lee Berger. But whether these people were actually our forebears or only our cousins is not at all clear. Knowing when they lived would be illuminating.

Indeed, whether H. naledi is even a new species is in dispute already. Ian Sample at The Guardian interviewed paleontologists who think the fossils might be a population of Homo erectus, named in the 19th century.

This is a reasonable argument. H. erectus roamed the world and in appearance was very various. A previous On Science Blogs post about the remarkably heterogeneous H. erectus fossils at Dmanisi in Georgia discussed this widespread diversity, and  the paleontological disputes between splitters, who see every new find as a new species, and lumpers, who don’t.

Paleontologists Jeffrey Schwartz and Ian Tattersall suggested in the Aug. 28 issue of Science that the bones might represent at least two different species.  And Tattersall told the New York Times it might turn out that Homo naledi was not Homo at all.

Prospects for getting DNA that could help with settling these questions do not look particularly good. The site is warm and wet. Recovery of ancient DNA works best when the fossil bones have come from places that are cold and dry.

In addition to whatever the bones turn out to mean, the project was a bit of a revolution in scientific methodology. Berger recruited dozens of young paleontologists to make quick work of tasks like analyzing and measuring the hundreds of bones, a job that would have taken years with a conventional small team.

It was also an attempt at open science. There was a project blog, although it was often impressionistic rather than descriptive–and it shut down in April 2014, in a post by Becca Peixotto as excavation concluded.  It resumed this week with the publication announcement.

John Hawks, the main paper‘s second author, wrote about the project at his own well-known paleoanthropology blog (posts tagged Rising Star) and also explained the goals of open science at the project blog. “Rising Star is the most open paleoanthropological project that has ever been attempted,” he said in November 2013.


Noteworthiest of all, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that these bones were interred deliberately. The people weren’t living there: no tools, no food remains. They weren’t cannibalized or dragged there by carnivores: no toothmarks or other injury to the bones. They weren’t washed into the chamber on a flood: no rubble or debris. There were bones of a bird and a few rodents but otherwise no fossil animals. This place was really hard to find.

Homo naledi cave map

The most parsimonious explanation for the site seems to be that other humans carried the corpses of infants and children and adults old and young to this sequestered spot and dumped them down a chute into the chamber. It appears that the chamber may always have been a challenge to get to.

There is no evidence that these acts were accompanied by ritual or anything resembling religious observance. But it’s hard to imagine what the chamber might have been if not a tomb, a way of protecting the remains of valued relatives and friends.

Which would make it an unprecedented and stunning example of cultural practices in a creature with a brain the size of an orange. From the anonymous snide account at Uncommon Descent, an “intelligent” design blog: “Maybe big brains are about as useful as big behinds? The way big 1980s computers were superior to the current I-pad. Has anyone ever studied any of this seriously? Or is it just more tax-funded Darwinblither?”

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Breast cancer: Should DCIS be treated? Pig genome: messy and quite boaring


No one seems to know exactly what to make of the big study on the outcomes of DCIS. (DCIS = ductal carcinoma in situ, often called stage 0 breast cancer or precancer, which consists of abnormal but noninvasive cells in the milk ducts.) DCIS was hardly ever detected before mammography became standard in women’s health care. Now it accounts for about 1 in 4 diagnoses, 60,000 women a year in the US.

Getting a mammogram. Credit: Rhoda Baer, National Cancer Institute

Getting a mammogram. Credit: Rhoda Baer, National Cancer Institute

The open-access paper in JAMA Oncology made it quite clear that most women told they have DCIS could live out their days safely with no treatment and expect to die of something else, including old age. And that at the moment there’s no way of distinguishing those women from the much smaller proportion who probably should get surgery. Quite similar to the prostate cancer conundrum, in fact. What does a “positive” diagnosis of DCIS mean for an individual woman? Nobody knows.

But the standard better-safe-than-sorry medical prescription is breast surgery, sometimes drastic breast surgery. At a minimum, lumpectomy and weeks of radiation, and all too often mastectomy. Even double mastectomy.

Double mastectomy even though DCIS is nothing like the situation faced by Angelina Jolie. Jolie chose surgical removal of both her breasts because her genetic risk of breast cancer recurrence was known to be appreciable.

Not surprisingly, the media response to the DCIS paper was . . . not coherent. At HealthNewsReview, Dave Mosher pointed out that this confusion was partly the fault of the paper’s senior author, Steven Narod from the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. He told the New York Times that the best response to a DCIS diagnosis is to do nothing, but was quoted in his institution’s press release as saying that DCIS could spread to other organs.

To Nick Mulcahy at Medscape Narod said, “If the goal is to prevent death from breast cancer, the best option might be watchful waiting followed by chemotherapy at the time of invasive in breast recurrence.”

Mosher consulted a few experts to help make sense of the study and point out deficiencies in the media treatment. There was praise for the commentary accompanying the paper (also open-access) by Laura Esserman and Christina Yau, both at UCSF. Among their observations is that aggressive therapy with radiation following surgery does not reduce breast cancer deaths.

Most commentators thought the moral of the paper is the obvious one: DCIS is not dangerous for most women, and it is being overdiagnosed and overtreated. But about 1 in 5 women diagnosed with DCIS seem to be in more potential danger than the other 4 and are reasonable candidates for today’s standard aggressive therapy. These include black women and women under 35.

At PatientPOV, Laura Newman acknowledges that “overdiagnosis can spell waste and harm,” but worries that if medical practice moves away from its current universal aggressive treatment of DCIS, vulnerable populations like black women and younger women may be ignored. “An inadvertent casualty of the fight against overdiagnosis is that patients who do not fit that profile are overlooked.”



There is no more important event in the Homo sap story than the one often called the Neolithic Revolution–the domestication of plants and animals that became the invention of agriculture some 10,000 or 12,000 years ago. Selective breeding has given us the delicious sweet corn many of us will be eating this Labor Day weekend, not to mention cities, global warming, assorted diseases, and more than 7 billion people.

The story of this crucial transition has been accompanied by a kind of image of New Stone Age Man as Genetic Scientist, carefully picking out plants and animals with desirable characteristics and preventing them from mating with wild relatives. But a new study of pig genomics is showing that the process of reproductive isolation and domestication was actually sloppy and imperfect. The implication is that haphazard breeding may be true of other domesticated organisms as well, perhaps horses and our first genetic invention, the dog.

Pork consumption is anathema in some populations. Nevertheless, pork is still our most popular meat. Humans seem to have created domestic pigs from wild boars twice, once in Turkey about 10,000 years ago and then later in China. As paleoecologist Keith Dobney explains at The Conversation, the new study shows that the domestic pig has always experienced gene input from wild boars. The researchers argue that pigs are not a homogeneous population, but rather mosaics of different wild boar populations.

Wild boar-pig hybrid. Credit: Miguel Tremblay

Wild boar-pig hybrid. Credit: Miguel Tremblay

This seems to be particularly true of European pigs. It appears they derive originally from the Turkish domestication, but show genetic evidence of mating with European wild boars, including perhaps some boar species that are now extinct. The idea is that much of this interbreeding could have occurred almost by accident, as swineherds followed the first farmers into Europe. And to complete their mongrelization, pigs were also mated with Chinese pigs imported by European breeders in the 19th century, according to Elizabeth Pennisi at Science.

If wild boar genes have frequently entered pig genomes, why don’t pigs look more like boars and behave in aggressive boarlike ways? The hypothesis is that farmers kept selecting the most piglike pigs for breeding, creating “’islands of domestication,’ sets of genes that were passed on in the pigs despite interbreeding,” Pennisi says.

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Psychology cleans up its act, plus biohackers embrace gene editing, CRISPR, cyborgs


You’d think that the just-published Science paper, recounting a massive  attempt at replication of 100 selected research projects published in the top psychology journals in 2008, would be cause for much beating of breasts. It showed that only a little more than a third of the papers came up with results consistent with the original study the researchers were trying to confirm. Joel Achenbach describes the findings and the background with his usual cogency at Speaking of Science.

On its face the finding sounds like a disaster, not just for psychology but for the already-battered image of science and the validity of the scientific method. And indeed, low replication rates have been reported for other fields of science too.

brain psychology

But so far much of the commentary on the psychology paper is determinedly looking on the bright side. Christian Jarrett’s post for the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest is typical.

Jarrett concluded, “This may sound like a disappointing day for psychology, but in fact really the opposite is true. Through the Reproducibility Project, psychology and psychologists are blazing a trail, helping shed light on a problem that afflicts all of science, not just psychology.”

Just last week the fine science journalist Christie Aschwanden assured readers at FiveThirtyEight that science isn’t broken.  The hed on her post reporting on the new paper carries on with that theme, adding a redemptive twist: “The Scientific Method: Psychology Is Starting To Deal With Its Replication Problem.”

To be fair, there’s truth in that hed. The replication study was an immense project involving hundreds of scientists seeking to identify problems with the research in their field and do something about them. But there are other efforts too.

One example: A dozen journals are participating in the Registered Reports project, a procedure for reviewing and accepting research project proposals before data are collected. This could help cut down on publication bias–the inclination of journals to publish only papers with positive results. It is part of the OpenScience Collaboration, which is exploiting newly possible aspects of the Web for increasing science’s trustworthiness. Katie Palmer describes some at Wired.

At Retraction Watch, statistician Jelte M. Wicherts describes a number of kinds of defiencies in psychological (and other) research to Alison McCook, but declares, “this study shows that psychology is cleaning up its act.”



It was inevitable, given the (relative) ease of using gene-editing techniques like CRISPR to try to alter cells and organisms, that biohackers would launch their own explorations into gene editing. Biohackers–amateur scientists who pursue life sciences projects on their own time, often in community labs–and some of their projects are the subject of Heidi Ledford’s piece at Nature News, summarized at Genome Web and Popular Science.

As you might expect, the projects described are benign, among them attempts to make vegan cheese and distinctive beers. No obvious bioweapons here, which may have something to do with the fact that the FBI’s Bioterrorism Protection Team is keeping an eye on biohackers and has urged them to keep an eye on each other, according to Ledford.

Meanwhile, other biohackers are turning themselves into cyborgs. At The Verge’s What’s Tech, Chris Plante interviews biohacker Adi Robertson to find out why.

cyborg dalek

And at The Guardian’s architecture and design blog, Oliver Wainwright writes about Professor Stelarc, an Australian performance artist who has grown himself a third ear. On his arm. There’s a photo. Stelarc says he wants to equip it with wi-fi and GPS tracking so that people can follow his travels.

Wainwright also describes other DIY cyborg projects, including an academic with nervous system implants, a music lover with a graft of permanent headphones, and a computer programmer who lost half a finger in an accident and replaced it with a removable 2GB flash drive. That last one actually sounds like a reasonable idea.

Note that this news is brought to us not in a science blog but in an architecture and design blog.



You may recall that Chinese scientists reported attempted gene editing of human embryos in April, discussed here at On Science Blogs. It didn’t go well; results were all over the place.

There was some bioethical flap about the project because it involved human embryos, but it appeared ethically sound to me because the embryos were to be discarded anyhow and could not have survived. However, the failure was also reassuring in a way.  As I observed, “that failure may give us a bit of breathing room to figure out what should be done about genetic tinkering with an embryo that will affect that person-to-be’s descendants.”

Now comes Kevin Loria at TechInsider to tell us that the reason the Chinese research turned out so badly is that the researchers were doing it wrong. Loria interviews a number of  Western scientists and concludes, “There are (and were) far more accurate versions of the gene-editing tool they used (CRISPR/Cas-9), and many researchers have been able to edit cells and even animal embryos with almost zero unwanted or unexpected changes.”

And therefore the ability to edit human embryos successfully may not so far off as it seemed in April.

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Jimmy Carter’s cancer, female sexual desire, and Donald Trump’s trumpery


The immunotherapy Jimmy Carter is getting in addition to radiation for the metastisized melanoma that has invaded his brain and liver is startlingly effective in some patients and not at all in others. As yet, no one knows why, Julia Belluz explains at Vox.

The drug Carter is being given, pembrolizumab, is a checkpoint inhibitor that can interfere with a protein that turns T-cells off, freeing them to fight cancer cells. Belluz quotes a doc who says these new immunotherapies tend to work well in about 15% or 20% of metastatic cancers, but for now identifying which patients can benefit isn’t possible.

Among the 39th President’s accomplishments is the Carter Center, the NGO he founded shortly after he left office, which has nearly eradicated  guinea worm. Guinea worm is an especially  horrid parasite that used to infect millions of people in the developing world.

“[T]hanks to the work of the Carter Center, there were only 17 cases of guinea worm counted in the first five months of 2015, a stunning public health victory,” Vox’s Sarah Kliff tells us. There were 3.5 million cases in 1986.

No vaccines or drugs can vanquish guinea worm. Instead, the dramatic reversal is due to education and behavior change, Kliff explains.

Carter’s cancer was identified late in May when docs found a mass on his liver. Surgery to remove it was delayed until early August, at which point an MRI disclosed four melanoma spots on his brain. The reason for the delay? Carter was scheduled for a book tour.




I wrote about the disappointments of Addyi (flibanserin), which is not the female Viagra, here at On Science Blogs in June. The most relevant news right now, though,  is not that the Food and Drug Administration finally approved the drug (which it did this week.) It’s that two days after FDA approval, the 34-employee North Carolina company that produces Addyi was sold.

For a billion dollars. $1,000,000,000


The triumph of capitalism over science. And feminism. And good sense.

At Vox, Julia Belluz explains the drug’s unimpressive performance and side effects. These include severe drops in blood pressure, especially in combination with 2 things that often accompany sex: contraceptive hormones and alcohol.

At BuzzFeedNews, Azeen Ghorayshi describes how a clever full-throttle marketing campaign that employed spurious feminist demands for equal treatment succeeded in browbeating regulators into submission. They had turned the drug down twice before.

At the Washington Post’s To Your Health, Brigid Schulte presents a chronology of medical/pharma efforts to boost female sexual desire. It begins in 1952, when “Frigidity and Impotence are listed as sexual disorders in the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

Poster for Orgasm Inc., Liz Canner's 2009 documentary on drug companies' efforts to medicalize and create a market for cures to women's sexual problems. Great reviews.

Poster for Orgasm Inc., Liz Canner’s 2009 documentary on drug companies’ efforts to medicalize and create a market for cures to women’s sexual problems. Great reviews.

At MedPageToday, Shannon Firth quotes reactions from several docs and other experts, pro and con. One is happy that Addyi’s effects on women are weak, apparently on grounds of preventing offenses to decency. “Your goal is not to make them euphoric. You don’t want them dancing through the streets giggling.”

Goddess forbid that sex should involve humor and public dancing and, worst of all, euphoria. The point, after all, is to make babies. With decorum.



Although I’ve been following the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump with glee, I wasn’t expecting to have science-related reasons for sharing The Donald’s rocketing ride with you. But Joe Romm at Climate Progress, of all people, is considering that Trump might actually win the Republican nomination a year from now, and the presidency after that.

Romm is remarkably cheerful about what that might mean for climate change policy.  He  argues that the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Climate Plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants will be greeted enthusiastically at the UN Paris meeting on climate matters late in the fall. Romm believes that the CPP will be a good deal for the US, and since Trump champions good deals, he wouldn’t fight this one as president.

Romm also believes, despite Trump’s public ridicule of policy proposals to reduce climate change, that in his heart The Donald doesn’t believe the Republican party line on climate. As evidence Romm cites a recent Trump interview with CNN.

Romm concludes, “Trump (correctly) understands that most of what politicians say on the issues does not matter to voters. . . This allows him to focus on being as entertaining and provocative as possible for the public, but then retreating to pragmatism — his supposedly superior deal-making skills — whenever pressed on the facts by the media.”

Credit: Gage Skidmore

Credit: Gage Skidmore

At her Scientific American blog PsySociety, Melanie Tannenbaum employs psychology to try to explain Trump’s appeal to the public and his continuing command of the polls despite pooh-poohs from pundits. Two posts so far, and she has promised a third.

In her first post, she argues that conservative voters hate uncertainty, and because The Donald says whatever comes to his tongue, he leaves no ambiguity about his positions on issues.

Of course if Romm is right, that’s not true, at least about climate change. And, as Tannenbaum acknowledges in her second post, The Donald has held many positions in the past that are the opposite of what he says now. He was once pro-choice, he was once for taxing the rich, he has given lots of money to Democrats.

This last point may not really count, since during the Republican debate The Donald was up front about expecting return favors from the politicians he donates to. (I am guessing the favors are not all as benign as his demand that Hillary Clinton come to his most recent wedding.)

But that sort of counter-intuitive remark, Tannenbaum insists, is the key to Trump’s appeal, despite his obvious flip-flops on past positions.  He says the unexpected thing, the thing that other politicians dare not say–that, for instance, he expects  quid pro quo from candidates he gives money to.

And declarations like those makes people see him as more honest and credible than his opponents. What he says is not typical politician bull. Therefore he must be trustworthy.

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Pinker’s gene editing rant ignored most bioethics issues; debunking stoner Shakespeare

Do you suppose Steven Pinker’s broadside against professional bioethics oversight of CRISPR and other forms of gene editing–Pinker’s command to bioethics was brutally inflexible: “Get out of the way”–will change bioethics for the better? Or gene editing, for that matter?

In an interview with stem-cell researcher Paul Knoepfler following up his Boston Globe op-ed, Pinker accused bioethics of being “a professional guild that all too often impedes sound ethical concerns rather than advancing them.” In addition to being bad moral philosophers, he says, many bioethicists are embroiled in a conflict of interest because institutional bioethics has become an industry.  They need to defend their turf.

Pinker told Knoepfler: “a truly ethical bioethics should justify any restrictions on research with rigorous, defensible arguments about benefit and harm, not with moralistic grandstanding, science fiction dystopias, perverse analogies to Nazis and nuclear weapons, esoteric theories pulled out of the air, or freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs—all of which I’ve heard in these debates.”

Historian of science Alice Dreger, author of the disturbingly delightful Galileo’s Middle Finger, defended some of Pinker’s points, agreeing that people have often been wrong about the supposed doom that will attend new biomedical technologies. But Dreger wishes that Pinker hadn’t conflated two different topics in his post, that he hadn’t linked assurances that protection of research subjects is already perfectly adequate with thrashing the prophets of doom.

That’s because she disagrees with him about the former. “Steve is not suggesting rolling back safeguards, so far as I can see, although he doesn’t advocate having more, either—which some of us would advocate. (For my part, I’d advocate neither more nor less per se, but much more effective. I’m not sure how to get that.) And Steve’s obviously factually wrong about there being ample safeguards,” she says.

The bioethics folks that Alexandra Ossola talked to for Popular Science agreed that Pinker’s picture of bioethics was mostly caricature. One of them, Norman Fost, underlined the differences between bioethics and the Institutional Review Boards that decide whether a particular research project can proceed or not. About IRB members who insist on picayune paperwork details, such as whether a quorum is present, Fost is scathing. They “are bureaucrats at a federal regulatory agency with little background in ethics,” he says.

Ossola concludes that Pinker is wrong. “We need bioethicists–now more than ever. But discussing the ethics doesn’t have to slow progress.”


Discussing ethics might not slow progress, but the halt to gene-editing research demanded by several high-level scientists, whether temporary or permanent, surely would. And even if instituted, a moratorium would affect at most the US and maybe some other Western countries.

Gene-editing has already been fully embraced by China, and scientists there are doing interesting work that has even been helpful on ethical issues. If you need to catch up, On Science Blogs has been following the CRISPR/gene-editing story for the past few months. Start here.

A moratorium might or might not be honored by private enterprise. Note the simultaneous news that Editas Medicine has just received $120 million from investors that include Google Ventures and Bill Gates. Elliot Hosman’s post at Biopolitical Times points out that Editas is working on an obscure disease that affects at most 1000 patients, implying that gene editing won’t have wide application.

That’s not true (see below), and it’s certainly arguable that gene editing can be applied to the social and environmental factors that underlie much disease. Consider, for instance, the plan to wipe out malaria by killing off an entire mosquito species with gene drives. Whether we want to employ biotechnology to fix such problems is, of course, a different question.

Not sure what we should make of the Pinker-inspired but somewhat parochial episode in the CRISPR-gene editing debate. In focusing on bioethics as a profession, it ignored a couple of pretty crucial (bioethical) issues.

One is whether the scientists who have called for a moratorium on this research are justified. The other is gene-editing’s application to germline changes that would affect future generations, human and otherwise. Odd, since those changes are arguably the most consequential. Or at least potentially consequential. For us and for the planet.



Which is the greater offense: Offering up the bogus “scientific” assertion that Shakespeare’s muse was Cannabis, (and he told us about her in Sonnet 76, with its references to “compounds strange” and “invention in a noted weed”?)

shakespeare pot

Or media’s wholehearted embrace and the lame headlines promulgating this fairy tale? (Example: “Prithee, Did Thou Knowest That Shakespeare Smoked Weed?”)  At least Hilary Hansen’s topper, at HuffPo, while cutesy beyond toleration, expressed skepticism: “The Evidence Is Doobie-ous.”

Thanks be to Kaila Hale-Stern at Gawker, who brings deflationary skills to this nonsense balloon. She points out that the cannabis residue found on the clay pipes dug up from Shakespeare’s garden has also been reported (along with coca traces) on other pipes of the era, and that there is no evidence the pipes were Shakespeare’s. Also that this isn’t even new news, having first been disclosed by a South African researcher nearly 15 years ago and reported by National Geographic, among others, at the time.

Thanks be also to Edward Delman at The Atlantic, who believes that one reason even doubtful news about Shakespeare gets a lot of attention is that so little is actually known about the man–despite his enormous contribution to our language and our culture.

Delman also brings more rain to the media parade. He points out that the pipe fragments have been dated to the 17th century, but not more precisely. (Shakespeare died in 1616.) He notes also that the papers on this work have not even offered conclusive evidence of pot on the pipes.

The coke finding seems to be somewhat more reliable. Make of that what you will.

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HitchBOT RIP and other robots and autonomous weapons


We don’t know, at this point, who dismembered and decapitated hitchBOT, the overly cutesy but otherwise inoffensive hitch-hiking robot. My money is on mindless teenage vandalism, bro humor division.

But I suppose it’s possible that this is the work of Luddites reborn. Someone feeling threatened by the Rise of the Machines? Perhaps even someone egged on by the high-profile call by high-profile persons for a halt to development of autonomous weapons?

What’s deeply horrible about hitchBOT’s demise is that for the Canadian engineers who put it together, the robot was an experiment in trust. Can humans trust robots? Can robots trust humans? Sam Wood talks to hitchBOT’s project manager at, who hews to the line that “the overarching response over the course of this project has been positive, and has truly demonstrated the cooperation, goodwill, and kindness of humans.”

Two-way trust worked for 6000 miles. HitchBOT hitched without a hitch all the way across Canada, from Nova Scotia to Vancouver. In Germany and the Netherlands too. But in the US, where the final goal was the Exploratorium in San Francisco, hitchBOT made it only as far west as Philadelphia.

Credit: AndreaWBZ

Credit: AndreaWBZ

It’s quite tempting to see such mean-spirited hooliganism as one more in this country’s series of deranged racial-ethnic-political current events.


At the Washington Post’s Innovation, Dominic Basulto regards the robocide as evidence that robots have a lot more to fear from us than the other way ’round. “Robots of the future, far from being beyond our control, will probably rely on humanity for their existence. They may be smarter than us, but we will always have the upper hand because we will have built in the control mechanisms to limit the damage. And, if all else fails, sorry to say, we’ll hack off the arms, legs or head of any robot that tries to become a robot overlord.”

Erik Sofge, at Popular Science’s Zero Moment, thinks that autonomous weapons are doomed. It’s true that Elon Musk’s and Stephen Hawking’s names on the open letter guaranteed media attention, but what was really important is that the signatories included virtually every major name in artificial intelligence and robotics–even those who in the past have argued that fears about AI are overblown. Sofge’s post spells out exactly what forms of autonomous AI weapons he believes will be ruled out by international agreements.

Jai Galliot, who does robotics research at the University of New South Wales, declares himself to be a reformed activist for robot arms control and explains why at The Conversation. He reasons that autonomous weapons  don’t really exist because no robot can kill without human intervention.


One reason it’s difficult to get on the anti-robot bandwagon is that it’s hard for an ordinary consumer to believe something that seems so incompetent could really be a threat. At TechInsider, Julia Calderone burbles on about a dishwashing robot. But at this early stage of its development, the robotic arm is taking dishes out of a rack and handing them to a human to put away. No washing involved. Or even storing.  And how will a robot ever be able to learn to load a dishwasher when no two humans can agree on how to accomplish that task?

A personal example of more robotic insufficiency: I’m on my second punked-out Roomba. Have I learned my lesson? I doubt it.  I want so passionately to believe in the possibility of a useful nonhuman vacuumer that I wouldn’t rule out getting sucked into a third Roomba some day. For shame.

Experiences like these make it easy to grasp one of the fears about autonomous weapons, which is that they will, willy nilly, kill the wrong people. That sort of accident seems to be what happened at the German Volkswagen plant, where a robot seized a worker and crushed him. Apparently it was not the robot’s fault; the unfortunate human got in its way.

This turns out not to be an isolated incident. Robolaw expert Ryan Calo told Kelsey Atherton at Popular Science that, in the US, an industrial robot kills about one person every year. The Department of Labor keeps track, apparently.


Vanessa Van Edwards has a plan for improving human-robot relations. She wants to teach robots social skills and explains at length how to do that at Huffington Post.  HitchBOT had some conversational ability, which I guess counts as a social skill. But knowing how to converse didn’t suffice to talk the bad guy(s) out of lethal violence.

HitchBOT also had a camera. That news had me hoping for incriminating photos revealing the perpetrator(s) in the act, like those police action videos we’ve been seeing lately, the ones that will maybe possibly revolutionize citizen interactions with cops. But poor naive hitchBOT seems to have expected only goodness and beauty of the world. Its final photo was of trees at sunrise.



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Exciting new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease? Nah.

So, exciting new drugs for treating Alzheimer’s disease, right?

Wrong. Or, rather, let’s allow for semi-miraculous outcomes and say instead that this recent news is unlikely to be right.

Most of the news concerned research results on two monoclonal antibody drugs reported at last week’s Alzheimer’s Association International Convention in Washington. Both drugs attack beta amyloid, the protein that is suspected by some researchers of gumming up the brain. Not a theory embraced by all, however.

The two drugs aren’t even new drugs. Solanezumab, from Eli Lilly, has already bombed in two previous clinical trials. Biogen reported some results from aducanumab, adding to data released in March.

There are plenty of hard-nosed critiques out there, so it’s difficult to understand the media huzzahs. Unless so-called reporters are just swallowing press releases whole.

Oh, wait . . .


Emily Underwood described the drugs’ uneven history at Science, observing of the new results, “the small cognitive benefits and the fact that one trial didn’t show any reduction in the amyloid in people’s brains left plenty of room for skepticism.”

Kevin Lomangino took stock at HealthNewsReview and noted “So why bother to present provisional results that don’t even demonstrate that the drugs had any noticeable effect? As Matthew Herper points out at Forbes, the show at this week’s conference may have been more about company stock prices than about informing patients and the public.”

Lomangino was unhappy at pretty much all the coverage except for a piece at NBC–and even that was damaged, in his view, by a cheerleading hed. Which presumably the writer of the reasonable story had nothing to do with, as is so often the case.

HT: HealthNewsReview

HT: HealthNewsReview

At In the Pipeline, pharma researcher Derek Lowe is not happy about the aducanumab study’s small size. “And the first thing that has to be learned from watching clinical research (especially for a disease like Alzheimer’s) is that you cannot draw conclusions until you see a large, well-run data set. Ignore this advice at your peril. The list of promising-looking Alzheimer’s ideas that have evaporated on contact with a larger trial is long and terrible.”

As for solanezumab, Lowe says Lilly claims to be seeing more effect in the patients who started the therapy earlier, but “not everyone is buying that interpretation. The effect they’re seeing may well be clinically meaningless.”

Solanezumab failed to meet its endpoints in two Stage 3 clinical trials. Leading researchers to proclaim, in one of the more tortured arguments ever, that the disappointing outcome must mean that it works not just on symptoms but on the underlying disease itself.


Doc Perry Wilson treats this argument with the contempt it deserves at Medpage Today, saying solanezumab is “unlikely to have any clinical benefit” and calling the announcement “a Master Class in how to spin your drug that failed its original trial.”

Recent research is also showing that even if a splendid Alzheimer’s drug arrives, it may be splendid for only part of the population, owing to human diversity. Frederick Kunkle reports at the Washington Post that African-Americans with Alzheimer’s disease also seem to suffer from additional brain pathologies less frequent in Caucasians, notably the accumulation of abnormal proteins called Lewy bodies and lesions in tiny blood vessels.

Researchers at the Alzheimer’s meeting have also found that older women with cognitive decline seem to get worse and progress to Alzheimer’s disease twice as fast as men, Laura Geggel reports at LiveScience.


According to Harry Johns at Congress Blog, Alzheimer’s is already the US’s most expensive disease, one that threatens to bankrupt Medicare. Today, Medicare spends nearly 1 out of 5 of its dollars on caring for people with the disease. By 2050, a generation from now, it is estimated that will climb to nearly 1 in 3 dollars.

Neuroscientist Douglas Fields, writing at a SciAm Mind guest blog, is optimistic that even the obstructive current Congress will be open to funding more Alzheimer’s research. The key, he says, will be early diagnosis. Well, maybe. But until there are effective ways of treating early Alzheimer’s, early diagnosis is kinda beside the point, isn’t it? Or could even be a bad idea, considering what bombshells like this hopeless news can do to patients and their families?

Bloomberg View attempts a rational economic argument for more research: “Lawmakers may also want to consider that taxpayers will end up paying either way. Medicare and Medicaid will spend $153 billion caring for patients with Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia this year, or about 261 times what the NIH will spend looking for ways to prevent and cure the disease. Until one is found, these numbers are way out of balance.”

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