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News Bytes of the Week—Marxist Dermatology

Space station hits snag, Close encounters of the football kind and more…
Workers of the world, unite!: You have nothing to lose but your—pustules
Karl Marx may have erred in predicting the "withering away" of the state under communism, but he got one thing right: "The bourgeoisie will remember my carbuncles until their dying day," he wrote in an 1867 letter to his longtime collaborator Friedrich Engels, referring to painful boils on his rump and nether regions. In a paper slated for the January British Journal of Dermatology, dermatology professor Sam Shuster of the University of East Anglia concludes from Marx's correspondences that the radical 19th-century political theorist suffered from hidradenitis suppurativa, a blockage and chronic inflammation of the sweat glands in the armpits and groin that can cause painful boillike lumps, swelling and scarring. The unsightly pustules made it hard for Marx to work and may have contributed to the alienation and self-loathing expressed in his writings, Shuster told Reuters. The revolutionary consoled himself by noting that it was at least a "proletarian disease." (British Association of Dermatologists; Reuters; London Times)

Space station solar panels damaged
The International Space Station hit a snag on Tuesday—literally—when a solar panel being unfurled accordion-style apparently got caught on a guide wire and suffered a two and a half–foot gash and a smaller rip, forcing NASA to plan a daring spacewalk to repair it. The damage occurred as the commander of the shuttle Discovery was remotely extending the second of two panels after they had been moved in a folded configuration from the top to the far left of the station; this just days after the right-side array had to be locked in place after metal shavings were found in the right-hand joint that adjusts their orientation with the sun, according to news accounts. NASA announced that a crew member will be swung out within reach of the damaged panel on a 50-foot boom attached to the space station's robotic arm as early as Saturday to attempt a fix, to reduce the risk of further damage that would require the panel to be jettisoned, thereby reducing the growing station's power supply. (The New York Times)

Meow mix (of genes): Cat's genome sequenced
Researchers have finally cracked the genetic code of domestic cats, sequencing the genome of a red-furred four-year-old Abyssinian named Cinnamon. Based on the six other published mammalian genomes (human, chimpanzee, mouse, rat, dog and cow), the sequencers estimated that the feline genome contained some 20,000 genes. With over 250 inherited disorders, some similar to those that strike people, researchers say cats may have something to tell us about human disease, too. Cinnamon's genetic layout—published in Genome Research—has already helped pin down the faulty gene responsible for blindness caused by retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that causes blindness in kitties and in one in of every 3,500 people. (press release)

Climate change spreads like wildfire
Wildfires do more than burn: Enormous wildfires such as those that recently raged in southern California can pump as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a few weeks as a year's worth of traffic in some states, according to federally funded research at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Based on satellite monitoring and models that estimate the carbon released from burning vegetation (plus or minus 50 percent), the group reckons that U.S. fires produce 290 million metric tons of carbon per year, equal to about 5 percent of the nation's annual emissions from fossil fuels. (National Center for Atmospheric Research)

FEMA puts out one fire, starts another
What does it say about the government when the federal agency tasked to handle disasters causes one instead—in this case, a public relations disaster? The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) just can't seem to get it right. And even when it does, it seems to bungle things, anyway. To wit: rather than meet with real reporters to discuss its handling of last week's California wildfires, the hapless agency staged a faux press conference at which its own officials pretended to be journalists à la The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, grilling and praising FEMA's firefighting efforts. To say the infomercial-style PR ploy backfired would be an understatement. When the real press corps caught wind of the bogus affair, FEMA became the butt of jokes and unceasing ridicule. In the latest chapter of the strange saga, the FEMA press officer behind the mock event was denied a new government job as director of public affairs for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; he was set to start next week but the offer was rescinded after the fake press powwow came to light, prompting further scrutiny and criticism of the agency, which is still recovering from major Hurricane Katrina missteps. The rub is that this time FEMA actually didn't seem to do anything wrong—at least not out in the field. (FEMA)

Good vibrations bring true nanotunes
Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, announced this week that they have built by far the smallest fully functioning radio receiver, made from a single carbon nanotube, a long chicken wire–like molecule. Unlike normal radio antennas, which receive and transmit electromagnetic vibrations, the nanotube radio literally vibrates to the frequency of incoming sound waves or sends them back out. The researchers, who tested their device by playing four songs, including Eric Clapton's version of "Layla" and (of course) the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," say the technology could lead to microscopic remote controlled gizmos in the human bloodstream or (note to Steve Jobs) smaller cell phones and other handhelds. (Berkeley)

Rest in peace: Talking chimp, famed biochemists, A-bomb pilot
The science deaths came fast and furious starting last week when Leslie Orgel, 80, an early proponent of the "RNA world" hypothesis to explain the birth of life on Earth, succumbed to pancreatic cancer. This week, Nobel biochemist Arthur Kornberg, 89, died of respiratory failure decades after discovering how DNA encodes the instructions for proteins. Also dead: our close cousin, Washoe, 42, the first chimp to learn sign language, who joined his late canny compatriot, Alex, the gray parrot, after a short illness. And finally, Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the bomber Enola Gay that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, was felled by heart disease at age 92. An Associated Press obituary notes that Tibbets said he "never lost a night's sleep" over the bombing. (Orgel; Kornberg; Washoe; Tibbets)

Homosexuality in high school football
A survey of 47 former U.S. high school football players–turned university cheerleaders finds that 19 of them had engaged in sexual acts with other men, including kissing, mutual masturbation and oral sex. The men, aged 18 to 23, from around the U.S., had failed to make their university football teams and, despite their reported male-male encounters, considered themselves masculine, heterosexual men, according to a statement by sports sociologist Eric Anderson of the University of Bath in England, author of the study set to be published in January in Sex Roles: A Journal of Research. Anderson, 38, who is openly gay and has coached high school track (he's also appeared on the TBS reality competition The Real Gilligan's Island), attributed the finding to positive portrayals of homosexuality on television, the social freedom provided by the Internet and a decline of religious fundamentalism. "Homophobia," he claimed, "is on the rapid decline among male team sport athletes in North America at all levels of play." (press release; Eric Anderson's Web site)

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