Monday, April 30, 2007

Pet food recalls: pretty much everything

Another day, another set of recalls.
Ogden pet-food maker extends recall

Samples of rice protein from an Ogden pet-food manufacturer were positive for the industrial chemical melamine in federal testing, and products made by American Nutrition, Inc. are now part of a nationwide pet food recall.
Based on the recent NYT expose I'd say if the pet food contains any Chinese manufactured grain or rice protein it's contaminated until proven otherwise.

Compact fluorescent lights: Don't. Just don't.

This is not exactly a Nobel prize winning discovery. Why is it that compact fluorescent lights are supposed to be a good idea?
The CFL mercury nightmare

How much money does it take to screw in a compact fluorescent light bulb? About US$4.28 for the bulb and labour -- unless you break the bulb. Then you, like Brandy Bridges of Ellsworth, Maine, could be looking at a cost of about US$2,004.28, which doesn't include the costs of frayed nerves and risks to health...

... According to an April 12 article in The Ellsworth American, Bridges had the misfortune of breaking a CFL during installation in her daughter's bedroom: It dropped and shattered on the carpeted floor.

Aware that CFLs contain potentially hazardous substances, Bridges called her local Home Depot for advice. The store told her that the CFL contained mercury and that she should call the Poison Control hotline, which in turn directed her to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The DEP sent a specialist to Bridges' house to test for mercury contamination. The specialist found mercury levels in the bedroom in excess of six times the state's "safe" level for mercury contamination of 300 billionths of a gram per cubic meter. The DEP specialist recommended that Bridges call an environmental cleanup firm, which reportedly gave her a "low-ball" estimate of US$2,000 to clean up the room. The room then was sealed off with plastic and Bridges began "gathering finances" to pay for the US$2,000 cleaning. Reportedly, her insurance company wouldn't cover the cleanup costs because mercury is a pollutant.

Given that the replacement of incandescent bulbs with CFLs in the average U.S. household is touted as saving as much as US$180 annually in energy costs -- and assuming that Bridges doesn't break any more CFLs -- it will take her more than 11 years to recoup the cleanup costs in the form of energy savings.

The potentially hazardous CFL is being pushed by companies such as Wal-Mart, which wants to sell 100 million CFLs at five times the cost of incandescent bulbs during 2007 ...
In my life I've probably broken 30 regular light bulbs. If they'd been CFLs that would come to .... $60,000 in cleanup fees. LEDs less, CFSs ... forget it.

Update: I had 6oo,000. Bad math. A comment corrected me!

Update June 6, 2007: A commenter pointed to this Energy Star Canada document. It's deeply "schizophrenic" in the non-medical sense of term. On the one hand it says:
  • These are perfectly safe for your baby's bedroom. Don't worry about them. You could break one a day for the rest of your days and not have a problem.
  • They must be disposed of as toxic waste. Vacuum up carefully and then drop your vacuum off at the toxic waste site ...
I'm joking about the vacuum. Sorry, this still doesn't make sense. Either the mercury content is harmless and they're not toxic waste, or they're toxic waste. (My bet is they're not really toxic waste, but I'm not buying 'em until we get the regulators to be internally consistent.)

Health care is cheap

Fifteen years ago, John H, my "partner" (boss, really, but a very good one) in my career as a country doc scoffed at my fears of the cost of health care. John argued that it was good value for the dollar, and that we should be prepared (as a nation) to pay quite a bit of our GNP towards health improvements.

Now the world of economics is catching up with John:
Whose life is worth more, a drug dealer's or a prostitute's? - By Tim Harford - Slate Magazine

...Kevin Murphy of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business has calculated the value of health improvements in the United States since 1970.

They're vast—about $10 trillion in today's money. Looking further back, if you had to choose between the material progress of the 20th century and the improvements in health, it would be a tossup. The health gains are as valuable as everything else put together. Encouragingly, health in most developing countries has improved faster than in rich ones, suggesting that global inequality is falling...
The fundamental debates, of course, are about what a nation owes all of its citizens, regardless of their wealth, ability, and good looks. That debate is bigger than mere health care or the cost of health care.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The NYT wins one: Melanine use is staggering

The NYT delivers. Full credit to the reporting team. Emphases mine.
Filler in Animal Feed Is Open Secret in China - New York Times
David Barboza reported from Zhangqiu and Alexei Barrionuevo reported from Chicago. Rujun Shen also contributed reporting from Zhangqiu.
April 30, 2007

ZHANGQIU, China, April 28 — As American food safety regulators head to China to investigate how a chemical made from coal found its way into pet food that killed dogs and cats in the United States, workers in this heavily polluted northern city openly admit that the substance is routinely added to animal feed as a fake protein.

For years, producers of animal feed all over China have secretly supplemented their feed with the substance, called melamine, a cheap additive that looks like protein in tests, even though it does not provide any nutritional benefits, according to melamine scrap traders and agricultural workers here.

“Many companies buy melamine scrap to make animal feed, such as fish feed,” said Ji Denghui, general manager of the Fujian Sanming Dinghui Chemical Company, which sells melamine. “I don’t know if there’s a regulation on it. Probably not. No law or regulation says ‘don’t do it,’ so everyone’s doing it. The laws in China are like that, aren’t they? If there’s no accident, there won’t be any regulation.”

Melamine is at the center of a recall of 60 million packages of pet food, after the chemical was found in wheat gluten linked this month to the deaths of at least 16 pets and the illness of possibly thousands of pets in the United States.

No one knows exactly how melamine (which is not believed to be particularly toxic) became so fatal in pet food, but its presence in any form of American food is illegal...

...Now, with evidence mounting that the tainted wheat gluten came from China, American regulators have been granted permission to visit the region to conduct inspections of food treatment facilities.

... what is clear from visiting this region of northeast China is that for years melamine has been quietly mixed into Chinese animal feed and then sold to unsuspecting farmers as protein-rich pig, poultry and fish feed.

Many animal feed operators here advertise on the Internet, seeking to purchase melamine scrap. The Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Company, one of the companies that American regulators named as having shipped melamine-tainted wheat gluten to the United States, had posted such a notice on the Internet last March.

Here at the Shandong Mingshui Great Chemical Group factory, huge boiler vats are turning coal into melamine, which is then used to create plastics and fertilizer.

But the leftover melamine scrap, golf ball-size chunks of white rock, is sometimes being sold to local agricultural entrepreneurs, who say they mix a powdered form of the scrap into animal feed to deceive those who raise animals into thinking they are buying feed that is high in protein.

“It just saves money if you add melamine scrap,” said the manager of an animal feed factory here.

Last Friday here in Zhangqiu, a fast-growing industrial city southeast of Beijing, two animal feed producers explained in great detail how they purchase low-grade wheat, corn, soybean or other proteins and then mix in small portions of nitrogen-rich melamine scrap, whose chemical properties help the feed register an inflated protein level.

Melamine is the new scam of choice, they say, because urea — another nitrogen-rich chemical — is illegal for use in pig and poultry feed and can be easily detected in China as well as in the United States.

“People use melamine scrap to boost nitrogen levels for the tests,” said the manager of the animal feed factory. “If you add it in small quantities, it won’t hurt the animals.”

The manager, who works at a small animal feed operation here that consists of a handful of storage and mixing areas, said he has mixed melamine scrap into animal feed for years.

He said he was not currently using melamine. But he then pulled out a plastic bag containing what he said was melamine powder and said he could dye it any color to match the right feed stock.

He said that melamine used in pet food would probably not be harmful. “Pets are not like pigs or chickens,” he said casually, explaining that they can afford to eat less protein. “They don’t need to grow fast.”

“It’s true you can make a lot more profit by putting melamine in,” said another animal feed seller here in Zhangqiu. “Melamine will cost you about $1.20 for each protein count per ton whereas real protein costs you about $6, so you can see the difference.”

... Feed producers who use melamine here say the tainted feed is often shipped to feed mills in the Yangtze River Delta, near Shanghai, or down to Guangdong Province, near Hong Kong. They also said they knew that some melamine-laced feed had been exported to other parts of Asia, including South Korea, North Korea, Indonesia and Thailand.

Evidence is mounting that Chinese protein exports have been tainted with melamine and that its use in agricultural regions like this one is widespread. But the government has issued no recall of any food or feed product here in China.

Indeed, few people outside the agriculture business know about the use of melamine scrap. The Chinese news media — which is strictly censored — has not reported much about the country’s ties to the pet food recall in the United States. And few in agriculture here do not see any harm in using melamine in small doses; they simply see it as cheating a little on protein, not harming animals or pets.

As for the sale of melamine scrap, it is increasingly popular as a fake ingredient in feed, traders and workers here say.

At the Hebei Haixing Insect Net Factory in nearby Hebei Province, which makes animal feed, a manager named Guo Qingyin said: “In the past melamine scrap was free, but the price has been going up in the past few years. Consumption of melamine scrap is probably bigger than that of urea in the animal feed industry now.”

And so melamine producers like the ones here in Zhangqiu are busy.

A man named Jing, who works in the sales department at the Shandong Mingshui Great Chemical Group factory here, said on Friday that prices have been rising, but he said that he had no idea how the company’s melamine scrap is used.

“We have an auction for melamine scrap every three months,” he said. “I haven’t heard of it being added to animal feed. It’s not for animal feed.”
A price rise from 0 to 20% of the cost of real protein suggests a staggering trade in melanine. We need a heck of an overhaul in our food regulation; of course to do that we have to first get Cheney and Bush to retire ...

Poisoned pets: it's much worse than you think

It just keeps getting worse and worse. emphases mine.
The Blog | David Goldstein: Melamine-Spiking "Widespread" In China; Human Food Broadly Contaminated | The Huffington Post

... Tomorrow the New York Times will report from China, detailing how nitrogen-rich melamine scrap, produced from coal, is routinely ground into powder and mixed into low-grade wheat, corn, soybean or other proteins to inflate the protein analysis of animal feed:
The melamine powder has been dubbed "fake protein" and is used to deceive those who raise animals into thinking they are buying feed that provides higher nutrition value.

"It just saves money," says a manager at an animal feed factory here. "Melamine scrap is added to animal feed to boost the protein level."

The practice is widespread in China. For years animal feed sellers have been able to cheat buyers by blending the powder into feed with little regulatory supervision, according to interviews with melamine scrap traders and agricultural workers here.

[...] Many animal feed operators advertise on the Internet seeking to purchase melamine scrap. And melamine scrap producers and traders said in recent interviews that they often sell to animal feed makers.

"Many companies buy melamine scrap to make animal feed, such as fish feed," says Ji Denghui, general manager of the Fujian Sanming Dinghui Chemical Company. "I don't know if there's a regulation on it. Probably not. No law or regulation says 'don't do it,' so everyone's doing it. The laws in China are like that, aren't they? If there's no accident, there won't be any regulation."
"The practice is widespread in China," the Times reports, and has been going on "for years." And it is not just wheat, corn, rice and soybean proteins that should be suspect, but the animals who feed on it, including all imported Chinese pork, poultry, farm-raised fish, and their various by-products. Despite FDA and USDA efforts to allay concerns about consuming melamine-tainted meat, the health effects are unstudied, and the permissible level is zero. If China could impose a three-year (and counting) ban on the import of U.S. beef after a single incident of Mad Cow disease, then surely the U.S. would be justified in imposing a ban on Chinese vegetable protein and livestock products due to such a prevalent, industrywide contamination.

And if in the coming weeks this ban is finally imposed, the question we must ask government regulators is... why so late? Why did they wait until our children licked the last remaining drop of bacon fat off their fingers before alerting the public to the potential health risk, however low? It seems inconceivable that the regulators tasked with overseeing the safety and purity of our nation's food supply did not at least imagine the potential scope of this crisis back in early March when they first learned that Chinese wheat gluten was poisoning dogs and cats. Indeed, the very fact that they were so quick to focus in on melamine as the adulterating agent suggests they at least suspected what they were facing.

It may make for entertaining TV, but popular shows like CSI get forensic toxicology exactly backwards. You don't run a substance through a mass spectrometer and 30 seconds later get a complete readout of its chemical makeup. Rather, you painstakingly look for specific chemicals or groups of chemicals one at a time, until you find the offending toxin. Once you get beyond the basic "tox screen," forensics is as much art as science -- investigators use evidence and intuition to narrow the search to those compounds that are most likely to be the culprit.

And so it begs the question as to why -- in the face of an apparent wheat gluten contamination that reportedly killed nine out of twenty dogs and cats in Menu Foods' quarterly taste test -- would FDA scientists test for melamine, a chemical widely believed to be nontoxic?

Why? Because they thought they might find it.

Lacking adequate cooperation from FDA officials one is constantly forced to speculate, but given the circumstances it is reasonable to assume that the search for melamine was prompted by the "nitrogen spiking" theory, rather than the other way around. Based on their knowledge of the evidence, Chinese agricultural practices, the globalizing food industry, and perhaps prior history, the FDA hypothesized that unscrupulous Chinese manufacturers may have intentionally adulterated low quality wheat gluten in an effort to pass it off as a high-protein, high-value product. And nothing would do the job better than melamine.

According to one synthetic organic chemist, melamine is by far the perfect candidate. It is high in nitrogen (66-percent by weight), nonvolatile (ie, it doesn't explode,) and dirt cheap. It is also -- at least according to both the scientific literature and chemical supply catalogs -- widely considered to be nontoxic. For FDA officials, the mystery never seemed to be how melamine made its way into wheat, rice and corn protein, but rather, why it was suddenly killing dogs and cats.

The technical answer may center on the unexpected interaction between melamine, cyanuric acid, and other melamine by-products, but the practical answer may be much more pedestrian. Some samples of adulterated wheat gluten reportedly tested as high as 6.6-percent melamine by weight, an off the chart concentration that was likely the accidental result of some less than thorough mixing. Had this accident never occurred -- had cats, with their sensitive renal systems, not been the canary in the coal mine of melamine toxicity -- we might never have known that our children and our pets were being slowly poisoned by Chinese capitalism.

Well, despite the FDA's best efforts, now we know.
And who has been suffocating all federal regulatory agencies since taking office in 2000? Gee, I wonder who.

This story is not going to go away. It's a good time to be an American organic food farmer.

Changing attitudes about mind and responsibility: Patricia Hearst

I was 15 when Patricia Hearst "joined" the SLA. I don't remember a lot of public sympathy in Canda for her then, I dimly recall she was thought to be another foolish youth. I don't think I paid that much attention really. When the SLA was caught Patricia Hearst, despite her wealth, went to prison.

DI recaps the story, and shows how our interpretation has changed. Today, I think, Hearst would not have been prosecuted. She would have been understood to have been a victim. In retrospect DeFreeze was an evil genius of manipulation, milder versions of this techniques are the modern basis of US torture standards.

Culture evolves. Our concept of responsibility is in transition.

Vernor Vinge likes Pratchett

Terry who? Vinge is of my era, but I've just read he likes Pratchett quite a bit. Never heard of the guy, but I suppose that's not surprising[1]. I'll have to take a look at... The Discworld Series

[1] It's a shame all that "Jane likes B and C, John likes B, therefore John likes C" stuff never worked out very well..

Update 11/1/2009: more than 33 books later ...

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Atlantic, finally, blogging

The Atlantic, back from the dead thanks to years of Bush, has added blogs. Fallows has a new home. (Shame on losing the quaint first posts in his "test" blog.)

There are blogs for Sullivan, Fallows, Douthat and Yeglesias so far.

Update: There's something funny with bloglines and this feed. The subscription seems right, but no postes appear. I can't say whether the bug is in the feed or in bloglines.

Mouse brain simulations. Plenty of time left.

There's no point in panicking. This is simply the way things go ...
BBC NEWS | Technology | Mouse brain simulated on computer

US researchers have simulated half a virtual mouse brain on a supercomputer.

The scientists ran a "cortical simulator" that was as big and as complex as half of a mouse brain on the BlueGene L supercomputer.

In other smaller simulations the researchers say they have seen characteristics of thought patterns observed in real mouse brains...

...The three researchers, James Frye, Rajagopal Ananthanarayanan, and Dharmendra S Modha, laid out how they went about it in a very short research note entitled "Towards Real-Time, Mouse-Scale Cortical Simulations".

Half a real mouse brain is thought to have about eight million neurons each one of which can have up to 8,000 synapses, or connections, with other nerve fibres.

Modelling such a system, the trio wrote, puts "tremendous constraints on computation, communication and memory capacity of any computing platform".

The team, from the IBM Almaden Research Lab and the University of Nevada, ran the simulation on a BlueGene L supercomputer that had 4,096 processors, each one of which used 256MB of memory.

Using this machine the researchers created half a virtual mouse brain that had 8,000 neurons that had up to 6,300 synapses.

The vast complexity of the simulation meant that it was only run for ten seconds at a speed ten times slower than real life - the equivalent of one second in a real mouse brain.

On other smaller simulations the researchers said they had seen "biologically consistent dynamical properties" emerge as nerve impulses flowed through the virtual cortex.

In these other tests the team saw the groups of neurons form spontaneously into groups. They also saw nerves in the simulated synapses firing in a ways similar to the staggered, co-ordinated patterns seen in nature.

The researchers say that although the simulation shared some similarities with a mouse's mental make-up in terms of nerves and connections it lacked the structures seen in real mice brains.

Imposing such structures and getting the simulation to do useful work might be a much more difficult task than simply setting up the plumbing.

For future tests the team aims to speed up the simulation, make it more neurobiologically faithful, add structures seen in real mouse brains and make the responses of neurons and synapses more detailed.
Really. There's nothing to fear about this. The gap between a mouse brain and a human brain is vast. It could be another four years before they have a real mouse brain, and assuming performance doubles every year and there are no real breakthroughs in applied quantum computing it might be forty to fifty years before the next stage begins ...

Friday, April 27, 2007

Time, entropy and baby universes

CV talks about manufacturing universes that vanish as an evaporating black hole....
How Did the Universe Start? | Cosmic Variance

... The baby-universe idea at least has the chance to give rise to a spontaneous violation of time-reversal symmetry and explain the arrow of time. If we start with empty space an evolve it forward, baby universes can (hypothetically) be born; but the same is true if we run it backwards. The increase of entropy doesn’t arise from a fine-tuning at one end of the universe’s history, it’s a natural consequence of the ability of the universe to always increase its entropy. We’re a long way from completely understanding such a picture; ultimately we’ll have to be talking about a Hilbert space of wavefunctions that involve an infinite number of disconnected components of spacetime, which has always been a tricky problem. But the increase of entropy is a fact of life, right here in front of our noses, that is telling us something deep about the universe on the very largest scales.
Where entropy increases, there goes time. Or so it goes.

Update 4/28/07: Infinitely expanding universes birthing within infinitely expanding universes. Requirements for human observation to collapse probability waves. All interpretations of self-consistent mathematics, but way beyond bizarre. Which leads to the scary thought. Could he be right? Brrrr.

Broder - the Hindenburg of pundits

Paul Begala goes to town on David Broder. Mercifully I can mostly ignore Broder -- I've not read his column for many years. Alas, DeLong and others periodically expose me to Broder's choice gassings. Few people combine the role of toady, sycophant and pompous fool so perfectly as Broder. Begala cannot ignore Broder, and it's driven him to a very fine and artistic rant. I loved the phrase "Hindenburg of pundits", but he really hits hard on one of Broder's classic comments:
The Blog | Paul Begala: David Broder Is a Gasbag | The Huffington Post

...And so Mr. Broder lashes out at Reid, smearing and sneering at the man he calls 'the leading light of Searchlight, Nev.'

Mr. Broder has moved with ease from the elite comfort of the University of Chicago to the smug confines of Arlington, Virginia. And so he looks down at a man who rose from among the hard-rock miners and hard-luck hookers of Searchlight, Nevada to be the most consequential senator of his time. While David Broder was thinking great thoughts at his elite university, Harry Reid was working his way through Utah State. While David Broder was pontificating, Harry Reid was working his way through law school as a cop on Capitol Hill....
Wicked and justly deserved. I thank the miracle that brought Reid to the senate leadership every day.

A decline of the American general staff

Of all America's military leadership, only one spoke up. Shinseki may yet be the only military leader to emerge with honor from our multifaceted failure. Cheney/Bush, of course, kneecapped him.

Now others with much more to lose are also speaking. Phillip Carter highlights Lt. Col Paul Yingling, deputy commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, on the crisis in American generalship. Writing in the Armed Forces Journal Yingling accuses his leaders of lacking courage. That doesn't require the same courage as falling on a grenade, but many a soldier might prefer a battle wound to abandoning their military career.

I haven't read the full article, but the excerpt makes clear where the cowardice lay. Men who knew better went along with Cheney and Bush to preserve their power and careers. They deserve to be publicly shamed for that act of cowardice.

Tenet speaks: the interesting parts

George Tenet has written a book that admits his errors but fingers Cheney as the fount of evil. He says, like every other former insider, that Bush and Cheney never gave any serious thought to anything but invading Iraq. I believe that, but that's not the interesting part of NYT summary of the book. There are only 4 statements in the article that are interesting:
Ex-C.I.A. Chief, in Book, Assails Cheney on Iraq - New York Times

...Mr. Tenet takes blame for the flawed 2002 National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq’s weapons programs, calling the episode “one of the lowest moments of my seven-year tenure.” He expresses regret that the document was not more nuanced, but says there was no doubt in his mind at the time that Saddam Hussein possessed unconventional weapons. “In retrospect, we got it wrong partly because the truth was so implausible,” he writes.

... He also expresses skepticism about whether the increase in troops in Iraq will prove successful. “It may have worked more than three years ago,” he wrote. “My fear is that sectarian violence in Iraq has taken on a life of its own and that U.S. forces are becoming more and more irrelevant to the management of that violence.”...

... The book recounts C.I.A. efforts to fight Al Qaeda in the years before the Sept. 11 attacks, and Mr. Tenet’s early warnings about Osama bin Laden. He contends that the urgent appeals of the C.I.A. on terrorism received a lukewarm reception at the Bush White House through most of 2001...

...Mr. Tenet expresses puzzlement that, since 2001, Al Qaeda has not sent “suicide bombers to cause chaos in a half-dozen American shopping malls on any given day.”...
I'll comment on each interesting part. For the record, I think we forget the powerful influence Tony Blair had on many democrats in the fall of 2001. Even then we didn't trust Bush at all, but Blair we trusted. We weighed his opinions very seriously and we were wrong to do so.
  1. To the best of my knowledge the "truth" is that the UN inspections worked, but Saddam kept the story of WMDs alive to keep Iran at bay. It's possible he also thought he had more capability to resurrect WMDs than he had at that point. Seems plausible only in retrospect.

  2. He's casting his vote for a deadline to leave Iraq.

  3. Tenet is leveling a very serious charge at Bush -- that he and his team neglected warnings of an imminent threat, presumably because they were coming out of an administration they despised. He's not the first to say this. Arguably, this is among the greatest of the many sins of Bush/Cheney, and like all their sins it was rooted partly in arrogance and hatred.

  4. Tenet is not the only one to wonder what the heck happened to al Qaeda in America.

Edwards on Iraq: Fight Bush, set the deadline

If I was given control of the US government, I don't know that I'd set a deadline to withdraw from Iraq. I do know I'd fire Bush, Cheney, whatshername, all their allies and most of their appointees. Then I might learn something that would help me personally decide what's the least horrible option.

As long as Cheney/Bush and their flock of raging incompetents is in power, however, the "set a deadline" movement is justifiable. John Edwards has firmly placed himself in that camp:
The Question I Wasn't Asked / John Edwards '08 Blog

... What should we be doing — right now — to end the war in Iraq?

As you've heard, the Senate has followed the House and passed a bill to fund our troops with a timeline to bring them home and end the conflict. Both houses of Congress have now passed funding bills that reflect the will of the American people that we must end the war in Iraq.

The president has said he will veto this legislation, which will defy the American people and deny our troops the funding they need. When that happens, the president will be the one blocking support for our troops, not Congress.

With so much at stake, Congress must stand firm.

If Bush vetoes the funding for our troops, Congress must send the same bill back to the president -- and they should do this again and again--as many times as it takes for Bush to understand that the American people are right and the war must be brought to an end.

In the next few days, the will of Congress will be severely tested. Bush will be doing everything in his considerable power to convince the nation that Congress is responsible for his reckless decision not to fund the troops. Plenty of people in Washington will say the political risks are just too great and Democrats in Congress should just back down.

If there ever was a time to replace political calculation with political courage, that time is now. If Congress shows courage, they can end this war.

But where will they find that courage in the face of Karl Rove's media machine? They'll find it if all of us speak up as loudly as we can in the next few crucial days and demand that our representatives do what is right. Political courage has always been found in the voice of the people - and our voice is needed today...
I pray John Edwards knows the American people well. I don't see that kind of energy and engagement in the people around me ...

Beg the BBC: Set 'In Our Time' Free!

We need to write the BBC and demand they liberate In Our Time. Let me explain why.

As I drove to work I started to compose a post in praise of an In Our Time episode on Anesthesia. I was going to connect it to a post I'd written on paleolithic suffering, the poignant prayers of 19th century futurists, and Vonnegut's Wheel of Samsara, with an oblique reference to poverty. I'd comment on how Bragg's guests connected the changing social perception of the benefits of pain and suffering to the availability of other options, and confess how whimpy I feel when reading my son stories about extraordinary survivors.

A cross-reference to my tech ravings would mention my whizzy car stereo that plays IOT MP3s and directions on how to capture the audio stream to an MP3 ...

That's when it hit me. Reality.

Only a complete geek loon like me is going to turn a useless streamed IOT program (it's not background music) into a useful MP3 file.

It's time to rebel.

The BBC has been running its experiment of "7 day downloads" for years now. The experiment must end. We need to convince BBC Radio Four to liberate its shelf-ware. Do it now! Send the BBC Radio Four some feedback. When you've sent your feedback in, pass on the feedback link or a link to this blog. Let the BBC feel your pain.

Here's what I wrote ... (edited to improve it, I admit)
I urge you to declare your MP3 download experiment a smashing success and make your archives available as MP3 files for downloading.

Put an audio ad at the beginning and end of each programme. Ask Apple to sell them for $1.00 a tune. Whatever, just do it.

Streaming simply doesn't work. I'm often blogging on excellent IOT programs, but it's a bit pointless since nobody is going to listen to them on their computer. In an era in which car stereos increasingly work with MP3/AAC CDs and iPods (mine works with any USB drive) it's the car radio where IOT will be listened to.

I beg you, stop dangling these unreachable sweets in front of your suffering public and liberate IOT.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The cat is undead until you open the box ...

A week or so ago I commented on recent research that both affirmed instantaneous non-local correlation of entangled quantum entities and attacked "realism". I couldn't however, really tell from the article what was meant by "realism".

This summary from a physics journal fills the gap. "Realism" is a way of saying that the "way of things" is not altered by the act of our observing them. The research seems to affirm an interpretation of quantum mechanics that gives special power to the act of perceiving, namely the power to collapse a wave function .... (emphases mine)
Quantum physics says goodbye to reality (April 2007) - News - PhysicsWeb

... Some 40 years ago the physicist John Bell predicted that many hidden-variables theories would be ruled out if a certain experimental inequality were violated – known as "Bell's inequality". In his thought experiment, a source fires entangled pairs of linearly-polarized photons in opposite directions towards two polarizers, which can be changed in orientation. Quantum mechanics says that there should be a high correlation between results at the polarizers because the photons instantaneously "decide" together which polarization to assume at the moment of measurement, even though they are separated in space. Hidden variables, however, says that such instantaneous decisions are not necessary, because the same strong correlation could be achieved if the photons were somehow informed of the orientation of the polarizers beforehand. [jf: In the transactional interpetation the "informing" can occur by meaning-free "messages" that travel back in time.]

Bell's trick, therefore, was to decide how to orient the polarizers only after the photons have left the source. If hidden variables did exist, they would be unable to know the orientation, and so the results would only be correlated half of the time. On the other hand, if quantum mechanics was right, the results would be much more correlated – in other words, Bell's inequality would be violated.

Many realizations of the thought experiment have indeed verified the violation of Bell's inequality. These have ruled out all hidden-variables theories based on joint assumptions of realism ... [reality exists when we are not observing it].... and locality ... [separated events cannot influence one another instantaneously]. But a violation of Bell's inequality does not tell specifically which assumption – realism, locality or both – is discordant with quantum mechanics.

Markus Aspelmeyer, Anton Zeilinger and colleagues from the University of Vienna, however, have now shown that realism is more [?] of a problem than locality in the quantum world. They devised an experiment that violates a different inequality proposed by physicist Anthony Leggett in 2003 that relies only on realism, and relaxes the reliance on locality. To do this, rather than taking measurements along just one plane of polarization, the Austrian team took measurements in additional, perpendicular planes to check for elliptical polarization.

They found that, just as in the realizations of Bell's thought experiment, Leggett's inequality is violated – thus stressing the quantum-mechanical assertion that reality does not exist when we're not observing it. "Our study shows that 'just' giving up the concept of locality would not be enough to obtain a more complete description of quantum mechanics," Aspelmeyer told Physics Web. "You would also have to give up certain intuitive features of realism."

This article is the best so far, but there were a few awkward phrases. I've tried to edit it minimally to clarify.

My current (weak) understanding is that locality fell a while ago. There was still hope of preserving realism, but now realism is at least partly gone. We're well into the realm of Schrodinger's "cat" being both alive and dead until an "observer" inspects the cat. I think this result may favor the "decoherence" interpretation of QM, and goes against the "transactional" interpretation favored by (among others) Gribbin.

Alternatively, there's always the reassuring possibility that mathematics is a less trustworthy guide to reality than commonly thought...

Update 5/26/2007
: It turns out that in 2004 I posted on a fascinating discussion about how reality can be emergently structured that seems to fit very well with this experiment. I need to find more along the lines of that 2004 post!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

CV is doing a tutorial on gravitational waves

Straight-up General Relativity is so refreshing after getting lost in the Escherian landscape of Quantum Mechanics. CV is doing a lovely tutorial on Gravitational Waves, which, for extra credit, includes a readable example of a gauge artifact:
The difficult childhood of gravitational waves | Cosmic Variance:

...It might sounds strange that, given an equation describing their existence, gravitational-waves could nonetheless be questioned by large numbers of physicists. However, general relativity can be tricky, and it’s not always straightforward to understand what it’s trying to tell us. In this particular case, the question was whether or not gravitational waves were a gauge artifact. It can sometimes get confusing as to whether an effect is truly physical, or is just a byproduct of the coordinate system one has chosen. For example, look at the latitute/longitude coordinate system on the Earth. This system gets weird at the poles, where suddenly the longitude is no longer well defined (there are an infinite number of valid longitudinal coordinates for the same point). The North and South poles are somehow special, and if all you had were the coordinates, you might be afraid to take a walk there. Who knows what lurks at the singularities?! Needless to say, the problem is with the coordinates, and not with the poles themselves...
I'm looking forward with bated breath to the next installment ...

Microsoft morphs into General Motors: my OneCare account termination story

In the early 1990s I couldn't understand why an acquaintance was delighted by Microsoft's ascendancy over IBM. IBM had been floundering for so long they seemed pathetically charming, whereas Microsoft was Darth Vader and Sauron united -- a blight on the world of personal computing and a ruthless destroyer of every better option.

That was then. Now I still fear Microsoft will resurrect itself, but Gen Y thinks of them as harmless incompetents. My latest experience is pushing me closer to the Gen Y camp. Here's what happened when I tried to kill my Windows Live OneCare account (866-663-2273, but listen for the option number, they permute it ..):
Gordon's Tech: Microsoft OneCare dies: XP hangs by a thread

.... Update 4/21/07: It's one thing to uninstall OneCare, another to kill the OneCare account. The account auto-renews forever. You can't change this online, you have to phone Microsoft to cancel. I tried this tonight. The phone rang a bit, then came a voice .. "Microsoft is closed". Click...

Update 4/22/07: OneCare support has the world's most obnoxious hold music. They alternative up-tempo elevator music with two repetitive sales pitches spoken in a cheerfully grating tone. I got to listen to a lot of that today. After a half-hour I went to lunch, when I returned the line had gone dead. So the wait time was probably 40 minutes. I'll try again tomorrow. ...

Update 4/24/07: Waited 30 minutes on hold. Called back and pushed 9,9,9. Got a support-referral person. They suggested I try option 2 for tech support. Got someone there. They said hours for the account services are 5am-10pm M-F PST and 5am-5pm PST Sat/Sun. They also suggested calling Microsoft's Money-Back-Guarantee line at 888-673-8624. They put through to another tech support number. They said I can't stop the account renewal process without support giving me an "ASIS" number. They transferred me to fee-based technical support where I listened to hold music. Then I gave up...

Update 4/25/07: I ignore the "get an ASIS number first" advice and and call the billing number again at 8:45am PT. Got through immediately -- but that was a false alarm. I'd hit option 3 twice, and errant key presses bring up a human router. She laughs maniacally when I mention OneCare and sends me back to the accounts line. I decide to wait 10 minutes. After seven minutes of the insanely irritating hold music and repetitive marketing patter I decide Microsoft owes me a copy of Macintosh Office 2007 and I contemplate piratical acts. At minute eight the phone picks up. I'm asked why I want to dump OneCare. "Because it has caused far more damage to my system than any virus I'm likely to see". There are no further questions, and to my disgruntled surprise I get a prorated credit of $32. End of story, except, of course, for a post to Gordon's Notes.
Once upon a time General Motors bestrode the American economy, an unassailable behemoth. It took them decades to fall, but by the 1960s they'd been rotted by easy money. Toyota entered.

Microsoft went from nothing to the greatest corporation in world history in about 15 years. If the trend continues they'll collapse even faster, though their massive cash flows will keep them standing no matter how bad they smell.

Gen Y, I gather, fears Google ...

Update 7/8/07: I've since been thinking of Microsoft as a monstrous brain-eating zombie, though both Photosynth and Windows Live Writer suggest the Zombie can still keep some brains on the shelf. It's my wife, however, who pointed out that American under Bush has followed the same progression as Microsoft and General Motors. Very powerful, very dangerous, but no longer meaningful -- simply a big slowly dying Zombie.

Also, I posted an aside about "Microsoft on crack" in August of 2006, I think that was after the Windows Live Cam debacle.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Life in Guantanamo

Backwards City: Guantanamo links to two Guardian articles from a book by a British lawyer about his experiences in the camp. It's ugly and weird. Only Bush's America could produce a cross between a concentration camp and Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

The Tralfamadorians and the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics

I tried, and I wasn't able to find a genuine Google hit on the search Tralfamadorians quantum mechanics transactional interpretation [1]. Shame, since Vonnegut seemed to have this theory in mind ...
Kurt Vonnegut | Obituary -

... “Slaughterhouse-Five”, published in 1969 against the backdrop of racial unrest and the Vietnam war, propelled him from science-fiction writer (a label he abhorred) to literary icon. The novel caught the brooding, anti-establishment mood of the times and became an instant bestseller. Its signature hook, “So it goes”, which followed every death, was adopted as a mantra by opponents of the war.

The main character, Billy Pilgrim, is kidnapped by small green aliens called Tralfamadorians, who teach him the true nature of time: that all moments in the past, present and future exist always, and that death is just an unpleasant moment, neither an end nor a beginning. When Billy is shot bringing this message to the world, he does not mind. He knew he would die like this; he has seen it all before. “Farewell, hello, farewell, hello” are his last words...

The Tralfamadorian position, I've read, is taken seriously (or at least semi-seriously) by some physicists. Many would say the 'transactional interpretation' of QM is consistent with a severely predestined universe, so that indeed all moments would aways exist, from start to end, and never be changeable in the slightest [2]. I imagine a vast celestial record player that could move back and forth, playing music backwards and forwards ...

Anyway, it's been a long time since I read Slaughterhouse-five, and now that I'm ancient it's probably time to take a break from Quantum Mechanics and reread it ...

[1] One interesting hit, however, led to me subscribe to Backwards City ...
[2] Gribbin 1994: "At first sight, it might seem as if everything is fixed by these communications between the past and the future.... we are back with the image of a frozen universe ... in which neither time nor space has any meaning, and everything that ever was, or ever will be, just is.". Gribbin tries to wriggle out of this interpretation - unconvincingly.

Update: 15 things Vonnegut said well

Update 5/13/07: found a quote to affirm my recollection of the pre-deterministic aspects of the transactional interpretation.

Update 5/21/07: I continue to return to the theme of fate, though I don't want to belabor it with repeated posts. I'll sneak in some updates instead ...
  • Newtonian physics implied that if one knew the position and velocity of every particle in existence, then one would know all events. Oddly enough, I think I first read of this in a 1930s era science fiction novel. I assume this was a discussion topic for philosophers during the long span of Newtonian physics.

  • OneThe standard interpretation time slicing inherent in general special relativity is that there exists for each event a perspective from which the event is occurring in the past. Simple induction would then say all events are thus rigidly pre-determined. Of course we know special relativity is incomplete, so perhaps this is of academic interest. [jf 6/11/07: I wrote "general relativity" originally, but the meme comes from special relativity. For all I know general relativity lessens this rigidity. Einstein, at one point in his life, apparently firmly believed that all events, from the beginning to the end of time, were absolutely fixed, which gives a different spin to his famous comments about God and dice. To Einstein not only did God not play dice with the universe, the universe didn't "play" at all -- it simply was. Given the time that Vonnegut was writing, he was probably presenting a version of predestination derived from special relativity.]

  • The predetermination qualities of the transactional interpretation of QM arise from the future-past interactions (rather similar to time slicing in general relativity), but one could interpret non-locality (correlation of non-connected states) as arising not from "action at a distance" but merely as a side-effect of predetermination.
Update 6/11/07: There are now about a dozen hits on the this search string, but all but two (Brad DeLong and this original) appear to be from splogs (spam blogs) echoing Brad. This, of course, brings to mind the facetious "theory of 600". My interpretation of this recent net meme is that that there are really only 600 people in the world, and that the other 6.6 billion alleged individuals are reflections, echoes, and aspects. This bit of self-satire seems have some truth in the world of blogs -- for each true blog there are at least a dozen false echoes. (Sometime in the past six months I read an excellent science fiction short story that may have been the basis for this meme, but I can't recall the author. I need one of those "life record" things we're being promised.)

Of course, if splogs echo Brad rather than, say, David Broder, does that make them not entirely evil?

On the matter of pre-determination, the most obvious objection is how does a story that we perceive as approximately "internally consistent" manage to spontaneously manifest itself all at once? This pushes the anthropic principle to an extreme of extremes (in infinite time an infinite number of chance assemblies produce one that seems to be self-consistent). If one doesn't buy the "universe as a tv show" vision then one also rejects both special relativity and the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics. Special relativity is known to be an incomplete approximation, so that's not too hard to reject. Transactional QM seems to be recently falling to the "decoherence" model in which reality is constructed and deconstructed dynamically*, so we may be back to a universe that's not pre-determined, but at the price of being in a universe in which reality itself is emergent, ephemeral and perhaps mutable*.

* For the benefit of those who don't read my stuff routinely, I'm not a physicist and I don't even personally know any theoretical physicists. I'm merely channeling the more respectable books written about the philosophical interpretations of modern physics.

Update 7/24/07: Newsweek makes the same connection. Do you suppose they got it from here ...?

Asthma rise and the hygiene hypothesis: evidence from Helicobacter

A bit more support for the hygiene hypothesis...
Resistance: Bacterium Linked to Ulcers May Lower Risk of Asthma - New York Times:

...According to the article, which appears in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, H. pylori acquisition in industrialized countries has been diminishing with each succeeding generation for at least the past 60 years.

“Helicobacter was once ubiquitous,” said Dr. Martin J. Blaser, a co-author of the article and the chairman of the department of medicine at New York University. “We provide evidence that there is a relationship between the decrease in helicobacter prevalence and the increase in childhood asthma.”

The researchers noted that their observations were consistent with the “hygiene hypothesis,” which suggests that childhood infections, particularly infections of the gut, help diminish or prevent allergies and asthma.
Asthma, peanut allergies, atopic eczema ... there's a lot of that around. Getting a dog might help. That reminds me, whatever happened to studies suggesting intestinal worm infections help prevent and even treat ulcerative colitis?

Calvinist theology: from Garrison Keillor

Much has been made of Bush's neo-Calvinism, but this summary of Calvinist doctrine is new to me...
The chosen president | Garrison Keilor

...Calvinism, as all of you Calvinists know, is based on five points of doctrine, which spell out the word 'TULIP' -- total depravity (everybody is sinful), unconditional election (God chooses who'll be saved, it's not up to you), limited atonement (Jesus didn't die for everybody, just for the chosen), irresistible grace (if God chooses you, you're saved, you can't resist) and perseverance of the saints (once saved, always saved, no matter what you do).
I didn't know about the L and the P. What a merciless, cruel faith. That's a God to fear ...

Myelin disorders underlie schizophrenia?

White Matter Matters in Schizophrenia: Scientific American

Scientists have suspected for more than two decades that schizophrenia is linked to defects in the brain's white matter. They could not tell, however, whether changes in the information-transmitting region of the brain detected by brain scans or autopsies were the cause or the symptoms of the illness.

A new study not only clarifies the association but also links it to genes previously tied to the debilitating mental disorder and chemical changes believed to occur in the schizophrenic brain. "[The report] provides evidence that alterations in myelin [the lipid layers that sheath and insulate nerve fibers and are the main constituent of white matter] can cause defects in neurons and the central nervous system in general that are related to neuropsychiatric disease," says the study's senior author Gabriel Corfas, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School's Children's Hospital Boston.

Corfas's team studied mice in which they blocked the erbB4 receptor, in oligodendrocytes, which make up the myelin sheath over a neuron's communication hub. The erbB4 receptors receive a growth factor called neuregulin 1, which is necessary for proper brain development. Genes expressed in oligodendrocytes—such as the one that codes for neuregulin 1—have previously been linked to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder....

...Corfas says that the new findings indicate that screening children with noticeable cognitive and social defects for increased white matter or changes in its organization could lead to earlier diagnosis of schizophrenia. In addition, he says the results indicate that therapies designed to treat other white matter disorders such as multiple sclerosis could be useful in treating schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric disorders.
Since there are animal models for schizophrenia I'm sure the researchers have already tested drugs developed to enhance myelin production and preservation. Those papers should be out shortly ...

Now aiming SETI dishes at Gliese 581

How do you pronounce Gliese anyway? We need a better name than Gliese 581 for this large rocky planet in a "temperate" orbit around a smaller, colder, Sun:
BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | New 'super-Earth' found in space

... The Gliese 581 super-Earth is in what scientists call the 'Goldilocks Zone' where temperatures 'are just right' for life to have a chance to exist.

Commenting on the discovery, Alison Boyle, the curator of astronomy at London's Science Museum, said: 'Of all the planets we've found around other stars, this is the one that looks as though it might have the right ingredients for life.

'It's 20 light-years away and so we won't be going there anytime soon, but with new kinds of propulsion technology that could change in the future. And obviously we'll be training some powerful telescopes on it to see what we can see,' ...
Twenty light years? Might as well be next door. I trust the radio dishes will try to sneak a listen. It's unlikely that we'll pick up any television, but it never hurts to listen :-).

I wonder how old the sun of Gliese 581 is.... I'll pronounce it Gleesee for now ...

Update: Much more information here ... I thought I was being facetious about the SETI dish. Emphases mine. Note the star is Gliese 581, the planet, for now, is Gliese 581c.

... The star at the centre - Gliese 581 - is small and dim, only about a third the size of our Sun and about 50 times cooler.

The two other planets are huge, Neptune-sized worlds called Gliese 581b and d (there is no "a", to avoid confusion with the star itself).

The Earth-like planet orbits its sun at a distance of only six million miles or so (our Sun is 93 million miles away), traveling so fast that its "year" only lasts 13 of our days...

... Just because Gliese 581c is habitable does not mean that it is inhabited, but we do know its sun is an ancient star - in fact, it is one of the oldest stars in the galaxy, and extremely stable. If there is life, it has had many billions of years to evolve.

This makes this planet a prime target in the search for life. According to Seth Shostak, of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute in California, the Gliese system is now a prime target for a radio search. 'We had actually looked at this system before but only for a few minutes. We heard nothing, but now we must look again.'

By 2020 at least one space telescope should be in orbit, with the capability of detecting signs of life on planets orbiting nearby stars. If oxygen or methane (tell-tale biological gases) are found in Gliese 581c's atmosphere, this would be good circumstantial evidence for life.

... The real importance is not so much the discovery of this planet itself, but the fact that it shows that Earth-like planets are probably extremely common in the Universe.

There are 200 billion stars in our galaxy alone and many astronomers believe most of these stars have planets.

The fact that almost as soon as we have built a telescope capable of detecting small, earth-like worlds, one turns up right on our cosmic doorstep, shows that statistically, there are probably billions of earths out there.

... Interestingly, Gliese 581c is so close to the Earth that if its putative inhabitants only had our level of technology, they could - just about - pick up some of our radio signals, such as the most powerful military transmitters. Quite what would happen if we for our part did receive a signal is unclear...
This type of discovery further reduces the degrees of freedom in the Drake Equation, pushing the resolution of the Fermi Paradox further towards the "go no more a roaming" answer.

The SETI home page has an article on M Class suns, which I think includes Gliese 581.
...M-Stars, are of interest simply because there are so many of them—they are the most common star in the galaxy. They’re the cool stars that inhabit our neighborhood...

... There’s considerable interest in the question of whether M-Stars could host habitable planets. Would the planets be tidally locked with one face always directed toward the M-Star? Would flares wipe out life on the local planet? If M-Stars could host habitable planets, life may be much more widespread that we’ve previously thought...

...Dr. Peter Backus, Observing Programs Manager for SETI, concluded in a preliminary report on the M-Stars workshop, “One…aspect of M dwarfs makes them intriguing for SETI: they may be ideal hosts for advanced technological civilizations because they live an extraordinarily long time. Stars like the Sun live (i.e., they fuse hydrogen into helium) for only about 10 billion years. No M dwarf that ever formed has yet to die; no M dwarf will die for more than another 100 billion years. With such long lifetimes, there are big possibilities for these small stars.”
Update: Much more here, in a blog dedicated to this topic.

Index funds: whether you're a behaviorist or an efficent marketeer

I used to wonder if index funds would still work if everyone signed up for them. Presumably not, but there seems little risk of that.

But do index funds work if behaviorists are right and the markets are not rational? DeLong summarizes a very readable Justin Fox discussion of the topic. Supposedly index funds still work. Now about those Hedge Funds?

Masters of the Virtual World: Billion dollar hedge fund managers and the equity price premium

MR reviews the news on hedge fund manager earnings:
Marginal Revolution: Jordan fact of the day:

..."The combined earnings of the world's top 25 hedge fund managers of more than $14bn ... exceeded the national income of Jordan last year and three individuals took home more than $1bn, according to the biggest annual industry survey...

... What we see are the fearless super-rich having the resources and the liquidity to bid away the equity price premium, plus grab extra profits on the side...
MR has some important links, including to a NYT article Emphases mine:
... The earnings of these masters of the new universe — Mr. Simons took $1.7 billion — dwarfs the $54.3 million that Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd C. Blankfein earned last year, a sum that itself sparked controversy among industry watchers, including DealBook readers.

Some view these handsomely rewarded managers as this generation’s robber barons, using wealth to create wealth, often in secretive ways, and leaving little that is tangible in their wake.

“There is some question as to what the hell they are doing that is worth” that kind of money, J. Bradford DeLong, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, told the Times. “The answer is damned mysterious.”

Others look upon them as new-economy financiers, evoking the likes of John D. Rockefeller or John Pierpont Morgan as they provide liquidity to the markets and broadly diversify risks in the banking and financial systems.

“You had railroads in the 19th century, which led to the opening up of the steel industry and huge fortunes being made,” Stephen Brown, a professor at the Stern School of Business of New York University, told the Times. “Now we’re seeing changes in financial technology leading to new fortunes being made and new dynasties created.”

... Combined, the top 25 hedge fund managers last year earned $14 billion — enough to pay New York City’s 80,000 public school teachers for nearly three years, the Times said....

... Mr. Simons, for example, has some of the highest fees in the business — 5 percent of assets under management and 44 percent of profits. But the Times notes that he trounces most of his competitors year after year: In 2006, the $6 billion Medallion fund posted gross returns of 84 percent; 44 percent after fees, explaining his $1.7 billion take.

“If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys,” said Jim Dunn, a managing director with Wilshire Associates, an investment advisory firm. “We don’t concern ourselves with fees. If you can provide Alpha, I’m less concerned about what you bring home.” (Alpha is producing returns that are not tied to a market benchmark like the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index.)
Lord, words like "we don't concerns ourselves with costs" sound very bubbly to me. My knowledge-free bet, based solely on observing how humans work, is that MR is right that the "equity premium" (the reason that stock markets have historically been a better investment than loaning money directly) is overly large in Economy 3.0, and Simons and his kin are winning the prize for sucking it down. Once it's down, however, it has nowhere to go, and the money will run dry. Also based on how humans work, I bet the "legitimate" efficiency work was finished over a year ago, and the prizes now are financial bubbles flowing into the pockets of the luck-favored prepared mind. Naturally the winners, Masters of the (virtual) Universe, assume they are deities and the prize reflects their superhuman worth. Tears are likely to lie ahead ...

Billions. Sloshing around. Wouldn't you like to be there to catch the spills?

In the meantime, if one assumes the risk premium has been over-deflated, it is likely that investors in today's market are being under-rewarded for the risks they are bearing. Which means, given the recent rise in the market, that the risk is rather substantial.

The virtual fuses with the physical: Google Blueprint

The AIA is the professional organization of American architects:
Official Google Blog: New 3-D layers from AIA on Google Earth

... fly to America’s Favorite Architecture, a layer featuring the American public’s favorite architecture (as selected though a national poll announced earlier this year). View all 150 structures, including many with just created 3-D models of the buildings, ballparks, bridges, and memorials that characterize architecture in the eyes of Americans. And then explore the second layer, Blueprint for America. Blueprint is a community service effort funded by the AIA, in which AIA members donating their time and expertise are collaborating with community leaders and local citizens to enhance the quality of life in their community. You’ll be able to track the progress of these projects on Google Earth as they unfold over the next year and, we hope, become inspired to take action where you live.
As an exercise, contemplate a similar virtual/physical interaction with public health. What other examples of how the physical and the virtual may meet, particularly when organizational entities (themselves virtual and physical) are involved?

And so the world quietly, and invisibly, morphs into something quite different from the world my parents have known.

Monday, April 23, 2007

We'll prevent Alzheimer's before we prevent obesity: lessons of The Pill

There are, I heard on NPR, about 9 promising Alzheimer's prevention therapies in trial [1]. It's likely that, sometime in the next decade, one of them will be a mega-blockbuster -- the biggest change in medical care since the discovery of insulin.

On the other hand, I doubt we'll see a great obesity prevention therapy, despite the billions pharmas are investing into obesity research.

Why is one relatively easy, and the other so hard? Why is it so hard to come up with a safe and effective male contraceptive, but so easy to render women infertile? The Pill (oral contraceptive pill, aka OCP), after all, made its debut over 40 years ago.

The trick is whether one is fighting nature, or not. Women in pre-industrial societies are naturally infertile for most their reproductive years. They're either pregnant, lactating, or cyclically infertile. These are natural states, OCPs need only send "pregnant-lactating" signals and the body does the rest. On the other hand there is no natural state of male infertility. When you try to render a male infertile, you are fighting hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

Obesity is what happens when a biological system engineered to manage scarcity runs into an environment of abundance. The system crashes. Humans did not evolve to have access to so many calories all the time, like all animals we're engineered to use energy as efficiently as possible. Changing that means defeating evolution.

Cancer appears to be a process that natural selection has carefully tuned to balance biological repair mechanisms. It's darned hard to fight cancer.

Alzheimer's though, is a universal lifelong proces that disables the aged post-fertile human. It does not appear to have any significant evolutionary advantage, it is probably the end-result of a garbage collection process that works well within its operational "design" parameters. To delay the Alzheimer's process doesn't require defeating natural selection, so it's a much easier task that defeating obesity.

So I'm betting on an Alzheimer's preventive therapy long before a really good obesity preventive therapy.

[1] Note prevention and cure are different. There's not much prospect yet for curing Alzheimer's, though one might hope a good preventive therapy might allow natural reparative functions to operate better.

American food for people and pets: an industry insider speaks out

The author of this WaPo article was "president of NutraSweet Kelco Co. from 1994 to 1997. He is a management consultant to many large food ingredient companies." In other words, an insider with both biases and credibility. Emphases mine:
Peter Kovacs - It's Not Just Pet Food -

Lost amid the anxiety surrounding the tainted U.S. pet food supply is this sobering reality: It's not just pet owners who should be worried. The uncontrolled distribution of low-quality imported food ingredients, mainly from China, poses a grave threat to public health worldwide.

Essential ingredients, such as vitamins used in many packaged foods, arrive at U.S. ports from China and, as recent news reports have underscored, are shipped without inspection to food and beverage distributors and manufacturers. Although they are used in relatively small quantities, these ingredients carry enormous risks for American consumers. One pound of tainted wheat gluten could, if undetected, contaminate as much as a thousand pounds of food.

Unlike imported beef, which is inspected at the point of processing by the U.S. Agriculture Department, few practical safeguards have been established to ensure the quality of food ingredients from China.

Often, U.S. officials don't know where or how such ingredients were produced. We know, however, that alarms have been raised about hygiene and labor standards at many Chinese manufacturing facilities. In China, municipal water used in the manufacturing process is often contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides and other chemicals. Food ingredient production is particularly susceptible to environmental contamination.

Equally worrisome, U.S. officials often lack the capability to trace foreign-produced food ingredients to their source of manufacture. In theory, the Bioterrorism Prevention Act of 2001 provides some measure of traceability. In practice, the act is ineffective and was not designed for this challenge. Its enforcement is also shrouded in secrecy by the Department of Homeland Security.

Even if Food and Drug Administration regulators wanted to crack down on products emanating from the riskiest foreign facilities, they couldn't, because they have no way of knowing which ingredients come from which plant. This is why officials have spent weeks searching for the original Chinese source of the contaminated wheat gluten that triggered the pet food crisis.

That it was pet food that got tainted -- and that relatively few pets were harmed -- is pure happenstance. Earlier this spring, Europe narrowly averted disaster when a batch of vitamin A from China was found to be contaminated with Enterobacter sakazakii, which has been proved to cause infant deaths. Thankfully, the defective vitamin A had not yet been incorporated into infant formula. Next time we may not be so fortunate.

Currently, most of the world's vitamins are manufactured in China. Unable to compete, the last U.S. plant making vitamin C closed a year ago. One of Europe's largest citric acid plants shut last winter, and only one vitamin C manufacturer operates in the West. Given China's cheap labor, artificially low prices and the unfair competitive climate it has foisted on the industry, few Western producers of food ingredients can survive much longer.

Western companies have had to invest heavily in Chinese facilities. These Western-owned plants follow strict standards and are generally better managed than their locally owned counterparts. Nevertheless, 80 percent of the world's vitamin C is now manufactured in China -- much of it unregulated and some of it of questionable quality.

Europe is ahead of the United States in seeking greater accountability and traceability in food safety and importation. But even the European Union's "rapid alert system" is imperfect. Additional action is required if the continent is to avoid catastrophes.

To protect consumers here, we must revise our regulatory approaches. The first option is to institute regulations, based on the European model, to ensure that all food ingredients are thoroughly traceable. We should impose strict liability on manufacturers that fail to enforce traceability standards.

A draconian alternative is to mount a program modeled on USDA beef inspection for all food ingredients coming into the country. This regimen would require a significant commitment of resources and intensive training for hundreds of inspectors.

Food safety is a bipartisan issue: Congress and the administration must work together and move aggressively to devise stricter standards. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, has deplored dangerous levels of lead in vitamin products originating in China. We must get to the bottom of this pressing public health issue, without self-defeating finger-pointing.

The United States is sitting on powder keg with uncontrolled importation and the distribution of low-quality food ingredients. Before it explodes -- putting more animals and people at risk -- corrective steps must be taken.
Regulatory standards are a very tempting way to create de facto "protection" for selected industries. The protectionist impulse can do great economic damage, and the profits associated with such de facto tariffs are a rich source of political corruption in America. Alas, there may be no alternative. We don't have a proven market solution to this kind of risk, and our present failure makes action unavoidable. We will need new regulations for human food.

As for pet food - as I wrote earlier - there's a simple quasi-Libertarian solution. Pet food manufacturers should formulate a product for human consumption derived from the same sources as the animal product. This premium product would therefore fall under FDA regulation. The CEO and board would eat at their regular meetings, and major suppliers would be also be sent snacks. Selected pet owners who are also ambitious lawyers would add it a few snacks to their diet every few months. If a problem were then discovered, the legal onslaught would be brutal, effective, and highly profitable for the lawyers involved. Food that carried the "We eat our own dog food" slogan would sell for a premium price of course. A major US accounting firm would be engaged to manage the certification process, and to ensure that the CEO was dining properly.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Nasty, brutal, short - the life of most humans

I recently wrote of 19th century American aspirations for a 50 year lifespan. John Hawks describes other settings when life expectancy was about 35 ...
John Hawks Anthropology Weblog : 2007 03

Kim Hill and colleagues (2007) report in the current Journal of Human Evolution on the mortality profile of recent Hiwi hunter-gatherers. Here is their abstract:

"To our knowledge, interview-based life tables for recent hunter-gatherers are published for only four societies (Ache, Agta, Hadza, and Ju/'hoansi). Here, we present mortality data for a fifth group, the Hiwi hunter-gatherers of Venezuela. The results show comparatively high death rates among the Hiwi and highlight differences in mortality rates among hunter-gatherer societies. The high levels of conspecific violence and adult mortality in the Hiwi may better represent Paleolithic human demographics than do the lower, disease-based death rates reported in the most frequently cited forager studies."

...Among pre-1960 Hiwi males, 57 percent could expect to survive to age 15, and 43 percent to age 30, with an average young adult mortality rate of around 2 percent annually. So it is not anything like as high as has been suggested for Neandertals and earlier humans (with annual mortality rates as high as 6 percent).

The most interesting aspects of the paper are the comparisons between the Hiwi and other ethnographically-known hunter-gatherers. Many of the differences in mortality profiles are attributable to strong cultural differences:

"Cause of death among the groups differs considerably. Disease is an important cause of death in all groups, but represents only 20% of deaths in the precontact Ache, 45% among the precontact Hiwi, and about 75-85% of all Hadza, !Kung, and Agta deaths. Respiratory disease is the main killer of the Ache, whereas gastrointestinal pathogens are most important among the Hiwi and probably Hadza. Among the !Kung, respiratory and gut infections are about equally important. Violence is the major cause of death among the precontact Ache (55% of all deaths) and very important among the Hiwi (30% of all deaths), but notably less important in the two African societies and the Agta (3-7% of all deaths). Indeed, the crude homicide/warfare death rates per year lived are more than ten times higher among the Hiwi and Ache than among the Hadza or !Kung (1/100 and 1/200 per year for precontact Hiwi and Ache, respectively, vs. 1/2500 and 1/3000 for the Hadza and !Kung, respectively)..."

"If high mortality, warfare, homicide, and accidental trauma are typical of our Paleolithic ancestors, the Hiwi mortality patterns may be more representative of the past than those derived from other modern hunter-gatherers. If so, several observations about the Hiwi are important. First, conspecific violence was a prominent part of the demographic profile, accounting for many deaths in all age and sex categories. Most of the adult killings were due to either competition over women, reprisals by jealous husbands (on both their wives and their wives' lovers), or reprisals for past killings. The criollo-caused killings were motivated by territorial conquest. Moreover, infanticide (especially on females) constituted the highest mortality rate component of all Hiwi conspecific violence. Second, no predation deaths were reported despite attacks by anacondas, Orinoco caimans, and piranhas, and the presence of jaguars in the area. Accidents associated with the active-forager lifestyle were common, but disease was a more important killer, accounting for nearly half of all deaths. This suggests an adaptive landscape in which success in social relations, competitive violence, and disease resistance are paramount. This may partially explain why many of the genes that appear to have been under strong selection in the past 50,000 years affect either disease resistance or cognitive function (Wang et al., 2006), presumably related to success in an atmosphere of frequent violent social competition (Hill et al. 2007:451)."
These communities vary greatly in their level of violence. The most violent of them sound comparable to chimpanzees. The big surprise is how dominant these pre-technological human predators are. They died of disease or from conspecific violence or from accidents, not from other predators.

Nutro products: how NOT to do a pet food recall

Our dog's primary foods were not involved in the melanine recall (so far), but the company that makes some snacks we use had recalled gluten products. So one might think Nutro Products would be very careful about their statements on the rice recall.

Alas, their rice recall page simply says their rice containing products aren't derived from the known contaminated sources. As always, the unsaid words are important. They don't tell us that the products do not contain Chinese manufactured rice protein.

So we should assume they Nutro Food snacks do contain Chinese manufactured rice protein, we should assume that source is unreliable until proven reliable, and we should assume Nutro Products is being a bit dishonest about the risks of their foods. I've tossed this company's products, and we'll avoid them in the future.

I wonder if anyone will keep a global list ranking the quality of vendor responses to the melanine affair. It would be a handy reference to guide future buying decisions. If you know of such a list, send a note to and I'll link to it.

Calendar curses: remembering Palm

I'm working on our family's week schedule, and again I weakly curse the state of 21st century calendaring. I have a work calendar on Outlook, a personal calendar on my Palm, and a variety of paper based family calendars. It's a mess and there's no solution on the market.

Which brings back a memory of a product that was briefly on the market, but which I can't locate on Google.

Back in the 90s, before they decapitated themselves and were simultaneously disemboweled by Microsoft, Palm was very focused on solving this type of problem. They introduced, or almost introduced, a home device that basically a "Palm server". It would hold the family calendar, and every family member would sync to it. I think it was supposed to be a "thin client" for email and kitchen web browsing as well.

Am I imagining this product, or did it ever come to market? It was near the end-time for Palm as a meaningful platform.

For now, I merely await the iPhone. I'm not overly optimistic, Apple's .Mac screw-up strongly suggests they've decided this problem is too hard to tackle.

The missing WMDs - only one man knows the truth

The latest mass delusion to strike the demoralized drones of American neoconservatism is that Iraq had oodles of WMDs that were spirited away by Russia and Syrian. The truth was then hidden in a Bush/Democrat conspiracy until a whacko British journalist found Dave Gaubatz, a civilian agent who worked for The U.S. Air Force's Office of Special Investigations. Gaubatz, it turns out, is the only man who will tell the real story.

Salon provides the gory details: Right-wing blogs discover massive conspiracy to hide WMDs in Iraq and suggests a visit to Gaubatz's web site. You'll have to find the URL on your own, but here's the first quote I found:
National Existence is political order experienced by men of the nation as a Rise to Being. Its opposite is a replacement of political order experienced by men, women, children and slaves as a Fall from Being. This Redirection in the experience of the Terms of Being (Self, Society, G-d and World) results in the collapse of Self into Society and all into World. The goal, wittingly or otherwise: a World State.

SANE opposes this Redirection and its manifestations: chants of Racism, Democracy, Equal Rights, Human Rights, Women's Rights, Animal Rights, and the always growing list of what is the Single Concept: Certainty/Uncertainty = Science/Open Society = World. To understand this reciprocal and how it affects a convergence of factors bent on the destruction of National Existence is to be SANE...
Gaubatz's other hobby, per quotes on unqualified offerings, is promoting the rightly privileged "distinct people" of "White Christians". UO also mentions "Dave Gaubatz was the 1st U.S. Civilian Federal Agent sent into Iraq at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003". You could summarize the incompetency of the GOP and Bush administration with that single data point.

The American right has become a recursive engine of self-satirization. They'd be easier to pity if they weren't so nasty.

4/21/07: I had to rework the post title, I'd posted with the default link title. It occurs to me that this may be the kernel of a whacko "far right" 9/11 conspiracy theory, the complement to the whacko "left" delusion that a martians blew up the WTC (or whoever it's supposed to have been). Perhaps the two will unite someday ...

Saturday, April 21, 2007

South Korea apologizes, America puzzled

Soo Yun, an American Journalist who was a Fulbright scholar in South Korea last year, describes a national South Korean apology to an inattentive America. I imagine the American ambassador must on the one hand accept graciously, but on the other hand point out that no apology is expected. Most Americans are probably oblivious to South Korea's distress. Today Americans do not have as strong a sense of collective ethnic identity as South Koreans.

So, South Korea, it's ok if you want to apologize, but, on average, most Americans probably don't expect it.

South Korean "blood" mythology is unusually strong, but it is not qualitatively different from other nations. Japan has a similar belief, though probably it is less strong now than it was 30 years ago. China was likewise appalled when Fox news reported the assailant was a Chinese student, and massively relieved when he was found to be 'South Korean raised in America'.

More broadly, consider this tribal identity in the context of these examples:
  1. Who, if anyone, should apologize for the annihilation of the Amerindian, or for American slavery? Why should they apologize? Who inherits guilt, and why? How do societies answers change over time?

  2. When can Germany stop apologizing for the Holocaust? How many generations are required? Does Germany have any moral responsibility to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive? (I'd say yes to the last, because of a much stronger version of #3, but it's debatable.)

  3. American soldiers, during the disastrous early days of the Korean war, killed South Korean civilians to speed their escape. (The US Military has recently confirmed this story after an internal investigation - very quietly.) Should anyone living today apologize? (I'd say yes, because there's clear institutional continuity in the US military, but it's a debatable point.)

  4. A euro-American wins a Nobel. Should black Americans be proud? Euro-Americans? The winner's mother? Euros? What if it's a Chinese American?

  5. Canada wins an Olympic medal in Hockey. Should Canadians be proud of their team? What if Montreal wins the Stanley Cup over the Mighty Ducks (ha!) and the teams are both Russian?

  6. Most citizens of the Arab world appear to hate Israel and Jews. A significant number were, at one time, sympathetic to attacks on the WTC. (I suspect that number has shrunk as everyone realizes that a crazed America is not a good thing.) Should an Arab-American apologize for this? (I'd say no, but I bet some apologize anyway ...)

  7. Should Idi Amin's parents have felt guilty for his crimes? What about his teachers?
South Korea is a bit extreme, but if we examine the responses to these questions I think we'd find the differences are quantitative, but not qualitative. All humans struggle with the distinction between individual, family, tribe, nation, and culture and the notion of responsibility. Except, of course, for those of us who dispense with the concept of responsibility ...

Friday, April 20, 2007

Pet poisons: FDA suspects deliberate contamination

The theory that Chinese manufacturers spiked food with melanine to increase its apparent nutritional value now has FDA support:
Spiking theorized in pet deaths | Chicago Tribune

... Stephen Sundlof, chief veterinarian for the Food and Drug Administration, said melamine, which has turned up in more than 100 brands of cat and dog food, may have been used to falsely boost the apparent nutritional content of rice protein.

'That's still a theory but it certainly seems to be a plausible one,' he said.
In other news deaths are increasing in South Africa and contaminated feed has been fed to pigs. So melanine has probably entered the human food chain in a few places in the US.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government is declining requests for FDA visits and at least one US pet food manufacturer has sworn off any future Chinese sources.

We're going ahead with plans to make our own pet food.

How would a pet food company get our confidence back? They'd apply for permission to sell food for human consumption. They wouldn't actually sell the food for humans, but that would bring them into full FDA scrutiny. Then they'd provide a human-oriented version of their product for snacks at board meetings. If a company did all of that, I might be inclined to trust them ...

Parental controls - not an Apple thing

I have to limit the kids access to Google Video. Limit, as in, eliminate. Alas, Apple's parental controls are mediocre in 10.4 (better, supposedly, in the now delayed 10.5). If you allow access to a domain in Safari, you allow access to all. Apple's Airport Extreme has NO parental controls, my ultra-cheap DSL router has more.

I wonder how old Jobs kids are ...

1900 Predictions for 2000 - my version

Several bloggers have lately been choosing their favorites from predictions made by John Elfreth Watkins in 1900. He based his predictions on interviews with the best thinkers of the day.

Some predictions were way off (we have UPS trucks instead of pneumatic tubes), others were close or correct. The population prediction (350 million) was based on the US annexing most of the Americas, but that isn't too far off our current number. Trains (in France) easily hit 2 miles/minute. Photos are indeed "telegraphed" from China. Our "shells" can destroy entire cities. Automobiles are more affordable to us than horses were to Americans in 1900. We do "see around the world". Our domestic animals have become atrophied meat producing drones.

Other predictions were understandable but misguided exaggerations of the technology of 1900, such as high speed boats crossing the Atlantic (a consequence of assuming airplanes would not be used for mass transit). Overall, I think Mr. Watkins did extremely well, despite being far bolder than our current crop of timid futurists. I doubt our predictions of 2100 will be as accurate, mostly because of those pesky singularities.

The ones that most interest me are those that reflect the concerns of the day ....
1900 Predictions

Predictions of the Year 2000 from The Ladies Home Journal of December 1900

The Ladies Home Journal from December 1900, which contained a fascinating article by John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years”.

... Prediction #2: The American will be taller by from one to two inches. His increase of stature will result from better health, due to vast reforms in medicine, sanitation, food and athletics. He will live fifty years instead of thirty-five as at presentfor he will reside in the suburbs. The city house will practically be no more. Building in blocks will be illegal. The trip from suburban home to office will require a few minutes only. A penny will pay the fare.

Prediction #3: Gymnastics will begin in the nursery, where toys and games will be designed to strengthen the muscles. Exercise will be compulsory in the schools. Every school, college and community will have a complete gymnasium. All cities will have public gymnasiums. A man or woman unable to walk ten miles at a stretch will be regarded as a weakling.

Prediction #4: There Will Be No Street Cars in Our Large Cities.... Cities, therefore, will be free from all noises.

Prediction #11: No Mosquitoes nor Flies. Insect screens will be unnecessary... The extermination of the horse and its stable will reduce the house-fly.

Prediction #12: Peas as Large as Beets. Peas and beans will be as large as beets are to-day. Sugar cane will produce twice as much sugar as the sugar beet now does. Cane will once more be the chief source of our sugar supply. The milkweed will have been developed into a rubber plant. Cheap native rubber will be harvested by machinery all over this country. Plants will be made proof against disease microbes just as readily as man is to-day against smallpox. The soil will be kept enriched by plants which take their nutrition from the air and give fertility to the earth.

Prediction #13: Strawberries as Large as Apples will be eaten by our great-great-grandchildren for their Christmas dinners a hundred years hence. Raspberries and blackberries will be as large.... Melons, cherries, grapes, plums, apples, pears, peaches and all berries will be seedless. Figs will be cultivated over the entire United States.

Prediction #16: There will be No C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary. Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas, and will be more extensively spoken than any other. Russian will rank second.

Prediction #28: There will be no wild animals except in menageries. Rats and mice will have been exterminated. The horse will have become practically extinct. A few of high breed will be kept by the rich for racing, hunting and exercise. The automobile will have driven out the horse...
Life beyond age 35. Food in abundance -- especially fruit. Death to the pesky, fly infested horse. Elimination of insects, mice, rats and every wild animal. Escape from the squalor and noise of the city. These were the desires of a people who lived with disease, miserable diets, and pests.

Mostly, the dreams of 1900 did come true, though we came to like wild animals more than Watkins could have imagined. Watkins would say we lived like gods, albeit, fat, flabby gods. In his day many earned their pay by physical performance -- he'd be appalled by our sloth.