Friday, October 23, 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Weight and politics

From Is Chris Christie too fat to win an election in New Jersey? - By Daniel Engber - Slate Magazine.
The last presidential election revealed a startling overlap between statewide obesity figures and support for the GOP. Despite losing in a landslide, John McCain carried all nine of the fattest states in the union and 16 of the top 20. (Obama prevailed in 17 of the 20 thinnest states, including New Jersey.)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Army meets recruiting goals for quantity, quality—but not honesty

From Army News Service. The army recently bragged about having met its recruitment goals the fiscal yearn ending September 30.
The Army and other services met their recruiting goals in fiscal year 2009, many exceeding both numeric goals and quality benchmarks for new recruits.

'We are pleased to report that for the first time, since the advent of the all-volunteer force, all of the military components -- active and reserve -- met their number as well as their quality goals,' said Bill Carr, the deputy under secretary of Defense for military personnel policy during an Oct. 13 press conference at the Pentagon. 'That's the first time that's been achieved for every component since the start of the all-volunteer force in 1973.'
The successful campaign was attributed by some to the poor job market.

But Fred Kaplan in Slate notes that it had nothing to do with the job market.
According to the Pentagon's report, the Army's goal for fiscal year 2009 was to sign 65,000 new recruits. It actually signed 70,045—amounting to 8 percent more than the target.

But the picture is less bright than it seems. Though the Pentagon's report doesn't mention this fact, in each of the previous two years, the Army's recruitment goal was 80,000—much higher than this year's. The Army met those targets, but only by drastically lowering its standards—accepting more applicants who'd dropped out of high school or flunked the military's aptitude test.

This year, the recruiters restored the old standards—a very good thing for troops' morale and military effectiveness—but they signed up 10,000 fewer new soldiers.

It is, in other words, not the case that high unemployment or a new public spirit is leading more young men and women into the Army. It's not the case that more young men and women are going into the Army at all.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Jim Rogers makes my head hurt - Paul Krugman Blog -

From I love Paul Krugman!
After my talk in Seoul, I participated in a panel discussion on The Future. The summary doesn’t mention it, but I made notes on a comment by Jim Rogers, who was all “the West is in decline, everything’s going to Asia.” He was asked whether he was predicting that capital will start flowing into Asia — which he certainly seemed to be implying — and responded

“Well, capital has already been flowing into Asian economies, as you can see by the fact that they’re the world’s biggest creditors.”

Your homework assignment is to explain — in English — what’s wrong with that sentence.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Treating heroin addiction with heroin

From The New England Journal of Medicine.
Background. Studies in Europe have suggested that injectable diacetylmorphine, the active ingredient in heroin, can be an effective adjunctive treatment for chronic, relapsing opioid dependence.

Methods. In an open-label, phase 3, randomized, controlled trial in Canada, we compared injectable diacetylmorphine with oral methadone maintenance therapy in patients with opioid dependence that was refractory to treatment. Long-term users of injectable heroin who had not benefited from at least two previous attempts at treatment for addiction (including at least one methadone treatment) were randomly assigned to receive methadone (111 patients) or diacetylmorphine (115 patients). The primary outcomes, assessed at 12 months, were retention in addiction treatment or drug-free status and a reduction in illicit-drug use or other illegal activity according to the European Addiction Severity Index.

Results. The primary outcomes were determined in 95.2% of the participants. On the basis of an intention-to-treat analysis, the rate of retention in addiction treatment in the diacetylmorphine group was 87.8%, as compared with 54.1% in the methadone group (rate ratio for retention, 1.62; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.35 to 1.95; P<0.001). The reduction in rates of illicit-drug use or other illegal activity was 67.0% in the diacetylmorphine group and 47.7% in the methadone group (rate ratio, 1.40; 95% CI, 1.11 to 1.77; P=0.004). The most common serious adverse events associated with diacetylmorphine injections were overdoses (in 10 patients) and seizures (in 6 patients).

Conclusions. Injectable diacetylmorphine was more effective than oral methadone. Because of a risk of overdoses and seizures, diacetylmorphine maintenance therapy should be delivered in settings where prompt medical intervention is available.

Everything is more complex than one expects

From The Scientist
Jean-Christophe Billeter from the University of Toronto at Mississauga and his colleagues genetically engineered adult Drosophila melanogaster without oenocytes, cells that secret hydrocarbons [pheromones]. …

Because pheromones have been generally believed to stimulate mating, Billeter and his colleagues expected that flies lacking hydrocarbons would be sexually unappealing to males. To their surprise, quite the opposite happened: wild-type males were hyperattracted to oenocyte-less flies. The wild-type males also ignored gender, choosing to mate with both unscented males and females over other wild-types. These results led the researchers to conclude that pheromones may not stimulate mating, but may instead act to slow down male mating attempts to allow the female to assess her partner's suitability. They also concluded that hydrocarbons help flies distinguish between sexes.

Billeter and his colleagues then tested the effect of individual pheromones on mate selection and copulation attempts. Researchers treated unscented D. melanogaster with wild-type levels of cVA, a hydrocarbon males are known to coat on females to deter further mating attempts. As expected, cVA effectively created a "chemical chastity belt," said Gompel.

Researchers then treated unscented flies with 7,11-heptacosadiene (7,11-HD), a pheromone thought to act as an aphrodisiac for flies. Although 7,11-HD alone did not stimulate additional mating attempts, when applied over cVA, it helped diminish the inhibiting effect of the compound, allowing females to broadcast their mating availability. The findings suggested that mating doesn't depend on just one pheromone relaying a message of availability, but instead on a complex mixture of attractive and aversive signals.

7,11-HD also seemed to act as a species barrier in mating. Unscented D. melanogaster females treated with the hydrocarbon attracted males of the same species, but deterred D. simulans and D. yakuba males.

"It's neat that one hydrocarbon (7, 11-HD) acts both as an aphrodisiac to males of D. melanogaster and also as a key compound causing males of other closely related species in the genus to reject her," said Tristram Wyatt, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford. "It's surprising at first sight, but perhaps it's another example of evolution resulting in simple solutions, two effects for one."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Saving the universe from itself

[Holger Bech Nielsen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, Japan] have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the Large Hadron Collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Frans de Waal: Morals Without God

Frans de Waal has a nice piece in the Huffington Post. Here's a piece.
The animal kingdom offers so many examples that I surely cannot summarize them here (see my new book, The Age of Empathy), but the interesting part is not so much whether animals have empathy and compassion, but how it works.

In one experiment, we placed two capuchin monkeys side by side: separate, but in full view. One of them needed to barter with us with small plastic tokens. The critical test came when we offered a choice between two differently colored tokens with different meaning: one token was 'selfish,' the other 'prosocial.' If the bartering monkey picked the selfish token, it received a small piece of apple for returning it, but its partner got nothing. The prosocial token, on the other hand, rewarded both monkeys equally at the same time. The monkeys gradually began to prefer the prosocial token. The procedures were repeated many times with different pairs of monkeys and different sets of tokens, and the monkeys kept picking the prosocial option showing how much they care about each other's welfare.
His new book along the same lines is The Age of Empathy: Nature's lessons for a kinder society.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Of Mice and Men

For a while, it looked as if quercetin might be the next super-supplement, one of the few legal substances able to improve athletic performance. Quercetin is a flavonoid found naturally in apple skins, berries, red wine, black tea and some leafy vegetables. Like other flavonoids, it is believed to be an antioxidant, a substance that can lessen or prevent certain kinds of cell damage, and an anti-inflammatory. But of even more importance to athletes, it has shown evidence of being a potent performance enhancer in mice.

In a representative animal study, published earlier this year, lab mice ran on a wheel or treadmill to gauge their fitness. Then some mice received large doses of quercetin for a week; others received a placebo. None of the rodents exercised. At the end of the week, the mice ran again. The quercetin mice were able to run as much as 37 percent longer than they had the week before. The placebo group showed no improvement. Meanwhile, analysis of the muscles and brains of some of the quercetin group showed new mitochondria — which help to produce energy — packing the cells. The placebo group had no new mitochondria. All indications, then, were that quercetin was energizing the mice at a fundamental, cellular level. …
A number of studies were done on humans. None of them showed similar results. The largest was done by the University of Georgia, financed by Coca-Cola, which was testing a new sports drink with quercetin.
The dosage of quercetin mimicked the amount given to mice, adjusted to human size. … At the end of [the study], the subjects were [tested], with provocative results. “There were simply no differences” between the quercetin and the placebo group, says Kirk J. Cureton, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Georgia and lead author of the study. The quercetin group didn’t ride farther before exhaustion. Their bodies showed no evidence of new mitochondrial production.

“We were surprised,” Cureton says. “Based on the mouse studies, we had expected” that the supplement would have a positive impact. Obviously, he continues, one study is not definitive. Different doses of quercetin or use for a longer time might lead to different results. “But my conclusion is that it just is not ergogenic in humans,” Cureton says. It doesn’t improve performance. “The moral is that you can’t generalize from mouse studies to humans.” And you can’t, as anyone who has followed sports nutrition should perhaps have learned by now, expect improved performance to be delivered, without effort, in pill or liquid form.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Whose buying US bonds?

David Rosenberg, Chief Economist & Strategist for Gluskin Sheff publishes a daily commentary on markets and the economy. It's always worth reading. Today it included this comment.
The latest data indicate that the Fed’s reserve creation showed through as cash on bank balance sheets ballooning $182 billion in September (+64 billion just in the last week) on the month to an all-time high of $1.076 trillion. The banks, instead of finding new creditworthy borrowers in private sector to lend to, are basically lending the Fed’s reserve creation right back to Uncle Sam. If you’re wondering who is funding the deficit – it is the major banks; they bought $31 billion of government bonds last week of September – bringing monthly pickup to $52 billion (fourth highest on record). …

The typical Wall Street economist sifts through the data like a robot, tweaking numbers here and there and basically doing little more than reporting what the numbers are doing but nowhere do we see adequate analysis over what is termed ‘behavioural economics’. The economists are so focused on the minutia or the background noise that they can’t see the forest past the trees. They can’t see that attitudes towards credit, homeownership and discretionary spending are undergoing a profound change. As they focus myopically on the ISM index, they don’t see that households now understand that they have to shrink their balance sheets and alter their budgets. This is a secular theme, which means that it will last years … (As an aside, and we have said this before, it is not about being a perma-bear or a perma-bull, but about being totally realistic and honest regarding what a post-bubble credit collapse world really looks like. Japan had no fewer than four of these massive rallies since its bubble burst and the Nikkei is still down more than 70% from its prior peak.)

While thrift is still considered a ‘bad thing’ by most economists who crave a consumer-led revival, we would be happy to open that for debate. It would be much more heartening to see a revival fuelled by capital investment but when over one-third of manufacturing capacity is sitting idle, that may be a stretch; and considering that exports comprise little more than 10% of GDP, the foreign sector is hardly going to be adding a whole lot of torque to the GDP data, at least over the intermediate term. Looks like we are left with government.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Realizing that we are part of a global organism

For some reason it struck me particularly strongly the other day how important it is that we conceptualize the world as an organism that we are a part of and whose health and viability we must be aware of. To many people this may seem like a trivial point: of course we must develop a global consciousness. But for some reason it seemed that doing so would require a form of conceptual phase transition, not just thinking about the global system in some metaphorical way.

In attempting to explain what I mean, I wrote the following, which feels to me like a groping attempt to say something that many people may consider obvious. I think it's more than the usual global awareness meme, but I'm having a hard time explaining precisely why.
It seems to me that what we need on a world-wide basis is a realization that we have reached the point that we must look at the world as a whole as a single organism. What that means is that instead of thinking of ourselves as multiple organisms (at the individual or country level) living within a relatively open and unlimited environment—which had made some reasonable sense in the past—we are now at the point of global organization, influence, and connectivity that we must think of ourselves as components, e.g,. organs. of a single larger organism.

Many people are going to resist that change of perspective, saying that it gives up national autonomy. But I'm afraid there's no longer a real question of national autonomy. The heart can't say that it doesn't want to think of itself as being a part of a larger organism because that reduces its autonomy. The fact is, it is a part of a larger organism, like it or not. The only valid large-scale question from now on will be what should be done to ensure that the larger organism remains healthy. There will always be smaller-scale questions having to do with dividing up resources made available by a healthy overall organism. But the fundamental question will have to do with maintaining the health and viability of the larger organism itself.

This really is a change of perspective. The world (the planet) as an organism can be healthy or not given the the use it makes of the resources available to it. It can even be healthy without imposing a rigid overall controlling agency. Fortunately we now know of many entities that are successful without an overall top-down controller. Most biological organisms are examples as are stable ecological systems and many successful social organisms/organizations. But there will have to be some overall structures that constrain various aspects of the component elements. And people will complain about those constraints as violations of their freedom or national autonomy.

But I'm convinced that if our current civilization is to survive as a global system in anything like its current form, we have to make the switch from thinking of ourselves as elements living within an open environment (the rugged American frontiersman) to being components of a larger organism whose overall health we must monitor and maintain—for our own survival.

This is not just a metaphor: the world as an global system. It is a different perspective on what actually exists. We have known (but have not paid too much attention to) the idea that the global ecosystem cannot be understood except on a global scale. But for most of human history that ecosystem has taken care of itself—and us—without our having to think about it very much. Our increasing global environmental awareness now adds to our understanding of the global ecosystem the fact that we (human society) can actually affect it—for good or more likely for bad—and if we are not aware of how we are affecting it we are likely to suffer serious consequences.

But I'm saying even more than this. The global system is not just ecological. It is economic, social, political, and cultural as well. We are now a global economic system—and ignoring the importance of that will do us at least as much harm as ignoring the fact that human society is now a significant aspect of the global ecological system. Being a global social and economic system doesn't mean that we must be homogeneous. The US and many other countries demonstrate that economic and cultural diversity can survive within a larger overall cultural, social, and political system. But pockets of diversity can't survive on their own. And they can't be absolutely free to do whatever they want. There will have to be some overall cultural, social, and political constraints. Figuring out how to organize the overall system so that it is minimally constraining is one of the challenges we have faced and will continue to face. But we can't pretend that there will not be an overall system that must be kept viable and healthy.

Is the world a single organisms whose health we must look after? If so—and at this point we are so interconnected that it seems hard to doubt it—we must acknowledge that fact and begin to take seriously our responsibility for maintaining the health of that global organism. Thinking this way is a transition that will be difficult for many people. But it's a transition we must make.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Book Review - 'The Case for God,' by Karen Armstrong

Ross Douthat has a review of Karen Armstrong's The Case for God. He summarizes her position as arguing that most people are mistaking what religion is all about.
Karen Armstrong, a former nun turned prolific popular historian, wants to rescue the idea of God from its cultured despisers and its more literal-minded adherents alike. To that end, she doesn’t just argue that her preferred approach to religion — which emphasizes the pursuit of an unknowable Deity, rather than the quest for theological correctness — is compatible with a liberal, scientific, technologically advanced society. She argues that it’s actually truer to the ancient traditions of Judaism, Islam and (especially) Christianity than is much of what currently passes for “conservative” religion. And the neglect of these traditions, she suggests, is “one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today.”
According to Douthat's version of Armstrong, religion is not about beliefs!
Both modern believers and modern atheists, Armstrong contends, have come to understand religion primarily as a set of propositions to be assented to, or a catalog of specific facts about the nature of God, the world and human life. But this approach to piety would be foreign to many premodern religious thinkers, including the greatest minds of the Christian past, from the early Fathers of the Church to medieval eminences like Thomas Aquinas.
Instead religion is a way of approaching the world.
These and other thinkers, she writes, understood faith primarily as a practice, rather than as a system — not as “something that people thought but something they did.” Their God was not a being to be defined or a proposition to be tested, but an ultimate reality to be approached through myth, ritual and “apophatic” theology, which practices “a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred” and emphasizes what we can’t know about the divine. And their religion was a set of skills, rather than a list of unalterable teachings — a “knack,” as the Taoists have it, for navigating the mysteries of human existence.

It’s a knack, Armstrong argues, that the Christian West has largely lost, and the rise of modern science is to blame. Not because science and religion are unalterably opposed, but because religious thinkers succumbed to a fatal case of science envy.

Instead of providing the usual portrait of empiricism triumphing over superstition, Armstrong depicts an extended seduction in which believers were persuaded to embrace the “natural theology” of Isaac Newton and William Paley, which seemed to provide scientific warrant for a belief in a creator God. Convinced that “the natural laws that scientists had discovered in the universe were tangible demonstrations of God’s providential care,” Western Christians abandoned the apophatic, mythic approach to faith in favor of a pseudo­scientific rigor — and then had nowhere to turn when Darwin’s theory of evolution arrived on the scene.

An Aquinas or an Augustine would have been unfazed by the idea of evolution. But their modern successors had convinced themselves that religious truth was a literal, all-or-nothing affair, in which doctrines were the equivalent of scientific precepts, and sacred texts needed to coincide exactly with the natural sciences. The resulting crisis produced the confusions of our own day, in which biblical literalists labor to reconcile the words of Genesis with the existence of the dinosaurs, while atheists ridicule Scripture for its failure to resemble a science textbook.

To escape this pointless debate, Armstrong counsels atheists to recognize that theism isn’t a rival scientific theory, and that it is “no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth — or lack of it — only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action.” Believers, meanwhile, are urged to recover the wisdom of their forebears, who understood that “revealed truth was symbolic, that Scripture could not be interpreted literally” and that “revelation was not an event that had happened once in the distant past but was an ongoing, creative process that required human ingenuity.”
That sounds like a nice way of rescuing religion from modern thought. But what is it really saying? Is religion ritual? Is it ethics? If so, why the God talk?

Douthat seems to have similar reservations.
This is an eloquent case for the ancient roots of the liberal approach to faith, and my summary does not do justice to its subtleties. But it deserves to be heavily qualified. Armstrong concedes that the religious story she’s telling highlights only a particular trend within monotheistic faith. The casual reader, however, would be forgiven for thinking that the leading lights of premodern Christianity were essentially liberal Episcopalians avant la lettre.

In reality, these Christian sages were fiercely dogmatic by any modern standard. They were not fundamentalists, reading every line of Scripture literally, and they were, as Armstrong says, “inventive, fearless and confident in their interpretation of faith.” But their inventiveness was grounded in shared doctrines and constrained by shared assumptions. Their theology was reticent in its claims about the ultimate nature of God but very specific about how God had revealed himself on earth. It’s true that Augustine, for instance, did not interpret the early books of Genesis literally. But he certainly endorsed a literal reading of Jesus’ resurrection — and he wouldn’t have been much of a Christian theologian if he hadn’t.

Which is to say that it’s considerably more difficult than Armstrong allows to separate thought from action, teaching from conduct, and dogma from practice in religious history. The dogmas tend to sustain the practices, and vice versa. It’s possible to gain some sort of “knack” for a religion without believing that all its dogmas are literally true: a spiritually inclined person can no doubt draw nourishment from the Roman Catholic Mass without believing that the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Christ. But without the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment. Not every churchgoer will share Flannery O’Connor’s opinion that if the Eucharist is “a symbol, to hell with it.” But the Catholic faith has endured for 2,000 years because of Flannery O’Connors, not Karen Armstrongs.

This explains why liberal religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith, which create and sustain the practices that the liberal believer picks and chooses from, reads symbolically and reinterprets for a more enlightened age. Such spiritual dilettant­ism has its charms, but it lacks the sturdy appeal of Western monotheism, which has always offered not only myth and ritual and symbolism (the pagans had those bases covered), but also scandalously literal claims — that the Jews really are God’s chosen people; that Christ really did rise from the dead; and that however much the author of the universe may surpass our understanding, we can live in hope that he loves the world enough to save it, and us, from the annihilating power of death.

Such literalism can be taken too far, and “The Case for God” argues, convincingly, that it needs to coexist with more mythic, mystic and philosophical forms of faith. Most people, though, are not mystics and philosophers, and they are hungry for myths that are not only resonant but true. Apophatic religion may be the most rigorous way to go in search of an elusive God. But for most believers, it will remain a poor substitute for the idea that God has come in search of us.
Furthermore, it seems to me that apophatic religion [of or relating to the belief that God can be known to humans only in terms of what He is not (such as `God is unknowable') (from] just seems to me to be yet another way to hang onto God while attempting to stay clear of science. Why try so hard?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Green "game changers"

The Huffington Post has selected the top 10 "game changers" in a number of areas. They announced the green and entertainment game changers today. I'm amazed that I haven't heard of most of the green game changers.