The Man for All Seasons

Friday, October 20th, 2006

Dr. Henry I. Miller calls Norman Borlaug, the Father of the Green Revolution, The Man for All Seasons:

Borlaug introduced several innovations. First, he and his colleagues laboriously crossbred thousands of wheat varieties from around the world to produce some new ones with resistance to rust, a destructive plant pest; this raised yields 20 to 40 percent.

Second, he crafted so-called dwarf wheat varieties that would not fall over in the field when aggressively fertilized to achieve maximum yields.

Third, he devised an ingenious technique called “shuttle breeding” — growing two successive plantings each year, instead of the usual one, in different regions of Mexico. The availability of two test generations of wheat each year cut by half the years required for breeding new varieties. Moreover, because the two regions possessed distinctly different climatic conditions, the resulting new early-maturing, rust-resistant varieties were broadly adapted to many latitudes, altitudes and soil types. This wide adaptability, which flew in the face of agricultural orthodoxy, proved invaluable, and Mexican wheat yields skyrocketed. Similar successes followed when the Mexican wheat varieties were planted in Pakistan and India, but only after Borlaug convinced politicians in those countries to change national policies in order to provide the large amounts of fertilizer needed for wheat cultivation.
How successful were Borlaug’s efforts? From 1950 to 1992, the world’s grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland — an extraordinary increase in yield of more than 150 percent.

Drugs for Africa: A Modest Proposal

Friday, October 20th, 2006

In Drugs for Africa: A Modest Proposal, David Friedman presents his suggestion:

Let charitable donors in rich countries buy out the patent on the second best AIDS drug or combination of drugs and public domain it — let anyone who wants make it. Buying the second best drug should not be that expensive, since it probably is not making much money any more. And even if the same company owns the first best drug, it should not lose too many sales, since most customers who can afford the best drug will keep taking it.

This proposal has one large advantage over the usual alternative of forcing drug companies to make their drugs available at a low price in poor countries, with the threat that if they do not the countries in question will simply refuse to enforce their patents. That proposal makes the development of new drugs less profitable and so buys a short run gain in availability at the long run cost of slowing the development of new drugs. It could be a very large long run cost if the practice spreads from very poor countries up to less poor countries.

My proposal, on the other hand, makes the development of drugs more profitable.

Actually, that’s his palatable suggestion. He also makes a less palatable “modest proposal”:

FDA rules on testing should be designed to encourage drug companies to make not yet approved drugs available abroad in order to use the information so generated to meet the requirements for approval in the U.S. That would bring down the cost of finding out whether new drugs are safe and getting them approved. At the same time it would provide low cost — albeit somewhat risky — drugs for people in poor countries.
Opponents will argue that it is unjust for rich people to get the best drugs and poor people the second best — even if the realistic alternative is poor people not getting any drugs at all. They will make good demagogic use of the idea that it is wicked to use human beings as guinea pigs for potentially dangerous drugs — despite the fact that using humans as guinea pigs is the only way we have of finding out whether or not drugs are safe.

Adding Passengers to the Titanic

Thursday, October 19th, 2006

Arnold Kling argues that increasing the government’s role in health care, as Jacob Hacker recommends, amounts to Adding Passengers to the Titanic:

According to the 2006 report of the Medicare Trustees, the unfunded liability in Medicare over the next 75 years is $11 trillion. This is the gap between the promises that the system makes to future beneficiaries and the taxes that will be collected under current law to pay for those benefits.

Kling’s recommendations:

  1. We need rigorous cost-benefit analysis of medical protocols. For heart disease, when is bypass surgery the best solution, when are angioplasties the answer, and when is treatment with medication most cost-effective? Is screening for colon cancer using colonoscopy the best approach, or would other procedures be most cost-effective for lower-risk patients? The United Kingdom uses a commission of experts to undertake this sort of analysis, and perhaps we could use something similar.
  2. We need to rethink what it means to have health insurance for people under 65. The real need is for insurance against really expensive illnesses, of the kind that require tens of thousands of dollars of spending over a period of years. Discretionary care and minor expenses ought not to be covered.
  3. We need to examine options for putting Medicare on a sound financial footing. Ultimately, this will require changing to a system where people save more in personal accounts for the inevitable high medical expenses they will incur as they age.

Architecture and Security

Thursday, October 19th, 2006

Bruce Schneier notes that when it comes to Architecture and Security, “the problem is that architecture tends toward permanence, while security threats change much faster”:

When Syracuse University built a new campus in the mid-1970s, the student protests of the late 1960s were fresh on everybody’s mind. So the architects designed a college without the open greens of traditional college campuses. It’s now 30 years later, but Syracuse University is stuck defending itself against an obsolete threat.

Similarly, hotel entries in Montreal were elevated above street level in the 1970s, in response to security worries about Quebecois separatists. Today the threat is gone, but those older hotels continue to be maddeningly difficult to navigate.

Also in the 1970s, the Israeli consulate in New York built a unique security system: a two-door vestibule that allowed guards to identify visitors and control building access. Now this kind of entryway is widespread, and buildings with it will remain unwelcoming long after the threat is gone.

An Economic Agenda for Republicans

Thursday, October 19th, 2006

Tyler Cowen suggests An Economic Agenda for Republicans, then “handicaps” his ideas’ chances of making it into law:

1) Institute means-testing for Medicare. “The graying of America threatens to bankrupt our national finances, mostly through forthcoming Medicare expenditures. Medicare should be a welfare program for the needy, not a source of comprehensive coverage for wealthy old people.”

2) Eliminate all farm subsidies, quotas, and price supports. Eliminate all tariffs. Eliminate all budget earmarks. Eliminate all corporate welfare. “No, these are not the ‘big fish’ in the budget, but we need to take a stand against the totally outrageous.”

3) Take in more high-skilled immigrants, and make them legal. “This is a win-win situation, and we are turning our back on it.”

4) Phase out all forms of capital income taxation, including the corporate income tax, and replace them with a carbon tax, including a gasoline tax. “Savings and investment boost economic growth, but when it comes to energy, global warming threatens as a major problem and our dependence on Middle Eastern oil damages our foreign policy.”

5) Institute full-scale experiments with school vouchers. “Competition is a needed tonic for many of America’s worst schools; in any case, many simply cannot get worse. Make sure that the money is attached to the student, not to the school.”

So how does Cowen handicap any of his ideas ever making it into law?

“The odds? No. 1 will happen sooner or later, but at the last possible moment. It won’t be popular, and it will be introduced in sneak fashion, rather than transparently. No. 2 won’t happen. No. 3 will happen only when the climate of opinion shifts on low-skilled immigrants. Don’t hold your breath. [As for No. 4], I predict we will get a carbon tax under the next Democratic president but not sooner; capital income taxation won’t fall more than it already has. On No. 5, we will try some more poorly thought out voucher experiments, not the real thing.”

Yale poli sci professor Jacob Hacker offers up An Economic Agenda for Democrats.

Del Toro Talks At the Mountains of Madness

Thursday, October 19th, 2006

Guillermo del Toro, who directed the very Lovecraftian Hellboy, is gearing up to shoot Hellboy 2: The Golden Army in January, but he’s got something even more Lovecraftian planned after that. Del Toro Talks At the Mountains of Madness:

Mountains of Madness, which is a project I’ve had for several years, if it comes to fruition I’d rather do that immediately while the iron is hot,” del Toro says. “But it all depends on so many factors — creative, personal — that every time I predict what I’m going to do next, I fail.”

Details on when/how/if the project is going to happen are sketchy, but del Toro has a clear idea of how he will portray the classic horror tale on screen, and he says it will definitely be a studio picture. Adapting Lovecraft’s unique style to the movies has proven to be a difficult undertaking for filmmakers in the past, but the helmer says that he’s enhanced At the Mountains of Madness‘ story (about an expedition to Antarctica that turns creepy fast) so that it will work on screen.

“The albino penguins, the gigantic city… The hard thing about that novel is it’s very much a record of an expedition, so the narrative is brilliant in that it’s a little bit dry but it’s not character-based,” he says. “There are many characters that you don’t know — you don’t even know who the hell the expedition is [made up of] until you have it referenced in another book of Lovecraft’s.”

Fleshing out those characters will be key to making the film work, he explains.

“You need to create the character dynamics and the arc of the story, which is not in the book,” says del Toro. “Also, the horror in the book is only ambiguous and it’s kept open at the end. And you can still capture that atmosphere, but then you have to take it and go to a climax [in the movie]. Which in the book is really a climax by almost using negative space in the narrative; it’s what you don’t see that makes it. That essentially goes against the very essence of show business, because you don’t show anything. I think that what we’re doing is good and it’s as good as we can [do when] adapting Lovecraft. But it’s a project that’s been with us for several years now. It’s not an easy project to set up.”

Darwin’s entire works go online

Thursday, October 19th, 2006

Darwin’s entire works go online:

The original notebook, which documents Charles Darwin’s observations throughout his five-year voyage to the Amazon, Patagonia and the Pacific aboard HMS Beagle, is presumed stolen, but using a microfilm copy, Cambridge University scientists today make it available free online, along with the entire works of the scientist credited with the most important advance in science of the past 300 years.

The collection brings Darwin’s breathtaking range of writing together for the first time, with 50,000 pages of searchable text, and tens of thousands of images, many from previously unpublished manuscripts, together with notebooks, diaries and original publications such as The Origin of Species, The Voyage of the Beagle (the Journal of Researches) and The Descent of Man. Audio versions of key works will be free to download at the project website,

A Lesson From Europe on Health Care

Wednesday, October 18th, 2006

A Lesson From Europe on Health Care:

So something beside administrative costs is at work here, and it involves a basic cultural difference. Americans seem to be less willing to take no for an answer and more willing to try almost anything, no matter how expensive or how slim the odds, to prolong life. (The United States is also a fatter, more diverse country with wider income disparity, which gives our medical system a harder task.)

There are enormous benefits to the American refusal to go gently into that good night. It has made us obsessed with medical advances and turned this country into the world’s research laboratory. If you followed this year’s Nobel Prize announcements, you may have noticed that every scientific prize went to an American. Even hernia surgery, which has been around for 5,000 years, is now based in significant part on American methods, notes Raymond C. Read, a retired surgeon who has studied its history. Some of our spending, in short, goes to support medical care in other countries.

But much of it is simply wasteful. Expensive procedures — like some Alzheimer’s treatments, some knee surgeries and many body scans — are often no more effective than basic ones, according to research. Yet doctors can keep on getting reimbursed for the expensive ones. “Basically, anything that doesn’t kill patients is paid for by Medicare and insurance companies,” said Jonathan Skinner, a health care researcher at Dartmouth College.

This, I think, is the main lesson that we could stand to learn from Europe and Canada. We Americans tend to treat any rejection of a health claim as some conspiracy by insurance companies, the government, doctors and the pharmaceutical industry. In other countries, people have arrived at a better understanding that health care necessarily involves economic triage — that $10,000 spent on quixotic care is $10,000 that can’t be spent more usefully.

Seduced by Snacks? No, Not You

Wednesday, October 18th, 2006

Seduced by Snacks? No, Not You looks at Professor Brian Wansink’s “quirky experiments in the psychology of overindulgence”:

An appalling example of our mindless approach to eating involved an experiment with tubs of five-day-old popcorn. Moviegoers in a Chicago suburb were given free stale popcorn, some in medium-size buckets, some in large buckets. What was left in the buckets was weighed at the end of the movie. The people with larger buckets ate 53 percent more than people with smaller buckets. And people didn’t eat the popcorn because they liked it, he said. They were driven by hidden persuaders: the distraction of the movie, the sound of other people eating popcorn and the Pavlovian popcorn trigger that is activated when we step into a movie theater.

Dr. Wansink is particularly proud of his bottomless soup bowl, which he and some undergraduates devised with insulated tubing, plastic dinnerware and a pot of hot tomato soup rigged to keep the bowl about half full. The idea was to test which would make people stop eating: visual cues, or a feeling of fullness.

People using normal soup bowls ate about nine ounces. The typical bottomless soup bowl diner ate 15 ounces. Some of those ate more than a quart, and didn’t stop until the 20-minute experiment was over. When asked to estimate how many calories they had consumed, both groups thought they had eaten about the same amount, and 113 fewer calories on average than they actually had.

The 18 Mistakes That Kill Startups

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006

Paul Graham lists The 18 Mistakes That Kill Startups:

  1. Single Founder
  2. Bad Location
  3. Marginal Niche
  4. Derivative Idea
  5. Obstinacy
  6. Hiring Bad Programmers
  7. Choosing the Wrong Platform
  8. Slowness in Launching
  9. Launching Too Early
  10. Having No Specific User in Mind
  11. Raising Too Little Money
  12. Spending Too Much
  13. Raising Too Much Money
  14. Poor Investor Management
  15. Sacrificing Users to (Supposed) Profit
  16. Not Wanting to Get Your Hands Dirty
  17. Fights Between Founders
  18. A Half-Hearted Effort

U.S. Army sniper nails record shot

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006

I don’t know if this qualifies as a “feel good” story, but it is interesting. U.S. Army sniper nails record shot:

Gazing through the telescopic sight of his M-24 rifle, Army Staff Sgt. Jim Gilliland, leader of Shadow sniper team, fixed his eye on the Iraqi insurgent who had just killed an American soldier.

His quarry stood nonchalantly in the fourth-floor bay window of a hospital in battle-torn Ramadi, still clasping a long-barreled Kalashnikov. Instinctively allowing for wind speed and bullet drop, Shadow’s commander aimed 12 feet high.

A single shot hit the Iraqi in the chest and killed him instantly. It had been fired from a range of more than three-quarters of a mile, well beyond the capacity of the powerful Leupold sight, accurate to 3,300 feet [1000m].

“I believe it is the longest confirmed kill in Iraq with a 7.62mm rifle,” said Sgt. Gilliland, 28, who hunted squirrels in Double Springs, Ala., from the age of 5 before progressing to deer — and then to insurgents and terrorists.

“He was visible only from the waist up. It was a one-in-a-million shot. I could probably shoot a whole box of ammunition and never hit him again.”

Later that day, Sgt. Gilliland found out that the American soldier who had been killed by the Iraqi was Staff Sgt. Jason Benford, 30, a good friend.

The insurgent was one of between 55 and 65 Sgt. Gilliland estimates that he has shot dead in less than five months, putting him within striking distance of sniper legends such as Carlos Hathcock, a Marine who recorded 93 confirmed kills in Vietnam.

I don’t think we’d have a military if it weren’t for the south…

World’s Smallest GPS System

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006

With some hyperbole, you could say that an ant’s body comprises the World’s Smallest GPS System:

Despite zigzagging across flat, monotonous terrain looking for food, Saharan desert ants always head home via the shortest possible route. Like many insects, the ants use polarized sunlight to get direction, but how do they measure distance? To find out, neurobiologist Harald Wolf of the University of Ulm in Germany caught ants at a feeder 30 feet away from their nest. Some ants’ legs were extended by gluing on pig bristles, while other ants’ legs were severed below the knee. On the return trip, the ants on stilts overshot the nest, while those with severed legs stopped short. Wolf concludes the ants count their steps via an internal pedometer that is part of their nervous system, making them the only creatures known to do so.

Preschool Puberty, and a Search for the Causes

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006

Preschool Puberty, and a Search for the Causes looks at the various household products that mimic hormones:

In a 1998 paper in the journal Clinical Pediatrics, Dr. Chandra Tiwary, the former chief of pediatric endocrinology at Brook Army Medical Center in Texas, reported an outbreak of early breast development in four young African-American girls who used shampoos that contained estrogen and placental extract. The early puberty reversed once the shampoo was stopped.

In the tradition of previous physicians who deliberately exposed themselves to possible pathogens, Dr. Tiwary tried the shampoos on himself. He carefully measured his own levels of various male and female sex hormones to establish his baseline, used the shampoos for a few days, then repeated the tests.

While Dr. Tiwary is quick to admit that his unpublished findings must be interpreted with great caution, some of his sex hormone levels changed by almost 40 percent after he used the shampoos. In some cases, substances other than sex steroids may also disrupt normal sexual development. In Boston at the annual Endocrine Society meeting in June, Clifford Bloch of the University of Colorado School of Medicine presented several cases of young men who had developed marked breast enlargement from using shampoos containing lavender and tea tree oils, which are widely used essential oil additives that present no problem for adults.

Dr. Bloch collaborated with scientists at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina to test the oils on human breast cells grown in test tubes. Lavender and tea tree oil had the same effect on the cells as estrogen.

Rare meteorite found in Kansas field

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006

I can’t be the only person to see a headline like Rare meteorite found in Kansas field and wonder if the rock was green

Mariko Takahashi’s Fitness Video

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006

Mariko Takahashi’s Fitness Video is so surreal that I cannot prepare you for it. Seriously.