The Perfect Tool for Exploring Post-Apocalyptic Ruins

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

I think I’ve found the perfect tool for exploring post-apocalyptic ruins:

The Light for Life was developed in conjunction with IVUS Energy Innovations, the makers of Flashpoint™ Power Technology. Utilizing a revolutionary design the Light for Life relies on three ultra capacitors rather than traditional batteries. The capacitors are rated for 50,000 charge/discharge cycles (a charge a day for more than 135 years) with virtually no degradation.

One of the most amazing points about the light is that it charges in 90 seconds. This means, it can be recharged virtually anywhere power is available.

The lamp consists of three LEDs rated for over 50,000 hours (40 hours a week for over 24 years) and features three outputs:

  • 90 lumens for 90 minutes and then 25 lumens for 30 additional minutes
  • 270 lumens for 30 minutes dropping to 25 lumens for an additional 30 minutes
  • Strobe

The Light for Life will float and is waterproof to 3 meters.

What instead?

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Alex Tabarrok suggests a few things we could do instead of massive “stimulus” spending, such as an investment tax credit or a supply-side stimulus, but his third recommendation seemed to make more sense, a payroll tax cut, since the primary goal seems to be to reduce unemployment, and his fourth recommendation seems to make the most sense, but it’s a political non-starter: don’t panic. This is the policy that has cured most recessions, he points out.

Sun, sea, and sewage

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

There’s a big difference between having a lot of over-the-top real estate development and being a developed country, as Dubai has learned:

[Keith Mutch, the manager of the Offshore Sailing Club on Jumeirah Beach,] first detected trouble during a walk on the beach last summer. “The stench was unbearable and the water was a muddy brown. There was toilet paper in the sand,” he recalled.

He traced the sludge to a storm drain, buried behind a pile of rocks near the dock. It was spewing effluent into the sea. He followed the drain several kilometres inland to the Al Quoz industrial area, which houses the cement, paint and furniture factories that have helped to fuel the city’s rapid growth.

There he discovered that dozens of sewage lorries carrying human waste from Dubai’s 1.3 million inhabitants emptied their tanks into storm drains such as the one leading to the sailing club. The drains, all connected, were built to carry excess water that falls during Dubai’s short rainy season.

According to some truckers — mostly poor workers from southern Asia — illegal dumping of waste is a purely financial decision.

In interviews, several said that they were paid by the truckload to collect waste from the city’s septic tanks and transport it to the only sewage treatment plant in the area.

This involved a long drive into the desert with lengthy queues at the end — so they opted to dump their loads in the storm drains.“We are paid so poorly, we have no other choice,” said one driver, who insisted on remaining anonymous.

Graphic Encouragement to Wash Your Hands

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Ask a medical student to give a MRSA-positive patient a medical exam, and then have him touch an agar plate, with a bit of cefoxitin, an antibiotic, on it, and you get graphic encouragement to wash your hands.

(Hat tip to Mike.)

Mercury Toxicity

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

I suppose we should go to the source on the recent mercury scare. Here’s the abstract to the study, Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: measured concentrations in food product sugar:

Mercury cell chlor-alkali products are used to produce thousands of other products including food ingredients such as citric acid, sodium benzoate, and high fructose corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup is used in food products to enhance shelf life. A pilot study was conducted to determine if high fructose corn syrup contains mercury, a toxic metal historically used as an anti-microbial. High fructose corn syrup samples were collected from three different manufacturers and analyzed for total mercury. The samples were found to contain levels of mercury ranging from below a detection limit of 0.005 to 0.570 micrograms mercury per gram of high fructose corn syrup. Average daily consumption of high fructose corn syrup is about 50 grams per person in the United States. With respect to total mercury exposure, it may be necessary to account for this source of mercury in the diet of children and sensitive populations.

I found this background factoid — from the full study (PDF) — interesting:

Chlorine and caustic soda are produced at chlor-alkali plants using mercury cells or the increasingly popular membrane technology that is mercury free and more energyefficient. Worldwide there are approximately fifty mercury cell chlor-alkali plants in operation. Of those there are eight in the United States. In 2003 the EPA reported in the Federal Register that on average approximately seven tons of mercury were missing from each plant in the year 2000.

The actual results:

Mercury was detected in nine of the twenty samples analyzed (Table 1). Of ten samples from manufacturer “A”, nine were below the 0.005 ?g mercury/g sample detection limit with the sole exception being a sample that was 0.012 ?g mercury/g HFCS. Of the remaining ten samples from two other manufacturers, two were below the detection limit and the mercury content of the other eight samples ranged from 0.065 ?g to 0.570 ?g mercury/g HFCS (Table 1).

Mercury was not detected in eleven out of twenty HFCS samples analyzed (detection limit 0.005 ?g mercury/g). A single manufacturer produced nine of these eleven samples. These samples were likely manufactured using caustic soda produced by a membrane chlor-alkali plant which does not use mercury in its manufacturing process.

Eight of the nine HFCS samples exhibiting mercury levels between 0.065 ?g to 0.570 ?g mercury/g HFCS were produced by the other two manufacturers. This could indicate the use of mercury grade caustic soda or hydrochloric acid in the manufacturing processes used by these two manufacturers.

Another interesting factoid:

Results of a recent study of dietary fructose consumption among US children and adults indicate that fructose consumption by Americans represents ten percent (10%) of calories consumed in a 24-hour period. Seventy four percent (74%) of this fructose came from foods and beverages other than fruits and vegetables.

So, how much mercury are consumers consuming?

With the reported average daily consumption of 49.8 g HFCS per person, however, and our finding of mercury in the range of 0.00 to 0.570 ?g mercury/g HFCS, we can estimate that the potential average daily total mercury exposure from HFCS could range from zero to 28.4 ?g mercury.

Is that bad?

This range can be compared to the range of total mercury exposure from dental amalgam in children reported by Health Canada. In the report issued by Canada, daily estimates of total mercury exposure from dental amalgam in children ages 3-19 ranged on average from 0.79 to 1.91 ?g mercury. Canada and other countries do not recommend the use of mercury amalgam in pregnant women or children.

That’s an odd benchmark, isn’t it? The paper then goes on to mention the neural toxicity of methylmercury, which doesn’t necessarily seem applicable; it’s the form of mercury consumers absorb from eating tuna fish.

As Wikipedia points out, elemental mercury is poorly absorbed by ingestion and skin contact; less than 0.01% of ingested mercury is absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract. Even mercury salts, which dissolve better in water and thus get absorbed more by the GI tract, inflict little neurological damage without continuous or heavy exposure.

It’s the organic mercury compounds that can be frighteningly lethal. Famously, dimethylmercury, is so toxic that even a few microliters spilled on the skin, or even a latex glove, can cause death.

Anyway, if a mercury scare drops HFCS consumption, I suppose that’s an inadvertent public health boon.

Infection-mimicking materials to program dendritic cells

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Scientists may soon use infection-mimicking materials to program dendritic cells to fight cancer:

Cancer vaccines typically depend on cumbersome and expensive manipulation of cells in the laboratory, and subsequent cell transplantation leads to poor lymph-node homing and limited efficacy. We propose that materials mimicking key aspects of bacterial infection may instead be used to directly control immune-cell trafficking and activation in the body. It is demonstrated that polymers can be designed to first release a cytokine to recruit and house host dendritic cells, and subsequently present cancer antigens and danger signals to activate the resident dendritic cells and markedly enhance their homing to lymph nodes. Specific and protective anti-tumour immunity was generated with these materials, as 90% survival was achieved in animals that otherwise die from cancer within 25 days. These materials show promise as cancer vaccines, and more broadly suggest that polymers may be designed to program and control the trafficking of a variety of cell types in the body.

Topical treatment wipes out herpes with RNAi

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

A new topical treatment wipes out herpes with RNAi:

Harvard Medical School researchers have succeeded in developing a topical treatment that, in mice, wipes out herpes virus, one of the most intractable sexually transmitted human diseases.

Judy Lieberman, professor of pediatrics and a senior investigator at the Immune Disease Institute, has overseen the development of the treatment that uses RNA interference, or RNAi, to disable key genes necessary for herpes virus transmission. That cripples the virus in a molecular two-punch knockout, simultaneously disabling its ability to replicate, as well as the host cell’s ability to take up the virus.

What’s more, the treatment is just as effective when applied anywhere from one week prior to a few hours after exposure to the virus. In that sense, the basic biology of this prophylactic enables a real-world utility.

“People have been trying to make a topical agent that can prevent transmission — a microbicide — for many years,” says Lieberman. “But one of the main obstacles for this is compliance. One of the attractive features of the compound we developed is that it creates in the tissue a state that’s resistant to infection, even if applied up to a week before sexual exposure. This aspect has a real practicality to it. If we can reproduce these results in people, this could have a powerful impact on preventing transmission.”

RNA interference is still a fairly new discovery, and drug delivery still poses a challenge:

RNAi, a biological process that was identified barely a decade ago, has transformed the field of biological research. A breakthrough that earned the Nobel Prize in 2006, RNAi is a natural cellular process that occurs in all cells of all multicellular organisms to regulate the translation of genetic information into proteins. This natural process can be manipulated by researchers to switch off specific genes, and there is much current research and development work to harness RNAi for therapeutics.
Modifying a delivery technique that Lieberman developed in 2005, she and postdoctoral fellow Yichao Wu and junior researcher Deborah Palliser (who now heads her own laboratory at Albert Einstein College of Medicine) treated mice with strands of RNA that were fused to cholesterol molecules, which made it possible for the molecules to pass through the cell membranes. When applied in the form of a topical solution, these RNA molecules could then be fully absorbed into the vaginal tissue, protecting the mice against a lethal dose of administered virus.

What Washington wanted to hear

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

We ended up with “new economics” — fiat money, inflation, and “stimulus” spending — because that was what Washington wanted to hear:

The case is the same today: Barack Obama’s “stimulus” proposal involves doubling Federal discretionary spending, ie everyone’s budget. Obviously, this makes quite a few people very happy. And it probably spreads the loot around a little better than if we were just to give it all, up front, to Tony Rezko.

Hence the death of orthodox economics. The orthodox economists of the 19th century, the believers in sound money, were not in general policymakers. They viewed their task as one of describing the economy, not controlling it. But in the ’20s and ’30s, when university men started to move into government, politically palatable solutions were needed. The Austrians and other orthodox historians had nothing of the sort. So they were left out of the pie when all the power got distributed, and today they have no government jobs and only a few marginal academic ones.

Partisan, Pandering, Permanent

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

Arnold Kling cites a number of sources that demonstrate how the upcoming stimulus spending will be partisan, pandering, and permanent:

From the New York Times:
The economic stimulus plan that Congress has scheduled for a vote on Wednesday would shower the nation’s school districts, child care centers and university campuses with $150 billion in new federal spending, a vast two-year investment that would more than double the Department of Education’s current budget.

…by its sheer scope, the measure could profoundly change the federal government’s role in education, which has traditionally been the responsibility of state and local government.

Alan Reynolds writes:

The December unemployment rate was only 2.3% for government workers and 3.8% in education and health. Unemployment rates in manufacturing and construction, by contrast, were 8.3% and 15.2% respectively. Yet 39% of the $550 billion in [spending] would go to state and local governments. Another 17.3% would go to health and education.

‘Tough Love’ in the Outback

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

Australian conservatives have decided it’s time for ‘Tough Love’ in the Outback:

On almost every score, from disease to unemployment to illiteracy, the social decay in remote Aboriginal towns like Yuendumu is stunning. Australia’s 500,000 Aborigines are seven times as likely as other Australians to have tuberculosis, and eight times as likely to be infected with Hepatitis A, according to government data. Their life expectancy lags the rest of the population by 17 years, and is lower than that of impoverished countries such as Bangladesh and Bolivia. By contrast, the life-expectancy gap between Native Americans and the general U.S. population has shrunk in recent decades to 2.4 years.

“We are land-rich but doing poorly,” says Kim Hill, chief executive of the Northern Land Council, an Aboriginal group that, with a sister organization, the Central Land Council, oversees a swathe of Australia roughly the size of France. Until recently, outsiders, especially journalists, were barred from visiting the several dozen towns that sit on these territories without permits issued by the Council. Aboriginal leaders said they wanted to shelter their 40,000-year-old culture from the corrupting outside world.

Then, in 2007, Australia’s conservative federal government decided that such self-imposed isolation was the root cause of the crisis in Aboriginal areas because it allowed widespread abuses to remain hidden from the public eye. Citing numerous cases of sexual violence against children, then Prime Minister John Howard vowed to bring Aboriginal areas into “the mainstream of the Australian community.”

In June 2007, he launched a federal intervention here in the Northern Territory, Australia’s most heavily indigenous area. Aborigines make up one-third of the Territory’s population and own half its land; they also account for 84% of its prison inmates.

Mr. Howard sent in the army and deployed extra police. Suspending Australia’s 1975 Racial Discrimination Act, the government slapped alcohol and pornography bans on Aboriginal areas — but not on neighboring white towns — and restricted Aborigines’ ability to spend their welfare checks freely. It seized the management of Aboriginal townships, overriding the permit system and opening the doors to non-Aboriginals.

The intervention sparked accusations of racism from many Aboriginal leaders and from some officials in Australia’s Labor Party. Marion Scrymgour, currently the country’s most senior Aboriginal government official, at the time labeled the intervention “a vicious new McCarthyism.” Ms. Scrymgour, the Northern Territory’s deputy chief minister and a member of Labor, has since endorsed many aspects of the intervention, such as welfare controls.

Aboriginal leaders decry compulsory income management:

Under this policy, Aboriginal welfare and pension recipients — the bulk of the adult population in many remote towns, including Yuendumu — are paid half their money in cash. The other half comes in the form of a card which can only be used to pay for food and other essentials at specially licensed stores, and for gas and rent. The aim is to restrict the amount of cash Aborigines can spend on alcohol, gambling and drugs, and to combat child malnutrition. Aboriginal youths are more than twice as likely as other Australians to die of alcohol-related causes, according to a government survey.

I would find this rhetoric amusing if it wasn’t so sad:

“We’ll fight it very strongly. We’ll never buckle down or kneel down to any government,” says Harry Jagamara Nelson, who served as president of Yuendumu’s community government council until it was disbanded last July.

You’ll take money from the government dole, but if they “only” give you ration cards for food and other essentials, you’ll refuse to “kneel down”?

A number of women have opened a store that takes the ration cards, defying the male tribal elders, leading to even more sad rhetoric:

“The government has listened to a minority group of women…who do not have any power in the eyes of Aboriginal law,” Mr. Nelson says. “White people should stay out and not divide a community.”

I doubt Mr. Nelson truly wants white people and their white money, white alcohol, and white gasoline — gas-sniffing is a popular pastime there — to stay out.

The mix of tribal hunter-gatherer customs and modern state welfare payments is awkward — but the ration cards may have helped in some small part:

One big change: undermining a custom known across Aboriginal Australia as “humbug” — harassment, often of the elderly and of women, to share money and goods with their extended families. With only half the amount of cash circulating now, there’s less to be gained by humbugging. “In the past, granddaughters, sons, daughters, they were all humbugging for money,” says local Erica Napurrurla. “It’s all changed. It’s peaceful now.”

Study Finds High-Fructose Corn Syrup Contains Mercury

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

Study Finds High-Fructose Corn Syrup Contains Mercury:

In the first study, researchers found detectable levels of mercury in nine of 20 samples of commercial HFCS. The study was published in current issue of Environmental Health.

In the second study, the agriculture group found that nearly one in three of 55 brand-name foods contained mercury. The chemical was most common in HFCS-containing dairy products, dressings and condiments.

The use of mercury-contaminated caustic soda in the production of HFCS is common. The contamination occurs when mercury cells are used to produce caustic soda.

I suppose it’s redundant to say that researchers found detectable levels of mercury — although it does imply that they’re merely detectable.

You have to love the way they leave the implicit danger to our imagination.

Addendum: The Corn Refiners Association (CRA) has challenged the relevance and accuracy of information published by Environmental Health:

“This study appears to be based on outdated information of dubious significance. Our industry has used mercury-free versions of the two re-agents mentioned in the study, hydrochloric acid and caustic soda, for several years. These mercury-free re-agents perform important functions, including adjusting pH balances,” stated Audrae Erickson, President, Corn Refiners Association. “For more than 150 years, corn wet millers have been perfecting the process of refining corn to make safe ingredients for the American food supply.”

“It is important that Americans are provided accurate, science-based information. They should know that high fructose corn syrup is safe,” continued Erickson. “In 1983, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration formally listed high fructose corn syrup as safe for use in food and reaffirmed that decision in 1996.”

“High fructose corn syrup contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives and meets FDA’s requirements for the use of the term ‘natural.” Erickson said.

So, if producers no longer use mercury-contaminated caustic soda, why are researchers finding mercury in the product?

Furry, Proud, and Red

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

One of the well-known “secrets” of Sesame Street‘s enduring success is that it is not aimed purely at its pre-literate, toddler audience. Many of the skits have a sly sense of humor aimed at any adults in the room.

The Muppet Show took this a step further, with many (fairly) contemporary acts performing. After The Muppet Show‘s successful run, it looks like Sesame Street moved further in that direction.

For instance, even though I can’t say I was a fan of the Goo Goo Dolls in their heyday, I really enjoyed their Sesame Street performance of Pride, a reworking of their hit single Slide:

It’s amazing how earnest the lead singer is — especially in contrast to the other members of the band, who are clearly acting like they’re playing with a toddler (Elmo).

I can’t say I was ever a fan of Hootie and the Blowfish either, but I love the notion of turning Hold My Hand into a traffic-safety song:

Incidentally, these videos remind you why the front man is the front man. Darius seems perfectly comfortable singing to a red puppet. The other guys? Not so much.

Lastly, Norah Jones turns Don’t Know Why into Don’t Know Y — and really performs a part:

How the anthropogenic global warming disaster developed

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

Mencius Moldbug explains how the entire anthropogenic global warming disaster developed:

First: out of genuine curiosity, people started trying to build climate models, measure CO2, and the like.

Second: since [the U.S. government] is not a charity, they had to apply for grants and describe the importance of their work.

Third: they noticed, consciously or subconsciously, that an easy way to make their work seem more important was to predict disastrous consequences.

Fourth: the same evolutionary feedback process that, in a falsifiable science, eradicates error, operated to promote it. Researchers and fields which produced more alarming results received more funding — because, by definition, their work was more important.

Iterate to the point of sheer insanity, and you have the [anthropogenic global warming] research community we have today.

The Oracle of Doom

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

Robert Langreth, writing in Forbes, calls Nassim Nicholas Taleb (The Black Swan) The Oracle of Doom — but not everyone thinks the oracle draws the right conclusions from the realization that markets can be unpredictable;

The critique from Paul Seabright of the Toulouse School of Economics in France: “He is right that economists have put too much faith in their tools, but he doesn’t stop there; he implies that all the tools are useless.” NYU economist Robert Engle says Taleb draws “precisely the wrong lesson” from the meltdown. “This episode has told us we need to work harder and harder on our risk models — not to ignore them entirely.” Texas Tech University statistician Peter Westfall complains that Taleb, while correct about fat tails, is slippery when it gets to mathematical assumptions underlying his theories. “He simply refuses to be pinned down,” says Westfall.

Taleb has been slow to offer up much in the way of advice. My own conclusion was that debt, which tends to be inflexible, was more dangerous than people realized, and that we shouldn’t be subsidizing it with its current tax-advantage. (Interest payments are a deductible expense; dividend payments are not.) It looks like Taleb is now suggesting the same thing — although he makes an analogy I wouldn’t be so quick to make and some policy suggestions that seem unpalatable:

He thinks the world would be a more stable place if there were fewer debt instruments and more equity stakes, perhaps along the lines of the Islamic musharaka system of profit sharing. He thinks complex derivatives such as swaps should be banned because they are tools for hiding massive risk. He envisions a two-tier financial system: Banks that might have to be bailed out someday should be treated like utilities and limited to all but the simplest investing and lending activities. Hedge funds that speculate with private money should do so with the knowledge they will never be bailed out again. Retail investors should keep more money in inflation-indexed bonds and not count on the stock market.

(Hat tip à mon père.)

Good News and Bad News on Parenting

Monday, January 26th, 2009

Bryan Caplan shares the Good News and Bad News on Parenting. First, the good news:

High-quality time-diary studies go back about 40 years, which makes it possible to fact-check popular perceptions about the evolution of parenting. One major finding is unsurprising: Fathers spend much more time with their children than they used to. In 1965, the average father did three hours per week of primary child care; by 2000, he did seven. The next big result, though, is amazing: Today’s average mother spends more time in primary child care, too! That is true despite the fact that fathers do a lot more, despite the fact that families have fewer children, and despite the fact that modern moms are far more likely to work outside the home.

During any given era, admittedly, working moms spend less time taking care of their children than stay-at-home moms. Over time, however, both working and stay-at-home moms have sharply increased their hours of primary child care. In 2000, stay-at-home moms did 60 percent more than working moms; but working moms in 2000 did about as much as stay-at-home moms did in 1975.

Actually, that’s not particularly good news. If you thought it was, you fell for the nurture assumption:

By using — and refining — these twin and adoption methods, behavioral geneticists have produced credible answers to the nature-nurture controversy. To put it simply, nature wins. Heredity alone can account for almost all shared traits among siblings. “Environment” broadly defined has to matter, because even genetically identical twins are never literally identical. But the specific effects of family environment (“nurture”) are small to nonexistent. As Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, summarizes the evidence:

“First, adult siblings are equally similar whether they grew up together or apart. Second, adoptive siblings are no more similar than two people plucked off the street at random. And third, identical twins are no more similar than one would expect from the effects of their shared genes.”

The punch line is that, at least within the normal range of parenting styles, how you raise your children has little effect on how your children turn out. You can be strict or permissive, involved or distant, encouraging or critical, religious or secular. In the long run, your kids will resemble you in many ways; but they would have resembled you about as much if they had never met you.

If family environment has little effect, Caplan asks, why does almost everyone think the opposite?

Behavior geneticists have a plausible explanation for our confusion: Family environment has substantial effects on children. Casual observers are right to think that parents can change their kids; the catch is that the effect of family environment largely fades out by adulthood. For example, one prominent study found that when adoptees are 3 to 4 years old, their IQ has a .20 correlation with the IQ of their adopting parents; but by the time adoptees are 12 years old, that correlation falls to 0. The lesson: Children are not like lumps of clay that parents mold for life; they are more like pieces of flexible plastic that respond to pressure, but pop back to their original shape when that pressure is released.

So here’s the real good news and bad news:

The really good news is that we can stop worrying about the horrible fate of the next generation. The bad news is that parents today are making large “investments” in their children that are unlikely to pay off.

Now if parents enjoyed every minute of child care, there wouldn’t be any bad news. Parents’ huge time commitment would be successful consumption, not failed investment. If you study parents at the next children’s event you attend, though, you will probably notice a lot of tired, grouchy faces. Happiness researchers confirm that impression. According to a study by a team of scholars led by the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, mothers enjoy child care just a little more than housework, and a lot less than watching television. As an economist, I have to suspect that a major reason for parents’ lack of enthusiasm for their role is simply diminishing marginal utility: Average enjoyment of parenting is low because parents are overdoing it.

You might respond, “Yes, but at least parental attention makes the children happier.” It’s striking, then, that even kids don’t seem to want all this parental attention. One notable study by Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute found that while most parents believe their children want more face time, only a tiny minority of children actually do. In contrast, about a third of children wish their parents were less stressed and tired. What kids seem to want from their parents isn’t more time; it’s a better attitude.

Ironically, then, a bird’s-eye view of parenting research suggests that it would be good for the world if parents stopped trying so hard. Parents would be better off, because they would be doing less of something that — through excessive familiarity — has lost its charm. Children wouldn’t be worse off, because parental “investment” has little payoff anyway. In fact, if we take children at their word, they’d be better off. Kids know better than anyone that if mom and dad aren’t happy, nobody’s happy.