Cash-Strapped Cities Try Private Guards Over Police

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

The Oakland City Council recently voted to hire International Services Inc., a private security agency, to patrol crime-plagued districts:

Hiring private guards is less expensive than hiring new officers. Oakland — facing a record $80 million budget shortfall — spends about 65% of its budget for police and fire services, including about $250,000 annually, including benefits and salary, on each police officer.

In contrast, for about $200,000 a year the city can contract to hire four private guards to patrol the troubled East Oakland district where four on-duty police officers were killed in March. And the company, not the city, is responsible for insurance for the guards.

This immediately raises a question: Why are private guards so much cheaper? The article doesn’t say. John Robb notes that Oakland’s mistake is trying this on a city wide level — where the unions can shut it down.

Research shows that private guards work:

In the 1990s, retailers in crime-plagued locales began to organize business improvement districts, which collected fees for area enhancements, including hiring armed guards who functioned as backups to local police.

A February study of the 30 improvement districts in the downtown Los Angeles region said districts with the guards register significantly less crime than areas without them. Conducted by the Rand Corp., a policy research organization based in Santa Monica, Calif., the study found that from 1994 to 2005, violent crime dropped on average 8% more compared with the rest of the city during that period.

Africa’s platinum plated tribe

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

Royal Bafokeng Nation is blessed, or cursed, with valuable mineral resources — not meteoric Wakandan vibranium, but platinum:

The budget for this year stands at £92m, with almost all of that coming from platinum. That money has bought some very modern aspirations for a traditional community of 300,000, who in conjunction with the state, are still ruled by a Supreme Council of elders, 82 strong, and chaired by the 41-year-old king.

The urbane Kgosi, said by friends to be a borderline workaholic, was never supposed to be the king. It took the untimely deaths of both his elder brothers for the architect to find himself on the throne in 2000. His first response, say aides, was to take a step back before deciding that he was going to “think big”.

Unveiling his masterplan to make sleepy Phokeng into something closer to Malaysia or Singapore, he told a stunned audience that rural development was “bland” and “defeatist”.

“I want more than that for the Bafokeng people,” he told them. “It is founded on the idea that if you want to achieve big things, you have to dream big, and take big calculated risks to reach beyond your limitations.”

Those limits are immediately apparent. Most of his subjects are still poor and unemployment runs at 40 per cent. While infrastructure like roads, schools and sanitation is better than in surrounding areas the Bafokeng have suffered from the perception that they don’t need any assistance from the municipality.

There is already a glimpse of the future at the palace. Rather than a gawdy royal residence the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace is a 44,000-seater stadium which will host World Cup matches next year.

The South African football team has already played at the stadium and the Bafokeng have top flight teams in rugby and soccer. They are, of course, named the Platinum Leopards and the Platinum Stars.

Sue Cook, an American anthropologist who came to study the Bafokeng 12 years ago and ended up working for them, says their “genius” throughout their history has been in “welcoming strangers” and learning from them.

When the 19th-century Voortrekkers arrived on his land, Kgosi Mokgatle formed an intermittent friendship with Paul Kruger. It was the taciturn Boer leader who first suggested to King Mokgatle that he would need title to his traditional homelands if he wasn’t to be swept away in the tide of migration.

The king listened to him and mustered as many of his warriors as he could, sending them to work in the diamond mines of Kimberley. The money generated was used to buy what they had always thought of as their own land. Steadily a series of “farms” were purchased that make up the bulk of what is today the land of the Royal Bafokeng Nation. When in 1913 the Natives Land Act prevented blacks from owning land the king entrusted it to Lutheran missionaries, who held it for them until they could reclaim it.

Getting the land was only half the battle, according to Mpueleng Pooe, a lawyer and spokesman for the Bafokeng nation. What followed in the 1990s was a “David and Goliath” battle between the tribe and Impala Platinum Holdings. After nearly five years of “very acrimonious” court battles, Pooe explains, the corporation settled and the Bafokeng won 22 per cent of the platinum royalties in 1999. Their next smart move was to convert this into equity, making David the largest shareholder in the Goliath of Impala.

Wall Street Excess

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

Philipp Meyer was a Cornell English major and the son of two recovering hippies before he became a Wall Street trader and immersed himself in its sordid excesses:

I’d been working for the bank for about five weeks when I woke up on the balcony of a ski resort in the Swiss Alps. It was midnight and I was drunk. One of my fellow management trainees was urinating onto the skylight of the lobby below us; another was hurling wine glasses into the courtyard.

Behind us, someone had stolen the hotel’s shoe-polishing machine and carried it into the room; there were a line of drunken bankers waiting to use it. Half of them were dripping wet, having gone swimming in all their clothes and been too drunk to remember to take them off. It took several more weeks of this before the bank considered us properly trained.
I put on 45 pounds in my first year at the bank, and, as you might guess, it was not from eating McDonalds. Occasionally I ate stuff like sushi, but mostly it was steak. We went to the good places like Sparks, Peter Luger’s, and the Strip House. We tended to look down on chains like Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris-they were for car dealers or stock brokers, not traders. Regardless of where we ate, we ate in quantity. My standard strategy was to order half a dozen appetisers, plus a steak and lobster, plus a few desserts and much wine as I could drink, as long it was under a few hundred dollars a bottle. Followed by a digestif, typically a 30-year-old port. There’s not any way to justify this except to say I was trying to catch up to my colleagues. We would treat those restaurants like Roman vomitoriums. And it wasn’t the food so much as the wine. Being a junior employee, I couldn’t really order bottles that cost more than a few hundred dollars, but the senior guys could get nicer stuff – Opus One, Chateau Latour. As long as we were out with a client, the bank paid. I remember being stunned the first time I saw a dinner bill for ten grand. But that was just the beginning.

What it boiled down to was austerity for everyone else and rampant consumption for ourselves. I never saw anyone literally set fire to money, but I did drink most of a bottle of 1983 Margaux ($2,000).
One evening, a close friend from the bank, an art history major from Princeton, took a bunch of recruits out with me. I did my normal trick of ordering nearly everything on the menu. There were piles of raw fish, shrimp, paté, sauces that had taken hours to prepare. It was far more food than anyone could eat and I could see some of the recruits were a little stunned at the quantities of uneaten shrimp and oysters being shovelled into the bin. I ate a big steak, put down a few bottles of red wine at $400-a-bottle and we hopped into a minibus we’d chartered for the night (gauche, but we couldn’t find a large enough limo). We stopped somewhere and bought a mixed case of Veuve Clicquot and Moet. Try the difference between these two, I demanded, but by then the recruits were all so drunk they barely touched it. I could tell they were getting a little scared. This stuff is bottom of the line, I told them. You ought to try the vintages. I downed at least two of the bottles in rapid succession. Some of the recruits would not look at me. They did not want to be there anymore. We stopped at a bar. I realised I was going to be sick, made sure my colleague had things under control, caught a cab, and promptly began vomiting out the window. Because of the quantity of wine and red meat I’d consumed, it looked like I was spitting up blood. The cab driver pulled over, certain I was about to die in his backseat. A finely dressed couple opened the door and I clambered out and vomited on their shoes. I don’t remember how I got home. The next morning I discovered a dozen cigars stuffed in my pockets, probably from the restaurant. I told my colleagues what had happened, looking for some moral bearing, secretly hoping to be chastised, but they all thought I was a hero. The vomiting on strangers was their favourite part. My boss, for fun, would sometimes throw cocktail olives, sushi, things of that nature, across the room in restaurants, always at people we didn’t know.

Markets are driven by a very small number of very large investors, he notes, and those people may not be bad people, but they won’t question their million-dollar paychecks.

The Fundamental Consumerist Delusion

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

In Spent, Geoffrey Miller (The Mating Mind) argues that marketing plays upon our weaknesses as evolved, biological creatures, obsessed with signaling:

From my perspective as an evolutionary psychologist, this is how consumerist capitalism really works: it makes us forget our natural adaptations for showing off desirable fitness-related traits. It deludes us into thinking that artificial products work much better than they really do for showing off these traits. It confuses us about the traits we are trying to display by harping on vague terms at the wrong levels of description (wealth, status, taste), and by obfuscating the most stable, heritable, and predictive traits discovered by individual differences research. It hints coyly at the possible status and sexual payoffs for buying and displaying premium products, but refuses to make such claims explicit, lest consumer watchdogs find those claims empirically false, and lest significant others get upset by the personal motives they reveal. The net result could be called the fundamental consumerist delusion — that other people care more about the artificial products you display through consumerist spending than about the natural traits you display through normal conversation, cooperation, and cuddling.

Fear Panic Panic

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Peter Sandman explains the basics of risk communication and applies them to a potential flu epidemic:

The fundamental principle of risk communication can be summarized in a number, [which] is the correlation between how much harm a risk does and how upset people get about it. If you look at a long list of risks, and you rank them in order of how upset people get [about them], then you rank them again in order of how much harm they do, then you correlate the two, you get a glorious 0.2.

Those of you who remember your statistics know you can square a correlation coefficient to get the percentage of variance accounted for: If you square 0.2, you get 0.04, or 4% of the variance.

That is, the risks that kill people and the risks that upset people are completely different. If you know that a risk kills people, you have no idea whether it upsets them or not. If you know it upsets them, you have no idea whether it kills them or not.

If you replace mortality with morbidity in the calculation — you’re not killing people, you’re just making them sick — our correlation remains 0.2. If you use ecosystem damage, the correlation is once again 0.2, and if, as this group likes to do, you correlate economic damage with public concern, the correlation is 0.2.

It doesn’t seem to matter what your measure of harm is. Whatever your measure of harm, across a wide range of risks, the correlation between how much harm [a risk is] going to do and how upset people are going to get is this absurdly low 0.2 correlation.

In the mid-80′s, I took these two concepts — how dangerous [a risk] is and how upset people get [about it] — and I called the first one “hazard” and the second one “outrage.” The word “outrage” applies more readily to the environmental controversies that I was working on at the time than it does to the kind of public health issues we’re focused on today, but the terminology stuck, so what we’ve got is this glorious 0.2 correlation between hazard and outrage.

He asks us to imagine a 2 x 2 table of hazard against outrage.

In one corner, we have the high hazard/low outrage risk, where people are very endangered but not very upset. The task [in this setting] is precaution advocacy: You try to persuade them to take the risk more seriously so they’ll take precautions. In the opposite corner, you have high outrage/low hazard, [where people are] very upset but not very endangered. The risk communication task [in this setting] is outrage management — to try to reduce the outrage so they’ll stop wasting their time on this trivial hazard. Those are the two mismatches.

In the third corner, high hazard/high outrage, you have crisis communication. People are upset, and they’re right to be upset because they’re endangered. Crisis communication is entirely unlike the other two [settings]. In precaution advocacy, you want the outrage [to be greater]. In outrage management, you want the outrage lower. In crisis communication, the outrage is just fine.

But there’s still a lot of communication to be done. If you were communicating in the Superdome a few weeks ago, or if you were communicating in Lower Manhattan a few years ago, there was a great deal of communication to be done, but it wasn’t telling people to calm down, and it wasn’t telling people to get excited. It was helping people bear their outrage and take wise rather than unwise precautions in the face of their outrage.

And finally, just to complete this 2 x 2 matrix, in the low hazard/low outrage corner, I have not found a way to earn a living. I do the other 3 for a living, and I think it’s worth noticing that they are 3 different skill sets. You can have all of them, just as you can be a good carpenter and a good electrician at the same time, but you’d better bring the right tool kit to the task. If you think it’s a carpentry task when it’s really an electrical task, you’re going to screw it up.

Most people would agree that the goal with respect to a new flu epidemic is precaution advocacy — but not everyone would agree:

[There are] people who do think avian flu is serious but don’t think the public should take it seriously. That’s a position held by a number of people in the government and a number of people in a number of governments who argue that, yes, we the government are going to prepare, but for God’s sake don’t tell the public, because … they might get excessively frightened, and that might be bad for their psychology and bad for the economy. God forbid people should be afraid just because they’re going to be dead. As the economists earlier on pointed out, it doesn’t hurt the economy all that much for a lot of people to die, but if a lot of people get frightened, that’s bad for business! So, there’s a sense that we dare not frighten people. The other base in this argument says, “It’s serious but let’s not say so,” [because] there’s nothing for people to do anyhow.
First is the false expectation that fear will inevitably escalate into panic.

I wish I had ample time to demonstrate to you that panic is rare. Even in New Orleans, where the circumstances were as conducive to panic as any I’ve seen in a long time, there isn’t that much evidence of panic. There’s lots of evidence of panicky feelings. There’s lots of evidence of misery. There’s lots of evidence of lots of things going wrong. But if you ask yourself which was a bigger problem in New Orleans, people so frightened they couldn’t think straight, or people insufficiently frightened who didn’t get out of town, I think you can make a very strong argument that the latter was a bigger problem than the former.

Now, you do always have, in a crisis, lots of people feeling panicky, but people behaving in panicky ways is relatively rare. New Yorkers know this better than anybody because we have the lesson of 9/11. In the stairwells of the World Trade Center, people were more courteous than New Yorkers usually are, and more organized than New Yorkers usually are, and there were very few signs of panic among those who evacuated the Twin Towers…. When you interview the survivors, the vast majority tell you they panicked, but they didn’t. They’re wrong. They felt like panicking, and they did just fine.

Panic, in short, is rare. But official “panic panic” is common. That is, officials often imagine that the public is panicking or about to panic. And in order to allay panic, officials sometimes do exactly the wrong thing from a crisis communication perspective: They withhold information, they over-reassure, they express contempt for public fears, etc.

Panic is quite rare. What’s quite common is denial; denial is why panic is rare. We are organized such that, when we’re about to panic, we trip a circuit breaker instead and go into denial. There are good reasons for being worried about bird flu denial. There’s very little reason, in my judgment, for being worried about bird flu panic — with the possible exception of in the middle of the crisis, where that’s going to be an issue. But it’s not an issue now. So, I think that’s the first misperception.

The relationship between fear and precaution-taking is a U-curve, an inverted U-curve, obviously. If people are insufficiently afraid, they don’t take precautions. If people are excessively afraid, they don’t take precautions. They don’t panic either. They go into denial and sit around saying, “It’ll happen to somebody else.” But I think that between apathy and excessive fear leading to denial is a period in which [people are] getting more concerned and are, therefore, doing more about [the risk]. So it’s completely inconsistent to say we want the public to prepare, [but] we don’t want the public to be frightened. The main incentive for people to prepare is becoming frightened.

There’s also the failure to understand that the initial burst of fear on first encountering a new piece of alarming information is temporary. Psychiatrists call this an “adjustment reaction.” The normal reaction when you first discover that something bad is going to happen is to overreact temporarily. You become more vigilant. You stop doing things that look like they may be dangerous. If it’s 9/11, you stop flying in airplanes. If it’s SARS, you stop going to Chinese restaurants. Then there’s a hepatitis outbreak in a Mexican restaurant, and you say, “All right, I’ll go back to Chinese restaurants.” [In the] short-term, [though] you got through an adjustment reaction.

The adjustment reaction is a rehearsal. It’s a logistical rehearsal, and it’s an emotional rehearsal, and the evidence is that people who have an adjustment reaction have two big advantages over people who don’t. The first advantage is they are likelier to do the right thing in the crisis because they have rehearsed, and the second [advantage] is that they are more likely to notice if the crisis doesn’t happen because they have rehearsed. They gear up better, and they stand down better. Ideally we want as many people as possible to have this adjustment reaction beforehand, so they’ll be used to the idea if and when the crisis comes, and they’ll be ready to take appropriate action.

The Life You Can Save

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Philip Greenspun reviews Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save, which argues that it is our responsibility to provide sufficient aid to poor people in foreign countries so that nobody starves or dies:

The obvious objection to this argument is provided by Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), who predicted that human population growth would inevitably exceed growth in food production. Singer does not mention Malthus until page 121 (out of 173). Malthus is dismisssed in a couple of pages by noting that if everyone on Planet Earth became a vegetarian we would then have enough grain to feed everyone. [Not a refutation of Malthus because universal vegetarianism would yield a constant increase in calories available against an exponential increase in population.] Singer does not reference Gregory Clark, author of A Farewell to Alms, the most heavily researched exploration of Malthus and his applicability to the modern world (Clark analyzes data going back to the 12th Century in England). Much of Singer’s support for a cheerful economic outlook is provided by references to Jeffrey Sachs (see this weblog posting from 2006). Sachs is cited uncritically starting in the Preface and continuing throughout the book, as though Sachs had proved his assertion that if we guarantee every impoverished person on the planet free food, free housing, free education, and free health care, all currently poor countries will experience a development process comparable to Germany during the Industrial Revolution.

Neither Sachs nor Singer deals with the example populations that are in fact guaranteed all of these things, e.g., Saudi Arabians. The result of all of these guarantees in Saudi Arabia has been one of the world’s highest birthrates, not a boom in education or industry.

Singer, in asserting that there is enough food for everyone, no matter how many babies we produce, is not taking the long view. It may be that agricultural production is in a temporary boom due to the fact that we have been digging up coal and oil that required millions of years to form. Chemical fertilizer has been the source of much of the increased productivity of agricultural land and (1) it won’t be available forever, (2) it gives a constant, not exponential, increase in output. It might not be a moral act to help increase the long-term population of a country above the level that can be fed on naturally fertilized land. Singer does not mention the use of fertilizer or question how sustainable current levels of agricultural production are (nor does he note that we’ve already more or less proven that the world’s fisheries were not sustainable at prior levels).
Singer never does address the question of whether by helping to keep alive 1 poor person today, you would simply be creating 100 hungry mouths to feed some years down the road (by which time you might be dead, your survivors wouldn’t be so generous, and now 100 people would starve to death instead of 1). Let me repeat a couple of passages from my review of The End of Poverty:

One reason this 396-page book isn’t more convincing is that Sachs cannot come up with a single example of a country that has been lifted out of poverty by foreign aid. He talks about saving Russia with financial engineering, but Russia’s clever people were making jet fighters, atomic bombs, and helicopters long before they ever met Sachs. He talks about the Marshall Plan for post-WWII Germany, but Germany didn’t suffer from overpopulation and the lack of education that plague modern poor countries; investing in folks that had conquered France in six weeks probably did not seem very risky…

The most serious flaw with the book, in my opinion, is that Sachs fails to devote even one sentence to the modern fact that labor is mobile and global. Transportation and communication costs fall every decade. An ambitious, hard-working, intelligent, and well-educated person has never had an easier time moving from a poor country to a rich country. … If an African achieves the standards of a First World nurse, he or she can easily emigrate to Europe or the U.K. where such skills are in high demand. The emigre enjoys a much more comfortable lifestyle in the rich country, can make free voice calls to friends and family back in Africa, and can fly home in 8 hours on a discount airline. Educated and productive people are the biggest assets of most countries and, more so than ever, they can simply choose to walk away. Sachs talks about building medical schools in Africa so that doctors and nurses will be plentiful, not noting that the U.S. has jobs for perhaps 200,000 more doctors than U.S. medical schools are going to graduate in the next decade or so.

It is difficult to say what Singer’s The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty adds to Sachs’s 2005 book. The lasting benefits of foreign aid are difficult to find, yet rich countries and people continue to put hundreds of billions of dollars every year into foreign aid. Singer says that this makes us immoral cheapskates. However, the kinds of arguments that Singer put forth to prove that people should give more could easily be used to prove that people should give less. The grain and packaged foods that you paid to send to a poor country may result in the bankruptcy of a local farmer or food processor. The very possibility of foreign aid handouts may discourage businesses in poor countries from investing in agriculture, health care, and education. Would you start a private health clinic if you thought that Paul Farmer was going to show up next month and offer health care for free?

Teachers Learn to Help Kids Behave

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Teachers are learning — or re-learning — how to help kids behave:

Daily playtimes are a centerpiece of the curriculum used in Ms. Randle’s Head Start classroom, “Tools of the Mind” — which incorporates training in “executive function,” or the mental ability to control impulses and focus on new information, into children’s routine. Before playtime each day, they plan a role for themselves during an imaginary trip to the beauty shop, barber shop or library, represented by play structures along the walls. Then, they act out the roles for 45 minutes, with children helping each other stick to their roles. A boy who has chosen to be the baby, for example, would be prevented from going off track and starting to order everyone around, because he would spoil the playtime for everyone.

“It’s the kind of play you and I engaged in during the summer, when you’d play the same thing for a month, like ‘Knights and Castles,’ ” says Deborah Leong, co-creator of the program with Elena Bodrova. Today, “what parent do you know who opens the door in the summer and lets children rove around the neighborhood?”

Children learn restraint by working in pairs on math or letters. Each child holds a card with an ear, lips, hand or check mark on it, as a reminder of his or her role — to listen, to read, to do the task or to check a partner’s work. As one child practices a lesson, the other must control any impulse to interfere. The Tools curriculum is in use in about 400 mainstream and Head Start classrooms in seven states, and 400 more teachers will be trained this year, says Dr. Leong, a psychology professor at Metropolitan State College, Denver.

Another approach, called PATHS, is expanding rapidly in preschools. While many teachers tell children to “use your words” to express anger or frustration, PATHS intervenes earlier in a child’s decision-making about how to behave. Children are encouraged when upset to emulate Twiggle the turtle, a green puppet who pulls into his shell: They stop, cross their arms over their chests, take a deep breath and give a name to their emotions.

Also, the Chicago School Readiness Project, developed by C. Cybele Raver, a psychology professor at New York University, trains teachers to manage classrooms in a way that rewards good behavior. Recent studies show all three of these programs sharply curb bad behavior.

To find peaceful classrooms, these examples suggest, parents might look for programs that allow time for free, orderly play; that work to instill self-control in kids, and that go beyond teacher-directed drills to help children learn to make and stick to their own choices.

If you want war, work for justice

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

If you want war, work for justice, David Friedman says:

I think it is a more plausible slogan than the usual version. If you and I disagree because I want an outcome more favorable to me and you want an outcome more favorable to you, there is room for compromise — as we see whenever people bargain over the price of a house. But if we disagree because I see what I want as just and the alternative as unjust and you see it the other way around, compromise looks to both of us like moral treason.

Consider the issue, currently a live one in Europe, of whether people should be fined for saying or writing things critical of Islam. For those who support the traditional liberal view, agreeing to a fine of five hundred dollars instead of a thousand dollars isn’t a solution — any punishment at all is an intolerable violation of free speech. For some orthodox Muslims, on the other hand, permitting people to slander the Prophet is clearly unacceptable; if the government will not impose a fine large enough to stop such an outrage, it is up to the believers to stop it themselves.

That, I think, is part of the nature of beliefs about justice — they are absolute, bright edged, in a way in which preferences are not. The point is summed up in the Latin phrase Fiat justicia, ruat coelum — let justice be done though the sky falls.

Those whose bumper stickers read “If you want peace, work for justice” simply take it for granted that there is no question what is just; if you want to find out, just ask them. The problem with the world as they see it is merely that other people are insufficiently virtuous to act accordingly.

Record-Breaking Amateur Rocket Launch

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Steve Eves broke two world records Saturday, when his 1/10th scale model 1/10th-scale model Saturn V rocket lifted off from a field in Maryland:

The 36-ft.-tall rocket was the largest amateur rocket ever launched and recovered successfully — and at 1648 pounds, also the heaviest.

Eves’ single-stage behemoth was powered by nine motors — eight 13,000 Newton-second N-Class motors and a 77,000 Newton-second P-Class motor. (Five Newton-seconds is equivalent to about a pound of thrust.) All told, the array generated enough force to chuck a Volkswagen more than a half-mile — and sent the Saturn V more than 4440 feet straight up. It was arguably the most audacious display of raw power ever generated by an amateur rocket. “I didn’t start out to break records,” the soft-spoken 50-year-old says. “I had just been working away, building it — and then one day I realized no one’s ever pulled this off before.”

The launch took place at Higgs Farm, near Price, Md., home field for the Maryland-Delaware Rocketry Association (MDRA). The MDRA has a history of generating headlines along with serious thrust: Eves broke records set here five years ago by the Liberty Project, a 24-ft.-tall rocket that weighed 1368 pounds. But as a testament to the camaraderie in the hobby, Neil McGilvray, one of Liberty Project’s team leaders, packed the parachutes for Eves’ Saturn V. “When something like this comes along,” McGilvray says, “there’s no competition.”
Two years ago, Eves says, he began thinking back to his childhood — to the days teachers would roll a TV set into the classroom for the students to watch Apollo launches. He tracked down schematics for the 36-story-tall rocket on the Internet and in old NASA drawings. Then the man who spends his days as an auto-body repair specialist built a skeleton from seven-ply aircraft-grade plywood. He built the tubular skin from Luan plywood — nearly 300 square feet of it, according to Rockets magazine — and then coated it with fiberglass. He told Rockets it took more than six hours, and 14 gallons of resin, to apply all the fiberglass cloth. All told, the project cost about $25,000 — including nearly $13,000 for the fuel alone, which burned up in less than 10 seconds Saturday.

The rest of his rocket will have a greater shelf life. NASA has already contacted Eves about displaying it at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., beneath an original Saturn V.

The Great Swine Flu Epidemic of 1976 never took place

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

I recently mentioned the 1976 swine flu scare, but Patrick Di Justo of Salon has produced a much lengthier piece on the great swine flu epidemic that never took place:

Doctors from the Centers for Disease Control tested Private Lewis’ blood, and determined that his immune system had developed antibodies to a strain of flu similar to the Spanish influenza of 1918. That particular strain of swine flu produced the worst human pandemic of the 20th century: 1 billion sick in every country of the world, at least 22 million dead in the space of a few months. If Lewis had been exposed to something like the 1918 flu virus, the world could be in for an extensive and lethal outbreak. CDC doctors, charged with protecting the U.S. from epidemics, began to worry.

By the end of January, 155 soldiers at Fort Dix reported positive for swine flu antibodies. None of the soldiers’ families or co-workers, however, had been exposed to the virus; all of the reported swine flu cases had been limited to the soldiers in Private Lewis’ camp. The virus wasn’t spreading. For some reason this information did not mollify the doctors, and on Feb. 14, 1976, the CDC issued a notice to all U.S. hospitals to be on the lookout for any cases of swine flu.

By March, the normal end of flu season, worldwide cases of all types of flu had diminished, and not one case of swine flu had been reported outside of Fort Dix. For some reason this news did not placate the doctors either, and on March 13, 1976, the director of the CDC asked Congress for money to develop and test enough swine flu vaccine to immunize at least 80 percent of the population of the United States, believed to be the minimum needed to avoid an epidemic.

1976 was the year of the U.S. Bicentennial. 1976 was a presidential election year. 1976 was two years after Watergate caused Nixon’s resignation, and one year after the fall of Saigon. The U.S. government, both Republicans and Democrats, had never been held in such low esteem. Practically every elected official felt an overwhelming itch that patriotic year to do something to get the public thinking of them as good guys again. A swine flu pandemic was an opportunity on a plate. What better way to get into the good graces of the voters than to save them from a plague?

Between March 13 and March 24, the U.S. government dealt with the perceived flu emergency at fever pitch. The vaccine request went from the CDC to the secretary of HEW (Department of Health, Education and Welfare, the forerunner of today’s Department of Health and Human Services), and reached the president’s desk in less than a week. On March 24, the day after he lost the North Carolina primary to Ronald Reagan, President Gerald Ford welcomed the top virologists in the nation to a meeting in the White House and asked them if the nation was facing a swine flu epidemic. Would mass vaccinations be necessary? The doctors all said yes.

After the meeting, President Ford held a press conference with Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, developers of the polio vaccine. The president heralded the impending flu plague and asked Congress for $135 million to investigate the development of a swine flu vaccine, with the goal of vaccinating the citizenry. This was probably the first time that most of the nation had heard of swine flu.

Congress, with few exceptions, raced to support the bill. Knowing the Republican president would not, could not veto a bill he requested, the Democratically controlled House attached $1.8 billion dollars in welfare and environmental spending to the flu bill. President Ford signed the bill on April 15, 1976, and incorrectly remarked to the press that the Fort Dix swine flu was identical to the deadly 1918 variety. He announced the immunization program would begin in October.

The scientists began to come to their senses. By July, they were pretty much agreed that a flu pandemic in 1976 would not lead to 1 million U.S. dead. The flu strain extracted from Private Lewis, they learned, was much less virulent that the 1918 strain, and modern medicine could handle an outbreak far better than the World War I doctors could. The World Health Organization ordered hospitals to keep a global lookout for swine flu, but it did not request mass immunization of the population.

But the U.S. government was unstoppable.[...] President Ford went on television that night and delivered a speech to the nation, telling Americans that Congress will be to blame for your deaths when the flu season begins in October. Congress caved in, and on Aug. 15, President Ford signed the National Influenza Immunization Program (NIIP). This set as a goal the immunization of at least 80 percent of the U.S. population, indemnified the drug companies and left vague the government’s power to limit the drug companies’ profit. The drug companies got to work.

By September, the swine flu scaffolding came crashing down. Pollsters reported that while 93 percent of the population had heard of swine flu and knew it could cause a million U.S. deaths, only 52 percent planned to get immunized. The press was claiming that Congress had not done a good job of educating the public. Congress members blamed the failure on the CDC. The CDC was busy looking into the deaths of the Legionnaires; while they were able to say that the Legionnaires had not died of swine flu, they were unable to pin down what exactly what had killed the men. The American Legion thought the whole thing was a Communist plot. Congressman John Murphy of Staten Island claimed the CDC was stalling on identifying the Legionnaire’s disease to panic people into fearing swine flu. Murphy demanded an investigation into the CDC and the indemnification deal made with the drug companies. The heroic miracle that was supposed to overhaul the government’s image was rendered futile before it had started.

On Oct. 1, 1976, the immunization program began. By Oct. 11, approximately 40 million people had received swine flu immunizations, mostly through the new compressed air vaccination guns. That evening, in Pittsburgh, came the first blow to the immunization program: Three senior citizens died soon after receiving their swine flu shots. The media outcry, linking the deaths to the immunizations without any proof, was so loud it drew an on-air rebuke from CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, who warned his colleagues of the dangers of post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore, because of this”) thinking. But it was too late. The government had long feared mass panic about swine flu — now they feared mass panic about the swine flu vaccinations.

The deaths in Pittsburgh, though proved not to be related to the vaccine, were a strong setback to the program. The death blow came a few weeks later when reports appeared of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a paralyzing neuromuscular disorder, among some people who had received swine flu immunizations. The public refused to trust a government-operated health program that killed old people and crippled young people; as a result, less than 33 percent of the population had been immunized by the end of 1976. The National Influenza Immunization Program was effectively halted on Dec. 16.

Gerald Ford’s attempt to gain credit for keeping America safe was busted. He lost the presidential election to Jimmy Carter that November. The 1976 to 1977 flu season was the most flu-free since records had been kept; a condition that was apparently unrelated to the vaccination program. The Great Swine Flu Epidemic of 1976 never took place.

Decoding the Heavens

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

James McCormick heartily recommends Jo Marchant’s new book on the anachronistic Antikythera mechanism, Decoding the Heavens:

Science writer Jo Marchant provides the first comprehensive book on the device in the last 35 years, a substantial expansion of her 2006 summary article in Nature (In search of lost time, Nature 444, 534-538 (30 November 2006) | doi:10.1038/444534a) which includes the dramatic new discoveries about the mechanism published in 2008. Decoding the Heavens recounts how each generation of archaeologists examined the mechanism and made judgments about what it was and what it did. The story of the men and women who devoted years trying to discover the nature and purpose of the object binds the scientific tale together, often in tragic ways. Science can be a blood sport and the Antikythera brought out the best and worst in many of its students. Our most recent understanding of the mechanism dramatically changes our beliefs about the role of Greek technology in subsequent Muslim and Christian mechanical devices. Hundreds or perhaps thousands of similar devices were subject to damage, loss, and the re-melting of their brass components. The Antikythera mechanism is one-of-a-kind and that, in itself, is a sobering piece of information about the implosion of culture and technology in late antiquity.

In the end, it was the development of non-destructive testing methods (photography, linear X-ray tomography, microfocus computer tomography, polynomial texture mapping ) that finally allowed the most recent generation of scholars and enthusiasts to precisely determine how the device was assembled and operated without irreversibly damaging the fragile remains. Such space-age technology provided an exact means to measure the components, the associated gear teeth and read the faint inscriptions on metal surfaces, even when the metal parts were buried in limestone and largely corroded away. And it was the assembly of an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists, astronomers, artisans, and historians of science that permits some level of confidence in the latest conclusions.

At the margins, the final few details of the operation and function will remain under debate. Did the Antikythera draw upon centuries-long records of Babylonian star-gazing? Was the Antikythera device an astrological tool for elite Greeks and Romans? Was it a functional demonstration of the philosophical orderliness of the universe (especially that of eclipses)? Was this the grand achievement of the final generations of hyper-literate Greek Stoics before Rome dominated the eastern Mediterranean? Where was it made and what relationship did it have to the devices we know were created by Archimedes in Syracuse [Sicily]? Cicero described one as “a sphere that showed the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets around the Earth.” Knowing what the device did promises to open up new questions of why elite Greeks wanted to make it.


Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

We managed to dodge the scourge of ManBearPig, but can we endure the ManBirdPig flu?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita has appeared on Russ Roberts’ EconTalk podcast a number of times already, and each time I’ve found his game-theoretic take on political economy fascinating — but I’m not sure I found his recent TED talk quite as educational:

Describing a complex mathematical model to a non-technical audience is neither easy nor fun, but glossing over virtually all the innards isn’t helpful either.

Fans of Asimov’s Foundation will enjoy the moderator’s Seldon-esque concern for revealing the outcome of the analysis.

Auto Accidents, AIDS, Contraception and the Pope

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

David Friedman draws some unusual connections between auto accidents, AIDS, contraception and the Pope:

Suppose you make cars safer by requiring seat belts, collapsible stearing columns, and other changes that make it less likely that an auto accident will kill the car’s occupants. The obvious conclusion, and the one many people reach, is that the highway death rate will go down.

Sam Peltzman, in a classic article, pointed out that there was no good theoretical reason to expect that to happen. Auto accidents do not simply happen; they are the result of decisions made by drivers, such as how fast to drive, how much attention to pay to driving and how much to conversations with your passengers or listening to the radio, whether to drive home or take a cab after drinking a little too much. Making cars safer lowers the cost of dangerous driving; on the margin, drivers are more willing to risk accidents the less likely accidents are to kill them. So making cars safer results in fewer deaths per accident but more accidents. There is no theoretical basis to predict whether the net effect will be fewer deaths or more. Peltzman offered statistical evidence that, in the particular case he he was looking at — a collection of safety requirements imposed in the 1960′s — the two effects roughly cancelled. Death rates per accident went down, the accident rate went up, and the annual death rate was about what it would have been without the changes.

Perhaps you see the parallel with AIDS and contraception:

Just as with auto safety and auto accidents, making sex safer has two effects working in opposite directions. It makes the chance that a given act of sex will result in AIDS transmission lower. But, by lowering that risk, it reduces the incentive to avoid sex entirely, to avoid sexual acts such as anal intercourse that are particularly likely to transmit AIDS, to avoid sex with people likely to give you AIDS, such as prostitutes. On theoretical grounds we have no way of knowing whether the net effect will be more AIDS or less.

It turns out that there is evidence that, just as in the auto case, the two effects roughly cancel. That, at least, was the widely reported conclusion of a Harvard AIDS researcher who had actually looked at the data. “We have found no consistent associations between condom use and lower HIV-infection rates, which, 25 years into the pandemic, we should be seeing if this intervention was working.”

Friedman suspects that neither side of the controversy is being entirely honest about its objectives:

Unreliable forms of contraception [like the Church-approved rhythm method] can work pretty well for holding down marital birth rates. On the other hand, if your objective is to permit women to have sex with men they aren’t married to without a significant risk of pregnancy — to permit, in other words, what has become the normal pattern of sexual behavior in developed societies — there is much to be said for more reliable forms of contraception [like condoms].

Why you should fear Swine Flu

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

PBS shares an animated map that demonstrates why you should fear swine flu — because the 1918 influenza spread across the US in two weeks.