Swine flu: Your experiences

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

The BBC’s “Have Your Say” piece on swine flu includes a few terrifying contributions from Mexicans dealing with the disease:

I’m a specialist doctor in respiratory diseases and intensive care at the Mexican National Institute of Health. There is a severe emergency over the swine flu here. More and more patients are being admitted to the intensive care unit. Despite the heroic efforts of all staff (doctors, nurses, specialists, etc) patients continue to inevitably die. The truth is that anti-viral treatments and vaccines are not expected to have any effect, even at high doses. It is a great fear among the staff. The infection risk is very high among the doctors and health staff.

There is a sense of chaos in the other hospitals and we do not know what to do. Staff are starting to leave and many are opting to retire or apply for holidays. The truth is that mortality is even higher than what is being reported by the authorities, at least in the hospital where I work it. It is killing three to four patients daily, and it has been going on for more than three weeks. It is a shame and there is great fear here. Increasingly younger patients aged 20 to 30 years are dying before our helpless eyes and there is great sadness among health professionals here.
Antonio Chavez, Mexico City

I work as a resident doctor in one of the biggest hospitals in Mexico City and sadly, the situation is far from “under control”. As a doctor, I realise that the media does not report the truth. Authorities distributed vaccines among all the medical personnel with no results, because two of my partners who worked in this hospital (interns) were killed by this new virus in less than six days even though they were vaccinated as all of us were. The official number of deaths is 20, nevertheless, the true number of victims are more than 200. I understand that we must avoid to panic, but telling the truth it might be better now to prevent and avoid more deaths.
Yeny Gregorio Dávila, Mexico City

(Hat tip to John Robb.)

Scientists make super-strong metallic spider silk

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Scientists make super-strong metallic spider silk:

Lee and colleagues, who published their findings in the journal Science, found that adding zinc, titanium or aluminum to a length of spider silk made it more resistant to breaking or deforming.

They used a process called atomic layer deposition, which not only coated spider dragline silks with metal but also caused some metal ions to penetrate the fibers and react with their protein structure.

Lee said he next wanted to try adding other materials, including artificial polymers like Teflon.

The idea was inspired by studies showing traces of metals in the toughest parts of some insect body parts. The jaws of leaf-cutter ants and locusts, for example, both contain high levels of zinc, making them particularly stiff and hard.

Yes, but how do I load it into wrist-mounted web-shooters?

Larger Markets Save Lives

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

I’m not sure I would have titled Alex Tabarrok’s TED talk How ideas trump crises, but I think he makes some simple-but-deep points:

Just before the six-minute mark he succinctly makes a particularly simple-but-deep point about the spread of prosperity and its benefits to us:

If China and India were as rich as the United States is now the market for cancer drugs would be eight times larger.

A drug market that’s eight times larger justifies R&D budgets that are eight times larger.

Some of the comments paint Tabarrok’s talk as Panglossian in its optimism, since we all know the world is going to collapse as we run out of natural resources.

(Hat tip to Arnold Kling.)

Confessions of an Entrepreneur’s Wife

Monday, April 27th, 2009

Business writer Phaedra Wise wrote her Confessions of an Entrepreneur's Wife after her husband spent years trying to get his carbonated juice drink off the ground:

The truth was he had little time for analysis. As the head of sales and marketing, CEO, president, and chairman of the board, as well as the person charged with finding capital, he had a staggering workload. Like a shark, he needed to push relentlessly forward to survive.

Bill’s travel schedule was unpredictable. He bounced from fundraising pitches to sales calls all over North America. When he was home (a few days every other week) he was exhausted and burned out. He had no desire to socialize. I packed away the party dresses and started turning down invitations.

I quit asking him how things were going at work because his answers always focused on problems. He was the No. 1 problem-solving guy, and when you’re a hammer, everything around you looks like a nail. It scared me that from Bill’s perspective the whole thing was so often about to collapse.

He was also beginning to question whether it was even worth it. With each new round of financing he had diluted his shares. He and Wayne held shares jointly in an S corporation. (They shared a single vote to control their combined shares, which meant the tension between them never diminished.) In the first round they kept 60 percent, but by 2004 they were down to less than 30 percent. I reminded Bill of a conversation I once had with a CEO I was interviewing. “How could you give up so much equity?” I asked. “Well,” the CEO said, “it’s better to have 1 percent of 10 million than 100 percent of nothing.” I could see that Bill’s hard work was paying off. I didn’t want him to give up yet.

When the company received a local business award, I was thrilled. I thought it would be a chance for Bill to slow down and realize that he had created a big success. For one night he–we–could revel in his accomplishments and accept a few accolades. I got a sitter and picked out my dress, but the day before the party Bill canceled. He had to be in Chicago to meet with a potential investor. I was disappointed, but by now I was used to it.

Otter-like fossil reveals early seal evolution

Monday, April 27th, 2009

Otter-like fossil reveals early seal evolution:

Rybczynski, a researcher at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, and colleagues from the United States report the find in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.

They named the creature Puijila darwini (“pew-YEE-lah dar-WIN-eye”). That combines an Inuit word for “young sea mammal,” often a seal, with an homage to Charles Darwin. The famed naturalist had written that a land animal “by occasionally hunting for food in shallow water, then in streams or lakes, might at last be converted into an animal so thoroughly aquatic as to brave the open ocean.”

Scientists already knew that pinnipeds evolved from land animals. But the earliest known fossil from that group already had flippers. So Puijila shows an earlier stage of evolution, the researchers said.

Puijila measured about three feet from its snout to the tip of its long tail. It resembled a river otter but had a short snout, large eyes and a thinner tail, Rybczynski said. It could hunt on land or in water, where it was apparently “a pretty darned good swimmer,” she said.

The fossil was discovered in sediments of what had been a lake when the Arctic was much warmer, showing Puijila was at home in fresh water as well as on land. Besides eating fish, it probably ate rodents and ducks with dog-like teeth set in powerful jaws, Rybczynski said.

Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning

Monday, April 27th, 2009

Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning, Mark Taylor says:

Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).
The emphasis on narrow scholarship also encourages an educational system that has become a process of cloning. Faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision as identical to their own pasts, even though their tenures will stand in the way of these students having futures as full professors.

The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.

In other words, young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.

Which European country has the most liberal drug laws?

Monday, April 27th, 2009

Which European country has the most liberal drug laws? It’s not the Netherlands:

Although its capital is notorious among stoners and college kids for marijuana haze–filled “coffee shops,” Holland has never actually legalized cannabis — the Dutch simply don’t enforce their laws against the shops. The correct answer is Portugal, which in 2001 became the first European country to officially abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

At the recommendation of a national commission charged with addressing Portugal’s drug problem, jail time was replaced with the offer of therapy.

Decriminalization has always struck me as the worst of both worlds — users aren’t “scared straight” and dealers are still criminals. Outright legalizing the drugs would bring in tax revenues while driving criminals out of business. But decriminalization seems to be working for Portugal:

The paper, published by Cato in April, found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.

“Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”

Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal’s drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group). New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003, and deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half. In addition, the number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and money saved on enforcement allowed for increased funding of drug-free treatment as well.

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

Monday, April 27th, 2009

Like many people, I’d heard that the children’s song Ring Around the Rosy was about the Plague:

Many have associated the poem with the Great Plague of London in 1665, or with earlier outbreaks of bubonic plague in England. Interpreters of the rhyme before World War II make no mention of this; by 1951, however, it seems to have become well established as an explanation for the form of the rhyme that had become standard in Britain. Peter and Iona Opie remark: ‘The invariable sneezing and falling down in modern English versions have given would-be origin finders the opportunity to say that the rhyme dates back to the Great Plague. A rosy rash, they allege, was a symptom of the plague, posies of herbs were carried as protection, sneezing was a final fatal symptom , and “all fall down” was exactly what happened.’ Another translation:Ring around the Rosie: people with the plague often had a bright rose-colored rash that people would see and make a large ring around them. A pocket full of posies: people without the plague often carried around posies, believing this would purify the air and protect them from getting ill. Ashes, Ashes: When people died, sometimes they would be burnt to ashes. Then those ashes would be put in a jar and buried. In this way, there was enough room in the graveyards for everyone. We all fall down: ‘falling down’ meant dying and many people did die.  Variations of the same theory allow it to be applied to the American version of the rhyme and to medieval plagues. In its various forms, the interpretation has entered into popular culture and has been used elsewhere to make oblique reference to the plague.

But folklore scholars regard the theory as baseless for several reasons:

  1. the late appearance of the explanation means that it has no tradition, only the value of its content;
  2. the symptoms described do not fit especially well with the Great Plague;
  3. the great variety of forms make it unlikely that the modern form is the most ancient one, and the words on which the interpretation are based are not found in many of the earliest records of the rhyme (see above);
  4. European and 19th century versions of the rhyme suggest that this ‘fall’ was not a literal falling down, but a curtsy or other form of bending movement that was common in other dramatic singing games.

Maybe our descendants will explain that it was about the Swine Flu of 2009.

Cruise ship fends off pirate attack with gunfire

Monday, April 27th, 2009

An Italian cruise ship has fended off a pirate attack with gunfire — from its Israeli security team:

The Melody was on a 22-day cruise from Durban, South Africa, to Genoa, Italy, when the pirates fired “like crazy” with automatic weapons late Saturday, slightly damaging the liner, Pinto said. The pirates tried to put a ladder on board, but were unable to climb aboard, he said.

The commander said his security forces opened fire with pistols, and the ANSA news agency said the pistols had been kept in a safe under the joint control of the commander and security chief.

“When they saw our fire … they left us and went away. They followed us for a bit but then stopped,” he told Sky TG24.

Cruise line security work is a popular job for young Israelis who have recently been discharged from mandatory army service, as it is a good chance to save money and travel.

The Israeli security forces opened fire with pistols? I’m thinking this is a translation issue. What we call a submachine gun is often called a machine pistol in other languages, because it uses pistol ammo.

If this isn’t a translation issue, wow.

The 1976 Swine Flu Pandemic

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

All this talk of swine flu reminds me of the 1976 swine flu pandemic — which you probably don’t remember for a reason:

On February 5, 1976, an army recruit at Fort Dix said he felt tired and weak. He died the next day and four of his fellow soldiers were later hospitalized. Two weeks after his death, health officials announced that swine flu was the cause of death and that this strain of flu appeared to be closely related to the strain involved in the 1918 flu pandemic. Alarmed public-health officials decided that action must be taken to head off another major pandemic, and they urged President Gerald Ford that every person in the U.S. be vaccinated for the disease. The vaccination program was plagued by delays and public relations problems, but about 24% of the population had been vaccinated by the time the program was canceled.

No pandemic ever broke out — but a few people died from bad reactions to the vaccine.

A Bigger Pharmacopeia

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

“Neuroenhancers” like Provigil and Adderall are likely to be joined by a bigger pharmacopoeia:

Among the drugs in the pipeline are ampakines, which target a type of glutamate receptor in the brain; it is hoped that they may stem the memory loss associated with diseases like Alzheimer’s. But ampakines may also give healthy people a palpable cognitive boost. A 2007 study of sixteen healthy elderly volunteers found that five hundred milligrams of one particular ampakine “unequivocally” improved short-term memory, though it appeared to detract from episodic memory—the recall of past events. Another class of drugs, cholinesterase inhibitors, which are already being used with some success to treat Alzheimer’s patients, have also shown promise as neuroenhancers. In one study, the drug donepezil strengthened the performance of pilots on flight simulators; in another, of thirty healthy young male volunteers, it improved verbal and visual episodic memory. Several pharmaceutical companies are working on drugs that target nicotine receptors in the brain, in the hope that they can replicate the cognitive uptick that smokers get from cigarettes.

Nicotine, by the way, appears extremely safe when not delivered via cigarette — and not delivered in a concentrated form either.

An Unschooling Manifesto

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

I’m generally not a fan of manifestos, and I don’t agree with the more wild-eyed elements of Dave Pollard’s Unschooling Manifesto, but I find his own unschooling experience impressive — and I agree that it’s a powerful indictment of public schooling:

In Grade 11, my second last year of high school, I was an average student, with marks in English in the mid 60% range, and in mathematics, my best subject, around 80%. Aptitude tests suggested I should be doing better, and this was a consistent message on my report cards. I hated school. As my blog bio explains, I was shy, socially inept, uncoordinated and self-conscious. My idea of fun was playing strategy games (Diplomacy and Acquire, for fellow geeks of that era — this was long before computer games or the Internet) and hanging around the drive-in restaurant.

Then in Grade 12, something remarkable happened: My school decided to pilot a program called “independent study”, that allowed any student maintaining at least an 80% average on term tests in any subject (that was an achievement in those days, when a C — 60% — really was the average grade given) to skip classes in that subject until/unless their grades fell below that threshold. There was a core group of ‘brainy’ students who enrolled immediately. Half of them were the usual boring group (the ‘keeners’) who did nothing but study to maintain high grades (usually at their parents’ behest); but the other half were creative, curious, independent thinkers with a natural talent for learning. The chance to spend my days with this latter group, unrestricted by school walls and school schedules, was what I dreamed of, so I poured my energies into self-study.

To the astonishment of everyone, including myself, I did very well at this. By the end of the first month of school my average was almost 90%, and I was exempted from attending classes in all my subjects. I’d become friends with some members of the ‘clique’ I had aspired to join, and discovered that, together, we could easily cover the curriculum in less than an hour a day, leaving the rest of the day to discuss philosophy, politics, anthropology, history and geography of the third world, contemporary European literature, art, the philosophy of science, and other subjects not on the school curriculum at all. We went to museums, attended seminars, wrote stories and poetry together (and critiqued each others’ work).

As the year progressed, the ‘keeners’, to my amazement, found they were struggling with this independence and opted back into the regular structured classroom program. Now our independent study group was a remarkable group of non-conformists, whose marks — on tests we didn’t attend classes for or study for — were so high that some wondered aloud if we were somehow cheating. My grades had climbed into the low 90% range, and this included English where such marks were rare — especially for someone whose grades had soared almost 30 points in a few months of ‘independent’ study. The fact is that my peers had done what no English teacher had been able to do — inspire me to read and write voraciously, and show me how my writing could be improved. My writing, at best marginal six months earlier, was being published in the school literary journal. On one occasion, a poem of mine I read aloud in class (one of the few occasions I actually attended a class that year) produced a spontaneous ovation from my classmates.

The Grade 12 final examinations in those days were set and marked by a province-wide board, so universities could judge who the best students were without having to consider differences between schools. Our independent study group, a handful of students from just one high school, won most of the province-wide scholarships that year. I received the award for the highest combined score in English and Mathematics in the province — an almost unheard-of 94%.

The experience spoiled me for university — I graduated in two years, which was all I could bear, by taking extra courses and summer courses, just to get through it. And the independent study program, despite its extraordinary success, was not repeated in subsequent years. Part of the justification for the pilot program had been to free up teachers’ time to spend with students who needed more individual attention; yet the dubious reason we were given for its cancellation was that “it was unfair to deprive the average students of the presence and example of the more outstanding students”.

Brain Gain

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

So, who uses “neuroenhancers” like Adderall and Ritalin in college?

According to McCabe’s research team, white male undergraduates at highly competitive schools—especially in the Northeast—are the most frequent collegiate users of neuroenhancers. Users are also more likely to belong to a fraternity or a sorority, and to have a G.P.A. of 3.0 or lower. They are ten times as likely to report that they have smoked marijuana in the past year, and twenty times as likely to say that they have used cocaine. In other words, they are decent students at schools where, to be a great student, you have to give up a lot more partying than they’re willing to give up.

“Pep pills” go way, way back, and the modern drugs seem to share the same anecdotes:

Alex remains enthusiastic about Adderall, but he also has a slightly jaundiced critique of it. “It only works as a cognitive enhancer insofar as you are dedicated to accomplishing the task at hand,” he said. “The number of times I’ve taken Adderall late at night and decided that, rather than starting my paper, hey, I’ll organize my entire music library! I’ve seen people obsessively cleaning their rooms on it.” Alex thought that generally the drug helped him to bear down on his work, but it also tended to produce writing with a characteristic flaw. “Often, I’ve looked back at papers I’ve written on Adderall, and they’re verbose. They’re belaboring a point, trying to create this airtight argument, when if you just got to your point in a more direct manner it would be stronger. But with Adderall I’d produce two pages on something that could be said in a couple of sentences.” Nevertheless, his Adderall-assisted papers usually earned him at least a B. They got the job done. As Alex put it, “Productivity is a good thing.”

Belaboring a point is the point of an undergrad paper, isn’t it?

Global Warming Delusions

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

Daniel Botkin discusses some extraordinary popular global warming delusions and the madness of crowds:

Case in point: This year’s United Nations report on climate change and other documents say that 20%-30% of plant and animal species will be threatened with extinction in this century due to global warming — a truly terrifying thought. Yet, during the past 2.5 million years, a period that scientists now know experienced climatic changes as rapid and as warm as modern climatological models suggest will happen to us, almost none of the millions of species on Earth went extinct. The exceptions were about 20 species of large mammals (the famous megafauna of the last ice age — saber-tooth tigers, hairy mammoths and the like), which went extinct about 10,000 to 5,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age, and many dominant trees and shrubs of northwestern Europe. But elsewhere, including North America, few plant species went extinct, and few mammals.

We’re also warned that tropical diseases are going to spread, and that we can expect malaria and encephalitis epidemics. But scientific papers by Prof. Sarah Randolph of Oxford University show that temperature changes do not correlate well with changes in the distribution or frequency of these diseases; warming has not broadened their distribution and is highly unlikely to do so in the future, global warming or not.

But what does Botkin know about global warming and complex computer models?

You might think I must be one of those know-nothing naysayers who believes global warming is a liberal plot. On the contrary, I am a biologist and ecologist who has worked on global warming, and been concerned about its effects, since 1968. I’ve developed the computer model of forest growth that has been used widely to forecast possible effects of global warming on life — I’ve used the model for that purpose myself, and to forecast likely effects on specific endangered species.

I’m not a naysayer. I’m a scientist who believes in the scientific method and in what facts tell us. I have worked for 40 years to try to improve our environment and improve human life as well. I believe we can do this only from a basis in reality, and that is not what I see happening now. Instead, like fashions that took hold in the past and are eloquently analyzed in the classic 19th century book Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds, the popular imagination today appears to have been captured by beliefs that have little scientific basis.
The climate modelers who developed the computer programs that are being used to forecast climate change used to readily admit that the models were crude and not very realistic, but were the best that could be done with available computers and programming methods. They said our options were to either believe those crude models or believe the opinions of experienced, data-focused scientists. Having done a great deal of computer modeling myself, I appreciated their acknowledgment of the limits of their methods. But I hear no such statements today. Oddly, the forecasts of computer models have become our new reality, while facts such as the few extinctions of the past 2.5 million years are pushed aside, as if they were not our reality.

Medicare and Overfishing

Friday, April 24th, 2009

Medicare does very little to restrict patients’ access to medical services, which seems like a good thing, but Arnold Kling worries about longer-term consequences — and draws this unusual analogy:

Saying, “We don’t need to have any restraint on the use of medical services. Look at Medicare” is like saying, “We don’t have to worry about the fish population. Look at all the fish we just caught.”

Five hundred years ago, unrestrained fishing probably was ok. But over time, as the human population grew and our fishing technology improved, it became possible to wipe out entire species of fish. At some point, you need restraints — if not regulations, then property rights that create incentives for conservation.

Similarly, when Medicare was started in 1965, you could give people unrestricted access to the treatments then available. But over time, with the Medicare population growing and technology changing, the stress on the system is increasing. At some point, it will be unbearable. We are already approaching that point.