The Duct Tape Programmer

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

After reading an interview with Jamie Zawinski in Coders at Work, Joel Spolsky dubbed him the duct tape programmer, because he’s the kind of guy who can make anything work with a little duct tape and WD-40 — while everyone else is discussing which space-age polymer to order:

Here is why I like duct tape programmers. Sometimes, you’re on a team, and you’re busy banging out the code, and somebody comes up to your desk, coffee mug in hand, and starts rattling on about how if you use multi-threaded COM apartments, your app will be 34% sparklier, and it’s not even that hard, because he’s written a bunch of templates, and all you have to do is multiply-inherit from 17 of his templates, each taking an average of 4 arguments, and you barely even have to write the body of the function. It’s just a gigantic list of multiple-inheritence from different classes and hey, presto, multi-apartment threaded COM. And your eyes are swimming, and you have no friggin’ idea what this frigtard is talking about, but he just won’t go away, and even if he does go away, he’s just going to back into his office and write more of his clever classes constructed entirely from multiple inheritence from templates, without a single implementation body at all, and it’s going to crash like crazy and you’re going to get paged at night to come in and try to figure it out because he’ll be at some goddamn “Design Patterns” meetup.

And the duct-tape programmer is not afraid to say, “multiple inheritence sucks. Stop it. Just stop.”

You see, everybody else is too afraid of looking stupid because they just can’t keep enough facts in their head at once to make multiple inheritence, or templates, or COM, or multithreading, or any of that stuff work. So they sheepishly go along with whatever faddish programming craziness has come down from the architecture astronauts who speak at conferences and write books and articles and are so much smarter than us that they don’t realize that the stuff that they’re promoting is too hard for us.

Here’s what Zawinski says about Netscape: “It was decisions like not using C++ and not using threads that made us ship the product on time.”

Duct tape programmers are pragmatic:

Zawinski popularized Richard Gabriel’s precept of Worse is Better. A 50%-good solution that people actually have solves more problems and survives longer than a 99% solution that nobody has because it’s in your lab where you’re endlessly polishing the damn thing. Shipping is a feature. A really important feature. Your product must have it.

Guinness celebrates 250 years of stout brewing

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Guinness celebrates 250 years of stout brewing today. Some Guinness facts:

  • Arthur Guinness set up his first brewery in Leixlip, Co Kildare, in 1756 after he was left a £100 inheritance by his godfather, Archbishop Arthur Price. He later handed the business to his brother and, in 1759, signed a 9,000 year lease on the St James’s Gate Brewery for an annual fee of £45.
  • Poured at an angle of 45 degrees, it takes 119.5 seconds for the perfect pint to settle.
  • In 1936 the first overseas Guinness brewery was opened in London, followed by four more by Nigeria, Malaysia, Cameroon, and Ghana.
  • The Guinness company also produced the Guinness Book of Records, which originated in 1955 when a bar debate could not be settled with existing reference books.

The Cooking Ape

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Richard Wrangham, a British anthropologist and primatologist at Harvard University, argues that we are the cooking ape — and this has some not-so-obvious consequences:

Early human marriages, he suggests, were “primitive protection rackets”, in which men protected women from hungry marauders (attracted by the smoke of the fire) in return for a hot meal at the end of the day and, almost as an afterthought, babies. This is a radical notion — that domestic unions are mainly about food, not sex — but it’s not ridiculous. Anthropologists have noted that many primitive societies will tolerate a married woman sleeping around, but will ostracise her if she feeds any man other than her husband. In the ancestral struggle for survival, it seems, sustenance was more important than sex.

Human beings are unique in that when we cook, we do it to feed others as well as ourselves (other apes, even those who pair-bond, forage for themselves and don’t share). And in almost all societies it’s women who tend the stove. Having a husband ensures that a woman’s gathered food will not be stolen, while having a wife means a man will have an evening meal.

There’s nothing natural about a raw-food diet:

Survivors of disasters who get by on raw food invariably show signs of starvation when rescued.

The Giessen Raw Food study, conducted by German nutritionists in 2005, studied more than 500 people who ate a diet that was 70 to 100 per cent raw (vegetables, fruits, cold-pressed oil and honey, plus dried fruits, meat and fish). All the raw-foodists lost weight, sometimes dramatically; the scientists concluded that “a raw diet cannot guarantee an adequate energy supply”. And this in the well-fed West, where the supermarket rather than the forest floor is our larder. Our ancestors would surely have suffered more parlously.

But most damning of all was the finding that many women on the study stopped menstruating. Others saw their cycles become irregular. Conception and pregnancy — that most natural of biological processes — would be a rare feat on an uncooked diet. Wrangham’s message is clear: “I’m impressed by its potential to be a healthy diet but we must be aware of its limitations. I’m amazed at the willpower of some raw foodists but some are deluded; they are wrong about it being natural. If you are cast away on a desert island and you say, ‘I won’t bother cooking’, you will die.”

(I’ve mentioned Wrangham’s work twice before, in The Small-Mouthed Ape and What’s cooking?)

A dog is a rat is a doctor is a vet

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

You don’t have to compare veterinary care to health care under socialized medicine to see the difference between care for animals and care for humans:

Under our “system” of veterinary health care, there’s generally little or no wait, they’re invariably friendly (because you could always grab your dog or cat and take it to another vet), and as to the prices?

Let me give a personal example. My old dog Puff once swallowed half a tennis ball he had flattened, and it opened up like a parachute inside his small intestine. This formed an insurmountable blockage, and necrosis set in. Without immediate emergency surgery, Puff (by that time in horrible agony) would have been dead in a day or so. He was cut open, the foreign object removed along with a three foot section of intestine (the two severed ends being anastomized together) and after a couple of days at the vet I took him home, where he fully recovered without complication.

The bill for all of this? Nine hundred and fifty dollars.


Now, this was some time ago, and today it would be more. Probably close to a couple of grand.

But imagine how much it would cost if a boy were to swallow something he shouldn’t have and it lodged in his small intestine and had to be removed. I shudder to think of the possible bill for emergency surgery and two days in the hospital, but I think you’d be lucky if it cost less than $20,000.


The instruments, the drugs, the surgical techniques, sterile hygiene, intravenous lines, and post-operative support, all of these things are basically the same. True, the boy would not be placed in a four by six cage during his stay in the hospital, but a bed in a room is not all that complicated.

What accounts for the huge difference in price? A lot of people say it’s the liability insurance, but is that all there is to it? It’s not as if there’s much difference in the degree of education between an MD and a DVM. (And it’s actually harder to get into vet school than it is to get into med school, so if there’s an issue involving brains, the vets might win.)

It strikes me that there is a giant, overarching difference between veterinary care and regular medical care, and that is that the former is barely regulated by the government, while the latter is so regulated that even now — without socialized health care — many doctors feel as if they spent most of their time being bureaucrats. Is that it? I’m sure my vet kept records for Puff, but I’d be willing to bet they consisted of little more than a couple of paragraphs summarizing the diagnosis, the procedure, and his recovery. And I’d also be willing to bet that for the same procedure on a boy, if all of the records were all printed out they’d be a stack of documents inches thick.

(Hat tip to Ilkka at The Fourth Checkraise.)


Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Jonathan Chait of The New Republic takes the recent upsurge of interest in Ayn Rand — and publication of books about Rand — as an excuse to attack Rand and her followers — and anyone against government redistribution of wealth.

Some of his attacks on Rand and her Randroids could be considered fair:

  • She once wrote to a friend that “it’s time we realize — as the Reds do — that spreading our ideas in the form of fiction is a great weapon, because it arouses the public to an emotional, as well as intellectual response to our cause.” She worked both to propagate her own views and to eliminate opposing views.
  • Rand’s hotly pro-capitalist novels oddly mirrored the Socialist Realist style, with two-dimensional characters serving as ideological props.
  • The subculture that formed around her — a cult of the personality if ever there was one — likewise came to resemble a Soviet state in miniature.
  • Ultimately the Objectivist movement failed for the same reason that communism failed: it tried to make its people live by the dictates of a totalizing ideology that failed to honor the realities of human existence.
  • Her ideological purity and her unstable personality prevented her from forming lasting coalitions with anybody who disagreed with any element of her catechism. Moreover, her fierce attacks on religion — she derided Christianity, again in a Nietzschean manner, as a religion celebrating victimhood — made her politically radioactive on the right.
  • Ludwig von Mises once enthused to Rand, “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.” Rand articulated the terror that conservatives felt at the rapid leveling of incomes in that era — their sense of being singled out by a raging mob.
  • Rand’s most enduring accomplishment was to infuse laissez-faire economics with the sort of moralistic passion that had once been found only on the left.

Other attacks misunderstand — or misrepresent — what Rand believed and professed:

In essence, Rand advocated an inverted Marxism. In the Marxist analysis, workers produce all value, and capitalists merely leech off their labor. Rand posited the opposite.

Rand clearly respected honest labor — the architect-hero of The Fountainhead chooses to work in a quarry rather than prostitute his artistic skills.

When she attacked the “looters and moochers” stealing from society’s productive elements, she was attacking politicians and their cronies — the same corrupt politicians, special interests, and corporate fat-cats the Left attacks.

The important difference was that Rand did not see The Rich as a monolithic — and evil — entity. She saw successful businessmen who became wealthy by creating wealth as heroes, while she saw political cronies who became wealthy by redirecting wealth to themselves as villains — “looters and moochers”.

But Chait would rather prop up Straw Men, like the notion that all conservatives support The Rich against The Poor, rather than supporting creators over thieves, or that all conservatives see wealth as a perfect reflection of someone’s contribution to society.

Afghans are Afghans

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Afghans are Afghans, Ann Jones notes, and they do not think or act like Americans:

In the heat of this summer, I went out to the training fields near Kabul where Afghan army recruits are put through their paces, and it was quickly evident just what’s getting lost in translation. Our trainers, soldiers from the Illinois National Guard, were masterful. Professional and highly skilled, they were dedicated to carrying out their mission — and doing the job well. They were also big, strong, camouflaged, combat-booted, supersized American men, their bodies swollen by flack jackets and lashed with knives, handguns, and god only knows what else. Any American could be proud of their commitment to tough duty.

The Afghans were puny by comparison: hundreds of little Davids to the overstuffed American Goliaths training them. Keep in mind: Afghan recruits come from a world of desperate poverty. They are almost uniformly malnourished and underweight. Many are no bigger than I am (1.6 meters and thin) — and some probably not much stronger. Like me, many sag under the weight of a standard-issue flack jacket.

Their American trainers spoke of “upper body strength deficiency” and prescribed pushups because their trainees buckle under the backpacks filled with 50 pounds (110 kilograms) of equipment and ammo they are expected to carry. All this material must seem absurd to men whose fathers and brothers, wearing only the old cotton shirts and baggy pants of everyday life and carrying battered Russian Kalashnikov rifles, defeated the Red Army two decades ago. American trainers marvel that, freed from heavy equipment and uniforms, Afghan soldiers can run through the mountains all day — as the Taliban guerrillas in fact do with great effect — but the US military is determined to train them for another style of war.

Still, the new recruits turn out for training in the blistering heat in this stony desert landscape wearing, beneath their heavy uniforms, the smart red, green, and black warm-up outfits intended to encourage them to engage in off-duty exercise. American trainers recognize that recruits regularly wear all their gear at once for fear somebody will steal anything left behind in the barracks, but they take this overdressing as a sign of how much Afghans love the military.

My own reading, based on my observations of Afghan life during the years I’ve spent in that country, is this: It’s a sign of how little they trust one another, or the Americans who gave them the snazzy suits. I think it also indicates the obvious: that these impoverished men in a country without work have joined the Afghan National Army for what they can get out of it (and keep or sell) — and that doesn’t include democracy or glory.
When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.

In a country where 40% of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for 10 weeks is the best game in town.

You’re doing it my way

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

“When you run GE there are 7–12 times a year when you have to say ‘you’re doing it my way’. If you do it 18 times, the good people will leave. If you do it 3 times, the company falls apart.”
— Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric

(From Are sales people different from you and me?)

Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Nicholas Thompson claims that the Soviets had an apocalyptic doomsday machine — officially named Perimeter, unofficially nicknamed Dead Hand:

Perimeter ensures the ability to strike back, but it’s no hair-trigger device. It was designed to lie semi-dormant until switched on by a high official in a crisis. Then it would begin monitoring a network of seismic, radiation, and air pressure sensors for signs of nuclear explosions.

Before launching any retaliatory strike, the system had to check off four if/then propositions: If it was turned on, then it would try to determine that a nuclear weapon had hit Soviet soil. If it seemed that one had, the system would check to see if any communication links to the war room of the Soviet General Staff remained. If they did, and if some amount of time — likely ranging from 15 minutes to an hour — passed without further indications of attack, the machine would assume officials were still living who could order the counterattack and shut down.

But if the line to the General Staff went dead, then Perimeter would infer that apocalypse had arrived. It would immediately transfer launch authority to whoever was manning the system at that moment deep inside a protected bunker — bypassing layers and layers of normal command authority. At that point, the ability to destroy the world would fall to whoever was on duty: maybe a high minister sent in during the crisis, maybe a 25-year-old junior officer fresh out of military academy. And if that person decided to press the button…

If/then. If/then. If/then. If/then.

The key point is that they kept it secret:

“The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret!” cries Dr. Strangelove. “Why didn’t you tell the world?” After all, such a device works as a deterrent only if the enemy is aware of its existence. In the movie, the Soviet ambassador can only lamely respond, “It was to be announced at the party congress on Monday.”

In real life, however, many Mondays and many party congresses passed after Perimeter was created.

Such secrecy “appears to be a self-defeating strategic error of extraordinary magnitude”:

The silence can be attributed partly to fears that the US would figure out how to disable the system. But the principal reason is more complicated and surprising. According to both Yarynich and Zheleznyakov, Perimeter was never meant as a traditional doomsday machine. The Soviets had taken game theory one step further than Kubrick, Szilard, and everyone else: They built a system to deter themselves.

By guaranteeing that Moscow could hit back, Perimeter was actually designed to keep an overeager Soviet military or civilian leader from launching prematurely during a crisis. The point, Zheleznyakov says, was “to cool down all these hotheads and extremists. No matter what was going to happen, there still would be revenge. Those who attack us will be punished.”

And Perimeter bought the Soviets time. After the US installed deadly accurate Pershing II missiles on German bases in December 1983, Kremlin military planners assumed they would have only 10 to 15 minutes from the moment radar picked up an attack until impact. Given the paranoia of the era, it is not unimaginable that a malfunctioning radar, a flock of geese that looked like an incoming warhead, or a misinterpreted American war exercise could have triggered a catastrophe. Indeed, all these events actually occurred at some point. If they had happened at the same time, Armageddon might have ensued.

Perimeter solved that problem. If Soviet radar picked up an ominous but ambiguous signal, the leaders could turn on Perimeter and wait. If it turned out to be geese, they could relax and Perimeter would stand down. Confirming actual detonations on Soviet soil is far easier than confirming distant launches. “That is why we have the system,” Yarynich says. “To avoid a tragic mistake. ”

Thermal Runaway

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

If the revolver has enough chambers, you may have no idea you’re playing Russian Roulette. Derek Lowe takes a look at the terrible chemical accident at T2 Laboratories in Florida back in 2007:

Debris ended up over a mile from the site, and killed four employees, including one of the co-owners, who was fifty feet away from the reactor at the time.

The company was preparing a gasoline additive, methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl (MCMT). To readers outside the field, that sounds like an awful mouthful of a name, but organic chemists will look it over and say “OK, halfway like ferrocene, manganese instead of iron, methyl group on the ring, three CO groups on the other side of the metal. Hmmm. What went wrong with that one?”

Well, the same sort of thing that can go wrong with a lot of reactions, large and small: a thermal runaway. That’s always a possibility when a reaction gives off waste heat while it’s running (that’s called an exothermic reaction, and some are, some aren’t — it depends on the energy balance of the bonds being broken versus the bonds being made, among other things). Heating chemical reactions almost invariably speeds them up, naturally, so the heat given off by such a reaction can make it go faster, which makes it give off even more heat, which makes it… well, now you know why it’s called a runaway reaction.

On the small scales where I’ve spent my career, the usual consequence of this is that whatever’s fitted on the top of the flask blows off, and the contents geyser out all over the fume hood. One generally doesn’t tightly seal the top of a reaction flask, not unless one knows exactly what one is doing, so there’s usually a stopper or rubber seal that gives way. I’ve walked back into my lab, looked at the floor in front of my hood, and wondered “Who on earth left a glass condenser on my floor?”, until I walked over to have a look and realized where it came from (and, um, who left it there).

But on a large scale, well, things are always different. For one thing, it’s just plain larger. There’s more energy involved. And heat transfer is a major concern on scale, because while it’s easy to cool off a 25-milliliter flask, where none of the contents are more than a centimeter from the outside wall, cooling off a 2500-gallon reactor is something else again. Needless to say, you’re not going to be able to pick it up quickly and stick it into 25,000 gallons of ice water, and even that wouldn’t do nearly as much good as you might think. The center of that reactor is a long way from the walls, and cooling those walls down can only do so much — stirring is a major concern on these scales, too.

What’s worth emphasizing is that this explosion occurred on the one hundred seventy-fifth time that T2 had run this reaction. No doubt they thought they had everything well under control — have any of you ever run the same reaction a hundred and seventy-five times in a row? But what they didn’t know was crucial: the operators had only undergraduate degrees, and the CSB report concludes that the didn’t realize that they were walking on the edge of disaster the whole time. As it turns out, the MCMT chemistry was mildly exothermic. But if the reaction got above the normal production temperature (177°C), a very exothermic side reaction kicked in. Have I mentioned that the chemistry involved was a stirred molten-sodium reaction? Yep, methylcyclopentadiene dimer, cracking to monomer, metallating with the sodium and releasing hydrogen gas. This was run in diglyme, and if the temperature went up above 199°C, the sodium would start reacting energetically with the solvent.

Experienced chemists and engineers will recognize that setup for what it is: a black-bordered invitation to disaster. Apparently the T2 chemists had experienced a few close calls in the past, without fully realizing the extent of the problem. On the morning of the explosion, the water cooling line experienced some sort of blockage, and there was (fatally) no backup cooling system in place. Ten minutes later, everything went up. In retrospect, the only thing to do when the cooling went out would have been to run for it and cover as much ground as possible in the ten minutes left, but that’s not a decision that anyone usually makes.

Rich, Black, Flunking

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Well-to-do black parents in Shaker Heights invited Nigerian-born UC Berkeley Anthropology Professor John Ogbu to study why their children were dramatically underperforming in school — and they did not like what he found:

It wasn’t socioeconomics, school funding, or racism, that accounted for the students’ poor academic performance; it was their own attitudes, and those of their parents.

Ogbu concluded that the average black student in Shaker Heights put little effort into schoolwork and was part of a peer culture that looked down on academic success as “acting white.” Although he noted that other factors also play a role, and doesn’t deny that there may be antiblack sentiment in the district, he concluded that discrimination alone could not explain the gap.

“The black parents feel it is their role to move to Shaker Heights, pay the higher taxes so their kids could graduate from Shaker, and that’s where their role stops,” Ogbu says during an interview at his home in the Oakland hills. “They believe the school system should take care of the rest. They didn’t supervise their children that much. They didn’t make sure their children did their homework. That’s not how other ethnic groups think.”

Ogbu sees a tremendous difference between voluntary and involuntary immigrants:

“Blacks say Standard English is being imposed on them,” he says. “That’s not what the Chinese say, or the Ibo from Nigeria. You come from the outside and you know you have to learn Standard English, or you won’t do well in school. And you don’t say whites are imposing on you. The Indians and blacks say, ‘Whites took away our language and forced us to learn their language. They caused the problem.’”

Ogbu’s own experience underlines this distinction:

The son of parents who couldn’t read, he grew up in a remote Nigerian village with no roads. His father had three wives and seventeen children with those women. Ogbu has a difficult time explaining his own academic success, which has earned him numerous accolades throughout his career. He did both undergraduate and graduate work at Berkeley and has never left. When pressed, he says he believes his own success primarily stems from being a voluntary immigrant who knew that no matter how many hurdles he had to overcome in the United States, his new life was an improvement over a hut in Nigeria with no running water. Involuntary immigrants don’t think that way, he says. They have no separate homeland to compare things to, yet see the academic demands made of them as robbing them of their culture. Ogbu would like to see involuntary immigrants, such as the black families in Shaker Heights, think more like voluntary immigrants. In doing that, he says, they’d understand that meeting academic challenges does not “displace your identity.”

Robert Gates Overhauls the Pentagon

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Wired presents a lackluster list of “shocking” ideas that could (supposedly) change the world, but Noah Shachtman’s piece on Secretary of Defense Robert Gates goes much deeper than the other 11 and explains how Gates bent the bureaucracy to his will:

By 2009, changes to the status quo, combined with a successful counterinsurgency push in Iraq, resulted in adjusted attitudes at the Pentagon. The new Air Force chiefs were talking about how awesome drones were. Pentagon staffers were talking about asymmetric war. Anyone discussing showdowns with China or Russia tended to use the same theoretical tone one might employ in considering war with Alpha Centauri.

Still, these changes were marginal compared to the $500 billion-a-year spending machine. Now, $300 billion of that was sacrosanct, going to troops, operations, and maintenance. But the rest went to the Pentagon’s deeply odd process of developing and acquiring new weapons. Among the ongoing projects when Gates came aboard: a constellation of five “transformational” communications satellites that talk to one another using a technology that hasn’t been shown to work, a laser-equipped 747 designed to zap incoming missiles (which had its first test fire last summer after 13 years in development), a presidential helicopter with a kitchen that can heat up meals after a nuclear war, and Future Combat Systems — the Army’s $160 billion, grand modernization project, due to actually get high tech gear to troops by 2011. “You ever read Superman comic books?” asks Eric Edelman, the former Pentagon policy chief. “Well, acquisitions is like the Bizarro universe. Everything is reversed; the world is square, not round.”

Every secdef from McNamara to Rumsfeld tried to cut over-budget, long-delayed weapons programs. Usually, though, their efforts leaked to the press and Congress, who hit them with a tsunami of tears over lost jobs and weakened national potency. Starting in 1989, then-secdef Dick Cheney (before he became a supervillain) tried four times to ax the Osprey, an aircraft that takes off like a helicopter and cruises like a plane. It took $26 billion, 30 dead crewmembers, and 25 years of development, but the Osprey eventually flew. Even Cheney couldn’t stop it.

Gates thought his circumstances gave him a better shot. Even amid two wars and a collapsing economy, he had already lived through one scandal, and he was the only cabinet secretary to serve both Bush and Obama. “I decided to take full advantage of the opportunity,” Gates says. He told his aides to forget about the economy, about generals and defense contractors and all the other extraneous political bullshit. “Let me worry about the politics,” he said.

Then he made his deliberations covert. “I don’t want this leaking out in pieces,” he told his staff. “We’ll get eaten alive.” For the first time, everyone involved in the process had to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Gates’ team set up an exclusive reading room for the budget documents. Only top-ranking generals — four stars — were allowed inside, and they were not permitted to take the briefings out.

Starting on January 6, Gates and a handful of advisers began meeting regularly. “Everything is on the table,” Gates told them. The group would get a white paper on a given issue — missile defense, fighter aircraft, ground forces — and Gates would review the options on what to keep or kill. Gates wouldn’t say outright what he wanted to do with a given program; that way, no one would have details to leak. But everyone knew cuts were coming. Under the Bush administration, Pentagon spending had gone up 75 percent in eight years. “You need a cut to force the institution to make changes to the system,” says Berkson, who coordinated the budget deliberations. “You need that pressure.”

In the end, Gates cut the satellites, the nuke-proof helicopter, the laser-firing jumbo jet prototype, the Future Combat Systems trucks, and, most symbolic, the F-22. Each one of these strike-throughs meant billions of dollars and thousands of jobs lost in dozens of congressional districts. Taken together, they represented the biggest reorg of the Pentagon in a generation.

After the April budget announcement, Republican senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma said that Gates was “gutting our military.” One congressional committee after another voted to keep building F-22s and other Bizarro projects. Gates and the Pentagon “need to learn who’s in charge, and the Congress is,” said Democratic representative Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii. Not even Obama’s threats to veto any budget with F-22s had an effect. The jet had become a symbol of resistance to the Gates Doctrine. By one tally, the Raptor had 45 supporters in the Senate. Gates had only 23 backers.

In mid-July, the weekend before the crucial vote, the White House and Gates’ team started lobbying. Gates assured senator John Kerry that the Massachusetts Air National Guard wouldn’t be severely impacted, and he reportedly warned the CEO of Raptor-maker Lockheed Martin that if his company lobbied in favor of the F-22, Gates would cut other Lockheed contracts. The new Air Force secretary told Wyoming senator Mike Enzi he didn’t want any more Raptors anyway. The following Tuesday, the Senate voted 58-40 to stop production of the Raptors. Gates had won.

Aboard his plane, however, the secretary tries to downplay the importance of the budget votes. This is a onetime, temporary win over the square planet, not some wholesale rewriting of the rules, he insists. “Given the nature of the Pentagon, if you’re in the middle of a war, you’re going to have to have a lot of direction from the top, to break down bureaucratic barriers and get people to move out with a sense of urgency,” he says.

Kling vs. the International Monetary Fund

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Arnold Kling finds that financial “reform,” like health “reform,” is so focused on entrenching the status quo that his views are beyond the pale. A commenter named George quips:

The status quo wasn’t working, so we need to reform it with a bold two-pronged plan:
  1. Add more status.
  2. Add more quo.

(Any similarities to cowbell are purely coincidental.)

Bacteria make nanomagnets for navigating the oceans

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Some bacteria make nanomagnets — called “magnetosomes” — for navigating the oceans, and Tadashi Matsunaga of the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology in Japan has discovered the genes for this process:

Magnetosomes are created by oxygen-hating bacteria to allow them to steer by the Earth’s magnetic field, often to deep regions of the ocean where there is less oxygen.

Now that the genes have been identified, they can be transferred to other organisms or altered to produce customised magnetic particles for practical applications.

Already, for example, the particles have been extracted from bacteria and injected into mice to improve imaging of cancers by MRI scanners. They’ve also been used as nanomagnets in tests to detect biological molecules such as the sugar-regulating hormone insulin.
Bacteria make magnetosomes by filling a fatty vesicle with iron. Next, the iron is oxidised to create magnetite, a form of iron oxide that is strongly magnetic. Finally, the magnetite is made into crystals which are arranged into a line.

A little Cobalt-60 does a body good

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

A Cobalt-60 contamination incident in Taiwan 21 years ago demonstrated once again that sometimes a little poison is good for you:

The contamination occurred during the recycling of metal scrap when a Co-60 source was mixed with metal scrap, melted and drawn into steel bars in the mill. Unaware of the contamination, the steel bars were ultimately used in construction of more than 180 buildings in 1982-84. Most buildings were partitioned into about 1,700 apartments for dwelling, and some buildings for other purpose. The first contaminated apartment was discovered in 1992. The residents in the apartments totaled 10,000 individuals who had been exposed to chronic radiation for at least 9 years and as long as 21 years.

The annual average dose received by the residents in the first year (1983) was about 50 mSv/y with the maximum dosage as high as 600 mSv/y. The residents’ total doses accumulated in 21 years could be calculated using the half-life of 5.3 years for Co-60 and resulted in the average total dosage of 0.4 Sv (the highest total dosage was 6 Sv). These values are higher than the average doses received by the atomic bomb survivors in a short period of time in Japan and higher than the doses received by the Russian recovery workers in two years after Chernobyl accident.

If the linear-no-threshold (LNT) model constructed based upon data from the atomic explosions in Japan is appropriate for evaluating chronic radiation, such excessive doses received by the contaminated apartment residents could induce at least 35 excess leukemia and 35 solid cancer deaths after 21 years. However, actually no increase cancers were observed. On the contrary, the spontaneous cancer deaths of the residents totaled 243 over 21 years based upon the vital statistics provided by the Taiwanese government. The mortality rate from these cancers dropped to only 3% of the general population as shown in the following graph.

The chronic radiation received by the residents in the contaminated apartments had not only reduced their cancers, but also seemed to reduce the hereditary malfunctions of their children (though the hereditary effects had not been obviously observed in the Japanese bomb survivors). The 46 hypothetical hereditary defected children predicated among the residents based on the LNT model, and the 21 congenital hereditary defects among the apartment children were reduced to only 3, (6.5% of the general population). Therefore, the health effects of chronic radiation observed from the residents revealed that chronic radiation is greatly beneficial to the residents, even with their doses accumulated to high level.

The beneficial health effects of radiation observed in the Taiwan Co-60 contamination incident are so unique, they could also coincidentally explain the theory developed by Dr. T.D. Luckey, and his Complete Dose-Response Curve as shown in the last page of his book, “Radiation Hormesis 1991.” The dose of chronic radiation of about 100 mSv/y is optimum to health with up to 10 Sv/y still being in the hormetic range. Dr. Luckey predicted in his paper at the 1999 American Nuclear Society annual meeting in Boston that if the American population received a supplemental radiation dose through the public health service of about 55 mSv, 49 % of the cancer deaths of the US population (about 200,000 Americans) could be prevented every year. Of course, many people were shocked by his suggestion. However, findings from this study suggest the potential of radioactive vaccines to prevent cancers.

Mosquito-borne African virus a new threat to West

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Another Mosquito-borne African virus has become a threat to the West:

Chikungunya infection causes fever, headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, rash and joint pain. Symptoms can last a few weeks, though some suffers have reported incapacitating joint pain or arthritis lasting months.

The disease was first discovered in Tanzania in 1952. Its name means “that which bends up” in the Makonde language spoken in northern Mozambique and southeastern Tanzania.

The virus could spread globally now because it can be carried by the Asian tiger mosquito, which is found in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand.

In the United States, the mosquito species tends to live in southern regions east of the Mississippi but has been found as far afield as western Texas, Minnesota and New Jersey.

Health officials are greatly concerned about the appearance of Chikungunya in the islands of the Indian Ocean — Mauritius, Seychelles and Reunion — which have beach resorts frequented by European tourists.

“It is hyper-endemic in the islands of the Indian Ocean,” Diaz told the meeting.

“Travel by air will import the infected mosquitoes and humans,” he added. “Chikungunya is coming.”