Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Unkind Juxtaposition Backfires

I stumbled onto this entertaining little quiz (hold on! don't click through yet) being promoted by anti-Gore nuclear power advocates. The challenge is to distinguish between the writings of Al Gore and the writings of the Unabomber. Interesting. Can you do it? Well, you might respond, it would be easy to cherry pick the most rational statements made by the Unabomber and the most controversial statements made by Gore. I think that's exactly what they did, but it still leaves me thinking that I should probably read the Unabomber's work.

The deck is stacked, but nevertheless, I think I can help you get a good grade! Here's the trick. When you read the item, evaluate it on this basis. Is it an inconvenient truth? If not, give it to the Unabomber. Do you find yourself in grudging agreement with the statement, or asking yourself what the relevance is? Then give it to the Unabomber. Is it more than a complaint? Does it have any aspect of hope? Then give it to Gore.

One irony in all this is that the people who are pro-nuclear are mostly environmental skeptics, anti-Gore types, and the people who fear for the environment are generally opposed to the most likely remedy, which would be, that's right, nuclear power.

Let me know how well you do.

5/30/2006 10:32 PM

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The Fossils Within Us

Cancer is viewed by most people as an accident. Something happens to turn cells bad. The view that I’ve had is that it is indeed an accident, but in fact many accidents, accidents filtered by the natural selection of the body itself. But things are a lot more complicated than I, and many others, have thought.

Presumably the body has many defenses against cancer – DNA correction processes, cell suicide, immune system responses, cell senescence, who knows what else. The result of these mechanisms is that we are probably "cured" of small cancerous events many times, maybe countless times, during our lives. The body is a paragon of self-correction, and why is that? The reason we can fix ourselves is that our ancestors were subject to natural selection pressures. Replication, variation and selection equals change, adaptation, fitness.

Pathogens are subject to the same forces, both within our bodies and within a population, filtered by the body’s defense mechanisms and by barriers to transmission. HIV is the customary exemplar of this concept. It is not particularly good at accurate reproduction, so it produces many bad copies, some viable. These copies are differentially resistant to or hidden from the immune system. The immune system adapts, since it is designed to work according to the same evolutionary rules, but it cannot keep up with the rate of variation for this pathogen. Each partially successful attempt at wiping out the virus just makes the surviving virus more resistant to your best tricks.

Our culture provides us with additional defensesmedical intervention, behavioral changes, research. Such tactics are extensions of and supplements to what the body tries to do, and the effortshave the same general impact on the virus. It changes. It adapts. The memory of RNA, (DNA in other pathogens) carries the successful adaptations. The copy errors induce new random changes, the sheer number of which are likely to create new adaptations. (This is why the viral load issue is so important.) So far, HIV is outsmarting us, individually, as a species and as a culture; but we are also very clever and won’t give up.

Cancer, as I have understood it, seems to follow the same scenario. Cancer cells reproduce without limitation and have sources of variation. Each of our defenses, each medical effort, each partially successful treatment, leaves some survivors. These survivors, although not as virulent as the original population perhaps, will be more resistant, thanks to natural selection, to our defenses. Unless completely wiped out, they will eventually destroy us.

There are two interesting aspects to cancer that make me question this understanding. 1) The defense mechanisms that a cancer develops can be extremely sophisticated, as noted in the BBC link . 2) Cancer, although it manifests itself with great variety, has customary, diagnosable types. There are recognizable syndromes, classifiable cells, predictable patterns. Now, the cancer cell has access to our entire genome, every protein, every trade secret from our distant past. It can, theoretically, reorganize these resources in any way to put up a defense.

We know that it can evolve, but it seems unlikely that it can evolve that fast, within a single person in a single lifetime. Do we think that it can be transmitted and thereby gain multiple generations to evolve more sophisticated responses? There have been arguments in the past that viruses cause cancer. There is some connection with viruses. Certainly HPV can induce cervical cancer. But are these viruses actually transmitting the cancer or merely triggering a latency? It seems from statistical studies that many triggers exist. Only 15% of cancers are related to viruses, and often a cancer can start with no apparent trigger at all. There is also no evidence that cancer, per se, is infectious. So it seems to me unlikely that the memory of the cancer can extend past a single human except through the human’s own genome.

The implication here is that the sophistication of cancer is pre-packaged somehow, that certain versions are more likely because of a predisposition. I think it could be akin to a common mutation. There are genetic configurations that are unstable for some reason. Such genes can change easily and frequently to a particular mutated, but nonlethal, form. As I remember, dwarfism in humans is the result of such a mutation. They can also change to a lethal form. Could cancer just be a predictable mutation of somatic cells?

A second possibility is that the virus is taking advantage of human reproduction to reproduce itself. Some viruses do insert themselves into host DNA. The virus is perhaps getting a free ride, like parasites on a fig wasp, but if there is no independence, then the virus loses its incentive to pursue any interest other than the host's interest. If there is no transmission to new hosts other than through the host, the only excuse for damaging the host would be incomplete integration, which implies that the virus would not yet have sophisticated host-specific defense mechanisms.

The other possibility, which is dancing in my head since I read the BBC article, is that there are pre-evolved sequences hidden in our genes which represent ancient alternative paths of development. Think about that for a minute. We may have evolved mechanisms to quash life-stages that were necessary at some point in our pre-history when our ancestors were axolotls or chordate worms or multi-cellular colonies of who-knows-what. When these incompletely eradicated pathways are fortuitously invoked by the afore-described micro-evolutionary process, it might lead to a stereotypical sequence of events. That is, inappropriate tissue development takes place that may have been appropriate in another context. Since it is almost normal by that standard, it proceeds unchecked.

5/30/2006 12:13 AM

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Shroom Guardian - Selections

… with great certainty they will detail how mushrooms were used in prehistoric religious ceremonies, inspiring the building of stone circles at Avebury and Stonehenge and the Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacán. They will tell you how Plato, among others, drank mushroom tea; how mushrooms were eaten by the shadowy Celts and their Druidic priests, by the Vikings to access their jingoistic rages, and then later by the medieval witches in their secretive moonlight sabbats. They will happily explain the figure of Father Christmas, who is in fact a magic mushroom in disguise.

… "Given the high price of getting the decision wrong (a slow and painful death in the case of the death cap, Amanita phaloides), blanket avoidance of all mushrooms is the most sensible and reasonable option,"

… But our ancestors were generally illiterate, forbidden to question authority and had no grasp of scientific methodology. Hence rather than being naturally drawn to experiment with drug-rich mushrooms, the reverse was true. The same argument applies to edible species.

There is a kaleidoscope of things out there to keep us amused.

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Fear of Thought

Freakonomics, the book, was on the banned list in Chicago district 214. This book, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, is a collection of offbeat interpretations and thought experiments involving the implications of Market Capitalism. Some people like it. Some hate it.

Most books were on the banned list because of the usual issue of pornography, but Freakonomics was on the list for being controversial, for identifying an unpalatable truth. Among many other innovative ideas, it pushed forward the hypothesis that the decades long reduction in criminal activity is attributable to, not the extreme cleverness of police commissioners or criminologists, but rather the legalization of abortion. The possibility that all of the sophistry of law enforcement philosophy and doctrine is mere superstitious behavior, in the face of such a simple fact of life, is just monstrous. People can’t take it. The religious associations don’t help either. It reminds me of Evolution as an issue. I wonder if Darwin was on the list. Fortunately, loyal students and parents made a successful impassioned effort to overturn the unjust recommendation. This is a victory for reason, not a match for, but in kind with the thrashing of the school board in Dover, PA.

There are certainly grounds to argue with the proposition, but I would have hoped that we had passed the stage where an urban school district could be so doctrinaire and reactionary. For myself, I am inclined to believe the hypothesis. Nature or nurture? I am liberal enough that I prefer to credit nurture where possible. I am conservative enough that I believe fathers are important to the upbringing of children. Let me state it bluntly. Unwanted children and the resulting uncivilized adults are poisonous to society. There are exceptions, but for the most part, babies are vessels that become human souls in direct proportion to the love that is poured in.

What I just stated is a religious viewpoint. The proposition put forward by Freakonomics is a scientific hypothesis that, admittedly, hints at my viewpoint. The proposition can be tested scientifically and merits consideration in public education. My viewpoint, on the contrary, does not belong in a discussion of science,but neither proposal should be banned from a school library by some busybody with a list.

5/28/2006 2:47 PM

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Wedge

I really want to see this.

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Big Space

Speaking of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (my Improbability Drive must be kicking in), VariFrank interviews the SETI boss. He asks a very good question, "If we were to place the SETI radio telescope dish on, oh, let's say Pluto for example and scan towards Earth,from the signals that the Dish picks up,would we detect life on Earth?" He also asks a somewhat lower quality question, "I wonder if the 'Giant Squid of Tau Ceti' spend their spare time writing blogs?" Doug Adams would have liked that question better (RIP DNA).

5/25/2006 8:58 AM

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Fake, But On the Nose

Jason Raimondo is complaining about an allegedly fabricated story that Iran is requiring Jews and other minorities to wear identifying clothing, yellow stripes for Jews. This is a powerful reminder of the Nazi practices. So let's stipulate that the news article is false. The implication is that somebody is trying to make the Mullahs look like Nazis. Can you imagine! I'm all for truth in reporting, literal truth as well as substantive truth, but let me ask you this. Does anyone think that the Jews and Christians of Iran have a lot to look forward to? I don't know a lot about Iran, but there has been a huge shift in Jewish population in the Middle East. They're almost gone from Iraq. Christians are also not doing well in Southern Iraq where the Iranian-style Shiites are most prevalent.

5/25/2006 12:45 AM

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

An Inconvenienced Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook is poking fun at Al Gore in Slate, but recognizes that Gore, alone among major American politicians, has been addressing the Global Warming problem for 20 years. I love Gregg Easterbrook, but Easterbrook himself is a very recently recovered GW skeptic. The Slate piece is a negative critical review of Gore’s new movie, An Inconvenient Truth. It is essentially a slam on Gore’s pretentious personality, but … a big but … it concedes that he has been right all along.

5/24/2006 11:19 PM

UPDATE: 5/28/2006 07:25PM Some people are not impressed by Easterbrook's conversion.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Energy Pulse

Here's an interesting article on plug-in hybrids with solar panels (!) from Energy Central, and a very good one on the inevitable development of nuclear power. The author asserts that the danger from nuclear waste is negligible, but he predicts that the BANANAs will be sowing seeds of panic as fast as they can.

5/23/2006 11:19 PM

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The Bounce in Denounce

Pity the plight of Mohammed al-Asaadi, editor-in-chief of the Yemen Observer. A devout Muslim, al-Asaadi reacted in anger to the political cartoons of the Prophet as published in the Jyllands-Posten of Denmark. He re-published them with large, bold "X"s through the depictions of the Prophet's visage, asking his readers to express their religious indignation at such an affront.

As a consequence, he now peers through iron bars, his paper closed, his life at hazard, accused of the very crime that he condemned. The Committee to Protect Journalists, of all unlikely groups, is publicizing his situation and asking that the Freedom of Press be respected for this unjustly imprisoned individual.

5/23/2006 6:35 PM

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Monday, May 22, 2006

Holy DNA!

Faye Flam raises some very interesting questions regarding the Da Vinci Code in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.

What was Jesus' DNA like? Was it all from Mary? Suggestions that Jesus was born of Mary by parthenogenesis would require that Jesus be a female. Presumably a Y chromosome had to come from somewhere. Christianity insists that Jesus was a mortal man, with, presumably all the normal components. What human man would have served as the model or source for that Y chromosome? Would it have come from Joseph, in keeping perhaps with the sacredness of marriage? Could Jesus have children by the natural route, or would divine intervention be required for each subsequent generation? Perhaps divine intervention is required for every birth, making DNA superfluous.

More interesting, if God was bequeathing DNA to the human race, would we not expect Him to correct the failings inherent in our flawed DNA? Or would a certain amount of selfishness in our genes be necessary for us to retain the definition of Humanity?

5/22/2006 6:45 PM

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Hirsi Ali Comes Home Again

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the famous Dutch legislator and author, has admitted to lying on her original asylum application. She will be leaving her post(fr.) and travelling to America for a position with the conservative think tank, the Enterprise Institute. Unfortunately, the story is a lot more complicated that a simple job change. Her explanation does not simplify things, but it is very convincing.

Hirsi Ali has been remarkably successful in a place where most immigrants do not thrive, coming from places where no one thrives. She did well in the Netherlands. She started as a cleaning lady and worked her way up. Her name came to prominence in America as the author of a short film about the place of women under Islam. The film is justifiably entitled Submission. Dutch Muslims did not like it and one of them killed the director of the film, Theo Van Gogh, in a spectacular fashion, leaving a note with threats against Hirsi Ali pinned by a dagger to Van Gogh's body.

Hirsi Ali has pressed a political agenda for women's rights and free speech. She has supported Denmark's free speech position on the Mohammed cartoons. She is still writing about the hostility of Islam towards women. Her dishonesty, to whatever extent, makes me uncomfortable. Reading her eloquent statement, however, makes it seem more likely that this is a case of political pressure applied by her political enemies and Islamist groups. She has basically been forced out, but she is a survivor. She will be welcome here.

5/16/2006 8:55 PM

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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Iran Declares War

I understand from my blog readings that Osama Bin Laden declared war on the US many years before he actually landed a significant blow. We ignored him. We saw him as insane, or criminal, or both. We did not see him as representing any significant force. Some laughed at this stone age caricature of a religious leader.

He is no doubt contemptible, but I think we were mistaken to take him lightly. I believe that our policy should be that a declaration of war against us allows us to take counter-measures commensurate with a state of war. Clinton was right to bomb him. The political atmosphere that tied his hands was in the wrong. The World Trade Center attack in 1993 should have given us a hint of what was to come.

George Bush was right to identify the Axis of Evil. He was wrong to exclude Afghanistan merely on the basis of its supposed weakness.

The Gypsy Scholar has now given a convincing interpretation of Ahmadinejad's letter to President Bush. He believes, based on a reasonable interpretation of religious precedent, that the letter constitutes a declaration of war.

Assuming that he is correct, is it unreasonable to expect another 911, or worse, in the relatively near future? If so what should we do about it?

At the very least, we should demand a clarification from Iran on whether a state of war currently exists. This is necessary as a tool for communicating with the American people as well as the government of Iran.

The proprietor of the Gypsy Scholar is not predisposed toward war. As near as I can tell, he is a Christian man with, by the way, remarkable literary talents, who is currently deliberating on the possibility of Peace.

5/14/2006 10:56 PM

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Friday, May 12, 2006

Matrimonial Whoredom in America

Matrimonial Whoredom in America

Since Malthus there has been an attempt by rational people to shake the insane grip of religion on bedroom behavior. (Before Malthus it was just sensible people.) Human population increase is understood to be exponential in nature and possibly dangerous to human liberty and the enjoyment of life. The logical response is to, at the very least, facilitate reproductive control by those who willingly limit their own increase. It's not just about reproduction of course. Family planning, in the sense of scheduling, is also desirable for numerous reasons that relate to the welfare of children and society.

It seems to those not suffering from religious delusions that this control is a good thing, and that sexual activity is a natural phenomenon that will not be significantly circumscribed by any moral strictures, short of those enforcements practiced in Saudi Arabia anyway. Unfortunately, our pre-modern religious attitudes place such considerations far below dogma in importance. In practical terms, religions encourage reproduction, perhaps unconsciouly, as a way to increase the numbers of the faithful. Religion is a highly competitive meme.

I'm not saying I don't have my own religious delusions, but I am capable of reflection. I believe that many Americans are not. The abortion debate, which IMO is the central issue in American politics today, shows that reason and tolerance have been rejected in favor of religious ego. Thou shalt do as I believe. The abortion debate, however, is merely the skin of the banana. The flesh of this issue is not "murder", but Pleasure.

Pleasure seeking behavior can be channeled or diverted, but not dammed. Everyone knows this, but the effort to enforce "God's will", the effort itself, is treated as holy, no matter how hopeless. Ringing condemnations are catalyzing, allowing the congregation to see itself as united against the Other.

I have just read an excellent summary of this intersection between politics, religion and sex as it exists today in America. The piece, by Russell Shorto, first appeared in the New York Times on May 7. It is taken here from the Spartansburg Herald-Journal of South Carolina, a more appropriate locale. TheSouth, which was at the heart of our previous religious conflict, has not been cured of its preference for inconsistency on a grand scale.

5/11/2006 11:51 PM

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Ahead of the Curve

Jane Galt has a post commenting on the following post at Reality Based Community by Michael O'Hare. She asks, "Why is US energy policy so wrongheaded?" There are a lot of very interesting comments on the Jane Galt post. There are far fewer comments with the O’Hare post, but here are some selections of what I liked:

… You say you're worried about global warming. Well, leaving aside any debate over whether your fears are well-founded, the fastest and cheapest way we could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions would be to substitute nuclear-power electric generation for coal-fired generation. ALL energy-related US greenhouse emissions, expressed in equivalent million- metric- tonnes (MMT) of CO2, total to 5,868 MMT CO2/year (2004 numbers, trend is slowly upward). Electric power generation produced on the order of 2,293 million metric tonnes (MMT) of CO2 in 2004. About 82% of that came from burning coal (see a DOE report called Emissions of Greenhouse Gasses in the US 2004 in file 057304.pdf). We could replace virtually all coal-fired generation with nuclear (no new tech or distribution infrastructure [see hydrogen, problems with!] needed) to save about 1,880 MMT of CO2 yearly. (That would be a third of all energy-related emissions, 5,868 MMT CO2/year.) No feasible reduction of motor fuel consumption could compare. … -- Mark Seecof

… As far as the suburban lifestyle issue goes, I understand that lots of people think they would really hate to live in a dense city and that some of them correctly perceive their preferences. But simply saying that what people do is what they want to do seems quite naïve. We've been eating lots of trans fat because it made things taste good, but didn't know it was bad for us until recently. That diet choice didn't prove we wanted to risk our health for potato chips. It's also quite difficult to make some choices by private action; you can buy a house on a small lot, or an apartment, but until society provides the transit that makes it work, you still have to have a car. But the discussion of urban density and housing choices is a big one, for another post or three. People are quite commonly mistaken about what they will like or not like (see Schwarz'recent book, The Paradox of Choice, on this). My main point was that it actually doesn't matter much what we want; the real cost of motor fuel is going to go up and the price should follow it (no matter whether we make it from coal or corn or trees), and that will make a lot of habits and life decisions look different to people. Playing tricks to make gas look cheap by this or that hidden subsidy is simply a case of government lying to its citizens, with predictable bad consequences of many kinds. … -- Michael O'Hare

… If your real goal is changing lifestyles, with reducing greenhouse emissions just your excuse, go after transportation fuel use. But if your real goal is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, why plump for unpopular lifestyle changes? Go for the easy win--stop burning coal. Also, note that current US government policy is to *reduce* fuel consumption. Our government *increases* the price of fuel by taxing it and restricting supply. I don't mind the "highway user fee" aspect of fuel taxes, but the ethanol mandate adds between 8 and 20 cents/gallon (depending on weather and distance from Iowa, and considering tax-funded production subsidies) to no public purpose, and around 20% of Federal automobile-fuel taxes are diverted to mass-transit spending[1]. Gasoline-formulation rules drive up gas prices (as much as 20 cents/gallon in California) by restricting competition among refiners. …

… Historically our politicians have been more interested in taxing fuel consumption (remember the 4.3 cent/gallon "deficit reduction" refined-fuels tax from 1990 to 2005? Of course, we're still paying that tax, but now the money is laundered through the Highway Trust Fund (mainly) instead of going straight to the General Fund). (Before you bring it up, I realize that European governments tax fuel a lot more heavily than we do, and spend the receipts on trains and so-forth. However, even Europeans have increasing sprawl (source EU gov't: google "sprawl 1na3.pdf"), so you would likely need a tax-and-regulate regime tougher even than Europe's to force serious lifestyle changes here.) … -- Mark Seecof

Seecof, though he resists the global warming scenario, seems to be of my own mind on most of this. The one thing that I would add is that it would be better public policy to actually forcefuel prices higher before the natural working of the market does so. Transitions require time and planning. If we tax carbon now, strongly and reliably, then the transition technology will be mature when it is most needed. We will have steadily rising prices rather than riding a destructive roller coaster of price gyrations. The economic implications of oil prices, in particular, are such that the tax should be under the control of an organization similar to the Federal Reserve Board. The purpose of the Carbon Tax Control Board would be to balance the somewhat antithetical goals of controlling inflation, encouraging alternative energy supplies, and above all, reducing our use of oil well ahead of the natural depletion curve.

Coal of course can continue to be burned for hundreds of years, but if you believe, as I do, that the CO2 could destroy us, it should also be taxed heavily, using the income to fund a nuclear power buildup.

Now, how much tax is enough to encourage economic substitution? I believe it’s going to be a lot. It's also going to be unpopular because it's visible. If the President backs it though, convinces people of its necessity, it can be done. The most painless way to do it, at least at first, would be to prevent the prices from going down. When the market price surges, let it happen. When the price begins to fall, increase taxes to the degree necessary to maintain something close to the maximum. The psychological benefit would be that businesses can plan for future costs knowing that the basic market price will never fall.

It has been pointed out by several pundits, George Will among them, that gas prices are not high anyway. What do we mean by high? If you look at real dollars the current price is not out of line with historical data. If you compare gas prices as a portion of average income, the numbers are still lower. Let’s look at gas prices as a portion of your automobile investment. In the US we typically spend less than $1,000 per year per car on gasoline ($3.00/gallon X 10,000 miles / 30 mpg = $1,000), and yet many people will spend twice that on repairs and maintenance. More than a few will buy a new car every three years at $25,000 or higher. Say, allowing for a trade-in,that’s around $5,000 a year, ballpark. Are you in that ballpark? Then maybe as little as say 10% of your transportation cost is in fuel. Please feel free to argue with my estimates, but my point is that we are flinching before we’re struck.

I know people that spend hours every day commuting on expressways. Maybe they’re entitled to complain about prices. Let me be clear that I think such behavior is bizarre. I also know people that commute a couple of hours on their bicycles each weekday. Society is not constructed for such people, and I’m not willing emulate them, but let me tell you that the latter are in better shape than the former, and a lot happier to boot.

5/10/2006 6:53 PM

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