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Sue not lest ye be discovered

Via Ars Technica, Climate lobbying group ignored its own science advisors, The Global Climate Coalition was one of the main industry groups spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) about global warming. Now one of the GCC members, the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, is suing in an attempt

“to block California’s efforts to regulate automotive greenhouse gas emissions. During discovery for the suit, a memo came to light in which the GCC’s scientific advisors suggested that certain aspects of climate science simply weren’t controversial; that memo was leaked to The New York Times, which has placed it online.”

I’m alternately rolling on the floor howling with maniacal laughter at the karmic goodness of it all and wanting to beat these people into fertilizer for what they’ve done to my planet.

I had an Issue, as the nerds say, with a hard drive that decided to develop a bad block. Lots of excitement, 24 hours, and much system rejiggering later, I’m up to the test of trying to post something. Wish me luck!

Technorati Tags: global warming, FUD

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Swine flu: here we go again

update below

The news is spreading everywhere: Mexico flu ‘a potential pandemic’. In the next few days we’ll probably have a replay of the bad old bird flu days. Tamiflu! Hide in your house! Shoot the postman! Or whatever level of idiocy we achieve this time.

I did one of my POPs (Pissed Off Posts) on that occasion, and I think it’s time for a rerun. electron micrograph of a flu virus in cross section

First, this newest flu strain, H1N1 (CDC info), sounds vicious. It’s communicable between people (in the US, as of this morning, there were 11 cases with no fatalities) but it’s already killed dozens of people in Mexico. This makes it a far more serious threat than bird flu, which was almost never caught from another person. So being worried about this new flu is not a mark of loopiness in the same way as setting your hair on fire over bird flu. But panic is still an intensely foolish reaction, and the points I’ll run through below are still valid.

Fiction 1: We’re all going to die. It makes for a good movie script, but this is not the way flu works. Even SARS, which had an exceptionally high rate, had about 15% fatalities. Obviously, the only good rate is zero. The point I’m trying to make is that exaggerating risk does not help anyone to deal with it.

Fiction 2. Quarantine will stop the disease. Imagine two different scenarios. You feel the first twinges of something that could be flu. In the first scenario, you go to the hospital, get tested, receive free medication, your whole family and all your contacts are tested and also receive any necessary medication. People who see how you were treated are also alert to any sign of flu and go to get treatment as fast as possible. In the second scenario, you go to the hospital, and get tested. Then you’re quarantined for an unspecified length of time, your family is quarantined and unable to go to work, pay the rent, go to school, or do anything they have to do. The money spent on finding and quarantining you and yours is not available to provide an adequate supply of drugs. Obviously, in the second case you’ll rush to the hospital at the first sign of flu. Not.

Quarantine is useful in some situations that epidemiologists know all about. They’ll tell you when quarantine is necessary. Really, they will. Public hysteria is never useful.

Fiction 3. I’ll take Tamiflu and save myself! No, you won’t. Save yourself, that is. Here’s why.

Flu viruses mutate. Flu viruses mutate a lot. They develop resistance to antivirals incredibly fast, much faster than bacteria do to antibiotics. Way back in 2005, in the bird flu days, this was already a problem, and Tamiflu had barely been invented. Flu viruses are growing resistant to antivirals: “…in a special online edition of The Lancet, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 12% of influenza A strains worldwide have developed resistance to the most widely used flu medications.” (That referred to A-series, not H-series, viruses and not to Tamiflu specifically, but the principle is exactly the same.)

So, by trying to take care of number one, instead of everyone, we’ll end up breeding resistant disease, potentially in a matter of weeks, and we’ll all be defenseless, including the people who took it “preventively.”

When is it sensible to take an antiviral? When it is part of the public health measures to contain an outbreak. On an individual level, it’s prescribed preventively when you or someone you live with has a diagnosed case of flu. This is the main reason why outfits like the CDC don’t stock enough doses of antivirals for “everyone.” We don’t need enough for everyone. We need enough to blanket regions with outbreaks, and we need those viruses not to be already resistant to the only drugs available because people have been using them wrongly.

Another consequence of viruses’ rapid mutation rate is that new lethal strains appear all the time. Case in point, H5N1 bird flu in 2005, H1N1 swine flu in 2009. That’s another reason why quarantine, by itself, doesn’t solve the problem. All you’re doing–if it works!– is putting out brush fires, while the viruses keep pouring on fuel just out of reach.

So, that’s what not to do. What are the sensible things that actually work?

First and foremost: vaccines. Obviously, we don’t have a vaccine for this new strain yet, and it’ll take several months before we do. Once it’s available, that’s the most effective protection and the best way to stop the spread (since the virus can’t hop from person to person as easily).

Once there is a vaccine, there’s a useful priority list as to everyone’s place in the line. It really helps to control the spread if people help with that. The most vulnerable people need to go first because they’re the likeliest to catch it and, therefore, to spread it. That puts everyone in greater danger. The priority is, more-or-less in order, frontline public health workers (nurses, ambulance drivers, and the like); school-age and day care-age children (the main vectors); the elderly, infants, and the immune-suppressed; people who deal with the public a lot (teachers, hairdressers, police, funeral workers, and so on), and, finally, the rest of us.

The next most useful thing is not to spread virus particles around. (I mean, duh, right?) The problem is we still don’t really know how they’re spread. The CDC thinks droplet infection (i.e. by air) is an important route. Other research points to touch as the main route. E. g. a BBC report on a study by Oxford & Lambkin, Journal of Infection, August 2005, pages 103-9.

One proven source of droplet infections is airplane trips. Since air travel is by far the biggest way viruses hop continents and spread long distances, I’d say that forcing the airlines to deal with their bad habits is right up there with vaccination as an important preventive measure. The airlines really are part of the problem. It’s not just a matter of many people in close proximity for a long time. The airlines save money by recirculating air without filtering it well enough, by keeping the air too dry because that’s cheaper, and by keeping its oxygen content too low, likewise because that’s cheaper. Airlines should be kicked, repeatedly, until they do what is necessary for the safety and health of their passengers and flight attendants.

For the rest of us, however, the most effective ways to stop the spread are:

1) Stay home at the first sign of sickness. That, up to the point when the disease peaks, is the time of highest infectivity. (I know. The feeling tends to be, “I’m already sick. I can’t get any sicker. And I’m sure not wasting any days off on this.” Or, “I have an exam. I have to go to class.” It’s another case where worrying about number one makes it worse for everybody, including eventually number one.)

2) Wash your hands or use alcohol wipes after touching doorknobs, phones, toilet handles, and anything else touched by many different people. Basically, you should be cleaning your hands about six times a day. The next most important thing is cleaning and disinfecting surfaces that are touched often (counters, phones, desks, etc.). The virus is activated when virus-laden fingers touch our mouths, nose or eyes. It is truly amazing how difficult it is not to touch one’s face, and how unconscious and automatic the process is. One of the interesting effects of wearing rubber gloves is that you find out how often you touch your face. Most face masks are useless for stopping viruses. Viruses are tiny. They’re just big molecules, after all. Any face mask that is easy to breathe through has a pore size that looks like chicken wire to a virus. However, what face masks can do, and do very effectively, is stop you from touching your nose or mouth.

So, as the hysteria mounts in the next weeks and months (unless we’re lucky and this bout is caught early enough so that it fizzles) remember what you know. There’s no need to shoot the postman. It wouldn’t help anyway. There’s no need for any heroic high noon standoffs at the OK Corral pharmacy for the last magic pills. Just wash your hands and don’t panic. (If you need to do something violent, kick the airlines.) And tell everyone you know to do what works instead of what feels good.

Update April 26, 5 pm: Then again, the BBC has a series of very worrisome comments from a whole series of people in Mexico City and Oaxaca, many of them health professionals. Not good.

Technorati Tags: swine flu, H1N1, influenza

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The Search for ET Intelligence

Actually, what I’m about to discuss is the search for ET life, but you have to start somewhere and it’s getting more clear by the day that alien intelligence is the best hope for us blog denizens to find someone to talk to.

The idea that we’re not alone has a long and fascinating history, going back to Giordano Bruno who got burned at the stake for it. By the time SETI came along, things had advanced from that point. But not too far. You pretty much got burned at the academic stake for being involved in it, if they could get at you, so the field was heavily populated with tenured professors. By now, the astronomers have found so many planets orbiting other stars (including one, maybe more, exoplanets with evidence of water!) that scientists have gone from thinking SETI was for kooks to looking for the life-bearing planets they know are out there.

Just recently, March 9th to be precise, an article came out with such an elegant method of checking for life that we may be hearing about the first find in a matter of years instead of centuries. Life is peculiar in that it prefers molecules that polarize light a certain way (technically termed chirality). Whether or not light is polarized can be seen right across the universe, and whether that polarization has a given chirality or not, likewise.

Hubble photo of polarized light from a star's protoplanetary debris disk

The only problem is that we’re talking about very, very, very faint light here. The light has to bounce off, or pass through the atmosphere of a life-bearing planet before it acquires that signature polarization. Passing through gives the brightest signal, but for that the planet has to transit in front of its parent star, from our perspective, when for two brief moments (coming and going) the star shines through the planet’s atmosphere. That’s a somewhat rare event, and we don’t have too many candidates to check yet, but we do already have the capability to see the signal if we get it.

They could be looking at, for instance, Gliese 581e in the next few months. We might actually know any day now that there’s life besides ours among the stars. Being a total nerd, I’m wildly excited and waiting with bated breath. What do you think? Fun, huh?

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Too funny (so far)

I have spies amidst the gun-toters. When they first told me the following, I assumed they were just trying one of their cold, spy-ish jokes. I should have had more faith in them:

Ammo in short supply; Dem takeover gets blame

With firearm dealers struggling to keep ammunition on their shelves, it seems the gun and ammunition business has been stimulated in a way few people expected.

The minute Barack Obama stepped into the White House, people scrambled to gun stores to buy as much ammunition as they could get their hands on. Now, there’s a shortage of ammunition all over the country as demand is three times the supply.

The thinking (in the loosest sense of the word) is that assault rifles will be banned, or rifles will be banned, or handguns, or everything, or it will be tax, tax, taxed (you know them damn takeover Dems), or ammunition will be taxed out of existence, or rationed. Or something.

Then I saw this comment (typos edited):

Not to sound too paranoid, but the thought has crossed my mind several times lately, that people like Soros and the rest of that scurvy crew were buying this stuff up with front companies/people to keep it out of the hands of the public.

Ha! I will call my good friend George (Soros, that is, not he-who-must-not-be-named), and because of my impeccable liberal cred he will give me rooms full of ammo. With this I will then tease the desperate “public” until they hock their very flak jackets to pay my terrible price. I’ll be rich! Rich! Finally.

Well, until some of them decide to broaden their list of targets. Then it won’t be so funny.

Tags: ammunition shortage

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Plants can make global warming worse

Some of the codswallop on what to do about global warming — okay, ALL of the codswallop — is driving me nuts. Nuts, I tell you. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, next-to-no knowledge is radioactive.

The latest comes via the Times: Plants buy Earth more time as CO2 makes them grow. The first breathless sentences are “Trees and plants are growing bigger and faster in response to the billions of tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by humans, scientists have found. The increased growth has been discovered in a variety of flora, ranging from tropical rainforests to British sugar beet crops. It means they are soaking up at least some of the CO2 that would otherwise be accelerating the rate of climate change. It also suggests the potential for higher crop yields. “

Um, Mr. Leake, Environment Editor? You skipped class that day in Basic Chemistry, didn’t you? And then you did it again in Basic Bio. Read more »

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Science Education: Who Needs It?

The evidence suggests an awful lot of people need it. A recent study by Harris Interactive for the California Academy of Sciences found the following:

  • Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
  • Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
  • Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water.
  • Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.

Especially the first one strikes me as a real “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” kind of question. Sad, really.

But not sad enough. Tucked away underneath the outrage over AIG’s criminal greed and use of taxpayer money to sue for bigger tax refunds, tucked away underneath all that has been some talk about education. Obama has said he’s for it. He feels it should be high quality. He feels all children should get the same high standard. He feels good teachers should be rewarded.

How, exactly, will these desirable goals be brought to pass? By means of national standards, apparently, and national tests, and merit pay for teachers with students who do well on the tests. It’s amazing, when you think about it, how the Republicans had it right and some of us just refused to see it. I mean, that’s No Child Left Behind. And, of course, unlike boring and expensive methods such as small class sizes, this system is bound to be successful. What other outcome is possible when success is measured by scores that are assigned by the people to be rewarded based on those scores?

Now comes the part that’s not in the news. This is just rumblings on the grapevine. There was a molecular biology workshop for high school and middle school teachers near here recently. The middlle school teachers were saying that their school districts are talking about the new testing environment. At the middle school level everybody’s concerned about The Basics, Kids will be tested on The Basics. In these days of starvation budgets, there’s no room for luxuries. Luxuries are anything not on the tests, because that won’t be reflected in the schools’ bottom line. So. at least at many districts here in Southern California, the plan is to cancel science classes at middle schools.

Dateline: 2030. A new Harris Interactive study found that 70% of adults know the sun circles the earth. 80% are sure that prayers are directly answered. 67% favor the new trials for witchcraft. Under the circumstances, it is vitally important to stop people from praying for the wrong thing and causing earthquakes.

Obama, education, NCLB, No Child Left Behind

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I have a bridge to sell you [Updated]

[Update Apr. 2, 2009, 9:15:]
Well, that didn’t take long: Marketwatch this morning:

Responding to pressure applied by lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the Financial Accounting Standards Board on Thursday voted unanimously to give auditors more flexibility in valuing illiquid mortgage assets that may have long-term value.

The new guidance, which is expected to boost bank operating profits when they report first quarter results later this month, alters so called mark-to-market rules, which require banks and other corporations to assign a value to an asset, such as mortgage securities, credit-card debt or student-loan investments based on the current market price for either the security or a similar asset.
Banks complain they can’t sell certain assets because of a lack of a market, but that the assets are not distressed and have strong cash flow.
Seeking to resolve this situation, FASB’s guidance allows banks and their auditors to use “significant judgment” when valuing the illiquid assets. [emphasis mine]

[Mar. 17, 2009, 19:28:]
There’s a quiet undercurrent in fixit schemes for the market which is, shall we say, interesting. It’s about the valuation of toxic assets. Everything depends on that.

I’ll backtrack for a moment. The reason the markets crashed in the first place was that a mass of mortgage assets turned out to be nothing but debts. They were wildly overvalued. But they’d been spread so thinly throughout the market that people started dumping everything just to be sure they weren’t holding any of those loser “assets.” So the valuation of everything went down, good and bad. Banks, of course, have to have reserves of a certain magnitude, but their portfolios were now worth way less, just like everyone else’s. If banks can’t meet their reserve requirements, they’re considered insolvent.

So the banks started pointing out that their assets really aren’t that bad. They’re undervalued. The market’s not paying what they’re worth. It’s not fair!

Well, yes, they do have a point. Only some of their assets are toxic, not all of them, but the markets price them as if there’s a pox on them all. The problem is that a markets share one feature with democracies: they may be the worst pricing system, except for all the others. How else are you going to do it? Have a government body study each thing for sale and decide how much can be charged? Do it by vote? Freeze prices at, oh, for instance, 1906 levels? It’s no more arbitrary than settling on 2006.

Obviously, none of that could work. So the banks have an idea.

The banks will tell us what their assets are worth! It solves everything! They know their assets better than anyone else. They’ll put the right price on them, you betcha. And the amazing thing will be that all the banks will instantly become solvent again. It’ll be like magic. It won’t cost a thing. And so easy!

Politicians are nothing but helpless iron filings inside the magnetic field of any easy solution. This one is being seriously discussed. Personally, I’d bet money that they’ll implement it because it’s way too complicated an idea for CNN to dissect. I mean, it took me three or four paragraphs, and real news has to fit in about 8 seconds of the few minutes they give it. The whole thing will fly right under the popular radar, and the problem will seem to be gone.

Except, of course, that the problem — which was always misvalued assets — will be right where it has always been: in the banks rose-colored balance sheets, waiting for the next and even bigger implosion of fear because nobody knows what anything is really worth.

Mark my words, I shall watch our future progress with considerable interest. If the banks really are allowed to decide the value of their own assets, expect the markets to do a nice recovery followed by another panic a year or two down the road.

However, let me not close on a hopeless note. As I said, the banks do have a point. Some of their assets really are worth more than the market says. That does not mean that we should ever let the owner of any asset demand to be sole arbiter of what their goods are worth. Bit of a conflict of interest there. If you don’t see that, I have a Picasso in my attic that I’d like to sell you.

If the bankers’ only objection is that market fluctuations are masking the real worth of things, then smooth out the fluctuations. There are time-honored ways of doing that. You use what’s called a moving average. The market price over some span of time, such as 30 days or 30 years, is averaged. The span of time included in the average would vary for different asset classes, maybe a decade for real estate, maybe five years for stocks, and so on. The market still sets the price, the fluctuations are no longer a factor, and the banks don’t get to lead anyone down the garden path.

Oh, wait, that last item means the banks might still have a problem. Okay. Forget it.

markets, financial, crisis, mark-to-market, toxic assets

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