Monday, August 17, 2009

world cement production

The Oil Drum | Cement is mainly used to make concrete, and is sort of the "active ingredient" in concrete - it is combined with sand and gravel in roughly fixed proportions. So cement production can be considered a rough proxy for the total amount of construction going on in a country.

The growth in China, from 1 GT to 1.3 GT in two years is mindboggling, even India and Russia are interesting...and there's more to think about under the fold. China's 2007 cement exports were only 33 million tons out of 1.3 billion tons produced. So, at least for China, production is a good proxy for demand/consumption.

Also interesting is the percentage of the world's production of cement that China took up in 2007 (50%) compared to 2004 (42.5%); some of this can no doubt be due to preparation for the Olympics, but that surely cannot not be all of that growth can it? Also note that other countries (perhaps the "developing world?") seems to be using less of the total proportion of cement used.

Some things we learned from the comment thread from Stuart's post a couple of years ago:

Remember, in China, oil isn't used in cement production. In the "clinker" stage, it's all coal. In the blending stage it's electricity (which is generated 80% from coal in China).

And cement production in China is inefficient. There are hundreds of small plants, both wet and dry processes, and the local environmental impact is severe.

Making a pound of cement releases a pound of CO2. And a Gigaton or two?

This also isn't a new phenomenon. This link shows data back to 1999 that illustrated that China has been at this for quite a while, but perhaps not to this extent.

To conclude, here is the percent change of production bar graph from 2005 to 2008. Think about what all that means in terms of energy. Also note the numbers from India, Russia, and the US.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

copeland "revival" - harvesting reality casualties

NYTimes | Onstage before thousands of believers weighed down by debt and economic insecurity, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland and their all-star lineup of “prosperity gospel” preachers delighted the crowd with anecdotes about the luxurious lives they had attained by following the Word of God.

Private airplanes and boats. A motorcycle sent by an anonymous supporter. Vacations in Hawaii and cruises in Alaska. Designer handbags. A ring of emeralds and diamonds.

“God knows where the money is, and he knows how to get the money to you,” preached Mrs. Copeland, dressed in a crisp pants ensemble like those worn by C.E.O.’s.

Even in an economic downturn, preachers in the “prosperity gospel” movement are drawing sizable, adoring audiences. Their message — that if you have sufficient faith in God and the Bible and donate generously, God will multiply your offerings a hundredfold — is reassuring to many in hard times.

The preachers barely acknowledged the recession, though they did say it was no excuse to curtail giving. “Fear will make you stingy,” Mr. Copeland said.

But the offering buckets came up emptier than in some previous years, said those who have attended before.

gop seeks its revival in healthcare revolt

LATimes | Conservatives are calling it their August Revolt -- a surprising upsurge of activism against President Obama's proposed healthcare overhaul.

Spurred on by the success of their efforts to dominate the news at Democratic town hall meetings, conservative groups are reporting increases in membership lists and are joining forces to plan at least one mass demonstration in Washington next month.

But the conservative mobilization has also created an unusual dilemma for Republican leaders, who want to turn the enthusiasm into election victories next year but find themselves the target of ire from many of the same activists.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman of the GOP's Senate campaign committee, was booed at a "tea party" rally in July for supporting the government bailout of the financial services industry.

And one of the GOP's most reliable conservatives, Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, was shouted down at a recent town hall meeting when he criticized a conservative broadcaster and tried to counter claims that children would soon be forced to receive swine flu vaccinations.

"You cannot build a movement on something that is not credible," said a frustrated Inglis, referring to the vaccine issue and other false rumors being spread by more aggressive critics of the health bill.


foxes out of the chicken coop

Washington Post | The Department of Health and Human Services is almost certain to take on responsibility for creating the criteria used to decide what health records technologies qualify for billions of dollars in reimbursements to medical offices under a new stimulus program, officials said Friday.

The decision represents a significant restriction of the role played by a private certification group, begun several years ago by the technology industry, which until recently had served as the government's gatekeeper for endorsing systems designed to improve the sharing of medical records.

The Certification Commission for Healthcare Information Technology, or CCHIT, came under sharp criticism in May after a Washington Post story showed that it has close ties to a trade group whose members stand to receive billions as a result of the stimulus legislation.

The trade group, called the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, was a key force behind the Obama administration's decision to include $36.5 billion in the stimulus package for development of electronic health records networks.

Under the stimulus legislation, doctors and medical organizations can be reimbursed for buying equipment that is certified as meeting certain mandates, including that the gear provides "meaningful use" to improve information sharing.

The nonprofit certification commission was started in 2004 with support from the trade association and two other industry groups. In recent years, it has received funding through HHS, but it is run by a former executive of the trade association and one of its current trustees also is president of the association. Several board members work for technology companies.

Critics of the certification group have complained that apparent conflicts of interest would undermine the group's credibility in judging deciding what technology merited stimulus funding.

"There was an apparent conflict. . . . We don't want to spend the next several years on a sideshow," said Paul Egerman, co-chairman of the advisory group that recommended that the HHS, instead of the private group, should set the criteria.

"Our energies need to be focused on the substantial challenges involved in getting physicians to use these systems effectively while, simultaneously, earning the public's trust in the privacy and integrity of these systems."

The recommendations of Egerman and several others were endorsed by a government health information technology advisory board Friday. That development virtually ensures the recommendations will be formally embraced, after a public comment period, by the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology at the HHS.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


when did your county's jobs disappear?

Slate | The economic crisis, which has claimed more than 5 million jobs since the recession began, did not strike the entire country at once. A map of employment gains or losses by county tells the story of how those job losses first struck in the most vulnerable regions and then spread rapidly to the rest of the country. As early as August 2007, for example—several months before the recession officially began—jobs were already on the decline in southwest Florida; Orange County, Calif.; much of New Jersey; and Detroit, while other areas of the country remained on the uptick.

Using the Labor Department's local area unemployment statistics, Slate presents the recession as told by unemployment numbers for each county in America. Because the data are not seasonally adjusted for natural employment cycles throughout the year, the numbers you see show the change in the number of people employed compared with the same month in the previous year. Blue dots represent a net increase in jobs, while red dots indicate a decrease. The larger the dot, the greater the number of jobs gained or lost. Click the arrows or calendar at the bottom to see each month of data. Click the green play button to see an animation of the data. Fist tap Dale.

Friday, August 14, 2009

lunch with jared diamond

Financial Times | Jared Diamond is the guru of collapse. Collapse is the title of one of the books that have made him a world-famous academic. It is a theme that captures the Zeitgeist: markets have collapsed, banks have collapsed and confidence, even in the capitalist system itself, has collapsed.

Diamond’s celebrated book – which added to the reputation he earned through Guns, Germs andSteel, a Pulitzer prize-winner about why some societies triumph over others – sought to discover what makes civilisations, many at their apparent zenith, crumble overnight. The Maya of Central America, the stone-carving civilisation of Easter Island, and the Soviet Union – all suddenly shattered.

The question lurking in Diamond’s work is: could we be next? Could the great skyscrapers of Manhattan one day become deserted canyons of a bygone civilisation, a modern version of Ozymandias’s trunkless legs of stone?

language shapes thoughts

Newsweek | When the Viaduct de Millau opened in the south of France in 2004, this tallest bridge in the world won worldwide accolades. German newspapers described how it "floated above the clouds" with "elegance and lightness" and "breathtaking" beauty. In France, papers praised the "immense" "concrete giant." Was it mere coincidence that the Germans saw beauty where the French saw heft and power? Lera Boroditsky thinks not.

A psychologist at Stanford University, she has long been intrigued by an age-old question whose modern form dates to 1956, when linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf asked whether the language we speak shapes the way we think and see the world. If so, then language is not merely a means of expressing thought, but a constraint on it, too. Although philosophers, anthropologists, and others have weighed in, with most concluding that language does not shape thought in any significant way, the field has been notable for a distressing lack of empiricism—as in testable hypotheses and actual data.

That's where Boroditsky comes in. In a series of clever experiments guided by pointed questions, she is amassing evidence that, yes, language shapes thought. The effect is powerful enough, she says, that "the private mental lives of speakers of different languages may differ dramatically," not only when they are thinking in order to speak, "but in all manner of cognitive tasks," including basic sensory perception. "Even a small fluke of grammar"—the gender of nouns—"can have an effect on how people think about things in the world," she says.

false "death panel" rumor has familiar roots

NYTimes | The stubborn yet false rumor that President Obama’s health care proposals would create government-sponsored “death panels” to decide which patients were worthy of living seemed to arise from nowhere in recent weeks.

Advanced even this week by Republican stalwarts including the party’s last vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, and Charles E. Grassley, the veteran Iowa senator, the nature of the assertion nonetheless seemed reminiscent of the modern-day viral Internet campaigns that dogged Mr. Obama last year, falsely calling him a Muslim and questioning his nationality.

But the rumor — which has come up at Congressional town-hall-style meetings this week in spite of an avalanche of reports laying out why it was false — was not born of anonymous e-mailers, partisan bloggers or stealthy cyberconspiracy theorists.

Rather, it has a far more mainstream provenance, openly emanating months ago from many of the same pundits and conservative media outlets that were central in defeating President Bill Clinton’s health care proposals 16 years ago, including the editorial board of The Washington Times, the American Spectator magazine and Betsy McCaughey, whose 1994 health care critique made her a star of the conservative movement (and ultimately, New York’s lieutenant governor).

There is nothing in any of the legislative proposals that would call for the creation of death panels or any other governmental body that would cut off care for the critically ill as a cost-cutting measure. But over the course of the past few months, early, stated fears from anti-abortion conservatives that Mr. Obama would pursue a pro-abortion, pro-euthanasia agenda, combined with twisted accounts of actual legislative proposals that would provide financing for optional consultations with doctors about hospice care and other “end of life” services, fed the rumor to the point where it overcame the debate.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

interrogation inc.

NYTimes | In March 2003, two C.I.A. officials surprised Kyle D. Foggo, then the chief of the agency’s main European supply base, with an unusual request. They wanted his help building secret prisons to hold some of the world’s most threatening terrorists.

Mr. Foggo, nicknamed Dusty, was known inside the agency as a cigar-waving, bourbon-drinking operator, someone who could get a cargo plane flying anywhere in the world or quickly obtain weapons, food, money — whatever the C.I.A. needed. His unit in Frankfurt, Germany, was strained by the spy agency’s operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, but Mr. Foggo agreed to the assignment.

“It was too sensitive to be handled by headquarters,” he said in an interview. “I was proud to help my nation.”

With that, Mr. Foggo went on to oversee construction of three detention centers, each built to house about a half-dozen detainees, according to former intelligence officials and others briefed on the matter. One jail was a renovated building on a busy street in Bucharest, Romania, the officials disclosed. Another was a steel-beam structure at a remote site in Morocco that was apparently never used. The third, another remodeling project, was outside another former Eastern bloc city. They were designed to appear identical, so prisoners would be disoriented and not know where they were if they were shuttled back and forth. They were kept in isolated cells.

The existence of the network of prisons to detain and interrogate senior operatives of Al Qaeda has long been known, but details about them have been a closely guarded secret. In recent interviews, though, several former intelligence officials have provided a fuller account of how they were built, where they were located and life inside them.

Mr. Foggo acknowledged a role, which has never been previously reported. He pleaded guilty last year to a fraud charge involving a contractor that equipped the C.I.A. jails and provided other supplies to the agency, and he is now serving a three-year sentence in a Kentucky prison.

The C.I.A. prisons would become one of the Bush administration’s most extraordinary counterterrorism programs, but setting them up was fairly mundane, according to the intelligence officials.

Mr. Foggo relied on C.I.A. finance officers, engineers and contract workers to build the jails. As they neared completion, he turned to a small company linked to Brent R. Wilkes, an old friend and a San Diego military contractor.

The business provided toilets, plumbing equipment, stereos, video games, bedding, night vision goggles, earplugs and wrap-around sunglasses. Some products were bought at Target and Wal-Mart, among other vendors, and flown overseas. Nothing exotic was required for the infamous waterboards — they were built on the spot from locally available materials, the officials said.

will health care slip on oil?

Miller-McCune | As the government, the media and citizen activists grapple with fixing our health care system, one three-letter word has been conspicuously absent from the president on down: oil. But it should be in there. Given medicine's dependence on fossil fuels and the prospect of higher oil prices — now double that of last December — dwindling oil supplies will likely give our health system a shock. Think massive heart attack.

One might not imagine oil and medicine would mix, but U.S. health care relies on cheap crude in multiple ways: from petroleum-derived pharmaceuticals (including such commonly prescribed drugs as aspirin, vitamin capsules, cortisone and many antibiotics, antihistamines, medicated skin creams and psychiatric medications), catheters and syringes to running and transporting high-tech machines and time-is-of-the-essence ambulance runs. This makes for great aseptic single-use equipment and complex, even heroic, surgeries, but it also leaves our medical system highly vulnerable to any disruptions to the oil supply — which experts say will undoubtedly happen, though no one knows exactly when.

"World crude oil production has not grown materially since 2005," said Gail Tverberg, a co-editor of The Oil Drum known to readers as "Gail the Actuary." "With the recession, world crude production has now dropped back below the 2004 level." Most agree that we are approaching or have approached the point where global oil extraction has peaked, meaning that petroleum will become more difficult and expensive to access.

"In light of these facts, it should become a priority for health care professionals and institutions to identify and take actions to reduce their dependence upon conventional oil," said U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md. One of three scientists in Congress — he has a doctorate in human physiology — Bartlett serves on the House Science and Technology Committee and co-founded the Congressional Peak Oil Caucus.

Using a medical analogy, he counseled against waiting for his peers to lead the way in avoiding future problems.

thousands line up for promise of free health care

NYTimes | They came for new teeth mostly, but also for blood pressure checks, mammograms, immunizations and acupuncture for pain. Neighboring South Los Angeles is a place where health care is scarce, and so when it was offered nearby, word got around.

For the second day in a row, thousands of people lined up on Wednesday — starting after midnight and snaking into the early hours — for free dental, medical and vision services, courtesy of a nonprofit group that more typically provides mobile health care for the rural poor.

Like a giant MASH unit, the floor of the Forum, the arena where Madonna once played four sold-out shows, housed aisle upon aisle of dental chairs, where drilling, cleaning and extracting took place in the open. A few cushions were duct-taped to a folding table in a coat closet, an examining room where Dr. Eugene Taw, a volunteer, saw patients.

When Remote Area Medical, the Tennessee-based organization running the event, decided to try its hand at large urban medical services, its principals thought Los Angeles would be a good place to start. But they were far from prepared for the outpouring of need. Set up for eight days of care, the group was already overwhelmed on the first day after allowing 1,500 people through the door, nearly 500 of whom had still not been served by day’s end and had to return in the wee hours Wednesday morning.

The enormous response to the free care was a stark corollary to the hundreds of Americans who have filled town-hall-style meetings throughout the country, angrily expressing their fear of the Obama administration’s proposed changes to the nation’s health care system. The bleachers of patients also reflected the state’s high unemployment, recent reduction in its Medicaid services for the poor and high deductibles and co-payments that have come to define many employer-sponsored insurance programs.

Many of those here said they lacked insurance, but many others said they had coverage but not enough to meet all their needs — or that they could afford. Some said they were well aware of the larger national health care debate, and were eager for changes.

“I am on point with the news,” said Elizabeth Harraway, 50, who is unemployed and came for dental care. “I think the president’s ideas are awesome, and I believe opening up health care is going to work."

sifting through facts and fallacies

Boston Globe | With lawmakers home for August recess, a fierce battle has broken out over what precisely is in the mammoth healthcare bills being pushed by congressional Democrats. There has been no shortage of misinformation. Here is a look at a few of the most contentious parts of the legislation.

...Does the legislation include provisions to encourage senior citizens to commit suicide?

...Will the government start paying for abortions?

...Will illegal immigrants receive free healthcare benefits?

...Will the government ration care?

...Most controversially, the bills would fund more research into the comparative effectiveness of various drugs and medical procedures.

The legislation does not dictate that the research be used to limit coverage of any procedures. And many doctors and other healthcare specialists see this kind of research as critical to improving the quality of care...

bears repeating

fist tap P6.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

terror torture trainers

Washington Post | Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were military retirees and psychologists, on the lookout for business opportunities. They found an excellent customer in the Central Intelligence Agency, where in 2002 they became the architects of the most important interrogation program in the history of American counterterrorism.

They had never carried out a real interrogation, only mock sessions in the military training they had overseen. They had no relevant scholarship; their Ph.D. dissertations were on high blood pressure and family therapy. They had no language skills and no expertise on Al Qaeda.

But they had psychology credentials and an intimate knowledge of a brutal treatment regimen used decades ago by Chinese Communists. For an administration eager to get tough on those who had killed 3,000 Americans, that was enough.

So “Doc Mitchell” and “Doc Jessen,” as they had been known in the Air Force, helped lead the United States into a wrenching conflict over torture, terror and values that seven years later has not run its course.

Dr. Mitchell, with a sonorous Southern accent and the sometimes overbearing confidence of a self-made man, was a former Air Force explosives expert and a natural salesman. Dr. Jessen, raised on an Idaho potato farm, joined his Air Force colleague to build a thriving business that made millions of dollars selling interrogation and training services to the C.I.A.

Seven months after President Obama ordered the C.I.A. interrogation program closed, its fallout still commands attention. In the next few weeks, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is expected to decide whether to begin a criminal torture investigation, in which the psychologists’ role is likely to come under scrutiny. The Justice Department ethics office is expected to complete a report on the lawyers who pronounced the methods legal. And the C.I.A. will soon release a highly critical 2004 report on the program by the agency’s inspector general.

Col. Steven M. Kleinman, an Air Force interrogator and intelligence officer who knows Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen, said he thought loyalty to their country in the panicky wake of the Sept. 11 attacks prompted their excursion into interrogation. He said the result was a tragedy for the country, and for them.

teabagger townhall takeovers

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

coming home to roost

Kunstler | For decades we measured the health of our economy (and therefore of our society) by the number of "housing starts" recorded month-to-month. For decades, this translated into the number of suburban tract houses being built in the asteroid belts of our towns and cities. When housing starts were up, the simple-minded declared that things were good; when down, bad. What this view failed to consider was that all these suburban houses added up to a living arrangement with no future. That's what we were so busy actually doing. Which is why I refer to this monumentally unwise investment as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.

Even this interpretation -- severe as it is -- does not encompass the sheer damage done by the act itself, on-the-ground and to our social and cultural relations. Suburbia destroyed the magnificent American landscape as effectively as it destroyed the social development of children, the worth of public space, the quality of civic life, and each person's ability to really care about the place they called home.

The week past, some so-called "conservative" political action groups (read: brownshirts pimped by corporate medical interests) trumped up a few incidents of civil unrest at "town meetings" around the country, ostensibly to counter health care reform ideas. The people behind these capers may be playing with dynamite. It's one thing to yell at a congressman over "single payer" abstractions. It'll be another thing when the dispossessed and repossessed Palin worshippers, Nascar morons, and Jesus Jokers haul the ordnance out of their closets and start tossing Molotov cocktails into the First National Bank of Chiggerville.

shipping in the downturn

The Economist | FROM the sheltered waters of Subic Bay in the Philippines to Falmouth on the south coast of England, a vast, swelling armada lies idle. In Asia’s deep-sea havens 750 vessels—container ships, bulk carriers, tankers, car carriers and others—are laid up. A further 280 are sheltering in European waters. According to Lloyd’s Marine Intelligence Unit, nearly 10% of the world’s merchant ships are swaying gently at anchor because of a collapse in global trade.

Since the recession bit hard last autumn a lot of attention has been paid to the plunge in the Baltic Dry Index, a composite measure of the cost of shipping bulk cargoes such as iron ore and coal. It fell by over 90% between June and October last year, although it has since recovered slightly and is hovering at just above a quarter of its peak. World trade in general remains in its worst slump for generations, although it too is no longer falling. Two of the biggest shipping banks (RBS and HBOS) are in state-backed rehab. The parlous state of the world economy could mean more shipping companies following Eastwind Maritime, which went bankrupt in June. On July 28th Hapag-Lloyd, Germany’s largest container-shipping company, secured a €330m ($468m) bail-out from its shareholders while it seeks up to €1.75 billion to keep it from sinking altogether.

Worse, there is a huge supply of new ships on order and due off the slipways over the next four years. For bulk carriers alone, the backlog is equivalent to more than two-thirds of existing capacity. Philippe Louis-Dreyfus, departing president of the European Community Shipowners’ Associations, has called for an industrywide scrappage scheme to shrink the surplus. Warning of a “bloodbath”, he said in June that shipping capacity would exceed the needs of the market by between 50% and 70% in the near future.

Nothing like this has been seen since the early 1970s, when lots of super-sized oil tankers, known as VLCCs (very large crude carriers), were built in expectation of huge growth in oil consumption just before the first oil shock. The result was a persistent surplus and no more orders for VLCCs for a decade. By the late 1990s the number of ships completed was running at around 1,300 a year. But from 2004 production picked up. Ships have also been getting larger (see chart). By last year annual completions were up by nearly 60% compared with a decade ago and the ships were 30% bigger. No wonder Lloyd’s List, an industry journal, is full of news of ship seizures and bankruptcies.

Monday, August 10, 2009

climate change warsocialist stylie....,

NYTimes | The changing global climate will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics, military and intelligence analysts say.

Such climate-induced crises could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions, say the analysts, experts at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies who for the first time are taking a serious look at the national security implications of climate change.

Recent war games and intelligence studies conclude that over the next 20 to 30 years, vulnerable regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia, will face the prospect of food shortages, water crises and catastrophic flooding driven by climate change that could demand an American humanitarian relief or military response.

An exercise last December at the National Defense University, an educational institute that is overseen by the military, explored the potential impact of a destructive flood in Bangladesh that sent hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into neighboring India, touching off religious conflict, the spread of contagious diseases and vast damage to infrastructure. “It gets real complicated real quickly,” said Amanda J. Dory, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy, who is working with a Pentagon group assigned to incorporate climate change into national security strategy planning.

Much of the public and political debate on global warming has focused on finding substitutes for fossil fuels, reducing emissions that contribute to greenhouse gases and furthering negotiations toward an international climate treaty — not potential security challenges.

But a growing number of policy makers say that the world’s rising temperatures, surging seas and melting glaciers are a direct threat to the national interest.

NYTimes | IF the hardship of growing vegetables and fruits in the Northeast has made anything clear, it’s that the list of what can go wrong in the field is a very long one.

We wait all year for warmer weather and longer days. Once we get them, it seems new problems for farmers rise to the surface every week: overnight temperatures plunging close to freezing, early disease, aphid attacks. Another day, another problem.

The latest trouble is the explosion of late blight, a plant disease that attacks potatoes and tomatoes. Late blight appears innocent enough at first — a few brown spots here, some lesions there — but it spreads fast. Although the fungus isn’t harmful to humans, it has devastating effects on tomatoes and potatoes grown outdoors. Plants that appear relatively healthy one day, with abundant fruit and vibrant stems, can turn toxic within a few days. (See the Irish potato famine, caused by a strain of the fungus.)

Most farmers in the Northeast, accustomed to variable conditions, have come to expect it in some form or another. Like a sunburn or a mosquito bite, you’ll probably be hit by late blight sooner or later, and while there are steps farmers can take to minimize its damage and even avoid it completely, the disease is almost always present, if not active.

But this year is turning out to be different — quite different, according to farmers and plant scientists. For one thing, the disease appeared much earlier than usual. Late blight usually comes, well, late in the growing season, as fungal spores spread from plant to plant. So its early arrival caught just about everyone off guard.

And then there’s the perniciousness of the 2009 blight. The pace of the disease (it covered the Northeast in just a few days) and its strength (topical copper sprays, a convenient organic preventive, have been much less effective than in past years) have shocked even hardened Hudson Valley farmers.

Jack Algiere, head vegetable farmer at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture (where I have a restaurant that purchases from the farm), lost more than half his field tomatoes in three days. Other organic farmers were forced to make a brutal choice: spray their tomato plants with fungicides, and lose organic certification, or watch the crop disappear. Even for farmers who routinely spray, or who reluctantly spray precautionary amounts, this year’s blight lowered yields. (Fungicides work only to suppress the disease, not cure it.) As one plant pathologist told me, “Farmers are out there praying and spraying.”

Sunday, August 09, 2009

the global food crisis - the end of plenty

National Geographic | Ever since our ancestors gave up hunting and gathering for plowing and planting some 12,000 years ago, our numbers have marched in lock­­step with our agricultural prowess. Each advance—the domestication of animals, irrigation, wet rice production—led to a corresponding jump in human population. Every time food supplies plateaued, population eventually leveled off. Early Arab and Chinese writers noted the relationship between population and food resources, but it wasn't until the end of the 18th century that a British scholar tried to explain the exact mechanism linking the two—and became perhaps the most vilified social scientist in history.

Thomas Robert Malthus, the namesake of such terms as "Malthusian collapse" and "Malthusian curse," was a mild-mannered mathematician, a clergyman—and, his critics would say, the ultimate glass-half-empty kind of guy. When a few Enlightenment philosophers, giddy from the success of the French Revolution, began predicting the continued unfettered improvement of the human condition, Malthus cut them off at the knees. Human population, he observed, increases at a geometric rate, doubling about every 25 years if unchecked, while agricultural production increases arithmetically—much more slowly. Therein lay a biological trap that humanity could never escape.

"The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man," he wrote in his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. "This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence." Malthus thought such checks could be voluntary, such as birth control, abstinence, or delayed marriage—or involuntary, through the scourges of war, famine, and disease. He advocated against food relief for all but the poorest of people, since he felt such aid encouraged more children to be born into misery. That tough love earned him a nasty cameo in English literature from none other than Charles Dickens. When Ebenezer Scrooge is asked to give alms for the poor in A Christmas Carol, the heartless banker tells the do-gooders that the destitute should head for the workhouses or prisons. And if they'd rather die than go there, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

another green revolution?

Saturday, August 08, 2009

friedmanism - dissemination of dangerous positive illusions

ASPO | You, me, all of us, are about to experience a propaganda blitz about a recovering economy the likes of which we have probably never seen before. The spinmeisters are going to be out in force because GDP is very likely to turn positive in the 3rd or 4th quarters. Over-exposure to bullish financial media, which is never good for you, will pose an extreme danger to your mental health. You have been warned. Today I go back to basics to explain why the United States will remain mired in a deep hole for a long time to come.

unpopular science

The Nation | It's no secret the newspaper industry is hemorrhaging staff writers and slashing coverage as its business model collapses in the face of declining readership and advertising revenues. But less recognized is how this trend is killing off a breed of journalistic specialists that we need now more than ever--science writers like Russell, who are uniquely trained for the most difficult stories, those with a complex technical component that are nevertheless critical to politics and society.

We live in a time of pathbreaking advances in biotechnology and nanotechnology, of private spaceflight and personalized medicine, amid a climate and energy crisis, in a world made more dangerous by biological and nuclear terror threats and global pandemics. Meanwhile, advances in neuroscience are calling into question who we are, whether our identities and thought processes can be reduced to purely physical phenomena, whether we actually have free will. The media ought to be bursting with this stuff. Yet precisely the opposite is happening: even in places where you'd expect it to hold out the longest, science journalism is declining.

Take Mark Carreau, until recently the space reporter for the Houston Chronicle. He spent more than twenty years covering NASA, whose Johnson Space Center (JSC) lies in the Chronicle's backyard. Such expertise, however, failed to outweigh the need for newsroom cuts, and Carreau was laid off earlier this year. As one space wonk lamented on a blog on the occasion of Carreau's departure: "I'm guessing there are now more people in space than there are reporters in the JSC newsroom."

Or take the ailing Boston Globe, situated in a global center of science that leads the biotech industry. In March the paper dumped its specialized Monday "Health/Science" section, transferring health coverage to its arts and lifestyle pages and folding science reporting into its Monday business section. Soon after, the paper reduced staff significantly on its science desk. The Globe's decision wasn't about the relevance of science to readership; it was about the underlying economics.

The death of specialized newspaper science sections like the Globe's is a long-term trend--one that appears to be accelerating. From 1989 to 2005, the number of US papers featuring weekly science-related sections shrank from ninety-five to thirty-four. Many of the remaining sections shifted to softer health, fitness and "news you can use" coverage, reflecting the apparent judgment that more thorough science or science policy coverage just doesn't support itself economically.

And the problem isn't confined to newspapers. Just one minute out of every 300 on cable news is devoted to science and technology, or one-third of 1 percent. Late last year CNN cut its entire science, space and technology unit. The most prominent departure: Miles O'Brien, who covered the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster for the network.

How did the US media--serving a country that leads the world in virtually every aspect of science--reach this point?

Friday, August 07, 2009

challenge the yes men

Fix the World Challenge

Create a ridiculous spectacle
Create a humongous, ridiculous spectacle celebrating your least favorite corporate entity (or entities). Document extensively.

Truth in advertising
From Adbusters to Banksy to the BLF, there are lots of ways to drastically improve the images entities like to give of themselves. Try your own!

Correct an identity online
Set up a website with a url similar to that of your target, emulating their style and content, but more truthful and honest about their dealings. For extra points, choose a target that is actively hurting your local community, and promote awareness of the issue beyond your community by involving the URL in a local impersonation event that's likely to get wider coverage.

Hijack a conference virtually
Find a Twitter "backchannel" for a really bad conference and start posting. Prize for the best, most entertaining, most revealing exchange. (Here's how to find and post to a backchannel.)

Crash a fancy event
Sometimes they just leave the microphone on. If you look the part, you can probably grab the mic. At a Heritage society luncheon, the Yes Men simply took the stage, tapped on the wine glass for attention, and made a speech drafting Edwin Meese for president (instead of the republican candidate George W. Bush).

waiting for the end of the world

Good Magazine | Self-preservation is something that most humans take quite seriously, and that a few take to extremes. Faced with the real or imagined threat of attacks levied by nuclear, biological, and chemical weaponry, some people opt to head 25 feet underground, surrounded by concrete and complex air-filtration systems, surviving off rations and waiting, so to speak, for the end of the world.

national guard to protect broke alabama county?

TBI | Civil unrest alert!

A few years ago Jefferson County, Alabama bought 17 interest rate swaps from JP Morgan, Lehman Brothers and Bank of America with the intention of hedging interest rate risk.

Today the county said it may need the National Guard to hedge the the "anarchy risk" it now faces as a result of the fiscal disaster its venture into "sophisticated" derivatives turned out to be.

In a sequence of events that played out in state capitals, city halls, and school and public utility boardrooms throughout the country , Jefferson County officials bought into complex interest rate swap contracts they didn't understand, at much higher prices than the going rate, only to face hundreds of millions of dollars in sudden collateral calls when the subprime mortgage crisis began.

Jefferson County's collateral calls came when credit rating agencies downgraded the monolines insuring its swaps contracts, Financial Guaranty and XL Capital Assurance, last year, when all the major monolines were beset with downgrades following a fatal foray into the business of "insuring" subprime mortgage-backed CDOs and other asset-backed securities. Seriously.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

the microbial health factor

The Scientist | Just one molecule can make the difference in mediating a healthy immune response. Surprisingly, it comes from bacteria.

When I trained as a microbiologist around the year 2000, the focus was still on pathogenic bacteria. But I became intrigued by the potential benefits of good bacteria. After all, we’ve coevolved with symbiotic bacteria for millions of years. The hygiene hypothesis, proposed in 1989 by David Strachan1, correlated lower environmental exposure to microbes—as seen in developed countries—with higher rates of allergies. The idea made sense to me. Commensal bacteria help keep pathogenic bacteria at bay, and in the late 1990s new research was beginning to show that symbionts also contribute to the development of the intestinal architecture. If bacteria were so crucial to development, what else might they do? Could they actually make us healthier? Challenging though it was, I was convinced the best way to learn about the systemic effects of bacteria was to start with mice that lacked them entirely.

swine flu vaccine's dirty secrets

Mercola | According to Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, your children should be the first target for mass swine flu vaccinations when school starts this fall.[i]

This is a ridiculous assumption for many reasons, not to mention extremely high risk.

“Cure the Disease, Kill the Patient”
Less than 100 children in the U.S. die each year from seasonal flu viruses.[iv] If we use Australia’s math, a very rough estimate would be another 100 children could potentially die of swine flu in the United States in the coming year.

If children are the first target group in the U.S. per Sebelius, that means we’re about to inject around 75 million children with a fast tracked vaccine containing novel adjuvants, including dangerous squalene, to prevent perhaps 100 deaths.

I’m not overlooking the tragedy of the loss of even one child to an illness like the H1N1 flu virus. But there can be no argument that unnecessary mass injection of millions of children with a vaccine containing an adjuvant known to cause a host of debilitating autoimmune diseases is a reckless, dangerous plan.

Why are Vaccinations Dangerous?
The presumed intent of a vaccination is to help you build immunity to potentially harmful organisms that cause illness and disease. However, your body’s immune system is already designed to do this in response to organisms which invade your body naturally.

Most disease-causing organisms enter your body through the mucous membranes of your nose, mouth, pulmonary system or your digestive tract – not through an injection.

These mucous membranes have their own immune system, called the IgA immune system. It is a different system from the one activated when a vaccine is injected into your body.

Your IgA immune system is your body’s first line of defense. Its job is to fight off invading organisms at their entry points, reducing or even eliminating the need for activation of your body’s immune system.

When a virus is injected into your body in a vaccine, and especially when combined with an immune adjuvant like squalene, your IgA immune system is bypassed and your body’s immune system kicks into high gear in response to the vaccination.

Injecting organisms into your body to provoke immunity is contrary to nature, and vaccination carries enormous potential to do serious damage to your health.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

except among african-americans

Reuters | Use of antidepressant drugs in the United States doubled between 1996 and 2005, probably because of a mix of factors, researchers reported on Monday.

About 6 percent of people were prescribed an antidepressant in 1996 -- 13 million people. This rose to more than 10 percent or 27 million people by 2005, the researchers found.

"Significant increases in antidepressant use were evident across all sociodemographic groups examined, except African Americans," Dr. Mark Olfson of Columbia University in New York and Steven Marcus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia wrote in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

"Not only are more U.S. residents being treated with antidepressants, but also those who are being treated are receiving more antidepressant prescriptions," they added.

More than 164 million prescriptions were written in 2008 for antidepressants, totaling $9.6 billion in U.S. sales, according to IMS Health.

Drugs that affect the brain chemical serotonin like GlaxoSmithKline's Paxil, known generically as paroxetine, and Eli Lilly and Co's Prozac, known generically as fluoxetine, are the most commonly prescribed class of antidepressant. But the study found the effect in all classes of the drugs.

fungal zombification video

Fist tap Ed Dunn. (man, even a little time-lapse video, thanks!!!)

just so you know...,

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

free virtual education

PhysOrg | Colleges and universities across the United States are offering free courses online on virtually every subject imaginable, including videotaped lectures by some of their most distinguished professors.

Video-sharing site YouTube recently created a hub called YouTube EDU at for the more than 100 US colleges and universities offering free online learning.

Among the thousands of videos on YouTube EDU are the celebrated classroom theatrics of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) physics professor Walter Lewin, whose clips have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

Other leading institutions of higher education posting videos to YouTube include the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale.

Interested in dentistry? Then the YouTube channel of the University of Michigan School of Dentistry may be the place for you, serving up a total of 426 videos.

The courses offered on YouTube EDU are free and not for credit but the number of schools offering online classes which count towards a degree is booming.

According to a November 2008 study done for the Sloan Consortium, more than 3.9 million students in the United States were taking at least one online course in 2007, the latest year for which full statistics were available.

That was a 12 percent increase over the previous year, according to Sloan, a non-profit whose mission is to "integrate online education into the mainstream of higher education."

The economic downturn, rising unemployment and higher gasoline costs were cited in the study as factors expected to fuel demand for online education.

Colleges and universities, however, are not the only ones offering free knowledge on the Internet.

Nature Education, for example, has launched, a website it describes as a "collaborative online learning space for science."

"What we wanted to do with Scitable is to bring education roundly into the 21st century, to take advantage of all of the tools and technology available today," said Vikram Savkar, publishing director of Nature Education, a division of Britain's Nature Publishing Group.

children of the corn....,

Monday, August 03, 2009

fungus programs and kills zombie ants

Scientific American | Problem: you’re a fungus that can only flourish at a certain temperature, humidity, location and distance from the ground but can’t do the legwork to find that perfect spot yourself. Solution: hijack an ant’s body to do the work for you—and then inhabit it.

A paper, to be published in The American Naturalist’s September issue, explores the astounding accuracy with which this fungus compels ants to create its ideal home.

The Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus infects Camponotus leonardi ants that live in tropical rainforest trees. Once infected, the spore-possessed ant will climb down from its normal habitat and bite down, with what the authors call a "death grip" on a leaf and then die. But the story doesn’t end there.

"The death grip occurred in very precise locations," the authors write. All of the C. leonardi ants studied in Thailand’s Khao Chong Wildlife Sanctuary had chomped down on the underside of a leaf, and 98 percent had landed on a vein. Most had: a) found their way to the north side of the plant, b) chomped on a leaf about 25 centimeters above the ground, c) selected a leaf in an environment with 94 to 95 percent humidity and d) ended up in a location with temperatures between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius. The researchers called this specificity "remarkable."

In other words, the fungus was transported via the zombie ant to its prime location. To see just how important this accuracy is to the fungus, the researchers identified dozens of infected ants in a small area of the forest. Some of the ants were moved to other nearby heights and locations, and others were left to sprout spores just where they had died.

Those ants that were left where O. unilateralis directed them grew normal, healthy hyphae (fungal threads) within several days, but those that had been moved never did.

"I cannot think of another example [of adaptive behavioral changes] as specific as this one," Edward Levri, who has studied behavioral changes in parasite hosts but was not involved in this study, wrote in an e-mail. "The fact that infected individuals all die in a 'lock-jawed' position, at 25 centimeters above ground, mostly on the north side of the tree is amazing and suggests that multiple behaviors and possibly multiple manipulatory physiological mechanisms may be required by the parasite."

the agency conundrum

ScientificBlogging | Contrary to the standard view, genes are not “unities of heredity” (and therefore do not last as “individuals”) for the simple reason that crossing-overs (the molecular processes that shuffle bits and pieces of genetic material, the real reason for sex) do not respect gene’s boundaries, but rather cut genes into pieces and shuffle them.

Indeed, as Godfrey-Smith points out, for this and other reasons sophisticated theoretical biologists are abandoning talk of “genes” altogether, referring instead to the more diffuse concept of “genetic material.” As PGS puts it, this is “a stuff, not a discrete unit.”

The interested reader will have to read PGS’s book or wait for my review (forthcoming in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews) to learn more about the issue of the nature of genes. But what struck me toward the end of that chapter is Godfrey-Smith’s unusual (and, I think, rather compelling) argument that talk of selfish genes (and memes) is one example of a broader “agent-positing” discourse that is shared, of all people, by some evolutionary biologists (though by all means not all, yours truly being one of many exceptions) and theologians!

Here is how PGS himself has characterizes the phenomenon: “Two explanatory schemata can be distinguished within the general agent-positing category ... The first is a paternalist schema. Here we posit a large, benevolent agent, who intends that all is ultimately for the best. This category includes various gods, the Hegelian ‘World Spirit’ in philosophy, and stronger forms of the ‘Gaia’ hypothesis according to which the whole earth is a living system. The second schema is a paranoid one. Now we posit a hidden collection of agents pursuing agendas that cross-cut or oppose our interests. Examples include demonic possessions narratives, the sub-personal creatures of Freud’s psychology (superego, ego, id), and selfish genes and memes.”

I must say that I am rarely struck by a novel enough idea that my first reaction is “wow.” This is one of those instances. There is something profoundly intellectually satisfactory in suddenly seeing disparate phenomena like Augustine’s god and Dawkins’ memes as different aspects of an all-too human tendency to project agency where there is none. Not to mention, of course, the admittedly wicked pleasure I’m getting from imagining Dawkins cringing at the comparison.

status-seeking atavism, lets his daughter die...,

BBCNews | A US jury has found a man guilty of killing his sick 11-year-old daughter by praying for her recovery rather than seeking medical care.

The man, Dale Neumann, told a court in the state of Wisconsin he believed God could heal his daughter.

She died of a treatable disease - undiagnosed diabetes - at home in rural Wisconsin in March last year, as people surrounded her and prayed.

Neumann's wife, Leilani Neumann, was convicted earlier this year.

The couple, who were both convicted of second-degree reckless homicide, face up to 25 years in prison when they are sentenced in October.

A lawyer representing Dale Neumann said he would appeal.

'Faith healing'
During the trial, medical experts told the court that Neumann's daughter could have survived if she had received treatment, including insulin and fluids, before she stopped breathing.

On Thursday Neumann, who is 47 and studied in the past to be a Pentecostal minister, said he thought God would heal his daughter.

"If I go to the doctor, I am putting the doctor before God," he said. "I am not believing what he said he would do."

He also said he thought his daughter had had flu or a fever, and that he had not realised how ill she was.

Neumann's lawyer said he had been convinced that his "faith healing" was working, and that he had committed no crime.

The prosecution argued that Neumann had minimised his daughter's illness and that he had allowed her to die as a selfish act of faith.

They said the girl should have been taken to hospital because she was unable to walk, talk, eat or drink.

Instead, an ambulance was only called once the girl had stopped breathing.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

alabama area reeling

NYTimes | “Outside of the city of Detroit,” said Robert A. Kurrter, a managing director with Moody’s Investors Service, “it’s fair to say we haven’t seen any place in America with the severity of problems that they’re experiencing in Jefferson County.” Moody’s rates Jefferson County’s credit lower than any other municipality in the country.

In July, the county asked Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican, to declare a state of emergency. Mr. Riley declined, delicately explaining that his authority extended to tornadoes but not to tsunamis of red ink.

Jefferson County, which includes Birmingham, could be compared to a person who has lost his job, watched his retirement investments evaporate and is stuck with a house that is worth less than what he owes the bank. Some of the county’s woes stem from the financial crisis that has pounded so many communities: its sales and property tax revenues are down by $40 million, and it borrowed billions in a sewer bond boondoggle that is the municipal equivalent of a subprime mortgage, using failed exotic bond deals and swaps concocted by investment bankers.

But the county has additional troubles: the sewer project was riddled with corruption, and in January a court ruled that a tax the county relied on for more than a quarter of its general fund was illegal because the Legislature repealed it in 1999.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

missing the singularity

H+ | For more than a decade the artificial life community has developed metrics for computer power, complex systems intelligence and a broader metaphysics that is distinctly different from what we hear from most advocates of "The Singularity movement." When contrasted with theoretical Singularity works like Nick Bostrom's "Are We Living In A Computer Simulation," artificial life challenges Singularity thinking in a number of ways. I would like to offer two particular challenges.

1: Survival is a far better metric of intelligence than replicating human intelligence, and...

2: There are a number of examples of vastly more intelligent systems (in terms of survival) than human intelligence.

These challenges have not come through a priori philosophical posturing but are the result of years of simulation and the iterative understanding and discourse that has come through the artificial life community.

The primacy of human intelligence is one of the last and greatest myths of the anthropomorphic divide -- the division between humans and all other (living) things. Like most fallacies, it provides careers and countless treatises regarding paradoxes that can be explored at great length, leading to the warm and fuzzy conclusion that the human is still on top. If only it were so.

First Insight: Survival is intelligence.
When choosing a metric for survival intelligence, I was drawn to Teddy Roosevelt's analysis of hunting big game in the 1900s. Roosevelt's analysis related to the size of bullet (or caliber of bullet) required to stop a large animal. I was interested in a measure of the number of humans required to stop a vastly complex system. If there was to be a similar caliber of intelligence based on stopping a vastly complex system, why not make it a human centric metric. To paraphrase Roosevelt:

It took but ten humans to slay this system.

Due to the rough nature of the approximation, I employed a base-10 logarithmic approach. If it took a human to slay the system, the survival intelligence value would be zero. If it took ten, the survival intelligence value would be one. If it took a hundred humans, the survival intelligence value would be two.

My second insight comes from the need to normalize the definition of simulation. When the physicist, the biologist, the lawyer or the accountant goes to work, they don't have a bright glaring light shining down on them, constantly reminding them that what they are doing is not, in fact, reality but is based on the broad constraints that have historically and intellectually been applied to them. Through my editorial duties with, I raised the idea that simulation authors should stop holding a marked division between what they did and reality. In fact, what was needed was a pluralistic view of simulation. The definition I offered was simple:

Second Insight: A simulation is any environment with applied constraints.
This definition showed that nearly everything was fair game for simulation analysis. The legal system, the road system, the health care system, the financial system, even the internet could be analyzed and parametrized with the insights from studying simulations.

Combining the metric of intelligence for survival and the idea that nearly anything is fair game for this metric, let's explore a couple of examples.

evolution's third replicator?

New Scientist | Last year Google announced that the web had passed the trillion mark, with more than 1,000,000,000,000 unique URLs. Many countries now have nearly as many computers as people, and if you count phones and other connected gadgets they far outnumber people. Even if we all spent all day reading this stuff it would expand faster than we could keep up.

Billions of years ago, free-living bacteria are thought to have become incorporated into living cells as energy-providing mitochondria. Both sides benefited from the deal. Perhaps the same is happening to us now. The growing web of machines we let loose needs us to run the power stations, build the factories that make the computers, and repair things when they go wrong - and will do for some time yet. In return we get entertainment, tedious tasks done for us, facts at the click of a mouse and as much communication as we can ask for. It's a deal we are not likely to turn down.

Yet this shift to a new replicator may be a dangerous tipping point. Our ancestors could have killed themselves off with their large brains and dangerous memes, but they pulled through. This time the danger is to the whole planet. Gadgets like phones and PCs are already using 15 per cent of household power and rising (New Scientist, 23 May, p 17); the web is using over 5 per cent of the world's entire power and rising. We blame ourselves for climate change and resource depletion, but perhaps we should blame this new evolutionary process that is greedy, selfish and utterly blind to the consequences of its own expansion. We at least have the advantage that we can understand what is happening. That must be the first step towards working out what, if anything, to do about it.

Susan Blackmore is becoming more and more interesting with the passage of time.

oh lawd....,