Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Frankenfoods normalized? A quick response

I was surprised to read over at Eschaton that

                   …there's nothing inherently dangerous about genetic modification.  
                   Several people pointed out, correctly, that it's just a faster way to 
                   practice husbandry than traditional methods.    

This, in the famous words of physicist and Nobel Laureate Wolfgang Pauli, is not even wrong.  Normal  husbandry is confined to mixing characteristics among organisms which can naturally crossbreed.  That is, you can cross one apple with another, one weed with another, one grain with another, and so on.

You cannot, in nature, cross a fish and a tomato.  Old Farmer Jones can throw as many tomatoes as he likes into the pond with his carp, but the two will never exchange genetic information.

But you can do this, by gene modification, and it has been done. 

On the other hand, grains and weeds, (both, in my non-botanical mind, being grasses) should readily cross-pollinate, and have in fact been shown to do so naturally.  (This fact has implications for the development of drug-resistant super weeds, but that's a story for another day.)

So, with apologies to the ghost of the military theorist Clausewitz (certainly one of the most quoted individuals on the internet) gene modification is assuredly not a continuation of  husbandry by other means; it is, rather, a radical reshuffling of a biological order was has developed over hundreds of millions of years.  As the holder of a Ph. D. in Biochemistry, I do not consider myself smart enough to undertake such work.   Those who support it should at least recognize it for what it is. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why is the recovery (so-called) so slow?

I have been perusing comments at economistsview, seeking explanations for the slowness of economic recovery as we now experience it.  Well, the commenters are seeking explanations; but I in my usual omniscient fashion believe that the answer lies plainly before us, in the form of history, not of economics.  My view -- which crystallized while examining some anonymous musings on the sustainability (or not) of borrowing against home equity-- is that such borrowing represented the last gasp of the struggling middle class, to preserve the generous levels of consumption, to which its members had become accustomed in the great post-war economic boom.  That boom has of course ended, in consequence of the ongoing war against workers, as embodied in the tearing-up of the social contract between labor and capital, which has been the main social and economic consequence of what I will broadly refer to as Reaganism.

Then, to specify: regarding the sustainability (or not) of borrowing against home equity: it was sustainable as long as the prices of houses kept going up, i.e. in a real estate bubble.  This was a recent phenomenon: it was the strategy arrived at by normal middle class people to sustain their accustomed lifestyle when twenty (now thirty) years of flat wages finally started to seriously bite into their spending habits.
Flat wages were a natural consequence of the 30 year war on the labor movement (and on workers more generally)  that began with the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Then it took the mortgage securitization boom, and the ensuing foreclosure fraud, to throw millions of families out of their homes, and to thus ensure that borrowing one's way to imagined prosperity was a scenario that would not be replayed. Of course, the lost homes are being snapped up by private equity players, who now fancy that they will become real estate magnates skimming the rental cream, while ignoring the plugged toilets.
People talk about our situation as if it were the consequence of immutable economic law. Well the only immutable economic law I know of (I am an engineer, formerly a chemist) is that no economic process whatever transpires without human agency and volition. Which is to say, the economy is what our choices have made it; the facts before us are the consequences of votes and policies and individual decisions by political-economic actors great and small.

The big news this past week was that Boeing has extorted fromthe machinists' union their right to a defined benefit pension, which will be replaced by a 401k. This is part of a general process of asset stripping by Boeing management. Multiply this by a million to get the current situation.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Economist's View

Following the advice of Paul Krugman, I have started to frequent an economics blog run by University of Oregon economics professor Mark Thoma, economistsview by name.  Many links are given to current research papers (surprisingly accessible as often as not), as well as to fairly high level discussions of policy and philosophy by respected economists in academia, government, and industry.  Typically these posts lie to the political right of Mr. Thoma's apparent sympathies, but they are highly informative concerning the mindset of academically trained economists, which, in my reading, is in many instances rather divorced from the messy realities of business and politics in which it might should be embedded.

The discussion seems to involve a smallish group of dedicated readers who post regularly, and are not shy about their views, which are often (though not always) left-progressive, but also reflective of training in economics.  As a recent example, a policy paper was linked from the Federal Reserve  Bank of Atlanta, on the question of the health of today's labor market in America, and whether recovery from the 2007 recession had produced (or not) appropriate levels of employment.   From which I select the following quote:
In these charts lies the crux of some very basic disagreements about the appropriate course of policy. The last three graphs draw a clear picture of labor markets that are underperforming by historical standards—a position that I take to be the conventional wisdom. An argument against following that conventional wisdom centers on the question of whether historical standards represent the appropriate yardstick today. In other words, is the correct reference point the level of employment or the pace of improvement in the labor market from a permanently lower level? For the proponents of the latter view, the bubble chart might very well look like a return to normal, despite the fact that employment has not returned to prerecession levels.
To me, this illustrates a sort of passivity in the face of the facts, which I find inexplicable.  I append my response, which the interested reader can look up under Mr. Thoma's original post.

The sense I get from this post is that, according to economic wisdom, we might be adjusting to a new equilibrium, which includes a shrunken labor market; and since that's what's been determined by the immutable laws of economics, we should all just face the unpleasant facts, and live with them, and stop boo-hooing.
To me, this is akin to saying, that if an individual becomes ill, it reflects the workings of the inviolable laws of biology, and we should let nature take its course without complaint.
Then my response is: Gott in Himmel! what ever happened to the practice of Medicine? To the idea that poor conditions of human existence might be ameliorated? That the human and social factors influencing the health of an individual, or an economy, are not eternally fixed, and have arguably deteriorated in measureable ways over the last thirty years? That maybe it's time for activist policy aimed at making things better?!
Part of my argument for changing conditions is that forty years ago, the Republican party under Richard Nixon was populated by crooks but not by utter dolts; but we have now entered the era of dolts ascendant. The plain fact now is that we have a major party that has cut loose its moorings to reality. Sure, lot's of other things have changed, but I offer that as a simple example.

Antibiotics in Animal Feed

For decades, factory farmers have laced animal feed with antibiotics-- nominally to promote growth, but also (in my view) likely as a prophylactic measure, given the extremely cramped and unhealthy conditions for animals in modern industrial agriculture.

Anyone with a serious background in bioscience and/or biomedicine can tell you that this is a terrible idea, since it is a virtual cornerstone of modern molecular biology, that resistance to antibiotics develops and spreads rapidly in micro-organisms.  Large-scale use of antibiotics  leads therefore to the generation of superbugs -- disease agents with resistance to multiple antibiotics.

Given that antibiotics are in fact miracle drugs, and represent the reason why a broken blister, or an unfortunate scratch, need not prove fatal if left untended, and given also the difficult path to their development, it is of key importance to public health that we guard the efficacy of those we possess.  I am also old enough to remember parents of friends, who died of tuberculosis in the early 1950's, before the availability of streptomycin.

In light of all this it is good news that the FDA will likely attempt to ban the routine use of tetracycline and penicillin in animal feed.  Of course agriculture industry trade groups will cry out that the danger is unproven; this argument contradicts every known biological fact and  does not even rise to level of stupidity.

Occam's Razor and a 9-11 Conspiracy

In an recent post I invoked the principle of Occam's razor -- that when confronted with two competing explanations, we should choose that which embodies fewer apriori assumptions.  My focus was on the difficulty of reconciling three factors: i) the  easily observed characteristics the three catastrophic building collapses of 9-11,  ii) the official explanations of same, and iii) the known laws of physics.  My conclusions --  were that the official explanations were untenable,  and that the collapses could be explained only by the use of explosives, strategically placed and detonated.

Following Occam, however, I explicitly rejected any discussion of conspiracy theories.  Nonetheless, a report in the New York Times  now raises again the conspiracy question.  A pair of credible individuals, both former United States Senators, one of whom served on the 9-11 Commission, both with access to secret information, have publicly stated their belief that the Saudi government was linked the attacks of 9-11.

I refer the reader to the Times article; I will not pursue the discussion other than to note that most so-called progressive or left-wing commentators have refused to touch the 9-11 question as regards the credibility of the official narrative.  Hopefully, this will begin to change.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Requiescat in Pacem

Steve Jobs, a man who saw that digital technology could be beautiful, and made it so, has died.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Occam's Razor and the Attacks of September 11.

On the tenth anniversary of the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, upon the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, many reflections occur: mostly somber and troubling, with perhaps a few faint rays of hope.

My starting point is Occam's razor: a principle in logic used to guide the choice between competing explanations of a given phenomenon: namely, the admonition to choose the explanation which requires apriori the fewest hypothetical assumptions.  Even in applying this principle to an examination of the World Trade Center attacks, one is forced upon a bifurcation: we have on the one hand the physical question -- based upon the  available evidence and the known laws of physics, of what caused the collapses of three buildings i.e. the Twin Towers and 'Building Seven;' and on the other hand, we have the (essentially) political  question: who engineered and carried out the attack, and for what purpose?

Of the two, the laws of physics are far simpler to approach, and yield (in my view) a far simpler answer.  The simplest explanation for the collapse of the buildings is (as I will later explain) that they were blown up, imploded, by explosive charges placed by demolition experts.  That is, Occam rejects the official explanation, as promulgated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), formerly the National Bureau of Standards.

However, the official account of who planned and executed the attacks -- a group of fundamentalist terrorists supported by Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden -- is clearly simpler, and more favorable to Occam, than any of the elaborate conspiracy theories which  must be constructed to justify the conclusion that the buildings were in fact demolished with explosives.

Reasonable people may disagree in weighing the merits and demerits of the alternate conclusions; since my training and professional experience lie in the physical sciences, I much prefer to establish the principle in which physics guides.  In the words of the late Nobel Laureate physicist, Richard Feynmann, "You can't fool Mother Nature."  Beyond that, I believe that history shows that the human race is eminently prone to being fooled, so I will by and large avoid the political question of who and why.  What is important is simply to establish what physics does and does not allow.

I will state at the outset the three simple facts caused me to arrive at my current viewpoint.    First, that all of Southern Manhattan was enveloped in enormous cloud of dense dust and smoke, consisting of pulverized debris.   Second, that Building Seven, which, on the afternoon of Sept. 11 2001,  collapsed as if demolished, had not been struck by an airplane. Third, that three buildings all collapsed, according to eyewitnesses and reporters on the scene, as if they were controlled demolitions.

My ordering must seem eccentric, but it was the dust cloud that first alerted me: there could simply not be enough potential energy liberated in the collapse to pulverize the wreckage, and re-launch it sky-ward.  A straightforward calculation using the bond energy of Portland Cement, and comparing the energy required to convert a kilogram of same into particles of 20 micron diameter, shows that with perfect conversion, a free fall of 300 meters has four times the required energy.  However, the entire mass of concrete did not fall 300 meters, and much energy must be lost in collisions during the fall with structural elements in the path of any falling fragment; furthermore, a comparable amount of energy is required to re-launch the dust into the enormous cloud.  Furthermore, and most damningly, much of the pulverization appears to have occurred in mid-air.

Next we have the case of Building Seven, which was not struck by an airplane, but which nonetheless suffered collateral damage, including the outbreak of several fires.  The anomalies abound here, but I will focus on the official explanation, that office fires weakened a specific structural column, whose failure triggered the collapse of the entire structure.  This defies credulity.  The collapse is quite symmetrical; the failure of one column cannot lead to the simultaneous and symmetric collapse of structural elements remote from the failure.  There would be a torque, and a listing, and the building would have to fall towards the weakened side.

Finally we have the fact that three buildings suffered asymmetrical damage, but all collapsed in largely symmetrical fashion -- that is, straight down into their own footprints, on a single day.

I have marshalled but a tiny fragment of the available evidence. The most complete, and to my mind, reputable effort to make the case for controlled demolition has been put forth by the architect Richard Gage, through his organization Architects and Engineers for 9-11 Truth.  I leave it to the interested reader to look up their website, if he so desires.  I can only caution the reader that the web contains a vast amount of crack-pot posting on these subjects, but pro and contra the opinions I have expressed.


As for who perpetrated this crime and why, I will not venture my opinions.  I will only state that readers of this weblog are well aware of my belief that the resultant Global War on Terror has been essentially an exercise in promoting a police state at home, and military adventurism abroad.

I do not think it extreme to say that America has in effect suffered a coup d'etat.  The so-called progressive left in this country, as exemplified by my blog-roll has absolutely proscribed any discussion of 9-11 truth or conspiracy -- largely, I believe, to protect themselves from the jeers of the political right wing.  This is a grave error in my view.

America will never be healed until the truth of is known of September 11, 2001.