Division of Labour: Science Archives
December 14, 2010
Norman Borlaug Rap
Lyrics and audio here. A nice tribute to one of the world's most underappreciated people.
December 13, 2010
On Capital-Labor Tradeoffs c. 1910
The Dec. 13, 1910 NYT reports that the Pennsylvania Railroad "is beginning to equip its 6,000 locomotives with an automatic stoker, which saves much of the work of firemen and practically disposes of the smoke problem." Sounds great, no? Innovation (perhaps pushed by local regulation concerning smoke) looks to kill a number of birds with one stone, but alas, the story goes on:
The automatic stoker feeds the coal from under the fire, thus causing a great saving of fuel. It is estimated that it saves 90 per cent. of the work of firemen, but this will not throw firemen out of work, because of the laws requiring two men in the cabs of locomotives.
At least the firemen had less work to do while they sat in the cab of the locomotive, with fewer distractions I trust there was a substantial reduction in railroad accidents.
[Updated: December 14 - see below the fold]
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One reason I like the c. 19XX posts is that I occassionally receive feedback from DoL readers concerning the historical context of a post. Obviously when I read the paper from 100 years ago I am rarely in a position, either because of a lack of time or a lack of comparative advantage, to do any particular article full justice. However, it has never been my intention to do more than post an article and a snide remark or two and then move on - hoping the reader gets something (although I am not sure what) out of my efforts.
Yesterday I received an amazing email from a DoL reader concerning trains and capital-labor tradeoffs. With his permission, I post his response for the benefit of others.
I assume that I am likely among an extremely small number of (regular) Division of Labour readers who actually has direct experience with steam locomotives, including some time as a student fireman on both manually “hand-bombed” and stoker-fired locomotives as a volunteer in a museum setting.
The New York Times was inherently wrong in this article on several counts and it appears one should regard the verity of the “old Grey Lady” of 1910 with the same suspicion one would afford it today.
The first is that the assertion that the fireman has less work with a stoker. There is less physical labor, but not less work with the stoker. Even after widespread deployment, only larger locomotives were equipped with stokers. Locomotives intended for switching and light-duty service required more shoveling, but the “scoop” is required for proper fire management on all locomotives. The work involved with firing a “crack” passenger train over mountainous terrain is inherently more difficult than switching cars in a yard or running a few freight cars over a branch line.
In any locomotive, while the most obvious and most visible function of a fireman is to keep the fire burning, the most important job is to maintain sufficient water in the boiler. Without sufficient water, the locomotive will be equally crippled-but low water presents the additional peril of a boiler explosion. The most recent "catastrophic pressure vessel failure" occurred in Gettysburg PA in 1995 and resulted in a rewriting of decades old federal locomotive regulations. It served to remind train and engine crews of that danger even in relatively low intensity operations. In addition to maintaining a hot enough fire, pressure and water level suitable for the requirements that will be incurred, the fireman must be alert to the road ahead, (especially when the boiler obscures the engineer’s vision going around curves), know the rather extensive operating rules and also be aware of the constantly changing mechanical condition of the locomotive. The crude nature of even the most advanced steam locomotive means that two individuals need to be in the cab, not due to law, but to ensure safety. A stoker was essentially to a fireman what an adding machine was to an accountant of the time.
The story was also wrong with regard to the stoker’s effects on cleanliness and consumption. The principal reason that the “Pennsy” and other railroads opposed the stoker was that it was LESS efficient and LESS clean than manual firing, especially when performed by an “old hand”.
Since a stoker inevitably pulverizes a great deal of coal, it inevitably results in less efficiency as fine particles are sent through the firebox and out of the smokestack without fully combusting-losing energy and creating a dirtier fire. If a locomotive is small or in less intense service, an experienced fireman will use less coal and create less smoke and cinders.
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December 08, 2010
Hans Rosling's story
The incredibly vivid presenter, Hans Rosling, does it again. Here he tells the story of global growth and stagnation (since 1800) in an entirely new way that incorporates his many past innovations. In my view, this 5 minute video would be useful to show in any economics class, undergraduate or grad, micro or macro, Austrian or neoclassical, whatever. Not to mention history, politics, law, philosophy, etc. Kudos to Dr. Rosling! HT Amy Willis, Steve Pejovich, Russ Roberts.
September 26, 2010
The Abusive Skies
An article from Weekly Standard on our silly airline "regulation."
That's not true, of course. In fact, any guy who wants to set his shoes or underwear on fire can just walk on the plane, even if his dad calls the authorities and says don't let him on. Our solution has been to "interview after the flight."
I'm afraid the reason that TSA makes us so miserable is simply because it can
July 27, 2010
Just a bit off c. 1910
From the July 27, 1910 NYT:
Mother Earth, like all femininity, defies man to learn her age. Scientists still admit their defeat. Their latest estimate credits her with "not above 70,000,000 years or below 55,000,000 years."Philosophy vs. chemistry? I think I would take the chemistry.
From today's Wikipedia entry:
The age of the Earth is around 4.54 billion years (4.54 × 109 years ± 1%). This age has been determined by radiometric age dating of meteorite material and is consistent with the ages of the oldest-known terrestrial and lunar samples.Well, at least the scientists/philosophers from 1910 were closer to the truth (albeit just a few orders of magnitude away) than those who claim the Earth is only 6,000 years of so old.
February 18, 2010
Eat your heart out Leibniz
KID (who is taking pre-calc right now): Dad, what's this Calculus stuff going to be about?
January 18, 2010
Lindsey Graham opposes the industrial revolution
Wow. “'All the cars and trucks and plants that have been in existence since the Industrial Revolution, spewing out carbon day-in and day-out, you’ll never convince me that’s a good thing for your children and the future of the planet,' [Graham] told a crowd in South Carolina,... ."
Graham thinks it would be a good thing if we had no cars and trucks, no electricity in amounts that could serve any purpose (and no serious means to construct hydroelectric plants in any case)? He thinks it would be better for us and our children if we lived as in 1800, when the average life expectancy was about 40 - if you survived childhood?
December 14, 2009
The public perception of conservatives (and I have to lump libertarians into this category, which I think is accurate here, and there's not really separate polling data for libertarians - see below), fostered by Hollywood and TV, many major media publications, and of course liberals, is that conservatives are uptight, unhappy, nasty people.
I have noted in this space that these perceptions are not true - polling data has consistently shown that conservatives are more likely to say they are happy with their lives; they are more active, both in terms of hobbies and sports and in terms of volunteer activities; they are more likely to be satisfied with their sex lives (and to have sex more often), than are liberals.
The latest part of the mantra from the cultural elites is that conservatives are also anti-science. Remember how Barack Obama even promised to restore science "to its rightful place."
Well, now comes an interesting survey from Pew that debunks the idea that liberals are more science oriented, too. In fact, it turns out that liberals are nearly twice as likely as conservatives to believe in astrology (30% to 16%), "spiritual energy" (35% to 18%), or reincarnation (33% to 18%). It's interesting to note that while conservatives and liberals are equally likely to believe in the "evil eye" (17% each), Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe in the evil eye by 19% to 12%.
Maybe all those "Reagan Democrats" of a generation ago were just fans of Nancy, who was said to have an interest in astrology. But clearly the rejection of science for superstition knows no ideological boundaries.
December 13, 2009
Hockey Stick Critic
This is a laudatory profile of Stephen McIntyre, who has questioned the integrity of the data on which the infamous Hockey Stick is based. A telling excerpt:
Peer review in scientific journals is good, he suggested, but it is limited and vulnerable to compromise. “There is far more independent due diligence on the smallest prospectus offering securities to the public than on a Nature article that might end up having a tremendous impact on policy.”
November 30, 2009
On scientific fraud c. 1909
It will prove interesting whether the email dump from the Climate Research Center in England gains any traction. I have spent about five hours of my life (five hours too many?) reading through the emails [Searchable archive here]. I am not familiar with all the science, of course, but it is not too hard to decode some of the lingo - I suppose GHG stands for Green House Gasses.
Anyway, from what I have read - again assuming this is not one giant hoax - things do not look good. It seems that government and science may not mix as well as many might hope.
I have come across two other discussions in this arena in the past few days. One is a book I am rereading by C. P. Snow titled "Government and Science" which discusses the public and private politics of science in Britain during World War II (and sounds very similar to what is going on in the United States at the moment, what with the claims that Obama is the "President of Science" and Bush was the "President scared of fire"). The second is a podcast by Philosopher Diana Hsieh in Session #6 of her Explore Atlas Shrugged series. In this session she discusses the interaction between Dagny Taggart (one of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged) and Dr. Robert Stadler (a scientist who seeks to be allowed to do "research" using public money and is ultimately shocked at what government science produces) [full list of characters here]. In both cases, one from non-fiction and one from fiction, there is a strong warning that it is nearly impossible to keep politics from corrupting science, especially when the politicians control the money. Otherwise honorable scientists find themselves currying favor with the politicians and sacrificing standards, ethics, and truth in the process.
As an empirical economist the climate story (if true) is troubling on many levels but a very personal issue is whether the bad behavior of other "empirical scientists" will have a negative impact on my research and the way that non-economists view empirical economics. The actual impact might be hard to measure and may indeed be very tiny. On the other hand, what if every empirical study suffers a level of unwarranted skepticism (every empirical study deserves some level of warranted skepticism).
I would hope that if it came about that a handful of empirical economists were busy doctoring the data used to test the impact of "variable X" on "variable Y," that we as a field would call those individuals out - especially if national or international policy was being drafted based on these empirical "findings." Perhaps these climate scientists did not fundamentally alter the general findings perhaps they did. That is the role of the rest of the climate scientists to determine - but what if the foxes are guarding the hen house?
[Update: Evidently there will be no pointing of fingers. The head of the UN IPCC suggests that no-one would be swayed on the IPCC by the bias of one or a few scientists, that all peer-reviewed publications are on the table when it comes to inclusion in the IPCC report (never mind that the scientists seem to hint that they wanted to keep certain papers out of the peer reviewed literature), and that, after all, President Obama committed to cutting US GHG emissions five days after the emails came to light. With impeccable circular logic like that, I am sure that there is nothing to worry about.]
If one or more scientists knew about possibly bad behavior and wanted to come clean, how exactly could they do so without simultaneously risking their own careers? How do you call someone a cheat and a liar? Before last week I never really thought about the question and I don't think there is an easy answer.
However, the November 30, 1909 NYT contains a lengthy example of how to do just that:
Prof. Herschel C. Parker of Columbia University, in an interview given during a brief visit here [Lewiston, Maine], declared that there was no longer any doubt of the falsity of Dr. Cook's claim that he climbed Mount McKinley.I am not going to review the entire, and lengthy, explanation of why Cook's claims of making it to the summit of Mt. McKinley were incorrect, but here are a few choice words:
"It is with profound regret," he [Parker] said, "that I feel obliged to impeach the manhood and honor of a personal friend. Nothing but stern necessity would prompt me to do this, but this is a case where truth and justice, as well as science and civilization, compel this step. Dr. Cook never made the ascent of Mount McKinley, as he has claimed."
September 13, 2009
Norman Borlaug, R.I.P.
Norman Borlaug, the most important man in history you've never heard of (or maybe the most important you have heard of) has died.
I've nothing to add to this obituary at Reason.
May 14, 2009
On fighting obesity c. 1909
The May 14, 1909 NYT reports on a paper presented by on Dr. Marcel Labbe at the Society of Internal Medicine in Paris. The paper focused on the treatment of obesity:
"[T]here is only one method of treatment: we must decrease the alimentary income and increase the expenditure of energy."How naive of the good doctor. It is obvious that the cure to obesity is for government to tax and/or ban the fats, breads, pastries, and sweets.
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Our post-modern society has discovered that such remedies for obesity are not necessary and, in fact, might be harmful to the overall macroeconomy.
The good doctor ignored the following "truths" as we see them today:
1. Obesity is a disease, most often self-diagnosed as "glandular" and therefore not necessarily a condition that should or must be "treated." Rather, the condition should be tolerated and perhaps rewarded by others.
2. The politicians seek to tap into incredible revenue streams by taxing the fats, breads, pastries and sweets.
3. The politicians recognize that threats to ban certain food products provide incentives for industry representatives and trade groups to lobby (read contribute) the politicians for favorable treatment.
4. The pharmaceutical industry argues against the good doctor's claims of injurious medicinal treatments and spends millions of dollars in direct advertising as proof.
5. The good doctor's advice, while perhaps sound, ignores the well-being of self-help authors and an entire segment of the magazine market that provides monthly (if not weekly) alternative means for losing weight.
6. The good doctor, through no fault of his own, also failed to account for the economic damage his advice would cause in the elevator and escalator industries. Those damages would be made whole, of course, by a re-investment act.
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May 10, 2009
On signaling Mars c. 1909
The May 10, 1909 NYT prints a letter to the editor concerning the hullabaloo over signalling Mars:
However large the signal, however ingeniously arranged, it would be absolutely invisible to any one upon Mars for the following reason:I think this only works if the earth is flat, no?
[Update (5/11/2009 10:15EDT) Bob emails me some clarifying thoughts:
"If the earth was flat but still rotating (as it must so that we have a day and night), then I don't think it would help.
Flat or not, if a planet is in an inner orbit it is visible from the outer orbit planet. We can see Venus (and Mercury) for example. The difference is that planets on inner orbits will exhibit phases (like our moon does). Planets in outer orbits are always full. This is one reason why Venus varies so much in intensity to our eyes over the course of the year. It's much brighter when it's in its full phase. (Its closeness to the earth matters too.) Mars in contrast varies much less -- only varying in intensity because of variations in closeness to the earth, but this is less noticeable."]
May 08, 2009
One gallon test c. 1909
The May 8, 1909 NYT reports the results of yet another one-gallon test in New York City. The contest involves giving each car one gallon of gasoline and then seeing how far the car can go before it stalls for a lack of fuel. The contest facilitates comparisons across different types of cars by noting the number of cylinders, the horsepower, and the total ton-miles the vehicle travelled.
The contest involved twenty vehicles and the paper reported the results as follows:
There are some familiar makes in the contest. For giggles, I estimated two regression models. The first relates the miles driven to the horsepower of the vehicle and whether the car was "cheap" or less than $1251 dollars. The second relates ton-miles to the same two variables. For those who don't like numbers, I put the regression results below the fold.
The results suggest that vehicles with more horsepower generally attained fewer miles in the contest, as might be expected. However, vehicles that were in the lower price range (less than $1250) generally went further on a single gallon of gasoline. There is no explanation for this in the article, but perhaps cheaper cars had fewer "amenities"? Perhaps the cheapest Cadillac of the day didn't have a windscreen?
Unlike today's discussions about fuel economy (most especially the Federal government's fetish with mpg), the 1909 contest sensibly scored the vehicles not on their absolute miles driven but on the ton-miles driven. Horsepower and the price range of the car had no relationship with the amount of ton-miles the car attained. This suggests that even in 1909, before all the regulation and intervention in the automobile industry, there was perhaps a natural equilibrium between vehicle size (as proxied by horsepower and price) and total efficiency.
Perhaps today's vehicles should be rated on ton-miles per gallon rather than simply miles per gallon?
Consider a Chevy Tahoe attains 18mpg while carrying four adults (700 lbs) and a curb weight of 5300 lbs. Assuming no other cargo, the Tahoe would attain 54 ton-miles per gallon. My 2004 VW GTI has a curb weight of around 2900 pounds. Add my buck-sixty-five for total drive weight of around 1.5 tons. I regularly get about 33 mpg, yielding 50 ton-miles per gallon. Oops.
Who is better off - the Tahoe driver or me? Such interpersonal utility comparisons are common in the real world (certain individuals suggest that I am better off and others argue the Tahoe driver is better off) but do not represent good economics. Revealed preference suggests that the Tahoe driver thinks she is better off in her Tahoe relative to my GTI and I think the reverse. However, when it comes to measuring efficiency by ton-miles per gallon, the two vehicles are strikingly similar, which means that the Tahoe driver might have selected the Tahoe for reasons other than efficiency - say, perhaps, to lug around four kids in car seats, which cannot be done in the GTI.
I am sure there are vehicle dyads that would show the bigger vehicle attains considerably fewer ton-miles per gallon, but my guess is that among most of the mass-produced, best selling vehicles the ton-miles per gallon are remarkably similar, at least much more similar than generally believed.
If the Tahoe was so much less efficient in terms of ton-miles than the other mass-produced vehicles, the Tahoe would have never been created or would have died a long time ago.
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May 06, 2009
On Mars and signaling c. 1909
An interesting letter to the editor published in the May 6, 1909 NYT:
Did it ever occur to our astronomers that possibly the mysterious "canals" on Mars might be signals intended for us to answer? I believe I have heard that these "canals" do not always appear the same. It is barely possible that the Martians are scientists of much greater ability than we can conceive of, and that through some remarkable means they are able to mark the surface of their planet with symbols which they expect us to decipher.Such "out of the box" thinking is exactly what seems to have been needed concerning the ongoing buzz about trying to "signal" to the yet-to-be-discovered Martians.
May 02, 2009
Bold but wrong c. 1909
From the May 2, 1909 NYT:
Save the problem of immortality and of life beyond the grave, there is, perhaps, no more fascinating one than that which conjectures life on mars and the possibility of establishing contact with that great planet, whose canals are as blank a mystery now as they were when Schiaparelli discovered them.
So, (cue the Close Encounters chimes) how would we go about communicating? There are some suggestions:
Prof. Robert W. Wood, the noted physicist of Johns Hopkins University, has rather discouraged the enthusiastic scheme of citizens of Stamford, Texas, of communicating with the planet Mars by mirror signalling.Says the good doctor:
"As to the project of attracting the attention of the Martians to the fact that there are rational beings on the earth, it seems to me that if there are any who insist upon making us conspicuous in this way it would be better to devise some simpler way than the construction of a mirror several miles in diameter. A large black spot on the white alkali plains could be constructed at much less expense, and would be as easily perceived by the Martians, if they exist and have telescopes as powerful as our. It would be easy to `wink' signals with the black spot as with a mirror of equal size, probably easier.
Columbia University provides its input in the form of Prof. Jacoby, Rutherford Professor of Astronomy:
"It is exceedingly uncertain that there are Martians," he declared to a reporter from THE TIMES.But, if the Martians are thinking the same thing we are stuck in a prisoner's dilemma of inaction.
The good Prof. Jacoby goes on:
"It is not unreasonable to suppose, if there is anything in the theories advanced by Prof. Percival Lowell regarding the hydraulic feats of the Martians' engineers on the Martian canals that the Martians should be far better able than we are to signal to the earth and find out whether there is intelligent life here. Why, according to Lowell, the Martians pump water clean from the poles to the equator! Certainly people who are able to do an engineering feat like that ought to be able to send signals to us.
March 18, 2009
On the alcohol problem c. 1909
The March 18, 1909 NYT has an interesting report of a meeting in Washington, DC, of doctors and scientists who discussed the "alcohol problem":
A somewhat striking solution of the problem of the use and abuse of alcohol was suggested by Dr. T. D. Crothers of Hartford, Conn. When suitable engines have been invented, said Dr. Crothers, which make it possible to use commercially for heat, light, and power, the force which alcohol furnishes, when this substance with it unlimited source of supply begins to replace electricity and steam in doing the world's work, then all the distilleries and breweries in the country will be needed for the manufacture of alcohol for working purposes. And then, by Dr. Crother's diagnosis beer spirits and all forms of alcohol used as beverages will disappear.What an interesting world we would have if our gasoline stations were, instead, alcohol stations.
The story later mentions a most bizarre (and completely unsubstantiated) set of politically incorrect claims concerning the impact of alcohol:
Dr. Parks, who is the editor of The Altruist, said that many of the characteristics of the effects of alcohol on the body were governed by race and nationality.It is not clear how Dr. Parks defined an "American." I suppose he meant a person who was born and raised in the late 19th century United States. Otherwise, he would have to explain how a German immigrant could have a glass of wine before getting on his ship to the New World and feel anaesthetic influences but when that German stepped onto U.S. soil his first glass of beer would only yield a "feeling of power and capacity."
Perhaps at the time such discussion seemed learned and scientifically motivated. Perhaps in a hundred years our current debates over our "problems," such as stem cells, when life begins, and how best to address "too big to fail," will seem equally silly.
December 16, 2008
On the intertubes c. 1908
The Dec. 16, 1908 NYT reports on what might have been a close call: a proposal for the U.S. government to purchase, install and operate pneumatic tubes for the purpose of delivering mail and other goods:
"That it is not feasible and desirable at the present time for the Government to purchase, to install, or to operate pneumatic tubes," is one of the most important conclusions reached by a commission appointed by the Postmaster General to inquire into the feasibility and desirability of the purchase and operation by the Government of pneumatic tubes in the cities where the service is now installed...No monopoly likes competition, so it is understandable (in one sense) that the government would look into "purchasing" the existing pneumatic tube services in order to stave off competition. The commission suggests putting off the decision for "five or six years," perhaps to see what is going to happen with the technology and the overall market for pneumatic tubes?
According to this entry in Wikipedia the number of cities that actually operated a large-scale pneumatic tube system was rather low, thus it seems that the technology never really took off. This might not be surprising given that technology in the early 1900s was changing rapidly - wireless, manned flight, the automobile, and advancements in wired communications - much like our technological revolution in the past fifteen years or so.
One wonders what our communication system would be like if the government had undertaken a large scale, nation-wide, pneumatic tube system for mail delivery. It seems there was at least a small possibility that we might actually have had a system of "intertubes."
December 09, 2008
It isn't easy being green
Who knew what a fine philospher Kermit is? This from Foreign Policy:
Think switching to solar energy will make you green? Think again. Many of the newest solar panels are manufactured with a gas that is 17,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide in contributing to global warming.
October 04, 2008
Public Health Policy c. 1908
The Oct. 4, 1908 NYT reports on one man's proposals in the area of public health policy:
Sir John Broadbent, formerly President of the Royal College of Physicians, in the course of an address this week said that he looked forward to a Utopian era when such diseases as influenza, pneumonia, measles, and scarlet fever would become more or less extinct as the result of the proper ventilation of offices, shops, public buildings, and private houses, and other sanitary measures such as the avoidance of overcrowding, the abolition of children's parties, and the habit of indiscriminate kissing.
August 20, 2008
Grand steps in medicine c. 1908
From the August 20, 1908 NYT:
WASHINGTON - News of one of the most remarkable operations ever performed in this city or, possibly, in the United States, which took place at the Emergency Hospital here, when one of the surgeons of that institution succeeded in bringing back to life a 12-year old [African American] boy of Hyattsville, MD., who had died suddenly while undergoing an operation, has just been made public...
Interesting items from this story? The physician remains nameless, and thus non-famous. There is no threat of a law suit against the surgeon who initiated the heart massage without FDA approval. There is no castigation from the ADA for "cowboy medicine." There is no animal rights group threatening eco-terrorism or other forms of boycott for the pending dog tests.
I have no specific knowledge about heart surgery, but if this was the beginning of a new field that would ultimately yield the pace maker, bypass surgery, and heart transplants, then the spark of innovation on the part of the nameless surgeon would seem to have borne tremendous benefit.
July 30, 2008
This from the National Post (Canada):
One way or another, you probably caught the news last week that girls have caught up with boys in average scores on standardized math tests in the United States... . [...] In its story on the study by Ms. Hyde et al., the Los Angeles Times took the opportunity to gloat that the results "undermined the assumption -- infamously espoused by [Mr. Summers] -- that boys are more likely than girls to be math geniuses." Unfortunately, journalists of both sexes tend to not be math geniuses.
Best Sentence I've Read This Morning*
Reproducing a list compiled by John Tierney, here's Jeff Tucker on the Mises.org Blog:
You have to turn to the Science section of the New York Times to find out that most of what the front page has said for years is entirely bogus.
*Meme: Marginal Revolution.
July 26, 2008
Size Matters: Cell Phones and Cancer
WebMD reports on the ambiguous research on the alleged link between cell phone use and cancer risk. Pages of commentary: four. Mentions of magnitude: zero. All of the quantiative relationships are described in terms of associations, increases, and decreases, and there is no real discussion of tradeoffs. My fear is that the debate will be driven by sign-and-significance statistics with at best passing reference to magnitude, and a heavy load of regulation will come down the pipe if researchers find a "positive and significant" relationship between cell phone use and cancer. This is particularly interesting in light of Ziliak and McCloskey's The Cult of Statistical Significance. I'm reviewing it for Economic Affairs, and the review should be done soon.
June 02, 2008
X-prize c. 1908
The June 2, 1908 NYT reports on an "X-prize" for flight, not space flight mind you:
Lazare Weiller today confirmed the report previously cabled to THE NEW YORK TIMES that Wilbur Wright is here with the intention of selling his machine for $100,000.The 1908 prize structure is very similar to the X-prize offered in 2004 for space flight. The 1908 prize was worth approximately $2.1 million in 2004 dollars, whereas the 2004 prize was for $10m. It is an interesting thought experiment as to whether space flight innovation is truly worth only five times terrestrial flight innovation.
The broader lesson is that tournaments can and do work, as the PGA/LPGA shows every weekend. If the U.S. government wants innovation in transportation, energy delivery, or energy sources, then X-prize type tournaments would likely yield more tangible, practical, and timely, although less politically beneficial, results than mandates from on-high.
May 14, 2008
Learning by doing c. 1908
The May 14, 1908 NYT reports on advancements by the Wright Brothers in North Carolina:
The Wright brothers' aeroplane made a flight of three miles at Kill Devil Hill to-day. The most remarkable thing about the flight was the presence of both the Wrights in the machine. They were unmistakenly seen in it as the machine soared by a group of responsible observers, and then were seen to step from the machine when it halted.One wonders if one of the "responsible observers" dreamed of passenger plane service, but on a larger scale.
However successful the three mile flight, air travel obviously had a long way to go. One might grant the skeptic at the time a bit of slack, as the story reports:
A short flight of three-quarters of a mile was made by the machine earlier in the day. That was stopped by a tree, which could not be avoided without danger. The machine was brought to the ground in an instant. It struck with considerable force, but both the navigator and machine escaped without injury.Furthermore, the primary motive power of the aeroplane didn't invoke a lot of confidence at the time:
Having seemingly mastered the new steering gear of the machine, they [the Wrights] have now to contend with the unreliability of its gas engine. The engine of thirty horse power and weighing but 150 pounds is fully able to sustain the machine in flights as long as it runs, but its operation for any specified time cannot be guaranteed.Thankfully the Wrights (and others) didn't give up.
May 12, 2008
Geologic time includes now.*
*Title explained (p. 31).
April 25, 2008
On early warning systems c. 1908
I lived 11 years in Tornado Alley, and having moved away from that part of the country last year I must admit that I do not miss the severe weather that is mangling Texas at this time. However, one thing that was very impressive was the extent to which weather technology, especially in the context of tornadoes, has advanced. During out time in Texas we were never directly hit by a tornado, but we did have one bounce over our house, literally hitting the small town of Hadley, Texas about two+ miles from our house and then hitting in south Arlington about three miles on the other side. The nervousness that accompanied that tornado, augmented by the radio broadcast of the local weatherman reporting block by block where the storm was by the second, is not something I would want to relive.
The April 25, 1908 NYT reports on what life was like before the early warning systems we have today:
NEW ORLEANS - A wind of cyclonic proportions swept over portions of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama late [yesterday], leaving a trail of dead and injured. To-night the number of killed is estimated at close to a hundred and the number of injured at over a hundred, with many portions of the afflicted districts to hear from...
How many lives are saved today given our advanced weather warning systems? There have been some amazing tornadoes in recent years, including Jarell, Texas in 1997, but nothing of this magnitude (outside of Katrina and other hurricanes). Thank you Christian Doppler.
April 14, 2008
NRO's Uncommon Knowledge has an interesting set of short discussions with T.J. Rodgers on green energy. All are interesting.
February 11, 2008
Environmentalists and Economists: Common Ground?
Tomorrow night, Mike Hammock and I are leading a "High Table" discussion for Rhodes first-year students on the relationship between environmentalism and economics. Here's what we're asking them to read or watch:
1. Part 6 of The Economics of Public Issues, 14th Edition
January 26, 2008
The End: How Near?
This year is the 40th anniversary of Paul Ehrlich's influential The Population Bomb, a book that predicted an apocalyptic overpopulation crisis in the 1970s and '80s.
I thought this account contained a factual error. Ferguson correctly said (in 1990), "Now, Dr. Ehrlich was an entomologist by training, and some immediately recognized that after many years of rigorous study he had lost the capacity to distinguish between an army of hideous little arthropods swarming over his desk in a Stanford laboratory and an upwardly mobile population of Homo sapiens building tract houses in Palo Alto." (Dixie Lee Ray used to routinely refer to Ehrlich as the bug man.) But, according to Wikipedia, he is now the Bing Professor of Population Studies. Apparently, he's not the only one at Stanford who can't tell the difference.
2. Good news or bad? Depends on what global warming is all about.
Natural gas reservoirs in Michigan’s Antrim Shale are providing new information about global warming and the Earth’s climate history, according to a recent study by Steven Petsch, a geoscientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The study is also good news for energy companies hoping to make natural gas a renewable resource.
December 10, 2007
This BBC report calls into question declaring polar bears endangered.
"We have this specimen that confirms the polar bear was a morphologically distinct species at least 100,000 years ago, and this basically means that the polar bear has already survived one interglacial period," explained Professor Ingolfsson.
How to Live Green: Pull a Kangaroo's Finger
I missed this article, from last Wednesday, on research to make cows "spell relief" more like kangaroos.
SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian scientists are trying to give kangaroo-style stomachs to cattle and sheep in a bid to cut the emission of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, researchers say. Thanks to special bacteria in their stomachs, kangaroo flatulence contains no methane and scientists want to transfer that bacteria to cattle and sheep who emit large quantities of the harmful gas.
A year ago Frank posted a relevant cartoon by Mike Lester on the Cattle-lytic converter.
November 25, 2007
Technological miracles c. 1907
From the Nov. 24, 1907 NYT:
With the recent successful demonstration of Prof. Korn's invention, by which photographs may be telegraphed from one part of the world to another, it seems not improbable that some day we may be able to see distant views through the aid of a telephone wire in the same way that we can now hear distant sounds.
Moreover, Marconi is demonstrating wireless transmissions acrsoss the Atlantic, X-rays (see earlier post), the automobile and the airplane are coming on-line, and numerous other exciting technological changes are afoot.
CSI c. 1907
From the Nov. 24, 1907 NYT:
According to a report of Dr. Vaillant of the Lariboisiere Hospital...all danger of burial alive ahs been removed by teh use of X-rays. Dr. Vaillant has discovered that, after numerous experiments with radiographs [X-rays], the living and the dead present numerous differences.So, in 1907 medical science is proceeding to the point where we don't have to bury people with a bell. By 2007, medical science seems close to making adult stem cells out of skin cells (2007 story, Original research A and Original research B ) and eliminating the possibility of transplant rejection.
October 29, 2007
Revolutionizing war c. 1907
From the October 29, 1907 NYT:
How War Will Be RevolutionizedThis is an eerily familiar statement. Perhaps if the objective function of the politicians who initiate warfare were consistent with the objective function of those who prosecute warfare, the simple biplane would have been the end of war as we know it. Alas, our good Major mistakenly ignored or failed to realize that the biplane was not the end of this technology - indeed, only the beginning.
"I have been serving for the past ten years at Fort Leavenworth, the headquarters of the three service schools of the army. The military authorities there have shown the deepest interest and the firmest belief in the future of military aeronautics. Its radical influence on the methods of warfare will compare only with the invention of gunpowder and the tactics of Frederick the Great.All of this is true, if the other country doesn't have airplanes as well.
The Major recognizes the value of the plane in terms of a "terror" weapon but fails to recognize that those who are "terrorized" might not sit still for it:
Add to this the possibility of airships dropping high explosives on a defenseless people and their importance becomes at once apparent. It is possible,even now, to tow a load of high explosives with a dirigible balloon and drop the destructive load at such points as desired. Against such an attack there is no effective resistance, save by waging an aerial warfare, air fleet against air fleet. The possibilities are unlimited and they mean the revolutionizing of military methods with the result that decisive victories may be gained with a minimum loss of life.I am not sure what would be required for the good Major's prediction to come true, but two world wars and about 30-40 million people (mostly civilians) would die despite these "scientific principles" aimed to reduce the motivation of war would come to fruition - at least in as much as the nuclear bomb reduces the motivation for total war.
While mutually assured destruction might preclude military engagement, it is obvious that hopes that the biplane would lead to an era of peace was misplaced. Moreover, the biplane seems to be only the first in a long procession of tit-for-tat technological advances which today conntinues apace.
October 17, 2007
On automobile innovation c. 1907
An interesting concept car is described in the October 17, 1907 NYT:
The autocycle runs upon four wheels, but the position of the wheels is totally different from that of any other vehicle. The front wheel is situated directly in the centre and partially under the forward part of the machine, and the rear wheel is in direct line with the forward one, as in the case of a bicycle. The wheels are placed further apart, however, and on each side are two wheels, known as the balance wheels, connected by an axle with steering knuckles.
October 16, 2007
The next big thing c. 1907
The NYT of October 16, 1907 reports a Homer Simpson 'Doh!!' moment:
The semi-official Temps this evening, referring to a dispatch from New York saying that the Wright brothers had sold their aeroplane to an Anglo-American syndicate which is negotiating with European Governments, says.
October 15, 2007
The beef with beef
Maybe we have the wrong sort of CAFE standards, according to this LA Times piece:
All told, livestock are responsible for 18% of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide, according to the U.N. -- more than all the planes, trains and automobiles on the planet. And it's going to get a lot worse. As living standards rise in the developing world, so does its fondness for meat and dairy. Annual per-capita meat consumption in developing countries doubled from 31 pounds in 1980 to 62 pounds in 2002, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, which expects global meat production to more than double by 2050. That means the environmental damage of ranching would have to be cut in half just to keep emissions at their current, dangerous level.
October 12, 2007
The Inconvenience of Truth to Myth
Yesterday the Heartland Institute released an email "media advisory" on the decision by Britain's high court that Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth is essentially worthless from an objective, scientific point of view.
(Chicago, Illinois – October 11, 2007) British High Court Justice Michael Burton has ruled Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, represents "partisan political views." He determined schools will have to warn pupils before they show the controversial film.
Hat tip: David Hart of Liberty Fund.
October 11, 2007
Cyclical Marginal Revenue Product?
Some lines of research are more interesting than others. Consider:
Last month, biologist Randy Thornhill challenged the orthodoxy that women do not undergo regular bouts of hormone-induced oestrus ... when they are at their most fertile - something most female mammals experience (New Scientist, 15 September, p 18). Now a study of the tips men give to lap dancers, conducted by a colleague of Thornhill's, lends further support to the argument for oestrus.
September 21, 2007
Assume a Sandpile, Take One
“Assume a sandpile, predict an avalanche,” says Peter Huber on page 52 of Hard Green. The global warming models appear to contain a lot of positive feedbacks. Prominent among them is that droughts caused by warming will convert the Amazon rainforests into savannahs. Will they? This article reports evidence that a negative feedback might be more likely with the Amazon greening up:
“If drought were to have the expected negative effect on canopy photosynthesis, it should have been especially observable during this period [of drought].
September 19, 2007
On dead bees c. 1907
Although I am not remotely close to a bee expert, I found this story from the Sept. 29, 1907 NYT of passing interest:
Prominent beekeepers of the State, who spoke at a gathering under State auspices at the Agricultural Station here to-day, gave it as their opinion that the late spring and blight of apple blossoms were responsible for the poor output of honey, the harvest being one-third the normal amount.
September 11, 2007
The 3oz. Bottle in a Baggy Explained
I'm a pretty laid back guy, but I find T.S.A. and airport security as annoying as anybody. This New York Times article gives me a little more understanding the next time I pass through. While the article fails to question public sector enforcement, it does end up explaining the rationale behind limiting travelers to little bottles in little baggies.
Tests showed that a container of a certain size is needed for an effective explosion. Separate three-ounce containers limited in number to what will fit inside a single one-quart bag do not have “enough critical diameter” to blow up an aircraft, he said.
What I want to know is, why haven't sundry suppliers begun to market packages of 3.4 ounces or less? I can't find toothpaste between 0.5 and 4 ounces.
September 09, 2007
To maintain energy independence, we must start working to get import barriers up, if this New York Times article is accurate.
[A] plant called jatropha is being hailed by scientists and policy makers as a potentially ideal source of biofuel, a plant that can grow in marginal soil or beside food crops, that does not require a lot of fertilizer and yields many times as much biofuel per acre planted as corn and many other potential biofuels.
August 22, 2007
On rising sea levels c. 1907
From the August 22, 1907 NYT:
Dr. R. F. Schaff of Dublin, a delegate to the International Zoological Congress...gave it as his opinion that indications point to the gradual submergence of the eastern coast of North America and the gradual upheaval of the Pacific Coast.
August 08, 2007
On battleships c. 1907
I have mentioned in previous posts (here) and (here) that in 1906-1907 the United States was building two new battleships to compete with the largest ships the rest of the world was producing. In the battleship arms race two things mattered, speed and firepower, with, in general, an inverse relationship between the two.
The two ships being built at the time, the Connecticut and the Louisiana, are interesting because the Connecticut was built by a government run shipyard whereas the Louisiana was built by a private contractor. Previous stories had pointed out that the Louisiana was coming in under budget and being built faster than the Connecticut. However, towards the end of the construction phase, the Louisiana was given extra armor plating which increased the cost to nearly that which the Connecticut commanded.
In the Aug. 8, 1907 NYT the two ships are reported to have had their initial speed trials:
In a series of fourteen runs over a measured mile course...the first-class battleship Connecticut, the first battleship of the class built by the government, made a showing that was highly satisfactory to Rear Admiral Robley D. Evans and the Trial Board. The average speed of the best five runs was 18.73 knots.The difference was likely not statistically significant but the cost of the Louisiana was still lower than that of the Connecticut. Hmmm....
August 06, 2007
On infant mortality c. 1907
From the Aug. 6, 1907 NYT:
The increase in New York's death rate in the last two weeks over the corresponding two weeks of 1906 has swelled the death list of New York City to 3,615 against 2,907 last year. In the seven days ended last Saturday there were 1,804 deaths in the five boroughs: 1,653 of these deaths were those of children under 5 years old. In the corresponding week last year but 1,156 children under 5 years died.If the numbers are correct, the infant mortality accounted for 92% of all deaths in New York City during this week in 1907!! Without doing any research on this topic, I am confident that infant mortality in NYC during the same week in 2007 was considerably lower. Wow - what a difference 100 years has made.
July 25, 2007
Ethanol and Pollution
Big surprise: A new study predicts that increased demand for ethanol will increase the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.
A surge in the demand for ethanol -- touted as a greener alternative to gasoline -- could have a serious environmental downside for the Chesapeake Bay, because more farmers growing corn could mean more pollution washing off farm fields, a new study warned yesterday.
July 23, 2007
Nutrition in school c. 1907
The July 23, 1907 NYT reports on a development in the pencil industry which today's anti-obesity police might want to resuscitate:
Pencils with potato in place of wood is the latest article "made in Germany." A company has been formed to exploit an invention which, instead of making use of the expensive cedar wood, substitutes a compact mass, the main ingredient of which is potatoes.Perhaps a bio-mass compact mass could be used today which would save trees and provide nutritional value for those who chew on their pencils during class and exams?
July 22, 2007
Interesting article on an individual who might have done more good for people in the Third World than even Bono:
In the mid-'60s, doomsayers predicted that, because of war and overpopulation, millions of people in India and Pakistan would die of starvation – and nothing could be done to prevent it. Dr. Borlaug thought otherwise. He wanted to see if his new wheat seeds could help prevent the looming catastrophe in South Asia. Bureaucrats initially thwarted him. But as the famine grew worse, he was finally permitted to move forward.
July 09, 2007
Why do I still get the daily newspaper?
On Saturday, the local fish wrapper ran a long feature story on some local
And the mainstream press wonders why more and more people get their news from blogs?
July 05, 2007
On the weather c. 1907
From the July 5, 1907 NYT:
The warmest places in Europe this morning were within the Arctic Circle. Lapland also was genial, with a temperature of 70 degrees, which was warmer than London, where the thermometer at 8 A.M. registered 56 degrees. Iceland was several degrees warmer than many places on the Irish and Welsh Coasts...No fine weather is possible until a readjustment takes place as regards the relative position of these important players in the meteorological game.
June 06, 2007
On global warming c. 1907
From the June 6, 1907 NYT:
As the weather has been taking a prominent place in journalism of late, and as all references to it are invariable concluded with the words "since the establishment of the Weather Bureau," it may be of interest to note what the weather was before that epoch and to observe that there was plenty of it.Wouldn't it be nice if the print media would offer similar perspective in the current global warming/cooling debate.
June 04, 2007
On food purity c. 1907
To remind us, once again, that there are no new problems only our problems, the NYT of June 4, 1907 reports the following:
Negotiations are under way between the United States and France respecting the degree of compliance with the American National Pure Food Law which shall be exacted.
Perhaps someone can send a message to the Chinese that our hopes and expectations for "untainted food" are not new.
On tuberculosis c. 1907
The June 4, 1907 NYT reminds us that tuberculosis was a big deal not so long ago:
The world's fight against the ravages of consumption will be the main subject discussed during the meeting of the American Medical Association, which opened its annual session here to-day. The National Anti-Tuberculosis League is also in session here, with delegates from all parts of the United States...The last statement sounds similar to the "we are flying with germ carriers" argument of today.
May 30, 2007
On weather headlines c. 1907
Compare and contrast:
Headlines from the Drudge Report on May 30, 2007:
Headline from the New York Times on May 30, 1907:
May 24, 2007
On predictions c. 1907
The May 24, 1907 NYT has the following prediction by the Surgeon General of Illinois:
"The methods for the prevention of diseases, which have developed wonderfully in the last few years, lead me to believe that the outlook for the elimination of the white plague [tuberculosis] is very hopeful. Those affected will be isolated, and if this is done, preventives may be used until consumption will be a thing of the past.As far as predictions go, perhaps the last paragraph proved the most accurate. I wonder if surgeons of today would qualify their advancements (bypass, transplants, re-attachments, etc.) as simplifications or "great discoveries"?
May 07, 2007
Paging Julian Simon
It's finally been said, by a "family planning" professor (whatever that is):
The scarily-named Optimum Population Trust says that families should have two rather than three kids for the sake of the planet. Prof. Guillebaud says that "when couples are planning a family they should be encouraged to think about the environmental consequences."
There is this curious bit: after the story describes how virtually all world population growth will come from poor, not wealthy, nations, Prof. Guillebaud says "rich countries should be the most concerned about family size as their children have higher per capita carbon dioxide emissions." So it seems that poor countries have too many kids and rich countries have too many wasteful kids. Of course, with fewer brains rich countries probably won't stay rich; they'll become poor and start spitting out rugrats again.
Well, let's reason this out. People of such mind usually perceive humans as a virus on the planet (thank you, Agent Smith), so why stop at two kids? The Optimum Population is obviously zero, when humans will no longer foul up the planet. It seems the Optimum Population Trust could be doing more effective things to reach this goal than releasing reports. Just ask Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot, all unknowingly devoted to erasing carbon footprints from the world.
And why does it have to be fewer kids? Why can't we get rid of other people instead? Kids are too cute. Let's wait to see if Prof. Guillebaud becomes a martyr for his own cause. But I'm sure he'd tell us he's not the problem, it's "other people" who are the problem.
And don't trees like carbon dioxide? I wish these population-control types weren't so anti-arboreal.
April 25, 2007
How green is ethanol?
According to this article in Environmental Science and Technology, a publication of the American Chemical Society:
E85 (85% ethanol fuel, 15% gasoline) may increase ozone-related mortality, hospitalization, and asthma by about 9% in Los Angeles and 4% in the United States as a whole relative to 100% gasoline. Ozone increases in Los Angeles and the northeast were partially offset by decreases in the southeast. E85 also increased peroxyacetyl nitrate (PAN) in the U.S. but was estimated to cause little change in cancer risk. Due to its ozone effects, future E85 may be a greater overall public health risk than gasoline. However, because of the uncertainty in future emission regulations, it can be concluded with confidence only that E85 is unlikely to improve air quality over future gasoline vehicles. Unburned ethanol emissions from E85 may result in a global-scale source of acetaldehyde larger than that of direct emissions.
April 23, 2007
Bizarre weather c. 1907
The April 23, 1907 NYT reports on some strange events in upstate New York:
NIAGRA, N.Y. - The American falls went dry to-day in sections owing to the immense ice fields forced down from Lake Erie by a tremendous gale. Where the full sweep of water usually plunges over there were four separate falls, presenting a very peculiar sight.Don't you know the global-warming alarmists of today would love to have some freak incident like this. Alas, all they in these parts this weekend were never-before-heard-of spring tornadoes in Texas.
April 09, 2007
Global warming c. 1907
On Saturday it snowed in Arlington, TX. Granted, it didn't snow enough to stick to the roads or the grass, but it snowed enough so that our two year old recognized the precipitation as snow. How crazy is that?
Around the Southeast it was rather cold over the past weekend, and I am sure many were like me: either wondering where the global warming was when we needed it or thanking our stars for global warming (otherwise the cold would have been that much worse). For our good friends north of, say, Nashville, I hear your chuckles, but one reason I stick close to home (at least in terms of latitude) is the cold - more specifically the relative lack thereof.
Notwithstanding the past weekend's freakish weather, the statists qua global warming advocates will not be dissuaded. One hypothesis, which if true would be the end of the endless stream of "protocols," is that contemporaneous weather patterns are reflective of a "100 year cycle." With about as much scientific method as most (non-scientist) advocates of global warming put forth, I mention this story from the April 9, 1907 NYT:
Ballston [New York], April 8 - This vicinity to-day...had a snowstorm which almost assumed the proportions of a blizzard. More than eight inches of snow have fallen.Can we draw robust inference from one observation? No more than those on the other side of the debate. However, I enjoy anecdotes that our problems are not necessarily new problems.
April 07, 2007
The scientific method c. 1907
The April 7, 1907 NYT reports on French scientists who are trying to market tobacco that has been purged of nicotine ostensibly for health reasons:
The Government, which has a monopoly of the manufacture and sale of tobacco, put on the market this week a variety of caporal, a common form of pipe and cigarette tobacco, which had been freed of nicotine.
March 03, 2007
Is Climate Change Science a Cottage Industry?
This Congressional Research Service white paper concerning climate change reports the amount of spending on "Climate Change Science" by the federal government since FY1989. Annual spending peaked in FY2004 at just under $2 billion.
The total amount of spending since 1989? $32.5 billion in 2005 dollars (through FY2007)!!
In some sense, the spending might be a small price to pay if it were possible to come to a conclusion about what is causing climate change and if we (humans or the United States, depending on your viewpoint) can or want to do anything about it. However, if we did come to a conclusion, would it be politically feasible for either political party to reduce the spending on climate change science?
Two billion dollars is about one half of the economy of Arlington, Texas.
The On-Star System (tm) c. 1907
From the March 3, 1907 NYT:
I think with elevators, Ritz restaurants, cafes, palm gardens, flats, gymnasiums, Turkish baths, and swimming tanks, the limit of luxury [on transatlantic ocean liners] has been reached, though perhaps they may yet introduce billiard tables and bowling alleys.
February 06, 2007
Climate Change c. 1907
The Feb. 6, 1907 NYT reports on the incredible cold that grips the upper Midwest and the plains (sound familiar?):
ST. PAUL - With few exceptions there has been severe weather in this section for seventeen days, and for three days the thermometers have registered 22 degrees below zero.It might well be the case that global warming/climate change is a fact. It might also be the case that human activity is to blame. However, we are warned at the same time that global warming/climate change is not just about warming temps in the winter but an increase in the variance of weather events - more swings to the extremes during any season.
To the average layman that sounds reasonable - who remembers the last time it was 30 degrees below zero in North Dakota? Not too many people in Texas at least. However, while such stories in the NYT from 1907 do not constitute a statistical test, it is suggestive that extreme weather events have occurred in the past (what created the Grand Canyon?) and makes one wonder about the veracity/intention of implied claims to the contrary.
January 13, 2007
Climate change c. 1907
From the Jan. 13, 1906 NYT:
Everyone knows that this has been a mild Winter, but just what has made it so is a problem about which the weather experts are divided. A few days ago Capt. Chaplin of the British steamer Shimosa reached the Port of New York after a long and decidedly foggy voyage from China. The weather was so remarkably unseasonable that Capt. Chaplin took some observations that revealed the fact, not noticed as yet by other mariners, that the Gulf Stream has been undergoing certain deviations from its normal course which are of a sufficiently radical nature, according to the theories of some meteorologists, to account for the extreme climactic changes which have taken place this winter.File in the TNC drawer? Hmmm....
January 11, 2007
On technology adoption c. 1907
The Jan. 11, NYT prints a letter to the editor concerning the upcoming Auto Show in New York City's Madison Square Garden:
Possibly no invention ever installed itself as a vital institution in the life of the world as quickly and as firmly as the automobile. It is not many years ago that we were wont to stare and gape at it in passing with much the same bewilderment that we now bestow upon a balloon or a submarine boat. The automobile is an absolute fixture. It filled a want, and when that want became evident the development of the automobile was assured. No more striking testimony is needed than the standardization of parts by manufacturers, which goes far to prove the thorough organization of the automobile business.Thank goodness the federal government wasn't involved with the development of the automobile.
January 09, 2007
New uses for Viagra
It looks like Viagra might be effective against pulmonary edema (fluid leakage in the lungs caused by high blood pressure).
I've never had any problems with Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), much less anything more serious like HAPE or HACE, as high as 13,000', but they say it can strike anyone anytime. (Kilimanjaro, my next mountain, is 19,340'--by far the tallest I've ever attempted.)
Now the question is this: Do you really want your mountain climbing buddy, sleeping in a two man tent, at high altitude, days away from the nearest female companionship, popping Viagra?
December 21, 2006
"You violated my fargin robot rights"
It is said that democratic governments are myopic, scarecely looking beyond the next election. "Not so we the British," say...uhm, the British. This BBC story tells of a far reaching study, released today by UK's Office of Science and Innovation.
The 246 summary papers, called the Sigma and Delta scans, were complied by futures researchers, Outsights-Ipsos Mori partnership and the US-based Institute for the Future (IFTF).
Perhaps the most tantalizing futurist prediction? Rights for robots.
The paper which addresses Robo-rights, titled Utopian dream or rise of the machines? examines the developments in artificial intelligence and how this may impact on law and politics.
With apologies to Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov et al., HT: Wired blog
December 05, 2006
Running and Skin Cancer
A new study covered in Runner's World:
An Austrian study that made worldwide headlines last week suggesting a link between marathon running and skin cancers, possibly including the dangerous malignant melanoma (MM), turns out to be somewhat less worrisome than many news reports indicated. Of course, sun exposure is a known cause of skin cancers, and runners do go out in the sun (in skimpy clothing), so they should be careful. But the research study uncovered no melanomas among either the 210 marathoners or the 210 control group members, and never attempted to measure skin cancer incidence. "On clinical examination, no skin lesions suggestive of MM were diagnosed in either group," wrote the authors, a group of running aficionadoes and marathoners/triathletes from the University of Graz in Graz, Austria.
November 28, 2006
On cigarette smoking c. 1906
A letter to the editor in the Nov. 28, 1906 NYT continues the cigarette "debate":
If "M.C." in writing yesterday on the evil of cigarette smoking, referred to Gen. Grant's death as caused by cigarette smoking, he was certainly mistaken, as the cancer of the throat was caused by "dry" (unlighted) smoking of cigars to an excessive extent.
October 20, 2006
Two Cool Space Photos
With the Reuters descriptions:
This Hubble image of the Antennae galaxies is the sharpest yet of this merging pair of galaxies. As the two galaxies smash together, billions of stars are born, mostly in groups and clusters of stars. The brightest and most compact of these are called super star clusters. (NASA, ESA/Hubble, and B. Whitmore - Space Telescope Science Institute/Handout/Reuters)
The Andromeda spiral galaxy is shown in this infrared image taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and released by on October 18, 2006. Astronomers have new evidence that the Andromeda spiral galaxy was involved in a violent head-on collision with the neighboring dwarf galaxy Messier 32 (M32) more than 200 million years ago. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/D. Block - Anglo American Cosmic Dust Lab, SA/Handout/Reuters)
October 11, 2006
One of my favorite websites is summitpost which has fantastic amounts of information about mountain hiking/climbing. It's a "wiki" style site where users host and edit individual pages about mountains, routes, etc.
October 02, 2006
An overly common medium of exchange
Health experts in the UK are warning the public that snorting cocaine through a rolled-up banknote poses a serious health risk. Not from the cocaine -- from the banknote, which can harbor droplets of blood and thereby pass Hepatitis C from snorter to snorter.
September 21, 2006
Polar Bears Revisited
ABC news ran two global-warming stories today. The first was Branson’s giveaway; the second was not news, but a revisit of the dying polar bears story. These are excerpts from an article cited by cei.org that calls this report into question.
One polar bear population (western Hudson Bay) has declined since the 1980s and the reproductive success of females in that area seems to have decreased. We are not certain why, but it appears that ecological conditions in the mid-1980s were exceptionally good.
By the way, Charlie Gibson closes the report by saying that scientists have documented a 20% population decline in Western Canada since the 1980s. Good work: Select your subset of the poplulation, select your endpoints, and fit your trend line. I never knew model estimation was so easy.
September 20, 2006
Lessons of DDT Policy
Thomas Bray's comments on implications of DDT policy:
Researchers haven't even been able to show conclusively that DDT is the cause of widely-cited declines in populations of eagles and other animals. There appeared to be a strong correlation, but the type of DDT use being recommended by WHO - indoor spraying to reduce the risk of mosquito bites to sleeping humans - is no threat to nature. All this was known more than three decades ago, but so powerful had the environmental lobby become that rational decision-making was all but impossible.
September 16, 2006
350 years of discovery
The Royal Society announces their archive of 350 years of articles is freely available through the end of the calendar year. From the front page:
For the first time the Archive provides online access to all journal content, from Volume One, Issue One in March 1665 until the latest modern research published today ahead of print. And until December the archive is freely available to anyone on the Internet to explore.
Here's a link to Crick and Watson (1953) whose innocent sounding abstract is as follows:
This paper describes a possible structure for the paracrystalline form of the sodium salt of deoxyribonucleic acid. The structure consists of two DNA chains wound helically round a common axis, and held together by hydrogen bonds between specific pairs of bases. The assumptions made in deriving the structure are described, and co-ordinates are given for the principal atoms. The structure of the crystalline form is discussed briefly.I wonder if there is an article describing the discovery of dirt. That was tongue-in-cheek, the archive is an amazing browse.
September 15, 2006
DDT, Malaria, and the WHO
A recent Wall Street Journal article suggests that the WHO, unlike much of the UN, has taken temporary leave of its insanity:
The World Health Organization, in a sign that widely used methods of fighting malaria have failed to bring the catastrophic disease under control, plans to announce today that it will encourage the use of DDT, even though the pesticide is banned or tightly restricted in much of the world.
HT to Jeff Hoffman, who expresses hope that some bureaucrats are coming to see the importance of marginal analysis. I'm less sanguine.
September 07, 2006
Good Nukes, Getting Better
Consumer Reports has weighed in on E85, one of the most massive boondoggles of our time. Some salient points:
On the last point, Consumer Reports is mute on the question of what will fill those needs. One alternative that I suspect is seldom mentioned in the circles in which CR writers move is nuclear energy. A particularly promising alternative is the pebble bed reactor.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds (aka Instapundit) reports:
Meanwhile, in Britain, environmental guru James Lovelock has called for the deployment of nuclear power to fight global warming, but other environmentalists are horrified at the thought. At least, however, the subject is being debated after decades of being off the table entirely.
Further, Reynolds points to a development that might make nuclear power ever safer than it already is:
The Chinese seem to be on the right track. Pebble-bed technology looks to be both feasible and safe (and it's only one alternative), and it seems unlikely that the world can sustain another 50 years (or even 20) of economic growth on the scale of recent decades while depending on oil and coal -- at least, not without unpleasant side effects.
For more than you want to know about pebble-bed technology, see Wikipedia. An excerpt:
The pebble bed reactor (PBR) or pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR) is an advanced nuclear reactor design. This technology claims a dramatically higher level of safety and efficiency. Instead of water, it uses pyrolytic graphite as the neutron moderator, and an inert or semi-inert gas such as helium, nitrogen or carbon dioxide as the coolant, at very high temperature, to drive a turbine directly. This eliminates the complex steam management system from the design and increases the transfer efficiency (ratio of electrical output to thermal output) to about 50%. Also, the gases do not dissolve contaminants or absorb neutrons as water does, so the core has less in the way of radioactive fluids and is more economical than a light water reactor.
August 25, 2006
What's good for astronomers is good for economists?
Now that the astronomers have purged Pluto from the planetary club - shock to the astrologers, I am sure - I wonder what would be purged from economics if it were put to a vote?
That's my short list after fifteen seconds of thought.
August 14, 2006
On AOL search data
I mentioned that last week there was a release of data pertaining to about 20 million AOL searches and how AOL tried to put the genie back in the bottle. Unfortunately for AOL and AOL users, the data have been stored on a number of mirror sites, and incorporated into Splunk'd which is a large data mining program. Heck, for some reason even I downloaded the data, all 439 MB of it. For giggles, I tried to read the data into STATA, but that didn't work very well with the limited resources of my laptop.
Nevertheless, for those who would like to see some of the data, here are the first 100,000 searches in a 40MB STATA data file
1. The Pornhound
I qualify myself as an Omnivore.
Here's a link to Splunk'd [I can only get it to work in IE - dangit]. I especially like the display searches by time option. You could spend a lot of time at Splunk'd but I did three quick searhces: approximately 1100 searches had the term "economics," 580 searches with "Sheehan" (mostly in March 2006 and then dropping off considerably), and 1,920 searches for "Tom Cruise." That says something, but I am not sure what.
August 07, 2006
On Heat Waves c. 1906
Perhaps it doesn't mean anything, yet for what it's worth, here are some weather reports from the Aug. 7, 1906 NYT:
July 31, 2006
Reading for the day?
From the Annals of Improbable Research:
Hair Soy Sauce: A Revolting Alternative to the Conventional by Alexander Tse-Yan Lee
The study is available here
This study is available here
July 30, 2006
Weather forecasts c. 1906
It is interesting to read the weather forecasts from the early 1900s. They are almost too general, they come with very little specifics. I am no meteorologist, but I wonder if it is because a) the science of forecasting the weather was not fully developed, and/or b) there was little reason for most people (beyond farmers, perhaps?) to be terribly concerned about the detailed specifics of the weather.
Here's an example, from the July 30, 1906 NYT:
The Weather Bureau forecast for Monday and Tuesday in the cotton States is as follows:
Now, July/August in Texas is usually anything but "fair." What with temps in high 90s and low 100s for days on end, to term that "fair" is either northeastern bias or testament to the hardiness of the folks who lived in the south without air conditioning.
In a separate article, there is a table of temperatures in New York City - one of the first I have come across. The notes to the table suggest the following:
The average temperature yesterday was 76; for the corresponding date last year it was 74; average on the corresponding date for the last twenty-five years, 73.
July 20, 2006
Global warming c. 1906?
This isn't really a science issue, but I notice that the heat wave of 2006 is very similar to reports of the heat (and shortages of ice, with subsequent price increases/investigations/indictments/outrage) in 1906.
From the July 20, 1906 NYT:
The Fifteenth Regiment of United States Cavalry from Fort Ethan Allen, Burlington, Vt., arrived early this afternoon at Hoosick, four mile south of this place [Hoosick Falls, N.Y.], after a fifteen-mile march from Shaftsbury, Vt., where they spent the previous afternoon and night.Alas, there is no report of exactly what the temperature was, but it must have been fairly hot for the Army to call off the parade.
What is obviously missing is the warnings that we receive today.
June 29, 2006
Should I say good-bye to my pre-run bagel?
Bonking is, of course, slang for running out of energy during exercise. It usually happens when the working muscles run low on glycogen, which is the body's limiting fuel source for sustained activity.
June 23, 2006
On Weather c. 1906
From the June 23, 1906 NYT:
AUGUSTA, Ga - A special from Athens says during a hail storm in Clark (sic) and Oconee Counties great damage was done. In some places the hail fell to a level of fourteen inches. Pine trees for miles were stripped of their foliage.
If such a storm happened today - 14 inches!?! - would this be used as more "evidence" of global warming, the variability of the weather, and how humans are to blame?
If all that is needed to "prove" the downside of global warming is weather variablity, then all those folks should come to Texas - as they say here "if you don't like the weather, wait ten minutes."
My biggest problem with the whole debate is that the global warming issue and what to do about it is simply too easy for totalitarians and totalitarians-in-training to hijack.
June 09, 2006
Self Serving Study of the Month
From this BBC story:
Italian researchers say eating pizza could protect against cancer.
I'm sure scientists in South Georgia are busy proving that eating Vidalia onions cure all sorts of cancers.
June 05, 2006
Expert rates a bird flu pandemic unlikely
Gillian Air, influenza virus expert and Professor of Molecular Biology at the University of Oklahoma, writes today in the Oklahoman (registration required) that fears of a bird flu pandemic are overblown. Here are the money quotes:
An avian influenza pandemic might produce good ratings for a made-for-television movie, but in reality the risk to the majority of people is almost nonexistent right now. …The facts do not point to an impending pandemic.
May 19, 2006
Weird Science c. 1906
From the May 19, 1906 NYT:
Prof. Hans Molisch of Prague, according to the London Mail, has been able to read a newspaper by the mircobic glow emanating from a sausage.
Perhaps a cure for our addiction to foreign oil had been discovered 100 years ago (he he he)?
May 11, 2006
Step 1: Create a problem.
President Clinton issued an Executive Order June 12 extending the current moratorium on the leasing of oil drilling sites on the outer continental shelf of the United States to June 30, 2012.
Step 2: "Fix" a problem.
WASHINGTON -- Scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs will be able to vie for a grand prize of $10 million, and smaller prizes reaching millions of dollars, under House-passed legislation to encourage research into hydrogen as an alternative fuel.
[Story.] HT: Dave Reed.
April 04, 2006
The current issue of Nature reports on a study purporting to calculate the value of insects to the U.S. economy. A sampling of their "conclusions":
By far the greatest direct contribution of insects comes from their role as food for birds, game and fish, Losey and Vaughan calculate. Given the overall value to the US economy of the recreation industries of hunting, fishing and birdwatching, and the proportion of species involved that eat insects, these industries would be almost $50 billion worse off each year without them.Grand sum? $57 billion. I say, "That's all?"
On the other hand, some of these same insects invade our homes, picnics, etc., thereby reducing their total value to the economy (unless we count purchases of Off! as enhancing value).
April 01, 2006
Mobile communication technology c. 1906
From the April 1, 1906 NYT (not a joke, as far as I can tell):
Every man his own wireless station with the aid of an umbrella, is the promise made yesterday by an officer of the American De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company...By the pocket wireless apparatus, it is declared, any one man can, with a knowledge of the Morse alphabet, telegraph from any point in New York City to Coney Island and possibly to distances further away, even to ships at sea. This apparatus might be ready in a few weeks, it was asserted.
At the time, this likely sounded wonderful - perhaps like text messaging today? Having to learn a whole new alphabet has kept me out of the text messaging market, and I wonder if the same entry barriers would have existed 100 years ago.
I wonder who was the expected audience for such a contraption? If such a technology was the sole province of the very wealthy, would this have triggered fake portable telegraphs with which the mere mortals could pose (as was the case at one time with cell phones)?
Isn't it amazing how far we have come not only in the past ten years but in the past one hundred.
March 21, 2006
When is a mountain just a mole hill?
In hiking mountains it's not always the highest mountain that is best. Many of the Colorado 14ers are fairly unimpressive peaks simply because they rise only a couple thousand feet from the nearby ridge (or saddle) leading to the next peak.
So mountains end up being defined in terms of something called prominence more than height. There's quite an elaborate science behind determining a mountain's prominence.
Prominence is a term that represents the elevation of a summit relative to the surrounding terrain. It is defined as the elevation of a summit relative to the highest point to which one must descend before reascending to a higher summit.
I've hiked up one, 56 to go.
March 14, 2006
Why we have little to worry about
The static view of the world and the state of technology, which in turn would suggest that the price of oil will forever increase and we will all be riding llamas in a few years, would be funny if it wasn't so prevalent amongst those who are in control of my tax bill.
Many economists claim that we have little to worry about, and while in the short run things might become a little more or less expensive, in the long run I am also confident. Why? There are a lot of advancements and ingenious methods for capturing the wasted energy in the world, from speed bumps that depress (just a little) when a car drives over them, which in turn provides energy that can be stored in batteries or sold back to the grid (more here), to advancements in auto and truck technology that predict fifty-plus miles per gallon within the next twenty years.
One place some folks are looking at is the use of carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes can be molded to any shape/specification and can be made several times stronger than conventional steel quarter panels while weighing a fraction of today's car frame/body. Imagine how little power we will need when the cars we drive are the size of an H2 (if we wish) but weigh the same as a LeCar or old Beetle!
Nevertheless, there are advancements in conventional internal combustion engines, including this 6 stroke engine concept. What are the best aspects of the idea? It is cool, it could work, and it is most decidedly non-government-inspired.
February 04, 2006
C.S.I. c. 1906
In the Feb. 5, 1906 NYT it is reported that Sgt. Joseph A Furot, who had been sent to Europe by NYC police commissoiner McAdoo, had returned from his journey a convert to the finger printing system that had been adopted by Scotland Yard.
Said Mr. Furot:
in his opinion, the finger print system was about as near pefection as was possible, and that there was no limit to its scientific application.
Wouldn't Mr. Furot be surprised with our technological advancements of today.
February 02, 2006
Those poor telegraph operators
The end of the telegraph was announced yesterday. Creative destruction took 145 years to have its ultimate effect on the friendly (and all too often not so friendly) telegram.
Where is the outrage?
January 14, 2006
Thinking big c. 1906
The Jan 14, 1906 NYT provides an overview of a proposed continuous rail link from New York City to Paris. Trans-Atlantic trips were evidently too dangerous or uncomfortable, therefore the proposal was to ride a rail from New York to Alaska, cross the Bering Sea via two 36 mile tunnels (one dug by the U.S. and one dug by Russia), take one of three proposed routes across Siberia, and eventually cross Russia and Eastern Europe and eventually to Paris. From my understanding of rail travel at that time, it is not immediately clear that the rail link would be a more enjoyable trip than the sea-going version.
In one sense, the proposal was really focused on the Bering Strait and the digging of what would have been the two longest tunnels in the world (kind of like the Chunnel ninety years hence), although the trans-Siberia railroad had yet to be completed - the remainder of the rail link would have simply connected existing rails.
While the course of the next ten years would make the rail link an impossibility, the article ended with the following optimistic view of technological advance:
It is dangerous to fix any limitations upon human enterprise. A few years ago we should have laughed at the idea that in 1905 about three hundred British scientists would visit the Victoria Falls of the Zambesi by a railroad extending 1,600 miles from the ocean.
January 03, 2006
Division of Problems
Excerpt, on division of problems in society. The claim is that this reflects on division of labor, in Smith's sense. Interesting. On the other hand, it quotes Chomsky approvingly in the article itself, so how good can it be?
Whitehead realized that many of society's most important problems are multidisciplinary in nature. For example, such problems include preserving the environment, population control, or the allocation of scarce resources. He felt that individuals having the generalist style of education, who had a broad knowledge of the basic concepts of every field, as favored on the European continent, would be better prepared to solve these kinds of problems, rather than the specialist, with all the accompanying communication problems and whose views outside their discipline in any case would be necessarily subjective, and therefore more prone to error. .
However, Whitehead carried his reasoning one step further, and what he said next came as a surprise: he said that in the partitioning process, by default, you have inadvertently created two classes of people, "bright" ones and "dull" ones, to use Fuller's terminology. And since the prime intellects have been culled and guided into the specialties, it is left to the "dull" ones to solve the problems that are multidisciplinary in nature. It "appears" that we have created an educational system that fails to provide the proper training to solve a civilization's most critical problems. Fuller termed this "Whitehead's dilemma."
Fuller expanded upon Whitehead's observation, by giving this particular example. He classified business owners in this second tier of people. While in school, they were not selected to be among the intellectual elite. But they are good people, and they see all these different innovations being made by the scientists, and figure that there is money to be made here. So they are the ones to assemble a team of specialists, scientists and engineers, to build and manufacture something new, such as the automobile. But they notice that automobiles don't run very well over open fields. They need highways to run on. The automobile is just half of the solution to the problem of "high-speed highway transportation." But being specialized in making automobiles, and not knowing much about other fields outside of making automobiles, they find themselves facing the same obstacles as the specialists they employ. They know they need highways for the cars to run on, but they cannot possibly afford to build them. If they had to include the cost of building these highways into their business model, the cost of a car would be astronomical. So how come we ended up with this costly solution?
Fuller said what happened is that the business owners turned to yet a third tier of people, even duller than themselves, for an answer to the highway construction problem! These are the politicians, who know little about science, engineering, truth or costs, but who have the gift of gab, who tell the Populus, if you vote for me, I will have the government build the highways for you! No one in this group of people had even the slightest appreciation of the possible hidden costs in such a decision. It never crossed their mind. And the general public was just as ignorant. But, did you know that even as expensive as highways may be, in the grand scheme of things, it's just a drop in the bucket? Consider the hidden costs of how much we spend militarily to defend our access to oil supplies in the Middle East! Or the hidden costs of health care due to breathing foul air? Or even the loss of beauty of not being able to see a blue sky? Some people don't even know the sky is supposed to be mostly blue, and that red sunsets are something ominous. You have to read the accounts of early explorers to know what sunsets were like a hundred years ago.
December 28, 2005
Noise pollution c. 1905
From the Dec. 28, 1905 NYT is a story about Francis Hamilton, then solicitor to the Collector of the Port (of New York), who intended to prosecute boat captains for "unnecessary" whistle blowing. The statute enforced was U.S. Revised Statutes section 4.450 which provided for punishment of steamboat Captains for "misbehavior, negligence, or unskillfulness."
The basic idea was that the noise associated with the shipping traffic along the waterfronts of NYC was too great and was causing heath problems and even death amongst the citizens of NYC. Similar to today's "new study," the whistles-cause-death hypothesis had support:
From a health viewpoint, Dr. John H. Girdner, who has made a special study of the effects of noises on the brain and the general condition of the human anatomy, testified that he believed that death has frequently resulted from the terrific wear and tear on the brain and the nerves by noises [emphasis added].I'll grant that loud, sudden noises are not the best things for hospital patients, but manhole covers cause death? It seems that the noise-causes-death hypothesis rests on unsustained "studies," but was there a more practical reason for cutting down the amount of whistle blowing?
"Has the increase in the night noises from the river front hurt property on the upper west side?" he [George Carrol, a real estate man] was asked by Mr. Hamilton.This makes sense - a compensating differential must be paid to the tenant for bearing the costs of noise, much like property values are lower near airports.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm sure that the noise of the big city is annoying, but this is why I don't live in a big city. I would have thought there are a number of different compensating differentials that accompany living with noise, beyond the obvious issue of lower rent. Are there higher wages, more "culture," and other quality of life issues such as the ability to get Chinese takeout at 4am? Nevertheless, the concern about noise affecting quality of life and health has not completely disappeared.
The EU has introduced noise abatement regulations for member-country cities, with fines on the way, especially for those pesky bagpipes.
The last Wednesday in April is International Noise Awareness Day, although this seems focused on hearing loss/damage rather than death.
While there are plenty of ways to reduce noise and maintain economic activity, I wonder if the anti-noise activists understand this? What grabbed me when reading the 1905 story was how, in many cases, the activists of the twenty-first century are not as sophisticated/progressive/avante garde as they first appear.
A picture of the new Honda Gold Wing - beyond the airbag, the bike has foot warmers, nav system, and an 80 watt sound system. Given some of the video clips of motorcylce wrecks rolling around the net, it is not clear that the airbag will help much.
If it wasn't Honda, I would have thought it a joke.
The next Y2k+ bug
Coming back from an enjoyable week unplugged has one downside - having to wade through an overflowing email box. This little nugget was sent my way - which might make it old news/new news to some.
The next big concern amongst the computer jocks is the Y2k+38 bug (that's 2038) where C+ programs will possibly crash. This is just a bit earlier than the Y2k bug was advertised, which makes me suspect.
The Y2k bug was either a grand example of markets correcting a potential calamity before it happened or a grand example of over-hype. I tend to go with the latter, but I am willing to be persuaded.
December 19, 2005
But Apple is so much better!!
So goes the Apple vs. PC Clone debate which seems to be maintained mainly by Apple fans. I played with Apple's in middle school, but my first machine was a Tandy Model 4, and eventually an IBM XT. By the time I left high school to go to UGA in 1987, I had a new Northgate (now Gateway?) machine with a monochrome (amber) monitor and a 10MB hard drive.
The market spoke and Apple and the other competitors at the time lost (at least the first few rounds). This article gives a nice history of the PC, and includes this interesting graph:
HT: J-Walk blog
November 16, 2005
Evidence for unintelligent design
Exercise: try to square the notion of "intelligent design" with the maladaptation of the modern kidney:
"The kidneys do an incredible job of holding on to sodium, which was important to the survival of our early ancestors who lived in a salt-poor world, but today there's so much salt in the food we eat that the kidneys end up holding onto too much sodium," and that can lead to high blood pressure, researcher Dr. Howard Pratt said in a prepared statement.
November 02, 2005
More on the risks of running
Among the more serious reasons to not run a marathon cited by economist Art De Vany was the possible elevated risk of cancer.
Marathon running elevates markers of cancer. S100beta is one of these markers. Tumor necrosis factor, TNF-alpha, is another.
A recent article in Runner's World summarizes the research.
In late 2002, the Journal of Nutrition published a review of 170 epidemiological studies on the relationship between physical activity and cancer. Here is some of what the researchers found. Colon cancer: Forty-three of 51 studies produced positive results (more exercise was associated with fewer cancers), with an average risk reduction of 40 to 70 percent. Breast cancer: Thirty-two of 44 studies produced positive results, with an average risk reduction of 30 to 40 percent. Prostate cancer: Fifteen of 30 studies produced a positive result, with an average risk reduction of 10 to 30 percent, particularly of the most aggressive forms. Endometrial cancer: Nine of 13 studies produced positive results, with an average risk reduction of 30 to 40 percent. Lung cancer: Eight of 11 studies produced positive results with an average risk reduction of 30 to 40 percent.
While I admit to not being a huge fan of these so-called meta-analysis studies that lump disparate studies (with different samples, methodologies and varying degrees of quality) together, this looks like running isn't so bad. And the evidence on total mortality is very clear according the the article.
Epidemiologist Steven Blair, the president and CEO of the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas, is one of the world-leading experts on exercise and longevity. While he notes that the book is still open on cancer rates among serious exercisers, he says, "In our most relevant work on this topic, we do not see any higher cancer risk in the most fit or most highly active individuals. In fact, the highest activity or fitness groups consistently had the lowest mortality rates."
UPDATE: Trent McBride, M.D. has a very nice post about this over at catallarchy.net. ATSRTWT
October 22, 2005
Work and Live Longer?
A new study claims that people who retire early do not live as long as those who work longer. The study claims to have controlled for the obvious selection bias in that people often retire early for health reasons. As they say, more research is needed. [Media link.]
UPDATE: Here's a better link covering the study.
October 20, 2005
Ordinal vs. Cardinal scales
This article at Live Science (HT: Drudge) discusses whether there is a need for a Category 6 on the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricanes. Other than another bin in which to sort storms, I don't see why we need another category. Beyond the scientific interest in wind speeds, barometric pressures, etc. (which the scientists already have access to), what purpose would the higher category serve for the general public? If folks don't get out of the way of a Cat 5 storm, will a Cat 6 do the trick? If folks use the scale to measure how far the storm will move inland, perhaps there needs to be a different scale, not just an extension of the current scale.
The categorization system was designed to convey to the public, and ostensibly public officials if they choose to dial in, expected storm intensity at landfall (and resultant damage). Therefore, once the wind/storm surge reaches the intensity of "absolute destruction/death" what point to say the storm is more intense? A Category 5 will destroy your house in thirty seconds but a Category 6 will destroy your house in twenty seconds?
Indeed, Simpson himself justified the scale in much the same way - the damage from 190 mph wind will look the same as the damage from 165 mph wind:
First, it was designed to measure the amount of damage inflicted by a hurricane's winds, and beyond 156 mph, the damage begins to look about the same, according to Simpson.
If we did include the sixth category, however, it would be easier to "rationalize" how bad storms are today relative to last century (along with subsequent flogging of Republicans and SUVs). After all there were no Category 6 storms back then...
Read More »
As an aside, I wonder how often writers intentionally include "misleading" statements versus common/simple mistakes. Take, for instance, this statement from the original article:
And hurricanes are getting stronger, apparently fueled by global warming.
If you follow the link associated with the words "getting stronger" in the statement above, you find this story with the following statement:
"We're not saying that global warming is causing there to be more intense hurricanes," study author Peter Webster of Georgia Tech told LiveScience. "What we're saying is that sea surface temperatures are rising, and the intensity of hurricanes is associated with that. The warmer the sea surface temperature, the more intense the hurricanes."
Hmmm. Am I missing something?
« Close It
October 16, 2005
Top Ten Reasons Not to Run Marathons
Aside from the obvious reason not to run a marathon (it hurts!), economist Art De Vany goes through the not-so-pleasant medical research.
My take: Some of this I knew about and some I didn't. Much of it is transitory in nature and not likely to cause long term problems. Much of it is manageable if you know the contributory risk factors (such as not overusing NSAIDS like Advil). And much of it is not settled science. Still, there's no doubt long distance running carries risks.
August 17, 2005
First evolution, next intelligent design, and now this....
The world was created by the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
August 15, 2005
Autism and types of mind
Arnold Kling over at EconLog caught my eye with an entry yesterday entitled “Economics and Autism” because (1) I’m an economist and (2) I have two sons with autism. Kling links to a recent op-ed piece by Simon Baron-Cohen on findings about the relationships among autism, male-female differences, and genetics.
Baron-Cohen reports on questionnaire research that has found a higher percentage of men than women to fit an approach-to-the-world type he calls “systematizers” (54% vs. 17%). Men are correspondingly less often “empathisizers” (17% vs. 44%). Autism, he proposes, is symptomatic of an extreme systematizer-type brain with “an unusually low drive to empathize”.
I have no doubt that this captures something true and important about high-functioning individuals with Asperger syndrome (a relatively mild version of autism that shades into socially awkward nerdiness), and particularly those who have the “splinter skills” that are typically systematizing (e.g. Rain Man’s mathematical skills) rather than empathetic. I am doubtful that it explains much of importance about individuals at the other end of the spectrum, e.g. those who never learn to talk. It doesn’t seem to explain the association of autism with developmental disability.
Of course, my authority to speak about autism is no greater than Baron-Cohen’s to speak about economics supposing he had been trying for years to understand his economist son.
The part of Baron-Cohen’s findings that really surprised me, though, was that “autism is the genetic result of ‘assortative mating’ between parents who are both strong systemizers.” That is, his research finds that not only are fathers of autistic children more likely than others to think like engineers, but so are their mothers. I'm not surprised at the idea that autism has a genetic component, or that engineering-type careers are correlated with carrying the gene (we all know the engineer stereotype), but at the finding that mothers of autistic children have more "engineer-like" minds than other mothers. I wouldn't have made that generalization from the support-group mothers I knew in Athens, GA. They were highly empathetic -- but that's what the support group was for, so maybe it was a matter of self-selection? -- and not observably "systematizer" types.
Simon Baron-Cohen is, by the way, a cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen, the comedian known for playing the clueless fictional reporter Ali G.
August 01, 2005
Worrisome google maps hack #2
This one displays the blast radius of user-defined and user-placed nuclear bombs. I would wage this hack will be forced down pretty quick.
It is an interesting exercise seeing as the Federal, state, and local governments have done absolutely nothing to prepare us for a major terrorist event. I have it on good authority by the folks I know who work in local governments that there are plans in place, however they can't share them with us. My comment was that the plans likely require us (the citizenry) to cooperate instead of going apesh*t.
I went to elementary school after the "duck and cover" days and we didn't talk about nuclear strikes - I suppose the assumption was that the city-killers the Russians were going to throw at us wouldn't leave too much behind.
It is unlikely that Al Qaeda or someone else would be able to get ahold of a 10,000 kiloton nuke - which is what seems to be required to get a fifteen mile blast radius of reasonable destruction (about the distance from Arlington to Fort Worth) but not enough to destroy the entire Metroplex. Things, of course, are much different in the concentrated cities.
If there is no threat, then a lack of civil defense preparation is probably okay. If there is a threat, isn't there a need for civil defense preparation? Perhaps hacks such as this one will motivate someone?
July 27, 2005
Another Google Map App
Find cell phone towers in your neighborhood.
July 22, 2005
Sponsor a mile of a 1,800 mile round trip hike to the South Pole and back.
Can the sponsors be held liable if the hikers perish? Nevertheless, I wish them (the hikers) luck.
July 12, 2005
Good news for curry consumers
Researchers at the University of Texas have found that an ingredient in turmeric and curry powder (specifically, the yellow spice curcumin) acts to reduce the growth of melanoma (skin cancer) tumors.
This is the kind of lab finding that obviously cries out for an epidemiological cross-check. People with diets rich in curry have reportedly already been found to have reduced rates of colon cancer. How much reduced? What about reduced skin cancer? Other cancers?
July 08, 2005
New mass-spectroscopy method detects drug traces on currency
According to Innovations Report:
Research published in this month’s edition of the journal Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, describes a method that can detect a pattern of contamination on banknotes from drug related crime that is different from the pattern seen in general circulation.
Next time I see a drug deal in the movies or on TV, I’ll expect to see the drugs sealed in one plastic bag, and the currency sealed in another. Or maybe this is just the thing needed to jump-start the Mondex card that allows peer-to-peer electronic cash payments.
June 28, 2005
June 15, 2005
More on Medical Statistics
Earlier today I posted on a recent medical study that showed a 35% increase in colon cancer resulting from eating red meat daily. I criticized this because a 35% increase of a very small number is -- well -- a very small number. If I have my numbers right (and I would be very pleased to know if I'm off base here), this 35% increased risk is on the order of 0.1 percentage point. That is, 1 person out of 1000 who eats a lot of red meat daily is likely to get colon cancer compared to people who eat red meat only rarely. To be sure 1 person out of a 1000 is not zero, but it isn't a particularly big number either.
The study also found that (1) eating a lot of red meat and (2) not eating a lot of fish would combine to increase your colon cancer risk by 63%--something on the order of 0.2 percentage points or 2 persons out of 1000 (again if I have my math right).
But get this quote...Professor Tim Key, Deputy Director of Cancer Research UK's epidemiology unit, said: "We estimate that more than two thirds of colorectal cancer cases - 25,000 cases in the UK - could be avoided by changes in lifestyle in Western countries."
I can not see how this conclusion can be drawn. I read the study to say that at most 2 out of 1000 people would not get colon cancer if they switched away from eating red meat and into eating more fish. He is saying that 67 out of a 100 cases could be eliminated. To be sure, he may have been talking about the improvements from combining all lifestyle factors including obesity, lack of exercise, smoking, etc. But his number is 335 times greater than mine! This is too big a discrepency.
Either I am reading these studies all wrong or these guys need to go back to grade school for remedial mathematics.
Where's the Ooomph?
Maybe I should create a "Where's the Ooomph?" category for all these medical studies showing the most trivial results. Yet another case in point:
Study confirms red meat link with bowel cancer People who eat more than 160 grams of red or processed meat a day are 35 percent more likely to develop bowel cancer than those who eat less than 20 grams a day, according to one of the biggest nutrition investigations ever carried out. [Story.]
Ok. 35 percent more likely than what?
The study in question found 0.278% of the sample developed bowel cancer. If we take this figure as the baseline, we find that a 35% increase comes to a risk of 0.375% for those who eat a lot of read meat.
Big freakin' deal!
I wonder if anyone would bother to read this stuff if the headline read, Study finds eating a lot of red meat increases your odds of getting cancer by 0.1 percentage points.
June 09, 2005
Hurricane Season is Here
"Researchers' methods may be complex and rigorous, but their results over the past six years -- at least for the total number of hurricanes -- haven't been much better than an educated guess. To evaluate the forecasts, I measured the average error for each one -- the difference each year between predicted hurricanes and the actual number. (Thanks to Iowa State statistics professor Philip Dixon and National Center for Atmospheric Research scientist Barbara Brown for advising me on this evaluation, and reader Paul Haskins for suggesting it.) I looked at forecasts made in May or earlier, before the start of hurricane season -- some researchers continue to update their predictions later in the year. It turns out that all four forecasts have missed by between 1.3 and 1.5 hurricanes each year. But a more simplistic method, a five-year moving average of hurricane counts, does just as well, missing by an average of 1.4 hurricanes each year. (To arrive at a five-year moving average, you simply add the counts for the previous five years and divide by five. For instance, to get a prediction for the number of hurricanes in 2000, I averaged the actual counts from 1995 through 1999. For 2001, I used counts from 1996 through 2000. I did this for each of the six years I evaluated.)"
Maybe people will lighten up on economic forecasting.
June 07, 2005
These have been making the rounds, so here are the links.
Rapid color changer [not safe for epileptics (not a shot, I just don't know)?]
June 02, 2005
The future of on-line mapping
Google maps and its satellite imagery is amazing. What's left to do?
The future might be 3-D rendering in Google Earth? Eventually rendered in real-time?
Forget about the government as big brother, perhaps we need to worry more about Google and Microsoft?
May 31, 2005
This Will Be Published?
Via FoxNews we learn:
"A study of 85 infant boys found a correlation between increased exposure to some forms of the chemical phthalate and smaller penis size and incomplete testicular descent.
A paper describing the research will appear in a future issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences."
A sample of 85--this reeks of junk science and we haven't even examined how the researchers measured "increased exposure."
May 04, 2005
Global warming panic a result of publication bias?
Perhaps. Would it be surprising that evidence against global warming, or against humans causing global warming, can't make it into the bigger science journals?
May 03, 2005
The future of war?
Might it be less noisy? From Defense Review comes information on the DREAD - a new type of small arms "gun" that doesn't use gunpowder for propulsion but uses centrifugal force. The upshot: the DREAD is hyped as being quiet, delivering up to 120,000 .308 caliber rounds per minute, and it is "safe."
The weapon is advertised as offering stealth technolgoy" because it doesn't leave a heat signature, there is no noise, no muzzle flash, and therefore it is difficult to detect. This sounds a little too good to be true. Didn't Isaac Newton prove that for every action there is a reaction and thus if a projectile will be sent out at 4000-8000 feet per second there will have to be recoil somewhere. Perhaps it is possible to try to corral the recoil and use it (as in automatic and semi-automatic weapons) but it would seem that physics would ultimately get in the way.
Here is a Quicktime promotional movie (warning: 18MB)
Is there any irony in the movie suggesting that the DREAD is "safer" than conventional arms - ostensibly for the guy pulling the trigger - because there is no gunpowder, toxic fumes, etc.
May 02, 2005
I really like it when little bit (9 years old) rides in the front seat with me in the car. It seems like we have our best conversations in the car like this. When she sits in the back seat, the dynamic is changed for some reason and it doesn't work the same.
Of course I know riding in the front seat is more dangerous than the back seat. For the record, I usually let her sit in the front only in the old Benz (sans airbag) as opposed to the new Subaru (with airbag). And she always wears her seat belt no matter which car.
Am I a bad parent to let her sit in front?
New study alert: Back Seat Safest For Children, Study Confirms
It looks like the raw odds of a child dying in a car accident are about 0.48% (1800 child deaths out of 370,000 accidents in which children were present). If the child is wearing a selt belt, then the odds are cut by "more than half" to about 0.24%.
According to the study, the odds of surviving increase by 40% if you're in the back versus the front seat taking the odds (conditional on wearing a seat belt) from 0.24% to about 0.34%.
My bottom line: This tiny increase in safety is worth sacrificing for the quality time with little bit. She can ride in front all she wants.
April 29, 2005
Obesity and Dementia
Middle-Age Obesity Linked to Dementia in Later Life [Story.]
Ok, how obese to you have to be and how much more likely are you to get dementia? Surprisingly, the article cited above actually gives us most of the needed facts:
Investigators analyzed data for 10,276 members of Kaiser Permanente medical care program in California who underwent detailed health checks from 1964 to 1973 when they were aged 40-45 and who were still members of the health plan in 1994.
In 1994, dementia was diagnosed in 713 (7 percent) participants. [RL: Hurray! They give us something like a baseline risk here.] Obese people (body mass index 30 or above) were 74 percent more likely to have dementia, while overweight people (body mass index 25-29.9) were 35 percent more likely to have dementia compared with those of normal weight (body mass index 18.6-24.9). [RL: Roughly speaking this seems to mean that someone with normal weight is about 5% likely to get dementia and an obese person is about 9% likely to get it. (UPDATE: My calculations are wrong here but you get the idea.) Is this increase big or small? I dunno.]
Body mass index predicted dementia more strongly among women. For example, obese women were 200 percent more likely to have dementia than women of normal weight, while obese men had a non-significant 30 percent increase in risk. [RL: At least they didn't disregard the 30 percent figure just because it was "non-significant" in a statistical sense.]
Both men and women with the highest skin-fold measurements had a 60-70 percent greater risk of dementia compared to those with the lowest measurements.
The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it. -Adam Smith
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