April 2011 Archives

A (strangely) comforting perspective on Fukushima

If you, like me, are no fan of nuclear radiation, then you might find some (perverse) comfort in the perspective provided in this article:

In human history, there have been more than 2,000 nuclear weapon detonations. About 500 of those detonations have been in the atmosphere. Those hundreds of nuclear detonations have caused radioactive fallout all over the world. If we looked close enough, we will find radioactive plutonium, cesium, and strontium in the soil of Hawaii and even in the snows of Antarctica.

Those hundreds of nuclear explosions released many times more radiation than could ever leave Fukushima. Also, no civilian nuclear reactor can explode like an atomic bomb. The nuclear fuel is not concentrated enough….

There is little danger to our food supply. Radioactivity from the 2,000-plus nuclear blasts is still found in our food. Any current danger that could exist would be localized to food produced around Fukushima. Any radiation entering the ocean is quickly dissipated. Any dangerous areas would be from ocean products produced close to Fukushima.

Unfortunately, my next post will suggest humanity’s past experiments releasing nuclear radioactivity into our atmosphere should provide not comfort but reasons to expect Fukushima to cause measurably higher cancer rates in coming decades.

Posted by James on Apr 13, 2011

EU estimated 61,600,000 cancer deaths worldwide from nuclear test fallout

My previous post presented the argument that “We’ve been exposed to TONS of radioactive nuclear material already, so what’s a bit more?”

It’s compelling, until you consider the immense damage done by that radioactive nuclear fallout.

The European Union researched this and concluded in 2003:

“The ECRR model predicts 61,600,000 deaths from cancer, 1,600,000 infant deaths and 1,900,000 foetal deaths. In addition, the ECRR predict a 10% loss of life quality integrated over all diseases and conditions in those who were exposed over the period of global weapons fallout.”

Wow! 61.6 million unnatural deaths from radioactive fallout-induced cancer.

There is even direct physical evidence that U.S. taxpayer-funded nuclear tests (mostly in the Pacific) killed Americans:

Washington University officials stumbled upon 85,000 teeth not used in the study in a remote storage area. The school donated the teeth to the Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP), a research group conducting its own study of Sr-90 in baby teeth, near U.S. nuclear reactors. Each tooth is enclosed in a small envelope attached to a card identifying the tooth donor.

RPHP scientists recognized that these teeth could help answer the long-awaited question of fallout’s harm to the health of Americans. The tooth donors, now in their 40s and 50s, could be tracked at current addresses or through death records. And Sr-90 could still be measured in each tooth, as the chemical decays very slowly.

Earlier this month, the first results of the RPHP health study were released in an article in the International Journal of Health Services. Baby teeth of St. Louis baby boomers who died of cancer by age 50 had more than double — 122 percent more — the Sr-90 concentration than did Boomers who are alive and healthy.

The implications are obvious. Fukushima has (so far) released only a fraction of the radioactive material that humanity intentionally released through repeated nuclear weapons testing. Unfortunately, however, every “little” bit means more future cancer deaths. Beyond the hundreds of thousands living near Fukushima who will eventually develop cancer from their exposure, perhaps 100,000 more, many in America, will eventually die from cancer caused by Fukushima. None of the victims will be able to directly trace their death back to this nuclear disaster, but, statistically, we can expect something on the order of 100,000 deaths, if 500 atmospheric nuclear tests killed 61.6 million people.

Posted by James on Apr 13, 2011

Europe, with 1/10th our exposure, is warning its citizens

The Fukushima nuclear disaster has — and continues to — expose America to ten times as much radioactivity as Europe. But now Europe is warning its citizens about the health danger. Why has American government remained silent on the danger and how to mitigate exposure to cancer-causing radioactivity? Do we value corporate profits over human health?

Europeans are being warned against “risky behaviors,” like drinking milk and eating vegetables:

The risks associated with iodine-131 contamination in Europe are no longer “negligible,” according to CRIIRAD, a French research body on radioactivity. The NGO is advising pregnant women and infants against “risky behaviour,” such as consuming fresh milk or vegetables with large leaves….

CRIIRAD, a French research body on radioactivity, an NGO, said it had detected radioactive iodine-131 in rainwater in south-eastern France.

In parallel testing, the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), the national public institution monitoring nuclear and radiological risks, found iodine 131 in milk.

In normal times, no trace of iodine-131 should be detectable in rainwater or milk.

…Data for the west coast of the United States, which received the Fukushima radioactive fallout 6-10 days before France, reveals that levels of radioactive iodine-131 concentration are 8-10 times higher there, the institute says.

My kids, who have avoided vegetables for a long time, will probably welcome this news. But I find it scary that our government is mute on this issue, which could possibly give thousands (millions?) of Americans cancer.

Posted by James on Apr 12, 2011

Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler

I had never heard of Gen. Benjamin Franlin Butler till reading “How Slavery Really Ended in America”. I’m inspired by the ingenuity and courage he exhibited just weeks into his military career (he had previously been a successful lawyer), after three slaves turned up at his fort seeking asylum:

[T]he laws of the United States were clear: all fugitive [slaves] must be returned to their masters. The founding fathers enshrined this in the Constitution; Congress reinforced it in 1850 with the Fugitive Slave Act; and it was still the law of the land — including, as far as the federal government was concerned, within the so-called Confederate states. The war had done nothing to change it. Most important, noninterference with slavery was the very cornerstone of the Union’s war policy. President Abraham Lincoln had begun his inaugural address by making this clear, pointedly and repeatedly. “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists,” the president said. “I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” …

“I am informed,” [Confederate Army Maj. John Baytop Cary] said, “that three Negroes belonging to Colonel Mallory have escaped within your lines. I am Colonel Mallory’s agent and have charge of his property. What do you mean to do with those Negroes?”

“I intend to hold them,” [Federal/Union General] Butler said.

“Do you mean, then, to set aside your constitutional obligation to return them?”

Even the dour Butler must have found it hard to suppress a smile. This was, of course, a question he had expected. And he had prepared what he thought was a fairly clever answer.

“I mean to take Virginia at her word,” he said. “I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be.”

“But you say we cannot secede,” Cary retorted, “and so you cannot consistently detain the Negroes.”

“But you say you have seceded,” Butler said, “so you cannot consistently claim them. I shall hold these Negroes as contraband of war, since they are engaged in the construction of your battery and are claimed as your property.”

Ever the diligent litigator, Butler had been reading up on his military law. In time of war, he knew, a commander had a right to seize any enemy property that was being used for hostile purposes. The three fugitive slaves, before their escape, were helping build a Confederate gun emplacement. Very well, then — if the Southerners insisted on treating blacks as property, this Yankee lawyer would treat them as property, too. Legally speaking, he had as much justification to confiscate Baker, Mallory and Townsend as to intercept a shipment of muskets or swords.

[Two days later], eight more fugitives turned up at Union lines outside the fort. On Monday, there were 47 — and not just young men now, but women, old people, entire families. There was a mother with a 3-month-old infant in her arms. There was an aged slave who had been born in the year of America’s independence.

[Another two days later], a Massachusetts soldier would write home: “Slaves are brought in here hourly.”

Posted by James on Apr 03, 2011

Krugman: "difficult to get a man to understand [climate] when his salary depends on not understanding"

Krugman hits another home run: “An economist, a lawyer and a professor of marketing walk into a room. What’s the punch line? They were three of the five “expert witnesses” Republicans called for last week’s Congressional hearing on climate science.”

But the blockbuster came from one of the two climate scientists House Republicans had invited to testify. One of the (handful of) climate scientists skeptical of global warming testified to Congress that his right-wing-funded research found the same global warming other scientists have repeatedly found. Reality-deniers predictably flipped on their moments-ago hero:

Just a few weeks ago Anthony Watts, who runs a prominent climate denialist Web site, praised the Berkeley project and piously declared himself “prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.” But never mind: once he knew that Professor Muller was going to present those preliminary results, Mr. Watts dismissed the hearing as “post normal science political theater.” And one of the regular contributors on his site dismissed Professor Muller as “a man driven by a very serious agenda.”

But Krugman’s not gloating because “I was wrong when I said that the joke was on the G.O.P.; actually, the joke is on the human race”:

For years now, large numbers of prominent scientists have been warning, with increasing urgency, that if we continue with business as usual, the results will be very bad, perhaps catastrophic. They could be wrong. But if you’re going to assert that they are in fact wrong, you have a moral responsibility to approach the topic with high seriousness and an open mind. After all, if the scientists are right, you’ll be doing a great deal of damage.

But what we had, instead of high seriousness, was a farce: a supposedly crucial hearing stacked with people who had no business being there and instant ostracism for a climate skeptic who was actually willing to change his mind in the face of evidence. As I said, no surprise: as Upton Sinclair pointed out long ago, it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

Posted by James on Apr 04, 2011

"People who sit too much shave a few years off of their lives," so stand up!

For the past half year — since reading articles showing a scary relationship between time spent sitting and death rates (after controlling for many factors, including body mass and time spent exercising) — I’ve mostly worked standing up. I wish I had a fancy desk that could easily move up and down. But I’ve found that placing a 56-quart plastic container underneath my laptop provides an adequate surface for my computer and mouse and is about the right height for a standing desk. (Use an empty container so that when you want to take a break, you can pull out the container and sit.)

A new New York Times article describes new scientific research findings demonstrating that sitting down a lot is very bad for our health:

In studies of rats who were forced to be inactive, for example, he discovered that the leg muscles responsible for standing almost immediately lost more than 75 percent of their ability to remove harmful lipo-proteins from the blood. To show that the ill effects of sitting could have a rapid onset in humans too, Hamilton recruited 14 young, fit and thin volunteers and recorded a 40 percent reduction in insulin’s ability to uptake glucose in the subjects — after 24 hours of being sedentary.

Over a lifetime, the unhealthful effects of sitting add up. Alpa Patel, an epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society, tracked the health of 123,000 Americans between 1992 and 2006. The men in the study who spent six hours or more per day of their leisure time sitting had an overall death rate that was about 20 percent higher than the men who sat for three hours or less. The death rate for women who sat for more than six hours a day was about 40 percent higher. Patel estimates that on average, people who sit too much shave a few years off of their lives.

Another study, published last year in the journal Circulation, looked at nearly 9,000 Australians and found that for each additional hour of television a person sat and watched per day, the risk of dying rose by 11 percent. The study author David Dunstan wanted to analyze whether the people who sat watching television had other unhealthful habits that caused them to die sooner. But after crunching the numbers, he reported that “age, sex, education, smoking, hypertension, waist circumference, body-mass index, glucose tolerance status and leisure-time exercise did not significantly modify the associations between television viewing and all-cause … mortality.”

Sitting, it would seem, is an independent pathology. Being sedentary for nine hours a day at the office is bad for your health whether you go home and watch television afterward or hit the gym. It is bad whether you are morbidly obese or marathon-runner thin. “Excessive sitting,” Dr. Levine says, “is a lethal activity.”

So, stand up! Running, walking, cycling, and swimming are all wonderful for your body. But don’t spend the rest of your day and evening sitting at work and sitting in front of a computer or television screen because science has now shown that this is very bad for your body. Try working while standing up, at least a little every day. I’ve grown to love it.

Posted by James on Apr 15, 2011

Scott Adams on "How to Get a Real Education"

Dilbert creator Scott Adams wrote a wickedly funny and seriously informative Wall Street Journal article. A few useful tips:

  • It’s unlikely that any average student can develop a world-class skill in one particular area. But it’s easy to learn how to do several different things fairly well. I succeeded as a cartoonist with negligible art talent, some basic writing skills, an ordinary sense of humor and a bit of experience in the business world. The “Dilbert” comic is a combination of all four skills. The world has plenty of better artists, smarter writers, funnier humorists and more experienced business people. The rare part is that each of those modest skills is collected in one person. That’s how value is created.

  • If you’re taking risks, and you probably should, you can find yourself failing 90% of the time. The trick is to get paid while you’re doing the failing and to use the experience to gain skills that will be useful later.

  • To succeed, first you must do something. And if that doesn’t work, which can be 90% of the time, do something else. Luck finds the doers. Readers of the [Wall Street] Journal will find this point obvious. It’s not obvious to a teenager.

Posted by James on Apr 10, 2011

The Fed: "Giving already stinking rich people gobs of money for no fucking reason at all"

Because most U.S. federal government spending goes to defense, Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid, Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein calls our government “an insurance company with an army.”

Our “insurance company” is running giant deficits. The obvious solution: raise taxes on the richest 1% of Americans — who have soaked up virtually all income gains over recent decades. Instead, Washington has given them massive tax cuts and is now focused on spending cuts. So far, the Tea Party has focused on the tiny percentage of government spending that constitutes most of what we think of as government — like foreign aid, the EPA, and national parks — but only a sliver of spending.

This is insanity because Congress writes laws that routinely let massive, hugely profitable firms — like GE — get off without paying any tax whatsoever. And, as this jaw-dropping Rolling Stone article explains, the Fed has literally been shoveling TRILLIONS of dollars at the richest of the rich and the least deserving Americans and non-Americans. The Fed handed out TENS OF TRILLIONS of dollars during the financial crisis. One relatively puny Fed loan, of $220 million, went to a firm established specifically to grab bailout money “by the wife of John Mack, the chairman of Morgan Stanley, [and] the widow of Peter Karches, a close friend of the Macks who served as president of Morgan Stanley’s investment-banking division.”

A few other revelations from this must-read article:

  • It is as though someone sat down and made a list of every individual on earth who actually did not need emergency financial assistance from the United States government, and then handed them the keys to the public treasure. The Fed sent billions in bailout aid to banks in places like Mexico, Bahrain and Bavaria, billions more to a spate of Japanese car companies, more than $2 trillion in loans each to Citigroup and Morgan Stanley, and billions more to a string of lesser millionaires and billionaires with Cayman Islands addresses.

  • During the financial crisis, the Fed routinely made billions of dollars in “emergency” loans to big banks at near-zero interest. Many of the banks then turned around and used the money to buy Treasury bonds at higher interest rates — essentially loaning the money back to the government at an inflated rate. “People talk about how these were loans that were paid back,” says a congressional aide who has studied the transactions. “But when the state is lending money at zero percent and the banks are turning around and lending that money back to the state at three percent, how is that different from just handing rich people money?” Those kinds of deals were the essence of the bailout — and the vast mountains of near-zero government cash turned companies facing bankruptcy into monstrous profit machines. In 2008 and 2009, while Christy Mack was busy getting her little TALF loans for $220 million, her husband’s bank hauled in $2 trillion in emergency Fed loans. During the same period, Goldman borrowed nearly $800 billion. Shortly afterward, the two banks reported a combined annual profit of $14.5 billion.

  • Muammar Qaddafi received more than 70 loans from the Federal Reserve

  • hundreds of millions of Fed dollars were given out to hedge funds and other investors with addresses in the Cayman Islands. Many of those addresses belong to companies with American affiliations — including prominent Wall Street names like Pimco, Blackstone and … Christy Mack. Yes, even Waterfall TALF Opportunity is an offshore company. It’s one thing for the federal government to look the other way when Wall Street hotshots evade U.S. taxes by registering their investment companies in the Cayman Islands. But subsidizing tax evasion? Giving it a federal bailout?

Posted by James on Apr 13, 2011

The Montessori Mafia: Why we should teach kids to explore, not regurgitate

I prefer IB (International Baccalaureate) to AP (Advanced Placement) because IB stresses principles and analytical thinking over memorizing facts. (AP has heard the critics and is becoming more IB-like.) I’m an even bigger fan of exploration over lecturing at the preschool and elementary levels. Maria Montessori got it right when she emphasized enabling young students to explore.

Here’s an excerpt from a wonderful article showing quite a few pioneering innovators who were inspired as young people to discover the world on their own terms:

“A number of the innovative entrepreneurs also went to Montessori schools, where they learned to follow their curiosity,” Mr. Gregersen said. “To paraphrase the famous Apple ad campaign, innovators not only learned early on to think different, they act different (and even talk different).”

When Barbara Walters, who interviewed Google founders Messrs. Page and Brin in 2004, asked if having parents who were college professors was a major factor behind their success, they instead credited their early Montessori education. “We both went to Montessori school,” Mr. Page said, “and I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, and being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, doing things a little bit differently.”

Will Wright, inventor of bestselling “The Sims” videogame series, heaps similar praise. “Montessori taught me the joy of discovery,” Mr. Wright said, “It’s all about learning on your terms, rather than a teacher explaining stuff to you. SimCity comes right out of Montessori…”

Meanwhile, according to Jeff Bezos’s mother, young Jeff would get so engrossed in his activities as a Montessori preschooler that his teachers would literally have to pick him up out of his chair to go to the next task. “I’ve always felt that there’s a certain kind of important pioneering that goes on from an inventor like Thomas Edison,” Mr. Bezos has said, and that discovery mentality is precisely the environment that Montessori seeks to create.

Neuroscience author Jonah Lehrer cites a 2006 study published in Science that compared the educational achievement performance of low-income Milwaukee children who attended Montessori schools versus children who attended a variety of other preschools, as determined by a lottery.

By the end of kindergarten, among 5-year-olds, “Montessori students proved to be significantly better prepared for elementary school in reading and math skills than the non-Montessori children,” according to the researchers. “They also tested better on “executive function,” the ability to adapt to changing and more complex problems, an indicator of future school and life success.”

Posted by James on Apr 10, 2011

To lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, cut your sugar consumption

My waistline is bigger than I’d like, but I hadn’t worried much about it until reading this article, which makes a pretty convincing case that cutting out simple sugars (sucrose, fructose, and high-fructose corn syrup) and sticking to plain old glucose (from complex carbohydrates, like rice and whole-grain bread) will dramatically reduce your risk of developing obesity, diabetes, heart disease, or cancer.

[S]ome researchers will make the case, as Cantley and Thompson do, that if something other than just being fatter is causing insulin resistance to begin with, that’s quite likely the dietary cause of many cancers. If it’s sugar that causes insulin resistance, they say, then the conclusion is hard to avoid that sugar causes cancer — some cancers, at least — radical as this may seem and despite the fact that this suggestion has rarely if ever been voiced before publicly. For just this reason, neither of these men will eat sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, if they can avoid it.

“I have eliminated refined sugar from my diet and eat as little as I possibly can,” Thompson told me, “because I believe ultimately it’s something I can do to decrease my risk of cancer.” Cantley put it this way: “Sugar scares me.”

Sugar scares me too, obviously. I’d like to eat it in moderation. I’d certainly like my two sons to be able to eat it in moderation, to not overconsume it, but I don’t actually know what that means, and I’ve been reporting on this subject and studying it for more than a decade. If sugar just makes us fatter, that’s one thing. We start gaining weight, we eat less of it. But we are also talking about things we can’t see — fatty liver, insulin resistance and all that follows. Officially I’m not supposed to worry because the evidence isn’t conclusive, but I do.

If you want to know what foods to avoid, here’s the rule:

Refined sugar (that is, sucrose) is made up of a molecule of the carbohydrate glucose, bonded to a molecule of the carbohydrate fructose — a 50-50 mixture of the two. The fructose, which is almost twice as sweet as glucose, is what distinguishes sugar from other carbohydrate-rich foods like bread or potatoes that break down upon digestion to glucose alone. The more fructose in a substance, the sweeter it will be.

The science is not definitive but is quite suggestive. So, if you cut down on your consumption of sweet foods, your future self will likely thank you.

Posted by James on Apr 13, 2011