Friday, September 26, 2003
Crumb Trail has a new home
Heading into difficulty?
Dr. Frank Webbe has spent more than a dozen years of his life as a soccer [football] referee and coach. He's also a professor of psychology at Florida Tech, with an emphasis on sports psychology. These two worlds came together with his research into the neurocognitive effects of heading in the sport of soccer.
Webbe found that recent heading by players who headed with "moderate-to-high frequency" led in some cases to weaker neurocognitive performance. This lessened performance includes a decline in cognitive function, difficulty in verbal learning, in planning and maintaining attention and a reduced information processing speed.
Social insects point to non-genetic origins of societies
From her work studying social insects, Arizona State University biologist Jennifer Fewell believes that these remarkable animals suggest a an alternate cause behind the development of complex societies. In a viewpoint essay in the September 26 issue of the journal Science, Fewell argues that complex social structures like those seen in social insect communities can arise initially from the nature of group interactions -- the inherent dynamics of networks.
Though social networks are commonly thought of as evolutionary adaptations, Fewell turns this idea on its head by proposing that the network forms first, following the logic and pattern of group connections, then adaptation follows to strengthen the pattern. Social organization, seen in this light, is essentially an emergent property that comes from the network's geometry - a natural pattern to which organisms adapt.
Some of the more interesting ideas I've encountered regarding humans come from Herbert Gintis. This paper published by the Santa Fe Institute presents a concept of gene-culture co-evolution that has similarities to Fewell's ideas about social insects.
The internalization of norms refers to the tendency of human beings to
adopt social norms from parents (vertical transmission) or socializing institutions
(oblique transmission). Authority rather than contribution to fitness
accounts for the adoption of internalized norms. Suppose there is one genetic
locus that controls whether or not an individual is capable of internalizing
norms. We extend classical models (Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman 1981, Boyd
and Richerson 1985) to show that if adopting a norm is fitness enhancing, fixation
of the allele for internalization is locally stable, and with a small amount
of oblique transmission, fixation is globally stable. We use this framework to
model Herbert Simon’s (1990) explanation of altruism. Simon suggested that
altruistic norms could ‘hitchhike’ on the general tendency of the internalization
of norms to be fitness-enhancing. We show that the altruistic phenotype
evolves if and only if there is a sufficient level of oblique transmission of internalizable
norms. This result holds even when there is a strong horizontal
transmission process biased against the altruistic norm. We then use a geneculture
coevolutionary group selection argument to explain why internalized
traits are likely to be pro- as opposed to anti-social.
Rural Technology Initiative - Forest Management Software
An interesting report on studies done by the College of Forest Resources at the
University of Washington on forest management strategies. A free piece of software is made available to evaluate management strategies. The bad fires we have had in recent years will continue and grow worse with no action to reduce fuel loads. It's an expensive proposition but appears not to be optional since the costs of fire suppression and environmental degradation are as high or higher than thinning and removal.
Forest fuel reduction treatments are needed, as demonstrated by the increased number of devastating crown fires and annual increases in National Forest acres categorized as high risk. This report develops analysis components for effective fire risk reduction strategies to help professionals, publics, and policy-makers gain a better understanding of the current circumstances and alternatives. A range of thinning strategies were simulated and evaluated for the Okanogan and Freemont National Forests providing a set of results for comparative climatic and infrastructure conditions. Measures of fire risk reduction, economic cost, habitat protection, and carbon sequestration were evaluated, to develop the basis for characterizing both market and non-market values resulting from forest fires and fire risk reduction activities. The market cost of removing enough small diameter material to reduce fire risk sometimes exceeds the market value for the material removed. However, non-market benefits of reduced fire fighting and rehabilitation costs, facility losses and fatalities, protected habitats, sequestered carbon, saved water and other public values appear to more than offset treatment costs. Contracting alternatives and infrastructure needs are also evaluated. Treatment strategies can be customized to local forest and market conditions, providing the basis for management training as well as public education.
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
Closer to Truth: Is Science Fiction Science?
This mildly interesting set of three interviews with science fiction writers David Brin, Octavia Butler and Michael Crichton done by Robert Kuhn for the PBS Closer To Truth series includes an interesting thought by Brin:
Talk about anti-globalization -- is it a democratic movement?
Karl Marx was the greatest of all science fiction authors because in the East, where he was taken seriously and followed as a prescription, his effects were actually fairly ineffective at changing humanity in positive directions. It was in the West where his work was read as a plausible scenario for a failure mode, but something happened that he never imagined could happen because he felt contempt for the masses. He never imagined that the masses would read his work and then say, 'Ah, interesting, let's reform this scenario away.' And he never imagined that elites like Franklin Delano Roosevelt would say the same thing. That's the point. The young anti-globalization fellows out there, they are assuming that international law will be controlled by these elites, but their own countries are counterexamples. They should be out there in the streets demanding a place at the table, demanding institutions, doing what the Jeffersonians did when Madison and Monroe were writing 'The Federalist Papers,' acting as the counterbalance, demanding that the people have a say. This is a good role they could be playing. They're not doing it.
What's going to be our failure mode, if we have one?
Failure modes are a fascinating topic. Of course, they attract a lot of science fiction because if you can expose a failure mode very vividly as in On the Beach, Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove, Soylent Green, 1984 and Das Kapital, then you can create the greatest of all science fiction stories, the self-preventing prophecy, the prophecy that does not come true because people actually paid attention to you because people were smarter than you expected.
There seems to be a method here:
Feel superior to and contemptuous of them
Prophesy doom with precision, clarity and compelling methods of expression
Those who are in fact dumb will embrace doom and wallow in confusion, but others will work to alter trajectory and so evade that particular problem. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Also see Ken MacLeod's blog The Early Days of a Better Nation where he has recently posted about SF:
But what SF is fundamentally about is not the Individual versus Society, or Society versus Society, but humanity in the universe.
SF needn't thereby lose in human relevance and universality, because the situation it posits is both objectively true and universal to the human being, as a knowing subject confronting a knowable object. If SF about that is despised and rejected, rather than criticised and improved in terms of its own project, then both the Individual and Society are, in the long run, in deeper shit than any dystopia.
And that, comrades, is the real social relevance of SF.
Tuesday, September 23, 2003
Earliest modern humans in Europe found
A research team co-directed by Erik Trinkaus, Ph.D., professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, has dated a human jawbone from a Romanian bear hibernation cave to between 34,000 and 36,000 years ago. That makes it the earliest known modern human fossil in Europe.
To determine the fossils' implications for human evolution, Trinkaus and colleagues performed radiocarbon dating of the jawbone (dating of the other remains is in progress) and a comparative anatomical analysis of the sample. The jawbone dates from between 34,000 and 36,000 years ago, placing the specimens in the period during which early modern humans overlapped with late surviving Neandertals in Europe.
Most of their anatomical characteristics are similar to those of other early modern humans found at sites in Africa, in the Middle East and later in Europe, but certain features, such as the unusual molar size and proportions, indicate their archaic human origins and a possible Neandertal connection.
The researchers document that these early modern humans retained some archaic characteristics, possibly through interbreeding with Neandertals. Nevertheless, because few well-dated remains from this period have been found, the fossil remains help to fill in an important phase in modern human emergence.
hmmm, see Clan of the Cave Bear for some seemingly related stories.
UPDATE: The PBS Nova special Neanderthals on Trial was rebroadcast today. There was some interesting discussion about the difficulty of interpretation, the struggle to separate what researchers wish to prove from what the evidence supports. From the transcript:
NARRATOR: So it appears that Fontéchevade [a falsely interpreted dig] was an elaborate illusion and not a human habitation site at all.
What made it look real to the archaeologists was an overwhelming desire to see the past in a certain way.
The urge to distance ourselves from Neanderthals or to pull them closer to us is a surprisingly powerful force.
Archaeologists Jean Philippe Rigaud and Jan Simek are well aware of the problem.
JAN SIMEK: I think that we're as guilty of it today, of that kind of preconceived approach to our data, as anybody has been in the history of archaeology or anthropology. It's almost inevitable that our own views of the world will be brought to bear.
Monday, September 22, 2003
Wendell Berry - The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion - put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Chemists' constant hangs in the balance: New silicon tally may change Avogadro's number.
Chemists may be forced to change their value for one of nature's fundamental numbers - Avogadro's constant - following more accurate measurements made using a crystal of pure silicon.
No, it's not a new TV series, it's a new degree program in environmental forensics.
The course's five students will study chemistry, geology, biology and statistics, but also how to stand up to legal cross-examination.
Vast amounts of money ride on showing where, when and from whom contaminants have come. Mudge, for example, is working on whether oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill is still damaging the environment. If it is, and was not covered in the original court settlement, Exxon could be liable for another US$100 million.
The first commercial tidal power station goes online
The rise and fall of the sea, caused by the moon's gravitational tug on the Earth, could be generating electricity for hundreds of thousands of homes within five years if the new Norwegian power station proves successful.
The power station, which resembles an underwater windmill, began generating electricity for the town of Hammerfest. Although still largely a prototype, the generator is the first in the world to harness the power of the sea and be connected to an electricity grid.
The tidal mill produces 300-kilowatts of electricity - enough to power 30 Norwegian houses or 60-80 British homes. Its designers hope to begin mass producing the devices within two years.
'There's still a lot of hard engineering required before the costs will come down but we are going to need all of the renewables and nuclear power we can get our hands on if we are going to meet our Kyoto commitments,' he told New Scientist.
Tidal energy has one key advantage over other renewable forms of power - it has the potential to provide a near continuous source of power 24 hours a day. Wave, wind and solar power all fluctuate throughout the day. By contrast, the tide flows continuously in one direction for just over 12 hours before pausing briefly and then reversing.
Another sort of moon power.
If a physicist in Houston has his way you'll be able to say good-bye to pollution-causing energy production from fossil fuels. In the April/May issue of The Industrial Physicist, Dr. David Criswell suggests that the Earth could be getting all of the electricity it needs using solar cells - on the moon.
good behavior is at least as much the result of relationships as of rules.
Putting his Microsoft-generated money where his mouth is, he announced last week a $51.2 million effort to create 67 small high schools in New York City. These smaller schools, he said on National Public Radio, will improve both learning and graduation rates, because they will be more focused, more responsive and will provide more personal and emotional connections between students and faculty.
It seems that we have long understood the value of this sort of learning environment and have a number of small liberal arts universities that explicitly seek to create such environments.
New Help for Low-input Agriculture
The snippet below is all the information available without a subscription to Agronomy Journal but it manages to press all sorts of buttons in a brief space. Also see American Society of Agronomy.
Small farmers in developing countries, unlike their counterparts in the industrialized world, cannot afford to apply much chemical fertilizer. Instead, they use 'low-input' agricultural systems, which draw nutrients for crop growth mostly from the decomposition of soil organic matter and plant residues. In the 2002 May-June issue of the Agronomy Journal, scientists report the development of a computer-based simulation model that greatly simplify the evaluation of such systems in an article titled, 'Modifying DSSAT Crop Models for Low-Input Agricultural Systems Using a Soil Organic Matter-Residue Module from CENTURY.' This is good news for scientists working to improve low-input agriculture and thus increase food security, raise farm incomes, and halt the rampant decline of soil fertility in the tropics.
Field studies of low-input agriculture are being conducted at many locations in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, but these studies cannot cover all the possible combinations of soil, crops, weather, and management factors that merit evaluation. Simulation models, because they can include innumerable combinations, have powerful potential for aiding the evaluation of different low-input systems at specific sites.
Various agricultural simulation models are available, but they are tailored mainly to the requirements of industrialized-country agriculture. Scientists with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia asked whether these same models could be applied to low-input systems. In seeking an answer, they applied a simulation model called the 'Decision Support System for Agrotechnology Transfer,' or DSSAT, to hillside agriculture in Honduras and Nicaragua. Developed by a consortium of North American universities and research institutes, DSSAT is the most widely used agricultural model in the world. But since it assumes heavy use of chemical fertilizers, the model's soil organic matter section is weak. To overcome this limitation, scientists linked DSSAT to CENTURY, one of the leading models for soil organic matter.
The combined DSSAT-CENTURY model was tested with 40 years of data from a typical field under low-input agriculture. The field had not been under mechanized cropping, and no fertilizer had been applied for a long time. "While the original DSSAT model did a poor job of simulating the strong decline of soil organic matter, said Arjan Gijsman, senior author of the paper, "the new DSSAT-CENTURY model performed very well in this respect. And that means it probably also simulated quite well the release of nutrients from the organic matter."
"As a result," add coauthors Gerrit Hoogenboom of the University of Georgia, William J. Parton of Colorado State University, and CIAT's Peter C. Kerridge, "the DSSAT-CENTURY should prove to be of great practical value for studying small-scale agriculture in developing countries. Moreover, the model's improved section on soil organic matter makes it more suitable for long-term simulations. For example, the model could be used to estimate carbon sequestration in soil organic matter under different systems, which is one approach scientists are exploring to mitigate the effects of global warming on agriculture."
The combined DSSAT-CENTURY model will be part of the new version of DSSAT, to be released later this year.
Bones from French cave show Neanderthals, Cro-Magnon hunted same prey
'This study suggests Cro-Magnon were not superior in getting food from the landscape,' said lead author Donald Grayson, a University of Washington professor of archaeology. 'We could detect no difference in diet, the animals they were hunting and the way they were hunting across this period of time, aside from those caused by climate change.
'So the takeover by Cro-Magnon does not seem to be related to hunting capability. There is no significant difference in large mammal use from Neanderthals to Cro-Magnon in this part of the world. The idea that Neanderthals were big, dumb brutes is hard for some people to drop. Cro-Magnon created the first cave art, but late Neanderthals made body ornaments, so the depth of cognitive difference between the two just is not clear.'
The study also resurrects a nearly 50-year-old theory first proposed by Finnish paleontologist Björn Kurtén that modern humans played a role in the extinction of giant cave bears in Europe. Cro-Magnon may have been the original 'apartment hunters' and displaced the bears by competing with them for the same caves the animals used for winter den sites.
If you too wonder what became of the Neanderthals you could do worse than visit this site dedicated to the issue.
Here you will find up-to-date information on the prehistoric people of Eurasia known as Neanderthals, and on the early modern humans who succeeded them.
Who were these two groups of people? (see below). How were they related? How did they interact? Where did the first modern humans come from? And what eventually became of the Neanderthals? Final answers to these questions have yet to be found, but this web site allows you to share in the quest for knowledge about this fascinating period of prehistory.
Largest Arctic ice shelf breaks up, draining freshwater lake
"Warwick Vincent and Derek Mueller of Laval University in Quebec City, Quebec, and Martin Jeffries of the University of Alaska Fairbanks have studied the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf on site and through RADARSAT imagery and helicopter overflights. They report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that a three decade long decline in the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf culminated in its sudden break-up between 2000 and 2002. It fragmented into two main parts with many additional fissures. It also calved a number of ice islands, some of which are large enough to pose a danger to shipping and to drilling platforms in the Beaufort Sea.
An immediate consequence of the ice shelf's rupture was the loss of almost all of the freshwater from the northern hemisphere's largest epishelf lake, which had been dammed behind it in 30 kilometer [20 mile] long Disraeli Fiord. An epishelf lake is a body of mostly freshwater trapped behind an ice shelf. The freshwater layer in the Disraeli Fiord measured 43 meters [140 feet] in depth and lay atop 360 meters [1,200 feet] of denser ocean water. The loss of fresh and brackish water has affected a previously reported unique biological community, consisting of both freshwater and marine species of plankton. The breakup of the ice shelf has also reduced the habitat available for cold-tolerant communities of microscopic animals and algae that live on the upper ice surface."
Mueller, Vincent, and Jeffries attribute the disintegration of the Ellesmere Ice Shelf and the breakup of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf to the cumulative effects of long-term warming since the 19th century. The precise timing and pattern of fracturing of the climate-weakened ice shelf may have been influenced by freeze-thaw cycles, wind, and tides, they say. Other factors may include changes in Arctic Ocean temperature, salinity, and flow patterns, they add.
Though the process has been going on since the 1800s recent data collection indicates that it may be accelerating in the region. Other regions have different histories and as noted above water temperature, salinity, currents, winds and tides are all part of this complex system, but the suspicion that there are human influences on this process lingers.
Saturday, September 20, 2003
This feature story from the World Resources Institute follows the style of relentlessly negative reporting typical of donor supported institutions.
"The unprecedented scale of agricultural expansion and intensification in the past 30 years has raised concerns about the state of the world's agroecosystems. Can they withstand stresses like soil erosion and salinization and meet the food needs of an additional 1.7 billion people over the next 20 years?"
The report does grudgingly admit that the situation is far better than it was 30 years ago and grudgingly mentions the possibilities of modern agricultural technologies for answering the growing needs for food. The report is worth reading for the data but it will be helpful to also read the article linked in the post below about emerging argo-ecological technologies.
Amazon was settled before Columbus' time: Excavations and maps confirm forest housed advanced society.
"The Amazon was densely populated before Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World, confirms new evidence unearthed in Brazil1. The finds lay to rest the notion that the region was pristine forest when the explorer landed in 1492."
The area's indigenous people are still around today, but in much smaller numbers - one reason for the misconceptions about their past. "Cultural anthropologists were extrapolating backwards," explains archaeologist Jim Petersen of the University of Vermont in Burlington. "Heckenberger's work helps us understand, virtually for the first time, that there was a higher degree of cultural complexity than today."
Although there was probably some untouched forest in the region, Heckenberger reckons that most was managed by the inhabitants and kept for cultural and symbolic, rather than economic, reasons. "It was probably very important to them just as Central Park is important to New Yorkers," he says.
It's good to have the archeological evidence of these pre-Colombian civilizations in the Americas and dispel the corrosive idea of depeopled 'pristine wilderness'. Perhaps we can now make better progress in establishing appropriate systems of management for tropical ecosystems that are not anti-humanist. See Ethnoecology for a Conservation Ecology issue that focuses on the integration of anthropology and ecosystem sciences.
Neil Greenberg reviews The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind by Elkhonon Goldberg.
I hope I'm not the only one who finds a connection between the ideas of evolutionary aesthetics discussed in the previous post and the practice of science as described in this review.
"The creative scientist (like the artist) must walk a narrow ridge. On one side there is the need to accommodate the traditions of the profession in order to survive as a professional, and on the other, there is the need to be free of such social constraints in order to make creative contributions and prosper as a professional (4). William Wordsworth understood: “Never forget,” he wrote, “. . . that every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished”(5).
Going beyond the obvious. In the spirit of Wordsworth, Goldberg’s book seeks to create an appreciation for his insight. As often the case, data has emerged that makes his task easier. He begins by seeking to reframe the perennial (and parochial) either-or quarrel about modularity of mind. He notes that while a modularity persists in many ancient parts of the brain, more recently evolved structures -those that collate and integrate the information provided by these modules- possess a density of intrinsic connections that creates a functional “gradiental” continuum. These more recently evolved structures are the frontal lobes, the “organ of civilization” according to some of the founding fathers of neuropsychology such as Ward Halstead (6) and the author’s mentor, the great A. R. Luria. The book arrives at a time which for many of us is what teachers sometimes call “the teachable moment.” Many of us are ready for Goldberg’s ideas."
Adele Tomlin reviews Evolutionary Aesthetics edited by Eckart Voland and Karl Grammer in Human Nature Review.
We rely on our aesthetic senses and the feelings they provoke in matters great and small but don't often question the basis of these judgements. It is difficult to ground them without reference to biological reality yet diverse and culturally inflected opinion makes this hard to do.
The meaning of the experience plays no part in the scientific experience. In our increasingly science-worshipping world, the meaning comes to be viewed as a fiction. Many people accept this conclusion and lapse into a state of cynical hedonism, scorning the old fogeys or romantics who believe there is more to sex than biology. The scientific attempt to explore the ‘depth’ of human things, therefore, is accompanied by a significant danger - it threatens to destroy our response to the surface. Yet it is on the surface of the world that we live and act: it is there that we are created, as complex appearances sustained by social interaction which we, as appearances, also create. A reckless desire to scrape this surface away - a desire which has inspired the ‘sciences of man’ - deprives us of our consolation, for it is the surface on which human happiness and relations are dependent. The classifications which inform and permit our actions, cannot be replaced with anything better than themselves, for they have evolved precisely under the pressure of human circumstance, and in answer to human needs: in particular our need for meaning. Philosophical analysis of the surface can uphold and makes sense of those more elusive classifications which form the background to personal life: classifications relative to emotions (the fearful, the lovable, the disgusting) and to aesthetic interest (the ornamental, the serene, the graceful); it gives sense to our interpersonal attitudes and it explores the meaning of the world, in moral and religious experience.
"Despite this weakness, Evolutionary Aesthetics certainly made me reassess my own thoughts about human aesthetic experience and response. Furthermore, in my opinion, the evolutionary analysis has the potential to add another layer of meaning or value to our aesthetic experiences. As Thornhill eloquently states: “We can conclude with great confidence that beauty and ugliness were important feelings in the lives of the evolutionary ancestors of humans...A beautiful idea of evolutionary psychology is that the discipline allows discovery of how human ancestors felt about various aspects of their environments; the discipline allows discovery of our emotional roots”. A beautiful idea indeed, and one which I also found to be extremely moving."
Friday, September 19, 2003
An accessible article in The Atlantic Monthly that discusses agriculture, environment and GE from the perspective of an urban novice.
That genetic engineering may be the most environmentally beneficial technology to have emerged in decades, or possibly centuries, is not immediately obvious. Certainly, at least, it is not obvious to the many U.S. and foreign environmental groups that regard biotechnology as a bête noire. Nor is it necessarily obvious to people who grew up in cities, and who have only an inkling of what happens on a modern farm. Being agriculturally illiterate myself, I set out to look at what may be, if the planet is fortunate, the farming of the future.
"For reasons having more to do with politics than with logic, the modern environmental movement was to a large extent founded on suspicion of markets and artificial substances. Markets exploit the earth; chemicals poison it. Biotech touches both hot buttons. It is being pushed forward by greedy corporations, and it seems to be the very epitome of the unnatural.
Still, I hereby hazard a prediction. In ten years or less, most American environmentalists (European ones are more dogmatic) will regard genetic modification as one of their most powerful tools. In only the past ten years or so, after all, environmentalists have reversed field and embraced market mechanisms—tradable emissions permits and the like—as useful in the fight against pollution. The environmental logic of biotechnology is, if anything, even more compelling. The potential upside of genetic modification is simply too large to ignore—and therefore environmentalists will not ignore it. Biotechnology will transform agriculture, and in doing so will transform American environmentalism."
Thursday, September 18, 2003
from the USA Agricultural Research Service gives an overview of various studies about the effects of tea drinking. Tea is considered beneficial for a variety of health concerns. The battle of the bulge is one of them.
"Physiologist William Rumpler is investigating the ancient Chinese belief that oolong tea is effective in controlling body weight. Rumpler is with ARS' Diet and Human Performance Laboratory (DHPL), one of seven laboratories that make up the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center (BHNRC), Beltsville, Maryland.
To measure how tea influences energy expenditure (EE), Rumpler and colleagues gave each of 12 male volunteers 4 separate beverage formulas for 3 consecutive days. Before the study, the volunteers refrained from consuming caffeine and had their 24-hour EE measured. EE was measured again on the third day of each formula treatment. The treatments consisted of full-strength tea, colored water with caffeine equal to full-strength tea, half-strength tea, and colored water.
The results showed that the EE of volunteers was about 3 percent higher after they drank either the caffeinated water or the full-strength tea than after they drank the colored water. On average, the volunteers burned an additional 67 calories a day when they drank tea instead of an equal amount of water. Perhaps most interesting was that fat oxidation was a significant 12 percent higher after the full-strength tea treatment than after the water treatment.
'Our data suggested that a component of tea other than caffeine might have promoted preferential use of fat as an energy source,' says Beverly Clevidence, a study coauthor and head of the DHPL. 'But the information is tentative, and we need more studies to confirm it,' she adds.
It is universally accepted that caffeinated tea raises metabolic rate because caffeine is a stimulant. 'The interesting part of our study, which agreed with findings from a similar study in England, was that when you drink tea you turn on the fat-burning spigot a little bit more than when you drink caffeinated water..."
The article also notes that tea leaf fermentation which turns green tea into oolong or black tea changes the metabolic effects, and that consuming a variety of teas gives the broadest benefits.
Hurricane Isabel: 'Doppler on Wheels' to intercept eye
An interesting and timely article about weather research
"At close range the scans will observe fine-scale but potentially damaging storm features as small as 40 feet across, including wind streaks, gusts, and other structures. The DOWs are a collaborative effort between NCAR and the Boulder-based Center for Severe Weather Research. Wurman operates the vehicles through the CSWR, with support primarily from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The newest of the radar systems, called the Rapid-DOW, sends out six radar beams simultaneously. By raking the sky six times faster than traditional single-beam radars, Rapid-DOW can visualize three-dimensional volumes in 5 to 10 seconds and observe boundary layer rolls, wind gusts, embedded tornadoes, and other phenomena as they evolve."
Back in Boulder, NCAR scientists are running the nation's future Weather Research and Forecast (WRF) model on NCAR's IBM Blue Sky supercomputer, testing the model's skill at predicting Isabel's intensity, structures, and track. Operating on a model grid with data points only 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) apart, Blue Sky hums with calculations all night as WRF zooms in on Isabel, bringing into focus the storm's internal structure, including eyewall and rain bands. The result is a high-precision, two-day forecast. In the morning, the model starts over to create a new five-day forecast using a 10-kilometer grid and updated conditions.
For the people in the path of Isabel she is a disaster, but for scientists it is a rare opportunity to gather data that can be used to test their weather models and improve them, perhaps to help people in future.
Wednesday, September 17, 2003
Two pills, two paths: a tale of gender bias
"In Japan, it took over 30 years to register the contraceptive Pill, but it took only six months to approve Viagra. The Pill was developed in an academic institution and no large pharmaceutical manufacturer wished to market it. Viagra was developed inside a big company and actively promoted. In the USA, the Pill was almost removed from the market because of widely publicized reports of deaths, but mortalities associated with Viagra do not make the headlines. Viagra has been promoted by the famous, whilst those who use the Pill do not appear in advertisements. Even theologians have treated these two drugs according to different standards. It is suggested that this asymmetry is not accidental, but is an expression of a deep-seated dual standard that is ultimately driven by biosocial differences in male and female power, and reproductive agendas rooted in human evolution."
An interesting article that considers commercial, theological, cultural and evolutionary aspects of the gender asymmetry of these two drug families.
Mental time travel in animals?
"Do animals reminisce about the good old days and ponder what the future might hold for them? Humans frequently engage in such mental time travel (MTT), reliving past events and entertaining possible future scenarios [1,2] ( Box 1). It has been argued that MTT is unique to humans [1,3,4] , and that its emergence was a prime mover in hominid evolution . Recently, a series of innovative studies on food-storing scrub jays has raised doubt about this claim. In recovering stored food, these birds appear to act in ways that depend on what they stored where and when in the past [5–8] , and on what they might expect to happen in the future . This has sparked interest in similar capacities in other species [10,11] . Although we applaud these efforts, we argue here that current evidence does not yet warrant crediting other species with MTT. By examining other characteristics of MTT we point to different ways in which evidence could be obtained if the competence were to exist in animals."
Scrub jays would benefit from having very accurate records of their caches, an objective that would perhaps not be served best by a generative reconstructive mechanism. Although food storing evolved independently in several species, mechanisms homologous to those involved in human MTT are more likely to be found in our primate relatives. However, humans might have evolved MTT quite recently. The earliest potential evidence could be bifacial hand axes some 1.6 million years ago, which appear to have been made and kept for repeated future use . The only sure evidence of MTT, however, comes from writing.
In the earliest writings, the ancient Greeks describe the myth of Prometheus. Prometheus created humanity. He stole fire from heaven to give humans powers of the gods that distinguished them from other animals. He brought culture and technology. Prometheus literally means foresight.
Yerkes researchers first to recognize sense of fairness in nonhuman primates:
"In the first experimental demonstration of its kind, researchers led by Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal, PhD, at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University, and the Living Links Center, have shown nonhuman primates respond negatively to unequal reward distribution, a reaction often seen in humans based on their universal sense of fairness. While researchers have long recognized the sense of fairness within the human species, Brosnan and de Waal are the first to confirm this trait in nonhuman primates. The findings appear in the September 18 issue of Nature.
These new findings, coupled with previous scientific data that demonstrate a direct link between nonhuman primate behavior and that of humans, support a new school of thought that economic decision-making is based as much on an emotional sense of fairness as on rational considerations."
See Crime and Punishment for some human experiments.
Monday, September 15, 2003
Now that the WTO talks in Cancun have collapsed advocates for various causes have become more shrill and defensive, each seeking to blame the other. What's that old saying about the paternity of failure?
I see it as a textbook example of a problem called low dimensionality frameworks in modeling theory. When you have models that track too few variables you can get absurd results. Even though the model is precise, measures its variables properly and does its calculations correctly it doesn't accurately model any real situations and its projections and predictions describe neither the past nor any plausible futures.
A simple example of this from population biology is a model of population growth that considers resource availability and fertility rates but fails to consider countervailing factors such as parasites and alteration of the environment. A rosy (or gloomy) predication of population growth fails when the population is severely reduced by the external factors.
Each of the advocates in the trade talks was operating with a different low dimensionality model. They have different interests as well which each wished to optimize, and different pressures from the constituencies they represented, but they couldn't negotiate a mutually beneficial agreement that traded concessions to arrive at a net benefit for everyone since their mutually incompatible models didn't recognize one another's projections.
When Ron Bailey says...
...the collapse means that protected industries and sectors all over the world will still get their subsidies and still overcharge consumers for many more years to come. In fact, a new and very damaging wave of protectionism could sweep the globe given the current shaky world economic situation. Second, rich country anti-globalization nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), will take this opportunity to continue their campaigns to undermine the legitimacy of the WTO and free trade while promoting their trade-killing environmental and social concerns into any future WTO agreements.
...he is precisely inaccurate. He operates his model correctly and reports its results, there are no errors in the calculations, but the low dimensionality of his model that considers social and environmental factors to be irrelevant to prosperity (not to mention desirability) prevents him from accurately portraying plausible futures.
The models of G33 members are also of low dimensionality as noted previously in Is and Ought, Statistical Obscurantism, and Crime and Punishment.
Europe with its CAP has been portrayed as the villain by many, especially after its attempt, along with Korea and Japan, to link agricultural concessions to the 'Singapore' issues of competition rules. Europe's high levels of bureaucratic authoritarianism and the European Union project to increase and extend bureaucracy to more nations - perhaps eventually to the world through supranational institutions such as the UN - is also a model of low dimensionality that fails to include the economic, cultural and political aspirations of other negotiators and so also makes absurd predictions and projections.
Fittingly, the way forward is neither bureaucratic nor supranational. The various contenders in this conflict aren't bad guys, not entirely, they are unaware of models that have sufficiently high dimensionality to make useful projections. A small multidisciplinary organization could develop these rich models and communicate them to the various power centers. One moderately endowed think tank with widely respected spokespersons could set it in motion. There are hundreds of such enterprises in the world that each have a narrow agenda, it seems that there could be at least one enterprise that is more broadly focused and open minded.
Oddly perhaps, this can do organization might well be American. As noted in this Economist article:
The Americans, for one, came into this summit talking a good game. They proposed to eliminate tariffs on all manufactured and consumer goods by 2015, and to cut agricultural tariffs by 76% over five years. They were prepared to be bold, they said, if other countries were bold too.
A BioMedNet research update
describes complex multi-species interactions in California rangelands.
In a study combining rigorous field experimentation with natural history observations, the authors describe how the expansion (or lack thereof) of the exotic barbed goatgrass (Aegilops triuncialis) over the Californian landscape is the consequence of a complex balancing act between disturbance caused by gophers (Thomomys bottae), infection of goatgrass seedheads by a fungus (Ulocladium atrum), and grazing by livestock.
Read the article for details but briefly:
The fungi help the goat grass
The gophers hurt the goat grass
The grazers can hurt the gophers
But that isn't all there is to this interaction. Rodent populations increase and decrease with the availability of forage. When swards are grazed by ruminants, there is less forage available to support rodent populations. That's how grazers can hurt gophers in the scenario discussed above. But goat grass isn't the only invasive plant rangeland managers battle, woody shrubs can be as bad or worse. In a paper presented to the Ecological Society of America and the Society for Ecological Restoration at their joint 2002 Annual Meeting in Tucson, Arizona, Dennis M. Bramble, University of Utah, noted that ruminants do not generally consume large amounts of brush and woody vegetation, but rodents will consume the roots of these species when other forage is not available.
Range managers can use this interaction to control sward composition and to reduce sward degradation by invasive shrubs. Deferring ruminant grazing in the spring can allow an increase in rodent populations. When the sward is subsequently grazed by ruminants, the large rodent population will switch to eating shrubs. The net result is a reduction of shrubs. It's a balancing act in which the timing of actions matter as much or more than the intensity. In this case both the invasive grass and the invasive shrubs can be controlled by timing grazing pressure, by deferring ruminant grazing in the spring.
There are economic and ecological costs to doing this. Economic losses come not only from lost grazing time but also from sward degradation. The key to a thick, healthy sward is controlling the spring flush when growth is explosive. Early grazing keeps grasses from becoming tall and woody, and so less nutritious, and encourages tillering to thicken the sward. It also allows nutritious species of short perennial grasses and forbs, such as nitrogen fixing clover, to get enough light to grow. Failure to control the spring flush degrades the sward for the whole year and favors taller, more woody and less nutritious annual grasses.
Good rangeland management requires close attention to specifics and variable treatment depending on conditions. It's a perfect example of the old saying that the best fertilizer is the farmer's footprints. The only way to make good decisions is to walk the fields and gather information.
This relates to the earlier post about biological control of pests.
Sunday, September 14, 2003
Times Online - Business
"The meeting of key ministers at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Conference in Cancún fell into disarray yesterday after delegates failed to agree on how fast to dismantle $300 billion (£187 billion) in subsidies that wealthy states pay their farmers. The developing countries also rejected demands by the 15-nation EU to start talks on global trade rules on investment, competition policies, the award of government contracts and cutting the red tape and corruption that shackles trade. "
Friday, September 12, 2003
about tourism and the environment from the fifth World Parks Congress
(mentioned on 9/08 below).
Tourism has increased by more than 100 percent between 1990 and 2000 in the world's biodiversity hotspots, regions richest in species and facing extreme threats, according to a report released today by Conservation International (CI) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Tourism generates 11 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP), employs 200 million people and transports nearly 700 million international travelers per year – a figure that is expected to double by 2020. It is considered one of the largest, if not the largest, industries on the planet. With nature and adventure travel one of the fastest-growing segments within the tourism industry, the Earth's most fragile, high biodiversity areas are where most of that expansion will likely take place. While tourism has the potential to provide opportunities for conserving nature, tourism development, when done improperly, can be a major threat to biodiversity.
I'm not as optimistic as they are. There's so much money involved that in the end the environment will be compromised, packaged, simulated or whatever it takes to keep the money flowing. Eco-tourists are consuming the natural environment.
This is an interesting Nature article
about atmospheric temperature change controversies.
Warming is occurring even faster in the Earth's atmosphere than on its surface, according to a new look at old data. The finding could bolster the case for global warming by eliminating a primary sticking point in the debate.
"This might actually change the picture if it is accepted by the community," and could have important implications for public policy concerning greenhouse gas emissions, says atmospheric scientist John M. Wallace of the University of Washington in Seattle. But the community is a rather small and polarized group, and consensus does not appear to be forthcoming.
The one thing both camps agree on is that the problem of troposphere warming is a very important point in the global warming debate, and despite its complexity, the satellite data is the best way to tackle the question. But we may still be a long way from the answer.
Old data is valuable even though it's sometimes shaky since we can't travel back in time to run the data collection experiments again with better equipment. To make use of this data a lot of analysis and theory is required which inevitably spawns scientific disputes. Sometimes these disputes are difficult to resolve since no one has strong empirical arguments.
has developed a group computing system something like the SETI@home project. It has been in beta test for a year or so and today it is available for general download
One of the problems that has plagued climate model research is that climate models that track enough variables to approach usefulness use huge amounts of computing cycles, enough to overload super-computers. These models have to be run thousands of times with variations. Another problem is that there are different models that reach different conclusions. If they had enough computing power to run many models, repeatedly, then climate modeling science could advance more quickly.
What they want you to do
We want you to run a climate model as a background process on your computer (similar to the successful SETI@home project). It should not affect any other tasks you use your computer for. If you choose to download the model, you will be supplied with your own, unique, version of the model. As the model runs, you can watch the weather patterns over the globe evolve. The results are sent back via the internet, and we are developing an interactive portal to allow you to compare your results with other people's as the experiment progresses. The Open University will be offering a short course based on the project, and there will also be opportunities to get schools involved with the project.
UPDATE: An NSU article about climateprediction.net
UPDATE2: A New Scientist article about climateprediction.net which includes some quotes from researchers and links to other interesting stuff.
Michael Lind has an NYT Op-Ed
today, The Cancún Delusion
, that shows an uncommon grasp of agricultural subsidy issues.
These are the alternatives, then. If third world agriculture is industrialized, then much third world wilderness will be saved from the plow. But most farmers will be forced off the farm, and therefore may not profit from the access of southern agricultural exporters to northern markets. If, on the other hand, third world agriculture is not industrialized, then the effort to enrich developing countries by means of exports from labor-intensive farms will inspire a vast expansion of peasant farm acreage — at the expense of the environment.
What looked like a sweet deal that could satisfy everybody except for subsidized special interests, then, seems destined to fall apart on inspection. First world consumers and third world agribusiness (much of it foreign-owned) may profit from the opening of the agricultural markets of the United States and other rich nations. But the activist left is unlikely to get what it wants: an Arcadia of prosperous village farmers living in harmony with the land.
Lind is senior fellow with the New America Foundation (NAF), a 'radical center' think tank that has attracted a lot of attention for its fresher, less partisan ideas. The Atlantic Monthly seems to have a less than arm's length relationship with it and has done some collaborative publishing. Lind co-authored the book The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics with Ted Halstead.
It seems interesting that Lind and NAF have been able to achieve increased clarity about agricultural subsides by being political centrists even though they still seem to lack significant knowledge of the issues. There seems to be something about ideological commitment that lowers effective IQ, but this may be something that applies to selected topics.
Thursday, September 11, 2003
Ted Wong at Ramifications
stumbles a bit trying to understand Hack the Spew
. He accuses those who point out how little we know about any of the complex systems involved in our biosphere of using rhetorical tricks. I think that was aimed at me at least in part. But, it's not rhetoric and it's not a trick, we just don't know very much. Ted may not be aware of this though since he says "which most general readers don't understand in its [climate change] full complexity." Apparently he is under the impression that someone does understand climate change in its full complexity. If so then they have done a remarkably good job of keeping it a secret from everyone but Ted. I think we'd all like a chance to talk to this person.
Ted discloses some of his secret information and claims that:
we do know what's happening to the earth's climate. After decades of research there is overwhelming scientific consensus (a) that the world is growing warmer, (b) that the accelerating conversion of fossil fuels into carbon dioxide is a major cause, and (c) that enormous changes in the earth's energy balance, hydrologic cycles, climate, and ecosystem function must result.
I think that every part of this is false.
We do not know what's happening to the earth's climate. We have some theories based on sparse data but don't know much at all.
We do not know that the accelerating conversion of fossil fuels into carbon dioxide is a major cause. We suspect that increases in GHGs are the result of human activity, there's strong correlation, but we don't know which activities are to blame or to what extent.
We do not know that enormous changes in the earth's energy balance, hydrologic cycles, climate, and ecosystem function must result. We know so little about any of these systems that it's humbling.
Ted's inflated opinion of human knowledge (or secret information) also leads him to believe that "carbon dioxide enrichment ... [is] a countervailing factor that has been part of the climate-change calculations since the very beginning." Unfortunately, it's a very immature field of study still. Several times a year new research is published with surprising new discoveries, not all of it in agreement. Usually this indicates lack of understanding of fundamental processes. We can't know the future but it seems more sensible to assume that this will continue than that we have already mastered the subject.
Perhaps Ted's confusion is encapsulated in this remark:
but he [back40] doesn't acknowledge that the complexity he invokes has been grappled with by thousands of scientists spending many millions of federal-grant dollars and has been built into the existing scientific consenses.
Actually, I did note the volume of information and the army of grapplers...
Though it would take a library of books to document what we know and an army of scholars to comprehend it all the most important fact of them all is that we only have the vaguest glimmerings of the entities and their relationships in this complex planetary system of complex systems.
...but have a more realistic and intellectually honest evaluation of the state of the art. It is very low. This isn't a criticism of the researchers. It's early days and we will know more in future.
The significance of this is for policy. When we know very little and have very little confidence in our projections it is bad policy, bad governance, to set ambitious goals with high costs. It's what some call the 'home-run mentality', overreach inspired by wishful thinking. Governance is better when we stick to the knitting, when we have high hopes for good works but take frequent but smaller and surer steps.
In the original post I said this and still think it's sound.
It's silly to think that we know what the result of global acts will be. But that is not license to do as we wish with no thought for consequences. Spewing various smokes and stinks into the air is never something we should do when avoidable. Plowing up the land, spewing into rivers and setting off nuclear explosions should also be avoided. They are destructive acts done in bad taste. They fail aesthetic, ethical and biological constraint tests in ways we can immediately perceive whether they perturb major systems such as climate or not. We can't stop spewing wastes or digging the land, not yet, but we shouldn't do such things more than necessary to live and we should seek methods to reduce spew.
Update: Ted's Excellent Friend
Ted has added a few quibbles and snarks at Ramifications and revealed that his secret friend is a model.
This Economist article gives an interesting account of the issues and status of WTO negotiations in Cancun. We have heard the talking points of the agriculture free traders but they consistently omit the complex details of world agricultural practice.
If, as promised, the EU eliminates export subsidies on products “of interest” to poor countries, the price of those products would rise on world markets. This would benefit big agricultural exporters, such as Argentina and Brazil. It is not all good news, however. Arvind Panagariya, an economist at the University of Maryland, points out that 85 out of 148 developing countries are net importers of agricultural goods. Raising the price of those goods on world markets would leave them worse off. Farm-trade reform is at the centre of the Doha round, but Mr Panagariya’s results suggest it is not at the centre of development.
This is important. Free traders use statistical magic tricks to conceal what the effects of their proposals would be. It isn't the millions of poor farmers that would benefit from trade reform, it is the more 'middle class' farmers. More than half of the poor, the poorest of the poor, would be even poorer. Those who are food insecure now would be even hungrier. And since populations are rising in LDCs this problem will get worse over time.
If farm-trade reform isn't the issue in development then what is?
Even for a country like Brazil, agricultural trade barriers pose less of an obstacle to progress than barriers to trade in manufactured goods. The World Bank calculates that import tariffs lowered returns in Brazilian farming by 5% in 1997, whereas tariffs reduced returns in capital-intensive manufacturing by a full 22%.
Most countries get rich by selling manufactured goods—first labour-intensive, then more skill-intensive—on world markets. In 1980, the World Bank reports, such goods represented just 20% of the exports of poor countries. Now they account for 80%, and many of those countries are no longer so poor.
EU/US farm subsidy programs desperately need reform. They harm the whole world, not least themselves. But, as noted in many earlier posts, farming is not like manufacturing due to its extensive nature and environmental significance. It can't be sensibly managed by the same limited models used for manufacturing and services which treat so many of the most salient aspects of agriculture as externalities. There are no market methods to properly price agricultural goods since there are no ways to measure and value many of the most important costs of production. When those costs are shared in a commons, the people of a nation who live in the same environment, then subsidies to producers paid from revenues extracted from the entire population can substitute for proper cost accounting until improved accounting becomes possible. Subsidies must be well targeted and explicitly seek to compensate for production costs not included in market prices. Governments must think hard about what they doing and why they are doing it to get the subsidies right.
DCs would be harmed and LDC development would not be well served by eliminating agricultural subsidies. There would be small gains for some LDCs and unbearable losses for others. Real development that would be four or five times as helpful and have few if any negative consequences for LDCs involve lowering trade barriers for goods and services. This will hurt developed countries, sometimes dearly, and needs to be managed to avoid disruptions that would collapse the system, but it is the true route to world development.
Wednesday, September 10, 2003
If you ever had any suspicions that Ron Bailey, and by association Reason Magazine, were a bit confused his report from the WTO meeting in Cancun might confirm them.
Freeing up global agricultural trade is vital because the majority of people living in the poorest countries are still farmers. Bringing these poor farmers into the world trading system will enable them to take the first steps up the ladder of economic development. Of the 2 billion or so of the world's people who live on less than $2 per day, most live in rural communities.
It's true that there are a lot of poor farmers in rural communities in poor countries, but what does that have to do with global agricultural trade? They can't grow enough food to feed themselves reliably, that's why there are so many of them. They use traditional, low yield methods on very small plots of land and produce little if anything beyond their own needs. Their main source of productive energy comes from muscles not tractors, and while this is very efficient in terms H. T. Odum might appreciate it isn't the basis for participation in world agricultural trade except for high value luxury crops such as cocoa, coffee and cocaine.
If poor countries develop their agricultural sectors, something which will require significant investment and time, it will be large organizations using industrial methods that will produce for global world trade and the poor farmers will still be poor. Many won't even be farmers, they'll be squatters in the favelas of large cities since labor needs go down as productivity goes up in agriculture due to automation. But life goes on, young women are beautiful and young men notice so there will be more and more of them as is customary. They will still need food and in many cases will have the collective political power to get some from those shiny new industrial farms.
Actually, Bailey is simply parroting the brain dead ideas circulating in certain economically and agronomically illiterate backwaters with a small amount of additional journalistic sexing up. It's his job, he gets paid to do this, and he gets to go to Cancun for the big party. What turns this comedy of radical but uninformed free-traders besieging the WTO meeting into a farce is that they are joined at the barricades by even more radical no-traders who want to keep those poor but noble farmers just as they are. Hyper-globalizers and anti-globalizers neutering one another with fervor. Meditate on that image for a moment.
Bailey isn't concerned about poor farmers. Neither are the anti-globalizers. They are all using poor farmers as a wedge issue to advance their political agendas. Bailey is an anti-statist who wishes to eliminate subsidies as part of a broad program to limit state power. Anti-globalizers wish to enhance state power by reducing the influence of markets.
But I'm just doing laps here. Scroll down if you're interested to read other posts which critique the documents Bailey references, and for alternative development ideas that would actually work, actually help less developed countries become more developed countries - practical ideas that actually consider the interests of those poor farmers.
Chris Genovese, mentioned earlier in Hack the Spew, blogs at Signal + Noise. His recent post Out of Bio-Control is a delight which includes a mini biography of Charles Valentine Riley, an entomologist that did pioneering work in the biological control of agricultural pests.
Biological control - introducing organisms into environments to thwart another organism - has had many successes and some failures where the introduced organism became a pest itself. Genovese, a statistician, seems to have good clarity about the risk and reward potentials of such introductions and conducts some thought experiments about the potential hazards of current efforts to develop genetically altered organisms for use in the biological control of pests. This is a specific case of concern about an aspect of engineered replicators, biological or not, what some have called the 'grey goo' problem where a replicator goes out of control and causes trouble of unexpected magnitude.
As Genovese notes the problem already exists with non-engineered species. Conventional breeding, especially of fast reproducing bacteria and viruses, can have the same results. It isn't clear that genetic engineering introduces new threats or greater threats than conventional and mutagenic methods, and given its increased precision may even less threatening.
But the management issues remain as does the need for careful consideration of risks and rewards. Given the potential for wide effects Genovese wonders who should be involved in decision making and what standards they should use for judgement? The post is worth reading in its entirety and the blog is worth repeated visits.
Oliver Kamm comments on politics, economics and culture with such clarity of thinking and writing that you want to agree with him.
"Of course poverty kills, and bad trade policies are an important contributory factor. Developing countries need to trade in order to lift themselves out of poverty. Strategies of import substitution and indicative planning proved a disastrous dead end for sub-Saharan African countries such as Tanzania (and indeed for European countries such as Ireland, whose economic performance has been transformed by openness to trade and foreign direct investment). But the most damaging trade policies are those that arise from domestic distortions within the poor countries themselves, not the destructive protectionism practiced by rich countries.
Given that Stephen [Pollard] is arguing for correct economic policies – the elimination of tariffs and subsidies – does it really matter that his analysis of Third World poverty is partial? Yes, it does. Campaigning against rich-world protectionism as if it were the cause 'directly [of] the death of the poorest of the poor', apart from being founded on a mistake, damages Third World development by lending weight to the economic fallacy that it is 'unfair' to expect developing countries to liberalise their trade practices while they face rich-world protectionism."
Kamm supports his assertions with references and gives the general impression of broad knowledge of his subject, a rarity in commentary by both professional journalists and amateur pundits who most often give the general impression they have cut and pasted together a collection of hastily googled and poorly understood fragments.
I fully agree that it is an economic fallacy to assert "that it is 'unfair' to expect developing countries to liberalise their trade practices while they face rich-world protectionism". But, as noted in my earlier post Crime and Punishment, it is typical human behavior that some have argued is a hard wired attribute connected to fundamental capacities for cooperation, altruism and general sociability. It is a human truth even though it is an economic fallacy.
This may be a classic example of the "is" and "ought" paradox. That humans naturally tend to act against their own best interests in response to instances of perceived unfairness by others doesn't mean that they ought to do so. It may be our nature to behave resentfully and seek revenge even though we sustain damage ourselves, but we can choose to behave sensibly, we are not wholly determined by our natures. The ability to defer gratification of impulses is part of that same package of social capabilities we come by naturally, though it is one that must be nurtured to come to full flower and is most often associated with age and maturity rather than youth and vigor. I suspect that every parent understands this truth and that others may find the idea more difficult to grasp.
Tuesday, September 09, 2003
There's an interesting discussion at Crooked Timber accusing critics of global warming theories of interest and bias, and disparaging net commentary as "actually largely written by bloggers of a libertarian and/or conservative cast of mind to provide easy, prejudice-congenial op-ed-like material."
The discussion isn't interesting in the sense of being informed or insightful on the issues, it's interesting in the sense of revealing the lack of scholarship and analytic skills of the participants, and their own lack of self examination for interest and bias. Chris Bertram, the author of the original post, has some suspicions that his own bias in favor of the theories, formed from political and popular advocacy in the media, just might be unsound. Chris, more than most others at Crooked Timber, has episodes of self examination and doubt which help him be open to new information and understanding.
Most of the comments in the thread fell far, far short of the standard Chris set for open debate but there was one interesting exchange. Chris Geneovese wrote an informed and insightful comment that included a fair accounting of the shameful treatment of Bjorn Lomborg by the media as well as an analysis of the quality of the truth claims made by supporters of global warming theory.
Bertram responded with a link to some comments made by Brad DeLong that essentially support Lomborg's work but states that it isn't enough.
It's not my field of expertise, but as a card-carrying economist I can't help but think that Lomborg is probably right when he condemns Kyoto as a worthless waste of the world's wealth--as something that will be ineffective at fighting global warming and so expensive as to foreclose options to do other things that would be more useful. Lomborg's flaw, however, is that he doesn't spell out what the "other things" we should be doing are. And that's what he needs to do if he wants to advance the ball.
DeLong is right that Lomborg hasn't provided a counter policy to Kyoto but it doesn't seem a fair criticism of Lomborg. It has been a huge effort taken at great personal risk for Lomborg to do so much in helping the world snap out of the Kyoto trance that finding fault that he didn't provide an alternative plan seems stingy.
Climate change cannot be stopped. If there were no humans climate would still change. All living things change the climate. It is thanks to cyanobacteria that we have the oxygen rich reducing environment that makes human life possible. It is thanks to animals and other bacteria that there is any CO2 in the atmosphere at all though it can only be measured in parts per million. Without CO2 there would be no plant life. Similarly, atmospheric methane, another green house gas, is mostly a result of anaerobic bacteria living in swamps, including human made swamps such as rice paddies. The carbon cycle, which is a continuous exchange of carbon in its various forms (CO2, methane etc.) between air, land and seas, is a complex system we only have the dimmest understanding of at present.
Each aspect of the cycle is a complex system in itself. Atmospheric chemistry - the reactions between carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen compounds - is hideously complex and varies markedly with changes in everything from relative concentrations to cyclical cosmic ray bombardment. Biological uptake - the temporary or permanent sequestration of carbon by life forms - is even more complex. Worse, we only have the dimmest understandings of how any of it works, what life forms actually fix the carbon and how their activity is affected by cyclical changes.
An interesting example of this is glomalin, a durable form of carbon found in undisturbed soil. It is produced by Vesicular Arbuscular Mycorrhizal fungi (VAM) as a byproduct of their lives and deaths. VAM also play a key role in enabling plant life. They barter phosphorous, an otherwise immobile essential soil nutrient, to plant roots in exchange for carbohydrate secretions. Glomalin wasn't discovered until 1996 since it is destroyed by plowing and most soil research was done on farm fields. In unplowed land glomalin is extremely durable and accumulates over time to improve soil texture, water holding ability, cation exchange capacity and nutrient uptake by plants. The amount of the earth's total carbon budget sequestered as glomalin in uncultivated soils is huge and we didn't even know it existed until recently.
We know so little. We don't understand the carbon cycle, we don't even know which factors are significant. Carbon is a tiny, tiny fraction of the atmosphere yet it is in extremely high demand by every living thing. Life on earth is made of carbon. We are just beginning to understand how the low concentration of atmospheric carbon inhibits life.
For example, plants breath in CO2 through openings in their leaves, stomata, which open and close (using hydraulic pressure) depending on activity. When there is no light the systems shut down since they lack the energy needed to synthesize plant flesh. Stomata close when not needed to breath since they allow water to escape and make plants wilt. The more CO2 there is in the air the less stomata must be opened to breath and the lower the water loss. Experiments growing plants in elevated CO2 environments indicate that soil moisture can be as much as 10% higher under these conditions, an extremely important consideration since the vast majority of the earth's biosystem is limited by soil moisture during all or part of the year.
The water plants lose while breathing affects the atmosphere as well as the biosphere. Water vapor, the most potent green house gas, cycles between land, sea and atmosphere in a cycle as complex as carbon's. It isn't just evaporation - the change from liquid to gaseous form on exposure to warm air - it is also evapo-transpiration - water vapor emitted by plants when they breath. Rain forests evapo-transpire so much water they create their own rain. In dryer areas plants, especially trees, evapo-transpire so much water that they dry up rivers and create a thick atmospheric haze. One of the environmental restoration projects in S. Africa involves sending crews with chain saws into mountain parks to cut down European tress planted by settlers and gone feral since they evapo-transpire so much water that permanent water courses have become seasonal and withered lowland ecosystems...and cities.
Though it would take a library of books to document what we know and an army of scholars to comprehend it all the most important fact of them all is that we only have the vaguest glimmerings of the entities and their relationships in this complex planetary system of complex systems. It is sheer hubris for politicians to make any claims at all about intentional control of climate change. We have no idea what the consequences of elevated atmospheric CO2 will be. We have no idea whether it is fossil fuel burning, disturbance of soil for agriculture, or some other unsuspected human behavior that has caused increased CO2 concentrations.
We can't trust our measurements of global temperature. Even if we had reliable temperature data we don't understand natural climate cycles related to cyclical ocean current oscillations such as ENSO and PDO (as well as NAO, AO etc. etc.). Some of these oscillations occur over years, some over decades and it is likely that some occur over centuries but we haven't yet identified them since we are just beginners. There are atmospheric oscillations similar to ocean oscillations that cause large changes in the path of high altitude, high speed air flows (jet streams). The planet as a whole oscillates on its axis. The sun oscillates in many ways, has its own weather cycles which affect its planets in myriad ways. The solar system oscillates as it orbits the galactic core. Which of these factors are important? How important? Are the trends we think we see really trends or are they rises and falls that are part of long wave oscialltions?
It's silly to think that we know what the result of global acts will be. But that is not license to do as we wish with no thought for consequences. Spewing various smokes and stinks into the air is never something we should do when avoidable. Plowing up the land, spewing into rivers and setting off nuclear explosions should also be avoided. They are destructive acts done in bad taste. They fail aesthetic, ethical and biological constraint tests in ways we can immediately perceive whether they perturb major systems such as climate or not. We can't stop spewing wastes or digging the land, not yet, but we shouldn't do such things more than necessary to live and we should seek methods to reduce spew.
Monday, September 08, 2003
is part of an issue of Conservation Ecology
focusing on Human Ecosystems: Toward the Integration of Anthropology and Ecosystem Sciences
The quest for an appropriate system of management for tropical ecosystems necessitates that ecologists consider the accumulated experiences of indigenous peoples in their long-term management of local resources, a subject of current ethnoecology. This paper provides data and empirical evidence of an indigenous multiple-use strategy (MUS) of tropical forest management existing in Mexico, that can be considered a case of adaptive management. This conclusion is based on the observation that some indigenous communities avoid common modernization routes toward specialized, unsustainable, and ecologically disruptive systems of production, and yet probably achieve the most successful tropical forest utilization design, in terms of biodiversity conservation, resilience, and sustainability. This analysis relies on an exhaustive review of the literature and the authors' field research. Apparently, this MUS represents an endogenous reaction of indigenous communities to the intensification of natural resource use, responding to technological, demographic, cultural, and economic changes in the contemporary world. This transforms traditional shifting cultivators into multiple-use strategists. Based on a case study, three main features (biodiversity, resilience, and permanence) considered relevant to achieving adaptive and sustainable management of tropical ecosystems are discussed.
I suspect that this sort of system will prove to be even better than the parks approach mentioned in the previous post over the long term. Indigenous communities can't resist encroachment by themselves and need state protection, but they may be more invested in long term preservation and alert to threats.
The fifth World Parks Congress began today in Durban, South Africa. NSU notes that:
Another talking point in Durban will be how best to involve indigenous communities in protecting nature.
"Things work better the more local and devolved they are", says Leon Bennun, director of science and policy at conservation group BirdLife International. "Once people start to recognize why their place is unique and important they want to protect it".
Cool. See Eco-Colonialism for some advocacy for this very thing.
One of the clearer examples of the current confusions about trade and agricultural subsidies is conveniently provided by a CNE report that has been linked by a number of sites. It commits all of the errors of scholarship and analysis committed by naive pundits and journalists.
The report wastes a fair amount of ink in a breathless account of the coming (it's still coming!) Malthusian doom predicted in the 19th century and revived in the 1960s. It cites population growth predictions and current hunger statistics to support gloomy predictions but fails to note that fertility rates have been falling everywhere in the world for decades and have forced population models and predictions to be continuously revised. The expected population peaks go down with every report as modelers using simplistic assumptions are forced by events to adjust their predictions. Similarly, the report fails to note that hunger has been reducing. The current number of food insecure people, perhaps 800 million, is lower than ever though populations have risen. The report notes that the expected population increases will occur in the developing world. Though their estimates of those increases are skewed high and fail to report decreasing rates of growth it is inarguable that there will be significant growth.
What will they eat? The UN expects that the need for food in these developing countries will double in the next 30 years to support increasing population and to improve nutrition for all.
Who will grow this food? Clearly these countries need to grow their own food. It will not be possible for developed countries to increase their food exports enough to make up the shortfall since they are already developed and use the highly productive techniques of modern agriculture. But even if they could the expense of shipping such massive amounts of bulky products across the seas and then the even more massive costs of transporting them inland over bad roads to remote locations would require massive expenditures of resources better used for durable improvements.
How will the LDCs develop their agricultural sector enough to provide for themselves? Where will they get the land, water and fertility? More land will undoubtedly go into cultivation but there isn't enough land to double food production without a steep rise in yields. This will tax the already sparse water supplies in many regions and require massive amounts of industrialization and chemical fertilizers. Enlightened agronomic practices can reduce the amount of imported fertility required to increase yields but not nearly enough.
What will this do to their environments? LDC environments will be massively altered by increased agricultural activity. This is already happening so we can get some indication of the future they will face.
What are the implications of this for trade? LDCs will only be able to export food to developed countries by taking it from the mouths of their own populations. There will be no excess produce for export. It is more likely that developed countries, where populations are stable or falling, will still be required to make up shortfalls. LDCs will have to run as fast as they can just to stay in the same place. The Red Queen was right.
The naive idea that LDCs will be able to lift themselves out of poverty with agricultural exports is preposterous. By the time they have been able to make the investments to improve their infrastructures and so increase productivity their populations will have grown. Luxury goods such as coffee and cocoa that are not grown in developed countries will still be exported, but basic foods such as grains which provide 75% to 90% of the calories for humanity will be eaten on the spot or exported to other LDCs.
The CNE report cites one sensible trade related food issue - developed country barriers to value added products. The classic example is the tariff against candy that prevents Ghana, a major cocoa producer, from manufacturing candy bars for sale in Europe. A tiny portion of the sales price of a candy bar goes for ingredients such as cocoa. Ghana is welcome to that pittance but the major amounts are reserved for European manufacturers. Similar though less compelling cases are cited for textiles and other protected industries.
This is the model for development that LDCs will have to follow. It isn't the export of low value commodities and resources that will lift them out of poverty, it is manufactured goods and services. The most valuable and abundant resource LDCs have is people. Rather than seeking to employ them in inherently low value, low wage activities such as agriculture that have negative labor growth curves as yields increase, employ them in manufacturing and services. This isn't an original or radical idea. India and China as well as other developing countries are already doing this. The various economic tigers of the past decades demonstrated exactly how well it works and are now developed countries.
See previous posts for alternate expressions of these thoughts.
Sunday, September 07, 2003
There's a particularly repellent article
by Goeffrey Nunberg in TAP claiming that There's no more impressive example of using language to alter substance than the right's success in turning liberal into a disparaging word.
He fails to note that the left has done the same to the word conservative and did it earlier. This is especially significant to American liberals who dissent from extreme leftist positions since they are called conservatives, an epithet, and so excluded from what should be a grounding philosophical reference point. Those liberals that have been drummed out of the left are called centrists or conservatives by leftists in the press as a label of dishonor and rejection. This kind of bitter factionalism is nothing new, nothing unique to the US and nothing to be proud of.
The article also fails to note that in much of the world the term liberal means something quite different than it does in the US. Those most aware of this are those who have frequent contact with and interest in Europe, often leftists. There is also some confusion with the term libertarian. There are several reasons why the progressive label might be preferred to liberal. Progressive is a term more nearly in the same continuum as conservative, more clearly describes the difference in temperaments.
That Nunberg doesn't understand this is an indication of his confusion about what both progressivism and conservatism mean. Trying to claim such values as generous social impulses, fairness, strength, pride and common purpose for progressives, and implying that conservatives oppose these values, is silly. The difference between them is in the governance methods favored to implement these values and the rate of change that societies can sustain without stumbling and falling on their faces.
A wise progressive that understands the conservative temperament will make better progress. Rather than demonizing and alienating conservatives the wise progressive appeals to conservative principles and urges faster change. The wise progressive engages the legitimate concerns of conservatives about haste, error and instability and makes credible arguments about how these risks can be dealt with or avoided. Effective use of these tactics by progressive politicians can change the terms of public debate and compel conservative opponents to alter their stances.
The socially divisive, nihilistic tactics of the old and extreme left are increasingly seen as being ineffective relics of the steam age. It is not only that they're old fashioned, they are based on confused and inaccurate views of human behavior and social organization. Conservatives can't be purged from humanity, new ones are born every day. A social system based on marginalizing such people is contrary to the core principles of fairness and generosity. It is wrong in principle and fails in practice.
So, what does this have to do with the Crumb Trail themes of ecology, environment and evolution? Policies affecting these themes are made by the same people as all other social policies and are affected by politics. We could substitute the ideas of environmentalism and developmentalism for those used in the above discussion and retain much of the significance. Most aspects of ecology, environment and evolution are not optional since they are grounded in physical reality, the science of natural systems, but that doesn't prevent the practice of that science from being politicized.
Nunberg's confused advocacy for a divisive approach to politics is confused when applied to any natural system, and human society is a natural system. His old fashioned, insensitive, brute force methods of system domination can be more clearly seen as nihilism and destructiveness when we express them in terms once applied to other natural systems - the struggle with nature, taming nature, conquering nature. It is not a struggle. It is closer to being a dance, something done in coordination with an other to the rhythms of reality. Nature cannot be tamed and still be vital, able to persist and thrive independently. Dancing with a tamed nature would be like dancing with an inflatable doll, hardly satisfying or edifying. Nature cannot be conquered. We are part of nature, there is no we external to that which would be conquered. This is fortunate since it is also eliminates the prospect of dancing with an inflatable doll.
In our politics as in our environmentalism "We must choose how we want to live in the world and what kind of people we want to be but not all choices will result in good outcomes because physical reality constrains the range of aesthetic and ethical choices we might make." Recognizing the character of natural systems and seeking to effect alterations consistent with the requirements of those systems is more likely to be successful than fighting those systems to effect alterations that conflict with reality constraints. Until we evolve a lemony fresh homo futuris we will just have to accept political constraints like any other natural constraint and accept those conservatives as being human too, as deserving of consideration as any other.
Saturday, September 06, 2003
The Land Institute is interesting. They assert that agriculture is a problem, not that it has problems. The whole idea of digging up natural ecosystems and planting shallow rooted, annual seed bearing plants creates unsolvable problems. It kills beneficial soil, reduces ecosystem resilience, and is subject to erosion, drought and pests. It has been a problem for humanity for 10,000 years that has ruined land all over the planet, wherever farming has been practiced.
The main problem is grains - wheat, maize, rice, oats, soya, barley etc. - which provide 75% of the calories humans consume. They are all shallow rooted annuals that have had their brains bred out of them and so need constant coddling and protection. They are juiced up, chemical dependent freaks that can't survive on their own. They are not just unnatural, they are anti-natural.
TLI seeks to develop perennial grasses and forbs that also bear seed like traditional food grains. They would have deep roots and grow in undisturbed soil rich in organic matter and microbial life, like a natural prairie ecosystem. Deep roots in undisturbed soil would make them drought tolerant and erosion resistant. Invasive annual weeds - the cockroaches and rats of the plant world that have followed humans wherever they have gone to live with them in the environments they create - would never have bare soil to get started.
They are doing some fairly sophisticated plant hybridization crossing annual grains with perennial grasses and forbs to create perennial grain plants. Getting past the tricky early generations which are sterile and then selecting for agronomic characteristics across many generations to arrive at a viable food crop plant is difficult, time consuming and expensive but they insist that they have proven the concept already and are making progress. Their methods don't involve genetic engineering but they do manipulate embryos and use some chemical methods such as pressurized nitrous oxide to cause gene doubling in early crosses.
They have an attractive vision of a new agriculture with perennial grain fields to go along with orchards and vineyards which are already perennial. It would greatly reduce all inputs including labor and energy as well as being more environmentally benign. Farmers wouldn't have to plow and plant each year or cultivate for weed control.
Part of the vision is polyculture, mixed variety grain fields that emulate natural meadows. They would benefit from one another's presence and be less susceptible to diseases and pests. It's not clear how these types of fields would be harvested. I sent them an e-mail and asked about that. Stay tuned.