Archive for July, 2007

Joe Bageant & The Ants of Gaia

Sunday, July 8th, 2007

– If you’ve cruised through the Favorite Blogs section on this page, you will have discovered Joe Bageant’s Blog by now. He’s an interesting, brilliant and intellectually uncompromising individual much like Kevin at The Cryptogon.

– He writes from the ordinary man’s perspective and I’ve not read anyone who comes even remotely close to doing it as well as he does.

– In a recent piece he calls The Ants of Gaia, he’s written powerfully about where we are headed and the news is, as they say, not good. I want to reproduce the prophetic quote from Malthus he begins with and then link you over to his site and his piece, The Ants of Gaia.

The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.
Thomas Malthus, 1798

and now onto Joe Bageant’s Site and The Ants of Gaia:

070706 – Friday – Personal favorites

Friday, July 6th, 2007

Favorite nursery customer:

Gallymon, I’m de dog…

Favorite wife:

Gallymon, you ma man!

Favorite E-mail assistant:

Gallymon, dat yo E-mail?

Favorite cat nose:

Gallymon - go away!


— — — —

– Yah. Now you get the drift of what we’re up to here…

my precious

Failed States Index

Friday, July 6th, 2007

– One of the predictions of The Perfect Storm Hypothesis is that as the geopolitical situation becomes more unstable, marginal states will begin to fail and become ungoverned disasters like Somalia. Here are some predictions about which states might go under first.

The Failed States Index Map

The index is compiled using the Fund for Peace’s internationally recognized methodology, the Conflict Assessment System Tool (CAST). It assesses violent internal conflicts and measures the impact of mitigating strategies. In addition to rating indicators of state failure that drive conflict, it offers techniques for assessing the capacities of core state institutions and analyzing trends in state instability.


Arctic spring’s ‘rapid advance’

Friday, July 6th, 2007

Spring in the Arctic is arriving “weeks earlier” than a decade ago, a team of Danish researchers have reported.

Ice in north-east Greenland is melting an average of 14.6 days earlier than in the mid-1990s, bringing forward the date plants flower and birds lay eggs.

The team warned that the observed changes could disrupt the region’s ecosystems and food chain, affecting the long-term survival of some species.

The findings have been published in the journal Current Biology.

The scientists assessed how a range of species’ behaviour was affected by the changing climate in Zackenberg, north-east Greenland, between 1996 and 2005.

Observation of 21 species – six plants, 12 arthropods and three birds – revealed that the organisms had brought forward their flowering, emergence or egg-laying in line with the earlier ice melt.

“We were particularly surprised to see the trends were so strong when considering that the entire summer is very short in the High Arctic – just three or four months from snowmelt to freeze-up,” said co-author Toke Hoye, from the University of Aarhus.


FDA Scrutiny Scant In India, China as Drugs Pour Into U.S.

Friday, July 6th, 2007

Broad Overseas Checks Called Too Costly

India and China, countries where the Food and Drug Administration rarely conducts quality-control inspections, have become major suppliers of low-cost drugs and drug ingredients to American consumers. Analysts say their products are becoming pervasive in the generic and over-the-counter marketplace.

Over the past seven years, amid explosive growth in imports from India and China, the FDA conducted only about 200 inspections of plants in those countries, and a few were the kind that U.S. firms face regularly to ensure that the drugs they make are of high quality.

The agency, which is responsible for ensuring the safety of drugs for Americans wherever they are manufactured, made 1,222 of these quality-assurance inspections in the United States last year. In India, which has more plants making drugs and drug ingredients for American consumers than any other foreign nation, it conducted a handful.

Companies based in India were bit players in the American drug market 10 years ago, selling just eight generic drugs here. Today, almost 350 varieties and strengths of antidepressants, heart medicines, antibiotics and other drugs purchased by American consumers are made by Indian manufacturers.


F.D.A. Tracked Poisoned Drugs, but Trail Went Cold in China

Friday, July 6th, 2007

After a drug ingredient from China killed dozens of Haitian children a decade ago, a senior American health official sent a cable to her investigators: find out who made the poisonous ingredient and why a state-owned company in China exported it as safe, pharmaceutical-grade glycerin.

The Chinese were of little help. Requests to find the manufacturer were ignored. Business records were withheld or destroyed.

The Americans had reason for alarm. “The U.S. imports a lot of Chinese glycerin and it is used in ingested products such as toothpaste,” Mary K. Pendergast, then deputy commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration, wrote on Oct. 27, 1997. Learning how diethylene glycol, a syrupy poison used in some antifreeze, ended up in Haitian fever medicine might “prevent this tragedy from happening again,” she wrote.

The F.D.A.’s mission ultimately failed. By the time an F.D.A. agent visited the suspected manufacturer, the plant was shut down and Chinese companies said they bore no responsibility for the mass poisoning.

Ten years later it happened again, this time in Panama. Chinese-made diethylene glycol, masquerading as its more expensive chemical cousin glycerin, was mixed into medicine, killing at least 100 people there last year. And recently, Chinese toothpaste containing diethylene glycol was found in the United States and seven other countries, prompting tens of thousands of tubes to be recalled.

The F.D.A.’s efforts to investigate the Haiti poisonings, documented in internal F.D.A. memorandums obtained by The New York Times, demonstrate not only the intransigence of Chinese officials, but also the same regulatory failings that allowed a virtually identical poisoning to occur 10 years later. The cases further illustrate what happens when nations fail to police the global pipeline of pharmaceutical ingredients.

In Haiti and Panama, the poison was traced to Chinese chemical companies not certified to make pharmaceutical ingredients. State-owned exporters then shipped the toxic syrup to European traders, who resold it without identifying the previous owner — an attempt to keep buyers from bypassing them on future orders.

As a result, most of the buyers did not know that the ingredient came from China, known for producing counterfeit products, nor did they show much interest in finding out.


– This article is from the NY Times and they insist that folks have an ID and a PW in order to read their stuff. You can get these for free just by signing up. However, recently, a friend of mine suggested the website :arrow: as an alternative to having to do these annoying sign ups. Check it out. Thx Bruce S. for the tip.

As More Toys Are Recalled, Trail Ends in China

Friday, July 6th, 2007

WASHINGTON, June 18 — China manufactured every one of the 24 kinds of toys recalled for safety reasons in the United States so far this year, including the enormously popular Thomas & Friends wooden train sets, a record that is causing alarm among consumer advocates, parents and regulators.

The latest recall, announced last week, involves 1.5 million Thomas & Friends trains and rail components — about 4 percent of all those sold in the United States over the last two years by RC2 Corporation of Oak Brook, Ill. The toys were coated at a factory in China with lead paint, which can damage brain cells, especially in children.

Just in the last month, a ghoulish fake eyeball toy made in China was recalled after it was found to be filled with kerosene. Sets of toy drums and a toy bear were also recalled because of lead paint, and an infant wrist rattle was recalled because of a choking hazard.

Over all, the number of products made in China that are being recalled in the United States by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission has doubled in the last five years, driving the total number of recalls in the country to 467 last year, an annual record.

It also means that China today is responsible for about 60 percent of all product recalls, compared with 36 percent in 2000.


– This article is from the NY Times and they insist that folks have an ID and a PW in order to read their stuff. You can get these for free just by signing up. However, recently, a friend of mine suggested the website :arrow: as an alternative to having to do these annoying sign ups. Check it out. Thx Bruce S. for the tip.

How do we know we’re not wrong?

Wednesday, July 4th, 2007

– Big thanks to Michael Tobias over at Only in it for the Gold for posting this link.

As he says, “All sincere doubters ought to consider Naomi Oreskes’ excellent overview of the state of knowledge about anthropogenic climate change in specific, and about how we collectively come to know anything about anything in general.

– Bravo, Michael and very big bravo, Naomi!

070704 – Wednesday – How little we know – more…

Wednesday, July 4th, 2007

– the conversation my previous post referred to has continued. Today, one of my correspondents posed a question to the group. He asked how can we have development and go forward if we are agonizing all the time (paralysis by analysis) about unintended consequences?

– Another correspondent answered that in the case of something like a new AIDS drug, the scientists involved would weigh the benefits predicted from the drug against the possible risks and if they found that the world’s population would benefit, they would proceed.

– I liked that formulation a lot and said so but I also thought that it missed the point of where most of our problems with unintended consequences derive from.


I believe the optimal solution to these quandaries, regarding unintended consequences and development, doesn’t lie within our civilization or within human behavior and goals as they are currently configured.

So long as human beings are blindly acting out their biological imperatives and so long as our civilization is predicated on the idea that its future health depends on its continuing growth, and so long as we operate under systems which put profits and personal gains above the good of people en masse, then the kinds of problems posed here seem, to me, inevitable.

In a possible future world wherein mankind has transcended its biological imperatives and reoriented to living within a fixed footprint on the Earth which is small enough to allow it to live within the planet’s renewable resources and thus establish a steady-state balance with the biosphere and allow the rest of biological evolution here on Earth to continue its progress without our interference,    in *that* world many of our quandaries would be diminished.

In that world, all major decisions would be critiqued first with regard to how well they would augment or degrade mankind’s consciously chosen primary goals (fixed footprint, live within the renewables, maintain a steady-state balance, don’t interfere with biological evolution). And I think it would also be a given that once those core criteria had been satisfied, then the next critique, on something new that was proposed for implementation, would be to consider the health and happiness of the human population. No longer in the top rank of our criteria for implementation would be the vested interests of the powerful, the profit margins of the corporations, or whether or not investors could continue to make good profits.

As human beings, we might feel this order is backwards (the idea that we would consider the biosphere first) – but then, that is a good deal of what’s wrong with today’s world, isn’t it?  People and the implementation of their desires (read biological imperatives) are ascendant over everything and thus all balance is lost.

In our current world, our choices (or the choices made for us) are frequently a function of how well those choices support the expansionist goals of individuals, states or corporations and this is very destructive.


But, I have to stop and acknowledge here that this line of thought I’ve developed is truly distant and removed from the world as we now know it. And, while it may be interesting to think about, it isn’t likely to be manifested anytime soon and thus it is not immediately relevant to solving the kinds of questions M. and J. were discussing here.

M. wondered how science might deal with the kinds of concerns I raised about unintended consequences without stifling development of future products (“paralysis through analysis”).

J., discussing the development of a potential new AIDS related drug, replied that an analysis of the predicted benefits vs. the lack of any concrete information about potential adverse consequences, would probably lead scientists to conclude that developing the drug would be in the bests interest’s of the world’s population.

I couldn’t agree more with all of this. We have to go forward and solve the problems before us and the best analysis we can muster of risks vs. benefits to the world’s population is our best and only way to proceed.

But not all development decisions are driven by considerations of what’s best for human populations are they? Nor are they driven by long term concerns of what’s best for the biosphere (of which we are a part and a beneficiary).   No, many decisions we make are driven by profit and power motives; personal, state and corporate.

And this is where I think we need to look closely at the problem and drive the wedge.

All you said, J., is good. If only all decisions were actually made based on what’s best for the world’s population. But, sadly, it is not so.

So when I raise flags about unintended consequences, I am primarily referring to those consequences which derive from decisions focused on profit or power or other goals other than the good of the world’s population.

I know that in some drug trials, those primarily driven by science and compassion for people, there will still be unintended consequences occasionally – it’s unavoidable. But I trust that in these cases, we’ve done what we could to be careful and therefore the problems that do result, while regrettable, are unavoidable unless we want to simply stop all forward progress.

But when we develop chemicals for profit and strew them throughout our environments so that companies can provide good investment returns to their stock holders, I am less accepting of it.

When we set up limits on things like lead in our water and we set the lower acceptable level based on industry testimony as to what they can ‘afford’ to deal with rather than on what’s best for the human populations involved, I am less accepting of it.

Does Craig Venter genuinely want to develop custom bacteria for the good of the world’s populations? Or is there the promise of huge profits involved in these decisions? Does he want to create these bacteria so that the world will be safer and saner place for its inhabitants in the future? Or because he and his backers want to create tools which will allow the run-away expansion of the biochemical industry to go even faster for even bigger profits?

We need to recognize that to the extend that our decisions are driven in favor of profits and corporations, in favor of vested interests and the wealthy and NOT in favor of the health and welfare of the world’s population, to this extend, we are just asking for a major harvest of unintended consequences.

I’m not suggesting that we stop development and progress, I am strongly suggesting that until they are driven by the good of the wold’s population rather than profits, the population will suffer. And this is, to me, really the point of all this.

070703 – Tuesday – How little we know

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2007

A friend of mine wrote me the other day and objected to some comments of mine about an article from the New York Times entitled, “From a Few Genes, Life’s Myriad Shapes”. The article was about an entirely new way of looking at how evolution proceeds – not by codon mutations but by small changes in the degree to which genes are expressed.

Specifically, he questioned my statement that, “As human beings, we seem constitutionally unable to think well about what we don’t know.” I had been reacting to the fact that breakthroughs like this tend to point up just how very much we don’t yet know. An observation which is at odds with the observable fact that normally as human beings we are quite obsessed and pleased with ourselves over how much we do know – and don’t think much about what we don’t know.

Interestingly, just a day or so later, he sent along another article about some work Craig Venter‘s doing. He’s going to make a new bacteria from scratch. He’s going to create a new form of life never before seen on Earth.

I found it hard to think of anything my friend could have sent that would have provided me a better example of what I’m concerned about.

Molecular Biology is an area we only partially understand. In just the last five years, there have been two major revolutions in our understanding. The first was when we came to understand that much of what we previously thought of as ‘Junk DNA’ in our genomes was really part of a major system of RNA regulation running in parallel with the DNA mechanisms we’d previous understood. Then, much more recently, as described in the article about “From a Few Genes, Life’s Myriad Shapes” it was revealed that we’ve now suddenly understood that much of evolution doesn’t occur because of actual mutations in the codons but rather because of changes in the set-points of gene expressions.

Nature’s had over three billion years to work out ever more and more deeply intertwined and complex systems of molecular machinery and humanity is just embarking on understanding small parts of it. Every breakthrough we make reveals, in part, the depth of our previous lack of understanding.

Now Venter wants to make an artificial bacteria. He wants to make something completely new to biology. Has no one heard of the Law of Unintended Consequences? Has no one read “Cat’s Cradle” and the fictional saga of Ice-9?

But, back to my original thought that, “As human beings, we seem constitutionally unable to think well about what we don’t know.” I submit that we tend to focus the vast majority of our thoughts and considerations on what we know and only a small amount on what we don’t know. And, I also believe that we are largely incapable of doing it any other way. When we evolved, there were few survival payoffs for those who could think about what we didn’t yet know. Evolution didn’t create us to have clear perceptions – it created us to survive and it didn’t care if that played havoc with the fidelity of our perceptions or not.

But, to get a better grip on what true fidelity in thinking might look like (and I’m contending that our current manner of thinking most definitely lacks fidelity in the sense that it does not accurately represent reality as it can be shown to exist), consider the following:

Ever since the Enlightenment, mankind has been discovering new things that it did not previously know. The implication, by simple extrapolation, is that there is an enormous amount of stuff to still be discovered in the future. And, I’d contend further that this stuff we don’t yet know is probably far vaster than the small amount we have grasped to date.

So, an accurate fidelity-based, manner of thinking about reality would always ground itself in the fact that regardless of what we do know, we must consciously acknowledge that there’s always a vastly larger amount of stuff that we don’t know about and it is just as significant, if not more significant, as what we know.

Seen in this light, our inattention to what we don’t know combined with the Law of Unintended Consequences, implies huge risks to us. Especially in molecular biology where we are aborigines who’ve understood only a few things here and there out of the vast collection of machinery we are gazing at.

And now, Mr. Venter is going to cobble up some new ersatz bacteria and potentially turn them loose in the natural mix. It makes as much sense to me as dropping wrenches into a huge system of whirling gears to see if they’ll make things better or worse. Oh, I understand that they will take precautions and try to make the little bugs innocous. I’m sure they will – but the Law of Unintended Consequences has bit us over and over again. And we are messing with deadly serious stuff here.

I’ve written about this general idea here before.

When we send the Shuttle into orbit, the engineers try to work out every possible contingency and have a back up plan for everything. And, in spite of their best efforts, we’ve lost two shuttles over the years. I guarantee you that the shuttles and all of their systems are far far less complex that the biochemistry we depend on for life.

So why then do we think nothing of inventing chemicals that have never been seen before in the natural world and putting them into our fields and our water and even our foods (Tran fats). Bird shells are breaking, frogs are dying, human females are reaching menarche much earlier than before, the sex of fish are changing in the streams, many types of cancer are on the rise. God only knows how many ghosts we have loosed in the machine which have yet to reappear. We are messing badly with natural systems we don’t understand and we are mostly oblivious to the fact that we are pissing into our own (and our only) watering holes.

We have the ability to understand many of our foibles. Just look at this list of cognitive biases.

Given that we make these mistakes over and over again to the point where academics have defined them, wouldn’t it seem like we should try to educate ourselves to transcend these predictable and well understood sources of confusion?

Given that we understand the concept of fidelity in perception, wouldn’t it make sense that we should try to understand where our lack of such fidelity leads us astray?

E.O. Wilson, in “The Future of Life“, made much of the fact that our perceptions and our thinking were not evolved for fidelity but rather for survival.

We know that one’s best hope of dealing effectively and efficiently with the problems that confront one depends on having accurate (good fidelity) perceptions of how the things that are causing us problems work.

We really need to start putting some of these ideas together for our own benefit.

So, yes, I stand by my assertion that, “As human beings, we seem constitutionally unable to think well about what we don’t know.” And, I don’t think it is just an interesting question for philosophers who like to ponder obscure stuff.

I think it is a critical problem for our species right now in our evolution and particularly now as we’re about to go into what E.O. Wilson calls “The Bottleneck” and what I’ve been calling “The Perfect Storm“.

We don’t understand ourselves and what motivates us. We don’t understand the natural world around us but we have no apparent fear of messing with it inordinately. And we don’t understand or acknowledge our limitations. Frankly, we are a mess and our world shows it.

In short, there is a huge amount that we don’t understand – including the fact that there’s a huge amount that we don’t understand that is directly relevant to our survival in the near future. And we go on, most of us, convinced that we understand most of what’s important and the small bits that are left can’t be that important.

Can you say Hubris?