Archive for May, 2009

US CO2 goals ‘to be compromised’

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

US Energy Secretary Steven Chu says the US will not be able to cut greenhouse emissions as much as it should due to domestic political opposition.

Prof Chu told BBC News he feared the world might be heading towards a tipping point on climate change.

This meant the US had to cut emissions urgently – even if compromises were needed to get new laws approved.

Environmentalists said Prof Chu, a Nobel physicist, should be guided by science not politics.

The American political system is in the throes of a fierce battle over climate policy. President Barack Obama says he wants cuts in greenhouse gases but has left it to Congress to make the political running.

The House of Representatives is debating a climate and energy bill but even if it passes it may be rejected by senators, many of whom are funded by the energy industry.

Prof Chu is a Nobel prize-winning physicist and a world expert on clean energy. But he said it was impossible to ignore political reality.

“With each successive year the news on climate change has not been good and there’s a growing sensation that the world and the US in particular has to get moving,” he said.


The exclusive rich club trying to save the planet

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

It is the most elite club in the world. Ordinary people need not apply and there is no way to ask to join. You simply have to be very, very rich and very, very generous. On a global scale.

This is the Good Club, the name given to the tiny global elite of billionaire philanthropists who recently held their first and highly secretive meeting in the heart of New York City.

The names of some of the members are familiar figures: Bill Gates, George Soros, Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey, David Rockefeller and Ted Turner. But there are others, too, like business giants Eli and Edythe Broad, who are equally wealthy but less well known. All told, its members are worth US$125 billion ($195 billion).

The meeting – called by Gates, Buffett and Rockefeller – was held in response to the global economic downturn and the numerous health and environmental crises plaguing the globe. It was, in some ways, a summit to save the world.


Incremental Change and Sudden Change

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

– It’s odd the things you find when you are off looking for something else.   I came across the piece, below, this afternoon.   It was one of the tens of thousands of files I have on my system dating back for quite a few years.   Its title was “27Jun” and it was in a folder labeled 2001.

– I’ve long since forgotten why I wrote it.   Back then, I wasn’t Blogging nor was I writing for the local newspaper.

– But I remember what was going on then.  I’d been having intense lunches and conversations with a friend of mine from Motorola where I worked for several years.  Many important insights that I still treasure date from those lunches and conversations.

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I’ve been thinking about incremental change and sudden change. I was talking at lunch recently with a friend about politics and the kinds of changes that will be needed if the human race is to have any hope of establishing a steady state balance with the biosphere before we make a complete mess of the natural world.

In our conversation, I was pushing for the sudden change model and, as an example of the deficiency of the incremental method, I cited what I believe happens to governments over time. I said that even if governments, like the US government, could be restarted so that they are free of the baggage of historical precedence, they will build up a new and terrible tangle of complexity again over time. This happens because in an incremental, from the inside, change based system, each attempt to remedy a perceived fault generally results in another ad-hoc addition to the rules or constraints on the system.

The US tax code, I said, is a good example. The usual method of improving it is to add more rules to amend loopholes or to provide special case exceptions to deal with fundamental oversights at a deeper level. Sometimes changes are made just to subvert the basic intent of the law for a sufficiently powerful special interest group. With something like the Tax Code, it is rare when any of the existing structure is taken down. Too many folks have a vested interest in maintaining the existing structure as it is since they’ve learned, over time, how to work the system in that form.

The net result in such systems is that they effectively become less and less malleable over time as their complexity and gridlock increase. Unfortunately, in a world where the survival of the fittest is equated to adaptability, this is generally not a good thing.

I said that I had read somewhere that only wars and revolutions historically free the logjams governmental systems get into.  These events shattering the existing systems and power structures. Marx’s Historical Dialectic concept dealt with these cathartic reorganizations.

I concluded that the best way therefore to focus on meaningful large-scale change was to not try to solve the problems from within. I said that if the overall design of a city’s layout is bad, you can put up traffic lights and paint new crosswalks as much as you like and you’re only deferring and denying the real problem. The real solution, as painful as it may be, is that some buildings and roads may need to be moved or destroyed.

I was satisfied with my arguments at lunch. It wasn’t until later when I looked at it all again that I began to have some doubts.

Often, when I’m trying to work something like this out, I try to see how the issue plays out in nature. In this case, I asked myself what does evolutionary biology reveal about the applicability of the incremental and sudden change methods. The insights I got surprised me.

Biological evolution is a system under continual pressure to change and adapt. Other animals learn a new trick and now your species has to come up with a counter trick or perish. Global weather patterns change and suddenly your species has to deal with significantly hotter or colder temperatures or perish. I asked myself, does nature make her changes incrementally or suddenly; does she work from within the system or from without.

And the answer I saw, was that she clearly, albeit unconsciously, works from within using the incremental model. For example, our DNA is the result of a string of incremental changes several billion years long. Biological evolution is a bit like what archaeologists find when they dig up ancient city sites. Layer after layer built one atop the other. What went before becomes the foundation for what comes after. And it isn’t that the old is replaced by the new. Rather, the old remains and becomes part of the new. ontogeny-recapitulates-phylogenyThere’s a pithy phrase from a German Biologist named Ernst Heinrich Haeckel that fits here – “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”. That’s a mouthful but what it encapsulates is the recognition that as a fetus grows, it appears to pass through all of the stages of previous evolution in rapid succession. In other words, you can see the overlays of mammalian development atop reptilian development atop amphibious development and on and on back through our entire evolutionary history.

You see, it isn’t as if nature one day sweeps her arm across the table and tosses the entire reptilian DNA off to the side and says, “Now I’m going to put together a DNA structure to form a Mammalian animal.” No, the change from the reptilian to the mammalian form was a gradual and incremental change. New genes and functions, which evolved through mutation and which underwent the weeding of Natural Selection proved fitter than what went before. At the same time, other genes functionally turned off or degraded without consequence.

One of the things that evolutionary biologists are finding now that the human genome is being mapped is that there is a lot of DNA that apparently does nothing. I believe I recall that in some chromosomes, the unused or inactive portion approaches 50%. Just like the ancient cities, the old is discarded and becomes, in part, the foundation for what is built atop it.

Now. someone might observe, animals do go extinct, don’t they? Yes, each line of animals, or species if you will, is an experiment in competition with the other lines, just as each human government is an experiment in competition with other governments.

A famous biologist (R.A Fischer, I think) once said, and I have to paraphrase here, that “The better adapted an organism is to a specific environment, the less adaptable it is to changes in its environment.” Think of the Giraffe and what will happen to it if the tall trees and savanna it depends on disappear due to global climate.  Or think of the Panda Bear that eats nothing but the leaves of a single tree; the Eucalyptus and how vulnerable that mmakes the Panda as a species. Conversely, consider why some animals are so successful. The rat and the cockroach, for example, because they are evolutionary pragmatists prepared to fit into whatever niche is available rather than depending on a specific set of circumstances. Ask yourself, between the anteater’s nose and the opposable thumb, which will better survive unexpected changes in their environments.

Societies and nations can suffer from overspecialization as well. Consider a system that overly focuses on a social ideal like Communism with its creed, “To each according to his need and from each according to their ability.” For such societies to flourish, the people who populate them need to overcome their all too human tendencies to look out for themselves and their families first and follow the ideals of the state – and as the general demise of Communism has shown, that just wasn’t in the cards.

Consider another example of social or national overspecialization called Capitalism. I.e., that we should work to create and concentrate wealth. This is the exact opposite of Communism. In this system, it is good to look out for you and yours. Capitalism works very well because it plays to the natural tendencies of humans who are, after all animals still mostly in the grip of evolutionary competition.   A competition that says you must dominate your niche so that you can propagate your genes. We call it by fancier names but it is just a higher level expression of the same basic drives.

nested-boxesSo, how is Capitalism overspecialized? Well, because like boxes one within the other, there are multiple games afoot here. Capitalism might dominate the other forms of social or governmental organization because it most closely complements our natural animal drives but at some point the incessant consumption of natural resources to create wealth will collide with the simple fact that we live on a planet of finite size with finite resources. At that point our overspecialization in the Capitalist life-style, always pushing for the creation of wealth, will be seen for what it is and it will become incumbent on us to reorganize our priorities and give up this specialization – or perish (or at least undergo a severe die-back).

Capitalism works only so long as there are still sufficient unused resources to plow through. The giraffe will survive so long as the tall tree and the savanna are there.

Capitalism is a one-trick pony. It knows how to use natural resources to create wealth. Because there are still more resources to use, it hasn’t yet encountered the consequences of its overspecialization.

I said a moment ago that there are other games afoot here. Out fundamental biological imperative, which is to survive, will be imperiled when we begin to run out of resources to fund our growth. When Capitalism finally encounters the finite limits of the planet and its resources, it will become apparent to all that we have to reorganize our priorities to come into a steady-state balance with whatever remains of the natural environment – or die.

One other remark before I return to the original theme I began on. I said that biological evolution works from within incrementally. That is true. And, left on her own, this is the only way nature has available to her. She has no consciousness with which to direct the evolutionary process or with which to consider her game plan.  She cannot, therefore, effect wide reaching reorganization, except incrementally. She has to plod from where ever she is to the next better place via mutation and selection.

With one exception, that is.

meteor-strikeIn the history of the planet’s biological evolution, there have been several severe extinctions. These were times in the planet’s history when something so catastrophic happened that most of the species existing at the time were wiped out. These events, generally thought have been caused by comet or meteor impact or major climate shifts due to variations in the sun’s output or the Earth’s orbit, have done the same for nature that wars and revolutions do for mankind’s governments.

Therefore, it is true to say that biological change in nature works from within incrementally. But there is a larger more encompassing point of view, within which our biological evolution just happens to be something going on on the Earth.   And the Earth exists as one component of the larger solar system. From this point of view, external events in the solar system can impinge on the Earth’s local system of biological evolution from outside and provide it with major reorganizations, which earth-bound evolutionary processes could not otherwise experience – unless it worked itself into a complete corner.

The bottom line is that biological evolution effectively works both ways; sudden and incremental.

So, back to the original theme of incremental change verses sudden change and how they can be used to effect the kinds of changes that will have to happen if the human race is to have any hope of establishing itself in a steady state balance with the biosphere before we make a complete mess of the natural world.

For, if we don’t do something, we will work ourselves into that complete corner I alluded too a moment ago and nature’s way of dealing with the situation will be a major die-off of some unpleasant sort.

Which then is the better approach for trying to change things?

Well, we have a very strong advantage that nature doesn’t have. We have an independent consciousness with which to consider our actions and their consequences. Unconscious nature has to play the evolution game from the inside blindly letting mutation and selection always guide the way with the occasional help from a comet here or there. We, as human beings, can do what she cannot. We can think about where we want to get to and plan how to make it happen.

When nature’s evolutionary processes chanced upon creating a generalized intelligence sufficient to support self-awareness, abstraction and natural language, it was a major advance but also an extremely dangerous one.

At once, she had crossed the Rubicon because, with this advance, she had effectively given the guidance of evolution over to the evolved.  She had loosened the unconscious but effective checks and balances which had kept all of the competing forces within biological evolution balanced off against each other.

If we do not expand our vision beyond the scope of our small nationalisms and our current modes of organizing ourselves govenmentally, then we, like nature, shall be doomed to only be able to attempt change incrementally from the inside.  And the prevalent vested interests within that ‘inside’ will prevent and stifle any truly significant changes. We need to see beyond our nations and governments and think about what is best for our species and, indeed, for the entire biosphere of which we are just one resident species.

We should think of where we need to get to in terms of social organization if we are to establish a steady state relationship with the biosphere. Once we’ve decided this, we have available to us both forms of change; the incremental and the sudden. Once we’ve decided what our number one priority is, then it follows, mathematically, that all other priorities must give way.

If we want to survive, we must not be afraid to question everything; our governments, our right to conceive as many children as we each wish, our cultures, our resource consumption, etc., etc., etc.

You know, the subject of incremental change verses sudden change wasn’t nearly as simple as I thought over lunch.

World Bank warns of social unrest

Monday, May 25th, 2009

The head of the World Bank has warned that the global economic crisis could lead to serious social upheaval.

“If we do no take measures, there is a risk of a serious human and social crisis with very serious political implications,” Robert Zoellick said.

He pointed to Eastern Europe, which faces the “tricky situation” of fast-shrinking economies and protests.

Mr Zoellick suggested governments should start preparing for high levels of unemployment.

“In my opinion, in this context, nobody really knows what is going to happen and the best one can do is be ready for any eventuality,” Mr Zoellick said in an interview with Spain’s El Pais newspaper.

“There is also what I call the ‘X-factor’, that one can not foresee,” such as the recent outbreak of swine flu, he said.

“Latin America has remained reasonably stable, even if Mexico and Central America are under pressure because they rely a lot on the North American market,” Mr Zoellick added.

It was reported last week that Mexico’s economy shrank by 8.2% in the first three months of this year compared with a year earlier. Mexico sends 80% of its exports to the US.

Other economies in Eastern Europe have registered double-digit declines in GDP, such as Latvia and Estonia, while the retiring Bank of England rate-setter David Blanchflower has said at least one million more people in the UK will lose their jobs.

The World Bank has previously warned of a “human catastrophe” in the world’s poorest countries unless more is done to tackle the global economic crisis.


U.S. Chief of Staff: Iran within 3 years of nuclear weapon

Monday, May 25th, 2009

Iran could be within one to three years from developing a nuclear weapon and time is running out for diplomacy to defuse the problem, the top U.S. military officer said on Sunday.

The assessment from Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, matched that of some independent analysts but appeared to go further than recent official statements from the U.S. government.

“Most of us believe that it’s one to three years, depending on assumptions about where they are right now. But they are moving closer, clearly, and they continue to do that,” Mullen said on ABC’s “This Week.”


Netherlands to close prisons for lack of criminals

Monday, May 25th, 2009
– I just wrote the other day here: about how things are in the Netherlands with respect to their medical and social systems.  And now here’s this.  Yes, folks – there are better models than we are using here in the U.S.
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The Dutch justice ministry has announced it will close eight prisons and cut 1,200 jobs in the prison system. A decline in crime has left many cells empty.

During the 1990s the Netherlands faced a shortage of prison cells, but a decline in crime has since led to overcapacity in the prison system. The country now has capacity for 14,000 prisoners but only 12,000 detainees.

Deputy justice minister Nebahat Albayrak announced on Tuesday that eight prisons will be closed, resulting in the loss of 1,200 jobs. Natural redundancy and other measures should prevent any forced lay-offs, the minister said.

The overcapacity is a result of the declining crime rate, which the ministry’s research department expects to continue for some time.


– Hat tip to Cryptogon for this story

China stuck in ‘dollar trap’

Monday, May 25th, 2009

– Yes, as I see it, China is in a fatal embrace with the U.S.   Now that the two of them have engaged with each other, neither can let go without a major problem.  The U.S. needs China to keep buying our government debt so we don’t collapse and China has to keep buying our debt or it risks a severe devaluation of what it has already invested in the U.S. dollar.   Moody’s sees the problem here and is beginning to talk about taking the U.S.’s rating down a notch from the current top-tier Triple A rating it has now.

– And I’m not the only one who see this.   Check this quote from an article about Niall Ferguson new book, The Ascent of Money in Vanity Fair:

How badly could the Chinese screw us if they wanted to?

Well, they would have a difficulty in that they would kind of be screwing themselves. This is their dilemma. There’s a sort of “death embrace” quality to this, I think that someone’s talked about mutually assured financial destruction. The Chinese have got, we know, reserves in the region of $1.9 trillion, and 70 percent [of it is] dollar denominated, probably. That’s a huge pile of treasury bonds, not to mention Fannie and Freddie debt that they’ve accumulated over the last decade, when they’ve been intervening to keep their currency weak, and earning these vast amounts of foreign currency by running these trade surpluses. Now, politically, it might be quite tempting for the Chinese to phone up and say, “We really disagree with you about, let’s say, Taiwan and Japan and North Korea. You’d better listen to us, because otherwise, People’s Bank of China starts selling ten-year treasuries, and then you guys are dead.”

But then their investments become worthless.

Then you lose about five percent of China’s GDP, and that’s a hard sell—even for an authoritarian regime. So, they have a dilemma, and they are discovering the ancient truth that, when the debt is big enough, it’s the debtor who has the power, not the creditor.

But, then again, these things aren’t always the result of calculated policy, decisions. There’s a sense in which a catalyst elsewhere could force the hand of People’s Bank of China. It doesn’t need to be the Chinese who start the run of the dollar. It could be Middle Eastern investors.

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By Jamil Anderlini in Beijing

China’s official foreign exchange manager is still buying record amounts of US government bonds, in spite of Beijing’s increasingly vocal fear of a dollar collapse, according to officials and analysts.

Senior Chinese officials, including Wen Jiabao, the premier, have repeatedly signalled concern that US policies could lead to a collapse in the dollar and global inflation.

But Chinese and western officials in Beijing said China was caught in a “dollar trap” and has little choice but to keep pouring the bulk of its growing reserves into the US Treasury, which remains the only market big enough and liquid enough to support its huge purchases.

In March alone, China’s direct holdings of US Treasury securities rose $23.7bn to reach a new record of $768bn, according to preliminary US data, allowing China to retain its title as the biggest creditor of the US government.

“Because of the sheer size of its reserves Safe [China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange] will immediately disrupt any other market it tries to shift into in a big way and could also collapse the value of its existing reserves if it sold too many dollars,” said a western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The composition of China’s reserves is a state secret but dollar assets are estimated to comprise as much as 70 per cent of the $1,953bn total and China owns nearly a quarter of the US debt held by foreigners, according to US Treasury data.


Pakistan Is Rapidly Adding Nuclear Arms, U.S. Says

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

– Well, this sure makes me feel better.    Everyone’s worried if we can all keep Pakistan’s nuclear materials out of the hands of the Islamic Fundamentalists and Pakistan’s response is to build more as fast as it can.

– You know these weapons are not intended to be used to defend themselves against the fundamentalists because those folks are scattered in a guerrilla insurgency.   No, this stuff is all about Pakistan’s rivalry with India.   National sized egos is what we’re talking here.   Scary stuff.

– Not scared?   Go back and read the earlier stories: , and

– Oh yeah, and don’t forget this one…


WASHINGTON — Members of Congress have been told in confidential briefings that Pakistan is rapidly adding to its nuclear arsenal even while racked by insurgency, raising questions on Capitol Hill about whether billions of dollars in proposed military aid might be diverted to Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the assessment of the expanded arsenal in a one-word answer to a question on Thursday in the midst of lengthy Senate testimony. Sitting beside Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, he was asked whether he had seen evidence of an increase in the size of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal.

“Yes,” he said quickly, adding nothing, clearly cognizant of Pakistan’s sensitivity to any discussion about the country’s nuclear strategy or security.

Inside the Obama administration, some officials say, Pakistan’s drive to spend heavily on new nuclear arms has been a source of growing concern, because the country is producing more nuclear material at a time when Washington is increasingly focused on trying to assure the security of an arsenal of 80 to 100 weapons so that they will never fall into the hands of Islamic insurgents.


More on Blood Pressure medicines

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

oopsI’ve published twice ( and ) now on Big Pharma, Blood Pressure medicines and the ALLHAT Study that has shown (and been replicated) that cheap diuretic pills are equal or superior to the expensive blood pressure medicines Big Pharma is pushing.

Well, the other day, I went in to see my GP and I carried along a copy of the most recent study replicating the 2002 ALLHAT Study’s conclusions.   I wanted to talk with him about this because he’s prescribed one of these blood pressure medicines for me (Diovan).

He agreed that if the measure is just how much the pills lower one’s blood pressure, then diuretic pills may, indeed, be equal or superior to Big Pharma’s products.  But, he also said that there was more to the big picture than just looking at the blood pressure values.

The blood pressure medicine he prescribes for me, Diovan, is part of the class of blood pressure medicines called Angiotensin II Receptor Blockers (ARB).   Other drugs in this class are: candesartan (ATACAND), eprosartan (TEVETAN), irbesartan (AVAPRO), telmisartan (MYCARDIS), valsartan (DIOVAN), and losartan (COZAAR).

He said that long term studies had been done that had showed that folks that take ARBs tend to live longer and have less cardiovascular problems – quite independant from how much the drugs lower one’s blood pressure numbers.

So, as in many things, there’s more to the story than first meets the eye.

Milestone Study On Blood Pressure Medications Confirmed

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

diuretic– I wrote before here about these findings on the expensive blood pressure medicines that Big Pharma are pushing.   They are not the best options.

– A large study in 2002 showed clearly that simple diuretic pills which cost pennies a day work better than the expensive pills from Big Pharma.   Now, a new study has clearly replicated these findings.

– Once again, we have a contest between those who want what’s best for people against those who hold the maximization of profits as their highest goal.

– Big Pharma has millions and millions of dollars available to spread their message.   Do you think they are going to use these funds to inform the public that there are better and cheaper alternatives to their products?

“Evidence from subsequent analyses of ALLHAT and other clinical outcome trials confirm that neither alpha blockers, angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, nor calcium channel blockers surpass thiazide-type diuretics (at appropriate dosage) as initial therapy for reduction of cardiovascular or renal risk”

– This particularly galls me because I take Diovan for borderline high blood pressure – and it costs me about $140 a month.   Nice, eh?

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New research supports the findings of a landmark drug comparison study published in 2002 in which a diuretic drug or “water pill” outperformed other medications for high blood pressure. A scientific team including investigators from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston reports the findings in the May 11 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

About one in three adults in the United States has high blood pressure, which, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), can lead to a host of health problems including heart failure, coronary heart disease, stroke and kidney failure.

The Antihypertensive and Lipid-Lowering Treatment to Prevent Heart Attack Trial (ALLHAT) is the largest high blood pressure treatment trial ever conducted and compared the impact of four classes of blood pressure drugs on 42,418 high-risk patients between 1994 and 2002. High blood pressure in adults is defined as 140/90 mm Hg or above.

“We looked at data since the trial ended to make sure our message hasn’t changed. And, it hasn’t. Diuretic drugs work as well or better than other medications in preventing heart failure,” said Barry Davis, M.D., Ph.D., study co-author, Guy S. Parcel Chair in Public Health and director of the Coordinating Center for Clinical Trials (CCCT) at The University of Texas School of Public Health.


– Read this and get a copy to your doctor.  Chances are that he or she are getting most of their information from Big Pharma and Big Pharma’s certainly not going to tell them.

– Extra credit reading: