Saturday, September 20, 2003
"2. DYSENTERY STOOL-SAMPLE ANALYZER
In the early '80s, Virginia Tech profs Tracy Wilkins and David Lyerly studied the diarrhea-causing microbe Clostridium difficile in sample after sample after sample of loose stool from the disease's victims. They became such crack dysentery docs that they launched a company, Techlab, dedicated to making stool-analysis kits. Today, Techlab employs 40 people, 19 of whom spend their working hours opening sloppy stool canisters and analyzing their contents in order to test the effectiveness of the company's kits. You'd have to have a pretty good sense of humor, right? Well, fortunately, they do. The Techlab Web site sells T-shirts with cartoons on the front (two flies hover over two blobs of dung; one says to the other, "Pardon me, is this stool taken?") and the company motto on the back: "Techlab: #1 in the #2 Business!"
4. BRAZIL MOSQUITO RESEARCHER
Scientists fighting malaria must study the biting habits of the mosquito that spreads it. In Brazil, that's the Anopheles darlingi, which doesn't fall for the light or wind traps researchers use in Africa: This smart little sucker will come near scientists only when they offer themselves as bait. In the early evening, when mosquito activity is busiest, a mosquito dinner—er, researcher—finds a nice buggy area and sets himself up inside a mosquito-netting tent with a gap at the bottom. Mosquitoes fly in low and get trapped inside, where the researcher sits stoically, sacrificing his skin to science. He need focus only on his legs to keep him busy: Whenever a mosquito chooses a drumstick dinner, the researcher draws it into a mouth tube (!) and then expels it into a container. Veteran researcher Helge Zieler used to put himself on the menu twice a week. On his best evening, he caught 500 Anopheles in 3 hours. Meanwhile, of course, the skeeters feasted on his entire corpus—a grand total of about 3,000 bites, or an average of 17 per minute for 180 minutes on end. "It's not so bad," he says, explaining that his personal response to mosquito bites is an immediate itch that goes away naturally in a few minutes. Except when his response is to contract malaria. Despite taking prophylactic chloroquine, Zieler developed a case that took him two years to shake.
Perversely, the human-pincushion act doesn't end when the fieldwork does. Normally, captive mosquitoes are fed by lab animals—just shave a guinea pig's belly and secure it to the top of the cage. But the anti-cruelty protocols for using the guinea pigs are stringent. "Sometimes," Zieler says, "it's easier to roll up your sleeve."
5. HOT-ZONE SUPERINTENDENT
During Ebola and anthrax outbreaks, the media shine spotlights on the brave scientists who don high-tech space suits and step into a Bio-Safety Level 4 (BSL4) laboratory, the designation given to labs that study lethal airborne pathogens for which there is no known cure. BSL4 scientists themselves generally enter the hot zone only occasionally, when they need to do an experiment; the really dangerous job is that of the BSL4 superintendent, who enters this lethal-bug petri dish far more regularly, to fix equipment, clean up, and ensure that the lab is airtight. He also has to change the pathogen-saturated air filters on the top of the building and bake the deadly sewer effluent underneath. No one in the world comes more constantly in touch with the Earth's deadliest microbes.
6. ISOLATION CHAMBER TESTER
"Imagine taking a car trip cross-country with your family. Now imagine that it lasts for months on end, that you can't open the windows, and that you can never get out of the car." That's how Marc Shepanek, NASA's deputy chief for medicine in extreme environments, once described the psychological challenge astronauts will face on long-distance space missions. But hey, at least they'll be going somewhere. In the meantime, we put people through the torture in immobile isolation chambers on the ground. At NASA, engineers responsible for life-support systems sign up to spend a few months in cramped captivity to test their equipment—for no additional pay. In one 91-day test at NASA, the crew re-cycled their urine into drinking water 13 times. But—as Jean-Paul Sartre almost said—forget recycled urine; true hell is other people. In a Russian chamber on New Year's Eve 1999, Canadian subject Judith La Pierre was pulled into a corner by a burly drunk Russian and kissed—possibly, she said afterward, a prelude to rape. In another incident, a fistfight spattered blood on the chamber walls. Perhaps the worst indignity of all? Most isolation-chamber subjects are would-be astronauts who undergo the torture to buff up their résumés—yet none of NASA's recent chamber testers has made the astronaut corps. "
Lots more out there...
They're all lined up, and God asks the first one what the wish is. "I want to be gorgeous," and so God snaps His fingers, and it is done.
The second one in line hears this and says "I want to be gorgeous too." Another snap of His fingers and the wish is granted. This goes on for a while but when God is halfway down, the last guy in the line starts laughing. When there are only ten people left, this guy is rolling on the floor, laughing his ass off.
Finally, God reaches this guy and asks him what his wish will be.
The guy eventually calms down and says:
"Make 'em all ugly again".
"3. THE BLACKOUT: ARE THE TREES TRYING TO TELL US SOMETHING? A
story in the Wall Street Journal suggested that during a period
of high electricity demand overheated power lines shorted out
when they sagged into trees, resulting in the great blackout of
2003 (WN 5 Sep 03). And many thousands of customers are without
electric power today as a result of trees that toppled onto power
lines during hurricane Isabel. Fed up with being turned into
fast-food wrappers and scattered along highways, trees may be
striking back, and the gravitational potential energy available
to a full-grown oak is not to be taken lightly. Viewed in this
way, the President's "Healthy Forest Initiative" (WN 22 Aug 03)
may be thought of as part of the War On Terrorism."
Wednesday, September 17, 2003
"It is obvious that the democratic, populist spirit of Prince Abdul Rahman Al-Sudairy, who was governor of Al-Jouf for 41 years and a celebrated local poet, continues to define proceedings in this remote region, which is small enough in terms of population (and for the time being social problems) for this kind of hands-on, traditional Saudi-style democracy to continue to be effective."
What does "democratic" mean in this context, about a, um, PRINCE?
Welcome to 1273. Approx.
Tuesday, September 16, 2003
Sunday, September 14, 2003
Essentially, staying over at a friend, Emma's, the protagonist, Vicky, had been the subject of an attempted sexual assault by the friend's father. The police seemed convinced by her story, but the school did little to protect her from the consequences of her reporting the incident:
"Then it all went wrong. The social services invited Emma's parents Jim and Helen to a meeting, but didn't explain why, as is their practice. Emma came to school on a Monday, worried about the invitation. One of Vicky's friends, torn between keeping secrets and helping Emma, told her the whole story.
All hell broke lose. Emma turned on Vicky in the classroom and emotional scenes followed. Then the older sister, Kate, arrived with a posse of friends. She grabbed Vicky, swore at her and landed blows with her fists and feet. By the time Vicky had been rescued she was shaking and tearful. She was taken to safety in the learning support unit, and allowed home early. Her prediction that Kate would be her nemesis was spot on.
Kate was implacable. Word ricocheted around the school - Vicky had hurt Kate's dad so Vicky was "going to feel pain". A solid lump of her year group was behind her. Distressingly, so was one of the heads of department. Mrs Rivers told Kate in front of other girls that our daughter must be mentally ill and was probably making it all up because she hated her own appearance.
We dismissed this at first. Most people regarded Vicky as pretty, and no teacher could possibly take sides so publicly or insensitively. Amazingly, it was true - the head subsequently confirmed that the teacher had spoken out of turn and had been "spoken to... about the potential outcomes of her actions
[After the holidays, and threats from the elder sister] Tension built up all morning until Vicky asked for protection in learning support. She was turned away - she was exaggerating her fears and the school was safe, said the child protection teacher.
Within the hour, she'd been cornered, dragged to the ground by her hair and kicked in the head, the stomach and her legs in front of a mob of older girls. When she staggered up and aimed a retaliatory kick at her attacker, she was dragged down and kicked again on the floor. She was then chased through the corridors before reaching calm in the head's office.
It was only now, two months on, that the school disciplined Kate, suspending her for two days. ...
By now, we decided to try to gain control. We wrote to the family, warning that we'd prosecute if Kate or her friends ever touched Vicky again. We wrote to the school saying Vicky would only go back if she could attend lessons normally and be guaranteed adult protection at all times in school.
The deputy head tried to be positive. He could promise uninterrupted lessons, but was sorry that he could not absolutely guarantee her safety between classes. I began to feel a red mist descend. Where were we, the fucking Bronx, I found myself saying.
Lunchtimes would have to be in the head's office, because no one could guarantee protection in the canteen, either. No one? Not one teacher available to assist the victim of double assault by a child-molester and his violent daughter? Again, I found myself uttering the f-word. Not one fucking teacher willing to sit at the next table until all this died down?
It would, it transpired, be interfering with their conditions of employment to look after Vicky. "This might be their only break from the children all day," he added."
Unsurprisingly, they've moved Vicky to a private school.
"Mrs Reeves" should, of course, if the account is true, have been sacked on the spot. And the elder children should, at least by the second offence, have been expelled. And, as the article points out, the school's (in)actions "poisoned their sexual abuse policies by demonstrating that speaking out on abuse will bring retribution, isolation and misery". So - caring about children 0, getting through the day 1. Appalling.
1) "Bull bars" on 4x4 vehicles* - these substantially increase the risk to pedestrians in a collision. Massively so in the case of children. So massively so that I'd like to get stickers printed up and leave them on every vehicle I see with them, just haven't gotten round to it yet. But until there's a collision, there's only a potential cost imposed.
2) Keeping exotic pets - I've been away a few days, and from the sound of it a neighbour has bought a bushel of monkeys during that time. The sound from the monkeys is a standard issue externality - if it imposes costs on me, it's a form of pollution, and subject to standard analyses. However, what about the heightened risk of exposure to Ebola, or other exotic diseases? If the monkeys can be kept quiet, should I still have a problem with them?
In thinking around possible solutions, I'd say that the answer I'm looking for should a) be vaguely libertarian (banning's too easy an option for this discussion), b) be potentially practical, c) compensate me "up front" for increased risk, not after the fact for real damages, or d) prevent me from being exposed to increased risk.
Some possible treatments to behaviour that increases risks to others, but may never impose a direct cost:
A) You can ban it. A popular move for modern nation states, and a suggestion I've seen from a "libertarian" re. pollution. But not exactly the most free-wheeling attitude to take.
B) You can regulate/tax it. Again popular, but not really an option open to libertarians
C) You can require future restitution. Effectively provided by insurance at present, but this seems unsatisfactory, as I wish to avoid catching Ebola/suffering catastrophic injury as a result of other people's risky behaviour, not to be paid back later.
D) You can require disclosure. This, I take it, would be a popular libertarian gambit. However, i) I can see the bull bars, but if I'm forced to avoid areas to reduce my risk that seems to impinge upon my liberty, and in any case the risk matters at times when I can't avoid the vehicle; and ii) if my neighbour starts to keep monkeys, my main alternatives are investing in Ebola research, staying indoors or moving house. The last option forces action on me, and may cause me costs due to falls in house prices around monkey farms, imposing costs on me. This suggests....
E) For Ebola type risks, the risk may be priced into falls in the value of assets, allowing a price to be set on the negative externality being imposed. I.e. if keeping monkeys leading to a halving of value of your neighbour's land, you owe him. Simple, and analagous to other externalities. Yes, there are issues about enforcement mechanisms, etc, but these are not significantly more problematic than for other types of pollution. However, this doesn't deal with the bull bar problem, and also seems to throw a great deal of uncertainty into the property owning mix.
F) Residential area compacts - You build/buy your houses, and the locals enter into a compact covering off certain types of activity. This would a contractual means of preventing monkey trouble, with clear recourse if the rules were broken. This could also eliminate local bull bar risk - if either a price to have them or a ban was included in the contract, the danger on your local roads would be dealt with. However, a) this is a "I wouldn't start from here" solution, without much grip outside of American gated communities, etc, and b) it doesn't deal well with "imported" bull bar risk from visitors, or my risks when out and about. Visitors could be required to pay a bull bar toll to use the communities roads, I suppose, but this still provides no protection to me when I'm out and about.
G) Product choices - e.g. the owners of roads, in a libertarian world, would either have policies allowing/banning certain specification of vehicle, etc, or would impose differential pricing. Since walking down the roads, I'd be accepting certain risks as part of the "product" "contract", I'd pick routes with or without bull-bars to satisfy my optimal risk profile (or would recieve discounts or modest payments for accepting the higher risk). Similarly for the block management concern re. Ebola. This would satisfy the "up-front" requirements of me accepting risks, but would involve massive transaction costs for me to pick an appropriate route/be appropriately compensated. The "one size fits all" area compact in the previous example could be quite simple, banning a limited range of activities or setting annual charges to be spent towards a common good. This approach can't really be simplified - the "low key" version is that either road companies ban certain types of vehicle, or to use them, I have to accept higher risks, and this means either users of certain types of vehicle or pedestrians potentially can't get somewhere. Not a good outcome...
H) Transfer of differential insurance costs - if there are risks being imposed on me, I presumably would want to/be able to insure against them. Could a practical mechanism be established for passing the costs onto the person who's imposing the risks on me (yes for the monkeys, no for bull bars)? If so, this would potentially give me "up-front" reimbursement for the risks.
I) Um, don't see any more alternatives.
So - what is an appropriate libertarian approach to dealing with problems that require risk pricing? Is there literature that I'm missing? Or should I just ask the cops to haul away the monkey man for importing exotic pets without a license (I'm betting he has been)? And how does all this interact with that nasty note below, that the bull bar case in fact generalises to all motor vehicles? I'll let you know if I get further through this....
* Note that in fact this risk can be collapsed down into the risks imposed by any type of motor vehicle to pedestrians, cyclists, and potentially other vehicle users depending on vehicle type.
After all, if the thesis has any validity, then the relative structure, attitude to civilian and military casualties, and performance of, say, the Israeli Defence Forces, the Iraqi regular army and Republican Guard, the Egyptian army, the Syrian army, the Brits, the US marines and regular army, and the Polish would make for a fascinating article. Possibly one already written by Victor Davis Hanson....
Unfortunately, it only covers two examples, but hey, maybe it deals with them very well. Or, perhaps, it just uses them to wave a stick at the Americans...
Example 1 - the Roman army. Assertion 1 - this reflected the materialistic, brutal nature of their society.
Example 2 - the American army. Assertion 2 -
"Today, the United States of America is the culmination of 500 years of Western civilization. In other words it is the fruit of the mighty tree of Western civilization, which began with the age of Enlightenment. It is a civilization that, despite popular misconception, has nothing to do with the Greco-Roman one. (A subject for a future article, God willing). Therefore the success of the US is by extension the success of the West as a whole, in spite of those who insist on their difference, and its failure, conversely, is the failure of all as well.
The study of the US armed forces is of great interest as a study of US culture. An example of this is the abolition of the draft after the Vietnam War. This was supposed to make the US Armed forces a professional, highly motivated and efficient fighting force. But it has had an unforeseen consequence in that the army’s ability to act as a melting pot for US citizens has been lost. There is no longer any institution in the US which brings together hundreds of thousands of citizens from all walks of life in an environment of service, loyalty and self-sacrifice.
The draft also forced all levels and classes of US society to bear an equal share in the defense of their country. Today the burden of defense falls mostly on the poor and disenfranchised members of US society and on foreign nationals hoping to become Americans."
1) I was unaware that foreign nationals could serve in the US army. [Update at bottom of post]
2) As anyone following the career of G.W. (or Bill C...) could tell us, during Vietnam, it was perfectly possible to dodge the draft, avoiding their "share in the defense of their country"
3) So what was the point again?
4) As, it seems to me, if you're volunteering to fight, you're being brought together "in an environment of service, loyalty and self-sacrifice", and doing so willingly.
5) And, it seems, whilst there are major demographic skews in the the recruitment profile of the US military, a) this isn't unusual, b) poor minorities are disproportionately recruited into support roles, where military service also provides a free technical education, leaving the fighting end of the army more balanced, and c) there are still a fair number of the highly educated elites in there, filling roles in, e.g., the air force, special forces, etc...
Given those caveats, I'm not sure what aspect of society is therefore being mirrored. Surely some conclusion should be drawn? Because this doesn't look like one:
"An interesting parallel occurred in Roman times when the rich Romans refused to send their sons into the army. Roman armies became composed mostly of non-Italians and other members of the lower classes of the Roman Empire. Roman soldiers became more loyal to the army in which they served and to their military commanders than to the Roman state. This led over time to disaffected troops who would mutiny and elevate one of their commanders to the Imperial purple. So we saw Germans, Spaniards and, yes, even Arabs becoming emperors of Rome"
OK, so we'll hear more next week. But I doubt I'll be back to see where we're going with all this....
[Update - a) I'm wrong - foreign nationals can serve in the US army, not sure what I was thinking about,
b) seems no follow up on the post
c) reader Kalroy adds this anecdote (more via the link):
"I served in the US Air Force with a couple of foreign nationals. One of my closest friends was a French national who eventually was able to become an American (we all attended the ceremony in our dress blues). Another went to basic with me, he was a South Korean national.
My buddy Chuck served on ship with a Mexican national (Chuck is still in the Navy). Funny story there. Night watch was a prestige job that added to promotion possibilities so Chuck's buddy finally got it one night. Several minutes later he came back and their Chief asked what he was doing back so soon. He answered that he couldn't serve night watch because he was a Mexican. The Chief got pissed and swore up and down he'd have some bigots stripes. Chuck's buddy said, no, you don't understand, it's not that I'm mexican, I'm A Mexican. As a foreign national he couldn't have secret clearance and as such was unable to take the watch."]
"We must get the other nations of the world to commit troops in Iraq. Then they'll be weak at home—and we can strike!"
"45-Year-Old Fails To Make Someone Very Happy One Day
NEW MEADOWS, ID—In spite of predictions to the contrary, Larry Naering, a 45-year-old research scientist, has failed to make someone very happy one day, his mother Nancy reported Monday. "He's always been such a handsome, responsible boy," said Nancy, who used to look forward to having grandchildren. "I always told him that some girl was going to discover a real hidden treasure if she took the time to look at him. I guess I was wrong." Nancy said her son's chances of finding that one-in-a-million love have dwindled to one in 50 billion."
"Would it really have been hard to look up that the United States had a $367 billion trade deficit in manufactures in 2000, that so far in 2003 the manufactures trade deficit is running at an annual rate of $452 billion, and that the increase in the annual manufactures trade deficit over the past three years has been $85 billion? Wouldn't it have been fairer to his readers to divide that $85 billion increase in the annual manufactures trade deficit by the $120,000 annual value added per worker and get a result of 700,000 manufacturing jobs displaced? Wouldn't it have been much better for Steven Greenhouse to have told his readers that "perhaps 700,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost nationwide due to expanded imports in the past three years, one quarter of the 2.7 million lost nationwide" instead of "2.7 million manufacturing jobs lost nationwide... many of them because of imports"? The second is not only vaguer, but is likely to leave readers attaching the 2.7 million number to imports, which is simply false."