Month: July 2006


Way off topic, but war’s been on everyone’s mind of late, and the horribly devastating oil spill in Lebanon is but one example of the crazy devastation caused by war. An event that would be an international emergency by itself is only a footnote in the death of many innocent people, destruction of the happiness of entire communities and populations, not to mention all those blown up bridges, power plants and homes.

Los Angeles Times: Why Good Countries Fight Dirty Wars

The citizen-soldiers sent into the field by the United States or any other Western popular government are expected, by virtue of not so long ago having been free civilians themselves, to be more empathetic with the plight of the noncombatants with whom they come into contact. Certainly, brutal incidents like the My Lai massacre or the Abu Ghraib scandal occur from time to time, but they are widely viewed as cultural aberrations. This interpretation, however, is as simplistic as it is misleading. All too often the armies of modern democracies have tolerated and even initiated outrages against civilians, in manners uneasily close to those of their totalitarian and terrorist enemies. Israeli troops are currently demonstrating this fact in their response to the Hezbollah rocket offensive — a response most of the world community, according to recent polls, believes is taking an unacceptably disproportionate toll on Lebanese civilians. And there have been times when democratic leaders have been even more open about their brutal intentions: Speaking of the Allied bombing campaign during World War II that culminated in that consummate act of state terrorism, the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, Winston Churchill flatly stated that the objective was “to make the enemy burn and bleed in every way.”

Excellent article, there really is no moral war, no just war, no holy war, no noble war, no happy war, no easy war, and there really should be no war other than a reluctantly fought, and limited war. There are no noble warriors, no heros, only real people doing things to their fellow human beings that are for the most part, unspeakable horrors. Anyone who tries to argue with me that their war is somehow different because of a host of reasons is not going to convince me.

While history books can be cleansed to blind future generations to the actual costs of war on the people fighting it, and the damage that ensues, fighting affects everyone who fights significantly, and rarely for the better. Eventually, it dehumanizes you, how can you kill someone (except in close combat where there’s a clear survival motivation) except by dehumanizing them? You’d have to think that a whole neighborhood is somehow inhuman to drop a bomb on them that kills maybe one terrorist and 15 innocent humans.

The history we learn has a lot to do with our willingness to tolerate this much war. The science lessons we get in school are a culmination of centuries of accumulated knowledge, the mathematics we learn goes back 10-15 centuries, we are taught to be self-critical, to learn from our mistakes, to think, yet the history we learn is pure propaganda, none of these edicts seem to apply. Being a “pacifist” has gone from normal to “loony coward fringe element” in a few years. Oh well…

The England Environment Minister Blogs

He seems to write it himself, has comments and all, some of which aren’t very friendly. One of his posts talks about a Carbon ration card, meaning everyone starts off with a set of carbon credits, which you can either use, or sell back to the trading bank so that people who use more carbon can buy more.

The principle is simple: there would be a decision about the nation’s
annual level of carbon emissions, permits/quotas for that level would be issued on a per capital basis (probably for personal food, household energy and travel emissions), and those who spent under the wuota would be able to sell to those who spend above.

Well put, and in classic blog style, no spellcheck!

Meanwhile, in the US, we have the chair of the powerful Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works and well known Global Warming denier.

But coolness and hipness aside, it is refreshing for a minister (secretary, whatever you call them) to communicate in this fashion and be accepting of comments and criticism. We need a few more of these on the other side of the Atlantic (no,  not Antarctica, look West).

The Precautionary Principle at work

This is how you’re supposed to regulate chemicals, burden of proof on the manufacturers, makes sense because they are the ones who have the most information, and the most to gain or lose. So, you have the right motivators with the right tools to ensure that a decision can be reached in the right amount of time. If you reverse the burden of proof, the group (people/government) with incomplete information and little monetary motivation is going up against a group (the industry) which has all the information on its side, and powerful monetary motivation to do nothing, because in doing nothing, the burden of proof will ensure that they win.

Makes so much sense, doesn’t it!

EU bans 22 hair dye chemicals feared unsafe – Yahoo! News

BRUSSELS, Belgium – The European Commission said Thursday it would ban 22 hair dye substances, following the release of a scientific study that concluded the long-term use of these chemicals could cause bladder cancer. The ban will go into effect Dec. 1. “Substances for which there is no proof that they are safe will disappear from the market,” said European Union Industry Commissioner Guenter Verheugen.

Well said, sir, way to motivate industry to prove safety!

“Our high safety standards do not only protect EU consumers, they also give legal certainty to (the) European cosmetics industry.”

A crucial point, industries adjust to regulation very well, as long as the regulation is clear, stable and consistently applied. Not to say that they don’t work to undermine the regulations at times, but most of the time, stability is more important than the regulation itself. The regulation just gets added to the cost of doing business, and you protect yourself against lawsuits, you have plausible deniability, all the good stuff.

The Commission had asked the cosmetics industry to provide safety files for all chemicals used in hair dyes to prove they do not pose a health risk for consumers. The ban concerns 22 chemicals for which no safety files were submitted by producers.

Nice, no proof = no sale.

Lead in Paint, why???

1940-11_White_Lead_Paint.JPGThis makes my head explode, once again, science is helpless when faced with inertia, and greed. Lead-based paint has been banned in the US since 1978, and if this story is any indication, we’re still seeing the effects of peeling paint. But this bit of research from the University of Cincinnati suggests that not only is lead-based paint being used in more than half the world, it is actually legal.

Study Supports ‘Urgent’ Need for Worldwide Ban on Lead-Based Paint

Environmental and occupational health experts at the University of Cincinnati (UC) have found that major countries—including India, China and Malaysia—still produce and sell consumer paints with dangerously high lead levels.

Why would anyone need to use lead-based paint when alternatives have been available for the longest time, the health effects of lead, especially on children, are very well known, and there is no @#$%^&*# reason other than greed and unwillingness to change. What is the point of all these years of research if it makes no difference at all to the bulk of the world’s population? Depressing.

Guess what, even if lead-based paint was banned today, it’s still going to be on the walls forever. As the paint peels, kids will be exposed, have lowered IQ, and all other kinds of health issues for as long as that house is standing, which in India could be a 100 years.

Grassroots organizing is probably needed, and if effective, the stuff will be banned in India quickly, the government does move rapidly on these kinds of easy to legislate issues. But, enforcement will be lax, and awareness will lag, which means we are looking at (my rough guess) at least 20 years more of this issue.

Once again, the absence of a ban and its implementation affects the poor and uneducated disproportionately. The way I see it happening in India is

  1. Some grassroots awareness, media stories, etc.
  2. A furore that lasts about a week, before the next big story comes along
  3. Maybe a government action that will “ban” lead-based paint
  4. The middle class and above are now aware that they can use titania based paints, so, a quick change for them.
  5. Everyone else is still stuck with the lead-based paint.

And this does not even begin to address what the US is going through now, aging houses, peeling paint, poor people being exposed to dangerous levels of lead.

The world ain’t very fair…

Paint companies blame bad genes in lead paint case

Gene defense in lead paint case rankles – Yahoo! News

But one of the nation’s largest paint companies has another explanation — bad traits that were simply passed on in their genes. “Their argument is … they have a family history of poor performance. Basically, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” said Michael Casano, who is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that seeks unspecified damages

Well, take the Bell Curve, add dollops of greed and you can make a transparently racist argument that five families, all poor and black, of course, have some mysterious genetic defect that perfectly mimics the effects of lead poisoning on children.

If not detected early, children with high levels of lead in
their bodies can suffer from:

  • Damage to the brain and nervous system
  • Behavior and learning problems (such as hyperactivity)
  • Slowed growth
  • Hearing problems
  • Headaches

Hmm, if all these symptoms were genetic in nature, I wonder if the lawyers that make this case would let their children ingest some lead paint everyday for a few years, I am sure their perfect genes will protect them? It would be a great control group, No?

Riding Trains in Mumbai

From Salon, I thought it was a nice article about riding the train in Mumbai, something I’ve done a few times, though very rarely during rush hour.

India is a ridiculously easy target because of the population, the wide open borders, the diversity of the population, the lack of any security in public places (I can’t imagine how one could add security to the Mumbai trains), and the utter chaos of living in an Indian city. Americans who worry about terrorism in their country should count themselves lucky, the continent is a large island, and all the talk of open borders is hot air. It is still incredibly difficult to enter this country as someone who means harm. This country is magnificently safe (in comparison) because of its isolation and affluence.

I hope this is not the beginning of a new uptick in terrorist attacks for India, worst thing that could happen.

Riding the train in Mumbai | Salon News

July 12, 2006 | MUMBAI, India — As a New Yorker in Bombay, or Mumbai, as it’s officially known, one of my greatest thrills has been taking the fast train downtown.

I clamber into a wide, sturdy train carriage without doors, sealed windows or comfort of any kind. The carriage, done up in stamped steel, has the Spartan appeal of a military jeep. I lean out of the open doorway watching the city slip past, skimming my shoes over the tops of the low fences that separate the downtown and uptown tracks, marveling at the perfectly manicured trackside landscaping. For maximum stylishness, I hop off while the train is still easing into the station, turning sideways to avoid the herd of office workers thundering aboard to grab a seat.

Riding Mumbai’s local trains is much more interactive than taking the L line to the Bedford stop in Brooklyn, N.Y. The lack of doors and window glass, which often leaves riders soaked during monsoon season, is partly because of the tropical heat, partly to let Mumbai’s 6 million daily commuters jam onboard at maximum speed. The city’s above-ground system handles a third more riders each day than the New York subway, where a rush hour crowd means brushing against other riders; in Mumbai, rush hour means your chest is crushed, your arms are pinned and you become intimate with your neighbor’s deodorant or lack thereof. You must plan your sweaty escape two stations before your stop arrives and advertise it loudly as you’re fighting your way off so as not to be swept back into the carriage by new passengers. It’s easier to get on and off, however, if you’re riding on the outside of the train, clinging by your fingers to the empty windowsills, as many rush hour riders do.

Despite the volume, trains run as fast as in Manhattan. Taking an express train will get you where you’re going three times faster than a taxi during rush hour for only 40 cents. Trains pause only a few seconds at each station. In order to handle this ridership and speed, Mumbai’s stations are left completely open. You can stroll onto a train from any of a number of uncontrolled entrances or even hop onboard from the tracks while the train gathers speed. There are no turnstiles. Instead, railway police conduct random, and very rare, ticket checks on the platforms. This honor system works, sort of — the lines to buy the little cardboard tickets are long, if suspiciously middle class.

By contrast, the New York subway has controlled entrances and exits, fare turnstiles and security cameras. Police aggressively pursue fare beaters. After last year’s London Underground bombings, New York added random bag searches. London has tested body scanners, and New York may one day follow suit.

I always clutch my bag a little tighter when I hurry past the bag-check tables at Manhattan’s Union Square subway station, convinced that no matter what the cops may say about the randomness of searches, suspicion falls heaviest on those who look Arab, Muslim or South Asian, as I do. But while I have been asked for a train ticket in Mumbai, I’ve never been searched by the police in New York. My turbaned Sikh friends, however, draw plenty of attention from police and street hecklers alike, perhaps because they’re thought to be Muslim, though their religion has little to do with Islam.

In Mumbai, ethnic profiling of potential terrorists is a nonstarter. The potential suspects look exactly like everyone else. I’ve seen people on Brooklyn subway platforms pay close attention to a devout Muslim wearing a beard, round cap and kurta. In Mumbai, a man with such a mundane appearance might be your doctor, fruitwallah (fruit vendor) or cabbie.

I’ve heard subway workers in Brooklyn tell passengers that large packages are more likely to be searched, though I’ve never actually seen anyone check an upright double bass case. In Mumbai, street merchants cart their entire stock between home and work every day.

There is, however, one area in which Mumbai’s open train system is somewhat safer than the New York subway. Bombers seek out enclosed spaces because of the laws of physics — an explosion loses strength rapidly with distance from its source. Bombers want closed compartments to amplify the blast. A bomb of a train carriage with open-air doors and windows is potentially less lethal to those inside because blast energy has ways to dissipate.

The trading port of Mumbai has always valued openness. Like that other long, narrow, high-rise island, Manhattan, Mumbai is a polyglot riot of immigrants. Portuguese Christian names jostle for space on the walls of the city’s apartment buildings with the names of those of Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Parsee and Buddhist descent. Bombay is also a high-speed city. The vada pav (potato chutney) sellers on the street are as brusque and efficient as New York hot dog vendors.

Space, as in New York, is a luxury. It’s worth money. On Tuesday, the bombers targeted the first-class cars. The people they killed were not paying for padded seats, for the first-class carriages have the same hard benches and missing doors as the second-class cars. For a ticket that costs nearly 10 times more, first-class passengers are buying a tiny bit of extra space. They’re renting elbow room and a sliver of air so that their commute passes a little more comfortably.

Today, the trains are running again in Mumbai. I have not ridden them yet. I will, but riding them will never again be such a simple, innocent, sweaty pleasure. I’ve heard, however, that anyone who dares to ride in the first-class coaches can now have as much air and space and comfort as he or she wants. Nobody is taking first class.

Terrorist attack on Mumbai Rail System

The system carries 4.5 million people everyday.


New Delhi: Seven major explosions rocked Mumbai on Tuesday. The serial blasts occurred at Borivili, Khar, Meera Road, Matunga, Jogeshwari, Bhayander railway stations and a seventh on the Khar-Santacruz subway. Maharashtra DGP P S Pasricha said 70 to 80 people have been killed in the blasts. Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh said he believed that over 300 people have been injured in the serial blasts.

More here

Policy is more Important than Science?

Excellent article in today’s Washington Post

A Dated Carbon Approach

You can even cut carbon using no technology whatever. Mexico City has reduced its output of carbon dioxide by almost 55,000 tons a year by opening one efficient bus route; the key innovation here was the creation of two bus lanes. The new buses run on diesel — not exactly a technological breakthrough. But because they are rapid and frequent, the buses have brought car use down and reduced emissions. So what matters is not just the technologies we have but the incentives to deploy them. The average Western European uses half as much energy as the average American, and that’s not because there’s more technology in Europe. Rather, Europeans have embraced anti-carbon policies ranging from gas taxes to emissions caps, from an absence of extravagant mortgage subsidies that encourage super-size homes to congestion charges for drivers in London and Stockholm.

Sing it, Cap’n Obvious, actually, it is not obvious to a lot of people. Politicians love “research” because they can turn around and say that they are doing something about a problem when all they are doing is postponing the discussion by calling for “new technology” to fix the problem. Scientists like this as well because this means money in their pocket. Research groups, be they in universities or in government institutes, perpetuate themselves by getting more funding to do more research, which leads to getting more funding to do more research while keeping an army of post docs, grad students, research assistants and professors gainfully employed. It’s kinda like reproduction, only less fun! It is a good system and a lot of good work gets done, but for a lot of questions, the answers are already there.

Policy level decisions require that clear cut choices be made, while they are NOT zero sum games, there are winners and losers in most of the decisions, and this current incarnation of politicians do not seem to want to make these kinds of decisions unless the winners are big companies (energy, pharma, healthcare, etc), rich people (tax cuts, etc.) or war.

Wow, Conventional Milk makes Twins!

44m.jpgHoly tentacular twins, Batman! This is crazy news, the first study linking the incidence of twins with environmental factors. The culprit is growth hormone fed to cows to increase milk production. According to this Wikipedia article, a third of all dairy cattle use Monsanto’s rBGH (or rBST) brand Posilac®, so obviously, use is widespread.

FEED – July 2006 (from the Union of Concerned Scientists)

1. Engineered hormone in milk may be linked to twinning. A recent study found that women who consumed dairy products were five times more likely to give birth to twins than vegan women. The study suggested that the use of engineered bovine growth hormone/bovine somatotropin (BGH/BST) to boost milk production in dairy cows may be related to the higher level of twinning. BGH is known to increase twinning in dairy cows. In addition, the rate of human twinning is twice as high in the United States, where BGH is used, as in Britain, where BGH is banned. BGH affects twinning rate by increasing insulin-like growth factor (IGF), a protein produced in the milk of both animals and humans, that promotes ovulation and may help early-stage embryos survive. A separate study found that levels of IGF were 13 percent lower in vegan women than in women who consumed dairy products. Read a press release about the study, which was published in The Journal of Reproductive Medicine.

If true, no woman should ever drink “conventional” milk (non-organic, non rGBH free, etc). Twins are fun, I love my twin nieces very much, but they are much more difficult to carry and deliver, and there are more complications.

Scary, but I suspect this is the tip of the iceberg as far as environmental effects on childbirth are concerned.

Recycling Paper

recycle.gifNow you’re having this conversation over dinner about recycling (yes, I have had this conversation before with lots of people), and there pipes up this voice which says “Well, I read somewhere that it costs more money to recycle than to just throw it away”, and you think, “waitaminnit, that can’t be right, but where’s the proof?” Well, at least for paper, here it is, and bless the EU for taking the trouble (I read about this in the Environmental Valuation and Cost-Benefit News Blog).

Lifecycle Analysis and Cost Benefit Analysis on Paper Recycling

No, I did not read all 160 pages, but sure did read the Executive Summary…

The LCA review concludes that the majority of LCAs indicate that recycling of paper has lower environmental impacts than the alternative options of landfill and incineration. The result is very clear in the comparison of recycling with landfilling, and less pronounced, but still clear, in the comparison of recycling with incineration. The CBA review concludes that in little more than half of the CBAs, paper recycling has higher socioeconomic benefits than other management options. In the remainder of the studies, the socio-economic benefits of incineration, landfill or other options are higher than those gained from recycling. It is often said that CBAs are generally favourable to other waste management options than recycling. However due to the heterogeneity of the methodologies used in the reviewed CBAs, it is not possible to confirm or to reject this statement.

They looked at 9 different regions and did an LCA and CBA for each. Apparently, and I did not know this, the LCA evaluation system is well standardized and codified, so it is easy to compare results between regions, but the CBA mechanisms are not as well codified, hence more sensitive to the assumptions made.

Fascinating reading aside, the answer is clear, recycle your paper! At least they make it easy in Chapel Hill.