Month: May 2007

Jeffrey Sachs on climate change induced water shortages

Depressing reading for a Sunday morning. He does not offer too many solutions, but it will take a lot of local work to mitigate these disasters. Of course, I can’t see the US or Europe offering asylum to climate change refugees!

Climate Change Refugees: Scientific American

Human-induced climate and hydrological change is likely to make many parts of the world uninhabitable, or at least uneconomic. Over the course of a few decades, if not sooner, hundreds of millions of people may be compelled to relocate because of environmental pressures.

To a significant extent, water will be the most important determinant of these population movements. Dramatic alterations in the relation between water and society will be widespread, as emphasized in the new report from Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These shifts may include rising sea levels, stronger tropical cyclones, the loss of soil moisture under higher temperatures, more intense precipitation and flooding, more frequent droughts, the melting of glaciers and the changing seasonality of snowmelt.

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Hyderabad: Police Firing Kills 5

It turns out that a third of the people killed in Hyderabad were killed by police firing on a “mob” after the event. Lots of blame to go around here. Is there any point in organizing a violent instant mass protest against a terrorist attack? Do you think the police will just let you riot? And the police, why would you use real bullets? The police are claiming that the mob was trying to attack a petrol pump (gas station), as always, I don’t trust anything anyone says in the immediate aftermath.

Meanwhile, the fingers quickly point to various Islamic terrorist outfits. It is the usual formula to blame a Jihadic islamic terrorist organization for every terrorist blast in India. Unfortunately, police work after events like these is still shoddy and it is never clear what actually happened, what lessons can be learned, or if anyone responsible is actually tried and convicted.

BTW, just read the comments that accompany this following story to see how nasty communal sentiments still are. The Hindus on the comments accuse the Muslims of planting the bombs, and vice versa. Hyderabad is a city of 6 million people, 40% Muslim and home to a booming tech industry. If you’re a terrorist wanting to start something, it’s a perfect little cauldron. Harkat-ul-Jihad likely behind blast: Police

On Friday, Hyderabad was struck by a double tragedy. It has now emerged that some of the people who were killed, died in the police firing after the blast. A bandh has been called in Hyderabad and Secunderabad on Wednesday. The strike is in protest against the police firing that followed the blast. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y S R Reddy has, in a statement, apologised for the police firing. He said a CBI inquiry will be ordered into the incident if it is required. Hours after the terror attack, it came to light that some of those killed in the Mecca Masjid died in the police firing. A powerful bomb exploded during the busy Friday afternoon prayers that close to 10,000 people were attending. Just after the blast there was utter chaos. Mobs went on a rampage outside the Masjid and the police resorted to lathicharge and firing in the air. As the dead and injured were being accounted for, it was found that some had bullet wounds. Reports suggest at least five of the dead had these wounds. However, the Chief Minister said that only two to three people may have died in police firing.

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As the developed world vacillates, Indian villages go under

Sea gobbles up five villages in 15 years- Hindustan Times

On Wednesday, a big tidal wave hit the coast in the Satabhaya area of Kendrapara district. It swept away homes and inundated farmland. But was no exception.

Tidal waves like this one have been a regular phenomenon in the area. In the past 15 years, the sea has come inside the land by 2.5 kilometers. And as many as 600 families are leading a precarious existence in the Satabhaya and Kanhupur areas due to this phenomenon.

Satabhaya, as the name suggests, once boasted of seven adjacent villages. Five of them have now been completely devoured by the sea. Thirteen families lost their homes to the surging waters on Wednesday. There was, fortunately, no loss of lives.

Well, the consequences are set for the next 20 years, but still no action from the US on global warming which will determine how things are 50 years from now, I am not holding my breath.

Bomb goes off In Hyderabad, India

An attempt to start another riot, I guess. It won’t work.

Five killed, 16 injured in blast at Hyderabad mosque- Hindustan Times

At least five people were killed and 16 injured in a bomb blast during Friday prayers at the historic Mecca Masjid here.

Eyewitnesses said the blast occurred when thousands of Muslims were about to complete ‘namaz’.

The blast took place near ‘wazu khana’ or water tank, where Muslims do ablution before offering prayers.

Plugin Hybrids even closer

I tend to be a bad news blogger, so when some good news comes along, I really should mention it…  A plugin hybrid (PHEV) is a gasoline car with a battery that can be charged. So, you go 30 miles or so on battery power before switching to gasoline, and plug the cars in at night so that they will be ready to go again the next morning. The average American commute is 16 miles (one way), so the amount of gas used for work and back for me will be reduced from around 1.2 gallons (assuming about 28 mpg city for my current car) to around 0.1 gallons. Think about that!

The good thing about these batteries is that they seem to be built with ruggedness (10 year, 150,000 miles) in mind.

The Energy Blog: A123Systems Announces Li-ion Automotive Batteries

A123Systems today introduced its 32-series Nanophosphate™ Lithium Ion cells, specifically designed for Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV) and Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) use. These batteries leverage the company’s existing low-cost, high-volume manufacturing techniques to offer the electric drive industry a new level of price-performance.

Hope they work as advertised. My next car is definitely a PHEV.

Meanwhile, America’s most experienced, most accomplished and most sensible presidential candidate gives a truly forward looking speech on energy policy, and nobody notices. I guess he’s just not good looking enough.

Percentage confusion redux

One day you’re blogging about it, the next day, someone publishes a journal article about percentages and the confusion people have about them.

ScienceDaily: Two Plus Two May Not Always Equal Four: Consumer Study

In the paper “When Two and Two is Not Equal to Four: Errors in Processing Multiple Percentage Changes,” Rao and Haipeng Chen, a Carlson School doctoral alum and assistant professor at the University of Miami, show that consumers treat percentages like whole numbers, and this results in systematic errors in calculation. People simply aren’t coming up with four when they add two plus two. The paper will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Well, what do you expect? It’s not easy to take 35% off 25% in your head, unless your parents and teachers made you do mental math till your head hurt (who am I kidding, I still enjoy doing math in my head and beating people with calculators, though I get worse with every passing year). Companies that sell products based on discounting of already discounted merchandise know that people will add them up in their head and overestimate the discount. It is dishonest marketing at best, and downright deceptive if you’re extremely cynical (I believe the worst of advertisers and PR).

Wow, two posts about percentages in two days, I must have nothing better to do…

Tuesdays with Turtles – Lighsticks Kill

Following up on the fishing issues from last week, here’s word that lights used to lure tuna towards longline fisheries attract juvenile sea turtles as well.

Article – Science & Technology – Lightsticks may hold deadly attraction for sea turtles

RALEIGH, N.C. Longline fishermen use lightsticks similar to the glowing tubes that delight trick-or-treaters to lure tuna and swordfish to baited hooks. New research by University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill scientists suggests that for endangered sea turtles the lights may hold a fatal attraction.

Lab experiments by Ken Lohmann, a University of North Carolina biology professor and John Wang, a graduate who is now a research associate at the University of Hawaii and National Marine Fisheries, found that young loggerhead turtles in a tank tended to swim toward lights.

It’s well known that hatchling turtles on a beach will crawl toward lights as they try to find the surf. But researchers did not know whether juvenile loggerheads in the water shared that attraction. Young loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles, which are protected because of declining numbers, are inadvertently hooked during longline fishing.

Well, not so surprising, is it? Bioluminescence is a common enough phenomenon that especially at night, animals will be attracted to light as it can signal food. It’s tricky, but when you try to catch fish, tyou will catch other animals as well. So, when you change something about the way you catch fish, you need to study how it affects other endangered species…

Off topic, but it is ironic that I read this in the ocregister, which is a newspaper from Orange County, California. It reported on work done by UNC Chapel Hill, which is in Orange County, North Carolina.

How Safe Is The US Food Supply?

A good summary of the state of food safety regulation in the United States.

How Safe Is The Food Supply?

These known cases make up a tiny fraction of the overall problem–an estimated 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths in the U.S. from food poisoning each year. Meanwhile, imports of food, some from countries without strict controls, soared to more than 9 million shipments last year doubling since 2002. The cash-strapped FDA is able to inspect less than 1% of imports. It’s a recipe for disaster. “Our food-safety system in this country is broken,” warned former FDA Commissioner Dr. David A. Kessler at a recent congressional hearing.

Few incidents ever have a body count high enough to shock the country into making fundamental changes. Overall, “we do have a very safe food supply,” says Sanford A. Miller, former director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition. But the alarms over pet food and vitamin A have lit a fire under lawmakers and executives. On May 2 the Senate rushed to pass a bill by a vote of 94-0 giving the FDA more responsibilities, such as creating databases of adulterated food. Meanwhile, food producers have been holding emergency meetings with suppliers, looking for problems in their factories or supply chains. Companies are “feverishly examining their own purchasing policies and trying to ensure they are followed,” says Kovacs.

Note that it is always tempting to blame the bureaucrats here. Bureaucracy is a dirty word in this country, associated with “red tape”, “corruption”, “standing in the way of business”, “pencil pushers”, “big government”, you name it, they get called it. But, agencies like the EPA and the FDA have competent scientists who know what they are doing. But, without the money and the authority, which is given to them by the political arm of the government, they cannot do much. They have also, in recent years, been headed by political appointees who come from the industry they are supposed to regulate and show a distaste for regulation which is in complete opposition of the mandate they are supposed to fulfill as the head of a regulatory agency.

It’s easy to take potshots at the FDA, but remember who gives them the money, makes the rules and tells them what not to oversee.

Percent and Percentage Points

In a previous post today, I mentioned that breast cancer screenings had dropped 4 percentage points from 70-66%. To my eternal annoyance, most headlines I see refer to this as a 4% decline. This is wrong. The actual decline is can be mentioned as a percent decline only if you report that number directly.

\% decline=\frac{(old-new)*100}{old}

This is such basic math that I feel foolish just to point it out, but this nomenclature confusion dominates our reporting. If you assume that the number of women remained constant (In this particular case, the assumption is true because the results are from a survey of 10,000 women), then the actual percent decline would be (70-66)/70 = 5.7%, that would be, well, a lot more than 4%!

See here for wikipedia discussion.

Common chemicals are linked to breast cancer

The LA Times features a study arising from the Silent Spring institute.

Common chemicals are linked to breast cancer – Los Angeles Times

More than 200 chemicals — many found in urban air and everyday consumer products — cause breast cancer in animal tests, according to a compilation of scientific reports published today.

Writing in a publication of the American Cancer Society, researchers concluded that reducing exposure to the compounds could prevent many women from developing the disease.

The research team from five institutions analyzed a growing body of evidence linking environmental contaminants to breast cancer, the leading killer of U.S. women in their late 30s to early 50s.

Experts say that family history and genes are responsible for a small percentage of breast cancer cases but that environmental or lifestyle factors such as diet are probably involved in the vast majority.

“Overall, exposure to mammary gland carcinogens is widespread,” the researchers wrote in a special supplement to the journal Cancer. “These compounds are widely detected in human tissues and in environments, such as homes, where women spend time.”

The scientists said data were too incomplete to estimate how many breast cancer cases might be linked to chemical exposures.

The resources to come out of this study include two databases, one that summarizes animal mechanistic studies, and one that summarizes human epidemiological studies. It’s a good start and I hope these databases are continually expanded. The study was essentially a big lit review and data organization project.

There are two major issues with the way carcinogenicity is studied. Firstly, animals other than humans are dosed at high levels to test for possible cancer outcomes. This leaves most researchers vulnerable to the charge that these high dose studies do not translate well to humans because the dose-response relationship at ambient levels is not well studied. So, the obvious criticism is that just because cancer endpoints were seen at high levels does not mean that the same thing will happen at low levels. This cuts both ways, though. We’re seeing with bisphenol A that low doses can cause more harm than intermediate doses. Another issue is the additivity of the interactions. Does 1 “dose” of PAH + 1 “dose” of PCB = 2 “doses” of PAH? We’re exposed to a whole host of chemicals all our lives, who knows which ones add, which ones subtract, which ones multiply, etc.

Of course, as with most diseases, some macro variables dominate. For instance, the US has seen 8-9% decline in breast cancer incidence recently due to a decreased use of hormone replacement therapy. So, as with all diseases, taking care of some of these big ticket items is very important. One discouraging story I read today reported on a four percentage point decline in mammograms (70 to 66%) in women age 40 and older. Why? decreased access to health insurance and dropping the ball on promotion.

The depressing fact of the matter is that the boring basics of good preventative healthcare, screening, good lifestyle and diet are the most important factors, and if we take care of these factors, we will make most health issues easier to deal with.