Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tovarisch, can you spare a ruble?

Apparently, President Obama's restrained policy works better than 1) Bush's or 2) McCain's. You'd think rightwingers, with their self-proclaimed understanding of finance, would have understood how these things work.

After proclaiming in 2007 that the ruble was poised to become a haven for global investors, the Russian leader has watched it fade, a victim of his nation’s stagnating economy since the land grab in Ukraine. Now so much money is leaving Russia that its central bank is considering temporary capital controls, according to two officials with direct knowledge of the discussions. The ruble’s share of global trading dropped to 0.4 percent from 0.6 percent since 2012, falling five places to rank 18th most-traded in the world, while the yuan tripled to 1.5 percent, according to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT.
Barry Eichengreen, one of the leading American theorists of reserve currencies, tells Bloomberg News:

 “I don’t know anyone who takes the idea of the ruble as a reserve currency seriously,” Barry Eichengreen, an economics and political science professor at the University of California-Berkeley, and author of a book on global reserve currencies, said via e-mail. “Holding financial assets in Russia is risky business.”

Monday, September 29, 2014

It's a ban, 'nuff said

Proponents of the GMO initiative have been strenuously denying that the action, whatever it is called, would be a ban on crops. But at least one person on the anti-GMO side is more forthright.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book Review 335: The Grand Design

THE GRAND DESIGN, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodindow. 198 pages, illustrated. Bantam, $28

Stephen Hawking’s books are fun to read, and they make everything -- or at least a great deal -- sound simple. The biggest picture of all is contained in less than 200 pages.

But then, replete, you set the book down and ask, what about antimatter? Where’s that? In the glossary but not in the text. If the Grand Design comprehends antimatter (my understanding is it does not), somebody forgot to put it in.

Alternatively, the Theory of Everything is not as near at hand as Hawking thinks. Predicting the End of Physics is sort of like predicting the Second Coming. Lots of people do it, but it keeps receding into the future.

Worth reading for the clearest explication of the weak and strong anthropic principles that I have seen. Also rather good at knocking down the naive materialists, among whom I count myself still, nevertheless. 

By naive materialist, I mean that I give priority to matter/energy over mathematics. I do not think that mathematics calls matter/energy into existence, which seems to be the (usually) unspoken position of the theorists.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Keeping busy

This morning I went to the breakfast meeting of the Rotary Club of Upcountry Maui, to see two high schoolers receive the club's Students of the Month awards. They were an impressive pair, and I will relay a little about them in a moment, but what I found noteworthy was the variety (and, apparently, also depth) of the opportunities students have today.

There was nothing close to it when I was in high school, 50 years ago.

Of course, not all students get the same opportunities. Money and transportation would prevent some. Babysitting obligations would stop others.

But the opportunities are there for both private and public school students.

It is nearly impossible, in some circles, to bring up the topic of education without being subjected to a tirade against public schools. And teachers. And unions.

I spent a lot of time on campus when my children were in high school, and what I saw was generally good. Certainly far better than the Catholic school I went to. I do not believe that anyone pushing vouchers has the interests of the students uppermost. And religious schools are, with some but not many exceptions, antieducational.

The selectees were Jamie Gomes from King Kekaulike High and Josh Higa from Kamehameha Schools Maui. As you can see from the photograph, happy-looking kids.

Jamie said she had been thinking of becoming a family physician until attending a boot camp at Berkeley last summer where she observed a knee operation and is now wondering if becoming an orthopedic surgeon wouldn't be better.

She plays water polo and for her community service requirement has started Operation JAG (Jamie Against Bullying) to go to the community with a message. She would like to attend Oregon State and then Oregon University of Health Sciences medical school.

Josh wants to become a botanist, with an interest in native plants. He's been learning about the Hawaiian uses of plants as medicine -- la'au lapaau. He does judo and runs cross-country and is studying Japanese in school. He has been on reef and park cleaning trips.

He has Northern Arizona and Pacific on his college list.

There were quite a few other items on Jamie's and Josh's busy lists, and I asked Josh's mother Terilyn if she worries about burnout. "Yes," she said.

But I think the kids will be all right.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Monsanto, keeping you healthy

Do you take prescribed medications? Did you know that most of them depend on Monsanto research?

Most molecules active in human physiology are leftish. Monsanto employee William Knowles discovered a way to use a rhodium catalyst to make molecules go left. From his obituary in the New York Times:

Dr. Knowles figured out a way to tweak the manufacturing process to produce more of the most desirable form of certain molecules, including L-dopa. His tool was a catalyst, a substance often used to speed up a chemical reaction. He developed a process called asymmetric hydrogenation, which uses a catalyst not just to speed the reaction but also to skew it to produce 97.5 percent L-dopa and only 2.5 percent of the unwanted D form. Monsanto then began large-scale production of the drug, which is still a mainstay in treating Parkinson’s, especially in the disease’s early stages.
The technique is used generally for most modern drugs. Knowles was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2001.

What have the anti-Monsanto activists ever done for anyone?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Their bowels sparkle like diamonds

My letter to the editor of The Maui News regarding the GMO ban was published today:

There is disagreement whether the initiative on genetically modified organisms would be a moratorium or a ban. Whatever it is called, it would be a ban.

Businesses rarely reopen following long, indefinite closures. For local farms, we learned this on Molokai when the cattle ranches were closed in order to try to control bovine tuberculosis. The disease was controlled but the ranches did not reopen, even though there was almost no other commercial use for the land.

Nearly two decades since bovine TB was declared over, a few cattle operations are just beginning to venture onto Molokai, but a recent business study calls ranching only a “shadow” of what it was.

There is an allegation circulating on the Internet claiming that all letters to the editor of The Maui News favoring GMOs are written by employees or beneficiaries of Monsanto. So I need to state that I have never received -- or been offered -- anything from any agricultural entity.
Restrained, I think, but there is more to know. For example, if you pick up "Living Aloha: Hawaii's Magazine for a Health Conscious Community and Planet," which is a piece of pro-ban literature available all over, you will learn some cogent things abou the anti-GMO folks.

The underlying question is the evidence for or against harm, actual or possible, from using recombinent genetic methods in farming. This is a scientific question; it can be answered by observation applied to theory.  Arm-waving scare stories and non-specific premonitions of disaster don't count.

Well, it can be answered by people who use evidence and understand and accept the methods of scientific investigation to make decisions. It does not appear that the people pushing the ban are that kind of people.

"Living Aloha" is supported by advertisements, and these are revealing. The largest number are for yoga classes and clinics. The second-largest number (4) are for colon cleanses.

Long-time readers of RtO (or of my "Well, balderdash" columns in The Maui News back before there was a blogosphere) may recall that I call Maui Duckburg because everywhere you go, you hear a quack. It is safe to say that the opinions of people who believe in colon cleanses on health topics are scientifically worthless.

The argument of those who claim they want only a temporary moratorium pending evidence of safety raises the question: what would they accept as evidence?

Book Review 334: Paper: An Elegy

PAPER: An Elegy, by Ian Sansom. 231 pages, illustrated. Morrow

One reason (of several) that I never pay attention to predictions by digital mavens is that they were so stridently wrong about paper. It is easy to make a wrong prediction, but in this case the evidence was right there.

Surprisingly, Ian Sansom doesn’t use it, although he squeezes an awful lot into a small space in “Paper: An Elegy.” You probably recall the factoid I am thinking of: When the plain paper copier was introduced, Xerox estimated that most users would make a dozen copies a day or so.

Fortunately those early copiers were robust, because counters showed that they were making around 100,000 copies a year: a ream every working day. And even if you never heard that story, it’s hard not to notice that the local stationery store runs a more-or-less continuous teaser sale of copier paper if you buy 10 boxes at a time.

As Sansom shows in this eclectic survey, even if the paperless office had emerged, paper would still be in our hands all the time. In fast-paced chapters, he covers advertisements, money, clothing, origami, games and puzzles, spying, money and much more.

Money might be just about the one use of paper that really will diminish because of digital methods. Yet it is hanging on pretty well still. Who knows, the inability or incompetence of vendors to safeguard credit card data may cause a rush back to greenbacks?

If there is a deficiency in this book, it is that Sansom, a teacher in Ireland, gives so little space to each use of paper; and not much to the manufacture of the stuff, although the bibliography shows where to go for more.

Big swathes of interest are ignored, like the move away from chlorine in paper mills. Barely mentioned, but hugely important, is the fact that digital files have a very short shelf life. Among the great advantages of paper over computers is that, once marked, paper can be read without any tools. Even the biggest libraries have trouble finding machinery to read some of their old digital media.