October 2006, Part 2
Jim Miller on Politics
Are Big Bird And The Teletubbies Causing Autism? Gregg Easterbrook thinks there is significant evidence for that provocative idea.
Today, Cornell University researchers are reporting what appears to be a statistically significant relationship between autism rates and television watching by children under the age of 3. The researchers studied autism incidence in California, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington state. They found that as cable television became common in California and Pennsylvania beginning around 1980, childhood autism rose more in the counties that had cable than in the counties that did not. They further found that in all the Western states, the more time toddlers spent in front of the television, the more likely they were to exhibit symptoms of autism disorders.I haven't read the report, but I'll try to get a copy of it to see how strong the evidence is. If Easterbrook is right in his description, then there is certainly enough evidence to show that we should, at the very least, investigate this possible connection further. And parents with very young children might consider eliminating their TV watching, as I believe many experts already advise them to do.
It would be interesting to see speculation on what might cause this connection, assuming there is one. Easterbrook thinks that overexposure to the two-dimensional screen might cause "visual-processing abnormalities". The only other possibility that occurs to me is that too much TV might reduce the interaction that kids usually get with other people. For what it is worth, autism is much more common in boys than girls, and it is easier for me to imagine boys giving up almost all human contact in favor of the box.
(You may have heard that a group of British researchers found a link between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. That's true; the group even got a paper supposedly showing that connection published in the Lancet magazine. But most of the authors of the paper have now admitted they were wrong.
As a result of the scare caused by this paper, vaccination rates dropped sharply in Britain and the number of cases of the three diseases rose. Other nations were probably affected, as well. The minor mumps epidemic that hit Iowa recently was, I believe, traced back to Britain.)
- 1:29 PM, 16 October 2006
Maybe Not: Here's a skeptical assessment of the data, and here's an alternative explanation. I think that the hypothesis is interesting, and that the researchers found enough data that supports it to make more investigation the reasonable thing to do, but that it will probably be disproven in time.
- 7:32 AM, 19 October 2006 [link]
Why Don't We Have Coal Conversion Plants Now? As I explained in this post, we are just beginning to get some of our oil from coal.
Why the delay? Because oil has been too cheap. And it may be going back to being too cheap soon.
The current slide in crude oil prices could accelerate into a plunge to as low at $35 per barrel next year, ConocoPhillips' chief economist, Marianne Kau, told a group of economists in Anchorage Oct. 11.Kau doesn't expect oil prices to go down to $9 a barrel — which is the low they hit in 1999 — but she does expect them to go down to $35 a barrel.
That price would be bad for Alaska's budget, good for most consumers' budgets, and bad for those trying to raise money for coal conversion plants.
- 10:52 AM, 16 October 2006 [link]
Need A Summary Of The Harry Reid Scandal? Here's one from Ed Morrissey. This is the part that I found most troubling:
Then, the next year, Reid introduced and pushed into law the Clark County Conservation of Public Land and Natural Resources Act of 2002. The senator heralded this as vital in protecting the environment near Las Vegas. In fact, however, the law forced the Department of the Interior to sell off 18,000 acres of land around Las Vegas, spurring development and boosting the value of real-estate investments in the region. (Not what anyone normally associates with "protecting the environment.")That part makes his failure to file accurate reports with the Senate look, not like carelessness, but like a deliberate attempt to hide what he was doing.
(There's another part of this scandal that deserves mention. Being Minority Leader of the Senate is, or should be, a full time job. That Reid has enough time to speculate, intensively, in real estate suggests to me that he has not been giving his full attention to the taxpayer's business. Perhaps he should return part of his Senate salary if he doesn't intend to spend full time working for the taxpayers.)
- 7:47 AM, 16 October 2006
Chuckle: Senator Reid is condemning Republicans because the "rich are getting richer", though he does not add that some of the rich are getting richer with the help of shady real estate deals. He may believe that he has not done anything wrong — though the evidence for the opposite view is accumulating.
- 10:31 AM, 16 October 2006 [link]
Double Standards On Mark Foley And Gerry Studds? Unquestionably, even allowing for the common unwillingness to speak ill of the dead. And, from what we know now, Studds' behavior was far worse than Foley's. Studd's sex scandal actually included sex with a page; so far as we know, Foley's did not include anything worse than lewd instant messages with current pages, though there are reports that he was involved with former pages after they had left Congress.
(As I recall, Studds solicited one or two boys who were below the age of consent, so what he did was illegal as well as immoral. But I have been unable to find any documentation for that recollection, so I may be mistaken.)
- 5:17 AM, 16 October 2006 [link]
The North Korean Nuclear Problem Was Solved In 1992: Yesterday I spent some time reading parts of Bradley K. Martin's book on North Korea, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader. I'll have much more to say about what I have learned from the book soon, but I would like first to pass on the good news that I found there.
First, a little background. When President Eisenhower came into office in 1953, he was determined to end the Korean War, and he did so in classic fashion, by threatening to make it worse for the North Koreans and the Chinese communists. Specifically, he threatened to support an attack on the mainland by Chiang Kai-shek and to use tactical nuclear weapons in Korea. Eisenhower moved tactical nuclear weapons, including nuclear artillery shells(!), to South Korea to show that he was serious. I don't know whether those threats were what caused the communists to agree to a truce, but a truce did follow soon after Eisenhower made them.
Since it was only a truce agreement, we kept the tactical nuclear weapons in Korea.
The presence of the nuclear weapons was, naturally, a North Korean grievance. And, during the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the growing North Korean nuclear program worried Americans and South Koreans. And so, when the North Koreans offered a trade in 1991, the Bush administration was willing to talk. Here's how Martin describes the agreement reached then.
The many good reasons for removing U.S. nuclear weapons from South Korea finally persuaded President George H. W. Bush. Pyongyang meanwhile had a number of apparent reasons to use the occasion to open up its relations with South Korea, as Seoul's business interests hoped. The controversy over suspected nuclear weapons development had turned Kim Il-sung into the international bogeyman to replace Saddam Hussein for the time being. Even as Pyongyang desperately wished to normalize relations with Japan, Tokyo had made clear that normalization must await Pyongyang's submission to international inspection of its nuclear facilities.So there you are. The problem was solved, way back in 1992. (And former President Carter's claim to have solved it later is just show boating.) To the best of my knowledge, South Korea and the United States have kept their parts in the agreement signed then. We have not moved nuclear weapons back into South Korea, and the South Koreans have not tried to develop their own.
So why all the fuss? Well, it seems that some suspicious people believe that the North Koreans did not keep their side of this agreement. (And the North Koreans have fed their paranoia by admitting (boasting?) that they have not kept the agreement.) Nor, as Tom Maguire notes, did they exactly adhere to the spirit of the later Carter agreement.
Some, including former President Carter, look at this record of treaty breaking by the North Koreans — and conclude that we should negotiate more treaties with the regime. Others, including myself, think it likely that, if we keep doing the same thing, we will keep getting the same result.
(Did Kim Il-sung keep the agreement? Did the North Koreans begin to break the agreement only after he was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il? I don't know the answer to that question. I don't even know if anyone in the West knows the answer. But I can say this: The father was, like his son, a horrific dictator, but he was also a more substantial and less corrupt man. So it is possible that the North Koreans kept the agreement until he died in 1994.
Some might say that the problem was solved even earlier, in 1985, when the North Koreans signed the nuclear non-proliferation agreement. But they weren't, shall we say, swift, in allowing the inspections required by that agreement.
Team Spirit was a military exercise in which the United States rapidly moved reinforcements to South Korea, as we are pledged to do in case of another North Korean attack.
Here's some background on the IAEA.)
- 9:12 AM, 12 October 2006
More: The dates given in this Jack Kelley column suggest that the cheating, at least the most serious cheating, began after Kim Jong-il took over.
- 4:54 AM, 16 October 2006 [link]
NYT Columnist Frank Rich Visits Seattle: The Seattle Times assigned staff writer Mark Rahner to interview Rich. That may have been a mistake, as you can see from the first two questions in the interview.
Those two questions don't make one think that Rahner intends to do a hard hitting interview, or that he is unbiased enough to be a reporter, do they? And if you are masochistic enough to read the rest of the interview, you will see that both impressions are right.
It's possible that Rahner is simply uninformed or misinformed. When I read a Frank Rich column, I almost always spot factual errors, always in the same leftist direction. Perhaps Rahner doesn't know enough about politics to spot the same errors. Perhaps Rahner knows more about drama. In that case, I would suggest that he look for the replies to Rich's valedictory piece on his career as the Times drama critic in the New York Times Magazine. There were three or four letters in the next issue from people so famous in theater that even I recognized their names, all correcting errors Rich had made in that one article.
Then there is the small problem that Rich can't (or won't) write clearly. Rahner may not know much about politics, but I would think any reporter would be able to spot the terrible writing mistakes in Rich's columns. (The mistakes are so bad that when I reply to a Rich column, I usually add a section at the end correcting some of his writing. And that isn't work that I enjoy doing.)
Now you and I might think that consistently getting facts wrong, being outrageously biased, perhaps even bigoted, and being unable or unwilling to write clearly, would disqualify a man from being a journalist at the New York Times. Frank Rich's career shows that we would wrong. That Mark Rahner does not see these faults in Rich's work make me wonder whether Rahner needs to rethink his own choice of career.
Cross posted at Sound Politics.
- 3:10 PM, 11 October 2006 [link]
Vote Suppression In Mississippi: For those as old as I am, that phrase brings back terrible memories. But the story turns out to be — mostly — about a routine case of vote fraud. Those who have read this site for some time know that when vote fraud cases are prosecuted in the United States, they generally share three characteristics. The vote fraud was usually committed by Democrats (often against other Democrats), usually in minority areas, and usually done with absentee ballots. All three of those characteristics are found in this case. But there is a twist that may get the case more attention.
The Justice Department has chosen this no-stoplight, courthouse town buried in the eastern Mississippi prairie for an unusual civil rights test: the first federal lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act accusing blacks of suppressing the rights of whites.Following long Southern tradition, Brown tried to control elections by controlling the results of the Democratic primaries, and he did so using tactics that even many Mississippi Democrats find offensive.
(I can't help wondering what the New York Times editorial pages will make of this story. They constantly worry about the suppression of the vote, which they believe is done by white Republicans to black Democrats, but they never cite any recent examples where that has occurred. Now we have an actual example, and it is the reverse of what they have been warning us about. Will they even say anything about this story? I'm not sure.)
- 7:20 AM, 11 October 2006 [link]
"Organic" ≠ Good For You: As a farmer's son, I have mixed feelings about "organic" food. I think that "organic" foods are mostly a con*, but I also know how hard it can be to make a living on a farm, and so I am not as critical of "organic" farmers as I should be. I don't know of any scientific evidence that "organic" food is more nutritious than conventional (inorganic?) foods. (Though I would not be surprised to learn that "organic" foods sometimes taste better.) And I think it likely that, if anything, "organic" foods pose more health risks than conventional foods.
That's an unconventional opinion (though I think most nutritionists would agree with me), so I should explain why I think that there is greater danger from "organic" than conventional foods.
For some foods, notably "natural" milk, the question is settled. If you search the news on "unpasteurized + milk", you will find stories such as this one, from my own area.
Two children have been sickened in another episode of E. coli infection, this time from drinking raw milk from a Whatcom County dairy.Note the key word, "another". These stories occur again and again, wherever "natural" milk is sold. It is terribly difficult to keep bacteria out of milk, which is why we pasteurize milk, why we heat it to kill any harmful bacteria. Louis Pasteur discovered many things about disease, but it is probably his invention of pasteurization that has done the most for our health.
(It is not just milk, by the way, that is made safer by pasteurization. So, too, are many fruit juices. Some years ago, there were a number of illnesses on the West coast caused by bacteria in "organic" fruit juices from a "natural" foods company. As so often happens in such cases, the bacteria were traced to the cow manure that had been used as fertilizer.)
For most other foods, the comparative risks are less clear. Many who argue for "organic" foods claim that they are less likely to have even traces of dangerous pesticides. I find that argument dubious. Let me explain why, beginning with a fact that some will find scary. When researchers do the usual tests on chemicals, they find that about half of them — in very large amounts — cause cancer. This is true whether those chemicals come from a factory, or a plant. The ordinary apple, for example, contains traces of dozens of chemicals known to be cancer causing, produced, naturally, by the apple.
In small amounts, those chemicals mostly do us no harm. (And any harm they might do is almost certainly outweighed by the good from other chemicals in the apples.)
But don't commercial pesticides add an additional risk? Not necessarily. And to understand that, you need to know a fascinating fact about plants. Plants do not (with exceptions such as fruits) like to be eaten. And so they have evolved, over the years, many defenses against animals that would eat them. In particular, they have invented, if you will, their own chemical pesticides, such as nicotine.
Producing these pesticides is expensive for the plant; it takes away energy that the plant could be putting into stems, leaves, and seeds, so the plants vary the amounts of pesticides they produce depending on the level of attack from animals, especially insects. Plants grown "organically" often have higher levels of insect damage, which suggests that that they also have much higher levels of pesticides, natural pesticides. And those pesticides are not, unlike most commercial pesticides, on the surface, where they can be washed off.
The most sophisticated advocates of "organic" foods might concede every point that I have made, but still argue that "organic" foods are better, because they are less processed, and have lost less of the beneficial chemicals. That argument is probably right in some cases. For example, the same heat that destroys bacteria also destroys some vitamins, and many other chemicals that may be good for us. On the whole, however, I think the decrease in risk from bacteria is worth those losses. And you can make up for many of the losses by eating a few more fruits and vegetables. (By the way, if you happen to choose fruits from Washington state, you'll please some of my relatives.)
(*Some, perhaps most, of those raising "organic" foods believe their products are better, but from the consumer's point of view it does not matter whether a con man believes his own pitch, or not.
There is a larger, irrefutable objection to the general adoption of "organic" methods in farming. In general, the yields are lower with organic methods, so much lower that we probably could not feed our population if all our farms were "organic".)
- 6:35 AM, 11 October 2006 [link]
Is There Anything Global Warming Doesn't Cause? (Other than global cooling, of course.) In his entertaining book, The Dinosaur Heresies, Robert Bakker describes a few of the proposed causes of the demise of the dinosaurs.
Perfectly respectable scientists, who pride themselves on their caution when dealing with their own specialty, indulge in the wildest flights of fancy when it comes to cracking the mystery of the Cretaceous killer. I keep a file of published solutions. Among its contents, it is suggested the dinosaurs died out because "the weather got too hot"; "because the weather got too cold"; "because the weather got too dry"; "because the weather got too wet"; "because the weather became too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter"; "because the land became too hilly"; "because new kinds of plants evolved which poisoned all the dinosaurs"; "because new kinds of insects evolved which spread deadly diseases"; because new kinds of mammals evolved which competed for food"; "because new kinds of mammals evolved which ate the dinosaurs' eggs"; "because a giant meteor smashed into the earth"; "because a supernova exploded near the earth"; "because cosmic rays bombarded the earth"; or, "because massive volcanoes exploded all around the earth." (p. 425)With that many causes, it is not surprising that the dinosaurs died out.
Global warming has the opposite problem; according to many it is a single cause, with many, many, effects, all, or nearly all, of the effects bad. Anyone who reads through that entire list will conclude that global warming is close to omnipotent — so close that perhaps we had better just accept it as inevitable.
More seriously, both the scientists (or sometimes "scientists") who are putting out these claims, and the journalists who are spreading them, should show a little more restraint — if they don't want to look silly. Not all publicity is good publicity.
(Picky folks will note that one of the causes that Bakker mentions, a giant meteor, is now widely accepted as the main cause of the dinosaurs' demise. I don't know whether Bakker has changed his mind on this point since he wrote the book. But I do know that Bakker's book on the dinosaurs is wonderfully entertaining, and perhaps not quite as heretical as it once was.
As always when I mention global warming, I urge you to read my disclaimer, if you have not already done so.)
- 1:22 PM, 10 October 2006 [link]
Worth Reading: Thomas Sowell finds our "mainstream" journalists, and many politicians, all too frivolous, in a time that calls for seriousness.
With a war going on in Iraq and with Iran next door moving steadily toward a nuclear bomb that could change the course of world history in the hands of international terrorists, the question for this year's elections is not whether you or your candidate is a Democrat or a Republican but whether you are serious or frivolous.And it is that frivolity and that bias that led me to create this site.
- 12:45 PM, 10 October 2006 [link]
The United States Is Not Short Of Fossil Fuels: And it is possible to get our consumer products from any of the main fossil fuels, oil, natural gas, and coal. I was reminded of those two well-known* points when I was digging through a pile of newspapers and found this July New York Times $article. Only the abstract is free:
The coal in the ground in Illinois alone has more energy than all the oil in Saudi Arabia. The technology to turn that coal into fuel for cars, homes and factories is proven. And at current prices, that process could be at the vanguard of a big, new industry.But you can learn more at the web site of the company featured in the article, Rentech. Rentech is converting a plant that makes fertilizer from natural gas to one that makes it from coal, and is building plants that convert coal to diesel fuel. (Another company, discussed in the article, GreatPoint Energy, has developed a process for converting coal into natural gas.)
Rentech is using old technology.
Most of the interest is in making diesel using a technology known as Fischer-Tropsch, for the German chemists who demonstrated it in the 1920's.The main users of the technology, the Nazis and the old South African regime, were about as politically incorrect as possible. But that doesn't mean that their chemists were no good.
Why haven't we used this process before? The price of oil was too low, so diesel from coal wasn't competitive. And the capital costs of the plants are still much higher than the costs of refineries with the same capacity. But Rentech believes that it can produce diesel at competitive prices.
The cost to convert the coal is $25 a barrel, the company says, a price that oil seems unlikely to fall to in the near future. So Rentech is discussing a second plant in Natchez, Miss., and participating in a third proposed project in Carbon County in Wyoming.As I have said in the past, for example here, the United States can be energy independent if we want to — but the cost would be very high. But with the current high prices for oil, and the improvement in these technologies, the cost of becoming less dependent on imported fuel may be much lower than I once thought.
(*Or are they well known? Energy experts know them, but I am not sure that most of our journalists do.
I did not mention, because the subject is so large, the problem of the additional carbon dioxide produced by these processes. There are technical solutions to that problem, as well, but I have no idea whether those solutions are cost effective.)
- 7:51 AM, 10 October 2006 [link]
A Fake, A Fizzle, Or A Very Sophisticated Weapon: Those are the three possible explanations for the low yield of the North Korean test. First, some guesstimates on the yield:
With the North Korean blast, there were wide variations. While the French atomic agency estimated around 1 kiloton and South Korea's geological institute half of that, Russia's defense minister expressed " no doubt" that North Korea detonated a nuclear test and said the force of the underground blast was equivalent to 5,000 to 15,000 tons of TNT.So they do. (If the high end of the Russian estimate is correct, then the yield would be similar to that of the Hiroshima explosion, and would not require an explanation, but no one else seems to agree with their estimate.)
Since no radiation has been detected, the North Koreans might have set off a very large conventional explosion. According to the article, we'll know for certain within a few days.
While the North Korean explosion was small, potentially complicating monitoring efforts, sensors in South Korea were likely close enough to categorize it as nuclear, if that is what is was, said Friedrich Steinhaeusler, professor of physics at Salzburg University.Or it may have been a fizzle (for a nuclear explosion) as Den Beste suspects.
Finally, and this is by far the most troubling, it may have been a very sophisticated weapon. We'll know soon, most likely, whether or not it was a fake. But we may never know whether it was a fizzle or a sophisticated weapon, though the first seems far more likely to me.
- 4:01 PM, 9 October 2006
More: The New York Times has a good summary of the open questions, including this surprising tidbit:
Dr. [Philip E.] Coyle, the former director of nuclear testing at Livermore, said small tests were more likely to leak radioactivity than large ones, because the intense heat and gigantic shock waves of bigger blasts tended to melt and pulverize nearby rock into impregnable barriers.Bill Gertz of the Washington Times passes on skepticism from some in the intelligence community about whether the test was real. "Wretchard" of the Belmont Club speculates that the explosion may have been a suitcase nuke. And Jay Manifold gives us a little of the math required to assess how large the explosion was, and how destructive it would be if it were exploded over, for example, Seoul.
- 6:28 AM, 10 October 2006 [link]
Shawn Kemp Loves Children: And the former NBA star is trying for a comeback. Those were the two conclusions I found in this column by the Seattle PI's Robert Jamieson. The second I am willing to believe; the first is harder to swallow, in spite of this evidence from the column.
Others might have a different opinion about how much Kemp loves children, especially if they read, or even have heard of, a famous Sports Illustrated cover story.
This City Journal article is more precise about Kemp's children.
Now then, for the sake of argument, let's say that Kemp does love children. If so, he does not understand — perhaps because no one ever told him — that kids do far better when they have two married parents. If so, someone should tell him — and someone should tell Gordon Curvey and Robert Jamieson the same thing.
Cross posted at Sound Politics.
(Jamieson says in the column that Kemp is now married to "Marvena" and that they have three children. She may be one of the six women; if so, only five or six of his kids are now missing their daddy.By way of contrast, you might want to look at this article on another NBA star, Doug Christie. He behaves as a man should — and is thought to be strange for doing so.)
- 1:59 PM, 9 October 2006 [link]
Was The North Korean Test A Partial Failure? That's what Steven Den Beste suspects.
USGS reports a Richter 4.2 event in North Korea. Is that a successful detonation or a misfire? Wikipedia's page on the Richter Scale has a chart converting different readings into approximate real-world explosion-equivalents. Richter 4.0 is listed as 1 kiloton. Richter 4.5 is 5.6 kilotons. Richter 5.0 is 32 kilotons, and the example they use for Richter 5.0 is the Nagasaki bomb. That's "Fat Man", the second plutonium bomb.Incidentally, Den Beste's post also answers a question I have had for some time: Why don't more nations make plutonium weapons, since it is far easier to extract plutonium than it is to separate U-235 from the other uranium isotopes? And it is not difficult to make plutonium in reactors.
The answer, accroding to Den Beste, is that plutonium bombs are much trickier to construct than U-235 bombs. And that may explain why North Korea's test may have been a fizzle — for a nuclear bomb.
(Of course, all this assumes that the Richter measurements were correct, and it isn't unusual for them to be revised as new data comes in and as analysts take a second look at the first data.)
- 12:54 PM, 9 October 2006 [link]
Cheery News from North Korea.
North Korea said Sunday night that it had set off its first nuclear test, becoming the eighth country in history, and arguably the most unstable and most dangerous, to proclaim that it has joined the club of nuclear weapons states.(Some cruel cynics might say that this showed still another falure by the United Nations, but right thinking people will reject such dismal conclusions.)
But not unexpected. And now some people seem to agree with me that this is more important than the Foley scandal.
I'll have much more to say about this in the next week or so, but for now I will just make this observation: Most experts appear to believe that North Korea has had bombs for years. Which leads, naturally to this question: Why did they decide, now, to end the uncertainty and make this test? I don't know the answer to that question, and I am not sure that anyone outside North Korea knows. But I will try to give you my best guesses about that soon.
(We still don't know — and may never know — whether the North Koreans detonated a bomb or a "device". In other words, we don't know whether they detonated a bomb that can be put into a missile and fired at us, or whether they detonated a device that is too big and complex to be delivered that way. I am by no means an expert on nuclear technology, but given the enormous effort that the United States and the Soviet Union put into making bombs fit into missiles, I think we can conclude that it is not an easy thing to do.)
- 8:07 AM, 9 October 2006 [link]