Thursday, November 13, 2003
Come On Guys, Make Up Your Mind!
Now there's a climatologist who is predicting that global warming will actually cause an ice age
. (Link via Cox and Forkum
In the past, the slowing of the Gulf Stream has been intimately linked with dramatic regional cooling. Just 10,000 years ago, during a climatic cold snap known as the Younger Dryas, the current was severely weakened, causing northern European temperatures to fall by as much as 10 degrees. Ten thousand years before that, at the height of the last ice age, when most of the UK was reduced to a frozen wasteland, the Gulf Stream had just two-thirds of the strength it has now.
What's worrying is that for some years now, global climate models have been predicting a future weakening of the Gulf Stream as a consequence of global warming.
Sounds scary, doesn't it? Except that it's all a guess. The author even admits later that there is no direct evidence supporting his theory.
So why publish at all?
Yet again, this highlights the fact that global warming, for which we have only ourselves to thank, is nothing more nor less than a great planetary experiment, many of the outcomes of which we cannot predict.
Oops, your bias is showing. No reputable scientist is attributing all of the recent temperature change to man made sources. In fact, the debate over how much is caused by human activity is on going, and quite contentious.
At least he's honest enough to admit that we have no idea
what effect, if any, our activities will have on the climate. In the absence of strong evidence, pieces like this one are just propaganda.
For some real information on the science against global warming, check out this site
Thursday, November 06, 2003
Massimo Pigliucci and Dingos’ Kidneys-- An Argument Against Intelligent Design
Sunday morning, I had the opportunity to hear Massimo Pigliucci debut a new lecture
debunking the latest form of Creationism, Intelligent Design. The lecture was sponsored by the Rationalists of East Tennessee
and was held at The Candy Factory.
In short, Intelligent Design theory states that living things (or in some versions, parts of living things) are so complex, and so specific to their function, that they could not have arisen by random mutation, and therefore must have been designed. Pr. Pigliucci, a few quibbles aside that I'll get to shortly, did a good job of demonstrating the flaws of such an approach.
Pr. Pigliucci took issue with Demski's Explanatory Filter, which through elimination, tries to prove that some systems must have been designed. As Pr. P pointed out, the filter is incomplete, leaving out a range of alternative explanations for the system. With his filter, Dembski makes the same mistake as does Michael Behe, inferring a result that is not justified by the evidence. Simply pointing out flaws in current evolutionary models does not automatically indicate that the system was designed, only that there are gaps in our knowledge.
Pr. Pigliucci did make a few questionable assertions during the lecture. At one point, he stated that every number he had seen assigned to the probability of evolution was bunk. He spelled out his justification, by saying that 1) we don't have a strong theoretical basis for assigning the probabilities, and 2) we don't have enough data to generate the probabilities. I tend to disagree with him on the first statement, since I can come up with an algorithm for a rough estimate myself. Through observation, we can come up with an estimate of the current rate of genetic mutation. Using our knowledge of global conditions throughout earth's existence, we can develop a rough range of how the rate of genetic change varies over time. Next, we'd determine what proportion of genetic changes are beneficial, and therefore likely to be selected. Combining the three gives us the expected rate of beneficial genetic changes. All that remains is to compare the time predicted for a change to the time recorded in the fossil record for the change to see how probable it was that evolutionary forces were behind the change.
This would be a very rough estimate at first, but the model could be refined as more information is obtained. After all, as Pr. Pigliucci said during the Q and A portion of the lecture, science doesn't always hit the true answer, especially not on the first swing. Often, it's a matter of picking the closest answer that fits the most data, to get an approximation of the true answer.
In another portion of the lecture, Pr. Pigliucci stated that design theory implies a "perfect" design by a "perfect" designer. His humorous example was that if the universe were designed, zebras would have automatic rifles, to defend themselves from the lions. He went on to say that obviously, zebras couldn't have guns, as there was no evolutionary pathway for that kind of development. Approaching that argument from the design side, perhaps the "perfect" designer wanted a predator/prey relationship between the two animals, thus both animals are "perfectly" suited to their roles. On the more serious scientific side, obviously the evolutionary pathway did exist, and was taken by primates as they developed the intelligence and capability for handling tools. I would suggest that, given enough time, zebra's reversing their evolutionary course and moving towards a tool handling path is no more or less unlikely than the evolutionary reversal of aquatic mammals, who developed arms and legs from fins, then reversed course on their return to the sea.
However, as I mentioned above, these are just quibbles, and do nothing to take away from Pr. Pigliucci's main point, that Intelligent Design, as proposed by Dembski, is not valid science. But before closing, I must address the atmosphere surrounding this lecture.
Pr. Pigliucci did a good job keeping his antipathy towards religion under wraps; it only surfaced in a couple of quick side comments that obviously were not part of the formal lecture. It rapidly became apparent during the Q and A portion that his audience had no such restraint. "Misguided" was perhaps the kindest term used to describe those who have a religious faith, while one fellow bluntly asked if all creation scientists were liars. That type of emotional bias provides nothing constructive.
Going back to the lecture, Pr. Pigliucci demonstrated that Dembski's filter did have a real world application, as long as additional information is available, and as long as a "designer" is assumed. Since creationists make that assumption, the filter would be valid in their frame of reference
. No lying or deception required. Science, on the other hand, makes no assumptions about the existence of a deity, positive or negative; it does not deny God, rather it ignores Him.
The Rationalists at this meeting fall into a trap similar to the one that trips up Dembski and Behe, trying to reach a conclusion that isn't justified by the data. Proof of evolution does not disprove the existence of God, despite fundamentalists' fears. Rationalists need to remember that just because a rational explanation exists, that doesn't automatically make it correct. At one point, it was rational to believe that the earth was the center of the universe. It wasn't just religious doctrine; it made sense. The earth was steady beneath our feet; it was the heavens that whirled above us. What seems rational today may be revealed as wildly irrational by new information tomorrow, and our current beliefs may seem as quaint as the Ptolemaic view of the universe.
Additionally, there are aspects of our existence that do not yield themselves to rational explanations.
Try coming up with a rational explanation for Beethoven's 9th some time.
Monday, October 20, 2003
A new experiment has developed electric current
A team of Canadian researchers has found that an electrical current can be produced between the ends of a microscopic channel when a fluid flows through it.
The technique offers a potential source of clean, non-polluting electric power with a variety of possible uses, ranging from powering small electronic devices such as calculators or mobile phones to vast stations that can contribute to the national grid.
Unfortunately, the article does not detail the total power generated, and how it compares with the power required to force the water through the channels. It does say that water simply flowing through the filter will generate the electricity, so the process shouldn't take high powered pumps, but if it is no more efficient than a standard hydroelectric turbine, then it really isn't all that exciting.
Even if the discovery does not turn out to be a practical source of energy for generating electricity, it does show that we are still looking for, and more importantly finding, alternative energy sources.
Tuesday, October 07, 2003
Dogma in Science
I've been slapped around by some who believe in the global warming scenario. I take this position because the facts do not jibe with the theory in many particulars, but I'm often hit with, "But so many scientists do support the theory that it must be true!"
That's not the case. In fact the exact opposite is true. Think about it for a second. If everything we thought was true was true, there would be no ne discoveries. Every major scientific advance came from somebody questioning the established theory, and turning out to be correct. Additionally, every time this has happened, the scientific establishment has resisted the new idea strenuously, despite the facts.
The latest example came yesterday, when the Nobel Prize for Medicine was announced
What the article doesn't say is that Lauterbur ran into significant trouble even publishing the paper for which he just received the Prize. Nature rejected it
as "not of significantly wide significance," before later changing their mind. On NPR's All Things Considered
(audio link) Lauterbur says that "The preconceptions were so strong, that people could not only see the results, but be doing it themselves, and still not believe it."
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my point. Scientists are human. They become attached to their own theories, and will defend them when presented with new theories, even if the facts support the new theories
. This is the fatal flaw behind all arguments which are based on authority instead of the facts. So don't tell me that x number of scientists believe this, so it must be true; if you want to convince me, you'd better have the facts to answer my questions.
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
Jeremy Rifkin and The Hydrogen Economy
I just finished reading The Hydrogen Economy, and if the blurb on the back ("Now the hydrogen movement has a marquee spokesman."--Peter Coy, Business Week) is accurate, the hydrogen movement is in deep trouble.
The first clue was the simple observation that, out of 250 pages of text, only about 40 actually deal with hydrogen power! Even more telling, in those 40 pages, there is virtually no discussion of precisely how hydrogen is to be harnessed. Instead, Rifkin talks about how we will use renewable sources of energy to produce the hydrogen, without mentioning that those sources are nowhere near enough to produce the amount of hydrogen needed to replace fossil fuels. He dismisses the tremendous cost differential, assuming that further research will reduce it, again with no specifics. For the last thirty pages, he sings the praises of the new hydrogen economy, how it will end the monopolistic practices of Big Oil, and how everybody will produce their own energy in a distributed network, and how "all manner of things wi' be well."
Unfortunately, he seems to have no clue about how this will happen. He looks at hydrogen power and fuel cells as a black box solution. Once we have them in place, and they work the way he envisages, then everything will be wonderful. The problem is that, his blithe pronouncements to the contrary, there are several very real difficulties in implementing his vision, difficulties that are not amenable to easy solution. For instance, he speaks of using hydrogen to store energy from renewable resources, but he neglects to mention that the energy released through oxidation of hydrogen is less than the energy needed to generate the hydrogen in the first place. Funny how, even though he uses and abuses the concept of entropy thoughout the first portion of the book, he neglects to take into acount it's very real impact on hydrogen usage.
The book does make an excellent case for moving away from oil, and that is its biggest strength. Rifkin presents a clear, well argued, and well referenced argument that we are at the end of the fossil fuel age, and need to move on to a new source of energy. While I disagree with some of his points, particularly those based on the global warming model, he still presents a compelling case on his other two points, that cheap oil is going the way of the dinosaurs, and even if it weren't, relying on an energy source controlled by unstable States is foolhardy.
Had Rifkin titled the book The End of the Dinosaur Economy, I would have nary a quibble. But based on his title, I was looking for a discussion of the pros and cons of a hydrogen based fuel system, aong with some discussion of how to make the transition. Instead, I got a picture of how bad things are now, compared to how good things could be, with no map of how to get from here to there.
Saturday, August 16, 2003
More on the blackout
Sparky, over at Sgt Stryker, has posted a very detailed analysis
of the blackout, using power plots from the areas involved. He comes up with some surprising information. Go check it out.
Friday, August 15, 2003
Power grids and blackouts
Yep, the lights went out for 50 million people yesterday, and we still don't really know why it happened. Canada blames a fault in our system; we blame a fault in Canada's system, or a bad transmission line in the Midwest, but we're all sure it wasn't a terrorist.
Why? Just because nothing blew up?
Let's try a little experiment, change the word terror
. Sound any more likely now?
The leading theory on the root cause of the failure, at least, the leading theory as I rode in to work this morning, was the simultaneous failure of multiple transmission lines in the northern Mid-West US.
Hmmm. When I learned to trouble shoot, they taught us that multiple faults are very rare, and to look for a single fault first. If you seemed to be chasing a multiple fault, step back and look again. You probably missed something.
Here's a scenario to consider: Some idiot with an axe to grind and no sense of self preservation decides to die gloriously for Allah or whoever. He shorts two high tension transmission lines together, vaporizing himself while causing a cascading overload which shuts down power to 50 million people.
That's "simultaneous failure of multiple transmission lines."
This is offered as a possibility. I have no evidence, not even a hunch. Possibly a short occurred naturally, I don't know. But I'm getting a bit tired of the first words coming out of every politico's mouth when something happens being "It wasn't terrorism" when in truth, there's no way to know.
Don't lie to me.
OK, rant over. Now to the informative portion of this post.
There are a lot of folks griping about the collapse of the power grid, and the predictable voices are blaming the President, as if he had something to do with the design and construction of the grid. First of all, the thing wasn't designed; it grew. Second, it's not a monolithic system with some control room out of Star Trek
. It's grunches of smaller, local systems interconnected, co-operative but independent of each other. Third, the complaint that "Somebody ought to do
something" is easy; determining what to actually do is the hard part.
To give you some idea of how hard that question is, I have to take you into the complexities of the power grid, give you a tour of how it operates, and why it is set up the way it is. My knowledge in this area is based on my Navy career as Nuclear Reactor Operator. I didn't deal directly with the power distribution system, but through extensive cross training, I am familiar with the principles and techniques involved. And if I make any mistakes, I'm sure Sparky will correct me.
A simple power grid has three components:
- A generator
- Transmission lines
- Distribution centers
The generator converts physical energy, ie movement, into electrical energy. The transmission lines carry this energy from the plant to the distribution center, where it is routed to the loads. If any of the three components fail, the grid goes down and the lights go out, and Auntie Eunice can't watch her stories.
Deciding that this was a bad thing, some fairly smart people decided that if you put two small generators instead of one big generator in the grid, if one failed, you could still handle most of the load with the one that was left, and Auntie wouldn't miss finding out if Jim and Suzy got married, even though Suzy was pregnant with Ralph's baby.
So that's what they did.
Now it gets interesting.
Two generators carrying the same load are said to be operating in parallel, like two horses pulling the same wagon. Now there has to be some way of controlling how much of the electrical load each generator is carrying, so that the system will be stable. Like our horse and wagon, if one horse is pulling harder than the other, not only is the off horse not doing his share of the work, but the wagon is also harder to steer. Unbalanced loads on parallel generators have a similar effect. Fortunately, it turns out that electricity is pretty cool, because it will automatically distribute the load based on the voltages the generators are putting out. The higher the voltage, the more load the generator will carry, reducing the load on the other generator. So we can control the output voltage of each generator to match the loads. Remember this bit, because it becomes very important later in the discussion.
So what we've done is increase the reliability of the system by building in backup generating plants, which adds both spare capacity, and redundancy. The problem is that building plants is expensive. There's a constant battle being fought over how much spare capacity the system needs, and how much redundancy is cost effective. Spare capacity costs money, but doesn't generate revenue, so plant owners want the minimum amount necessary to ensure reliability. Plant managers on the other hand, like to maximize spare capacity to be prepared for outages or overloads.
That's what a local system looks like. Now let's zoom out a little and look at the regional picture. We've got several local power grids, all working to supply power to their communities, all wrestling with the need to grow to meet demand, and to maintain enough spare capacity to handle outages. At some point, a couple of these systems got together, and realized that if they connected their power systems, they would increase their available spare capacity, and redundancy without having to build new plants. It was highly unlikely that a problem would strike both systems simultaneously, which meant that each system could rely on their own spare capacity, and the spare capacity of the other system to handle any outages.
The plant owners were happy with this arrangement, because now they could sell their spare capacity to another system, turning an overhead item into a revenue generating item. The plant managers were happy, because now they had enhanced redundancy, and massive spare capacity.
This is how the power grid came to exist. Discrete power systems interconnected to share both the load, and spare capacity.
"Now this all sounds great, but if the system is so stable, how come we still get massive blackouts?"
Well, there are two factors operating here. Many major cities do not generate anywhere near enough power to supply their loads. They depend on shared power from outside the city to meet their needs. The recent energy crisis in California was a perfect illustration of this. Due to outages, maintenance and other factors, the state could not generate enough electricity to meet its needs, and had to buy energy from other states. If a large city loses its access to that shared power, through a fault in the transmission or distribution system, it will not have enough power to sustain its load, and there will be a blackout. The second factor is that demand for electricity is outstripping supply. The grid has a fair amount of spare capacity under normal use conditions, but when power demand hits a peak, like it did this week due to the hot weather, spare capacity in the region is almost nil. Any outage at that point is extremely likely to cascade, spreading far beyond the initial blackout.
"That's the second time you've talked about a cascade. What do you mean?"
Well, let's go back and look at our parallel generators. Remember that voltage controls the load sharing. When we take a plant off-line intentionally, we slowly lower the voltage, allowing the remaining plant to pick up the load gradually. When a plant trips off-line on an overload, the load is transferred immediately. When this happens, the increased load causes two things to happen to the remaining plant. Electrical current flow goes way up, which drives voltage way down. This condition can cause the generator to overheat and burn up. Literally burn up, with sparks, and flames and whatnot. Since this was something that everybody wanted to avoid, being messy and very expensive, safety systems were designed to shut the generator down on low voltage conditions.
So, if one portion of the grid goes off-line suddenly, the generators adjacent to it on the grid will see a sharp rise in current demand, resulting in a voltage drop. If there is enough spare capacity, the remaining generators will absorb the load, and return voltage to the normal level. If not, the voltage drop will be more severe, and the adjacent generators will trip on a low voltage.
So, the parallel operation is a double edged sword. It greatly minimizes the chances of an overload causing a power failure, but if there is a power failure, there is an increased risk of the overload to spread throughout the grid.
Now, there was another factor at work during this blackout as well. Nuke plants must have a stable source of local power to stay online. While the plants can be run in a self sustaining mode, federal law requires them to shut down if they lose local power. When the blackout hit, 9 nuke plants lost local power, and were forced to shut down, resulting in additional strain on the remaining grid.
"But my power goes out during thunderstorms all the time. How come it doesn't take down the entire grid?"
The answer to that question lies with in the power distribution centers. Electrical substations take power from the system, and route it into a smaller area. Each substation is protected with voltage and current limiters, which trip the substation in the event of a problem, like a lightning strike, or Elroy Barnes ramming into a power pole at 85 mph. These limiters are very similar to the circuit breakers in your house. When something goes wrong, they trip, isolating power until the problem is fixed. These breakers take that section of the load off of the system, keeping it from affecting the rest of the grid. These substations are small enough that they can be reset without a major impact on the system.
"So why not install the same things on the grid?"
We do, but the problem is that the grid is so interconnected, that tripping an overload protection in one place may result in another overload down the line because grid level trips cut off generators as well as loads. Also, the magnitude of the loads means that, unlike the local substation, you can't just flip a switch to bring the load back on. If you did, you would cause more undervoltage trips.
"But my power is usually back on in a few minutes, why is it going to take hours/days to recover from this blackout?"
Two reasons. First, the magnitude of the outage. There are literally thousands of switches and breakers to reset in order to bring everything back online. Second, the process of bringing loads back onto the grid is a little more involved than resetting a breaker in your house. In order to bring large sections of the grid back online, first you have to isolate a down section, connect it one piece at a time to a bank of generators, also isolated from the grid, then match voltage between those generators, place them in parallel for load sharing, then match the parallel group to the grid, then connect the bank to the grid. Once the load is shared, you can transfer load to the grid, isolate the generators you need for the next group, and start all over again.
It takes time, and is a pain in the ass, particularly for the folks without power, but the alternative is an overload that turns all the power station in the northeast into a smoking pile of slag.
OK, so now you know a little bit more about how the light turns on when you flip a switch, so let's get back to the issue of "Somebody has to do something!
The obvious answer is "Build more power stations!"
We are, but there are questions:
Coal, gas, hybrid, biomass, nuclear, solar, or hydroelectric?
And where? NIMBY nuts have ruled out building anything as nasty as a power plant anywhere near where they live, so real estate is very limited.
How are we going to pay for it? Utility price hikes? Federal tax money? State tax money?
These are questions that are fought over every day when utilities decide to build new plants. Lawsuits, protests, changing building codes, environmental impact statements, establishing infrastructure, etc all slow the process.
Another idea is to dismantle the grid. That would certainly keep blackouts from spreading, but at a tremendous cost. Local blackouts would become far more common; utility prices would skyrocket as utilities would be forced to build more plants to maintain a safe margin; cities would collapse as there simply isn't the room available to build the power plants needed to sustain them. All in all, it isn't a viable option.
That's really it. Most proposals boil down into one of the two categories above. Until we come up with a truly distributed power system, the grid will remain vulnerable to this kind of widespread blackout. I'm sure that we'll add a few more engineering controls to try and minimize the spread of future overloads, and I'm fairly certain that they won't do a bit of good.
What can be done, particularly in the cities, is to ensure that emergency backups are widely available. Hospitals, emergency services, communications services should all be required to have back up generators with enough fuel to last for 3 days. This is an area where fuel cells may really fit the bill.
« Close 'er up!
Monday, August 11, 2003
Was it something I said?
I just got an e-mail from Michael Fumento concerning my post below, the first portion of which I e-mailed him. Apparently, he wasn't pleased with my response. For those of you who haven't been following along, I've critiqued a couple
of Fumento's more prominent
pieces. I emailed my critiques to him, which began a fairly pleasant correspondence
. Pleasant that is, until now. Here's the text of his e-mail in its entirety:
Methinks we've been through this before but I'll try one more time. A higher
mortality rate is as meaningless without additional information as a higher
interest rate on your principle without knowing what that principle is. By
your reasoning, any disease with a mortality rate of 100 percent is
obviously much more serious than one with a one percent mortality rate. It's
not even comparable. But what if the disease with the 100 percent mortality
rate struck one human a year while that with the 1 percent rate struck a
billion per year? Your uneducated little mind just can't grasp that, can it?
Moreover, the mortality rate in the US and Europe was absolutely zero. Why
do you insist upon using Chinese rates instead of Americans? Easy: It serves
your purpose. You also say I was only right (even though of course I was
wrong) because health authorities took drastic actions. But we saw how
extremely difficult the disease was to spread. You cannot provide any
evidence that quarantines played a major role. It is mere speculation on
As to Atkins, if it works so well why is it you have such a fat face? Time
and again I've found that those who defend Atkins with a religious fervor as
you do, and ignore all studies, as you do, are nonetheless little porkers.
It doesn't bother you that you have a big fat bow on Atkins so long as you
get to stuff your face with all the lard and cheese puffs you want. Truly
But the nice thing about all this is that you are an absolute nobody who can
publish nowhere outside of his own blog site that I never would have heard
of had my name not come up. I am a weekly syndicated health and science
columnist who is read each week by literally millions of people. One of my
SARS pieces was in the New York Post, with over three million readers alone.
Do you get three million hits in one day? This is not to brag about me but
to say that you are a pissant and your arrogance and ignorance is made clear
in your aforementioned comments. You are a nobody and everybody knows it but
R. Hailey. Have a happy useless life.
Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute
Medical/Science Columnist, Scripps-Howard Syndicate
Wow! That last paragraph brings to mind a line from Wargames
, you know the one where the Dabney Coleman has just called the General a "pig-eyed sack of shit?" The general, played by Barry Corbin comes back with this classic:
Oh, I was hoping for something a little better than that from you, a man of your education.
I wasn't sure whether to fisk this one, since it fisks itself, but there are a couple points in the first paragraph that bear closer examination, before the letter dissolves into a morass of insults and personal attacks.
A higher mortality rate is as meaningless without additional information as a higher interest rate on your principle (sic) without knowing what that principle is.
Regardless of the principal amount, a lower interest rate is better (if you're the borrower). Was he trying to prove my point or his?
Why do you insist upon using Chinese rates instead of Americans?
I was using the global rate, as derived from the numbers in his article. The Chinese rate would have been somewhat higher. Even though the US mortality rate was zero, this doesn't make SARS a non event. Just ask Canada. Or is Fumento suggesting that it doesn't matter how many Chinese die?
You also say I was only right (even though of course I was
wrong) because health authorities took drastic actions.
Nope, I never said he was right. I said his argument only appeared legitimate, not that it was legitimate.
You cannot provide any evidence that quarantines played a major role.
Actually, I can. When quarantines were finally imposed in China, the runaway spread of the disease was halted in its tracks. China makes a perfect test case. No quarantines, rapid spread. Quarantines, no spread. It might not be definitive but it certainly is indicative.
I sent the above questions to Michael, and received his response while writing this post. I'll quote it here, again in its entirety:
Tell it to your two readers, Chunky Monkey Atkins cultist.
Take him seriously folks. He's a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Sunday, August 10, 2003
I just got an interesting comment from Mr. Fumento. You remember him, the guy who said SARS was no big deal, and Atkins doesn't work?
Apparently, he wants me to admit I was wrong on both counts. He's in for a big disappointment.
Here is his comment
"Fumento Is Wrong!" That's what you wrote about me and my SARS writing. As you now know, Fumento Was Right; Indeed, He Was Essentially the ONLY Journalist Who Was Right!"
Are you too little of a man to admit that YOU were wrong, and terribly so? It seems that if you were going to, you would have gotten around to it by now. And by the way, Fumento Was Right! about Atkins, too.
I've been writing on epidemiology for 16 years. If you lock horns with me, you're going to be wrong. But it seems you should at least have the guts to admit it. Or is that why your shots go across the bow, instead of actually striking the target?
There are many times in the past when I have been wrong, and I have admitted so candidly. This, however, is not one of them.
Here is what I said on SARS:
"If a SARS breakout isn't promptly controlled, it could be disastrous, as we are seeing in China."
It was controlled and contained; that doesn't mean it didn't represent a serious threat. By your numbers, SARS had an overall mortality rate of approximately 10%. Since other respiratory ailments generally run at significantly less than 1%, even in the elderly, that one factor alone warrants considerable concern. Your piece goes on to state that the mortality rate is irrelevant since the incidence was so low. Comparing the spread in China with the rest of the world clearly demonstrates that without the actions of the WHO, the incidence would have been significantly higher, negating your argument.
Your argument only appears legitimate because it rests on the success of the very actions you claim were unneeded.
However, continue to glory in your isolated position of "Essentially the ONLY Journalist Who Was Right!" I'll continue to rely on those who actually practice epidemiology, rather than write about it.
As for your new article on Atkins, you've just rehashed old points without answering any of my questions from earlier posts:
- If the Atkins plan merely "gives people a framework to eat fewer calories, since most of the choices in this culture are carbohydrate driven," how is that a problem? Don't you go on to say that dietary moderation is key to long term weight loss? If the Atkins Plan gives dieters the ability to reduce calories with minimal pain, where's the problem?
- In your article, you say,
"In addition to its something-for-nothing weight-loss promise, Atkins also insisted his diet relieves 'fatigue, irritability, depression, trouble concentrating, headaches, insomnia, dizziness, joint and muscle aches, heartburn, colitis, premenstrual syndrome, and water retention and bloating'."
All of these symptoms are associated with health problems related to obesity. If you lose weight on the Atkins Plan, it stands to reason that weight-related problems will be minimized. How then is connecting the two invalid?
Interestingly, you choose to utilize a similar connection in your own article when you quote Robert Eckel,
"Eckel, who coauthored an accompanying commentary in the NEJM, says one probable reason for improved blood readings in the Atkins cohorts is that they did have greater weight loss, at least part of the time, in both studies. "Generally when people lose weight, both triglycerides and HDL improve," he told me."
Both Atkins and Eckel are claiming benefits related to weight loss, yet you critique Atkins while giving Eckel a pass.
- You close with:
"How peculiar when the most you can say for the best-selling fad-diet book of all time is that it probably doesn't kill people."
The summary of the Seeley study states:
"These results indicate that for short periods of time, a low carbohydrate, ketogenic diet is efficacious in causing weight loss and has no deleterious effects on cardiovascular risk factors."
Your bias is showing. Based on the studies you quote, the worst that can be said is that the Atkins diet works at least as well as the AHA diet, with none of the health risks you took great delight in pointing out in your Reason article.
Another theme you return to in this article is Gary Taubes, and how he distorts the record to make his point. A careful reading reveals some similar issues you might want to resolve.
This passage for instance:
One, conducted at the Philadelphia Veterans Administration Hospital, lasted six months, comprised subjects with an initial average weight of about 215 pounds. The other was conducted at three different centers, lasted 12 months, and comprised subjects with an initial average weight of about 290 pounds.
The six-month study found that Atkins dieters lost weight at about twice the rate as the higher-carb group — for two months. Thereafter neither group lost much weight. By the end of six months, the Atkins dieters, however, had still managed to keep off about twice as much weight as the higher-carb group — for what it was worth. The average loss was a mere 13 pounds from that original 290.
Hmmm. According to the first paragraph, the average weight for the 6-month study was 216 pounds, not 290, which was the average for the 1 year study.
Honest mistake? Maybe.
Then there's this passage:
Worse, Taubes ignored a mass of published and peer-reviewed studies showing low-carbohydrate diets to be ineffective for long-term weight loss, such as a review in the April 2001 Journal of the American Dietetic Association (JADA) of "all studies identified" that looked at diet nutrient composition and weight loss.
It claimed to have found over 200, with "no studies of the health and nutrition effects of popular diets in the published literature" excluded. In some, subjects were put on "ad libitum" diets, meaning they were allowed to eat as much as they wanted as long as they consumed fat, protein, and carbohydrates in the directed proportions. In others, subjects were put on controlled-calorie diets that also had directed nutrient proportions. The conclusion: Those who ate the least fat carried the least fat.
Sounds pretty impressive unless you realize that the Atkins Diet is not an 'ad libitum' diet. Eating a proportional diet does not mean low carb, only that carbs may represent a smaller proportion of calories consumed. Atkins places an absolute limit on carbs, regardless of how much fat and protein you eat. Funny that you fail to mention the difference. An oversight, perhaps?
Or this passage:
But two of those are the ones discussed here. Somehow, "The differences were not significant at the end of one year" doesn't seem to support "lost twice the weight."
'Twice the weight' comes from the 6 month study. 'No significant differences' came from the year long study. Another honest mistake?
Or this passage:
A fourth, according to chief author Eric Westman at Duke University, does back Atkins. But then again, Atkins backs him. The Atkins Center has an open-ended commitment to fully support Westman's work.
Ahhhh. Attack by innuendo. Are there any problems with the study? Any irregularities? If so, point them out. Or you could point out that Westman's intent was to debunk the diet, not support it. Or that Westman approached Atkins, not the other way around. But that wouldn't tend to support your thesis, would it?
Or this tossed off comment:
Nevertheless, at least there seemed no evidence that all that saturated fat in the Atkins diet increases the risk of heart disease.
Isn't this in itself a remarkable finding? If a diet that's high in fat doesn't lead to increased risk of heart disease, doesn't that put into question the entire fat consumption-heart disease connection? One of the central tenets of the Atkins Diet is that the increase in heart disease has paralleled the increase in consumption of refined carbs like white sugar and processed wheat. It would seem that the findings of these studies bear this out, or at the very least, exonerate fats. Funny that you fail to follow up on this obvious consequence.
Finally, there's this picture caption:
All-you-can-eat so long as it's low-carb" is a license to gluttony, not a successful method of weight loss.
Find anything in the Atkins books which endorses "all you can eat." Repeatedly when speaking about the Plan, Atkins says to "eat to satiety," and to avoid over eating. Your "all you can eat" characterization is a misrepresentation of the diet.
I think we may have a pot/kettle thing going on here.
To return to the Naval lingo:
He's hulled amidships and taking on water, Captain!
I just went back on the Atkins Plan last week. After 7 days on the plan, with no exercise other than routine daily activities, I've lost 5 pounds. Here's the capper: My average caloric intake for the week was 2081 calories per day. Carb intake was 13.5 grams per day.
Thursday, June 12, 2003
I've posted quite a few times about the realities of hydrogen power and fuel cells. To recap, while a fuel cell produces minimal pollution, hydrogen does not occur naturally and must be produced, which takes energy. Due to the 2nd law of thermodynamics, it takes more energy to produce the hydrogen than the fuel cell will yield. Essentially, the fuel cell will result in greater power usage for equivalent work, and we still have to come up with a way to generate the hydrogen. While there are a couple of promising biotech methods being studied right now, the most common approach involves electrolysis of water. Unfortunately, there is no cheap, easy, clean way to do this.
Now there's a new problem. According to this story
(audio link)on NPR, free hydrogen could lead to depletion of the ozone layer.
If it's not one thing, it's another.
Here's an interesting question: If these problems are real (and I know they are. It's basic science and easy to verify), then why the push for hydrogen power?
The answer, as always, comes when we follow the money. Of all the alternative fuel sources, hydrogen is the one which is most similar to petroleum. Think about it: it's difficult to obtain, requires a significant technological investment to refine, requires special handling, requires frequent refueling, and requires a massive distribution network?
Hydrogen is a wonderful way to make the enviros happy, and ditch Arab oil while keeping the oil companies fat and happy.
Monday, June 02, 2003
Back in early December, I posted on the Atkins diet
, and Michael Fumento's attack on it
in reason magazine. I sent an e-mail to Mr. Fumento and a copy of the post to reason online. Now, Mr. Fumento has responded in a comment to the original post. Given that most folks won't be dipping that deeply in my archives, I'll post his reply here:
I know that in your mind anecdotal evidence beats scientific evidence every time. And I know that you completely ignore the advice of nutritionists that like any fad diet Atkins can provide short-term weight loss like yours but not long term. Still, some of your more open-minded readers might be interested in the results of the the first of the famous Five Unpublished studies to be published.
First, I relied not just on personal experience, but I did a little research as well, finding that there are studies which support Atkins diet plan. This article
provides a decent summary of recent studies showing the Atkins diet to be just as effective over the long term, and more effective over the short term than a low fat diet, like the one recommended by the AHA. More importantly, the studies have found that there are no significant health risks associated with the diet, at least over the short term.
Second, I did not ignore medical advice; in fact, my doctor was happy to see that I'd gone on the diet, as it had worked for many of his patients. He did caution me to take a fiber supplement, but that was his only concern.
As for being open minded, you might try that yourself. From your article:
Nevertheless, at least there seemed no evidence that all that saturated fat in the Atkins diet increases the risk of heart disease.
In neither study did the Atkins dieters have increased LDL or "bad cholesterol," and the 12-month one even found a small increase in HDL or "good cholesterol." Finally the triglycerides (fatty compounds in blood) of the Atkins dieters decreased. Lower triglyceride levels have been linked to lower rates of heart disease.
Further, the 12-month study indicates even that was probably a doomed effort. Here again, the Atkins group lost considerably more weight for the first half year. But thereafter not only did it begin packing the pounds back on, it did so faster than the higher-carb group. Ultimately, concluded the researchers, "the differences were not significant at the end one of[sic] year."
The most that can be said from these two studies is that the Atkins diet presents no short term health risks, results in higher short term weight loss than a standard low fat diet, is no harder to stay on than the low fat diet, and over the long term is at least as effective as a low fat diet.
It's hard to see how this could be used to say that "Atkins still doesn't work", unless you are also claiming that the AHA recommended low fat diet also doesn't work.
Thursday, May 08, 2003
A SARS comparison
I went through the WHO data on SARS
, compiled since March 17. I pulled the data into two charts. The first chart shows the total number of cases, daily number of new cases, cumulative deaths, and cumulative recoveries for the world, except for China.
This next chart shows the same stats for China alone.
As you can see, there are some marked differences. For example, in China, despite a skyrocketing number of new cases, the death rate seems to be fairly constant, something which doesn't match the profile of the world at large. Also note that the Chinese recovery rate, particularly in the early stages of rporting, is almost triple that of the world at large.
These two facts alone are enough to tell me that China is not reporting true numbers on the extent of the epidemic. Also note that while the number of new cases in the world has dropped off to an average of 25 cases per day, China still sees over 100 cases per day, with occasional blasts of 400 or more, when news from a rural area comes in.
In short, while the world as a whole has gotten SARS under control, China has not come close. That much is clear even with the flawed data the Chinese are supplying.
More on SARS
As I wrote about earlier, the more we learn, the worse it gets. Yesterday, it was an article published in the British medical journal Lancet, which estimated a mortality rate
of 20% for SARS patients.
Today, the World Health Organization has estimated a mortality rate
of 14-15% of all victims.
That average is elevated by very high mortality (55%) among the elderly, but even among the young and healthy, the mortality rate is 6% for ages 24-44. For comparison, flu/pnuemonia deaths in the US are about .024% for all age groups.
As for China, the number of cases reported continues to grow, with 159 new cases
reported as of yesterday. The pace does not appear to be slowing, since the previous day
saw 138 new cases. The scary part is that we have little or no information about what is going on in the rural areas of China.
Wednesday, May 07, 2003
Fumento is wrong!
Earlier, I posted on SARS, and how Michael Fumento's take was not only irresponsible, but wrong.
I'm not a doctor, but I do know when somebody is playing fast and loose with the truth. Now, there are doctors saying the same thing I said. According to this story
New findings in The Lancet medical journal show that SARS is killing one in five of patients hospitalized with the virus in hard-hit Hong Kong (search), including 55 percent of infected patients aged over 60.
In younger patients, the death rate could be as low as 6.8 percent, the study found.
"That's sadly still very high for a respiratory infection," said Roy Anderson, the epidemiologist at London's Imperial College who headed the study. "In other common respiratory infections it is much less than 1 percent in the vulnerable elderly."
Granted, in areas with better medical care, those numbers will go down, but it is no longer possible to pretend that SARS is not a serious issue.
Couple this news with the announcement Sunday that SARS can survive
for days outside of a host, and SARS becomes even more of a threat. If a SARS breakout isn't promptly controlled, it could be disastrous, as we are seeing in China.
Friday, May 02, 2003
AIDS, Bush and Africa
Some folks have ridiculed
President Bush's plan to aid Africa in their fight against HIV. Apparently it's not enough to spend 15 billion, nor is it enough to model your plan on the nation with the greatest success at reducing the rate of HIV transmission. Nope, you have to do that AND do it without even hinting that maybe, just possibly, don't want to pry into personal affairs, but not having promiscuous sex might help.
Folks from both political sides object to the plan. The right wing thinks it relies too much on condoms; the left thinks it relies too much on abstinence. The fact that both sides hate it makes me think it might just be a good plan.
Charles Murtaugh posts
This is all true, of course, but it omits a large and important fact, which is that the Hyde bill grew out of the initiative on African AIDS that President Bush made in his State of the Union speech. In fact, as I've pointed out before, the White House AIDS initiative has all along embraced the Ugandan approach, which includes condoms as well as abstinence. This fact doesn't fit well with the "conservative threat to science" meme, but it's true nonetheless.
The larger problem is that liberal editorialists consistently frame this sort of issue as a clash between "religious conservatives" and thoughtful people. If the Bush administration is on the side of the religious folks, they get lambasted for it, but if they are on the "thoughtful" side, they get zero credit. This is great politics, but it's not going to make it easier for the moderates in the administration to stand up for themselves: the end result could be to push the Bushies closer to the religious right, and bar any future "thoughtful" approaches to problems like HIV prevention. Good for the Democrats, not so good for the Africans.
This is what really gets me angry. Unlike Bubba, and other like-minded liberals, there are those out there who feel like anything good for Bush is bad for the world. Even worse, there are some that think no matter how bad something is, if it hurts President Bush, it's OK. Like salon.com editor Gary Kamiya wrote
the other day, "Wishing for things to go wrong is the logical corollary of the postulate that the better things go for Bush, the worse they will go for America and the rest of the world." And "Many antiwar commentators have argued that once the war started, even those who oppose it must now wish for the quickest, least-bloody victory followed by the maximum possible liberation of the Iraqi people," he wrote. "But there is one argument against this: What if you are convinced that an easy victory will ultimately result in a larger moral negative — four more years of Bush, for example, with attendant disastrous policies, or the betrayal of the Palestinians to eternal occupation, or more imperialist meddling in the Middle East or elsewhere?"
I'd link directly to the article, but you have to pay, and I'd sooner burn my money than to give it to somebody who can actually wish for more civilian casualties, more American casualties, more hate and violence in the Middle East, just to avoid 4 more years of Bush. I guess he would also prefer that millions of Africans die of AIDS, rather than allowing President Bush to be credited with a successful plan.
And this bastard claims to represent mainstream liberal opinion.