Monday, August 20, 2007

Testosterone Under Attack

Here is a good article on a strange phenomenon: the decline in testosterone levels.
    The 60-year-old in 2003 had about 15 percent less testosterone than the 60-year-old in 1988, according to Thomas G. Travison, Ph.D., lead author of the testosterone study. Sixty was looking like the new 70. Had something happened? Could we be in the middle of some broad biological or environmental change affecting all men simultaneously?
    ...
    Then in the summer of 2006, Travison attended an Endocrine Society meeting where another researcher, Antti Perheentupa M.D., Ph.D., from the University of Turku, in Finland, presented evidence of a similar decline. The Finnish results suggested the change was happening among younger men, too. A man born in 1970 had about 20 percent less testosterone at age 35 than a man of his father's generation at the same age. "When I saw another group reproducing our results," says Travison, "that was convincing to me that we were seeing a true biological change over time, as opposed to just some measurement error."

Possible causes include obesity and heavy prescription drug use, but there's other interesting stuff going on:
    Increasing numbers of boys are being born with genital abnormalities, including undescended testicles, and urethras that exit in odd places along the penis. In Denmark, 40 percent of young men have a subnormal sperm count, and the rate of testicular cancer is among the highest in the world. In the United States testicular cancer has recently become the most common malignancy among Caucasian men ages 15 to 35. Some researchers have grouped these developments together as "testicular dysgenesis syndrome," or TDS, with "dysgenesis" meaning abnormal development of the male organ.

    Mitch Harman M.D., Ph.D., an endocrinologist at the University of Arizona college of medicine and the director of the Kronos Longevity Research Institute, sees the shadow of Silent Spring. Back in 1962, when Rachel Carson published her environmental classic, estrogen-like substances in the insecticide DDT were making eggshells so thin that they were crushed by nesting parents; populations of eagles and other large birds plummeted. And today? Dr. Harman says, "I'm concerned that we're just pouring chemicals out into our environment that are endocrine-suppressing, estrogen-like compounds," possibly causing similar disruptions in human reproduction. The authors of a recent article in the Medical Journal of Australia likewise suggest that from early fetal life onward, male hormonal and reproductive functions are under "xenobiotic attack," meaning chemicals not naturally found in the body appear to be disrupting normal biological development.

    For instance, 90 percent of American men have evidence of chlorpyrifos in their urine. This shouldn't be surprising, since up to 19 million pounds of the stuff was distributed across the United States in 1999 alone, much of it in household products like tick-and-flea powder for pets, lawn treatments, and common insecticides. Though residential use is now restricted, chlorpyrifos is still common in agriculture, as well as in some professional applications; for most people, diet is now the main source of exposure. In a recent Harvard study, men with the highest chlorpyrifos exposure typically had 20 percent less testosterone than those with the lowest exposure.

I'll let you read the article if this has piqued your curiosity -- which it should, male or female.

Philanthropy, Gates Style

I liked this article even though I think one of its main arguments is nonsense: that investing in "damaging countries" by purchasing their common stock causes damage. Note that it is written by a Ph.D. geneticist / biophysicist, who rightly attacks the Green Revolution / Monsanto subsidy push.

Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) is nonsense. Someone will always buy the stock of a company that's doing well and sell the stock of a company that's doing badly. If anything it's better if socially responsible people reap the benefits from owning corrupt companies because they'll put the money to better use -- if they ignore the "irresponsible" opportunities, they make these opportunities all the more lucrative for the "irresponsible" investors. Furthermore, investing in corrupt companies gives you some power over their decisions. The article touches on this, but not firmly enough when it notes that "nearly one-third of philanthropic foundations take part in shareholder initiatives, voting their proxies to influence corporate behaviour. The Nathan Cummings Foundation, with an endowment of $481 million, has sponsored proxies to force corporations to address environmental sustainability and political transparency. Shouldn’t the Gates Foundation do the same?"

So the article could have cut out all that nonsense and focused on what is really wrong with the Gates Foundation: its focus on long-shot, ineffective cures; its big-business promotions and subsidization; the brain-drain it causes in Africa, and the lack of focus it puts on policy and infrastructure. The whole foundation is a huge waste of money, and it leads me to believe that it's either a publicity stunt or Gates / Buffett don't have a clue. (George Soros, on the other hand, does -- and he recently invested in Halliburton.)

Takeback Laws

From a decent article in The Economist on recycling:
    Europe and Japan have initiated “take back” laws that require electronics manufacturers to recycle their products. But in America only a handful of states have passed such legislation. That has caused problems for companies that specialise in recycling plastics from complex waste streams and depend on take-back laws for getting the necessary feedstock. Michael Biddle, the boss of MBA Polymers, says the lack of such laws is one of the reasons why his company operates only a pilot plant in America and has its main facilities in China and Austria.

Yet another area for the US to improve upon.

People Are Evil

There is a troubling fact of reality you and I must deal with. Historical inductive evidence and present experience point to something: people are evil and must be, by default, regarded with suspicion. History shows us that people will use power to take advantage of other people, whether it's through brute enslavement, peasantry, servitude, monopoly businesses or media brainwashing. I'm not here to make a judgment on that fact -- I'm just throwing it out there. It's too easy for people to forget the past 5000 years of man's past. The very good, principled man is an exception rather than the rule -- and could be a myth. We walk around with myths in our head which are not reflected in reality. Many of the good feel that way because they haven't really examined their actions and alternatives.

Six Existential Thinkers

I just finished reading one of the most arcane books ever - Six Existential Thinkers by H.J. Blackham. Wikipedia says it "became a popular university textbook" -- and I must say I pity those students who had to read it. Only 160 pages but it felt like it took me a lifetime because, for the life of me, I could not understand a thing that was being said in many places. It felt to me that he was constantly trying to be intelligent by repeating the same thing over and over. For example, the Preface:
    The purpose of this book is exposition, not criticism nor advocacy.

I hadn't even meant to use this part of the Preface, but look at the first sentence of the entire book!

Next:
    There have been enough popular accounts of the general ideas of existentialists. It is time to discriminate between these thinkers; they are not exponents of of a school, and yet not the least impressive thing ... is the interrelatedness of their thinking: they lead into each other; they form a natural family; each throws light on the others, and together they develop the content of certain common themes.
And:
    Finally, the general reader who is interested enough to want to acquaint himself with existentialism should be told at the outset that there is nothing in this book which he cannot understand if he really wants to. There are difficulties, but they are not technical, and they are likely to oppress the philosopher even more than the general reader.

Does that make me a philosopher? I don't think so.

The second word of the book is "pertinaciously". I had to look it up.

To be fair, the Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and to some extent Jaspers sections are readable. The middle section, Marcel, is OK, but the last two sections on Heidegger and Sartre are likely the most opaque things I have ever read...

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Speculative Bubbles

In a world where many academic (Chicago School) economists believe that markets are "perfectly efficient", (makes you wonder what high-level mathematics does to one's brain), there was at least one voice of "rationality" -- "an obscure economist"...

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Crazy Love

Puppy Love Makes Teenagers Lose The Plot

"Love: A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by the removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder. This disease, like caries and many other ailments, is prevalent only among civilized races living under artificial conditions; barbarous nations breathing pure air and eating simple food enjoy immunity from its ravages. It is sometimes fatal, but more frequently to the physician than to the patient." - Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

What is the undergroundman?

Notes from Underground: A book about a man constantly battling himself -- and losing.

He falls into a small set of people who always know how they should act, but do not periodically act in that way. This distinction between knowledge and action is said to produce free will, and those people who know right but act wrong are thought to be morally responsible for their actions.

"If I know what is right, I can act right is" is apparently the syllogism with which which we judge people daily. In other words, all people who know what is right can act right. But doesn't that fly in the face of all empirics or logical sense? (By the way, I say only those who know -- what of sociopaths? Do they know the sin of murder any better than a cat knows the sin of murdering a mouse? What if a sociopath's brain is significantly different, as it likely is?)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Trouble With Rational Choice Economics

Again and again, people will choose short-term benefits in exchange for long-term pain. While strict rationalists will admit vaguely that people do not act rationally all the time, their theoristic "rationalism" underpins many of their other theories, leading them to believe that the freedom of the market is more effective in preventing crises and getting things done that it really is. Markets need to be regulated because people are stupid and greedy.

Piling On

This is some great advice for handling people from Jack Welch in Straight From The Gut, the former CEO of General Electric:
When people make mistakes, the last thing they need is discipline. It's time for encouragement and confidence-building. The job at this point is to restore self-confidence. I think "piling on" when someone is down is one of the worst things any of us can do. It's a standard joke during GE operating reviews that if one of the business CEOs is getting heat and someone in the room jumps on the bandwagon, the staff team will typically pull out the white handkerchief, toss it in the air, and flag the person for piling.

For people (at least those like me, who become embarrassed) the mistake is punishment enough, and people realize that if they continue to make mistakes, something has to happen -- needling people is unnecessary.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Close-Minded Fanatics Win Over Theorists

Throughout history the close-minded have always ruled over the open-minded -- in large part because the close-minded can easily act. They have their minds made up and they know what the right policy is. Their assurance is reassuring to the masses, and the masses themselves are foolishly confident in their close-minded opinions.

Today I was reading about the French Revolution, an event which ended in a pivotal disaster and set back human progress immeasurably. The Girondists, which included high-minded intellectual theorists such as Marqis de Condorcet, who came up with the lamentably unknown Condorcet Method, and a host of other intellectuals such as Thomas Paine. Condorcet, like many other Girondists, were driven to death by suspicious circumstances (as is the case of Condorcet, who was found dead in his cell) or by outright execution by the ruling Montagnards and their leader Robespierre.

If the Girondists had kept power throughout the French Revolution, Napoleon would never have come to power. Instead we might have seen a prefential voting system in France, and a meritocratic, well-ruled government.

In the US we were more lucky in our beginning, but intellectuals haven't had real power in Washington since the Founding Fathers, although we've had a very small handful of genuinely smart Presidents (Teddy Roosevelt and Grover Cleveland).

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The End of the Chinese Miracle?

Good article on the problems facing China as it continues to push for double-digit GDP growth. Environmental costs are not factored into the GDP, just like the external cost which businesses impose upon society is not factored into their costs of producing. While Jagdish Bhagwati would like you to believe that environmental damage is negligible and overblown, the exact opposite is likely more true.

The good news is that concern for the environment rises with GDP per capita - as people have more material wealth, they begin to value their health and environmental beauty, which is relatively scarce, more. Thus, you're seeing a lot more environmental concern in China right now. The Chinese government, paradoxically, seems perhaps more economically aware than the US government, and they are working to slow down environmental damage. With their power they can do a lot. One might think that with China's authoritarian regime, it could stop environmental damage faster than the US -- but that's probably not true. The best policy will always be subsidies for clean energy and energy conservation and taxes on pollution.

For those looking to cash in on the possible clean-energy boom, the solar stocks are definitely worth watching: JASO (a favorite of mine), FSLR, SPWR, STP, and even little DLSL, which does solar water heaters -- possibly the most cost-efficient solar if subsidies are eliminated. These stocks are down on speculation that Germany, the main purchaser of solar power, will cut subsidies. Right now it's risky to hold them, as any day Germany could cut subsidies and you'd see a severe drop in them...that could be buying time. I expect JASO and others to jump on earnings, although it's hard to say.

PUDC washes coking coal and FTEK provides a fuel additive which reduces nitrous oxide pollution (N2Ox) among other things.

Disclosure: Long JASO for a trade.

Badscience.net author on accessing science

Here is an interesting little blurb by a scientist on the absurdity of scientific access -- he has an Athens account (/envy), but he can't access the latest research (funded by the Department of Health), which is being written about by journalists across the world, because it hasn't actually been published yet.

This means that the media – of all people - are a class privileged over academia, doctors and the public when it comes to access to the data; that for the whole of the media storm across Friday and Saturday, no interested academic, or member of the public, or blogger could participate, unless they were part of the chosen set, because they simply couldn’t see the paper.

...

Time and again we’ve covered the venality and incompetence of the media: and yet laughably the popular debate on this publicly funded academic work is conducted exclusively behind closed doors - by oldmedia employees - in a privileged world from which you, all doctors, and all academics are deliberately excluded.


The often scientifically confused journalists of the mainstream media are the people targeted in his blog -- and yet they have exclusive access to the latest research which is making headlines. Bit strange.

The paper in question, by the way, is on the correlation between marijuana and psychosis, specifically (I believe) schizophrenia. While the risk of schizophrenia may be increased by marijuana (I read it may cause an extra 600 cases in Britain, a country of 60 million), the prohibition of it has clearly been a failure.

It's important to note (as some journalists have, but as the Guardian article here does not) that correlation does not mean causation. The researchers noted that there is a distinct possibility that marijuana use and schizophrenia are driven by a third variable -- that is, people who use marijuana could be less mentally stable, use other drugs more, or could be driven by their psychoses to self-medicate. There's any number of things.

See Also:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correlation_causation

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post_hoc_ergo_propter_hoc

Media Confuses Percentages Again and Again

"There is a large growth in shopping in December, followed by Christmas. Therefore growth in shopping causes Christmas."