Saturday, November 23, 2013

Benoit Mandelbrot, The Father of Fractals

The Threat Posed by Antibiotic Resistance

Maryn McKenna:
If we really lost antibiotics to advancing drug resistance — and trust me, we’re not far off — here’s what we would lose. Not just the ability to treat infectious disease; that’s obvious.
But also: The ability to treat cancer, and to transplant organs, because doing those successfully relies on suppressing the immune system and willingly making ourselves vulnerable to infection. Any treatment that relies on a permanent port into the bloodstream — for instance, kidney dialysis. Any major open-cavity surgery, on the heart, the lungs, the abdomen. Any surgery on a part of the body that already harbors a population of bacteria: the guts, the bladder, the genitals. Implantable devices: new hips, new knees, new heart valves. Cosmetic plastic surgery. Liposuction. Tattoos.
We’d lose the ability to treat people after traumatic accidents, as major as crashing your car and as minor as your kid falling out of a tree. We’d lose the safety of modern childbirth: Before the antibiotic era, 5 women died out of every 1,000 who gave birth. One out of every nine skin infections killed. Three out of every 10 people who got pneumonia died from it.
And we’d lose, as well, a good portion of our cheap modern food supply. Most of the meat we eat in the industrialized world is raised with the routine use of antibiotics, to fatten livestock and protect them from the conditions in which the animals are raised. Without the drugs that keep livestock healthy in concentrated agriculture, we’d lose the ability to raise them that way. Either animals would sicken, or farmers would have to change their raising practices, spending more money when their margins are thin. Either way, meat — and fish and seafood, also raised with abundant antibiotics in the fish farms of Asia — would become much more expensive.
And it wouldn’t be just meat. Antibiotics are used in plant agriculture as well, especially on fruit. Right now, a drug-resistant version of the bacterial disease fire blight is attacking American apple crops. There’s currently one drug left to fight it. And when major crops are lost, the local farm economy goes too.
Again, the routine feeding of antibiotics to healthy livestock is a practice that needs to stop.

Moving Between States

Chris Walker made an awesome interactive chart showing migration between states based on 2012 American Community Survey data:

A little explanation of what it shows:
The visualization is a circle cut up into arcs, the light-colored pieces along the edge of the circle, each one representing a state. The arcs are connected to each other by links, and each link represents the flow of people between two states. States with longer arcs exchange people with more states (California and New York, for example, have larger arcs). Links are thicker when there are relatively more people moving between two states. The color of each link is determined by the state that contributes the most migrants, so for example, the link between California and Texas is blue rather than orange, because California sent over 62,000 people to Texas, while Texas only sent about 43,000 people to California. Note that, to keep the graphic clean, I only drew a link between two states if they exchanged at least 10,000 people.
The surprise data point for me is that more Texans moved to Ohio than Ohioans moved to Texas.

Photojournalists on War

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Elite Overproduction?

From Bloomberg:

Past waves of political instability, such as the civil wars of the late Roman Republic, the French Wars of Religion and the American Civil War, had many interlinking causes and circumstances unique to their age. But a common thread in the eras we studied was elite overproduction. The other two important elements were stagnating and declining living standards of the general population and increasing indebtedness of the state.
Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions....This U.S. historical cycle didn’t end with the cataclysm of the Civil War. Huge fortunes were made during the Gilded Age and economic inequality reached a peak, unrivaled even today. The number of lawyers tripled from 1870 to 1910. And the U.S. saw another wave of political violence, spiking in 1919–21.
This was the worst period of political instability in U.S. history, barring the Civil War. Class warfare took the form of violent labor strikes. At one point 10,000 miners armed with rifles were battling against thousands of company troops and sheriff deputies. There was a wave of terrorism by labor radicals and anarchists. Race issues intertwined with class, leading to the Red Summer of 1919, with 26 major riots and more than 1,000 casualties. It was much, much worse than the 1960s and early 1970s, a period many of us remember well because we lived through it (see chart).
That's a pretty interesting take on history.  I think income inequality is a bigger deal than most folks think. Hopefully, the issue can be defused before we have serious political instability.



Also interesting, this post at Big Picture Agriculture, on deflation and overproduction of corn, and that impact on the agricultural economy. We've had a nice run on the farm, but I don't think it will last.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Find the Money

Apparently, all of the customer money at MF Global was recovered.  If somebody asks me how it happened, I have no idea.  See if you can figure it out:
Trustee Giddens -- who was also the court-appointed trustee in charge of liquidating Lehman Brothers -- will certainly oppose those motions, however. He, for one, does not share Corzine's belief that recovery of the shortfall implies exoneration of Corzine or any other MF Global officer and director. "The reduction [in the customer account shortfall] that resulted from the Trustee's efforts should not obscure the fact," wrote one of Giddens's staffers in a court filing last month, "that a very real shortfall in the amount of $1.5 billion existed at the time the Trustee began the liquidation process, and it was mainly through litigation and negotiation with affiliates and other third parties that the gap has been reduced."
Last week another attorney working with Giddens stressed in an updated court submission that at least $560 million would still be missing from those customer accounts to this day were it not for the fact that Giddens has plugged that void with "advances" from the general estate, moneys that would otherwise have been available for paying general creditors, such as vendors, suppliers, and service-providers. The last of these was the $233 million injection just approved on Nov. 6 by Bankruptcy Judge Glenn. (The total amount advanced, however, is expected to shrink to somewhere between $435 million and $460 million after one additional expected transfer from the U.K. lands in the kitty in the coming months.)
These advances, in turn, were conditioned on a deal -- whose legality is hotly contested by Corzine and his co-defendants -- that allows trustee Giddens to step into the shoes of the class-action customer claimants and continue litigating their claims against the individual defendants. (The case would actually still be litigated by the class-action attorneys who brought it, though Giddens, as trustee for the general creditors, would now be the beneficiary.)
Giddens is also not backing away from any of the fundamental findings of a 275-page investigative report he issued in June 2012. There he found that there was a basis for asserting "breach of fiduciary duty and negligence" claims against Corzine and other officers, charges that have in fact been leveled against Corzine in the class actions as well as in an enforcement action filed by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission this past June.
I really don't understand how Corzine doesn't face charges.  However, I find it hard to believe that a prosecutor could convince somebody that he committed a crime.  This is the most confusing story I've ever heard.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Melancholia from Enrique Pacheco on Vimeo.

Income Inequality Chart of the Day

From John Cassidy:

There Are Holes in this Airplane

Boeing adds miniscule holes to make the 777X more efficient:
Boeing’s new 777X is getting a lot of attention for its composite wing with folding tips and its super-efficient engines, but one of the airliner’s most innovative features are the tiny holes in its tail that smooth airflow and improve fuel efficiency.
The holes help smooth airflow around the tail by improving something called laminar flow, basically making the airplane more aerodynamic, which reduces fuel consumption. “Aerodynamic advances such as a hybrid laminar flow control vertical tail,” are the few words Boeing used to describe it in a press release announcing the 777X, Boeing’s impressive updating of its long-range twin-engine airliner. Boeing is working with NASA to further develop the idea to include “sweeping jet actuators” embedded in the tail of future models. Such advancements in airflow manipulation could bring significant fuel savings.
Laminar flow occurs when when air flows smoothly over a surface. Think of a water flowing smoothly around a large, smooth round rock. The water flows easily, and the water appears glassy. But if the rock is jagged or the water is flowing fast enough, turbulent eddies form. The same thing happens at the micro scale as an airplane moves through the air, and that turbulent flow increases drag. Increased drag leads to increased fuel consumption.
The challenge is that laminar flow is difficult to maintain over the entire surface of a wing or tail. As the air flows past the leading edge, it becomes more turbulent, separating from the surface and increasing drag.
Boeing has come up with an innovative solution with its hybrid laminar flow control system, but is keeping most of the details under wraps. The company is using a similar innovation on the 787-9, the stretched version of the Dreamliner, providing a few clues. Tiny holes covering the unpainted leading edge of the 787-9′s vertical tail are used to control the airflow over the surface (the leading edge of the vertical tail on the 777X in the artist rendition at top is also unpainted). Turbulent airflow is reduced through suction as air pulls the turbulent layer through the small holes. This technique has been researched for decades (.pdf), including research by NASA on the F-16XL and more recently by Boeing rival Airbus on an A320 test aircraft in the late 1990s. By ingesting the turbulent layer of air through the tiny holes, the overall drag over the tail surface is reduced.
Interesting. Talk of laminar flow puts me back in fluids lab.

The Other Ford Brother

Lots of people see the resemblance:

Monday, November 18, 2013

Cassini or Curiosity?

NASA considers where in its robotic exploration budget to cut:
This year NASA received $16.9 billion, which may sound like a lot but, once adjusted for inflation, is roughly what the agency got back in 1986. Just $1.27 billion of that budget goes into funding all robotic exploration in the solar system. And most space policy experts don’t see that number going up anytime in the near future. In 2014, NASA will put many of its robotic missions through what’s known as a senior review. Administrators will have to decide which of its missions will yield the highest scientific return and may recommend canceling some of them.
And that’s where some sad calculus comes in.
“We have two very expensive flagship missions, Cassini and Curiosity,” said NASA’s planetary science director Jim Green, speaking to one of the agency’s advisory councils on Nov. 5. “So, this particular competition we’ll have to do very carefully.”ou wouldn’t think the Cassini spacecraft, in orbit around Saturn since 2004, was in trouble. It has lately been beaming back incredible data about the planet’s rings and moons. A recent image from the mission (above) showing Earth, Venus, and Mars from Saturn was widely shared on the internet and even landed on the front page of the New York Times last week.
But NASA seems to want to focus its dwindling energy on Mars.....Most in the planetary science community would bet that in a head-to-head competition, Cassini loses. That would be a shame. Cassini has already been an incredible mission, and scientists estimate it has at least four more years of life left in it. Cassini’s operating budget is about $60 million per year while Curiosity’s runs to roughly $50 million. That’s about what the Department of Defense has budgeted for 3-D printer research and is less than half of what it’s estimated to spend maintaining its golf courses. The Cassini mission has already cost $3.26 billion to launch and operate.
You know, to come up with that $60 million, maybe we could trim back the dividend tax cut, which costs the government over $20 billion a year.  But hey, who needs science research when super rich folks need lower tax rates on unearned income than what working stiffs pay on earned income.

The New Fear at the Bayou Corne Sinkhole

A Louisiana sinkhole that has sucked in trees and swamps as it spread to the size of 20 football fields is now at risk of exploding.
Residents of Bayou Corne were evacuated a year ago when the sinkhole, which is emitting natural gases, opened up.
The gas exploration company that has been blamed for causing the problem after a mine collapsed, has resorted to digging relief wells to try to disperse the gas...While no homes have yet been sucked in, officials warn that the gases being emitted could ignite, which would leave the Louisiana swamp looking like 'the gates of Hell'.
In a similar case, a crater caused by Soviet geologists drilling in Turkmenistan in the 1970s has been a fiery pit for more than 40 years after the natural gases being released were lit.
The Louisiana sinkhole, which is expected to expand to 50 acres, is currently 25 acres wide and 350ft deep in some points. Methane bubbling up from it has also escaped into an aquifer.
Experts fear that if oil and gas rising to the surface became trapped it could build up in a crevice and then explode.
Check out this picture from Turkmenistan:

 If the natural gas ignited the sinkhole could become like the Door to Hell in Turkmenistan, which has been alight for 40 years
More on the Louisiana sinkhole here.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

NASA Photo of the Day

November 12:

The Unexpected Tails of Asteroid P5
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA) et al.
Explanation: What is happening to asteroid P/2013 P5? No one is sure. For reasons unknown, the asteroid is now sporting not one but six discernible tails. The above images were taken two months ago by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope and show the rapidly changing dust streams. It is not even known when P5 began displaying such unusual tails. Were the main belt asteroid struck by a large meteor, it would be expected to sport a single dust tail. Possible explanations include that light pressure from the Sun is causing the asteroid to rotate increasingly rapidly, which in turn causes pools of previously gravity-bound dust to spin off. Future observations should better indicate how P5 and its dust plumes are evolving and so provide more clues to its nature -- and to how many similar asteroids might exist.

Kahn's Big Red Smokeys

Thanks to the generous assistance of commenter Brian, who shared this link, I have this classic bit of Cincinnati Reds history:

If only I could come up with the soundtrack to go with it. (if it isn't playing, click on it)

A Week at the Listowel Races

Charles Pierce goes to the land of his grandmother to experience an event which her stories had made so real that it was like he'd been there numerous times before he'd ever gone.  It is a wonderful story of farm life, traditional Irish life, family lines and life in general, with horse races, booze and gambling thrown in:
Up and down the round, green-quilted hillsides near Listowel in north Kerry in Ireland, the seven sisters of the Lynch family once tended their sheep. They worked in the summer sun and in the soft rain of the spring and the fall, and in the harder, snow-mixed sleet of midwinter. And every autumn, right around when the harvest came in, they would drive their sheep up the hillsides and down, and straight into Listowel, where their flock would join cows and goats and chickens and ducks, and the sheep of a hundred other families, all milling around with each other and filling the town square with an amazing cacophony of lowing, bleating, squawking, and quacking that nearly, but not quite, drowned out the increasingly lubricated haggling of the farmers and craftsmen and merchants who had come to sell enough of what they'd raised and grown and manufactured to get them through the hard winter to come, with a little left over to spend in the pubs on William Street, or to bet on the horses out at the track tucked into the bend of the river. The sisters never went to the races. Only the men went to the races. The sisters stayed in town and listened to the fiddlers and the people who played the pipes, and they danced with each other after the day's business was done.
Listowel was a farm town, a market town. It was a little less polished than Tralee to the west and the south, or Limerick to the north and east. It was louder. It was rougher. One of the Lynch sisters, Mary Ellen, would talk in her later years of a rally in support of Charles Stewart Parnell at the time of the split in the Irish Party over Parnell's affair with Kitty O'Shea. The rally turned into an all-out brawl, the clack of hurleys on skulls ringing louder than the oratory. Called "faction fights," these were come-all-ye bloodlettings, exhibitions of what the Irish called the bataireacht, a form of stick-fighting that rose to an art. These would erupt at weddings or at funerals, or at virtually any public occasion at which a longstanding grievance might detonate at the smallest provocation.
Ok, harvest fair.  Sounds about like the origins of county fairs.  Discussing with his guide how he felt like he knew the place and was a part of it because of his grandmother's stories, he gives a good insight into the importance of narrative, in this case, sports as narrative, in our lives:
I am of this place, because my grandmother was of this place, and she told me about it, and so it became part of what I am...
"When you come right down to it," Pat told me, "running a racetrack is like running a farm. That's why the races here have survived. It was the last thing the farmers had for the year. Once the races ended, there was only the long, cold winter."
What are sports, anyway, at their best, but stories played out in real time? Each of them has a distant beginning, a middle, and an end, all three connected by the slender, powerful tendrils of memories recited. They are part of the collective memory of the tribe. They are how we explain ourselves to each other, down through the generations. Once upon a time, there were five sisters on the hills around Listowel, and one of them had a son, who gave her a grandson. From her, I had imagined hearing the muffled power of the hooves pounding into the turf. I had imagined the soft-running river. I never had been to the Listowel Races, but I had been there all my life.
The whole story is wonderful, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in Ireland or horse racing, or having fun in general.  On this day of the Bengals-Browns game, his description of his grandmother's stories and the recognition of sports as narrative, I think his story explains every western Ohio Browns fan (and there's a lot of them, way too many, actually) I have ever met.  The reason that is is because they are only Browns fans because their fathers, and most likely, their grandfathers were.  Their grandfathers told the stories about Paul Brown and Otto Graham, Lou Groza and Marion Motley.  They were told the glorious tales of the Browns when the Browns won the NFL Championship in their first year in the NFL, after winning four AAFC titles.  Their fathers probably remember the last championship in 1964, with Jim Brown running over opponents.  I understand how they became Browns fans, I just don't understand why they remained Browns fans after Art Modell packed up the Browns and moved to Baltimore.  I would have expected them to remain fans of the Ravens (ok, probably not) or to have become fans of some other team.  Why would folks in Western Ohio choose to wait 3 years to follow an expansion team almost 3 hours from where they live?  That I don't understand.

Mayor Ford on 60 Minutes

At least SNL's version of it:

Update: A more serious look at the Toronto mayor's recent lunacy.

Not-Quite Border War

In the buildup to the big Chiefs-Broncos game, the Kansas City Star goes looking for the boundary between Chiefs fans and Broncos fans:
So, we ask Donnie, have we crossed the Chiefs-Broncos dividing line here in Ellis?
“I’d say a little further west.”

WaKeeney, Kan., is the geographic midway point between Kansas City and Denver, each about 300 miles away.
From this town and for the next 70 miles west, toward Colby, we hear people say “50/50” when asked about the breakdown of Chiefs and Broncos fans.
Granted, “50/50” is a safe, off-the-cuff estimate in a region so distant from big-time sports centers. After all, newspapers in western Kansas emphasize high school athletics. Many NFL fans back neither Denver nor Kansas City.
At Twisters II Bar & Grill in WaKeeney, customer Dick Dykema dons a Minnesota Vikings stocking cap.
“Lived here 30 years,” he said, “but I came from North Dakota. Close enough to Minnesota.”
Plenty of Dallas Cowboy fans here, too. Also Oakland fans, Pittsburgh fans.
But it’s all Chiefs versus Broncos this night at Twisters II.

In Goodland, Kan., 18 miles east of the Colorado border, it’s too obvious.
We’re in Mountain Standard Time. Goodlanders can get Denver’s NBC affiliate on cable TV. McDonald’s serves beverages in cups bearing the Broncos’ horse-head logo.
It’s Kansas, sure. But Jacque’s Hallmark shop hasn’t a stitch of Chiefs paraphernalia to go with the Broncos body stickers and toothbrush holders.
Hallmark clerk Mary Jane Sponsel doesn’t blink: “We have mostly Bronco fans.”
It would seem like Facebook's map is a good breakdown of where main loyalties lie:

Of course, there is a huge minority of Browns fans in SW Ohio, but I would guess that this map gives a pretty good estimate of what the majority thinks.

Read more here:

Read more here:

Fast Food Workers and Social Welfare Programs

The Wall Street Journal looks at the issue (h/t Ritholtz):
One point that isn't disputed: $7 billion isn't much, in the context of the U.S. fast-food industry and of government benefits. It is about one-fifth or one-quarter as much as fast-food restaurants pay their front-line workers in wages and benefits. And it is less than 2% of the total benefits paid out by the four programs studied by the researchers.
Why, then, focus on fast food? "$7 billion is $7 billion. You have to start somewhere," Dr. Allegretto said, adding that the proportion of fast-food workers who receive benefits from those programs—52%—is larger than in other major industry categories she and her colleagues studied.
Dr. Allegretto said the figure is an underestimate, for several reasons. First, there is no ready-made data set of fast-food workers, so researchers used three different sources and several assumptions. "We always erred on the side of being conservative," she said. The researchers also omitted many other benefits programs.
Some economists praised the research, which hasn't yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. "They produced the best estimates available using sound methods and data," said Aaron J. Sojourner, a labor economist at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.
I find it interesting that the two industries with the highest percentage of employees who had family members on social welfare programs were both food production or provision industries.  So does that have something to do with the government subsidizing cheap food?  I don't see how, when profits for the companies have increased over time.  I think this does have to do with the half-assed employer-based health care system we have, and the fact that the restaurant industry has long used part-time help that they stiffed on health insurance.  I would be curious to know what would happen if we got an increased minimum wage combined with a tax on large businesses that don't provide health insurance based on their total number of part-time and full-time workers.  I would expect they might cut part-time employees, but dramatically increase full-time workers.  In the end, an employer-based system doesn't work if an increasing number of employers don't provide insurance.  Since we are there, we need to work out a different system.