Monday, June 29, 2009

Jonathan Wamback: Was the Victim an Angel?

Jonathan Wamback was 15 years old, living in the same town as me, when he was beaten by a group of boys and put into a coma. Charges of attempted murder against three boys were reduced to aggravated assault, they were tried as youths rather than adults, one was acquitted, and the other two served only a few months in prison.

Wamback's family has done a brilliant job, since the attack, of making sure their story got out to the media. Jonathan was an innocent victim of a gang. He had attracted the gang's attention by trying to protect other victims of their bullying, and in one case by painting over some of their graffiti. He had also paid at least some attention to the gang leader's girlfriend, without realizing she and the leader were an item. His parents had ignored warning signs that he was being victimized--indeed, they had started to think he was becoming a bit of a tough customer himself--so they were filled with remorse when he was beaten so severely.

The story was presented again and again as an example of how Canada's Young Offenders Act doesn't work--the attackers should have been tried as adults, the sentences should have been more severe, etc.

As far as I can discover, the attackers have never told their story in public. But the story of Jonathan good vs. other boys evil, which actually made it into a TV movie, seems a bit overdrawn.

"Intrigued by Jonathan's moxy [in protecting another kid], tough girl Courtney [the gang leader's girlfriend] leads him away, both delighting Jon and angering Kyle." So not only did Jon not actively hit on this girl, but he attracted her attention simply by being both tough and noble. Some weeks later: "Outside the washroom Jon is stunned to see Courtney with Kyle - for the first time he realizes they're a couple." He never asked himself what exactly made her a "tough girl"? He never had a single clue? Did he like tough girls in general? On the day of the beating, he is "lured into a trap" by means of, you guessed it, Courtney phoning him. Did he ever phone her? Did they ever go for a walk together in a lonely spot at his instigation? Did he always play the passive role in anything questionable, and the active role only when there was a chance to be noble?

Jon is not alone--he makes contact with other young men. "Afterward, he's approached by Gord Nelson and Jeff Walters, two cool guys who profess to be committed to standing up to Kyle's gang. They come across a Skulls tag (graffiti) spray-painted on a warehouse wall. Jon impresses them when he climbs up and spray-paints over it, turning it into a sword ("tagged over" - thus Tagged). They notify him that by doing so he's effectively declared war on the Skulls."

One thing that provokes the beating: "To make things worse Gord has painted racist remarks over a Skrulls tag in the park washroom and the gang jumps to the conclusion that it was done by Jon." Gosh, what would make "the gang" think that? The fact that Jon had actually painted over some of their grafitti before? Maybe young people have too much imagination, but isn't it possible the anti-Jon gang (the Skulls) came to the conclusion that Jon was in another, er, gang? Isn't it possible that he actually, er, was? Racist remarks: is it possible that Jon and his friends were white, in an upscale subdivision called Stonehaven, and at least some of the Skulls were non-white, and from time to time were made to feel unwelcome?

One highlight: "At a school dance the gang converges on Jon, suckering him into pushing Kyle to the ground." Jon actually pushes the other kid to the ground, but he's suckered into it.

The Skulls follow him into the school washroom where they rough him up and rip his shirt. Just as they're about to attack him Gord and Jeff break in on the scene. With the odds evened-up the Skulls take off leaving Jon with a final threat.

So today we get an update: Jon is at university, living on his own, still suffering from injuries inflicted during the beating 10 years ago. It is difficult to read the text in the Star, what with the halo.

My favourite part:

But Wamback can also see an upside to what happened to him. "Before the injury, I wasn't a scholar, to say the least."

Oh really? What were you like Jon? How did you spend your time, either in school or your free time?

Another detail: Jon walked home after the beating, and then stayed at home, I believe saying he didn't need to go to the hospital, before he was finally taken there. He may have suffered a serious brain injury partly because of this delay. He may have been trying to avoid telling his parents what was going on.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sanford and David

Now this is funny: Governor Sanford points out that David didn't step down as king after helping himself to Bethsheba (and causing the death of her husband); so why should he resign?

One of the funnier jokes of Machiavelli: "Exhortation to Penitence: Imitate David and Peter; if God can forgive them, he can forgive anyone."

ht to TPM.

Why I Am a Global Warming Skeptic

Dear David Kurtz and Matt Yglesias:

You both seem to be saying that even if the worst-case scenarios of global warming are unlikely, they would be so disastrous for someone--possibly the people of Bangladesh--that it is not acceptable to take no action. A true measure of risk is not simply likelihood, but the scale of admittedly unlikely dire consequences. Unless we can be a bit more specific, this sounds to me like Dick Cheney on the subject of national security: there are bad people somewhere who may blow us up, or may make an alliance with rogue states, or may lure our young people into committing treason, or whatever, so we should all accept limitations both on our freedoms and on government oversight. Sometimes this is expressed as the "precautionary principle"--prepare for the worst case, even if it is unlikely. But no sane person ever lives that way. If parents did, they would keep their children in sealed, padded rooms. Survivalists who store food for six months are a tiny minority; those who are truly prepared to go off the electricity grid are even fewer, and so on. If our friends started acting that way, we would probably say they had gone crazy. Yet we are asked to support government programs that work that way. I say it is crazy in Cheney's case, and also crazy in Gore's case until I am shown otherwise.

This might seem to you another case, like evolution vs. creation, or even civil rights vs. Jim Crow laws, where science, enlightenment, education and sophistication are all on one side, and on the other side is a kind of primitive dull resistance to a new way of thinking, linked to selfish vested interests including oil companies.
The more I read, the less I think this is what is happening.

As I understand it, there is no large geographic area, and no long period of time, for which it is true that there is a solid correlation between elevated CO2 and other greenhouse gases, on the one hand, and temperature increase on the other. In the initial excitement of developing the IPCC model and getting it out in the world, it seemed that the 20th century, in much of the world including the U.S., was exactly the example that was needed--with a correlation between an increase in man-made CO2 (which no one denies) and increased temperature; but the more data is forthcoming, and the more it is scrutinized, the less this seems true.

Statements about surface temperature in the 20th century depend heavily on weather monitoring stations in the U.S. No other country has so many stations, going back so long. (Other countries have been poorer, have been bombed or caught up in wars, etc.). The weather monitoring stations have lots of problems, which advocates of the IPCC model have tended not to acknowledge much less investigate in a scientific spirit. Many stations were poorly sited to begin with (temperature affected by buildings, etc.); for the vast majority, important factors about the site have changed over the years (most have changed from a rural to an urban setting, which tends to be warmer); in some cases, a big change occurred such as the cutting down of trees which formerly provided shade, or the installation of a vent blowing hot air at the thermometer. It sounds ridiculous, but it's true. A few decades ago, the process of installing new high-tech electronic thermometers began--in a gradual, phased-in fashion. When advocates of these stations are honest, they will say that all readings from before the electronic era are questionable. What they are less likely to admit is that the electronic thermometers required cables to connect them to a power source, probably in a building. There was a tendency to build a new building, or move the monitoring stations closer to a building--in both cases, affecting the trend of temperature readings.

This is not small, picky stuff. It is elementary, but it makes the whole model questionable. Anthony Watts deserves credit for continuing with this line of investigation. There is not another pool of temperature data available that is comparable to the 20th century U.S. data. For other periods, and other geographic areas, it is necessary to resort to "proxies" for temperature readings, all more or less questionable. Much of the surface of the earth is water, and there are those who are trying to focus on the heat of the oceans, measured not in temperature but in joules. There is no trend to increasing heat.

Looking beyond the 20th century, there have been periods of temperatures higher than the official 20th century ones, presumably unrelated to human activity. There have been periods of higher CO2 concentrations--generally coming before, not after, temperature increases. Many (but not all) the world's glaciers have been retreating for decades--but this began in 1850 or 1880, long before the dramatic increase in CO2 in the 20th century. Not only that, the rate of retreat in the retreating glaciers slowed, rather than increasing, during the time of CO2 increase. Again, no correlation--or the initial appearance of a correlation turns out to be deceptive. Northern hemisphere glaciers appear to be on a quite different timeline than southern hemisphere glaciers.

Antarctic ice, mostly on land, shows no signs of shrinking, and only one small part of the Antarctic--the peninsula--shows a warming trend. Arctic ice shrank dramatically in 2007, but has built back up since. It is mostly on water, and has been much more changeable than Antarctic ice--from season to season, and year to year--for as long as anyone has made records. Greenland shows no signs of becoming ice-free.

Advocates of the IPCC model include some real scientists. Their excitement at having a computer model that can do the work of forecasting--and bear direct relevance to debates about energy and the environment--is very understandable. But it seems clear that they built on a very shaky foundation of data to begin with, and newer and better data is not supporting the model. There was a debate about the "hockey stick," partly because the authors who developed it were very hesitant even to share all the underlying data. It turned out to depend on one type of pine tree in California, which got bigger in the 20th century. This might indicate temperature increase, and it would at least be worth exploring whether man-made CO2, in turn, contributed to the temperature increase. But there could be other reasons why that type of tree got bigger; it is a very questionable "proxy" for temperature increase.

So then advocates of the IPCC model said they would not rest their argument on the hockey stick to any significant extent. Yet it keeps appearing. Temperature and greenhouse gases both low before the 20th century (which is extremely misleading, taking no account of the Medieval Warming and other changes); then a sudden increase in both in the 20th century (misleading). Then even more dramatically, the rate of temperature increase goes up dramatically, right about now, when urgent action is supposedly needed, because of positive reinforcement. There seems to be no known, specific case that anyone can point to, where clouds have exaggerated the normal "greenhouse effect" by trapping heat at the surface, so that what starts as a small temperature increase goes up dramatically. On the other hand, there is a well known phenomenon of a "negative reinforcement," releasing heat. In the rain forest, heat builds up during the day, usually culminating in a thunderstorm. Thunderstorm clouds gather together huge volumes of warm air at the surface of the earth, and send them roaring into space. The rain forest cools for evening. The Air France plane that recently went down was caught in a severe thunderstorm showing huge movements of warm air upward. This may be an important "thermostat" effect around the world.

Even including ice ages and the opposite ages, which are never entirely ice-free, the total temperature swing on earth has never been more than 3 degrees. Focussing on non-ice ages, it has never been more than a degree and a half or so. Some combination of factors keeps surface temperature extremely constant.

If there is no correlation between greenhouse gases and temperature, then even an apparent correlation in the 20th century is probably misleading. But the apparent correlation in the 20th century is not working out either. Without a correlation, there is obviously no basis to investigate cause and effect. The model is vapor when it comes to any alleged dangers of producing greenhouse gases. The possible dire consequences are not only unlikely: they are possible, but in a way that is presumably unrelated to man-made greenhouse gases.

See the report by an EPA staffer who is urging further research before CO2 is identified as a dangerous substance (it is actually good for plants and people, and has a tendency to make the world literally greener).

See the fullest report I know of on "climate change reconsidered." 31,478 scientists have signed the following statement:

We urge the United States government to reject the global warming agreement that was written in Kyoto, Japan in December, 1997, and any other similar proposals. The proposed limits on greenhouse gases would harm the environment, hinder the advance of science and technology, and damage the health and welfare of mankind. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth.

UPDATE June 29:

Here is a study of U.S. temperature data--raw or uncorrected, and then corrected in various ways. (UHI is Urban Heat Island). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA, clearly committed to the IPCC model, has literally applied exactly the corrections it needs to temperature data to make it first, show a trend in the twentieth century, then a warming trend, and then, amazingly, a warming trend that closely matches the trend to increasing CO2 in the twentieth century.

Some weather stations have moved from urban areas to less urban ones--usually airports. NOAA carefully makes an adjustment for the newer temps--upward, to match the earlier urban temps. As Michael Hammer says, on this specific point it would make more sense to correct the earlier, urban temps downward. But generally there is little or no downward correction as stations in general become more urban, technology may require a heated site, etc. In past years there was one downward correction for Urban Heat Island, but it was very modest in comparison to actual readings of how temps spike upward as a site changes from rural to urban. Now even the one modest UHI correction is apparently not being included.

The raw data shows no clear trend, and some of the warmest years of the twentieth century before 1950. It takes some twisting and torquing-like Doug Feith working over intelligence reports on Iraq in 2003--to come up with the neat Al Gore trend line.

It would appear that the temperature rise profile claimed by the adjusted data is largely if not entirely an artefact arising from the adjustments applied (as shown in Figure 3), not from the experimental data record. In fact, the raw data does not in any way support the AGW theory.

Based on this data, the US temperature data does not correlate with carbon dioxide levels. The warming over the last 3 decades is completely unremarkable and if present at all is significantly less than occurred in the 1930’s. It is questionable whether any long term temperature rise over the 20th century can be inferred from the data but if there is any it is far less than claimed by the AGW proponents.

The corrected data from NOAA has been used as evidence of anthropogenic global warming yet it would appear that the rising trend over the 20th century is largely if not entirely an artefact arising from the “corrections” applied to the experimental data, at least in the US, and is not visible in the uncorrected experimental data record.

Thanks to Anthony Watts.

Chubby people, health, and all that

Maybe I should say first, in the spirit of blogging, that I'm a skinny person, and I've returned to my younger even-skinnier look of about 160 lbs (say age 30) since I started running in 2005.

A new study suggesting that being a little overweight is good for you has made it into the mainstream media--in this case, the Toronto Star.

A new study of Canadians' body mass index and mortality adds to existing research suggesting that people who are overweight live longer than people of normal weight.

Risk of death was significantly higher during 12 years of followup for people who were underweight and very obese, but overweight people had a lower risk of dying than those of normal weight.

This is right up the alley of Sandy Swarc at Junkfood Science: a study that shows that what most people consider "healthy habits" may confer no real or lasting health benefits at all. Of course, the Star doesn't repeat other amazing conclusions of similar research: the worst off people are those who lose weight and keep it off--even a fairly small amount; the very thin may be worse off than the obese. Not only that, the Star suggests that while fat people may enjoy protection from complications of illness, just because of their fat, they may have more illnesses, or more discomfort, or something, compared to other people. Swarc says of similar studies: "Who had the best prognosis and lowest mortality risk? Those who gained weight and became fat." "Gaining weight" here means accepting the kind of normal or natural weight gain of middle age--a pound a year or so beginning at age 40. Slightly obese people may have a bit more high blood pressure and diabetes than others--but they handle these conditions better than thin people. Overall they may have fewer health issues, not more. Those who lose weight will see certain risk factors--blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol--improve for a while, but they usually return to where they were, if they do not move to new and worse levels, and in any case they do not help with overall mortality. The whole popular idea that losing weight is good, is wrong. Those who lose weight are worst off, and those who simply stay thin may not be much better.

Many well-meaning people promise that if we intervene in what would otherwise be normal aging, and practice prevention (including weight loss) this will somehow keep us healthier, and thus reduce health care costs. The idea is that we'll have fewer doctor visits. The problem with this is that if it actually works, we will have an even more aging population than we do now, and the evidence is that an aging population costs more, not less, for health care.

The same people who focus on fitness and nutrition often get caught up with pretty aggressive exercise, and this can lead to specific kinds of prevention and/or medical care for injuries: yoga, Pilates, sports therapy, physical therapy, and chiropractice. These services may not show up in "health care costs" in the same way that visits to MDs and emergency rooms do, since patients may pay out of their own pockets, but they are expensive nonetheless. The Obama Administration now says they favour evidence-based medicine to control costs; there is some evidence that they are likely to encourage weight loss and other things that are fashionably considered to be healthy. If these things are not healthy, they actually will reduce costs--by causing early mortality.

Get people to quit smoking, they live longer; get them to run, and you may reverse the first tendency.

As a further note: we have experience of family doctors in Canada leaving their practices, and setting up a practice in "alternative therapy" where they can basically charge what the market will bear, and make a lot more money. One MD went into laser therapy, I think for fat reduction and such rather than eyes; then he expanded into Botox. Our present MD is doing family practice at a second location, in addition to the one near us, and she has an expert in acupuncture and chiropractice coming in to that location. We are uneasy that she will quit working for the single-payer government, with set fees, and go entirely into the private sector of alternative therapies.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Another Good Book

I recently re-read Auberon Waugh, Will This Do?, his slightly eccentric memoirs. This prompted me to search for a book that I remember being praised: Fathers and Sons, by Auberon's son Alexander. I borrowed it from the public library.

This is a remarkable book, combining the purely personal, with related anecdotes about relatives the author never met, or about aspects of their lives that he didn't share. Four fathers are discussed at some length: Alexander Waugh the Brute, his son Arthur, his son Evelyn, and then Auberon. The Waughs seem to resist generalizing in print, preferring, as story-tellers, the telling and plausible detail, the overall character sketch, warts and all, and of course the purely funny anecdote.

Young Alexander (a bit younger than me) says towards the end of a book of over 400 pages,referring to books by sons about fathers: "it doesn't seem to matter if the author loathed his father or adored him, the relationship is not one that ever seems to work."

Perhaps it is the same for all sons: a childhood of trust (sometimes hero worship) leads to an adolescence of disillusionment and rage. In the busy years that follow we try to ignore our fathers and concentrate on feathering our nests without them; and when, at last, in fair round belly and seasoned middle age, we think ourselves emotionally ready to review the relationship with equanimity, we usually discover, to our dismay, that we have arrive on the scene too late ... [the relationship] trundles round and round on an axis of the mind, suspended, unclosed, incomplete. Most unsatisfactory.

For a while the story seems to be: Alexander the Brute deserved his name. He beat his youngest son Alick so severely the boy left home for the sea at the age of 12, and rarely returned. Arthur the oldest son was frail and intellectual, dreaming of a literary career--certain to be despised by a doctor father who lived in a rural area so as to be able to hunt and fish more or less constantly. The Brute's wife and children were afraid of him, and living with him meant constantly monitoring his moods. Still, Arthur got to Oxford, and despite his third-class degree, his father agreed to pay him an allowance to live in London and see if he could last as some kind of literary figure. He lasted, mainly as managing director of a publishing house.

Arthur and his wife went whole-hog for the sentimental version of the Victorian family. They had two boys, somewhat separate in age, and always made it obvious they preferred the older. They both immersed themselves in Alec's activities, minute by minute, as much as they could. Arthur's wife was eventually stuck, to some degree, with young Evelyn, but Arthur travelled to Alec's school, spent hours with his friends, talked in enormous detail about his cricket career, etc.

At home, there were lots of sentimental family-around-the-hearth activities, including reading aloud. It would have been hard to imagine Arthur beating anyone. It is as if he went to the opposite extreme from his own father, but Evelyn, in particular, came to have a kind of contempt for the overdone sentimentality, the attempt to remain a child in order to be good company for children, and the somewhat tyrannical insistence that everyone take part in these wholesome, artistic, family-centred evening activities. As a writer Evelyn kept coming back to father and son stories, as well as stories about tyrants who, without any violence, made young people follow their whims, or actually made them read Dickens--Arthur's favourite author. So the soft sentimental father may have presented not an alternative to tyranny, but a different version of it.

Alec, always the golden-haired child even when he was kicked out of school for some kind of sexual activity with younger boys, never spoke overtly against his parents in the way Evelyn did. Yet he left England at an early age, and was never really back for more than a few days at a time ever after. He "officially" still held that the old home was the old home, family ties were most important, etc., but he lived out of hotels, and largely ignored his wife and sons. In his own way he rebelled against the Victorian sentimental family, although he never said anything against it to his parents. Evelyn was scathingly sarcastic at a young age, and ran with young people who were proud of their "sang-froid," their lack of sentimentality, refusal to express hypocritical decent opinion, even sometimes their open callousness. Some of this always stayed with Evelyn, such as in the way he referred to his own children in letters to close friends.

I summarized some of this to my son and he said: so did Evelyn decide the Brute had it right after all? Well, there was some of this "frighten the children every day" about Evelyn--in practice he mostly left them alone, which Auberon says was a kindness, and may have been intended as such. Evelyn's later novels present sympathetic fathers--even the eccentric, somewhat arbitrary father in Brideshead Revisited is somewhat lovable, and Crouchback's father in the war trilogy is more or less perfect: born both a Catholic and an aristocrat (as Waugh's father certainly was not), always giving wise counsel remarkably free from sentimentality. As young Alexander says, Evelyn Waugh as he grew older acted more and more like his father. "Acted" is the right word--all the fathers in this story seems to enjoy literally acting, putting on performances for children, family and visitors. There is always the question whether they came to believe in some of the act themselves.

Young Alexander makes it clear that Auberon was a kind father, not angry, very supportive, but probably always worried that his children would screw up somehow. There are still suggestions that in order for the relationship to remain civil, it helps if the father is away a lot; Auberon was a workaholic. Young Alexander is now a father himself, and in a few sentences he gives the impression that his family is not atypical for our times.

Auberon died in 2001, at the age of 61, when young Alexander was not quite 40. Evelyn died in 1966, at the age of 62, when Auberon was about 30. I think Auberon says somewhere that the best service a father can perform for his children, especially his sons, is to die fairly young (presumably not when the children are really small). Sad, a bit nasty, but possibly true.

I'll try to work this into my theme about boomers: the best thing boomers could have done for the world would have been to die young. Too late.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Obesity and Mortality

Probably the most common abuse of statistics in the media is mistaking a correlation for a cause and effect.

Is a study merely observational (a certain group of people show both a certain risk factor and a certain outcome), or is it a much more reliable double-blind study, designed to isolate the relevant factors?
Does moderate alcohol consumption actually contribute to health, or is it simply that healthy people tend to drink moderately? It would be helpful if governments could speak with a united voice and say: even moderate drinking can be dangerous, and there is no particular health benefit from it anyway.

More questions: there are populations that are both obese (have high BMI) and have increased risk factors for diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, etc. Can obesity be identified as a cause of these things? Maybe more to the point: does obesity lead to a higher mortality rate?
There are careful studies that indicate that people with lower BMI may have lower incidence of some specific risk factors, but that doesn't mean they have a lower mortality rate. (A study cited on Drudge today). If anything, skinnier people have a higher mortality rate, but the difference is probably not significant. (There would be no basis to advise people to get fat in order to live longer; but the widespread advice to get skinny in order to live longer is questionable).

So: even if exercise helps you lose weight (and it may or may not), it still won't necessarily reduce your risk of major killers, or extend your life. I would think the benefits of exercise are more along the lines of staying mobile, feeling energetic, avoiding some of the aches and pains of the non-fit (while taking on some new aches and pains), etc. Maybe obesity is like the old joke about vegetarianism (and, er, marriage): it either makes your life last longer, or makes it seem longer.

Weather isn't Climate, but ....

1. Did the Caitlin expedition find too little ice in the Arctic, or too much?

The Caitlin expedition launched from Britain (sponsored by Prince Charles) to measure Arctic ice. They were fully confident of providing evidence that the ice up there is diminishing--drowning polar bears, and all that. Their plan was to get all the way to the North Pole, but the three of them nearly froze to death, with ice as far as the eye could see, and they gave up early.
The problems for the Catlin team began shortly after they were airlifted to a point on the ice north of Canada about 942 kilometers from the North Pole. A fierce storm arrived with high winds and cold temperatures of -40 deg C which took a toll on equipment and the team. The high tech ice measuring equipment broke down along with the data communications equipment. The three person team also suffered from the brutal conditions and one of the team members had frostbite. As a result the team only covered a total of 434 km, which is less than half way to the pole.
Instead of measuring ice electronically, team leader Hadow had to drill holes in the ice and measure thickness with a measuring tape the old fashioned way. And instead of a large number of ice thickness measurements, the team could only drill so many holes each day.

… after April 18 up to the end of the expedition, open water was not a daily occurrence and the team had to swim no more, perhaps because there was too much ice.
The team did not see any polar bears but did find bear tracks at one point. The team apparently brought a firearm along just in case, since their website refers to firearms training. Such a practice is common with Arctic explorations since polar bears are known to attack people. It was fortunate that the team did not have to shoot any polar bears they were presumably embarking on this expedition to save the bears.
The CAS made their trip at a time when the Arctic sea ice extent is recovering this year and is close to the historic averages for May. This recovery apparently reflects less melting due to cooler than average temperatures. Over the past several years, the amount of multi-year ice has been decreasing so it will be interesting to see if the summer melt will be lessened and more multi-year ice develops.

2. Is there reliable evidence of an increase in extreme weather events? Er, no.

Science and Low-Salt Diets

One developing rant for me is the widespread concern that ordinary food, especially supermarket food and fast food, is bad for you.

The poor old Globe and Mail is jumping on the bandwagon of "identifying specific types of food to avoid." First up: salt.

This is junk science. A population that has high blood pressure or hypertension is also found to be consuming what seems a large amount of salt. (More than "recommended"--but no one knows how much salt we really need, or how much is ideal, other than the fact that we need a considerable amount to survive.)For this finding to be meaningful, you'd have to discover whether the population had other factors in common, unrelated to salt consumption, that might account for high blood pressure, in fact you would have to understand a lot about high blood pressure.

Is there good evidence that a high-salt diet puts you at more risk of heart attack and stroke than a low-fat diet? No. How about overall mortality: worse with high salt? No.

It's even possible that the effects, if any, of high salt intake can be cancelled out by high potassium intake.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Do Politicians work for cash?

An unusually frank statement by someone trying to get some favourable government decisions: we bought tickets to a political fundraising dinner, and we got the decisions we wanted.

The headline is: "Barrie gets more than dessert after Liberal dinner, Guergis says":

A private $100,000 dinner supporting the Liberal Party of Ontario really paid off for Barrie, according to Simcoe County Warden Tony Guergis.
Held May 29, 2008, the $5,000-per-plate fundraiser at a private residence had community and business leaders lobbying Premier Dalton McGuinty and several of his cabinet ministers on three key items: a Royal Victoria Hospital expansion, cash for a new Georgian College building, and more land for Barrie.
This spring, all three wishes were granted.

Of course, this might be a local person telling his constituents: I did what I had to do, and I delivered. There are more people claiming that they were the ones who got a decision made, than there are people who actually have this kind of clout. More generally, the people who give politicians money and gifts must think it works--otherwise why do it? The same people probably believe in advertising. Does it work?

We're in a financial crisis brought about partly by senior people in the financial industry who made irrational decisions, instead of rational ones. They too can suffer from group think, and mass hysteria.

In the U.S. I think it's more clear that if a corporation gives to a politician, that politician delivers. There is less party discipline than here, and more transparency in voting by legislators.

This all relates to poor Mulroney. It seems likely that his buddies or ex-buddies made extravagant promises to anyone they could find, including Schreiber, to the effect that they had the ear of the Prime Minister, and they could deliver on multi-million dollar projects. Their saying so doesn't mean they even intended to twist Mulroney's arm, much less that he made key decisions in response to rivers of cash flowing to his buddies, and possibly to him. Mulroney kept the Bear's Head file alive, meeting personally with Schreiber even on short notice, with major crises brewing on other files. Does this mean that Mulroney had agreed to be in the paid employ of the companies whose money Schreiber was spending, or simply that he was shrewd about keeping golden eggs for himself and buddies, regardless of his decisions?

Mulroney may have told himself that he was honest with the public--not making decisions based on who paid the most in private--while being ruthlessly dishonest with Shreiber and others--promising to do things he had no intention of doing. The stories he is teling still come across like a tissue of lies.

James von Brunn, Left, Right, etc.

A white supremacist, who has long been convinced that the U.S. is being taken over by Jews and non-whites, attacks the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Some liberals and leftists suggest: everyone on the right, even the moderate right, either is racist or harbours and legitimizes racists--just as respectable pro-life groups harbour anti-abortion murderers like Scott Roeder (who killed Dr. Tiller in Wichita).

Conservatives respond: it is possible, and morally superior, to defend traditional practices without defending the racism and other forms of prejudice that went with them. Libertarian conservatives, in particular, can say the violent racists and anti-abortionists always seem to want strong government control to support their cause (even though their lawlessness threatens to undermine the law-abidingness they presumably want to sustain). Libertarians want less government control, not more, so they are not in league with the violent nuts.

Jonah Goldberg, some kind of libertarian Republican with a lot of respect for traditionalists, digs out his argument about fascism again. If fascism means something like populism combined with authoritarianism, this has appeared on the left at least as much as the right. Leaders who were identified as fascist in hindsight often identified themselves as socialist. Of course, Hitler is an example. Goldberg may be building an entire career out of the fact that people in high school and college called him a fascist, and he didn't like it. In fact, he gradually learned some sophisticated arguments to turn it around and say it is so-called liberals and socialists, who want state control for social engineering, who are the fascists.

I think some old-fashioned talk about left and right, and indeed racism vs. non-racism, can clear some of this up. The left wants to benefit those who have not benefitted before: re-distribute wealth, and weaken or break down the old elites. Moderate or soft leftists are prepared to settle for gradual, peaceful re-distribution, and may think it wisest not to threaten the old elites too much. More radical leftists are prepared to escalate the violence and see what happens. But the hope of re-distribution away from old elites, and by implication the creation or empowering of new elites who will do this work, is clear. Of course, both left and right are prepared to condemn elitism in order to speak in a populist voice.

The right somehow, often incoherently, opposes this. We've had a left-leaning world in the West for centuries, so the right keeps giving up ground. Throne and altar? Hopeless, but maybe show some kind of admiration for aristocrats and priests as role models--a refreshing contrast to modern conformism. Entrepreneurial capitalists, who were ruthless not only in building their own fortunes, but in creating vast wealth for society and, as Marx says, saving multitudes from the idiocy of rural life? Well, the progressive income tax may be a necessary evil, but many Republicans have not given up on opposing it. How about a system of opportunity, which so far still presents mainly white males at the top of the hierarchy, but which gradually comes to show more and more visible minorities? The right generally favours leaving it alone, the left wants to speed up the reality of diversity by means of affirmative action and perhaps simply spending on the poor.

The left is often forced to ask the existing elites to make changes in laws, etc. They also try to work and identify with new elites--a few decades ago, union leaders; for many decades, people who work in the public sector--teachers, social workers, humanities professors.

Often radical, violent people are not coherent as to what exactly they want, or what is most important. They are enraged that "people like them" are losing out, and they claim to identify with others who are even more victimized then themselves.

It is a cliche on the left that racism is evil, it belongs to the past, and it can be eliminated. In a funny way, leftists are forced to argue that it is not very difficult to eliminate racism, even though it has remained stubbornly resilient for a long time. Apparently among bad, weak people like everyone before the boomers, it was resilient. But we live in a new day in which everyone with a BA is probably free of it, and these people will both spread the word and use government programs to make others smarten up.

The right doesn't exactly want to defend racism in the modern age. There is likely to be a backlash. Pat Buchanan is unusual; he has apparently said in the last few days the he thinks the old, old-fashioned bigotry was morally superior to the racism that often underlies attacks on the alleged white establishment, or defences of affirmative action, today. ("Old whites will never be enlightened enough on their own--their racism is too inbred; but we will appoint some visible minorities who know they are superior to whites, and who are completely free from racism"). I think Buchanan has said in a book that he misses the Washington, DC of Jim Crow days.

Intelligent conservatives may say that love of one's own is, as far as we can tell, natural. If it is based purely on skin colour, it can be shockingly stupid, but very prevalent nonetheless. It is not clear that left-wing governments have been shining exemplars of freedom from such feelings. A more intelligent love of one's own has to do with ways of life, including religion, what one thinks is funny, attitudes to money and the military, etc. Shakespeare's Othello comes close to focussing on racism as we know it. But even this play presents Othello as having had such a different life from the people around him that there are indeed real differences, that make him almost incomprehensible to them, going far beyond skin colour. Religion may even be an issue--he may be a convert to Christianity. Of course when he gives in to jealousy, he shows us a universal human weakness--we feel our common humanity in the play. But his marriage to Desdemona seems to have been highly artificial--there is even some doubt as to whether it was consummated. She fell in love with the exotic life, and didn't really know the man; he was enormously flattered to be rising so far, so fast, and lost his head.

The Merchant of Venice, another "Venetian" play of Shakespeare's, is probably even more important today. Venice is a cosmopolitan city, Christians and Jews among other groups can live in peace, and it is at least possible to contemplate inter-marriage--the ultimate taboo for all love-of-one's-own human beings. Among old-fashioned folks, who wants foreign grand-children? But as it turns out, Shakespeare's optimism is qualified. It seems that Christians and Jews can build a tolerant society only insofar as they cease to be observant or clear-sighted Christians and Jews. Indifference to points of doctrine and daily practice--even to matters such as lending money at interest--comes first logically and temporally; toleration comes second. Presumably acceptance of diversity, the goal we hear about today, comes third. Some conservatives worry that the traditional beliefs of some accepted minorities will be regarded as acceptable--in no way in need of being modernized--so it is only the old majority that has to move from belief to indifference to progress. More likely, it is generally understood in the world as a whole that to enjoy the benefits of progress, one must give up old beliefs and practices.

Love of one's own isn't all bad. It may even be that old-fashioned prejudiced people, as a rule, really care about a few individuals, such as family, and even about their own souls, in a way that progressive people, open to an unknown future, do not. Of course suffering minorities tend to see the majority as both prejudiced and arbitrarily cruel.

So: the left claims to be not only free of racism, but actively opposed to it. With the usual grain of salt needed for dealing with partisan claims, there is a lot of truth to this. The right somewhat uneasily tends to defend not only pristine non-racist practices from the past, but the love of one's own that they say is natural, and partly good, even if irrational--so the left, in trying to get rid of it, is in a way acting irrationally, and undermining things that are desirable.

The right may favour socialist methods--if they are in an emergency of some kind--but if their main goal is to oppose the rising newcomers, or defend past elites and practices, or indeed, at their crudest, the past privileges of whites, then it is fair to say they are on the right. If they combine populism and authoritarianism, it is fair to say they are fascists.

Socialists believe in socialism not only as a means or temporary measure, but as a better society in which the old elites have been weakened or eliminated, and new elites flourish. They expect racism to be much less in evidence, and they probably work to bring this about. If they combine populism and authoritiarianism, is it tendentious and not very helpful to call them fascists. Why not just radical or demagogic socialists? Why not say some leaders and movements are so eccentric, they are hard to classify?

Meanwhile, respectable pro-lifers do bear some responsibility for anti-abortion murderers. If Lincoln were persuaded of the evils of abortion, as he was of the evils of slavery, presumably he would have wanted all violent anti-abortion activists prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and he would have expressed doubts about the wisdom of a pro-life movement that does anything other than prepare legal briefs for future Supreme Court cases. Lincoln condemned John Brown for using violence to free a few slaves. As far as I know, Lincoln never attended an abolitionist meeting. He presumably thought those people had too many contradictory goals, some of them lawless and therefore likely to undermine the rule of law. Lincoln's path was simpler. He was on the way to being the Great Emancipator.

And finally, there is something funny about defending the old days when white Christians were in charge. I guess from the days when the Moslems conquered the Middle East, there were very few non-white Christians (although ancient Christian communities survived in Arab countries and Turkey until very recently). Having been reduced to a small population, Christianity then grew primarily in Europe, North America and Australia. There were the white Christian countries on the one hand, and everybody else--the majority of the world's population, but less modern and less wealthy--on the other. But: Christianity presumably had to change to make its peace with modernity. In a way many of us are hoping that Islam continues to make a similar change. And: there are no white people in the Old or New Testaments. Both the ancient Vikings and the ancient Greeks must have been more like today's Hindus than anyone else one can think of.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Governments and Infrastructure

This sign marks the access to a walking/running trail along the Holland River in Newmarket, Ontario. From here you cross railway tracks, go north a bit, join the main trail, and go either further north to a GO train station, or across a bridge and then south all the way through Newmarket.

Governments have recently put asphalt down, and lights up, just on this northbound access piece--maybe half a kilometre. It seems that no piece of infrastructure is too small for the big sign congratulating governments for their contributions.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Leadership and Illness

Some Brits are starting to wonder if Gordon Brown is losing it. The raising of the question stirs up an increasingly rich and detailed debate about various leaders from the past, how sick they were, what difference this made, and whether there should be some mechanism to dump them if they've crossed some line.

Here's an article from 2003 by Sir David Owen--a Brit who is both a physician and an ex-Minister. Lots of goodies in here.

On the Shah of Iran:

Although there is no evidence that the CIA or MI6 ever knew that the Shah had leukaemia while he was in Tehran, there is some evidence that the KGB knew….

[The extent of his illness was hidden from the Shah himself, but he knew enough to keep his illness secret]. If Washington knew he was ill, he could no longer expect the same unqualified American support he now enjoyed. He would be deserted by his allies’.2 That judgement was correct.

… in retrospect what he needed was to be told what to do and virtually forced to take treatment in Switzerland. If he had done so, the Revolution in Iran would not have taken place in the way that it did, President Carter might have won a second term, and certainly the history of the Middle East would have been very different.

On Idi Amin:

Some physicians hazarded the opinion in the newspapers that he might be suffering from general paralysis of the insane. That diagnosis, however, has never been substantiated, and is unlikely, since he is still alive today, having fled to Saudi Arabia after the Tanzanian Army invaded Uganda in 1979 with the full encouragement of the British government.

On Mugabe:
What Mugabe had within him was an odd combination of Jesuit Catholicism and Chinese Communism. After an amazing period of reconciliation which surprised everyone and was unsurpassed by anything anywhere else in the world, Mugabe within a few years used North Korean troops in a brutal suppression of the population in Matabeleland, and in recent years he has presided over the ruination of his country. Commentators today refer to Mugabe as mad: I doubt if he could be so diagnosed, but he is undoubtedly acting evilly, and ought to be removed as President.

On Francois Mitterand:
Mitterrand's early view that there should be the utmost transparency about his health, following the death of President Georges Pompidou from an undisclosed blood cancer, changed when he became ill. Mitterrand told his doctor that his illness must be considered a state secret.

…. Was President Mitterrand entitled to suppress the knowledge of his cancer of the prostate? Probably yes, for in 1981 he had only just won the Presidency for the Left in France after a long period of Centre Right dominance, and his mental function at that stage was totally unimpaired. President Mitterrand had much less justification for withholding news of his cancer before putting himself forward for a second term in 1988.

On Reagan:
I spoke to him on a one-on-one basis in 1978 in the Foreign Office, and again in the White House in 1986. It was very hard to assess his mental capacity at the best of times, because of a self-confident ignorance on some important matters and his charming gift of self-deprecation. Reagan was a strong-willed leader, but content to concentrate on presentation. His management style was to focus on a few big issues, which he then excelled at simplifying.

… [Given the later progress of his Alzheimer's] It is hard to believe that he was not suffering from some cognitive impairment while President.

On Churchill, who had one health crisis after another, and always drank a ton, but kept bouncing back:
Churchill would have been forced out after his stroke in 1953 but the key politicians who knew his true condition after the stroke never acted. Anthony Eden was still sick. Harold Macmillan had also been ill and was not yet in a powerful enough position to strike, and Rab Butler was not ruthless enough to insist on being made Prime Minister, although he probably could have done so. Churchill eventually retired, far too late, in April 1955 and died in January 1965 after his last and most severe stroke. [This helped bring about the Eden-as-crazy-PM situation in 1956].

Owen concludes that Anthony Eden's behaviour as British PM during the Suez crisis was probably affected by barbituates, but not Kennedy's, even though Kennedy had similar drug problems, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His general conclusion is that candidates for office should be subjected to medical scrutiny, but in the case of someone already holding office, especially in a crisis, caution should be shown in publicizing bad news. Churchill had a heart attack in 1941, right after the U.S. had decided to enter the war.

Obama and DOMA

So President Obama really does think marriage should be between a man and a woman, and he therefore really is prepared to defend the federal Defence of Marriage Act in the U.S.

Perhaps what's most amazing is that this argument by the Obama Administration could have been used to defend state laws against racially mixed marriages, such as the marriage of Obama's parents.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

News updates

Blue Jays went into a big slump: first time in their history they were swept in three straight series. They are still two and a half games back, with 33 wins--the only team with more, other than Yankees and Red Sox, is the Dodgers. Some say starting pitchers #2 to #5 are still questionable. But: they seem to be winning again.

Sonia Sotomayor will be fine as Supreme Court justice, and it's a shame the right-wingers made such a big deal out of her remark about a wise Latina.

Also: more reading. Ross Macdonald, The Drowning Pool. I don't think this is the best Lew Archer novel. It was written as if made to be made into a movie. Some nice lines: within the last forty or so pages, Lew is once again very close to femme fatale Mavis, in the dark. "Please don't be nasty, Archer. What's your first name, anyway?" "Lew. You can call me Archer." Archer is questioned by Kilbourne, with Melliotes holding a gun on him: "Melliotes turned sharply and looked at me three-eyed. His own two eyes were dark and glowing. I preferred the gun's single eye. I couldn't stare it down, but it bore no malice."

Reading A.J.P. Taylor

Hmmm... I didn't expect to go so long without posting....

I rushed to the public library one day, almost at closing time, and borrowed a couple of books quickly. One was the memoirs of Mary Astor, movie star (now known mainly as Brigid O'Shaughessy in the Maltese Falcon); I was looking in political history, honestly, so someone must have mixed her up with Nancy Astor.

The other book was A.J.P. Taylor, Essays in English History. I think I borrowed this years ago. There is fine writing about history here--learned yet approachable. Taylor was raised a Quaker, and remained some kind of left-leaning pacifist. He was for appeasing Hitler until about 1936, then he turned violently anti-Hitler. He came to have quite a liking for Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook (who went through a similar conversion on appeasement), and eventually wrote a biography of the press lord. Like many leftists, Taylor became known for arguing that Hitler was much worse than Stalin, and for the British to have fought Lenin and Stalin, as Churchill wanted to do, would have been a crime. Yet after the war, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to make more of a name for himself, he argued that Hitler did not have as much of a master plan as had often been assumed.

He makes passing remarks to the effect that he doesn't like Tories, and can scarcely understand them. Page 208: "There is something to be said for conservatism (though I can never recollect what)"; page 123 (in a great essay on Lord Salisbury): "The Tory party has been called the stupid party (and not unfairly, to be stupid and to be sensible are not far apart. The Progressive party, Radical and Socialist, is clever, but silly)."

There are lots of gems here. He writes about the Irish famine, partly because of his stark recognition that it was precisely the progressives of their day in Britain--the liberals, the new political economists--who were most determined to let the Irish starve. The market had to correct itself on its own; government intervention could only make things worse. Taylor is painfully aware that the people holding these views were admirable and intelligent. He is very concerned about imperialism, believing it to be generally immoral and not even in the interest, in any measurable sense, of the conqueror. He criticizes the doctrinaire views that the imperialists are capitalists, or consistent holders of any other particular ideology. They are people with various motives, and often incoherent views. Taylor has seen the treatment of leaders in history go from one extreme to the other: from Prime Ministers as "little less than gods," to leaders as mere examples or even symbols of movements.

He criticizes the way the English elite kept teaching their sons the classics, Latin and Greek, when training in new industries was needed toward the end of the nineteenth century. Despite his erudition, he doesn't seem aware of arguments for a liberal education that is somewhat free from time and place, potentially freeing us from all other kinds of education that more or less keep us confined in time and place. He is all for the Irish.

Among other things, he makes me want to read the life of Salisbury by his daughter, Gwendolen Cecil. I may just buy it.