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A journal of sorts to record Jonathan Sturm's (and others') thoughts and observations on things worth thinking about. Feedback welcome, but be aware that unless you prominently say you want your communication kept private, I may publish it.
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Monday 25 February 2002
Two of my favourite writers, Isaac Asimov and Stephen Jay Gould exemplify the great art of writing short, witty stories based firmly in science with a generous dose of history thrown in. The narrative usually illustrates the development of some scientific fact or principle, the history how people have understood, or misunderstood what that illustrates. The history and people that involves add the essential ingredient for most readers -- the human interest. Above all, people love to imagine themselves inside someone else's body, doing something extraordinary. Whether the adventure occurs in Tolkien's land of Middle Earth, or understanding the development of new understanding in the realm of Quantum Mechanics, or what we mean by evolution, we do not really care, just so long as they entertain us.
The science teachers who taught us in school rarely understand this. They present us with dry-as-dust "facts" shorn of their context. People, by and large, the ones that survive to reproduce and propagate their genes at least, have concern only for food, shelter and sex. Everything outside that is entertainment. Scientists like Stephen Jay Gould, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman and Jacob Bronowski understand (or understood) this very well. The urge to entertain has as much attraction as the urge to consume entertainment.
Given a choice between the Just So stories of science teachers, fiction writers and scientists, most prefer fiction ahead of the science teacher who models their style on that of most scientists who publish in the scientific press. Happily, not all scientists ignore the result of millions years of evolution -- people who prefer entertainment to boredom.
Thought for the day:
The reason I'm in this business, I assume all performers are -- it's "Look at me, Ma!" It's acceptance, you know -- "Look at me, Ma, look at me, Ma, look at me, Ma." And if your mother watches, you'll show off till you're exhausted; but if your mother goes, Ptshew!
Brian Eno -- Before and After Science
Tuesday 26 February 2002
The Sturm Theory of Disease -- there cannot exist a single theory for such a wide range of causes. Take sickle-cell anaemia for instance. A person who inherits the two recessive genes for sickle-cell anaemia develops the disease. A person who inherits only one does not. No germs. No bugs. The person with the single gene possesses above average resistance to malaria, a disease associated with a bug transmitted by mosquitoes. It seems humans developed the slim chance of succumbing to sickle-cell anaemia in order to combat the ravages of malaria in a much larger number of people.
The war between disease-causing organisms and their intended victims appears much like an arms-race. In the game of chance that evolution plays, some win, some lose, but some on both sides always survive to play another round in another generation of innovation. Those lacking the genes that weaken the disease organism, or weakened due to malnutrition, become the victims. No disease makes this more apparent than AIDS, the consequence of infection by HIV. AIDS doesn't kill, the various bugs that take advantage of the victim's damaged autoimmune system do the dirty work.
While some cancers have an associated disease organism, many do not. Some appear to result from chemical exposure and other causes. Both sides in the pro and anti-chemical debate quote the work of Bruce Ames. If you want to upset an environmentalist, just mention that the correlation between stress and cancer appears stronger than that between chemical exposure and cancer. Scaring people might cause more cancer than the chemicals used to scare them.
We know quite a lot about how diseases operate and how to ensure optimum health. Sadly, the message has yet to penetrate the skulls of those to whom we often entrust our recovery from illness. A friend's grandson born a few days ago has apparently become infected by a disease organism. He received no colostrum, the thick antibody-rich first milk all mammalian mothers secrete to give their young a head start in the arms race. Hospital policy decrees otherwise. The mother cannot stay at the hospital with her baby, a known way of promoting the health of babies. Hospital policy decrees otherwise.
The germ theory of disease remains current because it sells more drugs. Far from being completely benign, they often come with side-effects. Usually, the prescribing doctor has little, or no knowledge of these. A pharmacist friend tells me that in a normal week, he expects to see several prescriptions for fatal drug combinations. This requires him to telephone the doctor and modify the prescription to one less likely to kill the patient. He assures me that a cure is still far from certain as drug research has more to do with selling more drugs than with peripheral concerns such as human health.
Let me make it quite clear that I know circumstances exist when a magic bullet makes sense. Penicillin to cure a serious pneumococcus infection for instance. It makes no sense to me whatsoever to prescribe penicillin for the common cold, a disease caused by virus and so totally unaffected by antibiotics. Surely doctors should know better than I do that the antibiotic in this instance promotes the survival of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. The assumption that the drug companies will win in an arms race against bacteria seems to me wishful thinking. Like the human race, its diseases have great survival skills.
Had we reserved the magic bullets for genuine emergencies, they would have maintained their potency. The current path appears to doom them to become an interesting episode in history.
Thought for the day:
He who considers disease results to be the disease itself, and expects to do away with these as diseases, is insane. It is an insanity in medicine, an insanity that has grown out of the milder forms of mental disorder in science, crazy whims.
James Tyler Kent
Bob Marley -- Natty Dread
Wednesday 27 February 2002
I love books. To satisfy my passion, Collins Street, Hobart has several, but two stand out head and shoulders above the rest. Fullers carry new books for the thinking person -- no pulp fiction here. Sadly, the cost of new books has risen beyond my capacity to purchase more than a few. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, a slim paperback volume, cost me $US20 a year or so ago.
Almost next door to Fullers, down an arcade, you will find a bookshop to delight any book-lover. Walking around the stacks of books on the floor awaiting shelf-space poses problems for the less than nimble. Since books about science reside in the rear, I have to wind my way around those piles to discover something that delights me. And I always find several.
Last week, I found the 1938 edition of James Jeans The Universe Around Us ($US5), interestingly the first book I have not found a listing for at Amazon. An earlier edition stimulated my interest in astronomy as a boy, an interest that later widened to include all of the sciences. Almost alongside I discovered Matt Ridley's The Red Queen ($US10) and Carl Sagan's The Dragons of Eden ($US5). All these in hardback.
The lady who takes my money usually apologises for the cost of my purchases and knocks a few dollars off! Obviously she thinks my tastes expensive.
From Roy Harvey:
I think you would appreciate the classic book "Rats, Lice and History" by Hans Zinsser. One of the key points he makes is that it is AGAINST the interest of a bacteria to make their host ill.
When I was in college there was an independent bookstore I used to visit that carried nothing but paperbacks - damned near every paperback in print. Of course this included the most popular trash, but also all the interesting publishers like Penguin, and all the obscure subjects and titles too. The proprietor was an interesting old gentleman. When I picked a copy of "Rats, Lice and History" from the rack he said it was the best book ever written.
I did a quick google on this and came up with a link that comments on the book better than I can:
Roy Harvey rmharvey at snet dot net Beacon Falls, CT
I'll keep my eyes peeled, Roy.
Back in 1990, I attended a conference to discuss organic agriculture. The audience was an interesting mixture of the general public, farmers (conventional and organic) and academics. At one point, the debate became quite fascinating. The presenter of the current paper had pointed out that fungal disease control was a problem for organic production. The organic farmers thought that was a hoot; they had almost no fungal disease problems at all. The conventional farmers agreed with the presenter; fungal disease control was their biggest problem.
An academic in the audience described a pot experiment he had recently conducted while studying a mycorrhizal association. Mycorrhizae live both in the soil and the plant. The plant gives the mycorrhiza sugars in return for phosphorus and other nutrients. Many plants cannot thrive without their mycorrhizae and inoculating one's plants used to be one of those "muck and mystery" things only organic farmers did. Anyway, it turns out that the mycorrhiza in this instance became a lethal pathogen once the free nitrate level in the soil rose above a certain amount. In natural conditions, this would never have happened. It was excessive nitrogenous fertiliser that caused the problem.
It was some time after this conference and its many farm walks that I realised that the assertions of the farmers were true -- conventional farmers had huge fungal disease problems and organic farmers very few, so their lack of "weapons" wasn't the huge disadvantage it appeared on the surface. A passing comment by a farmer who had recently converted to organic rang a bell with me. He no longer had any field mushrooms growing in his paddocks. When I first purchased my property, we were drying mushrooms to make litres of powder that we used to thicken soup and very delicious it was too.
I took my observation a friend researching in the area of fungal disease and we came across many instances where my hypothesis was substantiated. Fungi and bacteria are often competitors for the same ecological niche. Creating an environment conducive to bacteria reduced the incidence of fungi. Since far more of the important plant pathogens are fungi than bacteria, the organic farmers' bacteria-promoting strategies were resulting in relatively disease-free farms. This also resulted in healthier livestock in enterprises where that was the focus.
Oh yes, the strategy. Conventional farmers apply liberal amounts of nitrogenous fertiliser in the form of nitrate and ammonium ions. Organic farmers apply nitrogen as protein.
Thought for the day:
A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.
Brian Eno -- Another Green World
Thursday 28 February 2002
Bo Leuf wrote:
> Scaring people might cause more cancer than the chemicals used to scare them.
There was some debate along these lines concerning the complete-age-group screenings for breast cancer in Sweden. Turned out that the statistics were beginning to show that the group of women with regular (yearly) mammography examinations had a significant increase in incidence compared to comparable groups that didn't -- a result that could not be explained away simply by saying that the regular examinations just discovered more cases (both groups had a full screening at the end of the study).
The debate got side-tracked in due time, but not before the leading breast cancer experts had solemnly proclaimed that a "mild" increase in incidence due to the stress of recurring screening was a small price to pay for the security of early treatment. Hmm...
A sort of similar discussion (barely) surfaced a few years ago concerning the now-routine triple-vaccination performed on school children, when somebody looked at the figures and discovered that a small group of children every year were getting crippling side-effects -- a few even dying.
I read about the Swedish breast screening result. One line of thought was that introverted women worry more, suffer more stress and so make better candidates for cancer. Extroverts, worry less and so are less likely to have routine breast screening, as well as suffering less cancer. The stressed out introverts likely were more stressed by the tests than they would have been without, but denying them the tests would also be stressful. Tough call that one.
The inoculation issue appears to hinge on who gets to suffer. I remember people suffering from the results of the diseases rampant before inoculation against them became commonplace. The numbers suffering from side-effects from inoculation appear to be smaller.
Thought for the day:
I am dying from the treatment of too many physicians.
Alexander The Great
JJ Cale -- Naturally
Friday 1 March 2002
Spent much of today looking for an extension cord so that I can reach around the back of the woodshed with the power screwdriver. Eventually, it turns up in Thomas's room. After sorting through the remainder of the floorboards, I realise we don't have nearly enough to make a decent-sized bookcase. We have plenty of MDF, though, so I will make one some 2.4 metres (8 ft) long by 2 metres (6 ft) high to go in the Lesser Hall. The sheets are heavy and awkward to carry, so I decide to leave building it until Thomas can help me tomorrow.
The weather remains grey, though no rain falls. The greyness seeps into me and little gets done, still less anything worth writing about. I suspect my holiday should end. Summer offically ended yesterday with the temperature only having reached 30°C once, never mind our record of 45°C. Like John Daly, I recall the prediction that we were to have a warmer than average summer:
The Perils of Model Forecasting (1 March 2002)
Australia's Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) has just released details of how the southern summer, which ended yesterday, unfolded throughout southeastern Australia.
Firstly, lets look at what they predicted on 14th November 2001 about what was in store for the coming summer. In a media release titled `Southeast Faces Warm Summer', they said in part, "the current climate patterns once again point to increased summer warmth in Victoria, Tasmania, southern South Australia, and the southern border regions of New South Wales." They even provided a map to show the region (southern S.A. includes the city of Adelaide).
The final reality once summer was over was somewhat different. Their latest three media releases tell the story -
2001-02 a Cool One in Tasmania"
"Cool Summer for Victoria"
"Adelaide's Mean Summer Maximum the Lowest on Record"
I can certainly vouch for the cool summer in Tasmania as I have lived here since 1980. It was the coolest summer I have known here, with the temperature in Launceston never even reaching 30°C, which it usually does on several days every summer. Our local press has been remarking on the cold summer constantly, including the cold snap around Christmas which I also featured on this site.
In Victoria, they shared the same cool summer, with the summer average minimum temperatures at five stations being the lowest on record. Snow even fell on Mount Hotham.
Adelaide in South Australia usually swelters under the hot summer sun, with temperatures typically in the high 30's or even over 40°C. But not this year. Adelaide had the coolest mean summer maximum on record, a record which goes back all the way to 1857 (see Adelaide's temperature history here). The previous coolest summer was back in 1948-49. At no time this summer did Adelaide reach that sweltering 40°C mark.
These 3-month forecasts are of course based on long-range modelling, and it is significant that the very region of Australia which back in November was predicted to be warmer than usual, ended up much cooler than normal, with several all-time cold records being broken. The lesson here of course is that modelling of this kind has severe limitations, which is probably why most meteorologists are humble enough and realistic enough to refer to their forward estimates as `forecasts', in contrast with the arrogance of the IPCC and the greenhouse industry who make iron-clad `predictions' based on similar modelling techniques.
Thought for the day:
Luxury ruins republics; poverty, monarchies.
Charles De Montesquieu
Soft Machine -- 6
Saturday 2 March 2002
Austin Nichols, the huge American distiller that inflicted Wild Turkey Bourbon on the world appears determined to demonstrate it has the brains of the bird its product was named after. They have taken legal action against the Queensland winery, Mt Tamborine, to prevent it trade marking the name of its port -- Bush Turkey. Austin Nichols claim that consumers might become confused and mistakenly purchase tawny port instead of whiskey. Apparently this could also negatively impact Wild Turkey sales in liquor outlets. Since 98% of Bush Turkey sales are at the cellar door and there's not a bottle of bourbon in sight, it's more than a little hard to imagine.
This time last year it was the turn of a tiny Tasmanian winery, Stefano Lubiana. They had used the exact same shade of orange on one of their wine labels that French champagne maker Veuve Cliquot had trade marked. One wonders how long until some enterprising American or European company trademarks the exact shade of blue of the unpolluted Australian summer sky.
Today Marguerite made a flour and water paste to seal up a huge ham made from some home-grown pork we purchased earlier in the week. I expressed some scepticism of it tasting much different to boiled, or baked, but I made a huge mistake! Neither of us have ever tasted such wonderful ham before. Accompanied by tiny potatoes, runner beans and carrots, it made a splendid repast. I went to my bed with a stomach distended to its limit.
Thought for the day:
We live in an age when pizza gets to your home before the police.
Blodwyn Pig -- Ahead Rings Out
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