Saturday, December 30, 2017
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Saturday, October 07, 2017
Saturday, September 30, 2017
Although our leadership is too polite to say it out loud, they’ve embraced stagnation as the new quasi-official policy. The reason is tragi-comically obvious: any real reform would threaten the income streams gushing into untouchably powerful self-serving elites and fiefdoms.
In our pay-to-play centralized form of governance, any reform that threatens the skims, privileges and perquisites of existing elites and fiefdoms is immediately squashed, co-opted or watered down.
So the power structure of the status quo has embraced stagnation as a comfortable (except to those on the margins) and controllable descent that avoids the unpleasantness and uncertainty of crisis. We all know that humans quickly habituate to gradual changes in circumstances, and that if the changes are gradual enough, we have difficulty even noticing the erosion.
So wages/salaries stagnate, inflation eats away at the purchasing power of our net income, junk fees, tolls and taxes notch higher by increments too modest to trigger protest, fundamental civil liberties are chipped away one small piece at a time, healthcare costs rise every year like clockwork, and the gap between the bottom 95% and the top 5% widens, as does the gap between the top .1% and the bottom 99.9%, productivity stagnates, the growth rate of new businesses stagnates, but it’s all so gradual that we no longer notice except to sigh in resignation.
Japan is a global leader in how to gracefully manage stagnation. Here’s how Japan is managing to maintain a comfortable secular stagnation:
Japan’s central bank creates a ton of new currency every year, which it uses to buy Japan’s government debt/bonds. This keeps interest rates near-zero, so the cost of government borrowing is kept minimal.
This also gives the government a ton of new cash to spend that it doesn’t have to raise from additional taxes. The government then spends this “nearly free” money (i.e. deficit spending) to keep the whole stagnating machine glued together.
To keep asset prices comfortably elevated, Japan’s central bank creates additional gobs of currency out of thin air every year to buy assets such as stocks and corporate bonds.
It helps if domestic and global investors are willing to buy bonds yielding near-zero, but if not, no problem, the central bank can just create another trillion of new currency and buy all newly issued government bonds. What’s another trillion between friends?
There are only two potential spots of bother in this comfy setup:
1. If all this new currency is no longer accepted as having much purchasing power by the rest of the world
2. Inflation arises despite the tender machinations of the central bank and government.
Here are some snapshots of secular stagnation in the U.S.: here’s productivity:
New business growth:
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Saturday, September 23, 2017
You might have heard that the Lyme apocalypse is upon us this year. In spring, media outlets from NPR to USA Today to the New Scientist were forecasting a black-legged tick population eruption with a consequent outbreak of Lyme disease in the American Northeast. Transmitted by tick bite, Lyme can cause symptoms such as fatigue, fever, headache, and a characteristic bull’s-eye skin rash called erythema migrans. If untreated, the disease can spread to joints, the heart, and even lead to neurological complications such as Bell palsy.
Today, Lyme is North America’s leading “vector-borne” disease—a term used to describe any disease transmitted from animal to human via live host. Despite decades of research and control efforts, new cases of Lyme in humans continue to climb. Confirmed cases reached a total of 28,500 in the U.S. in 2015 (plus an additional 9,600 probable cases). That’s more than double the number found when they were first recorded in 1995, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though the trajectory has not been straight up, and increases may be partially related to heightened awareness. The number of counties in the U.S. that are considered Lyme disease hot spots has also more than tripled in that time, though the overwhelming majority of these is concentrated in just 14 states.
The problem is not confined to North America. Europe is witnessing a rise in confirmed cases of Lyme, and the disease is extending its geographic reach in both Europe and the temperate, forested parts of Asia. Some scientists believe now that the disease originated in Europe rather than in the northeastern U.S.—based on genetic sequencing of Borrelia burgdorferi—the Lyme-causing bacteria. The only known organism that doesn’t use iron to make proteins and enzymes, B. burgdorferi is particularly difficult for human bodies to kill because our immune system often tackles pathogens by starving them of iron. B. burgdorferi also lacks many other features common to bacterial pathogens, such as toxins and specialized secretion systems, which human immune systems use to detect and fight foreign invaders.
The black-legged tick is the only organism that can transmit B. burgdorferi between animals or between animals and humans. Ticks must have a blood meal at each of their three life stages to survive, so they climb onto their hosts from leaf litter or the tips of grasses or shrubs, attach their mouthparts to the host, and suck its blood slowly for several days. If the host animal has Lyme bacteria in the blood, the tick can ingest the pathogen and become infected, transmitting it to a new host at its next feeding, when the pathogen will rise from its gut to its feeding tubes. Once infected, the ticks stay infected for life.
Much of the media coverage of this year’s professed tick-a-geddon cites the work of scientist Rick Ostfeld, an ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, and his wife and partner, Felicia Keesing, an ecologist at Bard College. The pair are veterans of Lyme and tick research, and have been predicting a Lyme plague in 2017 for two years. Ostfeld’s research suggests that incidence of Lyme can be influenced by, among other things, a two-year chain of events that begins with a so-called mast year, when all of the oak trees in a particular region yield a bumper crop of acorns in synchrony.
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The term mast comes from the Old English word mæst, nuts of forest trees that litter the ground, especially those used for fattening swine. Scientists have speculated that producing a large crop of seeds at once provides an evolutionary advantage to certain kinds of trees: There are enough left over to take root even after seed predators have been satiated. The trees seem to spend almost all of their resources on reproduction in a mast year, leaving little left over for growth, but flip this equation in the following years. The lean years may then help to control predator populations who consume the seeds. Scientists believe that trees synchronize seed production in response to environmental cues such as rainfall or temperature.
It turns out that 2015 was a mast year, while the following year saw an explosion in white-footed mice in the region, according to Ostfeld and Keesing. It is worth noting that in his research, Ostfeld only found statistically significant correlations between acorns or mice and Lyme disease incidence in New York and Connecticut, and not in the other five states he studied. And yet, researchers in Poland have also found correlations between acorns and Lyme.
In a mast year, the trees spend almost all of their resources on reproduction, yielding a bumper crop of acorns.
Here’s how it is thought to work: A bumper crop of acorns in the northeastern United States attracts white-tailed deer into oak stands in autumn and white-footed mice and eastern chipmunks the following summer—the animal species that are among the most common hosts for black-legged ticks. Adult ticks mate on the deer in the fall and lay eggs on the ground in the spring, which turn to larval ticks in the summer. These larval ticks feed on the mice and chipmunks attracted to the acorns, as well as small birds. The following year, infected nymphs may land on human hosts, transmitting the disease in the process. The year after that, adult ticks can feed on deer and humans, though humans are much more likely to be infected by nymphs, which are harder to detect than adults. Nymphs feed in spring and summer while adults feed in the fall.
Does Biodiversity Curb Disease?
To ward off tick bites, health officials advise keeping yards trim. Mowing the lawn, cutting back overgrown brush, and cleaning up leaf litter are all thought to reduce potential exposure to tick populations in residential areas. The irony, though, is that Ostfeld, Keesing, and other scientists believe the opposite approach may be needed for our forests if we want to minimize our risk of contracting Lyme. We should leave large forest stands intact, limiting fragmentation of habitat.
In a 2001 paper, Ostfeld argues that in residential areas forest grows in chunks that are too small and fragmented to support a wide range of species—especially species that prey on ticks’ most popular hosts. Those predators include wolves, opossums, and skunks, which happen to be poor hosts for Lyme, he says. So when we cut down forests, we end up with fewer predators and thus with more deer, chipmunks, and mice, increasing our exposure to ticks.
“If we avoid chopping it up, destroying, or fragmenting the forested habitat, then we will automatically maintain that diversity of animals, most of which serve to regulate Lyme,” says Ostfeld. He and others have come to name this phenomenon the “dilution effect.” Supporters of the dilution effect believe that biodiversity helps to lower disease risk for humans as a general rule. A recent meta analysis published in July 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found widespread evidence that biodiversity in both plant and animal populations inhibits parasite spread by regulating populations of susceptible hosts or interfering with parasite transmission.
According to Ostfeld, fragmented habitats are typically most welcoming for “live fast, die young” species that are good hosts for all kinds of disease. They can carry an infection like Lyme without mounting an immune response because it is more advantageous to expend their resources on predator avoidance than fighting an infection that likely won’t kill them before they reproduce. (In the case of Lyme, this hypothesis is complicated by research that suggests some mice do, in fact, mount an immune response while others develop symptoms of Lyme disease after infection.) Another take on biodiversity and Lyme risk was published in 2014 by Canadian scientists, who found that a lack of diversity even among tick host species—and not just fewer predators—can increase Lyme disease risk.
Interestingly, not everyone agrees that biodiversity protects against Lyme or other plagues. A 2012 paper critiqued such thinking as “Panglossian,” or blindly optimistic without regard to the evidence. Others have said biodiversity plays precisely the opposite role, encouraging disease. “The emergence of Lyme disease had to do with reforestation and increased biodiversity,” counters Durland Fish, professor emeritus of epidemiology at Yale University, who studies vector-borne pathogens and disease ecology. Just look at the Amazon, he says, one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, yet a hotbed of pathogens. “At the beginning of the 20th century, there were no deer in the northeast….No deer, no ticks, no Lyme disease.” The deer arrived with reforestation in suburban areas, he says.
Did the Lyme plague spare us this year? It’s still too early to say. Thomas Daniels, director of Fordham University’s Louis Calder Center in Armonk, New York, who has been counting ticks in Westchester for decades, says it has so far been a pretty average year. “High tick numbers lead to more bites, more bites result in more [Lyme disease] cases, but as you can imagine, many things can influence that in a given year: weather, knowledge of ticks and Lyme risk, likelihood of taking personal protection measures, amount of time spent in tick habitat,” he wrote in an email. “We’re actually analyzing our data set to better understand the system we have, but, in general, we haven’t seen a steady increase in nymphal numbers over the years. Variation from one year to the next is the norm.”
Friday, September 22, 2017
Every time I say I can’t make it easier to participate in Digipo, I find a way to make it easier.
The current process involves no skills greater than knowing how to work a word processor, and (more importantly) allows students to participate anonymously if they wish, without having to sign up for Google accounts or have edits tracked under pseudonyms. We accomplish this through a Microsoft Word template and by submitting the files into public domain.
You can of course use a more complex process, sign your name to the article, and use Google Docs as your central tool. Depending on your needs and skill level you may want to do that. It’s just not required anymore.
Here’s the steps.
- Read (at least some) of the book.
- Pick a question to investigate from our list of 300+ questions, or make up your own.
- Have your students download this Microsoft Word template that guides them through an investigation of a question. Apply the skills from the book.
- Do whatever sort of grading, assessment, or feedback you want.
- Take student reports where the students have agreed to submit them into public domain, and zip up the word documents. Mail them to email@example.com. Make sure you introduce who you are, what the class is about, and a bit about your experience as I do not open zip files from random people. Also give me a blurb about how your class would like to be identified on the site (they have the option of remaining anonymous too). For verification purposes, send it from your university account. I may email back to verify.
- I’ll put them on the Digipo site in a subdirectory with a bit about your class and give you a password that allows them to edit online going forward.
- At a later point we’ll assemble a small panel of professors who will go through the student work and choose ones to “promote” to the main directory based on quality. The key question reviewers will ask is whether the document provides better information than at least one of the top ten Google results for the question.
Thursday, September 07, 2017
For example, you can now buy “premium” water that’s not only free of GMOs and gluten but certified kosher and organic. Never mind that not a single drop of water anywhere contains either property or is altered in any way by those designations.
While some labels provide useful information that is not readily detectable by consumers, others contain misleading claims that exploit a knowledge gap with consumers and take advantage of their willingness to pay a premium for so-called process labels. For example, details on a product’s country of origin are helpful; labeling a bottle of water “gluten free” and “non-GMO” much less so.
In my experience as a food economist, such “fake transparency” does nothing to inform consumers about the nature of their foods. Moreover, it can actually decrease well-being when accompanied by a higher price tag. A new labeling law set to take effect next year will only make matters worse.A side-by-side comparison shows the differences between old and new food Nutrition Facts labels after changes were made earlier this year. Food and Drug Administration via AP
Brief history of food labels
Until the late 1960s, consumers knew very little about the nutritional content of the prepared foods they purchased.
The dramatic growth in processed foods changed this and led to a system of voluntary and mandatory nutrition labeling in the early ‘70s. As we learned more about the relationship between diet and health, Congress sought to provide consumers more information by passing the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which gave the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to require companies to list certain nutrients and other details on food packages.
Since then, food labeling has only gotten wilder. Some labels, such as “organic,” follow strict federal guidelines, while others aren’t regulated, such as “natural.” Eggs might come from chickens that are “cage-free” (which isn’t regulated) or “free range” (which is), while your milk could come from cows that are “grass-fed” (no standard) or “hormone-free” (requires verification).
These labels are largely the result of the consumer desire to know more about the way food is produced – and the willingness to pay more for the claims, spurious or not.Healthier internet? Mr. Gray
Characteristics of a product
To understand how all this labeling drives consumer behavior, let’s turn to economics.
The economist Kevin Lancaster hypothesized that consumers derive happiness not from a product they might buy but from its characteristics.
For example, when purchasing a car, it’s the characteristics – color, brand, size, price or fuel efficiency – that make you want to buy it. Browsing online even allows us to refine searches by these characteristics. Some of these characteristics, such as size and color, are visible and verifiable to they eye before purchase, while others, like a car’s fuel efficiency, can’t be confirmed until you sign on the dotted line and collect the keys.
In other words, the company knows more about the car than you do, something economists call asymmetric information. Economist George Akerlof won a Nobel Prize for his work on asymmetric information and how it leads to terrible market outcomes.
Similarly, food has characteristics that can be observed only after purchase. You can pick up an apple and see whether it has any blemishes, but you don’t really know how it will taste, and you cannot know how many calories it has even after consumption. That’s where food labels can help.
Exploiting the knowledge gap
Unfortunately, the problem of asymmetric information can never be eliminated entirely, and consumers may never have as much knowledge as they’d like when making purchases.
Mandated labeling has helped narrow this gap, particularly when the additional information increases consumer well-being, such as knowledge that a food contains 160 calories or 60 percent of the recommended daily does of vitamin C.
Some companies, however, use food labels to exploit this knowledge gap by preying on consumer concerns about a certain ingredient or process in order to collect a premium or increase market share. One of the ways they do this is by providing fake transparency through so-called absence labels (like “does not contain”), which are increasingly found on products that could not possibly have the ingredient in the first place.
While the water example I mentioned earlier is the most clear-cut illustration of this, others only require a bit more knowledge to see that they don’t serve a purpose. Since federal regulation requires that hormones not be used in pork or poultry, advertising a chicken breast as “hormone-free” doesn’t make sense – yet doing so allows a company to charge more or help its products stand out from the less-labeled competition.
The FDA allows a business to use the phrase as long as the label also notes that “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”
A new law that makes GMO labeling of some foods mandatory will likely compound these problems once it takes effect in the summer of 2018.
To understand why, let’s return to asymmetric information and a related economic theory called the signaling effect. A signaling effect occurs when a buyer receives an implicit message from an explicit cue. For example, a food labeled “low sodium” may implicitly communicate that salt should be avoided. When the government is involved in the signaling effect, such as when a label is mandatory, the impact tends to become stronger.
Thus the new GMO labeling law is bound to signal to consumers that bioengineered foods are somehow bad. While some countries have banned the use of GMOs, such as in Europe, the FDA has said that “credible evidence has demonstrated that foods from the GE plant varieties marketed to date are as safe as comparable, non-GE foods.”
As a result of the new law, companies selling products without GMOs will likely slap “GMO free” on the label even though the law doesn’t apply to those foods.
My worry is that consumers will become ever more mystified as more businesses make increasingly absurd claims on their labels so that their products stand out from the competition in the grocery store aisle. I expect that the only thing consumers will get in return for these “fake transparency” labels is a higher price tag.
Brandon McFadden expects to soon join Monsanto's Sustainability Advisory Council as a paid consultant.
Monday, August 14, 2017
Once upon a time I had a vision in my head of what being an author was like.
I imagined that I would wake up at the crack of noon, and I would roll out of bed and then ruminate on the complexities of the past, the present, the future. I would Think Very Hard about Big Ideas, and then I would go to the fertile garden of my word processor and gaze upon the word-seeds I had left the day before, and there, they would bloom, carrying forth the fruit of my Big Ideas — fruit that whose skin would rupture and it would leak the sweet juices of my Pure Nourishing Genius across the page.
Then I wrote a story longer than 2,000 words and became immediately divested of this bullshit notion. To clarify, I don’t mean that writing is not about big ideas, or that storytelling is not a conveyance and mechanism for those ideas, but rather, that in the day-to-day, this isn’t what writing or storytelling is about.
No, it’s about resource management.
Like, we’ve all had jobs. Regular, normal-ass jobs. (Or normal ass-jobs? Hm.) Jobs where you juggle tasks and complete them on time. Jobs where you have to keep track of random shit and make sure some kind of process or production stays orderly. Maybe you put things into a spreadsheet or you arrange widgets and dongles or you make sandwiches as a sandwich artisan.
All good. All normal. No shame in dongle-sandwich management.
Life, too, is this way — my adult life is constantly about managing things. Am I wearing pants? Am I where I’m supposed to be? Have I put food in my body? Where are my pants again? Having a child only increased this, because suddenly I’m worry about a tinier, less-responsible version of me. Is he eating food? Is he eating the right kind of food? Am I committing to his physical, emotional and intellectual nourishment? Where is he? Right now, seriously, where is he? Is he under the couch? He might be under the couch. He might be in the ducts, like John McClane. Did he poop today? This is legitimately a thing you have to think about with kids. Their poop. Did they do it? Did it look okay? Are you feeding them the right amount of poop fuel and is it resulting in proper poopification? You just don’t know. But you always have to check.
Job, life, it’s all resource management. Hell, even video games are like this. Wandering around Mass Effect is a constant act of, “Well, I found another pair of space pants, what do I do with these? I found seven Krogan whatchamafuckits, will I use them to upgrade my sniper rifle or will I spend them for research points in order to build space toilets on this disreputable planet I found, or maybe I’ll just sell them for space drugs.”
Storytelling, I had hoped was different.
Spoiler warning: it ain’t that different.
Writing a story is often just an act of resource management.
What I mean is this:
I am often forced to be focused on basic logistics for a story. My questions are ceaselessly dull. Where are the characters? Can they have gotten there in that time frame? Wait, have they slept? What are they holding? Could they have that? Wait, does that character know enough about that thing to accurately speak about it? What’s today’s date? When is it? Where am I? Where are the characters’ pants? Are they space pants? Do they need seven whatchamafuckits to defeat the seller of space drugs? Did the characters poop today?
Worse, the writing itself is subject to resource management: did I use that word too many times? Should this chapter follow that chapter? Is there a jump in time that will help? Am I establishing a good rhythm, with differently-sized sentences and paragraphs nestled up against one another? Am I breaking this chapter up, or leaving it long, or what? Do I need more space drugs? ARE MY WORDS TOTAL POOP TODAY?
Storytelling has its own abstract resources, too. You want tension, but you don’t want too much of it — overuse it, and it becomes overwrought, listless, expected. Conflict can’t just be one thing, it needs to come in a rainbow of fucking flavors. You never want just one plot, you need multiple plots, driven by stories, circumstances, conflicts creating conflicts, scenes creating scenes. It all has to flow together. It has to have a narrative rhythm just as your words need a rhythm of language. More resources, more management, and more poop, probably, I dunno.
I note this for a few reasons.
First, because it was on my mind and what’s on my mind often gets frothily reduced, like a fine sauce, on this here blog.
Second, because I think it’s important to hold minimal illusions about what the day-to-day job entails, and sometimes this job entails not merely herding cats but rather, WRESTLING MANY HERDS OF THE AFOREMENTIONED CATS, meaning, it requires juggling lots of internal narrative data. We often see writing and story spoken of in this high-minded and occasionally impractical way, but that’s rarely what really goes into the nitty-gritty of it.
Third, because I think maybe a lot of big Hollywood films have actively lost sight of this kind of important resource management, and they treat the narrative resources cheaply to score a lazy impact — so sad when I watch big movies and find a hundred different plotholes or worse, aren’t sure how a thing is actually happening, all because I think the storytellers forgot to track the narrative data. They become so consumed with spectacle that they fail to remember how things need to actually make sense at the most basic level. Storytelling can be about pomp and circumstance, but the moment we stop believing in the basic reality of it is the moment all the pomp and circumstance deflate like a sad erection.
Fourth and finally because you do still need to transcend this — you’re managing resources but at the end of the day, a story isn’t a spreadsheet, it isn’t logistics, it’s something grander, greater, squirmier, stranger. You must get the data and details right, you must force it to make sense, and then you go beyond it. Only when your ducks are in their proverbial row do you transcend those details and find a way to arrange everything for maximum emotional or thematic impact.
But it’s okay that in the trenches, it’s about crude logic and basic arrangement.
Let that be okay.
Don’t sweat it.
Get it right, then go bigger.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to find my pants and go buy more space drugs.
* * *
DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative
by Chuck Wendig, from Writer’s Digest, October 17th
A new writing/storytelling book by yours truly! All about the fiddly bits of storytelling — creating great characters, growing narrative organically, identifying and creating theme. Hope you dig it.