Category Archives: Social issues ( be civil ! )

Is a sea change taking place at the New York Times ?

The little kid started crying as I approached him with the syringe filled with yellow fluid. He knew that after he was held down and I injected him he would be violently sick and vomit repeatedly.

It was 1964 and this happened at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and the kid had acute lymphatic leukemia, and the syringe was full of methotrexate, the antifolate drug in use at the time. I was a third year med student. Although Stanley Milgram had begun his “Obedience to Authority” experiments in 1961, I was hardly a happy or willing participant in the proceedings. I had nightmares about it.

Like all the kids with leukemia at CHOP, the little boy was part of a ‘study’ run by an oncologist, with an accent right out of Boris Karloff. I thought he was a monster. He was so happy that the kids in his branch of the study survived a horrible 21 months, vs. the previous record of 18. I thought that the kids were being kept alive and suffering when they shouldn’t have been, in order to set a new survival record. The study randomized the kids between the new regimen and the current regimen showing the best survival.

Well, I was terribly wrong, and the oncologist was a hero not a monster. Presently the cure rate (not survival) of childhood leukemia is over 90%. We now worry about the long term side effects of the drugs (and radiation) used to cure it — cognitive problems, fertility problems. It was precisely because the new treatment was compared to the best previous treatment that we are where we are today.

What in the world does this have to do with the New York Times?

Simply this, on Monday 21 April the front page of the New York Times contained an article title “50 Years Later, Hardship Hits Back, Poorest Counties Are Still Losing in War on Want”. They don’t call it the “War on Poverty” until the 5th paragraph. Nonetheless, the article (without explicitly saying so) documents just what a failure it has been. Nowhere in the article, is there any mention of why it failed, but it’s clear that only more of the same has been tried — more food stamps, more medicaid, more free school lunches, etc. etc. It is claimed in the article that this lifted tens of thousands above a subsistence standard of living, yet 15% of the populace is still living in poverty and 47/300 million of us are on food stamps.

At least the Times is no longer pretending that the War on Poverty (started in 1964 when I was pushing methotrexate) is a success.

Another sign of a sea change at the Times appeared the day before on the Op-Ed page in an article titled “From Rags to Riches to Rags” in which the notion of a static top 1% in income was debunked. A study of 44 years of longitudinal data of people from 25 to 60 showed that 12% of all of them would be in the top 1% of income for at least one year, and that 39% will be in the top 5% of income for at least 1 year.

A third appeared on the 22nd in a front page article concerning a near lynching by Blacks in Detroit of a white man who hit a child with his car.

In recent years, I’ve thought that I’ve had to read the Times much as the Russians read Pravda during cold war I (and perhaps today). A friend has called it ‘advocacy driven journalism’. Perhaps there will be a shift in orientation from left to right, but, even so, I’m not a fan of having articles #1 and #3 any place other than Op – Ed page. They really aren’t news. That’s what the opinion page is for — opinion, background.

80+ years ago my future parents discovered that one of the first things they had in common was that they both read the Times. I grew up with it, and hopefully it will become a great newspaper again.

The failure to try anything new against poverty is a manifestation of the arrogance of the intelligent, about which there will be another post.

At the Alumni Day

‘It’s Complicated’. No this isn’t about the movie where Meryl Streep made a feeble attempt to be a porn star. It’s what I heard from a bunch of Harvard PhD physicists who had listened to John Kovac talk about the BICEP2 experiment a day earlier. I had figured as a humble chemist that if anyone would understand why polarized light from the Cosmic Background Radiation would occur in pinwheels they would. But all the ones I talked to admitted that they didn’t.

The experiment is huge for physics and several articles explain why this is so [ Science vol. 343 pp. 1296 - 1297m vol. 344 pp. 19 - 20 '14, Nature vol. 507 pp. 281 - 283 '14 ]. BICEP2 provided strong evidence for gravitational waves, cosmic inflation, and the existence of a quantum theory of gravity (assuming it holds up and something called SPIDER confirms it next year). The nice thing about the experiment is that it found something predicted by theory years ago. This is the way Science is supposed to operate. Contrast this with the climate models which have been totally unable to predict the more than decade of unchanged mean global temperature that we are currently experiencing.

Well we know gravity can affect light — this was the spectacular experimental conformation of General Relativity by Eddington nearly a century ago. But how quantum fluctuations in the gravitational field lead to gravitational waves, and how these waves lead to the polarization of the background electromagnetic radiation occurring in pinwheels is a mystery to me and a bunch of physicists had more high powered than I’ll ever be. If someone can explain this, please write a comment. The articles cited above are very good to explain context and significance, but they don’t even try to explain why the data looks the way it does.

The opening talk was about terrorism, and what had been learned about it by studying worldwide governmental responses to a variety of terrorist organizations (Baader Meinhof, Shining Path, Red Brigades). The speaker thought our response to 9/11 was irrational — refusing to fly when driving is clearly more dangerous etc. etc. It was the typical arrogance of the intelligent, who cannot comprehend why everyone does not think the way they do.

I thought it was remarkable that a sociologist would essentially deprecate the way people think about risk. I’m sure that many in the room were against any form of nuclear power, despite its safety compared to everything else and absent carbon footprint.

Addendum 7 April — The comment by Handles and link he provided is quite helpful, although I still don’t understand it as well as I’d like. Here’s the link

The Ukraine

“Are you Russian?” I asked (age 10) on meeting the formidable Dr. Antyn Rudnytsky, my future piano teacher for the first time. I then received a frightening, lengthy and intense lecture concerning the difference between Ukranians such as himself and Russians (gangsters as he called them).

What he was doing on a chicken farm in southern New Jersey in the late 40′s is quite a story. I was incredibly fortunate to have been taught by an individual of his caliber, and at amateur chamber music festivals, usually someone asks me where I’d studied. I was extremely well taught, and I spent my senior year in high school studying just the first movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto.

I have no way of checking the accuracy of all of this, but this is what I heard about him. He had a PhD in music and had studied Piano under Artur Schnabel. He was, at one point conductor of the Ukranian State Orchestra, and didn’t like the way a particular violinist played and chewed him out. The violinist denounced him to his party cell, and Dr. Rudnytsky saw his name in the paper as Mr. Rudnitsky (not Comrade Rudnytsky or even Dr. Rudnytsky). He got out and came to the USA. It took him several years to get his wife (an opera singer) and his two boys out of the Ukraine.

He never quite adjusted to the USA, speaking of how people would wait for hours in the snow to go a great concert back there and how little respect classical music had in the USA. What really must have torn him up was seeing one son (Dorian) go to Julliard, and found the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble in the 60′s where he played cello along with two guitars and a clarinet. Leonard Bernstein plugged the group for a time, ignoring the father.

His other son, Roman, was very useful to me, in that he showed me what real musical talent was like, so that I didn’t get inflated ideas about my own ability (I’m a not-too-bad amateur). At age 3 he started telling his father what notes passing trains were emitting. Then when people would come over to the house for lessons, Roman would sit behind a door, and then play what they had played (without looking at any music) on the piano. Also a Julliard graduate.

Addendum 4 Mar ’14 — I sent a copy of this post to both sons — Roman and Dorian, and almost immediately got back a nice note from Roman. Just Google him (Roman Rudnytsky) for some of his U-Tubes etc. He said that everything I remembered about his father and his history was ‘spot on’.

One more Ukrainian bit before moving on to the present. In the 80s a newly arrived Ukranian lady was interviewed by the local paper in upstate NY. When asked what she liked about the US, she mentioned having people over to her house for prayer without having to draw the shades.

So now Russia has invaded the Crimea again, and Europe is reduced to making a few noises. Since they spend about 20% as much as the USA on defense, it’s about all they can do (but look at the great social services they have — they won’t be much help if Russia moves west again).

Another even more disturbing point, is that we talked Ukraine into giving up its nuclear weapons. In June 1996 they transferred all 1,900 of their nuclear weapons to Russia. It is very doubtful that Russia would have invaded, had the Ukraine retained them. It is even more doubtful, that any country with nuclear weapons will ever again voluntarily give them up. It is also quite likely that many small countries without them will try to go nuclear. The world has just become a much more dangerous place.

On the bright side, Europeans can now put their large numbers of unemployed youth into their armies, solving at least one problem.

The Silence of the Times

This just in — Ramallah occupied territories — Israeli Defense Forces killed 3 students protesting the occupation.

Don’t you think this would be on the front page of the New York Times, The Washington Post, all over CNN and MSNBC.

On 13 Feb the Times noted that 2 students protesting in Venezuela had been killed (3 actually). Absolutely nothing further about it, or the protests. Nothing to see here. Move on sayeth the NYT and the Boston Globe as far as I can tell.

They like to think of themselves as the fearless, investigative press.

Count Floyd rides again

We were fortunate to live close enough to Canada in the ’80′s that we could watch SCTV each week, a 90 minute mockery of Canadian TV put on by Second City, Toronto contingent. They were an incredibly talented bunch — John Candy, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis, Howard Ramis, Martin Short. One character was Count Floyd (Joe Flaherty), the host of Monster Chiller Horror Theater. Dressed like a vampire from Transylvania, he would howl, look at the camera and say ‘scary kids, scary’. The films were invariably terrible and not scary, so the Count was reduced to saying things like “Vow, kids…vasn’t it SCARY vhen the vaitress put ketchup on those french fries?”

Which brings us to the predictions about the late hurricane season– As late as early August, when very little had happened (see the previous link) NOAA was predicting an above average Hurricane season — Scary kids, scary

Well, we know what happened. A better way to measure how severe a hurricane season actually was, is something called ACE (Accumulated Cyclonic Energy). It essentially multiplies the the square of the maximum wind speed of hurricanes and tropical storms by the time the storm stays strong. (Why the square? Answer at the end). It’s a much better indicator of seasonal strength than the number of named storms, which are gamed to make the predicted numbers. Several tropical storms this year lasted less than a day with wind speeds under 45 miles an hour.

The ACE this year was the 6th lowest (35) since 1951. The range is 17 to 250, and the median is in the 90s.

It’s been a bad year for the Climate Change crowd. Global mean temperature has now entered its 18th year without any increase. So what used to be called Global Warming has been rebranded as Climate Change.

Even worse, a recent event could have been scripted by the Onion: “Ship carrying Climate Scientists to Antarctica to Publicize Sea Ice loss due to Global Warming trapped in Sea Ice. Rescue by helicopter is Planned.” I’m not making this up.

Addendum 3 Jan ’14 — Now the Chinese Icebreaker to which the climate scientists were brought by helicopter is also stuck in the ice. Life imitates the Onion. Al Gore — call your office.

Addendum 4 Jan ’14 — Clearly the affair was partly (or entirely) a publicity stunt as reporters from the BBC and the Guardian were members of the expedition. Fox News apparently wasn’t invited.

Addendum 5 Jan ’14 — A picture is shown of a Green Party Senator elect in Australia doing calisthenics on board the Russian ship. Certainly, all scientific expeditions must have a politician of the Green persuasion on board — in order to be free of any sort of bias.

Addendum 7 Jan ’14 — The Times covered the event quite fairly in today’s Science section. They say the ship was ‘carrying scientists and adventure tourists’– no mention of the press or the Green senator from Australia. Skeptics are quoted fairly ‘they pointed out that a group whose journey was meant to highlight the effects of global warming was trapped by a substance that was supposed to be melting’ All this in the first paragraph, not buried later on.

Then lots of technical detail was added, in particular that comparing the two poles is really comparing apples and oranges — the North pole being open ocean surrounded by land while the South pole is land surrounded by open ocean. They do note that Antarctic ice is increasing in some areas and decreasing in others, but the net increase is 1%/decade. No figures are given for the % of Arctic ice loss.

Here’s a link from Guardian Look at the figure showing the extent of ice for each month and its standard deviation over a 30 year period. The maximum extent occurs in March and the standard deviation range is between 14.5 and 16 for the past few 30 years. The minimum extent occurs in September and ranges between 5 and 8 — 2012 was a record low. This year will come in (according to their chart) at the low end of the range (but within it). So it doesn’t look as though maximum Arctic sea ice extent has budged in the past 30 years. The September range has always been twice that of the the March range. Whether this is cherry picking the data I leave up to you.

The question could easily be settled, and hopefully someone has done it, simply by integrating the area under the curve for each year and plotting the results vs the year. A trend should be obvious.

Addendum 8 Jan ’14 — The leader of the expedition (Chris Turney) was given space to defend its purpose in the current Nature vol. 505 p. 133 ’14. The 19 comments so far are brutal. Have fun.

Closer to home, after seeing a movie the day after Christmas, we went to a bar for some food. Playing on the zillions of flat screens (they must be pretty cheap now) was something called the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsetta Bowl. I’m not making this up either.

The wind velocity is squared because kinetic energy is mass times velocity squared.

The New York Times to the Rescue

New York Times, we have a problem.

This is the New York Times, say again please.

New York Times, a former governor was caught with his pants down once again, and the mayor-elect’s daughter admitted that she’s a boozer and a druggie.

That’s terrible! What can we do to help?

Both Democrats, both endorsed by the NYT. The Daily News and the Post are sure to make a big deal of it

Any suggestions?

In times of past liberal agenda stress, you used to trot out an article about Nixon, a reliable old villain if there ever was one. But that was so long ago that even the thirtysomethings don’t know who he is.

Well, we can bury those stories in the New York section. Spitzer is basically old news, as he’s done this so many times. The daughter merits a bigger story. We can always write about how brave she is, coming out and all, during the lead.

We still need a villain.

The tea party won’t do, they’re more a collection of the disgruntled than a single figure.

How about Christie?

Christie? What’s he done?

Well, nothing actually. But our people don’t like him, and there still might be a few Democrats over there to say how terrible he is.

Dunno, he won big, and in a very Blue state. He might even run for President in ’16. A negative article about him would be useful to the cause.

And so it came to pass on Christmas Day Anno Domini 2013 that Spitzer’s divorce got 6 column inches of coverage on page 19. The daughter’s story got thirty-nine column inches and two photos on pages 17 and 19. On the front page, the New York Times ran the following headline: “Stories Add Up As Bully Image Trails Christie,” devoting thirty-six column inches and a photograph to it.

They still call themselves a newspaper.

Hitler’s gifts (and Russia’s gift)

In the summer of 1984 Barack Obama was at Harvard Law, his future wife was a Princeton undergraduate, and Edward Frenkel a 16 year old mathematical prodigy was being examined for admission to Moscow State University. He didn’t get in because he was Jewish. His blow by blow description of the 5 hour exam on pp. 28 – 38 of his book “Love & Math” is as painful to read as it must have been for him to write.

A year earlier the left in Europe had mobilized against the placement of Pershing missiles in Europe by president Reagan, already known there as a crude and witless former actor, but, unfortunately possessed of nuclear weapons. Tens of thousands marched. He had even called the Soviet Union an Evil Empire that year. Leftists the world over were outraged. How unsophisticated to even admit the possibility of evil. Articles such as “Reagan’s image in Europe does not help Allies in deploying American missiles” appeared in the liberal press.

The hatred of America is nothing new for the left.

Reset the clock to ’60 – ’62 when I was a grad student in the Harvard Chemistry department. The best place to meet women was the International house. It had a piano, and a Polish guy who played Chopin better than I did. It had a ping pong table, and another Polish guy who beat me regularly. The zeitgeist at Harvard back then, was that America was rather crude (the Ugly American was quite popular), boorish and unappreciative of the arts, culture etc. etc.

One woman I met was going on and on about this, particularly the condition of the artist in America, and how much better things were in Europe. I brought up Solzhenitzen, and the imprisonment of dissidents over there. Without missing a beat, she replied that this just showed how important the Russian government thought writers and artists were. This was long before Vietnam.

It was definitely a Saul on the road to Damascus moment for me. When the left began spelling America, Amerika in the 60s and 70s, I just ignored it.

Fast forward to this fall, and the Nobels. The 7th Chemistry Nobel bestowed on a department member when I was there went to Marty Karplus. The others were Woodward, Corey, Lipscomb, Gilbert, Hoffman, Bloch. While Bill Lipscomb was a Kentucky gentleman to a T (and a great guy), Hoffman spent World War II hiding out in an attic, his father being in a concentration camp (guess why). Konrad Bloch (who looked as teutonic as they come) also got out of Europe due to his birth. Lastly Karplus got out of Euruope as a child for the same reason. Don Voet, a fellow grad student, whose parents got out of Europe for (I’ll make you guess), used to say that the Universal Scientific Language was — broken English.

So 3/7 of the Harvard Chemistry Nobels are Hitler and Europe’s gifts to America.

Russia, not to be outdone, gave us Frenkel. Harvard recognized his talent, and made him a visiting professorship at age 21, later enrolling him in grad school so he could get a PhD. He’s now a Stanford prof.

So the next time, someone touts the “European model” of anything, ask them about Kosovo, or any of this.

Those of you in training should consider the following. You really won’t know how good what you are getting really is until 50 years or so have passed. That’s not to say Harvard Chemistry’s reputation wasn’t very good back then. Schleyer said ‘now you’re going to Mecca’ when he heard I’d gotten in.

Also to be noted, is that all 7 future Nobelists in the early 60s weren’t resting on their laurels, but actively creating them. The Nobels all came later

A new parameter for ladies to measure before choosing a mate — testicular volume

I’m amazed that they actually did this work [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 110 pp. 15746 - 15751 '13 ] but they did. From Atlanta Georgia, the home of the Southern Gentleman. You do have to wonder what sort of wimps would permit this type of work. 70 such individuals were found, still cohabiting with the mother. Clearly a skewed distribution as 65/70 were actually married. No mention of any effect of the sex of the offspring on what they found.

Here’s what they did

Testosterone levels and testicular volume predicted how much parenting a male actually did (based on self-reports from the two parents). Functional MRI on viewing a picture of the offspring also predicted the degree of male parenting.

So which way do you think it went?

The bigger the testicles and the higher the testosterone, the less parenting the father did. Similarly the less activation of one area of the brain in response to a picture of their chile, the less parenting.

So ladies, you may get a macho dude for a mate, but don’t expect much help.

The short (but useful) life of Gabrielle

In an appalling use of the definition of Tropical Storm we now have Gabrielle. Recall that to be a Tropical Storm winds must exceed 38 mph. Many such storms were predicted, and like a high school wrestler taking diuretics and laxatives to make weight Tropical Storm Gabrielle was born today between 000 and 300 Greenwich Mean time. Winds have been no higher than 40 miles/hour, until its demise today between 1200 – 1500 GMT when its winds sunk to 35 mph and it became a Tropical Depression. It is about to cross over the island of Hispaniola (fortunately not its Haitian western end). It lasted about as long as Tropical Storm #6 Fernand.

At least they are not calling it a Tropical Cyclone, which they did in previous years, linguistically correct but semantically confusing it with the much worse Cyclones in the Pacific (which have a different definition).

It’s one way to make what increasingly appears to be a defective model work. For more details see —

Addendum 10 Sep ’13 — Gabrielle has strengthened in the past few hours, and is now a tropical storm again, with winds 2 mph over the minimum. I’m surprised they didn’t rename it so they could count it twice.

Where are the Hurricanes — 2013 Edition

When Sandy hit last year, the air was filled with dire predictions that this was just the start, and that global warming (which seems to have morphed into climate change, since although among the hottest on record, there has been no INcrease in global temperature in the past 16 years) was at it’s root.

So you can have it both ways — it’s hot, but it also isn’t getting warmer. [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 108 pp. 11790 - 11793 '11 ] “Data for global surface temperature indicate little warming between 1998 and 2008. Furthermore, global surface temperature declined .2 C between 20005 and 2008.”

More to the point an article in Science 2 October ’09 pp. 28 – 29 (sorry I don’t have the volume number — it should be 326 if my calculations are right) noted this. The most interesting part was the response of the climate modelers, who reran their simulations 10 times for a total of 700 years, and found 17 episodes of stagnating temperature lasting a decade or more. The longest period of stagnation was 15 years, and I think we’re now at 16 years. The modelers would have had more credibility if they’d published this when their models first came out.

I’m not sure if they’ve run the models again to find periods of stasis longer than 15 years. They should.

Update 30 Aug ’13 — The hiatus in warming is quite real, and this week Nature published a paper online trying to figure out why this might be so. It has to do with La Nina. All very lovely, but this mechanism wasn’t contained in the model, so why should we trust it. Here’s the link — The editorial [ Nature vol. 500 p. 501 '13 ] says “Although a prolonged hiatus in warming does not necessarily contradict prevailing theory, this one came as a surprise” — I’ll say.

Which brings us to the current hurricane season. There haven’t been any, and none are in sight. Historically mid August to mid September is the time of greatest likelihood of hurricanes. The graph of hurricane likelihood peaks sharply here– see this link On 25 August we’re nearly at the top of the curve.

What we’ve had so far are a bunch of very piddling tropical storms. They are defined has having winds of from 39 to 73 miles an hour — more than that is a Hurricane. We’ve had 5 complete tropical storms — here are their durations in days — 2, 1, 3, 3, 2, and their peak winds 55, 40, 55, 50, 35, 40. Less than impressive. Not even close to hurricane force.

Fernand (tropical storm #6 was born today 25 August 5PM), and I doubt it will last long, as it’s about to make landfall in Mexico. (Update 26 August 8:30 AM — Fernand we hardly knew ye. Downgraded to a tropical depression presently — maximum winds 35 mph, barely over 12 hours after being upgraded from same. Just like a teenaged wrestler taking diuretics and dieting to make weight, the people deciding what is and what isn’t a tropical storm, will count Fernand as a tropical storm so their predictions will work out just the way they want.)

So we’ve had predictions of more frequent and more violent hurricanes, and of continued rises in global temperature — neither of which have happened (this year for hurricanes and the past 15 – 16 years for global temperature).

Let’s assume that we have no hurricanes at all this year, and a few more of the piddly tropical storms we’ve seen so far. They fit the definition, but are unimpressive. The average northeaster on the Jersey coast is worse. Also, if anyone knows, how long does the wind have to be above 38 miles an hour for something to be called a tropical storm? I can’t seem to find this anywhere.

A variety of responses are possible. The most scientific would be to re-evaluate the models, or run them for longer periods, to see just how likely such behavior actually is (e.g. could the models even predict it).

The absolute worst would be to explain the absence of the hurricanes by global warming. This would make global warming what Karl Popper called an unfalsifiable theory, something inherently not scientific. A theory that can explain everything, explains nothing. Ditto for a theory that makes an incorrect prediction, doubles back and predicts the opposite.

As Neils Bohr said “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”


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