Tuesday, May 31, 2005

N. Korean economic growth tops France, Germany

Clash of the state-controlled economies: North Korea achieved 2.2% economic growth last year as estimated by the Bank of Korea, likely due to planting a few extra handfuls of seed.

In contrast, France eked out a 2.1% growth rate (expected to fall to about 1.6% this year).

Germany struggled through a dismal 2004, racking up a mere 1.4% GDP gain.

End of gratuitous "Old Europe" bashing.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Frenchman to control WTO. Justice and Objectivity surrender.

UDATE: I wrote this last night when both sides were making noise about reopening their respective cases. I didn't expect the US to go back to the WTO until a couple of weeks had passed. Nice to see the administration is getting tough with the EU in its negotiation strategy.

Pascal Lamy (Nosferatu incarnate--look at the accompanying picture) set to take over the WTO in September, the US needs to get off the pot and take their complaint against Airbus to the world body, pronto.

Lamy was once head of Credit Lyonais, and more recently the EU's trade representative. He is on the record as saying that he regards realigning the international trading system in favour of the world's least developed countries as a priority.

This means that following France's rejection of the EU constitution, he will need to spend a considerable amount of time rescuing France from third world economic status if
French doomsayers are correct.

I noted in an
earlier post that Airbus is asking its government backers to subsidize the A350, a direct competitor to Boeing's 787 Dreamliner. The US needs to begin playing hardball with the recalcitrant Airbus. Europe is offering to cut its proposed subsidy, but only by 30%. They also threaten to haul the US before the WTO over Boeing subsidies if the talks fail.

Reading between the lines: the EU know they have a weak case. They also know that neither side wants to actually have to go before the WTO. However, because Airbus is a showcase European project, Europe will be loathe to let it lose ground to Boeing. So the EU will give up just enough to avoid a legal fight. If negotiations fail though, they have Lamy ready step in at the WTO--which must be worth at least some negotiating points, as the concept of recusal must be utterly foreign to him.

France is adept at manipulating international bodies in order to benefit politically or financially. They succeeded brilliantly here in placing their man at the WTO. Aside from fighting France's and Europe's corner, I expect him to pressure the WTO to work closely with French client states in Africa.

France: dead nation walking

France has rejected the EU constitution; the large turnout has sent shockwaves through Europe. What this means for Europe in the short and long term is for the pundits to discuss (I suspect most don't know what to expect). Certainly, the Swiss press is pretty gloomy.

UPDATE: American Future has reaction from a ton of newspapers (in fact, just go to his main page after following my trackback, he has an incredible set of links and extracts set up). The Beeb offers snippets from French, European press.

Whatever this means for Europe as a unit, it is clear that France has some serious political debate in front of it. French voters appear to voted based on fear of change. Fair enough; in times of turmoil, people often turn reactionary. In this case however, the turmoil is economic, and no matter how hard the French cling to their economic system, they will be overwhelmed by Eastern Europe and Asia if they don't soon liberalize their comfy labor markets. Flexibility is called for, but France and Germany have resisted change--and both are suffering high unemployment and low growth as a result.

Many pundits are saying that the vote has little to do with the merits of the constitution iteself. Leftists are said to have voted no because it wasn't socialist/protectionist enough, while Rightists reportedly voted out of fear of immigration/expansion. In any case, the scramble to profit politically is underway. Populist idiots like Bove and Le Pen will have a field day. Meanwhile, Chirac is busy being pummelled, even by his own party.

Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac's chief rival in his own camp, used the result effectively to attack the president, demanding a break with the government's economic and social policies. " We have to restore confidence to all who have lost it - this is the main urgency," said Sarkozy, who leads the main center-right party and has made clear his aim to succeed Chirac as president in 2007.
Biggest loser in this vote may turn out to be Turkey. With the current EU set for a protracted period of navel gazing, chances for enlargement have gone down the tubes. To be sure, the EU is unrivalled when it comes to symbolic gestures, so Turkey may receive some reassuring words, but any meaningful discussions will be moved to a back burner.

Chirac's mug was all over newspapers and on television these past few days, pleading for support. This rejection makes him less than a lame duck, it effectively removes him from standing for another term as president. Furthermore, it means that he will spend some portion of the rest of his term attempting to immunize himself from prosecution relating to financial scams when he was mayor of Paris.

In the tradition of French presidents, Chirac must come up with some sort of monument to himself. Given that his previous attempt to position France as the leader of an effective European counterweight to the US seems to have failed, perhaps he had hoped to use the the EU--properly manipulated--as his monument. In which case he has doubly failed. It seems likely he will have to comfort himself with measures like this, at least in the short term.

I expect him to attempt some sort of end run around this vote. EU law is riddled with methods for the political elites to get their way. Some smart apparatchik will come up with a way for Chirac to get his way (most obvious: submit the constitution for another vote).

UPDATE: A transcript of Chirac's speech is here. He promises to take note of the people's vote, nothing more.

I have few nice things to say about Chirac, but I think the French nation is pretty fantastic. It has an amazingly varied countryside, the people tend to be friendly, and Paris itself is my favorite city to visit (it helps that my aunt, uncle and three cousins live there).

As an American, I confess to a measure of Schadenfreude when watching these politicians in distress, but on the whole, I hope Europeans come to the realization that their protectionist economic policies must change if they are to have any hope of competing in tomorrow's more open global economy.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: David Ignatius' column in today's WaPo ends thusly:
The French people are right to worry about the future. With their current economic structure, they'll never make it. Saying no to Chirac is understandable, but to prosper in the 21st century, the French will soon need to say yes to a politician who tells it straight, and helps them build their own bridge to the future.

(emphasis supplied) Seen in Reason Hit and Run

Friday, May 27, 2005

Readability stats for moi

On the premise of what animal isn't fascinated by a mirror, I checked my blog's readability stats.

Readability grades:

Flesch Index: 57.5
Fog Index: 13.5
SMOG-Grading: 12.0

The Flesch Index estimates the reading comprehension level necessary to understand this blog. My Flesch score is the same as TIME. Both the Fog and SMOG scores reflect the school grade readers would need in order to comprehend the text.

In addition, it notes that I employ the passive voice too much.

Lugano puts veil over Christian sites

A city in Switzerland has deleted some cultural landmarks from a tourism guide written in Arabic.

A quick comparison of the Italian, French or German versions of the Lugano tourist board’s brochure with the Arabic-language text reveals some small but highly significant differences.

In the Arabic brochure, many of Lugano’s religious, historical and cultural treasures are conspicuous by their absence.

Instead of the Cathedral of St Lawrence, and the churches of Santa Maria degli Angeli and San Rocco, there are pictures of the casino, smart shops in the Via Nassa and luxury hotels.

Even the local variety of salami (made from pork, of course) has been deleted: instead, the brochure features traditional cheeses from the Italian-speaking region.

As far as the staff at the Lugano tourist office are concerned, this was a purely "strategic" decision; the brochure in question is merely "a tool for opening up new markets"."

Our brochure would not have been distributed in the Gulf States if we had included pictures of local religious buildings," commented tourist director Marco Sorgesa.[...]

The brochure caused a good deal of controversy in the run-up to Christmas 2004, and was even debated by the city council."

Disowning religious symbols and other aspects of our society is not a way of showing respect," observed Lugano councillor Simonetta Perucchi Borsa.

And neither were representatives of the Muslim community favourably impressed by the tourist office policy.

"Islam recognises the existence of Catholicism, and Arabs expect to find churches in Europe," stated Hassan El Araby, spokesman for the Islamic community in Ticino.

I don't see the logic behind Lugano's move--although I do agree with removing pictures of pork products, no need to show things obviously distasteful to those one is trying to entice--people come to Switzerland mostly for the scenery, but when they visit cities, they like to read about the history and culture. Lugano's actions mean Arabic speaking tourists will miss much of the history of the city. Not surprising that even local Muslim groups find the idea wrong.

This action isn't the same as the sort of things one sees in Holland (removing Van Gogh's film from a festival) and other European nations, but it certainly is analoguous.

Europe seeks to adopt portions of the US research/University model

Many European research institutions are undergoing changes or being reorganized in order to better attract top researchers and students. At the moment, many of these coveted minds head to the US, notwithstanding restrictive visa policies implemented in the wake 0f September 11, 2001.

The Scientist magazine notes thast many proposed changes are designed to remake the institutions along the lines of their US counterparts.

Much of last year, for example, was devoted to a strongly felt debate about the extent to which the new European Center for Disease Prevention and Control ought to be modeled on its stateside forerunner in Atlanta. Then, this year, Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, ruffled some Euro-feathers when he suggested that the bloc should make a priority of setting up a European Institute of Technology, modeled on Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in order to "attract the brightest minds in the world."

Meanwhile, German politicians are determinedly working toward establishing an elite "Ivy League" of universities to give its seats of higher learning the same kind of clout that Harvard, Yale, and the others have achieved. And when public figures talk about the need for Europe to establish European Research Council for funding basic science, the archetype referred to is the good old US National Science Foundation.
Germany, while still possessing top flight universities, must still yearn for the glory days of a couple of centuries ago when her universities were the wonder and envy of the world.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that Europe will ever completely adopt those aspects of US universities and research institutions which make them so successful. Money for research, and the research climate will be difficult to emulate. Firstly because funding opportunities are fewer in Europe, and secondly, because European institutions lack flexibility--a major benefit, wistfully recalled by many Europeans who have worked in the US-- and because Europeans still shie away from being too much like Americans.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Medical studies I'd like to see--Part 1

By way of background: Having been the guinea pig for several of my wife's anesthesia studies (hint: excellent way to court), I have long thought that I could get some my ideas published in these sorts of publications. The holy grail being, of course, the IgNoble prize.

This will be the first of several posts on offbeat medical studies crying out for publication.

Hypothesis: People with gray hair have a higher percentage of grey hairs on the side opposite their "handedness" (i.e. left handers would have a higher percentage of gray hairs on the right side of their head).

Potential confounding factors: baldness, extreme
comb-overs, youthful volunteers.

Usefulness: shampoo advertising, otherwise none.

Chance for a grant: zero, unless a shampoo ad exec reads this. Then slightly above zero.

I still need to run a power analysis to see how many volunteers are needed, followed by a quick
literature search. Then come up with a protocol (should practically write itself), recruit some volunteers. Et voila.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Word o' the day

Today's word, actually a phrase, is: Medical Intuition

From a
practitioner's website:

Generally speaking, medical intuition is the utilization of a focused, intuitive instinct to 'diagnose' or 'read' energetic and frequency information in and around the human body. The talent to use these intuitive skills is an innate, natural phenomenon. It can be honed through persistent practice - much like any other human activity.

A person who practices this art and science is called a 'medical intuitive'.

I prefer to call them frauds.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Support the Campaign for Real Ale

The folks at Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) do yeoman work to keep traditional British drinks available to Pub goers.

Some of the things CAMRA fights for:

  • Improved competition and choice in the brewing industry
  • Seeking fuller information about the beer we drink, such as ingredients labelling
  • A fundamental reform of licensing law (for example, all day Sunday opening if the licensee wishes)
  • Encouraging brewers to produce a wide range of beer styles such as porter, mild and stout, in addition to their bitters

Their claim for Nobel recognition:

CAMRA saved real ale, it is no exaggeration to say, and as a result saved many independent breweries. No new ale breweries were set up in the UK for the fifty years before we were founded. There are now around 300 new brewers producing real ale, part of a massive real ale revival.

If that's not enough, they also campaign for full pints. Power to the people, right on!

Their website is a wonderful source of info and links to like-minded organizations in Europe.
These good folks need our support. Join CAMRA today.

P.S. They have a petition calling on Anheuser-Busch to respect the diversity of Europe's independent brewing industry and its long established beer brands. I feel a bit conflicted about posting the petition as I studied law in Anhauser-Busch Hall at Washington University in St. Louis. However, having been through the A-B brewery tour, and listened to them misrepresenting the history of the A-B name, my qualms are lessened.

Swiss cabinet to outlaw the use of English-sounding names by government departments

Following an official protest, English-sounding names are taboo in Switzerland. One guess which language the complaining MP speaks.

The move away from English-sounding names such as "fedpol" for the Federal Police, or "Swissmint" for the Federal Mint comes a few months after an official protest from a French-speaking member of parliament.Social Democrat Didier Berberat wrote an open letter to cabinet ministers last June complaining that Swiss culture was too rich to ignore. He demanded that the country’s three official languages – French, German and Italian – be given priority over English.The new rules decided by cabinet on Wednesday mean that all departments will have to ensure by the end of May that their names abide by certain rules. These names will have to be clear, logical and formulated only in the national languages.

The offending words aren't even English, just English-sounding. Chirac will be pleased with this boost to his bid for a French-led multi-polar world. But then, it's about all he can be pleased with these days.

French speakers in Switzerland seem every bit as uptight about the language as the French. They often refuse to speak German while in the German-speaking parts of the country, even though their German is often much better than other's French.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Airbus going back to the well

Quelle surprise! Freshly shazammed out of the brilliant industry-leading producer of the world's largest passanger plane, Airbus is now--hat in hand--asking its government backers to pony up again so as not to be bypassed by Boeing's 787 Dreamliner.

Airbus said Thursday that it asked four European governments for development funding for its A350 jet, designed to undercut Boeing's planned 787, aid the U.S. has threatened to challenge at the World Trade Organization[...]

The United States complains that European governments give Airbus low-interest loans to help it develop and finance new aircraft, including a planned €1.3 billion, or $1.6 billion, loan for [the] A350.[...]

This action seems to implicitly validate Boeing's strategy, as this request for money indicates plans are fairly well along for the A350.

More evidence that Liberals are often unable to conceive of negative effects from nice sounding policies

Liberals often propose fine sounding laws. Too often, however, the laws have unintended negative consequences. The latest example comes from Germany (Spiegal Online).

Germany recently began charging truck drivers higher fees to use the famed autobahns. The result:

[T]he new toll system that charges trucks driving on Germany's autobahn backfired, as cost-conscious drivers now save money by traveling on regional highways and through city streets. Suddenly cities like Hamburg are seeing their fine dust levels go through the roof as trucks steam through downtown.

Must also play hell with the life expectancy of the roads.

Bern ranks importance of learning english below french

The canton of Bern--where we live--has voted to begin teaching french in the third grade. They had the opportunity to select english, but bowed to political pressure.

I understand the need to placate the french speaking cantons that border canton Bern. But on the other hand, French efforts to promote the language notwithstanding, both the number of speakers and importance of french in the world are in decline.

At any rate, my kids will learn both in addition to german. I certainly can't complain about that. Unfortunately, the policy doesn't begin until 2011.

UPDATE: After a quick calculation, I see my youngest will enter the third grade just as the policy takes effect. Timing and foresight are my strengths.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

I came across an interesting blog last week

Big Cat Chronicles tackles--and explains many topics. BCC is knowledgeable about many subjects, and expert in quite a few. I originally discovered this excellent blog while surfing oil related sites. Foreign policy is another of the BCC's strong suits.

BCC kindly recommended my blog to its readers the other day and I am pleased to reciprocate.

Time spent there is never lost.

French vote to go down to the wire

The big guns are being wheeled out for the French referendum on the EU constitution, due in 10 days. Former president d'Estaing is out trying to reassure voters, while EU Commission head Barroso is busy scaring voters into voting yes.

Mr Giscard d'Estaing robustly defended his creation - the European constitutional treaty he spent several years negotiating. He seems to be using the Goldilocks "just right" argument:

He said the "no" campaigners in France, who are attacking the treaty, are doing so from the extremes of left and right.

He said the treaty neither hands too much power to Brussels nor threatens the French social model.

Barroso's busy playing bad cop:

A No vote in the French referendum on the EU constitution would be "bad news" for the French and European economies[...]

He said France was a central country in the European project - and without France there would not have been a European Community.

"Everyone would be looking at the result of the referendum in France - both inside and outside Europe," he said.

"If, unfortunately, there were a No vote, this would be perceived as a sign of weakness in France and Europe."

Meanwhile, three polls put the 'No' vote out in front.

My take: French voters will ratify the Constitution. Scaring people (a la Barroso) is easier than appealing to their logic; and the French, for all their wonderful schooling, tend to be somewhat illogical in their responses to political matters. Appealing to the French vanity at the same time can't hurt. The 'Yes' camp will win through.

After that comes Holland, where the 'Yes' camp also has a difficult row to hoe.

Clinton comes to Bern

I would have gone to listen to him except for three reasons: a ticket cost over $1,000; I didn't want to hear him telling me how brilliant he is; I don't think much of him personally. In any case the tickets did not all sell.

The Swiss press offer this review:
Former United States President Bill Clinton was in the Swiss capital, Bern, for a lightning visit on Wednesday.

Addressing a symposium, Clinton used the occasion to criticize the foreign policy of his successor, President Bush.[...]

Typical. I recall when ex-presidents were content to write memoirs and let the new guy do his job. Now we have Clinton and Carter out on the hustings commenting on and criticizing all that they disagree with. I suspect this won't be a trend as Bush 41 was able to hold his tongue about policy differences. Presumably his son will be likewise circumspect.

After his speech, Clinton revealed that he was a big fan of Switzerland's history and democracy.

And on a lighter note he expressed particular admiration for Swiss motorway service stations, which he said served the best motorway food he'd ever tasted.[....]

Believe it. Clinton doubtless has years of experience to draw on with this comment. Although I imagine when he gets hungry, anything will be the best ever.

UPDATE: Go to Wizbang to see what Clinton found to rave about in Denmark (Hint: aside from food, it's his other main passion).

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Help for Generation X(XL)?

I sure like this idea. And it shouldn't be limited to encouraging kids to exercise--all ages can benefit; although large families with a single TV can probably keep the thing on just by walking to the fridge for snacks and back.

It could be the ultimate incentive to get kids exercising - a shoe that controls the amount of TV they watch.

The shoe - dubbed Square-eyes - has a unique insole that records the amount of exercise a child does and converts it into television watching time.[...]

It calculates the time earned and once it runs out, the TV automatically switches itself off.

My daughters get out quite a bit as it is, but I like the idea of their being responsible for the amount of TV they get to watch (still an upper limit even if they become marathoners).

Well-meaning day turns into a French mess

Yeah, sometimes it's too easy to poke fun at the French. In this case, it has to do with the uncertainty of unions in how to deal an effective blow to the outrage of losing a paid holiday, and the muddled response of authorities to scattered strikes, sick-outs, etc., that plagued France on Monday.

A well-meaning government initiative to sacrifice a paid holiday to raise money for the country's elderly threw France into confusion Monday as employers and workers, government officials and teachers decided on their own whether to obey the call to work.

Half the country, it seemed, stayed home, ignoring the first annual "day of solidarity" on the traditional holiday [...]

Dozens of cities and towns, including Lille, Strasbourg and Bordeaux, were without most public transportation. The Paris Métro, by contrast, ran on schedule.

France's main unions urged their workers to strike. Although almost all post offices were open, 35 percent of their employees were on strike. Many town halls throughout the country were closed. [...]

Schools operated according to the whimsy of their principals and teachers. The country's main federation of parents urged parents to keep their children home, and the teachers union reported that as many as 90 percent of students from the ages of 11 to 18 did not go to school.

The Paris airports reported some cancellations and delays of flights because of striking air traffic controllers. [...]

Bernard Thibault, leader of the Communist-backed labor federation, the CGT, told France Info radio that Monday should be considered not a "day of solidarity" but a "day of mobilization and protests," calling on the government to find a more equitable way to care for the country's elderly.

The French Confederation of Christian Workers called the day of solidarity "forced labor." Many officials and employers were flummoxed over whether to consider the day a holiday, since most of the public sector was required to work, but the private sector and local administrations are allowed to choose any holiday of the year as the extra workday.

Union officials said that it was not clear whether self-employed workers like doctors, private nurses and taxi drivers could bill holiday fees that are higher than fees on regular working days. The Préfecture of Police in Paris proclaimed that the rules were so confusing that taxi drivers could decide whether to charge the higher holiday fare.

At least some people benefited from the chaos.

Parking was free in Paris since parking meters are run by a computer program that had not been changed to mark the day as a nonholiday when free parking is allowed.[...]

This discontented mood looks to be bad news for the EU constitution the French are set to vote on soon.

Creation of a controversy

The anti-evolutionists in Kansas are at it again. Living in Europe, colleagues love to tell me how incomprehensible they find it that theories like Creationism/Intelligent Design have any opportunity to be taught in US schools. I can only shake my head and agree.

Here comes more grist for their mills:

[...] a series of trial-like hearings have been engineered by the creationist majority on the state’s board of education, which aims to create the semblance of a "controversy" over evolution to justify changes to state educational standards. No controversy exists, however, in the forum where scientific debates are properly hosted and refereed: scientific publications. Accordingly, the scientific community has boycotted the hearings. There's nothing new about attempts to create a "controversy" over evolution by misrepresenting and selectively citing scientific information. However, the Kansas situation is distinguished by the fact that a little-noticed, but increasingly central, aspect of the new anti-evolutionist strategy has taken center stage in this state's dispute.

In Kansas, criticisms of evolutionary theory have been accompanied by a direct philosophical assault upon the nature of science itself. Kansas’s previously proposed science standards had appropriately defined science as "the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us." Anti-evolutionists want to change this language to the following: "Science is a systematic method of continuing investigation, that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building, to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena."

This may seem harmless at first glance. But the change carefully removes any reference to science's search for natural explanations in favor of “more adequate” explanations, creating a opening for creationists to insert the supernatural. Such a change reflects the fact that the new generation of anti-evolutionists has launched an attack on modern science itself, claiming that it amounts, essentially, to institutionalized atheism. Science, they say, has a prejudice against supernatural causation (by which they generally mean “the actions of God”). Instead, the new anti-evolutionists claim that if scientists would simply open their minds to the possible action of forces acting beyond the purview of natural laws, they would suddenly perceive the weaknesses of evolutionary theory.[...]

[S]cientists since the Enlightenment have seen fit to distinguish between supernatural beliefs based on faith or metaphysics and scientific findings based on observed evidence and inferences about natural causation. Such inquiry is technically termed "methodological naturalism," more commonly known as the "scientific method." It has quite a successful track record over the years, from medicine to nuclear science. But methodological naturalism deeply offends today's anti-evolutionists. Because the theory of evolution is perceived to have contributed to the undermining of religious belief, the intelligent design movement has taken to arguing that the theory itself betrays a deep philosophical prejudice against God and the supernatural. Hence, they seek to overturn not just evolution but methodological naturalism itself. Right alongside the ghost creaking the floorboards, they will reintroduce a "designer" who swoops in and fiddles with the history of life, apparently at will. Of course, we can't actually know anything definitive about who this designer is, why he/she/it likes to engage in such meddling, or why he/she/it couldn't get things right the first time. Or, at any rate, we won't be able to know anything about the matter through science. Turning to scripture, however, may provide some clues.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Germans as victims of WW2? True in this case

This is appalling. Although I recoil when I hear Germans or Austrians talk about how their nations were victims of Nazism, this cold blooded decision by Danish medical authorities to withhold treatment from young German refugees is horrifying.

...[T]he Danish Association of Doctors had decided in March 1945 that German refugees would not receive any medical care. That same month the Red Cross refused to take any action, according to the newspaper "Politiken," because public sentiment was "against the Germans." The result: 80% of the small children that landed on Denmark's shores did not survive the following months. They either starved or were unable to fight infections due to extreme malnutrition. Detailed medical reports don't exist. All that's left are endless rows of sad grey grave stones. [...]

the reasons for what happened are being debated vehemently. Was it Danish "hatred" of everything German as a reaction to the oppressive Nazi occupying forces, as Lylloff believes? Or was it an attempt to wipe away memories of their own collaboration? "We had enough to do, taking care of ourselves," explains Arne Gammelgaard, a historian of the older generation, in order to excuse the negligent treatment. His view is shared by many.

There was, as pamphlets distributed in 1945 prove, also a widespread fear of a "new form of invasion" by the Germans. "As soon as the Germans were gone, they seemed to be back again, hundreds of thousands of them, but with different faces," says Lylloff, trying to explain. It gave rise to "an orgy of hate against a whole people. And children had to pay the price."

The Germans certainly deserved a healthy dose of suffering, but to doom children like this is unspeakable.

Swiss equality is less equal than others

File it under quantifying the obvious. Anyone who has spent time in Switzerland has noted that women are expected to stay at home with the kids, preferably plenty of kids.

A recent study shows that in Europe, only Italian women have less opportunity than their Swiss counterparts. Scandinavian women have it best, while--shock!--women in Muslim lands are least likely to be treated equally.

In Switzerland, social policy choices--school hours, number of child care facilities, etc.--made by the Swiss ensure that many women find it difficult to work full time or pursue work in challenging fields. School hours is one of the most frustrating aspects. Our eight year old has school mornings and afternoons twice a week, then only in the morning the other three days (every other week she has an extra afternoon of schooling). Because there is a large break between the morning and noon periods, she comes home for lunch. If the school offered the option of a warm lunch, we would be happy to sign up, but such an idea seems to be anathema to the local school board. In our case we hired a nanny to care for our kids, but that is a relative luxury.

If a mother of young children seeks a professional life, serious juggling of schedules takes place. Plenty of men choose to work a 70% schedule in order that their wife can work equivalent hours. It makes for considerable stress.

Friday, May 13, 2005

American cyclist Hamilton a blood-doper?

American cyclist Tyler Hamilton effectively lost his livelihood last month following a two year suspension handed down from an arbitration panel's 2-1 finding (found through Fat Kid, where he and I futilely went round and round on whether Lance Armstrong was/is a doper) that he was guilty of blood-doping; his sample contained evidence of another person's blood. He is the first athlete banned using this novel test, and has vowed to appeal.

After reading the panel's findings (I found the dissent pretty weak), and knowing how the World Anti-Doping Agency has sworn to crack down on cheaters, I was initially skeptical about his chances, but after reading this IHT article, it seems that the test may be unreliable.

The problem lies with the rate of false positives. The arbitration panel agreed with the scientific evidence provided them that showed an almost negligible rate of false positives. The article notes that several experts are offering contrary opinions.

...[Tyler] offered a surprising defense: The small amount of different blood found mixed in with his own must have come from a "vanishing twin."

In other words, his scientific expert argued, Hamilton had a twin that died in utero but, before dying, contributed some blood cells to him during fetal life. And those cells remained in his body, producing blood that matched the dead twin and not Hamilton. Or perhaps it was his mother's blood that got mixed in during fetal life.[...]

Dr. Ann Reed, chairwoman of rheumatology research at the Mayo Clinic, who uses sensitive DNA tests to look for chimerism, finds that about 50 percent to 70 percent of healthy people are chimeras. The more scientists look for chimerism, the more they find it. It seemed not to exist in the past, she said, because no one was looking for small amounts of foreign cells in people's bodies.[...]

The Hamilton case involves a test developed by Dr. Margaret Nelson and her colleagues at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Australia. It was based on a simple idea: If an athlete got a transfusion, he would have to make sure the blood was the right match using the blood antigens A, B and O. But blood cells have other surface proteins, so-called minor antigens, that do not matter in blood typing for transfusions but can be used to distinguish one person's blood from another's. The investigators said they could use a sensitive test, flow cytometry, to search for small amounts of blood with minor antigens different from those in the athlete's own blood.
It was an important advance, anti-doping agency officials said. They knew that athletes, including cyclists, had used blood transfusions in the past to boost their performance but had no test to prove it.

On the other hand

Brown, the only outside scientist that the anti-doping agency suggested to present its point of view, said blood banks almost never found chimeras. The blood banks used a less sensitive test, but Brown testified that he himself, using the more sensitive flow cytometry on at least 20,000 blood samples, never found a chimera. And, he said, reports of people with small amounts of foreign cells do not signify that an athlete with a second population of blood cells had someone else's blood stem cells in his bone marrow. Moreover, he said, Hamilton tested negative a few months after his positive test last fall. That is consistent with an athlete who had transfusions, was caught and then stopped.

But there is evidence that that test may be difficult to perform. The qualifications of the technicians who performed the test are sure to be part of the appeal.

Not only was a vanishing twin or chimerism a real possibility, [Dr.] Housman [Prof. of molecular biology at MIT] decided, but he had real questions about whether the test was reliable enough to use to look for blood doping.

Dr. Gerald Sandler, a professor of medicine and pathology at Georgetown University Hospital, who previously was medical director for the national reference laboratory for blood group serology at the National Red Cross and who has no involvement in the Hamilton case, said the test was acceptable for research. But, he said, its results could easily differ from lab to lab. It "is being misapplied," he said, when it is used to accuse athletes of blood doping.

Dr. V.K. Gadi, a hematologic oncologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle who uses flow cytometry in his research, says that "the test can be quite finicky from experiment to experiment."[....]

Troubling stuff for one who hates cheats, especially cycling cheats. To my mind, however, the level of chimerism is likely to be dispositive in this and other cases. What I mean is that even if chimerism in the general population is more prevalent than previously believed, if Hamilton had a high percentage of chimeric blood cells floating around--rather than the few the article seems to be discussing--the judgment will likely be upheld.

I hope both sides present their best cases and that the appeals process is fair (not always a guarantee with international bodies that too often see the ends as justifying the means). However, given the circumstantial evidence surrounding Hamilton's case (gleaned from the arbitration desicion), I still come down on the guilty side.

Random shot of chess attractivness

Chess playing hotties (looks a bit like a groupshot of Russian online brides; in this case they can whip your sorry butt in all things intellectual)

I forwarded this picture from an article, but now I can't locate the bloody thing. So even though there is no context (participants in a Swiss women's tournament?), I'll publish anyway.

Glacier keeps its cool under high-tech blanket

The plan to cover a Swiss glacier with an insulating blanket in order to better preserve it has been in the news lately. Well, the unrolling and covering took place this week. An interesting article with pictures is found at Swissinfo.

The Andermatt ski-lift company has laid a synthetic carpet over 2,500 square metres of glacier in a unique experiment to ward off the effects of global warming.

The reflective high-tech material is designed to stop the Gurschen glacier from melting away beneath the resort's upper cable-car station.

The glacier has dropped 20 metres over the past 15 years, forcing the lift company to construct a snow ramp on top of it to give skiers access to the runs. Resembling giant strips of toilet paper, the polyester and polypropylene material was rolled out across the ramp on Tuesday to stop it melting during the summer.[....]

Great idea--if it works. But the article makes clear that it is intended as a local solution only.

Over a period of several years I worked on the glaciers above Zermatt. The area was especially popular in the Summer. Skiing would begin at around 0700 and end by 1400 (when the snow atop the glaciers would begin to melt). Over the years one couldn't help noticing how the nose of the glacier would steadily creep up the mountain. I went back last year after an absence of more than a decade and was shocked at how far the glacier had receded.

Worthwhile links are the manufacturer of the blanket, and the Swiss glacier monitoring network.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

How would the Swiss system handle a case like Terri Schiavo?

The Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences (SAMS) recently weighed in with an opinion (in German) on how the Swiss medical establishment would deal with someone in Ms. Schiavo's condition. Their analysis is quite clear and even handed, though it leaves several unanswered questions.

My rough translation and paraphrase of the relevant portions:

Mrs. Schiavo is not brain dead, but is in a "persisting vegetative status", which can be defined as an awake condition without the ability to perceive or understand. Patients in such an awake coma are not dying. They are in a stable, probably irreversible condition.

In 2003 SAMS published medical-ethical guidelines for dealing with such patients. These guidelines clearly note that patients have a guarantee to receive adequate nourishment and fluids as well as a basic level of care. Only the patient has the ability to refuse further nourishment or fluids.

Neither the spouse, nor the parents, nor the treating physician may decide to halt such basic levels of care. On the other hand, should complications (e.g. pneumonia) occur that require some sort of intervention, any of these groups could choose not to intervene, so long as the decision corresponds to the presumed will of the patient.

Given this, it is clear that Mr. Schiavo would not have been permitted to remove Terri's feeding tube. Had her life been endangered by some other infection, disease, etc., it would have been acceptable to withhold treatment if this was Terri's wish.

The article doesn't touch on how a fact finder would determine Terri's wishes on this matter, which in itself would be fascinating. Nor does it discuss who has precedence in deciding to withhold treatment (presumably the spouse; followed by parents, siblings, treating physician). Nevertheless, for a country which allows voluntary euthanasia, and thus could be expected to lean toward easy disposal of seriously ill people, Switzerland seems to have used common sense in promulgating this standard of care for those in a persistent vegetative state.

US still unwelcome to students

If top students and postdocs continue to shun US schools and research institutions, American pre-eminence in science is threatened since fewer Americans opt to study hard science. This report points out some problems and suggests a new visa category. My wife, a green card holder, worked for several years as a medical researcher at Washington University, St. Louis. While there, she recruited many foreigners. Dealing with the old INS was always a nightmare, but post September 2001, visas became more difficult to process. She was fortunate as many promising researchers were willing to put up with the hassles in order to work in the US. Other sciences however, are seeing a real diminution of talent that will accept being treated like quasi-criminals.

Saying that the United States is increasingly perceived as an unwelcome place, a National Academies committee issued a report yesterday (May 10) calling for the creation of a new category of visas to make it easier for international graduate students and postdocs to study in the United States.

"Even with the improvements in the visa process, there still remains a lingering sense among many potential international students and postdocs that the US is a less welcoming place than other places they might go," said committee chair Phillip A. Griffiths of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.

Data on foreign students' intents and aspirations and on postdocs, in particular was not always easy to find, said Griffiths, but the panel determined that trends indicate that foreign nationals may be thinking twice about coming to the United States and going elsewhere to pursue science and engineering degrees, research, and careers, while American students increasingly eschew degrees and careers in those fields.

"Other nations are increasingly seeking and competing successfully for the best talent," said National Academy of Science President Bruce Alberts[...]

"In the long term, this is clearly a threat to the US science and technology leadership," added Alberts. Fifty-nine percent of postdocs in the United States are foreign-born; it is unclear whether that pipeline may soon experience a clog. Applications and admissions for international graduate students have been declining, experiencing a particularly steep drop in the 2003/2004 academic year.[...]

Science and engineering students and postdocs usually enter on an F or J visa, which requires a statement of intent to return to the home country (known as the 214b provision). If the proposed area of study or research is on the government's "technology alert list," an interview is required. There were huge delays in the few years after September 11, 2001, but the backlog has been reduced so that most visa decisions are made within 45 days, said committee member Alice Gast, vice president for research and associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the panel said science and engineering students, who often seek to stay and work in the United States, should be exempt from the 214b requirement. The only way to erase that provision is through a new visa category, said Gast.[....]

America has always been a magnet for ambitious, talented people. By discouraging these people, we risk a long term loss of our position atop the research heap. Most importantly, it will cause an inevitable reduction in our economic competiveness. Offering a more attractive visa along with faster processing times seems like a reasonable response to the problem.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Stopping nuclear proliferation is like eating brussels sprouts for China, EU

Thomas Friedman gets it right, albeit shallowly. His NYT Op-Ed about why China and the EU don't do more to halt nuclear proliferation is a winner.

At the end of the day, the Chinese would rather live with a nuclear North Korea than risk a collapsed nonnuclear North Korea, and the Europeans would rather live with a nuclear Iran - that Europe can make all kinds of money off of - rather than risk losing Iran's business to prevent it from going nuclear. The Chinese and the Europeans "each assume that in the end, the U.S. will deter both the North Koreans and the Iranians anyway, so why worry," Mr. Mandelbaum [who teaches foreign policy at Johns Hopkins] said.

Are the Europeans and Chinese behaving cynically? Of course, these are the very countries constantly complaining about U.S. "hegemony," and calling for a "multipolar world." Yet the only thing they are really interested in being a pole for is to oppose the U.S. - not to actually do something hard themselves to stabilize the global system.

China chooses not to risk its economic expansion, while Europe seeks an economic expansion through trade with pretty much everybody. China sees very little threat from a nuclear N. Korea--whatever blackmail takes place will take place to the south or with Japan. Europe, for its part, simply sits in its cocoon repeating its mantra of: we understand the Middle East, diplomacy will solve this problem.

UPDATE: Just found this article at the Times. China Rules Out Using Sanctions on North Korea

Friday, May 06, 2005

Wankdorf gets energy boost from the Sun

No other reason than the town is named Wankdorf; plus it is nearby.

The poor mouse story

While preparing for a boat trip from Interlaken, my daughters, aged 8 and 3, found a half eaten mouse by our front door. Nothing new for the oldest, but the youngest was fascinated. She knew the mouse was in bad shape, but didn’t grasp that it was dead—despite missing its body from the belly down. So she kept telling the mouse to feel better and run and play.

Understandably the mouse just lay there. So we pack up the car and head out. She keeps repeating “the poor mouse” to herself. After five minutes, it becomes “poor, poor mouse”, and finally we reach the extreme of recognized suffering, “poor, poor, poor mouse”. Thankfully we soon reached Interlaken and the mouse’s fate was forgotten in the excitement of boarding the boat and the rest of the trip.

No longer a stranger to half eaten mice, my daughter quickly begins quizzing us about them on the ride home. Our oldest tells her that the mouse is no longer suffering and I chip in with the bromide that the beast is in mousey heaven (although an atheist, I’ll gladly use that explanation to keep her from fretting). Soon the girls agree to bury the thing and as soon as we get home they go out, gather up the remains, dig a hole and cover it with “mud” as my youngest later relates.

It’s clear that she is less than convinced with the propriety of burying things. Dirt vs. mud as a covering is a surprisingly interesting topic when the eldest attempts to put the youngest’s mind at ease. In the end she seemed to have bought the idea that burial was proper, and that the beast was now “happier”.

Notwithstanding the damn mouse, the boat trip was a success. My wife and daughters took the ferry on lake Brienz from Interlaken to Giessbach, while I drove ahead and met them at the dock. Although it was cold, rainy and foggy, they arrived in a good mood following an hour ride. Together we took the oldest funicular train in Europe up to the Giessbach hotel—passing near a tremendous series of waterfalls—where we had a leisurely lunch. It’s a pity that the terrace was closed due to rain, but the view from inside was nonetheless pretty neat.

After walking around the hotel’s grounds we marched off to explore the waterfalls and forests. The kids loved this part even though the path only went up and up. After finding our car—no easy task, as it was parked far away, and we tramped through the woods—we drove home.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Why the world is not running out of oil

My earlier posting on the debate (actually a non-debate, the question has been answered by the way people search for oil) of an organic or inorganic origin of oil, was well timed. This week's Economist has an extensive set of stories on nearly all things oil.

This article discusses disagreements between those who predict we will quickly draw down current reservoirs and those (like me) who feel new technologies--drilling, exploiting existing wells, finding new reserves--will continue to expand our reserves for the foreseeable future.

Clearly, oil is a non-renewable resource that has to run out some day. Those who expect that day to come sooner rather than later usually point to Hubbert's peak. M. King Hubbert was a geologist at Shell who predicted in 1956 that America's oil production would peak and begin to decline in the early 1970s. In fact, oil production from the 48 contiguous states did peak around 1970. The current debate on depletion is about when the global “Hubbert's peak” will be reached.[...]

In essence, the pessimists say that there is a fixed amount of oil in the ground to be found, and that mankind has found it already. According to Jim Meyer of the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre, a British think-tank, “Discovery clearly peaked in the 1960s. We are out of North Seas.” He argues that annual oil consumption has exceeded new discoveries since the 1980s, indicating that the world is running down its stock of “found” oil, and reckons that 18 major oil-producing countries, currently making up about 30% of world output, are now past their peak.

This argument has been regularly made since the 1970s. Although it is ultimately true (oil is a finite resource), many more, albeit mostly smaller fields remain to be discovered, while currently produced fields benefit from increases in recovery and better field management (many promising fields have been ruined by poor extraction methods). Thus, the day of reckoning is constantly being pushed back.

The optimists counter:

But this argument is wrong both on a philosophical and a practical level. The philosophical problem, says Michael Lynch of EnergySEER, a consultancy, is that the pessimists treat the level of recoverable oil resources as fixed—like the amount of beer in that mug. In fact, expert estimates on the ultimate recoverable resource base have consistently grown over the past few decades, even though the world has been guzzling oil as if there was no tomorrow[...]

Peter Odell of Rotterdam's Erasmus University points out that “since 1971, over 1,500 billion barrels have been added to reserves. Over the same 35-year period, under 800 billion barrels were consumed. One can argue for a world which has been ‘running into oil' rather than ‘out of it'.”

What makes the estimates go up continuously is a combination of economics and innovation. The IEA explains the process this way: “Reserves are constantly revised in line with new discoveries, changes in prices and technological advances. These revisions invariably add to the reserve base.”[...]

Most importantly, exploration seems poised to reach many promising areas. Similarly, other parts of the world are still “under-rigged” and under-examined. According to Mr Fu, CNOOC's chairman, “our offshore prospects are just beginning. A promising area the size of two North Seas has yet to be explored.” When India recently liberalised its oil-exploration sector, Britain's Cairn struck oil in Rajasthan soon afterwards. V.K. Sibal, India's director-general for hydrocarbons, expects much more, “maybe even a super-giant deep offshore somewhere near the waters off Myanmar.”

The unexplored potential in the Middle East remains vast. Pete Stark of IHS Energy, a leading consultancy on exploration, says that Iraq has over 130 undrilled prospects, and expects its proven reserves to rise sharply over time. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia has about 260 billion barrels of proven oil reserves today. Mr Naimi, the oil minister, is confident that current and future technologies will help lift that figure by 100 billion barrels in the next few decades, and points to an unexplored region on the Saudi-Iraqi border which alone is the size of California.

Encouraging stuff. To my mind, however, the greatest problem facing the world is not insufficient supplies, it is where the resources are found. The scramble to ensure access to oil will continue to bedevil the world for decades to come.

In any case, the article has links to many other interesting articles.

UPDATE: Big Cat Chronicles has a series of posts on all things oil (she falls into the optimist/realist camp, and so is dear to my heart).

Belguim doctors and unilateral end of life decisions

It looks as though the Gronigen Protocol, which specifically requires consent from both parents before physicians withhold treatment or otherwise end a neonate's or infant's life, is not widely followed. Belguim Physicians strongly believe they are required to make unilateral end of life decisions. Here is a summary of the research article in Lancet:

Background: Paediatricians are increasingly confronted with end-of-life decisions in critically ill neonates and infants. Little is known about the frequency and characteristics of end-of-life decisions in this population, nor about the relation with clinical and patients' characteristics. Methods: A death-certificate study was done for all deaths of neonates and infants in the whole of Flanders over a 12-month period (August, 1999, to July, 2000). We sent an anonymous questionnaire by mail to the attending physician for each of the 292 children who died under the age of 1 year. Information on patients was obtained from national registers. An attitude study was done for all physicians who attended at least one death during the study period.

Findings: 253 (87%) of the 292 questionnaires were returned, and 121 (69%) of the 175 physicians involved completed the attitude questions. An end-of-life decision was possible in 194 (77%; 95% CI 70·4-82·4) of the 253 deaths studied, and such a decision was made in 143 cases (57%; 48·9-64·0). Lethal drugs were administered in 15 cases among 117 early neonatal deaths and in two cases among 77 later deaths (13% vs 3%; p=0·018). The attitude study showed that 95 (79%; 70·1-85·5) of the 121 physicians thought that their professional duty sometimes includes the prevention of unnecessary suffering by hastening death and 69 (58%; 48·1-66·5) of 120 supported legalisation of life termination in some cases.

Interpretation: Death of neonates and infants is commonly preceded by an end-of-life decision. The type of decision varied substantially according to the age of the child. Most physicians favour legalisation of the use of lethal drugs in some cases.

Scary, but it only confirms what was widely known. I came across an excerpt of this article through Michele Malkin's fine website. Unfortunately, she doesn't provide a link. Here are links to several portions of The Lancet which discuss the results of the study (subscription to Lancet required): Veerle Provoost and colleagues report that more than half of deaths among critically ill neonates and infants in a study in Belgium involved physicians making end-of-life decisions. A Research Letter highlights how the liberalisation of the legal system in the Netherlands has not resulted in an increase in the active ending of life for critically ill infants. A Comment calls for more evidence on the effect of end-of-life care policies and their effects on clinical practice.

Armageddon, thy name is Cane Toad

Holy crap! Can anything save Australia? These things can kill crocodiles with their nasty hides; and they are advancing some 30 miles/year.

The fifth horseman turns out to be a toad. Don't be fooled by it's indifferent gaze, it's contemplating how best to eat your children.

Advice from animal welfare groups is as expected: put the cane toads into a freezer until they die. Great, but what do they do with the other 99,999,999 toads?

Burning issue of the day--Origin of petroleum

Ok, it's not Guelph v. Ghibelline, but for a lapsed geologist, the debate--such as it is--is still pretty neat. And if the most fervent of the abiotics are correct, all the oil we need may be found right under our feet (well, dozens of miles under).

The vast majority of oil that has been found is presumed to have a organic origin: lots and lots of plankton, and other once living things are covered by sediments and exposed to heat and pressure over long periods. Because of this belief, explorers have concentrated their searches in sedimentary basins. The proof is certainly in the pudding: almost all oil has been discovered using the organic method of oil creation as a starting point. Geologists thus look for oil first in ancient sedimentary basins.

Proponents of an inorganic origin of petroleum argue that oil is formed in the earth's mantle, and exists in huge quantities, which recharge oil basins. Thus, under this theory, oil will never run out. Some wells using a search method based on abiotic theory have produced commercial quantities of oil, but they are limited to the ex-USSR.

The American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) has an layman friendly article on the debate. Another article is here.

In any case, even if basins are being refilled by primordial oil, the recharge rates are so slow that to use the vast reserves said to exsist we would need to drill more than 20 miles down. At the moment, an impossible feat.

My daughter aced her first big math test

My daughter is in 2nd grade at our local Swiss school. Her class has been learning the multiplication tables for weeks, and she has taken numerous small tests with mostly good results.

After three weeks of Spring vacation she had her first 100 question test. She brought the results home yesterday so we could sign off on them, and it turns out she got them all right.
Only five out of the 20 kids aced the test. Given I'm a believer in Gore Vidal's dictum that "it's not enough to succeed, others must fail", I was especially proud of her hard work.

My daughter is understandably pleased with herself. It is quite nice to be able to demonstrate the correlation between hard work and top results. She is beginning to see the importance of studying, although she would much rather tool around on her bike with friends or jump on the trampoline.

In other Swiss news,
kids in Bern schools (our system) are below average in math; thanks mostly to the French speaking part of the Canton. Lazy bastards.

Swiss students as a whole continue to do well vis a vis the rest of the world. In fact, Switzerland came in first among German speaking nations; take that, Austria! Go down, Germany!

Swiss soldiers must pay for keeping weapons after troops' discharge

In a move to offset rising costs, the Swiss military is now requiring discharged soldiers who wish to keep their service rifles a fee of 100 ChF (approx. $70). Previously the rifles were simply given to departing troops. Still a tremendous bargain as they cost the army between $1,700 and $2,600.

Although I've lived here on and off for about five years, I still can't get over the sight of soldiers on their way home relaxing in cafes with their assault rifles at their feet, often among a pile of beer bottles.

Even though most men--and now some women--serve in the army, and are required to keep their rifle and ammo at home when not training, very few shootings occur. Although our downstairs neighbor did use his army issue rifle to commit suicide last year. Thankfully we were not at home at the time.

I hope to write a series of posts on different aspects of the Swiss army as it is very much in flux and far more interesting than one first suspects. Of course, even if it totally changes itself it would only be news in Switzerland. I'm sure none of its neighbors have contingency plans in case Switzerland invades. Well, no new plans, that is; at one point the Swiss were highly valued mercenaries, and Switzerland was a war like nation.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Argentina's great beaver plague

Argentinian beavers everywhere? doesn't much sound like a plague to me, especially if they are trimmed or have a Brazilian.

Oh, you mean those beavers. Well, eating them is probably the answer for this type, too.

Somewhere, a BBC headline writer is having a chuckle.