Friday, December 21, 2012

Best Posts of 2012

Best Posts of 2012
All of these posts can be accessed from the archive list at the left margin, and some have hot links.
Is a Cat Microbe Changing Your Behavior?  Mar/5/12  Is an ancient parasite controlling our brains?
Are Bar Flies Just Sex-starved Males?  Mar/23/12
Electric Car Battery Cost  Apr/19/12
1493, by Charles C. Mann   May/6/12  The Cat's book review--this is a must read.
U.S. Debt Not a Problem. Jun/25/12
What They Won't Tell You About Farm Bills.  Aug/4/12  The secret success. For eighty years, American Farm Policy has actually been astounding success.  But it's a success that its architects dare not take credit for, as this would require them to disclose what the goals were. No American government will ever do this.
How Ancient Builders Moved Things.  Aug/12/12
Oil, Imperialism, and the Real Causes of WWI.  Sep/18/12  A review and synopsis of Wm. Engdahl's book,   A Century of War.   A must read.
When Computers Were Reliable.  Oct/14/12
The Germs That Make Us Us.  Oct/22/ 12
The Ethicization of Religion.  Nov/20/12  The Long Shadow of Zarathustra.
An Optimist Looks at His Future. Mar/28/12  A grimly whimsical look at modern life.  Are you the type who always finds the worst case scenario?  No, you're not!  Not compared to me.
The Real Housing Crisis.  Feb/4/12  A view from the epicenter of an economic disaster. Probably my best post, it is also the longest. It's  an insider's view of what happens when the job market and housing market in a whole region completely collapses around you.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Gasoline Price Explained

           A few weeks before the election in the U.S.,  gasoline prices began to drop a bit.  Now, everyone knows that voters are more likely to re-elect the party in power when prices are stable--and less likely to do so if prices, especially fuel prices, are high and rising.  So everyone had a theory as to who was manipulating  prices for political purposes. The right wing pundits suggested that Obama was secretly releasing oil from the strategic reserve to buy votes.  My own theory was that the oil barons, although they do not particularly like Obama, realized that the alternative to his being re-elected was to actually have Mitt Romney as President, a prospect which scared the hell out of them.  And so they were trying to beat down the gas price to prevent Romney's election.
            But after sober reconsidering, I realize that no person or agency was manipulating anything at all.  What happened is that in the northern temperate zone, where most of the world's cars are,  winter fuel blend is not the same as summer fuel.   About mid-October, the refineries briefly shut down and re-tool to make winter blend gasoline.  This fuel is lighter and will vaporize at a lower temperature. Back when we used engines with carburetors, this lighter fuel was absolutely necessary for cold weather starting. But in extreme cold weather, even cars with modern fuel injection systems may require a lighter mix to run well.  So about mid-October, we all start buying a different fuel.   The oil companies love this because this lighter blend of hydrocarbons weighs less per gallon, and they can get a few more gallons per barrel of crude oil.  But by dumping more gallons on the market, this bids the price down. 
            And of course, we consumers are delighted to have a lower price.  But nowadays,  a lot of cars are equipped  with a digital readout on the dashboard with gives an instantaneous estimate of fuel consumption in miles per gallon.   And as soon as you start burning winter gas, you notice that the gas you paid 10% less for will also give you 10% fewer miles per gallon.  Why?  What happens is that fuel consumption per pound (or per kilogram) remains exactly the same, but there are fewer pounds per gallon ( grams per liter).  If fuel were priced per pound instead of per gallon, the price and gas millage would have remained unchanged.
            This change in mass density of the fuel would itself have explained a 10% drop in price.  But by today, the total price decrease in my area has been about 14%.  The additional 4% is due to the fact that in cold weather, people drive less.  If you live in the "frost belt", there aren't many things to do or places to go in cold weather that would actually be a pleasant experience, so people stay home as much as possible.  And with fewer gallons of gas sold, normal supply and demand factors have depressed the price.
            When we feel miserable, we try to put a face on our problem.  We look for an "oil executive in the woodpile".    We like to identify some particular individual or institution to blame for our misfortune.  But sometimes our fortunes are tied to the impersonal forces of supply and demand.  Do not think I am championing the value of "free markets."  Having watched market forces all my life, I can assure you that except perhaps for John Maynard Keynes, no man ever lived who had a lower opinion of "the market."  Schumpeter believed that markets cause "creative destruction."   He was partly right.  Market forces are almost always destructive--but not always creative.  When we say we have free market forces, that is merely a polite way of saying that we have  chaos.  There was a time when Saudi Arabia could control the price of crude oil. And there was a time when the US, acting as the world's largest consumer, could also dictate the price of crude. In the 90s, the U.S.  broke the price of crude oil simply by using less.  But with China entering the market, those days are gone. Today, no one controls the market--it's simply chaos.  But with chaos, at least no one is in charge of it.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Ingenious Old Boilers

           I just helped cut up an old steam boiler--a 1913, Kewanee 300 hp coal fired, fire tube, low pressure steam boiler.  This is the boiler which originally heated the building where I now reside.  I live in an abandoned school building.  Not a cute little one-room school, but a three story brick building that once held classes for grades 1 thru 12.  As larger farms replaced small farms throughout the 20th century, rural areas such as the one where I live lost population, and many schools were shut down as the districts were re-organized.  My building was last used as a school in 1961, and I obtained it about a decade later.  I carved out a small apartment, about one fifth of the total square footage, which I then heavily insulated, and which I heat with a small LP gas furnace.  So since 1961, the old boiler has just sat there rusting.   A good thing, since it burned 300 tons of coal the last winter it was used.  The carbon footprint of operating such a monstrous teakettle (about the size of a small railroad locomotive) would be absurd.
            The thermal efficiency of coal boilers has improved since the days of the old fire tube boilers.  A modern "water tube" boiler in a coal fired power plant can yield over 90% efficiency, whereas the old fire tube boilers were lucky to get 15%.  So I was surprised to discover that these old boilers still showed some ingenious engineering. For instance, the thickness of the iron plate walls was not uniform throughout, but each area was only as thick as it had to be.  The main boiler walls were 1/2 inch thick, but the crown plates were only 3/8th".
              My boiler  was a "scotch boiler" design, but perhaps I should  digress a bit to explain exactly what that means.  A "straight through" boiler is simply a heavy walled horizontal barrel with a "crown plate"  welded or riveted across each end.  About 72  three inch tubes run through the length of  the barrel and through 3" holes in the plate, and then end. The tubes are secured and sealed to the plate around the outside of each tube, so that fire can flow through the tubes, but steam cannot get out of the chamber which surrounds the tubes.  The reason that the crown plates could be thinner is that the 72 tubes fastened to it would reinforce it.   A "straight through" boiler simply had a fire box at one end and the flames went through the boiler tubes to the other end and up the chimney.  The barrel, laid horizontally, had to be heavy enough to withstand the pressure of the steam, and long enough to allow the fire to travel far enough for the heat to be absorbed by the water and steam.
            But with a Scotch boiler,  the whole barrel is only half as long, but the flue gasses travel the same distance.  This is done by having the hot gasses first travel through only the lower 36 tubes, then be directed back through the upper 36 tubes.  So the fire goes through the boiler twice.  But this means that the last 5 ft before the fire goes up the chimney, it goes right over the fire box where it started. That means that the barrier between the fire box and the steam chamber is a flat plate that forms the roof of the fire box. So at that point, the steam chamber is a "D" shaped space with its floor as the ceiling of the fire box, and the ceiling being the top of the outer hull. So although the roof of the fire box was flat, it had steam pressure above it. But being flat, it did not have the strength of cylindrical walls found in the rest of the boiler.   To compensate for this, a forest of  3/4" iron rods connected this flat plate to the arched walls above.  When I discussed this with my brother, a former Navy boiler man, he explained that these rods would not only reinforce the walls, but also conduct heat.  And the fire box itself had double walls on three sides, with water circulating in between. Any heat which escaped from the fire box would still be heating water. Yet these walls, being flat,  also had to have 3/4" iron rods between them.
            Those who built boilers one hundred years ago did not have the sophisticated technology that we have today--but they were certainly not fools.
Note:  If this kind of post interests you, I have another post called, Ingenious Old Windmills  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Anatomy of Gratitude

            This being Thanksgiving weekend, we are immersed in a deluge of appeals to feel or to express more gratitude--and I certainly have no problem with this.  One observation in almost every opinion you will hear about gratitude  is that there is little connection between how much of everything  we have--and how likely we are to feel thankful for it.  In fact, if there is a correlation, it is negative. Those who would appear to have the least are most likely to feel thankful for all that they have, and vice versa.   The customary explanation is that we humans are arrogant and ungrateful bastards.  While this is, of course, true--there may be a deeper explanation.
            What if the act of giving thanks is simply an acknowledgement of our insecurity, our helplessness, and our dependence on the giver.  When we say, "Thanks," what we really mean is, "Thanks--You really saved my butt!"  Then, the more precarious our existence,  the more deeply we feel genuinely grateful for any little contribution to our welfare.  A person who has no reliable connection to food, shelter, or income might see the offer of a single meal or nights shelter as a lifesaver--because it is. But as our situation becomes less precarious, we offer less thanks to others and to life itself.  And when we reach the point where we have a secure job, own a home (or own a serious equity in one), and have a little nest egg salted away, we may forget to give thanks for any of it. Why?  Well, if thanks is an acknowledgment of our vulnerability,  we can't very well acknowledge vulnerability if we don't see that we have any.  Of course, we all have a degree of vulnerability that we may not appreciate. Nowadays, each one of us is just one illness, one accident, or one lawsuit away from abject poverty.   We sometimes fail to see this, and perhaps that's the problem. But that's another issue.
            Besides being correlated to our degree of insecurity, there is one other factor.  This would be the level in sacrifice and inconvenience undergone by those who have agreed to  help us.  If you were lost in a desert and were dying of thirst and someone found you and gave you a drink from his canteen, I'm sure that you would be grateful.  But your gratitude would be infinitely greater if you knew that the person who did this had so little water that his own survival was in doubt.  So if I define gratitude as being directly proportional to the degree of sacrifice borne by the givers, but inversely proportional to the security we already have, then I will have defined gratitude about the way that Newton defined gravity.  I have given a formula for how it varies, but haven't actually said what it is.  To speak of thanks in this way undermines the sentimental attachment we all feel for it, and I wish I could do better. I wish that I could define it less insultingly or experience it more nobly.    If any of you readers have any thoughts, feel free to comment.   

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Ethicization of Religion

Planting the seeds of modern religion.

  The long shadow of Zarathustra.
            I recently watched a DVD lecture series called The Religions of the Axial Age, by Dr. Mark W. Muesse of Rhodes College.  "Axial Age"  is defined as a pivotal age, a point in time where everything changed forever.  He explains that between 800 BC and 200 BC, several different prophets and philosophers came onto the scene in four different parts of the Eurasian continent,  and they all radically changed the religious ideas of the areas where they lived.  Yet they all changed things in the same direction, and all modern religions bear the marks of the changes which these sages made. In short, there are ways in which all modern religions are similar to each other, but different from anything that existed before this transformation.
            During one brief period, philosophers all over Eurasia set down ideas that have defined religion and philosophy ever since. In China, Confucius and Lao Tse  gave China the political and philosophical underpinnings that served for 2,000 years.   In Palestine, Jewish prophets shaped what would become Judaism.  In Iran, Zarathustra (Zoroaster) had already established Zoroastrianism and directly influenced all of Iran and indirectly influenced every culture that later had contact with Iran, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  In South Asia, the Buddha and Mahavira founded Buddhism and Jainism. In Greece, Thales, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle laid the foundation for Western philosophy.  And every one of these thinkers  wrestled with the same questions:  Who are we, how must we live, and what is our ultimate destiny? The Axial period ended twenty-two hundred years ago, yet nearly all major religions practiced today still derive core elements of their belief system from the religious and philosophical ideas first written down during this period.
            Prior to this time, religion was separate from ethics. Religions were about the ritual sacrifices owed to various local gods, and ethics was about what humans owed to each other--and it was not generally believed that there should be any connection between religious practice and ethical behavior.  The gods cared only about how an individual treated the gods, not about how humans treated each other.   But during the Axial Age, several philosophies arose which taught that the gods, or perhaps some impersonal force of nature, did care about our individual conduct,  and all our moral and ethical choices would be rewarded or punished, either in this life or the next.    Just the idea that there might be some sort of afterlife for ordinary humans was a stark transition, and the idea that we ourselves could influence that destiny by our own actions was also a departure from what had gone before. For those of you raised in the tradition of any Ibrahimic religion (Judaism, Christianity, or Islam),  the idea that you will ultimately be rewarded if you are good and punished if you are evil will seem pretty commonplace.  But before the Axial transformation, such ideas were unheard of.  Even Jews, whose religion had included an ethical code since Moses,  had no belief in an afterlife until after the Babylonian Captivity. 
            Why did this one period yield such an outpouring of creativity in ethical philosophy?   Dr. Muesse suggests a number of reasons.   One reason was urbanization.  Tribes that for thousands of years had been rural migrant herders found themselves in large, impersonal  multi-ethnic cities where no one knew their name and most did not even speak their language.  Life suddenly became a lot lonelier--and a lot more dangerous.  Back in the hills, a man lived as part of an extended family, clan, and tribe.  Life's grand questions were unimportant.  A man accepted his own mortality, because as he died, other generations of his family continued. It was all part of the natural cycle.   And unless you were raided by some other tribe, the people you saw would not try to kill you or cheat you or lie to you.  They were all family.  But urbanization changed all that.   To make matters worse,  the axial period was one of extreme political instability.  In China, this period was called the "Period of Warring States."   Slaughter and genocide reigned on a grand scale.  Any thinking person in these circumstances would be  tempted to wonder, "What does it all mean?"  All of the prophets and philosophers I mentioned, and probably hundreds more,  tried to find answers.  Those whose answers seemed to make sense to large numbers of others,  are those whose answers became influential enough to survive and be passed on to succeeding generations.  It is true that Jesus of Nazareth came 200 years after this period came to a close. But Jesus was a Jew who quoted Isaiah and other Hebrew Prophets who were indeed part of the axial period, and who had shaped the Judaism he grew up with.  So if you accept that Zarathustra was born about 628 BC, the traditional date given for his birth, then all of these sages were of the axial age. Only one problem:  scholars now believe that although Zoroaster's ideas were not written down till the 7th century BC, he actually lived much earlier---perhaps 10 or 15 centuries earlier.   That means he probably lived and died well before Abraham.  His ideas had a profound effect on the religions of the axial period and on every major religion since, but he himself may have died a thousand years before this age began.
The Long Shadow of Zarathustra.
            When dealing with any ancient leader who has attained a mythic stature, it may be helpful to try to separate the man from the myth.  So I'll digress a bit to  explore the real historical Zarathustra. To understand who Zarathustra was, you have to know who the Indo-Europeans were.  If your native language is any European Language other than Turkish, Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, or Basque--then you speak an Indo-European tongue.  If you speak Iranian, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, or Pashto, you are also speaking an Indo-European language. The Indo-Europeans called themselves Aryans, and the name for Persia (Iran) and the name for Ireland, (Erin) both mean "Aryan."  But the Indo-Europeans did not originally come from anywhere in India or Europe.  About 3,500 BC, there was a group of related tribes scattered across the steppes of central Asia who all spoke a common language, a language  which scholars now call Proto-Indo-European. By 2,500 BC, there began an exodus in all directions that continued for 3,000 years.  First to leave were the Hittites, who went to Anatolia and the northern Levant about 2,500 BC.  Then there was an invasion of Egypt about 1,750 BC by chariot-driving red-bearded Indo-Europeans called the Hyksos.   And about 1,500 BC, a group of Indo-Aryans headed south and split into 3 groups: one conquered the Indus valley civilization of northern India, one conquered Iran, and one group, called the Mitanni, moved into the northern Zagros mountains next to the Hittites.  About 1,200 BC, Dorian Greek tribes invaded Greece and western Anatolia, disrupting and displacing a Mycenaean civilization of Greek speaking peoples who had migrated from the steppes somewhat  earlier.  After that, the Italians and Celts moved into southern and western Europe, followed by the Germanic peoples, and finally the Slavs.  And every one of these invasions was from that same central Asian grassland, and they all spoke an Indo-European language, though the one original language gradually evolved into many different tongues.  In fact, the entire early Mediterranean history is a story of non-Indo-European civilizations being invaded and destroyed by hoards of horsemen from the steppes, who then built new civilizations  which were themselves  to be destroyed by the next wave of horsemen from the steppes. And if there was one thing Aryans were good at, it was conquering.  By the start of the 20th century, 3/4 of the earth's population lived under  governments using Indo-European languages.  Why should this one small group be so successful?  Probably because they were the first people on earth to domesticate the horse.  It happens that the boundaries of their original range were exactly the same as the boundaries of the range of the Asian wild horse.  This was not a coincidence. For thousands of years, they had hunted the horse for food, much as the Plains Indians had hunted the Bison.  That's why they always happened to be where the horses were, and were therefore the first people to have an opportunity to domesticate them.
            Although the Aryans had begun making spoke-wheel carts almost as soon as they domesticated the horse, until their contact with Mediterranean cultures, about 3,000 BC, they lacked the technology to make a really good war chariot.  But by 2500 BC, armed with technologies they had learned from Mesopotamia, the Aryans had a good war chariot and knew how to use it.  And in the next millennium,  the conquest began.  And that's where Zarathustra came in.  The conquests  were unimaginably bloody. Whole villages were annihilated--men, women, and children were put to the sword. Zarathustra was a minor religious  functionary, an Aryan priest. He was appalled by the scale of the slaughter, and doubted if any of the gods approved of it, unless they were pretty evil gods.
            While bathing in a stream, he had a great epiphany which allowed him to simplify Aryan religion and give meaning to what he saw.  As Zarathustra saw it, of the 30 or so Aryan deities, there was really only one god, Ahura Mazda, the god of light and fire.  Mazda was good and wanted us to be good. There was another heavenly being, Ahriman, who was evil, and who wanted us to be evil.  Although Ahura Mazda was assisted by six other ahuras, and Ahriman was assisted by other daevas,  Ahura Mazda was really the only god.  The others were heavenly beings, perhaps like angels, but not really gods. So Zarathustra can be thought of as the first real  monotheist. He preceded Ikhnaton and also Moses by several hundred years. (Of course,  Moses was not really a monotheist;  he was a henotheist.  A henotheist agrees to worship only one god, whereas a monotheist believes that there is only one god. It is unlikely that the Hebrews would have a commandment requiring them worship only one god--- if they already believed that there was only one god.  According to Muesse, not till 2nd Ezekiel do we see any assertion that Hebrews considered their god to be the one and only god. )  Besides being the first monotheist, Zarathustra saw life as a grand struggle between good and evil, and he saw god, his one and only god,  as requiring us humans to take sides in that struggle.  He asserted that those who are on the side of good would be rewarded eternally, and when they die,  they would go to heaven--but the unjust would go to hell. But he also believed that time itself  had a beginning and would have an end. He prophesied that at the end of the world, there would be a last judgment. The dead would be resurrected and judged, along with those still living at that time. He also prophesied that a redeemer would be sent to save humanity, and that he would be born of a virgin.   Zarathustra also originated certain ritual practices,  including that people should pray five times a day, and that they should pray in the presence of fire.  Today, Christians do not generally pray five times a day, unless they are monks.  But they did until the late middle ages.  And Moslems still pray five times a day.  And do Christians pray in the presence of fire?  I was raised a Roman Catholic, and as an altar boy, one of my duties was to light the candles on the altar before each mass.  Now, since Zarathustra received his enlightenment while bathing in a river, I think we can assume that this might be the origin of baptism.
            If you were raised in the practice of any Western religion, you surely notice the parallels to Zoroastrianism.  Western preachers try not to emphasize these parallels as this might cast doubt on the uniqueness or divine origins of their own religion. But even the Eastern religions did not escape this influence. By the time that the  Buddha and Mahavira came onto the scene, Zoroastrian missionaries had already reached India. So these sages were already familiar with the basic ideas of Zarathustra, and so were their disciples.  Had that not been the case, the philosophies which flourished in the East might have been different.
            If you were raised in the practice any Ibrahimic religion, then you were probably taught that there is one god, that he is good, and that he wants you to be good.  And you may or may not have been taught that you will be eternally rewarded or punished by this god, or that there is a devil who would like you to be evil.   So, what most of you have been taught  is some kind of Zoroastrianism.  You may protest: "Yes, Zoroaster had these ideas--but so do nearly all major religions."   I would answer: "Of course they do----and they got these ideas from Zoroastrianism, either directly or indirectly."   We see such ideas as being pretty basic, so we might assume that if Zarathustra had never lived, someone else would certainly have thought of the same thing.  But perhaps not.  Religion began very early.  Consider that even the 30,000 year old cave paintings in Europe seem to show suggest some kind of shamanism, some primitive religious stirrings.  Yet, by Zarathustra's lifetime,  26,000 years later,  no one had yet gotten the idea that god wants us to be good.  They had 26,000 years to think about it,  and it had not yet occurred to anyone that the deity, if there be one, might have a preference that we not murder our neighbors.  Would we have waited another 26,000 years to get that message if Zarathustra had not come along? Who knows?
             I know what some of you may be thinking.  You're thinking that though all religions of the world claim to be dedicated to kindness, their adherents' actual record of behavior is so miserable that we'd be as well off with no religion at all.  But having no religion might not be the alternative that we would get. What if we continued to have religion-- but to a god who is evil and wants us to be evil.  (Would we have  hypocrites who would make an elaborate public pretense of being evil, but sneak away to do good things when no one was looking?)  More likely, what  we would get would be a devotion to gods who simply did not much care how we treated each other. This is the religion that the Romans had, and they were the one of the most brutal societies that ever lived.  Not only did they crucify tens of thousands of people for political reasons, in their final debauchery they crucified people in the arena just for sport.  Yet that all abruptly stopped when Rome converted to Christianity.   For about 1,200 years, from about 300 AD to 1,500 AD, the Christian church was firmly in charge of Europe, and much blood is on its hands.  But the usual  number murdered at the hands of Christian kings and church officials in any given year was infinitesimal compared to the scale of slaughter in pre-Christian Rome.  So the Axial Age changes in religion, changes that Rome never experienced until they embraced Christianity, were still a remarkable improvement.
            The only time most of us think of Zarathustra is when we hear Richard Strauss's tone poem,  "Thus Spake  Zarathustra".  And when we hear that grand opening codex, we think, "Wow! I don't remember who  Zarathustra was, but whatever he spake, it must have been pretty awesome!"   Trust me.  It was.  

Friday, November 9, 2012

Iowa Poll Watcher

            This year, for the first time in my life, I volunteered to be a poll watcher for the local Democratic Party.  My local polling place is the high school in La Porte City, Iowa. This polling place serves not only the town itself but also the surrounding countryside, including the rural area where I live.  I took the first shift, from 6:30 AM to 10:30 AM.  The polls do not open till 7:00, but we were required to be there early.  I was relieved at 10:30 AM, but returned to take the 3rd shift from 2:30 PM till 6:30 PM.  The 4th shift poll watcher who relieved me would stay till the polls close and then take certain information to the county party's office.  Iowa law allows each party to have up to 3 poll watchers at any poll at any given moment.  When voters register,  the book they must sign has 3 carbon copies, and each party poll-watching  delegation is given one copy, which they return to the party to use for statistical purposes.   Along with this information, the poll watcher's report includes his personal notes concerning any irregularities, should there be any.  Of course, any serious irregularity would be reported by the poll watchers via cell phone, and a battalion of lawyers would be dispatched to the scene immediately.
            The election judges stay the whole day--6:30 AM to about 10:00 PM.  They are all elderly retirees, and I'm not sure how they manage.  My precinct was Spring Creek Township, whose polling place shared a large room with another township.   So we really had two elections going on at the same time in the same room.  I had my desk set up in a location that allowed me to keep an eye on both operations,  and I shared this desk with my Republican counterpart.
            Let me explain how voting takes place in Iowa:  As the voters standing in line come into the room, they approach the table for the township or precinct where they live. There are three judges at each  table. One judge allows the voter to sign the registration book and issues a blank form on which the voter certifies that he is indeed eligible to vote in that election at that place. The next judge checks the voter's photo Identification. If he does not have a photo ID, this will not prevent him from voting-- it will just make it a little more complicated.  If the person has recently changed address and is not listed in the voter rolls as living in that precinct, he must then show evidence of his address. A recent utility bill in his name, mailed to that address will suffice.  After establishing who he is and where he lives, a third judge issues a ballot and a privacy folder, and the voter takes this ballot to a small privacy booth and votes it. This booth is just a small card table with a low screen on three sides.  An Iowa ballot is a printed form with the candidates' names listed, along with party affiliation. In front of each name is a small circle.  To select a candidate or party slate, you simply blacken the circle with a special pen that is provided.  After voting his ballot, the voter walks back to the judges' table and a judge directs him to the ballot box, which is in plain sight in the middle of the room. The voter slides his ballot out of the privacy folder and into the box.
            The ballot box is a large locked bin with an electronic vote counting machine mounted on top. This machine looks like a computer printer, except that instead of spitting out paper, it takes it in. When you slide a ballot into the machine, the machine counts the votes for each candidate and records this information onto its memory card and then drops the paper ballot into the locked bin, where it is saved and can be re-counted by hand if necessary. On the front of the machine is an LED readout which displays the count of how many ballots have been received and counted.  This count is also recorded onto a paper tape inside the machine.  At the end of the day, this count must match the number of signatures of voters who have signed the register. When the polls close, the voting results are transmitted by wire to the county election office, and also to the Iowa Secretary of State. Then the actual ballots are taken in a locked box to the County Auditor's office and placed in a vault. 
            If doubt arises as to whether a particular voter is eligible to vote, she may cast a provisional ballot.  This is a regular paper ballot, but instead of depositing it into the ballot box, she seals it in a plain privacy envelope, and then in an envelope with her name and address. She returns this to the judge, who places it in a special envelope taken to the county election office. When the votes are tallied, if the voter in question is really eligible and has not voted in another location or by some other means, such as mail-in ballot, then the vote is counted.
            There are many kinds of complications that can arise.  If a voter claims that she had requested and received a mail-in ballot, but had lost it or ruined it--she is simply allowed to cast a provisional ballot.  The system is such that no matter what happens, every voter votes once--but no person votes twice.   And it all happens in an atmosphere that is cheerful, civil, and meticulously open.  No electioneering is allowed within 300 ft of a polling place on Election Day, and everyone knows this and respects it.  Besides, people are on their best behavior on Election Day.  La Porte is a friendly little town, but even people who would not be civil to each other at any other time of the year would take extreme care to do so at the polls.  In Iowa, Election Day is like a national holiday, and the holiday spirit requires you to treat all of your fellow voters with respect.   Voting is a sacred duty, and an Iowan would be no more likely to insult or intimidate  a fellow voter at the polls than to heckle a priest about to consecrate the host on Easter Sunday Mass.  Even if we didn't respect each other,  which we generally do, we would still respect the process.
            After my 6:30 to 10:30 shift was over, I drove to Waterloo, where my wife was part of the Obama Team Get-Out-The-Vote drive.   There, in a small house in a modest residential neighborhood,  rows of men and women with cell phones sat in the kitchen and living room, calling party members to remind them to vote if they have not already done so. Other volunteers were walking from house to house in every neighborhood, explaining why this election is important, and making a last appeal for the candidates.  After wishing these people well, I found a bite to eat, and then returned to my post.  One of the machines malfunctioned at 4:00 pm.  It began rejecting all ballots.  The judge called for a repairman, and then voting continued, but with the ballots placed in a special holding bin.  When the repairman arrived, he brought a new machine.   With the judge and both party poll watchers observing, the repairman broke the seal on the machine, took it apart, and removed the memory card and the paper tape. Before doing this, we wrote down the number displayed on the old machine's LED readout, and it showed that the last vote counted was # 510.  The repairman installed the memory card and the paper tape in the new machine, and the readout said #510.  All of this was done in view of the judge and two poll watchers, and the repairman stopped at every step to explain to us what he was doing. The judge could have taken the ballots in the holding bin out and run them through the counter at that time, but she felt that this would delay the voting.  So she decided that these ballots would be counted at the closing of the polls.  Both poll watchers wrote exact descriptions of this event, to be included in the report given to their respective parties.  The whole process took less than two minutes, and hardly delayed the voting at all.  So far, this post has been a rather boring, nuts-and-bolts description of how the Iowa polling system is set up. I did this deliberately, because one of my fellow Democrat poll watchers informed me that delegations from all over the country and all over the world often visit Iowa to observe our polling process.  They do this because the Iowa system is widely cited as the textbook case of a fair, efficient, and fraud-proof system.
            The poll watching experience was mostly boring, and to relieve the boredom I engaged my Republican counterparts in polite conversation.   I had not expected this to be a pleasant interaction, but it was.   To be designated by your party as a poll watcher, you have to be a party loyalist, and when one considers how acrimonious and vicious some of the campaign rhetoric coming from the candidates has been (particularly on the Republican side), I was afraid that the Republican I would be seated next to might have horns and smell of brimstone.  But the four people I met (a middle aged woman, and three elderly retired gentlemen)  were as friendly and personable as anyone you could hope to meet.  One guy in his 90s told about his experiences in the Navy in WWII.  He had asked to be allowed to be an aircraft mechanic because he had experience as a mechanic, and because he did not think he could bring himself to shoot anyone.  He talked about using  his GI Bill entitlement to get started farming and to buy his first tractor.  He said he got an Oliver tractor. He wanted a John Deere, but the waiting list was too long.  I asked, "Was this an Oliver 77?"  He said, "No, it was a model 70."  I asked, "Did you burn the valves on it?"  He got a big grin on his face, and replied, "Why, yes!"  He had not imagined that someone my age could have known about the Oliver 70 valve problem.  At last, he had found a kindred spirit.  We talked, quietly, so as not to distract the voters, for the whole 4 hours.  I found that his world view was not so different from my own. He was not a Tea Party lunatic trying to abolish government.  In fact, he freely admitted that without the GI Bill and the Farm Bill,  he might not have attained the success that he now enjoyed. His main worry was the outrageous cost of healthcare, especially long term care. His wife now has Alzheimer's and is in a care facility.  He had been charged $70,000 for one year's care.
            I wondered how on earth someone who had been burned that badly by the private sector insurance and health care providers could support a party that wants only private sector solutions.  My answer is this. Some of these people are like confused tourists in a country that they do not understand--and they have inadvertently gotten on the wrong bus. It is not that their eyesight is too poor to read the signs. Tricksters from rival bus companies have pasted phony signs over the original markings, so as to obscure the information about where some of these busses are heading.  This makes it pretty hard to make an informed choice.  Yet the activist volunteers working with my wife are trying to do the opposite. They try to peel off the false labels and explain to people who really owns each bus, and where it will actually take you.  

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Germs That Make Us Us.

            There is a fascinating article by Michael Specter entitled "Germs Are Us," in the Oct 22 issue of New Yorker Magazine.  Specter says that medical thinking is beginning to change about germs, and about the relationship between microbes and the humans who carry them. In 1982, Barry Marshall and J. Robin Warren discovered that Helicobacter Pylori, and not stress, was the principle cause of peptic ulcers. For this discovery, they later shared a Nobel Prize.  By the 1990s, doctors began to seriously consider an effort to eradicate this organism, which would be quite a project.  H. Pylori has been around over 200,000 years and inhabits half the stomachs on earth.  But, they reasoned, "This microbe is clearly bad for us. Besides causing ulcers, it raises the risk of stomach cancer. So why not get rid of it totally?"  In 1997, one prominent microbiologist wrote, "The only good H. Pylori is a dead H.Pylori!"
            But by 1998,  it became clear that H. Pylori is completely harmless to most people, and may play a positive role.  In fact, of the thousands of species of bacteria which humans carry, many if not most may have some positive role,  perhaps even a role necessary to the long term survival of the human species. When a baby leaves the womb, it is free of all bacteria.  But as it passes through the birth canal, it picks up some of its mother's microbes.  When exposed to air, it picks up more. And by the time it's old enough to crawl, it is carrying a hundred trillion foreign bacteria, viruses, yeast, and fungi. An adult human may carry 10,000 different bacterial species.  These foreign cells may weigh a total of over three pounds and outnumber our own cells by ten to one.    We call this our microbiome.  We have coevolved with these organisms, and we depend on them to help digest our food, make some of our vitamins, ward off gut infections, and help develop our immune systems.
            But the typical human biome is not as diverse as it once was. Since the introduction of antibiotics, most individuals have lost cultures of gut bacteria which never returned. And this gradual loss of various kinds of gut bacteria may be contributing to the rise of many diseases, including Crohn's disease, asthma, and obesity. Unfortunately, the decline of biome diversity will be cumulative from generation to generation, since we cannot pass on to our children those bacterial cultures which we have already lost.  In 2007, after the completion of the Human Genome Project, the NIH instituted a project to map the DNA of the human microbiome. Since then, one study of only 124 people found about 1,000 species of gut bacteria. But the average for each individual was only about 160 species.  David Relman, of Stanford Medical School, says that our biome is vast, complex, and poorly understood. He says we must stop seeing medicine as a war between our bodies and invading pathogens, and start seeing an individual human body and its biome as a whole system--a system that needs to be managed.  A lab in Germany has discovered that human biomes can be placed into three categories, which are unrelated to age, race, or gender. Just as there are four blood types, there are three gut types. 
            Antibiotics have been a profound benefit to mankind. They are one of the main reasons that a child born in America today can expect to live 20 years longer than one born in 1930.  But by age 18,  an American has received 10 to 20 courses of antibiotics, and every time they are used, there is collateral damage.  A hundred years ago, nearly all humans carried H. Pylori.  Today, only 5% of American children do.  While H. Pylori can be harmful to some adults, it is rarely harmful to children and may be necessary to normal development. The article says that studies now show that children without H. Pylori are much more likely to develop asthma. And they are also more likely to become obese. Besides antibiotics, there are many other causes for the decline in biome diversity.  Improved sanitation has helped. And the rise of c-sections means that fewer babies will receive microbes from their mothers while passing through the birth canal.             While there are many ways to lose microbes, there may also be many ways to gain them.  The article tells of a man who had a chronic ear infection in one ear.  Several kinds of anti-fungal drops were tried, and several antibiotics, but nothing worked. Then, he cured himself--by transferring a bit of ear wax from his good ear to the infected one.
            About 10% of the population carries Clostridium difficile in their gut, which normally causes no trouble because it is held in check by other bacteria. But when a course of antibiotics wipes out nearly all other enteric bacteria, a nasty C. diff infection can result. For some patients, their microbiome is never successfully restored, and C. diff becomes chronic and untreatable. One of the more radical treatments now being tried is the fecal transplant. A sample of fecal material is obtained from a healthy donor, usually a close relative. Then [after being lab screened for parasites and other harmful pathogens] it is placed into the bowel of the patient, to re-establish a normal colony of beneficial bacteria. So far, the limited trials seem encouraging. In one study, all 34 patients were completely cured, and all were patients for whom all other approaches had failed. Ten years ago, this procedure would have been considered outrageous by most physicians. But the fact that this procedure is being tried in mainstream clinics indicates just how radically our ideas about germs have changed.
            We are still in our infancy in our understanding of our microbiome and the complex interactions between the thousands of species of germs with each other and with us.  But the new paradigm will not be that of an invading army needing to be slaughtered by chemical warfare, but that of a garden in need of a careful gardener.  To me, the human body is like a coral reef--a collection of cells which constitute a separate organism, yet host an entire ecosystem.  And if the ecosystem is healthy, the coral is healthy. 
Note:  If you are not a New Yorker subscriber, you may hit a pay wall.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

When Computers Were Reliable

           I have neglected this blog for a week because one of my computers died and I needed time to replace it.  I write this blog on a big Windows-based desk top.  But since this machine is not online,  I transfer the data , via thumb drive, to a Mac lap-top and squirt it out over the web on the Mac.  This may seem like a silly arrangement, but I enjoy composing with a big screen, a real mouse, and a full stroke keyboard. Yet I also need to own a portable that can be online wherever I take it.  But  to have both computers online would cost more.  At least, it would have cost more until U.S. Cellular recently  gave me a freebee Wi-Fi  hot spot unit to replace my original cell tower modem. (Cell towers are the only access to the net available in the rural area where I live.)
            This last computer  lasted only a couple years, and frequently crashed or froze up.  In fact, my last five computers were that way--short lived and unreliable.  But there was a time when computers did not crash or ever need to be replaced.    I bought my first computer in 1982, and have had at least one computer in the house ever since.   About a year ago I hauled 5 computers to the re-cycling center.  They were the first five computers I ever owned.  And all five were still in perfect working condition.  They were all replaced only because they had become obsolete, not because there was anything wrong with them.  The only reason I still had them around is that I can't bear to throw away anything that still works.   Not only did these machines still work, but in their entire life of service,  not one of them ever froze up or crashed.
            But somewhere in the late 1990s  I began to notice that reliability was becoming a problem.  I had one machine that froze up about every half hour even when it was new.  So why did we  get utterly reliable computers in the first generation of cheap, home computers, and have never gotten them since?  I think I have the answer.
            In the early 1960s, when I was in the Signal Corp, our satellite communications ground station was equipped with a computer.  It was the size of a large refrigerator laid on its side, it had 4,000 bits of ram, (ferrite rings) had a clock speed of 4 kc, and cost $40,000, which would be about $400,000 in today's dollars.  In the early 60s, there was no such thing as a "home computer."   What made the cheap personal computer possible was the development of the "chip."  Somewhere in the mid-60s, someone announced, with great fanfare,  that they had  succeeded in placing two transistor junctions on the same silicon wafer.  And within a year they had increased this number to 4, and then 8, and then 64, etc.   And they gleefully speculated that once this technology was perfected, there might be no practical limit to the number of junctions that could fit on one chip.   Well, actually there is a limit, and we'll get to that later, but it's a pretty big limit.  I just bought a thumb drive that has 8 Giga bits of memory on a single chip, and the salesman asked me if I didn't want a bigger one. 
            In 1982, when I bought my first computer, I believe it had 4 k of ram, supplied by 4 chips.  But about every 18 months, the number of junctions per chip has doubled, and the speed has also doubled, while the price, in real dollars, has continually dropped.   But there is a price to pay.  Every time you put more junctions on a chip, you reduce the surface area of each individual junction, and that of course reduces both the time required to switch that junction, the power required to do so.  So as computers became smaller and cheaper, they become faster and more energy efficient.  But eventually we will reach the point where the energy required to switch each junction is less that the spikes of energy from quantum effects within the silicon crystal itself.  At that point,  the signal to noise ratio is zero, and no operations are possible.  But even before you reach the quantum threshold, you get signal to noise ratio problems from the normal "thermal noise" of all current carrying parts.  Whenever  current flows through a resistor  (or anything that has resistance) a certain amount of radio noise is generated. I'm not sure whether this noise is actually "generated," or whether there is merely a random fluctuation of conductivity occurring at radio frequencies.  But in any case, this noise effect is proportional to the temperature of the conductor. Temperature is simply a measurement of the average kinetic energy of the moving molecules, and since this radio noise is occurs as a result of the friction of moving molecules within the material, the higher the temperature, the higher the noise.   When I worked at the satellite  ground station,  the front end of our RF receiver was a parametric amplifier that was cooled to about a hundred degrees or so above absolute zero  as a way of reducing this noise level.  But cooling our personal computers to near absolute zero will not be practical. 
            Mind you, the energies involved in this "noise temperature" are exceedingly minute.  But there are also power line spikes and stray ground currents, even if you own an elaborately filtered power supply.  And there are also minute electrical disturbances caused by cosmic radiation.  I repeat;  all of these disturbances are exceedingly minute.   But as we have made our computers circuits ridiculously  tiny, then ridiculously tiny disturbances anywhere in the circuit are all that's required  to disrupt them.   And that, my friends, is why your modern desktop will freeze up--and your old TRS-80 didn't.