Thursday, April 30, 2009

Capitalist pig flu

No, this is not a conspiracy theory. The conspiracy theory on current flu - that such an exotic mixture of swine, avian and human flu could not have been natural - has already been raised and defeated by basic science. The respiratory tracts of pigs have receptors for all three types of flu.

But, as has already been noted, the present (and unkosher) swine flu is not really natural either. 53 million pigs existed on a million US farms in 1965. Now its 65 million in 65,000 industrialised food factories.
"This has been a transition from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, containing tens of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems suffocating in heat and manure while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates."
As a result circulation of H1N1 flu amongst pigs - the living sucessor to the 1918 pandemic have risen exponentially. The H1N1 virus which was genetically stable has, since the mid 90's, begun mutating at a frightening rate. There has been plenty of warning since then that it was only a matter of time before a killer virus would jump species to us. The most likely origin for the current outbreak is one of the giant pig farms in Mexico. These are owned north of the border and operated south where the labour is cheap and expendable. Here is a concerned recent report from one of the biggest pig factory companies:
"Pork sales grew 19 per cent to $2.06 billion. However, hog-production operating profits fell, because of higher costs and the impact of circovirus infection at a number of production sites. Results for pig production were below a year ago due to higher rising costs and the impact of disease.[...] The company is implementing more vaccination programmes which is making substantial progress in increasing production levels."
Now that tells me two things, not all these poor factory pigs are vaccinated, and vaccination eats into profits. In any case vaccination assumes that the virus is genetically stable - which it no longer is. Additionally, vaccination helps select drug resistant viruses. There is only one real solution: deindustralise pig production, which will almost certainly mean removing the profit motive.

Nevertheless we now have an unknown virus circulating in our species, a virus that none of us have an immunity to and that may mutate into something that kills more readily at any time. Not that it doesn't kill already of course - predominantly the poor in poor countries. In terms of inequality nothing has much changed since the 1918 Spanish flu which killed 20 million Indians alone.

'Our species'.... it would be nice if we could approach things that way. Instead what will probably happen is that the borders with Mexico will be locked and the key thrown away. We setup super pig virus factories in their country, exploit their workforce, ship the profits north and then leave them to their fate.

Worldwide there are 220 million course of Tamiflu, the drug that can help reduce the severity and spread of the flu. Almost all of it is held by the West - 80 million courses held by the UK and the US alone. The reason is its expense and the huge profits it makes for the drugs company that has the patent on it. The Indian government has just announced that it will expand its stocks to 3 million. I don't need to tell you how far that will go in a country with 1.1 billion people

Again there is only one solution - break the patent, manufacture the drug in any way possible and distribute it as widely as possible. Undermine the drug companies profit motive - a position all but endorsed by the World Health Organisation
"WHO's [Director General Dr Margaret] Chan was asked about countries' freedom to break Roche's patent on Tamiflu, an antiviral drug that has proven effective in treating the H1N1 swine flu, in order to manufacture it locally and, presumably, more cheaply.Chan left the door open: "When and what the country is going to decide, it is their decision."
Hear, hear. And in the meantime take control of the entire world's stock of Tamiflu and distribute wherever it is needed the most.

Kaos (theory) on Wall Street

Is it really true that lapsed physicists who work in financial institutions applying physics to stock market modelling have caused the current world economic turmoil? This idea has been raised in a NYT opinion piece and has been discussed in other blogs.

The idea is that physicist influenced modelling became so esoteric that no one else could understand it or the now toxic packages of debt. Since no one understands where or exactly what the debt is, no bank wants to lend any more, ergo the crisis.

You see its just the packaging of debt that's the problem, not the shyster 100+% housing loans and the insane housing price bubble it produced. Nor the wholesale privatisation or the government approval of banking excesses. Its not really surprising that bankers are trying to spread the heat around. Not when the public sentiment towards bankers is something like,
"I'll tell you what we should do, spray them with wildebeest odour and make them run through the Serengeti, with a commentary by Attenborough"
But an investment bank cant be a very nice place to work at the best of times. One former physicist who works on Wall Street

"termed the market a wild beast that cannot be controlled, [...] There are a thousand physicists on Wall Street, she estimated, and many, she said, talk nostalgically about science. 'They sold their souls to the devil'."

Now thats a sad story. Though it is true, in some of my darkest moments, in the face of some crazy research grant cut, I entertained the thought of taking up the devil's offer. But my motives were noble you understand. I saw myself as a latter day Parvus who would expose the system for what it was. But since Parvus' scheme ended in disaster and that the bank interviewers would more than likely see through me to my bad attitude, I thought better of it.

Benoit Mandelbrot gave a lecture recently in which he railed against the prevailing economic models as (clearly) wrong. Attempts to model data as "random walks which assume that the price at any given moment depends on what it was the moment before" ignored the fact that stock prices were often discontinuous - jumping wildly from time to time. In fact, Mandelbrot went on the say, economists often ignore "outliers" - data from extreme events (like the one we are going through at the moment). But its the wild swings which constitute the reality

[Mandelbrot] contends that more realistic models of economics—including, naturally, models based on fractals—are driven by "wild randomness," wherein things don't average out and individual freak occurrences matter. This wildness, he said, "imitates real phenomena in a very strong way."

Mandelbrot leaves open the possibility that the stock markets could be modelled using fractals. As a guide I point out one feature of fractals - that they display the same level of complexity at all scales. To that end I took the liberty of posting here a plot of US GNP since 1950.us_gnp_1950

Now I would say, that plot shows a regularity that is simply missing from say, daily currency fluctuations (which I look up sometimes to watch my modest savings in UK pounds become ever more modest). The regularity is indicated by the grey vertical bands - the recessions. If you allow for the special case of the mid-70s "oil-shock" recession and the (relatively mild) mid-50s recessions, then there is a recession every, ooh lets say, 10 years:

since 1825, when the first general crisis broke out, the whole industrial and commercial world, production and exchange [...] are thrown out of joint about once every ten years. Commerce is at a standstill, the markets are glutted, products accumulate, as multitudinous as they are unsaleable, hard cash disappears, credit vanishes, factories are closed
Fredrich Engels 1877 Anti-Duhring Part 3, Chapter 2

If referring to Engels(and Marx) makes you uncomfortable, then you can take a respectable bourgeois economist like Ricardo who recognised these cycles even before Marx and Engels. Or German chancellor Angela Merkel - herself a former physicist - a couple of days ago, "The world stands at a watershed. We cannot afford crises like this every 10 years".

Indeed. And to make a value judgement, why should we listen to our "leaders" when they spent the last 10 years encouraging greed, speculation and debt, and now we are suposed to trust them that they've seen the light? Actually I dont think they have any real idea about how the economic system works.

So that brings me to my point. We should bemoan the fact, not that so many physicists attempt to understand the economy, but that so much effort is wasted on daily stock fluctuations in order to make the rich richer. The system shows regularity at larger scales and its these fluctuations that really need to be studied and prevented - even if the system has to be stood on its head as Marx and Engels argued.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bad Science

Its a lovely sunny Friday afternoon in Hamburg, and the weekend looks equally good weather wise. I should be in a great mood and have a jolly physics tale to tell. I find, however, I've been disturbed all week about the release of the CIA torture memos and the subsequent pronouncement by Obama that the torturers had no need to fear as there was no intention to prosecute them - "it was a time for reflection", not justice. This reassurance had to be quickly followed up by a visit to CIA headquarters with the message that they (the CIA) had done a great job.

Now I'm not an ethicist or a lawyer. I will not attempt to understand the apparent contradiction between something which is morally repugnant and illegal (as well as ineffective) on one hand, and a "good job, well done" on the other. Likewise I'm sure I dont understand the legal subtleties in the position that torture under direction from the previous US administration was legal, and, say, the Nuremberg defence of the Nazis - that they were only following orders.

No what my concern properly should be is the "science of torture". For make no mistake, a lot of research time and effort has been spent in trying to understand how to break a person. A lot of the modern research was based on CIA funded studies from the 1950s and "experimented" on in places like Vietnam and Central America. One conclusion was that medieval type tortures (of which waterboarding is one) fail consistently to produce reliable information. As a case in point, we learn from the recent memos that one victim was water tortured 288 times. Presumably there were still one or two items he forgot to mention after the first couple of dozen sessions. Or perhaps he successfully managed to endure 287 successive boardings and then suddenly gave in on the 288th out of sheer boredom.

What was discovered, in the ever refining art of torture, was that other methods may be preferable

"Guantanamo Bay turned into a de-facto behavioral science laboratory," McCoy told LiveScience, where sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain—allowing a detainee who had stood for hours to sit if he would only "cooperate"—regularly took place. [...] Though captives are less resentful when tortured psychologically, it doesn't make their statements any more trustworthy

Now that sounds like my sort of torture. Anyone who has stood in a bank queue in the UK knows that they could put up with that almost indefinitely if pressed. A point complained upon by one Washington
bureaucrat privy to the memos, who himself "had to stand for 8 hours behind his desk all day" (why?) - couldn't they find something tougher? Its not all fun and games however

"You simply make somebody stand for a day or two. And as they stand - okay, you're not beating them, they have no resentment - you tell them, "You're doing this to yourself. Cooperate with us, and you can sit down." And so, as they stand, what happens is the fluids flow down to the legs, the legs swell, lesions form, they erupt, they separate, hallucinations start, the kidneys shutdown."

I dont want to go on at length about how torture - psychological as well as physical - hasn't helped. How almost all released (and tortured) prisoners from Guantanamo have had no charges filed against them or have been found not guilty. How after 8 years of war we are further away from an end to terrorism than ever.

Presumably if a whole swathe of people have a grievance against you because they perceive that they have been mistreated in the past, then torturing some of their innocent number wont help soothe them. You can't torture or kill everyone with a grievance. Even the most hardened hawk must get sick of infinite war sooner or later.

What my real concern, as a scientist, is what sort of people carry our 'research' like this? I like to think of myself as a person engaged in science because I see the value in knowledge for its own sake. What can we say of 'scientists' with stop watches and notebooks who try to find out the quickest method for dehumanising a person? Could we excuse Josef Mengele as being primarily concerned with advancing medical science?

Of course not. The conclusion I come to is that you can't separate Science from Society, or indeed Politics, Law or Morality. This must be because, as a human endeavour Science is related to all other fields of human activity. As a physicist I know who went for an interview at a well known multinational arms manufacturer and who was asked whether he minded doing research on things that killed people, I can state that there is such a thing as Bad Science.