Thursday, July 31, 2003

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The god that sucks
James Surowiecki wrote about the terror market in the 3/24/03 New Yorker:
The market in Saddam futures is the latest version of what are sometimes called "decision markets." They've been around for more than a decade, and in that time their track record in forecasting events has been exceptional. The best-known example is the Iowa Electronic Markets. The I.E.M., which was founded in 1988 and is open to all comers, allows people to buy and sell shares based on the percentage of the vote that they think candidates will get in upcoming elections. At any moment, the price of a candidate's shares reflects the market's collective judgment of how well he'll do. If George W. Bush's shares are trading at 56.4, the market is anticipating that he'd get 56.4 per cent of the vote.

The I.E.M. routinely outperforms major national polls. In the last four presidential elections, for instance, almost six hundred different polls were conducted, and the I.E.M.'s market price on the day each of them was released turned out to be closer to the election results seventy-five per cent of the time. And the I.E.M.'s election-eve predictions in those four contests were off by an average of just 1.37 per cent....

Why do decision markets work so well? They are extremely efficient at aggregating information and tapping into the collective wisdom of a group of traders, and groups are almost always smarter than the smartest people in them. As in financial markets, the incentive to get the better of others (whether the reward is profit or mere satisfaction) causes traders to seek out good information. The absence of hierarchy -- markets don't have vice-presidents -- insures that no single person has too much influence and that diverse viewpoints don't get shut out.

The Policy Analysis Market was thus an application of market fundamentalism to the problem of "good, solid, sound intelligence". Pulling the plug on PAM constitutes a statement of confidence in "intelligence" that has repeatedly been shown to consist of politically-motivated lies, forgeries, and 10-year-old term papers. And the stupid attacks on the program from our elected representatives fundamentally misunderstand the problem. Which (notwithstanding the protestations of Suroweicki and others) is primarily one of faith in the market-God.

7/31: doug v. brad

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Holy Shit
The prized pecorino called casu marzu, "rotten cheese," however, is not [readily available in Sardinia]. Banned by Italian health laws and EU regulations, it is basically a pecorino which has been infested with the larvae of flies, which live in and eat the chesse and make it pungent and creamy-chunky in texture. Casu marzu, also known as walking cheese, usually kept in the dark so the maggots remain dormant, is not sold in stores, but Antonella managed to find one for me... The maggots started jumping around like crazy and landing everywhere, including on us. It was quite wild to look at, let alone contemplate eating. I smeared a piece of creamy leaping cheese on a piece of bread and took a bite. It tasted like an extremely ripe gorgonzola without the veining of blue mold....
[Clifford A. Wright in the new Saveur]

Should you wish to learn more you can go the Slow Food cheese festival in Bra (Piedmont), 19-22 September, where you can also try tamer specialties. Or you can just read Carlo Petrini's new book and interview with Amanda Hesser.

On language
We have all become accustomed to unusually cynical doublespeak emanating from Washington in the last few years. But the current abuse of redaction is pissing me off, and since it is a little more subtle than the usual inanities, I draw it to your attention. Here's an example, from a 7/29 Times AP story:
Declassifying 28 pages of redacted material, as has been requested by the Saudi government and some members of Congress, would "compromise our national security and possibly interfere with the investigation of the events of Sept. 11," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Here are the relevant O.E.D. definitions of redact:
4. In modern use: a. To draw up, frame (a statement, decree, etc.).
1837 CARLYLE Fr. Rev. I. V. ii, The oath is redacted; pronounced aloud by President Bailly. 1845---Cromwell (1871) I. 101 The House of Commons..was busy redacting a �Protestation�. 1860 W. G. CLARK in Vac. Tour. 46 A council of ministers was held in the palace..: they were engaged in redacting the two proclamations.

b. To put (matter) into proper literary form; to work up, arrange, or edit.

1851 CARLYLE Sterling III. v, Sterling..redacts it in a Times leader. 1884 Times 1 Nov. 9 Their observations are recorded, tabulated, digested, and redacted in every possible way.
As you can see, redacting is editing, not excising, or eviscerating, or eliminating the important parts. At most, redacting might involve some reducing, by these definitions. The root, re + agere, latin for to drive back, explains what the word really means even more clearly, which is indeed something like a reduction, in the sense of "cooking off" the extraneous material from the essence of a text. One of the primary meanings in antiquity was to restore, and later it even meant to emend or correct* -- nearly the opposite of the present abuse. The way the word is used in textual criticism is also instructive: it means a version or "re-telling" (potentially involving reduction) of one text in another. E.g., "Homer," is a redaction of archaic Greek oral tradition. Finally, American Heritage gives no indication of any uniquely American perversion of the word.

Thus, in no sense can any of the administration's revisions be understood as redactions.

*Lidell and Scott, the O.L.D., and Du Cange give no examples of this sense with a textual object, but it would not be impossible, to judge by the examples they do give.

8/5: Just recieved a familiar-sounding email from William Safire about this. It appears that the paper of record can't imagine anyone being interested in a question of language except the venerable pedant. Which would explain their slavish abuse thereof.

5/20/04: It has come to my attention since beginning this "blog" thing that I am not a very good writer. Therefore, let me explain that the point of this is not to wage a quixotic battle against an uncouth linguistic novelty. Lexicographically speaking, the die is cast, and I'm sure we will see a new definition added soon. This, however, is funny, because the new meaning is in some ways the opposite of the "real" meaning of the word -- but the orwellian implications are lost on people because they have no idea what this "real" meaning is.

Here's the Economist's post-mortem of the UK "GM nation?" debate; see the Guardian for more.

Also, LAT on biopolymers: Executives speak of it in missionary tones. "This is a move toward sustainable development for the chemical industry," says John Ranieri, head of DuPont's Bio-Based Materials business unit...

Monday, July 28, 2003

To my legions of anxious fans -- I have been physically unable to type for several days, but I am now more or less recovered and ready to provide you with a constant stream of information and invective.

Those of you who feel strongly about sustainable agriculture but are afflicted with gnawing concerns about elitism as you peruse the produce at your local Whole Foods (a/k/a "whole paycheck") would do well to consider these organic farmers in Washington who are working with foodbanks to provide good produce to needy familes.

Also check out: radio show from last summer on the Mexican GM corn debacle; learn about the USDA's experimental feedlot and research on new biocontrol bacteria; Science News contemplates the ocean's depletion and engineering blight-resistant potatoes (research in PNAS); the real Cancun is scarier than you think.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Stegemann, et al., "High-frequency gene transfer from the chloroplast genome to the nucleus," PNAS 100: 8828-33 demonstrates gene transfer from tobacco chloroplasts to the nuclear genome at a frequency of 1 in 5 million cells. In his commentary (PNAS 100: 8612-4), William Martin writes:
On an evolutionary or environmental scale, 1 in 5,000,000 cells is a whopping number; to some it will be unbelievable and by no means will it make everybody happy. Some biotechnologists are adamant that foreign genes introduced into the chloroplast can be sequestered there and thus will not escape via pollen (introgress) from cultivated fields into wild species like nuclear genes can.
That speculative sequestering (because chloroplast DNA is not expressed in pollen) is essential to arguments about the future environmental safety of transgenic crops.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

sharpest candle in the deck dept. [Chron]
The state's budget crisis took a surreal turn Monday after a frank discussion by a group of Democrats on the budget and its impact on their re- election was accidentally broadcast throughout legislative and reporters' offices....

The unintentional broadcast was interrupted when someone informed the group that a microphone was on. 'Oh s--,' Goldberg said as the sound was cut. "

Funny how this is bigger news than the exterminating octopus speaking of unspeakably bad things [via suburban guerilla].

Monday, July 21, 2003

After a media-free vacation, I am in no mood to count the deaths in Iraq (or farmer's markets) since I left, nor dwell on Monsanto's latest frivolous lawsuit, nor indeed the discovery of escaped Atlantic salmon in Washinton State's rivers. Instead I direct you to CJR's profile of Sy Hersh, and the OED's celebration of itself, featuring such figures as William Chester Minor:
Minor, an American physician, had served as a surgeon-captain during the American Civil war, but had a history of mental illness. During a trip to England in 1872, he shot and killed a man, and was committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Being a man of great intellectual ability, he became a principal contributor of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century quotations to the first edition of the Dictionary. The quotation slip submitted by Minor appears in set, v., sense 17 a. The text on the slip reads: 'a1548 Hall Chron., Hen. IV. (1550) 32b, Duryng whiche sickenes as Auctors write he caused his crowne to be set on the pillowe at his beddes heade.'
Oh, in case you forgot to read the Times in my absence, don't miss Marian Burros's excellent discussion of the alleged health benefits of organic food. [referring to a corn/marionberry study I discussed here and this italian peach study.]

Thursday, July 03, 2003

I was all set to celebrate the one year anniversary of bad things with a tedious retrospective, violating both the umami theorem and the antic corollary, but luckily I have to go on vacation instead. Presumably you can find better things to do for the next couple of weeks, but if not you should read the blogs listed on the right.
But wouldn't you rather just turn off your computer and read the "new" Baffler?

Or you can spend the summer reflecting on what makes america great. Like the fact that we don't enslave women to make the world safe for democracy. Oh, sorry. Turns out your tax dollars are subsidizing comfort women for our brave troops. Which is why you need to give whatever you can spare to equality now!. Seriously.

Gluttons can waste time with the following journal backlog:

Peter Moore [Nature 424: 26-7] discusses Rajaniemi, et al., "Root competition can cause a decline in diversity with increased productivity," Journal of Ecology 91: 407:

Fertilization does indeed reduce plant diversity, as might be predicted for this scale of study. However, when Rajaniemi et al. examined the relative impacts of shoot competition and root competition on diversity, they found that virtually all the depression in diversity is a consequence of the effects of roots: the long-held assumption that shoot growth and competition for light lead to exclusion of species when productivity increases is not supported by this work.... But the implication is that resources in the soil (in this case nutrient elements, because water is not limiting) are the subject of the most intense competition and that some species are more effective at tapping these resources than are others, thus achieving dominance.
Shah, et al., "Crop residue and fertiliser N effects on nitrogen fixation and yields of legume -- cereal rotations and soil organic fertility," Field Crops Research 83: 1-11: "We concluded that retention of residues improves the N economy of the cropping system and enhances crop productivity through the additional N and other soil effects." More N fixation in vol. 252 of Plant and Soil

Special issue of Agribusiness [19 (3)] devoted to the economics of commodity checkoff programs.

Patel and Shibamoto, "Effect of 20 different yeast strains on the production of volatile components in Symphony wine," Journal of Food Composition and Analysis 16: 469-76: "The formation and composition of the volatiles produced by A350/VL1/Fermiblanc and T73 yeast strains were significantly different from the other strains."

Yamanaka, et al., "Dual origin of the cultivated rice based on molecular markers of newly collected annual and perennial strains of wild rice species, Oryza nivara and O. rufipogon," Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 50: 529-38: "Results suggest the indica line of rice varieties evolved from the annual genepool of AA genome and the japonica varieties from the perennial genepool of AA genome wild rice."

Hinrichs and Welsh, "The effects of the industrialization of US livestock agriculture on promoting sustainable production practices," Agriculture and Human Values 20: 125-41: "While the highly integrated poultry sector appears impregnable to traditional sustainable agriculture approaches, the cow-calf sub-sector of the beef industry, non-feedlot dairy operations, and small parts of the hog industry, especially in the Midwest, still retain some potential for effectively targeting the farmer."

you saw this, right?
The USDA ARS evaluates about 1000 new potato cultivars every year. It's easy to forget how much valuable work these people do, not to mention plant breeders. So take a minute to reflect on biodiversity at the National Agricultural Library, which features exhibits of the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection and Frank Meyer, far-east bioprospector, and "discoverer" of the eponymous lemon.

Other exotics described by the CRFG.

Corriere della Sera has a sweet video of Berlusconi calling the German a "Kapo" [click on the "contestata uscita del presidente"].

If your Italian's not so good, try the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Here's the new EU GMO labelling law. Expect a wave of bullshit in the media.

7/3: E.g., the Register, NYT, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

The bombing starts in two hours.
Oh yeah, Afghanistan. I forgot.

Also see Roger Thurow's WSJ article (if you don't have a subscription, the headline sums it up nicely):

Road to Hunger
Behind the Famine in Ethiopia: Glut and Aid Policies Gone Bad
Fledgling Free Market Failed As Surplus Battered Prices; Farmers Slashed Planting
Then the Drought Took Over
Both peasant farmers and commercial operators had no option but to sell for what was being offered. They were caught without a safety net between the withdrawn government intervention and the incomplete free-market system....

The result is that Ethiopia's unfolding tragedy is compounded by this absurdity: While the country begs for food, great stretches of fertile land in the more-drought-resistant wheat and corn belts are lying fallow or being underworked.

Then there's the famine at the other end of Africa.

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