Sausage making

The Last Mystery of the Financial Crisis
It’s long been suspected that ratings agencies like Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s helped trigger the meltdown. A new trove of embarrassing documents shows how they did it
http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-last-mystery-of-the-financial-crisis-20130619

In this case, the sausage was chock full of e. coli and we all got violently sick. But hey! Look over there! The problem is immigrants, the poor, terrorists (especially terrorists!), not the financial industry which has done more damage to the US (and world!) economy than 100 9/11s. Ignore the man behind the curtain!

Rhinebridge, cheyne and a hell of a lot of other subprime investments ultimately blew to smithereens, taking with them vast amounts of cash – 40 percent of the world’s wealth was wiped out in the aftermath of the mortgage bubble, according to some estimates. 2008 was to the American economy what 9/11 was to national security. Yet while 9/11 prompted the U.S. government to tear up half the Constitution in the name of public safety, after 2008, authorities went in the other direction. If you can imagine a post-9/11 scenario where there were no metal detectors at airports and people could walk on carrying chain saws and meat cleavers, you get a rough idea of what was done to reform the ratings process.

Also of great interest to me is this bit:

‘You F–ked Up, You Trusted Us’: Talking Ratings Agencies With Chris Hayes
http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/taibblog/you-f-ked-up-you-trusted-us-talking-ratings-agencies-with-chris-hayes-20130621

where there is talk about how the rating agency’s statements about “objectivity, integrity and independence.” were basically just marketing material and thus should be totally ignored:

In that case, the Second Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs suing S&P could not make a fraud claim based upon the company’s reassurances in its Code of Conduct of its “objectivity, integrity and independence.”

Moreover, the Court said, plaintiffs could not make a claim based on a public statement by S&P touting its “credibility and reliability,” or another saying, “[S&P] has a longstanding commitment to ensuring that any potential conflicts of interest do not compromise its analytical independence.”

Why, you might ask, could one not make a fraud claim based upon those statements? Because, the Second Circuit ruled, those statements were transparently not meant to be taken seriously. The following passage is a summary written by S&P’s own lawyers describing the Second Circuit ruling (emphasis mine):

The Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims in their entirety, finding that the statements concerning the “integrity and credibility and the objectivity of S&P’s credit ratings” were exactly “the type of mere ‘puffery’ that we have previously held not to be actionable.”

More from that same memo from S&P’s lawyers:

The Court found . . . that “generalizations about [S&P’s] business practices and integrity” were “so generalized that a reasonable investor would not depend on [those statements]. . . .”

Because S&P’s statements about its objectivity, independence and integrity are the sort of vague, general statements that courts both within and outside this Circuit have found insufficient to support a fraud action, the Government’s first “alleged scheme to defraud” fails.

Our own courts are against us. You are either on the gravy train or you are in the gravy, there is no place else to go!

On a lighter side…

Car crash leaves Australian woman with French accent
http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/20/world/australia-car-crash-new-french-accent/index.html?hpt=hp_t2

Perhaps not as amusing for the sufferer, but amusing to me considering they are otherwise unimpaired.

I wonder, though, if they really have an ‘authentic’ accent (meaning they make the same sorts of changes a native person with the accent would) or if they just sort of sound like they have the specified accent. Perhaps their voice patterns are changed by the injury and the perceived ‘new accent’ is just an artifact of how people hear them as altered.

Everything in moderation, including moderation!

Vitamins: Too much of a not-so-good thing?
http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/19/health/vitamins-offit/index.html?hpt=hp_c4

This is an interesting issue. Much like the flu vaccine having dubious efficacy (where ‘dubious’ is being kind) over the last couple of decades mega doses of vitamins have been increasingly shown to be bad for your health. Add to that the fact that there is no regulation whatsoever on vitamin supplements (and of course that it is a many billion dollar industry with all the requisite political influence) and it is rather remarkable to me that there haven’t been more deaths. There is medical evidence that mega doses of antioxidants during chemo (don’t get me started on chemo!) can actually blunt the treatment, possibly even make it useless. Patients are specifically counseled to avoid taking vitamin supplements during treatment because of this.

However, there is a huge amount of evidence that people with poor diets (sadly, the majority of the US population, despite access to some of the best food in the world) can benefit a great deal from low-dose supplements. My father-in-law is a doctor in the Philippines (EENT: Ears, Eyes, Nose and Throat; see here for a journal from my first trip if you are interested) and he routinely sees people with very poor nutrition and routinely prescribes for them vitamin supplements. He says he has seen dramatic changes from the supplements and some people (often children, but sometimes adults) who have suffered from life-long health issues shake that all off with a few weeks of vitamin supplements. Not scientific, I know, but based on other research I have read (one of my degrees, btw, is in biochemistry and _nutrition_) a well-balanced supplement at a reasonable dose can have a large impact on people with poor diets. On people with the recommended variety in their diet, not so much. If you eat your greens and regularly pick from the rest of the food groups (sorry to say I generally don’t follow my own advice) then you are getting the required amount of vitamins and minerals to make a body healthy. Regularly eat crap, of course, and you are going to wind up short on some important vitamin, mineral or other nutrient and that can set off a cascade of poor health outcomes that can be so trivially treated.

Too much of anything is not good for you (I have tried to think of an exception to this rule and have yet to come up with one (including money, btw)). Conversely, too little of some things is also not good for you. Moderation in everything!

Quackery!

Opinion: Alternative healing or quackery?
http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/18/health/alternative-medicine-offit/index.html?hpt=hp_bn13

I particularly like this introduction…

It used to be called “fringe” or “unconventional” medicine — or simply quackery. Today, it’s called “alternative,” “complementary,” “holistic” or “integrative.”

And it has moved into the mainstream. Hospitals now have dietary supplements on their formularies (list of stocked medications); offer reiki masters to cancer patients; or teach medical students how to manipulate healing energies.

Forty-two percent of hospitals offered some form of alternative therapies to their patients, according to a 2010 survey of 5,800 facilities. When asked why, almost all responded “patient demand.”

Here in the good old USofA, “patient demand” is the driving force in medicine, not science. Pharmaceutical companies market directly to our credulous population with commercials and ads in ‘respectable’ (or not) magazines and make billions irrespective of any efficacy. Our FDA approves products based on a highest bidder mentality where no proof of actual benefit is required, only that a new drug doesn’t kill too many people. Aspirin would never become a viable drug today, it is unpatentable and thus would never make it past the safety trials (if it were patentable, I am sure it would make it past the safety trials; run trials long enough and you will eventually get the results you desire). Voodoo is the way mainstream medicine is done here in our Great Country and the more expensive the treatment the better, no matter that you can get a better health outcome for a tiny fraction of the cost.

On a side, but related, note, did you hear that now obesity is now a disease? Ostensibly that is to force insurance companies to cover treatments, counseling, etc. but I see it as yet another step down the witch doctory approach to medicine here.

It is hard to believe that this country put a man on the moon just a few decades ago and has sponsored so much of the cutting edge scientific discoveries in the last half dozen decades. Of course, Germany used to be the pinnacle of science until Hitler got in charge and things changed almost over night; I wonder where the next new scientific leading country will be? Will I have to learn a new language or can I stick with English (despite all its obvious faults)?

A SCOTUS decision I can fully agree with

U.S. top court bars patents on human genes unless synthetic
http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/13/us-usa-court-genes-idUSBRE95C0PW20130613

It has always stuck in my craw that the simple act of sequencing a gene could possibly be considered ‘novel, useful and non-obvious’, yet we have (had) thousands of patents on them. It is exactly like finding a blue jay and then getting a patent on the species. You have done nothing but bend over, yet you are to be awarded with 20 years of monopoly for having done so? No wonder there was such a gold rush! No different than the inane rush to register domain names, all the squatters were hoping for was a winning lotto ticket, they have done nothing to contribute to society, but at least in that case we aren’t talking about something everyone has.

I am glad that SCOTUS allowed synthetic genes to be/remain patented. There will, of course, be all sorts of cases where someone makes a trivial change to a gene (one totally ‘silent’ in expression) to produce an identical product, but the courts will eventually sort that out. Personally I don’t envy the people trying to come up with a rational solution. Most genes are useless by themselves, it is the expression of the gene that leads to something useful. If the expressed product is identical (something actually quite trivial to do) should that be infringement? Though protein/enzyme design is still in its infancy (a long one; I started my research into this area in the very early ’90s and as far as I can tell, nothing has changed since then), in principle you can nave a near infinite number of distinct scaffolds to hold up the same ‘active site’ on the protein/enzyme. What should be protected? The primary sequence? The active site? The primary sequence is (in principle and often in actuality) trivial to tweak and cause no measurable decrease in behavior, yet by the same token, small changes can result in dramatically different behavior with a chance of dramatically enhanced activity. Since this is (at least today) considered very ‘hard’ to do, that sort of modification should be rewarded with monopoly through patent. It is a complicated area and I expected SCOTUS to return one of their trademarked idiotic split decisions (or worse, one of their trademarked idiot unanimous decisions) and vastly muddy the waters, yet, at least in my mind (though I must admit I haven’t read the actual legal document) they have dramatically clarified things, in many respects exactly how I would have done it. I guess in any real world expectations must at least occasionally be thwarted, fortunately this time it was in a good way.

Self shooting gun?

$27,500 gun hits targets at 1,000 yards
http://money.cnn.com/2013/06/11/news/companies/trackingpoint-gun/index.html?hpt=hp_t5

I am not totally sure that this is as revolutionary as made out to be. Sure, it is hard for ordinary people (i.e., not snipers) to hit targets at that range, but really, how many ‘real world’ targets are at that range? Besides, with a good rifle with an excellent scope and a moderate amount of training (and practice, of course, lots of practice) most people on most days could indeed hit a man-sized target at 1K yards. Heck, I was able, after a mere week of training, to hit a man-sized target at 500 yards 8 out of 10 times with plain old iron sights, I feel quite sure with a decent scope (on a rifle that is accurate at that range, of course; don’t forget the critical importance of the rifle!) most anyone could learn the basic skills. What sets a sniper apart, though, isn’t just the ability to accurately hit a target at extreme ranges (not to belittle that skill, it is quite formidable), it is their ability to do so under fire, tired, late at night, after being awake 36 hours and not eating for 18, that sort of thing. Without the skills to accomplish these manifold other tasks, the mere act of taking someone out at a half mile is rather inconsequential and having a super accurate shoot-by-itself gun isn’t going to change that.

Besides, the biggest problem with shooting at extreme ranges is controlling your breathing and heart rate. Decouple the gun from your body via the use of video aiming and all the sudden accuracy for anyone is going to skyrocket. I suspect, after reading the article, that what they have is an automated trigger pull system that chooses the instant the person is actually pointing at the appropriate location to actuate and release the firing pin. You really are no longer in command, more of an advisory role. You suggest to the gun you would like to take a shot, only when you have ‘accidentally’ lined up with the target will it actually execute the suggestion. Fail to line up the target and you get no shot.

I doubt this will be any form of game changer and will only serve to extract dollars from the pockets of rich people itching to empty their pockets.

Mars gullies

Marks on Martian Dunes May Be Tracks of Dry-Ice Sleds
http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2013-200

This is quite interesting…

Mars Gullies

Mars isn’t quite the dead planet it has been made out to be. Now, in addition to the dust storms (that sometimes cover the _entire_ planet!) and the occasional evidence of recent (less than a few years) water flows, we have dry ice surfing down the slopes. Something else for people to bet on, I am guessing; just the vig on that activity would probably pay for the necessary cameras and whatnot.

The more we learn about our celestial neighbors the more we discover stuff we don’t know about. That is what is cool about science!

Employment says that unemployment is 24%

Employment is still near a 30-year low
http://money.cnn.com/2013/06/06/news/economy/employment-rate/index.html?hpt=hp_t3

Using the most generous measurement of employment in the article (for workers ages 25 to 54 — those who should be in the prime of their careers) there is an employment rate of just shy of 76%. That translates to an _un_ employment rate of people in the same age group of 24%, well above the stated value seen in the reports we get all the time. Granted that some portion of those people are disabled, stay-at-home spouses, etc.; the real key is looking at the trend. While the article only displays the graph for the entire adult population, it reported that the trend of the smaller group mirrors the entire population and it also hasn’t been this low for 30 years (by my reading of the graph all employment is off 10% from the highs). People should be upset about this: there was a very sharp drop in employment with the Great Recession and now everyone is crowing that the recession has recovered and the markets are in record territory again, yet the employment rate is exactly the same. Who got all those returns? Not you and me!

If it weren’t for the safety net the GOP is constantly trying to further shred, we would be in the depths of a massive depression complete with soup lines, etc. The safety net, as tattered as it is, has kept our country from dragging down the entire world. This should tell everyone to strengthen it, not continue to shred it.

But we are in America where intelligence and awareness have went the way of the dodo (link provided for those of you too young to know what a dodo was).

More good news for MS patients

MS Treatment That Resets Immune System Shows Promise In Safety Trial
http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/261536.php

I mentioned earlier about some work using nanoparticles for work attempting to reset the immune system to stop attacking self. Well this article talks about an approach using the patient’s own white blood cells, but mentions that the nanoparticles might be a better approach and it appears to be successful.

It is nice to see this stuff move out of the lab, too bad it takes so long. Still, there are many cases where rushing has resulted in costly failure, so I fully support the intent of how things are done (the intent is often violated by the highest bidder, though).

As a case in point from my personal experience… Years ago (too many now to count) I worked for a period at a company that tested chemicals on animals (I worked in the area that prepared the compounds, though that was in the building with the dogs; sure all animals stink, but the dogs were the worst (and the non-stop barking!)). Many of the studies were multi-generational and would last 2-3 years. The studies would generally start with an ‘acute’ test which would look at the toxic level so that long-term studies could be done. One company, though, was so sure that their compound was safe they wanted to save on time and run the studies in parallel. Our compounding area was divided into the feed section (mostly) for the long-term studies and the not-feed section for the (mostly) short-term studies and I was in the latter. Because we were working with unknown chemicals we wore full body suites and respirators (quite uncomfortable!), just in case. Well, there are generally four groups in each study. The no-dose, or control group, then low, medium and high dose. So, a week into a 2-3 year long study we got a complaint: why did we keep sending all this food for this study? We investigated and it turns out that, on the first day of the 2-3 year multi-generational study _all_ the animals in the high dose died, the second day all in the medium dose and the third day, every single one in the low dose croaked. Good thing we assumed everything was deadly, since that one turned out to be! So, the moral of this story is: animal testing really does save human lives. Just because _most_ of the chemicals tested are innocuous doesn’t mean that _all_ of them are!