Friday, March 30, 2007

Iran trying to split US and Britain?

Iran faces three fairly determined foes in the Middle East: Israel, the UK, and America. Any opportunity Iran has of sowing discord between them is sure to be seized upon.

The capture of the 15 Royal Navy personnel is just such an opportunity. The BBC offers an analysis of why Iran pulled its most recent hostage taking stunt. One small part of the analysis caught my eye: Iranian hardliners are arguing that the 15 should be traded for the five Iranian agents the US recently captured in Iraq.

By demanding a trade, Iran immediately puts pressure on both Britain and the US. Although this won't change the nations' policies toward Iran, it will cause political strains, all at little cost to Iran. Later, when military action is required, those political strains may turn into small ruptures.

This chance to throw Eris' apple of discord certainly explains Iran's withdrawing its promise to release its female captive. They must expect to do some hard bargaining in the near future. Freeing the woman once the bargaining process becomes difficult allows them to earn goodwill (at least theoretically).

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Famous literary dust-up explained

The fight some 30 years ago between heavy weight (in the literary sense) South American writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa has an explanation.

Short version: Cherchez la femme.

Marquez emerged with a shiner, which the article shows.

Bonus: other literary feuds are noted.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Good news, bad news edition

The good news: Zimbabweans may be finally fed up with the situation 30 years of Mugabe's misrule has landed them in. I certainly don't expect a people power-type uprising to overthrow his corrupt and horrible rule, but any unity in the face of his rule is bound to be a good thing. The opposition to this point has been fragmented and ineffectual.

More good news--at least on the surface--southern African nations will meet to discuss Zimbabwe. Don't expect much from the meeting as Bob Mugabe still enjoys a good reputation in many of the old British colonial outposts (I certainly had a measure of respect for him when he managed to wrench his nation from the white Rhodesians' control). Until Zimbabwe's refugees begin impacting its neighbors in a significant way, not much beyond hand wringing can be expected.

For the bad news: Russia is intimating that it will veto a UNSC resolution adopting the findings and suggestions of the UN's representative in Kosovo. Russia has main two reasons to oppose the plan. Russia certainly doesn't want a precedent set of a break away province recieving any form of de facto independence. It also wants to maintain solidarity with its Orthodox brothers in Yugoslavia, which remains its best friend in western Europe.

Should Russia be able to delay the plan, we will see increased bloodshed and instability in the heart of Europe. While this would doubtless suit Russia, Europe will remember such short sighted manipulations.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

How to tell if Europe's cycling season has begun

Want to know if the European professional cycling season has begun? Two necessary conditions need to be met. First, check if the Paris to Nice "race to the sun" is underway. Second, some form of typically European bureaucratic controversy must be taking place.

Conclusion: It's bike racing season here in Europe!

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Swiss court delivers blow to freedom of speech

The Swiss district court for Lausanne has fined a Turkish politician for denying that the murder of some 1.5 million Armenians was genocide.
A Swiss district court has found a Turkish politician, Doğu Perinçek, guilty of racial discrimination for denying the 1915 Armenian massacre was genocide.

The court in Lausanne agreed with the prosecutor's demand and handed Perinçek a suspended fine of SFr9,000 ($7,336) as well as a one-time financial penalty of SFr3,000. The court also ruled that Perinçek would have to pay SFr1,000 to the Swiss-Armenian Association as a symbolic gesture.

The head of the left-wing Turkish Workers' Party was brought to court after calling the genocide "an international lie" during a public speech in Lausanne in July 2005.

Under the Swiss penal code any act of denying, belittling or justifying genocide is a violation of the country's anti-racism legislation. [....]
Many European nations have laws against denying what are presumed to be historical facts. Unfortunately, such laws impose a real cost on freedom of speech.

As much as I dislike the idea of folks denying that Jews and others were killed by the millions while under Nazi Germany's rule, or claiming that the Armenians were justifiably slaughtered, to make doing so a crime is a mistake, pure and simple.

Like reading statutes in German? Yeah, me too. Here you go.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Peak-oil theorists could use a hug

Peak-oil scaremongers won't like this article in the IHT, which notes that improved recovery techniques allow older oil fields to continue producing long after they were expected to be "dry", thus adding more oil to useful reserves.

Secondary and tertiary recovery methods meant--to peak-oil theorists--that a field would soon be depleted. Given that many giant fields are using such methods, the peak oil types predicted that we would soon race past the point when 50% of the world's oil would have been produced. The problem is that they based their predictions on old fashioned recovery estimates.
[...] Within the last decade, technology advances have made it possible to unlock more oil from old fields, and, at the same time, higher oil prices have made it economical for companies to go after reserves that are harder to reach. With plenty of oil still left in familiar locations, forecasts that the world's reserves are drying out have given way to predictions that more oil can be found than ever before.

The oil industry is well known for seeking out new sources of fossil fuel in far-flung places, from the icy plains of Siberia to the deep waters off West Africa. But now the quest for new discoveries is taking place alongside a much less exotic search that is crucial to the world's energy supplies. [...]

As the industry improves its ability to draw new life from old wells and expands its forays into ever-deeper corners of the globe, it is providing a compelling rebuttal in the long-running debate over when the world might run out of oil.

Some forecasters, studying data on how much oil is used each year and how much is believed to be still in the ground, have argued that at some point between 2005 and 2010, global oil production will peak — if it has not already — and begin to fall. That drop would usher in an uncertain era of shortages, price spikes and economic decline.

But many oil executives say that these so-called peak-oil theorists fail to take into account the way that sophisticated technology, combined with higher prices that make searches for new oil more affordable, are opening up opportunities to develop supplies.

After all, for each barrel of oil that is produced globally, two barrels of oil usually are left behind. Going after these neglected resources, energy experts say, represents a tremendous opportunity.

"Ironically, most of the oil we will discover is from oil we've already found," said Lawrence Goldstein, an energy analyst at the Energy Policy Research Foundation, an industry-financed group. "What has been missing is the technology and the threshold price that will lead to a revolution in lifting that oil." [...]

Initially, engineers expected to recover only 10 percent of the [Kern river] field's oil. Now, thanks to decades of trial and error, Chevron believes it will be able to recover up to 80 percent of the oil from the field, nearly twice the industry's average recovery rate, which is typically around 35 percent. [...]

Chevron hopes to use the knowledge it has obtained from this vast open-air, and underground, laboratory and apply it to similar heavy oil fields around the world. It is also planning a large pilot program to test the technology in an area between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for example. [...]

Oil companies have been perfecting so-called secondary and tertiary recovery methods — injecting all sorts of exotic gases and liquids into oil fields, including water and soap, natural gas, carbon dioxide and even hydrogen sulfide, a foul-smelling and poisonous gas.

"Discoveries are not the only way that our resource base grows," said Scott Neumann, Exxon Mobil's corporate planning manager. "It will require lots of investments and it will require the application of technology, but we're very confident that we're not at or near a peak in production."
Now it looks as if the peak oil types will have to recalculate, again.

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Magnet therapy shown to be hogwash

Believe that magnets can cure aches, pains and are generally beneficial? A recent study in Anesthesia and Analgesia should help disabuse you of such foolishness.

The well designed study checked whether magnets are able to relieve post operative pain. Result: magnets worked no better than did a placebo.

An accompanying editorial lays in to the magnet craze (the full editorial is provided as it otherwise is unavailable unless one has access through a subscription; internal links were removed):
In this issue of Anesthesia & Analgesia, Cepeda et al. present the results of a well-designed, randomized, double-blind trial showing that magnets fail to decrease pain in postoperative patients. At first glance, the reader might be tempted to dismiss the results as a boring waste of valuable time. Why should a journal even bother to publish a study if the treatment under investigation does not work? The reason is that negative results are often as important as positive findings. This is one of those cases.

As described by Cepeda et al., magnet merchants have flooded the market with magnets of all shapes and prices. A Google search of "miracle magnet therapy" (without quotes) returned about 521,000 distinct Internet references. If the first 10 references are any indication, magnets are being hawked for all varieties of healing wonders. Google's sponsored links include promotions to "End Pain with Magnets," and "Magnetic Therapy USA Made, as recommended by Kevin Trudeau," (whose claims include a relationship between pH, health, and cancer that will surprise many anesthesiologists, accustomed as they are to arterial blood gas analysis).

The evidence offered on the Internet to support claims about magnets is typically based on testimonials from athletes and celebrities, associated with pictures of kindly men in white coats with "MD" emblazoned on the pocket. As documented by Cepeda et al., it is crystal clear that billions of dollars have already been spent on magnet therapy, or perhaps, wasted on magnet therapy. To be blunt, there is no proven benefit to magnet therapy.

Governmental agencies worldwide have done little to regulate the international magnet therapy industry. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authority to regulate magnets only if specific medical claims are made. To quote the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological health, "Magnets marketed with medical claims are considered to be medical devices because they are promoted to treat a medical condition or to affect the structure or function of the body ... To date, the FDA has not cleared for marketing any magnets promoted for medical uses". To skirt the requirements of the law, magnet promoters often make only the vaguest of claims. The FDA statement continues, "Significant claims that are likely to trigger regulatory action include, but are not limited to, treatment of cancer, Human Immunodeficiency Virus, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, asthma, arthritis, and rheumatism." Sadly, it appears that pain therapy does not count as a significant claim to trigger FDA enforcement.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has weighed in on magnets for pain therapy. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is perhaps the most controversial division of the NIH. NCCAM bends over backwards to keep an open mind to all types of "alternative" therapy. Nevertheless, NCCAM concluded in their research report "Questions and Answers About Using Magnets to Treat Pain" that "Scientific research so far does not firmly support a conclusion that magnets of any type can relieve pain. However, some people do experience some relief. Various theories have been proposed as to why, but none has been scientifically proven. Clinical trials in this area have produced conflicting results. Many concerns exist regarding the quality and rigor of the studies conducted to date, leading to a call for additional, higher-quality, and larger studies."

The Cepeda et al. article is an exemplary answer to the NIH's call for higher-quality studies. Exactly what did Cepeda et al. do? They used an appropriate study design, including stratified randomization, concealment of allocation, and masking with sham devices. What did they find? Perhaps not surprisingly, when properly studied under controlled conditions, magnets had no effect whatsoever. Indeed, Figure 3 in the Cepeda et al. article is a veritable poster child of what "no effect" looks like in a clinical trial. How did they publish their findings? They submitted the findings to a peer-reviewed journal, where experts in pain management evaluated their clinical trial design, study power, outcome measurements, and statistical analysis, and found them acceptably rigorous by contemporary scientific standards.

Will this be the end of magnet therapy? Certainly not. Sellers of "healing magnets" tout their products with almost religious zeal. There are too many claims, to much hokum, for a scientific study to have much impact. For example, nothing in the Cepeda et al. study disproves the efficacy of magnets for blepharitis: "Apply N side of small magnets to closed eye lids. Wash with North pole water". A convert to magnetic therapy might concede that this study demonstrates that magnets do not decrease postoperative incisional pain, but will claim that it says nothing about any other types of pain.

Though this is not an entirely vapid criticism, it places the burden of proof on the scientific community to disprove claims of magnet efficacy. It is like saying, "you have proved that magnets do not decrease incisional pain; now you must prove that they do not decrease leg pain, arm pain, head pain, neck pain, back pain, foot pain, stomach pain, joint pain, etc., etc." This is incorrect. The burden of proof is on the claimant to show efficacy. The burden of proof is not on the rest of the scientific community to show lack of efficacy. Although the burden of proof was not on them, Cepeda et al. still tackled this question with a rigorous self-funded study. Of course, such studies are likely to be self-funded, as magnet mongers have little to gain from high-quality research.

Randomized clinical trials such as the study of Cepeda et al. are one way to deal with the outrageous claims of magnet purveyors. Another way is to go back to the basic sciences and investigate whether or not healing via magnets is possible, even theoretically. Surprisingly, the answer appears to be no. Almost all magnetic "healing" devices use "static" magnets like those used to attach Johnny's homework to your refrigerator door. When dealing with magnets, the word "static" means nonmoving. It has nothing to do with static electricity. Moving magnets can create electric fields and electromagnetic radiation that could theoretically have an effect on living tissue. A nonmoving static magnet produces only a magnetic field. Now, here is the key point: there is no evidence that magnetic fields have any significant effect, therapeutic or otherwise, on human tissue. You may respond by wondering "Wait a minute, what about the iron in our blood?" Fortunately, the iron in hemoglobin is not ferromagnetic. In other words, iron as it is configured in hemoglobin is not affected by magnets. This is quite fortunate for the millions of people who have been exposed to powerful magnetic fields during magnetic resonance imaging scans. If hemoglobin were ferromagnetic, then they would explode in the scanner. Perhaps, the lucky ones would only spin around in circles.

Even if magnets did have some effect on human tissue, what is the likelihood that it would be a healing effect? About zero. By analogy, of the approximately ten million known chemical compounds, only a few have healing effects. The vast majority, thousands upon thousands, are highly toxic. How many products on the shelves of Home Depot or Lowes would you like to taste test? If static magnets had any effect on human tissue there is no reason to believe that it would be a healing effect.

Anesthesiologists are experts in the management of pain. Anesthesiologists are trained in pain management. Many work in pain management clinics. As the name Anesthesia & Analgesia suggests, anesthesiologists are world-class pain researchers. The results presented by Cepeda et al. in this issue will be of special interest to the readers of Anesthesia & Analgesia. Patients interested in evidence-based medicine may find these results via Google, helping to dilute the hokum with real science. For readers wanting more information, a brief and very interesting review of magnet therapy can be found at the Quackwatch.org Internet site.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

More Airbus woes; this time their air freighter

Airbus won't even make a freighter version of its super jumbo A380 any time soon after UPS--its one remaining customer--insisted on including an opt-out clause in its agreement to buy the planned freighter version.

Previously Fed Ex had cancelled its order for ten of the monster planes.

Airbus' decision opens the door for Boeing's revamp of the venerable 747. It can expect scores if not hundreds of orders now that it owns the market in the near and middle term. Presumably Airbus realized it could not compete with the much lower costs of the 747. In any case, Airbus needs to keep its focus on producing the A380 and the A350 planes. Freighters would only distract them.

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Switzerland *mistakenly* invades Liechtenstein

Oops. The Swiss master plan for European domination was nearly prematurely revealed yesterday when Swiss soldiers invaded neighboring Liechtenstein for a few hours before realizing the "go" signal hadn't been given.

With key troops already in Rome (Vatican guards), the Swiss are quietly infiltrating elite units into other nations in preparation for a long planned power grab.

Perhaps I've revealed too much. If this blog goes dark, you'll know why.

Significant musical anniversaries

Last year saw the celebration of the 250th year of Mozart's birthday. This year has already brought two other anniversaries--albeit one a bit more important than the other.

Opera as a genre just commemerated the 400th anniversary of the first opera ever written, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo.

Last week saw the celebration of Austrian popstar's Falco's 50th birthday--at least it would have been had he lived. I was in Vienna last week and the airwaves and music stores were wall to wall with Falco.

Needless to point out, but Austria has lost a bit of its cultural oomph over the past couple of centuries.