Friday, May 14, 2010

Cancer and chemicals

The President's Cancer panel yesterday released their 2008-2009 annual report. It's a long (240 page) report, and what's amazing is that these are mainstream scientists who are now calling for precautionary reduction of our exposure to all sorts of chemicals we are now routinely exposed to.

It has some sobering facts about cancer, such as:

Approximately 41% of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, and 21% will die from it.


The incidence of some cancers, including some most common among children, is increasing for unexplained reasons.

This this op-ed pulls out some great highlights from the report. For example, here's a depressing one:

Noting that 300 contaminants have been detected in umbilical cord blood of newborn babies, the study warns that: "to a disturbing extent, babies are born 'pre-polluted.' "

And then there's this quote:

The report blames weak laws, lax enforcement and fragmented authority, as well as the existing regulatory presumption that chemicals are safe unless strong evidence emerges to the contrary.

Congress is now attempting to address this, with the Safe Chemicals Act.

Here is a quote specifically about Bisphenol A:

Studies of BPA have raised alarm bells for decades, and the evidence is still complex and open to debate. That's life: In the real world, regulatory decisions usually must be made with ambiguous and conflicting data. The panel's point is that we should be prudent in such situations, rather than recklessly approving chemicals of uncertain effect.

This is an important point: during the time of uncertainty, when we don't know that a given chemical is dangerous nor do we know that it is safe, we should err on the side of caution, treating the chemical as guilty until proven innocent. I discovered that there is a name for this approach: the precautionary principle, and this is of course the core change to the Safe Chemicals Act.

Here's yet another quote, this time from a brief article about one of the scientists who discovered lead exposure, even in tiny amounts, is very dangerous for kids:

We've been very careless in simply presuming that chemicals are innocent until proven guilty," says Dr. Phillip Landrigan.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Plants and animals use quantum mechanics?

Quantum mechanics, which Einstein once referred to as "spooky action at a distance", is a set of laws that govern how tiny (atomic & sub-atomic) things interact with one another. The laws are very different from classical physics, and really quite surprising, but nevertheless appear to be true (there's been much experimental validation).

Using quantum mechanics, it's possible to build a quantum computer, and indeed many research labs and at least one startup, have built simple ones. Quantum computers can do some amazing things, such as factoring integers very quickly, something classical computers can only do very slowly as the number gets bigger (as best we know, so far).

Most recently, a simplistic quantum computer was used to compute a discrete fourier transform using a single iodine molecule. Someday quantum computers will be all over the place...

But, isn't it possible that plants and animals have evolved to take advantage of quantum mechanics? Indeed there is evidence that we have!

The process of photosynthesis looks to be based on quantum entanglement.

And, one leading theory about how animals can smell so well is based on quantum vibrations. Luca Turin, who created this theory, has a good quote in that article:

Most people would probably feel that if it can be done at all, evolution has managed to make use of it.

And this makes sense - evolution is relentless at trying to find good ways to create plants and animals. Since quantum mechanics is real, evolution should have tapped into it.

This is also the reason I would expect Lamarckian inheritance to in fact be true. Any animal that can alter the traits of its offspring based on experiences in its own lifetime would clearly have a big advantage, so, evolution really should have found a way.

In fact, it sort of did, in a non-biological manner: language. We can pass on all sorts of life lessons to our kids, through language, and we get to stand on the shoulders of past giants, as we take for granted the knowledge created by the generations before us, passed on through language.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Lots of problems these days...

I try to keep my kids roughly informed about what's going on in the world; I think it's important they grow up with at least a basic world view.

Last night, my 7 year old son observed "you know there are alot of problems right now", and he's right! He then rattled off the Iceland volcano eruption, the ruptured water main in our state, forcing us to boil water before drinking it, and the disastrous oil rig explosion and subsequent and ongoing oil geyser.

Concord bans sale of bottled water

Fabulous! The town of Concord, MA has banned the sale of bottled water because of the wretched environmental impact these bottles have.

The environmental cost of such trash is stunning. We know this fills up our landfills, but have you heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? This is one of 5 spots in the oceans where garbage collects and kills marine life.

Of course you really shouldn't drink bottled water in the first place.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Your ideas and your name

I love this quote:

Your ideas will go further if you don't insist on going with them.

It's very true (note that I didn't tell you who said it)!

I find it especially applies to healthy open source projects. In Apache, the individuals (contributors, committers) who work on a given project are fleeting, transient. We will come and go. Our names are not attached to the code we commit.

Sinister search engine de-optimization

There's a large recall going on right now for many popular over-the-counter infant's and children's medicines, such as Motrin, Tylenol, and Zyrtec.

But if you look at the recall details page, posted by the company that manufactures these medicines (McNeil), you'll see that the table is actually a single JPEG image instead of an HTML table. If you don't believe me, try searching in your browser for the words you see in that table!

At first I thought "how strange -- why would they use an image instead of a normal HTML table?". But then a more sinister plot came to mind: perhaps they want to make it as hard as possible for future web searches to find this page. After all, they must now be in major damage control mode. It's the exact opposite problem of the more common search engine optimization.

Hiding text into a JPEG image to avoid searches finding you is a rather nasty practice, in my opinion (hmm, I see there's even this service to help you do it!). Google could prevent such sneakiness by running OCR on the image (perhaps they do this already -- anyone know?), but then I suppose the war would escalate and we'd start seeing barely readable tables like this that look like the dreaded Captcha tests. To workaround such companies, if we all link to this page with some real text (as I've done above) then Google will still find it!

It's also possible there's a more reasonable explanation for this maybe the good old saying "never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by something else" somehow applies?