Saturday, April 15, 2006

Smuggling and factory farming may do more to spread bird flu than the much-maligned migratory birds we've heard so much about

Wendy Orent, the author of “Plague,” put it this way in the LA Times last fall.
Wild-bird flu depends on mobile hosts to spread. If flu strains kill their hosts in the wild, the lethal versions will vanish. This is why evolution pushes wild-bird strains toward mildness.
But if it’s hard for a lethal virus to get a foothold in the wild, how have migratory birds been spreading the deadly H5N1 bird flu? Could be that they’re not. See "Evolutionary no man’s land — pandemic flu and the underreported meme." Orent is among those who see modern factory farming, especially the way it’s practiced in Asia these days, as an evolutionary breeding ground for lethal viruses.
People have been living with backyard flocks of poultry since the dawn of civilization. But it wasn't until poultry production became modernized, and birds were raised in much larger numbers and concentrations, that a virulent bird flu evolved. When birds are packed close together, any brakes on virulence are off. Birds struck with a fatal illness can easily pass the disease to others, through direct contact or through fecal matter, and lethal strains can evolve.

Industrial poultry-raising moved from the West to Asia in the last few decades and has begun to supplant backyard flocks there. According to a recent report by Grain, an international nongovernmental organization, chicken production in Southeast Asia has jumped eightfold in 30 years to about 2.7 million tons. The Chinese annually produce about 10 million tons of chickens. Some of China's factory farms raise 5 million birds at a time.
Perhaps because it’s easier to blame wild birds than to take a closer look at the practices of modern agribusiness, many experts were skeptical. But according to the New York Times, evidence is mounting that there’s more to the story than the presumed ability of migratory birds to pass this virus over vast distances.
Although many countries attribute the spread of (A)H5N1 to migratory fowl, many ornithologists say the evidence often points to smuggling.

"We believe it is spread by both bird migration and trade, but that trade, particularly illegal trade, is more important," said Wade Hagemeijer, a bird flu expert at the Netherlands-based Wetlands International, which has been studying the role of migrating birds.

Although bird flu has now been detected on many farms in several African nations, there have been only a handful of reports of infections in wild birds on the continent, supporting the notion that trade is most important there.

"We're been looking for it in wild birds for the last two months and it is surprising that we've come up with zero," Dr. Lubroth said.

The effect of smuggling can sometimes be direct, when sick birds are smuggled onto farms. The virus strain found on the farms involved in Nigeria's first outbreak, in northern Kano State, closely matched those found on Chinese farms, Mr. Hagemeijer said.
The good news is that modern agriculture keeps chicken prices low, but maybe that's also the bad news. The way Mother Nature balances her books, we may be paying a very steep price for cheap chicken.

Berlusconi's bizarre ballot-stuffer backfires

Silvio Berlusconi has been on a collision course with poetic justice for some time, and with the help of our neighbors to the north, he's apparently going to get it. Doug Saunders in the Toronto Globe and Mail tells the strange story.
The votes of 40,000 Canadian citizens who qualify as "Italians abroad," some of whom have never set foot in Italy and many of whom don't speak Italian, played a pivotal role in the defeat of billionaire Silvio Berlusconi in Italy's election yesterday, according to poll results released late last night.

For the first time in history, a country's political fate appears to have been determined by citizens of other countries, after Mr. Berlusconi introduced a scheme in 2002 that defines eligible Italian voters by blood lines rather than residency.
The "Italians abroad" voting scheme was designed by Mirko Tremaglia, the 80-year-old Minister of Italians in the World. An unapologetic defender of the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, Mr. Tremaglia is said to have modelled the scheme after a Fascist scheme that defined Italians as a race.

Under Mr. Tremaglia's new electoral law, eligible voters are defined as anyone with a continuous line of male descendants going back to a man born in Italy. The voter needs only to register with an Italian consulate, and does not have to speak Italian, have visited Italy or even have parents who were born in Italy.
Berlusconi supported the strange absentee voter scheme because he assumed he would get the majority of the vote, but he didn't. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

The boomeritis cure that dare not speak its name

Bill Pennington's article in the NYT -- Baby Boomers Stay Active, and So Do Their Doctors -- is about the Energizer Bunny generation of people who just can't stop running and engaging in other vigorous physical exercise. Doctors call their condition "boomeritis."
Encouraged by doctors to continue to exercise three to five times a week for their health, a legion of running, swimming and biking boomers are flouting the conventional limits of the middle-aged body's abilities, and filling the nation's operating rooms and orthopedists' offices in the process.

They need knee and hip replacements, surgery for cartilage and ligament damage, and treatment for tendonitis, arthritis, bursitis and stress fractures. The phenomenon even has a name in medical circles: boomeritis.
Is there a middle ground between the physical excesses of today's physically overactive boomers and the view best expressed by Mark Twain's quip, "Whenever I get the urge to exercise, I lie down until it passes"? Sure. It's called walking. Not very sexy, not a lot of competitive glory, not a lot of surgery needed to maintain your pace as you get older, and you don't need a gym or special equipment. Oddly enough, Pennington's article about boomers and exercise never once mentions walking. It's as if walking has become a dirty word, as if people view it as an admission of failure. Too bad. They don't know what they're missing.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Madison's urban and only somewhat wild turkeys

I photographed this wild turkey hen last fall when we surprised each other on a path in Owen Conservancy Park, the 93-acre nature preserve on the west side of Madison. While that was downright startling, my encounter yesterday evening with another member of this increasingly urban species was just surreal (unfortunately, it was too dark to get a photo).

I was driving west on the 1300 block of Drake Street. It was about 8:00 p.m., the sun had just set, and again, it was a hen turkey. She walked across the street, head held high, without even glancing at the traffic -- walking with a wobbly but oddly regal bearing. Suddenly there was this huge bird in front of me, seemingly as tall as my car, intent on a mission of some sort. She was heading north, away from Vilas Park.

The strange thing was that once she reached the other side, she didn't wander onto the terrace or a lawn. No, she just turned and started running west on the sidewalk -- fast, like someone trying to flag down a bus. It didn't look as if anything could slow down her determined run, but then a car pulled out of a driveway and blocked her path. As the driver got out to gape at this huge apparition racing toward her, the hen veered off into another driveway. That's where I last saw her, biding her time and reviewing her options behind a scraggly bush that didn't really hide her the way she thought it did.

For nearly a century, wild turkeys were extinct in Wisconsin, due to market hunting and cutting of the forests. In 1976, the DNR brought in live-trapped wild birds from Missouri. The DNR traded three ruffed grouse for every turkey. Thirty years later, we have about 300,000, all over the state. Last year hunters killed more than 46,000. The turkey season started April 12.

Maybe that's why she was running.

So maybe it's not the Famous Amos cookies, but my genes instead?

Cocaine cookies, I call them -- the siren call of the Famous Amos cookies from the vending machine in the lunchroom seduces me the same way the white powder does an addict. (What do they put in those things, anyhow?) It's gotten worse since I gave up cigarettes a few months back. I try different strategies to no avail. I limit the cash I bring to work, but then there's the plastic card reader our vending machine company helpfully installed for the likes of me. But it's gotta stop. I've nearly gained the average weight men put on after stopping smoking (eight pounds, someone said), and I refuse to step up to the next pants size.

I tend to think of this as my secret vice. But maybe it's not just a matter of my own fallen nature -- maybe it's in my genes.
Are you heavier than your friend who eats two cheeseburgers to every one you put away? If you've been blaming it on your genes, you may be half-right, said a Boston professor whose research team just published its discovery of a common genetic variation linked to obesity.

About 10 percent of the population carries DNA with a single, minuscule difference that predicts the likelihood of excess weight, said Michael Christman, chairman of the department of Genetics and Genomics at Boston University School of Medicine.

The study published in the journal Science on Thursday brings researchers one step closer to answering a question that bedevils doctors and dieters alike -- why do we get fat, and what can we do about it?
Maybe the study will lead to something that will help. More likely, it will still be up to me. Oh well -- I guess I can work on the 50% that's not my genes, but my own damn fault. That would save me a good 600-700 calories right there.

Fibonacci sequence is cool for short poems, but for really heavy poetic lifting, try the decimal expansion of pi

The Fibonacci sequence -- 0,1,1,2,3,5,8… (keep adding previous two numbers) -- is great if you’re a sunflower, or one of the many other plants that grow seeds or buds in that pattern. Or if you want to write the sort of short, numerically constrained poem that Gregory K. Pincus dubbed a “fib” on his blog GottaBook recently. What Pincus calls fibs are six-line poems in which the number of syllables in each line is determined by the successive Fibonacci numbers. The New York Times headed their article on the internet poetry explosion set off by Pincus with an example.
and rumor
But how about a
Rare, geeky form of poetry?
The Times quoted Annie Finch, a poet who teaches at the University of Southern Maine, on the appeal of formal constraints in poetry.
"Poets are very, very hungry for constraint right now," said Ms. Finch, who has written about formal poetry. "Poets are often poets because they love to play with words and love constraints that allow the self to step out of the picture a little bit. The form gives you something to dance with so it's not just you alone on the page."
Of course, there’s more to versification than short six-liners, just as there’s more to poetry than haiku. What if you want to do more? The Times story gave an example of an eight-line fib, but if you follow the Fibonacci sequence out very far, you’ll see that it quickly spirals out of control, at least for syllable-counting poets -- 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987, 1597, 2584, 4181...

For the long haul, you may prefer a sequence that’s more poetically robust -- that is, a sequence that can give you manageable numbers as far out as you could possibly write. For the really heavy poetic lifting, try the decimal expansion of pi -- 3.14159265358979323846264... For the poetically inclined, it evokes even more mathematical, scientific and artistic associations than the Fibonacci sequence. With Fibonacci numbers you can write something approximating a haiku. With pi, you could truly write an epic.

How would you translate pi into a rule for making a poem? On way would be to follow the syllable-count method of the fibs -- that is, give each line the number of syllables of the corresponding digit in the expansion of pi. Here’s my own lame attempt.
Start with three.
just simply let
syllables follow
the decimal expansion of pi.
Another way would be to let each word contain as many letters as the matching digit of pi (this seems to be more widespread). This old mnemonic for the decimal expansion of pi, quoted by J. J. O'Connor and E. F. Robertson at the end of their “History of Pi” is an example. (I’ve taken the liberty of laying it out in the form of a poem.)
How I want a drink,
alcoholic of course,
after the heavy lectures
involving quantum mechanics.
All of thy geometry, Herr Planck,
is fairly hard…
One blogger set out last year to get to 100 places in the decimal expansion and apparently made it to 82 before tiring of the game. Have you seen any good “pi poems”? What should they be called -- pips? Have you written one yourself? Leave a note on Comments.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

New York Times watches the world of blogs go by

New York Times public editor Byron Calame’s recent musings about blogs weren’t just controlling and complacent and self-congratulatory, they were clueless. While the institution that formerly employed Judith Miller is still worried about blogging’s lack of journalistic standards and verification and all the rest, the blogosphere isn’t worried about the Times. Rather, the blogosphere is simply starting to ignore them. Is this quantifiable? Sure, although you wonder if Times editors even know that.

Let’s see what Technorati says. As I write, here is the number of blog links to four major newspapers. 46,864 27,296 23,547 17,830

Just for the sake of comparison, here are the links to Capital Newspapers, the portal for the two dailies here in our modest capital city of Madison, Wisconsin -- the Wisconsin Sate Journal and the Capital Times. Don’t look back, NYT -- in the words of Satchel Paige, something might be gaining on you, at least on a per capita basis. 2,663

Although the bloggers who are doing all this linking are not all opinion leaders, many more are than the Times seems to realize. Public opinion is formed by social networks, and blogs are important nodes in the filigree of networks that crisscross our country and the world.

Great newspapers are magnets for blogs, which need newspapers and exist in a lively symbiosis with them. Newspapers that understand this will prosper. Those that don’t, won’t.

Medicare drug benefit’s donut holes

The WaPo’s has a cheery little story this morning — Most Seniors Enrolled Say Drug Benefit Saves Money — about the increasingly positive response to the Medicare drug benefit.
According to the Post-ABC News poll, a majority of Republicans (56 percent) said they approve of the new benefit, while a similar majority of Democrats disapprove. Most Americans say the Republicans deserve the credit, or the blame, for the new program.

At the same time, the poll suggests that Part D is not shaping up as a major factor in the upcoming elections. The issue ranks well below hot-button topics such as Iraq and the economy: 59 percent say it will be important in their vote, compared with 83 percent for Iraq and 80 percent for the economy.
Not a “major issue”? That’s just because Medicare hasn’t started serving up its donut holes yet — to millions of people, many of whom are in for a big surprise.
The complete lack of coverage for drug spending between $2,251 and $5,100 is often called Medicare's "donut hole" by Washington analysts and lawmakers. More than one-quarter of all Medicare beneficiaries are projected to have drug spending that falls in the donut hole's range, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The structure means that sicker patients with higher drug costs will end up not only paying more for their drugs, but paying a higher share of their drug costs than those with fewer prescriptions, Moon says. A senior with $1,000 in annual drug costs would pay $438 out of pocket under the plan, while a beneficiary with $5,000 in costs would be responsible for $3,500 of their total costs.

"The donut hole will reduce protection against drug expenses just as many of those Medicare beneficiaries who are most in need are expecting financial relief," writes Moon, who is a former Medicare trustee. "The new benefit's donut hole will likely anger many beneficiaries once they understand these rules," the report states.”
"Anger” is probably an understatement to describe what happens later this year when seniors start opening their wallets wide to maintain access to essential medication.

The poll never asked about the donut hole. It’s a classic example of how polling can lull people into complacency when it’s basically a look in the rearview mirror. It’s like the market research that long ago proved to Ford that the Edsel was a great idea.

Most people haven’t thought much about the Medicare donut hole. They will when it starts hitting them in the pocketbook — not just seniors, but family members who help them with their bills. They’ll be livid. Right about election time.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Macleod's mordant miniatures

Blake had it right. In art, it's not how big you make it, but how you make it big. Blogging, in particular, seems to favor the well-framed small object, as I tried to suggest a while back in regard to photography. The paradox of scale is even more relevant to drawing and goes to the heart of Hugh "cartoons drawn on the back of business cards" Macleod's posts ongapingvoid. Macleod is a marketer and business consultant who's interested in what he calls global microbranding. Oh, and he's a micro-cartoonist. This is one of his. Like it? Check out his approach to licensing. Here's his backgrounder on how he started to express himself within this very small frame, along with a portfolio of his microcartoons — doodles that long ago outgrew the limitations of their form.

McDonald's serves up cyberburgers via the internet

To an untrained observer, fast-food employees may look busy, but they can be made to do more, and with the help of the internet, you can be sure they will.
The call-center system allows employees to be monitored and tracked much more closely than would be possible if they were in restaurants. Mr. King's computer screen gives him constant updates as to which workers are not meeting standards. "You've got to measure everything," he said. "When fractions of seconds count, the environment needs to be controlled."
Reading about McDonald's new experiment with call centers, you have to wonder: Is there any interaction with service industry workers that won't soon be reduced to speakerphone contact with anonymous call center voices thousands of miles away, all in the name of efficiency and "customer service"?
"Their job is to be fast on the mouse — that's their job," said Douglas King, chief executive of Bronco Communications, which operates the call center.
Remember when restaurants were about food, not mice? Thanks, but no thanks.

Threatening to attack Iran

Seems to be working. To drive up gas prices, that is. Thank you, Mr. Bush.
Reports that President Bush is studying a military strike on Iran's nuclear program drove oil prices Monday to heights not seen since Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast last year.

Gasoline prices aren't far behind, meaning a return to $3 per gallon looks more and more likely.
But that's just for openers.
"The market is not really factoring in the true impact of military action but the mere mention of it sends prices higher," said Gerard Burg, economist at the National Australia Bank.
Sure glad all the talk about attacking Iran is just "wild speculation." Just as the talk about invading Iraq was.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Does Google encourage boring headlines, and if so, does it make any difference?

From today's NYT article on how search engine optimization affects online style.
Some news sites offer two headlines. One headline, often on the first Web page, is clever, meant to attract human readers. Then, one click to a second Web page, a more quotidian, factual headline appears with the article itself. The popular BBC News Web site does this routinely on longer articles.

Nic Newman, head of product development and technology at BBC News Interactive, pointed to a few examples from last Wednesday. The first headline a human reader sees: "Unsafe sex: Has Jacob Zuma's rape trial hit South Africa's war on AIDS?" One click down: "Zuma testimony sparks HIV fear." Another headline meant to lure the human reader: "Tulsa star: The life and career of much-loved 1960's singer." One click down: "Obituary: Gene Pitney."
Judging from the examples of clever headlines for humans, perhaps headline wit is overrated. Or maybe the problem is just with the Beeb's definition of clever.