Friday, January 29, 2010

Anthocyanins and Memory

by Richard Crews
Fifty years ago a dear friend who was an undergraduate at Georgetown University rhapsodized about the colorful autumn foliage by saying, "Oh, just look at those beautiful carotenoids, xanthophylls, and anthocyanins!" Yes, those are (respectively) the orange, yellow, and red pigments of the fall pallet.

This week anthocyanins broke into my awareness again. A small study has demonstrated that seniors are less forgetful if they have a couple of glasses of blueberry juice a day.


This is evidently because of the antioxidant effects of the anthocyanin pigments in the blueberries. In fact, other experiments show that the pigments actually turn up on microscopic examination of mouse brains in key memory locations.

Anthocyanins are the most common red and blue colors of growing things--of fruits and vegetables, flowers and trees. They are particularly high in chokeberries, purple corn, black raspberries, wild blueberries, red grapes, and eggplant.

A few weeks ago in response to a large, double-blind, controlled study I ceremoniously removed Gingko biloba from my morning nutrient array. Apparently--all the cross-cultural hype notwithstanding--Gingko does not improve memory functions. But now there is a bottle of blueberry juice in my fridge.

Controlled Nuclear Fusion

by Richard Crews
The long-sought, ideal energy source of the future is near at hand.

Controlled nuclear fusion of Hydrogen isotopes producing more energy than is required to ignite them should be demonstrable THIS YEAR !

This prediction is based on the new finding that, despite sophisticated concerns, highly focused, high-energy lasers do NOT disrupt the plasma needed for controlled fusion.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced on Wednesday that they have achieved an energy of one megaJoule on target. Current calculations show that about 1.2 megaJoules of energy will be enough for ignition, and current equipment at the Lawrence can run as high as 1.8 megaJoules.

Experiments using slightly larger hohlraums (target containers) with fusion-ready fuel pellets--including a mix of the Hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium--should begin before May, slowly ramping up to the 1.2 megaJoule mark before year's end.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ban the Burka

by Richard Crews
Are you puzzled by the recent spate of "Ban the Burka" legislation? I was.

Denmark, France, and now Canada have announced legislative moves to make the wearing of Muslim veils (the burka and niqab) illegal here and there in public--on public transportation, in government waiting rooms and offices, in schools and hospitals, and elsewhere.

These seem like modern, civil-rights oriented countries; why are they considering such religious prejudice?

The point is that such clothing is not always the woman's choice. Many Muslim women are required to wear veils--by their religion, their country's laws, or by their male relatives. In some places women can be beaten, whipped, or stoned for not covering themselves from tip to toe in public. In the old Baghdad of Saddam Hussein gangs of "enforcers" roamed the streets and--legally--bludgeoned to the ground women caught not wearing full Muslim veils.

And women cannot simply be "permitted" by law to wear different clothing; they would readily be forced by their male relatives to claim that they were wearing the heavy veils by their own choice.

Being forced to cover her face can interfere with a woman's education and participation in many civil activities. It is, in fact, an abuse of her civil rights. More than that, ones face is a light, a signpost to the rest of the world of ones ideas and dispositions.

According to the January 27, 2010 issue of Scientific American, "The latest study adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting that certain traits once thought to be indistinguishable based on looks alone are in fact written all over our faces.

"In a study published in the January 18 issue of PLoS One, subjects were able to accurately identify candidates from the 2004 and 2006 U.S. Senate elections as either Democrats or Republicans based on black-and-white photos of their faces. Subjects consistently associated Democrats with warmth (likable and trustworthy) and Republicans with power (dominant and mature). And subjects were even able to correctly identify college students as belonging to Democratic or Republican clubs based on their yearbook photos."

Further, "In a study published in Science in February 2009, subjects were able to predict from a pair of photos of faces alone which political figure would win an election. Even children could pick the winner when asked who they would prefer to be captain of their boat. And in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November 2007, researchers linked competence perceived from a candidate’s face to his or her electoral success."

China and the Rare Earth Crisis

by Richard Crews
There are three important facts to know about the rare earth elements

Fact one: The so-called "rare earth" elements are not rare--they are quite common throughout the Earth's crust--but they are hard to mine; they are hard to purify and separate from one another so that they can be used chemically and commercially. It takes five to eight years to bring a rare-earth mine on line.

Fact two: Over the past few years, three of the rare earths have become vitally important in modern science and industry: Praseodymium (chemical symbol, Pr) and Neodymium (Nd) for making super-magnets (like those tiny specks that will pull the refrigerator before they will come loose or, more importantly, for making superconductors and tiny electronic gadgets), and Erbium (Er) needed to make Vanadium steel for super-tough tools.

Fact three: China has a world monopoly on the mining and production of these three rare earths; it produces 95% of the world's supply. Moreover, China is expected to cut back severely on exports of rare earths over the next few years ostensibly to conserve supplies for its own growing industrial and scientific uses. And although there are fledgeling rare-earth mines outside of China--for example, in Canada and Australia--these are not expected to be fully productive for several years, and even when they are, they will not be able to replace the quantities now supplied by the Chinese.

There is truly a rare-earth crisis looming a few years ahead of us.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Obama Changes

by Richard Crews
In the wake of the disastrous Massachusetts election, I have observed three changes in Obama's presentation style and strategy.

One is adopting a populist tack largely manifest so far in scolding the big banks and threatening penalty taxes and restrictive banking regulations. This will surely win favor with mainstream, main street, middle class America.

The second is speaking with new vitriol and passion. He has been accused of being too cerebral, too cold and dispassionate. He is evidently taking strides to correct this impression and regain the image approaching bitter contentiousness he showed in his presidential campaign.

The third is getting more--much more--personally, actively involved in formulating and driving legislation. He previously laid out principles for his agenda and invited--and expected--the House and Senate to flesh out the details (which they were unable to do). This has changed.

It will be interesting to see if these changes are effective, and if Obama can rescue health-care reform, infrastructure rehabilitation, green-energy development, and Senatorial support for his foreign policy initiatives from the paralyzed morass into which the legislature has sunk.

Most informed pundits seem to doubt that he will be successful. I disagree. I believe that over the next few months we will see a nationwide resurgence of Obamania and constructive legislative kowtowing to executive power.

P.S. The absurd Supreme Court decision earlier this week undoing many years of hard-won campaign finance reform must add another log to this new Obama fire.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Scientific Methods

by Richard Crews
There is no such thing as "The Scientific Method"; that is a myth. It is a good myth, in a way--it is useful and reassuring: it is useful to those who popularize science, and reassuring to all the rest of us who "use" science every day. But it is a myth nonetheless.

The Wikipedia says that the term "scientific method" refers to "a body of techniques" that are used "for investigating phenomena [and] acquiring new knowledge." A method is called "scientific" if it is "based on gathering observable, empirical, and measurable evidence" and the thinking and evaluating processes used are "subject to . . . principles of reasoning."

That's pretty open ended--pretty loose--when you think about it. It is hardly the simple recipe we know and love (and commonly think is all there is to "the scientific method")--

(1) form a hypothesis (put it in such a form that we can state a "null hypothesis," that is, an alternate statement that says the variations that the hypothesis purports to explain might just be due to chance)

(2) design an experiment that will test this (in other words, that can possibly "defeat" the null hypothesis)

(3) do the experiment; make the observations

(4) show by statistical analysis that the null hypothesis is probably false--so the original hypothesis is possibly true.

This neat, four-step process--which many (sophisticated) people think is what constitutes "the scientific method"--is satisfying, I guess, when you can do it, but it often does not apply--it is entirely impossible in some branches of science.

In fact, there are five different kinds of "scientific methods" that are used in different scientific fields:

(1) Empirical Experiments--this is the approach described in the recipe above; it can often be used in "hard" sciences such as physics and chemistry, sometimes in biology--but never in such fields as archeology, anthropology, astronomy, and many others.

(2) Questionnaires--this approach is used in the social sciences (such as anthropology or epidemiology). One finds a group of people (such as fat people) and has them fill out a questionnaire about how they got along with their mothers and fathers when they were little. The same questionnaire is also given to a "control" group, that is another group of people of the same sex, age, cultural background, etc. And then one sees (through statistical analysis) if there are patterns of differences between the responses of the two groups that help "explain" why some people are fat.

(3) Natural Observations--this method is used, for example, in astronomy where there is no possible way to experiment (that is, to change the input conditions to see what happens). It is interesting that the next generation of telescopes now being deployed will make observations so deep in time and space that the data they measure will be a "one-off," they can never be expanded or heightened; once the deep data on the origins of our Universe have been observed, there will never be comparable observations of another Universe. It has therefore been proposed that substantial portions of these new data be withheld from theoreticians for several years so that they can form hypotheses, and then have a chance to have these hypotheses "tested" against new batches of the primary data.

(4) Thought Experiments--imagine, said Einstein a hundred years ago, that you are in a dark elevator falling at a rapid rate out in inter-stellar space, and there is a beam of light shining in through a hole in one wall of the elevator. Of course you can't really conduct this experiment and make the observations that Einstein described, but you can imagine what you might see. Einstein used such "thought experiments" to demonstrate the implications of his theory of relativity.

(5) Simulations--over the past few decades as computers have gotten more and more powerful, it has become possible to simulate vast patterns of weather or climate changes, of stars evolving or exploding, of clouds moving, or of flocks of birds obeying simple rules of flight, etc. One programs a computer with the variables one wants to study, and then runs the simulation to see how it comes out. In a sense these are thought experiments, but they are much more complex than a human mind could handle.

So "scientific methods" vary from one field of science to another, and one scientific question to another. And how these methods are applied is clearly dependent on such factors as the cleverness, personal background, and cultural setting of the scientists who use them.

Friday, January 15, 2010

My Education

by Richard Crews
I went to school full-time until I was 30 years old--after high school a BA, then MD, then post-doctoral studies in psychiatry. A few years later by the time I was 36, I was back in school again again--teaching, consulting in curriculum design (in health and social sciences)--and when I was 41, I became president of Columbia Pacific University. I retired from that when I was 63. Now I'm 72; I have an appointment this afternoon about doing some tutoring with the local adult education program. I guess it would be safe to say that I have spent my life in education.

Much of what I've studied, both in classes and on my own, has been useful and interesting; much of it, frankly, has not. I think, generously, I would like to say there's been a 50:50 split. However, I think that realistically well over half of my study efforts--even if they were interesting at the time--have not had any enduring impact on my life. In fact I would say, I'm afraid, that the vast majority--probably some 90%--have not been particularly useful. By this I mean that they have not contributed to my health or happiness, or ability to understand and get along smoothly in the world and contribute to the lives of others.

My first week at Harvard Medical School we were told that only 50% of what we were going to be taught over the next four years would turn out to be true and useful--the other half would not. The trouble was, they said, that nobody knew what would ultimately belong in which half.

I hereby present an outline of what was worthwhile (in the curriculum of my life).

(1) Working skills
(1a) Problem solving--three ways: by overview first, by details first, and by successive approximations; an understanding of algorithmic and heuristic approaches to problem solving.
(1b) Writing--both expository and creative (vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, word usage, and overall organization)
(1c) Math--arithmetic, algebra, and geometry, through elementary calculus including statistics and probability, and presentation of data.

(2) Working knowledge
(2a) Physics--how forces and masses interact
(2b) Chemistry--what things are made of and how these tiny parts interact
(2c) Biology--the living world from viruses to ecosystems
(2d) Information technology including programming

(3) Broader perspectives
(3a) History and anthropology (and politics)--what people have been up to the past million years, especially the past few centuries, especially the past few decades, and especially in recent years.
(3b) Foreign languages including etymology--which sheds light on, and enhances, how we think
(3c) Philosophy--especially two fields: epistemology (and scientific methods), and ethics (moral philosophy)

(4) Aesthetics (in search of joy and beauty)
(4a) Music--especially classical (from Bach to Beethoven and not much more; especially singing and playing)
(4b) Literature--especially poetry (mainly Shakespeare, Pope, Yates, E. A. Robinson, and my own--but also other odds and ends)
(4c) Art--especially drawing and painting, but also sculpture and architecture
(4d) Sports--(that is, participating, not watching) for endurance, balance, coordination, strength, and flexibility.
(4e) Crafts--carpentry, gardening, and some others.

Any questions?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Breakthrough for Human Rights

by Richard Crews
This is important.

Google Inc. has decided to refuse to censor its search results in China.


The Chinese government runs a tight ship; there is harsh censorship and repression of its citizens.

Google, the world's leading Internet company, has for years--in order to advance its business profits--agreed to censorship by the Chinese government. This has drawn worldwide condemnation from humanitarian and civil rights groups

No more!

This decision will have important and widespread effects on the repressed citizenry in China and elsewhere, on the worldwide business community, and on global politics.

Google will lose business in China. But it will survive and thrive. And other big businesses will be impelled (by their moral principles, their public images, and their management boards) to follow suit.

China is trying hard these days to be a world-class political and economic player. Therefore, China will capitulate. The capitulation will at first be partial and delayed--who knows when or how much? But this raises the pressure on the Chinese regime by an enormous amount, and it raises it at a very sensitive point--their global public and economic interface.

Today--and this decision--will go down in history as a breakthrough for advancing human rights.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


by Richard Crews
Over the past couple of decades there have been enormous changes in the ways we live our lives. All of us--you and me--have come to spend our time, our emotional and mental resources, and our physical energies very differently from the ways we once did (think about it). To a certain extent this is personal and local--age, patterns of health, and social and physical environments shift within us and around us. But to a certain extent these enormous changes are also systemic and cultural; from the pervasiveness, diversity, and power of computers to the political, environmental, and economic vectors of change, it is not just each of us as an individual but all of us as members of various levels of human society who have found ourselves walking in a storm--who experience the world, year by year, as a very different place.

Among other things, this involves our work--the activities by which we contribute to the life experiences of others and (although these may be severely dissociated from the contributions we make) the remuneration or value we receive from the world around us. Not too many decades ago a person had a life-long career (that went along with a life-long home and family). Nowadays it is too obvious for sociologists to bother to note that the average person changes patterns of work activity, of vocation (of "career") several times in the course of a "normal" adult life.

This can be disruptive. As one work activity follows another--whether they mercifully overlap or are separated by margins of unemployment--they often involve different interests, different skill sets, different social patterns, even different locations. In short, they cause us, as individuals, to redefine who we are and what we are doing in the world--what purpose and value we have; how others see us and how we see ourselves.

Although each individual has a personal responsibility (and desire) to manage work-activity transitions as comfortably as possible, the broader community (read "government") has a responsibility too. Social safety nets such as universal health care and unemployment insurance are important; adult-education incentives and retraining opportunities can (and, I believe, should) be built into the tax code and government-grants systems.

True, government can become overly protective and paternalistic and undermine the very social fabric it is trying to strengthen. But this is commonly the design of the system and failure to recognize and support the need for work transitions. The French system, for example, of artificial job security (once hired, it is very hard to fire someone in France) is counterproductive--it inhibits both business flexibility and necessary (in the modern world) worker mobility. Another example: socialized (that is, government) management of business and industry undermines entrepreneurial innovation and initiative, the economic backbone of democracy, and tends to unleash graft, corruption, and mismanagement. But deregulation can be overdone too--as the present Great Recession demonstrates; it tends to unleash (and conceal) antisocial, private greed.

Work transitions (including periods of unemployment) are an inescapable part of modern life. And the government--albeit carefully, thoughtfully--can strengthen and reinforce this aspect of the new social fabric so that it stretches and accommodates change without tearing.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Thorium--Super Uranium

by Richard Crews
Suppose someone told you that there was a radioactive element that was four times as abundant as Uranium; easier to mine, refine, process, and handle as nuclear fuel; stronger than Uranium (it produced more neutrons); and safer (it could not explode or melt-down Chernobyl style, and could not be used to make explosive atomic weapons)?

There is--Thorium, atomic element number 90 (Uranium is number 92).

You're probably asking, "So why aren't we using it?"

Because the cost of electricity is currently 80 percent higher than from traditional, Uranium-based heavy-water reactors. Uranium prices would need to increase 15-fold from current levels of roughly $80 per kilogram to make it economically attractive.

Historically Uranium technology got a tremendous boost during the development of nuclear weapons, and Thorium has never caught up. Thorium has simply not been studied and commercialized adequately. There has always been enough Uranium ore around, and a lot is known about how to mine and refine it; there has never been enough geo-political, commercial, or ecological impetus to find the several millions of dollars it would take to bring Thorium to the energy marketplace.

This is simply outrageous.

There are in fact bills in Congress to study and fund Thorium energy research and development. But there have been such bills in Congress before--for quite a few years. Perhaps getting something actually done about this will be another "revolutionary" Obama initiative for 2010 (before the mid-term elections dilute the Democrat's power and we settle back into patronizing, avuncular political paralysis).

Note that India has taken on the challenge of developing safe, cost-effective, commercially viable Thorium electricity-power generation--and made great strides.

Also take a look at an article in Scientific American for a more extensive discussion of the economic and technical problems of Thorium-based and other nuclear power technologies.

The 21st Century Gets Under Way

by Richard Crews
How shall we assess the "Oughties"? It was a time of worldwide terrorism; the emergence of global warming as a stark scientific reality; the world's only remaining super-power stomping around in cowboy boots promulgating torture, preemptive warfare, and anti-diplomatic international snubbing; and Alan Greenspan strong-arming Keynesian economics into the worst rich-poor disparity the world has ever known with financial greed of epic proportions finally collapsing into the Great Recession. Time magazine has called the first decade of the 21st century the "Decade from Hell."

On the other hand, history is more a stodgy dowager than a hysterical mistress. It sits back, aloof, in its ivory tower and refuses to pass judgment on the turmoil in the streets below until after the smoke and dust have cleared. Perhaps history will see the Oughties as, more predominantly, the decade when the Internet transformed our lives through Google, Wikipedia, blogs and video on demand, YouTube and e-readers and GPS in our pockets, email everywhere we go, on-line connectivity from airplanes, and Christmas shopping from Amazon.

Perhaps also of powerful significance (though in a very different dimension--from a very different point of view), in the Oughties we learned, more than in any other prior time, to be calm and accepting, even playful, in the face of surging technological change. And that, in the longer historical view, may turn out to be the most important hallmark of this puzzling decade we have just survived.

Friday, January 1, 2010


by Richard Crews
Have you heard of a marvelous program set up by the Mexican government to pay a rural mother $60 any month that three conditions are met:
(1) her child attends school every day,
(2) her child has a health-clinic visit,
(3) the mom attends a one-hour class in nutrition?

The money is paid directly by the government to minimize administrative costs and corruption. It is paid to the mother when she provides the three certificates for the month. Although there are no strings attached, sociological follow-up studies show that the mothers generally use the money for the benefit of their families. It was found that when the money was paid to the father, it was more likely to go to alcohol, tobacco, and gambling. The amount of the allocation is calculated to compensate the family for the loss of the child's labor from the fields.

The program was originally set up under the name "Progressa" (Progress) in 1997, and was changed to "Oportunidades" ("Opportunities") in 2002. About one fourth of Mexican families are enrolled in the program. Similar programs have subsequently been started in Brazil, Cambodia, Chile, Honduras, Jamaica, Malawi, Thailand, and Zambia.