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moderate alcohol consumption and cancer- should I be worried?

A report in JAMA today ( http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/306/17/1884.abstract?ijkey=d518a6cf2673dc22cb9393c553a884d58f02967b&keytype2=tf_ipsecsha) correlating moderate alcohol consumption and breast cancer incidence seems to suggest that abstinence from alcohol might have the effect of reducing your risk of breast cancer. Indeed, from some of the interviews (e.g. http://vitals.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/11/01/8585033-even-light-drinking-slightly-ups-breast-cancer-risk) there's a hint that alcohol may induce or amplify estrogenic effects on breast cancer. The question in your mind should be, is this good science, and should I be listening to it?

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the myth of the time travelling dollar

The myth, in its simplest form, goes something like this:

You travel back in time to 1920, and deposit $1000 in a bank savings account. You earn 5% interest, and then travel back to present day, 2011. Your money has doubled about 6 times in the intervening years, and you now have $64,000. You repeat the process, and now have $4.1 million. Repeat until sufficiently wealthy, or until you can fund your time travel costs, ad nauseam.

This is an exploratory post designed for me to think out loud about the concepts of income, wealth, and rent. It is not intended as a justification for wealth, poverty, usury, rent-seeking, envy, lust, greed, or any other first world problem.

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I believe that one can participate fruitfully in value-added discussions on issues of money and wealth if one is willing to let go of their belief in such a thing as the myth of the time travelling dollar. But doing so, and recognizing all the ways it creeps back into our lexicon, is not a simple task. It becomes a nagging straw man, too easily kindled.
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The singularity has not arrived (nor will it).

I have not watched the computer named Watson beat its human rivals at Jeopardy, but I have been following the fringes about what has been reported on it, because that's a lot more interesting to me. A good number of the people around me have expressed quite a bit of interest in it, though, and perhaps because my social network is populated with a lot of creative writery types and scientists and transhumanists of all stripes, this is not terribly surprising.

Occasionally I take some flak at work for making statements like “this can never happen” or moreso “this will never happen again”, because for most people, experientially, the fact that something happened makes it more likely that it will happen again. I apologize if opening with "The singularity can never happen" pisses you off, that's not my intent. It's a genuine desire to induce a question in your heads: “why am I making this argument?”

I make the counterargument, though, not because I am against progress and technology (far from it) nor because I fear our machine overlords (I fear them even less than other overlords, and that's slim, too). I don't make the argument from a position of scarcity or constrained resource (although the scarcity/abundance paradigm will become more of a theme in upcoming blog posts). I'm going to make the argument from the approach that you can attempt to answer the wrong question and mistake a right answer for success.

I am being unduly influenced by the format of a recent blog post that I read, completely off topic on the subject of marriage. You can read the article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tracy-mcmillan/why-youre-not-married_b_822088.html. Go ahead- it's worth reading. Not, however, because of the content, though, but for the same reason that many people get tripped up (usually once) by the “St Ives” story/joke. You know, seven wives, seven sacks, seven cats. It's not a terribly funny joke to play, because it's only funny once. And “funny once” is a recurring theme in my latest reading nearer to the subject of this blog post, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, by Heinlein. If you aren't reading that blog post carefully, you might miss the part where the writer says, “I've been married three times” (read: to jerks), and the whole point, I think, is that she's not providing you with prescription, but trying to induce you to question what you think is sound- why you want what you want, and how “how you go about it” influences the outcome.

So in the same format as that blog post on why you're not married, I will explain why the singularity is not near. Not exhaustively, mind you, smarter people than me are working on this, and others have perfectly good arguments: Steven Pinker, for example, here: http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/hardware/tech-luminaries-address-singularity. But I think I might have a different- not novel, but... distinctive, perhaps minority outlook on the subject, and as always, would appreciate feedback.
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on dilution ("family jewels", continued)

A couple of blog posts ago, I had mentioned that I'm fascinated by the concept of dilution.

Part of my duties as a chemist was preparing serially diluted standards for analysis, and the typical approach was to make up a series of 100 ml flasks, create a master flask into which I would dissolve a known weight of a given standard, then dissolve the standard in water, filling the flask carefully to the 100ml line. Then, I would pipet a certain amount- typically 10ml, and transfer that into the next flask, fill to the line... lather, rinse, repeat. The nice thing about such a method is that if I did my job right, you could draw a line between the analytical results and you would get a near perfect correlation coefficient, typically in excess of three or four nines.

The thing about dilution is that if you do it enough times, that last pipet's worth of solution you transfer into the next flask might not contain any of your original substance. You may (or may not) remember Avogadro's number, which states that a "mole" of any molecular substance is it's atomic weight, in grams, and that a mole contains about 6.02 X 10^23 molecules. So if you have a mole or so of a given substance, say, sodium chloride, which weighs 57 grams- if you dissolve a gram of table salt into a 100ml beaker, there are about 10^22 molecules floating around. If you did the procedure above, the next solution would have 10^21 molecules floating around. Twenty one more times, and at last you only have only one molecule left in the flask, and chances are the next time you dilute, and in the next flask, poof! there's no more salt in your salt water.

Now, if you're inclined to believe in homeopathic remedies, you'd recognize that as an "X" dilution. An "M" dilution is one milliliter in 1000 (roman numerals, ftw), and goes even faster- 8 "M", and poof! all gone. Homeopaths believe that the water has a memory of the salt, particularly if the procedure is done by a specialist and shaken "just so". But, if you're to believe science, any time a particulate characteristic is "diluted", at some point the act of dilution fails to transfer the original characteristic, and it becomes "lost". This is a fairly difficult concept to grasp, and I've struggled a bit to find a good way to reconcile all of that in my head.

great-great-whatever-grandparents, vs time, and base pairs of DNA So, I spent some time thinking about the issue of "great-great-whatever-grandparents", and how DNA and genes are passed down through the generations. In my last blog entry, I made what might be a difficult statement to believe, that at some point the act of procreation results in one or more of the grandparents passing nothing to the ultimate child. I wanted to see how fast that could happen. Given the fact that there are about three billion base pairs in the DNA of the human genome, if each parent passed about 1.5 billion base pairs on average, then each grandparent in turn contributed 750 million on average, and so on. It doesn't quite work that way exactly- there are two special cases. The Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA are passed (mostly) without recombination or change from the father and the mother and the fathers' father and mother's mother, respectively, (lather, rinse, repeat). There's also random mutations thrown in from time to time, and deletions and additions: but for the purposes of estimation, let's take it to be so. If we assume about 30 years from mother to child, how long would it take to completely dilute things away? (data in spreadsheet, here.)

It was a lot quicker than I thought. The picture here shows the result- in about 30 or so generations, or about 1000 years. Of course, in this picture, some of these "place settings" in your family tree will be occupied by the same person. I have superimposed the approximate world population in each year going back, and this has to happen a lot quicker- back past the year 1150 or in about 850 years, there are more place settings than people on earth on my tree, alone. Of course, if on this tree someone marries their cousin, as must happen to us all, the dilution happens a bit slower, but at some point, we are all ultimately cut from the same cloth. In the end, there is "nothing left behind" of each of us, no matter how many generations we sire- poof!

I've been thinking a lot about generations and children, as I think having genealogy as a hobby is likely to cause you to do. I've often discussed with my spouse what I think about us not having children of our own. I think on reading that last paragraph, some people might feel a little saddened, and assuredly, it's not my intention to bring people down on new year's eve. I think what we leave in our genes is a very small part of the picture, and dwindles rapidly with each generation- but, too, we leave behind our thoughts, and our philosophies, and the impact that we've had on everyone else. If we've been really good, we leave the world a better place- safer, healthier, more easily understood. Leaving behind art, or science- these are things that can last for much more than 1000 years, if you care enough and work hard enough to make them count.

I think all this stuff about DNA and genealogy teaches me a lesson, too. Each and every one of us has a massive family. We are all, genetically speaking, cousins, even if the paper trail is really difficult to ferret out. It's pointless to be xenophobic or to hoard your relationships and your wealth when the inexorable act of dilution is constantly reshuffling the deck.

Be good to your family, and have a safe and prosperous new year.
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 "...We must be a beacon of hope, because if you tell people there's nothing they can do, they will do worse than nothing."
--Margaret Atwood, "The Year of the Flood"
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On repenting what you hath wrought

A meditation on completing “The Year of the Flood” by Margaret Atwood.

“I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it repenteth Me that I have made them.”
- Genesis 6:7 ( http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0106.htm#7 )
It's been out for a bit, but it's been a while since I've sat down and read for pleasure. Oddly, I think the last thing I read was “Oryx and Crake”, of which “The Year of the Flood” appears to be a complete retelling of the same story from a different perspective. What do you call this? It is told out of order, having elements in the story which may predate the former work, and it ends perhaps a few days after the end of the previous book. It's not a sequel or prequel, so what do you call it? Co-quel? And, like the debate between “old” Coke and Classic Coke, is the retelling, the update, the same book, a new book, or what?

In thinking about what I would write when I completed the book, I decided to turn to an older diluvian story, and found the passage quoted above best relayed my thinking on her story. I think, perhaps, after finishing her earlier book, she felt that she needed to repent what she had created. I had read the earlier book over holiday break, about nine months ago, and while at the time I had simply written “I recommend this book” in my journal, I have not recorded any other thoughts on it. It is a breathtakingly pessimistic book with regard to humanity- the story is told more-or-less entirely from the perspective of what appears to be the last (human) alive. Perhaps when she wrote this, she felt put upon from many reviewers and critics who saw her version of our future as too depressing, too bleak and irredeemable. In writing this, she perhaps gets a second chance at telling the story, an epic do-over.

In “Year of the Flood”, she's retelling the story from the perspective of “God's Gardeners”, who presumably due to their refusal to partake in consuming the Chickienobs, and Secretburgers, and BlyssPluss pills, therefore (like Noah in the eyes of God) have found grace and favor in the eyes of Atwood. God's Gardeners are ultimately torn apart by a wholly human schism between those who are content to wait for the Flood, however long it may tarry, and those who then turn to take action, and remake the earth in their own image. The dramatic tension of the novel rests almost entirely on what you know from the previous book- you know the flood is coming, and you know who has caused it. But, will this group survive it?

It would seem obvious, simply by the fact that Atwood is selling CD's of the God's Gardener's Hymns and encourages their use for not-for-profit wider distribution, that Atwood has sided with the Gardeners herself. But, I am not so sure of this, and hope that those who might lean this way see a troubling moral reflection when they use works like hers to consider more carefully their own souls. I think that the passage I quote above from the Bible represents some of the same very troubling moral questions in and of itself. If God is good, why would He repent? Can a perfect being make mistakes? Many might challenge this interpretation of the passage, insisting that if mankind has free will, God can regret having done a good and right thing because of the second hand, the follow-on, consequences. But in that respect, if God is all-knowing, how can He not know the consequences in advance and not commit the error that needs repenting in the first place? You could argue that the nascent good which has merely sprouted in the first five chapters of the Bible is threatened to be drowned out by evil, and in turn God uses the earth itself to prune the garden, drown out the evil, and improve the chances of the generations after Noah. ...But, not successfully eradicating- since Ham seems to muck it up for his generations mere sentences later.

Atwood faces, also, a classic dilemma. Given knowledge, what constitutes a good use of it? I think where she is at her most interesting in this book, it is where her characters are most troubled by the severe moral decisions they undertake. And yet, the characters who effect the greatest plot change (including Crake, who only has the briefest of cameos in this book) are not forced to undergo the same soul searching here. Perhaps this is her point- that evil is choices unreflected upon. She herself is seeming to argue (through the gardeners) that there is little difference between good and evil, since both can have unintended consequences, and both can be seen in the light of a greater good. For her, death is a tragedy, but in the end the plants are fertilized and the animals have carrion, so what harm?

I find her “resolution” unsatisfying. As such, I find “Year of the Flood” unsatisfying. The universe that she creates is a rich and teeming one, with so much left unexplored. She creates hundreds of splinter religions, like the “Isaiahists” who consider the “Liobam”, a engineered blend of lion and lamb, their sacred animal. She seems to dismiss the idea of engineered animal protein as more ethically sound, even though there are characters in her novel who have plainly laid out the argument that without a brain, the “suffering” of animals ceases to be a justification for vegetarianism. If the difference between good and evil is that good has meditated, and thought it through, there's lots of room for thinking it thorough and coming up with disparate, conflicting answers.

And, if there's not a single right answer, arguing that we might be approaching the wrong answer (and that the cure is Gardenerism) despite the fact that there are many (arguably) greater minds than Atwood who are working on the changes in science and technology that will enable such a future, and who have (debatably) thought longer and harder about these things than her, is hubris. Atwood is at her best when defining what shouldn't be: if the reader resists blind head-nodding along with the Gardeners, then this work is more successful than I think. I deeply fear, though, the people who chant along.

There's good reason that Atwood's “Handmaid's Tale” is standard fare in high school summer reading lists. Her work is there to make you think: not to fear, but to avoid going down the easy path which leads to such societies. I believe that “Oryx and Crake” does that too. But her latest work seems to force that train off the rails- don't think of your own solution, just say no to the Chickienobs.