2011 - %3, March

Happy Birthday 1946 Cohort!

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 6:27 PM EST

Photo by Kopfjäger, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In one of the most interesting epidemiological studies ever conducted, British scientists began to track 5,362 of the 16,695 babies born in England, Scotland, and Wales during the first week of March, 1946. As of today, these "babies" have just celebrated their 65th birthdays.

Researchers and funding have come and gone, died and retired, yet miraculously the birth cohort study has continued uninterrupted for six-and-a-half decades—the longest-running cohort study to date. The findings of the National Survey of Health and Development are sweet, startling, depressing, and encouraging. In short, the panoply of life.

An overview of the study's results—so far—appear in the current Nature. It began like this in 1946:

Health visitors carefully recorded the weights of the vast majority on a four-page questionnaire, along with countless other details including the father's occupation, the number of rooms and occupants (including domestics) in the baby's home and whether the baby was legitimate or illegitimate. Over subsequent years, the information files on more than 5,000 of these children thickened, then bulged. Throughout their school years and young adulthood and on into middle age, researchers weighed, measured, prodded, scanned and quizzed the group's bodies and minds in almost every way imaginable.

A few of the findings:

  • The heaviest babies were most at risk of breast cancer in later life
  • Children born into lower socioeconomic classes were more likely to gain weight as adults
  • Women with higher IQs underwent later menopause than other women
  • Young children who spent more than a week in hospital were more likely to suffer learning and behavioral problems later on
  • Cohort members with the lowest birth weights had higher blood pressure as adults
  • Babies who grew fast postnatally had more cardiovascular risk in adulthood
  • Regular physical exercise in a person's 30s and 40s can slow cognitive decline with age

Here's some of what researchers are working on now. From the Nature piece:

In the latest round of data collection, running from 2006 to 2010 and costing £2.7 million [$4.4 million], study members underwent almost every modern biomedical test, including echo­cardiograms, measures of blood-vessel function, whole-body bone, muscle and fat scans, and tests of blood, memory and how quickly they could get up from a chair. The data will provide a detailed starting point from which to measure the cohort members' inevitable decline, and the opportunity to analyse the information is already swelling an extensive network of collaborators. Some are testing how genes interact with a lifetime of experiences to lead to obesity or disease; others plan to scan participants' genomes for 'epigenetic' marks—molecular traces left, perhaps, by early birth weight or by life's inequalities—that alter gene expression and might provide a molecular explanation for effects in later life. Greg Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine, who studies the impact of child poverty, hopes that follow-up studies could help to answer a question arising from the earlier findings on socioeconomic status and health: "What are the active ingredients in social class?"

And an interesting enigma in the data:

Diana Kuh [head of the UK National Survey of Health and Development] points out a blue line representing a group of women from better-off backgrounds, whose death rate is about half that of everyone else. Kuh has not been able to attribute the effect to less smoking or other obvious factors, and she suspects that these women took advantage of the educational and health opportunities afforded by post-war Britain to improve themselves. "They really changed their lives with education. The girls, if they got through [the limited educational opportunities], they did really well."

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Waxman: House GOP More Anti-Science Than Ever

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 4:50 PM EST

Over the years, there have been plenty of hard-fought environmental skirmishes in Congress, but Henry Waxman thinks the latest battle over the future of climate policy in the US could be the toughest one yet. In remarks at the Center for American Progress on Monday, the California Democrat, who helped to usher in 1990's landmark Clean Air Act amendments, accused his Republican colleagues of taking an increasingly anti-science bent.

"Protection of the environment is now a partisan battleground," Waxman said. "On climate change, we can't even agree whether there is a problem." That's not to say things were peachy in the past; there were of course major battles over measures to curb acid rain, toxic power plant emissions, and other environmental protections. But, Waxman said, "I've never been in a Congress where there was such an overwhelming disconnect between science and public policy."

His remarks come at the beginning of what is shaping up to be an interesting week on that front. On Tuesday, the House subcommittee on energy and power will hold a hearing on climate science and the Environmental Protection Agency's new greenhouse gas regulations. And on Thursday, Republicans on that committee plan to move forward with legislation that would decimate those rules.

House and Senate Republicans have put forward a joint proposal that would not only amend the Clean Air Act to say explicitly that it does not apply to greenhouse gas emissions, but would also nullify the EPA's scientific finding that those gases pose a threat to humankind (a conclusion that even the Bush-era EPA had reached).

But before House Republicans begin marking up the legislation, Waxman, the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), the ranking member of the energy and power subcommittee, asked the majority to grant at least one hearing on the science underpinning the EPA's greenhouse gas rules. The Republicans agreed, and even granted the Dems the larger of witnesses. Of the seven witnesses appearing Tuesday, four were selected by the Democrats. The Republican witnesses include two climate change skeptics and, oddly, some guy whose main focus is promoting DDT, the pesticide banned in the US back in 1972 because of the risks it posed to public health and the environment. (See a good breakdown of the witnesses here).

But it's doubtful that anything the experts say tomorrow will dissuade the Republicans from moving ahead with the anti-EPA measure. House Republicans succeeded last week in adding three Democrats as co-sponsors of the EPA-handcuffing legislation—Reps. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, and Dan Boren of Oklahoma. On the Senate side, Republicans picked up Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) as a cosponsor.

Waxman says the passage of the measure through the House is basically a foregone conclusion. But that doesn't necessarily mean it will become law, he said, referencing his own climate and energy bill that passed in June 2009 only to hit a brick wall in the Senate. Waxman, and most of his Democratic colleagues, are hoping this anti-EPA measure will suffer the same fate. In the meantime, Waxman's hoping that the Democrats can at least use tomorrow's hearing to, once again, hash out the science.

"The new Republican majority has a lot of leeway to rewrite laws," he said, "but they don't have the ability to rewrite the laws of nature."

Our Computer Overlords

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 2:09 PM EST

Paul Krugman writes that us college-educated types are hardly immune from being put out of work by computers:

Computers, it turns out, can quickly analyze millions of documents, cheaply performing a task that used to require armies of lawyers and paralegals. In this case, then, technological progress is actually reducing the demand for highly educated workers. And legal research isn’t an isolated example. As the article points out, software has also been replacing engineers in such tasks as chip design.

True enough. You know those thin copper lines on circuit boards that connect all the chips together? Creating those lines is called routing, and back when I first joined the high-tech world in the mid-80s, routing was done at my company by a room full of pretty skilled, pretty well paid pros. Engineers would compete to get their projects assigned to one router over another, because some of them had an especially good reputation for being able to perform complex routes quickly and efficiently. It was as much art as science.

Within a decade, it was all science and autorouting software had pretty much taken over the job. Humans were barely involved. The same thing has happened in the document world. Defendants in civil cases used to try to bury opposing lawyers during discovery by handing over truckloads of documents and hoping they would never be able to find the one or two damning documents in the bunch. Then high-speed scanners came along, and in big cases lawyers would send the whole pile of discovery documents to a service bureau, get the whole mess scanned and OCRed, and then do keyword searches. It was great. Later, software got more intelligent and more sophisticated and humans were less and less involved. Krugman extrapolates from this, suggesting that "quite a lot of white-collar work currently carried out by well-educated, relatively well-paid workers may soon be computerized. Roombas are cute, but robot janitors are a long way off; computerized legal research and computer-aided medical diagnosis are already here."

Maybe so. It's useful to think of two big challenges in the world of artificial intelligence. The first is creating analytic ability. This is what Watson did on Jeopardy! or what Deep Blue did in chess. The second is emulating the sensory perceptions of human beings. This is, if anything, even harder. Humans are extremely good at looking around a room, identifying objects, figuring out what they are, and then doing something about it. A robot that, say, was designed to go from room to room emptying wastebaskets would need only a modest amount of analytic ability but a huge amount of sensory ability. Right now we're not really very close to getting there.

Still, it's not clear to me just how far apart progress is on these fronts. It's probably true that analytic ability is further along, but mainly because you don't need to have a human level of analytic ability to be useful. A modest amount that merely does some of the prep work and reduces the number of hours it takes to do something is pretty handy. Sensory ability is a little different: you really do need something pretty close to full human capability to be very useful in an independent environment. So if I had to guess, I'd say that analytic ability will progress steadily, while sensory ability will remain largely limited and experimental until it gets to a useful level, at which point it will suddenly burst out of the lab and seemingly be everywhere within just a few years. This may still be a decade or two away, but really, that's not a very long time.

Over the past few years, my guess about how soon truly useful AI will be available has gone down. Human level AI may still be quite a ways away (I don't really know), but AI useful enough to create massive economic dislocations might well be no more than a decade away. Maybe two at the most.

In the meantime, I just hope that Mother Jones doesn't figure out that they could almost certainly find some extremely bright, knowledgable, plugged-in Indian blogger who would work much harder than me and for a quarter of my salary. There probably aren't a ton of Indians who could replace me, but there don't need to be tons. There only needs to be one.

Foreclosure King David Stern Shuttering His Law Firm

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 1:35 PM EST
A caricature of David J. Stern, the once-mighty foreclosure attorney, that he printed on T-shirts used to woo potential investors.

By the end of the month, the Law Offices of David J. Stern, the once-mighty foreclosure mill in southeastern Florida, will be no more. According to a terse, two-sentence filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the firm—the subject of a Mother Jones investigation published last August—"will be ceasing the practice of law with respect to all pending foreclosure matters in the State of Florida" by March 31.

The reversal of fortune for David Stern and his law firm has been swift and breathtaking. A little over a year ago, the Stern's operation reigned king in the foreclosure business. Its clients included Wall Street powerhouses such as JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and Citgroup; the firm was also cozy with government housing corporations Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which hand-picked Stern's firm operation to process foreclosure cases for them. In 2009, the firm handled 70,000 foreclosure cases, and employed more than 1,000 people—paralegals, attorneys, paper-pushers, secretaries, and more. From 2006 to 2008, revenue generated by the non-legal, foreclosure-related parts of Stern's operations spiked from $40 million to $200 million. But the big payoff didn't come until January 2010, when Stern spun off those lucrative non-legal operations into a separate, publicly-traded company, netting him $58.5 million.

The GOP's Orrin Hatch Problem

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 1:32 PM EST

This is old news, but I'd just like to draw attention again to the fact that Orrin Hatch is in danger of losing the Republican primary in Utah next year because he's not conservative enough. Orrin Hatch! 

Your Kind Not Wanted Here

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 1:06 PM EST

Peter Wallsten reports in the Washington Post today on the latest wave of Republican efforts to pass state laws requiring picture IDs for voters. "Backers of the voting measures," says Wallsten, "say they would bring fairness and restore confidence in a voting system vulnerable to fraud."

Well, yes, that is what they say. They're lying, but that's what they say. The real reason that Republicans are so gung ho on these measures, even though there's no measurable voting-booth fraud anywhere in the United States, is because certain demographic groups are less likely to have picture IDs than others:

An analysis by the North Carolina State Board of Elections showed that any new law requiring a state-issued ID could be problematic for large numbers of voters, particularly African Americans, whose turnout in 2008 helped Obama win the state.

Blacks account for about one-fifth of the North Carolina electorate but are a larger share — 27 percent — of the approximately 1 million voters who may lack a state-issued ID or whose names do not exactly match the Division of Motor Vehicles database. The analysis found about 556,000 voters with no record of an ID issued by the DMV.

Imagine that. It might suppress black turnout, which helped Obama win the state two years ago. Elsewhere, Wallsten reports on efforts to prevent college students from voting. Guess who they vote for? If you guessed "Democrats" again, you win a gold star. In Indiana, which implemented a voter ID several years ago, a survey showed that blacks, the young, and low-income voters had access to picture IDs at significantly lower rates than whites, the middle aged, and the middle income. A quick look at the exit polls from any election in the past few decades shows that the most loyal Democratic demographics are blacks, the young, and low-income voters — exactly the groups targeted by voter ID laws.

There's a level of loathsomeness and naked corruption to all this that's hard to take even for those of us who follow politics closely and have few illusions about Marquess of Queensberry rules. But the goal of voter ID laws could hardly be more plain.

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FBI: Foreclosure Crisis Helping Anti-Government Groups

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 12:45 PM EST
Courtesy of the FBI

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports on the hottest new trend in suburban real estate: With thousands of properties in suburban Atlanta currently sitting unoccupied, members of a movement with ties to domestic terrorism are moving in. Here's Tammy Joyner:

The Riverdale incident is among at least two dozen area incidents of home takeovers by the sovereign citizens, including a $1 million home in south DeKalb County seized by the sect last year. Authorities say the sect has taken over 20 metro Atlanta properties, including a shopping center. The group believes banks can't own land or property and that any home owned by a bank—including the thousands of foreclosed properties throughout Georgia—are theirs for the taking. Emmett said he also knows of cases where sect members have taken over homes being refurbished.

Sovereign Citizen ideology, as Justine Sharrock explained back in January, was central to Tucson shooter Jared Lee Loughner's worldview, and has long been a staple of the far-right militia movement. Fear of an encroaching New World Order are a common cause for sovereign citizens, but the ideas have also been embraced as a way out of entangling debt—or, as the case may have it, a little bit of both. In recent years the ideology, which has its roots in the white supremacist community, has increasingly been embraced by black prison gangs and black supremacist groups like the Nuwaubians.

In less depressing foreclosure news, my colleague Andy Kroll reports that foreclosure king David J. Stern is finally out of a job, after banks stopped doing business with his law firm. You can check out Andy's full report on Stern and the rise of the foreclosure mills here.

Mitt Romney Unveils Mitt Romney 3.0

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 11:31 AM EST
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On Saturday night, Mitt Romney gave his first major speech of the 2012 presidential campaign at a Lincoln Day dinner in New Hampshire. Romney discussed health care, the economy, and President Obama, but mostly the speech was an attempt at something the former Massachusetts governor has become quite adept at: re-branding. MSNBC's First Read nails it:

This, in short, is Romney 3.0. Romney 1.0 was the socially moderate businessman who won election as Massachusetts governor in 2002. Romney 2.0 was the socially conservative presidential candidate who ran to John McCain's and Rudy Giuliani’s right on abortion, stem cells, and illegal immigration in 2007-2008. And Romney 3.0 appears to be the repeat presidential candidate who will focus more on the economy and his business record than on social issues. Yet as the New York Times' Zeleny writes, Romney's transformation also applies to his appearance. "Mr. Romney is trying to present a more relaxed image to combat impressions that he is unapproachable and stiff. He has not been seen in a necktie for months... He turned up in the pit area of the Daytona 500 last month, mingling with race car drivers while wearing a Bass Pro Shops shirt. And last week, Mr. Romney, who put his wealth four years ago around $200 million, walked into Tommy's Barber Shop in an Atlanta strip mall for a haircut."

...

Romney 3.0 is how we all thought he was going to run at the beginning of the 2008 cycle. And it's closer to his true political identity (though we still don't know about some of his social policy stances which have, um, evolved over the last two decades). But this could be a constant theme of the 2012 campaign: Where was this Romney in 2008? Could this Romney have won in '08? Etc. As we -- and others -- have pointed out, the challenge for Romney will be if he can sell yet another political re-invention. "During a weekend speech to New Hampshire Republicans, Mitt Romney delivered what will likely be his most durable rejoinder to critics of the universal health care program he signed into law while governor of Massachusetts," the Boston Globe's Glen Johnson reported. "Still remaining, though, is a lingering, fundamental question about his authenticity that has only been perpetuated by recent appearances."

What's Happening in Iran Explained

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 10:00 AM EST

The uprisings in TunisiaEgypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya set off a maelstrom of political unrest throughout the greater Middle East that continues to set the Muslim-majority world ablaze. But two years earlier, it was Iran that was teetering on the brink of a revolution, with reformers seeking to bring down the hardline, conservative government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

After losing to Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections held in June 2009, former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi accused him of rigging the vote—a charge backed up by the overwhelming majority of international opinion—and called on the youth of Iran to take to the streets. Thus was born the the Green Revolution, as thousands of young, determined protestors filled the streets for days, harnessing the tools of social media to plan rallies that decried their government and its religious overlords. The country seemed to be teetering on the brink of a democratic revolution.

But the revolution never came. Thanks to the brutal repression of civilian militia forces and the Revolutionary Guard, Ahmadinejad reasserted his stranglehold on power. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran estimated that 500 Iranians are serving jail terms for political protests and 500 more are detained and waiting to be processed. And 120 have been executed since the beginning of 2011.

The Last Trace of Amede Ardoin

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 7:45 AM EST

Amede Ardoin
Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone
Tompkins Square Records

While playing his accordion at a local farmhouse in Eunice, Louisiana, in the late 1930s, Creole musician Amede Ardoin wiped his brow with a handkerchief given to him by a white woman. Two white men angered by the exchange between Ardoin and the woman followed him outside, where they beat him, backed over him with a Ford Model A truck and threw him in a ditch. He woke up crippled, with permanent brain damage. Fellow musician Canray Fontenot remembers how that night changed his friend: After that, "he didn't know whether he was hungry or not.... He was plumb crazy."

That's the point when Amede Ardoin, known today as the father of Cajun and Zydeco music, seemed to vanish. His friends—at least the ones who would later help compile the scant record we have of Ardoin's life—appeared to lose track of him. In fact, the only official traces of Amede Ardoin are his draft registration card, his name on a Census count, one washed-out photograph, and 34 recordings he made between 1929 and 1934, rereleased this month in one collection for the first time.