Hobby-Farming “Our” Children

 There was an Open Thread earlier today where people were talking about teaching — how draining it can be, how different posters had or hadn’t learned to read, write, communicate effectively; and the degree to which “effective teaching” has been reduced to bumping up the percentage of kids who correctly fill out the blanks on a standardized form. And I had a flashback to the days when I was helping out at beginner dog-training classes, and one exasperated woman voiced the all-too-common objective: “I don’t wanna do all this! I don’t *care* whether my dog learns anything! I just want him to be good when my friends come over and stay out of my way when I’m busy!

Sad thing is, she was already a better owner than all the impulse buyers who just “get rid” of dogs who fail to magically intuit everything that might be expected of a successful family pet. People like the co-worker who complained about his kids’ dog being “dirty and noisy”, and when I offered to hook him up with a training class, responded, “I already spent a ton of money buying the stupid animal, why should I have to spend even more to make him do what I want?”

 Then came a story on the local news about the competition between various towns for a share of the stimulus money being released to the state for “education”. Every parent, selectman, and administrator (I don’t remember any teachers on the air) spoke in favor of more supplemental funds for their town, either because the local citizens couldn’t afford what their kids deserved, or because the property-owners in the wealthier burbs were being taxed so heavily already. A minority of individuals deplored the whole concept of the stimulus package, because it wasn’t fair that “their money” should be capriciously taken by politicians under any circumstances. And the one thing everybody seemed to agree upon is that the governor’s intention to use the greater part of the funds in certain large urban school districts was just WRONG, because “Those People are given so much already… It’ll just be wasted by the teachers unions, or on frills like make-work summer job programs… I already pay a ton for MY kids’ after-school activities, why should I have to pay for other peoples’ kids as well?”

Sometimes it has seemed to me as though Americans basically hate kids. “We” considers them a nuisance and a drain on the public coffers and would really prefer they all be raised in camps somewhere far away. Sure, people like their own individual sprogs (mostly, most of the time), and kids can be mildly entertaining for brief periods, not to mention they’re a ridiculously vulnerable target market. But who wants to put up with the vast undifferentiated nuisance and squalor of other peoples’ offspring, with their noise and their neediness and their demands for our tax dollars?

And suddenly it occurred to me: The way American public policy runs these days, kids are basically treated as very high-maintenance pets. Raising them is considered a hobby, like breeding fancy chickens or keeping horses. Parenting is just another special interest group, with its own patois and skill-sets and warring factions. And while the Parenting Community is fascinated with every tiny detail of its fandom… everybody’s personal domestic livestock is special & deserves nothing less than the best of everything! — no sensible American wants to pay taxes for the upkeep of other peoples’ hobby children. Even the most committed locavore may balk at living next door to a stinking yardful of grubby chickens and crowing roosters, and the local housing development committee is less interested in the distinctions between trail riding and dressage than in the possibility that horse manure may depress local property values. If people insist on breeding children, they should be prepared to deal with the ensuing problems on their own. It’s not as though the general population had an ongoing interest in the welfare of other peoples’ hobby-farmed offspring! Especially all those horrible pet-shop-quality children, whose careless breeders spawn on an impulse — who are they to expect the rest of us to support their expensive hobby? Not to mention the kids themselves… if only Animal Control were enpowered to remove nuisance children who roam wild in decent neighborhoods, damaging private property and public amenities! Why can’t children come with an “off” switch, or at least a decent owner’s manual? You go to the trouble of having a kid, and all you get in return is 18 years of mess and whining and neediness and social embarassment! Sure, busybodies are always yammering about “classes” and “education” and “two-way communication”, but why should “we” be bothered to go to so much trouble over a long-regretted impulse, anyway?…

Okay, okay: A metaphor too far. But does it seem like “we” are forgetting that children are part of “our” communities?

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Krugman R’lyeh wagn’nagl fhtagn! Aiiiiiii!!!

It’s worth revisiting the point in January 2002 when Paul Krugman predicted that Enron and the system that allowed it would have a more lasting impact on America than 9/11.

Sept. 11 told us a lot about Wahhabism, but not much about Americanism.

The Enron scandal, on the other hand, clearly was about us. It told us things about ourselves that we probably should have known, but had managed not to see. I predict that in the years ahead Enron, not Sept. 11, will come to be seen as the greater turning point in U.S. society.

It still seems like a fair comparison. The lessons of both Enron and 9/11 went largely ignored in Washington, so we can think of them a matched pair. Let’s grant that Iraq, spying and torture have no more to do with 9/11 than (cue the tortured cries of Mike Godwin) a burning building caused WWII*. It seems fair to grant that even a guy like Krugman, who anticipated a lot, could not predict that only a tiny handful of the imponderably multitudinous possibility branches that filled a time-space light-cone centered on the 2001 attacks could out-stupid the next six years of Bush.

On the other hand, Krugman and a minority of others did not need a crystal ball to see a landscape crowded with firms like Enron. Fiscally speaking these firms lived on nothing. Many, especially but not exclusively derivatives traders, engineered complex schemes that had the ultimate effect of making a financial dirt sandwich look nutritious. These bogus schemes succeeded so well that by the early Bush years ginormous firms had already died, financially speaking, but still walked around because they didn’t know or wouldn’t admit it.

At one point a regulatory framework kept stinkier firms from chewing through too many brains legitimate enterprises, once, but twelve years of Reagan, eight years of Clinton (who, in a fair world, would be CATO’s favorite living president) and eight more years of fundamentalist Clif’s notes Reaganomics took care of that. By 2002 clued-in economists like Krugman and Nouriel Roubini must have looked at the national scene and seen late-period Romero.

Then there’s the twist that even Krugman may not have seen coming. Who would guess a large enough pack of zombies could go on feeding even after everyone from illiterate no-English farmhands all the way down to Michelle Bachmann realized what was happening? Read DougJ’s post below. Check out the graphs at Drum’s. It seems obvious as hell, now, while we watch Dr. Gramm’s undead experiments gnawing away at the federal government.

If I drag this analogy out a little further**, maybe now everyone knows they should have listened the crazy-sounding expert with the stories about the zombies, the alien brain worms, the volcano that we all thought went cold, the gremlin on the wing or whatever. Given time they might start listening to him.

They laughed at me in the academy.

Crazier things have happened.

(*) Strong chance that this minor point will consume the thread. Oh well.
(**) Only one thing will kill this metaphor.

While I Was Sleeping

Somehow, while dozing off the effects of my Thanksgiving raclette, I missed the most important news yet regarding this blog’s favorite chemical.

Researchers believe they have identified a fundamental cause of aging, according to a study published this week in the journal Cell. The mechanism was previously found in fungus and has now been discovered in mice. It’s likely that the same process applies to humans, said the authors of the research, from Harvard.
The study found that DNA damage, which accrues as we age, decreases a cell’s ability to regulate which genes are turned on and off in particular settings. Though DNA damage speeds up aging, the actual cause is not the DNA damage but the lack of gene regulation. However, this lack of gene regulation, called epigenetics, may be reversible.

For a long time most experts assumed that a sort of unbreakable yin-yang relationship links aging and cancer. Researchers looking for a way to make cells live longer constantly ran into the problem that cancer happens when cells live too long. The perception was reinforced when attempts to prolong life by up-regulating a protein called telomerase, which protects cells from dying after they go through a given number of division cycles, repeatedly ran into cancer problems.

Via resveratrol, research into the sirtuin proteins shattered that misperception. They key, as described in the article, is that aging has less to do with cell death than it does with gene regulation. If we fix gene regulation, or reduce the rate that it slides into dysfunction, then at the cellular level we fight aging. It In fact the new research does better than that: cancer is also a disease of gene dysregulation. It turns out that the famous trade-off is one hundred eighty degrees wrong: if you upregulate DNA quality control then you fight aging and cancer at the same time. As it turns out, the list of other stuff that also starts to work better includes infectious diseases (i.e., we get less of them), mental productivity and cardiovascular fitness.

In fact researchers knew about the effect for decades. However, earlier studies accomplished longevity by cutting a rat’s dietary calories to a point that almost no human could bear. The break came when a team at Harvard guessed that the starvation benefit hinged on a DNA silencing protein called SirT1. When they tried a massive screen for SirT1-activating chemicals the #1 hit was resveratrol, a compound previously known only as a phenolic in red wine. Resveratrol made yeast live longer, it made worms live longer and it had the same effect on flies. Mice and rats followed. Then came a research boom that may never slow down.

It may seem silly that our bodies already have the machinery to live into a healthy old age but prioritize something else. Why do we essentially choose not to live as long as we could? The key insight is that resveratrol, like the starvation diet that it mimics, strongly inhibits the sex drive and reduces the lifetime reproductive output. Nature wants us to get busy, fast, which means that if we want our bodies to prioritize quality control over making whoopee we need to trick it into thinking that we are on the brink of death (dead animals don’t make babies, so the body activates survival mode). We can do that by actually almost starving to death, but it is nice to know that medical science could soon offer a plan B.

Bill Sali, Psychic

There really is oil in those trees.

A tree fungus could provide green fuel that can be pumped directly into tanks, scientists say. The organism, found in the Patagonian rainforest, naturally produces a mixture of chemicals that is remarkably similar to diesel.
“This is the only organism that has ever been shown to produce such an important combination of fuel substances,” said Gary Strobel, a plant scientist from Montana State University who led the work. “We were totally surprised to learn that it was making a plethora of hydrocarbons.”
[…] Many simple organisms, such as algae, are already known to make chemicals that are similar to the long-chain hydrocarbons present in transport fuel but, according to Strobel, none produce the explosive hydrocarbons with the high energy density of those in mycodiesel. Strobel said that the chemical mixture produced by his fungus could be used in a modern diesel engine without any modification.
Another advantage of the G. roseum fungus is its ability to eat up cellulose. This is a compound that, along with lignin, makes up the cell walls in plants and is indigestible by most animals. As such, it makes up much of the organic waste currently discarded, such as stalks and sawdust.

The good: assuming that Gliocladium roseum ‘mycodiesel’ can be commercialized (Note: big jump. Related: ‘assuming that we can get a healthy adult to Mars and back…’), this could be the holy grail of biofuels. Sugar-based ethanol fuel made from corn or cane sugar is a dead-end due to production inefficiencies and the inevitable competition with food production. Cellulose, on the other hand, is a ubiquitous material that can be grown sustainably pretty much anywhere south of the Arctic Circle on top of the metric tons that we discard or burn every minute. The energy return from directly converting cellulose rather than burning it could be phenomenal.

The bad: To make the most of cellulose fuel sources we need to generalize G. roseum so that it eats whatever sawdust, plywood, hemp stalks or cardboard that we set in front of it. Playing the devil’s advocate for a moment, I can imagine a scenario that ends badly if we release a universal cellulose eating bug in a planet of wood homes and plants that take for granted that their fibers are very hard to digest.

Nonetheless, and assuming that G. roseum pans out, ‘mycodiesel’ is the advance that biofuel researchers have pursued for a very long time.

Suck On This

Paul Krugman wins the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Relax, rightwingers, there’s also a prize for guys like you.