Archive | September 2016

Gut Bacteria, Obesity

In 1977, National Lampoon parodied Scientific American as “Scienterrific American.” I think they were on to something. I’ve written a few posts about whether we should trust scientists, whether scientists can trust each other, etc. Sadly, some scientists will publish what they are paid to publish, and some will publish whatever makes headlines, so they can continue to work. Some of their results are not reproducible, which means they aren’t really doing science. The charitable view is that eventually the scientific method will sort out the scientific from the scienterrific, but a lot of us were ingesting PFOA from Teflon long before we were told that it was a carcinogen.

Recent headlines advised that the FDA had banned sales of many antibacterial soaps, containing any of over a dozen chemicals, because “the risks outweigh the benefits.”

Studies in animals have shown that triclosan and triclocarban can disrupt the normal development of the reproductive system and metabolism, and health experts warn that their effects could be the same in humans. The chemicals were originally used by surgeons to wash their hands before operations, and their use exploded in recent years as manufacturers added them to a variety of products, including mouthwash, laundry detergent, fabrics and baby pacifiers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the chemicals in the urine of three-quarters of Americans.

That New York Times article notes that a trade group, The American Cleaning Institute, opposes the FDA ruling, and claims to have studies that support their opposition. I’m sure they do.

Scientific American (the real one) has posted an excerpt of a book, Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Oversanitized World, written by two microbiologists: B. Brett Finlay, Ph.D., and Marie-Claire Arrieta, Ph.D.

Finlay and Arrieta point out that while antibiotics have certainly saved many, many of us from dying young from an infectious disease, they have also changed our environment in more subtle ways. Besides the fear about developing unstoppable superbugs, we may be making ourselves susceptible to a raft of non-infectious diseases. One concern is the use of antibiotics in meat, another is the use of antibiotics in early childhood:

While these studies didn’t prove that antibiotics directly cause obesity, the consistency in these correlations, as well as those observed in livestock, prompted scientists to have a closer look. What they found was astonishing. A simple transfer of intestinal bacteria from obese mice into sterile (“germ-free”) mice made these mice obese, too! We’ve heard before that many factors lead to obesity: genetics, high-fat diets, high-carb diets, lack of exercise, etc. But bacteria—really? This raised skepticism among even the biggest fanatics in microbiology, those of us who tend to think that bacteria are the center of our world. However, these types of experiments have been repeated in several different ways and the evidence is very convincing: the presence and absence of certain bacteria early in life helps determine your weight later in life. Even more troubling is the additional research that shows that altering the bacterial communities that inhabit our bodies affects not just weight gain and obesity, but many other chronic diseases in which we previously had no clue that microbes might play a role.

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Watching Snowden

The Charles Theatre’s Revival Series matinee yesterday was The Conversation, a Francis Ford Coppola film about surveillance and eavesdropping. In 1974, having seen Gene Hackman in Bonnie and Clyde and The French Connection, and Cindy Williams in Laverne and Shirley and American Graffiti, I drove two of my siblings and their friends to some theatre on Wisconsin Avenue to watch it. John Cazale, Robert Duvall, Harrison Ford and Teri Garr played supporting roles. I already knew Duvall, but not the others. Even after Watergate, I found the idea that we could always be watched very dark and paranoid. Roger Ebert reviewed the film as one of his Great Movies, in 2001:

Coppola, who wrote and directed, considers this film his most personal project. He was working two years after the Watergate break-in, amid the ruins of the Vietnam effort, telling the story of a man who places too much reliance on high technology and has nightmares about his personal responsibility. Harry Caul is a microcosm of America at that time: not a bad man, trying to do his job, haunted by a guilty conscience, feeling tarnished by his work.

I had to work midday Saturday, but watching that film again would have been a fine lead-in to Oliver Stone’s new film, Snowden, which was showing at only a few local theatres. I had read several positive reviews – some recommended seeing Laura Poitras’ 2014 documentary CitizenFour first – and one discouraging review. One friend at work had heard (on NPR) a former NSA deputy director’s claim that it was all lies, that Snowden had actually stolen important state secrets, and that agents had died.

I stopped off to see Snowden on the way home Saturday afternoon. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a convincing Edward Snowden. I had watched him telling Steven Colbert that he met Snowden in Moscow, which helped his characterization. Rhys Ifans was convincing as a composite of a CIA bigwig that took Snowden under his wing. Nicholas Cage was restrained as a composite of a disaffected techie genius, reduced to teaching young agents. Zachary Quinto, playing Glenn Greenwald, had a chance to yell a bit (at his cautious Guardian editor); Melissa Leo had more to do playing Laura Poitras, but I wonder if she is actually that warm and motherly on the job.

In the same way that Hannah Giles attracted right-wing fanboys to the Acorn entrapment story, Snowden’s outgoing girlfriend Lindsay Mills let it all hang out on the internet, and was a bonus ‘manic pixie dream girl’ for his libertarian supporters. Shailene Woodley gave a fine performance, but she doesn’t look that much like (how I remember) Mills, and reportedly never could meet up to learn her mannerisms. One of the dumbest criticisms I read beforehand was a complaint that the film spent too much time on their romance. Mills was, and is, a big part of the Snowden story.

Snowden was very dramatic, well-filmed, well-paced, etc, but I wanted to see more of his time hiding with poor refugees in Hong Kong, and more of his escape and refuge in Moscow. Towards the end when Toronto students cheer Snowden speaking via a video feed, I felt like standing up and cheering, too, but still I felt that a more balanced, less laudatory film – one that addressed and answered criticisms – would better serve Snowden’s desire for repatriation.

The film was careful to make clear that Snowden published all documents through the established news outlets, but just today, the Washington Post editorial board repudiated calls that Snowden be pardoned and may have become the first newspaper to call for prosecution of its own source.

The complication is that Mr. Snowden … also pilfered, and leaked, information about a separate overseas NSA Internet-monitoring program, PRISM, that was both clearly legal and not clearly threatening to privacy. … he also leaked details of basically defensible international intelligence operations: cooperation with Scandinavian services against Russia; spying on the wife of an Osama bin Laden associate; and certain offensive cyber operations in China. No specific harm, actual or attempted, to any individual American was ever shown to have resulted from the NSA telephone metadata program Mr. Snowden brought to light. In contrast, his revelations about the agency’s international operations disrupted lawful intelligence-gathering, causing possibly “tremendous damage” to national security, according to a unanimous, bipartisan report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. What higher cause did that serve?

In response, the real Glenn Greenwald yelled, in The Intercept:

In arguing that no public interest was served by exposing PRISM, what did the Post editors forget to mention? That the newspaper which (simultaneous with The Guardian) made the choice to expose the PRISM program by spreading its operational details and top secret manual all over its front page is called . . . . The Washington Post. Then, once they made the choice to do so, they explicitly heralded their exposure of the PRISM program (along with other revelations) when they asked to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Our crusading mainstream media.

Bring Out Yer Dead

Bloomberg claims, Here’s One Sign That ‘Peak Oil’ Is Dead

Peak Oil: gone and forgotten? Google Inc. searches for the idea that once helped propel oil prices to nearly $150 per barrel have dwindled to almost nothing, according to a Sanford C. Bernstein analysis.

Bloomberg’s Tracy Alloway asserts that a dearth of google searches proves that no one – except maybe Bloomberg – cares about Peak Oil anymore. But another way of looking at it is that Peak Oil already happened, and we’ve all moved on. The peak in production of conventional oil reached a plateau in 2005. Prices increased rapidly, but instead of the Mad Max scenarios predicted by energy depletion gurus, civilization instead endured a Great Recession, reduced its demand for oil, and stumbled on, albeit with great pain and suffering for many. Meanwhile, energy companies continued their shift to alternate methods of extraction.

In places like Athabasca, Canada, companies mine bitumen from sandstone deposits, called tar sands, and use natural gas to heat and process it into a high quality synthetic petroleum. The environmental cost, though, is comparable to removing mountaintops to mine coal. The risks of transporting Dilbit led to the Keystone Pipeline controversy, and other dirty byproducts, such as Pet Coke, are sold as fuel to countries with less stringent environmental regulations.

In America and other countries, companies use hydraulic fracturing to extract so-called “Tight Oil”, or “Shale Oil” from shale or sandstone deposits. Fracturing, though, pollutes enormous quantities of water, seems to cause earthquakes, and has been banned in some areas.

America also extracts kerogen from what is called “Oil Shale” – a mix of sedimentary rock and organic matter – and converts it to synthetic crude and various dirty, lower-grade fuels.

These extraction methods were and are, however, expensive, and only made economic sense when oil was also expensive. Energy companies accumulated a great deal of debt using these techniques, only to find that the bottom had dropped out of the market. Moody’s Investor Services described US Oil bankrupties as “catastrophic”:

Oil Bankruptcies Leave Lenders With ‘Catastrophic’ Recovery Rate

Creditors are recovering an average 21 percent of what they lent, compared with about 59 percent in past decades, the credit-rating agency said Monday in a report that looks into lending to 15 exploration and production companies that filed for bankruptcy protection in 2015. … High-yield bonds recovered a mere 6 percent, compared to 30 percent in previous years going back to 1987.

Defaults in the oil and natural gas industry have been rising through a market slump that has exceeded two years as companies lacked the cash to make interest payments on their debt. Bankruptcies among U.S. producers so far this year are about twice the number among companies rated by Moody’s in all of 2015, the report said. The oil and gas figures have helped propel U.S. corporate defaults to the highest since 2009.

Less than half of the companies that negotiated distressed-debt exchanges in 2015 to try to stave off bankruptcy succeeded …

If Peak Oil is dead, why is the Oil Industry now coughing up blood?

Update 20160922: Robert Rapier has a post claiming that conventional oil did begin a decade long production plateau in 2005, but that there was a slight increase from that plateau in December of 2014.