Sunday, May 30, 2010

Evening Linkism

A New York feature on everyone’s favorite Russian overlord, Mikhail Prokhorov, features this wonderful sentence: “Such is the very essence of the Russian experience in New York: high-end striving mixed with Appalachian incest.” Well done Michael Idov!

More frustrating facts:
California voters are closely divided over the crackdown on illegal immigration in Arizona, with sharp splits along lines of ethnicity and age, according to a new Los Angeles Times/USC poll.

Overall, 50% of registered voters surveyed said they support the law, which compels police to check the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally, while 43% oppose it. That level of support is lower than polls have indicated nationwide.

Really neat:
Hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years before Charles Goodyear discovered the vulcanization process that made commercial rubber viable, Mesoamerican peoples were carrying out a similar process to produce rubber artifacts for a broad variety of uses, two MIT researchers have found.

By varying the amount of materials they added to raw rubber, Mesoamericans were able to produce bouncy rubber balls for the Mayas' ceremonial games, resilient rubber sandals and sticky material used to glue implements to handles, the research shows.

The oldest known rubber balls from the region date to 1600 BC, suggesting that the indigenous peoples possessed this knowledge at least that far back. By the time the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, Tarkanian said, "there was a large rubber industry in the region," producing 16,000 rubber balls each year and large numbers of rubber statues, sandals, bands and other products.

A China dispatch:
The itinerary said "rural village," but we were actually in a suburb. A nice suburb. It looked like a small slice of Northern California had been transplanted onto the outskirts of Dalian, China. Think I'm kidding? There was even a coffee shop overlooking the lake with fresh beans ground on the premises. Dalian has some sort of "sister city" arrangement with Oakland, California, and it shows.

This nice little suburb, it turned out, had been built in 2006. And like a lot of things in China, it was built all at once, on top of a village that already existed.

The obvious question with this sort of rapid development is what happens to the people who had the shack that sat on the land where the government wanted to put condos? The answer, at least in Dalian, was that they bought the previous inhabitants off. A conversation with some residents revealed that they didn't just get one free apartment in the new building. They got four free apartments, three of which they were now renting out. And medical coverage. And money for furnishings. And a food stipend. And -- I'm not kidding, by the way -- birthday cakes on their birthdays. Sweet deal.

More on behavorial economics and politics, generally:
… politicians of both parties have long taken liberties with the truth. But as even conservative political commentators have begun to point out, Republicans have lately been far more aggressive in stretching traditional boundaries. When Sarah Palin said that if health care reform legislation were adopted, her parents and her child with Down syndrome “will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care,” most people probably realized the president had made no such proposal. Her statement nonetheless shifted the terms of the debate, making it harder for legislators to focus on genuinely relevant issues.

Can anything be done? For a variety of practical reasons, legal sanctions promise little protection against blatantly false statements. It is helpful, to be sure, when journalists call out politicians who stray too far from the truth. But merely knowing that a statement is false doesn’t nullify its impact. To be effective, a remedy must act prospectively. It must discourage people from making false statements in the first place.

Malcolm Gladwell on the difficulty of cancer drug development (it was previously gated, but Gladwell has posted the full text on his website, sly dog that he is.)

Gretchen Morgenson has a helpful rundown of the loopholes in financial regulation bills.

Interesting development:
As concern increases in Washington about the amount of private data online, and as big sites like Facebook draw criticism that they collect consumers’ information in a stealthy manner, many Web start-ups are pursuing a more reciprocal approach — saying, in essence: give us your data and get something in return.

The budgeting Web site Mint.com, for example, displays discount offers from cable companies or banks to users who reveal their personal financial data, including bank and credit card information. The clothing retailer Bluefly could send offers for sunglasses to consumers who disclose that they just bought a swimsuit. And location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla ask users to volunteer their location in return for rewards like discounts on Pepsi drinks or Starbucks coffee.

Luxury is making a comeback.

The New York Times’s epic on the fight to cut down on salt in our diet.

California: ruined by supermajorities.

Pursuant to our earlier discussion of the U.S.’s plan to unilaterally strike into Pakistan, Marc Ambinder provides some helpful context:
The regular special operations forces have less authority to target ... targets than the CIA, a strategic intelligence gathering agency, ... IN A WAR. That's the embedded news in the piece. SOCOM is trying to send a message to policy-makers and the public: they've got the capacity to help a lot more then they are helping, and they're being hamstrung by legal authorities that don't make sense to them. One point of the joint task force concept embraced by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and SOCOM is to crowd out the CIA's paramilitary operations in the Af-Pak war theater.

Two related stories—on the power of data—intelligence bureaus are purchasing the same computers that Wall Street traders do (and I expect the results to be similarly bad, knowing the competence/social responsibility of the respective organizations.), and this line should strike you as particularly mehhhh:
But marketing products to traders is a bit more clear-cut, Mr. Tibbetts said. In the intelligence field, the technology is geared toward events that generally occur infrequently.

"The return-on-investment calculations are simpler in the trading space," he said. "All you have to do is show them the system makes you money and they're happy to sign the contract."

And here’s a report on genomics curing a very specific form of cancer:
"The drug that has changed everything is called Gleevec," he says, "and it was derived from our new, computer-driven understanding of the genome."

By studying a key section of the human genome, scientists realised that a mutation there produces a specific protein (called "bcr-abl") which in turn triggers a cascade of chemical reactions in a patient's body that results in chronic myeloid leukaemia. Awareness of the protein's role allowed scientists to develop a drug that could block its activity and so halt the proliferation of white blood cells.

"Patients who have the specific mutation that causes chronic myeloid leukaemia will respond to the use of Gleevec and will go into remission quite profoundly," says Adams. "It was understanding the specific genetics of this disease that led to the realisation this drug could help."

It is an encouraging tale that has since been repeated for several other genome-driven anti-cancer drugs, although it is important to note, says Adams, that the success of these drugs is hit and miss – sometimes they produce no effect. But when they do have an impact, it is invariably profound.

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