29 March 2009

The biochemical basis for "Asian glow"

This is an interesting case of "your body protecting itself from you" (though somewhat inadvertently).

In the body, alcohol (ethanol) is converted by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase to acetaldehyde, which is in turn converted by the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH2) into acetic acid. The intermediate product acetaldehyde is a toxin that contributes to some of the unpleasant reactions associated with hangovers.

Many people of East Asian ancestry have a mutation in the gene encoding alcohol dehydrogenase which makes it particularly effective at producing acetaldehyde, as well as a mutation in the gene encoding ALDH2 that makes it less effective at metabolizing acetaldehyde. Consequently, these people experience the alcohol flush reaction: flushing, nausea, elevated heart rate, and headache almost immediately after drinking alcohol.

Now researchers have found that people with a deficient ALDH2 gene are at elevated risk for squamous cell esophageal cancer, a form of throat cancer, if they drink alcohol. But people with two copies of the deficient ALDH2 are already averse to alcohol! The ones at risk are those with just one copy of the deficient ALDH2, because although they are still at elevated risk of cancer, their alcohol flush reaction is weaker and many of them develop a tolerance against it.

Further reading: New York Times, "Drinkers' Red Face May Signal Cancer Risk", alcohol flush reaction, acetaldehyde and hangovers.

24 March 2009

"There Is No Such Thing As Nuclear Waste"

An interesting editorial in the WSJ by William Tucker mentions this fact:

France, which completely reprocesses its recyclable material, stores all the unused remains — from 30 years of generating 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy — beneath the floor of a single room at La Hague.

Meanwhile, we have a huge stash of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, and it has become a lightning rod for criticism. Why? Because the reprocessing of that "waste" into more useful nuclear products, as France does, was banned in 1977 by Jimmy Carter.

19 March 2009

MIT adopts open access mandate

Update: the MIT News Office has now reported on the open access mandate too.

The faculty of MIT unanimously voted to adopt an open access mandate for all articles published at MIT, effective immediately:

The Faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is committed to disseminating the fruits of its research and scholarship as widely as possible. In keeping with that commitment, the Faculty adopts the following policy: Each Faculty member grants to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology nonexclusive permission to make available his or her scholarly articles and to exercise the copyright in those articles for the purpose of open dissemination. In legal terms, each Faculty member grants to MIT a nonexclusive, irrevocable, paid-up, worldwide license to exercise any and all rights under copyright relating to each of his or her scholarly articles, in any medium, provided that the articles are not sold for a profit, and to authorize others to do the same. The policy will apply to all scholarly articles written while the person is a member of the Faculty except for any articles completed before the adoption of this policy and any articles for which the Faculty member entered into an incompatible licensing or assignment agreement before the adoption of this policy.

This is beautiful. It's heartening that MIT is taking a stand to share knowledge rather than hoard it.

15 March 2009

The music-buying experience

We've come a long way this decade.

Buying digital music is so convenient that I do it without thinking twice now (I get mine from Amazon). DRM is a thing of the past and formats are basically standardized, so I can play my music on all of my devices, using only free software. You don't need any proprietary software to acquire your music either (on Amazon it's just click and go, and a download starts. At least for individual tracks.) You don't have to get in the car or wait for a CD to be shipped. Digital music costs less than CDs ever did, for both singles and albums.

They say the best way to combat copyright infringement is to make buying music legally more convenient than getting it through the illegal channels. I'm certainly sold. Buying music online is finally hassle-free and reliable. And music you bought online is basically as durable as CDs.

Now, I can't wait until I can say the same thing of movies and books. Reliable e-books will be spectacular.

09 March 2009

Financial "Engineering"

[When] you need financial models the most — on days like Black Monday in 1987 when the Dow dropped 20 percent — they might break down. [...] Dr. Merton and Dr. Scholes won the Nobel in economic science in 1997 for the stock options model. Only a year later Long Term Capital Management, a highly leveraged hedge fund whose directors included the two Nobelists, collapsed and had to be bailed out to the tune of $3.65 billion by a group of banks.

(New York Times, "They Tried to Outsmart Wall Street")

Why is financial "engineering" even legal? We ban much less dangerous activities.

07 March 2009


The NYT Magazine has an interesting article about Zipcar and some of the business decisions that have been instrumental in its success. Perhaps first and foremost, its management realized that in order to make an impact, Zipcar would have to operate at a large scale— even if it meant angering environmentalists:

To some environmentalists, it was anathema to make driving seem fun [with the slogan "Wheels When You Want Them"]. [Founder Robin] Chase was unconcerned. "The whole game at Zipcar was to get people to join so that they would sell their car or not buy one. I used to joke that I would have put a Hummer in the fleet if it would get people to join."

More people will get on board if you ask them to drive less than if you ask them to stop driving.

Other ideas: fostering a sense of community (cf. Yelp)...

Chase threw potluck parties for them, mixers, a swim at Walden Pond. It didn’t matter that only a few people showed up: simply knowing that such events were taking place seemed to burnish the Zipster identity. Customers were encouraged to come up with quirky names for each Zipcar; naming the cars, Chase found, personalized them and encouraged members to treat them gently.

And picking a good name...

Then we tried 'U.S. Carshare.' That was how I learned that 40 percent of the people I talked to had an extremely negative reaction to the word 'sharing.' The word makes people nervous. They feel they're being scolded or told to wait their turn. At that point I banned my staff from using the phrase 'car sharing.' Do we call hotels 'bed sharing'? That's way too intimate.

02 March 2009

Have people lost their minds?

Headline from the Merc: California lawmaker targets Internet mapping sites. From the article:

Assemblyman Joel Anderson, a San Diego-area Republican, decided to introduce his bill after reading that terrorists who plotted attacks in Israel and India used popular sites such as Google Earth and Microsoft's Virtual Earth.

His bill would restrict the images such Web sites could post online. Clear, detailed images of schools, hospitals, churches and all government buildings [...] would not be allowed.

But this headline from the Telegraph really takes the cake: Britain's nuclear defence HQ at terror risk after appearing on Google Earth. From the article:

Britain's nuclear defence base at Faslane could be under threat from terrorists because aerial pictures of it are visible on Google Earth.

Go ahead, read the article. It barely even qualifies as "news."

Meanwhile, the bill in California just seems beyond misguided. Bruce Schneier has previously commented on this strategy of shutting down infrastructure to avoid "helping the terrorists."

01 March 2009

More "state" quarters

I had naively assumed that the "50 state quarters" program would be limited to the 50 states. So I was somewhat shocked, actually, to see a District of Columbia quarter yesterday:

Apparently, in 2007, Congress approved the District of Columbia and United States Territories Circulating Quarter Dollar Program Act, which means six new quarter designs will be manufactured this year:

  • District of Columbia
  • Guam
  • American Samoa
  • U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Puerto Rico
  • Northern Mariana Islands