How to Smuggle Water

This isn’t science; it’s arithmetic. My ancient TI30 calculator tells me that it takes 500 gallons of water to produce the beef for a Quarter Pounder at McDonald’s. God help us trying to find enough water to make a Big Mac.

It takes only 7 gallons to grow vegetables for your 3-ounce salad. So in terms of scarce water, a Quarter Pounder costs 70 times as much as a salad.

The raw figures were supplied by James McWilliams’ Op-Ed piece in Saturday’s New York Times. A shocking four million gallons of water are required to raise a ton of meat.

In the Imperial Valley of drought-stricken California, McWilliams reports, farmers use the water to grow alfalfa, most of which is then shipped to Asia as alfalfa hay to feed cattle.

By this route, the alfalfa growers are sending 100 billion gallons a year of California water to beef and pork eaters halfway around the world.

I’ve known serious thinkers who expect water wars in this century between the U.S. and Canada. As far-fetched as that may sound, it’s not nearly as crazy as exporting 100 billion gallons a year from water-starved California to the far-off fanciers of Kobe beef.

Our descendants will wonder — “What on earth were they thinking?”


As small children, we were less concerned with the metaphysical questions (Why is my bank a pig?) than the practical (Now that I’ve learned to put coins in the slot, how do I get them back out?)

Having since grown in wisdom, in age, and in grace, we’re finally ready for the worldly whys (Why are bankers such pigs?)

We’re not talking here about Jimmy Stewart in the local savings & loan – more like Orwell’s pigs in Animal Farm. These days, that means the big investment banks with their own version of the one-way slot where your dollars go to die.

After the piggy bankers blew up the economy in 2008, some of us started to wonder if they were overpaying themselves with the help of our tax money. We noticed they were gloriously overcompensated all year long and then got huge bonuses on top of that. For what?

Don’t ask. It’s a wonderful life.

Understandably, in the U.S. and Europe there’s been a recent move to clamp down on excessive bonuses. Surely two or three times a banker’s annual salary is enough?

But no! But no! rose the terrible squeal of porcine lobbyists in unison:

“How is an investment bank supposed to attract top talent merely by paying bloated salaries and then tripling them at year’s end?”

Still, bankers are clever pragmatists, else why would we pay them so much? Once they had grasped that the word “bonus” had acquired a pigpen aroma, they got out the thesaurus to find other words – innocent terms that the new regulations had failed to anticipate.

Instead of bonuses, some banks now speak of allowances. Didn’t we all used to get allowances? Some call their bonuses “role based pay” or “reviewable salary” and, under such banners, are managing to hand out bonuses ranging to more than five times an employee’s already majestic annual wage.

Orwell’s pigs had learned to talk like humans. Ours have graduated to fluency in weasel words.

Flunking Science

The excerpt below is from this week’s Economist. Their story is about a debate between creationist Ken Ham and Bill Nye (“the science guy”), who worried that allowing creationism a veneer of scientific respectability would harm America by producing scientifically illiterate students:


“Most Americans reject young-earth creationism. But the share of Republicans who believe that humans evolved fell from 54% in 2009 to 43% last year.

“Democrats, do not look so smug: your lot are likelier to believe in UFOs, ghosts, and astrology. Also, that the moon landings were faked, that the CIA introduced crack to inner cities, and that America’s government conspired in the September 11th attacks.

“It’s enough to make an ape weep.”

On the Wings of a Dove

It was a lovely idea, redolent of symbolism.

Last Sunday, as thousands watched from St. Peter’s Square, the Pope appeared at his window with two children who then released two white doves of peace.

A crow attacked one of the doves and a seagull attacked the other. The Pope must have felt like the driver who ran into a deer and then heard his children bawling, “Daddy killed Bambi!”

His Holiness spread his arms, looked skyward, and cried out, “Very funny, big guy!”

Actually that last part is apocryphal, but the Pontiff should have consulted his raven before staging such an event. It’s been an odd season for birds, as endangered Spotted Owls are crowded out of their shrinking habitat by barn owls in the northwest U.S. and Snowy Owls have moved south in great numbers from the Arctic Circle, first to Boston, then the Chesapeake, Washington D.C., Louisiana, Florida, even Bermuda.

As for the dove (usually a domesticated pigeon), it’s a symbol of peace and also of love because that’s what it rhymes with — “On the wings of a snow white dove, He sends his pure, sweet love…”

In the Old Testament, Noah confuses the issue by sending a dove out from the ark to look around for some dry land. The dove returns with a sprig from an olive tree in its beak, which for some reason makes both the dove and the olive branch symbols of peace instead of hope, rescue, flood relief, or olive oil.

The owl, of course, is a symbol of wisdom – spotted, snowy, or barn wisdom –although it’s also a ferocious predator.

It may be this ambivalence that induces the owl suddenly to turn its head 180 degrees.

The Crow (like Poe’s Raven) is a symbol of prophecy, and both it and the gull are symbols of scavenging – of eating damn near anything, including the handkerchiefs women pin to their hair when they’re not wearing a hat but have to cover their heads to go into St. Peter’s Basilica.

There’s a deeper meaning in all of this, and we expect to discover it any minute.

Operation Henhouse

Rumors are not exactly flying, but they’re peeping around corners, wondering if Fox News is actually a data mining project of NSA.

Covert designation: Operation Henhouse, more than likely.

It would be ironic if it turned out that all those conspiracy buffs addicted to Fox News have missed the one conspiracy that they’re addicted to.

To the rest of us, the tipoff came in a recent survey by Fairleigh-Dickinson University to test the knowledge of current events possessed by people who habitually watched or listened to one news outlet or another.

Fox News viewers rated lowest of all – even lower than people who neither watch, read, nor listen to any news whatever.

And on top of the list? The dreaded bicoastal liberals who tune into NPR. Also highly rated was the Daily Show.

NSA’s agenda – this is only speculation, mind you – would be one of data mining to trick the most ignorant people in the country to self-identify by their Fox News allegiance. Once they’ve fingered the “clucks” (spook-speak), agents would be ready to round up, disarm and possibly deport enough of them to restore the nation’s intellectual and judgmental balance.

Fairleigh-Dickinson researchers failed to disclose if there were any Supreme Court Justices in the survey sample.

The Truth About Truth

Don’t tell anyone, but in our vast test kitchens and cavernous research facilities under Yucca Mountain, we often face the dilemma of conflicting conclusions reached by different research teams — and then, in the interest of objectivity, we’re forced to flip a coin.

We use a tamper-proof 1899 Morgan silver dollar.

Since you can’t very well subject peerless researchers to peer review, we’ve never had to disclose our coinflip methodology to a peer-reviewed journal; but you can imagine our relief when we learned that everybody else’s research is comparably flawed, whether or not they admit it.

I’m not referring to the stock market recommendations of sell-side analysts on Wall Street or the studies sponsored by tobacco companies or drug companies, all of which are Easter egg hunts for new arguments to support foregone conclusions – as are the climate change denying studies covertly funded by coal and oil companies and the ubiquitous Koch brothers.

No, I mean real research by good scientists in pursuit of genuine discoveries – but who also have careers to build, tenure to seek, grants to obtain, and passionate beliefs in their own theories.

Get thee behind me, Satan, so you can push a little harder.

In Tuesday’s Science Times, George Johnson recalls a 2005 paper published by Dr. John Ioannidis – a scientist whose research subject is research itself. It was titled, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.”

Dr. Ioannidis noted the human tendency to see what we want to see, magnified by competition and a shrinking pool of grant money, along with some error-prone experimental designs – a context within which it’s easy to fool yourself, even with the best of conscious intentions.

Other scientists wondered if Dr. Ioannidis’ findings might have been skewed by his own biases.

But then he published a definitive report on the most highly regarded research papers of the previous decade (e.g. on the effects of a daily aspirin on cardiac patients, the risks of hormone replacement therapy for older women), finding that in most cases the reported results were later altered or contradicted.

Since then other researchers have come forward with kindred views.

One recalled that while working at Amgen he and his colleagues tried to replicate the findings of 53 landmark cancer papers. In 47 of the 53 cases they were unable to do so, even when they got the original researchers to collaborate.

Now that the alarm has been sounded, various journals and institutes are looking for ways to reform the process. But as Johnson points out in the Times, the scientific literature “has roughly doubled in size every 10 or 15 years since the days of Isaac Newton.”

He says the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed database alone containes 23 million citations.

How can we help? We’re thinking of sending them our 1899 silver dollar.

Fantasies in Propagandaland

In case you’re too busy to keep up with Russian and Iranian news agencies, Michael Moynihan provides an update in the Daily Beast. Highlights:

> From Edward Snowden’s stash, the Russian secret service has learned that Washington DC is now controlled by Nazi space aliens.

> North Korea is the only country boasting 100% literacy (though that’s easier to attain when there’s only one book).

> The Schoolchildren’s Palace in Pyongyang has facilities that would shame Eton and Harrow.

Fair and balanced, wouldn’t you say? This must be what Fox News sounds like to an Iranian.

The sources Moynihan cites are RT News (Russian), Fars News Agency (Iranian “semi-official”) and PressTV (official Iranian propaganda). You can find them all on YouTube, along with those of some other countries.

You won’t get late breaking antics of the Great Satan on Iran’s official site, though. Most of the “news” I found there is six months to three years old, somewhat redeemed with an up-to-date recipe for cooking abgoosht.

RT reports that the US dollar has lost all value and is about to crash.

A civil war is imminent here, and all the gold has apparently disappeared from Fort Knox (as revealed by a reporter named Rooster Teeth). The Germans had asked to see the bullion and were told No by the Fed.

Fars picked up a spoof from the Onion and ran it as actual news – announcing poll results showing that 70% of Americans would rather have beer with Ahmadinejad than Obama.

Both Fars and RT love stories of UFOs and ETs and carry them as mainstream news.

And conspiracy theories. Fars claims that “the Green Movement” hacked their site and shut it down for hours. I believe that one because the Green Movement hacked my lawn last spring and I had to mow it all summer until a cold snap killed their virus, along with the Stink Bugs, which had been smuggled in from China.

Gib vs. Godzilla

A story from long ago, written by Al (an eye witness) for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, which published it this past Saturday.


My younger brother Wayne – who until recently was a regular on KDKA News — just sold the house in the country where five of us grew up. He had bought it when Mom died at 94 because he couldn’t bear to see it go and has since spent 16 years fixing it up, pruning the trees, mowing the lawn and a field that once served as a 1-1/2 acre “victory garden” during the rationing of World War II.

So the old homestead has served as the venue of choice for family reunions and other get-togethers ever since. But Wayne and his wife Rose live 80 miles away, and eventually the maintenance work would become too much. Sale of the property evoked a flood of memories by e-mail back and forth from the then-kids and their kids, and even their kids, culminating in some stories from my older brother Gib, who had just returned from a trip out west.

But one story went unreported, and I’m here to tell it.

Gib was maybe 15 at the time, so I was 12 and Wayne was 7. Sisters Connie and Carol would have been 14 and 11 but had already matured beyond any inclination to get involved in their brothers’ quixotic misadventures.

Gib was already a prolific inventor, destined to become an electronics engineer and earn a sheaf of patents for Bell Laboratories. At age 8 or 9, he had fashioned a miniature gas stove out of a large orange juice can and a smaller soup can, weighted for stability by pouring molten lead into the bottom.

He tapped the telephone party line from our basement and installed some kind of motion detector on the front porch so that when a visitor arrived, every Christmas light, inside and out, blazed into life. When there were snowball fights, it didn’t do much good to build a snow fort because Gib would make a catapult that would throw snowballs the size of basketballs.

At the time of my story, his ingenuity was challenged by the appearance of a monstrous blacksnake in the woods at the edge of the lawn.

I saw it as a six or eight foot snake – an awesome anomaly in our world — so it was probably four or five feet, and Gib fearlessly advanced on it with a shovel. I protested because I had heard that if you have a resident blacksnake, you don’t have to worry about copperheads or rattlesnakes, and Gib finally relented.

He went into the basement and found a hand-pump weed sprayer, put some water in it, then some kerosene, came outside, pumped it a few times and lit a match to the spray.

Have you ever seen a large snake look back over its shoulder?

Well, no, of course they don’t have shoulders, but pursued by a mad scientist brandishing a flamethrower, a snake may exhibit an extra undulation or two in its accelerated slithering. Gib solemnly walked behind the blacksnake as it slalomed frantically down through the woods and across the property line. Gib returned satisfied that his younger siblings were no longer in danger of being snakebit.

So much for the theory of copperhead deterrence.

But that may have been a folktale to begin with, like the companion legend that if there’s a copperhead in the vicinity, you’ll whiff the smell of cucumbers.

I never detected that aroma back home, even though we raised cucumbers, so it’s possible that cucumbers actually smell like copperheads, and no one can detect that.

Go Coffee! Go Nuts!

Today’s assignment – forget everything you learned in yesterday’s assignment.

That’s the way things are going in the arcane pseudoscience of nutritional supplements and herbal remedies, which cost Americans 5 to 7 billion dollars a year.

Two research studies within the past three months (and several convincing experts) have concluded that virtually all of the many thousands of supplements we buy are worthless in terms of improving our health or prolonging our lives.

And even if they weren’t, the substance on the label may not be the one in the bottle, and the actual contents could be tainted or toxic. The supplement industry is largely unregulated (thanks to our vigilant Congress), so we may never know the full story.

What we do know (unless tomorrow’s assignment changes everything we know today) is that there are two important sources of dietary supplements that actually do help to ward off disease, and that neither comes in a bottle.

One is in the coffee house. The other is in the trees.

We covered coffee here a year or so ago – growing evidence that people who drink 4 to 6 or more cups a day (regular, not decaf) are less likely to suffer dementia, depression, prostate and several other cancers, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and a number of other maladies. Our conclusion at that time:

“If coffee had been developed by Pfizer or Merck, it would cost $1,600 a cup.”

Two weeks ago, Jane Brody in the Times made an equivalent case for nuts – both tree nuts and peanuts. Much of her data came from the New England Journal of Medicine’s report on two major studies covering 119,000 nurses and other professionals over a span of several decades.

Among the highlights:

> The more often people consumed nuts, the less likely they were to die of cancer, heart disease, or respiratory disease.

> Those who ate nuts 7 or more times a week were 20% less likely to die from 1980 to 2010.

> But aren’t nuts fattening? You would think so, with 160 to 200 calories per ounce. Yet in study after study, the more often people ate nuts, the leaner they tended to be.

> Most nuts are good sources of vitamin E, folic acid, selenium, magnesium, and several phytochemicals – natural compounds with anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, or anti-cancer properties.

As Brody sums it up, “All nuts are powerhouses of biologically active substances, most of which are known to protect and promote health.”

In both cases – nuts and coffee – there’s no bottle, no label. Not even unregulated free-market capitalism can counterfeit a good cup of coffee or mislabel a pistachio.

A State of Perforation

Beautiful Wyoming!

Home of big mountains and high plains. 10th largest, 2nd most sparsely populated state, launching pad of Dick Cheney, who trained for the vice presidency as chairman of Halliburton, then called in the oil and gas companies to write the nation’s energy policy.

In case it’s ever necessary to remove Wyoming from the union, just tear along the perforations – the abandoned holes in the ground left by thousand of hydraulic fracturing wells, most of their drillers having vanished or gone bankrupt (Drill, Baby, Drill!) after the gas boom of the past decade collapsed amid declining yields and low gas prices.

Could this be the foreshadowing of our nationwide boom in fracking?

Wyoming officials say 1.200 wells have been abandoned, and several thousand more may be forsaken by their operators. Another 2,300 wells are sitting idle but have not yet been entirely given up for dead. And 400 more idle wells dot the stretches of Wyoming landscape owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

In theory, when a well is abandoned it is plugged and its surroundings restored by the operator. In practice, small operators go bust, and many larger ones simply move on, leaving the problem to the state and property owners, both of whom worry not only about the blighted scenery but also the incipient dangers to clean air and water supplies.

It shouldn’t have been hard to foresee. Historically, booms are usually followed by busts.

But the state has merely been requiring each gas driller to post a $75,000 bond to cover restoration of all of its wells – which may number into the hundreds.

Wyoming has a huge supply of land and a small supply of taxpayers. Now that the state – like Cheney’s energy policy – is full of holes, the question looms of who can or will pay to fix it – if fixing it is indeed possible.