Monday, October 29, 2012

Earthquake Aftermath

The recent conviction of six Italian scientists on manslaughter
charges for their failure to predict a deadly earthquake probably
triggered a lot of water cooler conversation over at Caltech. Not to
mention a fair amount of outrage and disbelief.

After all, the Pasadena campus, home to some of the finest scientific
minds in the world, is News Central when a quake strikes, a place
where the world turns for data, analysis and even reassurance.

Indeed, two of the Caltech’s most public seismologists, Kate Hutton
and Lucy Jones, are rarely are seen on TV without the words “breaking
news” scrawled just below their chins.

Their commitment goes far beyond press briefings, however. Drs.
Hutton and Jones and their colleagues have done much to raise the
level of awareness of the risks of living in earthquake country and
have shown us how we might mitigate those dangers.

It is unimaginable that they could be prosecuted because something
they said was misconstrued and deemed to be criminal behavior.

But that’s exactly what happened in Italy, where the six scientists
and another official were found guilty of multiple manslaughter and
abetting grave injury for “providing an assessment of the risks that
was incomplete, inept, unsuitable, and criminally mistaken” following
a quake in L’Auila that killed more than 300 people.

They were sentenced to six years in prison, fined $10 million each in
damages and the cost of the trial. They must each pay $2.6 million

“I am devastated,” said Enzo Boschi, one of the condemned, after the
hearing. “I thought I was acquitted. To be honest, I still don’t even
understand what I was accused of.”

It sounds more like inquisition than inquiry. “Witch hunt” wouldn’t
be too strong a term to use.

I’m surprised they didn’t use the dunking stool to determine the
guilt or innocence of those involved.

The irony of the case was that it wasn’t the result of bad science
but of bad communications.

The city of L’Aulia, located in an active earthquake area (it had
been destroyed by a quake in 1703) had recently experienced numerous
tremors, alarming the populace. To make matters worse, a local
laboratory technician had warned of an impending quake based on his
measurements of radon levels, a test that is largely unproven,
according to news reports.

A panel of scientists was convened to assess the situation. It was
followed by a press conference in which a local bureaucrat (not a
seismologist) suggested “it's a favorable situation because of the
continuous discharge of energy” and told everyone to relax and have a
glass of wine.

Shortly thereafter, the devastating quake stuck.

But, according to the meeting minutes as reported in the publication
Nature, the scientists actually said, "It is unlikely that an
earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but
the possibility cannot be totally excluded." There is no mention of
energy discharge.

The scientists aren’t entirely blameless, however. They may be guilty
of several lapses in judgment.

First, they let a non-scientist announce the results of their study,
a person whose agenda, it appears, was to calm the residents. The
scientists then failed to correct the misinformation that was

Second, they agreed to serve on something called the National
Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. If I’m a
scientist that has been approached to serve on a body whose very name
suggests it can forecast earthquakes or other natural disasters, I’m
running in the other direction.

Either that, or I’m forming a group called the National Commission
for the Understanding of the Limits of Science.

Because the one sure thing about earthquakes is that they can’t be
predicted. Not if you form a commission, not if you study tea leaves,
not if you sacrifice a goat.

The real criminals in this case are those who would foster an
atmosphere where legitimate scientific expression is repressed by
fear. Ultimately, it could cost even more lives in the future.


Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Not-So Great Debates

Who would have ever thought that there would a pivotal presidential
debate featuring two guys named Barack and Mitt moderated by a gal
named Candy?

Who would have thought that the most memorable phrase uttered was
“binders full of women” courtesy of Gov. Romney who was inartfully
trying to establish his feminist bona fides?

Who would have thought that Pizza Hut would seriously consider daring
people to ask "Sausage or Pepperoni?" at the town hall debate this
past week?

All of which goes to show you that there are strange bedfellows and
strangers in the night but there is nothing stranger than politics.

If you missed the first two presidential debates and the vice
presidential tussle, you can tune in tomorrow night and it will all
be fresh and new to you.

If you’re like me, and have watched every minute of ever episode in
this mini-series, it will be like eating leftovers three times in a
row: no matter how they serve it, it’s the same warmed-over rhetoric
presented with different garnish.

Call it the not-so great debate.

To underscore that point, note that the major news emerging from
these debates has little to do with what was said. Instead, untold
hundreds of “experts” have opined on body language, aggressiveness or
lack of same, the role of the moderators, the color of the
candidate’s ties, even the size of the participant’s American flag
lapel pins.

Consider this from the Washington Post on the past week’s debates:
“Who won? Who knows? The rematch of Obama vs. Romney was a great
night for physical theater. Rhetoric was sidelined by spectacle. At
times, the thinly veiled aggression grew so hot — with President
Obama and Mitt Romney closing in on each other like street fighters
—that you wondered if the two would come to fisticuffs.”

What I really wondered about was not fisticuffs but the fiscal cliff
this country faces in a very short time. But that question was
neither asked nor was the topic discussed.

It demonstrates that these debates have been all about style over

In the first debate in Denver, the news was all about demeanor.
President Obama looked for all the world like a guy who accidently
wandered into a Tupperware party. He was too polite to leave but too
disinterested to add much to the proceedings.

In the meantime, Gov. Romney was doing his best General Patton
imitation. Indeed, he won the battle, if not the war.

In the next round of the debates, Vice President Joe Biden clashed
with GOP nominee Rep. Paul Ryan. It was an event largely
characterized by Biden continually referring to Ryan as “my friend”
and showing his teeth a lot while Ryan spent a lot of time sipping
water. But ultimately, the debate was devoid of breaking news.

Next came Obama/Romeny, Part II. Obama won style points because of a
new found aggressiveness but I was left with the impression that it
was play acting, that the real President doesn’t stalk the halls of
the West Wing like a tiger at feeding time as he did on stage here.

One question among many was asked about women’s rights, yet some in
the media characterized the debate as an attempt to secure the female
vote. If it was, it was sadly misdirected.

To think that the two candidates prowling the stage like schoolyard
bullies would appeal to women shows a basic misunderstanding of human

One CNN anchor said she was disturbed, almost frightened, by the
display. Gail Collins, writing in the New York Times, said “Women
enjoy a good pander as much as anybody else, and it was great to have
the candidates tackle issues like equal pay and reproductive rights.
Although it was a little weird that the two men vied for female favor
by interrupting and barking at one another like a Worst Boyfriend.
“If there are significant voter gender differences, one of them is
the female aversion to yelling and squabbling…”

Now, there is one more debate. We can hope for some red meat rather
than the gruel we have been served in the past.

But I’m betting that the recipe remains the same.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The National Fiasco League

I went to a pro football game recently, an experience so alien to
most Southern California residents that I might as well just
announced that I lunched with the Pope or purchased a yacht.

You did what?

It wasn’t something on my bucket list. Rather, I had traveled to
Denver to visit an old friend who just happened to have two tickers
to the Broncos-Raiders game on a recent Sunday. It’s good to have old

I tried to remember the last time I attended a NFL game. I watched
the Steelers in Pittsburgh with my brother-in-law a decade or so ago.
I went to a few Raider games when they occupied the Coliseum but
found the atmosphere about as cordial as a prison yard. So I never
returned. I went to a lot of Rams games but that was a long, long
time ago.

The Denver experience was an eye-opener. The Broncos play in a
relatively new stadium that has no equal here. It is modern,
aesthetically pleasing, clean and spacious with comfortable seating
and great sightlines. For those of us who have been kicking around
the Rose Bowl and Coliseum, it’s like stepping out of Model A Ford
into a Ferrari.

The fans are very loud and very intense, fueled in part by copious
amounts of Coors. And when we traveled across town to a pub following
the game, almost every street on our route was filled with people
adorned in Bronco jerseys and shirts celebrating a win.

Call it civic pride. Or mass hysteria. Probably a little of both. It
must have been the same way when the legions returned in triumph to

I couldn’t help but wonder: If the NFL returned to Los Angeles, would
the fans here demonstrate the same unabashed energy and loyalty?
Would they sell out the stadium for decades on end as they have in
Denver? Would they parade throughout the city in team colors?
Would the NFL own this town?

The simple answer is “no.” And it’s not, as myth would have it,
because we are too laid back or too distracted by myriad other

First, people here have grown weary of the “NFL to L.A.” fiasco, a
tale that contains more twists and turns than an Alfred Hitchcock

We rightly believe that we have been jerked around for decades by a
league whose attitude has been a combination of pomposity and benign

So don’t expect us to swoon at the rumored sighting of a NFL team.
And don’t expect us to fall head-over-heels in love if one lands in
our midst.

Second, it wasn’t our fault the NFL abandoned Los Angeles. The Rams
left first for Orange County then St. Louis at the behest of their
owner/showgirl who yearned for the luxury and riches that only a
sweltering outpost on the Mississippi River could provide.

The Raiders moved here then returned to Oakland, a city best known
for holding up the other end of the Bay Bridge.

Now, we are not a destination, we are a threat. NFL owners play
footsie with L.A. as a way to browbeat their own fans and politicians
into building new venues. Does that make you feel like you’re being
used? Me too.

Third, the most vocal support for pro football in Los Angeles is
exhibited by wealthy business people who hope to become wealthier.
Call it trickle-down enthusiasm.

In order for the NFL to own this town, the Lakers and Dodgers would
have to move to Canada. Or beyond.

These two franchises have been continually successful and in the
process have won the hearts and minds of the fans. Even the Kings, by
winning the Stanley Cup, have secured themselves a seat on the Los
Angeles bandwagon.

Football? Put UCLA and USC at home on the same day and 150,000 fans
will show up. No NFL city can make that claim.

A pro team would push us perilously close to, if not beyond, the saturation point. And there is talk of adding two teams? I can see the empty seats already.

We have survived a long time without the NFL. And it has survived
quite well without us.

But Los Angeles is the second largest TV market in the U.S. and the NFL is essentially a made-for-TV product. Connect the dots to see why the league is interested.

We may very well have professional football in Los Angeles some day.

As for the fans, the reaction could very well be resignation, not

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Heroic Acts

Just this past week, I performed a number of death-defying acts, each one so profoundly heroic that strong men trembled and weak men cried.

I left the house.

I withdrew money from an ATM machine.

I ate at a Mexican restaurant.

I attended a baseball game at Dodger Stadium.

I shook hands with people. And even hugged a few.

And I did it all without a mask.

Welcome to Life in the Time of Swine Flu.

I knew we were entering uncharted territory the other day when I spotted a woman in the supermarket with at least two dozen bottles of hand sanitizer in her cart, enough to wipe down the Rose Bowl.

Other than that, the only public signs of panic I've seen is on the part of the media.

What we have had is an outbreak of out-of-control coverage.

"Swine flu-HIV could devastate human race" screamed a headline on a UPI story.

"Flu Fears Spur Global Triage," pronounced the Wall Street Journal.

NBC's Robert Bazell said the government didn't "want people to panic," but then panicked viewers saying "it appears to be an outbreak unlike anything we've seen in our lifetimes."

Not to be outdone, Fox anchor Shepard Smith hinted the flu story might be "just a distraction from more serious issues," according to the Los Angeles Times. Another Fox host darkly repeated Internet reports that "the government knows a lot more than they are telling us."

Taking it one

step further, syndicated conservative talk show host Neal Boortz played the terrorist and race card in one deft move: "What better way to sneak a virus into this country than give it to Mexicans?"

Meanwhile in Great Britain, the London Independent thundered "Prepared for the Apocalypse," describing Mexico as a "quasi-apocalyptic vision of anonymous faces shrouded in government-issued surgical masks."

"Sore throat at breakfast dead by tea time how the last flu pandemic killed 40 million," intoned the Express.

Then there was Vice President Joe Biden, saying he was advising his family to stay off public transportation which prompted the Wall Street Journal to observe, "Who knew Mr. Biden was talking about himself when he warned last year that Barack Obama would be tested by crisis early in his presidency?"

To be fair, not every media outlet went into hysteria mode. Many approached the topic with healthy skepticism, reporting that more people die per year from ordinary flu viruses than from the swine variety.

And comedic commentator John Stewart put things into proper perspective: "Swine flu ranks last on the list of things that can kill you in Mexico."

Truth be told, this was a tough call for a lot of editors.

Scientists and public health officials have been warning for years about a deadly pandemic. The swine flu scared us in the 1970s, so much so that a massive inoculation program was initiated which did more harm than good.

Bird flu is still lurking out there somewhere. We've been through the Asian flu, the Hong Kong flu and SARS.

Add to that a climbing death rate in Mexico and outbreaks in the United States. The president of the United States holds a press conference in which he expresses "cause for concern, not cause for alarm."

On the other hand, previous pandemic scares have been overblown.

This is not a story you assign to an intern.

The trouble comes when much of the coverage begins when anchors on the 24-hour-a-day cable news channels pick up the beat. They have a lot of air time to fill and pretty soon begin to overreact to every development while feeding on each other's excesses.

Besides, the media loves doomsday scenarios. Remember Y2K and Mad Cow Disease? Then when this hype gets spread on myriad social networking networks, you have an information pandemic. As of Wednesday, Google listed 19,100,000 hits for the topic "Swine Flu."

The trick for the media is to balance restraint with the need to inform the public of an important story. It's a difficult act that sometimes gets lost in the emotion of the moment. The result is that the public loses faith in the media. In Texas, when Fort Worth closed down every single school sending 80,000 students home, the governor blamed "media hype."

We know that this particular chapter may not be at an end. Some public health officials warn that the virus could mutate and that a real global outbreak could occur.

If that happens, will the public view the media as the boy who cried wolf?

That would make a bad situation worse.

At a time the media is expanding to include any and all voices, which voice to listen to will become increasingly important.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Jimmy and Charlie

Just call us Boneheads.

We Americans seem to be obsessed with finding the earthly remains of
Jimmy Hoffa, a labor leader/crook who presided over the Teamsters
Union for 13 years and who vanished in 1975 without a trace.

What fuels this frenzied skeletal scavenger hunt is as mysterious as
his disappearance. Hoffa was nobody’s idea of a warm and fuzzy guy.
He ran with a rough crowd and apparently suffered a rough fate. End
of chapter. Close the book.

But every half-baked tip sends the cops and the FBI out with a
shovel-wielding, back hoe churning platoon of searchers.
Can’t we just let Jimmy go?

Sure, the Teamsters became the largest single union in the United
States under Hoffa’s leadership, boasting 1.5 million members. And he
was once a powerful presence on the national stage.

While he was playing strongman, however, he was engaged in jury
tampering, bribery and fraud for which he was convicted and
imprisoned in 1967 for a term of 13 years.

It was enough to give the labor movement a bad name.

This is a man of whom Attorney General Robert Kennedy once said, “If
James R. Hoffa is acquitted, I will jump from the top of the Capital

Yet five years into his sentence, he was released from prison by
President Richard Nixon. The Teamsters then endorsed Nixon in his
reelection bid in 1972, a coincidence that raised many an eyebrow and
dropped many a jaw.

When last seen in the parking lot of a suburban Detroit restaurant,
Hoffa was on his way to meet Anthony Giacalone and Anthony
Provenzano, two reputed Mafia figures who had also been Teamster

Maybe they just took a wrong turn into Lake St. Claire. But if you
believe that, you probably believe in the Easter Bunny.

Indeed, the Detroit Free Press in 2006 cited a FBI report concluding
Hoffa was killed by organized crime members because he was attempting
to regain control of the Teamsters whose pension fund they controlled.

So in mob parlance, he was “taken for a ride.” Or perhaps he “sleeps
with the fishes.”

It’s been 37 years. He has been declared legally dead. The hunt,
however, continues.

Just this past week, police acting on a tip from someone who might
have seen something nearly four decades ago, dug up the yard of a
suburban Detroit house. But no Jimmy.

Previous tips have led police and the FBI to excavate land at a
mid-Michigan horse farm, pull up floorboards of a Detroit house and
search beneath a backyard pool.

Then there’s the theory that Hoffa was entombed in concrete at Giants
Stadium in New Jersey, ground up and thrown in a Florida swamp or
obliterated in a mob-owned fat-rendering plant. None of which have
produced a single hair.

If we want to get serious about finding a body, we should take a
lesson from our cousins the Brits.

In what must be the ultimate cold case file, they have been hunting
for the bones of King Richard III for nearly 600 years. And now they
appear to have found them.

Richard was one of the most reviled of the English kings. He was
depicted by Shakespeare as a scheming, evil hunchback, the last of
the Plantagenets whose death in battle paved the way for the triumphs
of the Tudors and Elizabethans.

He died in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, then was bound naked
to a horse for two days of public display in Leicester, about 100
miles north of London, according to historical accounts. He was
buried in a priority which over the centuries had become a parking
lot for a bank in Leicester under which the bones were found.

While testing continues to verify that the bones are indeed that of
the king, the Brits have gone one step farther. They found a cabinet
maker living in London whose mother was a 16th-generation niece of
King Richard’s and whose DNA may seal the deal.

Interestingly enough, the discovery has spurned discussion that
perhaps Richard wasn’t such a bad sort after all and should be
reburied in Westminster Abbey along with the other kings of England.

It just shows you how 500 years or so can repair your reputation.
Maybe if they dig up Hoffa in 2512, he’ll be hailed as a hero.

But I have grave doubts.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Science With a Snicker

It's awards season once again, a fact that is of keen interest mainly to the tuxedo rental business and fawning TV field reporters.

This column will let others wallow in the self-congratulatory excesses of the Oscars, the Emmys, the Tonys, the Golden Globes and all the rest. We haven't enjoyed an awards show since Donald Duck hosted the Academy Awards in 1958.

Still, there is one awards presentation that draws our rapt attention. That would be the Ig Noble Prizes, staged at this time each year at Harvard University by the editors of a not-to-be-taken-too-seriously group known as the Annals of Improbable Research.

They are awarded for "research that makes people laugh, and then think" and are often presented by actual Nobel laureates.

Past winners include a team from UC Davis for exploring why woodpeckers don't get headaches; the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with a tank; researchers who calculated the number of photographs you must take to (almost) ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed; a study that determined that lap dancers get higher tips when they are ovulating; and a woman from MIT who invented an alarm clock that runs away and hides, repeatedly, thus ensuring that people do get out of bed, and thus theoretically adding many productive hours to the workday.

The awards know no bounds. The prize for mathematics was once awarded to to the Southern Baptist Church of Alabama for their county-by-county estimate of how many Alabama citizens will go to hell if they don't repent.

This year's honorees carried on the lofty traditions established by past winners.

In the field of psychology, Anita Eerland and Rolf Zwaan and Tulio Guadalupe, all from the Netherlands, won for their study "Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller."

Just in time for the elections, Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada of Japan won the acoustics award for creating the Speech Jammer, a machine that disrupts a person's speech by making them hear their own spoken words at a very slight delay.

In neuroscience, Craig Bennett, Abigail Baird, Michael Miller, and George Wolford of the U.S.A. demonstrated that brain researchers, by using complicated instruments and simple statistics, can see meaningful brain activity anywhere - even in a dead salmon.

The prize for literature went to U.S. Government General Accountability Office, for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommend the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.

Joseph Keller (U.S.A.) and Raymond Goldstein (U.S.A. and U.K.), Patrick Warren, and Robin Ball (U.K.) won the physics prize for calculating the balance of forces that shape and move the hair in a human ponytail.

Rouslan Krechetnikov (U.S.A., Russia, Canada) and Hans Mayer (U.S.A.) studied the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks while carrying a cup of coffee (it spills), thereby securing the fluid dynamics honors.

Frans de Waal (the Netherlands and U.S.A.) and Jennifer Pokorny (U.S.A.) secured the anatomy award for discovering that chimpanzees can identify other chimpanzees individually from seeing photographs of their rear ends.

In medicine, Emmanuel Ben-Soussan and Michel Antonietti (France) won for advising doctors who perform colonoscopies how to minimize the chance that their patients will explode. For which we can all be eternally grateful.

So what muse inspires this kind of research?

Joseph Keller, the soft-spoken, white-haired mathematician behind the pony tail research, explained, "I used to jog around the Stanford campus and saw many young ladies running," Keller said. "Their ponytails swayed side to side . . . even though the head was only going up and down. Why did the ponytail go side to side?"

"It turns out that it could go up and down," Keller, a professor of applied mathematics at Stanford, explained. "But that's unstable if the jogging frequency is twice the pendulum frequency of the ponytail," which is usually the case for humans. "Because runners all tend to pound the pavement at roughly the same frequency and their hair is roughly the same length, all ponytails sway from side to side."

Another great riddle solved.

As they say at the conclusion of the ceremonies, "If you didn't win a prize - and especially if you did - better luck next year!"