Category Archives: aging

New Chinese emperor, will famine not follow

For most of its 2300 year history, the Chinese empire has rattled between strong leaders who brought famine, and weak leaders who brought temporary reprieve. Mao, a strong leader, killed his associates plus over 100 million by his “great leap forward” famine. Since then, 30+ years, we’ve had some weaker leaders, semi-democracy, and some personal wealth, plus the occasional massacre, e.g. at Tiananmen square, and a growing demographic problem. And now a new strongman is establishing himself with hopes of solving China’s problems. I hope for the best, but fear the repeat of the worse parts of Chinese history.

Two weeks ago, Chairman Xi amended the Chinese constitution to make himself emperor for life, essentially. He’s already in charge of the government, the party, and the military. Yesterday (Tuesday), he consolidated his power further by replacing the head of the banks. The legal system is, in theory, is the last independent part of government, but there is hardly any legal system in the sense of a balance of power. If history is any guide, “Emperor” Xi will weaken the courts further before the year is out. He will also likely remove many or all of his close associates and relatives. It is not for nothing that Nero, Stalin, and Mao killed their relatives and friends — generally for “corruption” following a show trial.

China's Imperial past is never is quite out of sight. Picture from the Economist.

China’s past is never is quite out of sight. Picture from the Economist.

Xi might be different, but he faces a looming demographic problem that makes it likely he will follow the president of the stronger emperors. China’s growth was fueled in part by a one child policy. Left behind is an aging, rural population with no children to take care of the elderly. As top-down societies do not tolerate “useless workers,” I can expect a killing famine within the next 10 years. This would shed the rural burden while providing a warning to potential critics. “Burn the chicken to scare the monkey,” is a Chinese Imperial aphorism. Besides, who needs dirt farmers when we have modern machines.

Lazy beds (feannagan) use only half the soil are for planting. The English experts were sure this was inefficient and land-wasting. Plowing was imposed on Ireland, and famine followed

“Lazy beds” of potatoes were used in Ireland for a century until experts forced their abandonment in the mid 1800s. The experts saw the beds, and the Irish as lazy, inefficient, and land-wasting. Famine followed.

Currently about 40% of the country is rural, about 560 million people spread out over a country the size of Canada or the US. The rest, 60% or 830 million, live concentrated in a few cities. The cities are rich, industrial, and young. The countryside is old, agricultural and poor, salaries are about 1/3 those of the cities. The countryside holds about 2/3 of those over 65, about 100 million elderly with no social safety net. The demographic imbalance is likely to become worse — a lot worse — within the next decade.

What is likely to happen, I fear, is that the party leaders — all of whom live in the cities — will decide that the countryside is full of non-productive, uneducated whiners. They will demand that more food should be produced, and will help them achieve this by misguided science and severe punishments. Mao’s experts, like Stalin’s and Queen Victoria’s, demanded unachievable quotas and academic-based advice that neither the leaders nor the academics had ever tried to make work. Mao’s experts told peasants to kill the birds that were stealing their grain. It worked for a while until the insects multiplied. As for the quotas, the party took grain as if the quotas were being met. If the peasants starved, they starved.

I expect that China’s experts will propose machine-based modern agriculture, perhaps imported from the US or Israel: Whatever is in style at the time. The expert attitude exists everywhere to this day, and the results are always the same. See potato famine picture above. When the famine comes, the old will request food and healthcare, but the city leaders will provide none, or just opioids as they did to ailing Elvis. When the complaining stops the doctor is happy.

China's population pyramid as of 2016. Notice the bulge of 40-55 year olds.

China’s population pyramid as of 2016. Notice the bulge of 40-55 year olds. Note too that there are millions more males (blue) than females (pink).

In single leader societies, newspapers do not report bad news. Rather, they like to show happy, well-fed peasants singing the leaders’ praise. When there’s a riot too big to ignore, rioters are presented as lazy malcontents and counter-revolutionaries. Sympathizers are sent to work in the fields. American academia will sing the praises of the autocratic leader, or will be silent. We never see the peasants, but often see the experts. And we live in a society where newspapers report only the bad, and where we only believe when there pictures. No pictures, no story. As with Stalin’s Gulags, Mao’s famine, or North Korea today, there are likely to be few pictures released to the press. Eventually, a census will reveal that tens of million aged have vanished, and we’ll have to guess where they went.

I can expect China to continue its military buildup over the next decade. The military will be necessary to put down riots, and keep young men occupied, and to protect China from foreign intervention. China will especially need to protect its ill-gotten, new oil-assets. Oil is needed if China is to replace its farmers with machines. It will be a challenge for a wise American leader to avoid being drawn into war with China, while protecting some of our interests: Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc. As with Theodore Roosevelt, he should offer support and non-biassed mediation. Is Trump up to this?  Hu Knows?

Robert Buxbaum, March 21, 2018. The above might be Xi-nephobia, Then again, this just in: Chairman Xi announces that Taiwan will face punishment if it attempts to break free. Doesn’t sound good.

Fat people live longer, show less dementia

Life expectancy is hardly affected by weight in the normal - overweight- obese range. BMI 30-34.9 = obese.

Life expectancy is hardly affected by weight in the normal – overweight – obese range. BMI 30-34.9 = obese.

Lets imagine you are a 5’10” man and you weigh 140 lbs. In that case, you have a BMI of 20, and you probably think you’re pretty healthy, or perhaps you think you’re a bit overweight. Our institutes of health will say that you are an “average-wight” or “normal-weight” American, and then claim that the average-weight American is overweight. What they don’t tell you, is that low weight, and so-called average weight people in the US live shorter lives. Other things being equal, the morbidity (chance of death) for a thin American, BMI 18.5 is nearly triple that of someone who’s obese, BMI 32. The morbidity of the normal-weight American is better, but is still nearly double that of the obese fellow whose BMI is 32.

Our NIH has created a crisis of overweight Americans, that is not based on health. They work hard to solve this obesity crisis by telling people to jog to work, and by creating ever-more complicated food pyramids. Those who listen live shorter lives. A prime example is Jim Fixx, author of several running books including “The complete Book of Running.” He was 52 when he died of a heart attack while running. Similar to this is the diet-expert, Adelle Davis, author of “Let’s eat right to keep fit”. She died at 70 of cancer — somewhat younger than the average American woman. She attributed her cancer to having eaten junk food as a youth. I would attribute it to being thin. Not only do thin people live shorter lives, but their chances of recovering from cancer, or living with it, seem to improve if you start with some fat.

The same patter exists where age-related dementia is concerned. If you divide the population into quartiles of weight, the heaviest has the least likelihood of dementia, the second heaviest has the second-least, the third has the third-least, and the lightest Americans have the highest likelihood of dementia. Here are two studies to that effect, “Association between late-life body mass index and dementia”, The Kame Project, Neurology. 2009 May 19; 72(20): 1741–1746. And “BMI and risk of dementia in two million people over two decades: a retrospective cohort study” The Lancet, Volume 3, No. 6, p431–436, June 2015.

Morbidity and weight, uncorrected data, and corrected by removing the demented.

Morbidity and weight, uncorrected data, and corrected by removing the demented. The likelihood of dementia decreases with weight.

Now you may think that there is a confounding, cause and effect here: that crazy old people don’t live as long. You’d be right there, crazy people don’t live as long. Still, if you correct the BMI-mortality data to remove those with dementia, you still find that in terms of life-span, for men and women, it pays to be overweight or obese but not morbidly so. The study concludes as follows: “Weight loss was related to a higher mortality risk (HR = 1.5; 95% CI: 1.2,1.9) but this association was attenuated when persons with short follow-up or persons with dementia were excluded.” As advice to those who are planning a weight loss program, you might go crazy and reduce your life-span a lot, but if you don’t go crazy, you’re only reducing your life-span a little.

In terms of health food, I’ve noticed that many non-health foods, like alcohol and chocolate are associated with longevity and mental health. And while low-impact exercise helps increase life-span, that exercise is only minimally associated with weight loss. Mostly weight loss involves changing the amount you eat and changing your clothes choices to maximize radiant heat loss.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, October 26, 2017. A joke: Last week I was mugged by a vegan. You may ask how I know it was a vegan. He told be before running off with my wallet.

Race and suicide

Suicide is generally understood as a cry of desperation. If so, you’d expect that the poorer, less-powerful, less-mobile members of society — black people, Hispanics, and women — would be the most suicidal. The opposite is true. While black people and Hispanics have low savings, and mobility, they rarely commit suicide. White Protestants and Indians are the most suicidal groups in the US; Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Catholics, Moslems, Orientals, are significantly less prone. And black, non-Hispanic women are the least suicidal group of all — something I find rather surprising.

US, Race-specific suicide, all ages, Center for Disease control 2002-2012

US, Race-specific suicide, all ages, Center for Disease control 2002-2012

Aha, I hear you say: It’s the stress of upward mobility that causes suicide. If this were true, you’d expect Asians would have a high suicide rate. They do not, at least not American Asians. Their rate (male + female) is only 6.5/100,000, even lower than that for Afro-Americans. In their own countries, it’s different, and Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans commit suicide at a frightening rate. My suspicion is that American Asians feel less trapped by their jobs, and less identified too. They do not feel shame in their company’s failures, and that’s a good, healthy situation. In Korea, several suicides were related to the Samsung phones that burst into flames. While there is some stress from upward mobility, suggested by the suicide rates for Asian-American females being higher than for other woman, it’s still half that of non-hispanic white women, and for women in China and Korea. This suggests, to me, that the attitude of Asian Americans is relatively healthy.

The only group with a suicide rate that matches that of white protestants is American Indians, particularly Alaskan Indians. You’d figure their rate would be high given the alcoholism, but you’d expect it to be similar to that for South-American Hispanics, as these are a similar culture, but you’d be wrong, and it’s worthwhile to ask why. While men in both cultures have similar genes, suffer financially, and are jailed often, American Indians are far more suicidal than Mexican Americans. It’s been suggested that the difference is religiosity or despair. But if Indians despair, why don’t Mexicans or black people? I find I don’t have a completely satisfactory explanation, and will leave it at that.

Age-specific suicide rates.

Age-specific suicide rates, US, all races, 2012, CDC.

Concerning age, you’d probably guess that teenagers and young adults would be most suicidal — they seem the most depressed. This is not the case. Instead, middle age men are twice as likely to commit suicide as teenage men, and old men, 85+, are 3.5 times more suicidal. The same age group, 85+ women, is among the least suicidal. This is sort-of surprising since they are often in a lot of pain. Why men and not women? My suspicion is that the difference, as with the Asians has to do with job identification. I note that middle age is a particularly important time for job progress, and note that men are more-expected to hold a job and provide than women are. When men feel they are not providing –or worse –see themselves as a drag on family resources, they commit suicide. At least, this is my explanation.

It’s been suggested that religion is the consolation of women and particularly of black women and Catholics. I find this explanation doubtful as I have no real reason to think that old women are more religious than old men, or that Protestants and Indians are less religious than Hispanics, Asians, Moslems, and Jews. Another difference that I (mostly) reject is that access to guns is the driver of suicide. Backing this up is a claim in a recent AFSP report, that women attempt suicide three times more often than men. That men prefer guns, while women prefer pills and other, less-violent means is used to suggest that removal of guns would (or should) reduce suicide. Sorry to say, a comparison between the US and Canada (below) suggests the opposite.

A Centers for Disease Control study (2012) found that people doing manual labor jobs are more prone to suicide than are people in high-strew, thinking jobs. That is, lumberjacks, farmers, fishermen, construction workers, carpenters, miners, etc. All commit suicide far more than librarians, doctors, and teachers, whatever the race. My suspicion is that it’s not the stress of the job so much, as the stress of unemployment between gigs. The high suicide jobs, it strikes me, are jobs one would identify with (I’m a lumberjack, I’m a plumber, etc. ) and short term. I suspect that the men doing these jobs (and all these are male-oriented jobs) tend to identify with their job, and tend to fall into a deadly funk when their laid off. They can not sit around the house. Then again, many of these jobs go hand in hand with heavy drinking and an uncommon access to guns, poison, and suicidal opportunities.

zc-percentage-total-suicides-by-method-2000-2003-ca-2007-us

Canadians commit suicide slightly more often than Americans, but Canadians do it mostly with rope and poison, while more than half of US suicides are with guns.

I suspect that suicide among older men stems from the stress of unemployment and the boredom of sitting around feeling useless. Older women tend to have hobbies and friends, while older men do not. And older men seem to feel they are “a burden” if they can no-longer work. Actor Robin Williams, as an example, committed suicide, supposedly, because he found he could not remember his lines as he had. And Kurt Gödel (famous philosopher) just stopped eating until he died (apparently, this is a fairly uncommon method). My speculation is that he thought he was no longer doing productive work and concluded “if I don’t produce, I don’t deserve to eat.” i’m going to speculate that the culture of women, black men, Hispanics, Asians, etc. are less bound to their job, and less burdened by feelings of worthlessness when they are not working. Clearly, black men have as much access to guns as white men, and anyone could potentially fast himself to death.

I should also note that people tend to commit suicide when they lose their wife or husband; girlfriend or boyfriend. My thought is that this is similar to job identification. It seems to me that a wife, husband, or loved one is an affirmation of worth, someone to do for. Without someone to do for, one may feel he has nothing to live for. Based on the above, my guess about counseling is that a particularly good approach would be to remind people in this situation that there are always other opportunities. Always more fish in the sea, as it were. There are other women and men out there, and other job opportunities. Two weeks ago, I sent a suicidal friend a link to the YouTube of Stephen Foster’s song, “there are plenty of fish in the sea” and it seemed to help. It might also help to make the person feel wanted, or needed by someone else — to involve him or her is some new political or social activity. Another thought, take away the opportunity. Since you can’t easily take someone’s gun, rope, or pills — they’d get mad and suspicious –I’d suggest taking the person somewhere where these things are not — a park, the beach, a sauna or hot-tub, or just for a walk. These are just my thoughts, I’m a PhD engineer, so my thinking may seem odd. I try to use numbers to guide my thought. If what I say makes sense, use it at your own risk.

Robert Buxbaum, June 21, 2017.Some other odd conclusions: that Hamilton didn’t throw away his shot, but tried to kill Burr. That tax day is particularly accident prone, both in the US and Canada, and that old people are not particularly bad drivers, but they drive more dangerous routes (country roads, not highways).

Advanced windmills + 20 years = field of junk

Everything wears out. This can be a comforting or a depressing thought, but it’s a truth. No old mistake, however egregious, lasts forever, and no bold advance avoids decay. At best, last year’s advance will pay for itself with interest, will wear out gracefully, and will be recalled fondly by aficionados after it’s replaced by something better. Water wheels, and early steamships are examples of this type of bold advance. Unfortunately, it is often the case that last years innovation turns out to be no advance at all: a technological dead end that never pays for itself, and becomes a dangerous, rotting eyesore or worse, a laughing-stock blot or a blot on the ecology. Our first two generations of advanced windmill farms seem to match this description; perhaps the next generation will be better, but here are some thoughts on lessons learned from the existing fields of rotting windmills.

The ancient design windmills of Don Quixote’s Spain (1300?) were boons. Farmers used them to grind grain or cut wood, and to to pump drinking water. Holland used similar early windmills to drain their land. So several American presidents came to believe advanced design windmills would be similar boons if used for continuous electric power generation. It didn’t work, and many of the problems could have been seen at the start. While the farmer didn’t care when his water was pumped, or when his wood is cut. When you’re generating electricity, there is a need to match the power demand exactly. Whenever the customer turns on the switch, electricity is expected to flow at the appropriate amount of Wattage; at other times any power generated is a waste or a nuisance. But electric generator-windmills do not produce power on demand, they produce power when the wind blows. The mismatch of wind and electric demand has bedeviled windmill reliability and economic return. It will likely continue to do so until we find a good way to store electric power cheaply. Until then windmills will not be able to produce electricity at competitive prices to compete with cheap coal and nuclear power.

There is also the problem of repair. The old windmills of Holland still turn a century later because they were relatively robust, and relatively easy to maintain. The modern windmills of the US stand much taller and move much faster. They are often hit, and damaged by lightning strikes, and their fast-turning gears tend to wear out fast, Once damaged, modern windmills are not readily fix, They are made of advanced fiberglass materials spun on special molds. Worse yet, they are constructed in mountainous, remote locations. Such blades can not be replaces by amateurs, and even the gears are not readily accessed to repair. More than half of the great power-windmills built in the last 35 years have worn out and are unlikely to ever get repair. Driving past, you see fields of them sitting idle; the ones still turning look like they will wear out soon. The companies that made and installed these behemoth are mostly out of the business, so there is no-one there to take them down even if there were an economic incentive to do so. Even where a company is found to fix the old windmills, no one would as there is not sufficient economic return — the electricity is worth less than the repair.

Komoa Wind Farm in Kona, Hawaii June 2010; Friends of Grand Ronde Valley.

Komoa Wind Farm in Kona, Hawaii, June 2010; A field of modern design wind-turbines already ruined by wear, wind, and lightning. — Friends of Grand Ronde Valley.

A single rusting windmill would be bad enough, but modern wind turbines were put up as wind farms with nominal power production targeted to match the output of small coal-fired generators. These wind farms require a lot of area,  covering many square miles along some of the most beautiful mountain ranges and ridges — places chosen because the wind was strong

Putting up these massive farms of windmills lead to a situation where the government had pay for construction of the project, and often where the government provided the land. This, generous spending gives the taxpayer the risk, and often a political gain — generally to a contributor. But there is very little political gain in paying for the repair or removal of the windmills. And since the electricity value is less than the repair cost, the owners (friends of the politician) generally leave the broken hulks to sit and rot. Politicians don’t like to pay to fix their past mistakes as it undermines their next boondoggle, suggesting it will someday rust apart without ever paying for itself.

So what can be done. I wish I could suggest less arrogance and political corruption, but I see no way to achieve that, as the poet wrote about Ozymandias (Ramses II) and his disastrous building projects, the leader inevitably believes: “I am Ozymandias, king of kings; look on my works ye mighty and despair.” So I’ll propose some other, less ambitious ideas. For one, smaller demonstration projects closer to the customer. First see if a single windmill pays for itself, and only then build a second. Also, electricity storage is absolutely key. I think it is worthwhile to store excess wind power as hydrogen (hydrogen storage is far cheaper than batteries), and the thermodynamics are not bad

Robert E. Buxbaum, January 3, 2016. These comments are not entirely altruistic. I own a company that makes hydrogen generators and hydrogen purifiers. If the government were to take my suggestions I would benefit.

Marriage vs PhD

Marriage vs PhD, from Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD) comics.

Marriage vs PhD, from Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD) comics.

Here’s a PhD comic comparing getting married to getting a PhD. The similarities are striking. It’s funny because …

 

 

….one does not expect so many similarities between the two endeavors. On thinking a bit further, one realizes that marriage and graduate school are the main, long-term trust relationship options for young college grads, 21-23 years old who want to move out of home and don’t want to yet enter the grind of being a single, wage slave (grease monkey, computer-code monkey, secretary, etc.)

College grads expect some self-fulfillment and, as they’ve lived away from home, mostly prefer to not move back, Entry level jobs are generally less-than fulfilling, and if you move away from home as a single, living costs can eat up all your income. One could get a same-sex room-mate, but that is a low commitment relationship, and most young grads want more: they’ve an “urge to merge.” Either PhD or marriage provides this more: you continue to live away from home, you get an environment with meals and room semi-provided (sometimes in a very cool environment) and you have some higher purpose and long-term companionship that you don’t get at home, or as a secretary with a room-mate.

I suspect that often, the choice of marriage or grad-school depends on which proffers the better offer. Some PhD programs and some marriages provide you with a stipend of spending-money. In other programs or marriages, you have to get an outside job. Even so, your spouse or advisor will typically help you get that outside job. In most communities, there’s more honor in being a scholar or a wife/ husband than there is in being a single working person. And there’s no guarantee it will be over in 7 years. A good marriage can last 30-50 years, and a good PhD may lead to an equally long stay in academia as a professor or a researcher of high standing. While not all majors are worth it financially, or emotionally, you can generally do more and make more money as a PhD than with a low-pay undergraduate degree. Or you can use your college connections to marry well.

What type of job are you looking for?

Some people are just cut out for the grad-school life-style, and not particularly for normal jobs. Ask yourself: What type of job will make me happy? Could be it’s research or home-making? Then go find a mate or program.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum (married with children and a PhD), July 1,, 2015. Growing up is perhaps the most difficult and important thing anyone does; getting married or entering a PhD program is a nice step, though it doesn’t quite mean you’re an adult yet. Some months ago, I wrote an essay about an earlier stage in the process: being a 16-year-old girl. For those interested in research, here’s something on how it is done using induction, and here’s something on statistics.

Seniors are not bad drivers.

Seniors cause accidents, but need to get places too

Seniors are often made fun of for confusion and speeding, but it’s not clear they speed, and it is clear they need to get places. Would reduced speed limits help them arrive alive?

Seniors have more accidents per-mile traveled than middle age drivers. As shown on the chart below, older Canadians, 75+, get into seven times more fatal accidents per mile than 35 to 55 year olds. At first glance, this would suggest they are bad drivers who should be kept from the road, or at least made to drive slower. But I’m not so sure they are bad drivers, and am pretty certain that lower speed limits should not be generally imposed. I suspect that a lot of the problem comes from the a per-mile basis comparison with folks who drive long distances on the same superhighways instead of longer, leisurely drives on country roads. I suspect that, on a per-hour basis, the seniors would look a lot safer, and on a per highway-mile basis they might look identical to younger drivers.

Canadian Vehicle Survey, 2001, Statistics Canada, includes drivers of light duty vehicles.

Deaths per billion km. Canadian Vehicle Survey, 2001, Statistics Canada, includes light duty vehicles.

Another source of misunderstanding, I find, is that comparisons tend to overlook how very low the accident rates are. The fatal accent rate for 75+ year old drivers sounds high when you report it as 20 deaths per billion km. But that’s 50,000,000 km between fatalities, or roughly one fatality for each 1300 drives around the earth. In absolute terms it’s nothing to worry about. Old folks driving provides far fewer deaths per km than 12-29 year olds walking, and fewer deaths per km than for 16-19 year olds driving.

When starting to research this essay, I thought I’d find that the high death rates were the result of bad reaction times for the elderly. I half expected to find that reduced speed limits for them helped. I’ve not found any data directly related to reduced speeds, but now think that lowered speed limits would not help them any more than anyone else. I note that seniors drive for pleasure more than younger folks and do a lot more short errand drives too — to the stores, for example. These are places where accidents are more common. By contrast, 40 to 70 year olds drive more miles on roads that are relatively safe.

Don't walk, especially if you're old.

Don’t walk, especially if you’re old. Netherlands data, 2001-2005 fatalities per billion km.

The Netherlands data above suggest that any proposed solution should not involve getting seniors out of their cars. Not only do seniors find walking difficult, statistics suggest walking is 8 to 10 times more dangerous than driving, and bicycling is little better. A far better solution, I suspect, is reduced speeds for everyone on rural roads. If you’re zipping along a one-lane road at the posted 40, 55, or 60 mph and someone backs out of a driveway, you’re toast. The high posted speeds on these roads pose a particular danger to bicyclists and motorcyclists of all ages – and these are folks who I suspect drive a lot on the rural roads. I suspect that a 5 mph reduction would do quite a lot.

For automobiles on super-highways, it may be worthwhile to increase the speed limits. As things are now, the accident fatality rates are near zero, and the main problem may be the time wasted behind the wheel – driving from place to place. I suspect that an automobile speed limit raise to 80 mph would make sense on most US and Canadian superhighways; it’s already higher on the Autobahn in Germany.

Robert Buxbaum, November 24, 2014. Expect an essay about death on tax-day, coming soon. I’ve also written about marijuana, and about ADHD.