Science finally catches up with ancient Rome

We usually think that science must make continuous progress, but at several points in history, important scientific knowledge was lost. A salient example is the formula for making concrete, known to the ancient Romans, but lost after the fall of the empire. This fact sprang to mind recently because, as some of our readers know, for the past few weeks, Yet, Freedom! has been operating out of Rome. And located here in Rome is the Pantheon, one of the most beautiful structures in the world, with a great dome made of concrete. Nineteen hundred years after it was constructed, the Pantheon’s dome remains the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.  

In the 15th century, the great architect Brunelleschi studied the dome of the Pantheon, and wanted to use concrete to construct a massive dome for the cathedral of Florence. Alas, Brunelleschi could not rediscover the formula, and so he had to construct his dome out of brick.

Nowadays, the most commonly used formula for concrete is known as “Portland cement.” But Portland cement does not employ the same formula as did Roman concrete, and under at least some environmental conditions, it is inferior to the Roman version, particularly for structures built under sea water. Indeed, the exact Roman formula seems to have remained a mystery, perhaps until now.

[R]esearchers now know why ancient Roman concrete is so superior. They extracted from the floor of Italy’s Pozzuoili Bay, in the northern tip of the Bay of Naples, a sample of concrete breakwater that dates back to 37 B.C. and analyzed its mineral components at research labs in Europe and the U.S., including at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source. The analysis, the scientists believe, reveals the lost recipe of Roman concrete, and it also points to how much more stable and less environmentally damaging it is than today’s blend…

The secret to Roman concrete lies in its unique mineral formulation and production technique. As the researchers explain in a press release outlining their findings, “The Romans made concrete by mixing lime and volcanic rock. For underwater structures, lime and volcanic ash were mixed to form mortar, and this mortar and volcanic tuff were packed into wooden forms. The seawater instantly triggered a hot chemical reaction. The lime was hydrated—incorporating water molecules into its structure—and reacted with the ash to cement the whole mixture together.”
The Portland cement formula crucially lacks the lyme and volcanic ash mixture. As a result, it doesn’t bind quite as well when compared with the Roman concrete, researchers found. It is this inferior binding property that explains why structures made of Portland cement tend to weaken and crack after a few decades of use, Jackson says.

Adopting the materials (more volcanic ash) and production techniques of ancient Roman could revolutionize today’s building industry with a sturdier, less CO2-intensive concrete. “The question remains, can we translate the principles from ancient Rome to the production of modern concrete? I think that is what is so exciting about this new area of research,” Jackson says.

Of course, if you are no fan of concrete architecture, you’re out of luck. It could be with us for a few millenia more.

But the ancient Romans showed that concrete architecture need not be ugly, and can in fact be quite beautiful. That is perhaps one more thing that we can learn from them.

The Administrative State’s assualt on freedom

We started this blog several months ago because we believe that American freedom is under assault and in retreat. Recent news headlines have indeed confirmed various and grave threats to freedom such as abuse of IRS power, NSA spying, and State Department coverups. We knew that freedom was in trouble, but recent revelations make the situation look considerably more dire than we thought. At reason.com, A. Barton Hinkle sums up eloquently our current predicament.

The principle animating democratic and republican government is accountability to the governed. Yet more and more government action lies beyond the citizens’ reach. As law professor Jonthan Turley explained in a Washington Post piece that appeared before the surveillance leaks, “our carefully constructed system of checks and balances is being negated by the rise of a fourth branch of government, an administrative state of sprawling departments and agencies that govern with increasing autonomy and decreasing transparency.” (Viz., the NSA.)

The “vast majority of laws,” he continues, “are not passed by Congress but issued as regulations, crafted largely by thousands of unnamed, unreachable bureaucrats.” In 2007, he writes, “Congress enacted 138 public laws, while federal agencies” – there are now 69 of them – “finalized 2,926 rules.”

The administrative state is taking over not only the legislative function, but also the judicial: Turley reports that “a citizen is 10 times more likely to be tried by an agency than by an actual court.” And such agency creep, as it might be called, does not stop at the federal-state boundary.

Last month the Minnesota Supreme Court deferred answering a basic question of constitutional rights: Can the government enter your home without probable cause? A city ordinance in Red Wing, Minn., allows building inspectors with administrative warrants to enter rental units even when both the landlord and the tenant object. And as the Arlington-based Institute for Justice points out, they “do not require the government to have any evidence that there is anything actually wrong with a residence.”

If you were asked to name a country that routinely stockpiles its citizens’ private communications, keeps it in the dark about that activity and many others, tries citizens in extra-judicial proceedings for violations of edicts not passed by any legislature, and permits government agents to enter private domiciles at whim, you might say: China. Or Cuba. Or Saudi Arabia.

We also note that the United Kingdom, once a beacon to the world of ordered liberty under the rule of law, has recently abandoned the ancient, common law protection that required the agents of the state to secure a warrant, or to have probable cause, before entering a private residence. Government officials can now enter residences for reasons as banal as checking the energy rating on a refrigerator. How easily are forsaken those ancient freedoms that our ancestors won at such great cost, on centuries of bloody battlefields.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, the implementation of Obamacare means that the state will determine which treatments your health insurance will and will not cover, and at what cost. These are intimate decisions that, in a free society, would be left to the people. But the choices will not be left to the people, nor to their duly elected representatives. Instead, decisions on your health care will be made by unelected and relatively unaccountable bureaucrats at the Department of Health and Human Services. That is not freedom, and neither is it representative democracy. That is a form of tyranny.

History lesson of the day

Via National Review.

Well, you learn something new every day, as they say. Today’s lesson? Governor George Wallace, the segregationist who served three nonconsecutive terms as Alabama’s chief executive, was a Republican.

At least, so says MSNBC. Noting the 50-year anniversary of Wallace’s infamous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” in which the governor physically blocked two black students from entering the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes showed a photo of Wallace — identifiying him as “(R) Alabama.”

During his long life, George Wallace was many things, but at no time was he ever a Republican.

Oh, and let’s not forget that in that very same year, 1963, the odious Bull Connor

infamously directed the use of fire hoses, and police attack dogs against peaceful demonstrators, including children. His aggressive tactics backfired when the spectacle of the brutality being broadcast on national television served as one of the catalysts for major social and legal change in the southern United States and helped in large measure to assure the passage by the United States Congress of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Bull Connor was a Democrat. But he was no ordinary rank-and-file Democrat. Bull Connor was a member of the Democratic National Committee!

These are just a couple of the many facts that the political left, which controls nearly all of the major institutions of information–news media, schools and entertainment–doesn’t want you to know. And that’s why we suspect that most Americans, having undergone state-sanctioned indoctrination in government schools, would probably guess, if you asked them, that Democrats freed the slaves, and Republicans founded the KKK.

“Official Time” on the Taxpayer Dime

So called “official time” is time paid for by the taxpayer for government workers to do union business instead of, you know, their actual jobs:

WASHINGTON-With a backlog of almost 1 million unprocessed benefit claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs, it is shocking that over 250 of the Department’s employees are on “official time,” doing no work for veterans.

It sounds unbelievable to most of us who have to show up at work to do a job, but “official time” is time that federal workers spend working for their unions, and not working for taxpayers. A report published in February by the Office of Personnel Management states, “Official time, broadly defined, is paid time off from assigned Government duties to represent a union or its bargaining unit employees.”

Here are some examples:

VA employees on “official time” represent unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Federation of Federal Employees, the National Association of Government Employees, National Nurses United, and the Service Employees International Union.

· Patricia LaSala, a nurse in San Francisco, made $131,849 representing the NFFE.
· Ellen Pitts, a nurse in Massachusetts, was paid $123,173 to represent the NAGE.
· Physician assistant Irene Coley earned $106,369 representing the AFGE in Charleston, South Carolina.
· Joseph Simon, representing the SEIU, was paid $120,544 not to work as a pharmacist at the VA hospital in Jackson, Mississippi.

Our guess is that all these people are spared the “ravages” of the sequester.

Harvard’s commencement: The country’s in the very best of hands

Harvard recently held commencement ceremonies and…can you guess who the Best and Brightest invited as commencement speaker? Would it be one of our finest authors, like Tom Wolfe? Or a great economist such as Gary Becker? Perhaps one of our most distinguished jurists, such as Laurence Silberman? How about a great scientist, like say, Elizabeth Blackburn? Or another option would be a highly successful entrepreneur, such as Fred W. Smith.

No, nothing like that. Harvard’s commencement speaker was Oprah. Everybody knows Oprah. She was long the reigning queen of that famed redoubt of recondite wisdom and intellectual rigor, daytime television. Daytime television? Really Harvard? We can presumably now put to rest any notions that brilliant Harvard types are whiling away their free time by reading Proust or Schopenauer.

But what those of us who don’t watch daytime TV might not realize is that Oprah has long been a serial enabler of junk science and medical quackery. Perhaps most appallingly, she gave a platform to Jenny McCarthy’s baseless and dangerous accusations that childhood vaccines can cause autism. But there is more, much more, as shown in considerable detail by a fine 2009 article in the Daily Beast.

Oprah…has the power to summon the most learned authorities on any subject; who would refuse her? Instead, all too often Oprah winds up putting herself and her trusting audience in the hands of celebrity authors and pop-science artists pitching wonder cures and miracle treatments that are questionable or flat-out wrong, and sometimes dangerous.

Consider, for instance, the resounding idiocy of Oprah’s treatment of thyroid disorder, an ailment that afflicted Oprah herself.

Thyroid dysfunction, which affects millions of Americans (mostly women), occurs when the thyroid gland located in the neck produces too much or too little thyroid hormone. Too much (hyperthyroidism) and the metabolism races, sometimes causing anxiety and weight loss. Too little (hypothyroidism) and it slows, which, if severe, can lead to depression and weight gain. Many things can trigger the disease, especially autoimmune disorders.

But Northrup [Oprah’s guest] believes thyroid problems can also be the result of something else. As she explains in her book, “in many women, thyroid dysfunction develops because of an energy blockage in the throat region, the result of a lifetime of ‘swallowing’ words one is aching to say.”

On the show, she told Oprah that “your body gives you signals: ‘Hey, you’ve been putting too much stuff under the carpet …’ ”

Oprah : So your body … is only manifesting what’s really going on with your spirit?

Northrup: But your intellect doesn’t know it. This is the important part. It’s not—you’re not causing this deliberately … It’s your soul bringing it to your attention.

Oprah: Right. It’s your soul trying to speak to you.

An interesting theory—but is there anyone who believes that what Oprah suffers from is an inability to express herself? She didn’t make it clear on the show what form of the disease she had, or what her doctors believed brought it on. She shared with her audience that she took thyroid medication and spent a month relaxing in Hawaii, where she ate fresh foods and drank soy milk. Northrup advises that in addition to conventional thyroid medication, women should consider taking iodine supplements.

That is just what they shouldn’t do, says Dr. David Cooper, a professor of endocrinology at Johns Hopkins medical school who specializes in thyroid disease. “She is mixing truth with fantasy here,” he says. First, “thyroid disease has nothing to do with women being downtrodden. She makes it sound like these women brought it on themselves.” Cooper agrees that thyroid patients should seek thyroid hormone treatment to bring the symptoms under control. But, he says, Oprah should have stayed clear of soy milk. “If you’re hypothyroid and you’re taking thyroid medication, you do not want to be taking soy. It will block your body’s ability to absorb the medication.”

Iodine, he says, can be even riskier. “[Northrup] says iodine deficiency is more common in women, when in reality it’s not very common in women at all. This is a myth.” The thyroid gland, he says, is extremely sensitive to iodine. “If you have mild hypothyroidism, taking iodine will make it worse.”

Thyroid dysfunction: “It’s your soul trying to speak to you.” And keep in mind that Harvard not only invited this person as commencement speaker, but also granted her an honorary doctorate. It is to laugh, but unfortunately, we won’t be laughing in the near future when these Harvard graduates parlay their pedigreed credentials into top positions with the government, where they will be making decisions on our healthcare for us.

Some Clarity on the Debt and Growth Debate

There has been a large amount of discussion in the blogosphere about the coding errors of Reinhart and Rogoff which, once corrected, somewhat weaken their claims regarding debt and economic growth. Specifically, Reinhart and Rogoff maintain that a 90% debt to gdp ratio defines a key tipping point, beyond which leads to significantly and substantially slower economic growth. This academic debate has even entered into the pop culture world.

In trying to wade through these issues, Professor Lawrence Kotlikoff (as usual) best clarifies the key empirical and theoretical issues in the debate:

 The fiscal gap – the present value difference over the infinite horizon – between all projected spending, including servicing official debt, and all projected taxes is economics label-free measure of the unpaid bills being left to today’s and tomorrow’s children. It’s $222 trillion, based on the Congressional Budget Office’s latest projections. This true measure of our children’s fiscal abyss, which, by the way, grew $11 trillion over the last year, is almost 20 times the size of official debt held by the public!

The relentless postwar expansion in the fiscal gap fueled a truly amazing consumption spree by oldsters that drove our national saving rate from 14 percent in 1950 to 1 percent last year. The ratio of the average oldster’s consumption to the average youngster’s consumption is now more than twice what it was back then. Domestic saving is the main determinate of domestic investment, so it’s no surprise that take as you go has also wiped out most of domestic investment. And less domestic investment has meant slower economic growth. In sum, Reinhart and Rogoff are right. They just aren’t using the right numbers to show they’re right.