XFL Ratings Get Body Slammed

What a turnaround. Three weeks ago the XFL posted ratings that were the highest NBC had received for a Saturday evening broadcast since it had the Olympics. Last week ratings fell to a 5.2 share, which was the league’s goal, and this weekend’s broadcast earned a very weak 3.8 share.

An even bigger problem is that the XFL is not keeping the young male demographic that it wanted. Rather than kids tuning in to see a WWF spectacle, the XFL seems most popular with older men hoping they might see a football game in between all the T&A shots. Unfortunately, that’s not the market that NBC promised to advertisers.

In today’s USA TOday, Rudy Martzke asks the obvious question: how serious is NBC’s two year, $100 million commitment? Probably not serious enough to stick with ratings this low.

Now things should get interesting. Vince McMahon knows how to get ratings, but the question is whether or not NBC will allow him to do the things that the XFL would need (i.e. pander, pander and pander some more) to really bring in the WWF audience. I was watching a documentary on McMahon the other day which explained how McMahon had emerged victorious after Ted Turner and the WCW almost destroyed the WWF.

McMahon’s solution — he could take the WWF into the sewer and garner ratings while Turner, because of his numerous partnerships and associations, simply couldn’t follow him there. Somehow I don’t think NBC will give McMahon the free reign he needs either.

Which is probably a good thing. In an interview a couple weeks ago, somebody asked McMahon about the cheerleaders and the sophomoric sexual innuendos that Jerry “The King” Lawler made on the initial broadcast, to which McMahon replied that it was impossible to have too much sex on television. Maybe not for the 11 and 12 year olds he markets the WWF to, but the XFL is often painful to watch because of these ridiculous antics (I should add that I simply don’t get wrestling either — a couple minutes of the current incarnation of the WWF is more than enough to completely disgust me).

I still think, however, that the idea of a small second tier football league is viable. A lot of the rules changes the XFL uses make a lot of sense and some of the broadcast methods the XFL uses are innovative, but need to be used more sparingly. For example, unlike a lot of critics of the broadcasts, I liked some of the sideline stuff, but it needs to be used more sparingly and to enhance the understanding of the game not for sheer shock value.

What is becoming clear is that the same thing that brought the XFL to life is the same thing that’s probably going to kill it: McMahon. On the one hand, few people aside from McMahon could step up and say he’s going to create a new football league out of nothing and be taken seriously. On the other hand, I think NBC probably underestimated what a liability McMahon’s involvement would be to the success of the XFL (i.e. most sports news outlets don’t take the league seriously, largely because of McMahon).

Unfortunately, when the XFL finally croaks it will probably mean the death knell for any attempt at an alternative league for decades to come.

Clay Shirky on the Potential Revolution at FCC

Clay Shirky surprised me with his excellent look at Michael Powell, Bush’s candidate to run the Federal Communications Commission. Powell is Colin Powell’s son and, aside from Gail Norton, the closest thing to a libertarian in Bush’s administration.

Shirky points out that Powell’s biggest opponents are likely to be Republicans who have a vested interest in the status quo at the FCC. Shirky doesn’t mention it, but it was Republicans in Congress, for example, who pushed through a bill essentially overturning the FCC’s decision to approve low power radio.

Add to that the faith that Democrat lawmakers have in state-run air waves, and Powell will likely become a whipping boy for Congressional hearings once he announces that the First Amendment actually applies to broadcast media.

The Internet has demonstrated the sort of diversity that communication systems can have when they are made widely available. If Powell succeeds, he could make radio relevant again. If not, radio will continue its long downward spiral into mediocrity.


Disappearing Act. Clay Shirky, FeedMag.Com, February 9, 2001.

Greenpeace vs. Golden Rice

Several times over the past couple years I’ve written about the amazing potential of so-called “golden rice.” This is a genetically modified strain of rice that contains a relatively large amount of vitamin A. Normal rice contains vitamin A, but it is lost in the processing necessary to make rice edible. As a result, in areas where rice is a food staple, vitamin A deficiency is common. Upwards of 500,000 children go blind ever year, for example, due to vitamin A deficiency.

Dr. Ingo Potrykus managed to genetically modify a strain of rice so that it retains a vitamin A and has been working tirelessly to begin tests with the rice. Unlike other genetically modified organisms, this one will essentially be given away to farmers in the developing world. This would seem to be an outstanding development on all counts.

Not so for Greenpeace, however, which is waging what appears to be a largely religious vendetta against anything related to genetic engineering. Several weeks ago it attacked the golden rice effort saying it was just a public relations gimmick by the biotechnology industry which would do nothing to reduce the problem of vitamin A deficiency. Unfortunately, Greenpeace’s logic here is typical of the radical environmental movement. Benedikt Haerlin, International Coordinator of Greenpeace’s Genetic Engineering Campaign, has this to say about the golden rice initiative.

The Genetic Engineering (GE) industry claims vitamin A rice could save thousands of children from blindness and millions of malnourished people from vitamin A deficiency (VAD) related diseases.

However, a simple calculation based on the product developers’ own figures show an adult would have to eat at least 12 times the normal intake of 300 grams to get the daily recommended amount of provitamin A.

Syngenta, one of the world’s leading GE companies and pesticide producers that owns many patents on the Golden Rice, claims one month of a delay in marketing Golden Rice would cause 50,000 children to go blind.

Greenpeace calculations show that an adult would have to eat at least 3.7 kilograms of dry weight rice, which results in about nine kilograms of cooked rice, to satisfy their daily need of vitamin A from Golden Rice.

This means a normal daily intake of 300 grams of rice would, at best, provide 8 percent of the vitamin A needed daily. A breast feeding woman would have to eat at least 6.3 kilograms in dry weight, converting to nearly 18 kilograms of cooked rice per day.

There is some controversy over these figures, but for the moment lets assume Greenpeace is correct in how much vitamin A will be available. Haerlin is essentially arguing that improving vitamin A consumption in the developing world is an all or nothing proposition — either scientists come up with rice that provides the complete recommended daily allowance of the vitamin or it do nothing at all. Since Greenpeace estimates that golden rice would only increase vitamin A intake by 8 percent, it is completely worthless in their view.

As Potrykus responded in an article of his own, this claim is absurd.

As I would assume you know, there is vast difference in the amount of vitamin A needed to reduce mortality, vs. that needed to prevent blindness, vs. that needed to prevent night-blindness and other like symptoms, vs. that which satisfies actual metabolic needs, vs. that which is equal to the recommended allowance, vs. that which might be considered for optimal intake, vs. that which might trigger toxicity symptoms. The vastness of those quantitative differences is further exaggerated in individuals whose metabolic need for this essential nutrient has been modified by an extended period of deprivation. Clearly in individuals whose diet is almost devoted of vitamin A, dietary intake at levels representing only a small fraction of the “recommended allowance” offers the potential to have a significant impact on both morbidity and mortality.

As Potrykus goes on to say, this is especially the case since golden rice will service in a complementary role to other efforts to fight vitamin A deficiency.

But are Greenpeace’s claims about bio availability accurate? If Greenpeace and other anti-GM activists have their way we might never know. Potrykus freely admits that just how much vitamin A is available to the human body is still an open issue and one that can only be resolved through small scale nutritional studies.

Unfortunately to do such a nutritional study, Potrykus will need to grow test beds of the rice and anti-GM activists have been destroying such crops around the world. The activists will apparently not make golden rice an exception to this policy. Greenpeace has said it will not rule out targeting small test fields of the GM rice for destruction.

Save the planet, turn your back on the developing world. Or as Potrykus warned Greenpeace,

If you plan to destroy test fields to prevent resposible testing and development of Golden Rice for humanitarian purposes, you will be accused of contributing to a crime against humanity.


Greenpeace and Golden Rice. Ingo Potrykus, letter posted to AgBioView ListServ, February 15, 2001.

GE rice is fool’s gold. Benedikt Haerlin, Greenpeace, February 9, 2001.

UK Activists Attack Angling

When the House of Commons voted to outlaw fox hunting in January, many of those who voted for the law dismissed claims that fishing and other pursuits would be next on the animal rights agenda. Guess what? People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is funding an anti-angling campaign scheduled to kick off later this year in Great Britain.

“As well as an advertising campaign, we are planning demonstrations at fish and chip shops across the country,” PETA’s Andrew Butler told The Sunday Times (UK).

Although it hasn’t received the same attention the anti-hunting movement has, the Campaign for the Abolishment of Angling has been busy protesting fishing. At a European angling championship, CAA activist Clare Persey broke a competitor’s fishing rod and then jumped into a river to disrupt the championship.


Animal activists target anglers. The Sunday Times, February 11, 2001.

Is Life Expectancy About to Hit a Wall?

As I’ve written here before, I’d really prefer not to die and am pretty satisfied with the odds that medical science will achieve effective immortality before my appointed hour to leave this world. On the other hand, a lot of reputable scientists think that such ideas are folly and that, if anything, we are about to run up against the upper edge of human life expectancies.

The BBC reports on a presentation given by Jay Olshansky, professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. According to Olshansky,

The human body was not designed for long-term use. It was designed for short-term use and in effect what we’re doing is pushing these bodies beyond the end of the warranty period for living machines.

Olshansky notes that while life expectancies around the world are still increasing, the rate at which they are increasing is beginning to slow down. Specifically, Olshansky claimed that without significant advances from the biomedical sciences, life expectancy would not reach 100 in the United States until sometime in the 26th century.

I don’t have any special knowledge, aside from my optimistic view of scientific progress, about how fast biomedical advances will advances, but there is one important thing to keep in mind. Olshansky is simply the latest in a long line of public health officials who have said that it would take many centuries to reach certain levels of life expectancy, most of whom were disproved within their lifetime.

In fact the amazing that about Olshansky’s figures is that he worries about how long it will take to reach a life expectancy of 100. The debate used to revolve around whether or not even developed nations would ever be able to reach life expectancies of 85. Considering that some sub-groups of the American population have achieved life expectancies in excess of 97, very few people today doubt that the 85 year mark will be reached.

The unstated problem underlying Olshansky’s number is that a life expectancy of 100 for a country like the United States would be achievable if people valued long life above anything else, but Americans tend to consider living a good, if moderately shortened life, to be preferable to living a less adventuresome and indulgent — though likely longer — life span. This is especially the case since living to be past 80 still subjects individuals to relatively high risks of diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, that diminish the value of living those extra years.

Personally I think that Olshansky and others underestimate the rate of discovery that biomedical sciences are about to unleash. Researchers have made astounding leaps in knowledge about diseases such as Alzheimer’s since the mid-1980s, and the pace of understanding is clearly accelerating very quickly (a good example of this is the incredibly quick response to AIDS. AIDS activists like to complain that the government and corporations are dragging their feet, but the incredible speed with which AIDS was identified and treatments created is unprecedented in the history of medical science. It took researchers almost 50 years just to decide how polio as transmitted).

I would be very surprised if life expectancy in the United States didn’t hit 100 before the turn of the century.

Discovery Channel’s Bermuda Triangle Documentary

About 90 percent of the television watching I do is divided between three cable channels: the History Channel, Discovery, and The Learning Channel. The one thing that really annoys me about all three is that along with a lot of good material they occasionally run features that are too credulous of pseudo-scientific claims.

At first I thought Discovery’s recent Science Mysteries feature on the Bermuda Triangle was cut in just this mould, but they actually managed to demolish the whole Bermuda Triangle nonsense. PBS’ Nova did a thorough debunking of the Bermuda Triangle myth many years ago, and the Discovery documentary felt like an update of that debunking. To illustrate that what happens in the Bermuda Triangle is hardly unique, Discovery humorously invented their own “Casablanca Triangle” around the northern coast of Africa. They then proceeded to recount all of the mysterious and unexplained loss of ships, planes and people in the “Casablanca Triangle” over the years (this area, for example, is where the Mary Celeste disappeared).

But the coup de gras was the part that had me fuming at the beginning but laughing out loud at the end. The documentary began with a recounting of a mysterious yacht that was found floating, completely abandoned, in the Bermuda Triangle. The last log entry was over a year ago and when the naval vessel that discovered the yacht tried to salvage the ship and sail it to a nearby port, they experienced all sorts of mysterious electrical failures.

At the end of the show they revealed that in fact the yacht had been stolen while in port and apparently abandoned by the unknown thieves. The mysterious electrical problems? Somebody, probably the moron thieves, had managed to reverse some of the engine wiring so that rather than charging the battery, when the motor was running it was actually discharging the battery.

The point, of course, is that this is exactly how most of the alleged incidents of mysterious disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle morph from rather boring incidents into outright science fiction (the layer upon layer of myth and outright lies that have piled on the rather boring story of the disappearance of Flight 19, for example, is a perfect example of just how much mileage can be milked from an incident simply by omitting the relevant facts).