May 26, 2011

Reason.tv: The government’s war on cameras

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 17:09

More on resveratrol in red wine

Filed under: Health, Science, Wine — Tags: — Nicholas @ 15:04

Every few weeks, there’s another study result published (or, in some cases, mangled in the publishing) about the benefits to human health from the resveratrol in red wine, but few of them will go this far:

Drink 8 bottles of wine, you’ll be unharmed if hit by Mike Tyson
True medical fact: Trials with boxers underway

Top boffins in Texas believe they will soon provide solid proof of an astonishingly useful biological fact: that if you drink eight bottles of red wine you can be punched in the head by a professional heavyweight boxer and it will do you no harm at all.

We’re paraphrasing slightly, of course.

Charles Stross on Buckminster Fuller’s “Dymaxion House”

Filed under: Economics, History, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:07

I remember something about Fuller’s potentially revolutionary design for housing from a few mentions in Robert Heinlein’s work, but I’d never followed up those hints. Charles Stross did:

. . . the Dymaxion House was probably the most fascinating of his failures, because it was nothing short of an attempt to revolutionize how we live.

Modernist architects of the 20th century generally designed two types of house: those for rich architects and other members of the upper classes to enjoy, and grimly regimented concrete cookie-cutter apartment blocks for factory workers. Fuller’s approach to housing was cookie-cutter-esque, insofar as he planned to mass-produce Dymaxion Houses on converted B-29 Superfortress production lines after the second world war, and ship them to their owners in freight containers, but as far as I know it was radically different in conception, purpose, and design from any of the other modular homes of the period. For one thing, he was interested in portability and nomadism; while a concrete foundation with utility connections was necessary, Fuller’s idea of moving house was that you could pack your house down into a container that would fit on a truck, drive it to your new neighbourhood, and deploy it again — the design influences of the traditional Mongolian yurt should be obvious. The Dymaxion House used aluminium sheeting for floors and structures, suspended by wires from a central steel structural shaft: saving weight was a priority. As he famously asked an architect on one occasion, “why are your houses so heavy?”

For another thing, he took an early interest in minimizing the human impact on the environment. The Dymaxion House had passive air temperature control and a pressure-triggered roof vent to survive near-misses from tornados (by releasing over-pressure inside the building so that it didn’t rupture). It had a then-unique mist-spray shower and a grey-water system to reduce water usage; Fuller was also interested in non-flush toilets.

Finally, it was intended to be mass produced for $6,500 per house in 1946 money — the cost of a high-end automobile — with a design life of 30-50 years. Early development was funded by the Pentagon, for reasons that should be obvious: WWII generated unprecedented demand for accommodation on bases overseas and, later, demand for housing in war-ravaged regions.

The story of why we aren’t all living in Dymaxion houses today is a convoluted epic of business failure (for one thing, starting up a production line for houses using cutting-edge aerospace technology was something that had never been done before; for another, Bucky’s business sense was not, sadly, as good as his design sense) that has been recounted in numerous biographies. What interests me about it is that it’s a far more humane approach to the problem of providing housing for the masses than his Brutalist contemporaries, whose designs tended to be fixed, immovable, made cheaply out of low-end materials, and built with high density mass housing in mind rather than low impact customizability. It was also way ahead of the field in terms of awareness of environmental constraints; while we could design better today, we’d be making incremental tweaks, whereas Bucky came up with the original idea of modular, lightweight, mobile low-impact housing ab initio.

Image detail from Tim O’Reilly’s Flikr photostream.

More, including a few photos at Wikipedia. And Rivet-head has a picture of the house while it was in use.

The Danish Marmite affair thickens

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy, Europe, Health — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:50

Lester Haines has the latest on the plight of ex-pat Brits suffering under a dictatorial food regime in Denmark:

According to this official statement, neither Marmite nor its Oz rival Vegemite are banned in Denmark, because they’ve never actually been approved for sale.

A 2004 law controls the distribution of products with “added vitamins, minerals or other substances”, and in order to punt such foodstuffs, they “need to be approved by the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration before the product can be marketed”.

[. . .]

In effect, then, those shops selling Marmite are dealing in unauthorised enhanced substances.

We and the Daily Mail have no doubt that any attempt to legalise Marmite would be met with a swift rejection, in defiance of EU directives on free trade. As Copenhagen-based expat Lyndsay Jensen put it: “They don’t like it because it’s foreign. But if they want to take my Marmite off me, they’ll have to wrench it from my cold dead hands.”

It’s been said that Marmite is an “acquired taste”, but Denmark’s health regulators are moving quickly to ensure that Danes never have the opportunity to develop that taste. Of course, like most other forms of prohibition, it might actually increase the attractiveness of the “forbidden fruit”.

Denmark has a long coastline, so smuggling in the little black jars across the North Sea would be quite possible . . .

Here’s a different way to pay for socialized medicine

Filed under: Economics, Government, Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:35

Kevin Drum has an interesting proposal in Mother Jones:

So here’s an idea: why not reform Medicare by means testing it? Conservatives should love this idea.

Here’s how it works. Basically, we leave Medicare alone. Oh, we can still go ahead with some of the obvious reforms. Comparative effectiveness research is a no-brainer for anyone who’s not part of the Republican leadership. Ditto for some of the delivery reforms on the table. Or allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prices. It would be great if that stuff works. But if it doesn’t, then people will need to pay more for their care. So why not have dead people pay? They don’t need the money any more, after all.

So Medicare stays roughly the same, but every time you receive medical care you also get a bill. You don’t have to pay it, though. It’s just there for accounting purposes. When you die, the bill gets paid out of your estate. If your estate is small or nonexistent, you’ve gotten lots of free medical care. If it’s large, you’ll pay for it all. If you’re somewhere in between, you’ll end up paying for part of the care you’ve received.

Obviously this gives people incentives to spend all their money before they die. That’s fine. I suspect they wouldn’t end up spending as much as you’d think. What it does mean, though, is that Medicare has first claim on their estate, not their kids. But that seems fair, doesn’t it?

It has the virtue of acknowledging that free healthcare isn’t actually “free” at all.

There is no right to privacy, unless you’re a police officer

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:24

Jon sent me a link to this post at Reason.com, discussing the odd court decisions which seem to indicate that you have no right to privacy, but that the police do:

Such incidents have led to a national conversation about the propriety of videotaping cops, even as dashboard cameras have become standard in squad cars. There seems to be some tension in the assumption that, as Graber’s lawyer put it, “the officer has a privacy expectation, but the motorist doesn’t.”

That asymmetry has been underscored by recent rulings over global positioning systems. Last year the Virginia Court of Appeals said Fairfax County police did not violate a suspect’s right to privacy when, without a warrant, they surreptitiously put a GPS device on his vehicle to track his movements. Individuals have no expectation of privacy on the public streets, the court ruled — a position also taken by the Ninth Circuit in California.

Yet this past January, Kathy Byron, a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates, introduced legislation that would have forbidden the use of GPS tracking devices for the purpose of following political candidates. People running for public office “are still entitled to some privacy,” she argued.

Even more disturbing is the steady increase in what the police are allowed to do without a warrant or even suspicion of criminal activity:

U.S. border-patrol agents often search the phones and computers of American citizens who cross the border — routinely “accessing email accounts, examining photographs and looking through personal calendars,” according to The Constitution Project, a watchdog group. “In some cases, electronic devices were confiscated for as long as a year.” And in Michigan, the State Police have high-tech forensic devices enabling them to download information from the cell phones of stopped motorists — something they have been doing without a warrant.

[. . .]

Soon Americans might have no right to expect privacy even in the privacy of their own homes. Earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that police officers may force their way into your domicile without your consent, without a warrant, and without what are usually referred to as “exigent circumstances” — e.g., someone inside the home yelling for help. The case, Kentucky v. King, concerned an incident in which police officers chasing a drug suspect ran into an apartment building, smelled marijuana, heard noises they thought might indicate someone was destroying evidence — and broke down the wrong door. This, said the Supremes, was perfectly fine.

Powered by WordPress