Quotulatiousness

September 18, 2014

The Cosmos reboot “flatter[s] the sensibilities of the I Love Science Sexually camp”

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:38

I didn’t watch the original Cosmos TV series, but I’ve heard retrospective rave reviews of the original show. I also haven’t watched any of the reboot, but Ace has, and he’s not impressed at all:

More Tyson “quotes” that serve no purpose except to stroke his own ego while he simultaneously strokes the egos of his fanbois and fangurlz.

I was taken aback by the first episode of the Cosmos reboot. That episode also contained, get this, a generally dishonest accounting of a mad monk named Giordani Bruno who challenged the prevailing theory that the sun was singular in the heavens in its possession of a planetary system.

That story was fable-ized — stripped of the complicated reality of truth, turned into a simplistic Aesop Fable for children — in order to flatter the sensibilities of the I Love Science Sexually camp while insulting anyone of even a mild religious disposition.

This is quite jackass, if you assume that the show’s creators actually wanted to evangelize for science among those who had come to distrust science. The show began by making things up in order to denigrate those who distrust science — certainly not evangelizing them to join Team Science at all.

[...]

But this approach does make sense if one assumes their stated motivations for the show (evangelize for science among the “science pagans,” if you will) were not their real motivations.

It makes sense if you assume their actual motivation was to tell the Science Flock that They’re Awesome and that the people who do not believe in The God Science are apes and monkeys.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s position grants him power; it also imposes on him responsibility. I would never myself have nominated what is essentially a planetarium manager as Head of Science of the Western World; but the I Love Science Sexually brigade, the fanbois and fangurlz, did, so this is what we have.

By Tyson’s own lights, is he actually popularizing science, or is making science look rather shabby and stupid by confusing actual science with its sorta-lookalike, “Science”?

I think the latter. He doesn’t seem to be talking about science; he’s talking about “Science,” which is not an intellectual discipline, but a tribal signifier and I Win Button for stupid internet political arguments.

Update:

Update the second: Sean Davis wonders “Why Is Wikipedia Deleting All References To Neil Tyson’s Fabrication?”

Judging by many of the responses to the three pieces I wrote detailing Neil Tyson’s history of fabricating quotes and embellishing stories (part 1, part 2, and part 3), you’d think I had defamed somebody’s god. It turns out that fanatical cultists do not appreciate being shown evidence that the object of their worship may not, in fact, be infallible.

Which brings us to Wikipedia. Oh, Wikipedia. After I published my piece about Neil Tyson’s fabrication of the George W. Bush quote, several users edited Neil Tyson’s wiki page to include details of the quote fabrication controversy. The fact-loving, evidence-weighing, ever-objective editors of the online encyclopedia did not appreciate the inclusion of the evidence of Tyson’s fabrication. Not at all.

According to a review of the edit history of Tyson’s page, one long-time Wikipedia editor deleted an entire pending section summarizing the issue of Tyson’s fabricated quotes. Another editor attempted to insert a brief mention of Tyson’s fabrication of the George W. Bush quote. That mention was also deleted. When it was reinserted, it was deleted yet again by an editor who describes himself as a childless progressive and an apostle of Daily Kos (h/t @kerpen). Here are just a few of that user’s political ramblings, in case you were curious about the motivation behind the scrubbing of Tyson’s wiki.

Literally every single mention of Tyson’s history of fabricating quotes has been removed from Tyson’s Wikipedia page.

September 17, 2014

SpaceX and Boeing get NASA funding for 2017 deadline

Filed under: Business, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:11

In Ars Technica, John Timmer reports on the NASA decision to fund two of the three competitors for manned launches to the ISS:

Today, NASA administrator Charles Bolden announced that there were two winners in the campaign to become the first company to launch astronauts to low-Earth orbit: Boeing and SpaceX. The two will receive contracts that total $6.8 billion dollars to have hardware ready for a 2017 certification — a process that will include one crewed flight to the International Space Station (ISS).

In announcing the plan, Bolden quoted President Obama in saying, “The greatest nation on earth should not be dependent on any other nation to get to space.” And he promoted the commercial crew program as a clear way of ending a reliance on Russian launch vehicles to get to the ISS. But Bolden and others at the press conference were also looking beyond that; several speakers, including Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana and astronaut Mike Fincke, mentioned that the ultimate goal is Mars.

To that end, Bolden emphasized that NASA is still doing its own vehicle and rocket development. The Orion crew capsule, intended to be suitable for missions deeper into the Solar System, recently underwent a splashdown test in the Pacific. Its first test flight aboard a Delta IV rocket is scheduled for this December. Work on the Space Launch System, a heavy lift vehicle that can transport the additional hardware needed for deep space missions, was also mentioned.

September 16, 2014

When the “best nutrition advice” is a big, fat lie

Filed under: Government, Health, Media, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:17

Rob Lyons charts the way our governments and healthcare experts got onboard the anti-fat dietary express, to our long-lasting dietary harm:

… in recent years, the advice to eat a low-fat diet has increasingly been called into question. Despite cutting down on fatty foods, the populations of many Western countries have become fatter. If heart-disease mortality has maintained a steady decline, cases of type-2 diabetes have shot up in recent years. Maybe these changes were in spite of the advice to avoid fat. Maybe they were caused by that advice.

The most notable figure in providing the intellectual ammunition to challenge existing health advice has been the US science writer, Gary Taubes. His 2007 book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, became a bestseller, despite containing long discussions on some fairly complex issues to do with biochemistry, nutrition and medicine. The book’s success triggered a heated debate about what really makes us fat and causes chronic disease.

The move to first discussing and then actively encouraging a low-fat diet was largely due to the work of Dr. Ancel Keys, who is to the low-fat diet movement what Karl Marx is to Communism. His energy, drive, and political savvy helped get the US government and the majority of health experts onboard and pushing his advice. A significant problem with this is that Keys’ advocacy was not statistically backed by even his own data. He drew strong conclusions from tiny, unrepresentative samples, yet managed to persuade most doubters that he was right. A more statistically rigorous analysis might well show that the obesity crisis has actually been driven by the crusading health advisors who have been pushing the low-fat diet all this time … or, as I termed it, “our Woody Allen moment“.

Rob Lyons discussed this with Nina Teicholz, author of the book The Big Fat Surprise:

Once the politically astute Keys had packed the nutrition committee of the AHA and got its backing for the advice to avoid saturated fat, the war on meat and dairy could begin. But a major turning point came in 1977 when the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, led by Democratic senator George McGovern, held hearings on the issue. The result was a set of guidelines, Dietary Goals for the United States [PDF], which promoted the consumption of ‘complex’ carbohydrates, and reductions in the consumption of fat in general and saturated fat in particular.

By 1980, this report had been worked up into government-backed guidelines — around the same time that obesity appears to have taken off in the US. The McGovern Report inspired all the familiar diet advice around the world that we’ve had ever since, and led to major changes in what food manufacturers offered. Out went fat, though unsaturated fat and hydrogenated oils were deemed less bad than saturated fat, so vegetable oils and margarines became more popular. In came more carbohydrate and more sugar, to give those cardboard-like low-fat ‘treats’ some modicum of flavour.

Yet two recent reviews of the evidence around saturated fat — one led by Ronald Krauss, the other by Rajiv Chowdhury — suggest that saturated fat is not the villain it has been painted as. (The latter paper, in particular, sparked outrage.) As for fat in general, Teicholz tells me: ‘There was no effort until very late in the game to provide evidence for the low-fat diet. It was just assumed that that was reasonable because of the caloric benefit you would see from restricting fat.’

Teicholz also debunks the wonderful reputation of the Mediterranean Diet (“a rose-tinted version of reality tailored to the anti-meat prejudices of American researchers”), points out the role of the olive oil industry in pushing the diet (“Swooning researchers were literally wined and dined into going along with promoting the benefits of olive oil”), and points out that we can’t even blame most of the obesity problem on “Big Food”:

Which leads us to an important third point made by Teicholz: that the blame for our current dietary problems cannot solely, or even mainly, be placed at the door of big food corporations. Teicholz writes about how she discovered that ‘the mistakes of nutrition science could not be primarily pinned on the nefarious interests of Big Food. The source of our misguided dietary advice was in some ways more disturbing, since it seems to have been driven by experts at some of our most trusted institutions working towards what they believed to be the public good.’ Once public-health bureaucracies enshrined the dogma that fat is bad for us, ‘the normally self-correcting mechanism of science, which involves constantly challenging one’s own beliefs, was disabled’.

The war on dietary fat is a terrifying example of what happens when politics and bureaucracy mixes with science: provisional conclusions become laws of nature; resources are piled into the official position, creating material as well as intellectual reasons to continue to support it; and any criticism is suppressed or dismissed. As the war on sugar gets into full swing, a reading of The Big Fat Surprise might provide some much-needed humility.

QotD: The real value of work

Filed under: Health, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

People without meaningful work and copious free time don’t write symphonies or create great works of art. They don’t live a life of the mind. They drink too much, or get in fights, or watch a lot of internet porn, or commit crimes. They don’t contribute to the economy or culture, as a rule. They just…exist. And it goes on like that, sometimes for generations.

Labor is the fate of all humankind. Always has been. We work to live. Work gives shape and meaning to our lives. It’s not just the income we derive from it; it’s the knowledge that we are able to function as adults in the wider world, and provide for ourselves and our families. It’s feeling the satisfaction of having contributed something to the maintenance of civilization, even if it means we haul trash away or keep the grass mowed. It’s all honorable work, necessary work, and not something to be ashamed of.

It’s not an outrage, it’s just the way things are. To try and embitter people about that, to make them feel that the natural order of things is unfair, is just to do an enormous amount of harm to the very people you’re claiming to want to help.

Monty, “We’re now living in a post-labor Utopia. Have you heard about this?”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2014-02-06

September 12, 2014

QotD: Unwelcome ideas about evolution

Filed under: Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

People who say they are against teaching the theory of evolution are very likely to be Christian fundamentalists. But people who are against taking seriously the implications of evolution, strongly enough to want to attack those who disagree, including those who teach those implications, are quite likely to be on the left.

Consider the most striking case, the question of whether there are differences between men and women with regard to the distribution of intellectual abilities or behavioral patterns. That no such differences exist, or if that if they exist they are insignificant, is a matter of faith for many on the left. The faith is so strongly held that when the president of Harvard, himself a prominent academic, merely raised the possibility that one reason why there were fewer women than men in certain fields might be such differences, he was ferociously attacked and eventually driven to resign.

Yet the claim that such differences must be insignificant is one that nobody who took the implications of evolution seriously could maintain. We are, after all, the product of selection for reproductive success. Males and females play quite different roles in reproduction. It would be a striking coincidence if the distribution of abilities and behavioral patterns that was optimal for one sex turned out to also be optimal for the other, rather like two entirely different math problems just happening to have the same answer.

The denial of male/female differences is the most striking example of left wing hostility to the implications of Darwinian evolution, but not the only one. The reasons to expect differences among racial groups as conventionally defined are weaker, since males of all races play the same role in reproduction, as do females of all races. But we know that members of such groups differ in the distribution of observable physical characteristics — that, after all, is the main way we recognize them. That is pretty strong evidence that their ancestors adapted to at least somewhat different environments.

There is no a priori reason to suppose that the optimal physical characteristics were different in those different environments but the optimal mental characteristics were the same. And yet, when differing outcomes by racial groups are observed, it is assumed without discussion that they must be entirely due to differential treatment by race. That might turn out to be true, but there is no good reason to expect it. Here again, anyone who argues the opposite is likely to find himself the target of ferocious attacks, mainly from people on the left.

David D. Friedman, “Who is Against Evolution?”, Ideas, 2008-08-29

September 10, 2014

QotD: Smoking and drinking

Filed under: Health, Quotations, Wine — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Apart from all the other arguments, you’re a fool to smoke if you like the taste of drink. It isn’t the cigarette you smoke with your glass of wine or whisky that damages the taste of it it’s all the ones you smoked yesterday and the day before and last week. Your senses are chronically anaesthetized. Really, smokers could afford to consider what they’re certainly missing as well as what they’re in danger of getting.

After much pondering I think I understand a basic reason why a glass of something reviving is so welcome in the early evening. Partly, of course, it’s just that, to revive, to relax, but its also a convenient way of becoming a slightly different person from your daytime self, less methodical, less calculating — however you put it, somebody different, and the prospect of that has helped to make the day tolerable. And, conversely, it’s not having that prospect that makes the day look grim to the poor old ex-boozer, more than missing the alcohol as such.

Changing for dinner used to be another way of switching roles. Coming home from work has a touch of the same effect. Writers haven’t got that advantage — when they finish work they’re at home already. So perhaps they need that glass of gin extra badly. Any excuse is better than none.

Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, 2008.

September 6, 2014

P.J. O’Rourke on what’s wrong with modern rocket ships

Filed under: Humour, Space, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:10

From his post at The Daily Beast:

I was in the passenger seat of a small rocket ship when I realized what’s wrong space travel these days: I can’t do it yet. I’m still flying on pokey old Boeings for six hours from Boston to LA. The trip would take 15 minutes at 17,500 mph low earth orbit speed.

Also, rocket ships don’t fly. Or they don’t properly fly the way the rocket ships of Buck Rogers and Captain Video did. Buck and the Captain could use a hayfield with a windsock. A modern rocket blast-off produces so much shockwave commotion that the nearest safe viewpoint at Cape Canaveral is eight miles from the launch pad. That puts the Starbucks a long way from the gate when your rocket ship’s final boarding announcement is made.

Plus current rockets lack anything resembling Buck Rogers’ style. They look like evil corn silos or upright storm sewers or a trio of escaped steroidal church organ pipes wearing party hats.

Furthermore, at the moment, there’s no such thing as a small rocket ship.

The first rocket to reach space, the Nazi V-2 (which transported people only in the sense of transporting them to the next life) was 45 feet high and weighed 27,600 pounds. The 363-foot Saturn V used for the Apollo moon landing was 52 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty and almost 15 times her weight. And Lady L, tipping the scales at 225 tons, is no Mary-Kate Olsen. Now NASA is building a new Space Launch System (SLS) that’s even bigger.

All my rocket ship disappointments are the result of there not being enough private companies like XCOR Aerospace. I learned this at the Space Foundation’s annual Colorado Springs Space Symposium exhibit hall, where there was a full-scale mock-up of XCOR’s Lynx that I sat in.

The Lynx’s 30-foot fuselage and 24-foot wingspan would fit in a McMansion garage. And it’s as prettier than anything a rich car collector has in there now.

September 4, 2014

The new absolutism

Filed under: Environment, Liberty, Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:12

Brendan O’Neill on the rise of the absolutist mindset in science:

Who do you think said the following: “I always regret it when knowledge becomes controversial. It’s clearly a bad thing, for knowledge to be controversial.” A severe man of the cloth, perhaps, keen to erect a forcefield around his way of thinking? A censorious academic rankled when anyone criticises his work? Actually, it was Brian Cox, Britain’s best-known scientist and the BBC’s go-to guy for wide-eyed documentaries about space. Yes, terrifyingly, this nation’s most recognisable scientist thinks it is a bad thing when knowledge becomes the subject of controversy, which is the opposite of what every man of reason in modern times has said about knowledge.

Mr Cox made his comments in an interview with the Guardian. Discussing climate change, he accused “nonsensical sceptics” of playing politics with scientific fact. He helpfully pointed out what us non-scientific plebs are permitted to say about climate change. “You’re allowed to say, well I think we should do nothing. But what you’re not allowed to do is to claim there’s a better estimate of the way that the climate will change, other than the one that comes out of the computer models.” Well, we are allowed to say that, even if we’re completely wrong, because of a little thing called freedom of speech. Mr Cox admits that his decree about what people are allowed to say on climate change springs from an absolutist position. “The scientific view at the time is the best, there’s nothing you can do that’s better than that. So there’s an absolutism. It’s absolutely the best advice.”

It’s genuinely concerning to hear a scientist — who is meant to keep himself always open to the process of falsifiabilty — describe his position as absolutist, a word more commonly associated with intolerant religious leaders. But then comes Mr Cox’s real blow against full-on debate. “It’s clearly a bad thing, for knowledge to be controversial”, he says. This is shocking, and the opposite of the truth. For pretty much the entire Enlightenment, the reasoned believed that actually it was good — essential, in fact — for knowledge to be treated as controversial and open to the most stinging questioning.

September 3, 2014

Hand-to-hand combat is “viciously sexist”

Filed under: History, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:55

In many video games, especially MMOs, you can do the same kind of combat with a male or female avatar (in other words, from a gaming perspective, the differences are literally cosmetic). This is not a reflection of physical reality, although it is a nod to sexual equality in other areas. That being said, it is silly to pretend that before gunpowder came along to diminish the advantages that upper body strength confers in hand-to-hand combat, women could be equally effective in combat. ESR calls bullshit on a recent article that goes out of its way to imply that half of Viking warriors were actually female:

Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female insists an article at tor.com. It’s complete bullshit.

What you find when you read the linked article is an obvious, though as it turns out a superficial problem. The linked research doesn’t say what the article claims. What it establishes is that a hair less than half of Viking migrants were female, which is no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. The leap from that to “half the warriors were female” is unjustified and quite large.

There’s a deeper problem the article is trying to ignore or gaslight out of existence: reality is, at least where pre-gunpowder weapons are involved, viciously sexist.

[...]

Supporting this, there is only very scant archeological evidence for female warriors (burials with weapons). There is almost no such evidence from Viking cultures, and what little we have is disputed; the Scythians and earlier Germanics from the Migration period have substantially more burials that might have been warrior women. Tellingly, they are almost always archers.

I’m excluding personal daggers for self-defense here and speaking of the battlefield contact weapons that go with the shieldmaidens of myth and legend. I also acknowledge that a very few exceptionally able women can fight on equal terms with men. My circle of friends contains several such exceptional women; alas, this tells us nothing about woman as a class but much about how I select my friends.

But it is a very few. And if a pre-industrial culture has chosen to train more than a tiny fraction of its women as shieldmaidens, it would have lost out to a culture that protected and used their reproductive capacity to birth more male warriors. Brynhilde may be a sexy idea, but she’s a bioenergetic gamble that is near certain to be a net waste.

Firearms changes all this, of course – some of the physiological differences that make them inferior with contact weapons are actual advantages at shooting (again I speak from experience, as I teach women to shoot). So much so that anyone who wants to suppress personal firearms is objectively anti-female and automatically oppressive of women.

September 2, 2014

The suddenly unsettled science of nutrition

Filed under: Government, Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 14:58

After all the salt uproar over the last year or so, perhaps it was inevitable that other public health consensus items would also come under scrutiny. Here’s Ace having a bit of fun with the latest New York Times report on fat and carbohydrates in the modern diet:

One day there will be a book written about this all — how a “Consensus of Experts” decided, against all previous wisdom and with virtually no evidence whatsoever, that Fat Makes You Fat and you can Eat All the Carbohydrates You Like Because Carbohydrates Are Healthy.

This never made a lick of sense to me, even before I heard of the Atkins diet.

Sugar is a carbohydrate. Indeed, it’s the carbohydrate, the one that makes up the others (such as starches, which are just long lines of sugar molecules arranged into sheets and folded over each other).

How the hell could it possibly be that Fat was Forbidden but SUGAR was Sacred?

It made no sense. A long time ago I tried to get a nutritionist to explain this to me. “Eat more fruit,” the nutritionist said.

“Fruit,” I answered, “is sugar in a ball.”

But the nutritionist had an answer. “That is fruit sugar,” the she told me.

“Fruit sugar,” I responded, “is yet sugar.”

“But it’s not cane sugar.”

“I don’t think the body really cares much about which particular plant the sugar comes from.”

“Sugar from a fruit,” the nutritionist now gambited, “is more natural than processed sugar.”

“They’re both natural, you know. We don’t synthesize sucrose in a lab. There are no beakers involved.”

“Well, you burn fruit sugar up quicker, so it actually gives you energy, instead of turning into fat!”

“Both sugars are converted into glycogen in the body. There can be no difference in how they produce ‘energy’ in the body because both wind up as glycogen. I have no idea where you’re getting any of this. It sounds like you’re making it all up as you go.”

This is Science,” the nutritionist closed the argument.

Eh. It’s all nonsense. Even cane sugar contains, yes, fructose, or fruit sugar, and fruits contain sucrose, or cane sugar.

August 31, 2014

Politispeak – describing a slower rate of increase as an absolute cut in funding

Filed under: Cancon, Government, Health, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:20

Paul Wells says the almost forgotten leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition in Parliament is doing his job, but illustrates it with a great example of how political rhetoric sometimes warps reality in favour of a more headline-worthy claim:

Here’s what he said: “After promising to protect all future increases to provincial transfers, Conservatives announced plans to cut $36 billion, starting in 2016,” Mulcair told the CMA. “This spring, Conservatives will announce, with great fanfare, that there is now a budget surplus. I’m here today to tell you that an NDP government would use any such surplus to, first and foremost, cancel those proposed cuts to health care.”

This needs parsing, but first, let’s let Mulcair finish: “Mr. Harper, it’s time to keep your word to protect Canadian health care. After giving Canada’s richest corporations $50 billion in tax breaks, don’t you dare take $36 billion out of health care to pay for them!” He said that part in English, then repeated it in French, which has become the way a Canadian politician delivers a line in italics.

Well. Let’s begin with the $36 billion. In December 2011, Jim Flaherty, then the federal finance minister, met his provincial colleagues to announce his plans for health transfers after a 10-year deal set by Paul Martin ran out in 2013-14. The 2004 Martin deal declared that cash transfers to the provinces for health care would increase by six per cent a year for 10 years. Harper simply kept implementing the Martin scheme after he became Prime Minister.

What Flaherty announced, without consulting with the provinces first, was that health transfers would keep growing at six per cent through 2016-17. Then, they would grow more slowly — how slowly would depend on the economy. The faster GDP grows, the faster transfers would grow. But, if the economy tanked, the rate of growth could fall as low as three per cent per year. Flaherty said this scheme would stay in place through 2023-24.

Add up all the shortfalls between three per cent and six per cent over seven years and you get a cumulative sum of $36 billion. Despite what Mulcair said, this isn’t a “cut,” it’s a deceleration in increases. And $36 billion is the gap’s maximum amount. If the economy shows any health, the gap will be smaller.

We could have fun complaining that Mulcair calls something a “cut” when it extends what is already the longest period of growth in federal transfer payments in Mulcair’s lifetime. But it’s more fun to take him at his word. He promises to spend as much as $6 billion a year in new tax money on health care. Mulcair couldn’t buy much influence over health policy with that money; he would simply send larger cheques to provincial governments. If he has other plans for the federal government, he’d have to pay for them after he’d sent that up-to $6-billion cheque to the provinces.

Emphasis mine.

August 30, 2014

QotD: We are slaves to our stomachs

Filed under: Health, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

How good one feels when one is full — how satisfied with ourselves and with the world! People who have tried it, tell me that a clear conscience makes you very happy and contented; but a full stomach does the business quite as well, and is cheaper, and more easily obtained. One feels so forgiving and generous after a substantial and well-digested meal — so noble-minded, so kindly-hearted.

It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs. We cannot work, we cannot think, unless our stomach wills so. It dictates to us our emotions, our passions. After eggs and bacon, it says, “Work!” After beefsteak and porter, it says, “Sleep!” After a cup of tea (two spoonsful for each cup, and don’t let it stand more than three minutes), it says to the brain, “Now, rise, and show your strength. Be eloquent, and deep, and tender; see, with a clear eye, into Nature and into life; spread your white wings of quivering thought, and soar, a god-like spirit, over the whirling world beneath you, up through long lanes of flaming stars to the gates of eternity!”

After hot muffins, it says, “Be dull and soulless, like a beast of the field — a brainless animal, with listless eye, unlit by any ray of fancy, or of hope, or fear, or love, or life.” And after brandy, taken in sufficient quantity, it says, “Now, come, fool, grin and tumble, that your fellow-men may laugh — drivel in folly, and splutter in senseless sounds, and show what a helpless ninny is poor man whose wit and will are drowned, like kittens, side by side, in half an inch of alcohol.”

We are but the veriest, sorriest slaves of our stomach. Reach not after morality and righteousness, my friends; watch vigilantly your stomach, and diet it with care and judgment. Then virtue and contentment will come and reign within your heart, unsought by any effort of your own; and you will be a good citizen, a loving husband, and a tender father — a noble, pious man.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.

August 28, 2014

QotD: “Intelligent Design” and the paradox of the human body

Filed under: Humour, Quotations, Religion, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

The human body, very cunningly designed in some details, is cruelly and senselessly bungled in other details, and every reflective first-year medical student must notice a hundred ways to improve it. How are we to reconcile this mixture of finesse and blundering with the concept of a single omnipotent Designer, to whom all problems are equally easy? If He could contrive so efficient and durable a machine as the human hand, then how did He come to make such botches as the tonsils, the gallbladder, the ovaries and the prostate gland? If He could perfect the elbow and the ear, then why did He boggle the teeth?

Having never encountered a satisfactory — or even a remotely plausible — answer to such questions, I have had to go to the trouble of devising one myself. It is, at all events, quite simple, and in strict accord with all the known facts. In brief, it is this: that the theory that the universe is run by a single God must be abandoned, and that in place of it we must set up the theory that it is actually run by a board of gods, all of equal puissance and authority. Once this concept is grasped the difficulties that have vexed theologians vanish, and human experience instantly lights up the whole dark scene. We observe in everyday life what happens when authority is divided, and great decisions are reached by consultation and compromise. We know that the effects at times, particularly when one of the consultants runs away with the others, are very good, but we also know that they are usually extremely bad. Such a mixture, precisely, is on display in the cosmos. It presents a series of brilliant successes in the midst of an infinity of failures.

I contend that my theory is the only one ever put forward that completely accounts for the clinical picture. Every other theory, facing such facts as sin, disease and disaster, is forced to admit the supposition that Omnipotence, after all, may not be omnipotent — a plain absurdity. I need toy with no such blasphemous nonsense. I may assume that every god belonging to the council which rules the universe is infinitely wise and infinitely powerful, and yet not evade the plain fact that most of the acts of that council are ignorant and foolish. In truth, my assumption that a council exists is tantamount to an a priori assumption that its acts are ignorant and foolish, for no act of any conceivable council can be otherwise. Is the human hand perfect, or, at all events, practical and praiseworthy? Then I account for it on the ground that it was designed by some single member of the council — that the business was turned over to him by inadvertence or as a result of an irreconcilable difference of opinion among the others. Had more than one member participated actively in its design it would have been measurably less meritorious than it is, for the sketch offered by the original designer would have been forced to run the gauntlet of criticisms and suggestions from all the other councilors, and human experience teaches us that most of these criticisms and suggestions would have been inferior to the original idea — that many of them, in fact, would have had nothing in them save a petty desire to maul and spoil the original idea.

H.L. Mencken, “The Cosmic Secretariat”, American Mercury, 1924-01.

August 27, 2014

Disappointingly, SpaceX plays the crony capitalist game with Texas politicians

Filed under: Business, Government, Space — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:28

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you’ll have picked up that I’m a fan of SpaceX and other non-governmental organizations in the space race. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Elon Musk is a hero, but I’ve generally been happy about his company’s successes in bringing more private enterprise into the launch business. However, as Lachlan Markay explains in some detail, Elon Musk is not above taking government funds to do things he’d be doing anyway, just like crony capitalists in the rest of the government-industrial complex:

Shortly before a private spaceflight company’s test rocket exploded over southern Texas last weekend, state lawmakers announced millions in subsidies to get the company to continue launching rockets in the Lone Star State.

Space Exploration Technologies, commonly known as SpaceX, will receive more than $15 million in public financing to build a launch pad in Cameron County, near the Mexican border.

The subsidies came after SpaceX’s founder, billionaire tech mogul and pop technologist Elon Musk, made campaign contributions to key state lawmakers and hired lobbyists with ties to Austin.

SpaceX is one of a number of innovative and disruptive startups that, though lauded by some free marketeers for making government-run markets more competitive, are finding themselves drawn to political advocacy, whether out of shrewdness or necessity.

Of the more than $15 million in incentives for a SpaceX launch facility in Brownsville, Texas, announced this month, $13 million will come from the state’s Spaceport Trust Fund.

Initially created in 2002, the fund began to wind down together with the idea of commercial spaceflight. But with the ascendancy of SpaceX and similar companies, Texas looked to secure its place as a destination for commercial spaceflight operations.

Musk took notice. A prolific political donor, he began pouring money into the campaigns of key state lawmakers. On November 7, 2012, he donated $1,000 to state representative Rene Oliveira (D). Two weeks later, he gave state senator Eddie Lucio Jr. (D) $2,000.

The next month, the Associated Press reported that Lucio and Oliveira were working to secure state backing for a potential SpaceX launch pad in Brownsville.

As Drew M. says at Ace of Spades H.Q., it’s not like this is a new thing for businesses or for politicians, it’s just disappointing:

I’m not naive to think this sort of stuff hasn’t gone on forever and will go on forever, it’s simply human nature. That’s why making government at levels as small as possible is so important.

What does continue to surprise me when it shouldn’t is how cheap it is to buy politicians. Remember Team GOP’s hero, Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran’s longtime aide who accepted $20-30K in gifts from Jack Abrahmof in return to ensuring the felon’s clients received millions in government money?

When you think about it it’s really no surprise that politicians sell themselves so cheaply. Unlike honorable whores who sell their own bodies, politicians sell other people’s money. Plus, they make it up in volume.

This bi-partisan rush to hand out everyone’s money for their own gain is part of why I’m drifting away from conservatism and towards libertarianism. Screw them all.

August 24, 2014

QotD: Hypochondria

Filed under: Health, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form. The diagnosis seems in every case to correspond exactly with all the sensations that I have ever felt.

I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch — hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into — some fearful, devastating scourge, I know — and, before I had glanced half down the list of “premonitory symptoms,” it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.

I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever — read the symptoms — discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it — wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance — found, as I expected, that I had that too, — began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically — read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.

I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight. Why hadn’t I got housemaid’s knee? Why this invidious reservation? After a while, however, less grasping feelings prevailed. I reflected that I had every other known malady in the pharmacology, and I grew less selfish, and determined to do without housemaid’s knee. Gout, in its most malignant stage, it would appear, had seized me without my being aware of it; and zymosis I had evidently been suffering with from boyhood. There were no more diseases after zymosis, so I concluded there was nothing else the matter with me.

I sat and pondered. I thought what an interesting case I must be from a medical point of view, what an acquisition I should be to a class! Students would have no need to “walk the hospitals,” if they had me. I was a hospital in myself. All they need do would be to walk round me, and, after that, take their diploma.

Then I wondered how long I had to live. I tried to examine myself. I felt my pulse. I could not at first feel any pulse at all. Then, all of a sudden, it seemed to start off. I pulled out my watch and timed it. I made it a hundred and forty-seven to the minute. I tried to feel my heart. I could not feel my heart. It had stopped beating. I have since been induced to come to the opinion that it must have been there all the time, and must have been beating, but I cannot account for it. I patted myself all over my front, from what I call my waist up to my head, and I went a bit round each side, and a little way up the back. But I could not feel or hear anything. I tried to look at my tongue. I stuck it out as far as ever it would go, and I shut one eye, and tried to examine it with the other. I could only see the tip, and the only thing that I could gain from that was to feel more certain than before that I had scarlet fever.

I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.

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