Quotulatiousness

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.

August 23, 2014

SpaceX test launch goes wrong

Filed under: Space, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:36

As they say, this is why you do the testing: to find out what can go wrong (and hopefully fix the design to prevent that from happening again). The Washington Post‘s Christian Davenport reports:

A new test rocket manufactured by Elon Musk’s upstart space company, SpaceX, blew itself up a few hundred feet over the Texas prairie after a malfunction was detected, the company said in a statement Friday evening.

At its facility in McGregor, Tex., the company was testing a three-engine version of the F9R test vehicle, the successor to its re­usable Grasshopper rocket, which was designed to launch and then land on the same site.

“During the flight, an anomaly was detected in the vehicle and the flight termination system automatically terminated the mission,” company spokesman John Taylor said in the statement.

The rocket never veered off course, and there were no injuries or near injuries, the statement said. A representative from the Federal Aviation Administration was on site during the test flight.

The company stressed that rooting out problems like the one exposed in the flight is the purpose of the test program and said Friday’s test “was particularly complex, pushing the limits of the vehicle further than any previous test. As is our practice, the company will be reviewing the flight record details to learn more about the performance of the vehicle prior to our next test.”

August 18, 2014

Salt studies and health outcomes – “all models need to be taken with a pinch of salt”

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:41

Colby Cosh linked to this rather interesting BMJ blog post by Richard Lehman, looking at studies of the impact of dietary salt reduction:

601 The usual wisdom about sodium chloride is that the more you take, the higher your blood pressure and hence your cardiovascular risk. We’ll begin, like the NEJM, with the PURE study. This was a massive undertaking. They recruited 102 216 adults from 18 countries and measured their 24 hour sodium and potassium excretion, using a single fasting morning urine specimen, and their blood pressure by using an automated device. In an ideal world, they would have carried on doing this every week for a month or two, but hey, this is still better than anyone has managed before now. Using these single point in time measurements, they found that people with elevated blood pressure seemed to be more sensitive to the effects of the cations sodium and potassium. Higher sodium raised their blood pressure more, and higher potassium lowered it more, than in individuals with normal blood pressure. In fact, if sodium is a cation, potassium should be called a dogion. And what I have described as effects are in fact associations: we cannot really know if they are causal.

612 But now comes the bombshell. In the PURE study, there was no simple linear relationship between sodium intake and the composite outcome of death and major cardiovascular events, over a mean follow-up period of 3.7 years. Quite the contrary, there was a sort of elongated U-shape distribution. The U begins high and is then splayed out: people who excreted less than 3 grams of salt daily were at much the highest risk of death and cardiovascular events. The lowest risk lay between 3 g and 5 g, with a slow and rather flat rise thereafter. On this evidence, trying to achieve a salt intake under 3 g is a bad idea, which will do you more harm than eating as much salt as you like. Moreover, if you eat plenty of potassium as well, you will have plenty of dogion to counter the cation. The true Mediterranean diet wins again. Eat salad and tomatoes with your anchovies, drink wine with your briny olives, sprinkle coarse salt on your grilled fish, lay it on a bed of cucumber, and follow it with ripe figs and apricots. Live long and live happily.

624 It was rather witty, if slightly unkind, of the NEJM to follow these PURE papers with a massive modelling study built on the assumption that sodium increases cardiovascular risk in linear fashion, mediated by blood pressure. Dariush Mozaffarian and his immensely hardworking team must be biting their lips, having trawled through all the data they could find about sodium excretion in 66 countries. They used a reference standard of 2 g sodium a day, assuming this was the point of optimal consumption and lowest risk. But from PURE, we now know it is associated with a higher cardiovascular risk than 13 grams a day. So they should now go through all their data again, having adjusted their statistical software to the observational curves of the PURE study. Even so, I would question the value of modelling studies on this scale: the human race is a complex thing to study, and all models need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Update: Colby Cosh followed up the original link with this tweet. Ouch!

August 14, 2014

QotD: How to create a depressive society

Filed under: Health, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

The widespread perception that almost everyone else was a moron — why, just look at the things people post and say on the Internet! – would facilitate a certain philosophy of narcissism; we would have people walking around convinced they’re much smarter, and much more sophisticated and enlightened, than everyone else.

Marinating in the perception that most people are stupid, hateful, sick, and needlessly cruel would undoubtedly alter people’s aspirations and ambitions in life. Why strive to create a new invention, miracle cure, remarkable technology, or wondrous innovation to help the masses? It would be pearls before swine, a gift to a thoroughly undeserving population that had earned its miserable circumstances. The hopeless ignorance and hateful philosophies of the great unwashed might, however, spur quiet calls for the restoration of a properly thinking aristocracy to help steer society in the correct direction.

If we wanted to build a society designed to promote depression, we would want to make children seem like a burden. Children are a smaller, slightly altered version of ourselves; Christopher Hitchens described parenthood as “realizing that your heart is running around in somebody else’s body.” To hate life, you have to hate children. If they are a form of immortality — half of our genetic code and half of our habits, good and ill, walking around a generation later — then a depressive society would condition its members to hate the possibilities of their future.

If we wanted to build a society designed to promote depression, we would want to make old age seem to be a horrible fate. (It is the only alternative to death!) Our depressive society would want to not merely celebrate youth, but we would want to constantly reinforce the sense that one is approaching mental and physical obsolescence. A celebrity who appeared much younger than her years would be celebrated and everyone would openly demand to know her secret. The unspoken expectation would be that anyone could achieve the same result if she simply tried hard enough. We would exclaim, “Man, he’s getting old!” in response to those who didn’t look the same as when we first saw them.

We would want to make sure that appearances not merely counted, but that attractiveness is preeminent. That anonymous and yet public realm of the Internet would ensure that anyone in the world could safely mock the appearance of others to a public audience and then return to picking Cheetos out of his chest hair.

Jim Geraghty, “Robin Williams and Our Strange Times: Does our society set the stage for depression?”, National Review, 2014-08-12.

August 13, 2014

Pessimism from the Rational Optimist

Filed under: Africa, Health — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Matt Ridley is somewhat uncharacteristically concerned about the major Ebola outbreak in west Africa:

As you may know by now, I am a serial debunker of alarm and it usually serves me in good stead. On the threat posed by diseases, I’ve been resolutely sceptical of exaggerated scares about bird flu and I once won a bet that mad cow disease would never claim more than 100 human lives a year when some “experts” were forecasting tens of thousands (it peaked at 28 in 2000). I’ve drawn attention to the steadily falling mortality from malaria and Aids.

Well, this time, about ebola, I am worried. Not for Britain, Europe or America or any other developed country and not for the human race as a whole. This is not about us in rich countries, and there remains little doubt that this country can achieve the necessary isolation and hygiene to control any cases that get here by air before they infect more than a handful of other people — at the very worst. No, it is the situation in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea that is scary. There it could get much worse before it gets better.

This is the first time ebola has got going in cities. It is the first time it is happening in areas with “fluid population movements over porous borders” in the words of Margaret Chan, the World Health Organisation’s director-general, speaking last Friday. It is the first time it has spread by air travel. It is the first time it has reached the sort of critical mass that makes tracing its victims’ contacts difficult.

One of ebola’s most dangerous features is that kills so many health workers. Because it requires direct contact with the bodily fluids of patients, and because patients are violently ill, nurses and doctors are especially at risk. The current epidemic has already claimed the lives of 60 healthcare workers, including those of two prominent doctors, Samuel Brisbane in Liberia and Sheik Umar Khan in Sierra Leone. The courage of medics in these circumstances, working in stifling protective gear, is humbling.

Ebola outbreak in west Africa

QotD: Abstention

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

Earlier this year I went off the booze for a few weeks, a purely voluntary move, let it be said. Among other things, I thought might be interesting to look at life from the Other Side. So to speak.

It wasn’t quite what I’d expected. Ex-topers, those warned off by the doc, will tell you emotionally that if they’d known how much better they were going to feel with, out it, they’d have given it up years before they actually had to. This is a pathetic lie, designed to make you look like the one who’s missing out and motivated by their hatred and envy of anybody who’s still on it. In fact, not only is one’s general level of health unaffected by the change, but daily ups and downs persist in the same way.

I discovered early on that you don’t have to drink to build yourself a hangover. There were mornings when I groaned my way to consciousness, wondering dimly whether it was port or malt whisky that had polluted my mouth and dehydrated my eyes, until I remembered that it could only have been too much ginger beer and late-night snooker. Then, the next morning, I would feel fine, or at least all right, with the same mysterious lack of apparent reason.

[...]

As regards other parts of the system, my liver no doubt benefited from its sudden lay-off, but it didn’t send me any cheering messages to say so. My mental powers seemed unaltered, certainly unimproved — I was no less forgetful, short on concentration, likely to lose the thread or generally unsatisfactory than I had been before. But now I had no excuse. That was the only big difference: when I was drinking I had the drink to blame for anything under the sun, but now it was all just me. A thought that must drive a lot of people to drink.

I hope I haven’t discouraged anyone who might be thinking of taking a short or long holiday from grape and grain. The easiest part is the actual total not drinking, much easier than cutting it down or sticking to beer or anything like that. Very nearly the hardest part is putting up with the other fellow when he’s drinking and you’re just watching him. At such times you’re probable not much fun yourself either. Fruit juice and company don’t mix.

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

August 11, 2014

The science of “wine fingerprints”

Filed under: Science, Wine — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:27

Okay, the title of this post is a bit ahead of the facts: scientists are still developing ways to detect the differences in wine from various regions, but they think they’re on the right track.

Malbecs from Argentina and California made by the same winemaker and using the same protocol had distinct molecular signatures and flavours.

But the delicate aroma of a rare vintage can quickly be eroded by poor storage after bottling, the team said.

Details were reported at the American Chemical Society meeting.

Despite the cynicism over wine critique — and the rather grandiose adjectives lavished upon certain appellations — it really does matter where your plonk comes from, according to the researchers from the University of California Davis.

They are attempting to fingerprint “terroir” — the unique characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place bestows upon a wine.

Subjective regional character is based on the appearance, aroma, taste and mouthfeel (texture) of the wine — all of which combine to create its flavour.

But demand is growing for a more objective test — to help consumers bypass woolly terminology, protect artisan producers’ intellectual property, and help auction houses detect fraud — a growing problem.

August 1, 2014

Old and busted – “I cannae change the laws of physics”?

Filed under: Science, Space — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:02

Call me an old fogey, but I’ve always believed in the law of conservation of momentum … yet a recent NASA finding — if it holds up — may bring me around:

Nasa is a major player in space science, so when a team from the agency this week presents evidence that “impossible” microwave thrusters seem to work, something strange is definitely going on. Either the results are completely wrong, or Nasa has confirmed a major breakthrough in space propulsion.

British scientist Roger Shawyer has been trying to interest people in his EmDrive for some years through his company SPR Ltd. Shawyer claims the EmDrive converts electric power into thrust, without the need for any propellant by bouncing microwaves around in a closed container. He has built a number of demonstration systems, but critics reject his relativity-based theory and insist that, according to the law of conservation of momentum, it cannot work.

[...]

    “Test results indicate that the RF resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma.”

This last line implies that the drive may work by pushing against the ghostly cloud of particles and anti-particles that are constantly popping into being and disappearing again in empty space. But the Nasa team has avoided trying to explain its results in favour of simply reporting what it found: “This paper will not address the physics of the quantum vacuum plasma thruster, but instead will describe the test integration, test operations, and the results obtained from the test campaign.”

The drive’s inventor, Guido Fetta calls it the “Cannae Drive”, which he explains as a reference to the Battle of Cannae in which Hannibal decisively defeated a much stronger Roman army: you’re at your best when you are in a tight corner. However, it’s hard not to suspect that Star Trek‘s Engineer Scott — “I cannae change the laws of physics” — might also be an influence. (It was formerly known as the Q-Drive.)

July 31, 2014

Ostracizing Richard Dawkins

Filed under: Media, Religion, Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:14

Damian Thompson points out that the “offensive” things that are getting people upset at Richard Dawkins are exactly the same sort of things they applauded when he was attacking Christianity:

‘Richard Dawkins, what on earth happened to you?’ asks Eleanor Robertson in the Guardian today. Ms Robertson is a ‘feminist and writer living in Sydney’. She follows to the letter the Guardian’s revised style guide for writing about Prof Dawkins: wring your hands until your fingers are raw, while muttering ‘Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown’.

For some time now Dawkins has been saying rude things about Muslims and feminists. This makes him a bigot in the eyes of the Left — and especially the Guardian, which is extraordinarily and mysteriously protective of Islam. As Robertson puts it:

    ‘Sure, he wrote some pop science books back in the day, but why do we keep having him on TV and in the newspapers? If it’s a biologist you’re after, or a science communicator, why not pick from the hundreds out there who don’t tweet five or six Islamophobic sentiments before getting off the toilet in the morning?’

Note how The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker — masterpieces of lucid thinking that advanced humanity’s understanding of evolution — have become mere ‘pop science’ now that their author is upsetting the wrong people.

[...]

It’s hard to deny that Dawkins’s ‘secular fundamentalism’ — as liberal commentators now describe it — makes for an embarrassing spectacle. When enraged pensioners pick fights with total strangers, one’s natural reaction is to go and sit somewhere else on the bus.

But Dawkins was just as offensive when his target was Christianity; it’s just that the Left didn’t have a problem with his description of Pope Benedict XVI as a ‘leering old villain in the frock’ who ran ‘a profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution … amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.’

As I said at the time, that article — in the Washington Post, no less — ‘conjures up the image of a nasty old man who’s losing his marbles. It’s not very nice about the Pope, either.’ But Dawkins has not become any crazier in the intervening four years; he’s simply widened his attack on blind faith, as he sees it, to include Muslims and feminists.

July 29, 2014

Australia’s bitter experience with carbon mitigation

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Government — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 06:47

Shikha Dalmia looks at Australia’s recently abandoned carbon tax scheme:

Environmentalists had a global meltdown last week after Australia scrapped its carbon tax. They denounced the move as “retrograde” and “environmental vandalism.”

They can fume all they want, but Australia’s action, combined with Europe’s floundering cap-and-trade program, signals that “mitigation” strategies — curbing greenhouse gases by putting economies on an energy diet — are not winning or workable.

Australia leapfrogged from being an environmental laggard (initially refusing to even sign the Kyoto Protocol) to a leader when its Green Party-backed Labor prime minister imposed a tax two years ago. It required Australia’s utilities and industries to pay $23 per ton of greenhouse gas emissions.

But the tax was an instant debacle.

Australia has the highest per capita carbon dioxide emission in the world and the main reason is that it’s even more coal-dependent than America. Coal supplies 75 percent of its energy needs (compared to 42 percent in America). But contrary to green expectations, the tax didn’t prompt companies to rush toward renewable sources, because they are far costlier.

Rather, utilities passed their costs to households — whose energy bills soared by 20 percent in the first year. Other industries that face hyper-competitive environment such as airlines suffered massive losses. (Virgin Australia alone reported $27 million in losses in just six months.) The tax also made Australian exports globally uncompetitive, deepening the country’s recession.

This spawned a backlash that brought down the Labor government and catapulted into office the Liberal Party’s Tony Abbott, who made a “blood promise” to ditch the tax, which he did promptly once elected, despite warnings that Aussie lowlands are more vulnerable to rising sea levels and other dire consequences of global warming than other countries.

July 28, 2014

QotD: Absinthe

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

True absinthe (the name is from a Greek word meaning “undrinkable”) has been illegal in most places for a long time. It is, or was, flavoured with the herb wormwood, which, as the French authorities noticed after years of using absinthe in their army to combat fever, “acts powerfully on the nerve-centres, and causes delirium and hallucinations, followed in some cases by idiocy” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). The perfectly wholesome successors to absinthe are flavoured with anise, or aniseed. The result always reminds me, not unpleasantly, of those paregoric cough-sweets children ate before the war, and I see that paregoric does contain aniseed, but throws in opium, camphor and benzoic acid as well, so I am probably just being nostalgic. Anyway, when recipes call for absinthe, as they can still do if their compilers and revisers have been too ignorant or lazy to make the change, use Pernod or Ricard instead.

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

July 23, 2014

In statistical studies, the size of the data sample matters

Filed under: Health, Science, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:49

In the ongoing investigation into why Westerners — especially North Americans — became obese, some of the early studies are being reconsidered. For example, I’ve mentioned the name of Dr. Ancel Keys a couple of times recently: he was the champion of the low-fat diet and his work was highly influential in persuading government health authorities to demonize fat in pursuit of better health outcomes. He was so successful as an advocate for this idea that his study became one of the most frequently cited in medical science. A brilliant success … that unfortunately flew far ahead of its statistical evidence:

So Keys had food records, although that coding and summarizing part sounds a little fishy. Then he followed the health of 13,000 men so he could find associations between diet and heart disease. So we can assume he had dietary records for all 13,000 of them, right?

Uh … no. That wouldn’t be the case.

The poster-boys for his hypothesis about dietary fat and heart disease were the men from the Greek island of Crete. They supposedly ate the diet Keys recommended: low-fat, olive oil instead of saturated animal fats and all that, you see. Keys tracked more than 300 middle-aged men from Crete as part of his study population, and lo and behold, few of them suffered heart attacks. Hypothesis supported, case closed.

So guess how many of those 300-plus men were actually surveyed about their eating habits? Go on, guess. I’ll wait …

And the answer is: 31.

Yup, 31. And that’s about the size of the dataset from each of the seven countries: somewhere between 25 and 50 men. It’s right there in the paper’s data tables. That’s a ridiculously small number of men to survey if the goal is to accurately compare diets and heart disease in seven countries.

[...]

Getting the picture? Keys followed the health of more than 300 men from Crete. But he only surveyed 31 of them, with one of those surveys taken during the meat-abstinence month of Lent. Oh, and the original seven-day food-recall records weren’t available later, so he swapped in data from an earlier paper. Then to determine fruit and vegetable intake, he used data sheets about food availability in Greece during a four-year period.

And from this mess, he concluded that high-fat diets cause heart attacks and low-fat diets prevent them.

Keep in mind, this is one of the most-cited studies in all of medical science. It’s one of the pillars of the Diet-Heart hypothesis. It helped to convince the USDA, the AHA, doctors, nutritionists, media health writers, your parents, etc., that saturated fat clogs our arteries and kills us, so we all need to be on low-fat diets – even kids.

Yup, Ancel Keys had a tiny one … but he sure managed to screw a lot of people with it.

H/T to Amy Alkon for the link.

July 21, 2014

NASA’s “random mode”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, History, Space, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:55

Robert Zubrin identifies two different modes of operation practiced by NASA since 1961:

Over the course of its life, NASA has employed two distinct modes of operation. The first prevailed during the period from 1961 to 1973, and may therefore be called the Apollo Mode. The second, prevailing since 1974, may usefully be called the Random Mode.

In the Apollo Mode, business is conducted as follows. First, a destination for human space flight is chosen. Then a plan is developed to achieve the objective. Following this, technologies and designs are developed to implement the plan. These designs are then built, after which the mission is flown.

The Random Mode operates entirely differently. In this mode, technologies and hardware elements are developed in accord with the wishes of various technical communities. These projects are then justified by arguments that they might prove useful at some time in the future when grand flight projects are once again initiated.

Contrasting these two approaches, we see that the Apollo Mode is destination-driven, while the Random Mode pretends to be technology-driven but is actually constituency-driven. In the Apollo Mode, technology development is done for mission-directed reasons. In the Random Mode, projects are undertaken on behalf of various internal and external technical-community pressure groups and then defended using rationales (not reasons). In the Apollo Mode, the space agency’s efforts are focused and directed. In the Random Mode, NASA’s efforts are scatterbrained and entropic.

Imagine two couples, each planning to build their own house. The first couple decides what kind of house they want, hires an architect to design it in detail, then acquires the appropriate materials to build it. That is the Apollo Mode. The second couple canvasses their neighbors each month for different spare house-parts they would like to sell, and buys them all, hoping to eventually accumulate enough stuff to build a house. When their relatives inquire as to why they are accumulating so much junk, they hire an architect to compose a house design that employs all the miscellaneous items they have purchased. The house is never built, but an adequate excuse is generated to justify each purchase, thereby avoiding embarrassment. That is the Random Mode.

NASA had an overriding mission from 1961 to 1974: the moon program. Almost all of its resources were devoted to that goal, and it was achieved. Then bureausclerosis set in, politics took over, and we left the moon (so far, for good). If the future of mankind is in space, it’s unlikely that NASA will be a significant part of that future (unless you count its role in working to hold back private enterprise from getting involved on NASA’s “turf” (can I call it “astroturf” in this context?)).

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