August 17, 2017

Safe injection sites go rogue … to save lives

Filed under: Cancon, Health, Law — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In the National Post, Chris Selley wonders why the federal government has been so slow to come around to accepting the overall harm reduction offered by legal safe injection sites:

I suspect this generation of policymakers, and the previous one especially, will struggle to explain to their grandchildren just what on earth they thought they were doing about opioid addiction. I don’t mean the likes of Donald Trump, who seems to think a get-tough policing approach — a “war on drugs,” perhaps — might get the job done. I mean smart, reasonably compassionate Canadians, by no means all conservatives, whose worries about safe injection sites in particular look bizarre even today, when people are still using them.

“It’ll attract rubadubs” — as if Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside was a middle-class utopia before Insite set up shop. “There’ll be needles in the streets” — more than if the safe injection site weren’t there, you mean? And, of course: “Addicts should go to treatment instead” — as if people haven’t been trying and failing to get and stay clean this whole time; as if the alternative, on a day to day basis, might be not waking up the next morning to go get treatment.

To its credit, the Liberal government in Ottawa has loosened the regulatory reins. There are nine approved “supervised consumption sites” up and running across the country: five on the Lower Mainland, one in Kamloops, and three in Montreal. Six more, in Victoria, Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal, are approved and awaiting inspections. An additional 10 are in the approval process; four in Edmonton applied more than three months ago; one in Ottawa has been in the works, officially, since February.

This looks like progress, and to a great extent it is. But on Sunday, a group of activists in Toronto implicitly asked another trenchant question: why does it take so bloody long to set up a supervised injection site? Why are we waiting? It’s just clean needles, chairs and tables, overdose treatment medication, a nurse and a phone.

August 13, 2017

QotD: The measurement problem in government

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

Now take health insurance. (Or, if you live, like me, in a country with a national healthcare system that has a single comprehensive payer, the health system.) There are periodic suggestions that we should punish bad behaviour, behaviour that increases medical costs: Scotland has an alcoholism problem so we get the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing)(Scotland) Act, 2012. Obesity comes with its own health risks, and where resource scarcity exists (for example, in surgical procedures), some English CCGs are denying patients treatment for some conditions if they are overweight.

It should be argued that these are really stupid strategies, likely to make things worse. Minimum alcohol pricing is regressive and affects the poor far more than the middle-class: it may cause poor alcoholics to turn the same petty criminality observed among drug addicts, to fund their habit. And denying hip replacements to overweight people isn’t exactly going to make it easier for them to exercise and improve their health. But because we can measure the price of alcohol, or plot someone’s height/weight ratio on a BMI chart, these are what will be measured.

It’s the classic syllogism of the state: something must be controlled, we can measure one of its parameters, therefore we will control that parameter (and ignore anything we can’t measure directly).

Charles Stross, “It could be worse”, Charlie’s Diary, 2015-10-09.

August 8, 2017

QotD: The next “Carrington Event”

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

The last one happened in 1859. The Earth was hit by a cloud of magnetized plasma from a “coronal mass ejection” — something that our Sun often does. Most fly off in other directions; the last that barely missed us was in July, 2012. (You can tell it missed from the fact that the Internet still exists.) The last bullseye on our beloved planet was named after the brilliant English amateur astronomer, Richard Carrington (1826–75), who, in the course of figuring out what happened, demonstrated the existence of “solar flares.”

He was trying to explain why telegraph operators all over the world, on the 1st of September, 1859, were suddenly getting electric shocks; and then, prior to the whole cable system going down, why some had been able to send and receive messages even after disconnecting their power. Too, why auroras had lit up the night sky at temperate latitudes so bright people could read newspapers by it; or why those at higher elevations near the equator could enjoy the aurora borealis and the aurora australis — simultaneously.

Now, the world a sesquicentury ago was not so dependent upon electricity as it is today. And the system of telegraphy was so ridiculously simple, that it was soon repaired. I daresay Morse Code is worth learning in preparation for the next Carrington Event — which, when it comes, we will be able to predict, at best, a few hours in advance. (Other cosmic events might impinge on our lifestyles meanwhile, but I like to consider my apocalypses one at a time.)

Gentle reader may do a mental inventory of the gizmos in his environment that are connected directly or indirectly to the power grid. Then add in anything that contains a computer chip, whether it happened to be “on” or “off” when the Earth’s magnetic field was impacted. For I assume it will all turn “on” of its own, for a brief but memorable interval.

The “beauty” (as they say in Cape Breton) is that we have no back-up system, and moreover, there can be no back-up, except what we can rig from horse, or paddle. For we have made ourselves totally dependent upon sparks.

On the plus side, the environmentalists may exult, because the quick reduction of the world’s population to post-Plague mediaeval levels could prove a lucky break for the other endangered species.

It will, even more happily, improve national security for the survivors in USA. For the same magnetic storm that makes the cities (and towns) of America uninhabitable will also have disabled the military capacities of Russia, China, and Iran. If they want to come at us they will have to do so in sailing ships. Moreover, the depopulation of Mexico will probably reduce the invasion threat from there, whether or not Donald Trump is President.

David Warren, “The highest tech”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-08-22.

July 31, 2017

Patents, Prizes, and Subsidies

Published on 17 May 2016

Growth on the cutting edge is all about the creation of new ideas.

So, we want institutions that incentivize such creation. How do we do this? The answer is somewhat tricky.

The first goal for good ideas is for them to spread as freely as possible. The further the reach, the greater the gains. The problem is, if just anyone can use ideas, then why would we ever pay for them? And without the right incentives, why would innovators create new ideas at all?

Imagine yourself as the creator of a new drug. Typically, it costs about a billion dollars to do this, not counting the time and effort needed to get the drug FDA-approved.

Now, if there were no protections in place, then theoretically, once the formula’s known, everyone could just copy the make-up of your new drug. See, the thing about pharmaceuticals is, once the formula’s known, production is relatively cheap. Given that, let’s assume imitations start flooding the market.

Predictably, the price of your new drug will plummet.

Once prices hit rock-bottom, you’ll have no way to recoup the $1 billion you spent on R&D.

Given that kind of result, we reckon you probably won’t want to develop more good ideas.

The US founding fathers anticipated this problem. Knowing that innovators needed incentives to have good ideas, the founders wrote a protection mechanism into the Constitution.

They gave Congress the ability to grant exclusive rights to inventors — rights to use and sell their inventions, for a limited period of time. This exclusive right, is what we call a patent. Patents grant inventors a temporary monopoly over the use and sale of their intellectual property.

Now, as nice as this is, patents are a thorny subject.

For one, how long should patents last? Also, how much innovation is considered enough to merit a patent grant? Not to mention, are patents the only way to reward good ideas?

The answer is no.

There are two more incentive options here: prizes, and subsidies.

Let’s start with subsidies. University and research subsidies are particularly effective in the basic sciences. Since innovations in this space are rather abstract, subsidies incentivize research without requiring the applications of the research to be explicitly named. The problem is, when we’re incentivizing just research, then researchers might pick directions that are interesting, but not particularly useful.

This is why the third incentive option — prizes — exists.

Prizes reward the output of solving a certain problem. Another plus, is that prizes leave solutions unspecified. They provide a problem to work on, but give quite a lot of leeway as to how the problem is solved.

Now, knowing the complexity inherent in patents, you might think that prizes and subsidies are good enough alternatives. But none of these incentives for ideas, are inherently better than any of the others. Patents, prizes, and subsidies all involve their own tradeoffs and questions.

For example, who decides what gets subsidized? Who decides which goals merit a prize?

It’s hard to determine what mix of institutions, will best incentivize the production of good ideas. Patents, prizes, and subsidies all navigate these conflicting goals, in their own way.

And yes, all this talk of incentives and conflicting goals and tradeoffs might be like walking a tightrope. But, it’s a tightrope we can’t opt out of. Certainly not if we want the economy to keep growing.

In our next release, you’ll watch a TED talk from a certain economist that elaborates further on ideas. And then, we’ll wrap up this course segment with the Idea Equation. Stay tuned!

July 30, 2017

It’s time to eliminate the ethanol fuel mandate (and all those corporate welfare subsidies)

Paul Driessen explains why now might be the best time to get rid of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) which requires a proportion of ethanol be incorporated/blended into almost all petroleum fuels in the US (Canada has similar requirements):

The laws require that refiners blend steadily increasing amounts of ethanol into gasoline, and expect the private sector to produce growing amounts of “cellulosic” biofuel, “biomass-based diesel” and “advanced” biofuels. Except for corn ethanol, the production expectations have mostly turned out to be fantasies. The justifications for renewable fuels were scary exaggerations then, and are absurd now.

Let’s begin with claims made to justify this RFS extravaganza in the first place. It would reduce pollution, we were told. But cars are already 95% cleaner than their 1970 predecessors, so there are no real benefits.

The USA was depleting its petroleum reserves, and the RFS would reduce oil imports from unstable, unfriendly nations. But the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) revolution has given the United States at least a century of new reserves. America now exports more oil and refined products than it imports, and US foreign oil consumption is now the lowest since 1970.

Renewable fuels would help prevent dangerous manmade climate change, we were also told. This assumes climate is driven by manmade carbon dioxide – and not by changes in solar heat output, cosmic rays, ocean currents and other powerful natural forces that brought ice ages, little ice ages, warm periods, droughts and floods. It assumes biofuels don’t emit CO2, or at least not as much as gasoline; in reality, over their full life cycle, they emit at least as much, if not more, of this plant-fertilizing molecule.


A little over 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol were produced in 2016 – but only 143 billion gallons of gasoline were sold. That means using all the ethanol would require blends above 10% (E10 gasoline) – which is why Big Ethanol is lobbying hard for government mandates (or at least permission) for more E15 (15% ethanol) gasoline blends and pumps. Refiners refer to the current situation as the “blend wall.”

But E15 damages engines and fuel systems in older cars and motorcycles, as well as small engines for boats and garden equipment, and using E15 voids their warranties. You can already find E15 pumps, but finding zero-ethanol, pure-gasoline pumps is a tall order. Moreover, to produce ethanol, the United States is already devoting 40% of its corn crop, grown on nearly 40 million acres – along with billions of gallons of water to irrigate corn fields, plus huge amounts of fertilizer, pesticides and fossil fuels.

Much of the leftover “mash” from ethanol distillation is sold as animal feed. However, the RFS program still enriches a relatively few corn farmers, while raising costs for beef, pork, poultry and fish farmers, and for poor, minority, working class and African families. Ethanol also gets a third less mileage per gallon than gasoline, so cars cannot go as far on a tank of E10 and go even shorter distances with E15.

The problem with getting rid of targeted subsidy programs is that the benefits are highly concentrated while the costs are widely dispersed. As a whole, the North American economies would benefit greatly from eliminating the RFS mandates, lowering overall fuel costs, improving international food availability, and reducing or eliminating crony capitalist benefits to “Big Ethanol”, but most individuals’ gains would be small — too small to gain much active support — and the current beneficiaries would have vast incentives to fight to the death to keep those subsidies flowing.

QotD: Orwell on climate change since Shakespeare’s day

Filed under: Britain, Environment, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

To the lovers of useless knowledge (and I know there are a lot of them, from the number of letters I always get when I raise any question of this kind) I present a curious little problem arising out of the recent Pelican, Shakespeare’s England. A writer named Fynes Morrison, touring England in 1607, describes melons as growing freely. Andrew Marvell, in a very well-known poem written about fifty years later, also refers to melons. Both references make it appear that the melons grew in the open, and indeed they must have done so if they grew at all. The hot-bed was a recent invention in 1600, and glass-houses, if they existed, must have been a very great rarity. I imagine it would be quite impossible to grow a melon in the open in England nowadays. They are hard enough to grow under glass, whence their price. Fynes Morrison also speaks of grapes growing in large enough quantities to make wine. Is it possible that our climate has changed radically in the last three hundred years? Or was the so-called melon actually a pumpkin?

George Orwell, “As I Please”, Tribune, 1944-11-03.

July 28, 2017

1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Eric Cline, PhD)

Filed under: Europe, History, Middle East, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 11 Oct 2016

From about 1500 BC to 1200 BC, the Mediterranean region played host to a complex cosmopolitan and globalized world-system. It may have been this very internationalism that contributed to the apocalyptic disaster that ended the Bronze Age. When the end came, the civilized and international world of the Mediterranean regions came to a dramatic halt in a vast area stretching from Greece and Italy in the west to Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia in the east. Large empires and small kingdoms collapsed rapidly. With their end came the world’s first recorded Dark Ages. It was not until centuries later that a new cultural renaissance emerged in Greece and the other affected areas, setting the stage for the evolution of Western society as we know it today. Professor Eric H. Cline of The George Washington University will explore why the Bronze Age came to an end and whether the collapse of those ancient civilizations might hold some warnings for our current society.

Considered for a Pulitzer Prize for his recent book 1177 BC, Dr. Eric H. Cline is Professor of Classics and Anthropology and the current Director of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at The George Washington University. He is a National Geographic Explorer, a Fulbright scholar, an NEH Public Scholar, and an award-winning teacher and author. He has degrees in archaeology and ancient history from Dartmouth, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania; in May 2015, he was awarded an honorary doctoral degree (honoris causa) from Muhlenberg College. Dr. Cline is an active field archaeologist with 30 seasons of excavation and survey experience.

The views expressed in this video are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Capital Area Skeptics.

July 27, 2017

Aluminium – The Material That Changed The World

Filed under: History, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 24 Aug 2016

Thanks to the vlogbrothers for sponsoring this video. Have been following their work for years, it feels great to be supported by my role models!

Thank you to my patreon supporters: Adam Flohr, darth patron, Zoltan Gramantik, Josh Levent, Henning Basma.

Thanks to Dr. Barry O’Brien, from NUI Galway, for helping me with the final drafts of this script!

July 26, 2017

Richard III: The New Evidence

Filed under: Britain, History, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 1 Jul 2017

July 25, 2017

The Greatest Scientist of the 20th Century You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Filed under: History, Religion, Science, Space — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 13 Jul 2017

There’s a perception that religion and science go together about as well as mayonnaise and marshmallows. In some instances, this is, perhaps, true. But on a typically warm Southern California January in 1933 at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California (the same place and same time that Jack Parsons of rocket science fame was doing his experiments — history intersecting!), religion and science proved that these two ideals didn’t have to be enemies.

Want the text version?: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/02/georges-lemaitre-greatest-scientist-youve-never-heard/

July 20, 2017

Latest warnings about climate change to mean higher wine prices … maybe

Filed under: Environment, Europe, France, Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 06:00

London’s local Metro newspaper recently published a scary article about rising temperatures in wine regions across the world and the likelihood of driving wine prices much higher. Colour me skeptical, frankly. Also of a doubting disposition, Paul Austin Murphy indulges in a good, old-fashioned fisking of the alarmist article:

Now here, in all its glory, is a supremely tangential link (found in a Metro article called ‘Global warming is now messing with wine, so can you PLEASE STOP WRECKING THE WORLD‘):

    Global warming is “going to up the price of wine across the board”.

Readers may want to know the details about this fatal connection between man-created global warming and the high price of wine. Though — it must be said straight away — this can’t always the case at present. It must surely depend on which wines you like and where you buy your wine from.

Anyway, this is the hard science bit; so pay attention and put your white coats on. Here goes:

    “Researchers have suggested that rising temperatures in Europe are likely to increase the cost of labour in vineyards, noting that as heat rises in August, a month when a significant amount of the harvest is brought in, there’s a 15% drop in the amount of time labourers are able to work.

    “There’s also a drop in productivity, slowing down the wine production process.”

That’s odd. On average heat always rises in August in most European countries. Metro doesn’t really make it clear if these natural — as well as annual — increases have themselves increased. It also says that “[r]esearchers have suggested”. Yes, they’ve suggested. That’s a very loose word. Though it’s obviously a very precise and important word if you like your wine and you’re also against man-caused global warming.

It’s also the case that in several European wine-producing countries, cold weather is much more of a problem for the wine industry than hot weather (France, in particular). A “hot” vintage in France is very often associated with extremely high quality wine from that vintage.

Another study has admitted that this catastrophic effect on wine production hasn’t been replicated elsewhere. Metro says:

    “Andreas Flouris of the School of Exercise Science at the University of Thessaly reckons that the results of the small-scale study could easily repeat in California, across Europe, and in Australia — so all our wine could be set to hike up in price.”

Now if this wine catastrophe hasn’t yet happened in “California, across Europe, and in Australia” — then where, exactly, has it happened? The initial study mentioned that “most European countries” have been effected by it. (Which ones?) This other study says that it hasn’t yet occurred “across Europe.” How do we make sense of these two seemingly contradictory phrases?

It’s not just about cost. (Though, for Metro, it’s mainly about the cost!) This is also about taste. Metro tells us that

    “[i]ncreased heat is also affecting the taste of wine, damaging the quality of grapes across Europe and shortening the growing season”.

All this — if true — will also affect prices. Shorter growing seasons will certainly affect the price of wine — or at least certain wines from certain countries. This is strange. One main reason why the United Kingdom doesn’t produce much wine is its shortage of warm weather. (British wine makes up 1% of the domestic market.) Yet if temperatures keep on increasing, then surely more wine will be produced in England. That will also have a positive effect on the price of wine! Why doesn’t Metro mention that?

Now what’s all this going to do to London’s dinner-party circuit? I mean Metropolitans are already suffering from severe “austerity”. Add 50 pence (or less) to a bottle of wine and then what have you got? Massive poverty among London’s professional political Pharisees (who also like wine).

It’s fascinating that the Metro author tries to imply that hot weather in (parts of) Europe will somehow have a knock-on effect in California and Australia, isn’t it? The two latter wine-producers are known for their consistency between vintages, because they are warm-weather regions where the grapes are generally able to mature to full ripeness every year almost without fail. Cool climate regions (like Ontario, for example) have much greater variation from vintage to vintage because the local weather varies significantly and the grapes are not always able to fully ripen before they have to be picked (this is more true of red than white grapes, which tend to ripen sooner and can be picked earlier than the red grapes).

July 17, 2017

Debunking some myths about sulfites in wine

Filed under: Health, Science, Wine — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

By way of Scientific American, here’s a bit of clarity from Monica Reinagel about the issue of sulfites in both red and white wine and what relationship it has to wine headaches:

Myth #1: Organic or bio-dynamic wines are sulfite free.

In order to be certified organic, a wine must not contain added sulfites. However, sulfites are produced naturally during the fermentation process as a by-product of yeast metabolism. Even though no sulfites are added, organic wine may contain between 10-40 ppm sulfites.

You may also see wines labeled as being made from organic grapes, which is not the same as organic wine. Wine made from organic grapes may contain up to 100 ppm sulfites.

If you do get a hold of wine made without sulfites, I don’t suggest keeping it in the cellar very long. Wine made without sulfites—especially white wine — is much more prone to oxidation and spoilage.

Myth #2: Red wine is higher in sulfites than white wine

Ironically, the exact opposite is likely to be true. Red wines tend to be higher in tannins than white wines. Tannins are polyphenols found in the skins, seeds, and stems of the grapes. They also act as antioxidants and preservatives so less sulfite is needed.

In fact, while European regulations allow up to 210 ppm sulfites in white wine, the limit for red wine is only 160 ppm.

Other factors that affect how much sulfite is needed are the residual sugar and the acidity of the wine. Dryer wines with more acid will tend to be lower in sulfites. Sweet wines and dessert wines, on the other hand, tend to be quite high in sulfites.

Myth #3: Sulfites in wine cause headaches

The so-called “red wine headache” is definitely a real thing. But it’s probably not due to sulfites. For one thing, white wine is higher in sulfites than red wine but less likely to cause a headache. That suggests that it’s probably something else in red wine that’s responsible for the notorious red wine headache. Other candidates include histamines, tyramine, tannins, not to mention the alcohol itself!

How fast & how far do bullets go? – James May’s Q&A (Ep 13) – Head Squeeze

Filed under: Science, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 28 Mar 2013

James May imparts his wisdom on all things bullets.

History of Bullets and How they are Made: http://www.madehow.com/Volume-7/Bullet.html

Bullet Types and Abbreviations: http://www.scribd.com/doc/20889587/A-Guide-To-Bullet-Types-and-Abbreviations

Gun Timelines: http://inventors.about.com/od/militaryhistoryinventions/a/firearms_2.htm

10 Most Expensive Weapons in the World (Including R&D): http://www.therichest.org/technology/most-expensive-weapons/

5 Bullet Facts: http://www.howitworksdaily.com/technology/top-five-facts-bullets/

July 15, 2017

QotD: Ancient beliefs and modern ones

It is, I suppose, very attractive to the modern mind, with its idea that every Jack and Jill (but mostly Jill) needs a role model that matches his or her external or cultural characteristics that they assume worship of any sort of fertility goddess would mean a great respect for women.

Do I need to tell you this is poppycock?

I shouldn’t need to. We know almost every ancient religion worshiped at least one (often more) female deities, and we know that compared to us in the present so called “patriarchy” women were not only not respected, but were often used in strictly utilitarian ways as in “Mother, caretaker, etc.”

I see absolutely no reason to imagine that primitive humans were better than that, particularly since we do have archaeological evidence (scant, so non-conclusive) to back up the sort of hard scrabble/winner take all existence the great apes bands have, where the word “family” and “harem” are basically equivalent and the alpha male takes all.

In fact the evidence from modern day primitives, whether or not the worship of a female goddess is present, often leads one to conclude that the presence of a female goddess implies stronger patriarchy.

Sarah A. Hoyt, “Inventing the Past — The Great Divorce”, According to Hoyt, 2015-09-23.

July 14, 2017

The Peltzman Effect

Filed under: Economics, Government, Health, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

The odd situation where increasing the safety of an activity by adding protective gear is offset by greater risk-taking by the participants:

In the 1960s, the Federal Government — in its infinite wisdom — thought that cars were too unsafe for the general public. In response, it passed automobile safety legislation, requiring that seat belts, padded dashboards, and other safety measures be put in every automobile.

Although well-intended, auto accidents actually increased after the legislation was passed and enforced. Why? As [Professor of Economics Steven E.] Lansburg explains, “the threat of being killed in an accident is a powerful incentive to drive carefully.”

In other words, the high price (certain death from an accident) of an activity (reckless driving) reduced the likelihood of that activity. The safety features reduced the price of reckless driving by making cars safer. For example, seatbelts reduced the likelihood of a driver being hurt if he drove recklessly and got into an accident. Because of this, drivers were more likely to drive recklessly.

The benefit of the policy was that it reduced the number of deaths per accident. The cost of the policy was that it increased the number of accidents, thus canceling the benefit. Or at least, that is the conclusion of University of Chicago’s Sam Peltzman, who found the two effects canceled each other.

His work has led to a theory called “The Peltzman Effect,” also known as risk compensation. Risk compensation says that safety requirements incentivize people to increase risky behavior in response to the lower price of that behavior.

Risk compensation can be applied to almost every behavior involving risk where a choice must be made. Economics tells us that individuals make choices at the margin. This means that the incentive in question may lead the individual to do a little more or a little less of something.


The fact that incentives reduce or increase behavior is an economic law: Landsburg posits that “the literature of economics contains tens of thousands of empirical studies verifying this proposition and not one that convincingly refutes it.” Incentives change the effectiveness of government policy and shape day-to-day life.

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