Quotulatiousness

December 15, 2014

The world of the imagination

Filed under: Gaming, Health, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:04

At BoingBoing, Jason Louv talks about getting back into his teenage passion (Dungeons and Dragons), but also worries that as a culture, we’re losing our opportunities — and capability — to imagine:

There’s just something about high Arthurian or Tolkienesque fantasy that cuts so deeply into the Western unconscious, finding a far more central vein than anything that Lovecraft or Edgar Rice Burroughs or Jack Kirby were able to mine. Nothing beats the experience of the Grail Quest, of becoming a heroic adventurer in a medieval world full of fantastic creatures, on a mission to slay the dragon and liberate the princess — or at least get some decent gold, treasure and experience points.

Until I left for college, fantasy paperbacks and comics were my world when I was alone, and role-playing games were my world when I was with friends. And how much more real, in a way, the inner palaces of my adolescent imagination felt to me than the gritty “reality” of so-called adult life, of endless war, losing friends to drugs, economic chaos, tumultuous relationships, chasing dollars.

Am I so wrong to want to go back to the Garden?

The Interior Castle

While our culture dismisses any use of the imagination as wasted time — something that distracts us from the “real” world of quantification and monetization — mystics and artists throughout history have told us that the imagination is the vehicle which brings us into contact with reality, not away from it.

William Blake is an exemplar of this approach — “The world of imagination is the world of eternity,” he wrote. “It is the divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the vegetated body. This world of imagination is infinite and eternal, whereas the world of generation is finite and temporal.”

In 1577, the Spanish Carmelite nun Teresa of Ávila wrote a prayer manual called The Interior Castle, which describes her path to union with God as a kind of epic single-player Dungeons and Dragons game. In it, she describes a vision she received of the soul as a castle-shaped crystal globe, containing seven mansions. These mansions — representing seven stages of deepening faith — were to be traversed through internal prayer. Throughout the book, she warns that this imaginary internal world will be consistently assaulted by reptilian specters, “toads, vipers and other venomous creatures,” representing the impurities of the soul to be vanquished by the spiritual pilgrim.

Sixty-five years earlier, St. Ignatius of Loyola designed his Spiritual Exercises as the training manual of the Jesuits, in which adherents were to deeply imagine themselves partaking in incidents from the life of Christ, creating inward virtual realities built up over years as a way of coming closer to God. Similar techniques exist in many world religions — in the stark inner visualizations of Tantric Buddhism, for instance. Such mystics speak not just of the vital importance of daydreaming and fantasy, but of the disciplined imagination as literally the door to divinity.

As we progress into the 21st century, this is a door that we are slowly losing the key to. The French Situationist author Annie Le Brun, in her 2008 book The Reality Overload: The Modern World’s Assault on the Imaginal Realm, suggests that information technology is causing blight and desertification in the world of the imagination just as surely as pollution and global warming are causing blight and desertification in the physical world. We are gaining the ability to communicate and hoard information, but losing the ability to imagine.

I literally cannot get my head around what it must be like to be a child or teenager now, raised in a completely digitized world — where fantasy and long reverie have given way to the instant gratification of electronic media. There can be no innocence or imagination or wonderment in the world of Reddit, Pornhub and 4Chan — just blank, numb, drooling fixation on a screen flickering with horrors in a dark and lonely room, the hell of isolation within one’s own id. I recently saw a blog post about a toilet training apparatus with an attachment for an iPad. No, no, no.

Just as electronic media is stripping us of our right to privacy, so is it stripping us of our right to an inner world. Everything is to be put on public display, even our most intimate moments and thoughts.

We need to go back. We need to re-discover the door to the inner worlds — a door that I believe encouraging young people to read printed books, and to play analog role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, can re-open.

December 13, 2014

Tobacco – 480,000. Alcohol – 88,000. Marijuana – > 0

Filed under: Health, Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:06

It’s ridiculous to claim that smoking marijuana is a healthy habit. It does increase the risk of certain kinds of cancers, although the numbers are not huge, they’re also not zero. Jacob Sullum says “Marijuana Kills! But Not Very Often. Especially When Compared to Alcohol and Tobacco.

In a new Heritage Foundation video, anti-pot activist Kevin Sabet bravely tackles “the myth that marijuana doesn’t kill.” Although cannabis consumers (unlike drinkers) do not die from acute overdoses, he says, “marijuana does kill people” through suicide, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, car crashes, and other accidents.

I won’t say Sabet is attacking a straw man, since overenthusiastic cannabis fans have been known to say that “marijuana doesn’t kill anyone” (although the top Google result for that phrase is an article by Sabet explaining why that’s not true). But I will say that Sabet manages to obscure the fact that marijuana does not kill people very often, especially compared to the death tolls from legal drugs such as tobacco and alcohol, which is the relevant point in evaluating the scientific basis for pot prohibition. Let’s take a closer look at the four ways that marijuana kills, according to Sabet:

Suicide. Some research does find a correlation between suicide and marijuana use, but that does not mean the relationship is causal. A longitudinal study published by The British Journal of Psychiatry in 2009 reached this conclusion:

    Although there was a strong association between cannabis use and suicide, this was explained by markers of psychological and behavioural problems. These results suggest that cannabis use is unlikely to have a strong effect on risk of completed suicide, either directly or as a consequence of mental health problems secondary to its use.

Furthermore, there is some evidence that letting patients use marijuana for symptom relief reduces the risk of suicide. Still, if reefer has ever driven anyone to kill himself, that would be enough to prove Sabet’s point. You can’t say it has never happened!

Science shows the amazing power of … the high heel

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

Many of you think that high-heeled shoes for women are sexist and explotiative. On first blush, I mostly agree with you … but we may all be wrong:

The allure of high-heeled shoes is no secret among women, who have used them to entice men from the streets of Ancient Rome to the New York City sidewalks of Carrie Bradshaw. Heels have also been a controversial symbol in the battleground of sexual politics.

Now a scientific study in France has measured their power.

Scientists from the Universite de Bretagne-Sud conducted experiments that showed that men behave very differently toward high-heeled women. The results, published online in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour, may please the purveyors of Christian Louboutin or Jimmy Choo shoes — yet frustrate those who think stilettos encourage sexism.

The study found if a woman drops a glove on the street while wearing heels, she’s almost 50 percent more likely to have a man fetch it for her than if she’s wearing flats.

Another finding: A woman wearing heels is twice as likely to persuade men to stop and answer survey questions on the street. And a high-heeled woman in a bar waits half the time to get picked up by a man, compared to when her heel is nearer to the ground.

“Women’s shoe heel size exerts a powerful effect on men’s behavior,” says the study’s author, Nicolas Gueguen, a behavioral science researcher. “Simply put, they make women more beautiful.”

December 11, 2014

“Eyewitnesses” and the human mind

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:04

Maggie McNeill discusses some of the problems we encounter when we depend on “eye witness accounts” of events:

If you haven’t yet read my research paper, “Mind-witness Testimony”, you really ought to […] The Reader’s Digest version is:

    … The human mind doesn’t passively record events as a camera does; memory is an active and dynamic process which retains information by fitting it into schemata, mental frameworks which shape our thinking and give meaning to perceptions … The same psychological mechanism which causes us to find pictures in Rorschach’s inkblots also causes us to fit memories into the complex web of schemata by which we interpret the world. And just as we ignore those topological elements of a cloud or inkblot which do not fit the meaning our minds have imposed upon it, so do we forget or distort elements of a memory which fail to conform to the schema in which we have embedded it, or even invent elements which were not in reality present, but which the schema predicts should be…The human mind often completely fabricates memories in order to impose conformity with one’s weltanschauung. One simple example involves police lineups: people will often identify the man whom police imply (subtly or overtly) is their preferred suspect because they believe police to be expert assessors of guilt who would never implicate someone falsely, and this schema of police authority and infallibility actually shapes their memories, sometimes to the point of identifying a person who is later proven to look absolutely nothing like the actual criminal…

In witch hunts of both the classic and modern varieties, hypersuggestible people such as children, the mentally ill, the emotionally needy or the severely traumatized can be induced to “remember” all sorts of fantastic things which are not even physically possible, much less grounded in actual events; when they repeat these “memories” in court (or in front of audiences hungry for “sex trafficking” narratives) they are not lying in the strict sense, but merely playing back a script that was written into their memories by processes such as suggestion, group polarization, stereotypic conformation, guided imagination, abusive interrogation tactics and others discussed in my paper. Though the concept of “recovered memory” has been discredited and most reasonably-well-informed people understand its role in driving the Satanic panic, few have yet connected the dots to recognize “sex trafficking” narratives as produced by the same processes. However, as the public begins to recognize driving the Satanic panic, few have yet connected the dots to recognize “sex trafficking” narratives as produced by the same processes. However, as the public begins to recognize the fallibility of human memory, it’s inevitable that outlandish, evidence-free stories such as those told by Somaly Mam, Chong Kim and Theresa Flores will be treated with greater skepticism.

December 6, 2014

Fran Tarkenton on the NFL’s long-standing drug problems

Filed under: Football, Health, Law — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:57

In an interview with Jenny Vrentas, former Viking great Fran Tarkenton discusses this year’s crop of rookie quarterbacks (including the Vikings’ Teddy Bridgewater), the NFL’s ongoing disciplinary issues with Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, the long-term issues with NFL doctors dispensing painkillers, and the advent of performance-enhancing drugs. On the issue of league discipline, he believes the league should not allow Rice or Peterson to play again:

VRENTAS: Are you saying the Vikings should move on from Peterson because of his age, or because of the child abuse case that led to his suspension?

TARKENTON: I followed the Clippers thing. That owner [Donald Sterling] didn’t get indicted for any crime, but the racial comments he made were totally inappropriate, and we took a stand. The whole world and the NBA, we have zero tolerance to racism. And I think that’s right. I agree with that. But I also think we ought to have zero tolerance to child abuse and domestic violence. I don’t think [Peterson] should play again in the NFL. I don’t think Ray Rice should play again. Either we have zero tolerance, or we don’t. And what is more egregious than domestic violence and child abuse? I don’t know of anything, unless you kill somebody.

VRENTAS: Peterson has not played since the child-abuse charges first surfaced in September, and now he’s been suspended for the rest of the season, pending appeal. Do you think the response shows that teams and the league are starting to take these issues more seriously?

TARKENTON: Kind of. They have been a little bit wishy-washy. [The Vikings] were going to play Adrian Peterson [before reversing course in September]. Other teams were going to play other players [involved in cases of domestic violence]. And the NFL was going to give just a two-game suspension to Ray Rice. I don’t think we’ve gotten beyond “win at any cost” yet. And I think we need to get there. We should have zero tolerance to racism. We don’t believe that, right? Is that more important than zero tolerance to domestic abuse and child abuse? Unless we as a society think that way, then we won’t make progress. And the whole domestic violence thing, that has been tolerated universally, but certainly in the NFL. We can’t tolerate that. All these behaviors that are so egregious continue. We need to set an example.

And on the topic of team doctors and the use of drugs to get players back into games (but which had potentially serious long-term health implicatons:

VRENTAS: You wrote a letter to the New York Times regarding painkiller abuse, in response to the DEA’s recent spot checks of NFL team medical staffs. This has been a subject you have been vocal about. What was your experience with painkiller use during your playing career?

TARKENTON: This has been going on forever. I was playing for the New York Giants, and I hurt my shoulder in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I came in at halftime, and the doctor had a great big long needle, punched a few different places, and told me, “Show me where it hurts the worst.” I said, “Ow,” and he jammed a combination of xylocaine and cortisone into my shoulder. That’s not good for my shoulder, but he’s my team doctor. I don’t think he’s going to do something that hurts my career, right? He’s like my family doctor. If my family doctor tells me to take a pill, I’ll take a pill. So every Friday, I went on the subway from old Yankee Stadium, where we practiced, all the way down to lower Manhattan to St. Vincent’s Hospital, and they did the same thing they did at halftime. They shot my shoulder. It didn’t really help me, but it allowed me to play. Now, when I come back to Minnesota, my shoulder is worse. The year we played the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl in New Orleans, my shoulder was already deteriorating, and I hurt it early in the season in Dallas. The rest of the year I could not throw a ball in practice; I could not throw a ball in warm-ups over 10 yards. When I got in the game, I could throw it maybe 40 yards, because my adrenaline was up, but there was nothing on it. But every Friday, guess what they shot me with? Butazolidin. That’s what they shot horses with. Shot me up every Friday, all the way to the Super Bowl. I retired at age 39, and I see my doctors down here [in Atlanta] because my shoulder is killing me. They say, “You’ve got the shoulder of a 75-year old man. You need your shoulder replaced.” I talked to a lot of the old guys — Roger Staubach, Otto Graham, Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas, Y.A. Tittle ­— and none of them had shoulders replaced. I had my shoulder replaced, because they shot me up. Where was the conscience back then? People say, “You knew what they were doing.” I knew what they were doing, but I didn’t think they would hurt me. I didn’t think my shoulder was going to fall apart.

December 5, 2014

The urban light-rail mania

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Politics, Railways, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:04

If you live in a city, chances are that the politicians of your ‘burgh are talking light rail. Unless, of course, you already are suffering under the burden of a light rail project snarling traffic during construction … and snarling traffic in operation. Light rail, in general, is an attempt to resurrect the streetcar era by vast infusions of tax dollars. It’s an attempt to solve a traffic management problem in one of the more inefficient ways possible: to get a few people out of their cars and into modern streetcars instead.

I’m not anti-rail by any means. I travel five days a week on a heavy rail commuter train that does a pretty fair job of getting me where I need to go in a timely and economical fashion. Worse than that, I’m a railway fan — as I’ve mentioned before, I founded a railway historical society. I’m not against light rail due to some sort of anti-rail bias … I’m against it because it’s almost always too expensive, too inflexible, and too politicized.

Georgi Boorman wonders why so many cities are still falling into the light rail trap:

In a previous piece, I discussed the radical ideological roots of the mass transit scam. There are some, such as Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant (who urged Boeing factory workers to seize control of the plant and begin building mass transit) who believe centralization and a complete shift to mass transit are crucial for cities’ futures. Others simply buy into this myth that light rail and trolleys will somehow elevate their cities to the next level of sophistication — the very prospect of which is ignorant, at best, and self-indulgent, at worst.

The overwhelming evidence shows that these mass transit projects do little to improve our quality of life, in terms of easing congestion and expanding access to jobs and, despite popular perception, have no significant net environmental benefits since they rarely succeed in their express goal of removing cars from the road or decreasing congestion-induced idle times, a frequently cited contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions. As the satirical online newspaper The Onion reported, “98% of Americans favor public transportation for others.” That statistic may be fake, but we’ve all experienced the sentiment.

Even the writers of The Simpsons seem to understand the comical nature of light-rail adoption in American cities, brilliantly satirizing the salesmanship by transit authorities. The salesman, “Lyle Lanley,” begins by comparing the Simpsons’ town of Springfield to Shelbyville. “This is more of a Shelbyville idea,” he says slowly, turning his back to the crowd. “Now, wait a minute!” the Springfield mayor responds hastily, “We’re just as smart as the people of Shelbyville—just tell us your idea and we’ll vote for it!”

Gleefully, Lanley begins his presentation; with a grand sweeping gesture, the salesman uncovers a model of the city, complete with buildings, trees, and a brand new Springfield Monorail zooming through the town on its miniature tracks. Holding up a map labeled with all the towns to which he’s sold monorails, he exclaims, “By gum, it put them on the map!” Continuing his pitch, Langley heightens the townspeople’s imaginations and sells them on the “novel” idea of their very own monorail.

In other words, the buy-in had nothing to do with demand for a certain kind of transportation, and everything to do with wanting do the same as other cities that have, or are building, the same thing. Of course, 50 years ago the Seattle Center monorail (built by the German company Alweg) could easily have been said to have elevated the Emerald City at the 1962 World’s Fair, being the cutting-edge of rail technology at the time; but building monorails, light rails, and streetcars in 2014 is a regressive move that mirrors the past rather than engages with the present while leaving room for future innovation.

For our next trick, we need to crack another genetic code

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Michael White says we need to follow up our success in reading our own genetic code by decoding a different one:

There are thousands of mutations that occur in the breast cancer-linked genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. Some of these cause breast or ovarian cancer, while others are harmless. When we design a genetic test for predisposition to breast cancer, we have to know which ones to test for. The same is true of almost any gene that plays a role in disease — you’ll find many mutations in that gene in the general population, only some of which cause health problems. So how do we know which mutations to worry about?

We start by using the genetic code. The genetic code, cracked by scientists in the 1960s, makes it surprisingly easy to “read” our DNA and understand how a particular mutation affects a gene. As genetic testing takes on a bigger role in predicting, diagnosing, and treating disease, we rely on this code to help us make sense of the data. Unfortunately, the genetic code applies to less than two percent of our DNA. In an effort to read the rest, researchers are trying to crack a new genetic code — and this next one is turning out to be much more difficult to solve than the first. In fact, scientists may have to give up the idea that we can use a “code” to “read” the rest of our DNA.

When scientists were working out the original genetic code in the 1950s and ’60s, all sorts of complicated schemes were proposed to explain how information is stored in our genes. The problem they were trying to solve was how a gene, made of DNA, codes the information to make a particular protein — an enzyme, a pump, a piece of cellular scaffolding, or some other critical component of the cell’s working machinery. They were looking for a code that would translate the four-letter DNA alphabet of genes into the 20-letter amino acid alphabet of proteins.

[…]

Thanks to its simplicity, the genetic code is a powerful tool in our hunt for mutations that cause disease. Unfortunately, it has also led to the genetic equivalent of a drunk looking for his lost keys under the lamppost. Researchers have put much of their effort into looking for disease mutations in those parts of our genomes that we can read with the genetic code — that is, parts that consist of canonical genes that code for proteins. But these genes make up less than two percent of our DNA; much more of our genetic function is outside of genes in the relatively uncharted “non-coding” portions. We have no idea how many disease-causing mutations are in that non-coding portion — for some types of mutations, it could be as high as 90 percent.

December 4, 2014

QotD: Roman medical advice

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

Before I forget it, I must record two valuable health hints that I learned from Xenophon. He used to say: “The man is a fool who puts good manners before health. If you are troubled with wind, never hold it in. It does great injury to the stomach. I knew a man who once nearly killed himself by holding in his wind. If for some reason or other you cannot conveniently leave the room — say, you are sacrificing or addressing the Senate — don’t be afraid to belch or break wind downwards where you stand. Better that the company should suffer some slight inconvenience than that you should permanently injure yourself. And again, when you suffer from a cold, don’t constantly blow your nose. That only increases the flow of rheum and inflames the delicate membranes of your nose. Let it run. Wipe, don’t blow.” I have always taken Xenophon’s advice, at least about nose-blowing: my colds don’t last nearly so long now as they did. Of course, caricaturists and satirists soon made fun of me as having a permanently dripping nose, but what did I care for that? Messalina told me that she thought I was extremely sensible to take such care of myself: if I were suddenly to die or fall seriously ill, what would become of the City and Empire, not to mention herself and our little boy?

Robert Graves, Claudius the God, 1935.

December 2, 2014

Charles Stross on the symptoms of aging

Filed under: Health, Personal — Tags: — Nicholas @ 00:03

On his blog, Charles Stross talks about the mundane irritations and accumulated friction of a life lived past age 50 or so:

Beyond the obvious (gross physiological deterioration and pathologies of senescence), what are the psychological symptoms of ageing?

I tend to be somewhat impatient or short-tempered these days. Examples: getting worked up about people obstructing a sidewalk in front of me, or carelessly blowing smoke over their shoulder and into my face, walking while texting … you know the drill. This I put down largely to the chronic low-grade pain of the middle-aged body: joints that creak and pop, muscles that need an extra stretch, sore feet. […]

My memory, as previously noted, is a sieve. Partly I find myself living in a cluttered cognitive realm: I have so much context to apply to any new piece of incoming data. If middle-aged people seem slow at times it may not be because they’re stupid (although stupidity is a non-ageist affliction) but because they’re processing a lot more data than a young mind has on hand to digest. That shop window display? You’re not just looking at this seasons clothing fashions, but integrating changes in fashion across multiple decades and recognizing when this stuff was last new. (And if fashion is your thing, you’re trying to remember how far back in the wardrobe you hung it last time you wore it, all those years ago.) A side-effect of this: when experiencing something familiar through long repetition you forget it — you don’t remember it as a new experience but merely as an instance of a familiar one and (eventually) as nothing at all. (For those of you with a workday routine, this can cut in quite early: how well do you remember your last commute to work? If you do remember it, do you remember it only because it was exceptional—a truck nearly t-boning you, for example?)

An intersecting effect of the aches and pains and the difficulty retrieving information is that you have to focus hard on tasks — it’s hard to execute a day with six or seven distinct non-routine activities in it, because that requires planning and planning requires lots of that difficult mental integration. Planning is exhausting. Instead you focus on maintaining routines (get up, brush teeth, take meds, shave, use toilet, make coffee … check. Go to gym: check. Eat lunch: check. Work at desk: check …) and scheduling one or two exceptional tasks. Mental checklists help a lot, but you run into the sieve-shaped memory problem again: this is where digital prosthesis (or an overflowing filofax) come in handy.

Your perspective on current events changes. Take the news media. Everything new is old after a time: you see the large-scale similarities across decades even without becoming a student of history. Today’s invasion or oil crisis is just like the one before last. Our current political leadership are stuck in the same ideological monkey’s-paw trap as their predecessors the last time their party was in power. And so on. So you tend to discount current events and lose interest in the news until something new happens. (If you’re wondering why I’m obsessively interested in the Scottish independence thing this year, it’s because it’s a disruptive event: nothing like it has happened in UK politics for a very long time indeed. It’s fresh.)

December 1, 2014

Baylen Linnekin on the FDA’s latest bad idea

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

In Reason, Baylen Linnekin looks at the FDA’s soon-to-be-implemented rules on menu labelling:

Earlier this week, the FDA released rules that will force food sellers around the country to provide point-of-sale calorie information to consumers. The rules cover chain restaurants, vending machines, “movie theaters, sports stadiums, amusement parks, bowling alleys and miniature golf courses that serve prepared foods.” The rules apply to foods and beverages — including beer, wine, and spirits — sold at these places.

[…]

Farley’s enthusiasm might have been tempered by research showing mandatory menu-labeling doesn’t work — and may even be counterproductive.

Because the new rules will cost more than a billion dollars not to stop the obesity epidemic and maybe make it better, some who have to spend that money aren’t pleased.

For example, that potato salad you buy at your grocery deli counter will fall under the new rules. That doesn’t sit well with grocery store owners.

“Grocery stores are not chain restaurants, which is why Congress did not initially include them in the law,” said National Grocers Association president and CEO, Peter J. Larkin in a statement. “We are disappointed that the FDA’s final rules will capture grocery stores, and impose such a large and costly regulatory burden on our members.”

[…]

As I wrote last year, the NRA, which represents restaurant chains across the country, supported the national menu-labeling rule as a shield against a growing, costly, and unworkable patchwork of different state and local menu-labeling laws.

It’s the same reason that food manufacturers, facing mandatory GMO-labeling pressure in dozens of states, counties, and cities around the country, are pushing for Congress to pass a uniform national GMO-labeling law.

Do I understand why the restaurant industry and food manufacturers are pushing for one bad federal law instead of hundreds or thousands of worse laws at the state and local level? Absolutely. Do I support such laws? Not at all.

November 28, 2014

A visit to an Earthbound L5 colony

Filed under: Business, Europe, Space — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Charles Stross visits the closest thing to an O’Neill L5 colony:

To the eternal whine of the superannuated free-range SF geek (“dude, where’s my jet pack? Where’s my holiday on the moon? Where are my food pills? I thought this was supposed to be the 21st century!”) can be added an appendix: “and what about those L5 orbital space colonies the size of Manhattan?”

Well, dude, I’ve got your L5 colony right here. In fact, they turned it into a vacation resort. I just spent a day checking it out, and I’m back with a report.

[…]

So here’s what happens. One morning you get up early in your hotel or apartment in Berlin. You collect your swimming gear, flip-flops, beach towel, and sundries. Then you wrap up warm, because of course it’s November in Prussia and while it’s not snowing yet the wind has a sharp edge to it. You head for Zoologischer Garten station (or maybe the Ostbahnhof if you’re on that side of the city) and catch a train, which over the next hour hums through the pancake-flat forests and villages of East Germany until it stops at a lonely (but recently modernized) platform in a forest in the middle of nowhere.

You’re wondering if you’ve made some sort of horrible mistake, but no: a shuttle bus covered in brightly colored decals depicting a tropical beach resort is waiting for you. It drives along cracked concrete taxi-ways lined with pine trees, past the boarded-up fronts of dispersal bay hangers and hard stands for MiG-29 interceptors awaiting a NATO attack that never came. The bus is raucous with small children, chattering and screeching and bouncing off the walls and ceiling in a sugar-high — harried parents and minders for the large group of schoolgirls in the back of the bus are trying to keep control, unsuccessfully. Then the bus rumbles and lurches to a standstill, and the doors open, and you see this:

Click to embiggen

Click to embiggen

It’s hard to do justice to the scale of the thing. It’s one of those objects that is too big to take in at close range, and deceptively small when viewed from a distance. It’s like an L5 space colony colony that crash-landed in on the West Prussian plains: a gigantic eruption from the future, or a liminal intrusion from the Gernsbackian what-might-have-been.

[…]

Welcome to Tropical Islands, Germany.

You can get the history from the wikipedia link above: in a nutshell, the Zeppelin hangar was bought from the liquidators by a Malaysian resort operator, who proceeded to turn it into an indoor theme park. They stripped off a chunk of the outer cladding of the hangar and replaced it with a high-tech greenhouse film: it’s climate-controlled, at 26 celsius and 64% humidity all year round. (That’s pretty chilly by Malaysian standards, but nice and comfortable for the German and Polish customer base.) There’s an artificial rainforest, with over 50,000 plants and a 5km long walking trail inside. There are about a dozen different saunas, hot tubs, and a swimming pool complex: there’s a 200 metre long artificial beach with sun-loungers for you to work on your tan wrapped around an artificial tropical lagoon — a 140 metre swimming pool with waves. There are bars, shops, restaurants, hotels, even a camp ground for tents: and of course the usual beachside resort song and dance show every evening.

November 27, 2014

QotD: Monster porn

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

Horgan is apparently so content to view sexuality as an unfathomable chthonic mystery that he doesn’t even bother to ask a reasonably-intelligent woman who’s turned on by this sort of thing what she thinks about it. And though I’ll never read Taken by the T-Rex or Moan for Bigfoot, that’s not because I’m disgusted by the subject matter; as it turns out, I myself am a reasonably-intelligent woman who’s turned on by this sort of thing. See these illustrations? I’ve got a bunch of ‘em in my art folders. People who played Dungeons & Dragons with me could tell you about some memorable episodes. And remember my mentioning how the movie Gargoyles inspired one of my favorite make-believe scenarios as a kid? Yeah, that. The thing is, anybody who’s read some of my other columns on my own kinks and paid attention to some of the fantasy iconography I’ve featured (dig the cover of my book at upper right) could’ve guessed as much; it’s no surprise when a woman who is turned on by rape, abduction and bondage scenarios is similarly affected when the abductor is some sort of non-human entity. For the record, dinosaurs and the like do nothing for me; it has to be an intelligent monster, like a demon, an astropelagic alien (again, see my book) or a werewolf. In a spoken sequence on Bat Out of Hell, a male character asks a female, “On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?” My friend Philippa used to say that her answer to that was, “Every fucking time.”

When Horgan declares that evolutionary psychology can’t explain monster porn, he indulges in the same narcissism as prohibitionists do when they declare that no woman could choose sex work: “I cannot understand this, therefore it is inexplicable.” But actually, women being turned on by monsters is no odder (vampires, anyone?) than women indulging in transactional sex; however much either or both of them might upset and horrify prudes, they both have their origins in female behavioral scripts going back to the time when the behavior of human men wasn’t much different from that of the monsters in the fantasies.

Maggie McNeill, “Beauty and the Beast”, The Honest Courtesan, 2014-04-10

November 25, 2014

When was it exactly that “progress stopped”?

Filed under: Environment, Health, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:05

Scott Alexander wrote this back in July. I think it’s still relevant as a useful perspective-enhancer:

The year 1969 comes up to you and asks what sort of marvels you’ve got all the way in 2014.

You explain that cameras, which 1969 knows as bulky boxes full of film that takes several days to get developed in dark rooms, are now instant affairs of point-click-send-to-friend that are also much higher quality. Also they can take video.

Music used to be big expensive records, and now you can fit 3,000 songs on an iPod and get them all for free if you know how to pirate or scrape the audio off of YouTube.

Television not only has gone HDTV and plasma-screen, but your choices have gone from “whatever’s on now” and “whatever is in theaters” all the way to “nearly every show or movie that has ever been filmed, whenever you want it”.

Computers have gone from structures filling entire rooms with a few Kb memory and a punchcard-based interface, to small enough to carry in one hand with a few Tb memory and a touchscreen-based interface. And they now have peripherals like printers, mice, scanners, and flash drives.

Lasers have gone from only working in special cryogenic chambers to working at room temperature to fitting in your pocket to being ubiquitious in things as basic as supermarket checkout counters.

Telephones have gone from rotary-dial wire-connected phones that still sometimes connected to switchboards, to cell phones that fit in a pocket. But even better is bypassing them entirely and making video calls with anyone anywhere in the world for free.

Robots now vacuum houses, mow lawns, clean office buildings, perform surgery, participate in disaster relief efforts, and drive cars better than humans. Occasionally if you are a bad person a robot will swoop down out of the sky and kill you.

For better or worse, video games now exist.

Medicine has gained CAT scans, PET scans, MRIs, lithotripsy, liposuction, laser surgery, robot surgery, and telesurgery. Vaccines for pneumonia, meningitis, hepatitis, HPV, and chickenpox. Ceftriaxone, furosemide, clozapine, risperidone, fluoxetine, ondansetron, omeprazole, naloxone, suboxone, mefloquine, – and for that matter Viagra. Artificial hearts, artificial livers, artificial cochleae, and artificial legs so good that their users can compete in the Olympics. People with artificial eyes can only identify vague shapes at best, but they’re getting better every year.

World population has tripled, in large part due to new agricultural advantages. Catastrophic disasters have become much rarer, in large part due to architectural advances and satellites that can watch the weather from space.

We have a box which you can type something into and it will tell you everything anyone has ever written relevant to your query.

We have a place where you can log into from anywhere in the world and get access to approximately all human knowledge, from the scores of every game in the 1956 Roller Hockey World Cup to 85 different side effects of an obsolete antipsychotic medication. It is all searchable instantaneously. Its main problem is that people try to add so much information to it that its (volunteer) staff are constantly busy deleting information that might be extraneous.

We have the ability to translate nearly major human language to any other major human language instantaneously at no cost with relatively high accuracy.

We have navigation technology that over fifty years has gone from “map and compass” to “you can say the name of your destination and a small box will tell you step by step which way you should be going”.

We have the aforementioned camera, TV, music, videophone, video games, search engine, encyclopedia, universal translator, and navigation system all bundled together into a small black rectangle that fits in your pockets, responds to your spoken natural-language commands, and costs so little that Ethiopian subsistence farmers routinely use them to sell their cows.

But, you tell 1969, we have something more astonishing still. Something even more unimaginable.

“We have,” you say, “people who believe technology has stalled over the past forty-five years.”

1969’s head explodes.

November 23, 2014

Working and middle class pushback against Obamacare

Filed under: Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:20

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum looks at some of the reasons Obamacare is not being embraced by the working and middle classes the way many expected:

Obamacare winners and losersHere’s an interesting chart that follows up on a post I wrote a few days ago about Democrats and the white working class. Basically, I made the point that Democrats have recently done a lot for the poor but very little for the working and middle classes, and this is one of the reasons that the white working class is increasingly alienated from the Democratic Party.

I got various kinds of pushback on this, but one particular train of criticism suggested that I was overestimating just how targeted Democratic programs were. Sure, they help the poor, but they also help the working class a fair amount, and sometimes even the lower reaches of the middle class. However, while there’s some truth to this for certain programs (unemployment insurance, SSI disability), the numbers I’ve seen in the past don’t really back this up for most social welfare programs.

Obamacare seems like an exception, since its subsidies quite clearly reach upward to families in the working and middle classes. Today, however, Bill Gardner points me to a Brookings paper from a few months ago that suggests just the opposite. The authors calculate net gains and losses from Obamacare, and conclude that nearly all its benefits flow to the poor. If I interpolate their chart a bit, winners are those with household incomes below $25,000 or so, and losers are those with incomes above $25,000.

November 22, 2014

What Thucydides can teach us about fighting ebola

Filed under: Africa, Europe, Health, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:43

In The Diplomat, James R. Holmes says that we can learn a lot about fighting infectious diseases like ebola by reading what Thucidides wrote about the plague that struck Athens during the opening stages of the Peloponnesian War:

Two panelists from our new partner institution, a pair of Africa hands, offered some striking reflections on the fight against Ebola.

Their presentations put in me in the mind of … classical Greece. Why? Mainly because of Thucydides. Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War isn’t just a (partly) eyewitness account of a bloodletting from antiquity; it’s the Good Book of politics and strategy. Undergraduates at Georgia used to look skeptical when I told them they could learn ninety percent of what they needed to know about bareknuckles competition from Thucydides. The remainder? Technology, tactics, and other ephemera. Thucydides remains a go-to source on the human factor in diplomacy and warfare.

But I digress. Ancient Greece suffered its own Ebola outbreak, a mysterious plague that struck Athens oversea during the early stages of the conflict. And the malady struck, perchance, at precisely the worst moment for Athens, after “first citizen” Pericles had arranged for the entire populace of Attica, the Athenian hinterland, to withdraw within the city walls. The idea was to hold the fearsome Spartan infantry at bay with fixed fortifications while the Athenian navy raided around the perimeter of the Spartan alliance.

[…]

That’s where the parallel between then and now becomes poignant. Thucydides notes, for example, that doctors died “most thickly” from the plague. The Brown presenters noted that, likewise, public-health workers in Africa — doctors, nurses, stretcher-bearers — are among the few to deliberately make close contact with the stricken. Relief teams, consequently, take extravagant precautions to quarantine the disease within makeshift facilities while shielding themselves from contagion. Sometimes these measures fail.

Now as in ancient Greece, furthermore, the prospect of disease and death deters some would-be healers altogether from succoring the afflicted. Selflessness has limits. Some understandably remain aloof — today as in Athens of yesteryear.

Teams assigned to bury the slain also find themselves in dire peril. Perversely, the dead from Ebola are more contagious than living hosts. That makes disposing of bodies in sanitary fashion a top priority. As the plague ravaged Athens, similarly, corpses piled up in the streets. No one would perform funeral rites — even in this deeply religious society. Classicist Victor Davis Hanson ascribes some of Athens’ barbarous practices late in the war — such as cutting off the hands of captured enemy seamen to keep them from returning to war — in part to the plague’s debasing impact on morals, ethics, and religion.

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