Quotulatiousness

July 6, 2015

QotD: The Scientist

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

The value the world sets upon motives is often grossly unjust and inaccurate. Consider, for example, two of them: mere insatiable curiosity and the desire to do good. The latter is put high above the former, and yet it is the former that moves some of the greatest men the human race has yet produced: the scientific investigators. What animates a great pathologist? Is it the desire to cure disease, to save life? Surely not, save perhaps as an afterthought. He is too intelligent, deep down in his soul, to see anything praiseworthy in such a desire. He knows by life-long observation that his discoveries will do quite as much harm as good, that a thousand scoundrels will profit to every honest man, that the folks who most deserve to be saved will probably be the last to be saved. No man of self-respect could devote himself to pathology on such terms. What actually moves him is his unquenchable curiosity — his boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the secret, to find out what has not been found out before. His prototype is not the liberator releasing slaves, the good Samaritan lifting up the fallen, but the dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes. And yet he is one of the greatest and noblest of men. And yet he stands in the very front rank of the race.

H.L. Mencken, “Types of Men 6: The Scientist”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.

July 5, 2015

A half-baked theory from John Derbyshire

Filed under: Health,Randomness — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

How much reality can you stand? John Derbyshire says it’s less than we used to be able to cope with:

T.S. Eliot’s observation that “human kind cannot bear very much reality” is surely up among the half-dozen wisest things ever said about our common nature.

There is, of course, individual variation in how much reality we can bear. I flatter myself by believing I am up toward the high end. I readily admit, however, that I have spent not insignificant portions of my life in a state of self-delusion driven by wishful thinking — a hugely underestimated force in human affairs. Some humility is in order, and not just for me.

There is group variation, too. Speaking generally, and again with much individual variation, the old can bear more reality than the young; men more than women; people in up-against-it professions like medicine or law enforcement more than those in comparatively sheltered occupations; people educated in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math) more than humanities majors; and so on.

I am now going to propose a half-baked theory to you.

Theory: In advanced societies, the average amount of reality people can bear has declined across the past few decades.

This, I believe, has something to do with the ever-increasing availability of screen-based entertainment (movies, TV, the internet), something to do with the decline of religion, something to do with the revolution in manners that we call “political correctness,” and something to do with the falloff in violence, as chronicled by Steven Pinker.

There are surely connections there; but which is cause, which is effect, and which mere symptom, I don’t know. That’s why the theory is half-baked.

Illustrations: As we have seen these past few days, the whole zone of “identity” is shot through with barefaced, unblushing denial of reality.

All but a very tiny proportion of human beings are biologically male (an X and a Y chromosome in the genome) or female (two X chromosomes). A person who is biologically of one sex but believes himself to be of the other is in the grip of a delusion. That is what everybody would have said 50 years ago.

Some of those who said it would have followed up with an expression of disgust; some with unkind mockery; some with sympathy and suggestions for psychiatric counseling. Well-nigh nobody would have said: “Well, if he thinks he’s a gal, then he is a gal.” Yet that is the majority view nowadays. It is a flagrant denial of reality; but if you scoff at it, you place yourself out beyond the borders of acceptable opinion.

July 3, 2015

The unintended consequences of a bottled water ban

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

Mark J. Perry talks about the outcome of a well-intended ban of bottled water at the University of Vermont:

Here’s the abstract of the research article “The Unintended Consequences of Changes in Beverage Options and the Removal of Bottled Water on a University Campus,” which was just published in the July 2015 issue of the American Journal of Public Health (emphasis added):

    Objectives. We investigated how the removal of bottled water along with a minimum healthy beverage requirement affected the purchasing behavior, healthiness of beverage choices, and consumption of calories and added sugars of university campus consumers.

    Methods. With shipment data as a proxy, we estimated bottled beverage consumption over 3 consecutive semesters: baseline (spring 2012), when a 30% healthy beverage ratio was enacted (fall 2012), and when bottled water was removed (spring 2013) at the University of Vermont. We assessed changes in number and type of beverages and per capita calories, total sugars, and added sugars shipped.

    Results. Per capita shipments of bottles, calories, sugars, and added sugars increased significantly when bottled water was removed. Shipments of healthy beverages declined significantly, whereas shipments of less healthy beverages increased significantly. As bottled water sales dropped to zero, sales of sugar-free beverages and sugar-sweetened beverages increased.

    Conclusions. The bottled water ban did not reduce the number of bottles entering the waste stream from the university campus, the ultimate goal of the ban. With the removal of bottled water, consumers increased their consumption of less healthy bottled beverages.

[…]

Wow, nothing worked out as expected by the college administrators at the University of Vermont: a) the per capita number of bottles shipped to the University of Vermont increased significantly following the bottled water ban, and b) students, faculty and staff increased their consumption of less healthy bottled beverages following the bottled water ban. Another great example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. And the bottled water ban was not costless – the university paid to modify 68 drinking fountains, they paid for a publicity campaign, and they paid for lots of “free” reusable water bottles; and what they got was more plastic bottles on campus of less healthy beverages!

July 2, 2015

A bad day for the space program

Filed under: Space,Technology,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In National Review, Taylor Dinerman discusses the bad news from SpaceX and what it means for the space program:

June 28 was Elon Musk’s 44th birthday, and he had hoped to celebrate with a successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It would be carrying a Dragon capsule full of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS), under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract he signed with NASA back in 2006.

Musk had also hoped that once the Dragon capsule was well on its way to the space station, the Falcon’s first stage would return to Earth’s surface for a powered landing on a barge off the coast of Florida. A successful flight would have been a major step toward building a reusable launch vehicle, which could radically reduce the cost of getting payloads into orbit.

Instead, the Falcon 9 exploded a few minutes after leaving the launch pad.

It has been a rough time recently for ISS logistics. In October an Antares rocket launched from Virginia by Orbital Sciences blew up, and in April a Russian Progress supply capsule was lost when its Soyuz launcher malfunctioned. NASA says that there are enough supplies onboard the ISS to last until October. If this summer’s planned launch of a Japanese HTV supply capsule goes wrong, things could get dicey.

June 30, 2015

Elon Musk – high tech messiah or grasping crony capitalist?

Sean Noble says that the subsidies Elon Musk’s high-tech Tesla and Solar City firms are much higher than he implies:

Tesla, SpaceX, and Solar City head Elon Musk lashed out at the Los Angeles Times following an article that totaled up all the government support that his three-headed corporate-welfare monster receives. The number the Times reported was nearly $5 billion in combined support for his companies, including subsidies for those who purchase Musk’s products, such as the high-priced solar panels of Solar City and the supercars of Tesla.

Musk responded by arguing, “If I cared about subsidies, I would have entered the oil and gas industry.” He further asserted that his competitors in the oil-and-gas industry haul in 1,000 times more in subsidies in a single year than his companies have received in total. Such statements reveal that Musk seems to care as little for facts as he purports to care about the taxpayer dollars propping up his various businesses.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released the most recent data available regarding energy subsidies provided by the federal government. The data, covering the year 2013, broke down total taxpayer subsidies across the different sectors of the energy industry. While fossil fuels did enjoy some government support through various direct expenditures, tax credits, and R&D programs, the data stands in sharp contrast to Musk’s claims.

Data from the EIA report, combined with numbers from an anti-oil advocacy group regarding state-level government support, reveals that total state and federal support for the oil-and-gas industry is no more than $5.5 billion each year. As stated, Musk’s companies combine for $5 billion in subsidies, a number that he has yet to dispute. Clearly, the difference is much smaller than Musk’s outlandish 1,000-to-one claim.

June 28, 2015

The Fermi Paradox — Where Are All The Aliens?

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

Published on 6 May 2015

The universe is unbelievably big – trillions of stars and even more planets. Soo… there just has to be life out there, right? But where is it? Why don’t we see any aliens? Where are they? And more importantly, what does this tell us about our own fate in this gigantic and scary universe?

Videos, explaining things. Like evolution, time, space, global energy or our existence in this strange universe.
We are a team of designers, journalists and musicians who want to make science look beautiful. Because it is beautiful.

June 24, 2015

The precarious economics of recycling today

Filed under: Business,Economics,Environment,USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

The recycling industry is having economic problems, which means many municipalities are being forced to share those problems:

Once a profitable business for cities and private employers alike, recycling in recent years has become a money-sucking enterprise. The District, Baltimore and many counties in between are contributing millions annually to prop up one of the nation’s busiest facilities here in Elkridge, Md. — but it is still losing money. In fact, almost every facility like it in the country is running in the red. And Waste Management and other recyclers say that more than 2,000 municipalities are paying to dispose of their recyclables instead of the other way around.

In short, the business of American recycling has stalled. And industry leaders warn that the situation is worse than it appears.

“If people feel that recycling is important — and I think they do, increasingly — then we are talking about a nationwide crisis,” said David Steiner, chief executive of Waste Management, the nation’s largest recycler that owns the Elkridge plant and 50 others.

[…]

The problems of recycling in America are both global and local. A storm of falling oil prices, a strong dollar and a weakened economy in China have sent prices for American recyclables plummeting worldwide.

Environmentalists and other die-hard conservation advocates question if the industry is overstating a cyclical slump.

“If you look at the long-term trends, there is no doubt that the markets for most recyclables have matured and that the economics of recycling, although it varies, has generally been moving in the right direction,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council who tracks solid waste and recycling in New York.

June 23, 2015

A Genius and A Madman – Fritz Haber I WHO DID WHAT IN WW1?

Filed under: Europe,History,Military,Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 22 Jun 2015

Fritz Haber is one of the most famous German scientists. His inventions made it possible to feed an ever growing human population and influence us till this day. But Fritz Haber had a dark side too: His research made the weaponization of gas and the increased production of explosives possible. Find out more about the life of Fritz Haber in our biography.

QotD: The Physician

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

Hygiene is the corruption of medicine by morality. It is impossible to find a hygienist who does not debase his theory of the healthful with a theory of the virtuous. The whole hygienic art, indeed, resolves itself into an ethical exhortation, and, in the sub-department of sex, into a puerile and belated advocacy of asceticism. This brings it, at the end, into diametrical conflict with medicine proper. The aim of medicine is surely not to make men virtuous; it is to safeguard and rescue them from the consequences of their vices. The true physician does not preach repentance; he offers absolution.

H.L. Mencken, “Types of Men 5: The Physician”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.

June 22, 2015

“Because economic growth is a dead end. The greens present the only way out”

Filed under: Britain,Environment,Politics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

J.R. Ireland pokes fun at the UK Green Party manifesto for the last general election:

All around the world our cultures might be different, our languages might be different, and we may think differently and act differently, but there is one fact which is true in every country on the face of planet Earth: The local Green Party will always be completely and irredeemably insane. From Australian pundit Tim Blair I’ve been made aware of the manifesto for the United Kingdom Green Party, a ludicrous amalgamation of wishful thinking, happy talk, and a total unwillingness to consider the unintended consequences of their proposed policies. From the absolutely bugfuck bonkers Youth Manifesto:

    Because economic growth is a dead end. The greens present the only way out.

Vote Green because they’re the only party courageous enough to promise voters that they will end economic growth. If there’s one way to win elections, it’s to tell the good people of Britain that you promise them an eternity of poverty and absolutely guarantee they will never get any richer.

Furthermore:

    We would introduce the right to vote at 16 because we believe that young people should have a say, as proven by the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014.

Indeed. Who wouldn’t want to have their country governed by the preferred candidates of middle teenagers? Why, the average 16 year old is so incredibly knowledgeable about the world and completely understands such complex topics as economics, immigration, and that hot chick Kristy’s red panties that he accidentally saw when she was uncrossing her legs in homeroom. With those sorts of brilliant minds choosing the leaders of the future, what could possibly go wrong?

[…]

But the real crazy, the high-end crazy, the crazy with a ribbon on top was saved not for their youth manifesto but for the manifesto allegedly meant for the big boys and girls who have hit puberty biologically, even if they never quite made it intellectually. The Green Party, you see, promises to give you infinite happiness without any negative consequences whatsoever:

    Imagine having a secure, fulfilling and decently paid job, knowing that you are working to live and not living to work. Imagine coming home to an affordable flat or house, and being valued for your contribution and character, not for how much you earn. Imagine knowing that you and your friends are part of an economy that works with the planet rather than against it. Imagine food banks going out of business. Imagine the end of poverty and deprivation. The key to all this is to put the economy at the service of people and planet rather than the other way round. That’s what the Green Party will do.

Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for and no religion too.

Indeed. Now if only John Lennon lyrics were a governing philosophy, by Jove the Greens might be onto something! Unfortunately for the Green Party, our actions often have consequences we could not have foreseen and, unsurprisingly, if you declare war on business with massive taxes, anti-trade legislation and the nationalization of banks and the housing industry, it’s awfully difficult to ‘end poverty and deprivation’ since you’ve completely eliminated the way by which people have the opportunity to lift themselves up. But don’t worry — the Greens will just sprinkle some fairy dust around and negative consequences will magically be done away with! Supply and demand is simply a filthy conspiracy perpetuated by the bourgeoisie!

QotD: Obesity

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

The most maddening example of this is, of course, the case of thin people, or folks who could really stand to lose ten pounds, lecturing the obese on how stupid they are for letting themselves get fat. […]

As a friend who really struggles with his weight points out, the author seems not to understand that for people with a weight problem, weight loss often involves both: you’re tired and miserable and overweight, and also, you’re spending a huge amount of mental energy counting calories and making time for exercise.

Moreover, this really underplays the amount of mental energy we’re talking about. When you talk to people who have successfully lost really large amounts of weight as adults — amounts that bring them from the really risky “super-obese” category into something more normal — you find two things. First, that most of them don’t keep it off, unless they have bariatric surgery, in which case, 50 percent of them keep it off. And second, that the people who are keeping the weight off without surgery are going to extreme lengths to maintain their weight loss, lengths that most of us would probably find difficult to fit into our lives: weighing every ounce of food they consume, counting calories obsessively, exercising for long periods every day, and constantly battling “intrusive thoughts of food.”

It’s not quite fair to say that most of the public health experts I’ve seen talking about obesity are thin people brightly telling fat people that “Everything would be fine if you’d just be more like me!” But it’s not really that far off the mark, either. In the words of another friend who struggled with his weight, and got quite testy when I suggested weight loss was easy, “You’ve hit the pick six in the genetic lottery, and you think you earned it.”

Megan McArdle, “Dinner, With a Side of Self-Righteousness”, Bloomberg View, 2015-03-27.

June 21, 2015

“… the carbon tax, like Paris, is worth a Mass”

Filed under: Environment,Politics,Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At National Review the editors’ response to the Pope’s encyclical on climate change is not warm:

There is an undeniable majesty to the papacy, one that is politically useful to the Left from time to time. The same Western liberals who abominate the Catholic Church as an atavistic relic of more superstitious times, who regard its teachings on abortion and contraception as inhumane and its teachings on sexuality as a hate crime today are celebrating Pope Francis’s global-warming encyclical, Laudato Si’, as a moral mandate for their cause. So much for that seamless garment.

It may be that the carbon tax, like Paris, is worth a Mass.

The main argument of the encyclical will be no surprise to those familiar with Pope Francis’s characteristic line of thought, which combines an admirable and proper concern for the condition of the world’s poor with a crude and backward understanding of economics and politics both. Any number of straw men go up in flames in this rhetorical auto-da-fé, as the pope frames his concern in tendentious economic terms: “By itself, the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.” We are familiar with no free-market thinker, even the most extreme, who believes that “by itself, the market can guarantee integral human development.” There are any number of other players in social life — the family, civil society, the large and durable institution of which the pope is the chief executive — that contribute to human flourishing. The pope is here taking a side in a conflict that, so far as we can tell, does not exist.

June 20, 2015

ISIS and the endangered archaeological sites of the Middle East

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

Last month, Michael J. Totten described ISIS as “The Borg of the Middle East”:

ISIS has conquered Syria’s spectacular Roman Empire city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site long known affectionately as the “bride of the desert,” and in all likelihood is gearing up to demolish it. We know this because they’ve done it before. ISIS used hammers, bulldozers, and explosives to destroy the ancient Iraqi cities of Hatra and Nimrud near Mosul, and they did it on video.

“These ruins that are behind me,” said an ISIS vandal on YouTube, “they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah. The Prophet Muhammad took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca. We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.”

Muslims have ruled this part of the world for more than 1,000 years. All this time, they’ve been unbothered by the fact that Palmyra, Hatra, and Nimrud include pagan monuments, temples, statues, and inscriptions that predate Islam. Only now are these places doomed to annihilation. ISIS is more belligerently Philistine than any group that has inhabited the region for a millennium. The only modern analogue is the Taliban’s destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan with anti-aircraft guns, artillery shells and dynamite in March 2001, mere months before their al-Qaida pals attacked New York City and Washington.

This attitude toward history harks back less to the seventh century than to the twentieth, when Pol Pot reset the calendar to Year Zero after the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia, and when Mao Zedong’s Chinese Cultural Revolution murdered millions in the war against everything “old.”

Maamoun Adbulkarim, Syria’s antiquities chief, told Reuters that the army carted hundreds of ancient statues away to safety, but of course the giant Roman columns and the museum itself aren’t going anywhere except, perhaps, underneath the jaws of ISIS bulldozers. “This is the entire world’s battle,” he said.

That’s how bad things are in Syria now. The mass-murderers, war criminals, sectarian gangsters, and state sponsors of international terrorism in Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party regime can plausibly tout themselves as the defenders of civilization. In this particular case and in this particular place, they’re right.

June 18, 2015

Nutrition … what we thought we knew is wrong, again

Filed under: Government,Health,Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Real Clear Science, Ross Pomeroy explains how historical “expert knowledge” and government cheerleading pointed in exactly the opposite direction of today’s experts and government regulators:

For decades, the federal government has been advising Americans on what to eat. Those recommendations have been subject to the shifting sands of dietary science. And have those sands ever been shifting. At first, fat and cholesterol were vilified, while sugar was mostly let off the hook. Now, fat is fine (saturated fat is still evil, though), cholesterol is back, and sugar is the new bogeyman.

Why the sizable shift? The answer may be “bad science.”

Every five years, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, composed of nutrition and health experts from around the country, convenes to review the latest scientific and medical literature. From their learned dissection, they form the dietary guidelines.

But according to a new editorial published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, much of the science they review is fundamentally flawed. Unlike experiments in the hard sciences of chemistry, physics, and biology, which rely on direct observational evidence, most diet studies are based on self-reported data. Study subjects are examined for height, weight, and health, then are questioned about what they eat. Their dietary choices are subsequently linked to health outcomes — cancer, mortality, heart disease, etc.

That’s a poor way of doing science, says Edward Archer, a research fellow with the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama, and lead author of the report.

“The assumption that human memory can provide accurate or precise reproductions of past ingestive behavior is indisputably false,” he and his co-authors write.

Two of the largest studies on nutritional intake in the United States, the CDC’s NHANES and “What We Eat,” are based on asking subjects to recall precisely what and how much they usually eat.

But despite all of the steps that NHANES examiners take to aid recall, such as limiting the recall period to the previous 24 hours and even offering subjects measuring guides to help them report accurate data, the information received is wildly inaccurate. An analysis conducted by Archer in 2013 found that most of the 60,000+ NHANES subjects report eating a lower amount of calories than they would physiologically need to survive, let alone to put on all the weight that Americans have in the past few decades.

June 16, 2015

Over-diagnosis as a root cause of the “addiction surge”

Filed under: Health,Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Stanton Peele is not happy with the latest version of the standard psychological diagnosis document:

The American Psychiatric Association creates the gold standard for diagnoses of mental disorders in the United States — and worldwide — through its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. DSM-IV was published in 1994. In 2013, DSM-5 was released.

As I describe in the March, 2014 issue of Reason, there are several notable peculiarities about the manual. DSM-5

    eliminates the distinction between dependence and abuse. Instead it classifies substance use disorders as mild, moderate, or severe. Thus the DSM-5 does not explicitly recognize such a thing as drug addiction or dependence. But under “Substance Use and Addictive Disorders” the manual includes a category called “Behavioral Addictions” that so far consists of a lone entry: “Gambling Disorder.”

These two major conceptual changes immediately aroused suspicion. Writing in the New York Times, investigative reporter Ian Urbina accused the psychiatric establishment and pharmaceutical industry of expanding the whole treatment enterprise by including “mild” substance use disorders, as well as recognizing things other than substances as being addictive. Keith Humphreys, a Stanford psychology professor, “predicted that as many as 20 million people who were previously not recognized as having a substance abuse problem would probably be included under the new definition.”

My argument is more fundamental. The ways of thinking about substance use and disorders embedded in DSM-5 and promoted by American psychiatry are actually causing an epidemic of these disorders.

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