Quotulatiousness

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.

November 21, 2014

Paging Delos D. Harriman – come to the Kickstarter courtesy phone, please

Filed under: Britain, Space — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:33

This is a use of crowdfunding I didn’t expect to see:

A group of British scientists have taken to Kickstarter in order to get the first set of funds to attempt a landing on the Moon. All ex-teenage (very much ex-teenage, sadly) sci-fi addicts like myself will obviously be cheering them on (and recalling Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold The Moon no doubt) and possibly even subscribing. They’re looking for £ 600,000 or so for the planning phase and will need £ 3 billion to actually carry out the mission. That’s probably rather more, that second number, than they can raise at Kickstarter.

However, over and above the simple joy of seeing boffins doing their boffinry there’s a further joy in the manner in which such projects disintermediate around the political classes. That is, we’ve not got to wait for the politicians to think this is a good idea, we’ve not even got to try and convince any of them that it is. We can (and seemingly are) just getting on with doing it ourselves.

[…]

Here’s what they’re proposing:

    In arguably the most ambitious crowdfunded project ever attempted, a British team is planning to use public donations to fund a lunar landing.

    Within ten years, they believe they can raise enough money to design, build and launch a spacecraft capable of not only travelling to the Moon, but drilling deep into its surface.

    They also want to bury a time-capsule, containing digital details and DNA of those who have donated money to the venture as well alongside an archive of the history of Earth. Finally, the mission will assess the practicality of a permanent manned base at the lunar South Pole.

There’s no doubt at all that the Apollo and similar Russian space adventures had to be run by government. The technology of the time was such that only a government had the resources necessary to drive such a large project. But, obviously, the cost of rocket technology has come down over time.

Marsha Ivins talks about the reality of working in space

Filed under: Space, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:27

In Wired, former astronaut Marsha Ivins talks to Caitlin Roper about what it’s really like to work in space:

Everyone imagines that when you’re sitting on the launchpad atop 7 million pounds of explosive rocket fuel, you’re nervous and worried; but the truth is, there isn’t much to do for those two hours after you climb into the shuttle. Many astronauts just take a nap. You’re strapped in like a sack of potatoes while the system goes through thousands of prelaunch checks. Occasionally you have to wake up and say “Roger” or “Loud and clear.” But the launch itself is a whole other thing — from the pad to orbit in 8.5 minutes, accelerating the entire time until you reach the orbital velocity of 17,500 mph. That is a ride.

It turns out that once you’re actually in orbit, zero-g has some upsides. Without gravity, bodily fluids move toward your head. It’s a great face-lift. Your stomach gets flat. You feel long, because you grow an inch or two. (I thought, “Oh cool, I’ll be tall,” but of course everybody else was taller too.)

But zero-g also has some disadvantages. As that fluid shifts north, you get an enormous headache. Your body compensates and loses about a liter of fluid in the first couple of days — you essentially pee the headache away. And a lot of people get nauseated. The way to feel better is to “lose up,” to convince your visual system that “up” is wherever you point your head and “down” is where your feet are. When you can do that, and go headfirst or earlobe-first wherever you want, then you’re getting adapted to zero-g. On each flight this adaptation happens more quickly — your body remembers having been in space. But it can take a few days before your stomach finally settles down and says, “OK, what’s for lunch?”

I didn’t eat much on any of my flights. I don’t have a big appetite even on Earth, but between the lack of gravity and the shifting fluids, things can taste different in space. I’d bring great chocolate with me and it would taste like wax — it was very disappointing. But you don’t go to space for the gourmet dining. There’s no way to cook, on the shuttle or on the ISS. Space food is already cooked and then either freeze-dried and vacuum-packed — so you add water and put it in the oven to warm up — or it’s thermo-stabilized, like a military MRE. With no refrigerator on board, fresh food won’t keep. So on the shuttle we’d have to eat anything fresh — usually fruit like apples, oranges, and grapefruit — early in the mission.

November 20, 2014

Chimpanzee sexual behaviour and what it says about humans

Filed under: Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:20

Tia Ghose discusses some recent findings on the sexual aggression of male chimpanzees and (given that humans are closely related to chimps) looks for parallels in human behaviour:

Male chimpanzees that wage a campaign of sustained aggression against females sire more offspring than their less violent counterparts, new research finds.

The results suggest that such nasty behavior from males evolved because it gave the meanest males a reproductive advantage, said study co-author Ian Gilby, a primatologist at Arizona State University in Phoenix.

This chimpanzee behavior could also provide some insight into the roots of sexual aggression in men.

“It is possible that in our early ancestors there may have been an adaptive value to male aggression against females,” Gilby said.

[…]

Though the findings are in chimpanzees, they lend credence to the notion that male sexual aggression in humans may have some genetic or evolutionary basis, Gilby said.

On the other hand, drawing parallels can be perilous. Humans diverged from chimpanzees at least 7 million years ago, and the human mating system looks very different from chimps’ violent, multi-male, multi-female system. Humans form pair bonds and have varied and complex mating strategies and behaviors. And most men aren’t brutes to their partners.

“We definitely don’t mean to say this excuses or fully explains violence in this way in humans,” Gilby said.

The study’s findings may provide fodder for a long-standing debate in evolutionary biology about whether rape and sexual aggression are evolutionarily advantageous in humans, said William McKibbin, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan–Flint, who was not involved in the study. No studies in humans have ever shown that rape increases reproductive success, he added.

November 18, 2014

QotD: Everyone knows that stereotypes are inaccurate

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

Except stereotypes are not inaccurate. There are many different ways to test for the accuracy of stereotypes, because there are many different types or aspects of accuracy. However, one type is quite simple — the correspondence of stereotype beliefs with criteria. If I believe 60% of adult women are over 5′ 4″ tall, and 56% voted for the Democrat in the last Presidential election, and that 35% of all adult women have college degrees, how well do my beliefs correspond to the actual probabilities? One can do this sort of thing for many different types of groups.

And lots of scientists have. And you know what they found? That stereotype accuracy — the correspondence of stereotype beliefs with criteria — is one of the largest relationships in all of social psychology. The correlations of stereotypes with criteria range from .4 to over .9, and average almost .8 for cultural stereotypes (the correlation of beliefs that are widely shared with criteria) and.5 for personal stereotypes (the correlation of one individual’s stereotypes with criteria, averaged over lots of individuals). The average effect in social psychology is about .20. Stereotypes are more valid than most social psychological hypotheses.

Which raises a question: Why do so many psychologists emphasize stereotype inaccuracy when the evidence so clearly provides evidence of such high accuracy? Why is there this Extraordinary Scientific Delusion?

There may be many explanations, but one that fits well is the leftward lean of most psychologists. If we can self-righteously rail against other people’s inaccurate stereotypes, we cast ourselves as good, decent egalitarians fighting the good fight, siding with the oppressed against their oppressors. Furthermore, as Jon Haidt has repeatedly shown, ideology blinds people to facts that are right under their noses. Liberal social scientists often have assumed stereotypes were inaccurate without bothering to test for inaccuracy, and, when the evidence has been right under their noses, they have avoided looking at it. And when something happens where they can’t avoid looking at it, they have denigrated its importance. Which is, in some ways, very amusing — if, after 100 years of proclaiming the inaccuracy of stereotypes to the world, can we really just say “Never mind, it’s not that important” after the evidence comes in showing that stereotype accuracy is one of the largest relationships in all of social psychology?

Lee Jussim, “Stereotype Inaccuracy? Extraordinary Scientific Delusions and the Blindness of Psychologists”, Psychology Today, 2012-10-25.

November 15, 2014

Men’s unwillingness to ask for directions … may be an evolutionary advantage

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

I wanted to title this post “Have dick, will travel”, but I decided it wasn’t the most dignified way to introduce this topic:

The reason men refuse to ask for directions when lost isn’t down to pig-headed stubbornness, but rather a hard-wired evolutionary instinct which has developed so they can, err, get more sex — say anthropologists.

Students with clipboards from the University of Utah interviewed dozens of members of the Twe and Tjimba tribes in northwest Namibia. They found that men who did better spatial tasks, unsurprisingly, travelled farther — but also had children with more women.

Anthropologist Elizabeth Cashdan said the data supports the hypothesis that men have evolved a greater spatial ability to “benefit reproductively from getting more mates” and “ranging farther is one way they do this.”

Compared with other cognitive differences between the sexes, such as cultural differences in maths skills, the difference in spatial skills is much larger, found the research.

November 14, 2014

Either kink is now pretty much mainstream … or Quebec is a hotbed of kinksters

Filed under: Cancon, Health — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:24

In Reason, Elizabeth Nolan Brown reviews the findings of a recent survey on what kind of kinks are no longer considered weird or unusual (because so many people fantasize about ‘em or are actively partaking of ‘em):

Being sexually dominated. Having sex with multiple people at once. Watching someone undress without their knowledge. These are just a few of the totally normal sexual fantasies uncovered by recent research published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. The overarching takeaway from this survey of about 1,500 Canadian adults is that sexual kink is incredibly common.

While plenty of research has been conducted on sexual fetishes, less is known about the prevalence of particular sexual desires that don’t rise to the level of pathological (i.e., don’t harm others or interfere with normal life functioning and aren’t a requisite for getting off). “Our main objective was to specify norms in sexual fantasies,” said lead study author Christian Joyal. “We suspected there are a lot more common fantasies than atypical fantasies.”

Joyal’s team surveyed about 717 Québécois men and 799 women, with a mean age of 30. Participants ranked 55 different sexual fantasies, as well as wrote in their own. Each fantasy was then rated as statistically rare, unusual, common, or typical.

Of course, the statistics also show where men and women differ in some areas:

Notably, men were more likely than women to say they wanted their sexual fantasies to become sexual realities. “Approximately half of women with descriptions of submissive fantasies specified that they would not want the fantasy to materialize in real life,” the researchers note. “This result confirms the important distinction between sexual fantasies and sexual wishes, which is usually stronger among women than among men.”

The researchers also found a number of write-in “favorite” sexual fantasies that were common among men had no equivalent in women’s fantasies. These included having sex with a trans woman (included in 4.2 percent of write-in fantasies), being on the receiving end of strap-on/non-homosexual anal sex (6.1 percent), and watching a partner have sex with another man (8.4 percent).

Next up, the researchers plan to map subgroups of sexual fantasies that often go together (for instance, those who reported submissive fantasies were also more likely to report domination fantasies, and both were associated with higher levels of overall sexual satisfaction). For now, they caution that “care should be taken before labeling (a sexual fantasy) as unusual, let alone deviant.”

It would be interesting to see the results of this study replicated in other areas — Quebec may or may not be representative of the rest of western society.

Update, 28 November: Maggie McNeill is not impressed by the study at all.

But there’s a bigger problem, which as it turns out I’ve written on before when the titillation du jour was the claim that fewer men were paying for sex:

    … the General Social Survey … has one huge, massive flaw that was mentioned by my psychology professors way back in the Dark Ages of the 1980s, yet seems not to trouble those who rely upon it so heavily these days: it is conducted in person, face to face with the respondents. And that means that on sensitive topics carrying criminal penalties or heavy social stigma, the results are less than solid; negative opinions of its dependability on such matters range from “unreliable” to “useless”. The fact of the matter is that human beings want to look good to authority figures (like sociologists in white lab coats) even when they don’t know them from Adam, so they tend to deviate from strict veracity toward whatever answer they think the interviewer wants to hear…

So, what does this study say constitutes an “abnormal” fantasy?

    “Clinically, we know what pathological sexual fantasies are: they involve non-consenting partners, they induce pain, or they are absolutely necessary in deriving satisfaction,” Christian Joyal, the lead author of the study, said…The researchers found that only two sexual fantasies were…rare: Sexual activities with a child or an animal…only nine sexual fantasies were considered unusual…[including] “golden showers,” cross-dressing, [and] sex with a prostitute…

Joyal’s claim that sadistic and rape fantasies are innately “pathological” is both insulting and totally wrong; we “know” no such thing. And did you think it was a coincidence that pedophilia and bestiality were the only two fantasies to fall into the “rare” category during a time when those are the two most vilified kinks in the catalog, kinks which will result in permanent consignment to pariah status if discovered? Guess again; as recently as the 1980s it was acceptable to at least talk about both of these, and neither is as rare as this “study” pretends. But Man is a social animal, and even if someone is absolutely certain of his anonymity (which in the post-Snowden era would be a much rarer thing than either of those fantasies), few are willing to risk the disapproval of a lab-coated authority figure even if he isn’t sitting directly in front of them. What this study shows is not how common these fantasies actually are, but rather how safe people feel admitting to them. And while that’s an interesting thing in itself, it isn’t what everyone from researchers to reporters to readers is pretending the study measured.

QotD: The difference between medicine and recreational drugs

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

I do occasional work for my hospital’s Addiction Medicine service, and a lot of our conversations go the same way.

My attending tells a patient trying to quit that she must take a certain pill that will decrease her drug cravings. He says it is mostly covered by insurance, but that there will be a copay of about one hundred dollars a week.

The patient freaks out. “A hundred dollars a week? There’s no way I can get that much money!”

My attending asks the patient how much she spends on heroin.

The patient gives a number like thirty or forty dollars a day, every day.

My attending notes that this comes out to $210 to $280 dollars a week, and suggests that she quit heroin, take the anti-addiction pill, and make a “profit” of $110.

At this point the patient always shoots my attending an incredibly dirty look. Like he’s cheating somehow. Just because she has $210 a week to spend on heroin doesn’t mean that after getting rid of that she’d have $210 to spend on medication. Sure, these fancy doctors think they’re so smart, what with their “mathematics” and their “subtracting numbers from other numbers”, but they’re not going to fool her.

At this point I accept this as a fact of life. Whatever my patients do to get money for drugs — and I don’t want to know — it’s not something they can do to get money to pay for medication, or rehab programs, or whatever else. I don’t even think it’s consciously about them caring less about medication than about drugs, I think that they would be literally unable to summon the motivation necessary to get that kind of cash if it were for anything less desperate than feeding an addiction.

Scott Alexander, “Apologia Pro Vita Sua”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-05-25.

November 13, 2014

Words you don’t expect to hear in the news: 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Filed under: Europe, Science, Space — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:03

European Space Agency fails to harpoon a comet … successfully lands anyway:

In 1998, the Hollywood blockbuster Armageddon asked us to believe that it was possible to land a spacecraft on an asteroid hurtling towards Earth — too far-fetched, right? Not so. Today humanity just achieved the seemingly impossible.

Earlier this afternoon, scientists from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission successfully landed the unmanned Philae lander module on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The complexities of this mission are such that a short article cannot do justice to the men and women who made this mission a success, but here are a few of the mind-boggling highlights:

The Rosetta probe launched in March 2004 after years of careful planning. Since then, it has travelled 6.4 billion kilometres through the solar system to get into the orbit of the comet 67p, which itself is just four kilometres in diameter. Comet 67p is orbiting the Sun at speeds of up to 135,000 kilometres per hour and is currently about 500 million kilometres from Earth. After a period during which it successfully orbited comet 67p, the 100 kilogram Philae lander then separated from the Rosetta orbiter, descended slowly and landed safely.

At the time of writing, the latest reports from the ESA suggest there may have been some problems with the lander’s anchoring mechanism. The lander was designed to fire harpoons into the surface of the comet to ensure it stayed in place — this may not have worked. But to be fair, no one has tried harpooning a comet before, so a few glitches are understandable.

Update: BBC News has more on the unexpectedly bumpy landing and the risk that the lander may not be able to stay active very long due to battery limitations. Having landed in the shadow of a cliff, the batteries are not able to be recharged by the solar panels.

The craggy surface of the comet - looking over one of Philae's feet

The craggy surface of the comet – looking over one of Philae’s feet

After two bounces, the first one about 1km back out into space, the lander settled in the shadow of a cliff, 1km from its target site.

It may be problematic to get enough sunlight to charge its batteries.

Launched in 2004, the European Space Agency (Esa) mission hopes to learn about the origins of our Solar System.

It has already sent back the first images ever taken on the surface of a comet.

Esa’s Rosetta satellite carried Philae on a 10-year, 6.4 billion-km (4bn-mile) journey to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which reached its climax on Wednesday.

After showing an image that indicates Philae’s location — on the far side of a large crater that was considered but rejected as a landing site — the head of the lander team Dr Stefan Ulamec said: “We could be somewhere in the rim of this crater, which could explain this bizarre… orientation that you have seen.”

Figuring out the orientation and location is a difficult task, he said.

“I can’t really give you much more than you interpret yourself from looking at these beautiful images.”

But the team is continuing to receive “great data” from several different instruments on board Philae.

Another problem with the lander — aside from not knowing exactly where it landed — is that one of the landing legs isn’t actually in contact with the surface:

Controllers re-established radio communication with the probe on cue on Thursday after a scheduled break, and began pulling of the new pictures.

These show the feet of the lander and the wider cometscape. One of the three feet is not in contact with the ground.

Philae is stable now, but there is still concern about the longer-term situation because the probe is not properly anchored — the harpoons that should have hooked it into the surface did not fire on contact. Neither did its feet screws get any purchase.

Lander project manager Stephan Ulamec told the BBC that he was very wary of now commanding the harpoons to fire, as this could throw Philae back off into space.

He also has worries about drilling into the comet to get samples for analysis because this too could affect the overall stability of the lander.

“We are still not anchored,” he said. “We are sitting with the weight of the lander somehow on the comet. We are pretty sure where we landed the first time, and then we made quite a leap. Some people say it is in the order of 1 km high.

“And then we had another small leap, and now we are sitting there, and transmitting, and everything else is something we have to start understanding and keep interpreting.”

Photo of the comet's surface from about 40 metres as the lander made its initial descent.

Photo of the comet’s surface from about 40 metres as the lander made its initial descent.

November 12, 2014

Decoding the phrase “national food policy”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Health, Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:04

In The Federalist, Daniel Payne explains what the food nannies really mean by the term “national food policy”:

In the past I have used the term “food system” as shorthand for the industrial paradigm of food production, but for Bittman et al. to talk about the “food system” in such a way exposes it for the ridiculous concept it really is. There is no “food system,” not in the sense of a truly unified body of fully interdependent constituent parts: the “food system” is actually composed of millions of individuals acting privately and voluntarily, in different cities, counties, and states, as part of different companies and corporations and individual businesses, in elective concert with each other and with the rest of the world. To speak if it as a single “system” is deeply misguided, at least insofar as it is not a single entity but an endlessly complex patchwork of fully autonomous beings.

Thus when the authors write about “align[ing] agricultural policies,” they are not speaking in some ill-defined abstract about government policy; they are talking about forcing actual farmers to grow and do things the authors want. When they write of the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture monitoring “food production,” they are actually advocating that these federal agencies go after and punish people who are not farming in the way the authors want them to farm — and all this without Congress having passed a single law.

The authors are advocating, in other words, for a kind of executive dictatorship over the nation’s farmers, farms, and food supply. While it is unsurprising that they would use this dictatorship to attack the people who grow the food, it is also undeniable that this “national food policy” would target consumers as well. Such a “food system” cannot exist, after all, without people who are willing to purchase and consume its products.

The authors are not merely fed up with their big agribusiness boogeymen; they are also fed up with you for buying agribusiness products, and they want to use the government to make you stop. That you have broken no laws now, and will have broken no laws even after this “policy” goes into effect, is immaterial. They wish for the government to boss you around simply because your shopping purchases displease them. That they are too cowardly to come right out and say so is very telling of who they are—as men, and as advocates of the “public health.” Shame on them for being too spineless to tell the truth of their motives.

November 10, 2014

The incessant nagging of the food nannies

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy, Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:53

Patrick Basham on the nanny staters’ need to nag us about our food choices, even though most of their efforts are counter-productive:

Calorie counts on menus and menu boards are the food police’s unsubtle attempt to educate us into making ‘better’ choices. Most of us neither need nor appreciate this bureaucratic nudge.

In America, such mandates are included in the Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’) that kicked in this year. So, national restaurant chains are now required to disclose calorie counts in their menus. And three years ago in the UK, then-health secretary Andrew Lansley asked restaurants to ‘voluntarily’ label food with calorie counts.

Proponents of this policy believe that consumers are generally uninformed about their restaurant meals, especially the calorie counts. Therefore, providing consumers with this information will make a substantial difference to both what, and how much, people eat and, consequently, enable them to lose weight.

These assumptions are wrong. The scientific evidence strongly suggests that calorie counts are ineffective and potentially counter-productive for certain consumers. In fact, the vast majority of this evidence was available long (and in some cases, decades) before these regulations were rolled out.

Calorie counts do not produce the behavioural changes that their proponents envision. For example, over a decade of nutritional labelling, including calorie content, of processed food has failed to have any significant impact on obesity levels. Furthermore, studies have found that providing nutritional labelling brings about no net nutritional gains because consumers have a defined ‘nutrient budget’. This means that consumers tend to reward themselves for calorie or fat deprivation, for example, by increasing their calorie or fat content with another dish at the same meal or at a latter meal.

[…] consumers see labelling, particularly about calories, as a form of government warning: ‘Don’t eat this food, it has too many calories!’ The research evidence demonstrating the failure of such warnings is legion. In fact, such warnings can be profoundly counter-productive, as they can lead not only to the information being ignored, but to behaviour directly at odds with the health-based message. Identifying menu items as low-calorie or healthy can antagonise customers who see this as attempting to interfere with their freedom of choice.

This calorie count policy is also deeply inappropriate. The evidence suggests that it is not regulation designed to provide information for ‘informed’ choices, but regulation designed to change supplier and consumer behaviour based on the assumption that the regulator knows best.

Calorie counts are nothing more than a form of soft stigmatisation in which the government attempts to use calories to declare otherwise legal foods as, in some way, illegitimate. In effect, calories are really shorthand for the fact that certain foods are deemed ‘bad’.

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