Quotulatiousness

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 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 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.

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 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’.

October 16, 2014

The trouble with “parenting” in 2014

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Health, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Jan MacVarish discusses the problems facing today’s parents that inhibit natural parenting instincts and replace them with the diktats of the bureaucracy:

Here are two scenes which illustrate contemporary parenting culture.

In the first, I am called into my son’s primary school by the ‘family-liaison officer’. I am surprised to learn that she is investigating the concerns of a teacher who has overheard my son and his friends discussing their mothers’ favourite punishment methods. Whereas one of the mothers (who I know) reportedly kicks her boy in the privates with her stilettos, and another (who I also know) prefers to administer an ‘African slap’, my chosen method is, apparently, to hit my son with a frying pan. Visions of Tom and Jerry immediately spring to mind, and I laugh at the ridiculousness of the schoolboys’ conversation. The family-liaison officer admits that it is highly unlikely that a mother such as me (white and middle class) would engage in such behaviour, but, she tells me, she is nevertheless obliged to ask if I have ever deployed the family skillet as a weapon. I am now amused, bemused and starting to see that this could have played out very differently if I were perceived to be one of those ‘other’ parents.

Scene two: While swimming in the local pool with frying-pan boy, I notice a mother engage in an exhausting 20-minute argument with her one-year-old baby boy. He had slapped her, so she was asking him in a quiet, controlled voice to look her in the eye and apologise for ‘hurting mummy’. Being a baby, he refused to comply, and became more and more upset as the request was repeated again and again. My sympathy was equal for both mother and child: he was sobbing and she seemed forlornly trapped in some kind of ‘good parenting’ ritual, in which the parent conveys to the child the emotional consequences of their actions – ‘you hurt mummy, that makes mummy feel sad’ – and expects the child to take ‘ownership’ of their actions.

Both of these scenes demonstrate the abandonment of common sense and, indeed, any kind of ‘instinct’ when it comes to adults relating to children. When you remove any element of instinct from parenting, you replace trust, care, love and joy with empty rituals of ‘safeguarding’ or ‘good parenting’. The family-liaison officer’s dutiful yet hollow investigation makes clear just how corrosive the institutionalisation of parent-blaming in schools has become, while the mother’s exchange with her baby in the pool showed how futile and joy-draining following abstract, good-parenting guidelines can be.

October 14, 2014

Reason.tv – 3 Reasons the US MILITARY Should NOT Fight Ebola

Filed under: Africa, Health, Military, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 17:30

Published on 14 Oct 2014

President Obama is sending thousands of U.S. troops to West Africa to fight the deadly Ebola virus. Their mission will be to construct treatment centers and provide medical training to health-care workers in the local communities.

But is it really a good idea to send soldiers to provide this sort of aid?

Here are 3 reasons why militarizing humanitarian aid is a very bad idea

October 13, 2014

The Royal Navy’s “weirdest” ship

Filed under: Africa, Britain, Health, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:31

David Axe on what he describes as the weirdest ship in the Royal Navy:

Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel RFA Argus pictured supporting Operation Herrick in Afghanistan (via Wikipedia)

Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel RFA Argus pictured supporting Operation Herrick in Afghanistan (via Wikipedia)

The British Royal Navy is deploying the auxiliary ship RFA Argus to Sierra Leone in West Africa in order to help health officials contain the deadly Ebola virus.

If you’ve never heard of Argus, you’re not alone. She’s an odd, obscure vessel — an ungainly combination of helicopter carrier, hospital ship and training platform.

But you’ve probably seen Argus, even if you didn’t realize it. The 33-year-old vessel played a major role in the 2013 zombie movie World War Z, as the floating headquarters of the U.N.

[…]

The 575-foot-long Argus launched in 1981 as a civilian container ship. In 1982, the Royal Navy chartered the vessel to support the Falklands War … and subsequently bought her to function as an aviation training ship, launching and landing helicopters.

Argus’ long flight deck features an odd, interrupted layout, with a structure — including the exhaust stack — rising out of the deck near the stern.

Weirdly, the deck’s imperfect arrangement is actually an asset in the training role. Student aviators on Argus must get comfortable landing in close proximity to obstacles, which helps prepare them for flying from the comparatively tiny decks of frigates and other smaller ships.

RFA Argus photographed off the coast at Devonport (via Wikipedia)

RFA Argus photographed off the coast at Devonport (via Wikipedia)

Statistical sleight-of-hand on the dangers of texting while driving

Filed under: Health, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:15

Philip N. Cohen casts a skeptical eye at the frequently cited statistic on the dangers of texting, especially to teenage drivers. It’s another “epidemic” of bad statistics and panic-mongering headlines:

Recently, [author and journalist Matt] Richtel tweeted a link to this old news article that claims texting causes more fatal accidents for teenagers than alcohol. The article says some researcher estimates “more than 3,000 annual teen deaths from texting,” but there is no reference to a study or any source for the data used to make the estimate. As I previously noted, that’s not plausible.

In fact, 2,823 teens teens died in motor vehicle accidents in 2012 (only 2,228 of whom were vehicle occupants). So, my math gets me 7.7 teens per day dying in motor vehicle accidents, regardless of the cause. I’m no Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, but I reckon that makes this giant factoid on Richtel’s website wrong, which doesn’t bode well for the book.

In fact, I suspect the 11-per-day meme comes from Mother Jones (or whoever someone there got it from) doing the math wrong on that Newsday number of 3,000 per year and calling it “nearly a dozen” (3,000 is 8.2 per day). And if you Google around looking for this 11-per-day statistic, you find sites like textinganddrivingsafety.com, which, like Richtel does in his website video, attributes the statistic to the “Institute for Highway Safety.” I think they mean the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is the source I used for the 2,823 number above. (The fact that he gets the name wrong suggests he got the statistic second-hand.) IIHS has an extensive page of facts on distracted driving, which doesn’t have any fact like this (they actually express skepticism about inflated claims of cell phone effects).

[…]

I generally oppose scare-mongering manipulations of data that take advantage of common ignorance. The people selling mobile-phone panic don’t dwell on the fact that the roads are getting safer and safer, and just let you go on assuming they’re getting more and more dangerous. I reviewed all that here, showing the increase in mobile phone subscriptions relative to the decline in traffic accidents, injuries, and deaths.

That doesn’t mean texting and driving isn’t dangerous. I’m sure it is. Cell phone bans may be a good idea, although the evidence that they save lives is mixed. But the overall situation is surely more complicated than the TEXTING-WHILE-DRIVING EPIDEMIC suggests. The whole story doesn’t seem right — how can phones be so dangerous, and growing more and more pervasive, while accidents and injuries fall? At the very least, a powerful part of the explanation is being left out. (I wonder if phones displace other distractions, like eating and putting on make-up; or if some people drive more cautiously while they’re using their phones, to compensate for their distraction; or if distracted phone users were simply the worst drivers already.)

October 8, 2014

Something is wrong when your “data adjustment” is to literally double the reported numbers

Filed under: Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:32

In Forbes, Trevor Butterworth looks at an odd data analysis piece where the “fix” for a discrepancy in reported drinks per capita is to just assume everyone under-reported and to double that number:

“Think you drink a lot? This chart will tell you.”

The chart, reproduced below breaks down the distribution of drinkers into deciles, and ends with the startling conclusion that 24 million American adults — 10 percent of the adult population over 18 — consume a staggering 74 drinks a week.

Time for a stiff drink infographic

The source for this figure is “Paying the Tab,” by Phillip J. Cook, which was published in 2007. If we look at the section where he arrives at this calculation, and go to the footnote, we find that he used data from 2001-2002 from NESARC, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which had a representative sample of 43,093 adults over the age of 18. But following this footnote, we find that Cook corrected these data for under-reporting by multiplying the number of drinks each respondent claimed they had drunk by 1.97 in order to comport with the previous year’s sales data for alcohol in the US. Why? It turns out that alcohol sales in the US in 2000 were double what NESARC’s respondents — a nationally representative sample, remember — claimed to have drunk.

While the mills of US dietary research rely on the great National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to digest our diets and come up with numbers, we know, thanks to the recent work of Edward Archer, that recall-based survey data are highly unreliable: we misremember what we ate, we misjudge by how much; we lie. Were we to live on what we tell academics we eat, life for almost two thirds of Americans would be biologically implausible.

But Cook, who is trying to show that distribution is uneven, ends up trying to solve an apparent recall problem by creating an aggregate multiplier to plug the sales data gap. And the problem is that this requires us to believe that every drinker misremembered by a factor of almost two. This might not much of a stretch for moderate drinkers; but did everyone who drank, say, four or eight drinks per week systematically forget that they actually had eight or sixteen? That seems like a stretch.

We are also required to believe that just as those who drank consumed significantly more than they were willing to admit, those who claimed to be consistently teetotal never touched a drop. And, we must also forget that those who aren’t supposed to be drinking at all are also younger than 18, and their absence from Cook’s data may well constitute a greater error.

Pakistan’s public health emergency

Filed under: Asia, Health — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:07

The number of reported cases of polio is now the highest it has been for more than a decade, and at least some of the blame has to go to the CIA for using health workers as a cover for some of their covert operations.

As world health officials struggle to respond to the Ebola epidemic, Pakistan has passed a grim milestone in its efforts to combat another major global health crisis: the fight against polio.

Over the weekend, Pakistan logged its 200th new polio case of 2014, the nation’s highest transmission rate in more than a dozen years. The spread has alarmed Pakistani and international health experts and is prompting fresh doubt about the country’s ability to combat this or future disease outbreaks.

By Tuesday, the number of new polio cases in Pakistan stood at 202, and officials are bracing for potentially dozens of other cases by year’s end. Pakistan now accounts for 80 percent of global cases and is one of only three countries at risk of exporting the disease outside its borders, according to the World Health Organization.

[…]

In far-flung areas of the country, some parents and religious leaders are skeptical of the vaccine, requiring considerable face-to-face outreach by vaccination teams.

But the Pakistani Taliban and other Islamist militants have waged a brutal campaign against those teams, killing more than 50 health workers and security officials since 2012. The attacks began after it was discovered that the CIA had used a vaccination campaign to gain information about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts.

October 2, 2014

The Aral Sea, Uzbek cotton, forced labour, and the clothing industry

Filed under: Asia, Environment, Health — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:07

As reported the other day, what was once the world’s fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea, has almost completely dried up due to Soviet water diversion projects of the late 1950s and early 1960s:

In the early 1960s, the Soviet government decided the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya in the south and the Syr Darya in the east, would be diverted to irrigate the desert, in an attempt to grow rice, melons, cereals, and cotton.

This was part of the Soviet plan for cotton, or “white gold”, to become a major export. This temporarily succeeded, and in 1988, Uzbekistan was the world’s largest exporter of cotton.

The Soviet government made a deliberate choice to sacrifice the Aral Sea to create a vast new cotton-growing region in Uzbekistan. It was clearly quite successful, depending on how you choose to measure success.

The disappearance of the lake was no surprise to the Soviets; they expected it to happen long before. As early as 1964, Aleksandr Asarin at the Hydroproject Institute pointed out that the lake was doomed, explaining, “It was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo. Nobody on a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans, even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea.”

The reaction to the predictions varied. Some Soviet experts apparently considered the Aral to be “nature’s error”, and a Soviet engineer said in 1968, “it is obvious to everyone that the evaporation of the Aral Sea is inevitable.”

The drying-out of the Aral was not just bad news for the fishermen of the region: it was a full-blown environmental disaster, as the former lake bottom was heavily polluted:

The receding sea has left huge plains covered with salt and toxic chemicals – the results of weapons testing, industrial projects, and pesticides and fertilizer runoff – which are picked up and carried away by the wind as toxic dust and spread to the surrounding area. The land around the Aral Sea is heavily polluted, and the people living in the area are suffering from a lack of fresh water and health problems, including high rates of certain forms of cancer and lung diseases. Respiratory illnesses, including tuberculosis (most of which is drug resistant) and cancer, digestive disorders, anaemia, and infectious diseases are common ailments in the region. Liver, kidney, and eye problems can also be attributed to the toxic dust storms. Health concerns associated with the region are a cause for an unusually high fatality rate amongst vulnerable parts of the population. The child mortality rate is 75 in every 1,000 newborns and maternity death is 12 in every 1,000 women. Crops in the region are destroyed by salt being deposited onto the land. Vast salt plains exposed by the shrinking Aral have produced dust storms, making regional winters colder and summers hotter.

The Aral Sea fishing industry, which in its heyday had employed some 40,000 and reportedly produced one-sixth of the Soviet Union’s entire fish catch, has been devastated, and former fishing towns along the original shores have become ship graveyards. The town of Moynaq in Uzbekistan had a thriving harbor and fishing industry that employed about 30,000 people; now it lies miles from the shore. Fishing boats lie scattered on the dry land that was once covered by water; many have been there for 20 years.

"Waterfront" of Aralsk, Kazakhstan, formerly on the banks of the Aral Sea. Photo taken Spring 2003 by Staecker. (Via Wikipedia)

“Waterfront” of Aralsk, Kazakhstan, formerly on the banks of the Aral Sea. Photo taken Spring 2003 by Staecker. (Via Wikipedia)

So, tragic as all this is, what does it have to do with the clothing industry? The Guardian‘s Tansy Hoskins points out that due to the murky supply chains, it’s almost impossible to find out where the cotton used by many international clothing firms actually originates, and the Uzbek cotton fields are worked by forced labour:

The harvest of Uzbek cotton is taking place right now — it started on the 5 September and is expected to last until the end of October. The harvest itself is also a horror story, on top of the environmental devastation, this is cotton picked using forced labour. Every year hundreds of thousands of people are systematically sent to work in the fields by the government.

Under pressure from campaigners, in 2012, Uzbek authorities banned the use of child labour in the cotton harvest, but it is a ban that is routinely flouted. In 2013 there were 11 deaths during the harvest (pdf), including a six year old child, Amirbek Rakhmatov, who accompanied his mother to the fields and suffocated after falling asleep on a cotton truck.

Campaigners have also managed to get 153 fashion brands to sign a pledge to never knowingly use Uzbek cotton. Anti-Slavery International have worked on this fashion campaign but acknowledge that despite successes there is still a long way to go.

“Not knowingly using Uzbek cotton and actually ensuring that you don’t use Uzbek cotton are two completely different things,” explains Jakub Sobik, press officer at Anti-Slavery International.

One major problem that Sobik points out is that much of the Uzbek cotton crop now ends up in Bangladesh and China — key suppliers for European brands. “Whilst it is very hard to trace the cotton back to where it comes from because the supply chain is so subcontracted and deregulated, brands have a responsibility to ensure that slave picked cotton is not polluting their own supply chain.”

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