Quotulatiousness

January 8, 2018

Forests in the olden days

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

Lindybeige
Published on 20 Apr 2016

Forests and woodland in the ancient and medieval worlds didn’t look the way they show in the movies.
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More archaeology videos here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list…

I visited a local wildlife sanctuary based in a wood. In order to attract birds, they left the woods unmanaged, so that the undergrowth and rotting falling trees afforded good habitat for insects and ground-nesting birds. I talk about a few things, including climax vegetation, the burning of woods by hunter-gatherers, the medieval practices of coppicing and pollarding, and the way a modern managed woodland (the sort that you almost always see in the movies) looks neither like a heavily-managed medieval wood nor a wilderness unmanaged wood.

Lindybeige: a channel of archaeology, ancient and medieval warfare, rants, swing dance, travelogues, evolution, and whatever else occurs to me to make.

June 23, 2017

QotD: Philosophy

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

I believe the most important moment in the foreseeable future of philosophy will come when we realize that mad old Nazi bastard Heidegger had it right when he said that we are thrown into the world and must cope, and that theory-building consists of rearranging our toolkit for coping. I believe the biggest blind spot in analytical philosophy is its refusal to grapple with Heidegger’s one big insight, but that evolutionary biology coupled with Peirce offers us a way to stop being blind. I believe that when the insights of what is now called “evolutionary psychology” are truly absorbed by philosophers, many of the supposedly intractable problems of philosophy will vanish.

Eric S. Raymond, “What Do You Believe That You Cannot Prove?”, Armed and Dangerous, 2005-01-06.

June 2, 2017

How does deodorant work? I James May Q&A I Head Squeeze

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

Published on 11 Oct 2013

Get a whiff of this! James May delves in to the mechanics of deodorant.

Did you know that our sweat doesn’t smell? Made up of various things like our diet and genetics, it actually does not pong. Rather it’s when your sweat mixes with the bacteria on your skin that it releases an odor that can sometimes clear a room. Your armpits and pubic areas contain thousands of hairs which then hold on to your sweat and bacteria.

Us humans aren’t alone in smelling, many animals have some serious BO too. It’s not such a bad thing for them, it helps them mark out territory, repelling enemies and, most importantly, attracting mates.

Deodorants work by killing the bacteria on your skin and they also work as an anti-perspirant by reducing the amount of sweat. No more BO!

February 24, 2017

QotD: Western culture is in decline

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

Paglia: At first, I was very excited about the ethnic identity movement, because I feel very Italian-American and have always been in revolt against the WASP style that dominated academe — Leslie Fiedler himself was a victim of this, Harold Bloom was — there weren’t any Jews hired in the Yale English department in the mid-1950s, there were quotas on Jewish students admitted to Harvard, all things like that. But over time, what’s happened, I think, is that gender identity has become really almost fascist. It’s to me a very shrunk and miniaturized way of perceiving your position in the world and in the universe.

There [comes] a time when these fine gradations of gender identity — I’m a male trans doing this, etc. — this is a symbol of decadence, I’m sorry. Sexual Personae talks about this: That was in fact the inspiration for it, was that my overview of history and my noticing that in late phases, you all of a sudden get a proliferation of homosexuality, of sadomasochism, or gendered games, impersonations and masks, and so on. I think we’re in a really kind of late phase of culture.

reason: So that the proliferation of cultural identities, the proliferation of all sorts of possibilities is actually a sign that we’re…

Paglia: On the verge of collapse? Yes! Western culture is in decline. There’s absolutely no doubt about it, in my view, looking at the history of Egypt, of Babylon, of Byzantium, and so on. And so what’s happening is everyone’s so busy-busy-busy with themselves, with this narcissistic sense of who they are in terms of sexual orientation or gender, and this intense gender consciousness, woman consciousness at the same time, and meanwhile…

reason: Is that also racial or ethnic consciousness as well?

Paglia: Right now, to me, the real obsessions have to do with gender orientation. Although I think there’s been this flare-up [regarding race]. I voted for Obama, but I’ve been disappointed. I think we had hoped that he would inaugurate a period of racial harmony, and I think the situation has actually become even worse over recent years. It seems to be overt inflammatory actions by the administration to pit the races against each other, so I think there’s a lot of damage that needs to be healed.

But I think most of the problems as I perceive them in my students and so on, is that there’s this new obsession with where you are on this wide gender spectrum. That view of gender seems to me to be unrealistic because it’s so divorced from any biological referent. I do believe in biology, and I say in the first paragraph of Sexual Personae that sexuality is an intricate intersection of nature and culture. But what’s happened now is that the way the universities are teaching, it’s nothing but culture, and nothing’s from biology. It’s madness! It’s a form of madness, because women who want to marry and have children are going to have to encounter their own hormonal realities at a certain point.

Camille Paglia, “Everything’s Awesome and Camille Paglia Is Unhappy!”, Reason, 2015-05-30.

June 14, 2016

QotD: Romantic love … what is it for?

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

It’s all about the encephalization, really. Millions of years ago our hominid ancestors stumbled onto a novel adaptive strategy: be smart, adaptable, and capable of learning rather than purely instinct-driven. Make tools; use fire; invent language.

This strategy required much, much more of our nervous systems. Because intelligence was in fact a winning strategy, we were selected for growing more complex brains capable of doing more information processing. But increasing the logic density of brains is hard; there probably isn’t a path to it through the design space that is rapidly exploitable by small point mutations. So selective pressure made our brains larger, instead.

The fossil record shows that the hominid line encephalized at a breakneck speed compared to the usual leisurely pace of evolutionary change. This had huge consequences; much of human biology is a series of hacks and kluges to support that encephalization, often in stupidly suboptimal ways.

The one that’s relevant here starts from the limited width of the birth canal. Limited, that is, by the pelvic girdle surrounding it. A skull that’s too large won’t fit through. Therefore, the genetic lines that survived were those in which babies are born with small skulls but the ability to grow them much larger by maturity. (And even so, the size of a baby’s skull pushes that limit pretty hard; this is why birth is so much more difficult and dangerous for human females than it is for other primates).

That design (be born with a small skull and upgrade it outside the womb) implied a long juvenile period between birth and physical maturity. In fact the human brain doesn’t completely finish configuring and rewiring itself until around age 25. And the long juvenile period probably also explains the exceptionally long human lifespan; whatever had to be altered in the development clock to defer stabilization into the final adult configuration probably also delayed the inset of senescence. (Direct evidence for this theory is the rare disease “progeria”).

And the dominoes kept falling. The long juvenile period implied offspring that would be incapable of fending for themselves for an unprecedently long time – on the order of decades rather than the few months to a year typical for other mammals. Consequently the selective value of extended cooperation between the parents went way, way up relative to even our nearest animal kin.

Romantic love works as an an evolved mechanism for keeping mated pairs cooperating long enough to raise multiple children. Here again, selection favors those who love more because they get to launch more offspring. We are, in fact, made to fall in love – and it would only be surprising if the mechanism for establishing it were not simple, robust, and easily triggered.

Eric S. Raymond, “Love is the simplest thing”, Armed and Dangerous, 2015-01-15.

October 16, 2015

QotD: This explains so much

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

The entire brain weighs three pounds (1.4 kg) and so is only a small percentage of an adult’s total body weight, typically 2%. But it consumes 20% of all the energy the body uses. Why? The perhaps oversimplified answer is that time is energy.

Neural communication is very rapid — it has to be — reaching speeds of over 300 miles per hour and with neurons communicating with one another hundreds of times per second. The voltage output of a single resting neuron is 70 millivolts, about the same as the line output of an iPod. If you could hook up a neuron to a pair of earbuds, you could actually hear its rhythmic output as a series of clicks.

[…]

Neurochemicals that control communication between neurons are manufactured in the brain itself. These include some relatively well-known ones such as serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and epinephrine, as well as acetylcholine, GABA, glutamate, and endocannabinoids. Chemicals are released in very specific locations and they act on specific synapses to change the flow of information in the brain. Manufacturing these chemicals, and dispersing them to regulate and modulate brain activity, requires energy — neurons are living cells with a metabolism, and they get that energy from glucose. No other tissue in the body relies solely on glucose for energy except the testes. (This is why men occasionally experience a battle for resources between their brains and their glands.)

Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind, 2014.

October 8, 2015

Science as horse racing

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

In Wired, Sarah Zhang handicaps the horses in this year’s highly competitive Nobel Sweepstakes:

Nobel prize speculation, gossip, and betting pools kick off every fall around the time Thomson Reuters releases its predictions for science’s most prestigious prize. This year, one prediction was unusual: a genome-editing tool so hyped that it even got on the cover of WIRED.

(No, seriously, how often does molecular biology get to occupy the same space as Star Wars or Rashida Jones?)

The tool, Crispr/Cas9, is essentially a pair of molecular scissors for editing DNA, so precise and easy to use that it has taken biology by storm. Hundreds if not thousands of labs now use Crispr/Cas9 to do everything from making super-muscled pigs to snipping HIV genes out of infected cells to creating transgenic monkeys for neuroscience research. But the Nobel prediction stands out for two reasons: First, the highly-cited paper describing Crispr/Cas9 came out a mere three years ago, a blip in the timescale of science. Second, the technique is currently at the heart of a bitter patent fight.

Thomson Reuters bases its predictions on how often key papers get cited by other scientists. Here, the paper in question has as its authors Jennifer Doudna, a molecular biologist at UC Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, a microbiologist now at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology. Missing is Feng Zhang (no relation to this writer), a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute and MIT, who actually owns the patents for CRISPR/Cas9 and says that he came up with the idea independently. So let’s say Thomson Reuters gets it right. Could the patent for a discovery go to one scientist, and the Nobel prize for the discovery to someone else?

The two groups — or their patent lawyers, really — are in fact fighting over credit for CRISPR/Cas9. At stake are millions of dollars already poured into rival companies that have licensed patents from the two different groups.

But putting aside all the lawyers and all the money for a moment, obsessing over finding the one true origin of Crispr/Cas9 gets science all wrong. Casting the narrative as Doudna versus Zhang or Berkeley versus MIT is a misapprehension of history, creativity, and innovation. Discovery comes not from a singular stroke of genius, but an incremental body of research. “I’m not a great believer in the flash-of-genius theory. If you are a historian —” says Mario Biagioli, who is in fact a historian of science at UC Davis — “you quickly will realize exactly how many times there are independent discoveries of the same thing.” The dispute over credit for CRISPR/Cas9 is not the result of exceptional coincidence and disagreement. In fact, it illuminates how science always works.

September 4, 2015

Slate: Testosterone changes the brain

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

Perhaps it’s not just a social construct after all:

However much we’d like to think of gender as a social construct, science suggests that real differences do exist between female and male brains. The latest evidence: a first-of-its-kind European study that finds that the female brain can be drastically reshaped by treating it with testosterone over time.

Research has shown that women have the advantage when it comes to memory and language, while men tend to have stronger spatial skills (though this too has been disputed). But due to ethical restrictions, no study had been able to track the direct effect that testosterone exposure has on the brain — until now. Using neuroimaging, Dutch and Austrian researchers found that an increase in this potent hormone led to shrinkage in key areas of the female (transitioning to male) brain associated with language. They presented their findings at last week’s annual meeting of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology in Amsterdam.

May 30, 2015

There are no good outcomes from a war between men and women

Filed under: History, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Sarah Hoyt digs into the archive to find a particularly appropriate post from the distant past:

I know this goes completely against everything you’ve ever heard and learned. History — and SF — is full of dreamers who are convinced that if women ruled the world it would all be beauty flowers and non aggression. (To these dreamers I say spend a week as a girl in an all-girl school. It will be a rude awakening.)

Dreamers of the Dan Brown stripe posit a peaceful female worship, with yet more beauty and flowers and non-aggression. They ignore the fact that 99% of the goddess-worshipping religions were scary. And don’t tell me that’s patriarchal slander — it’s not. The baby-killing of Astoreth worship has been documented extensively. (Of course, the Phoenicians were equal-opportunity baby killers.) The castrations of Cybele worship were also well documented. Now, I can hardly imagine a female divinity without imagining hormonal episodes requiring appeasement — but that’s because I’m a woman of a certain age, and that’s fodder for another altogether different discussion. Suffice it to say that the maiden and mother usually also had a crone persona who was … er… “not a nice person.”

Anyway — all this to say since I joined the MOB (Mothers Of Boys) the scales about such things as the inherent equality of men and women as far as their brain structure and basic behavior have fallen from my eyes. (Well, the scales that remained. My experience in school notwithstanding, I’d been TAUGHT that females were getting the short end of the stick and that’s a hard thing to overcome. Learned wisdom is so much more coherent than lived wisdom, after all.)

Again — indulge me — I’m going to make a lot of statements I can too back up, but which would take very, very, very long to document — so it will seem like I’m ranting mid air. Stay with it. If I feel up to it later, I’ll post some references.

Yes, women have been horribly oppressed throughout history including the rather disgusting Victorian period that most Americans seem to believe is how ALL of history went. I contend, though, that women were not oppressed by some international conspiracy of males — yes, I know what Women’s Studies professors say. I would however remind you we’re talking of a group of people who a) have issues finding their own socks in the dresser they’ve used for ten years. b) Are so good at communicating as a group that they couldn’t coordinate their way out of a wet paper bag, or to quote my friend Kate, couldn’t organize a bonk in a brothel. (In most large organizations the “social/coordinating” function is performed by females at various levels.) c) That women being oppressed by a patriarchy so thorough it altered history and changed all records of peaceful female religion would require a conspiracy lasting thousands of years and involving almost every male on Earth. If you believe that, I have this bridge in NY that I would like to sell you. — Women were oppressed by their own bodies.

Throughout most of history women had no safe and effective means of stopping pregnancy. — please, spare me the “herbal” remedies. I grew up in a village that had little access to medicine. If there had been an effective means of preventing pregnancy we’d have known it. TRUST me. There are abortificients, but they endanger the mother as well. However, until the pill there was no safe contraceptive. The herbal contraceptive is a plot device dreamed up by fantasy writers. Also, btw, the People’s Republic of China TESTED all these methods (including swallowing live tadpoles at the full moon.) NONE of them worked. SERIOUSLY.*

What this meant in practical fact is that most women were pregnant from menarche to menopause, if they were lucky to live that long. I’ve been pregnant. If you haven’t, take it from me it’s not a condition conducive to brilliant discourse or reasoned logic. On top of that, of course, women would suffer the evils of repeated child bearing with no rest. In effect this DID make women frail and not the intellectual equals of men. And it encouraged any male around to “oppress” them. I.e., when the majority of females around you need a minder, you’re going to assume ALL females need a minder. It’s human nature. Note that beyond suffrage, the greatest advance in women’s equality came from the pill. Not a coincidence, that.

April 3, 2015

Updating the old saying “where there’s muck, there’s money”

Filed under: Economics, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

According to this story in the Guardian, a typical city of one million people poops out $13 million in (potentially recoverable) precious metals every year:

Sewage sludge contains traces of gold, silver and platinum at levels that would be seen as commercially viable by traditional prospectors. “The gold we found was at the level of a minimal mineral deposit,” said Kathleen Smith, of the US Geological Survey.

Smith and her colleagues argue that extracting metals from waste could also help limit the release of harmful metals, such as lead, into the environment in fertilisers and reduce the amount of toxic sewage that has to be buried or burnt.

“If you can get rid of some of the nuisance metals that currently limit how much of these biosolids we can use on fields and forests, and at the same time recover valuable metals and other elements, that’s a win-win,” she said.

A previous study, by Arizona State University, estimated that a city of 1 million inhabitants flushed about $13m (£8.7m) worth of precious metals down toilets and sewer drains each year.

The task of sifting sewage for microscopic quantities of gold may sound grim, but it could have a variety of unexpected benefits over traditional gold mining. The use of powerful chemicals, called leachates, used by the industry to pull metals out of rock is controversial, because these chemicals can be devastating to ecosystems when they leak into the environment. In the controlled setting of a sewage plant, the chemicals could be used liberally without the ecological risks.

February 24, 2015

The bitter war between men and women

Filed under: Health, History, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Sarah Hoyt recently reposted her rant (in her words) about the ongoing struggle between men and women:

I know this goes completely against everything you’ve ever heard and learned. History — and SF — is full of dreamers who are convinced that if women ruled the world it would all be beauty flowers and non aggression. (To these dreamers I say spend a week as a girl in an all-girl school. It will be a rude awakening.)

Dreamers of the Dan Brown stripe posit a peaceful female worship, with yet more beauty and flowers and non-aggression. They ignore the fact that 99% of the goddess-worshiping religions were scary. And don’t tell me that’s patriarchal slander — it’s not. The baby-killing of Astoreth worship has been documented extensively. (Of course, the Phoenicians were equal-opportunity baby killers.) The castrations of Cybele worship were also well documented. Now, I can hardly imagine a female divinity without imagining hormonal episodes requiring appeasement — but that’s because I’m a woman of a certain age, and that’s fodder for another altogether different discussion. Suffice it to say that the maiden and mother usually also had a crone persona who was … er… “not a nice person.”

Anyway — all this to say since I joined the MOB (Mothers Of Boys) the scales about such things as the inherent equality of men and women as far as their brain structure and basic behavior have fallen from my eyes. (Well, the scales that remained. My experience in school notwithstanding, I’d been TAUGHT that females were getting the short end of the stick and that’s a hard thing to overcome. Learned wisdom is so much more coherent than lived wisdom, after all.)

Again — indulge me — I’m going to make a lot of statements I can too back up, but which would take very, very, very long to document — so it will seem like I’m ranting mid air. Stay with it. If I feel up to it later, I’ll post some references.

Yes, women have been horribly oppressed throughout history including the rather disgusting Victorian period that most Americans seem to believe is how ALL of history went. I contend, though, that women were not oppressed by some international conspiracy of males — yes, I know what Women’s Studies professors say. I would however remind you we’re talking of a group of people — men — who a) have issues finding their own socks in the dresser they’ve used for ten years. b) Are so good at communicating as a group that they couldn’t coordinate their way out of a wet paper bag, or to quote my friend Kate, couldn’t organize a bonk in a brothel. (In most large organizations the “social/coordinating” function is performed by females at various levels.) c) That women being oppressed by a patriarchy so thorough it altered history and changed all records of peaceful female religion would require a conspiracy lasting thousands of years and involving almost every male on Earth. If you believe that, I have this bridge in NY that I would like to sell you. — Women were oppressed by their own bodies.

Throughout most of history women had no safe and effective means of stopping pregnancy. — please, spare me the “herbal” remedies. I grew up in a village that had little access to medicine. If there had been an effective means of preventing pregnancy we’d have known it. TRUST me. There are abortificients, but they endanger the mother as well. However, until the pill there was no safe contraceptive. The herbal contraceptive is a plot device dreamed up by fantasy writers. Also, btw, the People’s Republic of China TESTED all these methods (including swallowing live tadpoles at the full moon.) NONE of them worked. SERIOUSLY.

What this meant in practical fact is that most women were pregnant from menarche to menopause, if they were lucky to live that long. I’ve been pregnant. If you haven’t, take it from me it’s not a condition conducive to brilliant discourse or reasoned logic. On top of that, of course, women would suffer the evils of repeated child bearing with no rest. In effect this DID make women frail and not the intellectual equals of men. And it encouraged any male around to “oppress” them. I.e., when the majority of females around you need a minder, you’re going to assume ALL females need a minder. It’s human nature. Note that beyond suffrage, the greatest advance in women’s equality came from the pill. Not a coincidence, that.

However, the people who think that women were oppressed by an international historical cabal rule the establishment. Including the educational establishment. I find it hilarious that in their minds men/boys are so powerful that they must be kept back and are suspected of being criminals just because they have a penis. This is attributing to them god-like powers to rival what any Victorian housewife would believe.

Anyway — these people have decided all efforts must be made to equal male and female performance in school. Since, in practical fact, this is impossible because males and females develop at different paces and favor different areas, they’ve settled for hobbling the all-powerful males.

You see this everywhere from Saturday morning cartoons to kindergarten to all the grades beyond. In cartoons these days, the girls ALWAYS rescue the boys. (They do it while keeping impeccably groomed hair, too. Impressive, that.) And in school all the girls are assumed to be right and all the boys are assumed to be wrong.

January 26, 2015

Balancing the art and the science in winemaking

Filed under: Australia, Science, Wine — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In Cosmos, Andrew Masterson investigates what is still an art and what has been codified as science:

“With commercial yeast you get certainty – you can sleep at night,” says Bicknell. “But how do you make wine more interesting? You exploit the metabolic processes of different yeast species.”

Bicknell’s faith in wild yeasts adds stress at fermentation time, but the pay-off is multi-award-winning wines regularly acknowledged as some of the best in Australia. “The wines do taste different, even if there’s no way you can show that statistically,” Bicknell says. “The only way to really know is to taste.”

Exploiting the diverse and fluctuating populations of wild yeasts found on the plants, fruit and in the air of vineyards is “the new black” (not to mention red and white) in oenology. The practice is becoming more commonplace among artisan winemakers. Even some of the giant commercial wine corporations are investing in the method.

Wild fermentation, says Bicknell, represents the intersection of science, craft and philosophy. But it could also form the basis of a profound shift in the narrative of wine. The more we study winemaking’s microbes, the more it appears they might explain one of the wine industry’s most beloved, but vaguest, terms: terroir.

Terroir is a wonderful marketing term,” says David Mills, a microbiologist at UC Davis, who studies microbes in wine. “But it’s not a science.”

The French word terroir is difficult to translate. The closest translation is “soil”, but that is just one of its components. Terroir connotes the unique sense of place – the soils, the topography and the microclimate. It’s what makes the wines of Bordeaux or Australia’s Coonawarra so distinctive, and so inimitable.

Sommeliers like Ren Lim, former captain of the Oxford University Blind Tasting Society (and a PhD biophysics student) will tell you merely from swirling a mouthful of Cabernet Sauvignon which Australian winery produced it.

“The ones from Margaret River often give off a more pronounced green pepper note, a note found commonly in Cabernets grown in regions which experience pronounced maritime influences. Coonawarra Cabernets are somewhat different and unique in their own way. They are often minty and have a eucalyptus or menthol note in addition to the usual ripe blackcurrant notes. The green pepper note is often suppressed under the menthol notes. Nonetheless, the Cabernet structure remains in both these wines.”

It’s a feat that Mills does not question. “I don’t doubt regionality exists, but what causes it is a whole other set of issues.”

December 11, 2014

“Eyewitnesses” and the human mind

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

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

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

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

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

August 28, 2014

QotD: “Intelligent Design” and the paradox of the human body

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

The human body, very cunningly designed in some details, is cruelly and senselessly bungled in other details, and every reflective first-year medical student must notice a hundred ways to improve it. How are we to reconcile this mixture of finesse and blundering with the concept of a single omnipotent Designer, to whom all problems are equally easy? If He could contrive so efficient and durable a machine as the human hand, then how did He come to make such botches as the tonsils, the gallbladder, the ovaries and the prostate gland? If He could perfect the elbow and the ear, then why did He boggle the teeth?

Having never encountered a satisfactory — or even a remotely plausible — answer to such questions, I have had to go to the trouble of devising one myself. It is, at all events, quite simple, and in strict accord with all the known facts. In brief, it is this: that the theory that the universe is run by a single God must be abandoned, and that in place of it we must set up the theory that it is actually run by a board of gods, all of equal puissance and authority. Once this concept is grasped the difficulties that have vexed theologians vanish, and human experience instantly lights up the whole dark scene. We observe in everyday life what happens when authority is divided, and great decisions are reached by consultation and compromise. We know that the effects at times, particularly when one of the consultants runs away with the others, are very good, but we also know that they are usually extremely bad. Such a mixture, precisely, is on display in the cosmos. It presents a series of brilliant successes in the midst of an infinity of failures.

I contend that my theory is the only one ever put forward that completely accounts for the clinical picture. Every other theory, facing such facts as sin, disease and disaster, is forced to admit the supposition that Omnipotence, after all, may not be omnipotent — a plain absurdity. I need toy with no such blasphemous nonsense. I may assume that every god belonging to the council which rules the universe is infinitely wise and infinitely powerful, and yet not evade the plain fact that most of the acts of that council are ignorant and foolish. In truth, my assumption that a council exists is tantamount to an a priori assumption that its acts are ignorant and foolish, for no act of any conceivable council can be otherwise. Is the human hand perfect, or, at all events, practical and praiseworthy? Then I account for it on the ground that it was designed by some single member of the council — that the business was turned over to him by inadvertence or as a result of an irreconcilable difference of opinion among the others. Had more than one member participated actively in its design it would have been measurably less meritorious than it is, for the sketch offered by the original designer would have been forced to run the gauntlet of criticisms and suggestions from all the other councilors, and human experience teaches us that most of these criticisms and suggestions would have been inferior to the original idea — that many of them, in fact, would have had nothing in them save a petty desire to maul and spoil the original idea.

H.L. Mencken, “The Cosmic Secretariat”, American Mercury, 1924-01.

June 21, 2014

The science of booze

Filed under: History, Science, Technology, Wine — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:18

Mankind has been making alcoholic beverages for thousands of years, yet there are still some pretty basic things we don’t know about alcohol:

Consider the number of things we still don’t know: Yeast, the single-celled fungus responsible for fermentation (the conversion of sugar into alcohol), seems to have been domesticated about 12,000 years ago, but we don’t know for sure where it came from, why it makes ethanol, or why some strains do it better than others.

The physics of distillation are well established, but nobody knows who invented it — an alchemist in ancient Alexandria called Maria the Jewess? — and getting a consistent taste from the finicky process is more an art than a science.

Aging in toasted barrels clearly does hooch good, as the wood breaks down and the liquid penetrates its pores to mix with tannins and other molecules. But the final flavor of a spirit depends on everything from the temperature in the warehouse where it is aged to the climate where the trees are grown, and attempts to create synthetic processes to season liquor quicker (read: more profitably) have come mostly to naught.

Even at the most basic level, scientists don’t yet understand why booze makes us feel the way it does. Alcohol’s mode of action in the brain is much more complicated and elusive than that of a drug such as heroin, which locks into specific, identified receptors meant for natural neurotransmitters. “The truth is, we don’t know at the molecular level what alcohol is binding to,” Rogers quotes the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as saying. “It’s never been resolved.”

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