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October 25, 2004

Bee Research

Someone had to be drunk to think this one up.

The honey bee, long seen as the world's most important insect, is now helping scientists to discover how alcohol affects the brain.

The study is part of long-term research into whether alcohol increases aggressive behaviour in humans.

Scientists at Ohio State University fed honey bees different amounts of alcohol and watched how long they spent walking, flying, grooming or just lying on their backs. They also measured the level of alcohol in the bees' haemolyph - the equivalent of blood. Unsurprisingly, the more the bees drank, the less they moved around.

Could a sober person even write that grant proposal, or would you have to be stoned. "Let's get some bees drunk and see what they do, man…."

The craziest part of the research is that since bees are "social" their behavior is taken as indicative of what drunks would do in society. Now excuse me, I think I'll get hammered and go pollinate some daisies.

October 25, 2004 in Science | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

October 24, 2004

Shell Game In the Guardian

A wacko environmentalist tried to pull a trick with a shiny spoon in the UK Guardian in response to Bjorn Lomborg's numbers on environmental problems.

This is neither scepticism nor science - just nonsense

Why is Bjorn Lomborg's work on climate change taken seriously?

To answer his question, it's because environmentalists screamed and gnashed their teeth but utterly failed at refuting him. For those who think we should spend a few million to provide safe drinking water in Africa the environmentalists have said "screw it, build a windmill instead. That'll stop global warming and save the world." It's just like protecting the populace from DDT by killing off 80 million of them, making Hitler and Stalin look like amateurs.

The self-proclaimed sceptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg has been visible on London's seminar circuit this week promoting his argument that spending money on climate change is wasteful and that the world would be much better off spending it on halting Aids and providing water and sanitation instead.

He's not just a self-proclaimed skeptical environmentalist, he actually is one. What he objects to is innumerate fear-mongering that so badly misallocates the money allotted to address environmental problems. The environmental money pie isn't infinitely large, so when you have idiots peddling junk science and utter pap to get that entire amount spent to fight a non-existent threat then the entire amount is totally wasted, meaning real problems remain unaddressed.

For example, we're going to spend a billion dollars per year of life saved by trying to reduce arsenic levels in the US from epsilon (50 parts per billion - almost immeasurably close to zero), to some terrifically smaller amount close to zero (10 parts per billion, or 0.010 mg/L), which even the Washington Post said will save only a couple dozen lives a year. And even this ignores the fact that the chemicals used to remove the arsenic will actually kill more people than we're saving, all to eliminate what may be an essential trace element and useful medicine which is already abundant in our food, especially in fish, which are considered safe even if they have a thousand times the amount of arsenic (2 to 80 mg/L) that has everyone going nuts.

I suppose that it's cool, politically correct, and way more fun than actually keeping poor people from dying horrible twitching deaths, but it is certainly a staggering waste of time, money, and the public's finite attention span.

Despite his consistent attacks on environmentalists for exaggerating the planet's problems, Lomborg is actually no more a sceptic than he is an environmentalist. The latter claim rests solely on his having contributed to Greenpeace in his youth. The former claim is belied by his deep faith in a wholly benign future for the planet.

It wasn't his consistent attacks but his actual data and statistics which got Lomborg named "Global Leader for Tomorrow" by the World Economic Forum and one of the world's most 100 influential people. That's why this writer in the Guardian is reduced to hurling ad hominems instead of addressing the fact that environmentalists have unquestionably been exaggerating problems, using shameful fear mongering to try and scare up funding.

This gives him the same kind of sunny and often appealing optimism that we see in President Bush.

Keep you eye on that hidden ball, because this wacko just tried to pull a sleight of hand and distract you with "Lomborg=Bush=Hitler".

By one of those amazing coincidences that can suddenly snap things into focus, Lomborg was putting his case this week in the building next door to the one in which an unprecedented coalition of environment and development bodies was spelling out, in some detail, exactly how climate change is already intensifying poverty.

And how exactly would something like a century's ten inch rise in sea level, the best estimate of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, actually do that, pray tell? The same panel also predicts a catastrophic rise in average global temperature of about 1-3.5 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. Taking the middle of that range and looking at a climate map means Washington DC will be as hot as Richmond Virginia, and central Kentucky will suffer the unbearable heat currently found in central Tennessee, which surely can't support human life as we know it. They want to get everyone panicked about the earth getting too hot to support life, but my reasoned plan for coping with this oncoming disaster is to twiddle my thumbs for 99 years, eleven months and then throw my stuff in the car and drive two hours north, grabbing a hamburger on the way.

He is in London in advance of the publication of a new book on the conclusions of the Copenhagen Consensus. Sponsored by the Economist, Lomborg invited eight Nobel Prize winning economists to meet in Copenhagen. Their task was to decide how best to spend a (notional) additional $50bn dollars in order to advance global welfare, particularly in developing countries.

Keep you eye on that ball, ladies and gentlemen, because he's about to go all bonkers.

No one can fault Lomborg's ambition. Getting two economists to agree about something is difficult enough. Getting eight to agree about everything must have been daunting.

To help them on their way the laureates were offered a top 10 list of global challenges, such as disease, hunger, water, migration and climate change, and invited to use cost-benefit analysis to rank them in terms of value for money. To no one's surprise, they came to the same conclusion as Lomborg on the value of climate change.

The concluded it's a really idiotic way to blow billions of dollars, much less trillions. The problem with blowing money like that is that human aid budgets aren't infinite, and money that could've gone to malaria prevention will instead be spent on wildly expensive new coal scrubbers in Europe, on the theory that it's somehow helping save African lives.

The reality is that applying cost-benefit analysis to questions such as these is junk economics. Junk economics done by Nobel laureates is simply distinguished junk economics. Applying the logic of the Copenhagen Consensus to the Iraq war illustrates this nicely.

Now you see an argument, now you don't! It's just junk economics, well, just because! "Oh look, a shiny spoon!" just before he devolves into "Iraq War, quagmire, quagmire, Bush=Hitler". He drones on and on for some length, but never addresses Lomborg's findings or position other than offering up such idiotic distractions as this

How did that compare to the cost of an Iraqi soldier? Were Iraqi civilian casualties to be counted as a cost or a benefit? What is the avoided cost, therefore a benefit, of preventing the launch of one nuclear weapon by Saddam? Should you discount the benefit of preventing subsequent launches to allow for the diminished value of whatever target had first been attacked?

We often maintain that many environmentalists are either badly deluded or downright stupid, and they oblige by proving it at each and every opportunity. Go read the rest of the article if you don't believe me, where he dodges, distracts, smears, and relys on every faulty bit of reasoning he can muster. What he and his ilk would never suggest is that you actually read Lomborg's book.

October 24, 2004 in Politics | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

October 12, 2004

Travels - via Vienna

I had an eventful drive from Dallas to Nashville today, but before I relate the story let me recap with what happened on the same route three weeks ago, which is a nice story by itself.

I'd worked in Nashville all day before heading out for Dallas. It was early evening when I stopped to find a hotel in Memphis, coming up empty due to the influx of refugees from Hurricane Ivan. Not being too alarmed, I continued on I-40 to Little Rock, driving late into the night, but hotel after hotel had posted "no-vacancy" signs. One helpful clerk tried to send me 30 miles north, and I figured he had some deal arranged with one of his buddies. As the night wore on I realized he'd been serious, as all area hotels were indeed booked. Exhausted, tired, and frustrated, my alarm increasing with each new failure, a clerk finally told me that there were a few rooms left in Hot Springs, about a half-hour off I-30. In despair I drove to Hot Springs along a twisty road, found the Comfort Inn, and literally begged for a room. The girl at the desk said "We're booked up, but there's a king-smoking room downtown. Calling the other hotel, she said, "Hold that king-smoking! I'm sending someone over for it." She gave me the directions and off I went. I got to the other hotel without incident, meeting a very happy woman leaving the lobby.
The girl at that desk asked with a big smile, "Are you from the Comfort Inn?"
"Yes," I replied.
"I just gave that lady your room!"

It seems she booked the room before asking if the woman had come from the Comfort Inn. Apologizing profusely, she gave me directions to yet another downtown hotel, and I left dejected, thinking of buying a tent and sleeping bag at a Wal-Mart. Fortunately I did find a hotel, though the baking room, creaking floors, and lack of any conceivable internet access made me think, "Every day Charlie squats in the bush he gets stronger, and every minute I sweat in the miserable room I get weaker." Finally exhaustion took its course, and after many hours of unconsciousness my journey to Dallas continued uneventfully.

Once in Dallas I had a room at Comfort Suites, Irving, but on the third night they moved me to another room while I was at work. Unfortunately that night I found that they forgot to move my internet cable, unseen to this day, and they'd just given away the last cable they kept at the desk. I was once again fated for a dial-up existence. That was fine with me, because instead of blogging I spent Friday evening with Serenity and the Du Toits, then on Sunday picked up Serenity for an evening out. In case she was worried about some strange blogger driving her around in Dallas traffic I mentioned that I'd never had an accident that bent metal.

Finally I left Dallas early Monday morning, my work complete, getting to Arkansas before I realized that I'd left my drivers license at the plant, but had a nice warehouse access badge still adorning my shirt as a sick sort of compensation. Unfortunately Warehouse Pass #91 doesn't pass for an ID in Arkansas or any other state, but I found a hotel in Forest Springs that didn't seem to mind as long as the VISA was good. I'd been tempted to forge onward through the night to make it to a nice Holiday Inn Express, located just east of Memphis, which has nice rooms and broadband access, but the horror of my adventure on the way down left me gun-shy about late night hotel quests. Settling in for the evening I shockingly discovered that none of my dial-up ISPs had a local access number for Forest Springs. I dialed a long-distance access number time and again to search for a number or alternate ISP, hoping I could log-on and blog something that evening. It was to no avail, so I gave up, irritated and perturbed. In the morning I was greeted by a $40+ long-distance phone bill. It would've been cheaper to sign up with yet another redundant ISP for three months.

I got home Tuesday and went to the DMV on Wednesday to get a new license, since I had to return to Nashville on Thursday and there was no way I'd get the license left in Dallas back by that time. I got my brand new license after an hour standing in line and a couple quests out to the car to find anything that could be described as my "official" signature. The still warm plastic in my hand I joyously got in my car, started it, and had my foot slip off the clutch. I shot forward a couple feet, killing the engine, and hid my head in utter embarrassment. Recovering my wits, I popped it into reverse, backed up, and "Thump!" I'd backed right into a lady in an SUV who was backing out directly opposite, right in front of the door to the DMV office. I got out of the car, saw no damage, and after a brief exchange we both fled before someone official came out to take our licenses back. Not many people can claim a wreck in the parking lot of the DMV, but now I'm one of the chosen few. Yet no metal was bent, so my driving record still stands, pristine and unblemished.

I got back to Nashville without further incident, worked like a madman for almost three weeks until last Thursday when one of our electricians pick me up at the hotel at 9:00 AM for the return trip to Dallas. I was looking forward to it, since it would be a vacation compared to what I've been going through here. He was rigged for long-distance highway travel with his Fuzz-Buster mounted in the middle of the windshield. I figured I'd have an easy ride, snoozing half-way to Texas, but instead he slept and I drove.

Once in Dallas things went well, although the Comfort Suites again was going to toss us out on Saturday. This time the hotel nightmare was caused by several football games, so after the first Holiday-Inn Select came up with no vacancy we went to the Red Roof Inn without much complaining. Unfortunately I was once again without broadband, a coffee pot, or much of anything else, but I was also coming down with a severe cold. Sunday was my first "day off" in over a month, and it was just my luck that I was curled up in a pain-filled ball, my head stuffy and my body aching.

My cold felt better by Monday morning and after making sure our new changes were running fine we lit out for Nashville. Once again I drove while the electrician got some shut-eye, and we were faced rain the whole way to Nashville. Just short of the Arkansas border I got this nice note from a Texas gentleman.


Coincidentally, upon arriving in Nashville a man from Tennessee gave me a similar one. He said I'm supposed to mail money to this address.


Again, I've bent no metal and retain an unblemished record. However, there's a larger story in all this. At a pit-stop in West Memphis Arkansas I stumbled across the Holy Grail of crap food, and more than that, a potential source of truly mind-bending crap food power. And all this was at an innocuous gas station. I suppose it could've been a cemetery, but my life is much more ordinary than that, at least aside from my egomaniacal love affair with Vienna sausages.

Innocuous gas station with a horrible secret

Inside I wandered the aisles of junk food when the potted meat section caught my eye. This was no ordinary display, but something truly amazing. It was there Vienna sausages. Let me first note that Vienna sausage is pretty obligatory in gas stations, even though no one will admit to ever actually eating the nasty little pancreatic treats. Yet they're ubiquitous, just like the coleslaw that comes with almost any meal, even though nobody seems very fond of it. It's simply there because you always expect it, and you expect it because it's always there. It's a mysterious cycle that defies all attempts to break it.

What stood out about the Vienna sausage at this exit to nowhere was the staggering variety. I've been to some stations that had two brands, where giants like Armour and Hormel are locked in competition for market share (though lord knows why they'd want to distinguish themselves in a food that they UN should ban), but this station had five, yes FIVE, different brands of those delightfully bad sausages. I didn't even realize there were five brands. As proof I bought all five and lined them up on the truck's tail gate.

The horrible haul

None of these photos were photo-shopped. There really is a gas station in the US that for some unfathomable reason stocks FIVE brands of Vienna sausage. Maybe the locals are finicky, or maybe they're just brand conscious. Judging by the dust on the lids of some of these maybe it's really just one brand that changed labels over the course of the ensuing decades. One can always hope.

But strange as this sounds, I actually had a SIXTH brand in my luggage, from Libby's.


Six brands down, one to go

As I stared at these six, it occurred to me that Viennas always come seven to a can, some sort of magic number. If I get a seventh brand I wonder if inserting it into the middle of the others will unleash the powers of Satan? It's really spooky, if you think about it deeply enough. But then thinking deeply about Vienna sausages is always spooky. The world may be just one Vienna sausage away from culinary Armageddon, the powers of putrid pancreas unleashed in my hotel room to spread itself across the world.

I'm just one brand from bring about Viennese Armageddon.
When the final can is inserted into the center it will complete the pattern.
It will unleash the powers of, well, really bad meat.

I have a few choices for the next can, Hormel, Goya, or Hereford.

It's simply chilling, isn't it? Oooo… Vienna chili… Hmm…

October 12, 2004 in fluff | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

October 11, 2004

Maxime Faget - Rest In Peace

Okay, so I didn't get any posting done this weekend. I had to go from Nashville to Dallas on Thursday and unfortunately got a vicious cold on Saturday, so I spent all day Sunday, my first day off in over a month, sleeping in a haze. Monday I return to Nashville, if all goes well down here.

Meanwhile, space pioneer Maxime Faget passed away on Saturday. He's one of the legends of the space program, like Oberth, von Braun, van Allen, Dryden, and so many others whose insight and determination made modern space flight possible.

October 11, 2004 in Science | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack