2009-11-25

Obese people on-board: discrimination?

 
The Canadian Supreme Court wisely ruled that people like this should not have to pay for more than one plane ticket, because that would be discrimination:



I am pro-discrimination.

By that token, maybe the Canadian Supreme Court should extend its anti-discrimination activism to roller coaster rides? Surely, the minimum height standards discriminate against midgets.

2009-11-22

Belle de Jour: Freakonomics interview

"Belle de Jour" is the pseudonym of a woman scientist, blogger and author, known for writing about her experiences as a call girl.

Now that her identity has been revealed, an interview with her appears on Freakonomics:
In 2003, a young American woman in London studying for her PhD. ran into money trouble. To support herself while writing her thesis, she joined an escort service. Under the assumed name Belle de Jour, she started to blog her experiences. That blog led to a series of successful, jaunty memoirs beginning with 2005’s The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. The books were adapted for television in the U.K. (where she is portrayed by Billie Piper) and later in the U.S. All the while, as Belle de Jour garnered more attention — and criticism, for portraying prostitution as a glamorous career choice — the woman behind Belle de Jour struggled to keep her anonymity. This month, as an ex-boyfriend threatened to blow her cover, Belle approached one of her critics, the London journalist India Knight of the Sunday Times, to reveal her identity. That resulted in an article, published Nov. 15, outing her as Dr. Brooke Magnanti, 34, a neurotoxicologist at the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health. This week, she agreed to answer a few questions for the Freakonomics blog, about her work as a call girl and as a scientist.
I think a lot more women should be entering this sort of career, it should be a lot more commonplace, the expected quality of service should become higher, prices of high quality service should be driven somewhat lower, and a lot of prejudice should be shed by the public.

We owe a lot of gratitude to women like Dr. Magnanti for helping especially with the latter.

Also, I just love the language she uses on her blog. A couple of quotations:
Reminded me of something we used to say, that inside most porn actresses is a failed real actress*. Inside every tabloid hackette is a not-very-bright girl who dreamed of being Kate Adie but didn't have the work ethic or talent to make it happen. Journalists my sweet Tallahassee ass. You are to historical record what my books are to fine literature.
Go on, open a Sunday supplement today. How many pages in before you encounter some polly filler by a female columnist implying men in general (or her man in particular) doesn't pull his weight at home, while she majestically juggles family, work, and the burden of having a vagina which has the audacity to bleed once a month? How many pages before you encounter some self-flagellating male columnist admitting to same?

Let me state for the record that if being a man was easy, hookers wouldn't exist. Fact.

And this:
He asked me to undress to the level of underwear (requested: bra, stockings with suspenders, knickers over the suspenders - so the stockings could stay on during sex). I did this.

Then, he asked if I would undress him.

And that was when I noticed. The odd angle of his uneven shoulders, his narrow chest, the gouge-like scars. I didn't ask, he offered nothing, and I ran my hands over his body with no hesitation. He asked me to swing his legs onto the bed, and when I did, I saw the walking sticks next to it for the first time.

That client did not reach orgasm but enjoyed the sex. We talked afterwards, he about his upbringing in Africa. His hair was thick and dark and when he said his age I could not believe it. He was much older than he looked, far older than my father! I could see in the moustache and cheekbones a man who, had his health outcome been different, might have been a dashing RAF pilot in some other world. I continued to stroke the unusual topography of his body, lightly over the lumps and odd moles, harder when I reached his (still semi-erect) penis. He, correctly, identified where I was from based on the pronunciation of a single word that came up in conversation. I can't remember if this encounter is in any the books... on the blog, he was mentioned only in passing, and not because of disability. We talked about holidays, about sunshine and the sea.

This is what comes to mind when I read people like Harriet Harman describing selling sex as "truly medieval" and "just so wrong". For her, presumably, her sex drive is constrained neither by opportunity nor the form of her body. She can and, I assume, does have sex as and when (and if) she wants it.

Other people are not in the same position. And surely denying them access the human touch is short-sighted and "truly medieval". I do not believe for a single moment, however, that these campaigners against sex work have a single ounce of compassion for the trafficked women they claim to want to help, so perhaps asking them to have compassion for people who, simply by fate, happen not to have the freedom or opportunity for a fulfilling sex life so many of us take for granted is far too large a request.

Evil in Russia prospers

CEO and co-founder of former leading foreign investor in Russia says that Russia is now a criminal state:
"When Putin first showed up and said he was going to tame the oligarchs I was the biggest fan of that particular concept. Then I realised that what he meant by taming the oligarchs was by sticking law enforcement people in their place," he says.

"Now you have a bunch of law enforcement people who are essentially organised criminals with unlimited power to ruin lives take property and do whatever they like and that's far worse than I have ever seen in Russia before. Russia is essentially a criminal state now."

2009-11-21

Values across the world

Fascinating - a map based on research of how people's values differ across the globe:


2009-11-20

Israel should move to West Australia

I've said it before: Israel is a historic mistake, and their religious zealotry is no better than the zealotry of the Muslims.

Israel should get a taste of their own medicine, and be moved to West Australia. They've built a country out of the desert once before; they can do it once again. Except this time, the land should be properly purchased; the borders should be well defined; and there will be no "holy" land to fight about, and no angry, disenfranchised neighbors.

Then everyone, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, can get on with their lives, let this mess be over with, and continue to live in peace.

But that would be no "fun" then, would it?

2009-11-12

The subconscious: The tail that wags the dog

I had an interesting dream today. Not long before my alarm went off, I dreamt being in a house that I know, and for some reason, Vladimir Putin was there. We exchanged a few sentences, I'm not sure about what exactly. Then he went into another room to meet some other people, and then he was about to leave. I felt that an important concern of mine wasn't addressed, so I caught up with him at the front door. "Hey Mr. Putin," I said, and he looked at me expectantly. I said, "Don't start a world war." The look on his face was one of confusion and bewilderment. I repeated, "Please don't start a world war. I mean... don't start another world war." He understood now. For a few moments there, he was at a loss for words, with an open mouth, more than apparently dismayed - as if to say, that's what you think about me? That I would do something like that? Quickly though, he found his wits, and his expression changed completely. "Ha!" he said, in a tone that suggested, you won't trick me like that! "Not everyone gets a look up my leg named Gari Barov." I didn't understand. "What?" He repeated: "Not everyone gets a look up my leg named Gari Barov." I was obviously confused. I didn't mean to trick anyone in the first place, and now I had no idea who this Gari Barov person is, and what he's doing looking up anyone's leg. I still don't think I even caught the name correctly. Putin picked up on my confusion, and explained: "Gari Barov? The short guy." He gestured a height a few feet above the floor. "Not everyone gets a look up my leg named Gari Barov." He felt that his explanation was done, and promptly left, while I was still contemplating his response, bewildered.

More than a few seconds thereafter, it dawned on me. In this encounter, Putin was wearing shorts. A really short person could look up his pant leg and see what kind of underwear Putin was wearing, if any. Gari Barov, who is apparently a short person, could do it. But most other people, even if they're also named Gari Barov, aren't short. They can't tell whether Putin is wearing underwear.

What he said was, then: Russia must be able to make a believable threat. If I tell you I'm not going to blow up the world, that would be tantamount to admitting I'm bluffing.

I have no psychic link to anyone, let alone Vladimir Putin, obviously. But I find this dream fascinating because of the apparent ability of the subconscious to communicate meaningful messages which it takes a while for the conscious mind to understand.

It is sometimes said that, if a person is like an iceberg, then the conscious mind is the tip that's visible, and the subconscious is the 90% that lies hidden underneath. I've tended to think that the subconscious is like a tanker - a largely passive, reactive object with huge inertia that the conscious mind must make a great and persistent effort to steer. Experiences like this, though, suggest that the subconscious could be more; that its role could be more active. How much more active?

2009-11-11

Catholic water fonts

I was raised as a Catholic - or at least, my mom attempted to do so. I attended church at the time, and I had suspicions about some of the traditions there that seemed a wee bit gross.

Two habits, in particular, seem to give excellent opportunity for the spreading of microbes. The communion is one. It is conducted during every Catholic mass, and it involves the priest handing out small, very thin, blandly tasting slices of bread to everyone in the audience who queues to receive one. While some people take the communion into their hands, many open their mouths and accept it on their tongue. The priest might try to avoid touching people's mouths and tongues, but this is hard to achieve, so he most likely spreads microbes onto bread which ends up with other people.

The other questionable practice I recall is the font with the holy water. Whenever a believer enters or exits a Catholic church, they are expected to dip their fingers into an open bowl of water that might be changed now and then, but looks and smells fairly stale. The believer then ought to make the sign of the cross with their wet fingers, which - depending on how the person chooses to do it - involves touching the holy water on their forehead as well as possibly the lips.

The Catholic church used to have more questionable rituals yet. Nowadays, there is a part of the mass where members of the audience shake hands and extend peaceful wishes to the other random attendees around them. Centuries ago, this ritual used to involve kissing on the lips. (Genders were separated, so you would kiss people of the same sex.)

The reason I'm writing about this today, though, is not about the unhygienic rituals themselves. It's about what people's participation in, or avoidance of, these rituals, suggests about the depth of their beliefs. See this:
Catholic churches in Italy are installing automatic holy water dispensers to help reduce the risk of spreading swine flu.

The outbreak of the H1N1 virus has led many churches to suspend the tradition of having holy water in open fonts into which people dip their hands.

The new machine works like an automatic soap dispenser, squirting water when a hand is passed under the tap.

[...]

Churchgoer Marta Caimmi agreed.

"It's great," she said. "Thanks to this we are not worried about catching swine flu. It is the right thing for the times."

[...]

"Some people had stopped dipping their hand into the holy water font as they were afraid of infections," he told Reuters.

"Some people even pretended to touch the water but they just touched the marble edge of the font. I think that it is a pity to lose our traditions."
I'm pointing this out because I think it demonstrates the underlying rationality of people whose ostensible faith ought to be irrational.

The holy water in church is supposed to be part of a purification ritual. It is supposed to be holy. Blessed. Pure. Believers are supposed to spread it on their skin (or lips) to purify themselves with it.

And yet: the believers' very behavior, their very comments above, demonstrate that they are aware of how microbes can spread in stale holy water. They very much suspect that the holy water doesn't have the purification powers needed to cleanse it of microbes. They want to create the appearance of following tradition, however. It is nice to have a ritual to signal their faith, to show that they fit in.

With traditional holy water fonts, they face a dilemma. They either have to pretend to touch the water, but not touch it, and risk that people will see this. Or, they have to actually dip their fingers in, and swallow a small risk to their health in order to convincingly signal faith. This makes the situation awkward, and the arrival of hygienic dispensers makes everyone relieved. Now everyone can signal their faith without worrying.

The very presence of this new invention in a church is evidence that hardly anyone there has misconceptions about the true extent of the holy water's powers of purification.

Combine this with the casual attitude to Catholic dogma that believers in Europe tend to have, and it seems that people either go to church for main reasons other than faith - perhaps they go to see others and to be seen; or else, they compartmentalize effectively in such a way that they have strong faith where it can't obviously hurt, but they switch to evidence and reason where it matters.

Since priests are the ones buying and installing the new holy water dispensers, it seems that they are at least as pragmatic as anyone else. If they truly believed, they could just bless the holy water and say that this makes all the microbes go away. Unless they doubt their powers of blessing.

And this is all a good thing. Religion can coexist with the rational world as long as it doesn't conflict it. Religion as practiced in Europe has already adapted to a large extent. Various fundamentalisms and religiously oppressive states, however, show how things become where this hasn't happened.

2009-11-10

Rejection massively reduces IQ

Wow (link):
Baumeister's team used two separate procedures to investigate the effects of rejection. In the first, a group of strangers met, got to know each other, and then separated. Each individual was asked to list which two other people they would like to work with on a task. They were then told they had been chosen by none or all of the others.

In the second, people taking a personality test were given false feedback, telling them they would end up alone in life or surrounded by friends and family.

Aggression scores increased in the rejected groups. But the IQ scores also immediately dropped by about 25 per cent, and their analytical reasoning scores dropped by 30 per cent.

"These are very big effects - the biggest I've got in 25 years of research," says Baumeister. "This tells us a lot about human nature. People really seem designed to get along with others, and when you're excluded, this has significant effects."

Baumeister thinks rejection interferes with a person's self-control. "To live in society, people have to have an inner mechanism that regulates their behaviour. Rejection defeats the purpose of this, and people become impulsive and self-destructive. You have to use self-control to analyse a problem in an IQ test, for example - and instead, you behave impulsively."

2009-11-08

The consequences of early life stress

Wow (link):
"We separated the pups from their mothers for three hours each day for ten days," Dr Murgatroyd explained.

"It was a very mild stress and the animals were not affected at a nutritional level, but they would [have felt] abandoned."

The team found that mice that had been "abandoned" during their early lives were then less able to cope with stressful situations throughout their lives.

The stressed mice also had poorer memories.

Dr Murgatroyd explained that these effects were caused by "epigenetic changes", where the early stressful experience actually changed the DNA of some of the animals' genes.

"This is a two-step mechanism," Dr Murgatroyd explained.

When the baby mice were stressed, they produced high levels of stress hormones.

These hormones "tweak" the DNA of a gene that codes for a specific stress hormone - vasopressin.

"This leaves a permanent mark at the vasopressin gene," said Dr Murgatroyd. "It is then programmed to produce high levels [of the hormone] later on in life."

The researchers were able to show that vasopressin was behind the behavioural and memory problems. When the adult mice were given a drug that blocked the effects of the hormone, their behaviour returned to normal.

2009-11-06

Give organ donors free health care!

Robin Hanson quotes research which finds that blood donors aren't really put off by the prospect of being paid for their donation, they just don't want cash. Vouchers would work just fine, though.

Commenter Michael Keennan then comes up with this ingenious idea: instead of refusing to compensate organ donors at all due to ethical concerns, why not pay them back in kind? How about, for example, giving kidney donors free health insurance for the remainder of their lives? That would surely cause more people to consider donating their kidneys, which may save plenty lives; and I don't see how it raises any ethical dilemmas. Doesn't it seem fair and just for people who have donated an organ to receive free health care in return? Doesn't it seem more unjust if they do not?

2009-11-04

Education as demonstration of willingness to suffer

This exchange summarizes my opinion of much - though not all - university-level education:
Doug S: Remember: the job of a university professor is to do research and bring in grant money for said research, not to teach! Teaching is incidental.

redired urologist: So why do the parents pay $40,000+ annually for this type of service?

Doug S: In most cases, it’s not the education that’s worth $40,000+. It’s the diploma. Earning a diploma demonstrates that you are willing to suffer in exchange for vague promises of future reward, which is a trait that employers value.
So Dilbertesque... but - like Dilbert - generally true.