Thursday, February 27, 2014

Braille Money.

This should be self-explanatory. The Canadians have done it.You'd think that it's a lot cheaper than some of the other features they've recently introduced, such as the polymer stripe and holographic ink. And it's one thing that people really, really need on the money.

It's not like they haven't thought of it, or even spent money on it. From the Bureau of Engraving and Printing:
"Also, a machine-readable feature has been incorporated for the blind. It will facilitate development of convenient scanning devices that could identify the denomination of the note."
So the blind have to use an expensive electronic device to scan the bills, which they FIRST HAVE TO INVENT, instead of just reading a few bumps that could be impressed on the bill by running the proofs through an embossing roller.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What Does Your Police Chief Need With An Army?

I believe that by and large, the police of this country are decent, honest folks who are doing their best to do a difficult and dangerous job. I certainly am on the side of law and order.

However there is a trend in law enforcement that I believe should be completely stopped. Special response teams such as SWAT ("Special  Weapons And Tactics"). You've seen them... military gear, military vehicles, military weapons, military bearing, and little to no regard for the due process that is the hallmark of legitimate law enforcement.

And yes, I said "legitimate law enforcement", which is, I believe, something that SWAT teams are not. Please read to this report from the Cato institute:

An issue here is many-faceted and simplistic at the same time.
  1. SWAT teams blur the demarcation between appropriate police and military action. The people that a SWAT team faces are not enemy combatants. They are citizens, who always, 100% of the time, always have Constitutional rights which must be respected. And I don't mean just their right to due process, but all of the rights afforded by the Constitution.
  2. But SWAT teams are "sexy". They've been glamorized in movies and television. As a result, police departments across America want them. And when they see some action going down in Columbine or Sandy Ridge, they consider how they would respond to such an action, and start making plans for their own little armies just like the ones the big-city. It's a little bit of jealousy, mixed with a little bit of fear, mixed with a little bit of hero-complex.
  3. SWAT teams also give the appearance of "doing something", and God knows we need to "do something"... which given only the time required for a knee-jerk reaction is almost always the wrong thing. And SWAT teams are almost never given more time than is appropriate for the "knee-jerk" reaction. Therefore, use of them is almost always the wrong response. .
That's a police car?
Roderick Yang - Creative Commons
SWAT teams are often referred to as "paramilitary", but I think that's mis-informative. Again: military gear, military vehicles, military weapons, military bearing, military tactics, and a military outlook on the nature of their opposition, none of which is appropriate to police work. SWAT teams are tiny militia, under the command of local police chiefs. And that is not kosher, nor in my mind is it constitutional.

Here is article 20 of the Constitution of South Carolina (my home state), which states the problem and solution (emphasis added)
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. As, in times of peace, armies are dangerous to liberty, they shall not be maintained without the consent of the General Assembly. The military power of the State shall always be held in subordination to the civil authority and be governed by it. No soldier shall in time of peace be quartered in any house without the consent of the owner nor in time of war but in the manner prescribed by law. (1970 (56) 2684; 1971 (57) 315.) [PDF]
Now, Article XIII, Section 1 informs us that "the militia" consists of "all able-bodied male citizens of the State between the ages of eighteen and forty-five years" (with certain exemptions, notably conscientious objection), but here we're talking about "active" militia, all of whom must be under the command of the Governor by the direction of the General Assembly. And that is because the kind of safety imposed by a standing army is dangerous to liberty.

Our problem in the present day is that we forget the part about militia being "dangerous" to liberty, burying it behind arguments concerning the public safety. But our indulgence of special response teams results in neither safety nor liberty. Witness this report from regarding Eugene Mallory, an 80-year old man who was executed in his bed, by six bullets fired by a deputy, before being told to "drop the gun"... a gun which Mallory was not holding.

The warrant for this action was executed only on a verbal accusation from a self-proclaimed "expert" in controlled substances who had never set foot on Mallory's property, who claimed he could "smell" methamphetamine from downwind. And no, this incident didn't happen in South Carolina, but it could happen anywhere, and does happen in jurisdictions across the country.

Eugene Mallory's is not an isolated case. I could keep you here all day long with case after case of abuses rained down upon citizens by militarized police. In recent times this has not been limited to SWAT teams. As stated by Wikipedia,
"The relative infrequency of SWAT call-outs means these expensively trained and equipped officers cannot be left to sit around, waiting for an emergency. In many departments the officers are normally deployed to regular duties, but are available for SWAT calls via pagers, mobile phones, or radio transceivers." 
These are policemen?
Oregon DOT - Creative Commons
Those members who have been trained to look at the public as though they are combatants are distributed throughout the force, and they take that mind-set with them. That's inevitable, or else they wouldn't be very effective SWAT team members. And those who aren't a part of the "elite" but aspire to be may adopt that mindset as well. Hence, we have seen a marked increase in the number of shootings by police of innocent citizens and even their pets over recent years.

And here we have another issue. SWAT teams are expensive. The result is that they look like a monumental waste of money if you don't use them. After all, you've gone to the public and argued the urgent need for having a "force" to deal with "urgent" threats; and if you then don't find any urgent threats you look like Chicken Little... and an idiot. So suddenly, non-urgent threats become urgent, and officers who have been trained to deal with terrorists and hostage-takers are deployed in force to pick up a couple of legally-grown pot plants and shoot an old man in bed.

That's what you get with a SWAT team. Eventually, that's what you always get with a SWAT team, I think.

And it's completely  unnecessary. SWAT is by nature intended to equip the police to do things that police aren't equipped to do, and they can never be equipped to do everything. If that sounds to you like an invitation to never-ending escalation of violence and spending, you're right. We do, however, already have a force on hand that is already equipped, funded and trained to do those things, and that is the legitimate militia... the National Guard, properly under the command of the Governor of the state. They can be deployed at the direction of the Governor, given a request and a damned good reason.

And with all due respect to police officers past and present, if you're one of those who thinks that's its "too onerous" to have to provide a damned good reason before charging onto private property in riot gear and firing weapons without first at least attempting to knock at the door and speak civilly, then I don't think you should be doing police work.


[Main photo caption: A SWAT team vehicle. Courtesy Flickr user Roderick Yang. Licensed under Creative Commons:]

Junk Science Keeps On Comin'

I'm a glutton for punishment. I really should have had my fill with The Pyramid Code, but here I am, watching television producers "educate" their audience into ignorance.

This time it's Atlantis: Secret Star Mappers of a Lost World, which I watched on In the interests of full disclosure, I knew from the title that it would probably be crap, but there was the slightest minuscule chance that they would surround the discussion of a fictional utopia with some actual science. There is a little bit. but then they had to spoil it for me.

I'm not going to debunk the whole show. I'll limit myself to one item. Since they gave you a bucket of garbage, perhaps we can at least pull something real out of it. At right about 31 minutes into the program there's a discussion of ancient maps, and ... oh, well, I'll just give you the quote:
"These seeking maps show accurate east-west distances, and that requires a knowledge - and accurate knowledge - of time. you have to measure time to get that. Now, they didn't have clocks back then. They didn't have timepieces at 2000, 3000 B.C. So they had to have another mechanism by which they could measure time. And that mechanism is the slow wobble of the Earth's axis, which would cycle once in 25,920 years. And with this rate of the wobble of the Earth's axis, the constellations of the zodiac appear to move along the horizon. They knew this rate, therefore they could measure time, and therefore measure east-west distances."
Now, there is absolutely no way to say this politely, so I'm not going to try. This is a tremendous load of complete bullshit. The author of this astonishingly ignorant statement is James I. Nienhuis, who is the author of "Ice Age Civilizations". I mention the book because it's prominently featured as a credential under his name, and which (oddly) I found in its entirety as a PDF file on I'd link you to it, but you've got Google, same as me.

Nienhuis is a young Earth creationist, but more important to the current discussion, he has not the slightest clue on how navigation and cartography are done. I'm going to focus purely on two things here, one from the frontspiece of his book and one from the quote above, because the one informs the other, and I don't want you to think I'm taking his ignorance out of context. Let's start with the book:
"The precise measurements and religious observances of the apparent movements of the sun and constellations of stars, in their orderly and predictable course in the sky, was a great passion for the ancients, and such is reflected in their legends, megalithic buildings, and navigation maps, which reveal the ancients' awareness of the solar equinoxes and solstices, and also, which reveal that they actually measured the precession of the earth's axis, the slow gyroscope-like wobble of the earth's axis in space, that would cycle once in 25,920 years. Those ancients could measure the earth with this knowledge because it allowed them to accurately calculate the radius and, so then, the circumference of the earth, and thereby, they were prepared to execute measurements for the accurate mapping and navigation of much of the globe within a few centuries during the Ice Age."
One does not need any knowledge of the Earth's precession, much less its period, to make an impressively accurate estimate of the circumference of the Earth. Eratosthenes of Cyrene did it in the 3rd century B.C.E.. Here's how:

Pretty simple and obvious, right? Nienhuis would have you go 25,920 years out of your way to get the answer to that dead simple geometry problem. He would have you believe that ancient, esoteric superscience was necessary to solve a problem that could be solved with a stick.

I repeat: with a stick.

Now, let's look at his assertion in the Atlantis... program... that the mechanism if timekeeping used by the ancients to make accurate "east-west distances" was this same precession.

Hogwash. Nienhuis doesn't display an understanding the rudiments of navigation. When we're done in a moment, you will, though. So settle in and we'll go through the basics

The Basics

Even knowing the circumference of the Earth, it's difficult to measure distances between landmasses because you can't just pace off the distance. But you know that the Earth is round; and regardless of whether you believe it rotates or the Sun moves around it, the Sun appears to move from east to west, with local noon occurring at whatever spot happens to be directly under it. Now, if you have a clock, then you set it to the correct time for your home port. Then, as you travel, you note the position of stars... it matters little which. You then note the difference in where you perceive them to be where you are and where you'd expect them to be back home. This tells you were you are.

Now, to do this you're going need to know the circumference of the Earth at your latitude. Look at a globe and you'll see that the lines of latitude actually form circles, and the circles get smaller as you near the poles.

You remember from plane geometry that circumference = pi * diameter. Because the Earth is a spheroid, we can calculate how big each circle is. It size varies with the distance from the Equator, so any line of latitude's circumference is pi * diameter * cos(latitude). If you're using a calculator, remember that we express latitude in degrees. We can then calculate how far along that line we've traveled by determining how much local time differs from the time back home.

Here's an example:

For my simple example, I'm going to use the easiest star, which also happens to be the one closest to us. It's the Sun.

When at my home port of Charleston, I set my clock to 12:00 exactly at solar noon. Then I travel to Casablanca. At solar noon in Casablanca I look at my watch, which says 7 am. So I have observed that "noon" in Casablanca occurs 5 hours earlier than noon in Charleston. I also know my latitude, which I got from looking at the pole star Polaris the night before and noting how high off the horizon it appeared to be. Since Casablanca's at 33.5N, and Charleston's at 32.7N, I'm going to average them out and say they're both on the 33rd parallel for our purposes. Thanks to the method I learned from Eratosthenes, I know that the Earth is about 24,900 miles around, which makes its diameter 7,926 miles.

Armed with all of this, I calculate that the circumference of the 33rd parallel is

equatorial diameter * pi * cos(latitude)
7926 * 3.14159 * cos(33) 
about 20,883 miles

I also know there are 24 hours in the day, and I'm five hours away from my home port. So the distance I've traveled is 20,883 / 24 * 5, or about 4,350 miles, which is pretty close to what we'd sail if we stayed on the 33rd parallel and didn't take the Great Circle route (which would save us a couple of hundred miles).

There is no circumstance in which knowing about a 25,000 year-long cycle will help you with this calculation.

Now, in practice, the sun's not going to stick around waiting for you, and at night you'd use star charts. These will tell you what latitude and longitude a particular star is expected to be at a particular time and day of the year, and knowing where it is versus where you expected it to be you can calculate your position the very same way we did it using the Sun. After all, the Sun in simply the closest star.  But again, these charts are only useful if they tell you where to expect the stars now. Your charts should be accurate and recent.

Now, Atlantis... beats it into you that the modern method of map making is based on the relationship of time to distance. It's stated over and over and over again, along with the assertion that this is somehow, in a completely undefined way, associated with the knowledge of the Earth's precession. In fact, as you can see for yourself above, where the stars were thousands of years ago is of precisely useless in cartography or navigation. It's useless when calculating your longitude; it's useless when calculating your latitude, and it's useless when determining the time. They are conflating two completely different forms of time measurement, trusting that you won't notice that the one thing they have in common is the word time.
While I'm at it... "modern" cartography depends a lot on the GPS satellites, and is no longer done by reading the stars with a sextant.
If you want to calculate your longitude, what you need is a chronometer, not a calendar. What the ancients had to do was figure out a way to tell the time of day. Could they?

Well, Nienhuis makes a big deal out of the lack of "clocks". But without qualification, when you hear "clock" you're thinking in terms of a modern timepiece, no more primitive than a clockwork mechanism with gears and springs. That's not the only way to tell time. Here are a few others, known and used by the ancients:
  1. Water clocks tell the time in several ways... the simplest is the steady drip of water through a small hole in the container, the remaining water level indicating the time. Some used wheels to measure a steady flow, or had various levels of complexity, but you get the point. These are the oldest confirmed clocks, known to exist in Babylon in the 16th century B.C.E.
  2. Candle clocks tell the time via the slow and steady burn of a candle marked along its length with graduations that indicate the amount of time it's been burning, or the amount of oil left in a lamp.
  3. Hourglasses tell the time by the slow release of sand. They're not terribly accurate.
I should mention in passing that the Antikythera mechanism was not a clock. Rather it was more akin to a mechanical calendrical calculator.That's not the kind of time you're looking for. Move along.

In mentioning these ancient clocks, I'm not saying this is how it was done, or that these are the only ways to do it. But keep in mind that ancient thinkers were not idiots. They were so used to working within the limitations of their technology that things that seem like insurmountable problems to us were commonplace challenges to them.

While accurate timepieces are needed for accurate measurements on long voyages, that doesn't mean that less accurate timepieces are useless... they're just useful for a shorter period of time. These ancient clocks were not terribly accurate, but then again they didn't really have to be. They just had to be accurate enough to get you to your next landfall. At that point you can re-calibrate using local observations. Although you may navigate at night, when you're mapping, it's daylight. And yes, the errors are cumulative, but look at an ancient map. They're not nearly so precise as the gushing of these presenters would have you believe.

I'm going to leave it at that for now. There's so much wrong here that I got tired watching it.


Postscript: One more thing before I put this issue aside. This bit of debunking has nothing whatsoever to do with having an open or closed mind  It has nothing to do with whether or not you believe that the description of an allegorical anti-utopia in the writings of one ancient scholar represent historical fact. It doesn't matter whether you think the Earth was born yesterday. It has to do with math.

A closed mind won't change the math, and it's not possible to just brush it aside. And when Nienhuis is so completely wrong about such a fundamentally simple concept that is so easy to verify that you can do it right there in your armchair, you absolutely owe it to yourself to take other statements he makes with a skeptical attitude.

This isn't a passing mistake. It's a fundamental error. It leads the introduction of his book. He expounds on it in this movie. Ask yourself whether deliberately misleading you, does not check his facts, or is simply abysmally bad at fact-checking. Then ask which of these would make it OK to take his word at face value.


Post-Postscript: Why did I not calculate the Great Circle route? Partly because it's a pain in the ass and I'm giving you an introduction, not a course in spherical trigonometry. But if you're interested, here's how [link]. The linked site will not only give you the formulae; it will give you code you can use to do the spherical trig on your computer. 

But the main reason is the same as why the Mercator projection was preferred by sailors... it gives true compass bearings. An ancient sailor is not only going to eschew the complicated math, he's going to be more concerned with knowing where he is than optimizing his route. So the distance I gave is that which you'd travel if you sailed due East for the entire trip.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Well, since you ASKED...

I guess whoever made the graphic thought it was really clever. It would have been a lot more clever had they recognized and acknowleged that "chemical medications" have been around for those same thousands of years.

You see, the herbs and berries and juices and oils touted by alternative medicine are composed completely and solely of "chemicals". EVERY SINGLE BIT. There's NO ingredient in ANY natural medication that is NOT "chemical". Not one, ever, ever in the history of ever. The closing statement of the graphic above is ludicrously non-informative, and it is just plain wrong.

The problem with some of the natural remedies isn't that they're natural. And the "problem" with artificial chemicals isn't that they're artificial. At least, not when you put your mind to it. Let's take for example the case of willow bark tea... a very effective painkiller. But from experience and careful testing we know that of the myriad chemicals in willow tree bark, only one kills pain: Salicin.

Now, why does salicin alleviate pain? When metabolized by the body it breaks down into two components, one of which, salicylic alcohol, is further metabolized into salicylic acid, and that's the stuff that kills pain. It does that by inhibiting the enzyme that create prostaglandins, which are fatty molecules that both communicate pain and assist blood clotting. Your body does a lot of chemistry to get you there, but the thing in the bark that's useful is the salicin.

Knowing this, chemists took their knowledge of the plants, isolated the active ingredient that does the work, removing all the other ingredients that don't, and stabilized it. The result is acetysalicylic acid, which metabolizes directly to that same salicylic acid... the same stuff that you get to from willow bark, without being adulterated by extraneous ingredients. Your body wouldn't look for the "made by" label on the molecule even if such a thing existed.

And because the resulting chemical is pure, the dosage can be controlled. You don't know how much medicine you're getting from a willow bark infusion; but you do from a pill.

That pill, by the way, is called Aspirin. It's more like 150 years old, as it was first prepared in 1853.


Contrary to popular belief, doctors, chemists, and pharmacists do not decry "natural" remedies just because they're natural. Indeed, an "alternative medicine" that is proven to work is called....


Medical researchers actively examine all manner of plants and animals in search of useful chemistry, and for good reason... a living organism in its environment is the most advanced chemical research laboratory there is. Aspirin is simply the first, and most high-profile example of this. But these researchers go far beyond the herbalist or homeopath. They don't stop at saying whether something works: they then ask the questions:
  • What in it is doing the work? 
  • Why does it work?
  • How does it work?
  • Can it work better? Safer? In a controlled fashion?
Remember, when you're taking a "natural" infusion, you're getting some medicine, yes... but you're also ingesting a lot of chemicals that are not medicine, by any definition. What do they do? Why are you taking not-medicine along with your medicine? Because it's natural? Even willow-bark tea isn't necessarily safe. Salicin may have contributed to the death of Ludwig von Beethoven. Look at what else is natural...
  • Socrates was put to death using a tea made of hemlock. Like all plants of the time it was organically grown. I suppose you could say that he died of "natural" causes.
  • Strychnine is all natural. It's so toxic that the poison and the plant have the same name. That is, when we're not calling it "rat poison".
  • Cyanide is found in all-natural wholesome apples, cherries, peaches, plums, almonds, and apricots. I know that essential oils are all the rage now, but unless carefully prepared in such a way that negates any possible claim of being "natural", some of them (extract of bitter almond, for instance), could quickly kill you.
  • Cassavas are nice. They're what's used to make tapioca. But they're also toxic if not processed. If you like your cassavas as God made them, you may enjoy having pancreatitis.
  • Potatoes contain alkaloids like solanine, so you don't want to eat the green ones, and you definitely want to cook them thoroughly; otherwise you could wind up organically dead.
  • Likewise, tomatoes and other members of the nightshade family contain poisonous solanine. The berries of the tomato plant are OK to eat, but make a tea from the leaves only if you're all done with living and would like to leave a sun-dried corpse.
  • Try eating horse chestnuts and see how many you get down without experiencing projectile vomiting and convulsions. If you eat them quickly you could enjoy paralysis.
I could go on for a very, very long time. There are as many dangerous, poisonous, and inedible plants, bacteria and fungi as there are beneficial ones. Anyone who claims that something is safe merely because it is "all natural" is either lying to you or uncritically repeating a falsehood that he or she heard.

Don't you be the one to do that. The very first thing you should ask when confronted with the phrase "all natural" is "has it been tested, and how?"

Even poisons can be medicines in the right doses. And even oxygen can be toxic in the wrong dose. And chemicals... even the natural ones... react with those around them. How effective they are is often determined by the company they keep. What pharmaceuticals do is control those parameters so you know what your'e getting. And even then the results are not 100%, nor will they ever be, as everyone's body chemistry is subtly different.


This blog post is NOT a claim that all alternative medicines are bad. Since you're reading and this isn't a conversation, I don't even know what your favorite underdog is.

Rather, it's an admonition to use your mind and neither accept something because it contains a "good" buzzword nor reject something because it contains a "bad" buzzword. Scientists don't do that, and neither should you.

Remember, "alternative medicine" that is proven to work is called "medicine". You're making the claim, so you have a burden that you can't pass off... the answer to anyone who doubts your favorite alternative treatment is for you to prove it works. Not with anecdotes, and not with folksy sayings, and not with superficially slick yet fundamentally logically flawed platitudes about how long people did it the "traditional" way. Instead you prove it with proof.  That would be double-blind repeatable studies that show that the treatment is more effective than a placebo. 

It's been thousands of years, so there's really no excuse for not having done it by now.


On Facebook, Heather observes that "Doctors are more inclined to prescribe pills rather than a plan for good nutrition that could perhaps have the same (or better) results when taking into account side effects."

Correct. To be fair, though, many doctors of my acquaintance do stress nutrition, and have for a long time. They also, if you ask, will admit that the vast majority of the things that can go wrong with a human body will fix themselves, given the opportunity.

A great example: A few years back I tore both rotator cuffs in my shoulders. The doctor offered both painkillers and surgery, but when I asked for other options he said it would heal if I exercised it properly... but it would be painful. I hung a simple pulley from the ceiling and used it to help work the arms past the point of pain where they'd "catch". And yup it was painful, but they did heal. And to be honest, the pain wasn't THAT bad. I've been hurt worse playing baseball.

Unfortunately this ability of the body to fix itself often leads to the erroneous conclusion that some something else did the healing. You take Brand X and get better, and you reach the conclusion that Brand X cures your ailment, when you'd've healed on your own anyway. Most cold medications do exactly that. You take it "for your cold", but really the common cold is going to run its course. You're really taking the medication to reduce the symptoms. Your resulting conviction that the cure worked is called "confirmation bias", and it's a logical fallacy.

Even then, reducing the symptoms isn't always the best idea. Your nose stops up and you get a fever because that's how the body fights off invaders.

However, back to nutrition. Doctors have to take it into account to some degree, and more should, because even "healthy" fruits and vegetables may not be healthy in company... for instance, there is a HUGE laundry list of medications that can be rendered impotent by eating grapefruit. Sounds weird, but there you go. Grapefruit contains anti-oxidants and vitamin C and they lower cholesterol, which is all great; but often not when you're on medication.


Also on Facebook, Jenny notes: 
Thanks for the interesting commentary, Dave. I do think that the "active" ingredient in a substance exists in a highly sophisticated context of micronutrients and energetics and so on, a synergy that (although it may be very subtle and not currently noticed by our scientific instruments, as that's not what they're looking at) causes the "active" ingredient to work at its best. We are a culture of parts, not of wholes, but nature works in wholes exclusively, and we forget that to our detriment. That's not to say that something like aspirin doesn't work well; just to point out that the most measurable part of the phenomenon is almost certainly not the only force at play. I agree with you about all the rest, though!
That's certainly a possibility and sometimes a reality, but it's not the only one, nor by some measures the most likely one. First, let's remember that the substances exist within the plants for the plants' benefit; not for ours, and that our body chemistry is very different from that of a plant. Even within animals, body chemistry matters. For instance, chocolate is a delicious treat for humans, but poisonous to dogs.

So even when we consider that the chemical is found with a holistic mix, that mix isn't necessarily for you, especially if the plant is from a remote region where humans had little or nothing to do with its breeding. Remember, organisms develop those traits that are most beneficial to their own survival within an environment. That environment includes other organisms, so symbiosis does exist, but if it's an obscure species, you're not part of that. You're taking and using someone else's stuff to your benefit, and that's not always appropriate to your needs.

So what are the possibilities?
  1. The substance works best with the entire chemistry of the plant, as per assumption.
  2. The other chemical components of the plant make no difference. They're neutral. But, being neutral, they still dilute the medicinal substance and make the dosage less predictable.
  3. The other chemical components of the plant reduce the effectiveness of the medicine in humans. as happens routinely in the grapefruit effect. If we're going to consider wholes, then we must also consider that chemistry is balanced, and is rarely all good or bad. Yin-Yang is a synthesis, which leads to...
  4. The other chemical substances are directly harmful, or even poisonous.
Three out of the four possibilities are not the rosy one pictured. Which of them is true is answered by the scientific queries I previously listed. "What's working?" "Why does it work?" "How does it work?" "Can it work better? Safer? In a controlled fashion?"

There's a 75% chance of getting it wrong by merely trusting that nature does it best.

Remember, my point isn't that "natural" is necessarily bad. It's that it's not necessarily good either. It is what it is, and we can't determine what that is by anecdote and assumption. So trust, but verify.


Per the Anonymous comment here, Tim Minchin hits the same note (and a few more) in a 9-minute beat poem called "Storm". Tim's a bit more confrontational about it. I would like to point out, too that Aspirin is hardly what I'd call "virtually side effect free" as he claims. Actually, there's a fairly long list, including allergies, angiodema, bleeding, and Reye's syndrome. Here's the list [link]. Nevertheless it's still my go-to medicine for pain.

Still, while science certainly doesn't have ALL the answers, concerning the physical world, it is how we discover them.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

On Addiction

A friend on Facebook posted a link to this blog post from

Posted in the wake of the relapse and death of actor and addict Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the article makes some points, both good and bad. Now keep in mind that this is a complicated subject, and a complicated case as well, but early on Bayer's post reads like an over-long exercise in excuse-making and victim mentality. So much so that it's tempting to just say tl;dnr (which you may wind up doing here, too). But her better points are at the end.

 "Wally" (a friend of my friend), insightfully responded, "His free Will was in place the FIRST time he stuck the needle in his arm."

EXACTLY. And his Free Will was in place in those moments when he had actually taken the drug and the "fight or flight mechanism" was no longer in place.

It does the addict no favors whatsoever to tell him that he has "no choice" in the matter... that it's just the way his brain is wired, when that is "factually incorrect", to use Bayer's own mis-applied term. He has the choice to seek help, always. And it does no good to imply that a doctor can cure your addiction.

My wife couldn't quit cigarettes though she tried for 17 years. This was not merely an addiction to nicotine. Addiction is not just about the substance. I bought her nicotine patches and she still smoked, and got sick from the excess nicotine. I got her nicotine gum; same result. I got her e-cigarettes... the kind that look like cigarettes. They never got shorter, so she'd suck on them and suck on them until she'd exhaust a two-pack equivalent in 20 minutes, getting sick and inflaming her mouth. And she'd still want the "real" cigarette.

Finally she decided that she could not do it on her own. With a cigarette in her hand, cravings satisfied, she agreed that I should buy her no more. And that, when she begged for one, I should not supply her. And I haven't. Nor will the kids, nor any of her friends. Note that it was her decision... simply telling an addict isn't enough. She will go around you. Education alone is useless. There is no amount of "help" or "treatment" that you can offer that will work unless that choice is made. Ever.

Debbie Bayer's title is factually wrong.

I use the phrase "addictive personality", understanding that our personality is shaped by our physiology. Your brain and mine are not identical machines running different software. It doesn't have to be cigarettes. An addict may become addicted to anything that brings them comfort. There is a physiological component of addiction, but that's not all there is. This is why we can become "addicted" to things that have no physiological component. The amount of endorphin released by a blog post is minuscule. Nevertheless people can be addicted to the Internet (and it's a real addiction). We can even become addicted to imaginary stimuli. But though our personality is shaped by our physiology, that is not absolute. We can make choices when we are sober that will keep us sober. We can make those choices when we are convinced that we are empowered to do so, and never when we are beaten into believing that the choice doesn't exist. But the effective choice is to seek help, not to overcome the addiction, because that will never happen.

Bayer is also factually incorrect when she states that addicts don't know their "brains are broken". My father was a morphine addict. He knew that wasn't "normal". Addicts often know about their problem long before the people around them do. Being "in denial" doesn't mean you don't see the truth... it means that you see the truth and reject it. The point of an intervention isn't to reveal his addiction to an addict, it's to reveal the fact that you know about it. That his denial isn't working. The addict has to acknowledge the problem, yes. But then he must come to the realization that it affects other people, and that an addict is never cured. An alcoholic who hasn't taken a drink in 20 years is still an alcoholic; and the solution isn't to pretend to "cure" it so that alcohol is OK... it's to stay away from alcohol. And that is something that no doctor anywhere can do for you, no matter how many sheep died to line his wall. There isn't an "anti-addiction pill" or potion or regimen that works other than staying away from the substance.

When Bayer says that a person can "...stay in treatment long enough to allow his brain to rewire itself around those sensitivities and render him clean and sober again." that's not neuroscience. That's just wishful thinking. Likewise, Bayer's whole invocation of the "fight or flight response" is suspect. A "hijacking" of the frontal lobe floated in the mid 1990s by Daniel Goldman in reference to "emotional intelligence". This very quick, almost reflexive reaction is very different from what happens in the case of addiction. Unlike in a "fight or flight response", an addict has the opportunity to weigh his options. This is decision-making, not reflex.

Before we move on, let's look at the twelve steps of a typical "12-step program":

Twelve Steps
  1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Bayer refers to 12-step programs dismissively, despite the fact that Step 1 is acknowledging that the problem is bigger than you... exactly the same thing that she's saying. Seriously, she wants you to understand that you can't control the problem, and that is literally the first step of a 12-step program. So that portion of the message is really old news.

But rather than focus on the helplessness of it all, the 12-step program goes on to principles like recognizing how your addiction has wronged others; bridge-building and making amends... which removes the emotional distress that  often drives people to substance abuse. This solves the root causes so as to deal with the purely physiological stress. It's a hell of a lot easier to battle physical pain alone than it is to battle pain, guilt, and depression. And it requires you to help others, building a network of support where addicts don't have to deal with the social stigma of their addiction. Humility is stressed; it works better than resolve. When you say "I'm going to beat this thing" and rely on yourself, then any failure simply adds to the sense of defeat and depression.

But 12-step programs rely on God. Where they are effective, the members have done that. Where they fail, they haven't. So 12-step programs aren't appealing to atheists because they introduce an entirely new stress. Not only do you have to overcome pain and shame and guilt, but you have to look at religion in a new way. Not everybody is prepared to do that, so this most obviously will not work for everybody.And this is despite the fact that the AA 12-step program is extremely flexible on spirituality. You are encouraged to rely on God "as you understand Him". It is not a church..

That's not a failing of the program. When I buy wood paint and it doesn't stick to my metal door, it's not a fault of the paint, but rather in my choice of paint. If the very idea of spirituality is offensive to me, then I have to deal with my addiction in some other way. Fortunately, there are other programs, but you will find that they are no more universally effective than a 12-step program... it's just that different people find them ineffective.

For instance, the New York Times reveals an anti-religious bias with their headline, "Review Sees No Advantage in 12-Step Programs", but when you read the article you find this (emphasis added):
The researchers, led by Marica Ferri of the Italian Agency for Public Health in Rome, found little to suggest that 12-step programs reduced the severity of addiction any more than any other intervention. And no data showed that 12-step interventions were any more — or any less — successful in increasing the number of people who stayed in treatment or reducing the number who relapsed after being sober.
(I'd like to point out the fact that "interventions" are rarely effective at all, no matter who does them. That's because an "intervention" is forced upon someone rather than a matter of their choice. That's entirely different from entering a program voluntarily... which of course, Bayer erroneously claims you're incapable of doing.)

A good treatment on the subject is found at Hazelden is an organization staffed by physicians, psychiatrists and therapists that specializes in the treatment of substance abuse.

Note that the problem with "treatment" is that it is of limited duration. Relapses after rehab are common because there is no cure. The big problem isn't getting clean, it's staying that way. Staying sober requires follow through and commitment. A 12-step program encourages participation for life, not only for your personal benefit; but for the benefit of others with similar problems.

Organizations like Hazelden suggest a combination of approaches that include medical treatment as well as lifelong participation in 12-step programs to prevent relapse. This rejection of "either/or" mentality in favor of a "both" offers the best chance of continued success. It does no service to anyone to misquote and mis-characterize 12-step programs (which are supportive and non-judgmental) as being accusatory and liken them to a prison sentence, as Bayer does. Bayer says "Hang in there, recovered and recovering 12 steppers. I’m on your side.", but that is an astonishing lie.