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society

Maximalism

Recently navigated your definitions of words like journalist, whistleblower, imminent, and due process? The government has.

And the government will. Because words are open to interpretation. Let’s posit that last word means a type of dance where the meaning of a subject is explored through body motion. So the justices of our Supreme Court all dance in conference, and the best dancer on each case writes the opinion. Each justice has their own style, according to their philosophy of interpretative dance.

The number of political prosecutions of whistleblowers is not shocking. But entirely lamentable, but ill-conceived and dangerous. In general, the justice system has that dysfunctional tendency to follow society’s generally dysfunctional tendency toward excess. More is better, so more jailtime for any crime, betterest!

This simpleton’s view infects the whole system. The supporters in congress want indefinite detention for certain detainees and enemy combatants. They won’t call that automatic, extrajudicial life-sentencing. That’s what it is. And so on.

Thing is, it’s an easy definition. You don’t have to think about it. “Give me as much as you can give me,” that’s an easy criteria. Coming up with some other way of figuring how you’re doing is hard.

But it’s seldom the best measure. Nobody would read an essay designed to be as long as possible. Movies that push the limits of my attention see me skip over their dormant stretches in a sort of triage of film enjoyability. A long, scenic establishment shot that adds nothing? The editor should have cut it to less than five seconds. It’s a beautiful shot, but it ruins the flow, like this paragraph would if it went longer.

Maybe the Guinness Book of World Records has to answer for its crimes. Without checking, my guess is most records it tallies cover only quantities. From my childhood I recall things like tallest human (though shortest too), longest or tallest hairdo, person with the most bees on them.

The call to achieve in America tends to center around being number one. That was apparently the goal of the Easter Islanders, to be number one at carving their idols. Anecdotally a bad idea.

World’s richest person. Outperforming other stocks. The biggest toy dies with whoever wins.

Maximalism is the worst criteria for selection, other than all the others that have been tried?

This isn’t greed, though. Calling it greed would again be maximalist. And it’s defeatable. By showing better outcomes than maximalism. By showing a cultural decision not to obsess with maximality.

That speaks to looking hard at wealth, and unraveling the distance between the quantitative value of money and the qualitative value of money.

The premise is that having more money that has less qualitative value is worse. The conclusion is that many of the maximalist schemes of businesses and individuals are wholly dysfunctional not just to the masses, but to the very wealthy fools themselves. That they are engaging not just in societal harm by their facial greed, but that they are harming themselves.

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society

Political Problems or Economic Problems?

Often we hear about the dysfunctions of Washington: the gridlock, the partisan mindset, the lack of any progress on better governance. But the media, largely ignorant of economics, seldom points to the root causes. Instead, most of them either get dragged along for the ride, or at best throw up their hands (and their lunch) in disgust.

The occasional wisp of truth of the economics comes through, but we forget and buy back into the partisan pie. We find the lie more valuable to us, that the partisan divide puts us in a battle of good and evil. The truth that we could likely solve partisanship with a few well-timed PBS-style pledge drives on behalf of our representatives does not sit well. Well maybe that’s not 100% true; pledge drives don’t share that big industry donations do.

We want to believe permanent the stain a wrongdoer wears. Their character flaw, their fault. Nobody wants to see that a bribe-taking congressman that follows an insane policy line that would, if enacted spell doom for the entire planet, is a good person. That their real motivation for staying in congress is the small, but tangible help they are able to give to the small business owner or single parent or high-school athlete that calls their office for help. They don’t care about the big stuff, and only vote as they do to keep them there.

Which is not at all to defend bad positions. Only to point out their origin is in the economics of that person’s life, not out of malice and sometimes not even out of being brainwashed by lobbyists.

That bad can be done due to economic constraints. We drive elephants and rhinoceros to smaller and smaller numbers for purely economic reasons. Human trafficking exists for purely economic reasons. The underlying motivation, be it ivory or horn or sex, is all based on delusion, often fostered by the marketplace.

Doctors don’t like to admit they can’t help. If for no other reason, they need to maintain the credibility of their profession. But for purely economic reasons, they will prescribe drugs that don’t work (at least not as they would have you believe), or have unmentioned side-effects. And pharmaceutical companies will sell them. And the FDA will approve them. And the media will advertise them.

We stop having the best companies leading the market. The fitness function stops being ability to provide the best good or service. It transforms into the best at lobbying, or the best at bringing doctors on board to sell/prescribe, and so on. Just as journalism stops being about the story, and becomes a game of keep your audience bewildered, afraid, vigilantly watching those advertisements for the answer.

We have economic problems. How do we change the government to stop poisoning representatives against the task they are elected for? That may sound like a call for campaign-finance reform. But as long as they have the power to award economic benefit to individuals or corporations, the perverse economic incentive will prevail. Trying to limit the flow of campaign money repeatedly proves fruitless. We need to find another way, that focuses on the economics of congress and government.

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society

Electronically Vaporized Nicotine

Today’s (long) post looks at the social, market, and government forces at work surrounding the so-called electronic cigarette (also known as the e-cig, personal vaporizer, PV, etc.).

First a brief introduction to the technology.

E-Liquid

The main component of interest is so-called e-liquid (also called juice). This is a combination of Propylene Glycol and Vegetable Glycerin, sometimes one or the other exclusively, and possibly with some amount of nicotine, flavoring, and distilled water.

This liquid constitutes the consumable portion of the technology. This is similar to how the smoke is the only consumable part of a traditional cigarette. The rest of it is there to enable or improve some aspect of the experience.

Battery

The other end of the technology contains a battery. This delivers electricity to the device. There are many forms of battery, some with extra circuits added for automatic or manual activation, for protection against battery or device fault, or for user control over device output.

Device

The device itself has four main parts:

  1. A connection to the battery
  2. A mouthpiece
  3. A resistance coil
  4. A feed for juice to reach the resistance coil and a feed for vapor to reach the mouthpiece

The two main features of a device are the coil and feed, centering around how efficient and how much vapor they produce. Other features include materials used in the feed, whether the feed includes a reservoir for extra juice, whether the coil can be replaced manually.

Gauging Nicotine Delivery

The delivery of nicotine depends on a number of factors including the device (how hot the coil gets, how much juice and air touch the coil directly (how much uncovered surface it has; operation tends to cause some residue to become attached to the coil surface reducing the heat and efficiency a bit)), battery charge, mouthpiece, juice type (base nicotine level in the juice, other flavoring and ingredient proportions may affect this as well), and probably the individual user’s lung capacity and draw (how they inhale/pull the vapor from the device into their mouth/lungs).

But the nicotine delivery levels for traditional cigarettes vary along many of these lines as well.

The fact with both is that the user that has an efficient delivery system will likely take less overall puffs for their preferred blood level of nicotine than someone with an inefficient delivery system. But given even a modestly efficient system (ie, any significant portion of nicotine is delivered at all), the user can simply adjust their use level to compensate for receiving less nicotine from an underperforming system.

Why Vaporized Nicotine Enables Smoking Cessation

First it should be noted that smoking is highly correlated with negative health outcomes in the long term. At present the research does not suggest any sort of the same correlation for vaporized nicotine products, but that does not mean there isn’t a long-term impact either negative or positive with using them.

But the science is in on the fact that inhaling vapor is not smoking. Vapor has been conclusively proven not to be smoke, and science has eliminated any possibility of gnomes or gremlins turning vapor into smoke inside your mouth, and then turning it back into vapor when you exhale.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that users of vapor are not users of smoke. Cessation of smoking seems to be a good idea, even if one uses a substitute, so long as the substitute is less harmful.

But the market has substitutes. You can pop pills (some which have dangerous side-effects), you can chew gum, you can wear a dermal delivery system also known as a patch, there are non-vaporizing inhalers. The black market may have substitutes as well.

You could switch to smokeless tobacco, which appears to have lower health risks than smoking. You could even seek out a pasteurized form, like Snus, which appear to be safe or at least dramatically safer.

The market has counseling. You can talk through your cravings until you’re so exhausted you couldn’t smoke if you wanted to. You could go live on a desert island surrounded by frozen turkeys.

There are books, which are basically static counseling.

These alternatives have not proven effective enough for most people. They lack control, the key feature that is utterly vital and renowned in psychology. (Or at least the perception of control.)

That is the biggest reason why these products are effective. The user can always take another draw from it if their cravings or stress levels require it. That extra draw doesn’t need to significantly alter their nicotine levels, but only give them the feeling that they have immediately improved their state. That they are in control.

Failure to cease smoking is a failure to maintain control. It is accepting that one does not have enough willpower to control not engaging in the smoking behavior. But with the other quit methods, one has not replaced the control with anything. You cannot take more pills than the dosage states, nor can you put on more patches or chew more gum. You can only afford so much counseling, and while you can clutch the books mighty tight in your hands, they will not give you control.

The fact that some of these devices may mimic cigarettes in appearance, have pressure switches to release vapor on demand, paint and lights to make them look, and can be flavored like cigarettes does not make these aspects more important. It is true, some people want the feeling of smoking, or the holding in their hand, or the visible vapor giving the appearance.

But it is not unlike hunger: if you were stranded, and the only food did not look like food, smell like food, taste like food, did not chew like food, but did sate like food, you would eat it and call it food.

Now for some people this might not suffice, at least initially. They want the mimicry. So they can have it.

The other element of control here is the level of nicotine in the juice, commonly referred as the number of milligrams (mg) per milliliter (ml). Common amounts are below 3.6% (36mg/ml) at the high end down to 0% (also called zero nicotine). Because the concentration is entirely adjustable when purchasing or mixing e-liquid, the users are not stuck with whatever arbitrary steps the makers of patches and gums decide. One can even use a different strength of juice at different times, to suit their needs.

The Government, Society, and Tobacco: History

There is a long history of attempts to regulate tobacco, to tax it. For a long time the social attitude was very mellow toward tobacco. It has grown harsher in recent decades, especially as people had friends and family die to smoking-related illnesses and saw the effects of smoking take their toll on loved ones. This is no different than with alcohol, where organizations such as M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) grew out of the loss of children to automobile accidents where alcohol contributed to the tragic loss of life.

Now we are at a point where smokers look like members of P.A.G.A.N. (People Against Goodness And Normalcy), ready to strap on goat-leggings and sacrifice virgins with the best of them. They are seen approaching the level of drunk drivers.

Society has taken its usual attitude of not trying to deal with the problem directly as adults (there has yet to be any attempt to make drinking to excess safe for the car-based transport system). It has passed law after law to ban smoking everywhere it can (including, I understand, a new law banning fetal smoking in utero). It has raised taxes regularly, such that it now depends on these revenues to provide vital services. Billions of dollars per year in sweat get funneled from the brows of low-income smokers into government coffers. Ostensibly this is to reduce smoking rates through the only means known in a primitive: starving them out. A good, old-fashioned siege. Society as boa constrictor.

There has been no real attempt to divert these revenues toward research on alternatives to smoking, or reducing harm. Just like we never spend any decent share of taxes on carbon pollution for clean energy research. But markets do their thing, and occasionally one produces an alternative anyway.

What now?

Now that vaporizing nicotine liquids seems like a viable, safer alternative to smoking, how should the governments, society, and markets react? So far it has been hostility.

Governments have banned, or sought to ban these new products. Existing firms including the tobacco companies and pharmaceutical industry have sought to bend regulation in their favors, with the former wanting the gift of the electronic cigarette industry and barriers to others competing with them, the latter seeking bans and to undermine the utility of the alternative.

Many seemingly benevolent non-profits have been opposed as well. Whether this is due to their funding sources, ignorance, or T-totalist attitudes toward nicotine does not matter. What matters is the harm they do to their own charities through their prohibitionist stance toward a serious health issue.

The governments are burning similar bridges, by flying the flag of excess caution on this one specific issue while being happy to ride into the dark on a million others. Europe is looking at a ban of anything over 4mg/ml (0.4% nicotine by volume). Many states have or will lump vaporizers in their indoor smoking/public smoking bans. The FDA has its eye on banning the sale of flavors under the notion that flavors appeal to children.

There are also efforts to ban internet sales, which undermines market forces.

About the only regulation that seems entirely appropriate is a ban on sales to minors.

Junk Science

At a recent California Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for a bill to ban the use of nicotine vapor indoors, a professor from the University of California testified that a study found nine of 11 “Volatile Organic Compounds” in greater concentrations in electronic cigarettes than in traditional cigarettes. The problem was that these compounds were metals found in the electronic components of the device, meaning their presence was entirely precluded from the traditional cigarettes. That fact was not admitted during the testimony.

At just about every turn, it seems like society is hell-bent on keeping the status quo with regards to tobacco smoking. They want the tax revenue. They want the ineffective cessation methods to keep bringing in a constant stream of revenue from recidivists. They want the feeling of moral superiority that comes with indoor bans, while they chug their caffeine-laced beverages.

The establishment’s studies have been poorly conducted, using few products which may or may not be representative of the gamut of available products. They have often failed to replicate real-world usage, and made assumptions that are unfounded.

But worse than all these is the use of the broad brush, that even if you accept the conclusions of these studies you should never take it to mean that the product cannot be improved upon and the deficiencies remedied.

The Market

The electronic cigarette market, on the other hand, is both literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air. While most of the components are made in China, and thus not contributing as much to the domestic economies in Europe and North America, there are a lot of juice makers, and brick-and-mortar stores opening which do help local economies.

There is a large hobbyist community growing around electronic cigarettes. The hobbyists have led the way in the creation of new products that are subsequently manufactured at high-end in Europe and the USA, and replicated at lower cost from China.

There are quality control issues with some of the Chinese-made components, but by-and-large the Chinese factories have been receptive to criticism and have taken seriously concerns that were voiced with regard to both materials and manufacturing methods. This is because the stores want to move the product, which means they need mind-share from the users of these devices, who want safe, quality goods.

Compare that to most other products you might own, where the market is homogenized and overregulated. Most markets are so developed that they eschew any sort of innovation, particularly any sort of small-batch runs of parts. When was the last time you looked to buy a garage-built vacuum cleaner or television?

But the market is working so far for electronic cigarettes. The majority of governments have not yet enacted bans or taxes. And until they do, one would expect only good things to continue from vapor products.

What’s next?

Most of the community does want more valid scientific study and quality control for these products. They don’t want them overregulated, but they don’t want to have to resort to home test kits and guess work for knowing best practices and best outcomes. They want quality products, but they don’t want to be forced to conform to some large corporation’s vision of how they should receive their vapor (eg, not everyone wants to use a model that mimics a cigarette).

The best things that the government could do:

  1. Give the people exact numbers on things like how much nicotine they are ingesting, what temperatures are safe/how not to exceed safe temperatures (this relates mostly to the fact that one of the principal components of liquid, Vegetable Glycerin, can oxidize into Acrolein, a carcinogen, at high enough temperatures; it’s currently a low-level risk and worry of users that some small amount may be produced while using a vaporizer, but in amounts far lower than existing safe limits as promulgated by the government and industries that work with these substances).
  2. Issue minimal quality-control standards, where not already covered by existing regulations. If these are made binding, they should be limited to production volumes, and not for small shops. For small shops, the requirement should be more along the lines of informing purchasers that they are exempt from the quality control, with the burden being on the small shops to provide whatever information their customers want about quality control to satisfy their concerns. As long as the public can easily see what regulations apply to the large firms, and compare the claims of small makers with the regulations, they can decide if the quality is present or absent.
  3. Stay out of the way: only minimal interference in the market, minimal tax, and not trying to poison this market.

Society has a real opportunity to move away from tobacco smoke while stopping absurd punishment of people who, absent smoke, are likely doing no more damage to themselves than drinking caffeine does.

These years will mark a critical period in our history, where we decide whether or not to reform our society or play by the old rules that will surely doom us in time. If society and the government decide to put the kibosh on electronic cigarettes, it will mark as dark of a day for mankind as the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in World War Two, and will easily kill more people than those bombs did.

Regular Cigarettes

There is much animosity against regular smokers. They are seen as a stain upon our world, despite their villainousness being far less than that of many other industries and behaviors including automobiles, electric power from fossil fuels, the war industry, the prison industry, etc. This is mainly because they are perceived as individuals making deleterious choices in the face of resounding evidence, where other maladaptive practices are seen as institutional and the facts don’t seem as clear.

Some smokers (and even some non-smokers) feel that users of vaporizers are cowards for not facing the harm of real cigarettes. Others feel that electronic cigarette users are happy to join in vilification of smokers in the hopes of pacifying the masses and differentiating themselves. I feel the former attitude has deeper roots in the overall cultural baggage, while the latter are much more valid concerns.

Society ought to be as inclusive and permissive as it may be without harming itself. Indoor smoking bans make sense, where indoor bans on vaporizers do not meet the burden of proof anymore than indoor bans on cooking, perfume, or coffee would. But smokers are not bad people. Bans that are strictly punitive, or attempts to treat them negatively as part of the bans, are barbarous. They constitute immoral acts and deserve scorn.

Smokers should be invited to reduce their bodily harm by adopting safe alternatives, and society should be encouraging that. Quit or die should not be the call of anyone who wishes to belong to a society.

Feelings of superiority are antiques. I am not better than you if I eat the crust on my bread, and you are not better than me if you can do more repetitions at a heavier weight. Because unless we find ourselves at the edge of life, and have to murder each other just to see daylight, we are better off when we are all better.

Closing

It’s surprising to see the ability of markets when they are left alone to develop. In some ways that could be enhanced, both by changes to existing law and by changes to existing markets. I don’t feel we are at that place as a species, where we seek to enhance natural systems rather than enforce artificial models upon them. But we may be soon.

It’s joyful to see the communities of former smokers work to help one another in their new endeavors of using vaporized nicotine. These are people who have been vilified by society, now given the opportunity to shake off those stigmas and brands. It’s like the scene in the movies where the Bad News Bears or whoever the losers are overcome and defeat the snobs. But it’s a tiny glimpse of the sort of transformation that can and should sweep our entire planet.

If you know smokers, you should ask them about electronic cigarettes. Have they tried them? Do they know the variety of products that exists, or have they only seen the dime-store versions? Knowledge is a powerful thing, and making sure it spreads is essential to society.

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society

Cult Thinking and Terrorists

Tragic events pain us, and even more so for the failure of media to put them in the proper context. The media fails to educate, to the point they prefer to run with gossip and innuendo to purely educational content to fill dead air.

On some issues they may paint a fair picture, such as when they cover cults. Most of the time the cult harm to society comes in alienation and wasting of resources. The media seldom covers cults unless their harm grows far beyond this basic level, to mass suicide or worse.

But many events we see in the news are intimately related to the sort of cultural relativism needed to understand cults. None more so than terrorism, and the world view that allows for it.

First one should might contrast the reaction to domestic incidents with those that take place overseas. The media tends to barely report terrorist bombings in Iraq, for example. They certainly do not follow any manhunts, seek out family, neighbors, and other acquaintances to interview, and the like.

This itself shows the sort of tribal and cultist worldview. The value difference based purely on nationality or locality becomes essential to terrorism and cults in general. But that value finds itself lacing most any culture.

The feature of the media that stands out as an unanswered question (the media should both ask questions and answer or seek answers to questions): ‘how could terrorists kill the innocent (children, civilians)?’ But worse than media, this sentiment arises from elected officials (which suggests the need for a Constitutional Amendment requiring continuing education for all legislators).

The basic formula of the cult, of terrorists:

  1. The world differs from how you learned to view it (and therefore from how your teachers view it and how their group views it).
  2. There will be calamity unless either most people come to view it correctly.
  3. For peoples’ minds to change, YOU must participate in some activity that you wouldn’t do without our programming.

It’s a little more involved, especially using ego control (using emotional abuse to train the person to become dependent on the cult (and more importantly on fulfillment of their promise) for emotional health), isolation (to prevent opportunities for cognitive dissonance), and other techniques.

The belief that one’s soul hangs upon carrying out a religious/ritualistic promise to the gods, and that not continuing once promised would essentially doom one to hellfire illustrates why many single out religion as a problem. But that can be said equally of any religion that posits the existence of a hell, and pointing to the non-cultist believers as both wrong and faithful simply strengthens the belief.

To understand the act of terror one must unpack the meaning not as it appears to the asker, but to the terrorist or cultist worldview. Ultimately the prevention of terrorism relies upon this sort of thinking. Some measure of terrorist acts may be prevented through law enforcement and military operations. Most terrorism will need to be literally disarmed through cultural actions not violent actions.

But society needs this sort of understanding not just for combating terrorism, but cults, racism, and fascism of all sorts. We need to be taught to unpack our own culture from time to time and recognize the dysfunctional and functional parts. It doesn’t ruin a thing to understand it, yet it seems a part of our culture believes exactly that it does.

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society

Breaking News via Social Media

Ah, the pun title. A mainstay of smarmy journalism for centuries. This post looks at how some of the media currently works and how it could work for ongoing stories such as the recent events in Boston and environs. It focuses on the social media side of things.

People get so-called breaking news from three major mediums:

  • Television
  • News websites
  • Social websites

Television still lacks interactivity. You rely on the producers and other workers to decide when you get to see a map. On your way out, wanted a quick update, but got a commercial instead.

Television continues to be delivered reliably, though. As do major news websites.

Social websites, on the other hand, tend to have load issues. They tend to link to other sites that will have load issues. They dig deep and share deep, compared with mainstream media. The sheer number of high power data processors (ie, brains) at work makes the social efforts a force to be reckoned with, no matter how much training and experience the professionals have. Top that off with the fact that the group can throw the mainstream’s coverage into their mix, and it starts to seem like the technical issues deserve more attention.

The ethics of social news gathering start to mirror those of the mainstream / of professional journalists. Try to vet the sources / information, don’t accuse without sufficient evidence and confirmation, etc. But social wavers at least as much as mainstream on these points, with the recent events showing gun jumping by both traditional and nontraditional media.

The technical issues at hand for social media mainly center on distribution. Describing distribution as a graph works well. You really do not want every node to talk to every other node. You will heavily overload some nodes and underload others and critical nodes may drop out to go sleep or eat. You also end up with a lot of noise and likely some signal loss or at least delay, as a single column of comments tends to be abused and also keep people from participating.

What probably makes sense: nominate people to be one-off group nodes, and if they do well then increase their ranking. They will receive the comments from a group of peers, and will forward to higher-ranked nodes. And so on, until (depending on the size of the network) they reach the highest ranks, which provide the actual updates.

This model is roughly how the human brain works. Roughly, because it may be that the brain has specialized neurons that handle the hub functions, and neurons tend to have better firing coordination, and neurons don’t usually go to sleep or eat in the “dropped out” sense that people do.

But the biggest technical challenge to social news, and likely to major improvements of coverage by traditional outlets, comes from the thankful rarity of these high-impact, short-lived events. Practice makes perfect, but how many species get to practice black swan style events?

Social news probably can have an advantage over traditional news here. They can build a game version, much in the way the military participates in war games. If someone develops a method to train people for breaking news, and builds the sites and tools to make it more likely to succeed in these simulations, they will likely see greater success in real world scenarios as well.

“Humans, keen to organize themselves using their new global network, found the strength of giants in their numbers.” — A historian looking back on the beginning of the Glass Age