Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for March 16th, 2018

You MUST watch this video

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It is absolutely perfect of kind. Here it is.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2018 at 7:39 pm

The ‘campus free speech crisis’ is a myth.

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Jeffrey Adam Sachs reports in the Washington Post:

Universities are supposed to be places where you confront unfamiliar and challenging ideas. According to some critics, however, students today are turning their backs on that concept of welcoming free speech. Instead, the argument goes, young people want to transform campuses into “safe spaces” where offensive speech is banned and political correctness is enforced.
There’s just one problem: This narrative is wrong. Let’s examine three myths about free speech on campus.
Myth #1: Young people in general (and college students in particular) don’t support free speech
In fact, the opposite is true. For nearly 50 years, the General Social Survey (GSS) has asked Americans about their tolerance for offensive speech. Some questions include: Should an anti-American Muslim cleric be permitted to teach in a public school? Should the local library stock books hostile to religion?
On almost every question, young people aged 18 to 34 are the most likely to support free speech. Check out the data for yourself. Not only are young people the most likely to express tolerance for offensive speech, but with almost every question posed by the GSS, each generation of young people has been more tolerant than the last.
Consider the question of whether someone who is gay should be allowed to make a speech in your community: . . .

Continue reading.

The other two myths, discussed with the aid of charts and graphs:

Myth #2: Universities make students less tolerant of offensive or opposing speech

Myth #3: Universities may claim to support free speech, but their actions show otherwise

Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2018 at 2:42 pm

Posted in Daily life, Education, Law

Motion-sensor light bulbs

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A very clever idea. Here’s the Cool Tools description.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2018 at 1:58 pm

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Excellent idea: Limit the amount of (addictive) nicotine in cigarettes

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Once again we see an example of how some actions require a government: the libertarian hope that all problems can be resolved through the free market with no government interference is an illusion based on a bad novel by Ayn Rand. Unfortunately, some (I’m looking at you, Paul Ryan) fall for it hook, line, and sinker. Julia Belluz writes in Vox:

America could become the first country in the world to force tobacco companies to reengineer their products so they’ll be less addictive.

The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that it’s moving to put in a place a regulation that will set a maximum amount of nicotine cigarettes can have.

The FDA first discussed the measure last summer as part of its comprehensive new plan for tobacco and nicotine regulation. But today’s advance notice of proposed rulemaking is the first real step in initiating the long, bureaucratic process that would make the regulation a reality.

“We believe the public health benefits and the potential to save millions of lives, both in the near and long term, support this effort,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement.

Researchers who modeled the health impact of nicotine limits for a new paper in the New England Journal of Medicine showed the policy could help some 5 million adult smokers quit smoking within one year, and by 2100 prevent more than 33 million people from becoming regular smokers at all.

Cigarette use has been on a downward trajectory for decades in the US thanks to tobacco taxes, smoking bans, and public awareness campaigns. But smoking is still the leading cause of preventable disease and death in America, contributing to nearly half a million early deaths and more than $300 billion in health care expenditures and productivity losses every year.

According to the model, smoking rates could drop from 15 percent to as low as 1.4 percent, Gottlieb said. “All told, this framework could result in more than 8 million fewer tobacco-caused deaths through the end of the century — an undeniable public health benefit.”

“Cigarettes are as or more harmful, and as or more addictive, than they were 60 years ago, when people were using cigarettes without filters,” said University of Waterloo public health researcher David Hammond (who was not involved in the NEJM paper). “It’s a bizarre historical coincidence nothing has been done to change that fundamental equation.”

The proposed policy could change the equation — but it’s by no means a standard anti-smoking regulation; no other country has ever tried such a measure. So it’s a big deal the US is going first.

“If the US does this, and is successful, other countries will join in,” said David Liddell Ashley, the previous director of the office of science in the Center for Tobacco Products at FDA. “You will see a reduction in deaths from tobacco — tens of millions of people a year will no longer die from tobacco use.”

The news is also a reminder of America’s somewhat schizophrenic relationship with regulating smoking. Nicotine limits would be one of the most avant-garde tobacco policies in the world. And yet the US still lags behind many other countries — including low-income countries — on many other tobacco control basics. . .

Continue reading.

The reason that the US still lags behind many other countries on tobacco control is that Congress caters to corporations and fails to protect consumers, and the GOP in particular is guilty of this (though some Democrats are as well: the Democrats who voted to weaken Dodd-Frank, for example).

I think the restriction on the level of nicotine should also apply to cigarettes exported from the US and imported into the US. And the levels should be monitored: cigarette companies will try to cheat, since they depend on addiction to keep their customers, which is why they work to get young people smoking.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2018 at 1:48 pm

The Federal government creeps toward totalitarianism: Trump’s Effort to Purge Disloyal Civil Servants May Already Be Underway

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Loyalty (inbound) is extremely important to President Trump, who himself shows little loyalty to anyone save himself (and perhaps Ivanka and Jared, whom he sees as extensions of himself). Jonah Shepp writes in New York magazine of how the Trump administration is working to replace dissenting voices with loyal sheep who will never disagree with him:

Has the State Department been subjected to an ideological purge under the auspices of President Donald Trump? Inquiring House Democrats want to know.

In a letter sent to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan on Thursday, Representatives Elijah Cummings and Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrats on the House Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees, are demanding an explanation after receiving “disturbing new documents” from a whistle-blower indicating that senior political appointees at State worked to push out or demote career diplomats deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump and his agenda, with the assistance of right-wing activists and White House officials.

The documents, also obtained by Politico, consist of a series of emails between State Department and White House officials, as well as outside parties including former House speaker Newt Gingrich, conservative activist Barbara Ledeen, and the neoconservative ideologue David Wurmser, a former adviser to Vice-President Dick Cheney and U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.

The congressmen express particular concern over the reassignment of Iran expert Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a career civil servant who had been the subject of a malicious article at the little-read Conservative Review last March saying she had “burrowed into the government” under Trump, calling her an architect of the Iran nuclear deal who had misled the public about it, and insinuating that she had ties to the regime in Tehran, owing to an internship she took in college with the National Iranian American Council.

Nowrouzzadeh, who joined the civil service in 2005 during the Bush administration and later served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, was indeed a key figure in crafting the Iran deal. So were many other people at the NSC and State, but not all of them had the misfortune of an obviously Iranian surname, which is what put Nowrouzzadeh on right-wing media’s radar in the first place.

The Conservative Review hit piece made its way through the inboxes of the aforementioned activists: Wurmser forwarded it to Gingrich with the note “I think a little cleaning is in order here”; Gingrich then forwarded that message to former secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin.

Nowrouzzadeh had been detailed to the secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff in July 2016, where she worked on issues related to Iran and Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region — an assignment meant to last one year. Nowrouzzadeh contacted the head of the policy team, Brian Hook, asking for his help in correcting the record after being smeared.

Instead, according to Cummings’s and Engel’s letter, “Hook forwarded her email to other political appointees at the Department, who then forwarded it to officials at the White House and used it as a basis for a wide-ranging internal discussion that questioned her loyalty to President Trump.” In the course of those discussions, White House Liaison Julia Haller falsely stated that Nowrouzzadeh was born in Iran (in fact, she was born in Connecticut).

In April, a month after the Conservative Review piece landed, her detail was cut short by three months and she was reassigned to her previous post at the Office of Iranian Affairs — to which she objected, saying her assignment had not been completed as the senior officials claimed and that the curtailment was not carried out according to the terms of her memorandum of understanding.

Nowrouzzadeh was the second “Obama holdover” to be abruptly reassigned after coming under attack in the right-wing press, Politicoreported at the time; Andrew Quinn, a member of the National Economic Council who had helped negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, had just been sent back to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative after being attacked for his “globalist” views by Breitbart News.

Nowrouzzadeh was by no means the only career staffer at State targeted for a Trumpist inquisition: Politico adds that Hook emailed himself a list of potentially disloyal staffers last April, referring to one as a “leaker and troublemaker” and to another as a “turncoat.” In one of the emails, Breitbart staffer Joel Pollak offers to give Tillerson aide Matt Mowers “additional background” on “Obama holdovers.” Hook’s deputy, Edward Lacey, referred to several of the career public servants on the Policy Planning staff as “Obama/Clinton loyalists not at all supportive of President Trump’s foreign policy agenda.”

These new revelations strongly suggest . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2018 at 1:36 pm

The FBI — ‘Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity’ — Still Working on Diversity

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Topher Sanders reports in ProPublica:

For the FBI, the longstanding failure to diversify its ranks is nothing short of “a huge operational risk,” according to one senior official, something that compromises the agency’s ability to understand communities at risk, penetrate criminal enterprises, and identify emerging national security threats.

Indeed, 10 months before being fired as director of the FBI by President Trump, James Comey called the situation a “crisis.”

“Slowly but steadily over the last decade or more, the percentage of special agents in the FBI who are white has been growing,” Comey said in a speech at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black school in Daytona Beach, Florida. “I’ve got nothing against white people — especially tall, awkward, male white people — but that is a crisis for reasons that you get, and that I’ve worked very hard to make sure the entire FBI understands.”

It’s a charged moment for the FBI, one in which diversifying the force might not strike everyone as the most pressing issue.

Trump has repeatedly questioned the bureau’s competence and integrity. Many Democrats blame Hillary Clinton’s defeat on Comey’s decision to announce that the bureau was reopening its inquiry into her emails days before the election. Republicans, echoing Trump’s attacks, have alleged that the FBI’s investigation of the president’s ties to Russia is a politically motivated abuse of power.

With some 35,000 employees and an annual budget around $9 billion, the FBI has an array of hiring problems, of which diversity is but one. It needs first-rate linguists and technologists to fight terrorism, and now, with ever greater urgency, cyber-crimes, yet starting pay for an agent in, say, Chicago is only around $63,600. In 2015, a human resources official told the bureau’s inspector general’s office that the agency attracted 2,000 eligible candidates to a recruiting event for its Next Gen Cyber Initiative, but only managed to hire two of them.

Yet diversity remains a persistent problem, with a bitter history and, as the FBI official conceded, real operational downsides.

Almost 30 years ago, a group of black agents sued the FBI, alleging systemic discrimination by the bureau in the quality of assignments, performance reviews, rates of promotions and overall workplace culture. At the time, about one in 20 agents were black. The numbers were even smaller in the FBI’s senior ranks.

A federal judge ultimately concluded there was “statistical evidence” of discrimination at the FBI, and a settlement was reached in 1993 promising reforms. But the black agents were back in court five years later, asserting the FBI had failed to deliver on its promises, and in 2001, another settlement was achieved. That agreement for the first time mandated that an outside mediator be used to handle future discrimination complaints at the bureau.

Still, all these years later, the most recent statistics posted publicly by the FBI indicate the bureau remains far less diverse than the population it is drawn from. Black agents in 2014 made up a lower percentage of special agents than they did when the discrimination lawsuit was filed, dropping from around 5.3 percent in 1995 to 4.4 percent, according to the FBI website. About 13 percent of the U.S. population is black. And while nearly 18 percent of the U.S. population is Latino, Latinos made up just 6.5 percent of special agents.

ProPublica asked for the most current numbers behind the percentages for each race, but the bureau only provided white and nonwhite numbers.

Emmanuel Johnson, the lead plaintiff in the first discrimination suit brought by black agents in 1991, said he is not at all surprised to learn the bureau’s ranks are still overwhelmingly white, and he rejects what he said has been a common FBI lament: the difficulty of identifying quality, interested black applicants.

“I don’t believe it’s a recruiting problem, I believe it’s a hiring problem,” Johnson said. “It’s a very convenient excuse for the FBI — ‘Oh, we can’t find them.’ Well, I don’t believe that’s true. This is how the hiring system works, because it’s controlled by whites.”

The FBI says it has made some progress since Comey promised to better address the crisis. In the summer of 2016, the FBI set a target that 40 percent of its special agent applications come from people of color. The bureau hit the target when 43 percent of those applying in 2017 were minorities. So far this year, the bureau said, 47 percent of those who have applied are people of color. The bureau also will host between eight and a dozen recruiting events in 2018 focused on diversity.

ProPublica is taking a look at the FBI this year as the nation’s top law enforcement agency confronts questions about its effectiveness, independence and culture. As part of this effort, we spent several weeks speaking with black former agents and officials about the FBI’s attempts to diversify. Nearly all said they loved their careers in the bureau and would recommend the job to others. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2018 at 1:31 pm

Most lawyers don’t understand cryptography. So why do they dominate tech policy debates?

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Henry Farrell writes in the Washington Post:

On Wednesday, the Trump administration appointed the renowned computer science professor Ed Felten to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB). This is the first time that a nonlawyer has been appointed to the board, even though it has oversight responsibilities for a variety of complex technological issues.
The bias toward lawyers reflects a more general problem in the U.S. government. Lawyers dominate debates over privacy and technology policy, and people who have a deep understanding of the technological questions surrounding complex questions, such as cryptography, are often shut out of the argument.
Some days ago, I interviewed Timothy Edgar, who served as the intelligence community’s first officer on civil liberties and is the author of the book “Beyond Snowden: Privacy, Mass Surveillance, and the Struggle to Reform the NSA,” about the reasons government policymaking isn’t as open to technological expertise as it ought to be.
The U.S. policy debate over surveillance mostly overlooks the ways in which cryptography could assure the privacy of data collected by the NSA and other entities. What broad benefits does cryptography offer?
When people think about cryptography, they mostly think about encrypting data and communications, like emails or instant messages, but modern cryptography offers many more capabilities. Today’s debate over surveillance ignores some of the ways these capabilities might allow the public to have the best of both worlds: robust intelligence collection with ironclad, mathematically rigorous privacy guarantees.
The problem is that many of these capabilities are counterintuitive. They seem like magic to those who are not aware of how cryptography has advanced over the past two decades. Because policymakers may not be aware of these advances, they view intelligence collection and privacy as a zero-sum game: more of one necessarily requires less of the other — but that’s a false trade-off.
Which specific techniques have cryptographers developed that could be applied to collected data?
Probably the most promising technology for ensuring the privacy of data that intelligence agencies are collecting is called encrypted search, something that my colleague at Brown, Prof. Seny Kamara, has helped pioneer. Imagine a large database that an intelligence agency like the NSA would like to query. The vast, vast majority of the data is irrelevant: It belongs to people that intelligence analysts should not be able to monitor. Of course, the agency could formulate queries and submit them to whoever owns the database, perhaps a telecommunications company or a digital services provider. But what if the agency is worried that its queries will reveal too much about its sensitive operations, and is not willing to take the chance that this information will leak?
Without encrypted search, the scenario I just outlined is a classic trade-off. Of course, the intelligence agency could simply forgo its queries, but if the stakes are too high — maybe the agency is trying to prevent a devastating terrorist attack — it could decide instead to engage in a highly intrusive intelligence practice called bulk collection. Bulk collection means the agency collects the entire database, including all the irrelevant information, hopefully with legal or policy safeguards to prevent abuse. Following the Snowden revelations in 2013, bulk collection of domestic data was reformed, but it remains an option when the NSA collects data outside the United States, even if that data includes communications with Americans.
Encrypted search allows us to do much better than this. The entire database is encrypted in a way that allows the intelligence agency to pose specific queries, which are also encrypted. Policymakers can decide what kinds of queries are appropriate. There are mathematically rigorous guarantees that ensure 1) the intelligence agency may only pose permissible queries, 2) the agency only receives the answers to those queries and does not receive any other data, and 3) the company will not learn what queries the agency has posed, offering the agency security for its operations.
Why is it that lawyers, rather than technologists, seem to dominate U.S. policy debates over technically complex subjects like surveillance and cryptography?
Lawyers have been dominating debates in the United States since at least the days when the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote “Democracy in America” in 1831. De Tocqueville describes lawyers as occupying a place in American society similar to the aristocracies of Europe. If we examine just how many members of Congress, senior government officials and even business leaders are drawn from the legal profession today, it appears that little has changed in this regard in the subsequent two centuries. Lawyers tend to be verbal and overconfident [and thus are vulnerable to the Dunning-Kruger effect – LG]. Computer scientists are more prone to be reserved and even introverted.
The failure of lawyers and technologists to communicate well led the NSA to make some serious mistakes in the domestic bulk collection programs it was running until 2015, when they were reformed in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations. It has also, unfortunately, impeded the deployment of technologically based alternatives to intrusive intelligence programs.
Is this changing, and if it is changing, is it changing for the better or the worse? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2018 at 1:25 pm

Venture capitalist visits 200 schools in 50 states and says DeVos is wrong: ‘If choice and competition improve schools, I found no sign of it.’

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Valerie Strauss reports in the Washington Post:

Ted Dintersmith is a successful venture capitalist and father of two who has spent years devoting most of his time, energy and millions of dollars of his personal fortune to learning about — and advocating for — public education and how it can be made better for all children.

Dintersmith has taken a dramatically different path from other wealthy Americans who have become involved in education issues, departing from the approach of people such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who was a prime mover behind the Common Core State Standards and initiatives to assess teachers by student standardized test scores.

Dintersmith traveled to every state to visit schools and see what works and what doesn’t — and his prescription for the future of American education has very little to do with what Gates and others with that same data-driven mind-set have advocated.

He thinks the U.S. education system needs to be reimagined into cross-disciplinary programs that allow kids the freedom to develop core competencies through project-based learning.

He discussed his vision in a book he co-authored, “Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Age,” and he funded and produced a compelling documentary called “Most Likely to Succeed,” which goes into High Tech High school in San Diego, where the project-based educational future he wants is already there.

He has a new book being published in April, “What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration From Teachers Across America,” about what he learned during his travels and school visits.

In this post, he writes about what he saw and offers advice to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who recently said on “60 Minutes” that she had never “intentionally” visited an underperforming school.

By Ted Dintersmith

In her recent “60 Minutes” interview, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos indicated that perhaps she should visit more schools. Yes.  She needs to get out of her bubble and visit schools across America.  I did, and there’s much to be learned.

For context, I spent the entire 2015-2016 school year immersed in education across America.  In a trip that rivaled de Toqueville’s, I traveled to all 50 states, visited 200 schools of all types and talked to thousands of people about school.

Questioning my sanity, friends asked, “Why take such a grueling trip?”  But as a career venture capitalist, I know that ever-advancing technology is gutting the economy of jobs and reshaping what’s needed for career and citizenship.  These disruptions have profound implications for the future of our children and our democracy.  I wanted to see how schools might take on this challenge.

During my travels, I met with every element of our education ecosystem — governors, legislators, billionaires, school boards, college admissions, textbook and testing executives, bureaucrats, students, parents and teachers.  I covered every geography, demographic and school type. I had no ax to grind, no bias to uphold. I just wanted to listen and learn. For an administration that relies on index cards with “I hear you” reminders, here’s what our secretary of education needs to hear.

First, America’s teachers are dedicated, passionate and committed — across all types of schools.  They care.  Many are distressed, even in tears. Like troops fighting an unwinnable war, our teachers know they’re being held accountable to tests that don’t reflect real learning, nor lead to important competencies. We are demoralizing our teaching force, driving our best to early retirement and dissuading young adults from the profession that will shape our nation’s future.

Second, I was blown away by the many inspiring examples of great innovation I encountered — in classrooms, schools, districts and states.  In these classrooms, teachers help kids develop essential skill sets and mindsets. Instead of checking off endless content boxes (AP U.S. History, for example, covers five centuries, allowing a whopping 30 minutes for the U.S. Constitution), students master what they learn, apply it and teach others.  Much of the learning is hands-on, tied to real-world projects.  Students have voice in creating initiatives and in defining their path forward. Teachers are trusted, and students approach schoolwork with a sense of purpose.

Third, I didn’t find charter schools to be, on balance, more innovative than public schools. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Later in the article:

Seventh, DeVos might be surprised at my conclusions about “the very powerful forces allied against change” she alludes to.

In U.S. education, nonexperts tell experts what to do. Priorities are set by legislators, billionaires, textbook and testing executives, college admissions officers and education bureaucrats. These forces, perhaps unintentionally, impede real change in our schools. They push kids to study what’s easy to measure, not what’s important to learn. No worries that a steady diet of memorizing content and drilling on low-level procedures produces young adults who are sitting ducks in the innovation economy. Put all the chips on college-ready, discounting the importance of hands-on learning and discouraging those with non-academic proficiencies. Channel kids down the same standardized path, impairing their ability to leave school able to create and develop their own path forward — arguably the most important competence young adults need in a world where careers come and go.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2018 at 11:45 am

Posted in Books, Education

Addiction is learned: It’s a habit

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Marc Lewis has a very interesting article in Aeon. Here’s his background:

Marc Lewis is a neuroscientist and a recently retired professor of developmental psychology. He was at the University of Toronto from 1989 to 2010 and at Radboud University in the Netherlands from 2010 to 2016. His latest book is The Biology of Desire (2015). He lives in the Netherlands.

His article begins:

Three years ago, I put out a call to my blog community: would anyone be willing to tell me the story of their addiction, from start to finish, in all of its gory detail, for the book I am writing? The book would combine an account of brain change in addiction with subjective descriptions of what it’s like to live inside addiction. More than 100 people replied. Two years later, I’d recorded intimate biographies of a heroin addict, a meth addict, an alcoholic, a pill-popper and someone with an eating disorder, and my book The Biology of Desire was published in 2015.

I already knew a lot about addiction. I had struggled with my own drug compulsion, back in my 20s, and lost most of what I valued as a result. But then I quit, returned to university, earned a PhD in developmental psychology, and went on to become a professor at the University of Toronto. For more than 20 years, I researched the emotional development of children and adolescents. And after 10 of those years, I switched my focus to brain science, since the broad brushstrokes of psychology couldn’t quite capture the concrete, biological factors that interact to create our personalities. When I returned to addiction, it was as a scientist studying the addicted brain. The data were indisputable: brains change with addiction. I wanted to understand how ­– and why. I wanted to understand addiction with fastidious objectivity, but I didn’t want to lose touch with its subjectivity – how it feels, how hard it is – in the process.

The suffering, the intense effort, failure and eventual triumph I remembered from my own years of addiction coursed through each of the biographies I collected. Each revealed the agonising counterpoint of fear and shame sculpted by addiction. For example, Donna described the strange conceit that came with her talent as a pill thief, until she was caught rummaging through drawers by family members primed by suspicion. Donna cared for children with severe illnesses in a Los Angeles hospital; friends and coworkers thought her a saintlike being, overflowing with generosity and competence. What they did not see was her overflowing hunger for opiate painkillers – the special treats she saved up for after work and weekends.

Donna continued to steal pills from friends and relatives, forge doctors’ prescriptions, and raid her husband’s painkiller supply to achieve that precious buzz. She developed compelling rationalisations as to why she deserved this vacation from her high-stress life. And finally she was caught red-handed by a video camera set up in her mother-in-law’s bedroom – an event that precipitated massive trauma, fear of abandonment, and then months of intensive therapy.

What Donna and the other very different people I spoke with had in common was what all addicts find most maddening (and terrifying) about addiction: its staying power, long after the pleasure has worn off, long after the relief has transformed into extended anxiety, long after they’ve sworn up and down, to themselves and others, that this would not continue. It’s that resilience that has made addiction so incomprehensible to addicts, their families and the experts they turn to for help, while feeding a firestorm of clashing explanations as to what it actually is.

One explanation is that addiction is a brain disease. The United States National Institute on Drug Abuse, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, and the American Medical Association ubiquitously define addiction as a ‘chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry’ – a definition echoing through their websites, lectures and literature, and, most recently, ‘The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health’ (2016). Such authorities warn us that addiction ‘hijacks the brain’, replacing the capacity for choice and self-control with an unremitting compulsion to drink or use drugs. In the UK, the medical journal The Lancet has provided a forum for figurehead proponents of the brain-disease model, echoing the government’s emphasis on ‘withdrawal symptoms, tolerance, detoxification or alcohol-related seizures’,  which suggests that the royal road to understanding addiction is still medicine.

This mania for medicalisation has been evolving for decades, an outgrowth of the strange marriage between support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and institutional care. It became the dominant approach to addiction throughout the Western world in the 1990s – the so-called decade of the brain – largely due to the discovery of brain changes that correspond with addiction, some of them long-lasting if not permanent.

If addiction changes the brain and drugs cause addiction, the argument went, then perhaps drugs unleash pathological changes, literally damaging neural tissue. The implication that addicts do the things they do because they are ill, not because they are weak, self-indulgent, spineless pariahs (a fairly prevalent view in some quarters) also seemed to benefit addicts and their families. The anger and disgust they often experienced could be mitigated by the presumption of illness; and social stigmatisation – known to compound the misery of those with mental problems – could be relieved, even reversed, by the simple assumption that addicts can’t help themselves.

If only the disease model worked. Yet, more and more, we find that it doesn’t. First of all, brain change alone isn’t evidence for brain disease. Brains are designed to change. That is their modus operandi. They change massively with child and adolescent development: roughly half the synapses in the cortex literally disappear between birth and adulthood. They change with learning, throughout the lifespan; with the acquisition of new skills, from taxi-driving to music appreciation, and with normal ageing. Brains change with recovery from strokes or trauma and, most importantly, they change when people stop taking drugs.

Secondly, we now know that drugs don’t cause addiction. People become addicted to gambling, porn, sex, social media, gaming, shopping, and of course food; many of these dependencies are now classed as ‘disorders’ in the canonical (but controversial) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Moreover, the brain changes observed in drug addiction look the same as those underlying these ‘behavioural’ addictions. What is particularly interesting to me is that brain changes in addiction also resemble those underlying sexual attraction and romantic love: the brain restructures itself, at least to an extent, when attraction runs high.

The supposed social and clinical benefits of the disease model are equally unconvincing. For one thing, psychiatric patients report that the ‘illness’ label causes more stigma, not less. We might not want to sit next to someone in the waiting room if they have a ‘mental illness’. But someone with an ‘emotional problem’ doesn’t seem so very different from members of our own group or family, or even from ourselves. More intriguingly, a number of studies have shown that the belief that addiction is a disease actually decreases the odds of sustained recovery. AA has long overwritten the notion of self-generated change with that of vigilant control: once an addict, always an addict, so watch out!

No doubt the fellowship aspect of 12-step groups is valuable, but there’s little indication that the presumption of a life-long flaw facilitates recovery. Expensive private rehabs don’t do much better, partly because their core programmes still revolve around 12-step methods, with an overlay of medical supervision. Because relapse rates are so high, both in AA and in private rehabs, addicts continue to feel the burden of shame, isolation and rejection. Something fundamental about our treatment philosophy has to change. Yet the disease model seems to lock it in place.

So what are the alternatives? One idea is that addicts voluntarily choose to remain addicted: if they don’t quit, it’s because they don’t want to. Anyone who has spent even a little time with someone struggling with addiction can see the shallowness of this view. The other contender is the idea that addiction develops, it is learned, which might make it similar to other detrimental behaviour patterns: racism, religious extremism, obsessive involvement with sports or tattoos, or with romantic partners who aren’t working out, or might even be abusive. Addiction might be hard to give up because it is so deeply learned – or learned in urgent circumstances – while alternative means for arranging one’s life are not.

The view that addiction arises through learning, in the context of environmental forces, appears to be gathering momentum. An international policy group of more than 50 scholars, researchers, policy advisers and treatment professionals was coordinated earlier this year by the British researchers Derek Heim and Nick Heather, specifically to oppose the ‘brain disease model’. This group, the Addiction Theory Network, emphasises the social and psychological factors that promote addiction. And although some group members ignore the biology of addiction, presumably to distance themselves as far as possible from the disease model, others (myself included) view brain change as essential to learning addiction. After all, how do we learn anything except by modifying the connections in our brains?

Yet the question remains: if addiction is learned, how does it become so much more crystallised, entrenched, in fact stuck, than other learned behaviours? Given that what we learn we can often unlearn, why is addiction so hard to get rid of?

Johnny was a British plant manager, and his childhood included several years in a boarding school where sexual abuse by clergymen lurked insidiously behind the rustlings of bedtime. Johnny grew up anxious but competent; he married, then divorced, and enjoyed regular visits with his grown children – a relatively normal and predictable life. Until it all unravelled. His friends and business associates found it hard to watch, and impossible to interfere, as Johnny approached end-stage alcoholism. He drank himself so close to death that his first reaction to waking up was surprise. By the final six months, Johnny’s days acquired a strange rhythm. They began with a walk to the fridge, rum and ice already crackling by the time he got to the toilet. They would end when he crawled to bed on his hands and knees, unable to stand. After a few hours’ sleep, there’d begin another ‘day’ of drinking, which lasted only until his next collapse. Johnny told me he would have committed suicide, but it was happening by itself.

Why was it so hard to overcome this behaviour pattern when it got close to destroying him? Why the horrendous sameness, the insidious stability in his habits, in his life? Johnny is an intelligent man. He knew what he was doing. So why couldn’t he stop? These are the questions that a learning model of addiction has to answer.

We often think of learning in terms of skill-learning. Language, self-control, bike-riding, algebra, table manners and playing the piccolo are such skills. But we also learn habits such as nail-biting, TV-watching and folding our napkins a certain way. A focus on habits is distinct from a focus on skills: loosely speaking, habits are acquired without intention; skills are acquired deliberately. But do they differ in other ways? . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

I hope Kellyanne Conway is aware of this new paradigm, given her responsibility to combat the opioid crisis.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2018 at 9:48 am

Taboo deformation, bears, and “dagnabbit!”

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Dan Nosowitz has an interesting article in Atlas Obscura:

AMONG THE MOST HILARIOUS WORDS in the English language is “dagnabbit.” It’s full of very funny hard syllables and, for most Americans, it’s most often heard coming out of the cartoon mouth of Yosemite Sam, who has a funny voice and a big hat (big hats are also funny).

But the way the word evolved is not really funny. It is dark and ominous and paved with fear. “Dagnabbit,” along with the English words “bear” and “wolf,” are creations of a terrified populace, scared of beings visible and not.

These words are called, among linguists, taboo deformations. They are words we created because, in a very fantasy-novel sort of way, we are scared of the True Names of our enemies and overlords. Dagnabbit is an example of the perceived power of words to hurt us.


IT’S EASY TO ASSUME THAT language is, for all its variations and complexities, a shortcut, a way to convey meaning through sounds that represent concepts. But language itself has power. The word for a certain concept isn’t just a symbol; it is tied in some fundamental way to the concept itself. This pops up in humanity’s oldest stories: the idea is that each thing—person, god, object—has a true name, and that knowledge of that true name conveys power. There are stories about the true name of the Egyptian sun god Ra, of the Jewish monotheistic god, and later of various angels and demons and wizards in stories ranging from the Bible to, uh, the Earthsea fantasy novels written by Ursula K. Le Guin.

In stories like those above, one’s true name is a carefully guarded secret, and if someone finds out your true name, you’re sort of screwed; that person will have all sorts of power over you. But delightfully, this concept translates to everyday, non-fantasy-novel life as well. Except we don’t always know it.

The real-life version of this very fun idea is a bit different, partly because humans aren’t heroes on the scale of Odysseus or the Jewish god or Duny from A Wizard of Earthsea. Instead we are weak, fragile idiots who can’t really take advantage of the power of true names; instead, we’re terrified of them, and at risk of gruesome death if we use them.

“Taboo deformation is one possible way for a word to change its meaning,” says Andrew Byrd, a professor of linguistics at the University of Kentucky who specializes in Indo-European languages. Basically, we are scared of the true names of certain beings or concepts, because to use them might mean we summon them, which we don’t want, or anger them, which we definitely don’t want, or simply make other humans mad at us, which is slightly less bad but still not ideal. The true name is powerful, and we normal humans can’t handle that power. So we avoid using the true name, but sometimes we still need to communicate with each other about those beings or concepts. That means we have to figure out a way to talk about something without using the actual word for it.

A great example of this is the word “bear,” in English. “Bear” is not the true name of the bear. That name, which I am free to use because the only bear near where I live is the decidedly unthreatening American black bear, is h₂ŕ̥tḱos. Or at least it was in Proto-Indo-European, the hypothesized base language for languages including English, French, Hindi, and Russian. The bear, along with the wolf, was the scariest and most dangerous animal in the northern areas where Proto-Indo-European was spoken. “Because bears were so bad, you didn’t want to talk about them directly, so you referred to them in an oblique way,” says Byrd.

H₂ŕ̥tḱos, which is pronounced with a lot of guttural noises, became the basis for a bunch of other words. “Arctic,” for example, which probably means something like “land of the bear.” Same with Arthur, a name probably constructed to snag some of the bear’s power. But in Germanic languages, the bear is called…bear. Or something similar. (In German, it’s bär.) The predominant theory is that this name came from a simple description, meaning “the brown one.”

In Slavic languages, the descriptions got even better: the Russian word for bear is medved, which means “honey eater.” These names weren’t done to be cute; they were created out of fear.

It’s worth noting that not everyone was that scared of bears. Some languages allowed the true name of the bear to evolve in a normal fashion with minor changes; the Greek name was arktos, the Latin ursos. Still the true name. Today in French, it’s ours, and in Spanish it’s oso. The bear simply wasn’t that big of a threat in the warmer climes of Romance language speakers, so they didn’t bother being scared of its true name.

Another example is the way Jews refuse to use the true name of God, which is made up of four Hebrew letters which roughly correspond to the Latin letters Y, H, V, and H. (Maybe. In Hebrew, the symbols that roughly correspond to Y and V can also be used as vowels.) Anyway, Jews traditionally do not speak this word, and when it’s written, there are specific rules about how to treat the paper it’s written on. Sometimes this has even been applied to translations; I was told in Hebrew school to write the word “God,” which is of Germanic origin and does not appear in any of the important Jewish holy books, as “G-d.” This was useful because nobody wanted to ritually bury our Mead Composition notebooks.

But YHVH appears throughout holy books, and so to talk about God, Jews have come up with dozens of options. Hashem means, literally, “the name.” Adonai means “lord,” Elohim means…well, nobody’s quite sure about that one. Maybe “the power,” or “the divine,” something like that. With some taboo deformations, like “bear,” we’ve basically replaced the true name with something else; not many people know that it’s even a replacement. The Jewish name of God is written down, and so remains known, but in other cases, the deformation can take over.

There are all kinds of things that we as humans are too scared of to use its real name. God, sure, always smiting people, very scary. Bears, same thing, although “smiting” may not be correct word for a bear attack. Some words, like ethnic slurs, are so repugnant that they can’t be used at all, or are restricted to in-group use.

There’s also something called “mother-in-law languages,” which aren’t exactly languages. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2018 at 9:15 am

Summer Storm (rushing the season a bit) and the iKon 101

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A fine shaving soap with a wonderful petrichor fragranced, Chiseled Face’s Summer Storm continues to please. The Mühle synthetic brush, after two good shakes, was merely damp, but that worked well with this soap and the lather was just the consistency I favor.

I’m so happy to have the 101 back with me, and it did a flawless shave—I can’t recall that I’ve had a nick with this razor, although it is extremely efficient and easily produced a BBS result.

A splash of the Summer Storm aftershave, which has a very noticeable amount of menthol, but that seems in keeping with the chill winds that precede a summer storm, and it continued the petrichor theme.

Altogether a great shave to end the week.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2018 at 9:08 am

Posted in Shaving

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