Smoking bans at Slate, plus a new study from Japan

Longtime readers of my blog may remember the “heart miracle” studies of the previous decade. These studies purported to show that implementing smoking bans would bring about drastic and immediate reductions in the rate of heart attacks. I and several other writers expressed doubt for a variety of reasons, noting the small sample sizes and methodological oddities that seemed to point to a pre-determined conclusion. At the time, however, there weren’t many large scale studies being done that could settle the question.

Those large scale studies now exist, and as I write today at Slate, the evidence for the heart miracle hypothesis isn’t holding up:

[…] now that the evidence has had time to accumulate, it’s also become clear that the extravagant promises made by anti-smoking groups—that implementing bans would bring about extraordinary improvements in cardiac health—never materialized. Newer, better studies with much larger sample sizes have found little to no correlation between smoking bans and short-term incidence of heart attacks, and certainly nothing remotely close to the 60 percent reduction that was claimed in Helena. The updated science debunks the alarmist fantasies that were used to sell smoking bans to the public, allowing for a more sober analysis suggesting that current restrictions on smoking are extreme from a risk-reduction standpoint.

It’s a rather long piece and it covers a lot of ground, from the original heart miracle in Helena, Montana to the pervasive outdoor smoking bans that stigmatize smokers today. Read the whole thing.

During the editing of the article I also came across yet another new study from Japan. This one compares data from Hyogo Prefecture, one of the first regions in Japan to impose a smoking ban, to the control population of Gifu Prefecture. The time period is fairly long (one year before the ban, two years after) and the populations are large (5.58 million residents in Hyogo, 2.07 million in Gifu). One limitation of the study is that the Hyogo ban isn’t 100% comprehensive; businesses such as bars can allow smoking and some other businesses can have separate smoking rooms. Nonetheless, given the pervasiveness of smoking in Japan, even a partial ban would be expected to significantly reduce non-smokers’s exposure to secondhand smoke.

So what were the results? No trend in the number of acute coronary syndrome admissions appeared in either prefecture. “For the primary endpoint of this study, we did not observe a significant change from before to after the implementation of the partial smoking ban.”

The study did identify a small downward trend in Kobe City, which the authors attempt to spin as evidence that the smoking was in fact having the desired effect:

The reason why only Kobe City showed a significant decrease in the number of ACS admissions irrespective of subgroups is unclear. One possible reason is that the Hyogo Prefectural Capital Office is located in Kobe City, and social understanding of smoking legislation might have been accepted more widely. Indeed, questionnaires by Hyogo Prefectural Government Health & Welfare Department, distributed in the bars and restaurants larger than 100m2 in 2015, showed that the adherence rate to the smoking ban legislation was 97% in Kobe City and 88% in other Hyogo districts included in the present study. Therefore, compared with the other districts in Hyogo, the adherence rate to the smoking ban legislation was higher in Kobe City.

OK, maybe, but this seems like a stretch. One should always be skeptical of post-hoc attempts to explain why the effect one was looking for only appears in a certain subset of the data. It’s easy to come up with just-so stories that fit the expected narrative. There are myriad other factors that could be causing the decline, and chalking it up to slightly better adherence to an already partial smoking ban strikes me as a very unlikely (and very convenient!) candidate.

In any case, the bulk of high-quality research published in recent years weighs heavily against the idea that smoking bans will bring about miraculous health benefits. So as I argue in my Slate piece, let’s move on to a post-miraculous policy and make sensible accommodation for smokers’ preferences.


New podcast: Sipping Soylent on The Four Top

A few weeks ago Katherine Cole invited me to be a panelist on her new food and beverage podcast The Four Top, which is released every two weeks through Oregon Public Broadcasting. On this episode I join prolific beer writers Jeff Alworth and Lucy Burningham to discuss Soylent, issues in beer production, and the valuation of Yeti coolers. We also taste (and I mispronounce) Anchorage Brewing’s Anadromous sour ale aged in pinot noir barrels, and I recommend agricultural economist Jayson Lusk’s recent book Unnaturally Delicious. Listen and subscribe to new episodes here.


GMO labeling in Oregon

My latest makes the case against the Oregon ballot measure to require labeling of food made with GMOs:

Whole Foods would like to sell you on the virtues of the Rio Star organic grapefruit. “For juicing, Rio Star is the stand alone grapefruit” and is “widely viewed as the best” grapefruit grown in Texas, home to “some of the sweetest grapefruit in the world.” And despite originating from a breeding program that blasted grapefruits with radiation to scramble their DNA, eating them probably won’t kill you.

Read the whole thing.

Unsurprisingly, my views haven’t changed since this same debate came up in Washington last year.


Tour Portland by Bitcoin

Depending on whom one asks, Bitcoin is the future of currency, a useful tool for conducting transactions with vast untapped potential, or a speculative bubble of no lasting consequence. Enthusiasm for Bitcoin also signals various commitments, as Tyler Cowen notes, such as for libertarianism and technological optimism. Bitcoin has had a big week, with agreeing to accept it and The Chicago Sun-Times trying out a Bitcoin paywall.

The less obvious uses of Bitcoin are also intriguing. Writing at the Umlaut, Eli Dourado explains how the programming language that makes Bitcoin work opens up all kinds of possibilities, including contracts, micropayments, and proof of identity. It’s enough to convince me that Bitcoin or a successor cryptocurrency will likely be increasingly relevant and that it’s worth getting familiar with how to use it. And though I’ve in all likelihood missed my chance to strike it rich, there are far worse gambles than speculating on Bitcoin from my living room. It’s cheaper than Vegas and the drinks are better.

But if one is holding on to bitcoins for any reason beyond speculation, one will eventually want to spend them. There are lots of ways to do this online. Transfers between friends are also easy. But what about a night on the town? Where can one go to, say, turn bitcoins into beer?

To find out, my friend Tom and I consulted to plot an evening out in Portland exclusively patronizing businesses that accept Bitcoin. As one might expect, it gets a little weird.

Sadly, we weren’t able to experience what likely would have been the weirdest stop on our itinerary. At Float On in southeast Portland, customers exchange dollars or bitcoins for 90-minute sessions in a sensory deprivation chamber, floating in complete darkness and silence. Float On’s FAQ promises that floaters will not drown, that it’s not New Age mumbo-jumbo, and that “only a small percentage of floaters turn into proto-human monkeys.”

Would I hallucinate a UFO abduction, be inspired to take up impressionist painting, or perhaps receive a vision of Bitcoin’s future value? I didn’t get to find out. Float On was booked until 2 am the night of our adventure, which was a little later than we were willing to commit to. The business closed for renovations the following day, promising to re-open in February. I was looking forward to this, but it will have to wait for some other time. I suppose it’s good to know for future reference that if one craves sensory deprivation at two in the morning, there’s a place in Portland to find it.

Our first stop instead was browsing the Mirador home goods store on southeast Division street, which was pleasant, if not quite as mind-expanding as a plunge into sensory deprivation. The store offers everything from standard pots and pans to more Portlandian items like home cheese-making kits. Tom picked out a cutting board and a cocktail strainer, and I made my first Bitcoin purchase, a small brush for cleaning out metal straws. I’d been needing one of those!

The checkout process at Mirador was the smoothest of all the places we visited. The clerk rang up our orders, then used a computer to generate a QR code containing a unique Bitcoin wallet address and the total price of our purchase. We simply held our phones up to the screen, approved the transfer, and the transaction was completed within seconds.

Our next stop was just two blocks away at Papa G’s vegan organic deli, which offers dishes such as a tofu dog, tempeh reuben, and house “nochos.” While the aromas at Papa G’s were enticing, we were not its target demographic and spent a while mulling our options. Eventually we settled on a couple of their house made drinks, a hibiscus cooler and ginger beer kefir. These were both good and refreshing. For those seeking harder stuff, the deli also offers a selection of bottled beers.

Checkout was completed by scanning a QR code taped to the register that is linked to a Bitcoin wallet controlled by the owner. This was fast and easy, but leaves the staff without a direct way of verifying the transaction.

A few minutes north is Madison’s Grill, a place I’d passed by many times but never visited until last week. Madison’s began accepting Bitcoin at the urging of local enthusiasts and hosts the Portland area Bitcoin Meetup group. The menu offers standard pub fare like burgers and fish and chips, and the fourteen-handle tap list includes both familiar brands and a rotating selection of craft beers, among them Awesome Ales and No-Li on our visit. This is easily the best place to convert bitcoins into beer in Portland. Given the rise in Bitcoin’s value from when I first bought in a few days before, my beer was essentially free.

We ended up sitting next to the owner, Steve Brown, an outgoing guy who’s having fun with his experiment being the first full-service bar and restaurant in Portland to accept Bitcoin. Though not yet a huge part of his business, the venture does seem to be paying off with new customers and press.

Madison’s is also notable for being the only place on our crawl that has found a way to integrate tips into their Bitcoin transactions. These are recorded by wait staff and factored into their paperwork at the end of the night, much like a credit card tip.

No tour of Portland is complete without a visit to food carts, so our next stop was Whiffies Fried Pies in the pod at southeast 12th and Hawthorne, just one block away from Madison’s. Whiffies makes sweet and savory fried handpies that I’ve enjoyed many times in the past. Tom and I both opted for the BBQ brisket and mozzarella pie, which came out steaming hot and delicious. This is my pick for the best place to trade bitcoins for food in Portland.

Just like at Papa G’s, checkout here was completed by scanning a QR code linked to the owner’s account.

Along with its coffee shops, breweries, and food carts, Portland’s hospitality industry is famous for its strip clubs. Out of town guests make a point to visit them, the local alt-weekly reviews their steak offerings, and the likes of Tyler Cowen and Josh Barro comment on their economic strategies. While there are plenty of sleazy ones, others feel like good dive bars that just happen to have naked women in them. It’s a strange dynamic, perhaps best summed up like this: In other cities, you go to the strip club and don’t tell your wife. In Portland, your wife invites you.

Thorough research demanded that we conclude our evening at the Kit Kat Club, a new bar that claims to be the first strip club to accept Bitcoin. (This is only the second nerdiest reason I’ve gone to a strip club, the first being the time I went to the Boom Boom Room to see magician Reed McClintock perform card tricks.)

Implausible as the idea seemed, we hoped that this might mean that one could tip performers in Bitcoin, perhaps through creative use of tattoos and QR codes. Alas, that isn’t the case, and for obvious reasons they don’t want customers using phones that could just as easily be recording video as transferring currency. That aspect of the business remains a cash affair. (That said, it seems that an enterprising, tech-savvy dancer could set herself up to accept Bitcoin individually. Paging Lynsie Lee.)

The bar incorporates aspects of cabaret, with an emcee and themed performances, but it’s still very much a strip club. The staff was fun and friendly. Stumptown Dumplings offers food; their pork dumplings with chili hoisin were pretty good, though they require a separate non-Bitcoin transaction. My only knock against the place would be the beer selection, which is bottle-only and dominated by mass market lagers. Is there much of an overlap between people who spend bitcoins and people who go to strip clubs? I have no idea, but if there is, Kit Kat is the club they’re looking for.

Below, a few assorted thoughts and observations from our Bitcoin crawl…

Ease of use: Getting set up with Bitcoin was easy. I signed up with CoinBase for my primary account, linked that to my checking account to purchase Bitcoin, and transferred Bitcoin to a Mycelium wallet on my cell phone to spend while we were out.

Integration: Though all of our transactions went smoothly, Bitcoin payments aren’t yet easily integrated into the point of sale systems of the places we visited. In some cases, the money was sent to an owner who wasn’t on the premises. Staff could potentially verify transactions by watching a customer’s phone screen, but this is hard to monitor closely. At Madison’s they asked for a name and phone number as back up. Right now people paying with Bitcoin are early adopters and trust is high, but better integration with POS systems would make bar and restaurant use of Bitcoin more secure.

Tipping: As mentioned above, Madison’s was the only one of the four bars and restaurants we visited that factored tipping into their accounts. At every other stop we needed cash for tipping staff, making it impractical to spend a night out using only Bitcoin. (However if a restaurant wanted to switch to a percentage service charge model, that would be easier to handle.)

Privacy: I think that only one of the businesses we patronized generated a unique address for each Bitcoin transaction. Since the blockchain documenting Bitcoin transactions is public, anyone who knows the address used by a business can see how much money it has received. Right now this is a small enough part of their volume to be of little concern, but if Bitcoin becomes more popular one can imagine that they may not want to broadcast their sales so easily.

Volatility: It should go without saying that the volatility of Bitcoin prices is a concern for businesses to consider. Right now, I doubt many local businesses would have any trouble converting their Bitcoin receipts to dollars if they don’t want to carry a large balance. On the other hand, if they’re optimistic about Bitcoin’s future value, they may want to hold on to them.

New customers: Perhaps the best reason to start accepting Bitcoin now is to attract new customers. There are people who want to spend bitcoins and they currently have few options for where to do so. There is a benefit to being one of the first in an industry to accept the currency, both for being discovered by new clients and for getting press coverage. Even if one is skeptical of Bitcoin and rapidly converts all sales to dollars, it could be worthwhile to get on board before competitors do.

Advantages over credit cards: Credit card transactions take time to post, they can be reversed if a customer protests, and the associated fees are significant. Standard Bitcoin transactions are fast, irreversible, and cheap. (It is possible to structure Bitcoin transactions so that they can be arbitrated and reversed, but getting a refund for a standard exchange requires the retailer’s consent.) I doubt Bitcoin will replace Visa anytime soon, but these are advantages for a small business to consider.

One additional way restaurants might use Bitcoin is to hold reservations. Popular restaurants lose revenue when a reserved table sits empty. Even if a restaurant takes a credit card number to charge in the case of a no-show, it’s possible that the customer will contest the payment. Restaurants could instead require a deposit of Bitcoin to hold a table and then either return it when the party arrives or deduct an equivalent amount from the bill.

Taxation: Perhaps the biggest disadvantage to accepting Bitcoin is figuring out how to factor it into one’s taxes. This seems to be a gray area at the moment and could get complicated.

Bottom line: There’s a lot of room for expansion when it comes to accepting Bitcoin. Integrating it into one’s business will probably get easier over time, but there are also advantages to being among the first to try it out.


GMO labeling: Bad science, good politics

Rally to Support GMO Food Labeling

Over at The Umlaut, I have an essay up today about why mandatory GMO labeling is probably inevitable in the United States, and why that may not be a good thing:

I would be more sympathetic to the cause of GMO labeling if its advocates were not so intent on stigmatizing genetic engineering. Instead, whether for reasons of political expediency, profit, or simply poor judgment, they too often associate with any idea that could bolster their cause, regardless of its scientific merits. Thus we end up with labeling advocates on stage in front of a Whole Foods banner, sowing fear among foodies that exposure to genetically modified crops may cause autism in their children.

Read the whole thing here.

[Photo via CT Senate Democrats.]


Is there anything a cigarette can’t do?

Today’s edition of alarmist health reporting comes from the BBC:

Women who are light smokers – including those who smoke just one cigarette a day – double their chance of sudden death, a large study suggests.

The link between heart disease and smoking is well established. The study that this article references is behind a paywall, but here is what it actually concludes:

Small to moderate amounts of cigarette consumption (1-14 per day) were associated with a significant 1.84-fold (95% CI, 1.16-2.92) increase in SCD [sudden cardiac death] risk and every 5 years of continued smoking was associated with an 8% increase in SCD risk (HR 1.08; 95% CI, 1.05-1.12, p<0.0001).

In other words, the elevated risk was found in a group of women that includes smokers who consume anywhere from one to fourteen cigarettes per day. That is a big difference! There may be (and likely are) very different levels of risk within this group. One can’t conclude from this study that smoking just one cigarette per day doubles one’s chance of dying from a heart attack. The press release for the study, reprinted at Forbes, doesn’t even make that claim. It appears to be an invention of the BBC. (Again, I haven’t seen the full study, but it’s very unlikely that there is anything in it to support the BBC’s interpretation.)

It should be obvious that smoking one cigarette a day carries a different health risk than smoking fourteen of them. In fact, the abstract for the study notes a linear relationship between quantity smoked and risk of sudden cardiac death. Yet the state of health journalism regarding tobacco products has become so degraded that reporters now ascribe near magical death-dealing qualities to the cigarette.


April Fools’ follow-up

My favorite comment on the homeopathic cocktail post comes from Iqbal, who writes, “What do you know about medical science? Good idea to stick to your bartending business.” I can’t tell if he’s an angry homeopath or if he just didn’t get the joke, but to be clear, it was an April Fools’ Day post!

My representation of homeopathy was accurate to the best of my knowledge, with one exception: I left out the “law of similars,” or principle of “let like be cured by like” that guides homeopathic remedies. For example, if you’re alert and trying to go to sleep, a homeopathic remedy would be an extreme dilution of something that causes alertness, such as caffeine. As for whether or not this is actually effective, well here’s Dr. Paul Willis massively overdosing on a homeopathic sleep spray to see what happens:

In fairness then, I never should have expected my Homeopathic Negroni to get me drunk. By the law of similars it should in fact have been a hangover cure. Ironically this would actually work, water and time being the only sure cures for a hangover. However you can save yourself the trouble of serially diluting a perfectly good cocktail; regular tap water is equally effective.

The post was inspired by a few recent items I’d come across online, including this New York Times profile of self-aggrandizing charlatan Alex Ott. Ott is said to toy “with homeopathic blends that he believes can alter a person’s mood” and even the esteemed Gary Regan chimes in to say that “Homeopathic remedies make all the sense in the world to me.” I can’t tell if Ott is using actual homeopathic dilutions or if the writer is just using the word “homeopathic” in a vague sense, but regardless, the drinks community shouldn’t be conferring legitimacy on medicinal homeopathy. (For a righteous smackdown of Ott, see Darcy O’Neil.)

Biodynamic wine is another area in which the drinks the world unfortunately legitimizes the idea that weak dilutions can have powerful effects. This comes up in Preparation 500, an act required of certified biodynamic growers. I swear I am not making this up:

A Biodynamic practitioner obtains a cow horn, stuffs it full of cow manure and buries it on or around the autumnal equinox. On or around the spring equinox, it is dug up and the “horn manure” is made into a highly diluted (homeopathic) spray that when applied to your fields enlivens it with cosmic forces.

That’s from the Biodynamics is a Hoax blog, which goes on to provide some priceless quotes from Rudolf Steiner. Here’s another description of the preparation from folks who actually believe it:

During the cooler months life breathes into the soil and the soil has the tendency to be full of growth energies, which energies are absorbed into the dung through the receptive nature of the horn. […]

It is sprayed up to four times a year. The best times are in October and November and then again in February and March. It is important to apply in the late afternoon.

It is used in small quanitities [sic] at the rate of 25 grams in 13 litres of water per acre.

It is stirred for one hour making a vortex or crater in one direction and then reversing the direction and making a vortex in the other direction.

It’s hard to imagine that there are professional farmers in the 21st century going in for this sort of thing, but there you have it. Every time you drink biodynamic wine you’re supporting the ritualistic burial of poop-filled cow horns. I don’t doubt that there are some delicious biodynamic wines on the market, but whenever someone describes their wine to me as “biodynamic” I cringe a little bit.

Of course, the real dangers of homeopathy have nothing to do with wine or cocktails, but rather with medicine. The remedies themselves are usually harmless, since by definition they have no active ingredients. But they divert resources patients could use instead on effective medicine and may be chosen as a substitute for it altogether, putting lives at risk. The 10:23 Campaign (with the brilliant slogan “Homeopathy: There’s Nothing In It”) has been calling attention to this. From an essay on their site by Simon Singh:

Perhaps the greatest danger occurs when homeopathy replaces a conventional treatment. I first encountered this problem in 2006 when I tried to find out what homeopaths would offer to a young traveller seeking protection against malaria. Working with Alice Tuff and the charity Sense About Science, we developed a storyline in which Tuff would be making a ten week overland trip through West Africa, where there is a high prevalence of the most dangerous strain of malaria, which can result in death within three days. Tuff, a young graduate, would explain to homeopaths that she had previously suffered side-effects from conventional malaria tablets and wondered if there was a homeopathic alternative. […]

Next Tuff found a variety of homeopaths by searching on the internet, just as any young student might do. She then visited or phoned ten of them, mainly based in and around London. In each case, Tuff secretly recorded the conversations in order to document the consultation. The results were shocking. Seven out of the ten homeopaths failed to ask about the patient’s medical background and also failed to offer any general advice about bite prevention. Worse still, ten out of ten homeopaths were willing to advise homeopathic protection against malaria instead of conventional treatment, which would have put our pretend traveller’s life at risk.

The web comic XKCD has done a fantastic job satirizing homeopathic principles. Here’s one my favorites from that site:

And here’s another.

Though companies aren’t making millions of dollars reducing the cost of healthcare via homeopathy, they do profit by selling to those who believe it works. From a 1997 U.S. News and World Report article comes the story of the $20 million duck:

Somewhere near Lyon, France, sometime this year, officials from the French pharmaceutical firm Boiron will slaughter a solitary duck and extract its heart and liver–not to appease the gods but to fight the flu. The organs will be used to make an over-the-counter flu medicine, called Oscillococcinum, that will be sold around the world. In a monetary sense, this single French duck may be the most valuable animal on the planet, as an extract of its heart and liver form the sole “active ingredient” in a flu remedy that is expected to generate sales of $20 million or more. (For duck parts, that easily beats out foie gras in terms of return on investment.)

How can Boiron claim that one duck will benefit so many sick people? Because Oscillococcinum is a homeopathic remedy, meaning that its active ingredients are so diluted that they are virtually nonexistent in the final preparation. In every gram of the medication, according to the list of ingredients on the package, there are 0.85 grams of sucrose and 0.15 grams of lactose. For those without a chemistry degree, that means that Oscillococcinum is 100 percent sugar.

Finally, via Reddit, it turns out that British comedians Mitchell and Webb were a bit ahead of me on this one:


Public choice and BPA

This week the Oregon Senate is considering a bill to ban Bisphenol-A, or BPA, from use in products intended for children under the age of four. BPA is a common chemical in plastic containers. There is some fear that it causes harm by leaking into food and drink products. I am skeptical, as I am of most such scares, but I haven’t done enough research on the topic to have a firm opinion either way.

Writing at Blue Oregon, Kari Chisholm is sure that we should pass the ban. In fact he’d like to ban it in all food containers, not just the ones intended for children. Some of his reasoning is based on scientific research but the rest is biased towards what’s good for legislators. Here’s one of his arguments:

Smart legislators will vote for SB 1032. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s entirely possible that it could become a political issue in upcoming campaigns. When our son was born, I had never heard of BPA. But hanging around with a bunch of new parents, I quickly learned about it – and this is a major worry with young families. (Legislators who don’t have young children of their own would be smart to check in with some new parents — they may be surprised how deep the concern runs about BPA. Entire businesses have been built to help parents avoid this chemical.)

Given a choice between protecting the health and well-being of Oregon children – and protecting a bunch of out-of-state (and overseas) chemical and plastics manufacturers – I think the choice is clear. You can imagine what the attack ads will look like for those who vote against the bill.

This also isn’t about jobs. No one in Oregon produces BPA or the products affected by SB 1032.

This might all be true, but there’s nothing praiseworthy in the provincial idea that we should go ahead with the ban because the only people who would be hurt by it are non-Oregonian Americans or foreigners who are likely economically worse off than we are. It’s expedient for legislators to think that way but it’s not a principle we should encourage. (If Oregon was home to a BPA plant, would Chisholm want legislators to ignore science to protect their political prospects?)

Then he updates with this:

Over at the OLCV blog, Jon Isaacs notes that the Bisphenol-A baby-bottle ban is an opportunity for a big bipartisan accomplishment, at a time when there’s been a lot of partisan bickering and stonewalling.

I don’t even know what the point of this is supposed to be. Bipartisanship is only good if the laws that are being passed are good. It’s not good for it’s own sake. If all it does is give politicians something to point to when they’re running for re-election and cover from lobbying groups then I don’t see the value. The same blog post he links to notes that 90% of the bottles for sale in Oregon are already BPA-free anyway, suggesting that concerned parents and retailers are handling the alleged problem reasonably well on their own.

There might be good reasons to ban BPA in bottles, but after reading this Blue Oregon post I’m less convinced than ever that the decision will be based on sound science rather than on the self-interest of legislators.

Update 2/16/10: The bill failed.


Why tomato juice?

Yesterday I came across this story about why people drink tomato juice on planes but couldn’t read the German. Tyler Cowen summarizes:

During a flight, everything tastes quite a bit weaker, as if you had a cold. You might think die deutschen would turn to Sichuan Chili Chicken, but no…Tomatensaft!

Growing up I would always drink ginger ale on planes. I rarely drank it other times and to this day I associate ginger ale with flying. I assumed this was a random preference, but perhaps not.


Do cell phone bans prevent car crashes?

Even as a libertarian it’s hard to defend using a cell phone while driving. Nonetheless one can question whether selective bans on using cell phones are effective. A new study suggests they aren’t:

The Highway Loss Data Institute, a nonprofit organization funded by the auto insurance industry, compared monthly collision claims in four states that have banned handheld cell phone use before and after the bans took effect.

Research for the study, published Friday, was collected in New York, Washington, D.C., Connecticut, and California. Data was also collected and evaluated from nearby states that do not have such bans, for the sake of comparison. The Highway Loss Data Institute’s research indicates that car collision rates didn’t change after bans went into effect–and they didn’t change for nearby states without such bans, either.

Drivers on cell phones might just be the most visible scapegoat taking the heat for distracted drivers in general. The article is interesting throughout and suggests some neat technological fixes that could make driving safer.

Congress is considering legislation tying federal highway funds to the enactment of such bans. This is a good example of why we shouldn’t make this a federal issue: If the bans aren’t accomplishing anything, it’s better to test them out at the state level than to enforce them nationwide.

[Via @brookeOB1.]


An experiment with sous vide spirits


As a cocktail blogger I’m used to getting samples of spirits in the mail. I’m not used to them arriving in bags like those pictured above. Is that Aviation gin’s sexy new packaging? No, but it is Aviation gin, cleverly altered by my friend David Barzelay for a tasting experiment.

David is very interested in the science of cooking and has lately been getting into cocktails as well. One of his recent acquisitions is an immersion circulator used for sous vide preparations. (How he got his circulator working is a story in itself, worth reading here.) In brief, sous vide cooking works by sealing food in an airtight plastic bag and immersing it in a temperature-controlled hot water bath. Because the heat source is the same temperature as the target temperature of the food, the bag can be immersed for hours and the food will cook evenly all the way through. This has numerous uses in the kitchen, but what about behind the bar?

David’s idea was to use the sous vide technique to increase the strength of an infusion. Since heat aids in the extraction of flavor, sous vide could allow one to achieve the same results as room-temperature infusions in a shorter period of time or with smaller amounts of ingredients. The sealed environment would minimize effects on the spirit, allowing any vapor to recondense into the liquid. David sent me four samples of Aviation gin to test whether 1) the spirit’s aroma, flavor, or mouthfeel would be altered and 2) whether a sous vide infusion would be stronger than an unheated one. The following four samples arrived in separately sealed bags:

1. 50g Aviation gin, untreated
2. 50g Aviation gin, heated for 60 minutes at 60C/140F
3. 50g Aviation gin, bagged with 10g juniper berries
4. 100g Aviation gin, bagged with 20g juniper berries, heated for 60 minutes at 60C/140F


David suggested tasting these side-by-side with a few other gin lovers. Luckily Aviation is distilled right here in Portland by House Spirits, so I was able to taste these with the distiller himself. Our tasting panel consisted of me, Matt Mount and Lee Medoff from House Spirits, local bartender Elizabeth Markham, and visiting cocktail enthusiast Courtney Knapp, who also took the photos.


I’ll discuss the infusions first. David says that when he mailed them to me the heated infusion had become dark brown from the juniper berries and the untreated infusion was still clear. By the time they arrived in Portland a few days later they were both brown and another several weeks would pass before I got around to the tasting them. Ideally we would have conducted the tasting soon after the infusions were made, but that wasn’t possible this time.

Nonetheless, the juniper flavor was still much stronger in the sous vide infusion. In both infusions the juniper overpowered other flavors, but in the heated sample it was even more pronounced and longer lasting; one taster said it felt as if the oils lingered longer on the tongue.

Was this the result of a stronger infusion? Probably in part, but there was an unexpected result from the sample that was heated without any added juniper berries: It tasted more like juniper too!

The first thing we noticed in the heated sample was that it had some visible solids or oils on the surface. It also tasted much more intense than untreated Aviation gin; “resinous” and “piney” were two descriptors we came up with. The sous vide process definitely had an effect on the spirit.

We’re not sure why the result came out this way. The temperature was below the boiling points of methanol and ethanol. Matt suggested that the process might have volatilized some of the juniper present in the gin, which he says is one of the first botanicals to express itself in the distilling process. This would perhaps explain why there was apparently oil on the surface of the sample and why junipery, piney flavors were enhanced to the detriment of floral, citrus, and spice notes.

Additional experiments could help shed light on how the sous vide process affects spirits. One possibility would be to repeat the infusion experiment with cardamom or coriander, two ingredients that Matt says express themselves at the end of distillation, or with an ingredient not found in the gin at all. Another would be to use vodka, which with its neutral flavor and purity would present fewer complications. Shorter heating times could also be tried; for example, DC bartender Justin Guthrie does a sous vide infusion of Jim Beam bourbon and Madras curry that takes just a few minutes and Tony Conigliaro does a 20 minute apple and gin infusion. They both use lower temperatures as well. Finally, Elizabeth suggested the technique could be useful in speeding up the making of bitters, which could be a great application.

Hopefully David will check in with his own thoughts and I’d like to hear from anyone else who’s tried this. I think the technique could have a lot of untapped potential.


Decent exposure

This is why Penn and Teller are quite possibly the best magicians working today:

It’s a fine line between exposure of methods that cheapens the art and exposure that increases the audience’s appreciation for it. Penn and Teller are masters of walking that line, revealing just enough of the work to show how much thought, practice, and attention to detail can go into the simplest acts of sleight of hand.

The video is from this fascinating Wired article about magicians’ contributions to neuroscience, which includes a simple yet devious secret to picking people’s pockets.

[Via TMN.]


Darwin Day

Today was Darwin Day, the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150 years after his On the Origin of Species. Remarkably, even now only about a quarter of Americans accept the theory of natural selection. 63% believe that life has always existed in its current form or was created through a process of guided evolution. So in Darwin’s honor, a recommended reading list of books investigating and extending his ideas, some of which I haven’t read in years but that remain among my favorites:

The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins) — This is one of the most stunning books of non-fiction I’ve ever read, the sort that made me see the world in a whole new light. Dawkins describes natural selection from the gene’s perspective, offering a new and unique way of understanding evolution. This is also where the fertile concept of memes is first presented.

Unto Others (Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson) — Dawkins’ perspective is illuminating. It’s also limiting, in the sense that selection only at the gene level limits the kinds of altruism that can evolve. In this book the authors argue that selection for groups of organisms is also possible and can lead to more robust forms of altruism. The first half is a fascinating inquiry into that idea. The second is about the psychology of altruism and is in my view less interesting, but still worth reading.

The Song of the Dodo (David Quammen) — Quammen is an amazingly talented nature writer. In this book he discusses how the study of life on isolated islands reveals insights into evolution, extinction, and the effects of carving up natural habitat. Along the way it delves into the work of Alfred Wallace, whose independent work on evolution finally jolted Darwin into publishing his ideas.

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Daniel Dennett) — An introduction to Darwinian ideas, with provocative extensions to culture, morality, and technology.

Bones of Contention (Paul Chambers) — As scientists, intellectuals, and theologians debated the merits of Darwin’s theory, the fossils of Archaeopteryx, a dinosaur with feathers, burst onto the scene. Whereas most pop science books take a grand view of evolution, this one looks in detail at one particular incident to illuminate warring perspectives. Unique, esoteric, and informative.

Consilience (Edward O. Wilson) — The opposite of esoteric. Here the father of sociology argues for a unified view of knowledge grounded in physics and evolution.


Kindled desire

From Caleb I learn that the second generation Kindle is coming out later this month. Yes, I want one, though the $359 price tag would prevent me from buying now even if I didn’t have reservations about it.

And I do have reservations. One is the standard objection that books just feel better. I love my books and don’t really feel at home in a place until I’ve unpacked them. But books take up a lot of space, space that could be devoted instead to things like bourbon and Scotch (no electronic replacements for those on the horizon). I’ve reached the point where storing thousands of books in a device that takes up the volume of one would be very welcome.

The bigger problem is DRM. Buying books on the Kindle is taking a gamble that it will remain a viable format for as long as you want to keep your library. It’s an inconvenience for customers that probably does very little to prevent privacy. John Siracusa has a fascinating article at Ars Technica this month about the frustratingly slow progress in e-books, caused in part by publishers’ insistence on crippling their products with DRM:

Nuances aside, the big picture remains the same: DRM for digital media distribution to consumers is a mathematically, technologically, and intellectually bankrupt exercise. It fails utterly to deliver its intended benefit: the prevention of piracy. Its disadvantages, however, are provided in full force: limiting what consumers can legally do with content they have legitimately purchased, under threat of civil penalties or criminal prosecution. […]

“Piracy!” the publishers cry. “This is exactly what happened to the music business!” This is a good place to point out yet another reality not recognized by this panic over digital distribution. Whether or not publishers choose to sell e-books, digital versions of their content are already available online thanks to OCR (etc.) and, in the case of the most popular books, collaborative transcription. (For example, when photographs depicting all 759 pages of the final Harry Potter book were leaked, the entire book was transcribed before the official release date of the printed book.)

To sum up, e-books have an incredible upside for publishers and little to no downside, since all the things publishers fear will happen as a consequence of selling e-books have already happened, and will continue to happen with or without the widespread sale of e-books.

Relatedly, Bobbie Johnson argues at the Guardian that the lack of widespread book piracy is one reason that publishers haven’t been driven to create a viable electronic market.

When the Kindle first came out, I told a friend that I refused to buy electronic books if I couldn’t upload them to my computer, search them, and copy-and-paste the text. This seemed like a strong objection to me, but he had a devastatingly simple reply: “You can’t do that with paper books and you buy those all the time.” Touché.

Even with DRM, the Kindle’s advantages might eventually persuade me to buy one. For now, though, I’m holding out for a DRM-free alternative.

For more on Amazon’s strategy with the new Kindle, see this article in the Wall Street Journal (via Megan).


Contaminated… emitting toxins

I’m not surprised when I see lazy scientific journalism in mainstream newspapers. Science is hard, I get it. We should demand better from Scientific American though. Yet here’s reporter Coco Ballantyne offering a full interview to Jonathan Winickoff, the doctor behind the “third hand smoke” study that made the New York Times a few weeks ago — a study that consisted entirely of calling random people on the phone and asking them what they believe about tobacco smoke.

After a mild concession from Stanton Glantz that there isn’t actually any evidence linking the remnants of tobacco smoke with disease, she gives Winickoff the floor:

How exactly do you distinguish between second- and third- hand smoke?

Third-hand smoke refers to the tobacco toxins that build up over time—one cigarette will coat the surface of a certain room [a second cigarette will add another coat, and so on]. The third-hand smoke is the stuff that remains [after visible or “second-hand smoke” has dissipated from the air]…. You can’t really quantify it, because it depends on the space…. In a tiny space like a car the deposition is really heavy…. Smokers [may] smoke in another room or turn on a fan. They don’t see the smoke going into a child’s nose; they think that if they cannot see it, it’s not affecting [their children].

Smokers themselves are also contaminated…smokers actually emit toxins [from clothing and hair].

Can we get this guy on the Daily Show please? Michael Siegel laments that statements like this will destroy the credibility of the tobacco control movement. Personally, I’m glad to see it happen. The deeper it descends into farce the sooner we’ll beat back nanny state intrusions.


Science on the Edge

This year’s Edge question and answers are up. After a nicely libertarian introduction, John Brockman asks, “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”

Here, somewhat at random, is Daniel Dennett’s answer:

Will universities and newspapers become obsolete? Will hospitals and churches go the way of corner grocery stores and livery stables? Will reading music soon become as arcane a talent as reading hieroglyphics? Will reading and writing themselves soon be obsolete? What will we use our minds for? Some see a revolution in our concept of intelligence, either because of “neurocosmetics” (Marcel Kinsbourne) or quantum-computing (W. H. Hoffman), or “just in time storytelling” (Roger Schank). Nick Humphrey reminds us that when we get back to basics — procreating, eating, just staying alive — not that much has changed since Roman times, but I think that these are not really fixed points after all.

Our species’ stroll through Design Space is picking up speed. Recreational sex, recreational eating, and recreational perception (hallucinogens, alcohol), have been popular since Roman times, but we are now on the verge of recreational self-transformations that will dwarf the modifications the Romans indulged in. When you no longer need to eat to stay alive, or procreate to have offspring, or locomote to have an adventure — packed life, when the residual instincts for these activities might be simply turned off by genetic tweaking, there may be no constants of human nature left at all. Except, maybe, our incessant curiosity.

There are more than a hundred other responses, to have fun scrolling through.


Lazy reporting and the Pueblo ban study

The Centers for Disease Control have issued a new report about the impact of the smoking ban in Pueblo, Colorado. The study has the media breathlessly repeating claims that the ban dramatically saves lives. “A smoking ban caused heart attacks to drop by more than 40 percent in one U.S. city and the decrease lasted three years, federal health experts reported Wednesday,” writes Reuters reporter Maggie Fox, who doesn’t bother quoting any dissenting sources. Mary Engle at the LA Times health blog says uncritically that whatever the mechanism behind the fall in heart attacks, “Pueblo’s smoking ban can take the credit.” Bill Scanlon at the Rocky Mountain News throws science to the wind and extrapolates that Colorado will see a statewide “sharp decline” in heart attacks in 2009 — more than two years after its ban went into effect.

I realize times are tough in newsrooms, but there’s no excuse for such biased, lazy reporting. Journalists should treat the claims of ideologically driven anti-smoking groups with just as much skepticism as they would junk science coming from big tobacco companies.

Since the CDC’s report is going to be cited constantly by smoking ban advocates it’s worth taking a look at its methodology and limitations. Fortunately it’s straightforward enough that any moderately intelligent person can understand it. The following is my layman’s reading of the results, with the caveat that I’m approaching this without formal training. Nonetheless, it’s clear that one shouldn’t take this study’s conclusions at face value. Its use by anti-smoking groups, researchers, and the press to promote smoking bans is a case study in the abuse of science for political ends.
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