Anti-science hysteria is bipartisan

As they say in France,

Les extrêmes se touchent

Far-right evangelicals are anti-science because of their religious beliefs, and as it turns out, the same is true of far-left new agers.

From Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy:

I used to write for the Huffington Post, an online news and blog collective. It was started by Arianna Huffington during the Bush Era as a response to all the far-right online media. I didn’t agree with a lot of what was on there — I am more centrist — but at the time I thought it was necessary.

Then they started to promote far-left New Age nonsense, and when it came to vaccinations, HuffPo started posting all kinds of opinions that amounted to nothing more than out-and-out health threats. While they do sometimes post a counter-argument, it’s still almost all alt-med, all the time.

Here’s the latest: a doctor named Frank Lipman is telling people not to get vaccinated against Swine Flu. Instead he says you should wash your hands a lot, eat well, and take homeopathic medicine.

Why these charlatans are not stripped of their medical licenses, boggles the mind. And, to those of the left who might claim that this is an isolated case, and your side of the political spectrum is “obviously” more reality-minded than the other, I’d suggest reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science
to read more about prevalent new-age nonsense in popular culture. Being non-orthodox in belief, for many people, sadly does not mean embracing rationalism — often it just means being post-modernist.

ContactBot: noiselessly telling people where you are

Ever been in a situation where you are abroad for a short period of time, or you forgot your mobile phone charger, or otherwise not reachable at your normal phone number? I’ve been there, and it can be annoying to handle, unless you’re the kind of person who keeps lists (and even then, text messages ain’t free!). Or worse, you have several mobile phones, and you juggle them around, and people don’t know which one you are on right now…

There’s Google Voice, and other forwarding services, but that would require giving people a different number; one whose voice quality is probably not as good. And if the new number is only needed temporarily, that seems like an overkill.

Enter ContactBot. It provides a Twitter bot; you can tell it your phone number and location, and your friends (people you follow, not people who follow you) can then query the bot for your whereabouts.

The test bot is @hircus_contact. It is rate-limited at the basic 150 messages per hour, so if you want to heavily test it, or do not want to give me your phone number (I run the bot, after all!), feel free to check out the code and run your own bot!

Note that the bot does not currently add you back, so you’d have to wait until I personally add you before you can send direct messages. Should take less than a day.

TODO: timezone support, so the bot can warn your tactless friends not to call you at 3 a.m., documentation, and test cases. And online help.

Current command set:

  • D hircus_contact set phone 555-5555
  • D hircus_contact set location New York, NY
  • D hircus_contact phone ma_cherie
  • D hircus_contact location ma_cherie

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On Indonesian health reform

From the Jakarta Globe, news that a health bill, first tabulated in 2002, has finally passed. Among its provisions is an item that sounds humane in principle:

In many ways, the new health law is groundbreaking in that it cuts down to size the money-making players in the health industry. For example, hospitals — both state-run and private — are no longer allowed to reject patients who lack the financial means to seek medical care.

This is good news, but how fairly will this be implemented in practice? The cynic in me is imagining that this could be used to bankrupt certain hospitals by directing a throng of too-poor-to-pay patients at their doorsteps, while making sure that well-connected hospitals get mostly paying patients. Would anyone really prosecute the Army Hospital, or Pertamina, for example?

The part that allows for regulation of drug prices is good, to a certain point. Dictating prices by fiat is not likely to be successful — note the failure of California’s electricity liberalization during the tenure of Gov. Gray Davis: bulk prices are allowed to float, while a ceiling cap is placed on retail prices. Unscrupulous energy traders such as Enron were able to come in and artificially drive up the retail price, squeezing the state government and retail electricity providers. Would the government really be able to get pharmaceutical companies to agree on cost? Is it not better to set up a single purchasing agency that is able to coördinate generic drug purchases, and thus negotiate a lower price, than to wish the drug prices themselves to (inevitably) unrealistic numbers? The example of shortages of meat and dairy products in oil-rich Venezuela suggests the same — price decrees do not work in a market economy.

Still, some parts of the bill are unquestionably positive:

While the House deserves credit for passing the revamped health bill, which the government submitted in 2002, it is noteworthy that it took them seven years to do so. A sticky issue that prevented the bill from being passed more quickly is abortion. Not surprisingly, religion-driven political parties balked at even discussing the subject.

But the bill is designed to be accepted in its entirety, and its rejection would have meant the poor would not be able to enjoy the benefits embedded in it.

Thankfully, cooler heads ultimately prevailed, with the new law allowing for abortion in specific situations.

Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, is thus ahead of most Catholic-majority Catholic developing countries (and even some developed ones such as Ireland!) in ensuring reproductive rights. Again, one could imagine the trumped-up backlash that could be fomented to target specific abortion providers — such abhorrent acts happen in the United States, after all — but on paper, at the very least, it is a welcome development.

Happy International Day of Peace — unless you live in the US

On a day dedicated to peace [wikipedia], which I interpret broadly to include lack of violent death, it is shocking to find yet another example of the Second Amendment running amok.

From the NYT (linked by Caminante):

In a shocking genuflection to the gun lobby, the Senate has voted to deny Amtrak its indispensable $1.6 billion federal subsidy unless it allows passengers to transport handguns in their checked luggage. The budget support would be stripped in six months unless Amtrak scraps the gun ban that it wisely adopted five years ago after the terrorist railroad atrocities in Madrid.

The gun ban was adopted under Bush, at roughly the same time the ban on assault weapons was allowed to sunset into oblivion. Yet under a president with a reasonable policy on gun ownership (though tell that to the NRA!), and on public transport, the Senate decided, with the crucial help of 27 Democrats (I did not know the Blue Dogs are *that* influential) and, shame of shame, Bernie Sanders, to force them to make expensive changes for the benefit of some people who somehow believe they are insecure without their sidearms. And the much larger number of people who use gun issues as totemic symbols of individualistic freedom. Seriously, the only moderately dangerous place to which Amtrak goes is the Union Station in Chicago. Why would you need a gun in most places Amtrak go to?

So: Amtrak either coughs up money it does not have to retrofit its baggage cars, or risk losing even more subsidies. Did Senate even consider giving them enough money to make the transition? That would make it bad enough (that a totemic issue gets so much airing), but the funding aspect makes it even worse — this is done by people who, mostly (Sanders excepted), want to see Amtrak die, after which it’s totally irrelevant whether you can bring a bazooka or a Tomahawk on it or not.

When the rest of the Western world has much more sane gun controls (no handguns in the UK unless you have a special license), and China and Spain are spending more money on high-speed rail than the US, and this would most likely get overturned in the House or get vetoed by the President anyway, it is highly nauseating that, of all topics right-wing politicians (dragging the uncourageous with them) choose to make a stand on, they have to stoop so low. In recessionary times, I guess the NRA ka-ching speaks volumes. But given our experience of the totally non-issue-based so-called “debate”, is this any surprise?

@ /home with btrfs

One inevitably learns that NTFS-3G, great though it is for exchanging data with Windows users, is not *quite* well-suited to heavy workloads such as serving Bittorrent files. And when one is particularly unlucky, the result is the kind of disk corruption of the kind that results in a lot of recovered directories and files with generic names. And bogus directory entries-turned-files that point nowhere.

It’s particularly bitter-sweet when that happens when one — ok, I — was in the middle of moving the files to what I figured, as it turns out correctly, is a more stable solution: Btrfs. I might not want to have it on my root partition just yet — from past experience, running an RPM transaction on it can be rather tediously slow — but for a relatively small number of large files, it should do OK. And it did — though during one of the move operations, NTFS-3G gave up the ghost. Ah well.

Sufficiently impressed by Btrfs — seems to be holding well so far, while I’m catching up on some of the lost torrents — the next step is, of course, to run a home directory under it. Not crazy enough to put my main laptop to the test, I volunteered my netbook. Some recent Rawhide update means compositing on it is currently rather buggy — unusably flickering display with KMS, very slow without — so while I’m back on a plain GNOME desktop after having fun with the new GNOME Shell, I figured the netbook will serve as a Btrfs testbed. btrfs-convert happily converted 7G-worth of files from an ext4 partition in a couple of minutes. The conversion is even reversible, though after making sure everything is still there, I nuked the old image file. The important files are synced to the main laptop anyway (thanks, Unison!)

One small niggle — at the beginning, logging in through the console yields a bizarre error

No directory /home/michel!
Logging in with home = "/".

ls --lcontext shows that /home/michel is properly labeled — nice conversion job —  so this was at first puzzling. As it turns out, though, /home was not. Restoring it to the proper context fixes matters.

Will update if there are any further issues, but so far, Btrfs looks like it’s going to stay. Back to tinkering with GNUstep and Étoile…

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