Finished Evil for Evil. Second book in the Engineer trilogy: fantasy without most of the traditional tropes of magic and strange beasts.
Liked it a lot, though it's not quite as fresh as the first. Parker is suitably ruthless with her characters, allowing disasters and humiliations to happen. Also the plot unfolds a little predictably this time, though a new character does liven things up a bit. Not sure this is naturally a trilogy: might have been better to trim it down and do it as one volume.
On the plus side, it keeps handling the characters well, and the plot is carefully constructed. Will have to see what the third volume is like.
What I'm Reading 2
Read part of Panic Nation. Collection of essays about food scares and health panics, mostly written by experts in the particular fields. Didn't bother reading the essays about the scares I'm already most familiar with: the unfamiliar stuff is depressing enough.
I found the passive smoking essay by James Le Fanu both the most interesting and the most depressing. The epidemiological story is familiar to anyone who's had a cursory look at most health scares. Most studies show no effect from passive smoking. A few show a tiny effect at the limit of detectability, those studies generally being the smallest and from the more obscure research institutes. Meta-studies are then done: some of which find no effect, but those which include the smaller studies do find a tiny effect.
The rational course would then be to declare that either the effect does not exist, or else it is too small to worry about. The actual course is of course, panic.
So far so familiar. But where it gets more interesting is in the biology itself.
Further and very interestingly indeed, the types of lung cancer being caused by passive smoking were quite different from those being caused by active smoking. This merits a brief elaboration. There are two broad categories of lung cancer, the commoner one being squamous and oat-cell cancers, which arise from the cells lining the airways (that area obviously maximally exposed to the potential carcinogens in tobacco smoke). The second category of cancers includes what are known as adenocarninomas, and they arise from glandular tissue in the air sacs in the periphery of the lungBut apart from the nonsense the smoking ban is also depressing in two more ways. Firstly, actual scientists who know better have talked up the possibility of passive smoking in order to get smoking bans passed in the hope of reducing actual smoking. Now while they may mean well, this makes it a lot harder to fight the torrent of other scares like wifi and mobile phone masts: how can you explain why borderline effects that barely show up in giant meta-studies are valid to ban one thing, but not the other? More importantly, it seems to me a violation of scientific ethics: scientists ought to be committed to truth: not truth and useful-looking lies.
In the early 1950s, when the late Sir Austin Bradford Hill and Sir Richard Doll first produced the devastating evidence implicating smoking in lung cancer, they made the interesting observation that these tobacco-induced cancers were of the former type - squamous and oat-cell cancers with a powerful dose-response relationship, where the more smoked the greater the risks. By contrast they found "no association" between smoking and the adenocarcinomas, and indeed the lung cancers that do occasionally occur in non-smokers are almost always of this type. This would suggest that whatever their cause might be, it is nothing to do with smoking.
Thus it is necessary, if the adverse effects of passive smoking were real, to presuppose the following: that carcinogenic smoke as inhaled by active smokers over many years caused one type of cancer in the airways, but the same smoke when inhaled by passive smokers at virtually infinitely lower doses caused an entirely different type of cancer in a different part of the lung that was not associated with smoking. This was, to put it mildly, highly improbable.
Secondly, most health scares end up only resulting in waste and heavy opportunity costs. Research resources are wasted in endless studies trying to reassure the public when they could be doing original research, governments spend large amounts of money on "awareness" campaigns and the like. The passive smoking scare however has resulted in actual legislation: quite draconian laws based on nothing whatsoever.
Overall though, the book has a few serious weaknesses. Most of the essays are written in a fairly dry academic tone: they're informative, but simply too boring to make this book a great persuader. Annoyingly, the book doesn't have an index. Also it tends to lump all manner of scares together in the same myth/fact format. While the individual articles do tend to honestly explain where the risks are real and where they are not, it might give the casual browser the impression that there are no risks at all to things like obesity.
Ultimately, it sits awkwardly between the two stools of polemic and precision: not quite persuasive enough to work as polemic, not quite rigorous enough to be scientific. Overall, makes a decent reference if you come across it, but not something to rush out and buy.
Saw the Anthony McCall light sculptures at the Serpentine gallery: beams of white light are projected through a haze. Very impressive and somewhat disorienting, though it might seem pretty bland if you're used to commercial laser shows.
Also, gallery was fairly busy, with lots of people talking loudly, some kids running around and so on. I'm sure especially at this time of year things used to be a lot quieter.
Maybe the free museums have encouraged more museuming even in always-free places. Or maybe it's because we haven't had a successful terrorist attack for a while so the scaredycats are coming to London again. Come on Al-Qaeda: stop getting beaten up by baggage handlers and sort it out. And what happened to the Real and Continuity IRAs?
Mickey wanted to live in a house where nobody drank or used drugs. But how could he create a sober house in a drug-infested neighbourhood? The answer, he decided, was to fill it with men on parole, who have to submit to regular urine tests. "I decided I’d make it a parole house and let them watch ’em." He didn’t set out to fill the house with sex offenders specifically. It just worked out that way because there were so many sex offenders who needed housing.Robo-bat.
Brief econoblogs. Expert coin flippers:
As shown above, the Journal reports that of the many thousands of mutual funds sold to the public, only 31 beat the Standard & Poor’s 500 index in each of the 8 years from 1999 to 2006. A skeptic of the efficient markets hypothesis might think that, subsequently, these funds would offer a better-than-average place to invest. In 2007, however, only 14 out of these 31 outperformed the index--about what would be expected from sheer chance. Exceptional past performance appears to give little reason to expect future success.Matthew Parris blurts truth:
Now, recall Matthew's career. From 1976 to 79 he working in the Conservative Research Department, and was then an MP for seven years. So he spent 10 years in a party that was supposedly espousing free market ideas, and yet he never had a conversation, or overheard one, about one of the basic issues in market economics. How can this be? We can ignore the possibility that Matthew's stupid; his writings show him to be one of the smartest men in the dead tree industry. So, could it be instead that his Tory colleagues were just never really interested in market economics, and only talked about "free markets" as an ideological cover for what was really just class hatred and union bashing?
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