People can come to a common conclusion for sensible reasons and for vile reasons

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019

Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, has a new book out, Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change, which presents a forceful if rather old-fashioned argument for the continuing importance of nationhood:

“There are about a billion Africans in Africa and almost all of them would be better off economically and politically and in terms of personal safety in Europe,” he says. “The cruel reality is that it’s impossible for Europe to admit a billion Africans but Europeans will not acknowledge this conflict between ideals and reality.”

He concedes that this stance puts him on the same side of the argument as people such as the populist Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán. “It’s unfortunate that people can come to a common conclusion for sensible reasons and for vile reasons,” he says. “But because of the relative lack of honest discussion, the issue has gotten hijacked by the racists, just as in the United States.”

Steve Sailer is a huge Jared Diamond fan:

I pointed out back in 2005 that if you read Diamond’s book Collapse carefully, you’ll notice he’s an immigration heretic.

Here’s my 1997 book review in National Review of Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Personally, I’m a huge Jared Diamond fan. His 1991 collection of his magazine articles, The Third Chimpanzee, helped inspire me to follow his path in switching over from a sensible career to writing highbrow popular articles.

Bamboo looks like a kind of meat

Monday, May 6th, 2019

The Giant Panda is a closet carnivore:

The giant panda, a consummate vegetarian, belongs to a group of mammals called Carnivora, so-called because almost all of them — dogs, cats, hyenas, weasels, mongooses, raccoons, and more — eat meat. But the giant panda’s diet of bamboo, and little else, makes it a vegetarian.

At least, outwardly.

Yonggang Nie and Fuwen Wei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have spent years tracking wild pandas, analyzing exactly what kinds of bamboo they eat, and measuring the chemicals within those mouthfuls. And they found that the nutrient profile of a panda’s all-bamboo diet — very high in protein, and low in carbohydrates — is much closer to that of a typical carnivore than to that of other plant-eating mammals. “It was a surprise,” Wei says. Nutritionally, “bamboo looks like a kind of meat.”


Plant-eating mammals almost always have enlarged, elongated guts to slow the passage of food, and to give their inner bacteria more time to digest their meals. The panda, however, has the short, vanilla gut of a carnivore. Even its gut microbes are closer to a bear’s than, say, a cow’s or deer’s. Nie and Wei’s study makes sense of this paradoxical combination of traits. The giant panda has the plumbing of a half-committed herbivore because it has the diet of a closet carnivore.

Dragonglass is very similar to the stone found by Obsidius in Ethiopia

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire features “wights” (undead zombies) created and controlled by “the Others” (intelligent undead), which are vulnerable to “dragonglass” (obsidian). HBO’s Game of Thrones makes both its wights and “white walkers” (its preferred term for the Others) vulnerable to the volcanic glass and has the smith frantically forging weapons out of dragonglass before the undead hordes arrive — which is not how obsidian weapons were made in the real world:

Obsidian gets its name from this mention in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (AD 77):

…among the various forms of glass we may reckon Obsidian glass, a substance very similar to the stone found by Obsidius in Ethiopia.

High-glucose corn syrup

Monday, April 29th, 2019

If you see corn syrup on the shelf at the grocery store, you might be amused to see the label proudly declaring “0g High Fructose Corn Syrup”:

Corn syrup, also known as glucose syrup to confectioners, is used in foods to soften texture, add volume, prevent crystallization of sugar, and enhance flavor. Corn syrup is distinct from high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is manufactured from corn syrup by converting a large proportion of its glucose into fructose using the enzyme D-xylose isomerase, thus producing a sweeter compound due to higher levels of fructose.

Fructose is sweeter than sucrose, which is sweeter than glucose.

Relative Sweetness of Sugars

The most important long-term impact is actually on the health of the mother

Thursday, April 25th, 2019

Emily Oster, economist and author of Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool, explores the data all guilt-ridden parents need:

Some of the best evidence on breast-feeding comes from the Promotion of Breast-Feeding Intervention, or Probit, study, a large randomized trial from the 1990s run in Belarus, in which some of the mothers received breast-feeding guidance and support and some didn’t. Based on this data, the most well-supported benefits of breast-feeding are lower risks of gastrointestinal infections (with symptoms like diarrhea or vomiting) and of rashes and eczema early in life. To put some numbers to it, the study found that of the babies of a group of mothers encouraged to breast-feed, 9 percent had at least one episode of diarrhea, compared with 13 percent of the children of mothers who weren’t encouraged to breast-feed. The rate for rashes and eczema was 3 percent versus 6 percent.

Yet the study found no effect on respiratory infections, including ear infections, croup and wheezing. So why do we continue to see the “evidence-based” claim that breast-feeding reduces colds and ear infections? The main reason is there are many observational studies that do show that breast-feeding affects these illnesses.


One study of Scandinavian 5-year-olds found that children who nursed longer had cognitive scores that were nearly 8 points higher on average. But their mothers were also richer, had more education and had higher I.Q. scores. Once the authors adjusted for even a few of these variables, the effects were much smaller.

In fact, the most compelling studies on this compare siblings, one of whom was breast-fed and the other not; these find no significant differences in I.Q. This same type of sibling study has also looked at obesity and, again, found little to no impact.


However, there is real evidence base for a link between breast-feeding and cancers, in particular breast cancer. Across a wide variety of studies, there seems to be a sizable effect — perhaps a 20 percent to 30 percent reduction in the risk of breast cancer for women who breast-feed for longer than 12 months. In addition, the case for causality is bolstered by a concrete set of mechanisms. Researchers suggest that breast-feeding changes some aspects of the cells of the breast, which make them less susceptible to carcinogens.

After all that focus on the benefits of breast-feeding for kids, it may be that the most important long-term impact is actually on the health of the mother.

White sharks will immediately vacate their preferred hunting ground

Friday, April 19th, 2019

A recent study finds that great white sharks clear out when killer whales arrive:

“When confronted by orcas, white sharks will immediately vacate their preferred hunting ground and will not return for up to a year, even though the orcas are only passing through,” said marine ecologist Salvador Jorgensen of Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The team collected data from two sources: the comings and goings of 165 great white sharks GPS tagged between 2006 and 2013; and 27 years of population data of orcas, sharks and seals collected by Point Blue Conservation Science at Southeast Farallon Island off the coast of San Francisco.

Great White Shark with Liver Eaten by Orca

In addition, orcas have been observed preying on great white sharks around the world, including near the Farallon Islands. It’s still a little unclear why, but the orca-killed sharks that wash ashore (one is pictured at the top of the page) are missing their livers — their delicious, oil-rich, full-of-vitamins livers.

Consumption of wine was inversely associated with the risk of common cold

Monday, April 8th, 2019

Does drinking alcohol protect against the common cold?

To examine whether intakes of wine, beer, spirits, and total alcohol are associated with the risk of common cold, in 1998–1999 the authors analyzed data from a cohort study carried out in a population of 4,272 faculty and staff of five Spanish universities.

Usual alcohol intake was assessed at baseline by means of a standardized frequency questionnaire that was validated in a random sample of the population. The authors detected 1,353 cases of common cold.

Total alcohol intake and beer and spirits consumption were not related to the occurrence of common cold, whereas consumption of wine was inversely associated with the risk of common cold. When drinkers of >14 glasses of wine per week were compared with teetotalers, the relative risk was 0.6 (95% confidence interval: 0.4, 0.8) after adjustment for age, sex, and faculty/staff status. The association was stronger for red wine.

These results remained unaltered after adjustment for total alcohol intake and for other potential risk factors for common cold. Findings suggest that wine intake, especially red wine, may have a protective effect against common cold. Beer, spirits, and total alcohol intakes do not seem to affect the incidence of common cold.

It’s rare to see joint as well as bone growth

Thursday, April 4th, 2019

Having previously regenerated bone in mice using the BMP2 protein, scientists then added BMP9:

When using the combination on mice with amputated toes, over 60 percent of the stump bones formed a layer of cartilage within three days. Without the proteins, the amputated toes would’ve healed over as normal.

That cartilage is a key part of joints, and shows definite progress in limb regeneration. Even in animals who can naturally regrow lost limbs, it’s rare to see joint as well as bone growth.

“These studies provide evidence that treatment of growth factors can be used to engineer a regeneration response from a non-regenerating amputation wound,” explain the researchers in their paper.

The results of the study showed that the regeneration process was most advanced when BMP2 was applied first, with BMP9 added a week after – in this case it led to the growth of more complete joint structures, even with some connections to the bone.

Serial numbers on Lugers were deliberately confusing

Friday, March 29th, 2019

While discussing the German “Luger” pistol, Dunlap brought up a point that surprised me:

Serial numbers on Lugers were deliberately confusing, as the Germans did not like to have people adding up numbers and estimating production figures, so they organized a code-series system, which is no military secret now, but which I have never completely solved.

This surprised me, because I’d read about the Germans failing to do just that with their tanks:

The statisticians had one key piece of information, which was the serial numbers on captured mark V tanks. The statisticians believed that the Germans, being Germans, had logically numbered their tanks in the order in which they were produced. And this deduction turned out to be right. It was enough to enable them to make an estimate of the total number of tanks that had been produced up to any given moment.

The basic idea was that the highest serial number among the captured tanks could be used to calculate the overall total. The German tanks were numbered as follows: 1, 2, 3N, where N was the desired total number of tanks produced. Imagine that they had captured five tanks, with serial numbers 20, 31, 43, 78 and 92. They now had a sample of five, with a maximum serial number of 92. Call the sample size S and the maximum serial number M. After some experimentation with other series, the statisticians reckoned that a good estimator of the number of tanks would probably be provided by the simple equation (M-1)(S+1)/S. In the example given, this translates to (92-1)(5+1)/5, which is equal to 109.2. Therefore the estimate of tanks produced at that time would be 109.

By using this formula, statisticians reportedly estimated that the Germans produced 246 tanks per month between June 1940 and September 1942. At that time, standard intelligence estimates had believed the number was far, far higher, at around 1,400. After the war, the allies captured German production records, showing that the true number of tanks produced in those three years was 245 per month, almost exactly what the statisticians had calculated, and less than one fifth of what standard intelligence had thought likely.

There is an almost palpable sense of fear in this landscape

Tuesday, March 12th, 2019

New evidence suggests that the “peaceful” Maya fought bitter wars:

In February 2018, National Geographic broke the story of the PACUNAM LiDAR Initiative, a sweeping aerial survey of some 800 square miles (2,100 square kilometers) of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in northern Guatemala. Using revolutionary laser technology, the survey revealed the long-hidden ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed.

Mayan Ruins in Jungle

“You could walk over the top of a major ruin and miss it,” says Thomas Garrison, an Ithaca College archaeologist who’s part of the PACUNAM project. “But LiDAR picks up the patterns and makes the features pop out with astounding clarity.”

Three-dimensional maps generated by the survey yielded surprises even at Tikal, the largest and most extensively explored archaeological site in Guatemala. The ancient city was at least four times bigger than previously thought, and partly surrounded by a massive ditch and rampart stretching for miles.

Mayan Ruins via LIDAR

“This was surprising,” says Houston, “because we had a tendency to romanticize Maya warfare as something that was largely ritualized and concentrated toward the end of the civilization. But the fortifications we’re seeing now suggest an elevated level of conflict over centuries. Rulers were so deeply worried about defense that they felt the need to invest in all these hilltop fortifications. There is an almost palpable sense of fear in this landscape.”

The microblade was best for lacerated wounds

Monday, March 11th, 2019

University of Washington archaeologists have re-created and tested three types of stone-age spear tips:

So Wood traveled to the area around Fairbanks, Alaska, and crafted 30 projectile points, 10 of each kind. She tried to stay as true to the original materials and manufacturing processes as possible, using poplar projectiles, and birch tar as an adhesive to affix the points to the tips of the projectiles. While ancient Alaskans used atlatls (a kind of throwing board), Wood used a maple recurve bow to shoot the arrows for greater control and precision.

Stone, Microblade, and Bone Spear Tips

For the bone tip, modeled on a 12,000-year-old ivory point from an Alaskan archaeological site, Wood used a multipurpose tool to grind a commercially purchased cow bone.

For the stone tip, she used a hammerstone to strike obsidian into flakes, then shaped them into points modeled on those found at another site in Alaska from 13,000 years ago.

And for the composite microblade tip — modeled microblade technologies seen in Alaska since at least 13,000 years ago and a rare, preserved grooved antler point from a more recent Alaskan site used more than 8,000 years ago — Wood used a saw and sandpaper to grind a caribou antler to a point. She then used the multipurpose tool to gouge out a groove around its perimeter, into which she inserted obsidian microblades.

Wood then tested how well each point could penetrate and damage two different targets: blocks of ballistic gelatin (a clear synthetic gelatin meant to mimic animal muscle tissue) and a fresh reindeer carcass, purchased from a local farm. Wood conducted her trials over seven hours on a December day, with an average outdoor temperature of minus 17 degrees Fahrenheit.

(That outdoor temperature seems like it would affect the target quite a bit.)

In Wood’s field trial, the composite microblade points were more effective than simple stone or bone on smaller prey, showing the greatest versatility and ability to cause incapacitating damage no matter where they struck the animal’s body. But the stone and bone points had their own strengths: Bone points penetrated deeply but created narrower wounds, suggesting their potential for puncturing and stunning larger prey (such as bison or mammoth); the stone points could have cut wider wounds, especially on large prey (moose or bison), resulting in a quicker kill.


“We have shown how each point has its own performance strengths,” she said. Bone points punctured effectively, flaked stone created a greater incision, and the microblade was best for lacerated wounds. “It has to do with the animal itself; animals react differently to different wounds. And it would have been important to these nomadic hunters to bring the animal down efficiently. They were hunting for food.”

Skip the ice

Tuesday, February 26th, 2019

Icing postworkout became practically mandatory after physician Gabe Mirkin coined the term RICE — Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation — in 1978, and its popularity continues today in marathon medical tents and professional locker rooms:

Ice is meant to slow blood flow, which reduces inflammation and pain. But, it turns out, that also can be counterproductive, as it inhibits the rebuilding of muscle and the restoration process. “Instead of promoting healing and recovery,” Aschwanden writes, “icing might actually impair it.” And that’s led to a growing backlash against icing, which even Mirkin has joined. Instead of rushing to the cold stuff, Aschwanden advises athletes to wait it out and leave time for the body to heal.

This isn’t a new discovery:

As early as 2006, exercise physiologist Motoi Yamane and researchers at Chukyo University in Aichi, in Japan, found that icing leg muscles after cycling or forearm handgrip exercises interfered with performance gains. Recently Yamane published a follow-up study at Aichi Mizuho College — again, using weighted handgrip exercises — that corroborates his earlier results: RICE is disadvantageous after training and messes with both muscular and vascular adaptations of resistance training.

Exercise physiologist Jonathan Peake and his colleagues at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia agree. They’re among the latest researchers to test ice baths on athletes. In a recent study presented as an abstract at the 2014 American College of Sports Medicine conference, the researchers put two groups of young men on a bi-weekly resistance-training program. The first group took ice baths after each training session (ten minutes in water at around 50 degrees), while the other group did a low-intensity active warm-down on a bicycle. It turned out that icing suppressed the cell-signaling response that regulates muscle growth. Three months later, the scientists found that the ice-bath group didn’t gain nearly as much muscle as the bicycle warm-down group.

Peake concluded that it’s probably not a good idea to be using ice baths after every training session, particularly when athletes are in season. In a parallel study presented March 30 at the Experimental Biology meeting, Peake also looked at muscle biopsies in a rat contusion injury model (researchers dropped weights on rats’ leg muscles to cause bruising). An ice bath on the bruised muscles was enough to suppress inflammation and delay muscle fiber regeneration. For the minor muscle injuries, icing was detrimental rather beneficial, prolonging the healing process that inflammation brings.

The two new studies hammer a couple more nails in the RICE coffin, according to Dr. Gabe Mirkin. He was the sports medicine doctor who originally coined the acronym, which stands for rest, ice, compression, elevation, in 1978, and has since quit recommending it to athletes. “We never rest or ice athletes anymore. RICE is fine for someone who doesn’t need to get back to training quickly, but it’s terrible for competitive athletes.” he said.

More movement, Dr. Mirkin says, as shown in Peake’s research, is the best way to speed up muscle recovery. The new research is an extension of a growing body of evidence over the last several years that now makes clear that the only advantage of icing muscles is for temporarily pain relief. “About all icing is good for is a placebo effect,” Dr. Mirkin says. “There’s no evidence that icing speeds healing or makes you stronger; in fact, it makes you weaker so you can’t do your next hard workout.

Past incompetence predicts future progress

Monday, February 25th, 2019

Gregory Cochran is (darkly) optimistic about how much low-hanging fruit is out there in the world of medical research:

If we look at cases where an innovation or discovery was possible — even easy — for a long time before it was actually developed, we might be able to find patterns that would help us detect the low-hanging fruit dangling right in front of us today.

For now, one example.  We know that gastric and duodenal ulcer, and most cases of stomach cancer, are caused by an infectious organism, Helicobacter pylori.  It apparently causes amnesia as well. This organism was first seen in 1875 — nobody paid any attention.

Letulle showed that it induced gastritis in guinea pigs, 1888. Walery Jaworski rediscovered it in 1889, and suspected that it might cause gastric disease. Nobody paid any attention.  Krienitz associated it with gastric cancer in 1906.  Who cares?

Around 1940, some American researchers rediscovered it, found it more common in ulcerated stomachs,  and published their results.  Some of them thought that this might be the cause of ulcers — but Palmer, a famous pathologist,  couldn’t find it when he looked in the early 50s, so it officially disappeared again. He had used the wrong stain.  John Lykoudis, a Greek country doctor noticed that a heavy dose of antibiotics coincided with his ulcer’s disappearance, and started treating patients with antibiotics — successfully.   He tried to interest pharmaceutical companies — wrote to Geigy, Hoechst, Bayer, etc.  No joy.   JAMA rejected his article. The local medical society referred him for disciplinary action and fined him

The Chinese noticed that antibiotics could cure ulcers in the early 70s, but they were Commies, so it didn’t count.

Think about it: peptic and duodenal ulcer were fairly common, and so were effective antibiotics, starting in the mid-40s. Every internist in the world — every surgeon — every GP was accidentally curing ulcers  — not just one or twice,  but again and again.  For decades. Almost none of them noticed it, even though it was happening over and over, right in front of their eyes.  Those who did notice were ignored until the mid-80s, when Robin Warren and Barry Marshall finally made the discovery stick. Even then,  it took something like 10 years for antibiotic treatment of ulcers to become common, even though it was cheap and effective. Or perhaps because it was cheap and effective.

This illustrates an important point: doctors are lousy scientists, lousy researchers.  They’re memorizers, not puzzle solvers.  Considering that Western medicine was an ineffective pseudoscience — actually, closer to a malignant pseudoscience  — for its first two thousand years, we shouldn’t be surprised.    Since we’re looking for low-hanging fruit,  this is good news.  It means that the great discoveries in medicine are probably not mined out. From our point of view, past incompetence predicts future progress.  The worse, the better!

There’s never been a case of a runner dying of dehydration on a marathon course

Monday, February 25th, 2019

What to drink during exercise, and how much, is an ongoing debate among athletes and health professionals:

While daily water-intake recommendations vary (the National Institute of Health suggests that men consume three liters per day and women 2.2 liters), athletes are invariably told to drink at every opportunity. This hydration preoccupation — often prompted by science of limited rigor and fueled by marketing from sports-drink companies — has lead to people drinking even when they’re not thirsty, especially when working out. And according to Aschwanden, that could be a big problem. “The body is highly adapted to cope with losing multiple liters of fluid,” she writes.

In fact, the evidence cited in her book shows that drinking too much water poses a much greater risk than drinking too little. Overhydration can lead to blood-sodium levels becoming diluted to dangerous and even fatally low concentrations (a condition known as hyponatremia). This became a recurring problem, for example, at the Comrades Marathon — a famous 90-kilometer race in South Africa — after it added water stations for the first time in 1981. “There’s never been a case of a runner dying of dehydration on a marathon course,” recounts Aschwanden. “But since 1993, at least five marathoners have died from hyponatremia that developed during a race.” Drinking when thirsty, she advises, is the much better approach than wrought water consumption.

Why do Bedouins wear black in the desert?

Sunday, February 24th, 2019

Why do Bedouins wear black in the desert?

The question so intrigued four scientists — all non-Bedouins — that they ran an experiment. Their study, called Why Do Bedouins Wear Black Robes in Hot Deserts?, was published in the journal Nature in 1980.

“It seems likely,” the scientists wrote, “that the present inhabitants of the Sinai, the Bedouins, would have optimised their solutions for desert survival during their long tenure in this desert. Yet one may have doubts on first encountering Bedouins wearing black robes and herding black goats. We have therefore investigated whether black robes help the Bedouins to minimise solar heat loads in a hot desert.”

The research team — C Richard Taylor and Virginia Finch of Harvard University and Amiram Shkolnik and Arieh Borut of Tel Aviv University — quickly discovered that, as you might suspect, a black robe does convey more heat inward than a white robe does. But they doubted that this was the whole story.

Taylor, Finch, Shkolnik, and Borut measured the overall heat gain and loss suffered by a brave volunteer. They described the volunteer as “a man standing facing the sun in the desert at midday while he wore: 1) a black Bedouin robe; 2) a similar robe that was white; 3) a tan army uniform; and 4) shorts (that is, he was semi-nude)”.

Each of the test sessions (black-robed, white-robed, uniformed and half-naked) lasted 30 minutes. They took place in the Negev desert at the bottom of the rift valley between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Eilat. The volunteer stood in temperatures that ranged from a just-semi-sultry 35°C (95°F) to a character-building 46°C (115°F). Though he is now nameless, this was his day in the sun.

The results were clear. As the report puts it: “The amount of heat gained by a Bedouin exposed to the hot desert is the same whether he wears a black or a white robe. The additional heat absorbed by the black robe was lost before it reached the skin.”

Bedouins’ robes, the scientists noted, are worn loose. Inside, the cooling happens by convection — either through a bellows action, as the robes flow in the wind, or by a chimney sort of effect, as air rises between robe and skin. Thus it was conclusively demonstrated that, at least for Bedouin robes, black is as cool as any other colour.