Alcohol’s societal role

In many ways, the treatment of ethanol in societies like Canada is exceptional.

It’s the only powerfully psychoactive drug top-end hotels and restaurants will provide you in unlimited quantities as long as you can pay. It’s the only drug that large groups of strangers routinely use to the point of inebriation together, in contexts ranging from weddings to club meetings to fancy dinners at universities. In places like Ontario where it is sold by the government, the government actively advertises it, while simultaneously notionally trying to prevent unhealthy use (which is probably any use, despite self-serving studies that purport to show health benefits from moderate consumption of this known carcinogen).

The societal burden of ethanol is spectacular. The Economist notes:

Between 2006 and 2010, an average of 106,765 Americans died each year from alcohol-related causes such as liver disease, alcohol poisoning and drunk driving—more than twice the number of overdoses from all drugs and more than triple the number of opioid overdoses in 2015… The percentage of Americans who met the criteria for alcohol-use disorder (AUD) in the DSM-IV—a psychiatric handbook that uses questions such as, “In the past year, have you found that drinking—or being sick from drinking—often interfered with taking care of your home or family?” to diagnose alcoholism—jumped from 8.5% of Americans in 2001-02 to 13% in 2012-13, or nearly 30m people. By comparison, 2.6m are estimated to have prescription-opioid and heroin addictions… Analysis by Phillip Cook, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, published in 2007 suggested that whereas 30% of Americans did not drink at all in 2001-02, 10% of Americans—or about 24m—had an average of ten drinks a day. He believes such habits would not look different today.

The Washington Post reported recently on a study which concluded that one in eight Americans meets the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder, adding: “Stunningly, nearly 1 in 4 adults under age 30 (23.4 percent) met the diagnostic criteria for alcoholism.”

I think a few responses to this are prudent:

  1. Alcohol advertising should be banned in areas including billboards, print media, and television
  2. Plain packaging requirements like those used for tobacco may be prudent to try
  3. Alcohol corporations should pay a significant share of the cost of treatment for alcohol dependence and alcohol-induced chronic health conditions, and treatment availability should be greatly expanded
  4. Alcohol licenses should be experimented with, which could be revoked for those imposing risk or harm on others
  5. We should support research into less damaging substances which could play a similar social role, like the alcohol-replacing benzodiazepine David Nutt is searching for
  6. Combat the ideological dogmatism in the treatment system, including the idea that total abstinence is the only goal to pursue or that AA-style 12-step programs should be a mandatory part of treatment


Climate change and wildfires

Through a variety of mechanisms, anthropogenic climate change is worsening wildfires. For instance, warm winter temperatures were a key factor in British Columbia’s apalling mountain pine beetle epidemic, and trees killed by the beetles may be more susceptible to fire. More directly, high temperatures dry out forests and raise fire risks.

Page 44 of the divestment brief summarizes some of the research on climate change and wildfires.

Fires also contribute to the worsening severity of climate change, both by releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide and by producing dark soot which absorbs energy from sunlight.

Gabor Maté on addiction

“Nothing sways them from the habit—not illness, not the sacrifice of love and relationships, not the loss of all earthly goods, not the crushing of their dignity, not the fear of dying. The drive is that relentless… If human life was so simple that people learned from negative consequences, well then human history would be very different… The drugs solve problems in people’s lives, in the short term. Of course, they create problems in the long term… When you stress animals, they’re more likely to engage in addictive behaviours… Our whole social policy’s based on stressing the addict—and then we hope to redeem them—which flies in the face of science, not to mention human compassion… We’re punishing people for having been abused in the first place.”

Morally intolerable climate change impacts and risks

Sometimes convincing moral arguments take the form: outcome X is unacceptable, and since it arises from behaviour A then behaviour A can no longer be allowed to continue.

This is implicit in many of the hundreds of posts I have written about climate change, but I thought it would be good to have an open thread specifically listing credible impacts and risks associated with climate change which are so severe they compel us to discontinue behaviours that make the problem worse, such as fossil fuel production and development.

For example: Parts of South Asia could be too hot to live in by end of century

That’s a risk so morally intolerable that it torpedoes competing moral arguments, such as the claim that people can legitimately do anything to maintain their financial livelihood, or that political jurisdictions have an unrestricted right to exploit resources in their territories.

Grating coupler arrays as cameras

A recent Economist article describes a novel camera design with the promise to be far thinner than those that exist now, with some novel features:

Not only do Dr Hajimiri’s cameras have no moving parts, they also lack lenses and mirrors—in other words, they have no conventional optics. That does away with the focal depth required by today’s cameras, enabling the new devices to be flat.

To mimic the image-making role of the optics in conventional cameras, the OPA manipulates incoming light using electrons. Dr Hajimiri compares the technique to peering through a straw while moving the far end swiftly across what is in front of you and recording how much light is in each strawful. In the OPA this scanning effect is created by manipulating the light collected by the grating couplers electronically, using devices called photodiodes. These place varying densities of electrons into the amplified light’s path through the OPA, either slowing it down or speeding it up as it travels. That shifts the arrival times of the peaks and troughs of the lightwaves. This “phase shifting” results in constructive interference between waves arriving from the desired direction, which amplifies them. Light coming from other directions, by contrast, is cancelled through destructive interference. Change the pattern of electrons and you change the part of the image field the OPA is looking at. Scanning the entire field in this way takes about ten nanoseconds (billionths of a second).

To zoom in for a close-up, the device selects a specific part of the image and scans it more thoroughly. To zoom out for a fish-eye, it scans the entire optical field, including light from the edges of that field. To change from zoom to fish-eye takes nanoseconds.

Doubtless, such cameras will have some interesting applications. Unfortunately, that will certainly include further entrenching the surveillance state — increasingly using devices too small to see.