Saturday, 22 November 2008

An expensive project

I visited the National Space Centre today because the East Midlands Go Tournament was held there. As the Tournament fee is less than the ordinary cost of entry to the centre, that is a cheap way in.

One of the displays considered the possibility that we might eventually colonise other planets to alleviate overpopulation of the earth.

Even if possible that would be an extremely expensive way of dealing with a pseudo problem.

In the long term, everyone now alive will be dead, and the only humans alive will be people not yet born. There will be no overpopulation unless people cause the births of more people than the earth can support. Contraceptives would be much cheaper than a space colony.

People often talk about population growth as if it were independent of human action. Do they think babies are delivered by storks ?

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

More about Bagels

The peerless Gerard has pointed me to a site that tells the story of the bagel, including the information that the shape was favoured because it made it possible to carry bagels about by threading them on a string or a stick. It also appears that they are cooked by boiling - whether as well as baking or instead of I'm not sure.

I visualise bagel sellers carrying their strings of bagels from door to door like the onion sellers we used to see. I wonder what health and safety regulations would apply to bagel stringing ?

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Units of alcohol

At last I know, or think I know, what those units of alcohol are. A unit seems to be 10 grams.

The revelation has been provided by a recent Wine Society newsletter, though it rather coyly doesn't put the matter quite so straightforwardly as I have so I'm not completely sure.

A corollary is that the number of units per glass of wine is usually much higher than 1.

Even for a 125 ml glass, a sixth of a bottle and at one time regarded as the standard, the alcohol content can be as high as 1.8 units, so that even two of those modest glasses would exceed the recommended daily dose.

Alcohol content varies with the type of wine. For whites the driest are the most alcoholic, nearly 11 units per bottle for the 'bone dry' whites, falling to around 7 for the luscious pudding wines I enjoy.

I'd long been puzzled that so many people who like to be thought connoisseurs of wine prefer the very dry sour and bitter wines and are condescendingly disparaging about the delicious sweet ones. Now I have an idea why they behave so oddly; it may be just the alcohol they're after.

Friday, 14 November 2008

The Supposed Sanctity of the Human Body

One by one the beatings and mutilations that used to be the mainstays of the English penal code have abolished, until now none remain. Occasionally someone may propose the restoration of flogging, and a few Muslim countries still cut off the hands of thieves, but such practices are generally denounced as 'barbarous', which is considered a sufficient argument against them.

It is actually no argument at all, amounting to combining the bare assertion that physical punishments are wrong, with a sneer at those who advocate them.

Consider the advantages of physical punishment. It can be guaranteed to be unpleasant for the person punished, it gives the spectators the reassurance that the miscreant isn't 'getting away with it' and it is much cheaper than keeping someone in prison. I suspect that the Sharia practice of cutting off body parts, together with the subordinate role assigned to women, may be one of the factors that persuades some European men to become Muslims.

On the other hand physical punishment has great drawbacks. The degree of discomfort produced by a beating must be hard to estimate and vary considerably from one miscreant to another. In extreme cases the experience might trigger a heart attack or stroke and therefore amount to capital punishment. Removal of a hand would greatly impair the subjects ability to earn a living and might help to confirm him in a life of crime; but a more serious drawback is that the mutilation could not be reversed in a case of miscarriage of justice.

So although I find the thought of medieval punishments quite attractive, and should not call them 'barbarous' I do reject them as imprudent, with two exceptions: castration and sterilisation.

Except for a few people following very specialised careers, those operations would not impair anyone's ability to work, yet castration of violent males should greatly reduce their aggression and hence the probability of their re-offending.

Sterilisation would be an attractive way of dealing with parents who are cruel to their children, because it would bar them from the easiest way of acquiring more children to mistreat. That would not be a complete solution, because it would not save the first child victim, but if it prevented their ever being a second victim it would reduce the problem. It was the recent publicity given to two cases of cruelty to children that inspired this blog.

I'm puzzled by the hysterical reaction of many people to such suggestions. Even people one might otherwise consider intelligent resort to clearly fallacious arguments. The Nazi argument is commonly used in this context. (The Nazis did that so we shouldn't) The Nazis built motorways, had a public health service and a state educational system, but it is rare for people using the Nazi argument to apply it to any of those. Perhaps people find it hard to think rationally about the primitive urge to reproduce.

Of course we should need to proceed carefully. In the first half of the twentieth century people were pre-emptively sterilised on the ground that they were unfit to breed, without any direct evidence to support that judgement. It would be most unwise to proceed just on the basis of what it is thought people might do, but that does not preclude sterilising those whose past treatment of children has shown them unfit to be trusted with the care of any more.