Eric's Notes

I'm Eric. This is my blog.

City living affects brain structure

"The risk for anxiety disorders is 21 percent higher for people from the city, who also have a 39 percent increase for mood disorders," says co-author Jens Pruessner, a researcher at McGill’s Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal. "In addition, the incidence for schizophrenia is almost doubled for individuals who are born and brought up in cities. These values are a cause for concern and determining the biology behind this is the first step to remedy the trend."

Interestingly, it didn’t seem to make much difference whether individuals lived in a concrete jungle or a city with a lot of green space. The implication is that it’s population density, rather than any other factor, which causes the changes in the brain.

I’m very curious what exactly causes this, and what steps might be taken to reduce it.


Our national shame

The U.S. Department of Justice recently released its first-ever estimate of the number of inmates who are sexually abused in America each year. According to the department’s data, which are based on nationwide surveys of prison and jail inmates as well as young people in juvenile detention centers, at least 216,600 inmates were victimized in 2008 alone. Contrary to popular belief, most of the perpetrators were not other prisoners but staff members—corrections officials whose job it is to keep inmates safe. On average, each victim was abused between three and five times over the course of the year. The vast majority were too fearful of reprisals to seek help or file a formal complaint.

When our descendants look back on us, they will think us barbarians.


Members Of Congress Introduce First Federal Measure Since 1937 To Legalize The Adult Use Of Marijuana


House lawmakers introduced legislation in Congress today to end the federal criminalization of the personal use of marijuana.

The bipartisan measure, HR 2306 – entitled the ‘Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011’ and sponsored by Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank and Texas Republican Ron Paul along with Reps. Cohen (D-TN), Conyers (D-MI), Polis (D-CO), and Lee (D-CA) – prohibits the federal government from prosecuting adults who use or possess marijuana by removing the plant and its primary psychoactive constituent, THC, from the five schedules of the United States Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Under present law, all varieties of the marijuana plant are defined as illicit Schedule I controlled substances, defined as possessing ‘a high potential for abuse,’ and ‘no currently accepted medical use in treatment.’

J. K. Rowling to sell Harry Potter eBooks DRM-free

J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore Details Revealed

Until recently, reports have been speculating that the rights to sell the e-books would be worth as much as $160 million. By retaining the rights and selling them through her own platform, Rowling stands to make much more. She is not, however, completely turning her back on hands that fed her — her publishers around the world will get a cut of e-book sales and will no doubt benefit from the “halo effect” of an uplift in print sales.

In a further bold move, Rowling has opted to keep the e-books DRM-free, meaning that they are not locked into one device or platform. She is instead opting for digital watermarking that links the identify of the purchaser to the copy of the e-book. This doesn’t prevent copyright theft but does ensure that any copies will be traceable to a particular user. This is similar to how iTunes is DRM-free, but embeds user account information within each file purchased.

Can’t wait to buy my copies.

People are Stupid, Exhibit 6

This from Oklahoma:

“Centralized anything doesn’t really work,” Hager said, adding that he was unperturbed by the prospect of a federal shutdown. “I’m not sure what they do has a big impact on my life.’’

That jaundiced view of the federal government is common here, local leaders say, even though the region’s surging economy is built to a large degree on a foundation of federal spending.

About 7 percent of the area’s workers are federal employees, more than double the U.S. average, according to a Washington Post analysis. Meanwhile, federal spending on roads, a huge Federal Aviation Administration center and a sprawling Air Force base not only keeps more than 20,000 civilians employed but also is helping to nurture entire sectors of the area’s increasingly prosperous and diverse economy.

Overall, the state gets back $1.35 for every dollar its residents and businesses pay in federal taxes, according to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan tax research group. That’s the 15th most generous return among the 50 states.

Does College Make You Smarter?

A discussion hosted by the New York Times, spawned by a study that shows students study less now than in previous decades.

I tend to think that the role of college has changed since then. Everyone is supposed goes to college now, whereas previously that wasn’t the case. A college diploma is what a high school diploma once was - proof to would-be employers you’re capable of showing up every day if they hire you.

To the degree it makes you any smarter it really depends on the student. But the same is also true for any other pursuit. You can learn a lot in college if you want, the college can’t make you do it. 

Just because something is unexplained doesn’t mean it’s supernatural

Harry Houdini, stating what should be obvious to all but sadly isn’t:

Sir Arthur, I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion … I won’t tell you how it was done, but I can assure you it was pure trickery. I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along these lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily “supernatural,” or the work of “spirits,” just because you cannot explain them….

People are stupid, Exhibit 5

This is from 2004, but it’s no less relevant today:

Converse claimed that only around ten per cent of the public has what can be called, even generously, a political belief system. He named these people “ideologues,” by which he meant not that they are fanatics but that they have a reasonable grasp of “what goes with what”—of how a set of opinions adds up to a coherent political philosophy. Non-ideologues may use terms like “liberal” and “conservative,” but Converse thought that they basically don’t know what they’re talking about, and that their beliefs are characterized by what he termed a lack of “constraint”: they can’t see how one opinion (that taxes should be lower, for example) logically ought to rule out other opinions (such as the belief that there should be more government programs). About forty-two per cent of voters, according to Converse’s interpretation of surveys of the 1956 electorate, vote on the basis not of ideology but of perceived self-interest. The rest form political preferences either from their sense of whether times are good or bad (about twenty-five per cent) or from factors that have no discernible “issue content” whatever. Converse put twenty-two per cent of the electorate in this last category. In other words, about twice as many people have no political views as have a coherent political belief system.

Just because someone’s opinions don’t square with what a political scientist recognizes as a political ideology doesn’t mean that those opinions aren’t coherent by the lights of some more personal system of beliefs. But Converse found reason to doubt this possibility. When pollsters ask people for their opinion about an issue, people generally feel obliged to have one. Their answer is duly recorded, and it becomes a datum in a report on “public opinion.” But, after analyzing the results of surveys conducted over time, in which people tended to give different and randomly inconsistent answers to the same questions, Converse concluded that “very substantial portions of the public” hold opinions that are essentially meaningless—off-the-top-of-the-head responses to questions they have never thought about, derived from no underlying set of principles. These people might as well base their political choices on the weather. And, in fact, many of them do.


An interesting thought experiment from Scott Adams:

This made me wonder how much money could be saved by creating an entire city with no privacy except in the bedroom and bathroom. I will stipulate in advance that you do not want to live in such a place because you’re an urban pirate. You want the freedom to do “stuff” that no one ever finds out about. I get it. This is just an economic thought experiment.

Although you would never live in a city without privacy, I think that if one could save 30% on basic living expenses, and live in a relatively crime-free area, plenty of volunteers would come forward.

Basically he’s hypothesizing a city where what Bruce Schneier calls societal security is completely unnecessary. (And also, not too much different from what David Brin talked about in The Transparent Society).

My thought on this is that we’re basically headed in this direction no matter what. The challenge is to avoid privacy asymmetries that lead to dystopian nightmares. It’s a problem when the information is available only to a privileged few who are themselves exempt from this kind of scrutiny. But as long as Barack Obama is just as “transparent” as anyone else, as long as anyone can access the same databases as the NSA - it probably wouldn’t be all that bad, and I can even see most people choosing such a world.

I also tend to think that the aside about “urban pirates” would quickly become a moot point - self censorship wouldn’t last for long; social norms would very quickly adjust such that what people actually do behind closed doors right now would be viewed as quite normal. Taboos can only last as long as hypocrites pretend they don’t do them.