News from the technological frontier.

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 7 2005 11:25 AM

Too Dumb to Fail

And other news from the technological frontier.

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Cell phones make young people drive as badly as old people. A simulator study indicates drivers 18 to 25 years old who use cell phones, even hands-free, react as slowly and overlook things as badly as drivers 65 to 74 years old who don't use cell phones. Implications: 1) Don't talk on the phone while driving. 2) If phone use by young drivers is dangerous enough to ban, why do we let old folks drive at all?

An ex-priest accused of child rape rested his entire defense on a recovered-memory debunker. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus testified that "many people who have false memories have a lot of confidence and have a lot of detail about their memories." The accuser says he remembered three years ago that the priest abused him as a child. A psychiatrist previously testified for the prosecution that recovered memories are true. Critique: Loftus has shown the ability to implant false memories only in a lab. Reply: Speaking of bad memory, have you forgotten the McMartin case? Implication: We're using psychological generalizations to decide the truth of individual accusations.

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The average consumer of a pay-per-view porn movie watches for just seven minutes.Implication: Don't ask. ... 1:30 p.m. PT

Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2005

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Medicare will cover Viagra and other drugs for sexual dysfunction. Critique: Just when you thought government couldn't get dumber, here comes the boner subsidy. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, will file legislation to ban Medicare coverage of "lifestyle drugs." King tells  NYT, "We are promoting abstinence for young people with raging hormones, and yet we are going to ask them to pay taxes for sex-enhancing drugs for seniors?" Defense: Medicare is just following precedent: Insurers already cover "quality-of-life" drugs for pain or indigestion, and the Department of Veterans Affairs covers Viagra for 150,000 men. Rebuttal: My God, it's worse than we thought. Implication: The distinction between necessary and elective medicine is breaking down.

Pro-lifers are using sonograms to dissuade women from abortions. One group plans to spend $4 million this year to put ultrasound machines in pregnancy counseling centers. Pro-life spin: Giving women information is pro-choice. Pro-choice spin: Then why don't these centers offer information about contraception or abortion options? Implication: The abortion war is shifting from politics to advertising.

Adult marrow cells might replace embryonic stem cells. Tufts University researchers say the marrow cells can become various kinds of specialized cells. They don't know whether the cells can become all types, as embryonic stem cells can. Upbeat spin: Science can now bypass the moral debate. Skeptical spin: Let's keep investigating embryonic cells in case this bulletin turns out to be a false alarm, as others have.

China is reversing its one-child policy. The old problem was unsustainable population growth. The new problem is an aging population, declining fertility rates, and as many as 40 million men doomed to bachelorhood because sex-selective abortions have led to only five girls for every six boys. New policies: 1) Criminalization of sex-selective abortions. 2) Free school tuition for some girls from poor families. 3) Pensions for some old folks if they just have daughters (so couples won't feel obliged to keep trying till they have a son). 4) Possibly a "two-child policy to prevent a looming baby bust." Implication: Central planning distributes population as brilliantly as it distributes food.Critique: Central planners never learn to stop planning; they just change the plan.

Sports doping cops have detected a new "undetectable" steroid. They found the drug, DMT, through a tip, not through urine tests, which it was designed to foil. They're trying to devise a urine test for it. Scientists' conclusions: 1) Doping technology is evolving rapidly. 2) The complexity of DMT suggests sophisticated chemists are involved. Implication: Dope chemists are joining hackers and terrorists as the price of knowledge diffusion.

Birds are smarter than we thought. We thought they were stupid because they don't have our brain structure. It turns out they're just different. Implication: We aren't as smart as we thought. Factoids: 1) Crows reshape natural objects to make tools. 2) Crows put nuts in front of traffic to get us to crack them. 3) Nutcrackers can recover thousands of seeds they hid six months earlier. 4) Magpies learn "object permanence" (i.e., just because you conceal something doesn't mean it's gone) faster than any other animal. 5) Pigeons try to fake out other birds about the location of food. 6) Parrots create language and pass along learned knowledge. Related: Al Sharpton is boycotting KFC.

Hard liquor and beer are good for old women. In a study, those who drank up to half an ounce of booze a day scored as well on a mental skill test as did nondrinkers who were 18 months younger. Likely reason: Alcohol improves blood flow and lowers the risk of small strokes. Caveat: Women who drank more than half an ounce scored as poorly as nondrinkers, so watch it. ... 11:30 a.m. PT

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