Human Nature
Science, technology, and life.

March 5 2010 8:08 AM

Disarm the Harm

The original idea for controlling fat was austerity: Eat less and exercise more. But people had trouble exercising self-control . So we bypassed self-control by developing bariatric surgery, which prevents you from eating too much. We've even begun to invent ways to eat without absorbing the food . Three years ago, I called this idea girth control : Just as you can have sex without pregnancy, maybe you can have food without fat.

But what if you still get fat? Now there's a new strategy: By figuring out how fat causes health problems, scientists hope to thwart that process, so that being fat might become less harmful . If we can't stop you from eating, and if we can't break the link between eating and getting fat, maybe we can break the link between fat and its health consequences.

Would fat then lose its stigma? Or would we still treat it as a moral failing ? Many people condemn promiscuity even when it doesn't lead to disease or pregnancy. Would they condemn fat without harm?

A similar trend is underway against tobacco addiction. This week, President Obama's doctor examined him and advised him to "continue smoking cessation efforts" using " nicotine replacement therapy ." Obama, a man with plenty of demonstrated willpower, is still having trouble kicking the nicotine habit. So instead of demanding that he go cold turkey, his doctor is endorsing technology that enables the president to indulge his addiction without incurring its traditional health damage. In the case of smoking, as in the case of overeating, scientists are developing ways to separate the habit from the harm .

I'll keep you posted on trends like these as they emerge from the news. To catch them in real time, subscribe to the Human Nature Twitter feed , which is where these updates, in short form, first appeared.


March 2 2010 9:10 AM

Fat vs. Tall: Your Best Ideas

When airlines overbook a flight, they offer travel vouchers to find "volunteers" who will switch to the next flight. Why not do the same with seats encroached by fat or tall people? "Allow passengers under a certain height and weight to volunteer themselves for open placement in any seat on the airplane, to defuse otherwise uncomfortable and awkward seating arrangements, in exchange for a discounted airfare," proposes a 5'4" flier.

More here .

March 1 2010 8:53 AM

Fat vs. Tall: Your Best Comments

When a passenger wants to recline and the passenger behind her objects, whose rights prevail? The airlines' official "contracts of carriage" don't address this question. Slate intern Jenny Rogers contacted several airlines and asked for clarification. JetBlue said it had no formal policy for resolving such conflicts; other airlines didn't respond. As commenter Donny Kerabatsos pointed out, this ambiguity amounts to "selling the same space to two different people."

More here .

Feb. 23 2010 2:49 PM

The Gods of War

Under fire, every soldier needs someone to talk to, someone to count on, a powerful protector who watches from above. That protector exists. He watches you from the heavens. He is there but not there. He hears your prayers and answers them. He sees your enemies and keeps you safe from them. If necessary, he rains fire and death on them.

He is a drone pilot.

More here .

Feb. 19 2010 1:29 PM

Fat, Height, and Air Travel

In the last week, two well-known travelers-movie director Kevin Smith and New York Times columnist David Pogue -have used Twitter to tell the world about their bad flying experiences. Pogue was rebuked by a tall passenger seated behind him. Smith was ejected from a plane for being fat. Thanks to their popularity-Smith has more than 1.6 million Twitter followers, and Pogue has more than 1.3 million-the two men have stirred up plenty of debate over the incidents. Their juxtaposition raises an interesting question: Do we treat excessive length and width differently? If so, is that unfair?

More here .

Feb. 16 2010 9:54 AM

Deducting Your Sex-Change Surgery

Gender identity disorder might begin in your head, but it doesn't end there. On this point, the evidence is chilling. "All three expert witnesses agreed that, absent treatment, GID in genetic males is sometimes associated with autocastration, autopenectomy, and suicide," the court noted. Mental illness is physically dangerous for the simplest of reasons: The mind can decide to mutilate the body. So the question isn't whether to cut up the bodies of patients with severe GID. The question is who will do the cutting.

More here .

Feb. 11 2010 9:33 AM

The Tebows' Abortion Video

Pam Tebow's doctor recommended an abortion to protect her life. But Pam said no. "We were determined to trust the Lord with the children that he would give us," she calmly explains in the interview. "And if God called me to give up my life, then He would take care of my family."

Wow. She was ready to sacrifice her life—and leave her children motherless—to give her fetus a chance at birth. That's serious commitment. But this isn't just a story. It's a message. Looking into the camera, Bob Tebow delivers the closing plea to women contemplating abortion: "Don't kill your baby."

More here .

Feb. 9 2010 10:08 AM

The Tablet Computer In Your Head

The patients couldn't produce physical activity, as you or I would. But they could produce mental activity. They could use the brain as a kind of tablet, writing "tennis" on their supplementary motor area or "navigation" on their parahippocampal gyrus. That's the real genius of the European study: The mind can use the brain as a communication device.

Before brain scans, this was impossible. Nobody could see your brain. Thinking was one thing; doing was another. Scans have abolished that distinction. They have illuminated the paradoxical world of cognitive acts.

More here .

Feb. 2 2010 10:57 AM

Tim Tebow's Non-Abortion

Pam Tebow's story certainly is moving. But as a guide to making abortion decisions, it's misleading. Doctors are right to worry about continuing pregnancies like hers. Placental abruption has killed thousands of women and fetuses. No doubt some of these women trusted in God and said no to abortion, as she did. But they didn't end up with Heisman-winning sons. They ended up dead.

More here .

Feb. 2 2010 10:50 AM

The Technology Revolution

In more and more places, machines are running the world. On stock exchanges, high-speed computers armed with trading algorithms and superior pattern recognition are thrashing human competitors . Airline autopilots have become so reliable that human pilots can check out . In cars, software is beginning to assume responsibility for steering, braking, and parking . Drones are patrolling our borders, catching humans who try to sneak in. Computers are telling child-welfare agencies whether to take kids away from parents . Programs are running "virtual call centers," measuring the output of dispersed salespeople and routing customer phone calls to the best performers . Computers don't just work for us anymore. We work for them.

More here .