Things you can't get in Ohio

By now you may have concluded that I have a thing about strange liquors.  I see something intriguing in a bottle, and I want to find out what it tastes like.  It turns out that Ohio isn't a very good place for this hobby.  Here's the list of liquors that the state of Ohio permits to be sold here.  (*) The list is exclusive.  If it ain't on the list, it ain't in stores.

There are some notable omissions.   Boulard Grand Solage Calvados, a wonderful French apple brandy, fell off the list this past year - after I fell in love with it.  Maison Surrenne Ancienne Distillerie cognac is really the only cognac I think is worth the money; I've kept it around the house for most of the last ten years, but go ahead and control-F the Ohio list, it's not there.  Or let's say you want to try the drink "Death in the Gulf Stream" which is attributed to Hemingway.  You'll need Lucas Bols Oude Genever.  Have someone buy it for you elsewhere.

I am lucky enough to have friends and relatives living in more permissive places; the first two of those three liquors were given (back) to me for Christmas.  The third seems to be laughably obscure, but I don't know what I'm missing, because I've never had it.  It annoys me that I don't have access to these interesting things, but what I really wonder is why?  Has the state of Ohio decided that they're toxic?  Have the importers or distillers not paid some, uh, "licensing fee" for the right to sell to Ohio citizens?

Wine distribution laws are equally wrongheaded, but at least the reason is clear:  distributers want to protect their staggeringly profitable middleman status, so they lobby state governments to outlaw direct shipments from wineries to consumers.  The justifications ("protecting children", etc) are predictably ridiculous, and the real reason is depressingly predictable.  Zero value is added.  But this case doesn't help me understand the limited availability of liquors.  Does anyone know?

(*) As of January 2011.  For a current list, just google "state of Ohio liquor list".  And yeah, everything costs 10% more in Cleveland.

Self-help for corporations

On the face of it, a corporation is no different from a shelf full of beanie babies - it's a collection of real things that "exists", as a collection, only in an abstract sense.  The thing is, corporations exhibit some collective behavior that resembles the way people behave.  For example, can you blame BP's Gulf oil leak on individuals?  It's probably more accurate to say it was a result of a corporate culture:  standards and priorities that were set by and shared by most of BP's employees. 

Much has been said about the inherent amorality of corporations:  that they report only to the bottom line.  There are individual people that behave amorally too - but unless they're sociopaths, their conscience intrudes.  Then they start thinking about how to lead an existence that's more in tune with their surroundings.

Self-help books give such people mental, emotional, and social advice.  Which makes me wonder:  what would a self-help book for a corporation look like?  How can you guide the latent sentience of a group?

Corporate culture isn't top-down; examples are set from above, but they have to be reinforced, or reinvented, at every level.  There are many cases where a corporation lacks a cohesive culture or where parts of it have a culture different from the rest.  Take my employer - it grew rapidly by acquisition, so each site had its own "feel" for quite some time after acquisition.  Turnover, and repetition of a consistent message from headquarters, has built a shared outlook.  But it wouldn't have happened without buy-in.  Every individual contributed.

Where does individual morality come from?  Strictly behavioral lessons, like "don't hit people or they'll hit you back," don't explain the full spectrum of human ethics.  Altruism (part of which may be genetic) comes into play.  Spirituality too.  And, perhaps most of all, empathy.

What kind of "book", then, can influence the individual employees of a corporation to set priorities in accordance with empathy, spirituality, and altruism?  Certainly their own moral codes are guided by these things.  Maybe they just need to sense that they're allowed--even required--to make those things a priority within their company.  We all want to act with integrity.

Talk to the person in front of you.

"Duh", right?  But how many people do you know that will spend their time at a party or an event or even a dinner table pecking away at a smartphone?  Here's what's wrong with that:
  1. Your interactions will remain superficial.  Nobody will open up to someone who's half ignoring them.  You will never make a close friend this way.
  2. You insult those who took the trouble to physically show up and spend time with you.
  3. You train people to use the phone to contact you, which in the future will both interrupt you and trivialize your interactions with them.
Give your undivided attention or stay home.  The former if you want to be human - the latter if you want to be alone with your phone.

The TSA's naked-mannequin backscatter scanners

 The day before Thanksgiving, the busiest flying day of the year, was chosen as "National Opt-Out Day" to encourage people to ask for a pat-down from the TSA rather than go through the new Backscatter Scanners.  The organizers of Opt Out Day seem primarily concerned with privacy--people in the backscatter photos look kind of like creepy naked mannequins of themselves--but the scanners' safety has been questioned as well.  I've done a lot of X-ray work as a materials scientist, so I'd like to summarize what we know.

This enticingly titled Ars Technica article does a great job of describing the difference between conventional medical X-rays and the new backscatter detectors, but ultimately concludes that the "biology" part of "physics and biology" is not well understood.  What X-rays and cosmic rays and ultraviolet radiation from the sun have in common is that they are ionizing radiation, electromagnetic radiation with high enough energy to knock an electron off of an atom.  Visible light, wi-fi signals, and microwaves are also electromagnetic radiation, but are not energetic enough to ionize atoms.  Ionized atoms are more chemically reactive than neutral atoms.  If an atom is ionized in the living cells of your body, the atom may then react with nearby atoms in such a way as to render a useful molecule defunct, or worse, create a mutation in a DNA molecule.

Much of our information about the health effects of ionizing radiation comes from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It's grim to think of, but the conditions were perfect:  hundreds of thousands of people were affected, and they could precisely report their distance from the explosions.  The units and terminology are confusing:  the Curie is a measure of radiation itself, essentially the number of photons, but it's almost never used.  Instead, units like the rem (Roentgen Equivalent in Man) and the older rad (Radiation Absorbed Dose) include a correction factor to account for the likelihood that a specific energy of photon will be absorbed.

In my radiological safety training, I was told that the information from Hiroshima covered doses ranging from "very high" to "massive".  Lower-dose cases were obsured by the citizens' ongoing exposure to radioactive dust and debris.  Medical researchers extrapolated health effects downwards from "very high" doses to the smaller doses one might encounter in dental X-rays and industrial accidents.  Unfortunately, the accuracy of that extrapolation was hard to verify, because there were fewer people involved and the circumstances were less controlled.  Everyday doses from sources like radon are orders of magnitude lower, and their health effects correspondingly less clear.

It's comforting to know that, according to the Ars Technica article, the backscatter scanners give a dose of only three microrem, about a thousandth of the dose you'll get from cosmic rays if your flight crosses the continental US.  But then you realize that this dose is concentrated in a small volume:  your skin.  You could try to do the math and say that three microrem in the outermost few millimeters of your body is equivalent to some larger dose distributed evenly throughout the body.  The truth is, the health consequences of radiation aren't well enough known to make that kind of calculation - or the assumption that risks scale linearly down to low doses in the first place.

We're exposed to radon, cosmic rays, and radioisotopes continuously throughout our lives.  Somehow we manage to have kids - and, occasionally, tumors.  Do biological cells have a certain rate at which they can repair radiation damage without permanent harm?  A nonlinearity in the risk curve?  If so, we don't know what it is, partly because we engage in so many other activities that are riskier.

Why is absurdity my favorite form of humor?

For example, this post on 3/15/10 on Texts From Last Night:
(301): the majority of my texts from you are at 3 AM & consist of either "I'm drunk", "you're asian", or "bratwurst".
I laughed my ass off when I read that.  Bratwurst non sequitur.

I first saved this post as a draft at least a year ago, but I didn't have anything to put in the body of the damn thing.  I figured if I left it there, I'd see it whenever I scanned through the drafts, and eventually I'd think of some kind of answer to the question.  Finally I have one:  absurd humor is like play. 

A couple weeks ago I asked about play at a "Thinkrs & Drinkrs" gathering.  My question was:  "How do you play?  Alone or with others?  Physically or mentally?"  I expected to hear about musical instruments and sports, but the question had a life of its own.  One of the most useful responses was John Heaney's:  that he doesn't set aside time to play, rather, he's constantly playing by choosing to improvise the way he gets routine tasks done.  Drive a different route to work, see different buildings, think of new possibilities.  Innovation happens when you think about the problem in front of you in a new way because you were exposed to something totally unrelated.  So a functional definition of play is that it's an activity that seeks to provide these mental collisions between unrelated thoughts.  This is very much in line with the Stephen Nachmanovitch post I quoted a long time ago about its importance in science.

Absurd humor is also a collision of unrelated thoughts.  I'm drunk, you're asian, bratwurst.  The outcome is laughter instead of innovation, but the mechanism is the same.  It jiggles the brain the same way a flash of insight does.  And I'm addicted to that.

Reductio ad Meteorite

Reductio ad absurdum is a Latin phrase meaning "to reduce to absurdity".  It's a debate technique where you take your opponent's line of reasoning and point out that it leads to conclusions that are absurd - and therefore the line of reasoning must have some unseen flaw.

I recently witnessed an argument about whether or not it was safe to use a cell phone while pumping gas.  In theory, electricity can ignite gasoline vapors.  The consequences are highly undesirable, so you should avoid any risk, right?  But think about it - every time you get out of your car in the wintertime, you get a SNAP of static electricity.  It's caused by the dry wind against the car's shell, and the arc can be well over 1000 volts.  If that open discharge doesn't ignite the lingering vapors at a gas station, what will?  And what's the voltage inside a sealed cell phone anyway, three volts?  Nine?

Whenever I consider odds like this, I say you're as likely to be hit by a meteorite.  If risk is what you're talking about, then the stress of worrying is far riskier than what you're worrying about.  Reductio ad meteorite.  (By the way, this concept isn't limited to risk, but all the most common examples - say, fear of flying - are about risk.  Why?  Because people are lousy at evaluating and comparing small risks.)