Human Nature

Bad Habits

Using nuns … to sell beer … as medicine.

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Entrepreneurs are developing powdered alcohol for sale to minors. Alcohol powder was previously marketed in the U.S. as flavoring, but young businessmen plan to sell it in Holland in lime-flavored packets as “Booz2Go.” Marketers’ pitches: 1) “We are aiming for the youth market.” 2) “Because the alcohol is not in liquid form, we can sell it to people below 16.” 3) Selling it as powder might also avoid liquor taxes. (For a previous update on alcohol inhalers, click here. For testing breast milk for alcohol, click here. To post your thoughts on kids and alcohol, click here.)

Alcohol makers have enlisted nuns to prove that beer can be good for you. Study method: Take 50 nuns, have them drink half a liter of beer daily for 45 days, then keep them off beer for 180 days, then give them 400 milligrams of hops a day for 40 days. The nuns were “chosen on the basis of their steady lifestyle and balanced diet.” Selective result: Nuns that began with high cholesterol reduced it by 6 percent. Beer makers’ spin: Beer is healthy! Nuns’ reactions: 1) Actually, the benefit was in the hops, so skip the alcohol. 2) We’d drink beer as medicine if we had to, but we don’t really like it. 3) “We did it for the good of humanity.” (For previous updates on the putative benefits of alcohol, click here, here, and here.)

Scientists may have figured out how to make stem cells without embryos. Old trick: Put a nucleus from a skin cell into a gutted human egg, and let the egg’s processes turn it into an embryo, thereby producing embryonic stem cells (ESCs). New trick: Identify the relevant processes and apply them directly to the cell, turning it into an ESC with no egg or embryo required. Pro-lifers approve the new method. Remaining hurdles: 1) We’ve only done this in mice; it might be harder in humans. 2) We did it with viral genetic engineering; we need to find a safer method. 3) Some of the genes that worked also caused cancer in many of the mice; we need to find other genes. Optimistic view: We’ll solve all these problems and fulfill the promise of stem-cell therapy. Realistic view: We don’t need to solve the safety problems to achieve what stem cells are really about: facilitating disease research. (For Human Nature’s previous takes on the new method, known as reprogramming or dedifferentiation, click here and here.)

Ritalin updates: 1) Kids from divorced families are nearly twice as likely to get prescriptions for ADHD drugs. Theories: A) Divorce causes behavior problems, which leads to prescriptions. B) Doctors and parents assume divorce causes behavior problems, so they drug the kids. C) The same parental behavior that caused the divorce messed up the kid. D) The kid’s behavior problems contributed to the divorce. 2) Some Chinese parents are using prescription fraud to give their kids Ritalin for the country’s national college entrance exam. The drug is supposed to be used for ADHD. Only half of the 10 million test-takers will get into college. Parents have also been “buying a protein injection … to boost the immune systems of their children” for the exam. (To discuss Ritalin overprescription, click here.)

Austria passed a law lowering the voting age to 16 in national elections. It’s the first county to do so in the European Union, joining Brazil, Cuba, and Nicaragua. The law also lowers the age for serving in parliament from 19 to 18. Four of the five parties in parliament approved the shift. Austrian chancellor’s pitch: “Politics must now do more to meet the demands of young people.” Half-cynical view: The easiest way to pick up thousands of new voters is to give them the vote. Fully cynical view: Half the kids won’t remember their benefactors at election time, and the other half won’t vote. (To discuss the wisdom of lowering the voting age, click here.)

Millions of kids are flocking to fantasy web sites designed for them. Activities: chats, interactive games, dressing virtual dolls, and role-playing. Web traffic is up 68 percent in a year. Rationale: Virtual doll games are fun like the real thing, but cheaper. Criticisms: 1) Basic memberships may be free, but the sites make your kid feel like a loser if she doesn’t shell out the extra monthly fee for more dolls and better virtual clothes. 2) To avoid charging, some sites are running ads for candy and other products. Site operators’ rebuttals: 1) If we don’t charge extra fees, we’ll have to run more ads, which will lead to your kid clicking God knows what. 2) We’re better than TV, which doesn’t let kids participate. 3) If they don’t come to us, they’ll go to some less-filtered networking site, where they’ll get molested. Human Nature’s view: Try buying some virtual exercise for your daughter while she’s sitting at a computer all day. (To discuss kids spending their play time on computers, click here.)

Doctors transplanted a man’s hand from one arm to the other. Decades ago, he lost his left hand in an accident. Three years ago, his right arm was paralyzed by a stroke. The new surgery removed the hand from his paralyzed right arm and used it to replace his missing left hand. Surgeons also removed his thumb from the hand and reattached it in a different place to make the hand work like a left hand. Doctors’ spin: This is the perfect transplant situation, since the hand was previously useless and the recipient, being the donor as well, needs no anti-rejection drugs. (For Human Nature’s takes on the first penis transplant and the worldwide market in human organs, click here and here.)

Scientists reviewed decades of studies on penis size and self-image. Findings: 1) Average erection is 5.5 to 6.2 inches. 2) Twice as many men think their penises are above average in length as think they’re below average. 3) Meanwhile, 90 percent of women care more about width than length, and women don’t care that much about size in general. 4) While only 55 percent of men are satisfied with the size they’re delivering, 85 percent of women are satisfied with the size they’re getting. 5) To lengthen their penises, some men “use weights” and others “encourage poisonous snakes to bite their penises to enlarge them for six months,” while others “pierce the glans of their penis and insert items into the holes to stimulate their partner.” 6) The evidence for “penile extenders” is “poorly documented.” (For a previous update on condoms and short Indian penises, click here. For penis shrinkage due to prostate-cancer treatment, click here.)

Law enforcement agencies are investigating virtual crimes. Incidents: 1) Japanese officials arrested a man for mugging virtual characters and selling their virtual property for real money. 2) Belgian police investigated a rape in Second Life. 3) German authorities investigated child sexual abuse in Second Life. 4) The company that founded Second Life expelled two members in the German case. 5) U.S. federal officers have invented avatars to inspect Second Life for possible gambling law violations at virtual casinos. Rationales: 1) Some virtual crimes have real effects, such as trauma or real profits. 2) Virtual depictions of child abuse are illegal in some countries. Objection: “Since when is fantasy against the fricking law?” (For previous updates on virtual sex, commerce, terrorism, and religion, click here, here, here, here, and here. For Human Nature’s take on policing cybersex, click here.)

The Internet is killing the porn industry. For the first time in years, video sales and rentals are down. Old trend: The Web helped the industry by facilitating anonymous purchases and downloads. New trend: It’s drying up demand for paid porn by facilitating uploads of free, cheaply made porn. Old complaint against porn: It’s crudely made trash. New complaints by porn industry: 1) Free porn is crudely made trash, whereas we use sophisticated actors, sets, and lighting. 2) Porn consumers don’t seem to appreciate the difference. 3) When we offer them free samples, they just use us for their pleasure and leave us with nothing. Human Nature’s view: For all you sophisticates in the porn business … it’s called irony. (For a previous update on the average viewing time of pay-per-view porn, click here. For porn HDTV, click here. For cell-phone porn, click here. For virtual-sex technology, click here. For live, on-demand sex, click here.)

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) The abolition of menstruation. 2) The chess match of man and machine. 3)  Ultrasound and the future of abortion. 4) The global market in human organs. 5) The evolution of brains and morals. 6) Machines that read your mind. 7) Invasion of the naked body scanners. 8) The future of pain-beaming weapons. 9)  Gay sheep and human destiny. 10)  More on gay sheep.