15.03.09

13.03.09

Nanny state watch: Scottish edition

I generally take a dim view of laws and regulations intended to protect people from themselves. I believe that responsibility for a person’s health and well-being ultimately resides with that person; a person who engages in risky or dangerous behavior must accept the consequences of his actions. Society should not take that responsibility and allow the misdoer to derive advantage without concomitant disadvantage. That way lies moral hazard, a phenomenon with which all discerning members of society should be familiar (and of which they should be justifiably wary) through the economic news and events of the last year or so.

In that vein I direct your attention to the latest attempt to extend the nanny state: a Scottish tax on chocolate in a proposal defeated by only two votes in a meeting of the British Medical Association. Dr. David Walker, its chief proponent, says:

“Chocolate has lost its status as a special treat and I think that if we charged a tax on it then, over a number of years, we could restore that status.”

He had earlier told the BBC news website that obesity was a “mushrooming” problem, and Scotland risked heading the same way as the United States.

He added: “There is an explosion of obesity and the related medical conditions, like type 2 diabetes. I see chocolate as a major player in this, and I think a tax on products containing chocolate could make a real difference.”

There is much that is wrong with this from economic and personal freedom standpoints. However, in the interests of concision and minimal scope, I will limit myself to taking issue with these later lines in the story, also from Dr. Walker:

“After eating a bag of chocolate sweets you would have to walk continuously for three hours to burn off the calories consumed.

“It is simply not enough to say people should get more exercise.

The regular reader will know that last year I completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Backpacking requires a tremendous amount of energy (moreso for a trip of that length and duration), and I fueled myself using a variety of methods: gorp, granola bars, beef jerky, and candy, among others. For roughly the last 1300 miles of my hike, my primary fuel between meals was the large or king-size candy bar — usually Snickers for its high calorie-to-weight ratio but often Milky Way or 3 Musketeers for an attempt at variety. A large Snickers bar contains 280 calories, while a king-size bar contains 510 calories; Milky Way clocks in at 260 and 460 calories respectively.

Each day while thru-hiking I typically would eat the equivalent of five, six, or more large-size bars (ten is the maximum count I can remember, although I probably exceeded this when completing the Four State Challenge) while hiking twenty to thirty miles daily. (NB: my chocolate bar rate of intake effectively dropped to zero when I finished the hike.) Dr. Walker would likely agree that this rate of intake in this exceedingly unusual situation is much less likely to be harmful than it would be for an average person and situation, but if he did not, I could assure him with absolute certainty that while I was hiking this prodigious consumption of chocolate was in no way calorically harmful. Further, in the four months since I completed the thru-hike I have noticed no other lasting ill effects. Indeed, it was necessary to travel those distances without courting malnourishment and unhealthy weight loss; I have heard of thru-hikers who could not carry enough food to avoid losing weight in the final stages of their thru-hikes (at which point all discretionary weight would have long since disappeared). Would Dr. Walker punish me for what it was necessary for me to consume while hiking? A chocolate tax across the few hundred bars I likely consumed would have summed to a meaningful value — perhaps a couple handfuls more candy bars or a small meal in a town I passed through.

Dr. Walker may be right that for most people more exercise cannot adequately combat excessive chocolate intake. However, that his assertion is only usually right means that sometimes it is wrong; it is a clear example of the folly of not recognizing personal responsibility to avoid harmful choices. If this tax were real, the people who consume chocolate in moderation with respect to their situations (I include myself in this group) would only be harmed, while the ones who consume to excess, perversely, have an incentive to consume even more as they can take advantage of the newly-funded programs “used by the NHS to deal with the health problems caused by obesity” without paying the full costs to use them.

If Dr. Walker wishes to see more healthy intakes of chocolate, he would do better from a personal freedom standpoint to improve educational efforts that warn of the dangers of excessive sweets, which would neither inhibit individual responsibility nor tax the responsible chocolate lovers to pay for care for the gluttonous ones.

20.02.09

When good tests go bad: Firefox on Acid(2)

Tags: , , , , , , , — Jeff @ 00:43

This is what the Acid2 test looks like in the very very super-duper-latest Firefox builds (slated for the version after 3.1, mind, not for 3.1):

Acid2 in bleeding-edge Mozilla, to be seen in the next Firefox release after 3.1; the chin is red whereas the reference image would have it yellow
Acid2 in bleeding-edge Mozilla, to be seen in the next Firefox release after 3.1

Bug, you say? No! The last test in row 13 tests that this CSS doesn’t apply:

.parser { background: red pink; }

Two colors for a background as valid CSS? Surely you jest!

Actually, we don’t. CSS3 says background-color takes two colors, one for normal use and one for use if a corresponding background-image doesn’t load. The red ends up getting used as the background color, and the yellow that would have been present if the property hadn’t applied no longer shows. CSS3 makes previously-invalid CSS valid, and that’s okay, because CSS error handling is explicitly designed to allow it.

So no, “failing” Acid2 for now isn’t fail, it’s WIN. Hopefully the test will be updated soon so that that particular rule is invalid again.

Incidentally, the specification for this changed recently, which I presume is why WebKit/Safari/Chrome et al. don’t fail. I don’t know whether they implement the fallback color process or not, presumably not given how they handle this testcase, which should show a green square if CSS3 background colors are implemented to latest spec, but in any case they won’t trigger it even tho they’ve implemented a bunch of other parts of the CSS3 backgrounds spec.

Update: As Dan notes in comments, the once-invalid syntax is now invalid again, as fallback color support has been removed from CSS3 partially over syntax concerns and partially over its lack of generalizability to other cases in CSS. Now that support for fallback colors has been removed from trunk, Acid2 in bleeding-edge Firefox now displays as it was intended to display.

13.02.09

An update on government transparency

Tags: , , , , , — Jeff @ 11:02

I commented earlier about governmental transparency and cited the proposed stimulus bill as an instance where transparency had not yet been achieved. Since the final iteration of the stimulus (more accurately, a conference report resolving differences between the House and Senate bills previously approved) is coming to final votes in both houses today assuming all goes according to plan, I think a brief update on the situation is in order.

As far as I understand it, the final version of the stimulus was first sent to lobbyists on Washington, D.C.’s K Street late Wednesday or early yesterday. Sometime strictly after that, congressmen received final copies. Finally, last night at 23:32 EST, Speaker Pelosi (more precisely, a staff member) announced the final conference report and joint bill text; the two are split across multiple government sites, so they may have been available earlier given extra diligence in searching for them, but it’s impossible to say. One news source says the House vote may come around 13:00 or 14:00 EST today (so about as I make this post), or about 13-14 hours after the initial public posting; the Senate vote may come sometime later in the evening, or perhaps around 22 hours later at most. It’s not quite the 48 hours unanimously agreed to by the House around, roughly, H1096 in the congressional records of the House from February 10 (readthestimulus.org has better details, but they don’t also have good permalinks, so search for “48″ in the page), but 13-14 hours (or some unspecified amount of time more, if the text was released earlier in private) should be close enough for everyone, right?

The Speaker really could have done a better job of making the process a bit more transparent, but I suppose she thinks in an emergency the agreed-upon rules can’t be accorded muchany importance if they get in the way of “necessary” legislation. To be clear, this isn’t President Obama’s bailiwick, so he can’t be faulted for this lack of transparency; it would have been nice, however, if he had publicly noted it and requested the process be modified. It’s understandable that President Obama isn’t bringing this short-circuited process to greater light given that it’s a bill drafted by his own party, but it’s not exactly commendable, either.

10.02.09

A helpful cycling tip

Tags: , , — Jeff @ 01:16

Suppose your bike experiences one flat tire, which you fix.

Now suppose a couple weeks later it experiences a second flat tire, which you fix.

Further suppose that you begin to wonder about the structural integrity of your bike tires; they’ve now gone flat twice in a short span of time, and at a closer glance the casing in the tires is starting to show through the rubber. It’s conceivable they need to be replaced, as you’ve put at least a few thousand miles on them and have used them since 2003.

In hypothetical response to this you ask someone knowledgeable how long bike tires last and how one would recognize when they need replacement. In response you are told that bike tires are suspect after five years (due to breakdown of the rubber) and should be replaced when the underlayer shows through.

You now have two entirely hypothetical options. First, you can replace the tires now. Second, you can continue using the ones you have until you can get to a cycling store “eventually” to buy new ones, but as it turns out you won’t make it to the store before your tire fails you a third time and you have to fix yet another flat (and actually a fourth as well, when you find your rear tire flat when you try to get to REI the next morning to buy a new pair of tires).

Two bike tire inner tubes waiting to be patched; the third had multiple holes, so it got thrown away
Two decrepit bike tire inner tubes waiting to be patched; the third had multiple holes, so it got thrown away

Now for the helpful cycling tip: replace old tires promptly and don’t wait for third flats.

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