Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Safety Paranoia

I'm not sure when it happened or why (ok, I know in general why), but, as a nation, we are absolutely petrified about being "safe." Too much so. No, this isn't about the war, or terrorism, though those are certainly related. This is about auto safety and crash tests. Fine, the government and insurance companies test cars for their safety in various crashes and certain safety devices are required. From the perspective of those two groups it makes sense as safer cars mean less severe injuries which results in smaller hospital bills. Further for automakers, it makes sense to capitalize on the paranoia by touting safety devices and encouraging said paranoia makes sense. So I get it. All of it. That doesn't make it okay, though. In particular this is regarding the "small car vs. big car" aspect touted in the article.

Reading the article one gets the distinct impression that one will suffer and/or die if they choose a small car over, say, a tank. In particular, this leads parents to think "well, I don't want to drive an Envoy, but it's the only way for my children to be safe." Of course, one of the largest reasons that small cars are less safe is because large cars are on the road (most accidents do not involve running into buildings). If the circular reasoning remains unbroken this leads to a nifty little downward spiral of more ridiculous vehicles on the roads. There is no compelling reason for 99.9% of the population to own a vehicle larger than a Scion or Yaris or Civic. None. Not one. Our roads would be safer if people drove smaller cars because response times and visibility would be notably improved. This is never minding the financial side of things: smaller cars have less impact. Yes, impact means environmental in terms of burning less fuel, resulting in lower gas costs and prices, but it also means infrastructural in terms of less road wear, resulting in reduced road work costs, and it also means physical, as in when an accident does occur there is less [energy contained in the] impact, which could mean less cost in terms of repair and hospitalization--for the other driver.

All told, if everyone were driving smaller cars, everyone would be safer, there would be less of an impact on the planet, and we would spend less on infrastructure upkeep. Small cars are not dangerous, they're responsible.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Extended Warranties

...like those offered by Best Buy and others--are a scam. Never purchase them. Ever.

Friday, December 15, 2006

X-mas follow up

It's amazing how disrespectful Hollywood can be of Christmas. Everyone knows that the best way to exploit the holiday to make a bazillion dollars is to release happy Christmas moves. I'd probably be less upset if these people would show similar outrage towards the Iraq war where real people are dying, and where over one hundred thousand American troops will have to spend the holidays, many of them under fire. I also demonstrate some level of misplaced outrage, I know, but I am not drafting press releases receiving national attention at CNN.

Raw Data Addendum

The idea that raw data is good is rather pervasive. Obviously "raw" data has not been tampered with, massaged, excluded, modified, or diminished. Raw data contains all possible information and none of the potential prejudices of those who recorded the data. This is true to a certain extent, but often times the raw data is raw because it requires expert analysis, review and understanding to have the meaningful bits extracted. In science the amount of raw data generated is phenomenal. In the absence of careful analysis there is no point to it. It is not publishable, it is not relevant, it is, by itself, nothing. When someone with expertise and understanding analyzes the data, however, and extracts the meaningful aspects, then shows and explains those to others, there is a crystallization of the data. A form appears from nothing and others can build more off of it.

This is what scientists do (as opposed to technicians who may or may not be scientists), they construct form from raw data. Journalists are supposed to do something similar. If reporting with no analysis, or insight is the same a as journalism, there is no expertise associated with being a journalist. Parroting and repeating things reduces journalists to base reporters, automated mimeographs. This is not always bad, mind you. I would love for there to be real reporting on Iraq, for example. But when it comes to some things, like politics, and (ostensibly) scientific work, journalists are a must.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Happy Holidays

It's funny that a good point coming from Lou Dobbs suddenly sounds bad. PC thuggery is bad, but so are the (equally thuggish) groups complaining about a "War on Christmas." A very noisy group of the population got up in arms about WalMart wishing visitors "Happy Holidays" at its stores instead of "Merry Christmas." Even if no one is offended by "Merry Christmas," the phrase "Happy Holidays" is definitely more welcoming to more people and, really, isn't that part of the spirit of Christmas? Plus, even if one is Christian, there are at least two holidays coming up, exactly one week apart, and some Christians also place value on celebrating the Epiphany. So, while there are some pretty fair reasons why someone could find the assumption behind "Merry Christmas" offensive, there is no reason that anyone should be offended by "Happy Holidays."

That said, the Christmas season is supposed to be about peace (but not in wreath form), love (of Augusto Pinochet and capitalism) and togetherness (only applies to heterosexual, married couples and their totally unplanned children, and like friends and neighbors), so maybe the rest of us should not be offended by anyone who finds offense in attempts at being inoffensive and inclusive. I mean, in reality, Christmas has become a secular holiday (which should really tick off those who are offended by "Happy Holidays"). Just smile back and ask if they have their solstice tree up yet.

Reporting Raw Data

Okay, I was yelled at for a previous post. I was condescending and, further, unclear as to exactly why the article made me mad. The data is fine, there may be more to it than that, but the article is bad for this very simple reason: raw data has very little meaning. This is true of any raw data. Statistics, in particular are rather devoid of meaning, as even their generation can be influenced by those who pose the questions compared with those who interpret the questions. An example from the article/study would be related to the point about "imagining life without instant messaging." One person may see that as "would my life be noticeably different if IM's didn't exist?" Another may read that as "do I think IMing will ever die out?" and another as "do I think people could get along in a meaningful way if there was no instant messaging?" Those are three very different questions. Exactly how the question was posed and how the respondents interpreted it is very relevant to the meaning of the results. I deliberately assumed mocking interpretations of the possible questions from the data given to demonstrate the meaninglessness of the report as a whole. People will read the CNN article and believe that there is value of some sort contained within. That is a problem.

There may be value in the data, but it is open to the ideas of the reader, not the reality of the report. In any case of reporting in which the reader/listener must make their own conclusions with nothing but raw data and no explanations then not only is the journalism bad, it is in fact non-existent. No relevant information beyond raw data was given. Further, there is no extrapolation within the report regarding what significance the data may contain. The additional reporting discusses the addictiveness of messaging. This is tangentially relevant, at best, but even then is not related to the data at all. This is not journalism. This does not belong on CNN. It may be amusing, but in the absence of analysis, reporting data is not a story.

21st Century Schooling: Language

One of the bits in the Time article stated that American children should get more foreign language. As much as I don't really want to say it, and as arrogant as it sounds: in strict terms of relevance, anyone who speaks English has no practical need to learn another language. English is the de facto (Latin anyone) language of the world in terms of economy, science, and politics. This is, largely, because of the dominant role of the United States in all of those fields, but, at this point, even if our role is diminished, the role of English will not be. (grammar on the other hand...) This does not mean, however, that I disagree with the sentiment.

I think that learning and speaking another language is a lot of fun. I enjoy doing it (and not because it annoys certain others who do not understand me). I frequently translate things in my head and play out imaginary conversations. I like singing songs in other languages as well...as a kid I loved Christmas-time masses because we would sometimes sing "Adeste Fideles" (Latin version of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful"). Aside from the fun factor, though, which may not appeal to everyone, foreign language is one of the few areas of education in which Americans get a real look at a different culture. American culture is unique, but it has permeated throughout the world such that it is often ambiguous to the point that (foreigners) may accuse us of not having one (any). That is untrue and unfair--yes, McDonald's is part of it, but so too is our constitutional democracy and our deep seeded belief in certain, "inalienable" rights. Perhaps because of the notion of the US as a "melting pot" or combination of many cultures, we often overlook cultural aspects of other societies (Iraq and Iran, anyone?); we assume that if something works here it will work anywhere (I have heard that Euro-Disney is doing better). Language classes are among the few places where we may see how that is not true.

Various aspects of culture were involved in all language classes I took. Art, history and literature all got involved; video showing traditional dance and classes where we would prepare and eat relevant food. Spanish class also opened the door for me to spend a summer in Paraguay, in a small village with no paved roads. There could be more or less in various language classes, but seldom do those classes devolve into rote memorization of vocabulary words and verb conjugations, though those definitely play a substantial role. The understanding of the culture that develops is not one that is expressly taught, but by showing the culture and, in a sense, becoming part of it for a few hours a week, an empathy will develop on its own.

I'll admit, there is something to be said about how poorly we educate our children in terms of the world, but even doing more in terms of world history and modern civilizations will not provide the near immersion aspect that learning a language does. Even if the language itself is poorly retained, the cultural empathy will remain. I often wonder if more people in this country spoke Spanish, would there still be so much hatred toward Hispanic immigrants? Even Dubbya, who seems to have little in the way of empathy toward his fellow human, doesn't hate the brown man so...he also speaks some Spanish...poorly (must. not. sound. like. I. like. that. man.).

21st Century Schooling

I'm not linking it, but Time's cover article is about education in the 21st century and it's need to adapt. Lots of interesting points, and some things that I, and many educators already knew. I've got a personal feeling to shed on the language issue, but will do that in another post. My big point here is simple: no child left behind (NCLB) is crap.

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned something like this before, but here we go again...

Testing is the centerpiece of NCLB and it is causing more problems than it is fixing. Testing sounds like a good idea to people who are not educators, because they tend to think, "Gosh, when I was in school we took tests to 'prove' what/that we had learned, so testing kids will 'prove' that they are learning and that schools are succeeding." Feel free to think this way all you want, no matter how stupid it is, and it is stupid. Let's take a look at a simple benchmark of learning and determine how to test it: children should know how to multiply and divide. Well, we've all taken math tests before, most of us had to memorize multiplication tables up through 12. If I ask you what is 12 x 11? Does your answer represent understanding? a real ability to multiply? memorization? Okay, so let's make it 324 x 17... This is more challenging, so it will better gauge a student's abilities. But there are different approaches to doing this problem. One is to write the numbers on top of each other and multiply row by column then sum. This is how most people learned. Another approach may be to make use of the distributive property (324x17 = 10x324 + 7x300 + 7x25 -7). The latter demonstrates a significantly better understanding of mathematics and how multiplication relates to addition and subtraction, but it hasn't been tested. The test may have another question related to the distributive property and another dealing with the order of operations, but someone who just uses them automatically has a better understanding of how they all work. It isn't tested, though. You can have children show their work, but then you have to make a qualitative decision as to the better answer even if two kids get the answer correct. Moreover, anyone who does the work in their head may not show any, and how is that to be marked? When these kids get out into the real world would it be better if they know how to multiply 324x17 or would it be best if they can figure it as being ~20x325 = 20x300 + 5x4x25 = 6500. What if they have $70 and need to pick up 17 (items) that cost 3.24 (and they live in OR, where there is no sales tax)? Of course, real world problems suck and there really is no legit comparison. The real answer is that the student who can apply different aspects of their learning in one area will be better able to do so in others and will be better able to extrapolate what they have learned to real problems and, therefore, be better able to function in a dynamic society.

Testing does not (and will never) demonstrate this. The fundamental flaw of (standardized) testing is that it is goal oriented, with the wrong goal. This is not to say that all testing (or even all standardized testing) is bad. Nonstandardized testing, as practiced in many classes, is very valuable if not necessary to gauge student progress, and can, in fact, examine their understanding at a higher level. So long as the test is not a benchmark for passing and failure for a student or school, standardized test results can be useful to model simple aspects of education, and disparity within it. The SECOND they determine a student's and/or a school's fate they become meaningless measures of mediocrity...methinks. Our education system already does a poor job of nurturing creativity and intellectual curiosity, NCLB testing makes it worse.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The IM Divide: Similar to the "Work" Divide

There was a poll comparing teens and adults on IM practices and views. I'll start by saying I do IM, though not much. Now, let's look at some of the patently idiotic things reported as news:

-"Almost three-fourths of adults who do use instant messages still communicate with e-mail more often. Almost three-fourths of teens send instant messages more than e-mail."

Adults have jobs, and freedom, and money. IMing requires both parties be at their (connected) computers (this is not talking about texting)...this is way more likely to happen if you are a kid and can't just head out at 9:00 if you want to. Dumb-ass, non-point.

-"More than half of the teens who use instant messages send more than 25 a day, and one in five send more than 100. Three-fourths of adult users send fewer than 25 instant messages a day."

See above: adults have more control over their lives and IMs are more impersonal and less fun than irl meeting or even phone calls.

-"Teen users (30 percent) are almost twice as likely as adults (17 percent) to say they can't imagine life without instant messaging."

My favorite idiot point. First off, who the hell are those adults?!? Think for a second: "can't imagine life?" Okay, teens likely have no point of memory where IMing did not exist, so that makes sense. Adults, on the other hand, likely lived through the internet transition (though that becomes less likely below ~25) at an age where they have distinct before and after memories. Hell most adults remember when using a cell phone made you look like a jackass (mostly because you were holding a brick to your ear and nuking your brain).

-"When keeping up with a friend who is far away, teens are most likely to use instant messaging, while adults turn first to e-mail."

Back to point one. Adults are less likely to have success w/friends through IM...unless they set it up in advance with, say, an e-mail.

-"About a fifth of teen IM users have used IM to ask for or accept a date. Almost that many, 16 percent, have used it to break up with someone."

They also have their friend ask her friend if she maybe likes him. Yes, teen dating is obviously something to compare with adults.

Idiots. Complete and total idiots.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Everest

I have watched and read too much about Mt. Everest and the various expeditions. I'll admit a bizarre fascination with the people who chose to ascend that particular mound of earth. I don't really get it, though. One of the last specials (Disc channel?) I saw had one group with a mess of variously disabled folks. There have been lots of stories about people summiting Everest who were blind/asthmatic/limbless/whatever, and there is always accompaniment to the tune of "(one) can accomplish anything if they put their mind to it, as I have proven by making it to the top of Everest despite (some disability/health issue)." It really is bullshit. Fact is, in most of those cases it is far more likely to be technology and other people who have made the feat possible. In the end the ability to climb Everest is dictated by free time and money. That's it. If you have the cash behind you to support training and cover the cost of the expedition, then you, too can climb to the top of the world. That's it. People who fail were insufficiently prepared. Knowing that it is money (and free time, but really, they're related) and not "the will of the human spirit" that gets people up and (more importantly) down the icy rock really takes something away from the folks that do it. Everest specials are kind of like NASCAR on Discovery, you wait to see if someone vomits blood or dies or some other horrible thing. Plenty of people have succeeded in summiting. It's only interesting now if they fail.

Although, I would love to see a quadriplegic ascend as some Sherpa's backpack, and cheer their triumph of being able to breathe at great elevations...with supplemental oxygen...but that is probably insensitive of me.

Friday, December 08, 2006

When a group is too smart.

Google too smart? There is such a thing as being "too smart for your own good," and it can cause problems in several areas. One of those areas pointed out in the Google article is that smart (talented) people don't like playing second fiddle. It can lead to resentment, poor work ethic, and in extreme cases, active sabotaging of others' work. There is also an aspect of "my idea, my credit" which can poison relations. Bosses get credit for their underlings' work, even if those underlings get credit themselves, it is, at best, shared. Also there is a sense of not liking another's idea and not respecting it...especially if it is the boss's idea. As much as this may be an issue for Google, it is definitely an issue in academics.

From before, academic groups have graduate students, post-docs and a principle investigator. That is a whole lot of education and brain power in a small group. When there is functional flow of information and sharing of ideas and mutual respect things are copacetic. When there is a breakdown it can be a disaster. Intellectual property theft, accusations of dishonesty, and career debilitating working conditions can all result. Most of the time, differences of opinion are just that and can be worked out. Sometimes, however, those differences become ingrained as "right" and "wrong" and very little can be done to break them. For the most part, professors understand that there is little absolute in life, save that absolutes are wrong. Most post-docs and grad students realize that they have far less experience and expertise in the field and differing to those with more is wise.

The reason that academic research groups, by and large, function as well as they do is the transient nature of all group members save one. So long as the students and post-docs are (or feel like they are) learning, there is value in the group and there is meaning to working. This is further coupled with the knowledge of an exit. Knowing that there is an end, that it is not really too far away, and having specific "things to do" that get you there, allow for any disgruntlement to be suppressed. Again, this doesn't always work out, but by and large it does. When it does not, it is most likely because one of these things has been compromised. Not seeing the end can cause other stresses to break and those previously mentioned problems to arise.

In the "real world" there may not be a fix. The fact is that any group must have leaders and followers; there can only be one "smartest person in the room," and sometimes there are absolutes, especially when the question is posed as: "Which of these is better (best)?"

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Let's All Take Up Smoking

Yea, yea, it's bad for you. It can kill you (and will if you smoke and live long enough). So are a lot of things. It is bad for others around you--primarily as an inconvenience. Actually the biggest reason I see not to smoke is because of the dismissive-of-human-life huge tobacco companies. Aside from that, however, look at the benefits. Smoking is a conversation starter (from asking for a light to being asked to do it elsewhere). Smoking curbs appetites, helping the disgustingly overweight USofA to drop a few and keep 'em off--hell, we're probably all fat because we decided to get so healthy by not smoking. Low levels of nicotine potentially help to keep the mind more acute with age. It will piss off those damn hippies (unless it's cannabis you've sparked). And it provides a necessary source of tax revenue to city and state governments that have become increasingly wary of taxing anything that resembles "the wealthy," and we all know that cigarettes are the tobacco choice of the poor and working classes.

This post is the result of this article on a smoking ban in the Virgin Islands which includes a ban w/in 50' of a doorway or window to an enclosed public space. I understand non-smokers not wanting to be around smokers, and I can even agree with keeping kid friendly areas smoke free, but I don't think that government should dictate where people can and cannot smoke except for within government buildings (and airplanes), and I do realize that the British Virgin Islands are not US territory, but Cal, NY, Chicago and many more here have enacted similar measures. If I owned a bar/restaurant/etc. and wanted to allow smoking then I do not understand why government thinks that it can tell me "no." It is not their place. People who don't want to be around smokers: don't come and don't apply for jobs. It can kill you, sure, but so can cheese and bacon, and so can beer wine and liquor, and so can biking to and from work, and so can running a marathon... Point is, I see no reason to demonize people who smoke or cast them to the fringes of society, especially since, from personal experience, they are much friendlier people.

Tobacco companies on the other hand...

Monday, November 27, 2006

NIH & NSF

So I mentioned a few posts back a promise that was made in the '90s to double the federal funding for fundamental scientific research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) was first. The number and sizes of NIH grants jumped, and research boomed. The National Science Foundation (NSF) was supposed to be next. Unfortunately congress decided that decrying and impeaching one president for getting a blowjob, and then hopping in bed with another to cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans and large investors and to wage a war against a country that had not attacked us were more important than funding science (or providing troops with armor, or taking care of wounded veterans or...).

Since the NIH windfall a large number of researchers have applied for funding. At first it was a party that everyone was invited to. A good scientist with a good idea could get themselves a good grant. Anyone who could modify their research or phrase it in a way that would imply a health related aspect did. But that switching has made things tighter. Many (most) of these research switchers came from chemistry. Biologists and Medical researchers were already primarily funded by NIH, and physics researchers can't really retask too easily, but chemists, being a mixture from more pure physical to more pure biology, got money from both. There were a few problems that resulted. First is that bio and med people started having to compete with more chemists for funding (which did not keep doubling). This has led to some researchers having a harder time getting funding, keeping students, getting tenure, etc. The number of chemists has actually grown quickly in that time because many chemistry departments have expanded as a result of the increase in the NIH budget, and they have looked for more bio-leaning chemists (even when looking for analytical/organic/inorganic positions).

Then there was the fellowships issue. NSF used to provide post doctoral fellowships for chemists. Now they do not (they still provide graduate chem fellowships). Now any chemistry post doc who wants a fellowship must either make him/her self a health researcher or a materials scientist. Those who are neither get stuck in a middle ground where they try to be one or the other or both, but can not.

Now, we've just about swung into a (distorted) equilibrium again. Grants are hard to come by for everyone, and more fellowship applicants have not gotten their money (cutoff scores have dropped). However, and this is important, fundamental research is very bio-heavy right now, and that is not really good.

Health research is something that always gets lots of public support. It also gets lots of private funding from various non-profits and corporations. Fundamental, physical science gets less so. Not that people think it is unimportant or that there is no private funding (lots of tech companies invest heavily in their own as well as others' research). Both physics-leaning and bio-leaning research is important, and to push on one side only will short change the other. There are some amazing possibilities coming out of NIH funded research, but there is so much that is not understood on a basic level that requires better understanding of the physical nature of the various molecules and interactions. Moreover, certain research, like energy, lies almost entirely outside the realm of NIH funding, especially since the fundamental studies that lead to improvements are seldom packaged as "energy" research (electrochem, spectroscopy, materials, ...).

I personally think that NSF should have had its budget increase first, because the NIH one would have been easier to push through amid political bickering. I also think that, within the next five years the NSF will get its due and I will (hopefully) already be in the door, making it easier for me to go bigger upon renewal.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Academic Research Laboratories

They are funny places. There is no standard for how they are run and what works for one person could easily be considered awful to another. That said, there are a few generalities for how things will work.

PI: The principle investigator is (usually) the professor in charge of the lab. He/she can be identified on journal articles as being an author to whom correspondence should be addressed (typically named last). The PI is the idea person. PI's, of course, do lots else: teach (generally), write papers, write grant proposals, give seminars/lectures, sit on committees (for doctoral students), and generally guide the direction of the lab. Typically these all go hand in hand and the best PIs are good at all of them. Universities tend to care about grants first and teaching a distant second (at smaller schools, not so much).

Grad students: Graduate students are the backbone of the lab. They know the techniques, who/where to go (to). They are the experts within a lab. They are there longer, and generally have at least one year of training before anything is really expected of them. They may take time to find what they like doing best, and they may drift through several projects, but they are where the work comes from.

Post-docs: Post doctoral associates are a bit of an oddity. Their education makes them senior, and they are typically experts in a field, but they are not (usually) the most capable lab members. This is not because they are poor technicians or that they can't learn, but because that is seldom their focus. Post-docs are stuck in between PI and grad student. Under the best of conditions a post-doc will come into a project that has others working on it and will provide some new idea/ability. Maybe they will have better ideas on how to analyze a molecule/material. Maybe they will know a technique that is well suited to a problem. Maybe they will have a background that makes them better able to judge a technique and determine what should be done to improve it. Utilizing a post-doc's strengths is, in large part, the responsibility of the PI. Failure to understand what those strengths are, is the fault of the post-doc.

Obviously post-docs are problematic. But even more so than was mentioned. In chemistry most post-docs are around for two years, three tops. They are often interested in becoming PIs on their own at other universities and have to spend a large amount of time preparing for that (research proposals, teaching philosophy, grant searching, ...). This also means, however, that they have research goals which they wish to pursue independently. This creates problems. In graduate school, much of the time a student spends thinking about research, they are thinking about their research in the lab. A post-doc spends some portion of that time thinking about their potential future research. The time frame for applying means that a PI is not likely to get nearly as much dedication from a post-doc as a grad student (this is financially sort of fair as post-docs are often cheaper than grad students because of the no tuition thing). Post-docs that come into a situation in which they are expected to pursue research largely independently are not in a good spot. Things become worse if the research (techniques, background, etc.) is fairly new to them, i.e. not what they did as grad students.

In fact the primary motivation for productivity as a post-doc is that it is helpful/necessary to get that next job. In the face of things not going well: bad results, highly tuned techniques, little in the way of bench assistance (provided or offered), motivation ebbs. ...I would say that the primary motivation should be learning, but I've been told that I'm somewhat of an idealist in this regard and that universities prefer lock-step productivity to idealistic intellectualism (ignoring the fact that it is the latter that provides society with its greatest breakthroughs and achievements).

Friday, November 17, 2006

Banking

I mentioned before that banks are evil. That position still holds, and for the same reasons (the Washington Mutual commercials really piss me off), but the Nobel peace prize this year went to Muhammad Yunus, who was on the Daily Show last night, "for their efforts to create economic and social development from below." I like this guy. A whole bunch. Now, I'm paraphrasing but one of the first things he said was that in wealthy countries (US) you need to have something to get a loan. If you want to borrow $10000, then you need to: give the bank $10000, give the bank something worth at least $10000 or pay credit card interest or worse. This is not something that makes sense, unless you are a bank owner and want to make bucketloads of money for doing next to nothing. If you want people to have some sort of upward mobility or for people to get out of debt and be able to live decent (meaning able to provide food and shelter) lives, then this is backwards.

Dr. Yunus' bank provides loans for only a few tens to hundreds of dollars to people with very little (including beggars). They do get their money back, and people move upward. This will never, ever, ever happen in this country. There is no motivation (especially from GOP types who promote their "moral values") to do something that will help people without providing a profit, but imagine that there was. Someone homeless, who is panhandling on the city streets could go into a bank and get a loan for $100, which that person could use to get some clean clothes and a cheap hotel room where they could clean up, and embark for job interviews. (You may not be aware, but ragged, smelly people have trouble finding employment...even at McDonald's.)

Now, here's the rub. Is that true in this country? I would like to say "yes," but I really don't know. Quite a few people have entered this country illegally and they seem to be getting their share of employment despite incurring heavy debt to get here and to get fake documents (more to bring family), and despite speaking little to no english, so is that homeless man who wants change I don't have really unable to get a job? I don't know, but I suspect the answer is yes. Anti-wellfare/unemployment types would say "no" but I suspect the ability to get a job is not something as easy as "can you get cleaned up?" and "can you use a shovel?" Of course this comes back to whether giving out $100 loans would help. Somehow, I really do not think it would much. Some people, sure, but not all, and maybe not most. Part of this is because $100 really does not get you much in this country, but part of it is because people are probably not unemployed and homeless for such easy-to-solve reasons.

Speaker Pelosi

I wonder if there would be as much gossip style reporting about Speaker elect Pelosi if her first name was Nathan. There is talk of personal vendettas and cat fights and it seems to me that there is far more of that on the other side of the aisle. Executive employees who stepped out of line w/ Commander Codpiece's dictums would find themselves on the outside looking in. Senate minority leadership was a 25-24 vote in favor of the borderline racist Trent Lott, who was supported by McCain (who has spent the past 2+ years destroying his credibility among moderates by planting his nose firmly in dubbya's derrière and pleading for GOP base support).

Pelosi may be great and she may be a miserable failure, but her supporting someone who will agree with her over someone who will not is hardly surprising and Murtha's loss there isn't really, either. If this congress can not take action starting in January, then, maybe, there can be discussion regarding how fit she is for the job. Until and unless, shut it. There are issues this lame duck president and congress want to deal with in the last session, and there are more that the Dems want to deal with come January. I don't care if Nancy holds grudges and uses personal grievances to dictate her policy. I just care if she can be effective, and there is no real indicator yet that she can not, unless you are sexist of course.

Friday, November 10, 2006

New congress!

There are all sorts of reasons to be happy about this, but I am really excited about 2: education, and civil liberties/personal freedoms. I put research funding under education, otherwise it would be on the list too. There are more, of course, and there are selfish reasons for my choices.

Like one of the things that I am personally hoping for is for congress to make good on a promise back in the 90's to double funding for fundamental sciences. The NIH got it money, but the NSF did not. I think that quite a few problems have come out of that discrepancy, and straightening it out will lead to another boom in technological advances. (Things really have slowed up over the past ~10 years.) I may come back to this.

In an extension of the personal freedoms thing I also have a hope that they will be able to stop corporate profiling of consumers. I hate the notion that every (credit/debit card) purchase I make is tracked and used against me somehow, but I really like using plastic and shopping/paying bills online. Republicans have made heavy use of such corporate machinery to target voters with specific issue mailers and the like. It's more than a little creepy.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Death Penalty

I am opposed to the death penalty. It is not fairly implemented (state to state, rich vs poor, ...). It is not really sufficiently punative--a criminal who does not understand the wrong of his/her actions is always getting off easy. Mostly it dehumanizes the punishers: the prosecution, victims families, excecutioner, etc. While I am opposed to it, however, I think arguments like this are a total sham. We can kill people, but potentially causing them pain is wrong? Fat people have a greater right to stayed executions than the skinny? Unadulterated bullshit. If anyone wants to argue against the death penalty, then go for it, but this pussyfooted crap is sickening. Most people would probably rather be beaten than killed, even if it were to result in permanent damage (loss of limb, disfigurement) but we can't do that. Breaking someone's leg is cruel and unusual but killing them is peachy. It is a hypocritcal double standard.

As much as I am opposed to the death penalty I would support punishment that would be considered cruel and unusual. Criminals should spend every waking hour with chatising words (recorded) assaulting them. The recording should cover 12 hrs of total material and should be changed (volume, tone, etc) on a daily or weekly basis so that it does not become background. Criminals who show no remorse should be forced to do so by such means or others. No need for sleep depravation or torture, in fact the opposite. "These people died while you live in relative comfort in this cell." Pain and fear are not restorative tools. The do not breed truly sorry individuals. Guilt, illicited through psychological tools, on the other hand, can be devastating. Of course that would be wrong, so just kill 'em instead, but make sure it doesn't hurt.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Joke

Some engineering students were shooting the bull in the dorm one night, and began to talk about the nature of God. They all agreed immediately that God was an engineer, but what kind?
One said, "God is a structural engineer. Look at the human body, with its skeletal system and circulatory system -- pure design perfection."

The second said, "Ah, but what runs this human body? The brain! The nervous system! God is an electrical/chemical engineer!"

The third one, quiet till then, said, "Yes, but who but a civil engineer runs a waste disposal system through a recreational area?"

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Phone Interviews

I just had one. I will say that I do not particularly care for them. I much prefer in person meetings/talks/interviews. Over the phone timing is more awkward, interruptions can occur more readily. I also feel compelled to say things and continue and often feel afterward as though the conversation, on my part, was forced. Moreover, not actually seeing the people interviewing you, makes it harder to get a feeling for how things are going or went, which leads to searching for flubs and mistakes, of which you will always find/remember many. In addition I have to concentrate much harder on what is being said, and really work to not get distracted. The amount of effort that this takes me is phenomenal, and that is when I am very interested in the goings on of the phone call, as I was for this interview. In this case I was additionally thrown off by the fact that I forgot about the one hour time difference and the call came an hour earlier than I expected it. I didn't have anything to drink and my mouth went dry over the course of the interview. That only provided me with further distraction. I'll find out how it went for sure in a few days.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Banning Tag?!?

Holy shit. I know there are stupid rules due to fear of lawsuits, but this one really burns me up. Actually, it wouldn't be so bad, and I would probably simply consider it funny sad, except for this:

"Another Willett parent, Celeste D'Elia, said her son feels safer because of the rule. 'I've witnessed enough near collisions,' she said."

First off: her son feels safer? Is he a loser or are the other kids in his school little shits? There were myriad tag style games when I was in grade school and I remember not everyone playing. Hell, I don't think that I played all the time. It went something like this: "Hey, ____, do you want to play tag?" "Not really." "Okay, hey, (someone else), do you..." Sometimes tag was not played. Kids that didn't play were not picked on and ridiculed, well, not for that anyway, kids can be nasty. If any child feels threatened by tag at recess then either they have been raised horribly, or there is zero teacher supervision and a bunch of mini-ass holes.

Second, and this provides us with the likely correct solution to the last statement: she has witnessed enough near collisions? Are you kidding me? What the hell does that even mean? Is this woman so rediculously overprotective that the notion of two kids running into each other is this terrifying? Wait, don't answer that, I already know and the response is "she shouldn't be breeding." They're kids; they play; sometimes they get hurt. So what? It's people like this with absolutely zero sense of appropriate response/risk/fear that allows zealots to strip away our rights in the name of safety.

The sad thing is that it was likely the best decision for the school. If crazy woman's terrified son had ended up with a broken arm/sprained ankle/bruised ego then she would go and sue the district for tens or hundereds of thousands, forcing the schools to decide between heat and books. Also I feel sorry for the boy. His mother probably also keeps the home antiseptically clean, which will induce him to have severe allergies and asthma in the future if not already.

Final note to parents out there: overprotection of your children is counterproductive. It is the freedom to make mistakes, including those which can lead to injury/sickness/embarassment that help us to grow and learn. A 13 year old who learned by five that cuts, scrapes, and bruises hurt is less likely to inflict such injuries on others (and by 13 those injuries could be far more severe). The more insulated the less empathy and the less humane the person.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Foley

I think that Dan Savage (of Savage Love, not to be confused w/ Michael Savage) has the best commentary on the Foley scandal, so I won't say much.

It isn't that he (Foley) is gay, or that he is a pedophile, or that he did anything illegal. It is simply that, because he is a Republican, everything is getting downplayed. Clinton got a consentual hummer from a leagal (of age) woman. It was stupid, immoral, deceitful, whatever other things you want to call it. It stalled congress, days of testimony, senators and representatives stood on their soapboxes to decry the moral depravity of the President. There was an impeachment. With Foley we get told they were inappropriate e-mails and let's move on. I got no love for many Republicans' draconian notions of sex, but I can deal with it if they have the character to be honest and consistent. They have not. The hypocrytical behavior that they exhibit is beyond immoral. This is why they have to go. It isn't that there are no good Republicans, it's just that they are not running the show in DC. Party does not come before country, state or district. Ever.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

School Violence II

The school violence all over the news is being brought back to guns (more slowly, probably because we have a "kill 'em all" cowboy gun slinger as president...but he is sucha a good Christian). Guns are an issue in this country thanks to that pesky second ammendment, but what is the solution?

I've never been a big fan of guns, not real ones anyway. I do see the appeal, though. I also don't have any issue with hunting. If I lived in a more rural area I would likely own a couple guns and shoot things for food. Beyond hunting rifles and shotguns, however, most firearms are designed for killing other people. That is also how they are used. I have no problem with an outright ban on every firearm except for a handful that could be protected as hunting or historic weapons. Firing ranges, police and a few others could still get licences for handguns, with special id tags to keep them from working for other than their designated purpose (this is not hard). However, in an odd twist, I do not think that there should be nearly the regulation of hunting firearms that there is now.

Unlike driving, which is a privilege, owing a firearm is a Constitutionally granted right. Now I do think that, unlike the Geneva convention, the second ammendment really is quaint. A free standing militia is not necessary for the security of this country, actually it seems the opposite is true, as it was a militia man who gave us the Oklahoma City bombing. Militias were meant as a guard against government run amok (McVeigh felt ours had and needed to be forcibly stopped), but even the Michigan milita would stand little chance against the US army and state troopers and local police. But in the absense of the repeal of the second ammendment, there should not be as much regulation on firearms sales. No felons, sure, but nothing beyond a quick background check. No registering serial numbers, no implanting chips, no tracking gun purches/purchacers.

Of course I also think that gun crimes should be severly punished while drug crimes should not. Gun criminals have abused their Constitutional right. They are un-American. Now what was I saying about forgiveness?

School Violence I

School violence has decreased dramatically over the past 20-30 yrs. It's true, I'm not going to get the links, though you should feel free. Some of that is related to metal detectors and drug sniffing dogs and strict policies regarding weapons and guests/visitors. Some of it is PC thuggery. Some of it is a more accepting society and some of it is detachment. There are probably other reasons, and those reasons can be discussed ad nauseam, so I won't; I'll just say that schools are "safer" than they were in the 80's, despite perception.

People feel that they are more dangerous. Steven Colbert tells us that this means they are more dangerous. It's not true, of course, but it is funny. The main reason people feel this way is likely the intense media and internet coverage. In 1986 if some 14 yr old shot a 15 yr old over drugs in a central Phily school, chances are good that no one outside of the metro area would have even heard about it. Not true today. While that incident would get less coverage than the Amish schoolhouse or other sleepy community shootings, for reasons ranging from racism to indifference, to expectations, it would still be on CNN and on internet news sites within the hour. It plays into this notion that school violence is getting out of hand. It would run. People would think schools are becomming more violent. Further news stories that seem to verify this imaginary trend would be over-reported. The same thing happened after Columbine for several years and then died off. It will die off again, but not for a while, and people's attitude will linger much longer.

Random acts of violence will always occur. It is impossible to provide 100% security. As the total amount of crime goes down, the coverage of the remaining crimes will increase (news needs to fill the void, and happy news doesn't keep viewers tuned in). Detailed coverage of a single crime is at least as effective as superficial coverage of many crimes in inciting fear. (If you know about the warnings and motivations you are more likely to see danger around you, whereas if you just hear about a bunch of killings, you are more inclined to think that it can't happen to you.) Fear only makes life more painful and difficult. We should see hope. We should forgive.

Forgiveness is a strange notion to most Americans, despite our purported religious zeal. It has been mentioned several times in the Amish story, and every time it is discussed the surprise is tangible. Why? It should not be. We have become so accustomed to revenge and punishment that we see the lack of those ideas as strange. Politicians who proclaim their Christian values so often call for murder and death that true Christian ideals seem foreign to us. Sure a Buddhist would forgive, but a Christian. That is not their way (at least not in this country). That is a disgusting thought, but it is true. It is borne out every day when king W talks. He is angry, vengeful and hate filled. His supposed Christianity is well known. Forgiveness must be un-Christian. I wonder about my depression.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Big Brother is Watching You

United States Dept of the Interior report states employees spend thousands of hours a week at various recreational sites. Now I think that porn and gambling are anathema in the workplace, but for reasons of viruses, worms, bandwidth hogging and sexual harassment, but only 4700 of the million plus suspect log entries were for those purposes. The thousands of hours/week and million plus logs also covered 7700 employees. This likely constitutes less time than is spent in the lavatories and is hardly a danger to "productivity."

It just sounds bad. That's it, though. It is measureable, people can see facts, and no one thinks spending time gambling at work is really ethical...at least in principle. The real fact is that productivity and time wasting are often very difficult to measure. If you have a union or government job, then that job often has a very detailed description, and many times you are not even allowed to do "work" that is not part of that description. This means that if an efficient employee finishes all of their work for the day by 10:00 a.m. then they cannot do any more work that day. They also can't go home. This is true to varying degrees in varying jobs. There are limits to what can be accomplished in a day, both for time constraints and for "availibility" reasons. We tend to frown more upon people who leave work early, even though those people may be going to accomplish something meaningful elsewhere, than we do upon those who "burn the candle at both ends" even if they really are not actually doing more work.

I am really back and forth on whether companies should monitor thier employees' internet usage. I don't like the idea for the reasons above, but it really can be a time sink. Of course multi-tasking means that it would be difficult to prove in either case. Personal freedoms may be one reason that I am interested in academics. It is not that they don't demand productivity/results, because they do, but they don't so much look over your shoulder 24-7...well at least not after you get tenure.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

US Science Education

Apparently science education in the U.S. lags behind other nations. Gee. I wonder why. Most likely because we have a very anti science group of folks ruling the halls of power in D.C. Not that I'm bitter...

Really, though, the article is not good. First off is for the obvious: we are not doing science education very well here, okay, but there are no solutions presented.

The article itself, however, is problematic. It starts with the comment that "faults science curricula for assuming children are simplistic thinkers." While this is true, to a certain extent, the statement should really be turned around. Science curricula actually assume that the teachers are not sufficiently well educated in sciences to teach it well. This sounds somewhat nasty, but keep in mind that in many cases the first science education a child receives is from a teacher whose major was education (possibly with an emphasis) and who is qualified to teach several different subjects. There is less specializaiton in elementary and middle school, and by the time students reach high school they already have been taught to have science presented in a specific way. There are educators who are working to change this, but it is not so simple a process as just changing the science curricula. Guidelines provided by science groups like NAS (national acadamy of sciences) are content (e.g. a student should know the parts and functions of a cell) not methods and many different curricula could get the info across.

Nevermind that, though, because it isn't new, and scientists, in particular, are aware of it, if only through the poor understanding presented by friends, family, politicians, press, etc. The problem with the article is related to the prase "simplistic thinkers" opens the door for all of the psuedo science crackpots to push (including the Creationist/ID wackjobs). Science can become very complicated, very quickly, and psuedo-science advocates take advantage of that. The vast amount of accumulated scientific knowledge becomes a double edged sword because no one person can be sufficiently advanced to be an expert in every one of the things that are covered in science from K-12. Because of that the psuedo-sci supporters can often win "debates," even if they out and out lie.

Since it is a popular front, take, for example, evolution. Evolution is taught in biology, but the evidence for evolution comes from genetics, geology, species diversity, human history, the fossil record, anatomy, and biochemistry, basically many fields covering all of the physical sciences. Most biology teachers understand very basic notions related to some of the genetics, some of the fossil record, some of the diversity, the radio dating aspects of geology and anatomical aspects like vestigal appendiges (note that most bio majors will not have a significantly more advanced understanding). An anti-evolution puppet would not trash all of the science, but would pick one or two fairly specific aspects to take apart, typically ones that are not directly related to biology. A sufficiently knowledgeable scientist would decimate such attacks, but few and far between is the elementary/middle/high school teacher that could do so.

Science education is lacking in the U.S., to be sure, but the directions offered to "fix" science education are vague, misleading, and open to attack from those who seek to make science what they want it to be rather than what it is. The key to improving science education is not to focus on what science has discovered, but rather what science is, and using discoveries, theories, and changes in perception through history as examples.

Liquid Bomb Issues

The FAA is relaxing the rediculously asinine standards on bringing liquids and gels onto airplanes...finally. For those of you who haven't paid attention, the rule was no liquids or gels could be taken through security, nor could those purchased after going through security be brought onto planes. This was stupid on so many levels that I can't possibly address them all. I'll try though...

First off, the after security thing (which is what is being relaxed). Is the FAA suggesting that you can purchase explosive liquids in airports after passing through security?!? Why the hell isn't that a security issue?!? I was very worried (one might say "terrified") on my last flight because there is a Ben & Jerrys' in Midway and I saw people purchase ice cream and I knew they were going to be getting on airplanes, and I didn't know if the airport employees realized that ice cream can be easily converted to a liquid by holding it for an extended period of time. The horror of melted ice cream that could easily conceal high levels of triglyserides that could, conceivably, cause an explosion of the waistline of the consummer, is not one that leaves after a night or two of restless slumber. (Of course the real problem is the ubiquitous airport Starbucks *shudder*.)

Second, and probably the bigger problem: the "advanced plot" that the purported terrorists were going to use would not have worked. There are lots of available explainations (like this one) but there are two key issues that, as a chemist, I feel compelled to share. One is that highly explosive compounds can be solids, or liquids, or gasses. Making you trash that water bottle, leave the shampoo, or drain your coffee cup is no more reasonable (from a safety standpoint) than making you hand over your pants, or trash your cell phone. At least pantsless, cellphoneless people on airplanes would cause amusing ackward conversation..."so, um, why do they call it a 'thong' anyway? I mean, nice ass. No, wait, um, I mean, oh, gosh it's breezy..." The other issue is that precursors to explosives are not explosives. Trying to create an explosive on an aircraft, is not just implausable, it is virtually impossible. Not that it wouldn't be dangerous, but it would be on par with someone setting fire to a sky mall catalogue (matches are allowed). The building I work in had a acetone-piranha explosion, which is basically what these wannabe suicide bombers would have (at best) created...it didn't even destroy the fume hood it was in, and it was likely quite a bit bigger than anything these terrorists could have caused.

A final point is that terrorists goal is not to kill us all and destroy our country; they cannot, not even close. Their goal is to scare us so much that we change our way of life. They are succeeding. Every time the FAA or some other government agency enacts some rediculous rule to counter an overblown or imaginary threat, the terrorists win. Every time some politician makes noise about terrorism, telling us how dangerous they are, terrifying us, the terrorists win. Every time they try and take away our rights to preserve our "security," the terrorists win. Every time we let them without speaking out or fighting back, the terrorists win.

I want my coffee back. It's cheaper and tastier. Damnit.

"Next Blog"

I like the "next blog" feature at the top of this and most other blogspot blogs, I've only found a handful of ones that I would continue to visit, but I suppose this one would be no exception to most people. Lots of people post photos, some of them good, many slices of life, occasionally fun to read. For most people this is an online diary. Others can read it, but that doesn't really seem to be the point. There are also a fair amount of venting, bitching sites. In one in particular (which I won't link to, because I would feel, I don't know, mean) the author repeatedly mentioned his/her gluten allergy (probably coeliac disease), and I couldn't help but have no sympathy, I'm not sure why because it seems it would be tough, but I just kept thinking how this person would have died as a baby a couple centuries back.

Occasionally I come across a good WTF site or post or thing. That happened today too. The blog site is about a county beauty pagent in MO (Missouri, or Misery, or Mizura...). Mostly no big deal, but there is the little sub-title on the banner which concludes, "...this blog will be a forum for women to be empowered, promoted and respected." I know that beauty pagent people love to spout this crap off about how pagents are about female empowerment. It is total horseshit, but it makes them feel better about themselves. It is especially true of the kiddie ones which are beyond creepy. Oh, well, enough of that.

For some pretty things to look at go here (pics, mostly landscape).

Monday, September 25, 2006

Why..

Why the hell is this CNN.com frontpage news? Someone please explain.

Backlog

I have one. Written and started posts that aren't posted yet. They'll come up eventually...not that many people read this regularly enough to really notice. There are several things I would like to address today, but don't have time for. Oh, well.

...hmm, I don't have too many posts like this. Weird.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Info on some Republican Candidates

I'm not sure anyone reading this will recognize it for what it is. Nor do I care. Don't bother clicking the links if you aren't interested. (The date listed is meaningless.)

--AZ-Sen: Jon Kyl
--AZ-01: Rick Renzi
--AZ-05: J.D. Hayworth
--CA-04: John Doolittle
--CA-11: Richard Pombo
--CA-50: Brian Bilbray
--CO-04: Marilyn Musgrave
--CO-05: Doug Lamborn
--CO-07: Rick O'Donnell
--CT-04: Christopher Shays
--FL-13: Vernon Buchanan
--FL-16: Joe Negron
--FL-22: Clay Shaw
--ID-01: Bill Sali
--IL-06: Peter Roskam
--IL-10: Mark Kirk
--IL-14: Dennis Hastert
--IN-02: Chris Chocola
--IN-08: John Hostettler
--IA-01: Mike Whalen
--KS-02: Jim Ryun
--KY-03: Anne Northup
--KY-04: Geoff Davis
--MD-Sen: Michael Steele
--MN-01: Gil Gutknecht
--MN-06: Michele Bachmann
--MO-Sen: Jim Talent
--MT-Sen: Conrad Burns
--NV-03: Jon Porter
--NH-02: Charlie Bass
--NJ-07: Mike Ferguson
--NM-01: Heather Wilson
--NY-03: Peter King
--NY-20: John Sweeney
--NY-26: Tom Reynolds
--NY-29: Randy Kuhl
--NC-08: Robin Hayes
--NC-11: Charles Taylor
--OH-01: Steve Chabot
--OH-02: Jean Schmidt
--OH-15: Deborah Pryce
--OH-18: Joy Padgett
--PA-04: Melissa Hart
--PA-07: Curt Weldon
--PA-08: Mike Fitzpatrick
--PA-10: Don Sherwood
--RI-Sen: Lincoln Chafee
--TN-Sen: Bob Corker
--VA-Sen: George Allen
--VA-10: Frank Wolf
--WA-Sen: Mike McGavick
--WA-08: Dave Reichert

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Pump Bomb

I got a kick out of this story. A guy going through airport security with his mother is asked about an item in his bag. The item is a penis pump, but to keep his mom from finding out, he says it is a bomb. That's funny. Of course he likely did lean over and wisper "pump," but as security heard "bomb" he is being charged. But what I really got a kick out of was at the end when he says about having a penis pump: " 'It's normal,' he said. 'Half of America they use it.' "

I suppose if you guage by spam that may be true, but half?!? On the other hand maybe we should see this as increasing equality between the sexes: now both men and women feel they need to improve thier body to be considered worthwhile. Heaven forbid people actually be comfortable with who they are...oh, well, I guess advertisers are happy anyway, and the manufacturers of penis pumps may have their new add: "Everyone is going to assume you have one anyway, so you might as well..."

Yare, Yare.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Best Government is...

Whatever works. Let's look at the general possibilities: Autocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy...rule of One, Few, or Many. Communism, Capitalism, and Socialism are economic terms, not government. Representative Democracy is what the U.S. Constitution outlines for our nation, though we are arguably a Plutocracy in practice (oligarchy with the few being the wealthy).

But nevermind that. What works best is what works. An absolute monarchy (autocracy) could be peachy if that monarch is very benevolent. Democracy can fail miserably if the under represented are persecuted to the point of revolt, or if various groups detest each other (kind of like in Iraq now). The quality of a government of any kind is a direct representation of the quality of the people that make up that government (in a democracy it is the quality of those in the majority). Yes, in general, more people involved means a fairer governing and turnover in elected officials means bad times are shorter, but the general notion that more people ruling is better really has more to do with the perceived nature of those who seek power, notably that they are not as likely to be decent folk. So statements about democracy being the best form of government are really just statements endorsing a statistical sampling of decency in human beings.

Friday, August 18, 2006

So That's Why

Many people don't like Democrats...

I live half a block from the lake in Chicago (Rogers Park, not swank) and the city beach at the end of my street is a common place for dogs and owners to hang out (mine and me included). A city provided trash can is there where dog waste accounts for approximately 90% of the trash. The trash can used to be a 55 gallon metal drum. It was recently replaced (probably 3 months ago, and, yes, this has been festering) by a lidded plastic bin of roughly equal size. I've a feeling that similar changes were made in parks throughout my little ward, if not across the city.

So, the city likely spent a fair chunk of cash to replace perfectly serviceable bins, that really didn't look too bad with ones that look like the park is a construction zone, and, moreover, are lidded, and primarily filled with dog shit. For those of you without functioning olfactory systems, scroll down to a different post, but for everyone else... If you take a foul smelling anything and seal it up, then the smell festers and gets worse, and every time you open the sealed vessel you are assaulted by the pungent odors. If, on the other hand, you leave smelly things open to the air then this doesn't happen. Science types are aware that this is due to anaerobic bacteria (which make up ~50% of the dry weight of feces...yours too) which release pungent smelling products when feeding. Exposure to air allows for aerobic bacteria, along with many critters (worms, flys, etc...) that are also aerobic in nature, to process the waste allowing it to be broken down more quickly and with less nasty resulting odors. This is also why compost piles need to be turned, or to be arranged so that they get good air flow through them (adding dry leaves). So the city spent a bunch of money to make things look (subjective) and smell (objective) worse. Wasteful spending, likely because the in-law of some alderman works for the company that makes the plastic bins. And people wonder why Americans think all politicians are corrupt.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Now They Get It

This just in (on the cover of Time magazine): top tier schools not all that important. This is actually semi-related to a post I've started and not gotten up yet about how pursuit of an academic career is, umm, challenging. While it was very true 50 years ago that if you wanted success in most fields which required college degrees, going to a premier university was a huge leg up, any more: not so much. Lots of reasons for that including the fact that more people (and more highly capable people) going to college, and more new jobs being created (particularly technology related).

Even when I was applying to college way back in 1994, things were changing. Of the (likely) brightest 10 people in my high school class, at least 5 (including the top 2-3, one of whom, I think nearly, won a Rhodes Scholarship ...memory bad, don't care) went to state schools, and none of the rest went to any large, famous university (mostly smaller colleges, with varying degrees of name recognition). The fact is that ability is rewarded in the private sector, particularly if you work in a technology field. Jargon-speek (4337-speek for management types) is also helpful for advancement and something that the school you went to won't really advance. Having a B.A. in English from Harvard may help a touch when applying for various (typically business) jobs, but once you are hired for the first time your education has done all it can. You need to learn new things, and work well (smarter or harder, or both if you are a lawyer) to move up. There are ceilings related to your terminal degree, field and luck, but not the name of the school on your diploma.

Friday, July 28, 2006

For God's Sake

Sometimes, I really hate people... Babytalk magazine had a cover which was a picture of a baby breast feeding. Insanely NOT sexual, and the breast was in profile and no nipple visable making it comprable exposure to what one sees at a beach or swimming pool. It got a reaction...

"One mother who didn't like the cover explains she was concerned about her 13-year-old son seeing it. 'I shredded it,' said Gayle Ash, of Belton, Texas, in a telephone interview. 'A breast is a breast -- it's a sexual thing. He didn't need to see that.' "

If she really believes that breast feeding is a sexual thing then she should probably have her children removed either for neglect or sexual abuse.

" 'Gross, I am sick of seeing a baby attached to a boob,' wrote Lauren, a mother of a 4-month-old. "

So you don't look in the mirror when you are holding your child? Oh, you mean "boob" as in "breast"...does that mean that you don't nurse or that you use your sense of touch to determine whether or not Jr. has latched on properly? Because vomiting on your nursing child seems like a bad thing.

" 'I just think it's one of those moments that should stay between a mother and her child.' "

Much like beatings and teaching racial epithets... What the hell is wrong with people and why can't the news people/groups indicate that those who complained are bat-shit crazy wingnut idealogues? It is breast feeding. Anyone who is excited by or offended by it has got some real problems, likely the result of a troubled childhood where there parents scared the piss out of them instilling in them the notions that looking at or exposing a breast would send them straight to hell or some such. If you don't like it, don't stare. I find women who wear too much make-up pretty gross, but, hey, if someone wants to walk around like that, she should never have to put up with my opinion or others like it, (irony warning) except from her father, who should tell her that she "looks like a whore."

On a related note CBS is appealing the FCC ruling from the Janet Jackson exposed issue. I hope they win, though not so we can have more breasts on television (there are plenty on the internet, for those who are so inclined), but so that I don't have to have my entertainment filtered by the draconian notions of morality as posited by the FCC and the wack jobs that agree with them.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Encyclopedia Dramatica

A Wiki-styled encyclopedia that is rather amusing. Probably don't want to browse it at work/school/church, but I would recommend going to public libraries and leaving an open browser set to the main page. Oh, yea, the link.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

War Creates Terrorists

This just in... While our gloriously inept leader has been telling us about fighting terrorists abroad so that we don't have to fight them here, and that Iraq was about eliminating terrorism, what many have suspected for some time has been documented: the Iraq was is creating terrorists, making it both costly to both nations and counter productive in terms of its stated goals.

That Crazy Zizu

Zidane is one hellofa soccer (football) player, but I didn't particularly like him even before the '06 World Cup. I thought the head butting incident was jackassery at its finest, even if his mother was called a terrorist whore (the popular theory among the French fans and Zizu apologists). Turns out there are more opinions than I had thought. Some of them quite amusing.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

multi-generation workforce

There has always been a generation gap in the workforce and differences of opinion and outlook between the older and younger generations, but it seems that the gap is wider than ever thanks to two different occurrences. The first is that people are working longer than before, which, combinded with the number of boomers means that the older generations are much larger than they have been before. The second is the way that technology has affected the workplace, which younger workers have taken to more quickly. As technology has improved the efficiency of the workplace, there has been a steady increase in the amount of free time that could be had. While, due to its absense, the older generations seem to see this as time for even more work to get done, the younger generations see this as time to spend with family and go on vacation. The older generations perceive the younger as lazy while the younger perceive the older as lifeless (anti-family, no fun hobbies, too little vacation).

I also believe that there is a third aspect at play here, and that is job/company loyalty. While people that were hired 20-50 years ago would likely spend their entire career with that same employer, people today tend to change jobs and move around quite a bit. This is something that is also, likely, technology driven, though in this case it is the increase in speed and volume of information that has shown many more opportunity than in the past. This short term notion of working has led to employees that are not as interested in what is best for the company because the results of a better company are long-term employee benefits and they may not be around to see them.

The fact is that notions of working smarter not harder rather than keeping a nose to the grindstone are far more apt today. Hard work still has benefits (especially among blue collar work, and certain, select professional jobs) but understanding the technology and better applying it can yield more productivity in less time leaving more time for relaxation and a happier employee. Time off is not bad. It allows one to refocus and calm down. It keeps disgruntled workers from begrudging every moment at work. I feel that getting work done, rather than spending time at work should be the measure of productivity. If one can accomplish in 30 hours what someone else requires 40 to do, then that one should not feel compelled to remain at work for those 10 extra hours. (Keeping in mind that what I do is more difficult to quantify, there really is no way around working full time+...at least not right now.)

The purpose of work is to enjoy life, for those that enjoy work (and everyone should) all the better, but there is life beyond that. There are roughly 112 hours of waking time in a week, when things like showering, eating, (commuting), are taken into account that leaves around 84 hours (12/day). To spend half of that time doing something, it seems that something should be the most important thing...should it be work?

Monday, July 10, 2006

Socialism is not Entirely Bad

I mentioned in my previous posts various ways the government can spend money better than citizens. Among those was welfare. Welfare is among the more popular government social programs for raging [republicans] to bash. The common outlet is to intone that people who live off welfare are lazy useless lumps who pump out babies and suck in your tax dollars (like these people are living high on the hog somehow). Well, what if I told you that welfare reduces crime? That makes it a national security issue. Oh, do you want the terrorists to win? No? Well, we had better do what we can to not raise them domestically then, hadn't we? Welfare is a good program. It does not reward the lazy, it simply grants them some measure of dignity (not much, though). Bashing the program sends a message of hatred of the less fortunate and is, frankly, very un-Christian.

Starting from that point, any government program that provides for need is generally good and is generally a "socialist" program. Extending beyond welfare to programs we do not but should have, socializing medical care is a good thing. It is cost effective because, unlike insurance companies, which are for profit (and must therefore spend money on things like advertising), the government does not have to turn a profit, so every tax dollar dedicated to medical coverage gets spent on--get this--medical bills! (Yea, yea, there are workers that need to be paid, but much of the infrastructure is already there, so there would be little additional expense.) Free market economies and capitalism are excellent for innovation and improving standards of living, but certain, specific institutions are inherently morally suspect, e.g. insurance and banking. These for profit endeavours provide almost nothing in the way of service to their customers, are virtual necessities to get by in this modern world, and are always among the top five (and usually top two or three) industries in the country in terms of profit margins. The government can do these things better. Though paying extra taxes, people (and companies) could actually save money if these were socialized. They won't be, but remember anytime you hear someone bitch about socialism (w.r.t. these things), they are either indoctrinated or they have ties to an industry that would be compromised...to your benefit.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Stupid People Should Run our Country

Or at least that is the idea I get from any one of many unbelievably idiotic statements made by (primarily) Republicans. These often come out in question form: "Can't you spend a dollar better than the government?" or "Can the government decide what is best for your kids better than you can?" (The answers are: no and yes.) The other, often times less overt, way that these statements come about is in relation to intellectual elites, and this is expressed when you see articles talking about how college professors are all liberals, or that liberals (or dems) are condescending when dealing with people who disagree with them, and think that opposed opinions are stupid or wrong.

Let's deal with the overt questions first: No, you can not spend a dollar better than the government can and taxes are a good thing. Don't believe me? Well your wrong, but I'll even tell you why: Military. Police. Food. Infrastructure. Social Security. Welfare (later post). Medicare. Education. Research... There is more, but this should give you a fair idea. All of these things are good. They require money, and you can NOT spend your dollar to get them better than the government. Yes, the government can decide what is best for your children better than you. I am not talking about specific congressmen and women, but the whole of government, relying on the advice of experts, which produces things like: education standards, movie/tv ratings, child safety warnings/standards for things like car seats and playground. Do I think they are entirely right? No, but I think that they do a fair lot better than an average citizen would. (Incedentally, I also think that choice is inviolable, and government needs, generally, to stay the hell out of the lives of most people, the question, however, was not "should" but "could.")

Generally speaking the government has better access (to professional opinions, specialists, international community, etc...) and is not in the business of profiting (no need for many expenses and cuts that drive corporate America) and is therefore much better able to deal with the needs of citizens than those citizens are individually. Even when corruption does invade, I don't think there will ever be the government equivalent of a $700 car with $2000 spinners driven by someone living on less than $17k/year who wears $80 jeans.

The latter sentiment is more troubling. If you were to ask groups of people at every level of education to answer a question, which group would you expect to, on average, answer the question correctly? Probably the most educated. If that is true for asking "a question" then it will also hold true for asking about politics.

I should say first that this is not about individual intellect or knowledge, as high school drop outs can count geniuses among their numbers and PhD's can be pretty stupid. It is about numbers and averages. Brighter people are more likely to pursue education further. That pursuit will often result in more formal education (more and higher degrees). That is to say that a PhD/MS/MD/JD/... does not make a person smarter, but smarter people will be more likely to earn those degrees. Even within higher degrees you will find general differences (e.g. MD's and JD's rely more heavily on memorization). In practice: brighter (more intelligent, whatever) individuals take more into consideration when making a decision, therefore that decision is more broadly applicable, and better informed; people with greater amounts of education are more likely to be brighter on average so the opinions and beliefs held by highly educated people are more likely to be well informed and, therefore, sounder.

Is that arrogant? Maybe. Is it true? Yes. Now, I don't think that government by intellectuals is a good thing, but to deride an opinion as being "intellectual" is one step away from saying "I am not capable of arguing because they are right, but I want you to dislike them and their opinion," and that is, hmm...well, stupid.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Gonzales on the Supreme Court

The United States' Attorney General has just commented on the Supreme Court's decision against Bush administration's dealing with the Gitmo prisoners or "enemy combatants." Now, I'm paraphrasing here but what he pretty much said is:

"Damn those constitution loving, US and world law enabling pussies for not understanding that everything that Holy George does is right. He is the president and should have the power to do whatever he wants too. That is what the Constitution should say, and I'm sure that if the founding fathers were here they would agree with me, of course if not then we would have to designate them 'enemy zombies' as there is no way they would be alive, and they would probably have to be shipped to Gitmo...er, I mean some other foreign prison that people know only vaguely about where their reanimated limbs would be removed and used as bludgeons for crushing their genetailia, but I'm going off on a bit of a tangent here. The real issue is that George Almighty has declared these people as enemy combatants and who does the Supreme Court of the United States of the Bush family think it is to disagree? What do they think that they are? The constitutionally created body whose job is to act as defender of the supreme law of the land as written in the Constitution? These are activist judges. They must go. Of course it's not like we plan 0n abiding by what they have said. I mean I did say, 'That path is still available to us. The president of the United States can continue to hold enemy combatants at Guantanamo.'"

So basically: he disagrees, says that it hampers their ability to deal with terrorism, then says that they are still going to do it? I love how this administration sees itself as being completely impervious to the law, US or world. It's like a dictator, but without the militant rebellion brewing. Actually, while people seem to love comparing them with Nazi's, I think that the Empire from the Star Wars movies is much more accurate: Came into power with fair support, gained a bunch in a protracted war, then pissed it all away while abusing/rewriting the law as they see it. I think Edwards would make a fair Luke, but Kerry was no Han Solo. Liberman is probably Darth: he was a good guy, but twisted by the war and now his goodness is buried beneath his Bush smooching visage... Hmm...

Thursday, June 29, 2006

This is Kinda Neat

A web site where teachers post lesson plans and helpful documents and the like and other teachers can get (purchase, mostly, but some are free) them for use in their own class rooms. I'm not so sure about the whole paying aspect (teachers, already at the bottom of the pay scale have to spend even more of their own money?), and the CNN article touts the ability for teachers to make extra money from this, but I suppose that getting the support for doing this as a free service could be a challenge (though ad revenue could maybe help).

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Higher Education

So this report says that higher education needs a bit of an overhaul. They are right and wrong. Is there wasted money? Sure. Are students learning less? Yes, actually. Will the government be able to recommend real change that will help? Oh, God no.

The wasted money issue is a tricky one, so I'll get back to it. The fact that students are learning less is not surprising, and the reason is that there are more students entering college (as a percentage) than ever before. More students means that the average student will be...less capable, intelligent, whatever. No, this is not because poorer people are less bright, but because college has become a default for the middle class, which is where most new and, therefore, most poor quality students come from.

Notions that all people are the same are complete bullshit. Some people are better than others at certain things, and that includes education/learning. When college becomes a default there will be more of the less capable type entering than before. When this happens several problems result: Schools need money to educate them. Schools need students to get money. Schools need to be desireable to get students. Schools need more money to become desirable. Desirable comes in several categories from social life, to academic quality.

All this leads to a horrible mess of spending money while trying to figure out what works best. Another problem is the way money is distributed within a university. More students in a program means more money for that program, but, aside from required courses, one of the best ways to get more students is to be seen as either a soft or a fun option. Soft means grade inflation and fun means less total work, but both mean less education and more money for the time spent in class. (Yes, there are exceptions; I'm talking in general terms.)

Factor in a much more common feeling (among students and parents) that cheating is not wrong, the fact that university students are adults (they don't have to learn what is presented to them if they don't want) and the difficulty of failing poorer students (it's a hassle that most professors do not want) and your result is spending more money per student to force more inept kids through some degree granting program (the most inept group--on average--is undergraduate business majors, followed by undeclared pre-meds). Can government make rules and regulations that will fix this? No, and that is because it all comes back to money. Universities, even those that recieve government funding, require tuition to make ends meet. If the various schools could be guaranteed full funding, then they could take all required measures to improve education, and would do so. Government dollars always come with a hitch, though, and most universities can see the stick tied to the carrot. The end however is simple: higher education is meant as an indicator of ability to learn so that newly hired employees are less risky in terms of their abilities. If a new employee turns out to be a dud, then they are shuffled aside or fired (this is not France). If a school repeatedly turns out duds then companies will stop hiring from that school and students will stop going there. All told the system is self correcting, it is just that the influx of students and the expense of educating them has not yet been balanced. It will happen. The government should just back the hell off until it does.

In the meantime, for all students: cheating is bad, there are stupid questions (and students), and a grade of "A" is not and should not be the result of effort or money, but of demonstrating understanding.

Friday, June 23, 2006

French Earth

The French have unveiled a project much like Google Earth. (They allow users to zoom in on satellite images of the planet--well, France for theirs.) As google's maps (including Earth) are not very high res when leaving this country and a few other spots on the planet this should be good, but when I heard about this I was reminded of the peculiar sense of French nationalism. This is a nation that has the Académie Française which, among other things is dedicated to Frenchifying--mostly English--words. The idea is that a word with a foreign origin (like, say, "email") being adopted by the French more or less as is will dilute the language and take away from the identity of the French people. Not that this is all that different from our congress naming English the national language or the like, but if "email" is going to lead to the downfall of your language, then it is probably already headed there.

Of course when they name it "La Terre Froogle" they will end up with a whole other problem of words costing them.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

World Cup

Congradulations to Ghana! I mean it. It would have been nice to see the US advance, but they have yet to play like they wanted to win...not even in thier gutty performance against Italy, where they played hard, won 50-50 balls and controlled the game, despite being down a man in the second half. Ghana, on the other hand, has been fun to watch.

The sad thing is that many people in this country will now ignore the rest of the Cup. That's really too bad, because it is about to get really exciting. I'm waiting to see England continue to play horribly and get beat up for it. I'm waiting to see Brazil pull Ronaldo from the starting line-up and give us the excitement we expect from their team. (note: Ronaldo scored 2 in the afternoon match...I still think he doesn't run enough.)

I have not been able to watch as much of the Copa as I'd like (I actually prefered the 3 a.m. starts in 2002 in Japan/Korea, when I could watch a whole game before leaving for lab), but there are more (relatively) weekend games during stage two, and I am ready for some futball.

Statistical Driving

A study was released showing that young (16) drivers with restrictions on driving (hours and number of people in the car) have fewer accidents--20% fewer in fact. I know I complained a bit about stats before, but here is another that lacks something...hmm, oh, I know, perspective. The comparison was between Oregon (strict laws) and Ontario (not so much) and OR teen drivers had 20% fewer crashes. Of course, not mentioned in the article, was whether that reduced the number of crashes because teen drivers were more careful, or because the rules mean that teen drivers drive fewer hours per day. Yes, a person can get into a car and drive 2 minutes and rear end someone, and someone can drive 2 hrs a day for years without ever being involved in an accident, and yes, overall, better drivers have fewer accidents, but the total amount of time will make a big difference, and if Ontario 16 year olds are driving 2-5 times more hours than in Oregon, then maybe the statistic indicates that teens in Ontario are better drivers.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Science: The Investigation of Bad Results

I really like science. The physical universe, from distance stars to the local fauna, is a fascinating thing. The way matter and energy interact, the way a handful of very simple phenomenon can create something as awesome as sensory perception, the way that singular unpredictable events when multiplied generate highly reproducable results, are all amazing to me. But what is the most amazing is how much science is from bad or inexplicable results (like this idea about bubbles in the bow shock of earth's magnetic field). One of my favorite Q&A's that can happen with laboratory students goes like this:

Student: "Was this supposed to happen?"
Teacher (regardless of what happened): "Yes."

Then there would be an explanation that whatever happens is always what is supposed to happen, but if it differs from what is expected then the understanding or practice was flawed. (In the case of lab experiments it would be the latter.) I'm sure this pisses students off, but it is truly profound. It is also a mainstay of scientific exploration. If systems always behaved as we expected them to then there would be no need to experiment. The nature of the universe could be constructed through thought problems alone. Science practically depends on hypothesis breaking down in order to advance. It keeps people from thinking along the same line; it forces researchers to step back and re-examine the what's and why's; it opens new possibilities.