Sunday, April 3, 2011

News From the Home Front

I feel good.

No, I mean I feel damn good compared to how I feel on most Sundays and it's because I'm taking fewer medications now. Last week I had my regular three month appointment for the MS study I'm in. I told them I wanted to withdraw from the study mostly due to being tired of how the weekly Avonex I take makes me feel. Ever since I enrolled in the study back in December of 2006, my Sundays have been mostly ruined. The drug makes me very tired, gives me body aches from head to toe, and just generally makes me feel like garbage.

That's a lot of time spent feeling that way for anyone; but when you also are a single dad, work full-time, manage another disease, and are trying to finish school, it can be overwhelming. So, I finally decided I was through with it. I'm not sure what's next in managing my MS. I have to schedule an appointment with my regular neurology provider to explore my options. Cost will be the biggest hurdle. Check out this chart of MS drugs and how much each costs.

Now, I have good insurance, but the last time I looked it was only covering approximately half of the two drugs I checked on. There's no way I can cover the remainder. That means I might not be taking anything for awhile. On one hand that's rather scary. On the other, my thinking is "come what may." Even with medication there is no guarantee of what will happen with the disease in the future. None of these drugs are cures; they only work to slow progression of the disease. None offers a promise or any sort of guarantee of an MS-free future. They only offer hope of prolonging it. And, you know what? I don't need drugs for that. If I can find some sort of cost-effective solution now or sometime down the road, I'm sure I'll start taking something again but until then I'm not going to fret it.

In other news, I'll be starting school again tomorrow. It's long overdue. I only need 30 more credits to finally get my degree and I intend to do it by the end of the year. That's a lot of work for anyone let alone someone with all of the responsibilities I juggle, but somehow I'll make it happen. The next chapter of my life is past due and it's time I moved on. This will, of course, keep me quite busy. I'm not sure how often I'll be posting around here. I'll try to pop off something from time to time, but no promises. You can still catch my snark on Twitter or Facebook if you know me there. Live long and prosper.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Conservatives Only Pay Lip Service to Small Government

An Alaskan conservative wants to prosecute people for having sex out of wedlock.

One blog post on the Eagle Forum Alaska site praised efforts at criminalizing adultery in Michigan, and Paskvan asked Haase if he thought it should be a felony in Alaska.

"I don't see that that would rise to the level of a felony," Haase said.

Paskvan: "Do you believe it should be a crime?"

Haase: "Yeah, I think it's very harmful to have extramarital affairs. It's harmful to children, it's harmful to the spouse who entered a legally binding agreement to marry the person that's cheating on them."

Paskvan: "What about premarital affairs -- should that be a crime?"

Haase: "I think that would be up to the voters certainly. If it came before (the state) as a vote, I probably would vote for it ... I can see where it would be a matter for the state to be involved with because of the spread of disease and the likelihood that it would cause violence. I can see legitimate reasons to push that as a crime."

I understand not thinking that sex outside of marriage is acceptable. It's perfectly fine to feel that way, but how is it in any way feasible or desirable to attempt to outlaw it and prosecute people for it? Not to mention, aren't conservatives the ones always squawking about smaller, less intrusive government? How does this square with that? Healthcare reform and the individual mandate are a "threat to liberty", but trying to outlaw who people have sex with isn't?

This is why I have a hard time taking most conservatives at their word when they scream for less government. What most of them mean is, "I don't like Democratic policies (because they aren't on my team) and I don't like helping the poor."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Fickle Newt

Newt Gingrich does a complete 180 on Libya in a matter of weeks. This led to one of my favorite Tweets of all time, of all time!

Newt Gingrich changes positions on Libya as often as he changes wives.

So wrong, but oh, so funny.

UPDATE: Sadly, but unsurprisingly, he's not the only Republican in the "Whatever Obama is For, I'm Against Even If I Was For It Yesterday" camp.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Did God Have a Wife: An Exercise in Bad Journalism

In my previous post I highlighted an excellent example of long-form journalism and mused that more of that was needed. Well, here's an example of a brief article that does virtually nothing to educate the reader on the topic presented.

It's ostensibly about early versions of the Bible and how a researcher believes that they told stories of Asherah, God's wife. For those who haven't studied religion or the ancient Middle East, Asherah was a fertility goddess and mother figure. Stories of her and similar goddesses abound in the region from those times. It is quite possible that she was in early versions of the stories that now make up the Torah/Bible.

But other than the fact that this researcher believes Asherah was redacted from the Bible and a very quick primer on who Asherah is, what does this article tell you? It doesn't give any examples of passages from the Torah that the researcher believes point to Asherah's removal. It doesn't give any concrete examples of the "Hebrew inscriptions" that supposedly evince his hypothesis. It gives no historical background for the writing of the Bible other than a brief aside about "heavy-handed male editors" and one sentence about the pivotal destruction of the first Jewish temple in 587/6 BCE. All of this information would have given this article some weight, some merit. As it is, I find it worthless other than giving me the name of this researcher (Francesca Stavrakopoulou) so that I can dig around for some more helpful material on his research.

Religion is hard to write about. I get that. It rarely has a clear narrative. Many adherents and their beliefs are opaque and confusing. But it seems that effort is rarely made to clearly elucidate the subject. Articles like this (and their headlines) seem made to generate controversy and traffic instead of relying on an excellent writing to bring in readers.

The image is a statue of Asherah (from the Wikipedia article). Isn't it great looking? I'd put that on my mantle.

Pot Heads Dealing Arms Internationally

I really enjoy long-form journalism. It's like a story instead of just some bland recitals of he said/she said. We could use more long-form articles because many stories are too complex and nuanced for three paragraphs complete with misleading headline. I know that goes against the grain of our instant gratification, Twitterific culture, but, you know. Anyway...

I recently came across this story about a couple of 20-something pot heads who became wealthy international arms dealers.

His business plan was simple but brilliant. Most companies grow by attracting more customers. Diveroli realized he could succeed by selling to one customer: the U.S. military. No government agency buys and sells more stuff than the Defense Department — everything from F-16s to paper clips and front-end loaders. By law, every Pentagon purchase order is required to be open to public bidding. And under the Bush administration, small businesses like AEY were guaranteed a share of the arms deals. Diveroli didn't have to actually make any of the products to bid on the contracts. He could just broker the deals, finding the cheapest prices and underbidding the competition. All he had to do was win even a minuscule fraction of the billions the Pentagon spends on arms every year and he would be a millionaire. But Diveroli wanted more than that: His ambition was to be the biggest arms dealer in the world — a young Adnan Khashoggi, a teenage Victor Bout.

To get into the game, Diveroli knew he would have to deal with some of the world's shadiest operators — the war criminals, soldiers of fortune, crooked diplomats and small-time thugs who keep militaries and mercenaries loaded with arms. The vast aftermarket in arms had grown exponentially after the end of the Cold War. For decades, weapons had been stockpiled in warehouses throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe for the threat of war against the West, but now arms dealers were selling them off to the highest bidder. The Pentagon needed access to this new aftermarket to arm the militias it was creating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The trouble was, it couldn't go into such a murky underworld on its own. It needed proxies to do its dirty work — companies like AEY. The result was a new era of lawlessness. According to a report by Amnesty International, "Tens of millions of rounds of ammunition from the Balkans were reportedly shipped — clandestinely and without public oversight — to Iraq by a chain of private brokers and transport contractors under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense."

This was the "gray market" that Diveroli wanted to penetrate. Still a teenager, he rented a room in a house owned by a Hispanic family in Miami and went to work on his laptop. The government website where contracts are posted is, known as "FedBizOpps." Diveroli soon became adept at the arcane lingo of federal contracts. His competition was mostly big corporations like Northrop Grumman, Lockheed and BAE Systems. Those companies had entire departments dedicated to selling to the Pentagon. But Diveroli had his own advantages: low overhead, an appetite for risk and all-devouring ambition.

Read the whole thing. It's worth it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Near Death Experience

I had an, ah, interesting experience last weekend.

Last week I realized I was nearly out of my insulin. I was so used to getting it regularly from the mail-order pharmacy my health insurance uses that I forgot it had changed. Everyone's prescriptions were supposed to seamlessly transition over. Clearly something had not gone seamlessly. I called them up and they said, "Oh, uhm, yeah. It looks like there has been a mix up. We'll get this fixed as soon as we can."

Except that it wasn't fast enough. Saturday morning I ran out of insulin. That means my body could not process carbohydrates and my blood glucose level was going to go up. I thought I would be okay for a couple of days if I stuck to a diet of nuts, non-starchy veggies, and water as none of those things have much in the way of carbs. Yes, my insulin would go up, but it shouldn't go up high enough that I wouldn't be okay for a couple of days until my order came in.

The only problem with that clever plan is that I forgot about other medication I take.

Every week I take an injection of Avonex. This nasty drug is for my multiple sclerosis. It has the pleasant side effect of flu-like symptoms for approximately 24 hours after injection. The first couple of times I took it, it knocked me on my ass and I could barely get out of bed. Since then I have gotten somewhat used to it so that now my body aches from head to toe all day, I feel more exhausted than usual, and I just feel rather blah. I take it every Saturday night so I can spend my Sunday feeling like crap instead of trying to deal with it during the work week. Without even thinking about how it might affect my insulin-deprived body, I took it as normal Saturday night and set myself on a nasty course.

Sunday morning I woke up feeling worse than I usually do on Sundays. My stomach was a tight knot and I felt on the verge of vomiting. My mouth was extremely dry and full of cotton. I tried to sip some water because that's all I felt I could stomach. Unfortunately, even that was too much as I started vomiting. Anything in my gut from the previous day was quickly sent back up. Anything heavier than water or 7-Up sounded sickening, but even those had me puking and dry-heaving. I felt like I had no water in me and, in fact, the one pleasant side-effect of my vomiting was that it put just enough moisture in my mouth that I could talk.

I continued to feel worse throughout the day. By early evening I knew the only way I was getting better was if I went to the Emergency Department. I also knew that I was going to be admitted to the hospital. As dehydrated as I was I knew my bg was sky-high and the only way to get it down was insulin. This was not a decision I made lightly, but I needed to if I was going to get better. My mother called my brother who picked me up and carted me off.

Since I work there, most of the staff know me and were clearly concerned about me just seeing me before I even started telling them what was going on. They got me a room, started pumping me full of fluids and gave me Zofran so I would stop vomiting. They drew blood and took a urine sample. As the tests started coming back the doctor came in, gave me a look, and said, "You're sick." Thanks, doc. I actually felt like I was being tickled by thousands of butterflies, but now you've gone and set me straight.

The diagnosis was diabetic ketoacidosis. This is a potentially life-threatening condition caused by very high blood glucose which begins to cascade through a whole series of other wonderful things. Sure enough I was admitted and not just to any floor but the Intensive Care Unit. This was so they could closely monitor me and allow me to rest.

Rest? Ha! For anyone never having the opportunity to stay in an ICU (this was my first), rest is about the last thing that happens. I was lucky to have a 30-minute period of being uninterrupted by someone coming in and drawing blood or checking my vitals or something. Despite not getting much in the way of sleep I started feeling better rather rapidly. With insulin and fluids pouring into me, I was getting somewhat back to normal. With the Zofran on board, I was able to drink some actual water, too. The ice water the nurses gave me was about the best thing my arid tongue had ever tasted.

Later in the morning with my numbers stabilizing, I got transferred to a medical floor. I ate a normal meal. Well, I tried to eat it. I ordered a fruit bowl and a piece of toast, but the roof of my mouth was so raw from the vomiting that the natural acids in the fruit burned too bad to eat much. Even the crunch of the toast made it difficult to swallow.

By 6:00 pm, I was much closer to normal if not quite there, yet. My doctor sort of wanted to keep me another night, but I told him I would rest much better at home (which is very true) and he let me go. I went home, ate a bit and before too long I was in bed. The next morning I was up and going to work. It's not 'cause I'm sort of tough guy. I was just feeling better and I've got a ton of stuff on my plate.

I'd like to say I learned some deep truth from my near-death experience or that I had some nugget of wisdom to offer. In the future I intend to watch my insulin supply more closely especially when changes are made to my health coverage to try to prevent this from happening again, but that's rather banal for any sort of grand statement. I got very, very sick. I pulled through thanks to modern medicine. I'm back to normal.

Really, what more could one ask for?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

An American Being Tortured...By Americans

This makes me sick. I don't understand why Americans aren't more upset about this.

To follow-up on yesterday's observations about the prolonged forced nudity to which Bradley Manning has been subjected the last two days: brig officials now confirm to The New York Times that Manning will be forced to be nude every night from now on for the indefinite future -- not only when he sleeps, but also when he stands outside his cell for morning inspection along with the other brig detainees. They claim that it is being done "as a 'precautionary measure' to prevent him from injuring himself."

Has anyone before successfully committed suicide using a pair of briefs -- especially when under constant video and in-person monitoring? There's no underwear that can be issued that is useless for killing oneself? And if this is truly such a threat, why isn't he on "suicide watch" (the NYT article confirms he's not)? And why is this restriction confined to the night; can't he also off himself using his briefs during the day?

This is America. Fucking America! We are torturing a soldier, an American, who has been convicted of no crimes. Whatever you think of what he did, how can you think this is the proper course of action? We prosecuted Germans who tortured people in World War II. We convicted Japanese of the same thing. Charles Taylor Jr. was convicted in a federal court for torture committed in Liberia. This, of course, is just the start of it. We have charged many people in criminal courts for torturing people.

So, why do we seem to be okay with letting Bradley Manning be tortured by the military?

People should be marching in the streets for this sort of thing. Unfortunately, in this day and age people don't seem to get fired up about a problem until it affects them directly. Bush and Cheney opened up a Pandora's Box when they started permitting torture and we are seeing now the fruits of their labor. I will be sending strongly worded emails to both of my Senators. I wish there was more I could do, but I feel rather helpless. I hope other people speak up, too.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

State of Affairs

How about a funny?

A unionized public employee, a member of the Tea Party, and a CEO are sitting at a table. In the middle of the table there is a plate with a dozen cookies on it. The CEO reaches across, takes 11 cookies, looks at the Tea Partier, and says, "Look out for that union guy, he wants a piece of your cookie."

From A Tiny Revolution.

A Dance With Dragons

The long-awaited (five-and-a-half years!) fifth book of the A Song of Ice and Fire series finally has a publication date! Hallelujah! I'm glad Martin took the time to get it right, but I sure hope the next one doesn't take as long. I'm sure HBO feels the same way considering the TV adaptation is beginning in April.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Blade Runner Prequels and Sequels Coming

Blade Runner is one of my favorite movies of all time - of all time! - which is why I'm not really excited to see that prequels and sequels are coming. The odds of these being any good are slim. How can anyone come close to matching the movies's dark, moody cinematography, the sparse but dense script (watch the director's cut, not the original with the shoddy voice-over), and the beautiful final words of Roy Batty.

Leave well enough alone, I say. Not that Hollywood is any good at that.

"A great person"

Words you don't use to describe someone who just stabbed their own infant child to death.

The Right to Be a Supreme Asshole

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church today, saying they had a right to picket funerals. As much as it pains me to say it, this is the right decision. Fred Phelps and his followers are amongst the worst sort of scum. Their hate-filled rants against homosexuals, Jews, Catholics deserve all the scorn that can be mustered. The First Amendment gives them the right to spread their filth, however, and restrictions of that right need to be done very, very carefully. We don't let people falsely shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater because it could lead to harm. Members of the WBC were far enough away from the funeral from which this (most recent) lawsuit ensued that their actions were not considered stalking or harassment. They should be allowed to do what they do because restricting their speech is a slippery slope that we should not start down.

The best thing to be done about things like this is to exercise one's own free speech and counter-protest. Excellent examples of this can be found here.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Quote of the Day

"[I]t's one of the weirder aspects of our political circumstances that being a hypocrite is a much greater moral failing than being deeply cruel." -Adam Serwer

Laws Should Make Sense

Radley Balko writes about a cop who had consensual sexual relations with two girls, one 16 and the other 17. Now he's been convicted of having child pornography because he had nude pictures of both of the girls.

Here's the catch, though. In Indiana, where this occurred, the age of consent is 16. So, the cop could legally have sex with the girls. He could also have legally married the girls without their parents' permission. But, he could not have pictures of them in the nude because according to federal law, pictures like this are child pornography.

Whatever you think about what he did, this seems rather ludicrous. Laws need to line up together and work in tandem. What's the point in having a law saying it's okay to have sex with someone of a certain age, but not being permitted to have nude pictures of them? Either the age of consent needs to go up or the child porn laws need to have exceptions for people of consenting age. This guy presents no danger at all to society, but he's now stuck in prison for fifteen years. Was what he did smart? Probably not. But locking him up for a long period of time accomplishes nothing except costing taxpayers a good chunk of change.

**I couldn't resist the opportunity to post a picture of Matthew McConaughey from Dazed and Confused. "That's what I love about these High School girls man. I get older, they stay the same age. Yes they do."

Game of Thrones Trailer

Another trailer for this series.

There are not words to describe how excited I am for this.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Using Tech to Beat the System

This is a beautiful use of technology.

The cop cited him for going over 40 mph in a 25 zone, which he was too frazzled to contest at the time. After he had cooled down and parked his car later, he remembered that he had been running the My Tracks app by Google which records your GPS info and speed. Pulling up the data, he found that he hadn't been speeding. When his court date arrived, he plead not guilty, presented his GPS data, and successfully got out of the ticket.

Words Matter

A woman who wrote an article who wrote an article about helping the poor back in the 1960s is getting death threats now after Glenn Beck blamed her paper for leading to the current economic crisis.

Piven is a professor at the City College of New York. Back in 1966, she and her late husband, Richard Cloward, wrote an article for The Nation outlining a plan to help the poor of New York and other big cities to get on welfare.

In their research, they found that not all the poor who were eligible to receive welfare actually did. They advocated that all the nation's eligible poor should apply. They felt such a strain to city budgets would force Washington to address the poverty problem.

Forty-five years later, Beck took to the airwaves of Fox News and his own radio program, warning the public about the obscure article.

"Let me introduce you to the people who you would say are fundamentally responsible for the unsustainability and possible collapse of our economic system. They're really two people," he said, "Cloward and Piven."

For about the last three months, week after week, Beck's been hammering away at Piven and her husband. From their 45-year-old article, he sees a vast conspiracy to overthrow the American financial system.


Soon after Beck made her infamous, Piven says hundreds of death threats poured into her e-mail account and conservative blogs. Things like, "'May cancer overtake you soon!'" Piven says. She ended up asking the FBI and state police for help.

While Piven acknowledges that Glenn Beck has never advocated violence against her, she still feels Beck's screeds led directly to the threats against her life.

Words matter. Words have an impact. If they didn't we wouldn't be reading Homer, the Bible, and Shakespeare hundreds or thousands of years after they were written. Of course Glenn Beck isn't responsible for the crazy actions his listeners take, but he is responsible for creating a toxic atmosphere that can lead to things like sending old ladies death threats. Anyone who has any sort of audience has a responsibility to speak in such a way as to create a respectful atmosphere. There is nothing wrong with vehement disagreement, but it shouldn't cross the boundary into over the top denunciations of your opponent ("Ground Zero mosque supporters are Nazis!") That doesn't move the debate forward at all not to mention if you make connections like this, mentally unbalanced people are going to think, "Gee, shouldn't we be taking drastic action to stop this person if they are a Nazi/Communist/unAmerican?"

Again, Beck (or Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Dinesh D'Souza) is not responsible for the actions taken by some nutjob who listens to them. That doesn't mean, though, that they should just say whatever they want and then after something happens, shrug, saying "It's not my fault."

No More Reincarnating Without Permission

China cracks down on the growing reincarnation problem.

In one of history's more absurd acts of totalitarianism, China has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which goes into effect next month and strictly stipulates the procedures by which one is to reincarnate, is "an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation." But beyond the irony lies China's true motive: to cut off the influence of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual and political leader, and to quell the region's Buddhist religious establishment more than 50 years after China invaded the small Himalayan country. By barring any Buddhist monk living outside China from seeking reincarnation, the law effectively gives Chinese authorities the power to choose the next Dalai Lama, whose soul, by tradition, is reborn as a new human to continue the work of relieving suffering.

I can't say that I'm really a supporter of the Chinese government, but I think this is an excellent step in the right direction for them. I hope the next step is preventing people from getting to heaven without their permission.

Blame It On Top Gun

A case is made that Top Gun was the film that started Hollywood's downward spiral.

Then came Top Gun. The man calling the shots may have been Tony Scott, but the film's real auteurs were producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, two men who pioneered the "high-concept" blockbuster—films for which the trailer or even the tagline told the story instantly. At their most basic, their movies weren't movies; they were pure product—stitched-together amalgams of amphetamine action beats, star casting, music videos, and a diamond-hard laminate of technological adrenaline all designed to distract you from their lack of internal coherence, narrative credibility, or recognizable human qualities. They were rails of celluloid cocaine with only one goal: the transient heightening of sensation.

Top Gun landed directly in the cortexes of a generation of young moviegoers whose attention spans and narrative tastes were already being recalibrated by MTV and video games. That generation of 16-to-24-year-olds—the guys who felt the rush of Top Gun because it was custom-built to excite them—is now in its forties, exactly the age of many mid- and upper-midrange studio executives. And increasingly, it is their taste, their appetite, and the aesthetic of their late-'80s postadolescence that is shaping moviemaking. Which may be a brutally unfair generalization, but also leads to a legitimate question: Who would you rather have in charge—someone whose definition of a classic is Jaws or someone whose definition of a classic is Top Gun?

The Top Gun era sent the ambitions of those who wanted to break into the biz spiraling in a new direction. Fifteen years earlier, scores of young people headed to film schools to become directors. With the advent of the Reagan years, a more bottom-line-oriented cadre of would-be studio players was born, with an MBA as the new Hollywood calling card. The Top Gun era shifted that paradigm again—this time toward marketing. Which was only natural: If movies were now seen as packages, then the new kings of the business would be marketers, who could make the wrapping on that package look spectacular even if the contents were deficient.

The whole piece is worth reading. Hollywood is in a sad state these days, but even though the author blames Top Gun for the start of it he ultimately blames us for continuing to pay to see the shallow crap put out these days.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bill Gates Publicly Supports Vaccinations

This is important.

So I had to take a look, because I wanted to see what Gates had really said, and about whom. It turns out he didn’t actually use the phrase “child killers,” but he did say that anti-vaccine groups “kill children,” which does pretty much amount to the same thing. I can see why people would be outraged by that — I’m outraged, too, but not in the way the people who issued the press release would like me to be. Because I’m outraged that there most likely are 50,000 people who are willing to protest, when what Bill Gates said is absolutely, 100% correct.

We need more big name people to talk about the importance of vaccinations and how the anti-vax movement is dangerous. Jenny McCarthy gets a ton of press for her statements and admittedly sad story. But the people making the (correct) argument against her rarely get as much focus. The results the anti-vaxxers' antics are not inconsequential. People have died. This point needs to be hammered home again and again. Not vaccinating your kids leads to death. It's not every kid that doesn't get vaccinated, but it is enough of them that every American should be up in arms against the anti-vax crusaders. These deaths are a very preventable tragedy.

So, tell everyone you know how important vaccines are and how dangerous it is to not get them. You could save a life.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Star Trek: The Animated Series is Now Online for Free!

The best news of the day.

Star Trek: The Animated Series has been unjustly neglected by all but the most devoted Trekkies for most of the 36-plus years since it originally aired. The animation may — does — look cheesy by today’s standards, but some of the stories are truly excellent, and they did get all but one of the original cast members to do their characters’ voices.

Well, has now put every episode of the series online for free viewing (though not, alas, downloading). If you’ve not seen any of the 22 episodes of the series, but are a fan of ST:The Original Series, you’re in for a treat. Some of them are just so-so, but even the worst of them is better (to my mind, anyway) than 70% of the episodes of ST: Enterprise.

I all ready play original series episodes in the background at work. These will have to join the queue.

Ant Death Circles

I had never heard of this. Apparently sometimes ants can get caught up in a circle following the ant in front of them and then keep going in a circle until they starve to death.

This is a species of army ant, Labidus praedator. These ants are completely blind so they get about by sniffing trails left by the ants in front of them. They, in turn, leave chemical trails of their own. The system works smoothly when everybody's going in a straight line in one direction...

But when the lead ants start to loop, bad things can happen (and remember we humans loop too, we can't hold a straight course over long distances without external points of reference). If the ant-in-front loops and intersects with its old trail, the whole crowd then turns in on itself and everybody gets caught in the endless circle.

Check out this fascinating video of this in action.

The article mentions that this is something that never happens to humans which is true in a literal fashion. You've never (at least I never have) seen a group of humans stuck endlessly circling about until they die. I have seen people, though, blindly following the lead of someone else. Most people are sheep and don't want to stand out or be the first to do something for fear of looking foolish. They will willingly go along with a crowd even if they have some reservations inside. It's a hard thing to overcome because no one likes to be embarrassed.

The Observer Effect and Police Dogs

Most people know that our pets, especially dogs, like to please us. Well, it goes for police dogs, too.

My confusion about what was going on in Harper's head reflects a common misconception that is also apparent in the ways dogs are used in criminal investigations. When we think dogs are using their well-honed noses to sniff out drugs or criminal suspects, they may actually be displaying a more recently evolved trait: an urgent desire to please their masters, coupled with the ability to read their cues.

Several studies and tests have shown that drug-sniffing dogs, scent hounds, and even explosive-detecting dogs are not nearly as accurate as they have been portrayed in court. A recent Chicago Tribune survey of traffic stops by suburban police departments from 2007 to 2009, for example, found that searches turned up contraband in just 44 percent of the cases where police dogs alerted to the presence of narcotics. (An alert is a signal, such as barking or sitting, that dogs are trained to display when they detect the target scent.) In stops involving Hispanic drivers, the dogs' success rate was just 27 percent. The two largest departments the Tribune surveyed—the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois State Police—said they don't even keep track of such information.

But don't blame the dogs; their noses work fine. In fact, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently conceded, after 12 years and millions of dollars of research, that the canine snout, fine-tuned by millions of years of evolution, is still far more sensitive and reliable than any technology man has been able to muster when it comes to detecting explosives in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The problem is our confusion about when dogs are picking up a scent and when they are responding to cues from their handlers.

This is similar to a well-known problem in physics - the observer effect - where a person observing an event has an impact on the event and skews it. Obviously this is slightly different in that the dog's handler can safely observe the dog in action; they just have to be careful not to give the dog false clues so that the dog ends up simply trying to please its master rather than do its job.

It seems like this could have a bearing on parenting, as well. When raising children we must be careful that they do not end up doing something just to gain our approval. They must learn to do the right thing even when it is harder or they worry it might mean our disapproval somehow (if, for example, they try to accomplish a task but fail).

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Tracing Lines and Chaos Theory

Watch this very cool video where 500 people attempt to trace the line the previous person drew. What starts off as a straight line quickly becomes a mess.

A Sequence of Lines Traced by Five Hundred Individuals from clement valla on Vimeo.

Others have commented on how this resembles evolution or the human condition. That sounds about right.

But what I like about it is how it beautifully represents chaos theory. This is a branch of mathematics that has applications in a number of science fields. More people have probably heard of the butterfly effect. This comes out of chaos theory and it in effect states that small changes in initial conditions can lead to wildly different outcomes. In this video notice how that at first the lines change only slightly, but by the end it looks completely different from its original state. If you ran this experiment again and started with the same first line as this one, you would have a completely different outcome. That's chaos theory.

It really is a fascinating subject and has led to all sorts of discoveries in meteorology, physics, and other sciences.

Paying State Worker Less is a Bad Way to Balance the Budget

Ezra Klein brings us a chart showing what Wisconsin's state and local government workers make compared to their private sector counterparts.

So, why would these people take less money? Presumably they like their work. Maybe they like being public servants. Maybe both. Either way, it seems ludicrous to want to pay them less money. You will just get fewer qualified people wanting to take these jobs. Maybe that's what Republicans want. However, the GOP is often quick to decry government incompetence. You're not going to get the best workers if you're not paying them enough to make it worth their while. I'd rather have someone choose to go work for a state government as, say, a regulator than go work on Wall Street and contribute nothing to society other than pushing for lower taxes on rich people in order to only benefit themselves.

Montana Makes the National News!

I'm so proud of my state. We made the national news!

A Montana legislator is proposing the state embrace global warming as good for the economy.

Republican Rep. Joe Read of Ronan aims to pass a law that says global warming is a natural occurrence that "is beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana."

Reaction by scientists and environmentalists to House Bill 549 has been harsh. University of Montana climate change professor Steve Running calls it an indefensible attempt to repeal the laws of physics.

Oh...we made it for stupidity. Damn.

Something that I have a hard time understanding is why science has become so politicized. There isn't a serious scientist out there who will say that scientists never make mistakes, that theories never have to be revised or thrown out. But they will tell you that when multiple differing experiments conducted by many different scientists and validated by many others, then the likelihood of a theory being accurate continues to increase.

So, why is that that we have politicians constantly deriding science? Not too hard, to understand, I suppose. They see political and personal gain from it. So, why do people elect politicians who pull this crap? Because science is hard to understand and politicians are good at whipping up fear with banal sound bites. So, why are pols allowed to get away with this? Shouldn't someone, somewhere, be tasked with reporting on these stories and explaining them to people? Hmmmmm...oh, yes!

The media!

I think I remember learning somewhere that the media's job was to get to the bottom of things and report on them. Unfortunately we have a media who get upset when one of their own calls someone a liar even when they clearly are. This seems to be born of cowardice and a desire to befriend the elite at the top. It's sorta hard to buddy up with someone when you call them out on their bullshit in your news story.

It's sad and rather pathetic. Politicians should not be basing decisions based on short-term personal gain, but the long-term benefit of all. But when there is no one willing to ensure that pressure is maintained on them to do that, it's probably not going to happen.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Great Hunt

I just finished The Great Hunt, book two in The Wheel of Time series. My thoughts on the first book are here. Again, I am going to try to avoid spoilers; but if something crops up, don't say I didn't warn you.

TWoT really takes off with this book. We get to see much more of the world and we have more POV characters, too. One of Jordan's strengths with these books are the numerous mysteries he sprinkles about - character motivations, bits of prophecy, murders. It really engages the reader as you try to figure out what is going on. In fact, there is a whole website setup for discussing theories.

Another of Jordan's big strengths is battle scenes. The epic finale here is excellent and it's not even close to being his best one (that would be at the end of book six). He has a great way of detailing them at small and large detail that far from bores (as some authors do with battles), but makes them very vivid and exciting. I especially love the evocative names he gives to the sword techniques that the characters use.

So, as much as I enjoy the first book I think this is where the series really starts to shine.

Quote of the Day

From Ken Jennings' story of battling Watson on Jeopardy!.

Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy! player: It's very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman.

More seriously, this is a fascinating development in computer technology.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wacky Pro-Lifers

Stuff like this is why I have problems with so many people in the pro-life movement.

Anti-choicers are really on the march lately, but even I was shocked by this latest news: South Dakota legislators are trying to amend some changes to the “justifiable homicide” definition to include killing someone to prevent the killing of a fetus. This proposed change is one of the best exposures of the beliefs about gender that are lurking underneath the maudlin fetus stuff, because the bill doesn’t allow anyone to play a white knight killing an abortion provider.....just a family member of the woman getting the abortion. And, it seems that it might include allowing the killing of the woman, too, though it’s tough to say. If a woman tells her husband she’s getting an abortion whether he likes it or not, and he kills her to stop it, he also kills the fetus, but he did act in accordance with the law in the sense of motivation. Lawyers in the house?


If this bill passes into law, a wife beater whose wife is trying to abort for the entirely sensible reason that you don’t want babies with a batterer could walk into a clinic, shoot the doctor to prevent the abortion, and plead justifiable homicide, with the blessing of the South Dakota legislature and presumably the anti-choice movement that lobbied them.

Look, I completely understand not liking abortion. I don't like it, either, and wish it didn't happen. But how does anyone think a law like this is going to make things better. In fact, I'm pretty sure that this is an issue where it's not much going to matter what sorts of laws are in place. Enough people support abortions and enough doctors are willing to provide them that the legal status of abortions is not going to stop them. Prohibition certainly didn't stop alcohol consumption.

I think that if people who don't support abortions really want to do something about it, they will support making contraceptives cheaper and more easily accessible, support better eduction to teenagers, support making adoption easier, and above all display a little compassion and humility. Crazy, I know, but I think that would be much more effective than this ridiculous law.

The Average Person is Confused or Ignorant

Matt Yglesias highlights an incredible bit of polling data.

This is the reason I always shake my head at polls showing what voters want or politicians talk about giving the voters what they want. The fact is that most people have no clue what they are talking about when it comes to things like this because they are big and complicated and they are more focused on their day to day life. They have some politician from a political party that they sorta listen to and go along with but they don't really understand what they are going along with.

This is, of course, why it's so easy for politicians to manipulate voters. They can spout banal red meat for the base who lap it up while not paying much attention to what is really going on. The problem is amplified by journalists who don't feel it's their job to call a lie a lie.

If we want better government, we have to have a better understanding of our policies and what our government is doing. Ignorance is not bliss.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

You Can't Explain That

Bill O'Reilly's bizarre rant has become a meme. Here's my contribution.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Don't Take Offense at My Innuendo

This is a fascinating discussion on language and why we have innuendo even when both people know exactly what is actually meant.

And, of course, this is a perfect time to link to Queen's song, "Innuendo."

Annals of Bad Ideas

Upsetting Google, a company that could make or break you, by attempting to scam their search results. Not that it's going to scare people off. The benefits are too great.

The Eye of the World

I recently started rereading The Wheel of Time, a series of books that I've been reading for going on twenty years now. The first book, The Eye of the World came out in 1990. I started reading it a couple of years later after getting the second book as a gift from a friend. Even though I ended up reading it first because I didn't know it was the second book, I fell in love. I have read and reread the series numerous times since even though it's not done, yet.

Robert Jordan, the author, passed away from a rare blood disease after the 11th book came out. He had planned one more book to bring the story to a conclusion. His wife and editor, Harriet, hired Brandon Sanderson to finish the final novel. He decided that the book would be too big and it would need to be split into three books to do it justice. The never-ending series was getting longer.

It is true that Jordan started to get lost in the wilderness as the story went along. Some think it happened as early as books three or four. I'm more forgiving and tend to peg it more at book eight. Despite the epic story getting adrift somewhere along the way, I have not lost my passion for it and have been looking forward to this reread for awhile especially since I have not read either of the Sanderson penned books that have come out so far.

Part of Jordan's genius is taking well-worn tropes and giving them a fresh coat so they don't seem so (over)used. Tell me if this sounds familiar.

A wise, older wizard finds some young kids in a tiny backward village and tells them that one of them is the Chosen One who must battle Ulimate Evil to prevent the End of the World.

Gee, that's like every epic story ever told. However Jordan blends the monomyth with Arthurian legends, Norse myth, Asian myth, Christian symbolism, and more so well that it doesn't come across as just another rehash. Jordan creates a rich, vibrant world that feels real.

The Eye of the World sets the stage very well. Magic feels real and dangerous. The bad guys are suitably creepy and monstrous. The naive youths seem genuine as they bumble around after being thrown into the deep end of the pool. Hints of the world's rich history are easily dropped giving the world real depth.

The book does end rather too abruptly and, especially with hindsight, it's easy to see how the story was already growing bigger then Jordan anticipated. He said a number of times that he had long known exactly how the series would end; he just didn't know how it would get there. The enormous popularity of the books ensured that he would be given as much space as he needed to finish them. Unfortunately, between that and the fact that his wife was his editor, it seems Jordan's leash was probably a bit too long. A stronger editor (not that his wife isn't a good editor, but she is a touch, you know, biased) could possibly have reined him in and tightened everything up.

Still, though, I think the whole thing is worth your time. I'll be posting more thoughts as I finish each book and I'll try to avoid spoilers.

Don't Worry. I'm Still Here

Most of the time beyond some mild side effects (fatigue, sensitivity to cold temps), I don't really have anything indicating that I have multiple sclerosis. In fact, the biggest reminder is probably when I feel the side effects stemming from the weekly injection of Avonex that I take. Every Sunday I feel like I've been roughed up by a gang of jocks. That's why I don't recommend anyone take this drug. It's not pleasant.

Anyway, I got a more serious reminder on Friday at work. I was walking down a flight of stair and in mid-step I felt a wave of dizziness and numbness on my right side. I'm glad no one was around to see me suddenly grab the handrail and waver there for a second like a neurotic dancer until the feeling passed. It's strange to me how scary this feels, but losing control of your body like this even for a few seconds is terrifying. I'm not sure if this was a one-time deal or if I'm on the verge of a relapse.

Either way, I suppose my MS was feeling bored and forgotten and wanted to remind that it's still lurking around ready to torment me.

Debut Trailer for X-Men: First Class

Here it is.

I'm nervous about this one after X-Men: The Last Stand and Wolverine: Origins, but I'm still anxious to see it. I think McAvoy is an excellent choice to play a young Professor X and there's certainly enough drama within the escapades of the younger Xavier and Magneto to tell a great story. I hope it actually delivers.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Prescription Drug Abuse

One of the things hospital security gets to deal with is prescription drug abuse. Whether it's someone altering scripts at our pharmacy or throwing a tantrum in the ED because the doc won't give them a script, it's a regular ordeal. We work with law enforcement on many of these issues and plenty of people go on to get prosecuted.

I've been thinking about it lately, though, and earlier today I asked myself, "What benefit does prosecuting and locking up prescription drug abusers provide society?" Seriously. I want to know what benefit I'm getting out of my tax dollars being spent this way because I'm struggling to come up with anything. If someone gets high and drives, causing a wreck, we have laws for that. If someone gets high and neglects or abuses their kids, we have laws for that.

So, why exactly do we care if someone want to sit at home and pop a bunch of Hydrocodone? I don't endorse it, but, frankly if someone wants to make that choice I'm not sure why tax dollars should be spent to stop it. Why can't doctors and pharmacists and local support groups and families handle this? Victimless crimes like this seem to me to be a poor thing for the government to regulate and enforce. We have laws in place to deal with it if other people are harmed, so that seems to me to be more than adequate. Certainly bad things happen now when they are illegal so I don't see how keeping them illegal makes things any better.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Nazi Analogies on Fox

Jon Stewart and company do us all a favor and watch Fox to bring teh funny.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
24-Hour Nazi Party People
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The Talk

I don't get why it's so hard for parents to talk to their kids about sex. Okay, I get that it's hard, but isn't it better than the alternative?

The girls know to be wary of strangers on the Internet—but they’re also wary of how the web is affecting the boys they might actually want to date.

“Guys wouldn’t really know about that much stuff if it weren’t for the Internet,” Kelsey says. “It freaks them out.”

“Yeah,” Alexa agrees. “It makes them kind of, like, inappropriate.”

“It can make them perverts at a younger age.”

“Like, sometimes you’re not ready for stuff like that.”

I've talked with my daughters about sex and I intend to keep talking about it. Sure, it's awkward, especially for them; but I'll be damned if I'm going to avoid the topic so that they end up going elsewhere to learn. It's not as if silence from me is going to keep them "pure" and in the dark about the subject. They will "learn" about it from peers, TV shows, movies, the Internet, books, or whatever. Some of the info might be accurate, but much of it probably won't be. How can we expect our children to make good decisions then? It's hard enough to do when you have the right information let alone when you have misinformation.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

New Technology for Skin Grafts

We live in an incredible time.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Politics of Healthcare Reform

Adam Serwer highlights an epic takedown of Hal Wick's sarcastic "gun mandate" and asks, "What's the originalist case against laws signed by George Washington?"

Funny stuff, but it highlights just how political rather than principled the fight against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has become. Conservatives aren't against the bill because of some deeply held conviction about individual liberty. They are against it because Democrats are for it. Just look at the similarities between the PPACA and the bill proposed by conservatives back in the Clinton days. To Republicans (and unfortunately many Democrats), politics is a zero-sum game. If Democrats proposed a bill supporting daylight, Republicans would immediately come out condemning the sun, proclaiming that it was a dangerous anti-American thing, and certainly not something our holy Founding Fathers supported.

This is no way for a government to tackle large, complex issues; but I suppose in a democracy we get the leaders we deserve.

UPDATE: The Onion makes the same point as only they can.

Geeky Videos

Here are two geeky videos I saw today that, frankly, kick ass.

First up, a nerdy girl wants a guy who understands her.

And a young boy tries to channel Darth Vader.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Baffled by the Filibuster

Here is part 1 of a series of videos designed to explain this arcane process.

Filibustery: Episode One from Newsbound on Vimeo.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Fractal Inequality

Chris Hayes explains a theory.

An interesting idea which does seem to explain a lot. It also seems related to the idea that people are happier with less money as long as it's more than the people around them.

Making it Harder for the Honest

A doctor is busted for trying to help his patients with their pain.

Siobhan Reynolds entered this fray when her late ex-husband, Sean, began suffering the symptoms of a congenital connective tissue disorder that left him with debilitating pain in his joints. After trying a variety of treatments, he found relief in a high-dose drug therapy administered by Virginia pain specialist William Hurwitz. But Hurwitz was later charged and convicted on 16 counts of drug trafficking. The judge acknowledged that Hurwitz ran a legitimate practice and had likely saved and improved the lives of countless people. His crime was not recognizing that some of his patients were addicts and dealers. Meanwhile, Reynolds' husband died in 2006 of a cerebral brain hemorrhage, which she believes was the result of years of abnormally high blood pressure brought on by his pain.

I've never understood this zeal to prosecute people who prescribe or (ab)use prescription drugs. Our first priority should be helping people who suffer from chronic pain and could be assisted with powerful painkillers. Going after abusers should be a secondary concern, if it's a concern at all. Of course, I think pot should be legal for any use (not just medicinal) so what the hell do I know?

Raising the Retirement Age

Ezra Klein has a post up about how unemployment has been especially hard on older workers and offers up this graph.

This is one of the biggest reasons I'm skeptical of raising the retirement age for Social Security. I understand the logic behind it and I used to support it, but things like this have made me think it's not such a good idea. If we had a strong, vibrant economy and weren't biased against older workers, then it might not be a bad idea. As things stand now, though, I think raising the retirement age would not be the right thing to do.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Forever War

Over on Facebook recently there was a bit of a discussion prompted by the posting of this video of a back and forth between Richard Dawkins, noted atheist, and Wendy Wright, creationist.

The question was asked, "Do you think evolutionists and creationists can reach a mutual understanding? By that I mean something that both sides can NOT polarize themselves over. Some sort of common ground." I decided that was worth a blog post so here I am.

In theory, I think they can (mostly); but, of course, that's the problem. "In theory" is great for...theory, but often stumbles when hitting reality. The problem seems to be that both sides view the other as a threat. Evolutionists think that creationists are leading people away from reason and science. Creationists think evolutionists are out to lead people away from God (at least their perspective of God, anyway). Naturally if one feels threatened, one is likely to lash out at whoever it is that is attacking.

I think that despite all of the heated rhetoric, there is less of a divide than most people imagine. That's because most of the time the people debating this point (like Dawkins and Wright) are on the extreme edges of the spectrum. Most people tend to be somewhere in the middle. Dawkins even makes reference to the Archbishop of Canterbury believing in evolution (and I'm pretty sure he believes in God).

Look at this data showing people's belief in creationism, evolution guided by God, or evolution without God. It shows over time that more and more people are shifting to believing in evolution being a tool of God. It also shows that people who have attended college are much more likely to believe in it. As our economy changes and more and more people get post-secondary education, this number will only grow larger. With more people finding themselves in the middle, there will likely be less vitriol on this topic.

That's not to say it will disappear completely. There will always be people who cherry pick the science they want to believe in. Who disputes gravity? Likewise, there will always be staunch evolutionists who can't accept belief in a God. There shouldn't need to be conflict over this. If people were more humble about their own knowledge and more respectful of other people's thoughts, then arguments over this wouldn't occur.

But that's not likely to happen anytime soon.

Star Trek Girl

Cute girl + Star Trek = Win

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Rich Don't Care About You

I am Jack's Complete Lack of Surprise that a new study shows that rich people have a lack of empathy.

The paper, published in October by the Association for Psychological Science, recounts three experiments conducted among students and employees of a large (unidentified) public university, some of whom had graduated from college and others who had not. In American social science, the definition of class is generally based on measures like income, occupational prestige and material wealth. In these experiments, class was determined either by educational level or by self-reported perceptions of family socioeconomic status.

In the first experiment, participants were asked to look at pictures of faces and indicate which emotions were being expressed. The more upper class the judges, the less able they were to accurately identify emotions in others.

In another experiment, upper-class participants had a harder time reading the emotions of strangers during simulated job interviews.

In the third one — an interesting twist of an experiment — people of greater socioeconomic status were asked to compare themselves to the wealthiest, most powerful Americans, thus diminishing their own relative stature. When asked to identify emotions by looking at 36 sets of emoting eyes, they did markedly better than their upper-class peers.

Fascinating stuff. I think it also shows why politicians have such a hard time enacting policies to help the less well off. Here's a chart I whipped up outlining the median wealth of Senators, Representatives, and average American families.

That's a striking difference. If wealthy people struggle psychologically to empathize with other people, is it any wonder that politicians seem so hell bent on slashing Social Security, Medicare, education, food stamps, and any program designed to help others? They know it's not going to have an impact on them, so why should they care?

I really have no idea what could be done to fix this.

Redeeming the Ukulele

The ukulele is not on my list of "Things That Are Cool." However, I may have to rethink that after listening to a rendition of "Bohemian Rhapsody" played on one. Okay, the instrument still probably won't be on that list, but this version of BoRhap just might be eligible.

Note: the guy pictured above is not the guy playing BoRhap in the link. I just found this picture and thought it fit.

Worst States

This is a fascinating map.

I'm curious how some of these were measured, though. Look at Ohio. It's the "Nerdiest state." How is that determined? And why is it a bad thing?

What about New Mexico being the most "anti-social." What were the metrics for that?

I must also say that I'm very proud of my home state, Montana, for being the worst in drunk driving. Way to go, guys! You earned it!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mathematician's Dice

As a gamer geek and a math geek, I really want some of these.

HT: GeekDad

No Oscar Nomination for Christopher Nolan's Directing?

Why, oh why did Christopher Nolan not get a nomination for Best Director for Inception? I'm glad he was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, but not getting a directing nod seems ludicrous. To be fair, I haven't seen any of the nominees in the category (I'm behind on my viewing, okay?), but I'm having a hard time not seeing Nolan's masterful guiding hand behind Inception not ranking with any of them.

So, anyone out there who has seen some of these other films think they are better directed than Inception?

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Facts of Life

Adam Frank has a post over on NPR entitled "Life Is More Meaningful Than Mere Facts Can Convey."

There are many reasons human beings institutionalized their spiritual longing into religions. Those reasons often devolved into considerations of power, control and real estate. Those institutions certainly have needed to enforce creed and doctrine, i.e. "knowledge."

But the reasons individuals find their lives transformed by spiritual longing are intimate and deeply personal affairs having little to do with dusty "proofs for the existence of God." As all those "spiritual but not religious" folks popping up in surveys on religion will tell you, the essence of the question is about experience, not facts.

Along a similar vein, in the pro-science/anti-religion camps one often hears the quest for understanding the universe put in equally ultimate, quasi-theological terms. Finding the final theory, the Theory of Everything, is held up as a kind of moment "when the truth shall be revealed once and for all." While many practicing scientists might not see it this way, the scientific knowledge/enlightenment trope has been there in popular culture for a long time reaching all the back to Faust and up through movies like Pi.

I think the conflict comes when someone on either side claims a monopoly on "truth." I'm not sure why there needs to be a conflict. Science gives us the facts about the universe and how it operates. Religion gives us the reason for being here. I am passionate about science, but I also have very closely held religious views. In my mind, they are not in conflict; rather they complement each other. It probably helps that I don't feel any need to convert anyone to my religious belief. Within my paradigm it's perfectly acceptable for people to believe whatever they are comfortable believing.

Science is a beautiful thing and I love it for how it illuminates our world and reveals the beauty in it. It can also be perverted into something twisted such as eugenics. I find religion to be much the same. Think of the beauty of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Sermon on the Mount, or the teachings of Buddha. Like science, though, religion also has it's share of horrific acts such as the Crusades.

People on both ends of this spectrum need to be more respectful of the other side. Ideally (in my view, at least), there wouldn't be sides because I don't think there should be conflict. People should be humble about their unprovable religious beliefs and understand that others may feel differently. Also, while science should not be worshipped as being without error, there should not be quibbling over facts especially those facts that have been demonstrated time and time again through multiple different experiments to be the best possible explanation.

Actually, this whole thing could be summarized by "Everyone should endeavor to be more humble and more respectful."

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Oddities of Pandora

I love Pandora. It's a site that allows you to build your own stations by starting with an artist or song you like. It then plays music similar to them and you can rate it with a thumbs down if you don't like it or a thumbs up if you do. This is great for tweaking a radio station for any genre of music or any mood.

Still, Pandora occasionally plays some odd songs. I've got a station I've dubbed Epic Metal which as the name suggests is for epic sounding heavy metal (mostly power and symphonic), think Nightwish, Edguy, Blind Guardian, Iced Earth, Symphony X, and Rhapsody of Fire. This stuff is mostly over the top with songs about adventures, fantastic quests, and so on. Cheesy, yes, but I love it.

So, imagine my surprise the other day when I'm listening to this station on my phone while I'm driving and this song comes on.

What the hell? I thought. There's nothing metal about that.I had to double-check the station to make sure it hadn't been changed on me somehow. It hadn't. The Pandora algorithm somehow thought this New Age soft song used on Pure Moods was an appropriate fit for my station of over the top metal (\m/). If I had been at my computer I would have clicked the "Why was this song chosen?" button, but that's not an option on the phone version. If I had to guess, I would say that it was chosen due to the orchestral elements which many songs on my station have as well as the strong vocal aesthetic which again is a common element of the songs on Epic Metal.

But it certainly was an odd selection and not the first time it's happened to me.

From the Annals of Local News

In my hometown, a lawyer is charged with misconduct - again - for having sexual relations with a client.

A complaint filed by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel on Jan. 12 alleges that Solomon Neuhardt violated the rules of conduct for lawyers by having a sexual relationship with a client in 2008 and 2009.

Neuhardt denies the allegations in the recent complaint.

Neuhardt's license to practice law in Montana was suspended for four months in October 2007 after he was found to have had a sexual relationship with a client in 2005.

Pretty typically fare, really - people behaving stupidly. If I were the lawyer, however, I'm not sure I'd be saying this in my defense in a case like this.
[Neuhardt] said he has a “legion of satisfied current and former customers.”

Yep, I'm sure he could have phrased that more appropriately.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Batman Update

So, some details of Christopher Nolan's final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, are coming out. It was just announced that Anne Hathaway will be playing Selena Kyle (aka Catwoman) and Tom Hardy will be playing Bane. At first I was apprehensive about Hathaway in this role. She's got the sweet, girl-next-door appearance which just doesn't scream Catwoman. The more I think about it, though, the more I like it. I'm sure Nolan intends to give the character some sort of origin story so we'll get to see her go from a relatively normal girl with a rough upbringing to a brash anti-hero. I think Hathaway can pull this off.

It's also very interesting that Nolan has chosen Bane to be the primary antagonist. If you're not really sure who he is, check out this overview of his history from io9. Basically, his most famous moment is breaking Batman's back after releasing every villain in Arkham Asylum in order to wear Batman down. In many ways, he could be considered the dark side of Bruce Wayne - driven, intelligent, supremely skilled - and I imagine this is how Nolan will write him.

All in all, I'm very excited for this movie and this announcement only makes me more confident that Nolan will end it all in style.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What Should Bystanders Do?

NPR had a story about witnesses to brutal events and how they react.

I remember when one of my step-daughters and I were watching a news story unfold together. It was about a lawyer, shot outside of a courthouse by a disgruntled former client as a news cameraman, who just happened to be there, captured the whole thing on tape. My step-daughter, who is a doctor and whose father is a lawyer who may or may not have a disgruntled client some day, was disgusted by this. “Why doesn't he help him?” she kept asking me. I had an answer: He was doing something by recording the scene. But that hardly seemed adequate, and that is exactly how I feel about what went on in that Washington Metro train station.

There is an answer, but it seems inadequate.

The title of the story is "The Dilemma of the Bystander," but it doesn't seem to me like it should be much of a dilemma. Why wouldn't someone witnessing someone being harmed do something? It doesn't always have to be jumping in (although that's great). Just calling the cops or someone else nearby to help would be better than just watching or doing nothing.

Perhaps my understanding of these situations is colored by an experience I had when I was young. I was in fifth-grade (I think) when I witnessed a group of kids my age ganging up on my younger brother after school in an attempt to at the very least push him around a bit if not anything more serious. Did I step in to help him? Nope. I was too scared. I was used to getting picked on and pushed around and the last thing I wanted was more of that. So I just stood there. Luckily our dad was there and he put a stop to it.

I think about that a lot and wish I would have stepped in. It's easier for me to think that now, though, since I've developed the self-confidence to better handle those situations. It helps that part of my job now is dealing with big scary people (try restraining a 6'6", 300 lb. college football player some time) and so I've had some practice. Even with my past, though, I struggle to see how someone could watch someone getting throttled (or worse) and not do something. Like I said, call the cops, get someone else nearby to help. Something.

The question of whether or not to help someone in need, especially in the face of harm, should never be a dilemma.

Monday, January 17, 2011

DNA Exonerates Innocent Man. Again.

How many times is this going to happen before people really get upset about it? A Texas man has been freed after spending thirty years in prison.

DNA test results that came back barely a week after Cornelius Dupree Jr. was paroled in July excluded him as the person who attacked a Dallas woman in 1979, prosecutors said Monday. Dupree was just 20 when he was sentenced to 75 years in prison in 1980.

Now 51, he has spent more time wrongly imprisoned than any DNA exoneree in Texas, which has freed 41 wrongly convicted inmates through DNA since 2001 — more than any other state.

Ben Franklin said it was better for one-hundred guilty men to go free than for one innocent person to suffer. Our tough-on-crime laws have led to far too many situations like this. No one wants to feel unsafe and politicians suffer no repercussions for calling for harsher and harsher punishments. Likewise, prosecutors rarely face punishment for misconduct. This is not justice. This is weaving the illusion of having done something to protect people, to mete justice.

It's a travesty. These stories should be generating a national conversation over how they can be prevented. Unfortunately most people seem to shrug their shoulders.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Mother vs. Her Fetus

Doctors vote for the fetus which results in the death of both.

In a case that's both tragic and absolutely maddening, a series of Polish doctors allowed a pregnant woman to die from a colon condition because they feared that treatment would threaten her fetus. Edyta (a pseudonym adopted to protect the family) was two months pregnant when she was diagnosed with a painful colon disease that was aggravated by her pregnancy. She searched for a doctor who would treat her condition, and was repeatedly refused; eventually her illness worsened until she miscarried and died.

What a sad, sad story and a perfect illustration of how blind adherence to a doctrine can lead to bad consequences. I don't see how any pro-lifer could think this is an acceptable outcome. I completely understand the desire to not harm a fetus, but this fetus was killed because doctors were worried about harming it. That doesn't mean I think this was an easy, black and white case. I do think that when these events come up, doctors need to keep in mind that they have two patients - the mother and the fetus. Addressing these matters is tricky, but that's why hospitals have ethics committees, so that messy situations can be hashed out and the best possible path forward found. Surely a better outcome than this could have been found.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Nanny State Watch

This is just ridiculous. An Iowa state senator wants to ban caffeinated alcoholic beverages.

The Food and Drug Administration can ban caffeinated alcoholic beverages such as Four Loko, but it cannot stop bartenders from mixing Red Bull with vodka, coffee with Irish whiskey, or cola with rum. Fortunately, Iowa state Sen. Brian Schoenjahn (D-Arlington) has proposed a bill that would close this dangerous gap by making it a misdemeanor for any business with a liquor license to "manufacture for sale, sell, offer or keep for sale, import, distribute, transport, or possess any caffeinated alcoholic beverage."

What is the point of this? I'm in favor of laws that protect people from other people, but I really struggle to accept laws meant to protect us from ourselves. If someone wants to drink too much, who cares as long as they don't get behind the wheel of a car? If someone wants to smoke in a private establishment that wants to permit it, why not? Why do we want to restrict someone's freedom when the only person they are affecting is themselves? It's a slippery slope. I hope this law is defeated and I hope citizens and legislators seriously reconsider going farther down this path than we already are.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Not Just in Comic Books

Some guy in a superhero costume recently stopped a carjacking in Lynnwood, Washington.

“From the right, this guy comes dashing in, wearing this skin-tight rubber, black and gold suit, and starts chasing him away,” said Dan.

What Dan didn’t know is that just about every night, an anonymous Seattle man strolls into a comic store, enters a hidden back room and emerges transformed.

Now I'm not sure it's a good idea for people to be putting on skin-tight costumes and running around fighting crime. I do think it would be good for more people to stand up to thugs, though. Perhaps some of them would get the hint that not everyone is going to meekly go along with them.

Of course, maybe someone will just become the Joker, so it might not be a great idea.

"Money is fiction."

This American Life had a great episode last week asking the question, "What is Money?" You should check it out.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Beware the Coffee Table!

A clear and present danger for children everywhere.

A post over at Geek Mom (hey, it was linked to from Geek Dad, okay?) talks about the fear many parents feel around such mundane things as coffee tables.
OK, yes. When we were little, my younger brother went to the emergency room because of an altercation with a coffee table. And a survey of my fellow GeekMoms reveals two of them have coffee-table related scars. Another has one from a chair. Another recalls crashing into the media console. I myself had a run-in with a bit of shrubbery. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Parents have a natural desire to not see any harm come to their kids. I've got two daughters and it pains me to see them in any sort of pain. But I also know that injury is inevitable. And, really, the only way to learn how to deal with it is to go through it. It's also an important way of teaching kids what their limits are. In fact, I've often told my kids that if they aren't getting cuts and bruises, they are doing it wrong. That doesn't mean I'm going to let them get into situations where they're going to lose an arm or something, but I'm not going to try to prevent all potential injuries. Of course it's hard, because no parent wants to see their child hurt. It does make them stronger, better people, though, which I think all parents can agree is a worthy goal.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Viewing the World As It Is

A book publisher has generated quite a storm by deciding to replace "nigger" with "slave" in their forthcoming edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The word occurs more than 200 times in Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884, and its 1876 precursor, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which tell the story of the boys' adventures along the Mississippi river in the mid-19th century. In the new edition, the word will be replaced in each instance by "slave". The word "injun" will also be replaced in the text.

The new edition's Alabama-based publisher, NewSouth books, says the development is a "bold move compassionately advocated" by the book's editor, Twain scholar Dr Alan Gribben of Auburn University, Montgomery. It will have the effect, the publisher claims, of replacing "two hurtful epithets" in order to "counter the 'pre-emptive censorship' that Dr Gribben observes has caused these important works of literature to fall off curriculum lists worldwide."

Gribben said he had decided on the move because over decades of teaching Twain, and reading sections of the text aloud, he had found himself recoiling from uttering the racial slurs in the words of the young protagonists. "The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups," he said. "As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact."

This is backwards, though. It is precisely because the word is uncomfortable that we should be confronting it. Let's talk to kids about this word and other slurs. Let them answer questions like:
  • Which characters are using the word?

  • How do they mean it?

  • What other words are used similarly in the book and today?

  • Why is it be bad to call someone by a slur like this?

  • Is it okay for an author to use the word the way Twain does?

This gets kids to think about words and their power. Hiding from them (or any other "bad" thing) does not make them go away. It allows them to linger and continue poisoning the discourse around them. We need to bring them out in the open and boldly confront them. That is the only way to deal with stuff like this and move beyond it. Pretending it doesn't exist whether by Orwellian editing or not teaching it in the classroom only makes things worse.