Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Friday, June 30, 2006

The beginning, and the ending.

This past Friday I was perusing the New York Times when I ran across a rather interesting article. Specifically, this article [apologies- fee wall] deals with the frequency with which women are groped by strangers on the subway.

Now, I know that we here at Total Drek have a long-standing interest in women in general and breasts in particular (along with some of our distinguished readers) but that's not the point. However much many of us like women, I know that I myself have never groped a stranger on the subway, and I'm hoping rather fervently that my co-bloggers can say the same thing. This behavior strikes me as, to put it mildly, quite bizarre. It also sounds like it's a much more widespread phenomenon than I would have expected:

"Every girl I know has at least one story," said Barbara Vencebi, 23, a studio photographer standing outside the No. 6 train station at 116th Street in East Harlem yesterday.

...

"I looked back and I couldn't do anything because a lot of people were behind me," said Suany Baca, 32, a waitress who was going up the stairs at 86th Street in the No. 6 train station last November, when she was groped by a man who passed her going down.

"I pretended like it didn't happen," she said. "I don't know what they get out of it."


Indeed, whatever these men get out of it, it seems as though there are quite a few of them. Now, we can say a lot of things about this. We can criticize the men who violate strangers, we can wonder about the women who fail to say anything, and we can understand why it might be hard to make a scene. All of this, however, would fail to get to the real puzzle of this situation for me.

The real puzzle for me is that we can be living in a culture where women are ostensibly the equals of men, and yet somehow both sexes regard this behavior as just somehow... normal. And unfortunately, that sense of normality is likely to be passed down from parent to child.

In some ways, groping seems almost an accepted part of subway culture. Stephanie Vullo, 43, said she had dealt many times with men rubbing up against her or trying to touch her on crowded No. 4 or 5 trains in the morning when she takes her daughter to school. "It's worse in the summer months when everyone is wearing less clothing," she said. "The first time I turned around and yelled at the guy, but with my daughter, I don't want to get her upset."


While some of you may not agree, the above paragraph simply struck me as horrifying. I can certainly understand not wanting to upset one's daughter, but what sort of message does it send to do nothing? If one's daughter knows her mother is being touched, or flashed, and sees her mother do nothing, what will that little girl learn? What perspective will she develop about the relationship between people on a subway or even between men and women more generally? Hell, for that matter, what would a little boy learn from watching such things take place? Would he learn that men and women are equals, or that men routinely abuse and humiliate perfect strangers- and that it's okay as long as they're female strangers?

My point here is not that women need to be more assertive about combatting this problem. Certainly that would be nice, but I'm not quite enough of a moron to think I can lecture women on dealing with sexism. No, in this case I think we have an illustration of why unequal social systems are so durable. When we think of sexism, we think of the crude joke in the factory, or the leering in an office, or even the glass ceiling. When we think of working for equality we think of making pay rates more equal, or breaking through gender boundaries on jobs, and even making it easier for mothers to work. Sadly, however, this is not where sexism begins and ends. Sexism truly begins in our daily lives, in our smaller behaviors that display how men and women interact- who can be assertive, and who must passively accept what is done.

And there, beside us the whole time, are curious little eyes learning to do it all themselves.

Sexism begins in our daily lives and it can end there too.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Another try at justice.

Those who follow the news with any regularity will note that today the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the constitutionality of military trials for detainees in the war on terror. In essence, the court ruled that the courts themselves were illegal and, thus, that their resulting decisions were invalid.

As always there were dissenting opinions, this time written by Scalia, Thomas, and Alito. Thomas remarked about the majority opinion that the willingness of the Supreme Court:

"...to second-guess the determination of the political branches that these conspirators must be brought to justice is both unprecedented and dangerous..."


However, in truth, this was not the real issue. The majority opinion is not that Congress and the Executive cannot decide who need be brought to justice- only that they must be brought to justice in accordance with the constitution, our laws, and with the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This is equivalent to saying that if a man is accused of rape and murder, you should probably put him on trial, rather than just stringing him up. Not such a hard concept for most people to grasp except, perhaps, when it pertains to terrorists.

I'm sure that there will be those who say that this is a "victory for the terorrists" and that the people who support this decision are "helping the terrorists." Certainly, with the way Bush has been dialing up the rhetoric lately, I don't think we'll have long to wait. Such an argument, however, is nothing more than a dramatic oversimplification of the truth. I don't like terrorists. I don't like al Qaeda. After 9/11 I wanted to see every responsible party located, captured, and put on trial for their crimes. Afterwards, I would very happily have shot them down myself. The problem is that I'm not willing to sacrifice everything that makes my country what it is in order to see that happen. I'm not willing to see us give up our privacy, to surrender our right to confront and question our representatives, or to see those accused of crimes tried fairly. These are freedoms that Americans have bled and died for, and to convert ourselves into a repressive state in the name of combatting those who "hate freedom" is worse than absurd. It is tragic.

Today's decision was a victory for the American people. Now, perhaps, the Bush administration will persue real trials for detainees, and give us real justice, instead of some half-assed cowboy impersonation.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Blogiversary: Part Deux!

Well, folks, that fateful day has arrived- our Total Drek Blogiversary. Yes indeed, two years ago today I first began blogging with a post appropriately titled This Blog Sucks. Since then, well, I suppose things have just thundered onward like grad students at the annual ASA book giveaway. And with about as much tact and discretion as well.

So what have we accomplished in these past few years? Well, a number of things I suppose. We've built a computer in a fridge, we've intercepted policy memos from the Democratic Party, as well as Bush's speech notes. We've argued with creationists, and explained basic thermodynamics... several times. We've discussed good videogames, bad videogames, and vaguely disturbing videogames. And of course (how could I forget?) we've spent a lot of effort talking about boobs... sometimes even in guest posts on other blogs.

In the past two years, there have also been some substantial changes to the staff. While this blog started with just me a number of additions have been made since. First, there came Slag, who injected a substantially less caustic attitude into the blog. Then came his first girlfriend, then wife, the Total Drek European Correspondent (TDEC) who, while no longer living in Europe remains, I imagine, European. Next, in a rush of additions came occasional guest blogger Tom Bozzo, the ever-popular Tina, and the enigmatic Cruffler. Oh, I suppose we technically added the Former Hypothetical Roommate (FHR) as well, but he has yet to blog.

I've been trying to imagine the best way to celebrate a two year Blogiversary and find that, frankly, sobbing at all the time I've wasted online is highly overrated. So, instead of that fun activity, I've got a different one for us all. Since this is the two year anniversary of this blog's beginning, what better way to celebrate than by checking out some other blog that is in its infancy?

I give you The Red-faced Warbler which, despite its name, is more about politics and the law than it is about embarrassed birds. Moreover, despite its relative youth, it's so far got some pretty decent work. For example:

Here we are again near an election, and thus here we are talking about the issue of gay marriage. Republican rabble rousers in congress view this as their ace in the hole. People tend to get pretty emotionally involved in the issue, and this draws more prudes out to the polls. And, of course, prudes vote republican.

But "prudery" is too simplistic an explanation for the majorities in states across the country that voted in 2004 to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples. Gay marriage is a new idea for many people, one that challenges - perhaps even ‘attacks’ - some fundamental beliefs and values they hold. It is, thus, not surprising that they sometimes react emotionally with discomfort, disgust, fear, and even outrage. And they are entitled, I suppose. Emotional reactions, however, rarely make good policy, particularly in this cynical age.

Republican legislators (following the lead of George Bush and his Washington buddies) have recklessly fanned these phantom flames into political hoopla; in their attempts to pretend they have something in common with their constituents, they have declared their intention to “protect marriage.” To do so, they have gone to the extraordinary lengths of campaigning for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as man-woman, and specifically disallowing any legal similarities with non-married partnerships. Why a law? Because it is the only tool in their irrelevant toolbox. But even those who feel strongly that same-sex couples not marry should not support a law to ban it.


So, raise your glass to the fools at Total Drek who seem to have too much time on their hands, and then head on over and read the work of some other poor bastard who is working on developing a solid blogging addiction like the rest of us.

Happy Birthday, Total Drek. I don't know what I'd do without you.

Probably be less annoying.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

UCSC Chancellor Dies in Apparent Suicide

University of California at Santa Cruz Chancellor Denice Denton fell to her death last week, from what appears to be a jump from her highrise apartment in San Francisco. I am feeling this tragedy quite closely, as an alumnus of that school (yes, I am a banana slug) who has kept up with recent goings on through newletters and old friends still on campus.

The hire of Chancellor Denton was particularly exciting, as she was moving the campus in positive directions. As an advocate for women in science, she was much more than the corporate
overlord than chancellors of big universities usually are, or at least as those at UCSC had been for years.

I imagine that the press' focus on the criticisms of the terms of her hire, with her big salary and a position created for her partner, are at least somewhat off the mark in that they focus only on the public troubles that we can know about, not on the personal things that may or may not be underlying her depression. We almost never know the full story behind why a person kills herself.

Regardless, this loss is a great tragedy for the university and beyond.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Statz 4 Life!

Those who know me, or read this blog from time to time, have likely gleaned that I am fond of mathematics. In fact, I rather proudly identify myself as a Quantoid in the finest tradition of the term. While the work I have produced has been, to date, rather limited it can all be described as highly quantitative in nature.

Now, this preference doesn't mean that I entirely reject the usefulness of qualitative work- in point of fact I have previously written a brief parable summing up their symbiotic relationship- but I do really prefer the sweet joy of a stats package to that of the in-depth interview. Yet, regardless of my fondness for statistics, it pales by comparison to the good people I am going to bring to your attention today.

Thanks to my Sainted Girlfriend and her close friend Alyssa (Who is a Ph.D. student in Psychology and a fellow quantoid) I have become aware of a most remarkable thing: a rap video about statistics.

No, I'm really not kidding. It was, apparently, produced by a group of grad students who share my fondness for numbers and can be found here.

Notable lyrics include:

"I got, like, correlation, t-tests and even chi-square.
I use stats every day- like I'm combing my hair!

Populations or samples, you can tell by notation. I work it all out, cause it's all in the equation.

Cause when I find a correlation that's description...

DESCRIPTION!

...the regression line's for prediction...

PREDICTION!

I got a one-way ANOVA, do you know what that means? I got three or more independent levels on the scene..."


And so on. This is, hands down, the awesomest thing on the internet. Go watch it.

Seriously.

And, as long as we're on the subject, I'd just like to invite Jeremy Freese and the rest of the Sconnie Karaoke Crew to prepare a rendition of this for the meetings in Montreal. I think it would be a pretty good way to keep people entertained while we're waiting for the presidential address.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Question of the Day:

I'm working at a fairly large University in the United States. It's summer, so we have relatively few students lurking about. I'm in an office complex used entirely for research. There are no dormitories or, indeed, apartments in my immediate vicinity. This place is, to put it mildly, quiet and highly professional.

So why is it, I ask all of you, that my laptop has just detected a wireless LAN somewhere nearby (i.e. somewhere in the neighboring set of offices) whose SSID is, "ExtendedGoatSodomy?"

As soon as I return, I leave again!

Hey folks: looking for a post? Eager for a dose of Drek after so long? Well, don't fret because the brevity of this is not a sign that I am going to leave you in the lurch. As a matter of fact, I decided to thank my good buddy Tom for his contributions in my absence by providing a post over on his blog today. It's a pretty long one, so I suspect that even the largest of appetites for my frantic ramblings should be sated.

So what's it about? Oh, the usual:* Americans, atheists, and the hatred of the latter by the former. Check it out.

Or, you know, not. Really, it's your call. I have no coercive authority over you whatsoever.

* No, not boobs. Bloody hell, don't you people ever think of anything else?**

** Oh. Um... well... okay then. Carry on.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The End of the Road

However much y'all have been enjoying the hiatus in my blogging, I'm afraid it must eventually come to an end. My gracious guest bloggers have done an outstanding job* but the lure of the written word, the online rant, and the poorly-constructed ass joke is simply too powerful for me to resist. And so, dear readers, I have returned.

Yet, have no fear. For those of you who have delighted at the antics of Tina, Cruffler, and Tom Bozzo, you may rest assured that you have not seen the last of them. Tom and I have decided to occasionally trade posts, so you can look forward to a bright future of my posts sometimes showing up on his blog, and his posts sometimes showing up here. Tina has conceded that, while her time constraints are still somewhat pressing, she will hang around and add the occasional post. I am, to put it mildly, thrilled to see her back in the blogosphere- even in such a slight way. And finally we come to Cruffler, who has decided to stay on and contribute a post now and then despite the lack of significant negative commentary about his posts. Personally, I think that's a good sign, but to each their own. With these three talented folks hanging around, I think we can look forward to much better posts in the future.

So what insights have I gleaned from my recent absence? Well, first off, I've discovered that a lengthy break from blogging can do the heart good. It's been nice not writing so often. Secondly, however, I've discovered that I miss blogging when I am away from it for very long. I find that I often notice something, or think about something, and then wish to share my thoughts with all of you. During my absence, when this was impossible, I felt the lack rather strongly. This feeling was not reduced in any way when I happened to encounter another blogger (who is as yet unknown to you) and felt an almost irresistable urge to talk shop.

I would like to tell you that this means that you can look forward to several long posts in the near future, but this is probably not entirely correct. I have things I wish to discuss- indeed I do- but I also have projects to get back on track. Yet, as often as I claim that my blogging will be stunted, it almost always seems to continue at a more or less normal pace. What can I say? I am either a terrible judge of my own blogging-drive, or a habitual liar. I leave it to you to decide which.

In the meantime, I would have liked to have supplied you with a selection of pictures from my recent trip, perhaps even including another photo of my Sainted Girlfriend but, alas, Blogger is being uncooperative. So, through no fault of my own, you will just have to imagine my vacation pictures. Especially the one of me clubbing a baby seal.

Oh, right, like you've never thought about it!

* I should probably note the major exception to this rule: my Former Hypothetical Roommate (FHR). Many of you may recall that I introduced him along with my other distinguished guest bloggers. Alas, he is the only one who not only failed to post- he failed to even accept the blogger invitation to post. Despite this, he assures me that he has two posts well thought-out and has only lacked the time to write them. There are a number of things I could say to him about this, but I think I will content myself with leaving the invitation open, and waiting to see when those two posts appear.

Oh, that and perhaps I will change his name to the "Former Hypothetical** Blogger." That does, after all, have quite the ring to it.

** This image, from this blog, is one of the handful that come up when you enter "hypothetical blogger" into google images. I just couldn't resist including it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The World Cup

This year is World Cup year, and of course I mean the FIFA World Cup. As I am now in the US, I find myself almost missing the ubiquitous references to it. Oddly enough, I have even found myself watching the odd match. This is strange because not only could I not possibly care less, but Belgium, my own team, failed to qualify, depriving me of all nationalist motivation to watch it. Of course some of this match-watching is due to Slag, who is abusing my lack of a social life and foolish post-nuptial enjoyment of his company to get me to watch games. To give you just one example - on our mini-moon last weekend we spent the best of Saturday afternoon in front of a small tv in a Mexican restaurant, watching the Italy-US match.

You know what? It was a really good match. The US deserved to win, yes, really. They play Ghana tomorrow; if I were you I'd watch it.

Monday, June 19, 2006

No Way To Run A Space Program

Drek was too kind in suggesting that I have interesting things to say about LEGO, though right enough that I have a lot to say on the subject. I won't bore you with most of it, but we'll briefly return there later in the post.

Around the time I'd first stumbled on this blog, Drek had posted an appreciation of the spacey computer strategy game Master of Orion II ("MOO II"), which was second only to Sid Meier's Civilization among my grad school time killers. MOO II puts you in charge of a civilization that starts with limited interstellar travel capabilities. (It could be boring if you had to wait hundreds or thousands of game-years for stuff to happen.) Late in a game, enormous starfleets zoom across the galaxy at astounding speeds, bearing horrible weaponry that makes the New Battlestar Galactica Cylons look like signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (*)

Even SF that doesn't rely on major violations of the known laws of physics to advance the plot, such as Ken MacLeod's recent (and Hugo-award nominated) Learning the World, often assumes that it will be possible to pack large numbers of actual biological humans into big spaceships and embark on multi-generation interstellar trips. Though since LtW is set more than ten thousand years in the future, short of the Rapture of the Nerds arriving in the near future, it's unlikely that MacLeod will be error-checked in 13,000 years.

For the more foreseeable future, it is looking like even human space travel among the planets — a baby step of which is part of George W. Bush's "vision" for space exploration — looks a lot farther off than it would seem, even if we didn't have to trust the Worst President Ever to get the job done. The British SF star Charlie Stross had a depressing little linkfest on his (old) blog detailing a daunting array of technological obstacles on the exploration end of the "vision."

The weak link is us. A recurring theme of Bob Park's space coverage at What's New is that robots happily do lots of stuff in environments where limits of science, technology, and politics must be stretched, if not broken, for people simply to survive. Close as Mars may be, a vicious cycle centered on our frailties makes getting people there with current technology a major challenge.

While mass is a cost enemy of space missions, an interesting point of an article Stross links in his comments is that the U.S. space program has been unusually profligate in launching dead weight into orbit. (The following discussion, I should note in the interest of not pulling an Ann Coulter on y'all, liberally adapts a number of posts at the astronautix.com blog.) In the origins of the Apollo program, GE (**) had designed an Apollo vehicle very similar to what would become the Soviet Soyuz (under development at about the same time). The GE Apollo design offered 50% more habitable volume than the NASA Apollo capsule for the same mass through a modular design that minimized the size of the re-entry vehicle. This in turn reduces the mass of heat shielding, etc. However, NASA had already settled on the Apollo capsule design by the time that it received contractor studies.

Throwing mass into orbit for little or no return really took off with the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle's empty mass of nearly 70T represents a 50-55T mass premium over a non-reusable alternative such as Stross's suggestion of adding a re-entry capsule to turn the ESA's 10T ATV into a passenger transport. The Shuttle's extra mass mostly consists of the airplane elements that allow the shuttle to be flown back to a runway landing and the Space Shuttle Main Engines. Forget about cost for the moment. Over 114 flights, that's nearly 6,000T — 13.2 million pounds — launched into orbit at the U.S. taxpayer's expense with nothing left in space to show for it. That goes some way to explaining why our presence in space is so much more lame than sixties-era visions anticipated.

As for the cost, it might have been justifiable had the Shuttle lived up to original expectations that the orbiters would fly very frequently with minimal refurbishment between flights. It's typical to see launch prices given as roughly $20 million per ton of payload delivered to low earth orbit on an expendable booster of western design; launches on Russian and Chinese hardware are cheaper. The Shuttle's average cost of more than $1 billion per launch has been much higher than that (assuming you wanted to recover the program cost through freight charges), though that's in part because up to 109T of orbiter is sent to orbit with the 23T maximum payload. The incremental launch cost — the cost of whatever you need to add an additional launch to the schedule — is far lower, since much of the program cost is in R&D and other "fixed" infrastructure costs. Somewhere inbetween is an average operating cost, whose magnitude suggests that fly-back orbiters are a dead-end, at least for now, because after 114 flights the Shuttle is much more X-plane than cargo liner.

One might ask what our MBA administration has done to improve things. They take the very MBA-ish approach of giving federal agencies color coded management performance grades, after all.

Do you really need to ask?

Despite having been given, in the Columbia disaster, a golden opportunity to stop throwing good money after bad by terminating the Shuttle program and accelerating the development of a follow-on system, they instead have been throwing billions at the Shuttle that can't be recovered over the remaining program life in the name of — prepare for mordant chuckle — fulfilling U.S. agreements with its international ISS partners (***). Nor have they been willing to mount the one Shuttle mission that might be worth the cost (if not risk) in science.

The Bush II space exploration "vision" theoretically envisions a return to the moon as a warm-up to a visit to Mars — the latter, perhaps, the one Bush I initiative from which fils hasn't made a show of running screaming in the opposite direction from père. My theory has been that the "vision" is substantially a ruse to crowd out significant portions of the NASA budget — the human spaceflight portion, of course, and to some extent also the science — and then present Congress with a massive bill for the exploration stuff that they won't be willing to pay in the name of fiscal rectitude.

As this analysis of contractor proposals for the CEV (the Apollo-like Shuttle follow-on) shows, the first step for this is repeating and even amplifying Apollo-era mistakes. Whether it's a matter of gold-plating, not-invented-here syndrome, or whatever, it's hard to disagree with Stross's assessment that the CEV and its launcher (****) will be behind schedule and massively over-budget.

That's without a dime having been spent on any of the Mars challenges. A lot of the long-lead research budget lines were proposed to be cut to provide Shuttle and CEV funding, despite human needs for air, food, water, gravity, and radiation protection being substantially undiminished. Nor has the administration followed through on its own space-based nuclear propulsion initiative, a gateway technology to some types of large-scale interplanetary missions including advanced robotic missions to the outer solar system (where sunlight is too weak for solar and for which radioisotope thermal generators provide insufficient juice).

The bottom line is that the arbitrary requirement that NASA live within its current budget ensures that hopes for space exploration breakthroughs are probably best pinned on the Allen-Branson-Rutan efforts. In the meanwhile, imagination and little plastic building blocks will get you as far into space as almost anything else.

P.S., can I combine LEGO and other Total Drek obsessions in one reference? Why, yes.

-------------------------

(*) For a quicker dose of the same, try my favorite space strategy game, Spaceward Ho! Ho lacks much of the superficial detail of MOO but fiendishly adds the complexity of requiring management of both renewable and non-renewable resources — not uncoincidentally making it an excellent test of one's ability to put standard economic models of resource extraction to a test.

(**) While you may not think of GE as a space contractor, one of their units built re-entry vehicles for nuclear missile warheads.

(***) Not to make too fine a point of it, the same international partners told to go jump in the North Atlantic over stuff like sending people off to Jeebus-knows-where for torture purposes.

(****) And while an antitrust exemption is pending to allow Boeing and Lockheed Martin to coordinate their space launch businesses in the face of weak demand, the CEV won't be compatible with their partly publicly funded boosters!

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Learn English or Die

So I've lived in Florida for a while and I've noticed that more and more people I meet do not speak English. This is different from they speak something other than English. What I mean is that they are unable to effectively communicate in the English language. This becomes a problem. A few weeks ago I went to a CVS to have some pictures developed into wallet size prints. The photo technician seemed to not understand me so I switched to Spanish. Now that she received the message, she was still unable to print the photos. The difficulty now was in setting the machine. I've never worked in a photo development lab, but I suspect that printing wallet size photos is a fairly basic operation.

That is a fairly minor event compared with what inspired this rant. In most states you can apply for a license to carry a concealed weapon. Someone lost hers when her purse was stolen and asked me what to do about it. I responded that she needed to get a replacement issued. This was totally not understood. I found the phone number to call, wrote it down, and handed it to her. Blank stare. I mimed it with a phone and my best Charades skills. Small nod. I'm still not convinced she got it. So the State has licensed someone who can't communicate with most of us to walk around with a gun. In general I'm in favor of an armed population, but this is just insane. If a police officer arrives at a scene where she is holding a gun how is he supposed to determine if she is one of the good guys? This seems fairly serious. Similar difficulties are happening in other places too. At least the medical field is prepared for the inevitable outcome.

So I think you do yourself and your family harm by not learning the language most people around you speak. I'm not the only one. Even Canada says you should learn French if you're going to settle in Quebec. Given some responses in this country, I can only imagine the riots that would follow similar language on a US web site.

Friday, June 16, 2006

'Tis the season for broken cars

I had my car fixed -- again -- at the new car dealership's location. They tell me it was a bad cell in the battery. We'll see. As for the new place, it looked new and shiny and state of the art. I hated it. The old place was old and dingy but it had character. One of the reasons I went there was because they had been there for eons. Now it's just another flashy monument to consumerism. I will grant that the old neighborhood has gone to hell and the new place is, for now, devoid of the more colorful individuals that make the old neighborhood bad. I'll miss the old place though. New might be better, but I respect longevity much more.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

BYU Fires Instructor for Op-Ed

Brigham Young University fired adjunct philosophy instructor, Jeffrey Nielsen, after he wrote an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune opposing the LDS church's stance on same-sex marriage and its support for a Constitutional amendment that limits marriage to a man and a woman. Nielsen had contracts to teach summer, fall and winter courses. He has been dismissed after the current term.

BYU is not known for its support for academic freedom, but this strikes me as particularly disturbing. Are all faculty supposed to simply spout the talking points of the church? If so, what is the point of higher education at all? How can you run a philosophy department, or a sociology department for that matter, if individual thoughts expressed publicly can get you fired?

Farther down the article is a list of people fired from BYU for their ideas:
* English professor Cecilia Konchar Farr in 1993 after she gave a speech supporting a woman's right to an abortion.
* Anthropologist David Knowlton in 1993 after publishing studies on the church in Latin America.
* English professor Gail Turley Houston in 1996 after she "publicly contradicted" doctrine.
* History professor Steve Epperson in 1996 because he lacked an LDS temple recommend.

These are the sorts of things that you expect to carry dates like 1860, not 1996.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Notes from the New World

I am now officially TDEC no more, in the sense that the position of Total Drek European Correspondent does presuppose that one should be located in, well, Europe. At least, that is what I would assume; maybe it just means that I have to be European, which I obviously still am and plan to remain. What I mean is that I am now, and soon to be officially, a part of the US's flourishing immigrant population. That whole process has not been helping my posting frequency, but there you go, one day you are a happy corporate slave in Hungary, and the next you are indulging in cohabitation and unemployment in the land of the, er, free.

Btw, if I had no other reasons for supporting gay marriage, then the prospect of two Mounties marrying in full ceremonial uniform would be quite enough to convince me. Also, let me add that while they do dress that way, they only do so very rarely and on special occasions. This fact caused me many disappointments when I was in Canada.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Gay Marriage! Gay Marriage! Gay Marriage!

It shouldn't be a surprise, since the folks at Marginal Utility have their fingers on the pulse of the global zeitgeist, but since Kim's post on same-sex marriage, it's been all over the news.

First, we've got news of a plan up this way that two Canadian Mounties are planning to wed in their full mountie regalia (seriously, they really do dress that way), causing a small stir among those (mostly journalists) who want Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to get his panties in a wad over it, thus ruining himself politically in a country that has a mostly "live and let live" attitude about the whole thing.

Then, we learn that Spain's Parliament has given final approval to its law recognizing same-sex marriage. The Pope is none too happy about that. I guess he had his hopes hung on Spain, while he had already written Canada off.

Finally, we hear that Westchester County, the wealthy suburbs to the north of New York City, is going to be the first county in New York to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, though clearly this is a mostly symbolic victory, as most marriage benefits are doled out at the state and federal, rather than the county, level of government.

All in all, it's good news for sociologists working in lesbian and gay activism. Perhaps Pat Robertson will come up with another of his fantastic quotes about God punishing our sinful world for the dedication page of my book.

Hurricane Season is here

As I watch the rain and track the first tropical storm of the year, I feel the need to warn everyone of the upcoming hurricane season. I've been in Florida for a while now, and when I ran away to North Carolina the hurricanes followed me there too. I think I've got this whole storm preparedness thing down. For those of you who need some help in in this area, here are some tips.

DO NOT DEPEND ON THE GOVERNMENT TO HELP YOU! They're too busy trying to keep things from getting totally out of control. If you're lucky enough to have really incompetent leadership, they won't even properly manage the assets they have. Be prepared to be alone for about three days. Should the worst happen you can venture out after the initial panic wears off. When we had three hurricanes roll through Orlando in short order, the National Guard had ARMED sentries at the ice distribution points. This was in a reasonably functional city – no riots, very little looting – two weeks after the storm. The government will be busy maintaining overall order. You have to take responsibility for yourself.

For a reasonable list of what you need, check out the Red Cross. They've been doing the disaster recovery thing for a while so their advice is not to be taken lightly. Personally, I think they do great work so support them if you can. Your particular situation may demand adjustments that only you can determine. Aside from food, clothing, and shelter, all else is luxury. Popular tips
include filling the bathtub with water and getting canned foods. Just don't forget the can opener. I like MREs or any type of camping food. If you live in a trailer, seriously consider going to a shelter. While it should go without saying, do not wait until the storm is about to hit to get your hurricane supplies. Tensions will be high and supplies will be low. Batteries and flashlights are usually the first casualties. Bottled water and canned food are the next. Gasoline might be a problem, though it's usually just a matter of waiting in line. Hopefully you have clothes, but having a few extra changes of underwear and socks might not be a bad idea. Rainwear is a good idea, but I would just stay indoors.

Stay safe out there.

Friday, June 09, 2006

A Generation Without Cervical Cancer?

I've posted before on the new HPV vaccine (you'll have to just trust me on that, as my old blog is long gone). HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the US, and the virus is actually small enough to pass through condoms, as well as pass around condoms through skin to skin contact. Two strains of HPV cause 70% of cervical cancer in women, and the new vaccine, just approved by the FDA, is effective in preventing those strains, as well as two other strains that cause 90% of genital warts.

It is not effective at all once you are infected, so experts recommend childhood vaccinations. Specifically, they recommend giving it to all girls at age 11. As I noted in my earlier post, conservatives are opposed to this vaccination schedule, as it will encourage promiscuity. As the NY Times article points out, cost is also a factor, with each vaccination costing $360. If cost were not a factor, I would imagine that the recommendation would be that boys get it, too.

Thousands of women die of cervical cancer in the US each year. For those who survive, the treatments are painful (layers of the cervix are removed by one of several methods) and often temporary - the cancer may return. This is going to be one more occasion when conservatives are directly opposing women's health. We can only hope that the political will exists to live up to the promise of this new vaccine.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Thoughts on the "War on Terror"

Today we have reports of the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Personally I'm glad he's dead. As for why it has come to this...that's probably more than one blog entry. I'll tackle something shorter. Somewhere along the way, Zarqawi and his friends were labeled terrorists. While I can probably be convinced that terrorism is bad, it's harder to convince me of who is a terrorist. If we define a terrorist as someone who practices terrorism, I would have to label Patrick Henry and the Founding Fathers as terrorists. The winners write the history books, and now we view them as heroes and people like Nathan Hale as martyrs. There has to be some difference between a terrorist and a patriot other than whose side you're on and it's not just tactics. I spent some time in the federal gun club so I understand the necessity to resort to guerrilla warfare when the opposing force is overwhelmingly superior. I can even understand the use of “terror” tactics against combatants. In most cases I'll also extend that to political and ideological leaders. What I can't forgive is killing people who are marginally involved in the conflict. For example, blowing up the restaurant frequented by your opponent. The owner and workers are only there to make a living. The other patrons are completely uninvolved. Punishing them for a result of circumstance is unconscionable. On the other hand, if you provide a safe hiding place for the opponent then you have now taken an active part in the conflict. To me, that makes you a valid target. I would like to believe something like this led to the reported massacre in Haditha. Time will tell and hopefully this will be a justified occurrence. If not, that's why we have a military justice system. Maybe that's the only real difference. Terrorists are beholden only to themselves. Freedom fighters are held responsible by the people they claim to represent.

"Hey, tina! How was the Radiohead show?"

How nice of you to ask! It was awesome. Even though it was a fancy concert hall with cushy seats, as soon as they stepped on stage everyone stood up for the whole show. I don't know how you could sit down. They played lots of new stuff, and it sounds like the next album is going to be really good.

"And did the lesbian babysitter harm your child?"

No indeed. The little tot was safe and sound, having taken one more wee step toward understanding that even when mom and dad have a night out, they always come home and everything is okay.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Vehicle Specialization, or Lack Thereof

We'll see how Cruffler might shake things up in subsequent posts, but I can't disagree with his first outing. I switched to human power for my fair-weather commuting last fall and have tried not to look back, or more precisely not to look forward to my car's air conditioned seats once the hot and buggy stretch of the upper-midwestern year arrives. I freely admit that I have my limits, and so I have my buns warmed when the most intrepid Madison bike commuters are braving subfreezing temperatures and the accompanying precipitation.

The meta-truth I'd like to address is what would constitute an economics conundrum that Cruffler identifies: there are a lot of huge vehicles used for trips hauling no more than a single person and a small piece of everyday luggage. Any remotely middle class housing in greater suburbia has at least a two car garage. So why are all those stalls occupied by a minivan, an SUV, and a bigger SUV? Economic factors such as relatively high incomes, or in the alternative cheap automotive credit, and until-recently-low fuel prices only predict that we'd have lots of vehicles and drive a lot.

Marketing gurus such as Clotaire Rapaille would have us believe that we are hard-wired to (tend to) want something that's a tank on the outside and a comfy lounge on the inside. Even accepting the dubious proposition that there are substantial evolutionary explanations for consumer preferences over technological goods, the question is begged as to why we wouldn't want something that's more like, say, a stealth fighter on the outside and a snug cave on the inside.

The bleeding obvious is that preference manipulation, augmented by a 'tragedy of the commons' as other drivers develop a need to be able to see around the damned beasts, is the only explanation for how crossing station wagons and trucks results in what is viewed in some quarters (though not all) as less dorky progeny.

Needless to say, the implosion of demand for urban assault vehicles in the face of sustained $3-ish gas also argues against an innate preference. Which is fine with me, as if an inattentive driver has to hit me, other things equal I'd rather it be with a Civic than an Escalade.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Little Things

Posting as an American immigrant in Canada, I'd just like to take this moment to reflect on how the policy differences between these two countries come into your life in unexpected ways.

For example, because I'm hetero, you might think that the Canadian policy recognizing same-sex couples would never really affect my life. But today, I was able to simply add my friend's partner to the emergency contact card at my toddler's daycare centre. No muss, no fuss, two women, one family. One person to pick-up the kid so I can go to the Radiohead show tomorrow.

Thanks, Canada.

Controversial? Me? Surely you jest.

Those of you who are web-savvy will be able to figure out what cruffler means and get an idea of why Drek thinks I might stir up the pot a bit. I'll save some of my antics for another time. Since this is my first post I'll try to keep the controversy to a low level.

Today I'm advocating the use of motor scooters as a viable alternative to cars. Those of you in big cities with effective mass transit systems don't really need to worry about transportation costs. They will change with the cost of fuel of course, but in general there is nothing you can do to reduce your "fuel consumption" other than walk or ride a bike. Those of us in places without effective mass transit are in the greatest position to benefit from reduced fuel consumption.

I've been riding a scooter for nearly eight months now. It was originally just to go back and forth to work, having worked out that the monthly payment on it plus the gas it consumed would be less than the monthly gas consumption of my car. As gas prices go up the advntage increases and I don't expect them to drop significantly ever again. I'm not advocating getting rid of your car. Just as you wouldn't use a butter knife to cut down a tree, you must match the tool to the job. If I go grocery shopping or need to go a very long distance, the car is a much better choice. Honestly though, most of the time I'm just transporting myself and maybe a few things that can fit in a backpack. While I could use a bicycle, and I have sometimes, the time and sitance involved makes it impractical most of the time, not to mention the gallon of sweat my clothes end up soaking.

It was a rather simple decision for me to get a scooter. In Florida, a two-wheeled motor vehicle with an engine displacement of less than 50cc is barely considered a motor vehicle. It is not even considered a motorcycle. The immediate consequence is that you don't need a motorcycle endorsement on your driving license. There are no gears to shift so the controls are more like a bicycle than a motorcycle so this makes sense. For the truly stupid it also means you're not required to wear a helmet. I do because I want to continue to live should something bad happen. Of great economic impact is the lack of insurance requirement. The scooter tends to weigh as much as you do so at maximum speed against a car you'll probably do at most $500 worth of damage. Since it's not required, voluntary insurance is dirt cheap. Of course fuel economy is great with theese little engines. I get 83 MPG though your mileage may vary.

This makes the economic aspect of scooter ownership seem pretty good but there are some practicality issues. Cargo capacity is one, but that can normally be solved with saddlebags or backpacks. Most scooters have internal compartments. Like I said before, most of the time it's just me so cargo is a small matter. The greatest barrier to mass practicality is speed. City traffic moves along at 45+ MPH while my 50cc engine barely edges 35 MPH. Getting passed by semis on state highways is a little intimidating. I would like to see the 50cc ceiling raised to 125-150cc. This would allow for a top speed between 40 and 50 MPH so that scooters could move along at normal traffic pace. There are other potential problems with two wheeled vehicles, but I'll consider them pretty rare.

If more people drove scooters we would reduce our dependency on foreign oil, help the environment, reduce traffic congestion, , etc. More importantly, it's just fun to ride around in one of these things. We would all get along better if we had a little more fun in our lives. And that's a good thing.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Back on the Blogwagon

Well, thank you so much to Drek for inviting me to guest blog. I have been on blog hiatus for so long that I finally did archive and shut down Pub Sociology. Archiving a blog is a strange thing. As far as I can tell, it just saves absolutely everything you've ever posted in a giant text file. No line breaks, no fancy fonts, just line after line of tina drivel. Like ashes in an urn, I suppose.

I've missed blogging some, especially in those moments when something exciting or outrageous crosses my desk, and I just have to share it. Now that I have a chance to post again, however, I can't for the life of me remember what those were or why I was so worked up.

At the moment, the thing that has my attention is teaching. I know that it's summer, and I'm supposed to stop thinking about teaching, but I've got a new class next year, and I have to order the book(s). It's Introduction to Sociology, which I've taught before, and it's a big lecture, which I've done before, but never both at the same time. I've taught intro as a small (25 student) seminar in an intensive 4-week class. We read 3 sociology books and some articles I select, and we pulled out the sociology lessons through class discussion and (minor) analysis of some relevant data. I don't think that's going to fly for my 350-student, year-long course, so I'm going to use a textbook.

To make myself feel better about my megaclass (did I mention that it is at 8:30am?), I am looking into student response systems. I think it was Chris Uggen that first brought them to my attention, and they seem very promising to me. My textbook publisher will issue a coupon that brings the price to quite reasonable $25 per student and it seems handy for all sorts of things, not the least of which is getting students to guess at answers to questions in the day's lecture, hopefully giving them some reason to continue listening to what I have to say.

I haven't met anyone who has used one, however, so I'm a bit wary of just trying it out, in case it's the sort of nifty toy that you play with for a few weeks and then forget about. That would be particularly unfair, given that it isn't me footing the bill for them.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Introducing the Total Drek guest bloggers!

This past Wednesday I apologized for my lax blogging this week and indicated that I would be departing on a trip next week. I also said that I would try to round up a talented team of guest bloggers, but would most likely fail.

Well, as it happens, not only did I succeed, but I did so in a manner beyond my wildest hopes. Despite the fact that my guest bloggers know me and, therefore, are familiar with my true nature, they have generously agreed to contribute to the blog during my impending absence.

To properly get things started, please allow me to introduce them, in no particular order.

First, we have our long-time blogging pal, Tom Bozzo of the excellent blog, Marginal Utility. Tom has a lot of interesting things to say about economics, government, the space program, and legos. I have no doubt you will enjoy his contributions over here.

Next, we are joined by someone you have all come to know by reputation, but only somewhat in person. I refer, of course, to the ever-popular Former Hypothetical Roommate, otherwise known as FHR. All kidding aside, the FHR was among the best of my motley assortment of roommates over the years, and should have some interesting things to say. Or, you know, he'll use this as a chance to badmouth me while I can't do anything about it. Either way, you should be entertained.

Third, we have a particular treat in store for you. Excellent blogger Tina of the gone but not forgotten Pub Sociology* has agreed to come out of retirement to provide some posts. I have no doubt that Tina will have things to say that are insightful, entertaining, or both.

Finally, last but most certainly not least, we have a second blogging rookie trying his hand at the game. The mysterious and quite likely controversial blogger known only as Cruffler has decided to try his hand at the game. I particularly hope you enjoy his takes on things.

So, please give a Total Drek warm welcome to our four guest bloggers.

As for me: I'll see you in a couple weeks.

* Note that Pub Sociology is not coming up anymore from my system, but this is the last link I had to it.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Becoming a boob.

As I have been promising since last Monday it is now time for me to speak with all of you about a very important topic. This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart and, I am sure, to yours: boobs. Now, like many other heterosexual male bloggers, I have a certain fondness for boobs. I tend to revel in excuses to discuss them in posts, find stupid reasons to link to scantily-clad women, and generally make an ass of myself whenever possible. I freely admit this. The post you are reading now, however, is something of an exception.

Yes, today I am talking about boobs but, for once, there's actually a purpose to it.

From a biological point of view, the breast is an interesting structure. On the one hand, its existence has contributed mightily to the evolution of Human cognitive abilities. With our huge brains, and proportionately large heads, the ability to nourish physically immature young outside of the womb is of tremendous benefit. However, on the other hand, the development of breasts and the production of milk is metabolically expensive. All that fat and oil that makes milk so nourishing for growing children places a strain on the mother's resources. As a result, the development of breasts for nursing is not without certain drawbacks.

What makes this more complex is the question of how this system evolved in the first place. Consider, if you will: in order for a breast to be a worthwhile investment of metabolic resources, there has to be an immature child to nurse from it. Yet, at the same time, in order for a mutation producing birth at an earlier stage of fetal development to be useful, the mother of that fetus must be able to support it. It seems that what would have to happen would be two or more simultaneous changes in both adult human structure, and infant human structure, in order to make this system useful. It would appear that separate, complimentary mutations must take place at the same time. That seems like a tough order.

If this line of reasoning seems familiar to some of you, it should- it's almost exactly the argument made by intelligent design advocates about irreducible complexity. Put simply, an irreducibly complex system is supposedly one that has three distinct properties. First, it requires several interrelated parts to function. Second, the removal of even one of those parts makes the entire system fail. Third, the sub-parts are not useful for anything themselves in their current forms. As an illustration you might think of a mousetrap: it is a machine made of a spring, a hinge, a metal bar, and a trigger. Remove any of those parts and not only does the mousetrap no longer function- it doesn't do anything useful at all. Intelligent design advocates argue that many biological systems are irreducibly complex and that, by their very nature, irreducibly complex systems cannot have evolved. This is because an incremental addition of functionality would not have been possible as the adaptation only becomes useful when accompanied by a host of other adaptations. They further argue that since these systems cannot have evolved, they must have been designed, and so we have evidence for the intelligent design of life.

With me so far?

Using this understanding, the breast/infant system appears to be irreducibly complex. It does require several interrelated parts. At the most gross level, it requires both an infant that needs nourishment and a biological structure to produce and deliver it from the mother. Second, the removal of either part makes the system collapse. An infant without a breast is a waste of the mother's resources to produce, and a breast without an infant is essentially the same.* Finally, it is difficult to see how this system could have evolved incrementally as the benefit of it is only realized late in the game. The mammalian practice of nursing young would, in this light, seem to be irreducibly complex. So, is every nursing mother an argument for intelligent design?

Well, as you might guess from having read this blog before, the answer is no. One of the huge stumbling blocks that the intrinsically-appealing irreducible complexity argument encounters is that structures that evolved for one function can later be adapted to fulfill an additional, or entirely different, subsidiary function. This addition can later even become the primary role, leaving us with a complicated evolutionary chain that gives the appearance of irreducible complexity. As it happens, the breast is one such case.

A recent post over on Pharyngula explains how in much more detail than I can, but the essence is simple: mother's milk doesn't just provide nutrition, it enhances immune function. This has been known for a while now, and is one of the reasons for the recent shift from formula to breast feeding. We have typically regarded this function as a subsidiary of the nursing function but there is new, and compelling, evidence that this was in error. It now appears that human breasts began not for the nutrition of young, but as part of the immune system.

Humans and many other organisms have what is known as an "innate immune system." You can think of this as a system that constantly produces and releases anti-bacterial compounds. Many of these compounds are excreted onto our skin to act as an initial barrier to infection. In essence, much as bleach kills most bacteria, our bodies produce chemical substances that are hostile to a wide variety of micro-organisms. While this isn't perfect, it helps cut down on more serious infections. Interestingly, the structures producing these substances have long been known to be concentrated in places where the secretions can come into contact with eggs and/or young. It only makes sense: a mother who secreted a little extra of these substances in places where her young could pick them up offered enhanced protection. That's a real advantage! As it also happens, much of the immune function conferred by a mother to a child via milk is through these innate immune substances. So, on a primitive level, you can think of breasts as having their origins in glands that produced an immunoprotective mucus for the benefit of the child.

Isn't that a thrilling idea? Well, as PZ Myers says, "They got better over the years."

This evidence by itself isn't sufficient, but molecular biology supplies another piece of the puzzle. The proteins that are critical to the nutritive function of milk are, in fact, modified versions of the proteins used in the innate immune system. In other words, mother's milk doesn't just contain anti-bacterial substances, it's made out of modified versions of those substances. We have clear molecular evidence that breasts began not as a way to feed babies, but as a way to protect both the parent and the child from infection.

So what does this do to the irreducible complexity argument? Well, in short, it blasts it out of the water. We can trace a chain of gradual evolution from simple innate immune function, to enhanced function to protect young, to added nutritive function, to the birth of less mature offspring, and we never encounter a point where the adaptations required were useless.

On a larger level, however, this is a lesson for us all: evolution is tricky. Unlike a human designer who sets out to produce a particular thing, the blind watchmaker simply modifies and adapts whatever is available, as it is available, with no particular plan in mind. As a result the "design" process becomes complex and nearly-incomprehensible. It also becomes very deceptive, with normal adaptation sometimes appearing as impossibility.

By attempting to fit the work of evolution into the mold of design we are guilty of anthropomorphizing nature. We ascribe to it not only human properties, but human goals and human ways of achieving those goals. Since nature has none, it is hardly surprising that its solutions to problems seem counterintuitive to us. If we remember this, then we stand a good chance of understanding the world.

But if we forget it, then we shall all become boobs.


* Please note that I am speaking in strictly biological terms. I wish to express no other opinions as I find breasts rather aesthetically pleasing.

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