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.

Monday, July 31, 2006

On the other hand...

For those who don't keep an eye on space news, we have this fascinating revelation:

On July 22, they [planetary scientists] gathered around a screen at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and saw the first detailed pictures of the high latitudes of Titan, one of the moons of Saturn.

The images were eerily familiar. What the scientists saw looked like dunes, hills, valleys and -- most unusual -- rivers running into lakes. If further studies prove that the dark, ovoid features on the vast landscape are indeed lakes, Titan will be the only body in the solar system besides Earth possessing that geological feature.


This is, indeed, an intriguing development and may support the idea that Titan could, perhaps, support some form of life. Of course, the lakes and rivers aren't comosed of water- but rather of some sort of hydrocarbon, most likely methane. All the same, this is a striking development. You can, if you like, find some of the radar photos themselves here.

Of course, the news media couldn't resist at least a little bit of exasperation over this result:

It has taken nine years, hundreds of millions of dollars and a huge amount of effort, but planetary scientists have finally found another place with a topography quite like Earth's.


Ha! Those stupid planetary scientists! They spent hundreds of millions of bucks, and most of a decade, finding lakes?! What idiots! We have lakes right here! We have methane right here! Hell, you should meet my Uncle Earl! You want methane, he's your man. Dumb scientists, there's gotta be stuff we could use that money for here on Earth that would be way better, right?

One thing is certain about the Iraq war: It has cost a lot more than advertised. In fact, the tab grows by at least $200 million each and every day.

In the months leading up to the launch of the war three years ago, few Bush administration officials were willing to comment publicly on the potential costs to the United States. After all, no cost would have been too high if the United States faced an imminent threat from an Iraq armed with weapons of mass destruction, the war's stated justification.

In fact, the economic ramifications are rarely included in the debate over whether to go to war, although some economists argue it is quite possible and useful to assess potential costs and benefits.

In any event, most estimates put forward by White House officials in 2002 and 2003 were relatively low compared with the nation's gross domestic product, the size of the federal budget or the cost of past wars.

White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey was the exception to the rule, offering an "upper bound" estimate of $100 billion to $200 billion in a September 2002 interview with The Wall Street Journal. That figure raised eyebrows at the time, although Lindsey argued the cost was small, adding, "The successful prosecution of the war would be good for the economy.”

U.S. direct spending on the war in Iraq already has surpassed the upper bound of Lindsey's upper bound, and most economists attribute billions more in indirect costs to the war effort. Even if the U.S. exits Iraq within another three years, total direct and indirect costs to U.S. taxpayers will likely by more than $400 billion, and one estimate puts the total economic impact at up to $2 trillion.


Okay, right, well... lemme ask you this?

Anyone wanna find out if there are lakes on Triton? There has to be something better we can spend all that money on than occupying a country that didn't have anything to do with attacking us, right?

Right?

Friday, July 28, 2006

ASA Preview...

Those of you in the audience who are sociologists are more likely than not preparing for the annual orgy* of sociological work, the ASA Annual Meeting. This is a time when we can gather as a community, bringing the best papers we could produce eight months earlier when our submissions were due, and then attempt to avoid going to as many panels as possible. That is, I assume, what most people do at these things, anyway, since I can never seem to get through the conference center lobby without falling over legions of social scientists busy with their laptops. I'm sure they'd like me to believe they're analyzing data, but I've seen too many screens where the user was tensely trying to decide whether or not to play the black queen on the red king to believe it.

In any case, this year's meeting is in the fine city of Montreal, which is famous not merely for being located in a scary foreign country (Canada!) but also for having some of the most baffling architecture ever. More specifically, Montreal is in Quebec, which has a substantial French influence from before the British Empire kicked the French the hell out of Northern North America. Based on stories I have heard about Quebec, I look forward to being told "Fuck you" in a language I don't understand, and will likely think sounds charming. This will be a nice change from normal, when I either understand the language, or read a similar sentiment in some sort of bizarre internet pidgin version of English. For example, "hey. u r a losur. u suck and jesus is LORD OF EVERYTHING!!!!1 and u will burn because u r stoopid."

As we're all getting ready for the ASAs, and waiting to hear about the annual blogger's get-together, I thought I'd ask: what is everyone presenting on this year, anyway?

Past readers (back before Pub Sociology disappeared to electronic Valhalla) may remember that for a previous ASA meeting I brought a paper titled, "Learned Helplessness and the Academic Mind, or, Why won't my advisor return my phonecalls?"

This year I'm continuing that line of work with a follow-up study:

"Stockholm Syndrome and Graduate School, or, Now my advisor doesn't even respond by e-mail! What do I need to do, set his house on fire?!"

I hope you'll all join me for what should be a joyous panel.

So what is everyone else bringing?

* From what I can tell "orgy" may be an appropriate term as well, given the sheer amount of hooking up that seems to occur.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Point/Counterpoint

Yesterday, in response to a post I wrote on President Bush's obedience to special interests, the TDEC offered up some interesting commentary. Specifically, she posted a comment that read as follows:

Hmm. I actually feel conflicted on the matter, and while I find the misinformation on sex and abortion repugnant, I would like to see stem cell research as a fully seperate issue.

Using frozen embryos for research should not be done lightly, much as abortion should not be done lightly. The kind of anti-anti-stem cell research arguments you give, tying Bush's point of view in with the broader spectrum of Christian right issues, do no help me. I already know all that, and well, Bush really isn't my president anyway.

In my mind, there are a lot of caveats where it concerns research using frozen embryos. How do you practically see this? Do you believe there should be governmental guidelines or should it be left up to the scientific community? If so, what should the guidelines be?

You see, personally, I don't trust the scientific medical community any further than I can kick them, and I strongly believe that if we allow this type of research the community should have some say in it. After all, in medical research the step from "benevolent" non-profit research to pharmaceutical-giant-monopoly is a very small one.


Now, there are a lot of issues in here, so I want to take the time to deal with them.

First, there's the question of whether stem cell research is an issue separable from abortion information, sex education, and so on. Secondarily, there's the issue of whether my original post could help someone grapple with the issue of stem cells as a whole. I absolutely agree that stem cells, abortion, sex education, and a host of other things are separable issues, and should be discussed independently. The problem, in this case, is that for certain others they are not separable. For Bush's fundamentalist backers, they are effectively the same issue. As a result, we are in a position where Bush gives us a "package deal." If we want to support him on stem cells, we also have to recognize that certain other positions come along with it. My post was intended to bring this point to the forefront, rather than to discuss the issue of stem cell research itself.

Does this recognition help all persons decide what to do on the matter of stem cells? Of course not. Deciding whether one supports that type of research should not be determined by examining some cluster of other rhetorically (if not logically) related issues. It should be the result of a careful weighing of the philosophical, ethical, and pragmatic points on both sides. But then using a blog like this one to make a decision about stem cells is, perhaps, not the best idea. "Careful weighing" isn't really what I do, and anyone who says otherwise is a damn liar.

Next, there's the issue of government guidelines and whether or not scientific research should be limited by government action. Simply put, I do think that government has a role to play in regulating research. I think that is appropriate and really have no objections to it. Granted, I have concerns about its practicality as I am unaware of very many instances when government has been able to prevent the development of a new technology, but in principle I have no objections. While my ethical system does not construe an embryo of the type we're considering to be anything more significant than a fragment of organic material, I can certainly see room for debate on the point. Indeed, I think debate on that point is healthy for society generally.

My issue at the moment, however, is not that government is potentially regulating the research, but rather that the extent and nature of those regulations are largely being dictated by a minority, and extremist, opinion. Further, that position is, itself, largely hypocritical and often logically absurd.

If this segment of the population truly regards embryos as human, then why aren't they protesting outside of fertility clinics that routinely prepare more embryos than are used in in vitro fertilization procedures? After all, every one of those embryos is a "person" and, as such, is deserving of rights, correct? Yet, with few exceptions, simply keeping those embryos in indefinite cold storage seems to be acceptable, and discarding them preferable, to using them to reduce suffering. Either way the embryos never truly "live," but as it stands now, even their "deaths" are wasteful.

Is there a slippery slope argument to made here? Perhaps, but that sort of argument is seldom very useful. Embryos are potential people that cannot develop without the right circumstances and resources (i.e. a womb) and even then require the infusion of additional material. What about sperm? A sperm is a potential person, in a sense, and lacks only the proper environment and resources to become a person. Maybe we should ban sperm banks too, given this knowledge. Is this a false comparison? Hell yes, it's ridiculously arbitrary, but so are many similar slippery slope arguments. Do we really think that once people get used to the idea of stem cell research, that they will automatically be okay with creating a race of genetic slaves? Let's be serious- humans have proven they are more than willing to enslave their fellow humans as it is; I don't think a future race of engineered slaves would be the result of a decision about stem cells.

What about the argument that the government shouldn't fund stem cell research because a small minority regards it as murder? Well, the government really can't do anything without someone finding it morally objectionable. Many people are pacifists and ethically object to the military- yet we fund that. Some people object to taxes of any sort as an imposition on individual liberty- but the IRS still enforces tax law. Numerous people consider the death penalty to be immoral- but the government still engages in that. Governments routinely do things that some portion of their citizenry disagrees with. Moreover, in a society composed of diverse viewpoints, that's effectively unavoidable. So, if government could not fund an activity that some group objected to, then government would effectively cease to exist. Please don't misunderstand, I am certainly not arguing that governments should run roughshod over the desires of the people. Rather, I am only indicating that small minority objection is not, itself, sufficient to prevent government action.

As to what guidelines I might view as reasonable, I think the existing guidelines for research on donated biological materials are probably sufficient.

I agree that the community needs to be involved in this sort of decision making but, right now, that involvement is being circumvented. Bush isn't your president, or mine, but he is still the President. As a result, whether his decisions are yours or mine, they still carry substantial weight. And right now it isn't the community that's involved in this decision.

It's the religious right.

Note: My computer has been acting poorly of late and I'm frustrated with it, so the crappiness of this post is largely attributable to that. You know, as opposed to my normal run-of-the-mill crappiness.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Hold Your Horses on That Free Wifi at the ASA

In the comments to an earlier post, I claimed that there would be free wifi at the ASA meetings in Montreal, because the conference center told me that the ASA had paid for it. However, I just got an email from the ASA, and apparently they will be charging $17/day CAD for that wifi. (No charge for the grimy message center computer with the half-hour wait, Alan).

Now, considering that this is the first ASA I can remember that actually has wifi, maybe I shouldn't complain, but doesn't $17/day seem excessive? Even Starbucks only charges $11.

But, I guess it will all be worth it now that Drek can simulblog the conference in its entirety. I'm looking forward to reading that!

Proof.

As all of you doubtless know by now, President George W. "Huh?" Bush recently vetoed legislation authorizing stem cell research using donated embryos. For those who have been living under a rock, stem cells are thought by many to be one of the most promising new approaches to curing a whole lot of diseases. Which diseases, you ask? Hell, man, take your pick. They won't cure AIDS, but things like Alzheimers, paralysis, and other currently permanent physical damage may become treatable.

Bush's reasoning for this decision was, as you might guess, not rooted in economic or scientific concerns, but rather in his sense of morality.* As his veto message states:

Like all Americans, I believe our Nation must vigorously pursue the tremendous possibilities that science offers to cure disease and improve the lives of millions. Yet, as science brings us ever closer to unlocking the secrets of human biology, it also offers temptations to manipulate human life and violate human dignity. Our conscience and history as a Nation demand that we resist this temptation. With the right scientific techniques and the right policies, we can achieve scientific progress while living up to our ethical responsibilities.


One can only wonder, as the good people at Sore Thumbs do, about Bush's preferred plan for unused embryos. Of course, the President's moral stance here is either one of great personal conviction, or a bowing to pressure from particular special interest groups, given the broad public support for stem cell research. Indeed, if we didn't know any better, we might think that President Bush is a slave to particular narrow interests.

But then we'd see other reports. Reports about how some pregnancy resource centers that receive federal funding systematically mislead women about the risks of abortions, telling them that there is a high likelihood of severe depression or even cancer when such risks do not exist:

Care Net, an umbrella group for evangelical pregnancy centers across the country, instructs its affiliates to tell callers there is a possibility that abortion can lead to greater risk of breast cancer, according to Molly Ford, an official with the organization. She said there have been several studies that say it does, and several that say it doesn't.

"I know the report is wanting to say that it's conclusive, but it isn't," Ford said.

...

One pregnancy center told a congressional aide the risk of cancer after an abortion could be 80 percent higher, the report noted. Ford said she doubted a pregnancy center would go that far, but the Web site for a pregnancy center in Albuquerque says the risk for cancer after an abortion is 50 percent or greater.

In February 2003, a National Cancer Institute workshop concluded that having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman's subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.


We might see similar reports that Bush-supported abstinence-only programs mislead teens about the realities of sex. Some of the lies are, indeed, fairly impressive:

Many American youngsters participating in federally funded abstinence-only programs have been taught over the past three years that abortion can lead to sterility and suicide, that half the gay male teenagers in the United States have tested positive for the AIDS virus, and that touching a person's genitals "can result in pregnancy," a congressional staff analysis has found.

...

The report concluded that two of the curricula were accurate but the 11 others, used by 69 organizations in 25 states, contain unproved claims, subjective conclusions or outright falsehoods regarding reproductive health, gender traits and when life begins. In some cases, Waxman said in an interview, the factual issues were limited to occasional misinterpretations of publicly available data; in others, the materials pervasively presented subjective opinions as scientific fact.

Among the misconceptions cited by Waxman's investigators:

• A 43-day-old fetus is a "thinking person."

• HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can be spread via sweat and tears.

• Condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission as often as 31 percent of the time in heterosexual intercourse.

One curriculum, called "Me, My World, My Future," teaches that women who have an abortion "are more prone to suicide" and that as many as 10 percent of them become sterile. This contradicts the 2001 edition of a standard obstetrics textbook that says fertility is not affected by elective abortion, the Waxman report said.


This, of course, ignores that abstinence-only in many guises simply doesn't work.

We might even see reports about how Bush supports teaching the scientifically vacuous doctrine of Intelligent Design to school children.

So, we might see the news about Stem Cells and think that Bush is beholden only to a tiny radical minority but, when seen in context of his other positions, we know with little room for error that this is true.

If it wasn't clear before, it should be clear now: whether you are Republican or Democrat, unless you are part of that particular minority this president is not your president and no party will be your party so long as it marches to the beat of the same drum as President Bush.

* I personally find it ethically repugnant that someone would prevent research that might alleviate suffering for countless people to preserve a non-sentient mass of cells, but whatever.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Some days it just isn't worth reving up the old stats package.

There are many different ways to discover that your hypothesis isn't supported. Some of them are intriguing and useful, suggesting new research insights. Others, are heartbreaking and disappointing. Still others are basically a big slap in the face from reality- telling you that you've been a moron. I'm fairly sure you can guess which of those options is represented by the graph below.


(Click on the image for a larger version)

Yep. I think that more or less qualifies as a statistical one-liner.

Hey, nobody said this science thing would be easy, right?

For those who care, no, this isn't from my own research. A fellow grad student provided me with this gem, and I post it with her permission. I honestly think that there's something to be celebrated in being wrong so spectacularly- at least nobody can say you didn't go all-out.

Heh. And Tina thought she was going to reveal her dorkiness? C'mon, I actually laughed outloud when I saw that graph. Who is the bigger dork?

Okay, in retrospect, I really lost sight of what answer was desirable. Nevermind.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The ASA Message Center is Up!

The ASA Message Center is online! At the risk of exposing my age and my extreme dorkiness, I'm going to reminisce for a moment about an earlier version of the Message Center, which is the ASA's best effort to allow people attending its Really Big Conference to contact each other.

Remember when the Message Center first used computers, though it was not connected to the internet in any way? My grad school pals and I can't possibly be the only ones who took advantage of the limits of the system to send each other notes from Famous Sociologists:

Carrie, great work on that dissertation proposal. It looks like a winner. -Theda S.

Karen, don't work too hard! - M. Burawoy

Great presentation, Chris. You're a real role model. - Rob Merton
Ah, those were the days. Now the Message Center is on the world wide web, and you can only log on as yourself. Sigh.

Somebody loves me, but it ain't Jack Chick.

Longtime readers of this blog will recall my peculiar fondness for cartoonist Jack Chick. For those who don't know, Chick is a radical fundamentalist protestant who draws the eponymously-named "Chick Tracts." These tracts are short comic books that teach religious lessons with all the subtlety and grace of thermonuclear weaponry. Now, while I generally think that the messages of these tracts are, at best, absurd and, at worst, hateful and corrupting, I am still strangely fascinated by them. I have spent a considerable period of time reading them online and have even developed some favorite recurring characters.

Which characters are my favorites? Well, there's Li'l Susy, who is about twelve years and a tub of pig's blood away from murdering her entire senior prom. Then there's Staggeringly Insensitive Man who uses the attempted suicide of a friend's son to castigate him for witchcraft. There's the Worst Doctor Ever, who doesn't understand microbiology, has peculiar views on social policy, and has no problem with victim blaming. And of course, who could forget the famous Elfstar Debbie who escaped from the "bondage" of Dungeons & Dragons. So, as you can see, there's a lot to enjoy in the work of Jack Chick.

Recently, however, I've noticed something new on Chick's site- he is, apparently, now making a serious effort to speak to African Americans through his new "Black Tract" series. He describes this initiative thusly:

Christian workers have been telling us for some time that their work among blacks would be much more effective if they had Chick tracts where the characters in the story were black. Black people on the street are more receptive to black characters than Caucasian.

Pastor Jerry Thornton, who pastors a black church in Southern California tried some of the tracts in his ministry before they were officially released. He says, "The black tracts were especially useful to tell the people of color that they are special enough for Chick Publications to make a special edition of the tract line just for them. They often feel neglected and marginalized and appreciate the special attention when it is given."


So, hey, good news for African Americans, right? Well, maybe not so much. So far, the "Black Tract series" doesn't involve new tracts so much as just going back and coloring in the characters in a darker shade. This, itself, might not be so bad except that in some cases already bad tracts become a little... questionable.

An example of one such tract (parts of it anyway) is included below, along with my narration. For those who are curious, it's based on this original tract. Please read along and enjoy this fine example of "reaching out" to the African American community.



Our story opens deep in Louisiana where, apparently, a timewarp has transported Uncle Tom's Cabin into the modern era.



Inside a drunken man with no neck commands a small child suffering from some sort of terrible disorder that expands his eyesockets to go out into the raging storm. The poor child does so. Notice the gratuitous butt-crack in the rightmost panel. I guess even fundamentalists like a little T&A in their entertainment.



Standing in the rain, begging from strangers, our disfigured hero cuts an impressive figure- the type that would give a child welfare worker a heartattack. Nevertheless, the people of this city largely ignore the little child.



On returning to his home with a pittance so meager that it effectively defies comprehension and simple logic, the drunken no-neck becomes enraged.



And pursues our hero, waving a huge club not unlike that used by Captain Caveman. When no-neck captures the boy, he proceeds to beat him while, apparently, staring into some sort of spotlight.



No-neck then unceremoniously casts his sole source of income out into the storm.



Where he is promptly either struck by lightning, or by poor drawing. Either way, it looks like God isn't so fond of our protaganist.



The little-wretch-that-could then crawls back into town- because, you know, that worked out so well last time- and is ignored by everyone despite being a child in obvious distress. Perhaps his unnaturally large eye sockets are simply too much for the average passer-by?



Our protaganist crawls through a crowd of pedestrians, skirts angry dogs and cats, and finds shelter in a large coffin-like box- which is fortunate, given what's coming up in a few panels.



Moments later, a pamphlet indicating that he is "loved" flutters up. Doubtless our little wretch has somehow learned to read, despite his "unconventional" upbringing. He feels reassured by this message.

And then promptly dies, only to be borne up into heaven by a dark-skinned angel.

Seriously.

So what's my deal here? Only this- the original tract was absurd and stupid but, at least, didn't perpetuate much in the way of stereotypes. This new "black version," however seems to do a great disservice to African Americans by depicting them as lazy, abusive drunks who don't care about their own families. Call me crazy, but I don't know that this really speaks to black problems. Granted, there are some other tracts that give a more favorable view of African Americans, but they do so at the expense of Arabs. Oh, and while postulating a organized conspiracy among Muslims.

If you want to proselytize African Americans, I'm not gonna stop you- you are, after all, free in this country to make an ass of yourself in whatever manner you see fit. But can you please at least recognize the real problems faced by minority groups, rather than simply caricatures of them?

And for that matter, is it really necessary to pitch a "religion of love"* with hate and fear?

* Quotation marks included because, honestly, I've been skeptical for a long time that Christianity is a religion of love. That, however, is a subject for another post.

Friday, July 21, 2006

End of the road: Little Caesar's and the rankings

The last entrant is Little Caesar's. I remember them from the “Pizza! Pizza!” deal days when you could get two pizzas pretty cheap. This led to me rating them as the best pizza to microwave the next day. The others ended up too soggy. I really don't remember how they were fresh from the store.

The cheese was very white. All the others were slightly more orange. It was fairly oily, per the paper towel test, but still less than Papa John's. There were no signs of melted shreds, though it was off center. The ham was on top of the cheese and slightly toasted on the edges.

The crust was nothing to get excited about. It was fairly weak, deflecting not quite 90 degrees. It did have some type of seed on the bottom like Domino's, but they were larger and less in number. There was very little toasting on the bottom. The crust edges were fairly tasteless but of good consistency. They would go well with a sauce, but on their own they're pretty bland.

The taste test wasn't bad, but after the train wreck from Hungry Howie's shoe leather would have tasted good. It's about the same as some of the mid grade pizzas you can get at the supermarket. There was little that would be noticed particularly as far as individual flavors. It was a bunch of cheese with some bread and a little sauce. I think a spicier sauce would make it better, but overall there's really nothing to get excited about.

I really don't know what to say about the Little Caesar's offering. It wasn't bad but it wasn't good either. They do have the Crazy Sauce which I remember as pretty good though I did not get any of it this time. I'd eat it, but I'd rather spend the money on something else.

Okay, so let's count it down top 40 style.

Worst, no surprise here, is Hungry Howie's. Seriously who do I talk to about getting their licenses revoked. I've seen wars start over less.

Fourth place goes to Little Caesar's. Again, they're not bad, but my money is better spent elsewhere.

Third place to Pizza Hut. I'm still disappointed, but definitely better than Little Caesar's.

Second place to Papa John's. It pains me to do it, but grading by the standard crust variety they're not the best.

And the grand prize winner is Domino's. I guess I'll have to change my shopping pattern. The Papa John's ham was better, but overall Domino's standard crust wins over all others. If I could get them to to put the ham under the cheese they might be undefeatable in the national chain category.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

First of the Wild Cards: Hungry Howie's

In a former life, I would go to the Hungry Howie's next to my high school Fridays before the football games. They had a pizza and coke deal for students and a jukebox that played “Hotel California” so I couldn't resist. After I started driving and didn't have to stay waiting for the game, I stopped going. I don't remember it being particularly great, but when your spending money is saved up lunch money it's pretty good. I haven't had their pizza since then so I was interested in finding out how things had progressed.

The crust was very weak, deflecting a full ninety degrees when held by the edge. It appeared to be fully cooked but there was very little toasting on the bottom. The crust edges were totally inedible. This is the first pizza sample where I simply refused to eat them beyond what was required to grade them. One of my tactics for eating crust, since I don't like to waste food, is to leave a bit of the cheese/sauce area on the crust edge and then take a bite sideways so it's not just crust I'm chewing. Even that wouldn't help. Hungry Howie's does offer free crust flavoring. I guess there's a reason.

The cheese was not oily at all, on par with Pizza Hut's. It was a hard solid mass and there were signs of melted shreds. Coverage was good with some sauce showing near the edges. The ham was not in a recognizable form. It was shredded a la salad and mixed in with the cheese.

As for taste...well, it was definitely pizza. All the ingredients were there. It was only marginally better than the stuff I can microwave at home. It reminded me of the square pizza I used to get in the school lunch tray. I think the school pizza had better cheese though.

If Hungry Howie's is your choice when any of the big three are available you should go see a doctor immediately. Someone has covered your taste buds with shellac and you need to get that fixed. Continuing to patronize this place is a crime against humanity. If that's not the case then see a reproductive specialist. I do not want you passing on your defective genes. I've been known to eat packing peanuts and dog biscuits (yes, on a dare) so please believe me when I tell you it's bad. In fact, I just microwaved a slice of the Pizza Hut stuff – that I didn't particularly like – and it was better than the Hungry Howie's I had last night. It's not any cheaper then the others either. Does the FDA know about this place? Let's hope Little Caesar's fares better.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Last of the Big 3: Domino's

The last of the the big contenders is Domino's. I remember Domino's as the choice when schools had pizza parties. Really it could have been because it was the closest one. I know a lot of people that claim they're the best, but my impression from those days was that it was light on the sauce. Honestly I don't remember having Domino's pizza since grade school so a lot of things might have changed. Gone are the days of 30 minutes or it's free, but the sign at the store claims “The Delivery Specialists.” Don't know about that, but we'll check out what's in the box.

The crust might be the best so far. It has some type of small seeds at the bottom and a thin crispy shell. The insides were nice and soft. Slice support was great. The crust edges were the thinnest ones so far, barely smaller than the Pizza Hut ones. What was surprising was that the crust edges were actually pretty tasty. I would actually eat them as breadsticks. I kept trying to figure out what made this crust different and then I found it: it was undercooked. There was a thin layer of uncooked dough that I thought was cheese until I disassembled a slice. I'm not complaining. This seems to work pretty well.

The cheese was more oily than the Pizza Hut but less than Papa John's. The paper towel test comes up with something that could be a handprint, but it would be a very eroded handprint. Coverage as good, with only minor sauce exposure near the crust edges. No signs of melted shreds. The ham was on top of the cheese with minor toasting on the edges.

The taste test went very well. It was not as light on the sauce as I remember. The ham was a nothing to get excited about, but it wasn't bad. The cheese was not stringy at all. The crispy layer in the crust was great along with the chewiness of the uncooked layer. I don't know if the seeds count as crust enhancement. What I had in mind as crust enhancement were like sauces, stuffed crusts, flavored crusts, and the like. I think the seeds are there to keep the pizza from sticking to the oven, but they seem to work well on the tastebuds also.

I was pleased with the Domino's offering, specially after the disappointment with Pizza Hut. I guess under the competition pressure Domino's has really stepped up their quality. They have a lot of promotion offers for getting large quantities of pizza so I suspect they're still the choice for large group pizza gorgement. Given this experience I would have to say it's a good choice. Next up will be the first of the wild card entrants: Hungry Howie's.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Part Deux: Pizza the Hut

In the second part of my pizza exploration we'll take a look at Pizza Hut. To me their claim to fame is the lunch buffet. I've partaken of the buffet many times and must say it's the best way to get mass quantities of pizza for the least amount of dough (all puns intended). The dessert pizza is not bad either. But the buffet stuff is made high speed assembly line style. It's not the same stuff as the normal menu items. Again we try the normal style hand tossed variety with ham. The box says “Gather 'Round the Good Stuff.” We shall see.

The crust seems to be about the same strength as the Papa John's as measured by the deflection at the tip of the slice when held by the edge of the crust. It did appear to be a little thinner though. The difference appears in the consistency – more bagel than biscuit. This is much more pronounced at the crust edge as they are definitely more chewy. The crust edges are thinner than the Papa John's meaning more of the surface area percentage is covered by cheese.

The cheese is significantly less oily than Papa John's. The paper towel test revealed very little oil. In fact, I didn't feel any oil on my fingers when I pressed the paper towel and very little at the base of the palm. Visual inspection of the paper towel confirmed the results. There was some oil in the finger area but not much. The resulting shape looked nothing like a handprint. All is not good on the cheese front however. There were a couple of areas of cheese non-coverage. At the edges where the cheese met the crust there was sauce showing and signs of melted shreds. The ham was on top of the cheese and most of the ham bits had burnt edges.

I know they put sauce on the pizza, but the initial taste test did not find it. When I did find it, it was just kinda there. It did not really add anything. It was very dark, compared to the brighter Papa John's. It's purpose appears to be more of a moistener.

Perhaps they need to add more sauce as the pizza tasted very dry. I think part of the problem is the crust. As I mentioned it was closer to a bagel in consistency. The ham was burnt so that might indicate that the pizza was overcooked which would add to the dryness. Actually I prefer the assembly line buffet stuff to the take home sample.

I'm actually a bit disappointed with Pizza Hut. I like the buffet. Whenever I order off the menu I usually get a pan pizza type. I don't remember getting standard crust. This may be why. I'll still get the pan pizzas from them, but it's not looking good for the standard crust offering. Tomorrows victim: Domino's.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Pizza Time!

Like many people, I love pizza. While it's not a compulsive need, I do believe I could eat pizza everyday for life – different toppings for variety of course. But if I had to choose only one pizza vendor, which would it be? As a public service I'll share my findings with you in this week-long series. There are many mom and pop shops and small chains out there. I found one that would destroy all competition somewhere north of Syracuse, but it's hard to get delivery from New York to Florida. For wide area applicability I'll pick from the larger national chains. Domino's and Pizza Hut are obviously in, as is the odds favorite Papa John's. That leaves two wild card slots. In my area I have Cici's, Hungry Howie's, and Little Caesar's. I have no particular preference between those so I'll accept votes. Failing that I'll flip a coin.

In order to keep a somewhat level playing field, I'll try the standard crust with ham variety from each. I know pepperoni would be more traditional, but I'd rather have something from an identifiable section of the animal. The pizza will be graded in the following categories: crust, cheese, sauce, and taste. The ratings will be highly subjective, of course, but at least it'll give some defined areas of comparison.

First on the table is my current go-to choice, Papa John's. I suspect I default to them because it was the closest to my house and could be picked up on the way home. Being the creature of habit that I am, I always look to them first for my pizza needs. They claim “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza.” I'll be the judge of that.

On a scale from uncooked dough to dry crackers, the crust is something like medium toast. The surface is crispy but the center is very bread-like. It's strong enough to support the pizza when held by the outside crust edge. While not the “important” part of the pizza, it would be nice if the crust edge was edible on its own. This fault exists to varying degrees in all pizza chains and there are many ways of dealing with it. Papa John's includes a garlic butter dipping sauce, but the standard offering from most chains does not contain “crust enhancement” so this will not be considered. As long as there were something else to eat, I wouldn't eat the crust edges.

The cheese is evenly distributed, with no exposed bread or sauce. The ham topping is generally beneath the top layer of cheese. The quality of the cheese affects how well it melts together from it's shredded form. This pizza shows no individual “melted shreds” indications. It is one contiguous mass of cheese. It is oily as well. I took a paper towel and laid it down on the pizza surface. I then pressed lightly with my palm to see how much oil would be soaked up. Anywhere my hand contacted the paper towel was saturated with oil, with the higher pressure regions having an orange color. It was a “fuzzy” handprint as the paper towel soaked some of the oil to the sides, away from direct contact areas.

The quantity of sauce was lighter than I expected. It's not a pizza element unto itself. It seems more of a binder between the crust and cheese. It seems effective enough, but nothing particularly spectacular.

Since I've already admitted I like it, saying that the pizza tasted “good” really wouldn't mean anything. The cheese wasn't stringy. The crust supported the mass well. The ham was tasty. The sauce worked well enough. At least as I go on I'll be able to give some better or worse comparisons between them and something of a known quality.

I wanted to do this one first because that way I won't compare to what I “think” my favored pizza tastes like. This is a recent and recorded experience so it should make for a more valid comparison. Keeping in mind my initial bias, I'll give a final ranking at the end of the week. Next up for tomorrow: Pizza Hut.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Hey, it's Friday...

Well, folks, we have once again rolled around to another Friday. So what is in store today? An interesting post? Analysis of some new social trend? Maybe some cutting remarks on intelligent design advocates?

Nah. It's Friday. It's hard enough getting myself to do real work today, much less the pseudo-work of blogging.

So, to amuse you all, I provide this link to a rather charming little game that allows you to play* in an electronic worldcup!

A worldcup of sorts anyway.

Take a look, enjoy the game, and have a nice weekend. Next week you can look forward to some all new posts involving my usual bitter incompetence.

Aren't you lucky?

* Understand that I use the term in the loosest possible sense.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

You may already have won... nothing!

I have a deep-seated loathing of junkmail. That may not seem all that unusual, but it is a hate that has risen to effectively pathological levels. My Sainted Girlfriend, who is something of a fan of coupons, has been driven nearly to insanity by my propensity to dump junkmail in the recycling bins before even coming inside the house. Since 90% or more of all coupons I am sent I will never use, I generally place them all within the category of junkmail. Hey, it makes sense- the time it takes to sort the wheat from the chaff is worth more to me than the coupon.

The one quasi-exception to this rule is in the category of potential prizes. If someone sends me what amounts to a free lottery ticket, I will usually take the time to check and see if I've won before recylcing the damned thing. This is silly, I realize, but we all have our little quirks. Recently, I found a mailing from a local used car dealer that offered a chance to win a 27" Flatscreen T.V., an iPod shuffle,* or $10,000** in cash- and then there was the Grand Prize! They didn't specify what the Grand Prize was, but it sure sounded cool. And... grand. All I had to do was scratch off a square, and compare it to a number printed inside. I did so and, lo and behold, I won!

Now, on realizing this you might think that my first reaction would be, "Hot damn!" This was not, however, what happened. My first reaction was instead, "Okay, what's the trick?" You see, I've spent enough time monkeying with statistics, and explaining stats to others, that I have a very real understanding of just how unlikely I am to win a 27" t.v. from a car dealership for merely checking my mail. As a result, I went in search of the elusive fine print. As you might guess, this print answered my questions, and read as follows:

Odds of winning Prize I (valued at $380), or Prize II (valued at $100) are 1:250,000. Odds of winning Prize II are 1:250,000. Odds of winning Grand Prize (Retail value $400) are 1:249,997.


So, to do the math, there's one chance in a quarter-million of winning each of the first three prizes, and two hundred and forty-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety-seven chances in a quarter million of winning the Grand Prize. In other words, since 1+1+1+249,997=250,000 it's impossible not to win something from this little game. This, of course, leads me to think that the statement "Retail value $400" in regards to the Grand Prize is overstating things slightly. Or, at the very least, is used in the same way by those commercials on t.v. for food dehydrators that explain that you're getting a $60 value for only $19.95.***

So, instead of a game, we really have a crass tactic to bring people in to claim their "prize" bolted onto a game. I guess there's nothing really wrong with it, it may give some folks a lift, but it strikes me as doing harm to our sense of fairness. I wonder how many people go in to claim their prize, feeling special and fortunate, only to discover that they have been duped. Instead of a t.v., an iPod, cash, or something even more Grand they will be receiving a high-pressure sales pitch and, in all likelihood, a sheaf of coupons that will save you $400 if you use them all.

And that makes me think of the Defense Department's program, America Supports You. This program is pitched as a way to provide organized support to U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places where they are essentially in harm's way. As such, it appears to be a noble effort with good intentions. When you dig deeper, however, as NPR has, you discover another truth. The ASY program is less about supporting the troops, than it is about drumming up political support among U.S. voters for the President.

Why do I say that? Well, try this: one of ASY's programs has involved giving Americans a chance to send a text message of support to U.S. soldiers from their cellphones. This opportunity has been advertised at sporting events among other places. Sounds good, right? Well sure, except for one little detail- none of the messages have ever actually been sent to the troops. Instead, they are stored on a harddrive and never seen again. Rather than demonstrating support to the troops and providing them with encouragement, these messages are little more than a ploy by the Pentagon to gauge public opinion, and a means through which to make the average American feel closer to the troops. That's all well and good, but I really think that the soldiers putting their lives at risk deserve a little better.

Still, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by all this- the manager of this program is Pentagon PR Czar Allison Barber, who was caught on camera coaching soldiers on what questions they would ask the President during one of his visits to Iraq. If she and her PR department are willing to tell our troops what to say- to literally put words in their mouths- then perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by the actions of America Supports You. Certainly, troops in the field have always been coached somewhat and probably will always be coached somewhat, but there's still a point beyond with public relations becomes propaganda.

A program like America Supports You that promises to support the troops, but then fails to actually do so, is worse than useless. It doesn't just waste effort and leave our fighting men and women without encouragement, it betrays us all. How much worse off will our soldiers be as a result of this? How many more people will become too jaded by this to do anything to let the troops know we care?

Whether you support the war or not, many, many men and women are putting their lives at risk and doing their duty. If you want to support them, there are countless ways. Instead of wasting your time on America Supports You, maybe try helping out with the USO.

They may not be perfect, but at least we know they mean what they say.

* i.e. those things our students sometimes try to listen to in class.

** i.e. dissertation funding.

*** WOW!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Total Drek News Reporting...

There's just a little too much going on in the news today for me to pick just one thing to bitch about, so I'm going to heap on a smattering of everything.

U.S. List of Terror Targets Includes 'That one beach at the end of the street.'

It reads like a tally of terrorist targets that a child might have written: Old MacDonald’s Petting Zoo, the Amish Country Popcorn factory, the Mule Day Parade, the Sweetwater Flea Market and an unspecified “Beach at End of a Street.”

But the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, in a report released Tuesday, found that the list was not child’s play: all these “unusual or out-of-place” sites “whose criticality is not readily apparent” are inexplicably included in the federal antiterrorism database.

The National Asset Database, as it is known, is so flawed, the inspector general found, that as of January, Indiana, with 8,591 potential terrorist targets, had 50 percent more listed sites than New York (5,687) and more than twice as many as California (3,212), ranking the state the most target-rich place in the nation.

The database is used by the Homeland Security Department to help divvy up the hundreds of millions of dollars in antiterrorism grants each year, including the program announced in May that cut money to New York City and Washington by 40 percent, while significantly increasing spending for cities including Louisville, Ky., and Omaha.


One can only wonder how long it will be until "Steve's house," appears on the list. What makes this even more remarkable is that, according to NPR [Sorry- can't find the story online] the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, and Empire State Building didn't make the list. Well, I guess Homeland Security has to overlook some things. They were just so busy listening to private phonecalls without a warrant, the Statue of Liberty slipped their minds.

White House Agrees to Dispense with Torture; Recognize Detainees as Potential Humans

The White House conceded on Tuesday for the first time that terror suspects held by the United States had a right under international law to basic human and legal protections under the Geneva Conventions.

The statement reverses a position the White House had held since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, and it represents a victory for those within the administration who argued that the United States’ refusal to extend Geneva protections to Qaeda prisoners was harming the country’s standing abroad.

...

Mr. Bush’s order of Feb. 7, 2002, issued shortly after American-led forces toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan, specifically said that critical aspects of the Geneva Conventions do “not apply to either Al Qaeda or Taliban detainees.”

In response to a question, the White House issued a statement late Tuesday, saying: “As a result of the Supreme Court decision, that portion of the order no longer applies. The Supreme Court has clarified what the law is, and the executive branch will comply.”


And thus, with the Bush Administration firmly at the helm, the United States steps boldly back into the early Twentieth Century.

Middle East caught in Temporal Vortex: History Appears to be Repeating Itself

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers and killed three more in a brazen raid this morning along Israel’s border with Lebanon. Israel immediately responded by sending an armored force into southern Lebanon for the first time since withdrawing six years ago.

The clashes dramatically escalated tensions at a time when Israel already is waging a military offensive in the Gaza Strip to seek the return of another soldier held by Palestinian militants for more than two weeks.

Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he held the Lebanese government responsible for the assault by Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim group that participates in Lebanese politics but also continues to battle Israel.

“I want to make clear that the event this morning is not a terror act, but an act of a sovereign state that attacked Israel without reason,” Mr. Olmert said. “The government of Lebanon, of which Hezbollah is a part, is trying to shake the stability of the region.”


I condemn the actions of Hezbollah in the strongest terms, but, seriously, invade Lebanon again? After all: it worked out so well the last time. What's next? The reanimated corpse of Yassar Arafat leading Zombie legions in the West Bank?

Jewish Israelis, Christian Israelis, and Muslim Israelis Show New Unity in their Common Hatred of Someone Else: Homosexuals

Christian leaders condemned it. Jewish radicals put a bounty on participants. Muslim clerics threatened to flood the streets with protesters. Jerusalem's conflicting religions have found rare common ground: opposition to an international gay pride parade next month.

"We consider this offensive and harmful to the religious integrity of the city," said Sheik Taissir Tamimi, head of the Islamic court in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"This group of homosexuals, we consider them impure," he said, calling on Palestinians to take to the streets to prevent marchers from entering east Jerusalem, where the holy sites are located. They "must not be allowed to enter Jerusalem."

The march is the centerpiece of the seven-day WorldPride festival, intended to bring people of different faiths and cultures to a strife-torn city in an example of peaceful coexistence, said Hagai Elad, executive director of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, which is organizing the event.

It also makes the statement that gays have as much right to the holy city's heritage as anyone else, he said.

"People on the one hand talk about the holiness of Jerusalem and at the same time are speaking in unacceptable ways against the dignity of other human beings," he added. "How that contributes to the holiness of Jerusalem is something that I don't understand."


Well, you win some and you lose some, I guess.

White House Reports: 'We're not as fucked as we expected!'

The Bush administration yesterday lowered its estimate of this year's federal budget deficit to $296 billion -- a figure that prompted the White House to claim vindication for its tax cuts, and Democrats to issue new denunciations of the nation's fiscal problems.

In its midyear report on the budget, the administration projected that tax revenue will increase 11 percent in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. That is "much better than we had projected, and it's helping us cut the budget deficit," President Bush said in a White House ceremony to release the report, which is usually a low-key midsummer event. So instead of the substantial increase from last year's $318.3 billion deficit that the administration and other forecasters predicted a few months ago, the 2006 deficit will fall by 7 percent, according to the new projection.

"Tax relief is working. The economy's growing. Revenues are up. The deficit is down," Bush said.

...

"Only Washington Republicans would think a $300 billion deficit is good news," Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a written statement.

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan group, said the new figures are "nothing to break open the champagne over."

"We have experienced a neck-wrenching swing from large surpluses to large deficits since the start of the decade," MacGuineas said.

Democrats also disputed Republican claims that the sharp increase in tax receipts over the past couple of years shows that tax cuts are working. Although they conceded that revenue has soared in 2005 and 2006 with the hefty boost in corporate profits and incomes of Americans at the top tax brackets, they noted that after adjusting for inflation and growth in population, tax revenue hasn't grown overall during Bush's presidency.

"In 2000, we had just over $2 trillion of revenue," Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said at a news conference. "Then we had the big tax cuts in 2001. Revenue went down the next year. Revenue went down again the next year. We had more tax cuts in 2003. . . . Only in 2006 are we getting, in real terms, back to the revenue we had in 2000."


It's all about moving the target so you can't miss, you know?

Greed Running Rampant in Iraq; Prudent Decision Making in Short Supply

The United States has spent more than a quarter of a trillion dollars during its three years in Iraq, and more than $50 billion of it has gone to private contractors hired to guard bases, drive trucks, feed and shelter the troops and rebuild the country.

It is dangerous work, but much of the $50 billion, which is more than the annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security, has been handed out to companies in Iraq with little or no oversight.

Billions of dollars are unaccounted for, and there are widespread allegations of waste, fraud and war profiteering. As 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft first reported in February, only one case, the subject of a civil lawsuit, has been unsealed. It involves a company called Custer Battles, and provides a window into the chaos of those early days in Iraq.


A certain amount of war profiteering is inevitable, I suppose. Granted, several billion seems excessive, but it isn't like it was systematic or permitted at the highest levels...

Dick Cheney's Former Company to Lose Contract Amidst Allegations of Fraud

The Army is discontinuing a controversial multibillion-dollar deal with oil services giant Halliburton Co. to provide logistical support to U.S. troops worldwide, a decision that could cut deeply into the firm's dominance of government contracting in Iraq.

The choice comes after several years of attacks from critics who saw the contract as a symbol of politically connected corporations profiteering on the war.

Under the deal, Halliburton had exclusive rights to provide the military with a wide range of work that included keeping soldiers around the world fed, sheltered and in communication with friends and family back home. Government audits turned up more than $1 billion in questionable costs. Whistle-blowers told how the company charged $45 per case of soda, double-billed on meals and allowed troops to bathe in contaminated water.


No relatation to the story preceding it, I'm sure.

And that's the way it is.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Everything I ever needed to know about 'Male Priviledge,' I learned from running.

When I was but a college student I once found myself signing up for a course in the Women's Studies department. Now, coming from a conservative background I suspected that this course would be a little... strange. Yet, I signed up anyway. I didn't have to take this course- though it fulfilled a distribution requirement- but I took it anyway. I did this simply so that I could see for myself what women's studies was all about. Looking back on it now, I understand how silly it was to try to judge a particular body of work by a single course but, hey, I didn't have an unlimited amount of time and money to explore every subject on campus.

My experiences in this class were, on the whole, not complimentary towards the discipline. Quite a few of my classmates found the experience to be frustrating, and an exercise in indoctrination rather than education. One of them went so far as to comment that her future essays would be nothing but three pages of the phrase, "Adrienne Rich is God," over and over again. I never thought it was quite that bad, although I did notice that many of the articles we read were a curious mix of anti-scientific attitudes and scientistic tone. For example, after spending three pages reading about how the author rejects the concept of objective science, makes no effort to be dispassionate, objects to the usage of statistics because they abstract away from the individual,* and is reporting narratives as collaboratively constructed, seeing her then proceed to report, "I interviewed twenty (n=20) teenage girls," is more than a little bizarre. If you reject statistics and objectivity, I don't think reporting the number of subjects is exactly necessary. The need for the traditional "n=" notation is equally spotty.

Regardless, while on my journey into Women's Studies I happened upon the famous article by Peggy McIntosh, "White Priviledge: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." The basic contention of this article is that while we tend to focus on social inequity in terms of the priviledges denied to low power groups, it's also true that high power groups actually gain certain priviledges. While the "White Priviledge" article focuses on this in terms of race, similar lists and observations have been made about sex. One example of such a list can be found here on the ever-popular Alas (a blog). This version of the list includes, as a few examples:

37. Most major religions argue that I should be the head of my household, while my wife and children should be subservient to me.

38. If I have a wife or live-in girlfriend, chances are we’ll divide up household chores so that she does most of the labor, and in particular the most repetitive and unrewarding tasks.

39. If I have children with a wife or girlfriend, chances are she’ll do most of the childrearing, and in particular the most dirty, repetitive and unrewarding parts of childrearing.

40. If I have children with a wife or girlfriend, and it turns out that one of us needs to make career sacrifices to raise the kids, chances are we’ll both assume the career sacrificed should be hers.

41. Magazines, billboards, television, movies, pornography, and virtually all of media is filled with images of scantily-clad women intended to appeal to me sexually. Such images of men exist, but are much rarer.

42. On average, I am under much less pressure to be thin than my female counterparts are. If I am fat, I probably suffer fewer social and economic consequences for being fat than fat women do.

43. If I am heterosexual, it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll ever be beaten up by a spouse or lover.

44. Complete strangers generally do not walk up to me on the street and tell me to “smile.”

45. On average, I am not interrupted by women as often as women are interrupted by men.

46. I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.


As you can see, there are some pretty interesting entries on that list. Now, at the time I first encountered this sort of reasoning, I was bothered by it, though I wasn't sure why. As a result, I didn't really accept this line of argument. That is, until a few years ago. Believe it or not, what convinced me of male priviledge wasn't so much the essay (that merely introduced me to the concept) but was, instead, jogging. As some of you know, I exercise regularly and that includes a daily run. Years ago I used to run at night because I find it psychologically easier to run in the dark (not to mention cooler during the summers) but I have since changed to running in the mornings. I don't find this quite as agreeable, but it makes it easier to mesh my schedule with that of my Sainted Girlfriend. Since I now run around dawn, it means that during some months of the year I run in daylight, and some months I run in darkness. Even before I began running in the mornings, I occasionally still got this contrast as I would, from time to time, run immediately after work because of an engagement in the evening. After a while, all this running led to a peculiar realization: when I was running in the day, I would sometimes see other men and women jogging in the neighborhood or walking their dogs. When I was running in the dark, however, I would see only men. The women disappeared with the rays of the sun.

Now, this may seem like a trivial observation and, really, it is, but it made a useful point to me. Because I was male, I had the option of running in darkness if I chose to but, if I were female, I would have been taught that darkness is a time to stay indoors. My sex granted me the ability to avoid the summer sun, and heat, if I so chose. In a very personal way, I had been brought face-to-face with my own male priviledge.

Doubtless, some of you reading this are preparing to type comments indicating what a dumbass I am for not realizing this sooner. I expect that Plain(s)Feminist may be among them based on her comment to a previous post. I'm okay with such comments- I am, in all honesty, frequently a dumbass- but I remind you that it is one thing to be told something, and another to be shown something. As educators we should never expect that just because we tell students something they will believe it. Nor, really, should we value such dimwitted faith in our abilities, as it only encourages thinking individuals to become mindless consumers of whatever the pundits hurl at them.

I did begin to wonder, after my change of opinion, why I had been so resistant to the idea of Male Priviledge when I first encountered it. Certainly, some of it had to do with the sheer repugnance of the notion. It's one thing, as a male, to be told that women are oppressed, but it is an entirely different thing to be told that you personally benefit from that oppression. Yet, that wasn't the entirety of my discomfort. Ultimately, I think some of my discomfort came from that very idea that I was benefitting from the oppression of women. Simply because not all male priviledge necessarily works in that manner.

Think about number thirty-eight in the list above:

38. If I have a wife or live-in girlfriend, chances are we’ll divide up household chores so that she does most of the labor, and in particular the most repetitive and unrewarding tasks.


This is a case where I, as a male, might directly benefit from the "oppression"** of my female partner. If she performs most of the household labor, and in particular the time-consuming and unpleasant ones, I am left free to do other things- like work overtime. That may help me advance more rapidly in my career and, thus, represents a substantial potential benefit. So, in order for women to no longer be disadvantaged in this way, I must be willing to concede certain advantages.

Now consider the above number forty-three:

43. If I am heterosexual, it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll ever be beaten up by a spouse or lover.


Now, I think we can all agree that employing physical violence against one's domestic or romantic partner is a pretty awful thing.*** Here's the rub, though: in order for it to be unlikely for me to be beaten by a partner, is it necessary for females to be more likely to be beaten? The answer, of course, is no. In an ideal world, both sexes would be unlikely to be harmed by domestic violence. Even in our own non-ideal world, however, the likelihood that one sex is beaten is not dependent on the likelihood that the other is. This is not a zero-sum game where there is some planetary alotment of domestic violence that must be spent somewhere.

And this, unfortunately, is where my problem with the male priviledge concept emerged from. Some of the male priviledges are, indeed, things that I possess specifically because women do not possess them. These, to me, are indeed priviledges. At the same time, however, many of the items on the list reflect ways that males are priviledged only by comparison to those who lack those priviledges, and not specifically because those other groups lack certain priviledges. Certainly it would annoy me if complete strangers came up to me on the street and told me to smile (#44) but my safety from such an experience depends not a wit on the vulnerability of women to it. In this case, we are dealing not with a "priviledge" but with something more akin to a "right."

It is unquestionably worth pointing out to men all the ways in which they benefit from the disadvantaging of women. It has motivated me to try to ensure that I do my share of the nasty, repetetive tasks around the house so that my Sainted Girlfriend is not stuck with them. I like to think we've been successful at that**** but it's difficult to be sure you're taking on enough of the tasks that you'd rather not do anyway. Try it yourself if you don't believe me.

It is not, however, quite so useful to conflate the ways men benefit from female oppression, with the ways females are simply oppressed. Both should be fought, but assigning the same amount of blame, and shame, for each only cheapens the entire argument. Too often, it is exactly this conflating that seems to occur.

Reaching true gender equality will be a lengthy process, but it is one that is well-worth it. Yet, as we strive for such a noble goal, we should not be sloppy with our methods. Otherwise, we may simply thwart our own efforts.

And that's no priviledge for anyone.


* To which I can only respond, "Well, DUH! That's what they're supposed to do."

** I place this in quotes solely because I think "oppression" is an overused, and often excessively-potent, term.

*** As it happens, I object to the use of physical violence for any form of informal social control, but that isn't the point right now.

**** Actually, we've had arguments in which I've more or less been demanding a larger role in the housework. Despite this, I still think she does more of it than I do, but I'm trying.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Evolving complexity.

In lieu of a post of my own this morning, I want to direct you to one over on the fine blog the Panda's Thumb. It's a biology blog that spends a lot of time defending evolution against the crazies and, in particular, against Wild Bill Dembski and his ilk.

For those who don't know, Wild Bill is one of the leaders of the Intelligent Design movement,* which proposes that life is so complex that it cannot have evolved, and must therefore be the result of design. In public they claim that the designer can have any of several possible identities, but we all know that they favor one**** over all others.

One of the arguments used by Wild Bill and the I.D. commandos is that structures with "specified complexity" cannot have evolved naturally. I won't go into all the reasons why- primarily because they're stupid- but what it boils down to is that (in Dembski's view) the probability of a complex, but easy to sum up, structure emerging through natural processes is too remote to bear considering.

Well, he'd best think again because, even if the mountains of existing evidence for evolution weren't enough, we now have something pretty interesting: an unguided evolutionary algorithm that produces specified complexity. Interested? Then go take a look-see at the post written by Dave Thomas.***** It's long, but it's also utterly fascinating.

Have fun!******



* As a side note, it always amazes me when the I.D. folk refer to their efforts as a "movement." Look, if I.D. is a scientific theory as they claim** then it being a movement is absurd. Scientific theories are not displaced by social movements, but rather via evidence. So, in an ironic twist, the very name betrays its scientific vacuity.

** I mean, they're totally lying*** but that's not the point.

*** Or ignorant. I don't want to malign their character unfairly, but either they're lying or they're actually ignorant of what does and does not constitute a scientific theory. Take your pick, folks: Liars or ignorant.

**** Oddly enough, when doing a Google image search for Jesus, this is the fourth image to appear.

***** No, he's not actually the CEO of the Wendy's chain of fast food restaurants. Just try to tell me you could resist that joke.

****** For those who read it, and reach Wild Bill's reaction to this work, let me just add something to Dr. Thomas's rebutal. Dembski is trying to argue that the requirement that path length be minimized constitutes "frontloading" the problem. So, the "answer" is specified in the question itself. This is, in a word, absurd. Any evolutionary situation is always a problem in optimization. More reproductive success for less energy consumed. It's simply that the solution to this problem is not given. So, we should expect to a see a variety of solutions emerge, including perhaps the optimal one. In a real environment, the very definition of "optimal" is slippery, but we should still expect to see a diverse set of solutions that are "good enough." This is what Thomas's algorithm actually yields- a series of "good" solutions that happens to include the optimal one. If we go along with Dembski's view, then the only environment in which we can test an evolutionary algorithm is one in which there are no evolutionary forces present. In such a case, evolution will be trivially unable to produce valuable results. It's roughly equivalent to putting a high schooler in a room with three sheets of paper and a pencil for three hours with no instructions, and then declaring that the educational system is a failure if they don't write an essay about Hamlet while they're there.

Friday, July 07, 2006

A priori

Regular readers of this blog know that I am something of a fan of science. Okay, really, that's an understatement. When I was a kid, my favorite magazine was Popular Science. My favorite Star Trek character? Why Spock, the science officer. My favorite classes in high school and college? Science courses. Hell, in college I took a course titled "Cognitive Neuroscience" for fun.* My occupational choice? A science. My current magazine subscriptions? Scientific American, Analog Science Fiction & Fact, and the Skeptical Inquirer. My obsession is so severe that one of my Sainted Girlfriend's associates has actually asserted that science is my religion.** So, yes, it's safe to say that I "like" science.

That said, I am keenly interested in things that are happening to, and in, science. This explains my interest in "Intelligent Design," which has the unpleasant distinction of being a convenient label for individuals who want to try to ram creationism into the school system. It also explains my interest in a recent post by Sconnie blogger Sir Edwin Pegasus. Eddie is discussing a fellowship program*** called the "Harvey Fellows" for graduate students in top-five ranked departments in a variety of different fields. The Harvey website summarizes their main areas of interest as:

Government, corporate, and university sponsored research;

International economics and finance in public and private sectors;

International diplomacy;

Journalism and media;

Film production and visual and performing arts;

Public policy and federal, state, and major city government;

Research, teaching, and administration at premier colleges and universities.


As you can see, they're pretty open to different pursuits. So what do you get with this fellowship? Well, as stated on the Harvey website:

Each Harvey Fellow is awarded a $15,000 annual stipend. The award is portable to a premier graduate degree program, subject to approval by the selection committee. Generally, only schools considered to be among the top five by professionals in a given subject area or specialty will be acceptable destinations.

...

Fellows are free to use their stipends for legitimate educational expenses which further their vocational goals: e.g., tuition, living expenses, research tools or travel, studio space, professional conferences, and interview travel.

The number of Fellowships awarded each year varies according to available funds from the Mustard Seed Foundaton. Funding is provided for up to a total of two years for most master’s programs and a total of three years for law and doctoral programs.


Not bad, eh?

Doubtless some of you are wondering if there's a catch. That's because you're smart- of course there's a catch, there's always a catch, and this time it's a doozy:

The Harvey Fellows was developed to encourage followers of Jesus Christ to integrate their faith and vocation and pursue leadership positions in strategic fields where Christians appear to be underrepresented. We understand God to be Creator and Sustainer, not only of human beings, but of society’s disciplines and structures which make up our world. Our goal is to empower students who evidence the passion and ability to lead others as they participate in God’s work to redeem these structures.

The Harvey Fellows provides financial support to Christian graduate students who possess a unique vision to impact society through their fields and who are pursuing graduate studies at premier institutions in their disciplines (in the United States or abroad).

The Harvey Fellows seeks to:


Encourage students who are committed to Jesus Christ to pursue vocations that are culturally influential and to pursue vocational credentials in the most prestigious graduate programs;

Equip students to develop the tools necessary to lead integrated lives, addressing important societal issues from within the framework of a Christ-centered worldview;

Validate exceptional abilities in academics and leadership as gifts from God worthy of cultivation and development;

Offer a forum for the exchange of ideas on the integration of faith, learning, and vocation, while establishing a network of talented Christians who are leaders in numerous occupational arenas.


So, this isn't your general, run-of-the-mill fellowship program. This is a program specifically for Christians, and others need not apply. Now, some of you (knowing that I'm an atheist) may be waiting for me to rant about how unfair or prejudicial this is. Sorry to disappoint you, but it's not gonna happen. I'm fine with a group offering a fellowship like this, and wish them the best of luck.

I am, however, here to pose a question: why? Why is it desirable to increase the number of Christians in these disciplines. For simplicity, let's narrow the question to: Why is it desirable to increase the number of Christians in the social and behavioral sciences?

Well, what are the properties of a good scientist? Honesty, intelligence, dedication, open-mindedness, and curiosity all spring to mind. Are these qualities that non-Christians lack? Are Muslims, Jews, and Atheists less honest than Christians? Well, popular opinion might say yes (especially about Atheists) but I know of no empirical findings that support such a contention. Are Christians more intelligent or dedicated? Well, Albert Einstein was Jewish, so probably not. What about open-minded or curious? Seems a little unreasonable to say so.

So why do we need to increase the number of Christians in science? Well, according to the Harvey Fellowship (as quoted above):

Our goal is to empower students who evidence the passion and ability to lead others as they participate in God’s work to redeem these structures.


Okay, but what does that mean? Well, the Harvey Fellowship explains that its vision is best summed up by the Lausanne Covenant, which is more or less an Evangelical Manifesto. This covenant, that sums up the Harvey Fellowship's vision, and that all fellows must sign their agreement to, includes the following:

2. THE AUTHORITY AND POWER OF THE BIBLE
We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice. We also affirm the power of God's word to accomplish his purpose of salvation. The message of the Bible is addressed to all men and women. For God's revelation in Christ and in Scripture is unchangeable. Through it the Holy Spirit still speaks today. He illumines the minds of God's people in every culture to perceive its truth freshly through their own eyes and thus discloses to the whole Church ever more of the many-colored wisdom of God.

(II Tim. 3:16; II Pet. 1:21; John 10:35; Isa. 55:11; 1 Cor. 1:21; Rom. 1:16, Matt. 5:17,18; Jude 3; Eph. 1:17,18; 3:10,18)

3. THE UNIQUENESS AND UNIVERSALITY OF CHRIST
We affirm that there is only one Saviour and only one gospel, although there is a wide diversity of evangelistic approaches. We recognise that everyone has some knowledge of God through his general revelation in nature. But we deny that this can save, for people suppress the truth by their unrighteousness. We also reject as derogatory to Christ and the gospel every kind of syncretism and dialogue which implies that Christ speaks equally through all religions and ideologies. Jesus Christ, being himself the only God-man, who gave himself as the only ransom for sinners, is the only mediator between God and people. There is no other name by which we must be saved. All men and women are perishing because of sin, but God loves everyone, not wishing that any should perish but that all should repent. Yet those who reject Christ repudiate the joy of salvation and condemn themselves to eternal separation from God. To proclaim Jesus as "the Saviour of the world" is not to affirm that all people are either automatically or ultimately saved, still less to affirm that all religions offer salvation in Christ. Rather it is to proclaim God's love for a world of sinners and to invite everyone to respond to him as Saviour and Lord in the wholehearted personal commitment of repentance and faith. Jesus Christ has been exalted above every other name; we long for the day when every knee shall bow to him and every tongue shall confess him Lord.

(Gal. 1:6-9;Rom. 1:18-32; I Tim. 2:5,6; Acts 4:12; John 3:16-19; II Pet. 3:9; II Thess. 1:7-9;John 4:42; Matt. 11:28; Eph. 1:20,21; Phil. 2:9-11)

...

9. THE URGENCY OF THE EVANGELISTIC TASK
More than 2,700 million people, which is more than two-thirds of all humanity, have yet to be evangelised. We are ashamed that so many have been neglected; it is a standing rebuke to us and to the whole Church. There is now, however, in many parts of the world an unprecedented receptivity to the Lord Jesus Christ. We are convinced that this is the time for churches and para-church agencies to pray earnestly for the salvation of the unreached and to launch new efforts to achieve world evangelization. A reduction of foreign missionaries and money in an evangelised country may sometimes be necessary to facilitate the national church's growth in self-reliance and to release resources for unevangelised areas. Missionaries should flow ever more freely from and to all six continents in a spirit of humble service. The goal should be, by all available means and at the earliest possible time, that every person will have the opportunity to hear, understand, and to receive the good news. We cannot hope to attain this goal without sacrifice. All of us are shocked by the poverty of millions and disturbed by the injustices which cause it. Those of us who live in affluent circumstances accept our duty to develop a simple life-style in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism.

(John 9:4; Matt. 9:35-38; Rom. 9:1-3; I Cor. 9:19-23; Mark 16:15; Isa. 58:6,7; Jas. 1:27; 2:1-9; Matt. 25:31-46; Acts 2:44,45; 4:34,35)

10. EVANGELISM AND CULTURE
The development of strategies for world evangelization calls for imaginative pioneering methods. Under God, the result will be the rise of churches deeply rooted in Christ and closely related to their culture. Culture must always be tested and judged by Scripture. Because men and women are God's creatures, some of their culture is rich in beauty and goodness. Because they are fallen, all of it is tainted with sin and some of it is demonic. The gospel does not presuppose the superiority of any culture to another, but evaluates all cultures according to its own criteria of truth and righteousness, and insists on moral absolutes in every culture. Missions have all too frequently exported with the gospel an alien culture and churches have sometimes been in bondage to culture rather than to Scripture. Christ's evangelists must humbly seek to empty themselves of all but their personal authenticity in order to become the servants of others, and churches must seek to transform and enrich culture, all for the glory of God.

(Mark 7:8,9,13; Gen. 4:21,22; I Cor. 9:19-23; Phil. 2:5-7; II Cor. 4:5)

...

12. SPIRITUAL CONFLICT
We believe that we are engaged in constant spiritual warfare with the principalities and powers of evil, who are seeking to overthrow the Church and frustrate its task of world evangelization. We know our need to equip ourselves with God's armour and to fight this battle with the spiritual weapons of truth and prayer. For we detect the activity of our enemy, not only in false ideologies outside the Church, but also inside it in false gospels which twist Scripture and put people in the place of God. We need both watchfulness and discernment to safeguard the biblical gospel. We acknowledge that we ourselves are not immune to worldliness of thoughts and action, that is, to a surrender to secularism. For example, although careful studies of church growth, both numerical and spiritual, are right and valuable, we have sometimes neglected them. At other times, desirous to ensure a response to the gospel, we have compromised our message, manipulated our hearers through pressure techniques, and become unduly preoccupied with statistics or even dishonest in our use of them. All this is worldly. The Church must be in the world; the world must not be in the Church.

(Eph. 6:12; II Cor. 4:3,4; Eph. 6:11,13-18; II Cor. 10:3-5; I John 2:18-26; 4:1-3; Gal. 1:6-9; II Cor. 2:17; 4:2; John 17:15) [emphasis added]


As you can see, the Lausanne Covenant is a call for Christian evangelism the world over that includes a belief both in the inerrency of the bible, and in Jesus Christ as the only route to salvation. If this is the Harvey Fellowship's "vision," then it is clear that it has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with religion.

So is that bad? Well, yes and no. On one hand, people are going to bring their spiritual beliefs into their work. A devout Christian who also happens to be a Sociologist might well study income inequality, or even religion itself. The types of questions she asks will doubtless be driven by her spiritual leanings. I don't have a problem with that and, indeed, it is the best reason why the scientific community needs diversity. If we have lots and lots of different prejudices in how we pose our questions, and agreed-upon methods for evaluating the answers, then we can use the sum total of our work to find the facts that underlie the prejudices. This is no different then using several instruments to measure the same phenomenon so as to cancel out measurement error.

On the other hand, however, the Lausanne Covenant commits the Harvey Fellows to a peculiar position. They must agree, at the very beginning, that the world is a certain way and that the bible is the utter truth. As such, the "redeeming" that figures so prominently in the Harvey Fellowship's language can only refer to working to fit the world, and our findings about it, to match the dictates of a vague book written by a number of (often unknown) men more than a thousand years ago. It is reaching a conclusion a priori and then trying to force the data to fit it. Now, I'm an atheist, so maybe I don't understand religion. Maybe the essence of Christian faith is an adherence to particular dictates without evidence. Maybe that's being a good Christian. I can't answer that question, because I am not Christian, but I can tell you one thing:

It's lousy science.

* No, really, I did. I didn't need the credits to graduate, but I couldn't get a tuition reduction for not taking an extra class and figured, "Hell, why not?"

** This is, of course, untrue. While I am very much a lover of science, it simply isn't a philosophical system that can serve the same purposes as the metaphysics of religion.

*** For the non-academics in the audience, "fellowship program" is the academic equivalent of a sign that says "Free crack!" Much like those piles of "Free Birdseed" that the Coyote would leave for the Roadrunner, however, there is almost always a cost in it somewhere.

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