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.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Illusions

People who read this blog for any length of time probably realize that I am somewhat pro-science. In truth, this is an understatement, as I am a rabid supporter of the scientific approach to determining fact. I'd be apologetic about this but, let's face it, science has a fairly decent track record of figuring shit out. Besides, I routinely reaffirm my belief that not all arenas of life are suitable for scientific inquiry and so- however narrowly- avoid being too scientistic. Or so I believe.

In any case as a science-phile I am somewhat skeptical. I subscribe to The Skeptical Inquirer and am an avid reader of skeptical blogs like the venerable Skepchick, which has the distinction of publishing a nude calendar as a fund-raiser. Relax, folks, there's a calendar for boys and girls. In any case my natural skepticism can sometimes be rather annoying for my associates. Honestly, it sometimes surprises me how negative people can be about skepticism- especially when it is focused on matters that shouldn't be of any particular emotional import. Oddly, this negativity towards skepticism seems to lead people into not being skeptical at all.

I was struck by this very phenomenon this past Thanksgiving. While conversing with my Sainted Fiancee's grandmother, whom I will call Mabel, I heard something very interesting. In short, Mabel told my Sainted Fiancee that her cousin, Kate, had called recently crying about the death of her parakeet. Apparently Kate had been using a teflon coated pan and toxic fumes from this pan had overcome the poor bird. Mabel then told us that she has disposed of all of her teflon, including some expensive items, because of their serious health risks and encouraged us to do so as well. Accoding to Mabel teflon is really quite dangeorus stuff.

Now, all of this struck me as a little odd. Teflon has been around for quite a long time and is still a popular material in cookware. If it is as dangerous as Mabel made it out to be- and if that danger is so well-established- why is it still on the market? My skeptical interest was piqued. So, I immediately turned to Wikipedia to see about some answers. As it turns out Teflon does produce toxic vapors when heated. As is so often the case, however, the devil is in the details. In order to start producing these dangerous vapors the teflon must reach a temperature of 460 degrees F, and doesn't begin releasing a large amount of vapor until a temperature of 660 degrees is reached. To give you some comparison, cooking fats, oils, and butters begin to scorch at a much lower 392 degrees and meat is fried between 400 and 450 degrees. So, in most normal usages, the pan will not produce any toxic fumes. More accurately, by the time the pan starts to generate any significant fumes the food it contains is likely burnt into inedibility.

Then we come to the additional important point: cooking oils produce the same sorts of fumes. More importantly, they produce them at lower temperatures than does teflon. It actually appears that dry heating a teflon pan likely produces fewer byproduts than the cooking oils themselves and that these byproducts will overcome a small bird at much lower temperatures than fumes from the teflon itself. So, put simply, it's likely that Kate's parekeet died from exposure to fumes from the oil rather than the teflon.

I take all this as good news in that it means that I don't have to dispose of a very useful technological innovation but I don't think everyone would respond quite in this manner. Frankly all of this reminds me of nothing so much as the Alar fiasco. Or, if that isn't enough for you, the new movements to refuse vaccines. It seems that in many cases people are quite determined to hold onto ideas with very little support and a great deal of counterveiling evidence. To return to our story, I'm not quite silly enough to bring all this up with Mabel. Perhaps she would believe me (and, more importantly, the FDA) but I suspect that she would instead sweep my findings aside in favor of good old common sense. Kate used a teflon pan, the bird died, ergo the teflon killed the bird. This is, of course, the same common sense that gave us geocentrism, but I digress.

Of more interest to me than refusing to use some newfangled product of science and industry is insistence upon using something that has received no support whatsoever. I refer, mainly, to the whole alternative medicine industry.* Now, it's entirely possible that some alternative remedies do work but, by and large, many of them are either useless or totally absurd. As I've said before, the mere fact that something is alternative doesn't make it good. Yet, these remedies continue to earn companies enormous profits while providing little, if any, benefit to their users. Why do ineffective remedies remain popular? Well, for the same reason that people come to believe that teflon will kill you: we keep hearing other people say it. If you hear from one person that teflon is dangerous you probably won't believe it. If you hear it from five or six, on the other hand, you may start to dispose of your teflon-coated pans. The problem, however, is that the raw number of people you hear a thing from has little impact on its veracity- as we should all remember from high school when rumors of a more personal nature were rampant. If all of the rumors about me in high school were actually true... well... let's just say my Sainted Fiancee would have been in for a surprise.

Well, it's time to fight fire with fire. If the popularity of ineffective remedies is maintained by rumors, then maybe it's time to start some rumors in return. Some rumors that give people the facts about their health and risks to it. And maybe this article is a good place to start:

Last week’s study showing that the widely touted and sold supplement DHEA does nothing to slow the effects of aging was only the latest major piece of research with powerfully negative results from the National Institutes of Health Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. Previous placebo-controlled trials proved the uselessness of St. John’s Wort for depression and saw palmetto for enlarged prostates, shark cartilage for cancer, echinacea for the common cold and glucosamine plus chondroitin sulphate for arthritis.


Do us all a favor: read the article, and then pass it on. The reality is we must stop holding our tongues so that we don't offend people who use alternative remedies or who decry perfectly safe products. Some things work, and so can be used safely. Some things don't work, and so usage of them at best simply wastes money. Remaining silent about either does nobody any good and may ultimately do considerable harm.

If people want to use alternative remedies I have no problem with it. I just hope they can make their choice without any illusions.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Paying the piper.

Recently my esteemed co-blogger Tom wrote a post dealing with some happenings over on Wild Bill Dembski's blog Uncommon Descent. Tom was commenting on an effort to explain the supposed virgin birth of Jesus Christ through purely natural means. As Tom pointed out, this is a ridiculous effort from both a scientific and a religious perspective. For the scientifically inclined there's no plausible way to do it. For the religiously inclined, the very attempt minimizes the role of god. And for the religiously scientific*... well, those folks largely hang out on Dembski's blog anyway.

Bizarre as I think this discussion is, however, it is at least a discussion largely taking place between adults. Sure, Dembski's henchmen routinely delete dissenting opinions and ban commenters. Sure, the blog consistently disregards anything resembling journalistic integrity. It's still a group of free adults exercising their right to free speech. If you simply have to rebut Dembski's writings you're free to start up your own blog and do so. And, of course, this is why I have both Uncommon Descent and The Panda's Thumb in my blogroll. I see no reason not to keep an eye on each and, at the very least, expose myself to both sides of the debate- even if one of them is clearly in error. This kind of relative openness is even practiced on the Panda's Thumb which has links to numerous pro-ID blogs and websites, even if they do label them pseudoscience. Sadly, Dembski doesn't reciprocate, although he does have a very nice, if totally irrelevant, flashgame about the Panda's thumb. Seriously. Check it out. Hey, if they can't win on logical or scientific grounds, at least they can win in terms of sheer entertainment value.

And that seems to be the idea behind a recent Intelligent Design initiative. A new website, called "Overwhelming Evidence" is interesting in that it isn't directed at adults who are having a discussion about human origins. It is, instead, an effort to sway children to a pro-Intelligent Design position. Granted, by "children" I largely mean "teenagers" but the point remains essentially the same: if you aren't winning among your peers, you may as well go after a vulnerable population.

So far this effort looks pretty interesting if you go by the front splash page. My favorite is their comment on Judge Jones of the Dover ruling. Specifically, they say: "He's a wacky, zany activist. He's a rogue. And he loves that old time Darwinian religion!" This is, of course, fascinating given that Judge Jones is Lutheran, as well as Jones' own comment on his alleged activism at the time he wrote his decision:

"Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court."


It's not that Jones is necessarily telling the truth, but that he was appointed by President George W. Bush and has publicly stated that his decision was based on a strict adherence to established law and the U.S. Constitution- which is exactly what it means to not be activist on the bench. Or, at least, what it means to those of us who aren't cultural conservatives- for them being activist means ruling in someone else's favor. But I digress...

On entering "Overwhelming Evidence" you will find the usual Intelligent Design schtick. Life is too complex... evolution sucks... mysterious intelligent designer... we've heard all of this before. Only now it's directed at propagandizing the younguns.

So am I angry about all this? Nah, not really. This isn't any different than what kids get in their churches, which are effectively unregulated anyway. I don't particularly like the whole thing, but hey, what do you expect? No, I'm not angry, but I am interested. It's interesting to me how cultural conservatives view knowledge. As the Plain(s)Feminist pointed out in her recent guest post, there's all kinds of opposition to equipping teachers with any real knowledge about sexual practices. As if denying information to teachers, and thereby denying it to kids, will somehow protect them. Bad news, folks: kids are curious and they will find out. They can do it through a nice safe sex education class, or through internet forums. If you need more than four seconds to figure out which of those is better, you're brain damaged. Then there's the new vaccine for HPV that conservatives are resisting on their usual psycho grounds: in short, that protecting young girls from HPV will make them more likely to have pre-marital sex. To me, this is like arguing that putting a cherry on top of a hot fudge sunday makes a ten year-old more likely to eat it, but that's not the point.

And here we are, once again, with cultural conservatives trying to work the children. Is evolution as important as an HPV vaccine or sex education? On a personal level, no: knowing how to use a condom is way more important. On a societal level, however, the answer is yes. An understanding of how the natural world works is key to having an electorate that is sufficiently informed to be able to deal with issues like bird flu, global warming, and environmental pollutants. But, unfortunately, when we get past the "teach the controversy" rhetoric we find that none of the ID movement is about being informed. It is, instead, about preserving particular mindsets no matter how high the cost.

And I, for one, don't want to have to pay that bill.


* Please note that I don't mean "religious scientists." There's no necessary reason why someone who is a scientist cannot be religious and vice versa. However, the sort of logic that operates in religion and the kind of logic at work in science are sufficiently different as to make it unwise to mix them. So, while you may have faith that god loves us, using that faith as your sole justification for accepting or rejecting scientific hypotheses is probably unwise.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Out of the Mouths of Babes: Special Guest Post

Howdy loyal Total Drek fans! Today I have a special treat for those of you who are crazy enough to read this blog with any frequency: I am not posting. Instead, we have a guest contribution from the inimitable Plain(s)Feminist who has graciously taken a little time away from her blog to contribute to this one. I know you'll give her a typical Total Drek welcome. So, without further ado: Plain(s)Feminist!


Last year, one of the big issues in South Dakota politics was sex ed - specifically, what should or shouldn't be taught under the guise of sex ed. We boast one of the loudest advocates of abstinence in the nation, and you can bet that scores of abstinence promoters turned out to push for an abstinence-only curricula, because they were sure that their kids were too pure to have their ears scorched by the mention of hot and dirty sex.

The hot and dirty sex in question was in the middle-school curriculum, and it focused on getting kids to think on their own about their sexuality, to own their sexual beings, to not be peer-pressured into trying things they weren't ready for. To that end, there was mention of sexual activity that was alternative to intercourse. Thus it was that I found myself standing outside a school board meeting holding a big sign that said "REAL Sex Ed Saves Lives." And there it was that I was approached by a mother who, as she volunteered for some reason (perhaps she thought it was evidence of street cred for us younger folk), used to smoke pot. From there, she went on to say that she was in favor of sex ed in the schools, but that she thought this curriculum went too far.

"My seventh-grader doesn't need to know about oral sex! He's not even thinking about this stuff!"

Uh, ma'am? Yeah, he is. Trust me.

A male college student tried to explain this to her, but I think something weird happens to some parents that makes them unable to see their kids as real people who do things like masturbate and think about oral sex. And while most of the time I simply think, "they're just lying to themselves," every once in a while I meet someone like her who almost convinces me that some people don't do these things. Ever. (Almost, but not quite.)

To be fair, there was also a bit in the teacher's manual about using vegetables as dildos.

I'll wait while you finish reacting to that.

OK, so here's why that was there. Imagine that you are once more 14 or 15, and that you're dating someone, and that you're liking the kissing and you're interested in the other stuff but also, perhaps, not ready for it. And if you're a girl, you most likely have very little idea of what you like sexually, or maybe you don't know how to get yourself off, or maybe you've just never even really thought much about what feels sexy to you and so you're feeling like you don't know anything and like your boyfriend (or girlfriend), who seems to know more than you do, should probably call the shots.

But what if you had learned to think for yourself about what felt sexy to you? What if you knew that people could make themselves orgasm? (What if you could?) That they had options other than sex with a partner? That they could explore on their own?

Might that empower you to make your own decisions that might include holding off on intercourse or other risky sexual behaviors for the time being? Might that make you more likely to wait until you were a little bit older to experiment with the stuff that you weren't quite ready for?

I suspect that this was the impetus behind educating teachers (remember, this was for teachers, not students) about different ways that people experience their sexuality. And frankly, I think teachers SHOULD know this stuff. Those kids are gonna wanna know what snowballing and tossing the salad mean, and if their teachers are anything like mine were, they are not going to get very satisfying answers. And frankly? When the kids start asking about snowballing and tossing the salad, I would think that the teachers would WISH that someone would, for God's sake, please, ask about using a cucumber as a dildo. It's really almost banal in comparison.

But the one thing I kept wondering, while I was standing out there in the cold with my sign while crazy women drove by yelling "Planned Parenthood wants your SOUL!," was, do these parents really think that they're going to prevent these kids from finding out this stuff?

Because, I'll tell you right now, my kid is going to be going to these schools some day. And he'll be very popular - he'll be the go-to guy for sex ed info.

For example, this is my four-year-old the other day, talking to a friend three years older who had not a clue:

"Hey, wanna know how you were born? Wanna know how you were born? You came out of your mother's VAGINA."

Look out, world.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Infinitely Improbable Descent

I have a certain admiration for those bloggers who have the steel intestines needed to work beats like the wingnut watch. I enjoy finely honed ridicule as much as the next guy, but that entire mode of blogging exists as a reminder that rational discourse will only take you so far in this world.

But I'm not writing here (vs. the usual place) to offer meta-blogging banalities as such. Rather, it's because Drek has seen fit to blogroll "Wild Bill" Dembski's Web home, which (or so PZ Myers has told me) is hosting a discussion of surpassing pointlessness, even by the standard of reality-TV liveblogging. One of Dembski's contributors is promoting an explanation of the (doctrinal) virgin birth of (historical) Jesus as a purely natural phenomenon. Allen MacNeill, a Cornell biology instructor, valiantly tries to correct some basic errors in the argument in the comments thread, though trying to follow the thread as it wandered off-topic and back on again, I have to wonder if engagement led to a degree of Stockholm syndrome.

In the Catholicism in which I was raised, the virgin birth of Jesus is one of those examples of God doing the omnipotent and ineffable thing. (*) Searching for a purely naturalistic explanation not only doesn't contribute to the theological argument, it's a fool's errand that's directly counter to it.

More interesting in its way than the hackish biological misunderstandings deployed in service of non-miraculous parthenogenesis of Historical Jesus is one of the Catholic catechism's arguments. The key passage is:
Faith in the virginal conception of Jesus met with the lively opposition, mockery or incomprehension of non-believers, Jews and pagans alike; so it could hardly have been motivated by pagan mythology or by some adaptation to the ideas of the age.
Shorter Catholic Church: Why would we put ourselves through all that trouble if it weren't true? But before atheists everywhere rejoice at this affirmation, note that it applies a fortiori to John Travolta and his involvement with the adaptation of Battlefield Earth.

Now, it's not that some myths might not have natural explanations. An interesting NYT science section piece from a couple weeks ago (now behind the Times Select paywall) described research suggesting the enormous tsunami asociated with a large asteroid or comet impact in the Indian Ocean in historical time — about 4,800 years ago — as an explanation for enormous "chevrons" on Madagascar comprised of material from the ocean floor fused with metals typical of a certain type of meteor. An appropriately young (q.q.v.) 18-mile-wide crater, recently discovered in the deep ocean, awaits confirmation of its origins. (**)

One researcher discussed in the article went so far as to propose an exact date of the impact based on correlating features of flood myths with events with known dates (e.g., solar eclipses), which seems to be an enormous stretch. But there are a lot of ancient flood myths out there, and as sub-extinction-level natural cataclysms primitive societies might attribute to divine vengeance go, big meteor strikes would have to be considered not so improbable.

Mammalian parthenogenesis, not so much. MacNeill noted that one proponent of a natural virgin birth theory estimated the odds as 1-in-120 billion. This strikes me as high, or perhaps more precisely pulled out of thin air to get a plausibly low expected value (given an approximate number of humans that have ever lived) to fit one "observation." (***) The problem is that parthenogenesis doesn't seem to naturally occur in other mammals, either. (****) So there's a need either to explain why the odds of parthenogenesis are higher in humans or the odds should produce roughly zero virgin births among every mammal that's ever lived.

So, if you're inclined to believe in such things, the miracle theory of the virgin birth is far less improbable than the would-be explanation as a natural phenomenon.

And yes, thanks for asking, the stupidity does burn.

(*) It's also interesting, given the church's fetishization of procreation in marriage (*****), to see the argument twist itself in knots to deny the possibility (if not probability) that Historical Jesus had historical siblings.

(**) A "wha??" moment in the article was this:

So far, astronomers are skeptical but are willing to look at the evidence, said David Morrison, a leading authority on asteroids and comets at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Surveys show that as many as 185 large asteroids or comets hit the Earth in the far distant past, although most of the craters are on land. No one has spent much time looking for craters in the deep ocean, Dr. Morrison said, assuming young ones don't exist and that old ones would be filled with sediment.

Astronomers monitor every small space object with an orbit close to the Earth. ''We know what's out there, when they return, how close they come,'' Dr. Morrison said. Given their observations, ''there is no reason to think we have had major hits in the last 10,000 years,'' he continued, adding, ''But if Dallas is right and they find 10 such events, we'll have a real contradiction on our hands.''


Maybe I'm behind the times, but it's been my understanding that a comprehensive survey of objects with Earth-crossing orbits is one of those low-cost, high-return science projects that's been in need of funding, and that there are fairly big objects that have (1) been recently discovered, because they've come close, and (2) it stands to reason, await discovery. So the astronomers are monitoring what we know about and looking for more, but it's the rocks we don't know about that are the interesting ones here. Yes?

(***) Were I less polite, I'd say that Frank Tipler, the source, derived a sophisticated argument to surround a figure pulled out of his ass.

(****) A mouse born as the result of an experiment meant to examine the roles of sperm and egg in mammalian development, mentioned by someone in the thread, doesn't count. It's not naturally occurring and, as the Wikipedia entry clearly mentions, it has two mommies.

(*****) On display in Madison as the Catholic bishop stuck his nose in the debate over the Wisconsin constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions. The implication is that Mary and Joseph had the one marriage actually enhanced, in the Catholic view, by not being open to procreation through the marital act.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Growing up at Plymouth Rock

This past Thursday, my girlfriend and I hosted seven of our friends for a traditional Thanksgiving meal, as we’ve done for the past 4 or 5 years. We made a turkey (a wee bit dry), yams, and pecan pie, and everybody brought some of the fixins. It was lovely, really.

Thanksgiving has been a comforting season for me - It takes me back to when things seemed simple and right. There were home fires burning, the world was in orange and brown, I got to see my grandparents and relatives, we made turkey art projects in school and dressed up as Pilgrims and Indians, we said grace to God, and then ate the food, which was all homemade and wonderful.

Of course a lot of that is childhood naiveté. Have you noticed how many carbs are in a Thanksgiving meal? And is your turkey free range and hormone free? A lot of things seemed simple back then, and it turns out,... not so much. Don Henley wrote a wistful song about this called the End of the Innocence. We have a mythic national memory and identity that seems to have recently been lost, though we tragically keep thinking we can get it back: “We’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales.”

And the First Thanksgiving is one of our collective fairy tales.

Everybody learns the national myths at some point, as if they were facts, don’t they? George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, but could not tell a lie. Columbus “discovered” America, a “virgin” land (and knocked it up, I suppose). “Manifest Destiny” drew Americans across a continent. For much of our national childhood, these myths seem to have been supposed to be facts.

As children, we all learn how the First Thanksgiving happened: The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, apprehensive about their new lives. They struggled with the wilderness, receiving a little practical instruction from friendly Indians, and then they celebrated their first harvest by having a feast and giving thanks to God for their new land and their success.

But we as a nation have sprouted our first short and curlies recently. Compare those old myths with a more jaded - say, adolescent - sensibility that perhaps arrived with Watergate and Vietnam. Since then, we are more apt to see lies and irony and betrayal: “I am not a crook,” “no new taxes,” “I did not have sex with that woman,” “mission accomplished.” In the harsh light of our teen years, the First Thanksgiving is a travesty.

Well, we know the kiddie version. Let’s flesh out the real picture a little more. The scene is a bay on the east coast of the American continent in 1619. All around is devastation. The native American civilizations have just suffered through what may well have been the most destructive plague in the history of humankind. A thriving coastal population of probably 10 million people had been reduced to less than a million. Villages and towns were abandoned. Bodies lay unburied, and crops untended.

The culprit was smallpox, most likely. Brought by English traders and slavers. It annihilated almost a whole people, and left the rest weak and in a state of shock, grief, and despair. It accounts for the lack of resistance --physical or psychological-- from the native population to the European invaders/settlers. James Loewen wryly notes that America wasn’t a virgin country, but rather one recently widowed.

But this was all a boon to the strange interlopers. They first found provisions by stealing them from unattended Indian homes and by digging up new Indian graves for the offerings laid therein. They got in a firefight with locals who remembered the English as murderers and kidnappers, but managed to fight the attackers off. Then, these erstwhile burglars and grave-robbers landed in the village of Pawtuxet, already cleared and long tended, but recently wiped out by the plague, and appropriated it.

Incidentally, Pawtuxet was Squanto’s village. Squanto (Tisquantum) had already been kidnapped, brought to England as a slave, and escaped, and he made his way back to his home to find his fellow Pawtuxetans -- all of them -- dead. So, knowing English, he threw his lot in with the “pilgrims” (actually, 65% of the Mayflower’s passengers were ordinary settlers) and acted as adviser and interpreter. By all accounts, he saved their lives repeatedly.

None of this is to demonize the pilgrims, as such. To be fair, they were desperate and possibly in danger of starving, and they had intended to pay the Indians back. And their interactions were probably among the most friendly of the ongoing clash of cultures during that time. But one must realize that it is this humanitarian catastrophe that smiled upon their fortunes and for which they gave thanks to their god. As John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, said about one of the later waves of plague, it was
“miraculous…. But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection.”
Thank God and pass the pumpkin pie.

It occurs to me (not the first) that at each point, they might more appropriately have given thanks to - or at least honored - the Indians. And I suspect they did, too, although that has somehow gotten lost in the history textbooks and the 3rd grade Thanksgiving extravaganzas.

For the last several years, I’ve been celebrating an impeached Thanksgiving with this in mind: that we’ve been collectively thanking God for slaughtering the native American people and giving us the spoils. What a sick bargain.

I’ve sometimes resented that I had to grow up and learn how sausages (and countries) are made. In a sense, I’m --as Bob Seger put it-- “ wishing I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” I think a lot of folks feel that way. But I think, still, a lot more do everything they can to avoid having to grow up in the first place. They want a simple, uncomplicated, black and white world, where they are the good guys, and they tell themselves over and over that’s what they have. Their national and religious myths reinforce this view. I hope they grow up soon, because it seems to me the immature view brings conflict and suffering.

But, even so, it’s right to reflect upon our blessings and to feel gratitude, and it’s good to gather together and express that thanks. We’ve all come through harsh winters and dangers of our own, and when we think about it, we should all be thankful. But not to our vanity-deities…to one another. To our family, our friends, our colleagues, our associates, our paperboy, our cashier, our boss, all without whom our worlds would not run. To those who have made our years fuller and richer, who we may not even know. It seems to me this is something we forget - that we’re all connected, and we all rely on one another. I think our country still has a lot of growing up to do, but if we started celebrating each other, it would be a start.

This is what I do now, when I invite my friends over to eat the food I remember my mother serving me, and what we are told the Pilgrims served to the Indians. And when I remember this, I find that doing so as an adult feels just as warm now as it did then.

Friday, November 24, 2006

More juvenile than normal.

A friend of mine has recently taken a job as a faculty member and has become a father for the first time. Presumably these events are only somewhat unrelated. Amazingly he's still willing to associate with me despite his newfound respectability and we exchange e-mails from time to time. The other day, he forwarded something along to me, commenting that he had come across it while reading to his baby.

You know how children's stories and rhymes usually have some sort of theme? You know how it's usually something cute or amusing and easy to remember? You know how that theme is often something we remember fondly years later?

This is none of those.



I mean, seriously, "I love little pussy"? Maybe I'm just immature,* but I think that there's a subtext in this story that a lot of us can read:

I love little pussy

I love little pussy.
Her coat is so warm.
And if I don't hurt her.
She'll do me no harm.


Maybe the subtext was intended, more likely not, but as it stands my Sainted Fiancee, her cousin** and I all feel it's just a little bit creepy.

* My readers can obviously confirm that this is the case.

** Not her best side, obviously.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Very Drek Thanksgiving...

Today is the day that we in the United States celebrate Thanksgiving. For those who don't know, Thanksgiving is when we're supposed to be grateful for everything we have and, secondarily, remember the beginning of the bloody European campaign against North American natives. So, we have that to answer for.

In any case, today is the day we celebrate by eating a whole lot more than we really should. Or, to be more accurate, the day we eat a whole lot more turkey than we really should since on most days we seem to overeat anyway. As has become customary on this day I will refer you to the traditional Thanksgiving post, which still essentially sums up my feelings on the subject. I thought about writing an entirely new Thanksgiving post but my Sainted Fiancee and I are currently with her grandparents who get rather suspicious at a lot of tap-tap-tapping on computers. Go figure.

However, given that this holiday is largely about eating, I have something else to share. A few days ago I remarked in a post about a tin of cookies sent to a colleague as an inducement to adopt a particular textbook. As it happens, my colleague is a reader of this blog and actually sent me a picture of the aforementioned cookies. And so I am proud to present to you the sugariest advertising gimick ever:



As I said before: Mmmmmmm! They taste like professionalism!

Have a happy Thanksgiving folks.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Tales from the Office: Appropriate Response Edition

The Scene: Drek and one of his officemates are walking to the student union in search of coffee. As they go, they talk about their students.

Officemate: No, but that's the thing. They just have to know that they can all fail my class for all I care.

Drek: Well, I understand what you're saying, but there are some students here that actually care and want to do the work. You want to make sure you don't give them up too.

Officemate: Drek- I don't think any of them want to do the work.

Drek: True enough. Still, some of them are very willing and want to learn so don't be too hard on them.

Officemate: Wow, you're being awfully upbeat about students lately. You're normally much more negative about them.

Drek: Eh. I have a really good class this semester. They're pretty hard workers and a lot of them are getting it. I actually just really like my kids right now.

Officemate: Ah.

Drek: Well, except for Janet. She should fall in a well and die.

Officemate: I was gonna say, I've heard you talking about her...

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

What in the hell...?

As an instructor of college-level courses I occasionally receive free books. These books come from various textbook manufacturers who are hoping that I will adopt their textbook and make them a passle of money. This makes sense from their perspective since they believe* that academics are lazy and would rather keep a book, even if it sucks, than go to the trouble of learning their way around a new one.

Based on this logic I have received at least a dozen unsolicited books, none of which I have used. My colleagues have, if anything, done better than I. At one point a colleague received a free tin of sugar cookies from a textbook maker with the cover art of the book emblazoned in colored frosting on each delectable** morsel. Mmmmmm! It tastes like professionalism! To be honest, the textbook sales process reminds me of nothing so much as the noble salmon: each book swimming upstream to reach departmental mailboxes, braving the dangers of disinterest and convenient wastebaskets, the living death of office bookshelves, in the hope of perhaps being the lucky book that is adopted. Most who attempt the journey will never see its end, but a lucky few will reproduce massively.

Never, however, in my limited years as an academic have I received anything like this. The following "gem" by Robert J. Williams was recently mailed to one of my colleagues- appearing unsolicited and out of the blue as textbooks are wont to:



This rather unusual offering is described as an effort to re-introduce meaning into a materialistic world*** using new "science." Specifically this new science attempts to resolve certain issues in physics and philosophy using the basic assertion that Einstein was wrong. Or, to allow the author's letter to speak for itself, the three basic arguments are as follows:

1) The mindless universe operates solely on four natural forces and has no need or purpose for any time-keeping system of its own. Therefore, time is not a substance, force or dimension bonded to space, and Einstein and his followers have created math-generated fantasies in which all life is reduced to a brief, insignificant detail.

2) The brain does have a complex system for memorizing and recalling motion and change and that faculty gives the mind a sense of time passing. Therefore, time exists only in the conscious mind.

3) This world and the whole universe are a physical reality shrouded in total and eternal darkness and absolute silence, and what we perceive out there exists only in our minds. Therefore, only intelligent life has the power to create a world of light and color and sound, and give that world a meaning and purpose. [Emphasis original. Seriously. Every bit of it.]


So, in essence, this book is a bizarre fusion of post-modernism, extreme social constructivism and Greg Buell.****

If you're still curious, help yourself to these scans of the longer synopsis letter that accompanied the book (click for larger versions):

(Page 1)



(Page 2)



It even seems that this book is available on Amazon.com and has a glowing review:

Robert J. Williams has written a gem of a book in "Quo Vadis" which even I--a scientific lay person if ever there was one--could understand. Williams blends his talents as a writer with his training as a scientist to produce a compelling argument that Einstein's universally accepted "welding" of time and space needed to "prove" his theory of relativity was sophistry. Recent discoveries in astrophysics tend to bear him out. "Quo Vadis" is written in a simple, elegant style that almost everyone will find compelling. The Dean of the College of Letters and Science at UCLA finally agreed to waive its science requirement so I could graduate 30 years ago. If I enjoyed this book, you will too.


Granted I suspect that a book that purports to be about physics probably shouldn't be evaluated by someone whose science education is thirty years out of date, and sucked to begin with, but I digress. I'm sure Mr. McNichols is entirely serious about his review. That said, the fact that one of his other two Amazon reviews is of another Robert J. Williams masterwork arouses my suspicion a bit. To be blunt, it makes me wonder if McNichols is something of a ringer.***** We should also consider that Mr. McNichols has never given a rating of LESS than five stars on a five-star scale. Then there's the fact that Mr. Williams' book is published by iUniverse, which appears to be a vanity press in the finest traditions of PublishAmerica.******

And then, finally, we come to Mr. Williams' apparent central point: that the answer to the Fermi Paradox is that every time an intelligent species learns enough about the universe to realize that god doesn't exist and they aren't the center of existence... they get depressed and kill themselves. Yes, ladies and gentlemen: the absence of obvious extraterrestrial life is attributable to ennui.

Riiiiiiight.

So why do I bring this up? Well, partly so you know what my Thanksgiving "pleasure" reading will be. What can I say? My colleague let her opinion be known and I swooped in thereafter. I will most likely read until I either finish this admittedly slim volume, or become so frustrated with its juvenile prose******* as to hurl it across a room. Partly I mention it so that you can look forward to another edition in my series "The Insanity Parade," which has been on hiatus for some time. Mostly, though, I just want to ask a question:

Has anyone else received this book? I mean, holy shit, how the hell is he picking his recipients?


* Rightly.

** This assumes that by "delectable" I mean, "resembling cardboard in flavor and consistency."

*** As a materialist atheist, I can only observe that I was unaware that we were suffering a deficit of meaning.

**** For the short version, see here.

***** For the non-native English speakers, I mean specifically: "any person or thing that is fraudulent; fake or impostor."

****** A vanity press so unscrupulous that a group of authors once convinced them to publish the so-called "worst book ever written." For those of you with good memories, we have discussed this before.

******* And coming from me, that's saying something.

As a side note: Am I judging a book by its cover? Somewhat, yes, but it would be more accurate to say that I'm judging a book by its introductory letter and first two chapters as well as its cover.

Monday, November 20, 2006

now what?

So here I am a day late and several dollars short. I've got one day in a whole week to blog, and I missed it. I'm ashamed. I can't figure out how Drek does it five day in a row.

Part of my problem is that I spent my weekend thinking about things I figured you all wouldn't want to hear about. Like watching my 12-0, #1, national championship bound, Heisman locked Buckeyes beat their rivals, the *still* #2 Michigan Wolverines Saturday, for the 5th time in 6 years. Whata game. Whata team. But if you're not a fan....

And reloading Windows (and of course, everything else) on my desktop. God, what a painful ordeal. You've already been there.

And fretting about jobs and work and time to get thing done. Kvetch, kvetch.

And listening to NPR -- there was a great 1 hr segment on science and religion that I'd love to chat about, but... we've done that before.

But the real problem is I’m having a strange episode of ennui. I blame the democratic victory and this strange period of calm before they take over. The truth is, I think I'm suffering from post-outrage depression. For six years, I’ve been so angry all the time. The Reading the morning paper animated me with lividity. But now…. Sigh. I don't know what to do with myself, really. I can't feel good, exactly...nothing has happened yet, and I don't know for sure it ever will. But nothing's happened this week to piss me off more than usual. The president has appeared actually conciliatory. Sort of. It’s like we’re in a story with an extra chapter between the climax and the denouement.

And I don’t know what to do without that comfortable, terrible anger and worry. I think I miss it.

Maybe next week I’ll tell you all about my tomatoes.

Friday, November 17, 2006

...

I...

Live...

Still!!!!



And I look a helluva lot better than that.

I'm home from the hospital and, so far, no sign of serious complications. That said, my surgeon made a point of mentioning that I have an unusual anatomy underneath my skin. Not as weird as some might imagine, but weird enough to prolong the surgery quite a bit.* All things considered, however, I got off pretty easy.

I'll write more next week. For now, I'm off to "take it easy"** on doctor's orders.

See you later, kids, and thanks for the good-wishes! I appreciated them a great deal.

* Strangely enough, this is not the first time I've had this problem. A run-in with the medical community a number of years ago revealed that certain of my internal organs are in unusual locations. This may sound like a curiosity but, really, can be a bit dangerous as it changes the diagnostic symptoms for various disorders. This was the cause of my rather lengthy stay in the hospital many years ago. It's just tough for a mutant to catch a break I guess.

** As many, including my Sainted Fiancee, know I am rarely capable of actually taking it easy. As an example, I am somewhat notorious for taking a statistics exam my first year in grad school while so sick I was seeing double.***

*** No, this sickness was not alcohol-related. The doctors ultimately told me, "We don't know what you have but we're going to give you cipro, and that should fix it." Yee-haw.

As a side note: Isn't it just like an academic to have more space taken up by the endnotes than by the text itself?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A drumroll please...

Regular readers of this blog may remember a while back when I mentioned some health issues that I've been having. To recap, I discovered that I have a defect in my circulatory system that can produce strokes, heart attacks, and brain infections. I also learned that this disorder is often associated with a genetic abnormality that can produce more of these defects over time, and thus can be a serious threat to my health. Today I can give folks an update.

Since my last post I was informed that upwards of one third of all persons diagnosed with my defect also show signs of previous strokes or infections in the brain that were too benign to be noticed. So, in other words, it was possible that I had already lost some amount of nervous tissue without being aware of it. Thanks to a series of CT scans, we are now fairly sure that did not occur.

We've also discovered that my insurance company is a wee bit crazy. They're perfectly fine with paying for my necessary treatment- it's just the necessary preliminary scans the doctors need so that they can figure out what the hell to do that insurance didn't want to pay for. This is equivalent to someone being perfectly willing to buy you a car, but only if the windshield is painted black. We have, since, managed to solve that issue using only minimally persuasive tactics.

It also appears now, though it isn't certain, that I probably do not have the genetic disorder. I seem to be in the lucky 5% or so of people who have one of these without being doomed to develop an endless succession of them throughout the remainder of their lives. This means that my defect is either (A) an isolated developmental glitch or (B) the result of a mutation that occurred after fetal development began. In that latter case it's possible that my problem may be hereditary not from my parents, but from me forward to my children. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I may in fact be a new mutant. All I can say is: being a mutant is much cooler in the comic books. Cyclops gets laser vision, I get this. On the other hand their dress code sucks so I can't complain too much. There will likely be some testing in the future to determine whether or not I can pass this on if only so that my Sainted Fiancee and I can plan for our children.

So why do I bring this up now? Well, for a fairly simple reason: tomorrow I'm going into surgery so that they can fix this thing. In theory they're going to insert a catheter into my femoral artery, thread it through my veins and into my chest cavity, through my heart, and then down to the defect. At that point, after looking around for more of these things for an indeterminate period of time, they will fix the problem and remove the catheter. After that I'll basically have a long period of forced immobility while my artery seals, and then have a twenty-four hour observation period in the hospital. If everything goes well, I should be out sometime Friday and back on my feet this weekend. On the other hand if there are complications it will mean I've suffered a heart attack or stroke either during, or shortly after, the procedure and I may not be on my feet for a while. Worst case scenarios involve death or the famous "persistent vegetative state," although neither of those are very likely. My surgeon has a lot of experience with this exact procedure, for this exact problem, and has an excellent record so, in all likelihood, I'll come through it just fine and in better condition than I started. Still, I won't be blogging til next week, and this is why.

My operation begins at around 9:00 AM on Thursday and continues through the day. Anticipated admission to the hospital is around 8:00-ish that night. My Sainted Fiancee who, for some baffling reason, is rather fond of me will be waiting anxiously until the procedure is finished. I, on the other hand, will be unconscious and so not really there and not particularly anxious. If you know my Sainted Fiancee, please be nice to her Thursday- she'll have a lot more on her mind than usual. If you don't know me or my Sainted Fiancee... um... well, I hope you have a great Thursday! As for me:

It's one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to...

As an unrelated side note: frightening as this is, it turns out that it's actually impossible to go looking for a picture of Shannon Elizabeth on Google Images and NOT find a nude photo, even if you have safe search turned up all the damn way. Seriously, I tried. If you can do a search and not have one come up on the first damned page of results, you're a better google searcher than I am.

Why was I looking for a picture of Shannon Elizabeth? Hey, you have your hobbies, and I have mine, okay?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Just so you know, I hate every last goddamn one of you.

For those who are feeling a little hurt by the title of this post, relax, I'm not referring to you specifically. Oh, don't get me wrong: I almost certainly dislike some of you for one reason or another, and I probably don't like most of you* but I'm unlikely to actually hate any of you. No, the title of this post wasn't meant for any of my usual readers but, rather, is directed at an entirely more sinister group.

My university's Information Technology (IT) department.

Now, I have a long and hallowed history with IT people. In my last job I shared an office with the company IT guy and had a great time. He was, if nothing else, entertaining. And by "entertaining" I mean "Would shove coaxial cable connectors up his nostrils when bored." He also had a habit of accessing my computer via the network and opening up gay porn on my desktop when I was trying to explain what we needed to female temps. That, however, is another story. In any case, I generally had a good experience with IT.

In other regards, my experiences with IT people have been rather poor. I am thinking particularly of a tech support saga I went through on my last laptop. My tech support monkey, after having me try a few basic things to get my built-in wireless to work, suggested that I reformat my harddisk and reinstall everything from scratch. Yeah. Sure. Because the correct response to a stubbed toe is, without a doubt, brain surgery.

Since I came to graduate school I've discovered a whole new breed of incompetence. A staggering level of idiocy that, frankly, even I don't know how to deal with. It isn't so much that they can't keep the systems running- they usually can- or that they don't provide useful tech support- okay, never mind, they actually can't do that. No, the thing that pisses me off is that they're a smidge... over-ambitious. I posted quite a while back on their efforts to upgrade our e-mail client. As that post was titled "Woo-hoo! I can't check my e-mail!" you can guess how it went. This became something of a running joke here as they would make a big deal about an upgrade, do the upgrade, and then we'd lose e-mail within 12-72 hours. Afterwards we were always back on the old client. Sometimes I wondered why they didn't just turn off the servers for a day or three every now and then and save themselves the hassle of working on shitty software. Eventually they did, of course, get the new client running but it has all the functionality of the old one, so I don't see much improvement.**

At the moment this over-ambitiousness is expressing itself in an attempt to close some security holes on campus. We are being forced to dismantle our existing informal infrastructure of routers in the offices and allow all of our computer-to-computer traffic to be mediated by the central servers. This should, in theory, improve security because all computers now have to be validated by MAC address and can't hide behind a router's NAT firewall. I can see the logic in this, although to be frank I think it's overzealous. I am less worried, after all, about being hacked by some unauthorized outsider that I am about those cockbites over in the computer science building who have a little too much time on their hands. My router's NAT was helping me stay hidden from their incessant IP scanning and now my safety lies almost entirely on my software firewall. Goody. I'm sure I could develop a substitute, but I doubt it would be a good idea. All that leaves aside, of course, the relatively absurd levels of security the IT folk are implementing. Without going into detail, let me just say that some levels produce relatively little benefit for the hassle- a little like putting up one of those velvet ropes they use at fancy nightclubs in front of a minefield protecting a concrete bunker. Seriously, folks, the velvet rope is just a pain to legit users and no deterrent whatsoever to anyone else.

In any case none of this is my real beef with the IT folks. No, my problem with this is that they've been forcing us to dismantle the routers which were allowing us to share printers without either (A) explaining to us how to share them via the central servers, (B) explaining how we can do "A" without permitting any random asshole to print to our printer,*** or (C) even confirming that their new system works yet. As it happens, when it comes to "C" the answer is "No, it doesn't work yet." Quite a few offices in my department are not successfully connecting to the network and this is generating quite a bit of consternation. If we follow the directives from IT we can't check e-mail, can't use JStor, and can't print since most of our laptops don't have legacy ports and most of the printers have parallel ports. So, we can't physically connect our computers to the printers and IT won't let us share them via the network. Woo-hoo! I can't do my job!

Is it really this bad? No, not really. We're figuring work-arounds**** that should keep us going until IT get their heads out of their asses***** but it's a huge hassle for everyone. It's especially a hassle for those of us who are known to have some computer knowledge as we're somehow expected to fix these problems ourselves. I know IT is just trying to do its job but, seriously, are they really the only ones who didn't realize that there would be some snags in getting this thing off the ground?

Apparently so.


* There is actually a difference in there that is obscured by the failings of the English language. I may "dislike" some people, meaning that I actively think negatively of them, and I may "not like" some people, meaning that I fail to feel positively about them, without actually feeling negatively. Or, in other words, I may feel neutral. Strictly speaking to say "I don't like Rachael" means that you have neutral feeling but often in regular speech we use this phrase interchangeably with dislike. I just want to be clear.

** Yes, I'm aware that the improvements were probably on the back-end d-base side, and not in the GUI, but that's not the point.

*** The first time some random undergrad prints his band lyrics to my office, I think I might kill someone.

**** For those who are wondering: yes, I'm posting this using a now-illicit "pirate router." Arrgh. Damn the man. Um... hack the planet? Yeah, whatever, I just want to do my f-ing job, okay?

***** Supposedly within a month. Yeah, don't hold your breath.

As a side note: Okay, enough pointless ranting for one day.

Monday, November 13, 2006

My, haven't things changed

Less than a week after the Democrats won the mid-terms, here we are - the US is now open to talking to Iran. Remember when Iran was the Enemy? Remember when people like me were scared that the US would invade Iran in a bout of imperialist fervour? Well, it seems that those days are over. Now the US seems increasingly willing to ask for Iran's help in dealing with the situation. I wonder how exactly they see this 'help' from the Iranians. A friendly chat between Arab nations? Intelligence? Or perhaps some discreet weapons transports Tehran?

This is starting to sound a tad familiar.

Considering the long-term consequences, I am not sure which option is more dangerous - supporting Iran, or condeming Iran. I hope someone sensible is making these decisions.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

It’s been quite a week

It’s been quite a week, and I’m deliriously happy. Despite what Karl Rove said, it turns out the pollsters were right on the money, and the Demos took both House & Senate, and for good measure, were awarded Rumsfeld’s head on a platter. I’m not sure what could have gone better, honestly. So a group of folks (they are not all men) who’ve spent the last 8 years yelling inside a vacuum suddenly have the reins. Take John Conyers, who regularly sends me notes about impeaching the president, like this:

******
March 13, 2006

Is There a Case for Impeachment?

I appeared last week at a Harper’s Magazine forum which addressed the conduct of the Bush Administration and whether it has committed crimes that rise to the level of impeachment. A crowd of 1,500 enthusiastically heard from several experts and me as we discussed the tyranny of a President acting to commit a fraud against the United States.


Become a Citizen Cosponsor. I have introduced House Resolution 635 to create a special committee to investigate whether the president's misconduct rises to the level of impeachment. 29 Members of Congress have already joined me as cosponsors. Lend your support. Help build momentum to enact this legislation by joining the more than 42,000 concerned Americans who have already signed on as Citizen Cosponsors

Watch the Harper’s forum. You can watch “Is There a Case for Impeachment?” online.

Read the Report. Read the Constitution in Crisis, A 182-page report with over 1,000 footnotes covering the entire spectrum of deception, manipulation, torture, retribution and cover-ups by the Bush Administration.

Write a Letter to the Editor. Visit this link to write a letter to the editor in support of House Resolution 635.

Thank you for working to help build a better democracy.

Sincerely,
John Conyers

www.johnconyers.com

**********

He’s not just some fringe wacko they can ignore now. He’s the next Chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Isn’t that sublime?

I have this little fantasy going: W. is sitting in front of some Senate committee, whispering something into his lawyer’s ear. Sen. Clinton demands, “Mr. President, please answer the question!” The Yale Cowboy looks around the room for help. Sen. Obama wags his finger and says something like “Really, Mr. President, your conduct in this matter is at the least disgraceful and at the most, frankly, treason.” The president looks back and forth at implacable faces of the committee and breaks down and shrieks. “But Rummy told me it was all gonna be OK!” Then Sen. Kennedy says, “Sir! collect your dignity, sir!”

Ahhhhhhhh.

Well, I can dream, can’t I? Of course, I don’t expect the satisfaction of seeing Bush actually impeached (the Demos are perhaps wisely more interested in showing the electorate they can pass laws), but it’s not entirely out of the question. At the very least, they can hold hearings and get to the bottom of a few things, like:


-Manipulation of pre-war intelligence.
-Outing an undercover CIA operative.
-The granting of no bid contracts.
-Widespread corruption in Iraq reconstruction.
-Mysterious energy policy meetings.
-Presidential election irregularties.
-New Orleans flood decision making.
-Ties to Jack Abramoff.
-Government Cronyism.
-Releasing nuclear secrets on the web.
-Abuse of Power.
-Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, et al.
-Unwarranted wiretapping.
-The unethical use of presidential signing statements.
-Etc.


…At least assuming the president didn’t get any blowjobs at work. I mean, you gotta have priorities, right?

Honestly, I don’t know if I think actually passing laws would in fact be a better use of the Demos’ time. It seems to me establishing accountability and oversight over the executive is the most important function of Congress, given that we’ve it has overseen the creation of a vastly more powerful emper..uh…president.

I have been warned not to get my hopes up too high, and I’ll take that under advisement. But isn’t the world of possibilities right now SWEET?

“Mr. Vice President, is it your testimony that you were unaware of the $30,000,000 deposit made by Bechtel’s Bahamian subsidiary into your personal oversees account?”

“When, precisely, were you made aware that the Ohio voting machines would in fact be tampered with during the election, Mr. Rove?”

“And according to information from the White House mail log, you received a box of Omaha Steaks from Jack Abramoff prior to the signing of the budget in each of the last 6 years Is that correct?

Ahhhhh. I'll sleep better now.

Yup. It’s been quite a week.

Friday, November 10, 2006

"Twenty when it should be ten, and ten when it should be five..."

Recently, while working in my office, I received an e-mail from my Sainted Fiancee. In this e-mail she forwarded me a piece of spam that she had received for reasons that constantly elude us both. The spam was, in essence, an advertisement for a dating website where interested men can meet women of unusually large stature. So, in other words, if you're in to "fat chicks," this site is for you. Needless to say they refer to their target "product" as "Big, Beautiful Women," but I think we can all read through the euphemism. This spam also included the graphics below:



And all I can say is finally! Finally, someone is trying to provide a useful service for those poor women who just cannot control their eating, who are just gigantic, and need a very special kind of man to love them. You know... women like that one in the picture. I mean, look at her! She's huge! Have you ever seen shoulders like that? Just... wow. Obviously she just can't say no to chocolate cake- I mean, hell, they couldn't even get it away from her long enough to take the picture!

Can you imagine the sort of heartbreak that poor girl must experience every single day? How hard must it be for her to leave the house knowing that men are lusting after women with a more realistic body weight? And if that wasn't enough, there are the movies, which prominently feature women of average proportions:



Then there is advertising, which uses models who closely resemble the norm in order to sell products:



Even television actresses are notorious for their realistic proportions:



How can these enormous fatties possibly hope to find love when they are surrounded by realistic depictions of real women? It just breaks your heart.

And then you realize that the "big, beautiful woman" in the ad looks pretty normal. That actresses and models are bizarrely, unhealthily skinny, and that the only reason we have a hard time realizing that is because we spend so much time watching people who are so utterly, completely, and thouroughly unrealistic.

As if yesterday weren't enough to make us despair, we have this new and horrifying example of misperceptions. As much as we talk about social change occurring slowly, we should not miss that sometimes it's quick. The vision of what women should be a few decades ago is not the same as today. And we should all wonder what that vision will be telling our sons and daughters a few decades from now:

That they're huge when we should say fat, and fat when we should say normal. Normal when we should say skinny, and skinny when they're barely alive.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Truly Frightening...

NOTE: This post was supposed to appear this past Halloween but, due to the glitches I mentioned previously, had to be delayed. Now that things are straightened out, enjoy!



Today is the day that we celebrate halloween, a holiday that delights children and is often reviled by fundamentalist christians. One response to their dislike of halloween have been so-called "Hell Houses" meant to frighten sinners back to god. I can't say as they've ever been effective with me, but I suppose there may be those who are taken in by such theatrics. On the other hand, there may be some fairly interesting efforts at resistance... something like this.*

In any case, today is the day we reserve for all things spooky, scary, and horrifying, and boy do I have a winner for all of you in that regard! I have something so eerie, so disturbing, so horrible, that you will surely gasp in terror. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the trailer for Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball 2!

Dun-dun-DUN!

Don't know what I'm talking about? Well, for those who aren't in the know, DOA:EBV could charitably be referred to as a "sports game" but is really more of an "oggle fake girls in bikinis" game. It more or less revolves around the idea of putting inconceivably well-endowed women in skimpy bathing suits and having them run and jump. A lot. I mean a whole lot. So much that they don't really have much time for that "volleyball" thing in the title.

So what's so scary about this? Well, a lot of things. For one, the characters in this game are situated squarely in the uncanny valley. I've discussed the uncanny valley before but, to recap, it occurs when something is an extremely close mimicry of a human, but not quite perfect. It is sufficiently not quite perfect, however, as to be actually more alien-seeming and bothersome than something that is less similar to a human. Thus, a simple wireframe mannequin may show off clothing perfectly well, but a mannequin that is too human looking may strike observers as being creepy. By the same token, the animatronic bear that plays the banjo at Chuck E. Cheese comes across as far less disturbing than Lincoln does in the Hall of Presidents.**

My point here is that the girls of DOA:EBV2 are really and truly creepy. Why are they creepy? Well, let's consider their breasts for one thing. They're not merely improbably gigantic, they also bounce in ways that are frankly unnatural. And by "unnatural" I'm using the strictest definition: "In violation of natural law." In order for breasts to behave that way they would effectively have to be made of jello or come equipped with some sort of gas-powered suspension system. These breasts jiggle independently of each other, and in ways that look painful, at even the slightest movement. There's also the girls' hair, which looks... well... odd. Imagine that instead of hair someone stapled long strips of construction paper to your head and you'll have an idea of what I mean. So, frankly, watching these... things... cavort is a bit freakish.

There's also the issue of what they're doing. In the rather lengthy trailer I linked to above the game characters engage in a number of behaviors. They play in the pool, they chase each other around the sand, they play on huge swings, they throw crabs into the ocean,*** and so on. And all of this they do while lounging around in uncomfortably small swimsuits. Their actions are, in a word, bizarre. I have never seen real women act so utterly brainless in my life and, honestly, seeing them do so is a little disturbing. It's as though the Stepford Wives hit the beach and played some volleyball. Well, except that in the entire trailer the characters never actually play volleyball. Volleyball is, apparently, a very small part of Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball 2.

As you might guess, the major part of the game is devoted to the titillation of the player. There's a lot of effort put into this, too. For example there are half-naked**** girls rubbing each other:



There are underage (seeming) women in schoolgirl outfits for the borderline pedophile:



There's a scene with a girl on an inflatable whale toy that looks a lot like a similar scene in an actual porn videogame:



And, in an effort to avoid being too subtle, there's a sequence that prominently features a stripper pole:



About the only thing you can say for the game is that at least these women are computer generated and don't feel any shame over what their creators have made them do:



Um... then again, maybe they do.

So why does all this seem appropriate for a post about fear and terror? Well, not just because of the uncanny valley, although that's kinda creepy too. No, the reason is this:

This game is part harmless fun, but is also a reflection of how our society views women. These depictions wouldn't be "appealing" if they didn't fit, in some sense, with how we think women are "supposed to be." So, for women, this game is a suggestion of what you should be like: physically abnormal, brainless, and without meaninful occupation. For men, this game is an assertion of what you should want: something that exists rarely, if at all, in the real world. Thus, this game is a distillation of the gendered stereotypes held by both sexes which, ultimately, can lead only to repeated disappointment and relationship dysfunction. Yet, somehow, these are the stereotypes pressed on us by our society and we cannot help but be affected by them.

And if that doesn't scare you, I don't know what will.



* Read to the end of the series- it's worth it.

** Have no idea what I'm talking about? See here.

*** Seriously. She pitches a live crab way the fuck out into the ocean. I have never felt more sympathy for a crustacean. "Sorry crab! She was just playing! She didn't mean to rupture your shell with an impact from substantial height and speed!"

**** To be totally honest, I would have to admit that most of the characters are way more than half naked.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Holy Fucking Shit.

Is this actually happening?

It's like a dream...

Aftermath

By this point the dust is settling from the recent election. Right now the Democrats have clearly made enormous inroads, taking control of the house, winning a majority of the Gubernatorial races and are now poised to seize the senate. If Montana and Virginia go our way, as they currently seem inclined to do, it will represent a tremendous upset for the Republican party.

Last night was a story of mixed successes. In addition to the house, senate, and gubernatorial electoral victories, South Dakota voted down their barbaric abortion ban and Missourri passed a bill supporting stem cell research. At the same time, however, a number of states have enacted bans on gay marriage. There's clearly a lot of fighting left to do.

I won't indulge in long-winded political analysis right now. Other more professional folks are already engaged in such an activity. If you want brusque updates try MSNBC. If you want in-depth, try NPR. And if you want the view from some bizarre parallel dimension, try Fox News which, ever gracious in defeat, chose to run this charming photo on their frontpage this morning. I particularly enjoyed the caption:


Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., eats breakfast at a New York firehouse on a statewide thank-you tour.


Indeed, they found a photograph of her looking very thankful, assuming that "thankful" means "Oh, shit, my epilepsy is coming on!"

In any case, what I will say is this: Democrats have not so much won a victory as claimed the spoils of Bush's defeat. The electorate is pissed at Bush as well as the Republicans, and rightly so. In response they voted the Republicans out, but that doesn't mean that they were truly voting for the Democrats. Let's savor this victory because we have just trudged through a very harsh political desert but, in a few days, we need to get back to it. We have two years to show the country what Democrats can do, and to prove our worthiness to hold high office. We have two years to demonstrate that we are a party of both ideas and action, and that we can make the decisions that count.

We had a good night last night. Let's have an even better two years.

UPDATE: As of 12:52 PM EST, MSNBC is calling the Montana race for the Democrats and it seems highly likely that Virginia will go Democrat as well. Ladies and gentlemen: it looks like the Republicans have lost both houses of congress.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

On a more serious note...

I'm going to go out on a limb (slightly) here and offer my congratulations to Plains Feminist and her allies out there in South Dakota. I've been following the saga of the attempted abortion ban out there as recounted in the media and on her blog. I'll be honest: I was rather tense about today's voting. As of right now, it looks like I didn't need to be. The ban is losing by about ten points at the moment, and most of the polls have already reported in.

All I can say is: Fuck Yeah.

Take a bow, rational South Dakotans: you've earned it.

Now: here's hoping we campture another few seats in the Senate!

Election Night Update!

I'm watching the election results with keen interest- particularly given that Democrats are cutting into the Republican margin hard and fast. We actually have a chance of capturing the senate. It's too early to tell whether or not that will happen but, in the meantime at the risk of seeming ungracious, I just want to express a personal sentiment:

Suck it, Harris. Your pushup bra can't help you now!



Although, come to think of it, it was more dignified than that unfortunate campaign appearance by Nancy Pelosi.*



Yes. I am, indeed, a photoshop god!**

Stay tuned folks- the election night festivities are just getting started.

* I kid because I love, people. Besides, that one was all for Cruffler who feels rather... strongly... about Pelosi. I leave it to you to decide what, exactly, that means.

** I, however, am a god like the purported god of mankind. This is to say, startlingly incompetent.

Franchise Protection Mob

Happy election day to all. I am not only way up here in Canada, but the state in which I am still eligible to vote does not have any federal races this time. In order to feel like I am still in touch, let me share with you a collection of grassroots efforts to document troubles at the voting booth.

While I think it's fantastic that folks with camera phones will be on the lookout for misdeeds, I wish that this effort could overcome the geographic distance between polls where people are likely to have cameras and the polls where people are likely to be disenfranchised on technicalities. Unfortunately, residential segregation by class and race is likely to create a false sense of security if a "monitor your own poll" strategy is the only one available.

Monday, November 06, 2006

"Good, bad, I'm the guy with the gun."

Such is one of the more famous lines from the cinema classic Army of Darkness. The line more or less sums up the idea that it doesn't much matter who is good and who is bad, it matters who has power. Today I am reminded of it less because of the implied conclusion that power is important and more for the other possible interpretation: that what matters isn't whether or not someone is "good" or "bad" but rather what they do.

This has been on my mind because of the recent "discoveries" about fundamentalist ministers. Of course most of you have heard that Ted Haggard, fundamentalist firebrand, is apparently a gay drug-abuser. Not that I have a problem with homosexuality, mind you, and I'm at least reasonably forgiving of drug abuse, but this is a discovery about a man who has previously been rather negative about homosexuality. However, amusing as this scandal is, it isn't the limit of fundamentalist wackiness for the week.

Others among you may have heard the name Kent Hovind. For those who are unfamiliar, he is a creationsit who famously offered a $250,000 prize for anyone who can prove evolution correct. Leaving aside the obvious philosophical problems with such an endeavour, there are the small "catches" in his offer. Namely the offer itself:

I have a standing offer of $250,000 to anyone who can give any empirical evidence (scientific proof) for evolution.* My $250,000 offer demonstrates that the hypothesis of evolution is nothing more than a religious belief.

*NOTE: When I use the word evolution, I am not referring to the minor variations found in all of the various life forms (microevolution). I am referring to the general theory of evolution which believes these five major events took place without God:
1. Time, space, and matter came into existence by themselves.
2. Planets and stars formed from space dust.
3. Matter created life by itself.
4. Early life-forms learned to reproduce themselves.
5. Major changes occurred between these diverse life forms (i.e., fish changed to amphibians, amphibians changed to reptiles, and reptiles changed to birds or mammals).
The vast majority of scientists do not take Hovind's work very seriously or agree with his interpretation of the facts.


So, any individuals who are simultaneously experts in large-scale physics, quantum mechanics, microbiology, genetics, and geology, this is some easy money!

Right.

In any case, Hovind places the miraculous cherry on top of the amazing right-wing orgy of corruption and hypocrisy that we've been enjoying for about the past two years. And by this I mean that the prosecution of Hovind for tax evasion has finally concluded. The verdict, you ask? Oh... guilty.

How guilty?

Um... well... really, really fucking guilty.

So guilty that he and his wife are vulnerable to sentences in excess of two-hundred years of jail time for defrauding the government of almost a million dollars in tax revenue. This doesn't even include the $430,400 the Hovind's are being required to forfeit. So, yeah, the jury found the Hovinds to be quite guilty. And, of course, who can forget the recent discussion of religious childcare which shows that religious organizations aren't always what you'd call "ethical."

Now, I don't bring all this up just to laugh at fundamentalists, although that's always fun. No, rather, I bring this up in light of the Warbler's recent post and just want to say this to those on the religious right. You know, the "moral values" voters:

I think you've maybe been voting on the wrong side for the past six years. Maybe you think that other fundamentalists are "good" and maybe you think that liberals are "bad," but you have to look beyond these shallow labels to what people are doing.

Tomorrow vote your hopes, vote your dreams, vote your morals, vote your conscience...

Vote Democrat.

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