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.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Ha. Ha-ha-ha! Heh. Heh heh! HAAAA!!!! HEEE HOOO!!!

Some of you may have been wondering where I've been this week. I do apologize for my absence but, as you might guess from my comments last week, I have been in the middle of a serious crunch with a project. Sadly, this will likely interfere with my blogging for the remainder of this week.

In order to express just how incredibly on edge I am, allow me to share the following with you:

Three nights ago I dreamt that a large number of snakes had gotten loose in my apartment. Big venomous ones. At one point I dreamt that I was on my stomach confronting a King Cobra and played dead so that it wouldn't bite me. It then crawled all over my head and body. I eventually grabbed it behind the head, only to have it turn to rubber, stretch, and bite my face. At this point I woke up, awakened by Sainted Fiancee, and informed her, "Honey, if we're ever fighting a bunch of snakes and I ask you for a goddamned broom just fucking give it to me!" The fact that she took this pronouncement so well is the best explanation I can give as to why she is my Sainted Fiancee.

Two nights ago I dreamt that I was getting ready to go on a trip and a black suitcase beneath my bed began barking and moving out from under the bed. It was joined by a second brown satchel bag* that exhibited the same behavior, save with a higher pitch. They both then metamorphosed into, respectively, a Rottweiler and a Pomeranian. Each had a zipper running down their stomach that, when opened, revealed the inside of a suitcase. I brought the pomeranian to show my mother, who for some reason was in my house, and she remarked calmly that it was simply a "canine valise."

Last night I dreamt that I had encountered a pair of intelligent, talking geckos of unusual size.** Geckos who were in love. One of whom had fought in World War II. As a fighter pilot. In the Pacific Theatre. Ultimately, believe it or not, I decided to prevent them from being reunited out of concern that they would breed an entire race of super-intelligent self-adhesive reptiles that would then challenge mankind for domination of the Earth.

My point in sharing all this is quite simple: I am going absolutely bugfuck insane, and will be back with you when I'm in a better frame of mind.

See you next week.

Or maybe Friday.

But probably next week.

I'll say hello for you to the trout superhero or whatever the crap I dream about tonight, though.


* I feel I should note that I have never owned a bag that even remotely resembles this.

** Not huge, mind you, just about the size of an iguana. Which is pretty damned big for a gecko, you know?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Those crazy kids

Well, Drek gets by now and again with a post displaying the unmitigated brilliance of his students. Since my students are no less luminous, I give you some of my recent student gems to ponder and fear.


My students were asked to write papers about the morality of Jim Crow laws in the post civil war south. The first student, even if she scorned the laws, at least she seemingly appreciated their utility:



“Black people probably thought [interracial marriage laws were] ridiculous too, because a lot of black men are interested solely in white women….”



Um. If you say so. (Is anyone else having a Blazing Saddles flashback?)

This next student was certainly more condemning in her tone.


“People were and are still raciest in the United States….”


Really? I didn’t think racyism was all that prevalent here. Well, maybe she just had something else on her mind that day….

We’ve discussed law and morality recently as well. It’s wrong to take away a person’s property, of course. Why? Well…


“Sometimes, a person’s property is all they have.”


I found that one profound, actually. Sort of. But I wonder what’s going on those other times.

And finally. The crème de la crème. The piece de resistance. The arc de triumph. The ….that’s all the French I know. I swear on the Flying Spaghetti Monster I didn’t make this up. The handgun paper:


“Our societies flaws and errors are a direct result of our own ignorant contraception’s, and preconceived connotations. Being that there have been no striking increases in overall handgun-associated deaths, or handgun interrelated crime deaths within any diverse subgroups, blacks, females, teenagers and young adults, one is able to deduce that handguns are becoming more and more of a less concern in our society.”


I couldn’t have put it better myself. Whatever it was.
Ta ta for now.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

An inside look...

Today on Total Drek we continue our ongoing series "Leave me the holy fuck alone!" which, of course, was inspired by my needing to devote most of my time to another project right now.* Yet, I don't want to leave y'all in the lurch with nothing at all to do, so I have two delectable morsels of procrastination to share.

The first comes to us courtesy of the Pensacola News-Journal and is a story about the fate of our old friend, Mr. Kent Hovind.** Some of you may remember our previous mentions of Hovind in regards to his crazy creationist themepark and even crazier legal fight with... well... the citizenry of the entire damned country. Most recently, Mr. Hovind is in the news for the decision on his tax evasion prosecution:

Pensacola evangelist Kent Hovind was sentenced Friday afternoon to 10 years in prison on charges of tax fraud.

After a lengthy sentencing hearing that last 5 1/2 hours, U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers ordered Hovind also:

-- Pay $640,000 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service.

-- Pay the prosecution?s court costs of $7,078.

-- Serve three years parole once he is released from prison.

...

Hovind, founder of Creation Science Evangelism and Dinosaur Adventure Land in Pensacola, was found guilty in November of 58 federal counts, including failure to pay $845,000 in employee-related taxes. He faced a maximum of 288 years in prison.


Needless to say Mr. Hovind has been a very bad boy. Of course, now that he's been run to ground by federal authorities and convicted of substantial wrongdoing after years of legal battles, he's amusingly contrite:

"If it's just money the IRS wants, there are thousands of people out there who will help pay the money they want so I can go back out there and preach," Hovind said.


Well, Mr. Hovind, it was just money the IRS wanted, much like Escambia county just wanted a building permit. Strangely enough, however, after such a long fight we've moved beyond the "we want money" phase into the "we need to take punitive action against willful violation of the law" phase. Have fun with that and stop bitching- you'll probably be out in a couple of years.***

And if that isn't enough for you, check out this piece by Barbara Forrest on the Kitzmiller et al. V. Dover Area School District et al. decision. She served as a witness and has some fascinating stories to tell:

Dover’s problems actually started in 2002. Bertha Spahr, chair of Dover High School’s science department, began to encounter animosity from Dover residents toward the teaching of evolution. In January 2002, board member Alan Bonsell began pressing for the teaching of creationism. In August, a mural depicting human evolution, painted by a 1998 graduating senior and donated to the science department, disappeared from a science classroom. The four-by-sixteen-foot painting had been propped on a chalkboard tray because custodians refused to mount it on the wall. Spahr learned that the building and grounds supervisor had ordered it burned. In June 2004, board member William Buckingham, Bonsell’s co-instigator of the ID policy, told Spahr that he “gleefully watched it burn” because he disliked its portrayal of evolution. He also blocked purchase of a new science textbook that included evolution, forcing teachers to accept Pandas as a reference book in exchange for new textbooks [8]. In January 2005, science teachers refused to read the ID statement; administrators read it themselves [9]. The situation worsened. When the next school year began in September 2005, the board’s policy and ID itself were on trial in Harrisburg, PA.

...

Scheduled to testify the following week but delayed by Hurricane Rita, I used the extra time to prepare for my testimony and to stay current on ID activities by visiting DI’s website. On September 29, I noticed that DI had posted a transcript of an interview I had done— except that I hadn’t done it. The transcript was fake. Apparently meant (though not marked) as a parody, the organization whose self-described goal is “to support high quality scholarship . . . relevant to the question of evidence for intelligent design in nature” ridiculed me by, among other things, having fictitious radio host “Marvin Waldburger” refer to me as “Dr. Barking Forrest Ph.D.” [25] If DI thought this would unsettle me, they were ignoring the fact that I had just been through two killer hurricanes. I could only shake my head at their doing something so jaw-droppingly stupid. If they were hoping Judge Jones would see and be influenced by this silliness, it was just another sign of the disrespect for his intelligence and integrity that began before the trial and continues today (see below).


It's a fascinating account of a major court case and well-worth a read.

Good luck, have fun, and don't bother me. I'm busy.


* No, I won't tell you what it is. Stop asking.

** Or, as he likes to call himself, "Dr. Dino." I can only assume that this is because, as an academic, he most resembles a dinosaur. Which is to say "has a brain the size of a walnut."

*** I'd feel bad for laughing at someone's misfortune but, really, this isn't misfortune. It isn't that he just happened to mess up his taxes, he was deliberately violating the law. So, you know, I feel pretty free to laugh when he gets punished for it.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

I just... wow.

What do you even say about a product like this?



I'm at a complete loss.

No, wait, not quite at a complete loss. I think I can say with certainty that your likelihood of having sex is probably the inverse of your likelihood of purchasing, and attempting to use, this item.

That's what I'm going to tell myself so I can sleep at night, anyway.

On the other hand I can think of one use for this item: something to help you breathe while you wade through all the horseshit President Bush flung around during last night's State of the Union Address. I don't have time to go through it in depth, and the boys and girls over on Marginal Utility will probably do a more thorough job than I could anyway, but I will point out this about the President's proposed tax cut for health insurance:

Most people who really need health insurance, most low-income Americans who are suffering for lack of access to decent care, don't have a large enough tax liability for this to work. For most of them, the cut in taxes will be far overshadowed by the cost of healthcare. This is, like the rest of Bush's presidency, a "solution" that sounds good, but ultimately does nothing. Or, as one commentator remarked, it's like throwing someone in a forty-foot hole a ten-foot rope.

Imagine my surprise.


Special thanks to Something Awful which first reported on this product.

As a side note: I can only feel sorry for the model in the above picture. The woman, not the man. That just cannot be one of her better gigs.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

An abstract war

Sometimes it seems all the national news, and the punditry and commentary that goes along with it, is just another form of entertainment: something for us to talk about at the proverbial water coolers or fret about at the breakfast table. We follow wars and politics from afar like sports teams, cheering for our sides, but not really experiencing what’s really going on. We get in national debates about events without much access to the complex and ambivalent facts, and end up repeatedly simply listening to each other’s prejudices and fears. The event itself remains distant, mysterious, and abstract.

Iraq is a good example. Which of us knows what’s really going on there? We’ve learned enough to be conversant: Sunis, Shia, Kurds, Maliki, Al Sadr, Abu Ghraib, Falujah. Just like we learn the characters of our favorite TV shows or the star players of our sports teams. I for one keep up with the news fairly well, but I know only the vaguest things about the real people and places described here: a few pictures and events I’ve associated with them.

Will Bush’s surge help? Well, certainly I don’t know. Most of the pundits and talking heads seemed to think it was a bad idea. But nobody really seemed to display any depth of understanding. Nobody discussed the kinds of specific operations or troop movements this would entail. I got the impression most of them were no better in touch with the real situation than I was. Nobody really informed me. The whole thing continues to be very abstract.

We’re all in this boat aren’t we? We’re Monday morning quarterbacks who didn’t get to watch the game. Despite my guesses and worries, I don’t even honestly know if, Bush’s war won’t turn out to have been a good thing in 50 years. Certainly those making the decisions know more than I do. Maybe he deserves the benefit of this doubt. Sigh.

I had just about come to terms with my ignorance and irrelevance and the abstraction of the war, and had almost given up having an opinion. But this Christmas, my stepbrother made an announcement: he is going to be sent to Iraq soon. This is a kid I met when he was 7 and I was 18. I watched him and his brother while his dad worked during the summer. I lived with them for several years and watched him grow up. He’s an intellectual and a musician. He’s 27 now, confident and competent, but has an easy sense of humor and an appreciation for others. He’s a political liberal -- I bought him John Stewart’s book last year for Christmas -- and he isn’t even in favor of the war. He joined up earlier this year after graduating college, primarily to try to pay off some school loans, as I understand it…but also to “make a difference”. Until Christmas, I was under the impression he’d be getting a technical position stateside, but now it looks more like he’s a grunt.

I’m scared and angry. We all hung out and enjoyed the holidays as usual. Then we all took pictures with him, just in case. I kept trying to understand his decision and to value it. But in my gut, I think of the war is a complete waste of life, and it’s very hard to accept that his life is on the line for Bush.

And now he’s back with his unit preparing. This surge will undoubtedly include him in one way or another. And all of a sudden, it’s not abstract to me. I’m not an armchair quarterback anymore.

I wish him well, though I fear for his safety. And I will truly hope that the whole mission amounts to something more than an oil grab. And I will support all efforts to bring the troops home. It’s personal.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A toy for your amusement...

I'm going to be busy for the next two weeks or so with a time-dependent project, so my blogging may be a little lower in quality than normal. This is, of course, essentially the same as saying that instead of it merely sucking, it will blow as well, but that's not the point.

To keep you occupied today, I thought I'd share a neat little toy with all of you. It's called Amaznode and it is a way to produce a network graph of products on the Amazon.com "People who bought this, also liked this" list. You just throw in a search term, like an author, and watch the tool dig away.

To give an example, let's try a search for everyone's favorite blogger: Jeremy Freese. We enter his name and execute our search, and eventually get the following image:



If you mouse over any of the book covers in the network, you get a title. And, as you can see, there's Jeremy's magnum opus:



If you want to see a really interesting network graph, try a search for Playboy or Harrison C. White.* A neat little diversion, and a useful way to maybe learn a few things.

Have fun!


* Which you choose depends primarily on exactly how juvenile you are.

Friday, January 19, 2007

That's a new one on me.

The Scene: Drek is reading the comments from his most recent set of Teacher Course Evaluations.


What did you especially like about this course?

Drek is incredibly organized and thorough in explaining the material. The examples used and explanations really enhance lessons. I really appreciate how much he cares about students understanding. I found the class enjoyable and Drek to be one of the best teachers I've had at the University.


Drek: Well that was sweet!


What suggestions would you make to improve this course?

Wear funny outfits to class!


Drek: What the f-?

As one of my officemates pointed out, however: at least it didn't say Funnier.


Please note that I'm not kidding. These are actual comments, only slightly altered to protect my identity.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Social Science Scavenger Hunt.

One of the things that I love about the scientific process is that it creates puzzles. Now, don't get me wrong, science is a great way to answer questions as well, but the journey to an answer often involves the generation of new questions. So, as a result, trying to figure something out turns into a sort of empirical scavenger hunt. First, we locate all the pieces of the puzzle, and then we kill ourselves trying to put them together. Maybe it doesn't sound like much fun to most people, but to me it's a great way to spend a career.

Recently I came across a great example of a scientific puzzle and, knowing how my readers run towards the intellectual and all, I've decided to share it with y'all. The hum-dinger in question comes to us via Tara Smith's blog Aetiology and will likely make poor Plain(s)Feminist's head spin around like that girl in the exorcist. The puzzle is as follows: a large study of European women has found that moderate physical activity seems to reduce the rate of breast cancer. This probably won't surprise anyone, except that the only physical activity that seems to matter is housework. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's right: physical activity at work and in recreation don't seem to matter- only physical activity as a part of domestic labor.

It goes without saying that certain sources are using this study to argue that feminism is responsible for breast cancer. This explanation, however, sounds like crap to me. This isn't because of some sort of ideological stance- it's a skepticism born of a certain amount of experience.

To understand what I mean, let's think about an activity I often give my students. When talking about research methods I tell them about the very real finding that the level of ice cream production is associated with levels of forcible rape, and then ask them to figure out why. Over the years I've gotten some pretty fascinating answers, including that ice cream contains a chemical that increases aggression, that "brain-freeze" makes people angry, and that after a rape women turn to ice cream for consolation. Needless to say, most students are pretty baffled because, really, how the hell could ice cream cause rape? Well, the answer is that it doesn't: both are controlled by a third-variable. As discussed elsewhere, both ice cream production and criminal offending rise in the summer when more people leave their homes and, so, both appear to be correlated with each other. Correlation, as we have been taught over and over, is not the same thing as causation.

As I explain to my students, statistical tests and relationships are a little like the forensic tests used in the television show CSI. The tests allow us to say certain things with certainty but, by themselves, these tests don't usually answer our questions. If a police officer finds out that a certain person's fingerprints were at a crime scene, they still don't know why. Perhaps that person committed the crime, but then again, perhaps they simply passed through earlier in the day. Similarly, these results tell us something about labor and cancer, but maybe that something isn't obvious. Odds are, actually, that it isn't.

We have a finding here that housework appears to protect women against breast cancer but we're left with the simple question: why? Why is it that housework appears to act as a protective factor and not other kinds of labor? Is there something about scrubbing a bathtub, or dusting a shelf that is intrinsically more cancer-protecting than, say, playing tennis or walking? Maybe but, then again, like ice cream and rape, perhaps what we're seeing is the impact of another sneaky third variable. Minus a wrathful, and exceedingly slow, god who really likes to see women doing menial jobs, I tend to doubt that breast cancer is the wages of feminism.

So what could it be? Well, that's the question for all of us today. The study used multivariate statistical methods to control for a variety of factors including age at menarche, age at first pregnancy, drinking frequency, smoking status, use of hormone replacement therapy, and use of oral contraception. None seemed to make a difference. It also attempted to control for the relative strenuousness of particular physical activities. In most respects the methods are solid, although most of the data is self-report and, in some cases, retrospective, which can introduce quite a bit of error. Additionally, as Tara points out, they ask about current levels of activity, hormone replacement and oral contraception use, but not historical levels. So, a woman who has used oral contraception for twenty years and stopped yesterday looks like a woman who has never used oral contraception. That's certainly an issue.

Is this it? Do these failings explain the results? Maybe. Then again, maybe we can think of some alternatives that are slightly more plausible than "feminism gives you breast cancer." Family income wasn't tracked- is it possible that women who do more housework are often in a higher socioeconomic class where nutrition and medical care are generally better? Does it matter, as Tara comments and as Arlie Hochschild would agree, that all women do a lot of housework in their presumptive second shift? What about women who work as maids or nannys? They should be doing a whole lot of housework on a daily basis and, logically, should be about immune to breast cancer if these results are correct. Are breast cancer rates for female domestic servants, indeed, dramatically lower than for other low-income women? Is it possible that breast cancer has some sort of bacterial or environmental origin and women who spend less time out of the home have a lower probability of exposure? Is it something I haven't even thought of yet?

Give those analytical minds of yours a workout and see if you can't crack this puzzle. Or, at the very least, keep me company while I try.

God I love the smell of a conundrum in the morning!


Note that this was cross-posted at Marginal Utility.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

We have a winner!

Having emerged from my cave* yesterday to obtain a cup of coffee from ye olde seven-eleven, I happened upon some very exciting news. I, like many others, am very curious about who the Democratic Party will run for the Presidency in 2008. There's Al Gore... but he's already had one shot and probably won't appeal to the party bosses. There's Barack Obama... but he hasn't even finished one term as a senator yet. However charismatic he may be, there is a legitimate concern that he is too inexperienced. And, of course, there is Hilary Clinton, who unfortunately may be one of the least liked women in politics.** This range of options doesn't give me much hope- especially since I think Clinton might be able to win the party primary, but is probably unelectable in the general election.

What to do? Well, thanks to the kids at the Weekly World News*** we may actually have found a ticket that can win the White House:



I mean, hell, the Republicans have already proven that a mythical creature can run in an election, so it's obviously time that we followed suit!

Go, Sasquatch! Stomp 'em flat!


* i.e. the secure lab where I work on my dissertation.

** Then again, she has a really creepy bust on display so she has that going for her. I'd say you were thinking of the wrong kind of bust, but given what the sculpture actually includes, you're really not.

*** The only newspaper to carry important ecological news like this.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Myths and Truths...

Howdy boys and girls! If you're wondering why the post is so short, it's because I'm guest posting over on Marginal Utility today. What's the topic?

Well, I'm following through on a sort of command performance that came in over the holidays. It looks like Sam Harris wrote an article on the ten myths, and truths, about atheism, and Ken wanted my opinion on it.*

Head on over and see what you think. Or not. It's a free country.**


* That opinion is, in a nutshell, "It's got a nice beat, but you can't dance to it."

** Apologies to my readers in North Korea, Iraq, Iran, China, and so forth, who most assuredly do not live in a free country. Come to think of it, this one is getting more expensive by the day.

Monday, January 15, 2007

He had a dream...



I have a hypothetical day off...



And many of my students have an extra day for the hangover to fade...



And this all makes sense... how, exactly?

Happy* Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Howsoever weird it may be.


* Does one wish someone else a HAPPY MLK jr day? I mean, shit, what's the protocol here? It's like wishing someone a "happy" holocaust remembrance day or something.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Yvonne & Alma

I ran across an obituary this week that - again - had me singing Tom Lehrer songs. Yvonne De Carlo, best known for having played Lily Munster on the 60s comedy The Munsters. I hadn’t know much about her, but she was apparently a beauty queen and B-movie starlet in the 40s and 50s. She got around, apparently, too, and in her autobiography named 22 of her lovers, who included Howard Hughes, Billy Wilder, Robert Taylor, Robert Stack, Aly Khan, and “an Iranian prince”. Whew.

You won’t be surprised that this reminded me of Alma Mahler-Werfel, who Tom Lehrer immortalized in a song inspired by her obituary, which also lists her lovers, including a large portion of the creative men in central Europe in the first half of the 20th century. He describes it as the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary he’s every had the pleasure to read. She went so far as to marry one of the century's leading composers (Gustav Mahler), architects (Walter Gropius), and novelists (Franz Werfel).

So maybe Yvonne deserves a song, too,

In Hollywood lived dear Yvonne
It’s sad now that she’s dead and gone
Robt’s Taylor and Stack
Said when she’s on her back
She’d even turn television on.

….ok, maybe I’m not the one to write it.

Still, the whole thing makes me wonder why we don’t list everybody’s lovers in their obits. Wouldn’t that be great? Grandma died, leaving a son and two granddaughters. She was married 35 years to Granddad, but had 4 affairs with locals, including George the automechanic and Bill the late manager of Hardees. Her first lay was a traveling carnie known only as “Wrench”.

And I wonder that I’ve never seen this in a man’s obituary. Or would that just be wrong somehow?

Anyhow, I’m back. Talk to you all next week.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Ooooobleck.

I'm a total geek, so I frankly think that this video is one of the coolest things I've ever seen.



It's of two men playing with a pool full of a non-newtonian fluid. Specifically, this is a dilatant fluid, meaning that its viscosity increases with shear stress. Since this probably doesn't tell you a lot, it means that the fluid essentially becomes more rigid as more stress is applied parallel to the surface of said liquid.

What the hell does all that mean? It means that these guys can run, hop, and skip across this liquid with minimal difficulty, but will sink into it and float if they stand still. It's cool as hell.

For those of you who are equally thrilled with all this, the stuff they're running across is commonly referred to as Oobleck and can be made in any reasonably well-stocked kitchen. You can use this recipe or just mix 1 part water to 1.5-2 parts cornstarch. Food coloring is optional, but kinda cool. A great, inexpensive science activity for the kids.

Have fun!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

As a side note...

I've just learned from Tara Smith, who writes the fabulous blog Aetiology, that this is National Delurking Week!*

On the one hand, if people want to lurk I'm perfectly fine with it. I do blog, after all, mostly just because I enjoy writing. On the other hand, however, I put a lot of work into helping all of y'all procrastinate, so you could at least say hello!**

Come on, don't be shy! Drop me a line! Hell, make a request for a post and maybe I'll go with it.

What's the worst that could happen?


* Seriously, who the hell comes up with these weeks? What's next? National Malaysian Midget Erectile Dysfunction Week?

** Thanks, of course, to the usual suspects that I know read the blog because they do comment now and then. It is nice to know I'm not just talking to myself here.

You can see why we're engaged.

The Scene: Drek, who has been feeling poorly, and his Sainted Fiancee are chatting in their apartment before bed. Drek is drinking an odd reddish fluid.

D'sSF: What's that? Emergen-C?

Drek: Yeah.

D'sSF: Good!

Drek: Well, I don't know that it really does any good but I don't think one packet will hurt me. Besides, if I can make use of the placebo effect, so much the better.

D'sSF: Yay placebo!

Drek: Mmmm.

D'sSF: You know he's the brother to Placido Domingo.

Drek: Placebo Domingo?

D'sSF: Mmmm-hmmm.

Drek: Yeah, I know. It's funny. Everyone thinks he can sing like his brother... but he can't.

D'sSF: Laughs.

D'sSF: You're just drinking that to make me feel better, aren't you?

Drek: Yes.

D'sSF: You're very sweet.


As a side note for anyone who is curious: Emergen-C tastes really, really bad. You know that weird cardboard flavor a multivitamin has if you leave it on your tongue for too long? Now imagine that in liquid form. Yech.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Gambling.

After watching President Bush's speech to the nation this evening I have very little to say. For those who missed it, you can read it here, but the gist is simple: in a last, desperate move the President has decided to deploy more than twenty thousand additional troops to Iraq. Much as a doctor might make one last desperate attempt to defeat an invasive disease by flooding a patient with antibiotics, so too are we preparing to make a last desperate attempt to cleanse Iraq of... what? Terrorists? Certainly, they are there, but the problems go deeper than Mr. Bush's terrorist/non-terrorist dichotomy. There is no analysis I might supply about this folly except to point you to that already provided by Tom on his blog.

In comments after the speech, Tim Russert observed, "I said last year that Mr. Bush was gambling his presidency on the war in Iraq, and now he's made it double or nothing."

Perhaps so. Unfortunately, however, if Mr. Bush loses his gamble he will simply face ignomity in the future. The soldiers that he casts into the pot, however, may not have any future at all.

We have a name for somone who gambles with another person's money,* but what do we call someone who makes foolish gambles with other people's lives?

Right now, we call him "President."


* i.e. "stock broker."

"Total Drek. Free entertainment. $2.99 a minute."

As I indicated previously, my Sainted Fiancee and I have returned from our holiday travels. Our visits with our respective families were actually pretty good, though with a dash of wedding insanity added for flavor. Nothing, to be frank, that was at all unexpected under the circumstances.

Given that I am joining another family, I spent a lot of time getting to know my soon-to-be-bride's blood relations. Particularly, I spent a lot of time with her father who, I believe, is beginning to see me as the son he never had. This is more or less true since all of his own children are female. My own relatives can doubtless sympathize- I am the only male in my generation on either side. This is not to say that he would have preferred sons so much as to point out that I think he's enjoying having someone in the house who doesn't know the difference between the color "white" and the color "ivory."* Anyway, as it turns out one of my future father-in-law's hobbies is Asian cooking. This is to say that he has spent a lot of time learning how to cook dishes from China, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and other geographically proximate nations. As a result, whatever he cooks is an interesting and novel experience for one raised with the sort of culinary choices available in my family.

Part and parcel with his hobby, my father-in-law often shops at an Asian supermarket, which is exactly like a regular supermarket except it carries products you'd never find anywhere else. They are simply fascinating places and if you, like me, have never been you really should check one out.** Getting back to my story, while in the butcher's department we came upon all manner of interesting live selections including lobster,*** fish, crab, and shellfish. We even found a live turtle crawling around in a small plastic tub right there in the butcher's display case. What made this particularly amusing to me, however, was the sign posted in front of the turtle. I took a picture with my cellphone since I knew you'd want to see it:



For those of you who can't see it clearly it reads: "Turtle. For pet only. $4.99/LB."

This strikes me as more than a little funny. Obviously this turtle is not "for pet only." It is being sold in the butcher's case at a supermarket mixed in with dozens of other live items, all of which are intended as entrees. Much as one doesn't sell rotisserie chicken in a pet store, one generally doesn't sell pets in a food store. Nevertheless, this turtle is labelled "for pet only," doubtless to placate some animal lover somwhere who can't stand the idea of a turtle being sold live as a food item. This ignores, of course, that (a) if they were selling packaged, cleaned turtle meat instead it still would have originated from a live turtle and (b) none of the other shellfish, fish, or crustaceans have similar disclaimers. Evidently the lobsters are not for pet only.****

As though to drive this point home, however, they are selling these pet turtles by the pound. Now, we might argue that the weight of a pet turtle reflects the amount of food required to raise it to that point and, therefore, the store is only trying to recoup its investment. Fair enough. To that, allow me to ask: does this picture look at all weird to you?



Exactly my point.

I have no problem whatsoever with selling a live turtle for eating but, honestly, there's something brilliantly sociological about this. Perhaps when cultures collide the best shock absorber is, sometimes, a polite fiction.

And perhaps the next time I adopt a dog I should ask the Humane Society what their price is per pound.*****


* Seriously. As far as I'm concerned, they're the same color.

** It's not that I'm provincial, mind you, so much as that I've focused more on Arab and Levantine cooking than on Asian. I'll be honest: there's nothing better than a good Turkish restaurant, and Lebanese food is amazing.

*** As a side note, this picture takes the prize as "least natural looking photo with a lobster ever."

**** Although, as this man can attest, they make extremely loyal companions.

***** Then again, maybe not.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Better late than never...

Seeing as how I'm one of those dinosaurs who insists on clinging to Blogger Classic,* my ability to update has been pretty much shot to hell all day. Now that it's back I really don't feel like writing anything worth reading, so y'all get this instead.

During my holiday travels, when I am usually piss-poor at keeping up with blogs, the lovely and dedicated Plain(s)Feminist was kind enough to tag me with a little game. In this game, one is supposed to do the following:

1. Go to the nearest book in your reach and turn to page 123.
2. Go to the fifth sentence of the book.
3. Copy the next three sentences, then tag someone else.


Ever the cooperative schmuck, I figure I may as well go along with all this.

As it happens, when I read her little challenge I was working on my dissertation research, which means that the nearest book in my reach was, "SAS User's Guide 1979 Edition."** Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am a pathetic bastard.

Opening up to page 123, and starting at the fifth sentence:***

"MEANS list of effects / options;
Means can be computed for any effect involving CLASS variables whether or not the effect is in the model. Any number of MEANS statements may be used before and/or after the MODEL statement. Here is an example:

PROC GLM;
CLASSES A B C;
MODEL Y=A B C;
MEANS A B C A*B;

Means will be printed for each level of the variables A, B, and C, for the combined levels of A and B."

Now wasn't that exciting? I know I'm all a-twitter!

In the interests of enabling other people's procrastination I suppose I should tag some additional folks, thus completing my participation in all this. For such a purpose I choose Brayden, Tom, and Tina (who occasionally posts right here on Total Drek).

Have fun!


* I just have better things to do right now than spend time learning new software that facillitates the time-suck that is blogging.

** Still useful after all these years because SAS never changes anything.

*** Keeping in mind that the SAS Institute has only the loosest understanding of English punctuation and grammar, thus making it difficult to identify sentences.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Different (fast post)

There is a growing market for an amorphous group of activities and people sometimes referred to Alternative Medicine. Drek has asked on a couple of occasions why people turn to a type of medicine that often offers little scientific support for its claims. I'd like to talk about that for a bit, and kick in some open doors.

Personally, I don't believe that alternative medicine is necessarily a good thing, and it certainly is a mixed bag. I do, however, understand why people turn to it and have done so myself on quite a few occasions, though not regularly. When people come into contact with medicine, their first thought is not science. Their first thought is of whatever ails them, for obvious reasons. Whatever the scientific research is, most of us are not especially interested, nor, for that matter, would most of our doctors judge us fit to evaluate it.

A friend of mine summarises it well - she says that conventional medicine is good at dealing with things that are going to kill you fast. Cancer, broken legs, appendicitis - conventional medicine is where you want to be. However - sometimes more specialist knowledge is not a good thing. That sounds stupid, doesn't it? Told you I didn't have a good mind. But let me illustrate. One of my genetic fortune cookies is asthma - my dad has it, and while none of us quite has it, we all have miscellaneous, fairly minor allergy and respiratory issues. With one thing and another I ended up in the office of a lung specialist, who asked me questions without any interest in the answers, and tested me for common allergies, and prescribed five types of medication. No follow-up was scheduled, and my GP crossed three of these off the list. The other two did me absolutely no good (antihistamines never worked for me back then. at all). The point I am making here is that the person with the smaller amount of specialised knowledge, but better knowledge of me, my GP, very obviously made the better judgement call. No worries, I have no alternative medicine miracle story - I went to one person, and that didn't help, athough she gave me the most useful piece of advice of anyone - to cut down on the dairy. I was fifteen and did not listen, but it turns out that eating less dairy certainly helps.

Cut to another issue of mine. Ever since I was twelve I have suffered from excruciatingly painful periods. When I was fourteen, my doctor tried to put me on the pill. I refused, feeling like it was a very drastic solution to the problem. It was also the only thing on offer, so I went on with painkillers. Years and years later I ended up in a doctor's office in Houston, Texas, with some very strange muscle pains. The doctor there asked some very perceptive questions and told me two things: that this was related to my cycle, and that I should stop drinking coffee, and see a doctor in the UK (where I was living at the time). Good advice - the muscle pains went, and when I finally saw that British doctor, she told me to take oil of evening primrose. Meanwhile, my doctor back home told that there was no relationship between the coffee and my pain, and that the pill was the only thing that was going to help. Now, I'll stick to what works, and came to the conclusion that between avoiding coffee and taking oil of evening primrose, I was off my half package of ibuprofen every month. Oil of evening primrose is accepted as an effective way of treating PMS and cramps in the UK; but not, it seems, anywhere else. Oil of evening primrose is a precursor to our natural anti-inflammatories, and can also help treat arthritis. If there are side effects then I have not found them. I can't even begin to tell how big an impact it has had on my life to not be practically crippled for two to four days every month.

One more story - one day when I was living in Hungary I ended up in the ER at 4 am with acute abdominal pain. They ran every test they had, misdiagnosed me about five times, then misdiagnosed me with a back injury, and sent me home the next day for ten days. The pain treatment worked to some extent, but I nonetheless ended up in yet another hospital, with more tests, no information at all, no explanations at all. They sent me home with another test to go, a test which turned up some possible reasons, but on which they did not follow up. The only thing that kept me from going crazy during this time, other than my friends, was a visit to a chiropractor/accupuncturist - they had told me I had a back problem, right? He told me that I did, in all likelihood, have a back problem. He was exceedingly patient, attentive, and thorough, and relieved any remaining pain.

Still no miraculous healings through alternative medicine? Not really, no. I have seen a few happen, yes, but that is not my point. My point is that what alternative medicine tackles is not so much the lack of knowledge of conventional medicine, but its attitude problem. No chiropractor, reiki healer, accupuncturist or herbalist has ever refused to talk, or listen to me. Many (about four) specialised MD's have. In terms of treating such issues as the ones I cite above, conventional medicine has proved, for me, to be as much of a mixed bag as any other kind of treatment. The single most effective thing I found, oil of evening primrose, is recommended by doctors and herbalists in the UK, but only by herbalists in the US. With so much science being a subject of debate, and with experience yielding such mixed results, it becomes hard to choose who to trust, and I find it hard to blame people for choosing the gentler, friendlier branch, the branch which, for example, didn't tell them twice, on both occasions without any real evidence, that they might end up having cancer (and were proved to be wrong)*.

It pays to think for yourself, right? While I have come to the point where I trust neither alternative nor conventional medicine, I am pleased to give credit to the alternatives I experienced for not inflicting harm on me; for being honest; for being clear; for listening. I can't tell you how much I wish that I could say the same about the doctors**.

*a lovely anecdote which I will spare you
**maybe I should say specialist, because generally the GPs have been better

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Returning...

So far today my Sainted Fiancee and I have been having a fabulous time.

Plane that smells like raw sewage?

Check!

Plane that is mysteriously delayed?

Check!

Mysterious turbulence that makes the aforementioned love of my life turn a nasty shade of green?

Check!

Mad dash to connecting flight?

Check!

Discovery at the end of mad dash that connecting flight is, itself, mysteriously delayed?

Check!

Near homicidal desire to stop traveling?

Check!

In-airport wireless access with which to assauge my murderous hate?

Check!


Buckle-up folks- I'm on my way home.*

* Not that I'm going to get there any time soon, mind you.

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