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.

Saturday, July 31, 2004

Well whaddya know!

Turns out Tom Volscho and I have had a close-encounter. Well I'll be damned!

You may already have won!


Greetings to you and your family. I want you to read this mail with a compassionate heart and understanding that any action you take is geared towards rendering humanitarian assistance to a man who is in distress with his family.

My name is Mr.Tom Ebewele, a Liberian( now resident in South Africa) and former aide to Charles Taylor former President of Liberia. I was his right hand man before he was asked to step down from power and he is presently in asylum in Nigeria. I was handling the diamond sales on behalf of President Taylor who in turn supplies ammunition to the rebels, the RUF (Royal United Force) group of Sierra Leone. This is what the international community and United Nations code-named: Conflict Diamond.

It was while I was discharging this duty that I diverted the sum of US$ 15,000,000.00 (fifteen Million United States Dollars) for myself. I deposited the money contained in trunk boxes in a Security Company as artifacts to avoid prying eyes in Johannesburg, South Africa and travelled back to my country where I continued with my duties.

I informed President Taylor then, that the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSL) seized the diamond consignment and made report to the United Nations. It was based on this diamond dealings involving President Taylor that the United Nations imposed sanctions on Liberia recently and that led to his subsequent removal from power.

Now that he is out of power, my aim is to look for a trusted foreign partner outside to help me move the fund out for investment. It is based on my decision to move the fund out for investment that I am contacting you to assist me in taking the funds to your country. All you need do is to fly down to claim the Boxes from the Security Company and open a bank account through which the money will be lodged before transfer into your nominated Bank account.

I am willing to compensate you with 30% of the total sum for your assistance and want to let you understand that the future of myself and family depends solely on this money .In this transaction confidentiality is very essential for us to achieve our goal. It is important that you maintain utmost good faith and trust .You must also not circumvent the transaction in any way.

In conclusion I will like you to understand that you shall bear no risk whatsoever in this business and as such there is nothing for you to be afraid of. I await your swift response this Email (omitted e-mail with Russian country code.)


Looks like no more grad school for me! I mean, hell, what could go wrong?

Friday, July 30, 2004

Vote the Goat!

I'll be the first person to admit that I'm not that politically engaged. This isn't because I'm uninterested, or apathetic. If anything, it's because I'm pretty moderate in my views. I lean to the left in my philosophy, I lean to the right in terms of pragmatism, and as a result I often lose my balance and fall over. So, I'm probably not the first person to go to for political commentary. All that being said, if you're reading this at all, you're obviously not looking for interesting, thoughtful, well-informed opinions so I can just go ahead an let 'er rip.

I have to be honest, I really don't understand why there's so much interest in the Democratic National Convention right now. I mean, leaving aside the bloggers that are actually attending the DNC, we still have bloggers who are commenting on the convention from afar and, god help us, we have bloggers who are blogging about what other bloggers are blogging about the convention. It's like some sort of gravitational singularity has suddenly emerged within the blogosphere and is warping all blogs into endlessly repeating loops of bloggerly commentary. I mean, shit, here I am commenting on others who have commented on still other bloggers who are actually commenting on the convention.

I can only hope that one of you freaks comments on this, and so keeps our descent into hell on schedule.

Still, in the midst of this maelstrom of uninformed, frequently semi-incoherent commentary (Amazingly, I'm not just talking about my own blog, although I could rename it from Total Drek to Uninformed, Semi-Incoherent Commentary without really lying in any way about the content) I am left wondering: what's the big deal?

Are we expecting any "big surprises" out of this convention? Shit, people, since the patronage system was gutted (largely) after the Civil War the conventions aren't the slop troughs that they used to be. Further, since the primary system became dominant, the party leadership has largely declined in authority. It used to be that candidates emerged out of smoky backrooms and last minute horse-trades between party bosses. Now... now we pretty much know who it is before the damned thing even starts.

Now, I know, the DNC has had an impressive lineup of speakers. We've all enjoyed that. We've had celebrities and stars offering us advice and support. We've even had Bono, for christ's sake. BONO! It's probably just me, but I don't think I want to take political advice from a guy without a last name. (The smug among you are thinking, "But Drek, you go by one name only!" Yeah, I do. You know what else? YOU REALLY SHOULDN'T TAKE MY ADVICE!)

I suppose there are rumors floating around that some delegates may support Kucinich still, instead of the Kerry/Edwards ticket. You know what? Who fucking cares? Kerry and Edwards ARE the damned ticket. If some states decide to make a stink about Kucinich it ain't gonna change a damn thing. So, why do I give a shit? There's no tension, there's no suspense, no decision making is going on. It's like being a skydiver whose parachute has failed. You can steer yourself into a mountain, or you can steer yourself into a field, so I guess you have the "excitement" of not knowing the exact way things are going to happen. Regardless of what you pick, though, very shortly you're going to be a pink-tinged fucking crater. Whoopie.

I don't have a problem with the conventions, and I think it's good that there's this opportunity to drum up support and really get the message out. The thing is, I don't understand why so many people are so focussed on what amounts to a multi-million dollar pep-rally.

I think, too, the big issue for me is that this election isn't going to be about Kerry and Edwards. The simple truth is that an enormous number of people won't be voting for KE '04, they'll be voting AGAINST BC '04. At this point, the democrats could run a goat for president, and I'd still vote for it. I mean, think about it, what would a goat-run white house be like?

(As a side note, I'm going to stick with a male pronoun here just because I love getting e-mail from irate feminists who think I'm shoring up the patriarchy. And because I'm too lazy to see if there's a specific term for a female goat.)

(1) The secret service would lead stress-free lives, since the president would stay put so long as he was kept supplied with ample garbage.

(2) Troop deployments would be unlikely.

(3) Sex scandals would probably be on the rise, since goats aren't known for their discretion, but we've already managed to endure that with Clinton.

(4) I'm guessing animal rights would be on the agenda.

(5) I'm guessing goat droppings would be on the rug.

(6) We would finally have a tough and savy foreign negotiator who could keep his foot out of his mouth.

(7) While our president's vocabulary would be somewhat sub-par, at least he would refrain from mispronouncing words that edumacated people usually say flawlessly.

(8) After his retirement from public life, President Goat would save taxpayers millions by living out the remainder of his life in a petting zoo, rather than an estate. I'm pretty sure this was the post-presidential dream of several of our past chief executives. I leave it to you to decide which.

(9) Radical liberals could rejoice in our first vegetarian president.

(10) American Atheists could stand easy, knowing we at last have a President who so values the separation of church and state, he doesn't mention God every sixteen seconds during speeches. (Dream the impossible dream, people.)

Yes, friends, clearly a goat has many advantages as a president. As, in comparison to Bush, would a pet rock, a used bicycle tire, or one of those drinking bird toys.

So, Democratic Party, whenever you get done spending a shitload of money on booze, balloons, and spin-control for that thoroughly-normal "Shove it" remark, let me know. I'll basically be all set to vote for whatever vaguely-sapient candidate you have lined up.

And, you know, in a pinch I can live without the sapient part. We've all been doing that for the past 4 years or so.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Attention: Gender Scholars!

I just wanted to suggest using this the next time you teach a class to undergrads. Seems like a winner to me.

Thanks to purplecar for bringing this to my attention.

It's gotta be the jacket!

Back in the days of yore when I was even more immature than I am now (if such a thing is, indeed, possible) I was a member of my high school debate team. Now, I know what you're thinking. Debate, or "forensics" as it is more formally known, is a classic refuge of freaks, geeks, and losers. Well, I can't really dispute that. My team was, to a person, one of the largest collections of bizarre individuals I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.

Yet, despite that, or perhaps because of it, some of my best memories of high school focus on that team. There was, of course, our freakishly sarcastic coach Mr. N, who could quote Kafka and Spock with equal facility. There was the team-mate we called "Stimpy" who once won the "Disgusting Noise Award" at the annual Halloween tourney by belching "I am Satan." If you've never heard what this sounds like, you've led a deprived, but far less depraved, life. There were roadtrips lasting hours that found four or five of us crammed into the cab of Mr. N's tiny Isuzu pickup truck. There was the infamous trip when my oldest and dearest friend acquired the rather unusual nickname, "the Teal Delgado." There was that bizarre superstition where my team-mates had to rub my sportcoat for luck before we split up for our events (When I started winning tourneys in my senior year after an eight-year hiatus for our entire team, the logical conclusion was that it was the result of my rather unusual suede jacket). There was everyone's favorite hypothetical criminal "Skippy the Wonder Punk," and a debater who seemed unable to get through an entire meet without once mentioning Vince Lombardy. There was our team battlecry, "Onward to mediocrity!" And, of course, there was my own dear nickname "Pitbull," born when my coach remarked to a new team-member, "Drek isn't really a very creative debater, but he'll find a flaw in your argument and latch on like a pitbull." Readers of this blog are no doubt already aware of my lack of creativity, and my tendency to be stubborn to the point of absurdity.

Despite the common perception, though, debate isn't actually a single event. We don't all stand at podiums and argue politiely. (As it happens, a team from the southern end of my state became notorious for mooning the judges, but I digress...) Oh, we do that too, it's called Lincoln-Douglas debate (becuase it's styled after the oratory contests between President Lincoln and his opponent Douglas), but we do a lot of other stuff as well. We have the dramaticists, who alternate between presenting poetry and acting out short scenes. We have the team-debaters, who engage in what could best be called a tag-team Lincoln-Douglas match. We have the extemporaneous speakers, or extempers, who only learn what their topic is approximately ten minutes before they have to deliver their speech. Yeah, ten minutes to prepare a five to fifteen minute talk. The slow-witted need not apply. Finally, we have the student congress wonks, who carry out entire matches in the guise of sessions of Congress, complete with Robert's Rules of Order, and bills submitted before the match (although you only learn the title of the bills in advance, the text remains unknown until the event begins, which really cuts into your prep time).

I specialized in student congress and, personally, think it was one of the most useful events I could have participated in. To understand why, you need to understand how it worked. While the winners, and losers, in other events were determined by a set of judges, the winners in student congress are determined solely by the competitors. The judges only duty is to nominate people as the best speakers for a given session; the event participants vote to determine which of the nominees will win the session and, eventually, the tournament. As a consequence, you have to be a good enough speaker to be nominated by the judges, but be well enough liked to win votes. If you're liked, but can't speak, you lose. If you can speak, but aren't liked, you lose. This introduces a rather interesting element into the event- an element we called "Schmoozing."

That was a big letdown, wasn't it? You were really hoping for some technical term, weren't you? Well, never let it be said that I satisfy my readers' expectations.

The rules of student congress introduced a strong social aspect into the matches. After arriving at a tourney hotel (Usually you'd arrive on a friday night and spend one or two days debating), when most debaters were busy reviewing notes, or practicing dramatic readings, the congress people would be out prowling the halls looking for other congress people to make nice with. Many an evening at tourneys was spent sitting in the hot-tub with other congress people trying to be as friendly as possible. (Perhaps what makes this so amusing for me is, despite that fact that I attended public school, we competed in the National Catholic Forensic League, or NCFL. If the nuns that ran our league only knew how much coeducational hot-tubbing they were facilitating.) For those of you who know me, I can understand your amazement that this was my event, much less that I ever won anything, since I'm really not that friendly. You're right, I'm not that friendly, I just don't like to lose. Fun as all this may sound, though, it was a considerable amount of work.

As I, and other, congress people discovered, beating someone is easy. It's always possible to find some bit of information, or twist of an argument, that takes apart your opponent's point. The challenge in congress, unlike the other events, wasn't beating your opponent. The challenge was beating them and making them like it in the process.

It was this difficult catch that, I think, was the most useful part of student congress. This is simply because it more accurately reflects what you have to do, day in and day out, in real life. Let me ask you this: if you're arguing with your spouse, do you want to beat them at all costs, no matter how hurtful you may be in the process? Well, depending on how angry you are, you might WANT to do just that, but in all likelihood you will hold back because beating them may not be worth the cost. Similarly, if you're in a meeting at work and you absolutely oppose a particular course of action, is it worth insulting your boss and making your coworkers look silly in order to counter that plan? Maybe, but the odds are against it. When the argument is over you still have to work with, and for, those people and burning bridges won't help you in the long run. In all of these situations the key is to beat your opponent, make them see your logic and ideally agree with it, but do so in a way that they can accept. Sound easy? Try it.

The hard part about it is that nobody likes to lose an argument, or back down, or lose face. We all want to believe that we are correct in what we say and fair in the way that we say it. Perhaps I could present an argument that would convince you that you were in the wrong, but are you immediately going to feel an outpouring of sorrow and apologize to me? Sure! Right after you grow wings and fly to the moon.

No, people don't tend to own up to their mistakes, at least not right away, even if they know they're wrong. It's humiliating to be wrong, doubly so if someone else knows it, and triply so if they knew if before you did. The fact that they had to convince you of that fact in the first place doesn't help in the slightest. So what good does continuing to push an argument do? You might prove to some invisible audience, beyond any doubt, that you're right and your opponent is wrong, but in the process you are driving the other person into a corner from which they have no choice but to either stick to their guns or make an utterly humiliating surrender. Which do you think most people pick?

The key to beating someone and making them like it is to leave them an out. The key is to allow them to plead ignorance, or misunderstanding, or to concede that some of their points were good but that you think they'll make more sense combined in a new way. Sometimes it can be as easy as directing your criticisms at the ideas, instead of the person, and refraining from calling them names. It can be as easy as just not raising your voice. For the most part it's simple things like that. The hard part is remembering to DO those things for the other person when you're in the heat of battle. That's what made student congress hard, and it is likewise what often makes life so hard.

So, why did I decide to talk about this today? Well, I'll tell you this, it wasn't because after yesterday's lengthy post, I didn't have the energy to do anything but vomit out old debate stories. No,that wasn't it at all. It also wasn't because I savor the irony of ME telling YOU to moderate your language. Nope, that isn't ironic in the slightest. I talk about it because I think it's a lesson that everyone needs to hear now and then, and we liberals especially.

We like to think of ourselves over here on the left as enlightened, but the truth is that the conservatives feel the same way about their positions. Their fervor over school prayer and a right-to-life is matched by out dedication to arresting inequality, and preserving a woman's right to choose. So, how do we react when they tell us that we're amoral and corrupt? Right. Not well. So, how do you think they feel when we act like we have a monopoly on morality and good intentions? Right. No better. There is a place for fervent debate, especially in politics and especially in an election year, but ultimately the American electoral system doesn't rely on extremism. This isn't a parliamentary system where you can be as radical and inflammatory as you like and still get seats. Here, moderation is the rule- it's also the reason why many complain that the Democrats and the Republicans aren't all that different. It's true, the Elephant and the Ass have more in common than not, but it isn't because of a failure of leadership, it's just the way our electoral system functions.

Moderation, though, doesn't mean you can't have issues. It doesn't mean that by a longshot, and there's no reason why the pressures towards moderation have to drive out real policy differences. They key, folks, is to remember that we don't have to beat the other guys: we have to beat them and make them like it. Much as I enjoy Michael Moore's work (And I do) he's terrible at this. His missives are so strong, they are actually insulting to folks on the other side of the issue. If you agree with him already, what he speaks is the pure gospel truth. If you don't agree with him, then he leaves you no room to change your positions without conceding that you were stupid. That can be a problem. There's a place for Moore's brand of activism, and I applaud his efforts, but if the only way you advance your case is with righteous indignation, you're doing yourself more harm than good.

As we gear up for what looks to be one of the most bitterly divisive elections since the Civil War, we would all do well to remember that when the dust settles and the votes are counted, we all have to live in the same country still.

Let's go out there and beat Bush, but let's make sure we don't beat ourselves in the process.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

The Insanity Parade: Cosmic Pool Edition

Today we will be continuing our ongoing series about the various types of insanity and bizarre systems of belief that populate the internet. Today our insanity comes to us courtesy of the website Thule. Let's give them a big round of applause.

I don't want to take issue with the entire Thule site (although god knows someone could, if only from an aesthetic standpoint). I simply don't have the time it would take to challenge every half-assed idea here. This may surprise you since, based on the length of my posts, it might seem like I have a lot of spare time. This would be an illusion. I actually employ a team of several thousand hamsters with large testicles that, by a process of constantly scratching their nuts on keyboards, produce the bulk of my daily posts. It's a little like those monkeys on typewriters, but a lot more unsettling to watch. In any case, the Thule site includes a variety of articles ranging from the suggestion that "AIDS is germ warfare," to "Nazi/Canadian UFOs," to speculations about the ancient history of the solar system. It is this latter set of speculations that I want to focus on, and in particular on the article The Scars of Mars.

This article, by Donald W. Patten, would seem to have been originally published in the January 1991 issue of Catastrophism and Ancient History, which styles itself as an academic journal, though I am unable to determine if it is, or rather was, peer-reviewed. Not that peer-review is necessarily the key to quality, my own recent experiences tend to indicate that peer-review provides no sure fire guarantees. Still, it sure as shit doesn't hurt. Look at this blog, for example: it isn't peer-reviewed, and it sucks. And given that this post is devoted to bullshit logic, I think that'll be enough for me.

In understanding the name of this journal, it is worth saying a bit more about the "catastrophism" part of the title. In geology in the 19th century there were two major schools of thought regarding geologic changes. Adherents to the first, known as the Catastrophists, argued that most changes were the result of sudden, abrupt events. This school of thought, known as catastrophism, was at least in part an attempt to incorporate the biblical tale of the flood into a model of earth changes. The competing school, the gradualists, argued that earth changes occur as part of a lengthy evolutionary process of volcanism, erosion, and subduction. We would, today, add plate tectonics to this list. This approach, more commonly known as uniformitarianism eventually gained greater acceptance and displaced catastrophism as the dominant approach to explaining earth changes. The simple reason for this is that while uniformitarianism bases its theories on observable, measurable phenomena, the catastrophists were forced to speculate on unknown and rare events, data about which was difficult to collect if not totally nonexistent. Thus, uniformitarianism came to be favored on the basis of both empirical evidence, and parsimony. While modern geology has recognized the importance of catastrophes, for instance the K/T Boundary Event, it has largely clung to a predominantly uniformitarian model of earth changes. It has also taken a stance that, while catastrophes do happen, unusually compelling evidence or an unusually pressing theoretical need must be in place inorder to invoke them. Thus, we may conclude that whatever its peer-review status, the journal in question is likely to be on the fringes of geology. This does not mean that everything in it is automatically of poor quality, but it suggests that it isn't readily accepted by individuals with more expertise in geology than myself. It will come as no shock to you that some 4th graders have more expertise in geology than myself but that's the glory of the internet: I don't need an education, I just need a damned keyboard.

The article of interest attempts to propose a new theory to account for the crater patterning on the surface of the planet Mars, for the existence of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and for the presence of Mars' moons Phobos and Deimos. Please note that these are not features of the solar system for which we do not have fairly good theories; the author is instead trying (one would assume) to produce a more parsimonious explanation. Towards this end, the author begins by addressing two theories accounting for the origin of the asteroids. The first theory, that they once composed a planet that was subsequently destroyed by collision or by the tidal effects of Jupiter, has largely fallen out of favor with the astronomical community. The second theory is that the asteroids represent subplanetary or planetesimal material that collected in the same manner as other planetary bodies. Unlike the other terrestrial worlds (Mercury, Venus, Earth, & Mars), however, the orbits of these bodies were constantly scrambled by the nearby presence of the gas giant Jupiter, thus preventing them from forming into a single body. This second argument is currently the most popular theory accounting for the asteroids. It gets invited to all the best parties, it wears all the best clothes, and I hear it's dating other popular theories like "gravity," "relativity," and "evolution." What can I say? It's a healthy theory in the prime of its life.

The author correctly explains these rival accounts, but matters begin to go downhill (Come on, you knew it was going to go downhill) rapidly from here. The author goes on to say that:

Instilled into the psyche of most astronomers is the notion that Mars has been in its present orbit, like Jupiter, for billions of years and the asteroids do seem to be relatively young. In this essay we shall first discard the astronomer's notion that Mars has been in its current orbit for billions of years.

This is problematic on two levels. First, the dominant argument that the asteroids are planetesimals formed when the other planets were born argues that they are, in fact, some of the oldest bodies in the solar system, and not relatively young. Asteroids, like comets, are thought to present us with our best chance to learn about the early solar system for precisely this reason. Second, beginning any scientific research by casually abandoning something as significant as the orbit of an entire planet is at best questionable. Planets are large and a truly substantial amount of energy is required to alter their orbits. Thus, one must provide extraordinary evidence to justify an assertion that those orbits have changed radically. Certainly in the early solar system orbits were much less orderly, but that was a period in time considerably before what the present article considers.

Additionally, as the planetary society shows, the current orbits of the planets from Mercury to Jupiter enjoy considerable circularity and nest inside each other like babushka dolls. This trend continues into the outer solar system where, with the exception of Pluto, which may not actually be a proper planet at all, the planet orbits fit together quite neatly. The importance of this observation is this: any event that changed Mars' orbit would have had to very precisely alter it to conform to the orbits of the other planets. Further, for whatever period Mars had a different orbit, it would have taken considerable luck for its movement and mass not to perturb the orbits of the other inner planets, particularly if its orbit crossed the orbits of Earth or Venus. As it happens, the author is proposing just such an orbit with Mars spending a portion of each orbit inside the orbit of the Earth. For such to be the case for any length of time would necessarily result in changes in the orbit of the Earth as a consequence of gravitational attraction. Interestingly, the author actually argues that Mars might have had significant effects on the Earth, going so far in another paper as to claim that Earth's mountain ranges are the result of such close approaches. (One is left to wonder how he accounts for modern volcanoes and tectonic activity in the absence of such a wide-ranging planet) Yet, he makes no mention of the necessary perturbations that would occur in the Earth's own orbit, or the probable ejection of the Earth's moon, that would result saying only that:

Mars in its former orbit had the potential to interact catastrophically with the Earth-Moon system, since its perihelion was within Earth's orbit.

Thus, we can see, there are already considerable problems with this thesis. (It is worth noting that the author argues in a later paper that interactions with the Earth in conjunction with an impact we will discuss momentarily are actually responsible for circularizing Mars' orbit. It is the case, however, that close approaches by Mars, and by "close" I mean "near enough to deform the Earth's crust," would very likely gravitationally accelerate the moon enough to eject it from orbit entirely. The obvious presence of the moon is a strong indication that the Earth has not had any close encounters with massive objects since the time the moon was formed. This goes double for Mars' moons Phobos and Deimos, which are considerably less massive than our moon and proportionately easier to eject.)

The author, however, chooses to use this hypothetical orbit to argue that a collision with a smaller planetary body, dubbed "Astra," knocked Mars onto its present orbit much as the que ball knocks balls into pockets in billiards. (Heh. "Billiards." What am I, in the fucking Music Man? "That's 'Trouble' with a capital 'T,' which rhymes with 'P,' and that stands for 'Poorly constructed theory!'") The leftover fragments of Astra that did not collide with Mars (Astra having been fragmented before impact by its passage beyond Mars' Roche limit) either fell into orbit (i.e. Phobos and Deimos) or continued on altered trajectories, becoming our modern asteroids. That the orbit of Mars in this scenario seems to have been chosen simply to make such a sequence of events plausible does little to reassure me.

After describing his "13 levels of support," (They're even interdisciplinary! You have no idea how eager I was for him to whip out the literary theory there but, alas, no he succumbs to the hegemony of the so-called "physical" sciences. Oh, poo!) few of which actually constitute support, the author lays down his version of a research hypothesis:

If it can be demonstrated that Mars was the sole cause for Astra's fragmentation, then we can say, as a demand deduction, that Mars was in a former orbit with higher eccentricity and a more remote aphelion. Assuming this, and to accommodate the principle of conservation of energy and angular momentum, a second demand deduction is that the former perihelion of Mars was nearer to the Sun than the present perihelion.

Or, in other words: "If we can show that Mars, which we assume to have been on a different orbit, was the only cause for the breakup of a planet that nobody has ever proven existed in the first place, or even found a compelling reason to believe existed, then we can conclude that Mars was in the orbit we assumed it was in in order to make it collide with our mystery planet. Further, if this is true, and I don't see why it shouldn't be, then unless we want to completely rewrite physics, Mars' orbit MUST have been what I was assuming it was." Good lord, if I could get away with shit like this I'd never mess with a stats package ever again.

To attempt to derive support, the author observes that most craters on Mars are in a single hemisphere. This, he claims, supports a catastrophic origin. He also claims that the Tharsis bulge on the other side of the planet, which is approximately 8000 kilometers across and 10 kilometers high, is the result of shockwaves from the impact of Astra. (In the interests of honesty, I should note that he talks most extensively about the Tharsis bulge in part II of this article, located here. Of course, part II of this article is cited as having come from a 1985 issue of this journal, so either the guy posting this material on the web is an idiot, or these articles have been sucked into some kind of temporal distortion.) This would, in essence, be similar to what happens if you shove your fist deep into a ball of bread dough: the other side bulges out. Thus, the craters and the deformation of the planet in the Tharsis region on the opposite side are the result of a single tremendous impact event. Specifically, as his hypothetical Astra approached Mars it was torn apart by Mars' gravity. The resulting fragments radiated out from the point of breakup, with some striking the surface and some escaping to become asteroids, or to form Mars' moons Phobos and Deimos.

While parsimonious, in a way, these two bits of "evidence" are not really as independent as the author would like us to believe. Everyone, more or less, is familiar with the dark regions of the Earth's moon. These regions, called "maria," or "mare" were thought in ancient times to be seas. We have since learned that the maria are the remnant of vast volcanic outflows caused by large meteor impacts. These maria, however, have the side effect of obscuring any craters that may have already been on the surface. A crater full of lava, after all, doesn't look any different from any other surface covered over in lava. So, given that more conventional explanations for the Tharsis bulge involve some sort of volcanism, we can see a very logical explanation for the relative lack of craters here: they have largely been obscured by one of the most impressive tectonic events in the solar system. Thus, with the magic of lava, both the craters and the Tharsis bulge can be accounted for without the need to invent a new planetary body.

It is also worth noting that the author claims that this event occurred within the recent past, going so far as to say (in part II) that:

We suspect this fragmentation [of Astra] was a recent event in the solar system, and will be considered "ancient" only in terms of thousands not millions or billions of years.

This contradicts current research on Mars that suggests it has been geologically dead for considerably more than a few thousand years. In other words, in order for the Astra impact to have caused the Tharsis bulge and the volcanoes of the Tharsis region, the planet Mars would have to still have a molten core and a considerably greater quantity of sub-crustal magma than we believe it has had for some millions of years. Further, if such an enormous impact had happened the introduction of so much mechanical energy would very likely have kept it geologically active into modern times. Whoops.

Finally, to conclude my criticism of this theory, we need take note of the author's further contention that at the time of Astra's impact Mars already had a moon. The author states:

Two additional suspicions need also to be stated. One is that at the time of Astra's fragmentation Mars had an icy satellite somewhat like the satellites of Uranus in size, 500 to 800 miles in diameter, and composed of ice like some of the satellites of Jupiter. This "frosty" body we suggest, was also impacted to some extent by Astra fragments and we postulate that Astra had a high proportion of iridium which was deposited both on the crust of Mars and its ancient icy satellite. Thus the subsequent fragmenting or the "frosty" satellite may have had something to do with Mars' channels and may also account for the high iridium concentration in the sub-sea level deep ice deposits on Mars' antarctic bedrock.

What I love about the above, by the way, is that as this shitstorm progresses into part II he continues to refer to this moon as "Frosty." Here's a tip: if you're going to propose such a radically implausible theory, maybe you should not name your hypothetical moon after a vaguely-disturbing dessert available from the Wendy's chain of fast food restaurants.

Regardless, this moon, the orbital configuration of which the author proceeds to speculate on, allows him to account for Iridium deposits located on Mars' bedrock. It seems much simpler, of course, to simply suggest that the iridium, which tends to be concentrated in planetary cores but may be deposited on planetary surfaces by meteor impacts, was laid down by more run-of-the-mill impacts that occurred throughout Mars' history as a planet. That's, you know, where our available iridium largely came from. This, at least, doesn't require us to introduce a large iridium-rich impactor or an additional satellite. This is especially beneficial because while the author describes this moon as being largely composed of ice, there are no bodies anywhere in the inner solar system that match this description. Mars would have been the only world closer to the sun than Jupiter to play host to such a body, and it would have been all the more impressive a feat given the deleterious effects of the sun on volatile substances such as water.

Taken together this theory requires us to postulate a number of things:

(1) That Mars was previously on a highly elliptical orbit that somehow did not perturb the orbits of the Earth and Venus. (Again, the author claims elsewhere that Mars altered the radius of the Earth's orbit, but to do so without altering the orbital path is unlikely at best.)

(2) That despite this failure to perturb its orbit, Mars was able to cause significant disruptions in the surface features of the Earth, and all without ejecting the moon.

(3) That previously the asteroids were part of a much larger planetesimal on an even more eccentric orbit.

(4) That Mars previously had a moon completely unlike any now present in the inner solar system.

(5) That Mars' orbit was circularized by the Astra impact, and its subsequent encounters with the Earth, in a way that makes it impossible to tell from its current orbit that it was ever unusual.

That's not too bad, eh? We just have to invent two moon-sized bodies, one with a composition entirely unknown in the inner solar system, and assume an entire planet had a radically different orbit. Sounds parsimonious to me.

Or, you know, we could just assume that Mars has been on its current orbit for as long as the other planets, that its tectonic activity (when it was geologically active) accounts for the Tharsis bulge and the distribution of craters, that the iridium is a result of a lengthy period of meteor impacts, and that Mars, like Earth, received a share of water when it formed and, thus, did not need a huge "frosty" moon to give it ice. I leave it to you to decide.

So what bullshit analysis do I want to offer here at the end? Well, the real problem with this article isn't that it proposes a radical theory. Radical theories are good, particularly since every now and then they turn out to be correct. The problem is that the author is hellbent on finding a way to argue that Mars was, in the recent past, an Earth-orbit crossing body. I won't speculate on why this is, beyond observing that a common motivation for this sort of thing is a desire to account for certain tales in the Old Testament with actual historical events, but it clearly was the intent of this article. While an unconvincing piece, it does illustrate the dangers of deciding your conclusion before you do research. Any data can be twisted to support a given conclusion, especially if the conclusion is not, on the face of it, totally unreasonable. The Astra hypothesis is not, indeed, totally out of the question, especially given that the Earth's moon is thought to be the result of a titanic impact during the early days of the solar system. In fact, I am even rather intrigued by the suggestion that the hemisphere of craters and the Tharsis bulge might be the result of an impact, even if I see no compelling reason to believe this to be true. The problem isn't that there's no evidence, it's that there's so much evidence that contradicts the Astra theory, or is consistent with a much simpler explanation.

The job of science is not to provide reasonable explanations for events. Shit, I can come up with a dozen reasonable explanations for any given event, just like you can find a dozen different things that a cloud looks like. The job of science is to provide the most accurate, and simplest, explanation that it can. That's why it's so damned hard- it isn't enough to have a good explanation, it has to be shaved down to the bare minimum needed to do the job. By contrast, this article presents a theoretical Rube Goldberg machine that insists on explaining phenomena with the most complicated, convoluted set of events possible. While science is increasinly finding that the universe is a very complicated place, that only emphasizes that we don't need to go adding extra complexity just for shits and giggles. Science pursues simple, elegant explanations because at least that way we can avoid overkill. Maybe this is why I'm so suspicious of sociohistorical accounts and qualitative work. Yeah, context and history matter, but the more detail you include, the farther away from your goal you're getting. Maybe this is why I like statistics. The Astra theory isn't impossible it's just quite improbable. That's the beauty of statisical analysis: it doesn't tell us everything, and it definitely abstracts a lot, but it does give us a way to judge how good our guesses are. Given how easy it is to convince oneself that there must have been additional moons, and different orbits, and all manner of other things, this provides a reassuring way to judge more objectively between otherwise equally plausible explanations. I don't trust my judgement enough to dispense with math, do you really trust YOUR judgement that much?

This isn't to say that qualitative work is bad, or that research that attends to the historical context is unscientific. While qualitative research just isn't my bag, I DO think there is a very necessary place for it in social science. The relationship between qualitative and quantitative work is a little like the relationship between the infantry and the artillery. The infantry can get into an area, and get familiar with it in a way that troops manning big guns can't, but at the same time if you really want something blown up, those big guns are damned useful. The funny part about this, though, is that artillery can do a lot of damage, but it's clumsy. It needs the infantry to tell it where to fire, and how much, and for how long. Similarly, qualitative work can really get into a situation and get familiar with it, but when it's time to try and support some hypotheses, it's time to call in the big guns of quantitative analysis. Us quantoids, though, still need a little advice on where to shoot. Qualitative and quantitative work both have their vital roles to play.

It's just that we quantoids are fabulously attractive and a lot more fun to hang around with.

Well, that concludes this edition of "Insanity Parade." Join us next time when we discover a man who claims physics prohibits the astronauts from having gone to the moon, and then we talk to a high school physics student with a brain the size of a walnut who knows why he's wrong!

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

How the other half lives...

As I suggested I might, I want to talk a little today about Barbara Ehrenreich and her bestseller Nickel and Dimed. Now, some of you are probably thinking, "Drek, that book has been out for months now! I've read a half a dozen reviews, seen more blog posts on it than I can stand, and have heard rumors about a broadway musical. Why would I want to read any more about it?" Well, all I can say is that while some blogs pride themselves on up-to-the-minute information about, say, politics this blog isn't one of them. In fact, we prefer to wait until a subject has been good and chewed over, like a cow with its cud, and then pick through the soupy gelatinous leftovers for any remaining nuggets of interest. Yep, here at Total Drek our motto is: "Whenever we get to it goddamnit."

In any case, I recently finished reading Nickel and Dimed and have to concede that it's a very nice little book. First off, it IS a little book. Coming in at a paltry 221 pages, most of which is in large font and composed of narration, it is quite an easy read. This book could very obviously serve as a supplement for an undergraduate course in inequality, which makes it all the more useful. It's a simple, engaging read that the students would find easy to swallow, and does provide a wealth of examples to discuss about the nature of success in the "Land of Opportunity."

I guess one of the things that struck me, however, was the fact that this book had to be written at all. If Ehrenreich is to be believed (and I see no reason to doubt her at the moment, particularly given my own past experiences with low-wage jobs and the people who do them) then there should be a vast reservoir of people with tales to tell about life in the working classes of America. So, why was it necessary for an outsider to move in and tell their tales for them? Was it simply because the poor and uneducated need someone else to do their writing? Somehow I doubt it. Being working class does not mean you're stupid, or uneducated, although if you are from any class you can be either or both.

Certainly there is precedent for this type of book, the most obvious example being Black Like Me by the late John Howard Griffin. In this work, Griffin ventured into the deep south disguised, through the use of medication and dye, as a black man. He returned with a story of racism, segregation, and discrimination so horrible that to read it is to become enraged. In this case, it is perhaps easier to see why white America needed such a study: having long been taught to regard themselves as somehow better than African-Americans, it was necessary for one of their own to validate the tales they were hearing. Yet, if Ehrenreich has done much the same thing by venturing into the lower economic strata and returning with similarly horrifying tales of what life is like there, what are we to make of our own society?

The most immediately upsetting point is that much like African-Americans under the boot of Jim Crow, the poor have come to be regarded as members of some other species. They aren't like "us." They're lazy, shiftless, and above all, dishonest. Therefore, when a worker comes into a public forum and asks why her wages are so low that she must live in her car, we find ourselves quietly discounting her concerns. Clearly she isn't working hard enough, isn't spending her money wisely, isn't organized, isn't all those things that make us the priviledged people that we are. This is, of course, why we cannot listen to her complaints: she is a prisoner of her own narrow self-interest and is suspected of having poor moral character besides. The irony here is rich: on the one hand, a person who is intimitely familiar with a situation is often presumed to be the most qualified to speak on it, yet at the same time, those most enmeshed are assumed to have the most to gain from some change in policy. Which of these two perceptions wins out seems to have more to do with the sort of class position the speaker occupies than anything else.

It seems to me that such a perception of the poor is built into American society in a way not experienced by Europe. In Europe there was a legacy of wealthy noble domination that colored the experiences of industrialist and worker alike. The rich had, for a long time, simply been that way because of their birth and, likewise, the poor. There was no expectation of mobility in the middle ages, simply the expectation that you would live and die as part of your class, whatever you did. For obvious reasons, this provides a rich basis for labor movement organization. At the same time, its consequences for migration to the U.S. where mobility might be difficult, but was not totally impossible, are obvious. Perhaps your chances of moving into the American upper-crust after immigration were poor, but any chance is better than no chance. This possibility of advancement was due in large part to the sense that we live in a meritocracy, that those with determination and skill can rise, and those who do not are simply lazy. Certainly such a view has its advantages, in that it allows for and encourages mobility, and the U.S. has had an impressive record in terms of upward, and downward, class mobility. Yet, this ideal also creates a very negative undercurrent. It is probably accurate to say that you will not rise to the top unless you are hard-working, but it does not then follow that if you don't rise to the top you aren't hard-working. Hard work and honesty are necessary conditions for advancement, but they are certainly not sufficient.

In Europe, perhaps the working classes are not expected to be able to change their positions, but they also are not thought of as inferior (Well, mostly) because of that position. Being a peasant in the middle ages didn't mean that you'd failed, or that you were lazy, it meant that your parents were peasants. Each class had its place in society and each was accepted. Similarly in modern Europe, where class mobility is now both possible and more common, workers are still not regarded as being inferior (mostly) because they are workers. In the U.S., unfortunately, our emphasis on upward mobility has granted the middle and upper classes a sort of spiritual permission to loathe the working poor. It seems obvious that if they would only work they could have more things, and better things, so their very failure to achieve makes them legitimate targets for scorn and abuse. Their apparent failure to succeed which requires "only" hard work and sacrifice reveals them as being somehow lesser beings than those who occupy more elevated positions in the socioeconomic structure. Therefore, we cannot believe anything they say about their lot, but must instead send someone who is solidly middle class, and has therefore proven her worth, to discern the truth of the matter. It seems a shame to me that a society that values, or claims to value, equality so highly should allow itself to fall victim so completely to such notions.

Yet, the worst of the matter is not yet at hand. Ehrenreich concludes by saying that:

Someday, of course-and I will make no predictions as to exactly when-they [the working poor] are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they're worth. There'll be a lot of anger when that day comes, and strikes and disruption. But the sky will not fall, and we will all be better off for it in the end. [Pg. 221, 2002 edition]

An optimisic message, to be sure, but unfortunately thoroughly unbelievable. Ehrenreich recounts several occasions in her travels when she asked her fellow workers about their lot in life, and they replied with comments affirming the social order. When she worked as a maid, her fellow maids said they didn't mind that their customers had so much because they hoped to have as much as well someday. For every worker in the U.S. who is aware of their status as a worker and is willing to fight for the right of workers to exist as a class, with dignity and respect, there appears to be ten more who see no problem with the system, who believe that it will only take hard work and determination and someday they too will succeed. And then, finally, there are the unfortunate people who believe they are getting a raw deal, and doubt they will ever see the pearly gates of middle class status, but are simply too beaten down and exhaused by the battle for survival to care. Much like the masculists the problem is that they have come to believe the very tales and stereotypes that wound them. The working poor will not rise up and they will not demand anything better because they do not believe themselves to be a class, or even worse, believe they have a right to more than they already get. It has become unnecessary for the U.S. government to repress labor, we have simply taught labor to repress itself. The cage is all the more perfect because the bars are invisible.

Perhaps we in the U.S. like to look down upon the "backward" parts of the world that still have hereditary aristocracy, but our aristocracy is no less hereditary for its basis in bucks rather than blood. Perhaps we like to take pride in crafting a nation where "anyone can make it," but we have at the same time created a world in which poverty is equivalent to moral laxity. In our search for opportunity, we have instead created a world of more perfect discrimination and prejudice, and for that we should feel nothing but sorrow, and the determination to change things. None of this, however, should come as a surprise to anyone, but all the same it bears repeating.

That Ehrenreich wrote an excellent book is obvious, but that this book had to be written, and moreover had to be written by someone like her, is a national disgrace. The voicelessness of the poor is tragic in a nation that once defined itself by saying, "All men are created equal."

It just appears that some of us are more equal than others.

Monday, July 26, 2004

About sums it up.

This more or less accurately reflects the last two months or so of my life. It might be more than that even- I'm prone to repressing memories.

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Kudos to Jorge Cham for capturing what we've been feeling.

And yeah, that was the royal we. I'm feeling EXPANSIVE.


As I said earlier, I've been working on making CD backups of my files before they all get corrupted. I have now done so and discovered, to my dismay, that it takes six 80-minute CDs to hold all of my files. Personally, I blame it on all those pictures of Bea Arthur that I downloaded. Amazingly, this total doesn't include those files I was storing on my system for a friend (she lacks the ability to backup her own files, so I've been letting her borrow some hard-drive space) which sucked up another three CDs or so. Not to mention that I had to dispense with the common Joliet CD file format in favor of the less-used UDF format just to be able to keep the file paths more or less the same. Hey, when you've got as many files as I do, you need a hella good organizational system, aiight? Bloody hell.

So far the best suggestions I'm getting are all still arguing for a hard-drive malfunction. To be honest, though, I'm just a tad suspicious of that diagnosis at this point.

"Cyclic Redundancy WHAT?!"

I'm having a really bad week when it comes to computers. No, really. Late in the week before last my home system suddenly started running insanely slow and locking up. For a while I was thinking that, perhaps, I was falling victim to some sort of virus or adware. It was a workable theory until my system started making a weird whining/humming/grinding noise. This, of course, led me to the belief that what I actually had was a hardware problem.

After a little investigating, I managed to localize the problem to my C: drive. This was a major pain in the ass since it meant I was going to have to replace the drive, reinstall the OS, reload my applications, etc. On the upside, that's cheaper to do than replacing the mainboard and, while tedious as all hell, isn't really difficult. So, over the course of several days last week I installed the new drive, reinstalled my OS, and installed my applications.

The more recent issues didn't start until yesterday, when I reloaded my files from the backups in my second hard-drive. See, for some time I've kept two drives in my computer and regularly make backups from one onto the other. Seems like the way to go, eh? So, I reloaded my files onto the C: drive and then went to reformat my D: drive (the second hard-disk). Basically I did this because I wanted to switch the file system from the older FAT32 to the new NTFS standard, which requires a format. When I, at last, completed this process and tried to recopy a set of files to that drive I began getting an error called "Data Error: (Cyclic Redundany Check)."

Now, this brings up one of those things I love about computers. You can be a very intelligent, well-educated person and know what each word in a given error message means all by itself, but have absolutely no concept what it means when they're combined. I mean, "cyclic redundancy?" Isn't that itself a little bit.. well... redundant? The best part is, I've seen some error messages that were even more baffling than this. With my most recent troubles, for example, just before my computer crashed I was occasionally getting an error message that read "Unknown Hard Error." I can remember idly wondering if Windows was trying to (A) tell me that there was some sort of unspecified hardware fault or, (B) simply offering its condolences, as in, "Wow, man, I don't know what's wrong but it sure is gonna suck for you!" But I digress... As it turns out a "Cyclic Redundancy Error" means that an error checking protocol used by the computer during file copying keeps giving evidence of data corruption. In other words, it's a message that (I think) the system isn't able to copy the file accurately.

Consulting the intimidating and, frequently, unhelpful Windows knowledge base led me to conclude that the second hard-drive probably also had physical faults. This wasn't too surprisingly, really, since this drive had survived a previous incident in which my mainboard actually caught fire. Yeah. My luck with computers since I started grad school could be summed up as "piss-poor." So, with a heavy sigh, I went ahead and replaced that drive as well.

Now, for reasons having mostly to do with the fact that the programers at Seagate need to spend a little less time riding the white pony, and a little more time testing their festering shitball software, it took quite a while to get this drive installed and formatted. Still eventually I succeeded and went to copy my files to this new pristine drive. Guess what? Same error as before.

(At this point I'd like to add an editorial remark that my dog just started whining in her sleep. This happens, occasionally, since the car accident in which she lost a leg. I think at such moments she's having nightmares about the accident and I almost always go over and wake her up. Since she never did this before the accident and seems unusually pleased to see me when I wake her, and for my dog that's saying something, I tend to think my supposition is correct. I mention this mostly because sitting next to a three-legged dog who is having a nightmare about being hit by a car really puts my current problems in perspective.)

So, I kept working on it and eventually found that only four files or so caused the error, which makes me think that, perhaps, those files just got corrupted at some point. File copies using files OTHER than these seem to work just fine. So, hell, problem solved right?

Heh heh.


No. Hell no. I thought I was all set until I went to get my laptop computer back into synch with my desktop. See, some time back I set them up so they automatically keep their files up-to-date. So, if I write a new Stata program at home, the next time both laptop and desktop are turned on, and connected to the network, that Stata program will get transferred to the laptop without me having to do anything. It's a pretty handy little feature, actually. Well, when I finally got both computers talking again (Anyone who has worked on Windows networking realizes how much I'm glossing over here) guess what? Yep. Cyclic redundancy errors. All. over. the. place.

What makes the current manifestation of this problem so fun is the bizarre extreme it's reaching. One directory won't even open anymore. If I try to open it, my computer sits there and ponders for a while and then returns a message that "The disc in drive C isn't formatted. Format now?" Well, um, shit, you know, C is my operating system so obviously it is formatted, and NO I don't want you to format it now. If I try to delete this obviously fucked up directory I get a message that "Can't delete: directory is not empty." Yeah, thanks for the tip, that's why I want to delete it! To make it empty! Of course, the fact that this particular directory is the one where I've been storing my work for the past two months doesn't make me feel better. We're spending the morning here at Total Drek copying files from my laptop onto CD, just in case whatever the fuck is wrong here happens to be contagious. Needless to say my anti-virus software claims my system is clean and scanning for errors on the hard-drive has, so far, been unproductive.

So, right now, I have a computer that seems to run properly, but has a tendecy to throw errors of a particularly obscure type whenever I try to copy files. It also acts like a gibbering moron when I try to interact with specific directories. I don't know why yet, although I'm increasingly coming to think that, just maybe, my desktop's mainboard is fucked up. You know... it isn't the hard-drive that's causing the problem, but maybe the IDE controller on the board. So, every time I send data somewhere that requires the board to transfer it between physical drives, there's an enhanced risk (read: near certainty) of data corruption. Peachy! But then, if that were so, how is it that I managed to get my OS and software loaded without apparent problems? Not to mention that if I'm understanding this error right, it only crops up if the drive is unable to copy something properly, it shouldn't keep happening if a file happens to be corrupted. I mean, seriously, how the hell could the computer tell? It isn't like it reads my documents and says, "Yeah, this doesn't make any sense, the file must be corrupted." If it did that... well, my computer would never save anything. I'm really at a loss on this one.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I was going to write some charmingly pseudo-intellectual post about Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed today but, seeing as how Satan has taken control of my computer, I just decided to bitch and moan instead.

I really hate these fucking piles of silicon shit sometimes.

Anyone who has a bright idea on this one is welcome to chime in.

Friday, July 23, 2004

I really have no idea what bothers me more...

Is it that breast augmentation and other elective plastic surgery is being offered free? Is it that the reasoning for this is our need for human guinea pigs for doctors to practice on? Is it that pec and penis implants aren't included? Because, you know, offering only female-oriented surgeries in a male-dominated organization like the army is a little disturbing. Almost like we need to make sure and extra-sexualize women moving into this particular sector of society. And yes, I know, men can get liposuction and rhinoplasty too, but which sex do you think gets more procedures? I'll give you three guesses, and if you need more than one you're a goddamn idiot. Check out the official statistics if you don't believe me.

The original article I'm rambling on about incoherently is here.

And, as long as I'm at it, the woman at the top of the "Public Education" page of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons website really creeps me out for some reason. I know plastic surgeons do some very noble work- there's a friend of my family who, following a car accident, more or less only has a face because of the interventions of such a physician. Strangely, though, I'm not thinking the before-and-after photo gallery of breast augmentation procedures exactly convinces many people of the nobility of the profession.

Especially not when one of the cases, described below, seems like almost the definition of "unnecessary surgery."

This patient is 20 years old. The patient's height is 5'7''. Before the procedure, the patient weighed 123lbs. The patient was a size 34A preoperatively. 375 cc, round, smooth surfaced, saline implants were used, giving the patient postoperative size 38C breasts.

I'm not saying women shouldn't have the option, especially in cases of accident or mastectomy or what-not, but... wow. There's just really something wrong here.

Awfully short for this blog...

Hey kids. I'm sure I WOULD have written something brilliant today, but frankly I've been too busy with some research the last few days to think of much of anything. I recently ironed some bugs out of my models and discovered something really, really cool. This is, frankly, why I love my job so much. Teaching can be a pain, working for faculty can be a bigger pain, the pay sucks, but goddamn is science ever fun. Yes, I am an absolute dork. I've worked in an office job that makes Dilbert look like a cake-walk (Have YOU ever watched your boss piss, smoke, and lead a meeting all at once? All right then.) so, frankly, doing something interesting is pretty high on my list of priorites.

Since I can't be here to amuse you, however, please accept this substitute. Maybe YOU won't enjoy watching Kerry and Bush sing a duet, but I think it's just about the funniest damned thing I've seen in a loooong time. Bravo to the boys over at jibjab for this one.

Additionally, I think this shirt is definitely my style.

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Thanks to Wonkette for making this bundle of joy available.

Maybe I'll post again later with some sort of insight? Nah... probably not.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Bloody hell...

Ok, for the last time, am I the only one who can see half of the pictures linked off this website? Weigh in if you've been having extensive problems and I'll see what I can do. If it's more than just the bio pic I'll have to figure something out.

UPDATE:Well, I dunno what the problem is. I just tried to check the pics out on a computer that I'm installing a new OS on and I saw them just fine. (My point being that it can't be some sort of cookie allowing me to see them while nobody else can, since this computer has only had a brain for a matter of hours) I'll see if I can't figure something out, but this won't be a very high priority this weekend. Sorry.

Well, shit, ProcFreak...

If you're gonna get all in a tizzy about it...

Here's the proof of my prize "winning" performance.

It took me about 15 minutes to do, once I figured out the rules (which took about 5 minutes).

Are you happy now? Should I get ready for your prize patrol to show up with one of them really big checks?

You're right, though... the computer opponent is ungodly hard a lot of the time.

UPDATE: ProcFreak concedes my triumph over the damned computer! Yee-HAA! Y'all reckon I oughta put that in my vitae? She seems to be questioning whether or not I should receive the prize she promised since I beat it after her deadline. All I have to say is: much as I can always use new oven mitts, I'd be just as happy if she gave 'em to Goodwill in my honor.

Proc, if you're still determined to beat it, try to dominate the edges as much as possible. The game plays out a little like GO in that you've only protected a hex when it's bound on all sides by other pieces. Be careful about jumping your pieces, too. It's a great way to get mobility, but it can really open you up for counter-attack

Fuck Ewe!

It's an insult, it's dating advice, it's both!

As many of you know, yesterday I posted about fun activities for the upcoming 2004 ASA conference. This post was meant in jest, and I believe could only have been interpreted as such, but there was still an amount of controversy over the entire affair. More importantly, there were concerns that should my mundane identity become public knowledge, I might have difficulty getting a job. While I very much appreciate the support from ProcFreak and James over at YLH I ultimately decided to modify my original post into something less "offensive." I still have a copy of my original post, though, and will make it available to anyone who requests it via e-mail if I'm not too drunk to find the "return" key.

My reasoning for this action is pretty simple: I would like an f-ing job one of these days. Much as I enjoy being a grad student, I expect I'd like having a diet that doesn't consist largely of ramen even more. While my identity isn't easily determined online (Hints from the Wisconsin posse to the contrary- and no that wasn't a fucking challenge), there are a number of people lurking around my department who might inadvertently give me away. Should my identity get out through one of them, and should it have negative consequences for my career, I'd prefer they not feel responsible for what is entirely my fault. Or, alternatively, if my identity is revealed by one of my mortal enemies, I don't want to give the motherfuckers the satisfaction of taking me down. You shitheads know who you are.

All that being said, I am now going to launch off onto a rant that is unreasonable, irrational, and quite liberally sprinkled with vulgarity. I direct this rant at those hypothetical figures who might have taken offense to yesterday's post. (As a side note, I originally wrote "...taken yesterday's post offensively." Which is a whole lot funnier to me since it makes it sound like there was a pitched battle followed by an Iwo Jima-style flag-raising.) Please, once more, keep in mind that this post is not intended to be particularly coherent or polite.


Allow me to explain something to all of you pompous shitsticks who think you're the hottest thing since a jalapeno enema- you are *NOT* important.

I'm serious here. There are several billion people on Earth, the vast majority of which don't even know you exist. Moreover, they don't even CARE that you exist. Of the handful that DO know you exist, how many do you think care about that fact? Hell, how many people do you see, or even speak with, every day that could disappear without altering your life in the slightest? So, why should we take ourselves so goddamn seriously? If I assert that I have six dicks, one of which sings Ave Maria in Polish every morning between 7:00 and 7:30 AM, what the fuck does it matter? Does anyone out there care? Does this radically change your world? Do you even BELIEVE me? I sure as shit hope not. If it gets around that I have six dicks, one of which sings, my romantic life will get weirder than it already is. Even more importantly, if you let some asshole's BLOG substantially alter your opinions of things, you really NEED to reconsider your perspective on the world. About the only thing you know for sure about me is that I have the basic intelligence necessary to type something in English, which, as I've stated before, is a feat within the powers of hamsters with very large testicles and a lot of patience. Does any of that qualify me to have an opinion on something? For all you know, I'm actually a bus driver in the south Bronx who watches championship wrestling every week and masturbates while reading the T.V. Guide. I don't mean the pictures either, I mean the t.v. listings. Doesn't that sound like a figure you should take seriously? I have stated before that you shouldn't take this blog seriously, and I meant that. I still mean it.

I personally blame this oversensitivity to what people say on the same philosophy that brought us political correctness. Yeah, yeah, I know, PC is one of the sacred cows in our field. I don't care. We've gotten so wrapped up in the idea that words are all that matters, that it's easy to forget just how important actions are. Sure, if I write something and it makes sense people might listen, but on the other hand I could tell ass jokes 24/7 too. Will people listen to that? Probably, but I doubt there will be very many. Would you care? I doubt it. I'd just be another random voice in the sea of crap that is the internet. It seems we only object to speech when a lot of people are listening.

"But Drek," you exclaim, "What about those with more power and influence? Don't they have more of a voice than everyone else?"

Yeah, they do. What do you suggest we do about that? If we restrict their speech, we're just priviledging some other group. How is that any different from what they do? Either we all get the right to speak or, ultimately, none of us do. For me, I think that any peaceful social change depends on the ability of people to organize and express themselves, and I don't believe I am wise enough to know exactly how society should be organized. As a result, I believe in the right of anyone to speak their mind, because at least that way society has a way to figure out what it should be from year to year.

What bugs me even more is the outright hypocrisy we all participate in. A while back I wrote a post about the masculists that was a little less than complimentary. Before that I wrote similarly structured posts about Ralph Nader and about the Bush Administration's attempts to justify the war in Iraq. Nobody said shit about these posts. There were no comments about how it might be threatening to my career to treat the Iraq War as a mistake or about how Ralph Nader deserves more respect. Why is that? Could it be because many of us are liberals, and don't support the Iraq war or Bush? Could it be that most of us are pissed at Nader for potentially throwing the election to Bush? So, what is it then, over-the-top speech is okay so long as it's over-the-top about people we don't like? Guess what people: it doesn't work that way. Either restricting people's speech is a bad thing, or it isn't. You might be able to argue that the speech of those we don't like should be restricted, and ours shouldn't, but I ain't gonna be any more impressed with that than the argument from the other guys who want to do the same thing to us.

In sociology we study social movements, but the movements we study tend to be things like civil rights, or the women's movement. Further we tend to be sympathetic to social movements, even though in their heyday they were extremely disruptive. The thing is, if you think social movements and civil disobedience are fine, you have to be willing to accept what comes along with them: right-wing militias, skin heads, the KKK, and their buddies.

"But Drek!" you gasp, "Those are HATE groups!"

You want a hate group? I'll give you a fucking hate group. I belong to a group that hates every one of the movements I just mentioned... we're called "rational human beings." However, just because YOU disagree with them, does NOT mean that they don't have the right to organize and say what they want. Either we all have the right to speak and believe what we want, or we don't, and if we don't, it doesn't matter who decides what's "good" speech and what's "hate" speech, someone is still imposing that decision.

You know what? I fucking HATE the KKK. I think their brand of ethnic belief is totally and utterly repugnant. My best friend growing up was hispanic, I've dated women from several different ethnic groups including Jewish, African-American, and Caucasian, and one of my best friends in college was Palestinian, so I'm a little more than slightly likely to take issue with anyone who says people of non-white ethnicity are inferior. You know what else? I think the KKK should be able to march right down fucking main street. I don't like the assholes one bit, but they have the RIGHT to express their opinions whether I like them or not. It's likewise the case with homophobic groups, anti-Arab groups, and any other shithead I would call a hate monger. That's just the way it works: if I want to have the right to believe as I do, and to speak my mind, I have to give that right to everyone else, whether I like it or not. Otherwise, I'm not being enlightened, or liberal, or even fair, I'm just demanding that everything be my way. Welcome back to the fucking dark ages.

Now, obviously, it would be remiss of me to argue for free speech and not to observe that we all have to take responsibility for what we say. This is a fair statement, and I would be lying if I said that anonymity wasn't at least partially an attempt to sidestep that responsibility. In my defense, however, (1) I state more than once that this blog should not be taken seriously, (2) I have previously allowed someone to use my blog to disagree with my opinions, which is my own very Drek way of taking responsibility, and (3) posting anonymously allows me the freedom to keep this blog fun. If I wrote under my own name, I'd constantly obsess that everything had to be perfect, or I'd only write about the most vanilla and uninteresting of topics. Anyone who really wants to know why I prefer chocolate to strawberry, you just let me know. Anonymity allows me to just be the smartass sumbitch I actually am, without having to worry about the professional sociologist I want to be. I don't think it's too much to ask that I have the option to do that. Nor, I think, is it inapproprtiate to point out that this is just a blog. Who cares what some anonymous grad student says? If you really think my opinion (at least right now before I have legions of screaming fans. *snicker*) is going to make or break your career/effort... things must have been pretty damn shaky to start with.

People, I'll be the first to admit that my brand of humor tends towards the sophmoric, but I never claimed it would be anything else. If you find it funny, great. If you don't think it's funny, great. If you think I'm smart... that's a bit surprising, but ok. If you think I'm an idiot, you've obviously been paying attention. Just don't take yourselves so goddamn seriously. I do funny shit all the time. I walk into walls, I trip on smooth sidewalks, a include typos in blog posts (amazingly, that particular typo WAS an accident. I just decided to leave it in), I fart really loud. I'm a regular human who puts his pants on one leg at a time, unless I'm lying down, and then I might try to put them on two at once until I remember that I'm an academic and, hence, not all that coordinated. If I forget that, and start thinking I'm something grander, I think it's my own damn mistake and I deserve to get smacked around a little.

A lot of the grad students I know love to hang out in coffee houses. I've even gone with them now and then. They have an appeal, (the coffee houses) I'll admit, with their wireless LANs and coffee drinks so bloody fucking complicated you need some sort of coffee-periodic-table to figure them out. At the same time, though, I never choose to go there on my own. You want to know where I go instead? I go to the friggin Waffle House. It's a little hard to take your academic concerns and departmental turf wars seriously when you're having a conversation with the waitress about whether or not she should buy a used car from the short-order cook's buddy. I can't really keep a straight face about my conference woes when the staff are explaining about how they've just become "licensed beef servers." I can't really care that much about how some author misreported a variable when I'm listening to two guys who pave roads for a living commisserate with a waitress who doesn't get the primo shifts anymore, and so can't afford to pay for phone service. It's called a "reality check."

Hell, I can be at least as much of a pompous fucktard as the next guy. Often times I'm a helluva lot more pompous than the next guy- otherwise I wouldn't bother to write this shit. I'm including myself in this problem as much as anyone else. But at least I try to make sure I'm aware of both the fact that I'm arrogant, and that I'm more than a little ridiculous. If people want to make fun of me for it, by all means. There are enough logical fallacies and absurdities in just the posts I've written so far to allow someone to keep me stocked with humble pie for a long-ass time. As a discipline if we take ourselves too seriously, we're just going to turn into a herd of humorless asses nobody trusts or respects. I'm all for professionalizing the discipline, I'm all about doing a kickass job, but at the end of the day if I can't put it in perspective, I've failed.

I'm not scolding most of you who read my blog (Which is pretty funny, considering that it calls my entire purpose in writing this into question) but rather just hurling my annoyance into the depths of space. We've gotta take ourselves less seriously. We've gotta stop being offended at every little thing someone says. We've gotta respect that other people might disagree with us, that they might say things we don't like, and that we should see exactly that in a free society. We've gotta laugh at ourselves, folks, because life is too short for anything else.

And, I swear to god, if you think my post title is intolerant of sheep-fuckers, I do not goddamn want to hear it.

UPDATE: Apparently I'm not the only one bitching and moaning about this just now. Check out Josh Sortelli's comments from the 21st of this month.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

It has been suggested...

That perhaps my post earlier today was a little over the top. Funny, yes, so far there seems to be consensus on that point, but over the top. It has even been suggested that, should my normal identity (as opposed to my super-powered alter-ego Drek) become generally known, that this post may impair my ability to find a job.


Such are the hardships of a blogger with my particular brand of irreverent humor. I mean no (well, minimal, anyway) disrespect to the people mentioned in my list. For the most part, I have great respect and/or fondness for them. There are a few I genuinely dislike, but I challenge you to be able to tell them apart from the rest. Let's face it, people, we're a buch of smarty-heads who have a number of personal foibles almost all of which make for good humor. Don't take me, or yourselves, so seriously.

Still, I suppose it's possible I may have just scandalized the sociological community (or, more accurately, the whole 6 people that read this blog) so I'll let y'all weigh in on what I should do. Vote early, vote often, and decide the fate of my post.

And I don't know why my poll appears in such a weird place. I'm open to suggestions on that point.

What should Drek do about the post "I Need a Conference-Blind"?
It's totally inappropriate- get rid of it!
It's totally inappropriate, but funny as hell. Get rid of it, then send me a copy.
It's over the top, but keep it up- I want to see Drek fail professionally!
Keep it up, but don't be surprised if you have a hard time finding work.
Bloody hell, it's a joke, people need to take themselves less seriously!
For crying out loud, who reads what's posted in this intellectual pesthole, anyway?


Free polls from

I need a conference-blind.

UPDATE: After considering the feedback from my loyal (i.e. bored) readers, and at the recommendation of my lawyer (who no doubt studied law with the venerable Leonard "J." Crabs) I have decided to modify this post. Frankly, this is because after the whole Astrosociology controversy, I should probably limit myself to one potentially career-destroying post per month. If you already had the chance to read the original post... good. For those who supported my keeping the post up unaltered... well, sorry to disappoint you, but you can rest assured this won't be the last time I crap out something with the potential to offend a lot of people. Those that know me are well aware that I have a hard time keeping my trap shut in person, much less via the web.

So, in place of any names I may have named on my Sociologist Watcher's List (with the exception of my guest blogger and the bloggers I read/am harassed by) I now substitute an entirely non-threatening picture of a puppy.

Awwwwww.... now isn't that cute? Don't we all feel reassured and happy because there's nothing at all here to challenge us? I know I diddly-do.

My sister is an avid birdwatcher (hardly surprising, considering she's a professional biologist specializing in birds) and my childhood was, in a sense, an experience of growing accustomed to her voyeuristic tendencies in this regard. I say, with no small amount of pride, that I am capable of identifying a relatively wide variety of birds thanks to my sister's influence. Regrettably this influence has not gone both ways, as she remains essentially unable to distinguish radically different types of aircraft from each other. As a long time subscriber to the Smithsonian's "Air & Space" magazine, I do feel as though I have failed.

I am reminded of my sister's practices in this regard by ProcFreak as she comments that:

"...all the other sociologists will start to regard our grad students with a certain amount of suspicion and apprehension, pointing and snickering as we pass them in the halls."

She is, of course, referring to the ASA convention in San Francisco here, as opposed to some sort of pan-sociological high school in which we all compete in a deranged popularity contest. No, that we call the tenure process. (For the record: I call dibs on the head cheerleader here at Sociology High.) What reminds me of my sister in all this, though, is the pointing (and snickering). My experience at conferences so far is that they're less about the papers, or the panels, than they are about socializing. For those of us who are trying to get jobs someday, it's an opportunity to brown nose with faculty. For established faculty, it's a chance to see old friends while attempting to avoid job-hungry grad students. Still, whatever your purpose, the entire event has something of bird-watching to it.

I can remember at previous conferences trading sightings with my fellow grad students, almost as though we were Hollywood Paparazzi.

"I saw John Boli a few minutes ago!" I would exclaim breathlessly.

"Who?" They'd ask.

"You know, John Boli, of Stanford. He worked with John Meyer?" I'd answer.

"Oh. We just saw Erik Olin Wright," They'd reply.

"Fuck you."

Ah, memories. Still, this game of trying to spot interesting or famous personages is one of the most entertaining things to do at conferences. Well... most entertaining after asking really evil questions of paper authors and trying to avoid your advisor for the duration, anyway. I suppose that I might adopt the game of a friend of mine who reads this blog (you know who you are) and insult "Frank Dobbin's wife", but I really don't think that's my style. Wait, shit, insulting people is exactly my style! I've got a new passtime! I find myself in particular need of such games this year as I won't be presenting anything. Yes, alas, my papers were not accepted by any panel or round table, so you will not have the chance to witness Drek deliver a talk. Let me assure you, this is no great loss. But then, if you read my blog, you pretty much know that already.

Now, in birding a common practice is "listing," or the checking off of various species of birds from a list. The idea, obviously, is to check off as many birds as possible. This seems like a fabulous idea to me, so I present a draft of the new Sociology Watchers list. Feel free to print it out and use it at the conference! Whoever e-mails me the most complete list will get a very special prize. Please keep in mind that I'm a pathological liar, and when I say "prize" I probably mean "I'll mention their name/blog and speculate as to their ancestry." I also welcome additions to the watcher's list, so if there are any other notable figures you think deserve recognition, send them in and I'll include them in the final list.

Sociologist Watcher List- 2004!

(1) Junior faculty member trying to negotiate a book deal.

(2) Senior faculty member glowering at crowd from hotel restaurant.

(3) First grad student in line for the annual book-giveaway.

(4) First grad student trampled during annual book-giveaway.

(5) Any faculty member whose paper presentation includes use of a "boombox." Must be during a regular panel session, roundtables don't count. (I actually saw this at the last ASA held in Washington, D.C.)

(6) The sociologist we refer to as "Lothar the Destroyer."

Note: In cases like the above, where I'm referring to someone specific but don't supply a name, the entry is worth double-points. You have to tell me who I'm referring to, though.

(7) No, we don't call YOU "Lothar the Destroyer." YOU we call "Mr. Itchy."

(8) Faculty couple hooking up in elevator.

(9) Grad student couple hooking up in elevator.

(10) Jim Pass of Astrosociology fame. (Not making a crack here, but I'd be remiss if I didn't include my distinguished guest bloggers.)

(11) The sociologist we believe is from the future. You know, the one with the knuckle lasers.

(12) Disgruntled post-doc.

(13) Disgruntled senior grad student.

(14) Junior grad student, haggard from nightly drinking and the impossibility of sleeping in a room with seven other grad students.

(15) Bright-eyed and cheerful undergrad who intends to become a grad student. Poor, stupid moron.

(16) Poor godforesaken sons of bitches manning the recruitment tables.

(17) The sociologist we believe has a penis approximately the size of a telephone pole. I'll give you a hint: he's very popular with the ladies, is a little terrifying and isn't the same as the guy you saw in number 8. He's way too discreet for that.

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(20) Any faculty member who admits to using post-modern theory with a straight face.

(21) Jeremy Freese

(22) Alan Schussman

(23) Kieran Healy

(24) Brayden King

Bonus points for the next three, owing to their relative anonymity...

(25) ProcFreak

(26) dorotha harried

(27) Your lovable host, Drek.

(In fact, why doesn't someone organize a dinner for sociology bloggers at the ASAs? Now, for obvious reasons the anonymous among us couldn't attend, but at least we'd hear the stories from you chatty bastards.)

(28) The sociologist we believe to be an android.

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(30) Any other attendee using this list. Because, let's face it, almost nobody is reading this crap.

(31) That sociologist, who is a prick, whom I met at Cornell.

(32) Any sociologist who has "renewed their commitment to teaching."

(33) The sociologist who looks remarkably like Jay Leno.

(34) The sociologist who looks a lot like "Seamus the Sailor."

(35) alternative text

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Well, there you have it! So, get your sociology blinds ready, break out the binoculars, and get ready for one hell of a conference.

Hey... I kid because I love, people. Or is it because I'm an asshole? Either way.

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