Total Drek

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

Thursday, March 31, 2005


I like getting feedback. No, really, I do. So, when I find a paper sitting in my department mailbox with faculty comments scrawled on it, I'm generally pretty happy. Geeky? Maybe- but the only way you learn is by having others rough up what you're doing. (This is a special remark to that person who began her "critique" of one of my papers the other day by asserting that I am "brilliant." I'm not, the paper isn't, and even if I was, that just means that I fucked up in more creative ways than most.)

I do need to say this, however: is it too much to ask that people try to neaten up their handwriting when they add comments? I mean, I'm almost totally convinced that one comment reads:

Muttering critters is a moth

That's just not helpful.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Confessions of a Lust-Crazed Scientist

Those of you who are relatively well-read within the blogosphere (Which is a bit like referring to someone who collects and memorizes Bazooka Joe Comics as literate) are aware that Brayden was kind enough recently to post over on Pub Sociology about the misguided-idiocy of those from my home state of Florida.

As a side note: never let it be said that I am not thorough, nay, enthusiastic about providing proper citations in my blog.

What you may not have noticed is the link that he provided pointing to a recent editorial in Scientific American that deals with the proper role of science in politics, and politics in science. Unfortunately, I cannot seem to find a direct link to this editorial online so, since you should all go read it, let me point you to a downloadable .pdf copy that you can use until and unless the magazine asks me to remove it. Once that happens, allow me to direct your attention to a transcribed copy posted on the blog too much and too little. Allow me also to indicate that Scientific American is a truly wonderful publication and that I recommend you all subscribe. It just so happens that I have a link that will help you do that very thing.

In any case, the editors over at Scientific American make a very interesting point in a very interesting way. Specifically, they comment that their coverage of issues has been unfair. They admit that their coverage of evolution has been "...hideously one-sided," for example, adding that:

"...the theory of common descent by natural selection has been called the unifying concept for all of biology and one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time, but that was no excuse to be fanatics about it."

Indeed, they go on to observe that they were led astray, as feeble humans often are, by:

"...fancy fossils, their [scientists'] radiocarbon dating, and their tens of thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles. As editors, we had no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence."

It would, however, appear that they intend to make their own point through mountains of sarcasm.

The good folks over at Scientific American are weighing in on an issue that has absorbed many of us for some time now in the guise of the debate over Public Sociology. Some of us have generally been amenable to the idea of using social science as a vehicle for political change, and they are not, I think, without a measure of support from other corners of the blogosphere.

Yes, yes, I'm aware that a sphere can't have corners. I admit it: you're very smart, you really got me there. Now shut the hell up.

Moving right along: this initiative has even become so popular that it has spawned a blog all of its own. Albeit, a decrepit, abandoned blog, but a blog nonetheless. Yet, this effort to make sociology more public has not come without criticism. Some of us are adamantly opposed to it in all of its manifestations; Mathieu Deflem being the best example. Others, such as myself, have been won over to the position that greater public exposure for social science is probably a good thing, but remain adamantly opposed to the outright politicization of sociology. I believe that Jeremy's position on this is rather similar to my own, though he is welcome to correct me on that. Still other bloggers, such as Julia over at Everyday Sociology, give us reason to believe that sociology is not the only social science currently in the throes of such debates.

I have no intention of rearguing the point here, I remain convinced of my own position on the subject, and maintain that social science should be publicized, but not politicized. Yet, what I find interesting is the way that the piece in Scientific American probably made most of us feel.

"Finally," we might almost have thought, "someone is giving the conservatives and the Bush administration what-for. That'll teach them to screw with science!"

Indeed, I certainly felt something very similar. I felt like cheering over this editorial, and its brutally sarcastic, yet effective, defense of the value of scientific standards. Yet, the deeper point is this: those of us who agreed with this editorial, those of us who deplore the efforts of the current administration to knock the teeth out of science and relegate us to the position of political-lapdogs, must also accept that we cannot politicize our own science. If we object to the teaching of Intelligent Design as a scientific theory, as I do, and if we object to the stifling of scientific facts that are inconvenient to the administration's political goals, then we must also object to politicized science that is intended to support liberal of leftist objectives. To do otherwise is nothing more or less than sour grapes.

It is one thing to discover that the facts support one side or the other, it is an entirely different thing to discover facts in order to support one side or the other. Does this mean that we must all be valueless automatons who don't care about the outcomes of our work? Oh, hell no. It just means that we must approach our science as a pursuit meant to discover fact, and not as a political club with which to beat down the opposition. And if you laughed at the editorial in Scientific American, then I daresay you agree with me.

In the title of this post I implied that I am lust-crazed, and I stand by that assertion. Yet, my lust is not (merely) for those of my romantic type, but for the product of science itself: facts and understanding. To discover the way the world really works is to empower all mankind, but to twist science to fit conclusions that have already been drawn is to impoverish us all, whether those conclusions are conservative or liberal.

The editors over at Scientific American understand that. The question now is: Do we have the courage to understand it too?

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Selections from the Prison Notebooks...

As I've mentioned before I spent a year in the "real world" working for an actual corporation before I entered grad school. While this may sound very impressive, it really doesn't warrant any particular respect from anyone. The company I worked for was so staggeringly incompetent that my coworker and I often remarked that working for Satan would be an improvement. I mean, sure, he would be the source of all evil, but by all accounts the Prince of Darkness has definite goals, a clear business plan, and is quite a leader... even if he leads only into temptation.

In any case, while I held this job I used to take copious notes on a set of legal pads. Initially, before my innocence was forever ripped from my grasp, these pads were an earnest attempt to keep track of the details of my job. Over time, as it became increasingly apparent that my job was, at best, punishment for some wrong-doing in a past life, they became an outlet for my desperate frustration.

While searching my apartment for something recently, I came across the stack of pads that I accumulated during my tenure at this company. Why did I keep them, you ask? Well, I'll give you the answer I give everyone else: so that I can remember the necessary details when the subpoena is served.

Stop laughing, I'm completely serious.

This job was, in short, like serving time in prison and these pads were my very own Gramsci-esque notebooks. Now, like many authors, some sociologists have produced their best work while in prison, achieving insights that might have been impossible beyond the stagnant walls of jail. I am not one of those sociologists. Still, there are occasional amusing comments scribbled in the margins of these notebooks and, for lack of anything better to do, I've decided to share some. Feel free to ignore the remainder of this post as it is largely unimportant drivel. I'll indicate which notebook a given set of comments derive from as this allows you to track my descent into bitter madness more clearly. This post includes only the first three notebooks.

Notebook 1

The beginning. During this early period I was genuinely trying to do my job... mostly because I believed that such a thing actually existed. There are only one or two comments of any value in this notepad, but it's important to keep in mind that this pad covers the first two weeks of my employment when I was just supposed to sit next to my boss all day and watch him type. It also covers the very beginning of what would turn into a several-week argument via fax machine about a chi-squared test.

"How do we kill Dellhost? Maybe a wooden stake?"

"Machine down. We're screwed."

"Tap. Tap. Tap. All day with the tapping."

Notebook 2

See? I told you that earlier shit was brief. This second notebook covers my dawning comprehension that I had been cursed.

"Can we administer a server ourselves? Well, since you're an idiot and I know jack about networking..."

"So... if we aren't tracking client ID's over more than one session, why do we need to look up ID's in the first place? Fun?"

"Bob [a contractor] couldn't find his own asshole with both hands and a bad smell."

"Shit is resolved! OMG, we fixed something!!"

"Where the hell did the overflow come from? The contractors shall die!"

"He actually called me on his own initiative to offer help? Go Steve!"

"Possible names for product: Hemorragic Fever"

"He's in Manhattan. Oooh, I'm soooo impressed. Feh."

The following comes out of my first performance review:


No personality problems with others so far. (You just don't know me yet.)

Creative, reliable. (And that's just in bed.)

Willing to tackle problems. (For a fee, beat the shit out of them too.)

Thoughtful, responsible. (Um... really?)

Very good, just nervous sometimes. (Nah, it's just all the amphetamines.)

Needs Improvement:

Stuffy. (Bwahahahahaha!!!!)

Moving right along...

Notebook 3

By this point my officemate had been hired and I was starting to get well and truly annoyed with things. This is particularly the case with our lack of a product design, as I was sketching designs in my notebooks just to try and keep things clear in my own mind.

"Discussion: SEC situation. Conclusion: Don't piss them off. Did we really need to talk about it for an hour to figure that out?"

"How do we nicely explain that our sponsors are ashamed of us?"

"These people are SO fucking us! I mean, we don't need any help with that. We can do it just fine on our own."

"Write up documents on employee retirement accounts. A little premature, I think."

"Should we use Simon? Well, he's basically useless except for show."

"The contractors want a design document from us? HALLELUJAH!!"

"Is this product good for transvestites?"

"RandomGenericCompany- Our future owners I'll bet. Their system requires more training, more maintenance, and is more expensive, but is still better than ours. You know, in that it works."

"Simon: Doesn't like the strategy, but doesn't have any useful suggestions. Ignore him and hope he goes away."

"The purpose for this trip is 'getting things moving.' i.e. no good, specific reason."

"'Build options into our design.' How do we do what when we don't have a DESIGN DOCUMENT?!"

"Meeting from 10:00-12:30: Long pointless argument."

"Man, I don't trust this guy."

"Problem resolved. Verdict: Steve is a dumbass."

"We need to add office expenses to budgets. Not really sure why, but I'll try anything for a laugh."

"Steve is a twit. We all know it, even him."

"Meeting 1:30-3:00: Long pointless argument."

"Documentation is still being written and will continue into the foreseeable future because as long as it's all 'draft' we can't be sued. I feel so dirty right now."

Well, wasn't that fun? No? Well, fuck you too. Given how busy I am this week, you're lucky I didn't just type the work "Ass" over and over again for today's post.

Hey, come to think of it... that's not half-bad.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Oh my God, look what Tom DeLay did in 1988...

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) is one of the main advocates in Congress for re-inserting Terri Schiavo's feeding tube.

Read this L.A. Times article. Now. If you don't have time to read it, at least glance at the subheadline.

Now, let's accept that this was a heartwrenching tragedy for the DeLay family, and not get emotional about what happens to our opponents. But let me say, using pure logic...

What incredible, baldfaced, mind-boggling hypocrisy.

The article says: "The situation faced by the congressman's family was entirely different than Terri Schiavo's," said a spokesman for the majority leader, who declined requests for an interview.

Read it and decide for yourself.

Funny/sad follow-up commentary on the A.N.W.R.

Looks like America's most brilliant news source published a great follow-up commentary on my post last week about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Look at the Onion's "What Do You Think?" page for last week (it's there until tomorrow night, then moves into the archives). I passionately agree with the final (bottom right) entry, from "Loni Sweet."

For those of you too lazy to follow a link, I have reprinted it here:

"If I may be allowed to pursue the idea of 'addiction to oil,' I think the nation just reached the point where we sold our wedding ring for one night's fix."

Just what I was going to say.


I just want to state for the record that I have absolutely no involvement whatsoever in this. Really.

I mean just... wow.

Setec Astronomy

A good friend and I were talking the other day when she mentioned the idea that social ties are useful for support, but maybe only up to a point. Beyond some mystical threshold, perhaps adding more ties actually leads to more stress, and less support. This does, certainly, seem like a reasonable idea, and is one that has seen some amount of research before.

Of course, part of the question isn't so much about the number of ties, as the kind of ties and their structure. A person with very few close associates, who all require assistance at once, may derive as much stress from the experience as someone with many, many associates, only a few of whom need help. So, in other words, in networks as in real estate, it's location, location, location. Sometimes social ties don't help, and often there is a tertius without quite so much gaudens.

Something very similar to this has been on my mind of late, mostly because I find myself in a position similar to the unfortunate tertius. I find that I have been called upon to offer support to several of my closest friends, and in some cases have been asked to perform very particular services on their behalf.

Get your minds out of the gutter! I don't mean those kinds of services.

While I am glad to be there for my friends, and take their trust as a very meaningful compliment, I do now find myself in a situation best summed up by Setec Astronomy. I know this may surprise some of you- there has, after all, been an amount of skepticism about my ability to be discreet. All the same, I am indeed capable of discretion when it is called for. Or so I tell myself in order to sleep at night.

Secrets are a funny thing to me. On the one hand, everyone has secrets. It is an inescapable fact of life that we have done things, and said things, of which we are not proud. Often the most effective way to deal with such incidents is simply to prevent them from becoming public knowledge. There are quite a few romantic comedies built upon this premise. Some of them, amazingly, are even good.

Then again, there is another kind of secret- the corrosive kind. You see, in the former type of secret one simply has to avoid speaking of a certain thing and the secret will be kept. In this latter kind, the secret is more pernicious. It is information that pertains to events that are still in motion, and that deals with people whom you may yet know. This presents a different scenario entirely. This kind of secret breeds more secrets. To protect one thing, you must hide other things that connect to it. This secret is dangerous because it breeds lies; it is a sin of omission that then forces the holder into sins of commission. At first this is not so bad, and can even be a little exciting- it can be enjoyable to match wits with your peers in a battle to define reality. Yet, over time, these secrets demand more and more of you. You must become ever vigilant, and ever ready to mend your fence of falsehoods. After a while, this isn't fun anymore, and it separates you from the people around you. Worse still, it separates you from yourself- because the person you really are, and the person you must act like, increasingly diverge. Eventually, you may no longer know what is real and what is not. This is particularly ironic in intimate relationships- the original secret may have been kept out of fear that the truth would drive the other person away, but sooner or later attempting to keep that secret will have the same effect. In trying to hold onto another, you succeed only in driving away yourself.

I recently dealt with one such corrosive secret in my life, and feel better for the experience. I am, of course, ashamed of myself for what was, admittedly, atrocious behavior, but all I can do is make amends and try to do better next time. Yet, in relieving myself of this secret, I feel as though venom has been drained from a wound. It makes the remainder of my burden of secrets, most of which I am holding for others as a valet keeps cars, a little easier to endure.

Yet, there is a third type of secret as well- a type we rarely hear about. Sometimes there are good secrets. I don't mean the kind that spare another person from harm, those usually fall into the first or second categories. Sometimes we know things that are wonderful, and good, and heartwarming. Usually such things can be talked about, but every now and then there is reason to hold them close, and keep them secret. This kind of secret can often be the opposite of the second kind- instead of a corrosive force, it is a buoyant one. This kind of secret can make the rest of our lives easier to deal with. I have recently come into possession of this kind as well, and I am grateful. It is a rare gift, and a precious one, and should be treasured when it appears.

Secrets are hard, difficult things, but they are an unavoidable part of life. To understand them is to understand yourself, but to become enamored with them is to, eventually, lose yourself entirely. I am not one to tell others that honesty is the best policy, my life has on more than one occasion imposed the need for secrecy, but I will say this: be careful of the burdens you take on.

There are little secrets in this world, but they don't always stay that way.

Friday, March 25, 2005

The results are in...

A while back I posted a survey and asked my loyal readers to give me some feedback about where I should take Total Drek in the future. Specifically, I asked, "What would you like to see from Total Drek?" Today, I sum up the results of that process. Some of you might think that this is a weak pretense to waste a day talking about nothing of any particular importance. You would, of course, be right.

Over the course of the survey a total of 23 votes were cast, and we actually have a tie for the most popular option. With six votes each, the two top-earning responses were, "More posts from Slag- whatever happened to him, anyway?" and "More posts that mix comedy and serious stuff- they usually suck, but it's fun to watch him try." Obviously, this means that y'all would like to see a little less Drek in your Total Drek; a sentiment that I can completely understand. You will be happy to know that Slag has been supplying some content recently, and I hope that your continued support will encourage him to persist. Failing that- I know where he lives, and have very few morals.

In regards to the second winning option I can only respond, in the manner of my favorite restaurant: "Your wish is of very little consequence to me." However, that said, I will see if I can strike that balance between serious content and humor a little more frequently. I expect, though, that this will be a disastrous experience for all concerned. Especially when I start making jokes about the chunnel and Linda Boreman. I think we can all agree that matters can only go downhill from there.

The third most popular option is actually another tie between, "More comedy posts- Drek is an idiot, but a funny one. Dance for my amusement, Drek!" and "Shorter posts- these diatribes are killing me!" The popularity of the comedy option suggests that some vocal minority of my audience actually comes here primarily for entertainment. I find this bewildering, but will try and maintain some sort of comedic content for these patrons.

The request for shorter posts, on the other hand, seems to mesh well with our next winner, "A promise that Drek will never, ever, blog again." Taken together, comprising eleven votes, these two options, plus the request that Slag post more often, seem to add up to a request that I be featured less prominently on this blog. I doubt any of us will miss the irony, and I must confess to feeling a bit of relief. This is, if nothing else, an excuse for me to try to recruit yet another co-blogger.

Two people, to my surprise, voted for, "More long posts, I desperately need distractions from my work." Given the otherwise apparent demand for a reduction in my posting, I'd say these individuals suffer from some type of mental deficiency. There was only one vote requesting an increase in the number of serious posts, leading me to believe that hardly anyone takes me seriously to begin with. To this I can only respond, "Thank fucking god."

So, given this, you will hopefully see fewer posts from me in the future, but the ones you do see will more carefully balance humor and seriousness. Of course, in reality, you'll get whatever I goddamn feel like writing, but we can all pretend that I have the resources and motivation to actually pay attention to feedback. I'm sure you understand.

And on that note, we have a new poll in our sidebar. A friend of mine is currently in the clutches of a rather thorny grammatical issue. Do please help her out.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism

Once upon a time in a far away, magical land I like to call "Germany," there was a Sociologist by the name of Max Weber.

That's pronounced, "Vay-ber," for those who curious, not "weh-ber."

Anyway, Weber was a very smart, if often melancholy, man who wrote extensively on topics ranging from methodology, to religion, to bureaucracy. His work ultimately earned him a place as one of the classical Sociological theorists, alongside Karl Marx (Who has the distinction of strangely resembling both Frederick Douglas and George Clinton), Emile Durkheim (Who oddly resembles Vladimir Lenin) and Georg Simmel (Who resembles Richard Simmons. Okay, not really, but wouldn't that be hysterical?).

One of Weber's most famous works is a little book by the name of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In this book, Weber made a very simple, but very interesting argument: that the emergence of capitalism as an economic system relied upon philosophical ideas contained within Protestant variants of the Christian Religion.

It would take too long to reproduce Weber's full argument, but in short he argued that a morality based on worldy-asceticism, or a form of self-denial that is rooted in the world of the flesh, rather than the world of the spirit, allowed for the beginning of the modern process of capital accumulation. So, while Catholic monks denied themselves material riches and turned their energies to honoring God, Protestants were supposed to have denied themselves material riches and turned to honoring God through hard labor in worldly pursuits- like making money. This created a class of individuals who accumulated more and more wealth which was then reinvested in the production process, rather than spent on pleasures of the flesh.

Over time, this process fed on itself, leading to larger and larger returns, and in the process fueling an entire economy. Moreover, such an approach to business granted protestants a competetive advantage, as their factories grew ever more productive, and their products ever cheaper. As a result of such an advantage, Weber claimed that we would find ourselves locked within an "iron cage" such that, regardless of one's own religious views, failure to adopt protestant ethics in business would result in eventual economic failure. In other words, all capitalists must become worldly ascetics to some extent in order to prosper. Similarly, non-capitalists must abandon asceticism in order to provide markets for the rising flood of products that capitalism belches forth with such ease.

And yes, I am aware that this is a drastic simplification of Weber's argument. Cut me some slack, will ya?

I bring all this up today not because I'm practicing for an intro lecture, but as proper background for my real subject: a recent newspaper article. This article, which comes courtesy of the New York Times, tells of a small but very real movement among Imax theatres at science centers to refuse to show films that mention the Big Bang or Charles Darwin's theory of Evolution. (For those who are curious, Charles Darwin oddly resembles a certain animated character you may be familiar with.) That's right: a movement among theatres at science centers to refuse to to show films that make reference to two of the most dominant and widely-accepted scientific theories of all time. And why is this occurring? Simple, the theatres fear, "...protests from people who object to films that contradict biblical descriptions of the origin of Earth and its creatures."

Indeed, we appear to have reached an interesting point in our development as a society. Out of fear of protests, fear of conflict, fear of controversy, institutions of science education are side-stepping their duty to- wait for it- educate the public about science. Instead, they choose to restrict themselves to teaching things that do not challenge the pre-conceived notions of their viewers. I don't know about you, dear readers, but such a strategy does not fit will with my definition of "education." Education is, and should be, a difficult, traumatic process. This is not to say that it should involve horrendous tests or constant pop-quizzes, or devilish instructors, but rather that learning should challenge the student. To absorb new information is to be forced to alter one's existing notions, and while such a project is valuable, it is never easy, and seldom comfortable.

Yet, here we are, tailoring our eduction to coddle the students- to avoid stretching them, or challenging them- so that they can absorb knowledge as though it were a trivial frosting, instead of the juicy meat of human experience. (As a side note: Woo-hoo! Crappy metaphor HO!) My frustration at this situation is only magnified by my belief that people are never hurt by exposure to ideas. We should be exposed to rival ways of thinking and viewing the world- we do not, after all, grow if we are not challenged. Moreover, my adherence to this view leads me to positions that I am not always terribly fond of myself- such as my previously-stated willingness to see creationism taught in public school. Granted, I demand that it not be taught as a science, since creationism approximates science about as well as I approximate a supernova, but that isn't the point. The point is that I am deeply annoyed by this situation.

Certainly some people, as reported in the article, might assert:

In their written comments, she [Carol Murray of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History] explained, they [test audiences] made statements like "I really hate it when the theory of evolution is presented as fact," or "I don't agree with their presentation of human existence."

But here's the thing: they're seeing a movie at a science center. If I go to a Christian church, it's ludicrous for me to object to hearing about Jesus. If I go to a Mosque, I should probably be prepared for a little Allah-praising and some references to Mohammed. So why is it so bizarre that in a Museum of Science, they teach science?

It does not, of course, help that even the allies of science seem to have serious flaws in their thinking. When asked about this trend filmmaker James Cameron remarked:

"It seems to be a new phenomenon obviously symptomatic of our shift away from empiricism in science to faith-based science."

Faith-based science? There is no such thing. While science is certainly based on certain premises that must be accepted on faith, this is the case with any system of knowledge, as so ably-argued by Rene Descartes and his famous, "cogito ergo sum." Science, at least, has the virtue of minimizing its assumptions and maximizing its exposure to growth through clashing with evidence. While systems of thought that are unempirical certainly exist, and have valid places in society, they are unavoidably non-scientific.

At the same time as I am deeply worried, however, I can't help but be reminded of our old friend Max. He wrote that Protestantism and its peculiar ethic provided the foundation out of which capitalism was born. Perhaps he was right, perhaps not; I am skeptical, as befits a materialist, but the possibility exists. Yet, Weber theorized that the demands of capitalism would drive a shift away from these protestant ethics. The portions of them that supported capitalism would remain, while those that did not would be driven into disuse. I find myself wondering about this last conclusion.

In this most recent iteration religion appears to be using the proft motives of capitalism to shore itself up. Unable to defeat science as a way to describe the physical world, religion has turned to skulking about in the shadows, and ushering the money changers back into the temple. It may be that Weber spoke too soon when he argued that capitalism would throttle religion. Perhaps it is only that capitalism and religion have a much more complicated, and symbiotic, relationship than Weber conceived of.

Regardless of the ultimate answer, one thing is clear: we cannot assume that capitalism and religion are, in the modern day, antithetical. To do so is to blind ourselves to the real world, and make ourselves vulnerable to those who would choose faith over facts.

For those who are curious, you can find another recent mention of Max Weber here over on Pub Sociology.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005


Hey, check it out! I'm getting roughed up over on Jeremy's blog for taking a somewhat unsympathetic position in regards to cousin marriage.

Of course, it doesn't help that Jeremy does have a point, as does, to a lesser extent, Shakha. I'm not entirely swayed, given that I do honestly think that cousin marriage may lead to a sort of social inbreeding that can, potentially, have some pretty detrimental effects, but I have been convinced that it's far from a deterministic result. It may even be that cousin marriage can represent a socially healthy pattern, given the right pre-conditions.

I just reckon I'll have to consider revising my position somewhat- which will be sort of funny since I decided years ago that I really couldn't give less of a shit about polygamy, same-sex marriage, or most of the other variants. I'm rapidly approaching Jeremy's "marry-whatever-the-fuck-you-want" point.

Funk in Disguise

Dorotha is entirely correct: this video rocks!

Slag's Interesting and/or Amusing Lynx to Waste Your Time

Welcome to the first in a hopefully-regularly-occasional series of posts, "Slag's Interesting and/or Amusing Lynx to Waste Your Time." Notice the amusing alternate spelling of "links," which must surely signify that these lynx are both Interesting and Amusing.

What are the qualifications for a site to be entered into Slag's Interesting and/or Amusing Lynx to Waste Your Time? They must interest and/or amuse me, and must waste my time. Does this seem like arbitrary criteria? Hells yeah. But I asked for your opinions last week, and I got eight responses, five of which were from the same shady character named "Anon Y. Moose," who may or may not be an actual moose. Um, where was I going with this? Who knows. Anyway, thanks to Mr. or Ms. Moose, Drek, and Julie.

Without further ado, here are this installment's lynx:

1) Google Maps ( Absolutely, without a doubt, the best freakin' map site on the Internet. Why? Enter a location anywhere in the U.S. or Canada in the "Search" bar at the top of the page (for example, try Albuquerque, NM). You can zoom in our out, just like Mapquest or Mappoint. But wait, are you ready to be impressed? Click and drag the map, or use the arrow keys. The map moves! The map moves! You could use the arrow keys to follow Interstate 5 from Canada to Mexico.

But wait... there's more! You can type in categories of services, and the tool will find matching services near the area you have mapped. For example, go back to the Albuquerque map. In place of "Albuquerque, NM" in the Search window, type "Brazilian restaurant." The page returns the top ten results, including Tucanos Brazilian Grill at 110 Central Ave. SW (the flag marked A). If you're ever in Albuquerque (and are not a vegetarian), you should consider going there - all the richly-flavored meat you can eat, plus lots more.

You can also get directions. Let's say you're in Key West, Florida, and you have a craving for Brazilian food, um, in New Mexico. Click the "Directions from here" button. The address appears in the "End Address" textbox. In the "Start Address" textbox, type "Key West, FL." Total distance: 2,273 miles. And check out that blue line marking your route on the map!

Is this not the coolest thing you have ever seen?

2) SignMaker ( Somehow it's very comforting to know that there is a community of people on the Internet who are obsessed with the numbering system of U.S. highways. (For example, Interstates ending in -5 are major roads that run north-south.) Someone going by the handle of Kurumi has created SignMaker, a Java applet that makes realistic-looking highway signs, including the real road symbols for Interstates, U.S. Highways, and state roads for all 50 states. The applet is quite memory-intensive to run online, so some computers may not be able to run it. But it runs happily on my 2001-mint laptop if I download and install the applet.

I even made a sign to direct you to Total Drek.

There's lots of interesting stuff on the rest of Kurumi's site too. Did you know that the shortest interstate is I-878, which runs for only 0.7 miles to New York's JFK airport? Good luck finding it, though - there are no I-878 signs, only signs for New York state road 878, which is exactly the same road.

Also, don't you wonder what those Japanese symbols at the top of the main page mean?

3) The Josh Moose page ( Ever wonder what life looks like through the eyes of a small, cute stuffed moose? Take a look at Josh's home on the Internet. He's just a regular moose who lives with a human he calls "The Big Guy," has his own luxury accommodations, and enjoys fine cuisine.

Actually, the site started as a parody of every bad personal homepage ever created, but it's evolved into something of its own. Josh's site could have been totally ridiculous, but it's actually very cute and endearing.

Enjoy the lynx, and as always, let me know what you think.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

I am my beloved's and my cousin is mine.

Every morning I listen to the radio while I make my bed, pack my things, and generally prepare to head out and face the world. Recently, while listening to the cackling imbeciles that populate morning shows, an interesting fact was brought to my attention. That fact is simply this: a surprisingly large number of American states permit first cousins to marry. Specifically, 26 of the 50 U.S. states permit first-cousin marriage of some sort. That was not, however, the most interesting part.

The most interesting part was the list of states in question. Any guesses? Well, I'll tell you, some of the usual suspects are there: Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia. You know, those backward hick states. Still, there appear to be a few other states on the list that we might not usually associate with incest. States like: New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, Illinois, California, and Connecticut.

On the other hand, there are some rather unexpected entries among the states who do not allow first-cousin marriage: Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia. Yeah, you read that right: West Virginia. It would appear that the South is not as backwards and incestuous as our goddamn Yankee bretheren would like to believe, and they are not quite so sophisticated. You are, of course, welcome to doubt me, but the facts are not terribly difficult to find.

You may find this topic a little odd, and I'll admit I did at first as well, but cousin marriage appears to be a more controversial topic than I had once suspected. As it happens, there is an entire organisation, the "Cousins United to Defeat Discriminating Laws through Education" (or "CUDDLE," which I must say is a rather unfortunate acronym) that is dedicated to liberalizing the cousin marriage laws. Or, in their terms:

C.U.D.D.L.E. International, founded in 2002, is a privately funded organization dedicated to dispelling social prejudices and discriminating laws based on common myths about cousin marriages.

C.U.D.D.L.E. promotes tolerance, understanding and respect through education, advocacy, and conflict resolution.


To continue extensive research on the issue of consanguinity
To produce educational materials for all walks of life
To bring about legislative reform in areas which do not currently allow cousin marriage
To provide a support network free from harassment
To provide referrals to legal and medical professionals
To provide scholarships to cousin-couples and their children

So, it does indeed seem that the prohibition on cousin marriages is not as ironclad, or widespread, as many of us tend to think. But, I hear you asking, don't first cousin marriages likely produce children who are... well... troubled by genetic disorders? Well, as CUDDLE so adroitly points out the vast majority of offspring produced by first cousin couplings likely would not be stricken by birth defects at rates greater than the general population. Of course, this ignores the cumulative effect of first cousin marriages over many generations, but so long as individuals are not restricted to their own cousins for marriage partners there is little reason to believe that this progressive (or perhaps more appropriately "degenerative") concentration of harmful genes would occur. I must concede to the CUDDLErs that, in all likelihood, infrequent cousin marriage is unlikely to entail serious genetic consequences. This does not, however, mean that I am in favor of abolishing the taboo on cousin marriage.

You see, this is a classic example of a prohibition that is rooted in sociology, rather than biology. The problem with cousin marriages isn't that it produces deformed children, but that it produces deformed social structures.

It comes as no surprise to any sociologist that most marital partners are highly similar to one another- a known by the term "Homophily." A consequence of this is that many tight social structures, like extended family structures, are formed within particular demographic groups. Since many parameters of social structure (for example age, education, income, etc.) are, in the terms of Peter M. Blau, consolidated (i.e. strongly correlated) marriages tend to take place within, rather than between, localized social structural clusters. This can be a problem because the extent to which such clusters are not bound together by social ties, is the extent to which society as a whole may fail to cohere.

So what happens when exogoamy is no longer required, or even stressed? Well, it isn't that the children become genetic freaks, but that the structure of society unravels to a greater and greater extent. The between-family linkages that help to bind society together are broken, and clans may become islands unto themselves. You could argue that this is as unlikely as the cumulative destruction of genes by repeated cousin marriage, but it is far easier to become socially-inbred than to become genetically-inbred. One might think of it like a shirt of chain mail: when the rings of family interlock, a strong and flexible fabric is woven. When these social circles no longer connect, however, the fabric disintegrates into a jumble of isolated, easily-pentrated bits.

Human existence is not merely biology and psychology, but sociology as well. We are social creatures, and the health of our social structures is as indispensible to our continued prosperity as the health of our bodies and our minds. Prohibitions on incest are valuable not merely because they help protect us against genetic disorders, but because they help bind us together and stabilize the group. To abandon such prohibitions is to start down a road leading to social dysfunction- an outcome that is perhaps even more dangerous than its genetic equivalent. So, while I certainly appreciate the CUDDLErs' point, I must remain a staunch opponent of cousin marriage. That said, however, I feel compelled to ask a final question:

If two folks from Connecticut get married, and then get divorced, are they still brother and sister?

Monday, March 21, 2005

Good to know.

Every morning, almost first thing, I take my dog for a walk around the neighborhood. Despite the fact that she's short a leg, her energy level and enthusiasm for life (not to mention enthusiasm for barking at cats, sniffing dog ass, and trying to eat garbage) makes a morning walk a necessity.

On our walks it is not uncommon for us to see unusual things. Often, this will consist of a dog from somewhere in the neighborhood that has left its home. I usually try to herd these unfortunates into my yard to keep them safe while I contact the owner. Other times the unusual thing is more exotic, such as that pair of thong panties that I noticed resting by the side of the road. I'm not entirely sure how they got there, but given the frequency with which condoms appear in the gutters on Saturday and Sunday mornings, I have a few guesses.

On this morning's walk we did, indeed, see something uncommon. Specifically, we saw a billowing cloud of black smoke. As we walked to the crest of a hill, I managed to see that the smoke was issuing from a parked car of some sort, which was engulfed in a flowing, dancing tapestry of flame. It was, actually, pretty cool to watch from a few blocks away. I noticed, however, that I was not the only person watching. A handful of people had gathered at the bus stop across the street from the fire and were watching unconcernedly.

This I found somewhat odd. I mean, cars contain gasoline and oil and all manner of other combustible substances. It seemed rather foolhardy to stand across the street and watch something like that.

Remarking to my dog that I didn't want a facial via shrapnel, we turned down a side street and continued our journey. She seemed unworried, far more interested in the smells to be found at the margins of the sidewalk, but my mind kept drifting back to the burning car. Can cars really explode, I wondered, or is that just a convention from movies and t.v. shows? I seemed to remember reading that liquid gasoline is not explosive, but that gasoline vapors are. If that was the case, the explosive potential of a car would seem to depend on how full the tank was. A full tank would leave little room for vapor. An empty tank wouldn't have enough gasoline vapor. So, hypothetically, a tank that was, perhaps, a third full might maximize the explosive potential of a burning car. Of course, that still left open the question of whether or not such an explosion could actually happen.

At which point my reverie was interrupted by a pair of deep, throaty "whumps," heard more with my ribs than my ears. These were accompanied by the screech of metal, and the sound of shouted profanity.

And so, I received my answer.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Wow, that's... unusual.

It isn't necessarily all that strange when I agree with the Raving Atheist. Of course, it also isn't that unusual when I disagree with him, since he's pro-life and I'm pro-choice, but that isn't the point. The point is that it shouldn't shock anyone that devout atheists often agree with each other.

What makes things odd is it now seems that not only do I agree with the RA about something but we also apparently agree with an Italian Cardinal. Now how is that for unexpected?

I highly recommend, by the way, that you read the RA's post on the matter. He kinda has a point about pots, and kettles, and being black.

In other news, much as Jeremy experienced recently my own department is rapidly approaching its annual recruitment festivities. I'm helping to organize things this year, which I don't mind in the least, but it does explain my rather lax posting schedule this week. And as long as we're on the subject, for those folks who read this blog and are in my department: the next one of you little geniuses who tries to back out on something you volunteered for is gonna find out why it's never wise to piss me off. And if that doesn't scare you, I'll unleash the Canadian. Seriously, I'm not saying anything except that it's no wonder that country has kicked our ass. Twice.

Thursday, March 17, 2005


This is a long post (I feel like Drek), but it's worth reading through to conclusion.

The Senate voted today on a major step forward toward destroying polluting drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the last spots of pristine wilderness in the U.S. Read about it in a good New York Times article (you have to register, but it's free to read), or this Fox News article (if your stomach can handle Fox News).

Here's what went down: When Senate Republicans wrote the budget, they used language assuming that the ANWR would be open to drilling. Because it was included in the budget, opponents could not filibuster against it. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) sponsored an amendment that would remove this language from the budget. The Senate defeated the amendment 51-49, with 3 Democrats voting no (i.e. pro-drilling) and 7 Republicans voting yes (anti-drilling).

Why do supporters want to drill in the ANWR? Here's why, straight from the elephant's mouth, courtesy of the Fox News story:
"This project will keep our economy growing by creating jobs and ensuring that businesses can expand," Bush said in a statement. "And it will make America less dependent on foreign sources of energy, eventually by up to a million barrels of oil a day."

Will it really? Here is a little independent research, from your favorite former geologist, Slag. I used the United States Geological Survey (USGS)'s 1998 ANWR Petroleum Assessment (a highly technical PDF document).

How much oil is available under the ANWR? Drilling advocates sometimes say estimates of 16 billion barrels of oil, or even higher estimates. 16 billion barrels is the highest possible estimate (the 5% probability level) of the amount of "technically recoverable" oil (the amount that can be pumped out of the ground using current technology). Higher estimates assume that ill-defined "future technology" will allow deeper-lying, less-accessible oil to be recovered, which seems more like wishful thinking more than scientifically informed policy.

The most reasonable estimate for the amount of oil is 10.8 billion barrels, based on the 50% probability level in the USGS study. You can see for yourself in the "Assessment Results" section at the top of page 4. So, there are 10.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil under the ANWR, right?

In the words of Lee Corso, "not so fast, my friends." "Technically recoverable" oil means the amount of oil that could conceivably be recovered, without regard for the cost of recovery. In other words, if an oil company had an infinite drilling budget, they could recover 10.8 billion barrels of oil from the ANWR. But of course, it costs money to drill for oil, and oil must be sold at a profit. So, considering economic factors, how much oil could reasonably be sold based on drilling the ANWR (USGS refers to this as "economically recoverable")?

It's sorta-buried in the caption to Figure 6 on page 6, but the 50% estimate (and therefore most likely amount) is 5.2 billion barrels. That sounds like a lot, right?

In a way, it is. But the giant black SUV that is the United States economy requires a lot of oil to run. According to this spreadsheet from the Department of Energy (it's an Excel file, so you need Excel on your computer to see it), from January to November 2004, the U.S. consumed 20.4 million barrels of oil per day.

(Math review: 1 billion = 1,000 million.) So the length of time the ANWR will last is the total amount of oil available (economically recoverable) divided by the daily consumption.

5.2 billion barrels / 20.4 million barrels per day = 255 days = 8 1/2 months

Of course the USGS economic recoverability was based on an oil price of $24 per barrel, which was reasonable in 1998 but too low today. If we assume that oil costs the same to drill but can be sold for more money, then a greater percentage of the oil will be recoverable. Let's be generous and say that the higher price of oil means 50% more oil is recoverable, so the oil will last 50% longer. (I know this is rough, but I'm an ex-geologist, not an ex-economist.) That's about one year. (Yes, I know it won't be consumed all at once. But the bottom line of about one year is the same, whether the oil meets 100% of U.S. demand for one year or 2% of U.S. demand for 50 years.)

One year's worth of oil, folks. Then it's gone. And so is one of America's last unspoiled wildernesses.

Will it reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil? Maybe for a year, but then we'll have to buy more. Will it reduce gas prices? Probably not at all, considering all the factors that go into setting prices. Will it make a few people in the energy industry fabulously rich? Oh yeah.

I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

P.S. For those readers who think that USGS and the Department of Energy are part of the "liberal media," may I suggest you see a psychologist to work on your inability to trust.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Justice for perverts? Or perversion of justice?

I'm always interested in the ways that people share information and build virtual communities on the Internet, and boy, is this an interesting one:

It's an online volunteer organization dedicated to exposing chat-room "wannabe pedophiles." Trained volunteers set up underage-sounding profiles (both girls and boys) on Yahoo!, MSN, and AOL messengers, and sit in regional chatrooms, waiting for older men to start conversations. If the conversation heads in a sexual direction, the volunteers wait for the men to offer their phone numbers. "Underage-sounding" phone verifiers call to make sure the person is really interested in meeting the girl or boy in real life. Once the volunteers have the phone number and have established the intent to meet in real life...

...They post the chat logs and phone numbers on their website. Then, behind the scenes on the forums, volunteers seek out as much information as they can about the subject, including pictures, E-mails, addresses, employment, and criminal records. They contact the subject on messenger services, E-mails, and phone, encouraging him or her (but almost always him) to admit their crime and get treatment.

They encourage subjects to send a right of reply, apologizing and telling their side of the story. If the subject agrees to get professional sex offender counseling, the site removes their phone number, and eventually the chat log as well. If not, volunteers begin contacting neighbors and work supervisors, to let them know that a (possible?) sex offender is nearby. See the site's visitor's guide and FAQ for more about how they operate. Since soliciting sex from a minor is illegal, the site often works with local law enforcement agencies - see Information for Police. Sometimes the site works with local media to film their subjects arriving at a house where they think they will meet an underage person for sex.

Not surprisingly, the site has several critics. The most well-organized opposition comes from, a public information site that also has resources for people "busted' by Perverted Justice. An opinion piece in opposes the site, as does Julie Posey of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And here's a feature article from the Phoenix New Times.

So what do people think of I've been a bit shaken up since learning about the site - I had no idea that online underage solicitation was so common, or that citizens would go to such great lengths to prevent it. What do you think?

I'm withholding my opinions, because I want to hear yours.

Friday, March 11, 2005

In theory, there should be a post here.

The reality, however, is that I'm really busy just now and haven't had time to write anything of worth.

Wait, hell, that's stupid. I never write anything of worth. Okay, change that to: "Write anything I'm actually willing to post." Yeah, that's better. I mean, I have about a half-dozen posts back here in draft form but nothing that's really ready for prime-time.

So, anyway, maybe I'll have time later to write a post for you, and maybe not. I'm hoping I will, but I try not to make promises that I cannot keep. Needless to say, given my general unreliability, I rarely promise much of anything.

In the meantime, let me direct you to the website of one Dr. Henry Makow, whose views on gender should keep us all warm and content through the end of March.

Especially that bit where he argues that Sexism is Heterosexuality. I'm looking forward to his later articles that will surely demonstrate that "Ignorance is Strength," and "War is Peace."


Thursday, March 10, 2005

Like a choose-your-own adventure novel... but worse.

It's come to my attention lately that some people think I write really obsessively, absurdly long posts. I can't really argue with this, as my average post length is rather long, but it is interesting to have a sort of award named after me to honor those who suffer through long blog posts.

I've also, once more, been referred to as indiscreet although considering that I didn't really ridicule anyone but myself in the post in question I'm not really sure how that one was supposed to be risky. I mean, seriously, considering what I talk about normally? Are people that enamored with, dare I say, sterile approaches to explaining data types? This, however, is not my point.

My point is that I'm giving y'all an opportunity to provide some guidance for me on the future of Total Drek. What sort of posts do you want to see? Do you want to see me stop blogging? What about monkeys, do you want more posts about monkeys? There's a new poll in the left-hand sidebar- now's your chance to make your feelings known.

Of course, I make no promises to actually pay attention to this feedback. I tend to just kind of write whatever strikes my fancy, after all, but I've never been one to curtail chances to talk back.

So go vote and we'll see what happens.

And if someone could explain my hypothetical indiscretion to me... that would be good too.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Everything I needed to know about data, I learned from my romantic life.

As sociologists, or grad students, or economists (that's a shout-out to you, Tom) or whatever, many of us have had formal training in statistics. Ah, yes, statistics: the discipline that little grad students fear, that grown up scientists enjoy, and that senior grad students approach with the sort of barely-masked trepidation that you rarely see outside of cheap porno.

The funny thing is, despite the frequency with which statistics are taught, and their importance to the discipline, it is really damned hard to find a good introductory statistics textbook. They tend to oscillate back and forth between two extremes, instead. The first extreme is that "You're a goddamn idiot" version, which concentrates on teaching stats as a practical art, but never bothers to explain why they work the way they do. As a consequence, you end up with practitioners for whom statistics are a sort of mystic incantation, rather than a set of fallible techniques. Alternatively, you may get a book from the, "I want to actually have sex with Calculus" school of thought; in which case you're going to have so many derivations rammed up your ass, you'll be hacking up asymptotes for a month.

Where is the happy medium? Where is the bowl of statistical porridge that isn't too hot, or too cold, but is instead, just right? Well, I'll tell you this: it sure as shit ain't here. Nevertheless, my own need for a decent statistics book has finally driven me to the ultimate extreme- contemplating writing one myself. Of course, there's no way in hell that I know enough about stats to actually write a book, and similarly given that I tend to understand things in a fairly idiosyncratic way, it's unlikely that I could make myself understood if I did choose to write one. So, my twisted dream of making millions off of a thoroughly excellent textbook (Bwahahahaha!!!) must die stillborn.

That doesn't, however, mean that I can't begin to provide a sort of "Total Drek Big Book 'O Stats" for my loyal (i.e. mentally unbalanced) readers. So, without further delay, I invite you to enjoy the first installment in this more or less useless scholarly work.

The Total Drek Big Book 'O Stats

Chapter Something-or-Other: Data, data, data!

In social science, and statistics, we collect data, or information on the world that is used to draw conclusions. All data is not alike, however, and different types of data, which mean very different things, must by analyzed in dramatically different ways.

This chapter is intended to introduce the various types of data typically used in social science. We will follow an organizing scheme that proceeds from those statistics that are least informative within the context of the general linear model (introduced earlier as a way to both establish relationships between variables, and drive yourself to the brink of madness) to those that are most informative. This is not to say that variables that are uninformative in terms of the GLM are not useful, but rather only that their analysis frequently requires methods not covered in this book. And, since all methods that are worth anything are covered in this book, those other methods can go bugger themselves.

These various data types will also be explained in such a manner as to make their use in standard statistical software packages as trouble-free as possible. For those who have used stats packages before, you are correct in thinking that this is more or less the same as saying lube makes anal sex with a horse easier. So sue me. This is a book of statistics, if you want someone to hold your hand while you learn a stats package, go beg your significant other.

And, as long as we're discussing significant others, we may as well discuss this chapter's theme. For our discussion of data and data types, examples will be drawn from the author's spectacularly-failed romantic life, as well the romantic lives of my associates. For those in my department, please be advised that only one of these examples (found in the section on string data) will refer in any way to the person also in our department that I dated- and that example isn't a juicy one. While I know I'm disappointing some of you, it just wouldn't be right. I'll go a long way for humor, but despite our being on rather poor terms, I bear this person no true ill will. So, I'm not going to say anything that might be embarrassing to them if at all possible, no matter how much you want me to.

You fucking vultures.

String Data: The first type of data that we must consider is referred to as "string" data. A string variable is one that simply records a word, set of words, or set of characters. As an example, consider exclamations during sex. The exclamations might be recorded by a researcher as a string variable. Thus, we might construct a variable named "sxtlk" in our dataset that might have values like, "Oh, shit, oh, oh, SHIT!" or, "Wow, baby, that feels good," or even, "Ow! Stop biting!" String variables are, in some ways, the most informative variables in a data set. Since the respondents are not restricted to selecting from a menu of options, there is little risk that the way the researcher perceives the field of inquiry will directly influence the results. Respondents can also provide details that otherwise might be missed. Unfortunately, this very flexibility also limits the statistical usefulness of string data. Since a given respondent can choose to answer the question in any way they like, there is little guarantee that the answers will be at all similar across respondents. In other words, the strength of string data for preserving complexity can, in turn, make this data type entirely useless for statistical analysis.

Even so, string data may remain extremely important. In the earlier example of a string variable, providing the wrong value for a given variable, for example calling out the name of your ex-boyfriend during climax, might lead to rather poor outcomes. In my case, I have managed to circumvent this possibility by only dating women whose names begin with the same letter (actually, of late their names have either been exactly the same, or have been different iterations of the same name). As a result, I need only make an exclamation that begins with the appropriate letter, followed by a more-or-less incomprehensible series of vowel-like sounds. This may seem like a rather extreme solution, but it does the trick.

Categorical: A categorical variable is one that distinguishes types of things, or elements, from each other. These elements are not, however, distinguishable in terms of the amount of something they may or may not have. The difference between elements is, therefore, qualitative in nature. Unlike in string variables these elements are not added to the variable as text, but are coded into the variable as numbers. As an example, consider the reasons why romantic relationships fail, operationalized as a categorical variable "relfail." This variable might have numeric values like 1, 2, & 3, corresponding to meaningful values like, "She hated me," "She began having psychotic episodes," and "Christ, but she was boring." It's important to note, however, that while categorical variables are usually coded numerically, the numbers themselves have essentially no meaning. They are, instead, merely convenient labels that stand in for real values, much as some other woman stands in for you with your lying fuck of a boyfriend while you're away at a conference.

Dummy Variables: A dummy variable, also known in some (less hip) circles as a crisp set variable, is a special case of a categorical variable. A dummy variable is a categorical variable that has only two possible values, most often zero and one. A value of one indicates the presence of something, while a value of zero indicates its absence. It is important to keep in mind that zero is not the precise inverse of one, but is only a statement of not-one. As an example, I recently went on a few dates with an entomologist. If we coded our relationship using a dummy variable for friendship status named "frnd" this variable would, initially, have had a value of zero. This does NOT mean that we are enemies, the inverse of friends, but rather only that our relationship could not be categorized as friendship-based. A zero, then, merely indicates that the case in question does not meet particular criteria, but does not then show what other criteria it may meet. Later, we decided that while we enjoyed hanging out there was no real attraction, and that we should just be friends. Thus, the variable frnd changed values from zero to one, in the process eliminating a great deal of uncertainty.

Ordinal: Ordinal variables are similar to categorical variables, in that they sort elements into distinct categories. Unlike categorical variables, however, they sort on the basis of a single feature which can be rank-ordered. Thus, if we were to sort the women from the earlier "relfail" variable (See the section on categorical data) into a new variable denoting relationship quality, or "relqual," we might assign each case (i.e. woman) an increasing numerical value with increasing relationship quality. So, "Ms. Hatred" might be assigned a 1, "Ms. Dull" a 2, and "Ms. Psychosis," a 3. The numeric values, in contrast to categorical data, indicate changing levels on a single underlying continuum, rather than just sheer difference. It is important to note, however, that in ordinal data the values only indicate a ranking, but not a consistent difference between those ranks. So, while "Ms. Psychosis" might have been a better relationship than "Ms. Dull," that difference in quality between levels may not be the same as the difference in quality between "Ms. Dull," and "Ms. Hatred." This makes logical sense, as dating someone who occasionally hallucinates and has funny beliefs about demons and showers, may not be that much different in quality from dating someone who is simply uninteresting, whereas both are dramatically different from dating someone who appears to have true malicious intent. In short, then, while the ranks do indicate that some sort of distance separates each level of the variable, the precise amount of distance may or may not be constant between levels. Thus, this variable is ideal for recording information that can be sorted by rank, but for which precise measures indicating the details about these ranks are unavailable.

Interval: Interval data is similar to ordinal data in that it allows the ranking of cases on some sort of underlying continuum. Unlike ordinal data, however, the "distance" between categories is constant and unchanging. Put another way, interval data is similar to a variable that counts instances of something. So, if we create a variable named "orgsm" that indicates the number of times you... well... I think it's obvious, while your boyfriend is performing cunnilingus, that variable would be interval in nature. Each orgasm is a distinct event and they can be counted as they occur. Intermediate positions, however, corresponding to "half an orgasm" are meaningless. The meaninglessness of such intermediate positions is apparent from the common male complaint of blue balls. This type of data is useful for counting discrete events that cannot be subdivided, as it preserves the meaningul information about increasing number and consistent distance. It is also worth pointing out that if we were concerned with the amount of pleasure derived from each successive orgasm, we would not record this as an interval variable unless the amount was constant. If, instead, each successive event becomes less enjoyable, the distance between events on the underlying continuum is fluctuating, and we must record the data as either an ordinal variable, or as the next data type.

As a side note: You have to love an online encyclopedia that includes an entry on "blue balls."

Ratio: Ratio data is composed of a measurement of some parameter that can be sub-divided meaningfully and has an interpretable zero point. Thus, unlike interval data, points between major categories (i.e. one and two) can be interpreted in an informative way. Another way to think about this is that the distance between categories is maximally informative. If we were to construct a variable named, "vmt" corresponding to the amount of vomit deposited on you by your girlfriend while she's sick, we could measure the quantity as a ratio variable. Washing might remove any portion of the vomit and both the amount removed, and the amount remaining, would be interpretable. If vomit were in turn an interval level phenomenon we could only manipulate precise amounts of vomit (a sort of "vomit quantum" if you will) at a time, reducing or increasing its presence only in particular amounts, rather than in any portion we choose.

Fuzzy Set: Fuzzy set data, used only occasionally by social scientists, is a special combination case of dummy variable data and ratio data. In a fuzzy set the lower and upper limits of the variable are fixed at zero and one, indicating full non-membership in a given category or full membership respectively. Intermediate positions, however, are interpretable as partial memberships in both the set of non-members and the set of members. So, if we constructed a fuzzy set variable "date" indicating whether or not two people were involved in an ongoing romantic relationship, we may immediately define the two outer anchor points. One would correspond to full membership in the set of people who are dating- for example steady significant others. Similarly, a value of zero would denote full non-membership, but does not indicate what the actual relationship is. So, good friends who are not dating might qualify as zero, but so would bitter enemies. As with the earlier dummy variable data type, fuzzy set zeroes indicate only negation. In addition to these extremes, however, we find intermediate values. Values greater than .5 indicate that a case is more a member than a non-member, and might correspond to individuals who are dating, but still see other people. Similarly, values less than .5 indicate that cases are more non-members than members, such as a couple that broke up, but retains certain feelings for each other and, occasionally, has freaky monkey sex in the back of a Volkswagen. Fuzzy set data is useful in that it allows both the distinguishing of qualitive categores (i.e. dating and not dating) while at the same time preserving the fine gradations that may exist between these states, "dated a little," "Friends with benefits," "Fuck-buddies," etc. At the same time, it is important to recognize that while degree of membership in a set can be subdivided hypothetically-indefinitely, as with ratio data, ratio data does not constrain the variable to have a maximum extent.

The above data types, while not exhaustive, do provide a solid foundation for the understanding and use of particular types of statistics. In the next chapter, we will explore some basic ways to summarize and explore these data as a preliminary step to statistical analysis.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Damned philosopers and their "intelligent arguments!" Phui!

I have, for quite a long time now, been something of a philosophy-basher. It isn't that I don't think that analogies about people chained in a cave with a fire and shadows are important (You can think of Plato's Cave as a sort of primitive rave, minus the extasy) or that I'm unconcerned with ultimate truth, and real beauty, it's just that... um... well, shit, actually it is because I don't think that's important, and I am unconcerned with ultimate truth. Sorry about that.

In any case, once I grew out of childhood and began to actually explore philosophy a bit, I generally found it to be a quagmire of argument from which no conclusions were ultimately possible. I know some of us here in the blogosphere like philosophers, and I'll admit many of them have compelling reasons, but I've never been among them. For me, science with its firm foundation of empiricism has been a far more appealing option.

Yes, yes, I know science rests on certain philosophical underpinnings. Yes, I know that a proper appreciation of science requires knowledge of these underpinnings. You know what? That's equivalent to saying that my enjoyment of fencing requires an appreciation of oxygen, since oxygen is necessary to the aerobic metabolism humans use while fencing. In other words, it's a more or less meaningless assertion. Can I continue my post now?

It is, therefore, with a heavy heart that I must report having been swayed to the position that philosophers aren't totally useless after all. I know it's big of me to make such an admission, but I'm an expansive guy. Or, at the very least, my ass has become quite expansive since I began spending the majority of each day in front of a computer screen. The philosopher who convinced me that maybe philosophy has a point is none other than the creatively-named Imre Lakatos and I was convinced by his work Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes.

Sounds like a scorcher, eh? Wait til you get to the sex-scene, it's killer.

In this work, Lakatos attempts to answer the question, "What, if anything, distinguishes science from other domains of knowledge?" Such a question is important, given that science is increasingly under attack both inside, and outside, of academia. If we as scientists are to survive and, more importantly, if the Human race is to continue reaping the benefits of scientific knowledge, we must be able to clearly define why science is important. To date, I have primarily relied on Popper's falsification criteria. Specifically, this means that any hypothesis or theory that cannot be subjected to a test that demonstrates its falsity cannot be considered scientific. This derives from the understanding that no system of thought can demonstrate that any principle will always hold, since any given relationship cannot logically be tested every moment from the beginning of the universe to the end. Therefore, given that we cannot prove that something is so, we must content ourselves with demonstrating what is not so- or falsification.

Imre Lakatos, however, makes a useful observation. He points out that many theoretical programs accumulate a substantial amount of falsification over the course of their lives. Initially, many programs receive more falsification than they do support. Yet, honest, decent, hard-working scientists continue to support these programs, in spite of the fact that they have been falsified and therefore should be abandoned.

Following from this point, Lakatos asks what is missing from the Popperian view of science that explains this behavior. Simultaneously, Lakatos wishes to avoid the sterile conclusion of Thomas Kuhn that the abandonment of theories is a result of academic faddishness, rather than progressive objective development. Obviously, this is no small task, but it is one that Lakatos actually accomplishes. First, he asserts that falsification by itself is insufficient to lead to the rejection of a theory. This is, in part, because any test of a theory relies on the assumption that the means used to test it are themselves understood and behaving properly. As we all know, however, all instrumentation malfunctions, all statistical procedures are occasionally hamstrung by violated assumptions, and even direct human perception is sometimes flawed. As a consequence, no single experiment can ever completely falsify a theory, it can only produce results that are consistent with, or not consistent with, a given theory. The source of said inconsistency remains to be determined.

Because of this perpetual uncertainty about the source of inconsistency, falsifying evidence will not succeed in eliminating a theory until a crucial event happens: until a new theory succeeds in surpassing the older theory. In short, falsifying evidence will not be recognized as such, instead of as experimental aberration, until an alternative theory arrives. So far, this seems similar to Kuhn's paradigm shift, but Lakatos adds a distinction. The new theory must accomplish three things in order to surpass the earlier contender.

First, it must account for the predictions and assertions already incorporated into the old theory. In short, it must explain as much of the world. This prevents science from growing regressive. Second, the new theory must make novel predictions about the world. So, it isn't enough for a theory to account for previous phenomena, it must do so while providing new insights into the universe. This allows science to be progressive. Finally, it must provide the building blocks for the construction of new concepts. Therefore, any given theory must prove fertile not only in terms of new predictions, but new lines of theory that themselves make new predictions. Thus, until all these criteria are met, no amount of falsification will condemn a previous theory. Similarly, once these criteria are met, no amount of hedging can save a now-falsified theory. Falsification, in combination with alternative research programs, allows for the forward movement of science.

This argument is rather satisfying for me. It recognizes the empirical reality that scientists do not abandon theories at the first, second, or even third signs of falsification, but yet allows room for intelligent, objective selection of one theory over another. While I certainly think it worth pointing out that a certain amount of faddishness does exist in science, and even that some theories are only abandoned when their last proponents die off (What I like to think of as, "demographic falsification"), Lakatos' conception neatly explains the operation of science and its success in describing the universe in ever-increasing detail. I think it fairly apparent that, in this case, a philosopher did have something meaningful and useful to say about the world in general, and science in particular.

Hey, I'm at least as suprised as you!

The funny part about all this is that what convinced me wasn't the major content of his argument, although that was fairly compelling. Instead, it was his first footnote on page 148 which reads, in part, "This little story bears out, I think, my pet thesis that most scientists tend to understand little more about science than fish about hydrodynamics."

Indeed. I have long argued against detractors that while we all negotiate social life on a daily basis, we do so without necessarily understanding it on a deeper level. Thus, sociologists are needed to discover the underlying principles of social life that we grapple with, and manipulate, without truly understanding. Lakatos makes the parallel assertion that scientists may grapple with the actual process of doing science every day, but may do so without truly grasping the logic and order of what they are doing.

I may not like the conclusion I am led to, but I am honest enough to recognize it. If I am to claim that sociologists can offer knowledge of social life to a world that is saturated by it, then I must also accept that the philosophy of science has something to offer to actual scientists. So, reluctant though I may be to do so, I suppose I must finally be willing to listen to what the philosophers of science have to say.

Fortunately for me, "listening" and "not thinking they're jackasses" are entirely different things.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Not the Watchtower they had in mind.

It amuses me to say that it was an incident somewhat like this that earned me a spot on the Jehovah's Witnesses' "Do Not Call" list.

I can't say that I'm sorry about it, either. You knock on my door early in the morning, I answer it as I am. You don't like it? Well, I ain't on public property, you came uninvited to see me, I reckon you can just live with it.

I know you're looking to spread the "good word" and all, but here are some good words from me: If you want to make your neighbors look upon your religion favorably, don't harass them in their homes early in the goddamn morning on a weekend.

Not unless you want me to come by and hang some literature about the Origin of Species on your door, or maybe slap a new bumper sticker on the old church-mobile.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Ahhhh! Static! I'm scared!

Recently I had the opportunity to see the film White Noise with a good friend of mine. For those who are unfamiliar, White Noise is the rousing tale of a man and his out-of-tune television set. Okay, more exactly, it's a movie dealing with what is known as Electronic Voice Phenomena, or EVP. EVP is a practice wherein people record static from untuned electronic devices, i.e. "white noise," and then examine the recordings for messages from the dead. Don't give me that look! I'm creative, but even I can't make this crap up. According to the American Association for Electronic Voice Phenomena, EVP is predicated on the so-called "survival hypothesis," which is defined as follows:

The Survival Hypothesis holds that we are nonphysical entities who are able to exist in the physical aspect of reality because of our physical body, but that when our physical body dies, we as Self, change our point of view to nonphysical reality. In effect, we exist before and after our current lifetime. The working hypothesis supported by AA-EVP is that these messages [EVP messages] are, indeed, nonphysical in origin and that the Survival Hypothesis is essentially correct. However, even though the fact of these messages can be demonstrated, their origin cannot. Considering this, it is the goal of AA-EVP and its membership to find ways to improve the reception of these messages and to better understand their origin.

Perhaps more informatively, Thomas Edison is reported as having said the following, which is taken as inspiration by practitioners of EVP: is possible to construct an apparatus which will be so delicate that if there are personalities in another existence or sphere who wish to get in touch with us in this existence or sphere, this apparatus will at least give them a better opportunity to express themselves than the tilting tables and raps and ouija boards and mediums and the other crude methods now purported to be the only means of communication.

In other words, if humans have souls, and if those souls are weakly coupled to the physical universe ('weakly coupled' is a physics term meaning, 'subject only to weak interactions with.' Given the interest in EVP, it's a wonder that nobody has suggested that the souls of the dead account for the universe's missing dark matter. Next thing you know we'll have astronauts claiming that they "see dead people," and the hacks at the Discovery Institute will be claiming that the cosmological constant proves the existence of god. But I digress...) then it should be possible to design an apparatus that allows these souls to communicate with us.

Of course, there are a number of obvious problems with this, but I'll limit myself at the moment to pointing out that even if this hypothesis was correct, it would remain possible for the white noise of the universe to overwhelm any signal from the dead. As it happens I have my amateur radio license and can assure you that such classic, and omnipresent, static generators as the cosmic microwave background can be a real pain in the ass. Unless, of course, the CMB is just the collective mutterings of legions of dead people but, that may be the single most disturbing notion I've ever put forth on this blog; and that's saying something!

In any case, the movie White Noise tells the story of a man who loses his wife to what seems like an accident, only to begin receiving messages from her via EVP. As the plot develops he becomes increasingly obsessed with his home static-lounge, to the point of ignoring his son, and begins to get messages telling him how to right wrongs that are transpiring in the present. Needless to say, he uses his ghostly connection to help people, in the process coming into contact with the bad spirits that live in the afterlife. (Bad spirit, Bad, BAD spirit!) Eventually these messages lead him to a woman who is being held by a serial killer and, coincidentally, to a showdown with a trio of evil spirits who knock him around like a baby seal.

If some of you feel that I have ruined the movie for you, allow me to assure you that the movie ultimately would have ruined itself. I'm just saving you some time.

As you might guess, I didn't much care for this film, but there are two particular reasons for this. First, there's the simple reason: the movie violated its own rules. Stay with me for a moment- I'm a big science fiction fan and, as such, have a quite well-developed ability to suspend disbelief. The thing is that in order for a person to buy into a fantastic world, the creator of that world must stick to certain consistent rules. The rules can be almost anything, but if a rule is laid down it must be followed. To do otherwise is to remind the viewer, or reader, that the world is bullshit. White Noise made the argument that EVP works because the dead need exquisitely sensitive instruments in order to communicate with the living. Fair enough, I can go with that argument, it even makes a certain amount of bizarre sense. The problem is that in the end of the movie, our protaganist is assaulted by a trio of spirits who could, frankly, kick the shit out of a squad of sumo wrestlers. If spirits need such sensitive instruments, they shouldn't be able to physically affect human actions, and vice versa. By breaking its own rules, White Noise ruins its own impact.

My bigger objection, however, deals with what the movie could have been, but wasn't. I went in to the theatre expecting a standard, half-assed ghost story movie. As things developed, however, I more and more suspected that what we were going to get was a drama about one man's emotional need, and hoaxers trying to make a quick buck off of him. It was, in fact, striking how well the plot mirrored the sorts of approaches hoaxers would, and do, use in such situations. Like Malice before it, I thought perhaps we were in for a movie with an actual surprise to offer, instead of semi-digested sanitized fear. I was sadly mistaken- the movie settled into a more-or-less conventional ghost story and missed out on its real potential.

Because the real potential here was to take on the pseudoscience at the heart of EVP and explore the human need to believe in things. I know I'm a scientist, and I've explained before that I prefer an unpleasant fact to a charming fiction, but this movie had the chance to make science and reason seem exciting and relevant. Is it possible that EVP is real? Certainly it's possible. Is it likely? Not so much. Dr. James Alcock, Ph.D. Psychology, wrote an excellent article describing the problems with EVP, so I need not belabor the point, beyond the following.

Come to think of it, "the following," is a helluva lot of prose, and I'm all about belaboring.

I am doubtful about EVP because it seems to be a practice designed for the perceptial predispositons of our species. Consider for a moment the human perceptual system. First, we have biological machinery devoted to absorbing and processing signals from the outside world. We receive these signals in the form of visible light, as travelling distortions in the atmosphere (i.e. sound) as tactile impressions on our skin, and as chemical traces (i.e. smell and taste). In short, we absorb and process an enormous quantity of data every moment from a variety of channels.

The beauty of human perception, however, is that we don't notice this data. As you read these words, you are probably not aware of them as marks of dark and light. Well, you weren't until I said that just now. Instead, you are aware of them as words- as meaningful marks that you recognize. This is an example of a percept, or a coherent understanding of an object in the world that is triggered by a combination of sensory stimuli. You see the marks on the page that resemble words, causing the percept of those words to activate, allowing you to experience the words as words and not merely as sensory data. Such a process also allows you to rapidly identify people and objects, such that you don't need to puzzle out a person's identity every time you see them, but rather can identify them from an overheard snatch of conversation or a brief glance. The percept idea also explains why people may be very close, and may see one another every day, but may fail to immediately notice changes in hair-style. Once a percept has activated, it can prove remarkably resistant to modification. It further appears that the percept ability is not learned, but is rather hard-wired into the human brain, as demonstrated by those who suffer from agnosia, or brain damage that prevents this system from operating properly.

The thing is, the human brain must employ a set of decision rules in the activation of percepts. Information from the world is rarely perfect, and may often be completely inaccurate. Thus, the brain must somehow distinguish signals which should arouse a percept from those that should not. For example, my face looks more similar to my sister's face than to a rock, but if my brother-in-law were to incorrectly activate his percept of my sister when he sees me... well... it would be very awkward. Now, as any social scientist who has studied stats is aware, these decision rules create four possible outcomes in any perceptual situation.

Imagine a 2x2 table. This means a table with two rows, and two columns, generating four cells. Label the top row "present" and the bottom row "absent." Similarly, label the first column (from the left) "activate" and the second column "do not activate." This table represents the four possible outcomes in a perceptual task. If a particular thing, say my sister, is present then we are in the first row. If the viewer, my brother-in-law, then activates the percept of my sister, we have a correct decision. He has activated the percept of something that is present in the world. Similarly, if my sister is absent, and he does not activate the percept, then we also have a correct decision. He has correctly noticed her absence.

Now, let's consider the other two cells. If my sister is absent, second row, and he activates his percept, first column, he believes she is present when she is not. This is equivalent to the common type I, or alpha, error. Similarly if she is present, first row, but he fails to activate the appropriate percept, second column, then he fails to be aware of her actual presence. This is analogous to the type II, or beta, error.

It doesn't matter how good your eyesight is, or how smart you are, every so often your brain will end up in one of those two error cells. Many optical illusions even rely on this, creating enough ambiguity in an image that your brain can apply multiple percepts. So, given that errors will happen, which type of error do you think the brain favors?

Well, let me put it this way. Imagine, friends, that we are part of our primate group out in the serengeti. We're travelling in search of food, but we're acutely aware that there may be large predators in the grass. Which sort of error would you prefer to make, seeing something that isn't there, like a tiger, or failing to see something that is?

Looking at it another way: in the first case you give yourself a good fright. In the other case, you become dinner. Organisms that were predisposed to beta error didn't survive as well as those disposed towards alpha error. Now, this is a post hoc argument, but you have to admit a certain compelling logic. So, in short, our brains are wired to predispose us towards alpha error because it is less costly for us to waste energy attending to something that isn't around, than to risk our lives by not attending to something that is. This also helps explain why quantitative methods are so anal-retentive about alpha error- we're trying to balance out a natural human tendency to identify things that aren't there.

What does this have to do with white noise and EVP? Think about it this way: your brain is a very sophisticated pattern matching machine, and its percept-discriminator would rather err on the side of alpha, rather than beta. If you stare are random signals long enough, what's going to happen?

Exactly. You will see a pattern, whether one is there or not. Your brain is constructed in such a way as to make this not merely probable, but effectively inevitable. EVP as a method is ideally suited to generating percetions of signals even if there are none- perhaps especially if there are none, because then the brain is free to manufacture percepts according to its prior expectations without any contrary evidence getting in the way.

Pesky contrary evidence! Nobody likes you anyway!

So, instead of taking advantage of the human tendency to find order in the orderless and acting as a powerful drama, White Noise simply pandered to an audience that should know better, but probably doesn't. I know I said I like science fiction, and I do, so it might seem odd that I object to factual inaccuracy, but my objection is related to my love of sci-fi. The thing is, sci-fi is a literature of ideas, it's an area where people ask "What if?" and then run with it. Concepts from environmental disaster, to space travel, to global epidemic, to human social life have been mulled over in the genre, and it is this intellectual murmuring and churning that attracts me to the area. I like sci-fi not for the fantasy (actually, with very few exceptions, I loathe fantasy novels) but for the ideas it generates and the discussions it has.

Earlier, I said that I prefer an unpleasant truth to a charming fiction. With EVP, White Noise had a chance to steer clear of a trite and boring fiction, and instead grapple with a compelling, fascinating truth. That we missed out on this opportunity is a real tragedy. When truth is stranger and more wonderful than fiction, it is a shame so many people choose fiction.

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