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.

Friday, August 31, 2007

In which Drek employs a rather weak moth-based metaphor to little effect.

Recently, believe it or not, I attended a church potluck with my Sainted Fiancee. Before any of you gasp in surprise, you should keep in mind that I am referring to my Sainted Fiancee's church and that she is a Unitarian Universalist. For those who aren't familiar, UUism is a religion so vague and nebulous that not even its own members know what its doctrines are. Well, with the exception of basics like "everyone is welcome" and "there are many paths to god." So, for all intents and purposes, it's about the only church that I might be able to participate in as a materialist atheist.*

In any case at this potluck the subject of atheism came up and one of the attendees began interrogating me about my beliefs. I was rather surprised by this since UUs generally don't have the same "staring at you like a sideshow attraction" response that most folks give me on learning I am an atheist. Nevertheless, this individual was very interested in how I could possibly not believe in god and, eventually, asked me a real humdinger of a question: "Why is it important to you to be an atheist?"

Seriously? This is a question? The short answer could legitimately be that it's important to me for the same reasons that it's important for other people to be Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish, or Hindu, or Buddhist. Humans seem to like to have a way of understanding their world and situating themselves within it. For me, atheism provides that way. To avoid anomie, a sense of normlessness, I must define my world in some way. This is a very sociological response, however, and I suspected that it would not satisfy my inquisitor. So, I answered by asking a question in return: "Do you value truth?" While this could doubtless form the core of many hours of fruitless discussion by philosophy students in coffee houses where their intellectual acumen would impress no one except themselves,** I have a fairly straightforward point. If you value things that are true, if truth is important to you, then atheism or theism becomes nearly inevitable. If you believe down in your bones that there is a loving all powerful god, if you believe that to be true, and you value truth, then you must be a theist. If you believe deep down, as I do, that there is no god, that angels and demons and souls do not exist, then you must be an atheist. To do otherwise, to believe that god does not exist and yet live your life as though he does, is to engage perpetually in a lie. For me, it is a love of truth that impels me to atheism.

This is not, of course, to say that I believe that I have a monopoly on truth. I do not and don't pretend to. Perhaps atheism is true, perhaps not, but I can only pursue the path that I believe to be correct. This is one of the obvious flaws in Pascal's Wager: one cannot simply pretend to believe something and stand a chance of fooling an omnipotent deity. Because I recognize that I cannot claim to have a lock on all truth, it is necessary that I be willing to live with those who disagree with me. My belief that atheism is true does not in any way give me the right to impose that on others, much as they have no right to impose their faith on me. This is why I readily concede that atheism is a sort of religion based in a faith position- I believe, I have faith, that there is no god, but I cannot prove it. Thus, atheism is for me a truth but not necessarily a fact.*** That said, I don't think that my faith position is exactly on a par with a theistic faith position. I have faith that something that has never been observed in an objective way does not exist. Along the same lines, I have faith that leprechauns, fairies and the boogey man also do not exist. Like most people, I generally assume that something does not exist until I am shown evidence that it does exist. To use the other default assumption would be truly confusing since, really, the variety of things that the human mind can imagine is truly staggering. Creationists even agree with this position, criticizing biologists for "assuming" that transitional fossils exist without evidence.**** Thus, in virtually all cases, the burden of proof is with those who claim that fossils, or fairies, or leprechauns do exist and not with those who claim that they do not. Yet, somehow, when it comes to god, this typical situation reverses and many seek to lay the burden of proof on the shoulders of atheists. Somehow, in this one instance, it seems reasonable to demand that we falsify the unfalsifiable.***** In perfeact honesty, I have better things to do with my time, but I digress.

My concern with what is true or real probably explains why I so dislike intelligent design. I don't mean that in the sense that because I believe ID is incorrect I must dislike it strongly. There are a lot of perspectives that I personally believe are incorrect but do not feel moved to oppose. No, I dislike ID because it is so given over to lies and deception. Take, for example, the new movie Expelled that obtained an as-yet unknown number of its interviews through outright deceit. Seriously: the film makers interviewed subjects claiming to be making a balanced documentary when, in fact, it was part of an ID propaganda film. Then there are the quote mines, churning through scientists' published statements to find fragments that seem to support ID perspectives. Given this sort of behavior, as a side note, I am forced to wonder just how heavily edited "Expelled's" interviews will turn out to be.

And then we have the most recent example of ID's dishonesty. Michael Behe, the closest thing to a scientist ID has, has claimed that the only thing that could convince him the natural evolution of an irreducibly complex system is, in addition to a step-by-step mutational history:

... a detailed account of the selective pressures that would be operating, the difficulties such changes would cause for the organism, the expected time scale over which the changes would be expected to occur, the likely population sizes available in the relevant ancestral species at each step, other potential ways to solve the problem which might interfere, and much more.

So, in other words, a standard of evidence that is virtually impossible to achieve without a time machine. Now we learn of recent work (more details here) that manages to trace a step-by-step mutational chain for a supposedly irreducibly complex protein system and show how each subsequent change remains fit and available for selection. As the article itself says:

Supporters of intelligent design, who question evolution, have argued that mutations, occurring one by one, could not refold a protein into a new function, because the mutations would first unravel the protein into a useless, unfolded configuration.

The new study refutes that assertion, at least in this instance.

So what happens? Does Behe concede that his ludicrous conditions have been partly met, despite enormous obstacles? Hell no. Of course he doesn't:

A recent New York Times story by Kenneth Chang touted a new paper in Science by the laboratory of Joseph Thornton of the University of Oregon as refuting intelligent design. Thornton’s laboratory has been interested in the evolutionary development of differences between two proteins abbreviated GR and MR. Since the two proteins are very similar, and since they bind very similar small hormone molecules, they likely developed from an ancestral gene by gene duplication and subsequent diversification. Despite Chang’s story, none of that challenges intelligent design, which agrees that minor evolutionary changes can happen by random mutation and natural selection.

What drives me crazy about ID isn't that I think it's wrong, but rather that its proponents seem so totally unconcerned with truth. In the interests of pushing their own "ultimate truth" they are willing to engage in outright lying, not to mention sly deceptions and slimy prevarications. And this, oddly enough, makes it very diffuclt for me to take their ultimate truth seriously. Truths are hard, they're often unpleasant, but they also mesh with other truths. They form a fabric of such a tight weave that it is a wonder to behold. If your ultimate truth must be protected and advanced by a myriad of lies, then I am afraid that the fabric of your world is little more than a moth-eaten wreck.

* This is not to say that I want to- I don't. I'm just saying that it's hypothetically possible.

** Not unlike blogging, as it happens.

*** Yes, I do consider there to be a difference and, no, I don't want to talk about it right now.

**** They are, of course, incorrect on this point. We have lots of evidence of transitional forms.

***** And as we know, proving a negative of this magnitude is all but impossible. How does one prove that an all powerful all knowing immaterial being does not exist? Given the definition of the entity, there is no way for us to find it if it does not wish to be found. Thus, falsification becomes rather untenable.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

I hope funding decisions aren't made this way.

The Scene: Drek and his Sainted Fiancee are walking in their city of residence. They encounter a faculty member, Milford, coming the other way.

Drek: Hey Milford.

Sainted Fiancee: Afternoon, Milford.

Milford: (points at the Sainted Fiancee) Cool.

Milford: (points at Drek) Uncool.

Milford: Laughs

Drek: Laughs

Sainted Fiancee: Laughs

Milford passes our couple and disappears into a nearby crowd.

Drek: (whispering) What the crap just happened?

Sainted Fiancee: No idea. Keep walking.

Drek: Okey-dokey.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sociologist Roll Call

Since returning from the blurry excitement of New York, I've realized something: there are a lot of sociologists out there.

Okay, well, I knew that already before going to New York. I've been to the annual meetings before and, frankly, there are a whole bunch of us in this crazy country. Granted, a large number of us are so eccentric it hurts, but that just adds to our charm. I also had something reinforced at the annual meetings: sociologists definitely have a sense of humor. Take, for example, this graffitti that appeared during the conference:

You'll most likely have to click on the image and get a larger version to get the joke, but it's a sign from the Sheraton pointing the way to the "Empire West" room. Amusingly, some enterprising scholar decided to scrawl beneath it "in decline." Well, it's nice to know that there's such rampant optimism about the prospects for the U.S. in the new century. Then again, I've talked to sociologists who are convinced that China is going to be involved in a nuclear World War III in the next several decades prior to its asserting economic control over the planet so, hey, at least we have that to look forward to.

The final odd thing I've been realizing lately is that I don't really know how many sociologists read this blog, but I'm increasingly convinced that there are more than I think. I've been doing this for more than three years now and, for reasons that defy understanding, know that some folks do find my inane ramblings to be interesting or, at the very least, entertaining. I also know after blogging this long that asking one's lurkers to do anything* is more or less pointless. A lot of people prefer to just read blogs without ever commenting or participating in them in a real way. I understand and, really, sympathize. Nevertheless, today I am going to do something foolish and ask my sociologist readers, lurkers or not, to leave me some sort of comment. I don't care what kind of comment. Really. I am just overwhelmed with curiosity about how many of my fellow sociologists actually read this blog. Feel free to comment anonymously. Feel free to just say "yo" and leave it at that, but say something.

What can I say? I'm a curious guy. If you like the blog, if you read it fairly regularly, just consider it a small trivially-easy way to saying "thank you."

Or, if you prefer, a small trivially-easy way to tell me that I should fall in a well and die. Whatever works for you.

* Aside from, you know, lurking.

** As a side note: non-sociologists should also feel free to say "hi," just please let me know that you're a non-sociologist. Why do I really care? No idea. But, hey, if blogging isn't about satisfying one's own egotistical whims, then what is it about?

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Taking a Gamble

Those who follow the science news as regularly as I do are undoubtedly already aware that the fossil remains known as Lucy, derived from a proto-human primate that lived 3.2 million years ago, are about to begin a six year tour of the United States. Yes, you read the right: irreplaceable remains of a truly ancient human ancestor are going to be trucked around the country for people to come and see, incidentally making them more or less unavailable for scientific research for the interim.

It goes without saying that a number of archeologists and anthropologists are up in arms about the whole thing. These are old, fragile, delicate remains of substantial scientific value. To be moving them around and propping them up for display like some sort of side show attraction is a dubious propositon at best. Paleontologist Richard Leakey has claimed that the remains will sustain damage no matter how carefully they are handled during the tour. I suspect that he is right- it's always risky to handle artifacts of such age but to move them such distances for such a long period seems almost foolhardy. And Leakey is hardly alone as numerous other U.S. scientists and institutions- including the Smithsonian Institute- have refused to house or display the fossils out of fear for their safety. As the Smithsonian spokesman Randall Kremer puts it:

"Quite simply, the Smithsonian position is that the fossil Lucy, one of the most important specimens of its kind, is too fragile to go on public tour,"

So, if things go well, we're risking slight damage to one of our few examples of human evolutionary history. If things go badly, we may lose that example entirely. Oddly, however, what I find myself worried about isn't just the risk of accidental damage. I find myself concerned about the safety of Lucy from extremists in this country. The U.S. has been embroiled for decades in a fierce battle between science and religious extremism. We saw it in the Scopes Trial, we saw it in Epperson vs. Arkansas, we saw it in McLean vs. Arkansas, we saw it in Edwards vs. Aguillard, and we've seen it most recently in Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District. A series of court cases stretching from 1925 into the present shows the deep conflict that many Americans still feel over the issue of evolution. If that isn't enough, we have an absurd but persistent notion in this country that accepting evolution leads to genocide, drug use,* and lawlessness. For example:

The 20th century marks the triumph of secularism. Three centuries ago, all the great nations of Western Civilization were openly Christian nations. Today these same nations are openly atheistic. God and His Law have no authority. No longer is man seen as created in the Image of God. He is just a random mutation; a meaningless conglomeration of chemicals. Social customs are also seen as meaningless and arbitrary.


Followers of secularism have learned their lessons. They are not afraid to kill their families, their own children, even themselves. Drugs, sex, gangs, and alcohol bring escape from a meaningless, atheistic world.

It's also the case that some opponents of evolutionary theory are perhaps... not completely averse to using violence. Need I remind everyone of the threatening letters sent to scientists at Colorado University- Boulder? Need I remind everyone of the various abortion clinic bombings that have occurred over the years?** How about the assassinations and assaults against clinic workers? Need I remind everyone of the Army of God (trust me- don't visit that site) who lionize Paul Hill? Must we think about the stereotype of evolution promoted in some religious publications and even online at Conservapedia? I didn't think so. Does it really seem implausible to anyone that religious extremists in this country might decide it's worth it to try to blow Lucy up? It doesn't to me.

I'm not saying that all religious persons are gunning for Lucy- I don't think that's true and I am specifically concerned about the true wingnuts here, not the overwhelming majority of god fearing folks. It's just unfortunately the case that we have enough of those wingnuts that bringing Lucy here strikes me as a little like sending a boatload of holocaust artifacts to Tehran.

And that just doesn't seem like a good gamble to me.

* I always find this argument rather bizarre. I'm an atheist and I neither drink nor indulge in mind altering drugs. Why would I want to muck around with my ability to perceive and interact with the world if it's the only world I've got?

** No, you don't have to accept evolution to be pro-choice. My argument here is more that the extremists who both reject evolution and might be willing to take violent action because of it are likely also among those willing to bomb clinics or kill their staff members. Anyone want to argue that point?

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Reefer Madness 2: Even Madder

Some of you, particularly those of you who have my odd taste in films,* may be familiar with the classic film "Reefer Madness." For those who don't know already "Reefer Madness" is a 1936 film intended to warn parents, and teens, of the dangers of smoking marijuana. The dangers listed included rape, murder, insanity, and of course, death. Given that I have known folks who use marijuana regularly without experiencing any of these side effects, I'm a little skeptical of the movie's arguments. That said, heavy users of marijuana have always seemed to me to be less happy, less productive, and less fulfilled in their lives than non-users,** but I suspect that's a consequence of an attempt to self-medicate an underlying problem, and not of the drug itself. In any case, dated though it may be, "Reefer Madness" stands as an argument against drug use.

And now, in the early twenty-first century, we have a sort of belated sequel. For those who are wondering if I've lost my mind, I'm referring to the recent mainstream movie "Knocked Up." Knocked Up is the exciting story of an independent young female named Allison who gets a promotion, has a one night stand to celebrate, and ends up carrying the child of Ben. Ben, for his part, is a 23 year old unemployed would-be porn mogul who spends his days playing video games, goofing off with his unemployed friends, and smoking a lot of marijuana. Let me say that again: smoking a lot of weed. We're talking a level of consumption that might require mechanized farming. These two crazy kids have a lot of twists and turns, enjoy some nutty adventures, and have the obligatory break up and reconcile cycle that we all know so well. But, in the end, they fall in love and have their baby together. Cue the closing music. Now, you might watch this film and wonder if I don't have it backwards. Ben, after all, is a pretty nice guy, despite being so high most of the time that he could wave to the International Space Station and expect a response. He's funny, more or less decent, and tries in his spectacularly incompetent way to be supportive and genuine. So, it seems that according to "Knocked Up," the consequence of consistent marijuana use is to be doomed to have sex with Katherine Heigl. Yeah, that'll deter a lot of teenage boys, I'm sure.

The funny thing is, though, at a deeper level, "Knocked Up," may well convey the same message as "Reefer Madness." While a nice guy, Ben is depicted as being ultimately irresponsible and unable to sustain a mature relationship with another person or be an adequate father. A significant plot point is when he realizes his own worthlessness and decides to "shape up," moving away from his loser friends, getting a real job, bathing regularly, and beginning to take responsibility for himself and his impending fatherhood.**** The closing scene of the movie features Ben driving a shiny volkswagon Jetta through traffic with his new baby, and Allison, laughing in the back seat. It's almost an anthem to suburbia. All we needed was to put them both in Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirts, and we would have been golden.

It's not just Ben, either, who gets a sort of makeover. Allison, who was working at "E! Entertainment Television"***** discovers that, contrary to expectation, the network is excited she's pregnant and viewers at home love watching a pregnant woman. So, hey, I guess women don't really lose their jobs for starting a family. Indeed, she seems happier now that she has a child than she did before as a single professional woman. Good thing Ben saved her from a dreadful life of profession success! There's also Allison's sister and her husband who have quite possibly one of the most screwed up marriages I've ever seen depicted in a comedy. The sister, Debbie, spends the movie constantly ripping on her husband and coming to the painful revelation that she's not a single twenty-something anymore but is, instead, a respectable mother who should act her age. Her husband goes through some sort of similar transformation relating to the fact that he shouldn't have interests outside the home but it was too badly depicted for me to really figure out what was supposed to be going on. Or maybe I was too disturbed by their horrendous relationship to tumble to the hidden message. Granted, there was some genuine humor involving these two, such as when the brother-in-law is discovered to be sneaking around so that he can play fantasy baseball, rather than have an affair.****** Unfortunately, the degree of venom in their relationship was just a tad off-putting.

I'm not condemning "Knocked Up," although I didn't like it. Obviously I'm not praising it either. It had a lot of good humor that was, unfortunately, lost in a morass of depressing, horrifying muck. I think I just wanted to note that, whether they will admit it or not, this move ends up conveying the sort of message that Focus on the Family should love: women are happiest as mothers, marijuana is bad, consuming nice things is good, and the proper response to an unintended pregnancy is to get married.

Ah, that crazy reefer madness.

* By which I mean bad taste.

** Doubtless this remark will provoke a certain amount of protest from marijuana fans. I don't care. You can have your opinion that we should all toke up every morning, I can have mine.*** Heckle to your heart's content.

*** i.e. that we should not toke up every morning. Shit, people, I don't even drink, what the hell do you think I'm gonna say?

**** It often vexes me how movies depict this sort of process as being easy. In reality people work for years to obtain success and financial security but, in the movies, take a shower, shave, and go job hunting for a day and success will be yours. It reminds me of nothing so much as the "training montage" from "Team America: World Police."

***** I always think that E is ironically named since it's so "entertaining" that it usually makes me want to kill myself rather than watch.

****** As a man who enjoys rather tame hobbies, I laughed a lot at this.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Taking things a bit far...

The Scene: Drek and his Sainted Fiancee are in their bathroom brushing their teeth and preparing for bed. Drek notices that his dog has, at some point, snuck into the room and is lying in a corner.

Drek: (to dog) Well hello! What are you doing in here? Aren't you afraid of the shower anymore?

Dog: (wags tail)

Sainted Fiancee: She misses you. She hasn't seen you very much lately.

Drek: You think?

Sainted Fiancee: Yeah. She has to maximize her "Drek" time when she can.

Drek: That's very logical of her.

Sainted Fiancee: She's a rational choice dog.

Drek: ...

Drek: Canis Economicus?

Sainted Fiancee: Exactly.

Dog: (licks her own groin)

Drek: Good to know.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

The female gaze?

Following hot on the heels of Tom's recent post about inappropriate images in advertising, comes this interesting gem. Oddly enough, this was sent to me by my mother,* text and all:

Edge Designs is an all-women run company that designs interior office space. They had a recent opportunity to do an office project in NYC.

The client allowed the women of this company a free hand in all design aspects. The client was also a company run by all women execs.

The result: Well... We all know that men never talk, never look at each other -- and never laugh much in the restroom.

The men's room is a serious and quiet place. But now -- with the addition of one mural on the wall -- let's just say the men's restroom is a place of laughter and smiles.

Now, there's a couple of things that need to be said here. The first, and perhaps most interesting to me, is that the story is partly false. This mural does exist, and it is in a men's room, but it is not in a restroom in New York run by all-female management. Instead, it is in a men's room in the Sofitel Hotel in New Zealand. So far as I can tell, the Sofitel Hotel is not run exclusively by women. Seriously. Additionally, the mural was not designed by an all-female company called "Edge Designs" but, instead, is the work of the Perron Group, which is also not all-female. Does this make the idea any less amusing? No, it's still funny as all hell, but we should give credit where credit is due.

More interesting, however, is that in its metamorphosis into an e-mail forward details were changed in the way that they were. An all-female interior design company working with an all-female group of managers to put a sexually suggestive mural in a men's room? Why does this seem more interesting that the truth? Imagine the reverse: perhaps art on the mirror of a ladies room depicting male construction workers staring at, and measuring, the breasts of bathroom patrons? And if we were told that it was installed by an all-male design firm at the behest of an all-male group of managers, would we be equally amused? Probably not. Probably we'd call it sexual harassment. So, when the story is changed in this way, why is it somehow more compelling? Why don't we regard it as harassment as well?

I won't pretend to know completely, but I think it has to do with something known as the "male gaze." Summarized quickly, and poorly, the male gaze is a term referring to a tendency for mass media to depict women in a way that implies that the viewer of the media is a man. Tom found a doozie of an example but even many products directed at women seem to reflect this tendency towards the male gaze. Take, for example, the last Victoria's Secret catalogue you ran across:** is it just me, or are the models posing in a way that is more than just a little... um... sexual? I mean, no lie, some of them look like they just stepped off of the pole and into the photo shoot. So, in short, advertising for men features women looking very sexual and advertising for women features... women looking very sexual. Whether you accept the idea of the male gaze or not*** this does seem to create a weird sort of imbalance.

And I think this is precisely why this story about a men's room seems more compelling told in the way it was: it turns this overwhelming "male gaze" on its head and exposes men to a female gaze. That it is funny suggests, to me at least, that perhaps many of us do recognize the pervasiveness of the male gaze on some level, even if we are loathe to admit it.

Or that men are just narcissistic enough that we want to believe many attractive women are interested in checking out our equipment. Take your prick pick.

* In perfect honesty, this is probably a warning of things to come. My maternal grandmother habitually sent my sister copies of the Marmaduke cartoons that appeared in the paper- not knowing or not caring that my sister didn't find them amusing. Given my mother's increasing penchant for e-mail forwards, I think it only a matter of time before I am buried under a mountain of animated cat .gifs.

** This springs to my mind because I think my Sainted Fiancee receives one of these every week or so. I've taken to exclaiming, "Hey honey! Your latest issue of 'Victoria's Secret' is here!"

*** I don't completely buy into all of it myself, but I think there's some merit to the idea.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Crutches and Stilts.

Assuming you haven't been living under a rock or perhaps in an elaborate tree fort, you are doubtless aware of the new television program debuting in a few weeks: Bionic Woman. This program appears to be a remake of the "classic" show from the seventies, The Bionic Woman, which somehow made science fiction writers everywhere cry blood. In any case, given my love of sci-fi,* I'm looking forward to this show and hoping that it will prove to be good. And if good is out of the question, maybe amusingly funny.

For those who aren't as versed in sci-fi as I am, the term bionics technically refers to the use of nature to inform engineering. So, any time a technology adapts something from the natural world, it's bionics. Colloquially, however, the term is most often used to mean mechanical or electronic devices that are grafted onto the human body. So, it's safe to say that we're talking about something akin to prosthetics. In this sense, bionics have been in use for a long time and are only getting more sophisticated. This is particularly true, I am sorry to say, because of the Iraq war- we now have a glut of folks who are missing various limbs and are willing to be test subjects for new prosthetic devices. The television program the "Bionic Woman" uses this meaning of bionics- its protaganist was nearly killed in an accident and is saved through the use of experimental bionics. The thing is, the show isn't really the heart warming story of a woman who triumphs over adversity. Instead, her bionics give her superhuman abilities- amazing strength, amazing speed, acute eyesight and hearing, and so on. In essence the bionic woman becomes something more than human.

It's an interesting idea and I hope they do it well. Most mass media involving bionics of this sort tends to forget things- like the need for limbs to connect to something. So, for example, even if your legs are mechanical and can do zero to sixty in 1.5 seconds, unless they're anchored to equally bionic hips and spine, the rest of your body won't be going with them. Likewise, a bionic arm won't really be able to deliver a steel-shattering punch unless the shoulders, back, hips, and legs are also similarly artificial. The power of the blow doesn't actually come from the arm, but rather from a whole series of muscles that work together. Without that, a punch from a bionic arm is roughly akin to using brass knuckles: it'll hurt, but only so much. Still, we can at least hope that the show pays attention to these sorts of very interesting physical requirements and limitations.

Thinking about this television show, however, also brings us to an interesting habit of humans everywhere: the adaptation of "prosthetic" devices for purposes of enhancement. Think about it for a moment: a lot of the research into prosthetics is intended to restore functionality to the injured, but in the popular imagination this same technology could be used to give someone extraordinary abilities. This raises the question: if we could really restore people to superior levels of mobility and sensitivity, might people employ these technologies to enhance their existing bodies? Might we not replace perfectly functional original components with "new and improved" bionic ones? My guess is that we would, and the popularity of plastic surgery is an argument in my favor. We may have developed surgical techniques to save lives, but thanks to that investment we can now shrink your stomach, enlarge your breasts, and reshape your face. Why would bionics be any different? Consider as well developments in prosthetic eyes. It may be possible, and fairly soon at that, to restore vision to those who have lost it. The data from video cameras implanted in the eye socket can now be fed directly into the visual cortex, restoring something akin to normal vision. As this technology develops, what is to stop us from enhancing normal individuals such that they can feed the video stream from their television or computer directly into their brains? Who needs a monitor when you have a direct hook-up to the visual cortex?

The reality is that as prosthetic technology evolves, so too will the nature of many humans. I can easily see the day when we will implant computers and cellphones, using readouts to our visual stream, to our auditory nerves, and inputs from our fingers, our larynx, or even our thoughts themselves to exert control. What happens when we begin to link ourselves to computers? When we can access our own computers- day or night- from wireless hardware implanted in our bodies and accessible using our brains? It's easy to see why Ray Kurzweil thinks that, someday, humans will be as much or more electronic and machine-based as biologic.

And this, oddly enough, takes us to Plain(s)feminist's recent assertion that powerpoint is a crutch.** Doubtless what she means is that folks think that powerpoint will allow them to get away with a crappy presentation and a poor speaking style- and doubtless she's right. I agree that powerpoint can be, and is, used to shore up an otherwise lousy effort. Much the same thing, however, could be said about calculators: there are so many calculators around now, nobody does math by hand anymore! Likewise, perhaps penmanship is suffering because of the ubiquity of word processors.*** That said, there's an awful lot that we can do with calculators and word processors that we couldn't do otherwise. Folks out there who use Monte Carlo procedures or other iterative techniques in their work, for example, know what I'm talking about. So, the introduction of these technologies has yielded a net gain even if some loss is also experienced. Does this excuse lousy presenters who use powerpoint to cover for their laziness? No, it certainly doesn't, but the presence of losers doesn't mean that we should sacrifice the potential benefits.

Sometimes the difference between a crutch and a stilt is just the perspective from which you view it.

* Seriously, people, I watched Jake 2.0 for crying out loud.

** Somebody really needs to give me props for a change of subject of that magnitude. From post-humanism to powerpoint in one sentence.

*** Those who know me are aware that my own handwriting is simply awful, so this probably refers to me as much as anyone.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I Don't Know What Title to Give This Post

Least Subtle Ad, Ever?

Mainstreaming of Pr0n, Part MMMCDXVI?

Feeling nostalgic for those subtle ads for erectile dysfunction meds [*]?

See here. Do you need a safety-for-work warning at This Humble Blog?

Channeling our host
, is there anything to say but Jesus Titty-Fucking Christ?

Will this post contain a declarative sentence of more than two words?

OK, here goes: clearly, elements of the advertising community want to cut in front of hedge fund managers who incorporate in the Caymans to reserve the right to say "fuck you" to disgruntled investors in line to be first up against the wall when the revolution comes.

[*] Who knows what this will do to the search-engine-originated visits. Or cares?

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Ignore them and hope they go away.

While at this year's ASA meetings I managed to take in a few panels. Those who regularly attend meetings know that this is no small feat as, often times, a variety of commitments will prevent one from going to these presentations. It sometimes occurs to me that the audience at panels is largely composed of those who don't have better things to do, but I digress.

One of the papers I happened to see* addressed in passing the issue of intelligent design and its ongoing conflict with actual science. Now, this was a fairly interesting paper but there were two assertions that the author made that I feel compelled to take issue with. Congratulations- you get to watch me do that. Aren't you lucky?

The first assertion is that intelligent design differs from the earlier "creation science" of the eighties in that it is not targetted at schools and school children but, instead, seeks to convince the academic community. Those of you who follow this blog with any regularity** can probably guess my issue here: the author's assertion is almost completely wrong. Oh, if you go by what the Discovery Institute claims on their website, then it's absolutely true that the intelligent design movement is trying to convince academics. Unfortunately, the DI lies like a dog. The simple reality is that the intelligent design movement is targetted entirely on the public, and students in particular, and barely at all at academics. What do I base this claim on? Well, let's start with that old classic "Of Pandas and People," an intelligent design textbook intended for high schoolers. You know- the textbook that the school board wanted to use in Dover, Pennsylvania. You remember that court case in Dover, right? The one where intelligent design got thrashed by scientists? The one where Discovery Institute folks testified or attempted to testify in favor of the anti-science requirements for public schools? Folks like "Wild Bill" Dembski, Stephen Meyer, and Michael Behe. That's clearly not evidence that intelligent design is targetting kids. How about "Exploring Evolution," the successor to "Of Pandas and People" that was written by, among others, three Discovery Institute members? Does this new and improved intelligent design drivel, intended for high school students and recently unveiled at Biola, count as something targetted at students? Surely not- it must be a book for graduate students who have a ninth grade reading level. And hell, while we're at it, how about we just read the Discovery Institute's own published intentions on the matter?

Once our research and writing have had time to mature, and the public prepared for the reception of design theory, we will move toward direct confrontation with the advocates of materialist science through challenge conferences in significant academic settings. We will also pursue possible legal assistance in response to resistance to the integration of design theory into public school science curricula.

So, right, yes, clearly no targetting of students here.

The second point I have to take issue with is the author's claim that the correct response to intelligent design is... nothing. Science is, supposedly, so strong and so respected that intelligent design is doomed from the outset. We shouldn't resist ID or oppose teaching it in the science classroom because, in the end, science will win out. Right. We've gone from "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing," to "Evil can't ever triumph over good so, you know, don't even worry about evil." Truly a great day for reasoning. In all seriousness, however, my problem is simply that the public, by and large, doesn't understand how science works. I don't blame them for that- if anything I blame us- but it's a reality that needs to be understood. The problem is, folks who try to insert intelligent design into the classroom are elected fairly regularly and are only turned out of office when people make a stink about what they're doing to education.*** Need I remind everyone of our old pal Connie Morris? To the average guy on the street intelligent design probably sounds scientific, and to many it's a helluva lot more appealing since it dovetails with what they want to believe anyway. Good science is not going to win out in the public arena unless we fight for it, and since good science is often funded by public monies, we can't afford to simply pull back into our shells and pretend nothing is going on.

I don't want to fight any battles I don't have to, but ignoring the ID'ers and hoping that they go away just isn't going to work.

* After much consideration I have decided not to identify this paper by name. Partly, this is because I think it would be unfair to do so and, partly, because much chatting about papers at the ASA meetings omits author names anyway. So, just imagine we're talking about this in the Hilton lobby and we're all good.

** Also known as masochists.

*** To be blunt, we could refer to it as "ass-ramming science."

As a side note to S.S. Stone: I accept your challenge, though it's going to take me a while to meet your conditions. Perhaps look for something next week.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Observations from the ASA

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have returned from my recent conference travel and am grateful to be home. It was an interesting conference, a fun conference, and an expensive conference. I expect my Sainted Fiancee and I will be eating ramen for months to help pay for it. Nevertheless, for your reading pleasure, please enjoy this selection of observations from my recent conference travels:

-I’m afraid of airplane toilets. I can never stand up straight in them and have this bizarre fear I’m going to drop my ring or my watch when I flush. I imagine it falling free from 30,000 feet and embedding itself in some farmer’s head. I imagine I’ll learn of this when police detectives appear on my doorstep with my former possessions, matted with hair and bits of scalp, sealed in a plastic bag.

-It’s always interesting to see which fails first: the charge in your laptop battery or the caffeine you chugged to make it to your early morning flight.

-My flights are always delayed. Always. Without fail. God I hate sitting in airports. That said, at least I avoided the fiasco that was Montreal.

-One of the great things about being a grad student are the fascinating places you find to stay. I think at one point my hotel was a fancy place. Now they’re fighting a losing battle against vagrancy and decay. Much like my apartment, come to think of it.

-New York street vendors are awesome. You can get halal food at any time day or night, which is damned convenient. I’m also rather impressed that New Yorkers, who suffered directly from 9/11, are so accepting of Arabs and Arab culture. Too bad the Midwest can’t follow New York’s lead…

-Why is liquid nitrogen being pumped into the sewer system? Does anyone know? Tina suspects it’s intended to reduce steam and smell by cooling the sewers. I prefer to imagine that it’s fending off a secret race of molemen bent on subjugating the day-walkers.

-I’m poor and I know it every day of my life. This is only made worse in New York where an omlette will run you $10.95, plus $1.50 for cheese and a $3.00 “sharing” fee. I don’t know how NYU grad students survive, but I suspect prostitution.

-There are many approaches to giving a presentation but those that don’t involve visual aids really assume too much about both the presenter’s oratorical ability and my attention span.

-The book fair is always interesting but, increasingly, reminds me of a carnival. I think that to raise money the ASA might consider having faculty sit in a dunking booth and allow people to pay to throw balls at the appropriate target. It would have to be more exciting than the current “Fill out a survey, get a USB mouse.”

-Power point is an amazing tool. It allows you to integrate pictures, notes, animations, video, and audio files right into your presentation. Someone should really mention that to folks who insist on just reading us their papers.

-Yes, I’m aware I bitched about powerpoint twice. It’s just that important to me.

-I hate to be the one to say it, but New Yorkers really aren’t unfriendly. They’re not up to southern standards of friendliness, but they’re far from being total assholes. On the other hand, they drive as though the weak nuclear force was a myth.

-A friend told me that central park is a wonderful place to go see topless sunbathers. I think he must have been referring to the guys. "Hey Guido. Lookin… good?"

-I really enjoy watching baseball and, so, couldn’t miss a chance to visit Yankee Stadium. On the positive side, it’s a place steeped in history. On the other hand, it smells like cat piss.

-Along similar lines, it is evident to me that the only thing Yankees fans like more than watching their team win, is enumerating the failings of the other team to its fans. In excruciating, and often anatomically improbable, detail.

-The blogger get-together is always an enjoyable experience and this year was no exception. Usually when I introduce myself to people I expect a response like, “Oh. Right. Well. Good to meet you.” So, when one fellow blogger exclaimed, “Oh, I LOVE your blog!!” I was quite flattered. I truly have the greatest readers in the world, because only a great bunch of people would put up with this shit.

-Meeting the anonymous bloggers is always an interesting experience. Jeremy, for example, on meeting me marveled at my ability to overcome numerous obstacles. I, in turn, on meeting Wicked Anomie and subsequently learning that she both has a publication and has a daughter, am forced to conclude that she is some sort of super being.

More on the ASAs tomorrow. For now, I have work to do.

Man, it's good to be back.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Snakes on a Plane?

Check out this image. Please. That is all.

What, you want intelligent, meaningful content five days in a row?

I am flying to Boston for a quick one-day meeting today. Hope there are no snakes on the plane. If there are, I hope that Samuel L. Jackson is there too.

Have a good weekend, and see you next week.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Campaign contributions 90210

There is an interesting story on the cover of today's USA Today with the headline Biggest Donor Areas go for Dems. Rather than link to the article and its attendant bias (as a college humor magazine once noted, "USA Today is the one newspaper with the courage to tell it like it is: everything's fine"), I will summarize the content and link to a PDF file with a table of results.

The data appears to come from, the website of the nonprofit and apparently non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. The data looks at the zip codes with the 50 highest amounts of campaign contributions so far. The table lists the top 10 candidates in terms of fundraising in each zip code. The zip codes seem to be in random order in the table, but this sample data shows a few zip codes sorted by campaign contribution. You can look up where they are by typing the zip code directly into Google Maps. The zip code that gave the most was 10021 in midtown Manhattan. The famous Beverly Hills 90210 ranked eighth.

The site also lets you search for individual contributions by zip code. For example, in my former zip code (for too short a season), the top single donation was $2,300 to John Edwards from someone named Mark Davis.

As you can probably see, this web site is a huge source of data for research on who gives to whom, from where, from which you can test hypotheses as to why. But the result that USA Today thought to report on was that for the 50 zip codes with the largest contributions, Democratic candidates raised nearly $32 million to only $13 million for Republican candidates. (In contrast, President Bush raised $6 million from the 2003 top 50 by this point in the elections - one more sign of how crazy this election cycle is shaping up to be, and how early.)

32 > 13. This is good news, right? More cash for the good guys? Well, I have my concerns, because this result seems to fit so securely into the Republicans mega-narrative: Rich liberals from the coasts are funding Democrats to oppress people in the heartland.* (There are various ways to phrase this message, but I think this comes closest to what they actually say, and I think it's important to stick to their actual words as closely as possible.)

You can bet that this story will show up on right-wing talk radio and Fox News today, and will soon appear in fundraising letters by Republican candidates. While this is a genuinely interesting result, there are a few limitations that we should keep in mind:

1) This is not a listing of the 50 wealthiest zip codes in the U.S.; it is a listing of the 50 zip codes that have contributed the most to presidential campaigns. It would be interesting to correlate these zip codes with the 50 zip codes with the highest median income. Some would line up, some would not.

2) As crazy as this election cycle has been, it is still early, and there are a lot more campaign contributions to come. It's highly possible that rich Republican donors will wait until a single candidate has been found before emptying their swimming pools of gold and selling their shower curtains.

2a) Related to point 2, Republicans are dispirited - they lost big in the midterm Congressional elections, and there is no single candidate to energize the base like Ronald Reagan did. Democratic supporters want to build on the momentum of the last election, so naturally their early contributions are high.

I'm sure that people who are more into statistics than I could look into this more, and come up with more hypotheses.

We should keep watching this issue. The question that might decide the election is this one: Who do the rich support? I want to vote for the other guy.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

维基百科 (Not a post in Chinese)

(By the way, the post title means "Wikipedia").

As some of you may remember from ancient posts, I am in the process of learning Dutch so I can speak to members of my Hot Belgian Wife's family. Ik kan nu goed Nederlands spreken. I've gotten good enough that I can regularly follow the Astronomy Picture of the Day site in Dutch, and as a result I've been learning lots of new vocabulary. I've gone from learning words like zwart (black) and hebben (to have) to learning words like waterstof (hydrogen)*, geweld (violence), and afstand (distance).

Somewhat obscurely related to this, I was recently searching for the Dutch translation of spiral galaxy. I didn't want to rely on a machine translator like Babelfish, because I was worried that the technical term "spiral galaxy" might have a different translation from "spiral" + "galaxy." So where did I go?


Wikipedia was designed as an online encyclopedia to provide information, and not at all as a translation or language learning tool. But as it has grown, it has gotten popular all over the world, and has attracted users who want to contribute to the free encyclopedia in their own languages. As of now, there are no less than 23 entries for "spiral galaxy," in 23 languages:

Bosnian: Spiralna galaksija
Bulgarian: Спирална галактика
Catalan: Galàxia espiral
Spiralna galaksija
Czech: Spirální galaxie
Spiraalvormig sterrenstelsel
Galaxie spirale
German: Spiralarm
Hungarian: S
Italian: Galassia spirale
Japanese: 渦巻銀河
나선 은하
Spiralinė galaktika
Galaktyka spiralna
Galáxia espiral
Спиральная галактика
Спирална галаксија
Špirálová galaxia
Galaxia espiral
Swedish: Spiralgalax
Спіральна галактика

And, of course, it's not just the term that is translated - an entire article about spiral galaxies is available in each language. And the amazing thing is that each article was not machine-translated, which often produces useless results, but by an actual human who really cared about the subject that he or she was translating.

I used the same strategy to learn the word zwaartekracht** (gravity).

I think this is a wonderful story of a piece of technology that was created for one purpose (a free encyclopedia), but is being used for a different purpose (De taaloefening van Slag).

Wikipedia is free, anyone can use it, and (as I've found out), anyone can use it to learn a new language. Technology has made many tasks much easier. With all the problems that technology occasionally brings us, we shouldn't forget to celebrate its unexpected successes.***

*waterstof literally means water dust, which I think is much more informative and poetic than "hydrogen."

**zwaartekracht literally means heaviness force. Again, a very cool expression of what the thing is, in a word.

***After consulting my Chinese character recognition plug-in for Firefox, I learn that "Wikipedia" in Chinese is pronounced "wei ji bai ke", which "preserving a hundred fields of study." It's common for loanwords into Chinese to receive Chinese pronunciations that echo the word in both sound and meaning. Chinese is a wonderfully beautiful language. I've learned the basic greeting (ni hao), and I plan to properly learn it when I finish with my hot Belgian wife's languages: Dutch, Catalan, and French. Um, yeah... I have a long way to go.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Breathing sociology

This AP news article in Yahoo! News caught my eye - the nation's most polluted place is not Los Angeles, New York, Denver, or any other city you might expect.

Instead, it is the small farming community of Arvin, California. The AP article is frustratingly short on detail; it's more useful and much more interesting to look at the local coverage, from KERO, the local ABC affiliate in the nearby city of Bakersfield. There is also an extensive Wikipedia article about Arvin.

The EPA reported that Arvin's level of ground-level ozone* (a key component of smog) is higher than the acceptable amount 73 days per year between 2004 and 2006. Consequently, respiratory diseases occur at a much higher rate in Arvin than in the rest of the country. 17.5% of Arvin's children have asthma, compared to the 12.2% national average.

Why is the air in this small farming town so polluted? The town lies the far southern end of California's immense and agriculturally productive Central Valley, hemmed in by mountains to the south and west. Pollution from the San Francisco bay area blows south and west, flows along the ground, and eventually ends up stuck on the valley floor in Arvin until it dissipates.

So, to oversimplify slightly while still leaving the essence of the problem, cars and factories in the San Francisco area create pollution that blows to the southwest, flows along the ground in the Central Valley, and collects in Arvin.

What is the 2000 census demographics of each area?**

San Francisco County
2006 Estimated Population: 744,041
2005 Racial distribution:
White non-hispanic 44.1%
Black 7.3%
Asian 32.9%
Hispanic/Latino 13.7%
2004 Median household income: $51,815
2000 High school graduates: 81.2%

Kern County (includes Arvin and Bakersfield)***
2006 Estimated Population: 780,117
2005 Racial distribution:
White non-hispanic 44.3%
Black 6.2%
Asian 3.9%
Hispanic/Latino 44.1%
2004 Median household income: $38,689
2000 High school graduates: 68.5%

It's a proverbial Tale of Two Cities, and to quote the book in this new context:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct

the other way.
I'm sure you can guess which city is which.

Why do I bring this up today? Yesterday, I spoke about public sociology, and speculated on whether and how sociologists can better communicate their results to an interested member of the public - and whether and how this is related to the public sociology movement that Drek has eloquently posted about in the past.

Sociologists can and should guard against overt politicization of their discipline, and can and should maintain scientific rigor. But they also should not pretend that sociology is a field of pure research, with no use for applications to everyday life. After all, a research topic like inequality is not a question to be put in a lab and studied.

It's in the air that we breathe.

*Don't confuse ground-level ozone with the upper-atmosphere ozone layer, which is necessary to sustain life on Earth. We want ozone in the upper atmosphere, where it absorbs harmful rays from the Sun; we don't want it near the ground, where it makes it hard for us to breathe.

**I'm using counties instead of cities because the census bureau web site does not list data for Arvin, so I am using data for Kern County, which includes both Arvin and Bakersfield.

***Kern County isn't a true representation of Arvin, because it includes the much larger city of Bakersfield (320,000 people for Bakersfield vs. 12,000 for Arvin). But because Arvin is a farming community with a large Mexican-American population, I suspect that the income and education level for Arvin is even lower than for Kern County overall. Can someone who knows where to find city statistics look this up?

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Monday, August 13, 2007

So I can totally write whatever I want today? Cool!

All the sociologists are away at the American Sociological Association* meeting, listening to Drek present an awesome paper. Since so many of the authors, and readers, of this blog are sociologists, I have the floor pretty much to myself today. So, I can talk about anything I want. Hey, where did everybody go? Is this thing on?

Seriously, I wish everyone who is attending the ASAs a safe, productive, and enjoyable meeting. I'm sort of jealous that you all are there at such an interesting meeting. I considered going, but the meeting location was just a little too far from my secret lair. I'm sure that going as an observer would be very very different from a professional with papers to present and jobs to apply for, so I can't compare to your experience, but I really would like to go to an ASA someday.

I've always had a hobbyist interest in sociology - I think that questions about how human societies are organized are fascinating questions. So I think I'm an interesting test case for the public sociology movement. If sociologists want to get the public interested in their research and how it applies to everyday life, it's a good start to start explaining the discipline, its approaches, and its major discoveries and theories to someone who is already interested. Unfortunately, I never heard of the public sociology movement until I started reading it here on Total Drek.

Why is that? Is it because people are distributing inefficiently, or because the movement never really got off the ground in the first place - or have I just not known where to look? Do you have any ideas?

*Which some might refer to as the American Sociological Society, resulting in a funny acronym. But not me. I would never suggest anything that puerile.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Alas, no moose, but a useful link nonetheless

Hi folks. Today, I'll follow up on Drek's post from yesterday by giving you a short yet hopefully informative edumucational post. No moose here, alas, but plenty of information that you can use when facing global warming skeptics. There are plenty of them, some of whom are in extremely powerful positions. They are all various degrees of misinformed.

Some are confused about the extensive, detailed evidence that the world is getting measurably warmer. Some are not convinced of the meaningfulness of the scientific method. And some are deliberately and selfishly confusing the public with cherry-picked data and suspect interpretations.*

This is an excellent resource, put together by an astronomy professor at Bakersfield College, for arguing against the global warming skeptics. The link from there to the special issue of New Scientist is especially informative. Read, enjoy, use.

When talking with a global warming skeptic, however, I would encourage you to really listen to them. Hear what their arguments are and try your best to understand them. This will help you anticipate other people's arguments in the future. Even more importantly, if you really take the time to listen to someone, they will most likely return the courtesy by really listening to you. And if someone is really listening to you instead of involved in an argument, you finally have a chance to persuade them.

*I was going to link to the Global Climate Coalition site, but the site is deactivated. It seems to me that, now that the ties between the GCC and Exxon have been exposed, the voices behind the GCC would rather that we forget they ever existed. If true, this seems to me to be an act of extreme cowardice.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Picachu or potpourri or whatever you call it...

Tomorrow I depart for the fabulous excitement of the ASA annual meeting in New York. Several days of panels, papers, hob-nobbing, and even a blogger shindig that I may or may not attend. What can I say? Mystery is part of my thing.

Given my imminent departure, however, I don't have a lot of time to blog so we're just going to have a little of this and that today.

First, please allow me to present what is an in-joke for one of my co-bloggers and his charming wife. Doubtless they will understand why this made me think of them immediately and the rest of you may derive some small amusement from it.

Quite obviously, this picture comes from Something Awful, a site that you would probably enjoy if you like my tasteless rantings.

Secondly, a number of you are aware that my Sainted Fiancee and I will, sooner or later, be married. This implies that at some point in the future we may have children. Needless to say, the thought of my offspring should send shudders down all of your spines, but that's not the point. The point is that we will have to find a way to raise our no doubt unusual children. We're already aware of resources for raising children who understand evolution- there are the Sandwalk Adventures as well as the excellent Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story- but obviously there is more to child rearing than teaching them science. There are also lullabys. My Sainted Fiancee, being a fan of folk music, will doubtless play a large role in determing our musical selections. I, on the other hand, tend towards bands like White Zombie, Metallica, AC/DC, Gravity Kills, and Evanescence.* It goes almost without saying that my musical influence on our children is likely to be held down to almost nothing.

This is why I'm so excited that someone has done the undoable- they have rendered Metallica songs as lullabys. I know, I know: I wouldn't have believed it either if I hadn't heard it for myself. Classic tunes like "Enter Sandman," "Master of Puppets," and even "One," are now available in soothing child-friendly format. Perfect for the heavy metal father who wants to bond with his children.

And if they're a little hard to mosh to, who the hell cares?

Well, that's it for my useless ramblings for the day. Updates will be sporadic at best until I return from the annual meeting, so I encourage my esteemed co-bloggers to take up as much of the slack as they please.

See you later, kids!

* You can be sure that Bethany Bryson's piece on symbolic exclusion was something of a distressing read for me.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

I have no witty title for this post.

So what else is new, eh?

A while back Practicing Idealist wrote a post discussing the relative statuses of teaching and research in academia. It will surprise no academics, and probably will surprise non-academics, to know that teaching is more or less viewed as equivalent to taking out the trash- an unpleasant chore to be avoided when possible. This is to say that teaching is not terribly valued.

The reasons for this more or less boil down to a simple proposition: academics are not, by and large, rewarded for teaching. Esteem from peers, job opportunities, and financial rewards largely accrue to those who demonstrate prowess in research. Often, skill with research will cover for grievous sins in the classroom- sometimes to the extent that, so long as you don't do anything illegal,* whatever you choose to do to your students is acceptable. So, what motivation is there for academics to try to be good teachers? It harms us in virtually every way and the only rewards are knowing that you are providing a service for your students who are, I am sorry to say, a notoriously ungrateful bunch.

In any case, Practicing Idealist makes the argument that teaching should confer more status within academia and, as it happens, I agree with her. This is not because I want to be a teacher, however. I do enjoy teaching and, so far as I can tell, my students largely appreciate my efforts. Those who know my true identity will doubtless get a kick out of looking me up on,** but that isn't my point. My point is that while I am, myself, a research focussed individual, I do think that teaching deserves more of our time and energy. My reasons for this, oddly, are quite similar to my reasons for supporting a limited form of Public Sociology.

Now I've written at length previously about this issue but, to provide a quick summary, I think we as sociologists need to do a better job of convincing the public that what we do matters. I often hear sociologists lamenting that their family and "civilian" friends don't understand sociological insight and persist in believing things that we know to be incorrect. Fair enough but the question I have to ask is, When was the last time you tried to teach sociology to a general audience? I don't mean your classes, either. A required Soc 101 course is, at best, going to reach a tiny fraction of the total population. Have you written any articles for general interest magazines? Written a popular press book about exchange theory, perhaps? Maybe started a blog?*** No? Well, maybe that's the problem. It may be that the average person doesn't know much sociology, but it's at least partly our fault for not trying to teach it to them.

This problem is not, of course, limited to sociology either. Consider for a moment the men and women of intelligent design creationism, who are attempting to disguise a religious doctrine as science and ram it into the public schools. Particularly, consider the new book by Michael Behe, (one of ID's only leaders with real scientific credentials) titled "The Edge of Evolution." "The Edge of Credulity" would be a better title since it is a pack of half-truths and outright fabrication. And if you don't believe me, try this response which makes a pretty strong case that Behe is willfully ignoring relevant evidence.

Now, biologists could write this all off and blame the public. The public is just ignorant, and stupid, and can't tell that Behe is dazzling them with bullshit. People making that argument might well be correct, too. Obviously there is a tremendous lack of understanding about how science works and what it tells us. While I wouldn't say that the public is stupid,**** I would say that a large number of people don't have hobby interests in modern science and are, instead, content to watch the superbowl and wrestling. The problem is, we need to ask the next question: why is the public so ignorant of modern science? Is it because they are somehow just physically incapable of learning it,***** or is it because we're not doing a good enough job of disseminating scientific knowledge? If some people are starving to death while others have a gigantic stockpile of food, do we blame the starving for being stupid,****** or do we blame the distribution system? By the same token, if the public doesn't understand the vast amount of information that modern science has produced and continues to produce, do we blame them for being stupid, or do we accept part of the blame for not trying to convey that knowledge? I've had some pretty dumb students, but I'll be damned if their ignorance was entirely their own fault.

I think teaching needs to be more of a priority******* for the same reason that I support some sort of limited form of public sociology: because it is necessary that the knowledge we discover be disseminated to the public. We need to do it in the classroom, we need to do it in the media, and we need to do it in our lives. Will it be a thankless job? Maybe.

But then, we didn't go into academia for the money, did we?

* Sexual harassment falls into the category of things you can't do no matter how f-ing good you are at research. Or at least, I tell myself that so I can sleep at night.

** Which is, like, TOTALLY valid and stuff. Especially the "chili pepper hotness meter." Honestly, at what point did college level teaching become "American Idol"?

*** C'mon, I get to be a little self-indulgent now and then, don't I?

**** Technically, I would say that. I think, however, that the "public" is not any more foolish on average than any other group. It's probably worth noting, additionally, that I use the term "stupid" to refer to a person's unwillingness to engage in critical thought, rather than to their native intelligence. I think even the smartest people are capable of being pretty bloody dumb from time to time.

***** Don't make me laugh. Some people are almost unteachable but, by and large, people can learn more than they think they can. I once taught the concept of an electromagnetic spectrum to five and six year olds. If they can learn that...

****** The invisible Ann Coulter who lives in my brain asnwers: "Yes."

******* Of course, in perfect honesty, I would gladly not teach in exchange for more time to do research, so I am part of the problem myself.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Slag's uninformed movie review: Bratz: the Movie

Ladies and gentlemen and sentient AIs, I am pleased to announce that Total Drek has joined yet another meme of the ol' Interwebs: I am reviewing a movie that I have not seen. The difference, though, is that I am admitting up front that I have not seen Bratz: the Movie. Nor do I have any intention of seeing the... movie. But I've totally read the review from The Onion, as well as an Onion blog entry about the movie, and I've seen the trailer while waiting to see Harry Potter and Holy Fuck, J.K. Rowling is Richer than the Queen!

So, what follows is entirely my uninformed opinion. But, if you wanted to read informed opinions, then why are you reading a blog entry from someone called "Slag" on a blog called Total Drek?

Bratz: the Movie (note replacement of s by z for extra coolnezz) is the The Movie embodiment of the popular-among-9-to-13-year-old-girls Bratz line of dolls, which feature enormous eyes, small noses, and tight-fitting doll dresses. The Onion described them as "Barbies for the Paris Hilton era." Not knowing any 11-year-old girls, I was only vaguely aware that the Bratz line existed, but after seeing them, that description seems appropriate. The slogan at the bottom of their web site is "The only girls with a Passion for Fashion!"(TM)

The The Movie follows tells the story of four dolls, um I mean girls, who are BFFs.* But when they enter a new school for reasons that the trailer doesn't make clear (and for which I am too lazy to see the movie), they join separate cliquez, meeting new friends who are interested in science, music, sports, and cheerleading. (Incidentally, my hot Belgian wife is constantly amazed by the presence of cheerleading, which is unique to American culture. They seem to serve no obvious purpose other than to wear short skirts and get the crowd excited.**) The former BFFs, now part of their new groupz of friendz, start to be mean to each other.

After what the Onion terms "a poorly choreographed food fight," the girls realize that their former BFFship is worth holding on to, so they concoct some sort of elaborate revenge on the movie's villian, a rich, materialistic, cliquish high school girl involving ruining her televised sweet 16 party. The heroes - rich, materialistic, cliquish high school girlz - save the day and become BFFs forever forever.

The moral of this story appears to be that cliquez are bad, unless they unite people based on shopping rather than something as shallow as shared interests, in which case they're like totally awesome. And you can share in the awesomeness for just $19.98 at your local Walmart.

Remember that the target audience is 9-to-13-year-old girls.

What does this all mean? Movies that exist only to sell a product are not unique to this generation.**** Nor is the sexualization of adolescence.***** Nor is this unique to this point in history - not too long ago in western society, teen pregnancy was considered a joyous and expected outcome, not a problem to be solved.

What bothers me about Bratz pushes commercial sexualization back to before puberty. True, young girls have been playing with Barbie since 1959, and Barbie has been variously sexualized since the very beginning. But the explicit "passion for fashion" consumerist ethos of Bratz seems new, and somehow more insidious, than even Barbie's small dresses do. Bratz may be an update of Barbie, but it seems to be a worse update. The American Psychological Association seems to agree with me. In February 2007, their "Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls" released this statement:

Bratz dolls come dressed in sexualized clothing such as miniskirts, fishnet stockings, and feather boas. Although these dolls may present no more sexualization of girls or women than is seen in MTV videos, it is worrisome when dolls designed specifically for 4- to 8-year-olds are associated with an objectified adult sexuality.

To which a Bratz company spokezman responded:

The Bratz brand, which has remained number one in the UK market for 23 consecutive months focuses core values on friendship, hair play and a 'passion for fashion'.

"Passion for fashion" as a core value?

Looks like our values need to change.

*BFF = "Best Friend Forever," OMG LOL!
**I know this sounds mean, but seriously, what do cheerleaders do?***
***Note that I don't blame the cheerleaders themselves; they are mostly good people who are just trying to fit in in high school or college or society like so many other people.
****Rest in peace, Orson Welles, and have mercy on Hollywood for making the 1986 version of Transformers your final movie appearance.
*****This song is now 9 years old. And seriously, a 17-year-old girl signing Hit me, baby, one more time?

Monday, August 06, 2007

Fuck YES!

If you don't understand why this is a good thing, I'm not really sure how to explain.


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Friday, August 03, 2007

Wait, wait, let me guess.

If you're breathing and pay any attention to the news whatsoever, you are doubtless aware already of the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. It goes without saying that we here at Total Drek extend our sympathies to those who have lost loved ones, and our hopes that the missing are recovered safely. The blogosphere is, of course, humming about the whole thing and the most common comment appears to be: "This is what you get when you keep deferring infrastructure spending so as to give tax cuts to a short-sighted electorate." I can't really disagree.

Of course, the problem is many Republicans have built their careers on providing bread and circuses, so I doubt that this sudden wakeup call for fiscal and governmental responsibility* will be well-received. I'm sure many of my readers doubt that there's any way that conservatives can dodge this particular bullet- I mean, hell, a damned bridge just fell down and may well have done so due to chronically under-funded maintenance. Unfortunately, this shows a tragic failure to understand how the Republican spin machine works. Coming from a Republican family- and having been a Rush Limbaugh listening Republican myself** once upon a time- I don't share this breed of myopia.

The problem isn't that Republican neglect allowed an expensive piece of infrastructure to decay in place. The problem is the liberal media. You see, the crazy wacko left-wing media is going to focus all this attention on a bridge that collapsed. There will be nightly reports, newspaper articles, magazine coverage, and so on, all trying to point fingers and uncover the explanation for how this bridge fell down. Yet, at the same time, will even one article be written, will even one news report be filmed, about all the bridges that didn't fall down during Republican administrations? Will there be any news reports that, despite a Republican administration, the Brooklyn bridge remains standing? No. And what about the Golden Gate bridge that has so far survived Arnold Schwarzenegger?*** The problem isn't that Republican policies are fatally stupid, it's that the media doesn't report all those times when the Republicans don't accidentally destroy things.

And if you think I'm kidding, consider this: What approach are the Republicans using to explain Iraq?

Welcome to the spin zone, kids, and make sure you take your dramamine- it's gonna be a wild ride.

* And I think it's really difficult to label the current Republican party with anything even vaguely approximating "fiscal responsibility."

** It's difficult to be an atheist Republican since, to put it bluntly, Republicans hate atheists.

*** I will readily admit that I don't know how to spell his last name and don't care enough to look it up.

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