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, May 30, 2008

Hubris: I has it.

All references to lolcats and Greek tragedy aside, I generally think that I have my ego reasonably under control. On the one hand, I blog and am laboring to earn a Ph.D., which both generally have ego-inflating effects. On the other hand, I am more or less a goofy semi-moron and am regularly reminded of same by my friends and family. So, I like to think that, on the whole, those opposed forces balance out. But, hey, you're welcome to disagree.

I bring this up because today we're discussing something that I have been wrestling with and regard as, perhaps, an example that the balance is not quite so solid and maybe... just maybe... the old ego is getting the better of me. And with a setup like that, who could possibly stop reading, eh?

Regular readers probably recall a while back when I invited folks to masquerade as Drek (i.e. me) at the annual ASA blogger's hoe-down. The point, for those who don't recall, is to obscure all of our identities by all agreeing to use the same one. The response to this notion has been reasonably positive but a potential drawback was identified early on. Specifically, the potential negative interaction between buttless chaps and Boston weather. Indeed, too many may lack my fondness for that most magnificent of apparel choices and, as a consequence, carry off an incomplete masquerade. But what is to be done?

Well, as it happens, I have figured out a solution of sorts: t-shirts. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, thanks to the beauty of CafePress I am making a line of Total Drek merchandise available. What can I say? It's a little like Jeremy's awesome new hobby project* with the exception that people might actually be interested in having the product of his labor, whereas these items of clothing should not be worn by anyone ever. The main idea behind Total Drek Merch, aside from Penny Arcade's thoughts on a similar subject was the potential solution to the buttless chaps issue:

I know, I know: not leather and not revealing. Nevertheless, I think it will do the trick. And, for better or for worse, it has spawned other similar shirts, in addition to one or two that impart a slightly different message:

Now, for those who are curious: no, I will not profit from this. The price is set "at cost" meaning that CafePress will profit but I won't see a dime. Aside from allowing me to stick it to the IRS** this is really just a part of my overall motivation for doing this blog as well as these shirts: fun. This new merch is really just something I did for my own amusement. Buy, don't buy, whatever. But you know what?

All the cool kids are totally gonna be wearing them!

* Jeremy, seriously, can you make this thing available for download when it's ready? Shit, for that matter, need a beta tester?

** Ha-HA! No revenue for you!

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Seriously, WTF?

Those of you who teach can probably sympathize with my number one problem in the classroom: getting students engaged. I teach a course that is not generally thought of as exciting and, as a consequence, I have to use heroic efforts to trick my students into paying attention.* Mostly this works but, I admit, I long for those rare days when students are so engaged that we can just discuss ideas rather than grind through them. Many of you probably have the same issue.

Which is why I admit that I was quite surprised to learn that a professor at Dartmouth actually tried to sue her students for asking her too many questions and engaging in too much debate. Seriously:

Priya Venkatesan taught English at Dartmouth College. She maintains that some of her students were so unreceptive of "French narrative theory" that it amounted to a hostile working environment. She is also readying lawsuits against her superiors, who she says papered over the harassment, as well as a confessional exposé, which she promises will "name names."

The trauma was so intense that in March Ms. Venkatesan quit Dartmouth and decamped for Northwestern. She declined to comment for this piece, pointing instead to the multiple interviews she conducted with the campus press.

Ms. Venkatesan lectured in freshman composition, intended to introduce undergraduates to the rigors of expository argument. "My students were very bully-ish, very aggressive, and very disrespectful," she told Tyler Brace of the Dartmouth Review. "They'd argue with your ideas." This caused "subversiveness," a principle English professors usually favor.


After a winter of discontent, the snapping point came while Ms. Venkatesan was lecturing on "ecofeminism," which holds, in part, that scientific advancements benefit the patriarchy but leave women out. One student took issue, and reasonably so – actually, empirically so. But "these weren't thoughtful statements," Ms. Venkatesan protests. "They were irrational." The class thought otherwise. Following what she calls the student's "diatribe," several of his classmates applauded.

Ms. Venkatesan informed her pupils that their behavior was "fascist demagoguery." Then, after consulting a physician about "intellectual distress," she cancelled classes for a week. Thus the pending litigation.

Read the rest of the article if you like but, frankly, it spends as much time sneering at academics and the educational project as it does questioning Professor Venkatesan's** behavior. More usefully, there is an interesting interview with her posted elsewhere that is, if anything, less biased. Sadly, it doesn't really portray her in a better light. Particularly, there's this exchange which is just plain baffling to me (FYI: "TDR" is short for "The Dartmouth Review," the campus paper that is conducting the interview):

TDR: There is one specific incident where I heard from one of the girls in your class who was pretty outspoken, and one day she hadn’t spoken for a while and you said, “Could we have a round of applause for this girl, she hasn’t spoken in ten minutes?”

PV: She was probably the most abrasive, the most offensive, the most disruptive student. She ruined that class. She ruined it. She ruined it. That class actually had a lot of potential, there were some really bright kids there, but every time she would do a number of things that were very inappropriate. For instance, I had basically gotten a hold of Blackboard technology, but I was making some mistakes too because I was new to the system, and every time that some link was wrong or some link wasn’t set up right, [girl x] in the beginning of class would point this out to everybody. Then what happened was, I was lecturing on morals and ethics and she just gave me this horrible look, and I was pretty disturbed. I just said what is going on here? The problem with [girl x] is that she can’t take criticism. She can’t take the fact that there is something wrong with her work. Now, some people are like that, a lot of people are like that, unable to take criticism, but the fact of the matter is that I have the PhD in literature, I make the assessment if someone has talent for philosophy, literary theory, and literary criticism. A student might say, well, the hell with you I’m still going to become a literary critic, I had to do that, there were people who criticized me while I was a student, you’re not a good writer or whatever, but I said well I’m still going to go ahead with my goals, but I never made any personal attacks on them or made life difficult for them or was rude to them. I just did the socially acceptable way of dealing with criticism, and [girl x] is the kind of student who does not know the socially acceptable way of dealing with criticism. She thinks the way to go about doing it is to go to my superior or to try to undermine my ability to teach the class. One of the things that she did, this is also really interesting, was that she would always ask me how to spell things. That was her thing. She would say how to do you spell this? How to you spell that? I mean—what am I supposed to do?—so I would tell her. One time Tom Cormen was sitting in the class, and she asked me, how many T’s are in Gattaca. This was the kind of question she was asking, “how many T’s are in Gattaca?,” and I was about to answer her and Tom Cormen pre-empted me, “two t’s.” I’ll leave you to interpret it.

TDR: No. No, I don’t understand that.

PV: I have to tell you: it means tenure track.

TDR: Oh, okay.

PV: Because I wasn’t tenured track.

TDR: Oh, okay, yes.

PV: They were trying to intimate that I wasn’t ready for tenure track.

TDR: Yes, okay, I didn’t realize that’s what that meant.

And if paranoid ranting about tenure track issues isn't enough to make your very brain detonate, there's this:

TDR: I have a few questions about your educational background and how it relates to the courses you teach, and some other specific questions. Yesterday in a lot of the interviews you granted, you referred to “the clapping incident”, and I was just wondering if you could explain to me what exactly that was.

PV: Sure. It’s basically we were talking about The Death of Nature by Carolyn Merchant. I believe I talked about how the scientific revolution—what effect it had on women of the period. In the context I brought up the witch trials of the Renaissance, and I was trying to make to make the claim—it was kind of a paraphrasing of Merchant’s argument, it’s not necessarily mine—that—I really want to get this right, so give me a second—what exactly did I say? I made the argument that—I’m trying to put this in context now—I made the argument that in many cases science and technology did not benefit women, and if women were benefiting science and technology, it was an aftereffect. It was not the goal of science and technology. It was a very feminist claim, and you may not agree with it. But that was Merchant’s argument; it wasn’t my argument, and I’m not a feminist scholar, so I was really making an argument that wasn’t mine and paraphrasing.

But there was one student who really took issue with this—and he took issue with this, and he made a very—I’d call it a diatribe, and it was sort of like, well—science and technology, women really did benefit from it, and to criticize patriarchal authority on the basis that science and technology benefited patriarchy or men, was not sufficient grounds for this type of feminist claim. And he did this with great rhetorical flourish; it was very invective, it was a very invective sort of tone. And I think what happened afterwards was that some people—I can’t name them, and I don’t know how many there were, but it was a significant number—started clapping for his statements. It was a very humiliating moment to my life; it was extremely humiliating, that my students would clap against me, when all I was trying to do was talk to them about arguments and argumentation, in the light of what I had been trained with. In other words, it’s kind of interesting that when you are trained in graduate school, it’s sort of like, you know, you’re trained in this kind of—I don’t want to say it’s political—you must be aware that most college campuses are very liberal, right?

TDR: Oh yes, certainly.

PV: Yeah, and the training which you receive, it’s very much slanted toward a particular political point of view. And it’s almost unstated—I’m not saying that this is good or bad, I’m just saying that this is the case—but certainly political framework is absorbed into academic material, and you must be aware of that by reading, you know, arguments by academics. You know, they talk about things such as Marxism—that’s just the intellectual way of thinking about it. But maybe to the general public, these are issues that are not considered objects of general discussion. You know what I mean?

In other words, talk about, you know, in French theory—we talk about Lacanian psychoanalysis. Lacan was a very radical psychoanalyst, but he’s considered almost like a god, Jean-François Lyotard… Bruno Latour—highly regarded in the field of science and technology studies. But these students aren’t aware of the framework in which I was training. They’re not; they’re just coming into college. So right there, there’s a discrepancy between what I know and how I was trained and their worldview. Do you see what I’m saying?

TDR: Yes.

PV: So there was immediate friction, because basically the concepts that I was trying to bring to them were concepts I was not inventing on my own. They were concepts that were part of the field, and I was trying to bring it to the table. It offended their sensibilities, because the whole course of “Science, Technology, and Society” was about problematizing science and technology, and explaining the argument that science is not just a quest for truth, which is how we think about science normally, but being influenced by social and political values. Now I’m not telling you this to convince you of this. I’m just saying that this is the framework with which I approached the course—that I wanted to bring this view that science and technology; there’s an ethics behind it. This type of argumentation—the reason I did that in the context of expository writing, I thought “by reading arguments, they will learn how to form arguments, think better, and write better.” That was my goal, because when you think better, you write better. All this offended their sensibilities, and there’s ways of responding of arguments that offend your sensibilities. The way not to do it is to be abrasive, rude, and engaged in this type of rhetoric. And that is why I had a lot of difficulties in dealing with the students in the class. What effectively happened was that my voice was taken away, and it was taken over by a lot of students. And I know that one of the students complained to the dean that he stopped paying attention in class. And I said “Well, of course they stopped paying attention, because the class had been taken over by a bunch of students who were just discussing it by themselves on their own, and it became very boring, because they didn’t have the argumentation permitted to them. They were just discussing without any framework, so that’s why the class was somewhat degraded by the end, and people complained because of that, but I felt pretty much restrained—constrained. I couldn’t negotiate the class because it had gotten to this level, that my voice and my authority were effectively eliminated from that class.

I’m not trying to dramatize it; I’m just trying to tell you how I felt about it. And that’s, that’s my point of view. That’s my sense of what took place. It wasn’t in any way what I was trying to take away from the rigor of the class; in fact, the opposite of that. I really wanted to enforce the rigor, whereas I was met with a lot of resistance.

TDR: I’ve spoken to some of the people involved in this specific incident. Is it true that after the whole applause incident, you said that it was a good discussion and you were pleased with the way things turned out?

PV: That’s not true.

TDR: That’s just what I had heard, so you deny that?

PV: Yeah, I deny it, I completely deny it. I was certainly not in the frame of mind to say something that would take that much decorum, actually, to take that much graciousness.

I don't want to jump on the bandwagon about this woman. I've been in the classroom, I've had incredibly abrasive and disruptive students, I know how difficult it can be. Given that I did not witness these events, and do not know that much about it, I do not want to leap to the obvious conclusion that she is a startlingly incompetent teacher. That said, I would usually be very excited to have a group of students who were interested and engaged enough to actually argue with me. And you know what? If your students don't come to the class with the same background that you have... that's because they're students. The whole purpose of teaching is to pass information on, not to preach to the converted. Maybe students are rude sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, but at the end of the day we are supposed to teach them, not act like little tin gods.

And aside from that I am just too stunned to have anything to say.***

* For the record my teaching evaluations are very good. It just so happens that I teach a difficult class.

** I'm having a hard time determining her credentials, but I somehow suspect that the Wall Street Journal calling her "Ms." rather than "Dr." or at least "Professor" is not accidental.

*** Also, in perfect honesty, all hell broke loose yesterday and continued into this morning so I'm just not in a very bloggy mood.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Let's talk about paradigm shifts.

Longtime readers of this blog may remember an occasional feature known as the Insanity Parade. I think the last edition, way back in the day, focused on a popular little movie. I have mostly stopped doing Insanity Parade episodes not because they weren't fun, but because I'm lazy.

Nevertheless my old Insanity Parades still net the occasional comment and we're going to discuss one of those comments today, as well as what it means. In a previous edition I wrote about a man named Greg Buell and his brilliant new invention: the electric windmill car. For those who haven't run into this before, the idea behind the electric windmill car is simple. It is an electric car that is festooned with windmills, each of which drives an electric generator. As the car drives forward the motion of the car creates airflow. The airflow drives the windmills which recharge the car's batteries and- voila- the car never needs to recharge. It can drive forever on its initial electric charge, thereby saving the environment.

That's Greg's idea, anyway. The unfortunate truth is that the electric windmill car is nothing more or less than a perpetual motion machine. These are, of course, impossible since friction will unavoidably waste some amount of the energy in a system and, given the law of Conservation of Energy, you must refuel it somehow with energy coming from outside the system. In the case of the electric windmill car, the wind resistance introduced by the windmills would force the electric motor to work harder to move the car and, as a consequence, the amount of juice returned to the batteries would be far less than the amount expended. See my original post for more. In short, then, Greg's idea is essentially impossible. Okay, not impossible- you could certainly engineer the car he envisions- it would just not work as he claims it would.

Yet, this has not stopped the occasional denizen of the interwebs from dropping by to tell me to quit raining on Greg's parade. The most recent such individual is named "Thomas Fox" and runs the blog with the catchy title, "Natural Depression Treatment Research." In any case, he has this to say about my thoughts on Greg:

in defense of those that you refer to as crazy or nuts, I would like to say that Mr. Buell is better off than you are, mentally speaking. What is wrong with the idea of a windmill driven car? Or, what is wrong with you? Are you stupid or something? It is a great idea. And so what, the law of physics may be in conflict... at least at this time. A suggestion to your self-imposing arrogance: Read The Philosophy of Science by Alex Rosenberg. Science is not at all without variables. I would suggest that you think a little out of the box, but then again, that suggestion won't work with you. What may not be possible today may be possible tomorrow.
Best Wishes
Thomas Fox

Like anyone else, I truly love engaging in debates with folks whose command of the English language rivals that of Lithuanian circus performers, so I find it needful to respond to this. First, allow me to answer the direct questions.

Question: What is wrong with the idea of a windmill driven car?

Answer: So long as the windmills are not strapped onto aforementioned car, absolutely nothing. As Mr. Buell envisions it, however, such a car would be an enormous waste of energy.

Question: What is wrong with you?

Answer: Many, many things. Still, I don't think my numerous genetic abnormalities are relevant here. Along similar lines, ad hominem really can't defeat simple physics.

Question: Are you stupid or something?

Answer: "Something." Definitely, "something."

With that out of the way, let's turn to the more interesting part of Mr. Fox's remarks. Specifically this:

And so what, the law of physics may be in conflict... at least at this time. A suggestion to your self-imposing arrogance: Read The Philosophy of Science by Alex Rosenberg. Science is not at all without variables. I would suggest that you think a little out of the box, but then again, that suggestion won't work with you. What may not be possible today may be possible tomorrow. [emphasis added]

Okay, now here's the thing: Fox is invoking the idea that, from time to time, science radically alters its understanding of the world. This is true and has been referred to by Thomas Kuhn as a paradigm shift. The idea* is that observations are typically interpreted in light of a prevailing understanding of how the world works. As time goes by, however, observations that don't fit this understanding accumulate until, eventually, our understandings are forced to undergo a radical change. This change is a paradigm shift. So, we went along happy as clams for quite a while with Newtonian physics only to have them supplanted by relativistic physics. This was, in essence, a paradigm shift.

Now, Fox is right that from time to time science goes all wonky as we work out a new paradigm but unfortunately he's committing a common mistake: he's assuming that a paradigm shift somehow overrules everything that came before. The truth is that while paradigm shifts can be very dramatic, they are in many ways highly constrained. What do I mean by that? Well, simply this: any new theory that intends to supplant a predecessor must account not only for what the current theory includes, but also additional material. Put another way, it must explain all the observations the current theory explains as well as some number of additional observations that are, at present, unexplained. Critically, this means that the earlier paradigm wasn't so much "totally wrong" as it was "only partly right." In the earlier example of Newtonian and relativistic physics, the problem is that while Newtonian physics are a very good approximation of reality for our day-to-day lives, they are inadequate to deal with high energies, high speeds, and great distances. As such, the shift from one to the other didn't cause us to chuck Newton overboard, it just caused us to understand his limitations.

In principle, this is similar to watching a crime drama like CSI on television. Initially, the police find a few pieces of evidence and build a theory about what has happened. Perhaps initially they find a person dead in their bathtub at home. There's a suicide note and the door is locked. The theory is that the death was a suicide. Then, they discover signs of struggle- bruises on the wrists from a wrestling match. Perhaps fingerprints that do not belong to the victim or their family. A new theory emerges: murder. Yet, there are problems: the room was locked. How did the murderer leave? However this conundrum is resolved, the final solution will have to account for all of the observed facts- it won't ignore that the victim died of drowning, nor that the room was locked, but instead must cover everything. As such, even when crime "paradigms" change, the data that fed into one will continue on as data utilized by the next. Likewise, when scientific paradigms change the observations that supported the predecessor will have to be accomodated by the successor.

What does this have to do with Thomas Fox? Simply this: it is reasonable to wonder what modern science will produce but whatever it is, it will not somehow negate highly reliable laws we know today. There may well be a way to circumvent the law of conservation of energy** but "circumvent" doesn't mean "ignore." Besides which, Buell didn't propose a way to circumvent that law, he simply ignored its existence in the first place. And, for better or for worse, it's quite irrelevant whether you believe in the laws of physics because they will do their thing regardless.

Change occurs and paradigms shift but expecting those shifts to alter the very bedrock of reality... well... that's just a shade childish.

* Please keep in mind that this is, at best, a thumbnail sketch of the idea.

** Sure. Right. And maybe I'll be elected President of the World.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

I totally want this shirt.

Fans of science and webcomics will doubtless love this recent t-shirt offering from the outstanding Dresden Codak:

For the curious the t-shirt references this comic* but I love it because it reminds me of my childhood. I discovered science- and science fiction- at an absurdly young age and it showed in my behavior. My father, an engineer, routinely brought broken electronic devices home for me to play with. I was fascinated with exploring how their mechanical and electrical components worked together.

As I got older I moved into more ambitious projects, such as trying to graft different kinds of plants together. These efforts were notably unsuccessful, but once saw me strolling through the house carrying gardening shears, paper towels, liquid fertilizer, and twine. My mother, ever alert for hijinks, stopped to ask me what I was up to. I responded- in perfect seriousness- that I was attempting to splice impatiens with periwinkles. After a moment of hesitation her response was, and I quote: "Carry on."

Finally, in my perhaps crowning moment, I once asked my father to explain quantum mechanics to me while we were doing yardwork. Specifically, I found the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Schrodinger's Cat rather confusing and was hoping for clarification. I don't recall my age, but it was much too early for me to have any inkling that quantum mechanics even existed. Needless to say, I drove my parents utterly fucking nuts.

So, I think I just look at that shirt and think, "Wow. That was me as a kid." As a child I was ever looking at things and dreaming of the day when I could do real science to them. And you know what? Now I get to do that sort of shit for a living.

Goddamn I love my job.

* As a side note, if you want to try to read the comic I suggest going to the beginning and starting from there. It can be rather abstract and deals with themes like posthumanism and the technological singularity. Thus, in addition to being artistically beautiful, it is incredibly intelligent.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

The view from below.

A while back I wrote a post that contained a number of hints for graduate students. I referred to these as "Unhelpful Hints," but the reaction to them was, on the whole, quite positive. Now, it's been a while since I put that little list together but, as it turns out, there continues to be interest in it. Specifically, it recently won a new comment:

This is very interesting. I am an advanced doctoral student in sociology. I learned many of these same points, but because I did not follow them initially. Now I am doing OK but very late to get going with dissertation research. I'd like to see advice here or elsewhere on ways to dig yourself out of grad school depression, low level of production, and general ambivalence. Are you doomed if you take a long time to finish?

This is an issue that was, indeed, beyond the scope of my original list. Assuming one makes mistakes early in graduate life- perhaps even serious mistakes- is it possible to recover and then succeed? I confess that, in truth, I don't know. This isn't to say that I haven't made mistakes or needed to recover from stumbles- anyone who claims that they have never done either is a liar or a fool- but rather that it remains very much in question whether or not I will be successful. So, while I might have my own opinions, who can really tell if I'm right? Nevertheless I will give my best response to this inquiry and invite my readers to do the same.

And now for today's uplifting feature:

So you've dug yourself a hole in graduate school?

(1) Don't panic. Seriously, it never helps. You may feel lost, way behind, and generally screwed. These things may be true to a greater or less extent. Yet, freaking out does little except distract you from more productive activity.

(2) Get a second opinion. You may have decided you're in a hole, but you may not be able to assess how deep that hole is. Find a trusted faculty member and lay it all out. Grad students can help too but keep in mind that by definition grad students have not yet molted into the beautiful butterflies of adult faculty. Their opinions may not be all that helpful.

(3) Check your pride at the door. It is a crass but nevertheless accurate generalization that a lot of grad students are cocky. We enter grad school thinking we're the top dogs because we probably were in our respective undergrad departments. This can be good because it means that we're motivated but, at the same time, can backfire. Often proud people don't like to admit when they're having trouble or stumbling. Even when things get bad they may refrain from truly reaching out in the mistaken belief that nobody else is having trouble. Unfortunately, this means that too many smart, talented, but proud, people end up in worse straits than they might be in otherwise. If you have realized that you're in trouble- way behind with the clock running out- the time for putting on a brave face is over. Swallow your pride, summon up some humility, and ask for help.

(4) Do not be a time waster. People will very often be willing to give their time and advice if only they are convinced that aforementioned time and advice will be put to use. What this means is: take the advice you receive seriously. If nothing else, keep in mind that what you've been doing hasn't been working so you need to try something new. And on an organizational level, just showing the faculty that you're trying may help convince them that you can be rehabilitated into a valuable member of the department.*

(5) Make a plan. Specifically, think in terms of short, medium, and long term. Short term boils down to "What do I need to get done THIS SEMESTER to help make sure I don't get booted?" Medium term deals with those things that need to happen in the next year or so. Finally, long term refers to where you want to end up. If you're in a hole in grad school you're probably a number of years in and feel behind. Be brutally honest with yourself, figure out what you want (that you can realistically achieve), and then figure out what needs to happen to get you there.

(6) Stick to your plan. I can't stress this enough- making the plan is great but actions are required to improve your situation. Somehow, keep yourself grinding away at those objectives. If to-do lists work, great. If little rewards work, great. If you need to put a block on your internet usage, then do it! It is very easy to take a long time to do very little in grad school and you need to do the opposite. Whatever that requires for you- do it.

(7) Work at getting your motivation back. Sapped motivation is one of the greatest dangers for grad students. If you're unmotivated because you hate your discipline, your best bet may be to try to find something else you want to do more. Throwing good time after bad will not make you any happier. If you like your discipline but hate your department, things may be different. If you're early enough in your program to transfer that can be an option but, if not, you're going to have to grit your teeth and try to live through it. If this is the case, try to focus on the goals. I would strongly urge you, however, to avoid using rage to fuel your drive to success. Aside from the fact that it will eat you up, your rage is most likely going to focus on your advisor or committee who- let's face it- you really should be on good terms with.

(8) Keep in mind: man does not live by bread alone. More specifically, you're going to be working damn hard to pull yourself out of a hole, but this does not mean you never get to have fun. If you never allow yourself to relax your newfound determination will eventually succumb to exhaustion like a bird discovering a plate glass window. Make sure to include downtime in your plan.

(9) Be prepared for skepticism. If you're way in the hole odds are other people have noticed. As you try to climb out, some of these folks may be somewhat doubtful of your ability. Be prepared for this and don't let it bother you. More likely than not they're on your side and will make this apparent once they're sure you're really serious.

(10) Get a grip on your position. A lot of grad students make the mistake of assuming- perhaps as a result of over-enthusiastic recruitment- that the department is primarily concerned with training them. This is incorrect. The department thinks you might one day transform into a useful sociologist but that remains to be seen. For the moment you are little more than a potential colleague and a source of cheap labor.** Do not wait for the department to come rescue you. Do not bitch about how the department has failed you. You may have received a raw deal but, at the end of the day, that doesn't get you a Ph.D. or a job.

(11) Take a firm grip on your own whip. Nobody in grad school is going to take more of an interest in your success than you. If you need someone to crack the whip over you to get you to work, then you're going to have to find a person who is willing to do so and then give them the necessary power/authority. If you do this, however, respond when the whip is cracked. No one is going to nanny you and, if nothing else, it's unfair to demand that they do.

(12) Get your priorities in order. A lot of grad departments give grad students a voice in governance. This is nice but is, at root, a luxury. You do not have as much of a stake in the department as the faculty and you should not devote as much time to running it as they do. Likewise, you may love teaching but few departments will reward you for this and you cannot teach your way through a dissertation. Your primary job is to do your research, get your Ph.D., and get a job, not necessarily in that order. Everything else is secondary. Let me repeat that: everything else is secondary!

(13) Try to be realistic. We all have papers that just aren't going to go anywhere. Put them in drawers and forget about them. We all have grandiose ideas that will require years to complete. Save these for later. Your job right now is to get things done quickly and efficiently. Even if your grandiose idea is really, really good this is not the time for it. Save it for when you're not racing a looming deadline.

(14) Do not give up. Keep in mind that a lot of grad students have trouble at one time or another. Logically, then, a lot of faculty similarly had problems at one point. Nevertheless, they are all grown up faculty much as you may hope to be. If they can stumble and recover then you probably can too. Likewise, if you stumble they are almost certainly not without sympathy.

(15) Try not to obsess about your colleagues. It's easy when you're feeling down to become hyper attentive to what other grads are doing. Resist this urge. Their performance doesn't mean anything about yours. Similarly, resist the urge to make yourself feel better by minimizing the accomplishments of others. This will do little except alienate those who could be very helpful.

(16) Do not forget your value. It's easy to start thinking of yourself as worthless, stupid, or lost when you're in a hole. The truth, however, is that you wouldn't have been admitted if a lot of smart people didn't think you had significant potential. Keep that in mind when trying to catch up: there are plenty of people already who believe you can. All you have to do is prove them right.

(17) Don't take my advice too seriously. I am not faculty, I have not supervised grad students, I do not know everything. Figure things out, get advice from those who know, and then kick ass the way we all know you can.

* Actual faculty should dispute me here if I'm overstating things but, while faculty are often sympathetic to grad student plight, nobody likes dragging dead weight alongside them.

** Cheap is a relative thing. You are more expensive than a lot of employees, but less expensive that a full Ph.D. I had relatively little trouble keeping my worth in perspective since a faculty member from a different department once mentioned in passing that his desk cost more than my salary for a year.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A spot of advice for blog-watchers...

Those who read this blog doubtless also keep tabs on the excellent Scatterplot, a group blog manned by a coterie of sociologists that are, without question, smarter than I am. As such you may be familiar with a recent post that asks a question of great importance to all of us pseudonymous bloggers:

How the heck does the blogger meeting at ASA work? If we are trying (probably in vain) to remain anonymous, how exactly do you meet face-to-face and talk about blogging?

Indeed, this is a significant issue given the growing tradition at the ASAs of bloggers gathering, downing a few, and generally discovering what we really look like in real life. Yet, for those of us who wish to preserve our mild-mannered secret identities, this is a real quandrary. How to participate and, yet, not be outed?

You can read the comments over on Scatterplot for several ideas but yli had an interesting notion:

why don’t you come as drek? (i mean drek as in total drek, not the generic drek.) i think all the anonymous bloggers should just pretend to be each other and have fun with it…

Flattered as I was by this suggestion, I think that I managed to improve on it ever so slightly during my own remarks:

At my first Blogger shindig my anonymity was blown pretty quickly. As Jeremy indicated, however, there is a pretty strong norm about protecting the anonymity of other bloggers. I’ve never known another blogger to sell me out and have myself taken steps to warn other pseudonymous bloggers of possible slips in their own facade. I think the biggest risk isn’t that someone will knowingly out you, but that they will let slip some detail they learn which will end up outing you. All that said, Jessica’s solution is probably the best: go as a reader, not a writer. If you really want to, reveal your secret identity to a select few you trust.

That said, if you’re really worried about it I think that we should adopt a modified version of yli’s solution: let’s just all go as Drek (i.e. me)! It’ll be a lot like that scene in the remake of the Thomas Crowne Affair. The only snag I foresee is that we’ll have a nearly impossible time finding that many pairs of buttless chaps. [links original]

So, I'd just like to make this invitation even more general than it already is. For all you pseudonymous socio-bloggers out there who are nervous about attending the ASA get-together, please feel free to masquerade as the infamous El Dreko. If enough of us do it we will have achieved a superb level of protection for minimal difficulty.*

Many of you might be wondering, however: Will you be there, Drek? Honestly, I have no idea. My travel plans are up in the air. I might be there but there are sadly no guarantees. With luck, however, and a little help from y'all, I may manage to be there multiple times.

And how cool is that?

* Granted, right now we look to be protected by the simple expedient that a date/time/location for the shindig have not been finalized. Nevertheless, with Tina on the case, I have little doubt that this obstacle will soon be removed.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Eloquently put.

THE SCENE: Drek, his Former Hypothetical Roommate (D'sFHRM) and former Office Mate (D'sFOM) are returning from a coffee run. The conversation focuses on Fox News.

Drek: So they've been covering the issue in their usual style then?

D'sFOM: Covering it? To hear them talking, you'd think they're the only ones who even understand the issue!

Drek: Granted, I don't have access to Fox News, but why would they be the only ones who understand?

D'sFHRM: Look, to them the issue is a twelve year-old Thai boy...

Drek: Working in a bordello?

D'sFHRM: Right. And they think that conservatives are the only one's who understand the issue because they're the only ones who have taken a trip to Thailand and actually been inside the issue.

Drek: ...

D'sFOM: ...

Drek: Wow. That statement was shockingly offensive and crude. And for once, I wasn't the one responsible for it.

D'sFHRM: I know, right?

Drek: You have humbled me, sir.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

So... yeah.

Dropping by the good folks over at Conservapedia I happened to notice something a bit... striking:

For those who don't want to read the image:

The New Appeasers
Is Obama an appeaser? Of course. Obama has already offered Iraq to Iran without getting anything in return.

Now, believe it or not, I am not going to discuss the issue of whether or not Obama is, in fact, "an appeaser." I'm not convinced that a lot of the conservatives yelling that at him have the historical background to even understand the term and I don't much enjoy debating history with the ignorant. Rather, I just want to point out something in this remark. Specifically, this:

...offered Iraq to Iran without getting anything in return.[emphasis added]

See, here's the thing: Schlafly's* issue is not, it would seem, that giving Iraq to Iran is intrinsically bad. His issue is that we won't get anything valuable in exchange. Put another way: he doesn't think it's ethical to give one country to another but he's perfectly willing to sell one country to another. This is an ethical distinction that I find, frankly, repulsive.

I know, I know- you might legitimately argue that diplomacy is all about negotiating exchanges. You agree not to invade me, I will give you a shit-ton of money every other year. I'm familiar with the grand historical permutations of the concept. Nevertheless, there is an important difference here. It's one thing to negotiate with your own resources while it's quite another to negotiate with those of a third party. Given that we now find ourselves in a position of authority over Iraq as a result of an invasion, it's roughly akin to mugging someone and then selling them into slavery. I'm not saying that giving them to slavers is any better, but it's hardly any worse.

And, ironically, Schlafly's argument really does nothing except demonstrate that he is, indeed, ignorant of history. Neville Chamberlain, who is often castigated as an appeaser, did indeed "give" Hitler the Sudetenland. But he gave it to Hitler in exchange for an agreement that Hitler would not initiate hostilities against the rest of Czechoslovakia and a peace treaty between the U.K. and Germany. In other words, ladies and gentlemen, Chamberlain sold the Sudetenland to Hitler.

So who is the appeaser now, I wonder?

* In perfect honesty I can't tell if Schlafly is the one who penned this headline since Conservapedia is being uncooperative. I blame him specifically, however, simply because of the sheer quantity of ferocity of vitriol he regularly spews forth.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

The Psyche Out

Today's post is a test. There will be questions in a moment. Pay attention.

Take a look at these two pictures:

Woman A:

Woman B:

Now, without stopping to think about it, using only your first, most immediate reaction, tell me something: which of these women is better at math?

Odds are you picked Woman A. It's true that in general attractive people are rated more favorably than unattractive people on a variety of characteristics. Further, it's true that these expectations can prod individuals into performing to match. Yet, both of the women in my example are- roughly speaking- equally attractive.* In all likelihood you picked Woman A as the superior mathematician because she's dressed more professionally. This gives you some clues about what skills she may possess and, likewise, the garb of Woman B gives you some clues as well.

Or does it?

The logical fallacy here is that clothes don't make the woman, and relying on clothes to make this kind of choice is chancy at best. While there is certainly a stereotype that women in skimpy clothing are likely to be stoopid, that sterotype has no necessary basis in fact. As it happens, there have been several notable disproofs of the concept. So choosing Woman A is no more logical than choosing Woman B. Now, let's try something different: let's say that Woman A took a math test as she's dressed now and then changed into a bikini before taking a second math test. How would she perform then?

Well, believe it or not, she would probably perform more poorly.

In a recent article in the craptacular Psychology Today we hear of a study that tried this precise experiment with disturbing results:

In a study where people were asked to solve math problems, there was no difference in how well men and women scored—when everyone was fully dressed. But when subjects were required to perform the calculations in their bathing suits, the women suddenly fared worse than their male counterparts. They were too busy wondering how they looked to crunch numbers correctly.

Now, I haven't seen the study itself and can find no trace of a reference in the Psychology Today article** but the results are sobering. Dress may influence performance and this impact is likely different for males and females. The Psychology Today article blames this effect on the subjects being "...too busy wondering how they looked to crunch numbers correctly," but I wonder if it's something different: stereotype threat.

The idea is simple: you belong to a group that is stereotyped as being poor at some task. You are then asked to perform this task in a situation where you are made to recall that stereotype. As a result, you become so wound up with anxiety over not confirming the stereotype that your performance suffers. And, of course, you end up comfirming the stereotype you're worried about in the first place. Why do I think sterotype threat may be at work here? Well, there are several simple reasons. First, I think it reasonable to expect that wearing a bathing suit activates a "female" identity for women but not necessarily a "male" identity for men. Second, women are already stereotyped as being worse at math than males. Finally, we already have evidence that women respond to stereotype threat.

Now what does this mean and why am I talking about it? Well, aside from the fact that it gives me an excuse to post/link pictures of women in bikinis, I am interested because of what it may imply about schooling. Yes, I said schooling. Now, I don't want to speak for other academics, but at my University*** there is a certain part of the year when students come to class dressed rather poorly. Specifically, many of the men come dressed as though they live in dumpsters and many of the women dress in a fairly sexualized way.**** I'm not much of a prude but this has always bothered me a little, if only because it either says something negative about how students value their education or makes me fear for my career.***** The thing is, this new research gives us even more dramatic reason for concern: is it possible that when our female students dress this way it not only produces the risk that we will treat them differently, but also that they themselves will perform differently? Is it possible that dress can hinder education?

My wife suggests that such an issue would be most acute when students are younger, and I agree. Ironically, this forces me closest to a conclusion that school uniforms may be a good idea after all. At least then everyone might have a fair chance when they take their test.

In our lives we have to confront all manner of challenges- I just think it a shame that one of the biggest is when we psyche ourselves out.******

* Opinions may vary, but I don't care. For purposes of this exercise I am the supreme authority on attractiveness.

** Way to go, guys.

*** Drek State University. Motto: "Vos es a gallo."

**** I really can't find a picture that captures it. This image is, if anything, far too tame.

***** "Okay Drek, you're going to call on her and NOT glance at her chest. You can do this! I know it's hanging out there like a McDonald's sign but you don't have to look. Look at her eyes! Look at her eyes! FOCUS!"

****** Woot! How's that for a weak ending to a post?

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"I sense a great disturbance in the collective conscience..."

" if millions of voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I feel that something terrible has happened."

Heh, heh, heh.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Sacred Cows

Folks who know me are aware that I am something of a fan of technology. This may come from my long experience with science fiction or just a certain predilection towards gadgets but, whatever the origins, I am intrigued by the possibilities presented by science and new inventions. This, of course, serves as my own particular hubris: confronted by a new problem my mind almost always seeks to solve it with appropriate engineering. As you might guess, this is not always the best way to deal with a difficulty.

Nevertheless, I do think that a careful assessment of the relevant science and appropriate application of technology is frequently a good idea. And along similar lines, I think that wishful thinking and poor logic about science and technology are very dangerous. Poor logic gives us nonsense like the anti-vaccine advocacy of Mary Tocco which places us all at risk. Questionable thinking about science and technology has given us wasteful electric cars and ethanol fuel initiatives which, in addition to not solving our energy woes, are causing real hardship for the world's poor. And iffy logic has also produced a new potential problem: organic foods.

Oh, I know the arguments: organic foods are supposed to be healthier, and safer for the environment, and more sustainable. They are in every way superior to modern agriculture. To this I respond: bullshit. You may prefer them, they may make you feel all warm and gushy inside, but nothing comes for free and there are certain to be drawbacks with these foodstuffs. Hell, if nothing else, it's worth considering that the human race engaged in organic farming exclusively for the first few thousand years our civilization and switched over pretty readily as new technology became available. Perhaps that was because those humans realized that- just maybe- the new ways were better.

And you know what else? The U.K.'s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs agrees with me. A report on their recently completed life cycle assessment of organic and conventionally grown produce is enlightening to say the least. Below are a few of the "myths" about organic farming and some of the potential issues that arise from studying them:

Myth one: Organic farming is good for the environment

The study of Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) for the UK, sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, should concern anyone who buys organic. It shows that milk and dairy production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). A litre of organic milk requires 80 per cent more land than conventional milk to produce, has 20 per cent greater global warming potential, releases 60 per cent more nutrients to water sources, and contributes 70 per cent more to acid rain.

Also, organically reared cows burp twice as much methane as conventionally reared cattle – and methane is 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. Meat and poultry are the largest agricultural contributors to GHG emissions. LCA assessment counts the energy used to manufacture pesticide for growing cattle feed, but still shows that a kilo of organic beef releases 12 per cent more GHGs, causes twice as much nutrient pollution and more acid rain.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) relates food production to: energy required to manufacture artificial fertilisers and pesticides; fossil fuel burnt by farm equipment; nutrient pollution caused by nitrate and phosphate run-off into water courses; release of gases that cause acid rain; and the area of land farmed. A similar review by the University of Hohenheim, Germany, in 2000 reached the same conclusions (Hohenheim is a proponent of organic farming and quoted by the Soil Association).

Myth two: Organic farming is more sustainable

Organic potatoes use less energy in terms of fertiliser production, but need more fossil fuel for ploughing. A hectare of conventionally farmed land produces 2.5 times more potatoes than an organic one.

Heated greenhouse tomatoes in Britain use up to 100 times more energy than those grown in fields in Africa. Organic yield is 75 per cent of conventional tomato crops but takes twice the energy – so the climate consequences of home-grown organic tomatoes exceed those of Kenyan imports.

Defra estimates organic tomato production in the UK releases almost three times the nutrient pollution and uses 25 per cent more water per kg of fruit than normal production. However, a kilogram of wheat takes 1,700 joules (J) of energy to produce, against 2,500J for the same amount of conventional wheat, although nutrient pollution is three times higher for organic.

Myth four: Pesticide levels in conventional food are dangerous

The proponents of organic food – particularly celebrities, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, who have jumped on the organic bandwagon – say there is a "cocktail effect" of pesticides. Some point to an "epidemic of cancer". In fact, there is no epidemic of cancer. When age-standardised, cancer rates are falling dramatically and have been doing so for 50 years.

If there is a "cocktail effect" it would first show up in farmers, but they have among the lowest cancer rates of any group. Carcinogenic effects of pesticides could show up as stomach cancer, but stomach cancer rates have fallen faster than any other. Sixty years ago, all Britain's food was organic; we lived only until our early sixties, malnutrition and food poisoning were rife. Now, modern agriculture (including the careful use of well-tested chemicals) makes food cheap and safe and we live into our eighties.

Myth five: Organic food is healthier

To quote Hohenheim University: "No clear conclusions about the quality of organic food can be reached using the results of present literature and research results." What research there is does not support the claims made for organic food.

Large studies in Holland, Denmark and Austria found the food-poisoning bacterium Campylobacter in 100 per cent of organic chicken flocks but only a third of conventional flocks; equal rates of contamination with Salmonella (despite many organic flocks being vaccinated against it); and 72 per cent of organic chickens infected with parasites.

This high level of infection among organic chickens could cross-contaminate non-organic chickens processed on the same production lines. Organic farmers boast that their animals are not routinely treated with antibiotics or (for example) worming medicines. But, as a result, organic animals suffer more diseases. In 2006 an Austrian and Dutch study found that a quarter of organic pigs had pneumonia against 4 per cent of conventionally raised pigs; their piglets died twice as often.

Disease is the major reason why organic animals are only half the weight of conventionally reared animals – so organic farming is not necessarily a boon to animal welfare.

There are, of course, other "myhts" they attack but I urge you to read the article for yourself.

So does this mean that I think we shouldn't permit organic farming? Nah. I think there's a place for it. That said, however, I think that if my hubris is viewing technology too favorably, this research suggests that it is indeed possible to err in the other direction. Technology is imperfect but, nevertheless, it often works quite well and provides us with many benefits. Rejecting it may make us feel more "natural"* or in tune with nature but, in the final analysis, will sometimes do more damage to nature than our regular old clanking machines do.

And sometimes we have to ask ourselves whether it's worth slaughtering that sacred cow in order to genuinely help the environment.

* I find it frankly hysterical that people don't regard our use of technology as "natural." Seriously, people, what the hell do you think our enormous brains and hands are for, anyway? For humans, the use of tools is as natural as the use of claws is for tigers. To claim otherwise is just silly.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Reading this stuff isn't good for my blood pressure.

First thing in the morning recently I ran across this little gem from the Conservative Voice.* The title alone should be sufficient to explain why I was almost immediately at risk of stroke or cardiac arrest:

Evolutionists Still Wrong On Entropy!

Evolutionists, like those in Internet media organizations such as The Panda's Thumb and Pharyngula, ignorantly continue to criticize creationists and argue that the law of entropy in science (the tendency of matter to go towards greater disorder than greater order) does not contradict evolutionary theory because they claim the law of entropy does not apply in open systems such as our Earth, and evolutionists use examples such as a seed becoming a tree as a contradiction to the law of entropy. Evolutionists are wrong on both counts for reasons which will be fully explained in this article.

To put it bluntly, this makes me want to scream in incoherent rage. It requires such a catastrophic level of ignorance of basic physical law to make such assertions, assertions that have been debunked so frequently that it should be nearly impossible not to be aware of it, that to see such scorn associated with them is truly mind-boggling. I'm not even that intelligent and I've covered this nonsense- more than once! If I can get the point then anyone should be able to! And yet, here we are, back in the saddle again. It wouldn't be so bad except that this "article" has all the logical rigor and argumentative power of stereo instructions. Nevertheless, let's examine a selection of the "juicier" passages from the essay. Come along, won't you?

Entropy does occur in open systems. We discovered entropy here on Earth which is an open system in relation to the Sun. However, entropy applies only to spontaneous or chance processes.

This will no doubt come as a surprise to engineers, who often find themselves battling friction in their quite thoroughly designed creations. For the startlingly ignorant in the audience, friction is a manifestation of entropy which has almost nothing to do with chaos or disorder. Rather, entropy primarily refers to the tendency for heat, pressure and density to spread out to an even level throughout a given space. As it happens, this also eliminates the ability of that area to do "work" which has important implications for processes like life. So, in short, whether or not entropy applies has nothing the fuck to do with whether the system is natural or designed. That said, I am at least proud of the author for knowing we discovered entropy "here on Earth." Good to know it wasn't in a secret lab on Saturn.

The spontaneous (unaided or undirected) tendency of matter is always towards greater disorder -- not towards greater order and complexity as evolution would teach. Just having enough energy from the Sun is not sufficient to overcome entropy. This tendency towards disorder, which exists in all matter, can be temporarily overcome only if there exists some energy converting and directing mechanism to direct, develop, and maintain order.

This would be a great critique except for two issues. First, it is possible for entropy to decrease locally in exchange for a greater increase in entropy globally. So, for example, your digestive system burns food in order to do work which, among other things, reduces entropy in your body but to do this you must increase entropy in the food matter as well as in the wider world. Likewise, the reductions in entropy locally on Earth are more than paid for by the sun radiating fucktons of energy away into space every second. Second, it is trivial that an "energy converting and directing mechanism" is not necessary to overcome entropy. My proof? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the snowflake!

Even the scientific followers of Prigogine, the father of Chaos theory, have admitted that only a very minimal level of order will ever be possible as a result of spontaneous or chance processes.

And, indeed, it's worth noting that so far as we can tell the universe isn't exactly teeming with life, now is it?

The sequence of molecules in DNA (the genetic code) determines the sequence of molecules in proteins. Furthermore, without DNA there cannot be RNA, but without RNA there cannot be DNA. Without either DNA or RNA there cannot be proteins, but without proteins there cannot be either DNA or RNA. These complex molecules are all mutually dependent upon one another for existence!

If the cell had evolved it would have had to be all at once. A partially evolved cell cannot wait millions of years to become complete because it would be highly unstable and quickly disintegrate in the open environment, especially without the protection of a complete and fully functioning cell membrane.

Of course, once there is a complete and living cell then the genetic program and various biological mechanisms exist to direct the formation of more cells with their own genetic programs and biological mechanisms. The question is how did life come about when there were no directing mechanisms.

The difficulty is this guy is paying too much attention to the final developed stage and ignoring possible primitive precursors. For example, one might look at a modern laptop and exclaim that it is impossible to build a computer without integrated circuits. Alas, it turns out it is quite possible with the aid of vacuum tubes. And before that you could build one with mechanical linkages and before that you could build one that was really, really simple. Each stage makes the next stage possible and then falls away once that stage has been completed. It's like the scaffolding that surrounds a building under construction: once the edifice is complete, you remove the structure that allowed it to be built in the first place. Similarly, a modern cell is the product of a lengthy evolutionary history- life didn't start at this level of complexity. Oh, yeah, and while I'm thinking of it: RNA can be used to support life in the absence of DNA. Whoops!

Considering the enormous complexity of life, it is much more logical to believe that the genetic and biological similarities between all species is due to a common Designer rather than common biological ancestry. It is only logical that the great Designer would design similar functions for similar purposes and different functions for different purposes in all of the various forms of life.

Wait, because life is complex and difficult to explain let's explain it with recourse to something even more complex and inexplicable? How the hell is that logical, exactly?

Contrary to popular belief, scientists have never created life in the laboratory. What scientists have done is genetically alter or engineer already existing forms of life, and by doing this scientists have been able to produce new forms of life. However, they did not produce these new life forms from non-living matter. Even if scientists ever do produce life from non-living matter it won't be by chance so it still wouldn't help support any argument for evolution.

So, pray tell, what exactly would you accept as evidence for evolution? Because I don't think we have the time to hang around and watch new species evolve. Then again, we do have records. Do those help?

Ultimately, however, scientists concede that the law of entropy (the process of progressive energy decay and disorder) will conquer the entire universe and the universe, if left to itself, will end in total chaos (the opposite direction of evolution!). In fact, the law of entropy contradicts the Big Bang theory which teaches that the universe spontaneously went from disorder to order.

This is a non sequitur. That the large scale fate of the universe may be an entropic death does not in any sense mean that evolution cannot occur now. In fact, life is itself a part of this entropic process as we increase entropy globally at a greater rate than the local decrease. To claim otherwise is effectively akin to saying that a child cannot grow into adulthood because eventually they will grow old and die. Additionally, entropy does not contradict the big bang theory, not least because we're not sure how many of the familiar physical processes even applied in the instant preceding the origin of the universe.

Furthermore, because of the law of entropy the universe does not have the ability to have sustained itself from all eternity since all the useful energy in the universe will some day become irreversibly and totally useless. The universe, therefore, cannot be eternal and requires a beginning. Since energy cannot come into existence from nothing by any natural process, the beginning of the universe must have required a Supernatural origin!

This is what I like to label the "I don't understand it, so god musta done it" explanation. We used to use the same thing for thunder and the black death. I leave it to you to evaluate the worth of an argument from ignorance.

Science cannot prove we're here by creation, but neither can science prove we're here by chance or macro-evolution. No one has observed either. They are both accepted on faith. The issue is which faith, Darwinian macro-evolutionary theory or creation, has better scientific support.

This is an inchoate wreck of an argument. Leaving aside the claim that evolutionary research is on a par with the book of genesis (i.e. reams of scientific data versus a repeatedly translated folk tale) if it's an issue of faith, why does the author then attempt to invoke evidence? If evidence can be used then we're not dealing with faith now are we, skippy?

Many have been taught to think that because Darwin had shown natural selection to occur in nature that evolution must be true. Natural selection does occur in nature, but natural selection can only "select" from biological variations that are possible and which have survival value.

Well, it's reassuring to hear that natural selection can't select variations that are impossible. That explains why there aren't any eighty ton fire breathing dragons about, doesn't it?

Natural selection itself does not produce biological variations. It is an entirely passive process in nature. Natural selection is simply another way of saying that if a variation (i.e. change in skin color, etc.) occurs which helps an animal to survive in its environment then that that variation will be preserved and be passed on to future generations. That is what scientists mean by "natural selection". Of course, nature does not do any active or conscious selecting. The term "natural selection" is simply a figure of speech. Furthermore, natural selection only applies once there is life and not before. In other words, natural selection is not involved in any pre-biotic, non-living interactions of chemicals.

This last bit is problematic. Natural selection really just requires that some entities are more likely to be preserved than others due to their characteristics. So, you can talk about natural selection occurring with pre-biotic chemicals, it's just not normally productive to do so. The comments also ignore that variation can originate from a lot of things including DNA transcription errors and random mutations generated by cosmic rays. Perhaps most important, scientists do not claim that selection produces variation in the first place. So, this guy's argument is like me observing that the bible doesn't explain how Athena was able to form inside Zeus' head.

Whatever evolution and natural selection that occurs in nature is limited to within biological kinds (such as the varieties of dogs, cats, horses, cows, etc.) but, evolution across biological kinds, especially from simpler kinds to more complex ones (i.e. from fish to human), is not possible unless Nature can perform genetic engineering.

Um... guys... what about that snake with legs? You think maybe that's a smidge... relevant here? Besides this "kinds" business has no scientific validity. Hell, species are hard enough to distinguish, what the hell makes you think that "kinds" are any different?

What we believe about our origins does influence our philosophy and value of life as well as our view of ourselves and others. This is no small issue!

Perhaps, but this is irrelevant to the issue of our origins. A dog belonging to an associate of my wife's recently died accidentally from drowning. That associate told her daughter, however, that the dog died painlessly from a sudden blood clot. This was a kindness for the child but does not in any way alter the real state of events. A fiction, no matter how personally pleasing, remains a fiction. And a claim that we should forget the truth in favor of that fiction is little more than an invitation to insanity.

Just because science can explain how life and the universe operate and work doesn't mean there is no Supreme Designer. Would it be rational to believe that there's no designer behind airplanes because science can explain how airplanes operate and work?

Non sequitur. The cases are not comparable. For the sake of argument, however, if science discovers that the natural operation of the universe may, under the right circumstances, produce life, doesn't that invalidate his claim? The latter claim I mean, I don't think you can invalidate the claim that god exists because god is defined in an utterly vacuous manner.

Natural laws are adequate to explain how the order in life, the universe, and even a microwave oven operates, but mere undirected natural laws can never fully explain the origin of such order.

A wonderful claim since it contradicts his earlier point about entropy. If there is no way to decrease entropy than our very existence should be impossible- no way to digest food and benefit from the experience. Alas, we appear to exist, and so he must be wrong.

It is important to understand that belief in neither evolution or creation is necessary to the actual study of science itself. One can understand the human body and become a first class surgeon regardless of whether he or she believes the human body is the result of the chance forces of nature or of a Supreme Designer.

More or less true but a surgeon is effectively a mechanic of the body. An epidemiologist, on the other hand, really needs to get evolution to do their job properly. Blaming AIDS on god's wrath is not likely to help very much in dealing with it.

And, just to amuse you, check out this guy's bio:

The author, Babu G. Ranganathan, is an experienced Christian writer. Mr. Ranganathan has his B.A. with academic concentrations in Bible and Biology from Bob Jones University. As a religion and science writer he has been recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis Who's Who In The East. The author's articles have been published in various publications including Russia's Pravda and South Korea's The Seoul Times.

Well, it's nice to know that a guy with a B.A. from an ideologically-motivated cesspool of a college is qualified to contradict the mass of the scientific community.

Yes, folks, a truly brain-searing mass of crap to get you started on this wonderful Monday morning. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go cry for my species.

* The newspaper for slack-jawed morons!

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Friday, May 09, 2008

An obvious misconception.

When I teach my students I often use extreme examples to make points. Given certain professional interests of mine, this means that I sometimes bring up the literature on sexual assault and rape. These are, of course, unpleasant subjects, but they also tend to capture and hold the attention of students. What can I say? I am not above sly tactics to amplify my pedagological effectiveness.

Sometimes, however, students have asked me some odd questions when I reveal my interest in studying rape. Particularly, one student once remarked, "Wow. What is wrong with you?"

Well... many, many things, but none of those grievous failings drive me to study sexual assault. It isn't that I have some secret yearning to rape someone, it's that it's a serious social problem that I would like to see reduced. Nevertheless, students sometimes assume that because we study something we must, therefore, be supporters of it. An annoying little misconception that can be difficult to correct.

I bring this up because we have an example of this exact process on that paragon of scientific accuracy,* Conservapedia. They recently posted the following headline on their "news" section:

For those who hate pictures, it reads:

Professor values - Harvard Psychology Professor: Children Can Send Marriage Into Downward Spiral.

The implication is clear: it's only because of the horrible values rampant among academics that we could ever possibly suggest that kids don't make people happy! We're such bastards. Well, most likely we dare to suggest that kids don't always make people happy because that's where the data lead. If we examine the link Conservapedia provides, we find a news story on the subject that provides some insight:

Marriage has been shown, through research, to be an unending source of joy, a Harvard professor said at an Australian conference this week.

But introduce children into the relationship and that joy may plummet, according to a report from the Australian Associated Press.

"Figures show that married people are in almost every way happier than unmarried people — whether they are single, divorced, cohabiting," Harvard University psychology professor Daniel Gilbert told the Happiness and its Causes conference in Sydney.

"Married people live longer, married people earn more money per capita, married people have more sex and enjoy it more," AAP quoted Gilbert as saying.

But, despite the belief that children are the apples of our eyes, they actually can have a negative influence on marriages, according to the report. And more kids equals more sadness, Gilbert said.

So, really, the researchers aren't saying "kids are bad," they're just observing that lots of children may detract from happiness. And if you asked them, I'd guess that they would argue it's because kids are expensive, time consuming, and stressful little critters to have around.** This isn't to say that kids aren't rewarding but, really, how is this research any different from the usual claim that having kids is wonderful, but extremely difficult? Answer: it isn't. Of course, Conservapedia could have pointed out that, according to research, marriage is a good thing as it leads to more sex and greater happiness but then they wouldn't get to bad talk academics. Can't have that, can we?

While Conservapedia makes a lot of mistakes with science this one is insanely basic. Look, really and truly, when we study rape and murder and disease it isn't because we think rape and murder and disease are awesome. Rather, we usually regard them as problems and would like to correct them. In this case, I doubt the researchers said "How can we make people stop having children?" but rather were just interested in helping people be happy. Having discovered that kids make happiness difficult in some ways I strongly doubt they'll advocate that we stop breeding and go joyously into racial*** extinction, yet we may as well have all the facts. Hell, if just talking about or studying a topic a lot makes you an advocate for it, then Conservapedia must be one of the biggest supporters of homosexuals ever. Seriously, if you search Google for "Homosexuality" Conservapedia is the second hit:

I guess Andrew Schlafly absolutely loves gay people. Yeah. Sure he does.

And the biggest irony of this entire fiasco? It's the headline right below the one about "professor values":

Or, in text form:

"There are few things in American politics more irrationally ideological, more fanatically faith-based, than the accusation that Republicans are conducting a 'war on science.'"

Because if there's anything we've learned today, it's that Conservapedians totally get science.


* Hey, quote miners, just so you know: that's sarcasm.

** Thanks Mom and Dad!

*** Meaning "Homo Sapiens." I haven't become a white supremacist or some nonsense like that.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Falling expectations.

The Scene: Drek and his Wife are sitting at the table. Drek's wife is grading student essays.

Drek's Wife: Oh god.

Drek: What?

Drek's Wife: I have a student who wrote, "...those girls are bitch-like," in her paper.

Drek: Gah. That's just horrible.

Drek's Wife: Yeah. I know. I'm scratching it out and writing in "bitchy."

Drek: Yeah.

Drek's Wife: ...

Drek: Oh. Oh GOD!

Drek's Wife: What's wrong?

Drek: Well it's just... I don't know what's worse: that our students are using profanity in papers for a senior-level course, or that our reaction is to tell them how to use it properly.

Drek's Wife: Oh, man. You're right.

Drek: Our standards have hit bottom and begun to dig.

Drek's Wife: You know, our dog is bitch-like.

Drek: True, but given that she's female, bitch-like doesn't even begin to cover it.

Drek's Wife: Fair enough.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A smidge disturbing.

In a move that will surprise you, I recently saw some of the Tyra Banks show. No, really, I did! My wife in particular will likely be surprised since my loathing for Tyra Banks' other vehicle "America's Next Top Model" is virtually boundless. Nonetheless I, Drek the Uninteresting, have seen some of the program.

In my defense, however, I saw it because in this case the subject matter is more than a little bit disquieting. On this particular instance Tyra was interviewing women who are moving into the business of professional prostitution. This would, by itself, not be terribly remarkable as far as sensationalist programming goes were it not for an additional little detail. The woman in question is 18 year-old Summer whose budding career in pornography and prostitution is managed by her 44 year-old father. Who gives her bikini waxes. And reminds her to bring "something sexy" to work so she can please a man.


You can see a clip of the show over on Jezebel who has the following to say about it:

Today's episode of Tyra was about women who are looking to become legal prostitutes in Nevada. One particularly fucked up segment featured Summer, a pretty 18-year-old who is an "up and coming" adult film actress about to start working at the infamous Moonlight Bunny Ranch. Summer's father is also her manager, and he not only talked her into working at the brothel, but gives her Brazilian bikini waxes. Almost more insane? They actually show him doing it. Now, I'm pro-porn and pro-sex work, and I feel like people should be allowed to make their own choices when it comes to how they want to make their money. But maybe I'm not as progressive as I thought I was, because this shit is just wrong. Oh, and when Summer is shown crying when her dad drops her off at the brothel? He says, "you forgot something," and you think he's gonna give her words of encouragement or a hug, but instead, he hands her a giant bottle of lube.

She's absolutely right about the clip and I admit my reaction to it is similar to hers. I am just enough of a libertarian at heart that I don't really have an ethical problem with someone working in pornographic films or prostitution. I won't say that I regard either career path terribly favorably but I'm not sure I see it as a social good to prohibit those sorts of work either. That said, my reaction is one of utmost revulsion. Is it, as Jezebel suggests, that I am just not as progressive as I thought?

Well, first off, I don't think it has anything to do with being progressive or not. Frankly, I find the term "progressive" to be ridiculous propaganda on roughly the same level as "partial birth abortion." Moreso I think my revulsion stems from the interaction between Summer and her father. You see, if someone wants to start a career like this then I don't see any reason to stop them, but there's something a bit disturbing about one's own parents encouraging their child to become a prostitute. It's a dangerous, demeaning occupation even in a state like Nevada where standards are, in theory, adhered to. One could make the argument that this is no different than Tiger Woods' father encouraging his golfing ability but, really, is that true? Sure Woods' father profitted off of his son's commitment and sacrifice but, at the same time, there's a big difference between hitting a little white golfball and jerking off a lonely trucker.

Then again, is the element of personal service a good reason to view this work as demeaning? What about nurses or workers at retirement homes who may have to assist their patients/clients with all manner of personal hygeine tasks? Is it inherently more demeaning to perform oral sex on a stranger than to clean fecal material off of their body? Really, probably not. So what are we left with? This work isn't necessarily more demeaning than work performed by nurses and there's a long tradition of parents guiding their children's careers. Is it that this career is more dangerous? I mean, there will unavoidably be some exposure to bodily fluids which introduces the risk of disease transmission but, again, the same is true of doctors and nurses. And again, like medical professionals, I'd wager that there are both safety measures (at least in legal brothels in Nevada) and social controls that allow distance to be maintained in the relationship.

So where, exactly, does my revulsion come from in this case? I think it bothers me to see a father more or less pimping his daughter out. I think it bothers me not because there is anything intrinsically wrong with attempting to support his daughter's career- however unconventional it may be- but because there is too long a history of fathers pimping their daughters and, indeed, being praised for it. And when you get right down to it, I suspect that he's doing it for the same reasons that men have historically done it: to satisfy some need or desire of their own rather than for the good of their child. Why else "help" your child into a career of limited duration, limited financial benefit, and essentially no respect or esteem? If there's one thing we should be able to rely on from our loved ones, it is that they won't sacrifice us on the altar of their own selfish desires.

And at root, that's what bothers me.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Absolutely perfect.

Something that a lot of y'all probably don't realize about me is that, for a long time, I wanted to be an engineer. No, seriously, I did! Because of this misguided desire I actually attended a magnet high school that was designed as a sort of pre-engineering prep school. That was the theory anyway, in practice it was the biggest assortment of geeks and misfits you could have hoped to gather in one place. Despite this, most of us did not go on to become engineers. In fact, from my immediate set of friends I can think of a lawyer or two, a doctor or two, a science writer, a budding sociologist* and a whole slew of computer programmers. Whether or not this would allow the program's designers to claim success I have no idea.

In any case, back during high school I had the opportunity to get to know quite a few of those nascent computer programmers. This was an interesting experience for a number of reasons. First, I learned a lot about computers, which has proven to be useful over the years. In perfect honesty, I think part of the reason my father-in-law accepted me so readily is that I can troubleshoot his wireless LAN. Hey, you gotta start somewhere, right? Secondly, however, I learned a lot about the sort of people who program computers. They're nice people, by and large, but also not infrequently are a little eccentric. They may have odd habits, develop peculiar obsessions, and generally posture about quite random things. Some of them also have a disturbing fondness for porn, but we'll leave that aside for the time being.**

My acquaintence with actual programmers, however, has really deprived me of my enjoyment of certain elements of pop culture. Take, for example, the movie Hackers. This film would have you believe that computer programmers are hip dressing, smart talking, attractive young men and women. Right. Sure they are. Likewise, Swordfish****** gives you the impression that computer programmers are some weird cross between a rock star and a private detective. Certainly it would lead you to believe that programming is an exciting action-packed activity. Then we come to books like Neuromancer that became sci-fi classics while, nevertheless, displaying a titanic lack of understanding about how computers actually work. In combination, the disjoint between the way programmers often are, and how they are represented, makes my head spin.

So, it was with considerable pleasure that I noticed that the kids at Something Awful decided to do something about this disjoint. Specifically, they have produced an absolutely superb parody of Neuromancer and the entire hacker genre. Seriously:

The yellow LED-array of the traffic signal flared in the city night like the last ejection of a dying star. Case depressed the gas pedal of the '04 Daimler-Chrysler Town & Country. The engine rumbled and vented its hydrocarbons into the sickly-hot air of Neo-Milwaukee. Gas was up to five dollars a gallon and joyrides were getting expensive. As he guided the car with one hand he used the other to deftly unfold the polymer stay-hot wrapping of his Baja Gordita. It was two-handed work, but Case had a lot of practice.

By the time he was nearly done with the meal Case felt full. The fullness brought with it a sense of guilt. Case knew the nachos were an extravagance he could ill-afford. It had been a while since work had come Case's way. He finished the last bite of his food just as he reached his apartment building.

With the nacho cheese still pumping through his carotid he surveyed the parking situation. There was a space open right out front, but he lacked the confidence to successfully parallel park the Town & Country. After three attempts he aborted the maneuver and parked two blocks away.

When he entered his basement studio apartment he noticed an episode of Family Guy was left on pause on the TV screen. He briefly considered the possibility that a team of the MPAA's jackbooted thugs had stormed his apartment to verify that his DVDs were legit. Then he remembered he had been watching it before he left.

Lucky for him, the video wasn't a DVD at all. He was streaming it from his media PC.

"You'll have to try a little harder than that to tighten the noose around me, Glickman," Case said aloud to his half-painted Tau army.

It's the perfect counterpoint to the tide of literary bilge written about "hackers" and "data cowboys" and "digipimps" or whatever the hell hip term we're using nowadays for doughy, pasty white man-children who subsist on cheetos and Mountain Dew.******* Take a look and see if it doesn't make you laugh.

And then, if you really want to laugh, imagine someone trying to make what I do for a living sound exciting:

Drek took a long swig of his coffee and watched the statistics burning on the old CRT display. Standard errors, coefficients, r-squared... it was all there staring him in the face. His long, supple fingers raced across the keyboard: he needed an interaction term and he needed it NOW.

Bloody hell.

* That is, assuming that my day job doesn't pan out.

** I will, however, remark that during my tenture in high school one of these porn addled young geeks encountered an image so horrifying that I believe it scared him off of the stuff for at least a year. Even I do not know what this image was*** but his horrified remark on gazing upon it was, "OH MY GOD! That's a BIRD!!!"

*** This will no doubt come as a surprise to some of my friends who seem to think that the internet holds no perversion of which I am not already aware.****

**** No, not because I'm some kind of sexual deviant. I just worked with a guy before grad school whose idea of fun was to take over my desktop and open browser windows full of amputee fetish porn or something similar.*****

***** Yes, amputee fetish porn actually exists. No, you don't want to see it. I think a lot of websites could be rated with a "Cthulu Factor" which is to say a scale indicating how likely the horror is to make you lose your sanity.

****** Which contains possibly the least necessary topless scene ever in the history of motion pictures. Seriously, if they'd invested the money they spent on Halle Berry's topless scene on the script, it would have been a much better movie.

******* Don't get me wrong, some of these folks are good friends of mine. In fairness, most of them don't resemble the stereotype very much. And yet, at the same time, they really do.

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