Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Food in schools

Take this junk food quiz first.

I'm just at a loss for words here. Complete loss. Seriously, it's no wonder that we're reaching a 30% obesity rate in this country if our schools consider water worse for you than sugary drinks, popsicles are banned but not snickers, and they don't take into account sat fats, calories, or gee, well really anything that's bad for you, focusing instead on only whether the food has nutritional value (ie vitamins and minerals - the lack thereof being why water gets the bad rap).

Friday, August 24, 2007

Hole in the Universe

Astronomers have just discovered a gaping hole in the universe. Apparently, there's nothing inside of it, no galaxies, stars, or dark matter. And it's nearly a billion light years across.

Now, I've never studied astronomy - I couldn't explain to you what exactly is meant by dark matter or string theory (though I do have vague impressions I've gotten from books and tv). But if I'm not mistaken, then this hole is basically outer space without all the detritus of planets, stars and galaxies.

Now, I'm curious what causes a big empty space like this. Did one of the marble-toting aliens (think Men in Black) take a vacuum to our universe? In any event, can you imagine how absolutely boring it would be to travel through that hole, even at warp speed? (Totally disregarding the fact that there would be no fuel, food, or sunlight to be had for a billion years, but hey that's just practicalities, right?)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

18 Men Arrested for Cross-Dressing

So it seems that recently, 12 states in Northern Nigeria passed stricter Sharia laws (based on Muslim precepts). The power of these laws has remained active for centuries, but had been curtailed under British colonial rule. Now they're back in force. The sharia courts "impose strict punishments such as death for adultery or sodomy and amputation for theft."

Ok, hold on a second. I consider myself to be very tolerant of different cultures and understanding of customs that differ from my own - different practices are often quite intriguing and can tell me a lot about that culture and the ways they think. But I just can't get on board with death for adultery or amputation for theft. Sure, these things are not good to do as they hurt other people (either emotionally or monetarily). But whatever happened to prison (for theft), or exile as a feasible option if somebody does something that doesn't fit with your culture's mores (make it someone else's problem)? What about the Amish practice of shunning? Just pretend the person isn't there, they don't exist for you.

Do you think that the laws against adultery are equally applied to men and women? I'd be really surprised if they were. Historically, women committing adultery have been treated MUCH more harshly than men.

We watch movies like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and think "oh my god, they're cutting people's hands off" but we "know" that it's a story about a past era, that we've reached a more "enlightened" time (if I can say that without sounding condescending - I don't mean enlightened as in how "we" do things. But rather, enlightened in that we don't force our will physically upon someone else, unless they've done something unmentionable like murder, rape, that kind of thing). But it's still really happening.

So, ok, I'll bet you that cutting people's hands off would be a deterrent for certain kinds of theft (white collar, armed robbery, that kind of thing), unless someone just figured that their plan was so perfect, they wouldn't get caught. But it's the really poor people who are stealing food for their family to eat that will be hit hard. No, I'm not condoning theft. But if the kids are hungry and crying, and there's no work to be had, I don't think that possible amputation (if caught) is going to prevent the theft of some food.

I understand that most religions have a problem with homosexuality. I don't agree with their negative view of it, but they're entitled to feel that it's wrong, I suppose. Just like abortion - people are entitled to be pro life. But my take on it is this - if you don't like it, don't do it. As long as it's not harming anyone, why should they get all in a murderous snit about it? If it's not accepted in their society, that's fine, do the whole exile/shunning thing. But to kill people for being homosexual?

Ok, so this is the extreme. It does say in the article that only one man, a convicted murderer, has been hanged under sharia law since it was enacted in 2002. So it could that adultery, sodomy and theft are punishable by death and amputation on the books only - much like there are some states in the US where there are anti-sodomy laws still on the books (couldn't tell you what the punishment for that is, or what states, just that I've heard that they're there....). But it looks like they are taking these 18 men to trial for dressing as women. Now the question is, if they didn't catch them in any homosexual acts, could they enforce the sodomy laws? I certainly hope not, because death for cross-dressing just seems so far out of proportion as to be ludicrous.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Matrixology - Are you really a Sim?

The New York Times recently reported on a new theory held by Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, that there is a 20% chance that our world is really the Sims. "Some computer experts" (which ones, I ask you?) have projected that, based on trends in processing power, we will have a computer system by mid-century that "could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems." This boils down to making us into an extended game of the Sims. Unlike the Matrix, where people could disconnect, "wake up" from their simulation, it would be nothing be a virtual network made of nothing but virtual brainpower.

Now, let me ask you, 20% chance?! I mean, seriously. It's a very intriguing idea and appeals to me in a philosophical and sociological way. However, to take it seriously, I really don't think so. I think that it certainly could soon be possible to run grand scale simulations in worlds (like Second Life - for more SL info, see my previous post on the subject) from our ancestors eras in a similar way to how we currently enjoy fantastical worlds (take, for instance, the popularity of the World of Warcraft or Ultima Online). Second Life has definitely taken on a whole life and economy of its own, but not to the extent this philosopher is talking about.

It would have to be a seriously powerful computer beyond all imagining to not only control a world of this size (and multiples for different eras), but to also imbue the virtual residents with emotions and with a self-awareness so they would feel like they were in control of their life. I'm picturing a Terminator 3 scenario here, where the virtual minds somehow gain their independence from their puppeteers and nuke the world.

In any event, not likely in my opinion. But an interesting philosophical discussion. Might we now see some "I'm a sim" defenses in trials like all those "Neos" out there who thought the world wasn't real so they could do whatever they wanted?

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Science of Insulting Women

The Freakonomics blog just moved over to The New York Times website. One of their first posts was about studies that have been done about negging - "a move that involves interjecting an insult during an initial conversation with a woman. The motivation behind the insult is to “lower her self-esteem, thus making her more vulnerable to your advances.”" This post has gotten the most comments I've seen on a Freakonomics post in a while, and I couldn't bring myself to read through all of them. After the first three or four posts by men saying that "all women" are attracted to bad men who insult their sense of self esteem, and that women never are interested in nice men who treat them right, I'd had enough.

Sure, there are women out there who like dangerous guys, guys who aren't interested, men who don't treat them right. Sometimes it's a result of their childhood - I have a relative who married a man who insults her quite often, but she's been married to him at least 30 years, perhaps in part because her father was not always the nicest when speaking with her mother. If it's something you grow up with, it may seem like the norm, that may be the example of a "successful" marriage. Who knows?]

But to generalize to say that that's what all women want, it sounds like that commenter thinks he's a nice guy, and has been burned by women interested in "bad boys." Some comments have said that women don't like to be complimented, or treated right. Now, I'm telling you right now, for all the men out there reading this post - yes, we do like to be complimented and treated right! (At least those of us with a healthy sense of self-respect and no bad boy complexes). And no, this doesn't mean we want compliments in every other breath, presents every other minute, and a man hanging on our every word. Because that's just damn slavish and sycophantic. But a man who knows how to use a well-placed compliment, have an intelligent conversation, and has his own interests in life is infinitely more appealing than either of the over-aggressively rude or sycophantic stereotypes.

The other thing I take issue with is the idea that women are only interested in men with status. That that's why they stay with men who insult them. No. No. No. Sure, perhaps women who stay with men like that feel like the men have more status, that's possible. But I think it's also in large part because the men have cut down their self esteem (or preyed on women who already have low self esteem) to such a level that the women feel like they don't deserve any better, or they don't want to be alone and don't have faith in themselves enough that they could find someone better.

I think the idea of trying to teach men who aren't comfortable interacting with women is a good one, but the way this Mystery is going about it just kind of turns my stomach. Teasing a woman just to let her know that you're on the same level as her is one thing, that she's not on a pedestal. But going beyond that into insulting (and to the "mate retention" behaviors also mentioned, such as her around to make sure she's not meeting other guys) sounds to me like it's the guy who has the low self-esteem - he's uncomfortable just being himself and let his conversation and looks attract women, so he has to resort to preying on the vulnerable. And there's someone out there actually making money for teaching men these tactics - books and a tv show, blech!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Strapped - Part 1: Education

Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead by Tamara Draut (ISBN 9781400079971)
Rating: 10/10

This was an absolutely fabulous book, the best I've read in a long time. It actually got me underlining passages, which I never do since it defaces the book. It takes a three-pronged view at why it's so hard for today's 18-34 year olds (in this book, those born between 1971 and 1987) to not only get ahead, but to break even and not sink into debt.

The first issues she brings up is the high cost of education.

"Borrowing one's way through college just wasn't the norm. In 1977, college students borrowed about $6 billion (2002 dollars) to help pay for college, compared to the $28 billion borrowed by students in 1993. By 2003, the amount of borrowing had doubled, to $56 billion. The rise in loan volume cannot be completely explained by increases in college enrollment. The number of students enrolled in college grew by 44 percent between 1977 and 2003, but student loan volume rose by 833 percent."

Yes, you read that right, 833 percent! Student loan debt was a fairly non-existent phenomenon until the 1990s (not that it didn't exist, but it wasn't the epidemic it is now). Then it absolutely exploded. And given the number of really good schools that don't give merit-based aid, many students have to rely on need-based aid, which generally comes in the form of loans.

"A 2002 survey of college borrowers found that 40 percent [of students] had delayed going to college or had gone to a less expensive college to avoid the burden of large student loans." Given the currency that the big name schools play in some professions (medicine, law, architecture, design, etc), the fact that more and more students are choosing to go to community college does have a definite impact on future earning potential. The book lists several real-life examples of students who wanted a certain career (for example, physician's assistant), but were unable to pay for their education and so had to settle with a lower paying degree (nursing, or I can't remember right now, whatever the stage below nursing is).

Now, perhaps in some of these fields, the gap isn't quite so pronounced - getting a medical degree will stand someone in good stead, whether it's from Harvard or the state or community college. But take, for instance, someone who wants an arts & sciences degree. Many students go for arts & sciences as a more general knowledge base, and once they get there they decide what they want to major in. The career path isn't laid out, and the job after graduation isn't as easy to pin down.

Take me, for instance. I have a double major degree in French and Anthropology. I use neither in my chosen profession (publishing). I attend social functions which allow me to use my French, but don't use it for work. I view my college degree as a good base formation for me, teaching me to think critically, educating me broadly, that kind of thing. And I am extraordinarily lucky that I have no student loans. But if I were burdened with several hundreds of dollars of loan payments every month, I could very well start questioning what the hell I was doing in college studying subjects that ended up having no relevance on my professional career. Sure, having the degree definitely helps me getting a better job and a better salary, and will stand me in good stead if and when I decide to go back for a grad degree. But many students don't have the luxury of going for a general degree and paying for room and board at college. Sometimes at the same time holding down two or three jobs and perhaps supporting children as well.

"A bachelor's degree is clearly what a high school degree used to be in terms of basic education for an economy based on knowledge."

A college degree is the basic currency of the economy nowadays, and it is difficult to get a well-paying job without one. The author points out that starting in the 80s and 90s, the corporate world turned into an hourglass - lots of workers in the bottom, a bottleneck in the middle, and higher up the top level jobs. Without a college degree, it is definitely much harder to move up through that bottleneck of middle management into the upper tier.

The percentage of college tuition has also shrunk over the years. I can't put my finger on the exact page in the book, but the percentage of tuition actually covered by the government in grants as need-based aid has not kept up with the explosion in tuition costs. If I remember correctly, the average grant was in the ballpark of $4000 per year. Taking the private colleges out of the pictures (which are upwards of $30K/year), state school can run to the low five figures per year, which leaves those students of modest economic background in a definite bind.

The lore in America is that you can pull yourself from modest beginnings up by your bootstraps to the corner office making a six figure salary. And that dream does happen for some people, but the whole paradigm of education and the economy has vastly changed over the last two decades. When students graduate from college with an average of $20K in debt, grad school with an average of $45K in debt, and phd with an average of $100K in debt, it's hard to save money and get ahead, difficult to invest in our future when we're just concentrating on squeaking by with what we have.

Economists have written at length about the epidemic among this generation of not saving, or of going into debt. It is often blamed on "kids" not being able to control their spending, buying unnecessary luxuries, that kind of thing. And for some of us, that'd certainly true. But then you look at the others, the ones breaking their backs in two or three jobs to try to pay back those loans, their rent, their car payments, food, insurance, perhaps child care, and you can say how small their luxury spending actually is, if they have any.

More posts to come at a later date about the other topics in the book - child care/health care costs, credit card debt, home ownership, and apathy to politics.

I recommend this book to anyone in this age group, to get perspective on why we're all so strapped for cash and what we can do about it. Also, greatly recommended to all of our parents, to help them understand that things are considerably different for us than it was when they were our age.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Eyeball Tattoos

It seems that in the world of tattooing, we have not yet reached the final frontier. Just when you thought that we had discovered everywhere you could possibly tattoo someone, here they come and hit us with eyeball tattoos.

Corneal tattooing has been used for patients who have suffered an eye trauma, to cover a scar or to help people with leucoma. But there are now patients asking for elective corneal tattooing. Three people were chronicled on their search to tattoo their eyes blue. Not their irises. Not their pupils. If I'm not mistaken, the cornea is the white part of the eye. Can you imagine? I mean, to each their own, and if they get their kicks walking around looking like they're going to shoot lasers out of their eyes, then more power to them (have I watched too many episodes of Charmed? Perhaps...). But wow, I don't think I could do that.

I'm hesitant even to consider Lasik surgery. It would be great to not have to mess with contacts or glasses, but just the prospect of having my eye open and seeing a big sharp knife coming at it is enough to freak me out. My eyes aren't bad enough yet for that. But to do it without having some kind of optical enhancement in vision, no thank you. And considering all the potential problems, I think I'll hold off on getting my eyes tattooed for now.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Woman Pregnant for 10 Years

No, not with one child, silly. But over her lifespan, she has been pregnant for a total of 10.5 years. Can you imagine? The Duggars (in Arkansas, why am I not surprised?) just welcomed their 17th child into the family (17th!!!). This woman must be an absolute saint to be able to deal with that many young children at once, either that or she's cracked up and nobody's noticed yet. I'll be the older ones help out a bunch, but still, can you imagine how much laundry there must be to do in that house? How much cooking, and for that matter their grocery bill every week? They probably spend more in food in one week than I make in a month, especially with 10 of those kids being boys. And they want more kids!

How are they paying for all of these kids? They're apparently on the Discovery Channel, so maybe they're using all this media attention to their advantage to help pay for everything. Either that or that father is the highest paid former state representative ever.

All the kids are home schooled, which I suppose makes sense given the number of them, the cost of child care (and private schools), and such. I hope they get a chance to go out amongst the rest of the world - that's the main problem I find with home schooling (apart from not being able to confirm the quality of education, I mean anyone can home school their kids, but do they know what's they're talking about?), the insularity of it and the reduced interaction with other kids of their age (who aren't related to them).

On a final note...what possessed these parents to name all their kids with names starting with J? I mean seriously. As if it's not going to be hard enough for all the in laws they're going to have once their kids start getting married, the in-laws are going to have to remember all their names when they all start with the same sound? I suppose they'll get used to it after a while, but man, I mean it's bad enough when twins have similar names!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

When It's Good to be an Absentminded Professor

A man and his wife in London play the same lottery numbers every week. Perhaps for months, perhaps for years. The numbers have some special significance - their birthdays, their anniversary, the birthdays of their dearly departed relatives. Ever week, without fail, the husband goes down to the little corner store, buys his lottery ticket, and fills out those numbers. Puts the receipt in his wallet. Only on this day, he was distracted by a pretty woman walking in, or a traffic accident outside, or someone dropping a fistful of change on the ground by accident. For whatever reason, he puts the receipt into the other pocket of his wallet, the one he doesn't normally use. Later on that day, he opens his wallet and notices that there's no lottery ticket in its usual spot. He stops on his way home to buy one, because he knows that if he doesn't, that will be the day when his numbers hit the jackpot. Only maybe this is his lucky day anyway, Murphy be damned.

They win! The pot of 2.4 million pounds, split amongst four winners wins them a pretty penny. They're quite content with their share. But then (then!) a week later, he opens his wallet and finds the second lottery ticket with those same numbers. Thanking his lucky stars? No! That was for the first ticket. Kissing those lucky stars is more like it!

Now this sounds like a nice fairy tale, doesn't happen to the average Joe Schmoe on the street, certainly not to the nice absent-minded British gentleman in the next flat. Well, it seems that it very well did happen to one lucky couple, who netted a million pounds (2 million dollars!) because of a happy accident. Man, if I could win just one lottery ticket, I'd be happy! But then, I suppose I'd actually have to buy one to win...