Sunday, September 20, 2009

Looking outside at the world

Looking outside at the world
Originally uploaded by umlud
Ahh, a sunny September Sunday afternoon. I mowed the lawn in anticipation of the SNRE campfire Homecoming event this Friday evening (lots of set up this week). Across Third Sister Lake, the trees are just starting to change color (although other areas have more marked leaf-change). If the trees on the opposite shore turn with the same simultaneity and suddenness as they did when the leafed out, then I expect that I will just wake up one day to see an entire shoreline of red-leafed trees. Ahhhh....

The nights are not yet "crisp," but is a little cool, so the feeling of autumn (for me) still hasn't come. But it seems close.... Very close.

Something I should have thought of...

Via Daily Kos:
I, ________________________, do solemnly swear to uphold the principles of a socialism-free society and heretofore pledge my word that I shall strictly adhere to the following:
I will complain about the destruction of 1st Amendment Rights in this country, while I am duly being allowed to exercise my 1st Amendment Rights.
I will complain about the destruction of my 2nd Amendment Rights in this country, while I am duly being allowed to exercise my 2nd Amendment rights by legally but brazenly brandishing unconcealed firearms in public.
I will foreswear the time-honored principles of fairness, decency, and respect by screaming unintelligible platitudes regarding tyranny, Nazi-ism, and socialism at public town halls.  Also.
I pledge to eliminate all government intervention in my life.  I will abstain from the use of and participation in any socialist goods and services including but not limited to the following:
  • Social Security
  • Medicare/Medicaid
  • State Children’s Health Insurance Programs (SCHIP)
  • Police, Fire, and Emergency Services
  • US Postal Service
  • Roads and Highways
  • Air Travel (regulated by the socialist FAA)
  • The US Railway System
  • Public Subways and Metro Systems
  • Public Bus and Lightrail Systems
  • Rest Areas on Highways
  • Sidewalks
  • All Government-Funded Local/State Projects (e.g., see Iowa 2009 federal senate appropriations)
  • Public Water and Sewer Services (goodbye socialist toilet, shower, dishwasher, kitchen sink, outdoor hose!)
  • Public and State Universities and Colleges
  • Public Primary and Secondary Schools
  • Sesame Street
  • Publicly Funded Anti-Drug Use Education for Children
  • Public Museums
  • Libraries
  • Public Parks and Beaches
  • State and National Parks
  • Public Zoos
  • Unemployment Insurance
  • Municipal Garbage and Recycling Services
  • Treatment at Any Hospital or Clinic That Ever Received Funding From Local, State or Federal Government (pretty much all of them)
  • Medical Services and Medications That Were Created or Derived From Any Government Grant or Research Funding (again, pretty much all of them)
  • Socialist Byproducts of Government Investment Such as Duct Tape and Velcro (Nazi-NASA Inventions)
  • Use of the Internets, email, and networked computers, as the DoD's ARPANET was the basis for subsequent computer networking
  • Foodstuffs, Meats, Produce and Crops That Were Grown With, Fed With, Raised With or That Contain Inputs From Crops Grown With Government Subsidies
  • Clothing Made from Crops (e.g. cotton) That Were Grown With or That Contain Inputs From Government Subsidies
If a veteran of the government-run socialist US military, I will forego my VA benefits and insist on paying for my own medical care
I will not tour socialist government buildings like the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
I pledge to never take myself, my family, or my children on a tour of the following types of socialist locations, including but not limited to:
  • Smithsonian Museums such as the Air and Space Museum or Museum of American History
  • The socialist Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson Monuments
  • The government-operated Statue of Liberty
  • The Grand Canyon
  • The socialist World War II and Vietnam Veterans Memorials
  • The government-run socialist-propaganda location known as Arlington National Cemetery
  • All other public-funded socialist sites, whether it be in my state or in Washington, DC
I will urge my Member of Congress and Senators to forego their government salary and government-provided healthcare.
I will oppose and condemn the government-funded and therefore socialist military of the United States of America.
I will boycott the products of socialist defense contractors such as GE, Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Humana, FedEx, General Motors, Honeywell, and hundreds of others that are paid by our socialist government to produce goods for our socialist army.
I will protest socialist security departments such as the Pentagon, FBI, CIA, Department of Homeland Security, TSA, Department of Justice and their socialist employees.
Upon reaching eligible retirement age, I will tear up my socialist Social Security checks.
Upon reaching age 65, I will forego Medicare and pay for my own private health insurance until I die.
_____________   _________________________
Signed       Printed Name/Town and State

Friday, September 18, 2009

Cutting wood

Cutting wood
Originally uploaded by umlud
I purchased a cutting wedge (the blue thing on top of the wood) at the hardware store. That little wedge really helped me cut up a lot of the hardwood that I have lying around.

Although I haven't measured it, the amount is somewhere between 2 and 3 cubic feet of wood. I've got about 6 more cubic feet of this wood to cut. Maybe this weekend...

Cutting down another elm

Cutting down another elm
Originally uploaded by umlud
The university has cut down another elm tree. While this is a sad thing to me, I do understand that they are slowly dying - if not from the remnants of Dutch Elm Disease, then from something else. I wonder what the university will put up inn its place... (Maybe a disease-resistant elm?)

Fixing the pipes

Fixing the pipes
Originally uploaded by umlud
Every year, there is construction (or reconstruction or refurbishment) on campus. This year, there are updates that are being done on the pipes leading to/from the Chemistry building. The work began in the early summer and continues daily, slowly moving toward State Street.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Meant to curb your sugar cravings...?

I wrote about the need to change how people eat in this country, and that especially in the light of the health care debates the case for better eating isn't being discussed. Well, apparently, I am not alone in thinking this way. Via PhysOrg, there is a report of an effort that may - admittedly - have died before even leaving the gates (but at least I have experts from the NEJM on my side):
(AP) -- In a bid to ramp up the public health battle against obesity, a group of nutrition and economics experts are pushing for a tax of 1 cent on every of ounce of sodas and other sweetened beverages.

Proposals for a hefty soda tax though have repeatedly fallen flat. The idea was even floated as a way to help pay for health care reform, but government officials on Wednesday said that's not likely to happen.

The experts' plan was released by the influential New England Journal of Medicine, in a health policy article by Arkansas' surgeon general, New York City's health commissioner and five national experts on health and economics.

A soda tax would generate tax revenue while discouraging people from consuming extra calories, the authors contend. They cited a series of studies that showed higher rates of obesity and diabetes among women who drank more sugar-sweetened beverages. They argue that a steeper soda tax would borrow the same strategy that helped drive down cigarette smoking while bolstering government revenues


Taxes on soda aren't new - 33 states charge sales tax on soft drinks. But generally they are fairly small, with the average soda tax rate being 5.2 percent. On a 12-ounce can of soda that costs $1, that translates to about 5 cents.

The latest proposal in Thursday's issue of the medical journal calls for a 1-cent-per-ounce sales tax, an amount more than double the average state tax. It would increase the levy on that $1 soda can to 12 cents.

A national tax of that amount would generate nearly $15 billion in its first year, said proposal author Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

The money could be used for child nutrition and obesity prevention programs, the authors suggested. The tax also would lead to a yearly 2-pound weight loss for soda drinkers, on average, they estimated. For people who drink who drink a lot of soda, it could be more, Brownell said.


Thompson, the Arkansas surgeon general, said one reason soda taxes fail is that consumers don't view sugared beverages as an important source of their weight problems.

"That's a new concept" that may take a while to gain wide acceptance, he said.
However, neither the House or Senate bills mention anything about taxing sugary drinks (let along soda/pop). And if what Thompson says is true, then it will take a long time before anything like a soda tax is seriously contemplated. However, the numbers are out there, doing a simple search of "Coke calories" turns up this website. The numbers are there. People just have to look for them, think about their implications, and act accordingly. (A lot to ask, I know.)

Religious states have greater teen pregnancy rates

From my PhysOrg news ticker, I see this story: "Teenage birth rates higher in more religious states." The provisional paper (submitted to Reproductive Health is available online) makes the claim that at the state level, religiosity was positively correlated with teenage pregnancy. From the paper's abstract, here's the summary of the results:
Increased religiosity in residents of states in the U.S. strongly predicted a higher teen birth rate, with r = 0.73 (p<0.0005). Religiosity correlated negatively with median household income, with r = -0.66, and income correlated negatively with teen birth rate, with r = -0.63. But the correlation between religiosity and teen birth rate remained highly significant when income was controlled for via partial correlation: the partial correlation between religiosity and teen birth rate, controlling for income, was 0.53 (p<0.0005). Abortion rate correlated negatively with religiosity, with r=-0.45, p=0.002. However, the partial correlation between teen birth rate and religiosity remained high and significant when controlling for abortion rate (partial correlation=0.68, p<0.0005) and when controlling for both abortion rate and income (partial correlation=0.54, p=0.001).

What does this all mean? Well, the authors sum it up in their abstract's conclusion in this way:

With data aggregated at the state level, conservative religious beliefs strongly predict U.S. teen birth rates, in a relationship that does not appear to be the result of confounding by income or abortion rates. One possible explanation for this relationship is that teens in more religious communities may be less likely to use contraception.
What this means is that there are no strong outliers in the dataset, and this still is a positive correlation even if you take abortion rates and income into account. They also seem to have chosen to remain cautious with their list of explanations, and don't make the jump between this correlation and the religious right's opposition to actual sex eduction in schools (i.e., they don't make the jump to say that abstinence-only education, strongly supported by those with high levels of religiosity, doesn't work).

It would be interesting to see what sort of explanation abstinence-only supporters would give for this study.

Panda robots?

This story touched on so many things for me, including species conservation, robot celebrities, robot teachers, and cultural assumptions of human-robot futures. Via AFP:
TAIPEI — The world's first panda robot is taking shape at a cutting-edge lab in Taiwan where an ambitious group of scientists hope to add new dimensions to the island's reputation as a high-tech power.
The Centre for Intelligent Robots Research aims to develop pandas that are friendlier and more artistically endowed than their endangered real-life counterparts.
"The panda robot will be very cute and more attracted to humans. Maybe the panda robot can be made to sing a panda song," said Jerry Lin, the centre's 52-year-old director.
Well, this could be an interesting way of tackling the charismatic megafauna issue to conservation ... by making them even more charismatic... Of course, this is probably not like your parents' robo-panda, either.
The robo-panda is just one of many projects on the drawing board at the centre, which is attached to the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, the island's version of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Taipei-based centre also aims to build robots that look like popular singers, so exact replicas of world stars can perform in the comfort of their fans' homes.
"It could be a Madonna robot. It will be a completely different experience from just listening to audio," said Lin.
Of course, if you were to have a robot of Madonna, the world tours would be very easy to make, and could literally make Madonna (or another robo-artist) embodied and immortal. Furthermore, the artists who are made into robots can also continue to write and sing songs, being able to use their body doubles for their touring and music promotions. The term "world-tour" takes on a different meaning when you've got an army of robot doubles taking to the stage throughout the world...
Lin and his team are also working on educational robots that can act as private tutors for children, teaching them vocabulary or telling them stories in foreign languages.
There is an obvious target market: China, with its tens of millions of middle-class parents doting on the one child they are allowed under strict population policies.
"Asian parents are prepared to spend a lot of money to teach their children languages," said Lin.
Robots running amok are a fixture of popular literature but parents do not have to worry about leaving their children home alone with their artificial teachers, he said.
See? No worries in China about some Frankenstein's monster giving private tutoring lessons to your kids. Because there are different cultural norms than in the West. If this were proposed here, I think that - other than techno-utopians - there will be a hew and cry from people on all sides, including parents who might have some image of Terminator mixed together with Kindergarten Cop.

Of course, when this sort of technology gets into the hands of a wider audience, I predict one of two things happening: the film industry using them and the adult sex toy industry using them. However, in the former case, it might well be easier to make use of computer generated images than to bring in a robot (the technology for that is, after all, far more advanced than robots).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Processed food, obesity, health care, and societal costs

I suppose food is on my mind today (although I don't really know why, since I've eaten enough)... However, this graphic from Next Generation Food got me thinking about something else in the health care debate - something that isn't discussed: the health cost of the food we eat.

A 2005 (I believe) publication from the American Heart Association showed that 30.4% of adults in the United States were considered "obese," based on BMI. (Now, while I do have an issue with the use of BMI as a metric for individuals, at a population level, its trend does seem to work better.) What I want to draw attention to, though, is the link that the AHA makes between obesity and health and financial consequences:

The publication lists correlations with life expectancy and obesity, and has a nice table (on page 14) of increased likelihoods of diseases, too. For example, for people with a BMI greater than 35, there is a:
  • 6.16 times greater possibility of developing type-II diabetes,
  • 5.48 times greater possibility of gallstones,
  • 3.77 times greater possibility of having hypertension,
  • 2.39 times greater possibility of arthritis,
  • 1.75 times greater possibility of stroke, and
  • 1.67 times greater possibility of heart attack..
With regard to financial costs, the publication cites a 1999 paper ("The costs of body mass index levels in an employed population") that showed that as BMI increased, so did the number of sick days, medical claims and insurance costs. Furthermore, they cite a 2002 paper ("The Effects Of Obesity, Smoking, And Drinking On Medical Problems And Costs") that showed:
Obesity is associated with a 36 percent increase in inpatient and outpatient spending and a 77 percent increase in medications, compared with a 21 percent increase in inpatient and outpatient spending and a 28 percent increase in medications for current smokers and smaller effects for problem drinkers.
How does work in with the health care debate currently going on in the United States? I can see it working itself into the conversation in two ways: current denials to those who are BMI-obese and future population-level costs if it isn't effectively addressed in the future. In the first case, the husband of a friend of mine was declined health insurance because his BMI was too high. This is why I use the term "BMI-obese," since I am categorized as "obese" by the BMI table. (My previous entry on BMI talks a lot about the problems with BMI as a modern-day scale as well as the logical problem of using it as an individual measure.) Since he cannot get medical insurance, he is one more of the 40 million Americans on the uninsured lists due to a "pre-existing condition". It is likely, too that many people who are BMI-obese may have their insurance dropped if this fact is found out, or may have it drastically increased.

In the second case, let's assume that pre-existing conditions cannot be a cause for dropping (or not enrolling) a person to health insurance. Under these circumstances, the costs of the truly obese (as opposed to BMI-obese) will be borne by all of the payers. However, if rates of obesity continue to increase, then that cost burden will also become greater and greater. If there is not mechanism to award people who are healthy (as opposed to only penalizing people who are not healthy), then the financial problems of obesity will not go away.

What does this all have to do with processed food? Well, in addition to what the numbers and charts show in the graphic above, food purveyors want their customers to purchase their product. What manufactured food does is prey upon the human evolutionary desires of sugars and fats, and thus give us sugary drinks and fatty foods, which we (in turn) consume with all the evolutionarily pressured gusto we can manage before going back for more (and more and more). This cycle tends to lead to obesity in a population and (if left unchecked) obesity of a population, which (in turn) leads to increased health care costs as well as increased macro-economic costs.

That's enough navel-gazing for right now on this topic. However, it's likely to not go away from my mind any time soon...

The above graphic is from GOOD (you have to click over to them in order to "Launch Infographic"), and shows the amount of money spent on food aid (in the form of food stamps) per month in the United States over the period of September 2008 to May 2009. I think that the graphic is a good one for several reasons, because it shows a trend of what this economic slump has wrought. True, there aren't food lines like there were during the Great Depression, but there wasn't a food stamps program for much of that time, either (it was first introduced in 1939). In other words, a lot of the needs of the poor have become invisible, making it difficult for people to see.

True, there are many social benefits and economic practicalities of using food stamps instead of having people wait in food lines, but the human psyche is trained to evaluate what is readily visible (i.e., can be seen "right now," covering a relatively short period of time). This "problem" of human perception is why stop-motion photography is such a wonderful mechanism to use in showing relatively slow (to the human senses) occurrences, and why Dan Gilbert said that global warming is happening too slowly. Keeping this sort of information "under wraps" (as it were) changes the political discussion that can be had, since it may be difficult to get sympathy for anonymous members that make up statistics (and makes it easy to classify them all as somehow "unworthy").

This all ties in - in some way - to the current "debate" in the U.S. about health care. I would imagine that a similar graph could be made about the growth of the uninsured (and the number of underinsured), as tied to this current recession. However, these millions of American citizens effectively remain unseen, and (therefore) are effectively outside of human perception. True, we might know that one-in-six Americans doesn't have health insurance, and we might even know one (or many). However, the sheer scale that 40 million represents cannot be grasped by the human mind. The trend of 1 million additional people per month also cannot be grasped. And these are the relatively easy numbers. The more complex ones - those involving the impacts of a status quo into the future on future national budgets, for example - are even more staggering challenges to the human mind. These inability of human perception to easily picture levels of national need and disparity make it easy for those currently against changing the status quo to cloud judgments. Even if one has scientifically enumerated facts, when those facts cannot be related to by the populace, then they are next to useless in a debate that requires an understanding of the scale and abstract nature of the facts in question.

I originally wanted to use the graphic to show that government subsidies are actually a very important thing for many Americans today, especially because of the poor economy. I was going to make a connection between the month-by-month increase in food assistance to the increases in the rolls of the uninsured. However, that got a little side-tracked. However, I believe the connection is there, and I personally wonder (with the political wonk side of my head) how many people actively protesting against "socialization" are on some sort of government program that provides them with assistance, including food stamps, unemployment compensation, Medicare, Medicaid, social security, etc. The "what if" autocrat in me wonders how many people would remain against "socialization" if the government followed their advice and stopped all these programs...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Heckling the President.

Last night, I watched Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress, streamed live on Hulu (which is a great thing that they offer). Listening to it, when Obama got to the part of his speech where he said that his healthcare reform would not cover illegal immigrants, one could clearly hear one man yell, "You lie!" at the President. This causes a small furor that (luckily) quickly quieted down, as Obama merely repeats, "that's not true" to the accusation that illegal immigrants would be covered - this was even covered briefly by the AP.

However, it got me thinking about what the role of heckling in the American Parliament, and what the role of the President is in this country. This is not Parliament in London where "Prime Minister's Questions" is a time period that is usually shown on the highlights reel of the news, especially when spoken gaffes are made:

Yet, I don't think that even in this apparent free-for-all of questions and shouting that people would stand up and call the PM (or any other MP) a liar (at least not directly, perhaps choosing to couch the language a little more carefully to a single topic or to only shout something like that when it could be drowned out by all the other hecklers).

However, the United States is not the UK, and the leader of the country isn't another (but greatly more powerful) member of parliament. The President's Executive Branch of government is an equal and separate arm of government (which has different powers than the Legislature). Here, there is a tradition of decorum, of clapping or cheering with agreement, or not clapping when you disagreed. Even in parliamentary proceedings, the normal process is much more staid.

Representative Joe Wilson was approached by many members of his Republican party and told to apologize to the President, which he did. His statement was, "While I disagree with the president’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable," and this apology is a good thing. True, one way to think about this was that it was a political apology, either to try an save his re-election ability, or his ability to work with others in Congress in the future.


We were all told to, "respect the office" of the President during the presidency of George W. Bush. We were told that protesting against the President was "anti-American" or "anti-patriotic". Yet now many of those who said that it was anti-American to protest the President are protesting the President - and going to much further an extent than many of the protests against George W. Bush did, including outright lies; paranoid statements about how government has suddenly turned into an ominously insidious body that secretly tries to kill and marginalize its citizens; single-minded ad hominem attacks by equating the President with dictators of the past; etc.

Just two days prior to the 9/9/09 speech to Congrss, President Barack Obama gave a day-after-Labor Day (i.e., the first day of school) speech to school children. And leading up to it, the paranoid calls from anti-Obama arenas erupted in full non-respect of the office. Where were those members from the right who so vociferously stated things like, "respect the office"? Jon Beilue at asks this question in his column, asking how we can find our way back to more decorum. It was - in some ways - a column that strangely foreshadowed the outburst from Rep. Wilson just later that night.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Main Street Bipartisanship

For those few people who are reading this, please watch the video:

Thank you.

Car park in Japan

In Japan, there are automatic car parks that store, retrieve, and even turn the car around for you so that you are facing the correct direction in order to leave. (The whole thing seems like it would be a little "fumigated" by the end of the day, though, what with there not being a lot of visible air circulation going on...)

This one sort of slides the car sideways.

Meanwhile, in the US, things haven't changed too much from this Seinfeld episode:

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Vermont now marrying same-sex couples

Via various news sources this morning: Vermont is now providing marriages for same-sex couples. Huzzah! Apparently, there were no massive rushes for marriage licenses that we saw in San Francisco (during that brief period in which same-sex marriage licenses were allowed).

Some might think that is not a good thing, but I think that the fact that same-sex couples feel that they have the luxury of time to make their plans and have it "done right" (as it were) is a good thing, since it provides a sense of permanence to the whole institution. In other words, if the fifth New England state's allowance of same-sex marriage was met with throngs and throngs of people, it could also be seen as being similar to the bread lines of post-Soviet Russia: people lining up for the desperate hope of getting a scarce commodity that can run out at any time.

Furthermore, as the rest of New England starts issuing marriage licenses, there will be less of a "need" to go to Vermont in order to get married. The fact that so many New Englanders are feeling comfortable enough to wait for it to inevitably come to them is IMHO a good thing.

However, a blogger at Queerty - as well as NPR's marketplace - makes an interesting point: that this low turn out may be due to many couples wanting to get married on the anniversary of their previous civil union. (Civil unions were allowed in the state since 2000.)