Thursday, July 29, 2010

A simple way to help the Gulf Coast: add your name to the petition

I was #119971 to sign the "Be the One" petition to help clean up the Gulf Coast.

[Video removed due to apparent greenwashing attempts.]

Although I have never been to the Gulf of Mexico, I know that it is an essential part of the United States' economy as well as the local livelihoods and ways of life. It is also a place with now-critical ecosystems that need help. Therefore, although I might not ever eat a Louisiana oyster, dive in that blue stretch of the world's surface, nor catch fish out of those waters, I do believe that action is necessary to keep it safe for those who will do so in the future, to help those who do so today, and to prove tho those who came before us that we are not destroying their legacy.

UPDATE: Just after I signed the petition below, I learned that this whole thing is a greenwashing campaign, funded by the American Petroleum Institute. Okay, maybe you shouldn't show your support for a front group for the API, but still, you can write to your congress critter (rep or sen) to let him or her know that you want to help protect and restore the Gulf Coast.

So: don't sign the petition. Do contact your rep and sen to let them know that you would like some action, please, and please do so with all haste.

How many can you name?

35mm from Felix Meyer on Vimeo.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Got to 37mph! (59.5kph)

This morning, I managed to hit 37 mph (59.5 kph) based on the Garmin Forerunner 301's "speedometer" as I was coming downhill on Liberty. I was stuck behind a dumptruck that was also using the downhill slope to help accelerate, and -- although I remained in the bike lane -- I was able to catch enough of a draft on that larger, non-aerodynamic slug-of-metal to reach 37 mph!

That speed's so much more than the 35.4 mph that I clocked on July 7, and unlikely to happen again soon -- at least in the manner of this morning. Keep in mind that I wasn't tucked in right behind the truck -- like some might do -- but was actually in the bike lane, and several yards back from the rear of the truck. In other words, if that dumptruck was going to stop (relatively much slower than me, due to major differences in our respective mass-to-braking-power ratios), I had plenty of room to still maneuver.

Still, it was very exhilarating (although riding that downhill section of Liberty St really fast doesn't really cut down my overall commute time, since it is only about 15% of the overall ride, and the rest of my 3.5 mile commute is done in the 15-20 mph -- 24.1-32.2 kph -- range).

Hidden charges from "MVQ*PRIVACYMATT"

I was looking through my accounts online today and found the following: "MVQ*PRIVACYMATT 888" as an abbreviated description of a charge of $16.95 that had apparently been attached as a monthly charge to my account.

After doing a Google search, I discovered from the Complaints Board website that it was actually a bill from "Privacy Matters 123," and that their telephone number is 888-239-0316. I was told that I had actually signed up for the service when I purchased something on another site, and that I had been paying for several months. However, they were more than willing to refund me the money. Their non-plussed attitude made it seem to me that this was not something that came as a surprise to them, and unlike other places where trying to get money back is like wringing blood out of a stone, they were more than happy to say that they would refund me the money and cancel my service.

I will see in 4-7 business days whether this actually happened. If I don't see the money deposited in my account, I suppose I, too, will be writing to the BBB about this group.

UPDATE: I just checked my bank statement, and I did receive all the months of refunds that I asked for and was promised. So at least I don't have to follow up with this company, which was perhaps the easiest group to get a refund from.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

How to make charts: thanks to Flowing Data

I really love the site Flowing Data, and they have recently done a post on the basic things one should be aware of when making graphs. These are really common-sense things, but I'm always amazed at how many people forget them.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

One more reason to repeal DADT

Another re-posting of a comment made elsewhere. This time, it's about a story from Dispatches on why to repeal the Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) policy of homosexuals serving the US Military. Ed posted a clip from The Rachel Maddow Show of an interview with Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, a 19-year veteran and fighter pilot, who was outed, and is now waiting to see whether he will be forced into a "separation from the military":

My comment on that site:
One thing that isn't (imo) emphasized enough is that Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach was playing by rules of DADT. He wasn't trying to make a point about his sexual orientation. He was doing his job -- apparently very successfully -- and was outed by a civilian's claim against him.

That he has become an extremely competent speaker for gay rights in the military is -- it seems to me -- due to the fact that he was outed and effectively forced to become one. Furthermore, I think that the quality and length of his service is something that speaks for itself, and allows him to easily be heard above the braying of the keep-DADT-alive crowd. It's a very different thing than when a Lt. comes out on cable TV, as Lt. Dan Choi did on the Rachel Maddow show back in March of 2009. In contrast to Fehrenbach, Lt. Choi didn't have as many years' service; wasn't a decorated fighter pilot; and decided not to follow the rules of DADT.

I'm not saying that what Lt. Dan Choi did was wrong, just it makes him more easy to dismiss by anti-gay groups, since Choi is "merely" a Lt. with "only" two years of service in Iraq, is "merely" a translator, and "clearly" failed to follow the orders laid out in DADT. (I'm using the quote marks to imply how some might try and denigrate his service, the importance of his training, and his motives, and thereby belittle his standing in a debate.)

Still, I see the Lt. Col. as a much more difficult person to brush off by supporters of DADT. Hopefully, it will be through him and other capable soldiers who were trying to follow DADT on the one side as well as people like Choi and members of Knights Out who actively came out against it that DADT will be forced to be repealed.

Sometimes the proof of a theory falls right into your lap.

Recently, I've been all interested in a lot of evidence from the academic literature that people -- when confronted with evidence that refutes their pre-disposed beliefs -- dismiss the evidence in place of doubling down on their own beliefs. It's something that happens all the time, but usually not so blatantly as what is going on right now with regards to the Shirley Sharrod video.

I wrote about one reason for the problem behind the video, but the problem of the parable was -- in this case -- accentuated because of interpretations of what it means to be a racist. It's also tied up in the condemnation by Tea Party supporters of their interpretation of what the NAACP's recent condemnation of racism in the Tea Party actually meant, and their apparent perception that the NAACP is itself a racist organization.

Somewhere amid all those political vortices, a video from Andrew Breitbart appears, allegedly showing how racist an Obama appointee to the USDA -- Shirley Sharrod -- is in her actions. His video strongly implies that the actions that Sharrod recounts are current events; events taking place since her appointment to the USDA. Sharrod is summarily fired by Ag. Secretary, Tom Vilsack (whether Obama actually had any direct part of this is still open for question). In addition, the NAACP issued a statement condemning the apparent racism that it saw in the statements made by Sharrod.

Breitbart's claim all along is that the video is clear evidence that Sharrod is a racist, and that she is an example of the racism that in inherent in this White House as well as the NAACP (who -- just coincidentally -- had just issued a statement condemning racism in the Tea Party, for whom Breitbart has been a vocal supporter). He also says that the NAACP doesn't have any evidence that there is racism in the Tea Party.

Okay, that's basically what happened up until yesterday, when the entire tape of Shirley Sharrod's speech was released. All 40+ minutes of it, as opposed to the few minutes excerpted by Breitbart. In it, the Breitbart excerpt is shown to be part of a larger story -- in parable form -- of how, when she was working with Georgia agriculture 20 years ago, she was approached by a poor white farmer and how this farmer and his wife helped her seriously reconsider her previously held beliefs about race. CNN interviewed the farmer from Sharrod's story as well as the farmer's wife. CNN interviewed Sharrod. The NAACP retracted its condemnation of Sharrod and offered her an apology based on the evidence from the released tape. There have been -- overnight -- many people writing in defense of Sharrod, asking or demanding that the White House apologize and offer her back her old job at USDA.

And what does Breitbart do? He questions the veracity of CNN's reporting. He questions the veracity of the farmer and his wife. He accuses Sharrod of many things as well as setting the whole thing up:

He admits to having the tapes for several months, but "chose" not to release them, and that he was effectively forced to release the tapes because of the stance that the NAACP -- which, remember, he claims is a racist organization -- took against racism in the Tea Party.

Now, if that isn't a clear enough case of rejecting the evidence because of one's pre-determined beliefs, then I don't know what is.

UPDATE: Breitbart appears to be blaming the victim now.

A problem of using parables

I don't normally write about religion on this blog, but recent events surrounding Shirley Sherrod's firing from the USDA seems to draw parallels with how people are brought to an understanding via the parable. Therefore, I will venture into religion only so far as to the point of the use, misuse, and importance of the parable, specifically in Christianity.

You might know about what happened with Shirley Sharrod, the USDA employee that was fired from her job because of a web video of her recounting a story that purported to show how she -- a black woman -- was a racist against poor white farmers in Georgia. Furthermore, it was alleged that the events that she was recounting occurred while she was working for the USDA, instead of 23 years or so prior to her being hired there.

One of the problems was that she was recounting her story as a parable in which she would explain how her worldview was changed from a black vs. white mentality to a rich vs. poor mentality. However, until she talks about that change, her comments paint her as having a very race-oriented (one might say "racist") mindset. However, that was the point of the story: to show how she changed her viewpoint through verbally "painting a picture" for her audience.

This is a very common way of explaining events, especially life-altering ones: describe the previous condition, and then describe how one was changed due to certain events. In fact, it's a common way of expressing things in many religions, including Christianity. However, it is a style of narration that is open to misinterpretation based solely on not-terribly-difficult quote selection.

Indeed, some parables in the Bible and other holy books would seem -- if taken without their entire context -- to be very different from their intended meaning (especially if one views the story through a different cultural lens):

The parable of the net (Matthew 13:47-50) is one of a series of parables that tries to explain the kingdom of heaven. However, if one looks only at the first half of the parable, then one is left with a strange impression of what is in store when it comes to judgment:
 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach; and they sat down and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw away.
So... if this was all you read (and many of the comparisons in Matthew 13 are only one or two sentences, so form-wise there is nothing to say that this couldn't be the only part of the parable), then you might think that good people (the good fish) are going to be hunted down by some authoritarian police force (a "dragnet"?) sold for meat and consumed (what else would fishermen do with fish that they caught and put into containers?), their souls destroyed forever, whereas the bad are allowed to return to the world. However, this is just a metaphor for sorting the good from the bad, and the remaining two lines do indeed make this point:
So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
And this isn't the only one in which a misinterpretation by mere truncation is possible. The same can be said with more famous parables, like the one about the sower of seeds. If you only read Matthew 13:3-7, as opposed to reading it through to verse 10, the parable only talks about all the failures of the seeds to take root, and nothing about the successes (which are in verses 8-10). Or if one reads the first part of the parable of weeds in the field (only Matthew 13:24-27 or even Matthew 13:24-the first sentence in 30), you won't come across any statement of the intent behind the man's actions (which is contained in the second sentences of verse 30). And so on and so on.

True, many parables are less amenable to this sort of edited self-incrimination, but people know when reading the Bible, that they should read the entirety of the story, which is exactly what didn't happen with Ms. Sherrod. The supposedly incriminating video showed her recounting the part of her story when she was explaining how she used to be stuck in a race-based mindset, before she was enlightened, before she started to be a major positive force in helping in race relations in rural Georgia.

It would be like telling the story of Jesus, but then ending the story at the point of crucifixion, with nothing about the empty tomb or being revealed to hid disciples. Such a story would leave out one of the basic fundamental beliefs of the Christian church, the salvation of man due to the sacrifice of Christ by God. In other words, such an editing of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul would be analogous to the editing of the Shirley Sherrod video: it leaves out the most important part of the story.

New Layout

Yes, I got tired of the old layout. Maybe this layout will stay up for a while, but with all the other possible options of design that are available for use, don't be surprised if this changes.

New Worldwide NASA Forest Mapping

NASA announced that they have completed their global forest height mapping project. Looking at the main project page, there is a map of the contiguous United States' forests, and it is possible to see the little speck of green that is Saginaw Forest -- and a statement of the current extent of forest cover in a state that used to be blanketed with forests.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

China heaviest CO2 polluter

I saw a story online that reminded me of a post that I did a few years ago about the folly of the CO2/GDP concept. Well, poking around online, I was able to find some more annual data, going back to 1960 and up to 2008 for the US, China, India, and the UK (I tried to keep the colors as close to the original as possible):

Basically, in comparison with the original graph, China's tumultuous 1960s are clearly shown. In addition, what seemed to potentially be a "heating up" of China's rate post 2003 seems to have returned back to 2002 levels. India's rate has also continued it slow decline post 2003 (but seems to have a slight up-tick in 2008). The USA and the UK are both continuing their downward rates.

But wait! Wasn't I all angry about this graph last time? Sure I was, and I still am not happy with this graph, because of the exact same reasons as before:
  1. the rate of GDP growth is higher than the rate of CO2-emission growth,
  2. the rate of GDP growth and the rate of CO2-emission growth are different amongst countries, and
  3. GDP is not related to global warming.
However, China's not buying the numbers, especially the ones that say that it has become the largest energy consumer in the world -- surpassing the United States. True, the per capita CO2 emissions rate in China is still far lower than the US, and in terms of looking at issues of equity, perhaps this might be important so long as we continue to be dominated by CO2-emitting power infrastructure. One of the strongest statements that is made about the differences between developing countries and developed countries, re: CO2 emissions, is that developing countries have significantly lower per capita CO2 emissions than developed countries. However, China is moving up during the past 10 years, while the UK is slowly coming down:

If the CO2/person trend in recent years is similar throughout Europe (which might even be the case), then the future world might well be split into three groups: developing, low ratio (the condition of India in the graph); developed, high ratio (the US in the graph); developed, low ratio (the possible future of the UK). If this were the case, then maybe (hopefully) the narrative of development being tied with [dirty] energy use will change, and another "path to development" will become available; possibly a leapfrog option for developing countries to get on before they are too heavily invested in coal/oil/natural gas infrastructure.

The US, though, is remaining above 5 tons CO2/person/year. Of course, what this relative static of the past 20-ish years means is that the US population growth is roughly matched by the growth in CO2 emissions. (In other words, both are increasing or decreasing at the same rate, or -- of course -- staying the same.)

However, the atmospheric response to CO2 doesn't care one whit about either GDP or total population. And the two major CO2 polluters in the world -- the US and China -- are quite up there. And China's growth in CO2 emissions from 2003-2008 has been crazy.

Data sources:

Sprucing up the city for Art Fair

Yesterday, there was the Townie Fest -- the annual gathering-and-making-merry of the townies (and some gownies) of Ann Arbor (and UMich) -- in preparation and celebration of the Art Fair, which is starting tomorrow.

As per usual, the signs on all the bike parking areas came out, informing people that their bike locks would be cut and their bikes confiscated if they happened to be left there through date MM/DD/YY. In addition, the streets were gated off, with people allowing only for parked cars to exit from their berths. And some trees got "pruned".

Tree sacrificed for Art Fair
There used to be two trees in front of Ambrosia, but the one closer to the parking structure was in quite a bad state, suffering from a lack of light, high tunnel winds, and not enough water. Its upper branches were broken from the wind, the leaves clustered near the trunk for the lack of water and light, and it looked like a pretty sorry thing.

Still, I was surprised that it was reduced to a stump. I wonder if it will be replaced with another tree, or if the city will just realize that placing a tree in that position is not a good idea (for the reasons enumerated above).

I suppose that we shall see, for any action will have to be a post-Art-Fair action.

Last night it rained, and rained, and rained...

Heavy Rain

Bucolic scenery

Some photos of the harvesting that was taking place near Saginaw Forest 10 days ago (before all the recent storms):



property line demarkation

The warm colors from the sun and stover make a fantastic contrast against the early evening sky.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Argentina passes gay marriage rights

"El matrimonio gay is ley in Argentina:"

I completely agree with the sentiment behind the statement of this commenter from Pharyngula:
I spent a big chunk of yesterday afternoon listening to the debate and watching twitter translations. It was kind of weird being so concerned with equal citizenship in Argentina, when I'll never see it in my home country or the state in which I live.
Also, Andrew Sullivan points out that Argentina is the 10th nation (the first in Latin America, and the second in the "New World") to legally allow gay marriage:
2001 Netherlands
2003 Belgium
2005 Spain
2005 Canada
2006 South Africa
2008 Norway
2009 Sweden
2010 Portugal
2010 Iceland
2010 Argentina

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Worrisome progress down the path of myopia and paranoia

Utah becoming a Stasi-vigilante-like state?

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Projecting beyond the data = bad methodology

As tempting as it might be to extrapolate what seems to be a very obvious curve, it is methodologically wrong to do so for very many reasons. The biggest one is that you don't know what the data will actually show when you look beyond it.

Today, the Pharyngula blog presents this graph of THE FUTURE:

It purports to show the demise of Christianity in the year 2240, based on about 40 years of data that begin around 1970. From this, the extrapolation for the next 230 years is done as a straight line, and that's just methodologically insanely incorrect.

True enough, the graph does seem to show a very strong linear correlation from 1970ish to 2010ish, but all that means is that we know the trend during the time. It might be able to say something about 2011, maybe even something about 2015. However, the further out one draws the graph based only on this single parameter (percentage of Christians in the US), the less powerful the prediction, and it does nothing to model the underlying drivers of that parameter.

When constructing a relationship that provides predictive power, the dependent variable (the value on the y-axis) needs to be a result of the independent variable (the value on the x-axis). Only then can you say that by increasing the value of x can you determine the value of y. The best sort of such predictions are with things that have direct cause-effect relationships, such as with simple kinematic equations.

Since simple kinematic equations deal with direct cause-effect relationships (because they assume no friction and free movement of the mass), it is possible to say that if I have a mass moving with an initial velocity of 10 m/s, and an acceleration of 0.1 m/s/s, then after 10 seconds, the mass would have traveled 105 m -- even if I didn't actually move a mass with that velocity and acceleration for that amount of time. However, the prediction is only correct in a condition where there is no friction -- which is a rather limiting assumption. However, kinematics still work very well, even with this limitation, because they implicitly describe a deterministic outcome based on specific variables.

In the graph presented (facetiously) by Pharyngula, the year is not something that is a predictor of the percentage of Christians in the US. If it were, then the US would have had a greater-than-100% population of Christians during the 1950s! Furthermore, if year were a predictor of the percentage of Christians in the US, what does it mean when it goes negative after 2240? No. Of course not. This shows in another way why the relationship cannot be extrapolated beyond beyond the data. In many cases, what year you are in is not a great predictor of a phenomenon.

When I was taking undergraduate biology, I took one class of sport science (a.k.a. kinesiology). In it, one of the lecturers pulled up a graph of the changes in performance of male and female athletes over a variety of track events over time. All this was part of an explanation that while male athletes are able -- due to major physiological differences between men and women -- to have significantly faster sprint times than women, the two sexes were much more even when it came to long-distance running. She pointed to a series of graphs that showed how female sprint times -- while declining throughout the 1980s -- remained greatly above males and how female long-distance running times had been declining rapidly, and seemed to be approaching that of males. She made the unfortunate error of hypothesizing -- based on the existing trend -- that female runners would catch up to male runners within the next 20 to 30 years. I think of this example every time I look at extrapolating from a limited dataset, and I will try to re-create the latter here.

If we were in 1981 (I will use 1981 instead of 1996 -- when I was a student at university taking that class -- because it describes a situation that can be then tested based on currently existing data, as you will see), and were looking at the yearly best times for men's and women's 1500m outdoors track races, we would see that over the previous 10 years, women's 1500m times had been dropping more precipitously than men's times. Following that trend as a linear function, we would have then made the prediction that women would be running the 1500m faster than men by the year 2005. However -- not too strangely -- this didn't happen, and women -- although closing the gap -- have not yet equaled or surpassed men in terms of yearly 1500m track races (it's a similar story for the Boston Marathon).

Why haven't female 1500m athletes surpassed male 1500m athletes, and why did they look like the could have done so in the first place? The reasons for this explanation of why looking only at the year to predict future performance is a bad methodology. In this specific case, I chalk it up to two major reasons: training and physiology. Women have only recently been allowed to compete in the 1500m (and Boston Marathon); starting in 1970 (and 1966). During those years when there was no ability to get official sanction to compete in international events, there was little incentive for women to train in the event, and so the pool of potential athletes from which to draw was much smaller, less funded, and -- as a result -- were slower than the runners of today. (Running technology and training practices have also evolved over time, which can only add to the differences we see between the runners of today when compared to the runners of 40 years ago.) However, after women were allowed to compete in long-distance running, more money allowed for better training and for a larger pool of athletes. This meant that during the initial years of officially sanctioned competition, the ability of the athletes improved as well as the raw talent pool, thus precipitously dropping the resulting annual best times. However, at some point during the 1980s, women started to approach the physiological limit of the human body (even if we assume that running technology and training practices have continued to improve over this time as well). From this point on, women's times seem to have remained effectively unchanged, oscillating up and down, but hovering always just under 240 seconds (4 minutes). In contrast, during the same period, men already had a relatively large talent pool (raw talent) from which to draw, and had probably reached the limits of physiology based on previous training, and the slow improvement over time is likely due to advances in running technology and training practice. However, just like the women's best annual times hover around 240 seconds, the men's best annual times hover around 210 seconds. I would imagine that neither men's nor women's record times will really significantly decrease without some major advance in running technology or change in physiology (or the allowance of performance-enhancing drugs).

This explanation that rests behind the change in women's best annual 1500m times pre1980s compared to post-1980 presents a mechanism (that I personally think is plausible) as to why the imaginary extrapolation done in 1981 has never happened. It shows, also, why doing such extrapolations (even over a relatively much shorter period of time than the graph presented in Phyrangula) is fraught with problems.

Going back to the presented graph, we therefore have to determine what might be the underlying reasons for the decline, and whether there would there be a leveling-off of the decline of Christians as a percentage of the US population. I believe that the major forces behind this trend might be immigration and disillusionment. The United States has had increased immigration from non-Christian countries since the 1970s. There has also been an increased distancing from Christianity during this time as people feel there is less relevance given to them by Christianity (or possibly any religion) in their daily lives. These are the two major reasons (increase of the population of non-Christians and people leaving Christianity) for a decline. Immigration alone will not lead to an eradication of Christianity in the population, and it would also be unlikely to follow a linear trajectory. The introduction of non-Christian immigrants to a population shouldn't be seen as an absolutely negative thing, however, since it provides Churches with a new population from which to draw followers; these people may not be disillusioned by Christianity, like those who "left the fold."

People moving away from the Christian faith is likely to create a change in the process of conducting the faith as the Christian Church (as a whole) or smaller denominations attempt to keep the faith relevant to those who have "lost the way". In other words, the Church will (again, like it has several times in the past) have to re-model itself in order to keep itself relevant to a changing perception of existence and man's place in it. In other words, Christians are highly unlikely to just stand idly by and let Christianity fade into oblivion.

In the end, it seems unlikely that in an ever-increasing cosmopolitan country, domination by one religion at a percentage greater than 95% seems less and less possible. People want to come to the US, even though they aren't Christian. People who are Christian may well feel that it no longer applies to their lives. And people will be introduced into Christianity. The same is likely to happen with all the other religions, philosophies, and codes that abound in the country.

Bottom line: Christianity dead by 2240? It's bad methodology, and the underlying social mechanisms that keep social institutions alive will not allow for it to happen.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Cycled to Shadow Art Fair in Ypsi

I decided to cycle out to the Shadow Art Fair in Ypsi today. I'd never cycled out to Ypsi before, but knew roughly how to do it: go along the river, following the Borders to Borders (aka B2B) trail to Ypsi. I also knew roughly where the Shadow Art Fair was being held -- the Corner Brewery -- and so I felt pretty confident.

IMG_2835On the trip out, I had to make a detour to Great Lakes Cycling and Fitness to ask a small question about my bike before heading down Pauline and toward the Geddes neighborhood. (The Geddes neighborhood is known for its lack of a grid pattern, and its turn-around roads which make cutting through a difficulty.) Due to my lack of knowledge of the Geddes neighborhood, I soon found myself back out on Washtenaw Ave, but instead of trying to find another way to cut through (because I know there are ways to do it), I just decided to stop off at Walgreen's and pick up some M&M's (bike fuel, donchaknow?). I bumped into some colleagues walking back home with their young kids as I continued by going up Huron Parkway, and they were either impressed or incredulous that I was cycling out to Ypsi. "Keep hydrated!" was the advice I was given as I continued on my ride. Luckily, I had about 1.5 liters of water -- 0.5 of which was cold and in a thermos.

IMG_2841I reached Gallop Park and quickly found the B2B trail, and headed out, at roughly 15mph, but soon found myself at what looked to be a dead-end (or at least being shunted north into the Fleming Creek watershed instead of continuing east-ish along the Huron River). I recognized the Parker Mill when I rode up to it, and knew that I was going in the wrong direction. Apparently, I had messed up somewhere... I backtracked, checking all the possible outlets, but they all seemed wrong. As I continued backtracking, I found another B2B sign (these things are not always that large or obvious) pointing up the hill, along the access road, and up to the bridge. Oh, well, I guess I have to continue on the road.

A desolate playground
Surprisingly, the bike lane was quite wide, and very smooth, and I was soon speeding again along toward the Shadow Art Fair. Once I reached St. Joe's Hospital, I saw that the B2B trail circled to the north, but on the sidewalk this time. I continued along that one -- a very nice piece of sidewalk, with bike and foot paths labeled at curves -- until I reached Eastern Michigan University campus. At this point, I lost the B2B trail. Whether this was due to the construction going on in EMU, or just because I was blind, but I ended up just riding along the road leading to the stadium before I reached a dead-end, cut over a hill, cycled someway through campus, and then finally ended up near the water tower.

Ypsi water towerAh! The water tower. A landmark against which I had some sort of bearing. I stopped to take a photo of the Spanish American War monument placed in front of the Domino's Pizza (the original store, I believe...) and another of the most phallic building in America before continuing into the downtown area. ... which I quickly learned was a cycle-in-the-street-only section of the city, and I would have liked to comply, except for that section of street that I was on was blockaded for some reason, so I continued on foot, walking my bike toward Michigan Avenue, and the downtown of Ypsilanti.

All my memories of going to the Corner Brewery were from Frog Island park, and so my plan had been to head there, and then cut through the park to go to the brewery. However, once I arrived at the park, I saw that there was a large music festival going on. Two fluorescent-yellow T-shirted event staff members told me what I had rolled into: Elvis Fest.

"Elvis Fest?" I asked, blank-facedly.. I hadn't heard that there was a celebration for the King of Rock. Apparently, though, I was ill-informed, since a large part of Frog Island park was covered with concert-goers. "I'm trying to get to the Shadow Art Fair. Do you know where the Corner Brewery is?" I asked the man as the woman walked over to a newly arrived car to show where to park.

"Shadow Art Fair?" The guy was as lost about it (and the Shadow Art Fair) as I apparently was about Elvis fest. We stared at each other, amazed at the other's lack of what should have been such plain-faced knowledge. "Maybe this guy'll know," he said, pointing to a random man walking in to enjoy Elvis Fest. "Hey, buddy, do you know where the Shadow Art Fair or the Corner Brewery is?"

Long pause as the man spent time to take in the words, realize that we were asking directions (and not telling him that he had come to the wrong event) and then some more time as he thought about the best way for me to cycle there. "Umm...." he started. "If you take... no. If you, no. Wait."

Inside shadow art fair
Eventually, he got it, and I was back on my way, and once I made my way to the other entrance to Frog Island Park, things became more familiar. There was the Michigan Ladder Company factory, and the Corner Brewery was only a little distance away!

The building was not as packed as in previous years, but it was still fun. (I learned later that the events this year were spread across a few venues.) As I walked around the vendors inside the brewery, I sipped on a Sacred Cow IPA (yummy), and after chatting with a potter and a T-shirt artist, I went outside to listen to the band for a little bit. However, they were just finishing up their set, and intervening period was seemed that it would be filled with me baking slowly in the sun, so I decided to head back into the bar area. Sitting at the long bar, I ordered the high-alcohol Arborealis IPA (also yummy) and took a self-portrait.

Extra strong IPAWhile the Shadow Art Fair was originally the destination of my excursion, now that I was there, it didn't hold as much interest as it did when I was planning my trip. Indeed, the trip itself was a lot more exciting and interesting than the shopping inside. So, after another circle around, I headed out and back to Ann Arbor.

Since I basically knew the way back (I again got turned around in the EMU campus), and I didn't stop to take photos, the trip back took about half the time, and I soon found myself near Depot Street, Ann Arbor, so I decided to pay a visit to to Ft. Hiscock and the residents there... some of whom were just then getting ready to head out to the Shadow Art Fair! Still, I stayed for a little cool-down and catch-up before heading the final 4 miles back to the forest.

In total, the trip today was 34.33 miles. Compared to my last long cycling excursion (with my old Giant hybrid bike), this roundtrip was a lot more enjoyable (less windy, less hilly, and a better bike), and faster, too. Now that I know that the trip to Ypsi isn't so bad (and in some ways easier than cycling to Dexter), I might go more often. ("Might" being the key word there...)

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Anthropocentrism and saving the world

A recent posting over at Soc Images made me return to some of my ideas about justifications for a conservation ethic. In the post, lisa talks about how an ad pits hopelessness against hopefulness, using some false logic:
Saving the world isn’t easy. Saving a life is.
Just one pint of blood can save up to three lives.
The ad commits two fallacies.
First, it compares saving the whole world (or maybe every tree in the world) with saving just “a” life. Saving a life may, indeed, be easier than saving the whole world, but it’s not a fair comparison. Saving the whole world is hard, but about as hard as saving every life on it.
Second, it suggests that we have to choose. “You could try to save the world,” the ad says, “but it’s pretty hopeless. It’s much easier to save a life. So put down that tree and donate blood.” Giving blood, then, is placed in competition with environmental activism as if (or because) volunteerism is a zero sum game.
I'm not going to get into the arguments that people had about whether the ad as actually presenting logical fallacies or not. (You can look at that long thread of comments, if you really want to.) However, there were a few points that some commenters made that did make me respond. These were based on the argumentation that human life is fundamentally more important than other life.

One commenter (Perseus) left the following comment in response to a comment about the importance of trees on the quality of human life:
Have you considered that trees grow back, and that human lives are irreplaceable? Hmmm?
Another commenter (AR), who had actually started the thread, left the following comment in response to the same importance-of-trees comment:

Trees aren’t that important, to my understanding. Contrary to popular belief, most oxygen is produced from algae, not trees, and any sequestering effect trees have on pollutants is temporary since all of that gets released when trees decay. Indeed, they can even contribute to global warming, depending on latitude, because their relative darkness traps more heat from sunlight than would the green house gases they absorb, which are released when they die anyway.
But even granting for the sake of argument that all of that is false, you’re still back at saving human lives, not trees for their own sake, so that doesn’t contradict what I’m saying.
I won't discuss here the problems with AR's scientific understandings, but will focus more on his second paragraph, alongside what Perseus wrote. Although I answered both Perseus and AR, I will just present my response to AR:
you’re still back at saving human lives, not trees for their own sake, so that doesn’t contradict what I’m saying.
This is the same false equivalency that Perseus appears to make. You seem to be implying that humans’ unique, individual natures are what makes each human worth saving, as opposed to trees, for which you hold no value with regard to their unique, individual natures.
Of course, all of that is implied in your statement. However, change out the organisms (either with new ones, or by switching their place). Suddenly, you can see that the two categories are not equivalent:
“You’re still back at saving trees, not human lives for their own sake, so that doesn’t contradict what I’m saying.”
… but it does, AR, but it does.
Of course, being human, we are predisposed to thinking of each person as being unique and important (because of and in addition to our own “human-ness” and ability to perceive each other’s uniqueness). However, why is the intrinsic importance of one more individual in a population of 6,800,000,000 different when the next individual (the 6,800,000,001st) is an member of a species of tree, dog, or snake, instead of a human?
According to your apparent argument (and Perseus’ more heavily implied argument), the 6,800,000,001st human is fundamentally more important than the 6,800,000,001st tree, dog, or snake. But what makes that human more important? Is it because you are human that you make that distinction? If so, at what point does a tree, dog, or snake become more important than the 6,800,000,001st human? When there are only 2 left (hopefully a mating pair)? When there is only 1 left (and thus meaning that the species will be gone forever once it dies)? Or never? (And if the reason is not based on you being a human, then what is your non-anthropocentric reason for the intrinsic importance of humans that you imply?)
NOTE: I’m not a misanthrope, but I do see the implications behind your (and Perseus’) argument as being not fully thought out. If you have, however, thought out the implications of your stance, then you have “merely” presented what I perceive to be a gross error of argumentation, as outlined above.
And I really think that this is true: we justify the saving of human life over other life by implicitly giving it more value than other life (even the save-the-trees comment to which both Perseus and AR were replying based the reason on how it helps humans). Given a choice between killing a parrot (cue Monty Python's "Dead Parrot" sketch) or a human (or even allowing one to die versus the other), I would choose to save the human, and I would imagine that most people would do the same. Never mind that humans number in the range of nearly 7 billion, and therefore the loss of one human is statistically non-significant to the population, whereas many species of parrots have near-extinct population levels, and the loss of one individual is statistically significant to the population.

This is one of the problems with many conservation movements: we need some reason to care about the protection of the environment, and the reasons that seem to create the strongest response (both for and against conservation) involve how action will affect "us" (either as humans generally speaking, or to "us" as a nation, region, or smaller group). The strong conservation organizations in the United States are based on hunting and fishing organizations -- groups of people who find utility in the outdoors, preferring more natural settings in which to do their activities. (Indeed, the implicit meaning behind "outdoor conservation" -- or similar labels -- in the United States is often that it is to protect the ability of the land and/or water to support certain types of human activity.)

One of the strongest images for environmental protection is the World Wildlife Fund's panda, and charismatic megafauna are commonly used to rally support for protection efforts. The reason why charismatic megafauna are important is usually not because of their position in an ecosystem, but rather because of their position within a social system, and how their perceived charisma can help create an umbrella of support for other organisms or ecosystems that need protection.

Even the various definitions of the popular concept of "sustainable development" is contingent upon human action. Indeed, the etymology of the phrase combines two very human concepts: sustainability -- which requires an understanding of resource (a human concept) management (a human concept) -- combined with development -- which requires a conceptualization of a desired future (based, likely, around a human conceptualization of what exactly IS desirable). In a recent article on the topic at Treehugger, Matthew McDermott points in the direction of anthropocentric justification when he describes what he calls the point around which sustainable development revolves:
All of human activity needs to stay within the ecological carrying capacity of the planet; it needs to not consume resources in excess of the ability of ecosystems (both planet-wide and more locally) to regenerate those same natural resources. Anything else compromises both the ability of the present generation to meet its wants and needs and the ability of future generations to meet theirs.
Of course, much this central point rests on the assumption that humans are somehow important, something that McDermott mentions in his article:
All of these factors contribute to a sustainable environment, but there's one other factor that is crucial and steps beyond many conceptions of sustainable development: The recognition that the planet and all species within it do not exist solely for human benefit and use. We may use them, within limits, but everything out there that is non-human is not rightly viewed through the lens of human utility.

We are part of the whole, not the sum of it nor separate from it. We cannot exist sustainably without it--in wonky terms, without the ecosystem services provided to us free of financial charge by clean air, clean water, clean and fully functioning habitats. Preservation of those, even at current levels (as degraded as they are based on what we know existed from historic record), is the big question that sustainable development attempts to address.
But although McDermott says that it is vitally important -- if we wish to have sustainability -- to incorporate this into the decision-making processes that run our (human) world, he doesn't attempt to answer how to strengthen non-anthropocentric arguments for conservation. I would argue that unless and until we can think beyond ourselves as towns, regions, and nations -- beyond ourselves as a species, even --we won't be able to really have sustainable development.

This could happen via technological fixes, all working to close the gaps caused by regional and nationalistic viewpoints. By closing all the holes by using technology, by linking human progress explicitly into the health of everything around us, we could potentially form a society that would be forced -- due to self-preservation -- act sustainably. However, that would still rest on an anthropocentric justification for action.

I don't know how one might transcend self-interest, let alone species-interest, to get toward a form of sustainability. Heck, in a time when we are living with intense nationalist fervor in several countries, I don't know how we can get beyond a tribalist viewpoint of the world... Perhaps Malthus will have the last laugh in the end: a post-world-wide population decimation (due to war, famine, disease, and death) to bring populations back in line with a regional carrying capacity. This would, too, be a form of sustainability, I suppose.

UPDATE: Perseus apparently wanted to respond to my comment. Here is what how he justified the relative importance of humans over trees:
Human lives are irreplaceable because the neural network in every human is entirely unique. The personality, the thoughts, the creativity and knowledge are like no one else. No other animals have that capacity, and trees are even far below animals. Trees can regrow, but nobody can replace a human brain. Trees also don’t have complex nervous systems. They can’t feel or think. They are simply reactionary things programed by their metabolisms.
I just couldn't leave it alone. Really, it reads (to me) like a serious jumble of circular logic based on false equivalency. So I decided to tell him so:
Your justification is that the human brain is unique (never mind the pedantic point that “entirely unique” is redundant). I will give that to you, while pointing out that every organism with a brain has a unique brain, thus making the presence of unique brains brain not — in itself — something special about humans. A poor opening salvo, but let’s see how you progress.
You point out that only humans have the capacity to have personality, thoughts, creativity, and knowledge like we do. However, that merely downplays the unique abilities that other species have that humans lack. I could easily say that only trees have the ability of making sclerenchyma and parenchyma (i.e., wood); photosynthesize across a wide array of photo-aspects and seasons, produce fruiting bodies to which many animals are evolved to eat; grow to heights unrivaled by other organisms in nature; etc. All of these reasons are just as valid for being characteristics of what is “valuable” as the ones you provide.
However, you base the remainder of your argument on the assumption that it is BECAUSE we have these traits, that we are higher than “lower” organisms like trees (and presumably other animals).
However, you present a false argument: humans are better than other organisms because they are the only animals that have human characteristics. This is circular logic.
You also fail to provide a means of classifying things that are not human into “higher” and “lower” beings. If things are to be classified as “high” or “low” based on how human-like they are (which is the only rule that I can divine from your statement), then how do you classify plants as “lower”, since they are of a different set than humans?
Such an classification of “lower” (and presumably, therefore, a presence of a “higher”) is based on a false equivalency and would be analogous to saying that pocket watches are better than DVDs because you can tell time using a pocket watch. The false equivalency of my statement is because I placed a member from another group in with the group for which I had a rubric for “being good.”
Seriously, if you just feel — axiomatically — that humans are better than trees (and there is nothing wrong with taking such a point of view: it’s perfectly natural), than just say so without trying to rationalize it, since when you do try to rationalize it, your logic fails because it is based on false equivalency and circular logic.
I really wonder if he will "get it" or not. If not, well, I suppose that's his problem. If so, then perhaps the next time will merely say, "Humans are more important than other organisms. Q.E.D." (or the like). Making an axiomatic statement like that is fine, since I haven't figured out a way of really justifying it -- or why people should save things that aren't human -- any other way, and if I can't come up with a train of logic that can justify it, then I shouldn't argue when someone else just cuts the logical reasoning and provides an axiomatic statement. (At least, I shouldn't argue until I am presented with a good one.)

Beat 35mph (56kph)

On my cycle in this morning, I was finally able to beat 35mph coming down the hill on Liberty. My recorded speed was 35.4mph, but I could swear that I saw a 36mph reading when I glanced down at the Garmin on my wrist. (If I was going 36mph, then it wasn't for a long enough interval to be recorded...)

Now what? 40mph? At 35mph, I was already encountering aerodynamics issues that made continued acceleration difficult. I suppose I might be able to do it if I removed my panniers, my front rack, and change my handlebars to something that would get my torso lower...

But... YAY!

Monday, July 05, 2010

Things SLoooooW in town today

Things are very slow in town today. True, it's only 9:30AM on a federal holiday (since Independence Day fell on a Sunday this year), but seriously: I saw more activity yesterday!

I really don't want to do a whole lot in Saginaw Forest today -- I woke up, walked outside, and was greeted by a feeling that I hadn't felt since I was visiting Guam: steamy (not just warm and humid). The insects were singing, and birds were calling, and I got the sensation of (again) being in a tropical setting. And it's supposed to get up into the 90s today, with a heat index of near 100F. Urgh. The only thing that I had going for me is my dehumidifier to keep things dry, and therefore let evaporative cooling take effect. So, for that reason, I came into town.

Well, that and the opportunity to take advantage of some of the birthday deals that are to be had around Ann Arbor. To see an unconfirmed list of deals that are available around Ann Arbor, check out ArborWiki. I already cashed in on the 6 free bagels at Zingerman's, and now I'm eyeing up the free breakfast at Northside, too...

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Happy Birthday to me, or why I can celebrate my birthday over two days.

In my passport, my birthdate is listed as "5 July." And yet, I am already celebrating my birthday. Yes, it is the 4th of July right now, so why can I justify it? Just because I want to cash in on the Independence Day celebrations in the US? No, not really (although it does play a little into it -- see below). The main reason why I can justify it is because I was born on Guam on 5 July. And when it was the 5th of July on Guam, it was still the 4th of July in the continental United States. So... since I was born on Guam, and I am now living in the continental United States, I can say (rightly) that it is already my birthday when the calendar reads "July 4" in Michigan.

But, why do it? Well, for a few reasons. True, I don't know of other people who do what I do, but I have decided to do it because July 4th is a major holiday in the United States, with barbeque parties, fireworks, very little traffic (in Ann Arbor), and generally good spirits. In comparison, July 5th is usually a difficult time to hold a gathering. If July 4th is on a Thursday, then people take a long weekend, and are away for my birthday. If July 4th is on a Friday, people are already away on my birthday (likely having left the city on July 3rd) -- and something similar happens if it were on a Saturday. If Independence Day is on a Sunday (like this year), many people take off the following Monday (my birthday). Only when Independence Day is on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday is there a chance that people will be in town on my birthday on July 5th. However, no one wants to party, because they have spent too much time, money, and stomach space the day before to really want to celebrate.

... so I just celebrate my birthday based on Guam time. And it's been my birthday (on Guam) for several hours already. And now I'm off to a barbeque, quietly celebrating my birthday, like I do most years. I actually didn't grow up with large birthday parties, since most people (or, indeed, my own family) were away for summer vacation while I was growing up, meaning that my memories of most of my birthdays were with only my immediate family. Therefore, being happy in the company of friends while celebrating the birthday of the United States, while vicariously celebrating my own is actually quite nice, thankyouverymuch.

(Happy birthday to me... Happy birthday to me...)

Saturday, July 03, 2010

"Organic" doesn't necessarily make someting "better"

Just because something is "organic" doesn't make it better for you, especially in the calorie-counting department. The concept of "organic" is greatly divorced from the calorie count of the object. However, just like the "fat-free" craze if years past, the idea of "nutrition" seems to be trumping the idea of "healthy". In a recent study conducted at the University of Michigan, it was found that people used the wrong sort of inference about the "organic" label.
The researchers showed more than 100 study participants nutrition information for a regular Oreo cookie and for one that was made with organic flour and sugar. The nutritional label clearly showed a serving size (two cookies) of 160 calories for both Oreos. Nevertheless, 38 percent of the participants thought that the organic cookie had fewer calories than competing brands, whereas only 12 percent did so without the organic claim.
Part of this makes me want to just "face-palm", but it is also understandable: people don't always think through the implications of new information. It might just go into a mental map of "organic is good for me, therefore if I eat organic foods, then I will be more healthy." The first part of this may well be true (although the bulk of evidence supporting the idea that organic food is physiologically better than 'conventional' food is not in), there are more ways for organic foods to be "good" for a body than in calorie counts.

Calorie counts are calorie counts. At some level they are interchangeable. Therefore, if one is counting calories on a non-organic food, its organic counterpart has basically the same number of calories. True, calories from fat have different physiological impacts than calories from protein. True, too, the physiological pathways of different simple sugars are different, but still... at a basic level calories are calories, and at this level, the mistake that the participants make is analogous to the one in which people say that a pound of feathers is lighter than a pound of bricks.

On Independence Day Comestibles

Although I didn't grow up celebrating United States Independence Day, save for the relatively low-key events at American Clubs in Tokyo, Taipei, and Budapest, I knew that much of the food served on those days seemed to revolve around meat: specifically hamburgers and hot dogs.

These two words, to a child with a modicum of interest in etymology, provided a conundrum: why is it called a hamburger when it contains no ham (since a cheeseburger does contain cheese), and why is ti called a "hot dog" when I was pretty sure that it didn't contain any canine meat... As I grew up, I realized that how I was thinking about "hamburger" was incorrect, since the meaning of "burger" remained unknown, but was likely related to German, and "ham" was a word from French. It seemed unlikely that there would be a creation of a portmanteau to call a food item something unrelated to its origins (and what kind of food was a "burger" anyway?).

However, I learned second-handedly that words ending with "-er" used a German kind of conjugation, and Hamburg was a city in Germany. I had also learned that "Berliner" was used to mean a "jelly doughnut" (thus making President Kennedy's statement, "Ich bien ein berliner!" simultaneously a major political statement as well as a potentially humorous statement after the fact (but I was unaware of this latter point at the time, only that the term "Berliner" could have been related to people from the city, or a food from it). Therefore, using this logic, "hamburger" could well refer to a food from the city of Hamburg. And, then I remembered that when my family would go to a particular "European-style" restaurant in Tokyo, my father would order a "Hanbaagu-steeki" (aka. "Hamburg steak"), which was a pan-fried ground beef patty (without a bun). This logic seemed to fit with my new hypothesis that a "hamburger" was a food from Hamburg.

This was later confirmed by a girlfriend I had who was from Hamburg. (All of this hypothesizing occurred before the advent of Google, Yahoo! Answers, Wikipedia, and other on-line helpful guides.) It turns out that I could just as easily have looked it up in a dictionary, but for some reason, that never crossed my mind.

The term "hot dog" still evaded me. I had heard the reasoning that it looked kind of like a dachshund, and when shortened to "dachs, one can imagine it shifting its pronunciation to "dog"; the cooked variety being (therefore) a "hot dog". I had also heard the rumor that they were called "hot dogs" because there used to be dog mixed into the meat, but I choose not to give credence to this particular rumor.

While living in the UK, I came across the term "beef-burger", which seemed to me to be an unfortunate redundancy that focused too much on the term "ham" than on the origin of the word. However, it did follow the "accepted" form of word-root substitution that created the term, "cheeseburger", and the use of the simple "burger" had become well-known in both the US and the UK, so why not call a burger made out of beef a "beef-burger" instead of the more ambiguous "hamburger"?

On a side note, I always find it funny how things get imported into different languages, especially from English. In Japan, the words for "hamburger" and "cheeseburger" are both directly transliterated into ハンバーガーand チーズバーガー; there is no inherent meaning to the characters. In Taiwan, the word "hamburger" is transliterated to "漢", but since Mandarin doesn't use an alphabet, the characters convey the meaning of "Han (like the Chinese people) fortress" (which is a little strange). The word "cheeseburger" is "乳酪堡" means "cheese-hamburger", using the Mandarin word for "cheese" as well as the transliteration of "hamburger". In Hungarian, the words for "hamburger" and "cheeseburger" are "hamburger" and "sajtburger", respectively, following the conjugation structure originally found in English, translating the term "cheese" from English to the Hungarian "sajt". What is funny (to me) in that the pronunciation of "sajt" ("shite") made for ordering a cheeseburger at McDonald's quite an honest statement, "Yes, I would like a shite-burger, please!" And I would get one without a bit of irony.

Anyway, a few years back, I came across the website "World Wide Words" -- a website that discusses the origin and use of phrases and words. Something that a word-nerd like me would like. Its entry on "burger" was quite expansive. And its entry on "hot dog" is also quite explanatory.

All of these thoughts came back to me when I saw the link on for the Hot Word Blog's entry: "It's called "hot dog" for a gross and silly reason. Plus, "hamburger" history."

Writing this post made me wonder, though, exactly how the "national cuisine" surrounding United States' Independence Day became dominated by foods that came out of Germany. Surely, a country known for having bouts of antagonism against the United States (starting with Hessian mercenaries fighting alongside the British in the American War of Independence) shouldn't be from whence our national palate derives? But then, whence? And why not? The waves of German migrants that came in the 18th century had a major impact on the culture of much of the Midwestern and Western United States. Also, foods high in protein (i.e., meat) and lipids (i.e., fat and oil) are also what we evolutionarily crave, thus making them "tasty" and "popular".

Friday, July 02, 2010

Nothing to Envy

I just finished reading Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. It is a recounting of oral hisotries given by six North Korean defectors to South Korea. The tales are well-researched, moving, and powerful in their simplicity and horror. What spoke to me the greatest was the description of how the people came to their individual disillusionments of the regime. The stories -- chosen from over one hundred interviews -- interweave the lives of these six people in such a way that, even though, some of them didn't know each other, the reader (by being able to examine each person's life) is able to gain a much greater (and more powerful, harsh, and sad) understanding of life leading up to and following the death of Kim Il-Sung.

The death of Kim Il-Sung in July of 1994 marked the beginning of the utter collapse of the nation's social and physical infrastructure, and this is recounted in the book, as seen through the six sets of eyes, as well as a social interpretation of the greater context befalling the DPRK. Demick never seems to stray into reveling in the details of prison life, torture, executions, and death, as might be so easily done with the subject matter. Instead, the narratives lay out the horrors of the regime and the disintegration of life in a manner that is both starkly painful and yet not intrinsically repulsive. Reading between the lines, however, one can imagine that the descriptions -- as bleak as they are -- are themselves the examples of the silver lining, rather than of the darkness.

I don't know exactly when I became interested in life in North Korea. It might well have been when I was given a small assignment on North Korea when I was doing research for a political science professor. The news clippings from the Los Angeles Times (where Demick works) as well as releases from Amnesty International, the UNHCR, and the US State Department all piqued my interest in this seeming "parallel dimension" that exists on the Korean Peninsula. It was the first time that I read about the devastating famine that killed off so many people, but yet was something that I had never heard about. True, the tragic events in the Balkans during the mid-to-late 1990s was more present in my mind, since I was living at the time in Hungary, just "next door" to the fighting. Still, reading first the pieces I dug up in research, and other works on North Korea, and now Demick's book, I have always felt some sort of strange attraction to this time in history, and I don't really know why.

I had leafed through a copy of Guy Delisle's Pyongyang one day at my local Borders, and was intrigued by the graphical depictions of life in the city. I also watched short videos from North Korea on the History and Discovery channels, as well as on YouTube. A part of me has this strange, moribund interest in visiting the "Hermit Kingdom," so that I can see it "before it collapses" (as Demick notes many tour packages to the country are sold on). However, as of now, I have only books and video on the country, its history, its people, and their conditions. While that curious part of me wishes to visit before the collapse of the regime, a larger part of me, wishes the whole thing to dissolve; to fade eventually into a nightmare that quickly becomes just a hazy memory in the light of day. Of course, as Demick points out in her book, this reunification (if it were to happen), would be several orders of magnitude more monetarily expensive than the reunification of Germany... and since the Koreas have been separated for longer than the Germanies were, the social costs of reunification also continue to trouble the South Korean government as well as cause a greater re-calculation of costs among South Korea's youth.