Tuesday, June 29, 2010

BP gas station boycotts

The other day, as I was cycling home, I noticed that a local BP gas station had absolutely no cars filling up on gas, let alone queuing up to get gas. In Ann Arbor, there aren't too many BP gas stations, but the company's franchises have book-ended the downtown portion of Main Street, having one on the corner of William and Main, and another on the corner of Catherine and Main, and there are no other gas stations between them. BP also has gas stations near the highway entrances (Plymouth Road & M14/US23, Washtenaw Ave & US23, Jackson Road & I-94, and State Street & I-94) around town. In other words, they have very good coverage around the city of Ann Arbor.

However, I wondered about whether the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster would be having negative impacts on this company's gas station revenue (i.e., if it was "hitting them at the pump", so to speak). According to a recent report from NPR (cited on Treehugger), this seems to be the case:

Oil giant BP PLC is floating a financial lifeline to the owners, operators and suppliers of the gas stations around America that bear its name and have been struggling because of boycotts prompted by the Gulf spill.
The head of a trade group that represents distributors of BP gasoline in the U.S. told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the company is informing outlets that they will be getting cash in their pockets, reductions in credit card fees and help with more national advertising.
How about in your neck of the world? Do you notice a dearth of activity at your local BP gas station?

Skycam in the World Cup

I've noticed that many of the stadia of the 2010 World Cup have a skycam, but, unlike with American Football (both in the NFL and with certain college teams), it hasn't used very much. (I've only seen it used once over the seven or eight games I've watched so far, and only to see another angle of a goal shot replay.) Why, though?

I think that it might be because the skycam doesn't show any (or will show only a few) of the advertisements on the side of the pitch, which (on their electronic monitors) change every 30 seconds or so. Since the World Cup doesn't have any commercial breaks (save for half-time, and the stretch between game and overtime), I imagine that the advertisement space for these sides (especially on the side facing the "traditional" camera shots) are quite expensive. Therefore, I would imagine that the use of the skycam would be discouraged on the grounds of commercial reasons.

However, after consulting the Oracle of Google, I found this more practical conjecture posted on Core77:
Skycam use in the World Cup has been far more sparing, presumably because the unpredictable direction-changes and flight arcs of a soccer ball mean the camera must be safely out of the way; you mostly see it in use during set pieces, behind the action.
I suppose that the generally-one-direction nature of American Football does make it a much better sport with which to use this technology. Of course, if there were some way of putting a transponder on the soccer ball so that the skycam would automatically follow the ball (saving the viewer from the cameraman's inevitable jerkiness on sudden changes in direction), that would be an innovative way of watching the game.

The Tea Party: Purges just like the Commies?

The Tea Party seems to have done another "purge". It makes me wonder if this is an analogous example of the purges that took place in the early days of the USSR, as well as the "Great Purge" that took place in the Soviet Union in 1937-38.

The early purges apparently were based on loyalty questions, making sure that the person in question (or organization) was cleaving closely enough to the history, personages, and ideology of the movement.

A study linking obesity and public transportation

I've previously written on this blog about my conjectures that there is a connection between obesity and the availability of public transportation. The idea behind that conjecture was that public transportation makes the rider burn more calories (e.g., from walking to the station, walking between transfers, standing on the train, balancing through turns and starts/stops, etc.) than if that person were driving. However, the best piece of "evidence" that I came across was a correlation of obesity with the percentage of people who walk, bike, or use public transportation across countries. As I mentioned with that piece of evidence that the data used for the relationship doesn't work with categorical data, such as country, but that the evidence was interesting.

However, there are too many external factors that are wrapped up in such a relationship between countries, including social conditioning (the more obese people in your social network, the greater your chance of becoming obese), food consumption patterns (use of high fructose corn syrup, GMOs, etc), gasoline and car taxes (high gas and car taxes keep car ownership low), potential distance to be traveled (smaller socially perceived distance horizons imply a shorter travel distance), etc., etc. Therefore, a much better analysis would be a pre-test vs. post-test analysis of people in a city before (pre-test) and after (post-test) the installation of a public transportation network. Furthermore, the public transportation network needs to have wide-spread social buy-in. In other words, not buses, which get caught in the same traffic snarls as cars do, making their use less beneficial than driving (for those who have cars). In other words, a more conclusive study should try an apply an experimental design. Yet, how can one just do that?

Well, it works when you do a pre-test and post-test of a newly installed public transportation network in a major United States city: Charlotte, NC. The study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine showed:
using light rail for commuting was associated with reductions in body mass index (BMI) over time. Specifically, LRT reduced BMI by an average of 1.18 kg/m2 compared to non-LRT users in the same area over a 12-18 month follow-up period. This is equivalent to a relative weight loss of 6.45 lbs for a person who is 5'5. LRT users were also 81% less likely to become obese over time.
Public transportation seems to work, folks. Still, it would be interesting to look at how these rates change as the network expands, as well as including how quickly people in currently unserved areas change their BMI as they get served by an ever-growing transportation network. (My thought is that the rate of BMI decrease will be faster as the network size increases, although the rate of decrease will be tangentially limited.)

UPDATE: In a recent study by Trust for America's Health, Michigan is rated as being the 10th fattest state in the nation, among adults (but 41st fattest among children). I don't know what their methodology was, but it seems to match up with some other things I've seen elsewhere. Anyway, if people want to use the evidence of the Charlotte, NC study to link up with obesity rates in the state, then it might be a new and interesting way to organize efforts to actually get more movement on regional light rail in Southeast Michigan. Of course, with Michigan being the traditional car capital of the world, this could still be a non-starter...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Biology happens

Almost every single place where one might do grocery shopping in the US (other than gas stations and some very small stores), you have the opportunity to purchase a re-usable bag that has the logo of the store. Usually, these bags -- made from recycled plastics -- sell for about $1, but some more high-quality bags can sell for more than $20. One of the touted benefits of purchasing -- and using -- these bags is that it is "good for the environment," since it will diminish the number of disposable plastic bags that are used and thrown away, and therefore, the number of disposable plastic bags that will be made in the first place.

Some of these campaigns are so strong that cities (like San Francisco in 2007) and states (California might well follow the example of San Francisco) are getting into the act, banning, or making stores charge money for disposable plastic bags (charging customers for plastic bags is something that was taking place in Tokyo, when I was living there in the 1980s).

However, I think that public consciousness about the implications of reusing a plastic bag has not moved past the framing of "helping the environment": people aren't washing their reusable bags. For the same reason that you would want to wash your cutting board after use, or your counter-tops, you should wash out the reusable grocery bags: because biology happens. What, exactly, does Umlud mean by this statement? Well, "out of sight, out of mind" is rarely a good way to live one's life, especially when "invisible" activities are taking place (remember, "invisible" doesn't mean "inconsequential). In this particular case, the invisible activity is the growth of microbial life that is feasting on the small pieces of microscopic residue being left behind after you are done using your bag in your shopping trip.

However, according to this piece, many people are unaware of this problem:
"consumers are alarmingly unaware of these risks and the critical need to sanitize their bags on a weekly basis."
Of course, one way of changing this is the method suggested by the researchers: to use labeling. However, I think that the problem goes beyond the power of what a label can accomplish. Until the idea in people's minds that reusable plastic bags cannot be used in the same way as disposable plastic bags (i.e., you have to wash a reused item), people's attitudes won't change significantly; or not in the direction that some might want. Indeed, back-sliding (moving away from using reusable plastic bags and returning to using disposable plastic bags) is a possibility, especially as people view this "new necessity" as an onerous task (as opposed to something that they should have been doing in the first place).

The question, therefore (at least to me), is how to incorporate the implications of "re-use" into shopping bags from the very beginning. Perhaps this might be an issue only with re-usable "plastic bags", and not so much with cloth "tote bags" (i.e., the material of the bag changes how people think about and take care of the bag). Perhaps it might be an issue with the rigidity of the bag (i.e., paper-bag-like, rigid reusable plastic bags are more difficult to turn inside out for cleaning by hand or in a machine than soft, pliable plastic bags). Or maybe it is an issue of how people conceive of the importance of something that is "plastic" (and therefore potentially "disposable") than for something that is not. (This last point is more than somewhat ironic, since plastics are orders-of-magnitude less biodegradable than natural fibers, such as cotton, and yet plastic items are usually seen as being more disposable than items made with natural fibers.)

At a larger scale, the statement "biology happens" is appropriate, not just for raising the awareness of bacterial growth in reusable plastic bags, but also in getting people to think about the longer-term consequences of actions. For example, "biology happens" whenever one follows a particular hunting management or fishing management plan, either in raising the number of stock of deer or salmon (as the DNR did in the 1980s and 1990s), or dealing with the impact of having raised the number of stock of deer or salmon (as the DNRE is doing right now). "Biology happens" when Chicago decided to connect Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River via a canal in order to minimize disease outbreaks due to sewage (i.e., bacterial growth) contamination of drinking water. Biology continues to happen in the form of using that channel as an avenue for colonization (a.k.a. "invasion") by foreign species (biology also happened when foreign species, brought in for aquaculture, find themselves suddenly in a major river system, thanks to a large-magnitude flood). In other places, "biology happens" by creating strains of microbes and weeds that are resistant to the antibiotics and herbicides that we apply to our bodies and our fields (it's called natural selection, people) -- and will continue to happen as we apply more and more "anti-bacterial" soap and hand sanitizer to ourselves and our environments.

However, the concept of "biology happens" in the above cases -- and countless more -- fall outside the realm of what many people think about, or (if they do consider them) deem important enough to do something about. The concept of "out of sight, out of mind" is a strong one, even though the processes of biology -- once understood -- are quite visible, and the direction of the outcomes are somewhat predictable.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Questionable Science

In a new study published in the journal Footwear Science (I'm not kidding, there's a journal on this), going barefoot in the home increases the chance of the elderly having an injury from falling.


Apparently, old Jewish people who don't wear shoes in the home fall more often.

Somehow, I'm skeptical of this science.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

New Destination Bing maps... kinda cool?

I just had to to try out the simplified "Destination Maps" that are part of Bing's new online engine. Don't know if I really like it though:

ROK and DPRK likely not going to be facing each other in World Cup 2010

I recently saw an interactive schedule for the 2010 World Cup and noticed that both South Korea and North Korea are in this year's world cup. This immediately conjured up images of an actual chance of having a head-to-head match between the two nations, which are still technically at war with each other. True, no major battle has been waged for over fifty years, but tensions are still high, especially now with South Korea blaming their neighbors of torpedoing one of their navy ships.

It made for the possibility of a Korean version of the US vs USSR at ice hockey, like what happened at the Sapporo Olympics in 1972 (US 2 - USSR 7 in the "final round"), Innsbruck Olympics in 1976 (US 2 - USSR 6 in the "final round"), and Lake Placid Olympics in 1980 (US 4 - USSR 3). (The US didn't make it past the first round in the Sarajevo Olympics of 1984, nor in the Calgary Olympics of 1988, and of course, the USSR no longer existed during the 1992 Albertville Olympics, although the US did play the "Unified Team" of former Soviet states, and lost 2-5.) However, the likelihood of there being a South vs. North Korea game is diminishingly small:

South Korea (ROK) is in Group B. North Korea (DPRK) is in Group G. If I read it properly, then both the ROK and the DPRK need to make it all the way to the semifinals before they might play off against each other. This is highly unlikely to happen, since the DPRK has only qualified for two World Cups (in addition to two Olympics and one Asia Games), and the ROK has a better record of seven World Cup appearances (i.e., the DPRK is likely not to continue to the second round).

I also can't imagine there being a lot of DPRK fans that are out to cheer for their team in South Africa...

(On a side note, the DPRK won't be able to play against other long-time enemies, Japan and the USA, at least until the quarter finals.)

Fingerprints: gone and now back.

During my recent trip to Chile, I managed to singe the finger tips of my middle and index fingers of my right hand. While this meant that my fingers really hurt, due to the burning. Now, I don't know of it was a first-degree burn, or a second-degree burn, but it really, really, really hurt.

Burnt finger tips

I was concerned (perhaps unnecessarily) how this would affect my fingerprint recognition software that I use on my computer. After returning to Concepcion, I fired up the computer, and although my middle finger was unreadable to the computer, the index finger still worked. (Luckily, I had set up fingerprint recognition profiles for all ten fingers, but I actually use my right middle and index fingers the most often.)

After a few days, the middle finger worked, too (although it was still a little discolored where it got burned). Lucky me, I suppose.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Reading some profound articles

Placing that link to Nippon-Kan led me down a bit of a road of nostalgia, and I ended up reading several articles written by Gaku Homma Sensei. Although his articles are long, they have an interesting point-of-view and (interestingly) seem quite aligned to some of the things that I'm interested in.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Trip to Pucon (pt.1)

My trip to Pucón, Chile this last weekend was -- in many ways -- like a dream. True, I was able to go there with my girlfriend, and that was (in itself) very nice. However, it was the first time in a long time that I was able to visit some natural hotsprings. (I believe that the last time I had gone to some thermal hotsprings was in 2000, when I was an uchideshi at Nippon-Kan, and we would take occasional trips out to Golden, Colorado, to visit the hotsprings there.)

Getting ready to go was a bit of a stressful task, combined with some serendipity. RR had wanted to go to one of the various locales that were jumping-off points for thermal springs (Termas de Chillan, Pucón, etc.) and was wanting me to make a decision on which one to go to. Needless to say, I was not really paying attention to time, and suddenly it was Friday, and no decision was made. I spent the whole day doing some research, and found that I preferred going to Pucón, mainly because it seemed more potentially picturesque than what I remembered Termas de Chillan to be (I went up there during my visit to Chile in 2008).

However, nothing seemed to be adding up: none of the hotsprings were actually in Pucón, but some tens of kilometers away. This would necessitate renting a car. Furthermore, there were no buses that went directly from Concepción to Pucón that I could find online. The cost of a car rental from Concepción for three days (Saturday, Sunday, and Monday) would have run roughly 200 USD, and I was sure that there had to be a more reasonable option. With nothing much to show for my day, I waited for RR to return home.

She got on the phone with her brother, whose wife lives in Pucón, and found that there was, indeed, a direct bus that went from Conce to Pucón, using Linea Azul. (However Linea Azul's website didn't show any sort of schedule.) Her brother also volunteered to call one of his friends in Pucón who worked at a car rental agency there, and he was able to get us a killer deal (60 USD for 1.5 days + the price of gas). Therefore, at 6AM, we were ready to head to Pucón. ... and found out that the Linea Azul direct bus only ran on weekdays, so we got on another bus to Temuco, and then transferred to another bus line that took us from Temuco, through the town of Villarica, and into the quite wealthy town of Pucón (situated some distance away from the foot of the Villarica Volcano, and on the shores of Lake Villarica).