Tuesday, April 30, 2002

Catholic Church scandals: I had thought that these scandals were fairly unique to the US, but according to a Washington Post article, that's not true. "In both the old Catholic heartlands of Europe and the new frontiers of the developing world, the church has been damaged by the activities of sexual predators within its ranks." It's only the US scandals that have received attention from the Vatican. I don't know if I agree with O'Toole that the Vatican is only interested in the fallout in America because of worry that the American catholics might split due to the American reforming personality - Christian reformations have come out of Europe, too. Rather, there could be a very simple explanation if you follow the money: I bet the revenues from the American catholic church are enormous.

To be clear, I never thought that sexually predatory priests were unique to the US -- I thought it was only the media coverage that was unique to the US. In some sense I'm glad that other countries are at least as open about these incidents, even if they don't get visits from the Pope as a result.

In today's NY Times editorial, Kristof seems to argue that it's OK that Muslims apply literal prescriptions from the Koran such as stoning applied as the penalty for adultery. The reasoning is that (1) Christianity also had brutal prescriptions which used to be applied, and (2) Islam may already be embarked on a reformation whereby they interpret the Koran more loosely.

While I'm willing to assume Kristof doesn't approve of stoning and although he obviously hopes for improvement, he is still an apologist for what I consider to be unacceptable acts justified by religious texts. It doesn't matter if the Bible or the Koran prescribes stoning, lashing or amputation; these are still unacceptable penalties. Christianity's gory history should not be a model for any society.

Monday, April 29, 2002

An article on the Space Program and (just because it's The Onion) readers of the Economist. Having just allowed my subscription of the Economist to lapse, should I now think of myself as superior or inferior to Economist readers?

Sunday, April 28, 2002

Mom wanted to know what number of Canadians have passports. She asked me. How would I know? I'm the only one of the family that doesn't still live in Canada. "But you can look on the Internet"? Well, OK, I can try.
  1. Type "canadian passport" into Google toolbar.
  2. Click on first link that comes up for Canada's passport office. Select English.
  3. Hmm, maybe the link to "In Brief" will tell me. At least there won't be much there to wade through.
  4. Scroll to bottom. Oh -- there it is.

Well, my mom's faith was well-founded, I guess, because that took 2 minutes, longer than to type this post. Oh, the number of Canadians with passports? 8 million.

Friday, April 26, 2002

Perhaps the sweetest, most elegant Flash game I've seen can be found here, with more at that site.
Since I critiqued science reporting, Dan Simon pointed me to Discovery Channel Canada for some great science reporting. Although DCC isn't mainstream news (it specializes in science), and therefore wasn't in my sample set, I was happy to check it out and verify Dan's claim. No content-free scare or miracle stories to be found.

The Prairie Drought story immediately caught my interest, as it won its author Tiffany Mayer an award for best environmental story. Although it is indeed a good science article, it suffers from some of the same contextlessness I've complained about. "The dry spells Leavitt foresees could last 25 years, causing agriculture in the region to lose at least $50 billion." There's no indication whether this is a tiny fraction of the region's income or a significant chunk, or whether this loss is with or without action on the part of farmers to irrigate or otherwise remedy the situation.

Another article on Ecstasy does a surprisingly good job summarizing the state of research into the effects of the drug -- an unusual characteristic in a science news article, where usually the article is occasioned by a single new study result and thus only covers that one study. The article is criticized in online responses both for being too negative and too positive about the drug's effects.

Thursday, April 25, 2002

I recently did a little Web research on the economics of maternity leave. Is mandated maternity leave a good thing for society? Is it a good thing even for women, or does it reduce their employment opportunities, their pay, or both? I found a few interesting links and tidbits though of course few solid answers.

For hard numbers, I liked the World Bank study by Yana van der Meulen Rodgers. A table at the end shows exactly how countries compare in maternity leave duration. Factoids:

  • US legislation affecting health insurers caused young women's wages to fall 5% though their labor supply did not change.
  • Taiwan's labor law requiring maternity leave indirectly increased women's working hours by 7% and their participation in the work force, without reducing wages. Apparently this is due to more qualified women wanting to work when ensured maternity leave.
  • On the other hand, night-work and overtime restrictions specifically "protecting" women reduced women's welfare by making them less employable.

The Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion paper by Waldfogel, Higuchi and Abe found that paid maternity leave definition increased the labour participation of new mothers, but could not discuss the costs of this because it did not look at wages.

Randy Albeda has found that unemployment costs were reduced when paid maternity leave was required in that region. However, there was no discussion of how the benefit (reduced UI costs) compared to the costs of the paid maternity leave overall. Presumably the overall cost would be much higher than that particular benefit.

Tuesday, April 23, 2002

A new TechCentralStation article by Howard Fienberg does a great job of debunking some bad science reporting. The original article at New Scientist reports a study on the health benefits of organic vegetables, without noting any of the problems with the study that bothered Howard. Thanks Howard!
The sudden news on the Al-Aksa shift in direction shot hope through my heart. Then reality set in again, as I figured out how little a shift it really was. Note that they're still planning to target civilians, these just happen to be civilians in settlements. Remember that will include children of settlers. I count children as innocents whom it is evil to target no matter what side you're on, and no matter what side their parents are on.

Well, one can still hope that this is a shift in direction, not just a shift in tactics to improve Al-Aqsa's "public image".

Monday, April 22, 2002

Just read The Monkey in the Mirror, essays on evolution by anthropologist Ian Tattersall. As an essayist, Tattersall leaves much to be desired. An essay is not the right choice of structure to fully explore or explain any technical subject. Instead, the best essays present a well-thought-out and provoking viewpoint. Tattersall's essays either attempt only the former, or fail at the latter.

The essay on Neanderthals provides the amount of content one would expect in a textbook with size limitations: a readable summary, but not enough detail to satisfy, and not enough thought to provoke. Not a great essay, but it would have been an excellent chapter had it been surrounded by similarly excellent and related chapters in a coherent introductory book on paleoanthropology.

The essay on evolutionary psychology, however, was truly bad. It's fine to disagree with a new field like evo-psych, but I expect a better class of disagreement in a published essay by an expert on the human evolutionary record. Tattersall reduces the goals and approaches of evo-psych to a caricature in order to ridicule them. He fails to back up statements like "it is certainly the case that our behaviors are not directly programmed by our genes". He completely mis-characterizes some research: "Recently, for example, some of the more literally minded of the evolutionary psychologists have taken to defending rape as an 'adaptive' behaviour" (emphasis mine). Although Tattersall fails to identify this research as Thornhill and Palmer (in fact the book completely lacks references), they're the most well-known for such research, and they do not defend the behavior in any way. Tattersall fails to note that in fact the researchers suggest understanding such behaviors better may help us prevent those behaviors.

Glad it was just a library book.

Sunday, April 21, 2002

Health scare stories inspired today's rant on science reporting. Here are some booby prize winners:
I found most of these links through the Social Issues Research Centre site, and others through google's cool new news-search feature.

What these (generally brief) articles share is an extremely narrow look at an extremely broad topic, shallow references to experts and science, and numbers (when present) are included without context. Some specific examples:

  • "Working while pregnant increases the risk of the potentially deadly condition pre-eclampsia by nearly five times, research suggests. " Bad use of numbers! Five times from what? How common is pre-eclampsia? How often does it result in death? And extremely poor use of context -- although the article's title implies that overall risk is increased, they don't support that. It could be that the increased risk of pre-eclampsia is offset by other factors. Or have they compared whether working while *not* pregnant increases risk?
  • The pay phone article is supported by an interview with one doctor.
  • The doorbell article manages to put 3 statistics in under 200 words, but poor context makes the figures useless. "Almost 50% said they had experienced an event within the two-hour period before the stroke which the doctors considered to be a potential trigger." What's an event? How many two-hour periods occurred with an "event" where a stroke didn't occur? Only the study that occasioned the news article was mentioned, without any reference to other studies on the causes of strokes. No overall assessment was presented in the article.
It's not just the health scare stories that suffer from these problems but they're the ones that offend me most, because I know too many people who restrict their own lives due to the cumulative effect of these scares. So here's my proposed title for a news article: "Health scare stories reduce quality of life."

Saturday, April 20, 2002

Women serious about their careers think they have a problem sustaining successful relationships with any men. Maureen Dowd's column "The Baby Bust" last week claims that smart women believe they scare away potential partners, and now the book I'm reading (loose threads, Glenda Burgess) has the following passage. In response to an ex-boyfriend saying "Cynthia is going to quit her job at the preschool in Brookline and join me here," the heroine muses:

There it was. The perfect Foreign Service spouse. The able and adoring, fully dedicated wife to set up housekeeping, manage the money wexchange and the marketing, and never, but never, raise a priority in conflict with the posting of her husband. Why were no men interested in this role? Content to read the French press and drink cafe, or burgundy, through the lazy afternoons as their spouses worked the embassy. Was it just us, the women? Were we too aggressive, too focused, too self-centered to make it as wives? Too talented to be interested in shiftless men, but too restricted by our careers to have the men we choose?

Many of the letters to the editor responding to Dowd's article try to answer these questions. The responses are surprisingly varied and numerous (600 'e-males'). Mostly from men, they fall into two major categories. Some claim they'd be happy to find a smart women (one good article in this category, though at times too snide, appears from Bruce Fierstein). But the others put forth many possible reasons why a man might reasonably reject a "smart" career woman: she may be uncaring, cold, arrogant, critical, put her career before her family, and so on. On CBSNews, Glenn Sacks places himself definitely in the second category by returning all the blame to the women who voiced the complaint. Glenn says "[Dowd] chastises men for being afraid of successful women who, she says, may be critical of them. But how many women want to marry a man who is critical? " Sure Glenn, but first, women are more tolerant of criticism -- and second, criticism is only one of many issues. Modern couples clearly have a new balance to strike, as womens' careers increasingly match their partners' in intellectual requirements, prestige, opportunities, responsabilities, power and recompense.

Friday, April 19, 2002

NPR Science Friday is the only big show on NPR about science. But it's not always directly about science. I have this complaint about most mainstream science reporting: an article may only indirectly be related to science, yet it takes up space in the limited-quota "science reporting" section. Health, safety and environmental issues get lumped under science even when there's no new science involved, just some current issue or debate to spark interest.

And the limited quota for science does bug me. There are fewer limits on coverage of disasters, politics, arts or cultural news. NPR again shows this: you'll hear interviews with musicians, writers, public figures of all kinds, but rarely scientists, mathematicians, or engineers, outside of Science Friday. The archetypical exception is the scientist who has just written a mainstream book -- and Terry Gross will likely question her interviewee about the scandal around the book about the science, not directly about the science.

Here are some NPR Science Friday programs from the last year, and what I thought they were actually about from the descriptions. Not always science, even with a fairly broad definition of science including engineering and technology applications.

  • Apr 19/02: Nuclear Safety. Subject: engineering, nuclear policy.
  • Apr 12/02: Health care issues facing rural Americans. Subject: health policy
  • Apr 05/02: World Trade Center rebuilding. Subject: engineering.
  • Mar 29/02: Drought/ El Nino. Subject: The Weather.
  • Mar 22/02: Future Evolution. Subject: Speculation, science fiction
  • Mar 15/02: New Automotive Technologies. Subject: Technology, automotive industry
  • Mar 01/02: Mammography debate Subject: health policy
  • Feb 22/02: Nuclear Security. Subject: Nuclear policy
  • Feb 22/02: Richard Feynman/'Q.E.D.'. Subject: Drama
  • Feb 08/02: Heisenberg Correspondence. Subject: Biography (of scientists), political history
  • Feb 01/02: Everyday Design. Subject: industrial design

I'm happy to see the "digital divide" activists finally criticized in TechCentralStation. The article asks whether Internet have-nots are actually making a choice, and are thus not victims, and whether its a bad thing to be without Internet access. Good questions, and there are some questions with even clearer answers: whether starving, being homeless, or unable to get a job are worse conditions than being without a computer or Internet access. OK, I know, I'm beating a tack with a sledgehammer. But it burns me to see large well-publicized amounts of money go to self-serving computer-company-funded digital village projects when there are so many worthier causes.

NIH's South American correspondant (doesn't that sound better than "my travelling friend Scott"?) reports that "Costa Ricans are obsessed with the Internet. Even in the suburbs, it's hard to walk more than three blocks in any part of the city without stumbling into an Internet Cafe of some sort. Like most other things in this country, it's dirt cheap -- about 300 colones per hour ($0.80)"

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

John Gray, professor of [European] Thought, thinks that fundamentalism is stirred up through the clash of cultures enabled by modern technology (like blogs). "In some parts of the world, globalization has worked to strengthen fundamentalism and the revulsion against Western values and Western-oriented governments... fundamentalism is a morbid feature of modernizing societies." (source article quotes not clear). Also: "Fundamentalism is an urban phenomenon that depends on literacy and uses new technology".

Although Gray's talk is new, a little research shows that Professor Anthony Giddens has published a truly excellent article on this previously (see particularly end of article). In fact, Giddens presciently rebutts Gray's concern that fundamentalism is a reaction to Western culture -- Giddens says "Nor is fundamentalism primarily about the resistance of more traditional cultures to Westernisation - a rejection of Western decadence. Fundamentalism can develop on the soil of traditions of all sorts."

Is anybody surprised that white-hats sites (those that promote hacking into computer systems only to identify security holes, not to benefit from them) are beloved of black-hats? Whitehats.com says "We aknowledge that hacking in the benevolent sense, including problem solving and discovery, is critical to the evolution of our information society. "

However, as an example of presumable misuse, the politically-motivated "hacktivist" (I hate that word) group GForce Pakistan, claim in an interview that bugtraq, www.whitehats.com, www.cert.org, and PacketStorm are among the sites that are necessary to them to deface Web sites. You see, GForce Pakistan does not find the security holes, they rely on others to find them and publish them, and only write their own exploits.

GForce Pakistan claims only to deface Web sites to get attention (not to steal or destroy), so they probably don't consider themselves black-hats. However, in Oct 2001, they claimed to have confidential US data to hand over to al-Qaeda. And they've also said that "We will not rest till every node, every line, every bit of information contained in our suppressors has not been wiped out, returning them to the dark ages".

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

It's entertaining when environmentalists battle each other on each side of the issue. Brief summary: wind power good, wind power generated in my backyard (or bay) not so good.
This is cool. We're starting to see approaches to scrubbing air of carbon dioxide, frankly an alternative that seems more attractive to me than expensive legislation to reduce emissions.
I read somebody's issue #2 of ReadyMade magazine for hip twenty-somethings, full of projects to make hip objets out of scavenged stuff like computer tower casings and really old books. In other words, the opposite of ready-made. And isn't it ironic that mass furniture stores advertise in the mag? And isn't it ironic that they have a store? If you don't have your own LPs to recycle into coasters, you can buy theirs! Ahh, but twenty-somethings love irony.
The latest Supreme Court ruling, combined with today's technology, enables a new industry: producing certified 100% virtual child pornography.

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