Archive for February, 2009

o rly?

Posted: February 27, 2009 in Culture, Education, Media, Science, Writing

There ought to be a special category or term for junk science that purports to make a positive out of a negative or works feverishly to demonstrate something that is obvious to even the casual observer. This report from BBC News tells of multiple studies that support the supposition that text messaging improves language skills. The fact that improves language skills is in scare quotes might suggest to the sharp reader that language skills are in fact not improved, that children’s “sophisticated understanding of the appropriate use of words” is to be expected even in the absence of text messaging, or that increased exposure to the written word improves literacy — even the debased variety found in text messaging — is so obvious that it hardly bears reporting. Or maybe the scare quotes are evidence that the news editors don’t know how to use quotes anymore. Either way, don’t believe everything you read, even when it comes from otherwise reputable science journals.

Updates to Blogroll 01

Posted: February 27, 2009 in Blogosphere, Blogroll

My blogroll is kept quite short intentionally. Whereas many bloggers exchange links in hopes of driving traffic, my only purpose is linking to blogs I find interesting and well written to add my modest endorsement. The bookmarks in my browser are considerably more numerous than the sites on my blogroll, and it takes time to get acquainted with a blog before the decision to add to my blogroll is made. Additionally, the three blogs listed below are all pretty popular and will neither succeed for fail with the miniscule bit of traffic I send their way (or don’t). With that in mind, I announce three changes to my blogroll (one deletion, two additions):

Bitch Ph.D. is being dropped (note conspicuous lack of linkage). The site banner is great and hasn’t changed. It used to be a solo blog of the slice-of-life variety. Somewhere along the line, it has become a feminist group blog. In the process, those things that interested me the most have gotten buried beneath a deluge of feminist critique, much of which is far too doctrinaire for me to endorse. I made several comments on a recent thread, and the responses were unnecessarily antagonistic and just plain dumb. If feminist bloggers refuse to treat others in their comments section (who may at times be detractors) with minimal respect and only want to preach to the choir, they can certainly get along without my participation and link.

I Blame the Patriarchy is being added. I’ve linked there before in a couple of my blog entries, and the quality of the writing and the insights are definitely worth a read. I haven’t yet commented there, partly out of fear that I’d get my ass handed to me. Twisty Faster is one smart, acerbic blogger, whom I find quite entertaining. Dropping one feminist blog and adding another isn’t a specific strategy of mine to maintain balance. It just happened that way.

Pharyngula is being added. I can’t keep up with the day-to-day volume at this blog, nor do I ever read the comments. PZ Myers appears to enjoy his notoriety quite a bit, and his dual focus on taking down creationists and religious believers (with some biology lessons thrown into the mix) is interesting, though I can’t get personally worked up about others’ illusions quite so much as he apparently does. His writing is less lyrical, perhaps, than at I Blame the Patriarchy, but his linear reasoning is an excellent model to emulate. Pharyngula is also a good way of keeping abreast of some of the more obnoxious culture wars, usually played out in the fields of science and religion.

My first impression of this article at MSNBC about grammar geeks boiling over was that it’s more muckraking by the media: a pointless story about a nonissue (not that all stories must be life-and-death serious). Upon reflection, maybe there is something there worth considering. Although littered with clever and silly terms (language lovers, spelling snobs, grammar grunions, grammar vigilantes, grammar vandals, word nerds, word warriors, etc.), I was rather surprised not to see word rage or grammar rage used, or for that matter, the rather obvious grammar geek. In a story about grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage, it’s also gratifying to note that the author did not commit a series of her own blunders (as I’m prone to do). I wasn’t proofreading, but I found only one error:

But these newly hip word warriors are doing more than writing odes to apostrophes and posting tips for people who don’t know their like or as from a hole in the ground.

When referring to words as words, one should quote or italicize as follows:

… people who don’t know their like or as from a hole in the ground.

That could be a simple HTML error, but I rather doubt it.


Across the pond, an odd controversy has sprung up on bus advertising between atheists and the faithful (read: Christians). Bus companies and advertisers must be laughing themselves all the way to the bank over this one. For debate over the existence of god (lower case g) or some other amorphous higher power to be taking place on billboards must surely be emblematic of utter and complete decadence because it’s tantamount to the sort of arguments children have: is not … is too! No one in their right mind would be persuaded or dissuaded by such idle nonsense. Moreover, I wouldn’t call it a debate, since the campaign and counter-campaign appear to be as meaningful meaningless as Coke and Pepsi fighting for market share by getting their respective brand images in front of more eyeballs.

Atheism has undoubtedly come out of the closet in the past decade, which is perhaps what emboldened those in the UK to launch a billboard campaign. I find it amusing that some folks track the best atheists skeptics and offer their own “awards.” My one or two regular readers already know that I find this particular debate (faith/disbelief) especially pointless — so much so that I can’t even work up the energy to condemn either side. Maybe I should begin awarding a Spiral Staircase Prize for the most meaningless waste of effort and money that contributes exactly nothing to the world but a few opportunities for journalists to meet their muckraking quotas.

Crystallizing the Moment

Posted: February 2, 2009 in Culture, Politics

Former President George W. Bush (what a pleasure to be able that say that) has both taken and been given a lot of credit for keeping us safe in the post-9/11 years of his administration. It’s a spurious claim, considering there is no way to verify what didn’t happen owing to precautionary actions, many of them illegal. More importantly, perhaps, Bush is also given credit for crystallizing the moment in the weeks after 9/11, meaning that he purportedly recognized the threat that terrorism represents (in the relative absence of any other major threat following the breakup of the Soviet Union) and embarked on a program of reorganizing government and military operations to meet the new, stateless threat. And he made the U.S. the world’s bully with two preemptive wars that continue today without any clear objective accomplished. This chronology of major terrorist attacks against the U.S., most on foreign soil, in the air, or in international waters, is notable for its lack of post-9/11 events, whereas this chronology shows that attacks haven’t abated at all.

Whether Bush assessed threat levels accurately is unproven, but it’s undeniable that the U.S. government has turned its attention to the so-called War Against Terror with the rubbernecked irrationality of children. And for eight years, the citizenry has been subjected to the indignities of being variously surveilled, inspected, frisked, and searched in office buildings, sports arenas, airports, and political rallies for fear that terrorists may be embedded amongst us. Never mind that such “security theater” does little or nothing to stop a determined criminal or terrorist, who would be foolish to attempt to enter through the front door anyway. (The argument could be made that it’s only foolish precisely because we do in fact guard the front door.) The irony of all this wasted effort is that, unlike the war cry “What Price Freedom?” from the Revolutionary Era, when men and women understood implicitly they might be called upon to purchase their freedom with their blood, we’re now in the awkward position of being forced to protect our freedoms by routinely relinquishing them.

A similar moment of crystallization occurred in U.S. history at the close of WWII. With the Axis Powers defeated, the U.S. military intelligentsia (oxymoron alert), again in the absence of a real threat, irrationally perceived the Russians (Russkies!) in particular and Communists (Reds!) in general as a new threat and reorganized government and military operations. It was the dawn of the Nuclear Age and the Cold War at once, and it was uncharted territory, just as with the War Against Terror. It also launched the very thing Pres. Eisenhower warned against in his farewell presidential address: the military-industrial complex. (In the 21st century, add -corporate to the mix.) In crystallizing the new threat (I’m not convinced the Red ever were coming for us, nor that Communism wasn’t a failed ideology waiting to founder on utilitarian shoals), we propagandized and mobilized to protect ourselves and most of the rest of the world at a tremendous cost in lost lives, economic burden, and wasted effort.

Less than eight years since 9/11, we now face a new series of threats even more urgent than terrorism, though in fact these have been gathering for years. Yet like some weird Pyrrhic tragedy, we’re ill-equipped to recognize where lies the true threat. Which man-made mischief is it? Economic collapse? The population bomb? Ecocide? Climate change? Peak oil? Or merely the perennial conflict of man against man over injustice and/or religious fervor? I’m not optimistic that we have the right leadership to crystallize the moment accurately because although these threats require urgent action, the full effects are perhaps decades away yet, well beyond election cycles and public attention span, guaranteeing that we won’t address the threats until it’s too late.

Batter Blaster

Posted: February 1, 2009 in Consumerism, Idle Nonsense, Tacky, Taste

Does that title grab you? Maybe the real thing will appeal more:


This product just makes me laugh, ’cause ya know pancakes and waffles from a mix are just soooo hard to make. Is a new trend forming? Can we soon expect aerosol foods of all types in addition to cheese and whipped cream?

I don’t believe for a moment the claim that this product is organic. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that even while the food ingredients may be wholesome, aerosol delivery using a chemical propellant inevitably alters the food’s make-up. And although aerosol delivery is becoming commonplace in the medical field, didn’t we already learn that the most common aerosol propellant prior to the 1980s was environmentally damaging? Alternatives to CFC propellants are claimed to be “less damaging,” whatever that means. I’d counter than a mixing bowl and a spoon is undoubtedly the least damaging.

It might also come as a surprise (or not, depending on your cynicism) that there is a journal devoted to promoting aerosols. And even more surprising, what’s with the special offer to fans of the John Tesh Radio Show? Never mind, I don’t want to know.