Sunday, January 29, 2006

Penguin News Roundup

Study shows Magellanic penguins quickly get used to tourists and show no immediate deleterious effects of being gawked at by the humans. Magellanics live in coastal areas around the southern part of South America. The researchers are still unsure of the long-term impact to the penguins.

Penguins maintain their box-office power. Warner Brothers Studios will release Happy Feet in November. According to IMDB, it is a movie about a tapdancing Emperor penguin. The trailer, available here, combines on the only two good parts of Madagascar: the penguins and the dance number done by the lemurs. On the plus side, the animation includes several different, recognizable penguin species. Since the animators were nice enough to do that, we'll overlook that they mix Adelies and Rockhoppers, which nest on the ice-free coastal areas, with the Emperors, which nest on the fast ice.


I just read the following sentence in a USA Today article on the popularity of the movie Brokeback Mountain:

"Gay cowboys are the new penguin."

I have to go now and find something--anything--else to think about. If I let that sentence rattle around in my head much longer, my brain is going to explode and leak out my ears.

Friday, January 27, 2006

How (whatever)-ist are you, really?

The problem with surveys to determine how biased we are is that we are smarter than that. We know the right answers to all those questions about how we feel about races, genders, religions, ethnic groups, disabled or overweight people, etc. In short, we answer questionnaires as we know we should feel, not necessarily as we do feel.

The Implicit Association Test gets around that by operating on the basic principle that your mind works faster when you are doing less mentally straining tasks. On the surface, these tests are all one task: sorting words or phrases into two groups, and to make it even easier, they tell you the groups up front. For example, the test for skin tone preference has you sorting drawings of light-skinned faces from dark-skinned faces, and positive words like "happy" and "laughter" from negative words like "hate" and "pain." If you end up sorting faster when asked to put light-skinned faces in the same column as positive words than when asked to put dark-skinned faces with positive words, you have an implicit bias toward lighter skin because your brain has to think a little more to pair up dark and good. It's very hard to fool the test.

On the ones I have done so far, I show a strong preference to women being in the home and men in the workplace, am pro-Semitic, and show a slight preference for lighter skin tones. No real surprises there, except that I didn't think my housewife bias was as strong as it apparently is. More telling than anything are the tests I am reluctant to try because I'm not sure I want to confirm what I suspect are the results.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

National Gorilla Suit Day

Next Tuesday, January 31, is National Gorilla Suit Day. In what I am sure is a coincidence, that is also the day President Bush is delivering the 2006 State of the Union Address. Watch it at 9 p.m. Eastern on C-SPAN--the address, which will probably involve many primates in suits, but few in primate suits.

Must Be Something About the '80's

I used to drive a 1984 Pontiac Firebird. I should have known something was up when the brake lines snapped in half on my way to get the title inspection at the sheriff's station. Among its other faults, it had a habit of stalling if I tried to turn a corner while going uphill. My parking brake was a brick, and the "P" on the gear selector was purely decorative. Needless to say, there was a time I knew the flattest route between any two points in Omaha, Nebraska, as well as all the level parking lots. Worst of all, that car seemed to have a minimum number of things that had to be broken at any given time. If I fixed one, another problem would inevitably crop up within days.

My house was built in 1981, and I am beginning to think it has that same problem. The parking brake works, but as soon as I fix one thing, something else breaks. Yesterday afternoon, I finally figured out that whole retaining nut thing and got my bathroom sink drain cleared. Yesterday evening, as I was washing dishes, the sink sprayer snapped off in my hand. If I didn't need my kitchen sink, I would hesitate to fix that, as I fear what will go next.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Obvious, but Interesting Study

A study by Emory University confirms what we might have suspected for some time: there is precious little reason in partisan politics.

Shortly before the last Presidential election, researchers plunked committed Democrats and Republicans in fMRI machines to record brain activity as it happens. They then fed them statements from George W. Bush, John Kerry, and neutral male figures like Tom Hanks, and asked the study participants to mentally resolve obvious discrepancies in several statements made by each man.

What they found:

"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," says Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory who led the study. "What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts." Westen and his colleagues will present their findings at the Annual Conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Jan. 28.

Once partisans had come to completely biased conclusions -- essentially finding ways to ignore information that could not be rationally discounted -- not only did circuits that mediate negative emotions like sadness and disgust turn off, but subjects got a blast of activation in circuits involved in reward -- similar to what addicts receive when they get their fix, Westen explains.


Behavioral data showed a pattern of emotionally biased reasoning: partisans denied obvious contradictions for their own candidate that they had no difficulty detecting in the opposing candidate. Importantly, in both their behavioral and neural responses, Republicans and Democrats did not differ in the way they responded to contradictions for the neutral control targets, such as Hanks, but Democrats responded to Kerry as Republicans responded to Bush.

While reasoning about apparent contradictions for their own candidate, partisans showed activations throughout the orbital frontal cortex, indicating emotional processing and presumably emotion regulation strategies. There also were activations in areas of the brain associated with the experience of unpleasant emotions, the processing of emotion and conflict, and judgments of forgiveness and moral accountability.
Another finding in the study shows this occurs outside conscious awareness. For some reason, I do not find that comforting.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Penguin News

The parents of Toga, the African penguin chick stolen from a zoo just before Christmas, are expecting again. Their egg should hatch in about 7 weeks. Life goes on.

The keepers at Amazon World have given up hope that Toga will be found alive. The reward is still out there for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the heartless penguin-nappers who would steal a chick right out from under his parents.

People Watching Paradise

My laundromat is frequented by some people who are very interesting to watch. On Monday, I was there with the lady little person (I would guess she's about 3' 8"), the polite older-middle-aged man who looks like Morgan Freeman, and the man who quietly holds conversations with the voices in his head while he waits for the dryer. I should note that the latter is one of the least disconcerting people I do laundry with. He's far more courteous about it than the people yammering on at top volume into their cell phones.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Make Your Own Radio Station

I've been turned on to a wonderful music site,, that allows users to create their own internet radio stations based on the types of music they enjoy. The company has a team of 30 musician-analysts who work out a few hundred musical attributes of every song in their library, currently around 300,000 songs. For starters, you input an artist or song you like, and the site streams songs with similar musical attributes. You can provide feedback if you particularly like or dislike a song, and the site will adjust the programming accordingly. By selecting music based on the musical attributes rather than, say, "oldies" or "top 40," they manage to provide an interesting mix of songs and artists you might otherwise not have given a second thought to. I probably would not have considered anything by R.E.M., but it came up on my station based on The Monkees (subtle vocal harmony, mild rhythmic syncopation, male vocalist, and major key tonality), and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I have another station based on "Dueling Banjos." Doesn't everyone occasionally like good bluegrass instrumentation, heavy on the pickin'?

Violence and Mayhem

The problem with making "family friendly" television programming is that families often include both adults and children. Now that cable companies have bowed to pressure and rolled out Family Tiers populated with channels devoid of objectionable content, politicians have discovered that (get ready for this) grown-ups may occasionally like to watch programming not suitable for their 6-year-olds. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I thought one of the side effects of having children was loss of interest in any entertainment more mature than Barney and Friends. But, as it turns out, parents are still adults and sometimes like to indulge adult interests, which brings me to some senators' objections to the Family Friendly Tiers because they exclude the violent, beer-sponsored, pro-gambling fun fest that is ESPN. So, for those keeping score, bare female midriffs over micro-miniskirts are not Family Friendly Viewing unless they are accompanied by 22 large men trying to crush one another on a program sponsored by a beer company.

Also in the article linked above, Brent Bozell, head of the Parents Television Council called the TV ratings system "an inconsistent, arbitrary, and capricious mess." I have an idea that will solve both our problems. Since the Parents Television Council already sits around watching TV all day and counting the number of times their delicate sensibilities are offended, let's bring them into the process earlier. Let them watch every moment of television programming and every advertisement before it gets put on air, and have a panel of them agree on a rating for each show and ad. They wouldn't get to veto anything, but they would be able to make sure a consistent and non-arbitrary standard is applied to rating the programs in accordance with their Family Values. Given the 500-odd channels available, that should keep them too busy to file carbon-copy complaints to the FCC every time someone says "dick."

Saturday, January 21, 2006


Study: Wine Drinkers Have Healthier Diets than Beer Drinkers

Seriously. Who funds these things? I have some beachfront property I'm looking to get rid of, and I would like to talk to them. The study examined random purchases at Danish supermarkets, categorizing them by the type of alcohol (if any) purchased, and comparing the other items purchased with wine, beer, a combination of wine and beer, or no alcohol. After analyzing 3.5 million purchases, researchers found wine purchases were accompanied by fruits, vegetables, low fat cheese and poultry, whereas beer purchases were more often accompanied by sugar, cold cuts, chips and pork.

I don't suppose anyone thought to just look at chicken marsala versus beer battered--well, so many things can be beer battered and deep fried.

Friday, January 20, 2006

That Explains A Few Things

I just Googled "Boneless chicken wing" (one of the few searches that doesn't come up with links to women in varying stages of undress). It seems that most allegedly boneless wings are actually standard-issue chicken meat formed into a vaguely winglike shape, breaded, then smothered in spicy sauce. So a boneless wing is less of a wing and more of a tarted up chicken nugget. I haven't seen food PR this good since the ready-to-microwave potato.

What Will They Think of Next?

So this is what I miss by not watching television commercials. Someone has invented boneless chicken wings, and people are apparently paying real money for buckets of them. Boneless wings? Chicken wings are already nature's joke meat. The meat on them adds up to something slightly less substantial than a strand of twine. My chicken anatomy expert will no doubt correct me, but I'd think that if you take the bones out of a chicken wing, you would be left with some flappy skin and just enough stringy meat to get stuck in your teeth. Better off just sucking down the marinade by the spoonful.

Here I Come to Save The Day

I went out to the barn today to exercise the lawnmower. After I managed to crank the engine over, I started hearing a squeak. Actually, several squeaks, followed by the pitterpatter of little rodent feet. Apparently, four or five mice have decided to winter over in the rafters. The engine noise sent them scurrying down the support beams, across a shelf, and off in the general direction of the tack closet. As long as they don't try to move into the house.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Age of Unreason, Part II

For those not reading the comments, I will re-post the anonymous one from "Age of Unreasonable."
This was tried in the late 60's and unfortunately not every 18 year old could pass muster. That is why liquor can not be consumed until 21. There were many crazy auto accidents and other stupid acts that resulted in loss of life.
I do appreciate the thoughtful comments people leave here, especially the ones I might not wholeheartedly agree with. Post anonymously if you like, or feel free to use a comment pseudonym.

Since the late 60's were about a decade before my time, I will take the author at his or her word about the unfortunate effects of allowing alcohol consumption at age 18. The liquor-soaked bacchanals of many contemporary 21st birthday celebrations are not what I would consider the hallmark of maturity, either. No matter what the age, there will always be some who cannot handle responsibility right off.

I proposed that the age of legal adulthood be set at 18 not as an assessment of maturity. Relative preparedness for responsibility rarely correlates with the minimum legal ages set for it. The voting age was changed to 18 to match the military conscription age, not because 18 year olds are emotionally mature enough to pick a world leader. I chose 18 because my overall proposal is that there be an age where, across the board, someone is considered an adult, and the age limit would apply to every right and responsibility given to an adult. I could have gone with 21, but I doubted many parents would favor a 3-year extension on the time before they can start nudging their offspring out of the nest.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Age of Unreasonable

Ann Onymous clued me in to a measure in Washington (state, not DC) aimed at raising the legal gambling age from 18 to 21, on the grounds that 19- and 20-year-olds lack the cognitive abilities to gamble. Ann O. points out that those same people who supposedly lack the cognitive ability to decide whether to hit with 17 showing are still allowed to join the armed services, where they are increasingly likely to have to make a split-second decision about whether to kill someone or not.

Unfortunately, the suggestion to increase the enlistment age to 21 is not likely to fly for several practical reasons. The armed forces are hard up for recruits as is, and 17-18-year-olds are concentrated in convenient mandatory schools where they are accessible and for the most part lack other commitments. My solution to this problem of varying minimum ages would be to unilaterally declare that at age 18 one has all the rights and responsibilities of an adult. People are bound to make mistakes as they transition to adulthood. Sweet Mary, some politicians are claiming "youthful indiscretion" well into middle age. Young adults might drink too much, get into debt over their heads, crack up a car or two, sleep with or even marry someone they later regret, take up smoking, or do any number of unwise things. Making stupid mistakes is simply part of growing up. We do no one any services by stringing out the process by staggering the ages at which they can legally make those mistakes.

Varying minimum ages leads to an odd mix of what young adults can and cannot do. When I visited Las Vegas at age 20, I could have legally gotten married in any of the casinos' wedding chapels, but it was a crime to go down the hall and put a penny in the penny slots. Taking the minimum ages as a measure of the maturity required for certain acts we find:
  • Driving solo and aborting a pregnancy require the same level of maturity (16 for both in most states)
  • Depending on the state, casual sex is equal or less cognitively taxing (age of consent is 15-18 depending on the state) than marrying without parental consent (18 nationwide)
  • Buying a new car (18) takes less maturity than renting one (25)
  • Renting a car is cognitively equivalent to representing a district in the US House of Representatives (both 25)
  • Gambling as a day trader in the stock market (18) takes less cognitive ability than gambling at the craps table (21)


At least the gas in my uphustory was not in vain. We got just enough snow for me to road test the snowblower, and it is functional. I may need some practice to get the hang of plowing deep enough to get the snow without flinging bits of my gravel driveway around. This brings me to the second Snowblower Lesson Learned the Hard Way: check wind direction before you start up the snowblower. I will accept snide remarks only from those who knew that a snowblower shoots the snow 4-5 feet up without ever having seen one in use before.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Gender Equality

Amid criticism of coming late to the issue of gender equality, Senator Ted Kennedy just renounced his affiliation with a Harvard social club for men. Meanwhile, women-only fitness clubs are sprouting on just about every corner and no one bats an eye.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Today's Lesson Learned the Hard Way

Never put a snowblower with a full tank of gas on its side in the back seat of your car, even if that is the only way it fits in the car.

I can hear the sound of the collective forehead slap now, and the fevered sound of typing to give me all manner of excellent suggestions about how to get a snowblower home from the repair shop when it doesn't fit in the trunk. I could have used those a half an hour ago.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Penguin News

The University of Houston is studying how penguins waddle. The researchers say the study is to help further understand locomotion in general, possibly aiding in robot movement or helping the elderly walk without the aid of walkers. Me, I would come up with any excuse to watch penguins waddle all day. They had to use the second-largest species, the King Penguins, as other species commonly held in captivity are too light to register on the pressure-sensitive mat used to record waddle data.

Best part: they have video (Quicktime file)

With Luck, This Now Blows

In the latest chapter of the Saga of the Driveway, we obtained a secondhand snowblower that had one minor problem: the engine would start just fine, but as soon as you set it to snow and put a load on the engine, it would stall. Although I am getting to be more handy around the house, I am not yet to the point where I am comfortable rebuilding a carbeurator, so I took it to a local small engine repair shop. The man writing up the work order assured me that, as long as it was strictly an engine problem, they should be able to fix it. However, they had no way to test the repairs since the last of the snow melted a bit more than a week ago. If there were a foot of snow out, he said, they could test it, but not now.

Yeah. What sort of idiot takes a snowblower in for repairs between snowstorms? Being prepared is so inconvenient.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Swedes Are At It Again

The country that brought us the three point safety belt, daytime running lights, side impact airbags, rear-facing child safety seats, laminated safety glass windshields* and moose-avoidance tests is at it again. The latest automotive safety innovation out of Sweden: the female crash test dummy. After only 56 years of crash tests, someone has figured out that female bodies have a few differences from male bodies, other than a lighter average weight and the presence of bosoms, and that some of these differences may affect how the bodies deal with an impact.

*-That may not seem like a big deal until you put your head through the car window in an accident and don't shred your face. I speak from experience.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Intelligent Design, or Lack of

A school in California is looking to teach a course on Intelligent Design as an elective philosophy course instead of as a component in science class. That, I would say, is a positive development. Unfortunately, their course outline seems to lack anything close to the level of intelligent design that supposedly created the universe. I guess having an intelligent designer does not automatically make one intelligent.

Note to teachers: if a guest speaker’s bio contains a closed date range immediately after his name, (e.g. “Francis Crick, 1916-2004”), that means he is dead and very likely declining future invitations for speaking engagements.

As snarkiness is unbecoming, I will stop now.

The Thing About Intelligent People Is, They're Really Not That Bright

An article in Live Science proclaims, "Geniuses Are Just Like Us."

I had to amend the headline when I posted it to an online forum of Mensa members, but the point is that smart people are still just people, and have all the same problems. The article highlights some of the personal problems and foibles of intelligent folks. Einstein ran around on his wife, Isaac Newton hated his stepfather, that sort of thing. I would question whether working on physics lectures in a strip club qualifies as "just like everyone else," but I suppose the point is that Richard Feynman went to such establishments, not what he did there.

I would love to know where the idea came from that highly intelligent people are somehow immune to having normal personalities. Everyone says I'm smart (me, I'm not so sure, but that seems to be the general consensus), yet I do more stupid things than anyone. Probably more than 3 anyones put together. For starters, I once confused the apple cider and the milk in the fridge and ended up mixing apple juice in my coffee.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


The sign in front of my local produce market is advertising a sale on "Diet Celery," leaving me to wonder if, for all these years, I've been eating the regular, fattening celery.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Completely Missing The Point Award

For most of us, "catch and release" implies release alive and possibly not into a bonfire. An 81-year-old man in New Mexico had other ideas, and after trapping the mouse that had gotten inside, he released it into a pile of burning leaves. Alive. The mouse, understandably not keen on this development, took off running, but not before it caught fire. The flaming mouse ran toward the house, and to make a long story short, the man did the interview for the article from the motel room where he now lives.

Language Hole

English needs another word. In the way that "Grooism" perfectly encapsulates the idea of "an act so stupid your remaining brain cells commit suicide out of sheer embarassment," we need a word for "the point in a discussion where any attempt to rectify a misunderstanding will only make matters worse."

I'm at one of those places in a discussion elsewhere on the internet. The next time I make a mildly off-color comment, you can be sure I will clarify when it is not born of personal experience. There seems to be some confusion on that point, and I'm now at the point described above.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Irony of the Day

Just finished watching last night's Daily Show interview with Pierce Brosnan in which he mentions that he is working on a new Western, Seraphim Falls, with Liam Neeson. I, for one, can't wait to see what happens when a writer/director casts the lead roles in post-Civil War with star actors from Ireland and Northern Ireland. It does lead one to wonder whether there are no decent American actors left. I take that back. The rumor that Liam Neeson will be playing Abraham Lincoln in an upcoming Steven Speilberg movie should erase all doubt. That guy's dialog coach must make a small fortune.

Jack of the Box

I managed not to get run over while I installed the new mailbox. The flaw of curbside mail delivery is that one has to spend some time in the middle of the road to put up a new box. The new box is a sturdier version of the last one, with the top attached with bona fide screws instead of some cheap plastic pegs. The other styles of boxes in stock at Home Depot would have required setting a new post into the ground, and the ground is still frozen. I think I'll see about encasing the new box in a concrete pillar or a brick column come spring when it warms up and dries out a bit. That might not keep people from knocking the box off again, but at least they won't leave an encounter unscathed.

On a completely different subject, the new Energizer battery commercial features penguins.

Odd Development

Today has become more interesting than I expected, and earlier. After checking my email, I looked out the front window to see if the trash had been picked up yet, and discovered that my mailbox is missing. There is still a post there, but the box is gone.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Three Day Weekend

Both the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and emergency contraception have a window of 72 hours after the fact to sort the paperwork out. President Bush came out saying the need to act fast sometimes necessitates circumventing the paperwork of obtaining warrants. Women's health proponents argue that, with only a 72-hour window for effectiveness, obtaining a prescription can cause a dangerous delay.

Am I the only one seeing some common ground here? Even if it is only the pains of sorting out paperwork over a 3-day weekend, that is something to build on.

In the News

An Italian court will decided if Jesus existed.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Tech Help with the New Year's Resolutions

Here is a web page with step-by-step instructions for creating an Excel document to help you track your progress toward a goal. It walks you through creating a spreadsheet to enter your data and a chart that will show your progress so far and projects whether, at your current pace, you are on track for meeting the goal. The instructions are set up for an aggregate goal, using the example of "run 250 miles this quarter." That is useful for such goals as my effort to write a 100,000-word novel by the end of February. I had to do some minor tweaking to make the format work for some of my other goals

Which brings me to the other reason this is useful. It requires setting goals with specific endpoints, time frames for completion and objective measures of progress. "Get in shape" is a wishy-washy goal. "Lose x pounds by October 31" is a solid, measurable goal. It also allows a little wiggle room. If I don't write all of my 1,786 words one day, I can still be on track by writing more the next day. The whole goal doesn't fly out the window because of one setback.

Cinematic Penguins

2005 was a good year for penguins at the multiplex. Madagascar, with its penguin-centered subplot that should have been the entire movie, was the top animated movie of the year, and March of the Penguins was the year's top documentary.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

New Year's Viewing

We finished watching our Star Wars marathon. Very cool. If you own the saga, I highly recommend making a weekend of an in-order viewing. The movies really do play differently when it is Return of the Jedi and not Revenge of the Sith that ties everything together.

We also watched the TiVoed episode of Deal or No Deal. For a simple game show with no trivia or puzzles, it is oddly engrossing. I am anxious to find more episodes, not because I want to see it played, but because I think I can figure the whole thing out if I have a couple more episodes. They pick one of 26 briefcases presented by a bevy of attractive ladies. Each case has a dollar amount, ranging from $.01 to $1,000,000. The contestant then decides, after opening a number of cases, whether to stick with their original case with the unknown amount or to take an offer by the show's producers. In the episode we caught, the contestant passed up an offer of $138,000 because there was a 1 in 5 chance she could have had $500,000 in her case. She ended up going home with $25,000. That is a nice chunk of change even after taxes, but I imagine her marital bliss will be hampered for a while by arguments over "We could have had $138,000 if only...!"

The player on the episode we saw obviously had the mindset that she still had a chance at the highest value still in play, and any offer she took below that was costing her money. She seemed to forget that to get the largest dollar amount, she would have to play the game all the way out to the last case. I would go in assuming that I had the lowest amount still in play and plot my strategy accordingly. I would say that, depending on how many high dollar amounts are left in play, either the third or fourth offer is the logical stopping place. When the producers make the fourth offer, there are 8 amounts still left in play. Even if 2 of those are the big ones, that is still only a 1 in 4 chance of doing better. I'll take that, even if there is a chance of doing better if I were to play the game out longer. This is why I would make a terrible contestant on the show. The suspense seems to come from contestants who have never listened to Kenny Rogers. They will also need a smattering of contestants willing to go all the way to keep ratings up.

Happy New Year!

Happy 2006, everybody!

We're taking advantage of the long holiday weekend to watch the entire Star Wars saga. Very interesting to see it all in order starting with the prequels. I'll report after we get through Episode 6 tomorrow.