Monday, March 23, 2009

Condom Comment

Let me add my voice to the noise in the blogosphere over this news item. To summarize for the non-clickers out there, the US Agency for International Development, the agency in charge of our international AIDS prevention efforts, has changed the suppliers they use for condoms for AIDS prevention programs in the developing world. The old supplier was in Alabama. The new suppliers are not American.

The article begins by asking the question:

At a time when the federal government is spending billions of stimulus dollars to stem the tide of U.S. layoffs, should that same government put even more Americans out of work by buying cheaper foreign products?

The answer implied by the rest of the article is, "No."

Wrong. Not only is the answer wrong. That's not even the right question.

The American jobs in question here are making condoms for AIDS prevention programs in developing nations. Believe it or not, there are places on this planet where AIDS is not something you deal with by taking some wildly expensive drugs; it is something you die from, painfully, alone and ostracized by the community (but possibly not before trying some of the local folk cures which tend to do more to spread the virus than cure it). These are places where it is a non-trivial accomplishment to get to adulthood HIV-negative, places where preventing HIV spread saves lives. Not jobs. Lives. Human lives.

The question we should be asking is how many people have died in years past because we insisted on using a more expensive (and, buried down in paragraph 8 of the article, less reliable) supplier? How many human lives is an American job worth?

Sure, the lives saved are not your own, or your neighbor's, or anyone on this continent. They are the lives of anonymous people in developing nations. Human decency doesn't put food on the table when you've lost your job. Still, there is something about human decency that suggests we ought to value life over a job.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Happy Pi Day

Today is Pi Day (unless you are in one of those countries that puts the dates lot don't get a Pi Day until someone redoes the calendar to include a fourteenth month in the year). Celebrate with all things circular, particularly pie. If you were planning ahead, you can even make pie in one of these. Me, I'm planning a blowout bash in 6 years, on 3/14/15. We'll start the festivities at 9:27, because we round fives up here at the Rookery.

And Happy Birthday, Einstein.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Breaking Wind

I took part of the afternoon to work outside on the dry creekbed I am digging and landscaping so that my basement will remain dry. I had intended to take more of the afternoon for that particular task, but gave up when reminded why, when the wind is just right, it really blows to live downwind of the sewage treatment plant. Mercifully, the wind is not just right that often.

I find it exceptionally humorous that we are four houses down from the sewage treatment facility, yet we are not connected to city sewers. Once every 3-4 years, we pay a guy a hundred bucks to pump the human effluvia out of our septic tank and drive it four houses down to dump it at the treatment plant. Kinda seems like there ought to be a more efficient process, there.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Whales and Space Rocks

The New York Times has an interesting set of essays from scientists on why people are so fascinated by killer asteroids. Two of my favorite astro-dudes, Seth Shostak and Neil deGrasse Tyson, throw their thoughts in.

Of course, internet commenting being what it is, some absolute idiots also throw their thoughts (and I used that loosely) in. I'll admire the restraint of taking 10 whole comments to get to "Let's just nuke the crap out the incoming killer rocks."

Well, for starters, this is what happens when you decide that you can blast your problems away:

The video report doesn't mention one of the unanticipated hitches in the plan: a half ton of TNT will not vaporize a whale, but it will scare the guano out of the seagulls and other scavengers, and they don't come back to eat the whale bits. At least ODOT has learned its lesson and is NOT considering TNT for the disposal of the whale that washed up this week. If blowing it up doesn't work for dead whale, what makes anyone think it works for a killer asteroid?

Attention, Parents!

Not that I think movie ratings are worth the digital bytes required to display them at the beginning of the movie, but if a movie is rated R, there is a better than even chance that it is not kid material. The odds go up considerably from there if the poster for that R-rated movie features a smiley face with a bullet hole in its forehead. There really isn't that much nuance in a brained smiley face.

I have not yet seen Watchmen. Emp. Peng. has read the book, and others we know have already seen the movie and can speak to the content. They can also speak to the fact that parents are bringing toddlers to see this movie. Now, nature has ensured that procreating isn't rocket science. The survival of any species pretty much depends on ensuring that the process of getting another generation is reasonably idiot-proof (indeed, the movie Idiocracy--another one not for kids--is a keen look at the results of the premise that the idiots are better at it). Getting a child to toddlerhood takes a little more effort, so one can assume that anyone who manages to get a child to school age has at least 6 functional synaptic connections. It shouldn't take more than that to realize that the movie with the brained smiley face poster is not appropriate for the small fry.

Watchmen is based on a graphic novel. Near as I can figure, these parents haven't paid attention to comics since Batman fought a giant telephone booth in the 1960's, and you knew they were fighting because "Pow!" "Biff!" and "Bam!" Much like how chapter books encompass both Pippi Longstocking and Lolita, there are gradients of age-appropriateness in comics and graphic novels. Parents who wouldn't assume that, because there are chapter books for kids, all chapter books are for kids, somehow are under the impression that everything in a comic format is kid-friendly. Not the case.

Most comics aren't for kids. A 1995 audience survey from DC comics found that 80% of comics readers are over 18. I doubt the percentage has dropped significantly since then. If anything, that other 20% has gotten older. There are some great comics out there that are kid friendly, just like there are movies that both kids and parents can enjoy together. However, the readership for comics is overwhelmingly grown-ups, and as a rule, grown-ups just aren't that in to the type of reading material that kids find interesting. Somewhere after the fighting telephone booth, comics grew up. They gained complex plots and characters with moral ambiguity. Some, like Watchmen, got to a level that, were it not for the art, would land them on lists of Great Literary Works. The kind of stuff that is age-appropriate for a 5-year-old just doesn't make those lists. Five-year-olds are simply not capable of processing the nuance that makes a literary work great.

They are, however, capable of processing the non-nuance of a smiley face with a bullet to the brain, even if that smiley face is a cartoon. Would that their parents were. Once and for all, format has little bearing on the age-appropriate level of the material. For example, Disney and porn companies both make direct-to-DVD movies. If anything, movies based on comic books (as opposed to comic strips like Garfield) are less likely to be kid-friendly than other movies.

Monday, March 02, 2009


Our (ha!) wonderful high-speed internet service crashed today, at the ISP's end (amazing what they can get away with as the only broadband option out here), leaving me without internet access most of the day. Now, it was bad enough that the lack of high speed internet meant I had an unanticipated day off work to do all those nagging chores like defrost the chest freezer and discover all the things I forgot were in there. Worse, I couldn't even complain about not having internet access, because everyone I would complain to is online. For a moment, I was thinking of calling PengSis, but we're so accustomed to video chatting through Skype that it didn't occur to me until today that I don't actually know her real phone number.