Archive for the 'dumbworms' Category



09
Nov
12

Reality is always right

So there’s been an awful lot of discussion on the Big Truck about the GOP’s rather optimistic interpretations of the polls, which gave rise to (among others) George Will gleefully predicting a landslide victory in the electoral college.  Well, there was a landslide EC victory all right, but it didn’t exactly go his way.  It turns out that if you want to use numbers to determine which of two things is larger, you’re probably better off with a Bayesian statistical model rather than a sheer fucking fantasy model.  Just saying “our model predicts such-and-so” only gives you the appearance of credibility until reality intervenes.

People can say whatever they like, of course, and if partisan hacks didn’t spout off nonsense I’d have a lot fewer things to blog about.  Still, it’s about time the truly fantastical ideologues got some push-back.

On a similar note: Remember when Citizens United was going to destroy democracy as we know it because those evil awful one-percenters were going to just buy every election in perpetuity?  I remember that like it was last Monday, which in fact it was.  Yeah, about that:

Spending by outside groups, it turns out, was the dog that barked but did not bite. Obama and other Democrats had long made dire predictions about the potential impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commissionwhich allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited money on elections and created a new class of wealthy political groups.

I don’t need to tell you how that turned out, do I?  In the cold light of day it’s clear that voters are a heck of a lot less vulnerable to teh ebil advertisings than the Cassandras among us would like to portend.  Why, it’s almost as if the dire predictions of unlimited plutocracy were mere ideological bloviations after all!

People can say whatever they like, of course, and if partisan hacks didn’t spout off nonsense I’d have a lot fewer things to blog about.  Still, it’s about time the truly fantastical ideologues got some push-back.

08
Oct
12

Higher-ed bubble watch, north-of-the-border edition

One of these days I’d like to use the very same title for a blog post about postsecondary inflation in Alaska, just to fuck with people.

Anyway, the Globe and Mail is running a pretentiously-titled feature on postsecondary education in Canada called “Our Time To Lead”.  It features this rather exhaustive discussion of our higher-ed bubble:

As per the standard template for these stories, it leads off with a Special Snowflake who shuns the sciences for an Arts degree, claims to find that “it’s more important to be happy than financially secure”, and “always thought of [an undergraduate education] as knowledge for the sake of knowledge.”  Cue juxtaposition with a multicredentialed graduate whose Master’s degrees in History and Education can’t get him a job as a schoolteacher in Toronto, so he’s folding towels at a gym alongside teenagers he’d like to be teaching.  And, of course:

And to think, he says, he once looked down on high-school friends for heading west after Grade 12 to land jobs in the oil industry.

“I thought they didn’t understand the importance of university. Now, I see them beginning a phase of life I wanted to have right now,” he says.

You know what they say, guys: Syncrude’s always hiring.

You will find the list of complaints that follows to be tediously familiar:

  • Students saddened when they don’t feel “challenged” or “engaged” by two hundred-seat first-year lectures taught (variously) by distant, distracted, research-focused professors or harried, harassed, and underpaid adjuncts and TAs;
  • Faculty frustrated with undergraduates who arrive ill-prepared, who can neither construct a sentence nor factor a quadratic, and who “prefer to amble leisurely through a four-year degree like consumers ordering an education to go”; and
  • Employers exasperated with graduates who present themselves without critical communication and problem-solving skills.

We’ll charitably look past the juxtaposition of undergrads who see university as a temple of Higher Learning, rather than a crass skill-factory churning out employees for consumption by the Great Corporate Maw, and those that complain that they’re not being taught relevant job skills.  Perhaps those two sets of students are independent.  (Perhaps, if you were in the second set, you even know what it means for two sets to be independent — although if you’re anything like the comp-sci undergrads alongside whom I suffered you probably don’t consider set algebra to be a relevant job skill.  If that’s the case, then God willing, your DBA will drag you out into the parking lot and beat you with a rubber hose like your Intro Databases prof should have.  Look: Now even I’m complaining about Universities These Days.)

The verbiage that follows contains an eloquent anecdote in support of the signaling theory of education:

The head of a trucking company told Dr. Weingarten that he hired only university grads as truckers. The cab of a truck is complicated, he said, as are the logistics of warehousing. In any case, “if I have two students come to me, both prepared to be a truck driver and work for x amount of money, and one of them has a degree, why shouldn’t I hire the university grad?”

Why indeed?

It also points to a rather compelling story about the inflation of the higher-ed bubble, at least on this side of the 49th (opening caveat obviously excluded), which begins with this delightful piece of omphaloskepsis:

“Whom does the university serve – the students, their families, the faculty?” asks Ken Coates, the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan and co-author of Campus Confidential, which explores how the system’s failure to manage a growing student population has eroded the quality and value of a degree. “As long as they are publicly funded institutions, shouldn’t we be focused on how we serve society as a whole?”

Are universities — and/or university educations — designed or expected to serve “society as a whole”?  We surely shovel enough public funds at them.  (Sorry, homeless people, Ken Coates needs a Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation!  Maybe we’ll build you a shelter next fiscal year.)  Indeed they are, as Canada’s fourth most-beloved Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson, would tell you:

[T]he loftier ambition of liberal education has always been to create citizens who are well-read, critical thinkers, strong communicators and civically engaged – the qualities Mr. Pearson lauded when he told the students that a degree called on them “to serve their country” and not themselves.

(It is perhaps too lofty an ambition of journalism programmes to create writers who can use the Oxford Comma properly.  We’ll let that pass.)

This is a bit of a creepy ambition to rabid individualists like me — it reads like a tepid Canadian mandate to transform malleable, putty-like young adults into a rather diffident set of New Socialist Men.  But have a read at another Pearson sound bite:

“Will the emphasis on wise and unhurried teaching and research be replaced by the demand and the dimensions of a knowledge economy?”

Maybe the best way to serve your country rather than yourself would be to forego that taxpayer-subsidized four-year vacation in the Land of the Liberal Arts and pick up a B.Sc. and a good job in that knowledge economy, eh hippy?  It brings to mind this admonition from P. J. O’Rourke’s commencement address:

Don’t chain yourself to a redwood tree. Instead, be a corporate lawyer and make $500,000 a year. No matter how much you cheat the IRS, you’ll still end up paying $100,000 in property, sales and excise taxes. That’s $100,000 to schools, sewers, roads, firefighters and police. You’ll be doing good for society.

How many people are willing to chain themselves to a seventy-hour work week in order to “do good for society” by bumping themselves into the highest tax bracket?  Some sacrifices, especially the chronic and banal, are too great to make for an abstract ideal.  Fuck civic virtue.  But don’t let’s pretend that you’re serving your country by studying Keats and Kant rather than Kronecker and Kepler.

There’s a less theoretical and more immediate benefit to shovelling people into post-secondary institutions, too: It keeps them out of the unemployment numbers.

As James Côté, co-author of Lowering Higher Education, points out, the government’s postsecondary cheerleading solved the supply problem of youth labour by parking them on campus. But it failed to plan for how graduates would find work related to their field of study. Canada has one of the highest graduate underemployment rates among Western countries, swelling the ranks of Keats-quoting baristas.

The classical education so beloved by fictional terrorist Hans Grüber, and which is the inspiration for if not the fact of many modern Bachelor’s of Arts curricula, is an aristocratic relic.  It’s a nostalgic throwback to a class and age when gainful employment was considered vulgar rather than laudable.  It, along with with the marked diaeresis, should perhaps be reëxamined.

16
Aug
12

Enter rant, stage right

LabRat writes about something that pisses me all the fuck off.  Namely, she takes the piss out of this common advice:

Hey, fatties!  Why do you persist in being so fat?  It must be because you’re morally inadequate!  After all we solved fatness way back with Ancel Keyes in the ’60s.  All you have to do is eat lots of carbs, cut back on dietary fat and cholesterol, and waste half your waking hours in low-intensity steady-state jogging like everyone’s been doing for the past forty years.  Oh, rates of obesity have been going up since we started telling you to eat more carbs and less fat and jog instead of sprint?  It must be because you haven’t been listening, you fatties, because obviously if youlistened to caring people likeus you  wouldn’t have been cursed by fatness in the first place.  Anything that goes wrong with our prescribed plan isobviously due to poor adherence.  Because you fatties, being fat, clearly can’t adhere to our obviously correct diets.  Even if you have been trying to do so for ever (or the last fifty years, whichever comes first).

Christ’s quivering tits.  Does anyone actually believe that shit?

Jesus what.

Look, I appreciate Ms. Obama’s efforts to get folks to eat a bit better, and I don’t begrudge her the occasional cheeseburger because if you can hew to an eating plan that works for you — and spoiler warning for that Atomic Nerds link above, “an eating plan that works for you” will depend on a whole fuck-ton of metabolic variables and probably won’t last more than a few months if you’re actually making progress — for 90% of your meals you’re well on your way to whatever body composition you desire.  But holy fucking orthorexia batman, yelling at an Olympic gymnast for eating a fucking Egg McMuffin, on national TV,  just murders the whole idea of “90% compliance is great” and teaches the fucking world that only absolute purity is possible.  You horrible person.  Anyone who eats on a vaguely normal scale gets something like 21 meals a week.  Get 18 of them right — that’s 6 days a week, for example — and you’re way ahead of the curve.  Get 15 of them right and you’re doing a great job.  So that means if you defy the autoapotheosizing First Lady and eat a fucking Egg McMuffin every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning — oh my fucking god you’re doing a great job!  Don’t stop!

Michelle Obama wants to shame you into hating your body and developing an eating disorder because even winning a fucking Olympic gold medal is insufficient justification — in her hateful perverse narrow orthorexic mind — for eating a single meal you might oh my god enjoy.  As you can tell that attitude makes me very fucking angry.  The hell with her.  Eat great six days this week and eat whatever the fuck you want thrice or more after your lifting.  And if you do, why not join me in five or six too many beers?  If you know enough about alcohol metabolism you won’t fear getting lucking foaded… and it’s in a good cause, because fuck the peddlers of orthorexia!

(Hey, wait a minute… “Peddlers of Orthorexia” would be a great name for a band.)

02
Jul
12

Standing athwart the tide of history, yelling…

…”What’s goin’ on?  Who took my glasses?  You damn kids and your rock ‘n’ roll….”

Andrew Sullivan likes to think of himself as an Oakeshottian conservative, and for all I know about Oakeshott he actually is.  (I’ll perhaps read up on the classical conservatives once I’ve finished Hayek’s Law, Legislation, and Liberty.  Name: dropped.)  Today he links to a pair of stories which reveal the crudeness of conservatism’s change-panic:

Notably, he links to Hanna Miet:

Cell phone reception was bad enough, but this is the last straw. We are being denied the basic liberty to pretend we did not receive an email on off-hours. We have lost the freedom to guzzle coffee, scan the tabloids and have wordless existential meltdowns as we travel to the places where we pretend to be competent worker bees. The subway was for dreamers, drunks, and the halfway-caffeinated masses. The subway was our dirty, mobile, oyster. Now, the world is our office.

A few things:

– Ten-year-old technology, let me show you it.  That genie left its bottle a long time ago.  I’m not surprised that there are people out there, pretending to be functional adults, who’re ignorant of the smartphone phenomenon; I am exasperated that The Atlantic is letting them pretend to be opinion journalists and probably paying them a salary.  New Media is supposed to be better than that.

– “We are being denied the basic liberty to pretend we did not receive an email on off-hours.  We have lost the freedom to guzzle coffee, scan the tabloids, and &c.”  The positive formulation of liberties just jumped a shark on waterskis that was itself jumping a shark.  Done.

– Here’s a thought, cupcake: If you don’t want to read email on the subway, leave your fucking laptop at home.  Are you really so dain-bramaged by tertiary-stage dumbworm infestation that you’ve forgotten the equivocation skills your public-school teachers tried so hard to impart?  “Gee, sorry boss, I left my homework netbook at home because it’s awfully heavy in my bag and my back’s really starting to hurt when I lug it around all the time.  Do you think that would be covered by worker’s comp?”

– I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that anyone so passive-aggressive as to whinge about losing an opportunity to pretend not to have email access is constitutionally incapable of setting professional boundaries.  For the rest of us, may I suggest not checking work email outside of work?

– Seriously, what the fuck.

 

14
May
12

Cosmetic changes to the thermogenic hypothesis of obesity don’t fix it

I really liked this news story when I first skimmed it, and really hated it when I went through it more thoroughly a second time:

Fair warning: This article isn’t especially insightful.

On the one hand, it’s helpful to debunk the handwavey explanation of obesity that “haha fatties are lazy lol”.  Contrary to the popular belief that obesity is the result of a will too weak to conquer Gluttony and Sloth, I’d wager that the median fat person has more self-discipline than the median thin folk: I’ve yet to meet anyone with a visible weight problem who isn’t constantly paying attention to what they’re eating and trying to maintain some degree of compliance with some diet or other.  Given what we know about how insulin and leptin resistance wreck the satiety response, I’d say that the fact that we don’t have an epidemic of ravenous dieters murdering smug complacent twits who sanctimoniously instruct them to “eat less, move more!” counts as strong evidence of the innate goodness of humankind (as well as yet another example of the patience and strength of will of those dieters).

On the other hand, knock it the fuck off with the thermogenic hypothesis!

Let’s have a look at the historical record, shall we?  The folks quoted in the above article have, quite rightly, noticed that telling people to “eat less and move more” hasn’t resulted in a nation full of fit people.  From this they conclude that telling people to “eat less and move more” isn’t an effective strategy, again quite rightly.  The problem comes when they assume that there’s nothing wrong with the advice — with the simpleminded 3500-kcal heuristic — and that the issue is simply one of compliance.

Note that even the well-meaning social scientists here are still condescending to the people they’re trying to (be seen to) help.  They take the above Just World explanation that “fat people are weak of will, and therefore Gluttonous and Slothful” and tweak it — slightly — to “our Society demands that people be Gluttonous and Slothful, and some people (through no fault of their own) are too weak of will to resist”.  And even so, the article’s author manages to undermine her own point:

Yet despite the rising personal stakes, a growing body of research shows just how hard it is for the average person to keep the pounds off.

Just before speaking to Reuters, McAfee had exercised for an hour in her Florida pool and had a salad for lunch.

“I work out, I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, and I’m still not thin,” she said. “So please stop beating the crap out of me: It’s completely counterproductive.”

Someone who swims for an hour and pays attention to her meals despite being frustrated over slow progress and social stigma is not a weak-willed victim of the pernicious restaurant industry passively waiting for salvation from Caring People with Social Science degrees.

What frustrates me in particular about the viewpoint presented in this article is that, despite all evidence to the contrary, every single person involved assumes that the questions of why we get fat and how we can get lean are solved from a biological perspective.  This is of course the same sort of Arts-major simple-minded optimism about science that underlies Underpants Gnomes Genetics: The notion that someone published a paper back in the early ’50s and we now know everything we need to about fatness.  And, as you’ll quickly discover if you browse the blogs marked “Physical Culture” on the sidebar, it’s fucking wrong.  Obesity is, if we simplify it outrageously, an incredibly complicated endocrinological phenomenon.  It isn’t even remotely well-understood in a controlled laboratory context, let alone the broad societal arena these folks are talking about.

What is clear, however, is that “eat less, move more” is an insufficient response no matter how it’s applied.

02
May
12

All linky, no thinky

Here’s Mike Boyle getting contemplative about the mechanics of deadlifting vs. squatting:

“It’s obvious”, right?  Go read.

——

And here’s Warren over at Coyote Blog, pointing out some rather shocking innumeracy from (who else?) Kevin Drum:

Warren spotlights this claim from Drum:

These two things together reminded me about an energy factoid that’s always struck me as slightly odd: virtually every form of energy seems to be almost as efficient as burning oil, but not quite.

For example, on either a power/weight basis or a cost basis, batteries are maybe 2x or 3x bigger and less efficient than an internal combustion engine. Not 50x or 100x. Just barely less efficient. And you see the same thing in electricity generation. Depending on how you do the accounting, nuclear power is maybe about as efficient as an oil-fired plant, or maybe 2x or 3x less efficient. Ditto for solar. And for wind. And geothermal. And tidal power.

I’m just noodling vaguely here. Maybe there’s an obvious thermodynamic explanation that I’m missing. It’s just that I wouldn’t be surprised if there were lots of ways of generating energy that were all over the map efficiency-wise. But why are there lots of ways of generating energy that are all surprisingly similar efficiency-wise? In the great scheme of things, a difference of 2x or 3x is practically invisible.

(Emphasis added.)

I… I just… wow.  Really, Kevin?  Suppose we were to reduce your salary by 50%.  Is that difference of 2x “practically invisible”?  How about we triple your taxes.  “Practically invisible” yet?  Give this one a try: Tonight, go out for a long, leisurely dinner at a nice brewpub, and have four pints of beer.  Tomorrow night, do the same, but have twelve pints.  Tell me if the difference is practically invisible.

——

While we’re on the subject of Arts majors being idiots, here’s a bit of the usual from the Daily Fail (h/t Jalopnik):

At $150,000, the Ford Mustang certainly doesn’t come in cheap.

The car in question:

That’s a Ford GT, you dumbfucks!  I thought journalism degrees were supposed to teach research skills and the importance of getting a few basic details right.  Quoth Jalopnik:

It’s not just that the DM confused a Ford GT with a Ford Mustang GT500, which is a mistake perhaps a blind person could make if told they’re writing about a fast Ford with racing stripes. It’s that they’re constantly wrong about anything to do with cars.

At least the comments over at the Daily Fail are amusing.

——

Next, Derek Lowe spotlights an interesting paper on resveratrol:

Yeah, it’s a mouse model paper, but kind of a nifty one.  The researchers in question showed some SIRT1-dependent effects, and some independent effects.

Sinclair’s quoted in this Nature News piece as saying that this reflects the nature of resveratrol as a compound. “Resveratrol is a dirty, dirty molecule, very non-specific”, he says. I think that’s a very fair characterization, which is one of the reasons why I wouldn’t take it myself.

And this being a resveratrol piece, the comments go from zero to stupid in the very first post.

In fact, resveratrol seems to be superior to targeted Sirt1 activators as it improves blood sugar levels and liver health.
Leave it to ‘modern science’ to attempt to disparage a wonderful, multifaceted, Natural molecule.

Capital-N Natural.  Yep.  Just like strychnine.

——

Finally, Ilya Somin makes a lot of sense on property rights absolutism:

Briefly: In the real world, absolutist moral intuitions are messy.  Click through and RTWT.

27
Apr
12

“I don’t understand it; it must be magic”

By way of Andrew Sullivan we discover that the folks at Slate have been reading popularized science again.  Yeah, go ahead and start facepalming right now.

Just from the title.

Noting that fetal DNA sequencing is becoming simultaneously more popular and less expensive — funny how that works; capitalism strikes again! — our Intrepid Reporter Maria Hvistendahl does Underpants Gnomes genetics:

What fetal genes might one day suggest about a baby’s eye color, appearance, and intellectual ability will be useful to parents, not insurers. But with costs coming down and insurers interested in other aspects of the fetal genome, a Gattacalike two-tiered society, in which parents with good access to health care produce flawless, carefully selected offspring and the rest of us spawn naturals, seems increasingly plausible.

SWEET SHIVERING FUCK, YOU IGNORANT PRICKDRIZZLE, THAT IS NOT HOW GENES WORK.

The process Hvistendahl has in mind looks like this:

  1. Sequence a baby’s DNA into genomic sequences that look like this: […] GAC ACC GTC ATT TTA CTA CTT […]
  2. ???
  3. Gattaca!  Look it has nucleotide initials in it!  Sciencey!

As you might expect, step 2. is doing all the heavy lifting.

If I’m lucky, LabRat will pick up this story and have the time to fisk it so hard NEST will be sifting through her dogs’ poop for the next decade and a half.  But even so, let’s simplify the problem outrageously and turn it into a programming analogy.

Suppose someone gives you a shiny disc, heavy, about 3″ in diameter.  You can carefully install it in a box you barely understand and it’ll make the box do magical, wonderful, insanely complex stuff like display porn from the other side of the world.  After decades of research you might come up with the hypothesis that instructions for making the box do stuff are somehow encoded on the disc.  You spend another few decades carefully examining the disc, and after poking around with an electron microscope you discover regular patterns on the disc, which might be translated into a base-two numeric system like so:

[…] 10110100 00101001 11000100 11010101 0000000 […]

You announce your discovery to the world, and people like Hvistendahl start wailing: “OMG ONOZ now we can control the magical wonderful box, all the magic and wonder is gone, soon we’ll be telling the box it can only display straight porn, O the horror!”  But really you’ve just found a sequence of numbers, and guessed (not entirely unreasonably) that they mean something.

Fast forward through a few more decades of heroic effort.  You’ve discovered that those ones and zeros correspond, more or less, to eight-bit segments, which combine to form integers, or offsets along something you expect might be a tape, or instructions in a programming language of some sort, or some absolutely horrifying combinations which eventually turned out to be floating-point numbers, and were met at every step of the way with OMG ONOT IT IZ TEH GATTACA.  Finally you’re able to more or less build a model of the programming language, and you discover to your resigned exasperation that most of the programs are in fact used to generate statements in other programming languages, which appear to be vastly more complex than those you’ve discovered to date:

infixl 1  >>, >>=
class  Monad m  where
(>>=)            :: m a -> (a -> m b) -> m b
(>>)             :: m a -> m b -> m b
return           :: a -> m a
fail             :: String -> m a

m >> k           =  m >>= \_ -> k

Distressingly, there seem to be millions — at the least — of these programs floating around the magic wonder box at any given point, all of which interact with each other in various forbiddingly complex ways, and any of which may (or may not) be vitally important at any given time.

And the jackasses at Slate are still going on about how you’re destroying the mystery and gravitas of the magic wonder box, as if it’s as easy to command as an LED on a breadboard!

Without even getting into the issues surrounding abusus non tollit usum, the flagrant ignorance behind the notion that “if we can sequence a baby’s DNA, we can engineer super-babies!” is sufficient to peg my stupid-meter.




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