2008-10-30

3M knows the secrets of the universe

I found this over at Marginal Revolution, but it is too cool not to repost.

Apparently Scotch tape is the future of science, not duct tape as everyone had assumed.

Does anyone know what 3M actually stands for? I learned when memorizing all the stock tickers of the Dow Jones in one of my Miami finance classes. Worthless, except for trivial pride.

2008-10-28

My precious

I'm not big into political ranting and raving, mainly because when it comes to arguing about politicians, they all have their strengths and weaknesses (until I become a politician, at which point I will be the first politician ever to be correct on every point). But, if I feel like pointing out a weakness, my finger is very quick to point at this one, which was passed along by my boss.

Ok, so, yes, I do actually work in fruit fly research in Europe, but that's pretty much irrelevant. I don't care if they take away funding for these sorts of things, as long as they have a good reason. And while I'm at it, I think this video represents everything that is wrong with the 'everyman' getting involved in politics. As I posted previously, I agree with my coworker's point that because she doesn't know a lot about all of the political issues, she wants to elect someone who has taken the time to learn about them. It is, in fact, the elected official's job to deal with issues at a much deeper level than the average citizen.

Furthermore, I think that the biggest problem in politics is that some people vote for and do what sounds good, and don't take the time to see how good it actually is. I used to think that this was a primarily Democratic problem, in that someone would say, "Kids in Africa are starving; we need to give them food," and some others would jump on board and they would begin tirades about how we need to help our fellow man, blah blah blah. Republicans are generally more calculating (and cold?). However right the outspoken soft-hearts may be, it doesn't change the fact that a lot, if not more, african children die due to unclean water supplies and poor sanitary conditions in general. And while I am not sure what the truth really is, it very well may be possible that our money could save a lot more lives by cleaning up the water than by simply sending boxes of rice. Either way, it's something we need to think about before millions of dollars are gone.

Sarah Palin's comment in the video is even dumber. Even dumb people should know that doing research on animals and other organisms helps humans. But it is beyond ignorance, to the point of arrogance, that Palin would demean research of fruit flies, and tout her own noble cause: children with special needs. Seriously, did none of Palin's staff tell her that the only viable option according to her train of thought is to breed hundreds of genetically identical autistic children in a lab and then compare them, genetically, to the hundreds of genetically identical non-autistic children we've been breeding in the next room? What I wouldn't give to see her response to that question.

Does Palin also know that our "fly incubator" here in Vienna is completely dark inside except for a light on a timer, which simulates night and day, and that for two years the timer wasn't set right, and the flies were kept in the dark during that entire time? Can you imagine the effect of something like that on autistic children? Sorry, I'm getting morbid here, but I'll leave you with one more word: Gollum.

I hope Palin runs for president in 2012. What a moron.

2008-10-14

Too cool for school

Interacting with the people over at Morris Berman's blog has gotten me thinking. Well, I guess I could say that I've been thinking about this ever since I read Dark Ages America, but lately I hadn't done much active thinking about it, until I posted on Berman's blog.

The general question is: is there some aspect of American culture that has, in one way or another, earned the negative reputation the country has in a significant portion of the world?

I'll be the first to admit that this question is one of those impossible-to-answer, touchy-feely, liberal adgenda questions. It's like, your opinion, man. But it's worth thinking about. Seriously. Don't get all offended.

One of Berman's main theses is that, as the U.S.A. is the most capitalist among large developed nations, the competitive natureinstilled by the economy spills over from people's professional lives into their personal lives. Therefore, there is a lack of "community" among U.S. residents, which manifests itself in many ways. This seems plausible, but any purely logical argument breaks down when we start using anecdotal evidence to support claims. Berman likes to mention lots of anecdotes from the time he has spent in Mexico (he lives there) and compare that to the life he knew in the U.S. This is an absolutely valid way to form an opinion, but not extremely compelling argument for coldly rational person like myself. I am not so easily convinced. Anecdotes are great, but I could tell you the story of how George Washington mercilessly killed loads of British soldiers, while George W. Bush saved tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. From this information alone, you may be persuaded to go against the opinion that you may have if you have all of the information (if that's possible).

The main point that has gotten me thinking in the last few days concerns the nature of what people value. I had a very interesting exchange with a coworker a couple of weeks ago. We had been talking about how one Republican, when campaigning for the presidential nomination in the primary, seemingly bragged about having read only one book in his [adult?] life. Apparently some people connect with a guy who's not an "academic", but a down-to-earth, "regular" guy. Who doesn't read books. I suppose if he'd said he'd read no books, he would have gotten significantly fewer votes, but then again, I'm not sure what that one book was. But I can take a guess.

Sure, I understand the attraction of voting for "guys like me". A guy like me might have the same opinions as me and end up voting on the issues like I would. Great. It's hard to say that you wouldn't vote for yourself in an election, but that's exactly what my coworker said. She said, "I haven't read many books either, but I'm not running for office. He's the one who's supposed to know a lot and have read a lot of books." Briliant. Refreshing. And very smart.

And that comment leads me into the Question of the Day: Does the U.S. value intellectualism any less than the rest of the world? On one hand we have hordes of people voting for a self-proclaimed functional-illiterate, and on the other we have what is arguably one of the very best university systems in the world.

I keep reading that this university system is increasingly catering to foreigners, but I also know that the vast majority of U.S. top-level elected officials have excellent education records. I don't know if there is a way to solve this quandary using data alone. Thus, the anecdotes become almost necessary.

What do you think? Is it seen as a good thing when someone you just met tells you that they recently finished Slaughterhouse 5, and they ask you if you've read it? Or is it more amusing to have someone claim "I never really paid attention in math class" when confronted by an everyday solve-for-x type math problem.

Berman claims that in Mexico, it's not uncommon to talk history or politics with your taxi driver, but that it's quite the opposite in the U.S. I confess that with respect to history and literature, I was much like Berman's American when I lived there, and I have changed quite a bit since I left. But that has little to do with where I live. It was a change that I can claim had been brewing for quite some time.

I have thought quite a bit about this now, about whether my own anecdotes follow the paths fo Berman's, if the americans I have come across during my lifetime value this contrived definition of intellectualism even a bit less than the other individuals I have met.

The only semi-concrete resolution to my ponderings I have come across is my own response to the question: Would I feel more comfortable approaching relative strangers at, say, a party outside the U.S. and attempting to start a conversation about the last novel I read? The answer is a resounding probably. But then again, that's the company I keep.

Do you like reading, smart people, thinking, and just all around learning things? Let me know! Write a comment, email, whatever. Even if you don't like any of those things.

Oh, and one last thing: Anybody who claims to be an intellectual is certainly not. They're just an idiot trying to make themselves sound important. Intellectualism is not somewhere you can be, it's more like a direction you're going. I got a late start.

2008-10-09

Tangling with the big dogs

I loved Morris Berman's book, Dark Ages America, and so I was highly tempted to post on his blog when I found it. I resisted for a while, but then the troll in me won over, and I got firsties on his most recent post.

I didn't get the warm reception I was hoping for.

I suppose I should have expected that from a bunch of guys who think the U.S. is a sinking ship, with the rich elitists at the helm. Not that it's not true (I'm not going one way or the other; there are certainly problems there) but I'm clearly not on the same page as them, or I didn't do a good job getting them on the same page as me. One or the other. The post was on the topic of Seinfeld, for God's sake. How far can you go wrong making political observations through sitcoms?

If you'd like to see how it went, how it's going, and how it goes (with your help?), click here.

Link posted by a friend, but worth mentioning again

For a few years now, I've been enthralled with just about everything Google has released. Chrome was the only major disappointment, but only because it isn't compatible with my touchpad, yet. I hear they've got a solution, but it just has to get past quality control and into the next update. Back to the point, Google and its employees don't seem to forget who's using their software, and what they want. They also almost always provide it for free. I don't know how this business model works, but as a customer, I like it.

Probably a big part of the small innovations we see coming from Google are a direct result of the company policy stating that employees should spend a portion of their time working on projects entirely of their own choosing. Thus, many small web applications are both, which were originally conceived on a whim. If you are not aware of this, here it is now: whims are awesome. You don't have to act on whims, but you should acknowledge their existence and their awesomeness. Seriously. Many cool things and cool people have been conceived on a whim. For example. If you didn't click on "example", click here. Got it? Good.

I think that's a perfect example of what people should be doing on a daily basis. How many times have you said, "I would like to do that," but you never get around to doing that? It doesn't matter what that is. One day you should just sit down and do that. Or plan a day to do that, and don't let anyone convince you otherwise. I'm much happier with a few thats in my life, and most of them were conceived on a whim, or a series of similar whims.

That's my pontification for the day.

2008-10-07

A thought on a great author

From the Wikipedia entry on J.D. Salinger:

Aimee Bender was struggling with her first short stories when a friend gave her a copy of Nine Stories; inspired, she later described Salinger's effect on writers, explaining: "[I]t feels like Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye in a day, and that incredible feeling of ease inspires writing. Inspires the pursuit of voice. Not his voice. My voice. Your voice."

Well said.