Thursday, December 03, 2009

Forging science in the CRUcible

I should probably be burned alive for the title pun, but never mind that.  I've neglected to write about a story that broke before Thanksgiving, but I feel compelled to finally do so.  I don't really have a good link to a "summary" of the whole story, but you probably don't have to look very far if you just google "Climategate."  (Ugh.  Can we please get away from adding "gate" to word to name a controversy?  It's just silly, people.)

Edit:  Ah, I have such little imagination.  Here's one from the Times of UK, and here's one AEI.

Here's what I can recall from memory:

A few weeks ago, some computers purportedly hacked at the East Anglia (that's England) Climate Research Unit and a vast array of information leaked onto the internet.  Email, data, modeling programs and algorithms . . . it was a treasure trove of information.  Analysis of the leaked information has led people to conclude that life at CRU was fishy at best and fraudulent at worst.  The emails indicated that the scientists there were purposely avoiding FOIA requests for their data (which they are required to give, since they receive American grant money), spiking the research of colleagues who published research that rejects anthropogenic global warming, and manipulating their data to hide trends which contradicts the AGW hypothesis.  As this has been coming to light and calls have been made for investigations, CRU has admitted to destroying data.

Altogether, that's bad.  It's very counter-intuitive to how the scientific process is supposed to work.  You might want to say that this isn't that big of a deal because this is only one place, and in general peer review is supposed to root out bad science and bad scientists.  One problem is that apparently the CRU crew were big players in the AGW scheme, playing big parts in collaborations such as the IPCC.  Additionally, it seems that a lot of secondary work is based off of what CRU produces, so if they manipulate their data or produce faulty read-outs, those errors may be multiplied down the road.

Of course, you'll want to read about it yourself.  Some people are debating about the implications for the veracity of the AGW hypothesis altogether.  I'll save my thoughts on that for another post.  Instead, I'd wanted a chance to link to this Wall Street Journal opinion piece saying that the credibility of science is on the line because of this.

I sympathize with a lot of his main point.  The general public is scientifically illiterate in ways that make me uncomfortable sometimes.  Combine that with the fervent, political way in which AGW has been presented to them, and the sudden development that bigwigs up top are putting down the answers that they want and then saying the dog ate their homework, well, I can see how that might lower the general trust in that field specifically and the sciences as a whole.

Still, I'm reminded of another time that big players were found to have falsified their data in a highly controversial field.  It wasn't too long ago that a Korean scientist was found to have forged data related to embryonic stem cell research.  It's unfortunate that I don't remember either his name or the consequences of his shenanigans, but I do remember writing about it on this blog.  My point being that, despite his actions sullying the "respectability" of the field, that area of research has continued onward.

Of course, the two topics are only similar in that there was scientific fraud being committed.  That doesn't make this a bad example, but it does mean that we'll have to wait and see how this plays out.  This could very well be the turning point at which AGW stops being the "consensus" position and politicians stop trying to implement catastrophic economic policies based on the word of over-zealous scientists.  Or it might change absolutely nothing, with a few empty words spoken about how good it is to pick out the bad eggs but that the science is still sound, settled, and must be acted upon with all haste. 

I'm hoping it's the former.  Time will tell.

Friday, November 13, 2009

HPV Vaccination Strategies

Ugh, it makes me sad to see that Oblivion post still sitting there at the top of the page.  It's like a testament to my inability to finish projects.  I still have half a dozen things to say about that game, but it stops seeming like a good idea when my last entry on the subject was almost a month ago.  Where does the time go?

In any case, let's talk about something else. 

Not long ago, my virology class hosted a lecture on Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) by Dr. John Schiller, the guy who pioneered the work that led to Gardasil, the HPV vaccine.  Needless to say, it was a very informative lecture.  It made me reflect on how there's such a poor spread of scientific and medical information to the masses.  Sometimes I don't think it's even just that the journalists who spread this information get things wrong, though this factors in enough, but that many laypeople don't have the patience to learn about such things.  

Anyhow, one of the misconceptions I had going into this lecture was that the carcinogenic HPV strains were mainly a female problem.  This turns out not to be the case.  While they do cause cervical cancer in women, they can also cause rectal cancer in men.  Of course, this is only a problem for men who engage in anal sex with other men, and that isn't a big portion of the population.  The number of cases of rectal cancer reported each year in men is very low.
However, when it comes to vaccination strategies, this is when it starts getting complicated. 

Right now the idea is to vaccinate young girls.  Since they stand the largest chance of getting the infection and it is easier to check for an infection in them, there is the most to gain by vaccinating them.  While the vaccine is now approved for males, its utility is unclear.  With the exception of rectal tissue transformation, men are asymptomatic as far as this disease goes.

One could argue that it would be discriminatory to spend public/insurance dollars vaccinating one sex over the other when both are just as vulnerable to the disease.  However, the actual rates of infection and cancer would make it hard to justify vaccinating both sexes with limited funds rather than just the one sex that is more likely to be affected by the infection. 

Of course, people can buy the vaccine on their own, even if insurance won't cover it.  The price will probably drop, too, now that a competitor to Gardasil is on its way.  However, we've already seen lots of opposition to this from some parents.  The idea of vaccinating their girls against an STD is distasteful, as if preparing them for a life of licentious behavior, or at least acquiescing to the idea.  How much more resistance do you think will arise for male vaccinations?  "Hey parents, vaccinate your boys just in case they turn out to be gay!"  I'm not sure that'll fly.  The age is a complication here as well.  The vaccine is being recommend, from the looks of it, for children aged 10-14.  How many gay men would have had the foresight to get vaccinated at this age?  How many would balk at getting it "just in case?"  It's quite the conundrum.

I'm not sure I have any real gems of wisdom to add in here, no grand suggestions to make all of this go away.  I simply found it interesting. 

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Oblivion: Fast Travel

I'm starting to realize that much of my review of Oblivion involves comparing it to Morrowind.  This isn't entirely purposeless, as much of the popular reaction to the game was comparison to Morrowind, both positive and negative.

That being said, let's talk about travel as it was then, in Morrowind, and as it is "now" in Oblivion.

Continue reading below the jump

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Speaking out

Just a quick follow-up:  The other day in my post on the use of animals in scientific research, I mentioned that most of my colleagues thought that scientists should speak out, do more to educate the public about the importance of animal research and how seriously we take it.  Well, recently I've seen some billboards here in Baltimore that do just that.  The one that I've seen says, "Ever had leprosy?  Thanks to animal research, you won't."  The boards seem to be sponsored by  I don't know if there's some larger sponsor behind the organization, but the premise is certainly a good one.

Side note:  The animal model for leprosy is an interesting one.  Apparently armadillos are the subject of choice when doing animal research with leprosy.  We once had a lecturer come to our school whose work was on this.  Since you can't breed armadillos in a lab setting (though not for a lack of trying), they have to catch them in the wild as needed.  The researcher assured us there were many amusing tales of the local universities paying undergrads to go catch armadillos.  It's fun to imagine so.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Oblivion: Factions

In this edition of my continuing series on the fourth edition in the Elder Scrolls series, I plan on talking about the various groups your character can align himself with.  This post should be a refreshing change, given that I started this series with the intention of discussing why I liked this game.  So far all I've done is . . . well, let's say I've pointed out some idiosyncracies.

So, factions in Oblivion, eh?

Continue reading below the jump

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Oblivion Skills: Magic

In my continuing effort to put fresh material on this blog while writing absolutely nothing of significance, I'm continuing my series on Oblivion.  Keep reading below the jump to get an eyeful of information on the nature of magic in the game.

Continue reading below the jump

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Oblivion Skills: Mercantile

Hmph.  While I have a bunch of studying I ought to be doing right now . . . I'm just not feeling it.  So instead, you're getting another video game-related post. 

In our last installment, we were discussing the stranger skills of Oblivion.  This time, I'd like to discuss the very strange state of Mercantilism.  The mercantile skill allows you to get more money for the things you sell to people.  In order to truly understand this, we'll need to go back to Morrowind.

Continue reading below the jump

Oblivion Skills: Speechcraft

First things first, I want to thank Chocolate Hammer for shooting me a link.  I always appreciate it when another blogger notices me.

That being said, let's talk about some of the stranger skills in Oblivion.  In my last post on the topic, I mentioned that some of the skills are pretty difficult to level.  Speechcraft is definitely one of them, but in order to understand just how strange a skill this is in Oblivion, we need to go back to its predecessor, Morrowind.

Continue reading below the jump

Friday, October 02, 2009

Oblivion: Skills, leveling, and auto-balance

In thinking about what I would write about Oblivion and why I sunk so much time into it, I ended up deciding to do a post first about the skill system in the game.  Then I thought about Shamus, who blogs endlessly on video games, and did a quick search of his site.  Turns out he wrote my exact post quite some time ago.

So, his post is worth reading, but I'm still gonna put my version after the jump.  Heh, "after the jump."  I'm so glad Blogger finally added that feature.

Let's play a time sink

Apparently there's this thing that some video game bloggers do called "Let's play." It's a series where the blogger starts up a video game and, through a series of posts, takes his readers through the experience of playing the game (through his eyes, of course). Shamus pointed me to a "Let's play" series about The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. He subsequently started one himself for Champions Online.

Reading through the material at Chocolate Hammer has been amusing. The author there is playing Morrowind, which is the third episode in a series of games. I played it through once while he played it through enough to know the game inside and out, but his series reminded me of the fourth episode, Oblivion. Looking back through my archives, it doesn't seem that I ever wrote about playing the game, which amazes me considering the amount of time I devoted to it.

Morrowind and Oblivion were set apart from other RPGs by being sandbox games. While most RPGs will put you in a defined role and tell you a specific story, sandbox games drop you off in a setting and let you do your thing. There's a story, to be sure, but following it is up to you, and there's plenty of other things to occupy your time if you so choose. As for your role, well, you get to decide that for yourself as well.

Of course, both of these game types have their flaws (Chocolate Hammer highlighting those in a game like Morrowind), but one of the big strengths a sandbox game has is replay value. You can play as a wizard or a warrior, valiant hero or swarthy rogue. Each time you play through, you're likely to discover something else that appeals to you. Bethesda, the makers of the game, enabled player-made modifications to the game to be relatively simple, resulting in a vast trove of material to extend the game even further.

I don't really care to start up a "Let's play" series for Oblivion; I'm still trying to figure out how to break out of my WoW addiction, so it's not like I need another time sink. Still, I might end up writing about the game at least some. Considering the hours I spent in that game, I just can't believe I didn't say a single word about it. It's a few years old at this point, but still an amazing game.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Research ethics and animal use

The other day, I was talking with some of the new students in my department. I was rather curious why most of them wanted to work in microbiology rather than immunology, and it turned out that the reason had a lot to do with an unwillingness to work with animals. For several of these students, there was no justification for harming animals; at least, "in the name of science," wasn't good enough for them.

Yesterday, during our monthly ethics seminar/discussion, the topic fell to lab animal care and rights. Several people had stories falling one way or the other, either researchers who refused to use anything but cell lines (and even then, some refused to use animal derived cell lines), while others told tales of of lab techs who would euthanize their animals by whacking their heads against the counter, or smacking them in the head with a stick. Blech.

The mission leader stated that 52% of the public opposes animal use in research. I don't know where he read that, but it's a dangerous number all the same. He only had one explanation for such opposition, but I can think of a few reasons to add to it:

  1. Ignorance. The thought was that people oppose animal research because they don't really understand how much benefit it brings, how widespread its use is, how much caution and care is taken in the use of laboratory animals, etc. I find it likely that this makes up the majority of that 52%. At least, I hope that's the case. These people likely oppose it when asked for a survey, but don't care enough to make an issue out of it during an electoral cycle.

  2. Naturalism. These are people who think that most modern, biological sciences are tampering with things that ought to be left well enough alone. This is the same group that rabidly opposes "frankenfoods" and other uses of bioengineering. I don't think this is a large segment, but they are quite vocal, and visible, when they want to be.

  3. Anthropomorphism. The fundamental justification behind the use of animals in research is that the life of a mouse (or rabbit, goat, rat, frog, etc.) is not worth the same as a human; the loss of a mouse to save the life of a human is, thus, a "no-brainer." If you place any sort of equivalence between human life and animal life, I'm not sure there's much to be done to convince you that animal research is worthwhile. For what it's worth, I dislike this position most of all because the end result is often people who will attempt to kill researchers in an attempt to "save" the lives of their research animals.
Oh, I'm probably oversimplifying things, but I think scientists need to hope that most of that 52% falls into the first category. My colleagues keep suggesting that scientists need to become more visible in the public eye, defending their efforts and justifying their work. I don't necessarily disagree, but it's awfully dangerous to be a spokesman for animal research these days.

No one's immune

Sometimes my colleagues worry about how the public perceives them and their profession (that is, research scientists). There's a worry across the country that too many laypeople are uninformed about basic science and thus unable to appreciate what it is that we do. This can reflect poorly when it comes to public attitude about the sciences, affecting funding and policy.

Guys . . . stories like this don't help:
Employee misconduct investigations, often involving workers accessing pornography from their government computers, grew sixfold last year inside the taxpayer-funded foundation that doles out billions of dollars of scientific research grants, according to budget documents and other records obtained by The Washington Times.

The problems at the National Science Foundation (NSF) were so pervasive they swamped the agency's inspector general and forced the internal watchdog to cut back on its primary mission of investigating grant fraud and recovering misspent tax dollars.

Okay. This is bad. But at least the people involved copped to it, right? I mean, intelligent, rational people know when to acknowledge that they've been caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Right?

When finally caught, the NSF official retired. He even offered, among other explanations, a humanitarian defense, suggesting that he frequented the porn sites to provide a living to the poor overseas women. Investigators put the cost to taxpayers of the senior official's porn surfing at between $13,800 and about $58,000.

"He explained that these young women are from poor countries and need to make money to help their parents and this site helps them do that," investigators wrote in a memo.

. . . I don't think that's gonna help your case, buddy.

I'm always glad when a spotlight is shone on the abuse of taxpayer dollars, but this is just embarrassing. Thanks NSF, glad to know that you're putting a good face out there for us.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Furthering the health care discussion

I'm putting my conversation with Ryan from the comments below into a new post, for various reasons. Partly because it gives me an excuse to have another post on the blog, partly because the amount I'll need to write is just not conducive in the meager commenting function Blogger offers, and partly because it's my blog and I feel like it. So there.

Anyhow . . .
  • Re: Preventative Care
I wouldn't fuss with this one, except that the people attempting to sell the President's health care bill keep saying that this will pay for itself by cutting costs and finding new efficiencies, such as emphasizing preventative care. This raises so many problems for me. How do you achieve such savings, since preventative care is largely dependent on the cooperation of the patients? How much money would this actually save, since the estimates say that Obama's plan will cost at least $1 trillion? Would a failure of patients to follow preventative care measures result in penalties for doctors? Would treatment of conditions which could be prevented be rationed, discouraged, or used as reason to punish doctors?

I'd like answers to those questions before I accept "More preventative medicine!" as a cure-all for this bill.
  • Re: Other models
I'm not sure which country the Obama bill most resembles, a lot of people suspect that it's a "foot-in-the-door" strategy to get to a British system (based largely on things like this).

In any case, I'm still not sure why we'd want to emulate the health care models of other countries. We still have the best system in terms of outcome following treatment, and the other systems have plenty of problems associated with them. Japan faces a problem of staffing shortages as well, and Germany's care comes at the cost of what I understand to be excruciating taxes.
  • Re: Skepticism on the spending
First off, I don't think it's unreasonable to be concerned with revolutionary levels of spending during painful recessions; there are a lot of estimates that the passage of Obama's bill could strangle any economic recovery for years, maybe even decades. It just seems like a bad idea to restructure such a large portion of our economy in one fell swoop like this, especially when it keeps seeming like Obama wants to hurry it through.

In any case, I think the appeals to Iraq and Afghanistan are unfair. "If you're going to spend money on X, why not spend it on Y as well?" doesn't strike me as a logical argument if X and Y aren't really related. It's a debate of national security vs. domestic policy, and it's not really the topic at hand (plus, I think most people will agree that national security ought to take priority). In any case, I did complain during the spending sprees of the previous administration; not in regards to foreign policy, but definitely relating to TARP and automotive bailouts.
  • Re: Insurance industry collapse
I posted a link earlier as to why people think the insurance industry will be threatened by this, but I'll sum up the arguments: The plan currently would force insurance companies to accept all applicants, the plan forces mandatory coverage, the proposal is to subsidize those who can't afford coverage, and the plan puts mandates on employers for employee health care as well.

I don't have a lot of data to support the threat those issue pose. I can say that they seem threatening. I can say that mandatory coverage doesn't seem to have worked so well for Massachusetts. I can say that forcing insurance companies to compete with the government will never work out for them, but I'm incredibly skeptical.
  • Re: Letting them die
You know, I never said I just wanted to let the uninsured sit outside emergency rooms and die. I feel like that's putting words in my mouth.

To the best of my knowledge, the law on the books is that hospitals have to treat emergency patients, regardless of insurance or ability to pay. While I understand such a thing to be a burden to the hospitals, how much of a burden is it? It seems to be assumed that this is a massive cost, and while I've seen various numbers bandied about as to how much this runs, I've yet to see a citation for those numbers. It's worth asking, however, whether moving to a system where the uninsured receive taxpayer-subsidized insurance will actually do anything besides shift costs around; again, people still seem worried that a sudden influx of newly insured people will cause a strain on the system that will decrease the quality of care currently available. There's also the concern that a publicly subsidized plan would ration care in order to control costs. Is any of that unreasonable?

In the end, I'm not sure I'm the best spokesman for the issue; my grasp of the fine details is lacking, and I work mainly with hunches, suppositions, and reasoning based on incomplete knowledge. That doesn't change my position that it's a bad idea in its current form, though, as always, my mindless blatherings should be taken with an extra helping of salt.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The timely review is a lie

You know how I know I'm this guy? I recently played (and finished) Portal. Finally.

I'm not sure what would be gained from offering a "review" of this game. It's old enough at this point that you either know you should play it or have already played it. Everyone else probably just doesn't care about the FPS genre or PC games in general.

Still, I haven't met my useless blather quota for 2009 yet, so I might as well write about it.

This isn't a traditional FPS (first-person shooter, for those not in the know). The only "gun" you use during the game creates portals; by firing a blue portal at one location and an orange portal at another, you can instantly move through time and space. In essence, this is a physics platform/puzzle game played in first-person. It really is as clever and fun as everyone said it was.

I finished the game in roughly 2 hours. I'll give Valve credit for polishing it to a perfect shine, but it's essentially a demo, which is why I guess it came bundled with several other games as part of the Orange Box.

The mystery put together by the rather spartan clues of story in the game left me aching for more. Gee, what an unusual change of pace from Valve! The game should be enjoyed for what it is, but I'm a sucker when it comes to a good story, and the brief, leading clues drew me in easily. What I wouldn't give for a few minutes alone with the Valve writers just to pick at their brains.

Anyhow, this game comes with my recommendation, whatever that's worth. It's cheap and easy to pick up on Steam these days, too, so give it a try if you've got a couple of hours to kill and need something fun to do.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Autocratic Mash Note

Keeping with a theme, I guess, Thomas Friedman's column for today was yearning for the type of benevolent rule we see in . . . China? Yeesh.

Anyhow, Jonah Goldberg isn't buying it. Nobody in their right mind is.

Reasons to oppose Obamacare

Even with the "government option" seemingly off the table, there's still plenty of reasons that Obama's proposed reforms are a bad idea.

This post over at Ace's place is a concise summation of said reasons. It's worth a read if you think the only reason to oppose it is because dead peasants make excellent fertilizer for the lawns Republicans plant in front of their diamond mines.

This is related: Five lies Obama will tell in his speech to Congress.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Harry Potter and the Health Care Reform Seminar

I know the title makes no sense, but I figured it might at least make the event seem more interesting than it actually was. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but certainly not what I received; the event was not open to the public, the crowd was completely subdued, and the floor was not open to questions. I'd complain, but they took pre-written questions before the event, and one of the organizers asked congressman Sarbanes the questions during a brief Q&A period. I'd speculate on the person asking only "friendly" questions, but mine was one chosen, so I can't imagine that to be the case.

The set-up for the event was such: John Sarbanes gave a 30 min. introductory talk, going over what they wanted to accomplish with health care reform, what they needed to do yet, and a bit of why it needed to be done. This was followed by representatives from each of the schools here (Pharmacy, Nursing, Law, Social Work, Dentistry, and Medicine) talking about what health care reform means to them, what challenges they see for their profession in the coming years, etc.

All in all, it was non-controversial. Sarbanes stuck to the party line talking points when discussing reform. I was hoping for something YouTube worthy. At least something like, "All those people who oppose this are morons!" Nothing. The only real moments of conflict were drawn from my question and inspired by the dean of the law school, of all people. I asked Sarbanes why litigation reform wasn't on the table (his answer being that studies show that it won't save any costs, though I'm not inclined to believe such and don't think that's sufficient anyhow). When the law school dean was up to speak, he mentioned it again in a, "Yeah, that's not gonna happen," kind of way. However, later when the med school representative spoke, he looked at the rest of the panel and countered with, "Nuts to you guys, we need tort reform." The law school guy spent the rest of the evening shooting daggers with his eyes at the med school speaker. Very exciting, yes?

A couple of things I do want to grab onto, though. First, Sarbanes spoke continually about moving to preventative care as a means of saving money. I have yet to see anybody show this to be the case. In fact, it's part of the "defensive medicine" that doctors complain about practicing now; running extraneous tests to catch something "just in case" is not a money saving procedure.

Second, Sarbanes got an answer about increasing access to health care for the millions of new people who will end up on the public dole because of this, and his answer was incredibly evasive. The fact of the matter is, if you suddenly have 50 million new people with insurance, they're going to start seeing doctors. That means we need a lot more health care workers at all levels, or we're going to have the same, awful staff shortages that Britain's NHS suffers. Exactly how does Congress propose to get these people without the quality of the care suffering?

Third, Sarbanes made a point of saying that the public plan will remain competitive with private insurance because it isn't for-profit, but that it must also stand on its own feet (by law). That is, it can't be taxpayer subsidized by pay for itself. He said with a smirk afterwards that those darn insurance companies are just gonna have to cut executive pay to stay competitive. I could dedicate an entire post to what was wrong with that sentiment, but suffice it to say that nobody in their right mind believes a politician when they say that a program will pay for itself. When has a government program like this ever been within budget? And why on Earth would a politician not opt to "temporarily" infuse tax dollars into the program to keep it afloat once it's running?

He also mentioned that the CBO estimated only 12 million people would be on the public plan after however many years, and I don't recall ever hearing that. You know, because the government has never underestimated the popularity of one of its programs.

Finally, just a bit of rhetoric. In talking about the emphasis in moving to preventative care, Sarbanes stated that it was society's duty to keep people healthy, not just treat them once they're sick. That, as Jonah Goldberg might say, is liberal fascism talking. It is a personal responsibility to take care of oneself. Society has no place there.

(And when Obama appeals to Christians that the Bible says that, "I am my brother's keeper," he's talking out the wrong end of his digestive tract. That never appears in the Bible.)

So, the event wasn't terribly exciting, but it did give me something to blog about. Finally.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Interesting things to come

You'd think that, since I seem to have moved to a monthly posting schedule, that I'd be putting more interesting or substantive posts up. Not today, friends.

However! Tonight I'll be attending an "informational seminar" regarding the proposed healthcare reform bill, and apparently my congressman (John Sarbanes) will be there. I'm not entirely certain if it's going to have a Q&A session or not. Either way, I'm hoping to have some very interesting material to write about afterwards.

As an aside, the promotional material for the event invites people to attend "a civil discussion" about healthcare reform. I'm going to be ticked if there's no Q&A; how arrogant is it when people call it a discussion but don't allow questions? That's not a discussion, that's you sharing your point of view and me having to shut up and listen.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Obama the Fascist

One more timely example. It would be easier for Obama to avoid charges of fascism if perhaps things like this weren't coming out of the Whitehouse:
There is a lot of disinformation about health insurance reform out there, spanning from control of personal finances to end of life care. These rumors often travel just below the surface via chain emails or through casual conversation. Since we can’t keep track of all of them here at the White House, we’re asking for your help. If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to
The president of the US . . . asking his supporters to act as informers on any political speech which opposes his plans . . . reminds me of Wilson and his American Protective League.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Obama the "Liberal"

There were several requests in my last blog post to expand on my premise about Obama's similarity to previous fascistic movements. I suppose I can finally get around to doing so.
An aside: I have no idea why it's been so long since I've posted. I guess I haven't had much interesting to say about science, video games, or philosophy, and there's only so much I can say about politics without drumming the same beat over and over.
In any case, I have to be very careful here. Goldberg spends a lot of time in his book detailing what he means by fascism because its use today is so generalized. Most people just use it as an epithet for something they don't like. "You mean they took the free coffee out of the break room? What a bunch of fascists."

Also, Goldberg spends the first part of the book looking at the fascist movements of Europe, first Italy and then Germany, then follows up with the American fascist movements before talking about what they ended up looking like in modern America. Yes, it happened here in America. No, it wasn't identical to Italian or German fascism. All of these movements were born of their own time period to specific peoples, so each fascist movement is going to carry specific markers. Italian fascism didn't involve virulent anti-semitism, and American fascism never involved dictators (though it came close at times). My point being that fascism doesn't just mean, "tyrannical dictatorship," and because Goldberg spends hundreds of pages setting up his premises, it would be very difficult for me to do the arguments justice in a single blog post.

So, why do I think Obama is eerily reminiscent of American fascist movements? The political messianism, the cult of youth and action, the reliance on personality and destiny rather than argument and idea; those are strongly familiar themes. The general philosophy of governance is similar, too: Everything within the state, nothing outside the state. American fascism (which took the name "progressivism") worked diligently to dissolve individualism, erase the lines between private corporations and the federal government, establish a welfare state so expansive that people would be absolutely reliant on the government, and create a government not "of the people" but of benign experts who would create an ordered society through their expertise and brilliance as opposed to the debauchery of "democracy."

So what do we see? A man who campaigned on "hope and change," as "the One we have been waiting for." Under his governance, the federal government became the majority shareholder of a major American corporation and has attempted to expand that ownership to the healthcare field. We have more "czars" in the Obama administration than Russia ever had. The drumbeat for a "new New Deal" repeats almost every other day.

So, no, I'm not calling Obama a Hitler or a Mussolini. He's more like a Wilson or an FDR. But it would be worth it to understand why the comparisons can be made before criticizing them. I recommend reading Goldberg's book; even if you disagree with conservatives, it's worth it to understand where ideas come from and how they evolve over time. If you end up thinking that he's gotten it wrong, at least you know what it is that he's arguing first.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Liberal" Indeed

I recently picked up a copy of Liberal Fascism from an airport bookstore. I'd intended to read it for some time, but never got around to it. Now that I'm starting it . . . this book terrifies me.

Goldberg ends his introduction by settling on a definition for "fascism," which is apparently much more complicated than you would think. As much as the term gets thrown around by hot-headed political junkies (and politicians), most people never really explain what they mean when they say it. The definition Goldberg uses encompasses a lot of progressive movements, both at home and abroad. I've only read through the chapters on Mussolini and the Italian Fascists (with a capital 'F'), Hitler and his National Socialists, and the Woodrow Wilson / Teddy Roosevelt era. I never knew much about Wilson, but now that I read some of the things he wrote and said . . . the man would have been a dictator had he been given the chance.

Anyhow, what's starting to spook me is the degree of similarity between Obama, his presidency, and these fascist movements of the past. The rhetoric, the reasoning, the nature of the popular support, the direction of government . . . a lot of it looks very familiar to those who know what to look for.

I often hear how "those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it." It's a shame nobody ever applies this to the pedigree of the philosophy and ideas being sold to them by politicians and movements.

Monday, June 01, 2009

See figure 1

One of the first lessons you learn in grad school is that your text book(s) is/are as valuable as a paperweight. At least in the hard sciences, the field tends to move fast enough that, by the time a text book is published, the information within is either incomplete or inaccurate. Consequently, you'll spend more time reading the relevant journals for your field than any text book, and new information is introduced through review articles.

The long preface is only to introduce Shamus's post on the problems he encounters in the tech world, writing support documents and other technical documentation. Though many of his examples are angled towards programming or coding languages, the general principles are by no means unique to his field.

I find often that the scientific literature suffers from the problems Shamus describes: No explanation of technical terms, assuming a higher level of knowledge on the part of readers than is warranted, assuming a high level of knowledge in related (or not) fields, over-complicated examples, building too steep a learning curve, and so on. One problem that is more unique to this field is the use of self-serving examples. That is, all of the "relevant" work referenced by the author of a review is to his (or their) own work in the field. While this might be appropriate if you're one of a handful of people who actually study the topic at hand, it usually gives only a narrow impression of the work being done in the field, and thus not appropriate for a "review."

One idea that Shamus introduced that I would love to see implemented more fully in the scientific journals is better use of the electronic medium. Everything that is published on paper also is published online as a PDF. Journals like Science usually affix a "title" page to it, with links to the supplemental material on the web (additional figures, movies, and whatever else the authors considered important enough to include but not critical enough to warrant space in the paper). However, taking this further would be an incredible step in bringing science into the age of the internet.

In a review article, what if certain terms or phrases were hyperlinks to either a "dictionary" of terms or to futher review articles on the specific topic? What if the citations at the end of the paper were themselves hyperlinks which would take you to the reference? What if each of the authors' names were hyperlinks to other articles they have published? When a technique is not fully explained by said to be done "as previously described," either link to where it was described or to a database which explains the principles such techniques.

While I realize this might seem like a lot of work to put into a simple PDF journal article, this would be insanely useful to all sorts of people. And these are just the hasty suggestions of a graduate student . . . I'd love to see what sorts of suggestions actual experts might come up with.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Sending a message

I wonder how Facebook decides on which ads it shows you when you surf their pages. This is what I saw today:

Exactly what are you trying to tell me, Facebook?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Tools of the trade

Grad school . . . what a meat grinder. I ought to be studying for my exams, but I'm feeling a bit of burnout, so a quick post to remind people that this site exists seems like quite the remedy. Allow me a bit of navel gazing (Ha! Like you have a choice.).

As I'm studying for my exams, I find myself pawing through piles of powerpoint printouts, each covering various areas of immunology in (sometimes) exquisite detail. I sometimes wonder how this process went for PhD students in ages past. Information imparted during lectures was limited to what the professor could write on the chalk board or show on an overhead transparency. You wrote down what you could during lecture, and tried to scrape everything else from the text books. These days, it's much different. You get superfluous notes and carefully rendered illustrations (graphs, models, photographs, etc.) from powerpoint presentations. The textbooks are rarely used, as they're typically behind the curve by the time they hit the shelves.

There's certainly advantages to the new system. The professors get to share much more information, rather than focussing on the bare essentials they want you to leave lecture with. You're free(er) to listen to the lecturer rather than furiously scribble notes in an attempt to have a lasting impression of the lecture. You get to see details of the science (such as FACS plots and tissue stains) in lecture rather than having to go to the library to look up the journals.

All of this makes me wonder, though . . . do these tools make us better or worse students? Subsequently, are we producing better scientists for all of these tools?

I have no answers to this. I'm not even sure how you'd begin to answer this, given all the variables involved, but I'm quite interested in how people might respond.

Monday, April 06, 2009

It's the end of the world as we know it

And I don't feel fine. Honestly, I never thought I'd see the decline of America as the world's superpower in my lifetime. I even figured, on the off chance that it happened, that I'd be an old man with grandchildren before then. But this?
PRAGUE – Just hours after North Korea launched a long-range rocket, President Barack Obama called for "a world without nuclear weapons" and said the United States has a “moral responsibility ” to lead the way, as the only nation ever to use them.

. . .

Obama proposed doing so by reducing America’s arsenal, if not altogether eliminating it; hosting a summit on nuclear security; seeking ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and pursuing a new agreement aimed at stopping the production of fissile materials.
I wouldn't have believed even this of Obama during the campaigns. What could he possibly be thinking?

Hat tip to Big Lizards, with whom I agree; if Obama is crazy enough to go through with this, he'll be handing over the reigns of power to the likes of North Korea, China, and Iran. God help us all.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hiring Practices

Sometimes I really have to disabuse myself of this notion that I'm a "reasonably intelligent person." I say this because I usually have something cogent and illuminating to add to any philosophical/political discussion . . . about an hour after it's finished.

Yesterday during our monthly "research ethics" course, we were talking about hiring practices. It was commonly accepted around the table that a physics department was more than justified in passing over the most qualified applicants for a position in order to hire a woman. After all, she brings benefits that you don't find on the resume, and it helps to have women there to help other women keep from getting lost in the milieu.

First things first, I don't find that diversity, in and of itself, has any inherent value. At least, not from a scientific perspective. If they're trying to hire someone, they should hire the person who brings the most to the department, and this should be regardless of what the applicants have dangling (or not) between their legs.

Ah, but the counter-argument is that "diverse " people bring other benefits to the table. Benefits you can't put on a resume. Benefits that only they can provide, with their gender/skin color. Benefits that students of the same gender/skin color require to succeed in this field.

I've never heard these benefits explained or defined. I think it's important to answer this question: To what extent to these "benefits of diversity" match or exceed the gap between the standard credentials on a resume? Normal resume differences can be quantified in a situation such as this: Length of experience, number of publications, number of high profile publications, research grant money, etc. How does a department quantify that? How many research grants are two X chromosomes worth? How many Nature or Science papers is being black worth?

Finally, it's always gets back, for me, to the "What would happen if this went the other direction?" argument. By hiring a "diverse" candidate simply for their "diversity," that physics department is saying, "We only hired you because you're a woman, and we need more women around here." The corollary to this is that they're telling the most qualified applicant, "We're not hiring you because you're a man. Sorry, we don't need any more men around here."

Now imagine how this might work in the opposite direction. "Sorry, we've decided to hire someone else. Yes, you're the most qualified, but you're black, and we don't need any more black people around here." Good lord, can you imagine the lawsuits? I find it worth pointing out that people have sued for similar situations (that is, white male applicants passed over for "diverse" candidates) and won.

If you disagree, do try to articulate your opposition in a meaningful sense; the problem I have with these arguments is that I've never heard them explained in a cogent sense. Now if only I could do the same in a timely manner. I really hate that, by sitting at the discussion and not objecting, people think that I'm okay with such discrimination.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Smarter Diplomacy

I've held off writing about my various misgivings about President Obama and his team of super-competent staffers and cabinet members for many reasons, but I've been considering his "outreach" efforts to the rest of the world and I'm finding myself embarrassed. Remember during the campaign how, it was argued, Obama would restore our place in the world, healing the rifts made between us and our closest allies? All it seems, lately, is that Obama is better at alienating them than anything else.

He's been in office two months, and let's look at the record:

1. First, there's Hilary Clinton's gag gift which she gave to the Russian Foreign Minister. It was a "reset button" in a box, to indicate that we wanted to "reset" our relationship with Russia (As an aside, can these people spend five minutes not criticizing the previous administration?). Considering how symbolic a gift this was supposed to be, you'd think that someone in her department would have at least been able to get the Russian translation of "reset" correct.

2. Obama scheduled a meeting with the Brazilian president on St. Patrick's Day, then rescheduled the meeting because he somehow forgot that he already had plans with the Irish Prime Minister. Oops. What happened afterwards is icing on the cake, so to speak.

3. The Japanese Prime Minister was the first foreign dignitary to visit President Obama after his election, and apparently couldn't be bothered to even let him stay in the White House guest house, much less treat it like it was an important visit. What kind of diplomacy is it to make the Japanese PM rent a room at the Best Western?

4. The biggie, the one you probably already know about: Britain's Prime Minister comes to visit, and he comes bearing gifts of great significance. How does Obama relate to our oldest ally? Not only does he treat the visit with the same lack of pomp and circumstance as he did with the Japanese PM's visit, but he gives PM Brown a rather insulting gift: A DVD box set! Twenty-five classic American films . . . what a delight. On top of all that, the DVDs are region-specific, and don't even work in British DVD players!

If someone wants to say, "Hey, inexperienced politicians have growing pains," fine. Not that there weren't ample arguments about how inexperienced and unprepared this guy was when he started running for office, but whatever. Still, this guy was supposed to be the one who healed our relationships with the rest of the world, and this is how he treats the people who like us?

Gracious, are there any adults in charge in the White House?

Geez man, if you can't even play nice with the French, who can you play nice with?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Scientific Meanderings

Grad school has swallowed me whole, lately. I've had a lot of interesting observations and musings I've wanted to jot down here, but I keep forgetting or putting it off. Let's get a few of these out there:
  • So, what do you do for a living?
In one of my classes, we learned of a study where researchers wanted to see whether or not gonorrhea undergoes selective mutations during an infection. How did they test this? They infected volunteers with the freaking thing and sequenced the bug at various times during the infection.

I'm not sure I can put a dollar value on what it would take to willingly get infected with an STD, regardless of whether antibiotics will treat it. I'm having enough trouble getting a date these days without something like that mucking it all up.
  • The Pertussis Scare
Today we talked a lot about bordetella pertussis, the bacteria behind whooping cough. The disease is typically included in a cocktail vaccine, including diptheria and tetanus as well. I found it interesting that, for a period of time starting a few decades ago, Europe ceased to include pertussis in the mix due to some fears of deaths that may have been related to the vaccine. It turned out that they weren't, but there was enough public fear and bad PR floating around that it was only recently that Europe began vaccinating for pertussis again. As you would expect, there's been a lot of whooping cough in Europe in the meantime.

Given everything I hear about Europe's reactions to new vaccines, drugs, and genetically modified crops (especially GM crops), this doesn't really surprise me. It makes me wonder: We hear so much about how the US is so scientifically illiterate, how we're these religious nuts who want to drag scientific progress back to the dark ages and revert medicine to the time when leeches were considered the hot new thing. Why is it, then, that our more "enlightened" cousins across the pond always seem to be so eager to break out the pitchforks and torches when a new drug weighs the same as a duck?
  • Where's it all coming from?
In a related anecdote, while talking about pertussis it was shown that pertussis infections have been ticking upward for the last 20-30 years, with a noticeable spike during the 90s. There is apparently some debate over whether this is an actual increase in cases or just better reporting of cases. The argument being that, with vastly improved technologies for diagnosis, we're just finding the infections more readily than in the past.

We didn't discuss it in class, but I can't help but wonder if it isn't related to illegal immigration. It's not news to anyone who's been paying attention that a lot of the people coming here illegally don't get vaccinated from anything themselves, resulting in upticks in diseases only rarely seen in the US. Several of the studies cited to us about the spread of the disease were centered in California, which isn't exactly a model of immigration law enforcement.

I really don't have much to add to that. Curiosity, but not much else.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Health care not a right

I saw this post over at National Review's The Corner, and it rang true with me, largely because I've had this argument dozens of times before.

The idea that we have a right to health care is quite dangerous. All rights we've enshrined heretofore were things that could only be taken away from you; life, liberty, etc. Health care, like any other good or service, is something that can only be given.

If we enshrine a right to something that must be given to us, it creates an ever-dreaded slippery slope. At what point do the rights stop? and who gets to decide?

Friday, February 20, 2009


I've said for a while now that I think Obama's popularity is driven by a "cult of personality," or perhaps a "cult of celebrity." Either way, I tend to think that there's a lot more at work behind this than people thinking his policies are super-duper.

The response I tend to get from liberals to this range from, "Nu-uh," to, "You're just jealous 'cause you lost." Perhaps. Then again, when I see stuff like this, I can't help but feel vidicated. I'll include a screencap in case it goes away.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Pelosi and the Pope

Not a news story per se, but I enjoy this National Review post discussing Nancy Pelosi's recent visit to the Vatican. The short version is that the Pope gave her (and by extension, all pro-choice Catholic politicians) a dressing down for supporting abortion.

While it's no secret that I disagree with Catholic theology (one of these days we'll finish a conversation, Ryan) on everything that separates them from Protestants, I appreciate that the Pope doesn't pull any punches on this issue. In the structure of the Catholic church, there is no room for "disagreement" on issues like this. If you're going to claim the church as your own, you have some requirements to meet. I think that the broader Christian church is the same in principle, though there's obviously no central power structure for enforcement. Not that we've seen any pro-choice Catholic politicians excommunicated recently.

I must disagree with the author of this on one point, however. He states that politicians like Pelosi are where they are because they're poorly catechized, getting their teachings from high-brow Catholic intellectuals who don't want to deal with "embarrassing" teachings. I can't give them this much leeway. The teachings of the Catholic church are accessible enough that there should be no mystery on what it really teaches. For crying out loud, Pelosi just got it from the horse's mouth (so to speak). If she suddenly changes course and becomes a pro-life politician, I'll offer up a heartfelt apology, but I doubt she, nor any other pro-choice Catholic politician, is going to change anytime soon. These people hold onto their religious affiliation, I suspect, out of political expediency, even necessity, rather than any heartfelt conviction. Perhaps it's the cultural identity that they desire instead. Either way, there is no other explanation for people who claim a title while denying its most important or relevant teachings.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Who will police the police?

Coast Guard?

Okay, enough Simpsons references. This is an interesting story. It seems that a cop in Iowa emailed a bunch of mugshots (the article leaves us to guess who they were sent to) of people wearing Obama shirts. Apparently he remarked on the quality of Obama's fanbase and it was not well received. He was suspended for 30 days and will be undergoing "DPS training." Whatever that is.

On the surface, this looks like an unseemly quashing of free speech. The officer sent the email on his own time from his own computer. However, the article seems to imply that the officer broke some sort of departmental policy in doing this. Perhaps the mugshots he made public were not quite ready to be made public? We're left to guess.

Still, can you imagine if such an event had happened during the Bush administration? I'm not sure we'd be hearing the end of it.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Pandora's Cell

Developmental biology is a Pandora's Box of scientific mysteries. We understand a lot of things about how indeterminate lumps of matter know to become a thumb or a finger, the spine or the lungs, or any number of other things. For all that we know, however, there's an almost endless list of things we don't know or don't understand. Especially when it comes to humans, since the methods that would be used to study them are almost universally considered unethical, even to people who don't think twice about harvesting embryos for stem cells.

So, when I read about experiments like this, where scientists try to make human/animal hybrid embryos, I start to wonder how we get scientists so devoid of morals or ethics.

My best guess as to why this fails is probably genetic incompatibility with the transcription factors. Transcription factors are the proteins which latch onto your DNA and signal for other proteins to be made. They're usually pretty picky about where they will bind, and even slight changes in either the TF or the DNA it binds can be fatal. More than likely, the TFs in the animal cell just aren't good enough to keep things going.

My only other guess would be that they're attempting to turn on genes which turn off at development. Cells turn these genes off (and work very hard to keep them off) because letting them run rampant leads to all kinds of problems. Cancer is usually the most obvious result, but I'm sure it's not the only one.

I'm really not complaining about the failure. The monsters who do these sorts of things ought to have their degrees stripped away.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

They all need better games

My cousin (who needs to update his freaking blog sometime) passed along this article entitled, "The Wii needs better games now."

While I don't usually trust people in the mainstream media to write about such matters, I can't disagree with the premise of the article. The Wii is suffering from a drought of good content. Sure, there's fun stuff to download on Wii Ware, but the last full game I bought was Mario Kart, and that was almost a year ago. When I go to the stores, the shelves are full, but full of what? Crappy movie or TV tie-ins, animal sims, pet sims, "girl" games, silly sport games . . . it's like a wasteland of entertainment. Nintendo's own products are considered the best, but the last thing they produced was Wii Music, a product I doubt will light the world on fire. My DS suffers from the same problem.

Still, I can't merely fault the Wii for this. Most other consoles are also under the curse of a lack of creativity. It's a field full of sport franchises, endless sequels, and remakes of games that didn't need them. Where are the games with memorable characters and good writing?

If you're a Wii owner, what have you bought in the last year that you liked, or what are you looking forward to?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Beginning of Wisdom

There's something very odd about being in a lab where you don't really know any of the experimental techniques. I'm starting to suspect the following is true in most areas of life, but current circumstances have brought it to mind.

When you're ignorant of something, is it better to find the information on your own, or to go to an expert and seek their assistance? When is one path better than the other?

This is not usually easy to determine. Experiments which are commonly done in the lab can be tricky. Sometimes when I need a ubiquitous reagent or piece of plasticware, someone will be happy to point it out to me. Other times I'll be told to, "Just go look for it." Sometimes I'm confused about the exact nature of the protocol, since my tutorial involved very general outlines. If I ask someone about, say, precise volumes or concentrations or reagents to add, sometimes I'm told what I seek. Sometimes I'm told to just go "find a protocol on Google." Other times I'm given such a run-around it's silly. "Hm . . . I don't remember. Why don't you go ask that guy?" It's even better when I get to the end of the chain, usually three or four people down the line, and they question the experiment in the first place. "Why would you run that? It won't work and won't show you what you want to do? Here's a different three-day experiment you need to run instead."

Perhaps there is no set answer, but I find that I have a difficult time knowing when to take one path or the other. I suppose figuring out the difference is a large part of success in this field.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Making Bad Professors

I've written before about all the joys of being a TA. One of the things I never covered was how being a TA is very poor training towards taking over a classroom. This article from the Pope Center discusses the problems of taking graduate students and chucking them into a classroom with little to no formal training.

I can certainly speak to this from my own experiences. Since I've mainly taught chemistry, my experience has largely been teaching labs. UMSL gave me the opportunity to throw in discussion sessions as well. Typically, the lead-up to any of this at the start of the semester was anything from a day to a week of seminars about being a TA. Some of it plain common sense and some of it just policy. I found much of it to be unhelpful, but like I said, a lot of it is common sense.

I saw a lot of foreign grad students sent to lead classes or discussion groups who had very poor english. That should never happen. You are handicapping their students by giving them a second hurdle to overcome (aside from understanding the material).

If I had to give my own thoughts to improving the situation for science TAs, this is what I might say:
  • Public speaking classes
These should be optional but available. Not everyone is comfortable or competant at speaking in front of others. Tossing these people into a teaching position doesn't help anybody. If the person isn't meeting a certain level of english proficiency, don't let them get out of this, either.
  • Allow time to test the labs
This is a big one. Most lab TAs will have no idea how the lab is supposed to go until they see their first section go through it. This can lead to TAs not knowing how to answer certain questions or knowing that the results are poor until too late in the session.

The easy solution to this would be to bank time for the TAs to all do each experiment before teaching it. This way they know the equipment, they know the reagents, and they know what each stage of the experiment looks like.
  • Give the TAs real authority
This one is truly necessary for discussion sessions. I had a very talkative, very unruly group for my discussion sessions. The students showed up for the graded quiz, and didn't really care to participate in anything else we were to do there. In one lab, a student started swearing at me when she failed to follow the directions and had to repeat the experiment.

In every case, I really had no recourse. I'm not allowed to deduct points at any stage for behavioral problems. I was only allowed to report to the professor about the problem and let them handle it. It usually meant a warning to start, then an "official" warning in the form of a hearing with a disciplinary panel. Too much run around for a very slow pay off.

The point is, the power lies in the hands of either the students or the professor. The TAs are simply middle men with no ability to keep students in line short of having campus police haul a disruptive trouble maker out of class. That's not helpful to anyone.
  • Give them a chance to lecture
The thrust of the Pope Center article was that TAs in these settings aren't being given proper preparation to become a decent professor. This is a big problem for science TAs, who may not ever be in front of a classroom until they get their PhD and a teaching position. An easy remedy would be to allow the TA(s) to teach at least part of a lecture sometime during the semester. It gives them experience, and the professor could easily observe and give corrective guidance.

I realize that's not a feasible option for courses with 300 students and 20 TAs, but the option could at least be offered to those TAs. Nobody learns to drive by first pulling onto the interstate during rush hour or going into a downtown metropolis. Why should teaching be any different?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Long term savings?

This was just a little thought experiment, so try not to take this too seriously. I saw someone quote some numbers recently to the effect that a Prius gets ~46 mpg, while a comparably sized standard vehicle gets 31 mpg. The price difference between these vehicles was said to be $7000.

So, I thought to myself . . . how long do you have to drive that Prius to make up the price difference?

Feel free to check my math, but here's the formula I used:

ΔE * G * M = Δ$

Where ΔE is the difference in fuel efficiency of the vehicles, G is the cost of gasoline, and M is the number of miles you have to drive to make up Δ$, the difference in cost between the two vehicles. Efficiency, in this case, has to be put in gallons per mile to work out properly.

Anyhow, I estimate that if gasoline were running $4/gal. again, you'd have to drive that Prius for 175k miles to make up that $7k price difference.

That's not a good number, especially because it only gets higher when gasoline is cheaper. This also doesn't take into account any differences in maintenance costs, since I have no idea what that might be. Unless you're driving that car a lot, it's going to take a very long time to make up the price difference on gasoline costs, and it's entirely possible that by the time you've driven the car that much, vehicles at least as efficient (if not more) will be similarly priced as the non-hybrid.

I only bring this up because I heard on the radio this morning that part of Obama's plans for reducing government cost is to make all government buildings more energy efficient. I don't know what goes into such measures, but I'm betting it will be expensive. The question is, however, what's the return on investment? Or more precisely, how long will that building have to stand before that investment is returned?

If it's anything like our Prius example above, it could be decades before that cost is made up, which seems like the intent is more to pander to environmental groups than offer any substantive benefit to the tax payer. Perhaps I'm just being cynical, but I haven't heard anybody challenging him on this one yet.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Press A to Jump

One of my favorite new shows to be made in the last few years was Big Bang Theory. If you haven't seen this show yet on CBS, you really ought to. The show centers around four friends who work at a California university; two are theoretical physicists, one is an engineer for the space program, and the other is an astrophysicist. The show is a constant barrage of geek culture, and it is both hilarious and sad, in the sense that I see myself in way too many of the jokes.

Because the show is such a tribute to geeky interests, the writers seem to make an effort to get things as accurately as possible (within trademark limitations, I imagine). However, they made a mistake that every movie and television show (ever) makes. In one episode, the guys sit around and play Halo. Since there's not a lot of action to see on screen when you show people playing video games, writers tend to have their actors play the game in a absurdly over-the-top manner. People will stand up for no reason, they'll mash buttons both rapidly and randomly, in an attempt to communicate to us that, yes, they're playing a game.

Someday, I want a television show to give us a bit of credit and trust that, when we see the character holding the controller and staring at the television, we know they're playing video games.

The comic comes from Digital Unrest, so do give them some traffic so I don't feel too guilty about posting this.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Select Difficulty

While I was home for the holidays, I had the good opportunity to fire up my old NES. Between that, and two recent discussions on video game difficulty, and I thought I had some good blog fodder.

Shamus points out in his video that a lot of "hardcore" players, or at least those of us with a modicum of skill, grew up learning to play on the old NES. We had a lifetime of scaling difficulty, both in game quality and control scheme complexity, to get to where we are, so people who are just joining the party are right to feel overwhelmed by the mess that is modern video gaming.

There's something to be said about the part pertaining to new players. There's a reason games like Bejeweled and Chuzzle are so popular. While there was a time that you would sooner admit to being a chronic bed-wetter before telling girls you played video games, these days it's really easy to convince women to play a game of Wii Sports, Mario Party, Mario Kart, Rock Band, etc.

Still, I find the former more interesting. I think there's a lot of nostalgia that goes into saying, "Video games in the NES era were perfect! We learned to game in a beautiful harmony!"

I think it's many of those older games which paved the way for today's games, which feature crushing difficulty and what Shamus likes to call "Do it again, stupid" (DIAS) syndrome. DIAS is the state where the game presents you with a challenge with little room for error. When you fail, you have to repeat the challenge over and over until you get it right. Sometimes failure sends you back to an earlier point in the game, which leads to a frustrating situation where you might have to play the same 10-20 minutes of a game over and over because of one part you can't get past.

Here's a few examples from the games I picked up this past week:
This game is considered one of the best games for the NES, even one of the best ever made. While the game is quite fun, I would argue that most people only ever beat it by "cheating" with the Warp Whistles, which no casual player would have known about. Playing the game normally takes something on the order of 6-8 hours, and there's no save function. Many of the levels contain puzzles which would be nearly impossible to solve without access to game guides. Others feature situations requiring such lightning fast reflexes and time-critical moves that only someone well-versed in the genre is going to tackle it. The point being, this is a hard game.
If you were eight years old and played this game, it was like a slap in the face. I'll post this link, with a warning for foul language. You controlled the turtles one at a time, going through levels to rescue Splinter from Shredder. Sounds like fun for someone who watched the cartoon every day, right? Except the game was filled with labrynthine levels, rare health pickups or power-ups, and swarms of enemies too big to avoid and too strong to kill quickly. Since you could freely switch between the turtles, you technically had four lives. However, some of the turtles had attacks which were nearly useless. You could "rescue" a turtle who lost all his health, but figuring out where those locations are was a feat in itself. Very few people who played this game ever made it to the end, and even fewer managed to topple Shredder when it happened.
Okay, I remember this game fondly as well, but I never finished it in my youth. Once again, the complexity of some of the jumping puzzles, as well as the difficulty of the enemies, made it nearly impossible for an unskilled player. Most levels featured a robot which was difficult to avoid and stole half your health if it touched you. Some of the bosses were only within reach of most players (including me) due to a cheat involving the pause button, a feature removed in future installments of the game.

So, a lot of the older games are difficult. So what? My point is that there are games of crushing difficulty from every era. We may remember those games fondly in retrospect, but most of us put them down in frustration at one point or another. We kept up with the hobby because of the games that were within reach of our skill level. Those games can still be good today, and I think it's worth keeping in mind the things which made those games good when looking at the newer games. A game can be easy enough for new players without simplifying it too much. Sure, games like Nintendogs convinced a lot of people to buy a DS, but they can still be challenged by, and enjoy, games like Phoenix Wright.

Not that anyone's asking my opinion on game design theory. I can dream, can't I?

Oh, and no discussion of difficult video games of the past would be complete without pointing you to the Angry Video Game Nerd (again, be wary - he uses lots of foul language).

Friday, January 02, 2009

A retrospective on December 31

Most years, at the start of the new year, I tend to think about where I'm heading, what I want to accomplish, and how I want my life to change in the twelve months to come. Given how much of my life is up in the air for 2009, my thoughts have been drawn more to previous years and what my perspectives were at the time.

On Dec. 31, 2008, I was playing cards with my cousin and his wife. I'm in Maryland studying immunology and wondering where my studies will take me in the next few years, when I'll ever find a girlfriend, and whether I'll be home before next Christmas for any reason besides my sister's graduation.

On Dec. 31, 2007, I was in Chicago, celebrating with college buddies at a party which was sparsely attended due to a foot of fresh snow. I was excited about having just earned my MS and incredibly confused as to where I would end up for my PhD work.

On Dec. 31, 2006, I was with my cousin and his wife, again, but this was a party, so there were many others as well. I was working my my MS, still sore about having left Northwestern, and trying to figure out if I'd ever get over my ex-girlfriend.

On Dec. 31, 2005, I was in Evanston, at a party with Northwestern people. My girlfriend was visiting at the time, so she was there as well. I was spending quite a bit of time then wondering whether I would make it at Northwestern and hoping that the classes would not be as crushingly difficult as I feared they would be. I'd also just started doing research with my new PI, and I was very hopeful about where it was heading.

I could go further back, but I find the retrospective helpful. It's interesting what things we're worried about at various times in our lives and how those thing change over the course of just a year. One year doesn't seem like that much time, but when I look back at prior New Year's eves, it seems like an eternity.

I don't know what the coming year holds for me, but I'll wish all of you the best for the next twelve months.