moldybluecheesecurds 2

Friday, December 29, 2006

The little princess: empowering or emasculating?

If you have a daughter or cousin or niece in the 4 to 10 range, you've probably been introduced to the importance of princesses and the color pink. This essay recounts one feminist mother's struggle with the "princess culture" for her preschool daughter, wondering if the mass marketing of girlishness may be undermining young girl's chances to eschew stereotypical gender roles later in life. Some sneak peeks:
  • When overhearing the dental hygienist offering to seat her daughter in the "princess chair" to have her teeth "sparkled," Mom replies: "Oh, for God’s sake...Do you have a princess drill, too?"
  • "The issue is 25,000 Princess products," says Brown, a professor of education and human development at Colby College. "When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play."
  • On the other hand, Mom also notes, "a headline-grabbing 2005 British study that revealed that girls enjoy torturing, decapitating and microwaving their Barbies nearly as much as they like to dress them up for dates. There is spice along with that sugar after all..."

The "dismal science" goes happy

For many years, economists have eschewed emotion in their study, assuming that choices in the marketplace are simply rational 1-0 on/off things and that choices accurately reflect what people actually want. But with advanced brain science and good old survey techniques, some economists are delving into the idea of happiness once more and finding that some choices aren't really based on happiness or that humans can often be a poor judge of what will make them happy.

The general rule is that experiences make people happier than things. A trip to Hawaii, for example, trumps a BMW M5. But things can also sometimes contribute to happiness:
before [one economist] scoffs at Gillette's latest five-blade shaving system, he should recall Benjamin Franklin's belief that teaching a young man to shave, and keeping his blade sharp, would contribute more to his happiness than giving him 1,000 guineas to squander.
The other interesting bit is on social competition. Humans, like many primates, don't just want to be happy. Part of happiness is to be at the top of the pecking order, to be better than our peers, a condition some sociologists call "affluenza." In the Overspent American, Juliet Schor also notes that affluenza is worse in modern times, where television allows us to have peers that are substantially better off than our actual social group, putting even more pressure to one-up.

Anyway, it's good to know that economists are getting down to the issue of what makes us happy, and understanding that not all marketplace decisions are rational, happiness-maximizers.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Energy efficiency revisited

A Wall Street Journal columnist recently took an energy meter around his house to look at what used the most power, concluding that major appliances and lights were the real power sinks. However, this blogger posts a rebuttal based on his own testing, noting that appliances have enjoyed substantially improved energy efficiency in the past 20 years. While he's not denying the energy-sucking role of washers and dryers, he notes that even as these big appliances have become dramatically more energy efficient, household energy usage has increased from an annual "793 kWh in 1990 to 938 kWh in 2006."

The major culprit in driving energy use up? Home electronics, like televisions and computers, as well as the multiplicity of battery charged devices (cell phones, razors, and even toothbrushes!). I wrote on this previously, since many of these devices continue to suck electricity even when turned off!

Email is not actually private?

A federal case against a spam king has taken an interesting twist. During the investigation, the government applied for and received a court order to access the spammer's email accounts. A court order is similar to a search warrant, but it requires a lower burden of proof than a warrant. The federal government argued that it doesn't need a search warrant since emails are held on a third party server and therefore are more accessible under the Stored Communications Act. The spam king has now challenged this move, arguing that email is private and should be as such by law.

Since most people view email as private communications akin to letters (which would require a search warrant), it will be interesting to see how the case unfolds. For now, maybe I should switch on POP3 settings in my Gmail account...

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Wal-Mart's new green image

A lot of news stories have been touting Wal-Mart's flirtation with solar power, with a potential rollout to over 300 stores in the United States. It's a great way for the corporate giant to try and clean some of the tarnish of its image as a skinflint on wages and healthcare. So is this a big change?

While there's no doubt that a energy-sucking big box store will lessen its energy footprint by installing rooftop solar panels, there's a reason local retail activist and expert Stacy Mitchell has said that the best thing Wal-Mart can do for the environment is to stop building stores.

Why Iraq lacks power

We're talking Iraq, courtesy of Energista's discovery of an excellent piece on the rebuilding of the Iraqi electrical system. It's an account of a journalist for Spectrum magazine, the trade publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and his visit to Iraq. It may be from a technical group, but it's as accessible as USA Today, with some excellent personal perspective on what's gone wrong with reconstruction of the electrical grid. Some highlights:
  • Of those Iraqis who do pay for electricity, the price is around $0.0007 per kwh (compared to $0.01-$0.05 in neighboring countries). Thus, demand increases faster than reconstruction can build power plants.
  • Early reconstruction officials ordered power plants that could be brought on quickly, ignoring the fact that they run on fuels - highly distilled diesel or natural gas - that aren't readily available.
  • Ironically, in light of the above, there's millions of cubic feet of natural gas being burned off at Iraq's oilfields, when it could be collected and used to generate electricity.
Oh, and if you know what Digg is, I submitted this story over there and would appreciate your digg.

Drug companies and patent law, part 2

Thanks to G$ and Rick for their comments on my drug patent law post. Their thoughts were provoking enough to get me to write on the subject again, no doubt to the dismay of my two other readers...

I think the point of patent law revision is that the public good is served by developing drugs that treat the most prevalent illnesses or diseases that post the greatest threat. Repackaging an antacid drug to treat a stomachache by varying the dosage, on the other hand, doesn't really represent the innovation that patent law exists to protect. Nor does developing drugs for "restless legs" or erectile dysfunction serve the public in the same way that an AIDS vaccine, a malaria vaccine, or a staph antibiotic could.

In other words, the public policy should reflect (as Rick noted), the desired public outcome.

The problem presented by the GAO study is that drug companies are a) making money hand over fist b) pouring money into R&D, but c) not developing these new molecular entities (NMEs) that can provide the substantial human benefit.

One solution is to amend patent law so that there's less of an incentive to focus on modified or marginal drug improvements. I'm not suggesting that patent terms on new drugs be reduced, but that companies be sent the message that we value (legally) developments of new drugs, not repackaging of old ones.

Another solution is to (as G$ recommends) increase federal R&D budgets. This is undeniably a good thing, because the results of federal research are public, adding to the body of general scientific knowledge. Additionally, the kind of general research done with federal dollars often serves several scientific disciplines and not just the goals of a particular industry.

My final thought is this: drug companies are constantly researching new or modified therapies and are still making profits, so their research costs are part of their bottom line. Yet they are still making record profits. To me, this makes the argument about recouping research costs inane. They're doing research and making millions!

Maybe they're paying down debt from 20 years ago when they started developing the drugs that are paying off today. But that's all the more reason to make sure patent law offers advantages for companies seeking the most promising and novel drugs, to keep the health benefits (and profits) flowing.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Making bank from recycling

Thanks to TriplePundit for the heads up on this innovative new way of encouraging recycling - paying people to do it.

Municipalities (that's cities in non-wonk speak) often have to budget extra for recycling programs because many people pledge to recycle, but often don't put up the volume to make ends meet for the city. Instead, a lot of half-empty trucks trundle off to the recycling center.

Enter Recycle Bank. It helps increase recycling rates by signing on corporate sponsors to reward recyclers with gift cards (think rewards Mastercard, but you get points for giving plastic instead of using plastic). RB helps reduce city's recycling costs and takes a cut of the savings, all while increasing recycling rates. Win win win.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Comeuppance well deserved

According to Christopher Caldwell, our palpable relief at the Republican's midterm election beating is mostly to do with our satisfaction with the receding authority of President Bush. Great leaders, he says, listen to their constituents and then mirror back their interests. Bush, on the other hand, reflects a cocky, brash, "I don't do nuance" belief. As we collectively enjoyed this attitude when he took office, "U-S-A...U-S-A," we share the shame as it has led us into an Iraqi quagmire, a massive budget deficit, and several major ethical scandals. The haste to remove this mirror, says Caldwell, is why even Republicans have a sense of relief after the midterms. "The losers seem to believe they got what was coming to them."

P.S. Although I found the piece intellectually intriguing, Caldwell's argument that voters don't understand the Democratic agenda because one-third have never heard of Harry Reid is completely asinine. Agenda != Harry Reid

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Non-surprise of the week: patent law lines drug company pockets

Most Americans have a sneaking suspicion that pharmaceutical companies are making pretty good money (pdf), but many probably don't understand exactly why. Well, the Government Accountability Office (formerly General Accounting Office - GAO in either case) just released a report (pdf) that explains why.

Because minor changes in existing drugs allow for new patents, giving extended monopolies, drug companies have used very little of their increased R&D budgets (147% from 1993-2004) to develop new drugs. Applications for new molecular entities - the FDA term for significantly new therapeutic drugs - increased only 7% in the same period.

In other words, instead of sparking innovation, drug patent law is doing the reverse - allowing companies to make big money off marginal modifications instead of expanding the realm of medicine. This might be good for Eli Lilly's shareholders, but it doesn't do much for the treatment of antibiotic resistant diseases or some of the world's more prevalent diseases. Time for an amendment to patent law.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Many Linux users are wankers

I tried to install Linux a few weeks ago. I thought it'd be nice to completely cut the tether to commercial software and see what would happen. The answer? A whole lotta of command prompts and time wasted.

I tried to install Slackware, a form of Linux that's supposedly fairly compatible with games and the like. In particular, I wanted to set the system up to emulate SNES and NES games. But there's very little that's intuitive about switching from Windows to Linux. All the terminology is different. There are "kernels," which you can compile yourself. The graphical user interface (GUI) is independent of the operating system (think Windows 3.1 and DOS). The most annoying this is that configuring system settings seems to be done almost entirely at the command prompt. Hey, I used to use DOS, but this is 2006 and I like my control panel. So to configure my video card, I had to go online and look for the command that I could type in to load drivers. Same for my NIC card. I had to know my monitor's horizontal and vertical sync rates, for Pete's sake!

Yeah, I know that Linux users hold people like me in complete scorn - you n00b! Go back to your Micro$oft products! You expect everything to just work like Windows! Here's a sample from a comment thread about Linux v. Windows:
I did an "experiment" over the weekend and asked a friend to launch Firefox from Gnome.

He blankly looked at the screen as said: "Where the hell is the Start button?"...completely neglecting the fact that it clearly says "Applications" up top.

He'll probably be the same person to flame Linux on a comment thread because he can't figure out how to perform a simple function.

But if free software wants to provide a viable alternative to the default option for the general population, it has to be easy. Think Tmobile to your Sprint, Firefox to your Internet Explorer, or AVG FREE Antivirus to your Norton Antivirus. The learning curves are shallow, making switching easy. The general interface is pretty much identical.

Instead, switching from Windows to Linux is like switching from English to Spanish. GUIs become command prompts. Start menus become something else. Double clicks become single clicks. And a lot of Linux users not only expect me to want to learn Spanish, but teach it to myself?

Maybe I picked the wrong Linux package and I should try Redhat, which I've heard is much easier to install. Or I could pick up a library book about Linux to at least get a handle on the commands. And I'll probably try, because - if nothing else - I'd like to avoid a $100 Windows upgrade fee. But until there's a way to install a Linux OS and GUI by primarily clicking "I agree" and "next" - or an English-Spanish interpreter provided for every user - it's going to be a Micro$soft's world.

Update 2/28/07: As I commented below, I've successfully installed Ubuntu Linux on the computer I was working on two months ago and it was an entirely different experience. As the Anonymous (and blessed) commenter noted, Ubuntu is the user-friendly way to go. I've been helped along a lot by Lifehacker's regular updates on how to improve Ubuntu.

Disclaimer: there are many, many lovely Linux users out there who have spent countless hours creating FAQs and online guides for people like me. You're great and I'm sorry you're in such shitty company.

Screw bipartisanship - just get to work

I just saw a recent national survey that once again finds Americans interested in a Congress that is "bipartisan" and "get things done." After all, most of the spending bills got tabled until the new Congress convenes and a lot of work is needed on the minimum wage, ethics, health care, and of course, Iraq.

But I think that the question about bipartisanship is kind of a false question. People want government to do things that are good for them and good for the country. They want lower taxes, but only if it can be done without damaging good programs. They want good health care, but only if it doesn't break the bank. They want good paying jobs. And when it comes down to it, they aren't going to care if these things come via party-line vote, as long as they're effective.

There's an illusion out there that good policy has to be bipartisan, but I think that some of the best government work ever accomplished (Social Security, Medicare) only succeeded because the Democrats had overwhelming control of Congress. Bipartisanship only matters when good legislation fails because the proposing party can't peel off enough of its opposites to pass the legislation. And some really vile legislation (the Bush tax cuts, the Iraq war authorization, the Medicare prescription drug benefit) had plentiful votes from both sides of the aisle.

So when Congress convenes in January, I want them to get things done. If it happens to be bipartisan, that's the icing on the cake.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A better idea

Ditch the penny and swap dollar bills for coins. I see several advantages:
1) Same number of coins overall - good for those cash drawers
2) Creates an actual incentive to use dollar coins instead of bills (i.e. no bills)
3) Makes for easier vending/parking meter use, etc

Of course, maybe we'll stop using cash entirely at some point, but probably not until Craigslist goes belly up!

Chew on this

It's been debated plenty, but I just wanted to add my two cents to the anti-penny contingent. There's only one good use for pennies, anyway...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Let the civil war roll

Although President Bush is mostly avoiding the "civil war" moniker to preserve some modicum of respect for his legacy (note: too late), Iraq might really be better off having this fight out. James Traub, a contributing writer for the New York Times magazine, writes that civil wars can rarely be staved off, especially when the combatants have been pressurized under a dictatorship for decades.

Furthermore, Iraq resembles conflict-laden regions like the Ottoman Empire or Yugoslavia after the fall of the imperial or dictatorial regimes. In other words, the sides aren't likely to sit down for tea and peace accords any time soon. They'll want to kill each other until each side is convinced they can't win (if that's in fact the case).

I also blogged on this topic previously, linking to an article arguing that Vietnam offered a model for Iraq (read: get out and let the natives fight it out).

Goog askew

I frequently use Google to find information for my job, as well as to get quick reference things. I was trying to verify the number of gallons of gasoline in a barrel today, when I received a bit of a surprise - Google is wrong! Have a look at their results for "barrels to gallons" this afternoon and the real answer from the Energy Information Administration of the US Government (as well as all the search results).

Dig in or climb out

The Iraq Study Group recently released its recommendations and Bush is still looking around for additional advice. Instead of reading - a chore - or wasting more time talking to people, Bush should just consult Steve Sack:

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

This is why we have modern technology?

Get more from your USB drive...ahem...

Can I be a renter again?

This week has highlighted why the federal government needs to give people home interest deductions to get them to buy houses.

Thursday - noticed water dripping through the basement ceiling from near the bathroom tub. Had already planned grout repair, but now project has new urgency. Cost: $50 in materials, 5 hours in work time.

Saturday - furnance breaks while out to dinner with friends. Although most furnace manufacturers make a good product, I'm told by the serviceman that "every one has a bad model." Great. Not only is the visit outside normal business hours, but he has to make a special trip to pick up our furnace valve (it's a "unique" type). Cost: $500, and one cold night.

Tuesday - garage door fails to open when I try to leave for work. Hmm, are these cables on the door supposed to be hanging limp? Oh, and I bet this roller is actually supposed to be in the guideway, as opposed to on the garage floor. Car was liberated from garage after jimmying with door opener and manually "assisting" the opener. However, broken roller means door looks drunk when closed. Cost: a minimum of $100, and no help until Thursday.

Any good deals on a 2BR with laundry?

Friday, December 08, 2006

I laughed for 10 minutes straight

The latest Slashdot poll begins "I write with..." and offers some common responses (pen, pencil, marker). As usual, the user comments add some additional "missing options":
  • Pilot G-2 pens
  • Fischer Space Pen
  • manly appendage
  • "I write with a lithp, you inthenthitive clod!"
But the winner managed at least three levels of humor, which collided for a good 10 minute belly laugh:

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Alas for VHS

I watched a movie with K last night, the Birdcage (note: hilarious). It's part of my movie collection that I started buying before I realized that VCRs were out and DVD players were in back in 2001. Yes, I realized late.

However, the market's hurried transition to DVD on the basis of "better picture and sound quality," "special features," etc. may have overlooked some of the benefits of VHS tapes:
1) No previews. Within 30 seconds of putting the tape in last night, I was watching my movie. (note: I know that some VHS tapes had previews).

2) Save your place. I'm sure some people really like the thumbnail image menus on a DVD player to jump to a particular place (and they are great for that if you just want to show someone a particular segment). But if you're the kind of person who maybe takes two nights to watch a movie, it's nice to know that you can turn the player off and resume at exactly the same place without any extra navigation. Let's illustrate resuming a movie halfway:
DVD player: system on...disabled menu button thwarts preview skipping...FF through previews...chapter switch turns off FF...disabled FF button forces me to watch 20th Century Fox splash screen...idiotic menu animation wastes another 10 seconds...successfully pick closest scene...FF through scene to find exact place.

VCR: System

3) No fascist remote. I can't count the number of times I've had my DVD player flash a big red X when I press the "menu" button to skip previews or FBI warnings, etc. On a VHS player, the remote buttons work the same for every tape and they all work. Preview? FF. FBI warning? FF.

4) No inane menu animations. The first time I watch a DVD I like the menu animations - they're clever. By the second time, I want to scream. I don't need to watch the Knight Bus zoom across the screen before every Harry Potter 3 scene selection page display. Let me turn off animations or better yet, skip them and cut the price of the DVD.

We're now being introduced to HD-DVD and BluRay DVDs, with supposedly even better features. Something tells me it won't involve preview skipping...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Star Wars nerds, your new game is calling

Clear the disappointment of Episode I from your mouth, revitalize your faith in the power of the original trilogy, and find out how the Force can be combined with Legos?!

Monday, December 04, 2006

It's the whiteys who do the crime

Articles like these should all be part of a series: Exposing Our Inner Racist. The NY Times Magazine explores how greater immigration depresses local crime rates, whereas white people feel the exact opposite. In other words, we like to think that dark-skinned people cause crime, but we're as wrong as Bush is on climate change.

Interestingly, the article notes that the law-abiding benefits of immmigrants are concentrated in the first generation. Successive generations are much more likely to be involved in crime. Probably because they get tired of being discriminated against for looking like an immigrant...

Waiting for an electoral 9-11

Refusing to recommend that we have a verifiable paper trail for voting because of the supposed strain on election officials reminds me a lot of the FAA refusing to require fortified cockpit doors because of the potential cost to airlines.

The Ivory Tower rises above technology

Having recently assisted my mother switch to Gmail and my father-in-law with a notebook wireless card, I've been thinking a lot about the technology divide between generations. However, that rumination grew into a full-fledged mental guffaw at this exchange with a PhD professor I previously worked with (age 50 or so).

As background, I produced some reference "finding aids" on a library project for him, which I then packaged in a CDR with a handy web interface (that automatically loads on CD insert). This hasn't prevented requests for the information I already gave him or this stunning misunderstanding of file extensions.

LJ: Could you email me a file with all the finding aides in them?

[It's really petty, but since he has a PhD, I really want to point out that an 'aid' is "a device that assists" whereas an 'aide' is an assistant - a person. I cannot email him an 'aide' unless Ted Stevens is right and the internet is really a series of tubes]

JFF: I've attached a zip file with all 25 finding aids [in pdf format]. If for some reason it doesn't come through, let me know. MB [LJ's student worker] also has the CD with all of the materials on it.

LJ: Could you please send the Finding Aids as a Word File?

[Okay, so he wants to actually be able to edit the files - no problem]

JFF: Attached. [zip file with .doc files included]

LJ: I don't use zip drives. Could you transfer the file to Word instead? Thanks.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Please give Big Brother the smackdown

Seriously, how many times do we have to needlessly trample civil liberties and privacy before we stop letting government profile us?

The Homeland Security Department recently revealed its Automated Targeting System (ATS) that tracks things like what meal you asked for on the plane, when and where you flew, how you paid for your tickets, and seating preference. How useful is this information in catching terrorists?
Government officials could not say whether ATS has apprehended any terrorists.

If you haven't spoken bureaucratese lately, that means ZERO. But it does make sure that my dad gets padded down every time he flies and that despite sending in all sorts of information to the government to try to get off the "watch list," he still has to go through extra security rigmarole every time.

This revelation is in face of research at MIT suggesting (as it has for some time) that random searches will beat computerized profiling any day, especially when we're dealing with potential suicide bombers.

But instead of searching potential terrorists, we're recording their seat and meal preferences.

I feel safer.