Archive for January, 2010


Hitler was a Vegetarian

January 30, 2010

Joy of joys, Osama bin Laden has just gotten all up in our shit about our failure to act on climate change. It is a ticklish pleasure whenever history’s great super-villains lecture us on our moral failings.

Best part about this? It demonstrates, beyond a reasonable shadow of a doubt — a doubtful shadow of reason? — the moral depravity of caring about the earth. Either that, or it illustrates just how cozy the enviros are with Al Qaida. Veritable jihadists next door, I tell you.

Meanwhile, it may have escaped the world’s attention, but both Hitler and Osama bin Laden are heterosexuals. Mighty curious, then, that the NFL would deign to ban this ad from the Superbowl. Coincidence? I think not.


Are Climate Bats More Like Fruit Bats or Vampire Bats?

January 28, 2010

Friend and colleague Tom Yulsman has a nice post over at the Center for Environmental Journalism on the recent Chiroptera kerfuffle. Meanwhile, friend and colleague Roger Pielke Jr. has several — lots and lots of — nice posts over on his blog. Oh, yeah, and the London Times has an article, as does Der Spiegel.

I’ve basically been watching this issue unfold from afar, partly because I mentioned it a while back and someone in the comments said that I was late to the game (which I think I wasn’t) and also because I think it probably safe to say that Roger’s on top of it.

Even still, I may be piping in soon. Depends if I can get this grant application finished before the Feb 1 deadline. Meanwhile, read the above posts and catch up on the hurricane discussion.

Stay tuned, same bat time, same bat channel.


Akrasia Solved!

January 28, 2010

NPR has this bizarre story on chocolate cake and why you can’t resist chocolate cake when trying to remember a lot of numbers. It’s cribbed from an earlier WSJ article on the same issue. Since I try to avoid reading the WSJ, I’m only just learning of it now.

Evidently, some people think that your brain can “fill up” like a trash bin, and that willpower works kinda like your muscles.

In one experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

Here’s where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.

Spare me. The numbers “took up valuable space in the brain”? That’s ridiculous, unless she’s speaking metaphorically. Oh, she must be speaking metaphorically, since the brain is a physical object and the numbers are…wait for it…frigging numbers. They don’t take up any space at all.

Maybe she means that the students were preoccupied with trying to focus on a random seven-digit strong of numbers when some chocolate-cake wielding seductress assaulted them and tempted them to do something that they might otherwise not have done. How hard is that to understand? It doesn’t have anything to do with space being taken up. It has to do with chocolate cake, focusing on something other than chocolate cake, and getting a wee bit piggy. But wait, it gets better.

The willpower-as-muscle metaphor should also change the way we think about dieting. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University who has pioneered the muscle metaphor, has demonstrated in several clever studies that the ability to do the right thing requires a well-fed prefrontal cortex.

In a 2007 experiment, Prof. Baumeister and his colleagues found that students who fasted for three hours and then had to perform a variety of self-control tasks, such as focusing on a boring video or suppressing negative stereotypes, had significantly lower glucose levels than students who didn’t have to exert self-control. Willpower, in other words, requires real energy.

Um, okay, which they’re measuring by looking at what people do... so maybe it’s the case that what takes real energy is doing something, whether will power is involved or not. And how is this supposed to help us think differently about dieting?



January 27, 2010

Andrew Revkin has this cute video up on his blog:


GRE Hate

January 27, 2010

If I may indulge myself here a bit. I’m reading our graduate applications at the moment. We have lots and lots of them… by which I mean, lots and lots. When they come in, we sort candidates by several categorization standards, including their GPA, their last name, their stated area of interest, and their GRE score.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but so far as I can tell, the GRE is a near meaningless measurement of a candidate’s potential. I fail to see why we (academics) place so much weight on it.

Oh, sure. Since the GRE score is the only standardized metric between all candidates, it offers a compelling measurement against which to compare. X person got 720/760/5; Y person got 680/720/5.5; Z person got 500/620/4. (These are made up numbers.)

Seems like a no-brainer. Z person doesn’t make the cut. It’s a battle between X and Y.

And yet, there’s considerable vagueness in the scores. When one looks at the statement of purpose, or at the letters of recommendation, it frequently turns out that X and Y are boring drones, where Z is an interesting and motivated prospective, maybe with a serious and well-conceived project, or maybe even in some cases with a significant history of professional accomplishment. The “bad GRE effect” is amplified in candidates who haven’t been in the educational system for a while, perhaps because they’ve been in the business world doing something that doesn’t demand that they calculate the volume of a sphere.

Moreover, it’s not entirely clear how standardized they in fact are. I’ve heard from more than one candidate with widely discrepant scores between two contiguous test sessions. To my mind, if there’s a discrepancy of several hundred points between a set of scores from the same person, this test doesn’t have much to offer in the way of measurement.

So what, exactly, are the GREs in place to measure? And why do we (academics) continue to rely on the GREs as strongly as we do? Why do we (academics) sing the praises of our departmental units when we have a high GRE average, all the while admitting to one another that the GREs are unreliable?

I’m very much persuaded that the GRE ought not to play a strong role in admissions decisions at all, and at best should serve only as a vague data-point or an extra accomplishment signalling positively in a person’s favor, but not negatively in a person’s disfavor. Others with whom I’ve spoken disagree. They think the GRE can serve as a workable cutoff.

What do you think?

(With my luck, I’ll get sued by ETS for disparaging the GRE, but I think this is a legitimate academic concern. I suspect that they disclaim the value of the GRE as the sole measure of a candidate’s fit; but I similarly suspect that they think it’s a valuable measure of something. Just what it’s a valuable measure of is beyond me.)


Hayek vs. Keynes

January 25, 2010

Many of you probably heard this on NPR tonight, but for those who don’t have a memory that survives from your driveway to the front door, I thought I’d link to it.

Vodpod videos no longer available.


Party On

January 25, 2010

The sixteenth Council of Parties (COP16), it has been officially announced, will now be held in Cancun instead of in Mexico City. Here, read this. If you can’t read it (as I can’t), you’ll have to trust me that it says that the next COP16 has been moved to the party capital of Mexico.

Think 40,000 in the dead of a Denmark winter is a lot of people? Book your resort now…and don’t forget the sunscreen.


The Ends of Property

January 22, 2010

Whether you subscribe to the Hobbesian contractual theory of property, the Rousseauvian finding of property as the root of inequality, the Marxist theory of alienation and surplus value, the Proudhonian conception of property as theft, or even, arguably, the Lockean labor theory of property, there must be some sense in which the plight of every surviving Haitian leaves you with raging question marks dancing over your head.

The attached must-read essay from Professor Guy-Uriel Charles (Duke Law), sums it up nicely. “Stop calling quake victims looters,” he says, pointing out how offensive the journalistic use of the term is in the face of dire circumstances.

I couldn’t agree more, but I’d just want to add one thing, with due attribution to Hobbes.

The charge of looting doesn’t make a damn bit of sense in this state of nature, because the idea of property doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. Nobody owns anything now. Nothing. Not a loaf of bread. Not a bar of soap. And most definitely not a high definition television set. There are no institutions to establish these rights; though there are no representatives of institutions to enforce such rights. The absence of enforcers isn’t what crushes the very idea of property (sorry Hobbes), but the utter nonsense engendered by the idea of property.

Seriously? Seriously? …Seriously?

Does it really make sense to talk about property ownership in the face of absolute devastation, in the face of starvation, dehydration, and the death of one’s siblings?

Sure, we might grasp at maintaining order by re-asserting these rights, but talking nonchalantly as though they persist through the even the most devastating events. “Damn looters, stop goofing around and put the shoes and shirts back on the shelves.” But Haitians are in a dire state at the moment, a state so dire that it does not make sense.

To the starving, food on a plate is not property. Food in a field is not property. Food in a grocery store is not property. It is food, first and foremost. It is property only once regimes of ownership and jurisdiction once again make sense.

“That was McNulty’s store, but is no longer,” is all the authorization one needs to move into a phase of complete disregard for jurisdictional boundaries. The walls no longer stand, the shelves no longer stand, the contents of the store are just objects.

I appreciate deeply Charles’s argument, but it seems to me to miss this fundamental element. There is no property in the state of nature. It’s just stuff.


What’s Your Function?

January 22, 2010

mm831schoolhouse-rock-conjunction-junction-posters.jpgThough my critical thinking students may beg to differ, turns out that it matters whether you use ‘and’ or ‘or’.


Gaining Some Distance

January 18, 2010

The Guardian has this interesting story on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that docked in Haiti today… to enjoy a beach barbecue.

Sixty miles from Haiti‘s devastated earthquake zone, luxury liners dock at private beaches where passengers enjoy jetski rides, parasailing and rum cocktails delivered to their hammocks.


The decision to go ahead with the visit has divided passengers. The ships carry some food aid, and the cruise line has pledged to donate all proceeds from the visit to help stricken Haitians. But many passengers will stay aboard when they dock; one said he was “sickened”.

“I just can’t see myself sunning on the beach, playing in the water, eating a barbecue, and enjoying a cocktail while [in Port-au-Prince] there are tens of thousands of dead people being piled up on the streets, with the survivors stunned and looking for food and water,” one passenger wrote on the Cruise Critic internet forum.

“It was hard enough to sit and eat a picnic lunch at Labadee before the quake, knowing how many Haitians were starving,” said another. “I can’t imagine having to choke down a burger there now.”

I’ll confess, it seems extraordinarily crass for Royal Caribbean to park their luxury liner only 60 miles from the site of such incredible devastation. I might even go so far as to say that it’s wrong.

Much as I feel this way, it’s hard to offer a good reason why.

Indeed, I myself had a few friends over for dinner on Friday. We had a grand old time, boozing it up and noshing on tasty rich-person treats. We scarcely even mentioned Haiti as we gobbled up homemade calamari. Imagine!…

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