Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for March 9th, 2008

Parrotfish poop

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Check out the Wikipedia page for parrotfish. It will tell you that the parrotfish gets its name from its “parrot-like” beak. It will also tell you that the parrotfish changes its gender during its lifetime. It will not, however, tell you about the wonderful world of parrotfish poop. Wikipedia isn’t exactly known for being the world’s best resource on, well, anything, but poop is the most interesting thing the parrotfish has going for it. A more thorough Googling will tell you that a large portion of the world’s sand is, in fact, parrotfish poop. Seriously. That castle you just made? Poop. Those buckets of sand you just poured over your friend? Poop. That thing you just swallowed underwater that’s making you gag a little? Sand? No, poop.

Diana came to drop-in tutoring the other day with a fun fact that her teacher had shared. This was then relayed to everyone else over lunch. We were told that parrotfish grind up pieces of coral skeleton, poop it out, and this becomes sand. And not just a little bit of sand. The majority of the sand in the Caribbean is poop. “That is so totally not true,” we said. “Everyone would know if sand was poop. That is just too much poop.” Well, we were wrong. Sand is most definitely poop. lists the “cool facts” about the parrotfish as it being a “colorful, common fish” and having a “powerful beak for algae.” Wrong. Those are not cool facts. A parrotfish can produce up to one ton of poop/sand a year. That is a cool fact. I have spent the past week asking everyone I know if they are aware that they are walking through poop every time they go to the beach. No one knew. Well, the secret’s out. Sand is poop. Tell everyone.

Written by Leisureguy

9 March 2008 at 6:50 pm

Posted in Daily life

Exercising self-control consumes energy

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Literally: when you are exercising self-control, you are burning up your blood glucose. If you eat an orange, you can raise the level of self-control you have at hand. Read this for more.

Note that the article explains why dieting is so difficult: dieters are attempting to exercise self-control (at the table) at exactly the time when their blood sugar’s at a minimum. So a dieter would be well advised to eat a piece of fruit or a tomato (yes, I know a tomato is also a fruit) before sitting down to eat. (See, for example, this video on evidence-based weight loss.)

This finding has obvious applications in child-rearing and explains why kids often have a melt-down just before dinner.

Written by Leisureguy

9 March 2008 at 4:03 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

Excellent point by Senator Kerry

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Via Balloon Juice, from Face the Nation, when Kerry was asked about the Florida and Michigan primaries:

SCHIEFFER: What do you think ought to happen?Sen. KERRY: I think the rules ought to be followed. I think that obviously Barack Obama believes very strongly that delegates from those states ought to be represented at the convention. And Barack Obama believes in inclusivity, but he also believes in playing by the rules, not changing them after the fact. He played by the rules in Michigan. He even went to the lengths of taking his name off the ballot, as did every other candidate except for Hillary Clinton. And now…

SCHIEFFER: And he—and none of the other candidates campaigned in Florida.

Sen. KERRY: Correct. And they didn’t campaign. But—well, there was a campaig under the radar screen in Florida and everybody knows that. A lot of money was spent in Florida, and Senator Clinton went there the night of the primary and claimed a victory.

SCHIEFFER: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Sen. KERRY: So, in a sense here, what you see is sort of two different attitudes about how American politics ought to be played. Barack Obama will play by the rules and he will do whatever the party and the states decide to do. And so…

SCHIEFFER: So if they decide to do what Senator Nelson’s talking about, he’ll do that.

Sen. KERRY: He will play by the rules. He will play by the rules, but let me emphasize that Senator Clinton is trying to change the rules in Michigan. She’s saying, ‘I won’t accept a caucus,’ which is, frankly, up to the state, also the party, and they had a caucus there. That’s exactly what was there. So she’s busy gaming it, frankly, in the same way that, unfortunately, I think she’s gaming this commander as chief issue.

Written by Leisureguy

9 March 2008 at 3:41 pm

Posted in Democrats, Election

How does your tap water taste?

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Interesting to read this article from ABC News immediately after finishing The Appeal:

A vast array of pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones — have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, an Associated Press investigation shows.

To be sure, the concentrations of these pharmaceuticals are tiny, measured in quantities of parts per billion or trillion, far below the levels of a medical dose. Also, utilities insist their water is safe.

But the presence of so many prescription drugs — and over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen — in so much of our drinking water is heightening worries among scientists of long-term consequences to human health.

In the course of a five-month inquiry, the AP discovered that drugs have been detected in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas — from Southern California to Northern New Jersey, from Detroit to Louisville, Ky.

Water providers rarely disclose results of pharmaceutical screenings, unless pressed, the AP found. For example, the head of a group representing major California suppliers said the public “doesn’t know how to interpret the information” and might be unduly alarmed.

How do the drugs get into the water?

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Leisureguy

9 March 2008 at 2:09 pm

Those wonderful no-bid contracts

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The contractors are getting wealthy, the troops are getting sick. From the International Herald Tribune today:

Dozens of U.S. troops in Iraq fell sick at bases using “unmonitored and potentially unsafe” water supplied by the military and a contractor once owned by Vice President Dick Cheney’s former company, the Pentagon’s internal watchdog says.

A report obtained by The Associated Press said soldiers experienced skin abscesses, cellulitis, skin infections, diarrhea and other illnesses after using discolored, smelly water for personal hygiene and laundry at five U.S. military sites in Iraq.

The Defense Department’s inspector general’s report, which could be released as early as Monday, found water quality problems between March 2004 and February 2006 at three sites run by contractor KBR Inc., and between January 2004 and December 2006 at two military-operated locations.

It was impossible to link the dirty water definitively to all the illnesses, according to the report. But it said KBR’s water quality “was not maintained in accordance with field water sanitary standards” and the military-run sites “were not performing all required quality control tests.”

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Written by Leisureguy

9 March 2008 at 12:49 pm

Pre-crime: the GOP fights it

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Eric Umansky has a 29 Feb 2008 article in Mother Jones on how current laws are way too broad. And remember, on such flimsy grounds as these your government now claims the right to imprison and torture anyone suspected—with no charges filed, with no due process, and indeed in secrecy. And with sufficient torture, “confessions” can be obtained.

When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales held a press conference in the summer of 2006 announcing the arrests of seven young men for plotting to bomb Chicago’s Sears Tower, he sounded defensive, his voice lingering a beat on each thing the men allegedly did. “Individuals here in America made plans to hurt Americans,” he claimed. “They did request materials; they did request equipment; they did request funding.” Gonzales admitted that the American and Haitian-born men posed “no immediate threat.” But, he warned, “homegrown terrorists may prove to be as dangerous as groups like Al Qaeda. Our philosophy here is that we try to identify plots in the earliest stages possible, because we don’t know what we don’t know about a terrorism plot.” It’s dangerous, Gonzales added, to make a “case by case” evaluation that “well, ‘this is a really dangerous group’; ‘this is not a really dangerous group.'”

From the beginning, the allegations seemed bizarre. Allegedly led by Narseal Batiste, an underemployed construction worker, the plotters were an oddball group who dubbed themselves Seas of David. Preaching an eclectic mix of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the seven men were known around their neighborhood of Liberty City, Miami, for practicing martial arts and wearing Stars of David. Mostly unemployed and with few resources, they seemed an unlikely bunch to blow up a landmark 1,200 miles away.

The more details that emerged about the case, the fishier it looked. The charges had come about because of a 23-year-old Yemeni clerk named Abbas al-Saidi, who’d been a police informant since he was 16. The FBI helped bail him out when he was in jail facing charges of assaulting his girlfriend. A year later, Saidi returned the favor, telling the feds he’d met a young man—Narseal Batiste—who boasted of wanting to create an Islamic state in America.

The FBI hired Saidi to cozy up to Batiste and his followers, and sent in another informant (also charged with domestic abuse), Elie Assad, to pose as an Al Qaeda financier named “Mohammed.” Nearly everything Gonzales said the plotters “did” happened at the urging of the two informants, who reportedly earned about $120,000 from the feds for their help. (Assad, originally from Lebanon, was also granted political asylum.)

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Written by Leisureguy

9 March 2008 at 12:46 pm

Lessons of the special election

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Glenn Greenwald makes a good point in his Salon column today:

A special election was held in Illinois yesterday for the Congressional seat occupied forever by retiring GOP former House Speaker Denny Hastert. The district is bright red, having re-elected Hastert in 2006 with 60% and having voted for Bush’s 2004 re-election by a 55-45% margin. Nonetheless, the Democrat, Bill Foster, defeated the very wealthy GOP candidate, Jim Oberweis, by a 53-47% margin.

A couple of weeks ago, Matt Stoller asked Foster what his position was on telecom amnesty and the raging FISA controversy, and this is what the triumphant Democratic candidate said:

The President and his allies in Congress are playing politics with national security, and that’s wrong. Nobody is above the law and telecom companies who engaged in illegal surveillance should be held accountable, not given retroactive immunity. I flatly oppose giving these companies an out for cooperating with Alberto Gonzalez on short-circuiting the FISA courts and the rule of law.

No waffling or apology. He “flatly opposes” telecom amnesty and clearly condemned the GOP attack campaign as blatant fear-mongering. Not only that, but he also just won a House seat in a red district in the midst of an intense nationwide Republican campaign — supported by the political and media establishment — to depict House Democrats as Helping the Terrorists because (like Foster) they oppose immunity and warrantless eavesdropping.The lesson here is unavoidably clear. There is not, and there never has been, any substantial constituency in America clamoring for telecom amnesty or warrantless eavesdropping powers. The only factions that want that are found in the White House, the General Counsel’s office of AT&T and Verizon, and the keyboards of woefully out-of-touch Beltway establishment spokesmen such as Fred Hiatt, David Ignatius and Joe Klein. If/when the Democratic Congress vests in the President vast new warrantless eavesdropping powers and grants amnesty to lawbreaking telecoms, it won’t be because doing so is politically necessary (and see Update below).

This isn’t to claim that Foster’s opposition to telecom amnesty was a decisive factor in his victory. His opposition to the Iraq War was the centerpiece of his campaign (so much for the establishment’s self-protective claim that the war they cheered on has lost its potency as an election issue). But what it does prove is that even in red districts, let alone in swing and Democratic districts, there is no political cost, and there may even be substantial political benefit, in standing against this deeply unpopular President, and for the rule of law and basic constitutional liberties. …

Just a few weeks ago, here is what losing GOP candidate Jim Oberweis said about FISA, telecom immunity and his victorious opponent (h/t Stoller, via email):

OBERWEIS TO FOSTER: PROTECT AMERICA, OR PROTECT TRIAL LAWYERS’ WALLETS?(BATAVIA, February 16) — GOP nominee Jim Oberweis today criticized the Democrat-led House of Representatives for failing to take up and pass the Protect America Act, a critical piece of legislation that allows our nation’s intelligence community to use the latest technology to surveil suspected terrorists, and challenged liberal Democrat Bill Foster to choose: would Foster have sided with Nancy Pelosi and the trial lawyers who provide the financial underpinnings of the Democratic Party, or with America’s intelligence community and the American citizens it protects on a daily basis?

“Yesterday, the liberal Democrats who now control the House of Representatives played politics with our national security — and today, America’s security is today at greater risk,” said Oberweis. . . . .

“So today I ask my opponent — if you had been a Member of Congress this week, and you had sat in that Democratic Caucus meeting on Wednesday, how would you have voted to instruct your leaders? Would you have sided with the trial lawyers, or with America’s intelligence community? Would you have voted to protect trial lawyers’ wallets, or to protect America? Would you have defended the extreme, or the mainstream?”

Foster swatted away those smears and answered those questions definitively. And he won in a red district. How irrational does someone have to be to continue to fear pitiful, discredited GOP attacks like this? They don’t even work in Denny Hastert’s district.

Written by Leisureguy

9 March 2008 at 12:33 pm

Better textbooks help

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Apparently, according to today’s story in the LA Times by Mitchell Landsberg:

In 2005, just 45% of the fifth-graders at Ramona Elementary School in Hollywood scored at grade level on a standardized state test. In 2006, that figure rose to 76%. What was the difference?

If you answered 31 percentage points, you are correct. You could also express it as a 69% increase.

But there is another, more intriguing answer: The difference between the two years may have been Singapore math.

At the start of the 2005-06 school year, Ramona began using textbooks developed for use in Singapore, a Southeast Asian city-state whose pupils consistently rank No. 1 in international math comparisons. Ramona’s math scores soared.

“It’s wonderful,” said Principal Susan Arcaris. “Seven out of 10 of the students in our school are proficient or better in math, and that’s pretty startling when you consider that this is an inner-city, Title 1 school.”

Ramona easily qualifies for federal Title 1 funds, which are intended to alleviate the effects of poverty. Nine of every 10 students at the school are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. For the most part, these are the children of immigrants, the majority from Central America, some from Armenia. Nearly six in 10 students speak English as a second language.

Yet here they are, outpacing their counterparts in more affluent schools and succeeding in a math curriculum designed for students who are the very stereotype of Asian dominance in math and science.

How did that happen?

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Written by Leisureguy

9 March 2008 at 10:41 am

Posted in Daily life, Education


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The questions of whether torture actually works—and, even if it does, whether it’s necessary—are factual questions unrelated to the morality of torture. (Regarding the morality, the usual argument is some variation of the ends’ justifying the means, so that if the goal is good, one is morally free to use any depravity and evil to achieve the goal). The NY Times today has a good article by Scott Shane on the lack of study of the questions.

The article does not address the erosion of morality and rights when a government adopts a policy of torturing those it suspects of having it information it wants. Once such practices begin, the suspects gradually grow to include “troublemakers” and finally anyone that government views as even a potential threat to its authority. We’ve seen this scenario repeated often enough to understand exactly how it works.

How do you get a terrorist to talk? Despite the questioning of tens of thousands of captives in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last six years, and a high-decibel political battle over torture, experts say there has been little serious research to answer that crucial question.

The Bush administration has yet to fill the void, instead getting enmeshed in a defense of waterboarding — which the Central Intelligence Agency says it has not used in five years but which critics have seized on as a powerful symbol of how not to conduct war. And Congress, for its part, has skipped over the question in passing a bill (knowing that it would be vetoed by President Bush) that bans harsh interrogations but requires the C.I.A. to use only the tactics listed in the Army’s playbook.

Certainly the debate is rich in emotion, with each side claiming the moral heights: You approve torture! You’re coddling terrorists! But the arguments have been scant on science to back them up.

“We don’t have any idea — other than anecdote or moral philosophy — what really works,” said Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, author of “Law and the Long War: The Future of Justice in the Age of Terror,” set to be published in June.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Leisureguy

9 March 2008 at 10:21 am

Posted in Bush Administration, Government, Science

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The benefits of boredom

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People generally go to some lengths to avoid boredom (though a surprising number seem happy enough to be boring): putting games on the cellphones, whipping out the old Blackberry, and so on. Every minute must be filled with work—or at least, with distraction.

The Boston Globe has a good article on the benefits of boredom:

We are most human when we feel dull. Lolling around in a state of restlessness is one of life’s greatest luxuries — one not available to creatures that spend all their time pursuing mere survival. To be bored is to stop reacting to the external world, and to explore the internal one. It is in these times of reflection that people often discover something new, whether it is an epiphany about a relationship or a new theory about the way the universe works. Granted, many people emerge from boredom feeling that they have accomplished nothing. But is accomplishment really the point of life? There is a strong argument that boredom — so often parodied as a glassy-eyed drooling state of nothingness — is an essential human emotion that underlies art, literature, philosophy, science, and even love.

“If you think of boredom as the prelude to creativity, and loneliness as the prelude to engagement of the imagination, then they are good things,” said Dr. Edward Hallowell, a Sudbury psychiatrist and author of the book “CrazyBusy.” “They are doorways to something better, as opposed to something to be abhorred and eradicated immediately.”

Read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

9 March 2008 at 10:04 am

Posted in Daily life

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50% of college students…

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50% of college students think that we see like a comic-strip character, with rays coming out of our eyes to strike the object seen. Our eyes, of course, are receivers, not transmitters, and 50% of college students (to take the glass-half-full view) understand that. But the incorrect idea is more common than you would think—and, worse:

The startling bit is that the participants in the experiment were college students who, just a few weeks before, had taken an introductory psychology class on perception. As part of this class students had been explicitly told on a number of occasions how people see. Yet, despite this, around half the students clearly hadn’t internalised the knowledge.

Read the whole thing.

Slightly off-topic, but one often sees the same sort of misunderstanding in ad copy about radio receivers. The ad will describe the receiver as “powerful” and may even talk about how it “pulls in” weak signals. Receivers are sensitive, not powerful. The ad writer is thinking about transmitters.

Written by Leisureguy

9 March 2008 at 10:00 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

Common sense and psychology

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From an interesting post (and the comments are good, too):

[Consider] the multitude of counter-intuitive findings [in psychology]. This blog is filled with them. Start with, say, choice blindness, and work on from there. These types of findings are the best evidence for how much more psychology is than just common sense.

Ultimately what really sets psychology apart from common sense is the scientific method. Psychology tests common sense ideas about people (along with some nonsensical ideas) to try and find out the truth. Sometimes common sense is proved right, other times not.

But, again, let’s not be too down on common sense. While psychologists are usually sensitive and therefore defensive about the role common sense plays, they don’t need to be: in fact common sense is very important to them. The reason for that lies at the interface between psychology and common sense.

Academic psychologists are generally pretty coy about the role common sense plays in coming up with ideas for their research. They will talk about theory and hypotheses a lot, without really acknowledging that they just had a hunch.

What most people would call common sense plays a huge part in the early phases of psychological research. When psychologists first consider a new area of research, there’s little else to go on other than guesswork or common sense.

And sometimes the results are exactly as we would expect and so common sense becomes science.

Of course many experiments don’t return common sense answers and often these are the most fascinating. They can reveal the most to us about what it means to be human as well as setting up a whole line of further studies to try and hunt the answer down.

When common sense is proved wrong, though, this begs the question of how, and whether, psychological knowledge can creep across the line to become common sense. Perhaps once psychological findings become well-known, people incorporate them into their intuitive thoughts and behaviour.

People, such as myself, who are interested in disseminating psychological research, would hope the answer is yes. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if just understanding Milgram’s experiment on conformity really did allow us to avoid its more depressing consequences?

This may be far-fetched but it doesn’t hurt to consider the interaction between common sense and psychology. After all what used to be ‘just’ psychology, can become ‘common sense’ and similarly what used to be ‘just’ common sense can become psychology. Each should inform the other.

Written by Leisureguy

9 March 2008 at 9:56 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

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