29 November 2014

Alexandra Redcay on relationships

This is actually fairly sound advice on relationships.

28 November 2014

27 November 2014

Calories on menus

The law passed several years ago requiring calorie labeling in U.S. restaurant chains is now going into effect. Personally, I'm all for this. Let consumers know what they're actually getting. It should put some pressure on restaurants to stop putting massive amounts of hidden sugar and low-quality fats into virtually everything they sell.

25 November 2014

Foreign students in the U.S.: The latest stats

Open Doors has just come out with the 2014 numbers for international students in the U.S. The breakdown by country shows that China continues to dominate, accounting for nearly a third of all foreign students. Saudi Arabia, which is now funding students' university study, sends nearly as many students to the U.S. as South Korea.

While international students only account for 4% of the U.S. total, they're more significant than their numbers would suggest since they often support programs such as engineering that would shrink or disappear at many schools without them. They're also a heavy presence in graduate programs. Nearly a third of these students are in California, New York, or Texas. The gap between Korea and Japan is odd. Japan has over double the population of South Korea (around 127 million vs. approximately 50 million), yet sends less than a third as many students abroad (to any country) to study. Looking at the numbers, we shouldn't conclude that the U.S. educational system has been doing well. In terms of the actual share of international students, the U.S. has been getting a significantly smaller portion over the last decade, losing out to European countries.

23 November 2014

My thoughts on two films: The Motel Life and Night Moves

I just finished watching The Motel Life. It's a very melancholy reflection on some sad people with sad lives and sad pasts living on society's sad fringes. Although the plot meanders, it  works at some level. I also recently saw Night Moves, a film about eco-terrorists in Oregon. I enjoyed this as well, but I can't really recommend it. The story, in this case, is very slow, and although Jesse Eisenberg brings electricity to pretty much any role, his character is so down-played and his thought-processes so opaque that it's hard to feel very intrigued by the story. As I'm from the west coast, it's fun to see one's old stomping grounds portrayed as an exotic land on the big screen. That said, at a few points, the writers get the mood wrong, as when, for example, the hippy farmer co-op groupies listen to blue grass at a gathering. Also, with a group of people who are supposedly from central Oregon, it's odd that anarchist ideas aren't brought up anywhere (unless I missed something).

21 November 2014

Ehrman on Bible scholarship

I just finished watching Ehrman's talk on Bible scholarship. It's a fascinating and readily accessible discussion. While I'm sure that many of the ideas are familiar, the overall picture of what the Bible really is contrasts sharply with the views of the general population that think of it simply as a book (with no or only a few changes) that was translated from another book. Ehrman makes the point that the ancient texts virtually all disagree in countless places in minor details and, in many cases, on major points. Some of the details are interesting. Toward the end of the talk, for example, he discusses passages that only make sense if we translate them back into Aramaic (the language that Jesus and the population of Palestine would have spoken). He brings up another passages (one about being "born again") that only makes sense if we keep it in Greek, in which case, the phrase has a double meaning. (This is highly problematic for the literalist since we know that Jesus wouldn't have been walking around speaking Greek to the Palestinian population even if he spoke Greek--which he probably didn't know.) More importantly, there are apparently entire sections of our current Bible (even in the Gospels) that were written much later than the earlier works. My advice to those who want to take any early religious text literally is to avoid learning about these matters deeply. If you scratch the surface, it's very clear that the idea of unaltered sacred texts from ancient times is nothing short of a hoax. I call it a "hoax" since Bible scholars, even those from conservative traditions, would all be aware that the nature of the text is being misrepresented in liturgical contexts.

Dog creationism

20 November 2014

On movie plot writers that use 40% of their brain

A good urban myth seems to never die. I couldn't help but grimace each time I heard, while watching the movie Lucy, the old canard about how we use only a fraction of our brain.

16 November 2014

Perils of perception: A 14-country study

This is a nice visual showing citizens' misperceptions regarding key social statistics in their own country.

11 November 2014

My terrible experience with Private Internet Access (PIA)

I've tried a couple VPNs so that I could hide my computer's location. PC magazine and others recommended PIA (Private Internet Access) as a good option so I gave it a try. It was as if I'd downloaded an incredibly malicious virus. I ran both a virus and malware check along with a register cleaner, but nothing helped until I uninstalled the program. PC magazine mentions that some users had brought up issues. My guess is that the PIA service has either been hacked or it's taking over users' computers for some nefarious purpose--which is strange since it's a pay service. I did have better luck with UnblockUs. I'd prefer a service that I could easily turn on and off but I haven't come across any services with a simple toggle switch.

8 November 2014

Another comic reflection on the election

Fear, ignorance, hate fueled by a bottle of propaganda

This simple graphic actually captures a great deal regarding the recent election. Now if there were just a can of kerosene with the title mass media on it, the picture would be complete.

Gay marriage in state laws over the past two decades

Pew Research has a nice moving map on the changes in state law in the U.S. regarding gay marriage. What's so surprising is that much of the shift has been very recent with a seismic shift in 2014.

7 November 2014

Election results map

Here's a map of the elections results. Republicans won races in red states; Democrats, in blue. Lightly shaded states denote a lead. White states didn't hold Senate elections. Louisiana's race is going to a run-off.

U.S. rise as an oil producer

Stratfor has a good interview on the current rise in U.S. oil production. Petroleum production, supply lines and pricing is a complicated topic. At some point, I need to read a good book on this so that I can understand it better. Any suggestions?

6 November 2014

5 November 2014

Ignorant, alone and dominant

This morning I listened to Lawrence Kraus's excellent talk "A Universe from Nothing." He does a wonderful job of providing an exciting view of modern cosmology that's accessible to the layman, peppered with occasional witty cracks about religion or right-wing politics. Looking at people's comments on the talk, I was shocked at the inanity of the discussion. There's a terrible hubris among the U.S. population--people simply can't except the fact that they may know less about a topic that a leading PhD who has spent his life working on problems, using sophisticated tools and methodologies developed through millions of hours of other people's work in the field. This hubris would merely be good fodder for jokes if it weren't for the fact that we live in a very complicated world with complex problems that truly require the light of science combined with careful reflection. One of Kraus's humorous asides sums up our dilemma. Talking of the far future when galaxies will speed away from each other so that each galaxy will find itself isolated without the data to come up with an accurate picture of the universe, Kraus mentions that any civilization in that galaxy would be ignorant, alone, and (seemingly) dominant. He then says with a chuckle, "And those of us who live in the United States are used to it." Sadly, the comments verify that this is true.

Why we love to believe in psychopaths

Today I listened to Shadd Maruna's lecture titled Why We Need Psychopaths. The talk questions the current construct of psychopath and suggests that it's simply due to our projection of our own dark side onto others as a way to deny the fact that we could all slip into such evil quite easily. To be honest, I didn't find his talk all that enlightening. Maruna focused on Hare's system for diagnosing psychopathy, which relies on the factors shown below. (There's still debate on whether it should be four-factored as shown below or should be arranged a different way.)

I was amazed to learn that the diagnostic does an excellent job of predicting which recidivism among criminals. Of course, just looking at criminal records apparently predicts about as well. As Maruna mentions, the description of psychopaths fits in very well with the worst villains shown in Hollywood films.


One of Maruna's objections regarding the diagnostic is that it assumes that people are unable to change. I'd agree that we should this isn't the case. One thing I don't understand is that if a fixed proportion of society are psychopaths from birth (apparently due to genetics perhaps with triggers during their upbringing), why do we see so few criminals in some societies?

2 November 2014

A call for epistemic humility

Dr. Peter Boghossian gives a nice talk here suggesting that we should simply replace the word faith with the phrase pretending to know things we do not know. One thing I really like about his attitude is that he doesn't advocate an adversarial stance towards people of faith.

1 November 2014

Jon Stewart helps revise a Koch brothers' ad

Do I understand this correctly? Did Koch really try to advertise on Jon Stewart? And if so, did Stewart really get away with trashing the Koch brothers on a show they sponsored? Back at the beginning of the year, we had this: (The Koch brothers have never been particularly fond of Rachel Maddow--see this earlier story from 2011.) Neither story broke during April Fools. Of course, it was just Halloween.