Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Was I better today than yesterday?

I enjoyed these words of wisdom from Daniel H. Pink's Drive. In general, asking questions of yourself and of the world is better than placing demands and expectations, or trying to will the things you want.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation?

I've been following this great 6(so far)-part column in the AVClub about the writer's personal experience of grunge and alternative music in the 1990s, and how the music we like from that era now is not always the music we actually listened to at the time. It's easy to identify with the author: a lot of the music that broke out in the '90s was inescapable, but we'd all like to forget about it and and recognize the '90s music that we now respect. Hell, I used to live in Seattle, an entire city that operates on that notion. But these columns are warning that when you do that, you do miss out on some great music: it's time we also look at this music for its own worth and not just as part of the larger scene and era that produced it. With the proper distance, you can see the merits of each artist, and how each of the prominent grunge artists of the time had their own sounds and influences.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Covert Operations

I found this New Yorker piece on the Koch brothers, two major funders of libertarian think tanks and Tea Pary organizations, quite fascinating. I do wonder about the way that the Kochs are set up in this article (could you write a similar article about any number of political financiers?), but there are many, many pieces of evidence presented that show their enormous power in shaping the political debate in this country. Among the many, these two stand out shockers stand out in my mind:

The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, is a multimedia exploration of the theory that mankind evolved in response to climate change. At the main entrance, viewers are confronted with a giant graph charting the Earth’s temperature over the past ten million years, which notes that it is far cooler now than it was ten thousand years ago. Overhead, the text reads, “HUMANS EVOLVED IN RESPONSE TO A CHANGING WORLD.” The message, as amplified by the exhibit’s Web site, is that “key human adaptations evolved in response to environmental instability.” Only at the end of the exhibit, under the headline “OUR SURVIVAL CHALLENGE,” is it noted that levels of carbon dioxide are higher now than they have ever been, and that they are projected to increase dramatically in the next century. No cause is given for this development; no mention is made of any possible role played by fossil fuels. The exhibit makes it seem part of a natural continuum. The accompanying text says, “During the period in which humans evolved, Earth’s temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere fluctuated together.” An interactive game in the exhibit suggests that humans will continue to adapt to climate change in the future. People may build “underground cities,” developing “short, compact bodies” or “curved spines,” so that “moving around in tight spaces will be no problem.”

And this mini-expose on David Koch's relationship with the National Cancer Institute:

Scientists have long known that formaldehyde causes cancer in rats, and several major scientific studies have concluded that formaldehyde causes cancer in human beings—including one published last year by the National Cancer Institute, on whose advisory board Koch sits. The study tracked twenty-five thousand patients for an average of forty years; subjects exposed to higher amounts of formaldehyde had significantly higher rates of leukemia. These results helped lead an expert panel within the National Institutes of Health to conclude that formaldehyde should be categorized as a known carcinogen, and be strictly controlled by the government. Corporations have resisted regulations on formaldehyde for decades, however, and Koch Industries has been a large funder of members of Congress who have stymied the E.P.A., requiring it to defer new regulations until more studies are completed.

Koch Industries became a major producer of the chemical in 2005, after it bought Georgia-Pacific, the paper and wood-products company, for twenty-one billion dollars. Georgia-Pacific manufactures formaldehyde in its chemical division, and uses it to produce various wood products, such as plywood and laminates. Its annual production capacity for formaldehyde is 2.2 billion pounds. Last December, Traylor Champion, Georgia-Pacific’s vice-president of environmental affairs, sent a formal letter of protest to federal health authorities. He wrote that the company “strongly disagrees” with the N.I.H. panel’s conclusion that formaldehyde should be treated as a known human carcinogen. David Koch did not recuse himself from the National Cancer Advisory Board, or divest himself of company stock, while his company was directly lobbying the government to keep formaldehyde on the market. (A board spokesperson said that the issue of formaldehyde had not come up.)

James Huff, an associate director at the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, a division of the N.I.H., told me that it was “disgusting” for Koch to be serving on the National Cancer Advisory Board: “It’s just not good for public health. Vested interests should not be on the board.” He went on, “Those boards are very important. They’re very influential as to whether N.C.I. goes into formaldehyde or not. Billions of dollars are involved in formaldehyde.”

Harold Varmus, the director of the National Cancer Institute, knows David Koch from Memorial Sloan-Kettering, which he used to run. He said that, at Sloan-Kettering, “a lot of people who gave to us had large business interests. The one thing we wouldn’t tolerate in our board members is tobacco.” When told of Koch Industries’ stance on formaldehyde, Varmus said that he was “surprised.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

All that Jazz

I liked this NYTimes piece about the jazz scene in Seattle, and how it is being well nurtured by programs in the city. I knew a few jazz musicians in Seattle but never knew much about the scene, though I'm happy to hear that it's thriving.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Another reason to soak the super-rich...

Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman has spent $91 million of her own money on her campaign for governor of California... that's just disgusting. But I don't know what's worse: that she can essentially buy her way into an elected spot, or that despite the spending so much, she's still going to lose.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

There's one for you, 19 for me

Sorry George, though so much of the Beatles' work is equal in my eyes, this short New Yorker article make the case that not all of the rich are equal to one another, and that we need a tax system that reflects that.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Four things about Google's Super Bowl ad:

1. I did like it, it shows how search engines play important parts in our lives, and it is interesting to see how a story can be told with just the search queues.

2. Despite that, it seemed very similar to the montage (spoiler!) at the beginning of Pixar's "Up," so its not too original in my opinion.

3. It makes me think of this interesting and entertaining contest from Slate last year.

4. I've started working on a parody/sequel of it where it turns out the kid is not his. It shouldn't be too difficult to put together, i don't think.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

High Impact Sports

David Brooks has a pleasant piece in the NYTimes about the different eras of sports, and how our current era reflects the earlier ones. I like his conclusion about how rooting for your favorite team cuts across many lines of division and brings people together. I agree with this, and its one of the reasons I admire sports and athletics. I love the ideas of cooperation within a team and competition between teams. I also liked Brooks’ mentions of how we form much of our morals and sense of fairness from sports.

Though I enjoyed Brooks’ article, I can’t help but think that football isn’t the best sport that to use in this case. Sure, it does illustrate very well the loyalty and devotion to the team that Brooks wants to show. But, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in this New Yorker piece from late last year, football is, if not like the coliseum death matches that the Roman government sponsored, a lot like dogfighting.

Gladwell comes to this conclusion from his investigations into the head injuries that many football players are afflicted with. Reading the article, you will find that while a player may not suffer a serious head injury on the field, he will be impacted brain problems later in life from the many blows he has taken on the field. This article in the NYTimes also addresses this issue.

Aren’t sports supposed to make us healthier and to improve our bodies? That’s why I partake in the sports, and why I admire my favorite athletes and team. But the retired football players with scar tissue in their brains certainly don’t seem to fit this vision of an athlete. And most of us are blind to the damage that is going on. As this Freakonomics podcast notes, there hasn’t been an on-field deaths in the NFL, but football players do die on the field in other leagues and also suffer later in life the serious consequences of continuous blows to the head. By not seeing these injuries or being shocked into a changed attitude, we don’t see this as a problem, and we are implicitly giving reassurance that football and similar contact sports are safe.

In addition, this Freakonomics podcast also looks at this by investigating the safety of football helmets. In turns out helmets are great at absorbing a hit and preventing the player from being knocked out cold. What they don’t do anything about are the cumulative effects of being hit in the head over and over again, and there most likely won’t be a helmet that will do that.

This hypothesis in the Freakanomics podcast also makes me think of the recent attention to barefoot running. As Barefoot Ted remarks in this interview, while wearing conventional running shoes, runners are more likely to overstride, causing more impact because of the cushioning that the shoe provides. This leads often to injury and imbalance when running. While this may not seem as serious as the consequences of brain injuries, it does present the same point that the feeling of safety may actually encourage risks, and the negative results of those risks accumulate over time and impact you in a way that you could not have foreseen.

Tomorrow is the Super Bowl, and I am still going to watch this Sunday’s big game, and I will continue to root for the Wolverines every Fall, but I will also keep aware of any new findings and hoping that steps are taken, no matter how necessarily drastic those steps may have to be.