March 2011 Archives

13-year-old's education reform plan

13-year-old Adora Svitak calls herself a “Writer, Poet and Humanitarian,” but she should be running your local school board. Here are a few of her ideas:

[R]andomly assigned seating during lunch… might be controversial among students, but the social division that occurs when students simply pick out where they want to sit can be hurtful and exclusive to students new to the school or children with difficulty making friends. Also, it seems that teachers rarely eat lunch and converse with the students. I’ve learned a lot from being able to have conversations with adults. So, teachers would be required to eat lunch with the students — at least on certain days — (and really, if they really can’t stand students to the extent that they can’t eat with them, should they be teaching?)

I am at a loss as to the benefits of putting a group of people of approximately the same age — but of varying aptitudes — into one room where they will all learn the same thing. The quicker students will sit bored while the teacher re-explains a concept they already know from their voracious reading, while the slower students will be confused and left out by the rapid pace at which everyone else seems to be progressing…. Would you ever tell a son or daughter, little brother or sister, “You weren’t born before September 1st, so I’m not going to help you learn your alphabet”? Yet that is what our school system does every year.

Every school district should have an online learning framework, so that “blended learning” (partially online, partially in-person) can be an option for students. Students could read more of the fact-based lesson material online, so that when they came to class in-person, time could be used on higher-order thinking skills like experiments, projects, and the like.

I was at a conference where a well-respected sleep researcher, Dr. James Maas, revealed that adolescent sleep cycles tend to begin at 3 a.m. and end at 11 a.m. Yet we’re starting school at 7 or 7:30 a.m. While I wouldn’t quite change school start times to 11 a.m. (since we have to consider parents who have to go to work), I think it would be reasonable to move them to 8:45 AM or after.

Posted by James on Mar 01, 2011

Are our young people really THIS stupid?

Driving a car is dangerous. You could kill someone at any moment. So you had better take driving seriously.

I’m shocked almost daily seeing idiots talking on cell phones while driving through red lights, turning right on red without stopping (sometimes without even slowing down), backing up in a parking lot without looking behind them, driving absurdly slowly, or speeding past a school.

Despite seeing reckless drivers daily, I can’t imagine ANYONE would be so dumb as to type on their cell phones while driving, so I’m horrified to read that “30 percent of young drivers text at the wheel”:

63 percent of respondents under 30-years-old reported using a handheld phone while driving in the past 30 days, the Department of Transportation said.

And 30 percent of the drivers texted from behind the wheel in the same time period according to the [Consumer Reports] survey.

Posted by James on Mar 08, 2011

Cheney mothballed $100 million scientific satellite

Bush-Cheney’s pro-oil, anti-Gore agenda led them to stick a new $100 million earth science satellite — just days from launch — in a warehouse:

Al Gore proposed the satellite in 1998, at the National Innovation Summit at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Gazing skyward from the podium, the vice president described a spacecraft that would travel a full million miles from Earth to a gravity-neutral spot known as the L1 Lagrangian point, where it would remain fixed in place, facing the sunlit half of our planet. It would stream back to NASA video of our spherical home, and the footage would be broadcast continuously over the Web.

Not only would the satellite provide “a clearer view of our world,” Gore promised, but it would also offer “tremendous scientific value” by carrying into space two instruments built to study climate change: EPIC, a polychromatic imaging camera made to measure cloud reflectivity and atmospheric levels of aerosols, ozone and water vapor; and NISTAR, a radiometer. NISTAR was especially important: Out in deep space, it would do something that scientists are still unable to do today directly and continuously monitor the Earth’s albedo, or the amount of solar energy that our planet reflects into space versus the amount it absorbs.

We know some things about the Earth’s albedo. We know that solar radiation is both absorbed and reflected everywhere on Earth, by granite mountaintops in New Hampshire and desert dunes in Saudi Arabia. We know that cloud cover also reflects some of it. We also know that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases are currently causing the planet to retain more solar energy than it once did. But there is much we don’t know, because we don’t have a way to directly and constantly monitor albedo on a global scale—that is, to directly observe a key indicator of global warming….

[Our existing] spacecraft are all relatively close—at least 50 times as close as the L1 point—so their utility is limited. No space agency has ever launched a satellite capable ofseeing the whole Earth as a single, solar-energy-processing orb…

But in 2001, just a few months after the inauguration of George W. Bush, Triana’s launch plan was quietly put on hold. “We were preparing to transport it to the launch site when we heard,” Rosanova says. Instead, they wheeled the $100-million satellite into storage… the only satellite that NASA has built but never launched.

…In his 2009 book Our Choice, Gore wrote, “The Bush Cheney administration canceled the launch within days of taking office on January 20, 2001, and forced NASA to put the satellite into storage.” Warren Wiscombe, a senior physical scientist at NASA, blames a Bush-era “hostility” to earth science at NASA. “As to who ordered the axing of the mission,” he says, “we’ll never know, but the word we got was that Dick Cheney was behind it.”

…Francisco Valero, the physicist who led DSCOVR’s design team, is familiar with bureaucratic black holes…. Valero fled his native Argentina in 1968 after a military coup. Amid widespread student protests, soldiers showed up at his university lab with machine guns to bar him from entry. He came to the U.S. so that he could do science at a remove from political uproar. Instead, he wound up in another kind of maelstrom. Since DSCOVR was shelved, Valero has persistently and publicly raised questions about the direction of NASA’s earth-science program, and he has questioned where funds earmarked for DSCOVR have gone. In 2004, when Ukraine offered to send DSCOVR to L1 on a Ukrainian rocket—for free—Valero lobbied NASA to accept. “The satellite was built, the launch was free, and what did NASA say? The launch wouldn’t be safe for the satellite.” He shook his head in disdain. “I tell you, I lose sleep thinking about this stuff.” Much of Valero’s career focused on the effects that human activity can have on the Earth’s albedo, and when the opportunity to lead DSCOVR arose, he immediately recognized its potential. “With low-Earth-orbiting satellites, you can’t get that,” he said. “It’s like you’re reading a book with only one letter on each page. You can’t get the whole story.”

For Valero, DSCOVR isn’t merely a satellite—it’s part of the solution to one of the most pressing issues of our time. “We just need the truth,” he said. “We need good science. If we get DSCOVR launched, we’ll have that. And then the politicians will have something solid to base their arguments on.”

Even in retirement, Dick Cheney continues harming America and our planet.

Posted by James on Mar 22, 2011

Cowards and heroes

I’m awed by the heroism of “the Fukushima fifty” — the brave men (and women?) working to prevent nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima Dai-Ichi. Their efforts may well prove too little, too late, but that’s no fault of the heroes who fought on, despite the high probability that doing so would kill them: “Five are believed to have already died and 15 are injured while others have said they know the radiation will kill them.”

It’s easy to say the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. But when you find yourself one of the few who must choose whether to sacrifice for the good of the many, the philosophical statement is far from obvious.

My heart nearly broke reading this:

A woman said her husband continued to work while fully aware he was being bombarded with radiation. In a heartbreaking email, he told his wife: ‘Please continue to live well, I cannot be home for a while.’

One girl tweeted in a message translated by ABC: ‘My dad went to the nuclear plant, I’ve never seen my mother cry so hard. People at the plant are struggling, sacrificing themselves to protect you. Please dad come back alive.’

The gutless wonders of this disaster are the greedy TEPCO executives who sat on their hands in their comfortable Tokyo skyscrapers after the earthquake and tsunami, refusing to cool the reactors and spent fuel containment pools with seawater, though this was absolutely necessary:

Michael Friedlander, a former senior operator at a Pennsylvania power plant with General Electric reactors similar to the troubled ones in Japan, said the crucial question is whether Japanese officials followed G.E.’s emergency operating procedures. Those procedures are “crystal clear” on how to determine when reactors should be flooded, Mr. Friedlander said, and operators at the plant should have practiced many times over the years how to flood them with seawater.

The Wall Street Journal says TEPCO executives lost critical days due to greed:

The plant’s operator—Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco—considered using seawater from the nearby coast to cool one of its six reactors at least as early as last Saturday morning, the day after the quake struck. But it didn’t do so until that evening, after the prime minister ordered it following an explosion at the facility. Tepco didn’t begin using seawater at other reactors until Sunday.

Tepco was reluctant to use seawater because it worried about hurting its long-term investment in the complex, say people involved with the efforts. Seawater, which can render a nuclear reactor permanently inoperable, now is at the center of efforts to keep the plant under control.

Tepco “hesitated because it tried to protect its assets,” said Akira Omoto, a former Tepco executive and a member of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, an official advisory body involved in the effort to tame the plant….

“This disaster is 60% man-made,” said one government official. “They failed in their initial response. It’s like Tepco dropped and lost a 100 yen coin while trying to pick up a 10 yen coin.”

The New York Times also suggests executives risked national disaster in the vain hope of keeping those plants alive and boosting their corporate profits.

TEPCO executives' greed is killing not only their countrymen but — with horrifying irony — also TEPCO’s workers and perhaps even TEPCO itself. The worse this disaster grows, the greater the likelihood TEPCO, and perhaps the entire Japanese nuclear industry, will be shut down.

TEPCO executives' greed will wind up killing many Japanese, and TEPCO plant workers' heroic self-sacrifice may save many lives, while leaving some workers' families without their heroic dads and husbands.

Posted by James on Mar 24, 2011

Essential essay exposes "secret consortium of government and corporate power"

Glenn Greenwald’s “How the US Government Strikes Fear in Its Own Citizens and People Around the World” is essential reading. Please read it all because it connects the dots, making sense of waterboarding and other forms of torture, Guantanamo, secret prisons, attacks on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, American journalists' attacks on WikiLeaks (despite the fact that WikiLeaks has produced more true journalism than any U.S. journalist), why warrantless wiretapping went unpunished, why Bush and Obama have let criminals go free while jailing whistleblowers (“the only person to suffer any legal repercussions from that NSA scandal was someone named Thomas Tam, who was the mid-level Justice Department whistleblower who found out that this was taking place and was horrified by it and called Eric Lichtblau at the NYT and exposed that it had happened”), why telecoms were given immunity for blatant violations of the Constitution in enabling warrentless wiretaps, the stripping naked and keeping of Bradley Manning in solitary confinement, the silence of Democrats in the face of serious felonies committed by Bush, Cheney and their henchmen, and many other sickening realities of 21st Century American government.

The objective of all of this is to create a climate of fear, domestically and globally, to prevent people from standing up to American might, which is controlled not by the people or even by our elected representatives but by powerful corporations and their powerful friends in the permanent government. Their fear campaign is working well:

I got to know the people who were involved in Wikileaks, either currently or in the past. Especially among the people who had once worked with Wikileaks, but then stopped, there was a common theme that they all sounded when you spoke to them about why they stopped working with Wikileaks, including some who had been very high up in the organization hierarchy and who were well resourced, and people who are citizens of European countries.

What they said, almost to a person about why they stopped being involved in Wikileaks, and what a lot of people who still work with Wikileaks will tell you about why they are contemplating no longer working with Wikileaks is they will say: “I am extremely supportive of the organization’s aims and mission, I am proud to have been a part of the things they have done thus far, but I have a paralyzing fear that one day, my government is going to knock on my door and not charge me with a crime (that I can confront and am willing to deal with), but they’re going to knock on my door and tell me they are extraditing me to the U.S.”

In other words, the great fear of almost every person now or previously involved in Wikileaks is that they’re going to end up in the custody of the American justice system, because of the black hole of due-process-free punishment that they’ve seen created and that is sustained for foreign nationals accused of crimes against U.S. national security, because of the way in which people are disappeared without recourse to courts or any political protest.

It’s amazing that we have spent decades, probably since the end of WWII, lavishing praise on ourselves as the model of justice for the entire world, the leaders of the free world, lecturing everybody else about what their system of justice ought to be, and yet the fear that so many people around the world have, is that they will end up in the grip of American justice.

What scares this permanent bureaucracy that runs our secret government? Transparency, the very transparency that WikiLeaks seeks:

this powerful faction that exists, this enormous consortium of government and corporate power, is at least as powerful and probably much more so, than any single politician, even the “most powerful man on earth” or whatever we call the president these days. So, even if he wanted to change these things, and I think he doesn’t, even if he wanted to, he probably couldn’t.

What this faction relies upon more than anything else to preserve their power and to carry out the actions they undertake, is this wall of secrecy, this regime of secrecy. It is that secrecy that enables them to operate in the dark and therefore operate without any constraints, moral, ethical, legal, or any other kind.

Please read Greenwald’s essay.

Posted by James on Mar 24, 2011

First Watson, and now elephants

The human species was already down in the dumps after IBM’s Watson computer defeated humanity’s greatest Jeopardy! champions. Now comes news that elephants are out-thinking our top scientists:

Elephants recently aced a test of their intelligence and ability to cooperate, with two of them even figuring out ways that the researchers hadn’t previously considered to obtain food rewards….

Two elephants, named Neua Un and JoJo, even figured out how to outwit the researchers.

“We were pleasantly surprised to see the youngest elephant, Neua Un, use her foot to hold the rope so that her partner had to do all the work,” Plotnik said. “I hadn’t thought about this beforehand, and Neua Un seemed to figure it out by chance, but it speaks volumes to the flexibility of elephant behavior that she was able to figure this out and stick to it.”

The other “cheater,” JoJo, didn’t even bother to walk up to the volleyball net unless his partner, Wanalee, was released.

“Perhaps he had learned that if he approached the rope without her, he’d fail,” Plotnik said, adding that such advanced learning, problem-solving, and cooperation are rare in the animal kingdom.

Elephants have long been my favorite animals. It’s no coincidence elephants (and dolphins) are — like us — incredibly social, emotional, and intelligent. These traits have evolved together in several unrelated branches of the tree of life.

Posted by James on Mar 11, 2011

Japanese earthquake reminds us life is a precious gift

The deadly horror that struck parts of Japan today seems unimaginable to lucky Americans like me who have been insulated from war, starvation, deadly diseases, and natural disasters.

But our world is dangerous. You could get hit by a bus tomorrow or diagnosed with cancer. And, beyond car crashes and hurricanes, there are possible disasters you probably haven’t even contemplated, like an eruption of the super volcano underneath Yellowstone National Park and nuclear war triggering nuclear winter.

So, please take precautions to protect your family and neighbors from dangerous drivers, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, house fires, etc. At least have smoke detectors, first aid kits, a fire extinguisher, a sump pump, a supply of emergency food and water, a plan for where to meet, etc. We can’t eliminate risk, but — by planning ahead — we can reduce our vulnerability and mitigate a disaster’s impact.

Most of all, we should regularly stop to appreciate how many blessings we have and what a gift life is. Undoubtedly, you have disappointments and stresses in your life, but most of us spend too much time worrying about the negatives in our lives and too little time enjoying the many positives.

Posted by James on Mar 11, 2011

Our naive technological optimism

I’ve long disliked unabashed technology enthusiasts, like Ray Kurzweil, who giddily rave about exponential technological “progress” and brush aside concerns that smarter-than-human robots and computers could turn destructive.

The nuclear and mortgage industries perfectly illustrate my fear that humanity consistently underestimates risk, esp. when short-term profit can be made by taking “small” long-term risks. As Tom Cochran, a senior Natural Resources Defense Council nuclear scientist, said:

The probability of a core melt had been estimated at about one chance in 10,000 reactor years of operation, he said. “We’ve had now three core melts in 30 years in less than 500 reactors, he said, referring to Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and, now, Japan. "So the probability of a partial core melt is one chance in several hundred instead of one chance in 10,000.”

His math eludes me, but since four Japanese reactors are apparently melting down, I count six core melts in 30 years. There are currently 442 nuclear plants in operation worldwide. Since the number of reactors has risen over time and some reactors are sometimes shut down for maintenance, let’s assume an average of 400 reactors over the past 30 years.

6 meltdowns / (400 reactors * 30 years) = 1 meltdown per 2,000 reactor years. Meltdowns have occurred five times more often than the “experts” estimated.

How many people would have accepted 1.5 meltdowns per 100 reactors over that 30 year period, had they known the true odds?

Even worse, nuclear power plant technology has been around 60+ years. It’s very well understood, unlike future computers that will be, according to Kurtzweil, “a million times more powerful in 20 years” (Bloomberg BusinessWeek, March 7-13, 2011, p. 38).

It’s virtually impossible to put any reasonable estimate on the likelihood that computers and robots with super-human intelligence will turn on us. Do we really want to take that chance, given our track record of underestimating the threat from known technologies?

Posted by James on Mar 16, 2011

Simple formula for sound sleep

Two-thirds of troubled older sleepers improved after learning of this scientifically based sleep strategy:

[S]tick to a schedule that maximizes your “sleep efficiency” — the amount of time in bed you spend sleeping, instead of tossing and hoping that sleep will descend. That involves four rules: Reduce the time spent in bed. Get up at the same time every day. Don’t go to bed until you feel sleepy. Don’t stay in bed if you’re not sleeping.

Posted by James on Mar 24, 2011

Taxes are for little companies

From Vermont’s great Senator, Bernie Sanders:

  1. Exxon Mobil made $19 billion in profits in 2009. Exxon not only paid no federal income taxes, it actually received a $156 million rebate from the IRS, according to its SEC filings.

  2. Bank of America received a $1.9 billion tax refund from the IRS last year, although it made $4.4 billion in profits and received a bailout from the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department of nearly $1 trillion.

  3. Over the past five years, while General Electric made $26 billion in profits in the United States, it received a $4.1 billion refund from the IRS.

  4. Chevron received a $19 million refund from the IRS last year after it made $10 billion in profits in 2009.

  5. Boeing, which received a $30 billion contract from the Pentagon to build 179 airborne tankers, got a $124 million refund from the IRS last year.

  6. Valero Energy, the 25th largest company in America with $68 billion in sales last year received a $157 million tax refund check from the IRS and, over the past three years, it received a $134 million tax break from the oil and gas manufacturing tax deduction.

  7. Goldman Sachs in 2008 only paid 1.1 percent of its income in taxes even though it earned a profit of $2.3 billion and received an almost $800 billion from the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury Department.

  8. Citigroup last year made more than $4 billion in profits but paid no federal income taxes. It received a $2.5 trillion bailout from the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury.

  9. ConocoPhillips, the fifth largest oil company in the United States, made $16 billion in profits from 2007 through 2009, but received $451 million in tax breaks through the oil and gas manufacturing deduction.

  10. Over the past five years, Carnival Cruise Lines made more than $11 billion in profits, but its federal income tax rate during those years was just 1.1 percent.

Posted by James on Mar 28, 2011

The $330,000 Apple PowerBook G3 250

Around 2002, I read an article on Apple and was blown away by something Steve Jobs said along the lines of “We’re the only computer company that can optimize the entire user experience because we’re the only company that makes the entire widget.” That quotation made so much sense that my wife and I ran out and bought $5,000 worth of Apple stock. Unfortunately, we had to sell it in 2004 to buy our house. We had doubled our money but threw away the past seven years of gains.

The New York Times reports that anyone who bought Apple stock in 1997 instead of Apple’s then-hot $5,700 PowerBook G3 250 would have made a fortune: “today your Apple stock would be worth $330,563.”

Posted by James on Mar 11, 2011

The evolutionary origins of human fatherhood

A week ago, I attended a lecture on fatherhood with other fathers at my son’s school. The lecturer has been an educator for decades and run school systems and Greenwich Country Day School.

He was quite interested in and well read on issues of genetics, nurture (family & parenting), and culture (social influences) as they relate to child development.

But he opened the Father’s Workshop by saying males are not biologically inclined to raise children, except perhaps in the earliest months. (In his view, only culture motivates fathers to act as fathers, which is what he urged us to do.)

While I admired his motivation, I disagreed with his premise, saying that what I have read on this subject suggests his claim is correct for many species but that humans, though not monogamous, are far closer to monogamy than most animals, including our nearest primate relatives, and that this is likely true because human parents must care for and teach their children for so many years and have evolved pair-bonding precisely to help our children (and grandchildren) thrive and pass their genes into the future.

Human fathers are instinctively, I believe, more bonded to their children than gorilla, chimp and bonobo fathers. My reading of the primatology literature confirms what my heart (and the logic of evolutionary biology applied to the human condition) tells me about the fatherhood impulse in humans being partly biological.

Coincidentally, just a few days later, New York Times writer Nicholas Wade wrote “New View of How Humans Moved Away From Apes”, based on fresh research on this exact question.

The [study of 32 living hunter-gatherer peoples] corroborates an influential new view of early human origins advanced by Bernard Chapais, a primatologist at the University of Montreal, in his book “Primeval Kinship” (2008). Dr. Chapais showed how a simple development, the emergence of a pair bond between male and female, would have allowed people to recognize their relatives, something chimps can do only to a limited extent. When family members dispersed to other bands, they would be recognized and neighboring bands would cooperate instead of fighting to the death as chimp groups do….

“If you take the promiscuity that is the main feature of chimp society, and replace it with pair bonding, you get many of the most important features of human society,” [Dr. Chapais] said.

Apparently, Wade finds the subject as fascinating as I do because he just wrote a follow-up article that digs deeper into this new theory. I summarize Wade’s synopsis as:

  • Bipedalism –> weapons –> monogamy –> fatherhood –> extended childhood –> larger brains –> increased importance of parenting

(Fatherhood, extended childhood, larger brains, and increased importance of parenting reinforce one another and likely fueled their mutual expansion.)

Here’s Wade’s summary:

Early humans began to walk on two legs because it was a more efficient way of getting around than knuckle-walking, the chimps’ method. But that happened to leave the hands free. Now they could gesture, or make tools.

It was a tool, in the form of a weapon, that made human society possible, in Dr. Chapais’s view. Among chimps, alpha males are physically dominant and can overpower any rival. But weapons are great equalizers. As soon as all males were armed, the cost of monopolizing a large number of females became a lot higher. In the incipient hominid society, females became allocated to males more equally. General polygyny became the rule, then general monogamy.

This trend led to the emergence of a critical change in sexual behavior: the replacement of the apes' orgiastic promiscuity with the pair bond between male and female. With only one mate, for the most part, a male had an incentive to guard her from other males to protect his paternity.

The pair bond was the pivotal event that opened the way to hominid evolution, in Dr. Chapais’s view. On the physiological level, having two parents around allowed the infants to be dependent for longer, a requirement for continued brain growth after birth. Through this archway, natural selection was able to drive up the volume of the human brain until it eventually reached three times that of a chimpanzee.

On the social level, the presence of both parents revealed the genealogical structure of the family, which is at least half hidden in chimp societies. A chimp knows who its mother and siblings are, because it grows up with them, but not its father or father’s relatives. So the neighboring bands to which female chimps disperse at puberty, avoiding incest, are perceived as full of strange males and treated with unremitting hostility.

In the incipient hominid line, males could recognize their sisters and daughters in neighboring bands. They could also figure out that the daughter’s or sister’s mate shared a common genetic interest in the welfare of the woman’s children. The neighboring males were no longer foes to be killed in sight — they were the in-laws.

The presence of female relatives in neighboring bands became for the first time a bridge between them. It also created a new and more complex social structure. The bands who exchanged women with each other learned to cooperate, forming a group or tribe that would protect its territory from other tribes.

I love fatherhood. I’ve eagerly read many books that have helped me be a better father. I enjoy reading with my kids, admiring their art, playing games with them, and trying to answer their (many) questions. I’m proud watching them grow up to be sharing, cheerful, responsible, engaged young people.

The claim that human fathers have no biological urge for fathering is absurd.

Posted by James on Mar 15, 2011

The Wire creator: Jailing non-violent drug offenders 'amoral'

The Wire was a brilliant show about “the other America” (inner-city Baltimore). One of its young actors was recently arrested on an unspecified drug charge. I really like this statement from The Wire’s creator:

In an essay published two years ago in Time magazine, the writers of The Wire made the argument that we believe the war on drugs has devolved into a war on the underclass, that in places like West and East Baltimore, where the drug economy is now the only factory still hiring and where the educational system is so crippled that the vast majority of children are trained only for the corners, a legal campaign to imprison our most vulnerable and damaged citizens is little more than amoral. And we said then that if asked to serve on any jury considering a non-violent drug offense, we would move to nullify that jury’s verdict and vote to acquit. Regardless of the defendant, I still believe such a course of action would be just in any case in which drug offenses—absent proof of violent acts—are alleged.

Both our Constitution and our common law guarantee that we will be judged by our peers. But in truth, there are now two Americas, politically and economically distinct. I, for one, do not qualify as a peer to Felicia Pearson. The opportunities and experiences of her life do not correspond in any way with my own, and her America is different from my own. I am therefore ill-equipped to be her judge in this matter.

Posted by James on Mar 11, 2011

We're all imperfect, so cut yourself some slack

I think this boils down to the (hopefully obvious) point that perfectionism is self-destructive. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that we all need some self-compassion:

Do you treat yourself as well as you treat your friends and family?

That simple question is the basis for a burgeoning new area of psychological research called self-compassion — how kindly people view themselves. People who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others, it turns out, often score surprisingly low on self-compassion tests, berating themselves for perceived failures like being overweight or not exercising.

The research suggests that giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step toward better health. People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic. Preliminary data suggest that self-compassion can even influence how much we eat and may help some people lose weight.

…Imagine your reaction to a child struggling in school or eating too much junk food. Many parents would offer support, like tutoring or making an effort to find healthful foods the child will enjoy. But when adults find themselves in a similar situation — struggling at work, or overeating and gaining weight — many fall into a cycle of self-criticism and negativity. That leaves them feeling even less motivated to change.

“Self-compassion is really conducive to motivation,” Dr. Neff said. “The reason you don’t let your children eat five big tubs of ice cream is because you care about them. With self-compassion, if you care about yourself, you do what’s healthy for you rather than what’s harmful to you.”

If you miss some regular workouts or eat a bowl of ice cream you promised yourself you wouldn’t, don’t freak out. Give yourself permission to indulge yourself a little. Setting goals and striving for them are fine. But don’t berate yourself for faltering. To err is human.

Posted by James on Mar 01, 2011

What are we doing in Afghanistan?

I don’t have the stomach to read “The Kill Team: How U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan murdered innocent civilians and mutilated their corpses”, but I read the final two paragraphs:

“None of us in the platoon – the platoon leader, the platoon sergeant – no one gives a fuck about these people,” Morlock said.

Then he leaned back in his chair and yawned, summing up the way his superiors viewed the people of Afghanistan. “Some shit goes down,” he said, “you’re gonna get a pat on the back from your platoon sergeant: Good job. Fuck ‘em.”

Aside from helping military contractors get bloody rich over our endless occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, why are we there?

Posted by James on Mar 28, 2011

Why no good deed goes unpunished: Greed

Whistleblowers in America should be praised but have instead been severely abused by government and corporations.

We are now reminded that three GE employees — who “publicly resigned, joined the anti-nuclear movement, and became known as the ‘GE Three’” — were forced to resign over their concerns about GE’s “Mark 1” nuclear reactors:

Thirty-five years ago, Dale G. Bridenbaugh and two of his colleagues at General Electric resigned from their jobs after becoming increasingly convinced that the nuclear reactor design they were reviewing — the Mark 1 — was so flawed it could lead to a devastating accident….

“The problems we identified in 1975 were that, in doing the design of the containment, they did not take into account the dynamic loads that could be experienced with a loss of coolant,” Bridenbaugh told ABC News in an interview. “The impact loads the containment would receive by this very rapid release of energy could tear the containment apart and create an uncontrolled release.”

…Bridenbaugh told ABC News that he believes the design flaws that prompted his resignation from GE were eventually addressed at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Bridenbaugh said GE agreed to a series of retrofits at Mark 1 reactors around the globe….

“Like with seismic refitting, they went back and re-analyzed the loads the structures might receive and beefed up the ability of the containment to handle greater loads,” he said.

When asked if that was sufficient, he paused. “What I would say is, the Mark 1 is still a little more susceptible to an accident that would result in a loss of containment.”

So, as bad as things are in Japan, they could be even worse (and might have happened earlier and in more nuclear reactors), if not for three heroic men who threw away their careers and shamed their former employer into doing the right thing.

Posted by James on Mar 16, 2011